The Praetorians had waited a surprising amount of time before anyone said.
“Here why ain’t they come out yet?”
An expressed thought that quickly caught on.
“Yeah why haven’t they?”
“It’s not that big a woodland. And that Indian boy could move pretty fast.”
“Yeah. He could. He was super speedy.”
A pause whilst they mulled over this strange turn of events.
“I’m going to get Sabinus,” said Guardsman Lucullus. “He’ll know what to do.”
“I’ll come with you,” opted Guardsman Proculus.
“Hang on! What about the eunuch?. Aren’t we meant to be holding onto it. That was Sabinus’ order.”
“True,” said Proculus. “He might be mad we lost the eunuch.”
“Very mad,” said Lucullus.
A pause as all were hit by a mental image of Sabinus being very angry with them. There would be a lot of yelling and then no doubt a flogging, with Sabinus watching from the sides and yelling at them in-between each slap of the whip on their backs.
But the real horror was that their failure would undoubtedly result in yet more drills. Sabinus loved drills. Nobody else did.
“We’d better get the eunuch.”
“Yeah, we better.”
They didn’t form a plan of any sort.
Rather all five of them entered the woodland with the aim of recovering the eunuch before Sabinus found out he’d escaped.
In the wash up that followed later, the consensus was that this had been an error or as Sabinus had screamed in their faces “Bloody stupid!”
Really they should have learnt from the sandal attacking incident but Praetorians have very short memories due to drinking their wages away roughly every fifteen days.
Philo sat with his back pressed against the earth, his feet hidden beneath a pile of leaves listening for any sound that could be the Praetorians.
“This is so unbecoming. The Sporus in a dirt hole. An actual dirt hole!”
“Sssh,” implored Philo.
Sporus shifted his bum on Philo’s satchel. “We’ve been here forever. They’re clearly not coming. I say we get out of this hole and go home. I need to change my outfit. The Sporus never wears the same outfit all day. Nev-er!”
“Just a bit longer. Epaphroditus will be here soon. I know it.”
Sporus gave him a long look. “And you’ll fall into his arms and it’ll all be marvellous but you are not understanding me. I NEED to change. NOW!”
The eunuch got to his feet, bent over he shuffled out, standing to his full height once he’d cleared the tree root.
“Sporus,” hissed Philo. “Come back.”
Sporus peered over the roof of their hiding place.
“No. Shan’t. I have had it with today it’s been really quite shi_”
A shuffle of leaves and suddenly Sporus was back beside him.
It took Sporus a while to compose himself, his face was pale, his arms shaking.
“Hhhhippo,” he stuttered. “There’s a fucking hippooo out there.”
“I think,” said Philo carefully. “That is another good reason to stay here.”
Sporus’ head nodded frantically up and down in agreement.
“Why is there a hippo? Seriously, why?”
“I think it’s left over from that sea battle they staged on the new palace lake for the Empress’s birthday,” explained Philo. “We used a new supplier. There were issues.”
“Issues? Issues?” screeched Sporus. “Like they forgot a fucking enormous hippo.”
“We won’t be using them again I shouldn’t think,” said Philo.
“No kidding. Tell me was there also crocodiles at this sea battle? Sharks? Pirates?”
Philo considered. “There aren’t any pirates. Pompey the Great cleared the seas.”
Sporus’ mouth opened and shut several times. Eventually he said, “You are a very strange, little man.” And turned his back on the scribe.
Whilst Sporus sulked Philo was availed with a series of thoughts. Mostly these were on a theme of how frightened he was, also a level of peevishness at being described as an odd little man by a cross dressing eunuch, but there was also bubbling in between terror and annoyance some thoughts about the hippo.
Philo was a reader. When he finished work for the day he liked nothing better than to shut himself in the room he rented on the Viminal Hill and crack the seal on his latest scroll purchase. He would then immerse himself in a world, that was thankfully not the one he lived in. until the oil ran out in his lamp.
This was why the scribe was so quietly knowledgeable on pretty much everything. He also possessed a prodigious memory something he had honed by memorising all of Homer. In short Philo was a man in dire need of a girlfriend. However, at this moment the ways he had found to fill the hours he wasn’t at work were going to come in very handy. For one of Philo’s reads had been on animal species. There had been a whole chapter on hippos, and he remembered every word of it.
“Sporus, I have an idea.”
“Come on it can’t be that difficult to find them. That eunuch was very sparkly. We’ll have him back in no time,” cheered one of the Praetorians.
“Hmmm,” replied the one who was still sporting Sporus’ teeth marks on his leg.
Proculus kicked at a heap of leaves. They went flying up into the air.
“Nope,” he said and went off to find something else to kick in his half-arsed version of a search.
Philo and Sporus peered over the top of their hidey hole. A few feet away the hippo was sticking its snout in the ground making grunting noises.
“This is going to work, right?” Sporus whispered to Philo. ”There’s no possible way this could horribly backfire on us?”
“No. Don’t tell me,” said Sporus. “It’s best I don’t know. This will work and everything will be fine. I’ll be back with my beloved Nero in a fresh outfit and you’ll be doing whatever it is you do; tidying things and filing. That sort of thing.”
‘That sort of thing’ was what was spurring Philo onwards through this whole horrible nightmare of a day. There was a filing pile in his office that needed sorting and he would survive to do exactly that.
Sporus rolled his eyes. “I remember. Hippos are very territorial and easily spooked. Combine the two and we get an angry hippo.”
Philo cocked his head to one side. “Did you hear that?”
Philo listened for a few moments longer. “I can hear voices.”
And then so could Sporus.
“What was the point of having the eunuch in the first place?”
“Dunno. Sabinus said to. So… ‘ere what’s that?”
Proculus and Lucullus stopped. About ten feet away was the hippo. The two guards looked at each other.
“Yeah it is.”
“What do we do?”
“It ain’t seen us. I say we back away very quietly.”
Sporus and Philo yelled in unison. The hippo looked up startled.
It turned round to the source of the noise and saw nothing (because Philo and Sporus had ducked back down). Confused it looked round and saw the two praetorians in front of it.
It regarded them for a moment. Proculus and Lucullus froze to the spot.
“Nice hippo,” attempted Lucullus.
The hippo gave a sniff through its enormous nostrils. Then charged.
The guards certainly did, pursued by the hippo. Leaping over tree roots they ran into the rest of the praetorians.
They cried as they dashed past them.
“What?” asked the other guards, then when they saw what was coming. “Oh shit!” And they set off running too.
“These trees?” suggested Epaphroditus. “Got to be worth a try.”
They’d searched pretty much everywhere else in the new palace grounds with no luck. Epaphroditus was starting to get concerned. If he didn’t find Sporus before Sabinus things were not looking good for him.
He and Straton were a few feet away when the praetorians were spat out by the forest.
“What the_?” began Epaphroditus watching as the five praetorians belted across the open grass.
This was upgraded instantly to a “WHAT THE_?” when their pursuer came into view.
“Ippo,” said Straton grinning. “We let ‘im get them?”
The secretary, recovering himself, said “It’s tempting. But best not. They’re heading towards the new palace. Which is where the emperor is currently delighting all with his singing. True, a hippo might actually improve that experience but_”
“Right,” said Straton hitching up his belt. “I bet’er.”
And he sped off in pursuit.
Epaphroditus had watched many a beast show at the amphitheatre, some had indeed included hippos. From memory the beast hunters had dispatched the great beasts with javelins and spears, nowhere had knuckle dusters and a club featured.
From Straton’s efforts it was clear why. It was messy, time consuming and quite horrific in a way Epaphroditus chose not to think about. But he had to award marks for the way Straton had caught up with the creature and punched it on the head. Repeatedly.
It took a certain single-minded psychopathy to beat a hippo to death but thankfully for the praetorians, who clung together slumped on the grass watching the carnage wide eyed, Straton was that man.
After counting treble figures of club hits Epaphroditus figured it was safe to approach.
“Big girl,” said Straton, standing proudly beside the distinctly mushed hippo.
Epaphroditus looked up to see Philo and Sporus approaching.
“Oh thank the gods,’ he exclaimed. “Thank the gods you’re both safe!” And more importantly, so was he now. He’d beaten Sabinus.
“Only just,” said Sporus in a quivering voice and fake fainted into the grass.
Epaphroditus ignored him, to Philo he asked with concern “Are you alright?”
Philo looked at the hippo and said, “Oh dear. Is that coming out of our budget, sir?”
Sporus was back where a Sporus belonged, newly bathed garmented up in a truly astonishingly indecent chiffon dress and currently being smothered by kisses from the emperor.
“Oh Poppaea my love. What a dreadful experience you’ve had.”
“It was. Oh it was awful,” swooned Sporus. “So awful I cannot talk of it.”
“Of course, my love,” said Nero hugging the faux Poppaea tight. “We shall never speak of it again. Ever. Although I am very surprised at Epaphroditus’ Indian boy. Who knew he harboured such feelings for you?”
“He meant no harm, my darling. After our guard met with that unfortunate accident, he just wanted to keep me safe somewhere.”
“And thankfully you see safe.” More smooching. “And poor Epaphroditus what a panic he must have been in to find you both missing!”
“He didn’t want to upset you. He knew Philo wouldn’t hurt me, that he’d be keeping me safe.”
“I’m glad he did lie to me,” decided Nero. “It saved me many hours of horrible worrying. At least until that Sabinus turned up and claimed you’d been kidnapped.”
“Not kidnapped,” stressed Sporus, as instructed to by Epaphroditus. “Just cared for somewhere else until proper security arrangements could be arranged. Now my darling i need to show you how much I’ve missed you,” grinned the eunuch.
Epaphroditus shut his office door with a click. On seeing him enter the ante chamber that served as his office Philo got to his feet.
“Please go home, Philo. You’ve had quite a day.”
Philo chewed his lower lip, “I’d like to get this filing pile down a bit before I go, sir.” He indicated to the small pile of scrolls that were piled up on his desk. “Err, sir…?” Philo tentatively asked.
Epaphroditus waved a hand, “It is all sorted. No need for you to worry about anything. His Imperial Majesty is thrilled to have his fake wife back. His real wife is thrilled she won’t have to spend any more time with her husband. The kitchens are thrilled to have a whole hippo to cook. Sabinus is skulking in corridors, out of favour and I’ve finally shifted that headache. It all turned out well in the end.”
Philo made an ahem sound.
Epaphroditus parked his bum on the corner of Philo’s desk, saying with sympathy, “I know and I’m sorry. But it was the only explanation that would be accepted by the emperor as to why you stuck with that eunuch when you could have left. He wouldn’t understand about work ethics and duty. It is a noble thing you’ve done, Philo.”
Philo didn’t look noble, he looked distinctly unhappy. “I rather think, sir, that the emperor could have just been told the truth, sir.”
Epaphroditus had known Philo for some years now, back to when he had worked in the petitions office. He would have said he knew the scribe well, a state born of the many hours they had worked together. But every now and then Philo surprised him.
“The truth?” he managed to gargle out, wondering how Philo had managed to survive a palace upbringing with that sort of attitude. Composing himself he said, “It is a very complicated matter for the emperor to understand; the internal departmental politics, the eunuch theft, that hippo. His Imperial Majesty has such a lot to think about already, best not to worry him when there’s no need to.”
Philo shuffled his feet on the floor. “I’m sure you are right, sir.”
Epaphroditus squeezed his shoulder. “Nobody is going to believe you’re in love with Sporus of all creatures. But there are some benefits to the emperor believing it.”
“His Imperial Majesty is most possessive. I can’t imagine he’ll want you anywhere near Sporus in the future. You are officially off Sporus related duties. Now please go home, Philo.”
The scribe visibly brightened and he very nearly smiled as he said, “Yes, sir.”
Somewhere in an un-visited spot in the slave complex Straton stepped back and folding his giant arms contemplated his latest foray into interior design.
On his wall mounted on a wooden board hung the head of the enormous beast he’d slain.
True it was a little dented but to Straton’s mind that you could see the four digit knuckle duster punches across the beast’s face added to its perfection.
He rubbed at the praetorian inflicted lump on the back of his head and grinned. It had definitely been worth the headache.
Thank you all for reading my story. It’s been a blast to write.
If you enjoyed The Headache, all the characters featured also pop up in my four book series on the year of the four emperors, available here.