***

The next evening, Theodore sent his men to Stilicho’s palace on the Palantine, where Eucher was saying while in Rome.

It was dark when Eucher left with an escort of guards. Theodore had also sent a litter and six slaves, and so for the first time since leaving Africa, Eucher allowed myself to be carried. Slaves walked ahead with lamps and around him walked several guards.

The blocks became unfamiliar as they wound through narrowing streets on the way up the Aventine, until, after a time, they entered an abandoned section where the tenements appeared uninhabitable. Shop,s attached to other shops, extended out from the once-cubical buildings to sprawl like lazy beasts across streets, funneling the throughways to the width of a man. When his litter-bearers reached a place too narrow to pass, they set Eucher down.

After he stepped from the chair, they tipped it sideways to walk through. Impatiently waiting for them, he didn’t recognize the scrape of metal until he heard the scream that followed.

Turning, he saw one of his guards on the ground and the rest surrounded by men who must have been hiding in the street. He swung his dagger at one of Theodore’s slaves who rushed at him. The slave fell hard, as if his leash went taut. Near his still body lay a shattered lamp, its wick still burning and its dim flicker reflecting off a knife stuck in his neck. A silver sparkle of dust extinguished the wick and Eucher saw the brief vision of a god.

Several of his guards were already dead in the street. Except for Gallus, all his slaves had run off. The men who remained were interested in ridding themselves of each other.

Still, Eucher knew he was the point of this and would be taken care of when his guards were dispersed. As men fell wounded or dead, he backed into the shadows of the wall with Gallus, who was terrified, barely able to move. Eucher managed to push him toward the street’s narrowed entrance, one hand around a knife, the other clamped on his slave’s arm.

A giant man with a leather cuirass and scarlet tunic noticed. He grasped a thin, unmilitary-looking blade. His face was familiar, though it was the kind of battle-scarred face that might have belonged to any soldier. When he grunted some curse, Eucher recognized the giant’s language, one he knew from the company of his father’s Hunnish bodyguard.

Shoving Gallus backward, Eucher used the leverage to lunge, but a body fell dead at his feet. He tripped and lost his knife. He fumbled for a club near the body, got hold of it, and swung, hitting the giant’s hand. The giant wrestled with him for the club until Eucher bit his face and pulled the club free. The giant crumpled after Eucher smashed his head, leaving a dent in his helmet and blood pooling in one eye.

Eucher rose and kicked him. He hit his face with the club. He hit him again and again and didn’t stop beating the skull until a chain wound around his left arm. When it tightened, the club flew from his grasp, and he was dragged sideways, feeling his shoulder crackle. Pain like fire took his breath away as he fell limp to the pavement.

Gallus cowered against the wall. Eucher shouted at him to run just as another chain wound around his neck and dragged him backward into blackness.

When he woke, he saw Gallus unwinding the chains and babbling. Eucher rolled to see one of his men pulling a knife out of the chain-wielder’s chest. Before he could make any decisions, three of his guards were dragging him back to the main street. They were well away when he asked a passing litter for directions to Theodore’s house.

When he reached his destination, Eucher recalled Theodore’s surprise, the smell of urine, and his own boots covered with someone’s vomit. Then he fainted.