Memoirs of Vinca
I was put to work in the kitchens,
scrubbing the floor, scouring pots, fetching heavy buckets of water from the
well in the Palace courtyard. The work was arduous, backbreaking.
Each night I collapsed on to the mattress in my tiny sleeping alcove,
aching all over from the day's exertions. My efforts must
have pleased Trincula, for soon I was "promoted," if one may be so
bold as to say so, to what we dutifully termed as "upstairs tasks."
This meant I would be responsible, along with the other "upstairs
workers", for cleaning the vast rooms, corridors and hallways of the
Palace itself. For the first time I was truly afraid; these duties meant
I would be interacting directly with the Imperial Family . I was
terrified of leaving even the tiniest speck of dust, of accidentally breaking
a vase, bust or statue. I tried to block my fears and
got on with the tasks laid out before me. It was all I could do.
I haven't yet described the
Imperial Family to you, so I will do so now. There was the
Emperor himself, white-haired and elderly; once a strong and active man, he
nowadays had difficulty with his mobility. His name was
Marcus Aurelius, although we had to call him "Sire." He seemed
pleasnt enough; in fact, he spent most of his time at the palace in the
comforting enclosure of his chambers, writing at his desk. Sometimes
I would be kneeling on the floor of his chambers, darning a robe, or
scuttling around busily, dusting cloth in hand, as he wrote. He never
spoke harshly to me; in fact, he hardly spoke to me at all, except to request another
cup of hot tea, place another log on the fire or to compliment
me on a job well done. He was very gracious, and I thought him a fine
There was also Lucilla, his eldest
child, her husband Verus, and their two-year old son Lucius.
Lucilla was exquisite, tall and slender like the branch of a willow-tree, with
abundant honey-coloured hair, wide-set green eyes, and an intelligent brow.
Her husband Verus was a fine, strong featured man with curly blond hair.
They seemed happy together, although I once overheard a conversation between
Trincula and Portia, the cook, that cast doubts on my observation....
"The Lady looked a
little peaky today when I gave her her breakfast," Trincula remarked.
"That wouldn't surprise me.
She hasn't been really happy for a long time, not since you-know-who married
his childhood sweetheart, Hmpf!" Porti's mouth formed a
tight line. She began to stir the contents of a pot
"Oh come on, Portia. Any
fool can see she adores Verus. You can see it in her eyes...having said
that, she married him quickly, not long after you-know-who flew the coop...you
don't think she married Verus on the rebound, do you?"
"I'm saying nothing"
Portia replied, her face indignant, but her eyes spoke volumes.
"You were the one who found that love poem to Centurion
Maximus on her dresser while cleaning her quarters, so work it out for
"But that was a long time
ago! Hmmm, on second thoughts, you could be right...Vinca? Come here. Can
you fetch us some more pots please?"
The Emperor also had a son,
Commodus, whom I had never seen. He was living at the
family villa in Tuscany, under the dutiful care of nurses and tutors. He
was due to return to the palace soon, and so I was anxious to meet him.
One morning, I was rushing along
the main corridor, bearing a heavy bucket filled with water. My duty was
to scrub the floors outside the Imperial Chambers. I had to move swiftly
because, as I said, the bucket was rather heavy, and I feared I would drop it
before reaching my destination. Rounding a corner, I promptly
collided with a boy about my age, who was, until then, swinging a wooden
sword in the corridor. Needless to say, I dropped the bucket,
water sloshing all over his feet and mine.
"You great, clumsy fool!"
he screamed. Shocked by the vehemence of his words , I
blinked, trying to regain my composure, straightening up to get a proper
look at him. The boy continued his tirade against me. "Are
all slaves as careless and ignorant as you?" He glared
at me, his fierce little face contorted.
"I-I'm sorry..." I
managed to mutter. The boy was small for his age, a finger's-width
shorter than I in those days. His hair was dark, wavy, somewhat
unkempt, his skin alabaster-pale; but it was his eyes that astounded me.
They were the colour of stormy teal, a luminescent turquoise, full of strange
lights and shadows. I can honestly say that I have never
encountered a pair of eyes to match them, before or since. Over them lay
a pair of haughty black brows like the wings of a raven. The upper
lip of his insolent mouth bore a strange scar, adding an interesting
dimension to his features, like a sudden flash of gold in marble. He was
the most hauntingly beautiful young man I had ever seen.
I thought he was the son of a
Senator, or of one of the Emperor's many guests. Whoever he was, I
thought, he clearly needed a lesson or two in manners, despite me being his
inferior. Then a thick-set man emerged from a nearby doorway.
"Come, Master Commodus," he said, "it is time for your grammar
The boy spun round. "Oh,
do I have to, Castillus?" he whined.
"Your father will be
displeased if you don't attend the lesson, Sire." said
Smashing his sword against the wall
in temper, the mercurial youth turned on his heel and stalked after the man,
pausing in the doorway to stick his tongue out at me.
That was my first encounter with
the heir to the throne, the young man who, once grown to manhood, would change
my life forever.
About a week later, I
overheard yet another conversation between Trincula and Portia. Here
is how it went:
"I tell you, Trincula, he's
growing into a right nasty little so-and-so! I tell you, if he was one
of mine, I-I'd give him a good hiding, that what I'd do! Doesn't
his father bother to check him?"
"His father's hardly ever
there to check him" sighed Trincula. "Be fair, Portia, he took
it bad when his brother passed away, and his mother not long after. It's
no surprise he's been ...difficult"
They were talking about Commodus,
who'd apparently flung a drink in the face of Cleandrus, a young
male servant, claiming he had asked for something else. Furthermore,
he'd kicked poor little Hestia on the shin, because she'd failed to spot
a discarded pear core under his bed while cleaning his chamber.
Poor Hestia was presently perched on a stool in floods of tears, having her
injured leg bandaged. I said nothing, but I was well aware of Commodus'
cruelty. He was horrible to me. He was horrible to everyone.
He was a bully and, like all bullies, a coward. Over the years, we came
to dread his visits to the Palace. All of us were relieved each
time he got into his chariot and returned to the family's Tuscan villa.
I got the distinct impression his family was relieved too, particularly his
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