The Depths of Neptune - Cover

The Depths of Neptune

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 18


“Did any of you actually see this happen, or is it just gossip?” Decius asked, causing the other men to look back and forth at each other.

“No. We agreed that it was best if we only had one man in the crowd, just in case Ramirus was watching the crowd or they detained everyone for questioning afterward, but the story we’re hearing has been very consistent. He flew clear across the courtyard. It’s unclear if he had wings or was simply gliding like a leaf on the wind, but everyone was clear that he crossed the entire plaza from a window behind the platform set up for the Emperor’s daughter to give her speech.”

“One of my son’s neighbors was there, and said he fired a bolt from an arcuballista, shooting our man’s arrow out of the air. She said it landed right in front of her, almost hitting a man. One arrow had impaled the other.”

“Wings. Shooting arrows out of the sky,” Decius said, sounding dismissive. “All we’re doing is building his myth, which will make it harder to turn the people around when the time comes. You all know how bad people’s detailed memory of events is. Most of these stories didn’t start until days after it happened. If he really did sprout wings, we would have heard it that day. It’s all fairytales. It also isn’t what’s important. What we need to find out is what happened to our man. None of your gossip says anything about that.”

“Everyone started running when he fired and the Consul made his ... display. The plaza was also well-guarded, and they cleared the area quickly. The only witness I’ve been able to find said that he saw the Consul standing over our man, but not what happened after that.”

“I heard his body was rushed out by the Praetorians after he was killed by the Consul.”

“Why would they rush a body out?” Decius asked. “If he was alive and they wanted to get him to physicians to keep him alive to be questioned, or they just wanted to make sure we didn’t kill him before they questioned him, that I’d understand. But rushing out a body? No. If that happened, then he’s still alive, which means we’re going to need to change everything. He could expose us.”

“We don’t know if he was alive, though. And it’s been days since he was taken. If he was alive, why have they not come for us? Ramirus’s torturers are good enough to get the locations he knew about out of him by now. No, if he was taken alive, they would already have us.”

“That’s a good point. We’re still going to make some changes, just in case. First, we ... did you hear that?” Decius said, cocking his head to the side as he tried to figure out what the half-heard sound was.

He started to stand up when the door to the villa they were using for tonight’s meeting was smashed open, flying back on broken hinges and slamming against the opposite wall. Following through the broken door were almost a dozen Praetorians, moving fast in spite of their heavy segmented armor. Decius turned to run the other way, out the back door of the villa, when more armored men came through that entryway. His colleagues tried to push their way past the Praetorians and were promptly thrown to the floor, swords at their throats and rope going around their hands and legs.

“You can’t...” Decius started to say, protesting their treatment, when he saw movement from his periphery.

He’d only just turned his head when he recognized the handle of the gladius just before it smashed into the side of his head.

Insula Manavia

Holding a cloth over his mouth, Velius watched the large ships sail into the docks. He was looking forward to leaving this place. At the meeting the Consul had called, he’d been told that he would be leaving the death and destruction his army had wreaked on the Carthaginians soon. Valdar’s ships had done a good job of sparing the docks, which would make getting prisoners and legionnaires off the island and bringing in teams to begin repairing the damage go much faster, but they had not done the same for the rest of the city, where the Carthaginians had holed up behind their walls. Velius had offered terms for surrender, but their commander had scoffed at it, forcing Velius’s hand.

He wasn’t surprised. Word had started to filter in from the continent through Ramirus’s spies, that the Carthaginians had begun executing anyone who surrendered, from the commanding generals all the way to the lowest soldiers, and their families. It was brutal, but it insured most of them fought to the last man. In the long run, Velius was sure that policy would hurt them more than ensure victory in battle. As the Britannians expanded their reach, and the blanket of protection they could offer, the oppressive policies of the Carthaginians would make it much easier for newly taken villages to switch their allegiance, joining the Britannians instead of fighting against them.

Of course, that didn’t do anything to help the poor bastards who’d huddled behind the walls of the small town set up by the Carthaginians as a supply depot. Valdar’s ships had nearly leveled most of the city, showing the real power of the cannon. The explosive shells were the worst. The damage they did to bodies was horrifying. But until he saw them in action, Velius had not realized how dangerous they could be to cities built mostly out of wood.

Most of the city had burned to the ground, the men defending it and everyone who’d been unable to get out burning with it. The few that survived the horrific shelling and fires made it to the docks, where they huddled until the fires died down enough for the Britannian legions to close their encirclement, which had taken the better part of two days. The survivors left huddling on the docks were so weakened by hunger and exhaustion that they barely put up any fight.

He’d already seen them in action a little bit, but this was the first time Velius had seen the Consul’s new gunpowder weapons in their full glory and knew a radical shift was about to take place in the way wars were fought. With enough cannons, shield walls and phalanxes were going to be a thing of the past. His legions as they were now could stand up to thousands of spearmen slamming into them, pushing back with their large shields. But he knew that they too would crumble under cannon fire.

It was unlikely the Carthaginians would be able to duplicate their weapons for some time, at least not without getting their hands on either the Consul’s plans or someone like Hortensius, who knew how the weapons were created. What was likely was that the Carthaginian armies would change the way they fought to adapt to the Britannians’ new weapons. Velius’s mind already worked through what some of those changes might be, but he knew he would end up surprised anyway. Either way, war was going to change.

“Those are a welcome sight,” Bomilcar said, coming to stand next to him, indicating the ships slowly pulling into the docks.

“Yes. I know the men are looking forward to getting off this cursed island.”

“It’s not cursed. At least not for us.”

“Maybe not, but this entire end smells like death and burning meat. I’m not sure how much longer I can stomach it.”

“It is jarring. The Consul wasn’t kidding about the effects of his explosive shells.”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” Velius said.

The two men fell silent, watching officers corralling men, getting them prepared to begin boarding the ships to be shuttled back to Britannia.

After several minutes of silence, Velius finally said, “I owe you an apology.”

“It’s fine,” Bomilcar said, not looking at him.

“No, it’s not,” Velius said, turning to address the general directly. “I’ve been hostile to you since the day the Consul decided to grant you an amnesty and bring you into the councils of war. I believe my reasons were good, but I should have listened to the Consul when he told me to get my head on straight and watched the work you were doing getting us prepared without the skewed lens I was using to see through. You were right about the response we’d face here. If you hadn’t persisted and forced me to put in at least some of your precautions, we would not have been able to respond to that flank attack in time. Hell, even partially prepared, we were very close to being caught unawares if it wasn’t for your keen eye giving us time to adjust the plan. You saved a lot of men’s lives.”

“Thank you,” Bomilcar said, not changing his stoic attitude.

“Damn it, man. I’m trying to apologize here. You were right and I should have listened to you.”

“And I accept your apology.”

“Were you always this difficult?” Velius asked, turning back to the ships, a bit annoyed that he’d come halfway and the general refused to meet him there.

“If you asked the people serving under me, yes; but that was about discipline, and maintaining the chain of command. This is different. You aren’t the only one who looks at me like I am something unpleasant they stepped in, and I understand. I did lead men intent on destroying you. I’m sure that, if our positions were reversed, I’d harbor the same kind of resentment against you. You should, perhaps, consider for a moment what it’s like for someone like me, leaving everything and everyone I’ve known to serve people who might always hate me. I’m not unique in this situation. You have hundreds of soldiers who’ve agreed to become Britannian citizens, just as I have, fighting for you instead of against you. I’m certain they’ve faced some of the same prejudices I have, although maybe not to the same degree. I say that because, while I am fine with the place I have in this, you should consider the message you send them when you rail against me and my allegiances in front of the men. You are, perhaps, creating something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as these men learn the forgiveness they were promised never comes to fruition.”

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