"Domine, there is a client to see you. He insists that you place his petition before the Senate."
It was several agonizing minutes before Marcus Antonius realised that the early-morning throbbing in his temples was not his usual hangover. He waved away his steward with a groan.
"I told him to leave, domine, but he shouted that Titus Pullo, hero of Alesia and Uxellodunum, was not going to be ordered about by a perfumed Greek."
That got him out of bed. His body slave had the usual cold water and pumice stone to make him presentable. He let the man scrape away at last night's grime, while he tried to recall precisely what had happened. The wine. The gambling. The trollops of the crossroads colleges, quick to surround a winner like Antonius. The men, waiting for him, swords drawn. Flinging his whore and his curses at them before sprinting through the labyrinth of the Subura and up the Palatine. Bellowing for Marcus Junius Brutus's head, for sending him knives in the night. Him, a traitor to the cause! Caesar's heir, who would gain the most from his death! The sight of Servilia draped in nothing but her lover. Then Caesar's hands at his wound, and softly calculating words in his ears, and the chance to fling it all away and beg for mercy, on his knees just as Caesar had once enjoyed, because surely Caesar had sent those men from Brutus's house, surely he knew, infallible genius that he was. Courage, bitter on his tongue, as he smiled and agreed that Cleopatra must have sent them, to pave the way for Caesarion. Shivering home in the darkness, giddy with relief. More wine.
"A clean tunic, and my boots," he ordered.
His slave laced his boots, and he went to see Pullo.
Titus Pullo had murdered somebody.
"I stabbed the verpa straight through the heart, sir. Then I put the gold coin under his tongue to pay Charon, covered his head with the folds of his toga, made everything proper."
His former commander dipped his second bread roll of the day into a little honey. No stale bread dipped in wine for him when he wasn't campaigning!
"Witnesses?" he enquired.
"Well, the steward, all the dining room slaves, the pepper-milling slave, the oyster-shucking slave, the chief cook—oh, and the other dinner guests, family on the lectus medius and the chairs, but on the lectus consularis with him, he had his saltatrix tonsa Agrippa and some country squire called Maecenas—"
Marcus Antonius chomped viciously on his roll.
"By Tellus and Sol Indiges, why did I not send Vorenus?" he sighed.
"—They all saw Octavianus and I getting on famously, for men who have as much in common as Pollux and Hades. Apparently great-uncle Caesar said that the snot-nosed brat might like a bodyguard in these troubled times. Now none of Caesar's dismissed lictors were available, but more than one of them had suggested me."
"Isn't great-uncle Caesar always right?" Antonius drawled.
Pullo decided to have breakfast after all. He ignored the water in its rock crystal goblet, tore a roll in half and dipped it in plenty of Ligurian honey.
"So," the centurion mumbled around half a roll, "none of them would dream that I'd sneak back into the house and knife the brat. Especially—", he said, waving the other half for emphasis, "—not after he farewelled me with the promise of seventy denarii a year plus expenses, starting on the Kalends."
Antonius nearly spat out his water.
"The bloody miser! Ranker's pay is eighty-nine denarii a year, let alone officer's!"
"Can't serve two generals for twice the pay at once, though, sir."
Antonius toasted him with his water glass.
"Quite so, centurion. Once good Roman men are bought, they stay bought."
The centurion clinked his goblet emphatically. How such Head Count manners would have suited the gens Octaviana, Antonius could not fathom. Pullo chewed reflectively on the rest of his breakfast.
"Not that I object to getting rid of the verpa who got ten of my men killed on a stupid bloody water raid at the battle of Msus, sir, but doesn't it strike you that deaths always occur in pairs in that family?"
Rising to dismiss his client, Marcus Antonius shook his hand warmly.
"Don't I know it, Pullo!"
If Titus Pullo ran fast enough, he might just catch Caesar before he left for the Curia Pompeia, to give him the dreadful news that Gaius Octavianus was dead.
Marcus Antonius wandered back to his sleeping cubicle, calling for his dressing slave. The shout set his hangover into a renewed attack. There had been a lot of those over the past decade. In fact, were Marcus Antonius more practised at lying to himself, he could blame the last half-decade entirely on Caesar. Caesar, hailed victor of the civil war after squashing Pompeius "Magnus" in Egypt and the Republicans in Greece and both the Spains. Antonius had been invalided out in the battle against Pompeius, run through the chest by a pilum while rescuing the eagle of his last legion standing. Caesar, kingmaker in Egypt toppling one Pharoah for another and saving the client kingdom from famine to boot, while the abandoned Antonius racked up debt, Forum riots and a reduced grain dole as Caesar's Master of Horse. Caesar, handing out the full Roman citizenship to so many clients that he was king in all but name, but who had refused a crown. Instead he had dismissed Marcus Antonius from the position of Master of Horse in public for the act! What was Marcus Antonius to the Great Man five years later? Nothing. Where did Marcus Antonius fit in his plans? Nowhere. Who could save the First Man in Rome from being the slave of that Egyptian beast-queen Cleopatra and the puppet of his new pretty boy Gaius Octavianus? No-one.
"Should Caesar survive," Servilia had said last night.
He groaned, holding his fragile head in his hands. Caesar's luck was proverbial. Could he fight off twenty younger men? Antonius eyed the leather breastplate of his armour, every piece neatly arrayed on its forked wooden stand. Today Caesar's luck would be out.
The gardens in the Curia Pompeia provided welcome respite after the dusty walk beyond the sacred pomerium. All for Caesar, of course, who was not permitted to enter the city's sacred boundary without giving up his imperium. He passed knots of senators huddled into the usual factions. Conspiring, he would have said on any other day. Moving towards his fellow assassins, he caught sight of Cicero making a beeline for Decimus Brutus, and hastily diverted his course. The man was an unknown quantity still, whatever he said about mourning for the Republic today. Just like any other day, the orator could always spare him a glare and a sneer. In response, Antonius arranged his features to a mask of boredom. The breastplate chafed under his toga, the plain linen tunic covering the leather along the long gap where the folds of the toga draped around his right arm. The dagger, wickedly sharp, rested in the sinus of his toga. At least his nerves had spouted into the gutter with last night's dinner somewhere between the Palatine and the boundary of the city. He glanced at the statue of Venus Victrix adorning the small temple aglow with the eastern light. "Jupiter Optimus Maximus, hear my prayer," he murmured. "Grant me this contract…"
Despite it being March, the junior consul held the fasces. Accordingly, once the auspices were performed, Caesar sat, and let his co-consul have the floor. Antony sat rigid in his curule chair. Unbidden, his hands fiddled with the folds of his toga. Clenching his jaw, Antony focused his attentions to the speaker.
"Conscript Fathers, I move that Gaius Julius Caesar, your senior consul, be appointed dictator perpetuus for a term of ten years. Although this is indeed a most unconstitutional appointment, let us recall that the senatus consultum ultimum de re publica defenda permits the Senate to …"
Antonius let the junior consul drone on. He inspected the senior consul. The First Man in Rome sat perfect and immobile in the ivory chair. Caesar still wore the boots, the high red boots not seen since the rule of Sextus Tarquinius. What excuse had the Great Man offered, that they soothed his varicose veins? Hadn't he wanted them painted brown, to lessen the offence? Gerrae! Caesar looked exceedingly comfortable in the trappings of the Roman kings. Well, he'd be distinctly uncomfortable come the division of the House. Even more so than he had looked refusing the crown thrice in public. In private…hadn't he knelt, to let Antonius place the white diadem on his head? One sacrilege had followed another. He had worn nothing but that crown, kneeling with his mouth about Antonius's cock, and Antonius couldn't bear to lay a hand upon him, as helpless as if Caesar had chained him to the bed and fucked him raw. Helpless no longer, Antonius lightly touched the dagger in his sinus for reassurance. He snapped from his daydream to notice that the princeps senatus had called for the vote. He prayed that his legs would support him, and forced himself onto the masses on the senate floor.
The difficulty, Brutus had explained, was reaching Caesar in the crowd of other senators voting for their new not-tyrant. A flicker of surprise passed across the Great Man's face, and then Antony found himself—and everyone else—gaping at the pair alongside the senior consul.
"Conscript Fathers, look how even men of the boni, our Good Men devoted to safeguarding the mos maiorum, have agreed to my dictatorship!"
Caesar extended a hand to Marcus Junius Brutus, the other to Cinna.
"Strike," Antony thought numbly. "Do it now!"
"Let us have harmony amongst the factions of the senate at last! Let us agree that I shall account for my time as Dictator, and should Rome find me wanting, let another pair of consuls take my place."
Those sure, black-ringed eyes flickered over Antonius in triumph. Sulla's eyes! And so it was that the first blade caught both of them unawares.
"Why, this is violence!" roared Caesar.
His admonition didn't prevent the Dictator from landing a left hook that sent Brutus staggering. The young man clung tenaciously to his dagger even as Caesar lunged for it. Dismayed, the general shifted his attack. Cinna went next, howling at a broken knee, blade spinning across the marble. Yet no-one picked it up, no-one ran to the Dictator's aid.
"An end to tyranny!" someone shouted.
Suddenly the other conspirators had their blades drawn. A second blow, heralding a frenzy of them. Stunned, Antonius watched red stain the Dictator's toga, as bright and vital as the broad purple stripe of his office. How many men had he seen die like that on his campaigns? His heart slammed in his chest. His breaths were deep, but too fast. Panic, Antonius knew. Marcus Antonius, veteran general, did not panic.
"Lictors, Marcus Antonius! Call for Caesar's lictors!"
Instead he prised Cicero's hand from his shoulder and started towards the conspirators.
Some of them had missed entirely and wounded the other liberators. Useless bloody politicians! Only Trebonius and Decimus Brutus were ex-legionaries, but he had passed them stuck at the back of the crowd. Caesar's former commanders were smart enough to keep their daggers concealed until the last. Antonius shouldered men aside, shouting, pushing forwards. The motion sent a flood of togate figures away from the carnage. He reached Caesar. His own fingers refused to move to the dagger in the folds of his toga. Caesar staggered against him, toga bloody, not all of it his own. His fingers went to Antonius's shoulders out of habit. He felt the armour, and a smile crept over his bloody face.
"Why was the toga stained red? Shouldn't divine Julius bleed golden ichor?" Antonius thought.
One strike to the heart, that was all Caesar needed. A quicker, more noble death than anyone else here would give him. He watched Caesar's smile fade.
"You too, my son?" he said.
Then Antonius glimpsed the dagger aimed at Caesar's neck and drew his own.
The theatre of Pompeius Magnus was silent. The man himself stared at the bodies from his marble statue. Caesar lay propped against the plinth. The Dictator's two dozen lictors flanked him. As the mos maiorum demanded, within a mile of Rome's sacred boundary they were togate instead of armoured, without the axes in their fasces. Walking the gauntlet, he returned the civic crown of oak leaves to Caesar's scalp. Antonius examined his pale, gaunt face for signs of life.
"I knew you better than you knew yourself."
Marcus Antonius slumped beside his general, his gift from the gods.
"Fuck off, sir. I didn't know myself at all," he snapped.
"Don't take that tone with me, Marcus Antonius!"
The ruler of the known world patted his shoulder.
"One would think that you didn't like my assassins!"
Marcus Antonius groaned at the joke, leaning back against the plinth. He may as well try to mend the shredded remains of his toga as all the pieces of Caesar's outrageously complicated puzzle.
"Your—? Fine. You send the assassins, I escape and shout the length of the Palatine that the boni have tried to kill me, that gives you an excuse to wear the armour under your toga. Even if it doesn't save your life, your spy in the Liberators remains hidden, they tattle to me imagining that I will frame my enemies. Instead we kill the mentulae, everyone from the Head Count to Marcus Tullius pompous arse Cicero praises the emergency Dictator Marcus Antonius for avenging Caesar's murder, and I step into the senior consulship without any messy civil wars."
He glanced at Caesar's profile, as impenetrable as his armour. Suddenly his veins ran hot again. Any ordinary man would have thanked him for saving his life! Not the divine Julius! He may as well have been the hollow terracotta statue in the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, for all the thanks he gave to his worshippers.
"How did you know that I had sworn the Liberator's oath with a stone in my hand?" he asked, teeth gritted.
It was that or punch the man and receive the fasces about his head for his trouble. No doubt Caesar's hands reverberating off his arse would follow, later.
"I did not," the Great Man replied simply. "When you said nothing last night, I began to fear that you would mourn what you had destroyed."
"Hence the armour under your toga and the lictors in the garden! You made such a great show of dismissing your lictors after you refused my crown, it ought to have been obvious that you would keep them in secret."
Antonius surged to his feet, head hurting more than his scarred arms. Caesar pulled against his proffered hand until he stood. The Dictator swayed fractionally. Antonius slid an arm around his shoulders before it was too late and the public mask descended again.
"You don't have to be me, Marcus. Merely enough like me."
And how he would be! Let the politicians have Rome. There were conspirators to exile, Egypt's treasure vaults to empty, the Dacians to put in order, then the Parthian campaign, all at Caesar's side and in Caesar's bed… The goddess Fortuna had smiled upon him, and he would not waste her gifts again.