The stars above stared on indifferently and the moon cast dappled tendrils of silver light through the gloom, illuminating the tumult below. Amidst the dusty sands of ancient kings, murder was abound. Murder by ambition’s crimson decree. The cool twilight air twitched with a brittle tension as small bands of legionaries, their links of armour glinting in the pale light, negotiated the ostentatious passages and gardens of the palace. A woman’s scream rang down the halls from somewhere within the complex and was quickly smothered by a bark of malicious laughter.
A pair of soldiers paused in the middle of a vestibule off from the kitchen quarters, their sandals producing a definitive scuff upon the old masonry underfoot.
“Vulcan’s breath, all the good looking girls will be soiled.” The shorter of the two whispered. His head turned to scowl back down the hallway in the direction of the scream.
“It’s typical I get the boring orders.” He moaned, looking back at his comrade.
“That’s your problem, Drusus. Always thinking with your worm.”
The other soldier exited the room into a high-ceilinged corridor, with Drusus following suit, muttering in his native tongue as a crude means of disguising a string of oaths. Through decorated windows carved into the thick walls, the pale light of the moon outside would occasionally illuminate the crest of the taller man’s helmet, which bespoke his office.
“If you’d look at this objectively, we’ve been entrusted with the more important task.” He continued, speaking over his shoulder, “and what do you think that might mean?” His tongue worked the syllables of the common Greek lexicon of the masses with an almost imperceptibly heavy timbre, denoting his Numidian heritage.
The shorter man struggled with the question for a moment, clearly uninterested with any unseen ramifications that did not entail the warmth of a woman’s skin beneath his calloused hands. “I.. Don’t know, and I don’t care!” he added, in a sudden gush of frustration.
“A pity. If you did, you would see that promotion might just be dangling in front of at least one of our noses.” He flashed a knowing, yet trite smile at the other man. As if he were worth little more than a cursory indication of his contempt. They passed an urn stood on an ornate plinth, it’s intricate detailing lost in the inky gloom, still trudging the long corridor.
Drusus bridled with delayed indignation, flexing his thick arms threateningly, the broad shoulders rolling in their sockets. “I don’t give a rat’s arse for no damn promotion!” He fumed.
Their pace continued, the other man seemingly unphased by his inferior’s display of aggression. His delicate features did not betray even the slightest measure of alarm as he recited in a monotone, “Drusus, you will address me as befits my rank.”
“Yes, Legatus.” He spat, pouring his ire into the word, “sorry sir.”
“Much better.” Again his face remain mute of expression.
They passed more urns and plinths, whose purpose seemed only to break the uniformity of the corridor lest one be deceived by the notion that no distance had been covered. Doorways also studded the walls at symmetrical intervals and the Legate would issue his charge with inspecting the interiors. Yet he did not appear to find whatever quarry they were supposed to, as the narrow eyebrows gradually descended into a grim frown with each passing inspection.
He was beginning to suspect that little would be accomplished with his accomplice huffing and bungling about like a punch-drunk ox. They had not encountered a single person, never mind the boy they sought. Anyone within twenty paces would hear their approach and with a military coup enacted, would undoubtedly slip away before the wake of soldiers. Finally they came to a modest alcove carved into the surrounding walls, with adjoining corridors feeding in from the left and right. Motes of dust flitted lazily on the stale air, illuminated by a ray of moonlight shimmering down from an opening high above. A sombre black statue of a jackal-headed man, flanked by curved stone benches, leered at the pair from across the open space.
Drusus plodded up to the carving, the blistered lips agape slightly and thick brow furrowed.
“Hey, Oxyntas sir, who do you think this ugly bastard is?” He stuck a thick finger into one of the nostrils, as if to indicate exactly who he was referring to.
“This is not the time for a lesson in theology,” Oxyntas quipped, “now return your limited attention to the job at hand.” The dark eyes scanned the stone seats with keen intent and swept left and right to take in the murky throats of the opposing corridors.
Drusus was just about to open his yawning mouth further to protest when Oxyntas stoppered his flow of inanity with an upraised palm. The short, squat soldier was not known for his patience and what little remained at this point had just about trickled away. The wide eyes bulged like a boiled frog and the thick shoulders rolled menacingly. Yet Oxyntas just thumped the air with his aloft hand for silence again.
Spittle glistening on his lips, Drusus took a solid step forward, “You’re not the bleeding Consul yet Oxyntas, you can’t-”
Whatever it was Drusus thought he couldn’t do, he clearly could as Oxyntas made a violent motion with both arms downwards, leaving the palms parallel to the ground. He hissed insistently, then motioned with a tilt of his head to the left. With apparent effort, Drusus eventually caught on and clapped his mouth shut. There had been a noise. It had been so innocuous, as to be irresistibly curious to Oxyntas’ sensitive intuition. Had it been a servant or a slave, even a freedman of little importance, upon hearing their voices they would have ran. Yet to stay and hide would suggest they might yet further have a purpose within the palace. A thief? No. Too soon for wanton looting, they would not dare whilst the lions still fed upon the carcass. It had to be.. It had to be..
The wooden door careened backward on its hinges, slamming into the inside wall, producing an angry report.
In the black oblivion of the interior, a tremulous voice cried out before their eyes could adjust, “Ahh-aahhh! Please, no- I, I’m just a slave! I-I was scared a-a-and,” the voice devolved into a burble of hysterical grovelling. After a moment, Oxyntas spied the slick dome of a man’s head, bowed low to the ground, his figure obscured by a ragged cloak. The incomprehensible mewling issuing from the clutched hands at his face seemed to amuse Drusus, who snickered thickly.
Oxyntas surveyed the slave through guarded eyes, hiding his shared amusement. As a child, mentally torturing his father’s slaves had been a favourite game of his.
“Drusus, slap some sense into this wretched creature.” he said whilst his eyes took in the rest of the interior. They were stood in a small storeroom, likely used housing equipment for manual labour. Dust and sand had settled in mixed quantities upon crates and shelves, and dense sheaves of rushes stood protruding from some of the barrels behind the slave. Drusus manhandled the slave by the nape of his cloak, wrenching his head up and out of his hands to reveal an owner’s mark upon his temple. The large eyes contracted in fear as Drusus’ meaty fist swung at his abdomen. He bent double, wheezing and gagging, his arms wrapping about his torso.
Oxyntas rolled his eyes impatiently, “Drusus, the idea is to make them talk, not render them incapable of doing so.”
Drusus grunted in reply, as if unconcerned. He then opened his fist and wound the arm back, preparing a hard slap to the cheek.
“P-please k-k-kind sir! I’ll tell you anything! We slaves learn of many things when running beneath the feet of our masters and none h-has a b-better ear than I.” He babbled blithely.
It is not unheard of for a slave to develop a dependency on their servitude. Amongst the more affluent circles, slaves are often graced with a better quality of life than the average civilian. Hence such lucky stock typically become appreciative towards their masters and respect that was once owed by decree of ownership, toward property and person, becomes sincere and offered earnestly. This was evidently not the case with this particular slave; that he would so readily yield his master’s secrets at the merest brush of violent coercion.
Drusus relaxed the tension in his outstretched arm slightly. The slave’s face was painted in wet streaks of tears, the black ink around his eyes running freely as he looked imploringly at the brute’s handler.
Oxyntas did not deign make eye contact with the man, instead still scouring the contents of the room, “We are looking for a boy, the firstborn son of your late Queen.”
“Ahh-ah, the boy Caesarian?” His tone was cloying and simpering and Oxyntas intimated that this was the voice in which he addressed his superiors, if not everyone.
“Do not play stupid with me, I get enough of that as it is. You know very well that is his name now stop prevaricating and speak!” Oxyntas’ was steadily growing irritated with the piteous creature.
Drusus lifted the outstretched palm higher with a hopeful glance back over his shoulder.
“No, no! Wait- No, I mean yes, I know that is his name. Only I have not seen him since before we heard our beloved and most gracious Queen had departed for the afterlife.” The eyes grew larger at his insistence, yet found no mercy nor even interest from the darker pair that still refused to meet his gaze.
“Liar.” Oxyntas stated dispassionately.
Drusus took the word as an order, scoring a resounding blow across the slave’s mouth and leering gleefully at the terror evident on his face.
The slave wailed, his lip split mixing blood and saliva that dribbled down his chin, “I beg of you sir, please! It is the truth! Deceit is beaten out of slaves at a young age.”
The irony was not lost on Oxyntas, whose mouth grew taut with the ghost of a smile. Drusus cocked his head thoughtfully, “One more sir?” he inquired, clearly enjoying himself at last. When no answer was forthcoming he knew what was meant and lashed the slave again with a savage backhand, sending him sprawling backwards where he crumpled to the ground blubbering.
Oxyntas, having absorbed all the information the room had to offer, finally rested a cold stare upon the slave’s shaking figure. Drusus merely looked to his superior, as he decided whether to believe the slave or not. For a long, painful while the only sounds were his muted sobs as Oxyntas weighed the strength of his rhetoric and his character. Then, without a word, Oxyntas swivelled decisively on his heel and stalked out of the room with Drusus following obediently.
Surero moaned into his sleeve for a further minute, until he could be sure the soldiers were gone. Tentatively, he raised his head slightly. They had left the door wide open and through the portal he could see the opposing wall. The light from outside was just enough to see about his feet as he picked himself up, hitching the linen bedsheet back up over the opulent garments of a favoured, royal slave. His hands still shook with the adrenaline that had racked him moments before and he sucked petulantly at the still weeping rent in his lip.
He then jumped, clapping a hand to his mouth to prevent a scream as a muffled voice emanated from one of the barrels behind him.
“Are they gone now, Orkh? Is it safe?”