The young Emperor of Rome lay on his bed awaiting the return of his
sister, whom he'd sent for what, to him, seemed like hours ago. He had
laid down seeking the comfort of a short nap, but exhausted as he was, the bliss
of sleep was not bestowed upon him, and he lay awake, staring up at the ceiling.
His sharp blue-green eyes lacked the intensity normally present there, and the
dark circles around them nearly matched the shade of the deep purple cloak he
wore. It was not his binding armor that kept sleep from him, and although
the thought had occurred to him it was quickly dismissed. What kept him
from sleeping was his current situation, which had not been good before Maximus
the Gladiator had come along, but anything was better than five consecutive days
of insomnia, self-loathing, endless vexation, and extreme mortification.
Actually, the last three things were the very causes of the first.
Commodus remembered the air of absolute tranquility that had surrounded his sleeping nephew, Lucius, as the former observed the young boy. His face, ever placid and calm, every single muscle in his small body relaxed and free of tension.
He sleeps so well because he is loved.
Commodus could not recall a time when he had slept so soundly, or been so deeply loved, for that matter. In a way, he envied the boy, wishing that his childhood could have been so pleasant. He'd barely known his mother when she died, and his father had always spent his time studying philosophy and scrolls from the Senate, never taking any time out to pay attention to his affection-starved children. To Commodus, it felt as if he'd been born an orphan.
He wouldn't have sent for us if he weren't really dying.
Maybe he just misses us.
Commodus had never heard anything so far from the truth. Wishful thinking on his sister's part, to be sure. Ever since he could remember, he'd thirsted for his father's attention and affection, the very same things which he had so willingly bestowed upon Maximus. Commodus' thirst had never been quenched, his needs, never met. All he'd ever wanted was to know that he was loved by his father. To know that his existence had somehow made a difference, if only the slightest, to his own blood. That was all he'd ever yearned for, and it had never been provided him.
"Is that so much to ask of the Emperor of Rome?" he asked, aloud, although Commodus already knew the answer; yes.
The Emperor didn't care who was around to witness his aimless babbling. The servants had become quite familiar with Commodus' rather odd behavior and payed no attention to his ranting and raving when it took place. They'd seen him countless times, pacing back and forth, prowling about his chambers like some caged tiger contemplating an escape. But there was no escape, no relief. Death perhaps, but he did not see that as an option. Despite the enormity in which he despised his loveless life, he did not wish upon it a premature end, even though he was convinced that those around him did.
"Stop being so pitiful and pathetic, it only wastes energy you know you cannot afford to lose," he said to himself.
"Who are you talking to, brother?" His sister's soft, warm voice startled him out of his thoughts. "The room is empty." Commodus sat up, his bloodshot eyes meeting with Lucilla's.
"You're perfectly aware of the fact that I have no one else to converse with but myself. Just because there's is no one else in the room does not mean that I'm incapable of having stimulating conversation. With the ceiling or myself, although I do think the latter option is a bit more responsive." Lucilla produced a smile that did not quite reach her eyes.
"You know you could always talk to me or Lucius. You know how much he enjoys his uncle's company."
"Does he?" asked Commodus, looking deep into her eyes, slightly disagreeing with what she had told him. "I hadn't noticed." Lucilla wanted to roll her eyes at her brother's undying negative attitude, but she did not dare give into her compulsion.
"He has told me so after your visits, together," she said, walking up to him.
But he does not show it, he thought, looking down at the shiny marble floor and remembering what his father had once told him. "One's words mean nothing if they are not expressed in one's actions." Well he was certainly one to talk, he thought cynically. Commodus sighed and shook his head. "Where have you been?" he asked his sister, deciding that then was as good a time as any for a change of subject. "I sent for you."
"Please, brother, what troubles you?"
A more appropriate question would be what doesn't trouble me, the Emperor thought, looking up to meet his sister's gaze, but he became somewhat heartened upon identifying concern as one of the emotions swirling in her dark eyes.
"Does Gracchus have a new lover?" he asked, simply, his voice quiet and low.
"I don't know," she said, somewhat appalled by the strange and seemingly out of place question.
"I thought you had seen him. He infects everyone like a putrid fever," he said, beginning to pace back and forth beside his bed, his eyes never leaving his sister. Commodus' pacing began to make Lucilla nervous. She hated when he did this. "For the health of Rome, the Senate must be bled, and he will bleed, too, very soon." Lucilla was unsure of what her next words should be, or if she should even dare to open her mouth. When her brother was in this sort of mood, she often found it easiest and safest to remain silent and simply listen to what he had to say. Still, she felt he was seeking a reply, so she supplied him with one.
"But not tonight," she said simply. Lucilla was very good at hiding her true feelings, and Commodus knew this. He looked into her eyes, then and tried to find her emotions, tried to peer into her mind, but as always, her thoughts were kept locked deep inside, and Commodus lacked the key needed to open it.
Returning to a sitting position on the edge of his bed, he asked his sister if she remembered what their father had once said to them. He was almost certain that she would, because the words their father had spoken to them were so few, they'd always had a lasting impression. Commodus knew his father's words had stuck in his mind. Lucilla, however, he was not so certain of. Her expression remained stoic and her demeanor just as impassive.
"It's a dream, a frightful dream...life is," he explained, looking to his sister for some sort of reaction but there was none to be found, so he decided to provoke one with a question. "Do you think that's true?"
"I don't know," came the honest response.
"I think it is. And I have only you to share it with." Commodus was rewarded with the reaction he was hoping for but never expected he'd receive.
Lucilla's expression softened as she walked over to her brother and sat next to him on his bed, intent on comforting him. She allowed him to rest her head on her shoulder, seeing it as just a friendly display of affection from a brother to his sister, but her interpritation of the gesture had been false.
The sympathetic expression on her face quickly became one of fear as Commodus began to press her down to the bed. Her breathing hastened, her eyes darted about the room in terror and refused to meet her brother's gaze.
What is going to happen? What will he do? What if someone sees? All these thoughts rushed through her mind as his hand drifted up to her face and when it reached her mouth she froze, lying as still as possible, praying he'd do nothing worse than kiss her. Then he brushed his fingertips against her lips and asked her, softly, to open her mouth. She obliged, hesitantly and shuddered inwardly as he pressed his fingers to her mouth, and then to his own. The whole thing made her sick to her stomach. Her lips were only inches from his now.
So close, so close, Commodus, just kiss her. It is so easy, kiss her! You are the Emperor of Rome! The most powerful man in the world and can do as you please! The thoughts that were usually called into service in order that they give his wounded ego a boost had failed to serve their purpose, so, exhaling slowly, Commodus dropped his head to his sister's heaving chest, feeling that the opportunity to kiss her had passed.
"You know I love you," he said as he listened to Lucilla's rapid heartbeat in his ear.
"And I love you," came the empty, hollow reply, devoid of the affection which it claimed to bear. Then, she slid out from beneath him, stood up, and walked away without a word. He knew, then that he would never be able to make his sister understand the way he felt, not just about her, but about all things in life. He'd failed to reach her just as he had Marcus Aurelius.
Your faults as a son is my failure as a father.
A true and honest apology for a life nearly ruined, but it did not compensate for the years of loneliness and sorrow. It had only bandaged his wounded heart, not healed it. The young Emperor was convinced that the organ which was so vital to his life was broken and could never be put back together again, and his sister's perpetual refusal of his affections was not helping to mend it. And then, with all of these thoughts fresh in his mind, he did a thing that had been absent from his schedule for the past several days; fell asleep.
Commodus awoke to a loud, boisterous sound, coming from just outside of his bed chamber. He groggily ventured out into the hallway to investigate.
"There, there, there, there, there, and I've got you!" As Commodus came closer, he saw that the source of the noise was his nephew, Lucius, playing swords with one of the African servants. A small smile crept it's way across Commodus' lips as he took the sword from the servant and hit it against Lucius'.
"Isn't it late to be playing legionnaire?" he asked, his sword hitting against Lucius' with a loud crack!
"I am not a legionnaire." Commodus raised his eyebrows and parried his nephew's thrust.
"Not a legionnaire?"
"I am a gladiator." Commodus' heart skipped a beat as he heard Lucius words, but then became calm as he convinced himself that the boy wasn't stupid, and the words he most dreaded hearing would not be said.
"A gladiator? Gladiators only fight in the games. Wouldn't you prefer to be a brave Roman warrior like Julius Caesar?" Commodus remembered when he was a young boy and had not yet held a metal sword in his hand, but had played with a wooden likeness of the real thing, many times. He had never once pretended to be a gladiator, who battled barbarians and wild beasts in some arena. Fighting, dying, and being forgotten in a matter of days by the fickle crowds for which a gladiator performed did not appeal to the young heir to the Roman Empire. His father had opposed the bloody form of entertainment, therefore, his son had never actually witnessed the sheer gore of gladiatorial combat till the age of fifteen. Young Commodus would spend his spare time, of which he had a seemingly endless supply, imagining he was a heroic Roman warrior, fighting boldly for the Empire, never a mere gladiator, who only spilled blood because it was commanded of him. That fantasy seemed more like a nightmare to him. Never being able to make your own decisions, being owned by another man, obeying the orders given you or paying the price of defiance. It was simply not for him.
"I am Maximus, the savior of Rome!" he proclaimed, a bright smile on his freckled face. When Lucius spoke, the words hit him with such force that Commodus would have reacted no different had they shot through his chest and pierced his heart. He sank to his knees, loosening his grip on the sword and letting it crash to the floor.
"The savior of Rome," he repeated, fighting to keep his anger at bay, telling himself that Lucius was only a boy and he would never in a million years have spoken the words had he known the effect they would have had. "And who said that."
Tears brimmed Commodus' eyes as Lucius whispered the answer and the former held his nephew tighter and tighter, holding the fine fabric of the boy's tunica in a death grip.
The whole thing is like some great...nightmare.
The nightmare was rapidly becoming a reality. How could she? How could she do this to me? The anguish of betrayal washed over his body and tore at the corners of his brain, begging his suppressed emotions to break free, but Commodus would not allow them to. He managed to restrain his feelings, bit back the angry words that smoldered on his tongue, and maintained his composure.
The Emperor released his grip on Lucius and stood up, grinding his teeth and clenching his hands into fists. The boy looked up at Commodus with fear and concern written all over his face.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, not happy to have upset his uncle. "Was I wrong to have..." Commodus cut him off with a gentle finger to the lips.
"Hush, Lucius." He removed his finger from the boy's lips and knelt before him so their eyes would be level. "Why don't we go do some reading? What do you think of that?" he asked, putting a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"I would like that," he said, nodding, a bright smile lighting up his face, once more.
"Would you?" asked Commodus, standing up and taking his nephew's hand in his own.
"Yes, very much." The Emperor returned Lucius' smile, although on the inside he was weeping, uncontrollably, with no shoulder for him to cry on, only his empty, anguished sobs to comfort him. Although his nephew's small body was warm at his side, Commodus had never felt so alone in his entire life.
As Commodus and Lucius read together, the former observed his nephew's
facial expressions and tone of voice. It would seem that he enjoys my
company, he reasoned, hoping his thoughts held some truth in them.
"She killed herself? How?" Lucius' eyes sparkled with curiosity as Commodus explained to his young nephew the story of Marc Antony and Cleopatra.
"With a snake, Lucius. A cobra." His nephew's eyebrows shot up and his lips parted in surprise. Commodus loved how little effort it took to get a reaction out of the boy. He was so very expressive, hardly ever concealing his emotions from the people around him, a quality he certainly could not have inherited from his mother. While Lucilla was the very pinnacle of impassiveness, her son was just the opposite. He was open, honest, young, innocent, and easily influenced by his elders, perhaps to a fault.
"She couldn't have!" he exclaimed, making Commodus laugh.
"Yes, she did. She took it from a basket, pressed it to her breast, right here," he said, hooking two of his fingers to resemble a cobra's fangs and placing them on Lucius' chest, "above her heart." He poked Lucius' chest with his fingers and hissed like a snake, making the boy giggle.
"It bit her in the breast?"
"Yes." Just then, the Emperor noticed something moving near the doorway and looked up to discover that the movement had been his sister, who was slowly walking toward them. He pretended he had not seen her and continued his conversation with Lucius, but speaking loudly enough so that Lucilla wouldn't be able to help but hear his words. "You see, Lucius, sometimes royal ladies behave very strangely and do very odd things in the name of love."
"It think it's silly," came the honest opinion.
"So do I," replied Commodus, looking pointedly up at his sister, who had, by then, nearly reached the table at which they sat. "So do I." Lucilla noticed her brother glowering at her and stopped dead in her tracks, before them. "Sister," he said in order to announce her presence to Lucius. "Join us. I've been reading to dear Lucius," he told her, and placed a more possessive than affectionate arm around his nephew's shoulders while Lucilla obligingly accepted the invitation and took a seat in a chair before them.
"I've been reading, too," said the boy, beaming with pride and self-satisfaction.
"Yes, he's a very clever little boy. He'll make a grand Emperor, one day," he said, looking into his young companion's eyes and ruffling his fine, blond hair. Lucilla watched what was happening, ever cautious of Commodus' actions, not liking the words that were coming out of his mouth or the manner in which he spoke them. She also did not approve of the way he was looking at Lucius, for she could see beyond the smile on his face, and what she saw frightened her, terribly.
"We've been reading about the great Marc Antony and his adventures in Egypt."
"The Queen killed herself with a snake!" exclaimed Lucius, and Commodus smiled at him.
"And just wait until you hear what happened to out ancestors. If you're very good, tomorrow night, I'll tell you the story of Emperor Claudius. He was betrayed..." he began, the familiar dangerousness evident in his voice as his eyes left Lucius and fell upon Lucilla. "...by those closest to him. By his own blood." Lucilla knew right then exactly to whom her brother was referring.
She felt her stomach begin to turn, and the blood drained face, and her mouth went suddenly dry. The two words she hoped she'd never have to say, the thing that she most dreaded ever having to admit to herself rudely shoved its way into existence; He knows.
"They whispered in dark corners and went out late at night, and conspired, and conspired."
No, brother, please, not in front of Lucius, she pleaded silently, tears forming in her eyes as Commodus continued.
"But the Emperor knew they were up to something. He knew they were busy little bees. And one night, he sat down with one of them..." Lucius looked at his mother, confused, suspecting that his uncle was speaking of something other than the story of Emperor Claudius. "...and he looked at her, and he said, ‘Tell me what you have been doing, busy little bee, or I shall strike down those dearest to you.'" Lucilla shuddered at Commodus' words, hatred and pain dripping from every single one. "‘You shall watch as I bathe in their blood.'" Her tears came forward as she realized what mortal danger she had put her son in. She'd never thought he'd find out, but he had, and now he would make her pay for her deception, by any means necessary. "And the Emperor was heartbroken." The words had been unnecessarily spoken as Lucilla could clearly see that her brother was trying hard to suppress tears of his own, and his voice was already beginning to break. "The little bee had wounded him more deeply than anyone else could ever have done. And do you know what happened then, Lucius?" he asked his nephew, who's proud smile had long since faded and been replaced by an expression of fear and confusion.
"I don't know, uncle," he replied, softly. His mother was crying, a sight alien to him as Lucilla had kept her emotions from even her son, at times. His mother was crying, he didn't know why, and he didn't like it.
Commodus lowered his head and touched it to Lucius' before turning back to Lucilla, who, by then was weeping openly, and said, "The little bee told him everything." After a few moments of pregnant silence, Commodus said, "Go with your mother now, Lucius. It's getting late."
"Yes, uncle," Lucius replied, meekly, standing up from his seat beside the Emperor and walking slowly toward his mother.
Lucilla composed herself and rose to her feet before taking her son's hand in her own and exiting her brother's room without a backward glance.
Commodus closed his eyes and laid his head onto its cool surface. What was he going to do? Now, not only did everyone in the whole of the Roman Empire despise him, but his own sister, was conspiring against him, plotting against him, arranging his downfall. His own flesh and blood, the only woman he'd ever loved, and the only one he'd ever truly trusted.
He'd spent hours of weeping and silent questioning. Why? Why? Why has she done this to me? Am I so terrible to her? What have I ever done to deserve this, the betrayal of all betrayals?!
None of it helped, none of it comforted, none of it brought him peace. Nothing could. Nothing...except...
They had given him no choice. He looked around his room and peeked out into the hallway. It was empty.
Commodus bit his lip and tried to silence the tiny voice at the back of his head. No, you fool, it is what they want! It is what she wants, what he wants, what they want, what everyone wants! Don't give in, don't be a coward, do not yield to anyone! Prove to them that you can fight, will fight, and show them just who is in charge. And then there was the other voice, more towards the front of his head, saying, Go on, you deserve some peace. This is the only way, Commodus. No one loves you, no one cares about you, there is nothing for you in this life. Just do it and give yourself some peace, for I can assure you, no one else will. The voices battled and debated as Commodus stood, eyes closed, dagger poised, prepared to slit his own throat. The latter voice had been winning over, but just as Commodus drew the breath that he thought would be his last, the voice taunted, Commodus the Coward.
His eyes shot open as the words echoed in his head. He heard it being chanted by the mob in the Colosseum: Commodus the Cowardly! Commodus the Cowardly!
"No," as he lowered the dagger to his side. "No!" His scream reverberated off the walls as did the clatter of the dagger as it was hurled to the floor. The tears he'd been suppressing sprung forward and he stood there in the middle of his room, bawling as a child would have.
The voices were drowned out by his sobs as his knees buckled and he collapsed, panting, onto the cold marble floor. The Emperor soon heard running footsteps echoing in the hallway, and yelling voices following. Soon he could see the feet of his praetorian guards coming toward him.
"Is everything all right, Highness?" asked Quintus, the head of Commodus' body guards. The young man looked up at him with red eyes, tears blurring his vision. Quintus knelt beside his Emperor and repeated, "Is everything alright?" Commodus took a deep shaky breath and pushed himself up into a sitting position. With a slight nod of his head, he whispered, "Yes, Quintus." And then another idea skipped its way across Commodus mind, one far better than it's predecessor. "I was wondering if I might ask a favor of you," he said as he got to his feet.
"At your service, Caesar," he said, bowing his head.
"Ready your men, for in one hour, I wish you to go to the home of Antonius Proximo, kill him and all of his gladiators along with him. Maximus will undoubtedly find an escape route, so we must have a trap set for him. I am faithful that you will think of something sufficient."
"What Caesar has commanded will be done." With one last respectful bow, Quintus and his men turned and walked out of the Emperor's chambers to prepare for the ambush that would soon take place.
Soon Rome will see who is the one truly deserving of her loyalty and respect, thought Commodus as he eyed the dagger he'd flung to the floor. Quite soon. He chuckled, softly and added, But not tonight.
To be continued...