Chapter 1: Britannia 54BC
Hades's chariot descended upon Caesar at the edge of the world. A letter from Pompeius Magnus, in a cramped, shaking hand and blotted by tears. The scroll had been sent from Rome, couriered through Italia, then Caesar's three proconsular Gallic provinces, through the disputed territories of the Belgae and Celtae to Portus Itius, then shipped with the remains of his fleet to Britannia. An island as remote to the people of Rome as the summit of Olympus. Yet here he was, conquering in Rome's name the very edges of the known world. Until this letter.
Caesar let his knees collapse him onto the familiar camp bed. Even this grief could be a lesson. No more tears for Caesar! The First Man in Rome must outrank all others in public worth and authority. He was more than permitted to have foibles, he considered dryly, remembering the late, un-lamented Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Not for Caesar! Had he not suffered enough? What was a friend but another tool for his enemies? His family…well, his ancestors would always have a place amongst the household gods, and he had yet to choose an heir, but he would like them. Not love them. His mother Aurelia would be his example in her stern adoration, not the unconditional love of uncle Marius and aunt Julia, or his own darling Julia. At last Caesar could fight sleep no more. His eyelids closed against the sun staining the sky the same colour as Julia's eyes, and he wept.
Pompeius Magnus's letter still lay in wait for Caesar when he awoke. Hades had chosen a girl, Atropos had lifted her shears to the loom of Fate, and—snip!—the end of his daughter, and with her all of Caesar's dreams. Snip went the shears of the Fates through the fragile thread that bound Caesar's triumvirate. With Marcus Licinius Crassus off in Syria, he had no money for his campaigns or to pay the debtors awaiting his return to Rome. With Pompey locked away in mourning, he had no-one of consular rank to fight for him in the Senate. With the war grinding into its fifth year with no end in sight, he had nothing to show for his proconsular governorship. Aside from the illegal raising of two legions from his own purse, a string of offenses against client rulers named Friend and Ally of Rome, and too many Roman corpses buried in the wilds of Gaul and Germania.
The summer heat of Britannia in his cramped tent swallowed him whole. Or perhaps he was Sisyphus, doomed to roll his burden up the fiery hills of Tartarus, struck down ever-closer to the summit! His command was not done yet: he had another year or so before the Senate tabled the matter of its extension for another five years. Another year, and he could give up, return to Rome and lay the mantle of imperium about some unsuspecting consul's shoulders. Let the boni, the Good Men in the Senate try at this damned war then! Let Pompey, scourge of the pirates of our Sea! Or Crassus, conqueror of Spartacus and his slave revolt! Let them see what a real war was like, on the scale not seen since Rome had thrown up Gaius Marius to save her from the onslaught of the German tribes. Marius had taught Caesar everything worth knowing on generalship, had saved his branch of the Julii Caesares long before, and Caesar would see that it was not wasted. He would attain everything in suo anno, until he surpassed even Gaius Marius, Third Founder of Rome. Caesar surged from his chair and left to find a live coal.
He burned the letter from home in an alien land. Flakes of ash dotted his armour. What phrase had that speck been? My precious pearl is lost? My only chick, gone at half my age? My poor wife, paler than my toga as I held her? Gaius Julius, Gaius Julius, they burned her funeral litter in the Forum, like the heroes on the Campus Martius! Did you ever know that the People loved her so? Dripping with sweat, he staggered back to his tent, shivering. How long before his enemies found Magnus a pretty shoulder on which to sob? Sulla's daughter, perhaps, or Cato's young wife, or one of the Servilia Caepiones. The last rays of the sun blinded him through the flap of his tent. Caesar swept the water goblet from his desk. Had he maintained the engagement to Marcus Junius Brutus, perhaps Julia would still be alive. But no: he had laughed at the gifts from Fortuna when the goddess had appeared to have deserted him entirely. He had smiled and indulged his daughter's young fancy for the one man her father had needed most in Rome, had quietly stoked the First Man in Rome's desperation for a wife and an heir, and married Julia to a man older then her father. Julia, his precious pearl, had been happy. It had been Magnus who had wanted a son. Magnus had killed his Julia. And Caesar still needed Magnus. Quenching the oil lamp, his hands tidied the reports on his desk without thought. The conquest of Britannia belonged to another day in Rome's history, not in his triumphal parade. To Hades with the loss of his dignitas if he called a retreat! Venus Victrix demanded that he return to Rome—in a manner that meant he did not need Magnus!
Returning to Rome was going to be a problem. At first his soldiers had welcomed the brisk breezes. Then the rain had arrived while they were on the march along the river Thamesea. By the time his legions had reached their ships, so had the hail, ripping the sails. The men had set up camp in winds that sounded like the shrieks of the Harpies. The gods had smiled upon Caesar, and he had not done enough with their favour! Neptune merrily swept half his ships from their moorings, Apollo sulked instead of riding the chariot of the Sun, and Jupiter sent great bolts of lightening to scare his men witless.
Gaius Julius Caesar was not pontifex maximus for nothing, however. And so he prayed to Venus, founder of the gens Julia, and to even the formless old gods of the Etruscans. He refused to give human sacrifices to the barbarian deities of Germania, Britannia and the Gauls. Too many men. Too much equipment. Too few ships. During the day, the new cold banished his fits, the ague without a pattern. At night he wrapped himself in his problem for warmth. Through his ancestor Aeneas his veins were tinted with the golden ichor of the gods, and he would not break like a mere mortal.
After a week, Caesar's luck returned. He met the rest of his fleet at the great estuary of the Thamesea.
"Have you by chance lost all your ships, imperator ?" hollered the soldier at the head of the fleet.
"Have you by chance lost all your tact, quaestor ?" he roared.
The impudent quaestor leaped from the prow to join him in the marshes. It was, to Caesar's astonishment, the patrician whom he had summoned from Rome after his election to the cursus honorum. Three months ago. Had the man dawdled at every brothel from the Palatine to Portus Itus?
"Cousin!" he greeted. "Still pretending to be Hercules? I thought you had grown up while I was away!"
His cousin kissed him on both cheeks.
"Less Hercules, more Orpheus come to rescue his precious Euridice from the depths of Hades. Can the Mourning Fields be any more gloomy than this shit-hole?"
"Keep that up and I won't let you have any wine, Marcus Antonius."
"Vercingetorix hasn't let us have any," he replied. "The quarrelsome vergobret you apparently put over your lap and spanked at Carnutum—"
What had his soldiers been prattling?
"—Metaphorically!" howled Antonius with laughter, "has been uniting the tribes. He started burning fields and ambushing legions the same day he learned you were in Britannia. I decided that I should come and get you."
"Well," said Caesar. "Let us put him into such a corner that I can put this Vercingetorix over my lap and spank him literally."
Marcus Antonius grinned.
"I'll help in any way I can sir."
The charm was entirely wasted on Caesar, already calculating the extra men he would have to squeeze onto the ships, which siege equipment he could leave, whether he could get any grain across.
"Talented at disciplining barbarians, are you Antonius?"
Chapter 2: Egypt, 52BC
"I'm only going to say this once!"
Marcus Antonius pushed his spare campaign goblet towards the mop of blond curls next to him. Their owner stared mutely at the usual chaos of maps in the general's tent. This activity had kept him engrossed all day. Antonius inhaled through his nostrils and shoved the watered wine under his tribune's too-pretty nose.
"And I am going to say it in front of the Great Man so that he can confirm what good advice it is."
A shadow fell over the map. Both soldiers leapt to attention.
"So he can't tattle to me, you mean!"
Their newest military tribune snapped his eyes from the aquiline clasp on the scarlet general's cloak. His gaze skipped over the gaunt face, settling on the civic crown atop it, the simple wreath of oak leaves that signalled the second-greatest military award in Rome's history. Then his gawking fell to the general's breastplate, carrying so many phalerae for bravery that it was more metal than leather. Antonius smiled to himself. The Great Man in a toga was something, but in full parade dress… All he had to do was ride fearlessly up to Pompey's forward scouts, Marcus Antonius fancied, and they would defect. It was Antonius's job, of course, to ensure that Caesar didn't try anything so reckless.
The Great Man pointed at the goblet.
"Will you drink that, Gaius Octavianus?"
"No thank you, uncle. I have no taste for wine. It gives me headaches."
"Nor does someone else," Antonius snorted, watching Caesar stride to the water jug and dilute his wine yet further.
Returning to the strategy table, the commander placed the battered pewter on the left wing of Pompey's infantry, as if to blot out a couple of legions. Not that it mattered, the way they were outnumbered.
"The water out here will give you worse than headaches, lad. In future, add the wine."
Caesar sipped his flavoured water and made the sort of face he usually reserved for news of enemy reinforcements.
"Not this water however! It's been boiled for so long it's still warm. And whoever thought that Nilus tasted of silt?"
Taking his own advice, Caesar proceeded to undilute his wine. He waved the goblet at Antonius, as if to apologise for the interruption. His general rolled his eyes.
"As I was saying, before Caesar took the wind out of my sails, tribune, you're only getting this advice once. It'll save your military career, the political version of learning to swim."
At least he had the youth's full attention now. Pushing his own goblet out of the way, he leaned forwards and enunciated with the precision of the practiced inebriate.
"Stop staring at Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa like that."
"Like what?" said Octavian, staring at him for a change.
Confusion wrinkled the ivory brow. Or at least he thought it was confusion. To be brutally honest, he'd never seen the brat look confused about anything.
"Like you stare at me?" asked Caesar slyly.
"I can get away with it," said Antony hotly—then jammed his jaw shut, cheeks red, for it hadn't been directed at him at all.
Caesar's eyes were fixed on his great-nephew. This untrained swot even blushed better than Antonius did.
"How?" drawled the Great Man.
"You?" sneered the little toe-rag.
"Me, Gaius Octavianus," affirmed Antonius.
He thumped his pewter goblet on the map for emphasis.
"Every ranker in this army knows that Marcus Antonius is a drunk, a lecher, a boor, a lout, and has fathered more bastards from Syria to Germania than he won gold phalerae. They like me, because I'm just as bad as them! Soldiers like commanders whom they understand. They follow me because they know my weaknesses and know how to cover up for them."
"And who would look for that weakness, when it hides under all the others?"
Caesar sipped his wine in silence. Gaius Octavianus absorbed this information stoically.
"Caesar has none of those flaws," he said eventually. "Why does the army follow him?"
Antonius sighed into the bottom of his goblet.
"Caesar is special, Octavianus. He's not just any First Man in Rome. The military genius and progressive politics of Marius, with the cunning and charm of Sulla."
"Every man's woman and every woman's man?" Octavianus summarised.
Antonius aimed a hefty kick at the toe-rag's ankles. If the next words out of his too-sculpted mouth were "Nicomedes of Bithynia"… Octavianus shot up from his chair, wincing.
"So, I can't look at Agrippa. Can…can he look at me?"
"I don't see why not," drawled the Great Man. "Enough stares of mournful longing and every soldier will see it for what it is: the hopeless adoration of an Italian hayseed for a descendant of Venus herself."
Octavian opened his mouth again. It suddenly clamped shut in the full force of Caesar's glare.
"It is hopeless, isn't it, great-nephew?" he said sternly.
"Yes, sir," the tribune said stiffly.
Well, at least Marcus Antonius lied better than the salatrix tonsa.
"You've Sulla's face, his charm, his guile, and his complete lack of hardiness required for a military career. I don't want rumour to whisper in my ear that you've his other weaknesses too!"
The toe-rag left with his tail between his legs. His great-uncle watched him leave, mouth pensive.
His cousin had no such patience.
"Wine gives him headaches, the poor darling. He sniffs and sneezes and coughs at the sight of a plain of grass, let alone a burning field of wheat. He can't swim. He'd faint having to march thirty miles a day in Capua, let alone the forty miles you insist upon in the middle of bloody Egypt."
Marcus Antonius surged from the chair to refill his goblet.
"What possessed you to ask for him on this campaign, Caesar?"
Caesar patted him on the shoulder on the way to the tent flap.
"At the risk of imminent death, all of your avuncular charm emerges."
Antonius turned to watch his superior lazily toss the remains of his flavoured water onto the sand.
"I never imagined that Gaius Octavianus might bother you so much!"
Antonius scowled at the general's shadow. He watched it knock an easy return salute to the primipilus centurion waiting at the tent. Sighing inwardly, Antonius reluctantly diluted his wine. More work. Work that wasn't going to vanish Pompey's excess four legions, or his heavy cavalry, or his supply train—or better, hand them over to Caesar.
"Imperator, General," the man saluted again.
"Vorenus!" exclaimed Antonius delightedly. "When did you start passing for an officer with twenty-five years service?"
"It must be all the grey hairs from dragging the likes of Titus Pullo up the ranks with me, sir."
Even Caesar cracked a smile. The chief centurion gestured at the maps.
"One of our military tribunes has spent a considerable effort on calculating the enemy's supply routes," announced the Dictator. "Which soldiers form the best two maniples to ambush the water dumps?"
Vorenus's face probably mirrored Antonius's own. They were fighting in a desert, for Jupiter's sake! A beige expanse as featureless and flat as Cicero's wife's face. No obvious corridors for the supply columns, no large obstacles in the terrain, so how in the names of Minerva and Mars themselves did you predict the route of a few thousand auxiliaries with mules?… The Great Man was talking again.
"You'll have a hundred German cavalry for a diversionary feint, then once the centre of mass is shifted to the approaching column under attack by the Ubii, co-ordinate the maniples to raid the water supply—"
"Poison, or just we dump it on the sand?" asked Vorenus.
"Neither," Antonius interjected. "Steal it. Bury as much of it as close to the dump as you can, then the cavalry will pick it up on the retreat."
His commander flashed an amused glance over the top of Vorenus's head. Raiding the water supply of a dozen-legion army with ten men was suicidal. Stealing it was impossible.
"Give me an hour and I'll supply the names of two maniples with decorations for night attacks, skilled at co-operating with cavalry, all men familiar with one another's tactics. And who enjoy the easy jobs, sir. Permission to withdraw?"
"Granted," Caesar nodded in dismissal, regal enough to make Antonius's knees weak.
Antonius chewed on a scowl. Irrumator. A descendant of Venus herself, his arse! His cousin was one-eighth Julian, seven-eighths Nobody and all too clever for his own good.
"Well?" his commander asked, lip twitching.
"Gaius Octavianus is extremely pretty, extremely clever, and cold enough to freeze even your mentula," Antonius supplied waspishly.
"Not failings that anyone would attribute to you, then?"
He forced a laugh. It sputtered out as Caesar cupped his cheek, running a sword-calloused thumb over his mouth..
"Let him fail," murmured his commander. "At worst it will cost you ten men to be my undisputed heir."
Caesar's plans were never so transparent, thought Antonius. His thinking vanished altogether when Caesar's mouth followed his hands. He gulped the last of the Falernian, drunk already, mouth dry.
"What, what if Vorenus returns?" he panted.
"In an hour?" the older man laughed. "I will have worn you out by then."
Antonius's hands scrabbled at the knotted scarlet sash around his waist, then at the fastenings of his own armour. Efficient as ever, Caesar had already pushed the leather skirts from his subordinate's waist.
"You can't fuck me any harder than Pompeus will tomorrow," he challenged.
"You'll command the centre, take the brunt of it."
"I'm good at that, aren't I? Sir?"
The smile passing over Caesar's face at the sight of Antonius already standing to attention was positively cruel. He shoved Antonius in the direction of his camp bed. Impatient, the younger man simply turned and braced himself against the map table.
"Remind me, Antonius."
At least they would both die happy tomorrow.
Chapter 3: Italia, 44BC
"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.