Big Dog gave me a look of real dismay, and let the guard manhandle him back under the archway. I gave him a ‘What can I do?’ shrug, and tried not to think the worst of what was about to happen to me.
‘Come here, retiarius.’
Weak as a newborn lamb though I was, I could no more refuse the emperor’s command than stop the sun from rising in the east. I raised my free hand to show I had heard. ‘Yes, imperator,’ I croaked, loud as I could. Hissing with pain, lightheaded, I turned and began to shuffle towards the pulvinar.
It would take me a while, and as I suspected – hoped, even – Caligula was too impatient to wait. Two libitinarii soon appeared with a stretcher with legs, perhaps the very same sandapila that had taken away poor Sextus. They set it down beside me.
‘Climb aboard,’ one said.
I stared with fascinated distaste at the fresh, wet bloodstains staining the leather. It was the same stretcher that had carried away Sextus, and Rust Spot too, maybe Dapyx and Piye as well.
‘Get a move on!’ said the libitinarius. ‘Little Boots is waiting!’
Jerked back to horrible reality, I eased my back end down onto the stretcher. Unsure whether to lie or to try and stay sitting up, the decision was made for me as the pair grabbed the handles and lifted. Unable to prevent myself from falling backwards, I cried out as I landed, and the impact sent out fresh waves of agony from my wound. Full lucidity returned to me by the intense pain, I stared up at the blue sky, the burning sun, and the wisps of white cloud I had not noticed until now. It was bizarre, and all the more so considering the manner of my carriage.
‘You’re the first living man as ever been on this,’ said the libitinarius cheerily. ‘Enjoy the ride!’
I said nothing, dreading our imminent arrival below the pulvinar. I had no idea what would happen, but presumed it would be bad. I still had my trident – it was lying alongside me – although I should have been disarmed. Pressured to bear me to Caligula as fast as possible, the libitinarii had overlooked this detail. I trembled at the realisation. To stand within killing distance of the emperor was something I had never dreamed possible. If he pronounced sentence of death on me because I had displeased him – this was one fate tumbling around my frantic mind – I could hurl it at him. Whether I would succeed, weakened as I was, with him guarded by spearmen and archers, I had no idea, but it felt good to know that I had the option.
I would not go to my death without a fight.
Thump. The sandapila was placed on the ground.
I saw from the corner of my eye the libitinarii bowing. ‘Get up!’ one hissed.