Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
I woke slowly and turned to the sound of moaning. A girl was riding Theodore. He lay on his back. She rocked on top of him, her hands resting her weight on his chest. Her round breasts rose and fell and she sighed with the rhythm of her rocking hips.
Warmth spread through me, like a first glass of wine after a tiring day of travel. I watched until I heard someone calling my name. When I turned from the girl, I saw Hermes, that youthful immortal whom I thought had abandoned me long ago.
Once, Hermes had taken me to the cool spray of a waterfall where Hadrian buried the boy Antinous. He had hovered beside me as I looked down at Antinous’s peaceful face, pale and still beautiful in death, and then vanished without answering my questions. My nights since were dream-empty, the gates of horn and ivory closed, and I thought the messages were finished.
Now, he knelt beside my couch, his hand on my chest, his amused gaze captivated, as mine had been, by the girl across the room. His beautiful skin glowed gently like the winter sun, and his breath blew from him with divine warmth. Like his brother Apollo, golden curls framed his gray eyes. His youthful face lost its mirth. He glanced down at me with a terrible knowledge. His perfect form, contoured in white, slid past my eyes as he rose to his full height, and then he was gone.
I woke slowly and turned to the sound of my name. Theodore stood behind a physician who waved something steaming under my nose. It smelled peppery. I thought to push it away but couldn’t move my left arm. A plastered bandage held my shoulder.
“How do you feel?” the physician asked.
“Sore.” I was at Theodore’s house, and Gallus stood beside my couch. “Did you get the scroll?” I asked him. His eyebrows dipped in confusion as he glanced from me to the physician. I told him to pay the physician.
“No, Lord Tribune,” said the physician quickly. “The Prefect has taken care of that.”
“Give him the money,” I ordered, rising to sit and trying to sound stronger than I felt. “Take some incense to Ascelpius, and keep the rest.” The room spun, and when I tried to right it, hands pushed me back down.
When the physician left, a girl pressed a cup of a foul-tasting brew to my lips, and it slowly came to me where I was and what had happened.
Theodore had his slaves feed me. Once I ate, I sent for my guards. My first action was to punish the slaves who deserted me. My second action was to send a man to purchase an amulet, and for a little gold, a priest of Ascelpius would bless it.
“I know nothing about it,” Theodore told me later in response to my accusations. He sat opposite me on a chair with the same harmless demeanor he wore at the dinner the night before.
“The Patrician will think someone was sending him a message.”
“Would he be right?” wondered Theodore.
“This isn’t a trivial matter,” I scolded. “The attack was well-planned if poorly-executed. The lack of success doesn’t matter. If no one else is found, then your implication will be enough to condemn you.”
He straightened in his high-backed chair. It was a chair carved of cedar, with black insets on the arms. He said, “I don’t know anything about last night. But I know something of the Patrician’s enemies, who are yours also.”
“You know because you are one?”
“Every man has enemies, how much more so a man as great as your father? More than that, the Patrician’s made enemies of men who were once his friends.”
“Enemies like your father and uncle.”
He paused, which confirmed my accusation, before going on, “Atheists don’t like him, of course, because he’s Christian. The Christians don’t like him because he negotiates with German heretics. The senators don’t much care for him because he’s too close to the Augustus, and that’s the same reason the eunuchs resent him. And what Roman doesn’t hate him for allowing the Germans in Italy?”
“My father has been master of the Roman armies since I was born. He’s suffered a thousand wounds and killed thousands for the protection and prosperity of Rome—for her emperor, her senators, her gods. How can you think of anything but falling to your knees with gratitude? How can you imagine he’s ever done anything for his family when all that’s ever mattered to him is Rome?”
His eyes sparkled as if he knew a secret, and I felt as if my clothes had just been torn from me and I stood naked in a street. “The same complaints have been heard for years,” I added quickly, trying to recover from the odd feeling of embarrassment.
“There’s one difference.” He waited, as if I should know what he meant. “You, Tribune. You’re twenty, aren’t you? A man with the legitimacy of Theodosius’s blood, however diluted, is a risk. One who may be an atheist and undo the last hundred years is intolerable.”
“Your flattery’s wasted,” I remarked. “I’m merely a notary, a messenger for those who are truly important. My uncle orders me about like one of his boys, so you see there’s nothing for you to gain with me. My life isn’t nearly what you suppose it should be.”
“You have the blood of an emperor.”
“A dead emperor.”
“You have the mind of a statesman and the heart of a philosopher.”
“And those things, on my best days, serve the instincts of a wolf. I know quite well what I am, Prefect. I also know what I’m capable of, and it’s not treason.”
He puckered his lips in thought. “I wonder, Tribune, are you as innocent as you claim? Or does that even matter? Were you afraid? Your boy told me how you fought in that alley, that you didn’t run or even try to negotiate with them. Were you afraid? Paralyzed with fear? Are you a coward?”
“I fear nothing.”
“All men fear something.”
“What I fear isn’t in your power to prevent.”
“You don’t fear your own death?”
“Is that a threat? What makes you think I won’t inform the Augustus about your treason?”
“I’m guilty of nothing. I’ve told you what I see, not what I believe. You of all men wouldn’t confuse those two things.”
“A god visited your house last night,” I said, curious to see his reaction.
“They visit us all the time.”
“I was under the impression that you’re a member of the Church.”
“The way you talk about atheists.”
“If you’re not a Christian, you must be an atheist, since there are no other gods.” He gestured with his hand as if what he said were obvious.
“Then what of the god last night?”
“You mean, do I believe you?”
“I see you haven’t heard of my reputation.”
He rubbed his hands together and seemed to be examining the lines. Looking up from his hands, he asked, “Which god?”
He nodded and looked back at his hands. “Eyes can deceive.” He appeared amused. “Do you insist I take you at your word? Who’s your hero, Tribune? Do you have a hero? I’ve heard you have a passion for Greeks, one in particular.” I stiffened at the insinuation before he continued, “Hadrian wasn’t the worst of emperors, but he had the same misguided passion as you, and he thought himself a god. He even tried to make his own. You were trained as a philosopher, and I’ve never met a philosopher who believed in anything but his own cleverness. There are clever means to worship the old ways and the true one. It doesn’t matter. There seems no better way to condemn a man these days than to call him magician, conspirator, Pagan, or atheist.”
“I think ‘conspirator’ is quite enough.”
“That depends on the result. How many of our emperors began as conspirators?”
I admired his candor. “I’ll agree to this much: Rome belongs to the strong, not the righteous.”
“It occurs to me that Rome exists somewhere beyond gods. I don’t think either of us cares about the truth. Truth isn’t important. There are more important things to care about: it’s the strong that Rome needs, not the righteous. The one I trust to save my soul isn’t the one I trust to save my farms.”
I felt myself being slowly maneuvered, but I didn’t mind. His tone had little passion but great warmth, seductive like the sound of a babbling brook. The physician’s medicine clouded my senses and yet enhanced them, too. My shoulder was numb, though I could feel the pulse of blood there. I could smell the musky hyacinth in the garden, but Theodore’s features appeared blurry.
“I’m sure a man with such devotion to the traditions of Rome worries about what’s happening in Consistory,” he said. “Eunuch slaves are made senators. Bishops have their own courts that even the Prefects can’t appeal. Priests give their lands to the Church. Now the Church rivals the emperor for rents. And what about our sons? Virgil and Cicero believed they served the Muses. How can men who think the gods are demons teach our sons the verses of those who honored them?”
“Truth doesn’t matter.” Gallus stood behind Theodore. As usual, his eyes were focused on the ground.
My thoughts left Theodore for a moment and settled on my slave. He was absorbing every word, I knew, and would offer his opinion later whether I asked for it or not. He had stayed to help me, despite the threat to himself, despite the opportunity for freedom. Like a sliver, that uncomfortable thought worked its way deeper and deeper into my mind.
Theodore changed the subject. “You must resent your father.” Again, encouraged by my silence, he continued, “I know your father rather well. You, I barely know, and yet it’s already clear how unlike him you are. You have reverence for the past, but do you have the courage to fight for it? He was once a great soldier, but he’s becoming a negotiator. Maybe he’s fallen prey to the teaching of that monk, as if war were murder. What happens if all our generals believe that? We’ll be a race of slaves. Maybe we already are. We were right when we voted for war. Lampadius was right. This is no peace but a pact of servitude.”
“You said you weren’t an enemy of my father, but you sound like one.”
“There are those who would help you change things, those who care only about your devotion to Rome. Your father was the first to let the Barbarians into Italy. There are those who say he’ll have Alaric do the job his cavalry and intrigues haven’t. He’ll bring Rome to her knees, weaken her, and then take her for himself.”
“If he wanted the empire, he could have taken her a long time ago. He had the armies and a boy for an emperor. Why would he wait until now? He’s the son of a Vandal warrior who fought for Rome, and he’s protected her for most of his life.”
“This is about one’s place, Tribune. The discipline of Rome teaches us who our master is and who our servant is. The Barbarians are our servants, but the fear they once felt for us is gone. Your father took it away. There are those who can’t help but suspect your father of the worst ambition.”
“His mother was Roman. He was raised in the empire and fought for her for thirty years. Theodosius wedded him to his family and made him Master General. He’s been twice Consul, and was given the title of ‘Patrician’ two years ago by the Augustus. Like every other man who’s spoken to me about my father, you have a short memory.”
He rose to his feet abruptly. “I said there are men who accuse him, but I’m not one of those men. As I see it, this has nothing to do with the emperor and everything to do with the empire. Your father’s not guilty of treason but impiety, he’ll make a Rome that’s not Rome. I know you agree with me.”
“Why would I agree with you?”
“Because you aren’t like him. Because you worship one god and one god only. The one you’ve made.”
His steady gaze held mine for a long moment.
“Tell me where we get the men,” I demanded. “Where do we get the weapons and armor? Some of our legions don’t even have arms. I find it outrageous for any senator to spit and sputter about war when they—you—less than anyone support the levies.”
“I’ve heard that complaint from bureaucrats. I didn’t expect it from you. You’re a senator. When you inherit your father’s lands, you’ll have the responsibility of hundreds of slaves and farmers. You’ll have to find ways to convert your olives to gold, horses, clothes, armor in order to meet the levies. If you lose your workers to the army, who’ll bring in the harvest; how will you pay your taxes?”
“You’re a member of Consistory. You don’t even pay taxes. And, tell me, how many levies have you actually met? You and I will never have that worry. You owe that to the Augustus, not the Senate or the Church, and the Augustus owes everything to my father.”
“You can’t blame the failure of our army on the few thousand senators of Rome. Doesn’t Constantinople have its senate, too, and yet a fine army?” He paused to calm himself. He sat back down, and when he continued, his voice was again mild. “As senators, you and I have a more important concern than the Augustus, the Church, or the army. We must care for Rome.”
“My father’s not a ‘new man’ like the Minister.” Theodore’s elegant argument was affecting me, and reluctantly, I added, “He just honors a more recent past than many of us.”
“The Minister’s admired. That’s probably why your father gave him the office, but your father miscalculated, didn’t he? He thought Olympius would be another of his men, but Olympius has his own ambitions.”
“Minister Olympius is the one who convinced the Augustus to purge the army.”
“That was your father.”
“No,” I said. “My father’s a soldier. He’s a soldier first.”
“He’s become a negotiator. He put the Minister in his office in the first place. Nothing happens that he doesn’t agree to. Besides, why would he choose to give the world to a half-wit boy when he has his own gifted son? And to suffer the indignity of an ornamental post. Who would blame you if you hate him? Who would blame you?” He paused for a long breath and looked me over, searching for the words that would win me. “Of course you know the Apostate never saw a battle before his ascension, either.”
Men often invoked the name of Julian the Apostate when speaking with me. They knew I admired him, but I wondered whether they also understood that he was an idealistic fool.
He added, “He became a brilliant general. Only an ill-timed spear kept him from his destiny. What will keep you from yours? They’re waiting, Tribune. You know it as well as I do. Your father’s the only fool here. You’re not. At least I hope you’re not, because we’re both waging our lives on it, aren’t we?”