by Sonya Taaffe
He was the Emperor Retiarius and he never ruled from Rome, but they called him Caesar and Imperator nonetheless. Who else would rise from the Tiber-mouth with laurels dripping greener-grey than the waves of Tyrrhenum, a glistening rust-furl of cloak pinned at the shoulder with a whelk? He laughed at the name of Neptunus; he refused the Greek trappings of split-tailed Triton, his shins greaved in armor the pale gleam of an oyster’s inner shell. His cuirass was of the same twisting pearl, ornamented with small snails and figures of murex-red algae that crawled so slowly, an observer could not mark the changes except by glancing back to see their stances had shifted: the riding figure was kneeling now, head bent before an edge of water that a moment ago had been crown-spiked rays of sun, and then a tree was a stream, and then the figure was rising, and then the waves had swallowed it. Caligula had claimed victory over him, he said, while Claudius had given him a tribute of land. His trident was bronze-barbed, taking his weight as if he stood on sand where ships of Egyptian grain rode low in the harbor. His eyes were blacker than mussels, than onyx or opal or depth in the eyes of drowned men. None saw him come ashore; some say he could not. The sailors kept to Ostia’s docks and prayed.
The Emperor at Rome treated with him, they say: sent rings of jacinth and chalcedony mined in desert lands, wreaths and bowls of gold that would never perish beneath the sea, berry-bright still as silt settled on them in the endless twilight, perfumed oils in flasks of faience and honey-colored glass that would not melt in the warmest swells. The Emperor at Ostia left the chests on the wharfside, carelessly open to the swifts and the sun; returning at dawn, the Roman envoys found them filled with slippery weed and glittering scales, stinking like low tide and fishmongers. Dumped out on the planks in disgust, they clattered with lumps of wet amber, pearls in strange colors, cut with letters even the grammarians could not read. The Emperor at Rome sent a cup in silver, chased like a coin of old Sicily with Skylla at her sea-hunt. The Emperor Retiarius left a necklace carved in day-pink coral, the leaves and waving stems of some sea-plant out of which emerged women’s faces and hands, water-streaming, mouths open as if in song. (The elder of the two envoys held it and said it was wet cold to touch, chilling as a tunny’s skin. The younger said it hummed in his hands and he dropped it. He sat all night at the foot of the lighthouse, peering out over the silver-darkened sea; he saw nothing in the water but the reflections of fire above him, its devouring roar louder than any nereid could sing.) The Emperor of Rome was no fool and sent a toga of Tyrian purple, embroidered with gold as heavily as a sunset. The Emperor at Ostia was no fool and left it glinting in the morning sun, the embroidery replaced with fingernail rainbows of mother-of-pearl.
The Emperor sent no more gifts. The Emperor returned none. The boats began to go out from Ostia again, the trade-ships to come in from Alexandria and Rutupiae and Carthago Nova. There were no more sightings of a man as pale as washed ivory, standing where water should bear no one’s weight, no more rumors of eyes open beneath the clear salt swirl, hands catching at poles or slapping the sides of skiffs, hawsers tangling in cormorant-black hair. Pearls and amber, necklaces and nacre were filed away in the coffers of Rome, where perhaps the Emperor thought of them sometimes and perhaps not. He was not a philosopher, this Emperor; he looked out on the sea from his marble balconies at Baiae and called it ours.
The younger envoy called the sea nothing; he was drowned in a storm off Corcyra, taking passage among a mixed cargo of garum and glassware. He might have gone down singing; none of the sailors heard him. The survivors clung to their splinters and prayed to the gods of sea-swell, of seventh waves, of fisherman’s mercy for the catch too small to keep. Days away on the sea-roads, a man who had once kicked over seaweed on Ostia’s docks woke in tears, imagining a colleague he had not seen in years stood before him like Hector to Aeneas, dressed in garments as wet and shining as sheets of sea-wrack. His eyes had blackened, his fingers were cold as fish-skin as he put a coin in the older man’s hand, folding his palm closed around the crusted thing. It was stamped with the face of an Emperor, proud as a wolf, the crown in his hair slick-leaved, brine running from it. On the reverse, a trident, circled by small fish and snails. He woke with a palmful of water, no colder or more salt than crying. When he whispered the name of Caesar, he was not thinking of Rome.
"Wow!" Maya says. "Wow!"
"Beautiful," he agrees. "All her work is like that, that kind of imagery."
"The sea," Maya says. "I want to go to the sea. When we can go out."
"I hope you can," he says.
"You can come too," Maya says. "To the coast, the sea."
"I don't think I can go that far from my book," he says, with a glance at it where it sits, orange, at the bottom of the pile. "But you can go to the sea, or anywhere you want, once this is all over and the world is safe again."
"I'll have to go home," she says, and her head sinks a little. "I had sort of thought we could go places together. You're grown up, nobody would think anything."
"We have different skin colours, and in this world that makes people think things," he says. "But never mind. For now, here we are, and we can read. We have the first chapter of a new novel by Ysabeau Wilce called Metal More attractive. That looks like fun."
Maya takes the book, still frowning at him a little, and they read.