Proculus sat at a small writing table and contemplated a certain action that involved a sheet of papyrus, a stelos and an inkpot. The table stood in a small study. Although it was past midnight, there were heard sounds of laughter, music and occasional shouts and banging of metal, coming from downstairs. It was quiet upstairs. Proculus glanced over his shoulder, picked a stelos, coughed and began to write.
‘It is hardly a good time and place now to persevere with my clearly outdated practice of making notes but what can be said about a man whose habit of keeping a diary has been a major consolation for him for so many years. Apparently, it is a small price to pay for a few moments of peace and reflection I am able to enjoy, therefore I will continue. Let’s see…
Today I had a rather good chance to observe my so – called ‘master’ – a clearly psychotic type with outstanding signs of mental regression. To be perfectly honest, I dreaded a possibility of undergoing some sort of punishment this brute had threatened me with. The painful uncertainty continued to loom at me for the last two days then the skies cleared. I strongly believe this pathological character simply forgot about the whole business. But to continue.
Sure enough, as a ‘pedagogue’ of this sorry household, I was assigned to a student (I believe he is the youngest son of the family). Needles to say, the meeting with this pestilential underage loafer gave me a shock I have not experienced in years, if ever. Just to imagine that I would be obliged, or rather forced, to deal with this hooligan for God’s only knows how long gives me heartache! On the other hand, it provides me with a workable outline regarding quality of the Roman education-the very topic that still confuses many – I surely don’t know why.
(Footnote: Funny as it seems… I struck a sort of friendship with a cook who has turned out to be a splendid fellow. His Sicilian spinach dish that he served me yesterday and which strongly reminded me of ‘peasant’s pesto’ is simply gorgeous. Must not forget to ask him for a recipe!)
I also had a chance to meet my precious pupil’s mother. It happened before yesterday and oh well… What shall I say? Total lack of parenting skills would be a gross underestimation of a manner, or rather the entire attitude, which this lady exhibits towards her son. No wonder, he is such a spoiled brat. Isn’t it apparent that the boy simply craves parental love, care and proper attention. Personally, I believe that tough love (with the stress on ‘tough’) could have been a perfect remedy.
The morning after my arrival I was rudely awaken sometime around seven o’clock by an obnoxious house servant (a slave, no doubt) and told to attend to lessons. I tried to point out that my ageing organism requires at least an adequate breakfast but the brute only laughed in my face and told me that, since this Asinius fellow haven’t decided yet what sort of punishment he shall apply to me, I’d better substitute food with hard work to show my willingness to behave in future. I recognized the futility of further discussions and headed towards the classroom.
I found my prospective pupil sitting at the desk and scribbling something down with a painful concentration of a functionally illiterate. His tongue was hanging from his lips, his brows were furrowed and he recited in a hoarse whisper every syllable he happened to scribble.
‘So you’re that crazy old guy, who tried to run away’, – he gloated, or thought he did.
‘It was a sad mistake, but since everyone still insists on it, I will be the last person, under the current circumstances of course, to fight it,‘–I replied coldly and ordered him to answer a few questions to access the level of his general academic knowledge. It turned out that the fellow was indeed functionally illiterate. After a brief examination, I found out that he barely could write, his knowledge of history was nil and as to other disciplines, well…I decided not to touch those.
‘But what did you do in school?’ – I asked in exasperation.
‘What school?’ – He asked me back.
‘Have you ever been to any school?’ – I inquired.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, ‘– He replied and added testily, ‘You’d better start your teaching now or I’ll tell my dad you’re just waggling your tongue all the time and do nothing. See what happens.’
‘But I’ve no idea where we should begin! You seem to be ignorant of learning,’ – I cried.
‘So what?’ – He asked me suspiciously.
‘But learning is fun!’- I said.
‘You may read my poetry and give me a critique then,’ – He said.
I looked at him, flabbergasted.
‘Do you write poetry? What kind of poetry?’
‘Check it out for yourself,’ – He smirked and tossed towards me a crumbled parchment. I picked it up and started to read. It turned out to be a number of doggy rhymes of clearly pornographic nature, peppered with countless misspells and sheer idiocy.
‘So? Do you like it?’ –He asked me with an insolent grin, once I finished.
‘Well, perhaps writing poetry is not your strong point, ‘– I replied, ‘It lacks natural flow. Why don’t you start reading Homer, for example?’
‘That’s an antique bullshit!’ – He growled, ‘I am not going to read any Homer, man. He is prehistoric. You seem to be prehistoric yourself.’
I am not going to recite the course of the whole lesson. I would only say that things and words that followed were not an improvement.
I was greatly relieved when this so-called lesson was finally over but horror of horrors! Later on that day, I learned that the ‘master’ of mine issued orders to place my sleeping mattress right in his son’s room.
‘So he would be receiving guidance and instructions even in his sleep,’ I believe those were his words.
I must admit that the rest of the day was rather nice. I spent a few instructive hours sitting in the kitchen and chatting with the abovementioned cook (a great fellow!) who, as it turned out, was not simply aware of Homer and his works, but could even recite a line after line from Iliad as easy as you please. Later we switched to the subject of the Great Poet’s personality, then (damn carelessness) I let my tongue to slip a little and said that I had a pleasure of breakfasting with him once. The kind man (the cook, that’s it) was delicate enough not to point out a certain absurdity of my thoughtless statement although he gave me a pitiful look, alluding to my apparent senility, and offered me the second glass of wine. But all in all, everything was fine until the bedtime approached and I was obliged to retire to my (or rather not my, but the spoiled brat’s) quarters.
A situation seemed bearable so far. We laid down (I – on my mattress, stuffed with straw, and he – on a proper bed nearby) and supposedly went to sleep, or at east I had dozed off, when, perhaps an hour or so later the brat woke me up and began to suggest that I would provide him with different sorts of instructions. I failed to comprehend at first what kind of instruction he meant but he only giggled and stirred under his blanket. Then, after some indirect phrases, dirty jokes and insinuations, he gave me to understand that he desired me to help him with relieving him from spontaneous sexual arousal. It seemed that the brat was in the middle of it and so he wished to volunteer my help in this mission.
‘But this is ridiculous!’ – I cried, ‘I mean, I would be the last person to deny differences but this… Well, you may regard me as an outdated person, but I simply disapprove of alternative sex as a casual practice and secondly, you are clearly under age and therefore shouldn’t do it.’
‘You are crazy,’ – He said after a while, ‘I don’t get a single word you say. I said I am horny and I asked you to jerk me off and you go and tell me all kinds of bullshit which I don’t understand.’
‘Well, it is as simple as this,’ – I replied, ‘You ask me to perform a certain action… Well, in short, you, young man, ask me to act toward you as a sexual pervert, a sexual criminal, if you will, which I am certainly not.’
‘So you don’t wanna do it then?’
‘Of course not! I am concerned about your moral health, after all.’
‘All right. Then I will tell my dad you tried to rape me, man. He’ll kill you.’
‘Just what you heard. Either you snuggle under my blanket for a while or I’ll tell my dad. Get it?’
I jumped onto my feet and started to pace the room. The brat was watching me with a morbid interest then said,
‘Oh come on, man! It’s boring! What are you so worked up about, anyway?’
‘But it is perversion!’- I wailed.
‘Bullshit,’ – He said, ‘Everybody does that. My dad fucks boys occasionally, or so I’ve heard. It is not a big deal, man. If I knew you were so provincial I would have asked my dad to sell you right away.’
‘OK,’- I said, grinding my teeth, ‘I’ll do it.’
‘Sounds like you’re gonna step into a lion’s den or something,’ – He replied with a note of reproach.
‘It’s not that at all! But…all right. Perhaps I’ll have a chance to open your eyes a little in future but today…I’ll be a criminal!’
Really, what choice did I have? Oh ye gods! I climbed into boy’s bed and after a brief game of mutual pushing, giggling and ‘snuggling’ I placed my trembling hand inside of his drawers and… helped him to climax.
Once everything was over, I returned to my mattress, attempted to get some sleep, but the damned boy woke me up again, and said that he was still horny.
‘And what does it mean?’ – I groaned tiredly.
‘Just come over and do it again,’- He whispered.
I sighed but then an excellent idea occurred to me.
‘You’d better go to sleep now,’ – I snapped.
‘What?’ –He sounded perplexed.
‘Yes, ‘– I said, ‘You’d better go to sleep at once or tomorrow I’ll report to your dad everything about your foul activities.’
‘Hey, it’s OK, ‘– He said, defensively ‘No cause to get nasty. I’ll sleep now.’
And wonder of wonders! He turned on his side and fell asleep!
* * * *
The Great and Magnificent city of Rome was not built in one day but a dormitory of the temple of Cybele seemed to be erected in less than few hours. Zenaya was sitting on the hard clay-baked gray floor and evaluating her new quarters.
No thoroughly finished building would lack all possible conveniences, including toilets, unless it was created by order of some horrible totalitarian regime, she thought gloomily. Only secular or totalitarian-collectivistic societies would refuse to admit that regular human beings, besides shouting slogans and marching in foremost ranks, also harbor less politicized and more private needs.
Or speaking of hygiene, for example. Wasn’t it also an issue of a paramount importance?
She continued to swim deeply in politico-societal reverie when a sharp voice brought her back to the reality,
- Hey, you! The new one! Come! It is time to eat!
- Oh! Great! I am really starving!
Zenaya rose and gave this totally unfriendly woman one of her brightest smiles.
They plunged down some dark corridor, made a few turns and finally walked into a scarcely lit mess room. As Zenaya deduced from what she had heard about this place, the temple congregation consisted entirely of young women. A huge number of them, some tall and some short, some light and some dark haired, were sitting in front of what looked like wooden bowls, placed around a long dinner table and eating, digging into the food with coarsely carved spoons.
Zenaya was issued her own bowl and a spoon and then ordered to take a seat at one end of the table. As far as Zenaya could tell by heavy odor, her bowl contained some kind of lentil stew. She smiled to everyone and said cheerfully,
- Ow! I guess I forgot to say Hi! Hi guys! How are you?
This greeting inspired nothing more exciting than sullen stares. A brief silence ensued. Zenaya cleared her throat and took a mouthful of her stew.
- Wow! Delicious! – She exclaimed, when a disgusting taste in her mouth subdued somewhat,
- Do you like it then? – A stern looking girl who sat nearest to her across the table smirked.
- Why, I think this dish is so rich in potassium! I mean, it is good for you. It’s like, maybe you don’t care all that much about the taste but gosh! it is good for your system, if you know what I mean.
Clearly, the last remark went down better. Now the whole room stared at her with an interest. Zenaya laughed and went on,
- It’s like my mom, you know, she always used to say to me, like ‘Honey, you need your vitamins’ and boy! She was the one who could cook too! I mean, I remember this one absolutely delicious dish of hers, with lentils and oh man! wasn’t it great!
- Your mom? – the same stern girl pushed her bowl aside and leaned backward, grinning at Zenaya.
- Yeah, sure. My mom, you know. Anyway, she was a great one with cooking and she always taught us kids the difference between healthy and, like, junky food.
- Hah! Hah! Hah! You had a mom, huh? – now several girls laughed hard and banged their spoons on the table,
- You’re a fucking whore! Are you always telling crazy stories?
- Excuse me? - Zenaya blinked and started to blush.
The rest of the dinner progressed in heavy silence. Once it was over everybody got up and headed through a maze of adjoining rooms to a huge, grassy courtyard. The girls broke into small groups, sat on a ground and started to chat, glancing and smirking at forlorn Zenaya.
Zenaya speculated on possibility of joining one of these groups then tossed the idea aside. She realized only too late that back in the mess room she had said something that she shouldn’t have said. She found a solitary spot and following the example of others, sat down on the grass. But what exactly did she say that was so stupid? Suddenly, she recalled that temple girls were mostly adopted in infancy and therefore they never met their mothers. Now it made sense. She nodded to herself and prepared to stretch on the grass and relax when one of the temple girls, a tiny creature with an abundance of freckles on her pale face approached her and sat down next to Zenaya.
- Hey, that was real funny thing you said back in there, - The girl said, - Lucky for you none of the temple matrons head you or you’d have been in troubles by now.
- I am sorry, - said Zenaya.
- The girls figured you are a joker! We used to have a few girls like that.
- Oh, yeah?
- Sure. I think they were sent or sold somewhere. I dunno…
- It’s pretty strict around here, you know, and kinda dull.
- But what do you girls do for fun? I mean, you cannot worship all the time and stuff like that.
- Yeh? No, we don’t worship all the time but what kinda fun do you mean? You mean fun with men, or with animals, or with other women, or a solo fun?
- Um…no! I meant like some games and such. You know.
- Nah, not really. I mean, why? Games are part of the worship so why play them in your spare time. Hey, where are you from exactly? You seem not to know anything. Where did they get you anyway?
- Well, it’s a weird story and…
- Oh! Tsh! Look out! Here comes the senior Priestess!
- The new one! Zenaya! Come here quick and follow me! – Yelled the senior Priestess.
Zenaya shrugged and got up.
* * * *
It was not that the General of Praetorian Guards Claudius Gallicus hated his job: he stayed with the Praetorian Guards for the most of his life but these days he started to contemplate an early retirement. Perhaps, he still had a chance to retire before he was dead.
He crossed the Palatine square and, while musing on the evils and perils of life, approached Caesar’s palace. He barely returned the sentries’ salute and started to ascend wide marble stairs, fighting a frequent urge to scan the space behind his back.
It was the day of a regular banquet, which meant that the celebration was organized as lavishly as the most outstanding feast. The palace swarmed with senators, moguls, politicians, freed slaves and prostitutes of all calibers. It was a common knowledge that Caligula loved huge gatherings but was not fussy about the quality of the invited crowd. He often amused himself by placing a senator and some low crook next to each other and urged them to keep polite conversation. The Great Caesar called it the ‘exercise of Republican spirit.’ Sometimes these exercises ended up with drunken fights, if not worse. Technically, Gallicus was not obliged to attend these banquets but Caligula had requested his presence during them so often that it saved time to show his face regardless of the orders.
He was slowly marching along an inner gallery that led straight to the babbling banquet hall, when somebody called his name. He stopped abruptly and turned around, gripping the hilt of his sword.
- Hello, Gallicus! May I steal a minute of your time? – The phrase was delivered in a soft half-whisper.
The General frowned.
- Of course.
- Care to step into this room then?
* * * *
Priscilla, the Head Priestess and Grand Dame of the temple was sitting in her office and listening to the laments of her second in command. The story sounded simply unbelievable but then the Head Priestess, strictly speaking, was herself in belief business; therefore, she possessed a plenty of this fragile spiritual capacity.
- I don’t know where they found her, I simply don’t! But the girl is simply crazy! Perhaps you remember how every member of staff began to complain, right after this foreign girl’s arrival, like how they all said that this girl was talking out of turn and babbling pure nonsense to anyone who bothered to listen. The entire congregation was in uproar. Girls kept laughing like hyenas.
- Yes, I remember that. Please, go on.
- We tried to reason with her and also we tried to find out what sort of activity she was fit for.
- And it turned out that she had abnormally little knowledge regarding men, can you imagine something like that? She kept mumbling some nonsense about something called ‘date’. She told me she was on a ‘date’ only a few times, whatever that means. In short, we sent her to perform copulations with animals. We sent her to the stable and told her to pull herself together and begin her practice with this yellow mule…
- What mule?
- Ah, sorry, madam! We have this mule in our stables, I believe it was donated to us by Marciallus Antonicus, a senator…Peculiar coloring…We call it ‘yellow mule’.
- Oh yes, I know Marciallus well. Please, continue.
- And what do you think had happened? This girl started to tell everybody that she gave the mule its own name, I think it was ‘Buttercup’.
- Yes, madam, Buttercup. And I understand she had been spending a great deal of her time taking care of this animal, until we told her exact what duty she had. She didn’t even understand us at first! Can you imagine?
- Well, why didn’t you tell her in plain language then that she was required to fuck the mule? It would have saved you a great deal of time.
- But that was exactly what we told her. And you should have seen her reaction! She literally exploded and started yelling something regarding animals’ rights and such like nonsense.
- Animals’ rights? Are you sure?
- Yes! I am! I asked her then what kind of rights an animal could possibly have and she began to lecture me, I mean - lecture! No less!
- Was she whipped?
- No. We locked her in the isolator and decided to discuss it with you first.
- Hmm. A difficult situation, I am sure. The girl is crazy, no doubt. You are absolutely right. That possible use can we extract from a crazy girl? We have a reputation to think of, don’t you agree?
- Oh, absolutely!
- I think it would be better just to send her to one of our temple lupanariums. Let them deal with her.
- But the temple lupanarium, madam! What about our reputation?
- No, no! You misunderstood me, perhaps. I meant a lupanarium under a spiritual protection of our temple, not the real temple lupanarium.
- I see. Yes, it would be the best solution.
- Well then, send her away tomorrow. Or better still, do it today.
- Very good, madam. I’ll go and issue the order right this moment.
* * * *
Cumulus was sitting in his new employer’s cozy, if slightly cluttered, study and listening to the man’s talk. The private investigator was a tall man with an elongated nose, a shaved head and thin, curved lips. He maintained a vaguely ironic expression at all times, which seemed perfectly explainable for a man whose professional duties included, among other things, listening to the tons of lies.
- To be honest with you, I never liked my name. What kind of name is it – Menelaus? Huh? Perhaps this is why I have never entertained an idea of marriage, thanks to my creative parents, of course. But I am not sorry about it, after all. I mean the marriage, not the name. And you? Well, you’ve got a strange name too, come to think of it, but I don’t think it will ever prevent you from family life, huh?
- No, sir.
- So! Mama Proserpine tells me you are a smart guy and a literate one as well.
- Yes, sir.
- You may relax a bit, my friend. You don’t have to be so formal. Now, let me tell you about your future duties. Do you have an idea what sort of work a private investigator does?
- Um… Investigation, I suppose.
- Correct. But what sort of an investigation? No, don’t answer. Let me explain. What I mean is: I happen to work with all kinds of cases, which includes murder, corruption, robbery, blackmail, and so on. I’ve got a reputation in this city, you see. The fools believe that I am able to crack any mystery, or to get under anyone’s skin. For instance, there are several realtors who sell expensive property down in Pompeii. Luxurious villas and such… I wonder what happens to all those property and especially their owners if the volcano erupts one day. You know Vesuvius, of course.
- Yes, sir. I know it.
- Well, I don’t know how foolish people can be, I mean those who purchase homes down there. It is an unstable region; everyone knows that. Yet these realtors sell villas like hot cakes. This is the exact instance when the business practice borders on crime. I suppose I might deal with these guys one day. If the volcano erupts, there will be countless court claims. Or say, the Capitol Hill and all its politics. I don’t even remember right now how many cases relating to the political corruption, illegal prostitution, even espionage I have handled over the years. You know, this city is always a hot bed of crime and corruption. Alright! Speaking of your duties - what I need from you is to help me with the research work. Do you understand what is the research work?
- Certainly, sir.
- Excellent. I see you are a clever young man. You see, what creates the backbone of my work, or shall I say, what my methods are… My methods are inductive reasoning and a keen, psychologically sound observation. Those are my tools of the trade. And of course, collecting evidence and stuff like that. Sounds like fun, yeah?
- Yes, sir.
- Well then, my boy. Let’s start. We did discuss your salary, right?
- Yes, sir.
- Let’s do it then. Here’s the case I am working on. Before I go any further, I must say just one more thing. This case is politically sensitive material. If you would want to share some exciting gossip regarding the government with your friends, keep in mind that it is a punishable offence. Is that clear?
- Yes, sir.
- ‘Yes, sir! Yes, sir!’ Stop parroting this ‘Yes, sir’ for Gods’ sake! By the way, would you like some wine?
- Yes, please.
- All right. Hey, Odion! Odion!
A peculiarly tiny old man with nondescript facial features entered the study, carrying a tray with a bottle of wine and two glasses. He placed the tray on the table, bowed and withdrew quickly.
- This is my good Odion, - Menelaus smiled, - Indispensable servant, also my secret agent.
- Um, really?
- Oh, yeah! He was a famous burglar in his youth, believe it or not. Clean as a whistle now, but retains good knowledge of the underworld and keeps a few useful connections. I hope you two get along fine. He is not a talkative type but he is basically friendly, unless… Well, here is the case. Read it, while you drink your wine.
* * * *
Cletius groaned and opened one eye. He lied sprawled on a stone floor of what looked like a prison cell although it was impossible to say. He tried to get up but realized that the task would be harder than he had expected. Somebody worked him over better than the arena’s old hands had ever done. He touched his swollen face and winced. A part of his lower jaw was completely numb but the nose seemed to be in its place. Cletius wondered if he had any teeth left. He prodded his ribs with a finger and stifled a groan. His sides screamed with pain as if he had been put through a wine press. Finally, he gathered the remnants of his strength and sat up, staring about himself wildly with one blood-shot eye. The cell lacked a window but its fourth wall consisted of thick metal bars that separated the cell from the corridor beyond. The corridor was lit by torches tucked into holders along the wall. A guard was sitting on a low stool directly outside of his cell and looking at him with a lazy amusement.
- So how d’you feel, buddy? –the guard asked eventually.
- Umgh… Ow! Where am I? - croaked Cletius.
- Where do you think you are, buddy?
- In prison?
- Wha…wha’ prithon?
- Ever heard of the Praetorian quarters?
- Ever heard of their prison?
- That’s right, friend. You’re right here.
- Oh Godths…
Cletius swallowed and attempted to push himself on his feet. He succeeded on the fourth attempt, then hobbled across the floor and gripped the bars for support.
- Ca,n I …can I geth me thome wather? – He asked the guard shakily.
- Nah, - Praetorian shook his head and yawned.
Cletius made a gurgling sound and slid back on the cold flagstones. He remained there, lost in dark thoughts for what felt like an eternity when he heard somebody’s’ steps approaching fast.
- Alright! Where is that drunk? - A hard voice rang through the corridor, carrying the feel of an authority.
- Right here, sir.
- Open the cage.
- Yes, sir.
A pair of huge Praetorians entered the cell, lifted Cletius from the floor and dragged him outside. A tall man in officer uniform probed Cletius with a long cane and nodded.
- Bring him outside and put him into the prison wagon, - The officer ordered.
It was sometime later when, thanks to a few good bumps along the route, Cletius regained his full senses and tried to ask the Praetorians about their destination, but the officer barked at him to shut up. They covered the rest of the way in a heavy silence.
Luckily, it turned out to be a brief journey, but it ended up in a surprise. The wagon approached the Palatine Hills, rolled up to the Caesarean palace and stopped at the front entrance.
* * * *
It was a rare occasion when Caligula experienced anything resembling the state of ‘I am having such fun.’ It was hardly possible when one was constantly surrounded by the secret enemies, sluts and greedy fools who either looked in your mouth or harbored revenge. Today it felt like an exception to the rule though. First, he appointed a new consul with such extraordinary qualifications that it shocked the Senate into silence. Well, people needed to be reminded who was the boss. Secondly, Caligula finally came up with the complete idea of a new play. Even though a few minor details remained to be polished, the main plot was there. Even today’s banquet seemed to be a more entertaining celebration than the previous countless gatherings.
Caligula shifted on his couch and turned to the nearest Senator, who was engaged in a heated conversation about the Athenian politics with two other senators, and asked:
- Say, Antonius, you have a sister, haven’t you?
The conversation ceased at once and Senator Cassius Antonius turned toward Caligula with the eagerness of a dog.
- Yes, Sire. I have a sister.
- Do you sleep with your sister?
- Umg… Not yet, Sire.
-Ah! A clever one! Hah! Hah! Hah!
It was not a secret that the great Caesar slept with all of his three sisters, although nobody dared to mention it aloud anywhere near his presence. He eyed Cassius Antonius good-humoredly and turned to the other guests.
- Ladies and gentlemen!
A silence fell on the banquet floor. Every face turned to the Caesar, waiting for him to continue. Even the air seemed to stand still.
Caligula smiled and carried on with his announcement,
- Today, as many of you already know, I appointed a new and the most illustrious consul who is going to join your ranks and who seems to be most eager to do so. He possesses a number of qualities even the most cunning of you would find hard to match. Therefore, I would like to make a one more, this time quite a minor, appointment.
He beckoned to one of Praetorian guards to approach his couch and asked,
- Have you fellows brought over that man?
- Yes, Sire, - the Praetorian officer bowed.
- Well then, bring him here.
A few minutes later two Praetorians dragged into the hall battered up and scared to death Cletius. They nudged him to approach the Caesarean couch and took positions directly behind his back. Cletius blinked with his good eye on the scrawny form of Caligula, lying on silken pillows and shuddered.
- So here comes the hero then! – Caligula snorted and peered at the poor gladiator with interest.
- I see my Praetorians hadn’t been kind to you, my man. Look at this black eye! What a shame, what a shame!
Caligula turned to his guests and added,
- You may have been wondering, why I ordered this fellow to be brought in. Well, but he is a hero, despite his present sad appearance. Yesterday he performed a valiant attempt to protect the virtue of his Emperor. Wasn’t it a commendable act? What is your profession, poor man?
- I am a gladiator, sire, - croaked Cletius, trying to steady his voice a little.
- Oh really? Are you a slave or a free-lancer?
- Free-lancer, sire.
- Didn’t I see you a few days ago on the arena then? Of course, it is impossible to say anything definite regarding the condition of your face now but your whole countenance seems familiar.
- Yes, sire. I was one of the Wild Gauls, sire.
- Oh no! Wild Gauls! Are you not a real Gaul, are you?
- No, sire, I am from Brindisium.
- You don’t say! It is a real surprise that Brindisium breeds such men of outstanding courage. I had thought of it as a regular shit hole but now I am going to change my opinion drastically. Well, my friend, I would like to honor you for your bravery the other day by giving you my personal appointment.
- Umgh… Thank you, sire. It’s an honor, sire.
- It sure is. From now on, my fellow, you will be acting as a personal bodyguard to my newly appointed Consul, Tiberius Incitatus. Are you happy?
- Yes, sire. Thank you, sire.
- It is a government position so take care, man, and the government will take care of you. Guards! Show him the way to the Consul’s quarters! You don’t have to hold him now. He is a government employee, after all. And tell my secretary to figure out a proper salary for this man, insurance and everything.
- Yes, sire.
A half an hour later Cletius, overwhelmed with all recent developments and flanked by his former guards entered the Caesarean stables and approached a lavishly decorated horse stall. The white stallion in there was finishing its dinner. It hardly looked up at newcomers.
- Here’s your new charge then, - said one of the Praetorians.
- This is Consul Tiberius Incitatus.
- Are you deaf?
- But… this is a horse!
* * * *
- I dunno… I juss’ dunno what to do, man, - Cletius shook his head sadly and looked at Cumulus. There was a sign of genuine desperation swimming in his drunken, bloodshot eyes.
- He ordered me to guard a consul, man… like an honorary guard or something but guess who that consul is?
- I don’t know. Who?
- A horse! It’s a fucking horse, man! Hell, I can’t believe it! - Cletius seemed close to tears.
- It happened after that skirmish in a back alley, - He continued darkly, - Right the next day, I mean, after they held me overnight in that damned Praetorian calaboose. Huh! See? I thought they were gonna kill me or clap me into the irons, or something… But instead, they dragged me all the way to the Palace, and guess what?
- There I saw that bitch who dragged me into troubles! It wasn’t a bitch at all! It was HIM!
-Yeah! Caligula himself, would ya’ believe it? I mean, I met him the previous evening dressed like a whore and some dick was harassing her or him, whatever you call it, and I figured ‘here’s a back alley scoundrel is trying to harass a good girl’ and shook him a bit, and then these dudes appeared and took me straight into prison. I mean, they turned out to be the Praetorian Guards. I guess, they were suppose to watch for this crazy bastard while he had his wicked fun but somehow they were late and so they figured it was me who tried to harass their great Caesar and they put me under arrest.
- But how could you mistake a man for a woman? Were you drunk?
- Oh shut up, man! O’ course I was drunk but who the Hell would’ve notice the difference? In such poor light?
-Yes, you’re right.
-O’ course I’m right. So the very next morning they took me over to the palace and the Big Boss himself ordered me to take care of a horse. He called it ‘my newly appointed consul! What a shame! What a shame! Let’s say, I’m nobody, juss’ a freelance gladiator but at least it was something, it was a job! And now I’m juss’ a clown! A clown! And it’s boring like hell. Do you think you can spend the whole day with a dumb horse? I mean, not that you can have a mean…meanin’ful chat with a horse or something. It juss’ stays there in its stable, eats and shits and tries to bite my head off. It’s a devil of a bastard, lemme tell you. Mean too… A bunch of slaves takes it outside a few times a day for a run and whatnot. I juss’ sit there with my armor, like a fool. That’s it, man! You should’ve hear them sniggering! Ah!
- I am sorry, Cletius.
- Yeah, yeah. Listen, let’s go to a lupanarium, for a change, huh? It’ll help me to cheer up a bit. And it’ll be good for you too. You look like a half-baked shrimp, pal.
Cumulus blushed and began to shake his head. They were sitting in some pub and since it wasn’t crowded Cumulus sincerely hoped nobody had heard anything.
- Oh come on, you sissy! – Bellowed Cletius, - What are you, some kinda sectarian or what? You need a good woman once in a while to fix up your entrails! Come on, man!
- Don’ gimme any ‘well’ now! Let’s go!
- Well, all right.
They paid for their drinks and headed outside.
- I know a bunch of good places, - Cletius said, barely refraining himself from breaking into a canter.
- A couple blocks from here. Here it is!
An abovementioned establishment resided in the middle of a particularly disreputable alley. Its garish front belonged to a grab, two-story building. The entrance was adorned with a crudely sculpted penis and a slogan ‘For the Glory of Priapus!’, mounted above the door. Next to the entrance hang some sort of a display board with a number of miniature portraits. Above the portraits was painted a capture ‘Come and meet our team of irresistible girls!’
When two friends approached the building, they encountered a small crowd loitering outside and slowed down. People who composed its bulk looked like solid, middle class citizens. They glanced at each other shyly and conversed in excited whispers. Once Cletius and Cumulus came closer, they were able to snatch parts of the general conversation.
- I am telling, my friend! It is simply amazing! She calls it ‘counseling’, or something or that kind, but what she really does is she listens to you and then she discusses!
- And she doesn’t need to perform sex with anyone? That’s what I’ve heard.
- That’s true! She doesn’t! Or maybe, she wouldn’t have minded it one way or another, but who cares! I mean, the people who come to see her really need to talk! They talk about their problems, their families, their kids, debts and wives, their bosses or their employees, and she listen to it all and at the end she comes up with some cheerful message. It seems that she is particularly proficient in explaining one’s family problems, regarding not only private life, but household intricacies in general. Can you imagine?
- That is interesting.
- That’s why here’s such a crowd. All these unhappy husbands and heads of families are simply crazy to set their foot inside of this building! I mean, people wait in line for hours!
- That’s unheard of!
Cletius nudged his friend and grinned sarcastically,
- Did you hear that, pal? I mean, what people would pay their money for next, huh? Let’s go inside!
They elbowed, or rather, Cletius elbowed their way through, with Cumulus trailing close behind and stepped into an extremely dirty hall where an elderly proprietress met them and enquired about their wishes.
- I hope you are not here, gentlemen, to see our new acquisition or you would be asked to take your place in line outside.
- Oh no, ma’am! We are not here for this… how did they call it? Counsel? We are simple fellows who love simple things! – beamed Cletius.
- Good! To be honest with you, gentlemen, other girls have been feeling a little bit left out with all this resent frenzy. Let me show you the way, - said the woman, leading them upstairs.
They climbed to the second floor and entered an area, furnished with coaches, spittoons and low tables. Although the room was terribly dark, Cumulus noticed a small stage, tucked in a corner, with a thick metal poll, protruding from the floor and reaching all the way to the ceiling. Several nearly naked girls of unidentifiable age were gyrating on and around the poll, while a sleepy looking old man, who sat nearby, was blowing into some wooden instrument, producing sad and strangely disturbing sounds. The air reeked of cheap perfume, booze and sweat so much that Cumulus, unaccustomed to the merry atmosphere of houses of sensual relaxation, gagged and covered his nose with his hand.
The guests were led to the coaches after that Cletius asked for wine and winked at his partner.
- Cool, huh! – He grinned happily, peering at the girls and grunting.
- Yeah, - croaked Cumulus, trying to make himself inconspicuous.
Once the wine arrived, the girls came near and climbed on the guests’ coaches, almost choking them to death with dumpy waves of perfumes and tickling them unmercifully.
Cumulus, who had tried to calm his panic, shut his eyes and froze like a burial statue while the room began to reverberate with Cletius’ booming laughter.
- Do I know you, sister, huh? –Guffawed the gladiator, - I recon seeing you before!
- Sure, baby! I remember you! We all do! We call you Our Golden Long Tongue! –replied a squawky woman’s voice. Shrieks of mad laughter followed.
Cumulus shuddered and made a move to slide from his couch. Immediately, a few pairs of feminine hands seized him, mostly below his belt and a tiny voice sang into his ravaged ear,
- Hey, where are you heading, sweet?
- I… I need to…to go to the bathroom.
- You wanna me come with you?
- Umgh… No, thanks. I’ll be all right. I’ll be back in a moment.
He untangled himself from several arms and legs, fell on the floor, got up and darted through dusty curtains to the adjoining room. Soon he realized that his attempts to locate an exit quickly failed miserably and pushed along some passage, lined with countless doors.
He was wondering through the building for some time when he heard the running feet that sounded like a close pursue. He gasped and yanked at the closest door handle. The door swung open, hitting him in the nose while an elderly man stepped out and without a glance at Cumulus, headed down the corridor. Cumulus moaned and darted over the threshold.
A tiny room was occupied by a girl, who sat at a small table and wrote something on a piece of parchment. While Cumulus stared at her in embarrassment, thinking of something to say, she put her parchment aside and looked up. They both gasped, then the girl sprang onto her feet and screamed,
- You! What are you doing here? Where have you been? We have been looking for you everywhere!
Cumulus began to retrace his steps then spun around and ran back into the corridor. The girl yelled after him ‘Stop! Where are you going?’ Cumulus did not dare to glance over his shoulder but ran until he reached some stairs that led him outside into a back alley.
* * * *
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