Settings

Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 24


  What has started to seem more likely to me is that in the time of Flavius Romulus and Gaius Flavillus and Trajan the Dragon, publishing any sort of account of those mighty Emperors would not have been an entirely healthy pastime. Just as the finest account of the lives of the first twelve Caesars—I speak of Suetonius’s scathing and scabrous book—was written during the relatively benign reign of the first Trajan and not when such monsters as Caligula or Nero or Domitian were still breathing fire in the land, so too may it have seemed unwise for scholars in the epoch of the three Hispaniard monarchs to set down anything but a bare-bones chronicle of public events and significant legislation. To analyze Caesar is to criticize him. That is not always safe.

  Whatever the reason, no worthwhile contemporary books on the remarkable Flavius Romulus have come down to us, only mere factual chronicles and some fawning panegyrics. Of the inner nature of his successor, the shadowy Gaius Julius Flavillus, we know practically nothing, only such dry data as where he was born—like Flavius Romulus, he came from Tarraco in Hispania, my own native city—and which governmental posts he held during his long career before attaining the Imperial throne. And for the third of the three great Hispaniards, Trajan VII—whose surname happened by coincidence to be Draco but who earned by his deeds as well, throughout the world, the name of Trajan the Dragon—we have, once again, just the most basic annals of his glorious reign.

  That no one has tackled the job of writing his life in the two centuries since his death should come as no surprise. One can write safely about a dead Caesar, yes, but where was the man to do the job? The glittering period of the Renaissance gave way all too quickly to the dawning age of industrial development, and in that dreary, smoky time the making of money took priority over everything else, art and scholarship included. And now we have our new era of decadence, in which one weakling after another has worn the Imperial crown and the Empire itself seems gradually to be collapsing into a congeries of separate entities that feel little or no sense of loyalty to the central authority. Such vigor as our masters can manage to muster goes into inane enterprises like the construction of gigantic pointy-headed tombs in the Pharaonic style here in this isle of Sicilia. Who, in such an age, can bear to confront the grandeur of a Trajan VII?

  Well, I can.

  And have a thick sheaf of manuscript to show for it. I have taken advantage of my position in the Imperial service to burrow in the subbasements of the Capitol in Roma, unlocking cabinets that have been sealed for twenty centuries and bringing into the light of day official papers whose very existence had been forgotten. I have looked into the private records of the deliberations of the Senate: no one seemed to mind, or to care at all. I have read memoirs left behind by high officials of the court. I have pored over the reports of provincial excise-collectors and tax commissioners and inspectors of the public markets, which, abstract and dull though they may seem, are in fact the true ore out of which history is mined. From all of this I have brought Trajan the Dragon and his era back into vivid reality—at least in my own mind, and on the pages of my unfinished book.

  And what a figure he was! Throughout the many years of his long life he was the absolute embodiment of strength, vision, implacable purpose, and energy. He ranks with the greatest of Emperors: with Augustus; with Trajan I and Hadrianus; with Constantinus; with Maximilianus III, the conqueror of the barbarians; with his own country-man and predecessor Flavius Romulus. I have spent these years getting to know him—getting to know the Dragon!—and the contact with his great soul that I have enjoyed during these years of research into his life has ennobled and enlightened my days.

  And what do I know of him, this great Emperor, this Dragon of Roma, this distant ancestor of mine?

  That he was born illegitimately, for one thing. I have combed very carefully through the records of marriages and births in Tarraco and surrounding regions of Hispania for the entire period from 2215 to 2227 A.U.C., which should have been more than sufficient, and although I have found a number of Dracos entered in the tax rolls for those years, Decimus Draco and Numerius Draco and Salvius Draco, not one of them seems to have been married in any official way or to have brought forth progeny that warranted enumeration in the register of births. So his parents’ names must remain unknown. All I can report is that one Trajan Draco, a native of Tarraco, is listed as enrolling in military service in the Third Hispanic Legion in the year 2241, from which I conclude that he was born somewhere between 2220 and 2225 A.U.C. In that period it was most usual to enter the army at the age of eighteen, which would place his date of birth at 2223, but, knowing Trajan Draco as I do, I would hazard a guess that he went in even younger, perhaps when he was sixteen or only fifteen.

  The Empire was still under Greek rule at that time, technically; but Hispania, like most of the western provinces, was virtually independent. The Emperor at Constantinopolis was Leo XI, a man who cared much more about filling his palace with the artistic treasures of ancient Greece than he did about what might be going on in the Europan territories. Those territories were nominally under the control of the Western Emperor, anyway, his distant cousin Nicephoros Cantacuzenos. But the Western Emperors during the era of Greek domination were invariably idle puppets, and Neicephoros, the last of that series, was even more idle than most. They say he was never even to be seen in Roma, but spent all his days in comfortable retreat in the south, near Neapolis.

  The rebellion of the West, I am proud to say, began in Hispania, in my very own native city of Tarraco. The bold and dynamic Flavius Romulus, a shepherd’s son who may have been illiterate, raised an army of men just as ragged as he, overthrew the provincial government, and proclaimed himself Emperor. That was in the year 2193; he was twenty-five or thirty years old.

  Nicephoros, the Western Emperor, chose to regard the Hispanic uprising as an insignificant local uproar, and it is doubtful that news of it reached the Basileus Leo XI in Constantinopolis at all. But very shortly the nearby province of Lusitania had sworn allegiance to the rebel banner, and the isle of Britannia, and Gallia next; and piece by piece the western lands fell away from their fealty to the feckless government in Roma, until finally Flavius Romulus marched into the capital, occupied the Imperial palace, and sent troops south to arrest Nicephoros and carry him into exile in Aiguptos. By the year 2198 the Eastern Empire had fallen also. Leo XI made a somber pilgrimage from Constantinopolis to Ravenna to sign a treaty recognizing Flavius Romulus not only as Emperor of the West but as monarch of the eastern territories too.

  Flavius ruled another thirty years. Not content with having reunited the Empire, he distinguished himself by a second astonishing exploit, a voyage around the tip of Africa that took him to the shores of India and possibly even to the unknown lands beyond. He was the first of the Maritime Emperors, setting a noble example for that even more extraordinary traveler, Trajan VII, two generations later.

  We Romans had made journeys overland to the Far East, Persia and even India, as far back as the time of the first Augustus. And in the era of the Eastern Empire the Byzantines had often sailed down Africa’s western coast to carry on trade with the black kingdoms of that continent, which had led a few of the more venturesome Emperors of the West to send their own expeditions all the way around Africa and onward to Arabia, and from there now and then to India. But these had been sporadic adventures. Flavius Romulus wanted permanent trade relations with the Asian lands. On his great voyage he carried thousands of Romans with him to India by the African route and left them there to found mercantile colonies; and thereafter we were in constant commercial contact with the dark-skinned folk of those far-off lands. Not only that, he or one of his captains—it is not clear—sailed onward from India to the even more distant realms of Khitai and Cipangu, where the yellow-skinned people live. And thus began the commercial connections that would bring us the silks and incense, the gems and spices, the jade and ivory of those mysterious lands, their rhubarb and their emeralds, rubies and pepper, sapphires, cinnamon, dyes, p
erfumes.

  There were no bounds to Flavius Romulus’s ambitions. He dreamed also of new westward voyages to the two continents of Nova Roma on the other side of the Ocean Sea. Hundreds of years before his time, the reckless Emperor Saturninus had undertaken a foolhardy attempt to conquer Mexico and Peru, the two great empires of the New World, spending an enormous sum and meeting with overwhelming defeat. The collapse of that enterprise so weakened us, militarily and economically, that it was an easy matter for the Greeks to take control of the Empire two generations later. Flavius knew from that sorry precedent that we could never achieve the conquest of those fierce nations of the New World, but he hoped at least to open commercial contact with them, and from the earliest years of his reign he made efforts to that end.

  His successor was another Hispaniard of Tarraco, Gaius Julius Flavillus, a man of nobler birth than Flavillus whose family fortunes may have underwritten the original Flavian rebellion. Gaius Flavillus was a forceful man in his own right and an admirable Emperor, but, reigning between two such mighty figures as Flavius Romulus and Trajan Draco, he seems more of a consolidator than an innovator. During his time on the throne, which covered the period from 2238 to 2253, he continued the maritime policy of his predecessor, though giving more emphasis on voyages to the New World than to Africa and Asia, while also striving to create greater unity between the Latin and Greek halves of the Empire itself, something to which Flavius Romulus had devoted relatively little attention.

  It was during the reign of Gaius Flavillus that Trajan Draco rose to prominence. His first military assignments seem to have been in Africa, where he won early promotion for his heroism in putting down an uprising in Alexandria, and then for suppressing the depredations of bandits in the desert south of Carthago. How he came to the attention of Emperor Gaius is unclear, though probably his Hispanic birth had something to do with it. By 2248, though, we find him in command of the Praetorian Guard. He was then only about twenty-five years old. Soon he had acquired the additional title of First Tribune, and shortly Consul too, and in 2252, the year before his death, Gaius formally adopted Trajan as his son and proclaimed him as his heir.

  It was as though Flavius Romulus had been born again, when Trajan Draco, soon afterward, assumed the purple under the name of Trajan VII. In the place of the aloof patrician Gaius Flavillus came a second Hispaniard peasant to the throne, full of the same boisterous energy that had catapulted Flavius to greatness, and the whole world echoed to the resonant sound of his mighty laughter.

  Indeed, Trajan was Flavius redone on an even grander scale. They were both big men, but Trajan was a giant. (I, his remote descendant, am quite tall myself.) He wore his dark hair to the middle of his back. His brow was high and noble; his eyes flashed like an eagle’s; his voice could be heard from the Capitoline Hill to the Janiculum. He could drink a keg of wine at a sitting with no ill effect. In the eighty years of his life he had five wives—not, I hasten to add, at the same time—and innumerable mistresses. He sired twenty legitimate children, the tenth of whom was my own ancestor, and such a horde of bastards that it is no unusual thing today to see the hawk-faced visage of Trajan Draco staring back at one in the streets of almost any city in the world.

  He was a lover not only of women but of the arts, especially those of statuary and music, and of the sciences. Such fields as mathematics and astronomy and engineering had fallen into neglect during the two hundred years of the West’s subservience to the soft, luxury-loving Greeks. Trajan sponsored their renewal. He rebuilt the ancient capital at Roma from end to end, filling it with palaces and universities and theaters as though such things had never existed there before; and, perhaps for fear that that might seem insufficient, he moved on eastward into the province of Pannonia, to the little city of Venia on the River Danubius, and built himself what was essentially a second capital there, with its own great university, a host of theaters, a grand Senate building, and a royal palace that is one of the wonders of the world. His reasoning was that Venia, though darker and rainier and colder than sunny Roma, was closer to the heart of the Empire. He would not allow the partition of the Empire once again into eastern and western realms, immense though the task of governing the whole thing was. Placing his capital in a central location like Venia allowed him to look more easily westward toward Gallia and Britannia, northward into the Teuton lands and those of the Goths, and eastward to the Greek world, while maintaining the reins of power entirely in his own hands.

  Trajan did not, however, spend any great portion of his time at the new capital, nor, for that matter, at Roma either. He was constantly on the move, now presenting himself at Constantinopolis to remind the Greeks of Asia that they had an Emperor, or touring Syria or Aiguptos or Persia, or darting up into the far north to hunt the wild shaggy beasts that live in those Hyperborean lands, or revisiting his native Hispania, where he had transformed the ancient city of Sevilla into the main port of embarkation for voyages to the New World. He was a tireless man.

  And in the twenty-fifth year of his reign—2278 A.U.C.—he set out on his greatest journey of all, the stupendous deed for which his name will be forever remembered: his voyage completely around the world, beginning and ending at Sevilla, and taking into its compass almost every nation both civilized and barbaric that this globe contains.

  Had anyone before him conceived of such an audacious thing? I find nothing in all the records of history to indicate it.

  No one has ever seriously doubted, of course, that the world is a sphere, and therefore is open to circumnavigation. Common sense alone shows us the curvature of the Earth as we look off into the distance; and the notion that there is an edge somewhere, off which rash mariners must inevitably plunge, is a fable suited for children’s tales, nothing more. Nor is there any reason to dread the existence of an impassable zone of flame somewhere in the southern seas, as simple folk used to think: it is twenty-five hundred years since ships first sailed around the southern tip of Africa and no one has seen any walls of fire yet.

  But even the boldest of our seamen had never even thought of sailing all the way around the world’s middle, let alone attempting it, before Trajan Draco set out from Sevilla to do it. Voyages to Arabia and India and even Khitai by way of Africa, yes, and voyages to the New World also, first to Mexico and then down the western coast of Mexico along the narrow strip of land that links the two New World continents until the great empire of Peru was reached. From that we learned of the existence of a second Ocean Sea, one that was perhaps even greater than the one that separates Europa from the New World. On its eastern side were Mexico and Peru; on its western side, Khitai and Cipangu, with India farther on. But what lay in between? Were there other empires, perhaps, in the middle of that Western Sea—empires mightier than Khitai and Cipangu and India put together? What if there were an empire somewhere out there that put even Imperial Roma into the shade?

  It was to the everlasting glory of Trajan VII Draco that he was determined to find out, even if it cost him his life. He must have felt utterly secure in his throne, if he was willing to abandon the capital to subordinates for so long a span of time; either that, or he did not care a fig about the risk of usurpation, so avid was he to make the journey.

  His five-year expedition around the world was, I think, one of the most significant achievements in all history, rivaling, perhaps, the creation of the Empire by Augustus and its expansion across almost the whole of the known world by Trajan I and Hadrianus. It is the one thing, above all else that he achieved, that drew me to undertake my research into his life. He found no empires to rival Roma on that journey, no, but he did discover the myriad island kingdoms of the Western Sea, whose products have so greatly enriched our lives; and, moreover, the route he pioneered through the narrow lower portion of the southern continent of the New World has given us permanent access by sea to the lands of Asia from either direction, regardless of any opposition that we might encounter from the ever-troublesome Mexicans and Peruvians on the one hand or
the warlike Cipanguans and the unthinkably multitudinous Khitaians on the other.

  But—although we are familiar with the general outlines of Trajan’s voyage—the journal that he kept, full of highly specific detail, has been lost for centuries. Which is why I felt such delight when one of my researchers, snuffling about in a forgotten corner of the Office of Maritime Affairs in Sevilla, reported to me early this year that he had stumbled quite accidentally upon that very journal. It had been filed all that time amongst the documents of a later reign, buried unobtrusively in a pack of bills of lading and payroll records. I had it shipped to me here in Tauromenium by Imperial courier, a journey that took six weeks, for the packet went overland all the way from Hispania to Italia—I would not risk so precious a thing on the high sea—and then down the entire length of Italia to the tip of Bruttium, across the strait by ferry to Messana, and thence to me.

  Was it, though, the richly detailed narrative I yearned for, or would it simply be a dry list of navigators’ marks, longitudes and latitudes and ascensions and compass readings?

  Well, I would not know that until I had it in my hands. And as luck would have it, the very day the packet arrived was the day the Caesar Demetrius returned from his month’s sojourn in Africa. I barely had time to unseal the bulky packet and run my thumb along the edge of the thick sheaf of time-darkened vellum pages that it contained before a messenger came to me with word that I was summoned to the Caesar’s presence at once.

  The Caesar, as I have already said, is an impatient man. I paused only long enough to look beyond the title page to the beginning of the text, and felt a profound chill of recognition as the distinctive backhanded cursive script of Trajan Draco rose to my astonished eyes. I allowed myself one further glimpse within, perhaps the hundredth page, and found a passage that dealt with a meeting with some island king. Yes! Yes! The journal of the voyage, indeed!