Whatever expectations I might have entertained about the Emperor, and in truth I had given it little thought, I found myself underwhelmed by the reality.
I had heard little more about Decius than his name, and this brought to my ears by an oarsman of a trade vessel who had chosen to cast his lot with the Marmorca in exchange for freedom from a Roman master. Most of what I now know of this petty little man I learned in the time since my own captivity in Rome. How he had never wanted to become Emperor at all, how he chafed under the burden; his reign would prove short and end in bloodshed. In my mind I recall the image of the small, nervous man with the sagging eyelids and twitching hands, and find it difficult to believe that those hands could bear the unseen stain of so much innocent blood.
As one of his desperate attempts to strengthen his Empire, little Decius had sought to create, or to reforge, in his mind, at least, what had once constituted a unified state religion. Did he know beforehand, or did he wonder, that his edict that “all must partake” in offering sacrifice to the old gods would lead to the wholesale slaughter of so many Christians, when these latter could not be made to pantomime even a sham fealty to false deities? Did he care? I doubt it. Decius, the petty tyrant, cared little for anything save himself; he cared for his Empire only in the respect that, should it fall or weaken, this would reflect badly on him.
Two short, bloody years this man would serve as Emperor, leaving a stamp on history small and soon to fade, standing out only for the persecutions of Christians he had engineered by his offhand decree—and known also as the one Caesar in the line of Caesars to capture the Werewolf of the Barbary Coast.
They took me to a building not the palace of the Emperor but some other, a squat two-storied structure less grandiose than those flanking it. Looking back on it, I see this as perfect metaphor for the reign of Decius himself. I saw him but a brief instant, and this outside the palaces of the Caesars. He never quite belonged, did Decius, and all too soon hurried himself from the stage.
“Is that him?” he said, his eyes darting about the room as though in search of hidden enemies. If I had seen the doom of the Empire written on the faces of its citizenry, I saw it all the more pronounced in the expression of this short, balding man. “Did you see him become the beast? See it with your own eyes? Any man could claim to be a shapeshifter, but if you don’t see it happen…”
“We are certain, my lord,” answered the fat Legionnaire at the head of my escort.
They had unloaded the silver cage with me in it from the wagon, placed it on a flat cart and wheeled me inside. I remember how the dark interior of the building had felt so much cooler than the outside, almost cold. Caesar and his retinue had met us on the way, coming down the wide hallway like a minuscule parade to match my own.
Decius sniffed and rubbed at his bulbous nose as he replied:
“Fine. Yes, so be it. He will make a dandy distraction.” I’ll never forget the words he used to describe me. A “dandy distraction.” Then he hurried past me, the man whose order had brought me to Rome, as though he had already forgotten me and moved on to more pressing business. At no point during our brief meeting did he allow his eyes to meet mine. Such is the power of the bureaucracy that such an ineffectual little toad can wield authority to slaughter tens of thousands and spill untold gallons of the blood of innocents!