She had him! She had pricked him in the one place where he could be stirred to spitefulness. His whole face crimsoned suddenly.
“That Carthaginian!” He came and stood in front of her. “If you had favored him you should have foregone my friendship, Marcia! Commodus is bad enough. Severus would be ten times worse! Where Commodus is merely crazy, Lucius Severus is a calculating, ice-cold monster of cruelty! He has no emotions except those aroused by venom! He would tear out your heart just as swiftly as mine! As for plotting with him, he would let you do it all and then denounce you to the senate after he was on the throne!”
“Either it must be Severus, or else you!” said Marcia. “Which is it to be?”
Pertinax folded his arms.
“I would feel it my duty to preserve Rome from Severus. But you go too fast. Our Commodus is on the throne—”
“And writes proscription lists!” said Marcia. “Who knows what names are on the lists already? Who knows what Bultius Livius may have told him? Who knows which of us will be alive tomorrow morning? Who knows what Sextus is doing? If Sextus has heard of this crisis he will seize the moment and either arouse the praetorian guard to mutiny or else reach Commodus himself and slay him with his own hand! Sextus is a man! Are you no more than Flavia Titiana’s cuckold and Cornificia’s plaything?”
“I am a Roman,” Pertinax retorted angrily. “I think of Rome before myself. You women only think of passion and ambition. Rome—city of a thousand triumphs!” He turned away, pacing the floor again, knitting his fingers behind him. “Pertinax would offer up himself if he might bring back the Augustan days—if he might win the warfare that Tiberius lost. One Pertinax is nothing in the life of Rome. One life, three-quarters spent, is but a poor pledge to the gods—yet too much to be thrown away in vain. The auguries are all mixed nowadays. I doubt them. I mistrust the shaven priests who dole out answers in return for minted money. I have knelt before the holy shrine of Vesta, but the Virgins were as vague as the Egyptian who prophesied—”
“What?” demanded Marcia.
“That I should serve Rome and receive ingratitude. What else does any man receive who serves Rome? They who cheat her are the ones who prosper!”
“Send for Cornificia,” said Marcia. “She keeps your resolution. Let her come and loose it!” Pertinax turned sharply on her.
“Flavia Titiana shall not suffer that indignity. Cornificia can not enter this house.”
But the mention of Cornificia’s name wrought just as swift a change in him as had the name of Lucius Severus. He began to bite his finger-nails, then clenched his hands again behind him, Galen and Marcia watching.
“You are the only one who can replace Commodus without drenching Rome in blood,” said Marcia, remembering a phrase of Cornificia’s. And since the words were Cornificia’s, and stirred the chords of many memories, they produced a sort of half-way resolution.