31. Joah Verus
I woke at the bottom of an ocean of crushing atmosphere. I scrambled out of bed, thrashing upward for a surface that wasn’t there, before wakefulness fully settled in and I realized I could breathe.
“Dear, you should come see this,” my wife’s voice called from the manor balcony. There was nothing unusual about this. I’d been married nearly my full adult life. I took up my cane and limped to her side.
The sky pinked with sunrise. From the balcony I could see south past Rome, down the Tiber river, all the way to the Port of Ostia. This was also normal. A core of merchant vessels floated mere miles from Ostia, surrounded by naval protection. The merchant ships served as pedestals for great columns of fire that spiraled into the heavens. The military ships fanned outward from them uselessly, arranged like petals around blazing stamens.
I looked north, to the Via Flaminia. Uncountable barbarian hordes sluiced down that spillway, marching along the great road my ancestors had crafted. Crafted with Roman sweat and blood, for their own enrichment and the enrichment of their children. Now used by the enemies of civilization, stolen by animals that could never hope to create anything of comparable value.
“Save us!” the Romans in the streets cried in one voice. “Save us from the toil of administration!” they called to the approaching barbarians. They sank into their couches, guzzling wine and gorging on honey cakes. “Protect us, so we may enjoy our languor. Fight for us, so we need not suffer. Rule for us, so we need not bother.”
“Of course,” the barbarians replied in soothing tones, sauntering through gates thrown wide in welcome. “We ask so little in return. What use do you have for your ancestors, your gods, your traditions? You’ve fought for so many centuries, you deserve rest. Let us take up the burden of self-direction.”
“This is your fault,” my grandfather spoke, coming to stand beside me. He mirrored the bust in the family shrine. The stone flesh, the unblinking eyes. The unmoving mouth.
Except there’s never been a bust of my grandfather. Nor did this man look anything like him. This man looked like a Roman patrician.
“No,” I countered. “This happened because you were too sure of your dogma. Your generation was too slow to see the signs. You thought you could chide people into righteousness. You didn’t take the actions needed to keep our people hard. They slouched into hedonism under your scolding eye, and by the time I took up the reins, the Empire was rotten with it. I’ve done everything I can.”
“Your everything wasn’t enough,” my wife said from my other side.
The barbarians wormed through Rome’s streets, seeking the beating heart of my manor.
“Hypocrite,” my (not) grandfather spoke. “You’re just as guilty. You bring barbarians here and rely on them. The German legion acts as your fist. Not one man in ten among them had set foot in Rome before. Even Titus considers himself more German than Roman. No true Roman legionnaire would have fallen on his Praetorian brothers so quickly.”
White fury flashed through me. “Perhaps I wouldn’t have had to rely on him if you hadn’t stolen my son from me!”
“So blinded by your rage,” the spirit replied, his face solid stone. “You couldn’t even kill the true traitor. All that vengeance, wasted.”
“And who should I have killed, then?”
But there wasn’t time for an answer. My door smashed open. Barbarians overran my home, Titus at their head. The man smiled wickedly. All the events of the last week came crashing back into my mind. The sadism, the abuse, the crucified orangutan. My heart jumped to my throat, I recoiled in terror. The balcony’s parapet seized my waist to arrest my flight. I had to get away but it held tight, paralyzing, crushing, drowning, and there had never been anyone to help me–
–I scrambled from my cot, thrashing upward for a surface that wasn’t there, casting aside strangling sheets. I choked on air thick as honey, lungs burning, before I realized I could breathe this viscous substance. I sat in my cell, gasping, uncomfortable but alive.
This dream had been unique. For the first time I’d been someone other than myself. Marcus Verus–Sextus’s patron? I shivered, chilled by sweat-soaked undergarments. It was a dreadful feeling to be someone else.
At least this dream wouldn’t blur into my life. Five days had passed since the wizard nearly escaped on his flying monster, but I had lived through nine. Four of them ended abruptly, in terror and disaster, and I found myself back in my bed, the day undone. It was a grinding existence. I wondered if I would receive some shock at the end of this day, and have to live it over again from the beginning.
I left the Ludus as the sun clawed its bulk over the horizon. An empty world greeted me. Only the lingering scents of blood and flame hinted that men had once existed here. I struggled through the morning miasma, breathing heavily.
“Aurelius,” I greeted him, once I reached the temple. I couldn’t recall the trek through the desolate city. I couldn’t recall paying the elder priest or withdrawing to Aurelius’s private cell. Sitting on his perfumed sheets, holding his perfect hands, I found I didn’t much care, as long as I was here and protected. The world could sort out its vagaries without me; I had my own problems. “You’re a priest of Somnus. How can I tell if I’m awake, or just in a vivid dream?”
“Oh, if you have to ask, you’re definitely dreaming,” Aurelius assured me. A cheerful smile warmed his face. “You’re dreaming right now.”
That wasn’t anything like an answer I’d expected. Unease crawled over my skin. I needed some proof. “How can I tell? How would I know, if you weren’t here to tell me?”
“Joah, all of existence is a dream. Dreams are the only things of substance. Wakefulness is the illusion.”
Of course. What had I expected from an adept of the god of sleep? I’d come seeking a method to separate the real from the fictitious. A temple was hardly the place for that. I bit back a sharp stab of disappointment.
“Ah. Well, thank you.” I looked down at the soft skin of his hands, clasped in my grasp. Manicured fingernails made small crescents at the tips of delicate fingers. I paused. “Aurelius, how long has it been since I last came to see you?”
Aurelius raised a hand to graze his lips. He lifted one eyebrow, so alluring in pose he looked like he’d been carved from stone. A spark of desire ignited, the faintest stirring in my loins, in rebellion against the smothering malevolence of the city. “I don’t keep track,” he replied, “but probably too long.”
That’s not what I had meant, but if I could escape into him for an hour I was more than willing. I leaned forward, pressing my lips against his. He hummed a light sigh of pleasure, and arched into me. I moved a hand up his back, into his hair. I gripped his blonde curls as I parted his lips with my tongue. My other hand stroked his chest and I slowly pushed him down onto his back.
Later, our clothes long forgotten, we lay in each other’s arms and discussed our past lovers. My list was embarrassingly short. Aurelius, of course, counted lovers differently. I’d never asked him if I counted as one. I didn’t have the courage.
I ran the fingertips of one hand along his side as we talked, to take him in as fully as I could in the time we had. His chin nestled just below my collarbone, creating a pleasant buzzing in me as he spoke. I felt it instantly when his breath caught and his body tensed. Aurelius pulled away like I’d stung him, his eyes wide with fear. He locked his gaze to mine.
“Joah, no. Stop. You’re waking up.”
“What are you talking about?” I looked around the dim cell, confused. All was well. Candlelight glowed against lush hanging linens.
“Oh gods. I told you you’re dreaming. The world is in your mind. When you wake it’ll cease to exist. I’ll die. Please. I don’t want to die.” His voice trembled. I took his shaking hands in my own and noticed he’d become less substantial. Less there. Panic ran down my spine.
“How? Tell me what to do!”
“I don’t know! Go back to sleep. Try, hard. Sleep as long as you can.” Terror crawled into his eyes. “You’re killing us all.”
“Aurelius? Am I supposed to never wake up? Never see the real world again? I’ll die. I’ll starve.”
“Then you never should have dreamed me to life in the first place!” He blubbered now. “Don’t go, oh gods, please!” He curled his head down into my chest, terror contorting his body. “It’s all ending! I don’t want to die!”
The world grew thin; everything began to fade. I held him tight as he disintegrated, horror gripping me. What could I do? I couldn’t sleep forever. I had no choice.
“I am sorry,” I whispered into his hair, now pale platinum. Wisps of his tears fell to my chest, barely even there. “You must die so that I may live. Please know I wish this world was different.”
My eyes snapped open. The night air chilled, the stars blinked unimaginably distant through my window, and I lay alone. I shivered under my blanket.
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First line of next week’s chapter: Marcus Verus limped briskly to the Forum under heavy guard.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: When I was writing this back in 2016, I hadn’t yet actually decided how this chapter would resolve.
Word-count of chapter 31 deleted content: 0