He paused. He noticed Marcia was laughing. Only she, in all the Roman empire, dared to mock him when he boasted. Not even she knew why he let her do it. He began to smile again, the frightful frown that rode over his eyes dispersing, leaving his forehead as smooth as marble.
“If I should marry you and make you empress,” he said, “how long do you think I should last after that? You are clever enough to rule the fools who squawk and jabber in the senate and the Forum. You are beautiful enough to start another siege of Troy! But remember: You are Caesar’s concubine, not empress! Just remember that, will you! When I find a woman lovelier than you, and wiser, I will give you and your Christians a taste of Nero’s policy. Now—do you love me?”
“If I did not, could I stand before you and receive these insults?” she retorted, trusting to the inspiration of the moment; for she had no method with him.
“I would willingly die,” she said, “if you would give the love you have bestowed on me to Rome instead, and use your godlike energy in ruling wisely, rather than in killing men and winning chariot races. One Marcia does not matter much. One Commodus can—”
“Can love his Marcia!” he interrupted, with a high-pitched laugh. He seized her, nearly crushing out her breath. “A Caius and a Caia we have been! By Jupiter, if not for you and Paulus I would have left Rome long ago to march in Alexander’s wake! I would have carved me a new empire that did not stink so of politicians!”
He strode into the anteroom where all the gladiators waited and Narcissus had to follow him—well named enough, for he was lithe and muscular and beautiful, but, nonetheless, though taller, not to be compared with Commodus—even as the women, chosen for their good looks and intelligence, who hastened to reappear the moment the emperor’s back was turned, were nothing like so beautiful as Marcia.
In all the known world there were no two finer specimens of human shapeliness than the tyrant who ruled and the woman whose wits and daring had so long preserved him from his enemies.
“Come to the arena,” he called back to her. “Come and see how Hercules throws javelins from a chariot at full pelt!”
But Marcia did not answer, and he forgot her almost before he reached the entrance of the private tunnel through which he passed to the arena. She had more accurately aimed and nicely balanced work to do than even Commodus could do with javelins against a living target.