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Chapter 1

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[Rome, September 454]

Flavius Aetius, military savior of Rome, had spent the early morning on a high platform, watching the parallel columns of his barbarian troops through a cloud of yellow dust. His footsoldiers and cavalry were the mercenary defenders of the City: Huns, almond-skinned death; Celts, hysterical redheads; Germans who buttered their hair and perfumed their breath with garlic; Slavs, who worshiped a four-headed god that ate children.

Playing cleverly on their differences, Aetius had molded them into an army, Germans predominating but kept in solution by the rest. In spite of his chronic depression he was still moved by the sight of ranked men glittering red and bronze in the sun, swaying a little to the right or the left, an avalanche ready to roll over an invader, leaving nothing in its track but a waste littered with the intrudersí skulls.

Now, leaning on a pair of Hunnish mercenaries, Aetius returned to his pavilion, an exhausted-looking bull of an old man, with red eyes and a spotted tunic-front. No one would have recognized him out of uniform as the hero who had turned back Attila and his demon horsemen in Gaul.

He was dying of an intestinal tumor, and he knew it. Very little mattered to him any more, except the earnest wish that he might be permitted to expire in battle rather than in bed. But one god or another, as if to spite him, had made him live on and on, in the sterility and comparative safety of the city.

In the big tent Aetius sat on a hard camp-stool next to a plain table. The tent was sparsely furnished and hazy with aromatic smoke; the Master of Soldiers allowed himself one luxury, incense to drown the smell of his attendants. With the last of the dayís energy he read dispatches on waxed tablets, piling the communications on the table in front of him.

A courier saluted, stood at ease by assumed permission, and announced that Gaius Maximianus Faustinus, whom some called "Faustinus" and others "Maximian," was just around the corner.

Aetius turned and smiled wearily at his Hunnish retainers, Optila and Traustila. The brothers were as much alike as two apricot-colored ponies.

"Faustinus is everywhere, like boredom," Aetius said. "Show him in."

The emperorís messengers are expensive, he thought. Valentinian has no talent for condescension.

A familiar lean shape appeared in the press of armored bodies beyond the tent-flap. Master of Offices for the western emperor at age thirty, the tall, sandy-haired aristocrat looked closer to twenty. Aetius was not fond of him. He was polished and hollow, like a gilded reed. He had convenient opinions and vacant eyes. In what proportions was he a cunning manipulator and a self-regarding fool? Did the fool predominate, or the manipulator? In either case, the young man did not seem quite human. The pale eyes were unsettling. One expected to see straight through them into the landscape behind Faustinusís head.

"You are welcome," Aetius said with a show of yellow teeth, waving Faustinus off when he knelt to kiss the old soldierís hands.

"Iíve just come from the Presence," Faustinus began. "Valentinian asked me to bring you a message: that he wonít be free to watch the exercises here with you, tomorrow or the day after. The details of government are overwhelming the Sacred Itinerary."

Aetiusís face sharpened at the news. Clearly it annoyed him. In the continual struggle for power between the military and the emperor, daily trifles were heavy with significance.

"Shall we step out into the sunlight?" he suggested, rising from his stool with difficulty, like an elephant getting off its knees.

Followed by the twin Huns, the two men emerged into the white day. German sentries stood at attention. Tribunes issued crisp commands. A troop of German footsoldiers drilled close to the pavilion: two hundred blue eyes, a hundred short blond beards, a hundred northern skins sprouting tumors in the murderous Italian sun.

Knowing full well that his words would reach the emperor before the day was over, Aetius spoke his mind.

"Itís hardly surprising that the emperor prefers not to think of them," Aetius said with a gesture at the exercising Franks. "Theyíre so tediously simple and direct. They donít care about politics. They care about wine and a belly full of porridge, and as many whores as they can reconcile with their pay. Itís hardly astounding that their well-being would have no interest for the man on the Hill, who lives in a house of gold and eats taxes, and wears twenty thousand solidi in jewelry all over his wretched little block of a body, and is incapable of either simplicity or directness."

Faustinus smiled mechanically at the old manís outburst. "Sir, it isnít that the emperor doesnít value your services. Iíve given you only half his message. The other half is that youíre expected in the Presence tomorrow, at the fifth hour by the palace waterclocks, which are always a bit fast."

"Iím expected in the Presence," Aetius repeated woodenly.

"Have you guessed the subject?"

"Need I guess? The treasuryís in disorder. Thereíll be trouble paying my troops. Thatís why Valentinian feels more comfortable on his ground than mine. What else?"

"Thereís a family matter," Faustinus said neutrally. "I may not discuss it."

"Do let me guess," Aetius said. "Iím going to be presented with more reasons why my son Gaudentius should not marry his daughter Placidia."

"Please, sir," Faustinus resisted with an ivory smile, "I gave my word."

"I donít like conferences with the emperor," Aetius said. "I always come out solemnly committed to doing something unspecific. I feel like an arrow thatís been shot into a haystack. The haystack is victorious."

The old soldier faced Faustinus with a restless eye and working jaw-muscles. Aetius had often been compared to a wild boar easing its tusks against a tree.

"Itís absurdly unnecessary, you know," he said with a bitter smile, "the condition of the treasury. Unnecessary, but not surprising, with a bureaucracy twenty times as large as we need for any human purpose, with the emperorís personal finances in everlasting disorder, with the clergy plotting against the Senate, the Senate against the army, the army against the clergy, and the poor stealing to live, and no loyalty or decency to be found anywhere. Itís a mystery we survive at all. I suppose itís appropriate that the mess should be presided over by the Sacred Dung-Beetle, rolling the dung-ball of pointless intrigue up the hill of state, only to have it roll down and knock him flat, time and again."

"Youíll come?"

"Yes. Willingly if not eagerly."

Their eyes met; for a split second Faustinus thought he read in the great warriorís eyes an exact understanding of the emperorís real purpose. But Aetius turned the conversation again to the troops, exercising with a wooden precision that spoke of good bodies and uncomplicated minds.

It bothered him, Aetius complained, that the empire had to be defended largely by mercenary Germans against invading Germans. How long could Rome continue to manipulate the surplus millions that the northern forests and plains were vomiting over southern Europe: people who drank like horses, bred like rabbits, and fought like wild pigs? Did the emperor understand the predicament of the empire? Western Gaul had fallen; the Visigoths now dictated the policies of the Gaulish Senate. Spain was nearly gone. Britain was never spoken of at Rome; the memory was an embarrassment. The North African provinces with their grain supply had passed to Geiseric, whose Vandals continued to storm the empire from the rear.

"Do you understand," Aetius asked, turning suddenly to Faustinus, "that weíre witnessing the death of everything?

"Let us pray that it may not be so," Faustinus said piously.

"My daughter had a cat," Aetius went on, "who was like these savages: not very sophisticated or articulate, but he knew what he wantedómy daughterís canaries. The canaries made endless shrill distinctions and plumed themselves on their beauty and education and sensitivity. Do you know what the cat did? He ate them."

"I trust weíll not be like the birds, Your Perspicacity," Faustinus said soothingly. "Forgive me, but I must be going."

He bowed, made a hand-sign to his attendants, and strode away.

Shaking his head, Aetius watched Faustinusís tall figure disappear into the dusty pageant.

"May the Great Mercy preserve us from youthful ambition," the Patrician said quietly, half to himself, half to Optila and Traustila.

He passed into the twilight of his pavilion and slumped on his camp-stool. The Huns watched him, sensing trouble. Their right hands strayed absently to their sword-hilts.

"Iíll go to the emperor in peace and alone," Aetius said, putting a hand on Traustilaís sword-arm. "Iím tired of violence. If Valentinianís purpose is honorable, allís well. If not, allís well still. Do you understand me, little bears?"

They nodded, understanding nothing.

"Iíve certainly lived long enough," Aetius said to the twins, whose dark, slanted eyes were now wide with alarm, as rare among Huns as compassion or humor. "Iíve lived to see the day when itís no longer possible to defend Rome from both her enemies and her children."

He was ready to go; the sickness would take him if nothing else did. He smiled sardonically, thinking of his own mortality, and pressed his fingers against the boulder in his abdomen. The titles were all hollow now: Aetius the Patrician, Father of the Emperor, Savior of Rome, the god-man who had astounded the world by routing Attila in Gaul; Aetius, Last of the Romans, besides the pope.

He shrugged with melancholy indifference, as if the last coin in a pile of dream-treasure had slipped through his waking fingers, and then he dozed.

*

Faustinus was happy to get away from Aetiusís tent, saturated with the Mercenary Smellógarlic, sour beverages, barbarian body odoróand with the complex odor of approaching death, the old manís contribution. Faustinus had no affirmative feelings toward the Master of Soldiers. He acknowledged some fondness for Aetiusís twin Huns. He had known Huns all his life. Once, on a mission in Gaul, he had watched a party of them rape a nun, squabbling and pushing with the eagerness of ill-bred adolescents, after having seared the local bishop over a fire of church furniture. He admired the Hunnish directness and lack of sentimentality, qualities that could perhaps rescue Rome from her decline.

The decline was manifest just outside the curtains of Faustinusís litter. Like an ancient whore with a wasting pox, the city had been dying as long as anyone could remember. People no longer spoke of how vibrantly she had lived, but of how tenaciously she clung to life. Some of her institutions still worked: the dole was distributed, though in pinched proportions; the wheat ships from Sicily and Egypt docked more or less regularly; the great families were reasonably safe in their high-walled palaces, protected by little armies of slaves.

But the city at large was decaying, sinking, fading. The population had dwindled for a half-century; Rome and all the cities of the West had produced a steady out-migration of ruined senators, superfluous civil servants, bankrupt merchants, hoping that a good life awaited them in Constantinople, or in the gloomy forests and empty meadows north of the Danube. The cityís beggars shared its abandoned mansions with rats and the wandering wind. The public works were crumbling. The river-wall was dissolving into the Tiber. Grass and birdsí nests grew on the roofs of the deserted basilicas. Weeds choked the untended porticoes. Nor was the decline local to Rome. Her condition was manifest in the western empire at large, surrounded by barbarians on all sides but the east, and cut off from Constantinople by the Balkan mountains and the Vandal-infested sea.

"Make way!" Faustinusís footmen shouted, scattering slum-people, a muddle of urine-stained loincloths, threadbare tunics, straw hats without crowns, sandals without soles, and eyes glowing like braziers in a dark house. Faustinus glided past them, aware of their grim faces, certain that if they could know his plans they would receive him with cheers rather than curses. Sometimes, to be sure, it was unclear whether the plain people of Rome should be improved or eliminated. But Faustinus noticed in himself a statesmanlike concern for them. He would find ways to ease their pain, to make them productive, to deodorize them.

Could a strong hand raise the city to life again? The Dream had been with Faustinus since childhood, and it glowed again, like a particolored mosaic, as his litter-bearers toiled through the slums toward the Palatine Hill. He smiled fiercely. Soon he would put away the litter forever and ride like an idol laden with pearls, in a golden car with purple hangings, drawn by four snow-white mules.

*

In the great portico of the imperial palace-complex, Faustinus surrendered his litter to the emperorís doormen and himself to a pair of attendants. The imperial bureaucracy, which he despised, was well represented in the palace corridors: nameless look-alikes with self-important faces, hurrying about with sealed documents under their arms. Unhappily, the best blood of Rome belonged to these men, with their handsome wigs, little pot-bellies, three children apiece, and desperately affirmative smiles.

Unless they can demonstrate their usefulness, theyíll be gone, Faustinus thought, hurrying past them.

The throne-room had an atmosphere of terrified discretion, saturated with incense. There was a constant exchange of grave looks and barely audible conversation, a discreet rustling of cloaks, a patter of soft-soled boots, a subdued clank of ceremonial short-swords. On every brow was written the fear of the god-man on the throne. Every object in the room bore witness to his image; every sound carried the echo of his name.

The emperor seemed overwhelmed by his god-likeness. Valentinianís reticence was unattractive: not the bluff modesty of a soldier-emperor, but a soft, pleading, indecisive quality that made him an object of secret contempt.

He saw Faustinus and smiled his watery smile, which seemed to imply remorse or bad digestion. His jowls quivered weakly; the whole face and form expressed the self-indulgence of a half-man who would commit murders and blame them on God, or his upbringing, or the murder weapon.

The emperor stood and declared the morning at an end. While his courtiers and attendants had bowed their way out of the room, Valentinian summoned Faustinus into an antechamber. They sat unceremoniously knee-to-knee on a pair of cushions.

"Good Lord, Faustinus," Valentinian said when they were alone, "how tiresome My Divinity can be. You have news of the upstart? Tell everything; youíre safe."

The emperorís lips quivered; he prepared himself to hear the treasonable worst.

Faustinus passed a hand over his eyes, summoning an expression of dignified sympathy.

"He called you the Sacred Dung-Beetle. You know how Aetius is; Iím sure he wasnít serious."

Valentinian shut his eyes and held his breath, like a child refusing porridge.

"But what does it mean?" he inquired plaintively at last.

"What does it mean? I asked myself that. Naturally the remark stunned me, even if it was only a tasteless joke. He said it has to do with your rolling the dung-ball of imperial affairs up the hill of pointless intrigue, only to have the ball roll back down the hill and crush you. Itís a debased version of the Sisyphus story, I think."

In a different mood the emperor would have responded with threats, tears, curses. Circumstance, however, seemed to call for dignified resolve. Valentinian straightened up quietly on his cushion, and a look of purpose hardened the weak outline of his jaw.

"Iím not greatly surprised," he said at last. "It hurts, of course. But a ruler without enemies is a ruler without qualities. Iím glad you told me. Youíve made things much easier for me tomorrow."

Faustinus lowered his eyes sympathetically.

"My God," the emperor said, "itís been difficult coming to this. Iíve had nightmares. But Aetius is a traitor. He gave away Roman territory twenty years ago to establish his private army. You knew that?"

Faustinus wagged his handsome head indignantly.

"Another year of Aetius," the emperor rattled on, "and My Divinity will be nothing but an errand-boy for the Master of Soldiers. He forced me to swear friendship to him, you know. He extorted from me the promise of my daughter to his womanizing son, who would surely contribute to our bloodline every disease known to man and a few known only to the devil."

The emperorís voice trailed away. He laughed nervously. Faustinus examined his own big, agile hands and glanced at Valentinianís chubby red fingers, knotted in his tunic.

"An extorted promise is hardly binding," Faustinus volunteered.

"Youíre right, of course, as always. Thank you. And weíve been over the practical questions many times, you and I. I could never have considered an . . . execution, Faustinus, without your encouragement and support. For all I remember, you thought of it first. It was certainly your idea that I should take exercise in the Field of Mars with the Germans, to let them know me as a friendly face. It was a stroke of genius."

"My privilege, Your Generosity," Faustinus smiled modestly.

"Youíve charmed him into coming, then?"

"Not the slightest resistance."

"Without his smelly Huns?"

"A bodyguard in the Presence? Surely not."

"Iím really not much of a hand with my jeweled sword," the emperor said with a foolish smile. "It isnít meant for use."

"Youíre superb. Iíve watched you in the field. Besides, youíll have good support from the Provost of the Sacred Bedchamber." Faustinus glanced at the eunuch Heraclius, iron under blubber, standing out of earshot by the door. He felt his cheeks glow with the fierceness of his pleasure. Valentinianís sword would clear the path to Valentinianís throne.

The emperor gulped like a student of rhetoric at his first recital.

"May God forgive me," he said bleakly. "Iíve never done anything like this with my own right arm."

*

The corpse of Aetius was displayed sitting upright in the Old Forum. It seemed to exert a hypnotic effect on the crowds; a circle of silence formed within the daily uproar. There were gasps and snickers, and a grateful buzzing of flies. Aetiusís head had been taken off and tucked under the right armpit, an Oriental flourish inspired by the eunuch Heraclius. At the Patricianís right hand sat his old friend BoŽthius, Praetorian Prefect of Italy, the emperorís second-in-command, similarly headless. Someone made a joke about the Heavenly Twins. No one laughed.

In his palace on the Caelian Hill, the eminent senator Petronius Maximus relaxed with his young friend Faustinus. The subject to be discussed was the future of the State. Maximus was in an excellent position to speak of it. He had been Count of the Sacred Bounty at age nineteen, Prefect of Rome twice, and twice Praetorian Prefect of Italy, the highest position in the empire next to the throne itself.

The senator was a great lump of flesh with a pulpy face that had once been handsome. Now the body was unhealthy, the complexion winey, but Maximus still had a fine set of white teeth and he laughed often to display them. His fortune had shrunk, but it was still vast. His palace was a labyrinth of burnished floors and priceless furniture, a perfectly regulated household animated by a spirit of quiet terror. One could see that spirit in the cold, well-governed eyes of the house-slaves. Maximus allowed himself certain illegal consolations. One of them was to put a difficult slave, however expensive, to death with his own hands.

The two men reclined on silk-cushioned couches in the subdued light of a room designed for intimate gatherings.

Faustinus smiled agreeably.

"Perhaps we should speak of imperial affairs, my friend, while the Presence is still fresh in your mind," Maximus suggested, shifting on his couch and folding his pink hands over his belly. "Where to begin? We can be sure that Valentinianís current aggressiveness is merely a clear spot in the pervasive fog. Heís incapable of purposeful activity; he gazes at the stars and pisses on his sandals. Today, at the Palace, I discreetly offered myself as Aetiusís replacement. Iíd be the first Master of Soldiers in years to serve the State rather than himself. Valentinian made no response. Rome perishes for lack of a leader."

The significance of Maximusís last sentence was unmistakable. Faustinusís heart beat faster, partly on account of his hostís splendid wine, which always brought him close to the sentiment of charity. He looked at Maximus with a generous eye. The big man could almost be regarded as an elder brother, lying there on his couch beyond the ivory-inlaid table, a friendly collection of lumps, like two or more persons gathered in the same cloak, popping almonds into a common mouth.

Faustinus inhaled deeply. The point was to say the right thing.

"Allow me to imagine myself in the Sacred Boots a moment," he began. "If the office had been mine to conferójust speculating, my lordóI wouldnít have hesitated a moment to make you Aetiusís successor. The worthiest possible choice, Iíd say; a natural connection between the military and the Senate."

There was a pregnant pause, a murmur of many fountains. Maximus beamed suddenly, his bright green eyes receding behind his cheeks.

"It seems weíve perfectly understood each other all along," the senator said. "Letís take the air."

They walked together in Maximusís garden, down white colonnades, around marble ponds fringed with mosaic, through a complex of rose-beds, past ornamental balconies and sculptured ilexes.

Faustinus cleared his throat. "The lack of leadership in the imperial palace is a source of pain to me, as it is to you. The moral flabbiness of His Eternity was apparent when I attended him two days ago. He said, ĎI can talk to you, Faustinus.í The voice was pitiful. It appears that a shoulder to weep on is a necessity of life in the purple."

"Thank God all lesser Ďdivinityí is finite," Maximus said. "As an intellectual exercise, letís imagine ourselves at the end of Valentinianís reign. Will there be a struggle for the succession? The line of Theodosius will be extinct; Valentinian surely has no more children in him. Aetius is dead; the emperor insists on being his own Master of Soldiers, and thatíll mean a temporary paralysis of the military. Will the Senate come into its own again? Not likely. Most of them are as characterless as boiled lettuce."

"Is it unheard-of for the Master of Offices to rise to the ultimate office?" Faustinus asked, coming directly to the vital question of the day.

Maximus put up a plump hand. "Let me finish; the lack of competition excites me. Weíve eliminated the Senate and the military. How about the Sacred Household? Well, the old Prefect of Italy is dead, and his replacement Storacius is a cipher. Who else? The Count of the Domestics is innocent of ambition. That should make him harmless. The Quaestor is an empty-headed sophist. The Count of the Sacred Bounty is content with fleecing merchants. In Gaul and Illyria, the leadership is barbarian or senile. Have I missed anyone?"

"The Prefect of Rome," Faustinus said, feeling that he was being tested.

"Quintus Jovinus?"

"Yes."

They had paused in an intensely green corner of the garden with a disturbing ambience, implying hostile intelligence. More than once it had occurred to Faustinus that the vegetation in Maximusís garden must be carnivorous. The greens were unnaturally glossy, the colors artificially bright. There were no pouting leaves or slouching branches. Like Maximus himself, the plants smiled brilliantly, and the smile seemed to say, "Come and be eaten!"

Nevertheless, to live is to trust. Faustinus calmed himself with the hopeful reflection, and spoke clearly and quietly.

"As you read it, does Quintus Jovinus have enough support in the Senate to make a problem for us?"

"Youíre as close to the answer as I am," Maximus said, with an enigmatic gesture.

"Nevertheless?"

"If he has such support, Iím sure heís not aware of it. Iíve never met anyone with less political imagination than Quintus. Heís interesting to women. He has the bearing of a thoroughbred and the mediocrity of a cart-horse. As an administrator, heís not bad. What more is there to say?"

"Is there anything to be said of his wife?" Faustinus asked.

"Your wifeís sister."

"Yes."

"Adrianaís a handsome woman," Maximus said. "Sheís certainly bright. . . ."

"Yes," Faustinus said, grinding his teeth.

". . . but so far as I know, unambitious."

"Thatís been my impression," Faustinus sighed. "But I must say Iím uncomfortable with Quintus so close to the throne."

Maximus took a branch of a lotus-bush in his fingers and twisted it slowly. He measured his words.

"There are always people Ďclose to the throne,í Faustinus. One doesnít waste time worrying about them. One makes allies of some, and sooner or later one does away with the rest."

Faustinus laughed aloud, a dry expulsion of wind. "Itís comforting that we think so much alikeófor Romeís sake," he said.

"Yesófor Romeís sake and our own," Maximus smiled. "Thereís little more to be discussed. Weíll be in touch daily. Leave the Urban Prefect to me. Women are Quintus Jovinusís weak spot. We can use that if necessary. Concentrate on the bodyguard; use your old friendship with Aetius. We hardly need a mercenariesí revolt on our hands. And take your time, my ambitious young friend, take as much time as the thing requires."

"Your word is gold among the great families," Faustinus said, counting up his assets.

"And yours among the Consistory and the military: an unusual advantage for an emperor-to-be. Iíd say youíre invincible."

"How shall I thank you?" Faustinus asked, anticipating a heavy price.

"How? By keeping after the goal. Normally Iíd view these matters with detachment, but to find a race-horse among jackasses is an exciting thing, and a great occasion for the empire. One more matter. Youíll forgive me for being grandfatherly. Iíve always thought that you and Flavia were a handsome couple. From now on itíll be necessary for the two of you to maintain a faultless public exterior."

"Certainly, Your Discretion."

"A well-born wife," Maximus pursued, "is gold in oneís purse. Anything extra is . . . extra, yes? So we keep our wives happy by leading chaste lives, for the good of the State. Do you agree?"

"By all means," Faustinus said, with heartfelt insincerity.

They had stopped to look at an anthill, for which one of Maximusís gardeners would surely die.

"That is a symbol of the empire," the senator said quietly, gesturing at the mound. "Constant activity, most of it pointless, but carried out with energy and show of purpose. Itís a strange beast you hope to serve, isnít it, Faustinusóthe million-headed monster we call the Roman People? Always there are more of them than anyone knows what to do with. Even in her decline, Rome is the inexhaustible wet-nurse. The milk may be scanty, but no starveling need be without a nipple. Rome has nipples for everyone. Think of that when youíre in traffic today. Every race under the sun has crowded into this place: Armenians to shave you, Germans to beat your slaves, Syrians to fix your sandals, Britons to carry your litter, Persians to towel you after the bathóand one and all to cheat you."

*

[Rome, March 455]

In the first light of dawn, Flavia showed her teeth. Faustinus allowed himself to think that his wifeís smile might be an expression of pleasure in his company. It was never easy to interpret Flaviaís mood. Typically she was bored, disenchanted, hungry, treacherous as quicksand, hard as iron, snatching her pleasures from the hand of life and gripping them so tightly that she crushed them. Nevertheless, he was certain that her eagerness to succeed Eudoxia as empress made her a safe ally, if not a congenial one.

Naked, he stretched himself alongside her and laid his head between her shoulder and her breast, his hand on her belly, still admirably trim. Alone among the women of the court, Flavia had been able to reconcile her appetite for other womenís husbands with her passion for stuffed eels and honeycake.

"Todayís the day, Your Resplendency," he whispered.

Mechanically she ran a fingernail down the back of his neck. "At least youíll be more virile than Valentinian," she said.

"Everything has come together well," Faustinus said, stroking his chin. "By now, Valentinian expects me on the Field of Mars daily, whether or not I have a reason to be there. He seemed pleased by my suggestion that Maximus join us today. The emperor will exercise his new horse for us; the poor fool likes to show off. Itís a perfect opportunity. I keep wondering whether in six months Iíve thought of every possibility. Only this week I satisfied myself that Constantinople wonít send an avenging army. I can hardly imagine that the emperor of the East would throw blood and treasure after the memory of anyone but a kinsman."

"Are you as sure of the barbarian guard as you were a month ago?" Flavia asked, half interested.

"They may be paid by Valentinian," Faustinus said, "but theyíre still Aetiusís men, and my cause is perfectly suited to their prejudices. Vengeance is a sacred duty with them. Yesterday they were making fun of the emperorís belly, and of the way he rides, poised anxiously on his crotch."

He left the room quickly, before Flavia could utter a sour note. In his own attiring room, he had his boy dress him with the fast-moving precision that he required of all his body-servants. He chose a shimmering mantle of silk, shot with gold, to wear with his military gear. He put a single drop of priceless scent behind each ear, and wore fewer rings than usual, to keep his hands free for activity.

The morningís ceremonies in the Palace of the Caesars went smoothly. Faustinusís escort to the Field of Mars was impressive, two dozen bullies and way-clearers, uniformed with bare chests as a kind of advertisement for himself.

Watching his attendants shiver in the damp weather, he thought again of the emperorís jeweled conveyances, now within reach, soon to be in hand. Money, influence, and naked power were about to come together, like water, spice, and wine. In a rush of euphoria he allowed himself to imagine the pope kissing him on the forehead, and saying, rather like Philip of Macedon to Alexander, "O son, the world must be your realm, for Rome will not hold you!"

His appetite for the throne had become a craving. It expressed itself in a perpetual hot restlessness around the stomach, as when a man needed wine or gold or the ministry of a girl. He thought warmly of Petronius Maximus, now on his own way to the imperial exercise-ground. For months, Maximus had been handing out gold solidi as if they were turnips, and breathing the right words into the right ears at the right time. Faustinus was pleased, but not surprised, that he had managed to lure the old statesman into the service of his ambition. One could hardly have a better connection.

Petronius Maximus arrived at the Field of Mars just ahead of him, trailing slaves and clients in order of diminishing importance, like a rose garden dwindling into weeds. The conspirators stood together at a respectful distance from Valentinianís pavilion. Guarded by two Germans with gold-headed clubs, they composed their faces in a show of reverence and waited to be conducted into the Presence. Germans by the hundred were exercising in the open field, tearing the moist turf to bits.

"I believe Iíve convinced the New Aetius," Faustinus said in a sarcastic undertone, "that his exercise with these German cabbages will turn them into Roman lilies. A calculated risk to secure his grip on the military, he told me yesterdayóas if the words had not been my own when he started courting Aetiusís bodyguard six months ago. The emperor has a fine capacity for self-deception. Iíve had many occasions to be grateful for it. No one else in Rome could fail to see," he gestured at the exercise ground, "that these savages still belong to Aetius. Behind their blank, pink faces they think of nothing but revenge."

Maximus smiled affirmatively and bowed to the eunuch Heraclius, who had floated out of the pavilion and motioned the conspirators into the Presence.

Externally the emperorís pavilion was that of an ordinary regimental commander. Internally it resembled the Sacred Bedchamber. The floor was carpeted in an ornate Persian design. In the densely perfumed air, Valentinian lay on a couch covered by a lion-skin with gold claws, among citron-wood tables piled with figs, walnuts, tiny cakes, and pickled eggs. All the barbarian retainers, Optila and Traustila among them, were transfigured; the emperor had prescribed short hair in the fashion of the court, stripped the mustaches and the crude armor, and replaced the smelly leg-wraps with green-silk pantaloons.

Heraclius loomed dangerously behind the emperor, like a carefully fattened animal. Keeping an eye on him, Maximus and Faustinus waited to prostrate themselves on the carpet. With his usual indifference to ceremony, Valentinian waved them forward, flashing many rings.

"You have Our leave," he said brightly, sitting up on the edge of his couch. He had squeezed himself into the uniform of a legionary prefect. Above the light body-armor, the Sacred Diadem rested awkwardly on the emperorís saffron wig.

"You may speak," Valentinian said, abolishing the imperial Silence with another wave of his hand.

"We have it on good authority," Faustinus smiled, "that Your Supreme Blessedness owns a new Parthian horse."

"Oh! Let me show you! Bring my bowóand the arrows!" Valentinian clapped his pink hands. German retainers scattered. The stallion was brought to the tent, a handsome bay with a white blaze and muscular loins.

"Come to the field with me!" Valentinian commanded, waving both hands with his cheery unpretentiousness that verged on imbecility. "I like to be mounted when I put my men through their paces. Iím trying to set an example of Roman riding for themóerect, rather than slouched in the saddle like a barbarian."

Maximus and Faustinus bowed their way out of the tent, making way for the Presence. Faustinusís glance met the glance of Optila and Traustila. The Hun-faces were expressionless, but there was dark lightning in the eyes.

"My soldiers are good on the ground, but their riding needs improvement," the emperor said breathlessly, as Heraclius struggled to mount him under his tangled weaponry. Valentinian sat up straight on the horse and saluted no one in particular. On all sides, ignoring him, barbarian mercenaries brandished their javelins, bows, pikes, two-edged swords.

With a significant flourish, Maximus removed a sapphire ring from his left hand and placed it on his right. Optila unsheathed his long dagger and drove it upwards through a vulnerable spot in the emperorís mail-shirt. Valentinian opened his mouth in a silent shriek and dropped into the grass with a plump thud. The eunuch Heraclius died at Traustilaís feet, the barbarianís long dagger in his brain by way of his puffy throat.

On the exercise ground, grinning fiercely, the mercenaries lunged and parried without missing a stroke; their loyalty to Aetius had been satisfied at last. The Parthian horse shied away, alarmed at the smell of blood. Traustila seized the reins; Optila gathered up Valentinianís diadem, which had rolled into a mud puddle.

With nervous sweat glistening on their flat faces, the two Huns advanced, holding the reins of the emperorís horse and the diadem, and presented bothóto Petronius Maximus.

A troop of Franks paused in their exercise, grinned at each other, and cheered.

"The Senate and Peopleís choice," the fat senator purred.

"But I thought . . .," Faustinus half-whispered, the blood draining from his face.

"But you were mistaken," Maximus said, with a terrible white smile.

*

In a blaze of jewels and a forest of ceremonial spears, among dazzling ranks of gilded headpieces, in a cloud of silk banners, Petronius Maximus was crowned Emperor of Emperors, the shadow of God upon the earth. Faustinusís carefully suppressed misgivings had turned to solid reality. The senatorís gold had spoken in secret, and now spoke openly. It was Maximusís bloated form, not Faustinusís trim one, that filled the gemmed robes of state under the imperial diadem.

Petronius Maximus, emperor of the West! To have been outmaneuvered by an effete old man tortured Faustinus nearly as much as aiming for the throne and missing it. At the coronation, no shadow of his thought was allowed to reach his frozen face. In the afternoon he wandered alone to the Tiber, an arrow-shot west of the Field of Mars, and in a deep depression he watched the yellow-brown water eddying and swirling under the Aelian Bridge, with its familiar cargo of dead fish, pieces of wood, drifts of straw.

Like a schoolboy disappointed in love, he gave himself over to mental violence. He imagined how pleasant it would be to have the usurper buggered by six Egyptians and flayed alive, his skin stuffed with straw and presented to the empress Eudoxia as a footstool. He rehearsed the possible tortures to which Maximusís fat body could be submitted: smearing with honey, followed by an anthill; cranial surgery, followed by worms on the brain; anal surgery, followed by acid and strong peppers.

At home he spent hours sitting alone in his garden, trying to calm his shrieking thoughts. His body spoke to him in the unfamiliar accents of fear. He slept badly, and tore the bed to pieces. In the morning his mind wandered as his clients presented their endless poems and petitions. His reception room seemed as cold as a winter on the Danube. When the parasites had gone he drank a large goblet of unmixed wine to stop the trembling of his lips.

"Iím alive," he said to Flavia, "as long as I hear nothing from the emperor."

Maximusís position seemed secure. The acclamation had been nearly unanimous: shouts of the imperial troops at Rome, seconded wholeheartedly by the Senate, the rabble, the clergy. Not an avenging voice had been raised on Valentinianís behalf. The empress Eudoxia had agreed to marry the usurper without a decent interval of mourning. The cityís numberless busts of the emperor had been altered overnight, the head of Valentinian sawed off, the head of Petronius Maximus cemented in its place. Money and the promise of more had silenced every detractor; money had fueled the soldiersí enthusiasm as they raised Maximusís bloated body to the ceremonial tribunal and struck a deafening din on their shields with their swords. On a carpet of gold the senator had walked effortlessly into his secret dream, and the court, a wall of protective flesh, had closed around him.

The summons came. Faustinus concluded that he was a dead man. The deep, perilous intrigue was over, and he had lost. Moving through the cold streets toward the Palace of the Caesars, he felt like a puppeteer whose creatures had turned against him: the ludicrous plaster senators with their windy distinction-making, the faceless idiots of the imperial bureaucracy, the incompetent palace guard, the miserable small-souled artificers near the throne, all seemed to have broken their strings and turned to kick him.

He dismissed his attendants and walked alone down the echoing colonnades of the palace complex. Two eunuchs received him at the imperial audience-hall; he followed them to a chamber that the emperor used for private receptions. Mentally he readied himself to be flatulent in his assurances of loyalty. A woebegone eunuch bowed him into the room.

Like a jewelled toad in a velvet box, Maximus sat among rich hangings and statuary arranged to focus attention on himself. The imperial Presence glowed in the soft radiance of innumerable lamps. A delicate perfume seemed to float upward from the emperor and lose itself among the gloomy vaults overhead.

Faustinus approached the Presence and went to his knees. Maximus grinned, like a dog about to snap at a wasp, and motioned to him to be seated. Wine appeared, in goblets of a fragile Oriental design. Faustinus swallowed too hard. Tears came to his eyes. The emperor was good enough to offer him a napkin with his own hands. For a moment Faustinus imagined that he had been seduced into taking poison.

He wiped his eyes and smiled.

"Your Serenity looks well," he said. "Itís pleasant to know that the palace houses a happy family."

"The empress weeps a little," Maximus said.

"Iím sure itís a sign of good health," Faustinus said. "One distrusts dry eyes in times of upheavalóeven when the upheaval is all for the best."

There was a silence. A chill crept up Faustinusís neck. The emperorís personality had never been more transparently evil. Every poise of the ringed fingers seemed to conceal a trick. Cold malice rang in the pleasant laugh, and lingered in each cordial nod of the head.

"Come, Maximian," the emperor said gently, "letís take our subject by the ears."

The voice was consoling; the emperor had called him by his fatherís name. But the gaze was unsympathetic, and the lips carried the shadow of a smirk. Faustinus prepared himself for a slight improvement on death.

"We summoned Your Loyalty here today as a courtesy," Maximus said, "to advise you of the makeup of Our Household during the reign of Our Charity, and to offer you a place in it. Itís the least an old friend and ally can do."

Faustinus closed his eyes and nodded respectfully. Maximus leaned back in his chair.

"Perhaps I should begin with the obvious. Quintus Jovinus has agreed to stay on as Urban Prefect for the time being. Flavius Charitto will be Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, on account of his German connections. Fulgentius, whom you know, will be Quaestor. Benedictus will be Master of Offices. Terentianus will be Count of the Sacred Bounty. Brutianus will be Count of the Privy Purse. Demetrius Cyrus will be Provost of the Sacred Bedchamber. I detest Greeks and eunuchs, and Cyrus is bothóbut what can one do? None of this is surprising to you, I trust."

Faustinus shook his head. One by one the important offices of the Household were slipping out of the grasp of his tortured ambition.

The emperor spoke quickly now, in a lowered voice, as if glossing over a subject of small importance, but his cold eyes were fixed on Faustinusís face, making sure that every word had its intended, unpleasant effect.

"Next, the militaryóan abiding concern of yours, Faustinus. Iíll be my own Patrician; weíve had enough superlative Military Masters for awhile. My Master of Soldiers for Gaul will be Eparchius Avitus, a harmless relic, as you know, but with indispensable friendships among the Goths. Majorian has agreed to continue as Count of the Domestics; the empress, with her inexplicable fondness for the man, insists he can be trusted with the household troops, and Iím not in a mood to resist her. Caius Hypatius will be Master of Soldiers in the Presence."

Hypatius! That utter cipher, whose only motive was greed, whose understanding of soldiering went no further than the techniques of starving his men without getting caught. Nevertheless, the manís availability to bribery and blackmail could be useful. Why had Maximus made no mention of the Praetorian Prefecture of Italy?

"The Praetorian Prefect of Italy," Petronius Maximus said, clearly enjoying the flavor of the words on his tongue, "will be Decimus Nectarius."

"Nectarius," Faustinus repeated, feeling some sort of internal collapse. The man was senile, and had never been more than a puppet of Maximusís in the Senate.

"Nectarius," Maximus nodded, with finality. His face seemed to expand and grow darker, like bread in an oven. He smiled his brilliant, poisonous smile.

"Nectarius has certain . . . uncommon virtues," the emperor said. "I feel certain that youíll enjoy working under him."

Under him? Faustinus froze his features in a smile.

"I trust youíll accept the honor," Maximus went on, "of the Vicariate of the City of Rome, answerable to Nectarius. Itís not a bad office, really: ten provinces, nothing to sneeze at, and the rank of spectabilis. Naturally, thereíll be difficulties. Your successes will be attributed to Nectarius. Nectariusís failures will be attributed to you, along with your own. The failings of the provincial governors will also be blamed on you. Itíll be good training, Faustinus, the opportunity to make a contribution to the well-being of the empire from below, so to speak. I trust youíre not displeased?"

Faustinusís mind raced. The price of refusal would be death, by some sort of judicial murder.

"I am happy and grateful," he said, with a rush of blood to his head that threatened to loosen his teeth, "for Your Generosityís offer of the Urban Vicariate. I accept the office with reverence and great pleasure."

Rage rose in him at the enormity of the emperorís insult. He had been demoted from illustris to spectabilis in rank, and from the most influential position in the Consistory to an office with a profusion of annoyances and no real power, a place of great visibility and little honor, in which Maximus would deny him even the cold comfort of obscurity. His eyeballs felt as if they would burst.

He smiled.

"That is all, Faustinus," the emperor said, rising.

Faustinus went to his knees and kissed the ring on Maximusís right forefinger, a monstrous sapphire. He felt the warmth of the fat manís hand, the bristle on the knuckles, against his lips.

He bowed his way out of the gold-and-purple chamber, glad to escape the incensed air, the eunuchs, and the bloated figure that sat like a leering Antichrist in the place of Valentinian. Turning a corner, he glanced back and saw Maximus thoughtfully examining his fingernails. The glimpse told him something of the urgency of the moment. The emperorís mind never rested. Faustinusís time would be short, limited to the number of weeks Maximus needed to persuade the empress, Valentinianís widow, that an execution would be in the public interest.

For the moment, he had braved death and won. As Faustinus passed out of the palaceís great portico into the sunlit air, his mind worked rapidly, numbering his connections in the guilds, the commercial underground, the imperial guard, the church. Two female agents, posing as nuns, would be particularly useful, given their access to the popeís household. In his mind he put them to work: Sister Blanda, with her spurious penitential droning, and Sister Probina, the daughter of a professional assassin, whose gigantic facial mole spoke somehow of her inexhaustible sexual appetite.

Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead from the intensity of his thought. He would pour anarchy into the heads of corrupt monks, greedy civil servants, wine-addicted tribunes, magistrates ripe for blackmail.The governing idea would be to create chaos at the cityís pressure-points: aqueducts, public entertainments, the wheat supply. Small harassments could be added to the main ones: the mind of the empress Eudoxia could be poisoned by way of certain high-placed priests; small mutinies could be fomented in the German guard; bread-and-oil riots could be worked up in the slums. . . .

Above the palace complex, swallows climbed the sky. Faustinusís spirits rose with them. He gave conspiratorial thanks to no god in particular as he strolled out into the bright day, his imagination soaring and circling with the swallows, raining down destruction and death.


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