Schism

Erik is breaking into Julius Caesar’s home to assassinate him.

He knew the front entrance, angled slightly toward him but still nearly fifty yards away, would be well guarded. He thought he could make out at least two men standing in the dim torchlight in front of the building. He’d stand a better chance of getting in from the side, where a row of decorative hedges at least provided some minimal cover. He cut to the right side of the street and continued as close to its edge as possible, skirting the walls and steps of the buildings that lined it. He proceeded carefully, ensuring he was far enough to the side that the guards had no chance to see him as he approached the Domus. He turned onto the narrow street that ran to the right of the massive home.

Taking another swift glance around to be sure no one was watching, Erik slid behind the hedges and pressed himself against the wall. With a small thrill, he remembered that the building also housed the Vestal Virgins, the maidens whose innocence served as Rome’s luck. Maybe he could take a small detour later…

He blinked and shook his head to clear it. He had to stay focused or there wouldn’t be any later. He mentally reviewed the layout of the building. If he remembered correctly, behind this wall were servants quarters which, along with the foyer, ringed a central atrium in the main portion of the building. That meant if he moved a little farther along the outer wall, he’d be alongside the garden.

He ran along the narrow space between the hedges and the wall, until he could just make out the back corner of the building along the Via Nova, the major road flanking its rear. Stopping between two pools of flickering light cast by the torches lining the street, he slipped off his sandals and pulled a bundle of black cloth from beneath his tunic. Unrolled, the thin cloth was recognizable as a set of black pants and a black long-sleeved shirt. Wrapped within them were a small metal rod and a length of rope. Erik quickly doffed his tunic, goosebumps rising as the chill air touched his skin. He pulled the dark clothes on. Though the fit was already snug, he used sewn-in strings to tie them around his elbows, wrists, knees and ankles. He’d rolled his eyes when Versan had insisted he attach the strings to the outfit to prevent any noise from flapping cloth. Now it didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.

He flipped a switch and pressed a button on the metal rod, and four sharp hooks sprang from its sides. The corners of his mouth twitched as he remembered the first time he’d practiced running with the grappling hook hidden under his clothes, fastened to a loop on his belt. He’d forgotten to set the safety, and his left thigh now bore a long, puckered scar. A few inches higher and he wouldn’t be smiling about it today. Or worrying about the temptation of Vestal Virgins, for that matter.

The hook caught on the edge of the wall on the first throw, and Erik paused to listen for any reaction from inside the garden. Hearing nothing, he scrambled up the side, the sinewy muscles of his arms lifting his weight with practiced ease. When he reached the top, he dislodged the hook and let it drop to the grassy ground below, the row of hedges hiding it from any onlookers who might happen by.

He peered over the edge. A pair of lictors, elite guards of Rome’s top magistrates, walked along the far side of the huge garden; they must have just come from the main house. Everything about them radiated danger and alertness, from the tension in their well-muscled arms to the eyes that restlessly scanned the garden around them. They’d nearly failed their master once. They obviously didn’t plan to let it happen a second time. Erik hadn’t expected any guards inside the home, but Caesar had obviously increased his security since the assassination attempt the week before.

Erik’s eyes narrowed when he saw the weapons the guards carried. He’d forgotten that the Dictator was the one Roman official whose protectors were permitted to carry axes inserted just above the center of their fasces – the tightly bound bundles of wooden rods that all lictors carried – within the sacred boundaries of the city. His task had just become a whole lot deadlier.

Ducking his head below the lip of the wall, Erik tried not to think about how exposed he was, hanging from the side of one of the most prominent buildings in all of Rome. He could hear the guards’ footsteps echoing as they walked around the loop of the garden path. Slowly. Far too slowly. Erik’s arms burned, and his hands started to sweat and sting from gripping the rough plastered edge. He struggled to keep his breathing silent. The footsteps grew louder as the guards approached the spot where Erik hung twenty feet above. Were one of them to look up, he’d see several fingers and a black metal hook sprouting from the top of the wall. And then things would get ugly fast.

Another set of footsteps caught Erik’s attention and he cocked his head slightly, trying to locate the source. Someone was coming up the Via Sacra. He heard soft chatter and a feminine giggle. A couple out for an evening stroll. Judging from the sound, he had maybe twenty seconds before they rounded the corner. And then he could only hope that they were a very nearsighted couple or that they saw nothing unduly concerning about a black-clad man hanging from the wall of their leader’s home. A leader who had recently been the target of a failed political coup.

Erik’s fingers began to slip. He tried to dig his nails in, but the hard stuccoed surface gave him no purchase. A sharp pain shot through his hand as one of his nails bent backward. He couldn’t hold on much longer. The footsteps from the street grew louder. Ten seconds left, maybe less. Erik chanced a quick look over the top of the wall.

The guards had passed by, backs turned to the section of wall from which Erik watched. Erik wished he could wait until they were safely out of sight inside the main building, but he’d run out of time. As he kicked one leg up and pushed himself over the wall, he saw the couple appear from around the wall of the Regia. And then he was falling.

Something in his knee gave way as he landed and his leg twisted painfully under him. He fell sideways behind the bushes lining the garden path, biting his lip to keep from crying out. His head bounced against the grassy ground and pinpoints of light flickered around the edge of his sight. He blinked to clear his vision then quietly rose to one knee, stifling a groan as his injured leg protested every movement.

Through the tangled branches of the bushes and other plants that lined the path, Erik saw the lictors near the arched entrance to the house. The one on the right turned and directed a swift stream of Latin at his partner, who nodded curtly before disappearing into the building. The first guard took his fasces in both hands and started back down the path.

9 thoughts on “Schism

  1. Philipp says:

    I rather like the idea of a fictional plot against Caesar, but I’m a bit confused: is this historical fiction or some kind of time-travel story? If the former, how do you have a man named ‘Erik’ in ancient Rome? If the latter, why does he need clothes with draw-strings? Elastic would be more convenient, surely. That aside, the writing style needs greater vividness: you use a lot of declarative sentences, often repeated and loaded down with rather awkward subordinate clauses, to describe what should be an exciting and even gripping scene. Perhaps instead of telling us what Erik is doing and thinking (“he did this, saw that, thought yon thing,” etc.), you could give us the sensory information more immediately. So (just as a suggestion) for the first paragraph:

    “Erik crept along the wall toward the main entrance of Caesar’s house. Fifty paces away, he rounded a corner and stopped short, shrinking against the cool stone. Caesar was no fool, and the last assassination-attempt had put him on his guard. Two hulking men stood just inside the bright torch-light [surely they want to be able to see possible enemies!] that illuminated the vestibule. “Ex-centurions?” Erik muttered to himself. He wouldn’t stand a chance against veterans of the Gallic campaign, and there had to be even more men inside the building. So much for the easy way in. He edged cautiously forward, aiming for the decorative hedges that stretched from either side of the vestibule….” and so on. I’m sure my suggestion could be improved a lot, but you get the idea. This is an action scene in what looks to be an action-story, and the reader needs to feel that.

    There are a number of historical issues to take into account, if you are aiming at any kind of verisimilitude (you might not be, but the designation of the story as ‘historical’ fiction suggests it, and a time-travel story positively demands it). Was the house of Julius Caesar actually near to the Atrium Vestae? (as far as I can tell from a quick search of online reference material, probably not, but more exact information might be available–I would recommend looking at Eva Margareta Steinby, Lexicon topographicum urbis Romae (Rome: Quarsar, 1993-2000) and its supplements, if you want to be as accurate as possible. Speaking of Vestals, is Erik supposed to be completely ignorant of Roman custom? Raping a Vestal Virgin (a woman who could be old enough to be the mother of an evidently young-ish man) carried an automatic death-penalty; I’m not sure about the punishment for men, but Vestals who broke their vows were supposed to be buried alive, and the Romans were good at brutal executions. Also, did lictors actually act as body-guards in the late Republic? Their main function seems to be to serve as a symbol of the power of magistrates, not to protect them–Caesar, who was (of course) an accomplished and well-liked general would have had plenty of professional soldiers who could have acted as body-guards. All things to think about, but the real question is the tone you are aiming for, and whether you want to satisfy a historically-aware audience.

    • Bob B says:

      Philipp, where did you find a copy of LTUR? I’m not seeing any at local libraries and used copies of the volumes, when available, run into the thousands.

  2. Robert Buchko says:

    Thanks for the feedback! It’s historical fantasy, so both historical and time travel. I’ll see about making the writing more vivid, but I do want to stay in Erik’s head. This story will be told from his perspective. I’m still finding my voice so it’s definitely a work in progress. As for the historical aspect, I’ll definitely check out that reference, thanks!

    Caesar was the pontifex maximus and lived in the domus publica near the Forum, which also housed the vestal virgins (in a different section of the building). The garden appeared to have been enclosed by rooms, so it wasn’t directly adjacent to the street and the walls would’ve led to roofs before reaching the garden itself. I took a little license there that I may rework at some point.

    Point taken about the vestals, though Erik is a teenage kid from 2014; rape isn’t really on his mind. But their persons were sacrosanct so, as I want Erik to be knowledgeable about the era, you’re right that he’d know better. Seemed like a fun little throwaway comment but it clashes with his background.

    Regarding lictors, soldiers became ordinary citizens when crossing the pomerium, so they were not allowed to wield arms. As dictator, he did have twenty-four armed lictors available to him, though. Of course, Caesar at that point could easily have circumvented the restriction on arms, and he probably would have following an assassination attempt. Especially one that involved so many high ranking people. He most likely would’ve been jumping at every shadow by that point. Let me consider a bit; may need to revamp the scene based on this.

    As for why they didn’t just put elastic on the clothes… I got nothin’. This is part of the prologue and I wanted to work a reference to his mentor in somehow.

    Appreciate it!

  3. Philipp says:

    Yes, that’s right. The LTUR, which I cited, tells me (according to a brief notice in Italian under ‘Domus: Caesar’) that the source is Suetonius, Divus Iulius, 46.1; the article on the Atrium Vestae (in English, fortunately) confirms what you have said about its positioning–next to, but not within, the domus publica (though there is some debate about the name–Regia also appears, though that might be rhetorical exaggeration: ‘King’s Palace’). You learn something new every day…

    Sure, soldiers weren’t supposed to bear arms within the pomerium (a point I had forgotten, actually–I usually work on much later Roman history, where there is frequent fighting within Rome itself), but things had broken down pretty far at this point; my suggestion of ex-soldiers might help you get around that, and gladiators could perhaps work too. Also, lictors were not in principle supposed to carry their axes within the pomerium either–do you know of any exception for the lictors of a dictator?

  4. Alex Zaykov says:

    An intriguing scene from what seems to be an interesting plot. The descriptions are vivid and the text read  well even with the lack of conversations. There are two main improvement points I would make.
    There is ample opportunity to trim down the description of the whole break-in. Just a couple of examples: “the thin cloth was recognizable as a set of black pants “+some more descriptions of Erik dressing up instead of simply- he took a bundle of black clothes from… and put them on or something of this kind. Further details about the garment seem quite insignificant for the story to spend too much time on them. Another one, “to be sure no one was watching” is redundant. It is obvious why Erik glances around. I would guess that no less than 30% can be cut out of the scene without it losing any of its clarity. You should not be afraid to trim down. It will only improve the pace and make the descriptions more economical.
    The elaborate hook with a button and a spring mechanism read very anachronistic. If the guy’s from the future it would explain it but will pose whole lot of other issues and questions by the readers.
    Good work, good luck with it!

  5. Robert Buchko says:

    Thanks Alex! I’ll take a look at trimming and tightening it up while I explore my voice per Philipp’s suggestions. Erik is from the future, as you guessed. I had a few other folks read the scene and they weren’t sure about that point either. I’m working in ways to make that more obvious earlier in the chapter.

    Philipp, I basically winged this chapter just to get something on paper for the boot camp, but I’m going back to verify and put together a bib (required for historical fiction, even alternative). I couldn’t recall offhand where I read about the dictator’s lictor’s being allowed the axes within the pomerium, but I did a quick search and found a book that corroborates: https://goo.gl/5hNXWl (top of second column). You definitely gave me food for thought, and now I’m thinking either the assassination attempt was avoided altogether, giving Caesar no cause for suspicion, or else it went down but failed and now Caesar has started bringing his troops into the city.

    The axes symbolized the magistrate’s power over life and death, which is why they had to be surrendered in the city proper. The dictator, of course, held that power even within Rome, so his lictor’s were allowed to retain them.

    Thanks again!

    • Robert Buchko says:

      Wow really wish I could edit these. Last full paragraph was meant to be flipped with the “food for thought” sentence, and please disregard the stray apostrophe in the last sentence. Sigh.

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