Fabia stepped off her longboat and clung to the cliff. She watched the boat float down the Nile river. She knew two of the four member Frumentarii guard would capture her boat upstream and prepare it for the next stage of her plan. Downstream, the remainder of her guard hid in a crook of the great river, concealed from the Kushite patrols. She knew her ascent to the base of the Kushite palace would be stealthy. No one expected an enemy agent to scale the cliff then walls of earth and stone. Soldiers patrolled the opposite bank of the nile river and the Nubian archers were renown for their skill with a bow, but she was confident they wouldn’t be able to loose an arrow across the river’s span. Still, they could alert palace guards to her location, ending her mission.
She recalled the intelligence she gathered for this mission as she scaled the cliff. The Viceroy of Kush employed a disgraced Han Dynasty knight-errant named Liao. Liao’s skill with the Han Dao was known to not only the Frumentarii, but most of the Roman Senate. Liao was scheduled to depart for the Hainan Island Dao Tournament that morning. Fabia knew her mission had little chance of success until Liao left. Fabia was a patient woman – she would wait as long as was needed to complete her mission.
Scaling the cliff was an easier proposition than the palace walls. The craggy cliff allowed Fabia to use her studies of the works of Euclid of Alexandria to factor the proper angles to ascend. She had personally seen the tombs and pyramids at Meroë. There was no doubt to her that the Kings and Queens of Nubia valued those who grasped the teachings of Euclid.
The palace proper, that was different. The same principles that were used for the Pyramids of Meroë – stepped courses of horizontally positioned stone blocks measuring twenty feet in height. It was too far to jump and a block and tackle would be obvious to even the most distracted guard. The seams of the great stones were her goal. She could force iron nails into the space and climb. The tan colored cloak she wore matched the stones and she would be invisible to passing glances.
Finally, she breached the stone walls. She could hear applause from the main gate of the palace. She stopped and strained her ears to listen.
“I will bring honor to your kingdom, Princess.”
Fabia recognized the voice of Liao, Son of Rong. The princess he referred to was Ayana, daughter of the Viceroy of Kush. Fabia smiled, she could hear the sound of a horse neigh and assumed Liao had made his departure. Ayana was a secondary target. Liao’s son, Kaden was the primary target. Capturing them both would raise her status, but the mission only required Kaden’s capture. She crept silently to the kitchen. Noon meal was not too far away and she had to prepare.
* * *
“We’ll celebrate your father’s birthday the day he returns from Hainan Island.” Ayana said to Kaden as they made their way to the main dining room. Kaden didn’t respond, but squeezed Ayana’s hand and looked up to her with a smile. Ayana returned the young boy’s smile and continued, “Are you hungry for lunch?”
Kaden nodded, dropped Ayana’s hand and ran to the great wooden doors to the main dining hall. Ayana laughed and chased after the boy. Throwing open the doors to reveal a table with three place settings.
“His Majesty will be joining you shortly,” said the servant, “He bids you begin without him.”
“Thank you, Kasmi.” The servant withdrew to the kitchen while Ayana turned to Kaden. “Let’s eat.”
Kaden ate with a voraciousness like he hadn’t just eaten a few hours ago. Ayana, in contrast, ate delicately. She chose to savor each bite. Kaden cleaned his plate and Ayana expected him to demand a second plate, but he sat in the chair staring at his empty plate.
“Kaden, are you all right?”
After no response, Ayana tried to place her hand on his shoulder, but discovered she couldn’t move. She tried to call out for assistance, but even her mouth betrayed her. A shadow fell across the table and Ayana felt hands sit her up in her chair. A woman clad in tan walked to Kaden, and picked the child up in her arms. The woman looked Ayana in the eyes for what seemed an eternity then ripped a tapestry down from the wall. She wrapped Kaden in it and threw him out an east window.
Ayana screamed silently. A tear formed and ran down her cheek. She searched her thoughts, trying to make sense of what she saw. Why would Rome do this? She thought as the woman walked toward her. We’ve had a truce for years. Ayana closed her eyes to try to clear the moisture blurring her vision.
When she opened her eyes, the woman was peering at her, inches from her face. The woman reached up and Ayana would have flinched if she could have. The woman wiped a tear from Ayana’s eye. “Don’t worry, princess, my team will retrieve him from the Nile.” The woman smiled. “You’ll join him shortly.”
She grabbed Ayana’s arm hoisted her body on her shoulders and strode calmly to the same window. Ayana could see the body of Kasmi lying on the floor of the kitchen, limbs at awkward angles, face down on the floor.
Tumbling in the air, Ayana saw the Nile first, then the palace walls. Although it seemed to her the sequence repeated over and over again, it only took seconds to fall the entire distance. Helpless to break her fall, she saw two men move towards her as she hit the water.
* * *
“What’s going on here?” The voice caused Fabia to spin around missing Ayana actually hit the water. Standing in the doorway was the Viceroy of Kush. Although he wore no ceremonial garb, the four-foot scepter with a large crystal atop it indicated he was the ruler of the Kingdom of Kush. Fabia stepped towards the table, seized a carving knife and threw it towards the newcomer. He made a gurgling noise as the knife penetrated this throat. He staggered back, dropping his scepter to try to stem the tide of blood fountaining from his wound. His breaths came short and shallow, a pool a crimson forming where he collapsed.
Fabia picked up the scepter and studied the fist-sized gem held in place with thin strands of iron. Fabia was captivated by the gem’s remarkable clarity. It looked perfect, except for a black spot in the middle. When she moved the scepter, different colors emanated from the black spot. Fabia smiled at her fortune – The scepter of Kush would make a fine token.
“Halt!” Fabia was so engrossed in the beauty of the gem; she failed to hear royal guards happen across the open door. Fabia immediately dropped to the floor and rolled towards the window. Springing up, she produced a cloth pouch from under her cloak and threw it to the floor between her and the guards. A small explosion occurred on impact and a cloud of smoke obscured her leap out the window. Had the guards seen Fabia clear the window, they would have been the last people to see the Scepter of Kush. The gem caught on the keystone and the top of the scepter split freeing the gem. The worthless wooden scepter, Fabia and her prize raced toward the rushing waters of the Nile. None of them would be seen by a member of the royal staff again.
* * *
Fabia shrugged off her cloak and swam underwater, downstream for as long as she could. Her lungs burned and she was forced to surface. She broke the surface and gulped air in. She peered further downstream, looking for her Frumentarii agents. She had instructed them to administer the dark grey powder forged in a kiln. Artisans discarded it as waste, but it was discovered to overcome the deleterious effects of hemlock – a refined paralyzing agent. She knew there was limited time to administer the powder before the paralysis lead to death. Killing Ayana or Kaden would not improve her status, in fact, it would likely result in her death.
Swimming with the current was swift, but not nearly as fast as a longboat with two oarsmen. She knew she would make it to the rendezvous, but the strain on her arms and legs from earlier that morning were making themselves known. She debated finding an inlet and resting, but speed was too important. She knew the mission would continue without her, but what was the point in a risky mission without reaping the benefits of the results?
She saw a small campfire and knew she was approaching the rendezvous. As she climbed the rocky shoal, she saw Kaden and Ayana sitting on a sandbar with their arms bound. As Fabia approached, Ayana turned and glared in her direction.
“Your defiance is quaint, princess, but you’d better save your strength for the journey ahead.” She turned to her team, “Are the horses ready?”
“Yes, mistress!” the largest of the Frumentarii guards said eagerly. “Do you wish to rest or change your clothes before we depart?”
Fabia smiled and ran her hand along the jawline of the guard. “You’d like that, Flavius, wouldn’t you?” He reached up to caress her hand, but a look from her stopped him. “We’ve no time. We have a boat to catch.”
Fabia climbed onto the only horse with a saddle and awaited her team and captives to be secured. “Flavius! What’s the name of the boat we’re meeting?”
“The Diana, mistress.” Shouted Flavius and kicked his horse into a trot.
The Goddess of the Hunt. Thought Fabia. How appropriate. She kicked her horse and the remainder of her team followed suit.
* * *
Fabia stood at attention at the head of the Diana’s commander’s desk. “You are certain that the details of this report are accurate?”
“They are,” Fabia answered. “There can be no doubt as to the authenticity of the information, nor the conclusions it had drawn. I personally saw to the collection and verification of the information. In addition, I was witness to some of the events outlined in the report.”
As the commander rose to her feet, Fabia mentally filed away all she knew of the commander. Her name was Aurelia, daughter of a Roman Senator and his Nubian concubine. Aurelia held the rank of General – unheard of in the Roman Empire.
“….I am unaware of these events?” Fabia had missed part of the conversation. “I am not without my resources,” Fabia responded.
“Take care what you say and how you say it, Fabia.” Shouted Aurelia. “I will not tolerate insolence however impressive your benefactors in the Senate may be.”
“I meant no disrespect. I only meant that I do have means of securing information that may escape even your far-reaching network of spies. Forgive me if my tone indicated anything otherwise.”
Fabia maintained a mask of faux remorsefulness. She knew she could pull it off, but Aurelia stared at Fabia’s eyes. Fabia continued to surmise the report, concluding with “If we control the Hans, the world is ours”
“Ambitious predictions, Fabia. What else have you learned?”
“It’s in the report.”
“How you come about your conclusions is not. Nor, is your plan.”
Aurelia retrieved tea and continued to pour over the report. Fabia stood at attention until Aurelia looked up again.
“What is it that you are suggesting?” Aurelia asked.
“Why,” Fabia answered, “the assassination of Genshu, of course. Followed by the installation Wang as the natural successor. We can control Mang Clan.”
“You are certainly aware that these things have been suggested and attempted in the past, with disastrous results. What are you suggesting that has not already failed?”
“Hainan Island,” was Fabia’s answer.
“The Dao tournament?”
“Exactly!” Fabia outlined her plans to infiltrate the Hainan Island Dao Tournament. When the conversation ended, she declared, “My agents are already in place awaiting your approval.”
Aurelia smiled for the first time since Fabia had presented her with the report. “You will remain with me in the capacity of my personal aide and advisor, Fabia,” the Roman said without glancing up. “You are dismissed.” Aurelia turned her attention back to the report she had been reading.