Apollonia wished that Sister Mary would stop fussing. Matins was only a few minutes away and she was as pretty as she was like to get already. “Who am I going to impress?” she asked angrily, swatting at Mary’s hand.
“Sister Apollonia!” Mary chided. “You’re a member of the Papal Curia. Who are you going to impress? Everyone!”
“Not with my hair, I’m not,” she grumbled. “Hand me my wimple.”
“Oh, Sister, no,” Mary complained. “please don’t cover it up! God gave you such gifts of beauty.”
Apollonia closed her eyes and ground her teeth together. Try as she might, she couldn’t get rid of the sound of the orologe on her bedside table, ticking and parceling up the moments of every day with its knife-sharp hands. “Sister Mary Rose,” she asked, playing at calmness, “What would the Mother Superior say about wearing your hair exposed to the view of man and God?”
“Nothing,” said the frumpy nun. “She’d have let you do it, too, because you’re in the Holy See.”
Apollonia let out an explosion of held breath in a loud huff. Mother Superior had told her time and time again in all the long years she had lived in Santa Giuliana that she had no great gift for beauty. She knew it, too. Lucky that she was a bride of Christ, for that was the only way she would ever have been wed. She had a slender face with wide moony eyes. She was always told she was staring, even when she wasn’t. “Leave my hair alone,” she said as levelly as she could, “And help me put on my wimple. We only have a minute more before we need to go.”
“As you say,” pouted Sister Mary. She and Apollonia were so unlike. She would never understand why the Mother Superior had sent her along to the Vatican as well. Mary Rose had almost no redeeming qualities. A vice of gluttony plagued her and her soft curves and huge saggy breasts, and she was given to nattering and idol chitchat as well. A very unsatisfactory sort of nun, all in all.
By the time her wimple was on to her satisfaction, the orologe had begun chiming. “Come on,” she snapped at Mary Rose. She didn’t wait for the other nun, but rather left her rooms immediately, her skirts rustling against the marble floor. When she had first come to the Vatican it had been in a hideous state of decay. She remembered holes in the roof with rainwater leaking in, starlings fluttering amongst the rafters. Not so any longer; the Holy Father had seen to that, even before he was elected. He hated to see the Holy City in disrepair and was always talking about bringing improvements to Rome. The long removal of the papacy to Avignon had been bad for the Mother of Cities, and Julius was a firm proponent of returning her to glory. Fixing the aqueducts, building newer and more grand churches, and restoring the Pantheon: he idly discussed plans of rebirth and renewal like some men speak of changing their shoes. Apollonia arrived in the Papal Chapel with time to spare. She could hear Sister Mary bustling behind her, muttering about the ungodliness of the hour. She wanted to slap the fat nun and tell her that there was nothing more godly than waking for Matins. She already knew what Sister Mary would say: “If God had wanted us up at this time, he’d have made the sun to rise earlier.” Just thinking about it was driving her to irritation.
She took her place near the rear of the chapel as other important functionaries filed in. Julius had not been a monk like his uncle, but he was raised in a Franciscan monastery without taking vows and he liked to keep the services of the hours. It was just that he do it in his uncle’s chapel, Apollonia thought. Sixtus had seen many repairs of his own in his time, and his Chapelle Sixtine was the most important. Near to the pope’s apartments and large enough to accommodate the core of the papal staff, it was a perfect place for the Holy Father to conduct the private masses of the day.
Julius himself had not arrived yet, but other clerks and clerics were filing in. Nicholas Breckenbauer, the chief canon lawyer of the Vatican, stood near at hand to the altar. Next to him was the serpent Girolamo Riario. Apollonia shivered whenever he looked at her with those languid eyes and that tired smile. Standing next to him was the Camerlengo Raffaele Riario, some relation to the first Riario, but Apollonia did not know how. Sixtus had stuffed his court full to bursting with nephews and cousins, she thought suddenly. It was an unworthy thought, one she tried unsuccessfully to banish.
She staggered as Brother Marzarius brushed by her, his white and black robes flapping behind him. The monk was a genius, she knew, but time had done him no favors. She remembered him as a bright-eyed inventor when she first came to Rome. Now he was a sallow-faced man, drawn and haggard, his eyes dulled by a decade of studying plans and peering into the dark underbellies of machines. He went to take a place of honor near the Camerlengo and as he did, Sister Mary nudged her. Insufferably, she said, “You should be up there.”
“I stand where I’m told, Sister Mary,” Apollonia hissed, “And so should you. Quietly.”
The great bells began to ring. They were timed to the precise measure of the sun’s circuit: Apollonia had worked on the device herself. His Holiness Julius the Second emerged from the rear door, the one that led into his apartments, flanked by his much younger brother Giovanni. The Holy Father did not wear his full accoutrement of gowns, nor did the three-part crown of Saint Peter adorn his head. He preferred to conduct mass in the simple garb of a priest, albeit one with a silken purple pallium around his neck.
Apollonia found herself watching Giovanni instead of the Holy Father and a sudden surge of guilty bile in her throat forced her eyes from the handsome young condottiero. They roamed up to the carved wooden statue of Christ suspended above the Holy Father’s head. Christ, the Man of Sorrows, twisted upon the instrument of his torture, stared down at the gathered priests of his congregation. His eyes were so sad, Apollonia thought, as she often did. How could he bear such weight as the sins of the world not only in life, but now in eternal life with the Father. An urge to weep welled up within her, to weep for the suffering of Christ and the pain that the fallen world must cause the bosom of God every moment. We are fallen, she whispered to herself.
Christ favored her that morning, for the wooden eyes of the statue welled with tears to match her own, though these were red blood. She knew better than to say anything to anyone: the true visions were only for her, because only she had eyes to see. Mother Superior had condemned her vanity but praised her prophetic sight. “Not everyone shares your gift,” she said sadly. “Men condemn what they do not understand.”
The Man of Sorrows bled now from the wounds in his wrists and feet. His tears seeped down, a thick curtain of red beads that seeped from the living wood. Waves of sorrow washed over her, beating at her brow, her shoulders, her breast. She felt as though she must die, as though the sadness of the world would overwhelm her and batter her into the ground. Her breath grew strained and her face drawn and tight, so much so that Sister Mary touched her gently on the arm. Where once the touch of a concerned Sister might have been enough to break the spell and send the holy vision fleeing, they had been growing stronger of late. A slight tremble in her shoulders was all that told the outside world of her turbulence, and she fought the shivers she felt building within her, the shivers that must shatter her bones and crush her heart.
The shudders and the vision passed, as they always passed, leaving her feeling drained and tired. The Holy Father held up the body of Christ and the clear sharp tones of the altar-boy’s bell brought her back to herself. “Ecce Agnus Dei!” proclaimed Julius. She felt herself murmur the response instinctually: “The body of Christ.”
When mass was over and Sister Mary was begging to go back to their chambers and return to sleep, Apollonia fixed her eye on Brother Marzarius. He looked concerned, and he was walking towards the two nuns at a rapid clip. “Sister,” he said still several steps away. “Do not leave yet.” His high forehead was wrinkled and his sour little mouth twisted downwards. “The cavalli are leaving soon.”
“Now?” Apollonia asked. Suddenly, Marzarius’ apprehension filled her as well. It was as though it were a contagion, passing from one of them to the next. Only Sister Mary Rose was immune to it, being too stupid to understand what was going on. “Where are they going?”
“To Naples,” Brother Marzarius said. There was a hint of derision there, as though Apollonia should have known that already. “Surely you want to see them off?” he said. “The Holy Father is going to the warehouses now to watch them leave.”
“They aren’t ready,” she said heatedly. They weren’t: she was meant to check each one of the engines and examine their logic gears. The seating of the mainsprings would require adjustment on each device.
“They’re as ready as they’re ever going to be,” Marzarius interjected but Apollonia was already fleeing the chapel. Her feet scuffed and pounded on the floor as both Mary Rose and Marzarius grew more distant. She could hear Sister Mary complaining again behind her, but she didn’t care. The cavalli had been in use for several years amongst the nobility, but they weren’t yet prepared for war.
The warehouses were located along the Leonine wall. Pope Sixtus had first had them built to house the aiming machines that Marzarius had first designed. There were still a number of cannon fitted with the early motori di mira taking up valuable space. No home had been found for them, or perhaps they had just been forgotten. The storage rooms were clustered with broken down machines, test versions of the auto-rowers called rematori, which had won the allegiance of Venezia. Indeed, the entire history of orologia could be examined in the fabricators wing of the workshops: from the largest and earliest of Marzarius machina magna, taken from the abbey of Santa Maria di Rovegnano in pieces, to the newest and sleekest designs, many of them planned and executed not by the dour monk but by Apollonia herself, the Prima Pensatore of the Vatican.
As she approached the entrance to the workshops she fumbled under her habit for the medallion that proved she worked there. Nevermind that the papal guards new her by sight and name, Julius had insisted on giving out these foolish pendants that had been stamped with a secret seal. He thought it made the warehouses more secure.
The workshops had the appearance of a fortress from the outside. The crenelated rooftops were walked by men with crossbows. Murder holes and oil-chutes peered out from the gatehouse, which was itself guarded by a small squadron of Orsini men at all times. Apollonia wasn’t sure she trusted Cardinal Orsini, but it was clear that the Holy Father did.
One of those men in his ridiculous white-and-red striped uniform took the pendant from her when she arrived at the gatehouse. He placed it gently in the lock-receptacle and pulled the heavy lever close at hand. There was a rapid series of clicks as the lock read the pendant to prove that it was the true sign of one of the papal engineers, and then the doors unbolted of their own accord. Apollonia smirked; she was proud of that one. Brother Marzarius had been stumped for weeks by the puzzle of teaching an orologe to “see.” It had been her clever notion to have a lock with a negative imprint of the pendant on the inside. It didn’t have to see, she had explained, it had to feel.
There were other ways into the workshops, of course, but they were all locked in the same way. Even the approach to the papal apartments from the Leonine Wall itself was locked with such a device. If the Holy Father thought they made the workshops secure, why disillusion him? She shook her head as she walked through the gallery of loaded auto-bows pointed in her direction and gave the red-and-white striped clown at their trigger a wave of her hand as she passed him by. “Signora di Perugia,” he said in return. That was what Cardinal Orsini’s men called her, as though she were some noble lady. It made her cringe inside every time.
She had to pass first through the still workshop where the delicate little golden clocks were made and then force her way between a pair of cannon that had been pushed aside to make room for the war-wagons. The main bays of the workshops were filled with them: fifty cavalli in all. The huge brass-plated war machines were aswarm with papal engineers in leather smocks. The cavallo was a brilliant design, one of the last Marzarius had ever come up with. He spent his days as an administrator now, and rarely had time to develop new mechanisms. They were squat hulking wooden wagons with brass plates mounted on every side. Window-flaps could be raised to allow the long wicked muzzles of arquebus or the wide snouts of crossbows to peek out and unleash death. Some of them had mountings for cannon. All were fitted with swiveling wheels and giant mainsprings so they could be self-propelled in battle. The civilian cavallo was a simple brass wagon that could be steered from within, but the military machine delivered a payload of soldiers, all armored, that could cut straight into the lines of the enemy and ignore bullets and swords, even cannonfire in some cases. Then, the soldiers could either use it as a rallying point or be disgorged from it, hacking and cutting at all their foes around them.
But they were a drain to any baggage train. They had to be pulled for long miles by huge draft horses, and once their mainsprings had wound down (Apollonia calculated ten to fifteen minutes of operation until they were spent, depending on the terrain) they had to be wound again at a water-mill. The thews of men simply were not strong enough to wind the massive springs. They were a weapon of surprise.
Someone was opening the bay doors, levering the portcullis up and raising the wooden shield. Horses were led in as Apollonia moved from machine to machine, inspecting their logic gears and the connection between the mainspring and the driving mechanisms. Some were still not fitted properly, and those she singled out to the other engineers. She went as fast as she could, pushing aside grudging men in leather smocks. The other engineers didn’t like working with her and weren’t certain how to treat her, she could tell. She had been the chief of staff at the workshops for ten years and still her underlings were nervous around her.
She wasn’t the most personable member of the curia, that she could admit readily. Her moony features and mannish desire to stand elbow-deep in a machine with grease on her forehead were both off-putting to others. When she was at Santa Giuliana she had often worked in the garden, covered in dirt. Of course, Mother Superior had let her rearrange it for better use of the space and when she had first heard of the orologe in Milano she had tried to build one herself. She wasn’t long for herbs, but soon made frequent visits to the village blacksmith, urging him to make toothed gears to her specifications.
There was a sudden clang, followed by another. Apollonia was beneath one of the cavalli, inspecting the drive train, and had to haul herself out to see what was going on. At the far end of the line, the machines were being hitched to the heavy-haunched destriers that would pull them along after the pope’s army. The cavalli were leaving through the yawning portal of the warehouse bay and into the pre-dawn streets of Rome. She rose to her feet and watched as her children were taken away from her. Scythe-blades were affixed to the wheels and the sides of the machines, slotted into their proper places at the last minute. They aren’t ready! she wanted to shout. We haven’t tested the blade deployment, we don’t know precisely how long the springs will run, or if they can handle uneven ground! But she said nothing. Many of the engineers were leaving too, to service the cavalli and the other deadly war machines that were being brought to bear against the Hungarian king. She wished for a moment that she could go with them, that she could travel south to Naples to make sure her devices were treated properly, oiled, kept wound.
A sudden feeling of disquiet settled in her stomach, borne on the air of the Roman morning. The warehouse was filled with sound: the noise of men yelling, the noise of horses, the quiet clanking of the machines as their drivewheels were disengaged to let them be pulled freely. Little wheels with deep treads clacked against the cobbles. They had to be designed that way; a normal carriage suspension would break under the weight of the brass and nevermind the varied terrain they were likely to face. Apollonia ran through all the things that could go wrong with them in her head but in the end came up empty.
That’s when she noticed the man in white staring at her. The Orsini men were supposed to have cleared out the streets near the warehouses before the cavalli were sent out, yet someone had clearly defied them. A proud looking man with a thick neck and dressed not in any kind of vest or jerkin but rather a long flowing white garment. The leaves in his head convinced Apollonia that it was the madman that lived on the Tiber. She couldn’t recall his name, but the Holy Father was much outraged by his presence.
He was a sort of re-enactor. Apollonia had heard the Holy Father shouting to his brother about this man, this man who called himself Pontifex Maximus, not to style himself the pope but rather high priest of ancient Rome. He was more handsome than Apollonia had expected, and younger too. The pagan Pontifex was supposed to be some fat old philosopher, not a young man in the prime of his youth. She felt drawn to him.
The calls of the engineers fell on deaf ears as she walked down amongst the wagons. She dodged between them deftly, always keeping her eyes affixed on the Pontifex. She wondered if she should call out, show his presence to the guard, for no one else seemed to notice he was there. Something silenced her though, something within. It told her to keep quiet, maybe to listen to this man. Sister Mary might have told her it was the Word of God, the Living Word moving through her, but Mother Superior would have said that it was temptation.
Apollonia didn’t know if it was temptation, God, or something else entirely. She wanted to find out what, though, so she hailed the man as she crossed the warehouse. “Hey,” she called. “What’re you doing over there?” One of the papal engineers turned about, a thick-faced fellow with droopy eyes and pointed a greasy finger at his smock-covered chest. Apollonia shook her head to indicate no, not you, but the man in the... toga, she could see now, held a finger up to his lips. So he didn’t want to be noticed, she thought. That meant he really wasn’t supposed to be here.
When she finally drew level with him she felt the strangeness in her head again. It was like a popping in the back of her skull, a sudden blow that made everything reel. The man in the toga held out his arms to catch her, and she found herself staring up into his strong contemplative face. It was a face she felt she’d seen before, a face from old marble statues. Above his ears he wore a wreath of laurel. “This way,” he said, helping her gain her feet again and taking her hand.
“Where are we going?” Apollonia asked the stranger. The ground beneath her was swelling and rolling and the streets of Rome seemed to shift and change before her eyes. “What’s happening?” she asked.
“Be still,” the man advised. “You know you must be still when this happens.” She nodded before the sharp thought pierced her mind: How does he know about your fits?
“How do you—” she began, but he silenced her with a single finger pressed against her mouth.
“Shh,” he whispered, a sound like the ocean. “Stand on your own two feet now, and see.”
The guiding hands of the strange Pontifex left her, and she staggered to her feet. She found herself standing in an alley behind the Leonine Wall, next to the workshops. Over to her left she could see the Castel Sant’Angelo, its massive round belly presiding over the Ponte and the banks of the river Tiber. She felt that popping in her head anew and staggered a few feet forward to lean on a wall. As she did her view shifted, and the streets ran like water. When she looked up again, it was as though she were seeing through a prism: there was the Castel Sant’Angelo, but changed, and the Tiber and the Ponte too.
The Castel’s upper reaches were a hilltop, covered in cypress. Its walls were lined with tall columns, and the Ponte was bare, without its crown of angels. The cobbles beneath her feet had become grass, the buildings were gone. The man in the toga with the laurel crown smiled sadly. “It was a tomb before it was a fortress.”
“The mausoleum of Hadrian,” Apollonia muttered. She staggered a few more steps forward, trying to get a better view of the strange building that had replaced the familiar papal castle. If she was careful, perhaps she would see through the trickery of this pagan Pontifex. But every step she took caused the vision to tremble and change. Each time she moved her head, the streets around her shifted through a kaleidoscope of images: now hillside, now covered in ruins, and now thronging with people from a different age. “What’s happening?” she asked, breathless, clasping her temples. The throbbing in her head was getting worse.
“What do you think?” the Pontifex asked her. “You live in a city of ghosts. Did you think you could walk amongst them every day without feeling their power?”
“What do you think?” the Pontifex asked her. “You live in a city of ghosts. Did you think you could walk amongst them every day without feeling their power?”
“By the mercy of God!” she breathed.
“Which God?” asked the pagan. “Jupiter? Juno? Perhaps you wish to invoke Vesta, or Mercury.” He chuckled. “Or perhaps Sol Invictus. He would approve of your ingenuity. You even have his name, as he was known among the Greeks.”
“Who are you?” she asked, turning to look on this strange man. She was certain now that this could not be the Pontifex that vexed Julius so badly. She had never met that man and he had no reason to come and torment her.
“A poet,” he said quietly, and then he took her hand again and began to walk.
They crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo and Apollonia watched it change and grow beneath her. From nothing it was built, wooden-framed, bridging the river with its legs of brick and marble. Workmen swarmed over it and it was the Pons Aelius, the Aelian Bridge. It ended at a gateway, not a road, a gateway in the Servian Walls. But as she crossed it those walls crumbled away; they were dismantled by time and by people looking for material. Ants, they carried off the walls brick by brick.
The only things that remained constant were the poet and the nun. Sometimes time would play forwards as she walked, but more often she was simply presented with a jagged impression of hundreds of different times in no particular order. Buildings were gone, were new, were ruinous, were being used, were ruinous again, were completely different but still in use, were modern. The streets were paved, ran with blood, were empty grass lanes unpeopled by Romans and rich with virgin soil.
The poet stopped, and she stopped as well. They stood before a second mausoleum, not so grand as Hadrian’s, sunken in the earth and crumbling. This was now, Apollonia realized, this ruined building before her was once the Mausoleum of Augustus and after that one of the Colonna fortresses.
The Colonna! She shuddered. No, this wasn’t now, because she could see herself and the red-clad Orsini soldiers, and there was he: the Holy Father, Pope Sixtus IV, walking in the shadow of the tomb of the first emperor. “Please!” she cried, “No, not again!”
The poet smiled sadly as men emerged from the ancient tomb, men in black cloaks, each pinned with the gold-capped column of the Colonna. The pope was taken by surprise. Brother Marzarius’ face opened wide in horror and shock as the men in black jerkins and black hose fell upon the Orsini guard. There was Giuliano, not yet pope, drawing his sword. There was his cousin Riario, his perpetual smirk for once wiped from his face. And there was the Holy Father, his face bloody from a Colonna truncheon.
“Why are you showing me this?” Apollonia gasped.
“Augustus was the strongest leader Rome ever had,” the poet said quietly as the massacre played out in slow motion. “He let the Senate function, but made certain it did not impede the operation of the state. Look at this,” he gestured at the violence, “this travesty. Is your Giuliano a worthy enough man to fill the shoes of Augustus Caesar?”
Apollonia had no answers for him. She fell to her knees and wept.