ROME, SEPTEMBER 59 BCE

“He’s a liability; he should be killed,” Crassus said.

Marius stood in the shadows, watching.

“The Triumvirate will keep everything in balance, it is a good thing,” the Master replied.

“For you and your scum, maybe,” Crassus snapped, “but Caesar wants it all for himself.”

“As do you.”

Crassus strutted around the steaming bath, clutching the fabric of his toga as if it offered some protection from the hideous form of the Master.

The Master’s house was in a poor area of Rome, and Crassus hated going there, especially in daylight. It was hidden amongst the slums, but it was lavish on the inside, with baths, courtyards and slaves. Elaborate tunnels ran deep underground where the Master and his kind lived, scheming in secret. Marius was convinced that there was more gold in those tunnels than in the entire rest of the world combined.

Dedicated assassins guarded the house, day and night. They kept the secrets safe inside, and dealt out death when ordered. Marius was one of these assassins.

The Master scoffed at Crassus.

“Caesar wants victories, but he won’t find them in Rome. He wants to be the new Alexander. Let him find them elsewhere, and while he is away, your wealth and reputation will grow,” the Master said, his voice rasping in the night air.

“My wealth?” Crassus hissed.

The Master laughed, a cold, chilling sound that resonated through Marius’s bones.

“You are the richest man in the world, Crassus,” the Master said.

Crassus sat down on a stone bench and picked up a cup of wine, sniffing it.

“Come now, Crassus, would I poison you, my greatest ally?”

Crassus gulped some wine, and refilled the cup from a gold jug.

“Greatest ally,” he repeated with disdain.

The Master sat in the shadow of a tree, his face partially covered by a hood attached to his dark robe.

“You owe your wealth to our slave trade, our silver mines, our pillaging, and our persuasive friends,” the Master continued, “We are partners, you and I, to the end. If Pompey or Caesar were to find out how you’ve gained your wealth, what would they say?”

“I will give you a hundred thousand sesterces if you kill that man,” Crassus said.

“That is a handsome sum, but I still see no point in this kind of business,” the Master answered.

Crassus drained another cup of wine.

“We could blackmail you for the money, and still use Caesar.”

The Master was pushing Crassus, and Marius held his breath, keeping his hand positioned on his sword. He was ready to protect this hideous creature, the one who had found him and trained him, lifted him up from a life in the gutters of Vindobona.

“One hundred and fifty, and I will forget that you mentioned blackmailing me,” Crassus said.

The Master laughed again.

“Very well, Crassus, but I want the gold in advance.”

“You can have half in advance,” Crassus replied.

“One hundred and fifty thousand in advance and Caesar will die tonight.”

Crassus nodded reluctantly, and put down the cup.

“I will send a note to you. You protect more than that sum already; no need to move gold around,” he said.

He left without another word.

The Master clicked his fingers, and Marius joined him at his side.

“Can you get into Julius Caesar’s house?”

“He is guarded by a cohort of the Tenth Legion, but I will find a way.”

“Wait until I have the note from Crassus, then I will give you your instructions.”

Marius nodded, leaving the Master to brood.

*

Dusk fell as he walked through the streets towards the Forum. Caesar’s house was in a neighboring district, a formidable and well-guarded fortress.

His Tenth Legion had been ferociously loyal after Caesar saved their honor in his campaign against the slave uprising some years earlier. He had pried them from the humiliating clutches of Crassus, giving each a sense of purpose. They would die for Caesar to the last man, and they guarded his home.

The streets were growing wider, each home grander, as he approached the center of the city. There were crowds of people, beggars, peddlers and politicians all mingling to create an endless throng. From where Marius stood, the smell of cooked meats rose above the stink of the sewers, masking their stench before fading again. The city was perpetually cloaked in the smells of food, flowers, incense and filth, in no particular order.

Marius turned down an alley and scaled the wall that stood before him, dropping over into a garden and immediately slicing his sword through the flesh and bone of a slave girl’s neck.

She fell to his feet, dead. He wiped blood from his face. He removed the water jug from her hands and dropped a clay tablet to the ground, climbing onto a low roof and then higher, up to the main roof of the house.

It was a senator’s house, but Marius couldn’t recall which one; it wasn’t important. He threw the wine jug down into the courtyard below, letting out a sharp cry.

“Murder!”

The jug smashed, and a couple of slaves ran into the courtyard. They saw the girl’s body, twisted on the stones in a pool of blood, and started screaming. Marius had already traversed several rooftops before anyone thought to look up in search of an assailant.

Slaves were dispatched from the house to get help. A wave of commotion ran through the streets, and a crowd started moving, a single body, in the direction of the senator’s house.

The death of a slave meant little to a Roman citizen, but a brutal death inside a senator’s house could keep speculative gossip going for weeks.

Marius moved further away, crossing the rooftops of rich and famous Romans, his journey unnoticed by the excited mob below.

It was fully dark by the time he reached the street that ran parallel to Caesar’s property. Torches burned all around, and still, people continued to gravitate to the senator’s house.

Several clusters of men loitered on street corners around Caesar’s house. They were dressed plainly, but it was common knowledge that they were his soldiers.

There was no doubt that half of Rome would already know of the murder. He needed another diversion.

And to Marius’s relief, it came just in time.

A horde approached Caesar’s house, a procession of angry citizens, chanting and carrying torches. The clay tablet Marius had dropped next to the slave’s body bore the symbol of a bull, and the inscription SPQR, the mark of the Tenth Legion. The mob reacted according to his plan, having taken the bait.

The men outside moved to confront the approaching rabble.

Marius leapt over the narrow street onto Caesar’s roof and ran silently across it like a shadow, towards the inner courtyard.

Armed soldiers were rushing to the gates to protect the property from the angry mob. Shouts and commands rang out as they readied to protect their General.

Marius dropped onto a low roof and entered the building through a window. He was dressed as one of Caesar’s slaves, easily joining the pandemonium that had broken out inside as the raging mob approached.

He ran down a flight of stairs with a horde of slaves and soldiers, but parted them, turning into the courtyard and crouching in the shadows.

Caesar was standing in a doorway, talking to a Centurion. He waved his hand in apathy and retreated back inside. He knew was not at risk. He was a Consul; the mob could protest, but to enter his home would mean death.

Marius waited as the Centurion shouted more orders before moving away, then hurried across the torch-lit courtyard, low and fast.

Two soldiers guarded the doorway, but they failed to see him in the dim light until it was too late. He produced his sword from the wide sleeves of his costume and slashed their throats before they could react. They simultaneously slumped to the floor, lifeless.

He ran into an elaborately decorated room where four more soldiers stood guard, alert and ready to protect their leader. Caesar turned to face him. He was a short, unremarkable man with thinning hair, dressed in a simple toga. He stood with three other officers.

He eyed Marius’s bloody sword and smiled.

The soldiers charged at Marius, spears held out. Marius ducked under the first, sliding across the marble floor on his knees. He sliced deep into the man’s thigh, and across the groin of the second. He was instantly on his feet, his sword swinging in an arc to open the throat of the third. He moved out of the way of as a spear sailed by him, burying his sword into the soldier’s mouth and pulling it out with a gurgling splutter of blood.

The officers drew their swords and attacked. One lost an arm in his first thrust. Marius parried a second.

“Enough!” Caesar commanded.

The officers backed off at the bark of his voice.

Marius stared at the Consul who everyone feared, the General who had won the hearts of Romans with his ferocity, loyalty and precision on the battlefield.

Caesar looked at him with cold eyes; he did not seem in the slightest bit worried.

“What do you want?” Caesar asked.

“Crassus paid my Master to kill you,” Marius panted, “But instead, my Master is offering you the hundred thousand sesterces to help finance your conquest of Gaul. You are to thank Crassus for the loan.”

Caesar listened to his words, and cracked a vicious smile.

“I have heard about you silent killers, haunting the alleys of Rome. I should have you crucified right now for the deaths of my men,” Caesar remarked casually.

“But who would put in the nails, Consul?”

Caesar laughed.

“What does your Master want in return?”

“He wants to control the trade between Rome and the Western Empire. The trade you will create.”

Caesar considered this for a moment, then approached a large marble table. His officers stood transfixed, their swords drawn, winded from shock as much as exertion. The man who had lost part of his arm bled out on the floor in silence. Nobody took any notice as he slumped over dead.

“I will require an additional hundred thousand sesterces,” Caesar demanded.

Caesar was acting exactly as the Master had predicted. He was almost bankrupt again and desperately needed the money. Marius had been given permission to agree to a much higher sum.

“My Master will deliver two hundred thousand in gold tomorrow night. One hundred thousand will be a direct loan to you, Consul, in good faith.”

Caesar wrote something down on a wax tablet, and marked it with his ring.

“Thank your Master. I will take great pleasure in announcing Crassus’s generosity to the Senate.”

He looked Marius directly in the eye as he threw him the tablet. Marius caught it with his free hand.

“The men you killed were soldiers of the Tenth Legion of Rome. Remember them, as I will remember you.”

“I honor them, Consul,” Marius said, his own words surprising him, “In another life perhaps I would have served you.”

As he fled away across the rooftops, the sound of the baying crowd faded into the distance. He paused momentarily to rest, glancing out over the city. It sprawled vastly in every direction under the light of a full moon; this was the center of the world.

 He would have died for Caesar.

The thought took him aback. Caesar was a reckless man in search of fame and glory, but he was also a visionary and a leader worth following.

Marius felt strangely sickened by what he had become.

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