“You’ve been too much at Rome, Commodus. You— should be more with your father.”
Commodus roared. “Will you tell me how I must live? Must I try to live as you do? Like a pupil, drinking in every word of my illustrious father’s? Live you do!” His voice was hoarse. “Oh, I’ve heard all the rumors. Why Father has gathered everyone here…Why you were at his side.” His voice broke suddenly, his mouth twisting. He shook his head. “No…No, Livius, don’t let it come from you….I need you as my friend. Don’t tell me any more…I don’t want to hear it.”
In the pregnant silence, Livius sighed, deeply moved. “I am your friend, Commodus.”
Commodus stared at him, his mouth pulled petulantly, for a long time. Suddenly then, he shook off his thoughts and heeled around, staring at Xenia.
“Ah, Princess,” he said. “You boast that you are a nation of warriors…Well, then, warrior, every solider knows that sometimes his side loses–and he becomes part of the spoils of war –even a princess becomes a slave. to be used as the master wishes.” When she did not move, he shouted at her. “Do you hear me? You are lost. You are prisoners of war.” He stood up. “Come here to me.”
Xenia did not move. There was no way to tell from her expressionless face even if she heard him at all. His voice rose. “Come! Drink with me. You may as well accept that you are lost. You may as well relax.” He laughed. “You may as well enjoy it. Wine will help you put a brighter edge on everything–Drink!”
When the slender young girl still did not move, he went around the table to her.
He knelt, offered the beaker of wine, but she turned her head away, stiffly.
Commodus caught her head in his hand, tried to pour the wine down her mouth. It ran trickling across her lips, filling her nostrils, discoloring her cheeks.
Suddenly, gasping, she struck at him savagely, spilling the beaker of wine all over him.
Commodus yelled at her, like a child in a tantrum. “I am sill Caesar’s son! Do you understand? I could have you burned alive.”
Commodus slapped at the droplets of wine splattered upon his clothing. His eyes were wild, fixed on her, his mind churning with the indignities that would degrade her, show her the depths a woman could reach when she fought him.
Suddenly he realized that Livius was watching him silently, shocked by his lack of self-control.
Commodus, trembling, managed to get hold of his emotions. He moved to gaze over Xenia’s body and then turned slowly to face Livius.
His voice was casual. “I don’t want this one after all, Livius. I thought I did. She rouses me more to rage than to passion and–that doesn’t fit my mood tonight.” He jerked his head toward Tauna. “I’ll trade you – even before I’ve used the princess at all…This little blonde animal quivering like a frightened animal is more for me.”
Livius nodded. “Take Tauna then, Commodus. She’s yours.”
Commodus stared at Livius another moment. Then he walked to Tauna and grabbed her. She bit her lip, but did not cry out. She was quivering and kept her eyes closed. Pleased, Commodus knelt, swung her easily up into his arms and strode out of the room into his quarters.
Livius was shaken. It was as if Commodus were full of hatred and his only satisfaction came from venting it upon the helpless.
Livius took a long drink of wine, but it was tasteless, less than water. He was troubled, wondering if he would remain cold, and beyond the touch of wine for the rest of his life.
Xenia stirred slightly across the table and, remembering her, he turned, looking at her. he said gently, almost teasing. “Is it true, girl, as Commodus fears – that you think?”
She got slowly to her feet, came around the table to him, knelt between his knees, mouth parted, looking up, pale, as if waiting.
Livius did not touch her. He drew his tongue across his dry mouth, seeing the way she trembled before him, waiting, and he remembered this morning when Marcus planned with Lucilla to give her in a marriage-alliance to Sohamus of Armenia. The only woman he had ever loved; he had feared all his life that he would never marry her, now his fear was grounded, and he would not. What else mattered? Perhaps Commodus was partly right. If only he could hear the gods laughing as Commodus did. Perhaps this girl’s kiss might waken him, and make him forget for a little while.
Throat taut, he lifted his hands, cupped them over Xenia’s ears. He turned her pallid face up, holding her with more force than he realized, but she did not protest.
“A warrior who thinks?” he said. “You’re a fool–that’s what you are–just as I am a fool to forget I’m only a solider, and trying to think. What will it get us? Where?” He shook his head. “But I will not threaten to burn you alive–just for your crime of thinking.” His mouth twisted. “I will offer you a more generous treaty of peace. A treaty of peace. Rome and the barbarian who thinks.” His hands tightened on her head. Her eyes searched his face, shadowed, in fear and misunderstanding. Cruelty she could understand, the force of his hands, the use of her body, all this she understood–but the tone and quality of his voice troubled and frightened her. She drew her tongue across her parted mouth, trying to move closer to him, waiting.
Suddenly Livius got to his feet. Xenia fell back, eyes wide. Livius stepped over her and walked past the guard, going out of the tent. Xenia stared after him, bewildered and chilled.