Authors: Ottalini, Daniel
Table of Contents
Roma Aeronautica: A novella set in the world of the Steam Empire Chronicles
Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Ottalini. All rights reserved.
First Kindle Edition: May 2013
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
O, ASPIRANT, YOU COME BEFORE
us seeking entrance into the
Athenae Roma Aeronautica
to join in the service of the emperor as a member of our grand airfleet,” Chief Judge Florentinus Amelius said solemnly to the mostly empty room.
To his left and right, four other judges sat in semi-boredom. No doubt the stifling heat of the midsummer afternoon wore upon their mostly overweight and corpulent forms. Overhead, the weak breeze blowing down from the wheezing fans provided no relief from the temperature. The judges were tired, cranky, probably half-drunk, and looking for any excuse to leave early. The boy was the last applicant to the now-famed
, the training school of all Roman aviators, and everyone was eager to go home.
“Aspirant, do you have anything to say for yourself before I read your application?” the chief judge asked sternly, looking down on the scrawny, tow-headed child standing before him.
The boy fidgeted, fingers playing at the hem of his neatly arranged toga. His hair had not survived his mother’s attempts to straighten it. Amelius had seen the boy and his family in the hallway when the large doors were pulled open, his mother running a comb through his hair in a last ditch effort to smooth it out.
With a slight shake of his head, Amelius looked down at the file before him. Although he knew that the other judges had the same file and were most likely reading it now, he chose to read aloud for everyone’s benefit.
“Aspirant Rufius Tiveri Cassi Alexandros, descendent of Garus Nero Cassi Alexandros, descendent of…” Amelius paused, double-checking his file as one of the surnames rang a bell.
“Is this correct?” he asked the court secretary incredulously. He pointed to the questionable statement.
The man sifted quickly through his notes, the sound of his shuffling parchment all that could be heard over the fans and shallow breathing of the judges. “Yes, Your Judgeship
, that is the correct notation,” the secretary intoned.
Amelius thought as he continued reading, glancing at the child to see his reaction.
“You are a descendent of Gaius Cassius Longinus. Well, my boy, that is quite a lineage. A descendent of the traitor of Rome himself, seeking entrance into our august institution.” He looked down at the child. “Tell us why you think you should be allowed to serve,” Amelius stated flatly.
The boy froze up for a moment, although the question had probably been on his mind from the moment he applied to the academy. His voice was quiet as he spoke his reply.
“I… I wish to serve the empire. It has been hundreds of years, more than a thousand, since my ancestor rose up against what he perceived to be tyranny. I understand why my family has been blacklisted for so long, but I am not my ancestor.” His response revealed a child with intelligence and understanding beyond his years.
There’s spirit there. Carefully controlled, but there.
“Pah! Absurd. The Cassi must keep their surnames so that all Rome may know and remember who tried to destroy our empire in its infancy. Surely, Florentius, you’ll not break with tradition?” Pentus Astoragas’s nasally voice pulled Amelius’s attention to the right end of the bench. The former airfleet captain leaned back, boots on his desk, as he lackadaisically fanned himself with a sheaf of paper and yawned. “Dismiss the lad and we’ll finish the day ahead of schedule.”
“The seed of treachery can take many years to bloom,” came the voice of Garus Miletosinos, the white-haired historian of the panel. “While not present now, treachery, ambition, and vengeance have a way of returning at the least expected, and most disastrous, moments.”
Amelius looked at the child. The boy stared at the panel, then down at his feet. His face was a mix of embarrassment and frustration. Finally, he looked up and locked eyes with the chief judge.
“Sir,” he began. “I believe I would be an excellent candidate and cadet. I am familiar with the latest airship technology, have stellar remarks from my instructors at my academia, and would be an exceptionally motivated cadet.” He colored again slightly before looking back at his feet.
Amelius returned his gaze to the sheaf of papers before him.
“Your marks are exemplary, and your recommendations are glowing,” he stated grudgingly. The room was silent for a moment, then something shifted slightly to Amelius’s left. Quintus Heratus quietly scribbled on one of the many pieces of paper on his desk before passing him a note. Amelius scanned it quickly.
“Are you sure, Quintus?” Amelius asked sotto voce
“Before we take a final vote, I must ask you one last question, Rufus Tiveri. Let us say you are on a ship, as a captain. You are tasked with saving the life of a
, a lord of the empire, perhaps even the
himself. For some reason, the crew mutinies, demanding the head of the officer. What do you do?”
The boy looked thoughtful as Amelius sat back slightly and waited.
“First, it would never happen with my crew,” the boy stated. “My crew would be treated with respect and trust, not with harshness and punishments. Second, if such a situation were to occur, I would have the legate escape using one of the emergency drop lines. Or, I would crash-land the ship in an effort to allow the lord to escape.”
Amelius was impressed.
He does not sound arrogant at all when talking about his crew, but I wonder how a real ship would do under him
“Sir, if I may?” The boy seemed to have gathered his courage for one last comment.
“I know that my ancestry can be a mark against my family’s honor. But I implore you to give me a chance to prove myself. I will pass whatever tests you require, just for that chance.” He bowed low, then thanked them.
“All right, all right, let’s vote already,” Astoragas said impatiently. “I vote no. Can’t have little Cassi brats infiltrating the airfleet. First one, then more!”
“No,” Garus Miletosinos said, hardly looking up from his paperwork.
“Yes,” Quintus Heratus said forcefully, smiling warmly at the boy.
The room was silent for a moment as the small group of bureaucrats waited for the last two votes. By tradition, the chief judge voiced his opinion last, so it could be said he was not influencing any of the others.
“Vorentius?” Amelius turned to his right and prodded the sleeping judge with his foot.
“Who? What? Vote? Yes… of… of course!” Vorentius Ilsotus said with a flourish before closing his eyes and beginning to snore again. Sighing, Amelius realized it was once again up to him to be the deciding vote.
“You put this panel in a difficult situation. You are right in the idea that all men ought to have a chance to forge their own destiny. But you are wrong in thinking that your family name should be discounted. Take my advice lad, do not forget that name, but turn it into something to make you stronger. Quintus here has vouched for you, and this does carry some weight with me. I’m still convinced this is a mistake, but I do believe in chances.”
He signed his name on the line at the bottom of the application, then handed it down to his secretary.
“Welcome to the
Athenae Roma Aeronautica
, Cadet Alexandros. And remember: there are no second chances in the
, for once you are out, you are out. Rome does not forget.”
The boy bowed deeply, then turned smartly and left the hall through the same doors that had granted him entrance. He thanked the guards as they opened the doors for him. Even Amelius could see the pep in his step as he exited the hall.
The chief judge turned to the rather average-looking Roman next to him.
“Why did you vouch for him, Quintus?” he asked curiously.
“He reminded me of myself. We cannot control what house or family we are born into. He deserves a chance,” the man said quietly as he gathered his papers and handed them to his manservant. “Besides, Amelius, haven’t you heard the saying… ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer?’”
“Yes, but which one is he? A friend to Rome, or an enemy?”
“A friend, I think. But only time will tell. I’d rather have him under our guidance and control in the meantime, wouldn’t you?”
Amelius nodded hesitantly.
“Very well, then. I shall see you at supper tonight. The new applicants are about to be introduced to the
,” Quintus said.
“I shall be glad to see it. This new crop appears to be one of the best ones ever. There are several legacies, the children of aviators and captains in the airfleet,” Amelius stated.
He clasped arms with Heratus, bidding him farewell. Picking up his things, Amelius walked across the floor, sandals making sharp noises on the tile. The guards opened the main door with a slight rustle of chainmail as Amelius swept into the hallway.
Alexandros was still in the corridor with his parents. His father leaned down and embraced the child, while his mother dabbed slightly at her eyes with a handkerchief. The boy’s eyes lit up as he saw the chief judge enter the hallway. Extricating himself from his father’s arms, the boy nearly ran over to Amelius.
“Your Judgeship, may I present my family?” Alexandros followed the proper etiquette with painstaking care as he introduced his father and mother.
“We wanted to thank you for giving our son a chance…” Alexandros’s father said.
Amelius shook his head as he fended off their gratefulness. “Please, sir. There is no need. Rufius Tiveri worked for it. He convinced me and enough other members of the panel for the chance. Now all he must do is demonstrate that our trust and belief in him is well placed.”
The man was taken aback at the comment for a moment but then nodded.
“Good luck, Rufius Tiveri Alexandros. You’ll need it.”
Amelius turned and walked down the hallway toward the welcoming breeze of open air. The sound of sandals slapping the tiles came from behind him as young Alexandros approached him.
“You won’t regret this, Your Honor!” he called out.
Amelius refused to turn, instead calling back to him.
LEXANDROS RACED DOWN THE COLUMNED
pathways, his satchel banging against his hips with every movement. Around him, the standard day at the academia was in full swing. Cadets in blue tunics and gray trousers moved all around him, following their daily schedule. Occasionally, senior cadets, those students in their fourth and final year at the
resplendent in their purple tunics and black trousers with silver filigree, would float through the crowd. The masses of first, second, and third year cadets flowed around these older pupils like water around mid-stream boulders.
Built in a cross-like formation, the wings of the academia aligned with the cardinal compass points. To the north and west lay the classrooms, and to the south and east lay the dormitories, cafeterias, and administration buildings. The buildings were mostly low and blocky, built in the traditional Roman style with colonnades and formal atrium entryways. On a beautiful sunny say, like today, throngs of cadets would take the opportunity to study or relax outside, enjoying the splendor of the academia buildings nestled in the western portion of Rome’s outer district.
Reveille had been played around three hours earlier, and Alexandros was running late for his third period course—Theory of Air Combat.
Stupid administrators, making my second and third periods all the way across campus from each other,
he grumbled to himself as he slid through the throngs, dodging and weaving like a recon skimmer.
The massive chimes of the bell tower began to sound as he rounded a corner and nearly collided headlong with a senior cadet. The older boy made a swipe at the youngster, his hands brushing the satchel strap as Alexandros nimbly danced around the obstruction.
“Sorry!” he shouted as he tore down the pavement, skidding to a halt right before the classroom door. Taking a moment to compose himself and brush his uniform smooth as best he could, he attempted to open the door nonchalantly.
Or would have, had the door been unlocked. Muttering curses under his breath, and mentally preparing himself for the verbal assault that was to come, Alexandros knocked at the door. He heard footsteps inside and a latch slid to one side. The door creaked as the portal opened.
“Late again, Cadet Alexandros?” the severe man with closely cropped gray hair asked as he beckoned the young man into the room. “I was wondering when you’d be joining us. Care to explain why you were late?” he asked in a mild tone.
After stammering through his response and wondering why he had gotten away so easily, Alexandros took a seat in the back of the room. His friend, Gordanus Scipio Polentio, gave him an exasperated look from the row over. Gordanus might complain, but he’d still let Alexandros copy his notes later. For a moment, Alexandros remained tense, waiting for the remainder of his dressing down for being late. Eventually, seeing that none was coming, he quietly opened his rucksack.