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A Birthday Story - Saturn's Messengers

Another good friend’s birthday is upon me and I have to admit, this one’s story is a little more involved than the rest I’ve done. To explain: we haven’t always been close, but over the years Lindsay’s become one of my oldest and most beloved acquaintances. She’s also been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of my A Knight Adrift project, going out of her way to give it a tremendous amount of (probably undue) attention despite my repeatedly assuring her there is no obligation. So, I felt this one had to be something special.

With her husband, Chris, Lindsay has a very young daughter (one year old at this point, I think) named Nora. To even someone like me, who generally dislikes children and especially babies, Nora is as charming as they come: almost always grinning, laughing, and in good cheer… So, I decided to look into Nora’s (fantastical) future and tell a story that like the others I’ve done incorporates some of Lindsay’s favorite things: Nora, Latin (she is now a teacher of the subject), and… Claudius, Emperor of Rome.

You’re probably wondering about that last bit, which is understandable for sure. I can’t say I totally get it myself, but Lindsay's fascinated by the remarkably tragic-yet-mysterious historical figure. Claudius was ill-regarded by his contemporaries, but has grown into something of a mythic character in modern literature and film, which is best exemplified by I, Claudius: a book written in the 1930’s that was later adapted into a 1976 BBC television series. Like many of Rome’s emperors, Claudius’s story is pretty nuts, very dramatic, and extremely entertaining, if you have a chance to check it out.

Anyway, I’ve been rambling too long and giving too much away. For reference, the "Clavdivs" spelling is a running joke. Enjoy the story! 


The Roman God, Saturnus

The Roman God, Saturnus

“Mom! Mom! You gotta see this! Your gift’s complete!” Nora shouted as she dashed into the kitchen. Her 16-year-old grin was broad, her blue eyes were shining with obvious elation. Below a tousled mess of golden hair, Nora’s face was smudged with motor oil and grease.

“What exactly are you doing down there?” Lindsay asked her daughter. The lights flickered overhead, as they had been for hours already. An apprehensive chill of fear shot up her spine. Finally, the bulbs dimmed and then were extinguished, their energy sapped by whatever Nora had concocted a floor below. A mechanical roar vibrated the tiles beneath her feet. “Let me guess: another experiment? I thought we made it clear after the fire that you’d take those out to the workshop. Your father built it for you – you should use it!”

“I know, I know. Right, I got it. But I needed to be close to the junction box in the basement,” Nora explained. From a pocket of her coveralls, she pulled a dirty hand towel and wiped her face, further smearing the grime there. “It’s your birthday, so I wanted to make you something special. You’re up here just reading a book. Nice celebration. Could you be any more boring? Come on, just come downstairs and see?”

Nora clasped her hands in supplication and peered at her mother with the sad eyes of a desperate child who knows too well how to get what she wants. Lindsay laughed out loud at the ploy, but threw her hands up in defeat. Not for the first time she wondered if her daughter would be her death.

“Alright! Alright. You got me. Let’s go see what you’ve got,” Lindsay said. Nora hopped as high as her heavy work boots would allow, then dashed from the kitchen toward the basement stairs. She raced ahead of her mother, eager to introduce whatever the mysterious gift was.

“Close your eyes! It’s a surprise!” Nora shouted back up the stairs as Lindsay approached the threshold.

“So you got me a broken leg for my birthday? Great,” Lindsay remarked sarcastically. Hearing her daughter’s exasperated sigh from below, she closed her eyes and started down the basement steps. Nora’s machine was louder now; its mechanical whirring stirred the air, which felt electrified and light. As she descended the steps, Lindsay could feel strands of hair rising from atop her head. “Nora, I hope for your sake this isn’t dangerous.”

“It’s fine! Don’t worry! Just get down here!” Lindsay stepped off the last of the stairs and held out a hand. Nora grabbed it, enthusiastically pulling her mother toward the center of the room. “Alright. Now, don’t open your eyes until I say the word! Wait here a sec.”

Nora let go of her mother’s hand to tinker with some tool or device. Lindsay could hear her daughter muttering to herself in grumbling frustration, then thrilled understanding. The mechanical whirring grew louder and louder, the air more charged with energy, until a faint click triggered some part of the birthday apparatus and all went quiet. Only the low hum of electricity filled the echoing space below the house.

“OK! Now get ready. On the count of three, open those peepers! One… Two…. Three! Happy birthday!” Nora cheered. As Lindsay opened her eyes, Nora threw up her arms and gestured toward an elaborate technological marvel. In the center of the basement stood a flat circle of space, ringed by a frame of metal and indecipherable instruments. The circle pulsed blue and white and swirled like a whirlpool of energy. Lindsay was unsure what to make of the gift. Whatever the thing was, it looked as if it had been conjured by her daughter out of a science fiction movie. For her part, Nora stood beside the machine, a smiling beacon of pride and joy.

“Um… It looks cool! What… Uh, what is this, Nora?” Lindsay asked, afraid to step closer toward the alien object.

“Oh, come on. A time machine, obviously!” The young inventor revealed, as if her explanation was self-evident. “Happy birthday, mom! Look, I’ve already perfected it. These gloves, we each get one. They anchor us to this time while we travel! Here, put one on.”

Nora held out a strange gauntlet to her mother. From what Lindsay could tell, the thing was little more than a mess of circuitry soldered to one of her husband’s gardening gloves. Lindsay frowned.

“This is all a bit much…”

“Here we go!” Nora shouted, baring her teeth in an indomitable grin. She grabbed her mother’s hand and dove toward the time machine. Without another word, Lindsay and Nora were swept into the crackling portal.

* * *

The Roman Emperor, Claudius

The Roman Emperor, Claudius

After a time, Lindsay opened her eyes. Mother and daughter awoke side-by-side on a cold stone floor, surrounded by tall marble columns. Below an immense statue of a naked man wielding a scythe, a group of much smaller, toga-clad men stood motionless and watched the time travelers in awe. Each of the mens' faces appeared frozen by shock and horror, the tablets and styli limp in their hands.

“Nora, where are we? This looks like a…” Lindsay asked. A note of trepidation and panic crept into her voice. 

Before Nora could answer, a gang of men wearing sculpted armor and carrying short javelins filed into the temple. The shining helms framing their grim faces bore elaborate plumage and horse hair above the brass and silver plate. Behind each a cloak of red snapped on an early morning breeze. Nora gasped in surprise and huddled close to her mother. 

“Confuto!” One of the men shouted at Lindsay. He raised a hand abruptly, then lowered it, and with the motion the soldiers’ spears pointed toward the strange interlopers. Lindsay gasped in surprise.

“Are they speaking… Italian? No! Latin? Nora, where are we?” Lindsay asked, now with increasingly urgency. It was obvious the time-displaced travelers were trespassing where they ought not to be. Visions of imminent violence flashed before her eyes. Her daughter would be the death of her after all.

“I don’t know, I programmed it for Rome! 46 AD,” Nora muttered. She tinkered with her gauntlet and confirmed her estimation. “Yes, it’s Rome, 46 AD. The reign of Clavdivs as emperor, I think. It was supposed to be a gift - I’m sorry!”

“Clavdivs!” Lindsay pronounced. Her mind was reeling. She could hardly believe this was happening. And on her birthday no less! The collection of noblemen and soldiers around her looked on in dismay and skepticism. Slowly the soldiers moved in upon their quarry. “Praetorian! Exspecto!” 

Lindsay held up her hand, feeling for a moment like a wizard. The words seemed to have some effect on the hard-faced men and with a sign from their commander, they paused in their advance. They looked on silently, waiting to hear more before executing the criminals. Lindsay thought fast. If this place was a temple, who was the god towering over them? She looked back over her shoulder toward the tall, bearded man carrying a scythe and a flash of recognition lit up her mind. The statue was that of Saturn; god of wealth, of renewal, of time. And this place, it must have been a temple devoted to the deity. The Temple of Saturn was famous even in her time, but in Rome it was the Senate’s Treasury. Of course! The guards here thought Lindsay and Nora to be bank robbers. But why the Preatorian guard? They only accompanied...

Lindsay yelped in equal parts dread and joy, certain hers and Nora’s lives depended on the next few seconds. She thought for a moment, took a deep breath, and addressed the crowd of soldiers in Latin with as authentic an accent she could manage (though it sounded slightly Scottish). 

“Wait, please. We are but messengers of Saturn. We have been sent from on high by that great deity. We seek an audience with your emperor, Clavdivs. We must speak of grave matters,” Lindsay announced. 

“E pluribus unum…?” Nora offered sheepishly. Lindsay glared at her daughter.

“Grave matters? Messengers of Saturn?” A voice arose from behind the spear-wielding guards and a look of surprise spread quickly through their ranks. From between the soldiers stepped a middle-aged man of unremarkable appearance. He put a hand to the shoulder of the Praetorian commander and with a sign the soldiers stepped back. “Then surely that would explain why you interrupted my inspection of this wretched treasury that so dishonors your master’s grandeur. We are, all of us, but humble servants of that time-crafting deity. I am Clavdivs, Emperor of Rome. How may I serve my celestial guests?”

The emperor bowed toward Lindsay and Nora, who stood stunned in amazement. Clavdivs adjusted his toga, which appeared far too large for his small, stocky frame. Lindsay shook her head and snapped her hanging mouth closed as she struggled to process everything the emperor's presence and everything he had said. Unable to comprehend any of the Latin, Nora looked around her, taking in what she could of the ancient temple, the clothes, and the armor. Her eyes were wide in wonder and curiosity, the machinery of her mind committing each detail to memory. Lindsay cleared her throat and attempted a response.

“Yes, um… Saturn wishes… to help the emperor become a better emperor! With the guidance of the gods, you can usher in a new era or prosperity!” Lindsay gestured toward the heavens and smiled. She looked at Clavdivs, trying to gauge the effect of her words. Clavdivs followed her gaze up to the ceiling, then returned to Lindsay and smirked.

“How long do you have? Such a task could take decades. I have acquired so many enemies and they daily grow ever closer,” Clavdivs chuckled. 

“Hey, when the hell can we get out of here?” Lindsay elbowed her daughter, then turned to Nora and frantically asked in English. Nora shrugged and tapped a button on her gauntlet. 

“I programmed the thing to retrieve us in 12 hours, so yeah. Um, half a day from now, I guess. Mom, I’m—“ Nora lowered her eyes as her mother put a gentle hand on her daughter’s head. 

“It’s fine. This is fun! Sort of…” Lindsay turned back to Clavdivs, who peered at Lindsay and Nora, fascinated by their speech. Lindsay gestured skyward again, then added in Latin, “We have less than a half a day here before we must return… to the heavens!” 

“Well, I must admit, you have excellent timing. After this inspection I intend to retreat from Rome to the country for a time. Would you do me the honor of joining me this evening? I desire greatly to hear your wisdom and you may as well enjoy the clean Roman air while you can,” Clavdivs said. With those words, he glanced sidelong out of narrowing eyes at the gawking faces of the bankers around him, as if he were not inclined to trust them. 

Shocked by this gesture, the bankers fled the scene and retreated to the inner chambers of the temple to count their coin. Lindsay breathed a sigh of relief, thrilled the threat of immediate danger had passed. 

“We would be honored,” Lindsay said. She bowed deeply, then smacked Nora to join her. The young inventor threw her head toward the ground and almost toppled over. Lindsay shook her head in dismay.

* * *

“So, my lovely messengers, what can Clavdivs do for great Saturn?” The emperor reclined on a long chaise and gestured for Lindsay and Nora to take their seats across from him. Throughout the expansive villa, his guests cheered and danced. Strings were plucked and candles lit; fragrant wine poured and steaming meat sliced. A server approached Clavdivs with a silver goblet and presented it with head bowed. The emperor looked at the cup, then raised a hand in refusal. “Not that one, no. It’s got elephants drawn all over it!”

Embarrassed, the servant retreated to find a more suitable goblet. Lindsay tried to stifle a laugh, but was unsuccessful. She still found it difficult to believe what she was seeing. The emperor peered at his guest and grinned. In a moment the humbled servant returned with another cup, this one larger and etched with a design of lions and swords. “Ah, yes! Excellent. Now, tell me, you said you come bearing advice. What do you make of my rule?”

Lindsay looked around her at the courtiers and attendants, all smiling, laughing and nodding with unnatural enthusiasm. To her the place felt toxic, stifled. Even here amid the rolling green hills and olive trees of the country, she could still feel a threat of violence from all those around her. She was safe in Clavdivs’s presence, but she recalled the portrayals of the man she’d seen in books and film. Was he truly a fool? Would his brief rule come to as abrupt and awful an end as the histories portended? Assassination brought the rule of Clavdivs, like so many before him, to an immediate halt. And the act committed by his wife, no less. Did any person deserve to be consigned so to posterity?

“You’re not what I was expecting,” Lindsay admitted. An attendant handed her a goblet of wine, over the rim of which she watched Clavdivs. Few spoke to him or even smiled in his direction. All were present and accounted for, but it was painfully apparent few were there for the man. From the emperor himself, Lindsay sensed little malice or ill-intent despite the court’s attitude. He, in fact, seemed perpetually discomforted amid the hangers-on. A bronze-skinned man with shining white teeth and bushy eyebrows rattled off a boisterous joke. All laughed uproariously except Clavdivs, who only flicked his fingers and scowled in acknowledgement.

“Few ever are,” Clavdivs replied after a long moment of consideration. He nodded at Lindsay, then Nora. With a casual flick of his wrist, a servant adorned in gold appeared by his side with a tray of figs. He picked two from the platter and tossed one to Lindsay. “Do I disappoint you, messenger? Tell me, have I done Saturn some disservice?”

“No, no. Saturn… Has peered into the future, your future. He has seen things there that displease him. Seen the way historians chronicle your efforts,” Lindsay said. She felt a spring of pity and sympathy rising in her chest. When she spoke again, her tone was confiding and melancholy. “Saturn does not think you deserve such treatment.”

“Since my birth the scribes have been decrying my legitimacy. As the issue of Drusus, as a noble of Rome. Too long have I lived in the shadows of those who would seek to eradicate my family’s legacy. Were it not for the Praetorian, the Senate would have had their way and my body would even now be rotting in some gutter,” Clavdivs grumbled. With every word, his voice increased in volume. His face deepened in color, suffused with embarrassment and rage. All those nearest to him braced for a storm of imperial wrath, but as suddenly as it had arisen, the emperor’s anger dissipated. “Ah, look at me. Furious with memory, like a child, and in the presence of such celebrated company no less. I must admit, your arrival and words put much in perspective...”

Clavdivs rose from his lounge and motioned for Lindsay to join him. She looked at Nora, who was busy tinkering with the circuitry on her time traveling gauntlet amid a gaggle of curious onlookers. Though the girl had accrued several admirers, the young inventor had eyes only for her work. Lindsay whispered her daughter’s name, who sprang up from her chaise and skipped to her mother’s side. The group of admirers released a crestfallen sigh.

Clavdivs, Lindsay and Nora made their way toward the villa’s balcony, through an arch wrapped with grape vines and past bust-adorned pedestals. Revelers and attendants parted for the esteemed guests, whispering gossip among themselves with relentless urgency. Once they were outside, the Praetorian guard stepped in behind their ruler to form a living wall, shielding Clavdivs and his guests from further attention.

“In truth, my friend, I fear Rome is beyond one such as I,” the emperor said. He sighed as he put his hands to the balcony’s railing and stared far out over the countryside. “I often wonder: had I been born a peasant would I not have been happier? For so much of my life I have lived in fear, debased myself so as to appear worthless, to appear below the effort of killing. I lived, yes... But at what cost? I see this same fear at the heart of Rome. It limps along, those in power fighting to control what little they can. Cursing the gods, praising the gods, making wives and husbands of enemies, disposing of those who have been used up. And yet, we who do these things barely suffer what we deserve. The common man, the man who comprises the living, breathing thing at the heart of Rome… How little he factors into the scheming and plotting, and yet how much does he suffer in our stead...”

Lindsay was taken aback by the anguished depth of Clavdivs’s solemn rhetoric. She was – like those the emperor had described – just trying to survive a dangerous world, if for however briefly. Glancing at Nora where she stood apart tinkering with her device, Lindsay smiled. Were they born in this time, she and her daughter would have likely been peasants themselves. Despite her ruse, she was not a god, but still she could not remain silent. What would she have said of her emperor? What would a mystical being sent by the gods say? A memory of words alit like an ember from the depths of her exhausted mind.

“In a time beyond your own, a wise woman said, ‘If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.’ Despite your misgivings, even you are capable of greatness, but you can't achieve greatness alone. By your own admission, the common man is Rome more deserving of your attention than any of those gathered here or in the capital,” Lindsay said. She gave silent thanks to J.K. Rowling as she gestured back toward the party. “Make allies of those many would consider your inferiors. Make allies of those for whom Rome is not backstabbing and poison and rot, but livelihoods, children, and home.” 

For a long time, Clavdivs said nothing in reply. He looked into the fields to the west of the villa, where the enormous golden orb of the sun was dipping beneath the horizon. In the distance the tiny silhouette of a man toiled away amid a crop of wheat, slicing energetically despite the coming night. Water began to fill the emperor’s eyes as his face was transformed by emotion. He stood up straight, turned to Lindsay, and put a shaking hand on his companion’s shoulder. 

“Long have I cast about in the histories of greater men than I, searching for purpose, scrabbling up a sheer cliff of what I thought was inevitable inconsequence. I’ve written… countless tomes… treatises, histories, journals, letters, struggling always to find the words to explain the yearning within my heart,” Clavdivs intoned gravely. A pair of tears rolled down his frown-lined cheeks. “Thank you, dear messenger of Saturn. Thank you for your guidance, for your grace. I must admit I was skeptical of your claim, but… Perhaps your counsel will do right by my office, and set this empire on the path to greatness once again. The greatness even a humble farmer deserves.”

“Well, that’s pretty awesome…” Lindsay muttered to herself. She could feel a heavy lump in her throat as she watched Clavdivs ponder her advice further. The time traveler smiled at her new friend and patted the man on the back. The emperor beamed in response, and the teary-eyed man’s grin appeared to Lindsay to be his most genuine gesture since their meeting. Suddenly, Nora skipped over to her mother, tapping her glove with uncharacteristic worry. 

“Mom, uh, it’s almost time to go,” Nora whispered as she grabbed her mother’s wrist. Lindsay nodded.

“Clavdivs, it’s been a true pleasure, but we must now part company. I must admit this birthday party was one I’ll never forget,” Lindsay said, before she realized her mistake. Her body shuddered beneath a cold sweat of fear. But to her surprise, Clavdivs only smiled more broadly. 

“Dies natalis felix sit, my friend. Be well and go in peace,” Clavdivs said. He lowered his head and bowed to Lindsay and Nora, who after a moment of shock bowed in return. Nora beckoned her mother to step back a few paces, away from the emperor and his guards, then tapped on her wrist and counted aloud.

“5… 4… 3…”

One hand entwined with Nora’s, Lindsay waved farewell to Clavdivs, then winked out of existence.

* * * 

When the pair of time travelers awoke again, they found themselves home, in their New Jersey house’s basement. Nora’s machinery stood idly by, quiet and inert after retrieving its designer and her mother. Lindsay shook her head as she rose from the floor, her own eyes now welling with tears.

“Nora, I…” Lindsay began.

“I know, I know. I’ll destroy it. This thing is WAY too powerful. But oh man, could you believe that! Rome! Clavdivs!” Nora could barely contain her enthusiasm. 

“No, that’s… Well, yeah, you should definitely destroy this thing. Immediately. But no. What I was going to say was… Thank you. Thank you for that awesome experience,” Lindsay said. She grabbed her daughter and held her close. After an awkward moment of surprise, Nora wrapped her arms around her mother, before she stepped back. From her work bench she picked up a small computer device and punched in a number of digits. 

“You’re so welcome, but now for the true test. You know, just to make sure we’re not crazy,” Nora chuckled. A few seconds passed, and then she held up the computer, laughing heartily as she did. “Look at THIS!”

Lindsay peered at the device’s screen. On it, Nora had brought up a Wikipedia article; one on Emperor Clavdivs of Rome. The dates describing his reign were different from what she remembered. If she recalled correctly, the man had only ruled for 13 years in the past, but now…

“47 years?! Clavdivs ruled Rome for 47 years?!” Lindsay nearly fainted in shock, but couldn’t tear her eyes away from the screen. She scrolled down, scanning the long list of the emperor’s accomplishments. The account seemed nearly endless in its depth and breadth. Lindsay could not help but laugh in amazement. There, toward the end of the article was a high resolution photograph of a coin stamped in Clavdivs’s time. Around the edge of the trinket was inscribed a maxim: “We are all of us equal,” it read in Latin.

Lindsay laughed again. “Bring up Amazon, get me every book you can find!"

“But I already got you a birthday gift…” Nora complained as mother and daughter trundled upstairs to find cake.