Love, Eternally
Author:Morgan O'Neill

chapter 2




Spring, A.D. 408, Ravenna

Senator Magnus glanced down the steps to the entry, fighting the urge to make some excuse and leave the baptistery. He stared at the hairy toes of Rutilius Namatianus, the heathen Gaul who served as Master Poet for the royal court. Golden sandals did nothing to hide the man’s coarseness. It was said all roads led to Rome, but that had changed. Ravenna was now the political center, the place where the Roman Emperor of the West, Flavius Honorius Augustus, preened and schemed with his sycophants and lowborn advisors.

And dithered with his damnable birds!

Magnus sniffed in derision and Honorius turned, his brown eyes blazing from the pulpit.

Take care, Magnus chided himself. The Gaul beside him turned, too, but Magnus kept his gaze fixed on Honorius, forcing a neutral expression. A ghost of a smile played across the emperor’s lips as he glanced at Magnus, his gaze contemptuous. Those hated eyes reminded Magnus of his ignoble ransoming from King Alaric.

Honorius was forever seeking ways to put Magnus in his place. For years, he had publicly questioned whether the temporary paralysis Magnus suffered in battle was a ruse to avoid combat and an honorable death. But his attempt at branding Magnus a coward had fallen on deaf ears. Even so, new lies were being spread at court, rumors of a sexual liaison between Magnus and Alaric’s stepmother, the Witch of Rocesthes. Honorius had seized upon them, calling Magnus “the witch’s phallus” — but never to his face. The emperor’s slur was vulgar and juvenile, but designed to intimidate, nonetheless.

Magnus was not intimidated, though, merely filled with loathing. Victoria, his mind called out, I still serve you faithfully, although you have turned your eyes from me. Emperor Theodosius was blind to his son’s base and cruel nature, else he would not have asked me to protect the lout. Hear me now! Release me from this insufferable bondage to such an unworthy emperor.

A moment passed, then another, yet he felt nothing, no tingling of anticipation alerting him to Victoria’s presence.

Meanwhile, Honorius had stepped away from the pulpit, expectantly watching the door.

Magnus frowned. Even now, Ravenna buzzed with gossip about the emperor’s most recent affront to decency — his shockingly cavalier behavior following two recent deaths in the royal family: his young wife, Empress Maria, and his brother, Emperor Arcadius, who had ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from Constantinople. It was too soon for Honorius to give self-indulgent baptismal ceremonies, let alone the drunken palace orgies known to have taken place since the funerals.

All men bore shame, but Honorius reveled in his. He had mocked Magnus for not falling on his sword after the ransoming, as was expected of any defeated commander. The depraved spawn of Hades had demanded it of Magnus, hounded him for months, but Magnus could not, would not commit suicide for him. He would rather sacrifice his honor than sacrifice himself for such a man.

But now, Honorius used him in his dealings with the Visigoths and Magnus played the part, ever mindful of his oath to Theodosius. His life was a sham of falsity and insincere devotion, flattering Honorius with the same eagerness as the worst of the sycophants.

Asinus asinum fricat … the ass rubs the ass.

Magnus suddenly realized everyone had grown deadly quiet. He glanced at several of the emperor’s palatini guards, but the huge, hairy Germani brutes were watching Honorius, not him. To his dismay, the emperor walked toward the knot of people standing by Magnus and then crooked his finger.

Honorius clapped Namatianus on the shoulder. “Come, my pagan friend, and you, too, Magnus, come. You shall both help. Perhaps you will see the light and convert.”

O, ye gods!

Magnus looked beyond the men and women awaiting baptism and saw the angry scowls of the bishop and priests, who stood ready in the marble font. He reminded himself the ceremony had already degenerated into blasphemy for them, not only because Honorius wanted two pagans to participate without first converting, but also because the emperor wished his favorite chickens to be given baptismal rites. Upon learning the plans, the bishop’s face had flushed as purple as Honorius’s robes, while all others cast down their eyes, for none save a fool would question the emperor’s desires.

The door to the baptistery suddenly opened wide, and four screeching hens were brought inside, wings beating the air, feathers flying.

The emperor threw out his arms. “Fulvia, Rome, Octavia, Livia! Our dear girls, how we have missed you!”

• • •

It was stifling inside the baptistery. Thank the gods the wine was cool and delicious, a ruby-red caecubum. Magnus let it linger on his tongue as he eyed the absurd chickens, strutting about with golden baptismal bows tied around their necks. The emperor’s ceremony had lasted a grueling hour, and now an air of relief and celebration descended on the crowd.

He spotted the magister utriusque militiae, Flavius Stilicho, and carefully stepped over a hen, wanting to speak with him. The general was the Western Empire’s supreme military commander, the second most powerful man, after Honorius. But now, it seemed, Stilicho was failing physically, and Magnus noticed how much older he seemed since his daughter’s funeral, his beard shot through with gray, his face lined with grief for Maria.

Magnus intended to express his condolences for the late empress, but a raven-haired beauty moved in and whispered something to Stilicho. Serena seemed not to share her husband’s pain over their daughter’s passing. Spoiled and haughty, she never let anyone forget she was a cousin to the emperor and of imperial lineage in her own right. She and Honorius were ruled by twin hearts: cold, calculating, and evil.

Magnus turned away, keen to avoid Serena, vowing to express his condolences to Stilicho at another time. He concentrated instead on a flutist standing nearby, playing from the pulpit. The man was small, mean looking, yet he possessed elegant hands. His fingers were long and slender, moving deftly on the silver flute he held, as if the gods had breathed into them a divine fire.

Magnus took another sip of his wine, then heard, “Greetings, O most excellent Magnus.”

It was the sweet voice of the emperor’s sister, the princess Galla Placidia. Ah, here was someone to drive away the foul stench wrought by Honorius and Serena.

“Greetings, O most gracious Placidia,” he said, as he faced her and bowed. She was dressed in emerald-green silk embroidered with golden thread, a hint of powdered malachite on her eyelids — quite the young lady.

Smiling, Magnus studied her eyes, inky-dark, yet sparkling with life. Her old nurse, Elpidia, nodded to him, then moved off, giving them privacy.

“Would that I could play like Horace,” Placidia said, glancing at the flute player.

“Indeed, he is wonderful.”

“And so pampered for his talents. My brother dotes on him. Tell me, Magnus, when last we met, you said perhaps you might start searching for … er, have you found a wife?”

He laughed as a blue-black curl escaped from beneath her golden headdress. This girl was so fine and true, utterly different from her loathsome brother.

“I have been waiting for you to grow up.” When she pouted, he teased, “The girl is nearly a woman, eh?”

She grinned. “Nearly. Your dark looks favor your Greek ancestors, my dear Magnus, and your blue eyes, well, you see, they are quite wonderful, but I must admit I have dreamt of someone …”

“Younger? Tell me you wouldn’t be so cruel.” He pulled a long face. “Alas, I see it in your eyes. Ah, well, I knew I was out of the running, for it is well known you will have none save a Catholic Christian to wed.”

“True,” she grinned, playing along, “for not only are you a stubborn pagan, but you are also too tall for me — and twice my age.”

Aha! Honest to a fault. Smiling, Magnus was again reminded of why he was so fond of this girl. “You are indeed grown up, for you are merciless in your candor.”

Placidia giggled, the lone curl dancing prettily. “And, as to my question?”

“Which one?”

“Have you found a lady to wed?”

He was about to answer when the music stopped and the flutist gaped, staring into space.

Placidia’s eyes grew wide and she looked up at the dome. “Did you hear that?”

“What?” As Magnus glanced around, a flurry of notes echoed from a great distance, the tune fast, lively, and unlike anything he had ever heard.

“A marvelous melody,” Emperor Honorius called out from across the room. “Horace,” he commanded with a wave of his hand, “go and see who steals your glory.”

Magnus watched as a pair of guards set off to join Horace, but Honorius called them back to stand at his side. Horace headed alone for the stairs.

Magnus squinted. Was it his imagination, or had the air begun to sparkle where the musician once stood? Rubbing his eyes, he cursed the effects of too much wine. This odd air reminded him of trips to his family’s salt mines, where the briny haze twinkled in torchlight, and he could smell it, taste it for days afterward, like tears upon his tongue.

By now, the extraordinary melody had faded, and Horace returned to the pulpit, but something was still decidedly odd. Magnus studied the flutist’s glimmering robes, the sparkles whirling around his brow. Was this a dream? Was no one else seeing this?

Horace placed his silver flute to his lips, listening as the phantom melody rose again. He tried a few notes, his attempt rough and too slow. Frowning, he took a deep breath and blew true. For a long moment, the music meshed.

Troubled, Magnus looked at Placidia, but she was conversing with several young women. The crowd once again grew lively, unaware of the strangeness he perceived.

When Horace let out a yelp, Magnus spun back around. The flutist was nowhere to be seen.

Magnus warily cast his glance about the room, looking for the absent musician, but the sound of a gasp brought his attention back to the pulpit. The air sparkled as before, but now a woman appeared, ethereal, glittering like the stars.

Magnus’s chest tightened.

She turned and stared at him, clutching a golden flute.

The air cleared and he let out his breath as she came into focus. Her wide green eyes blazed with an emerald fire, the whites so clear they held a tinge of palest blue. Her body was slim, her bearing regal, and he was instantly aware of her slightest movements: the trembling of her fingers, the sudden flicker of doubt in her beautiful gaze.

Her vulnerability unleashed a thunderbolt that surged straight to his heart.

Magnus took a step forward and her perfume floated to him soft as a cloud, enveloping him, the fragrance hinting of figs and something unfamiliar and warmly sweet. He breathed deeply. Who was this glorious creature, this — this divine … ?

Overcome, he felt compelled to drop to his knees, to worship her as a goddess, but his warrior’s instinct shouted No! He must not reveal his suspicions of her identity to anyone in this most Catholic court.

Magnus glanced at Honorius and saw the emperor lift his head. His face held a different expression than before, not lewd or wretchedly amused, but dark and dangerous, like a wolf sensing prey.

• • •

Somehow, Gigi managed to stay on her feet. What was in that drink?

For the briefest moment, she stared into the eyes of a tall, handsome man, surprised she hadn’t noticed him earlier, but then people around him started speaking all at once, pointing to her, jabbering. She willed herself to calm down and tried to make sense of everything. The baptistery was full of strangers she hadn’t seen before, all dressed in costumes, and there were chickens walking around. Was this a joke? The birds were hilarious. Was someone pulling a publicity stunt?

And where was Jack? She started to look for him, but found herself staring into the eyes of a woman with lemon-yellow hair, an unbelievably bad dye job. In fact, all their hair and makeup looked garish, like actors in a comedy show trying to do a spoof on ancient Rome.

Oh, wow. It dawned on her what was happening — she was being Punk’d. She grinned at the realization, but there was no way she’d let a prank TV show get the best of her, just so their fans could have a good laugh.

Gigi tried to recall the few Italian words she knew, but nothing came to mind. “Look, I’m being Punk’d, aren’t I?” she said in English. “Good job, everyone, but you can all stop with the acting now. Come out where I can see you, Jack. I’m sure you think this is great publicity and really hysterical, but I’m not falling for it. The joke’s on you.”

At that instant, someone yelled and Gigi turned to see a young, black-haired man in a purple toga pointing at her. Two men dressed as Roman soldiers set off toward her, and people scattered. The toga guy shouted an order she couldn’t understand, and the soldiers got right in her face, scowling.

Startled, she gripped her flute, holding it up defensively. “Back off,” she demanded, instantly angry with herself for giving the fans of the show what they wanted. Then, when the men grabbed her arms, hurting her, she came unglued. “Let go of me!”

They lifted her off her feet, and she kicked at their legs, but couldn’t get any power behind her thrusts. She screamed and tried to twist free, but they held her fast, their fingers vice-like and painful.

“Jack, stop this!” Still thrashing, she was hauled before Toga Guy and forced to her knees. They shoved her head down, and she found herself staring at his sandaled feet.

“What the … ?” Gigi fumed. “The mayor invited me to be here, and you look ridiculous in that Roman getup, by the way. I was asked to perform. Jack, I want to talk to you now! Jack!”

Toga Guy stabbed the air and shouted, “Sileo!”

She sensed the back of his hand just before it hit her temple, and she was knocked to the floor. Cold marble bit into her cheek, and she tasted blood on her lip. For a few moments, four sandaled feet spun in front of her, and she blinked hard to refocus.

When the whirling stopped, and the four feet became two, she angrily met his gaze. He reached out to touch her flute and she recoiled, holding it tight against her body, surprised she still held it at all.

“O qui vocaris?” he asked.

“You hit me?” she said through clenched teeth, though loud enough for the microphones to catch. The audience needed to know what was happening, because she was going to sue every person involved. This was unforgivable, even for reality TV.

But Gigi felt a growing panic. Jack wouldn’t let people hurt her. Who were these freaks?

Tilting his head, the creep tapped his foot, his eyes brightening. He made some coaxing sounds and gestured toward her flute, then her mouth.

He actually expected her to play? Furious and scared, Gigi glared and hugged her flute even tighter.

He leapt up, shouting at the soldiers.

Once again, the vice grips seized her arms, this time yanking her to her feet.

“Stop!” she cried out, struggling. “Let me go!”

Before Gigi could protest further, someone snatched her flute and gave it to Toga Guy, who stared at her diamond ring. Smiling, he twisted it off her finger and walked away.

“You ass,” Gigi strained against her captors and shrieked, “give them back!”

Pain burst through her head as a soldier backhanded her. Dazed, Gigi fought to focus her eyes. Toga Guy waved his hand at her, the ring already adorning his pinkie. The roaring in her ears prevented her from hearing as he spoke to another man beside him. The man turned, and a flurry of words shot back to the soldiers holding her.

She was certain, now, as they started to force her toward the door, something was very, very wrong. She abruptly remembered the handsome man and wrenched around, seeking him in the crowd.

“Help me,” she cried out. “Please, help — ”

A fist connected with her jaw, and her limbs turned to mush. Waves of agony washed through her. Unable to fight, she was helpless to stop the soldiers as they dragged her outside.

Blinded by sunlight and pain, she could barely make out her surroundings. Her captors hauled her through a maze of streets, until they reached a building with a huge door, then unlocked its heavy chain and took her inside.

A single torch blazed in a wall socket, illuminating an underground passage with a yellow, uneven light. Odors assaulted her senses: sweat, decay, and filth. Trying not to gag, Gigi saw barred openings on both sides of the passage. What is this, a prison? She could hear pained voices coming from the cells.

The men shoved her into a void and she stumbled, hitting the far wall, scraping her shoulder. The door slammed, and she slid to the ground.

The sound of their footsteps faded, and voices rose up to fill the dark. Shouts, jeers.

Gigi got up and felt her way back to the door. “Does anyone speak English?” She waited, but there was no response. “Parlez-vous Français?” Nothing. She tried one last time, although if this worked, she wasn’t sure what she would do with it. “Italiano?”

“Salve soror carissima. Nos narro Latin,” an aged voice replied, to insane laughter.

Gigi’s mind reeled. Latin? She gripped the bars, willing herself to remain standing. Oh, God, they’ve put me in an asylum. This is so not funny!

Her head pounded. Nausea swept over her, and she lost her balance, her knees buckling as darkness spun past her eyes, and she fell to the floor.

• • •

The sound of metal on metal, of old-fashioned keys rattling in iron locks, woke Gigi from her fitful sleep. Light filled the cell, blinding her, and she backed away on all fours, fearful of what new horror came with the light.

Gigi drew her dress close about her neck, hoping to keep them from spotting her necklace and Roman ring. In the distance, voices wailed and moaned.

“Salve.”

She didn’t recognize the man’s voice, but it sounded nice: deep, vibrant, yet gentle. Guarding her eyes, she struggled to her feet as several men entered her cell. One, a soldier, held a torch and stood guard without expression. A second man with bulbous eyes stared at her suspiciously. The third was a somber man with thin, graying hair. The fourth, the handsome man from the baptistery, walked in last. Except for the soldier, all wore light-colored togas, but the handsome guy’s was brilliant white with a purple stripe.

He had dark brown hair and deeply tanned skin, which set off the blue of his eyes. Despite his spotless toga and perfect grooming, his stance was wholly masculine, broad-shouldered with long legs. His muscles were well defined; an old scar on his right bicep looked like it had been caused by something more than a stray injury. Battle-hardened. Never before had Gigi thought to use that term to define someone.

“Salve,” he repeated, then continued to talk, but Gigi couldn’t understand anything. She realized that he, too, spoke what she now assumed was Latin. “ … nomen tuum …”

Nomen? There was no mistaking the root for the modern words: nom, name.

He tried again, “Quiquis es — ”

“Wait.” She tapped her chest. “Nomen … Gigi … Perrin.”

“Ah!” Nodding, he said, “Gigiperrin, Gigiperrin,” running it all together in a funny way. Then he asked, “Qua est volito tibicen Horace?”

“Huh?”

He mimed playing a clarinet.

Thinking she understood, she pointed at her chest and nodded, then lifted her hands to mime playing a flute. “Yes, I’m a flute player.”

He shook his head and repeated his earlier question — yada, yada, yada — but that was all she got out of it. As frustration mounted on both sides, the bug-eyed man scowled with impatience. Her handsome interrogator frowned, too, but Gigi could tell he was concerned, not irritated. Bug-eye growled something to the others, then stalked out the door, the somber man and soldier following close on his heels.

It was just the two of them now. The cell was darker, illuminated only by the ambient light of the torch-lit corridor. With the man’s face hidden by shadows, Gigi felt unnerved, because she couldn’t read him. Time was of the essence. She needed to make a deeper connection before he left, even if it was as simple as learning his name.

He took a step forward, moving into a shaft of light. She searched his face, struck by the intensity of his gaze, his eyes sparkling bright blue. Someone in the corridor called out, and he gave her a smile shaded with disappointment, then bowed and turned to go.

“Please,” she said in English.

He faced her again and she could tell by his expression he was moved by her plea, despite the lack of understanding between them.

Gigi swallowed. Could she trust him? Would he help her? She needed to find Jack. She had to try.

“Aidez-moi — trouvez mon agent, Jack Benton,” she said in French. “S’il vous plaît?” When he didn’t react, she forged on, “Votre nom, er, nomen? Your name?”

His gaze held hers, sincere, profoundly thoughtful, and at that moment, she knew without doubt he was a man of honor.

“Meus agnomen est … Magnus.”

She watched him leave and then leaned against the door, wondering at the power embodied by such a name, and the man who bore it.

Magnus.