Stilicho’s Son – Episode 29

Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Historical fiction |

His brows rose with interest, and it felt as if I had taken a blow, but I told myself it wasn’t cowardice, only honesty that had me dodging his attack. “Tell us about that, Tribune. Are you content to serve in an office of no consequence? You’re twenty now. Do you prefer a dissolute life?”

“You mean if I had a choice?”

“We all have choices. Yours are well-known. You revere the Apostate. You admire Hadrian, who kept a catamite at public expense and then tried to replace Christ with the myth of the filthy boy. You quote the vulgar poetry of Martial as if he’s profound. You live the life of a sensualist and argue like a philosopher. Whether you participate in any boyish devotion matters little, since such…peculiarities seem to run in your family,” he sighed as if recalling some ordeal. “Volusian thinks we’re a fool.” He tapped the letter again. “You won’t make that mistake.”

“It’s good you see through his game.”

“Yes, but your old friend may win this game. His family is admired, respected, and has powerful alliances. You have not been nearly so careful. But you may be something else altogether. You’ve not the discipline to follow any philosophy, but you’re too rational to worship the gods. You’re superstitious. We see that.” He pointed at my chest, at the amulets of Asclepius and Demeter that hung there. “That leaves one thing. All-in-all, we believe you may be a Christian.” He studied me carefully. “It surprises us, too, Tribune. But because it’s possible, we’ve found it necessary to have this meeting. A young man should have the time to decide what he’ll be, but events may anticipate you. Have you considered that? Our question is this: why haven’t you met your father?”

“I find it odd that it should concern you.” 

“Our Patrician is a great concern to us. We call him friend as well as master, so when his son avoids not only a father’s request but a master’s order, we’re even more concerned. You’ve been ordered there for the invasion of Gaul,” he continued. “Are you afraid of war?”

“I’ve had business to attend to,” I said. “I’m sure you know of the lawsuit against me.”

“Yes, the senator sent his men to Ravenna. I met with them last week. It seems you didn’t make it to the law court, either. You have a taste for rape. If you were more careful, it wouldn’t be a problem at all. But you didn’t offer that senator to the City Prefect as a man who might want you dead. Are you so sure it wasn’t him rather than Lampadius?” He stopped himself short, shaking his head. “No, I won’t waste your time. We’re both quite aware of who’s responsible. Witnesses identified your attackers as Huns.”        

I couldn’t quite get control of the conversation. “That means nothing.”

“You should confide in us.” He was still leaning forward.

I felt my heart race, and I leaned back. “So,” I began slowly, giving myself time to think, “you’re not here to help me or my father. In fact, you feel no gratitude to him at all but only think I’ll betray him.”

“What affection can you still hold? His Huns tried to kill you. He wouldn’t be the first man to want a troublesome son gone, and besides, he’s more Vandal than Roman. You must see that. You must hate that.”

“The Augustus never had a thought that was his own. Don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m anything like him.”

“No, you’re certainly nothing like him.” He pursed his lips as if he tasted something foul. He shook his head slightly as if to dismiss a thought. “Your family doesn’t concern me. What matters is both propriety and the appearance of it. As the Augustus’s confidential minister, if we must choose, it’s the appearance that concerns us more. We won’t pretend you’re ignorant of the stories. However, what you probably fail to understand is how the stories about you are reflecting on your father. Our honorable Patrician, loyal minister of the House of Theodosius, is a servant of the one catholic religion. If, over the years, he ever entertained the thought of adorning his family name with purple, we’ve forgiven his lapse of judgment. But our history teaches that it takes only an ambitious man and a gold-drunk army to make a prince of even the most vulgar son. Any lapse in judgment our Patrician might show now carries a much graver threat. Do you understand?”

“I’m not sure I do.”

“Of course you do. Would you purge the ranks of ministers, the army, the temples? Would you be a new Julian, or are you simply a well-trained boy? If you wish to separate yourself from his treason, this is the time.”

He stared at me, and I stared back. The smoke from the lamps stung my eyes. The smell of his perfume stuck in my throat like over-ripe figs, and I felt myself sweat. To be honest or to lie would be to give the same answer. And yet, to say nothing, as I had from the beginning, would also be a lie. It wasn’t the Minister I hated as I sat in that room, but Father. His devotion to Theodosius was so strong that he was sacrificing everything—his life, his family, even Rome—to preserve the dead emperor’s dream. “What proof do you have?”

“The proof of his failure.”

“Failure isn’t treason. I’m sure you’ve never read Tacitus, but centuries ago he said Rome made peace only by making deserts of other lands. Like every other Christian, my father seems to think peace can be had now by making a desert of our own. But a corpse should be cremated in the ancient way, not laid-out like dead Christians are, for the maggots.” I stared across at the Minister, not knowing what I would say and then saying it just the same. “He’s bound to Theodosius, after all. He’ll do what’s best for Theodosius, what’s best for the empire, even if that means sacrificing Rome. What does being the master matter if there’s no one to serve you?”

“What about Theodosius’s son?”

“My father’s all that’s keeping the Germans out of Rome.” 

“Germans are already in Rome, Tribune. Have you forgotten who you are?”

“It’s a lie you’re constructing.”

“Will you die for a principle?”   

“Principle?” The word was revolting. “Men use principles as excuses. I’m not giving you excuses.”

 “Indeed not. You’re giving us nothing.” He straightened his tunic across his knee after calling for more wine. Once it was poured, he didn’t drink it but tapped the cup with his finger.

A long silence followed, while I grew more uncomfortable, and he grew less so. My thoughts were breaking into images that made no sense, but the truth was my father was a traitor, not because of Alaric or his own ambitions, but he was a traitor. He would leave Rome unguarded and ignore the imperial politics that might rob him of his family and his very life, all to feed his obsession with maintaining Theodosius’s empire.

He was a traitor to his family, to his honor, to Rome. He knew the Minister. He knew Honorius. If their plans were so clear to me, how could he be ignorant of them except through his own irresponsible need to believe the best? 

“I’d rather die than be like you.”

He looked at me strangely, as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t bring himself to speak he words.

“Who do you serve, Minister?”

“Our Gracious Father, His Excellency, Honorius, Forever Augustus. And who do you serve, Tribune?” When I didn’t answer, he said, “You should leave Rome today. Maybe we’ll learn whether you’re a coward or not when you face your first war. Your father should be back in Ravenna, but he’ll be meeting the rest of the Consistory at Pavia.”

“The Consistory? At Pavia?”

“The Prefects, the Master of Offices, the Imperial Lawyer, others, including your chief, Petrus. You know them all: your father’s men.” He smiled. “The Augustus will also be there. You should take the time to thank His Excellency for his charitable tolerance.” He rose abruptly. “You may leave now.” He made a gesture to the servant, who escorted the assistants and guards back into the room.

Glancing from the men at the door to the Minister, I rose slowly.

He stepped back, and the guards circled me. Although I still had questions, I had no opportunity.

Arsace walked with me as the guards escorted me from the palace. He was eager to know what transpired, but unwilling to ask. “He’s a cryptic man,” I said after we left the palace.

“What of the letters?”

“Ask him. He’s your master, not I.”

“That isn’t so—”

I slapped him. He stumbled but didn’t fall, so I slapped him again. “I’ve got no authority to relieve you of your office, but if you have a thought for your life, you’ll stay away from me. Do you know how little it would cost to have you buried where they’ll never find you?”

I spent the day wandering around the Capitol and the Forum, a dozen of my bodyguards and assistants following, but not the eunuch. Although I tried to enjoy the monuments of Rome, I thought mostly about the Minister.

Before dinner, I returned to my father’s palace and prepared to dictate a letter to Volusian asking him to begin a search for Gallus. I hadn’t seen my boy since before dinner the evening before, and I couldn’t believe he would finally run away. Someone had stolen him, and as my thoughts began to explore the possibilities, a fear I’d never felt seized me. I found it almost impossible to breathe, as if I were in a deep, small well, sealed off from air or light or even sound. Only my heart thudded in my ears and seemed to be slowing as my lungs refused to work.

My secretary shook me until I realized who he was. “Write what I tell you,” I commanded. Pushing the fear away, I dictated my letter. I thought of saying something about the meeting with the Minister, but the less I said to Volusian the better, so I kept it short and sent the messenger to Ostia with the warning that I’d sell him to a mine should he not return a response within a few days.

I spent the balance of the afternoon staring through a sheer curtain across a garden where three girls were pruning. Segetius arrived before dinner.

“Your meeting didn’t go well, Lord Tribune? I wish I’d been there.”

“I didn’t even know you were back from Ravenna. How are my sister and mother?”

He nodded respectfully. “Very well, Lord. Your sister was pleased with your gift, as only your sister can be.”

An image of Thermantia’s drawn face dimly brightened by a sad smile, came to me, and I nodded. “I’m glad,” I whispered. “I tell her every time I see her that an empress should show happiness to her people, but she tells me just the opposite. What do you think, Segetius? Should a ruler be happy or sad before her people? Which does her people the most good?”

“I’m sure I’m not the man to know the answers to such important questions.”

Nodding again, I let him not answer. It would have a been a question Gallus would have answered, and one we would undoubtedly have argued the answer to, but Gallus was not a servant in the way that careful men like Segetius were.

Segetius continued his report, “Your mother requests that you hurry to Ravenna so that she may see you before you leave with your father.”

I recognized my mother’s polite reprimand. “You didn’t miss anything except the Minister trying to intimidate me. He’s toying with innuendo, has letters written to me, but I’m not sure what he thinks he’ll do with them. He seemed more concerned about my father’s plans. What do you know of Pavia?”

“We were supposed to be there last week.”

“Yes, well, I’ll take responsibility for that. The Consistory’s meeting there, the Augustus, too. My father’s going to rally the cavalry at Bononia, and he’s trusting the infantry to my uncle at Pavia. You know Honorius isn’t given to war or speeches, so I can’t imagine why he and the whole court would be at Pavia. I can’t imagine why my father would allow it.”

“The Augustus would rather spend the days with his pigeons.”

His humor surprised me, and I encouraged him, saying, “You’d think the master of the world would outgrow his pets.”

“Maybe he’s going to try to impress the legions with his mastery of birds.”

I felt relief as I laughed for what seemed the first time in days, but then I quickly grew worried again. “Despite his station, the Minister has become my uncle’s most intimate advisor, yet he’s here in Rome.”

“The Minister’s an important man—at least one the Augustus must be able to trust, and one hears how he made himself valuable.” Segetius turned to look out the window.

“What do you mean?”

“Of course he’s responsible for His Excellency’s letters, but I’ve heard he has a stable of forgers, too, the best in the empire. They stay here in Rome; some say they work by lamplight in the necropolis under Saint Peter’s. He’s also managed to gain the loyalty of the Master’s Men, so much that they inform on the Master of Offices himself. With his forgers and the secret police, what is there that he doesn’t know or can’t make known?” I felt the hair on my neck rise and muttered to myself, “What he doesn’t know, what he can’t do, who he can’t reach…who wouldn’t believe him?” I gazed up at Segetius and asked, “Who wouldn’t believe such a man?” He only looked back perplexed. “They’re all my father’s men,” I said, feeling light-headed. “He said all my father’s men will be at Pavia.”