***

Eucher woke slowly and turned to the sound of moaning. A girl was riding Theodore. He lay on his back. She rocked on top of him, her hands resting her weight on his chest. Her round breasts rose and fell, and she sighed with the rhythm of her rocking hips.

Like a first glass of wine after a tiring day of travel, warmth spread through Eucher. He watched until he heard someone calling his name. When he turned from the girl, he saw Hermes, that youthful immortal whom he thought had abandoned him long ago.

Once, Hermes had taken him to the cool spray of a waterfall where Hadrian buried the boy Antinous. Hermes had hovered as Eucher looked down at Antinous’s peaceful face, pale and still beautiful in death. Hermes vanished and Eucher’s nights since were dream-empty, the gates of horn and ivory closed.

He thought the messages were finished.

But now, Hermes knelt beside his couch, a hand on his chest, an amused gaze captivated by the girl across the room. Hermes’s beautiful skin glowed gently like a winter sun, and his breath blew from him with divine warmth. Like his brother Apollo, golden curls framed his gray eyes. But soon, his youthful face lost its mirth, and he glanced at Eucher with a terrible knowledge. His perfect form, contoured in white, slid by as he rose to his full height, and then he was gone.

Eucher woke slowly and turned to the sound of his name. Theodore stood behind a physician who waved something steaming under Eucher’s nose. It smelled peppery. He couldn’t move his left arm. A plastered bandage secured his shoulder.

“How do you feel?” the physician asked.

“Sore.” Eucher was at Theodore’s house, and Gallus stood beside him. “Did you get the scroll?” Eucher asked him. Gallus glanced from Eucher to the physician when Eucher demanded he pay the physician.

“No, Lord Tribune,” said the physician quickly. “The Prefect has taken care of that.”

“Give him the money,” Eucher ordered, trying to sound stronger than he felt. “Take some incense to Ascelpius, and keep the rest.” The room spun, and when Eucher tried to right it, hands pushed him back down.

When the physician left, a girl pressed a cup of a foul-tasting brew to Eucher’s lips, and it slowly came to him where he was and what had happened.

Once he ate, Eucher sent for his guards. His first action was to send a search for the slaves who deserted. His second action was to send a man to purchase an amulet; for a little gold, a priest of Ascelpius would bless it.

“I know nothing about it,” answered Theodore to Eucher’s accusations later that day. He sat opposite on a chair with the same harmless demeanor he wore at the dinner the night before.

“The Patrician will think someone was sending him a message,” said Eucher.

“Would he be right?” wondered Theodore.

“This isn’t a trivial matter,” Eucher scolded. “The attack was well-planned if poorly-executed. The lack of success doesn’t matter. If no one else is found, then your implication will be enough to condemn you.”

Theodore straightened in his high-backed chair. It was a chair carved of cedar, with black insets on the arms. “I don’t know anything about last night. But I know something of the Patrician’s enemies, who are yours also.”

“You know because you are one?”

“Every man has enemies, how much more a man as great as your father?  More than that, the Patrician’s made enemies of men who were once his friends.”

“Enemies like your father and uncle.”

Theodore paused, which confirmed Eucher’s accusation, before going on, “Atheists don’t like him, of course, because he’s Christian. The Christians don’t like him because he negotiates with German heretics. The senators don’t much care for him because he’s too close to the Augustus, and that’s the same reason the eunuchs resent him. And what Roman doesn’t hate him for allowing the Germans in Italy?”

“My father has been master of the Roman armies since I was born. He’s suffered a thousand wounds and killed thousands of enemies for the protection and prosperity of Rome—for her emperor, her senators, her gods. How can you think of anything but falling to your knees with gratitude? How can you imagine he’s ever done anything for his family when all that’s ever mattered to him is Rome?” Theodore’s eyes sparkled as if he knew a secret, and Eucher suddenly felt exposed, as if his clothes had been torn from him. “The same complaints have been heard for years,” he added quickly, trying to recover from the feeling of embarrassment.

“There’s one difference.” Theodore waited as if Eucher should know what he meant. “You, Tribune. You’re twenty, aren’t you?  A man with the legitimacy of Theodosius’s blood, however diluted, is a risk. One who may be an atheist and undo the last hundred years is intolerable.”

“Your flattery’s wasted,” Eucher spat. “I’m merely a notary, a messenger for those who are truly important. My uncle orders me about like one of his boys, so you see there’s nothing for you to gain with me. My life isn’t nearly what you suppose it should be.”

“You have the blood of an emperor.”

“A dead emperor.”

“You have the mind of a statesman and the heart of a philosopher.”

“And those things, on my best days, serve the instincts of a wolf. I know quite well what I am, Prefect. I also know what I’m capable of, and it’s not treason.”

He puckered his lips in thought. “I wonder, Tribune, are you as innocent as you claim?  Or does that even matter? Were you afraid? Your boy told me how you fought in that alley, that you didn’t run or even try to negotiate with them. Were you afraid? Paralyzed with fear? Are you a coward?”

“I fear nothing.”

“All men fear something.”