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Death Mask

by Jeff Bowles

The death mask stared at Gnaeus. Wax, sunken cheeks, cut to shape so it could be worn. It leered at him, as if its subject had known death would not be the end.

“I don’t want to die,” said Vibius. “Do you think the old man will forgive us?”

The Senate chamber surrounded them. A great semi-circle of richly jade-inlayed seats and a perfect, polished alabaster floor. Silver incense burners puffed a sweet-smelling smoke, filling the grand room with a miasmic haze. Gnaeus and Vibius stood alone, facing the golden lectern and the mask, while the senators chatted and joked in the recesses of the chamber.

Gnaeus raised his manacled wrists, set a finger against the beaded necklace he wore. “You see this?”

“Yes,” said Vibius.

“This necklace contains great magic. It was imbued with a protective force, a force which senses its wearer’s enemies and deflects their malice and ill-intent back upon them.”

Vibius’ eyes widened, a surge of hope welling in his voice as he spoke. “Really? It does these things?”

Gnaeus considered for a few moments. Finally, he shrugged. “At least the old Gallic whore told me as much before I slit her throat. I’ll be protected, I’m sure, but you’re probably as good as dead.”

Vibius closed his eyes and whimpered. Gnaeus laughed at him.

A bell sounded inside the Senate chamber; the senators withdrew from their conversations, moved through the surrounding aisles and stood before their seats. The Emperor’s two consuls entered, followed by the Emperor himself. Gnaeus stared at him, allowed himself a grin as the man met his eyes and quickly looked away.

The Emperor crossed the alabaster floor, moving to sit at the head of the chamber. One of his consuls removed Gnaeus’ and Vibius’ manacles, while the other stood before the lectern and addressed the Senate.

“Be seated. Noble senators and delegates, you have been called to bear witness. These two men, Vibius Albius Consenescus and Gnaeus Albius Caedus, have, by their own admission, committed an unspeakable deed.”

The senators stood, began to hiss and jeer. “Murderers,” they cried.

“Yes,” said the Consul, “indeed, murder, most cruel and severe. Organized by one, carried out by the other. Our Emperor, Manius Ortus, murdered, choked to death as he bathed. His head severed and dumped in a refuse pile, never to be found.”

The senators continued to jeer. The Emperor glanced at Gnaeus. He smiled back and shrugged.

“Or so his killers thought,” said the Consul. He laid his hands on the lectern, positioning them on either side of the death mask. “I give you the face of Manius Ortus, taken from that very head.”

He lifted the mask, held it high for all to see. “Our brave Emperor is indeed dead, yet he lives. His essence, his mind and spirit persist within this mask. By the magic of our seers, by knowledge most ancient, to restore life only once and only in matters such as these.”

The Consul turned towards Vibius and Gnaeus. He held the death mask out and moved towards them. “What greater punishment than to face the one you have wronged? He will inhabit one of you until the mask or your life is taken away. But which one?”

The Consul turned dramatically, held the mask high. “Which one?”

The senators rose to their feet. They shouted names, “Vibius” or “Gnaeus.”

“The orchestrator?” the Consul said. “It would be fitting, don’t you think?”

Gnaeus smiled.

The Consul frowned. “I think not. I think the mastermind shall face his victim. Which leaves... the killer.” He turned to Vibius, moved closer to him, held the mask inches from his face.

Vibius screamed, “I’m a hired man! Not on me, not on me!”

The Consul pushed the death mask onto his face.

Vibius fell to his knees, brought his fingers to the corners of the mask. He tore at it, his cries and screams muffled and drowned out by the shouting senators. His fingers strained, his hands clenching and pulling at the thing. The mask wouldn’t budge.

He relaxed, as if losing energy. His arms fell to his sides.

The senators quieted. All eyes were fixed on Vibius as he knelt motionless. Gnaeus stared down at him, saw the wax tighten at the corners of the mouth.

Vibius inhaled wildly. He coughed and clenched at his throat. The senators gasped. Gnaeus smiled.

Vibius hacked, choked. He pulled at his throat, as he had the mask; he strained and wheezed. His breathing became shallow, labored. His body tensed and shook, until it seemed at last he might die.

Suddenly, the coughing ceased. Vibius gasped once more, yet his lungs held the oxygen. He took a few deep breaths and let his hands fall from his throat.

He cast his waxen eyes about the Senate, letting them settle on the Emperor. “Nephew... that crown does suit you.”

The Emperor could not meet his gaze. “Y-yes, uncle.”

Manius Ortus, and not Vibius, rose to his feet. He turned and spotted Gnaeus. He frowned, brought a finger to scratch at the mask. A small piece of wax fell to the floor, and Gnaeus’ smile broadened.

“And you, old friend,” said Manius. “I can remember the bathhouse, the hands at my throat, and now, I am here, in the Senate, facing you. What have you done, Gnaeus?”

“What have I done?” Gnaeus chuckled. “I should think it’s clear enough. I had you killed for the sport of it, in hopes your enemies would reward me with riches, power, and women.”

“Yes, and I see everything went according to plan.”

Gnaeus smirked. “I was indeed shown less gratitude than I’d envisioned, yet I did have the Emperor of millions on his knees, humbled and terrified, gasping for air. I suppose it wasn’t all a waste.”

Manius frowned at this, folded his arms across his chest. He spotted the beaded necklace at Gnaeus’ throat and raised a waxen eyebrow. “A warding necklace, Gnaeus? Have you grown superstitious in your old age? You’ve always been the sort to laugh in the face of danger.”

“Laugh? At danger? No. But I did get a good chuckle when Vibius described your reddened face and bulging eyes.”

Manius snorted. He swept his gaze over the senators and shook his head. “So quick to smile, Gnaeus, though you face certain execution. All existence is a joke to you, isn’t it? I wonder, will you still joke when death truly comes for you, when hands enwrap your throat and blades pierce your flesh? Will you still find something to smile about?”

Gnaeus shrugged. “Who can know? I certainly have nothing to fear from a man of wax.” He motioned towards the senators. “Save your rhetorical nonsense for these sheep.”

The senators clamored at this. They pointed fingers and shouted at Gnaeus.

Manius moved closer to Gnaeus, drew back a fist and struck him.

Gnaeus fell to his knees. He growled and tried to climb to his feet. Manius was on top of him. He held him down, leaned in to whisper in his ear. “What do you want, Gnaeus?”

“From you?” spat Gnaeus. “Nothing.”

“These men are no sheep. They are cunning, they are ambitious, and they are bloodthirsty. Thanks to you, they will eat my feeble nephew alive, and our entire Empire will suffer for it.”

“And what do I care for Empire?” said Gnaeus.

“You know I’m a man of my word, Gnaeus. Do absolutely nothing now, help me reclaim the throne later, and your life will be spared. You may even find your riches, power, and women.”

He leaned away and gave Gnaeus a nod. Gnaeus hesitated, stared at him for a time. He slowly smiled and nodded back.

Manius turned and addressed the senate. “I strike this man, yet who can deny my right?”

“No one,” said a senator. The others uttered their agreement.

“No one, indeed,” said Manius. “I am dead, yet you have all summoned me here. For what purpose, my most loyal friends?”

A voice rose up. “Kill him!”

Manius raised an eyebrow. “Kill him? Exact my vengeance? This is your will?”

The senators jeered Gnaeus once again.

“Very well!” said Manius.

He turned and moved to his nephew. He held out a hand. The Emperor smiled meekly and drew a golden knife from the sheath at his waist. He handed it to Manius, who turned back to Gnaeus.

“Stand up,” he said.

Gnaeus stood, grumbling under his breath. “Riches, power, and women.”

Manius set the knife against Gnaeus’ stomach. “A deep thrust to the gut?” He slid the knife, produced a thin cut. Gnaeus growled.

The senators jeered.

Manius moved the knife to Gnaeus’ chest. “Or perhaps a piercing blow to the heart?” He cut again. The senators roared approval.

“Riches, power, and women,” said Gnaeus.

“Perhaps he should choke to death as I did.” Manius moved the knife higher, slid it under the necklace. “Or maybe an opened jugular would better serve justice.” He placed the tip against Gnaeus’ throat.

The senators stomped the floor, pointed and drew thumbs across their necks.

Manius held the knife to Gnaeus’ throat. His expression darkened. His eyes flashed and his wax lips tightened into a devious sneer. He applied pressure. Gnaeus searched his face for some hint that he was feigning it. The tip pressed deeper, drew blood. Gnaeus stiffened.

Manius paused. He allowed the blade to relax. “I cannot!”

He turned theatrically, still holding the knife to Gnaeus. “No, my friends, too much blood has already been spilt!”

The senators quieted, stared at Gnaeus and Manius. They glanced at one another, and one by one, began to clap and cheer. “Manius the wise,” they said, “Manius the merciful!”

Manius turned back. He smiled at Gnaeus. “Come, old friend, take hold of the blade. All is forgiven!”

Gnaeus returned the smile. He put his hand atop Manius’, and in his enthusiasm, jerked the knife away from his throat. The blade caught the necklace, cut it in half. Beads flew in all directions. Gnaeus caught sight of one, saw it spin in the air, catch light, and fall into Manius’ mouth.

Manius dropped the knife. He brought his hands to his throat. He gasped, wheezed, choked. He fell to his knees. The wax began to crack and fall in pieces. Gnaeus could see Vibius’ face beneath, straining, discolored. The senators, consuls, and the Emperor himself rushed to Manius’ side, but he soon fell to the floor, onto his back, dead.

All gathered stared down at him, and one by one, turned to look at Gnaeus.

“Assassin!” they cried. “Twice-proved assassin!”

They moved towards him; they raised fists and drew knives. At last, Gnaeus found he had nothing to smile about.

Copyright © 2011 by Jeff Bowles

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