Memoirs of Vinca...Part Four
Two years went by.  The Emperor Marcus Aurelius had sadly passed away while in Germania, and Commodus, his mercurial, ill-tempered, reckless progeny, who had, for nine successive summers, succeeded in making all of  our lives miserable, became Emperor.  This meant he would be returning to the Imperial Palace to live full-time, a prospect I truly didn't savour.  I 'd never forgotten his threatening missive of two years before...and now,  with absolute power at his fingertips, not even Lucilla could protect me.  I was sure I'd be booted out of the Palace's employ , or worse, quite soon.  A bolt of fear struck me each time I contemplated his imminent return.  I thought of running away,  knowing deep down it was impossible.  An eighteen-year old girl stood little chance against his Praetorian lackeys.  And in any case, where could I go?  I had no money and scant prospect of earning any.  Never theless, I lay awake night after night in my alcove,  feverishly planning my escape as Hestia snored lightly beside me.
         I have to admit my plans were somewhat sketchy and dependent on the mercies of the Gods.  I could sneak out of the palace in a laundry basket, hidden beneath  piles of musty sheets.  Somehow, I would get away from Rome...I could purchase passage along the Tiber to Ostia, where my life as a slave had begun.  From there, I would hop onto a boat bound for Sardinia, Sicily or Caprae...perhaps I could  make my way to Carthage in North Africa, or  Greece,  if I had enough funds.  Then I would remember  having no money to speak of,  forcing me to entertain the possibility of selling my body once out on the streets of Rome.  I hated the idea on principle, but the prospect of forfeiting my virginity in such questionable circumstances seemed infinitely preferable to whatever Commodus had in store for me; in any case, the only other option was theft, and I couldn't bring myself to do that.  Then the whole idea would strike me as ludicrous, what with Praetorians sniffing around every corner, even in the sodden depths of laundry baskets.  I would sigh to myself, and try to go back to sleep, usually without success.
The day Commodus returned to Rome "victorious," resplendent in Imperial robes and followed by a triumphal procession of Praetorian lackeys, saw me standing on the Palace steps, outwardly immobile yet paralysed with fear inside. Various members of staff were there, including Trincula, Hestia, Cleandrus and Portia, also several Senators of note and young Lucius, who was now eleven years old.  We were instructed beforehand to bow graciously, smiles intact,  as Commodus made his grand entrance. " He's taking enough bloomin' bladder can't wait for no-one, plebian OR Emperor" grumbled Portia as she shuffled from one foot to the other in discomfort.  I saw Trincula flash an amused smile.  "You should have gone before, sweetheart" she replied.  Portia grumbled some more and tried to regain her composure.  Just then a pair of local children, bedecked in garlands and silks, rushed forward,  presenting Commodus and Lucilla with lavish clusters of flowers.  This gesture, I surmised, was supposed to represent the Emperor's so-called "bond" with the common people.  His face  wreathed in smiles, Commodus greeted the Senators, sweeping past us, the domestics, with a cursory nod. We bowed, but while Portia's insides were creased from a full bladder,  mine  were creased with fear.
During the initial month of his reign, Commodus was kept busy with official duties, holding court in the Senate, paperwork of various description. Kitchen gossips kept us reliably informed of the latest developments, but as far as I was concerned, things were too quiet for comfort.  One day, we were informed of his plans to reopen the Flavian Ampitheatre, staging a series of games in honour of his father. "Hmpf!" snorted Portia.  "Games to honour himself, more like!  His father didn't want anything to do with them gladiator games, and I for one wouldn't blame him!  How much is this folly going to cost? It's disgusting when some poor folks don't even have owt to eat!"
I took my seat in the Imperial enclosure of the hot, bristling environs of the Flavian Ampitheatre.  It was the first day of the Games, and those fortunate enough to get a ticket chattered excitedly amongst themselves.  The tension was palpable, like a monstous beating heart: outside, the mob brawled like angry children over the remaining few tickets.  I had a feeling  I wouldn't enjoy the no-doubt dreadful spectacles  soon to be revealed.  Commodus, descending from his seat,  glanced over his subcjects, gesturing as only a God would, revelling in the swelling chant of "CAESAR! CAESAR!"   Lucilla peered down at her hands, nervously twisting them in her lap.  She had been strangely quiet of late, and I had no doubt it had everything to do with her brother's ascent to power. Caution had sapped her spirit, and I hardly blamed her, since she had Lucius' welfare at heart.  Lucius was there too, peering over the balcony, his eyes curious.
A plump man with rouged cheeks and a ridiculous wig-the Master Of Ceremonies, presumably- entered the arena to the thunderous sound of African drums.  He signalled for
silence, and begin to speak,  his voice both melodious and pompous.   The crowd roared with laughter when he referred to a rag-tag group of gladiators who'd just appeared in the centre of the arena as "the Barbarian Hoard," an allusion to the Carthaginian general Hannibal's defeated armies of antiquity.
   "And now," he continued, "Caesar is proud to give you...THE LEGIONNAIRES OF SCIPIO AFRICANUS!"  
wAt the man's prompting, fifty thousand pairs of eyes swung towards the enormous gates at one end of the arena.  The gates swung open to the tumultuous sound of chariots and horses, their passengers- mostly men, with a few women added to the mix for provocation-bedecked in gold breastplates and wielding fearsome weaponry.  I watched, open mouthed, at the terrible carnage being reenacted before my eyes.  Swords flashed, blood spurted, yet the crowd were delerious with excitement, cheering, roaring, stamping their feet.  Poor Hestia, who was sitting pale- faced beside me, turned to me and said, "Vinca, I feel sick..."  Cleandrus surreptitiously passed her a small bag in which to vomit.  Luckily no-one saw her.
I stole a glance at Commodus, who had turned to the side to whisper something in Lucilla's ear.  He turned away with a cold, unfeeling smile.  I couldn't bear to watch any more of these so-called "games", so I kept my head down.  Drusus, Commodus' barber who was sitting on my other side, chuckled.  "I take it this isn't your idea of entertainment, Vinca" he said.
 "You're right" I agreed, glancing at him through narrowed eyes.  "It's barbaric and pointless, in my opinion."
"But just look at the skill.  There's some heavy-duty swordsmanship going on down there.  Look at that fellow" he said, indicating one of the "Barbarians" in the arena below.  He was sitting astride a horse, wearing some kind of helmet that partially obscured his face.  "If I didn't know better, I'd swear he's had training in the military.  Look how he commands the situation!"  Indeed, this fighter gave off the impression of being a ringleader of sorts, as the Barbarians went on the attack with almost military precision. Soon, the battle drew to a close,  the crowd roaring its approval.  By some strange historical twist, the Barbarians had triumphed!   The rouged and bewigged Master of Ceremonies was saying something to Commodus, who vacated his seat and swept int to the arena, accompanied by a dark-crested wave of Praetorians.   He waved at the crowd, smiling broadly.  He certainly knows how to work an audience, I thought.  He stopped before the man whom Drusus had indicated.  A tense hush fell over the ampitheatre, and I craned my neck to get a better view.  Was the Emperor displeased for some reason?
          I couldn't hear anything, so I can describe only what I saw.  The man rose to his feet, and Lucius ran up to his uncle.  Commodus said something to the man who, in an unprecedented gesture of defiance, turned his back on the Emperor!  The crowd gasped audibly.  Hestia sat poised on the edge of her seat, sweating, her mouth wide with disbelief.  "Oh my, he'll really be in trouble now!" she said
"Hush a moment" I replied.  "I want to know what's going on"
The man, head bowed, removed his helmet and faced the Emperor, who seemed to visibly reel, taking a step back for every step forward this mysterious gladiator took.  This was unbelievable!  A gladiator, a humble slave no less, challenging the Emperor in such an imprudent, yet breathtaking, manner!  This endeared him to the crowd even more, so  in anticipation of the thumbs-up-thumbs down expression signalling life or death, their voices rose as one, hollering  "LIVE! LIVE!"  Commodus looked around frantically, eventually giving the thumbs-up signal, like it was the most painful thing in the world for him to do.
  For several days afterwards there was no looking at Commodus.  He barricaded himself in his quarters, and no-one knew why.  His meals were returned untouched.  He snapped, unprovoked, at his dressers and personal man-and-maidservants.  On the rare occasions he appeared, his expression spoke volumes: disbelief, anger, and, dare I say it, collapse.  He wore a look of someone who had been struck hard and was only now registering the blow.  Then something unexpected happened.
It was usually Cleandrus' job to take a goblet of hot wine to Commodus' quarters late at night, which the Emperor would drink before settling down to bed, but Cleandrus had injured his foot two days ago and  was therefore unable to climb stair,s, while he waited for it to heal.  With Cleandrus out of action, I was summoned to perform the task instead.   This would be my first real interaction with Commodus since he returned to the Palace as Emperor, and, I have to say, I did not relish the prospect.  The walk to the Imperial chambers felt like the longest of my life.  I reached the vast doors, where Quintus, the stony-faced head of the Praetorians,  stood guard.
"I have brought the Emperor's wine, sir" I bowed.
Unsmiling, Quintus unlocked the door and bid me enter.  "You may go in, slave"  Tentatively, I stepped through it.  Quintus politely closed the door behind me.
I tiptoed through the vast suite of rooms, and was met with an unfamiliar sight.  Commodus was sitting on the window ledge, his head in his hands, his shoulders heaving. He was crying.
He looked up, ashamed for a second, before his expression became one of anger.  "Oh, its you," he spat contemptuously, wiping his eyes with his sleeve and trying to regain his composure.  "Where's that fool Cleandrus?"
"He has injured his foot Sire, but it will heal....I've been asked to..."
"Go away"
"Sire, is there anything wrong..."
"I said, GO AWAY!!!"
"Yes, Sire."  I bowed and turned to go.
"Yes, Sire?"
"Bring me the wine"
I brought it over to him, my hand over the rim of the goblet to prevent spillage.  He took it from me, looking at me briefly but intently. "Taste it first" he commanded.
Reluctantly, I lifted the goblet to my lips.  What if he had set up this scenario to have me poisoned,  making the foul deed look like a foiled assassination attempt?   Was this Commodus' idea of revenge?  I wouldn't have put it past him.
He giggled stupidly.  "What's keeping you, slave ? You don't think it's poisoned,  do you?"
I looked up at him over the rim of the cup, closed my eyes, and defiantly took a sip. I lifted the goblet to my lips a second time, drinking more deeply.  I waited for the excruciating pain to seep through my body, paralysing me.  It never came.  Commodus laughed.
"You see, you stupid girl," he said, taking the goblet from my hand and drinking some himself, "as you will come to appreciate  one day, your Emperor is always right.  You must never, ever question his word.  Seeing as  we are stuck together, you and I, we will have to learn to trust each other.  That was Lesson One. Lesson Two will be tomorrow"  He smiled and turned away.  He walked towards his bedchamber, then stopped.  He stood in the centre of the room, his arms wrapped tightly around himself, his body trembling.  He bent over slightly, then collapsed in racking sobs.  I rushed over to him. "Sire, is everything alright?"  For the first time, I felt genuinely concerned, if a little puzzled.  What on earth pre-empted this swift and sudden change of mood?
The incredible thing was, he didn't tell me to go away this time.  Instead, he clutched at me tightly, gasping incoherently.  "Slave, don't leave yet...everyone leaves.  Why would anyone want to hurt me? Does someone want to poison me?"  He looked up at me , his beautiful eyes feverish and glinting.  I helped him up. 
"Sire...what do you want me to do? Can I get you something?"
"No.  Just stay here with me.  I feel...quite ill...
I held him for a while, until he fell asleep.  It could be said that this event heralded the sea-change in our relationship with each other.

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