Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
“Not at all, only something Proba told me.”
“Where are my manners?” He listened attentively as I told him the story. When I finished, he didn’t seem surprised, though he took some time to consider his words. “Placidia will make the worst kind of wife. But I know your feelings. Believe me, the gods are dogs if she could find that weak meat appealing.” He looked me over, then looked at his slave. “You’re thinking, ‘what does my dearest Volusian know of women?’ You’re right, of course. I know nothing. I offered Italica my Lucius here.” He rubbed one of the legs of the slave near his couch. “His tool works perfectly well. I thought she’d be delighted. I’ve always been a generous man, as you know. Instead, she only complained he has no tongue, as if she cared what a slave said. She doesn’t care what I say.”
“Maybe that’s not what she wants it for.”
His eyes widened in horror. “I don’t know why I love you when you say such things. Bad business, women—all that wet. Do you know she actually expected I’d dispatch her when I returned to Ravenna this summer? Told me her hole was as smooth as a boy’s. Her hole maybe, but not her ass!” He laughed again. “So glad I’m here,” he said, his voice slowing. He seemed overwhelmed as if by some thought sprung loose. He glanced at Gallus and leaned toward me, whispering, “Will your slave gossip?”
“Good,” he said. “Mine won’t either. Like I said, Lucius has no tongue.”
“About your slaves,” I said. “I haven’t returned your letters because I haven’t received any. They may never have left Ravenna.”
He smelled of cedar oil, and the enticing aroma took my breath away as he leaned toward me to speak in whispers, but when I leaned away from him, he smiled and said nothing.
I recovered quickly, “That eunuch who follows me everywhere may have bribed your deliverer.”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know. Months at least. They’ve found their way to the Minister. You’ve been at Ravenna. I thought he might have said something to you.”
He rose from his couch, paced back-and-forth for a few moments, then shouted for a slave. After shouting five times, each time his voice rising, a girl entered the room and spoke softly to him. She bowed, and clasped her hands in front of her, cowering from his anger, but what she said relaxed him, and he sent her away.
He returned to his couch. “It seems one of my messengers has gone missing. I look forward to tracking him down and severing every limb from his body.”
“Would he be so foolish?”
“Has the mind of a turnip.”
“You’re a careful man. What would be interesting to the Minister?”
“Maybe the story about Apulius.” He reached for another fig. “A boy from a new family. His father holds a minor office. Nothing outrageous, you know. I’m not a passive.” He sucked on the fig and swallowed it. “Except for you, of course.”
“You’re as subtle as a whore.”
He laughed with glee. He glanced from me to Gallus and back as if he were sizing up his competition. “Is he your taster?”
“I didn’t think so.” His lids dipped suspiciously. “You wouldn’t think I’d try to poison you, dear Eucher?”
“Maybe you’d have me beaten?”
“Hemlock is nobler.”
“Yes, but you, noble Eucher, should go the way of Socrates. Beatings only for those I don’t love.”
Without considering which one, I took a fig and ate it.
“There, you see? No poison.” After watching me, he complained, “You could be more seductive about it.”
“I don’t eat for your pleasure.”
“You do nothing for my pleasure,” he answered petulantly. “Ah, but we’ve never shared the same habits, have we? I wish only to please those I love, while you, I hear, only beat them.” He returned to looking Gallus over in his lecherous way. “He’s not a eunuch, is he? But he doesn’t look worse for the wear, so tell me,” he said thoughtfully, “have you changed your position?”
“You’d be the first to know.”
“Would I really?” He smiled as if he didn’t believe me.
I ignored his remark. “Infibulated. Father hates eunuchs. He’s surrounded by them at court, you know, and nauseated by the salacious lot.”
“Salacious?” wondered Volusian, eyebrows rising. “I returned to Ostia because I couldn’t find any of those at Ravenna.”
“How can that be? I heard the doctors had to cut piles from Honorius’s ass.”
A snicker turned Volusian away. “Worse,” he said glancing idly about the room. “I think we have an emperor with no generals.”
“A blacksmith with no irons?”
He curled his fingers around his groin. “A branch with no fruit,” he said. He returned his focus to Gallus. “I don’t remember him.”
“Gallus? He’s always with me.”
Volusian used his game of forgetting to keep his friends and guests repeating themselves until any lies were contradicted. “I assume you named him,” he commented. He left his couch and walked to him.
“He hates the name.”
“Hates the name,” Volusian echoed. He marveled while he brushed the fine beard. “How wonderfully perverse,” he announced suddenly. “You allow your slave an opinion. I’m impressed. You’re always out-doing me. So, the ‘Gallus’ of Propertius? Such a traitor that one, such a fool for a woman.” His voice rose with dramatic inflection as his hand slid down Gallus’s chest. “Who could possibly steal any man from you? Were I Helen and you Menelaus, Troy would still be standing, for not even the jealousies of the gods could send me from you.”
He turned to me, a lewd smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Yes, my dearest, you’ve always lusted after Greeks. You’re my capricious Zeus, but what’s this handsome boy, a mere slave, have over me?” He cupped Gallus’s groin with his hand and added, “Not this?”
Gallus stared hard at the ground, redness spreading across his cheeks. I distracted Volusian, saying, “It was you in Capua trying to convince that boy—”
“Tobias,” he filled in. He released Gallus.
“Trying to convince him you were ‘swift-footed Achilles’. You should have been an actor.”
“Ah!” he exclaimed, clasping his hands to his chest. “And I suppose you’d have me a prostitute, too, and offer to pimp me.”
“We could make a fortune, you and I, if you weren’t so eager to give it away.” His laughter relaxed me. It was enchanting, like the spray of a waterfall.
“You wouldn’t have come to Rome if not for the show.” His laughter fell away to be replaced by sobriety again. From Gallus’s side, he added, “No one seems to know who fills your time these days.” He kissed Gallus’s cheek. “You manage your secrets well.”
“There’s no one.”
“Even worse! Like a Stoic, or worse, a monk.” He returned to his couch. “I see you’re worried.” Laughter left a trace of kindness in his eyes. “You’ve heard the gossip.”
“I go to a show and men accost me with accusations. The commonest men speak as if they’ve a right to even utter Father’s name. The Consistory whispers, and even the Senate’s made their feelings known on the floor. He honors them with requesting their consensus, but they don’t appreciate it.”
“Honor? By the gods, who do you think you’re talking to?” he declared, as if I’d insulted him. “He’s never cared what we think, nor should he. We don’t matter. It only looks better to have our endorsement for such a bad business, someone to share the blame. If the Senate agrees to pay off Alaric yet again, your father can’t rightly be blamed this time, now can he?”
“We owe Alaric.”
“Owe him? What horse-fucking German has any loyalty? Once he gets his gold he’s off to the next thing that glitters. He began everything with that eunuch Consul, when he played the eastern court against us. Your father wisely had the eunuch removed—in many pieces, I recall. In fact, he’s made sure inconvenient men had convenient accidents on many occasions. Why can’t he do the same for Alaric? The Senate hates your uncle, too, but that’s in our blood. And your father’s worse, only because he’s twice the man. It was your father’s recommendation that the Senate pay, and he won.” Volusian spread his arms and bowed his head as if accepting defeat.
“Lampadius accused him of cowardice. His nephew, Theodore, was at Bassus’s dinner on the Kalends. He spent most of the evening staring at me as if I were a cyclops. I met him for dinner the night I was attacked. He seemed to think I had some influence on whether he gets the prefecture of Italy. What was he thinking? If men like him believe the rumors about my ambition, what do you suppose the Augustus believes? Even that fat monk of the Anicii made the same conclusion—”
“Yes, yes. You’re boring me, Eucher. Boring me! What’s so terribly interesting at Tibur that you’d stay, that you’d even go? Tell me who it was if not this Demetrias.” He popped a fig into his mouth and chewed. His eyebrows rose with anticipation. “You know I’ll find out, my friend. I can afford to make any man my informant.”
“A dead man.”
He leapt to his feet. “Yes, of course! You were visiting your beloved Hadrian. You’re as sentimental as a girl. You can’t fool me. Not me—oh, but it’s been years since you’ve accepted an offer from me.”
“You play with your passion like dice.”
“No, no,” he insisted. His finger pointed from his lean chest to me. He was a tall but slight man, with a narrow waist and long limbs. His lips were thick, not sensuous like Gallus’s, but pleasing, in a functional way. “You’re the one with a stake,” he said. “You’re not a gambler when there’s something to lose, but what that is, what you think you’ll lose, I’ve yet to discover.”
“How about my life? We’re no longer boys.”
“But our feelings are still youthful, aren’t they, dear Eucher?”
“You have nothing to prove to me. You’ve always been the most eloquent and elegant man I know.”