Alexandria has fallen, and with it the great kingdom of Egypt. Cleopatra is dead. Her children are paraded through the streets in chains wrought of their mother’s golden treasures, and within a year all but one of them will be dead. Only her young daughter, Cleopatra Selene, survives to continue her quest for vengeance against Rome and its emperor, Augustus Caesar.
To show his strength, Augustus Caesar will go to war against the Cantabrians in northern Spain, and it isn’t long before he calls on Juba of Numidia, his adopted half-brother and the man whom Selene has been made to marry—but whom she has grown to love. The young couple journey to the Cantabrian frontier, where they learn that Caesar wants Juba so he can use the Trident of Poseidon to destroy his enemies. Perfidy and treachery abound. Juba’s love of Selene will cost him dearly in the epic fight, and the choices made may change the very fabric of the known world.
The Gates of Hell is the follow up to Michael Livingston’s Shards of Heaven, a historical fantasy that reveals the hidden magic behind the history we know, and commences a war greater than any mere mortal battle. Available November 15th from Tor Books.
The Reach of Rome
Alexandria, 26 BCE
Perched on the leading edge of the barge, his back to the rising sun, Lucius Vorenus watched as the hulking mass of Alexandria rose above the still waters ahead. The last time he’d seen the great city, parts of it were in flames. From the deck of the ship upon which they’d ﬂed that day—a stolen Roman military trireme, far different from this ﬂat-bottomed Egyptian cargo vessel—Vorenus had watched through his tears as gray snakes of smoke grew in size and number, slithering lazily into the bright blue sky above the tiled roofs and great white blocks of Alexandria’s buildings, which were fading to the horizon. He remembered how there had been no sound of it, and upon the water he had only been able to smell the sea. Seen from afar those tendrils of destruction could almost have seemed beautiful. But Vorenus knew better. He was a veteran of enough campaigns, a participant in enough slaughter, to know the kind of death and destruction that the conquering Romans had brought that day. He knew what fed the hungry fires.
Yet the city he returned to this morning—that very city—showed no scars of its conquest. The only ﬁre he could see was the one that was shining brightly in the sky, hanging above the rooftops like a beckoning star of morning or a signal upon a towering summit: the beacon of the Great Lighthouse that burned day and night above Alexandria’s harbor on the other side of the city. There were no riotous ﬁres of tumult and death. The buildings, which were growing more dense along the canal, seemed to be untouched by war and conﬂict. The ﬁve years that had passed had been more than enough for the Romans to rebuild whatever they had destroyed.
Except for the lives, of course.
Those scars took far longer to heal.
Monuments might outlast the memories of the dead, but among the living there were few things so real as the recollection of loss. Despite all his experience, Vorenus didn’t think he really understood that until he’d watched the rising columns of smoke that morning.
The morning Titus Pullo had died.
“Excuse me, sir,” said a voice behind him.
Vorenus turned, saw Petosiris, the barge captain he’d hired to take himself and Khenti along the long canal between Schedia on the Nile to Alexandria. Rarely did Vorenus find himself in the company of men who made him feel tall—he was of average height and build for a Roman, quite unlike his friend Titus Pullo, who’d been a towering giant of a man who ﬁlled door frames—but the stocky captain made him feel just that: Petosiris was at least a full hand shorter than him. The Egyptian was stout, though, compact in a way that gave Vorenus no doubt that a life working on the decks and the docks had left him a good man in a ﬁght. And that made him just the sort of company Vorenus liked to keep—especially when he was returning to Alexandria as a wanted man. “Yes, Captain?”
“We will be in the city soon.” Petosiris didn’t frown. He didn’t smile. His demeanor was businesslike, which was another of the things Vorenus liked about him. Combined with his native Egyptian skin—darkened further from a life spent under the high, hot sun—the captain’s quiet professionalism meant that he could disappear in a crowd, and disappearing was precisely what Vorenus might need. Romans, after all, did not forget. “You weren’t speciﬁc about where the two of you would like to be let off the ship,” the captain said.
“No, I was not,” Vorenus agreed. “You’ll be going to the granary docks?” Aside from himself, the Egyptian swordsman Khenti, and a wiry young lad who worked as the captain’s deckhand, the only thing the ﬂat-topped barge carried on this route was grain: a load of barley making its way from the rich farmlands of the great river to the great city on the sea.
The barge captain nodded. “The lake harbor docks,” he said. “South side of the city.”
Vorenus nodded. Alexandria sat on a long strip of land perched between the Mediterranean Sea and the shallow shores of Lake Mareotis. The city was served by multiple docks, but those upon the lake would be the ﬁrst they would reach. And he knew the area well. He’d lived in Alexandria for fourteen years, a legionnaire of Rome tasked with guarding the lives of the royal family: Cleopatra and Mark Antony and their children: the twins, Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios; the younger Ptolemy Philadelphus; and of course Cleopatra’s oldest son, named Caesarion after his father, Julius Caesar. The last time he’d been at the lake harbor, in fact, he’d been with Caesarion, inspecting the defenses of the southern walls of the city. “That will do quite nicely, then.”
“Very well. Do you still plan to return with us back to Schedia?”
Vorenus had paid for passage to Alexandria, but he’d offered the barge captain half again as much coin if he could get them back to the Nile without incident. “A very comfortable journey,” he’d said. A quiet one without questions, he’d wanted to add. Even the deckhand had known better than to make inquiries about the ship’s extra passengers. “Yes. I think we will. Just the two of us still.”
“As you wish, sir,” Petosiris said. “We will leave the dock at sundown.” Then, not saying whether or not the decision to travel at night was in keeping with custom or in deference to Vorenus’ secrecy, he turned to walk back toward the tiller and the shadows of the barge’s single sail.
As Vorenus watched the man make his way along the thin line of deck boards not covered by mounds of barley, he was reminded once more of his dead friend. Pullo, he was certain, would have liked the ship and the sweet smells of the grains very much. The big man had reveled in such things in life. “Good women, good food, and good drink is all a man needs,” he’d once told Vorenus. They had been arguing, as they often did, about the need to give honor to the gods: back then Vorenus had been a believer in the faith of Rome, the faith of his father; he didn’t know then that there had only ever been one God, and that He was dead. “And good friends,” Pullo had added with a smile. “So save your libations to the earth. Pour me another instead.”
Vorenus smiled and looked up into the morning sky. He’d never met a more loyal friend than Pullo. For years they’d fought side by side wherever Rome had needed them—from Rome to Egypt, from Gaul to Greece—and Pullo had never failed him. Not once. Not even in the end.
The thought brought his gaze down, and Vorenus watched for a time as the water relentlessly rolled under the prow of the ship. He’d been feeling a growing guilt ever since they’d left Schedia, and the closer they’d come to Alexandria the stronger it had become. Vorenus hadn’t been certain what it was before, but he felt sure of what it was now: the shame of survival. His friend had never failed him, but he couldn’t help but feel that he’d failed his friend.
He knew there was nothing more that he could have done. The death of Mark Antony, and the subsequent speed of the Roman army’s advance into the city that morning, had spun matters out of their hands. Looking back, Vorenus knew that it was those terrible events that had made him cease thinking of himself as a legionnaire of Rome. For years he’d been maintaining a stubborn allegiance to that citizenship, even as politics tore the Republic asunder and forced him to take up arms alongside the forces of Egypt and against those who’d been his countrymen—to take up arms against a conqueror then known only as Octavian, not by the self-exalted name of Augustus Caesar, highest of emperors. But the smoke that day carried with it more than the ashes of the ﬁres in the streets; it carried the ashes of his old life. That morning Vorenus was no longer a Roman. He was no longer even the head of the guard for the Egyptian royal family—even if, sailing away from Alexandria, he’d stood watch over Caesarion, the young man who was heir not only to that kingdom through his mother, Cleopatra, but also through his father, Julius Caesar, heir of Rome, too.
Vorenus still cared for Caesarion. He still watched him like an eagle over its young—which made leaving his side for this trip a discomforting if necessary choice—but as important as Caesarion was to him, the young man hadn’t been his priority on that morning or on any of the mornings since.
Instead, it was the Shard.
That far-off morning, as they had spirited it away from Alexandria on that stolen Roman trireme, Vorenus had become a Shard-bearer. He swore to himself—for there was no one in the heavens to hear—that he would protect the Ark of the Covenant, as the Jews called it, at whatever cost. As the ship’s oars had drawn them ever farther from the chaos of the city, Vorenus knew that they carried a weapon beyond their understanding, and he could never allow it to fall into the wrong hands. To protect the Ark, to save the Shard, he and Pullo had been forced to go their separate ways. Vorenus had barely survived a Roman attempt to execute him as a traitor, only just managing to steal the Roman trireme that would carry the Shard to safety. And Pullo had died preventing the Numid i an prince, Juba, from seizing the Ark before it could be saved. Despite the feelings of guilt that ached in his chest, Vorenus knew in the end that it was his friend, that man of mirth and frivolity, who made the choice between his own life and the safety of the Shard.
Not a morning went by that Vorenus didn’t think, as he did now, upon that moment, upon that choice. Not a morning went by that he didn’t hate and love Pullo for making the choice he made. And not a morning went by that Vorenus didn’t hope, when the time came, that he, too, would be strong enough to do whatever had to be done.
Ahead, the southeast corner of Alexandria’s walls was coming into view above the jumble of buildings that had been built outside its protection. The massive, engineered solidity of the fortiﬁcations made the other structures at its base look all the more ramshackle, as if they were broken toys haphazardly strewn against it by the winds of the surrounding sands, lake, and sea.
Vorenus took a long deep breath, inhaling the organic scents surrounding the reeds of papyrus growing upon the shallows beside the banks. The air was still natural here, the sights still gentle and calm. But soon enough it would be the sights and sounds and scents of the bustling city that was once his home.
When he looked back in the direction of the Nile, he saw that Khenti was making his way forward, his pace strangely unaffected by the narrowness of the tracks between the piles of grain or the gentle rocking of the vessel on the water. The swordsman had been the head of the Egyptian royal guards under Vorenus, but his loyalty to Caesarion had led him, too, away from the city that had been his home. With Pullo gone, there was no one Vorenus trusted more to have with him on this journey.
The Egyptian set down the light pack he was carrying, their only supplies for this trip. “Everything is ready,” he said.
Vorenus nodded, smiled, and then turned back toward the city. For a few minutes they stood and stared, lost in their own thoughts.
“This was all farms when I was younger,” Khenti said.
The Egyptian’s voice brought Vorenus back once more from his memories, and he looked around to realize they had crossed some kind of threshold: though the walls still lay ahead, they were undeniably in the city now. The buildings were close about them, and the streets between were ﬁlled with the busy noise of life. The edges of the canal were no longer the domain of papyrus reeds. Instead, tired washing basins and broken drying frames littered the muddy banks, and colorful sheens of oil and filmy bubbles pooled in the shallows. After so long living away from the city, the air seemed thick with the scents of excrement and ﬁlth. “The city grows,” Vorennus agreed. “ There’s always work in the city.”
Khenti nodded, but he crinkled his nose. “Smelled better as farms.”
The canal made a turn, and abruptly the walls of Alexandria were passing to their right. And looming directly ahead of them, where none was supposed to be, was a chain gate across the canal, manned by Roman soldiers.
Vorenus and Khenti exchanged only the briefest of looks before gathering their things and walking, as quickly as they could manage without seeming suspicious, back toward the rear of the barge.
Petosiris was there, one hand on the tiller, the other upon the line holding wind in the sail. The little deckhand was near his feet, where he appeared to be checking a heavy coil of docking rope, unraveling it from one part of the barge floor to another. “I see it,” said the barge captain.
“You said there were no gates on the canal,” Vorenus said.
Khenti had taken a position that nearly triangulated the barge captain between them and one of the larger mounds of barley. But if Petosiris noted the threat he made no notice of it. “I said there were no Roman checks on the canal,” he corrected. “Haven’t been for months.”
“This is a problem,” Vorenus said.
“I am aware,” the barge captain replied. He wasn’t looking at them, just staring up ahead at the gate. The chain across the canal had been pulled tight, rising up out of the water, which fell away from its links in drops that sparkled in the morning light.
Vorenus looked at Khenti, who had pulled back his traveling robes to expose the hilt of his sword. Then he looked to the stinking water, wondering if it was too late to jump and try to make their way through the slums and into the city another way.
“Get down,” Petosiris said.
“What?” Vorenus asked, looking back to the man. “Why are we—”
The barge captain made a sharp pull at the tiller, and the barge rocked sideways and bumped into a small raft along the shoreline. In the same moment, Petosiris released the line holding the wind in the sail and lunged to the deck. “Get down!”
As the barge rocked back and forth, its wake crashing back against itself in sloshing froth and its cloth sail suddenly flapping free, Vorenus and Khenti both complied. The deckhand had stayed busy, and as he pulled the last coil loop from one pile to another, Vorenus saw what he had exposed: a small hatch in the deck. Petosiris, on his hands and knees, pushed his fingers into the cracks along its edges and hefted it free. The reek of stale, damp straw washed out behind it. “Go. Hurry,” the barge captain said. “Our little accident here can only buy so much time.”
Vorenus nodded and started worming his way down into the hidden hold. It was shallow, hardly more than two feet high, but it extended beneath the biggest stacks of barley above. He rolled aside as best he could so that Khenti could join him.
The ﬂoor of the little space was entirely covered with the old straw, which had grown musty in the heat. Vorenus sneezed.
Framed by the little square of sky above them, Petosiris frowned. “It would be in our mutual best interests if you didn’t do that while you’re down there.”
Then the hatch closed over their heads, and heavy coils of rope began to be laid round and round above them. The boat once more began to move, inching its way toward the Romans at the gate and the great city of Alexandria beyond.
Doing his best to remain still in the choking, stifling darkness, Vorenus instinctively thanked the gods that he’d chosen well in hiring Petosiris, and that—in a few hours, if his luck held—the stench of stale straw would be replaced by the scents of the scrolls in the Great Library, and the sight of an old friend.
And he prayed—not really sure who he was praying to—that he wouldn’t sneeze.
Excerpted from The Gates of Hell © Michael Livingston, 2016