Rome’s Republic was burning down, and now Herminius’s house was, too. He’d woken suddenly to a smell that was even worse than the usual one, and thin black smoke he knew would soon turn thicker.
He’d always known the risks of living on the top floor. In Rome, the higher your station the lower you lived: your honour bought gold and your gold bought safety, and so men with neither lived high above the ground. But the same law meant he was higher than a slave, and that thought would bring comfort when he tromped up his many stairs. But it was far from his mind as he now rushed quickly down them, choking his way through the heat and the smell of the fire.
He ran out to the alley as smoke swept down to the ground, aware of a crowd he was only just able to see. But he didn’t need sight to know Crassus was there, haggling and shouting with his stern, familiar voice. You could tell from the harshness of the bargain, from the sobs of the rich man and woman whose rooms he was eager to buy. Rome’s fire department would put out the fiercest blaze in your home– but they’d make you sell the whole place to them first. Crassus was the one in charge of that, and the ruthlessness of it had made him a very rich man indeed.
“Leave us with something!” the man from the bottom floor was shouting. “I’m a quaestor; I’ve always supported you! In the Senate I’ve long been a friend to your allies’ political ambitions”–
“I’m sure,” said Crassus, sounding bored. “And I’ve always known the value of a friend. It’s a lot, yes, but the value of value is greater. Gold, and enough of it to buy ten thousand swords. You’ve bought me honour, yes, and that doesn’t count for nothing. But with your gold? I can buy something that matters more.”
The quaestor howled through the sound of the smoke, though the logic seemed reasonable to Herminius. A fireman came up to him and named a price, a great deal lower than the one the quaestor was weeping over. He accepted without hesitation. It meant a smaller room in a higher place, further from honour and closer to death. But that was the way things had to be, though the vain found it hard to accept it.
"Crassus will die in dishonour,” came a crystal voice in his mind. "Far from here, to a foe who’s both yours and his. And when he’s gone, they’ll mark the things he did here. It’s said they’ll seal his dead throat up in gold.”
That was supposed to bring Herminius pleasure, he assumed, yet hearing it made his own insides feel heavy. Crassus was a monster, but he was still a Roman– they were both part of the fabric of a city to which the whole world wished it belonged. If he fell in battle it meant his people fell, too, and the thought of that was something he’d tried very hard to avoid.
Herminius was not the sort to notice that the quaestor’s wife was no longer weeping. But he did notice her husband’s scream, which cut through the smoke as it thinned on the narrow street. He couldn’t see what had happened to her; not through the night and the crowd. But he heard the firemen start to cry out in shock, their voices shouting a single common word.
“Gold! She’s gone and turned to gold!”
“Gold, by the will of the Gods!”
"Gold, and enough to buy the whole street! Even if none of it was burning.”
Above the shocked voices, Herminius heard the one that didn’t seem bothered at all. Crassus was talking smoothly to the newly wiveless quaestor, totally undisturbed by the impossible thing that had happened. He was talking about how unexpected the whims of the Gods might be, however well the augurs foretold the future. How the Republic’s unchanging strength was based on the changing of its minds, and how he had a new offer to give to the man before him now.
But Herminius needed no lessons on how things could change for a man. The smoke had cleared enough that he could see something lying before him; a something that would change the course of his entire life. On the ground beneath the soot and ash was an enormous crystal, somehow firmly embedded in the hard dirt of the path. He touched it gently in case it was warm from the fire, then when it didn’t seem to be grabbed it tightly with both hands. It was a crystal of salt that was as big as his head, and it was growing even as he raised it from the ground.
It wouldn’t be worth as much as a wife made out of gold. But it was enough for more, a living beyond the means of an inept baker. Lodgings, slaves and a good name to marry another– the whole street was still roaring with fire, but suddenly it all seemed to smell of hope.
Herminius held the giant rock above his head, and with delight and exhaustion began to cough and laugh...
...Far off past the outskirts of the city, an unearthly creature cried out with a furious roar.