Narcissus Turncoatius, First Man in Rome, was engaged in contemplating his reflection in a burnished shield when his confederate, the Bishop, entered. “Oh great Heir of Caesar!” the Bishop cried, “There is disquiet among the legions. Soldiers and Merchant Princes from Cathay have purchased with much gold the harbour and lighthouse of Portus Itius!
Narcissus found contemplating his own face’s perfection and the manifest fulfilment of his destiny more interesting. “So?” He was glad that it had not been more about the turbulent priest, Antonius Sandal. Best to be polite, though, he thought after a moment. The Bishop was an ally worth conciliating, and also handy with a dagger. “Pray continue.”
“My spies inform me that the soldiers from Cathay have fortified many islands about,” the bishop told him. “It is thought, because of the scale of their preparations, on which they have spent much gold and many taels of their silver, that they are contemplating war with Zipangu. If that happens, and they have Portus Itius as an additional base, the Empire may become involved.”
“Tell Henbrayne. She commands the legions now.”
Narcissus’ assassinated predecessor had given charge of the legions to a seasoned general (but then, he had also given Narcissus himself oversight of the Ay Beecees, his springboard to power. Narcissus Turncoatius had hardly been able to believe his luck!)
By appointing would-be Amazon Cleavagepatra Henbrayne to command of the regular legions he had served notice of how low was his regard for them, and for alarmist tales and phobias about barbarians, bearded and otherwise. He preferred the favourites of his Praetorian Guard, the Ay Beecees, whose support had been so vital even though, or because, they were commanded by a eunuch. No less high in his estimation were the Fair Faxes, the temple prostitutes, who paraded in their mockery of male armour and simpered with delight at his every golden word.
Further, like other emperors, he distrusted potential rivals, and Henbrayne seemed no possible rival. In her first speech, she had referred to “many hundreds of countries.” A commander of the legions who did not know there were less than two hundred countries in the world, even counting those of the barbaricum, could hardly be expected to pose a threat to him, or indeed to any foreign enemy.
A Fair Fax minced in and handed him a scroll with his court’s customary fingers-to-nostrils salute. With mounting fury he read that a Senator he demoted had left the Patricians to join the Peasant Party. It seemed an unpleasant omen of things to come.
“What has happened to loyalty?” he asked the Bishop sadly.
Now why had he said that? “Loyalty” was one of the strange words, like “honour”, whose meaning was obscure to him. He had come across the word in an old scroll by that predecessor who, he had pronounced, would be remembered only for breaking Rome’s heart. He made a mental note to look it up in a dictionary and then returned to admiring his reflection.
To be continued …
Cato Seotonius is a spiritual forebear of Hal G.P. Colebatch, who translated this account into modern English