XIII

It would be the glory of Rome. Nero stood over the table and the familiar seven-hilled landscape filled with intricately carved wooden houses and temples. Today there was a difference. In the area between the Palatine and Esquiline hills now stood a structure so magnificent it gave him a feeling of almost sexual pleasure. A single, monumental building on a scale with the hills that flanked it, which dwarfed every other surrounding construction. Three hundred rooms, miles of lakes and parklands. He would fill it with the wonders of the world and cover it with gold and men would come to marvel at it from the ends of the earth. Aegyptus, Babylon, Troy and Sumeria had nothing to compare with it. This would be his legacy. This would be his triumph. His and his alone. Within it would be a great artistic and cultural centre where he would entertain and mesmerize those worthy of his talent. Music would soothe the blood of his enemies. Fine words would seduce those who opposed him. In this house there would only be harmony.

Of course, he thought, remembering the hundreds, perhaps thousands of wooden dwellings scattered across the mosaic floor, there would be obstacles. But a good workman could clear away any obstacle if he had the tools. He would allow nothing to obstruct his dream. They would thank him in the end, all those small people who would have to make way for it; the people who lived in the cramped dunghills beneath the terracotta tiles amid the oppressive, swirling miasma of corruption. Seneca had taken him there once, disguised in the clothing of the common man, to let him see his people. People? Animals fighting and rutting and squatting in the mud and the straw and the filth. The stink had almost made him faint. He had as little in common with his people as he had with cows in a field or the monkeys in the Palatine menagerie. Let ugliness make way for beauty, ordinariness for elegance, mediocrity for magnificence. He ran the last thought over his tongue, testing it for quality and rhythm. Yes, with a little polishing he could include it in a song or a poem.

He picked up his harp and strummed through the scales, smiling as the hundreds of songbirds in the cages by the window reacted to his notes. Here at least he could always find an audience who truly appreciated his music. The cage was not their natural element, just as the barless cage of duty he inhabited was not his. Sometimes he longed to fly free and when that melancholy took hold he would open the cages and watch the birds stand nervously on the threshold before taking to the skies; trilling blackbirds and song thrushes, pink-cheeked goldfinches and drab, honey-voiced skylarks, the robins and wrens and redstarts. Sometimes they would die in their cages and he would mourn them.

Lately, he had been pondering his own mortality. Torquatus had tried to explain to him the tenets of the Christus religion, but he did not fully understand it. In fact, he was fairly certain Torquatus didn’t understand it either. He frowned. This was when he needed Seneca’s genius. Seneca could take a subject and peel back the layers until a child could understand its meaning. But Seneca was old and defeated and had taken to disagreeing with him at the end. He could not even outwit a man as dull as Torquatus, so how could he guide his Emperor? As he saw it, in simple terms, a man could achieve immortality only after submitting to the indignity and inconvenience of death. To do so, he needed to have believed, in life, that Christus truly was the son of the Judaean god Yahweh. But, and this was what made it all seem so unlikely, how could someone of even average intelligence be convinced of the authenticity of a man who had been dead for almost three decades? He had considered having the body of the Galilean exhumed. Surely it would show some signs of his god-like capacity; a lack of mortification of the flesh or an ability to speak from beyond the grave? He fully expected to become a god himself. After all, if old Claudius could be declared divine, surely he, of all his line, could take his place beside Augustus and Caligula. But he had the blood of gods running through his veins. To believe some foreigner born by a muddy puddle in the desert could stand at his side was an insult. It was like suggesting a beggar from the slums should have a temple dedicated in his honour. The Judaeans believed in the same god, and he was one of the reasons they despised this Christus, but they accepted the authority of the Emperor, which was why, for the moment, he tolerated their barbarities. Surely the more gods a man worshipped the better? Jupiter, Mars, Mercury and Minerva had all come to Rome’s aid in times of drought and famine and war. What could a single god do that many could not do better? If one god failed a man he was within his rights to sacrifice to another and another, until he found the god who could help him.

The more he turned it over in his mind, the more unlikely the Christus claims appeared. Still, he would put the man’s followers to the question. If they had stayed and worshipped their God and their son of God in some desert cave he would have ignored them, but they had not. They had come to his city, Rome, the heart of his Empire, and they had refused to acknowledge his authority. Worse, they had attempted to weaken Rome from within, suborning its citizens even at the highest level. He would test their faith upon the rack and the roasting plate and through glowing iron and blazing fire until they cried out their falsehood or revealed the true secret of their immortality. Unless the handsome hero failed him.

He remembered the kiss and Valerius shrinking from the touch of his lips and remembered another succulent mouth that had done the same. He had found that a reluctant boy could be moulded into a lover through a combination of pain and affection. Remove the reason for reluctance and he became pliable and cooperative, especially if he knew that the next step was to remove his head. Sporus had been like that, uncooperative until he’d been visited by the gelding knife, when he’d quite entered into the spirit of it all. Nero had been much younger then and it had seemed such fun to set up house, but the old men had spoiled it all with their righteous outrage, tattling to his mother when they were all just jealous. In the end Sporus had become tiresome, nagging him almost as badly as Octavia, so he’d had to go.

If the hero failed, he would have Valerius, willing or not.

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