Characters: Pullo, Augustus (Octavian)
Spoilers: Through the finale.
Notes: A different sort of story, set far into the future. I did some research for this, but any factual inaccuracies that remain are my own.
Summary: In the year of the great Census, word is brought to the imperator Augustus Caesar that Lucius Vorenus is alive.
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods
In the year of the great Census, word is brought to the imperator Augustus Caesar that Lucius Vorenus is alive.
It has been more than twenty years since he has heard that name, but Augustus prides himself on his memory. “That isn’t true,” he says. “He died in Egypt with the pretender Caesarion, after our army took Alexandria. Titus Pullo told me so himself.”
The messenger stands at attention, his face blank. “There is a man called Titus Pullo living with him on a farm in Tuscany, sir.”
(A farm. How charming, one expects Maecenas to say, perhaps lounging somewhere in the corner. But Maecenas is on his deathbed now, and his ironic commentary is as done as Agrippa’s frowns in response.)
Augustus looks at the messenger for a long time, his eyes narrowed, until the man begins to shake without quite knowing why. Finally, he speaks, though mostly to himself. “Then I shall have to pay them a visit,” he says.
The country is ripe and fertile, golden fields and tree branches heavy with fruit. Riding through it, one thinks of pastoral poetry, something those pet poets of Maecenas’ used to write. It is a place for two old soldiers to retire, an idyll where the world would miss them.
He sees Titus Pullo immediately, sitting outside the door of the house – recognizes him by the breadth of his shoulders. Augustus dismounts and waves his retinue back, continues alone and on foot. “Hello, old friend,” he says.
Pullo rises with the aid of a stick standing by his chair and gives a military salute, still crisp. His hair has gone grey and there are deep lines around his eyes, but he is little changed for all that. “Sir,” he says. “It’s an honour.”
“I’m glad to see you well.”
“Thank you, sir. Likewise.”
There is a look in his eyes, a hardness, that Augustus remembers – he used to have that look when he’d disapproved of something Octavian was doing, but knew it was not his place to speak.
“Will you sit down?” Pullo asks. There are two chairs on the veranda – he motions to the one he has just occupied and remains standing himself, leaning on his stick. When he calls inside the house, a slave comes out with wine and fruit and sets it before them. “Forgive us, sir,” Pullo says, “we’re not used to entertaining nobility here.”
“That’s quite all right.” Augustus takes a slice of peach from the platter and eats it, his eyes never leaving Pullo’s. Over the years, he has learned to make a weapon of his gaze. He waits until just the moment when Pullo is about to speak, and then he says, “I came, you see, because I heard that another old friend of ours was faring better than I had previously been led to believe.”
“Don’t know what you mean, sir,” Pullo says, his face stony.
Unexpectedly, Augustus laughs. “Do you really think there’s any point denying it, after all this time?”
“It was a miracle, him living,” Pullo says in a rush. “We all thought he’d die – he barely made it to Rome…”
“In other words, you did not lie to me. You merely anticipated the truth.”
“And was that the only time that you…anticipated the truth in my presence?”
“Yes, sir.” He is looking ahead, steady and open – as he has always been.
“You were trying to protect your friend. It is understandable. May I speak to him?” When Pullo hesitates, he adds a little impatiently, “After all this time, you must see that there would be no point in retaliation.”
Pullo’s eyes fall, at last – he is looking down at his hands, knotting them together. “You just missed him,” he says.
“Don’t be ridiculous—” Augustus begins, and then at last he notices Pullo’s dark tunic, and the signs of mourning all around the house. “Oh, really now! You don’t expect me to believe that he is dead a second time?”
“Come look then,” Pullo says, and walks ahead of him into the house.
It is plain inside, and scrupulously clean. In the second room, there is a table, and on it the body of Lucius Vorenus is laid out for burning, a coin in his mouth. There are deep lines on his face, but it is smoothed out in death and very calm. A woman in black is sitting beside him, her eyes red but dry – at their entrance she looks up, murmurs something about supper and leaves them. Pullo touches her shoulder as she goes by.
“We were going to have the funeral tomorrow,” Pullo says into the silence. “Great coincidence, you coming now.”
“Yes,” Augustus says, and shakes his head, and walks out of that room and back outside. His guards will worry if they cannot keep him in their sight. “What did he die of?” he asks, back in his chair.
“He took ill in the spring. Never quite strong after his wound….But what he died of was age, sir. He lived a good long life, in the end – his full span of years.”
“Age,” Augustus repeats.
“Yes.” Pullo’s voice is gentle, almost as if it is he who has suffered the loss. “Did you expect to find us here as we were in the old days, ready to renew the quarrel? People grow old, sir. It’s very well for you and your lady to put up statues of yourselves as if you were still no more than twenty-five, but it won’t do for the rest of us.”
“You’ve become a philosopher, Titus Pullo,” the imperator says, with the ghost of a smile.
“I’ve been thinking lately, that’s all. You remember Cicero?”
“An enemy to the Republic. I had you kill him.”
“That’s right. He was a wise old bird, though, you can’t deny it. Before he died, he told me that I would gain immortality for doing it. I thought he meant, you know, real immortality, but he only meant my name. That’s all any of us get.”
“And you have no one to carry on your name.”
“There’s my son.” He raises his hand in a wave, to a man walking across the fields towards them. “Aeneas.”
“I didn’t realize you had any children, Pullo.”
“Had him with a woman on campaign – she sent him to me when he was nearly grown, before she died. He’s been a great help to me.”
The man stops before them: he is tall and handsome, his skin dark from more than the sun. His eyes, wide and liquid brown, watch Augustus impassively. His chin is raised high; he might as well be an athlete’s statue.
“This is the imperator Augustus Caesar, Aeneas,” Pullo says, quiet.
Aeneas salutes, a little awkwardly. “Excuse me,” he says, with a trace of an accent, and something like anger in his voice. “I must go and speak with Vorena.” He nods and goes past them and into the house.
“I’m sorry for our manners,” Pullo says. “This is a house of mourning, and we weren’t expecting visitors.”
Augustus waves this away. “His mother wasn’t Roman?” he asks.
Pullo shakes his head. “Egyptian – it was while we were over there with your honoured father. She put all sorts of strange ideas into his head – we had every kind of trouble sorting him out. But he turned out a good man, if I say so.”
“I have no doubt of that.” He pauses, thinking. “Aeneas. There was a poet in Rome who wrote a great epic about Aeneas.”
“He was meant to have founded the city, wasn’t he?”
“Yes. The poem, however, is only about his trials in getting there. It is the trials that get remembered, not the peace.”
“I suppose so,” Pullo says. “Though in your old age, you get a bit used to peace.”
He hesitates, then asks the question in his mind: “And were you at peace here? You and Vorenus. Were you happy?”
Pullo smiles, the wide familiar grin. “Oh, happy enough. We had some adventures.” He taps his cane. “Had a war with the local village, once, when they decided Vorenus was some sort of magician. But we were comfortable, and we had our children around us, and what more can any man ask?”
There is a silence, birds singing in the fields. “What month is it, Pullo?” he asks at length.
“Sextilis,” he says promptly.
“From this year on it shall be called Augustus. The Senate voted on it.”
“Augustus, eh. The month you took Alexandria.”
“And the month I first became consul, and the month of my triple Triumph.”
“Yes. What you mean, I suppose, is that some men can ask for more.”
“I am the son of a god.” He is over fifty; he wonders why he sounds like the petulant child Titus Pullo first knew him as. “It is in recognition of all I have done for Rome.”
“I do not doubt that, sir,” Pullo says. “And we’re all properly grateful. There’s been wealth, and peace, and public works. And when I follow Vorenus, which will be soon enough, there will be few men left to remember a time before Augustus Caesar was first citizen.”
“Nine years ago, we celebrated the start of a new era.”
“We heard about that: games and all. It sounded like a good time.”
The sun is setting, Augustus realizes. He shakes his head, as if he has fallen into a daze – which never happens. He prides himself on his clear head. It is like the stories where the hero wanders into a mystical land, where everything is slightly different than it should be, and some aged man or sibyl rules over it, like a relic from another world.
And then he shakes his head again, and there is only his old tutor Titus Pullo before him, a retired soldier on his farm.
“Would you mind if I stay here?” he asks. On a whim, which he never has. “For the funeral tomorrow. I wish to pay my respects.”
“We’d be honoured,” Pullo says, and Augustus knows that he uses we, as he has done all along, to mean himself and the man who now lies dead inside the house. The man who he lied to protect, who has lived beside him all these years – who has been an invisible, integral part of all their conversation.
Pullo’s forehead creases in brief worry, looking out over the crowd of Augustus’s retinue, and then it smoothes out and he smiles. “I’ll tell Vorena to set some extra plates for dinner, then,” he says, and leaves the imperator of all Rome sitting alone on his porch in the twilight.