The black caped figure strode quickly through the alleyways of Napierion. As the figure reached Fortress Barbarossa, the closely-guarded headquarters of Barbarous Arnottus, Napierion’s legendary woman leader, he smiled to himself.
Neelus The Tailor had secretly followed the Labourite cult leader, Steward of Gnash, when he’d met the old hag known as the The Oracle of Ahurirum down on Napierion’s west shore that morning. He had heard her telling The Steward about her vision of a tall, dark, bearded man sitting on a throne.
Barbarous would reward him well for his watchfulness.
Neelus had begun in his father’s humble tailor’s shop, before deciding that cutting cloaks and repairing robes was not for him. He had quietly worked himself up through the town’s administrative ranks to become Municipalus Manipulatus, the key figure behind the throne of Napierion.
Neelus prided himself on the wall of secrecy he had built up around Fortress Barbarossa that shielded Napierion from jealous prying eyes. It was his lifetime’s legacy.
But these were uncertain times. If The Steward of Gnash and his rabble of supporters toppled Barbarous for the town’s leadership, the wall of secrecy could be dismantled and Neelus could see himself back at his old toga classes.
A few leagues away, a group of centurions trudged along the Awatotus shoreline, their shields and breastplates gleaming in the bright Spring sunlight. As they reached the southern entrance to Napierion, they encountered sentries and the small army’s leader, Lawrencus Yulus, signalled a halt. The ruler of the Hustings district held aloft his banner, a rampant blue lion above crossed red boots. Lawrencus cleared his throat.
“Friends, Romans, countrymen . . .” he began.
“No we’re not,” interrupted a sentry. “We’re your enemies, not your friends. We’re Napierions, not Romans and you lot are the country bumpkins. You lot have statues worshipping sheep,” he said to laughter from his fellow guards.
“We’re a popular tourist destination, preserved as it was at the time of the great earthquake of 32AD – best thing that ever happened to the place if you ask me.”
Lawrencus smiled grimly. He tried again.
“Enemies, Napierions, tourism hotspot dwellers . . . lend me your ears.”
“Oh here we go,” yelled the sentry. “Old Lawrencus Yulus wants to borrow again. Try saving up your own ears mate and leave ours alone. If you are having trouble hearing, it’s because you’re up to your ears in debt.”
“I have come to tell Napierions that you should not fear the amalgamation of our two fiefdoms,” said Lawrencus. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
“We never said it was,” said the sentry. His colleagues nodded.
Lawrencus’ right hand strayed toward his broadsword as he gazed at the sentry, but he held back. He glanced at a piece of parchment in his other hand.
“The darkest hour is just before dawn,” he said after a few minutes.
“Not this morning it wasn’t mate,” said the sentry, examining something he’d found in his ear. “It was a full moon.
The place was lit up like daylight when we took over from the nightshift. We could see you lot coming over the bridge at Clivus two hours ago.”
“Well then, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good,” Lawrencus offered.
“Don’t know what you mean about an ill wind,” said the sentry. “We do get the odd whiff from the outfall at Awatotus but nothing like the stink those poor sods at East Clivus fort have to put up with. I pity them. Nobody thinks that’s good.”
“Every cloud has a silver lining then,” Lawrencus retorted.
“Silver? Grey you mean. Ah, that’ll be a wet easterly coming,” said the sentry, glancing out to sea. “I wouldn’t hang around here too long in that case. You’ll have a wet backside going home, specially in that little leather skirt you’re wearing. Goes well with those boots, mind you,” he nodded approvingly.
A red mist flooded Lawrencus’ vision and he gripped the handle of his sword. Its highly polished blade flashed a dazzling beam across the faces of the guards.
“Oi!” bellowed the sentry. “You could have blinded us with that. My eyes are my livelihood. I’ve got a wife, two mistresses and six Nubian slaves to maintain. My job description is ‘lookout’ or ‘night watchman’. Who’s going to employ a blind sentry?”
Lawrencus stared at the man, then nodded. He looked down the list of suggested sayings his advisors had prepared.
“All roads lead to Rome,” he said after a while.
The sentry shook his head. “Not this one, Puss in Boots. It leads to the port and into the sea. I don’t know where it leads south. I’ve never been beyond these walls.”
Lawrencus turned over the parchment. There was nothing on the other side.
“I’ve got a couple for you Lawrencus,” the sentry said. “How about: A fool and his money are soon parted?”
There was silence. A seagull squawked overhead.
“Okay then,” said the sentry. “Here’s one: ‘Never in the field of human conflict, has so much been owed by so many to so few’.”
Lawrencus looked up at the smiling guard, puzzled.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.
“That’s what Napierions say about Hustings’ debt,” grinned the sentry.