Read The Dreams of Morpheus Online

Authors: Robert Fabbri

The Dreams of Morpheus

Also by Robert Fabbri

THE VESPASIAN SERIES

TRIBUNE OF ROME

ROME'S EXECUTIONER

FALSE GOD OF ROME

ROME'S FALLEN EAGLE

Coming soon …

MASTERS OF ROME

SHORT STORIES

THE CROSSROADS BROTHERHOOD

THE RACING FACTIONS

First published in e-book in 2014 by Corvus, an imprint of
Atlantic Books Ltd.

Copyright © Robert Fabbri, 2014

The moral right of Robert Fabbri to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities, is entirely coincidental.

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

E-book ISBN: 978 1 78239 519 5

Printed in Great Britain

Corvus

An imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd

Ormond House

26–27 Boswell Street

London

WC1N 3JZ

www.corvus-books.co.uk

Contents

Ostia and Rome, October AD 34

OSTIA AND ROME, OCTOBER AD 34

W
ITH THE SUDDEN
, harsh rasp of flint striking iron, a cascade of sparks penetrated the thick gloom, falling, like a shooting-star shower in minature, into a tinderbox. A quick series of soft exhalations to encourage the dry shreds of cloth and fine woodchippings to start smouldering were successful and soon a tiny flame illumined the scarred, ex-boxer's face of Marcus Salvius Magnus.

One of his two companions, an ox-like man whose shaven head was sheened in sweat, reflecting the tinder's weak glow, handed Magnus a small earthenware lamp.

Magnus held the oil-soaked wick to his flame and in an instant the lamp flickered alight but its radiance failed to reach the walls or the ceiling of the cavernous chamber filled with dark piles of imported goods, other than the corner in which they were standing. Exotic smells of eastern origin pervaded the warehouse's dry, warm atmosphere. ‘Thanks, Sextus.'

Magnus listened for a few moments to the constant drone of shouts, laughter, orders, thumping and grinding that came from the harbour of the port of Ostia, just the other side of the building's iron-reinforced wooden double-doors. Satisfied that their presence was undetected, he kept his voice low as he touched his flame to both of his companions' lamps. ‘All right, lads, keep the lamps away from the main doors so the guards outside don't see a flicker; keep very quiet and let's find what we came for as quickly as possible. Cassandros, you take the left. I'll do the centre and, Sextus, you search the right-hand side.'

As he stood facing Magnus, Sextus looked at his hands and attempted to work out which part of the warehouse he should be heading to; his forehead creased into a concentrated frown.

‘Over there, Sextus,' Magnus hissed, pointing his lamp helpfully to his right as Cassandros moved off.

Sextus looked quizzically at his left hand and shook his head, clearly bewildered. ‘Right you are, Magnus.'

‘And don't forget that the things we're looking for should be wrapped in sackcloth and are thin, resinous-smelling tablets no more than a foot long and half that wide.'

‘Look for tablets in sackcloth; right you are, Magnus,' Sextus rumbled, inwardly digesting his orders as he lumbered off into the gloom, his lamp throwing a Titanesque, flickering shadow of his bulk over the bare brick wall.

‘Keep your voice down.' Magnus shook his head, wondering if his subordinate was up to the task, and decided that if the search was unsuccessful, Sextus' area would be subjected to a rigorous second sweep. However, what Sextus lacked in brains was amply made up for in strength and loyalty, which made him a valuable member of the South Quirinal Crossroads Brotherhood of which Magnus was the
patronus
– the leader.

Magnus began searching through sacks, relying more on his sense of smell than the lamp as the warehouse was evidently the property of a merchant who specialized in the import of Eastern spices, dried fruit, honey and, of course, the objective of their break-in. As he opened yet another sack, this one containing sweet-scented cinnamon bark, Magnus cursed the debt of honour that he owed to his patron, the senator Gaius Vespasius Pollo, which had obliged him to come down to the port of Ostia, the ravenous mouth of Rome. Through that mouth passed every commodity that could be bought anywhere in the world, be it silk from a land so distant that no one was certain of its name, or vividly coloured birds that could talk and seemed to live forever, or that which Magnus now sought: the resin of an Eastern flower that could unlock the realm of Morpheus.

Just why Senator Pollo wanted this substance that was only used in medicine – and then solely by the few who could afford exorbitant expense – and exactly why he preferred to have Magnus steal it rather than purchase it on the open market, Magnus neither knew nor cared. What mattered to him was to
find it, then climb back up the rope that dangled from a hole in the corner of the ceiling to leave the vicinity as soon as possible before they attracted the attention of the guards outside or of the Ostia Vigiles. Like their counterparts in Rome, the ex-slaves who made up the Vigiles were not known for their kindness or courtesy to thieves.

Magnus rummaged through another sack, this one containing large nuts of a sort that he was unfamiliar with. He was beginning to wonder if the senator's information was correct and the resin really was in this warehouse.

‘I've found the right sack, I think,' Cassandros hissed from his side of the building. ‘It certainly smells right.'

Magnus made his way over as quickly as the gloom allowed, to find Cassandros examining a collection of two dozen or so dark resinous tablets; a smile cracked his full Greek-style beard which half concealed a vicious scar on his left cheek. He held out the prize as Magnus approached. ‘I reckon this must be it, brother.'

Magnus took the proffered bundle, smelt it and then pinched one of the tablets: it was hard and yet had some give in it. ‘I believe you're right, brother.'

‘Are you going to try a bit to make sure?'

‘Bollocks I am; I ain't ill so I ain't about to take any medicine.'

‘I heard it was good fun, especially if you're enjoying a firm hard body at the same time.'

Magnus grunted as he wrapped the tablets back in the sackcloth. ‘And I heard that it just took your mind off things whilst a doctor sawed your leg off. Anyway, not being Greek, I prefer my bodies soft and giving and I just happen to have one waiting for me back at our crossroads tavern. So, brothers, let's get out of here as I'm keen to test just how soft and giving that body is.'

Magnus' breath came in sharp gasps as he hauled himself up the last few feet of rope to scramble through the hole in the ceiling, into the attic; he felt the strong right hand of the brother waiting there clasp his wrist. ‘Thanks, Marius.' He looked through the opening they had knocked in the wall and on into the gloom of the neighbouring attic. ‘Any sound from back there?'

‘Nothing to worry about, Magnus.' Marius wiped the sweat from his brow with his left forearm; the stump at its end was bound with leather. ‘I went back and listened at the side door and whilst I was there it was checked – Vigiles, I assume – but as it was locked they moved on.'

Magnus felt the key hanging from his belt. ‘Servius did well to get the copy made.' Magnus knew that was an understatement; exactly how Servius, his counsellor and second in command of the Brotherhood, had got a copy of the only key to the side door of the end warehouse in this terrace he did not know, but acquisition and information were his areas of expertise, honed by over forty years of life in Rome's underworld. What Magnus did know was that it had not been cheap; however, Senator Pollo had financed the deal without seeming to care about the price, such was his desire for success and secrecy in this venture.

As Marius hauled Cassandros out of the hole, Magnus crawled into the next attic, holding the lamp up. Ahead, through the beams supporting the terracotta roof tiles, was another wall with a gap punched through it; a couple of rats scurried in the gloom. He looked back. ‘Hurry up, Sextus.'

‘Give us a hand, Marius,' Sextus quipped as he struggled to squeeze his huge frame through the hole.

‘Very funny, brother. It's still another couple of months to the Saturnalia and yet you're already practising your joke.'

Sextus rumbled a deep laugh as he grabbed Marius' hand and pulled himself clear of the hole.

‘Keep it down, lads,' Magnus hissed. ‘Pull up the sack and then replace the floor. The senator was very particular about no one noticing there has been a break-in until the theft is discovered.'

Magnus took the sack, unfastened it from the end of the rope and gave it to Sextus, pointing to the heavy tool they had used to dislodge the bricks. ‘Bring the sledgehammer as well, Sextus.'

Marius and Cassandros replaced the two wooden boards that ran between the substantial ceiling beams, leaving them unnailed for fear of making unnecessary noise.

Satisfied that the boards had been relaid and their temporary removal would go unnoticed from the warehouse below,
Magnus moved on. Keeping low, he scuttled across the second attic and through the wall, then passed across a third attic to the hole in the floor at the far corner through which they had accessed the space beneath the roof. The head of the military-issue scaling ladder, used for their ascent, rested against the wall just below floor level.

‘Down you go, brother,' he whispered as Sextus joined him, sack and sledgehammer grasped in one massive hand.

With surprising agility, Sextus descended into the dark. Magnus sent the other two brothers down before placing the two loose floorboards on their sides at the edge of the hole. Feeling for the ladder with his foot, he descended a few rungs until his head was just below the level of the floor. He pulled the two floorboards over and shifted them until one fell neatly into place with the other on top of it. Pulling the second board across the remaining gap, he descended another rung, then reached up and, with his fingertips, adjusted the lie of the board until it clicked snugly into the hole.

‘Bring the ladder, brothers,' Magnus ordered as he hit the ground. Padding over to the door, he pulled the key from his belt and slipped it into the lock, turning it with a metallic clunk that resounded off the walls with increasing volume but then was drowned by the door's squeak as it swung open a fraction. Magnus grimaced, then peered out towards the harbour just twenty paces away to his right. Even though it was the sixth hour of the night the dockside still teamed with people, silhouetted in the light of hundreds of blazing torches as they unloaded scores of merchant ships that bobbed placidly at wooden jetties. Day and night had no meaning in Ostia. Rome's appetite was insatiable and so, to prevent her from crying out with hunger, the business of landing her sustenance never paused, not even for a moment. He stuck his head round the door and looked left, up the street away from the harbour; no one was too close. Opposite was another door in a brick wall; the mirror image end of another terrace of warehouses. After a further quick glance right, he threw the door wide open. ‘Quick, lads, but don't run, it'll draw attention to us.' He stood back so that his brothers could file
through and then stepped out into the street, closing and locking the door behind him.

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