The Dreams of Morpheus

The Dreams of Morpheus by Robert Fabbri

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Authors: Robert Fabbri
OSTIA AND ROME, OCTOBER AD 34
    W ITH THE SUDDEN , harsh rasp of flint striking iron, a cascade of sparks penetrated the thick gloom, falling, like a shooting-star shower in minature, into a tinderbox. A quick series of soft exhalations to encourage the dry shreds of cloth and fine woodchippings to start smouldering were successful and soon a tiny flame illumined the scarred, ex-boxer’s face of Marcus Salvius Magnus.
    One of his two companions, an ox-like man whose shaven head was sheened in sweat, reflecting the tinder’s weak glow, handed Magnus a small earthenware lamp.
    Magnus held the oil-soaked wick to his flame and in an instant the lamp flickered alight but its radiance failed to reach the walls or the ceiling of the cavernous chamber filled with dark piles of imported goods, other than the corner in which they were standing. Exotic smells of eastern origin pervaded the warehouse’s dry, warm atmosphere. ‘Thanks, Sextus.’
    Magnus listened for a few moments to the constant drone of shouts, laughter, orders, thumping and grinding that came from the harbour of the port of Ostia, just the other side of the building’s iron-reinforced wooden double-doors. Satisfied that their presence was undetected, he kept his voice low as he touched his flame to both of his companions’ lamps. ‘All right, lads, keep the lamps away from the main doors so the guards outside don’t see a flicker; keep very quiet and let’s find what we came for as quickly as possible. Cassandros, you take the left. I’ll do the centre and, Sextus, you search the right-hand side.’
    As he stood facing Magnus, Sextus looked at his hands and attempted to work out which part of the warehouse he should be heading to; his forehead creased into a concentrated frown.
    â€˜Over there, Sextus,’ Magnus hissed, pointing his lamp helpfully to his right as Cassandros moved off.
    Sextus looked quizzically at his left hand and shook his head, clearly bewildered. ‘Right you are, Magnus.’
    â€˜And don’t forget that the things we’re looking for should be wrapped in sackcloth and are thin, resinous-smelling tablets no more than a foot long and half that wide.’
    â€˜Look for tablets in sackcloth; right you are, Magnus,’ Sextus rumbled, inwardly digesting his orders as he lumbered off into the gloom, his lamp throwing a Titanesque, flickering shadow of his bulk over the bare brick wall.
    â€˜Keep your voice down.’ Magnus shook his head, wondering if his subordinate was up to the task, and decided that if the search was unsuccessful, Sextus’ area would be subjected to a rigorous second sweep. However, what Sextus lacked in brains was amply made up for in strength and loyalty, which made him a valuable member of the South Quirinal Crossroads Brotherhood of which Magnus was the patronus – the leader.
    Magnus began searching through sacks, relying more on his sense of smell than the lamp as the warehouse was evidently the property of a merchant who specialized in the import of Eastern spices, dried fruit, honey and, of course, the objective of their break-in. As he opened yet another sack, this one containing sweet-scented cinnamon bark, Magnus cursed the debt of honour that he owed to his patron, the senator Gaius Vespasius Pollo, which had obliged him to come down to the port of Ostia, the ravenous mouth of Rome. Through that mouth passed every commodity that could be bought anywhere in the world, be it silk from a land so distant that no one was certain of its name, or vividly coloured birds that could talk and seemed to live forever, or that which Magnus now sought: the resin of an Eastern flower that could unlock the realm of Morpheus.
    Just why Senator Pollo wanted this substance that was only used in medicine – and then solely by the few who could afford exorbitant expense – and exactly why he preferred to have Magnus steal it rather than purchase it on the

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