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Rise of the Wolf, Page 3

Jennifer A. Nielsen

  "Try to breathe normally," he said. "This hurts a little."

  And then with his hands on my shoulders, I was sucked into darkness, and the circus disappeared before my eyes.

  We returned to Radulf's home, built amongst the military camps in the northeastern part of the city. Far from nearly everything, except his soldiers.

  Once I came back to myself, I immediately pulled away from Radulf's firm grip. I was still bleeding from where the Praetor had cut me, but he had no concern for that and only said, "Go to your room. I have work to do."

  "No!" I shouted. My left arm stung from the vanishing, or reappearing, or whatever he had done, and magic still surged through me. In the past hour, I had seen my mother, and then Aurelia -- with Crispus -- and then I'd narrowly escaped capture by Brutus and his Praetors. The tumult of emotions within me sounded like anger.

  "You will obey me, boy!"

  "You almost got me killed just now. Valerius warned you they were coming, and your only response was that you welcomed the fight?"

  "I want the Malice. If we have to fight a few Praetors along the way, then so be it!"

  "I can't fight those Praetors for you, Radulf, nor will I. What difference does it make if they destroy Rome, or you do it?"

  "Because," he hissed, "they don't care if you are still standing when this is all over."

  With my body square to him, I shook my head. "And you do? I'm nothing but a tool for your treason!"

  He smiled. "If I win, then I write the history books. We will write them, together."

  I darkened my glare. "You won't win without me. And I won't have any part in your plans."

  I turned on my heel and marched to my room, slamming the door shut behind me. I wished I had somewhere else to go. This wasn't really a bedroom. Before I'd come, Radulf had used it as a place to plan his military strategies, and it looked the part.

  The frescoes on the wall were images of the goddess Minerva, just as fierce a warrior as her half sister, Diana. When he first brought me here, Radulf had described a ten-year war in which the giants had fought the gods. Minerva fell into battle with a dragon, an enormous serpent the Romans called a draco. As the serpent twisted around to kill Minerva, she threw the dragon into the northern skies, where it instantly froze. Painted on the ceiling was the draco coiled around the constellation, its forked tongue lashing out in anger. Looking up at it was hardly the most pleasant way to fall asleep each night.

  I avoided that image now as I paced in my room, reviewing the dozen things I wished I had said to Radulf, and then kicked at the door, in case he had somehow missed my anger.

  My eyes fell upon a wax tablet near my bed. After cleaning up my neck and changing into a new tunic, I sat with the tablet, attempting to concentrate enough to practice my writing. Radulf had me tutored every day in reading and writing, and I was working hard to become as educated as any other boy my age. It was a steep goal, but I was making tremendous progress. As frustrating as it could be to create words out of the shapes I scratched into the wax, the ability to learn had become as exhilarating as when I first took control of the bulla's magic, and perhaps for the same reason. Knowledge was raw power.

  Soon after, Livia slipped into my room. Deep wrinkles lined her brow, evidence of her worries for me. Since we'd come to Radulf's home, I'd seen those worries increasingly often. "I heard you yelling," she said. "Even the gods in the heavens would've heard that."

  I handed her the sack of lead tablets, as I had all the others I'd collected since I began racing. "There weren't as many as I hoped for," I said. "We ran into trouble, or I'd have gotten more."

  "What happened at the circus?" she asked. "Everyone is asking questions, but Pater won't see anyone."

  She still called him that, hoping if she treated him like a grandfather, he would stop treating us like prisoners. It was a foolish wish. I doubted whether Radulf felt any emotions at all other than greed and envy. Certainly there was no room for love of his grandchildren.

  "We're leaving," I whispered. "Tonight."

  Livia's eyes widened. "Why? Why now?"

  There was so little I dared explain to her. Telling Livia I had seen our mother would give her false hope. Explaining anything about the Praetors would terrify her.

  "Because we're out of time." I nodded at the curse tablets. "Do we have enough?"

  "There's no way to know. But they'll have to do."

  My door opened, and one of Radulf's pig-snouted servants filled the frame. "The general asks you to join him for a private supper."

  There was little difference between Radulf asking me to do something and ordering it. All I could do was nod in reply.

  "Your sister will eat alone tonight," the servant said.

  All the better. She had an important job ahead. Livia nodded to the servant and said, "Please have some food brought to my room." She took the heavy curse tablets with her when she left.

  With that, I followed the servant to Radulf's tablinium. This area was usually reserved for him to work, so when he brought me there to eat, I understood why: I was work for him, not family. This wasn't our first supper in private, though I had spent most of them refusing to say a word to him. Tonight was different.

  We had no sooner been left alone when I asked him, "How did you make us disappear?"

  "It's not complicated magic. I think of where I want to go, picture it as if I were already there, and then let go of my surroundings. It feels like jumping off a cliff at first, but you get used to it." Then Radulf drummed his fingers against the table while he looked me over. "It takes practice to master, but of course, without magic, that trick will be impossible for you. Won't it?"

  The way he said it worried me. Did he know my magic had returned? If so, why didn't he say something? Surely he knew I would never volunteer such dangerous information.

  Which also meant I couldn't ask the biggest question on my mind -- why all of my magic had vanished when the Praetor grabbed me.

  So instead I said, "Without magic, I'm no good to help you destroy Rome. There's no point in keeping me here."

  Radulf smiled as if he knew something I didn't, then sat back to eat and invited me to do the same. I remained where I was.

  I said, "Crispus told me that Diana is in rebellion against the other gods."

  "Valerius told me the same thing. It's a secret the Praetors have guarded for three hundred years." Radulf grimaced. "For the sake of the gods, Nic, sit down and eat."

  This time I did, and reached for some bread and dipped it in warm honey. Maybe I was a prisoner in Radulf's home, but I was a well-fed prisoner. If it wouldn't have made him suspicious, I'd have loaded my arms with every bite of food at this table, in preparation for Livia's and my escape.

  Radulf continued, "Because he had descended from Venus, Emperor Julius Caesar was a favorite of the gods. Venus powered his bulla, which he used to achieve glory. With every victory of Caesar's, Venus also gained even more honor, and Diana became jealous. After all, Diana had descendents in Rome too, and they'd been given no special treatment. So when Caesar abandoned the bulla -- his protection -- Diana launched her war. She wanted Caesar dead."

  "Caesar was stabbed to death by Marcus Brutus." I finished the bread and reached for fish now. "That Praetor who tried to take me from the circus was named Decimas Brutus."

  "That's no coincidence." Radulf finished chewing his bread, then added, "Decimas is from the same family as Marcus, and Marcus comes from --"

  "Diana," I breathed. "Marcus was her descendent."

  "Decimas comes through the same family line." Radulf leaned forward. "Diana stole the Malice from the heavens and gave it to Marcus, who used it for the murder. Then Diana filled the bulla with her powers, expecting it would also fall into Marcus's hands. She poured into it her strength, her anger, and her jealousy."

  I thought of the jealousy I had felt when seeing Crispus and Aurelia together earlier that day, or really, any time I had ever seen them together. It was one emotion of Diana's t
hat I completely understood.

  "Upon Caesar's death, a war erupted in the heavens, between those who favored Venus and those who felt Diana had been wronged." Radulf leaned forward and locked eyes with me. "The war followed to this earth, where the Praetors are still fighting Diana's battle. Nic, when Valerius spoke of the Praetor War, this is it. We are only pawns in the war of the gods. To lose means death, but to win --" Radulf's smug smile widened. "My boy, this is why I am keeping you here. Winning will make us gods as well."

  I barely breathed as Radulf spoke. My mind couldn't absorb so much this quickly. "Then Diana's rebellion isn't over?" I whispered.

  "It was," Radulf said. "As king of the gods, Jupiter stepped in to make peace between his children. Two amulets of the gods had been given to Rome, and he could not change that. So to appease Venus's followers, he placed Apollo's griffin in the cave to guard the bulla."

  Caela. I had not seen her since I came to Radulf's home. I wondered if she was still in the empire or if she had returned to her master in the heavens.

  "Then to appease Diana's followers, the Malice was hidden, and said to be guarded by a wolf, the sacred animal to Mars," Radulf said. "But the key to finding the Malice was given to the presiding magistrate of the Senate, so that only a person loyal to Rome could ever access it. We must find that hiding place first, before the Praetors get to it."

  I shook my head. "Even if we had the key -- and we don't -- and even if we knew where the Malice is -- and we don't -- we'll never get past a wolf belonging to the gods. Without the bulla, I can't speak to animals anymore. You still can't."

  Radulf threw down the bread in his hands. "The bulla doesn't work anymore. Perhaps Diana abandoned it too."

  "It worked perfectly well for me." It was a taunt to him, and we both knew it. "Give the bulla back and I'll use it."

  Radulf's laugh was false and mocking. "You were a slave when you stole it, a nothing. The bulla was never meant for you."

  "Yet I could power it, and in your hands, it's useless."

  "You've tricked me somehow."

  I arched a brow. "A Roman general is tricked by a boy worth nothing? Is that how history will write about you?"

  "Enough!" Radulf stood and called for his guards. When they arrived, he said, "Take my grandson to his room. He'll be there for the rest of the night."

  No, I wouldn't.

  They led me away, though by now I was so used to this routine that I only walked along beside them. I was allowed a few minutes to prepare for the night, then they brought me into my room. I sat on my bed and held up my left wrist, the one Aurelia had been so concerned about before.

  A guard cuffed my wrist with a chain already attached to the bed. It was too tight -- thus, the sores on my skin -- and too thick for me to escape. At least, without magic.

  For the first week that I was here, I had fought the guards each night until I finally began putting together a plan for escape. Radulf's doors were well guarded, with soldiers stationed at every exit. I also knew I couldn't leave without Livia, or without the bulla. And once I used magic to break free from this chain, Radulf would know it, so we needed a quick way out of Radulf's home. Finally, I was ready to put my plan into action, and I just hoped it wasn't an utter disaster.

  I lay on the bed for several hours, wide awake and counting the minutes. Radulf had sent me to my room earlier than usual, so I'd had to wait through the long evening when he was still awake.

  He was in his room, trying to make the bulla work again. I knew because I could feel him using his magic, and it only made me laugh. Even if he bounced on his head to make it work, it never would. And because I could feel that magic, I also had some idea of when he gave up and settled in for the night. I waited a long time after that, even after the entire household had quieted down. Because I was chained, Radulf never worried about posting guards at my door, and he never chained Livia or had her guarded. He figured she would never escape without me. Two great mistakes.

  Finally, it was time to go, and I sat on my bed and laced up my sandals. I had spent every minute of my time here holding back the magic I felt in the Divine Star on my shoulder. Even now, I didn't dare use any more of it than was absolutely necessary, but it definitely wanted to release. I would have to be careful.

  Once I was free, I didn't want any of the chain left binding my wrist. So I pressed my thumb down on the lock, wishing if I had any key at all, it would be this one. Then I closed my eyes and focused on the Divine Star.

  Whenever I had used the magic from the bulla, it came through me like a flood, so much more than I could control. And most of the time, the bulla also overpowered any feeling from the Divine Star's magic, which wasn't quite as strong, and not nearly as difficult to control.

  At my command, the magic flowed from my shoulders down my arms and into my hands. The bulla had always been warm, even hot, but the Divine Star was cool, like river water. When I felt it in my thumb, I twisted it against the lock, and as I had hoped, the lock turned too and the cuff snapped open. I was free.

  Free of the lock, at least. I paused a moment to determine if Radulf had perceived my use of magic. On the rare occasions when I had used bits of it, he didn't seem to have noticed, and I had only used another bit of magic just now. But I had to be sure.

  There was no response from Radulf -- none of his voice crashing into my head as he used to do before I came to his home. Maybe that was the trick, to work so close to his own magic that he could not tell the difference between my magic and his.

  I tiptoed to my door and inched it open. Still, it didn't sound as if anybody was awake, which seemed curious to me. As leader of all the armies in Rome, Radulf was noticeably absent from the battles the new emperor, Florian, was fighting in Gaul. Did he think there would be no consequences for that? That Florian would not have his revenge? Radulf's home was usually far more guarded than this.

  Or maybe that wasn't necessary. Radulf had ordered the last emperor's death. If Florian was smart, he would celebrate being as far from Radulf as possible.

  I was in the atrium now, grateful for the rain pouring into the pool and the sound of raindrops overhead. It would provide some cover for whatever noise I made.

  Radulf's love of the dragon was everywhere here, in frescoes and statues, and even carved into the columns as serpents climbing the walls. They were Radulf's reminders to visitors that he remained a general of the empire. Whenever they rode into a battle, the military carried banners of the draco's head attached to wind socks. They helped the archers determine wind direction but also served as a reminder to the enemy that the gods were on our side. The carvings seemed to stare at me now, warning that they favored Radulf, not me. A fact I already understood perfectly well.

  I crept toward Radulf's room. I had only been inside it once, when I snuck in to figure out where Radulf hid the bulla. Radulf had caught me there and my punishment for being in his room had been fierce. But it didn't matter. I had found his hiding place.

  I opened Radulf's door as slowly as possible. I had no idea how deeply Radulf slept, but there was no reason for me to get close to him. One of the marble squares of his floor was loose, and he hid the bulla in a cavity beneath it.

  I got to all fours and crawled there now, near the window of his room. Outside, the rain had begun falling heavier, which I appreciated as I gripped the edge of the marble and tilted it upward. It gave way without too much noise, but when I reached down for the bulla, I found nothing there. I looked inside, certain there must be a mistake, but no, it was empty.

  And when I lowered the marble again, Radulf stirred. This time when he rolled, I saw the bulla, loosely clutched in his hand. The snake had gone to sleep with it!

  I cursed under my breath, then crawled to the edge of Radulf's bed. It was made of ivory and gilded with gold insets and draped with golden cloth. If the gods slept, then I doubted it was in a bed as fine as Radulf's.

  I wrapped my hand over the face of the bulla. The gold had gone cold now, which m
ade me want it all the more, because I knew how to make it work again. The side of the bulla facing me had a griffin engraved on it. I thought again of Caela and how easy my escape would be if she were here now.

  His sleeping hand easily released the bulla, but the chain was wrapped in the other. Careful not to make the slightest sound, I unwound it from his fingers, then crouched low to pull the last link free.

  When I did, his hand curled over the chain, and the other hand reached out and grabbed my tunic at my neck.

  "So," he snarled, his eyes fully open, "after all I've done for him, my grandson is still a thief."

  I put both hands on the bulla to prevent him from pulling it away from me, but did so at the expense of my neck, which he was choking in his clutch.

  "You fool of a boy!" he said. "Did you think I couldn't sense your magic? In the circus today, when you nudged your horses to safety, and all the times before when you've used it. When you freed yourself just now."

  Then I really was a fool, because of course he would know. He had been waiting all this time for me to try something just like this.

  "Did you think I wouldn't guess you were coming here to steal my bulla?"

  "My bulla!" I said through gasps for air. "I'm stealing it back!"

  He tugged at the amulet, and I pulled harder at it, though his grip tightened around my neck until splotches of darkness filled my vision. I was going to faint. Which meant I was going to lose, and that made me furious.

  "I brought you into my home," he said. "Fed you, clothed you, gave you the horses for the chariot races. I gave you and your sister everything."

  "Everything but freedom," I said. "Which is all I ever wanted."

  And with that, I sent magic from the Divine Star toward him. It hit him in the chest, throwing him against the far wall. Both the bulla and my neck were free, so I turned and started running.

  He threw a ball of magic at my heels, and I fell to the ground when it hit me but scrambled to my feet again to stumble into the atrium. Then I sent out more magic to collapse his doorway.

  By then we had made enough noise that every guard in his house was running toward me. I shot out magic at anyone who got in my way, though I wasn't practiced enough with the Divine Star to do much more than trip them or cause a vase or marble bust to fall in their path.