Rise of the Wolf, Page 2Jennifer A. Nielsen
Her brows pressed together, more suspicious than curious. "Why do you want the crepundia? My father's dead. It's meaningless now."
By then, Crispus had caught up to us, less wary of me than he had been at first. "I want us to be friends too," he said. "You don't have to trust my father, or even me, but is there enough friendship between us that you'll listen to me now?"
Probably not, but I still asked, "Why is your father talking to Radulf?"
Crispus frowned. "Aurelia already told you. He's trying to save your life."
"From the real enemy to Rome. The Praetors are coming, Nic. We don't know if it's to kill you or control you, but they are coming. You're in terrible danger."
Officially, the Praetors ran the government of Rome, as clerks and judges and tax collectors. Unofficially, their loyalties ran much deeper than the empire, in service of a cause that made Radulf afraid of them. If the Praetors were coming after me, that made me equally nervous.
When I first stole the bulla, I'd had no idea of the trouble I was bringing into my life. Indeed, I had heard Julius Caesar's own whispers from the grave, warning me that the bulla would become a curse. And the reality of that curse was playing out here as I stood in conversation with Crispus and Aurelia.
"Once my father took control of the Senate, the Praetors did follow him," Crispus said. "But not for the reasons he'd expected. The Praetors are secretly dedicated to much higher powers."
"They serve the gods?" I asked. "So does all of Rome."
"They serve only one. Diana, the goddess who powered your bulla."
Instinctively, I reached for it at my side, though I found nothing. The bulla hadn't rested there for two months.
Aurelia leaned in closer. "When Caesar first had the bulla, who gave it magic?"
"Venus was the first." I shrugged. "But after Caesar abandoned it, Diana gave it power."
"Did you ever wonder why Diana did that?"
I shrugged again. Once I stole the bulla, everything had spun so quickly out of my control, there was no time to think about why anything was happening.
"It's because Diana intends harm against Rome, and against the other gods," Aurelia said. "And the Praetors are sworn to help her to do it."
"They want the three amulets here in Rome," Crispus said. "The bulla is powerful, of course, but not nearly as powerful as the Malice of Mars. The Praetors followed my father because the presiding magistrate has always held the key to unlocking that amulet. But he never got it. Before his death, Horatio gave it to someone else." His eyes drifted to mine.
"He never gave it to me," I said firmly. "The Praetors will find sugar in the salt mines before they ever find me with that key."
"My father believes you have it too," Crispus said. "Everyone believes it."
"Everyone is wrong," I said. "Radulf has searched me many times. If I did have the key, he would've taken it from me. So tell the Praetors to capture him instead and leave me alone!"
"Is the key in that sack at your waist?" Crispus asked. "Every time we've come to these practices, I've seen you carry it."
"No." I bunched the sack in my fist, as if he might try to take it. "How many of my practices have you been to?"
"Several." Crispus looked back to the track. "My father is a big supporter of the blue faction. Just like the emperor."
"The blue faction races like they were pulled by kittens," I said.
"Can we focus on an actual problem?" Aurelia touched both of our arms. "The Praetors want more than just the key. There's a third amulet."
"The Jupiter Stone," I breathed.
"They know how to create it," she said. "But they need someone with magic to attempt it. You."
"Radulf took my magic in the arena," I said. That much was true, and I wondered if not saying anything more made it a lie. "Even if he didn't, I wouldn't help the Praetors make a Jupiter Stone."
"The Praetors don't want it for themselves," Crispus said. "They want it for Diana. With it, she will become invincible, even to the other gods."
My eyes narrowed. "I won't help them. I won't allow Diana that much power." The ridiculousness of such a statement did not escape me. I was still a runaway slave. She ruled in the heavens.
"You might not have any choice," Crispus said. "If they --" Then he stopped, like his words had slammed into a stone wall.
With little patience left, I asked, "If they what?"
Crispus sighed. "You have to trust me and my father, no matter how they try to force you. Because if the Praetors succeed, it could mean that all of Rome is destroyed."
My temper warmed, but I kept my voice low. "Why won't I have any choice in helping them, Crispus?"
I looked to Aurelia for answers, but she only glanced down. Muttering a curse under my breath, I left them and walked over to Valerius and Radulf, still in conversation. Their backs were toward me, so they didn't see me approach, and I heard their argument as I came closer.
"You must believe me," Valerius was saying. "Nic is in grave danger."
They turned when they heard me coming. Valerius stood, his face creased with lines of worry. But Radulf leaned back and smiled. He said, "Welcome to the conversation, Nic. Sit down."
"I want you both to leave," Valerius said to Crispus and Aurelia, who had followed me.
"No," I said. "I want them to stay." Or at least, I wanted Aurelia to stay. I wasn't sure about Crispus.
Hesitantly, Valerius consented, and they took seats behind me. I glanced back at Aurelia, who brushed her fingers against my shoulder as a sign of support. I hoped Crispus saw it.
When Radulf had my attention, he nodded at Valerius and said, "I told the senator you'd never run from a fight."
On the contrary, I would gladly run from a fight if the option were ever given to me. I had no training, not even in magic, and lacked the cold disrespect for life that one would expect from a warrior. On the other hand, I had never backed down from Radulf's challenges. Not until he threatened my sister's life if I refused to join his house. Since then, I had not defied him once. Or at least, not as far as he knew.
"What's the fight?" I asked.
Valerius cleared his throat. "The Praetors are in rebellion against me, and soon will rebel against all of Rome. I blame you for this, Nic."
"When did your poor leadership become my fault?" I was nothing to Rome, less than a speck of dust on the boot of the lowest soldier. Or at least, that was how Radulf described me each night when I was sent to my room. One of the men sitting before me was wrong. Either I mattered to the empire, or I didn't.
"You brought magic to Rome," Valerius continued. "The Praetors have waited nearly three hundred years for someone to find Caesar's bulla."
I glanced over at Radulf and only briefly met his eyes. He'd taken the bulla from me when I joined his house, and I had not stolen it back. Well, not yet.
"The Praetors will not get the bulla," Radulf said. "Only I know its secrets."
I nearly burst out laughing. Since I came to his home, Radulf had spent almost every night desperately trying to create magic from the bulla. He claimed he could still sense its magic, but I suspected what he actually sensed was the magic returning to me, because the bulla no longer had its powerful gemstones. I had removed those before our fight in the arena. If Radulf were less prideful, he would ask me for help. And if I were less stubborn ... well, I had no intention of helping him, ever. Radulf was on his own.
Valerius was too focused on Radulf to notice my reaction. Speaking now to Radulf, he said, "The Praetors aren't concerned about the bulla. It's the Malice of Mars they want, and they'll come to Nic for the key to unlocking it. If he gives it to them now --"
"I DON'T HAVE THE KEY!" I yelled. Only the gods knew how many times I had denied having the key, and they probably quit counting weeks ago. Lowering my voice only a little, I added, "Horatio never expected to die, so he had no reason to give away the key. Even if he did give it away, he'd never have cho
sen me. He hated me, and he believed Radulf would kill me in the arena, not him."
I heard a chuckle and looked sideways at Radulf, who had somehow found my words funny.
"But Horatio told everyone he gave it to Nic," Crispus said from behind me. We turned, and he added, "Besides, whether he has it or not, the Praetors will treat Nic as if he has the key. He must be protected."
Valerius leaned forward. "Radulf, you must make Nic give up the key, then take him as far from Rome as possible. Leave the empire if you can, though I doubt even that will be far enough."
"If he can't outrun the Praetors, then there's no point in leaving." Radulf smiled over at me. "Nic will not leave Rome, and he certainly will not give them the key. After he defeats the Praetors, I will take the Malice of Mars for myself."
"How?" I asked. "Even with the key, nobody knows where the Malice is hidden." I was still looking at Crispus as I spoke, and Valerius tossed him a warning glance. That made me curious.
Valerius tried again. "Please, Radulf, do not seek the Malice. It can only end badly. We need to give the Praetors the key and then get out safely, all of us. Lives depend on it."
Now I understood, and it didn't improve my opinion of Valerius much. "That's why you came here," I said to him. "You're not interested in saving my life, or in saving Rome from the Praetors. If you don't give them the key, they'll kill you."
Before he could answer, his eyes widened, and then he raised a shaking hand and pointed behind Radulf. We all turned and saw a group of Praetors entering the circus. They were dressed in the robes and togas of the upper class, but each of them had a thin silver band in the shape of an arrow wrapped around his arm. It was proof of their loyalty to Diana, who, according to Crispus, was in rebellion against the other gods. Every head in the circus turned my way.
A lump formed in my throat as I tried to figure out what to do. Valerius said they intended to take me.
"Give them the key," Valerius said, grabbing my arm. "Please, Nic. It's your only hope."
"He'll do no such thing," Radulf said, standing. "Nic, get behind me. The rest of you had better find a place to hide."
And in his hand, I saw a flame spark into a ball. While Aurelia, Crispus, and Valerius raced away, I braced myself for the fight.
Until coming to Radulf's home, I had always kept the bulla with me, and would've loved the chance to use it now. Since he had taken it for himself, Radulf had shown far more caution. He hid the bulla in his room, thinking it was safe from the Praetors or thieves. Or me. Still, the magic in the mark on Radulf's back was exceedingly powerful -- it would be enough to fend off the Praetors.
Even so, when I saw them enter the circus, the Divine Star on my shoulder sparked to life and burned like a cold flame, but I could not let Radulf know that. Having used magic to save my horses during the chariot race was already too risky. If I did anything here, he might take my magic again. I wouldn't survive that degree of pain a second time. So I curled my hands into fists, hoping that would be enough to hold the magic inside, and tried not to look at the Praetors.
They approached from the top end of the circus, nearly fifty of them. Every one of them had his eyes directly on me. I felt the weight of their glares like boulders on my chest; these men had power and wealth I could not imagine, almost as much as the senators of Rome, and they were no friends of mine.
Most of the onlookers who had been here before sensed the coming fight and were quickly clearing out. Even the charioteers had stopped their practice and turned their horses toward the stables. Valerius, Crispus, and Aurelia were gone too, leaving Radulf and me alone with the Praetors. I hated cowering in his shadow, but if it was true that they were here to get me, I had only two choices: To fight them and reveal my magic to Radulf. Or to cower.
"Stay close to me," Radulf said. "Let's hope the Praetors keep their distance."
"They have powers?" I asked.
"No, but they --"
"General Radulf, we mean you no harm," a Praetor in front said. He was both taller and younger than Radulf, with hair as curly as Crispus's, but as dark as night. His eyes were also dark and looked as if they'd been lined with soot. I recognized him from when Radulf and I had fought in the amphitheater. He was the man who had ordered Radulf to stop taking my magic. Though he might have saved my life then, I couldn't help but think as I looked at him that he regretted letting me walk away from the amphitheater as easily as I had. He had come here now to fix that mistake.
He said, "My name is Decimas Brutus, and I am a judge of the Roman Empire. We need to talk to that boy behind you, about crimes he has committed."
My shoulder flared again with pain, and I gasped and fell onto the steps, then clenched my teeth together in hopes Radulf wouldn't hear. Magic from the Divine Star was filling every vein of my body, begging to be released.
"I am the commanding general of all the armies throughout Rome," Radulf said. "If this boy committed any crimes, there is no one better than me to punish him."
Brutus came closer, his cold eyes on me. "Our new emperor, Florian, is still fighting in Gaul, but he has asked for an evaluation of the boy."
"If he wants to remain emperor, then Florian had better keep his distance from me, and my family," Radulf said.
"Is that a threat, General Radulf?"
"Yes, it is." Radulf didn't even flinch as he spoke. "Our last emperor, Tacitus, dismissed me too easily. I hope Florian will not do the same."
"Florian is your ruler!"
"We'll see about that." Radulf gestured to me. "Florian needs no evaluation of this boy. Neither do you."
"I disagree," Brutus said. "The empire must understand the extent of his powers, his ability to destroy Rome."
Radulf chuckled, whispering under his breath, "Or your ability to help them destroy Rome, eh, Nic?"
"I won't go with them," I whispered back. Radulf was a terrible person, and his intentions for Rome were just as bad as the Praetors', but at least I had some claim upon him as my grandfather. The Praetors would wring me inside out without a care for my life.
"What's in that bag?" Brutus asked, nodding at my waist. "A key, perhaps?"
"Sunshine," I told him. "And roses."
"Really?" Radulf scowled. "Must you anger them?"
Then he raised a hand and pushed it toward Brutus, who fell onto the stone steps. Instantly, every Praetor in the circus drew swords and spread out, encircling us. They blocked all of the exits, probably even in parts of the circus I could not see.
Brutus shouted, "Get the boy!"
"Horatio never gave me the key!" I shouted back. "I'm of no use to you!"
Brutus smiled. "Let us determine that."
Radulf twisted, repelling another Praetor who had come up behind us and gotten close. I felt the magic race through his Divine Star as it emptied. It seemed impossible that he didn't feel mine whenever I used magic.
"Don't let them touch me." Radulf sent magic toward yet another Praetor who was edging closer to us. "If they do, I can't protect you anymore. They'll take the key." I started to protest, and he looked at me long enough to say, "You have it, even if you don't know it."
He shot out more magic to keep the Praetors back, but I sank deeper into my thoughts. It was a partial attempt to distract myself from the pressure inside me, but I also had to ask myself if it was possible to hold the key to the Malice and not even know it. Had Horatio given me anything, even if it didn't look like a key? No, he never did, I was sure of it. But Crispus had been correct before -- Horatio himself did say that he had given me the key. Why tell such a lie?
Radulf grabbed my arm and swung me behind him as he rotated yet again. His punches of magic were becoming fiercer, but the Praetors were also coming in faster. He couldn't get them all.
Suddenly, a dozen Praetors rushed at us, all at once. Radulf sent out enough magic to fell most of them, but the rest kept coming and more were hurrying toward us, some with their swords out.
I noticed a few small rocks scattered o
n the steps and picked them up. My aim was true and I hit a couple of men who were rushing up the steps toward us. What little good that did also distracted me from noticing the Praetors who had been above us in the stands. With Radulf focused on those directly in front of him, two men grabbed me by the arms. One put a knife to my throat while the other picked up my legs. I squirmed and tried to get a hand free enough to do magic. With the energy contained inside me, I knew I could drop these two men to the ground faster than hard rain.
But something had happened. The instant one Praetor's hand grabbed my wrist, the magic drained out of me. It was gone, all of it. I tried sending out anything I could, just as a test, but nothing was there.
"Nic!" Radulf turned around, but the man holding the knife against my throat pressed it closer to my chin, and Radulf lowered his hand. I kicked with one leg and felt the knife cut. It wasn't terrible, but it did stop my squirming. The next cut might not be as lucky.
"You want something from me," I said. "So I know you won't kill me."
"We need that mark on your shoulder," the Praetor hissed as he slid the knife to my arm. "Not much else of you."
Then that same man suddenly howled in pain, dropping the knife and my hand that he'd been holding. I twisted around as he turned, revealing an arrow deep in his backside.
The Praetor holding my feet dropped them too, and I tumbled to the steps, landing hard on my side. That Praetor ran back down, clutching an arrow lodged in his arm.
I rolled to see Aurelia at the top of the steps with a bow in her hand and another arrow nocked. She nodded at me only momentarily, and then released the arrow toward a Praetor near Radulf.
At some point, the sack with the lead tablets in it must've been cut, and it had fallen down a couple of rows. I scrambled down to it and heard Radulf shout for me to get up to him instead. I would, in a moment.
With the Praetors at a distance, magic was starting to fill my body again, something I couldn't quite understand. But I had no time to contemplate it before Radulf was at my side.
"That sack doesn't matter as much as your life," he said.
Actually, this sack might save my life, but there was no time to argue. Instead, I mumbled, "There're still more Praetors."