Read The Great Game Online

Authors: S. J. A. Turney

Tags: #Historical Fiction

The Great Game (6 page)

BOOK: The Great Game
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Rufinus started and felt his legs beginning to tremble as he dropped his gaze to the floor.

‘Have a heart, sister’ Commodus replied with what sounded like genuine feeling. ‘Can you not see that the man is tired, cold and wounded, no doubt in the defence of our great empire and in the face of the Quadi with their gnashing teeth?’

Next to him, Rufinus heard Paternus draw in a deep breath. The two men had clearly interrupted the Imperial family at a bad time, with tempers fraying. The argument must have precipitated very quickly, with Lucilla so freshly arrived. Perhaps they should have waited until everyone was rested and freshly risen in the morning.

‘I beg leave to present to you legionary Gnaeus Marcius Rustius Rufinus of the Tenth Gemina, chosen man of the action and hero of Rome.’

Aurelius’ eyes sparkled and some colour returned to his pallid cheeks as Rufinus desperately tried to land his eyes on the emperor without raising his head.

‘Indeed? Do go on.’

Paternus cleared his throat. ‘My lord Caesar, this man saved my life and that of a number of Praetorian cavalrymen, single-handedly. He pushed me from the path of the arrows of hidden Quadi archers and, I am led to believe, killed five of the ten ambushers himself. All this, I am fairly certain, was done without the knowledge of who it was he was saving. Such selfless bravery is deserving of recognition, Caesar.’

‘Indeed’ the emperor said again, a quirky smile touching the corner of his lips. ‘It has been some time since the name Rustius has been spoken at court. Since before my reign, for certain. One wonders where the family has been hiding all these years while breeding their new clutch of heroes?’

Involuntarily, Rustius looked up into the emperor’s searching eyes and quickly averted them, only to find Paternus looking at him in surprise. The prefect suddenly seemed uncertain. Was his new playing piece not what he thought? Rufinus should have expected Aurelius to remember the events that surrounded the exile of the
Rustii; he would have been at court then himself as a young man, heir to Antoninus.

He was fighting the urge to address the emperor directly in defence of himself and Paternus when Aurelius smiled and swept the matter aside with his hand. ‘Very good. A hero in battle, then? You have already had thoughts as to an appropriate reward, Paternus?’

The prefect nodded.

‘I felt that phalera were too small an offering, but a crown is clearly too much. I thought perhaps a phalera awarded by the emperor himself before the army?’

Marcus Aurelius leaned back on his couch.

‘Pomp and ceremony is always good for the morale of the men. It is a good thought, Paternus. We shall need to wait until the rest of the army returns to garrison, of course. There will be other decorations to be awarded then.’

Rufinus’ eyes widened as he stared at the floor. Decorations presented by the emperor were a rarity indeed. He wouldn’t have to pay for a drink among his contubernium for weeks.

Lucilla, a flash of something that looked like hope crossing her face, looked up sharply.

‘If the barbarians are finally quashed, we should return to Rome, father. You can enter in triumph and decorate as many war heroes as you wish in front of the people.’

Aurelius turned to face Lucilla. From his position Rufinus couldn’t see the emperor’s face, but he did see Lucilla flinch.

‘Father’ she added defensively, ‘it is time we returned to Rome. This cold, damp air is doing none of us any good. You have been ill for months and your chest…’

Again, she flinched.

Commodus let go of the back of the chair upon which he leaned and strode round to take the seat next to the stunning blonde woman. The look they exchanged briefly opened a whole new set of questions in Rufinus’ mind, but he brushed it aside. His place here, in the middle of what appeared to be a family argument, was to stand still and quiet and not intrude.

‘Father,’ Commodus said placatingly, ‘you know how rare an occasion it is when my dear sister and I are in concord, but in this particular case, she is correct. Your health suffers in this environment. It is time we returned to Rome, as soon as the
immediate business is over. Your legates and civil administrators can take on the task of turning this place into a province.’

The emperor turned his gaze to his son and Rufinus caught a glimpse of his face and the softening of his features.

‘It is heartening to an old man to see his children show so much care for his well-being. My decision has already been made, however. We stay here through the summer to see the matter settled and return to Rome before winter brings her chill. To abandon our fresh conquest so soon would be to invite further rebellion.’

Paternus cleared his throat meaningfully and the emperor looked up and smiled.

‘See how our family business makes these brave soldiers uncomfortable.’

The prefect straightened. ‘A phalera then, Caesar?’ he prompted, nudging the conversation back to its original purpose. ‘To be presented before the legions in Vindobona?’

Commodus leapt energetically from his couch and walked across to the two soldiers. Rufinus, distinctly uncomfortable with his gaze lowered, became aware that the young co-emperor was standing less than a foot away from him.

‘Look at me, legionary Rufinus.’

The voice was not sharp or angry, though there was a steel in it that he’d not yet heard from the whimsical young man. Before he’d even thought about it, in response, Rufinus had looked up, straight into the piercing, grey-blue eyes of Commodus.

‘This man is a lion, father, not a peacock. Baubles are pretty, but they will hardly satisfy a lion.’

Rufinus blinked and the man before him grinned.

‘What think you of phalerae, legionary Rufinus?’

His mouth had suddenly gone so dry that, had he a clue what to say, he would have had great difficulty making it heard. Instead, his mouth opened and a scratchy, hoarse sound emerged. Commodus’ grin widened.

‘This man deserves more than a phalera. Look at him! He’s wasted in the shield wall of a cohort. A man who breaks an ambush and kills five men single-handedly, only moments after having fought hard, no doubt, in the front lines of a major battle.’

Rufinus could sense the tension in the Praetorian prefect next to him. This new prized playing piece in the great game was in danger of being suborned by another player. His gaze passed over
Commodus’ shoulder and fell on the emperor, who was watching intently. The old man propped himself up on an elbow.

‘What have you in mind, my son?’

Commodus turned his mischievous, beaming smile on his father.

‘Why what else, but to elevate him to the Praetorians? I am certain that Paternus can make good use of him. The increase in pay and benefits is more suitable reward than simple trinkets.’ He turned back to Rufinus and his brow furrowed. ‘Besides, I think I like the idea of having this man in our bodyguard where his talents are not wasted.’

The emperor was nodding his head thoughtfully. ‘The notion has merit. What are your thoughts, Paternus?’

There was a strange silence. Rufinus could almost hear the prefect’s mind churning over every aspect of this sudden turn of events, trying to identify each advantage and potential problem that could arise. In the end, his shoulders relaxed a little and he shrugged. ‘It seems to me a fine idea, Caesar. I do think we need to hold off on any announcement of his transfer until the presenting of his decoration when the Tenth are back in garrison. It may do the morale of the legion good to see one of their own so honoured.’

Commodus laughed lightly. ‘We have yet to ask Rufinus here what he wishes for himself? Perhaps he feels that the scorpion shield is not for him?’

Again, Rufinus’ throat caught and he stuttered a strange sound.

‘Come on, man. Speak up.’

Finding a reserve of courage somewhere deep inside, Rufinus straightened. ‘It would be my honour to serve the emperor and his household in whatever capacity they see fit, my Caesar.’

‘Well said’ Commodus laughed, clapping his hand on Rufinus’ dirty, slightly rusty shoulder plate.

Paternus cleared his throat. ‘Very well, Caesar. If all is agreed, then, legionary Rufinus should head to the barracks and rest and bathe. The coming days will be busy for him.’

As the emperor nodded, Paternus turned to him.

‘Go to the Praetorian barracks and find Perennis and the men who escorted you. They will see to everything. I must stay and apprise the emperor of the full details of the campaign.

On her couch, Lucilla rolled her eyes. ‘Father, if you insist on talking battle with Paternus, I beg leave to return to the villa. I fear a headache is looming.’

Aurelius waved his daughter away with an indulgent smile and Lucilla stood, pausing, looked down meaningfully at her husband. The Syrian suddenly became aware that everything had gone quiet and looked up in surprise.

‘Are you coming?’ she snapped acidly.

‘Of course, my dove’ he replied with an ingratiating smile and hauled himself from the couch, turning to the emperor. ‘Caesar.’

Commodus squared his shoulders.

‘If you will excuse me too, father, I feel the distinct need of a bath. I have spent too much of the day in sword practice. I’m sure I will hear all the pertinent news in due course?’

Aurelius nodded to his son, some apparent disapproval of the young man’s martial activities giving the look a dark overtone, and the young co-emperor clapped his hand on Rufinus’ shoulder plate again, turning him away from the emperor.

‘Come. I myself am feeling weary and grimy. We will make use of the bath house before you return to the Praetorian barracks.’

Rufinus’ heart skipped a beat again as he felt himself being urged from the room. At the door, opened on cue by the olive-coloured slave, he paused and bowed as Lucilla and her husband passed them, neither sparing him a look. Behind them hurried the slave girl, so close he could almost touch her. Her scent was something spicy and sweet, heady and aromatic. She glanced at him for a fleeting moment and his world warmed; and then she was gone.

Nervously, Rufinus waited until Commodus gestured for him to exit, following on behind. The co-emperor wore a mischievous grin. The two men passed though the antechamber and out into the basilica, where the huge statue of Mars towered over them. Rufinus’ gaze fell on the figures of Lucilla and her entourage as they crossed the enormous hall. He almost jumped as Commodus’ hand appeared on his shoulder again and drew him to a stop, turning him to face the God.

‘You would do best to avert your eyes from my sister’s slaves. You will find no comfort there.’ His grin widened even further. ‘Though she
is
fascinating, I have to concur.’

Rufinus’ gaze fell to the marble tiles once more.

‘Legionary Rufinus, I cannot have a conversation with a man who will not meet my gaze.’

‘Caesar’ he answered weakly, looking up into those piercing, intelligent eyes.

‘You may be a lion on the field of battle, but in the snake-pit that is the imperial court, you are yet a sacrificial lamb.’ He frowned. ‘I mix my animal metaphors, but you follow my meaning. What do you make of all of this?’

Once more, Rufinus’ vocal chords seized and he felt himself choke. Commodus’ smile disappeared and his face became stern.

‘Out with it!’

The same steel as before: almost identical to the commanding tone of Marcus Aurelius as he had cautioned his daughter. A tone that could make a statue snap to attention.

‘Caesar, I really do not know. I have been told that all men of power play games. I fear I am a piece to be played, though I am not sure to whom I belong.’

Suddenly all the sternness and steel was gone and the young co-emperor was smiling again. ‘Very astute, Rufinus. But the game has not yet begun and the players are busy assembling their pieces. My father’s health declines at an ever-increasing rate and the auguries are not good. By all rights there should be no issue when the old charmer rises to join his illustrious forebears. I am already his co-emperor and the succession to my sole rule is clear. However, camps are forming, as they inevitably will.’

He quickly glanced over his shoulder. Lucilla and her companions had gone. With a sigh, he turned and gestured for Rufinus to follow.

‘Sadly, there will be trouble. I expect difficulties from a number of sources when the day comes, though I hope the Praetorians will remain secure. Paternus is as loyal as any man to my father and I hope that his loyalty will continue on seamlessly with me, but I am not so naïve as to assume it.’ He shook his head. ‘Such gloomy thoughts are for other times. Tonight should be a night for celebration. This seemingly-eternal war is finally over and we will soon return to civilization. We have heroes to honour and wounds to lick. Come. Let us to the baths.’

As the pair walked on, Rufinus became aware that Commodus was watching him out of the corner of his eye.

‘Caesar?’

The man laughed. ‘You really killed five of them on your own?’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Perhaps you are wasted even in the Guard. I should perhaps have you a slave that I could watch in the arena.’

Rufinus’ heart tightened and he tried to speak, though all that emerged was a slight strangled noise. The young emperor laughed. ‘Fear not. I mean you no ill, Rufinus, though I am an aficionado of the games, and I would love to see you fight.’

Somehow, he found his voice somewhere deep inside again. ‘I box for my century, Caesar. Such fights are less… fatal, but skill is skill.’

‘Indeed. I shall have to watch you fight. I do not believe the Praetorians involve themselves in such activities, though perhaps it is time they did.’

The two men walked out into the courtyard of the headquarters and, on the threshold of the basilica’s grand entrance, Rufinus caught just an echo of the slave-girl’s heady fragrance. Not strong, but enough to make his head feel light.

It was almost surreal. Two days ago he was a duplicarius legionary in the Tenth Gemina, standing in the shield wall and watching half the population of the barbarian steppe run at them, roaring defiance and hatred. He had flinched at being addressed directly by a centurion and told to raise his shield in line. Now here he was in the crisp early evening air with the clear sky denying the threat of fresh snow that everyone expected, striding across the courtyard at the power centre of the Danubian front alongside Commodus himself, golden son of the emperor and co-ruler of Rome. Each time he remembered who it was that walked beside him, he felt a little jolt of fear and had to glance across at the man to reassure himself he was truly awake.

BOOK: The Great Game
4.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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