There was a silence in Commodus’ quarters that had nothing to do with noise. The sound of laughter, the tones of voices, the clatter of dinnerware did nothing against the din of silence. It seemed to Livius this terrible quiet was concentrated in him, the noises in the room did not touch him, and were absorbed in the static silence.
He glanced toward Commodus, lounging at the table, eating and drinking heartily. If there was silence or tension, he saw that Commodus was unaware of it.
The table before them was loaded with food such as Livius had not seen since his last state banquet, and wine by the flagonfuls.
At the foot of the table, neither of them touching the rich foodstuffs, the two blonde girl prisoners crouched, more like animals than women.
Tauna was disheveled, her animal-skin garment falling from her shoulders across her breasts. Her long blonde hair was matted, reminding Livius of the main of a wild horse he had seen once, imprisoned, burr-clogged.
The Princess Xenia was something else again. While Tauna was uneasy, troubled by the oil-lamp lights, the rich texture of the furnishings, the quantity and odors of strange foods, twisting, watching with awed fascination every move was made. Xenia seemed as if in catatonic trance.
Xenia’s blue eyes were dull, vacant, fixed on thoughts inside herself. Wild as she was, she had more imagination than Tauna. She knew why she had been brought here, and she gazed with deep loathing upon Commodus because she was intelligent enough to see cruelty was the kind of passion that excited him, and he would get the most sensual pleasure from debasing her since she was barbarian royalty.
Her long blonde hair gleamed in the lights, catching shafts of silver when flames flickered, but tresses fell across her face and throat, unnoticed by her and she did not even brush them away.
Livius watched her, seeing that it was from her that this tension and silence emanated, like some mysterious aura that flooded the room. Nothing could reach her, and because of her, and because of things left unspoken, the atmosphere between him and Commodus was increasingly charged and tense.
Commodus spoke with his mouth full. “You are very silent, Livius.”
Livius wanted only to avoid the unpleasantness he saw was ahead. He had tried to get drunk, he had put away more wine than Commodus had, but it didn’t affect his senses. Steadily he became colder, more sober and aware, sensitive to every change in the brightly lighted room.
He said, placating Commodus, “Perhaps I’ve been a solider too long.”
“No. Perhaps it’s just because you don’t like the things I say- what I just said, and, ” he spoked deliberately,”what I now repeat. The Roman empire has no real meaning.” He smiled, pleased, when Livius leaned forward, cold and rigid. “If there is any logic anywhere, Livius, what Haven’t our provinces rebelled long ago?”
“Because they are not fools. Before we came to them, most of them were savages.” Unconsciously, he jerked his head toward the terrified Tauna, cringing at the tension in their voices, following each movement of their hands or heads. “We’ve brought them roads. We’ve brought them law. We’ve –”
“That was centuries ago, Livius, ” Commodus said wearily. “But now – they could build their own roads, and make their own laws, much cheaper. Why should they pay us taxes and tributes? Who are we?”
Tauna, trembling, set herself and sprinted toward the door. A guard stepped into her path, caught her roughly, and pushed her back to her place near Xenia. Her princess did not look at her, and neither Commodus nor Livius gave Tauna or the guard a glance.
“We are Rome, “Livius said.
“Rome!” Commodus laughed. “A myth holds the empire together! The truth is the provinces no longer need us. Only we never let the colonies suspect it. My father strides about, the great image of a god-like father, going about doing good for all, for them and for Romans, brining their leaders to state functions like this – or to Rome itself – dazzling them with games and banquets…and then if they still seem suspicious – crush them.”
“No. The more you talk, Commodus, the more I see your father is right. Crushing them, taxing their strength away – that’s not the sane answer. We must find new ways …change–”
“My father!” Commodus sat forward, shaken by sudden cold fury. “He is always talking about change- learning to love and understand even those who harm us! That is the one thing we must not do – change. As a matter of fact, we in Rome as living far beyond our means. If we stop, our creditors would tear us to pieces. No, no, Livius – what’s the saying? — live while there’s still light. Let’s laugh while the gods are laughing.”
Livius’ face was gray. “I don’t hear the gods laughing, Commodus.”
Commodus held his gave, their eyes clashing. They faced each other. Commodus’ cheeks were pallid. “We’re not saying everything we know, friend Livius…Something weighs on you. What is it?”
Livius was as pale as Commodus, but he did not speak. Tauna whimpered in the thick silence. Commodus shouted, “Well?”