11. Marcus Verus
“That’s three,” Marcus said to Titus after Andreas left. “We need more.” Marcus pushed himself to his feet, gathering his cane in one hand and Sextus’s letter in the other. Marcus took care not to knock the chest chained behind his desk as he stepped past it. It held the Verus fortune, and it wouldn’t do to let Titus hear a hollow clunk.
“How many is enough?” Titus asked.
Marcus gazed at his son’s friend. This meeting had left the cavern of Marcus’s soul ringing with echoes of bittersweet pain. Perhaps he shouldn’t have reread those letters last night. Andreas reminded him too much of Quintus. His attentive stance, and the eager timbre of his voice. The young man thrummed with desire to serve the greater good, to put right the things that were wrong. Just as Quintus had.
“One is enough, if he’s in the right place and has the right passion. But you should never allow a single point of failure, if you can help it. Cultivate redundancy.” He made his way into the atrium and threw Sextus’s letter into the hearth. He watched its edges blacken and curl before it caught alight. “We need a spark to catch in this tinder within the next few days. Keep your eyes open for anyone that fits the criteria. Pull from among your men if you think any of them will make good candidates. Remember, the most important thing is that they care.”
Titus sighed impatiently. “Yes, yes, I got it. The caring is important.”
“It is vital,” Marcus replied. “Paullus’s hedonists have siphoned all the passion from Roman hearts, and replaced it with base appetites. Left on their own, the mob will ejaculate violent spasms, then sag back into languor when they’re expended. A burning heart of moral rage is needed to drive them, to remind them what Roman men used to be.”
The broken wax seal bubbled and ran as the parchment flared around it. Passionate, Sextus’s letter had said. Directionless, and idealist, and hell of a fighter. All important, but the most vital word had been passionate.
“Just give me an inferno,” Titus said, “and I’ll channel it wherever you like.”
The thing about starving an empire is that it’s damned expensive.
Marcus often dealt with large sums of money. He commanded the wealth of entire provinces. Much of Dacia’s annual tribute went to the Verus family. A fair portion of Rome’s population depended on him for their daily stipend. Even so, the expenses of this year’s famine had been ruinous.
First had come the timing. Marcus had no desire to fight the gods themselves, so he needed to know when the crops would fail even without his intervention. For this purpose, he had paid for major renovations to the Temple of Ceres in Rome several years back, and the establishment of several smaller temples in the surrounding provinces. In return, he requested that if a Spring Augury should foretell a bad harvest, the Augur was to tell Marcus privately. The Augur would publicly announce a normal yield was expected. The Curator of Grain would take no exceptional conservation measures. Earlier this year, Marcus had finally received the signal that this had been done. Famine was coming, and only Marcus knew. That required another substantial donation to the Temple of Ceres. Silence wasn’t cheap.
With nature on his side, Marcus exacerbated the situation. After all, the gods were a single point of failure, and he strove for redundancy wherever possible. He used his power as governor of Sicily to ensure a poor crop. He raised taxes on grain seed, and cut off the supply of field slaves. He instructed his landlords to let their fields lie fallow for a year and paid them what they would have made for a full harvest.
Much of Rome lay beyond Marcus’s immediate control. As crops from the rest of the empire came to harvest, Marcus bought them up through intermediaries. He bought them by the tons, secreting them away in warehouses and storerooms across the continent. That which he couldn’t store, he burned. Wherever possible he paid with borrowed money, but that wasn’t always possible. The Verus chest grew light, and as grain became more scarce and more expensive his debts mounted above what he could hope to repay. If his web of debtors ever came into contact with each other and compared notes they would have his head. Not literally, of course, taking heads was gauche. But his suicide would be compelled.
He’d involved Quintus as well. Among his son’s many accounts of Titus’s deeds was the revelation that Titus had secured the cooperation of a barbarian wizard by removing his rivals. This was illegal, moreso now in the wake of the Unstorm. Yet Titus had made good use of this wizard as the Romans turned the barbarian tribes against each other.
Marcus personally despised the black arts, and resolved to put a stop to it… just as soon as he’d taken quiet advantage of the situation. He sent a chest of silver to Quintus, and within a month a new blight escaped from the north and swept down into Gaul. Orchards and vineyards bore bloated fruit of an indescribable color. Their flesh tasted of ash and sickened those who ate it. Nearby livestock grew grey and wasted away. Infants born in blighted regions would neither cry nor suckle. They simply gazed forward with dull eyes. They died within days. Marcus’s blood ran icy when he learned of this. He repented from his use of the vile magics, ordered Quintus to ensure the wizard was killed, and burned any evidence of his existence.
The biggest problem remained Egypt. Marcus’s brother was Legate of Syria, and used his military contacts to influence Egyptian governance. Protection of shipments slackened, and the loss to pirates grew for several months.
Marcus continued to buy what grain he could, but at this point the price was astronomical. That itself was a success. Marcus still took ancillary actions where possible, the most successful being the sinking of the shipment on the Tiber two days ago.
To date, the combination of the drought and his campaign had worked fantastically. Marcus’s goal was not to starve Rome to death. He wasn’t besieging his city. He simply needed the populace to understand what was at stake. To feel for a year what life would be like if the New Hedonists were allowed to run the empire into the ground. It served as a slap to rouse Rome from its complacency. Thanks to his efforts civil unrest now boiled at a fever pitch in the streets and slums.
Marcus tarried in his atrium after Titus left, watching the black gossamer remains of Sextus’s letter in his hearth. “Just give me an inferno, and I’ll channel it wherever you like,” Titus had said. Fine words, but the channeling wouldn’t be free. Titus’s men, as loyal as they were, would still have to be paid. Marcus also had to maintain his role as a major patron of Rome to avoid suspicion. This meant disbursements to clients, contribution towards the games, and sponsorship of feast tables across the city. His operating wealth had already been depleted, and the scraps he’d received from calling in the debts to Paullus’s clients barely made a difference. He needed hard currency quickly.
It was time for his wealthiest clients to show their loyalty.
As Marcus left his house and started toward Sextus’s home his guards and lictors fell into formation around him. They pressed in too close today, pulling back from the surrounding buildings and the hard sky overhead. Marcus said nothing, his mind wrapped up in financial concerns, but his shoulders hunched against the world. He visualized his son walking beside him to sooth his nerves. He could feel his boy’s presence just by thinking of him. Hear his footfalls on the cobblestones, in step with Marcus’s limping gait.
Sextus’s manor overlooked the Colosseum, a brief walk from the Verus estate. Nonetheless, Sextus’s front doors waited open respectfully for Marcus, news of Marcus’s arrival preceding him even over such a short distance. Sextus received his patron personally in the entrance hall and escorted him back to his office.
“Marcus,” Sextus said, as they crossed beneath the gaze of Sextus’s ancestors, “I’m honored you’ve come to visit me. Is this about the wizard?”
“No.” Marcus stepped into the office, planted his cane before him, and rested his hands atop it. He did not sit. “You did me a fine service by bringing that young man, Andreas, to my attention. I’m most pleased.”
Sextus smiled uneasily. “Thank you.” They both knew Marcus wouldn’t have come here just for that.
“As one of my foremost clients, you now have the opportunity to do me another service.” Marcus finally smiled back, a smile as hard as the overbearing sky. “How much money do you have in your chest?”
They both looked to the steel chest chained to the floor of Sextus’s office. A moment passed in held silence.
“Over a talent, right now,” Sextus said, the words tripping over themselves as they rushed from his mouth. He knew there should have been no pause. “Eight or nine thousand denarii.”
Marcus nodded. “Good. That will do. Give it to me.”
Sextus paled, then swallowed. “All of it?”
Marcus lifted his eyebrows. “Is there a problem? You’ll have it returned before the month is out. With interest, of course.” Marcus was a Traditionalist, and a Traditionalist patron wouldn’t demand currency from a client without offering interest.
“No, no, it’s just that, well, I need some funds for daily operations.”
“Ah. Very well. Keep a tenth of it, then.”
“Yes, of course, thank you.” Sextus snapped his fingers at a slave. “Bring a large strong box, and two strong slaves to carry it.” When the slave didn’t jump into action Sextus barked “Move it!”
Marcus stepped to Sextus’s desk and took a handful of grapes from the plate set out for guests. By the end of the month, he would either be in control of the Empire, or dead. In either case, repaying Sextus wouldn’t be a worry.
“Now, what’s this about a wizard?” Marcus asked.
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First line of next week’s chapter: You spend the day following Benayah, which is sorta like watching over the poor district.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: I was shocked by just how great the wealth disparities in ancient Rome were.
Word-count of chapter 11 deleted content: 188