You wait. You fidget. You glance left, then glance right. You hate waiting.
You are in Marcus Verus’s manor, a small palace on the upper slopes of the Caelian Hill, though on the wrong side to overlook the Colosseum. The largest house you’d been in before was Sextus’s, nearby, and this puts his home to shame. You stand in a side room, adjacent to Marcus’s office. This room is a spur off the atrium; an atrium larger than your father’s house. Mosaics cover every wall. Death masks of the Verus ancestors hang over them, peering at you. The greatest men get full marble busts, set on pedestals. Their eyes track you silently; only you know.
You finger the sealed note Sextus gave you to present to his patron. You hate waiting, but not because you’re impatient. You hate waiting because it leaves you empty time to think. You’ve already plotted your escape route, you’ve sized up who might attack you, you’ve noted likely ambush points. Now other scenarios begin to present themselves. What if you hear screams coming from the next room? What if a guard splits open to release a torrent of greasy, winged scorpions? What if a child runs from you as fast as he can and the only way to stop him is to put a javelin through his back?
You jump at a cracking noise in the next room, but the guards don’t flinch. Apparently it’s nothing. You clench a fist, trying to calm your heart. The gods exude general disapproval but don’t make any specific demands, which heightens your unease.
Eydis was furious when you returned, before dawn. Her eyes flared when she saw you approaching Cornelius as the old man made oddly apologetic gestures to her. You hated to have her fire aimed at yourself. She’d told you never to come back, and here you were the very next day–back. But you recognized divine providence when you saw it; the timing of your meeting was too perfect. Anyway, Cornelius was interested in what you had to say, and that was what mattered. Eydis just glared, seething. If she’d been a wizard, her glare would have been sticking three inches out of the back of your skull.
You half expected her to be happy. She should be happy. You’ve done her a favor, too. Cornelius will have a fair bit more money for a while, which will make her own life easier. Sextus may even take an interest in her, if she works well. She knows numbers, and her Latin is excellent. A good slave under a wealthy owner can go far in Rome; some very respected men were slaves. What was she so pissed about?
She hadn’t stopped seething the entire time, from the slums to Sextus’s office. For some reason you got the feeling the gods were on her side. Again.
You continue to fidget, and try not to think too much. After more than an hour Marcus Verus calls you into his office. It overlooks a garden twice the size of the atrium you just came from, lush with trees and manicured flower beds. A child could get lost in there. You hand him the letter, noting the man leaning in the office’s back corner, his thick arms crossed, a smirk on his face. Even among the many shelves and locked document chests, the man stands out. You recognize him. He’s the same large man you saw in Sextus’s office yesterday. Titus. It’s that smirk.
Marcus breaks the seal on Sextus’s letter and scans it quickly.
“Well, Andreas, is it?” he asks. You nod. “Sextus has some good things to say about you. He says you have a deep love for Rome, and a personal commitment to the improvement of her least fortunate citizens.”
Immediately you stand up straighter and draw a deeper breath.
“Yes!” you blurt, a bit too enthusiastically. “Everyday I’m pushed–” you break, for a fraction of a second, as you realize you can’t say ‘by the gods’, “–by my fear for the Empire,” you finish lamely. But Marcus nods.
“I could use someone like you.” He considers the letter again, his eyes lingering near the bottom. “Paullus Pulcher loots the empire, then hides behind promises to the mob. More grain, more wine, less responsibility. But what do the poor actually get?” Marcus looks at you, waiting, and you realize he wants an answer. You scramble for a reply. You remember yesterday evening, after leaving Sextus’s house. You remember the desperate man, face breaking with hope as he realized his granddaughter wouldn’t starve in the streets. Not just yet. You remember, before that, guards pushing him down the street, keeping the tables of the rich free from his maudlin pleading.
They get nothing, whisper the gods.
“They get nothing,” you say, the words rattling from your throat.
“They get nothing,” Marcus echoes. “And they are starting to realize it. Now Paullus pays thugs to keep the poor penned in their slums. You realize why, right? His wall of lies is crumbling. He’s afraid of the people he pretends to serve.”
Your guts clench, beginning to churn. The Verus family has a long military tradition. An ancient family sword hangs on the wall behind Marcus, testament to generations of service. You should trust this man, and honor him as befitting his sacrifices for Rome. But…
“But my father is a Paullus man,” you say.
“Yes, that is unfortunate,” Marcus says. “Yet you don’t have to be. Did you know Paullus shirked his military duties? He never served.”
You’re at a loss for words. You didn’t know that.
Titus shifts. You tense–silent, waiting. But he doesn’t move again. The gods would warn you if he was to try something, you berate yourself. You strain to concentrate on Marcus again.
“All I want,” Marcus continues, “is for you to remain in the poorest neighborhoods and stand up for them. Stand beside anyone who would be bullied by Paullus’s thugs, with the full backing of House Verus. Sextus writes that you already have friends in the Suburra district.”
Yes. Cornelius. You lift your head higher and feel your chest swell. You helped him. And now you can do more. With the backing of one of the most powerful men in Rome. Every step of the last few days has been orchestrated by the gods.
“I would be honored to serve you,” you say.
If he’s speaking the truth. If Paullus is indeed exploiting and abusing the weak. You will go to the slums tonight. You will see with your own eyes, and hear with your own ears. Soon the gods will deliver a name to you, be it Paullus or Marcus. Then you will know where to strike.
“I will pay you, of course.” Marcus frowns. His voice remains hard, but you can see touches of remorse creasing his face. “I find it distasteful when the innocent are caught up in senatorial squabbles. If I can ameliorate some of that damage, while also strengthening Rome, I am pleased to do so. Your debt to Sextus is suspended for the duration of your service, and may be forgiven entirely if you serve well.”
Your heart trips, misses a beat. Marcus can do that? He is Sextus’s patron… You recall Sextus’s look of pity last night. His words–This is politics. When the great men of Rome quarrel, the commoners that get underfoot get crushed. Marcus must be one of those quarrelling. Sextus found a way to get you out from underfoot.
“I… Thank you, sir. I won’t disappoint you.” Marcus smiles, and you feel the provisional approval of the gods. If there is anything to Marcus’s claims, you will be his shining sword among the poor.
“I hope so. Your commander during this period is Titus.” The man in the corner flashes you his teeth. “Address concerns to him, and heed his orders as you would mine. Now go, you have your charges to look after.”
You walk from that office in a daze, a new pride growing within you.
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First line of next week’s chapter: “That’s three,” Marcus said to Titus after Andreas left.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: It wasn’t until the last revision that I realized the eight days should be titled.
Word-count of chapter 10 deleted content: 0