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A little before dawn and the slave boy Meno knocking at the door.  A discreet sound. A cautious sound. Just like the boy. The sound is rhythmic, like the drumming of a musician some little way off. Rhythmic. Insistent.  The sound rings out in the still air, clanging in his ears like a host of bronze bells. Under his breath he utters a curse. A mild one, and even that he regrets.  It is too early for curses.  It is not Meno’s fault. The boy had been given his instructions, and now the boy carries them out. What matters the hour? What matters the state of his head?

Two nights without sleep. What little rest he’s had is a credit to cretic wine and exhausting himself swimming in the Piscena Publica. Too much river traffic and filth to swim in the Tiber.  

The knocking ceases for a moment and silence resumes. In the pale light leaking in from the window he can trace the progress of motes of dust, like drunken dancers at a festival. He lays unmoving upon the narrow bed, eyes wide open, breathing in, breathing out, breathing in again. It does little for the pain in his head. It does enough to bring him to something like himself. Not the highest states at the best of times.

These are not the best of times.

 From beyond the door a quiet cough. Meno is assiduous in his tasks. It speaks well for him. It would speak better for him if the boy vanished and left him alone in his discomfort. No. That is not fair. The discomfort remains regardless of the presence of others. “Come,” he says, voice sluggish with weariness and the effects of the crectic. The latter should at least have stolen away his pain. His pain remains.  

On silent hinges the door opens, beyond, in the corridor, Meno occurs. Slight, owl-eyed, and clothed in a tunic too large for his lanky frame, the slave-boy wears a mask of cultivated disaproval upon his face. Disapproval at being required to awake at this hour, of being required to awaken others himself. Where this a play, the boy would offer some pert remark, some comment calculated to make an audience laugh. Instead he steps on silent feet into the room and shakes his head. 

“Your breakfast is in the peristyle, Master F. Probably gathering flies.”

“Did you leave it out all night then?” He rises a little, cradling his head in long-fingered hands. 

“I put it out only a little before I started knocking on the door.  Can’t knock with hands full of dishes , now can I? But flies love honey Master F. Best to hurry before they take it all away with them.”

A groan and he rises, bare feet hitting the cold tile floor. There had been a rug once. He is sure of it. Perhaps it is for the best that it has vanished. The chill of the tiles shocks him into something more like alertness. “My thanks. Can’t let the flies have all the fun, now can we?”

“Don’t know if having my feet stuck to a sticky fruit is all that much fun.”

“You should try it first. You never know.” He looks down, cracks a small smile. “Though with feet like yours, I’d think treading on wine grapes might suit you better.” All adolescents have feet they must grow into. Meno’s are sizeable enough that he might make a small fortune being passed around during the crushing season.  Meno wrinkles his nose at the prospect. Reasonable enough. Like himself, Meno is a city boy.

A city boy leaving his city behind.

In two days more the household will remove itself from Rome. A comfortable retirement at Baiae: sea air, warm breezes, and boating in the Bay of Neapolis.  A fine life for a Senator growing long in the tooth. At least that is the appearance the Old Man is trying to cultivate.  Camillius Laco, the Old Man himself, can play the part of the cheerful retiree. The Old Man is still bitter, still suspicious. Any Senator worth their salt has enemies, and Laco is as salty as they come. There are enemies, sure enough, even if not all their names are known.  

The Old Man has ruffled too many feathers, has made one too many flowery speeches, has stuck his beak into the private affairs of other men. Corrupt men, useless men. Useless at anything other than securing their own position. Dangerous men. Perhaps it is all to the good that the Old Man is getting out of the city. Perhaps it is best if he really try put public life behind him.

He laughs at this, shaking his head. Meno looks over, still disapproving.

The peristyle garden is still dim and cool. A little light through the blossoms of the wisteria overhead tinting the green gloom a shade of pale purple. By the little fountain that never quite worked right, that sputtered and gurgled like a dyspeptic dinner guest, Meno had placed the bowl of apricots.  

The Old Man has taken the place of any flies. 

Camillius Laco, broad-faced and cheerful, is picking away at the Syrian apricots, the mellified delights. This morning he seems cheerful enough. Perhaps he is glad to at last be rid of his uncomfortable secretary.  The half-smile on the Old Man’s face seems to indicate otherwise.

“These apricots are excellent. Who put you on to these things? That lady friend of yours. What’s her name?”

“Cybele,” he says, ignoring the lack of a proper greeting. “From the wine shop.” Cybele who seemed to have a knack for finding delicacies. “The Elephant.”

The Old Man nods, then gestures for him to sit.  And so he sits and like his patron, picks at the mellified fruits.  “You are sure that I cannot tempt you to come with us after all?” The question is only a pleasantry. The Old Man will go and he will stay. “No, I suppose not. Nothing for you in Baiae after all.” The Old Man cocks his head, a wicked smile upon his face. “Besides.”

“Besides, you need a man in Rome.” It is nothing official, nothing sinister. The Old Man merely wants news of the city, news of the names of his enemies. 

Laco takes another apricot and for a moment looks at it in the growing morning light.  “You need to be a man in Rome, Florianus. The city will do you good. Find your footing again, and leave Greece behind.” Greece, where he has been the Old Man’s secretary. Greece where Laco had acquired his enemies. Greece where he had killed a thief in the Old Man’s study. Leave Greece behind? Even now it flashes behind his eyes; bright, hot, and beautiful. A dangerous beauty. Then, the face of the dead man on the study floor. Then, the bloody stylus in his hand. How can he leave it behind? His hand strays to the satchel he always wears, and his fingers close around a long brass stylus. His best stylus. His deadliest stylus.  

“My thanks on securing this new position. How many strings did you have to pull? How much debt am I really in?” 

The Old Man laughs. “Far fewer strings than  you’d like to think, Florianus. You always want to seem more devious, more essential, that you really are.” That is true enough. But then a man must have his ambitions. “But perhaps one or two. Varus needs a secretary. You need to be in Rome. And I had better begone. All very natural enough. Nothing is going to come back to bite you.”  At least that is the intent. He takes up another apricot, considers it, then takes a bite.  A burst of flavor, like eating a candied sun. He can only eat so many at a time. A pleasure then, that he has a little time.  

A hour passes, the sun now shining bright and clear in the peristyle, and the fruit bowl lies empty. He cannot linger for much longer, it will not do to be late. Not today. “I must go Old Man,” says, rising.  “I have another Senator to torment with my scribblings.” And so the Old Man rises too. An embrace, avuncular, comfortable. 

“Off with you Florianus.” The Old Man taps Meno on the shoulder. “Meno can carry your bag and show you the way.” Meno nods, almost eager. Perhaps he needs a day in Rome as well.  “Though I do expect,” The Old Man says with a sly wink of an eye,  “the occasional scribble from you. You are, after all, my man in Rome.”

*  *  *

Three hours before noon and the sun climbing higher. “Just here Master F,” says Meno, pointing to a well-made and solid door. “I’ll knock then, shall I.”


He looks at the door, and Meno, and the door again. “Carry on Meno.” The boy knocks for the second time today, a less decorous knock than earlier. It is not the polite knock of a well-known servant. No, this was the dignified drumming of a herald.  First sound, and then inevitably silence follows on.  

His hand strays again to his satchel. Long fingers wrap around  the long thin stylus. His best stylus. His most deadly one. He turns it over and over between his fingers, rolling it to and fro like a coin in a  conjurer's trick. It makes its passes, over, under, over, under, and over again, each one marking the passage of time. One pass, then another, and another still. At last there is sound. The door porter scowls out at him.

“Lartius Florianus,” he says, trying to seem as though surly porters were a common part of his life. “The secretary. I am to meet with Quinctilius Varus. I was led to understand that I was expected.” 
 

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Tertius had been up and ready for the day for a while now, and was sitting in his tablinum looking over papers and in particular the contract he’d soon be signing with his new secretary. It had been years already, since Teutus was freed. Think that it had been years! Time sure did fly by sometimes. As long as Teutus had lived in the house, he’d kept on functioning kind of as Tertius’ secretary, but now it was already a long time ago since Teutus left the house. Tertius had a slave help him out and Charis too, after she was freed and became his wife, but he needed a proper secretary. Someone who knew what he was doing. Tertius was not getting any younger and he knew he would probably fall more into the background as the years progressed and allowing new and younger Praetors to take over. Not yet though. But he did need the help.

 He'd let it be known in his social circle of Senators, Patricians and Praetors, that he was looking for someone to help him out. And eventually, a name came forth and that was the guest he was expecting today. Tertius was too far from the front door to hear the knocking, but then his body slave Hector showed up and told him that a Lartius Florianus was here to see him. Tertius nodded with a smile and followed Hector to the atrium of the house, where he would greet his guest.

 The door was opened a moment later and in came a man not much taller than Tertius, with dark hair and eyes and rather slim. He almost reminded Tertius of Teutus for a moment there, but just for a moment. This was obviously not his son.

 “Greetings and welcome to my house.” Tertius said with a friendly smile, “I am Tertius Quinctilius Varus and you must be Aulus Lartius Florianus? I hope it wasn’t too troublesome to find the house.”

@Runcible Spoon

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Posted (edited)

The atrium is well-appointed, tasteful. The space of a prosperous man with a flourishing public life. A grander space than Camillius Laco’s awkward old public rooms. No worn mosaics with cracks in them that date back to the days before even Marius and Sulla, no forest of potted ferns looking something from an estate sale at a nymph’s grotto.  The house reflects the man, the man the house. Or so his father has always maintained. Sound advice, if not perfect. Such is the nature of all good advice: open to interpretation, open to revision.

 

Meno retreats into his shadow. In another slave it might be a sign of defference. The boy has grown up in a lenient household, cares little for deference, cares everything for playing his part, for his attention to his charge. ‘Keep and eye on Florianus’, that is likely his charge today, and so he carries it out, fixing those huge dark eyes upon the Senator. He knows those eyes, auger-sharp and suspicious. Dangerous things, the eyes of Meno. Dangerous and useful.

 

His own eyes, colorless and cold, rake over the Senator, taking the measure of the man. It is not the first time he has seen the man. It is the first time he has seen him in his element, in the confines of his house. Here he is not the same man who reclined amid other senatorial guests at one of Camillus Laco’s famous dinners. No, here he was, standing tall, no wine cup to hand, no flute girls whootling in the background; a model of respectable probity.  How far did that appearance penetrate? It may lay lightly upon him, a summer cloak to be doffed with an easy shrug. It may penetrate down to his bones. 

 

Fool. It would have been prudent to seek out the old secretary down on the Emporium. What wisdom is there in trusting nearly sight unseen? It may have been the wise action, but he has never laid claims to great wisdom. And to appear unshaven, sleep deprived, and asking too many sharp questions, well, that might have been a folly all its own. Yes. That is it. That is why he had not gone to see the man. That and no other reason.

 

A blatant lie. A comforting lie.  

 

Had he been seen down on the Emporium, world would have spread. Before nightfall he would have been obliged to dine at his father’s house, to tell once again the story of his time in Greece. The false story. The story that omitted killing a man on dark night.  It is not a story to tell over the Parthian chicken or the broad beans in mustard sauce. It is a story better suited to low wine shops and the private offices of men who are well seasoned in conspiracy.

 

It is his own secret, shared by only a handful. A private conspiracy to treasure, to relish. A private scandal to hide from the man standing before him.

 

“Lartius Florianus, as your service Senator.” He gives a simple nod, then reaches into the satchel at his side. In his hand a letter appears, sealed in the vermillion wax Laco always uses. It might as well be his official orders, compiled by some Palatine secretary. The formal letter of introduction, the explanation of his skills, the necessary background.  He has read it all. Read it after Laco sealed it. It is the work of but a moment to heat a knife over a lamp flame and carefully part the seal. Laco had always pretended not to know that no correspondence that passed through his secretary’s hand was private. “My letter of introduction, my qualifications.  Camillus Laco speaks well of your, Senator, and I trust I will prove useful in your service.”

 

A discrete tug at his tunic, and Meno slips another sealed letter into his hand. A letter he does not recognize. Laco’s seal is plain enough. The slightly stunned owl is unmistakable.  “Ah, thank you Meno,” he says, trying to maintain composure. “And this as well. A personal note.”  What is the second letter? What information has Laco seen fit to communicate to the Senator without his knowledge? Unknown. Unknowable.

 

The Senator seems placid enough to receive these things, disinterested. Just so. 

 

“Finding the house was easy enough, I thank you. My guide here,” he places a proprietary hand on Meno’s narrow shoulder, “knows the city well, can navigate it on even the most moonless of nights. A pleasant enough walk.” He regards the man again, taking stock of his features, his expression. Do you know, he wonders, what is in that second letter? 

 

“I am more than happy, Senator, to begin with all convenient speed. Your last secretary, I understand, left your service some time ago.” He gives a small, sad, smile. “I have taken over from others before, so I have some understanding of the enormity of the task. If, Senator, you have specific instructions for me, I am more than ready to start there.”

Edited by Runcible Spoon
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The other confirmed that he was indeed Florianus and then reached into a satchel, from which he produced a letter and handed it to Tertius, who took it with a smile, “I certainly hope so, I could use someone with your skills.” Tertius said and then the other looked to his slave, that he’d brought with him and there was another letter. Tertius took that too, thinking he would take a look at them both later, but not now. Right now, he wanted to take a closer look at his new employee on his own and make his own impression.

 Florianus then said that the house had been easy to find and that his slave, Meno was the name, knew Rome well. Tertius felt the other was looking at him rather intently, wondering if perhaps he should have acquired a slave for the task and not a man like this one. But now he would see and if they got along and Florianus did his job well, he might still be useful. He promised now he could begin shortly and he knew some of the task already.

 “Yes, it has indeed been a while since might last secretary left.” To be a freedman and start his own business… his last secretary, who was his son, “My wife currently helps me out, but it will be nice with someone more skilled doing the job. Please, come and let me show you around. You have your own place to live?” He had not heard that Florianus would require a room in Tertius’ domus, but of course it could be arranged. It would be easier though, if the other had his own home. Meanwhile he gestured for the other to come with further inside, away from the atrium.

@Runcible Spoon

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