32. Marcus Verus
Marcus Verus limped briskly to the Forum under heavy guard. His blood sang with vigor. Not even the plague of nightmares could sap him of his strength today. One abscess had been excised from Rome’s body last night, and soon the rest of the infection would be burned out.
Senators milled in the Senate Hall, grinding apprehension into agitation. No man sat, the seats on the stepped tiers pushed aside for senators to huddle in clumps and gesture broadly. Larger groups bulged out into the central aisle. Everyone had heard of the disaster at Ostia. All ten grain ships, lost, less than an hour from harbor. Still no clear word on what had happened. How it had happened. The rumors were impossible.
The rumors were true, and only Marcus knew it. He’d seen the pillars of fire in his dream. He’d warned the Emperor the wizard couldn’t be allowed to live. This could have been prevented if Pius had only listened to him. Everything could be different, if only Emperor Pius wasn’t Emperor Pius and everything wasn’t as it was. “If only’s” are paralytics, he would instruct Tiberius. Leave them behind. Only action matters.
Despite the buzz and fretting, the robed men didn’t crowd the hall. Nearly half the senators had stayed home rather than brave the chaos of the streets. At the far end, Titus, still in bloody body armor, stood with arms crossed just inside the rear entrance. He’d positioned himself toward the Traditionalist side of the Hall. His form served as a grim monolith, a rock of stability in the uneasy churning of the Senate. He nodded deeply at Marcus. Marcus lifted his cane in greeting, hiding his surprise. Titus shouldn’t be here at all, never mind his grisly attire. Something dire must have happened, and Marcus didn’t like that he hadn’t been told what.
He started down the long central aisle to intercept Titus. Interestingly, he could see no trace of Emperor Pius. Nor Gaius, for that matter. A number of Marcus’s supporters moved to join him.
“Where’s Gaius?” he asked the approaching Cirro. It struck him that the youth was only a few years older than Quintus would be right now. Had Quintus lived, perhaps the two of them would have forged a friendship comparable to Marcus’s alliance with Gaius. He could almost see his son at Cirro’s side.
That image gave him pause. A desperate hope stretched a hand out to him. The barbarian wizard had worked a miracle for Marcus today. Perhaps the wizard could work another. There was so much of Quintus left in the world still…
The empty hurt threatened to open within Marcus again. He couldn’t afford the distraction right now. He stitched it closed with warm memories of Decimus twitching, and focused on the task before him.
Cirro shook his head. “I haven’t seen him, and I’ve been here for hours.”
Marcus frowned. Gaius should have been waiting at the Hall before the sun rose. The Praetorian guardsmen here would be much more pliable with their beloved prefect emeritus taking the lead. Perhaps he’d still arrive before the Emperor. Before it was too late. Marcus mulled over fallback options as he approached the center of the hall.
“When is the Emperor expected?” he asked. Uncertainty flashed across Cirro’s face. He took a stalling breath.
“The Emperor won’t be joining us today,” Paullus Pulcher proclaimed, cutting Cirro off. He perched at the back of the third tier of seats on the New Hedonists’ side, his voice daring challenge. It didn’t hold a trace of shame.
Marcus stared at the preening figure. “Rome burns and the Emperor is absent?” he asked, without needing to feign his incredulity. He’d thought better of Pius. He’d counted on it, dammit.
You can never count on a man lost to Hedonism, he would teach Tiberius. Not even to save himself. No matter who he was before. Hedonism consumes all.
“He is ill,” Paullus said. “He trusts Decimus to restore order.”
Marcus didn’t believe either statement. Frustration twitched in his jaw. If it wasn’t one damn thing, it was another. Without the Emperor here in person, Marcus’s next move wouldn’t be nearly as damaging. No choice. They’d reached the height of upheaval; it must be now. Paullus’s pronouncement provided a strong inception point. Marcus launched his initial volley.
“Then he is a fool. The city is disintegrating. Decimus is a failure. He doesn’t even dare to show his face before the Senate.” He made a show of looking about to search for Decimus. From the corner of his eye he noticed Titus breaking from his position at the rear of the Hall, motioning to him anxiously. Marcus pressed on; this was no time for hesitation. “I move to rescind Decimus’s command and re-instate Gaius as prefect of the Praetorian Guard for the duration of this crisis.” The Emperor would have forbidden it, forcing Marcus to formally seize power for the good of Rome. Only until the Emperor’s judgement wasn’t so compromised, of course. Marcus leaned back and met Paullus’s gaze. He let the faintest hint of a smile lift his eyes, taunting.
Paullus burst into brittle, mocking laughter. “Gaius? Gaius is dead.”
Marcus’s insides drained from him. Gaius dead? Not possible. The idealistic cuss was too stubborn to die. Paullus would say anything to thwart him. “I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true, sir.” Titus stepped quickly to Marcus’s side. Sweat-matted hair overhung a face shadowed with distress. “I saw him cut down. By the time we fought to his side it was too late. Using his last breath he charged me with holding the Forum Romanum, so the heart of Rome would remain undisturbed. My German Legion has kept order here since then.”
Marcus planted his feet, to offset the feeling of sudden careening. To switch course now would concede the reins of power to Paullus. For all the grandchildren of Rome, he couldn’t allow such a disaster. His mind raced.
“I grieve for my friend,” Marcus said slowly. “He will be remembered as a hero. It now becomes even more urgent to halt Decimus’s mistakes. I nominate Titus as interim prefect until the situation is resolved.” He clapped a hand on Titus’s shoulder.
Murmurs of surprise, equally approving and doubtful, rose around him. Titus’s chest puffed with pride. They stood at the center of the great hall, three risers of standing men to either side of them. Marcus smiled. This was the beginning of the end.
“No,” Paullus said, leaning forward. “You bring a traitor into the Senate! Fetch Sura!”
A swell of scandalized whispers arose at the accusation of treason. Titus’s countenance darkened. Marcus felt him twitch forward under his hand, but pushed the young man back.
“You better have cause for such claims, Paullus,” Marcus warned, even as something tickled his memory. That name, Sura. Why was it so familiar?
“Patience,” Paullus purred. “Ah, here we are.”
From the front entrance a lanky man swaggered into the Hall. Pronounced cheekbones, thin lips, and a sharp chin combined to give him a ratty look. He slid into the center aisle, taking up a position downward from Paullus. He wore the clothes of the impoverished and the attitude of the insubordinate.
“This is Sura, a leader in the Suburra district,” Paullus announced.
Ah, that’s right. One of the “Suburran Triumvirate” Andreas had spoken of. This was a problem. Marcus had to discredit him immediately.
“Why isn’t he in chains?” Marcus demanded. “Rebels have no right to freedom.”
“Sura has been an agent of mine, informing me of the goings-on in the Suburra for years. Tell them what you saw, Sura.”
The oily man smiled. “The Germans are traitors. Their entire cohort has gone rogue. Last night, when our Suburran fighters rushed the Praetorians, the German legionnaires among them turned their swords on their fellows. Stabbed in the back–”
“Liar!” thundered Titus, over rising tumult in the Hall. “You dare?!”
“How else could half-starved plebs overwhelm the Praetorian Guard?” Paullus asked.
“This is beneath even you,” Marcus replied. Here lay the exposure he’d feared, uprooted and dragged into the light. He could manage this, though. “You think this Senate will believe the words of a gutter rat over that of our heroes? That we’ll believe an entire cohort has simply lost their minds? These men bleed and die to protect us.”
A cheer of support from the Traditionalist senators around him.
“I saw it,” Sura spoke, cool in defiance. “A hundred people saw it, or more. We were there.”
Titus stepped past Marcus. Nostrils flaring and arms bulging, he took three menacing strides toward the man. “I won’t hear one more lie from your filthy mouth,” he growled. Sura looked up at him with steel eyes, a snarl curling his lips. A ripple of unease spread as men in fine togas edged away.
This was slipping out of control. Sura had to be silenced immediately.
“You’ve gone too far, Paullus,” Marcus declared. “Guards, take this Sura away for interrogation. We’ll get the truth from him yet.”
Sura’s eyes widened in alarm as two Praetorians stepped forward from the periphery. The man wasn’t a fool.
“Hold!” Paullus barked. “You haven’t heard the best part. Sura?”
The man backed up toward Paullus, seeking the aegis of proximity. He stopped when he bumped into the first stair of seating behind him. He glanced nervously at the approaching armed men. Then he stood straighter, seeming to draw strength from their presence. He clearly expected this to go his way. A bad sign.
Marcus saw the cliff edge approaching inexorably. He tightened his grip on his cane in preparation.
“The night before, me and the other leaders of the Suburra met to discuss tactics. We planned out the entire betrayal there, because this motherfucker,” a finger jabbed at Titus, “was with us the whole time, plotting it from the start! Said he work–”
Titus lunged with a roar, one grasping hand outstretched, the other at his belt. Sura sprang back, cat-like onto the raised step behind him, batting Titus’s hand away. Marcus pursued them, watching for interference, his blood surging.
“Stop him!” shouted Paullus. Titus bulled forward, dagger rising. Sura pounced back again, colliding with a senator. The old man flailed, falling, grasping. He went down in a flurry of robes, taking Sura with him. Titus was upon them in a breath. The two Praetorians lurched after him, dropping shields to prepare to grapple. The Senate erupted into shouting and disorder.
Marcus’s cane whipped out, cracking the leading Praetorian’s hand. Marcus followed-through behind it, forcing himself before the burly man.
“Show respect for your new prefect!” he snapped. He drew himself up, glaring imperiously. The Praetorian blinked at him in shocked confusion, hesitating. From behind Marcus, grunts of struggle.
“Seize them both!” Paullus yelled over the din. “In the name of the Emperor!”
Marcus looked the lead guard in the eyes and held his gaze. His voice rose from his inner sea of authority, deep from decades of leadership. “The Emperor has been compromised. If you hold love for Rome in your heart, you will restrain both Sura and Senator Pulcher, and hold them in a cell until this is resolved.”
The guard drew back, inhaling sharply. His eyes darted up, toward Paullus, then back to Marcus. Back, and forth again. Then resolve crossed his face like a drawn curtain. He drew his sword. He kept it pointed at the floor, but raised and angled slightly toward Marcus.
“With all due respect, I don’t think I heard you. Now get out of my way, sir, or I’ll be forced to remove you.”
Marcus didn’t budge. The point of a sword pressed into the Praetorian’s neck just below the adam’s apple, gently dimpling his skin. The man froze. To his left, and half a step back, his partner held a blade steady against him.
“Drop your sword, Natalis,” he ordered.
“But… the Emperor…”
“Drop it now.”
The weapon clattered to the floor.
The second Praetorian looked to Marcus. “I am a Verus man, as was my father, and his father. All of us here are loyal to you directly, or through Gaius. Even this idiot.” He lifted the sword from Natalis’s throat. “Right?”
“Y-yes,” Natalis stammered. He ducked his head to Marcus. “Sir.” The six remaining Praetorians of the Senate Hall converged on them.
“Excellent.” Marcus whirled around. A storm of chaos consumed the front half of the Hall. Private guards of both Traditionalist and New Hedonist factions struggled to rush into the building, jostling and scrapping with each other and the Praetorians forcing their way through the same entrance. Frightened New Hedonist senators pushed at the edges, squeezing out of the same doorway while cursing the guards entering. Stalking the top tier of risers, Paullus shrieked for justice and duty to the Emperor.
Marcus’s faction fared better. Traditionalist senators took up position behind him in loose formation. Below him, Titus completed a final run of stabbing motions, eliciting spastic gasps from Sura. Marcus took a step back and half-turned. Pride at the discipline of his senators filled him.
“As we all saw,” Marcus intoned, “today Paullus brought a false witness before the Senate. When confronted with the truth, the man attacked Titus. Our new prefect slew the man in self-defense.”
Nods all around. Titus lifted himself from the expiring form, failing to suppress a smile. Marcus looked to the wrestling inflow of armed men, taking in their numbers and calculating their composition. No good. He needed to know their loyalties.
“How many of the men out front will declare for me?” he asked, turning to the Praetorian who’d saved him. The man stalled, wavering.
“I don’t know. They mostly came with Pulcher. You should run. We’ll hold them back as long as we can.”
Marcus nodded, and motioned for his loyalists to follow him. “Your name?” he asked, before leaving.
“Quintus Gavius, sir.”
“A good name. I will not forget you.”
Out behind the Senate Hall, the many shaded shops and offices of Caesar’s Forum lay abandoned. No one rich enough to afford space there had risked leaving their manor this day. Marcus drew up his loyalist senators before the statue of Caesar astride his horse at the far end. He inhaled deeply, resting a hand on the marble podium. A reminder of what was possible for great men. The air settled thick around them, heavy with promise.
Marcus turned first to Titus, speaking under his breath.
“Titus, do you remember who else attended that Suburran war council with you?”
Titus shrugged. “I can find out easily enough.”
“Do so. They’re about to become very rich. Rally your men, and find me Andreas. We need him to counter Sura’s lies.”
Marcus looked out over the rest of his supporters. Strong men, all of them. Pillars of integrity, men of the military. They looked back at him with fierce determination, knowing this was what they’d been preparing for all along. Rome’s darkest hour. He saw Quintus’s ghost among them, raising his fist in support. Marcus nodded, and filled his lungs.
“This is the turning point.” Marcus spoke. “Every one of you must go now and gather your followers. Arm your men, arm your slaves. Most vitally, seek out every Praetorian true to Rome, every Guardsman you believe will join our cause and march on the Imperial Palace. Every other duty is canceled today. Take them from the Colosseum and the Circus, from the streets and the forums. Wake those who sleep, enlist those who’ve retired. Remind them of the failings of Decimus. Remind them of their love for Gaius. Gaius who must be avenged.
“I expect to see you all in Trajan’s Forum an hour before sunset. Today we determine who rules Rome.”
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First line of next week’s chapter: You’re back in the tunnels of Jerusalem when Eydis finds you.
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 32 deleted content: 759