“If he isn’t killed soon, Severus or one of the others will forestall us all,” said Sextus. “Pertinax has only one chance: to be on the throne before the other candidates know what is happening.”
Narcissus’ bronze face lighted with a sudden smile that rippled all around the corners of his mouth, so that he looked like a genial satyr.
“Speaking of killing,” he said, “Marcia has ordered me to kill you the moment you make up your mind the time has come to strike!”
“You promised her, of course?”
“No, as it happens we were interrupted. But she relies on me and if she ever begins to suspect me I would rather die in the arena than be racked and burned!”
“Why not then? How is this for a proposal?” Sextus touched him on the shoulder. “Substitute yourself and me for two of these men! Send me in against him first. If he kills me, you next. One of us might get him. I am lucky. I believe the gods are interested in me, I have had so many escapes from death.”
“I haven’t much faith in the gods,” said Narcissus. “They may be all like Commodus. I heard Galen say that men created gods in their own image.”
Sextus smiled at him.
“You have been listening, I suppose, to Marcia and her Christians.”
“Listening, yes, but I don’t lean either way. It doesn’t seem to me that Christianity can do much for a man when javelins are in the air. And besides, to be frank with you, Sextus, I rather hope to make a little something for myself. God though he is said to be, I would like to see Commodus killed for I loathe him. But I hope to survive him and obtain my freedom. Pertinax would manumit me. That is why I applied for the post of trainer in this beastly ergastulum. It is bad enough to have to endure the gloom of men virtually condemned to death and looking for a chance to kill themselves, but it is better than treading the sand to have one’s liver split, one’s throat cut, and be dragged out with the hooks. I have fought many a fight, but I liked each one less than the last.”
He got up and strode again along the corridor, glancing into the cells, where gladiators sat fettered to the wall.
“This whole business is getting too confused for me,” he grumbled, sitting down again. “You want to kill Commodus, as is reasonable. Marcia has ordered me to kill you, which is unreasonable! Yet for the present she protects you. Why? She knows you are Commodus’ enemy. She seems anxious to save Commodus. Yet she encourages Pertinax, who doesn’t want to be emperor; he only dallies with the thought because Marcia helps Cornificia to persuade him! Isn’t that a confusion for you? And now there’s Bultius Livius. As I understand it, Marcia caught him spying on her. No woman in her senses would trust Livius; the man has snowbroth in his veins and slow fire in his head. Yet Marcia now heaps favors on him!”