Whatever was that?
The young man arrested his stride. He halted. At his shoulder his brother drew up equally amazed. An incongruous scent was beckoning them. They both sniffed the air.
Incredible! That was a pig's-meat sausage, vigorously frying.
Everywhere lay silent. The echoes of their own footfalls had whispered and died. No other sign of occupation disturbed the chill, tall, marble-veneered corridors of the staterooms on the Palatine Hill from which the Roman Empire was administered. Under the long-absent Emperor Tiberius these had never offered much of a homely welcome to strangers. Today was worse than ever. Arches that were meant to be guarded stood framed only by forbidding drapes whose heavy pleats had not been disturbed since they were first hung. No one else was here. Only that rich odour of hot meat and spices continued its ravishing assault.
The younger man set off walking faster. He wheeled around corners and brushed along passages as if he had just discovered the proper route to take until, after a fractional hesitation, he whipped open a small door. Before his brother caught up with him he ducked his head and strode through.
A furious female slave exploded, 'Skip over the Styx; you're not allowed in here!'
Her hair hung in a lank, sorry string. Her face was pasty, a sad contrast to the tinctured ladies at court. Yet despite her grubbiness, she wore her dull frieze dress with courageous style, and although he knew better he threw back at her drily, 'Thanks! What an interesting girl!'
Afterwards Caenis could never quite remember which festival it had been. The time of year was certain. Autumn. Autumn, six years before Tiberius died. The year of the fall of Aelius Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard. Sejanus, who allegedly kept a pack of pet hounds he fed with human blood. Sejanus, who had ruled Rome with a grip of iron for nearly two de cades and who wanted to be Emperor.
It could have been the great ten-day series of Games in honour of Augustus. The Augustales, which had been established as a memorial to Rome's first Emperor and were now conducted in honour of the whole Imperial House, would have been an occasion which explained why Antonia had given most of her slaves and freedmen a holiday, including her Chief Secretary, Diadumenus. Even more likely would have been the actual birthday of Augustus, by then a long-established celebration, a week before October began. Thinking of Augustus, the founder of the Empire, could well have stirred Antonia to what she was about to do.
Foolish, at any rate, for anyone to attempt business at the Palace on such a day. On any state holiday the priests of the imperial cult led the city in the duties of religion while senators, citizens, freedmen and even slaves, from the most privileged librarians to the glistening bath house stokers, seized their chance and piled into the temples too. Here on the Palatine the slop-carriers and step-sweepers, the polishers of silver cups and jewel-encrusted bowls, the accountants and secretaries, the chamberlains who vetted visitors, the major-domos who announced their names, the lifters of door curtains and carriers of cushions, had all disappeared hours ago. Sejanus would be lording it at the ceremonies; the Praetorians, who ought to be guarding the Emperor, would be guarding him. Caesar's palace complex, which even during Caesar's long absence from Rome thrummed with occupation every day and rustled with innumerable murmurs of life into the dead of night, for once lay hushed.
So the door flew open. Someone strode in. Caenis looked up. She scowled; the man frowned.
'Here's somebody— Sabinus!' he called back over his great shoulder, as he loomed in the low doorway. The fat spattered dangerously beneath the girl's spoon.
'Juno and Minerva—' coughed Caenis, as she was forced back from her pan while the flame lapped sideways across the charcoal brazier in a palely whickering sheet. 'We'll all go up in smoke; will you shut that door!'
A second man, presumably Sabinus, came in. This one wore a senator's broad purple stripe on his toga's edge. 'What have you found for us?'
The fat went wild again. 'Oh for the gods' sake!' Caenis swore at them, forgetting their rank as she was nearly set alight.
'A bad-tempered slavey with a pan of sausages.'
He had the sense at last to close the door.
They were lost. Caenis guessed it at once. Even the open spaces and temples among the homes of imperial family members above the Circus Maximus were deserted. The public offices on the Forum side of the Palatine were closed. Stupid to come today. With no guards to cross spears in their faces these two had blundered down a wrong passageway and ended up bemused. Only people who wanted to indulge in sad habits alone were lurking in corners with their furtive pursuits. Only eccentrics and deviants, misers and malcontents: and Caenis.
She was one of the group of girls who worked with Diadumenus, copying correspondence for the lady Antonia. Today he had ordered her to remain quietly out of trouble; later she must go to the House of Livia, where their mistress lived, and ask whether any work was required. Caenis was junior but capable; besides, Diadumenus had really not anticipated that anything significant would occur. In most respects Caenis was, like everyone else, on holiday.
Hence the sausage. She had been enjoying both her solitude— rare for a slave— and the food too. She had scraped together the price by writing letters for other people and picking up lost coins from corridor floors. She had crept in here, sliced the meat evenly and was cooking it in a pan intended for emulsifying face creams before she ate her treat deliberately, on her own. She craved her sausage with good reason: her starved frame needed the meat and fat, her deprived senses hankered after nuts, spices and the luxury of food fiercely hot from a pan. She hated being interrupted.
'Excuse me, sirs, you are not allowed in here.'
Warily she tried to camouflage her annoyance. In Rome it was wise to be diplomatic. That applied to everyone. Men who thought they possessed the Emperor's confidence today might be exiled or murdered tomorrow. Men who wanted to survive had to inveigle themselves into the clique surrounding Sejanus. Making friends had been unsafe for years, for the wrong association clung like onion juice under a chef's fingernails. Yet so many promising careers were ending in disaster that today's nobodies might just survive to ride in tomorrow's triumph beneath the laurels and ribbons of the golden Etruscan crown.
For a slavegirl it was always best to appear polite: 'Lords, if you are wanting Veronica—'
'Oh, do cheer up!' chaffed the first man abruptly. 'We might prefer you.'
Caenis gave her pan a rapid shimmy, agitating the spatula. She chortled derisively. 'Rich, I hope?' The two men glanced at one another, then with a similar slow regretful grin both shook their heads. 'No use to me then!'
She saw their veiled embarrassment: traditionalists with good family morals— in public, anyway. Veronica would shake them. Veronica was the one to astonish a stiff-necked senator. She believed that a slavegirl who was vivacious and pretty could do as well for herself as she pleased.
Caenis was too single-minded and intense; she would have to make a life for herself some other way.
'We seem to be lost,' explained the cautious man, Sabinus.
'Your footman let you down?' Caenis queried, nodding at his companion.
'My brother,' stated the senator; very straight, this senator.
'What's his name?'
'Why no broad stripes too?' she challenged the brother directly. 'Not old enough?' Entry to the Senate was at twenty-five; he was probably not long past twenty.
'You sound like my mother: not clever!' he quipped.
Citizens never normally joked with slavegirls about their noble mothers; Caenis stared at him. He had a broad chest, heavy shoulders, a strong neck. A pleasant face, full of character. His chin jutted up; his nose beaked down; his mouth compressed fiercely, though he seemed good-humoured. He had steady eyes. She looked away. As a slave, she preferred not to meet such a gaze.
'Not ready for it,' he added, glaring at his brother as if it were a matter of family argument.
Against her better judgement she replied, 'Or is the Senate not ready for you?' She had already noticed his obstinate roughness, a deliberate refusal to hide his country background and accent; she admired it, though plenty in Rome would call it coarse.
He sensed her interest. If he wanted it (and she reckoned he did), women probably liked him. Caenis resisted the urge.
'You have lost yourselves in Livia's pantry, sir,' she informed the other man, Sabinus.
There was a sudden stillness, which she secretly enjoyed. Though the cubbyhole looked like a perfumery, the two men would be wondering whether this was where the famous Empress had mixed up the poisons with which, allegedly, she removed those who stood in her way. Livia was dead now, but the rumours had acquired their own momentum and even grew worse.
The two men were nervously surveying the cosmetic jars. Some were empty, their contents evaporated years before; some had leaked so they sat embedded in a tarry pool. Others remained good: glass flasks of almond oil, soapstone boxes of fine wax and fat, amethystine flagons of pomade, stoppered phials of antimony and extract of seaweed, alabaster pots of red ochre, ash and chalk. No place for a cook; rather an apothecary. Veronica would give three fingers to discover this little cave of treasures.
There were other containers, which Caenis had considered but carefully left untouched upon the shelves. Some ingredients could have no possible benign use and had convinced her it was true that Livia must have been in league with the famous poisoner Lucusta. She would keep that to herself.
'And what are you doing here?' asked Sabinus, in fascination.
'Cataloguing the cosmetics, sir,' Caenis answered demurely, implying otherwise.
'For whom?' growled Vespasianus, with a glint that said he would like to know who had replaced Livia as dangerous.
He raised an eyebrow. Perhaps he was ambitious after all.
Her elderly mistress was the most admired woman in Rome. The first lesson Diadumenus had drummed into Caenis was that she must avoid speaking to men who might be trying to manoeuvre themselves into a connection with Antonia. Daughter of Mark Antony and Octavia; Augustus' niece and sister-in-law of Tiberius; mother of the renowned Germanicus; (mother too of the peculiar Claudius and the scandalous Livilla); grandmother of Caligula and Gemellus, who were to share the Empire one day . . . If a woman must be defined by her male relations, the lady Antonia had gathered some plums, even though Caenis privately found them a specked and mildewed crop. Afflicted with these famous men, Antonia was wise, courageous, and not quite worn out by the indignities she had seen. Even the Emperor took her seriously. Even her slavegirls might wield influence.
'I rarely see my mistress,' Caenis stated quietly, lest there be any misunderstanding. 'I live in the imperial complex here. Her house is too small.'
This was true, yet being appointed to work as a copyist for Antonia had been a magical opportunity.
Though born a slave, Caenis was no skivvy. She had been singled out as bright, then given an education in office skills: reading, writing, ciphers and shorthand, discretion, deportment, graceful conversation in a pleasant voice. She had first-class Latin, and better than average Greek. She understood arithmetic and cheerfully grappled with accounts. She could even think, though she kept that to herself, since she did not choose to embarrass other people by showing she was superior. Only her morose adolescence had prevented her being placed in one of the imperial bureaux before this. They did not allow you into a bureau until they were sure you could deal firmly with senators.
She moved the pan off the brazier and stood up straight to deal with these men now. She had been thoroughly trained. Caenis could melt into backgrounds yet radiate efficiency. She always sat well, to help her handwriting. She stood without slouching; she walked with confidence; she spoke up clearly: she knew how to show uninvited senators to the door with relentless charm.
Whether this applied to pantry doors remained to be seen.
'Antonia's cook?' Sabinus asked curiously as she moved the pan. Men had no idea.
'Antonia's secretary,' she boasted.
'Why the sausage, Antonia's secretary?' asked the brother, still regarding her with that long, frowning stare. 'Don't they feed you here?'
The way they were hanging around near her food seemed endearingly hopeful. Caenis grinned, though looking down at her pannikin. 'Oh the daily slave ration: nothing good, and never enough.'
Sabinus winced. 'Sounds like a middle-class lunch!'
She liked this senator more than she expected. He seemed honest and well-intentioned. She let herself exclaim, 'Well, everything's relative, lord! A rich knight is more cheerful than a poor senator. To be poor but middle class is still better than being a commoner who hardly has the right to pick his nose in the public street. A slave at the Imperial Palace leads a softer life than the free boatman who lives in a flooded shack on the Tiber's bank—' Since they did not pull her up, she went on rashly, 'The power of the Senate has become a delusion; Rome is ruled by the commander of the Praetorian Guard—'
She should never have said that aloud.
To distract them, she rushed on, 'As for me, I was born in a palace; I have warmth and music, easy work and opportunity to progress. Perhaps more freedom than a high-born Roman girl with a garnet in each ear who lives penned in her father's house with nothing to do but be married off to some wealthy halfwit who spends all his time trying to escape her for intelligent conversation and unforced sexual favours— even perhaps if he's not an absolute halfwit, some genuine affection— with the likes of Veronica and me!'
She stopped, breathless. A political statement had escaped her; worse, she had betrayed something of herself: she shifted from foot to foot with unease.
The younger man's serious gaze was disturbing her. That was why she muttered, 'Oh do stop leering at my sausage! Want a piece?'
There was a shocked pause.
It was unthinkable.
'No; thank you!' said Sabinus hastily, trying to override his brother— no easy task.
Caenis was gruff but generous. Giving up the struggle for privacy, she offered the young knight a slice on the point of her knife; he nipped it off between his fingers at once.
'Mmm! This is good!' Laughing now, he watched her while he munched. His grim face lost all its trouble suddenly. She had assumed anyone in a decent white toga dined daily on peacocks aswim in double sauces, yet he ate with the appetite of any starving scullion she knew. Perhaps all their ready money went on laundry bills for togas. 'Give that fool a bit; he wants it really.'
Caenis eyed the senator. Once again she offered her knife; Sabinus gingerly lifted the food. His brother clapped his shoulder heavily so she caught the gleam of his gold equestrian ring. Then he admitted to Caenis, 'His footman, as you say! I clear a path in the street, chase off bailiffs and unattractive women, guard his clothes like a dog at the baths— and I see he gets enough to eat.'
She could not tell how much of this was a joke.
By now she found in his face the bright signal that he liked her. She knew the look; she had seen it in men who danced attendance on Veronica. Caenis shrank from it. She found life a burden already. The last thing she needed was fending off some overfriendly hopeful with a broad country accent and no money. 'Let me give you directions, lords.'
'We'll get the girl into trouble,' Sabinus warned.
For the first time his brother smiled at her. It was the tight, rueful smile of a man who understood constraints. She was too wise to smile back. Still chewing, he refused to move. Studying the floor, Caenis ate her own sausage from the knife point, slowly. It was decent pork forcemeat, flavoured with myrtle berries, peppercorns and pine nuts; she had tossed it on the heat in oil strewn with the good end of a leek.
Only two slices remained in the pan. The younger brother, Vespasian, reached for one, then stopped and reproached her kindly, 'You're letting us steal your dinner, lass.'
'Oh go on!' she urged him, suddenly shy and cross. It had been giving her plea sure to offer something other than a slavegirl's usual trade.
He looked serious. 'I shall repay the debt.'
So they had eaten together, she and that big young man with the cheery chin. They ate, while the brother waited; then both licked their fingers and both rapturously sighed. They all laughed.
'Let me show you the way, lords,' Caenis murmured, newly subdued as the sunlight of a different world filtered into the bleakness of her own. She led them into the corridor; they walked either side of her while she basked in their presence as she took them towards the public rooms.
'Thanks,' they both said, in the off-hand way of their rank.
Without answer she spun swiftly on the ball of her loosely slippered foot. She walked away as she had been taught: head up, spine straight, movement unhurried and disciplined. The grime and desolation imposed by her birth became irrelevant; she ignored her grey condition and was herself. She sensed that they had halted, expecting her to look back from the corner; she was afraid to turn, in case she saw them laugh at her.
Neither did. The senator, Flavius Sabinus, accepted their odd adventure quietly enough. As for his brother, he smiled faintly, but he did not mock.
He knew he should not attempt to see her again. Caenis had missed the significance, but he realised at once. It was like him; a swift assessment of the situation followed by his private decision long before any public act. He was due to leave Rome again, due to leave Italy in fact. But all through his long journey back to Thrace, and afterwards, Flavius Vespasianus still thought, What an interesting girl!
Excerpted from THE COURSE OF HONOUR by LINDSEY DAVIS
Copyright © 1997 by Lindsey Davis
Published in May 2009 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.