Book I

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Book One: synopsis
Book Two: synopsis

Chapter XXI, where the wish of so many comes true

The morning of the third day of September Ides was not remarkable in any way. Just another day. People were eating, sleeping, making love, and making enemies, talking, shouting, trading, and wasting their lives in innumerable other ways as usual. The emperor was not in the city. He went to his suburban residence in Actium to relax and have some time away from his busy schedule. Some would say from the busy schedule of binges, orgies, and executing more innocent people, but anyway, he was not in the city following Tigellinus’ advice. After all, they knew the day, so who would suspect the emperor if he was not even around to give such an order? Not that he gave such an order, of course.

The day passed uneventfully and the sun began to set. When the last ray went off, many interesting and visibly unrelated events started to unroll under the dim reddish light of the evening dusk.

*  *  *

Followers of Seamus gathered on the corner near the circus. Each of them brought a piece of wood, and Seamus brought a jug of oil. They put the wood together, ignoring passers-by. Passers-by ignored them as well. Who cared if a small group of slaves made a little heap of wood in the middle of the road, unless they were in your way? Maybe they are ordered to fix the road? Everybody had their own business to attend.

Seamus started a speech with curses towards the city and promises of the eternal life for everybody who joined him. Now some of the people on the street started to look his way occasionally, and a couple of poorly dressed gapers joined the group, staring at the leader and listening to him. Most of the people, however, hurriedly passed by ignoring wailing and shouting now produced by the group. The Roman public was busy, and who cares if a small group of bozos tries to preach on the street? You definitely don’t want to be involved.

Meanwhile Seamus oiled the wood, spilling enough on the pavement around as well. Then he slipped on the oil and it took some time to get the wood back into the heap. By this time his tunic absorbed most of the oil from the wood, so they had to repeat oiling again. Luckily, one of the followers was enthusiastic enough to bring another jar of oil with him. Carefully balancing to avoid slipping again, Seamus took a torch and raised it high in his hand.

“Now comes the time, brothers,” he howled, “when this dirty city is gone for good in the wrath of God! Watch it go, brothers!”

He put the torch down and his tunic burst into flames. Nobody moved. The followers waited for the leader to fire up the wood, and the staring passers-by decided that this was part of the performance. In fact, now more people passing by stopped and started to stare. You don’t see a live person bursting into flames every day. That was exciting and interesting, almost as exciting and interesting as the games. The crowd started to whistle and applaud. Seamus, meanwhile, was rolling on the ground and shouting, so in a few seconds followers realized that something had not gone by the plan. As it was not completely clear to them what the plan was, they started to shout too, adding confusion to the whole mess.

Seamus would probably have suffered greatly, but three vigils, who passed by, broke to him through the crowd and put the fire out to the great disappointment of the public gathered around. Somebody even threw an apple core at the vigils. Anyway, the vigils were not on the job now, they were just going to a tavern. They did not bother to investigate what happened or detain the strange man who almost burnt himself right on the street. They had more important things to do. Only the youngest one delayed long enough to spit on Seamus, and run after his friends already entering the tavern.

The crowd started to disperse, discussing the event, some excitedly, some with disappointment. A detachment of Praetorian Guards passed by, moving to the area behind the river where many of the Christians lived. They did not pay any attention to the group of poorly dressed perplexed people surrounding a man with heavy burns over his body. They were busy fulfilling the order of arresting Christian incendiaries who lived on another bank of Tiber.

*  *  *

Bokha’s people gathered in front of the Dragon’s store and warehouse. Along the street they saw the corner with Seamus and his people. When they saw the flames and heard the shouting of the crowd, they rushed into the store, as Bokha said, to make the final payments to the old foe and competitor. Surprisingly, there was nobody in the store, so the task became very easy to achieve.

It actually would not be so surprising if they’d known that Dragon’s people had, at the same time, assembled on another side from the same corner in front of the Bokha’s store. Understandably, there was nobody in this store either.

*  *  *

Hludwick was not with Seamus that night. He was sent on a mission by his master, Doctor Noot, and the mission was pretty much the same as the one that Seamus was trying to achieve. Not that he did not try to be with Seamus, but when he asked the master for the night off, he was deeply disappointed. He even started to worry about the salvation of his soul. That’s, of course, until he knew what the master wanted him to do that night. Hludwick even double-checked with Seamus – no, there should be absolutely no problem with salvation, the prophet confirmed.

Hludwick and two other slaves quietly came to the house of ben Ata Khin. One man threw a jar of oil into the dark window of the first floor. Another accompanied it with a burning torch. They quickly turned around the corner and repeated the procedure. Then they disappeared in the darkness.

Doctor Noot and Doctor ben Ata, meanwhile, were in the residence of the Roman Dental and Plumbing Association. The ceremony of initiation of new members had just finished and the leaders of the two factions were engaged in peaceful and friendly conversation, both with goblets of wine in their hands.

“It was a great year for all of us. For our prosperity, dear colleague,” Doctor Noot said, raising the goblet.

“It surely was. For our prosperity, Doctor,” ben Ata said with a well-disposed smile and raised his wine.

Benjamin was not at home in Tigellinus’ palace this night. Together with ben Ata’s servant, he was approaching Doctor Noot’s house. They showed more sophistication than Hludwick – ben Ata paid for a few pouches of the Greek fire, a highly flammable substance sometimes used in military operations. When the fiery pouches disappeared in the dark window, both turned and walked away, ignoring the yellow glares starting to grow inside the house.

*  *  *

Maalish looked around a small room that he had rented just few days ago. The floor and walls were well oiled and ready. He stepped closer to the door and smiled slightly with the ends of his lips. The prince would be satisfied.

He took a piece of oiled fabric, lit it up from the lamp, and dropped it on the floor. Then he looked around, slowly left the room, closed the door behind him, and walked away by the dark street.

He knew that a dozen of his people did the same in several places around the city, take or add half an hour. He knew that by now, they had all left the doomed houses and walked to the secret meeting place in the far corner of the city.

*  *  *

Three sicaries, an extreme faction of zealots, were going along one of the back streets. They were choosing black windows, whose inhabitants were either not home or already sleeping. The torches they used were a variation of oil lamps, so after being thrown into windows they were spilling everything around with blazing drops of oil. Eleazar suggested the idea when sending them to Rome.

“And remember,” he said with a smile, “you are sent there to not do that.”

Not too many, anyway. They managed to do it only to three houses before people started to run out to the street, crying and looking for incendiaries. Then all three dived out into a narrow lane, ran away, and then repeated it on another street. Any other day, they would be quickly caught by vigils and guards, but this day was special, and vigils were already busy.

*  *  *

A group of zealots led by Shaul and financed by Temah were doing about the same behind the river, in the area densely populated by Christians. They were choosing wooden houses, dry as firewood after the hot summer, putting some flammable stuff, usually some straw, on the back of the house, where it was not visible from the street. Then they fired it up and moved to the next target, leaving it to the divine will to make the fire grow or die.

*  *  *

People of Galen gathered near the spot that Lucius Vistinus – the prefect of Egypt – picked for himself. The actual spot was on the top of the hill with rich residences, wide yards, guard dogs, and slaves who could put a small fire out all by themselves. So instead they came to the foot of the hill, where poor two- and three-story multifamily dwellings were crumbled upon each other. Galen figured that if these houses caught fire, the flame would easily climb from one house to another to the top of the hill, cleaning the whole place.

Dressed as vigils, they went along the street, looking for the dark windows. They spotted one and went to the door. Galen knocked loudly at the door to the apartment, and curious faces appeared in the windows across the street.

“By the order of Caesar!” Galen demanded loudly and knocked again.

The faces quickly disappeared. Nobody wanted to be involved. Galen broke the door and they entered. The apartment was empty, apparently the tenants were not here at the moment. Galen’s men spilled oil across the room and added two pouches of burning Greek fire as a starter. Then they all left the building and moved along the street.

They passed a dozen houses before repeating the procedure. Now the apartment was not empty. An old man – probably some low level scribe or maybe even a slave of the missing tenant – was soundly asleep when they came in.

“You are arrested by the order of Caesar for attempt of arson,” Galen loudly declared, so that all the neighbors heard it. The old man fell on his knees, shaking and begging for mercy. Two of Galen’s men took him out to the street, while the rest repeated manipulations with the oil and Greek fire without witnesses, and left after closing the door behind. Now, Galen thought with a smile, the blame would be put on the tenant. Everybody will think that “vigils” just missed a spot and left some fire alive. They passed about a dozen more houses when Galen grabbed the old man by the collar.

“Look, father,” he said. “I don’t believe you really did anything wrong, so here is your chance – run. And don’t return home or you will be arrested.”

He let the old man go, who obediently stumped into the narrow lane without asking any questions. Galen chuckled with satisfaction for his own smartness. No, he did not invent this way to spread the fire. It was actually Nil who described it after he returned from Heliopolis. All Galen had to do was ask, with a naïve look in his eyes, how was it possible to set a great city on fire? No, really, how? It’s beyond what mortals can do. Galen recalled with a smile how the stupid Roman shrugged his shoulders and provided step-by-step instructions without a clue that they would really be used.

The first house already caught fire, so they passed two more blocks before picking the next target.

*  *  *

Nobody saw how or when the heavy draperies in the private dining room of the emperor caught fire. In fact, nobody noticed it until the whole room was in flames and the fire spread outside. In less than an hour, most of the palace was burning and the fire was spreading further.

*  *  *

When Tigellinus arrived in the city, more than a third of it was already on fire. According to witnesses, the fire started in a couple of stores located near the circus. Then it spread all over the city.

There was a moment when it looked like vigils and citizens managed to contain the fire. The great damage was already done, but there was a hope to stop it now. Then, to the surprise of Tigellinus, the fire started again in his own palace and spread around the city with all its elemental fury.

*  *  *

The emperor interrupted his stay in Actium and got back. It was the night when he reached the city walls. The imperial procession could not get into the city because it was on fire so they stopped before the gates. The emperor and his escort went to the nearby heights. The city was visible from this place to the farthest ends. It was brightly lit by fires covering about two thirds of it with the hot orange glow. The smoke going up and lit by the fire formed queer shapes in the air. Small figures of men and women were running on the streets, some trying to extinguish the flame, some just trying to run from it.

The emperor stood at the edge of the hill. Tigellinus and Poppaea were by his sides and a little behind. Dismayed by the view, Poppaea pressed her hands against her chest, motionlessly watching with wide open eyes. In contrast, Tigellinus stood completely unmoved and relaxed, viewing the city with a vacant look and expecting the emperor to make the decisions.

“Such a tragedy,” the emperor said solemnly at last. “Truly a great tragedy that will be foretold by future generations with awe and reverence. I probably should honor my people with a song now. The one which I devoted to the Fall of Troy.”

Poppaea looked at him, surprised, then slowly shook her head behind his back without saying a word.

“Should we try to take care of survivors?” Tigellinus asked. “Something like ordering food delivery and distribution, and maybe opening some parks to live in until the city can be rebuilt?”

“Yes,” the emperor said. “Do that. Open all my private parks for people.”

A soldier in the red cloak of a Praetorian Guard, with soot on his face, approached the group.

“I was sent with a message to the prefect,” he said.

“Talk,” the emperor commanded.

“The witnesses say there are people on the streets throwing torches into windows and shouting that they do it by the order of Caesar,” the soldier said. “A few survivors also claim that these people are Praetorians in civil cloths.”

The emperor turned to Tigellinus. “Did you give such an order?!”

“No, Caesar,” the prefect said. “How could I? I remember your orders!”

“Then who are these people?”

“How do I know?” Tigellinus said and turned to the messenger with a gloomy look.

“I did not see these people myself,” the soldier said, trying to appear not scared. “I’ve seen people claiming that, and my commander thought that you’d prefer to know.”

The emperor dismissed the messenger, who disappeared at once with visible relief, and turned to Tigellinus.

“I hope this has nothing to do with that money Galba is going to raise now?” he said with a low voice.

“I almost told this money good bye already, when the message of fire came in,” Tigellinus said almost sincerely.

Another man approached the emperor. He was dressed as a northeastern barbarian, probably Skyph or Sarmat, with the gold rings and bracelets on his hands and a silver neckpiece with gems.

“Ze sing and ruler of Hyperborea sends his sincere condolences to Caesar, ze great ruler of Rome,” he said with a deep bow, burring the words with a weird accent.

“Who, the hell, is that?” the emperor asked with a puzzled expression on his face and pointing to the man with his little finger.

“I am ze ambassador of his Majesty Sing of Hyperborea, extraordinary and plenipotentiary,” the man said with another low bow. “His Majesty asked me to say that he never quarrels with Rome and feels ze grief of your people.”

“I thought Hyperborea only exists in the tales of drunken sailors,” the emperor looked at Tigellinus. The prefect said nothing, puzzled as much as everybody else.

“Vee are not ze tales of drunken zailors,” the man said with a wide smile and another bow. “Vee are ze land on ze north, far far on ze north. And vee are really sympathize with your tragedy.”

“How?” the emperor asked. “How did you know about that?” He pointed with his hand to the burning city.

“Zis is hard to miss,” the man said with another bow. “You see? Zis is very well visible from far around.”

“How long have you traveled to Rome?” the emperor asked.

“More zan three months,” the man said proudly. “Zis was a very very long and hard way, and I had to hurry to come in time.”

The emperor sat on the folding chair, brought by somebody from the retinue, clasped his hands around his head, and quietly moaned. Tigellinus made a sign, and a soldier from the escort took the ambassador, extraordinary and plenipotentiary, by the collar and pushed him behind the retinue, standing in a semicircle just few steps behind the emperor.

Tigellinus, relaxed and self-assured, glanced to the city submerged in the fire.

“Don’t worry, Caesar,” he said. “Rome is great and strong. It will be born again from these ashes, as great and as mighty as ever. My men are already arresting the ones who performed the arson. And about the one who devised such a plan and put it in motion… we will find him and he will pay for this crime. I had a man who never failed me before. He will find this criminal and bring him to justice. My man’s name is Nil Septimus, and he never, really never, failed me before.”

The Emperor Nero was sitting on the folding chair at the edge of the hill, clasping his head in his hands, quietly moaning, and looking at the great fire of Rome.