The rumour spread across the Ivory Empire like a spider web, following the intricate yet geometrical road network. It ran through villages and towns, and wherever it was heard, it caused an uproar of opinions. And the rumour was:
Peace with the She-devils.
And that was absurd, the war had gone on as long as any scholar could recall, it was a background noise, like the singing of the birds and the whispers of the wind. And now that it was gone, it was unbelievable, but true. The messengers did not lie, merely dispatched their news as quick as humanly possible, even sending a ship towards the Isle of Eternal Fields within an hour.
The Isle was the northernmost outpost of the Ivory Empire, renowned for their riches (stemming from the fact that it was ideal for growing a rare type of nuts) and their culture, for far away from the decadent capitol, it was a refined seat of learning. It housed many schools and libraries, not to forget amphitheatres and arenas.
And it also held the house of Tulius Romulus Maximus, councilman and respected noble.
The house, almost identical to other well-to-do houses in the empire, had completely smooth walls, chalked white, without windows and only one front door. The roof was made from red tiles.
Upon immediately entering this door, one would find oneself in the atrium, an open space flanked by four smaller rooms used as kitchen, storage and other household necessities.
Passing through this chamber, a visitor would enter into the peristylium. This is a small courtyard in the centre of the house, open to the air and surrounded completely by a veranda held up by collumnes.
The open space was a garden of the myths, filled with flowers that leant their fair odours to the environment, soft grass and smooth paving. And in the middle of it all a round fountain, gaining its water from the aqueducts. Slaves were setting a table for breakfast; it was a nice day, and the family would want to eat it's morning meal outside. Members of the said family were already emerging from their rooms, for the rooms who had their doorway opening to the veranda were bedrooms, dinning room.... and the study of Tulius Romulus Maximus.
He sat there now, reading the message he had just received in the morning light coming from the skylight above. From outside he could hear the sounds of the town waking up, and the clinks as the slaves worked outside. The scroll in his hand contained only a brief letter, but it was news he thought he would never have. Looking through the open doorway he saw his wife, his daughters and his sons gather in the garden, talking excitedly about something; doubtlessly the kitchen version of the news he had just read. He would always admire the open and joyful atmosphere that would linger over his family, the interaction of the sunlight and the live fountain.
Sighing, he rose from his chair and gathered his toga about himself. As he exited, a hush went over the garden, and when they saw him, the family gathered around the table. The three daughters and his wife on the left side, sitting demurely as women should, his two sons Aeneas and Tulius on the right. He himself sat at the head of the table, as the master should.
He reached for a grape.
Tulius junior coughed, very pointedly. His mother threw him a disapproving look for such breach of protocol, and the father could not help but smile.
«Seeing as you all saw the messenger come in and have doubtlessly heard the news from the slaves already, yes, I have received a message.»
«It is good of you to share such news with us, dear husband» his wife Ephira said.
«Yes, father. Would you elaborate on these news? Is it true that we have spoken of peace with the she-devils?» Tulius junior, as the eldest male member of the family, asked the question.
The father cleared his throat.
«The news brought to me was that his Holiness, Emperor Gladius the Third, has bound and sealed a peace treaty with the Matriarchy of the Sirens.»
«How can this be?» Exclaimed Tulius. «It thought our founder, honour his memory, specifically said that there would be no peace until the Legionaries entered the Siren temples and defiled their priestesses!»
«Watch your tongue, first-born» his father said sharply. «I will have no such themes debated in front of the women.»
Rebuked, Tulius bowed his head, but could not help himself from adding:
«Compassion is a weakness, father. Or so you have taught us.»
«Ruthlessness is the best characteristic a man can have, this is true,» said the elder, holding out his cup for a slave to pour wine in, «but to respect and care for one's family is his greatest virtue. If I have taught you nothing else, first-born son of mine, remember those two.»
«Father, you have taught the both of us a great many things» Tulius said. «Please, forgive my rash comment.»
«Forgiven, first-born son, forgiven. And in answer to your question, I have no idea what is behind this sudden peace. Even if the Senate did approve such a move, it's doubtful the leaders in the matriarchy would agree on them. But its too early to speculate yet. My presence will be required in Ivory, and when I return I will brief you fully, beloved family.»
This courtesy was received with great enthusiasm. Even the sisters showed sign of interest, but Aeneas was silent.
He listened to his brother Tulius speaking of how this would affect his future career (he sought to become an officer, or at least a centurion, to create the background to his political life), and he heard his mother talking of the classics, but he didn't listen too well.
It had occurred to him, perhaps a bit later than the others, that the world was changing. They seemed to take it in their stride, with shock and interest, but he felt... strange. A strange yearning had been born inside him, a yearning to be there, be part of the history. And yet at the same time... a notion he had felt before, but always pushed away. Sitting in this garden, hearing the affairs of the Empire, he felt his stomach turn, ever so slightly.
He pushed the feeling from his mind and gut, and returned to the conversation. He chatted up as best he could, trying to comment in all the right places. He voiced a faint interest to join the school of officers along with his brother, but not much. He focused on the political life, expressed a desire to go to Ivory, the capitol city, where the Senate gathered. Strangely, his parents were silent at this, unlike when his brother spoke of these matters.
Eventually, they broke up. The breakfast was a minor meal, according to Imperial believes, and consisted only of bread, fruit and wine. The family split up, each to their chores. A slave helped the master of the house prepare for his session in the Forum, while the sons picked up their writing slabs for school.
Exiting by the front door, the two emerged immidiatly into the crowded streets.
There were no carts, since only pedestrians were allowed, and so the street teemed with life. Salesmen did their very best to outshout each other, offering foodstuffs, jewellery and clothes. Chartlants and jesters played at every corner, and old men with togas and beards walked serenely through it all, talking of greatly important matters. A pair of legionaries marched by, clad in plate mail and red cloaks. Wide leather thongs were arranged in a type of apron around their middle (a sporran), and their shields were carried on their shoulders. Small children, dressed in simple tunics, ran around laughing. The smell of a dozen spices tore at the nose, and as they walked, Aeneas felt himself becoming dizzy, dizzy with all the impressions that he had grown up with, everyday of their lives.
Do you care? Does it matter to you that the Empire is at peace? He wondered as he saw an old man hawking his wares at the corner. Or you, old woman? Or that jester (who is going to be arrested soon if he goes any further with that joke)?
The great, roaring crowd was alive, rushing between the houses. It was like a beehive: The houses the orderly frame, the bees milling around in comfortable chaos within these measurements.
Because that was life in the empire: chaos living inside the boundaries of chaos. And that was right, proper, and just the way it should be. He fought off the wish to vomit and carried on.
His brother, bless his soul, didn't notice anything, and so they walked unhindered to the school. Yet for each new character they encountered, he would ask the same questions: Did they care? What was it to them?
Before he knew it, he was standing outside the school, a large stone building with the symbol of the Scribal God embossed over the huge double doors. A voice rang from the darkness.
The days went by without much further notice. Their father left the day after the news had arrived, postponed as he was by debates in the Forum. It was not easy, trying to maintain a position both in the capitol and in the small, semi-independent colony, but you could not have one without the other if you lived out here. The rumours grew multiple: The Fourth Legion had marched into the Siren's capitol, an army of dryads and satyrs had gathered and vanquished the enemy by order of the gods, the gods themselves had stepped down and forced this treaty forward...
Of course, no new news had come since the original message, and for once the people of the Eternal Fields cursed their isolation. This was unusual, since they usually boasted as high as was polite that they were separated from the decadence of the central town, invoking the pious arguments. But now they might have settled with being a bit less godly and a bit more decadent for just a scrape of fresh news. Some had taken to setting up camp outside the houses of the departed councillors in the believes that they had shared secret information with their families. Such crowds were soon dispersed, more or less violently in responds to how powerful their patrons were.
Aeneas watch such a crowd with his brother. The house guards were doing well, clearing them off.
«Do you think any of the families actually do know anything?»
Tulius shook his head.
«I doubt any of them are more open to their families than Father, and you know how little he would say. Even if they do know more, which I doubt, they won't spread it.»
They returned to the peristylium, lounging by the fountain. There was a gladiator match later in the evening, and maybe a play if they felt like it, but in the sweltering heat of the day, they had no desire to move from this pleasant spot, where cold water was so readily available.
«Do you really believe the peace, Brother?»
«Of course not, little Brother» Tulius said, stretching. He had discarded his toga, since they were in the house, and walked around in the off-white tunic they wore underneath. Togas were impressive, but heavy things, and as such were not worn at all occasions. Aeneas gave him a quizzical look, and Tulius explained further.
«This is either a ploy or done in desperation. There might be peace now, perhaps we're even going to exchange ambassadors or something, but in no more then ten years the legions will be marching again. Mark my words, little Brother.»
«That speaks well for your career as an officer, doesn't it?»
«Yes, I rather think so.»
«Who knows? Maybe I will be joining you?»
For just a moment, passing so fast that Aeneas could not be sure he had not imagined it, a new look passed over his brother's face.
But when he next spoke, he was as cheerful as before.
«Maybe, little Brother, maybe. But don't be too sure. Always remember to look for an opportunity.»
But no such opportunity came, even after a few more days.
Eventually, even such a monumental rumour lost all momentum through lack of new information. The city fell back to it's usual, ordered chaos. People still debated what had happened, but along with other things they had been debating for years. Like whether or not a racehorse should be fed on grain and lizard glands or grain and spices, if the gods wanted to be worshipped this way or that, or if the savage tribes that inhabited the continent to the north counted as animals or something below them.
And so, no opportunity presented itself before a week had passed, when the voice that had called them late that memorable morning said the following:
«And now the honourable Aeneas Romulus Maximus will explain to us the latest development with the Sirens.»
And he knew he had gotten an opportunity to get well and truly embarrassed.