The Emperor's Hand
An X-Men Evolution Fanfic by Quill N. Inque
I do not own X-Men.
"Roman civilization had achieved, within the bounds of its technology, relatively as great a mastery of time and space as we have achieved today."-Arthur Erickson
Chapter 1: Arrival
(A/N: To any new Historical KURTTY readers, I would like to answer a few FAQ's right off the bat, 'kay? One, neither Kitty nor Kurt have their powers in this or any other Historical KURTTY tale, though Kurt retains his appearance. And please keep in mind that, as with all the other stories in this series, the Kurt depicted here will be quite different than he appears on the show. ^^)
Italy, 15 C.E.
Rome rules the world.
Its dominion over the known lands comprises an empire the likes of which would never be seen again on this earth. From the British Isles across the Channel to modern-day France and Germany its holdings spread, from the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains to the blistering sands of North Africa its reach extended with an endless grasp, and thus it was that the civilized world and all its inhabitants lay under the talons of the Roman Eagle.
With a great sweep of his arm, the mighty Caesar Augustus, the greatest of all Rome's emperors, sent his unstoppable legions marching forth to all the corners of the map, their tramping feet and bristling spears so great in number that they stripped fields barren and drank rivers dry as they passed. Never before had the Earth seen such a fearsome fighting force as the Roman army, its soldiers instilled with iron discipline and its officers and generals highly educated in the ways of war. Nothing, it seemed, could stop the Roman juggernaut that marched ever forth from the gates of the Eternal City so as to cover the entire planet in the Imperial banner.
One by one, the old nations and kingdoms of the ancient world fell to the Romans. The Celts, the Britons, the Burgundians and the Parthinans, the Greeks, and the Czechs and Carthaginians were all defeated and subjugated by the ever-growing might of Caesar, their lands claimed, one at a time, for the glory of Rome.
It was largely due to the enormous aptitude of Caesar himself that the Empire was forged into the superpower that would dominate all others for centuries after his own demise. Born Octavius and named the heir of his adopted uncle Julius upon his assassination in the Roman Senate, Augustus Caesar not only fully enjoyed being Emperor but was also fortunate enough to possess many of the requirements that such an occupation required. Patience was foremost among these, for Caesar lacked the haughtiness and rash nature of many of his successors. Like all great men of history, he knew that he was not infallible, and therefore had no qualms about accepting a good idea simply because it was not his own. A gift for military strategy made Caesar a force to be reckoned with upon the field of battle, and the brilliant, swift campaigns of conquest that had characterized his ascension to power were largely due to Caesar's machinations. Such a long list of Roman triumphs helped Caesar to win the support of the Senate, the loyalty of his generals, and (for the most part) the support of the average Roman.
Bloody and violent his campaigns were, but Caesar felt, privately, that the Empire's new subjects were better off under his rule than anyone else's. By bringing more and more lands into the Roman dominion, he reasoned, Rome was bringing peace and economic, military and social stability to the conquered peoples. Doubtless that there were and would continue to be many who would vehemently disagree with such claims, but if one were to look at Caesar's reign at a strictly scholarly point of view, he would see that the Emperor's reasoning was not entirely flawless. Regardless of any moral or ethical questions the Empire's expansion may raise, one cannot deny the fact that Caesar excelled in domestic policy just like he did in everything else.
The Empire was not only one of war, but of learning as well. The rule of Caesar had ushered in an unprecedented era of art, culture and education that spread on the heels of the victorious legionnaires. Aqueducts gave a constant supply of fresh, running water to cities throughout the Empire, paved roads crisscrossed the European continent like the web of a great spider, and trade routes over both land and sea brought goods from all over the world to the Imperial markets. Caesar himself personally introduced a number of sweeping reforms, from a more effective system of currency to some of the first fire departments. Art and theatre exploded in tandem with extraordinary feats of engineering; painstakingly painted and wondrously beautiful mosaics and murals adorned the roofs and walls of the colossal buildings of marble and stone that seemed to tower on every city street, and massive crowds turned out in anticipation of the latest theatrical play. Education among the average folk skyrocketed as more and more people of all ages went to hear lectures and tutelage from the greatest thinkers of the ancient world.
But for all his successes, and they were many, Caesar could not match the power of human ambition. He never forgot the fate of his uncle Julius on the floor of the Senate, and upon being named the next Emperor he had learned a very fast and bitter lesson: when one wields power, there is always another who covets that same power for himself. The first month of Caesar's reign had been marked by four separate attempts on his life by four separate conspirators. The traitors, of course, had been made a rather violent example of in the sands of the Coliseum, but there were always more willing to take their places.
Death frightened Caesar, but not for the reasons one might think. The prospect of his demise was not nearly as perturbing as the thought of his Empire in the hands of someone else. Augustus Caesar was by far the greatest Emperor and the one most qualified for such a lofty position; Caesar knew it, his advisors knew it, the Senate knew it, and the people knew it. Should Caesar die suddenly and with no clear successor, then the Empire would inevitably collapse from in-fighting and civil war. All that the Emperor had worked so hard to build would be gone, and thus Caesar resolved to take steps to prevent such a catastrophe.
The "steps" in question consisted mainly of systematically rooting out and exterminating Caesar's enemies, both in Rome itself and throughout all the Empire's holdings. Those who plotted rebellion, fomented discontent or made secret pacts behind closed doors had a rather nasty habit of suddenly turning up dead. Politicians who took bribes and placed higher priority on their change purses rather than the good of the Empire were weeded out and replaced with peers of higher moral caliber, as were other high-ranking officials who displayed similar tendencies.
But the Emperor by no means went about such things himself, as keeping the Empire running on a day-to-day basis took up most of his time. Rather, such a task fell upon the shoulders of one, singular individual.
Within all the Empire's borders, tales and legends were told of a merciless killer said to be in Caesar's service, whispers of a nameless, faceless fear charged with ridding Rome of its most dangerous enemies. Their eyes wide eyes and their voices hushed, men and women alike spun rumors of the most dangerous man in all the Empire, a weapons-master of such extraordinary skill that he could do the work of one hundred men all by himself. "He walks here and there," they would say, "hooded and cloaked, and wherever he goes, he leaves death behind him."
Such was the blood-chilling dread instilled by the most dangerous fighter in all the land, the assassin and spy known and feared as "The Emperor's Hand…"
Katrina Placidae felt somewhat uncomfortable and crowded, which was as natural as could be, seeing as how she was hemmed in on all sides by the overbearing and rather stone-faced soldiers who escorted her through the gates of Rome. Such treatment might have been reserved for the most dangerous of criminals, but Katrina was about as far from a common thug as it was possible to get. Rather than keeping her in, the forest of bristling pilum spears and lancea javelins was meant to keep others out.
The Emperor's niece, after all, merited a certain level of security.
Katrina was the daughter of the Emperor's half-brother, as well as Caesar's only living relative, but despite this she had never even set foot in Rome before. The reason for this was that Caesar himself had sent Katrina away from the city when she was very small, but Katrina's exile was not borne from punishment or neglect on the part of the Emperor. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Caesar loved Katrina, cherishing her as he would his own child and taking her into his court when Katrina's father had met a sudden and violent death. It grieved the Emperor's heart to be parted from his adopted child, but in the chaos that surfaced in the midst of Caesar's rise to power, such precautions were necessary to keep Katrina safe. In all likelihood Katrina would have been long dead had she stayed in Rome, and so it was with great anguish that Caesar had sent her to his villa in the Italian countryside, telling her to remain there until it was safe enough for Katrina to return.
She did not realize it yet, but though her uncle adored her as much as a father could, Caesar also had political reasons for wanting to assure Katrina's survival. As the last remaining member of the Emperor's household, it fell to Katrina to ensure the survival of Caesar's bloodline. The Emperor was childless, for his wife had been barren before passing on less than a year ago. And to be honest, Emperor or not, Caesar was still human; the popular rumor went that he'd been so heartbroken when his spouse had died that he locked himself in his chamber and wept for twenty days and nights. Furthermore, the Emperor had obstinately refused to remarry, claiming that doing such a thing would be dishonoring his beloved's memory, and thus it was considered not only Katrina's duty, but her honor to ensure the survival of the royal lineage. One day, the young woman would bear the child who would be Caesar's heir by blood and birthright, and this only provided an even more urgent reason for the Emperor to smuggle his beloved niece out of the city so many years ago.
But now, at eighteen years of age, the political atmosphere had calmed down sufficiently to merit Katrina's re-entrance into Roman society, and so it was that under heavy guard Katrina was ushered into Rome with attendant fanfare. Rose petals streamed down from windows and rooftops as the masses roared their approval, and Katrina was tempted to avert her head from embarrassment. Her uncle, it seemed, had spared no expense to celebrate her return, and such attention made the modest-natured Katrina feel somewhat awkward.
Such humility was almost unheard of in one who came from such a distinguished family background for Katrina was, by her very nature, a kind, gentle and caring person. So warm a soul was she that the wild does would eat from her palm and the birds of the forest would perch upon her shoulders, and so trusting and gentle was Katrina toward her fellow man that she endeared herself to the citizens of Rome before she even set foot upon the city streets.
And, though Katrina did not yet realize it, she was also very, very beautiful.
Her hair was the color of rich chocolate, her somewhat tanned skin flawless even after years of living in the Italian sun, her eyes were the color of hazelnuts and her teeth almost unnaturally white. Her delicate nose sat above a mouth made for smiling, and so perfect was her figure that Katrina put the greatest sculptors of the Empire to shame. Every living male in all of Rome watched in awe as she passed them by, their jaws slack at such a vision of stunning beauty and their eyes wider than dinner plates.
Katrina did not notice, and even if she had, she would have simply ignored it. Just because she was nice didn't mean she was sheltered or naïve, after all. In any case, her attention was more than diverted by the grandiose sight of the Imperial Palace that loomed over the surrounding metropolis like a sleeping giant.
It certainly was a residence fit for an Emperor. The enormous structure stood at the end of a tall staircase, which glittered and sparkled like diamonds in the sunlight due to the generous amount of mica contained in the rock. A colonnade of towering marble pillars sat upon the stairwell's summit, their color of purest white streaked with gold, and situated in the spaces between were sculpted likenesses of Caesar himself in a variety of heroic poses. Even the front entrance seemed to dwarf Katrina as she passed under the oversized entryway, and the slightly intimidating effect it produced was wholly intentional. This magnificent display of power and beauty was meant to awe and humble any and all who entered into the presence of the Caesar, to subliminally remind all who gazed upon it that the Emperor reigned supreme.
Katrina's velvet shoes shushed as she trod upon the cold stone tiles, her figure diminutive compared to the vast hallway down which she turned. Windows of colored glass cast rays of sunlight in all colors of the rainbow as Katrina hastened on her way. The thick curtain of purple cloth that marked the entrance to the Emperor's throne room grew closer at an alarming speed, and the two sentries whose task it was to watch over it stood stiffly to attention as Caesar's sole surviving kinswoman hurried past them without so much as a word.
The heavy curtain was brushed hastily aside, and Katrina emerged into her uncle's court with such suddenness that all activity therein ground to a screeching halt. All the Emperor's men, his advisors and ministers and courtiers alike, stared at the young woman who had barged into their midst without a trace of the propriety that one would normally show to such important people.
Slowly, with a deliberate pace, Katrina approached elevated dais upon which her uncle sat, her purple garments trailing behind her like a river of shining velvet. In supplication Katrina knelt before the throne of Caesar, her eyes averted and her expression soft.
With her head thus bowed, Katrina could not have noticed how the Emperor's normally serious and focused face lit up like that of a child on Christmas morning, his eyes moistening with emotion as he rose from his lofty seat and hurried down to her, his finger gently tilting her chin back up so as to look Katrina in the eye.
"Katrina," Caesar said, gently tugging the young woman to her feet. "Welcome home."
"I have missed you as well, Uncle," Katrina replied, hugging him tightly, as any daughter would.
The Emperor's smile was filled with pride as he returned the gesture wholeheartedly. Silence reigned in the courtroom, and Caesar finally realized that everyone else was staring at him.
"What are you staring at?" he asked irritably. "Do you not have children of your own that you treasure? Go away and leave us, all of you!" Caesar commanded. "I have not seen my niece in sixteen years! Whatever the hell it is that you think merits my attention, it can wait until tomorrow! Get out! Now!"
The chamber emptied like water in a sieve, and Caesar sighed wearily as he turned to Katrina once more. "I apologize, little one. I did not mean for any of this to coincide with your visit." He paused, holding her out at arm's length while his chest swelled with paternal affection. "How you've grown," he said softly. "You were but a child the last time I saw you, Katrina, but now you have become an extraordinary young woman. I am so proud of you," the Emperor told her, his dignified mask falling away in tatters. "And I am so happy you have finally returned to me."
Katrina's radiant smile matched Caesar's own, but like most teenagers, she too felt just a little awkward in such a situation. "As am I," she said, running a hand through her hair nervously, though her tone was utterly sincere. "You look exactly like I remember, Uncle."
Caesar arched an eyebrow, his grin sardonic. "Aging well, am I?"
"What? No!" Katrina protested. "Of course not!"
"Then you're saying I'm aging badly?" the Emperor teased, clapping a hand to his heart in mock injury. "How your barbed words sear my soul!"
"Uncle-" Katrina was close to panicking when Caesar's façade dissipated into a short bout of muted snickering.
"Oh, yes, you're definitely the Katrina I remember," he said, trying to smother his laughter.
"That's not very funny," she retorted, putting her hands on her hips.
"I thought it was quite humorous, actually," the Emperor replied, his grin firmly in place as he beckoned Katrina to follow him. "Are you hungry, little one? I've had the cooks lay out a special meal for us, you know. I believe they might have outdone themselves this time. Before we eat, however," he added in a considerably quieter voice, "I would like to discuss something with you, Katrina. It is of gravest importance that you heed what I am about to say.
So urgent did her uncle sound that Katrina merely nodded, her playful scowl replaced by a much more serious expression. "Doubtless you've been told that the reason I sent you away from the palace was to protect you," Caesar began. "And while the political atmosphere has become considerably less volatile of late, there are still those in the Senate and in the Army who would gladly slay me and seize my throne if given the chance. These men will do anything they possibly can to further their own nefarious ends, little one, and not one of them would think twice about killing you to get to me. They, and everyone else, know that I have no family, no children or heirs to succeed me once my days have come to an end. Your death would herald the end of my bloodline, and without a clear successor to take power, the Empire will tear itself apart. As your Emperor, I must do all I can to ensure that this does not happen," he finished, but then his tone grew quiet. "But as your uncle, the thought of losing you…is unbearable."
Katrina was looking more than a little frightened at this point. "Then why bring me back if there is such a threat?" she asked.
"Because anyone who even thinks of harming you will be dead before he comes within ten leagues of the palace," Caesar replied, his grin rather smug.
"A bodyguard?" Katrina demanded, her voice rising somewhat. "Uncle, I am capable of looking out for my own safety!"
"That is a risk I cannot take," the Emperor replied. "I know how you must feel, little one, but I cannot and will not allow your safety to be compromised."
"So I am to be accompanied by an entire army if I even set foot out of the palace."
"Hardly," Caesar snorted. "I would trust your well-being to only one person, and he is far more skilled in weapons and war than any ordinary soldier could possibly hope to be. There is not a warrior in all the Empire who could lay him low."
"And just who is this man?" Katrina rejoined, her curiosity getting the better of her.
"In another life, he was a gladiator," the Emperor replied. "The mightiest gladiator that I, or anyone, had ever seen. His fame was so great that one day I decided to go to the fights myself to see if the stories were true."
"The stories didn't do him justice," Caesar told his niece dryly. "I had never seen anyone with that much raw talent before, and I realized that to have such potential die on the sands of the Coliseum would be a sad thing to see. After the fights were over I approached him with an offer to be released from his bondage; I gave him his freedom, and in return he gave me his loyalty." The Emperor's voice grew louder as he clapped his hands together at commendable volume. "Kurzan! Attend me!"
From somewhere behind Katrina's back, a low voice made her skin crawl as she suddenly felt the presence of someone directly behind her.
"I am here, sire."
Katrina turned around suddenly out of pure reflex, and what next greeted her inquiring gaze made her vision swim with numbing fear.
The man who had so abruptly answered Caesar's call was so menacing a sight that foreboding seemed to drip from his every pore. His face and body were largely hidden under the gray hood and cloak he wore, and so black was the void that hid the man's features that the room seemed to grow just a little darker, as if the inky darkness within was literally sucking the light away like black hole. On the cold stone floor he knuckled down in deference to his liege, and he was so still that he seemed to be more of a statue than anything else.
"Rise," Caesar told him, gesturing for the newcomer to stand. "I have need of you once more, Kurzan Vortigern."
The faceless menace straightened, its head still lowered as a sign of respect. "What would you have of me?" Kurzan asked, again in that same low and emotionless voice that the stunned girl found so disturbing.
"This is my niece, Katrina," Caesar elaborated. "She is my only remaining family, and it is only with her that the royal lineage will survive. Do you understand how important she is, both to the future of the Empire and to me on a personal level?"
"Her unique position makes her a target for any of those who would usurp me," Caesar went on. "Katrina will be residing here in the palace from now on, Kurzan, and though I am reluctant to let anyone else carry out your…primary duties, I can think of no one else with whom I'd trust my niece's life. You are to protect her from all those that would do her ill," The Emperor concluded. "Strike them down without mercy, for no harm is to come to Katrina while you still draw breath. You are not to leave her side at all for any reason, save for the bedroom and the bath."
Kurzan suddenly removed his hood, and Katrina almost felt her heart stop altogether as she suddenly realized what he had gone to such lengths to hide from prying eyes. Her heart beat like a monstrous drum until she thought it would explode from her chest, for never before had Katrina beheld such a monstrous visage.
The gray cloak fluttered slowly by Kurzan's ankles, and the muted torchlight glinted off of the steel cuirass that covered his chest. It was of typical Roman style, its breastplate and shoulder guards comprising of layers of interweaving, thick metal strips that afforded the wearer a good layer of protection while also allowing for reasonable mobility. It had obviously seen heavy action, Katrina knew, for the once-flawless metal was now covered in scars and scratches, its strips of once-gleaming steel notched and chipped from countless skirmishes. The greaves and shoulder guards that Kurzan wore fared little better in their battle-scarred appearance and the muted gray tunic that Caesar's servant wore sported a ragged edge that gave him a barbaric countenance. Across his back Kurzan wore a pair of gladius short swords, straight-bladed and double-edged, and their hilts peeked over his shoulder in an X-shape as their leather straps crossed over Kurzan's chest.
But as scary as all this may have been, it was the appearance of Kurzan himself that made Katrina feel somewhat sick.
His strong, well-built form was the color of the deep ocean, an unnatural-looking shade of dark blue over which had grown a thin layer of fur or hair of some kind. His elongated fangs peeked out even when his lips were closed, and his bizarre-looking hands bore only three fingers, including the thumb. His sandaled feet were likewise twisted, each possessing only a pair of large toes, and a long, spaded tail thrashed slowly around Kurzan's thigh like a slithering snake, as if that unnatural appendage had a life of its own.
What unnerved Katrina the most were his eyes.
They were not unlike those of a cat, really. The orbs that now studied Katrina with their intense gaze were the color of liquid gold and seemed to stare right through her with the force of their scrutiny, and the slitted, black pupil in the center of each amber pool ensnared Katrina's brown ones like a hungry serpent, drawing her eyes to his with an almost hypnotic magnetism.
He didn't look a day older than she was, Katrina realized as she fought to keep her knees from quaking, and yet those eyes seemed almost ancient compared to the rest of him. Something was there in those golden depths that should not be seen in one so young in years, a maturity and hardness that far exceeded the span of Kurzan's lifetime. These were the eyes of one who had seen more than any man should ever have to endure.
Then Kurzan Vortigern, "The Emperor's Hand," unsheathed his blades and held them out to her in a time-honored symbol of servitude, his face showing not a trace of self-consciousness whilst he slowly dropped to one knee.
"My lady," he intoned slowly. "I am...your servant."
A/N: GUESS WHO'S BACK AND BETTER THAN EVER? ^^ I am SO PUMPED to be starting this story, and I really hope you guys enjoyed the first chapter! What dark deeds are being plotted in the Roman Senate? What is the story behind Katrina's new bodyguard? And will Kurzan succeed in his mission to keep Katrina alive? Find out in coming chapters! And PLEASE REVIEW! If you have ANY ideas or suggestions, LET ME KNOW! I would LOVE to hear your ideas!
Your humble servant,
-Quill N. Inque
P.S. If I call the heroine "Catherine" instead of "Katrina," then I apologize in advance. I guess after so many stories of calling her "Catherine," it might prove to be a little bit of a challenge for me to keep the names straight, so please don't hesitate to let me know if I get the characters' nomenclature mixed up. ^^