It didn’t matter, did it? It didn’t matter that he was the Praetorian Prefect directly in charge of the emperor’s safety, an extremely important position.
It didn’t matter that he had served years and years in the legions in some of the most dangerous spots in the entire empire. Nor did it matter that he had been repeatedly commended for bravery by his superiors.
None of that work, that heroism, that ability held any sway here in the palace. Here in the palace he would always be that prostitute’s son. He would never be allowed to forget it, would he?
He was tainted forever.
Nymphidius Sabinus rested his forehead on the coolness of the wall, closing his eyes. He loved his mother, of course he did but he had spent every hour of his life wishing she were different. Wishing with all his being that she was other than she was. It had plagued him as an adolescent, and it plagued him now.
The anticipation had tingled through Sabinus as Epaphroditus and he walked towards the eunuch’s chamber knowing that the secretary would have to explain why the creature was not there, puking and shitting as he had informed the emperor.
Oh the delight there would have been to watch that dirty slave realise that Sabinus now held his life in his hands. Would he have offered money to him not to tell the emperor? Would he have pleaded, begged?
He would never know now and all because of his mother!
He sucked the air through his teeth, expelling it slowly to calm his racing heart. His jaw began to unclench, his hands loosening from a tight fist to hang by his side.
He stood up straight, pushing his shoulders back.
He rubbed at his head trying to dislodge the tightness that was ailing him. He still had the eunuch. Which meant he still had that duplicitous slave in his palm. He could prove his negligence in guarding the eunuch. He wouldn’t get to witness that moment of realisation on the secretary’s face first-hand and that was disappointing. Very disappointing.
But he would be triumphant. His guards would have no difficulty in rescuing the eunuch, the emperor would be delighted, Sabinus would be rewarded and Epaphroditus, well the emperor had the means to dispose of those who displeased him.
Sabinus set off in his usual marchy style. It was time to inform his Imperial Majesty that his closest advisor was a liar.
Epaphroditus just had to follow the trail of miserable looking slaves, many of them sporting newly swelling eyes or clutching their stomachs in wincing pain, to locate Straton.
He found the overseer lurking by the entrance to new palace grounds.
“Well?” he asked, impatiently.
“No,” responded Straton in his sparse way. “Not old.”
“They’re not in the old palace,” translated Epaphroditus. “So the new palace. Well that narrows it down to a few hundred rooms and 300 acres of park land.”
The best which could be said that at least it would give him a bit of thinking time, and possibly fleeing time if he couldn’t think of anything.
A furious Sabinus had no doubt gone to the emperor with the tale of the disappearing eunuch. Really he should have done that first, his desire to see Epaphroditus suffer had brought the secretary valuable time. Valuable time to work out who was going to take the blame. It certainly wasn’t going to be him and he wasn’t entirely sure it should be Sabinus either.
Infuriating, annoying and irritating as the Prefect was, he was good at his job. Which was a rare thing in the palace where promotions were dished out for faking appreciation of the emperor’s poetry or complimenting his singing voice. Tactics Epaphroditus was more than willing to lower himself to for a big bag of sesterces and a nice office.
Sabinus was made of a different metal, and the guards under his watch had moved up a notch from totally useless to generally useless. Percentiles of improvement he would never have thought possible. Remove Sabinus and all that could be lost. Besides which his mother would not take it well if Epaphroditus dropped her son in it. Nymphidia was a woman who held grudges and owned the means to enact them, plus she’d never have sex with him again. Which was a great loss because she really was very good at it.
Somebody else then had to take the fall and it was pretty obvious who. The one person besides Sabinus who knew where the eunuch had vanished to, because he’d vanished with him: Philo.
A grunt from Straton interrupted his thoughts. The overseer pointed. Epaphroditus’ eyes followed the grubby digit down into the park that surrounded the new palace. Some way off from the enormous lake there was a part of the new palace that was still under construction, builders’ huts littered the pleasant landscape surrounded by heaps of earth and general muddiness. Outside a half built, whatever it was going to be was the recognisable figure of Nymphidius Sabinus. Even from this distance it was clear he was not happy, he was shaking his fist at one of his guards, clearly yelling. The prefect pointed to the building work, a half corridor constructed with tall arching walls.
Straton turned to the secretary. “Reckon_”
“Yeah I reckon too,” said Epaphroditus. “That’s where he was stashing Sporus.”
Was. Because clearly the eunuch wasn’t there now.
Straton grinned. “Escap’d.”
“Yes, I think he did.”
Which added to his woes, because the eunuch would go straight to the emperor and confirm what Sabinus had already told him; he’d been kidnapped on Epaphroditus’ watch.
Damn eunuchs, nothing but trouble.
The plan had gone smoothly. Sporus had managed to keep quiet for a record breaking length of time. As predicted their jailors got nervous from the sudden lack of shrill eunuch cries and had peeked through the grill on the door. From here they had seen two figures lying on the floor, facing away from the door.
Repeated yells through the door garnered no response at all, not even a twitch.
The two men conferred.
“Sabinus said we weren’t to damage the eunuch,” said one. “He was very clear on that. What if it’s died? Sabinus will be well mad.”
The other man shuddered, familiar with the Prefect’s rages. “I guess we should take a look at it. Just in case.”
“I guess we should.”
Philo heard the shuft sound of the bar being lifted, then a creak as the door was pushed open. He placed his hand on Sporus’ wrist. “Not yet,” he mouthed at him. The eunuch, not daring to move, raised a carefully plucked eyebrow to show he understood.
One step, two, three. At five steps a toe pushed into Sporus’ bum. “Hey, you awright. Hey you!”
The first man bent over.
Philo slowly took his hand off Sporus. “Now,” he mouthed.
Sporus rolled over and sunk his teeth into the man’s leg.
When eunuchs attack it is always unexpected so the second man could hardly be blamed for freezing, staring at his colleague trying to shake Sporus off his calf in amazement . Which was the opportunity Philo needed. Shooting to his feet he smacked him straight between the eyes with the only weapon he had, one of Sporus’ high heeled sandals. The impact sent the man staggering backwards.
The eunuch unclenched his teeth.
“You! You little!” exclaimed the first man, glancing down at his bleeding leg. “I’m gonna _”
He didn’t get the chance to gonna anything as Sporus took a swinging aim and punched him straight in the man parts doubling him over.
“That was very satisfying,” Sporus grinned at Philo.
The scribe looked nervously over to where the second man, now less dazed,
was getting back on his feet.
“Time to go.”
“Just one more,” said Sporus and taking the sandal from Philo’s hand and threw it hard, heel first.
It hit an unfortunate bald patch with a thunk. The man’s knees gave way and he slumped downwards.
Sporus straightened his tunic and brushed down his hair. “Now we go.”
He sashayed out, blowing a kiss to both victims. Philo meekly followed him.
“You wait until I tell my beloved! Jupiter will not match him in temper or revenge! He will smite those bastards to ashes!”
Sporus declared gleefully. “Can you not go faster? I need to get that smiting done.”
“I’m sorry. Going to have to. Stop,” heaved Philo.
Sporus who was clinging to Philo’s back, legs wrapped around his waist looked around. “There!” he pointed, pointlessly as it turned out for Philo didn’t have eyes in the back of his head.“You can put me down on that rock.”
The scribe engaged his last digit of energy to make it to a small cluster of piled up rocks that lay beside a bit of treeage. Here he bent his knees to allow Sporus to dismount.
“That’s better,” said the eunuch, smoothing down his tunic.
Philo sat down on a rock attempting to catch his breath.
His joy at their escape and discovery they were still in the palace had been somewhat tempered by subsequent events. He’d never realised before quite how enormously large the new palace grounds were until now when he’d found himself in an unfamiliar part forced to transport a eunuch who refused to walk barefoot on the grass because he’d just had a pedicure and his toe nail varnish would be ruined. There was also lurking at the back of his mind the knowledge that there were in certain parts of the parkland wild animals, because the emperor liked to see giraffes and camels and the like pootering about the landscape.
Looking around Philo tried to recall what they’d done with those hippos after that water battle on the new palace lake for the empress’s birthday. He didn’t fancy he could outrun a hippo, especially carrying Sporus.
“How much further?” asked Sporus. “I’m getting hungry. And thirsty. And I think I’m sobering up. I can feel a headache coming on.” His arm took a dramatic sweep across his face.
Philo rubbed at his neck. He had at regular points during their journey considered leaving Sporus and heading back alone. It made perfect sense, he could make it back to the palace buildings so much quicker and bring back a litter to collect the eunuch, nail varnish intact.
It was the optimum plan. He hadn’t though, partly because Epaphroditus had entrusted him with the mission to look after Sporus and he didn’t want to let his boss down. But also because he was feeling guilty about the multiple bad thoughts he was having about Sporus.
Another one of which popped into his head when Sporus declared. “Come on, Philo, you’ve had more than enough rest now. And can you please not hold onto my legs so tightly this time. It pinches.”
Philo reluctantly got to his feet. Sporus mounted him and they set off again at the slowest of paces past the treeage. Philo kept one eye on the leaves, watching for a tell tale rustle that would warn of an impending hippo attack.
Which was probably why he didn’t see the approaching Guards until Sporus squealed and squirmed on his back. “Praetorians! Look Praetorians! We’re saved!!!”
There were six of them marching towards them. Sporus waved his arm.
“Hellooooo! Hellooooo! We’re here!!!”
It should have been an enormous relief to Philo. He was soon going to be back in his office tackling that pile of filing he’d been itching to sort out. He would be Sporusless, which would be pleasantly peaceful. All was well, wasn’t it?
Yet, Philo couldn’t shake the feeling that something was not right. A sense of impeding dread that was proved entirely justified as the Guards got closer.
“Hang on,” said Sporus, his arm halting mid wave sweep. “Isn’t that?”
Philo got there at the same time.
“It’s the bastards!”
There were four Praetorians heading their direction, accompanying them in perfectly synchronised marching were the two men who’d kidnapped them.
“Eeeeek,” squealed Sporus right in Philo’s ear nearly causing the scribe to drop him.
Philo looked around desperately. There was nothing and no one. Just acres of hills and grass and this clump of trees.
“Philooooo. What do we do?”
The scribe swallowed hard and did the only thing they could do. His flight instinct fully kicked in Philo set off at an impressive speed straight into the probable hippo infested forest.
“I’m a showy, overly dramatic eunuch. I’ve escaped my kidnappers. Where do I go?”
Straton did not respond to Epaphroditus’ question immediately, he was busy exploring the chamber they now knew had been holding the eunuch. There was little in the way of clues, just a discarded pair of sandals. Straton picked them up by the strap, examining their underside he said, “Blood.”
Epaphroditus took the sandal from him, “Really?” he asked looking at the red stain.
Epaphroditus looked about, asking the walls wistfully “Where did he go?”
But it was Straton who answered this time. “Where-ev’ Philo told ‘im to.”
Of course, Epaphroditus mentally slapped himself on the cheek, he’d forgotten all about Philo’s input. Philo would surely figure out Sabinus was behind this, the timing was a little too convenient. What would his quiet, overly polite, meek assistant do when he realised he was at the centre of a palace plot?
The answer came in a blinding flash of inspiration.
It had taken a while to find a good hiding spot in the forest, although of course it wasn’t really a forest. It was a clump of some trees in the middle of large open parkland. Which meant that the Praetorians could simply run round and wait for them to exit the other side. Philo had calculated the chances of them both outrunning five Guards and decided their best option was to hide in the forest.
It brought them, Philo hoped, a bit of time that Epaphroditus would be using fruitfully to locate them. Eventually the Guards would get fed up waiting for them and would be forced to come find them. Hence the importance of finding a good spot that made the finding more difficult for them. Unfortunately, this was complicated by Sporus who objected to multiple spots because he didn’t want to ruin his tunic.
“Here?!? Are you joking? Moss?!? It stains. I don’t want green stains all over my back.”
“Ssh,” implored Philo, frantically glancing around. Nothing. Yet. “This is a good place,” he whispered.
It was the best hiding place Philo had found, a snug hole underneath the roots of a tree, enough space for the two of them that the Guards could easily run past and not see them. If he could persuade Sporus into it, that was.
“Please Sporus, they are bound to start searching for us soon.”
Sporus looked unmoved.
“They won’t be very nice to us,” tried Philo. “They will probably be quite nasty.”
“I’m not getting in that hole!”
Philo looked around again. Did that bush over there move? Or did he imagine it? Was it a Guard? A hippo? The wind?
He turned back to Sporus. “They won’t carry you. They’ll make you walk all the way.”
Sporus looked down at his feet and the his beautifully unchipped varnish. Looking up again, he said, “Fine. But I need something to sit on. I am not mossing my tunic!”
The eunuchs eyes settled on the satchel that was resting by Philo’s hip, it’s strap dissecting his narrow chest.
It all made perfect sense now, Epaphroditus had humiliated the Prefect and insulted his Guards. This was his revenge, to show the secretary up for having failed in looking after the emperor’s most prized bed companion. Ever loyal, Philo would not let that happen. They would find a way out of this. Somehow. Hopefully. Probably.