Never before had a heartbeat stretched so long.
He had seen many men fall. He had seen men pierced by arrows, struck through with blunt swords, trampled beneath the wayward hooves of the determined cavalry. He had seen men fall victim to festering yellow wounds, draw their last shaky breath as they lay stricken by illness, waste away as their fading strength failed them. Many, many men had fallen, but he had not. The end was nigh, and it was too soon. Far, far too soon.
There was a knife between his ribs.
He had heard tell of it. Heard of men being accosted by their enemies in the shadows of night, who fell in dim alleys in the bright light of day, who gave in to the paranoia and destroyed themselves before the plot could be carried out. He had always disdained of such men. If he was to be killed by another man, it would be with honour, not in the dark, carried out by men who fairly reeked of cowardice. And yet he had fallen to a similar act. How had this happened? More importantly, how had he not seen it coming?
He pushed the arm away, feeling as though he were sloughing through mud, but another soon came to replace it. Another, and another. Men who had never before seen battle were piercing his flesh with fierce abandon. No, not abandon. Hatred. They hated him. Hated him, and his power over them, and over Rome.
He should have known. He did not trust any of them, did not trust anyone he did not know deeply, and he should have known they would turn against him. He had known that they loved themselves and their stations far more than they loved Rome. They hated him because they believed he wanted to be king. King. If Cleopatra had borne a daughter, would they have thought differently? Had little Caesarion unwittingly dealt out his father’s fate? Almost idly, he wondered what would happen to the boy now. He was even less safe now than he had been previously. If even a little bit of luck was on his side, Cleopatra would be prescient enough to take the boy, and return to Egypt. He would not be safe there, would not be safe anywhere, but Rome was about to become a very dangerous place.
He had lost track of the number of treasonous knives entering his flesh and rending his body apart. There had been many petitioners. Far too many. He should have noticed, should have been on his guard, but he had been far too preoccupied with other matters. More important matters. Including the one that had pressed on his mind since this fateful afternoon had begun:
His fingers made contact with cold marble. His knees followed soon after. He had fallen, was collapsing in a weakened heap on the floor, and yet still they thrust their weapons into his body. Calpurnia had seen this, had dreamt it, had seen him lying on the ground amidst his own congealing blood, and he had not listened. He had taken heed of Brutus, and he had not listened. And now here he was, fingers straining against the hard stone, watching liquid fall in crimson streams around the tense muscles of his forearm. His toga was becoming sodden, the rough fabric beneath unable to take in anymore of the blood flowing out of the numerous rends in his flesh. He knew he should feel more pain, knew that they were pushing their knives into his back, his arms, but he could not. He could only focus on his failure.
Oh, heavenly mother, he cried out in his mind, I failed to heed your many warnings, fair Venus. Please, have pity on your son Caesar, who has given his soul to bring glory to the country and the people that he loves. I beg of you, merciful goddess, save me from this treason. There is still much I can give to Rome and her people, and if I die here, my work will never be complete. I only wish to do what is best for your magnificent nation. I have made her rich and prosperous, I have spread her far beyond the borders of my ancestors, and there is much more I could do for her. You know this, mighty Venus. I beg of you. Have mercy on me.
They were still pressing their knives into him, but with less urgency. They were fewer, and as he directed his blurred gaze upward, he could just see the senators streaming out in a frenzy, crying of murder and treason, betrayal and plotting. Then a man obscured his vision, and his blood ran cold within his veins.
“Brutus…” His voice was a mere rasp, the sound that made it through his lips barely audible. The remainder lay trapped in his throat, caught behind the blood being forced up from out of his lungs. His throat stung with the acrid substance clinging to the inside of it.
What he could see of the man’s face was stony, and determined, and Brutus knelt down. Without hesitation, the young senator grasped the knife firmly and plunged it into his already wounded chest. During an eternity in which each man gazed into the eyes of the other, he felt the cold steel penetrate his flesh and find the organ beneath, and he gasped with the pain of it. The rest of the assault did not bother him. He had expected it, would have dared to bet on those men betraying him somehow, one day, but Brutus… the one man he had trusted, and dared hope he could rely upon…
Then he was gone, his blade clattering against the floor and sending the sound echoing freely in the empty room, but he barely heard it. There was a frantic rushing noise pressing against his ears, and his hand was pressing against the wound Brutus had inflicted upon him as the blood spread between his trembling fingers, and his nigh-useless body was pressing against the cold marble floor as if to draw him into the earth to bury him of its own free will. The senators had fled, and Brutus had fled, and they had left him to die in a swelling pool of his own spilled blood.
I am slain, he thought to himself. The fingers on his free hand were curling of their own volition, and he felt as though he were leaden, pressed to the ground with iron weights hidden inside of his clothes. The one man I would have entrusted my life with has plotted against me, and I am lost. Dearest Venus, have I not honoured you? Have I not brought much to the most glorious of civilisations? I have done more in my life than ten men taken together. I have done everything, and have yet received nothing. It is cruel, heavenly mother, to have led me to place my trust in the very man who was most dangerous to me. It is cruel, most beautiful goddess, to have had that very man in my presence when fair, devoted Calpurnia came to me to warn me of my fate. It is cruel, my divine protector, to have warned me through a man you knew I would not believe. Do you not tire of testing me? Have I not done well in your eyes?
You have, Caesar, my son. This was not a test for you, but for them.
He opened his eyes, eyes which he had not realised were closed, and brought them to the high ceiling above him. For them?
You have brought great honour, glory, and prosperity upon the people of Rome. I do not test you further, dear Caesar, but those men. They who have plotted against you for oh these many years, while you were risking your life and your soul in faraway lands. I have laid for them a test, and they have failed. They did not heed the prophecy, nor the dream of your dear wife, nor did they consider what a future without Caesar would bring. Rest, my son. You have earned my favour, and no longer will you be ruled by men such as these. Men who conspire against you, who speak plainly only when your back is turned, who defy you in any way that they can devise. There is no man left in Rome who can guide this noble country as you can, and I will not allow you to watch her suffer. They have destroyed your body, but freed your inimitable soul. Rest, Gaius Julius. You have earned your respite. Take heart. I have not abandoned you.
He felt lighter then, the iron weights fading away, and his slack gaze saw through the hewn marble. His glassy eyes sought the heavens. Mighty goddess… forgive me. I have doubted you.
It is in your nature, my son. Speak no more. The time for words is past. Now it is time to rest, and put your fate in my hands once more.
He closed his eyes.