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Chapter IX

81 BCE - Spring, Rome

Year of the consulship of
Marcus Tulius Decula and Gnaeus Cornelius Dolabella


Over the next several months a change came over the house. Many profited by it, others suffered. I refer, you understand, to everyone excluding the family. Crassus, his wife and children never faced anything more troublesome than a boring houseguest or a hangnail. Both the start and the culmination of this transformation were each marked by an absence. The first was cause for celebration; the second spurred me to an unthinkable confrontation. It all began with Nestor’s bed.
Some days life was easier to bear than others. This had been one of the difficult ones. It was near the end of Martius and Livia had been reclaimed by Boaz that morning. After a week’s stay helping to prepare for and then cleaning up after the festivities surrounding little Marcus’s fourth birthday, we were just getting used to having her around. I’m not much of a drinker, but that night I had four cups of lora. I might have shown more restraint had not the mistress herself set two pots of honey out for us, surplus from the party. With this nectar, the wine was made less bitter, but not I. Euripides said “wine is the happy antidote for sorrow,” yet I retired both foul of mood and stomach. I doubt a libation as insipid or as astringent as lora had ever passed the playwright’s lips.
So it was that late that night I rose to relieve myself and perhaps find a scrap of bread to sop up the choppy seas of my gut. Nestor was snoring lightly. Down the hall in the opposite direction from Pío’s room lay the female servant’s wing. Midway between, running at right angles was the short hallway leading to the men’s latrine on the right, women’s on the left. A trench four inches wide and almost as deep ran down the middle of that floor; you could hear the gurgle of fresh water from the aqueduct running through it as you approached. Crassus’ Palatine villa was richly appointed: normally such luxury was reserved for the master suites.
Sleeping in a sitting position on his small cushioned bench at the intersection of the two hallways was our young guard. An oil lamp stanchioned in the wall flickered above his head. Malchus had a room to himself, but when he wasn’t patrolling he preferred to rest here. The hallway was so narrow no one could get past without stepping over him. He woke at my approach.
“Salve, Malchus,” I said quietly so as not to wake the rest of the house.
The lanky soldier wiped his mouth and looked up at me appraisingly. “Too much lora,” he said. It wasn’t a question. I nodded. “I’ll join you if you promise you won’t puke.” I told him life held few guarantees. He shrugged, stood up and took the lamp out of its holder. Stretching and yawning, he left his short sword by the bench and followed me to the toilets. The small room was divided by the fresh water channel and fed from a spout extending a foot off the floor of the far wall. On either side of the trench were two benches with hinged lids; each had two holes on top for sitting and two smaller openings on the front for cleaning. On the floor were two large covered buckets and two taller, narrower ones with long handles protruding from their open tops. Malchus lifted each covered bucket by its handle to test its weight.
“This one’s full,” he said, tapping it with his foot. He opened the other one and we urinated into it together. I finished first; when Malchus was done I closed and latched the lid. Malchus reached up under his tunic, pulled down his subligatum and took a seat on the bench nearest him. “So what’s troubling you, translator?”
I sat down across from him, letting my bad leg stretch out before me. The limp was barely noticeable now. “Why should anything be troubling me? Troubles are for adults; children need only obey. I am a carefree child.”
“You know, my friend, your face won’t shatter if you manage a smile once in awhile. I see you, don’t think I don’t, moping around the house all day. That’s not going to make things any better.”
“Why didn’t I think of that?” I said, smacking my forehead. “I simply have to look happy to be happy. Genius.”
“Think about it – your lot could be a lot worse.”
“Really?” I felt myself beginning to mope, but didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing it. The best I could manage was a crooked, tepid smile.
Malchus, however, was the type who would grasp at any sign of encouragement, even a false one. “That’s better,” he said. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the place in time. Crassus is a good man. I’ve been with him since he came back from Hispania, going on three years now. Betto and I joined up when he passed through Perugia, our village.”
“He’s never around. Do you think he even knows what goes on in his name?”
“Oh, so that’s it. Can’t you just stay out of Prick Pío's way?”
“As easily as I can avoid the air. It’s not just for me, you know ...”
“Dominus owes Pío a debt of honor. Hang on.” Malchus’ face glazed with concentration, then relaxed. There was a soft, wet thud beneath him. “Ahhh ... a thing of beauty. Where was I. Pío. Yes. Unless he murders someone, my friend, Crassus will never give him up. Pass me the spongia, will you?” I pulled the dripping sponge stick out of the cask of fresh water and gave it to Malchus, handle first. He turned it around, inserted it through the small hole between his legs and cleaned himself.
“You could help us, if you’d a mind to.”
“No chance. Pío’s shit, my friend, if you’ve ever had the luck to be in here when he’s about the business of making one, smells like mountain laurel and columbine. And he knows it. I’m not saying I’d do the same as him in his place, but you know the old saying: swing a big cock and somebody’s gonna get fucked. That’s just how it is.”
“So you do see how he treats us, then?”
“I see it. And do you see it’s got nothing to do with me?” Malchus stood, dropped the spongia back in its receptacle and rearranged his clothes. He saw the look on my face and said, “Look, it’s rotten luck, but let me tell you something my father taught me. The world is always changing, right under our noses, even if you think it’s not. Most of the time it happens so slow you’ll miss it if you’re not paying attention. That’s the trick, see. You’ve got to pay attention so you know when something’s changing.”
“An interesting theory, but what use is it to me?”
“I wish I could help you, translator, but I’m just a sword for hire. I’ve got a skill and I get paid to use it. You’re smart, you’ll think of something. Hey, it’s the ones who can think that come up with most of the change, right? Just make sure when you go mixing things up you leave me out of it. I like my job; Things are fine just the way they are.”

***

In the servants’ kitchen, I found half a loaf of something under the breadbox. It was fresh enough for me to tear off two chunks, one of which I chewed upon thoughtfully as I padded barefoot back to our sleeping quarters. I turned into our wing, passed Pío’s and my room and found Malchus back at his usual post on the bench in the hall. He had covered himself with his cloak; his head was tilted back against the wall and his mouth hung open. I dropped the other hunk of bread into his lap. He opened one eye, grinned and said, “You’re a good man, translator. From now on, I’ll ignore what everyone says.”
“It heartens me,” I replied, “to know we are so well protected by the alert and ever-vigilant Malchus. Brigands, blackguards and thieves beware!”
“Don’t let this come as a shock,” Malchus said, his mouth well-stuffed, “I’m not guarding you, I’m guarding you, if you follow.”
“You’re doing a superlative job either way,” I said, heading back to my room. When I turned aside the curtain and slipped into bed I realized that I was alone. Nestor was gone.

***

Indeed, over the coming weeks it seemed as if I had the room to myself at night. Nestor continued to behave as if our recent paths were not literally chained together, as if his claim to this place was somehow greater than mine. If it were mine to give, he’d be welcome to it. I would have welcomed his friendship, but that tree was obviously not going to bear fruit.
There was, however, a direct correlation between Nestor’s absence and Pío’s demeanor. Dare I say it? The man’s disposition was becoming almost sunny! The more time they spent together, the less the Spaniard preyed upon the rest of us. Food rations were no longer withheld, sexual blackmail vanished and the household in general brightened several shades. It was spring, and Pío and Nestor were in love.
But no good thing comes without a price, and it was Sabina and her daughter who paid it. With the house settled back into a normal routine, there was no need for extra help; Pío refused the “coin” with which Sabina had paid him so that she and Livia could be together as much as possible. True, happiness had tamed his more repulsive habits, but it had also made him faithful. And as bad luck would have it, Crassus took Pío to task over the house accounts. Not that there was any lack of funds, but to the master, “more” was always better than “enough.” Livia came to us no more.
I could not bear the sight of frustration and heartbreak in Sabina’s eyes. While I lacked the courage to stand up for myself, it welled up of its own accord on behalf of my friend. Malchus had said something about being a sword for hire; that gave me the kernel of an idea. And so it was I found myself standing alone before the master in his tablinum.
“You wished to see me?” Crassus chose an apple from a bowl and offered it up to me. I declined gracelessly, only able to manage a grunt and a head shake. He shrugged and bit into it himself. What was I doing here? Was I mad? Before I could get my vocal chords to function he saved me by asking, “How are you settling in?”
“Well,” I managed.
“And how goes it with Marcus? Give us a progress report.”
“Well ...” I repeated. Do I tell him the truth? I don’t see what choice I have. “He’s keen on mathematics. At least, that is, he understands that when I take two blocks away from three he is left with only one. It, uh, is easier for him to grasp the ... conceptual aspects once he stops crying.”
“I see.”
I had no choice but to forge ahead. “He’s quite entertained by some sections of The Iliad. I’m afraid his favorite part - I’ve had to repeat it to him almost every day this month – is the death of Hector.” Crassus smiled at that. “He’s learning his Latin letters, but truth to tell, dominus, Greek is as yet beyond him.” I waited, but Crassus was silent. “We’ve started with a little history, the Punic wars, but forgive me, lord, I cannot hold his attention for more than a few minutes.”
Crassus stroked his chin. He let out a long breath and I could have sworn he was about to send me to the mines. Instead, he said, “I suppose, then, we’ll have to leave oratory and the Epicureans till he’s four.”
“That might be, I mean to say, four is perhaps ...”
“I am in jest, Alexander. Let him play.”
“Dominus?”
“I was wrong to start him so young. Does he like you?”
“I think he tolerates me. He loves his mother, and Sabina. And you, of course.”
“Alexander!” he snapped. My sandals almost left the floor. “You are not a client. And I am not your patron. Patronize me again at your peril.”
“Yes, dominus.”
“You’re a good man, Alexander,” he said with softer tone. “I know, because my son knows. You cannot fool a child. I note you have omitted Marcus’ progress with his riding lessons.”
“Dominus?”
“Your hands and knees must be raw, from what he tells me.”
“Oh.”
“Oh indeed. Continue as you see fit. He’d miss his time with you were I to postpone his “lessons” for another year. Now what’s this you say about Sabina?”
“My experience with children is quite limited, dominus. Limited, indeed, to myself. An only child. No playmates to speak of. Sabina has been a great help with Marcus. Which, if I may ....”
“What is it?”
Now we’d come to it. I felt as if the past few minutes had helped my cause, but I was too nervous to see anything objectively. By the Dog, curse my trembling, perspiring body. I did my best to ignore my uncooperative physical self and concentrate on my ideal, non-corporeal self. “I have a proposition, dominus.”
Crassus hoisted the semaphore of a raised eyebrow. Was this permission to proceed, or a manifestation of ‘how dare you?’ His next utterance would tell. Remember, don’t patronize. Like a barrel rolling downhill, I plunged on, waiting for the moment when my staves would explode. “It is an idea that will unite a family, bring good to many in your name and procure another able body for your house at no cost to you. I would humbly beg that you allow Sabina a peculium.”
I paused for a response. “If you are finished,” Crassus said, “then my answer is ‘no.’”
“Finished? No! Out of politeness, I merely wanted to give you the chance to voice your initial thoughts.”
“You just heard them. Never let manners stand in the way of making your case. The great orators barely take a breath between sentences to frustrate any chance of interruption. Plow on, Alexander. I don't have all morning.”
“Here it is, then.” I took a breath and expectorated my argument as quickly as my pasty tongue would allow. “Livia, Sabina’s daughter, was sold by her father to pay his gambling debts. She is owned by Boaz who on occasion leases her to this house. Sabina is a trained healer whose talents go tragically unused. Purchase Livia for the sum of 8,000 sesterces; Sabina will contribute 2,300 of the cost. The balance she will repay from the profits from her peculium – as a healer. Livia will be reunited with her mother, both will become your property and your reputation as a sage and canny patrician will increase.”
“Qualities by which I am already known. I thought you said it would cost me nothing.”
“Eventually.”
“How did she come by such a sum?”
“She sold herself to Boaz.”
Crassus nodded. “Would that all Roman mothers acted as nobly, when Roman men succumb to their failings.”
I could not help myself. “Sabina is Greek.”
Crassus eyed me. “And no less noble for it. Why does Boaz sell the girl so cheaply – she could fetch twice his asking price.”
“This I cannot explain. I think he likes the mother.”
“I will not have strangers with gods know what sores and ailments tromping through the house. I will not allow any such unfortunates near my children or my wife. She may not ply her trade here?”
“The empty apartment that faces the street could be used as a taberna. It has its own entrance and is used only for storage. It's completely separate from the main building by at least two hundred feet of garden.”
"I know where it is; it's my damn house!"
“You could charge her rent,” I said in as small and unobtrusive voice as possible.
“I would charge her rent. But tell me, Alexander, has your convoluted scheme considered this? What citizen would make the trek up the Palatine when there are plenty of doctors, male doctors, throughout the city?”
“A well-placed word or two from Crassus would push the stone from the hilltop. Word of mouth would soon cause an avalanche. In reverse, so to speak.”
“I see. More work for me. Next I suppose you will tell me that you yourself are living proof of her skills. You needn’t bother. I began looking for your replacement the moment the fever came upon you. Few survive its grip. She has a gift, without doubt.”
I held my breath. At last Crassus spoke again. “The plan has merit. Get the money from Pío and see that the girl is here by nightfall.”
“Dominus!”
“So help me, Alexander, if you fall to your knees or begin to blubber, I shall strike you. Get some backbone in you. I have no use for cowards. You belong to a noble house; best you act the part."
There is a nasty miniature of me that lives inside, a small but persistent voice that would spoil any triumph, sour any accomplishment. How it came to reside in my head is a mystery. I would excise it if I could; and yet I do enjoy arguing with it. Since coming to the house of Crassus I have given it a name. I call it Little Nestor. Well, here was a perfect opportunity for the daemon to be heard, and he did not disappoint. In that instant of my master’s acquiescence, I experienced real joy, a feeling that had eluded me since my abduction. Little Nestor could not let that go, and I heard him whisper: his words are free, but you are not. Act the part, he says. As long as you remain here, like an actor never allowed to leave the stage, you will never be yourself. So act the part. Slave.
That day, I managed to ignore him, enough to say, “Dominus, I am very pleased. And on Sabina’s behalf, I offer gratitude. There is but one thing more; actually two. Please do not tell her this was my idea. Take credit yourself, or perhaps give it to domina, whatever you think best.”
“Why would we do that? Your suggestion is an act of kindness she will not soon forget.”
“First, the act is yours, not mine. Second, she is my friend; I want no debts between us. Lastly, Sabina is proud almost beyond measure. This would sit better coming from the master of the house.”
Crassus rose from his seat. “Stay here. I must fetch my wife.” He walked back toward the atrium and I heard him call for Tertulla. In a moment, the two returned, followed by Sabina, who led a wobbly, grinning Publius by the hand.
“Columba, a word. Sabina, if you wouldn’t mind, take Publius for some air.”
“Yes, dominus.” Sabina left, looking back over her shoulder to fling a nervous ‘what’s-going-on?’ face at me. I replied with a look of feigned innocence and hoped that it appeared genuine. I was never much good at dissembling.
“Alexander! What have you gone and done now?” Tertulla took both my hands in hers and held them while she spoke. Her smile was so broad and genuine I felt my face redden. “He’s so good with Marcus, husband. How's the leg, Alexander?”
"It heals," Crassus answered for me, sounding slightly irritated. He bade Tertulla sit in his chair and began to recount the details of my proposal. He stood next to me, so close I could smell his perfume. I hoped that my own scent did not offend. If only I could step further away unnoticed. I am most comfortable on the outskirts; being at the center of anything unnerves me, the center of attention in particular. To endure, I composed my features into one I hoped gave the impression of self-abasing, modestly proud interest. No mirror presented itself, so I attempted to breathe normally and instead let the vision of my mistress consume me.
Tertulla’s hair was long in those days, and as black as any Nubian’s. She wore it piled at the back of her head, held with gold butterfly pins. Two long tresses escaped this binding and fell down either side of her neck. It was a style that made her look regal, yet utterly feminine. Her sleeveless peplos, pinned at the shoulders with more gold butterflies, was pale blue, a foil to the darker seas of her eyes. She left one shoulder bare by draping her palla as a long, diagonal sash. Her toenails were painted to match her peplos and her long-laced sandals were gold. She was nineteen, five years younger than I; precisely the sort of girl who wouldn’t give me a second look or a first chance back in Athens. She was as beautiful as Phaedra, my youthful infatuation at the Academy, but where Phaedra was a siren, Tertulla was Venus.

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