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Chapter One

EPIGRAPH

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh'd soldier, rough and hard of heart.
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell. . . . 


William Shakespeare, Henry V 


 


Rain was again trickling from the greyness overhead, and the damp reek of the animals hung on the misty droplets. A hyena wailed miserably, longing for the dry plains it would never see again. Lycon listened without pity. Let it bark its lungs out here in Portus, at the Tiber's mouth, or die later in the amphitheater at Rome. He remembered the Ethiopian girl who had lived three days after a hyena had dragged her down. It would have been far better had the beast not been driven off before it had finished disemboweling her.


"Wish the rain would stop," complained Vonones. The Armenian dealer's plump face was gloomy. "A lot of these are going to die otherwise, and I'll be caught in the middle. In Rome they only pay me for live delivery, but I have to pay you regardless."


"Which is why I'm a hunter and you're a dealer," chided Lycon without overmuch sympathy. "Well, it won't ruin you," he reassured the dealer. "Not at the prices you pay. You can replace the entire lot for a fifth of what they'll bring in Rome."


The tiger whose angry cough had been cutting through the general racket thundered forth a full-throated roar. Lycon and the Armenian heard his heavy body crash against the bars of his cage. Vonones nodded toward the sound. "There's one I can't replace."


"What? The tiger?" Lycon seemed surprised. "I'll grant you he's the biggest I've ever captured, but I brought back two others with him that are near as fine."


"No, not the tiger." Vonones pointed. "I meant the thing he's snarling at. Come on, I'll show you. Maybe you'll know what it is."


Vonones put on his broad felt hat and snugged up his cloak against the drizzle. Lycon followed, not really noticing the rain that beaded his close-cut black hair. He had been a mercenary scout in his youth, before he had sickened of butchering Rome's barbarian enemies and turned instead to hunting animals for her arenas. A score of years in the field had left the beastcatcher as calloused to the weather as to all else.


For the beasts themselves he felt only professional concern, no more. As they passed a wooden cage with a dozen maned baboons, he scowled and halted the dealer. "I'd get them into a metal cage, if I were you. They'll chew through the lashings of that one, and you'll have hell catching them again."


"Overflow," the Armenian told him vexedly. "Had to put them there. It's all the cages I've got, with your load and then this mixed shipment from Tipasa getting here at the same time. Don't worry. They move tomorrow when we sort things out for the haul to Rome."


Beasts snarled and lunged as the men threaded through the maze of cages. Most of the animals were smeared with filth, their coats worn and dull where they showed through the muck. A leopard pining in a corner of its cage reminded Lycon of a cat he once had force-fed—a magnificent mottled-brown beast that he had purchased half-starved from a village of gap-toothed savages in the uplands of India. He needed four of his men to pin it down while he rammed chunks of raw flesh down its throat with a stake. That lithe killer was now the Empress' plaything, and her slavegirls fed it tit-bits from silver plates.


"There it is," Vonones announced, pointing to a squat cage of iron. The creature stared back, ignoring the furious efforts of the tiger alongside to slash his paw across the space that separated their cages.


"You've got some sort of wild man!" Lycon blurted with first glance.


"Nonsense!" Vonones snorted. "Look at the tiny scales, those talons! There may be a race somewhere with blue skin, but this thing's no more human than a mandrill is. The Numidians called it a lizard-ape in their tongue—a sauropithecus."


After that first startled impression, Lycon had to agree. The thing seemed far less human than any large ape, which it somewhat resembled. Probably those hairless limbs had made him think it was a man—that and the aura of malign intelligence its stare conveyed. But the collector had never seen anything like it, not in twenty years of professional hunting along the fringes of the known world.


Lizard-ape, or sauropithecus to render the word into Latin, seemed as good a name as any for the beast. Lycon could not even decide whether it was mammal or reptile, nor even guess its sex. It was scaled and exuded an acrid reptilian scent, but its movements and poise were feline. Ape-like, it walked erect in a forward crouch, and its long forelimbs seemed adapted for gripping and climbing. It would be about man-height if it straightened fully, and Lycon estimated its lean weight close to that of a big leopard. Its face was cat-like, low-browed and triangular of jaw. A wedge-shaped, earless skull thrust forward upon a snaky neck, and it had no more nostrils than a lizard did. Its eyes looked straight forward with human intensity, but were slit-pupiled and showed a swift nictitating membrane.


"This came from the Aures Mountains?" Lycon questioned wonderingly.


"It did. There was a big lot of gazelles and elephants that one of my agents jobbed from the Numidians. This thing came with them, and all I know about it is what Dama wrote me when he sent the shipment: that a band of Numidians saw a hilltop explode and found this animal when they went to see what had happened."


"A hilltop exploded!"


The dealer shrugged. "That's all he wrote."


Lycon studied the cage in silence.


"Why did you weld the cage shut instead of putting a chain and lock on it?"


"That's the way it came," Vonones explained. "I'll have to knock the door loose and put a proper lock on it before sending it off tomorrow, or those idiots at Rome will wreck a good cage trying to smash it open, and never a denarius for the damage. I guess the Numidians just didn't have a lock—I'm a little surprised they even had an iron cage."


Lycon frowned, uncomfortable at the way the beast stared back at him. "It's its eyes," he reflected. "I wish all my crew looked that bright."


"Or mine," Vonones agreed readily. "Oh, I make no doubt it's more cunning than any brute should be, but it's scarcely human. Can you see those claws? They're curled back in its palms now, but—there!"


The lizard-ape made a stretching motion, opening its paws—or were they hands? Bones stood out—slim, but like the limbs themselves hinting at adamantine hardness. The crystalline claws extended maybe a couple of inches, so sharp that their points seemed to fade into the air. No wild creature should have claws so delicately kept. The beast's lips twitched a needle-toothed grin.


"Fortune!" Lycon muttered, looking away. There was a glint of bloodlust in those eyes, something beyond natural savagery. Lycon remembered a centurion whose eyes had held that look—an unassuming little man who once had killed over a hundred women and children during a raid on a German village.


"What are they going to pit this thing against?" he asked suddenly.


Vonones shrugged. "Can't be sure. The buyer didn't say much except that he didn't like the thing's looks."


"Can you blame him?"


"So? He's supposed to be running a beast show, not a beauty contest. If he wants pretty things, I should bring him gazelles. For the arena, I told him, this thing is perfect—a real novelty. But the ass says he doesn't like the idea of keeping it around until the show, and I have to cut my price to nothing to get him to take it. Think of it!"


"What's the matter?" Lycon gibed. "Don't tell me that you so dislike its looks that you'll unload it at a sacrifice!"


"Hardly!" the dealer protested, defending his business acumen. "Animals are animals, and business is business. But I've got a hundred other beasts here right now, and they don't like the thing. Look at this tiger. All day, all night he's trying to get at it—even broke a tooth on the bars! Must be its scent, because all the animals hate it. No, I have to get this thing out of my compound."


Lycon considered the enraged tiger. The huge cat had killed one of his men and maimed another for life before they had him safely caged. But even the tiger's rage at capture paled at the determined fury he showed toward Vonones' strange find.


"Well, I'll leave you to him, then," the beastcatcher said, giving up on the mystery. "I'm crossing over to Ostia to see my old mate, Vulpes. Tomorrow I'll be by to pick up my money, so try to stay out of reach of that thing's claws until then."


 


"You could have gone on with it," Vulpes told him. "You could have made a fortune in the arena."


Lycon tore off a chunk of bread and sopped it with greasy gravy. "I could have got killed—or crippled for life."


He immediately regretted his choice of words, but his host only laughed. The tavern owner's left arm was a stump, and that he walked at all was a testament to the man's fortitude. Lycon had seen him after they dragged him from the wreck of his chariot. The surgeons doubted Vulpes would last the night, but that was twenty-five years ago.


"No, it was stupidity that brought me down," Vulpes said. "Or greed. I knew my chances of forcing through on that turn, but it was that or the race. Well, I was lucky. I lived through it and had enough of my winnings saved to open a wine shop here in Ostia. I get by.


"But you," and he stabbed a thick finger into Lycon's grey-stubbled face. "You were too good, too smart. You could have been rich. A few years was all you needed. You were as good with a sword as any man who's ever set foot in the arena—fast, and you knew how to handle yourself. All those years you spent against the barbarians seasoned you. Not like these swaggering bullies the crowds dote on these days—gutless slaves and flashy thugs who learned their trade in dark alleys! Pit a combat-hardened veteran against this sort of trash, and see whose lauded favorite gets dragged off by his heels!"


Vulpes downed a cup of his wares and glared about the tavern truculently. None of his few customers was paying attention.


Lycon ruefully watched his host refill their cups with wine and water. He wished his friend would let old memories lie. Vulpes, he noted, was getting red-faced and paunchy as the wineskins he sold here. Nor, Lycon mused, running a hand over his close-cropped scalp, was he himself as young as back then. At least he stayed fit, he told himself—but then, Vulpes could hardly be faulted for inaction.


Tall for a Greek, Lycon had only grown leaner and harder with the years. His face still scowled in hawk-like intensity; his features resembled seasoned leather stretched tightly over sharp angles. Spirit and sinew had lost nothing in toughness as Lycon drew closer to fifty, and his men still talked of the voyage of a few years past when he nursed an injured polar bear on deck, while waves broke over the bow and left a film of ice as they slipped back.


Vulpes rumbled on. "But you, my philosophic Greek, found the arena a bore. Just walked away and left it all. Been skulking around the most forsaken corners of the world for—what is it, more than twenty years now? Risking your life to haul back savage beasts that barely make your expenses when you sell them. And you could be living easy in a villa near Rome!"


"Maybe this is what I wanted," Lycon protested. "Besides, I've got Zoe and the kids to come home to in Rome—maybe not a villa, but we do all right." He tried to push away memories of sand and sweat and the smell of blood and the sound of death and an ocean's roar of voices howling to watch men die for their amusement.


Vulpes was scarcely troubling to add water to their wine. "Maybe what you wanted!" he scoffed. "Well, what do you want, my moody Greek?"


"I'm my own master. Maybe I'm not rich, but I've journeyed to lands Odysseus never dreamed of, and I've captured stranger beasts than the Huntress ever loosed arrow after."


"Oh, here's to adventure!" mocked Vulpes good-humoredly, thumping his wine cup loudly.


Lycon, reminded of the blue-scaled creature in Vonones' cage, smiled absently.


"I, too, am a philosopher," Vulpes announced loftily. "Wine and sitting on your butt all day make a good Roman as philosophic as any wander-witted Greek beastcatcher." He raised his cup to Lycon.


"And you, my friend, you have a fascination for the killer trait, a love of deadly things. Deny it as you will, but it's there. You could have farmed olives, or studied sculpture. But no—it's the army for you, then the arena, and what next? Are you sick of killing? No, just bored with easy prey. So now you spend your days outwitting and ensnaring the most savage beasts of all lands!


"You can't get away from your fascination for the killer, friend Lycon. And shall I tell you why? It's because, no matter how earnestly you deny it, you've got the killer streak in your own soul too."


"Here's to philosophy," toasted Lycon sardonically.


* * *

Lycon had done business with Vonones for many years, and the habitually morose Armenian was among the handful of men whom the hunter counted as friends. Reasonably honest and certainly shrewd, Vonones paid with coins of full weight and had been known to add a bonus to the tally when a collector brought him something exceptional. Still, after a long night of drinking with Vulpes, Lycon was not pleased when the dealer burst in upon him in the first hour of morning in the room he shared with five other transients.


"What in the name of the buggering Twins do you mean getting me up at this hour!" Lycon snarled, surprised to see daylight. "I said I'd come by later for my money."


"No—it's not that!" Vonones moaned, shaking his arm. "Thank the gods I've found you! Come on, Lycon! You've got to help me!"


Lycon freed his arm and rolled to his feet. Someone cursed and threw a sandal in their direction. "All right, all right," the hunter yawned. "Let's get out of here and let other people sleep."


The stairs of the apartment block reeked of garbage and refuse. It reminded Lycon of the stench at Vonones' animal compound—the sour foulness of too many people living within cramped walls. Beggars clogged the stairs, living there for want of other shelter. Now and again the manager of the block would pay a squad of the Watch to pummel them out into the street. Those who could pay for a portion of a room were little cleaner themselves.


"Damn it, Vonones! What is it!" Lycon protested, as the frantic Armenian took hold of his arm again. He had never seen Vonones so shaken.


"Outside—I can't. . . . That animal escaped. The sauropithecus."


"Well," Lycon said reasonably. "You said you didn't get much for the thing, so it can't be all that great a loss. Anyway, what has it to do with me?"


But Vonones set his lips and tugged the hunter down the stairs and out onto the cobbled street, where eight bearers waited with his litter. He pushed Lycon inside and closed the curtains before speaking in a low, agitated voice. "I don't dare let word of this get about! Lycon, the beast escaped only a few miles out of town. It's loose in an estate now—hundreds of those little peasant grainplots, each worked by a tenant family."


"So?"


"The estate is owned by the Emperor, and that lizard-ape thing killed one of his tenants within minutes of escaping! You've got to help me recapture it before worse happens!"


"Lady Fortune!" swore Lycon softly, understanding why the loss of the animal had made a trembling wreck of the dealer. "How did it get loose?"


"That's the worst of it!" Vonones protested, in the tone of someone who knew he would be called a liar. "It must have unlocked the cage somehow—I checked the fastenings myself before the caravan left. But nobody will believe that—they'll think I was careless and didn't have the cage locked properly in the first place. And if our lord and god learns that one of his estates is being ravaged . . ."


"Domitian shows his displeasure in interesting ways," Lycon finished somberly. "Are you sure it isn't already too late to hush this business up?"


Vonones struggled for composure. "For now it's all right. The steward is no more interested in letting this get out than I am, knowing the Emperor's temper. But there's a limit to what he can cover up, and. . . . It won't take very much of what happened to that farmer to exceed that limit. You've got to catch the thing for me, Lycon!"


"All right," Lycon decided. The sane voice of reason warned that he was plunging into a situation that might call down Domitian's wrath on all concerned, but his own voice was edged with excitement. "Let's get out to where the lizard-ape escaped."


 


 


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