16. Marcus Verus
The house sat dark when Marcus woke, his heart hammering in his chest. No stinking barbarians crashed through his doors, axes sticky with gore. None of his family screamed as they were cut open. It had been a dream.
He still smelled the smoke as Rome burned around him. That mixed smell of human corpses and perfumed oils had followed him into the waking world. Screams echoed in his ears.
Marcus looked over at his wife. Her hair stuck to her face, damp with sweat, and she moaned in her sleep. They lay naked under the sheets. They’d both fallen asleep quickly after their lovemaking last night. Marcus grimaced. If you could call it that. It wasn’t even fair to call it fucking. It had just been guttural, ugly rutting. Gripped by a base desire that demanded release in the body of another, they’d pushed into each other, groping and grunting, teeth against skin. He’d been glad when it was over. What was happening in his house?
Marcus threw aside the sheets, welcoming the sudden bite of cool air on his damp skin. The dream had begun, as they often did, with Quintus crushed to pulp, his spirit forced into the cracks in reality, wedged between this world and the next. He became a deformity that festered at the margins of nothingness.
That deformity lodged in Marcus’s mind. The more he directed attention to it, the more real it became. His son wasn’t fully dead, not yet. As long as Marcus kept him alive in his thoughts, Quintus retained the ability to impact this world. Marcus had made himself Quintus’s bridge between this realm and the next. He would keep his son’s soul safe.
Marcus pulled on a toga and limped to the house shrine in the atrium. He felt his son beside him, a shadow lost among the predawn darkness. A silent presence voicelessly imploring Marcus to safeguard his grandson, and to secure Rome against the predation of barbarians.
He was working on it.
The grand atrium shrouded itself in thick velvet shadows. The only illumination came from the hearth at one end, overlaying the adjacent shrine and nearby tiles with a deep red glow. In his dream, hairy, unwashed men scattered the coals of that hearth across the room, disrupting the Verus fire that hadn’t been allowed to die out since before Marcus’s birth. They tromped through the central pool, staining it with their filth. There, by the atrium entrance–that was where an ugly, scarred woman had grabbed his grandson by the ankles and swung him above her head. She’d brought his skull down on the tiles, bursting it like a rotting melon.
Marcus lit incense from the hearth, as much to clear his head as to placate the household gods. Rome had screamed in death throes, barbarian venom coursing through her streets. No one heard her. If given a choice between that fate or suffering through a minor famine, how many people would choose the rape of Rome?
Most people weren’t given that choice directly, was the only difference.
Marcus stood with eyes closed, letting the incense scent slowly fill the large room and drive away the remnants of the dream. Smoky wisps coalesced at his side. They drifted into an image of Quintus, made of interwoven shadows. The hearth glow ruddied its edges.
You must hurry, his son urged. What lies dreaming must not be roused.
Marcus reached for his son, felt solidity and warmth in his hand for a fleeting moment. Then it slipped from him with a sigh. The shadows unraveled in his sight, but the words stayed with him.
He didn’t have to ask what worried his son so gravely. An engine of destruction coalesced in Sextus’s Ludus this very moment. The emperor had burrowed a barbarian wizard into the heart of Rome.
Marcus propped his cane against the low parapet of the imperial palace’s balcony, awaiting the emperor, and looked out over Rome. Standing at the edge of the expansive balcony felt like mounting the prow of a ship cresting over the city. Beneath him the rising sun pursued shadows through the city’s maze of alleys, igniting bronzed fountainheads where it found them. They flared in recapitulation of Marcus’s fiery nightmares, reminders of why he was here. Rome in ruins.
Just a dream. The massive bulk of the imperial palace rose behind him, solid as a mountain. Its innards stirred with life, slaves at work as messengers zipped in and out under watchful Praetorian eyes. All of it teetering on an edge none of them could see.
Marcus had nearly ordered Sextus to kill the wizard on the spot yesterday. But Emperor Pius demanded more monsters, and Marcus wasn’t ready to declare open rebellion yet.
He’d requested an urgent audience instead. Perhaps the emperor could still be reasoned with. Emperor Pius had once been a reasonable man. He had his weaknesses, but when his hand faltered, Marcus’s sister, Faustina, had always brought Pius to sensibility. It was just one of her many gifts. Neither man had ever seriously considered they’d one day be without her.
Perhaps if she were still alive Marcus’s coup wouldn’t be necessary.
Marcus breathed deeply. Watching the sun rise over a waking Rome soothed him. In happier days he’d often taken in the fresh air of this vantage point, watching the populace skittering through the streets below, attending to their chores. His last truly happy memory of Faustina had been on this balcony. The Verus family had come to visit. He and Domita sat on a low couch, the seating brought out onto the balcony as a concession to Marcus’s damaged ankle. To one side Antoninus sat with Faustina, an arm wrapped around her waist. He’d still been Antoninus to Marcus then. “Emperor Pius” felt comical in its formality.
The two couples sat facing inward toward the sprawling palace, watching their children taking lessons from their tutors. Faustina (now “the Elder”) commented on how noble their children looked together. It was a polite lie; Quintus had just entered his adolescent growth spurt. His limbs had raced ahead of the rest of him and left him looking like a befuddled puppet. His younger brother, Numerius, remained as sickly as ever, and would only grow worse until his death two years later. The only real nobility among them resided in Faustina the Younger, a depiction of childish grace as she continually retrieved Numerius’s dropped stylus for him, long after Quintus had lost patience.
“She would make a fine compliment to Quintus,” the Elder Faustina commented. “He could use someone to rein in his passions.”
“Let them be children for now,” Antoninus had spoken into her hair, dropping his chin to rest in the crook of her neck. “There’s still years to consider such things, provided that the gods are merciful.”
“Provided that the gods are merciful,” Faustina agreed. The four parents took a silent moment just to watch. In those years it seemed possible the gods had mercy within them.
Antoninus had not taken her death well.
The sound of movement behind him jostled Marcus from the memory. With his mind still in the past, he spoke directly.
“We have to kill that barbarian wizard, Antoninus,” he said. “Today. No delays.”
“Do we?” a lilting voice replied. Not the emperor’s. Disdain flushed through Marcus. He knew that voice. He turned to regard Paullus Pulcher.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
Paullus sauntered onto the balcony, holding a half-empty wine cup. “I’m a guest of the emperor. I believe you used to know what that was like.” He spoke smoothly, but his glassy eyes didn’t quite focus on Marcus. A yellow bruise spread from his lower left eyelid.
“I see you’re starting your morning debauchery before last night’s has worn off,” Marcus commented. “At least you lead by example.”
Paullus sneered, but glanced back to the interior rather than replying.
“Calm yourself,” the emperor’s tenor drifted sluggishly from the doorway, followed soon after by the man himself. Bloodshot eyes peered from a slack face. “This week is dedicated to festivity. You could stand to enjoy yourself too.”
The emperor collapsed into a seat, his breath wheezing out. For an instant Marcus worried for his old friend. Then Paullus extended his cup to the emperor, who drained it in two great gulps, and Marcus remembered that this man was not Antoninus anymore. He was just Emperor Pius now. He was part of the rot within Rome.
A slave trailed after Emperor Pius, carrying a platter of fruits and breads. Marcus noted that the fruits were smaller and drabber than he’d ever seen in the palace. He took that as a good sign. The food shortage ran deep if the emperor himself had been inconvenienced.
“What’s so important that it can’t wait until after my Anniversary Games?” the emperor asked.
“Rome is at risk,” Marcus began.
“He’s scared of an old barbarian now,” Paullus interjected. “The one we’re holding in the Ludus of the Bestiarii.”
“He’s a wizard,” Marcus hissed. “I hear you’re giving him any materials he asks for!”
Emperor Pius arched his eyebrows. “So? He’ll die without our healing–he’ll do our bidding. Even if he’s stupid enough to summon a monster in the Ludus and try to escape, it won’t do him any good. He’s surrounded by dozens of gladiators. Beyond them is a double guard of Praetorians. You worry too much.”
“The wizard’s very existence is a threat. He should never have been let into the city. No one knows the limits of barbarian magics.” Their sheer negligence astounded Marcus.
Behind the emperor, Paullus crossed his arms. “Anytime you want to scare the mob into supporting your murderous impulses you rail against some hazy, monstrous enemy. First the Jews, now the unwashed barbarians.”
Emperor Pius sighed and raised a halting hand. “This is about your son again, Marcus, isn’t it? You’re still looking for vengeance.”
A hot vice clamped over Marcus’s heart.
“This has nothing to do with my son. This is about Rome!”
Paullus Pulcher rolled his eyes. “For someone who claims to care so much about Rome, all you ever do is demand more sacrifice and misery from her citizens. What is Rome, if not the sum of her people? How great can she be if her people are miserable? Our first duty is the joyous flourishing of our citizens.”
“A Roman’s first duty is to preserve Rome,” Marcus countered, “and keep her strong against all threats. The misery if Rome should fall will be far greater than your individual inconveniences.”
Paullus’s eyes grew hard. “To be hacked apart on the battlefield is far from an inconvenience. You think that Rome is weak. At every Senate session you bewail how frail we are. Look around you.” Paullus spread his arms, and paused to let the sounds of the waking city overtake them. Marcus glared directly at Paullus, rather than taking in the urban vista again. “Rome has never been stronger. Our Legions swell with recruits, our coffers spill over with gold. Why would any Roman need toil? Let the slaves work for us. Why should any Roman trudge out in the mud and dust of foreign lands, to fight on distant soil? Let the border provinces fight for us. They are happy to do so. We will keep order within the Empire, and reap the rewards of good rule. To do any less is to spit on the gift our forefathers gave us.”
“You don’t know a thing about the military situation,” Marcus replied. “The Empire is no longer held by Romans. The Legions swell with barbarians who’ve never been within a hundred miles of the city. They must always have Roman companies over them, manned by true red-blooded Romans. They must always see our fist clenched before them, or within a generation they will find loyalty inconvenient. Where will your gold and slaves come from then? Where will you find food?”
“That’s enough, Marcus,” Emperor Pius spoke. “We’ve had this discussion before. If you came here for this, you’re wasting my time.”
Marcus grit his teeth in frustration. The New Hedonists lived in decadence. They didn’t serve in the military, and never saw the violence needed to keep that wealth flowing. They thought it would just keep gushing forth forever, an abundance birthed from nothing, rather than forged by the hands of hard men.
They probably thought peace just sprung from nothing as well, as if the world didn’t desire to tear them open and feast on their innards. They couldn’t imagine the need to shed blood to build this sanctuary for their lusts. Never thought of the men who died for it.
“Fine. I came here because of the wizard. Their magic is vile, their religion is vile, their culture revels in death. There are rumors that the summoned monster is perverting the emperor.” A fever lit in Emperor Pius’s eyes as Marcus spoke, but Marcus pressed on. “The city’s spirit grows ill. Even the Eternal Flame kept by the Vestal Virgins is burning low, regardless of how much wood is fed to it. It was irresponsible to keep him alive. As the Patriarch of all Rome, you must correct this and extinguish him immediately.”
Emperor Pius took two deep breaths before answering.
“Don’t ever tell me what I must do, Marcus.” He held Marcus’s gaze and let that sit for a long moment before continuing. “I do not fear one crippled man, clapped in chains.”
“You risk Rome itself. The damage some of these monsters can do would rival that of the Great Christian Fire.”
Paullus snorted. “You wail about the weakness of Rome again.”
“There’s a reason we exterminate foreign magic users.” Marcus said. “They are too dangerous to live.”
“A policy I’ve long thought erroneous,” the emperor stated. “I will be reversing it.”
Marcus’s eyes boggled. “What do you mean, reversing it?”
“Tell him, Paullus.”
Marcus turned to Paullus. The younger man wore a smile of smug satisfaction. “Do I really have to spell out the benefits of adopting their magic into our arsenal?” he asked. “Rome’s greatest strength has always been our ability to absorb the people we conquer and make them work and fight for us. There’s no reason we can’t do that with magic as well.”
“You’re going to let him live!?”
“He will be our first foreign magical asset.”
“You are an idiot,” Marcus spat. “These barbarians want nothing but to see us suffer and die. He will destroy everything, if he can; and he will try.”
“We will win him over, and he’ll be glad to serve us,” Paullus said.
“Like you won over the Jews? How many thousands of Roman lives were lost while you pranced about, trying to win their hearts?” Marcus rounded on Emperor Pius. “You delayed the final order for years. At his behest! If you do this, you will turn Rome into another Jerusalem!”
“You overstep yourself.” A threat in Pius’s voice. The sun glistened off his damp skin. “If I judge the wizard a threat, you can kill him after the games.”
“That could be too late. He must die today.”
“Enough, Marcus!” Hunger burned in Pius’s eyes. A sick, fevered desire. “I’ve felt things over the past two days that no man before me has experienced. I will not stop now. I will have my monsters.”
Marcus swallowed, but kept silent. Just one more reason the emperor had to go.
The emperor sat back, studying Marcus. “Leave us, Paullus,” he ordered. Paullus took the slave with him as he went, leaving them alone on the balcony.
“Do you plan on ever letting up?” Emperor Pius spoke into the quiet of the raised sanctuary, a marble platform on the edge of the sky. “We live in a golden age of peace and prosperity. Our strength is unmatched. You are in no danger.”
“My grandsons will be. You ignore so many warning signs on our borders. It won’t be long before war returns, and it’ll be far worse for your negligence. Your successor will curse your name. All of Rome will. These threats must be purged immediately, before they can grow strong.”
Pius’s breathing grew heavier. “You don’t have to live with the consequences. I carry them with me every day. I never want the blood of a Jerusalem on my head again. I will do everything I can to prevent that from recurring. Even if all I can do is delay the slaughter for a decade, those extra ten years of peace will be worth it.”
Marcus gripped his cane, holding back frustration. Perhaps he could have brought his old friend around, if he had started years ago. If he had the sweet tongue and endless patience of his sister. Instead, he had the support of half the Senate, an angry populace, and the willingness to use both. He found he didn’t care to convince Pius anymore. He had more direct options.
Silence built a wall between them.
“You’ve changed, Marcus,” Emperor Pius finally spoke. “I hardly recognize you.”
“Oh? I was thinking the same of you. How have I changed?”
“You’ve grown hard. You always had a calloused heart, yes, but not intractable. Firm, not unrelenting. Now there is only stone. It’s made you brittle.”
“And what do you think of me, after these years?” Pius asked.
Marcus tilted his head, visualizing a younger Antoninus over the facade of Emperor Pius.
“You’ve given up,” Marcus replied. “You could have rebuilt yourself, after Faustina’s death. Instead, when her strength was removed, you chose to just collapse into the void left inside you. What do you live for now?”
“I live for the same thing as anyone else. The few pleasures I can find in a world that grinds down everything in it. I haven’t given up, I’ve merely accepted reality. Why cause more suffering? I enjoy what I can. Everything else is fleeting.”
“Not everything. Rome is eternal. If we make it so.”
Pius considered this with a distant look. “Even if it was, Rome isn’t me, so I don’t see how it matters.”
Yes, Marcus had made the right decision when he birthed this coup.
He excused himself after that. Antoninus had died long ago. Soon Emperor Pius would join him.
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First line of next week’s chapter: You stagger through Rome, the streets lurching beneath your feet.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: I originally named this protagonist “Lucian,” in honor of rationalist!Lucius Malfoy.
Word-count of chapter 16 deleted content: 506