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. They look bored, and none have shown any violent inclinations. Slaves load the tables with food brought on carts. You feel guilty standing by without helping, but their supervisor orders you away with a suspicious glare when you approach.
The streets thicken as the dregs of the populace sink back into the low districts. You spot Eydis as she rounds a near corner. She looks exhausted, her eyes rimmed in red. Then she catches sight of you and transforms instantly. She’s still pissed. Her face darkens like ink spilling into water. The hint of a snarl curls her upper lips, and she breaks into a stride. She approaches with fists clenched and you actually unfold your arms and tense, which is ridiculous. Someone her size couldn’t hurt you.
You catch her slap a few inches from your face, gripping her wrist. You stare at her incredulously. A slave could be lashed for striking a Roman citizen. Does she hate you enough to risk that for a slap? Or does she realize you aren’t the sort of person who would demand punishment for that?
“You miserable asshole!” she hisses, jerking and twisting in your grip. You release her and take a step back.
“What is your problem?” you demand.
“How dare you peddle me like a sack of meat!”
“I was doing you a favor.”
“Bullshit! Everything you do is for you! You took coin for that swap, not me! You claim you were defending Rome from smugglers, but you got paid to starve us! What is wrong with you? At least the other Romans admit it. At least when they kill and enslave and take, they’re honest about what they’re doing.”
“I’m doing the best I can,” you say. “I needed that money for…” For your family. For your mother. For the old man with the starving granddaughter. Gods, you’re only one man, you’re doing what you can but there’s so much misery, so much to be done. You can’t do it all. You had to make choices. She couldn’t translate in luxury for a few days? “…for a good cause. It was important.”
“Important? Fuck you and your important bullshit!” The late day sky ignites into reds behind her as she speaks. “We’ve got a good thing going here and you’re risking it all.”
“You could be working in a palace for a great patrician of Rome,” you say. “What’s so great about working for a slumlord?”
Eydis crosses her arms. “It’s not about him. It’s the whole tenement. We’re all outcasts. This is our home, we pitch in together here. We pool our money to make sure everyone can eat. We turn out troublemakers. We’re all in this together, Andreas, we’re the only family we have. Benayah covers for me sometimes so I can sneak up north and visit my little brother in the Julianus villa. And you just come and yank me out of that like none of it matters. You lease me out to an unknown master, which none of us know shit about. You think I care that he’s rich and powerful?
“Cornelius isn’t rich, but he’s a happy drunk, and he’s drunk all the time. That makes him decent, for a Roman. At each census he even vouches for every freeman that lives here, so they’re counted as Roman citizens for the grain dole. He doesn’t overwork me. He never–” Eydis’s voice catches, her nostrils flare. A look of sick rage flashes across her face for a split second. She restarts, spitting words at you through gritted teeth. “He almost never rapes me. Can you say the same of Sextus? Because Cornelius is downright kind, compared to the rest of you fuckers.” A pit develops in your stomach. Her voice wavered for an instant, and that looks to piss her off even more.
“You’re bringing the attention of the powerful to us. NOTHING good ever happens when the powerful start paying attention to us. Our only defense is obscurity, and you’re stripping that away. My home is at risk because of you! And you care just as much as every other Roman does.”
You fumble for words, taken aback. Eydis is trying to make you feel like you’ve done something wrong. But you know this was right. The gods guided you to help that old man and his granddaughter. The gods rewarded you with a way to defer your mother’s debt. The gods put you here, to help this community. You want to make her understand, but words aren’t your strength. If only she could see what you see, things would be alright.
“I’m trying to help,” you say. “We can make things better together.”
“No one wants your help.”
“I didn’t force anything on anyone,” you object. “I told Cornelius about an opportunity and he took it.”
“Did you consider asking me?” Eydis asks.
“Why would I ask you? You don’t have any say in…” you trail off as hot hatred seethes from her. Furious eyes bore into your face.
“Exactly. Just leave us the fuck alone.”
You look away, and she storms past you.
You can’t leave though. You have a duty to Marcus, and a charge from the gods. You’re here to watch over these people. You’ll prove yourself to them soon, you’re sure of it. You hate that they’re scared of you, but that will change. They’ll see you’re their protector. You’ll make this a better place.
Evening drags its shadows out from the alleys, steadily pulling them up the cracked walls of the tenements, into the deepening sky. Soon torches line the streets, brought by eager residents. Warm rivers of light flow between the sheer walls of tenement islands. Thin people cram the feasting tables, laughing and chatting as they eat stale bread. None of the food served here is fresh, but they’re glad to have anything. The wilted vegetables and bruised fruit that show up are carefully cut into small pieces and passed out to all. Meat is not served. No one speaks of the sweet-rot smell that fills Rome.
There is still wine. It would be unthinkable for there not to be wine. But even the wine is sour, on its first step to vinegar. It tastes the way Eydis looked when she’d caught sight of you, once again in the Suburra where you didn’t belong.
You ate from the early offerings and now you’ve stepped back, distancing yourself from the crowd. In part so there won’t be so many eyes and hands behind you, where you can’t watch them. But also in part because if they really don’t want you here you don’t want to impose any more than necessary. You don’t want to be that guy.
You’ll give Eydis plenty of space too; it’s clear she doesn’t like you. If she has some connection with the gods it’s damned unlikely she’d tell you anyway.
The sounds of conversation and laughter grow steadily, rising from the level of a babbling brook to the rushing of a river. Music breaks out as the moon draws high into the sky. The music is provided by the residents themselves, those few who can play and still own an old instrument. They form an impromptu grouping and play songs called out from the crowd, sometimes blending disparate versions loosely as they go. It is during a rendition of “The Emperor’s Cock,” the song of a very important rooster, that Cornelius emerges from his tenement building with his friends in tow. They carry among them a wooden platter sporting a good-sized roasted pig. You have no idea how much a whole pig costs, but that had to be a considerable expense for him.
“To friends!” Cornelius announces in the middle of the street with raised hands, still holding his ever-present wine cup. A cheer rises from the Suburran throng. Space is cleared at the nearest table, both for the pig and Cornelius. A crowd gathers in anticipation, as a young mother hands Cornelius a carving knife and serving fork to distribute the pork. He sets down his wine and cuts into the pig with relish. Steaming juices burst from under the blade. You smell their rich aroma from your position across the street. The playing group launches into an up-tempo version of “Caesar Triumphant” in cheeky tribute to their capering patron. Cornelius grins, pulling the knife back and forth in time to the music.
From you position at the back, you notice the disturbance early. As Cornelius saws away, flopping slices of ham onto outstretched plates, jostling breaks out at the other end of the crowd. Voices raise in protest, then quickly fall silent. You draw up to see the group splitting from the rear, parting before a shearing edge. Two men push their way forward. Large, well-fed men, with closely cropped hair. They break into the space behind Cornelius, and the music dies.
“What do we have here?” asks the first, in a nasal tone that doesn’t fit his size. He nibbles on a carrot taken from a nearby table. A whole carrot.
“‘Caesar Triumphant’,” speaks the second, talking around a mouthful of fruit flesh. He holds a dripping peach. They are dressed in red legionnaires tunics, marked with the emblems of a First Cohort. “Could be trouble, playing it for a party song,” he continues. “Could be seen as disrespectful.” Both carry swords strapped to their waists. The crowd pulls back, leaving a wide circle around Cornelius and the soldiers. Silence grows in great rippling waves.
Cornelius swallows and looks rapidly between the two men. “We didn’t mean any harm by it, now. We get rowdy, but it’s all in good fun. Lemme get you some wine and some ham, in thanks for your service.”
“Wine?” asks the forward legionnaire. “Is that what you call this piss? Sosius, did he just offer us swill to thank us for our service?”
“I think he did,” the rear one answers.
“Fucking insulting.” The legionnaire drops the carrot on the ground. Grinds it under his heel.
“Sure’n wasn’t meant that way,” Cornelius says, tripping on his tongue. He bows his head and gestures meekly at the food. “We don’t got much, but we’re happy to share just the same, much as you like.”
Your face burns at Cornelius’s performance. Now, whisper the gods. You step forward, working through the silent mob before you. This is it. This is why you’re here. These sorts of people are why the legion gets a bad name, why everyone is scared of you. Your heart beats harder as you advance. Tonight they’ll see. You’re not like them; you’re here to help.
“Is that so?” asks the lead legionnaire. “You provided for this table, did you?”
“N-no,” Cornelius says. “This table was… I think this one was provided by the Emperor.”
“Well fuck me dead.” The legionnaire turns to look at his friend, eyebrows raised. “I’d have thought it was you, the way everyone was cavorting.”
“Looks like we have us a fat glory hound,” growls his friend.
You’re halfway there, but the crowd grows denser as you approach table. You push, breathing harder. A hand paws at your elbow. You press through a prison of flesh.
“Let me get this straight,” begins the nasal legionnaire. “Our Emperor provides this table with seven full nights of food and wine, but you bring out a single roast pig, and you’re the big man around here? You’re…” he motions to the make-shift band “…‘Caesar Triumphant’?”
“C’mon now, it’s just some fun. We didn’t… ” Cornelius’s eyes widen as the legionnaire reaches for his sword. “No, sorry! Please, anything you want–”
Oh gods. You lower your shoulder, shoving your way forward. You won’t get there in time.
“As you say,” says the legionnaire. He grabs Cornelius by the tunic and wrenches him aside, dumping him to the ground. He pulls his sword and brings it down on the roast carcass. It’s a thick animal, and the weapon isn’t intended for butchery. He hacks at it repeatedly, splattering juice and strings of meat over the table. After several swings he’s halved the pig. He picks up a half by one leg and hoists it over his shoulder. “Apology accepted.”
“Hey Rufus,” calls the second legionnaire, “I was insulted too.”
“That you were.” The nasal legionnaire sheaths his sword and hefts the remaining half of the pig as well. “We must be fair about these things.”
You break into the center of the crowd, and you can breath again. You fill your lungs and draw yourself up to your full height as the legionnaires turn to you in surprise.
“What the fuck is this?” asks the first one.
For a moment you’re lost. You stand in a ring of universal regard. The mass of that much attention feels like a dozen knife points pressing into your flesh, not quite breaking the skin.
This is their warning, the gods prompt.
“This is your warning,” you echo. Your voice doesn’t shake, because the words come from the gods and not from you. “Put down the pig. Walk away, and you won’t get hurt.” A hiss escapes from the crowd, but you keep your eyes on the legionnaire.
A single incredulous bark of laughter bursts from the near legionnaire. “You?” he asks, a wry grin splitting his face. Two paces behind him, his friend regards you grimly. “A single unarmed man? You shitting us?”
Not completely unarmed. Yet even if you can get to your dagger in time, it won’t be much against two trained soldiers with swords.
But this isn’t just about you anymore.
“Look around,” you say, a mouthpiece for the gods. “A hundred men surround you. How many do you think you can kill before the rest of us swarm you? A dozen? It won’t be enough.”
The front legionnaire hesitates. His eyes dart, assessing the situation. But his friend sneers and draws his sword. “Which rotten coward wants to die first?” he asks.
Silence hangs within the ring of people. Cornelius tries to shrink away entirely. You tense, preparing to yank out your weapon. You’ll have to leap on the first legionnaire before he can get his sword out. You have a couple inches on him, and you have the favor of the gods. Maybe you can get him out of the fight quickly. Then you’ll have a chance.
A bolt of movement beside you, you startle back (wrong way dammit), and sharp blue eyes glare up at you from inches away.
“No one wants your fucking help!” Eydis yells. “Leave us alone!”
Murmurs of agreement rise around you. A shout of “Go home!” You look over Eydis’s head, scanning for signs of support. Every face is a scowling mask.
This is all wrong. You’re here to save them. Everyone is supposed to be on your side.
Show them, say the gods. Lead by example. But Eydis is in your way. And the near legionnaire has already set down the pig halves, and he’s resting a hand on his sword’s pommel. And the murmurs of discontent grow. You can’t follow the gods’ will, not right now, not if you want to live.
Help them. This will never stop, until you stop it. What value is your life if you let them take this? What value if you let them take everything?
You look away. You can’t, not today. You can do more tomorrow if you’re alive. Cold slime slides down your spine–the visceral disgust of the gods. They judge you a coward, an accomplice to these thugs.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” the first legionnaire says. “Listen to the slave woman, she can teach you how to service a real Roman.” He wanders to the wine barrel and spits in it. After a moment of consideration he hops onto the table, pulls out his cock, and unleashes a stream of urine into the barrel. For long moments there is nothing but the sound of his piss splashing into the wine.
“Don’t fuck with the legion,” he says afterwards, as he drops to the ground. “We’re the reason you’re alive. We’re the reason you have anything at all.” He retrieves the two halves of pig. The crowd parts before them, and both men leave without glancing back.
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First line of next week’s chapter: I had been a young man, once.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: This chapter tested my “contemporary or historic?” decision.
Word-count of chapter 14 deleted content: 177