The Sword of Jupiter
Copyright© 2021 by Lumpy
Ky helped the Emperor out of the chair with the older man gripping Ky’s forearm even after he was standing. Subtly signaling by pulling or pushing on his arm, he directed Ky out of the building the meeting had been held in and around the periphery of the large open square at the heart of the city.
Already Ky could feel a difference in the Emperor’s condition. The man was no longer putting his entire weight on Ky in order to walk and he was notably more steady on his feet. The nanobots had a few hours left in them before they deactivated, and his body was already healing rapidly. By tonight, he would feel as well as he had before the poisoning and by the next morning, he’d feel close to how he’d felt as a young man.
“I am curious, what are your plans now?”
“You said you weren’t able to stay here and help us in the coming battle, that you hadn’t been sent to help us. That would mean you were here for another reason. I was curious what that was.”
Ky hesitated for a minute before replying, looking at the people around him going about their lives in the open plaza. He wasn’t sure what he should say. While he was certain there was no way that someone from this time could really understand the full story of how Ky ended up here, there was also not a good reason to hide anything.
“It’s ... I didn’t come here on purpose. I was testing out a new invention for my people when something went wrong and I ended up here instead. I am nearly certain I won’t be able to return to my ... to where I came from so now my main goal now is to learn enough about this place to figure out what I need to do now.”
“So you plan to learn from us for a time and what? Journey into the wilderness where no people live and create a small farm? Find a cave to hide out in?”
“No, or ... I’m not sure. I just don’t know enough about this place to know what my best course of action is.”
“From what you’ve said to me and to my daughter, you seemed pretty certain you didn’t want to become involved with ‘local’ affairs, and yet anywhere you go, any city or community you live in, will make you part of the ‘local’ affairs. It’s the nature of being alive. That is only answer that would make sense based on your stated desire. The only way to live apart and unconnected is to live in a cave or in the deepest unknowns away from all other living souls.”
“That’s ... honestly, I haven’t really thought this through. Living in a cave or in some forest all by myself doesn’t sound like what I want either but I’m not sure getting involved in someone else’s war is the right thing to do. We’ve just met and while I’ve been impressed by your daughter and all the Romans I’ve met, I only have your side of what is happening. Not that I disbelieve you of course but it doesn’t seem right that I come here and immediately pick sides in someone else’s conflict.”
“That is an excellent point. Of course, anything I say on the subject would be biased towards my people. All I can say to that is you have to look at the sum total of your experiences with my people and the sum total of the experiences with theirs. There’s a reason you decided to aid my daughter over her attackers. It’s up to you if your judgment then and now is flawed.”
“I have been considering that. The issue remains the same as with the question of where I go from here. I don’t know enough about this place to make an informed decision. I’ve been mostly looking at short-term goals like landing safely, getting your daughter back here alive, and helping you. I did have an alternative motive for coming back here. My hope had been that, if I helped you, I’d be allowed to look through any records or archives you have.”
“I will, of course, be happy to grant you access to our libraries and make any of my scholars available to you as you need. Of course with the army that I am certain is heading this way I can only promise aid so long as I still have cities to command.”
Ky didn’t respond since there wasn’t much he could say. The Emperor wasn’t wrong, and it had been something that had already occurred to Ky, but he hadn’t yet figured out what he was going to do about it.
“What do you think of my people so far?” the Emperor asked.
“They seem like all people everywhere. Some are good people and others ... less so.”
“That’s true enough, I guess. I can promise you though for every man like Globulus there are many, if not more, like Ursinus who live their lives and try to do the best they can.”
“Not to be rude, but what is your point?” Ky said, trying to make the statement not come off as harsh as it might otherwise sound.
“Yes. My point is you have to end up somewhere unless you’ve changed your mind on the cave thing. Again, I cannot deny my bias, but I would say here is as good as any other place you might find.”
“As you said though, you are biased. I’m not sure picking the first place I end up is the best option.”
“Do you believe in destiny?”
Ky paused again. He was starting to find it disconcerting how the man kept changing topics unexpectedly in the middle of a conversation on one thought to another. Of course, Ky knew the Emperor was making a point by tying multiple thoughts together, to convince Ky to do what the Emperor needed him to do. Ky was, however, a soldier. He wasn’t a politician or a diplomat and wasn’t used to verbal maneuvering.
“I don’t know,” Ky said eventually, since it wasn’t something he’d ever considered.
“You don’t know if it exists or you don’t know if you believe in it?”
“My people are very practical. We don’t spend a lot of time on fate or destiny or control by a higher power.”
“So, you just happened to end up here then?”
“Yes. A lot of things went into my coming across your daughter. Any one of them could have caused me to end up somewhere else. I could have just as easily arrived among the Carthaginians or out in the middle of nowhere by myself, or some other option.”
“Yet you didn’t. You ended up with my daughter, just in time to save her, and then agreed to travel with her here, where you were able to assist her a second time and pull me from the gateway to the underworld.”
“That’s just coincidence though. I made choices at each step, any of which could have been made differently.”
“Maybe or maybe you’re right where you should be. I know my daughter told you of the stories surrounding the Sword of Jupiter and I know you don’t believe in them, or at least you don’t believe they relate to you. That doesn’t mean they aren’t true and you aren’t the answer to our problems.”
“I’m just one man. I know a lot of the things you’ve seen me do, or heard of me doing, have been spectacular. I promise you, I can’t just keep doing them all on a whim. I’m not sure how I can help your people.”
“You can bring them hope. Despite what my son and some of my legates think, my people are on the verge of being wiped from history. The Carthaginians have too much power and we’ve been pushed as far as I think we can go. If not now, then in the next few years I am afraid my people will be no more. I’ve always believed that with just a little luck we could reverse the tide of what has happened and push the Carthaginians off Britannia. We just needed something to change the path we’re on.”
“From what I’ve seen and heard you would need more than a little luck. The forces stacked against you are enormous and your people are small in number. I’m not sure one man, even someone with the knowledge and tools I have at my disposal, could turn that around.”
“Look around you,” the Emperor said, sweeping his arm across the square.
Ky looked around and noticed a lot of faces were looking back at the pair of them as they made their way slowly around the perimeter.
“They are watching their leader. I would think that’s pretty common.”
“Yes and no. I know my people. I make this walk often when I need to clear my mind. They are used to me being here. Other than the occasional glance, they normally go about their business. Many have not looked away since we started walking. They stopped and continue to stare and they’re not staring at me.”
“I realize my clothes and height make me stand out.”
“They do, although that only feeds into it. I guarantee by now the word of your arrival has started to spread, along with the story of how you helped my daughter. Many of those who haven’t heard her conclusion have certainly reached the same idea on their own.”
“But it’s not true.”
“Truth is a unique thing. At first glance, it seems all things exist as either true or not. The sun will arrive in the morning and travel across the sky until its journey is finished. The tides will come in at night and retreat again in the morning. Fire will burn and snow will freeze. At a second glance of these things, it becomes clear that these things aren’t always true or false. We know at times the sun goes dark in mid-day, the tides do not always come and leave at the same times or at the same height. Fire can be applied to wood or thatch and if it is wet enough it doesn’t light and the coldest snow will cause your skin to feel as if on fire. Truth changes.
“There are explanations for why all those things happen though.”
“If I was to ask that merchant if he knew the explanations, and he said no, would things be different or remain the same. Truth is what it needs to be. You might not be the one sent by the gods but if you stay and help us wouldn’t the story be fulfilled all the same.”
“It would be a lie though,” Ky said again, not allowing the old man’s rhetoric to take the point from him.
“If the Sword of Jupiter is meant to save us, you are hailed as the Sword sent to save us and then help us be victorious, wouldn’t you have fulfilled the prophecy, making it in fact true.”
“I realize I’m playing with words but you see my point. Just because things aren’t true now doesn’t mean they will always be false. The first step to making it true is by giving my people hope, something they can rally around. Even if you leave and the circle never completes isn’t there value in giving people hope?”
“Look up there,” the Emperor said.
Ky looked where the Emperor was pointing. They had made the way around the square and were back to the palace, or whatever, where they had originally started. On one of the upper floors of the palace was a balcony where Ky was surprised to see Lucilla leaning against the railing. She’d been watching their progress and made eye contact with Ky when he looked up at her, smiling and offering a small wave to him.
“She has faith in you. It doesn’t matter if you believe you were sent by the gods or not. It doesn’t even matter if I believe you were sent by the gods. What matters is that people like my daughter, people like Ursinus, or any of my people who by now have heard of your arrival believe. Hope is a powerful thing, my friend. If this army is as large as you say it is, we will need hope if we are going to win.”
“I can appreciate that but like I said I’m not here to pick sides.”
“You already have.”
“Others saw you when you defended my daughter and her guards. Word would have spread back by now and I can tell you one thing’s for sure, the Carthaginians do not forgive easily. To them, you’ve already declared the side you’re on. Unless we go back to discussing the finer points of caves, that leaves you with the painted barbarians in the north or finding a way across the sea into the territory controlled by the various Germanic tribes. You declared yourself an enemy of the Carthaginians the moment you killed one of them. The only way to keep from picking sides is to go where there are no Carthaginians.”
“Hmm,” Ky said noncommittally.
He hadn’t considered that but it made sense. Too many Carthaginians who survived the encounter would have spread word of his arrival, especially considering how notable it had been: falling out of the sky apparently surrounded by flame. Even though everything he did since landing in this time had been his own decision, he couldn’t help but feel a little cornered by the Emperor now, as the man cataloged the ramifications of his decisions.
“Of course, there’s the other reason you should help us.”
“You are a good person. That’s been obvious from the moment I met you and heard about what you’ve done. Look at my daughter. Look at the people around you. How would you feel if you left and heard about the Carthaginians overrunning my troops and conquering the last of us? The men and infants slaughtered, the women raped and sold into slavery with the children.”
And that, of course, was the thing that had been bothering Ky all along. He’d hidden behind his lack of knowledge of the time, behind his not being what these people apparently thought he was. The Emperor had seen right through him to his biggest fear!
Ky still didn’t like the way the Emperor was maneuvering him into agreeing, and he still didn’t think he had anything tangible to offer these people, at least not in the short run with the battle just days away.
“I’ll consider what you said. You really should go rest so you can finish healing,” Ky said.
The Emperor didn’t say anything right away. Instead, he had Ky lead him towards his rooms and help him into his bed, waving off the servants that moved to intercept them. Ky turned to leave, with the Emperor’s eyes drooping. His system was taxed from the walk, still needing most of its energy to repair the damage done by the poison.
“Ky,” the Emperor called out as he started to leave, stopping him in his tracks. “Don’t think too long. My people won’t survive it.”
“ ... upon pain of death,” the courier was saying, ignoring the glower coming from Zaracas or the occasional glance at the two dark, cloaked men standing a few paces behind the courier.
Although Zaracas had never enjoyed being micromanaged by far away superiors, outside of the theater of action these weren’t unusual orders. The Great One, and those he deemed fit to control the various provinces that made up the Carthaginian Empire, had little patience with failure. The attrition rate for unsuccessful generals had always been high.
The threat, however, was usually less explicit. The additional unspoken message, in the form of the two Acolytes of Hexitas in their death masks and black robes, was even more unusual. What made Zaracas curious was why it was necessary. There wasn’t anything he was aware of that would make this a particularly pressing campaign, at least not that required this level or reminder of the penalties for failure.