After Titus had finally left with his emptied wagons, I gathered up the remains of my dignity and went searching for Zia. I couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes. The gladiators had heard of my humiliation from the guards, and looked at me with sneering amusement. The slaves looked at me with hollow, hungry eyes, their gazes asking when there would be food for them. Judging me as a failure, an inadequate overseer. My throat squeezed over a hardening knot as I moved from room to room.
I found Zia in the kitchen, over a boiling pot of fish skeletons. She frowned, her grimace half guilt and half defensiveness. She’d found my reserve of cat treats, and now cooked them for the slaves. I said nothing. I couldn’t fault her the theft of food.
“Zia, do you know anyone with ties to Parthia?” I asked. “Anyone who might be able to find me a monster in a matter of days?”
Zia still held onto the Parthian faith of her mother. I knew little of her people, or their magic, but many of my most bizarre animals came from the far east. I needed any lead I could find.
She drew back from me, her frown deepening. Doubt flickered in her eyes. My empty stomach sank. Even Zia wouldn’t give information like that to a Jew. Who knows what a Jew could do with it?
“My cousin might know someone,” she said reluctantly, “but he’s hard to find. And he’ll want silver for any information.”
Of course he would. I’d have to take it from Sextus’s general fund. Taking from it without prior approval was forbidden, but I needed a monster. I could worry about replacing the money if I survived the week.
It turned out Zia’s cousin was a bit of a criminal. When I finally found the gambling den Zia had directed me to, I nearly didn’t enter. It had no sign or markings to announce itself, only a half-sunken door. Only those who already knew of the place were welcome here. I pushed the door open as gently as I could and slipped inside.
Every head in the place turned my way. All action paused as every eye trained on my form. Hungry gazes–measuring, calculating. This entire city housed only predators. They made their assessments, then turned back to their games surreptitiously, biding their time.
I found Zia’s cousin burrowed in a far corner, losing his money to a one-eyed Celt and a handful of burly Greeks.
“A monster?” He laughed in my face, spittle bursting from his mouth and catching in my beard. “Do you think I’d be in this shithole if I could conjure up a monster? I’d be fucking some chieftain’s daughter up in Britannia, living the easy life.”
“Zia said you knew someone who could help. Someone who may know some secret ways. I need a monster in the next seven days, or the Roman’s’ll string me up on hooks just to see how long it takes me to die.”
Zia’s cousin snorted. “Maybe if you had a month, and a pile of money. But seven days? Fuck, if I were you I’d run right now.”
“I can pay. I just need a name and a location.” I opened a coin purse, the visible one, and pulled three sestertii from it. “I just need to know where to go.”
Zia’s cousin looked at the money in my hand. He gazed at the playing table where his debts waited for him. After a second he took the pouch from my hand and slipped it under his belt, leaving me only the three sestertii. I clenched the coins in my fist as he whispered directions in my ear. Then he stepped away from me, moving back to the table as if we’d never talked. I took my cue, and left. That coin purse was his now. I had two others hidden on me, should I need them.
His directions took me across the Tiber and into the Field of Mars. The district had been a field when they’d first named it. In the following centuries the growing city swallowed it completely, to pack in ever more bodies. I crept down narrower and narrower streets, and then into crooked back alleys. I shouldered quickly past drunks, scrambled past clawing beggars, and slipped in vomit twice. Finally, at the end of a blind alley behind an ill-cared for washhouse, I found the blasphemous symbols carved into a wall that marked a secret door. Zia’s cousin said they’d look a bit like a tree, but they seemed more like a branching flame to me. I checked over both shoulders, found only hollow darkness, and ducked inside.
The sanctum within belonged to an Ishtarian cult. Or it had. Cobwebs stretched from the altar to every corner of the tiny room. The bowl that sat atop it, between two ruined candlesticks, cradled a thick pool of dust. Rat droppings lined the walls. It had been abandoned for months.
All that money, for nothing.
I went over my options as I wormed back into the city’s heart. I knew a man who said he knew a “Herod the Magician”. I could try him tomorrow. I was so wrapped up in my thoughts that I didn’t notice the guard’s troubled eyes when he let me back into the Ludus compound. Didn’t register the uncanny stillness in the air, or the conspicuous disappearance of all the other slaves.
It wasn’t until I stepped out into the exercise field, to cut across to the slave barracks, that a cold finger of dread cut through my obliviousness and raised the hair on the back of my neck. I stopped in my tracks, suddenly alert. Something was wrong with the stables. A fearful sickness seeped from it. Low whines and drawn-out animal moans crept from its cracks, wriggled into my ears, and slid down my spine. My groin tightened in sympathetic distress.
I glanced around. No other person in sight, not even a patrolling guard. I looked back to the stables. They stood darker than they should under the moon, as if shrouded under a massive curtain.
I swallowed, lifted my chin, and walked towards the looming double-doors. Those were my animals in there. This was my Ludus to oversee. I had to see what was wrong. If anything was wrong. Maybe creeping through allies and into abandoned cult sanctums had spooked me.
The stables glowered at my approach. I grit my teeth and ignored my trepidation. It was stupid, the Ludus was a secure compound. Reaching the large doors, I pulled one open an arm’s-breadth. It creaked and groaned, protesting the whole way, before juddering to a stop. I filled my lungs, lifted my shoulders, and stepped into the blackness within.
The interior felt severed from the outside world. The city sounds didn’t penetrate its walls, the air hung lifeless and chill. In their cages the animals paced, prodded, and huffed nervously. A presence filled the space, a sense we were not alone. Something watched us, dispassionately. Something outside life, and beyond it.
I took a slow, breathless step forward. Then another one. The air grew colder. I remembered what Titus had called the old man he’d given us. “Barbarian wizard.” I came to the nearest row of cages, then grabbed one corner and thrust my head half past it to peak around.
The shrunken savage waited for me. He crouched in shadow, filling the stables his with heavy rasps. He raised a hand, holding out something limp and dripping. Inhuman gurgles rose from his throat, formed into grotesque utterances by cracked lips. My animals reared into a chorus of howls and moans. I fled, bolting into the embrace of night. I still felt him leering after me, even through the stable walls. Cackling laughter chased me as I ran for the guards.
A quarter hour later I returned with five guards at my back, ready for war. I’d told them what we faced, warned them of the black magics we might find within. They’d stopped at the storeroom to arm themselves with the swords and shields used by the gladiators. Already the stables looked less menacing, with the guards escorting me. They entered with shields raised, swords ready to strike.
The presence inside was gone. The sounds of the outside world could be heard just fine. Behind a row of cages we found a withered geriatric, chained to a wall. He gnawed pathetically on the bones of a rat he’d caught. His strange gibbering came out as grunts and titters. The guards lowered their weapons in disgust. One glanced around in genuine confusion, another smirked in contempt.
“Well this was a waste,” spoke their leader. He glared his irritation at me. “Don’t waste our time again, or we won’t be so quick next time.” He shoved me aside with his shield as he passed, sending me reeling into the wall. The barbarian broke into delighted, wheezing laughter again.
“Oh, you think that’s funny?” My face burned, my limbs quivered, and I realized I did not have to take this shit from this worthless old cripple. This thing that was the source of my misery. I was supposed to have a majestic monster, a beast to rattle the Colosseum, and instead I had a foul-humored imp and a looming death sentence. This wretched joke didn’t deserve to be fed the scraps my animals left behind, and he certainly shouldn’t be allowed to ruin the final days of their unfortunate lives.
I retrieved my keys, unlocked the old barbarian, and yanked him out by his chain. He didn’t struggle as I dragged him to the Ludus Magnus across the street–the Ludus that trained and housed the gladiators that fought other men, rather than beasts. In a rage I dumped him into the hands of the overseer of the Ludus Magnus, telling him to do what he wanted with the little shit, and stormed off.
When I stalked back into my office, I flung open the chest that was to be sent to Titus today. It contained his payment for last night’s delivery of animals–reviewed, approved, and doled out by Sextus. I counted out exactly the amount I promised Titus for his monster, the monster he’d never delivered. I set them aside, to pay for animal feed, and food for the slaves. I would be damned if I’d give Titus a single quadrans for that leering, screeching barbarian, when we were all going hungry.
I knew he’d be angry once he found out. He’d be back to beat me, to take his money, or worse. But I had the advantage of time. I only needed to avoid him for the length of the festivities. After those seven days were up, the First Cohort would be sent back to rejoin the German Legion. I could endure seven days of fear and hiding. I’d endured greater horrors in the past.
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First line of next week’s chapter: Your head grew light on the return march, your insides hollow.
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Word-count of chapter 4 deleted content: 387