3. Marcus Verus
Senator Marcus Verus sat frozen, drowning in the Senate Hall.
“I return to my Emperor the First Blade of the Guard, to continue its divine service.”
The words came murky to his ears, distorted and unreal. He watched with unblinking eyes as the outgoing commander of the Praetorian Guard, Gaius Maximus, presented the Emperor with his sword of office. Marcus’s oldest friend was being stripped of his title before him, and all Marcus could think was that his son should be here.
Quintus Drusus Verus should be at his side.
The world came to Marcus Verus in a series of still images. Gaius striding away from the Imperial Dais, down the central aisle that bisected the high-ceilinged Senate Hall. His military sandals clicking crisply against the marble tile. Enclosed by six long rows of seats, three on either side of him, rising in three tiers, each holding a watching senator. Those on Marcus’s side grim. Those on Paullus Pulcher’s side smug.
Paullus Pulcher, right ankle crossed over his left knee, locked eyes with Marcus. The young leader of the New Hedonists faction sat directly across the aisle from Marcus. A smirk painted his punchable face. The ridiculous fringes of his robes dangled from every seam. He’d made his name as Rome’s Curator of Grain, and played up his image as a man of the people, deathly concerned for the poor and forgotten. The listless young men of the city made themselves preening fools imitating his style. To his right stood General Decimus Aetius, a pillar in hesitation, having just risen from his seat. With Marcus’s focus on Paullus’s mug, he saw only a stiff uniform from shoulders to knees, acting as an intruding frame.
A shift in the Senate. Now General Decimus Aetius stood before the Emperor at the center of the Hall. So close that Marcus could touch him with his cane. The general of the German legion, Legio I Minervia, looked more like a lapdog than a general. A weak chin, a hairline receding to the crown of his head. It was for his sake that the First Cohort of the German legion had returned to Rome, acting as honor guard. The additional eight hundred fighting men would reside in the city for the duration of the anniversary games. That new dynamic on the game board should have enlivened Marcus. Instead their presence drained his spirit. All he could see was what was missing. Everywhere he looked he saw his son. Quintus should have been with them.
Quintus had been unwilling to take a military tribuneship, at first. He’d been influenced by the corruption of Paullus Pulcher and his New Hedonists. He wore his hair shamefully long. He argued with Marcus that a tribuneship was no longer necessary under Emperor Pius.
“Not to hold office under that shrinking hypocrite, no,” Marcus had rebuked him. “But it is necessary for anyone who expects to command the respect of his peers, or face his ancestors without shame. It would tear open my heart to discover I’ve raised a coward rather than a man. I don’t know how I could look your mother in the eyes again.”
Quintus stayed silent, eyes downcast.
“Son,” Marcus let warmth draw over his voice again, and placed a hand on Quintus’s shoulder, “everyone dies. But we can decide what we die for. A Roman man uses his life to build great things. Things which endure beyond death. He does not waste it in self-gratification, like a common pleb.”
Marcus clenched down on the throbbing ache in his chest. He tore his eyes from General Decimus. He focused on the side of the emperor’s face, tracing individual curled hairs. They shone with oil. Emperor Pius had never served in the military–had never developed the habit of shaving. He spoke words that came indistinct and jumbled to Marcus’s ears. He pressed the sword of office into Decimus’s hands, the sword that had just been stripped from Gaius. Marcus’s eyes dropped to General Decimus’s hands. Hands that lacked the callouses of a warrior. Where had those hands been, when Marcus’s son had needed them?
Marcus fought the incoming deluge, the sea of pressure crushing his chest. Decimus’s duty had been to protect Rome’s holdings, not to tend the lives of his soldiers. He spent the lives under his command as needed. Rome was eternal and sacrosanct. Men were small, fleeting things, and there was no purpose in a life lived for fleeting things.
These words ran through Marcus’s mind every night. Words to comfort, words to inspire. Words that had grown teeth. After uncounted hours Marcus would rise and wander his manor in the dark. It hurt to think, it hurt to breathe. Every night the wine cask looked a bit more tempting.
And what had it all been for? Marcus Verus watched his plans unraveling like gutted intestines at Paullus’s feet.
Applause broke out, cracking through Marcus’s fugue. Decimus rose and strapped the sword to his waist. Emperor Pius stepped back, looking relieved to be done with a chore. Slaves appeared from the ends of the room carrying gilded cups and decanters filled with wine.
“Let us toast our new Praetorian prefect!” Emperor Pius proclaimed, finally relaxing as he raised a goblet. He hadn’t even waited for the Senate session to formally conclude. Marcus stiffened as a hand touched his shoulder.
“Thank you, no,” he spat out.
“Sir, I have a message. Titus has arrived at your manor, he awaits your return at your leisure.”
The drowning tide rose higher. Marcus closed his eyes and sat still for several heartbeats, listening to the movement and chatter around him as wine gurgled into cups. Then he picked up his cane and forced himself to his feet. Tonight he would see his son laid to rest.
As night fell, Marcus stood in the center garden of his manor, cloaked in the shadows of its fruit trees. The sky above bled into a deep purple, pierced in several places by the first pinpricks of starlight. His fountain’s low murmur pushed away the lingering sounds of the city, and left him to bleed in peace. His wife stood at his side, holding his hand.
Domita was a stately woman. The first creases now showing on her face highlighted her elegance rather than diminished her beauty. She gave him long minutes, waiting for the moon to rise over their manor walls.
“Are you ready?” she asked, once the first shimmer of moonlight gleamed in the fountain’s waters. Marcus nodded. Domita unwound her fingers from his and left softly, a panther in her home.
Moments later the tread of boots approached from behind. Marcus turned to take in a tall young man standing at attention, his short hair thick and black as night. Titus, the commander of the German First Cohort. He’d often acted as Quintus’s second-in-command. An attractive man, with chiseled features and a proud physique. Quintus said the men adored him. It was plain that Quintus had adored him too, from Titus’s prominence in his letters.
Now that Titus stood before him, Marcus saw that Quintus’s interest had been well placed.
Honored Father, the letters always started. A proper greeting written in a strong hand, followed by news of the occupation, and queries into the health of his mother and siblings. Then the meat of the matter–alliances and politics. At first Titus was merely noted, but by the time Quintus had been at his command for half a year, word of Titus formed a sizable portion of each correspondence.
Last month we finally rooted out the last of the barbarians holed up in their Black Forest. Yet another “Black Forest.” It seems we find one near every village. You’d think they could come up with more original names. The battle was fierce, and we lost many good men.
Unfortunately we slew the barbarian chieftain in the fighting, but we lamed and captured alive the beast he rode. It was a monstrous bear, more than twice the size of any bear I’ve seen before, with six legs and a single long horn rising from its head. Its paws were matted black with blood. When Titus saw the beast, surrounded by our dead, his face darkened into angry resolve.
Titus knows a bit about these barbarians. You’d think General Decimus would too, he’s been out here long enough. But Decimus doesn’t take much interest in the locals. Titus says this is a mistake, as so many of our recruits now come from the surrounding area. He always eats with the men, and jumps into the banter. So it was Titus who realized what we had in our hands, when the men captured that bear. Apparently it’s a venerated beast, a symbol of the barbarian’s martial prowess.
The next day, when we marched into the barbarian town they call their capital, we didn’t just bring their chieftain’s body for display. Titus dragged in the bear and took it before their town hall. He looped a thick rope noose around its neck and our men hoisted the beast over the main entrance. It struggled massively. I was worried the hall would collapse under its thrashings.
The barbarians watched grim-faced as life fled the beast. There were only the old and the children left, and a handful of women. The soldiers cheered wildly, and Titus led them in ransacking the town hall’s cellar. We feasted on pork and beer that night. Titus left the bear hanging from the town hall for days, until the general arrived and ordered it cut down. This has made Decimus unpopular with the soldiers, but if he realizes it he doesn’t care.
We haven’t had any problems in that area since, and our recruitment has increased significantly. For myself, I’ve taken to eating with Titus and the men as well.
News of Quintus’s death arrived early in the morning, almost four months ago. A cloudless day. Immediately Marcus cleared his house of all visitors. He withdrew into his office and disinterred all his son’s old letters. He’d kept every one locked up safe. He reread them in order, lingering over every line. He turned them with gentle, trembling hands, careful not to damage them. Two years and two months of letters. When he finished reading he paused, eyes unfocused, hands resting on vellum. His son was etched into those pages. Every time he read them, his son’s thoughts and emotions were recapitulated in his mind. A faint echo of Quintus lived again for the briefest moment, a wavering reflection in dark waters.
He flipped to the first letter and began reading again.
When Domita came with food he nodded silent acknowledgement and ignored it. When it grew dark, he brought in candles. When he found himself waking up, after unknown minutes or hours, he resumed at the last line he could remember and continued on. Every time he came to the last page he flipped back to the start and began again. After a while the words became strange sounds in his head, their meanings murky, bringing up swells of emotion that threatened to drown him. The ink entered him through his eyes, and laced his bones with black weight. He became the vellum, his son the pen. He flipped the pages over, began again. Reading the blank spaces where the words had been.
When he awoke in a sick bed the following evening, Valeria had refused to let him near the letters for a week. Now he only read one each day.
During those readings, in the theater of Marcus’s mind, Quintus’s affection for Titus had become Marcus’s own. Seeing the real man before him was odd, his form made of flesh rather than ink. He took up space, depth as well as width, and looked back into Marcus just as Marcus looked into him. His son had called this man ‘brother’. At a first glance, he looked the part. Drifting just below the sorrow, Marcus felt something akin to a smile stirring in his chest, if smiles could be made of warm knives.
Titus carried an urn in both hands. He presented it to Marcus, and bowed his head deeply. “Sir,” was all he said.
Marcus accepted his son’s ashes. Then he closed his eyes and waited, letting the churning foam of grief subside to a navigable level. When he judged himself ready he opened his eyes, took a breath, and began the final leg of his son’s journey.
He gathered his two daughters and his grandson and led them through the heavy front doors. In the dark street outside a small entourage held torches, anticipated the family. Marcus recognized them as sons of his most influential and important clients, sent tonight as a show of respect. Further back lurked the professional mourner he’d retained. Together with Titus and four Verus house guards, the group formed a small procession.
Marcus continued on, letting them fall in behind him. The streets were quiet tonight, the mob quelled by the influx of soldiers and the promise of tomorrow’s feasts. His cane punctuated every other step on the stone walkways with an echo. He followed the same path they’d used during the public funeral procession months ago. That had been an extravagant affair, with hundreds of mourners and performers. Incense choked the air, and the braying of trumpets and crashing of cymbals could be heard for miles. The pageantry went on for hours, with an oration at the forum, and a feast outside the mausoleum. Marcus had walked at its center, his body rigid, his head held stiff. Anything less grand would have been a slight to his image, and an insult to Quintus. A paltry funeral procession could be interpreted as Marcus disowning his son. Even the thought of that made him grow hot. He had spared no expense that day.
This, however, was not a funeral procession. This affair was simply to inter Quintus’s ashes with his ancestors. They walked in near silence, accompanied only by the mourner’s slow lute notes and impassioned murmuring of poetry. Marcus limped through the emptying streets at a reasonable pace, alone with his thoughts.
Marcus had done the right thing when he’d pushed Quintus into his Tribuneship. Rome’s strength was in Roman men. Not barbarian recruits and foreign allies. The New Hedonists thought they could live on the spoils of empire without any labor or sacrifice. Marcus would not acquiesce. He demanded his son fulfill his duty to the common good. Every parent should do the same. But there were too many shirkers, too many who saw that they could dodge the risk of losing their own child by counting on their neighbors to do their part. Marcus and his Traditionalist supporters were buckling under the strain of holding Rome up on their own. Already the legions at the edge of the empire consisted of more barbarian troops than Roman soldiers, more loyal to their purses than the Eternal City they’d never seen.
Marcus understood the New Hedonists’ sickness. He craved their simplistic morality. Protect the ones you love from danger. Do not think of the consequences two generations down the line, when Rome is held by foreign powers or sacked by treacherous barbarians. Simply be relieved that you did not send your son to his death, and let the rest be damned. Marcus wanted his fucking son back. He hated the cowards, hated their besotted sons and wanton daughters.
He should just let them sink into their own filth. Let their corruption pile up around them until the gods themselves choked on the stench. He’d be long dead by then, when the last of the good men had died or fled or just forgot to stay, and the wails of the craven filled the skies as society disintegrated about them. Everyone reaped what they sowed, let the hedonists reap their rotten harvest.
Their procession approached the south-eastern Capena Gate. Both inner and outer doors stood perpetually open, as Rome had long overgrown the confines of the Servian Wall. Beyond the gate, Marcus glimpsed a long line of wagons and carts, finally allowed into the city now that the sun had set. They creaked with hundreds of tons of supplies. Cloth for Rome’s tailors, slaves for her households. The city would absorb this fare and digest it during the daylight hours, turning it into the tools and arts of civilization.
Above the gate rushed the Marcia aqueduct, thrumming with a small river of lifeblood. Rome was an entity with a beating heart. Each night was a single in-drawn breath, each day a single exhalation. Marcus lived within a massive being that spanned centuries, a god sprawled across the earth. He would live and die as part of her body, in her service. He couldn’t stomach the thought of her withering away under the hedonist’s neglect.
The urn grew heavy, nestled in the crook of Lucian’s right arm. Quintus was the third son he had outlived. The life-flame of Rome was demanding ever more, and the burden kept falling on the same, too-few shoulders. Something had to be done.
Entering the gate, there came a momentary silence as the dirge ended. Croaking night insects mixed with the sound of posted Praetorian Guardsmen collecting entrance taxes. Behind him rose the voice of his grandson, now six years old, suddenly exposed by the calm.
“Can I have a coin for the beggars, Gramma?”
“May I,” Domita corrected him. The faint clink of her coin purse preceded the first plucked notes of the next movement, accompanying Ovid’s Consolation. Marcus looked back to watch Tiberius patter over to a beggar in a dark corner of the archway, a coin in each of his small hands. He had inherited his father’s good heart. He’d seen his father for the last time at four years old, yet he acted as if Quintus had taught him his philosophy of generosity. The boy dropped his first coin into one beggar’s bowl, then hurried to another with his second, full of enthusiasm. It was remarkable the things that bred true.
Tiberius was Marcus’s responsibility now. Marcus had a duty. He’d begun his rescue of Rome, and he would see it through. Rest came in death, and not before.
Marcus scanned the rows of wagons as they passed. Several were piled with sacks of grain, feeding the unending hunger of the city’s many mouths. But not nearly as many as there used to be. Good. Even after months of neglect, his plan had not fallen apart. That showed it had been a good plan, simple and sturdy, and entrusted to reliable friends. The loss of Gaius’s position as Praetorian prefect was a setback, but they still had momentum. A cleansing river still came thundering down the channel Marcus had dug, to sweep clean the halls of the Senate and the Imperial Palace itself. If Paullus thought he could divert it so easily he was in for a surprise.
The procession passed onto the Appian Way, one of the first arteries of Rome. Bitterly, Marcus considered the changed game board. The emperor had been worried enough to order General Decimus to bring eight hundred of his own troops from Germania, an “honor guard” to discourage dissention among the Praetorian Guard at the ouster of their beloved prefect. It was a good move, which meant it had been orchestrated by Paullus Pulcher. Likely in its entirety.
But Marcus had something Paullus lacked. Marcus had years in the military. Marcus knew that rank was only one aspect of command. Men’s loyalty had to be won, not demanded.
He clenched his son’s urn tightly in his arm. Just a few paces behind Marcus walked a man that had earned the respect of the German Legion’s soldiers. A man who called Quintus brother. Who had cared enough about him to travel from Germania and deliver his ashes personally into Marcus’s hands. If Quintus could speak now, Marcus suspected he’d confirm that it was Titus that held the true loyalty of the German First Cohort. Paullus and Emperor Pius were not nearly as secure as they believed.
The mourner had not yet reached the end of Consolation when the group came to a stop before the Verus mausoleum, just outside the city. A row of Verus ancestors, full-sized and carved in marble, stood sternly at the side of the great road. Just behind them, the mausoleum’s stone doors had been unsealed in advance of Marcus’s arrival. A guard stood at the threshold, more an honorary position than due to any need. The road was well patrolled this close to Rome.
“Titus, come with me,” Marcus said in a tone that made it clear no one else was welcome inside. Marcus stumped his cane twice on the ground. “I don’t have a free hand for a torch.”
Together they advanced carefully into the crypt. The tight walls consisted entirely of sepulchral nooks, thick with the urns of the long-dead. Torch light surged around dusty pottery, probed innumerable corners, spurring unruly shadows into dizzying patterns.
This would be tricky. Up until now Marcus had only involved his most trusted friends in his plan. Those whom he knew hated Emperor Pius’s slide into decadence and corruption as much as he did. He knew little of Titus, and had never considered recruiting him. One didn’t involve anyone in a conspiracy to dethrone the emperor unless he was vital.
But now Gaius had been neutralized, and Paullus Pulcher moved quickly to consolidate his power. Rome teetered, Marcus’s last son was dead, and the world hung upside down over his head like a sword ready to fall. They were all damned if he didn’t act. He would have to take a risk.
Marcus limped through a doorway narrow enough that he had to angle his shoulders, into a room where most of the nooks stood empty.
“Were you there when my son died?” Marcus asked, taking the last steps to Quintus’s final resting place.
“No,” Titus answered from behind, “I was pacifying one of the unruly border villages. I returned the day after it happened. The officers’ quarter were still in ruins, as the men were repairing the palisade. None had slept yet.”
“A single monstrosity did all that?”
“That’s what they say. Larger than several villas, and writhing in and out of existence, whatever that means. It left no body after they killed it. The locals call it a ‘narragansett.’ There are many records of accounts, if you want to read them.”
“No.” Marcus heard many of the bodies had been pulped, every bone crushed to splinters. He didn’t want to know the details. “Did you make the barbarians pay for their actions?”
“Dearly.” There was a ring of nasty satisfaction in the voice.
Marcus nodded. He set the urn into its niche, beside the urns of Quintus’s two brothers. The first urn, a small one, for the infant Marcus Annius Verus IV. They’d called him Marcus Aurelius, their “golden one”. The second urn, larger, for Numerius who fought sickness his whole life and finally succumbed at twelve years old. Now the third for Quintus, the largest urn of all. Three clay vessels, growing in height like steps, where all that remained of his sons.
That weight ground down on Marcus again, threatening to smother his resolve. He cast about for a distraction.
“How goes the subduing of Germania?” he asked.
For long moments silence lingered behind him. Then a rustling sound. Marcus turned to see Titus on one knee, head bowed.
“Sir, maybe I shouldn’t be saying this, but I was very close with your son and… Sir, the Emperor is strangling us. I don’t think he cares about us out at the edges anymore. We… that is I…” Titus looked up, and met Marcus’s gaze directly. His eyes held fire, burning with a passion that Marcus hadn’t felt in his own chest in months. It stoked the warmth within him in sympathy. A memory of Quintus came unbidden. His son, proudly marching north to Germania, to earn his station. To make new allies for the family–strong, determined men.
Titus gripped his right fist in his left hand, in a manner more akin to anger than pleading. Quintus’s voice cried out in triumph in Marcus’s mind, as if he knew the words that were coming next.
“Sir, something must be done about this Emperor.”
Well. That made things easier.
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First line of next week’s chapter: After Titus had finally left with his emptied wagons, I gathered up the remains of my dignity and went searching for Zia.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: In his feedback to this section of the novel, Ed Bryant mentioned that “You can tell the Romans in movies are speaking Latin, because they have British accents.”
Word-count of chapter 3 deleted content: 2100