“It’s called cavorting with the enemy,” Scipio told his fellow envoys. “We get close to Hannibal, Antiochus becomes suspicious of him, they fall out, we defeat the lot of them and go home rich.”
Laelius made a noncommittal noise. “You sure that’s the only reason you want to get close to Hannibal?”
“I,” said Scipio, “have no idea what you’re talking about.”
One moment everything was going according to plan, and the next moment Hannibal was there.
Ephesus was a city eight centuries old, full of sights and wonders that, under ordinary circumstances, Scipio would have given his front teeth for the leisure to explore. But then he glimpsed that familiar face across the bustling forecourt of Antiochus’ palace, and in the span of a heartbeat the world plunged into a sort of foggy hush, and then he was halfway across the courtyard and face to face with his old enemy with no recollection of how he had got there, or where he had left his entourage.
It was not the most auspicious start to the mission.
“Hannibal,” he said. Either there was a war-drum pounding a furious paean on the very threshold of hearing, or his heart was trying to leap out through his ears. “I wondered if I might see you here.”
On the road, he had imagined—in inordinate detail—the various ways in which Hannibal might react to seeing his conqueror again, on the eve of another war. He had been prepared for hostility, or rage, or indifference. He had not expected Hannibal’s one green eye to light up with what looked like amusement, nor had he planned for the sardonic cant of his head. “Did you? And there I thought you’d come just for me.”
Except for the fact that he was now dressed Greek-style, in chiton and chlamys, he looked just as he had a decade ago. They might still have been standing on the hill overlooking the grand circular harbour at Carthage, watching the last of the ships smoulder down to blackened husks. “Maybe I did,” said Scipio. “At Rome, we heard you’d been busy.”
Warmongering, he could have said. Inciting Antiochus to covet Greece. “So have you,” said Hannibal, without missing a beat. “How was your cruise to Delos?”
Of course he knew what Scipio was in Ephesus for, besides the ostensible goal of peacemaking. He knew about the trip to Delos and the commission to Numidia and the long months Scipio had spent sailing the Middle Sea with an ear to the ground, listening for an echo of him. Scipio would have been disappointed if he did not. “Pleasant enough,” he said. “I chanced upon some Cretan sailors who told me the most fantastic tales.”
Hannibal’s expression did not change, exactly, but the laugh lines deepened in the corners of his mouth and eye. “I’m sure they did.”
Oh, yes, he came this way, the seamen had said, as soon as Scipio mentioned Hannibal’s name. In flight from his native Carthage, though of course we didn’t know it at the time. He feasted us on oysters and shellfish and Chian wine on the beach, and bade us take down our sails so we could use them as awnings against the sun. When we woke the next morning he was gone, and it was half a day before we could even get our sails back up, let alone bring word of his coming to you Romans.
Scipio had had to struggle to keep his face impassive. That was Hannibal, all right.
The fog was lifting. Bit by bit, the courtyard trickled back into focus—muted at first, then bright and confused, as when water clears from one’s ears after a dip in the sea. Scipio looked out across a tableau of turned heads, of watchful eyes observing the unlikely reunion transpiring in their midst. He had to remind himself that they were not alone. A Roman envoy was rarely inconspicuous, and Scipio in particular never was.
It was what he was there for, after all.
He lifted his voice for the benefit of the audience. “Our gods must have a sense of irony. When I left Africa I wasn’t sure if I’d see you again, but here we are.” His pleasure was quite genuine, and took no effort to muster. With calculated precision: “It must be ten years ago now that I defeated you. Surely the enmity between us is at an end.”
Whispers rustled through the crowd, whispers that would no doubt reach Antiochus and the jealous flatterers intent on turning him against his best general. Anyone else would have pulled away. But Hannibal was not anyone else. He smiled—a dagger-flash of a smile, glimmering with defiance. Perhaps it might have been called a baring of teeth. He knew full well what Scipio was doing, and he meant to play along.
“Surely it is,” he agreed. “Africanus.”
Here we go again, Scipio thought, and in his ears the drums continued to beat the battle-hymn.
He couldn’t look at Hannibal without the memory of their first meeting at Zama ghosting through, like the bottom layer of a palimpsest.
His whole life might have been leading up to this: tall grass waving beneath a bleak October sky, and a little tent on the Libyan plain where he would at last speak to his adversary as an equal. They’d kept the interpreters to begin with. As Roman proconsul Scipio was expected to use Latin for all official purposes, and likewise Hannibal had to speak Punic. Back and forth they went, with Hannibal trying to surrender without surrendering and Scipio declining his terms in a great many long-winded ways, until at last it became clear that no armistice was possible, and they’d sent the interpreters away so they could finish their talk as men and not as states.
“Let me be frank,” said Hannibal, in rather excellent Greek. “Your army isn’t equipped for a siege. Even if you win here, you can’t take Carthage by storm, any more than I could have taken Rome.”
With the interpreters filling the tent, translating eloquently into first one language and then the other, Scipio had the sense of dealing less with a man than a mind. Now the immediacy of Hannibal’s physical presence was harder to ignore. He looked worn and harassed, his face windburnt, his blind eye covered by his unadorned headcloth, the other shadowed with the marks of sleeplessness. The last years in Italy had not been gentle with him, and it was not very long ago that the news of his brother’s death at sea must have reached his camp. Still, there was something in the way he carried himself that put Scipio in mind of an old Trojan hero, or an Olympic victor laurel-crowned: battered, perhaps, but quite unbroken.
“I know,” said Scipio. “I am not here to take Carthage. Or you.”
He could not say what had possessed him to add that last part. It might have been Hannibal’s documented propensity for depriving his enemies of their wits. “No?” said Hannibal, in mock surprise. With his head tilted to favour his good eye, he looked pert and guileful, almost boyish. “I am told the custom is to capture enemies alive and parade them in chains through the streets of Rome.”
There was a challenge in his level stare. Scipio had to admit that the idea of Hannibal in chains was a tantalising one, though not for the usual reasons. “Oh, yes,” he said, straight-faced. “And then we drag them to the Forum and have them strangled in sight of the crowds.”
To his consternation, Hannibal’s mouth acquired a wicked curve, like a scythe. “Charming.”
Scipio smiled, too. “I have no wish to do that to you.”
“So,” said Hannibal, “if you have not come to destroy Carthage, or me, then why on earth are you here?”
“For the only reason wars should ever be fought,” said Scipio. “To forge a peace that will last.”
He was thinking of the treaty signed in Sicily forty years ago, when he was not yet born and Hannibal a mere child getting underfoot in the camps of his father’s mercenaries. All the fighting, the sieges and the sunk ships and the slow starvation on Mount Eryx, for an armistice that had barely lasted as long as the war that preceded it. Hannibal was silent, and Scipio saw he was thinking of it, too. “I see,” he said. “We want the same thing.”
“We do,” said Scipio. “It’s a pity we have to fight anyway. But—”
It took a moment to assemble the words. “But whatever happens on the morrow, I am pleased we got to meet first.”
Hannibal looked at him for a long time. What he saw must have passed muster, because in lieu of answering he held out his arm, and Scipio clasped it in his own, just as if they were sealing a treaty. He could feel the fine bones shift in Hannibal’s wrist, the sword-calluses of that warm hand press against his own skin. The tent had grown stiflingly hot. In a way, he thought, they had come to an agreement, just not the one either of them had been hoping for.
He let his fingers slide down Hannibal’s forearm, and he thought if, and he thought maybe, and he thought after the war, and he thought please, please, please.
From the envoys’ house in Ephesus, Scipio sent ostentatious gifts to Hannibal at the palace.
He’d prepared a host of treasures for this purpose—an antique red-figure amphora, a jewelled goblet, a tiny statuette of a winged Victory (because in spite of what he liked people to think, he was not above some gentle wound-salting). At the last minute, though, some strange madness seized him, and he swapped them out for books from his own collection. The Odyssey, with maps. A compilation of Plato. Xenophon’s Anabasis. “It’s a worthwhile sacrifice,” he told Laelius, who looked dubious. “If we don’t drive Hannibal out of favour with the King now, we’ll have to fight him later, and that won’t end well.”
“You realise that could cut both ways?” asked Laelius. “What if you get accused of”—he pursed his lips in a perfect imitation of Cato’s vinegar face—“cavorting with the enemy?”
“A worthwhile sacrifice,” Scipio repeated, surveying the pile of scrolls with what he hoped was funereal dignity. He’d liked those books.
The next day, messengers from Hannibal appeared at their door in equally ostentatious fashion, bearing offerings of their own. There were volumes of Sappho and Euripides and Aeschylus, all with incisive annotations in a meticulous hand Scipio recognised vaguely as Hannibal’s own. Of course he had to stay up half the night to study them, and by the time he woke it was mid-morning, and his fellow envoys Villius and Flamininus were looking at him with distinct disapproval.
“They think you’re enjoying this far too much,” said Laelius, as Scipio delicately unstuck his cheek from He seems to me equal to the gods. “And I have to say, I concur.”
Later that day, following an afternoon of fruitless peace talks with Antiochus, Scipio contrived by a careful series of coincidences to run into Hannibal at the gymnasium.
It was crowded. Wrestlers were heaving and striving on the exercise ground to the accompaniment of flute and drum, and in the courtyard a heated debate was taking place about some aspect of Epicurus’ teachings or other. In the midst of all this, Hannibal was sitting at a table in one of the high-vaulted porches by the fountain, playing petteia against himself. “Ah,” he said, taking in Scipio’s puffy midnight-oil eyes. “I see you liked the books I sent you. I enjoyed yours, too.”
From afar he had looked relaxed enough. Up close, there was a kind of coiled ferocity in the way he sat: an aspect of the panther, perhaps, who has been drowsing in the sun, and comes awake at the scent of prey. With helpless irritation, Scipio wished he would stop being so handsome. Having thrice already in his youth been near-killed by Hannibal’s mind, it seemed unfair that he was now to be overawed by the man’s face as well. “I thought, being in exile, you might miss having your own copies.”
“I do,” said Hannibal. “I wonder what they’ve done with my library.”
With a concerted effort Scipio turned his attention to the petteia board, and sat down on the side that appeared to have a slight advantage. “I tried to stop the Senate bringing charges against you,” he said. “I thought it was unworthy, trying to ruin you after the war was over.”
He advanced one of his pieces, trying to edge Hannibal away from the sides of the board. Hannibal frowned at the offending stone, and executed a deft retreat. “I know. I got your warning.”
An unsigned letter in Greek, sent off on a fast ship. Run. They are coming for you. It was a risky move, but necessary, according to the strict and exacting rulebook by which the two of them played. Hannibal would have done the same for him. “I don’t suppose you needed to be told.”
“Hardly,” said Hannibal. “But then, it wasn’t the first unworthy thing they’d done to me or mine.”
With anyone else, Scipio would have felt honour-bound to dispute this. With Hannibal it was just one of the spectres that haunted their private battleground, and did not need to be invoked with words. He settled for moving another stone, occupying a corner. “We’re not here to make trouble for you, you know.”
“No,” said Hannibal. “You’re here to drive a wedge between me and Antiochus and have me sidelined from the war. I count that as a compliment.”
“It was meant as one.”
For a while, the game took up their full attention. They had acquired an audience: the wrestlers had left off their exercise and gathered at a discreet distance, and the arguing Epicureans were coming in from the courtyard to see what was happening. That raised the stakes somewhat, but Scipio was unalarmed. On the whole, he held the more favourable positions. He lost a piece, captured two more, and pressed the advantage, surging over into Hannibal’s side of the board. “You appear to be losing.”
“Maybe,” said Hannibal, without rancour.
He was studying the board as if it were the only thing in the world of import, as if the roof over their heads could have taken flame and he would not even have noticed. Scipio felt the mad urge to sweep his hand across the board, to dash all the pieces to the ground and his own nascent victory with them, just to have Hannibal’s knifepoint gaze back on him where it belonged. It was the kind of recklessness that ruined battles, if you let it. “We don’t always have to fight each other,” he said.
Hannibal did not look up. “Don’t we?”
He evacuated his defensive positions, and Scipio promptly moved to occupy them. He was sick of the game. He wanted to get Hannibal alone, with no bystanders, no battle separating them, and speak his heart as he would with Laelius or Aemilia. “We still want the same thing,” he said. If he kept his voice low, the distant flutes lent them some modicum of privacy. “To protect the Greek city-states from tyranny, so they might be free to live as they please. You share more with me than you do with Antiochus.”
Hannibal lifted his head at last. Something shivered through the air over the game table, a frisson of words unsaid but not unheard. For a moment they were looking down once more on the harbour of Carthage, watching flames lick up the masts and sails of the great quinqueremes while coils of grey smoke scudded across the sky like tears. “Not everyone would call your protection freedom,” said Hannibal. “Many would name it slavery.”
Scipio sighed. It was hard to say what he had hoped to accomplish. He had seen already that, for all they were alike, there were some gulfs between them that no bridge could ever span. “Must it always be freedom or death with you, then?”
To his surprise, Hannibal laughed. It was an open, impish laugh, and for a fleeting moment Scipio fancied he was seeing him as he had been at eighteen or twenty, an exuberant youth subduing swathes of Iberia at the head of his brother-in-law’s cavalry. The westering sun cast its soft glow over his curls, on the bare skin of his arm visible beneath the folds of his chiton. Scipio found himself short of breath. “Not always,” said Hannibal. “Sometimes the illusion of death is enough.”
He gestured at the petteia board. Scipio came back to it from a long way off, and recognised—too late—the jaws of the trap into which he had been led. “Old friend,” said Hannibal, “I do believe you are out of moves.”
Scipio burst out laughing, too. He couldn’t help it. Every time he thought he had the measure of Hannibal, he was astonished all over again. Laelius had been right, as usual. Scipio knew—and he was sure all present could see it too—that even if he’d had no diplomatic errand to run; even if there was no threat of war, no Antiochus, no Greece; even if they lived like gods in the sorrowless spring of Hesiod’s Golden Age, he would still have chosen to be here in Ephesus, playing petteia with this one singular man.
Their audience was rumbling its approval. Money was changing hands, a lot of it. “Rematch?” suggested Hannibal.
“No,” said Scipio. “I shall do as you did, and concede gracefully.”
He couldn’t remember the last time he had been wrong-footed like this. He hadn’t realised it was a feeling he’d missed, either.
After Zama, they hadn’t had the chance to speak again till the day the ships burned. Scipio wished Hannibal had stayed at Hadrumetum and spared himself the sight, but there he was, standing alone with his jaw tight and his gaze faraway, as if he had to flee deep inside his own head to be able to look without seeing. Scipio saw he had been naïve to think his victory would bring down all the walls between them. In many ways, they were farther apart than ever.
The air was bitter with burning cedar and resin. There were a dozen things on the tip of his tongue—things like, you did all that one man could, or, I wish it did not have to be like this—but all he said was, “What will you do now?”
Hannibal seemed to come back to himself. He tossed his head as if shaking off a thought; tall, straight-backed, with that wry glimmer in his eye again. His mouth lifted in a lopsided smile. “Plant olives.”
Invictus, thought Scipio with a pang. Unconquered.
By all appearances, the mission was succeeding.
The day after the petteia match, the streets were crackling with rumours about the latest row between Antiochus and his Carthaginian guest-friend. Hannibal, it seemed, had given his opinion on one of the King’s cavalry parades with a little too much of his habitual sarcasm; and this not being the first time, Antiochus had lost his patience and flown into a roaring rage. The upshot was that Thoas the Aetolian had once more replaced Hannibal as the King’s favourite advisor, and was telling anyone who would listen that Hannibal was scheming and treacherous and probably deep in the purses of the Roman envoys, with whom he consorted daily.
“A load of fools,” said Scipio, after Villius and Laelius had burst into his study and regaled him with a word-for-word reenactment of the quarrel. “In our purses? He’s been at court for years and they still don’t know him at all.”
He was in no mood to celebrate. Lucius had written him a long letter full of the latest slanders and circumlocutions of the Senate, and the prospect of having to wade straight into the thick of it when he got back to Rome was filling his head with the most vindictive thoughts. “What’s wrong?” asked Laelius. “Wasn’t that the plan?”
And it was working all right, Scipio thought. He said nothing. “Oh, don’t look so happy,” said Flamininus, reaching over to refill Scipio’s wine-cup. “It could still go wrong. I’m sure Cato could convince the Senate that your Great Petteia Disaster was a bad omen and none of us will ever hold office again.”
He said it cheerfully enough, but beneath the jest there was a note of real unease. Scipio’s fellow envoys were his friends for the most part, men of his generation who had served with him or under him in the war against Hannibal, and he would have trusted any of them with his life. But he knew full well the meaning of the nervous silences that fell whenever a letter arrived with news from home, or the heavy looks Villius and Flamininus sometimes exchanged when they thought his back was turned. There was not one of them—not even Laelius, in his heart of hearts—who did not think all this trouble could have been averted if Scipio had just taken Hannibal prisoner after Zama in the first place.
With a decisive flourish, he drained his cup again and swung up from his couch. “Where are you going?” asked Laelius, looking alarmed.
“To cavort with the enemy some more,” said Scipio. “Don’t worry. If it does go wrong, I’m taking him down with me.”
After all that, anyone would have expected Hannibal to stay away, to be aloof if he was seen at all in public; but then, it would be a strange day indeed when Hannibal did what was expected of him.
He fell in step with Scipio in the courtyard outside the gymnasium, in the reddening flush of early dusk. It was peaceful there. The wind murmured in the cypresses, chilly with the first vestiges of autumn, and beneath the voices and clatter from the exercise ground they could hear frogs croaking by a far-off stream. Scipio breathed in the sweet, hazy fragrances of the evening—the freshness of soft grass, the late roses still in bloom on the hedgerows—and tried not to think too hard about how content he was here, a world away from the Tiber, in the presence of a barbarian enemy.
His gut tingled, warning him that the quality of the silence had changed. He looked up, and found Hannibal watching him.
“I see we’ve both had a trying day,” said Hannibal.
Scipio sought for a note of levity. “I think you’ve had a trying decade.”
Hannibal seemed to give this genuine consideration. “Not as bad as the last one, on the whole,” he said. “We’re alone here. You don’t have to be cordial to me.”
There was that challenging edge to his expression again. Scipio resolved to meet it as a Roman would, head-on and unflinching. “For some reason,” he said, “it’s no hardship to be cordial to you. Perhaps one grows more accustomed to having enemies than friends.”
Hannibal looked down. “One does.”
Somewhere a cicada was screaming, restless, reckless. The air was hot and still, as if before a storm. The sheer fact of Hannibal’s proximity made itself felt on a primeval level, the same as the thunder of a cavalry charge, or the crash of spear on shield in the moments before a battle was joined: a sensation Scipio had come to identify as the feeling of being alive. It was rare he felt it now. It was something to be cherished, a portent of Jupiter, a god-given madness.
“Do you ever feel,” said Scipio, “like none of what you see is real? That when you walk through a city in peacetime you’re surrounded by toy houses and clay shops, and straw men making noises with their mouths?”
“Constantly,” said Hannibal. “Why else do you think I left Carthage?”
“I thought you left because we were about to clap you in chains.”
Hannibal laughed. It was sharp, but not unkind. “You’re obsessed with clapping me in chains.”
That wild, heart-pounding caprice was still hanging over Scipio like a touch of the Furies. He felt he could have told Hannibal anything—Cato’s latest jibe at Aemilia and her way of dress, or how he was spending more and more time away on his estate at Liternum, where the very air seemed kinder in his lungs—and met only the same philosophical equanimity, no censure, no surprise. “So why haven’t I tried?”
“Because,” said Hannibal, “you like the chase more than the kill.”
They had passed the last of the cypresses, and were turning into the gymnasium proper. The colonnade was narrow here, and they had to walk elbow to elbow, nearly brushing hands. Hannibal paused so Scipio could take the lead and draw ahead if he pleased. But Scipio was in a contrary mood and did not please, and so they went on side by side. “Do you know,” said Hannibal, “I can’t abide the smell of elephant now.”
Scipio’s throat tightened. For a while he could not speak. “For me,” he said, “it’s the Volturnus wind in August.”
The sand in his face, the sea at his back. The dusty wind that lifted the hair on his head, even as he threw himself on a bridleless stallion and galloped as fast as he could out of the closing circle of enemy horsemen, away from a ghost village called Cannae. “After all that,” said Scipio, “after everything, how can we go back to this”—he waved a hand around them, at the trimmed hedges, the pristine Ionic columns, the shadowy ranks of housetops and chimneys in the city beyond—“and not feel as if we were dreaming?”
Night had fallen. The sky was woolly with clouds, and in the absence of moon and stars the closeness between them seemed to give off its own light. “Perhaps for us,” said Hannibal slowly, “nothing but war will ever feel real. I suppose that’s why we haven’t found the peace we fought for, all those years ago.”
“Not yet,” agreed Scipio. “Though I did think that, after Zama, we might—”
They rounded the corner, and came out without warning in the main porch of the gymnasium.
It was like stepping into another world. The place was ablaze with light, and voices echoed off the high walls, a confusing envelopment of talk and laughter. The wrestlers had just finished their sparring. They milled about the fountain in twos and threes, some oiling down, others scraping off with their strigils. A party of well-dressed persons was weaving up between the columns with their torch-bearers, declaiming something from the Symposium. Half-dazzled in shifting firelight, Scipio recognised the other envoys.
The declaiming broke off. They stared at one another. Next to him, Scipio felt rather than saw Hannibal go tense. Villius looked incredulous, Flamininus downright hostile. Over their shoulders, Laelius was making frantic warning grimaces. Scipio didn’t blame him. He could only imagine how intimate he and Hannibal must have looked, strolling in all but arm in arm with their heads bent close together, and the words he had spoken—foolish words, words fit for the mouth of a sophist or a tragedian—might well have been branded on his forehead for all to see.
Hannibal’s curious slantwise gaze was on him. This time, with the soft peace of the evening ebbing away from under their feet, there was a hint of wistfulness to it. Scipio realised he had moved without thinking to place himself bodily between Hannibal and the envoys, one petteia stone guarding another. He doubted if his colleagues could have failed to notice it, nor Hannibal either.
“I think,” said Hannibal quietly, “I am going to retire for the night.”
He gave the envoys a curt nod. A moment later he was gone, his shadow melting into the twilit courtyard as if it had never been.
With a wrench that felt just shy of bereavement, Scipio restrained himself from following. Laelius descended on him in a controlled rush, hissed, “Get that haunted look off your face,” and hustled him on to join the others.
The truth was that Scipio had been haunted by Hannibal all his life, though he hadn’t always had the honesty to admit it.
In Carthago Nova, after the slaughter, the local guides had shown him to the house he’d asked to see. The commander lived here, though as you will observe, it is not grand. Certainly it was small, less flamboyant than the manors of the younger brothers, and only a little singed by the fighting. Scipio had run his fingers over the dusty scrolls arrayed on a shelf in the study: books in Greek, which he knew, and books in Punic, which kept their secrets from him. The thought crossed his mind that he ought to learn. He pondered the maps on the walls; stepped respectfully around the niches of the household gods; admired the bronze astrolabe that sat guarding its stars on the side table, and wondered about the shape and feel of the hand that had once turned it.
He slept a night in the house. It was the closest he could come to climbing headlong into Hannibal’s mind, that uncanny laboratory of his schemes, and learning to think like him.
Early in the morning, word came from the palace that Hannibal was back in favour with Antiochus.
How he had engineered this, nobody knew. One could only suppose he had made it through a full conversation with the King without being sarcastic once. Antiochus had forgiven him sufficiently to appoint him advisor on the expedition to Greece, though—praise Jupiter—not enough to put him in command. Preparations were already underway to launch a fleet across the Aegean before the autumn gales set in. The Thunderbolt was on the loose once more, oozing his way back towards Italy like so much spilled wine.
“Well,” said Flamininus, with a hollow look at Scipio, “I daresay that’s the end of our mission.”
It was. It also felt like the end of Scipio’s own private mission, the one that had begun in Carthago Nova all those years ago, and whose goal he would not define even to himself.
Their final days in Ephesus were an exercise in futility. Scipio essayed several last-ditch harangues at the King, and meeting no success, went out with Laelius and got blinding drunk. Hannibal was lying low, and Scipio did not see him again. Not till he came out of his last and rather frostbitten meeting with Antiochus too annoyed to look where he was going, took a wrong turn through the palace hallways, and found himself in a remote anteroom, empty save for one other person.
“Spying?” asked Hannibal.
“Got lost,” said Scipio.
They kept their distance. Scipio remembered the cypresses at dusk, and his chest gave a painful twinge. “We leave tomorrow. You’re safe from our meddling now.”
What Hannibal thought of this was hard to say. His face was more closely guarded than usual, all sharp angles and forbidding planes. “It was a good plan,” he said. “And not altogether unsuccessful. Only you could have made it work.”
Even at this juncture, Scipio felt a distant smoulder of pride. He had turned down the corona civica for less than this. Any son worth his name would have saved his father from certain death, but it was not every Roman who could hold the regard of Hannibal Barca. “How did you get Antiochus to trust you again?”
“Brutal honesty,” said Hannibal. “And a story about a certain oath I swore as a child. He’s not a fool, you know. He believed me.”
For now, Scipio thought. It remained to be seen if Antiochus would listen to an advisor who refused to flatter him as a matter of principle. But whether he did or not would be up to the innate, volatile chemistry between the royal temper and Hannibal’s peculiar brand of bloody-mindedness. Scipio’s own machinations would have little to do with it. “He’s no you,” he said. “I’m confident about my chances.”
“We’ll see,” said Hannibal.
The conversation had reached its natural end. Neither of them made any move to walk away. There was still so much unsaid, and neither the time nor the space to say it. In one of those moments of shared clairvoyance, Scipio knew they were thinking the same thing: that if they ever saw each other again, it would be on the battlefield, across their swords.
At last, he said, “So much for your olive groves.”
Hannibal inclined his head in tacit agreement. “We always want the same thing,” he said. “We always fight anyway.”
Someone was approaching the room, presumably one courtier or another sent to retrieve Scipio from wherever he had lost himself. Their time was up. Hannibal moved swiftly to the door, but paused on the threshold and looked back, his face in shadow. “I—had hoped for so much more.”
“I hoped, too,” said Scipio.
In the house of the envoys, everyone was nervous and on-edge. The atmosphere was suffocating, and in the evening Scipio fled to the Temple of Artemis, where he could think in peace.
He was not eager to go home. Given a fortnight or so, Cato would no doubt have all Rome by the ears with stories of his misconduct in Ephesus. There would be justifications to make, and clients to appease, and the endless jockeying to see that his brother was elected to the consulship and given the command in Greece. If it hadn’t been for Lucius, Scipio would have been tempted to wash his hands of the whole affair, to pack up for Liternum and never look back.
Or not. Someone had to thwart Hannibal, after all.
It was late, and beginning to rain. Scipio looked up at the great amber-eyed Artemis, enthroned among the votive plaques and the bittersweet scents of myrrh and frankincense, and wondered if he had imagined the whinny of a horse in the courtyard. It was a long time since Neptune had led him over the lagoon at Carthago Nova, and his gods had been silent for years now. But it might still have been an augury. A sign from the protectress of Ephesus, to find a horse and leave the city and go and keep going, riding through the night until dawn broke and he was in a different land altogether, free.
There came a faint whicker, and the soft scrape of a foot on the flagstones. It had been no figment of his imagination. He felt for his dagger, loosened it from its sheath, and let himself noiselessly out the side door of the temple sanctuary to see who it was.
The only lamp was guttering out at the far end of the yard. Squinting, with rain soaking through the folds of his toga, Scipio saw the horse first—ridden Numidian-style, with neither bridle nor saddle, only a loose rope round its neck to guide it—and then the rider. Away from court, Hannibal had abandoned his Greek clothing in favour of trousers and a belted tunic; the style of dress that, here and back at home, they would have called barbaric. The horse’s flanks were steaming in the cold. He must have been out of the city, riding far and fast.
It was like falling backwards in time. Scipio might have been a child at war again, shivering on the bank of the Ticinus and catching his first glimpse of the enemy commander through the wind in his face. He said, “Is all well?”
It was a stupid question. Nothing could be well. Hannibal looked away, a brief lapse, but so uncharacteristic as to be obvious. “I would not have had that be our last conversation,” he said. “I felt we owed each other more.”
His wet hair was tumbling in limp curls around his face. With difficulty, Scipio kept his hands at his sides. “How did you know I would be here?”
“I would have to be a fool indeed,” said Hannibal, “to misplace my deadliest foe.”
He smelled of horse and leather, wind and rain. In Scipio’s ears, the war-drums pulsed. “You could have avoided me,” he said. “You should have avoided me. You knew from the start what I was here for. What you stood to lose, being seen with me.”
“True,” said Hannibal. “Then again, in all my life, you would be hard-pressed to find a moment where I did not know what I stood to lose.”
And it had never stopped him. Scipio took a step forward. He could have leaned in and kept going, until the intervening space was measured not in inches but in heat and thought and want. “But then,” he heard himself say, “what do you stand to gain?”
Hannibal paused. “Perhaps, Publius Cornelius," he said, "you are the one soul in this godforsaken city I would care to be seen with.”
The storm gusted down on the precarious silence. Almost unbreathing, Scipio gave in to one impulse of many—took Hannibal’s arm, and drew him into the shelter of the temple portico. Later it would strike him that he had been behaving like a man on his deathbed, with nothing more to lose. “So tell me,” he said. “Tell me what you were thinking, out on your ride. It brought you here to me.”
Hannibal looked down at Scipio’s hand on his arm. His lashes were beaded with rain. They stayed that way for what felt like half of eternity, not closing in, not pulling away. “I was thinking,” he said, “how it isn’t true that only war feels real. There are other things, too.”
The world was turning on its fulcrum. It was the sort of enchantment unique to temples by night, when all the other supplicants had gone, and the gods stirred themselves to whisper the secrets of Olympus in your ear. “I sensed you felt the same,” said Hannibal, in a rush. “If I have misjudged—”
Scipio said, “You have not.”
He closed the last distance between them. The kiss was slow and cautious, a leisurely reconnaissance. It ought to have been strange, and yet Hannibal’s mouth and hands and the warmth of him under his clothes felt like old acquaintances, like they had been doing this all their lives. Perhaps they had. In hindsight it seemed unpardonable, how it had never occurred to Scipio that Hannibal might want this as much as he did; might share in this mission that drew them to each other time and time again, like magnetite. But now, now they were out of breath and laughing, so close in the driving rain that they could have been one being, and there was time—not a lot of it, to be sure, but enough, just enough—to make up for what they had missed before.
Scipio reviewed his options, all of them absurd: spending the night at Antiochus’ palace, or trying to smuggle Hannibal into the envoys’ house. “Where can we go?”
Hannibal smiled. His arm was a tender weight around Scipio’s neck, a shield, an anchor. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I have quite the collection of boltholes around the city.”
At first there was no need to speak. But close to dawn—as the rain abated, and the setting moon peeked its crescent horns between the clouds—they lay half awake, and talked of everything and nothing.
“I think,” said Scipio, “part of me wanted this from the very beginning.”
Charging alone across the field to his wounded father, slashing at the Numidians that surrounded them; hardly conscious of what he was doing, but fully aware of the Carthaginian commander watching from upriver, and the heat of that astonished stare on him. When he’d had time to think, the first coherent thought that surfaced was, I could stand to be looked at like that forever.
Hannibal stretched out next to him, feline in his languor. “That was rather exciting.”
Pleased, Scipio let the words hang over him, savouring the memory. Then—a little more awake now, for this was of vital importance, this was urgent—“When was it for you? When did you know you wanted me?”
“At Zama,” said Hannibal, without hesitation.
Scipio came all the way awake. “Before or after the battle?”
Hannibal peered at him between the pillows. For the first time since Scipio had known him, he looked almost shy, his grin tentative and crooked. “After.”
No one took any notice when Scipio returned to the envoys’ house at daybreak. It was well known, after all, that he was in the habit of wandering around in temples all night. Only Laelius gave him a sharp look, and went away sighing. Then they had to go to the palace and take their final leave of the King, and Hannibal was there in the forecourt, watching them saddle up to go.
They had said their goodbyes the night before, and more besides. All the same, Scipio left his companions and went over, keeping his expression scrupulously neutral. Antiochus was probably watching from the palace windows above. “Any trouble when you got back?”
“No,” said Hannibal. By daylight he was steely-eyed and dispassionate. Scipio knew to look past that to the soft lines of the teasing mouth, the familiar landscape of the body that had welcomed his last night. “The trouble will come later, I think.”
His gaze came to rest on a point just above Scipio’s shoulder. Scipio turned, and saw the other envoys waiting. He gestured: one more minute. “I’ll be on my guard,” he said. “You should be, too. If things go ill, Antiochus will give you up to save himself.”
“I know,” said Hannibal. “I’ve planned for that.”
“Still got a few tricks up your sleeve?”
“Nothing you haven’t already seen on the petteia board,” said Hannibal. He hesitated. “If you hear that I am dead, give the rumour no credit.”
“Good,” said Scipio. “Because I have every intention of seeing you again.”
Hannibal did smile, then. It lit his face just for a moment, as if a window had been unshuttered; then it was gone again, tucked safely out of sight. “As do I,” he said. “Africanus.”
They said no more, but they did not have to. Scipio nodded to him, then got on his horse and trotted off to rejoin the others. It was not so bad, he thought. Back to Rome for a little while; a bit of politicking; a bit of war. And on the far side of all that, he and Hannibal would meet once more as friends, and never have to fight each other again.
He could wait. It was easier to breathe, now.