Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
His face went slack. He took my compliment like a defeat. “I’ve heard you lost your nerve,” he replied, sitting back down. “Don’t lose your humor, too.”
“What about the Ceionii? Do you believe the lies?”
“Alaric’s in northern Italy demanding gold or he’ll march on Rome. In the last year, three different men have declared themselves emperors in Gaul. Even so, your father was prepared to desert us and go off to Constantinople—”
“There’s only a boy between us and the throne. This is the perfect time. Leave the Augustus here to fight in Gaul and send my father east. They can’t both leave, but should they both stay and give up the chance while the eastern Consistory gets its hooks deeper in the boy?”
“Every time your father’s had the chance to kill Alaric, he’s left him alive.”
“The Senate wanted war, but they hide their sons and servants from the army. They bribe the Consistory, when it’s their own lands they expect protected before all others.”
“Why does he let him live?”
“Look at you,” I pressed. “You have silver-plated whips and ivory hair combs, a dozen houses and farms in Italy alone. You have more beautiful boys to tie your sandals than we have soldiers in a legion.”
“Why does he let Alaric live?”
“Do you think he’d conspire with Alaric?”
“Maybe he can’t. Maybe it isn’t his loyalty that should be questioned but the army’s.”
“The Barbarian federates, you mean.”
“They’ve been our protection at the borders for decades. Why accuse my father of what we’ve been doing for a century? We wouldn’t have an army without the Germans. Even provincials and slaves aren’t enough.”
“Do you think I’m one of your ignorant boys?”
“Damn you, Volusian! What do you know? Your whole life’s wrapped up in pretty boys. What pact could he make with Alaric? How could he even trust him? He doesn’t want the throne.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want it for you.”
“You be careful. He still has thirty-thousand men.” We stared each other down, until he finally looked away. “The expedition’s been called off,” I said. “No one’s going east. We’re going to Gaul instead.”
My defensiveness embarrassed me. Although I had been defending my father’s decision to go East, I agreed with Volusian. I couldn’t explain my father any better than any other man. I rubbed my head, trying to force away the headache that was becoming a constant companion.
“You talk about your father as if you’re not your own man. Didn’t my uncle want me to begin my career with the Senate by becoming an administrator or some nonsense at court? His life isn’t for me. Instead, I’m an Imperial Companion in Ravenna. It’s a dreary little town, but with certain advantages that can’t be found in Rome. I avoid the unpleasantness of listening to merchants bickering over weights. Instead, I nod my agreement with the Consistory and eat in lovely gardens. One day, I’ll be in Africa, alone with all that gold. But you. What do you want, Eucher?” He sat silently beside me for awhile before saying, “I miss playing morra in the dark.”
Morra was a child’s game played with a challenger throwing open his hand at the same time as his partner. The challenger tried to hold out the same number of fingers as his partner. If they matched, the challenger won. The joke was that only an honest boy can play the game in the dark. The joke was that we had never played it.
“Are there no honest men in Ravenna?” I asked.
“Of course not, nor in Rome. I used to be able to count on you.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“You’re getting rather thick,” he sighed, pointing at his head. “Spending too much time with your slaves. I know about your boy there.” He drew away from me. “All of Rome’s talking about you. Bad business, Eucher. Bad. You’re worried about your father, but you should worry about yourself. Yes, he’s beautiful. Use him for what he’s meant for, but then leave him home. You talk with him in public as if he’s a senator. He sits among senators, and I’ve heard he even argues with you in the streets.”
“Where do you stand?” I demanded.
“Stand? With you, of course. You’re entirely too serious,” he added after having Lucius refill his cup. The pomposity left his manner, and his eyes were as hard as emeralds. His changed tone made him a different man. He was an eloquent confidant, the kind that I knew would one day make him a leader of men. I never doubted he would one day govern Africa, but for the first time since I’d known him it occurred to me that he might do it well. “Why do you take on your father’s burdens?” he asked.
“As his fortune goes, so does mine. Don’t tell me you don’t see that.”
“Damn, Eucher, we’ve always been pragmatic men. What’s happened to you?”
“You have no pride.”
“Pride?” he exclaimed with disgust. “Is that what this is? Just leave him home.”
“This isn’t about my slave.”
“This is entirely about him.”
“You of all men, to accuse me—”
“I know what to do with my boys,” he snapped, uncharacteristically angry, “and what not to do. You, who rattle on about our glorious history, about our customs, about our strength. Our strength is having the discipline to want what we have when we can’t have what we want.”
“That’s your particular strength, Volusian.”
His thick brows knotted over his wide green eyes. “It’s really very simple. You attend your boy as if you were that damn Jesus shielding his whore.”
“I see. You don’t think I’ll betray Rome, but I’ve betrayed you—”
“My boy has more education and twice the mind. I realize it’s a crime to judge a man on his merit rather than his family, but whose pride are we talking about, Volusian? He’s just a slave.”
“Give him to me. I’ll buy him. Fifty solidi, a thousand.”
“Surely you can think of far better reasons to hate me than mere jealousy.”
“By the gods, has the boy done this to you?”
“So the Consistory thinks I’m conspiring against the emperor. The Senate hates me because I lack their arrogance—”
“You don’t lack arrogance!”
“Who will the mob stand with against me?”
“Probably the Christians.”
The absurdity made me laugh. “Do I have any allies?”
“Of course. Of course.” He straightened his scarlet tunic again. He offered a nod of affirmation to end the unpleasantness. “I haven’t told you about Hermius,” he announced. “Lovely boy, though I confess not so stunning as yours.”
“You’ve given me a death sentence and want to tell me about your dalliances?”
“Death sentence? You should be in the theater. Such drama. Am I not your friend? Would I not help you? Do you think I’ve not already made plans for your safety? You have many rivals, and you’re making their case against you an easy one. You should appreciate my advice and listen to me. The time will come when you’ll need my help.” From beneath long eye lashes, he gazed steadily at me, and as I held those crafty green eyes with mine, I understood that he was among those ‘rivals’ he mentioned.
He reached for another fig. “As I was saying, soon I’ll breed the finest stable in Rome.” He laughed. “Naturally, you’ll have the first pick. But Hermius—Postumius sent him to me. Such a friend, dear Postumius.” He was looking at Gallus when he added, “Now with him, you share the taste if not the appetite.”
“What taste is that?” I asked, aware from his manner that he despised this man Postumius, and perhaps in the same way, me.
His lips spread and his smooth fingers played with the fig. “I have a guest joining us for dinner. You’ll stay, of course. Stay the week. The best room is yours, as always, unless you’d prefer to share mine.”