Senator Aemilius Lepidos was doubtlessly a ‘jolly old man’. It stood to reason. For instance, everyone who knew him personally tended to exclaim ‘Oh but he is a jolly old man!’, which was good, since he carefully cultivated the aforementioned image of himself over the years, until he succeeded and… here it went. To the Roman public, which sometimes tended to judge a man harshly, he was nothing but a harmless ’jolly old man’. Not many knew though that to himself, he was a sophisticated man. For one thing, he was a man of culture and a patron of arts.
He owned a nice collection of Greek art. He kept an extended library, he hang out with the famous actors and on top of it, he personally oversaw the training of a small, but highly gifted choir of young slave boys, whom he handpicked with the utmost love and precision.
Aemilius Lepidos was also a ladies’ man, which meant that despite his years and his rather inferior exterior, he possessed an unquestionable charm that conquered many. He was a good talker, a gifted orator and women loved his jokes enormously. In short, he was a society man who valued his leisure and his easy lifestyle and, no matter what current politics dictated, he was determined to keep up to his standards.
- You know, the thing I hate most is precisely this – when I am compelled to let go of my leisure time, - He said, testing the wine and making a face, - Not such a good vintage, I am afraid.
- Oh, stop talking about the vintage! – Snapped Agrippina, Caligula’s sister, and returned her wine glass, nearly breaking it into bits, to a small table.
- You are always wailing and bitching, Aemilius, or you are starting on your damn collection. Let’s talk business, for Gods’ sake.
- OK, domina, but what do you want to discuss with me this time?
- Always the same, man! Always the same.
- Ah! The great Caesar. Your beloved brother.
- Oh shut up! Men are simply sick!
- I disagree with you on that, domina. Many men have broad and diverse interests. Our Great Caesar, for instance, is truly a man of broad interests. He loves men, he loves women, he doesn’t neglect his relatives either. I wonder if he does it with animals. What do you think, Agrippina?
- He doesn’t need to. His lovers are almost animals themselves. I do not think he is missing anything in that particular department.
- True but a trifle cynical, I think.
- Cynical? You bet it is cynical. You’d grow pretty damn cynical yourself if your high and mighty brother would force you to cater to strange men… in this fashion.
- What fashion? Are we engaged in anything that might be regarded as inappropriate? We are merely drinking my wine and talking… society.
- As if you don’t know that he wants me to fuck you and then…
- And then what?
- You damn well know what. Do the words ‘blackmail’ or ‘treason’ mean anything to you?
- I believe the last time we met you mentioned the word ‘spy’. Are you going to mention that word again?
- Listen, Aemilius. We have interests in common. Stop pretending to be an innocent by- stranger. You are a politician and you know what’s going on.
- And what precisely is going on, domina?
- You know that one day, sooner or later, but perhaps sooner, he will do away with you.
- Why? I am not his enemy.
- You are a conspirator! For him you are! You know quite well that he does not need a proof or anything of that kind! He hates you, Aemilius. Besides, you have talked enough here and there on the virtues of your damned Republic. Do you think he does not know? Wait and see, man.
Aemilius Lepidos nodded and ejaculated gravely:
- And what do you propose for me to do?
- Take action, man!
- And you? Why are you upset about it all? You are his sister. He loves you.
- He loves me? ! He hates me. He hates Julia. He loves only that bitch!
- I gather you refer to Drussilla, domina.
- Sure, I refer to her. She is…oh well, I’d better not get started on this one or I’ll be talking till morning. I have a feeling that he won’t spare either me or Julia. He haven’t spared other relatives. He told me just yesterday that I am getting on his nerves. Listen, Aemilius! He is a sick man, for Gods’ sake. He talks to the full moon.
- Really? I haven’t heard that one.
- Sure. He’s fallen in love with this stinky Persian stuff…
- Hashish, you mean?
- Yeah, the very one, and he smokes it day and night. Then he walks out on the balcony and talks to the moon.
- And what does he say to the moon, precisely? Have you heard anything of interest?
- I sure have. It was not anything you ever wanted to know, believe me.
- You know, Agrippina, I feel for you with all my heart but…
- But what?
- I do not trust you, - Finished Lepidos seriously.
Agrippina glared at him and hissed:
- Then what can I do to change your mind? Or maybe Julia has managed it already?
- Why do you mention your sister? – Asked Lepidos, looking at her with a surprise.
- Hasn’t she visited you as well? Do you think I do not know? Have you talked to her about all this? She is as scared as I am believe me!
- No, I did not have a chance to talk to her. Do you think…?
- Never mind, man! Listen! I’ll give you a proof. It would be the best proof you would ever get from me.
- Well, I…
- Stop! Listen! All I can say is – watch out for any news concerning Drussilla, OK?
- And what do you mean by that, for Gods sake?
- You’ll know. Or you won’t. We’ll see, - Snarled Agrippina and got up, - I am leaving, Aemilius, - She said, brushing invisible speckles of dust from her magnificent dress, - But we will meet again.
- Of course we will, and with pleasure, - Responded the senator, also getting up.
- Don’t see me out, - Said Agrippina, marching towards the door, - And think about what I said.
Aemilius Lupidos watched her walking out of the room, finished his wine and headed into the opposite direction. Five minutes later, he entered his bedroom and coughed to announce his arrival to a woman, who was lying across his bed, seemingly asleep. Once he entered, she hoisted her head and looked at the senator with a mocking smile:
- Well, Lupidos, did she leave?
- Yes, Julia, do not worry. She’s left.
- Ah! I could hear her from here, believe it or not. Was she mad, as usual?
- Well, she was upset.
- We all are, - Concluded Caligula’s second sister and gave out a harsh laugh, - I nearly died from boredom, lying here all on my own. Are you going to follow the Caesar’s perverted wishes and give me at least some satisfaction?
- Of course, darling, of course, - Said Aemilius, approaching a night table and picking a large dildo, previously covered with a piece of silk.
- Would you like to try this? – He asked, turning around and showing it to Julia.
- Ah! Well, why not? Hah.
- What is so funny? – Inquired the senator, stroking the dildo with the tip of his finger.
- Does Agrippina know that you are an impotent?
* * * *
There are few eyesores for a hardcore misogynist that are as bad as watching two young girls shopping. Hysterical giggling, a constant shifting through piles of closes, trying them on, complains and questions like ‘Does it make me look fat?’ or ‘Does it really match my skirt?’ can drive a regular misogynist medically insane. (It remains largely unproven if the misogynists are born that way or become such after accompanying their girlfriends or wives on lengthy shopping expeditions).
Speaking of which, there are three large categories of shoppers. The one is a depressed shopper. She (or he) throws a quick look at the merchandise, pretends to be unmoved, sighs and walks on, thinking ‘What’s the use? I cannot afford it anyway.’ The second kind is a happy shopper. No matter how poor or rich she (or he) is, she is always enthusiastically plunges herself in the very midst of it, browsing through hats that she never wears, tries on cocktail dresses that is obviously too small or too loud, apprises wedding dressed even if she’s been married for a long time, never glances at the prices and muses happily ‘Maybe. Some day… If I find something that fits’.
The third kind is a convert.
In the very first hour of their shopping trip, Pelagea realized that Zenaya unquestioningly belonged to the third category. She had tried to appear uninterested, then she had mentioned a lack of funds and after that, she grew visibly excited. They had walked through several shopping alleys, never missing a single stall, had popped into a few special stores that dealt in ‘ethnic clothing’, then tried a couple of upscale places, and Zenaya was still going strong. The more they walked, stopped, appraised and browsed, the more she squeaked with delight: ‘Gosh! Genuine Chinese silk!’ or ‘Is it what, something Egyptian?’, or simply ‘Wow! I looooove it.’ Towards the end of the trip Pelagea, who, being a happy shopper herself, and possessing almost an unlimited amount of strength, began to feel slightly exhausted and had to restrain her newly found companion.
- I think that will do for today, honey. There are several other places I’d love to show you tomorrow, but let’s call it a day.
- It’s amazing, - Cried Zenaya, looking over her shoulder and trying to slow down in front of a particularly garish shop window, - Cumulus took me to a clothing store the first day I met him and I was appalled. I thought the Roman shopping sucks.
- What store was it, honey? – Asked Pelagea, stirring Zenaya gently to a parallel street.
- The one close to Mama’s Pro house.
- No wonder, honey. It is a store for the poor.
- Yeah. I know. It can be a little bit confusing at first. It’s a big city. You’ve got to know your way around.
- I guess. Where are we going now?
- I wanna show you one of my hangouts. Don’t fret, it is just a coffee shop.
- All right.
The sight of bohemian quarters and their inhabitants threw Zenaya into a fresh paroxysm of delight. Once they reached the coffee house and sat down, she leaned across the table and whispered excitedly:
- It is so cool. All these young people, I mean. It’s like, I dunno… It looks like a street revolution or something… They surely know how to express themselves, you know.
- Well, many guys are not happy with the establishment or do not want to have anything with it, - Remarked Pelagea.
- That’s it. It’s awesome!
- I dunno ‘bout awesome but some of them surely want to make a difference. Many are just suckers who simply want to look cool. Hey, look who is here!
The last remark was addressed to a huge guy, clad in a pseudo-gladiatorial outfit who walked into the shop. Pelagea waived to him and cried ‘Hey, Tootsie! Over here!’
- Tootsie? Do you call him Tootsie? – Blinked Zenaya.
- Yeah. Actually, everybody calls him that. Why?
- No, nothing, it is just I once saw this…
She did not finish but stared at Tootsie, seemingly mesmerized by his countenance. Meanwhile he approached their table, sat down and brushed beads of perspiration from his roomy forehead.
- Damn stuffy today. Hey, Pel, how’ ya doin?
- I’m fine. How are you?
- Am OK. Care to introduce me? – He turned to Zenaya and eyed her with an interest, -
- Is she from the future too, huh? – He asked.
- I mean, your current pals all seem to be from the future, right?
- As a matter of fact, she is from the future too.
- Oh! Cool, huh?
- Zenaya, this is Tootsie, my old pal. Tootsie, this is Zenaya.
- Hi, Zenaya, - Boomed Tootsie, grinning, - You’ve got an interesting name.
- Hi, Tootsie. You have an interesting name too, - Replied Zenaya, somewhat shyly.
- That’s my nickname, actually. My real name is Antonius.
- Hi, Antonius. Shall I call you Antonius or Tootsie? Which one do you prefer?
- Which one do you prefer? – Tootsie suddenly beamed at Zenaya.
- I prefer Antonius. It’s a nice name. It suits you better, you know.
- Gee, you sure are cool. These dorks around here do not even remember my real name. Thanks.
- You’re welcome.
- How’s your dad? Still after your hide? – Pelagea asked him.
- Yeah. You bet he is.
- Tootsie…Oops, Antonius, I mean, is studying law, you know.
- Not really studying. Dicking around, more like, - Grinned Tootsie-Antonius.
- My dad wants me to finish my education, you know, - He explained to Zenaya, - Although,
I’m not sure I’ve got time for that shit right now. I mean, maybe sometime in future.
- He doesn’t want to join the establishment, - Explained Pelagea. Antonius nodded in agreement, then said:
- Hell, no. I mean, I’ve got plenty of time, haven’t I, for that kind of shit, university and so on… Meanwhile this world goes down the toilet. Who’s gonna take care of that?
- Are you really concern with the things like that? – Uttered Zenaya slightly astonished.
- Sure I am! This Imperial regime sucks, man! I mean, people around here are concerned with their small things, money and all that shit… We, on the other hand, wanna real freedom, you know.
- Zenaya here wants to fight for the animals’ rights, - Said Pelagea, fighting the smirk.
- Oh yeah? Animal rights? Cool, man! – Cried Antonius, - I’d never heard that one before.
- The state of the animals’ rights around here is appalling! – Replied Zenaya hotly, - I mean, look how they treat animals around here! I was appalled! I mean, they do not even understand the conception, you know. You cannot treat an animal cruelly and…
- That’s right, you can’t! – Antonius nodded vigorously, - I mean, the slaves and animals have their rights too… Although I do not understand…
- What you don’t understand?
- I mean, animals are so dumb…
- No, they are not!
- Well, yeah. I agree. Some slaves are pretty dumb too…
- But slavery is another problem entirely. Personally, I believe all slavery should be abolished at once! – Cried Zenaya hotly.
- Wow! You sound like a real revolutionary, - Noted Antonius, looking at her with a renewed wonderment.
- You are real cool, - He said after some thinking, - I mean it.
- Thank you, - Zenaya started to blush, - You must finish your school and become a lawyer who fights for the rights of animals, - She added resolutely.
- A good idea, that!
- Do you really think it is a good idea? I mean, for you to…
- Hell sure I do! Now that’s something to think about, huh? I recon my dad will hit the roof, once he hears about it. Hey, I am so glad I have met you, - Said Antonius, - Can I see you some time? I mean, we can go to a dance hall or a restaurant or something….
- Just don’t forget to change before you head to a dance hall, - Laughed Pelagea, - Or they will take you for a gladiator there and you’ll have a fight on your hands.
- Never been concerned ‘bout fights, - Growled Tootsie - Antonius and turned to Zenaya again, - So how ‘bout it, go out with me some time, huh? I’ll be honored, honest to Gods.
- Maybe, - Answered she, trying to suppress a giggle.
* * * *
Once, when Caesonia had been much younger, one of her friends, a pretty, pretty girl, asked her, merely out of spite “And how are you planning to get yourself a husband, being so ugly and stuff?’ Back in those times, this mean and ill-mannered question had been left without an answer. Caesonia had ignored the stupid bitch, not even bothering to answer. No one knew that even in her younger days she had been hardly concerned with it all. It seemed that she had always known (or had been taught at a very tender age anyway) that smartness, and not beauty, wins men’s silly hearts.
Nowadays, even despite her age and her bleak exterior, which continued to become bleaker with years and all the excitement, she maintained with winning affections of prominent and wealthy men. Her ex-girlfriend, who had asked her the famous question and who had displayed all the signs of a beauty back then, grew up into an unhappy woman, who had known no love, who was deserted twice and who now lived in total obscurity. Caesonia, on the other hand, learned everything there was to learn about love and sex. Perhaps, this was the reason why she became chosen by Caligula as his fuck-mate and so far remained as such despite all scandalous talks that poisoned the air of the Great city.
It wasn’t a secret that she treated Caligula’s whims as a mere childishness. On such occasions when, for example, he demanded her to sit with his guests stripped naked, or did other things, she only laughed to herself while she obliged him without a question. He was not much of a lover, at least not physically, and ever less so since he developed a liking for hashish and other poisons, but he possessed a wild passion, and he was The Man. She never grudged him his more or less regular ‘funny little games’ with his foolish ‘brothers’, these degenerates, who knew no better, anyway. Neither did she care about the senators’ or the priests’ opinions. As far as she was concerned, all these high placed clowns with an inflamed sense of self-importance and countless vises they tried to hide, were mere toys in a hand of the right man, who never hesitated to send them to Hades. All in all, it had been an agreeable position for her. The only worrying aspect that started to upset her recently was this damned Fair Maiden, the Magnificent Drusilla, one of Caligula’s three sisters.
Caesonia knew well that Caligula slept with all his sisters. In theory it did not puzzle her, since she as well used to sleep with her own brother. However, what did upset her enormously was the fact that Caligula seemed to be in love. He did not mind to use Agrippina and Julia for whatever ends he was pursuing, and he easily prostituted them to other men, under this or that pretext (always politics) but he cared about Drusilla and that was that. Caesonia had not minded it at first but slowly she began to realize that this pale, soft-spoken woman with green eyes and manners of a cat was her worst enemy. Nowadays, rumors said that she demanded from Caligula to kick Caesonia out of his life for good, which did not sound good. Caligula seldom let people to disappear from his life, unless they ended up in a cemetery. It was yet another ‘funny strike’ of his. Until recently, Caesonia had not burdened her head with such strikes. Until recently…
* * * *
Caligula closed his eyes and began to fly. He rose to the ceiling and looked around. The picture of his study grew dim as he moved towards the window and floated into the open air, trembling slightly with excitement. He was free. The skylight of the Rome looked crazy as usual, a mere backdrop of a cheap theater, but there were no limits -- nothing could stop him. He could touch the horizon or try to explore the utmost boundaries of the Earth. He continued to hang in the air, suspended in motionlessness by his will. It was hard to decide where he wanted to be right now, or who he wanted to be. To let it all go… To float freely without thoughts or mundane concerns… It lasted mere seconds or perhaps hours… It was impossible to say.
A sharp, all penetrating voice cut though his vision as a sword or a whip, destroying all magic that had been there. Caligula moaned and looked around, as if coming from a deep slumber. Finally, he propped himself on his elbow and sighed deeply. The taste of magic was still lingering in his mouth but the effect was nearly gone.
He smiled at his sister who was standing close to him and looking down at his face with a disapproval, mixed with concern. He almost hated her during the moments like this yet he always knew that he was unable to hurt her. A fair maiden… A friend… A woman with a dazzling white skin and sharp green eyes… A whore… A lover… His favorite sister…
- Sometimes I think you are dead, - She said, frowning and returning to a couch on a far side of the room.
- Me? Dead? – Caligula produced a harsh laugh and scrambled to his feet.
- You are freaking out too much, - He said, approaching his sister and seating down beside her.
- I hate it when you stuff yourself with all this poison. It is impossible to talk to you nowadays. How I hate your doctor. I wish I could kill the son of a bitch who supplies you with these disgusting little bottles. How do you know he is not trying to poison you? I mean, the stuff he prepares for you… And what it does… You are simply not here. And your eyes look scary, - She said.
- What’s wrong with my eyes? – Laughed Caligula.
- When was the last time you have checked yourself in a mirror? Your pupils are always dilated. It looks crazy. You hallucinate a lot.
- I am getting nearer and nearer to the Gods, darling. It takes some doing, - Replied Caligula with a weak smile.
- And this Persian thing with the pipes that look like snakes…
- Hookah, you mean?
- Whatever. I am sick of watching you sucking it day in and day out!
- I am stressed too much. You must realize that.
- You never talk to me any more.
- I do.
- No. Do you think I feel fine myself? This crazy old bitch of yours…
- Oh please, not again!
- No! Let me tell you! She is a spooky old witch. I do not know how you can tolerate such people!
- Caesonia is OK.
- The old whore!
- So what?
- So nothing. She seems to be so friendly with Agrippina and Julia. They used to hate each other. Only yesterday, I caught this fat old cow and Agrippina whispering to each other in some obscure corner! And this afternoon I caught this whore of yours stumbling into my bedroom, for Gods sake! What had she been looking for in my bedroom, uh?
- I guess she had been looking for me.
- Nonsense. She told me some clumsy lie and hobbled away but… Oh, how I hate them all.
- I hate them too. But what I do not understand is why you are concerning yourself with these two sluts – Agrippina and Julia? I am going to take care of them soon. In fact, I’ve got a nice little plan.
- You’ve never told me.
- Just wait and see. I mean it to be a surprise, - Caligula patted Drusilla on the head and cackled, - It would be a great surprise. You’ll like it.
- Oh! You are stoned all the time!
- So what? It helps me function, that’s all.
- And you do not love me any more. All you can think about is some weird games after which I need to take a painkiller… My whole night table is lined up with painkillers.
- Can’t you appreciate some fun? I mean, a little divergence…
- No! Why don’t you play rough with all your ‘brothers’ and this old whore instead? You pay them for that after all!
- I don’t pay anyone!
- They know better than to ask me for money. I give them enough as it is.
Drusilla took Caligula‘s hand and gave it a squeeze,
- I wish it stopped, - She said after a while.
- What do you mean? – Snarled Caligula, wrenching his hand out of his sister’s grasp.
- Something is eating you. I wish it to stop.
- Sure. They think they are still able to snub me and treat me like shit. All these highly born bastards… Do you remember how they used to treat us? Me, you, the whole damn family, huh? And now they think they would get away with it. Nah, I don’t think so…
- You make it sounds as if nobody ever respected you! What about the army? They took you under their wing. You were their wonder boy! You are still the most popular guy in military, - Replied Drusilla.
- That’s why I am not touching them. But all the others… You’ll see what I'm gong to do with them and their fucking Great City of Rome! You’ll see… I’ll run them into the ground, whatever it’ll cost… I’ll make sure everyone is taken care of…- Growled Caligula, grinding his teeth and starting to scratch and tear the hem of his toga with his fingers.
- I wish you’d be more careful, - Said Drusilla in a low voice.
- I hate them too much. I hate this place too much. I cannot forget anything!
- Me too...
- You too? I love you, sister. You are the only human being who really loves me.
- Of course.
- I am planning to throw the biggest party ever. You’ll see… I’ve ordered… A great floating palace…
- A floating palace? How much did it cost you? – Asked Drusilla with alarm.
- Hey, let me worry about that, all right? I do anything I want even if I’d have to squeeze this city dry.
- I hope you know what you are doing, - Replied Drusilla and got up.
- Where are you going? – Asked Caligula, shaking the dreamy look off his face.
- I am going to take a bath, then I’ll take my sleeping medicine, then I’ll go to sleep. I am good for nothing this evening, - Replied Drusilla.
- I’ll pop into your chamber to say good night.
- Don’t linger too long or I’ll be already asleep.
- Of course.
Caligula watched his sister leaving the study then returned to his couch and yelled for a slave to bring in his hookah. It took him some time to calm down and to return to the dreamland, when he suddenly recalled his promise to pop into his sister’s chamber to say good night.
He got up and stumbled into the corridor that led to Drusilla’s bedroom, hardly aware of slaves and guards, who followed him with their eyes. It was a late evening and he felt tired.
‘Perhaps I’ll try to catch some sleep too,’ He mused, walking into his sister’s bedroom.
It was a nicely done room with a high ceiling and marble walls…
He approached the bed and peered into Drusilla’ face.
- Good night, sis…- He started to whisper then something strange caught his attention. Drusilla seemed to be deeply asleep. Then why were her eyes wide open?
* * * *
Praetorian lieutenant Cassius Chaerea had been trying to sneak a quick snooze in the anteroom that bordered Caligula’s study when he heard a piercing scream. The scream clearly belonged to a man and the voice itself sounded familiar. He sprang on his feet and began to adjust his uniform when the Emperor himself stormed into the anteroom and seized the good lieutenant by the collar of his tunic.
- Come! – Caligula roared, giving the man a violent jerk and spitting saliva.
- Yes, sire, - Mumbled Chaerea, much astounded
- I want everyone who was assigned to my sister’s quarter to be here in two minutes! – Yelled Caligula, giving the Praetorian an additional pull. It was difficult to recognize the Emperor’s face, which looked like a distorted sickly pale mask. Caligula started pacing in great circles, shaking his fists and making incomprehensible, hissing sounds. He moved in abrupt jerks, nearly jumping up and down, sometimes shaking and nearly collapsing on the floor.
Once thirty or so people had been ushered into the hall and ordered to form a single line he stared at them with cloudy eyes, shook his head, turned to Chaerea and screeched,
- Do them in, man!
- All of them, sire? – Asked the Praetorian, drawing his sword and nodding to four of his underlings to do the same.
- What? ! Lemme… Lemme see…- Caligula glanced at his right, then turned on his left and suddenly began to shake, bob and squeak with mad laughter.
- Wait! Wait! – He screamed, waiving his hand in the air, - Kill everyone from a bald one to a bald one.
Chaerea hadn’t understood at first what Caligula meant by that then he noticed a couple of bald men, standing at the beginning and almost at the end of the line.
- Yes, sire, - He saluted and stepped forward.
Caligula took a few steps back to watch.
* * * *
- Sire? – Chaerea wiped his forehead with a sleeve of his tunica and swallowed, trying to steady his breath. It had been a hard job. Luckily, it was over quickly.
Caligula, who had been standing on the spot, frozen like a statue, trembled as if coming from a stupor and asked in a quiet voice,
- Have you seen Caesonia?
- No, sire. She left the Palace some time ago.
- Order the secret police to find the bitch at once and kill her, - Said Caligula, sagging on the nearest chair and clasping at his temples, - Tell them to make sure she is dead and also tell them to bring the body in here.
- Yes, sire.
Chaerea saluted and began walking towards the door, trying not to slip on blood puddles.
He reached an open gallery just in time. Normally he felt as an ordinary soldier who was accustomed to all kinds of things but this time it was simply too much. He leaned over the railing that separated the gallery and a pretty indoor garden and threw up. He felt that his entire body was bathing in sweat that made the palms of his hands wet and slippery. He clutched onto the railing when a heavy hand lay on his shoulder and a quiet voice said,
- Are you all right, lieutenant?
-Huh? – Chaerea wiped his face than turned around and stared at General Claudius Gallicus with surprise. The latter was watching him with a mixture of curiosity and concern.
- Are you all right? – The General repeated his question, stepping back and glancing around.
- Sorry, sir, - Croaked Chaerea, straightening up and saluting weakly.
- Don’t worry, man. It’s OK, - Replied the General and patted lieutenant on a shoulder.
- I see you weren’t happy with it, - He added with a strange smile.
- Sorry, sir…
- Oh, stop saying it, man. I understand.
- I… I didn’t sign up for … that.
- Neither did I. Neither did I. Let’s take a walk, lieutenant. I believe we have something to discuss.
* * * *
It has been left unknown where the tradition of arresting people at night originated but whoever invented it was an excellent psychologist.
Dazzled, as he had been, this was the precise sentiment of Senator Aemilius Lepidos who, after being dragged from his bed in two o’clock in a morning by a squad of Praetorian guards, was now fighting nausea inside of a small litter. The vehicle, surrounded by armed men from all sides, was moving fast down the street.
Although it was still dark, after peeking through the litter’s curtains he realized that they were heading towards the Imperial palace. Luckily, it was a long journey so the senator had plenty of time to say good-bye to his life and prepare himself for another, more solitary journey. While the litter bearers covered several blocks, he decided that he had had a good life. The only problem that still tormented him was that he had to let it go. He was not a particularly religious person and therefore, speaking of Elysium and rebirth, he held only a vague and modest expectation concerning his immediate future, which could very well turn out to be false.
He spent the next few blocks pondering on lesser matters, such as the possibility of escape but came to the conclusion that this was out of question. After that, he plunged into the deepest despair.
In a meantime, the litter reached the Palace’s grounds and came to a stop at the base of a flight of steps that led to the Palace proper. A couple of slaves helped the senator out and holding him by the elbows, ushered him up towards the entrance.
Aemilius Lepidos was not a naturally courageous man. In other words, he was prone to feel fear often but only then he learned the real terror. As soon as they entered the Palace, he began to feel faint and if not for the care of two slaves, he would have passed out right there and then. It even crossed his mind that this was not unlike euphoria except it created no joy and his urge to use the facilities became quite insistent. He was about to let it go, shame or no shame, when the slaves dragged him into a room and seated him down in an armchair. He rocked backward and uttered a weak moan, while clutching at the armrests with trembling fingers. Some time later, he finally dared to open one eye and to have a quick glimpse at his surroundings. He had been sure that his troubled being would end up in some torture chamber but the room he was sitting in looked as an opposite kind. It resembled a small but cozy home theater. There was a stage at the front, lit by several oil lamps. The rest of the room was composed of rows of plush armchairs. It did look like a theater. Aemilius Lepidos glanced to his right, and then glanced to his left. The last movement forced from him a gasp of surprise.
- Gallus Asinius! Marcus Silanus! – He cried, staring with wild eyes at two other senators, sitting in similar armchairs a few feet away. Both men looked equally surprised and no less scared.
- Aemilius! What are you doing here? – Asked Asinius in a hoarse whisper.
- I’ve been brought here! By the Praetorians. In the middle of the night, - Replied Lepidos.
- And so were we, - Said Marcus Silanus gravely.
- But why? Why?
- I understand it was done by the orders of the Emperor, - Said Silanus.
- He knows. Someone sold us to his, - Hissed Gallus Asinius.
- Tsh! Quiet, man! – Hissed Marcus Silanus back.
- It doesn’t matter now! – Retorted Asinius, but in a careful whisper.
- Who knows what is going on? – Silanus shrugged, - He could have other things in mind.
- Oh really? With three of us? I doubt it! We are dead men! I wonder if that was the General who…
- Silence! Someone is coming.
They fell into silence and stared at the empty stage, while listening to the shuffling steps approaching fast. A second later a small group of musicians appeared. One of them carried a miniature water organ, the rest held flutes, cymbals and small drums. The whole troupe walked to one end of the stage, settled on the floor and began to play dance music. All the three senators winced as the loud noise hit their eardrums. The music continued for some time, when suddenly a dancer jumped on the stage. The dancer was no other than Caligula. The Emperor was barefoot and dressed in a garish skirt. The upper part of his pallid body was heavily adorned with jewelry. It looked like he picked it up at random, not caring in the slightest about the bizarre effect it created. His face was heavily painted. He danced across the stage, gyrating like a madman with the rhythm of wild music, spun around and disappeared behind the curtains. The music stopped at once. Musicians solemnly collected their instruments and followed their master behind the curtains.
- Well… - Aemilius Lepidos glanced at his two neighbors, utterly perplexed, - What was that all about?
- The madman, - Grunted Silanus. Asinius shrugged and did not reply.
They jumped on their seats, startled by a sudden voice behind their backs and all three turned around. There was a tall Praetorian officer standing by the exit.
- Now we can take you back to your homes, gentlemen. Your litters are waiting, - Said the Praetorian in an emotionless but polite tone of voice.
The senators exchanged baffled glances and rose slowly onto their feet.
* * * *
Unlike the muddy - brained unfortunates who populated backward, obscure parts of the world and who were concerned with the further fate of their yearly taxes, the Roman citizen knew precisely where they tax sestercias went. All they had to do, for example, was to look at the floating palace of Caligula. It was rumored that this nautical creation was the biggest (and the most expensive) ship ever built, and it was built as a palace indeed.
To those who were not familiar with this sort of engineering, the ship looked like an extremely long wedding cake. It consisted of the palace itself, two floors high and constructed above the deck. The three additional levels below served as cellars and rowers’ quarters.
The floating palace was presently moored at the Island Teberina. Plethora of slaves, dressed as seamen were busily tidying up its main hall and adjoining quarters. The whole Rome knew that the following evening Caligula was throwing a huge banquet. The Emperor himself expressed on a several occasions that he was planning to turn it into the most unusual spectacle ever. No one knew what that could possible mean. For some the entire prospect sounded outright alarming.
- I cannot believe we are invited to this so-called banquet, - Said Zenaya, scrutinizing her face in a rather misty bronze mirror and growing annoyed by a minute, - And I’ve got nothing decent to put on.
- None of us has, - Replied Cumulus.
-I would greatly prefer that you two treat this not as entertainment but an excellent occasion to deepen your knowledge, - Noted the Professor, putting the lid on all possible future complains.
They were sitting in Mama’s Pro kitchen, which, when it was not otherwise employed, served them as a communal room.
- Ugh! Learning… I think during this month I’ve learn more than I can digest, - Said Zenaya, - Hey, Cumulus, what do you think of this scarf? Would it be OK? Sorta an African motif…huh?
- Yeah, it looks great! – Mumbled Cumulus absentmindedly.
- You didn’t even look!
- Yes I did.
- You are a typical male supremacist.
- Why is that?
- It doesn’t matter. I just know you are.
- I worry about it, - Muttered the Professor suddenly.
The two youngsters turned and gave him a surprised look,
- Why? – Inquired Zenaya.
- For one thing, dear lady, I do not like the look of this cousin of our esteemed landlady. He hides something, I am sure.
- Did you speak with this General?
- Yes I did.
- Yesterday. When he brought over these invitations. He told me that the Emperor might feel inclined to have a look at us.
- Why is he so interested in us, anyway? – Asked Zenaya.
- Because we are going to perform this crazy play of his, I believe, - Answered the Professor bitterly, - Although I certainly fail to comprehend why anybody would chose us as actors. There must be an obvious reason.
- But if you don’t know, it cannot be that obvious, - Said Zenaya, - Speaking of all these relatives and whatnot, I wonder how Mama Proserpine can look us in the eye. I mean, after all she did…
- Or didn’t, - Said Cumulus, - Why does she want us to stay here a few days longer?
- Oh please, - The Professor sighed tiredly, - She seems to be quite a decent woman.
- Oh yeah? – Snorted Zenaya.
- She is either afraid of the General or she wants to help him out. I wish I knew which, - Continued the Professor, - She keeps apologizing to me for her refusal and she always hints that something… I do not know… Something big is coming. So our help may prove to be valuable.
- I don’t believe her. I would rather believe her daughter.
- What have you got against Pelagea, anyway? – Cumulus glared at her angrily.
- Nothing. We are more like friends now. I cannot imagine how I could have managed without her these days. I mean, she is a decent sort and all that. Smart too. It’s just that she is pretty much influenced by her mother and stuff…
- No, she is not!
- Would you stop, you two! – Scolded them the Professor and turned to Cumulus, - You don’t seem to be working these days. Did your employer let you go?
- No, Menelaus said that he is sort of in between… I mean, Caligula told him to drop the investigation…
- So he is out of work himself?
- Sort of…
- I see. It’s just as lucky that Proserpine stopped charging us for our rooms.
- It’s a guilt trip, - Said Zenaya.
- Oh shut up, - Sighed Cumulus, - I think it is time to go.
* * * *
- Why do you think I was invited? – Asked Aemilius Lepidus guardedly, looking at Julia across the patio of his penthouse.
- You are a senator, aren’t you? – Julia was inspecting her face in a small hand mirror with a growing anger.
- With all this politics, I haven’t time to dress up properly. Soon I’ll start to look like an old wreck, - She said.
- Nonsense, darling. You look magnificent as ever, - Said Lepidos without much conviction.
- Oh, shut up. You are like all males. You think only of yourself!
-I am afraid to go there. What kind of surprise is he preparing? I know his kind of surprises.
- I am still wondering why he had bothered to order us to be dragged all the way to the palace in the middle of the night, - Said Lepidos darkly.
- He’s off his rocker, that’s why, - Cried Julia, - Ever since someone poisoned his precious sister, he has gone completely mad.
- And who that evil person could be?
- How would I know? Why are you smiling like that, anyway?
- Well, nothing. It is just once your other sister told me something about the trust and …a proof. Do you have any idea what she was talking about?
- Why ask me? Ask her! She’ll be there too.
- Ah! I’ve heard our Emperor named Caesonia as the poisoner.
- You mean, that old whore?
- Not his wife, obviously. I mean that old whore. What happened to her, by the way?
- I don’t know. She has either run away, or lives in hiding, or she is dead. My brother could not find her.
- I see.
- You are so smug it makes me sick, Aemilius! Aren’t you afraid?
- Oh I am afraid, my precious beauty.
- Beauty, huh! I know you are trembling all over under your senatorial upholstery and all this make-up of yours! I bet you are on a verge of wetting yourself!
- I just want to tell you this…
- About that night…
- What night?
- Oh, stop it! The night he had ordered you, Silanus and Asinius to be brought over to the palace…
- I listened as he mumbled to the full moon.
-And what did he say?
-He said it was a warning.
Lepidos frowned and rose on his feet.
- Shall I stay home then? – He asked, looking intently at Julia.
- Would it help? He will bring you over as easily as that. Unless you wish to run abroad…
- I am not ready for that yet. You don’t think he would do something… bloody during this banquet, do you?
- How can I know? I hope not.
- I am just asking how you feel. You see him oftener than I do.
- I don’t know, I said. Probably not. It is not his custom.
- Not yet, perhaps, - Lepidos uttered softly then added, - Well, let us go. But let us go separately.
* * * *
In a way, it turned out to be fun…if you could ignore burning eyes of the one person who sat higher than the rest of the assembly and if you could ignore his harsh, sporadic laughter that cracked as a whip during musical intermissions.
The General was lying on his ‘honorary’ couch and sipping his wine morosely, while eyeing people’s faces across the hall.
‘ So they are all here,’ – He thought, peering at Aemilius Lupidos, who was presently conversing with Silanus, with a sour smile on his once jolly face, then switching to Gallus Asinius, ‘ This one makes a great job at pretending that he is having a lot of fun! Laughing like a drunk, while toying with a prostitute… And these three bums… Thanks Gods, they are seated as far as possible from Him or… And I still haven’t found out where they came from… On the other hand, who cares…? Do I need to talk with Chaerea any more? A poor guy… Could be a nice military commander… Getting wasted around here… But what is it? The chamberlain approaches Aemilius and whispers something into his ear. Aemilius nodes and gets up. Follows the chamberlain… They cross the hall and walk out… Where does he take him? Oh! Blasted music! Here it comes again.’
* * * *
- Excuse me? Sir? – Zenaya waived to the nearest servant, while trying to avert her eyes from his nearly total nakedness.
- Are you crazy? Don’t call him sir! – Hissed the Professor, - They are all slaves!
- Sorry. I thought they are just regular sex perverts, - Replied Zenaya testily, - Only they all seem to be dressed in these thongs…
- I said, be careful.
Zenaya threw a quick sideway glance at the Professor, who deliberately stared the other way and said to the servant, - Can you eh…tell me what’s in this dish?
- I…Forgive me, domina… I do not understand, - Mumbled the servant, staring back at Zenaya with surprise.
- Well, I just wanted to know if there is any meat in this, you know.
- Eh… it is meat, domina.
-Ah. Well, do you have anything vegetarian?
- Forgive me…
-Oh no, it’s OK, but see? I am a vegetarian…
-Yeah, right. It’s like, I don’t eat meat, see? Only vegetables. Maybe eggs but not meat… Do you understand?
- Ah! Yes, domina, I understand.
- I mean, it’s just so hard to say which is which, I mean, looking at all these dishes, you know. I mean, can you point out to me which are vegetable dishes and which are not, huh?
-Eh… Certainly, domina… This is a vegetable dish. And this is…
- Oh, it’s just bread but OK…
- These are figs and this is honeycomb…
- Ah! Great! So I’ll just…
- And this is dormice, soaked in honey and rolled in poppyseed…
- Yuk! It’s not a vegetable…
-Thank you. Thank you for your help!
- More wine, domina?
-Yeah, I guess… Please…
Zenaya exhaled deeply and turned to the Professor.
- You are eating a dormice, teacher, - She said.
- This stuff you are eating…
- Rather tasty, I must say…
- It’s a dormice.
The Professor stared at her for a second then shifted his eyes onto the food.
- I…Well, it is customary, don’t you know, - He mumbled, looking at it with a slight confusion, - In fact, if you are not a vegetarian it is perfectly…
- Only wanted to let you know, - Said Zenaya, turning to Cumulus.
- Don’t drink so much! – She hissed onto his ear.
- But I don’t.
- Hey, look! They are going to perform the next musical number. Hey, it is fun! And they’ve got acrobats. Wow! I like that! – Cried Zenaya, squeaking in delight, then added, -- I don’t object to naked males, actually… But when naked males serve you at the table…
* * * *
‘People are getting drunk and still nothing extraordinary happens. Was it a bluff?’ – Mused the General, opening the shell and tossing an oyster in his mouth, ‘Or maybe after the gladiators’ fight? It always helps him to start feeling properly bloodthirsty. Oh yeah… He must be happy with these two fellows… It’s not a show this time. They are going to kill each other.’
* * * *
- Ugh… Are they really gonna kill each other? – Gasped Zenaya.
- Cletius told me it’s all fake, - Said Cumulus.
- Oh yeah? How can they fake it so well then? I mean, look at this guy’s arm! Oh! Gross! I am going to throw up, - Moaned Zenaya, never the less continuing to look in a morbid fascination. It was hard to tell which of the two gladiators would fall first. Both of them were covered with blood and sweat, and their ragged breathing could be heard in the furthest corner of the Hall.
- This is what I hate about Rome the most, - Said Zenaya, - No matter how nice and civilized they pretend to be, underneath they are wild, bloodthirsty male supremacists. Ouch! This was…terrible!
- Just don’t look, - Whispered Cumulus.
-I cannot not to look at this outrage.
* * * *
Caligula, who hadn’t talked to his wife for some months, suddenly caught her eye and cackled,
- You are getting bored, my love! I can see that!
- No, but I am surprised, - Retorted Caesonia.
- And why is that, my precious?
- You seem to have found your voice with me again.
- I’ve never lost it.
- Like you have lost your whore.
- How can you call your namesake a whore? But think of it, you must be glad, huh? Now I won’t mix up you two all the time. Hey, listen all!
He clapped his hands a few times. The music and all the talk ceased at once. Everybody turned to him in dead silence. ‘Here it goes,’ – Flashed through the General’s head.
- I promised you all a great entertainment, - Yelled Caligula, - And now, when we are through with the snacks and entrees, let us taste one of the main dishes! And after that, we’ll have a real fun.
Everyone turned around as a heavy curtain that separated the main hall from the rest of the floating palace quarters flew open and several slaves brought in on an enormous tray what seemed to be a wild boar, roasted whole. They placed it on a specially brought table and stepped back a few paces.
- Here it is, - Cried Caligula, - The whole monster, roasted whole. Where is my cook?
Within a few seconds the cook appeared.
- Well man, what are you waiting for? – Grinned Caligula, - Carve the beast and give everyone his share!
- My lord! Kind sire! – Wailed the cook, falling on his knees.
- What’s the matter? – Caligula looked at him in mild astonishment. The guests craned their necks as to see what else was coming.
- I recalled it only just now! – Cried the cook.
- Recalled what? – Asked Caligula, growing stern.
- I forgot to gut the beast!
Caligula made a pause sufficient for the information to sink in and repeated in a quiet voice,
- You…forgot… to gut the beast?
- Yes, sire. I forgot. Please, do not punish me!
- This is incredible, - Laughed Caligula, - He is my best cook and yet…he forgot to gut the beast? Hey, guards. Take him away, this man. We’ll figure out what to do with him after. Now! Who is a man enough to gut this monster?
He eyed the entire crowd, which began to eye each other uneasily, until his gaze rested on Marcus Silanus, who also tried to draw back until Caligula’s cry stopped him.
- Father! You might do it! – Exclaimed Caligula, - You always taught me valuable things. You always gave me valuable advice. Help us out one more time!
- Sire… -Silanus cleared his throat and looked at his feet, - I don’t think I can…
- A cough? Are you coughing? Are you ill, father? Oh, come on. Do it, for Gods sake! It seems that no one else in this whole gathering is more suitable for the task than you are. Take this knife!
Caligula left his couch, approached Silanus and handed him a long carver’s knife.
- Do it, man, - He urged.
Silanus nodded weakly, took the knife and stepped close to the carcass.
- I am still not sure…
- Just do it. Cut across its belly!
Silanus exhaled and thrust the knife into the fried boar’s belly.
- The crosscut! The crosscut! – Hissed Caligula.
Silanus wiped a sweat from his forehead and, trying to suppress a look of disgust on his face, made a neat crosscut. The crowd gasped.
A man’s flabby body, dressed in what once had been a clean toga, fell out of the opening and rolled onto the floor.
- Aemilius Lepidos! –Yelled someone, once the face of the man had been cleaned and examined.
‘Shit! I’d not noticed that he never returned to the hall,’ – Thought the General angrily, watching the mad spectacle.
Caligula produced a short laugh and approached a limp body. It was smeared with what looked like a burned animal fat. The senator lay very still.
- Where is my doctor? – Bellowed Caligula., - Check what’s wrong with him.
Five minutes later the doctor, who was always present at the Emperor’s side, made a quick examination and pronounced,
- He is dead, sire.
- Dead? Why? What he died from?
- I can’t say for sure, sire, but it seems that his heart…
- I see… - Caligula nodded and returned to his place.
- I knew our Aemilius had been a terrible glutton but to crawl into the belly of a fried boar… - He glanced around the hall and started to guffaw. Silanus was staring at him darkly.
Caligula caught his stare, stopped laughing and said,
- But thank you, father. It was a good job. You seem to be good at cutting, huh? I want to give you a small present.
- As you wish, sire, - Bowed Silanus.
Caligula fished from the recesses of his couch a small packet and handed it to the nearest slave. The slave delivered it to Silanus and withdrew.
- I’ll go to my place and open the package, - Silanus said.
- Of course. It’s a surprise, - Cried Caligula.
Once everybody, and Silanus among the rest, returned to their seats, the music began anew.
The senator gave a sigh and glanced inside of the package. It contained a razor with a small note, attached to it. The note said ‘Cut your own throat or I will cut it for you.’ Silanus gaped at the note for some time, as if unable to comprehend its meaning, then nodded, got up and stumbled towards the exit.
Caligula followed his departure with burning eyes then suddenly jumped from his couch and ran up to the senatorial table.
- All my good politicians seem to desert me nowadays, alas! – Cried he, stopping next to Gallus Asinius and fixing him with a burning stare, - One is dead, another is sick, the third… gods only know what the third and fourth are up to… You, Asinius! – He howled, clutching at the senator’s shoulder, - You are my faithful man! I know you are!
- Sire, - The senator opened his mouth but failed to say anything else, overwhelmed by it all.
- No, don’t talk! Don’t talk, man! All you people are good at talking in the Senate but… - Caligula eyed the rest of the present senators and shook his head, - Talk! Talk! Talk! It is always talk and no action! The state falls into a mess and all of you are just keeping on talking. Asinius! Do you remember what you’ve told me once?
- Umg… What, sire?
- A couple of months ago. What did you tell me?
- Eh…forgive me, sire but…
- Oh, I’ll tell you what you told me. You said that you keep me in such a high esteem and love me so much that you won’t hesitate to fight for me with a sword, even on the arena. Remember?
- Eh… Yes, sire. I seem to recall it now…
- Well, do you still love me and keep in your highest esteem?
- Of course, sire!
- Then I’ll give you a chance to keep your word! Fight for me, Asinius. Fight for me right now. We are not in the circus but it does not matter. Hey, guard!
Caligula turned to the nearest Praetorian and beckoned him to come close,
- Give the senator your sword, man! He is going to fight in my honor.
- But sire, - Moaned Asnius, growing deathly pale and trembling all over.
- What? Are you backing up on your word or what? – Roared Caligula, thrusting the sword’s hilt into the man’s hand.
- No sire but… Whom I shall fight?
- You’ll see. We’ll make it almost as it were on arena. Praetorian! Bring us one of the gladiators, one of those who sit down below, waiting for the next action. Bring him here at once.
- Yes, sire! - The Praetorian saluted and ran out of the hall.
- Your adversary will be here in a moment. Better get ready, Asinius. I hope you are not out of practice.
The General who watched and heard it all, thought to himself ‘Now I know how he wants to get away with him. A poor bastard won’t survive five minutes.’
- Clear the space for the fight! – Ordered Caligula, striding back to his place and climbing on the couch.
- Is it absolutely necessary? – Asked his wife angrily, - You might have killed him quicker and cleaner than that.
- It would not have been a decent death, - Replied Caligula, - Besides, have more faith in people, darling. Maybe, Asinius is going to win. Who knows?
- You know he won’t.
- Why are you so worked out this evening? I prepared a nice present for you but I am keeping it for later.
- Would I have to fight a gladiator too or you will order me to be fried alive?
- Oh, come on. You are getting jumpy. I said it would be a nice present. You are going to love it.
- Then give it to me now! – Snapped Caesonia.
- All right. If you wish. Huh! Nobody likes my surprise presents. But oh well… Here it is: I am going to banish both of my sisters. They won’t bother you again.
- Banish? What for?
- For conspiracy, my love. Simply for conspiracy. I’ll send them away tomorrow. But watch! They are starting! The old fool Asinius stands there like a donkey. ! He shakes so much that he can barely hold his weapon. Oh-oh! What a thrust. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he will win, huh?
- No, it’s fun. I like his adversary. I hope this hairy brute won’t kill him too quickly. Hey, Caesonia, let’s make a bet. I bet for ten minutes. What about you?
- I don’t want to bet, - Retorted Caesonia disgustedly and turned away.
- Just as you wish, - Smirked Caligula, - I still say - ten minutes!
He was wrong. It took less than five.
* * * *
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