18. Joah

A bite of pain tore my attention from my straining, gorged stomach.

I jerked back my fingers as the wolfling nipped them with her needle-like puppy teeth. It wasn’t the pup’s fault, she didn’t know how to eat from the hand yet. I hoped she was a fast learner. Sick as she was, I’d be hand feeding her for a while. Her mother had already given up on her. I still couldn’t believe Titus had brought me wolf pups.

At least her appetite had improved today.

“Come on now, be a lady,” I whispered to the pup, scratching behind her ears. I didn’t dare name her yet, not until she improved. The weight in my gut reasserted itself as the sharp pain at my fingers faded.

The door of the cell creaked open behind me. This building adjoined the stables, consisting of a single long hallway lined with sturdy cells. In the past it had held those condemned to be devoured; now they were just kept directly below the Colosseum in packed cages. I used one of the vacant cells as my writing room, and had set the wizard in another, as far from my make-shift office as possible. I’d secluded the wolf-pups here as well, to help them recover.

I turned to see Erik, worried, slipping into the room. He looked green around the edges. Not one hour ago I’d found him eating scrapings from the rinds meant for the bears. Eating was an understatement–he gorged on them, sour juices dripping over his chin. They were less than fresh, and had been sitting with fish offal. I’d looked away and gone about my business. I had no room to judge. I’d crammed myself to bursting at the Colosseum.

“Joah.” Anxious concern in his eyes. “Titus is here.”

A surge of fear. My overfull stomach tightened at the name. I scooped up the pup, took three fast strides to her cage, then dumped her in and latched it. I fled the room with Erik in tow. If Titus saw me caring for the pups he would hurt them just to watch my reaction.

I ducked back into the stables and peeked around a row of cages. Outside, past the opened stable doors, Titus stood in the inner yard. He’d stopped to admire the elephants taking their exercise. I pulled back, quickly assessing options. A small door at the far end of the stables joined them to the gladiator barracks. From there I could reach the main entry unseen and escape into the city. He’d never find me in the thick of Rome.

“Thank you,” I told Erik. “If he asks, I’m out on Ludus business.” I embraced him in thanks, then hurried to my escape.

Inches from freedom, my hand pulling the door open, I heard Titus call out.

“Joah! Come here, you worthless fuck!”

No. I pretended not to hear him. I stepped through and pulled the door closed behind me. Titus cursed, loud enough for it to reach me. I broke into a dead sprint, barreling across the barracks and into the main entry. My brimming belly strained at the furious activity. I unbarred the large doors and fled into the city, into the tightening streets away from the Colosseum.

My stomach rumbled with each running stride. I forced myself forward even as my throat opened wider. I darted around one looming corner, then another, until I couldn’t hold back any more. I stuck my head into an alley as a torrent of vomit gushed from my mouth. My lungs burned for air, but the flow of gorge wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t breathe, I was going to die here. And then with a final spasm the deluge stopped and I inhaled so violently I sucked globs of ejecta into my airway. I coughed and gasped for air desperately because I could feel another surge coming. I couldn’t survive this on empty lungs.

Another stream rushed from my throat, and then it was done. I could breathe. Through tears I could see this was a popular spot. A diverse mixture of vomits splattered the ground. I lurched back into the street, choking back sobs, and resumed my stumbling run. I wasn’t safe yet. I needed to get further away.

Several minutes later I slowed to a walk, my legs heavy and my chest heaving. I searched the sloping street behind me. Saw no sign of pursuit. This should be far enough, for now. I wiped foul residue from my beard and grimaced. That damned wizard and his vile monsters. I’d gorged myself while watching the fat one die. I couldn’t stop.

I tottered away slowly, gripping my hands together to keep them from shaking. I would be fine. After the Anniversary festival Titus would be sent back to Germania. All I had to do was avoid him for a bit longer. If I could just push through four more days, this would all be over. Everything would return to normal.

I washed up at a public fountain at the mouth of a market square. It didn’t help much, as the city itself was polluted. Rome sat at the bottom of an ocean of thick, greasy air. The pressure bearing down on us forced the corruption down our throats and into our pores. A spiced, rotting-meat smell lingered everywhere.

To my right a hungry-eyed mob pressed into the booth of a fish-cake seller. The cakes consisted of a few bits of grey flesh stuffed into small buns, drizzled with olive oil. The asking price was a full day’s wages for a common laborer.

“Too high!” snarled a woman in front. “You’re a thief and a cheat!”

“I’ve got four cakes left, and a dozen customers right here,” the vendor countered. “Who’ll give me two denarii for one? Three?”

A stooped, trembling man stepped forward. The woman shoved him back with an outraged roar and a scuffle broke out. I hurried away as similar disputes flared around me. The vendors who wouldn’t raise their prices had been emptied of inventory and left hours ago. They were the smarter ones–the streets were growing ugly.

I wiped sweating palms on my tunic and stepped up my pace. I didn’t know where to go, but anywhere was better than here. Someplace without food would be safer. My newly-emptied stomach growled in protest.

I turned down the first street I came to, a wider thoroughfare. A snarl of men churned beside a grain dispensary, bulging well into the street like a tumor of humanity. Four Praetorians stood against them, three with shields raised, the last shouting at the angry group. This would be a safer street, with the Praetorians to keep order. I stuck to the far walkway and kept going.

“Ten pounds!” shouted the lead Praetorian, “No more or less, unless I hear from the emperor himself!”

“We will die!” spoke a young man at the head of the mob, dressed in rags that weren’t even fit for slaves. “My son wails for food.”

“My father can’t leave his bed!” shouted a voice from further back. “Let me take his portion, to bring to him.”

“You get nothing more than decreed!” the Praetorian yelled. “Reform the queue, or I’ll shut this site down!”

Growing rumblings in the press of men, like rolling thunder in an approaching storm. The young man stepped forward as the others crowded after him. I skirted the group, nearly pressing against the opposite building to keep my distance. This didn’t feel safer at all.

“You must give us more,” the young man implored, surprisingly articulate, “or you sentence us to death. I plead as a Roman citizen–you cannot turn your back on a fellow Roman man.”

The Praetorian drew his sword, but kept the point down. “Get back, or I’ll cut you all down. You scum are nothing like us.”

“Traitors!” came a shout from the crowd. A bent-nosed balding man burst forward, his teeth bared. “Cowards, and whores!” A couple men spilled out after him, pushing him on. “Out of our way! Or we’ll fucking move you!” A roar of approval rose from the group, and several more men strode forward in his wake. They rolled forward in an uneven surge.

A flash of sun glinted off steel, and in an eye blink the Praetorian jammed his sword up into the bald man’s chest, angled up just below the ribs. The man’s eyes bulged. Then the Praetorian yanked his sword back and blood spurted over the street. The body toppled and the Praetorian stepped back into line with his squad, raising his shield to join their formation.

“Disperse, or come die!” he yelled.

An explosion of activity, but I didn’t see the details. I knew the violence of mobs. I put my head down and ran.

 


 

An hour later I ducked into the Temple of Somnus. My feet had carried me this way without my conscious knowledge. I’d skulked through Rome, steering clear of altercations and avoiding food markets altogether. I had nowhere to go, only places I must flee from. Some part of me remembered the safety of Aurelius’s arms, and I found myself looking at my one refuge outside the Ludus.

“Joah, welcome,” Camillus greeted me. Dozens of supplicants filled the common area, but nothing like yesterday’s deluge. The hunched old man smiled warmly. “Back to see Aurelius again so soon?”

I suddenly became very aware that I had only a few Sestertii on me. Not nearly enough to pay for Aurelius’s time. “Yes, but, not yet,” I stalled. “I’d like to pray first, if I may.”

Camillus lifted his eyebrows in surprise, and nodded slowly. He led me to the altar in the adjoining room. The statue above it stood five feet tall. The gaunt face of Somnus looked at me with large, impassive eyes. His hair was carved as a thick mass of smoke. I paid Camillus for incense and set it to burning before the statue.

I stared at the smoldering incense for a while, not sure what to do next. I came to temple for Aurelius, not religion. Awkwardly I lowered myself to my knees. I felt like an idiot, kneeling in the dim room. I didn’t even believe in the god of my own people, much less these Roman gods.

“My” people. Hah. I had no people now. Only myself and my animals. And, a few nights each month, Aurelius. It was enough.

I stayed in the altar room long after the incense burned out. Eventually Camillus came to collect me.

“Would you like to see Aurelius now, or would you like more incense instead?” he asked, his eyes gentle but his tone firm.

“I want to see Aurelius, but, I didn’t bring enough money…” Camillus frowned, the softness sliding from his features. “But I do have enough just to see him for a while. I want to talk to him, I won’t take much time.”

“That’s not usually how this works,” Camillus said. “Just how much are you donating for this?”

I pulled all the money I had from my coin purse and pressed it into his hand. He looked at it, then nodded.

“Very well.”

Relief washed over me as his gentle smile returned. He left me in a partially secluded alcove in the common room. A few minutes later Aurelius slipped from the door to the restricted area. My heart twinged when I saw him. He was so beautiful, and I had rushed out on him so abruptly yesterday. I couldn’t even recall if I’d said good-bye.

“Joah, is everything okay?” he asked. I pulled him into a tight embrace and held him. Just held him, feeling his svelte body against me, wrapped in my arms. I could do this forever. Eventually I pulled away and looked into his slate eyes, now full of apprehension.

“I’m sorry for how I left last night. Really sorry.”

Aurelius cocked his head, and broke into a grin. “Is that all? You silly.” He leaned forward and gave me a quick closed-mouth kiss on the lips. “Everything is fine! Don’t worry about it.”

It didn’t feel right though. That was too pat, and too easy. “I don’t know what came over me,” I continued. “There was something in the air, and–shit, listen to me, I’m making excuses. I didn’t treat you right, and it won’t happen again. You deserve better.”

Aurelius sighed and eased against me. “Really, it’s fine. You were much better than most people recently. The whole city’s been tearing at itself since the Anniversary began. Like some kind of maddened animal.”

I flinched at the comparison, but didn’t let my dismay show. Animals weren’t nearly so destructive. I’d have said the city was acting more like a maddened human.

“I don’t want to go back out yet,” I told Aurelius.

Aurelius rested his head on my chest. “I understand. I’ll keep you here as long as I can. The priests like you, Joah. I like you. We can make some accommodations for those we like.”

I exhaled slowly, some of the tension uncoiling from my spine. “Thank you,” I said.

I stayed in the alcove for another hour, talking with Aurelius, stroking his hair. But eventually the rules could be bent no further, and I was politely ushered out of the temple.

That was probably for the best. I didn’t want to be in the streets after dark tonight anyway.

 


 

I crept back into the Ludus in the late afternoon. Not that I needed to creep, really. It had been hours since I’d fled. Titus was a busy man, he had better things to do than wait around all day just to torment me.

I peeked around a corner into the kitchen. Zia stirred a large pot of stew, preparing the gladiators’ evening meal. She sipped from it liberally. Aside from her, the room was empty. I slid in and nodded a greeting.

“Hi Zia. Is he gone?”

Zia scowled at me. “Don’t worry,” she said, the words snapped out tightly. “He’s been gone for a long time.”

Fucking Titus. My role as Sextus’s Dispensator required a certain amount of the other slaves’ respect. The damage Titus did to that would far outlast his stay in the city. A burn of impotent despair forked across my chest. As their overseer, I had left them to deal with the fallout of Titus’s anger alone. Of course they saw me as pathetic. It was a pathetic act.

I moved on without acknowledgement. At least he was gone. Another day survived.

I walked quickly to my writing room. I’d lost half the day already. Sextus’s audit deadline loomed closer every hour. Creating duplicate ledgers–cooked to hide the animal feed stolen by the slaves–would take days of eye-blurring labor. I couldn’t simply lose afternoons like this. I would be up late tonight.

I stepped into the writing room and my heart stopped cold. A male orangutan hung nailed to a cross affixed to the far wall. Blood dripped from his palms and feet to congeal in small pools on the floor. His body sagged too low, his arms wrenched out of their sockets. His lower legs had been crushed. On the fevered edge of consciousness, head lolling to one side, he lowed in uncomprehending animal agony.

Crucifixion. The punishment of traitors against the empire… and rebellious slaves. Titus didn’t waste effort on subtlety.

“I told him you favored the monkeys.” I startled at Erik’s voice, my heart jumping back into wild hammering. I spun to regard the northman. “I thought it was the least awful option. I mean, I know you love all your animals, but you never were too fond of the monkeys. Not like the big cats, or the wolf pups.”

The wolf pups. I bolted past Erik and ran for their room. The distance seemed enormous, stretching to miles as my legs churned away, step by miserable step. The doorway grew slowly in my sight, until finally I whipped around it and dove to my pup’s cages. I fell to my knees beside small, silent bodies.

“Pups? Lady?” I grabbed the girl-wolf’s cage and shook it. The pup inside yelped and jumped to her feet. Her head darted about in confusion. The boy-pup in the cage beside her sat up and blinked groggily, looking back and forth between his sister and me.

I melted to the floor, closed my eyes, and let my forehead fall forward to rest against the cage. The she-pup padded over and lapped at my fingers.

“Thank you,” I exhaled, barely mouthing the words.

I would have to say it to Erik in person. And Zia too, and anyone else who helped protect my animals.

I took a moment to gather myself, feeling that small tongue licking at my fingers. The she-pup whined in sympathy. Relief nearly overwhelmed me, but I couldn’t take the time to cry. A miserable task still awaited me. I had to accept the consequences of my cowardice, and end the orangutan’s suffering.


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First line of next week’s chapter: You lean against a tenement in the Suburra district.
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