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The guard Maximus had brought into the city with him was drilling in the palace square, swords and shields flashing light. Commodus stood at the window watching them, and Maximus watched him instead of speaking. He looked only mildly interested, as if the men were not a symbol of the five thousand men encamped just outside the city walls, obedient to the word of the man being given the throne he desired.
Marcus was dying in the room down the hall, his every breath labored now. Lucilla was still with him, as the two of them had been. Maximus had left only to follow, suspicious, when Commodus had slipped silently from the room.
"Fear is an extraordinary thing," Commodus said, breaking the silence, although he had not betrayed by word or glance that he had seen Maximus enter the room. "These men stand in the heart of Rome, surrounded by every possible luxury and pleasure, not an enemy in sight, and still they march, and form up, and labor under the sun."
"What you see is discipline, not fear," Maximus said, coming to join him by the window. Without great effort he identified the various men; he had hand-picked each and every one of them. Commodus might say there was no enemy in sight; he knew differently, and watched the Praetorian guard with a wary eye. Marcus Aurelius had been long away from Rome, and the guard had been Commodus's to oversee.
"Fear is at the root of it, brother," Commodus said. He had been calling Maximus so since the adoption. "But do not think that I am offering criticism," he went on, turning from the window. "Far from it; fear is a tool, to be wielded skillfully, and I am only admiring its dramatic results. Do you not agree?"
"It is a poor substitute for respect," Maximus said.
"Ah," said Commodus. "But respect is a difficult thing to earn. It must be tailored to every man. This man only respects the impeccably-dressed, this other only the brave in battle, that one only the learned. And yet it may be necessary to command all these men. Fear is more efficient."
Maximus looked at him narrowly; there was some strange note in his voice. "If a man obeys you out of fear, you must constantly labor to keep him afraid," he said.
"But surely that is not very difficult," Commodus said. "Consider, oh -- a man with a beloved family, let us say a wife and a son. Would he ever do anything to risk their health and happiness?"
Maximus pinned him against the wall in a rush, his heart pounding. "You go too far, Commodus -- "
There was a knife resting at his throat; in his fury, he hadn't seen it drawn. Commodus pricked the skin lightly. "No, brother, do not draw away; I am very happy to be in your embrace," he said, cupping the back of Maximus's neck with his other hand. Though he would be no match for Maximus in a fight of any length, he was no weakling, and from this position he was strong enough to hold him for as long as the knife would need. Maximus held himself ready, feeling the shift of muscle in the body pressed against his. Commodus was not a trained soldier; his arms would tire, and quickly.
"Dear brother," Commodus said, stroking his neck. "A quarrel between us would break my heart. The cost to Rome must be unacceptable regardless of the outcome. I am sure we can come to a happier arrangement."
"You threaten my family and put a knife to my throat, and then expect me to come to terms with you?" Maximus said, cold with scorn and rigid, one arm braced against the wall, his head never moving. "You would be better off killing me and letting my legions sack the city in revenge. Perhaps you could cower in a rathole somewhere and escape."
Commodus affected an exaggerated look of surprise. "But you steal the affections of my father and usurp my throne, and then expect me to acquiesce mildly?" His eyes glittered suddenly, all false mirth vanishing, and he leaned in so close to whisper that Maximus felt the breath on his own lips. "You would be better off dead."
Then Commodus leaned in and actually kissed him, a greedy nuzzling with lips and tongue that Maximus instinctively recoiled from, only to feel the iron grip on the back of his throat holding him fixed. "Then do it," he said, and pressed his lips tight against the teasing attempts to get into his mouth, repulsed. It was hard to believe even Commodus could be so depraved as to try a seduction on him, even if it was only an attempt to cast him off-balance.
"What then of poor Julia? And your son, Serranus, is it not?" Commodus said. "Who would protect them? Besides," he said, shifting his hips forward so they were pressed still more closely, "I would so much rather fuck you. Would you do that for them? To save their lives, would you lie down in my bed and let me have you?"
"I would kill you first," Maximus spat. There was a hardness beneath Commodus's tunic, hot and palpable through the fine linen they both wore; even so, when Maximus tensed for an attempt to get the knife, the hand cupping his neck tightened, and the blade pressed warningly.
"Even if I took you in my mouth in return?" Commodus said. The suggestion was so obscene Maximus felt hot color creeping along his neck; no respectable woman would dream of doing such a thing. "I think I would like to suck you; your skin tastes like sunlight, and it would be so lovely to feel you swell upon my tongue, to hear you trying not to gasp while I swallowed you to the root."
Commodus laughed again softly in his ear and abruptly let him go; Maximus staggered a step back and realized he was half-hard. Commodus slid the knife into a sheath and held it out to him at arm's length, hilt-first, still smiling. Maximus seized it and stood torn; he wanted to push Commodus back up against the wall, he wanted to beat the smirk off his face -- he put the knife in his belt and stayed where he was.
Commodus moved away; Maximus only now noticed there was a small table with two cups and an unsealed jug waiting. The room had been prepared. He swore silently at himself for falling into the trap, and for letting the twisted lecher unnerve him.
"Come, brother," Commodus said, pouring the wine, "let us speak plainly. You have the legions, but the Praetorian are mine, and the Senate as well." The frivolity had left his voice, and he sounded as businesslike as if he were standing in a market negotiating the price of a piece of fruit, not fresh from groping Maximus against the wall.
"The Praetorian are loyal, but not fools," Maximus said. He matched Commodus's tone with an effort, still trying to recover his composure. His hands itched to be around Commodus's neck. "If you imagine they will try to stand against six legions for you, you are mistaken."
"Stand against? Maximus, you speak as though I would dream of offering violence to my father's chosen successor," Commodus said. "I am not a fool either. On the other hand, you cannot expect to keep six legions stationed in Rome forever just to keep the crown on your head. Among other things, the Parthians are going to attack this summer."
Maximus paused. He hadn't given any thought to the Parthian border; it had been quiet for years. "And how would you know that?"
"They have begun moving supplies for their army, and shifting troops to the borders," Commodus said. "I have excellent spies, dear brother; something I am afraid you will find is quite indispensible for an emperor, even if scouts can do for a general." He sipped his wine, his eyes never leaving Maximus's over the rim of the glass.
If the Parthians revolted, he would not only have to send the legions, he would have to go himself. Then were Commodus to seize control in Rome, he could cut off the supply lines behind them. No matter how loyal his men were, they couldn't march back to Rome without food and water, and in any case that would be leaving the Parthians the eastern border that Marcus's co-emperor Verus had won with so much labor. And Julia and Serranus -- he could not take them on campaign, he would not leave them here, but even in Trujillo they would be easy enough for Commodus to reach.
Of course, Commodus could be prevented from raising rebellion. A dead man would not be much of a threat, and it would cow the Senators, leave the Praetorian in his hands. Maximus felt ill at how easily the thought came to him.
"Murder is a little different than clean battle, is it not?" Commodus said, evidently reading his thoughts off his face. "Are you quite sure you would not prefer to discuss alternatives?"
"And what would you suggest?" Maximus said. "That I stand out of your way, and leave the throne to you? And you would let me return home in peace, of course." His voice was laced with bitter sarcasm, but he almost meant the offer. He had never wanted this throne at all, and now it threatened to twist his life into impossible knots. If only Marcus had not pleaded -- he thought longingly of Trujillo, of his ripening fields, of Julia and Serranus. He could have been there now, and well out of this festering swamp. But he had stepped into it with his eyes open, and though he was no politician, he knew better than to think he could simply walk away and leave Commodus behind his flank now.
"Of course I would not," Commodus said. "If you were so stupid you would deserve only to be put to death quickly. But I see no reason either of us should stand aside. The arrangement worked for Verus and my father."
Maximus stared. "A co-emperorship?" he said, incredulous. "Between us? Verus was your father's friend. Marcus Aurelius respected him, trusted him. And you suggest -- "
Commodus was laughing, high and cold and mocking. "Trust? Trust is not a condition emperors can afford, dear brother. Which is why I have twenty volumes full of reports from the spies which my father set around him," he said. "I am sure Verus had his own men watching my father as well. As will we, with one another."
"I agreed to take the throne because it was Marcus's wish to restore the Republic," Maximus said flatly. "Do you claim that you would be willing to work to that same end?"
"Ah, yes, the glorious Republic. Tell me, when Parthia strikes, how far do you suppose you will get with that ambition?" Commodus asked. "Perhaps as far as my beloved father, in his last twenty years as Emperor."
Maximus swore and looked out the window as if he might find an answer floating out upon the wind. His troops had finished their drill and gone inside; the sun had gone down and was behind the palace now. He could see the lengthening shadow of it spreading over the courtyard and the walls, out onto the streets and the buildings beyond.
"How do I know you are not lying about Parthia?" he said. He asked it hopelessly; he didn't really suspect a bluff. Parthia had always rested uneasily; more than ten years since they had last been pushed back from the border, and the inevitable confusion following Marcus's death would be the time he himself would choose to rise up, if he were a Parthian commander.
Commodus didn't even bother to answer, only poured a second cup and held it out to him. "Do not look so distressed, brother," he said. "It will not be so bad. Only think of all the politics and paperwork you would have to manage if you were crowned alone."
The worst of it was that Commodus had been right.
After two years on the border, with skirmishes or worse once a month and the Parthians throwing ever more men into the field, Maximus had stopped wasting effort on being angry at himself when he felt profound relief at every message from Rome. Commodus might indulge himself in every kind of vice, and he had restored the brutal games Marcus had so hated, but he had an iron hand on the Senate and the populace was quiet and content beneath him.
A year in, the logistics of the swelling army had begun to overwhelm Maximus without Marcus there to administer matters. Then an aide had arrived to serve, so he said, as liaison; he had so obviously been one of the spies Commodus had suggested that he had not even been worth viewing with suspicion. The man had little by little taken the work from him and sent it back to Rome. Maximus had known, even while giving way, that he was putting himself into Commodus's hands, but there had been no other way. The battlefield had demanded all his attention, and he had had none to spare for disasters that had not yet occurred.
But there had been no disaster, no treachery. Instead, within three months a steady flow of men and supplies had begun, not to be interrupted for the remaining months of the campaign. With the fresh influx of strength, victories began to come more easily, then more quickly, and at last with ten full legions behind him, he had crushed the heart of their army in a final battle near Seleucia, sacked the city, and forced the allied princes leading the Parthian army to sue for peace and offer tribute.
Now at last he was back in Rome with the eastern border secure, he hoped, for another generation. The barbarians to the north were still quelled from his last campaign there, before Marcus's death, and the empire was at peace for a while at least. There was no longer anything to occupy his mind and distract him from the bitter taste of the fact that Commodus had proven to be much more than a necessary evil. The battlefield strategy had been his, but he knew, if his men did not, that the organization had won the war for them.
Commodus had demanded a triumph for him from the Senate without his even having to request one, and he and his men had marched straight into Rome from the Campus Martius, screaming crowds lining every step of the way. His men had loved it and cheered him and Commodus in a frenzy, but for him it had been only an exercise in endurance after the long ride and the grim thoughts that had occupied his mind.
A man should be trustworthy to be valuable, and straightforward; brave and restrained. So he had always thought. It fitted no part of his philosophy to find a brilliant ruler hidden in a power-hungry, self-indulgent schemer. Commodus had preened and glowed under the adulation of the crowds, like an actor or a courtesan, and he was surrounded by flatterers so blatant they set Maximus's teeth on edge with their absurd and exaggerated compliments.
He had escaped at last from the crowds and his own confusion to his rooms in the palace, glad for the quiet and dim light. Now he sat staining the couch and the silken covers, too tired even to drag himself to the baths, drinking unmixed wine because to call for a slave to bring water would have meant getting up to open the door. The jug was cold, at least.
The door opened and he lifted his head from the arm of the bench. Four heavily-built slaves carried in a steaming copper tub, nearly staggering under its half-full weight, and set it down on the floor. Others followed them in with more pitchers of hot water, filling it while the four left and returned again with a table, and a couple of lovely slave girls came in carrying scrapers. They stripped him without asking him to do much more than lift an arm here and there, and he lay luxuriously stretched upon the table while they poured the oil over his skin and scraped away his dirt and sweat with it, over and over.
At last they rubbed him down with soft wool and eased him into the tub with a thick woolen pad beneath his head; it was infinitely better than having to walk all the way down to the main caldarium, and almost as comfortable, though he could not quite stretch his full length out. They bowed themselves out and closed the door, and he only then noticed Commodus reclining on the couch, eating an apple and reading.
His hands twitched involuntarily, almost yielding to an impulse to cover himself under Commodus's eyes. He quelled it and asked brusquely, "Was there something you wanted?"
"Only to provide my brother with a little comfort after his long labors, and share his company." Commodus smiled widely at him. It was not a comforting expression, nor designed to make him any more easy in his nakedness.
"Will your court not miss you?" Maximus said; he ignored the guilt that murmured at his rudeness.
"Did my pets annoy you?" Commodus said, looking merely amused. "You should find them encouraging. If they are busy competing for my favor, they are less likely to be busy plotting against us." He tossed the apple core aside, rising from the couch. Maximus tensed and struggled not to look over his shoulder when Commodus walked behind the tub. But he glanced back involuntarily at the noise: Commodus had dragged up a low chair and settled directly behind him.
He was rigid and unyielding at first, but Commodus's hands were unusually strong, clean sweat on his skin easing their work, and they kneaded his unwilling muscles into submission after only a short while. They smelled of apple. It went on so long, with the almost painful heat of the water slowly ebbing to a pleasant warmth, that he began to fade; in his deep drowsy languor the occasional brush of lips on his throat and the hands that wandered a little only felt like more of the same, and did not rouse him.
"Do you remember what I told you, the night my father died?" Commodus murmured in his ear, licking at the lobe a little.
Maximus barely understood the words; he was all but asleep. "The night...?" he said. He woke up when Commodus bit his earlobe none-too-gently, and at once the conversation sprang back into mind with vivid clarity. He had remembered the suggestion before, more than once, unwillingly. His body knew what Commodus had been doing to him even if his mind had not been paying attention, and the water was neither hot or cold enough to subdue his reaction.
"Let me," Commodus said, hungrily. "Let me, brother." His hands were sliding down through the water. Maximus gripped the edges of the tub; in a moment he would lift himself out and shrug off the touch. In a moment. The moment stretched like tar, black and sticky, and his hands slowly let go their grip. Commodus began laying deep, sucking kisses along his throat and collarbone.
He did, in the end, let Commodus have him.
= End =