From his throne, Attila watched Livianus as a fox watches a rabbit. The Roman’s ability to win the Hun warriors over was remarkable. He chose his words carefully, as a skilled orator should. Livianus had once proved himself a great asset to the Huns and was about to do it a second time. And this time, Attila did not intend to lose him to the provinces. Attila had needs himself, and Livianus’s arrival had reminded him that his own happiness mattered just as much as his people’s.
Livianus moved gracefully for a soldier, and his red cloak swayed about him like the flames of a great fire. Attila pictured the toned body underneath, which only a short time before had filled him with such divine pleasure. Livianus was too good a gift to let slip through his fingers again. If they could win approval for his marriage to Honoria, Attila would build a new nation—the power of the Huns and the culture of the Romans. He would weed out the rot from the core of Rome and replace it with solidity. The new nation would be a place where Livianus could assume an important role, something more suited to his abilities than being a farmer-governor, and be close to Attila as they grew old.
“Finally, consider what it is your people need at this point in your history.” Livianus walked between the men as he spoke, touching each on the shoulder. “In many ways, although Attila has built this commendable city, the Huns are like refugees constantly traveling. What you need, what those women and children out there”—he pointed to the walls of the chamber—“need more than anything are a permanent and secure base, a regular source of food, and so vital to building a future, a renewed sense of identity…pride.”
The council members nodded and grunted. Attila smiled and waited for Livianus to close.
“All of these things will be in your grasp in a new, united empire with the great Attila as its leader.”
Attila joined Livianus among the men and put an arm around his shoulder. “I couldn’t have put it better myself. Now, men, what say you?”
“I say yes,” said Octar. “I don’t trust Honoria any more than I do her brother, but a woman will be easier to control, especially with Attila on the throne.”
“I agree.” Ragnaris looked ten years younger, as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders. “No race can go on stealing and destroying forever. Soon there will be nothing left to steal—then what do we do?”
“And you, Barbax?” Attila turned to his second in command. “What say you?”
Barbax drew in a breath and blew it out with the sound of wind racing across the plains. “The alternatives are worse. This could work, but I would like to have Livianus’s assurance that he will help us. We are fighters, not politicians. He has much experience that can be put to good use, and we know we can trust him.”
Attila glowed inside. He needed the call for Livianus to stay by him to come from his men. Of course, he could do what he damn well liked with his own life, but it would all work so much more smoothly if he had Livianus apparently foisted upon him. “Your wisdom grows by the day, Barbax. An excellent idea.” Attila turned his attention once again on Livianus. “Tell us, would you commit yourself to this, rather than hurry back to Gaul?”
Livianus seemed taken aback; his hands trembled and the words, usually so quick to spill from his lips, stumbled across his tongue. “Well, I…er, yes, I mean…yes, of course.”
“He doesn’t sound so sure,” Chuvash said with a snort.
“No, I am sure.” Livianus straightened and became still. “I give you my solemn word. For as long as your king deems it necessary, I shall be honored to help you. It will be a bigger maze than Midas built at Knossos that we face, but I shall be proud to play my part.”
Attila laughed heartily. In part to show his genuine delight to his men, but also to camouflage his deep emotions. Tears pricked at his eyes when he heard Livianus announce he would stay, and it would not do for a Hun to be seen crying. Livianus was as shrewd as that vixen Honoria. With those few words he’d made the council feel indebted to him for staying behind and forsaking his comfortable life at his villa. He was a good actor as well as a soldier and statesman. Only Attila knew how easy the decision had been for the Roman general.