As a man who was daily threatened with execution for the crime of telling the emperor something he didn’t want to hear, Epaphroditus was not a man who panicked. He was a man who sat at a desk and methodically worked out how he was going to get himself out of whatever mess he’d found himself in.
That he was still alive after forty years of deadly Imperial politics was testament to his intelligence, his smooth tongue and a certain ruthlessness he used sparingly but effectively.
He saw no reason to alter his method now, so rather than raising the alarm and setting the Guards on a search for the eunuch (and wouldn’t Sabinus love that!) Epaphroditus instead went back to his office for a think.
Sat at his massive desk, chewing on the end of stylus Epaphroditus pondered hard.
It didn’t feel right. In fact it felt all wrong. And the first thing that was wrong was this note.
Two hundred thousand sesterces for Sporus? That was one serious undervaluation. Eunuchs were considered exotic fare, which tended to up their price. Even Epaphroditus recognised that Sporus was a particularly attractive example of the species, he also came with certain talents being both talented dancer and highly trained in being pleasing behind the bed chamber door. Throw in that he was a favourite of the emperor and you had to serious question why they weren’t asking for millions to return him.
There were, in Epaphroditus’ view, only two reasons why the kidnappers should ask for so little. Either they were particularly dense when it came to slave valuations – which was not entirely inconceivable and would firmly identify the culprit as being freeborn and having never been responsible for any household slave purchases in their life.
Or the pricing was deliberately set low. Because? Epaphroditus scratched at his head with the end of the stylus. For a quick outcome perhaps? Set the money low it was easier to get hold of and the eunuch could be freed. Epaphroditus could pay the money out of his not ungenerous office budget without having to bother the treasury or even the emperor.
But he wasn’t going to. Because that’s what this mysterious kidnapper wanted, even expected. Best to let him/they hang for a bit. Given Sporus’ troublesome nature they might well hit the limit of their endurance within the hour and release the eunuch free of charge from wherever they were holding him.
Which raised another question, how on earth had they removed Sporus, Philo and Straton out of the palace without anyone noticing or being grievously murdered by the overseer?
He hoped Philo was alright. His assistant was a sensitive soul much given to anxieties and worries. He’d once fallen completely to pieces over a very minor mistake in the minutes of a meeting. How would he cope in a kidnapping situation? It didn’t bare thinking of. Neither did the state of the filing if Philo wasn’t returned swiftly.
Epaphroditus was pondering whether he should apply for an interim assistant to keep his desk free of paperwork when his office door slammed open.
In the doorway stood a red faced Straton. He was breathing heavily as if he’d recently undertaken some great exertion.
He glared at Epaphroditus.
The overseer gave a low growl “Them fuckers,” he said and then to Epaphroditus’ surprise collapsed to the floor with a crash.
“You blame me for this, don’t you?” asked Sporus.
Philo was one of those rare men who when asked a question would give it careful thought and then answer it honestly.
Unfortunately, he was also oblivious to tone. Sarcasm didn’t register with Philo, neither did a question posed rhetorically. Something Epaphroditus could well attest to, most recently in the messy aftermath of the Piso conspiracy when he’d innocently exclaimed, “Well, that went well, didn’t it?” and had then been inflicted with Philo’s point by point narration on how it was all a massive cock up.
Although those weren’t the words Philo had used, rather ‘error of judgement’ had appeared frequently in his account, which Epaphroditus had found quite wounding.
Philo thus completely missed the subtext of Sporus’ question, that the eunuch needed consoling given the dire state they were currently in. After a thoughtful moment he replied. “Yes, I rather do.”
Sporus gave him an incredulous look and cried out in anguish, “You hate me!”
Phil didn’t think he hated Sporus. It was true he found the eunuch very noisy and squealy, which could be quite grating, especially in a confined space like this one they’d found themselves in. He also possessed the terrible habit of doing the exact opposite of whatever you asked him to do, which Philo did not understand and did not like, because it inevitably led to some unnecessaryness.
“I don’t hate you,” he said.
“You don’t?” enquired the eunuch with eyes wet from crying and a hopeful air.
Philo shook his head.
“But you think this is all my fault?”
Philo thought for a moment that stretched out so long that Sporus was unable to maintain his studied air of distress and he barked out, “Well?”
“I think,” said Philo. “If you hadn’t drunk so much of that wine you wouldn’t have started dancing and you wouldn’t have attempted that flying leap bit of the dance.”
“Hey! You need that ‘flying leap bit.’ How else do you think you finish a successful dance? You need a bit of high drama before the emotional end.”
It had been dramatic that was for sure. Sporus taking a run up and then becoming air born as he soared over the couch. It would have been a suitable climax for the dance, one that would have impressed an audience that wasn’t Philo, who disliked performances of all kinds. Only Sporus had made a fatal error in judging how high the jump should be and he’d caught his foot on the couch mid leap.
“If you hadn’t attempted the flying leap bit,” continued Philo, “then you wouldn’t have crashed into that lamp and the lamp wouldn’t have fallen over and smashed that mirror. And really you shouldn’t have been dancing whilst holding a goblet of wine due to the high likelihood of it being spilt.”
“I didn’t spill any!” protested Sporus indignantly, adding quietly, “not until the flying leap bit.”
“Because I rather think that it was the crash of the falling lamp and the smashing of the goblet against the wall that brought Straton running in.”
“It is not my fault that he ran straight into the couch,” insisted Sporus.
“You had moved it for your flying leap bit,” pointed out Philo. “I don’t think he expected it to be there. I think he was also distracted by you screaming.”
“My sandals were ruined!” said Sporus. “Look!” he stretched out his leg and pointed at the splattering of wine that defaced his footwear.
“And that’s why he ran straight into the couch, knocking it over,” continued Philo. “If Straton hadn’t fallen over then…”
He paused not sure whether he wanted to go over the rest. It seemed all too unreal, he couldn’t quite believe it had happened. His brain was still making sense of the men who had burst into Sporus’ chamber armed with cudgels.
“You didn’t have to come with me,” sulked Sporus. “They wanted me, the eunuch. They weren’t interested in you.”
But at that moment, with Straton having been cudgelled across the head as he lay beside the overturned couch and those men yelling at them both, “The eunuch – which one of you is the eunuch!” over and over again, Philo had frozen. Sporus, naturally was shrieking at high volume. Unable to get an answer out of either of them the men had thrown bags over both their heads and well that was how they had ended up here.
Here was a small unpainted chamber that lacked even furniture. They were sat on the floor together.
“We will get out of here. My beloved Nero will be organising a rescue squad right now!” insisted Sporus with a confidence Philo didn’t feel.
The scribe hugged his knees and hoped Epaphroditus had noticed they were missing.
Straton’s neck wound meant he only used the number of words necessary to convey meaning. Which Epaphroditus was grateful for because it meant Straton got to the point far quicker than the usual palace speak of flowery compliments and deceptively structured sentences of which he himself was guilty of.
The overseer also used his physicality to pepper his tale which the dents in Epaphroditus’ desk bore witness to.
“So let me get this right, you were lured into the room where you were deliberately tripped over and then ambushed by a gang of men with hitting sticks.”
“There was someone in the chamber already?”
Straton nodded again and gave a grimace to express his thoughts on that person.
Epaphroditus scratched his head. “But there was nobody there when I left just Sporus and Philo.”
“Behind what? The lamp stand? They’d have to be pretty bloody skinny.”
There was a pause as they both mulled it over.
“Inside job,” rasped Straton.
“What? You mean Sporus arranged his own kidnapping?”
Straton shrugged. It was an eloquent shrug, one that conveyed in one shoulder movement the trickiness of the eunuch.
“Yes, I know. It’s exactly the sort of thing it would do to draw attention to himself. Cause the emperor wailing grief before the glorious reconciliation scene. It is very Sporus but…” he picked up the ransom note. “There is not a chance he’d value himself for as little as 200k.”
“Can’t read. Eunuch can’t.”
“Excellent point,” congratulated Epaphroditus wondering if Straton might be a good Philo replacement until Philo was found.
It was a brief wondering that floated away the moment he recalled Straton was also illiterate and a psychopath.
“Anyhow, moving on. You were whacked with the hitting sticks.”
“On head.” Straton pointed to the egg sized lump on the back of his head.
“Dazed me. Then got up. Chased ‘em.”
Straton rubbed at his throat, the secretary waited until he started again.
“Gone where? What direction?”
“Not out? Not out where?”
“Out-side. Out palace. Not out.”
Now Epaphroditus was confused. He plonked back down behind his desk. “Straton I’m afraid I don’t understand “
Straton cleared his throat. “Couldn’t see where went. So checked ex-its. Didn’t. Didn’t exit.”
“Checked? With who? The Guards?”
The sneer on Straton’s face conveyed exactly how low an opinion he held of the Guards. One Epaphroditus shared.
“Cleanin’ slaves,” explained Straton. “No pass. No one. No ex-its.”
Epaphroditus eyed up the man mountain that was Straton. Yes, he was a sadistic monster whose terrifyingly reputation with the Imperial slaves was well earned.
Yes, you had to be extremely specific when you sent a slave off for a punishment whipping with Straton because he had a tendency to over do it and wipe out perfectly serviceable staff.
Yes, he’d rather sloppily kiss one of those hairy orange ape things than spend any period of time with Straton.
Yet, Epaphroditus found himself believing the overseers tale. Which meant there could be only one conclusion.
“They’re still in the Palace!” exclaimed Epaphroditus with a grin.
Straton grinned back. It was so grotesque a smile that the secretary involuntarily shuddered.
He was interrupted by the appearance of a messenger slave.
“The emperor demands to see Tiberius Claudius Epaphroditus immediately. His Imperial Majesty wishes to know where his Poppaea is.”
Fabulous, thought Epaphroditus. Just fabulous.
The emperor, so the messenger informed him, was relaxing in the new palace. This was an irritatingly long walk away from Epaphroditus’ office which lay on the Forum side of the Palatine hill but it did give him time to get his thoughts together.
His key thought at the moment was whether Straton would stick to his instructions to stand down. He’d debated with himself whether to let Straton start searching the palace for Sporus and Philo. The overseer was a thorough man with an in-depth knowledge of the palace, including the parts that few ventured into. Whilst he was fobbing off the emperor Straton might well be successful in his mission. He could return to his office and find Sporus and Philo waiting for him. He really could.
That had been a gleeful thought. But then he’d been assailed by images of Straton let loose unchaperoned in the palace armed with mission. It would get bloody very quickly, wouldn’t it?
He could return to his office and find Straton had massacred half the staff in pursuit of the eunuch. He really could.
On balance Epaphroditus would rather not have the cost of Straton murdered slaves taken out of his budget. So he’d told the overseer to wait for him. Straton had nodded but Epaphroditus fancied that nod was on the exasperated, you’re an idiot side.
“Who is in there?” Epaphroditus enquired of the announcer, Lysander.
“The emperor, the empress, Nymphidius Sabinus, usual chamber slaves.”
“And the emperor’s mood?”
Lysander pondered. “I’d say good. Nothing has been thrown at my head yet. No random rants.”
“Excellent.” He nodded to the Guards to open the doors.
“The empress, though.” Lysander gave a low whistle and shook his head.
“Thank you for the heads up. Now if you could announce me and make it a good one.”
Epaphroditus was entirely correct in worrying about Straton’s ability to wait for his return, he wasn’t going to. The overseer had justified this blatant disregard of authority by telling himself that this wasn’t the actual mission. He’d wait until the secretary returned to start the actual mission, this was the pre mission. A chance for him to rule out some of the palace before the actual mission started.
He was doing them both a favour by making the actual mission easier, Straton told himself as he strapped on his metal knuckle dusters.