6. Marcus Verus
Marcus lowered himself into the steaming water with a grimace. His ankle throbbed at the heat. After a minute it would start to loosen, and soon he’d be able to roll it without too much pain. He held his breath and slipped fully under the water. He lay just under the surface for a while, in that hot embrace, and fantasized of never coming up. Contemplated letting his weights drag him under, letting his breath out slowly, joining his sons. There was peace here.
But he had too much to do. Too much relied on him. Resting now would be a coward’s act. He’d expect it of a Hedonist, never a Verus.
A splash disturbed the murky calm as Titus followed him in. Marcus rose into warm air. They soaked in a small chamber, a private hot bath separate from the larger common room. Marcus sat up on the submerged bench, water coming to mid-chest, and motioned for a bath slave to bring them their breakfast of pitted cherries. Those deep red clots pierced the grey of the stone room, the only points of color in an area kept bare of ornamentation.
As they started in on the cherries, Marcus regarded Titus again. He’d spent yesterday evening and this morning evaluating him, but there was only so much you could learn in one day. Marcus reached further, drawing upon his years with his son. When Marcus conjured an image of Quintus in his mind, what did that image think of Titus? When Marcus layered on the dozens of letters, all those pages speaking of Titus, how did that change what Quintus’s spirit advised him? Could Marcus trust this man?
Quintus still suffered from the idealism of youth, but he had been taught well. If he were in this bath with Marcus today he’d be speaking of his friend Titus, eyes bright with excitement. Marcus could almost see him, in the water with them. See him as he’d been when he was alive. Take Titus as a client and use him well, the shade said. Harness his ambition to the Verus house and he’ll bring us greatness. Quintus would be proud to have found such an ally for their family.
“Titus, you knew my son, and you’ve served under Decimus for several years. What would my son would think of Decimus’s appointment as prefect of the Praetorian Guard?”
It was risky involving someone new at this late stage. Yes, there could be no gain without risk–but there was a difference between undertaking risk and embracing stupidity. For that reason Marcus’s bath slaves were always drawn from the deaf and dumb.
Titus popped a cherry into his mouth and considered this, chewing slowly.
“He’d say the emperor must not know what sort of man Decimus is, to appoint someone like him.” A drip of red slipped from the corner of his lips when he spoke, escaping Titus’s notice on his wet skin.
“And if the emperor did know, but appointed him anyway?”
“Then Quintus wouldn’t say anything publicly. But in private he’d complain that the emperor was a fool, and was harming Rome for what must be vain or petty reasons.”
Marcus smiled faintly as a rent opened in his chest. That did sound like his son.
Quintus had trusted Titus. Marcus made his decision.
“The emperor appointed Decimus because he fears me,” Marcus said. “He fears hard decisions and necessary measures, and wants only to while away his years in idle luxury. He lives off the labor of our ancestors, and burns down our children’s future with his inaction.” Titus grew still as Marcus spoke. “He thinks he’s safe now, but many senators still oppose him. Together we can make him afraid again, and force him to put Rome’s welfare above his own. Rome is greater than any one man, even an emperor, and we serve Rome first.”
When Marcus finished, Titus nodded once, slowly.
“That does explain a few things,” he said. He looked Marcus in the eyes, face firming into determination. “The answer is yes. I’m in.”
“Good man. Before I tell you your role, what do you know of Paullus Pulcher?”
“Very little. I know he’s a senator, and I’ve heard his name before, so he must be influential.”
“The Pulchers are a newly wealthy family. Paullus holds the position of Curator of Grain, a prestigious appointment, with a great deal of influence… but a difficult position to hold during times of famine. That difficulty has been exaggerated by my efforts.” When Marcus had considered his options for disgracing Paullus and unseating the emperor, he quickly realized his greatest weapon was Rome’s grain supply. As governor of the Sicilian province, Marcus controlled Rome’s regional breadbasket. “He’s lost quite a bit of popularity–the unaligned patrician families of Rome now distance themselves from him.”
“Not the emperor, though?” asked Titus. It was an important question. In the end only the emperor’s opinion mattered.
“Not yet. But already there are food riots. Unrest stirs in the streets. As the patricians see their holdings burned and their safety threatened they will turn further against Paullus. And one night, during a particularly bloody clash between the Praetorian Guard and the Roman mob, it will be discovered that Paullus has been hoarding warehouses of grain for himself, right here in Rome, and only releasing it very slowly at exorbitant prices for his own profit. A treasonous abuse of his position. He will be arrested, tried in the Senate, and exiled.”
Titus lifted his eyebrows in question. “You already have these warehouses in place?”
Quintus had been right–this man was far too clever not to be employed for a greater purpose. Marcus’s chest filled with a bittersweet pride. It had been too long since Marcus had poured himself into his son’s letters. He would return to them today, after Domita had retired for the night, and read them all again. Ensure that nothing had faded and that his son was still as alive as he could be, within Marcus’s mind.
“Preparing them was my first step.” Marcus replied.
“Paullus’s innocence won’t be shield enough?” Titus had raised a foot up onto the submerged bench, to pry grime from under his toenails.
“Innocence is inconsequential.” Marcus rubbed his face with water, to buy a moment of time to consider. He couldn’t yet trust Titus with the true extent of his plan. He’d give him the sanitized version, the same version he gave to Gaius Maximus when he’d recruited the prior Praetorian prefect. Speaking of assassinating the emperor meant death, and Marcus certainly couldn’t trust Titus that far already. That would be embracing stupidity.
“Or rather, innocence is only one factor among many,” Marcus continued. “I control a larger faction in the Senate than Paullus does. Weeks of chaos will magnify that. I had the prefect of the Praetorian Guard at my side, and he’d been ready to swear an oath in contradiction to Paullus’s. The Senate would vote on Paullus’s guilt, and I’d ensure the votes would carry against him. With Paullus exiled and the New Hedonists disgraced, the predominant forces left to influence the emperor would be the Traditionalist families. Emperor Pius would be forced to reconsider his policies.”
“Except now Gaius Maximus is no longer the prefect of the Praetorian Guard,” Titus said, switching feet. “And Decimus backs the emperor unconditionally. He may refuse to even arrest Paullus. Quite the coup.”
“A setback, but not the masterstroke Paullus must think it is.”
Titus looked up. “Paullus?”
“I doubt the emperor would’ve thought of it on his own,” Marcus said. He’d spent hours analyzing the situation yesterday. Emperor Pius had to be moving under Paullus’s direction. The emperor knew little of his generals, and avoided involving them in internal affairs.
“So how do I fit in?” Titus asked.
“You’ll harass the disaffected and then withdraw your men when they lash out. You’ll stoke anger and ensure the riots are bad–trespassing onto Palatine Hill, even threatening the palace itself. And if you get the opportunity among the chaos,” Marcus hesitated for only an instant, “you’ll kill Decimus and blame it on the mob.”
Titus’s eyes glittered with joyful malice.
“I was hoping it’d be something like that.”
An hour later Marcus entered a Senate Hall shaking with uproar. Men stood from their seats, some pushing their way down into the central aisle to yell more directly at their opponents. Marcus held back, listening to his family name alternately cursed and praised. Emperor Pius caught his eye from atop the Imperial Dais, slouching his way through this tedium. Pius raised a weary eyebrow to Marcus, as if to ask why he was so set on making his life difficult.
“You!” an accusation launched from the thick of the crowd. Paullus Pulcher stood rigid, thrusting a pointing finger at Marcus. The ridiculous fringes at his sleeve swung from the motion. Men parted from the axis of that thrust, clearing a channel between the two. “You did this!”
“I’ve done many things,” Marcus said, “and I confess quite a few of them have been done to confound you. Tell me, to which one do I owe my pleasure today?”
“He admits it!” Paullus cried. “He strikes at Rome itself, in his jealousy of me!”
“Treason!” came a shout from the left, answered with “Slander!” from the right, and conflicting shouts rapidly boiled over in the hall. Marcus brought down his cane on the stone floor three times, three resounding clacks signaling his faction to silence. They stilled and looked to him. Paullus raised a begrudging hand, and his followers died down as well.
Marcus planted his cane directly before himself and rested both hands on it. “Serious allegations,” he said. Whatever Paullus’s plot, Marcus could meet it. “You must have quite the case against me, to make such an accusation without fearing charges of defamation. I’d like to hear it.”
All eyes shifted to Paullus. The man smirked and ran a hand along those dangling fringes, a preening habit.
“I don’t need a case.” He stressed the last word like it was something vulgar, “In your arrogance you didn’t even bother to conceal your crimes. Everyone knows you destroyed a shipment of grain mere hours from Rome yesterday. Claudius was carrying out your orders when he sunk those barges.”
Ah. Marcus had prepared for this. Paullus stepped right into the snare.
“I stand by the actions of my clients, and none more so than Claudius. I’ve already been briefed on yesterday’s action, and everything was done according to the law. The owner of that grain had attempted to dodge Rome’s taxes, stealing from the emperor and the people. He then attacked representatives of Rome in an effort to hide his malfeasance. Perhaps you’d like to tell us who that owner was?”
“There are no taxes on grain during times of famine,” Paullus replied, dodging the question. A surge of angry agreements swelled in the wake of his pronouncement. “I can’t imagine you’d be ignorant of that fact, but the alternative is even worse. Which would you ask us to believe?”
“Traders are aware of these exemptions, and smuggle goods among the grain. To prevent the unscrupulous from exploiting a famine to shirk the law, anyone claiming grain exemption must present a seal from a sworn officer certifying he carries only grain. This shipment had no such seal. If in fact it was only grain, which I doubt, the owner was negligent in his duties and deceitful in his dealings.”
Marcus stressed the words “the owner.” From the right came a shout of “Cease the obfuscation–who is this owner?” The voice was Lorentius’s, one of Marcus’s faction. A bit clumsy, but he never missed a cue.
“That grain is needed,” Paullus said, ignoring Lorentius and the growing cries around him. “You should have made allowances for dire circumstances.”
“So little grain should never be so important, and that it was speaks volumes to your ineptitude.” A single outraged bark from Paullus’s faction, followed immediately by shouts and hisses. “Should I grow slack in my duties to cover your shortcomings?”
“Your callousness is criminal,” Paullus shot back, riding the growing din. “You could have seized the grain and brought it in. Destroying it was sabotage.”
“My man was entirely in the bounds of the law in destroying contraband.” Jeers from Paullus’s faction at this. “Perhaps you would like to take command of a unit facing armed opposition, so you can gain some experience in the matter, before second-guessing those on the ground?” A wave of hooting and taunts from Marcus’s side. Paullus was one of the cowards who’d never served in the military.
Paullus ignored that as well, and pushed forward. “You hide behind the law like it’s your mother’s skirt. You are guilty of moral negligence, regardless of what the law says.”
“The law is what makes us Romans!” Marcus snapped, with more bile than he intended. That Paullus, of all men, would accuse him of moral negligence was outrageous. “Those who feel themselves above Rome and disregard our laws are kin to barbarians!”
Marcus would have kept going, but the men of the Senate had now worked themselves into a cacophony. Marcus finally allowed himself to smile, a thin twisting of his lips that he knew infuriated Paullus. It felt good to tear at that pompous prick again. Every dart of contempt Marcus cast at him lifted a weight from his own shoulders.
The percussion of spears striking against shields smothered the shouting clamor. It wasn’t a loud sound, comparatively, but it meant the emperor wished to speak. The last voice died abruptly before the third shield-beat struck, as every man turned to face the emperor’s dais.
The emperor sat higher than before, frowning. A line of Praetorian Guard stood behind him, and two pairs of Guardsmen stood to either side. At the rear of the dais the golden statue of Victory rose from a marble pedestal. Ten feet tall, it portrayed the Goddess with her wings stretched to a fourteen-foot span, holding a sword low in one hand, and lifting a laurel wreath high in the other. When the emperor stood it appeared, from certain angles, as if Victory was crowning him with gold laurels.
“Who was the owner of this grain?” he asked, irritation souring his voice, his eyes on Marcus.
“His name is Gnaeus Avitus of Ostia,” Marcus stated, “a direct client of Paullus Pulcher.”
Whispers rippled through the Senate, and Emperor Pius sighed. For Paullus to fail to supply a certificate of tax exemption for his client reflected poorly on his patronage. As the Curator of Grain, it made him look downright incompetent. For his client to attempt to smuggle the shipment anyway indicated either Paullus’s desperation or his failure of leadership. It had been worth every coin that Marcus had paid to ensure that certificate was “lost” en route to Ostia.
Marcus glanced at Paullus. The man kept his chin held high, anger in his eyes. “I cannot be held responsible for every careless action of those under me,” he said.
“Spoken like a true Hedonist,” Marcus replied.
“Marcus,” the emperor said, “for the remainder of the year, no grain or other foodstuff is to be destroyed for any reason. Make sure your men know before this day’s end.”
Marcus inclined his head. “As you command.”
The emperor turned tersely to Paullus, an impatient parent. “I can’t let this mar my Games. The final grain reserves will be opened. They’ll need to be replenished from abroad. How do you suggest we fund that expenditure?”
“As this crisis affects all of Rome,” answered Paullus, “the burden should be spread among us equally. A temporary tax levy is the fairest solution.” Paullus scanned the room, and let his gaze fall on Marcus. “We cannot tax any product of agriculture without worsening the famine, therefore I propose a tax upon precious minerals mined from the earth.”
“Absolutely not!” said Marcus, snapping up his cane and taking a step toward the emperor. “Nearly half the mines still in operation are Verus holdings, this places an undue burden on my family.”
Paullus’s eyes gleamed. That son of a bitch had planned this. How long had he been waiting for an excuse to hamstring Marcus this way?
“Some would consider it more than fair, considering your hand in the matter,” Paullus said.
“Paullus, that’s enough,” said Emperor Pius. “Your suggestion is well received. It will be so.”
Marcus grit his teeth. Too quick. Had they planned this together? Paullus had too much access to the emperor. If he’d fully subverted Emperor Pius to his side, Marcus had less time than he’d thought.
Paullus tossed a smirk to Marcus. “What would you need that money for anyway?” he called, voice echoing in the hall. “House Verus can’t keep any male heirs alive to inherit it.”
A surge of heat. A flash of dream visions. Quintus fighting for his life against a barbarian strike. Quintus crushed by a shimmering monster, his body broken.
The last thing Marcus heard was Cirro behind him calling for him to wait as he rushed forward, fists clenched. He felt a brush on his toga, as if Cirro had tried to grab him, a second too late. Then all he could hear was the thrumming of rage in his ears, and the echo of Paullus’s slow laughter. There came a distant awareness of the stress on his bad ankle. He felt the fragmented bones grinding over each other with each step, and biting into tendons with sharp flashes. His fury burned away the pain, grew hotter for it. Marcus’s sight bore onto Paullus’s face. By Marcus’s fourth step Paullus noticed his advance, by his fifth a touch of fear had widened Paullus’s eyes. A pair of hands reached out from the edges of Marcus’s vision, missed him as he ducked and weaved around one final senator. With his seventh step Marcus left his cane behind to topple slowly backwards, as he launched himself at Paullus. The man’s hands were only halfway up. Too slow.
Marcus’s fist connected squarely with Paullus’s thin jaw, snapping his head around. Paullus stumbled back, found his toga front gripped in Marcus’s hand. Marcus pulled him in and stepped into the next punch, smashing his knuckles into Paullus’s nose. Paullus collapsed. Marcus held on and followed him down, landing on one knee and pulling his fist back once more. A pair of hands clamped over his wrist, a set of arms wrapped around his gripping arm, another around his chest, and all together they hauled him back. He struggled briefly against the fellow senators holding him, but their grip didn’t waver.
His hearing returned first, a flood of shouts crashing over him. Marcus watched as two men helped Paullus up. Grim satisfaction at the site of gushing crimson from Paullus’s nose, staining the front of his robes. Marcus’s own pain was a distant afterthought–the ache of his knuckles, the burning grinding scream of his ankle. It would pass.
“Evict him from the hall!” came the emperor’s shout over the senatorial mob.
The guardsmen ejected Marcus onto the Senate Hall’s front steps, as respectfully as circumstance permitted.
Below him and to the left stretched the plaza of the Forum, already thick with morning traffic. Government buildings and temples crowded each other as they jostled to monopolize space around the beating heart of Rome. Further on, at the end of a wide avenue running from the Forum, stood the great Temple of Venus and Rome, itself overshadowed by the gigantic Colosseum rising behind it. The clamor of hundreds of citizens and slaves about their business spilled through the valley like a river bursting its banks. Sharp barks of criers punctured the general din continually. The sounds of civilization. Marcus massaged his fist, taking in the glorious day.
“Sir!” A boyish voice called from the Senate Hall’s doorway. Marcus looked back to see Cirro emerging from the dissipating Guardsmen. Cirro seemed vaguely surprised to find himself outside. He clutched Marcus’s cane, blinking in the bright morning sunlight.
“Here,” the young senator said as he held it out to him. Marcus took it with a nod. The cane was made of ironwood an inch thick, and topped with a large sphere of solid silver. Marcus had deliberately dropped it in everyone’s view before striking Paullus. One might argue that it would have constituted Assaulting a Senator With a Weapon if he hadn’t.
“Is there anything you need from the Hall?” Cirro asked. “Or some way I can help?” Cirro had been in the Senate barely a year, taking his ailing father’s place almost the day he’d returned from his military service. He held little power and less influence, but he brimmed with passion and stood loyally with the Traditionalist cause. It cheered Marcus to see there were still those among the youth that stood firm against the New Hedonists’ corruption.
“Cirro, today I’m calling in all debts owed to me by clients of Paullus.” It always took Marcus some time to revert from the stiff senatorial parlance when he left a session, but the adrenaline made it easier. “Return to the Senate and tell my supporters not to offer his clients any relief. They’ll have to draw from Paullus or his allies alone.”
“Yes, sir.” Cirro hesitated. “This is in retaliation for his last comment, sir?”
Marcus eyed Cirro. A tall young man in his mid-twenties, with trim brown hair and a slim build. His father must have been ill for quite a while if he’d neglected to teach his son these things.
“No, it’s retaliation for the tax on my mines. One replies to public attacks in kind. Grain shipments, mineral taxes, debts–these are political tools.
“His insult was a personal attack on my honor. If you try to respond to a personal attack with a political maneuver you will look like a coward and a fool. The only response to a personal attack is immediate personal violence. Never hesitate to strike someone who would try to destroy your image in the eyes of others. As a senator you have nothing that’s more important.”
“I see,” Cirro answered after a moment of silence, when it was clear Marcus was done. “Thank you.”
“Of course. Now go, there may still be a vote this morning before the games begin.”
As Marcus descended the steps into the Forum his waiting guard formed around him. Five lictors assigned to him by Rome, armed with fasces–ceremonial bundled rods–as well as five additional bodyguards he’d hired personally. He felt a flash of gratitude as they pushed the crowd aside for him. The searing pain in his ankle set its fangs in as the rush of adrenaline drained away.
He allowed himself to lean heavily on his cane as he worked his way home, but he drew the line at taking the tiny, shuffling steps that would be required to prevent further insult against his ankle. He couldn’t appear to be an invalid. Once he made it home he could lock his doors and sink to the floor and call for a salve. Until then he would bear down on the pain and walk with measured steps, feeling grinding bones at the furthest point of each stride.
This short journey would leave him laid up for the rest of the day. It was worth it. No one would see him falter and think him weak. There was nothing more important than his image. It protected his entire family. If anyone knew how precariously Verus house teetered, they would descend on them like starving hyenas.
If you like this story, you can vote for it on topwebfiction once per week.
Read next week’s chapter today by becoming a patron on Patreon. Also get author’s notes and deleted content.
First line of next week’s chapter: It didn’t take me long to regret having consigned the old barbarian to the ranks of the damned.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: Just how much and/or little actual power the Senate had left after the fall of the Republic was a source of constant consternation to me.
Word-count of chapter 6 deleted content: 768