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3.

            Pity, for so many lives to suffer. It was dark, and at the centre of the deck, Castor and Aranth were piling the bodies they’ve drained. They brought all the torches they could find, and placed them around the bodies. They’ve started a fire on the deck, and slowly moved backwards, as the flames were spreading. The fire was in their eyes, and they felt the heat upon their skin. The ship was slowly consumed by the orange beast, and finally, Castor and Aranth jumped into the water. The sun had just set, and the night ate everything that was in front of it. Aranth felt the water cooling down his body from the heat to which he was exposed just seconds ago. Castor was eager to swim as fast as he could, always being vigilant, and looking in the direction of east, expecting the light of death to appear. Luckily, his vampire nature provided him with great strength, and great speed. He rushed through the waves, breaking them with such force. The drops of salty water were scattered around Castor and the Basic. It’s hard to perceive such velocity, and such power. If humans were watching them from the shores, they wouldn’t see much. Their bodies were hidden behind the waves they produced.

            Aranth couldn’t accurately determine what time it was, when they reached the shores of Italy. He knew the midnight had passed. And he found the Pole Star, to direct him toward Rome. Castor looked fresh to him. It seemed to the Basic that the vampire had enough strength in him to run to Rome, without break, and to make it there by sunrise. But, then… How could he be so certain? That was the problem with vampires, their limitations sometimes made them even weaker than humans. But, if they hurry, if they are quick, they’ll make it, and Castor will be protected inside Aranth’s house. They left the shores and ran, fast as they could, leaped whenever they got a chance. They were in a field, surrounded by wheat on one side, and high grass on the other. Aranth watched the space around him. He could see distinctly, how each blade of grass shivered equally, slowly moving from one side to the other, simultaneously, like green soldiers during a practice. And, on the other side, wheat seemed perfectly still, yellowish, almost ready to be picked. He could hear ants on the ground and under it, quickly going through the corridors of their kingdom. He heard every time they would run into each other, carrying food for the colony, or building material to add another chamber to their home. There was a world he saw, a whole new world existing in timeless moment, a world that could be discovered by just a few. Everything was slow, or completely still, like he was running inside a mosaic on the wall of some patrician’s bathroom. Aranth wished he could stay in that image forever… Even in darkness, he cherished the silky landscape around him. He did not know whether Castor felt the same.

            It was almost dawn when they reached Basic’s house. The vampire raced with the shadow of the remaining night, but managed to enter the palace before the new day caught him. Aranth went to his slaves and ordered them to cover all windows with curtains and sheets, so that no sunlight breaks indoors. The men and women he owned were efficient and agile, so Castor soon enjoyed the tour of the house under candlelight. He was quite pleased to see what kind of life his invincible friend had, but couldn’t help wonder how Aranth earned all that. Years and centuries of life surely gathered a lot of money and valuable objects, but there was more to it. The Basic was the emperor behind the Emperor, the one who guides the hand of power and law. The vampire congratulated him, and laughed. Humans didn’t suspect. They couldn’t. The Basic wrote a letter to Lavinia, and sent his most trusted slave. She was probably asleep, it was early morning, after all, but he had the need to inform her about his arrival. He did thought of the risk of her husband receiving the letter and reading it, so he made sure to write in quite a neutral style, without addressing Lavinia with intimate words of his heart. Moreover, he put an invitation at the end of the letter, an invitation to a party he wanted to make that night. So, if Atticus reads it, he’ll read the inscriptions on a piece of paper, but she will read the meaning.

            The governor of Crete and his wife were still in their bed, when Aranth’s slave came to their gates. The slave was smart, so he told the servant who opened the door not to disturb her masters, and give the letter to the domina when she wakes up. The servant, a fair, skinny girl, nodded nervously, excited while afraid as well. She was a slave, but bought to be a servant inside the house. She was young, and fortunately for Aranth and his cunning slave, easy to convince.

            The vampire went to the chamber with a pool, to have a relaxing bath after a demanding journey. The Basic was too worried to simply sink into hot water, he had to prepare everything for his escape with Lavinia. Because, that what it was going to be, an escape. Soon, he’ll commit a murder, and he won’t even hide it. Then, they will have to react fast. Aranth took the potion out of the bag and looked at it closely. He was amazed how such a strong liquid was put in such a small format. Little glassy flask was the bridge between Lavinia’s mortality and eternal life. And the content of it was the nectar. The Basic spent an hour writing a list of instructions for his slaves, what to do with his estate when he leaves Rome for good. Also, he wrote release notes for them, officially ending their slavery and granting them a status of free citizens of the Empire. They deserved it, keeping his secret for so long, being loyal when he needed it the most. It was his gift to them.

            It was high noon when Aranth left his chambers and went to the kitchen to inform his slaves about the party he wanted to host that night. The slaves obediently set out to do their chores, heading for the market to buy the supplies or into the halls to decorate the walls and prepare the rooms properly for the patricians’ visit. The Basic went to the underground chambers, where his pool was placed. There he found Castor, who was still enjoying the commodities of Aranth’s palace.

            “A party will be held tonight. Then, we’ll have time to explain our plan to Lavinia,” the Basic said.

            “You think that private meeting with her would be suspicious?” Castor asked.

            “We’ve met before, her and I, in private, but I want all of this to work. I don’t need speculations about our relationship now when I have so much to do. And here, my friend, people can’t wait to start a new rumour,” the Basic explained.

            “Fine, I’ll be ready. It’s just that, I need some clean clothes,” the vampire said.

            “Sure, just call one of my slaves, and they’ll take you to my room where you can find what suits you best,” Aranth said.

            “Where will you be?” Castor asked and got up from the water.

            “I’ll be in the garden, walking and meditating on our next step. Maybe later, I’ll go out. You don’t need me here, do you?” Aranth replied.

            “No, of course not. Off you go,” the vampire smiled and started wiping his body with long piece of cloth. Aranth hurried to the surface.

            The day was bright and he had plenty of time to enjoy in the garden, surrounded by gentile petals of flowers. The ground around him was dipped in so many colours that he could not resist smiling. But, his mind was distracted by sudden thoughts of Philomela and his part in her life, and her death. He wanted to see her one more time before he undoubtedly becomes her enemy. Perhaps he could to her brother, to see what kind of people they were. No, that would only make his job more difficult. He’ll speak to them, and they will probably be polite and friendly, as so many members of the lower class are to those who belong to the upper one. The scent of spring mixed with the scent of death in his mind. And many colours of the flowers in front of him changed into one, the colour of blood. The Basic couldn’t wait to finish his task and escape the place that only consisted of memories and obligations which haunted him, tortured him in the solitude of his mind. Life with Lavinia will be new, will be good. That is what he promised to himself, although he was aware that her constant presence will remind him of his past actions. The Empire was almost the entire world. After the ritual, they will go east, where the mountains will hide them, until they reach the great waste, land frozen and dry. From there, they can choose in which direction to go. Personally, Aranth thought of visiting the Orient. Besides, Lavinia would be delighted to live in a place covered with silk and gold. As for Castor, it would be a risk if he would go back to Alexandria after the murder and possible conflict with the Roman authorities. But, Castor was stubborn sometimes, and cared little for the laws of humans. Aranth only feared that one day vampire’s attitude would cause his end.

            Philomela was tiding her room so that her sister-in-law wouldn’t have to clean up after her that much. All was ready for her departure. She thought that it would be good if she personally went to see the governor and wished him all the best in his future career. She put on her most exquisite dress, the one her brother bought her when she arrived to Rome. It was blue, with small plates of seashells all over it. She really liked the dress, but never had a chance before to wear it. Now, finally, there was an appropriate occasion for it. It was half past noon, and she believed that the governor would be at his home. There must have been some kind of a lunch break at the Senate.

            She decided to walk, instead of taking a coach, although the governor’s mansion was almost on the other side of the city. The weather was nice, and she wanted to take the best of it. Approaching the governor’s house, after about two and a half hours of walking, Philomela looked at the fine architecture of the building. Everything was great in its simplicity. She could imagine herself living in such a house, even though she knew it was out of her reach. She knocked at the front door with a massive handle, and a slave opened.

            “The blacksmith girl, how nice to see you,” the slave said. He knew Philomela because he often accompanied the governor in his visits to her brother’s house. Next to him was the girl servant.

            “Hello, is the governor home? I’m leaving Rome soon, and I just wanted to say goodbye,” Philomela said.

            “He’s still outdoors, with his business. But he will be back anytime, so you may wait him in the atrium,” the slave said and let Philomela enter.

            “Tell your domina that I am here. I don’t want her to be surprised if she sees me,” Philomela said.

            “I’ll inform her immediately,” the slave said and took the girl servant with him. Philomela used the time she had to go around the atrium and take her mind of what was coming. Every time she would think of Lavinia, her stomach turned. Tickles went through her skin as the moment was closer. She was trying to be prepared for the event, but simply couldn’t calm herself enough.

            “Good day, Philomela,” Lavinia appeared in front of her. Philomela felt she was under Lavinia’s scanning, she saw her eyes going up and down her body, and a wicked smile setting upon her lips.

            “Good day, my lady,” Philomela said and made a small bow, slightly bending her knees.

“Have you come to speak with my husband?” Lavinia asked.

“Yes, I have. I wanted to say goodbye. I’m going back to Crete,” Philomela explained.

“Such a pity, it seems to me that you’ve just arrived to witness the wonders of our wonderful city,” Lavinia replied.

“All pleasures must come to an end,” Philomela said. These words made Lavinia turn her head suddenly towards the blacksmith’s sister. Pleasures, what pleasures? The seduction of the governor? She squinted her eyes, sharply aiming at Philomela.

“It’s true, dear. Very true. I always find it amazing when such a young person is so wise,” Lavinia said, and held Philomela’s shoulders. The girl did not like her touch, it was cold and detached, but she had to play along. In fact, Lavinia was more like a puzzle than she was before, and Philomela wasn’t sure whether she understood her properly. It appeared as if Lavinia and her were not talking about the same matter anymore.

“Have you ever been outside Rome for a longer period of time? Have you felt homesick?” Philomela asked in order to save the conversation from slipping into unknown, awkward territories.

“Of course I have. We have a summerhouse, you know. It’s not far from here, but it’s far enough for me to become increasingly depressed as days go by. Atticus cannot understand that. He lives for his trips. A trip to north, a trip to Greece, that’s what his life is, a road,” Lavinia complained. Perhaps she complained too much, too honestly.

“It must be hard for you when he’s away. It surprised me to find out that you haven’t lived with him on Crete during his term,” Philomela said. If a part of Lavinia started to open towards her, now that part was shut again. She simply could not stand Philomela talking about her marriage and reminding her of what a failure it was.

“I thought of moving to your lovely island, but then I gave birth to our first child and I had to stay here, I was not able to make such a long journey. Then, another child came to this world. After that, moving for me didn’t have sense anymore. Besides, I’ve been to Crete, and my husband often comes to Rome. So, no harm is done,” Lavinia replied with an effort to sound satisfied and happy.

“Your children must be your treasure,” Philomela said and smiled. Lavinia nodded.

“They are amazing, truly. So much energy in them, so much joy and curiosity for life,” Lavinia said what she would always say when someone would mention her children. There was nothing more she could state about them. She did not know them that well to claim anything else.

“Are they here, now?” Philomela asked kindly.

“If you’re thinking of seeing them, or playing with them, trust me, you won’t get what you want. They are always on the move. This morning we had breakfast, I fed them in their beds, and then, they disappeared. Maybe they are in the garden, maybe somewhere inside the house,” Lavinia said. Her words made Philomela laugh. The girl thought it was sweet to have such cheerful children running around the house.

“One day, I hope I’ll have what you have now. A good husband, good children, respect… Can a woman ask for more?” Philomela said.

“Don’t call yourself a woman, not yet. Enjoy the youth you have and don’t step into maturity until you have a ring on your finger. And I don’t have it all, no, not even close to that,” Lavinia replied and her voice became bitter.

“I think you are an amazing woman,” Philomela said. And she did mean that. She was a bit afraid of Lavinia, but Philomela respected the governor’s wife.

“If only I could explain it to you, the life nowadays. But, worry not. Live your dreams… As long as you can…” Lavinia advised her. And it was an honest advice. Especially because Lavinia knew that Philomela’s death was soon to come. The governor’s wife took her for a walk around the palace. Behind the house building there was a wide lawn, decorated with statues and fountains. At the end of it was an oak, with rich, green crown, monitoring all in its vicinity. Next to the tree there was a table cut from stone and wooden chairs around it.

“It’s nice here. There is a lot of light, and the air is fresh,” Philomela said.

“Yes, it’s even better during brisk summer nights,” Lavinia said and waved at the slave to bring them tea.

“Your garden is lovely… And the birds are singing,” Philomela said.

“Swallows have come, it’s their song you’re listening to. They have a nest somewhere, I believe it’s under the eastern side of the roof. Unfortunately, I never find time to investigate it,” Lavinia said and poured some tea that the slave brought. Philomela took her cup, but waited for the governor’s wife to taste it first.

“I have seldom seen swallows on Crete. Maybe I haven’t looked carefully enough, or they just don’t like the island,” Philomela said.

“Those little birds are fast and elegant. They never stay too long in one place. The first cold wind in the seventh month will send them away, if they don’t decide to leave earlier. They always know when to stop. Swallows know when to end their adventure,” Lavinia said. Philomela now realized what the wife of Atticus wanted to convey.

“But they always come here, don’t they? Every spring, they come back. There must be something they like about this place, don’t you think?” the blacksmith’s sister asked.

“Yes, definitely. But is the journey they make worth it? Risking their lives?”

“It’s in their nature, I guess. To always reach for the best, for whatever makes them satisfied.”

“Many have found satisfaction only to find suffering later.”

“Why do you assume that their satisfaction provokes sadness or suffering?”

“Usually, reckless birds hurt others while being quite pleased themselves.”

“Birds are free. They are up, in the air, and their behaviour can hardly hurt someone.”

“You never know… Some people don’t like the flapping of the wings, others don’t like their song…”

“I can’t imagine a person being upset by a little bird. It must be a wicked person.”

“Don’t be so hasty in judging people.”

“Don’t be so hasty in judging birds. Especially ones as elegant as swallows, as you have said.”

“Not every bird is a swallow. In time, you learn the difference.”

“I’m sure you had plenty of time to learn all the secrets. Years which are added to life certainly increase the experience.”

“Don’t mock those who are older than you. I was where you are, yes. But you will be where I am now. Or not…” Lavinia said. She took some tea, and Philomela did the same. The governor’s wife did not think about the girl anymore. She was already with Aranth at tonight’s reception. Philomela hoped that she didn’t offend Lavinia and went too far with her remarks. She wanted to present herself as equal in wits with the governor’s wife, but she felt she was too direct. Luckily, Philomela was saved from further talk with Lavinia when the governor showed up in the garden.

“Hello, my love,” he said and gave Lavinia a light kiss on the forehead.

“Hello. Did you have a good day?” his wife replied.

“It was as usual. Philomela, so good to see you. What do we owe the honour of your presence?” Atticus asked and smiled at the girl.

“I’ve come to speak with you. But, since you’ve been away, I decided to wait here in your wonderful garden,” Philomela said.

“What is it? Has something bad happened?” Atticus was worried.

“No, of course not. I just came to tell you that I’m leaving Rome, without you,” the girl replied, and Lavinia grinned.

“Why? Didn’t we have a deal?” the governor was confused.

“That’s why I came here to tell you this myself. I can’t wait that long, and Rome does not make me happy anymore. I miss home,” Philomela explained. Atticus frowned. He turned his head like a puppy, like he didn’t understand what the girl was saying.

“She made her choice, dear husband. I don’t think you’ll manage to convince her otherwise,” Lavinia said.

“You must be thinking I have betrayed your trust. You have every right to be angry with me,” Philomela said. But, governor’s face quickly lit up.

“No, Philomela, don’t you worry. I just hope nothing unfortunate happened that you must leave the city. Everything is fine, isn’t it?” the governor asked.

“Please, there is nothing of that kind behind this decision of mine,” Philomela uttered as fast as she could, because she needed to keep her jolly and confident tone in front of the governor.

“Would you like some tea, darling?” Lavinia asked, just to remind the other two that she was still present.

“Yes, I’d like some,” Atticus said, not taking his eyes off Philomela. Lavinia saw that. She got up and straightened her gown. She carefully poured the tea into the cup she used and gave it to her husband.

“Aranth is making a party tonight, and we are invited,” Lavinia said.

“General Aranth?” Atticus replied.

“Yes. I have sent a reply announcing our presence,” Lavinia said.

“That’s good. Although I’m not sure if I’m fit for party. I’m too old for that. How about you, Philomela?” Atticus asked, and Lavinia’s face turned grim.

“What about me?” the girl asked, standing up and getting ready to leave.

“Would you like to go to a party? Maybe we should throw you a farewell party?” Atticus laughed. Philomela wasn’t sure if the governor was honest, or it was just another tease from the part of patrician.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t be the right company, considering the people that attend those events,” Philomela replied with a smile. Lavinia was glad that the girl finally found her place. Then, suddenly she got an idea. Aranth’s party was a perfect occasion.

“Why don’t you come with us tonight? Really, such a lovely girl, you should make a good use of one of your last nights in Rome,” the governor’s wife suggested.

“No, please, I couldn’t. I’m not worthy…” Philomela said. Atticus was nodding, delighted by Lavinia’s offer.

“You should come. Philomela, you’re the sweetest person I have met in a long time. And I think you should be at the party tonight,” the governor said.

“I would have to ask my brother for permission,” Philomela said.

“You know what, I’ll write him a note. You take it to him, and he won’t defy my demand. He cannot,” the governor replied.

“And when your brother reads my husband’s letter, return here. I want to dress you up properly,” Lavinia said, with a glow in her eyes.

Philomela went back home with a smile that looked like it was going to stay on her lips forever. She was walking on clouds, and that fluffy path was to bring her into the realm of the upper class, the class that knows how to live, die and celebrate. Georgios’s reaction didn’t really matter at that moment. Word of the governor was stronger than the word of a blacksmith. She will have so much to tell her friends on the island. It was such an opportunity for a shy, but brilliant and gifted girl from the province of the Empire. A worthy finale of Philomela’s visit to Rome.

The blacksmith protested, of course. But, Philomela didn’t mind him. Her thoughts were lifted, way above her head, up in the clouds, while her brother tried to put her down, to make her understand.

“You can’t go,” Georgios said, going in circles around her.

“You can’t stop me. The governor wrote this and signed this. There is nothing you can do about it, I’m sorry,” she replied.

“They will ridicule you at the party,” he warned.

“No, they won’t. You worry too much. People at the party won’t even notice me. I don’t expect Atticus and Lavinia to go around and present me to their friends. It’s satisfying enough that I will be present there, among those great people,” his sister replied.

“I’m glad that you will be home soon,” Georgios whispered.

“Brother, don’t speak like that. Tell me, when you will visit home? You haven’t been there over ten years. It will be unbearable to be separated from you, and the children, especially,” Philomela tried to ease the tension.

“I don’t know,” he replied. She felt apathy in his voice.

“As you wish,” Philomela said because she had no energy to deal with his moodiness at the moment. She had a party to attend.

The glamour of Rome was ready at the mansion of the Basic, as the guests began to arrive. Aranth was pleased to see how his slaves did their tasks and turned shadowy and grey indoors into a golden, bright hall of merrymaking. He was greeting the guests, shaking hands and bowing his head occasionally. Castor was in the main room, supervising what the slaves were doing and how they managed the situation. The guests’ cups always had to be full, and there had to be a plate full of fruit circulating around the room at all times. Atticus, Lavinia and Philomela arrived among the last ones. Aranth shivered in surprise when he recognized Philomela next to the patricians, making an effort to put on a happy face. Later, when he had talked to all of the guests, as the manners demanded, he took Lavinia aside to find out what she was up to.

“Relax, Aranth. I have planned everything, and I have it under control,” Lavinia assured him.

“Planned what? What is the girl doing here?” Aranth asked.

“You will kill her tonight, because she moved her departure date. She moving sooner than I thought, and this is the best opportunity to take her life that you will ever have,” the governor’s wife said.

“One problem after another. I made this party so I could talk to you about the future, and your… Immortality. But, now I see that I’m not the only one who has news,” the Basic said.

“Is that why you weren’t visiting me? You were out, searching for the way to make me immortal?”

“And, I have found it. But, we must be careful.”

“Tell me, tell me all. Where have you been? What have you found?”

“I’ve been to Egypt, to see my old friend. It’s Castor, you’ve met him tonight, haven’t you?”

“Yes, I did. Is he like you?”

“He’s a vampire. He can’t stand light, and he can be killed. But he’s a loyal ally, a friend and he has helped me beyond my wildest dreams. Still, we will have to leave Rome to perform the ritual to make you immortal.”

“Why? I don’t understand…”

“There is a potion you need to drink, it has to be drunk at the right place. Otherwise, there might be… Problems…”

“Is it far?”

“Yes, apparently so. It’s somewhere in the east. I’ve brought Castor with me from Alexandria to help us find that location. And also, he might prove to be very useful when the murder is discovered.”

“The girl’s murder? What are you afraid of? A trial? Who cares about a peasant girl from a province? Maybe her brother, but he can’t harm us.”

“Still, I don’t think it’s a good idea to come back to Rome after the ritual.”

“Why are you concerned with the aftermath of your actions? You are indestructible, and I will be immortal, soon. There is nothing to worry about anymore.”

“You’re being too optimistic about this. More than you should, for sure. If I kill her tonight, than you and your children must be prepared to leave immediately. And I don’t think you’ve told that they might be going on a long trip.”

“My children? I haven’t told them about it. Nor I intend to. I’m coming with you alone.”

“What? You can’t just leave them. They are your children. How could you ever abandon them?”

“They are also children of my husband. Should I take the pleasure of parenthood away from him?”

“What is it with you? Don’t you want your children to be by your side?”

“Honestly, no. All I need is you. I don’t care about them, Aranth. And don’t show me that disgusted face. You have no idea how it feels when something that you never wanted is imposed on you.”

“But they are your children.”

“But, I didn’t want them. They are better without me, anyway. We have no relationship, Aranth. Maybe it’s sad, maybe it’s terrible, but it is the reality.”

“You’re right, it’s a terrible reality. I can’t believe that you haven’t tried to do something. To build a bond… I don’t know.”

“You’re just like everyone else. Should I look forward to this in my future? An eternity of guilt, imposed by you?”

“No, of course not Lavinia. I thought you loved them.”

“And I do, in some way. I don’t blame them for anything, it’s not their fault. It’s not anyone’s fault.”

“If anything, not having your children around will only speed us up. Won’t you miss them?”

“I will, I guess. But, life’s long. I’ll have plenty of time once the ritual is done to come back and see what they are doing.”

“Do you think it’s a good plan, to kill the girl tonight?”

“It’s the best chance you’ll get. She leaving soon, so we’re running out of time. Besides, where else can you isolate her, and kill her, without anyone suspecting, or even caring? She’s basically invisible among these people. No one knows her, no one will remember her. Do it, tonight. Do it, in the garden, where nobody will hear her scream.”

“I have to speak with Castor,” Aranth said and searched for the vampire across the room. He found him, whispering to a woman’s ear. He noticed Aranth’s look, so he politely excused himself, and approaching the Basic and the governor’s wife.

“I’m in a middle of something,” the vampire said and smiled at Lavinia.

“We’re on the move, tonight,” the Basic said.

“But, we’re not ready,” the vampire said.

“Perhaps you are not ready, but Aranth and I can leave Rome now if it’s needed,” Lavinia replied.

“Are you going to kill her tonight? After the party?” Castor asked.

“Yes, because it’s for the best. I’ve just learned that she changed the date of her voyage to Crete. She’s in a hurry, and so are we, then,” the Basic explained.

“Lavinia, you should go home, pack your clothes, and wait for us to come,” Castor said.

“No, she should stay here. I want her close,” Aranth said.

“What if her husband wants to leave?” Castor asked.

“Don’t worry about Atticus, I’ll take care of him. Besides, he surely won’t leave yet,” Lavinia replied and showed them Atticus laughing and feeding two young slave girls with grapes, in the company of several other noblemen.

“Castor, go the stables, tell them to prepare three of my best horses,” Aranth said.

“We are going to ride horses? Isn’t that a bit… Slow?” the vampire complained.

“The ship was slow as well, Castor. Lavinia can’t run fast,”

“We eventually gave up  the ship, didn’t we? You can carry her,” the vampire said.

“It’s true. Horses are…”

“Horses are food as well. I don’t want to attack farmers and townspeople if I get hungry. Also, did you forget we’re carrying necessities like human food, blankets, sheets for each night we spend in the wild?” the Basic interrupted both of them.

“Fine, it’s three horses then. But what you mean nights spent in the wild?” the vampire replied.

“What? You didn’t understand me? I don’t want to get close to people during our trip,” the Basic said.

“Are you alright with this? Sleeping in the grass, off road?” Castor asked, obviously irritated by Aranth constantly opposing him.

“I don’t mind if we stay away from settlements. Of course, if run out of supplies we can easily make a stop in a town and get what we need,” Lavinia replied.

“Being off road goes in your favour. There’s plenty of places in the wild where we can shelter you from the sun. We’ll travel by night, and rest during the day,” Aranth said.

“You leave tonight with the map. I’ll stay behind to take care of everything here. Then, we’ll meet at the inn, marked on the map. It’s easy to find. After that, we’ll travel through the wilderness,” Castor said.

“I’ll dispose of the body, and then the two of us will ride out of Rome. It’s our advantage that we can both travel during the day, so we can make it sooner to the inn you’ve mentioned. Show me, where is it exactly,” Aranth said and Castor pulled a piece of paper under his robe.

“Here, you see?” the vampire pointed his finger at a small dot on the paper, next to the line that showed where the land ended and the sea began.

“I understand, it’s up in the north,” the Basic said and marked the position of the inn with a drop of wine from his cup.

“If the girl’s brother comes, and he will come, asking questions about her… Deal with him, properly,” Lavinia said to Castor.

“Don’t worry. That’s why I’m not leaving with you. I’ll tie all loose ends that emerge,” the vampire assured her.

“Good, then, we all know what to do…” the Basic replied. The vampire walked discretely out of the room, and headed for the stables.

“Do you trust him?” Lavinia asked when Castor was gone.

“Yes, I do. What’s wrong?” Aranth asked, already aware of what was coming.

“He’s… I don’t like him,” Lavinia said.

“You better deal with that feeling, because he’s helping us, helping you. Don’t be like that, not now,” the Basic said.

“I appreciate what he is doing. But, he’s going to be a burden once we finish the ritual. Have you thought about him? Is he going to stay with us and for how long?” the governor’s wife continued.

“Lavinia, please. He’s my friend, and don’t try to turn me against him. After the ritual is done, you and I will go one way, and he’ll take another. Castor knows this. He wants to go back to Alexandria. He’s an ally, not a nuisance,” the Basic warned her.

“I’m not asking you to send him away. He’s important, especially for me. It still doesn’t mean I have to care for him,” the governor’s wife said.

“Go to your husband, and let me take care of the rest,” the Basic said with an annoyed tone. The governor’s wife was not happy with the way he sent her away, but her triumph was too close and too great to spoil it with a fight. Aranth emptied his glass of wine. Philomela was standing in the corner, behind some young men, watching them tease the slave who served them.

“So, the predator is going after his prey,” Lavinia commented, and Aranth went towards Philomela. He tried to silence Lavinia’s voice in his head.

“They are quite rude, aren’t they?” the Basic said when he stood next to Philomela.

“I think they are. How can they do this? Just because they can, must they?” the girl said.

“That’s a very philosophical question, young lady,” Aranth said, and called the teased slave.

“It’s no philosophy. It’s just common sense,” Philomela replied.

“Have some wine. Wine is a solution to all problems caused by common sense,” the Basic replied when the slave got to them with a jug of wine.

“Thank you,” she said when she got her drink. Aranth took a sip from his refilled glass, looking her straight in the eyes.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“My name is Philomela,” the girl replied.

“Yes, yes, I remember. You said it when we met at the entrance tonight. You came with the governor of Crete and his wife, didn’t you?” the Basic said.

“Yes, how nice of you to remember. Are you the host?” Philomela asked.

“Yes, I am. Do you like the party?” Aranth replied with his sweetest voice.

“Very much, sir. What’s the occasion, if I may ask?” Philomela said.

“Of course you may. You see, I’m leaving Rome, tomorrow, and I wanted to gather my friends for the last time. Who knows will I ever come back here. And if I come back, will they be where I left them?” Aranth explained.

“Goodbyes are always tricky, and sad. But, you’ve managed to make yours interesting. I am leaving Rome, too. But, unlike you, I’m not going away from my home, but rather coming back to it,” Philomela said.

“Is that so? And where are you from?” the Basic pretended to be interested.

“My family comes from Crete. My brother is a blacksmith, and as a very skilful one he was noticed by the governor, who then took him to Rome. My brother lives here now, has a family, but I’ve stayed on the island. Right now, I’m just visiting my kin, but I can’t wait to go home,” Philomela told him.

“I have an impression that you were not quite pleased with our glorious city,” Aranth said.

“Rome is truly great. The greatest city of our times, and the times before, and the times after we’re long gone. But, you know, it’s not home. It’s not as simple as home,” Philomela replied.

“I can relate to that. Rome and these lands have been my home as far as my memory goes back. I have travelled across the Empire a lot, and even visited other places, other cultures and people. But, after some time, all the exotic charm of new cities discovered couldn’t hold me. I had to return. And I always return to one place I know the best,” Aranth said. Philomela enjoyed his voice and the manner in which he spoke. So rhythmically, melodically he spoke, it resembled a song.

“There wasn’t a night without me thinking of it. Have you ever been to Crete?” Philomela felt more comfortable to ask questions.

“Yes, I have. It was many years ago, you probably weren’t even born,” the Basic replied and remembered the tournaments he played for the glory of the bull. All men of his youth prepared themselves for that time of the year. Under the vigilant eye of the king, boys, adults, old folks, they all yearned to leave their blood in the sand.

“And, did you like it?” Philomela continued, surprised that she dared to flirt with Aranth even a little bit. He was a patrician, off limits. But, of all people, he came there to talk to her.

“It’s a magical, wonderful island. I don’t know if I should tell you all the stories I heard when I was there. All the legends, dark and frightening,” Aranth laughed.

“I probably know them all, already. Since I was a child, I heard those tales. Which one is your favourite?” Philomela replied. Aranth hesitated for a second.

“The one… The one that… The one about the bull,” he said. Philomela burst out laughing.

“That’s not a valid answer! They are all about the bull!” she shouted at him.

“I know, it’s not my fault. You should ask yourself what kind of people you are if you tell similar stories all the time,” Aranth said in pauses in his laughter.

“Our stories are always interesting,” Philomela said.

“A glass of wine, and so much confidence? How can a simple Roman like me resist the temptation of you Greeks? Yours were the legends, yours were the first victories against barbarians. Must seducing be yours as well?” the Basic took a decisive step.

“Seducing? Have you entered the foam’s realm already?” the girl asked.

“There is nothing better that being splashed by the sea foam, isn’t there?” Aranth said. He didn’t his smile off his face, and as he noticed, neither did she.

“Words like that can take you to dangerous places,” Philomela warned him.

“Is that so? And how would you know that? I thought you were an honest Cretan girl,” the Basic said.

“And honest I am. There is no reason for you to doubt it. But, I’ve been observing others, and I’m just trying not to fall into the same hole they fell in,” Philomela said.

“You’re quite a fountain of wisdom tonight. Let’s go outside. It’s a warm night. I want to have your wisdom all by myself. The environment here does not let me appreciate it fully,” the Basic suggested. They took more wine and went to the garden. Aranth was right. It was a warm, pleasant, windless night in Rome. They sat on the grass, because she thought benches couldn’t conjure all the charm of spring and youth they felt around themselves. Philomela was aware of what she was getting herself into. And she didn’t regret it. All she thought about was the quality of her memories of Rome. She had to have something to remember when her future becomes the reality. Something to make her happy, when all of her hopes have faded. A reminder of how careless her youth was, and how great the feeling of carelessness was.

“It’s nice here,” she commented.

“Yes, it’s definitely quieter than inside,” Aranth whispered.

“Indeed, their voices started to tire me,” Philomela said.

“Are you tired, really?”

“No, out here, I feel fresh. I feel new.”

“That’s good. Because, I need you rested.”

“For what?”

“What do you mean, for what? I’m planning a little adventure with you.”

“I love midnight adventures.”

“Look at the sky. Studying stars is one of my passions. At the moment, my strongest one.”

“I like watching the stars, too. It gives me comfort. I know that I’m not alone, even in a desert, if I can see at least a single star in the sky.”

“Millions of lights, lit across the black surface. Do you think that we shine to someone who might be watching us from this darkness?”

“You mean to say that we are inhabitants of a star?”

“I want to say that everything that has life must shine, to guide other places with life in this dark void that surrounds us.”

“Do you write poetry?”

“I used to do it, when I was younger. All people have to go through that phase.”

“Maybe you should try it again. Whatever was the reason for you to quit, I think it was wrong. You could describe so much, tell so many tales.”

“It’s sweet that you’re trying to encourage me.”

“I’m telling you the truth. I am not very capable of saying anything but the truth, when I am compelled to speak to someone.”

“That’s a valuable virtue.”

“Sometimes it’s a virtue. Sometimes it’s a way of starting a fight with others. People don’t usually like to hear something they already know, but refuse to admit themselves.”

“Don’t say anything. People are strange, humans are strange,” Aranth replied, thinking how it took him centuries to fit in the human society. And, still, some aspects of their civilization remained a secret, and a headache for him.

“You know, time seems to stop when I am listening to your voice,” Philomela said.

“Your skin is so gentle,” he replied when he touched her chin. The blacksmith’s sister trembled.

“Thank you,” that was the best she could think of in that moment.

“Don’t be afraid,” Aranth said.

“I’m not. And that’s a surprise for me. I haven’t been more relaxed in my life, more happier, than now,” she replied.

“Let’s dance,” he said and got up, taking her hand to help her get up as well. She stood in front of him, waiting.

“Dancing? I don’t dance… What kind of dance?” she asked.

“It’s not really a dance. Not by today’s standards. But, just come here, hold me, and I’ll hold you. And we can move slowly, according to the music we hear in the night,” the Basic suggested and pulled her closer. She was now in his arms.

“This is nice,” she said.

“I want it to be nice for you. I want you to be comfortable with me,” he said. He felt her heart beating. Strong, lively, human heart. Every vibration of her body reached him. They moved synchronically, as if they learned together the steps of a dance. They both heard the melody, like someone was playing a flute in the distance. The sound was tender, it touched them, caressed them, kept them safe. Voices, laughter, drunk screams were heard from the house, but they were alone in the silence of the stars, and yet filled with music they could both sense. Aranth remember the first time he held Lavinia. Now, he held this girl, like she was the only one in the world. And, she felt like that. Philomela smiled, but he did not see it. She smiled for herself, because she was thinking how incredibly lucky she was.

“Don’t think I know that this leads nowhere,” she said quietly.

“We have a wonderful night ahead of us. Nobody can find us here,” the Basic replied.

“Nobody can spoil our moments together. I really want this,” she said.

“Look, amazing,” he said and drew her attention to a swarm of tiny insects in the air. Fireflies flew around them, unintentionally creating a silver ring around the two of them.

“This is… Really, this is more than I ever wished for,” she said. The world was cruel to good people like Philomela. Good people, who didn’t have enough fortune to avoid certain timings, certain places, certain companies. The Basic understood her problem. She didn’t fit in, because she was a diamond. She was shining. Just like the stars he loved so much. He wanted her to have that moment. Philomela thought about it many times, she imagined how it would be, where it would happen, with whom. But, she had never thought it would be like this.

“Are you happy?” Aranth asked.

“I am,” Philomela replied. The Basic smiled at her. Then, before she even realized it, he plunged his fangs into her neck. The pain she felt was gone after a few seconds and that was the best gift he could have given her. Temporary happiness and an immediate death.

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