EMPEROR THE WHO?
Chapter XX, where senator Albinus is not happy with the emperor and Nil learns to master the roads
“Mithra!” Seven feet tall Running on the Sun Gaius Albinus Leon, a patrician and senator, roared through his clenched teeth and hit the writing table with his heavy fist. The table was heavy and made of old oak so it survived. Gaius looked around to see that nobody was close by. The cult of Mithra was secret, its members were not supposed to shout his name in the presence of anybody uninitiated. Only his friend, Levton, was sitting on a couch nearby. That was ok, Levton was Persian. Not a Persian from Persia, that was his rank in the brotherhood.
“Interesting news?” Levton asked with a laugh. He was a Greek, less than thirty years old with dark smart eyes and a carefully trimmed beard and moustache, framing his regular, lean face.
“See this letter from Lucceius?” Gaius said, showing the scroll of papyrus that he was holding in his hand. “You know where he is now, right?”
“Lucceius Albinus? He is the procurator of Judea,” Levton said. “Thanks to your benevolence and the brotherhood’s help. Why?”
“Read it,” Gaius said and passed the letter.
Levton read it through. “Interesting, Christians burning Rome with the help of Jews and Egyptians.”
“Do you believe it?” Gaius asked.
“What? About Christians or about burning Rome?”
“Yes, I also don’t think this pathetic rabble has anything to do with an arson,” Gaius said.
“But you also suspect that Rome will burn, just the way Lucceius reports?” Levton asked.
“How long will this pluck of a dog rule the empire? He is not even an Augustus. He was adopted by Claudius, who was persuaded in bed by his mother just to be killed by her poison.”
“Well, she paid for that. He killed her right after his coming of age,” Levton said. “Do you think it’s him?”
“Who else?” Gaius said. “Did you hear, he wants a new large palace, right on Palatine, going up to Esquiline Hill. And where will he get the space for a palace?”
“So he decided to clean some space with a fire,” Levton said. “And who cares if some people burn?”
“We care, Persian,” Gaius said with low voice.
“I know, Running on the Sun,” Levton agreed. “But he does not.”
“His sins exceeded all measures,” Gaius said.
“He has to go,” Levton agreed. “Can we do anything about the fire?”
“Probably, nothing,” Gaius said. “If his dog, Tigellinus, arranges it, we have no control over the execution of such a plan.”
“But we can use the fire,” Levton said. “If the people learn that he did it…”
“He will be gone,” Gaius finished. “For good.”
“Give him enough rope,” Levton smiled.
“To hang himself,” Gaius nodded.
“We need to bring it to the council of the brotherhood,” Levton said.
“Truly so,” Gaius agreed.
“What if Rome does not burn?” Levton asked.
“What if Lucceius is wrong?” Gaius said. “Or what if Tigellinus does not succeed? We need a backup plan to present to the council.”
“You are right,” Gaius agreed. “Tigellinus is only good to make silly accusations and kill innocent people. And, of course, organize orgies on the Agrippa’s lake.”
“In a sense, that’s what he is going to do here too,” Levton said. “That is, kill innocent people.”
“True,” Gaius agreed. “But he still may fail, and then we need another plan.”
“Tell me if I am out of line, Running on the Sun…” Levton said.
Gaius just looked at him, waiting for the question.
“Could a few Warriors lend a hand to Tigellinus’ people, to make sure Rome burns?” Levton said. “And they can do that to Tigellinus’ palace, returning the fire to the incendiary.”
“And making it even more suspicious to the public,” Gaius agreed.
Levton nodded with a chuckle.
“First, we need a council to decide that the brotherhood will need to get rid of him,” Gaius said.
“That should be easy,” Levton said. “This scumbag is the most hated person in the empire, unless you count Tigellinus as a person.”
“So be it, Persian,” Gaius said.
“So be it, Running on the Sun.”
* * *
Two days passed. There was again the dark passage, the Sun shining on the benben stone, the priest at the altar, and an unhurried walk on the Temple wall.
“So, you are back,” the priest said.
“You were right,” Nil said. “All my life I served the empire, not the emperor. That’s my life, and that’s my honor.”
“Have you decided anything?”
“Frankly, I am lost,” Nil said. “I don’t want a part in organizing the fire, and I cannot prevent the fire. I don’t know what to do.”
“You are asking the wrong questions,” the priest said. “Remember, start from the purpose. You said you serve the empire. Should you prevent the fire?”
“Shouldn’t I?” Nil asked.
“Who’d like to see Rome burned?” the priest asked.
“Tigellinus,” Nil said. “Maybe the emperor too.”
“Too many,” Nil said after a moments thought. “Almost everybody would try, if they were not afraid.”
“And if the empire shows a weakness?”
“They will attack, like a pack of jackals would attack a sick lion.”
“So, who made the lion sick?” the priest asked patiently.
“Tigellinus, the prefect?” Nil asked.
The priest only shook his head.
“The emperor?” Nil said, surprised himself with what he had said.
“Yes,” the priest answered. “He is not fit to rule the empire. He is weak, and jealous, and foolish. So what should people who try to save the empire, do?”
“Depose the emperor?” Nil asked. “Assuming these people can do that.”
“Can you do that?”
“No,” Nil admitted. “I am nobody.”
“Sometimes, and very often, nobody is much more than somebody,” the priest smiled. “But you’re right – to serve the empire you need the power. The more challenge you face, the more power you need. And what is the ultimate power in an empire? Aside from God, of course?”
“The emperor?” Nil asked.
The priest slowly shook his head. He turned to the moonlit landscape outside, standing erect and recalling something.
“There were the times when we used to appoint the kings in this land,” he said at last.
“Isn’t it in God’s hands?” Nil asked.
“Yes. But He needs the tools to do that… human tools,” the priest said. “Why not you? Raise the new emperor, get rid of the old one, and your empire will see the next day.”
“The next day?” Nil chuckled joylessly. “Not so much.”
“What do you want?” the priest said and shrugged his shoulders. “Every night Re fights the great snake Apophis, so that he could rise again in the morning, and so that we will see another day. He does not have to do so. He could settle down in the underworld and be quite comfortable there. But he fights so that we can see another day. Just one more day. Because the next day, he will have to fight again. Did you hope for more for yourself? That’s all you can do. To give your people one more day. And this new day will bring new battles.”
“With the new emperor it may be more than one day,” Nil said.
“Sure,” the priest agreed. “It could be a few decades of prosperity. Just don’t count on that and be ready.”
“But I don’t know how to do this task,” Nil said.
“Does it mean that you take it?” the priest asked.
“It sounds like an honorable thing even to try,” Nil admitted. “What’s your interest in giving Rome ‘another day’?”
“It’s your interest,” the priest said. “Rome is our offspring, but we are not so much interested in Rome as we are interested in you.”
“Me?!” Nil said dumb struck by such a statement. “Forgive me, but who am I to be of any interest to you?”
“Sure, I forgive you,” the priest said with a relaxed smile.
“And can you explain?” Nil asked after he recognized the joke.
“You see, empires live differently than people,” the priest said. “At some point they overgrow their bodily appearance and become spirits, powerful spirits brought around by people and influencing other lands. That’s what happened to Kemet. We overgrew our land, and borders, and armies. People are carrying our spirit to the farthest ends of the world. Our offspring flourishes, growing into new lands, new people, new empires. Jews have our way of life, our knowledge of living in an empire. They left Egypt, but they brought Kemet in their hearts and souls, and they will bring Kemet with them wherever they go. You Romans took the other part of our spirit, a very important part, the spirit of the Empire – maybe one of the most precious sides. Parthians lately got the idea of the benevolent rule and power. Not that they mastered it, but at least they have it. This is also very important. Christians and Jews will spread the idea of one true God around, and I wish them every success in that. But one side of Kemet is missing, one very, very important part.”
He came close to the parapet on the outer side of the wall.
“The Temple,” the priest said and tapped the stones. Sand spilled from the parapet under his hand. “These stones served us well for millennia. It helped to control pagans and keep them not far away from morality and good. Now that Kemet is a spirit, it cannot use a stone temple anymore. Christians and Jews will bring the idea of the true God to people, but that’s about making pagans believe in one God. That would be a great achievement, but the world will still need the consecrates, the Temple, to keep them on track. Not to rule others, we never did that, not to point others how to believe, but to prevent the unfortunate turns of life such as what happened now, to keep monsters off the power, to give people another day. In the spiritual Kemet to come, people will need a spiritual temple, made of people, not stones.”
“So you want me to be a stone in your temple?” Nil asked.
“No, you already are,” the priest smiled. “And anyway, one stone is too little; you need many of them. That’s what Jews and Christians will do – they will provide the bricks for the spiritual Temple. They are very good at it. If I remember their sacred texts right, that’s what they did here. But the stones don’t come into the Temple by themselves, and stones certainly don’t come into the Temple by themselves right. You need to be sure that you are building the Temple, not a ramshackle hut ready to crush down because of the slanted shaky walls and lack of a plan. It needs an architect, an engineer, a mason. And more than one, actually.”
“I see that you are not of very high opinion about Jews and Christians,” Nil said. “Brick makers?”
“Don’t be arrogant,” the priest said. “That’s a lot. When your bricks are people, that is the most important part. Only by respecting them, can you succeed in your own mission.”
“Fine. But what do I get?” Nil asked.
“Our knowledge, our wisdom, our power,” the priest said. “To give your people another day.”
“Why me?” Nil asked. “I admit, it’s tempting, but why me?”
“Because, it’s your mission,” the priest said. “That’s why you came to this world – to give your people another day. Remember, I told you that I would talk to stars about you? I did.”
“Am I the only one?” Nil asked.
“It depends,” the priest said. “Your mission is just one side of the spiritual Kemet. Within it, you are one with Romans, with Jews, with Parhians, with Christians, even with Greeks. Are you the only one in your special side? No. You will need followers, you will need allies. Are we talking to anybody else? Yes, sometimes. We are very selective, and the person should ask himself, even before he is told what to ask. What if somebody else comes here and asks? I may talk to him. And if he is the right man, I may send him to you, or I may give him another mission. It all depends on the stars and God’s will. Anyway, as I said – you asked for a purpose, a mission of your life, I have one for you. Do you take it?”
“I have to go back soon,” Nil said. “I cannot stay to learn.”
“Of course, you cannot. You have a mission to do, remember? Don’t worry, we can send our people with advice for you,” the priest said. “Anyway, we are not going down so soon, you and your followers will still have a century or two to learn from us.”
”So, what now,” Nil asked. “An initiation, mystic places, clandestine rites?”
“No, not for you,” the priest laughed softly. “You have an immediate mission, remember? To give Rome another day.”
“Still, no initiation, no rite? Does not sound Egyptian…”
“I can send a few Temple girls to dance in front of you and Simaat, if you need some rite that it will make you feel better,” the priest shrugged his shoulders. “I think, your problem with rites is exactly the same as with false gods: you just don’t know that they are highly optional to say the least.”
“Both false gods and rites are supposed to keep commoners in control and out of sacred knowledge until they are ready for it,” the priest said. “These are the tools. You need to learn how to use these tools, but you don’t have to try them out yourself. A dentist knows how to extract a sick tooth, but he does not take out his own healthy teeth just because he is a dentist. After all, you came to this world with this mission, your soul was sent by God to do exactly that. What extra initiation do you need after that?”
Nil scratched his head and did not say anything.
“Good,” the priest said. “Now about your direct mission. I cannot tell you what to do, it’s your job. But I can help you find the right questions and the right answers, as well as give advice, which you are free to follow or abandon. I am not your superior – I don’t give orders. You are only responsible to God for what you do. We hope to raise a child of Kemet, not another slave. A child who will be well and alive when this stone temple is long gone. Is that understood?”
“I would not take your orders even if you try to give them,” Nil said. “But I’ll listen to your advice and give a good thinking to it.”
“Perfect,” the priest said with an almost happy smile. “That’s what I would expect from a son with a promise of greatness. So, what do you think is the main sickness that endangers Rome?”
“The emperor,” Nil said, somewhat amused at how easily he said that.
“Truly so,” the priest agreed. “He is trying to convert your Empire into a mere robber state like Babylon. And robber states don’t last long. Now what do you have to do?”
“Get rid of him.”
“How do you know that the next one will be better?”
“A very stupid answer, Nil,” the priest interrupted him. “You might as well hope that he will die tomorrow all by himself. Hopes are for no-doers. How do you make it happen?”
“Are you saying that I should find the new emperor?”
“You need to make sure the new emperor is better than this one,” the priest said. “That’s for sure.”
“How do I do that?”
“You cannot do that.”
“But you said that I should, right?”
“You cannot do that by yourself,” the priest explained. “That’s the way in politics, you don’t do something yourself, you make others do what you want for yourself.”
“The senate, the people of Rome,” the priest shrugged his shoulders. “And you cannot make them do that by yourself either.”
“So do how I do that?”
“By getting allies,” the priest said. “By aligning with the people who want the same or almost the same. Then you influence them to correct their actions just a little, to match what you want. You cannot change it a lot, well, in some cases you can, but it’s usually not worth the effort. Just a little is all you need if they already want the things to be almost the same as you do.”
“And then helping them, right?”
“Not necessary,” the priest said. “If you closely associate yourself with somebody, you may become one of them, and then your options will be limited. Keeping a distance from all your allies gives you a freedom to get more allies, including allies for other tasks. And remember – never do a job that somebody else can do. Spend your time finding others who can do the job that you need. That’s what is important.”
“That’s smart,” Nil agreed. “But how do I find them.”
“By trying. You’ll learn with time,” the priest said. “By the way, spend a few days with Simaat discussing your problems. He is very good at this stuff. He may help you with ideas where to find the allies and how to influence them. There is a proverb: ask the people to do what they love to do, and you will not have to work for the rest of your life.”
Nil smiled. “I’d love to.”
“I thought you would,” the priest said. “Now, before ‘how to do’, let us see if we are crystal clear about ‘what to do’?”
“We need to get rid of the emperor,” Nil said. “And we need to find and crown the new emperor, someone who will be good for the Empire.”
“And now, what about the fire?”
“I don’t think I can prevent it,” Nil said.
“But can you use it?”
The conversation went long, almost until the morning. Nil spent a few more days talking to the Great Seer at nights and Simaat during the day. On the seventh day, he and Simaat left to Alexandria.
* * *
Again there was a silence under the huge moon covering the endless marshes surrounding the river. Nil woke up from the scream of a bird caught in its nest by a crocodile. The boat was almost the same size as the one that brought Nil to On. It was one of the last ships this season bringing the grain down the river to be shipped to the capital, to the Great Rome, to feed its shouting crowds.
Nil shook his head. What the hell, he thought, did I agree to do just a few days ago? Depose the emperor? Me? Have I gone crazy? He clasped his head in his hands. That’s the emperor! What happened to me? How did I agree to such a thing? They will smash me like a fly and will not even notice…
He looked around. The great silence surrounded the ship. This world was magnificent, mighty, and it knew it. It felt like it was asking: emperor the who? Really, Nil thought, who? That pimply hoarse bastard? He chuckled and looked around again. This world was really mighty; even the air breathed with the power and purpose. It felt even stronger than several days ago on the way up. But now it was not threatening anymore. Nil felt all this might and power behind him, supporting him, filling him. Emperor, the who?
He recalled one of the last conversations with the Great Seer.
“Is not it a grand task for one man?” Nil asked.
“You are not one,” the priest said. “You will find allies. And remember, no matter how great a task looks, a road will be conquered by walking.”
“A somewhat cryptic message, isn’t it?”
“It means that you have to walk to walk the road over, and there is no other way,” the priest said.
“How?” Nil asked.
“One step at a time.”
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