After everyone had gone to do his bidding, Caesar removed his glasses, folding them carefully, and slotted them into the inside pocket of his jacket; he took a moment to massage his eyelids with a thumb and forefinger. Thargelia patted the space beside her, inviting him to sit. With nothing to do but wait, he acquiesced and for several moments, they sat together in silence. Caesar didn't quite sit comfortably, she noticed. She had unsettled him: first by her insight, which had so often laid her open to men's suspicion in the past, and then by her kindness. He was a man who had forgotten what it felt like to be understood – if he had ever known at all. The Roman felt her eyes on him and turned to meet them.
'Say what you need to, Thargelia.'
His tone warned her to proceed carefully. There were any number of things she would like to have said, but she settled for the simplest. 'I thought you'd send me back with the others.'
He snorted. 'I did something you didn't expect? That must be a shock for you.'
'You're more complicated than you give yourself credit for, darling,' she retorted, a smile playing across her lips. 'This place is at once too much and not enough for you, isn't it? That must be frustrating.'
His wasn't looking at her anymore. 'You must think I'm mad. You heard what we were talking about, I expect.' There was no uncertainty in his statement and she decided honesty would serve her best.
'I have a dreadful habit of lurking surreptitiously in doorways.' The right answer: a gentle smile appeared fleetingly on Caesar's face, bringing out the creases at the corner of his eyes, which she found unexpectedly appealing. How old was he? Thirty-five? Forty? He never seemed to be still: his foot was tapping against the floor at that moment. A man happiest on the move, bending the world to his will. She edged her hand closer to his so that their skin brushed. He didn't move away. 'But I only heard the end of the conversation. Something about you being deified? You seem human enough to me.'
'I found a statue of my nephew with a verse calling him a son of the "Deified Julius". I adopted him in my will.'
'Ah, because Caesarion was Egyptian, not Roman, correct?'
Caesar looked at her again, this time with a new respect. 'Just so. Your knowledge is impressive.'
Perhaps he wasn't so different from other men, after all. 'I wasn't a drab Larissan wife my whole life, you know. I travelled all over the place: every city state has petty laws about its precious citizenship. But, to return to the subject at hand, why does it matter to you? It was clearly poetic flattery, nothing more. Or are you secretly harbouring a lust for nectar and ambrosia?'
'Hardly! More coffee, perhaps… I will try to explain.' He shifted position on the hard stone, but pointedly kept his hand in contact with hers. 'I spent my whole life striving to be the best – the winner of the game of prestige and influence we all played from the moment we were seven years old and our fathers taught us the histories of our families. I wanted to be remembered as the greatest Roman in our history, which deification implies, surely? But I must know for certain. Two thousand years after my death, do men still speak my name? Do they visit my tomb as I did Alexander's? Do these wretched Britons at the end of the earth even know I led armies here? Knowing that I can probably find out in this city – maybe even in this very building – but being forced to ignore it in favour of this trivial rescue mission isn't just frustrating, it's utterly excruciating.'
'Well, why don't you have another look around and see if you can find some answers? We could be waiting here twiddling our thumbs for hours.' She looked meaningfully down at their hands, then realised too late that she'd erred when he pulled his away.
He regarded her sternly. 'Or moments. I can't desert the very post I assigned myself. How would that look to my son?'
'He would understand. In fact, I'm sure he'd be pleased that you'd got this obsession out of your system. I may not be a soldier, but I'm quite capable of watching a door.'
Caesar opened his mouth to offer a riposte, but was interrupted by the ululation of sirens all around them that sounded like it had come straight from Hades. The Roman shot to his feet and pulled Thargelia up to stand by his side as people began to flock towards them, anxious looks on many faces. A child was crying somewhere in amongst the crowd, frightened by the noise. A corpulent man in a purple shirt turned suddenly to look behind him, and the impact of his bulky backpack cannoned her into Caesar. The muscles of his chest were hard enough to knock the wind out of her. He secured her with his arm and moved them both towards the wall, out of the flow of human traffic. As they waited for an ebb, Thargelia noted how tall the people around them were. In their own time, Caesar would have stood half a head above most men; here, he was barely average.
'What's happening?' she could barely hear her own voice over the cacophony.
Caesar's warm breath tickled her ear. 'Some sort of warning, I think. Fire, perhaps? It seems a trifle convenient.'
'Only from our point of view, Caesar.' She looked up at his face, now barely a finger's length from hers. 'What, you think Helen somehow set this noise off so she could make a run for it? That's a bit of a stretch, don't you think?'
'Anything's possible. I wouldn't be surprised if Archimedes hadn't done something idiotic to make her suspicious. Don't get distracted. Blue dress, big hat – and her friend with the blond hair, tattoo and leather jacket.'
'We're not going to be able to stand here forever without looking suspicious ourselves, general.' Thargelia had already noted a couple of museum staff giving them looks that suggested they wouldn't leave them alone for long. She gazed over the crowd, trying to pick out everyone in blue, but no one quite fit the bill. Then, she suddenly recognised a familiar figure blithely being herded towards them.
'Archimedes,' she said to Caesar, pointing. As the mathematician drew nearer, Caesar extended his arm to yank him neatly out of the crowd. The mass of evacuees continued to surge around the mole they were creating with their bodies.
'Where are they, Archimedes?'
The Sicilian stared out belligerently from under those fecund eyebrows of his. He and Caesar were never likely to get on, even though his reason for being hostile to the Roman was unreasonable. Caesar couldn't justly be blamed for the actions of his countrymen generations before his birth any more than Romulus could for those after his. Nonetheless, Archimedes plainly resented the Roman being set over him and had determined to irk and aggravate him in any way he could contrive.
'Your boy told me to watch the stairs, but I reckoned that could just as easily be done from down here.'
Caesar visibly reined back in his temper – he was going to need an outlet for it sooner or later. 'Where is my son, Archimedes?'
'He's gone off after Helen and Kebby. We last saw them on the second floor.'
'What do you mean, "last saw them"? Do you mean you've lost them?' Caesar's lips had thinned to little more than a line and his jaw was set tighter than the Spartans at Thermopylae.
'Like I said, the boy's gone after them. Can't have gone far, can they? Everyone and his wife is being pushed through this door here.'
Just then, Caesarion himself hove into view, just visible between the milling heads. Thargelia was fortunate to spot him, because he appeared from their left just in front of the main door, not from the stairs, which they'd been observing so diligently. When he saw them, he began to gesticulate wildly, pointing his entire arm like a spear at someone in the crowd ahead of him. Thargelia couldn't immediately discern whom he meant – there was certainly no blue-clad woman in an oversized hat. Then she realised he was pointing at a man and immediately grabbed both Caesar and Archimedes by their sleeves.
'Kebby. Over there. No, Archimedes, that way. Yes. Come on. Follow him!'
They joined the human river and allowed it to carry them behind Caesarion and out into the forecourt. Outside, some visitors were clearly deciding to make alternative plans for the morning and were making their way down the steps onto Beaumont Street. Others, looking annoyed or apprehensive or a combination of both, hovered alone or in groups at intervals along the outside wall.
Kebby fell into neither category. He walked straight up to a guard wearing a horribly bright yellow jacket, greeted him and started up a lively conversation. The transients lurked as close as they dared.
'What happened, Caesarion?' asked Caesar, softly.
'We were watching them, father, then that bloody noise started. I got distracted. Then I turned around and they'd gone, so I went after them. I thought I'd be quicker on my own,' He looked pointedly at Archimedes, 'but when I caught up with Kebby again, Helen wasn't with him anymore. I thought he might still be able to help us, so I followed him. Sorry, father.'
Caesar set a hand on his son's shoulder. 'Not your fault. We couldn't have predicted the evacuation. Kebby's presumably waiting for her. All we have to do is stay here.
And stay they did – endlessly, it seemed – while Kebby continued to converse with his friend about something called "football". Of Helen, there was still no sign.
'What's he doing?' exclaimed Caesarion. They watched in alarm as Kebby patted the guard on the arm amicably and turned, walking unquestionably towards the stairs. 'Why isn't he waiting for her?'
'I don't know,' said Caesar impatiently, 'but we're going to follow my original plan. He's our only link to Helen.'
'Couldn't she still be in the museum?' asked Thargelia.
'Unlikely. The alarm is still ringing and no one else has been allowed back in. There must be another door. Thargelia, walk with me. Caesarion, Archimedes, fan out and follow from a distance, as we planned.'
'Caesar, it doesn't take four people to follow one man, surely? Leave Caesarion and Archimedes here in case Helen does reappear.'
Caesar rubbed his temple, but didn't emit a frustrated sigh, as most men might. 'I'm starting to miss being dictator after all… but you might be right. You two do as the lady suggests, but head back in the direction of Turl Street if she doesn't emerge by noon. Now let's get moving before he vanishes too.'
Without waiting for an answer from Caesarion and Archimedes, he slid Thargelia's arm through his own and towed her down into Beaumont Street.
'What are you doing?'
'Couples are more inconspicuous,' he replied, pulling her tight against his ribs. His blowing hot and cold like this was becoming a little tiresome. 'Look around you – we look like anyone else walking calmly away from a burning building.' She found herself failing to hold back a genuine smile. Caesar seemed to have a sense of humour after all. Getting out of the museum was a very good idea.
Kebby really was an interesting looking man, observed Thargelia, as they followed him back to the junction where Beaumont Street met the vast avenue of St Giles. His haircut seemed indecisive, as if he couldn't quite bring himself to have his whole head shaved close and had shouted for the barber to stop when he got to the top. The longer part along the crest of his skull was carefully combed into a glossy wave, which shone gold in the near-noon light. He had taken off his leather jacket and slung it over his right shoulder, leaving the painted left side of his neck and arm barely hidden by his sleeveless shirt. And it really did look like a gifted artist had used his body as a canvas. Thargelia had seen tattoos on the skin of slaves who came from the north – from Thrace or the forests inhabited by the Celtic tribes – but they had been crude in comparison. Even though he was a comfortable distance ahead of them, she could clearly see that his tattoo was Pegasus – the horse's feathered wings spread wide in waves of blue and pink across Kebby's flesh – but done in little pieces as if the whole image were a mosaic on some rich man's dining room floor.
'If your theory about Helen sticking to Kebby is sound, general, wouldn't we all be better off heading straight back to Turl Street rather than chasing him down the road?' Thargelia pointed out.
'Look, do you think you might call me something else? I'm hardly in command of an army anymore, am I? I'm the unelected leader of a motley band of glorified slave-catchers, at best.'
'Poor you,' she commiserated in a tone that wouldn't have convinced a three-year-old of her sincerity. It hadn't escaped her that he hadn't yet answered her question. 'What a come-down that must be! What would you prefer I call you, then? You have so many names, as Romulus pointed out. It's difficult to know which one would be best. I'm not even sure I remember all of them.'
The Roman rolled his eyes. 'Caesar is fine. At a push, Gaius, but only if the others aren't around, please.'
'So… you're suggesting there might be other times when it's just the two of us then?' She winked theatrically; he merely quirked an eyebrow in return. Their incipient flirtation wasn't quite enough to cure her of mischief, however, and she slid her gaze up to focus on his hairline. 'Doesn't Caesar mean "hairy" in Latin?'
He fixed her with the darkest of doom-laden stares. 'Don't. Whatever you're about to say next, just don't, Thargelia. The Transition gave me back most of my hair, may she be ever-blessed. Trust me, I have a lot less scalp on show than I used to… How do you know the meaning of my name, anyway? Rome was barely a republic in your time and Latin certainly wasn't an international language.'
She smirked. 'I'm afraid I was already wondering about it back when we arrived, so the Transition helped me out. I've been saving my curiosity for a convenient moment. Going back to my original question…'
'An effective commander tries to account for all possible problems and take steps to solve or mitigate them. Look, he's turning left…'
Caesar's observation didn't deflect Thargelia from her pursuit. That Kebby clearly wasn't immediately going home even strengthened her cause. Nevertheless, they had passed some distance strolling between the grandly faced buildings lining the west side of St Giles and a wall of large rectangular vehicles belching out fumes and gawping visitors before she launched her next attack. 'So, what you're saying is that you're not at all sure that Helen will head back to Turl Street after all – Kebby doesn't seem to be, does he? We're clutching at straws because we now have no idea where she is or where she's going next.'
'I wouldn't quite say that, Thargelia. Where would she go? This isn't her place and it isn't her time. She can't stray too far from the drop-off point without eventually running out of money. She's attached herself to this Kebby fellow by chance and stayed the night with him – why would she abandon him so soon with nothing better to hope for?'
'Maybe she realised Caesarion and Archimedes were following her and panicked. But wait, Helen would have still been within a short distance of the drop-off point when she was with Kebby last night – his college is right next to it. Why couldn't the Transition pull her out without us?'
'I can only logically deduce that one has to be standing right on the drop-off point. Otherwise, I know no more than you do. Sending us information and objects must be easier for the Transition than transporting us. There's so much we don't know.'
Kebby crossed a side road ahead of them and ducked into a white-painted shop, which, as Thargelia and Caesar drew nearer, turned out to be a bookshop. She shot her companion a sideways glance and saw what she'd expected to see: he had the look of a winter wolf with the scent of deer in its nostrils.
'Why don't I stay out here while you go in to keep an eye on him.' she said.
He raised his eyebrows. 'Neither of us needs to go in at all. We just wait some distance away until Kebby comes out again and resume the chase.'
'He won't think anything of it if you go in. Go on. If you happened to find something to buy, you'd look even less suspicious.' She recovered the coins Gorgo had given her and handed them to Caesar, who graced her with a soft smile.
'Thank you, Thargelia.'
'Hurry up, darling, before you miss your chance.' He caressed her elbow briefly before darting away.
She chose the space between the shop's window and the next door to lean against. A lamppost stood over her, its lamp caged in a diamond at its summit. Did city officials send men round every evening to light the lamps? She had never heard of such a thing, but there seemed to be nothing that wasn't possible here. A man passed by, stocky, bearded, broken-nosed, and for the first time since she had been transferred, Thargelia thought of her husband Anaxagoras back in Larissa – so different from her current companion. A kind, good-natured man, who had sat by her bedside and held her hand while that last fever slowly carried her off. They hadn't had much in common – did any couple who married for convenience, other than the need for convenience? – but he had given her status, comfort, respectability in their claustrophobic little world. It had made for an interesting change at first. No children, thank Hera, no matter how his mother had harped on. He already had three by his previous wife, all grown and married, which had allowed him the luxury of marrying a more colourful woman than the housebound paragon who had bled out birthing her last child in the very bed in which Thargelia herself had later died. Their marriage had raised eyebrows all over Larissa. But that had been seven years ago. Grey had spread since in Anaxagoras' beard and he had begun to spend more and more time out in the countryside on his vineyard, which seemed to produce only a vinegary liquid more suited to cleaning pots than assuaging one's thirst, leaving her to blunt her wits against his mother's relentless vitriol. It was partly justified, Thargelia conceded: she had begun to take rather too much pleasure in commanding the cook to oversalt the old baggage's food and the girl who swept out the bedrooms to move her cosmetics and hairpins just far enough out of place to make her think she was going senile. Ultimately, it had been a relief to sink into feverish hallucinations and escape the brain-mulching tedium.
But was this any better a future than she had had before? Slaves to an unseen process, whom they'd carelessly personified as if she were a goddess. And the gods didn't care much for the fate of men – except for a few lucky… or cursed ones.
Tired of staring at the shop door, Thargelia looked up into the sky and her mouth fell open in astonishment. There were things flying steadily through the air leaving perfectly straight trails of white behind them. One flew directly away from her position, looking for all the world like a gull with its wings spread wide. It was swallowed quite suddenly by a cloud.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a light tap on her shoulder.
'Hello, Thargelia,' said a woman's voice, deep and honey-soaked. As Thargelia turned, a sharp blow drove a bolt of intense pain through her skull and she felt herself slumping onto one knee. She thrust out a hand for balance and skidded on a soft, viscous substance on the pavement which she fervently hoped wasn't dog shit. Vision swimming, she peered at the face of her attacker – no hat or glasses to hide her features now.
'Helen…' she heard the slur in her own voice. Caesar. If she could crawl to the shop door… Somewhere deep in her subconscious, Thargelia wondered how Helen knew her name. And why had no one stopped to help her?
'My apologies, Thargelia. You'll understand your role in this soon enough.' The darkness was creeping across her eyes again. Dark circles opening and closing. And then nothing.
Author's note: Thanks for reading! Lovely to see so many people dropping by. Please do review. What will Caesar do when he finds Thargelia missing? Stay tuned...