Blood Games (Saint-Germain #3)

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05.03.2019

HE WAS VERY OLD and softly obese like a white toad, though he had no treasure to squat on, only his position of power which he wielded with the love of authority only a freed slave could have. His name was Alastor, for the Greek demon of vengeance.

"Your complaint will be filed, naturally," he said to Saint-Germain as he sat in his gloomy office in the Curia where the Senate met.

"I beg your pardon," Saint-Germain corrected him with a great show of deference, "but this is not a complaint, it's a petition. I have already filed complaints for the illegal seizure and imprisonment of my slaves. It was one thing to arrest my arena slaves with all the others, but it is a different matter entirely when you arrest my slave who visited them in prison on my orders. Or don't you agree?" It was difficult to keep the anger out of his voice, but Saint-Germain had had much experience with men like these to know that if he once revealed his irritation, he was lost.

"It is somewhat unusual," Alastor allowed, sinking his three chins back against his chest. "There must have been a reason for it. Was the third slave authorized to visit the prison?"

"I authorized him to do so, and I had the assurance of the Emperor's older son that this was permissible."

Again the sage nod. "Yes, of course. But you must realize that Titus has not held his post long and is not entirely familiar with the way such things are done. He should have consulted me first. I have been procurator senior for the Senate since Nero came to the purple. It was Claudius who appointed me." He was proud of this record, and justly so, for he had survived twenty tumultuous years of Roman politics.

"Certainly he should have," Saint-Germain agreed, his annoyance building afresh. "But it is strange, is it not, that my slave who visited the prison on my orders should be confined? That is not at all like the usual procedure. If there was, or seemed to be, reason for such an arrest, don't you think I should have been notified? The slave belongs to me."

"You weren't notified?" Alastor said, shocked. "You should have been. It's required that owners of detained slaves be notified immediately, or as soon as is possible."

"I live three thousand paces from the Porta Viminalis, good procurator. It was more than three days before the prison officials sent me word." He hoped that this might win Alastor to his side, and for a moment the old freedman seemed to be wavering. "Good procurator, I have been careful to live within the laws of Rome. It appalls me that certain Romans do not show a like respect."

"Truly," Alastor muttered. He looked down at the five sheets of closely written arguments. "It is distressing. Very distressing. It must be looked into. Such arrests are irregular. I was not aware they had occurred." There was a real sense of affront in the old man. "These matters are most complex. You are a foreigner and the slaves in question are foreigners as well." His manner changed abruptly, becoming very bland. "There are other foreign slave owners petitioning the Senate just now. They have problems similar to yours. I'll see that your…petition is given every consideration. Someone has abused his authority, that's plain. You may be confident that he will be dealt with."

Saint-Germain knew that this was intended as a dismissal, but he stood his ground. "Good procurator, I would appreciate being kept informed of your progress. My slaves are valuable. Every day they remain incarcerated is one more day they do not win for me in the arena, and the longer they are inactive, the more time it will require to rebuild their strength. I'm not the only who is losing money. My charioteer Kosrozd races quite regularly for the Reds and they are displeased. They want to know when he will be available to race again." The Reds, like most of the racing factions, were made up primarily of equestrian-and Senatorial-rank Romans, and this might spur Alastor to work if other considerations could not.

"The Reds. Yes." He gave Saint-Germain a quick, pointed look, very unlike the crafty laziness he had affected. "The Emperor has many friends among the Whites." Then his face was calm again and he murmured, "You will hear from me."

This time Saint-Germain accepted the eviction. He gave a slight bow, which was more than courtesy required, then drew his heavy black cloak around him and stepped out into the rotunda of the Curia. It was cold today, with few Senators about, since the weather was dismal. This was the third day of the first winter rains and almost all Rome was indoors. Not even the swine market had opened that morning.

But there were beggars in the streets, as there were through every winter. They lingered around the fora of Julius and Augustus, along the Vicus Triumphalis; they huddled under the Claudian Aqueduct and in the half-built first-story arches of what would be the Flavian Circus. At the Aventine Hill they gathered in the narrow streets around the Circus Maximus. When it was raining as it was this afternoon, they were more bedraggled than the mongrel curs that yapped in the streets, ribs showing under mangy coats.

Saint-Germain's light one-horse chariot was mud-splashed and dripping as he pulled away from the Curia. The beggars flocked around him like scavenger birds, crying shrilly for alms. Absentmindedly Saint-Germain threw them a handful of copper coins before turning down the Vicus Triumphalis. The interview with Alastor had not been encouraging. Saint-Germain smiled grimly as he thought of the procurator senior and his smug, soft face. He knew it would be useless to approach the Senate again.

One of the beggars, a girl of scarcely more than seven, grabbed for the handrail of the chariot. Her shapeless tunica of rough sacking barely came to her knees, and was torn at the neck. It dripped water like a sodden sponge. "Patrician!" she shouted in a high voice, her grimy face upturned and her sticklike arms stretched out as she clung to the side of his vehicle. "Good noble! I'm a virgin! Guaranteed! Ten sesterces for a virgin, good noble! Ten sesterces! You'll like it!"

He had heard such calls before too many times to be shocked, but this time he was saddened. "Ten sesterces, child?"

"Five!" she yelled, trying with one hand to clutch his thick woolen cape in her filthy fingers. "Five! A noble like you, five! No more!"

Saint-Germain pulled his horse into a walk. "A virgin for five sesterces? They charge ten times that in the lupanar for an experienced twelve-year-old."

"Four! Good patrician, four. I like you, maybe. Four will be enough." She sniffed, still reaching for him.

Saint-Germain opened his money pouch and brought out two silver denari and two copper sesterces, her original price. "Here," he said, offering them to her. "Take them. Buy yourself some food and a place to sleep."

She stared at him, blank-faced. "And you?"

"You don't have to sell yourself to me, child." He tried to smile, but did not quite succeed. "My…tastes do not run to children."

"Don't you want me?" she demanded fiercely. "I'm a virgin! It's true! No diseases, no babies!"

His horse was hardly moving. "Child, take the money and be grateful that I will not accept your…proposition. You do not need to sell me your body. You would not want to."

Suddenly her face contorted with rage. "Eunuch! Pervert!" She pushed back from the chariot, almost falling on the paving stones as Saint-Germain's horse lurched into a trot. "Dried-up worm! Fucker of pigs! Dung-licker!" She continued to yell at him, though her fist was closed tightly around the coins he had given her.

The beggars gathered around the huge buildings laughed, pointing to the chariot as it rattled south toward the Circus Maximus. As he drove, Saint-Germain could hear the laughter over the rain and it stung him. Why had he bothered? he asked himself. What was the use of it, if the only reaction was open derision? His mood darkened with the leaden sky. He glanced to his left, toward the Oppius Hill where the Golden House sat, empty but for one wing where Vespasianus lived while he decided what was to be done with the rambling building. In the rain the walls were drab and the palace looked no more inviting than the worst of the insulae in the poorest quarter of the city.

Near the first upthrustings of the Flavian Circus the streets grew muddy, token of the earth that had been excavated after the lake had been drained. Now the huge foundations were almost complete and it was possible to look into the enormous ring and see the corridors, cages and braces that would run under the sands when the mammoth amphitheatre was finished. There had been many times that Saint-Germain had stopped to look at the progress that had been made, but he knew he would not do so today. He had yet to see Juvines Acestes, the tribune who acted as warden of the slaves' prison just beyond the Porta Navalis. Two previous visits had been fruitless, as this one would probably be, if Alastor's attitude were any indication of the official posture at the moment. What had gone wrong between Titus and the Senate, Saint-Germain asked himself, that the foreign slaves had become such an issue? If the senior procurator of the Senate was vying with the prefect of the Praetorian Guard for power, then whatever they chose to be the issue for their battle was certain to be ruined by one side or the other. Fear for Aumtehoutep, Kosrozd and Tishtry bit sharply into him.

So preoccupied was Saint-Germain that he did not notice the small crowd of twenty or thirty that gathered around a still, supine figure under the nearest arch of the Flavian Circus. Only when his horse shied, skittering on the mud-slicked pavement, did Saint-Germain glimpse the fallen man and rein in, looking on the group with awakened interest.

There were men and children, ancient women and young, slatternly women, each indelibly stamped with misery, each taking a cruel satisfaction in tormenting someone more wretched than they.

The man at their feet was indeed pitiable. Under the filth that slimed his face, his skin was chalky where it was not bruised and lacerated. There were angry, dark-fleshed, festering wounds on his hands and feet, as if he had been burned with hot irons. He was almost naked-only a short tunica covered him, and it was ragged and stained. Those who milled around him pelted him with offal, laughing and jeering.

Saint-Germain took his driving lash from the holder in his chariot as he stopped his horse. "You!" he shouted to the little crowd. One or two looked up, indifferent to this well-dressed stranger, their vacuous, malicious faces glazed with excitement. "You!" he repeated, this time his voice cracking with the lash as the thing slapped against the wet pavement.

A few more turned at this, and one whooped with delight as he charged the black-cloaked interloper.

Saint-Germain made no attempt to avoid the rush of the thick-bodied beggar. As the man ran at him, he turned, leaning aside, and the beggar overbalanced and fell, sliding, in the muddy street. He pulled himself to his hands and knees, enraged, and turned on Saint-Germain once more, this time approaching more cautiously as a few of the crowd moved to watch this more exciting entertainment.

As the beggar approached Saint-Germain, he feinted a blow at the foreigner's head. Saint-Germain seized his wrist and pulled it gently, stepping aside as the beggar once again fell.

This time when the beggar got up, he held a large broken brick in his hand, and he rushed Saint-Germain, cheered on by the others, who had left the unconscious man in the mud.

"Get behind him, Vardos!" the beggar shouted to someone in the crowd, and Saint-Germain grew wary. It was one thing to fight a single man, but if there were two, or the entire crowd turned on him, his danger would be very great. For an instant he wondered why he had bothered to stop, but a glance at the unconscious man lying like a discarded, broken doll fed his determination to remain.

The beggar who had attacked him first now took swipes at his head with the brick in his hand. Saint-Germain dodged cautiously, feeling his way on the slick, uncertain footing. He moved quickly, making swift half-turns to protect his back while the beggar came closer.

"Vardos! His arms!" The beggar lunged at him just as Saint-Germain felt huge arms grip him from behind.

He responded without thought, pivoting to break the hold on his arms even as he reached for the beggar with the brick. He lifted the beggar from his feet and hurled him down on his accomplice Vardos with the full strength of his wrath. Vardos collapsed silently and the beggar who had attacked him howled as he pressed one hand to a deep cut in his face. Saint-Germain bent and picked up his driving lash. "Get back," he said quietly. "Every one of you."

With a few cuts of the long whip, Saint-Germain cut himself a path through the denizens of the unfinished building. The beggar stumbled to his feet and lurched away from the place. Vardos lay in the street, groaning.

"If any of you are thinking of taking my chariot," Saint-Germain remarked conversationally, "the penalty for such theft is crucifixion after the joints in the arms and legs have been broken with an iron bar."

Now the crowd gave way before him, a few cursing him openly for interfering with their sport more than his treatment of the beggar. They muttered among themselves in their almost incomprehensible patois, but did not stay to contest Saint-Germain's rights. Any richly dressed stranger who fought as he did would be respected and avoided. In very little time the small crowd had melted away into the shadows and crannies of the tall unfinished arches.

When he was alone with the unconscious man, Saint-Germain dropped down on one knee, heedless of the mud and ordure that mired his embroidered Persian trousers and woolen cape. As gently as he could, he wiped away the worst of the muck from his face and chest, wincing as this revealed purulent sores. He lifted the battered shoulders so that the man's head lolled against his upraised knee. When Saint-Germain lifted his eyelids, he saw red-streaked whites with a crescent of blue showing. The man was barely breathing, and even that was shallow and labored, as if a weight had collapsed on his chest. A further examination revealed three broken ribs and a massively swollen ankle that might have been fractured.

Vardos began to drag himself away, moaning steadily.

Saint-Germain told himself he was being a fool, that there was no way he could help this stranger now, for the man was clearly close to death. But to leave him here was to abandon him to those who had been torturing him. As he accepted this, he lifted the man in his arms and carried him toward his waiting chariot.

His horse snorted and sidled, eyes showing whites as Saint-Germain attempted to make a place on the floor of the chariot for the unconscious man. It was a difficult task for the chariot was small and light, built to hold one standing driver. Working carefully, Saint-Germain wedged the man into the front curve of the chariot, bracing the man with his legs as he reached to drive the now-restive horse. With great care he flicked the reins and the chariot moved off through the wet afternoon toward the Porta Navalis and the slaves' prison.

It was an old building, of rough-hewn stone, and it rose in a bend of the Tiber, a grim monument surrounded by mausoleums of many ancient Roman houses. A low barracks on the south side of the prison provided the housing for the soldiers who guarded the place, and though it was technically in the care of the Watch, most of the guards were legionnaires who had been assigned to the prison as punishment.

In the officers' portion of the barracks Saint-Germain waited half an hour to see the tribune Juvines Acestes, and at the end of that time was denied. He was tempted to challenge the young, badly scarred officer who delivered the message, but contained himself: the warden of this prison and his guards had Aumtehoutep, Tishtry and Kosrozd within the walls, and his outburst of anger could only bring more hardships to them. So, though his temper seethed, he thanked the officer most patiently and went back out into the rain.

The wind was higher now, and it whipped the clouds across the sky, driving the rain in long, slanted sheets toward the ground. Saint-Germain's clothes were soaked and his horse shivered as the water streamed off his coat. Now Saint-Germain was truly glad of the earth that lined the heels and soles of his Scythian boots, protecting him from the ghastly weakness he might otherwise have felt. He turned his horse toward the east and began the slow drive toward Villa Ragoczy.

It was almost dark when at last he drew up in his own stableyard. The lamps that hung in the archway were nearly invisible in the torrential rain. Saint-Germain stepped down from the chariot and came around to his horse's head. "Good boy," he said, giving the animal an affectionate pat. "You did well." Then he turned toward the stable door. "Raides! Domius! Brinie!" he shouted, not sure that the grooms could hear him over the drumming of the rain.

The oldest groom, a grizzled old man from Londinium in Britannia, stumbled out into the rain. "Master?" he called. "We're coming. What a night!"

"And you were not driving in it," Saint-Germain snapped, at which Raides stared in surprise. Usually his master had a kind word for every service. "Stable him, rub him down, give him warm gruel to eat and be certain that he stays warm," Saint-Germain went on, patting the horse once more. "He's done more than his share of labor today."

Raides shrugged, then reached for the reins to lead the horse into the stable where he could be unhitched from the chariot out of the force of the storm, but once again Saint-Germain stopped him.

"There's a man in the chariot. Wait until I get him out." As he spoke he bent over the vehicle and pulled the emaciated, battered figure from it. "What did he do to deserve this?" Saint-Germain wondered aloud.

Because he knew from experience that not all masters had the same respect for their slaves as Saint-Germain did, Raides held his peace, though it was obvious to him that the unconscious man had been harshly used deliberately.

"He does not wear a collar," Saint-Germain pointed out.

"Collars can be removed," Raides said philosophically as he tugged the reins to pull the horse toward the stables.

"Yes, they can," Saint-Germain responded enigmatically, then turned away toward his private wing on the north side of the villa.

Three hours later he had bathed the man and examined his wounds. The infections alone were sufficient to kill him; bruising and exposure only hastened the inevitable. Saint-Germain sat beside the narrow table on which the unknown man lay. He wished that Aumtehoutep were with him. After their centuries together, the Egyptian knew him nearly as well as he knew himself. As he had saved Aumtehoutep once, so he could restore this man now.

The unconscious man took two deep, gurgling breaths, then shuddered and was still.

Saint-Germain rose. Standing over the man, he could see the waxy stillness of death begin to take hold of his features. Before morning he would be stiff, nothing more than carrion. There was a little time, very little, when it would be possible to regenerate the life in the man. It was a thing that Saint-Germain had not done for more years than he cared to count. The work was precarious-there was no room for error.

From his inlaid Egyptian chest he took certain herbs and rare spices and resins, and after a last moment of hesitation, as he remembered the three times he had attempted this restoration since he had brought Aumtehoutep back to life, he made the ritual invocations and began to work.

The sun was a golden smear in the eastern sky before the man's chest rose for breath once more. His flesh was still cold to the touch and there was a bluish cast to his hands and feet but life stirred in him again.

Satisfied that the work had been successful, Saint-Germain let exhaustion take hold of him. He moved the man to a bed, then went to his bath to soak away the tension of the night, and to search his mind for a way to explain to the unknown man, who had been dead the day before, how he came to live again.

TEXT OF A DOCUMENT FROM THE EMPEROR TITUS FLAVIUS VESPASIANUS.

To the Senate and the People of Rome, greetings:

I have considered the grave matter of the rebellious arena slaves for some time now, and have listened to the advice of those around me. My older son, in his capacity as Praetorian prefect, has pursued the matter most diligently and thoroughly, so that nothing be decided capriciously. My younger son has spoken to many of you, soliciting your thoughts and opinions, and has learned much from you that aids my decision in this difficult matter.

Those of you who have had your Roman-owned arena slaves condemned must surely know with what reluctance that command was given, and now, in the case of the foreign-owned slaves, where the law is less clear, it has required a great deal of thought and reflection to arrive at a decision in the matter. Because this situation is unique in imperial experience, and not precisely like the lamentable revolt of the last century, I am asking the Senate to add their voice to mine in this sentence. I am submitting my decision to the Senate for their vote of concurrence.

It is not an easy matter for me to declare this, as it was not easy to condemn the Roman slaves. And for this reason, among others, the case has dragged on much longer than is advisable or wise. It must be remedied quickly.

Therefore, should the Senate decide with me, the foreign slaves of foreign owners will be sent to the arena at the next imperial Games, and there they will be executed in whatever manner the Master of the Games decides is fitting. The date currently fixed for the next imperial Games is the twentieth day of April, roughly two months hence.

I am aware that there are many petitions before the Senate as regards these foreign slaves of foreign masters, and that each master is naturally anxious that decisions be made in his favor. If each of these petitions were to be considered and judged separately, it would require years and an enormous amount of time and money. Because Roman-owned slaves were not given this benefit, it would be unfair to our Roman citizens to offer to foreigners what we have not provided to our own people. We will therefore declare all such petitions as inadmissible and the owners may, at their convenience, apply to the Senate for full market compensation and reasonable losses, as was provided to Roman masters. It is not our intention to penalize the foreign slave owner, and this seems to be most equitable. Certainly there are slaves who will be condemned who are not in any way guilty of violating the laws of Rome or dishonoring their duty to their owners, but this cannot now be avoided. The matter must be settled quickly if there is to be order, and for that reason we urge the foreign arena-slave owners to accept this edict and try to understand the particular problems that have beset the empire for the last four years.

Upon ratification by the Senate, this decision is to be posted on all notice walls and published in the Acta Diurna. Further inquiries into the matter will be suspended for a period of one year. If at that time there is reason to investigate further, an order to that point will be issued.

Caesar Vespasianus

on the eighteenth day of February

in the 824th Year of the City