Pennsylvania, April, 2005 CE

She woke me up the next morning some time after sunrise. She was already dressed and told me if I didn’t shower and come downstairs soon I’d miss breakfast.

When I got downstairs she seemed cool, distant. She was making pancakes, eggs, and bacon, puttering around and humming absent-mindedly. She insisted I sit down and not help. As she poured me some coffee and put a plate of hot bacon, eggs, cakes, and grits in front of me, me told me she normally had servants come in and cook but she didn’t want anyone around today.

She seemed constantly distracted, like she didn’t want anything but small talk. As I ate I occasionally caught her staring at me, only to look away quickly. When I finally started to ask her what was up, she promptly said, “So I understand you ride. Finish your food and then we’ll take the horses and I’ll show you around.”

Clearly she didn’t want to talk, so after breakfast she took me out to the stables. Pretty soon I regretted even agreeing to this. I hadn’t been on a horse in ten years, but she took me on a three hour ride around the area, all around the estate, then through the woods to other areas, showing me the other farmhouses, pointing out historic spots where some homes had once stood but were now gone and generally chattering endlessly without saying much of anything. Still once in a while I’d catch her looking at me oddly, sizing me up, calculating in some way I couldn’t fathom. But I mostly tried to shrug it off.

By the time we got back for lunch I was exhausted and I had to take a nap. When I woke up later in the afternoon I was a mess: my legs were on fire, I’d gotten too much sleep, and I was grumpy as hell. I took some aspirin and a long shower, and then went looking for her.

As I came downstairs I heard her humming. The huge empty house was otherwise deathly quiet. It seemed spooky, but I followed the sound of her humming, and found her reading a book in what looked like an old smoking room, with big overstuffed chairs and a bar at one end.

“Well are we going to talk at all today or just play around?” I asked, walking in and plopping into one of the chairs. She just looked at me, almost accusingly, like I was being rude. I sighed and said, “Okay, sorry, you’re the boss.” I drummed my fingers and looked out one of the big double windows.

“No, we’re here to talk. Go on, bring out that infernal recorder.”

I looked at her and yanked it out. She was still looking at me weirdly, and I couldn’t tell what was behind those eyes of hers now. So I just launched into it.

“Okay, so, you don’t want to talk about Jeremy just yet,” I said. “I get that. But you know we haven’t talked about Rome since we left Ann Arbor. You kind of left me dangling on that. You told me you learned how to read there, and I guess that must have been a mindblower.” She gave me her smoky half-smile and nodded. “You also said you thought you could have saved Rufus. But from what?”

She sat back a bit when I said that, and then slowly, a little ruefully, shook her head.

“Rufus could have been a great man… probably would have been. Instead, he ran into me and got his head filled up with notions of destiny. Why not? He thought the gods were with him, yes?”

“There you go again,” I said, making sure I was smiling when I said it. “Everything is your responsibility, right?”

“In this case? I certainly had something to do with it, don’t you think? Rufus wanted his uncle’s seat in the Senate, but he had no realistic chance of achieving it. His cousin Livius was very well established, and Rufus’s side of the family had not been seriously active politically for a generation. He knew this. Had he returned from that expedition to Gaul without ever meeting me he certainly would have channeled his aspirations in some more constructive direction.”

“I hate to say it because I know you liked the guy, but… he doesn’t seem like he was a very nice man. I mean… you talked about him beating slaves and even… well…” I stopped, feeling a little repulsed, not sure I wanted to ask, but I went ahead. “Did you mean that part about him cutting out a slave’s tongue? Literally?”

“That was not uncommon among the Romans,” she said, her brow furrowing a little, almost like she wasn’t sure what I was driving at.

“Well Jesus!” I said. “I mean, he tortured you! He cut people’s tongues out for chrissakes…”

I just stopped. She was staring at me with a look I didn’t like. It wasn’t even angry, just emotionless. She seemed to be calculating, watching me, like she was deciding something. Finally she spoke again.

“Before we left my lands, he wiped out the entire village near where I was captured… then killed all the men who had witnessed me killing his soldiers. Called them traitors and liars who were spreading tales to discredit him. He had his fellow Romans cut all their throats.”

“Christ!” I said. “Why?”

“It would have shamed him if anyone had known that he had allowed me to live after killing his men. So he eliminated everyone who witnessed it. Well, save for Marieko.”

I just stared at her. She was still utterly without emotion. Her look was almost alien. “So you were okay with that?” I finally asked, more than a little repulsed.

“The world is a harsh place. I’ve met harsher men. I’ve been even harsher myself. You do not realize this about me by now?”

I took a deep breath. I thought back to my conversation with Joshua, and tried to keep my face passive. “So are you like that now?”

She just stared at me, then gave the barest hint of a smile. “You really are a good Christian boy, aren’t you?” she asked.

At first I thought she was mocking me, but by now I’d learned to count to ten before responding to almost anything that seemed provocative. Her tone didn’t seem mocking. It seemed almost affectionate and I couldn’t decide if that was worse or not. Either way, the question bugged me on more than one level. Finally, I just laughed.

“Princess, I’m not even a believer…”

“No? Are you a hypocrite, then?” she asked. There wasn’t even a trace of hostility to the question.

I frowned. “Okay look, I’m not a religious guy, but… this guy wasn’t nice. You weren’t nice either. I’m just asking you…” I stopped and thought about it. “Crap, I’m not sure what I’m asking you.”

“It is so simple for you, isn’t it?” she smirked, “Brought up in this modern American utopia of yours, ensconced in the bosom of a well-defined moral universe. You have your rules, your directions all laid out before you, easy to see, easy to follow… you have no idea what it means to not know what is right and what is wrong.”

“I don’t think it’s all as simple as that,” I shot back. “And I don’t buy into moral relativist bullshit. I know you know right from wrong. It’s all through everything you’ve said to me, or in your journals, or even on that weird web site of yours. Or was that all a lie?”

Her eyes narrowed, but her face was otherwise impassive. “It is the end result of thirty-five centuries of fear, of mistakes. Of loss and horror. You realize don’t you,” she said, a little melodramatically, “that by your biblical accounting of three score and ten for a normal lifespan, I have already seen 50 lifetimes?do you not?”

I thought for a second. “Okay, yeah.”

“So are you so foolish as to think that regardless of your lucky freedom to believe or disbelieve as you please… due to this lovely liberal democracy you were born in, this apex of civilization you are the inheritor of… are you so foolish as to think that you haven’t had your moral certainties handed to you on a silver platter? And yet you presume to judge me? Or the people I have chosen to love? Who do you think you are?”

“Yeah whatever!” I snapped. “This isn’t about me!” I immediately regretted that. But it didn’t seem to upset her. She just chuckled?dryly, humorlessly. Then she stood up.

She walked to the window, looking out.

“No. No it is not, is it? Still my friend…” she stopped, still facing out the window, her hands behind her back. “I don’t call many people that, by the way. You know that don’t you?

“Well,” I said, suddenly feeling embarrassed. “Yeah I guess so.” I felt apologetic, but wasn’t sure why.

She gave a little nod, still looking out the window. “Still I must ask you,” she continued, “Do you believe for an instant that your affected disbelief, your supposed atheism, somehow erases a lifetime of conditioning?”

Once again I counted to ten. She had a tendency to leap to conclusions that could be really destructive and I wasn’t about to feed that beast again. Then, as I thought about it, I had to wonder if she was wrong. “Okay, I don’t believe in some white-haired God in the sky, or the Saints, but I do believe that there were great and wise men in the world, and that Jesus was one of them… and that people have learned a lot with time…”

“You are even less willing to lie to yourself than you are to lie to me, aren’t you?”

I grinned a little. “It’s not about me.”

The words just sat there for what seemed like an eternity. Finally she spoke again.

“Perhaps by your judgment Rufus was an evil man.” She stopped. “By your judgment I am probably evil myself.”

By my judgment? I thought about that for a minute. I was afraid to let this out, but I decided there was no better time.

“Joshua tells me you murdered a man in Georgia about 140 years ago.”

She didn’t move, although I could swear I saw a little flinch. “Joshua knows about that, does he?” she asked.

I didn’t answer. I just waited. She stayed completely calm. “The family’s detectives did good work,” she said. She was calm, matter-of-fact. Her gaze never strayed from the window, her hands locked firmly behind her back. I began to squirm a little. Her tone reminded me of a moment back at the hotel room in Ann Arbor. She’d been fiddling with her gun, and I’d asked her if she was planning on shooting someone. “No. That would probably just complicate things,” she’d said, looking at me with no expression. It was the exact same look and tone she was using now: dead, expressionless, matter-of-fact: cold.

“You keep your promises don’t you?” I asked, not sure why I was asking. “Especially the ones to yourself.”

“You are in no danger from me,” she said. It was flat, factual, certain. It wasn’t what I’d asked, but for whatever reason I believed it. We both just sat there for a bit, me in my chair fiddling with the hand rests, her quietly staring out the window.

“Murder is a horrible thing, but there are worse things,” she finally said, evenly. Then she took a deep breath.

“I do not kill lightly, not since….” Her voice trailed off, and she didn’t finish the sentence. “Even when I think I must kill, it leaves a stain upon me. I learned long ago not to do it if I could avoid it. If I could…” She suddenly took another deep breath and swallowed, her voice catching a little. She kept staring carefully out that window into the back yard, though her voice started grating a little.

“That man in Georgia deserved to die. But I do not kill lightly. Not anymore. The price… the price is so very high.”

Finally I decided to change the subject. “So you figured out Rufus wasn’t going to become a God with you… and trying to be one was his undoing?”

Without changing expression or looking at me, she suddenly turned and walked to the bar. Every time we reached a point where I was getting under her skin, the scotch would start flowing and she’d light a cigarette. Even as I thought it, there she went again, knocking a cigarette out of the pack with one hand as she poured a drink in the other. I couldn’t help but laugh a little.

She didn’t look up, but she obviously heard me. “I amuse you, do I?” she her, face and voice still impassive as she lit her cigarette, staring into the flame as she puffed.

I grinned. “You’re predictable, Princess. Every time I try to point out that you might not have been in control of everything, you get up, light up, and pour a drink.”

She turned and stared at me for a minute and I thought I might have gone too far, but then her face cracked into a grin, and she looked human again. She deliberately tossed her freshly lit butt into her scotch glass and turned back to me, leaning against the bar, hooking one bare foot on the side of a barstool, her mouth in a little half-smiling moue. She just looked at me like that for a minute until I spoke up.

“Anyway,” I said, groping for words. I felt a little nervous, but she was starting to look normal again and that was good. “I guess I understand what you’re saying. It was a harsh world and I guess the Romans weren’t more brutal than most people, huh?”

“They were even more brutal than most actually,” she said. “In some ways. But in others…” she stopped, and nodded a little curtly. “Sometimes they were kinder.”

“Okay, but still, it’s like… it’s like you can’t stand the notion that maybe, just maybe, Rufus was just another arrogant glory hound whose own ambition did him in. I mean, seriously, Roman history, hell, human history, is chock full of guys just like him. You say it all went bad, and I can almost see it coming from what you’re saying. His idea to be a god and take over the world was crazy. But why does it have to be because of you? What the hell happened that makes you so certain?”

“Rufus,” she announced flatly, “committed suicide. He did it right before my eyes. Before his entire family, with all his friends and supporters in attendance.”

“Wow. Why?”

“He stood accused of treason.”

“Because of you?”

She looked impatient. “He had a plan to usurp power. His first step was to discredit his cousin. His uncle was a Senator and Rufus’s cousin Livius was his heir apparent. Rufus started rumors that his cousin enjoyed loving men.”

“Huh? You said yourself that Rufus was a switch hitter.”

She smirked again. “Indeed. But the rumor was that Livius was fond of performing fellatio on his more handsome male friends, and of receiving anal pleasure from them. That he extended those favors even to his slaves.”

“So wait a minute, you say it was okay to… but not to…” The light finally went on in my head. “Oh. I get it. Okay to be on top but not on the bottom.”

“Quite,” she said. Then she straightened up and started walking aimlessly around the room, looking at her paintings, fiddling with her plants. I could usually tell by now when she needed to be quiet, so I just waited as she glided around. This seemed to be her favorite place in the house because it was well lived-in. There were comfortable leather chairs, low tables, another of the ever-present fireplaces, and the bar… Finally she stopped at the same window again and stared out at the back yard.

“The Romans had some very strict notions about what constituted proper behavior amongst males,” she said, a little flatly. “My Rufus was spreading the notion that Livius was disgustingly weak and decadent.”

“So that’s treason?” I asked, forcing my brain back into gear.

“Oh, no, that was just a piece of the plan. It wasn’t enough that Livius should be thought weak and disgraceful. Rufus had to be seen as a stark contrast to him. Rufus needed his cousin’s weakness to threaten the Republic.”

“So how did he do that?” I asked.

“Young Livius had substantial holdings outside Arretium, including a farming estate not far from Rufus’ own estate. So Rufus set about fomenting a rebellion amongst Livius’s slaves, particularly amongst the laborers who worshipped Diana. Many of them were Carthaginians and Spaniards.”

“So he was…” I stopped. “I’m confused,” I said, finally.

“Rufus thought to ?fortuitously’ uncover a rebellion by Livius’s slaves. He would then crush it personally and lay the blame squarely at the feet of his weak, effeminate cousin.”

“So wait, Rufus was trying to talk the slaves into rebelling, so he could turn around and stab them in the back?”

“Precisely. The slaves would rebel, and bring other slaves in with them, and then Rufus would put them down.” She paused. “Fomenting a slave rebellion: That,” she said, “was treason.”

“And you knew he was up to that?” I asked.

“Certainly. Then he would kill them all.” Her voice was flat again, and that look was creeping back again.

“And you were okay with that?” I asked.

She slowly turned to face me, and I stiffened a little. Her face was completely dead, with that deep, almost inhuman presence behind her eyes. It was almost lizard-like. The other times I’d seen that it’d disappeared pretty quickly. This time it stayed, and it was almost like I was seeing something behind the mask. It was unnerving. When she spoke again her voice was like ice dragged across a rough stone floor.

“Rufus miscalculated: he thought the slaves were more loyal to him?and more stupid?than they were. He was filling their heads with odd notions about the goddess Diana, whom they loved, and how they might throw off their shackles and find freedom with her blessing.”

I opened my mouth, but something in her look made me shut it again. She went on, still cold as ice.

“Mind you, he planned to sacrifice them all to Diana. But first he was making them think he was their friend, that he and I would support them in rebelling and escaping. Then he would make it clear that the rebellion was a direct result of his cousin’s weakness, and kill each and every one of them.”

She said it like saying Rufus planned to crush an anthill. She just kept looking at me, expressionless and cold.

I shivered a bit. “Okay,” I said. “He came up with a harebrained plot and messed it up. Get to the part where it’s your fault.”

“He was going to sacrifice them to Diana” she said, her face still expressionless. “On my behalf.”

“Well that’s a pretty harebrained…” I started.

Coldly, she cut me off. “It wasn’t ?harebrained.’ It was genius.” Her only emotion was a slight annoyance, which was really creeping me out. “The slaves were stupid fools anyway and probably deserved their fate.” She just went on, not even reacting to my expression. Deserved what Rufus had in store for them? I thought, but said nothing.

“Rufus was subtle in all his workings. It took him well over a year to bring events close to where he could spring his trap. His cousin was just beginning to suffer from the whispering campaign against him and had yet to act in his own defense. The timing was crucial. His cousin and his uncle were well respected in Rome. Once they took a public stand it was unlikely the rumors would prevail. The rebellion had to erupt just before they were forced to act. The combination of the two: that was to be the fatal blow. Rufus had it planned perfectly… Perfectly, except for one, small thing.”

I shivered a little, but she just kept staring at me with that dead look. “So… what did he forget?” I finally asked.

“That bitch…” she said. It came out in a hiss. “Vipsania.” She spat the name out, her face still impassive, but her voice dripping. “Vipsania,” she said again. “I should have snapped her neck the instant she set foot near our house.”

Our house? I wondered. But I just looked at her, and waited for her to go on.

She stood there, her face like granite as she stared at me… or not so much at me as through me, like I wasn’t even there. The rest of her was so still she almost looked like a statue. “Rufus was a fool and hinted at his plans to her when he visited her in Rome, about two months before he was ready to make his move. I’m certain that he only hinted… but that was enough. It was his undoing. And mine.”

I wanted to ask her more, but her eyes were still boring into me, and behind those eyes was just… nothing. Emptiness. Soullessness. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Then finally her eyes slid off me, down to a spot on the floor in front of her. Then she turned her head again, and directed that lifeless gaze outside. It was like I wasn’t even there all of a sudden, but it was a relief not to have her looking at me that way.

I shook myself, straightened and cracked my neck, then got up. She still didn’t move. I went to the bar and took two fresh glasses. I poured myself a drink, then a double for her, and grabbed her cigarettes and lighter. Part of me didn’t want to get close to her. But I knew… I hoped… I could wipe that terrible inhuman look off her face.

As I walked up she was so motionless I wondered if she were even breathing. It was almost startling when she suddenly turned her face to me. Her deadly eyes locked on mine, cold and bottomless. Then they dropped to my hands, where she stared at the scotch glass like it might be dangerous.

Suddenly, she chuckled.

It was just a short exhalation of breath, but just like that it seemed like the room was warm again?and just like that she was human once more. She smiled and took the drink, then let me light her cigarette for her.

“A superb idea,” she quipped, lifting the glass to me before she drank. I took a gulp out of my glass as she took a hard drag off her cigarette. She took another look at me, and her eyes asked a question.

I searched myself for a minute, then took another sip out of my drink. I looked at the paintings on the wall across from us, then looked back at her. She was still staring at me, but without malice. She looked a little embarrassed, but knowing. Her eyes waited for me. Almost like she knew what I was going to ask.

“So… What did I just see?” I asked.

I could tell she knew exactly what I meant because her shoulders dropped just a bit. She looked a little resigned, but behind it I still saw something… something a little bit… alien.

“So you saw me,” she said. When I looked a little confused, she went on. “So you finally saw me,” she said, a bit of resignation in her voice. She also sounded a little amused, but still there was something a little alien in her countenance. I was still confused.

Her eyes suddenly returned to that chilling look. “Just me, nothing more, nothing less.” I thought about it, and said nothing. “It’s not pretty, is it?” she asked.

“I saw a…” I paused. I took another sip. “We’re just kind of things to you sometimes, aren’t we?” I asked.

She paused and tossed back the rest of her scotch, then looked out the window again. “Sometimes I forget where I am… what I am. I get lost in the moment and the person I am supposed to be… what people expect me to be… falls away, and all that’s left is me. Raw and naked.” She looked at me again. “I am not one of you.” She said it flatly, coldly, without even a hint of remorse or regret.

“Are you saying… that this is all an act?” I couldn’t help but think about that afternoon in Joshua’s office. What would he make of all this?

“An act? My entire life is an act. I pretend to fit in; I learn to make the appropriate responses so that no one sees just what I am. I suppose it’s a natural consequence of living the way I have for so many centuries.” She took a breath, and I thought I detected a little bit of regret. “Sometimes it’s hard to understand where the act ends and I begin.”

That was something I hadn’t really expected her to say, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I knew at some point I’d have to explore it with her again, but not now. Instead I asked the obvious question.

“So, who the hell was Vipsania?”

“Vipsania? Vipsania was Rufus’s wife.”

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