Read The Great Game Online

Authors: S. J. A. Turney

Tags: #Historical Fiction

The Great Game (5 page)

BOOK: The Great Game
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Rufinus, his heart pounding in near-panic and aware of how close he had just come to disaster, looked around the huge courtyard. The colonnade that surrounded it was lit from beneath with torches burning in sconces, highlighting the many doors of the offices that controlled the day to day running of the army.

A tall bronze statue of the emperor on horseback stood at one corner of the square next to the rostrum from which commanders addressed their men. An ornate covered well stood in the centre, dozens of trails of footprints leading to and from it across the snow. As his eyes passed the colonnade on their way back to the basilica doorway ahead, Rufinus’ head stopped and his eyes widened.

Two women strode around the covered walkway, their sandals slapping on the stone, two legionaries escorting them, hobnailed boots clattering along behind.

The lead figure was clearly a woman of powerful breeding and expensive tastes. Her elegant stola was enfolded in a thick cloak of ermine, her waves of amber hair bound up with gold wire and trapped beneath a diadem of gold and jewels. Her face was pretty and elegant, if a little haughty, decorated with the bare minimum of white lead and cosmetics, adorned with understated jewellery that would cost more than a legionary’s lifetime wage.

But it was not the striding figure of the noblewoman that had caught Rufinus’ attention. Hurrying along in her wake, carrying a bundle of fabrics, was a girl of perhaps seventeen or eighteen years; her pale, creamy skin, needing no white lead, was accentuated by her mane of pitch black hair. A plain circlet of bronze that held back that mane was her only adornment, and her plain grey stola was covered with a utilitarian cloak of brown wool.

Rufinus felt his breath slow and his skin prickle anew.

The slave girl was hardly beautiful in a conventional Roman manner. Her cheekbones were high, but masked with a little excess padding, her nose slightly short with a curious upturn at the end. Her eyes sparkled, though, with the promise of mischief, and somehow there was about her a presence that made her mistress almost fade into the background.

Rufinus felt a number of uncomfortable stirrings that he really didn’t want to be experiencing as he was introduced to the man who ruled the world. He bit his cheek until he started to cry gently.

The two women and their guard passed close by and the slave girl glanced across at the party with a charming smile that Rufinus
knew was clearly meant for him alone. As the party disappeared through the door ahead, into the basilica, Paternus bowed deeply and exchanged a few unheard polite words before returning to the five soldiers in the courtyard.

‘We have been granted our audience. You four: back to barracks and arrange everything. Legionary Rufinus? Time for you to shine.’

As the man turned, gesturing for him to follow, the uncomfortable stirrings came back and Rufinus felt his colour rise as he walked forth to meet the emperor of Rome.

III – The man who rules the world

THE two soldiers, walking with military purpose, strode through the basilica’s main hall, the hob-nails of their boots clacking loudly on the black, white and yellow patterned marble. Rufinus’ heart continued to flutter, partially with nerves of the coming encounter, and partially from the sight of the slave girl who had entered the building ahead of them. There could be little doubt that they were destined for the same place as the two soldiers. Other than the Imperial family’s chambers, where would women be going in the headquarters of a legionary fortress?

Directly opposite the main door stood the chapel, currently playing host to the eagle, vexilla and standards of the First Adiutrix, its usual garrison serving in the field. Gleaming steel, silver and bronze glittered against the crimson flags of the First in the dancing light of the torches that illuminated the legion’s most sacred place.

The chapel was not their destination, though, and they walked on toward the top of the great basilica hall, where a statue of Mars in somewhat gaudy colours oversaw the business of the army. Doors off the hall at periodic intervals led into the offices of the most important men in the legion: the legatus and his tribunes, the camp prefect, and others. Smaller rooms for the clerks, quartermasters and other lower officers led off the great courtyard outside.

A series of rooms in the headquarters had been made available for the Imperial family to conduct their business, and with the exception of the family themselves, only extremely senior officers and imperial slaves had passed through these doors.

Rufinus eyed the Praetorians on guard to either side of the entrance nervously. To them he would be of less importance than a slug.

Neither man met his tremulous gaze, though, their eyes locked ahead in attentive stance. As Paternus and Rufinus approached, the two men crashed a salute and stepped aside, opening the door as they did so. No one, regardless of position or duty, would question the Praetorian prefect within the fortress.

The commander nodded at the men and strode through into a small ante-chamber. An oiled slave with olive complexion, wearing fine linens, bowed deeply and asked them to wait as he slipped through the next door into the room beyond.

‘Best behaviour, Rufinus.’

The legionary nodded emphatically.

After muffled words they couldn’t quite make out, the door opened once more and the slave reappeared.

‘His Imperial Majesty, Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus bids you enter without the customary formalities. Swords are permitted to be worn.’

Rufinus blinked.
This
was informal?

With just a nod to the lackey, Paternus paced through the inner door and into the chamber of the most powerful man in the world. Rufinus hurried on behind.

The room was as well appointed as one might expect of a legionary headquarters, but little extra effort had been made to accommodate such esteemed occupants. The black, white and yellow marble pattern had continued within from the floor outside. The high, arched windows were plain, consisting of small glass panes held together with black lead. Six columns of a fairly plain style created a false portico at either long side of the room.

The lack of heated floors in the headquarters had been offset by the inclusion of half a dozen braziers, burning with intense heat beside each pillar. Even so, the room had a sterile, cold feel.

The furniture seemed at odds with the room itself: half a dozen couches in an extended arc almost closing to a circle. Each couch had its small accompanying table. Other, more upright chairs and tables stood further back, near a large cabinet and an enormous table, scattered with parchment maps, wax tablets and lists written on wood sheets.

Four of the couches were occupied, slaves standing behind them, and it took a long moment for Rufinus to take in the details of the occupants, given that his gaze was automatically drawn to the striking slave girl standing behind her mistress’ couch, folding garments.

Marcus Aurelius, emperor of the known world, philosopher, general, genius and father of his people was not at all how Rufinus had expected. A number of times over the past few years, the emperor had given speeches to the men, standing on the raised platform out in the courtyard or on the battlefield. He was a man of medium height, perhaps five feet five or six, golden hair and beard curled by nature rather than design. When in his decorative, splendid
armour and addressing his men, he had seemed powerful; God-like, even.

This Marcus Aurelius made Rufinus’ breath catch in his throat.

The emperor was clearly not well. Pale and drawn, his flesh sagging back into his cheeks, he lay almost draped across the couch, his left hand trembling uncontrollably where it rested on the cushion’s edge near the cup of wine. Rufinus had seen healthier looking men waiting outside the hospital tents back in the lands of the Quadi.

There was no denying, however, the glimmer of that phenomenal intelligence and quiet serenity for which he had become known. The eyes that flicked in their shadowed sockets, regarding the newcomers, were as sharp as any bird of prey and seemed to hold an infinite depth of feeling and thought. Rufinus could not escape the impression that Aurelius had summed up every ounce of his being in a single glance.

To the emperor’s left, the haughty woman they had encountered in the courtyard lay, glowering as though an argument had been interrupted by these two soldiers. Though he’d never seen her before, her known presence in the fortress combined with her apparent age and physical features clearly marked her out as Lucilla, the emperor’s daughter and once regarded as an empress in her own right, through her marriage to Lucius Verus, Aurelius’ co-emperor.

That status had fallen away with the drunkard’s death out in the east and her re-marriage to the Syrian nobleman Claudius Pompeianus - no doubt the dark-skinned, oily character to her left, examining his fingernails as though bored with the whole affair.

The fourth occupant, a young and startling woman, with white-blonde hair elaborately bound up atop her head, piercing pale green eyes above whitened cheeks and ruby lips, was unknown to Rufinus and he could hardly make a guess as to who she was. However, when she smiled at the new arrivals, her face lit up like the morning sun and the true level of her beauty showed through. Had he been forced, he would have named her simply the most beautiful woman in the world, though with Lucilla’s slave girl standing in the same room, her remarkable beauty was eclipsed somehow by the other’s strangely hypnotic features.

Rufinus was aware once more of the feelings he was beginning to give way to and prayed he had not flushed in such august company.

‘Paternus, my favourite general’ the emperor said in reedy, slightly hoarse tones, a genuine smile stretching his sunken skin.

‘My emperor’ the prefect bowed curtly. ‘Greetings from the army and the freshly conquered lands of the Quadi. I bring tidings to warm the heart for you and your noble companions.’

Aurelius nodded almost absently as though this was no news at all for him and he felt the pressing desire to move on to other subjects.

Paternus seemed to have spotted the motion and quickly leapt in to continue with his debriefing. ‘If I may, Caesar?’

Aurelius nodded indulgently while Lucilla and the other young woman gave a resigned sigh and the oily Syrian failed to even look up.

‘The legions are busying themselves with the inevitable tasks following battle, but will return to Vindobona in due course, leaving only a caretaker garrison of auxiliary troops in temporary forts to oversee the settling of the conquered tribes and begin the process of introducing them to civilisation.’

‘Was it bad?’ Aurelius asked quietly and with genuine concern.

‘Surprisingly not, Caesar. Casualties were reasonably light and we had them on the run within a few hours of committing to the field. The legions and my own Praetorians fought like lions, Caesar. The clawed paw of Rome has swatted the Quadi and the Marcomanni for the last time.’

Lucilla straightened and cast a meaningful look at her father.

‘Must we endure a blow-by-blow account of legionaries beating barbarians to death, father. I for one have heard enough tales of military prowess in the past year to last me for three lifetimes.’

The emperor flashed her a sympathetic smile. ‘Indulge me for just a moment longer, daughter. Paternus has ridden a long way in adverse conditions to bring us these great tidings.’

The prefect bowed curtly once more and opened his mouth to continue, but was suddenly overridden by a hitherto unheard voice:

‘Indeed!’

The two soldiers’ heads jerked to the right at the new speaker. The figure of a tall, athletic man rose from a seat which had been so
placed with its back to the entrance that the occupant had previously gone unnoticed.

Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius and co-emperor of Rome, strode forth into the brighter light near the couches. The old emperor may have failed to live up to the image formed in Rufinus’ head from the addresses he had made, but Commodus instantly filled the room with his voice and personality, every inch the soldier and orator. His hair and beard, naturally curled like his father’s, shone gold in the light, but this hair framed a face that was tanned and healthy, with a quirky smile and eyes that seemed to contain every bit of the genius of the father.

Commodus, dressed in the tunic and breeches of an officer, with a sword at his side, though lacking the armour, strode across the room and placed his hands on the back of one of the free couches, leaning forward, his face breaking into a wide grin.

‘It has been a cold and forbidding few days, father, filled with the monotony of camp and the wittering of women’ his mischievous eyes wandered across the room and fell on his sister. ‘I long for tales of adventure and bravery, loyalty and strength. Let us hear how good Paternus and his men strangled the barbarian with their boot on his throat.’

The look of sheer malice that his sister shot him escaped no one in the room, though the young co-emperor, not yet twenty years of age, simply laughed it aside.

‘Your sense of humour withers as an olive branch with no water, beloved sister. I fear that if we stay in Vindobona much longer, your face will fall in on itself without a smile to help prop it up!’


Enough
!’ snapped Aurelius with a voice that carried boundless authority and gravitas, born of the decades he had both ruled and served the troublesome mistress that was Rome.

The outburst was delivered so sharply and uncharacteristically that Rufinus had jumped and was relieved beyond measure to note that Paternus had suffered a similar reaction. Commodus nodded his head and turned to his father, a modest expression of contriteness plastered across his features.

‘Apologies, father. I fear there is something in the air here that does not agree with me.’

Lucilla made no attempt to apologise and simply tore her glare from her brother and rested it instead on the two men before them.

‘Very well. If we are to listen to the exploits of the army,
riveting
as they are, I would first know who this lowly, hairy, dirty soldier in his sodden cloak is, given how his eyes rest so easily on the fine forms of the ladies of the household.’

BOOK: The Great Game
7.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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