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Hunting the Phoenix

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Athens had always been a homecoming for the Emperor. More than Rome, more than the Omphalos, it was the center of the world. All good things, all wisdom and virtue, emanated from Athens, a light that had shone for half a millennium. Publius Aelius Trajanus Hadrianus Augustus was more a Greek than a Roman in his heart, or at least his detractors whispered that, and Athens boasted of it. From my decade skirting the peripheries of his orbit, I had never seen this Greekness. But then, I would define it differently.

This visit was different. The expected light did not shine. Hadrian had always been a seeker of otherworldly knowledge. He drew it to himself, collected it. Astronomers, augurs, philosophers - he hungered after what they knew, or what he thought they knew. It was that which lead him to attempt to force speech from Secundus the Silent. And the philosopher’s tirade in return - written, mercifully, to preserve his oaths of silence - that began a new and darker era of knowledge. Ill portents, grim superstitions, whether they came from the color of Hadrian’s mind or the true influence of the stars is a fine distinction of little importance. What mattered was that he grew tense and vituperative, insecure of place and future. Hadrian was a man of precautions, but what precautions can be taken against the emanations of fate, or premonitions of tragedy?

Still, he tried. A chain of ill luck was needed to bring him to me. An omen at a construction site sent him out of the city for a day of riding - a second sign hinted to him that his own stable was unsafe, and sent him to plunder his wife’s train, where I was groom.

If you have ever imagined seeing a god, you may understand an emperor a little. Your life is on the scales every moment he gazes upon you or contemplates your name. I was not awed by it, but I was conscious of it. No. That is too light a word. I was terrified of him, as sailors are said to fear the sea.

Imagine then if you will that, while you are under this regard, you become conscious of the fact that this icon was a man, as fallible as yourself, as victim to moods and vicissitudes, stars and tides. I have spoken of this to many, since it happened, and all said the same: they would fear more, that the power so embodied might be carelessly wielded. You do not wish to see the arms of Atlas tremble wearily. For me, already in dread of this man who appeared before me with the suddenness of any eidolon, demanding mounts for himself and his escorts, snappish of their quality, it was not so.

I permitted myself to be chastised, eyes downcast, trembling. After he departed I went only slowly back to my work, thinking that I had heard something I did not understand, while I had stood studying my sandals. The emperor was a storm, and for nine years I had weathered thoughtless buffets cast at me from afar, driving me from my course. I had witnessed clouds and thunder before. But they had been impersonal, as this had not.

I was still digging my fingers in the clay of that thought, teasing shapes from it, when he returned. I had taken myself to clean the filth from the stalls furthest from the entrance - let the hungry-eyed who sought a moment of glory shed on them find it! - and so I was bent, sweeping, and when I saw only the shod feet and bare calves that rounded the corner to speak with me, I did not mark whose they were, and kept my eyes upon my work. He cleared his throat, and I continued, and he gave a weak laugh to preface himself.

“If I chafe under my burdens, it is still beneath me to hang those weights around the necks of lessers,” he said, and I looked up, startled. So I met the Emperor’s eyes for the first time since I was a boy of nine, as close now as we had been distant then, alone rather than with a festival-crowd separating us. I do not think he remembered me. I do not believe he had ever given a second moment of thought to the fate of the boy he had sent his secretary to obtain, and never again noted.

But the same look was in his eyes in both moments. And I possessed no more shields to hide behind nor knives to avail myself of.