The deal the Minister made with me was that I would accept ordination and leave for the island of Lérins by way of Rome, where I would be castrated before joining a group of monks living with a man named Honoratus. I agreed, neither believing that the Minister meant me ever to reach Lérins nor that I would try to. He completed the pretense by giving me a signed letter of transit, an imperial letter of recommendation, and a new name.
In reality, the Minister offered me a dignified death—first the uneventful escort to Rome, then a quiet execution, perhaps with a token of the Senate present. It appeared that the Minister wanted no spectacle as he had with my father.
So I prepared to leave Ravenna for my beloved Rome, the inevitability offering a kind of peace. That my father was dead was a relief to me—not that I didn’t love him, but the mirror he had always offered me, the unimpressive reflection I saw in his unimpressed eyes, was finally shattered. And the distance between us was made nearer, so I felt closer to him in death than I ever had in life. Maybe it was that I no longer felt we were at odds with each other but united now against a mutual enemy. Though anything I did would never compare to even his most modest achievement, I was the one that was still alive. Irrational as it was, I found some small value in outlasting him, though that accomplishment was not even my own.
It wasn’t until a group of my father’s men sent a message to me that I imagined anything but the death that awaited me in Rome. I began to wonder instead how pleasant life in Africa might be.
When the imperial escort arrived, and the man who led them turned out to be Arsace, I knew I couldn’t go anywhere with him. My father had walked that way, had obeyed his emperor and upheld his oath, and perhaps he now watched from somewhere to see whether I would, too. But my allegiance wasn’t to the emperor or Rome, and I’m sure my father, wherever he was, thought me the worst sort of coward when I refused the command of my emperor to kneel and share the blade that took his life.
On the road out of Ravenna, the men who sent me the message ambushed the imperial retinue. Arsace was hit, but I didn’t stay long enough to count the dead. The Huns brought a horse for me, and we rode south through the swamps over many days in the savage country until we found the Nomentana Way.
It was the sixth of September, and the City was preparing for the Augustus’s twenty-fifth birthday. Gangs of criminals and imperial slaves were working on the Palatine and Capitol, carrying away debris, painting, and washing. Flags and wreaths of flowers already hung from the old Forum and Senate building and on the top of the Salarian gate, I saw my father’s rotting head. Imperial guards roamed among the workers, enforcing diligence while remaining alert for thieves. The streets were thick with visitors—opportune men from all over Italy knowing the imperial birthday would mean free coins and free games.
Although Volusian kept a house in Rome, only his wife stayed there. I would find him, if not at Ravenna, at Ostia. I left Rome the same day I arrived, and when I reached Volusian’s estate, it appeared deserted. No attendants greeted me at his gates, but a boy I’d never seen before answered the door.
“The Master’s hunting,” he said. “He’ll return tomorrow.” He was imperious and well-deserving of the attitude. His golden hair was the color of the honey. The nearly-invisible blonde down of childhood softened his pristine cheeks, and his cosmetic-stained lips sneered faintly at the Huns who waited with the horses some distance away. “The stable’s up the hill.” He started to close the door.
“You obviously don’t know who I am,” I said malignantly, forcing the door. “I’m the brother of the Augustus.” I stunk and was as dirty as the Huns, and while I wouldn’t have faulted the boy’s natural skepticism any other time, I found little patience for him that day.
Although he couldn’t have been more than twelve, he wasn’t easily impressed. “The Augustus? I don’t believe you—a stranger who comes escorted by Barbarians and no servants, smelling like a beggar. What would Master Volusian do to me if I let Barbarians and beggars in his house?”
I called one of the Huns who gave me his whip. I took the boy by the arm and shoved him into the house. “Your master will be pleased to see me and interested in how I was greeted when I arrived.” I unrolled and snapped the whip. “Is Lucius with him?”
“Lucius!” the boy shouted as if I had reminded him. When he tried to draw away from me, I caught him and dragged him back from the door. “The master’s hunting with the new boy,” he offered. “He took his dogs, too.”
“What’s your name?”
“Hermius—ah, the gift from Postumius.” I released him and began rolling up the whip. I smiled as invitingly as I could. He was wearing a burgundy tunic that barely reached his thighs. It may have been that my attention reassured him he was in the company of a man like his master, because he relaxed and smiled back.
“Send someone to stable my horses and find rooms for my men,” I commanded as I pushed him toward the door. “Prepare the baths for us, and have a girl bring us food. Send Lucius to me in the dining room.”
Volusian’s boys stoked the hot bath, then oiled and massaged me. By the time I retired to his best room, I was feeling as if the past month were a dream. When I finally did sleep, I dreamt of my father.
The following day, I took the keys from the chamberlain and for most of the morning thought of nothing but books as I enjoyed Volusian’s amazing library. When the sound of hoof beats reached me, Volusian’s cheerful exhortations to his servants accompanied the noise.
After a considerable time, he entered the room. “A ghost haunts my library,” he said.
Unrolling a letter by Cicero, I briefly scanned it, then rolled it up again and returned it to its hole.
When I didn’t reply, he added, “I was certain you’d have the decency to die with your father.”
“What decency?” I asked, turning around. “I’m your best friend.”
He laughed and came to me. He hugged me and kissed my cheek and asked if I were hungry. I declined but he had wine brought.
We went to his garden to sit beside a statue of Venus and Adonis. The elegant lovers were entwined beside a pool where blue fish swam.
“You’re distracted. Surprised to see me?” I asked as I lay in the grass tracing the lines of Venus. “You haven’t even asked what happened at Ravenna.”
“I saw his head on the Capitol,” he replied. “They’re washing the walls while flies swarm around his rotting skull. You went to Rome, didn’t you?”
His slave set a tray of walnuts near me. He sat on the other side of the statue. Unless he was reclining on something soft and gold, he always appeared uncomfortable. When he glanced at the couches his servants brought, I knew he would rather be there. He waited for me to suggest it. “Gallus,” I said instead.
“What do you want to know?”
The sky was blue but not quite clear. The heat made a haze that blurred the edges of a ridge of trees on a distant hill, and the sun was warm on my left cheek. Closing my eyes, I turned my face into it. “Is he dead?”
“What if he is?”
“Then I will kill you.”
“For a slave?” Laughing, he reached for some walnuts, and I grabbed his hand. In his wide green eyes I saw disbelief and fear. “The Master’s Men are looking for you. They’re already in Rome. They’ll be here any day, and all you care about is a boy? Yes he’s alive, but he’s no longer your concern, and my concern is that your head will be on a gate soon.”
“A small distraction in your splendid life, Volusian. I don’t think it will much affect your plans, and what are those plans? Theodore’s already at Ravenna.”
“He’ll be made prefect.”
“Nothing’s certain yet. Proconsul. Maybe the City.”
“City Prefect?” I said astonished. “You’ve petitioned for it?”
“You can trust me.”
“Trust you! You spent every dinner I can remember telling me what a terrible office that is. Where’s Gallus?”
“I’m taking a risk even letting you stay here.”
“Where is he?”
As I rose to my feet, he followed. “Stealing a slave is a serious crime,” I warned him.
“The Minister has been given most of your family’s property. Gallus can be mine or he can belong to Olympius, too. Which would you prefer?”
My temples began to throb as I clenched my teeth in an effort not to attack him. The few choices I thought I still had, I didn’t. I had nothing except the goodwill of Volusian for as long as it lasted. “What have I bought?”
“Africa for as many years as it takes. I can have you on a ship by the end of the week. You’ll be on my estate, and by the time the Master’s Men find you, no one will even know who you are. You know what my family can offer, both here and in Africa. You never did tell me what you thought of Alby.”
“Who will I be if not Eucher, son of the Vandal Stilicho?”
“You’ll be alive.” He called a slave, who took the tray of nuts and directed others to lift the couches. He began walking to the house, and I followed.
“I’m not interested in dinner. I’ll wait for Gallus in my room.” I didn’t give him a chance to argue.
Several hours later, while dictating a letter to my mother, Gallus entered. I sent the secretary away, watching him all the way to the door as if that would move him faster.
When Gallus and I were alone, I rose from my chair and went to him. He wouldn’t look at me. His eyes remained fixed on the ground. I raised his face. He had the ruddy complexion of long days outside. His beard was gone. He wore a blue silk tunic that just reached his knee. His belt was a rope of gold.
“You look well.” I dropped my hand.
He said nothing.
“He takes good care of his boys.” My comment got his attention, and he looked into my eyes. “Have you heard, little Gallus? I’m a dead man. If you ask how Father is, I’ll have to tell you he’s not so well, but he’s finally come back to Rome.”
He fell and hugged my knees. “Take me with you.”
I drew him back to his feet. “You didn’t like Africa, remember—the heat, the mosquitoes? They’ve confiscated everything I own. If not Volusian, you’ll belong to the Minister, sold, or even killed.”
“I’d rather be dead. He threatened to have my tongue cut out.”
“You can believe him, too.”
“It doesn’t have to be like this.”
“Sooner or later.”
“I thought you weren’t like your father.”
I took hold of his tunic so tightly, I tore the blue silk. I drew him to his feet and pushed him backward until was off-balance and clinging to my hands, I said, “Haven’t I warned you about the wolves? They’re all around us. It’s only a matter of how long we can hold them off, and my father wasn’t so successful. I’m not sure I’ll be either.”
Tears streamed down his cheeks. He fell to his knees again and begged me to take him to Africa.
Once again, I drew him to his feet and turned him around so his back was to me. He stopped his crying and mumbled nervously. When I began to pull his tunic up, he turned and tried to stop me, but I overpowered him and studied the tender back that was striped with crusted blood. A vision stopped my heart, the terrible sight of Gallus’s first moment with Volusian, and then his second and his third, and the many that were yet to come.
“My father died because other men weren’t the men he thought them to be.” I dropped his tunic and he turned around. “I’ll die because I’m not the man I thought I was.” His breath easing, Gallus gazed at me with growing relief, until I said, “How clever Volusian is. What do you think purchased Africa for me?”
Then I watched his shoulders tighten again and his breath grow shallow. He waited for me to meet his eyes, but when I wouldn’t, he ran from the room.
I couldn’t breathe for sometime. Then for a much longer time, I couldn’t eat, but I had dinner with Volusian anyway.
Hermius lay with him. I studied the smooth lines of the flirtatious catamite and wondered how a man who had known Gallus could enjoy such an empty boy.
Volusian noticed my distaste after awhile. “Do you envy me?” he said as he teased the boy’s curls.
“A hole in the ground would give me as much pleasure.”
He pushed the boy away. After a moment, his scowl loosened into a smile. “He’s too much like you. He talks and talks. He has an opinion about everything, as if I’d allow such a thing in a slave. I can barely stand it from my dearest friend.”
“Then why do you want him?”
He leaned forward. “Because he was yours.” He smiled with the joy of a man who possessed a secret and wanted to share it, which he did. “He didn’t have a bruise.” With a grunt of laughter, he sat back. “I examined him quite thoroughly.” He laughed again. “You’d be surprised what pleasure it gives me to know your secrets. Tell me, did you also ask his permission? Did he make you beg—”
The table tumbled over as I went for him. I knocked the boy from the couch and took hold of Volusian’s tunic. “You’re a vulgar man,” I said, my rage spitting from me so that saliva sprayed onto his face. I pressed him into the cushions and backhanded him. “A disgusting, vulgar man.” I slapped him again, and he tried to push me away, but he wasn’t strong enough.
As I choked him, he gasped, “You can’t imagine the excuses I’ve had to make for you, the constant apologies. You’re a horse-fucker like your father, but I’ve tried to make men believe you’re a Roman.”
Releasing my hold, I shoved him down and stepped away. “Is that the best you can do?” I demanded, catching my breath. “After these years, the stories, the adventures, that’s the best you can do? ‘Horse-fucker’? I expect more, dearest Volusian. Afterall, you’re so clever, and who knows my weaknesses better?” I laughed as slaves righted the table.
Hermius slipped back to his side like a colt to its mother. With a lack of control I had never seen in him, Volusian turned on the boy. He slapped him until he seemed relieved of the uncomfortable, and unaccustomed, feeling of humiliation.
“He needs discipline, like you,” hissed Volusian, catching his own breath after spending his energy on slapping the boy. “He’s losing his charm—also like you.” It took only a few minutes before he had composed himself again. As if we’d been discussing the varieties of flowers, he reasserted his affability and continued, “I bought a stunning Egyptian girl. They’ll have the most beautiful sons. I found a Jew who said he could take care of his problem. How amazed he’ll be when he realizes what that thing between his legs can do. Your boy will have me to thank for it, and his sons will be all the gratitude I need.”
“You owe your pretty boys and gold cups and your entire pitiful existence to us, and I’d rather spend one evening with any filthy, horse-fucking German than another moment at your fine Roman table.”
After staring at me a considerable time, he knocked Hermius off the couch. “Go tell the dancers to get ready.”
Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Historical fiction |