You’re back in the tunnels of Jerusalem when Eydis finds you.
The tunnels were charnel houses. The Jews kept the bones of their ancestors underneath the city. You can’t count the number of times you battled in the dark, flickering light casting grotesque shadows as the ancient dead lay in sepulchers around you. After the first time the corpses joined the fight, the legion preemptively destroyed all interred bodies. This was an unpopular policy.
It became worse when the Jews embraced the lost magic of Carthage. After that it wasn’t uncommon to stumbled into old caverns repurposed into sacrificial chambers, walls splattered with bloody sigils.
In one such subterranean chamber you came across vivisected bodies arranged in a star pattern. You didn’t have time to be horrified. As soon as the lantern light revealed them, the slick ground beneath you tilted. You thought it was just you. Briefly you felt mortification–you couldn’t faint here, before your squadmates. You’d never live it down.
It wasn’t just you. Your brothers behind you yelped surprise. Julius lost his balance, sent you and two others windmilling to the ground. The earth continued to tip, now at an angle too sharp to stand. The stone beneath you turned soft, slimy with mucus, and you slipped down, towards those ruined bodies. Yelling. The floor tilted further, the corpses tumbled from their places, panicked men slid uncontrollably toward the new down at the other end of the chamber. You dumped your shield, grabbed a slippery outcropping, jammed your sword into the ground. It seeped black ichor from the wound. The now-vertical floor undulated, a cyclopean gullet straining to gulp you down.
You hung on for dear life as the rest of your squad shouted terror, glided past you with grasping hands, down the vast throat of an impossible thing. The lanterns went with them. They shrieked as they were swallowed and crushed.
You clung in blind darkness to a surface of slime and rippling muscle. Breathing in tight gasps. Alone but for the unthinkable, hungering presence waiting for you to run out of strength. How long? How long could this be real? How long could you last?
“Andreas,” Eydis says, bringing you back to Rome. It’s dark here, and enclosed. You sit hunched and shivering. Maybe you’re still in Jerusalem, and Eydis has come to you? Her God can dream anything, after all. Can he un-dream Jerusalem?
You look up at her.
I’m worried, says her face.
“There’s no games at the Colosseum today,” says her voice. “We need those games to happen soon. Tomorrow, at the latest. Get out there and rally the people. Throw them behind Marcus. End this today.”
We can’t fail now. We’re so close, says her stance. She grips your arm and pulls to lift you to your feet.
I still don’t like you, say her hands and her fingers against your skin. But I need you now, and I trust you won’t fuck this up.
The gods say nothing coherent. It’s worse than ever before. They are a maelstrom of ranting and shouting in your mind. They’ve blurred into background noise, so much surf breaking over rocks.
You stand. The sluggish air shifts out of your way as you move.
I am gorged on life, says the air, but I won’t wait long. Do not tarry.
Eydis leads you out into the light of Rome.
You stand on platforms, and stairs, and boxes, and statue pedestals. You stand on all seven hills of Rome, and in every district.
You perform for the people the words Marcus has given you. Marcus has heard their cries! Marcus fights for the common man, against an apathetic emperor. Marcus will summarily pardon anyone and everyone who fights for Rome this day. We march on the Palace! When the corruption is burned out, Marcus will open the hoarded granaries of the Emperor and his cronies, and no Roman will starve.
You really want to believe him about those granaries.
You perform also the words Eydis added. Tonight’s victory will be celebrated tomorrow in the grandest day of games that Rome has seen in centuries. Fighting that doesn’t stop. Marcus Verus’s assumption of power will take place in the Colosseum, among the people, rather than hidden in the Senate Hall.
Marcus won’t be happy about that. You tell yourself you don’t care.
The performance grows. A gold ring is produced, engraved with Fidem on the outside, XXII within. You confirm that it’s yours. You accept the story that you gave it to an old beggar just a few nights ago. That is the story the crowd wants. That is who they want you to be. Alright, not a native of the Suburra, admittedly. But a war hero. More trustworthy than a gang-leader like Sura! You can pretend you are that man, for them.
The gods riot, jealous of the people. The gods wanted you to perform for them alone. But you’re done with them.
You perform for yourself as well. That you exist here in Rome. That you aren’t in Jerusalem, emptying unarmed men into red streets by the gallon. That you aren’t on the Tiber, emptying Rome’s lifeblood into the river by the barge-full. That you aren’t in the Suburra, emptying its people onto Praetorian blades, tenement by tenement. Only here, on this pedestal, before this crowd. At the end of it all, where the gods have been guiding you all along, and never mind their screaming.
You no longer know what the right thing to do is. All you know is that some actions gain you the approval of the gods. Other actions gain you the approval of Eydis, others of Marcus, others of the populace. There is no right or wrong that you can see, only performance for different audiences–and choosing whose approval is the most important for you.
You hate this world. You want a world where right and wrong are physical forces, to be seen and felt, and tested if need be. If you’re going to maim and kill it must be in the service of good, fighting against evil. Not as a performance.
You perform for Eydis’s God that you exist as a real person, worthy of His attention. It is a valiant performance. You can almost believe it yourself.
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First line of next week’s chapter: The hours kept growing heavier, the sky more oppressive.
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