It took two days for Dorus to make his decision, or rather to make his decision and then think it over. On the morning of the third day after Paulinus arrived he received a letter from Sajanus in Rome and he did not need to think anymore.
It arrived at the Villa that morning. It had been placed into Dorus’ hand by Ampiscora when he returned from the daily expedition to the fish market in town, and he now scanned the dark, thorny strands of writing with rising interest.
‘To Lucius at Surrentum.
Is there anything more pleasant than reading the words of one’s distant friends, then to wonder if they sound and look and move the same way as when we last met? Your description of the diversion and discord in your father in law’s house makes me resolved to come and see you, as by comparison my affairs are of no interest at all.
I will of course satisfy your curiosity, but as to telling you everything, I doubt it will truly be satisfied. My family are all in health, and I cannot think of any of our old acquaintances and friends in the city who have died or fallen ill here. Nor any who have married or done much worthy of the materials to record it. As I say, I am of little interest to anyone at this moment. I find myself constantly drawn to public entertainments and without the time to indulge in them since the Quaestor left Rome.
The only point of interest which will be worthy of your notice that I have become the secretary to Fabius Paulinus, who has told me much about your wife’s family. Though he did not tell me where he went to, I suspect he might at this time even be with you this hour, if he is, I wish you would tell him to write and inform me so, and when he intends on returning.
I am no seaman or I would regale you with as much detail on the state of naval armaments as I could. Matters proceed swiftly in this regard. Informed people tell me that the ships are mostly ready, and only want equipped and manned and the Quaestors have been authorised to appoint captains.
But unless I miss my guess, when you ask for news of the navy, you are really asking about Pulcher. I do not know your intentions for the future, my good Lucius, but if command is amongst them you would do well to ensure you have friends enough here to protect you from him. After going to such lengths to defame you he cannot allow you to resume where you left off without comment, which I fear would be damaging to you … ‘
The letter continued in Sejanus’ usual ambling manner and Dorus pondered his information carefully. Paulinus’ sudden appearance made much more sense now, and he wondered if by inducing him back into the navy, the Quaestor did not have some political points to score against Pulcher. If Paulinus had enlisted both Sejanus and the elder Torquatus to have Dorus command one of his ships then the matter was not a small one.
Dorus had been a silent and tetchy man while he thought. Usually decisive and resolute in his mind now he felt unable to identify what he should do. Every time he felt fixed on a course he was confronted by the impossibility of it.
Then of course there was Pulcher, his former commander, a man he had respected, and now his enemy. Who had not only betrayed him, but thrown him to the wolves as a public spectacle of disgrace, like the funeral entertainments Sejanus so enjoyed in Rome. His friend was right, Pulcher could not sit quietly by and just let him hoist his awning over a ship, not without looking and perhaps feeling distinctly unjust.
If he was to return to the fleet, he would have to face more than just the hazards of the sea and the Carthaginians.
Rowing always helped Dorus to empty his mind. The discipline and effort allowed him to focus thereafter on what needed to be done. As each day went by, his rowing routine had become more and more important to him, and increasingly his aim was to achieve such a state of exhaustion that he would be unable to deny what he needed to do.
The poet Quaestor, Paulinus was waiting at the dock, the day after the letter from Sejanus arrived.
Dorus, tossed the rope up with effort, every vein at attention, and dark and flushed with both exertion and contemplation.
‘So,’ said, Paulinus, dispensing with any pretence, ‘have you made your decision?’
The Quaestor tied the boat up with surprising ease, and Dorus, wincing as his lungs laboured to supply him with air while his heart rammed against the inner wall of his chest, trying, so it seemed to break out, merely bent to rest on his knees.
‘I see you come out here every day, Captain, but if it is to help you achieve a decision it does not seem to be working.’ Paulinus said. He had started calling Dorus, Captain in a half goading manner very shortly after making his intentions known.
‘You said you talked to my old crew.’
‘I want as many of them as possible.’
Paulinus smiled, ‘I can help with that.’
‘And then there is the matter of Pulcher. What are your plans regarding him. He will be sure to block me.’
‘Let me worry about Pulcher.’
Dorus was unconvinced, and had to stay his curiosity regarding his ulterior motives, ‘When will you make it official?’
‘I will return to Rome tomorrow, from the time I arrive you will be named and confirmed in a matter of days. Your squadron itself will be coming to Misenum as soon as they are equipped.’
This pleased, Dorus. ‘Good, I had no great wish to go to Rome.’
‘It will be best if you stay away from there as much as possible.’
The two men spoke of a few more details and then parted. Paulinus to arrange his departure and Dorus to speak to Valeria. He found her in the garden, selecting herbs for dinner, with some of the kitchen servants.
‘I have decided to go back.’ Dorus told her when they had secluded themselves at a far corner of the vegetable beds.
‘How long until you leave?’ She asked.
‘Some time yet,’ his voice sounded encouraging, ‘Paulinus must officially appoint me, and I doubt he will be successful if the truth is known, and even then there will be some time before we put to sea.’
‘Then we still have plenty of time.’ Valeria said, slipping and arm around his waist.
Dorus nodded, ‘The war will not last much longer even then. It has been going on too long and one side or another will soon suffer such a reverse that our leaders can no longer maintain the struggle.’
‘Well now you are back with the fleet, the Carthaginians cannot last much longer.’
Valeria’s tone betrayed a flicker of pride and Dorus laughed, ‘Quite a thing! It may be ended before I even sight an enemy ship. A twenty year war fizzling out because each side can no longer continue.’
‘Don’t be angry my love,’ Valeria said, ‘but that is what I hope does happen.’
The next person to discover the news was Ampiscora. Dorus found him in his own quarters attending to the fastenings on a pair of sandals. Dutifully, he arose from the stool on which he was sitting when his master entered.
Dorus had no particular obligation to explain anything, only to order and be obeyed, but Ampiscora had been with him for many years and in truth there was no one else that he felt bound to inform.
‘I have accepted Quaestor Paulinus’ offer of command.’ Dorus said.
‘My congratulations, master.’ Generally that would be where things ended, Ampiscora acknowledged the mark of affection that Dorus had offered by coming to tell him almost as soon as the decision was made and did not expect to hear the words that followed.
‘Ampiscora, do you want to go back to the war?’
The Sardinian held his master’s gaze without utterance, his mind felt full of words and confusions, non of which were as eloquent as either the silence, or the question in his eyes. ‘Why ask.’
Dorus read this and continued ‘We have been together ever since I came to command. In that time you have been loyal and forbearing, in fact I would say indispensable to me.’
This was the report of an officer of warships rather than the revelation of one man to another, but there was an hesitant attempt at an acknowledgment of Ampiscora’s own will that the slave found surprising.
‘We have been together as a master and servant for many years, many of which were undertaken in the service of the republic and in the face of many dangers. We have become comfortable here since I was dismissed, we have become comfortable here. The benefits of not fighting are easy to see around me. Though I would not offer you this if my decision had been otherwise, I have always believed that fighting men deserve the right to stop fighting after a lengthy service. So if when the time comes you would prefer to stay, I will allow it.’
Ampiscora remained thoughtful in the silence that followed. Though he was not expecting the such a gesture from Dorus, he knew his own mind enough to have pondered what he might do if he was free to chose.
‘Master, I am grateful for this token of generosity.’
Dorus inclined his head in acknowledgment. Ampiscora and he were generally formal with each other but with that in mind they also rarely took long to get to the point. The former pirate had learned the deference of servitude from someone, though who that had been Dorus did not know, he continued: ‘But if it pleases you and if it is your will to reward me. I would ask that I travel with you,’ the briefest of hesitations made Dorus think this was his decision, but then his words came again with an uncharacteristic stumble, ‘As, as far as Sardinia.’
Dorus moved his head a fraction, ‘That is asking more than I offered,’ he said.
‘Forgive me, Master. I have never had cause to complain in your service, but,’ again a mild catch interrupted Amiscora’s level tone ‘But, I have not seen Sardinia in a very long time.’
A little confused at how this request had affected him, Dorus asked, ‘Will you change your mind?’
‘If you’re answer is no, master, then I will never raise the matter again.’
Dorus nodded. ‘In that case by the time I leave I will see to it that you have received your manumission.’
‘Now, Master, you are offering more than I asked.’
‘For as long as you have been with me, Ampiscora you have been a model servant but yet remained a pirate. There are rules to be followed. If you wish to go to Sardinia you must be legally entitled to go, and that means you being granted manumission. I will speak with the Quaestor about it, and my wife’s grandfather.’
Ampiscora was struck by the sense of Dorus’ response, but his rebellious heart rejected the inevitable length it would take for him to be set at liberty. He was about to reply when Dorus cut in.
‘Besides, now that you have asked to leave, the only chance of having you stay is to allow you to choose for yourself. I swear to you, Ampiscora, when I put to sea you will have that choice.’
The elder Torquatus was told by his younger granddaughter that her husband intended on going back to war and after dinner that night, a superficially jovial affair with undercurrents of disquiet, he decided to speak to him early the next morning.
The old man liked to consider himself a painter, as well as an expert on frescos and indeed the walls of the villa were beautifully decorated in the best of taste, admittedly they were the work of more gifted artists than the owner but the choice of scenes and their placement had been selected by Torquatus and nobody else.
Dorus found him in his private workshop preparing coloured powders that he would use paint with. It was a whitewashed, paint-stained, airy place with messy tables and the scent of a great many ingredients that were used to create his pigments.
‘Ah, Lucius Iulus, excellent.’
‘What are you making today?’ Asked Dorus.
‘More black, I always need more black.’
Dorus nodded, it was the easiest colour to make and the most affordable. ‘How do you paint with no colour?’
Torquatus looked bemused, a frown so deep that a climber could have used it for a ledge, contoured his brow.
‘Black is not a colour?’
‘I meant that … well, how do you paint with one colour then?’
‘By the observance of shade and tone, of course. Therefore when I come to use expensive materials I do not waste them because I know what to do.’
The principle of training was not lost on Dorus and he knew that in the months to come it would be a large part of his life. ‘Of course, I see.’
‘Now then,’ Torquatus said placing a mortar and pestle aside and fixing Dorus with a typically hawkish gaze, ‘Valeria tells me you are for the war again.’
‘If I am approved.’
‘My young friend Paulinus will see to that.’
Dorus shrugged, my old commander Pulcher will not like it, he will have to try and stop me resuming active command.’
‘So what if he does?’ Torquatus asked forcefully ‘He has to, there’s no surprise in that, he declared you unfit to command and so what else can he do. Most natural thing in the world but it will not be with the intention of actually doing anything.’
Dorus changed his expression to a more questioning one, ‘What do you mean?’
‘Pulcher must object to you on the same grounds that he used to dismiss you or look guilty of hypocrisy. No one can stop that, but don’t fret, Pulcher cannot demand that Paulinus reject you.’
‘Because if he does the Paulinus will dredge up Drepanum again and having escaped censure the first time he will be reluctant to risk it a second time. A loud objection will be the end of it.’
Dorus saw the sense in the old politician’s words and gave an assenting nod, even if he feared it to be mere wishful thinking, even if inside he truly hoped Pulcher would stop him and allow him to keep the new life he had made as it was.
Torquatus laughed and wiped his stained hands on a rag, ‘You know it might even be the case that Pulcher even supports your nomination.’ The look that came over Dorus’ face was so abrupt that Torquatus’ laugh flowed into a loud cackle. ‘Never mind, my boy, never mind, it is just an old statesman’s humour, come now, let’s go into the house, there is a great deal to talk about.’