Rated: 18+ · Short Story · History · #1799164
A soldier must make a decision whether to break his oath, or stay faithful to a tyrant
|Cassius Chaerea, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, waited by the marble staircase at the rear of the imperial throne. He knew better than to approach the Emperor Caligula while the gladiators fought for their lives on the bloodied sand below. |
Though he could not see any of the fight unfolding below, Cassius followed the ebb and flow of the combat by the noise of the crowd seated on the stone benches. Each blow elicited resounding cheers from the audience and cries of childlike glee from Caligula as he bounced excitedly in his seat.
A large red haired German standing guard at the top stairs stretched to catch a glimpse of the duel. Cassius ignored him. He stood, his gaze fixed on the Emperor, fingers caressing the hilt of the gladius concealed beneath his toga.
A deafening roar from the benches dragged Cassius from his reverie, signifying that one of the fighters was down. He pictured the wounded man grasping at the victor’s thigh, his other hand raised, in the accepted plea for mercy.
The roar of the crowd gave way to expectant silence as Caligula rose from his throne and strode to the front of the gallery, where he gazed down on the fighters, judging their performance. Hands resting on the ledge, the young emperor raised his right fist to breast level and let it hang there, teasing the crowd.
“Just finish it, you bastard,” muttered Cassius under his breath.
The German guard craning his neck for a view looked at him briefly, before turning his attention back to the spectacle.
After a moment, Caligula extended his thumb and drew it across his throat in a quick sweep. “Slit him, Thracian,” he called out in his reedy voice. He was drowned out by thousands of voices rising in unison, but he didn’t care. His eyes were fixed on the scene before him, the noise of the crowd breaking over him like a wave.
“Bloody gladiators. Show ponies the lot of them,” Cassius muttered. “Wouldn’t last five minutes up north.” He would never say that aloud though, particularly if one of Caligula’s beloved Thracians was fighting. They carried vicious curved swords, which could hook around an opponent’s shield to lacerate the arm and body, a tactic which fed the blonde haired emperor’s animal urges to smell hot blood.
Finally as the ocean of voices ebbed to become a droning murmur, the Emperor wiped his purple edged toga across his sweaty face and stumbled back to his throne, spent. He gestured languidly, and one of the many bald eunuchs came to his side as Cassius approached.
“...Yes that big fellow, with the face of Charon the ferryman.” He pointed to a huge man wearing a red faced mask and a leather apron smeared with congealing blood. “Bring him to the palace. Have him fuck that new girl, what’s her name? Little dark thing.”
The eunuch replied that he didn’t know.
“No matter. Her name isn’t the point at all. Just make sure that you get him, whatever the cost.”
The eunuch nodded and prepared to leave. Caligula stopped him with a hand on his smooth arm. “Make sure he doesn’t wash first. That would just spoil everything.”
When the eunuch departed on his errand, Cassius stepped forward, saluting. “Ave Imperator.”
“Ah, it’s my favourite soldier.” Caligula extended his hand, without standing to receive him. “Have you stuck your sword in anything soft today?”
With his left hand gripping the ivory hilt of his sword, Cassius knelt to kiss the offered ring. The day is not yet over, Little Boot.
Cassius leaned close to perform the daily ritual, and Caligula drew his fingers into a fist, leaving only the middle finger extended. “Go on, Prefect, or do you renounce your oath?” asked the grinning Emperor.
His grip tightened the hilt of his sword as he quickly kissed the wiggling finger, to the accompaniment of titters and crude guffaws from the Emperor’s entourage. “My oath is my honour, Imperator.”
He waited on one knee, his reddened face downcast until the laughter subsided. He rose slowly, eyes fixed on Caligula’s smooth face.
“What is the watchword for today, Imperator?”
“Always business, that is our dear Cassius. And I thought you always visited because you enjoy having your Emperor upon your lips.” The chamber was again filled with affected laughter.
Cassius waited, silent.
“Oh, you old soldiers are no fun,” Caligula said as the gathered voices trailed away once more. “Very well, the watchword for today will be ‘kiss me soldier’.”
Caligula’s assembled troupe again burst into ribald laughter.
Cassius saluted once more and strode to the staircase. The German guard leaning on his wicked, barbed spear leered at him as he paced stiffly from the chambers.
Flexing his arms, Cassius savoured the weight of the silvered scale cuirass on his shoulders as he waited in the dark of the tunnel.
The few lamps cast flickering shadows on the polished silver phalarae, medals awarded for valour and honourable service, suspended on the harness over his chest. The central disc bore the likeness of the general Germanicus, father of the tyrant Caligula. Running his fingers over the embossed portrait, Cassius steeled himself for his task.
Looking over his shoulder, Cassius could see Sabinus, his former Optio. A good man in a tight spot, that one. Grinning, he whispered, “Not long now, Sir.” He was grinning.
From across the gloomy passageway, Otho whispered, “Victory or Elysium, eh?” the lamplight shone briefly off his bald pate. Both men wore their swords on their soldier’s belts, ready for mayhem.
“It’s not too late for you two to back out,” whispered Cassius.
Eyes fixed on the poorly lit tunnel, Sabinus answered, “We go where you go, Sir.”
“Aye, Sir,” Otho echoed. “To Hades and back if you say.”
“So be it then,” Cassius whispered. “Damn all of us for traitors.”
Spurius Larcius Metellus waited by the stairway behind the Emperor’s throne, next to the German guard. Sweat beaded on his forehead despite the damp February air. Standing at the front of the chamber, Caligula leaned over the edge to watch the bloodshed, shouting and gesturing at the fighters below.
Metellus mopped his brow. It would be a simple matter to rush forward and thrust a dagger into his back. Glancing at the red bearded guard and his vicious barbed spear, Metellus shook his head minutely. No. I am no fighting man. That arrogant bastard waiting downstairs will do that.
A roar burst from the assembled crowd. Caligula reeled back as though struck, “Damn him. Damn that Myrmillo,” he roared as he collapsed into his throne. Picking up a gilded dagger, he began digging at the marbled arm of his seat. A barefoot girl no more than twelve years old brought forth a platter of fruit.
“Damn that bloody Thracian. Killed by a Myrmillo. A bloody fish man.” He lashed out with the dagger. The silver platter crashed to the floor, scattering fruit in all directions. Squealing, the terrified girl fell away, tiny hands clutching at her bloodied face. Another frightened slave took the whimpering girl and gently ushered her away, grateful only that it had not been them.
Running a finger along the bloodied blade, Caligula spoke to no one in particular, “Lovely edge on this.” He said, licking his finger clean. “Order me a dozen, would you?”
A round faced eunuch leaned close to him and whispered in his ear. He then gestured for the sweating senator to come forward.
His back straight as a javelin, Metellus strode forward, the picture of senatorial arrogance.
“Imperator.” Kneeling, he took the offered hand, kissing the imperial ring.
“Good day, Senator.” Caligula said. “How is your lovely wife? I missed her at our grand social affair, though I am told she was the belle of the ball. Personally I don’t like those whores who lie there like a dead fish. But each to his own, I suppose.”
His face reddening, Metellus opened his mouth but did not speak.
“No matter. No matter. Petro tells me you have a gift for me.”
Recovering his composure, Metellus said, “Yes Imperator. You are renowned as a patron of the lively arts. For your delectation, I have brought to Rome, a troupe of Cretan acrobats.”
His interest piqued, Caligula asked, “Are they...flexible?”
“Oh yes, Imperator, flexible and youthful. And eagerly awaiting an audience with their Emperor.”
“Well then. We must not keep artistes waiting.”
“No, Imperator. Of course not.” Metellus could barely contain his smile. “Please follow me.”
Three of the heavily armed Germans left their stations and paced easily behind the pair as they rose and walked past the suddenly attentive guard at the staircase.
“Ave Imperator,” Cassius said, stepping from the shadows beyond the pair of dark doors, into the path of Metellus’ small party.
“Oh dear, what a pretty soldier you make Cassius. Do you want to play with my sword?” The blonde haired Emperor cooed to hide his surprise.
Reaching out, Cassius grabbed Caligula by the front of his toga. “Now!” he shouted as he dragged the skinny Emperor into the dark beyond the door. Ducking though the gap as the gate slammed closed in the faces of the shocked guards, Metellus followed.
Hands on hips, Cassius studied the men in the blocked passageway. Bracing their bodies against the guards beating on the door, Sabinus and Otho regarded their emperor with no more interest than they would a camp slave. Metellus leaned against the wall, pale and sweating in flickering torchlight.
Caligula recovered quickly. “What the hell are you playing at, Chaerea? Have you lost your reason?”
“On the contrary, Little boot, I have regained my reason.”
“How dare you call me...”
A blow across the cheek from Cassius’ vine staff cut his speech short and staggered him. “No. How dare you.”
Guttural shouts erupted from the other side of the door as the ambushed guards beat vainly against the barrier.
“Do you recognise this face, Little Boot?” Cassius tapped the medal on the centre of his chest with his staff. “That is the face of a decent honourable man. Germanicus, your Father. He is the man who should be wearing that toga.”
Caligula was defiant. “My heroic father is long dead. I am Caesar.”
“You are nothing more than a pimp.” Cassius spat the words. “A pimp who has turned his city into a brothel and his people into whores.”
The door shuddered as more Germans arrived on the other side.
Metellus had stayed silent, hoping to be ignored. “I can’t do it, Chaerea. They’ll kill us all.” He broke into a shambling run and disappeared into the gloom.
Caligula laughed as he vanished. “I do as a god will do, Chaerea, and you are bound to me by your oath.” He drew himself to his full height, a half head taller than Cassius. “Would you consign your soul to your dark soldier’s god as a traitor?”
Silent, Cassius gazed at the flagstones under his heavy soldier’s boots.
Grinning, Caligula held out his hand. “Show me your loyalty and your death will be quick. Defy me again and you will adorn a cross on the Appian way for the crows to feast on.
The door jolted on its hinges as the assembling guards used the own bodies against it.
“Centurion Chaerea, sir.” Sabinus said as he and Otho strained against the heaving door. “We can’t hold them much longer.”
Head bowed, Cassius intoned. “Mithras, god of soldiers. Born in darkness, bringer of light. I beg forgiveness for forsaking the honour of my oath.” He looked up into the emperor’s widening eyes. “I offer you the sacrifice of a low beast so that you may see my contrition is sincere.”
Cassius drew his sword and drove it upwards under Caligula’s ribs. Stiffening involuntarily, Caligula drew himself up straight, allowing bright blood to stain his white toga. Twisting the sword to expand the wound, Cassius withdrew the blade. The wounded man dropped to his knees.
The hallway echoed with a resounding crack. The door began to give way. A sword blade snaked through the gap, slicing along Otho’s rib’s. The old legionary, grunted, but did not fall back.
“Sabinus. Otho.” Cassius called over the harsh voices bellowing curses through the opening cracks. “Go now. Save yourselves.”
“We prefer to stay, Sir.” Said Sabinus in reply.
“If we leave you, Centurion, you will die here.”Otho grunted.
Drawing to attention, Cassius bellowed “You two, you have your orders. Now go, or you’ll wear my staff.”
Not daring to disobey, the pair stepped back from the door. Briefly pausing to salute, they loped off into the murky passage.
Turning his attention to the dying Caligula, Cassius said, “Imperator, I show you more mercy than you deserve. Go see the ferryman, Little Boot.” He brought the edge of the sword down on the junction of the kneeling man’s neck and shoulder, slicing flesh and bone, killing him.
Kicking Caligula’s body to the blood soaked floor, Cassius turned to face first of the German guards smashing through the wrecked door, their swords poised for battle. Pausing, they looked first at the broken body of their lord, then at the lone man in glittering armour standing defiant in the middle of the tunnel.
“The mighty have fallen,” Cassius announced. Vine staff in his left hand like a club, he raised the bloody sword to throat height, dripping point aimed at the newly arrived enemies.
“Come on then you animal shagging bastards. Who will it be? I have but one more sacrifice to make.”
Bellowing, he singled out the biggest and best armed of the group and charged into their midst.
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