Two blacksmiths meandered through the streets of Rome with the careful ease of habitual practice. The city itself, once so grand it would make King Solomon weep, was but a hollow shell of its former glory. The buildings rose high above the streets in blackened disarray, with holes burned through the red roof-tiles and doors hanging off their smoldering hinges. Barely a week had passed, and folk were already calling it The Great Fire. They said that Emperor Nero lit a torch and played his lyre, and sang away the screams of his people.
The warm summer sun was setting as the two men arrived at their destination. Being several hundred paces outside the city walls, the house had been largely protected from the fire. Only a black layer of smoke clung to the stone walls. The older man knocked quietly on the weathered door, while the younger squinted into the gathering darkness anxiously. The door opened, revealing a momentary flood of warm light before the two men rushed inside.
“Cassian, Julius, ave,” a man said, smiling. He was short, with thick arms and an even thicker beard. His crimson tunic was flashy and extravagant compared to Cassian and Julius’ yellow ones. Like Cassian, he was an older man, but with a much rounder stomach. Julius, however, was in the prime of his life. His skin had not yet been wrinkled by the merciless sun, and his dark hair was still smooth and thick.
“Ave, Atticus,” Cassian said. His rough appearance looked out of place in the large room. It was filled with lavish furniture of every kind, from a daybed in one corner to several large solium chairs in another. Their rich bronze accents glinted in the lamplight. Cassian looked toward the doorway leading to the back room curiously. “Have my wife and daughter arrived yet?”
Atticus nodded. His smile seemed strained, not at all as genuine as it had been before. “Yes, they came just before the sun set.”
As he said this, a little girl ran out of the back room, followed by a tall, elegant woman. Despite her simple brown tunic, she carried herself like a goddess. A travelling satchel was swung over her shoulder, and her dark hair hung down her back in a long braid. The little girl ran over to Julius, who bent down and caught her in his arms, grinning.
“Juli! Where have you been?” She asked. Her voice was like honey: soft, sweet, and pure. Her small arms wrapped themselves around Julius’ neck and he picked her up. “Mama said you and Papa would come soon, but you took so long!”
“I’m sorry, Aurelia,” Julius said. He held his sister tightly, as if afraid she would be whisked away like smoke in the wind. “You see, Papa and I had to be very slow so we could be very very quiet.”
“But why, Juli? Why did you and Papa have to be quiet?” Aurelia asked, her big brown eyes wide and innocent.
“I told you earlier, Aurelia,” Julius said gently. “We are playing pretend, remember? Papa and Mama are taking us on an adventure.”
Aurelia nodded seriously. “Like that time we played King David?”
Julius smiled, and he heard his mother chuckle softly. “Yes, exactly like that.”
“We should be off, Atticus,” Cassian said, extending his arm to shake Atticus’ hand. “Thank you for all your help.”
Atticus wrung his hands and shifted uncomfortably. “Keep your thanks, Cassian,” he mumbled. His voice was trembling more than a stalk of wheat in hailstorm.
There was a sudden pounding on the door. Muffled shouts filtered through the cracks in the wood.
“In the name of Emperor Nero, open up!”
Everyone in the room froze. Cassian stepped in front of his family, and Julius stared at Atticus numbly. He was backing away from the door, his face ashen and penitent.
“I had no choice… they would have killed me…” Atticus fumbled for something on the table, and Julius saw a large bag of coins.
“You sold us out!” Julius said in a loud whisper. The men outside shouted. Aurelia started to cry. Julius quickly covered her mouth with his hand in a desperate attempt to quiet her, but it was too late.
The door swung open and two Roman soldiers strolled in. Julius could see at least five more waiting outside.
“Are these the Christians, Atticus?” One of the soldiers said. His expression soured at the word Christians, as if he had swallowed a bitter homemade wine. Julius caught his father’s gaze and searched his face for some reassurance, some sign that everything would be alright; but the dark look in his father’s eyes told the truth. There was no way out. This wasn’t a game they could simply stop playing. This was real.
“Yes,” Atticus said. “These are the Christians.”
“Very good. There is no need to attempt to defend yourselves; the Emperor knows your people are the ones who set fire to Rome,” the soldier said roughly, now addressing Cassian. He fingered his sword, a sickly smile spreading across his face. “We have come to escort you to the Colosseum. I expect there will be a good show tonight.”
Cassian met the soldier’s taunting gaze. He stood resolutely, proud as a pillar in the face of fire. He took his wife’s hand and walked proudly through the door, turning back to look at his children.
“Come, Julius,” he said. “We are going to meet the King.”
“He is called Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.”