The Tyrant’s Tomb Page 66

Even if we somehow managed to destroy all the enemies remaining on Highway 24, those yachts were beyond our reach. Whatever Lavinia had been planning, she had apparently failed. With a single order, the emperors could lay waste to the entire camp.

The clop of hooves and rattle of wheels drew my attention back to the enemy lines. Their columns parted. The emperors themselves came out to parley, standing side-by-side in a golden chariot.

Commodus and Caligula looked like they’d had a competition to pick the gaudiest armor, and both of them had lost. They were clad head to toe in Imperial gold: greaves, kilts, breastplates, gloves, helmets, all with elaborate gorgon and Fury designs, encrusted with precious gems. Their faceplates were fashioned like grimacing demons. I could only tell the two emperors apart because Commodus was taller and broader in the shoulders.

Pulling the chariot were two white horses…No. Not horses. Their backs carried long, ugly scars on either side of their spines. Their withers were scored with lash marks. Their handlers/torturers walked beside them, gripping their reins and keeping cattle prods ready in case the beasts got any ideas.

Oh, gods…

I fell to my knees and retched. Of all the horrors I had seen, this struck me as the worst of all. Those once-beautiful steeds were pegasi. What kind of monster would cut off the wings of a pegasus?

The emperors obviously wanted to send a message: they intended to dominate the world at any cost. They would stop at nothing. They would mutilate and maim. They would waste and destroy. Nothing was sacred except their own power.

I rose unsteadily. My hopelessness turned into boiling anger.

I howled, “NO!”

My cry echoed through the ravine. The emperors’ retinue clattered to a stop. Hundreds of faces turned upward, trying to pinpoint the source of the noise. I clambered down the hill, lost my footing, somersaulted, banged into a tree, staggered to my feet, and kept going.

No one tried to shoot me. No one yelled, Hooray, we’re saved! Frank’s defenders and the emperors’ troops simply watched, dumbstruck, as I made my way downhill—a single beat-up teenager in tattered clothes and mud-caked shoes, with a ukulele and a bow on my back. It was, I suspected, the least impressive arrival of reinforcements in history.

At last I reached the legionnaires on the highway.

Caligula studied me from across fifty feet of asphalt. He burst out laughing.

Hesitantly, his troops followed his example—except for the Germani, who rarely laughed.

Commodus shifted in his golden armor. “Excuse me, could someone caption this scene for me? What’s going on?”

Only then did I realize Commodus’s eyesight had not recovered as well as he’d hoped. Probably, I thought with bitter satisfaction, my blinding flash of divine radiance at the Waystation had left him able to see a little bit in full daylight, but not at all at night. A small blessing, if I could figure out how to use it.

“I wish I could describe it,” Caligula said dryly. “The mighty god Apollo has come to the rescue, and he’s never looked better.”

“That was sarcasm?” Commodus asked. “Does he look horrible?”

“Yes,” Caligula said.

“HA!” Commodus forced a laugh. “Ha! Apollo, you look horrible!”

My hands trembling, I nocked an arrow and fired it at Caligula’s face. My aim was true, but Caligula swatted aside the projectile like it was a sleepy horsefly.

“Don’t embarrass yourself, Lester,” he said. “Let the leaders talk.”

He turned his grimacing face mask toward the Kodiak bear. “Well, Frank Zhang? You have a chance to surrender with honor. Bow to your emperor!”

“Emperors,” Commodus corrected.

“Yes, of course,” Caligula said smoothly. “Praetor Zhang, you are duty-bound to recognize Roman authority, and we are it! Together, we can rebuild this camp and raise your legion to glory! No more hiding. No more cowering behind Terminus’s weak boundaries. It is time to be true Romans and conquer the world. Join us. Learn from Jason Grace’s mistake.”

I howled again. This time, I launched an arrow at Commodus. Yes, it was petty. I thought I could hit a blind emperor more easily, but he, too, swatted the arrow away.

“Cheap shot, Apollo!” he yelled. “There’s nothing wrong with my hearing or my reflexes.”

The Kodiak bear bellowed. With one claw, he broke the arrow shafts in his shoulder. He shrank, changing into Frank Zhang. The arrow stubs pierced his breastplate at the shoulder. He’d lost his helmet. The side of his body was soaked in blood, but his expression was pure determination.

Next to him, Hannibal trumpeted and pawed the pavement, ready to charge.

“No, buddy.” Frank glanced at his last dozen comrades, weary and wounded but still ready to follow him to the death. “Enough blood has been shed.”

Caligula inclined his head in agreement. “So, you yield, then?”

“Oh, no.” Frank straightened, though the effort made him wince. “I have an alternative solution. Spolia opima.”

Nervous murmurs rippled through the emperors’ columns. Some of the Germani raised their bushy eyebrows. A few of Frank’s legionnaires looked like they wanted to say something—Are you crazy?, for instance—but they held their tongues.

Commodus laughed. He pulled off his helmet, revealing his shaggy curls and beard, his cruel, handsome face. His gaze was milky and unfocused, the skin around his eyes still pitted as if he’d been splashed with acid.

“Single combat?” He grinned. “I love this idea!”

“I’ll take you both,” Frank offered. “You and Caligula against me. You win and make it through the tunnel, the camp is yours.”

Commodus rubbed his hands. “Glorious!”

“Wait,” Caligula snapped. He removed his own helmet. He did not look delighted. His eyes glittered, his mind no doubt racing as he thought over all the angles. “This is too good to be true. What are you playing at, Zhang?”

“Either I kill you, or I die,” Frank said. “That’s all. Get through me, and you can march right into camp. I’ll order my remaining troops to stand down. You can have your triumphal parade through New Rome like you’ve always wanted.” Frank turned to one of his comrades. “You hear that, Colum? Those are my orders. If I die, you will make sure they are honored.”

Colum opened his mouth but apparently didn’t trust himself to speak. He just nodded dourly.

Caligula frowned. “Spolia opima. It’s so primitive. It hasn’t been done since…”

He stopped himself, perhaps remembering the kind of troops he had at his back: “primitive” Germani, who viewed single combat as the most honorable way for a leader to win a battle. In earlier times, Romans had felt the same way. The first king, Romulus, had personally defeated an enemy king, Acron, stripping him of his armor and weapons. For centuries after, Roman generals tried to emulate Romulus, going out of their way to find enemy leaders on the battlefield for single combat, so they could claim spolia opima. It was the ultimate display of courage for any true Roman.

Frank’s ploy was clever. The emperors couldn’t refuse his challenge without losing face in front of their troops. On the other hand, Frank was badly wounded. He couldn’t possibly win without help.

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