***

“Rome stinks,” complained Arsace as he waddled another step and tried to fan the smell away with his hand. “Rome stinks,” he repeated as he touched his hand to his nose.

Eucher side-stepped his adjutant to avoid a gathering of exuberant Christians who crowded the street. He sneered at the sea of Christian drab before he caught sight of a rose-purple tunic swaying neatly at the ankles of a pacing man. Eucher drew to a stop.

The man was an imperial agent, one of the well-bred generations of servants strewn through the imperial palace with the same beautiful disregard as the rose petals littering the audience hall. He had come to collect a fine of pork from the butchers, who stood around the street sharing jokes about what agents and mules have in common. Like all the Master’s Men, the agent kept a smug silence. He tapped a bronze-tipped baton on the wagon’s belly, while his assistants jostled each other behind him and slaves loaded the meat collected for the fine.

When Arsace and the agent noticed each other, they shifted and glanced away like self-conscious conspirators. “Our first day back,” announced Arsace loud enough for the agent to hear, “and I can’t wait to get to Ravenna. Lovely, lovely Ravenna.”

After a few steps, Arsace slouched again, letting his body sink into his broad hips as if he were filling a sack. Silk stretched around his pulpy chest, and his graying hair pressed in waxy ringlets around his head. He wore green like a woman and sweated. He was a eunuch who served in the imperial palace at Ravenna until he was caught taking bribes. Since he had important allies, he was saved from the torture he deserved and sent to assist Eucher, who found tolerance a daily challenge.

It was the first of August in the year named for the western Consul, Anicius Bassus. Honorius Augustus was Eucher’s adoptive uncle and had been the western emperor for thirteen years. Eucher’s father, Stilicho, had been Master General longer than that. Eucher held the rank of tribune, but he didn’t hold the office. He merely ran errands for his uncle because Honorius sought by station what he failed at by nature.

In June, Eucher had delivered an order to the commander of the African legions, another of his uncles, this one by barbarian blood. Africa was to transfer troops to Italy which was, as always, in need of soldiers. The Germans had been at the empire’s borders terrorizing the cities into treason. The chaos encouraged ambitious generals, and the Gauls supported any traitor as long as he promised to do what Rome failed to do.

Not that anything in Gaul had changed in fifty years. The invasions weren’t new. They had no beginning and no end. They were a progression, like waves coming ashore—Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Alemanni, Burgundians, Huns, Vandals, Alans, Suevi. One year they were fighting each other. The next year they were fighting Rome.

Eucher’s retinue of assistants and guards followed him as he strolled through Rome on his first morning back. Unlike Arsace, Eucher loved Rome. He loved the variety, the history, the filth. Especially the filth. What Eucher valued most was honesty, and he seldom found that in palaces. Lies were an expensive business, so the brothels and beggars in Rome’s market couldn’t afford them.