The interior of the Senate House of New Rome looked a like a high school lecture hall - if high school lecture halls had mosaic floors, marble statues and columns, and overhead a fabulous astronomical ceiling whose stars and constellations shifted imperceptibly to match the real night sky. Three curved rows of backless marble seats – try sitting in a chair with a back in a toga, just try – faced a podium set with two ivory curule* chairs for the praetors overlooked by triple life sized statues of Jupiter Tonans flanked by Mars Ultor and Quirinus, the Romans' 'big three'.
Because it was a session concerning military matters Reyna presided. Because it had been called at short notice only the ten legion senators, the Public Lares, and the half-dozen city magistrates and the Legates of veterans were in attendance. Reyna pretty much railroaded the first part meeting, like she said there wasn't much to debate; the commands of Mars Ultor had to be obeyed. He had picked Frank Zhang to lead the quest and Frank had picked Hazel and Percy Jackson as his companions. Cato, of course, had raised objections and Octavian had been as obstructive has he dared but Mars Ultor – and Reyna – got their way.
Cornelia was more than a little surprised when Reyna announced there would be further business which was foolish of her. She should have realized that the praetor would take advantage of what was practically a closed meeting to finally announce the impending attack to the senate. Admitting the threat to the full senate would have led to a lot of ranting and raving and character assassination on the floor –if not actual bloodshed - which would normally have been just fine as political rough and tumble was part of the fun of being a Roman - but they didn't have time for it just now.
Daniel Mecurius Proctor, this year's senior Praetor Urbanus, stood to be recognized. "What intelligence do we have on the size and composition of the enemy, Reyna Bellonica?"
Reyna closed her eyes briefly. "Lupa estimates a hundred or more Gegenes, a full legion of Cyclopes and at least as many centaurs as well as smaller detachments of Laistrygonians and Hyperboreans, and Scythian Draconae."
There was a stunned silence finally broken by C. Julius Severus, Legate of Veterans. "Romans have always been outnumbered by the barbarians but with the help of the gods we prevail," he said in his stern, ringing voice.
Everybody let out a sigh and started breathing again. "When?" Mercurius Proctor asked.
"Lupa has been doing everything in her power to slow them down, she's taken heavy losses and there is little more she can do. No later than the Feast of Fortuna, she says."
Severus looked at his fellow legate, Cornelia's grandmother and namesake Cornelia Prisca. "That may be to our advantage," he said, "veterans from outside come to the feast and will swell our numbers by a little."
"It also gives us excuse to step up drilling as preparation for the games," the Elder Cornelia agreed.
"Truly games to remember," the Praetor Urbanus said grimly.
"Well that was totally depressing," Cornelia commented to Reyna, walking alongside her as the legion senators headed back to camp.
"Good thing we got a level headed bench of magistrates this year." Kelly added grimly from the praetor's other side.
Cornelia looked smug, "Thank you!" She was closely related to exactly half of this year's magistrates. The junior Praetor Urbanus, the senior aedile, and one of the Tribunes of Citizens just happened to her three elder uncles. The fourth and youngest was prefect of the Praetorian Guard, New Rome's police force.
"We're lucky you're so well connected, Cornelia," Reyna said seriously. "You can be my liaison with the praetor urbanes and the legates without raising any suspicions."
Cornelia nodded. She was always in and out of her grandmother's house, and so of course were her uncles and Julius Severus.
"Remember what Pater Mars said; if Frank Zhang and his companions succeed in their quest our honor will be restored and Rome saved," said Kelly, trying to be encouraging.
"Believe me I haven't forgotten one word Mars Ultor said," Reyna replied. "But it's not Frank Zhang I'm depending on, it's Percy Jackson."
Kelly raised her eyebrows, "The graecus?"
Reyna gave a single sharp nod. "Greek or no he's a veteran quester, I know I met him on one. And we've all seen the kind of power he commands." Neither Kelly nor Cornelia could argue with that. "Mater Juno brought him here for a reason," the Praetor continued. "I think he's here to replace Jason."
"You've given up on him," Kelly said flatly.
"I don't want to," Reyna said tightly, "I want to believe he'll come back to us –"
"Felix has bet good denarii that he will," Kelly interrupted.
"I hope to the gods he's right," said Reyna. "But in meantime we're short a praetor and I'd much rather have Percy Jackson in the seat next to me than Octavian!"
"I don't think anybody could argue with that," said Cornelia. "If he brings home the eagle we can pretty much count on him being shield raised."
"That's what I think," said Reyna.
Lunch was not a festive occasion. Knowledge of the oncoming army was still limited to senatorial circles but everybody had heard Mars Ultor say Rome's survival hung on this quest and nobody had much faith in the Fatal Fifths' three most junior legionaries' ability to pull it off.
After lunch the legion assembled on the via principalis to formally bid farewell to the questers. Reyna made a brief speech invoking the blessing of the gods, especially Fortuna – the same speech that had so notably failed to bring luck to the search parties – and Octavian took the auspices.
Since he had an audience he made an elaborate little ceremony of it, sprinkling the 'victim', a beanie baby, with mola salsa before ripping it open with his knife. He brooded over the fluffy innards for a whole minute – Cornelia timed him – before raising his head. "The omens are grave!" he cried. Like – duh! "Hard and dangerous times lie before us. The next days will bring upon us the worst threat Rome has faced in a thousand years, more dangerous than either barbarians or Saturn. Camp and City will come nigh to destruction but be saved by a hero no one expects!"
The one thing in which Octavian was completely honest was his auguries, Cornelia reflected. At least he'd given this one a hopeful final twist. She looked at Frank Zhang, Hazel Levesque and Percy Jackson, as unexpected a bunch of heroes as the legion had ever sent out on an urgent quest, and silently and fervently wished them better luck then the search parties.
Reyna dismissed the legion. The questers went off to pack, the other kids to their assigned duties. Cornelia approached the praetor in obedience to her commanding beckon.
Reyna slid from Scipio's back and moved in close. "I didn't tell the senate everything," she said quietly.
"Oh Mars!" Cornelia interrupted, "there's more?"
"The army of monsters is being led a giant – not a Laistrygonian or a Hyperborean, one of the ancient Gigantes spawned by Gaea to destroy the gods." Reyna answered grimly.
The other girl was stunned into temporary silence. "Oh gods," Cornelia muttered at last, "this is so unfair. We're still reeling from Saturn's War."
"Aut vincere aut mori," Reyna said tightly. "Warn the legates, they've got to know what we'll be facing. Tell no one else."
Cornelia followed the wide curve of the Little Tiber as it looped towards the lake instead of heading back into New Rome. It was summer and her grandmother would be at the villa not the townhouse. The villa of Cornelia Prisca and her husband Silvanus Silvius Tiberinus stood on a terrace above the ponds of the fish farm commanding a fine view of the cattle and sheep pasturing on the other side of the river. An oak wood stretched from behind the villa to the hills hemming the valley. Cornelia met her step-grandfather - her real grandfather was Quirinus the deified Romulus Founder of Rome – in the shade of the old oaks meditatively scratching the broad back of a contented sow with a gnarly stick.
Silvanus Tiberinus, a very big man in all dimensions with a cap of short cropped graying hair, nodded an unsurprised greeting. "Your grandmother is expecting you, sweetie," he said in his booming voice. "She guessed Reyna Bellonica had a bit more bad news tucked in her sinus.*"
"Grandma's dead right," Cornelia answered, "orders are it's for her ears and Julius Severus' only."
Her grandpa snorted gently. "Honeypie, I don't want to know. Just hand me my spear and my shield and point me towards the enemy when he gets here." Cornelia smiled. There spoke the true Roman spirit! "You'll find Grandma and Julius Severus in the tablinium.*"
Curule chair: a curvy x-shaped folding stool with arms but no back. The traditional seat of Roman Magistrates.
Sinus: a pouch-like fold in the front of a correctly draped toga used as a pocket.
Tablinium: A big, airy room off the atrium used by the heads of a Roman family as a home office and place for entertaining callers.