APOLOGIES FOR THE LATENESS OF THIS – THE SITE WAS DOWN THIS MORNING, AND I DON’T HAVE WIFI IN MY OFFICE. ONLY HAD TIME TO POST NOW.
‘What should I do?’ I asked the summa rudis. The pain in my side was so bad that my breath came and went in short, staccato gasps. ‘Leave, or stay here?’
‘Wait. The emperor might summon you to stand in front of the pulvinar.’
Gods above and below, do not let him do that, I prayed. Even if he was in a good mood, I feared the capriciousness for which he was famed, evidence of which I had experienced at first hand.
Already the libitinarii were close, stretcher with legs at the ready. They would un-helmet Sextus and carry him to the Gate of Death, for the ceremonial strike on the head from Charon’s mallet. Then he would be borne to the spolarium. Black amusement took me. The usual method used in the mortuary to make sure a man wasn’t playing dead was to slit his throat. There was no need of that with poor Sextus. Nor would he have the indignity of his body being dumped in a communal pit, or with the household refuse of Capua. He would receive a decent burial; I knew this because he had told me of his regular payments to the burial club.
I had only paid into it once or twice, and wasn’t sure if that was enough to see me looked after. My heart jumped. With luck, it didn’t matter. I had escaped death for today, by killing not just one, but two opponents.
Caligula was watching as a score of arena staff, high up in the stands, threw gifts to the poorer members of the audience. Cheers went up as a man leaped high to catch a purse. I saw pieces of meat being thrown too – probably carved from some of the animals slain earlier – and items that glittered as they flew through the air. Jewellery, I decided, caring for none of it. All I wanted was to lie down on the cool stone under the seating and have my wound stitched. Then I wanted to sleep for a seven night.
I swayed, and went down on one knee. My head swam. Black dots floated to and fro across my vision. If it had not been for the summa rudis’ strong grip, I would have fallen to the sand.
‘It doesn’t seem as if the emperor is interested in you,’ said the referee, in a not unkind tone. ‘Come on, let’s get you to the surgeon.’ He signalled, and two libitinarii came to stand, one either side of me. ‘These lads will help you out of the arena.’
I was about to accept when something made me look at the pulvinar. Caligula, curse him, was staring in my direction. ‘I am all right,’ I said. ‘I will use my trident as a staff, walk out on my own two legs.’
He peered at me, as if to assess the threat I posed with a weapon now that my contest was over, and then nodded. ‘Ain’t breaking the rules to go to the Gate of Life with your trident, far as I know.’ He turned his head. ‘Fetch it, one of you lads.’
I nodded my thanks as it was handed over. Gripping the wooden shaft tight as a drowning man holds a spar in the open sea, I began hobbling towards the opening through which I had come what felt like a lifetime before.