It was a bizarre list the wizard’s translator gave me, and I wondered how they’d come across half these items in the barbarian lands. Many were vile. I felt tainted just writing them down. I would burn this list when I was done.
I left for the market under the afternoon’s beating sun. A sweet-rot smell lingered in the air, bringing grim irritability with it. Bodies choked the streets. Clashing shoulders launched snarls and curses. I brought Erik along with me. Our youngest and swiftest slave, he’d ferry the components back to the Ludus as I bought them.
“What do you think of our new guests?” I asked him. He’d been taken from the northern reaches of Germania and spoke with a thick accent. Erik had been my first attempt at finding a translator, but he and the wizard shared less than one word in ten.
“Who?” he asked. His brow furrowed in confusion under his spill of straw hair.
“The wizard. And his translator. What do you know of their people?”
His face darkened, and he glanced around us before he answered. “Evil folk,” he muttered. “Half-demon. It was them that brought the Unstorm. They’d rather erase their land than let the Romans have it.”
I nearly snorted. Every enemy of Rome had claimed to be responsible for the Unstorm. It had swept out of nothing at all, appearing in the northern reaches a dozen years ago and rendering them inaccessible. Reports said no one could look upon it. When it lifted weeks later, the lands that it had covered were no longer there. Villages that had been separated by a hundred miles were only a short walk away. It was as if a god had cut a hole from the world, then mended it by drawing in the edges and sewing them together.
“They can’t be that awful,” I said. “They fell to the Romans like everyone else.”
“The Romans were too lenient,” Erik said. “These people think they live in their god’s mind, in a nightmare world, and they act like it. The Romans should have erased them, like they did the Carthaginians.”
I didn’t point out that the erasure of Carthage hadn’t been entirely successful anyway.
I pulled us through the sullen city, banging on the closed doors of apothecaries. After an hour without luck I finally convinced a round, balding man to raise his shutters for us. His clothes hung from his frame in uneven folds, suggesting he’d shed a lot of weight recently despite his ample size.
“Strange combination,” the apothecary said, as he lay thirteen red candles next to thirteen fish heads and several bundles of incense. “‘One pound of salt, as a single rock’? I think I got… yeah, here we go.” He rummaged through the shelves on his other side of the window counter. “What god is this for?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, keeping my voice as disinterested as possible. I was just a slave on an errand. I certainly wasn’t someone gathering weapons for a fevered wizard. “I just get what I’m ordered to.”
The apothecary set down the salt rock and bent over the list again. “Let’s see–the wine you can get at a temple. So oils, and…” His face quirked as if he’d bitten into a lemon. He jerked away in disgust.
“What the hells is this?” he asked, stabbing a finger near the bottom of the list. “What do you need these for?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, which wasn’t entirely a lie. I only knew the final effect. “Do you have those… materials?”
“Gods no! What the fuck do you take me for?” His face flushed, disgust burning into anger. My stomach clenched. In my experience, that transmutation always led to wrath, and violence. And then terror.
“Nevermind,” I said quickly. “I’ll just take this. How much?”
“No!” He grabbed the components and swept them back behind the low wall. “You sick fucking Jews! Get the hell out of here!” He grabbed the shutters and slammed them closed, nearly catching my fingers.
Erik gave me a wide-eyed look. “What’s on that list?” he asked.
“Forget it. Let’s move on.”
I bought us both a loaf of bread from a roadside vendor as we continued. The prices hadn’t come down at all, but Sextus wouldn’t notice the cost among the expense of these components. It was good that Erik could eat some real food today, rather than choking down whatever animal feed he could steal. I smiled as I watched him wolf it down. I’d once known a young man very much like that, too excited to get on with life to waste time eating slowly.
I killed that thought as quickly as it rose, and averted my eyes.
The next time we found an apothecary I held onto the list, and purchased the inoffensive components first. I sent Erik back to the Ludus with them, and inquired about the distasteful items after he left. The result was more violent than before.
This continued as I advanced steadily into seedier and narrower streets. The stench grew as the day progressed, reminiscent of yesterday’s monster. It further soured every mood. I pulled myself from one alchemist to the next, listing the vile components without apology. Everyone turned me away with revulsion. One man pursued me into the streets, flinging stones after me. Not until the shadows bled toward the horizon did I finally receive a calculating look from a dark man with wet coals for eyes. He named a ridiculous sum, his lips barely moving. I accepted.
I wasn’t yet halfway back to the Ludus when Erik found me. His hand caught my elbow as I passed under a ragged awning. Somehow I’d missed his approach in the crowd.
“Joah, I thought you’d want to know. Back at the Ludus, I heard… Well, it’s Titus. He’s looking for you.”
My blood chilled. He was back already? It hadn’t even been two days. He must have heard of the monster, and of the Emperor’s demands. He’d want something. He’d feel entitled to something. His kind always did.
I didn’t have anything to give him. Half the money the Emperor gave for more monsters went to Sextus’s purse. The rest paid for these components. What I could skim I needed for bribing an auditor to overlook my lies about the need for animal feed.
That left only my private Aurelius fund. As Sextus’s Dispensator I received a small personal stipend. If I was frugal I could visit Aurelius twice a month. Therefore I was very frugal.
And I’d never let Titus take my Aurelius money.
“Thank you, Erik. Here, take this back to the wizard.” I handed him the sealed package. “Tell him to get started. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Erik nodded, smiled at me briefly to show his support, and left again. I stood a moment, hesitating. Then I turned toward the Temple of Somnus. I took a circuitous route, to avoid the Suburra slums. It cost me almost an hour on foot, but I wasn’t in a hurry tonight. The longer I could delay returning to the Ludus, the better.
The Temple of Somnus huddled in the shadow of a large apartment. A small temple for a small god. That was part of what had first drawn me to it. This evening it teemed with people. It seemed the whole damn city was in the temple, everyone pale and harried. The common room, a wide area built around an outsized statue of the god of sleep ascending into dream, could accommodate maybe a hundred worshippers. Twice that number packed the space, forcing the attendant priests to squeeze through them gracelessly. More people spilled into the adjacent prayer rooms, flipping the curtains aside. Only the ornately carved and gilded door in the rear, leading to the private cells, remained clear. The head clerk guarded it jealously.
Confined within thick stone walls, the din of so many supplicants crashed like turbulent surf. Offerings of silver flowed freely. Exhausted priests hurried among the crowd, offering benedictions. I waited without hurry, and half an hour passed before I could even petition the head clerk. By the time Aurelius was ready for me, I’d seen enough people pass through to fill half the Colosseum.
The temple clerk by the gilded door took my money and ushered me from the teeming hall. The clamor dropped to a low murmur when the heavy door closed at my back. I walked down the softly candle-lit passage, passing doorways curtained with many layers of sheer linens. Aurelius awaited me in the fourth cell on the left.
His face lit up when I pulled aside the curtain, eyes grey as a storm dancing at my arrival. He lay sprawled across sheets of Egyptian cotton, his head propped on one of many down pillows. The bed took up most of the cell, but a small stand near the door held smoking incense and a cup of wine. Linen draperies softened the room, dyed in various reds and pinks. Aurelius moved to stand, but I motioned for him to stay. I sat down by his side and took his slender hand in mine.
“Is it a holy day?” I asked him. I’d been coming here for years, and I swore I knew every holy day of Somnus. Since Aurelius had joined the temple I’d damn near become an expert. Still, the number of Roman gods and their overlapping holy days was boggling, and I may have missed one.
Aurelius shook his head, his blonde curls bouncing lightly. “Just a lot of supplicants today. Nightmares flooded the city last night.”
There were far worse things that could plague a city, but I shuddered nonetheless. I recalled last night’s dream, Aurelius writhing uncomfortable in my arms, the stink of the monster’s blood inflaming me as it gagged me. Titus watching us, pushing his way into the cell, his mouth silent but his eyes glittering.
I hated the dreams that could be confused for waking life most of all. Nightmares, at least, don’t twist your past. Realistic dreams blur into memories over time. Months later I’m unable to remember which events actually took place, and which were dreamt fantasies. They all feel equally real. Did I really send a letter to my family, seeking reconciliation? Could I be that stupid? Did I really receive a reply? Why would they reply just to tell me to stop trying to reach them? Just to tell me they burn my letters unread? It would be a considerable expense. It must have been a dream.
“Joah? Are you alright?”
I loosened my grip on his hand, I’d clamped tightly over it.
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “I didn’t sleep well either.” I reached for the wine and drew a long sip. I often spoke with Aurelius about my animals and my life in the Ludus. But I didn’t want him to know about Titus. I didn’t want him to know I hid here.
Aurelius nuzzled me and lay his head on my shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. You’re safe with us. Nightmares have no purchase in the temples of the Lord of Dreams.”
I ran a hand up his side, lingered briefly at his defined collarbone, and then sank my fingers into rich, blonde hair. I couldn’t get enough of it, feeling its silk through my fingers. He hummed a purr of appreciation. His locks shone softly in the candlelight, as golden as his name.
I’d never mustered the courage to ask him if it was his real name. It would hurt too much if he lied.
“Thank you,” I said, after sipping more wine. “How’s Rome treating you?”
“Life’s a dream,” he murmured, “And all the more so when you’re here.”
Smiling came easily when he spoke. I inhaled deeply, taking in his scent, and desire denied flowed back into me. I could almost thank Titus for forcing me to seek refuge here this evening. I hadn’t seen Aurelius in too long, in my fretting over the anniversary games.
I set down the wine cup and ran a finger along Aurelius’s delicate jawline. His eyes fluttered, he looked up at me, and my heart caught in my chest. His lips parted for me, soft and sweet. I held him tight, feeling his lean grace caught in my arms. My pretty, flighty treasure. His heart pitter-pattering, his breathing pulse-quick. I kissed him deep, running one hand down his back. He arched into me, clung to me, soft mewling sounds escaping him as we kissed. His firmness pressed into me, and my own cock grew rigid. God, he was so good. I pressed against him and drank deeply.
It didn’t last though. The damned lingering stench of the wizard’s monster marred the evening, flooding the night. It spilled into the space between us when we shifted. It overwhelmed the incense and seeped into Aurelius’s hair. When I stripped off his clothes and lowered him to the cot, it pooled around us. When I grabbed his hips and entered him, his motions approximated deathly writhing rather than sinuous undulation.
Somehow I couldn’t stop. Strange shadows constricted him, his muscles seemed to twist into tangled cords. As disgust overtook me my lust consumed me entirely until it was all I could breathe. I thrust desperately, throat full of gorge, my cock harder than it had ever been in my life.
After I finally spent myself inside him I left sick with disgust. The sky dripped contempt. The entire city stank of that pitch blood. Visions of my dream assaulted me. Or visions of our evening together. Had I really lived that?
Was I already trying to force a memory of something unpleasant into unreality?
I wished I had someone I could lean on for confirmation, to ask if that really happened. That’s why people talk all the time, isn’t it? The incessant chatter is to compare memories, compare realities. Assure themselves this is true, this really happened, I was there. This is real.
The closest I had were my animals. I fled back to them. They did not judge, they did not hate. There was more truth in their uncluttered existence than in all the vain dreamings of man.
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First line of next week’s chapter: You pace the broken Suburra streets as the day slouches towards its end, watching as men clear room and place feasting tables at regular intervals.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: I really hate how sex workers are often treated nowadays.
Word-count of chapter 13 deleted content: 195