35. Marcus Verus
“No, that isn’t possible.” The wizard’s translator sat by the pallid man, holding one of his hands in both of hers. He shivered under a blanket, even in the choking afternoon. His condition had further deteriorated under his recent exertions.
“You didn’t even ask him,” Marcus said, standing just inside the cell’s doorway. He despised this room. He thought he’d hated it before, but it sickened him to the core now that the outside world had corroded to match it. Rome herself felt infested and claustrophobic. The wizard’s corruption had escaped these confines. Marcus should end him now. And yet, there was one last thing Marcus wanted. One final request that would justify keeping the imp around a little longer.
“He’s taught me much,” the translator said. “Really, there’s no way to preserve your son in this world.”
“Ask him,” Marcus ground out.
She conveyed Marcus’s request in their coarse language. Asking if there was any way to retain the shade of Quintus that lived in Marcus’s mind, once Marcus passed away. A true way to transfer the thinking, feeling portion of Quintus from Marcus to someone younger. Someone who could watch over Tiberius in this spiraling, desperate world.
The translator spoke with obvious impatience. As if she had somewhere to go, or she didn’t feel this sort of thing mattered.
The wizard replied with slow words that further agitated her. She spoke back in incredulous tones, and they engaged in a short conversation that left her rolling her eyes. Apparently not even the barbarian wizards had figured out a way to command unwavering respect from their teenagers.
“Well?” Marcus prompted.
“He says it’s an interesting challenge, and he needs a moment to think.”
Marcus considered leaving. He didn’t have much time to spare this day.
But you made time for family. So here he stood, waiting, exploiting their evil again. It had to be the last time. A final monster for tomorrow’s games, and his son returned. Then he would wipe this stain from the earth. The black magics were just too powerful a tool to keep around. Too easy, too tempting.
After a period of deep thought the wizard opened his jagged mouth, letting croaking words rise from within.
“Perhaps,” the girl translated, “if you draw enough of God’s attention to your son, He will turn His eyes to him. Once a person is in God’s gaze, their life is far more substantial. Much greater magics can be worked.”
Interesting. The wizard had previously said that his god watched Marcus. If Marcus surrounded himself with mementoes of Quintus, really dove into his memories, and consulted with his shade constantly, would that draw the god’s attention to his son as well? That hardly seemed a sacrifice. Marcus already found it comforting to do so.
Don’t, Quintus’s shade warned him, when he paused to consider what Quintus would say of this. You have my son to raise as a proper Roman. You have your people to serve. I am fleeting, only Rome is eternal. You taught me that. You don’t have time for this indulgence.
There was never enough time for everything. His entire lifetime had been given to Rome, and it still wasn’t enough for all that needed to be done.
“If I do this–interest your god in my son–can you return Quintus to life?”
“Maybe. The legends are only legends. We could find out together.”
Well, that was something. He’d try it, if only he had more hours in the day. Or fewer things to attend to. What he really needed was to recruit someone to dive into Quintus’s life, to spend every waking moment immersed in it. Someone else that the wizard deemed interesting enough to have captured his god’s attention already.
“Very well. I need someone your God ‘sees’ for this. Do you know anyone else like that?”
The translator chortled, nearly choking to keep down biting laughter.
“Andreas. You can read?”
“Good. Stay here in my office, until I return for you. Read these letters. They’re from my son. In fact, read any correspondence you think would help you getter a better understanding of him. He was a lot like you. Idealistic. Noble. Can you do that for me?”
“My wife, Domita, will get you anything you need to stay comfortable. If you finish, just start again. Commit these letters to memory. Become them. Become the words on them. Become the ink markings that make up the words. Become the thoughts those markings represent.”
“Just reading, sir? No killing?”
“No, none of that. Just the opposite. A joining, a creating. A communion…
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it? The telepathy of language. The permanence of inked words. With this collection of vellum, you can relive the thoughts of my son in your mind. Even a thousand years from now, the thoughts that created these letters can live again, within a thousand men.
“I’m getting away from myself. For today, there is you. This is an experiment. If you do this well, I would consider adopting you into my family. I can make you my son! Would that interest you?”
“… …yes. Sir.”
“Excellent. This office is your office now. I’ll leave you to it. I have an empire to save.”
The sun sank slowly, pushing into the bloated world below. The heavens bruised under that mounting pressure. Long contusions bloomed at the horizon in veins of amber and coral. An expansive clot pushed through the city streets below–a clenched mass of bodies, spread across blocks, forced up cobblestone arteries. Marcus led them, every other step punctuated with a clack of wood on stone.
There are many reasons to fight. In the most practical terms, a fight shows which group is able to physically dominate the other. Often a fight is required because there are so many unknowable and chaotic factors in play that to determine the winner there must be a test. This is wasteful though. Ideally the eventual champion is so obvious that no combat is required.
When the Praetorians at the Imperial Palace saw Marcus’s approaching host, they found themselves firmly in the latter category. Marcus’s forces bristled with more than twice as many Praetorian blades, and the full German cohort marched in support. And behind them, the vast cancer of the mob. The defenders had a strong positional advantage, but the eventual outcome was certain. They would lose, and any who survived the fighting would be executed.
Marcus called for any true patriots among the defending Praetorians to lay down their arms. He promised clemency. Knees came to the ground and heads bowed in such number that not a drop of blood was shed entering the palace.
Not all fighting is merely to determine a winner. There is value in making your opponent pay a price, even when the outcome is certain. In refusing to kneel down and shut up. Take as many of them with you as you can on your way out, so they’ll know they can’t just take what they want unopposed.
Several squads of the most doggedly loyal Praetorians, standing guard before the Emperor’s private chambers, took this view. The Imperial Palace sprawled across most of Palantine Hill, a private forum unto itself. Vast, arched halls threaded together multiple gardens, multi-storied fountains, and even a small, personal stadium. The expansive portico leading to the Emperor’s chambers had been built to impress, not repel invaders. The last loyalist Praetorians found themselves vastly outnumbered and without walls on three sides. They fought valiantly and were killed quickly.
Marcus waited for their bodies to be dragged away before advancing on the gold-inlaid double-doors. He crossed marble tiles polished into mirrors, the soles of his sandals squelching on blood. He rapped against heavy wood with the head of his cane.
“Antoninus? It’s me, old friend. Unbar the door, won’t you?”
Scuffling and scraping noises from the door. Marcus waved back the dozens of men just behind him, their swords bared. Stay here, he motioned. Leave us in peace. He leaned against the door. Felt it yield, gliding on oiled hinges with barely a sound.
A scent of vomit wrinkled Marcus’s nose. He entered and found it hard to look upon the ruin that met him. Draperies torn from the walls lay in limp pools. Half-legible obscenities replaced them, scrawled in dripping ink. Toppled furniture lay scattered about as if a giant had shaken the room. A filthy mattress sagged off its shattered bedframe; a rip in the near corner sprouted bursts of down. The carcass of the wizard’s first monster sprawled against it, contorted by its own sinew. Days of exposure had tightened its skin, further accentuating the gnarled musculature beneath.
A croaking sigh beckoned Marcus to the balcony. He stepped over shards of pottery, the remnants of wine drums. He recognized the emblem of a vintner known for the strength of the opium in his spiced wines.
He limped past the partially butchered body of the wizard’s second monstrosity. Its entire back half had been carved away, revealing strata of sooty fat and well-marbled coal-dark muscle. Its alien flesh did not spoil or seep.
Marcus pushed aside curtains to step onto the grand balcony, overlooking the Circus Maximus. Emperor Pius sat slumped in a far corner. Marcus winced at the sight of him. The man had crowned himself with the inexpertly removed feather-mane of the third monster. Ragged black skin edged the flowing headdress. It wrapped his head and hung over his shoulders. He’d armored himself in the remains of yesterday’s insectile abomination. Great plates of the onyx carapace covered him from neck to ankles, clasped together with hooks and wire, jutting awkwardly as he sat. He wore nothing underneath. Each limp hand held a long, serrated spine. His elbows laid against his knees. The jagged weapons drooped to the floor.
“It’s funny…” Pius’s voice lumbered, a resigned monotone. He spoke without looking up. “This isn’t at all how I pictured it would be. I didn’t think it would be this quick. If you rose against me, I assumed you’d bring down the legions from the north. Marching at their head, over the Rubicon. There’d be months of fierce civil war, and great battles. It’d be very Caesarian and noble. This…” He shook his head. “This is more like Caligula’s assassination. A flash of murder and it’s all over.”
“It’s better for Rome this way,” Marcus said. “Less disruption, less suffering.”
“You’re sticking with that, then? Gods, you’re stubborn.” Emperor Pius tilted his head up, finally looking at Marcus. Locks of greasy hair hung flaccid over an ashen forehead. He stared with hollow, beaten-dog eyes. “Was I really that bad of an emperor, Marcus? Really?”
“Yes. The emperor is the moral heart of the empire. Rome cannot survive on a feeble heart. Did you know Quintus nearly reneged his military duty? My very son had to be goaded into moral fidelity. Where will our people be, when we’ve lost everything that makes us Roman? What separates the barbarian from the son that has abandoned his ancestors and gods? The Hedonists made aliens of our own children, and you never cared.”
Pius’s eyes glazed over, and his gaze slid back to the floor. “What good would my caring do?” He tugged idly at his grisly crown. “You aren’t free from blame either Marcus. You could have been there for me. When Faustina died.”
“I had troubles of my own. My brother and I were working to clean up your mess in Jerusalem. Numerius was dying slowly. You were a different man back then–stronger. I thought you would do right, for Faustina the Younger at least.”
Pius shuddered, as if kicked in the gut. “It was her eyes, Marcus. Every time she looked at me I saw her mother. She couldn’t understand why I chased her away. She always left crying.” A creaking noise rattled from his throat, the remains of a strangled sigh. “Until she didn’t. That was worse.” Pius leaned to one side, body pitching slowly, until his head came to rest against the balcony parapet. “How did you do it? How did you live on when Quintus was ripped out of the world?”
“Hate. Hatred of Paullus. Hatred of what you’d become. I fed my despair to it. I almost drowned, though, before that. That’s probably why Quintus was killed–to drown me. You should have repurposed your love, too. If you don’t repurpose your love, it’ll overwhelm everything.” Marcus pursed his lips. “You don’t know where Paullus is, do you?”
“A coward to the end.”
“Mm.” Pius rolled his head over, in Marcus’s direction, but looking no higher than his knees. “It’s good there aren’t more men in the world like you, Marcus.”
Marcus thought about this. He found the sentiment deeply saddening. It was a cold lake in a barren cavern, with no reckoning of light or life. The gods created men with love and hate to drive them. Marcus would rather have a whole world of such men opposing him, than Pius’s world of contented zombies.
“Perhaps,” he replied. There wasn’t any use wasting more words on Pius.
“I guess it doesn’t matter now anyway.” Emperor Pius sighed and pushed himself to his feet. “Shall we get this over with?” He raised the points of the long spines half-heartedly. His face remained slack. The sky behind him had darkened into an unbroken port-wine stain.
Marcus planted his cane. “I didn’t come here to kill you. I’ve left my men outside. It doesn’t have to end like this.”
A hot flicker of umbrage flashed in the emperor’s eyes. For a moment Marcus saw his friend Antoninus again, angry and betrayed. He was sure he could hold the man off for the several seconds it would take for his guards to come running. It would be good to have Antoninus back for that span of time again, to allow him to die as a true Roman.
The moment passed. The flicker faded from Antoninus’s eyes. The dull visage of Emperor Pius reasserted itself. “How, then?” he asked.
“You’ll turn over the principate to me in a public ceremony, blessed by all the gods. Then you’ll go into comfortable exile, under heavy guard, for the rest of your life.”
“I don’t expect it’ll be a very long life.”
Marcus shrugged. “As long as you care to make it. I won’t interfere.”
Pius studied Marcus’s face in the failing light. Then he turned to look out over the Circus Maximus, and the city beyond. Newly struck torches glimmered like will-o-wisps, bobbing over thousands of restless heads.
“You know you can’t end it like this,” Pius said. “They were all expecting a howling maelstrom of violence. They are primed for it. For it to end without climactic bloodshed will frustrate the mob. They need release. They will riot again.”
“I appreciate your concern, but I’m prepared. I’ll give them food and drink tonight. They’ve been promised more games tomorrow, and they’ll be the bloodiest and grandest in living memory.”
“It’s not the same. It won’t be enough.”
“We’ll see.” Marcus stepped to Pius’s side and looked out over the city with him. This was his now. It was his duty to save it. He felt the sky too close above him, pushing down relentlessly. It would be his shoulders keeping it back, until he could rebuild the columns to support it. Damn Pius and his ilk for letting them crumble.
He nudged the man’s arm with his elbow. “You don’t need those anymore, do you?”
Pius looked down at his hands. At the spines they held. He lifted his left hand over the railing and uncurled his fist, letting the spine fall away into the gathering darkness. He sighed, and tossed the other one after it.
“It was a stupid narrative anyway,” he said. He turned away from the city. Turned toward his den of vice with longing pulling at his features. “Do you think I can have more wine before we go?”
“Of course, Antoninus. You’re free now. Have all the wine you want.”
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First line of next week’s chapter: You exist in a cool bubble at the bottom of a hot ocean, sitting hunched over Marcus’s desk.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: I think I’m a bit of a hypocrite with how much I like scenes like this.
Word-count of chapter 35 deleted content: 471