23. Marcus Verus
“You’re neglecting your daughters.”
Domita’s low voice came from the garden-side entrance to his office. Marcus didn’t turn to acknowledge her. His head stayed bowed over his desk, his gaze caressing the pages before him. The day’s long business was done. This was his time.
“You’ve barely spoken to me all week,” she chided him. “I don’t want you to relapse.”
This would be a terrible time for it, Quintus agreed. Marcus’s son knelt at his side, on one knee, a look of gentle concern on his face. Marcus didn’t need to look at his son to know his expression. He closed his eyes, and placed one hand over the stack of letters, to show Domita he wasn’t reading them. He didn’t need to read them anymore to draw up Quintus in his mind. He still liked to be near them, though. To see the map of blank vellum exposed between lines of ink. To feel the stiff edges. It gave his shade of Quintus a hint of borrowed physicality.
I need to keep your memories close, Marcus told his son, keeping the words inside. You start to fade if I skip too many days.
Marcus hadn’t originally meant to carve out a piece of his soul, separating it and transmuting it into a simulacrum of Quintus. But now his remembrance of his son was the closest thing to having him back in this world. He didn’t dare let it fade.
You have a duty to Mother, Quintus said. Not what Marcus wanted to hear, but Marcus knew it was what Quintus would say. If he altered Quintus’s words to fit his own convenience it would be as bad as killing Quintus himself. He must hold fast to Quintus’s true reactions. He was his son’s only keeper.
You’re delaying, Quintus prodded. The living need you, Father.
It was a happy burden, to carry on his son’s existence in his mind, but it was a burden nonetheless. Sometimes he wished he could pass it on to someone else, but no one knew Quintus like he did. What would happen when Marcus died? Quintus would be snuffed out as well. He had to find some way to transfer his son’s spirit into someone else.
Everyone needs me. Marcus replied. I barely sleep, and still every minute something needs my attention. Saving Rome is tireless work.
Make some time for the people who support you. Where would you be without Mother by your side all these years?
Marcus sighed. You’re right, of course. He opened his eyes and turned to the garden entrance, but it stood abandoned. The curtains, drawn fully open, swayed under a soft breeze.
“Domita?” He pushed to his feet, leaning on his cane. She’d spoken just moments ago, she couldn’t be far. He limped to the doorway, peering into sunset’s violet shadows, catching no glimpse of movement.
“Domita, where did you go?” he called, but the garden lay still.
He wouldn’t have thought anything of it before Quintus’s death and subsequent half-life in Marcus’s imaginations. Now this sort of thing sent a chill down his spine. If he could create a reflection of his son in his mind and imagine a life for him, couldn’t someone else do the same to Marcus? At times he felt that his life was just as illusory as Quintus’s, his actions the fevered dreamings of a distant God. In His unquiet sleep, He would lose details, and portions of the world would simply cease to exist. Not due to malice; just sheer divine bewilderment.
Anything in Marcus’s life could be erased as simply as one stray thought forgotten.
Calm down, Father. You’re letting the barbarians’ superstitions affect you.
“No wonder they live in dirt huts,” Marcus muttered. “What’s the point of building anything lasting if the world is ephemeral chaos at its core?”
Marcus pivoted on his good foot to face the office’s atrium entrance, opposite the garden entrance. Titus stood there, accompanied by Marcus’s loyal steward, Fidenas. Either Marcus had been too lost in reflection to hear their arrival, or reality had just suddenly dreamed them into existence behind him. In fairness, it was probably the former.
“Come in,” Marcus allowed. In his mind’s eye Quintus leaned into a half-perch against the desk, smiling at his old friend. “What news?”
Titus stepped inside, waiting until the steward left before beginning.
“The Suburra is under siege,” he stated. “As much as it can be, anyway.”
Marcus nodded, motioning for Titus to draw the atrium-entrance curtains. “I’ve heard. I already have Gaius speaking with the Praetorian centurions still loyal to him. They’ll know not to risk their lives for Decimus’s folly, and will pull back when we need them to. He’ll be by to tell me where they’re stationed later tonight. Is the German cohort ready?”
“They know what to do.”
“They are all loyal to me, but for the most delicate part there’s about a hundred I trust without reservation.”
“The rabble will have to wear the Praetorians down first. I need you in the street personally to make that call when it’s time. ” Marcus paused to collect his thoughts. “I’ve also received word that the rabble at Aventine Hill are at the edge of rioting. All ten thousand Praetorians could handle both mobs under Gaius. But Decimus?” Marcus cast Titus an inquiring look. In his own estimation Decimus would fail, but Titus had served under him for several years and would be a better judge.
“Not damn likely. He’s a coward at heart, more concerned with currying favor than doing what needs to be done.”
A familiar stab of anger lanced through Marcus, in sympathy with the ire in Titus’s voice. The reminder of Decimus’s negligence cramped Marcus’s stomach with hate.
“I know you weren’t there,” Marcus said, “but what did you hear of how Decimus led the troops when that barbarian monstrosity attacked? Did he make an effort to save my son?”
“He never got the chance. He wasn’t there.”
Marcus’s focus snapped to Titus’s eyes. “What do you mean? Where did he go?”
“He came with me to pacify the border village. He brought along three additional cohorts.”
Marcus’s breath came sour and short. He stiffened, and Quintus stepped to his father to comfort him. It was a strange feeling, to imagine the hand of his dead son gripping his upper arm in support.
“For a single village?” Marcus asked. “Isn’t that a bit much?”
“He claimed they were needed as defense against ambush. There were reports of a wizard in the area.”
A cold suspicion twitched within Marcus. His pulse stepped faster. “So he marched out to meet him? That doesn’t sound cowardly to me.”
“He took too many cohorts, fearing for his own safety, and left the castrum undermanned. But you’re right, this was an improvement. Previously when rumors of wizards were about, he’d stayed holed up in the castrum for weeks. Maybe Quintus was rubbing off on him.” Titus frowned. “Or maybe he was shamed by the comparisons people had begun making between them.”
Maybe he’d known exactly what he was doing. Marcus’s hand tightened over his cane.
Three sharp raps from the atrium side interrupted them.
“What now?” Marcus demanded. The curtains swept open to reveal his steward, a household guard holding a confiscated sword belt, and a large young man with greasy hair and darting eyes. Marcus placed the face immediately. Andreas, the idealist referred to him by Sextus. He’d reminded Marcus of Quintus when they’d first met. He looked to have deteriorated significantly in the past two days. But then again, everyone in Rome was looking worn down at this point.
“Sir, I come from the Suburra,” Andreas took a hesitant breath, similar to the way Quintus would just before committing to an uncertain decision. It piqued Marcus’s attention. “I, that is, we request reinforcements… sir, against the aggression of Paullus Pulcher and his Praetorian lackeys.” His hands clenched and unclenched rhythmically. He couldn’t seem to keep his eyes on Marcus, every few words his gaze darted to the side, as if to assure himself the guard hadn’t grown a second head.
“Leave the sword,” Marcus instructed, as he waved his men away. The guard placed the bound sword-belt on Marcus’s desk and left with the steward. Andreas’s shoulders relaxed marginally, but his eyes remained harried. He stepped inside the office, scanning all four corners.
“Who is this ‘we’?” Marcus asked.
“The Suburra. All of it. Oh.” Andreas stopped short, suddenly remembering something. He clenched a fist against his heart and dropped to one knee. “I’ve become a bit of a leader there. You said yesterday, or the day before, you said you stood against injustice if we would stand with you. We’re standing against injustice now.”
Marcus nodded, exchanging a glance with Titus. “You’re a leader in the Suburra now? How many men follow you?”
“I don’t… all of them?” Andreas rose to his feet and swept his gaze over the room again, as if a threat could have emerged in the few seconds he’d knelt. “I’m one of, well, they named us, not me, but I’m one of the Suburran Triumvirate.” Andreas winced after those last two words. “Right now we’re holding back the Praetorians, but we need weapons. Men too, on the outside. Someone to speak for us. Someone who still believes in Rome. I thought, since you said–”
Marcus held up a hand. A Suburran Triumvirate? What a droll conceit. Useful though–it was the sort of thing idealistic young men would flock to. “As it happens, we were just discussing how to best support our allies in the slums. It’s fortunate you came, the gods must be smiling on us.” Andreas twitched at that. Perhaps he wasn’t a pious man. Marcus made a note of it. “We have supporters among the Praetorian Guard, who are unhappy they’ve been ordered to brutalize their fellow citizens. They will tell us where the Praetorians will strike, and I will tell you so your fighters can be ready. We will soon have more men to support you, to strike at the Praetorians’ flanks and draw them away.”
“Yes, I can get you weapons. Sextus has a store of them, I’ll have him turn them over to you. Can I count on you in turn? As you’re freeing the Suburra, I’m fighting for the soul of the Roman Senate. I may need a demonstration that the people of Rome are with me. That I speak for all free Romans, not just a cadre of patricians and merchants. Are we truly together in this, the Senate and the People? Rome united?”
“Of course!” Andreas’s eyes lit up. “It’s about damn time that we become un-forgotten. Used, then discarded, and no one cares? No more. It’s time to make them care,”
“And,” Marcus interrupted Andreas, “you’ll introduce us to the rest of the Suburran Triumvirate?” Andreas didn’t seem entirely reliable. It was important to exploit all the advantages of this relationship as quickly as possible.
The fire in Andreas’s eyes dimmed. “Ah, well…” The man broke into a short pace. Quintus stepped out of his way, a fact only Marcus could see. “Yes. But we’re down to two. Cornelius was killed this morning. So it’s just… just me and Sura. I’ll…” Reluctance in his voice. “I’ll introduce you to Sura.”
“Good. I have to stay here, but you’ll take Titus to Sura. See Sextus first. Give us a moment, wait by the front entrance.”
Andreas nodded, then saluted, then collected his sword and left.
“How in hell,” asked Titus once Andreas left, “does someone like that end up as a ‘Suburran Triumvir’?”
“He tries things,” Marcus answered. He moved back to his desk, picking up Quintus’s letters. The ghost came to his side, a worried look on his face.
Titus quirked an eyebrow. “What does that even mean?”
“It means almost everyone simply lives out the lives of least resistance, because they don’t know what else to do. Andreas is one of those rare people who just keeps trying to do things anyway. Even though he doesn’t know what to do, he keeps trying different things over and over, and grabbing at any opportunity he can. I bet he fails constantly, smashing his head against walls, but every now and then he ends up in a place like this. He’s nowhere near the best person for the job, but he’s the one who put himself in a place to do it, so he’s who we have. You’re the same way. It’s why you’re here too.”
“Huh.” Titus considered this. “Sounds like you admire that.”
“It’s the only way anything new gets done in this world.”
I wasn’t like that, Quintus said with a sad smile. I just followed the script you gave me.
I loved you anyway. I could never not love you.
Marcus conveyed a few final instructions, which he suspected weren’t necessary–Titus knew what needed to be done. Then he turned to his true reason for delaying him.
“Titus… without going into detail…” Marcus took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. He banished the image of Quintus from the room with a thought. He couldn’t do this in front of him. “Was there any interference with the healer’s attempts to save my son? Or was he… his body… too mangled to be viable?” Marcus had stumbled in the sentence, a brief hesitation. It was unbecoming; he hoped Titus hadn’t noticed. Reality was what it was, and couching it in sugared words wouldn’t change anything. True Roman men spoke directly, without resorting to euphemisms.
“There weren’t any healers to try. Decimus had brought them all with him.”
The chill hand of suspicion gripped at Marcus’s heart again. “All of them?” It was ludicrous.
“Like I said, he’s a coward.”
“And the monstrosity rampaged through the officer’s barracks?”
“There were nothing but splinters left afterwards. Decimus was lucky to be away. With his habit of always secluding himself in his office, he would’ve been crushed too.”
Lucky. Marcus grit his teeth against the waves of ice coursing through him. He would read through Quintus’s letters again. Tonight. Every one of them. Small observations surfaced in his memory, hints that Quintus, in his youthful naiveté, hadn’t drawn together into a warning. Marcus had to seek out those hints, confirm them. Already they pointed toward a murky picture. A picture of treachery, and treason.
If Decimus had planned his son’s death, he would not live out the week.
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First line of next week’s chapter: “Eydis, I thought you should know… Cornelius is dead.”
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Word-count of chapter 23 deleted content: 219