29. Marcus Verus
Marcus came to the end of his son’s letters. He’d done nothing but read them since Titus kindled his suspicion yesterday evening. He’d read through them all multiple times. His hands trembled.
Twenty-four hours ago, he’d secluded himself in his office. He posted guards, and refused all clients and petitioners. Turned away his wife and his children. Poured himself entirely into the parchments that made up Quintus’s only physical body. The one interruption he’d allowed had been the wizard’s translator, when she came to fetch a sample of his blood. She’d pricked the back of one hand and collected seven large drops in a cup.
The letters burned in his mind. Marcus didn’t have anything approaching proof. Nothing that would be accepted by a tribunal as grounds to execute one of the most powerful men in Rome. But he knew. He could see the shadows lurking in his son’s unsuspecting missives. The implications of events and alliances that Quintus was too trusting to notice.
Quintus had been murdered. Decimus was behind it. Marcus might be the only person in the city who knew. Who even could know. Only he understood the quirks of his son’s communiques, how a turn of phrase revealed a confusing order, how the conspicuous lack of news about a friend showed shifting loyalties. Every sign circled back to assassination, plotted by the top leadership of the German legion.
Marcus could barely breathe. Incense smoke lay heavy in the manor in an attempt to drown the biting stench of today’s monster. It did nothing. His lungs burned. His eyes burned. The world shook in his vision, focused on inked words now carved into his mind.
How had he not seen it before?
How many hours could Marcus permit Decimus to continue to live?
Marcus’s stomach clenched into a tight stone, a hatred that forced a gasp from his lips. He gripped his cane with both hands, hot rage pooling in his eyes. He wiped the tears quickly, lest they fall and mar his son’s letters. He couldn’t move against Decimus yet. He needed him to take the fall when the Suburra finally flared out of control. Marcus would burn him down eventually. Marcus would pack bright coals into Decimus’s mouth personally.
Until then, every breath Decimus took was another insult to Marcus’s son.
With trembling hands Marcus gathered up the thick stack of letters and placed them back in a small chest under his desk. He’d come to think of that chest as Quintus’s true resting place. Wheezing against the pain behind his ribs, he locked it, then rested his elbows on his knees.
He couldn’t close his eyes. Stared at the floor instead. The fury raged in him, jagged and hot, a vortex of flame and glass shards. He had to vent it, or it would kill him. A choking knot rose in his throat, pushed up into the back of his mouth. It burst from him in a wretched, broken wail.
Marcus bent his head and sobbed rage. He wept the thorns of his heart.
When the storm passed, a charred void remained within. Embers glowed on the floor of Marcus’s chest, waiting for any gust to flare them again. Marcus gripped his knees, breathing deeply. This would not do. He could not lose control of himself at this stage. Too much depended on him.
He rose to shaky feet, then crossed his office one limping step at a time. A covered lump lay half-hidden behind a tall scroll case in the corner. He drew the white cloth from it, revealing a barbiton. Marcus picked up the large stringed instrument, its long twin arms curving out like horns. This was his most private weapon. The one he used in war against himself.
Marcus took it into his garden. Only the ascending moon lit the lush space. He bypassed the central fountain, worked his way to the stone bench near the back. He settled onto it, leaning one shoulder back against a manicured elm. He set the instrument’s base on his lap and gazed out into the garden as he tested and adjusted its strings.
Eventually he would have to address the cavity that had been carved out of him. This was the same void that swallowed Antoninus after Faustina died, and vomited forth Emperor Pius. He couldn’t put that off much longer. But for tonight, Marcus needed to smother the rage that smoldered dangerously bright within it. Control first. He couldn’t repair anything if he couldn’t direct his own body.
Marcus struck a single note and let the sound linger. It died away slowly, absorbed into his verdant sanctuary. He took a deep breath. Along with the monster’s ill odor and the veiling incense, out here he tasted the bite of heavy soot. He struck one chord. The low tones rumbled smoothly across his skin. They drew out the venom that had settled into his bones, let him expel traces of it with each breath.
Marcus had discovered this power as a child, in a theater before a presentation of Lysistrata. As the cast and crew prepared for the show, and his grandfather launched into yet another stern moral lesson, Marcus heard the bass notes of a barbiton for the first time. Low, clear tones pooled at the back of the stage before washing out into the audience like an incoming tide.
They reverberated into Marcus’s chest, caused him to draw deep lungfuls of air and hold them, until the notes died away and he could exhale into their ebb. Love snared him before he knew what had happened. He scanned the auditorium, looking for the source of those tones as another drift swelled. Soon he found a man plucking an instrument that resembled a large lyre, long strings stretched over a deep belly. He watched as the strings bobbed and quivered, dancing beneath the man’s fingers. His grandfather’s words flittered over his ears unheeded. Marcus had heard them many times before. This stirring was new.
A slap caught him across the cheek. He blinked away tears, looking up at the frowning face of his father.
“Mind your grandfather,” he’d told Marcus, lowering his hand. “What is the lesson your forefathers learned?”
“For the good of Rome I must never seize power–even for the good of Rome,” Marcus said.
“Why?” his grandfather prodded.
“The urge to save Rome is almost always a false front for the urge to rule,” the young Marcus had answered. “The more I believe I’m doing what’s right, the more likely that’s the case. I will always think I am working for the good of Rome, because the flesh is deceitful. The only way to master the flesh is to uphold the principles that protect civility…” he continued to recite the old man’s creed, but his attention was only for the music. He bathed in long, flowing notes. Velvet vibrations filled him entirely, until even the stinging of his cheek became just a glowing warmth. This was what it meant to be sated.
In his garden, alone at the end of the day, Marcus played his soul. The void inside him didn’t dissipate, but it did radiate away its heat. Its coals condensed into hard crystals, waiting with calm, cutting edges. For now, he had peace.
In the deep shadows of the garden Marcus saw his son again. Quintus moved gently from the narrow paths and sat down by his father without a sound. Marcus’s lips rose in a soft smile. He didn’t falter. There was no shame in playing for the dead. He secretly regretted he’d never allowed this while Quintus still lived.
A movement drew Marcus’s eye. He turned, and caught his grandson peeking from below the branches of a large viburnum shrub. His hand faltered. Could he play before Tiberius? The notes died in the air. The boy may get the wrong idea. He was so young, and had much to learn.
After long hesitation, Marcus motioned for Tiberius to approach, and resumed playing. Tiberius came to him with small, hesitant steps. Marcus watched, plucking notes stolidly, as the boy sat down on the ground at his feet. Beside him, Quintus smiled proudly. A piercing tenderness within Marcus stirred, reaching out toward the last male scion of Verus. He’d neglected his grandson since Quintus had died. For months the grooming of the next Verus patriarch had fallen entirely to Domita. She was a fine woman, but Tiberius needed male direction as well. The boy was already entering his sixth year. Marcus had shirked those duties too long.
Marcus contemplated his options, as he approached the end of the movement. His grandfather’s lessons were vitally important. The need to be on guard against the seductions of the flesh and to uphold the principles of civilization. The sacred duty to keep the Empire strong against encroaching chaos and barbarity, to keep their enclave of mankind safe from the predations of an uncaring world. Unfortunately, all the old man’s instructions were born of an absolute prohibition against seizing power violently. How was Marcus supposed to teach that lesson while leading a coup?
The movement ended, and Marcus switched to a simple, repetitive, but pleasing melody. He didn’t have to impart every lesson tonight. He would start with something simple, and immediately applicable. He had time to work out the complexities later.
“Do you like this music?” he asked. Tiberius nodded. “This is called a barbiton. I can teach you to play it. Would you like that?” Tiberius nodded again, with growing enthusiasm. “You must promise me something though. You will never play it where others can see you. Can you promise that?”
“Yes grandpa. The barbiton is bad?”
“No. It is a tool, but it must be used correctly. You will be a Roman man. You will be one of the few who stand to protect mankind against the dark. You will have to be strong, or you will die.” Marcus expanded the simple melody, moved it into a lower key. “As a Roman man, you are permitted to take your pleasure in others, if it doesn’t interfere with your duties. But you will never become a tool for the pleasure of anyone else.”
Marcus’s fingers moved quicker, increasing the instrument’s pulse. “Roman men act for their benefit, or for the glory of Rome. Their strength is to be used for noble purpose. You will never let yourself be exploited for another’s pleasures. To become an entertainment is the lot of whores and actors and musicians. You will be admired for your virtues and your power, never for your ability to fulfill someone else’s desires. Do you understand?”
“Good.” Marcus relaxed into a more soothing rhythm. “You can, of course, always play for your own pleasure. It is one of life’s simpler joys. But never for spectacle. Never where others will see you.”
Rapidly approaching footsteps disrupted the night. Marcus stopped playing, waiting for the intruder to show himself. An instant later his steward bustled from around a hedge, fear in his eyes.
“Sir! Decimus Appius awaits you in your atrium. He demanded entrance in the name of the Emperor. It is urgent. Extremely urgent.”
Marcus’s eyes flared. Decimus. Here. The fire inside him reasserted itself, hot fangs biting into his heart. He forced it down, clamping an iron hood over the pit within him.
“Tiberius, go to your mother. There will be no more lessons tonight.”
“Go.” Marcus left the barbiton on the bench with Quintus, retracing his steps through the garden. He stabbed the ground with his cane as he walked. His hand formed a claw over the sphere of its head. His son’s murderer, in Marcus’s very home.
In the atrium Decimus dripped a red trail before the family altar. He wore full armor, scored across the chest, slick with blood. He paced, keeping his eyes on the ground, hands gripped behind his back. His scabbard hung empty, the sword conspicuously missing. Marcus sneered, then quickly blanked his face before Decimus noticed his entrance.
“Leave us,” he instructed the steward. He could feel the heat inside him rising up into his face and out across his shoulders.
“Marcus!” Decimus rounded on him. “Where are your guards?”
Marcus grit his teeth, then deliberately raised his eyebrows. “At their stations, as usual. You didn’t see those at the door?”
Decimus resumed his pacing. “Where are the rest? Haven’t you called them all in? Do you have any idea what’s happening out there?” The balding man reached the corner of the room then turned to follow its length. Marcus limped after him with growing venom as Decimus moved down the atrium, between the pool and the wall of Verus ancestor masks. The bloodied man stopped halfway, peered toward the manor doors as if he could see through them.
“Maybe you should tell me why you’re here,” Marcus said. He stepped to Decimus’s back.
“The rats are running wild. They’re rabid, they’re ransacking the city.”
“The rats you say? Of the Suburra?” Marcus’s gaze rested on the back of Decimus’s neck. He couldn’t look away. The pores stood out against pink skin. Greasy sweat filtered down from stringy hair.
“Yes, yes, but not just there. The slums of Aventine Hill are erupting too. Even the plebs of the Fields of Mars are rioting, like they have any reason to complain.” Decimus looked back at Marcus with squinting pig eyes.
“What about your Praetorians?” Marcus asked. “Where are they?”
“Don’t give me shit about the Praetorians,” Decimus said, lifting his head and squaring his shoulders. “They failed. They couldn’t even hold back Rome’s worthless rabble. What the hell good are they? You, you and Gaius, you made them weak. Disloyal.”
Marcus stood rigid, feet planted in Decimus’s bloody tracks. “What are you doing here, Decimus?”
“Seeking fucking shelter, if it wasn’t obvious. Any port in a storm. And it’s the storm of a century in the streets out there.”
Shirker. Coward. Murderer. Marcus tried to swallow his hatred, but his throat closed in a strangling grip. His heart lunged against his chains of control.
“So you left your men?” Marcus asked, his voice granite.
“There wasn’t anyone left to leave. The position was overrun. All we can do is wait out the night here.” The arrogance. Thinking Marcus didn’t know. Thinking him a fool. Marcus’s breath seared his nostrils. “You should barricade the door.” Decimus turned to peer nervously at the thick timber barring the entrance, took another stride toward it. “They’ll be here before you know it.”
Marcus flipped his cane around, gripping the bottom of the heavy ironwood shaft with both hands.
“Good,” he said, pulling back for a wide swing.
“What–” Decimus looked back, too late. The solid silver sphere at the head of Marcus’s cane smashed into his skull. It was aimed at his temple, but caught him square in the forehead as he turned. He fell back against the wall, the back of his head cracking. The funeral masks beneath him crashed to the ground. Eyes rolling, his hand grasped for a sword that wasn’t there.
Marcus swung again, backhand, the metal ball connecting just below Decimus’s temple. It crushed the eye’s orbital bone, snapped his head about sharply. Decimus crumpled to the floor, gasped to his hands and knees. He reached for the knife at his belt, dazed, instinctive. Marcus stepped over him and raised the cane double-handed above his head. His eyes wide, taking in every detail, his chest filled to bursting with flames.
He brought the cane plunging down into the back of Decimus’s skull. It split with a wet report, bright red jelly shot in a clump from the impact. The man dropped like a rock, nose crunching on the tile.
Hot acid ran searing through Marcus’s veins. His lungs heaved dry air that tore the moisture from his lips. He raised his cane high. Buried it again into the man’s head. The skull fragmented, jutting shards held together by stretched scalp. The muscles in Marcus’s arms and shoulders tightened into iron. He lifted the cane and brought it down, again and again. And again. He couldn’t remember how many times.
Brain matter splattered, tenderized among bone splinters. The family pool to his left flushed pink with blood, a small river of it running from what had been Decimus’s head. It jolted under Marcus’s blows, no longer recognizably human.
When the silver orb hit tile, Marcus finally stopped.
He braced himself on the inverted cane, gasping for breath. The body beneath him stank of rancid garlic. Sudden exhaustion drowned him, almost brought him to his knees. But there was still work to do.
Marcus withdrew one step. He straightened his back against the wall, feeling it crack in relief. An easing spread from it, washing through his body in waves. He breathed deeply. He felt a measure of release, a dawning calm. He would sleep well tonight.
He cleaned the cane’s head on his robes placidly. They were ruined anyway.
In a far corner, he saw a curtain shift. Tiberius stood almost concealed behind it, eyes wide.
“Tiberius. How much did you see?”
“I… I followed you from the garden.”
Marcus sighed, and motioned for the boy to step forward. “I was wrong. There is another lesson. Tonight you learn how to dispose of a body. Or, one of the ways, at least. Go fetch Fidenas.” The Verus steward was almost a part of the family. Marcus had trusted his life to Fidenas’s loyalty more than once, and it would be good for Tiberius to know he could rely on him. Come to think of it, this would serve as a good starting point for lessons in judging character and building the loyalty of important slaves. There was so much to teach. Marcus should have started long ago.
Tiberius inclined his head in the barest nod, and rushed off. He was a good boy. He’d become a good Roman, if Marcus raised him well. No better time to begin than the present.
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First line of next week’s chapter: All this killing is really starting to get to you.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: To me, one of the weirdest parts of Roman culture was how they treated artists.
Word-count of chapter 29 deleted content: 189