38. Marcus Verus

Marcus held himself painfully still as the morning games progressed. He chafed at the frustration of sitting at the head of the Imperial Box, doing nothing, for hours. These were critical times, and there was only one of him. He should be shoring up his power. It was hard to believe the most valuable use of his time was to merely sit and be seen by the masses.

Yet every adviser and supporter insisted that the transfer of power must be public, and grand, and seen by all. Even in all his frustration, he knew they were right. This was the most important place in Rome for the next several hours.

Bestiarii hunted wild animals just below him. The Imperial Box seated four across comfortably, with room for Praetorian Guards at the sides, and the emperor’s attendant Vestal Virgin. Ten more men sat behind him in two rows, honored seating for his most powerful supporters. A cloth canopy provided shade.

Behind the Imperial Box seating continued upward in four tiers, all fully packed. Across the Colosseum, not an empty space could be found. Men crammed onto the benches and spilled into the walkways. Even so, the din of the Colosseum rang muted today. The crowd reflected Marcus’s mood. A blanket of pent-up intensity settled thick over everything, waiting for something to ignite it.

The seat to his left, reserved for Titus, lay annoyingly vacant. To his right, the soon-to-be-former-Emperor Pius slouched into his wine. Marcus couldn’t even privately discuss matters of state with his supporters, with Pius at his side. He had, at least, taken the time to launch his most vital orders before this ridiculous function snared him. Soon Libo would receive word to release any grain still interdicted in Egypt. Messengers rode hard to the holders of Marcus’s hidden caches in the Italian countryside, carrying encrypted messages. In days rushing wagons of grain would bring relief, the first of many.

It wouldn’t be nearly enough for everyone; thousands would starve this year. But it would be enough to give the populace continual hope, stringing them forward a few days at a time. Marcus would hold the city together until the next harvest. After that, his great project could finally begin. The re-ascendance of Rome.

A sharp change in the musical accompaniment brought Marcus’s attention back to the Colosseum. The bluster of horns died away, traded for the heartbeat-pounding of primitive drums. Slaves pulled netting over the top of the arena. Beneath them a scantily-clad young woman in barbarian costume emerged from a tunnel mouth, dancing across the sand. She spun twirling spirals, trailing rainbow feathers and bright beads of blood. Her arcing blood droplets seemed to fall slower in the viscous air.

It took Marcus a moment to identify her as the wizard’s translator. If she could perform the summoning ritual in his place, the wizard really had taught her much. She would have to be killed along with him.

A movement of shadows at the far side of the Colosseum pulled Marcus’s gaze. They shifted as a single mass. They kept darting away as he scrambled to lay eyes on them. The eerie presence fled from sight, swooping over the amphitheater. When it passed overhead, briefly obscured by the box canopy, a thrill shot down Marcus’s spine, straight into his groin. He gasped in excitement. Next to him, the half-lucid Emperor Pius moaned lightly.

“I’ll miss that,” Pius murmured.

The weird thing alighted beside the barbarian girl, drawing form and substance from the physical material of Rome. Immediately Marcus recognized the disfigured monster from Pius’s chambers. The black skin pulled tight over twisted muscle and snarled sinew. A being born in chains, its own body its restraints. Marcus’s breath came hot and shallow. He recoiled in horror at the throb of his obscene erection.

As he flinched back, yanking his gaze from the depraved thing, a knife plunging past his left ear, just a little too far forward. An explosion of pain erupted into his body. The knife point plunged into his pectoral, the blade scored three ribs as it descended and slit open his chest.

Marcus curled, lurched forward, flinging himself away. He shouldered into the parapet and sprawled to the floor. He gasped at the waves of white heat, clutched his robes tight over the wound. His hands weren’t immediately wet, so the bleeding wasn’t critical. Unless he just couldn’t feel the wet over the shock.

He rolled to his side, seeking his cane, his only weapon. Behind him senators wrestled on the floor amidst overturned seats, writhing and shouting. Marcus couldn’t tell who the traitor was. Two of his Praetorians waded in to separate the men. Two more already stood protectively over him, swords drawn.

No woman’s hand gripped Marcus. He peered through the pain, searching for the attendant Vestal Virgin. Realized too late she was gone. This was a planned attack.

All eyes in the Imperial Box focused on the scrum. Only Marcus saw the many figures rising from the stands just past it, like uncurling flowers in a field. Blooming steel as they drew daggers from opulent, fringed robes. Only Marcus caught sight of the caterpillar of armored men wielding bloodied swords rushing up the podium’s short staircase, murder in their eyes.

“Behind you!” he shouted, struggling to make his knees through the pain. He would live or die through Paullus’s final assault on his feet. “Turn around, they’re coming from behind!”


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First line of next week’s chapter: Within the arena, the winged monster shrieked and swooped.
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