Southeast of Vindobona,
July 15th, 165 CE
Ouch, Artorius thought, shifting in the saddle.
The Villa Lunae was two and a half long days in journey-time from Vindobona by mule-wagon on a good road in good weather, and a half-day north of the little town of Scarbantia.
Or around an hour from Vienna in a car, if you weren’t pushing it, Artorius thought dryly, feeling the ache from thighs and buttocks and back—he hadn’t spent day after day in the saddle for a very long time. Everything takes longer here, and costs more… and how! I have a funda-mental problem with this.
That distance put the estate in what another history would eventually have called the Burgenland, easternmost Austria and right next to the western frontier of Hungary. But the fur-clad ancestors of the Magyars were currently in Siberia, and this was well south of the Danube. Roman territory ran east of here all the way to the site of Budapest-that-wasn’t, nowadays Acquincum, capital of Pannonia Inferior.
“So you don’t actually own this estate, my friend?” Artorius said; the word he used could also mean comrade.
The merchant had stayed behind to finish up some business, and then caught up with them late last night. He was used to spending a lot of time on horseback.
“No, magister Artorio’—you might say I own the owner, or rent him, in a manner of speaking,” Josephus replied with a smile, riding easily next to the American beside the first wagon. “Your Latin is much improved, by the way. Very quickly, for so little time. It is a relief that we can now talk normally, and very useful.”
“Thank you,” Artorius said.
Understanding the spoken form was coming more quickly than speaking it well for all of them, but total immersion was a wonderful incentive. He’d even caught himself starting to think in it, for a phrase or two, occasionally.
“I am not learning the language, though. I know Latin as it is written. We all have that knowledge. I am just learning the sound of it. How, then, and in what manner is the owner of this land under an obligation to you?”
And I’m starting to be conscious of talking like a book written by someone with a serious linguistic pickle right up their ass.
He looked around. The wagon train had turned east about an hour ago, after stopping for a roadside lunch not far from a busy quarry, and come onto the estate a quarter-hour later. The latifundium was a big irregular rectangle with somewhat jagged outlines, the product of long generations of partible inheritance spiced with purchases, sales and reversions. The long-term trend here was to bigger properties, but that was very long-term.
It included about twelve hundred acres of forest on the hills to the northwest, and thousands more of cropland and pasture, vineyards and orchards and rough grazing between there and the lake. According to Josephus about half of that part was rented out to free tenants for cash or on shares, and the rest directly managed from the villa headquarters. Apparently that was a standard arrangement on big properties and had the added advantage that those tenants with smaller holdings usually took temporary paid work on the estate fields in peak busy seasons like this, supplementing the migrant harvest-gangs big landowners had to hire.
Both of which spared the owner feeding extra slaves who’d be underemployed most of the year. It would be economic suicide to carry enough hands for the harvest year-round.
The road inside the property wasn’t a paved Roman highway like the one that ran south from the river, or as arrow-straight, but it was well-tended dirt topped with gravel and well ditched.
Probably passable even in wet weather, except in a really bad storm, Artorius thought, giving it a glance.
The countryside around was very slightly rolling and mostly open, except for the range of low wooded hills about a mile to the northwest. Trees planted on the roadside broke the hot summer sun with dappled shade for long stretches, leaves flickering with a steady wind from the west, and more edged some of the fields. For the last mile or so many of them had held big, ungainly shaggy-looking nests, apparently built by the migratory storks who loved the large lake just east of here.
Around them on both sides right now was a mix of pasture studded with livestock, mainly sheep, and golden grainfields. More were expanses of pale knee-high irregular stubble, likewise being grazed; the harvest was in full swing now and well over half done.
Livestock’s better-looking than I’d expected. Bigger breeds, and they look fairly well-fed.
Whole families from children in their early teens to elders well into middle age were cutting tallish waving wheat that came nearly to an adult breastbone—
None of our short stiff-stemmed hybrids!
—with sickles, while youngsters brought water. Teams of reapers mostly composed of young men were at work too. All pausing now and then to stand and stretch and sharpen the iron curves of the sickles with whetstones, a scraping, ringing sound that carried clearly even over the clatter and creaks of hooves and wheels. And through an endless murmurous rustling sound, the stalks rubbing on each other.
There was a peculiar smell to the harvest, familiar from West Texas when he was a child. Dry and dusty and mealy like new-ground flour, but here mixed with the sharp scent of cut weeds, and the yellow waves were starred with red poppies in spots. Behind the reapers came binders—more of them women—gathering the grain until it was a bundle they could just reach around, then tying it into sheaves with a twist of straw. Still others tossed those onto two-wheeled oxcarts to be hauled in for stacking and then threshing.
Odd to see a countryside so full of people, he thought; he was used to a wide emptiness.
That prompted a memory, one that he understood better now, down in the gut. He murmured aloud, from Homer’s description of Hephaistos working a harvest scene onto the Shield of Achilles:
“He placed it on the estate of a great man
Where the hired men
With sharp sickles in their hands
Were cutting the crop;
Of the handfuls of cut stalks
Some fell to the ground
Along the lines of reaping, one after another,
While the sheavers were binding
The other handfuls with ties…”
The merchant chuckled, catching the reference despite what the American’s accent did to the poet’s Greek, which was as archaic here as Chaucerian English in the Americans’ home century, and said:
“Some things never change, eh?”
Artorius nodded. Here and now, the Bronze Age scene was still as current as it had been in the blind poet’s day most of a thousand years before this summer, for thousands before that, and would be for nearly two thousand years more.
He kept his: we’ll see about that! silent.
Josephus went on after a pause to organize his thoughts:
“How is the owner of this land obligated to me? Sextus… Sextus Hirrius Trogus… owns this latifundium and some others further south, urban properties rented out in Sirmium, and a large brickworks there; he inherited this land we’re on from a great-uncle who died without living children just after Sextus’ own father, so it’s an outlier. He’s of an old equestrian family and a landowner in a substantial way, his domus—”
Which meant main home, more or less. Or family headquarters, in this context.
“—is in Sirmium, where mine is… and he owes me money and at first couldn’t pay the full interest, so it compounded according to the form of the contract,” Josephus said.
Artorius winced slightly. That was a bad position to be in, and he knew that from his own countryside childhood and remembering his grandfather cussing out the bank. It could be like trying to run up an ever-steeper slope of greasy tinplate while you carried a calf on your shoulders. Even owning a lot of land didn’t mean you had a lot of cash-on-hand, especially since you worked and spent all year but only got paid when you harvested crops or sold stock. And of course you sold when everyone else did, which meant prices were low, and you sold in the first place to people who could hold off reselling until prices rose again.
Josephus went on: “I acquired the loan from a previous holder, heavily discounted, as part of a complex deal, and it had already changed hands more than once, losing value every time… it was a big risk, my biggest so far, I had to borrow myself to cover it, from kinfolk at that. I refinanced it in a new contract with Sextus, and gave him a grace period on the compounding of interest. He’s paying the full interest again now, and in a while he’ll start repaying the principal. In the meantime he owes me favors for that, since otherwise he’d have had to sell land from his patrimony to keep the debt from grinding him under. I’m calling in one now, giving your client—”
By which he meant Jeremey McCladden and his sacks and crates of seeds.
“—and now you and the others the run of the place. His widowed youngest sister and her daughter—the daughter is nine—and his mother live in the villa here, but I’ve assured him you and yours will not trouble them. He himself usually only visits here around wine-harvest.”
He cocked an eye at Artorius to make sure he understood that his word of honor had been given. Vandenberg replied:
“There’s plenty of room from the sound of things, so I’ll make sure we don’t get in each other’s way.”
“Good. He doesn’t get on with the sister. He fell out badly with her husband before the man died, he was a wastrel, and she took her husband’s side. Which is only seemly; he was the father of her child, after all. But family is family, blood is blood. Sextus took her in and turned the pars urbana of the villa here over to her together with an allowance when the brother-in-law died and left them nothing but debts, debts Sextus had to pay in large part.”
Artorius made an enquiring sound.
“He stood surety for some. And it would be a disgrace if she and his niece were thrown onto the street!”
“A stain upon his honor?”
“Yes, it would undermine his reputation badly. And I think he persuaded his mother to join her here… for propriety’s sake, you understand, a widowed woman still of childbearing age needs a chaperone… because his mother nags him and this way she has to do it by letter rather than in person and morning, noon and night. This property is the furthest he owns from where he lives! And I asked Sextus to pass on the instructions to the vilicus just as you said. He graciously complied. He’s a man of honor.”
The vilicus was the estate manager, the bailiff, the mayordomo to use the Hispanic term. In a Roman context he’d be a slave himself or possibly a freedman, but a trusted one, high-ranking and literate, with many privileges.
Josephus smiled as he went on: “An order that your orders are to be followed… no matter how insane they sound. And that replacements may be hired or bought for any labor you commandeer, at your expense. Though please, not until the harvest is finished—that should be about another two or three days at most in this district, it’s warmer here, and—”
He cocked an experienced eye at the workers in the fields.
“—it looks to be a very good one this year. Thanks and praise be to HaShem.”
Artorius had noticed how even city-dwellers here knew a good deal about farming and followed crops and weather closely. Josephus went on:
“And now I have an interest in the grain, too! Which didn’t hurt with keeping Sextus sweet, by the way. Salve, lucrum!”
That meant: Hello, profit! Something Roman merchants often had set in mosaic at their thresholds.
“Oh, it’ll take a while for us to get started,” Artorius said. “Why did you grant Sextus a grace period in the first place, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Josephus shrugged. “He’s not a wastrel or really stupid, quite capable at running his family’s properties in fact, he just had a run of bad luck that built on itself. Starting with him helping his brother-in-law, whose only talent was getting men to loan him money against their better judgment. And then bad weather and bad harvests.”
“Which always happen at the worst possible time,” Artorius observed, and they shared a chuckle.
Josephus went on:
“If I’d squeezed him hard, I’d have ended up owning at least this estate, and I didn’t want that—farmland is too troublesome, given other calls on my time, and a forced sale means low prices if I just put it on the market. Land around here is well-placed for selling its yield to the garrisons on the frontier, but even so it isn’t moving quickly. Not these last few years.”
Artorius nodded; the Danube frontier had been stripped for the Parthian war, and the barbarians across it were getting even nastier than usual. The locals didn’t know the Marcomannic Wars were about to start or how devastating that would be over the next decade and a half, but they knew that the weakened defenses potentially meant raiding parties, and the work and investment of generations quite literally going up in smoke. Not to mention rape, kidnapping and cut throats. Josephus went on:
“Sextus would still be an influential man if I took land from him, and an enemy, he and his kin; there would be lawsuits and all manner of trouble and lost opportunities. This way, he’s more influential, but as an ally I can call on. Plus I bought the debt at a heavy discount on its original value from someone desperate for cash who’d despaired of ever getting what he was owed. So payment in full on the principal will be very profitable, with the interest as the garum on top. Eventually.”
“Ah, I see,” Artorius said.
Our friend Josephus keeps an eye on the long term. And apparently always has, even as a younger man.
Water glinted, shimmering in the distance to the east as they topped a slight rise; it was edged by vast reedbeds that were still intensely green in the summer-dun landscape. The lake was a big one, big enough that the eastern shore was barely visible on a clear day like this, and water stretched to beyond the limit of sight north and south. Trees fringed the inland edge of the marshes, many of them willows and aspens and hornbeams.
“It’s an odd lake, shallow and a bit salty,” Josephus said. “Just salty enough to kill a few of the mosquitos!”
Artorius silently blessed the scientists who’d come up with a really effective malaria vaccine a few years ago. And right now he was even thankful for the pettifogging regulations that mandated an exhaustive suite of jabs before international travel, even to safe destinations.
That had been recent too, and he’d cursed the delay and discomfort at the time. But even though he didn’t have to worry about the latest varieties of Covid or monkeypox or novanilos here and now, it was nice to know that a bunch of other, older things weren’t going to hit any of the five Americans.
Typhus, typhoid, cholera, rabies… they’d even gotten a shot of smallpox vaccine, he supposed because some crazed paranoid bureaucrat was terrified of terrorists with biological weapons who’d somehow stolen stored samples of the virus.
Or gotten the code and synthesized it with tweaks, in which case the vaccination wouldn’t work, would it?
The baggage had included a small box of modern gene-tailored malaria-resistant mosquitos of sundry types, and they’d released them promptly as the instructions on the lid said they should, but God alone knew how long they’d take to spread… or if they’d survive at all. Being immune to the disease gave them a big reproductive advantage, but chance would play a role there.
Josephus went on:
“But the waterfowl are very numerous here in season, even the slaves feast on goose and duck then, and the Villa smokes and salts them for sale. There are plenty of fish—the catfish here are ten feet long and heavier than a man sometimes—and the reeds have many uses. They make a very nice sweet wine here too, it’s regularly exported as far as the Adriatic southward and to the mouth of the Danube and the Black Sea on the east. Now pardon me—I must make doubly sure everyone is ready for unloading and reloading the wagons.”
With a grin: “Time is money!”
Artorius had mentioned that old saw a few days ago and Josephus had taken it up with enthusiasm, the way you did with a phrase that summed up something you’d always believed or known but hadn’t had a precise expression for.
Josephus fell back to talk to the artisans they’d hired in Vindobona, who were riding in or walking alongside the wagons. Some with their families, too, along with a good deal else in the way of tools and raw materials… and all of the baggage the Americans had arrived with, minus most of the coin. Artorius stayed where he was, beside the lead wagon where Mark Findlemann and Paula Atkins were seated at the front, with Filipa Chang in the saddle on the other side.
Neither Mark nor Paula had ever gotten closer to riding a horse than seeing it done on a screen, and preliminary tryouts for them hadn’t gone well so far. Filipa’s parents—they’d both been in some arcane branch of AI in California and made very good money—had indulged her love of horses as a girl, and the skills she’d acquired in the hills north of San Francisco still showed.
Though she’s probably as stiff and sore as I am, he thought. Not that riding in an unsprung wagon on stone-paved roads is any great joy either, even with a folded feather-matress under your butt.
“Did you catch that?” Artorius said to the others, in English.
They’d all been trying hard with the Latin under the lash of necessity, but their native tongue was a relief occasionally, as well as completely private. Though the locals, besides finding it foreign, thought it sounded deeply strange, in a way that Gallic or Germanic didn’t. He suspected it was because all the languages they knew first-hand had complex inflectional syntax, and English had spent more than a thousand years stripping that out of its structure.
We’re a third or more of the way back to Proto-Indo-European, he thought with a chill.
“Yeah, and I know one more big reason why Josephus didn’t want title to the estate instead of a mortgage agreement,” Mark said. “It’s the slaves. Inconvenient to own large numbers long-term, for a Jew who takes the basics of the Law seriously. And even if Josephus didn’t personally, it would put him in Dutch with his relations if he showed it.”
Paula had been brooding. That got her attention, which Artorius was glad of. One reason he was keeping everyone as busy as he could was precisely to limit overmuch thought about what they’d lost. That could only do harm… did do enough harm, anyway.
You have to sleep sometime. What dreams may come…
“There’s some sort of prohibition on slavery in Jewish religious law?” she asked with surprise.
“Not exactly. But every seven years, in the Sabbath Year, the shmita, Jews have to free their slaves. And remit debts, at least to other Jews. Ummm, it’s a bit more complicated than that; and technically it only applies to Jewish slaves. But you also can’t refuse if a slave you own wants to know the Law and follow the Lord, see? Serious no-no-no. Which gives slaves owned by Jews sort of an automatic out if they’re willing to convert before the next shmita.”
He grinned and made a scissors-snipping gesture with two fingers:
“That involves a little operation for the men, too, of course. So Jews can trade in slaves, and owning a cook or masseuse or whatever is practical here and now, but directly owning latifundia like this one we’re heading for with hundreds of slaves, that gets real awkward unless you sell it on quick.”
Paula looked as if she didn’t quite know how to take that. Mark went on, with the sort of grasshopper-jump non-sequitur they’d come to expect from him:
“Those saddles don’t look quite like American or Mexican ones,” he said, glancing at the gear Artorius and Filipa were using. “Or those little English things you see in costume dramas.”
Filipa laughed and Artorius rolled his eyes very slightly; it was just like Mark to notice that now, after days on the road.
“I checked that,” she said.
Artorius hadn’t had time, and she knew more than enough for the task. She’d also done the work of getting the horses used to unfamiliar gear, which fortunately hadn’t taken long. It was actually more comfortable for them than the Roman equivalents, because the saddle-tree, the wooden frame, spread the rider’s weight better.
“They’re a traditional Spanish saddle, ordered custom-made, by a company called Zaldi,” she said.
“Why Spanish?” Mark asked. “Couldn’t Fuchs have gotten saddles in Austria?”
“Same reason Fuchs got Americans who’d studied Roman history, I think,” Filipa said. “He was using great chunks of his R&D money in an oh-naughty-so-bad way, stocking up on the stuff he wanted to take back here.”
Mark sniggered. “Like those sacks of synthetic emeralds and sapphires and diamonds and whatnot? Cheap as dirt back… where… we came from, but no way the Romans can tell the difference. For a physicist, he sure had a sneaky side.”
“Josephus was thunderstruck with those,” Artorius said. “He thinks we’ll have to sell them in small parcels over years, and as far away as Rome and Carthage and Antioch and Alexandria, to avoid saturating the markets and drawing attention. Fortunately he’s got… connections.”
Filipa nodded. “All the, um, baggage was bought in over the last few months, too, and all the paperwork was stuffed in with the goods, no records hanging around for someone to read, except online. He ordered from all over but virtually nothing in Austria.”
“Yeah, I noticed that with the books,” Mark said thoughtfully. “No more than a couple from any seller, new and used, some pretty obscure, all done in ways that don’t leave immediate tracks. He paid premium prices for speed.”
“He’d have been caught eventually, but he planned to be gone by then.”
“He was gone. Or part of him was,” Paula observed dryly. “Starting six inches above the knee.”
In retrospect none of them liked Fuchs, even though he’d almost certainly saved their lives; she apparently liked him even less than that. Mark looked a bit queasy. He’d lost the contents of his stomach when he saw and smelled the body up close, being nearest and having his head pointing that way when he opened his eyes.
Filipa went on: “That money in the chest? He had the fake Roman coins done in Italy, there’s people…”
Her face went bleak for an instant.
“Were… will be… you know what I mean… who make ’em. Delivered the week before we… ah, left. The saddles came ten days before we arrived, thirty-five hundred euros each. They’re fine, excellent saddles, just a little different. He even got the sizes right for what’s available here in the way of horses.”
Artorius leaned forward and slapped his mount affectionately on the neck. Roman horses did tend to be a bit small by modern standards, though there were exceptions. The riding cobs they’d bought were all thirteen or fourteen hands, technically ponies though stocky, broad-backed and strong. If you wanted bigger, the price went up steeply, and few were over fifteen. Most of those went to the heavy cavalry, the cataphracts the Romans had copied from Parthians and Sarmatians, and their breeding was tightly regulated to prevent sale to foreigners.
He’d been raised with Western saddles, riding from the age of five or six. These Spanish models weren’t all that different, though a bit lighter; much more similar than an English hunting saddle would have been. They had a raised curved piece at the cantle that cradled your hips, and a shorter upright pommel arch in front, no actual central horn the way he was used to, but there was a steel ring there you could use pretty much the same way. He’d had a braided-leather lariat done up, and was practicing to get the knack back when he had time. He’d been good as a teenager, before the Academy, but it was half his lifetime since he’d aspired to junior rodeo star status.
“And there’s a disassembled one,” Filipa noted. “That’s going to be a big help getting more made, because they… whoever we get… can just copy each individual piece.”
And you can tell Fuchs wasn’t from my neck of the woods, the Texan thought. This mountain of stuff… we’re back in an age crawling with bandits and barbarian raiders… and not one gun. What I wouldn’t give for an M-5 and a couple of thousand rounds of 6.8!
“I wonder why Fuchs picked this date? Obviously from the stuff he was aiming at 165 CE, or somewhere close to it.”
Mark said it thoughtfully, and apropos of nothing. He often went off on unexpected tangents. He went on now:
“It’s just on the verge of some really bad shit, as the Prof said in his pep-talk. If he’d gone for say sixty years ago… well, ago from 165, time travel screws with tenses… it would be much more peaceful.”
Artorius shrugged. “We’ll never know, and he’s not answering questions just now. Except to the worms. We also don’t know zip about his… time machine, or how it worked or what its limitations were. And we never will.”
“Frustrating!” Findlemann said.
Vandenberg had judged when they first met that Mark Findlemann was someone who regarded an unsolvable question as a personal affront and irresistible challenge. In academia that was very useful, but here it had risks.
“Frustrating if we think about that, which we shouldn’t,” he said. “We can’t afford waste effort, Mark.”
“Oh, and Prof… what did Josephus mean about having an interest in the harvest?” Findlemann said.
Artorius grinned, which was starting to feel doable again, occasionally.
“Simple. I loaned him fifty thousand denarii for six months, at five percent, or twenty percent of the net profit, whichever was higher.”
There were some gasps; that was a large chunk of the cash Fuchs had provided. They’d all had graphic demonstrations that this wasn’t a society where it was a good idea to be poor. There were places in the Empire where needy citizens got what amounted to welfare, but Pannonia was emphatically not one of them.
To put it mildly. And we’re just perigrinii, Roman subjects, not citizens. Who gives a damn about us?
His grin grew wider:
“It looks like it’s going to be the twenty percent of the profits. He bought the entire saleable crop here and some other places, even before it’s all cut. Then he turned around and sold it to the camp prefect of the Tenth, who he’s done business with before but not on this scale.”
The Praefectus Castrorum of a Roman legion was a senior centurion. Usually a former primus pilus, the centurion who was the highest-ranking of those with actual field commands. The prefect was a staff appointment in American terms, in charge of training, equipment, supplies and maintenance in the headquarters camp. That was much of the workaday behind-the-scenes management that made the legions the superlative killing-machines they were.
“Unless there’s a catastrophe, it looks like Josephus will come out about twenty thousand denarii up on the deal by the end of the year. Of which we get a fifth, say four thousand. Not bad, when all I had to do was write a letter to the argentarius.”
“How’d Josephus do that?” Paula asked.
“Economies of scale, possible because of our stash of cash. Sextus and the other bigshots were willing to take a very moderate price for their grain… most of which will come back to Josephus in interest payments from Sextus, at least. And the landowners were willing to take a lower price because they won’t have to store the wheat and sell it in bits and pieces and wagon it all over to the various points of sale themselves, and they get cash on the barrelhead as fast as they thresh it and turn it over at their own gates, instead of in dribs and drabs over a year or more, which is a big plus for them.”
Findlemann glanced upward in thought. “Capital-short economy, friction from lots of little deals.” He mumbled a bit, and went on: “He’s buying it at, what…
“Two sesterces the modius,” Artorius said. “A lot lower than big-city prices, it’s something like five or six in Rome. Three to four in most big cities, except in famine years, from what he told me.”
“There’s four modii per bushel, eight sestertii… four sestertii per denarius… so two denarii per bushel, twenty-five thousand bushels, bought for fifty thousand…”
“Premium for cash-in-hand, too,” Filipa said; some of her parents’ business dealings had rubbed off on her willy-nilly.
“That’s the grain from a lot of land. Depending on yields,” Findlemann said.
“It turns out Geoffrey Kron was right; yields here are surprisingly high, higher than they were again anywhere until the eighteenth century,” Artorius observed. “About equivalent to England or the Netherlands around 1800 CE.”
“Kron? That guy who did the chapter on food production in The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Economy?”
“That’s the man. But the kicker is that everything’s labor-intensive, and the labor has to eat too. So the surplus is about six bushels per acre or a bit more around here in a good year, which apparently this is, after deducting seed and what the labor force and their oxen and mules eat,” Artorius replied.
Findlemann nodded: “And in a bad year, no surplus so somebody goes short.”
“Guess who?” Paula observed sourly. “Give you ten to one odds it’s not the Roman army.”
Mark had little money-sense at the personal level, but put it in the form of a large-scale problem for analysis and he could do fine. He went on:
“And selling it at… oh, three and a half?”
“Yes, but then—”
“Yeah, you have to deduct nominal interest on the capital, and then the wagon haulage costs… hmmm…”
“Road transport’s expensive as hell here even with Roman roads. Ten to twenty days depending on the gradient is as much as you can wagon grain overland and leave any profit. Call it three to three-and-a-bit after expenses.”
“Yup. That’s a really good price he’s getting from the camp prefect,” Findlemann observed.
“But now the prefect doesn’t have to haggle with two dozen landowners or hundreds of small farmers or the middlemen who buy from the peasants, or send out working parties to bring the grain in himself. He’s in a hurry and has a lot of other things for his men to do, and the tax-in-kind just isn’t enough. Josephus is going to run it in to Vindobona as fast as it’s threshed, and the landowners will get it threshed fast because that’s when they get paid. And the government’s credit is good here, you can sell their debts nearly at par, so working capital isn’t a problem if he needs to raise some, which he probably won’t.”
Filipa had been thinking: “And I bet the Prefect wants full granaries inside the fortress, and pronto, because if there’s an attack he has to feed the city as well as the camp.”
“Bingo. Josephus was grinning like a happy wolf at the way the news will hit his rivals.”
“Sharp!” Mark said admiringly. “No flies on our friend Josephus!”
He waved his hand in front of his face and several of the literal insects took to the air, a gesture Artorius had known in his youth as the Cowboy Salute.
“Even here,” he added.
“He is sharp. He told me he’d been thinking of something like that for years, but couldn’t get his hands on the money at acceptable interest rates to do it at scale.”
Artorius hesitated for a moment and went on: “And I told him we’re from the future.”
All of them looked at him in appalled silence, and Mark nearly jerked the mules pulling the wagon to a stop. They glanced back resentfully, having already had a belly-full of his inexperienced hands.
“And he believed you?” he said, his voice cracking.
“Yup. Only took about half an hour and a look at a couple of books with pictures of Roman ruins.”
He smiled. “I didn’t have him talk to the chatbot, though, that would be a step too far. Then he went into a brown study, and when he came out of it warned me emphatically not to try and tell anyone else… because we’d be accused of sorcery, and hostile sorcery’s a serious crime here under Roman law. Predicting the death of an Emperor, for example. Which I had, about Marcus Aurelius and Verus.”
“Phew!” Paula said, and mimed wiping sweat off her forehead.
Then she really did get out her hankie and wiped her face; it was a hot day, and this low-lying area was warmer than Vindobona had been.
He was hot too, his horse was hot…
On the other hand, I’m not stuck bending over a sickle sunup to sundown with a boot to the butt if I slow down, Artorius reflected before he went on:
“A bit of a risk, but I thought he’d take my word for it. So keep that warning in mind! Things they can understand are OK, even if they’re new, but no flashing electronics.”
“No moving visions or disembodied voices from the air,” Paula chimed in.
Artorius looked from one to the other, making sure they all nodded.
“Mark, now that I think about it, you turn your phone over. Paula, you handle it and no unsupervised use.”
With an apologetic smile he went on:
“It’s not that I’m worried you’d screw up deliberately, Mark, but you are absent-minded and we all know it.”
“No!” Paula said, grinning. “No, no way!”
“Absent-minded? You don’t say!” Filipa added. “Who’d a thunkit!”
She gave a comic look of astonishment as Findlemann handed the black oblong over to Paula, a hand to her face, eyes wide and mouth making a little ‘O’.
The senior man explained; he’d always believed in telling subordinates why they had to do something, if there was time. Things worked more smoothly that way.
“I took the chance with Josephus not least because he’d been wondering—asking—how we got to that clearing with a ton of gear without leaving tracks.”
“Literally a ton,” Mark said. “Almost exactly a metric ton. I bet that was some constraint in the time machine.”
“And Josephus was worrying at it, he doesn’t like an unsolved mystery any more than you do, Mark.”
“What can I say?” Mark said. “He’s Jewish too. We even argue with God, for God’s sake.”
“Nobody else… nobody anyone will listen to… saw that clearing before he brought the wagon and the stevedores back. And anyway, we’re the goose that laid the golden eggs for him. He’s smart enough to see that in the long term, our stash of cash is the least of what we have.”
Just then Sarukê rode up, oiled mailcoat glistening and horse-tail plumed helmet hung on her saddlebow and her belt-slung quiver-bowcase rattling. She’d been moving between front and rear positions since they left town, and today in the course of it avoiding Josephus’ other bodyguard as much as she could. He was a freedman and an ex-gladiator too, tall and fair like her but of Germanic origin, from near what moderns would have called Cologne and was Colonia Agrippina now. Their mutual dislike was obvious, though it didn’t get in the way of doing their jobs that he could see.
Josephus is annoyed about that. Up to him to settle it, though.
“We were talking about saddles, ours and these Roman ones,” Filipa said to her in Latin.
The Korean-American woman got on well with her, not least because she didn’t treat the Sarmatian as a freak of nature, which was apparently something of a novelty.
Sarukê was riding with a Roman cavalry saddle; no stirrups, of course, and no tree, no wooden frame underneath either—
Which settles that historical controversy! Moi Watson was right!
—just straw-stuffed leather pads to either side and a leather cover over that linking them across the saddle-blanket, and a simple single girth and light breast-strap. It had horns at its corners to stabilize the rider; two behind her, nearly upright, and two in front that slanted back over her thighs, all four made of thick padding inside a leather sheath with a bronze rod at the core.
She rode superbly, as if she’d been born on horseback… which given her nomadic origins might very nearly be the case. The way she kept her legs bent back at the knee and clamped to her mount’s barrel looked odd to 21st-century eyes, but evidently it worked.
“What use is for footrests?” she said.
They could talk by now, despite their mutual accents. Her Latin was fluent, but sometimes a bit odd, and she pointed a soft-booted toe at Chang’s stirrup for an instant to show what she meant.
Filipa extended an arm. “Try pulling me out of the saddle.”
She did, grabbing the offered wrist and the shoulder of Chang’s linen tunic and giving a strong hard tug to the side with an experienced twist of her torso. Her brows went up when Filipa braced her foot in the left stirrup and pulled back, making Sarukê abandon the attempt to keep from being dragged over herself.
Despite being obviously the stronger of the two.
“You have to grip the horse with your legs to stay on, especially sideways,” Filipa said. “With our saddles, you can use your leg and push back against anything that shoves you. Your arms are stronger than mine, but not stronger than my legs. And the stirrups… that’s what they’re called… let you use your whole body’s strength with a weapon while you’re in the saddle. Almost as if you were standing on the ground, and you can do other things too.”
She cantered ahead, kicked her right foot out of the stirrup and leaned far over to the left, picking a tuft of grass free from the side of the road, and then did the same to the other side on her way back:
“Like this, you see? And it makes it easier to give leg-signals to the horse.”
“That would take some-some time to learn,” Sarukê said, frowning thoughtfully. “Holding on to horse my way, learn like walking, when little-little. But will try, if can? Is… in-ter-esting. You show?”
Filipa glanced at Artorius, and he nodded; that was one thing they were going to try and spread around.
They passed through a long stretch of vineyards, the grapes still small and green, and then an apricot orchard on one side of the road and peaches on the other. Children from about six to twelve were working there, doing the picking and filling woven-reed baskets left in the shade while their parents got in the grain, all under the eye of heavily pregnant women, or aged ones hobbling around bent over walking-sticks that they occasionally used to prod or whack slackers who didn’t dodge fast enough.
He guessed that the baskets would be collected by the harvesters on their way back in the evening, some sent fresh to nearby Scarbantia for sale tomorrow and probably a lot of it dried in the sun and packed away for later.
The children were also gorging freely on what they gathered, and a lot of the fruit was apparently let fall, discarded if it looked less than perfect and left for the bugs and pigs. He glanced at that thoughtfully; it suggested some ideas.
A still for moonshine we can definitely make and make fast, he thought. We’ve got some sheet copper, they’ve got the fruit for the mash, and yeast to set it fermenting. What’s left will still make stock-feed.
Then Jeremey McCladden came riding up, the first they’d seen of him since he departed for here with Josephus, his bodyguard and the sacks of seed on packhorses two days after their…
Arrival, Artorius thought. Got here a lot faster than we did, with no wagons. But ouch again, and squared!
He wasn’t as good on horseback as Artorius, or Filipa either, but quite competent. And he’d visibly improved since he left, as decade-old muscle-memory came back.
Where he’d been raised horses weren’t as inescapable as they were on the old Vandenberg caprock ranch in the far northwest of Texas, but they weren’t reserved for those with money to burn the way they were in the Bay Area either. In the Kickapoo Valley of Wisconsin fodder and the use of turnout pasture and barn-space didn’t cost the earth the way they did near San Francisco. Especially if your father ran an agricultural-supply business and your house was on acres of something closer to pasture than lawn and had an old barn anyway. And you had older sisters who’d been horse-fanatics in their teens.
But then, everything except breathing cost the earth there in the Bay area, Artorius thought.
He pushed aside a vision of those cities as scorched wastelands and melted glass, with the stumps of the Golden Gate’s towers poking a few feet out of the dead water at low tide.
McCladden reined in and waved a greeting, stopping briefly to say hello to Josephus first. Artorius had been emphatic on the need to be polite to him, and in reminding them all that Romans were a lot more sensitive about ceremony and due address than Americans of their era.
“Hi, Prof,” he said cheerfully, shaking hands all around and then waving an arm at the countryside. “This place is great! Everything we need, and Fuchs’ book was right according to the locals; first frost here’s usually the last week of November. I’ve gotten all the seed we’re planting this season in and watered, and a lot of it’s showing shoots already! The rest is in good cellar storage, cool and dry. They’re better farmers than I expected. All the temperate-zone stuff will grow here, I’m certain of it. For more than one reason.”
Findlemann and Atkins were looking around dubiously at their extremely rural surroundings in the wake of his wave, as if it was all even more alien than the smelly, muddy, dung-strewn streets of Vindobona.
Though they’d probably admit it was easier on the nose and stomach than a place where chamber-pots were emptied through the nearest streetside window rather than bothering to carry it to a sewer-opening or public latrine.
With a cry of coming out! added sometimes, but only if you were lucky.
Both of them were native New Yorkers, and had gone straight from there to Harvard Yard via the Acela Corridor.
No, I lie, Mark spent some time at Yale first.
The closest they’d gotten to nature was probably Central Park and Boston Common. He doubted they’d seen as much countryside in their entire lives as they had in the past few days, except from airplanes at thirty-five thousand feet.
Even driving in a car wasn’t the same; you still had a sense of mastering space and time. The pace of a mule-drawn wagon along country roads was much more…
Immersive, that’s the word.
…down to the smells and sounds, acrid dust and jolts and inescapable thereness of it all. You started to feel down in your gut how big the world was, how a mile was a long way and twenty miles ate a whole day and left you longing for dinner and then sleep. And how much sheer raw work that dinner represented.
“And I know what’ll grow here because I’ve been here before!” Jeremey said.
They all looked at him. “Honest, the year after I graduated from high school. My folks promised me a trip if I made the cut for one of the Ivies, and I did, so I took a flight to Austria and did a bicycle tour in… Christ, in 2024! Just before my first year started. I wasn’t sorry to miss most of the Presidential election either.”
That got some sour chuckles. The uproar at the incumbent simply ignoring the third-term prohibition hadn’t stopped him, especially after he won handily. But it had been unpleasant all ’round, with riots in many of the big cities.
Would have been even worse if we’d been living in Boston back then, Artorius thought. Meaningless now.
“The villa’s right on the spot… far as I can tell… where this town called Rust was, and there were plenty of cornfields and sunflowers and such around in ’24. Sugar-beet too, at the edges, though mostly vineyards near town. I only realized the morning I got here that I’d seen the place the villa stands on, and I’m not absolutely certain exactly where things were up… up-time. The lake is bigger, I think. And the shoreline’s different, of course.”
His cheerfully self-confident face went a little frightened for a moment.
“Everything’s different, except for the bones of things—those hills to the northwest, the lake, the reeds… Anyway, this way!”
Josephus came up to join them again and they turned north on another graveled lane; the one they were on led straight out to an embankment that extended through the marshy verge of the lake, and ended with a dock and sheds and boats that probably fished and hauled goods across the water.
The lane they took curved east again when the lake grew closer, running towards the water once more. That path led through land kept in sheep-cropped grass and scattered large trees, oak and ash, elm, poplar and walnut and more.
Copyright © 2023-2024 by S.M. Stirling