Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
I went to relieve myself in the garden. Afterward, I wandered awhile among patches of cheery colors that reminded me of my uncle’s villa in Africa.
A man approached. He was in his later years with graying temples and a careful manner. He wore an orange freedman’s cap and dirty-blue tunic, and his fingers were stained with black and purple ink. Bowing, he introduced himself as a copier from the imperial library at Ravenna.
“What do you want here?” I demanded, not feeling as harsh as I tried to sound, since the fragrant flowers and warm wine had begun to push concerns from my mind.
“The Master of the Imperial Library has ordered new volumes. I was copying in the Consul’s library. I couldn’t help overhearing a discussion outside the library.”
“Of course you could. Servants go deaf on command.” I waited for him to explain, but he remained silent. Finally, I prodded, “What discussion?”
The man withdrew a step. “Men at the baths, Master.”
“‘Lord Tribune’, you ignorant shit. I’m not your master.”
“Yes, Lord Tribune. I’m not blessed with a sharp mind, only a tireless hand and a good memory for faces.”
I felt the hair on my neck rise. “Say it.”
He stepped a little closer, glancing furtively about.
“If it’s worth anything, I’ll pay you.” I pulled out a few copper coins.
“To any man here but you,” he said, looking at my hand, “my information would be worthless. But to you, Lord Tribune, it’s worth gold.”
Glancing around, I confirmed that we were in a secluded turn of the garden, only apple trees near enough to overhear us. “You think because some fool freed you that you’re free to argue with me?”
He kept his eyes on the copper and said, “I’m a freedman of the Anicii. I’ve been in the homes of all the greatest families of Rome, but in May I was at Ravenna.”
His tale was becoming interesting. I led him down a path that took us farther away from the house. “What faces do you recall?” I locked my hand on his arm.
“The glorious Patrician,” he answered. “Greater still, my pitiful life was blessed beyond deserving when I saw our Holy Father, the sacred Augustus, walking through the courtyard. I threw myself onto my face. He allowed me to lie before him as he spoke with his ministers. There were so many attendants about, but later, after they left, I heard one of them speaking with him. He had a man brought to him, a man I didn’t know until I saw him in the baths tonight.”
We walked two more steps, and he said, “Your Adjutant.”
“The eunuch?” He gazed at me with raised brows, as if he expected I would be surprised. Dropping his arm, I said, “Doesn’t every fool think to make a wage selling what’s already sold.” I tossed him the copper. “His very purpose in my office is to inform on me. You think I wouldn’t know that? Keep the copper. You’re fortunate I don’t have you whipped.”
I began to walk away, but he said, “There’s more, Lord Tribune. What your Adjutant gave to the glorious Augustus.”
After I turned back to him, he continued, “He mentioned your name. He had a letter someone had written you. They both seemed disturbed by it. I recall the Augustus’s words precisely: ‘this is all we need’.”
Nausea rose in my throat, and my knees felt weak. I’d underestimated the eunuch. He was more treacherous than I thought. I imagined a dozen different ways I’d have him killed.
I slipped off a bracelet of silver I wore and slapped it in the man’s hand. “There’s enough silver here to buy your family pork for a year.” But he wouldn’t feed his family. He would sell the silver for two coins that he would click together for the whores.
The freedman left me, and shortly after, Theodore arrived.
“Tribune,” he said, walking slowly toward me, his hands locked behind his back. I could tell he had made his way through the garden to find me, though he tried to appear surprised.
The hair over his ears was wet. The color of his nose made it clear his overheating was the result of too much wine. Despite that, he was a distinguished-looking man, well-proportioned but short. His manner was reserved, but his tone warmly confidential. “How are you enjoying the Consul’s dinner?”
“Overwhelmed,” I answered honestly.
He continued with pleasant questions about the house, the food, the guests. Finally, he came to what brought him into the garden. “We were all surprised by the choice for Italy this year.” He gestured down the path, and we walked. “The Patrician has chosen to cleanse the army of atheists, and yet he entrusted the prefecture to a man who holds a priesthood of Jupiter.”
“The Augustus is responsible for those decisions.”
“Do you think so?” he asked with curiosity.
I relented without much consideration. “Yes, I suppose all of us were surprised, Lord Prefect.” I observed the title he still carried. He served as Prefect of Gaul two years before. “Your tax in Gaul was praised for its fairness and thoroughness. I don’t think Gaul’s been so efficiently taxed since Julian.”
Comparing him to the emperor the Christians call “the Apostate” made him shift with discomfort. As with Gallus, his discomfort was oddly appealing.
He said, “Many officials see their posts as honors and let their administrators do the work. Who’s better suited for tedious tasks than men who’ve served the same office for ten years? I understand the thinking, but I take my duty seriously. Let the bookkeepers total the wheat and honey. I make sure the totals are met.”
“The Patrician has been absorbed with what’s happening in Gaul and in Constantinople. I can’t imagine he would knowingly slight your claim. Or rather, that he would fail to advise the Augustus on your suitability.”
“No, but it’s precisely because of the invasions that he needs men who know the year’s need and how the levies can meet it. A prefect needs the respect of the provinces he governs, and I’m afraid Longinian isn’t that man. Even his fellow atheists are upset with him. You were young, but I’m sure you heard the criticism he received when he fined the Prefect?”
“Yes, that prefect was Flavian.” I finally knew the basis of Theodore and Flavian’s comradery at the dinner: the mutual dislike of Longinian.
Theodore was trying to persuade me of his qualifications, as if he thought I possessed influence, but he already held the “Illustrious” rank. He was well-situated by family, wealth, and alliances to achieve any office he wanted in due time, so his deference to me was disquieting. Until it occurred to me that he might not be thinking I had influence so much as a future.
Lavender flowers seemed to gush from a bush beside me. I leaned down and drew their fragrance in deep. I needed a moment to settle my nerves. When I rose, I continued, “I’m riding to meet the Patrician in a few days—”
“I already have men at Ravenna. They’ve submitted my petition in Consistory. I simply thought you might have information, Tribune. I’d never presume.”
“Of course not.”
“Our fathers were bonded in an alliance that served both well. It’s fitting we should benefit in the same way. How many times have I read the poem praising my father, written by the great Claudian, who was a client of your father?”
“Bishop Augustine dedicated a book to your father, as well,” I pointed out. “Your father was loved by all.”
“With seven offices. Who can’t enumerate his achievements? Your uncle, too.”
Mentioning Lampadius made him shift again.
“The Patrician judges him harshly,” he said defensively. “There was nothing unique in what my uncle said. The sentiment of the Senate has gone against peace.” He looked back toward the portico. “Maybe you’ll do me the honor of visiting before I return to Ravenna. I’ll send a man to your father’s house. That’s where you’re staying?” He nodded toward the dinner and smiled. “I’m sure Pelagius is missing our conversation.”
I left the dinner much too sober. I was worried about the alliances I had seen but even more concerned with Theodore’s expectation that I harbored imperial ambition. Who else, I wondered, thought I aspired to such power?
The Consul wasn’t one to worry about. Indeed, he could be an ally. The Anicii were well-educated and politically-entrenched. I once thought their prestige was due to scholarship, but I discovered that, mostly, they were just rich. Their position meant they were political collaborators—men of convenience. A man couldn’t live so well and so long as the Consul had if he were a man of principle.
The next evening, Theodore sent his men to Father’s house, where I was staying while in Rome.
It was dark when I left with an escort of guards. Theodore had also sent a litter and six slaves, and so for the first time since I left Africa, I allowed myself to be carried. My slaves walked ahead with lamps, and around me walked my guards.
The blocks became unfamiliar as we wound through narrowing streets on the way up the Aventine, until, after a time, we entered a section where the tenements appeared uninhabitable. Shops attached to other shops extended out from the once-cubical buildings to sprawl like lazy beasts across streets, funneling the throughways to the width of a man. When my litter-bearers reached a place too narrow to pass, they set me down.
After I stepped from the chair, they tipped it sideways to walk between walls. Impatiently waiting for them, I didn’t recognize the scrape of metal until I heard the scream that followed.
Turning, I saw one of my men on the ground and the rest of the guards were surrounded by men who must have been hiding in the street.
I swung my dagger at one of Theodore’s slaves who rushed me. The slave fell hard, as if his leash went taut. Near his still body lay a shattered lamp, its wick still burning and its dim flicker reflecting off a knife stuck in his neck. A silver sparkle of dust extinguished the wick.
When I glanced about to survey the threat, I saw that several of my bodyguards were already dead in the street, a few had run off, and except for Gallus, all my slaves had deserted me. The men who remained were interested in ridding themselves of each other.
Still, I was the point of this and would be taken care of when my guards were dispersed. As men fell wounded or dead, I backed into the shadows of the wall with Gallus. He was terrified, barely able to move, but I managed to push him toward the street’s narrowed entrance, one hand around my knife, the other clamped on his arm.
A large man with a leather cuirass and scarlet tunic noticed us. He grasped a thin, unmilitary-looking blade. His face was familiar, though it was the kind of battle-scarred face that might have belonged to any soldier. When he grunted some curse, I recognized his language, one I knew from the company of my father’s Hunnish bodyguard.
Shoving Gallus backward, I used the leverage to lunge at the scarred man, but before I reached him, a body fell dead in front of me. I lost my knife when I tripped and had to fumble for a club lying near the dead man. I swung, hitting the Hun’s hand and knocking the knife away, but he fell on me. We wrestled for the club until I bit his face, pulled the club free, and smashed his head with it. He crumpled, a dent in his helmet and blood pooling in one eye.
I rose and kicked him, but he didn’t respond. I hit his face with the club. I hit him again and again and didn’t stop beating his skull until a chain wound around my left arm. When it tightened, the club flew from my grasp, and I was dragged sideways, feeling my shoulder crackle. Pain like fire took my breath away as I fell limp to the pavement.
Gallus cowered against the wall. I shouted at him to run just as another chain wound around my neck and dragged me backward into blackness.
When I woke, Gallus was unwinding the chains and babbling at me. I rolled to see one of my men pulling a knife out of the chain-wielder’s chest. Before I could make any decisions, three of my men were dragging me back to the main street.
“They were your men,” I charged Theodore when I arrived at his house, too weak to stand on my own.
I recall his alarm, the blood on my tunic, the smell of urine, and my boots covered with someone’s vomit. Then I fainted.