Clea Majora walked through the hot streets of Nova Ostia, her sandalled feet lightly treading on the wide, baked, paving stones. She bought a honey cake from a pastry stall and nibbled it as she walked, using the vine leaf wrapper to catch the crumbs.
At the wall, a couple of boys she knew from school were playing a covert game of soccer, and called for her to join them, but she waved and kept walking. It was too hot for games, and besides, she had her own plans for her lunch hour.
Outside the stifling confines of the city, she kept walking until she came to her favourite gum tree. She unpinned her stola so that it folded underneath her when she sat down on the rough ground, and slid in the earbuds of her iPod. For a blissful forty minutes, she listened to music, and a podcast about movies she would never get to see. The rest of the world existed, out there, and she liked the reminder of that.
Clea did not see the stranger until he was almost on top of her. She was startled when he tripped on a root nearby, and stared at her as she yanked out her earbuds.
“I’m sorry!” he exclaimed.
“No, I’m sorry!” Quickly, Clea fastened her stola back up so that it covered the front of the Gladiators Do It in the Arena T-shirt she had borrowed from her brother that morning. “I’m not supposed to be here,” she confessed. “Not during daylight. Are you a tourist?”
“Yes,” said the stranger in a cultivated, I-was-not-born-speaking-English kind of accent. “I suppose that I am. Are we near Nova Ostia? I lost my way.”
Tourists always came to the city by train or by coach, but were asked to walk the ten-minute hike up the sloped road so that they entered the city without the ease of modern transport. Clea recognised the factory-produced tourist toga and tunic as one from Roman Road Tours. This man must have wandered away from his group. “You shouldn’t wander off-road,” she said accusingly. “This is Australia, the bush can be dangerous.” She should tell him about drop bears. That would serve him right. She was resentful of losing the last fifteen minutes of her lunch hour. “Come on, I’ll take you.”
He wore a hat, at least. Many tourists refused, wanting the full “authenticity” of the Roman experience, only to appear at the city gates bright red like crayfish. The city was built with shaded streets to keep the Australian sun away from bare arms and bald pates, but that ten-minute walk could do a lot of damage.
The visitor wore a broad-brimmed woven straw hat, not a design Clea recognised from Roman Road Tours. His hands were blistered from their moments in the sun, but the rest of him was a paler, European colour.
Clea dropped into the usual tourist spiel, about how a replica Roman city had come to be built in New South Wales, though it wasn’t really a replica, but a combination of several Roman towns. She added the part about real stone from Ostia and Herculaneum having been shipped over as part of the building process.
“Yes,” said the visitor with a sigh. “I wish you hadn’t done that.”
Still, he seemed interested enough, and stopped to peer at the triumphal arch that served as the city’s gateway. The soccer boys were gone, probably yelled at by one of the merchants. The worst crime in Nova Ostia was to be inauthentic where the punters might see.
“Would you like to wait for your tour group?” Clea asked politely. “Or some refreshment, perhaps?” She would be late getting back to the thermopolium at this rate, and it would look better if she brought a customer with her.
The stranger’s eyes were fixed upon the wall of the Temple of Vesta, and it was as if he had already forgotten she existed. “Thank you,” he said absently. “But I travel alone.”
* * * *
Clea dreamed of snakes, of women with bright silver eyes. She awoke to a flickering light outside her window, which was all wrong. It wasn’t as if Nova Ostia had street lights. She knew even before she made it out of bed that there had to be a fire somewhere.
The Temple of Vesta was aflame. The white marble walls had turned black, at the heart of the blaze. Clea watched as various citizens ran to help, rolling out emergency hoses that had been carefully hidden in gutters and hatches. There was shouting, and urgency, and the acrid taste of smoke in the back of her throat.
A man leaped out of the flames, and ran across the roof. As Clea watched, he jumped from wall to roof again, and ran along gutters, holding something the size and shape of a Roman short sword. She knew him, from his height and gait. The visitor.
Not quite knowing why, she opened her window and leaned out. He turned, his head flicking once in her direction, and then leaped—this time, arcing over the nearest wall, and vanishing from her sight.
Obviously this was the sort of thing you mentioned to people. But when the governor’s secretary went from house to house the next day, searching for any witness reports concerning the fire, Clea said nothing.
* * * *
At lunchtime, she bought two pastries and a flask of water, and set out to her usual spot. The visitor was leaning against her tree, looking exhausted, his hat casting a short shadow around him like an anti-halo.
“You did it,” she said without ceremony, passing him the water first, which he gulped down. “Didn’t you?”
“Of course I did,” he said, and then looked up at her, his eyes shaded and mysterious. “How many bodies?”
Clea shivered, that he could talk about “bodies” so easily, as if he were asking about her marks at school, or the number of pastries in her basket. “Two,” she said. That was what she had heard, from her mum, the neighbours, the soccer boys. “There were two dead women in the temple. But no one knows who they…were.” She wanted to ask him. The question bubbled up fiercely inside her, but she held it down. Something told her if she said the wrong thing, he would just walk away. No matter how tired he was.
“Damn,” he said quietly. “One got away.”
Clea felt cold inside, and now she wasn’t afraid he would leave—she was afraid that he wouldn’t.
The man was looking at her now, his eyes intently on her. “How old are you?”
That was the kind of question you didn’t answer, not when a tourist asked you. Clea had learned that when her curves first came in. There were always older men hanging about, eyeing her shape under the stola. But he wasn’t asking like that—there was nothing pervy about him, no hint that he fancied her. He was all business.
But what kind of business? Assassin? Terrorist?
“Sixteen,” she told him, and saw the interest flick away from her again. Really? She was of age, so not relevant? How creepy was that?
“Most of you sleep outside the city walls, yes?” he went on briskly. “Are there any children who sleep inside the walls?”
“I’m not telling you that,” she snapped. “Why should I tell you anything? This is my home, and you’re—weird.” Her whole body ached to trust him, to tell him everything she knew, and that was weird, too. As if she weren’t in control of her actions or her thoughts.
Something about this bloke made her throw all her sense out the window, and he was old enough to be her dad.
He nodded calmly. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I need information, and it’s only fair I give some in return.” He paused, waiting for her to define terms.
“Who were those women?” Clea asked, her voice coming out shakier than she liked.
“Lamia,” he said, drinking another slug of the water she had brought for him. “A kind of ancient vampire, from Roman mythology. They seduce young men and drink their blood.”
Clea blinked. Again, he oozed trustworthiness, like some kind of “believe me” pheromone. It felt like the truth. “And who are you?” she asked, changing it from “what” only at the last moment.
“I am a traveller. The last person alive who knows what these creatures are, and how to fight them. My task is to rid the world of the beasts of Rome. When the last of them are gone, I will rest.” He sounded so matter of fact about his death as a bullet point in the action plan.
“I meant, what’s your name?” Clea asked.
He almost smiled, his face creasing under the shade of the hat. “Julius,” he said.
Something about him made her ask the stupidest possible question. “You’re not—actually the Julius Caesar?”
This time he did smile, though it looked all wrong on his face, as if it weren’t an expression that happened very often. “No. That would be somewhat bizarre.”
“There are only three families who sleep inside the walls,” she blurted.
He switched back to the main topic without a blink. “How many have children?”
“Ours. Just ours. My brother Ant is fourteen.” Most of the families with kids preferred to live further out, where you could have a television in the living room and didn’t have to be so discreet about Wi-Fi or electric kettles.
“Excellent,” said Julius, his eyes blazing out of the shade.
* * * *
Clea couldn’t sleep. She Googled “lamia” and came up with a few medieval bestiary wikis with less than helpful illustrations, page after page of poetry by Keats, and a few vague references to the daughters of Mary Wollstonecraft.
Julius had given her so little to go on. He had assured her that her brother was probably not in danger, that the third lamia had most likely fled the city, but Clea had not felt the pressing wave of belief that she usually did when he spoke. Perhaps he had not been trying so hard.
“What do I do if something happens?” she had asked.
“I don’t have your number. We don’t have phones here! We have e-mail, though. Do you have e-mail?” Okay, she was babbling.
Julius shook his head as if there was something fundamental she just wasn’t getting. “If something happens, open a window and call me.”
Clea didn’t know whether it was super mega creepy to know he would be that close by, or a complete relief. She didn’t decide until morning came and her brother was still alive and as annoying as ever, and she knew exactly how to feel: stupid. Ripped off. Taken for a ride. Conned.
* * * *
Three days passed. Clea did her shifts in the thermopolium, idly Googled her university options, read a whole lot of manga, and almost but not quite forgot about the posh man in the straw hat.
Then one afternoon she came home to find Ant on the couch, snogging a girl. “Ew, get a room,” she said with all the usual grace and tolerance of an older sister.
“Get a life,” muttered her brother, disentangling himself from the girl and tugging her by the hand into his bedroom. He had—ew, ew—actual love bites on his neck, and the girl was far too pretty and far too smug-looking, and wasn’t fourteen way too young for that sort of thing?
Mum was going to kill Clea when she found out she had actually caused Ant to go into his room with the hot girl, and close the door.
Clea tried to remember what the girl had looked like. There was a blur in her memory, as if someone had reached out and smudged it with an old school blackboard duster.
Oh. Blonde hair. Silver eyes. Smug smile. Right.
Clea ran to the kitchen, threw up the window and hollered, “Julius!” into the street outside. She had thirty seconds to feel idiotic about it before the door clicked and he walked in as if he owned the place.
“She’s here?” he asked.
“My brother just took her into his room. For making out purposes.” She added that last part because Julius was old and might not get it if she didn’t spell it out.
Julius walked swiftly ahead, and flung open the door. Clea was caught between embarrassment and curiosity as she ran after him.
Ant lay spread out on his bed, the blonde girl crouched over him, and there were more than love bites on his neck. Blood spattered the pillow and stained the girl’s mouth.
Clea hit her with a chair. It was the first thing that came to hand, and it seemed appropriate.
Julius had a sword. Where had the freaking sword come from? He hacked the girl’s head from her body, which took a lot more effort than in the movies, and drenched Ant’s room in a silvery liquid like mercury. He then took the chair from Clea, broke a leg off it, and neatly punched it through the girl’s chest.
Clea tried not to look, not to think about it, except to be glad of the silvery stuff, of the proof that things were Other in some way, that she hadn’t just helped a random stranger behead her brother’s first girlfriend without a really good reason. “Will he be okay?”
Ant looked sort of dazed and blissed out, and the blood had already clotted at his neck.
Julius gave the boy a cursory look. “She chose well. Most lamia victims drain too easily—your brother is one of the rare types who thrive on such attention. She could have fed on him for a decade, if she’d been careful.”
Clea shivered. “Does that mean other lamia might come after him too? If he’s an extra delicious Happy Meal?”
“Ordinarily, yes.” Julius took a small leather-bound diary from his pocket, and made a mark in it. “But she was the last.”
Clea stared at him, stricken. “Does that mean—you’re finished? You’re going to die?”
Julius gave her a brief smile. “A pleasant thought, but no. There are many more monsters on this list. I must rid the world of all of them before I can rest.”
Clea looked around the wrecked room, at the chair and the blood-spattered bed and the body of the creature and the silvery muck sliding across the polished floorboards. “So you do this sort of thing all the time?”
“It is my task and my birthright,” he said simply. “I am a Julius.”
And she wasn’t mistaking that, was she? The sneaky little definite article that suggested Julius was not just his name, it was a Thing.
“Are you done here?” Clea asked in a small voice. “In Nova Ostia?”
“I will help you clean up first,” Julius said, as if offended that she had not taken it into account. “Lamia blood is quite messy.”
“Yes, I’d noticed.” She wanted to keep asking questions, to get more out of him before he swanned off into the night. “What are you?”
Julius looked pensive, as if putting it into words was something that saddened him. “I am a manticore,” he said finally, and then sent her to fetch a bucket of soapy water and squeegees for the cleaning.
Ten months later, Clea went all the way with Daniel for the first time. It wasn’t nearly as much fun as she had thought it was going to be, and afterwards she went to sit in her favourite spot with her back to the gum tree, listening to angsty music and feeling like her whole body could fly apart at any moment.
She didn’t need to be confused any more than she already was, and she really didn’t need a reappearance of Julius, not today, so of course there he was in his straw hat and his toga, tripping over that same tree root, and apologising for it.
“What is it this time?” she asked, more acidly than she would have on any other day, because really, losing your virginity to a boy who had no idea what to do with it was the sort of thing that allowed you to be in a legitimate bad mood for at least a fortnight. “Werewolves?”
Julius blinked as if she had said something quite absurd. “Actually, the last werewolves were killed in the nineteenth century,” he said.
“You’re older than you look,” Clea snarked. Not that she really thought he had been around killing werewolves in the nineteenth century. He couldn’t be more than forty. Maybe thirty-five.
“Yes, probably,” he said. And then, “How do you feel about gargoyles?”
* * * *
That was how Clea ended up spending her whole weekend clambering around on the roofs of Nova Ostia, pointing out every animal-shaped statue on every building, and helping Julius to discreetly shatter them.
“I always wondered,” she said. “They didn’t seem a very Roman sort of thing.”
“The creatures are, the statues aren’t,” he said. “They’re attracted to cities, especially the high parts, where they can see the stars. They climb up here and just ossify. Which is fine until they come to life during the full moon and start biting chunks out of people.”
“Why didn’t you smash them up last time you were here?” she asked.
“They weren’t here last time I was here,” he replied.
Clea argued he was wrong, that many of the gargoyles had been there since she was a child, and Julius argued that in fact memory-alteration was part of their self-defence mechanism, and what with one thing and another, she completely forgot about Daniel and how weird it was to let someone inside your actual body, and how she had been wanting to explode into a million pieces.
When the last gargoyle was destroyed, Clea and Julius stretched out in the shade of the aqueduct, on the flat roof of the Temple of Saturn. It was too hot to climb back down to ground level.
“Do you want to kiss me?” she asked him.
He looked surprised. “No thank you.”
“Are you gay?” she asked next. Apparently she was going with the personal questions this time around.
“No,” said Julius, still polite and friendly about the whole thing. No hint of embarrassment. “I’m just terribly old.”
Clea lifted herself up on her elbows, staring at him. “Did you really kill werewolves in the nineteenth century?”
“Among other things.”
Wow, okay. So not thirty five. “That means you were born in—eighteen hundred and something?”
“No,” Julius said calmly. “Further back.”
He sighed. “Thirty nine.”
“1739?” Australia hadn’t even been colonised then. Not that she thought he was Australian. It was just—a really long time ago. Hard to take in.
“No. Just 39.”
“AD?” Clea said in a voice that was supposed to be all cool but came out as sort of a shriek.
“Scholars say CE these days. It’s important to move with the times.”
“But that makes you nearly two thousand years old!” So much older than thirty five. Older than most cathedrals.
“Yes,” said Julius, looking tired. “I suppose it does.”
“How does that even work?”
“It’s a long story.”
“Obviously!” Clea thought it over for a while. The heat was making her brain slow and mushy. “Are you the only person in the world who’s all immortal and monster-hunting?”
“As far as I know.”
“So you don’t have sex because we’re all too young for you?”
“I didn’t say that.” He offered a hint of a smile. “But you are definitely too young for me.”
“My grandmother needs a boyfriend. I could totally hook you up.”
“Excellent, I look forward to that.” Julius sat up suddenly, looking distracted. “We missed one.”
“We did? Where?”
And then a gargoyle came screaming over the roof at them, belching smoke, and they had more important things to worry about than a conversation about sex between old people.
Clea was nineteen, home on holiday from university, when she got a chance to ask Julius why the creatures he hunted came to Nova Ostia so often.
“This is three times in three years now,” she said when she found him battling naiads in the Fountain of Neptune, at four o’clock in the morning. “Wouldn’t it save time just to stay here and wait for them all to come to you?”
“And leave the rest of the world unprotected?” he said, throwing handfuls of iron shavings into the water despite the wails and cries of the blue-skinned women. “It might seem like a regular occurrence to you, but it’s merely a drop in the ocean.”
“Still, it’s a weird coincidence that the ones who make it as far as Australia always come here.”
“Not a coincidence at all,” said Julius, wiping scales off his toga. “The people who built this little tourist trap of yours used actual stone from Roman cities, remember? The creatures are drawn here just as much as they are to Ostia itself, or Pompeii, or Bath.’
“Bath in England?”
“Lots of museums in Bath. Old temples. Statues. I spend a great deal of time in museums.” He looked curiously at Clea. “What are you studying at university?”
“Economics,” she said, which was a lie. Later, when the naiads had gurgled their death throes and she was letting Julius clean himself up in her mum’s en-suite, she admitted, “Archaeology and Latin.”
He seemed amused. “I suppose there isn’t a course on hunting mythological beasts.”
“Not specifically. Sydney universities are quite provincial. I was lucky to get Latin.”
Julius dried his face on a shell-pink hand towel. “You’re still too young for me.”
“Did I ask?” Clea was pissed off that he assumed she was still interested. “I have a boyfriend. Who is very good in bed, actually.”
“I’m glad you told me that. I might have had sleepless nights, wondering about it.”
Clea glared at him. “Are we done here?”
“That depends on you, doesn’t it?”
She could have kicked him out, shut the door, and ignored him until next time their paths crossed and there were dragons, or something, but it had been two years, and she had a whole lot more questions saved up. “I’ll walk you out.”
They strolled through the quiet city. “Tourists still come to this place?” Julius asked. “I didn’t think anyone cared about the ancient world anymore.”
“Gladiator gaming is trendy again,” said Clea. “It helps. Though the visitors are always disappointed we don’t have a Colosseum with real fighting and stuff.”
“Bread and circuses. Nothing changes.”
“Mostly, we get Australians who want to travel for culture but feel guilty about their carbon footprint. Never mind that it will take another fifty years to pay back the carbon footprint it cost to build this place….”
Julius nodded. They were almost at the wall. “What else did you want to ask me this time?”
“The first time we met, you said you were a manticore, which was a lie because I looked it up, and it’s like—a lion mixed with a person and a scorpion, and unless you’re very good at disguises, that’s not what you are.”
Clea waited for him to tell her that yes, he was a lion and a scorpion and a person all mixed together, and his human skin had been sewn by dwarfs, or something.
“The manticore was a metaphor,” Julius answered instead. “Like a chimaera, or a griffin. A creature built from other creatures. A hybrid. That’s what I am.”
“But a hybrid of what?”
He shrugged. “There is lamia blood in my family. Werewolf, too. Other magics. One of my great-grandmothers turned herself into a dragon to prove a point. Many of my relatives became gods. We were a strange family.”
“And your name is really Julius?”
Clea had done her research. She wasn’t limited to Google anymore; she had a whole university library at her disposal. The year 39 CE was during the reign of Caligula, one of the emperors who claimed descent from Julius Caesar. Then again, it wasn’t only emperors who used the name. Any slave freed from that family could call himself Julius.
He sighed. “I told you it was a long story.”
“I’m young, remember?” Clea said pointedly. “I have time.”
Julius took her hand, an odd gesture that had nothing romantic about it, and everything to do with the fact that they were like teammates now. They had killed lamia and gargoyles and naiads together. He led her out of the city, to the tree where she had spent so many of her teen years being all angsty. He didn’t trip over the tree root this time.
They made themselves comfortable, and he told her a story.
“I was born Julia Drusilla, in the year 39,” he began.
“You were born a girl?” Clea interrupted. Whatever she had expected, it was not that.
“No. I was a boy. But my father desperately wanted a girl. He was still in mourning for his favourite sister, and he had made her a goddess. In his head, this daughter was to be her replacement, her namesake, her human form on earth. He could not comprehend that I was a boy. It’s funny, really. Every other emperor obsessed about their sons and male heirs. Mine saw no need for that, as he planned to live forever.”
“Your father was Caligula,” said Clea, who had guessed that much but wanted to be certain.
Julius gave her a wary look. “Indeed. You probably want me to defend him, to say he was nothing like the monster that appears in the history books, and that much at least is true. He was a very different monster from the one history recalls.”
“Was he a manticore, too? Part lamia, part werewolf…?”
“Part sociopath. Yes. More lamia than anything, but that was Livia’s fault. I’m getting ahead of myself. My mother was worried for me—that if Caligula realised I was a boy, I might be in danger. She bought a baby girl—from a slave, I suppose—and swapped us over. I was safe in the temple of the Vestals when, two years later, there was a palace uprising against my father. He was killed, and my mother, and the false Julia. Uncle Claudius was made Emperor instead, and he named his daughters Claudia, not Julia. I was the last of my kind.”
“It’s quite a common name these days,” Clea commented.
Julius seemed impatient with her. “It means nothing in the mouths of anyone else. To my family, it was of great significance, to be a Julia. Just as it meant something to have lamia blood, or werewolf, or dragon. I still had two living aunts who sometimes visited me in my childhood, who trained me to use my powers. Julia Livilla made the list for me, of the creatures we had to defeat, to free our family of the curse. Julia Agrippina taught me my weapons, and took me travelling around the world. After they were gone, I fought the creatures alone.”
Clea felt a sharp twist in her stomach when he said the word “alone”. It was only a slight hesitation, but he held himself so rigidly, as if admitting the word meant something might destroy his whole illusion.
He continued. “Nero, my cousin, was the last Julian Emperor. He died when I was twenty-nine. It was some years before I realised I had stopped aging. It was as if…as the only member of the family who had survived, I now held all of their burdens. It took decades before I realised what my task in life was. My aunt’s list. The creatures that had to be destroyed.”
“But you don’t know for sure,” Clea said softly. “That it’s what you have to do. That you can…rest, when the list is complete.”
His eyes were burning now with a fierce, angry light. “Oh, yes. I know.”
She wanted to comfort him. To reach out and touch him. To be something, anything that he needed. But she had nothing to offer—nothing that he would take, anyway.
They sat together until morning. She dozed once, leaning against his shoulder and the tree, and when she blinked awake, she was alone.
She did not see him again for five years, and when she did, he was too busy stabbing harpies to stop and chat.
Clea grew up, and built a life. Archaeology remained her passion for fifteen years, and after that, she wrote books because there was less mud and fewer long haul flights involved, and you had to think about that carbon footprint these days.
She mostly lived in Europe. When she returned to Australia to visit her family, it was not to Nova Ostia, which had closed to the public sometime around her thirtieth birthday, but to Sydney, which had rather fewer incursions of mythical creatures who wanted to kill people, and hardly any visits by the man whose job it was to destroy those creatures, on behalf of a host of dead Julias.
She saw Julius in Venice, though, and Rome, and London, more than once. Sometimes they talked, sometimes they killed things. At least once, there was nothing to talk about and nothing to kill, and so they had a nice dinner in an Indian restaurant, because they were both hungry, and it was there.
Clea had children and got married, in that order.
When she was fifty-three, she went to the opera, not because she wanted to, but because her husband had hated it with a vengeance, and she was angry at him for dying so suddenly, with no warning, of a heart attack.
Opera seemed the best revenge.
She wore a vintage gown of purple silk that hugged the curves which had spread, somewhat, over the years. She wore diamonds that had belonged to her grandmother and usually lived in a safe.
Halfway through the second act, a dragon marched across the stage; it had not been mentioned at all in the programme. Clea did not realise she had been holding her breath until a man in an ill-fitting costume strode across the stage after the dragon, and leapt on to its back.
There was fire and screaming and the horrible ripping sound as velvet curtains were destroyed, and very little singing. But when it was over, the audience had mostly fled, and there was a dead dragon on the stage.
Clea walked on unsteady feet up the aisle, and gazed at the man who, in exhaustion, was half-draped over the dead dragon. “I like the beard,” she said finally.
“It’s false,” said Julius, removing it.
“I know. I like the fact that you went to so much trouble to assemble a Don Claudio costume despite the fact that the dragon was sure to send the audience packing anyway.”
“It’s all about style,” he said, and let out a heavy sigh.
“I’m never wounded. Didn’t you hear, I’m quite good at this?”
She leaned over and poked at the bloody hole in his chest. “You’re wounded.”
“Ouch.” He looked down in alarm. “Damned spurs. I didn’t see that coming. What do I do about it?”
“Antiseptic. One of the great modern inventions. And some gauze, I expect. Don’t look so worried, you won’t die from it.”
“Oh, good,” he said, poking experimentally at the wound himself. “It would be embarrassing to die at this point. That wasn’t even the last dragon.”
“This is what comes of leaving the big ones until last,” she chided him.
He came back to her hotel room, and she patched him up, because obviously a two-thousand-year-old man couldn’t be trusted with gauze and antiseptic, let alone with the task of going to a doctor.
He had many scars across his torso, though they seemed far older than his skin.
Julius looked longingly at her bed, and Clea rolled her eyes at him. “Fine, you can stay. When did you last sleep?”
“January,” he said, and was practically snoring before he hit the pillow.
* * * *
He slept for three days. Clea was afraid he was dying, or hibernating, and she had to change her travel plans to stay in Paris a little longer. Somehow, just leaving him there seemed wrong, especially when there might be vengeful griffins or sphinxes flying in through the window at any moment.
“Thank you,” Julius said on the morning of the third day, and was startled when she leaped up from her armchair, letting books spill across the floor as she came over to kiss him. “What was that for?”
“I thought you had left me here alone with dragons still on the loose,” she told him.
“Oh,” he said. “I wouldn’t do that. I’ve been looking forward to crossing off dragons.” And then he kissed her back.
Apparently, she was no longer too young for him, or familiarity had pushed his resistance aside, or something like that. He removed her clothes with a careful precision that made her shiver, and made love to her with an intensity that had her closing her eyes, so that she did not burst into flame.
“If I had known you could do that,” she said, some time later. “I would have jumped you when I was twenty-five.”
“I like you now,” he said, hands exploring the creases and puckered parts of her stomach, like she was a map he was trying to understand. “Far more interesting. Children don’t appeal to me.”
“I was hardly a child when I was twenty-five,” she said, but of course she had been. She was a child to him now, this tight-bodied young-looking man who had just brought her to orgasm more times than she could count.
Fifty-three, and she was just starting out. Had only now seen her first dragon. “How long do you have?” she asked. “Before you have to go kill things again.”
“Nothing but time,” said Julius, nibbling experimentally on her hipbone. That translated, as it turned out, to three weeks in the hotel, before he disappeared again, on his quest to cross more creatures off that bloody list of his.
When she was seventy-two, Clea took her grandchildren to visit the quiet streets of Nova Ostia. Bus tours still took people out there, though there were no more shops and no open thermopolium serving honey cakes and egg salad, no community of families enacting the ancient ways.
“What did you do for Internet?” Mercy asked, more interested in the whole thing than her cousins were.
“Oh we had Wi-Fi back then,” Clea assured her. “And plenty of mod cons in most of the homes—where the tourists couldn’t see. But we dressed and behaved as authentically as we could, when in public.”
“Weird,” muttered Sebastian, obviously bored.
“Why didn’t they digitise it, Nan?” asked Blake, who wandered through artificial landscapes all the time, thanks to his favourite gaming module.
“They did, eventually,” said Clea. “It was just…a lovely thing that existed, once. It all made some sort of sense at the time. It wasn’t an ordinary childhood, but it was a good one.”
Clea thought about lamia bites on her brother’s neck, of smashing gargoyles on the roofs of the city. She hadn’t seen Julius in years. That list of his was getting shorter, on the rare occasions he let her peek at it. Perhaps he had already killed the last manticore or basilisk, and found his peaceful reward.
Except, no. He hadn’t killed the last manticore. Clea stopped and blinked at the creature that prowled the Forum, a bright splash of tawny hide and scarlet claws against the monotone buildings. Head of a lion. Face of…a person, though it was twisted into something quite ugly. A long, lashing, sting-laden tail.
She began to laugh. “It really is a manticore. Goodness me. And he said it was a metaphor.”
“Is that one of your tourist things?” Seb asked in alarm. Even Blake turned off his gaming module, staring at the monster.
“It’s pretty,” said Mercy.
Clea shushed them. “Don’t move. Everything’s going to be fine.”
It was too long since she had fought monsters. She didn’t know the first thing about weapons that would work against a manticore, and here she was armed with nothing but her handbag and three grandchildren.
She should have thought of this. Should have remembered that coming home wasn’t just nostalgia and honey cakes. Nova Ostia drew the monsters to it with these old borrowed stones.
The manticore strutted closer, poised to pounce. Its human face growled.
An arrow thunked deeply into its side, and then another. A third took it through the side of its head, dropping it to the ground.
“This place comes with superheroes!” yelled Mercy, and the boys cheered.
Clea looked up, shading her face from the sun, and saw a familiar silhouette in a broad-brimmed hat, standing on the roof of the Temple of Saturn. She waved, and he waved back.
“Who’s that, Nan?” asked Mercy.
“A very dear friend,” she said, and walked neatly around the manticore. “Come on. I’ll show you where I used to live.”
It was the last time, and she didn’t realise it, though every time she had seen him in the last decade she had thought, this could be the last time. She wasn’t going to live forever, after all. Seventy-two full and healthy years, two children, three grandchildren, it had been a good life, and barely an interlude in his.
“Just don’t train my granddaughter up as a monster hunter,” she had said to him in Paris a year ago, though she knew secretly that Mercy would probably be rather good at the task once she got over the shock.
“Who do you think I am, Peter Pan?” said Julius, as if the very idea was distasteful to him. They finished sipping their wine, and went upstairs together, and said no more of it.
That had been the last time they would speak, but she didn’t know that, either.
* * * *
Clea got the call four days before her seventy-fifth birthday. “Sydney?” said Poppy in protest, when she heard about it. “Mum, you can’t. Not all the way to Australia again!”
But who else was going to go?
At the end of a long flight, Clea met with some sympathetic police officers and morgue attendants. They apologised for bringing her all this way, and she apologised for putting them to any trouble, and what with one thing and another, they filled the corridors with empty noise.
She had hoped it wouldn’t be him. You always do in moments like that, don’t you? A mistake, plain and simple. She had flown a long way in the hope of proving the police officers wrong.
He had carried no identification, just his notebook, and her name. They showed it to her when they passed over his other belongings (a few papers, a safe deposit key, a greened-bronze necklace) and there were contact details, too, all the addresses she had lived at over the years, the phone numbers, each one crossed out as a new one was added.
Julius had never visited her at any of her homes, never written, never called. The world had thrown them together countless times, and they were happy with that. But he could have found her any time he had wanted to.
There was no one else in the notebook. Perhaps there had been, in other centuries, in other notebooks or wax tablets or whatever he used before the book, but in this one there was only Clea Majora, later Clea Robinson, and the list of crossed-off items. Basilisk, Chimera, Dragon….
One item was not crossed out—Gorgon. It must have been the last creature that he had killed. Did his family curse not even allow him a moment to catch his breath and tidy his notebook before he fell?
Clea looked down at his calm, still body. Gorgons killed by turning you to stone, didn’t they? That wasn’t what had ended him. His skin was waxy and grey, but undeniably human.
He seemed young. Twenty-nine, he had been when his aging stopped, if his dates were correct. So young. She did not remember when they had appeared the same age. Julius had never been one to worry unduly about the physical realities of time, in any case.
He had shown little romantic interest in her until she looked far older than he. Then again, he was two thousand years old. Even now, she was young, in comparison.
“Was he a friend of your son?” asked a police officer, who obviously meant to be kind.
Clea swallowed any number of retorts. What could she say that would sum up this man? “He was a friend,” she said, finally.
She had his ashes buried in Nova Ostia. It should have been Rome, really, but where was there space for a headstone in Rome? Here at least, in an abandoned city made with authentic stone, she could have some control over how his deeds were recorded.
It was a large slab of paving stone that matched the whiteness of the buildings, and she laid it at the foot of the Temple of Augustus.
JULIUS, of the JULIAS
Son of GAIUS CAESAR CALIGULA
Hunter of BEASTS
Slayer of MONSTERS
Friend of Clea Majora
It was not enough. Not nearly enough. But what more could she do? She could surround it with carvings of lamia and werewolves and manticores, but it would mean nothing to anyone who followed.
She buried him with his sword, the gladius that had aged as little as he had. There were other belongings that she could have placed in his grave—the necklace, or his list of monsters, or the painstakingly copied-out manuscript she had found, all in Latin, which she rather thought had been authored by one of his aunts. Julius had collected all manner of ephemera in his lifetime—a claw, a vial of silver blood, a sheath of dragon skin. Trophies that meant nothing, now.
When Clea was gone, there would be no one who knew who he had been, what he had done, and for just one moment, that thought was utterly unbearable.
Then she breathed, and looked around. She was an old woman standing in an ancient city, barely a step away from the Australian bush. The world was full of wonders, and possibilities.
“Find peace,” she said aloud, and walked away.
There would be more adventures in the years to come.