Authors: D. L. Johnstone
Aculeo awoke to the sounds of the street below and squinted about his little bedroom, which was hardly big enough to hold his simple, narrow pallet. Rays of morning light scratched across the cracked plaster ceiling. The crumbling walls were etched with graffiti from previous occupants, stained with soot and sweat and the gods knew what else. And the smell, a rank, musty odour that seemed to have penetrated the very walls. He’d hoped when he and Xanthias had moved here a month ago that the stench would eventually fade but it had only gotten worse over time, as though something had died, a prior resident even, and been plastered into the walls themselves.
He closed his eyes again. Nights were the worst – long hours spent staring at the ceiling waiting for dawn to come. He’d fallen into a dull routine of late, drinking himself into a stupor every night as hope slipped through his fingertips like water. Never mind, it’s morning now. I only have to get through the oppressive weight of yet another day.
His head throbbed, the taste of sour wine like paste on his tongue. I don’t even remember coming home last night, he muddled, though I suppose I must have. What day is it anyway? The twelfth? Thirteenth? I’m losing track. No, it’s the fifteenth, the Ides. Which makes it three-and-a-half months since Titiana and Atellus returned to Rome. Three-and-a-half months. Is that all it’s been? Still, it’s better they aren’t here to witness this. Or, even worse, be part of it.
As the ripples of financial disaster had spread and the other investors began to experience the full effects of their own ruin, rumours had sparked and fanned – that perhaps it had all been a scam, with Corvinus and Aculeo themselves at the root of it. Aculeo must have hidden the money away somewhere and was even now preparing to flee the city! And like a beautiful, elaborate knot severed by a blunt sword, he’d run out of both willing hosts and most of his remaining funds. These simple lodgings, a two-room flat above a marble worker’s shop, had to suffice for now.
A line of silverfish emerged from the window’s cracked edge, scuttled across the wall and slipped behind the wooden frame of his father’s funerary mask – which had apparently become their new nest. I should have sold you to the damned moneylender after all, Father, it would have given you a better view of the world at least.
“Ah, there you are. I thought for certain you’d been murdered in an alley somewhere,” a bitter voice pronounced. Xanthias was standing in the doorway staring down at him, shaking his bald, freckled head.
“You seem disappointed I wasn’t,” Aculeo grumbled.
“Not at all, Master. My soul dances at the prospect of another day basking in your presence.”
“Shut up and leave me be.”
“Of course, Master,” Xanthias said with a deep, mocking bow. He snatched up the tunic Aculeo had dropped in a heap on the floor and held it up against the morning light, a sour look on his face. “Are these blood or wine stains?”
“How should I know?”
“As you wore it, Master, I had hoped you may have been able to shed some light upon the matter.
It’s scraping the top off an empty measure, I know …”
“Oh by the gods, just let me sleep in peace!” Aculeo snapped and tugged the woollen blanket back over his head, hoping the room would stop whirling about long enough to let sleep overtake him again. I’ll get back on my feet soon enough, he thought. And Corvinus will rise up from his scattered ashes, our broken fleets will lift from the bottom of the sea, the money will flow once again, my debts will disappear, Titiana and Atellus will return to my arms, she’ll beg for my forgiveness, as will our so-called friends, I’ll buy back our villa and then … then the world will be restored to sanity.
A pleasant dream to cling to at least.
Aculeo was just drifting back into the dark, subsuming tide of sleep when the silence of his bedroom was shattered by an ear-splitting din of hammering and chiselling, followed by laughter and a stream of fellahin chatter. It was the damned marble workers from the shop below, who’d just begun their day’s work. He could already taste the chalky marble dust on the back of his tongue.
“Pluto’s stinking hole,” he grumbled. There was no chance of sleep now. He crawled out of the bed, his feet found the cool floor, and he pulled a tunic from the chest. He held it up to the light. It was cheap linen fabric, so plain and such a provincial design he despised it but there was little choice. He gave it a cautious sniff, made a face at the off-smell, then slipped it on anyway.
“Where are you going?” Xanthias asked as he emerged from the cubicle of a bedroom.
“To the Agora, then the baths.”
“The baths?” the slave said in a tone that made Aculeo feel like a wayward child.
“It’s been days since I last went. I can barely stand my own smell.”
“A wiser man would simply be thankful he still has a nose with which to smell his own stink. We’ve not a crumb of food in the pantry and our rent is due.”
“I’ve got business prospects still,” Aculeo said irritably. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Business prospects!” Xanthias cried. “Haven’t you already tossed away what little money we had left on dice and wine?”
“You’re a slave. You know nothing of business.”
“I know something about a fool and his silver though.”
“I’ll be back in a few hours with some money and tonight we’ll eat and drink like Caesar himself. Alright?”
“A flawless plan, Master. Then tomorrow we can go back to starving like Tantalus.”
Aculeo watched the pawnbroker turn the emerald earrings about between his stubby fingers, holding them up to the dusty light. “You should’ve brought ‘em to me at the same time as the necklace,” the man said. “I could have given a better price.”
“I wasn’t planning to sell them at all,” Aculeo said dully. He’d pawned the necklace over a month ago, and the coins he’d gotten for it had flowed through his fingers like water.
“No one ever does,” the pawnbroker said with a dusty laugh. He laid the pretty baubles out on the counter, giving them a weary appraisal. “Eighty.”
“Eighty sesterces? That’s outrageous, I paid over a thousand …”
“I don’t care what you paid, I care what I can get for them. We’re hardly in the Painted Stoa here after all.” The man pursed his lips distastefully. “Alright, a hundred but that’s it.”
“Three hundred or …” The pawnbroker snorted. “Two?” The man slid the earrings back towards him. “Fine. A hundred.”
It’s alright, Aculeo told himself hollowly as he watched the pawnbroker tuck the earrings away and set a small stack of coins out on the counter. It’s fine, I’ll buy them back and more when things are right again.
The Street of the Pawnbrokers was little more than a rutted back alley that reeked of piss and old vomit, its tight walls echoing with the dusty clink of mallets from the workers inside the countless shops along its length. It was part of the close-packed artisans’ ghetto, tucked in amidst the Street of the Goldsmiths, the Street of Textiles, the Booksellers Street and all the rest. The upper balconies of the surrounding tenements huddled together, practically touching one another, blocking all but a sliver of blue sky overhead.
The day was early still, pedestrians meandering into the shops were a scattered few. Aculeo’s mind wandered as he headed towards the baths, his joints aching as he walked over the cracked, uneven paving stones, feeling aged beyond his years.
“Aculeo?” a chipper voice cried. “Aculeo, is that you?” Aculeo reluctantly turned around and saw a plump, finely dressed young man with a large port-stain birthmark across his right cheek approaching him. Fundibus Varus – of all people to run into down here. The gods do enjoy shitting on mortal men.
Aculeo forced a tight-lipped smile. “Varus. What a pleasant surprise.”
Varus’ eyes flitted over Aculeo’s patched, plain tunic, a joke compared to his own pure white linen finery embroidered with glittering gold, blue and scarlet thread. Varus tore his gaze away in an effort to appear not to notice. “Well, well, I haven’t seen you in months. How’ve you been?”
“Never better. What are you doing down here?”
Varus gave a theatrical sigh. “Shopping for a new fountain of all things. My lovely young wife, Aelia, is anxious to decorate the new villa in the very latest fashion.”
“You have a new villa?”
“Oh yes, you know, Valentinus’ old place. I picked it up at auction earlier this year. And dirt cheap, too, I never thought … oh,” Varus said, putting a manicured hand to his mouth, looking mortified.
Valentinus, Aculeo recalled, his stomach churning. Valentinus, Montaus, Protus, Bitucus, Gellius … and how many other of our friends lost their homes, their fortunes? He’d given up counting. He hadn’t been able to watch the auction of his own villa, though Xanthias had heard it had sold for just three hundred fifty thousand sesterces – a sickening plunge from what he’d paid only two years prior. That was what happened when too many fine homes went on auction all at once and the mortgage-holders were anxious to unload.
Aculeo managed a tight smile. “Don’t worry. I’d likely have done the same given the chance. You and Aelia are happy there I trust?”
“Oh yes, very. Still, I must do my utmost to keep her in the manner to which she is accustomed. You know women,” he said with a knowing wink. “What of Titiana and your son … Atellus isn’t it? How are they?”
Will the torture never end? Aculeo thought, his head ringing with the man’s inane chatter. “Never better.”
“Did I hear they were back in Rome?” Varus asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Yes, actually, visiting family.” Aculeo’s mouth ached from holding his rictus smile. He’d heard word from mutual acquaintances that while the divorce was not yet final, there’d already been numerous inquiries to her father, Lucullus, from potential suitors. He glanced sideways at the other man. The rotten prick – he probably knows this already! Gossip spreads faster than thistles!
“Family is important, but Rome’s so dreary this time of year. Ah well,” Varus sighed. “Shall we get something to eat perhaps? It will give us a chance to catch up properly.”
“Thanks, but no,” Aculeo said. “I’m far too busy today. You know how it is.”
“Oh, oh yes, of course,” Varus said, clearly disappointed. “Too bad though. I was planning to head to the Hippodrome.”
“Just as well, I’ve already dropped enough silver on the races this week, so…”
“I know that feeling. Still I’ve a tip about one running today.” Varus gave a wink. “From a very reliable source.”
Aculeo considered the man with renewed interest. “Oh? How reliable?”
The street leading to the Hippodrome’s main entrance gates was lined with beggars and weary-looking pornes loitering in the shade of the palm and acacia groves, awaiting emerging patrons to help them either spend their winnings or drown their sorrows with whatever coins they might still possess. The building itself was a vast, oval-shaped structure, six stories high and the length of three stadia, elegant and lovely creamy limestone framed against the dusty blue Egyptian sky. Grandiose rose-veined marble gates marked the main entrance, wide enough to allow four chariots riding abreast to pass within, and twice again as tall.