The Shards of Heaven

Julius Caesar is dead, assassinated on the senate floor, and the glory that is Rome has been torn in two. Octavian, Caesar’s ambitious great-nephew and adopted son, vies with Marc Antony and Cleopatra for control of Caesar’s legacy. As civil war rages from Rome to Alexandria, and vast armies and navies battle for supremacy, a secret conflict may shape the course of history.

Juba, Numidian prince and adopted brother of Octavian, has embarked on a ruthless quest for the Shards of Heaven, lost treasures said to possess the very power of the gods-or the one God. Driven by vengeance, Juba has already attained the fabled Trident of Poseidon, which may also be the staff once wielded by Moses. Now he will stop at nothing to obtain the other Shards, even if it means burning the entire world to the ground.

Caught up in these cataclysmic events, and the hunt for the Shards, are a pair of exiled Roman legionnaires, a Greek librarian of uncertain loyalties, assassins, spies, slaves… and the ten-year-old daughter of Cleopatra herself.

Michael Livingston’s The Shards of Heaven reveals the hidden magic behind the history we know, and commences a war greater than any mere mortal battle. Available November 10th from Tor Books!

 

 

Prologue
The Boy Who Would Rule the World

OUTSKIRTS OF ROME, 44 BCE

 

Hidden amid the shadows outside Caesar’s marble-columned villa, the assassin Valerius gazed back across the valley to Rome. Coiled around and upon her seven hills, the Eternal City often seemed like a living thing, her old streets pulsing with life. But now, on this fading day, the city was quiet and still. Her ancient stones, alight with the reds of a setting sun, appeared to be weeping blood. Valerius saw in the image a sign of favor.

The dictator was dead. And the gods approved.

Caesar’s blood, he did not doubt, still stained the tiled floor of the east Forum. Pushing his way through the astonished throngs of onlookers after the deed, Valerius had seen for himself the mangled corpse, wrapped in the tattered remains of Caesar’s purple robes, and in his mind’s eye the thick crimson pooled there was the perfect mirror to the strong light before him now.

Valerius’ knife, which he absently turned over in his hands as he watched Rome’s red walls slowly fade to gray, had not been among those that drank of Caesar, and he thought it a pity. The rich senators who’d done the killing were emotional men, ineffective at murder. Even with so many cuts to his body, Caesar had taken some minutes to die. The sprawled trail of blood on the tiles had told the tale. And though Valerius felt no particular love for the would-be emperor, he nevertheless thought it shameful that any man should shake out his last breaths under the eyes of dishonorable men.

Shameful, but little for it: Valerius was under no employ for that killing, and the man who had arranged to hire him only hours afterward would never have wished Caesar dead. Octavian still called the dictator “Uncle Julius” despite all the titles and glories that Caesar had won over his great-nephew’s nineteen years. In the streets some citizens were even saying that Caesar had adopted the young man, that Octavian might well be his heir. That was certainly what Octavian seemed to think.

Valerius spit into the vines that gathered about the foot of the villa wall at his back. He knew little of politics himself: he cared for them only insofar as they affected his own movements. Heir or not, adopted son or not, Octavian was his employer now. So Valerius cared only that his employer’s beloved uncle was dead and that he had been hired to see that Caesarion, the son of Caesar and Cleopatra, the only blood child of the now-dead dictator, would follow his father to the grave.

As he stopped to think about it, it seemed for a moment odd to Valerius that Octavian should wish the child of Julius such harm. The assassin had never seen the boy, but it was said that, aside from his slightly darker tone of skin and more delicate Egyptian features, Caesarion had every part the striking resemblance to his father. Then again, as heir of Egypt and the only surviving child of Julius Caesar himself, Caesarion did stand in line to inherit the world. And if Octavian thought himself rightful heir to at least part of that world… well, no price would be too high to see the boy dead.

Not that it really mattered. Octavian’s reasons were immaterial in the end. Not like the hundred weight of gold Valerius had been promised for the killing. That was material indeed.

Up the hard-packed dirt road from the bridge over the Tiber came the sound of hooves, a punishing gallop of men in fury. Valerius took a deep breath to clear his mind of reasons in order to focus on the simple facts of the task at hand: to get into the villa and end the child’s life. With practiced speed he pocketed his blade, fearful of any glint it might give off despite the deep shadows and brush in which he crouched.

The staff emblem rattling above the lead rider showed the markings of Caesar’s famed Sixth Legion, and even before they were close enough for the assassin to see the details of the faces of the riders themselves, he knew the man at their center to be Mark Antony: the general was broad-shouldered and handsome in his signet robes, with thick curls of red hair bouncing at every downbeat, and he exuded arrogance and assumptive power with every movement. Even the strong and impassioned way he drove his steed, completely heedless of consequence to the beast, seemed emblematic of the man. If the citizens of Rome knew but one thing about Antony it was that he was full of fire, his eyes never alight on anything but his goal. He’d been Julius Caesar’s finest general, perhaps his best friend, and for some reason—Valerius couldn’t fathom why—his life had been spared by the conspiratorial senators.

Valerius slowly and methodically stretched some of his tense muscles, grateful for Antony’s appearance. He’d counted on an emissary coming to call on the distraught queen of Egypt, but none could be more ideal than Antony. Chaos followed the man like the wake of a passing ship, and his arrival would be sure to send the household into even greater confusion than that which it already labored under, making it far easier for the assassin to complete his work.

•••

Tucked behind the drapes of a momentarily calm foyer, his lungs moving shallow and silent, Valerius listened to the sounds of the villa: servants’ feet rushing between rooms, pots and dishes being moved about in the kitchens, the muted sobs of a woman crying, and, very close, the quiet breathing of someone waiting in a nearby doorway. A male someone, by the sound of the breathing. Octavian’s contact, he hoped.

Valerius lifted himself to the balls of his feet, floating out from his hiding place. A long, wide swath of torchlight cut across the darkened floor of the foyer, spilling out from the doorway where the man waited, effectively blinding whoever it was to anything moving in the shadows. The assassin glided carefully around the periphery of the room until he stood beside the doorway. Then he took a small rock from his pocket and tossed it lightly out into the open.

The man in the doorway started at the sound of the pebble clattering across the floor, and he took a few hesitant steps into the open. “Hello?” he whispered. His voice cracked. “Is someone—”

The man’s quaking voice was frozen by the dull back of the assassin’s blade against his throat. Valerius guided him with it, pulling him into the darkness away from the doorway. “Yes,” the assassin breathed in his ear. “Someone is here.”

“I’m… I’m…”

“That’s not the code word,” Valerius said, pressing the steel against his skin.

The man’s body shook in fright, and his neck spasmed before he finally controlled himself enough to remember the arranged sign. “Tiber,” he croaked. “Tiber.”

Immediately Valerius released and spun Octavian’s contact around to get a good look at him. The man was younger than he’d anticipated, perhaps not even twenty. He had the smooth skin of someone unaccustomed to manual labor and the outdoors, and the tone of his complexion showed he was not Italian stock, though it was also more olive than the deeper tan of Cleopatra and her Egyptian court. A Greek, probably. Or a Cretan.

“I’m Didymus,” the man said. “I didn’t—”

“Where’s the boy?”

“The boy?”

“Little Caesar,” Valerius hissed.

A new fear crossed Didymus’ face. “Varro said you wanted Cleo—”

The assassin’s voice turned low and dangerous. “Octavian will pay you, yes?”

Didymus nodded, his expression numb.

“Pay you well?”

“Yes,” Didymus managed.

“Then don’t waste my time,” Valerius whispered, raising the knife for emphasis. “Where?”

Didymus swallowed carefully, his eyes dark. After a moment he lifted his arm in the direction of the lighted, open doorway. “Through my room, left beyond the curtains. Two rooms down there. Caesarion’s is the first.”

“Guards?”

“One inside. Abeden. An Alexandrian.”

“And the Egyptian whore?” Octavian hadn’t ordered it, but Valerius was certain there’d be a substantial bonus if both mother and child died tonight. No one in Rome had approved of Caesar’s dalliance with the foreign queen.

The fear in Didymus’ face was replaced with something more focused and harsh. Something more like the jealousy of a jilted lover. “Her room’s beside his. You’ll know it for the moaning.”

Valerius nodded, lowered his blade, and padded into Didymus’ room. The furnishings were simple enough, but the walls were lined with tables, each stacked tall with scrolls in various states of binding. The traitor was a tutor, he surmised. Probably the boy’s. It would explain his hesitation.

The household was still busy at the front of the villa. He could hear Antony bellowing commands, sending the servants scurrying to tend to his horse and to bring wine for his own dust-dried throat. Soon, the assassin imagined, Antony would dispatch one of his legionnaires to fetch Cleopatra.

The assassin doubled his speed as he made his way through the curtained rooms and hallways, keeping to the shadows as much as he could, closing in on the sound of the sobbing woman he now knew for certain to be the queen of Egypt. He encountered no one before he reached Caesarion’s door, where he paused to listen for sounds of movement within.

Valerius smiled once more. If the bloodred light of the sunset and the ease of his passage were not surety enough of the gods’ blessing on his task, the few noises inside the room would have passed all doubt from his mind. The boy was playing quietly, and from the sound of it Didymus was right about the single guard.

The assassin knocked lightly on the door, then right-palmed his knife. The door cracked, filled with an Egyptian face.

Valerius bowed slightly, kept his voice low and his posture submissive, like a servant’s. “The queen requests your presence, Abeden. There’s talk of moving the boy.” He stood to one side, so as to let the guard pass into the hallway. “I’m instructed to stand at the door in your absence.”

The guard glanced back at the room, then stepped out into the hall, pulling the door shut behind him. He turned in the direction of Cleopatra’s room. As he did so, Valerius came forward at his back, knife moving in a rapid strike up and into the center of his throat, puncturing his voice box. Then, in a smooth and practiced motion, he pulled the blade back and up and out, severing the vital arteries on the right side of the guard’s neck even as his free hand gripped the man’s weapon arm and used it as a lever to turn his body and send the bright red spray against the wall, out of sight of the boy’s doorway. He pinned the man there for a moment as he shook and gurgled, then he stabbed him once more, this time in the left center of his chest.

The guard sagged, only twitching now, and Valerius let him down to the floor quietly before checking his own body for blood. As he expected, only his knife hand had met with the stain, and this he was quick to wipe clean on the dead guard’s tunic. Pocketing the weapon, Valerius dragged the man into a slumped position with his back against the wall. From a distance, he’d look like he was sleeping. Valerius would have liked to hide the body completely, but then he’d need to clean up the blood. And, besides, he planned to be finished with his tasks and fleeing through one window or another in a matter of minutes.

Shaking out his own shoulders and straightening his back, the assassin approached the door, knocked once, opened it, and stepped inside.

The room was modest but not small: perhaps fifteen feet square, with only a single wood-shuttered and curtained window above a well-cushioned bed. Caesarion, the boy who might inherit the world, the three-year-old child he had been sent to kill, was kneeling in the middle of the floor, surrounded by a small toy army: chariots, horses, and warriors. The assassin hadn’t been sure what to expect, but he was surprised nonetheless to find the little prince dressed in a simple belted Roman tunic and thong sandals, no different from any three-year-old one might find in a market in the city. Even more surprising, though, was how much he resembled his father: he had dark hair cut round and flat against a strong brow, the prominent nose of the Julii, and, when Caesarion looked up, his dead father’s piercing dark brown eyes.

“I’m one of Antony’s men,” Valerius said, smiling as he did to all children. “We’re going to go see your father.” Behind his back the assassin carefully pushed the door’s bolt into position, locking the room.

Caesarion nodded, and his voice was quiet and even. “See Father,” the little boy said.

Valerius took a step forward in the room, nodding solemnly. “That’s right. I’m sorry for your loss, my lord.”

Little Caesar blinked, then looked down to the wooden figures gathered around him on the floor. His hands moved a Roman chariot forward, knocked over an Egyptian warrior.

Two steps closer. “Your father was a great man. He often won victory over unspeakable odds.”

The boy nodded more strongly this time. He picked up the fallen Egyptian warrior, stood it on its feet and then stared, his face blank, at the pieces before him. “I know,” he said.

Valerius took another step to stand behind Caesarion, his hand moving stealthily to his pocket to retrieve the warm knife. Slowly, deliberately, he bent at the knees, crouching behind the child and gauging his neck. “I am sorry,” he said, and he started to reach forward.

An alarmed shout rang out in the hallway, the hard voice of a man. It froze the assassin’s hand as his head turned instinctively toward the locked door and his mind recalled the possible escape routes he’d mapped out beyond the window.

Caesar’s son, his own head turning at the shout, saw the assassin’s weapon and pushed himself away, scattering toys. He backed into the wall, brandished a wooden play knife in his shaky hands.

Valerius, still crouched with his own knife in hand, was mildly surprised when he looked back to the boy. “You’re fast, little one.”

“Don’t hurt me,” Caesarion whimpered.

The assassin stood. In another context, with a man before him instead of a boy, he would have smiled. But not here. No smiles, but no lies either. “I have to.”

Caesarion shook his head, swallowed hard. His eyes were dampening, but he didn’t cry.

There were answering shouts from within the villa. A sudden crash jolted the locked door, but it held. Valerius found it ironic that Caesar’s slaves had kept the house in such good working order that he’d be able to murder the man’s son in peace. By the time they breached the door he’d be out the window and on the run, the child dead. Alas that he’d not get the chance at the queen, too. The bonus would have been nice.

“No,” Caesarion stammered. “Please… no.”

Valerius settled his knees a little for balance, eyes taking stock of the child’s fake knife. The boy couldn’t do him any real harm with it, but the assassin didn’t intend to take home even a scratch from this assignment.

There was a crash from Cleopatra’s room next door, like the toppling of a great table, and the queen’s lament turned to sudden screaming. Not seconds later there was another crash, and Cleopatra’s voice grew even louder.

Caesarion’s wooden weapon trembled more violently in response to his mother’s terrified wails, and Valerius took a single step backward, giving himself room for a blade-dodging feint as he charged. He took a breath. Tensed.

Before Valerius could engage, heavy, running footfalls sounded beyond the shuttered window, and he had chance enough only to turn in the direction of the sounds before the wood slats separating the room from the growing night exploded inward as a massive legionnaire came through, tumbling over the bed and into his side.

The two men flailed to the floor together, grunting as splintered wood fell like rain in the little room. Valerius hit the ground first, but he was able to kick his lower body up in continuation of the legionnaire’s momentum, sending the far bigger man hurtling against the barred door. The assassin then rolled quickly, recovering his balance even as the dazed legionnaire scrambled to get his feet under him and began pawing for the gladius at his side.

Valerius came forward at him, knife ready in his grip, but before he could strike he screamed and buckled to one knee as Caesarion jammed his little wooden blade into the soft flesh at the back of his right leg. The assassin swung his arm back at the boy instinctively, catching him above the eye with the butt of his knife, sending him sprawling.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, Valerius turned back around in time to see the big legionnaire draw an arm back and forward, pushing a gladius into his belly, just below his rib cage. Gasping against the cold steel in his gut, the assassin still tried to swing his knife, but the legionnaire held fast to his sword with strong hands, and his thick arms flexed as he twisted it in his grip, scratching the blade into bone. Valerius groaned, strained, then dropped his weapon and sank against the killing stroke, watching, helpless and gasping in broken breaths, as the legionnaire stood, wincing from wounds of his own, and pushed forward until the assassin collapsed to his back.

For a few short gasps, Valerius could see nothing but the ceiling, and then the legionnaire returned into his view. The assassin stared in paralyzed shock as the bigger man painfully lifted a foot and planted it on his chest. Valerius heard a crunch that he strangely could not feel as the foot pressed down and the gladius was pulled free with a jerk of the legionnaire’s burly arms. Thick warmth washed over the assassin’s chest. Then the legionnaire was gone, limping over him and out of view.

“Caesarion,” Valerius heard the man say somewhere over his head. “You hurt?”

The child was crying now, and he heard the flex of leather and a grunt.

“There, there,” the legionnaire was saying. “All’s well, my boy. All’s well. You’re a brave lad.”

Valerius was having a hard time focusing now, but he saw the legionnaire come back into view. With an effort, Valerius turned his head to follow the man as he made his way toward the heavy door, holding the sobbing boy in one massive arm. Someone was pounding on the door—the assassin absently wondered how long that had been going on—and the legionnaire shifted the boy to his hip so he could unbolt it.

The door swung open to a crowded hall. There was a second legionnaire, smaller than the first, who must have been doing the pounding. Mark Antony was beside him, holding back a weeping, panic-stricken Cleopatra. And among the faces gathered behind them he saw Didymus, his Greek complexion gone pale with terror.

“Caesarion!” Cleopatra shouted, rushing forward to take the boy from the bigger legionnaire’s arms. By the gods, Valerius suddenly thought, she truly was beautiful. He’d heard talk of the queen’s beauty, and certainly from afar she had been remarkable enough for him to half-believe the talk that she was part-goddess herself, but seeing her up close he saw the honest truth: she was a woman of flesh and blood, a mother with fears and hopes. And also perhaps the most beautiful creature he’d ever seen.

The smaller legionnaire came forward, too, offering a shoulder to his injured comrade after he handed over the boy, but Antony pushed past them all to kneel before Valerius, filling his fading world with a flushed face and the scents of stale wine. “Who hired you?” the general demanded. His thick fingers rooted in the assassin’s tunic, causing the room to shift and bringing Antony’s face even closer. “Who let you in?”

Valerius looked to the Greek tutor, but when he tried to speak it came out as a wet cough. He felt an odd satisfaction to see flecks of red appear on Antony’s face. He tried to smile but wasn’t sure if the muscles of his face obeyed his mind’s command.

“Bah!” Antony said, releasing his grip. The assassin’s world unfocused, shook, then came back into clarity. He saw that Antony was standing now, surveying the room. “How’d you get to the window so quickly, Pullo?”

“Broke through the room next door, sir.” The battered legionnaire flicked his eyes to Cleopatra in her shift, and he bowed slightly. “Apologies, my lady.”

Cleopatra, looking up from stroking her boy’s head, seemed to have gathered control of herself. “No apologies, legionnaire,” she replied. “I owe you thanks.”

Valerius was aware of their voices receding, as if they were moving farther and farther away. It occurred to him that he was dying, a sudden, strange, and fearful thought. He felt his mind bucking and straining against the realization, clamoring to fight on, but his body did little more than tremble in an awkward breath. Even as that part of his mind screamed, another part of him observed his life passing with disinterest. He’d seen this kind of death before, where the blade cut the spine. Less common than the quivering horrors. Strange to experience it now.

“This is the second time I find myself in your debt, Titus Pullo,” Cleopatra was saying. Her eyes moved to take in the smaller legionnaire, on whose shoulder the big man now leaned. “And you, Lucius Vorenus.”

Through a growing fog of shadow the assassin watched as Antony looked to the two men for explanation. Pullo seemed to blush, and Vorenus in turn gave a shy smile before he spoke: “We brought the lady back to Alexandria before the siege, sir. Before she met Caesar. Was nothing.”

“I see,” Antony said gruffly. The room was almost gone now, and the general’s words were only a distant whisper as he advised the queen to return to Alexandria.

But Valerius was no longer listening. He was thinking instead of the faces of the dead, of the many shades that would greet him upon the other side. He thought of their anger, of their unslakable thirst for vengeance.

And then the voices in the room faded at last into a still silence, and Valerius saw light—clean, white light—before his eyes. He heard a gentle wind, the sound of water upon a sandlined shore. The sun shone. Children sang. All times became one time. Valerius reached for his mother’s hand. He sat crying in an empty room. He lived. He died. He stood before the throne. And then darkness, an impenetrable and unquenchable black, rose up like a wave and overwhelmed all.

Excerpted from The Shards of Heaven © Michael Livingston, 2016

2 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!