A bitter wind swept through the palace halls. Fires guttered in the braziers. The faces of the praetorian guards betrayed no sign of discomfort, but as I passed them at every doorway, I could hear their armor clattering as they shivered.
No one challenged me as I strode toward the emperor’s private chambers. Why would they? I was Narcissus, Caesar’s trusted personal trainer.
Tonight I wore my mortal disguise poorly. My stomach churned. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck. The shock of that day’s games still overwhelmed my senses: the stench of carcasses on the arena floor; the bloodthirsty crowd shouting, “COMMODUS! COMMODUS!”; the emperor in resplendent golden armor and purple robes, tossing the severed heads of ostriches into the seats of the senators, gesturing toward the old men with the point of his sword: You’re next.
The praetorian prefect Laetus had pulled me aside only an hour ago: We failed at lunch. This is our last chance. We can take him, but only with your help.
Marcia, Commodus’s mistress, had wept as she tugged at my arm. He will kill us all. He will destroy Rome. You know what must be done!
They were right. I’d seen the list of names—the enemies real or imagined whom Commodus intended to execute tomorrow. Marcia and Laetus were at the top of the list, followed by senators, noblemen, and several priests in the temple of Apollo Sosianus. That sort of thing I couldn’t overlook. Commodus would chop them down as carelessly as he did his ostriches and lions.
I pushed open the bronze doors of the emperor’s chambers.
From the shadows, Commodus bellowed, “GO AWAY!”
A bronze pitcher sailed past my head, slamming into the wall with such force it cracked the mosaic tiles.
“Hello to you, too,” I said. “I never did like that fresco.”
The emperor blinked, trying to focus. “Ah…it’s you, Narcissus. Come in, then. Hurry! Bar the doors!”
I did as he asked.
Commodus knelt on the floor, clinging to the side of a sofa for support. In the opulence of the bedchamber with its silk curtains, gilded furniture, and colorfully frescoed walls, the emperor looked out of place—like a beggar pulled from some Suburra alley. His eyes were wild. His beard glistened with spittle. Vomit and blood spattered his plain white tunic, which wasn’t surprising considering his mistress and prefect had poisoned his wine at lunch.
But if you could look past that, Commodus hadn’t changed much since he was eighteen, lounging in his campaign tent in the Danubian Forest. He was thirty-one now, but the years had barely touched him. To the horror of Rome’s fashionistas, he had grown his hair out long and had a shaggy beard to resemble his idol, Hercules. Otherwise he was the picture of manly Roman perfection. One might almost have thought he was an immortal god, as he so often claimed to be.
“They tried to kill me,” he snarled. “I know it was them! I won’t die. I’ll show them all!”
My heart ached to see him this way. Only yesterday, I’d been so hopeful.
We’d practiced fighting techniques all afternoon. Strong and confident, he’d wrestled me to the ground and would have broken my neck if I’d been a regular mortal. After he let me up, we’d spent the rest of the day laughing and talking as we used to in the old days. Not that he knew my true identity, but still…disguised as Narcissus, I was sure I could restore the emperor’s good humor, eventually rekindle the embers of the glorious young man I’d once known.
And yet this morning, he’d woken up more bloodthirsty and manic than ever.
I approached cautiously, as if he were a wounded animal. “You won’t die from the poison. You’re much too strong for that.”
“Exactly!” He pulled himself up on the couch, his knuckles white with effort. “I’ll feel better tomorrow, as soon as I behead those traitors!”
“Perhaps it would be better to rest for a few days,” I suggested. “Take some time to recuperate and reflect.”
“REFLECT?” He winced from the pain. “I don’t need to reflect, Narcissus. I will kill them and hire new advisors. You, perhaps? You want the job?”
I did not know whether to laugh or cry. While Commodus concentrated on his beloved games, he turned the powers of state over to prefects and cronies…all of whom tended to have a very short life expectancy.
“I’m just a personal trainer,” I said.
“Who cares? I will make you a nobleman! You will rule Commodiana!”
I flinched at the name. Outside the palace, no one accepted the emperor’s rechristening of Rome. The citizens refused to call themselves Commodians. The legions were furious that they were now known as Commodianae. Commodus’s crazy proclamations had been the final straw for his long-suffering advisors.
“Please, Caesar,” I implored him. “A rest from the executions and the games. Time to heal. Time to consider the consequences.”
He bared his teeth, his lips specked with blood. “Don’t you start too! You sound like my father. I’m done thinking about consequences!”
My spirits collapsed. I knew what would happen in the coming days. Commodus would survive the poisoning. He would order a ruthless purge of his enemies. The city would be decorated with heads on pikes. Crucifixions would line the Via Appia. My priests would die. Half the senate would perish. Rome itself, the bastion of the Olympian gods, would be shaken to its core. And Commodus would still be assassinated…just a few weeks or months later, in some other fashion.
I inclined my head in submission. “Of course, Caesar. May I draw you a bath?”
Commodus grunted assent. “I should get out of these filthy clothes.”
As I often did for him after our workout sessions, I filled his great marble bath with steaming rose-scented water. I helped him out of his soiled tunic and eased him into the tub. For a moment, he relaxed and closed his eyes.
I recalled how he looked sleeping beside me when we were teens. I remembered his easy laugh as we raced through the woods, and the way his face scrunched up adorably when I bounced grapes off his nose.
I sponged away the spittle and blood from his beard. I gently washed his face. Then I closed my hands around his neck. “I’m sorry.”
I pushed his head underwater and began to squeeze.
Commodus was strong. Even in his weakened state, he thrashed and fought. I had to channel my godly might to keep him submerged, and in doing so, I must have revealed my true nature to him.
He went still, his blue eyes wide with surprise and betrayal. He could not speak, but he mouthed the words: You. Blessed. Me.
The accusation forced a sob from my throat. The day his father died, I had promised Commodus: You will always have my blessings. Now I was ending his reign. I was interfering in mortal affairs—not just to save lives, or to save Rome, but because I could not stand to see my beautiful Commodus die by anyone else’s hands.
His last breath bubbled through the whiskers of his beard. I hunched over him, crying, my hands around his throat, until the bathwater cooled.
Britomartis was wrong. I didn’t fear water. I simply couldn’t look at the surface of any pool without imagining Commodus’s face, stung with betrayal, staring up at me.
The vision faded. My stomach heaved. I found myself hunched over a different water basin—a toilet in the Waystation.
I’m not sure how long I knelt there, shivering, retching, wishing I could get rid of my hideous mortal frame as easily as I lost my stomach contents. Finally, I became aware of an orange reflection in the toilet water. Agamethus stood behind me, holding his Magic 8 Ball.