Hadrian gazed at his protege, could see an aura a halo if you will bathing his reclined head. In repose he was beatific. Antinous resembled a Greek statue come to life, the ringlets of hair golden perfect proportions. And sleeping he was the statue first brought to life and then set again under a spell. Except it is I who am enthralled? Hadrian thought.
He is but a boy really a brave boy o brave boy brave babe oh! thought the emperor, but never had I loved until I loved him. Never will I love again. If only I could abdicate abrogate forgo all responsibility go away away from disguise myself sneak away with him. I could keep him with me be with him.
No! I must not tantalize myself with these absurd thoughts. Th' accursed prophecies are clear. What did that little sharp stick of a wise man tell me? Such a strange man. . . . That one eye burning into me if I squirm or fidget if he senses the slightest hesitation as if how dare I challenge an iota of his sermons. But he is wise of that there is no doubt. I am the most powerful I rule from on high the entire civilized world but even the gods in heaven confront fate at their peril. And I know there are sights monsters wonders and scrolls that I will never see. Antinous will spy them all after. . . . Will he hear me when I pray to him?
A slave appeared mute beside him. Hadrian could tell from his demeanor and his mumbled charms that the priest was again in the palace. The servants were all afraid of the sage. His frail brittle body conceals neither his power nor his wisdom.
Only Pteh, this Egyptian priest, elder of the innermost brotherhood, has made sense of the prophecies. Tied them all together in fact. It is time for Osiris to come again. The wheel has turned and a new age is adawning, he explained. Osiris is here already. Then he turned and pointed a long finger a weathered bark-stripped stick at my boy and Antinous didn't flinch, just nodded in that knowing way he has that way that makes me a man over twice his age feel weak and foolish.
Still I am afraid for my beautiful man-boy afraid to see him torn asunder. It is sufficient that he drown, the priest reassured me. This is a reassurance? The sacred Nile will see his resurrection. Yes, so have I been told. Never has my faith been tested like this. That I should let him die let him walk out into the sunlight and disappear from my sight forever. Yet not forever if I believe the prophecies and the interpretations and the commentaries. And believe them I must. If I don't believe who will?
I am the great bridge to the gods the prayers of the tiny myriads who people my maps their prayers course through me. I'll set an example and they will also worship him. (Except those damned monotheists.) Who will build the temples and with what gold pieces if I don't lead and choose the proper day and open my purse and make the sacrifices make them over and over until they are propitious. And he must have believers multitudes of followers. Their voices must rise up singing his praises up to the heavens so that he might be heralded upon his entrance as one of the blessed. Oh look down upon me from the dome of heaven I have picked out the stars that will be your bones they will wink at me and shine. I'll have the constellation painted in that glowing fish-dye on my bedchamber ceiling it will always be night in there when I am not out in the air directly under his gaze.
Hadrian listened to the rain for a long while looked out over the balcony at the moonlit courtyard the dark trees. Those shadows held terrors. Then he turned in the silver light and gently woke the slumbering Antinous after first wiping the tiniest fleck of drool from his lip with the hem of his toga. The sumptuous appointments of the room were invisible to him as he drank deeply the visage before him. Pteh is here, he said, in almost a whisper, we must meet with him a final time for your instructions in the mysteries; we go East tomorrow. Antinous nodded, squeezed Hadrian's wrist to reassure him. Hadrian's trembling calmed.
He is dead.
Even as they were fishing Antinous' body from the river Hadrian was already busy proclaiming his cult. He mourned privately and ordered games at the equinox in honor of the new Osiris.
I will have his image displayed everywhere throughout the civilized world, he vowed, though no statue even by the greatest Greek artisan could equal his beauty as a living boy or now as an immortal god.
I'll remake the constellations, so I can see him rise and set eight months of the year.
Postscriptum: Soon after Hadrian himself died the cult of Antinous withered on the vine became a footnote.