Epaphroditus looked down at the rope that lay on his desk, was he really going to do this? It was sturdy, thick; perfect for hanging someone. He picked it up gingerly with a wince. It would work, wouldn’t it? He was told it would. He had nothing to lose after all.
Epaphroditus looked up. “Hullo there, Philo, has the emperor’s poetry recital finished?”
“Yes, sir, it has,” replied a pained looking Philo. “It was erm, most… thorough.”
Epaphroditus smiled to himself, that was a thoroughly tactful answer, he expected nothing less from his talented assistant. He pulled the rope through his hands, feeling the strength of it.
“What? Oh the rope? It’s a hanging rope.”
Philo’s eyebrows rose ever so slightly as he bleated, “Sir?”
“Not for me, well it is for me just not for that purpose. I’m told that the rope of a hanged man tied around the head will rid me of this infernal headache.” He rubbed at his temples to illustrate the point. “I can’t seem to shift it. I’ve tried everything remedy going, most seem to involve cabbage. There’s only so much cabbage you can consume before your wife starts complaining about the smell. I have confounded the best doctors in Rome! Which would be gratifying if my head wasn’t pounding like an overenthusiastic bull let loose in a lady cow field.”
Philo looked suitably sympathetic, whilst being simultaneously appalled at the bull metaphor.
“As a last resort I consulted that mad old hag that hangs about outside the Temple of Apollo forcing her magical ‘all curing herbs’ into the hands of passers-by whilst her accomplice uses the distraction to cut purses from belts. Anyway, she came up with this solution to my problem and I had a spare hour to talk to the urban cohorts. Thankfully they’d found three hanged people over night,” concluded Epaphroditus, brightly. “Now if you could help me tie this thing round my head, I await instant relief.”
Philo popped round the other side of the desk and stood behind his boss. He took the rope and began to wind it round Epaphroditus’ head. A thumping beat of boot steps alerted them both to a visitor. He appeared in the door moments later, dressed in the black and purple attire of the Praetorian Guard.
Damn it, thought Epaphroditus. That is all he needed, a visit from Nymphidius Sabinus. The Praetorian Prefect never walked, he marched, a determined purposeful march as if he were headed for an epoch changing battle rather than the toilet or to bawl out his useless guards. Unfortunately for the Prefect the distance from the doorway to Epaphroditus’ desk was insufficient to build up a good marching pattern, so Sabinus had to settle for a long stride that did not suit him so well. He came to a clicking halt in front of Epaphroditus.
Sabinus was a singular specimen, a statue made flesh he was possessed of muscled calves that would have challenged the best sculptors the endlessly artistic Greeks kept exporting. His shoulders were broad, his chest was chiselled, his jaw was square. He would have been handsome had he not been in possession of a single fatal flaw that rendered those tight calves and that muscled chest entirely powerless; his entire personality. For the prefect, even by palace standards (and this was a palace where the emperor was of the firm belief that a small eunuch in a dress was his deceased wife), was odd. Very odd.
Possibly his frigid inflexibility and excessive uprightness was a cover for some great and intriguing secret that might render him irresistible to all. But nobody, and certainly not Epaphroditus, cared to spend enough time with Sabinus to wheedle it out of him. The one thing that could be said in his favour was that he couldn’t half shout and as a result the Praetorian Guard had moved up a few notches to being almost nearly capable. Almost.
The Prefect was incapable of small talk or any other social niceties, so he came straight to the point, “I was told you wanted to speak to me.”
When Epaphroditus didn’t answer instantly, because he was distracted by removing the rope from round his head, Sabinus barked out “Well, what is it?” with such force that a startled Philo accidentally flung the note tablet he had been retrieving from his satchel clean across the room.
It hit a nearby standing lamp with a thump. The glare Sabinus threw Philo’s direction could have melted marble and did little to soothe the scribe’s skittishness. He scuttled for safety behind his boss’ right shoulder, making sure he had a firmer grip on the tablet as he got ready to jot down whatever followed.
Epaphroditus placed the rope back on the desk. “I wanted to talk about the eunuch.”
“What eunuch?” asked the Prefect. “The palace has many of those creatures. Too many,” he shot a look at Philo.
The scribe looked mildly peeved, a clear sign of the raging torrent of indignation whirling beneath his meek exterior. Though in confidence Philo might have lacked balls, physically he didn’t and he was offended to the extreme by the suggestion otherwise.
“You know full well what eunuch I am referring to,” said Epaphroditus. The eunuch Sporus. The eunuch his Imperial Majesty believes to be the late Empress.”
“The perverted transvestite,” said Sabinus.
“The empress impersonator,” corrected Epaphroditus. “The empress impersonator your Guards were given the job of containing. A job they failed at.”
Sabinus’ eyes narrowed and that square jaw of his noticeably tightened. Behind Epaphroditus, Philo was already wincing in anticipation.
“My Guards are highly trained,” insisted the Prefect in a tight voice. “They are an elite force. The best soldiers in all of Rome.”
They were the only soldiers in all of Rome, so that was hardly a recommendation. Even then Epaphroditus knew of a barmaid in the Subura district who he’d once witnessed expelling an entire gladiator troop from her bar. The secretary rather fancied her chances against Sabinus’ so-called elite force.
“Nonetheless they were given a job, which they did not do. They failed.”
A flush of red began its ascent up Sabinus’ thick neck, finishing it’s journey in the general cheek area.
“They were given the task of containing the eunuch, yet the eunuch was not contained. The eunuch was loose in the palace. The eunuch was able to make his way to his Imperial Majesty’s private suite of rooms past, what we must assume, were dozens of your Guards. None of whom impeded his travels. At the hour of_” Epaphroditus paused for Philo to fill in the necessary details.
“It was at the tenth hour that the eunuch gained entry to his Imperial Majesty’s bedroom where the empress also was present and, well, what can we say? Philo?”
Philo flipped back in his note tablet and read, “The chamberlain of the bedchamber reported that there was a large amount of shouting from the empress, and some, what he believes could be described as, shrieking from the eunuch Sporus. A tussle apparently followed and the eunuch Sporus obtained an eye injury which the chamberlain surmised might have occurred when the empress threw a shoe at his face. The shoe was described as_”
Epaphroditus held up a hand, Philo ceased speaking.
“We have a situation, Sabinus, a very serious situation. We have an emperor without an heir and a hundred conspirators eyeing up the prize. I spend every hour of my day rooting out those slimy toads but I know that one day one of those duplicitous little shits in the senate will get lucky with a dagger. We need an emperor in waiting, a baby Imperial and we need one right now. That should be an easy thing, right? What with the emperor being so fond of a good bed wrestle and the empress being a very attractive woman. But it’s not and it’s all because of that damned eunuch!
The more time the emperor spends with it, the more he’s convinced it’s the late empress Poppaea. And the more he’s convinced it’s Poppaea the less he’s going to banging the actual empress and popping out an heir! It took me DAYS to convince the emperor he should ‘visit’ his wife. Days! And then your Guards somehow manage to lose the creature and there certainly won’t be a blessed event this month!.” Epaphroditus, sat back in his chair and added one final word to his bollocking, “Well?”
“Sir, the bit where the Prefect gave a very long speech about the history of the Praetorian Guard?”
“Expunge it,” said Epaphroditus, lain out on a couch.
A soft pillow had been placed beneath his head and a rope, the one that had been cut from the neck of a presumably sad butcher the previous evening, was coiled round his head. “None of it was true. Sabinus may cling to his delusions but we’ll not dirty the palace archives with them. Facts only.”
Philo, sitting knees pressed together, on a small stool next to the couch chewed on his bottom lip before asking, “And when the Prefect referred to you as a ‘foul slave’, sir?”
“Expunge it,” replied the secretary, his eyes closed. “Factually incorrect. The same goes for my alleged deficiencies of valour and apparently debauched body.”
“Yes, sir.” Philo pulled the end of his stylus across the wax, obliterating the strange cursive shorthand he had devised himself. Making the wax smooth again as if the Prefect had never spoken those words.
“Oh and Philo.”
“Take out those things he said about you as well.”
“Don’t take them to heart either. Nymphidius Sabinus is a very strange man, with some very strange ideas.”.
He didn’t need to spell out what those ideas were. Sabinus had cast Epaphroditus as the epitome of a social climbing ex-slave inhabiting a position he had acquired nefariously from someone decent and proper who ought to have held the role. Though the Gods knew where those elite men who hankered after a secretarial career serving the increasingly unhinged emperor were hiding out. Epaphroditus would welcome their assistance in dealing with Nero’s more interesting moods. He was growing tired of dodging casual furniture thrown at his head, even after he insisted all foot stools in the emperor’s rooms be thoroughly padded and free standing lamps be removed entirely.
Philo, on the other hand, due to his looks represented for Sabinus the foreign element that he blamed for corrupting decent Roman morals with decadent depravity. A description of the scribe that was so off mark as to have landed with an enormous splash far away in the Indian ocean from where Philo hailed. In all the years Epaphroditus had known him Philo had never depraved himself over anyone and his stomach was far too delicate to suffer decadence of any kind.
“What does that leave us then?” he asked, sitting upright.
Philo flipped back over his notebook. “The Praetorian Prefect was invited to discuss the incident involving the interloper in the emperor’s bed chamber. The issue was discussed.” He flipped the note tablet shut.
“Sounds about right. Hey, I think my headache’s gone!” Epaphroditus said brightly removing the rope from his head and staring at it in wonder. “That crazy old crone was correct. Who’d have thought it?”
Over on the Viminal Hill deep in the Praetorian barracks Nymphidius Sabinus had developed a raging headache of his own. That and a fuming thirst for revenge.
He’d paced back and forth in his office the whole night overwhelmed by a boiling rage. How dare that jumped up slave criticise his guards? The nerve of it when day in day out his guards were there at the palace keeping the emperor safe. How could he deny them that credit when the emperor slept safe in his bed at that very moment? When the streets of Rome were similarly peaceful, how dare he?
Sabinus rubbed at his head, trying to ease the tightness that troubled him. His Guards were first rate soldiers. Didn’t he drill them day in and day out to ensure they remained the elite force they were? Hadn’t he put hours and hours into it? Hours he could have spent doing – well not much for Sabinus was all about public duty, he had no private life. Which was to his mind the proper Roman way, unlike that so-called secretary who everyone knew had at least a half dozen mistresses on the go at any one time. Jupiter knew what that Indian boy of his got up to, Sabinus did not care to know anything about his eastern habits.
It was all wrong, why should slaves, filthy contaminated slaves rise to such positions of power? Was it any wonder the emperor was the way he was, cavorting with that perverted creature when he had men such as Epaphroditus whispering in his ear. This was not how Rome should be. Rome was greater than this.
From deep within Sabinus’ solid frame rose a fire, a burning flame of righteous anger. He would prove to that despicable slave that he was wrong, that his Guards were highly trained soldiers. That it was they and not some jumped up stylus sharpener who truly had the emperor’s welfare in their hearts.
That it was they who served the emperor in a manner proper to decent Romans. Rather than debasing themselves as fawning courtiers. Oh yes, he would show that secretary up for the slippery, duplicitous, untrustworthy scum that he was. The emperor’s eyes would be opened, and his Imperial Majesty would realise that he had surrounded himself with the very worst of men. Men who had no business being anywhere near his Imperial Majesty.
Wasn’t it lucky that the emperor had a man already on his staff who possessed all the qualities missing in these degenerate times. A man of virtue and honour who could offer careful guidance and advice to the emperor. Gaius Nymphidius Sabinus was primed to step into that role.
But first there was Epaphroditus to deal with…..