Memoirs Of Vinca
Part V
jOne  week later, I was sweeping the pathways of the Imperial Gardens when I heard a voice behind me.
I turned, and there stood Commodus, shifting nervously from one foot to the other, as if I were a stranger. It was a sunny morning, albeit tempered by a light breeze.  Commodus rubbed the tops of his arms to warm them. 
It was the first time he'd bothered to use my first name.  "What can I do for you, Sire?" I asked.
"I...I thought I'd come outside to see how you are...." He spoke tentatively, a little nervously.  He smiled shyly, looked down, and peered up at me again, his eyes bright. "In truth, Vinca, I wanted...I wanted to thank you for helping me the other night, when I...when I was ill."
Now this was a first! The Emperor Commodus thanking a slave... and furthermore,  one he didn't seem to like very much!  What was his motive? Did he even have one?
I bowed. "I am honoured, Sire." I went back  to my sweeping.
"Vinca, put the brush down and walk with me awhile"
I  turned to look at him , putting down the brush with more than a little caution.  I was only too familiar with his irascibility and sudden mood changes.  I grudgingly acknowledged that this unexpected display of nicety might well be a precursor of something far more hostile in intent. Neverthless, I walked over to him as he beckoned, aware that regardless of everything, he was still the Emperor, and to disobey him would be like walking straight into a fire.
"I'd like to talk to you Vinca.  Get to know you a little better.  I am aware that in the past we have had our...moments, shall we say, but I would like to harbour good relations with all my staff now I am Emperor.  I need a strong and productive workforce behind me. I have...great plans for the Empire." He did not look at me as he spoke.
We strolled at a leisurely pace, in silence, for a long moment. Then he spoke again.
"Tell me about Britannia" he said. "That is where you were born, was it not?"
"Yes Sire, I was"
"I hear it is a terribly cold and desolate place"
"It was my birthland, so I acclimatised in the cradle, Sire"
"Is it an ugly place?"
"It depends on how your eye is trained, Sire. Some parts are beautiful, lush and green.  There are rivers, and streams, and mountains...not great ones like the mighty Alpine peaks, but they have a beauty all their own"
"Do you miss it?"
"I can hardly recall it, Sire"
"Of course.  You were left there as a young girl.  How ignorant of me. I apologise, it must have been difficult for you."  He reached out to touch my shoulder, then dropped his hand, a little ashamedly, I thought.
We kept walking. "Even the most beautiful places in the world can seem cold and desolate when one is lonely," he said, his eyes hard.  I had the strangest feeling he was talking about himself,  and in spite of all that had gone before, I felt for him.
He stopped then and looked directly at me. "You acclimatised in the cradle, Vinca.  That means you are strong."
"Pardon my ignorance Sire, but I don't understand"
"We are so different, Vinca....and yet, we are more alike than you realise.  You were born strong;  I, on the other hand, was not.  Yet we have both had to fight for respect,  for a reasonable existance"
"I haven't fought for anything, Sire. I simply get on with things and let life take care of itself. In many ways I am fortunate; I have a mattress to lie upon, a roof over my head and indeed, what a roof! I have three meals a day and clean water to drink.  Many people don't even have that"
"Oh, but you have fought, Vinca; in your own way you are as tough as the mightiest gladiator who ever set foot in the Flavian Ampitheatre.   You were taken from your family against your will and theirs, then enslaved.  You may never see your family again.  Every day is a battle for you...yet you bear it without complaint. You have endured, and that is fascinating.  I was born into privilege, but I have learned some harsh lessons.  We are both alone in the world, but alas, so disparate in circumstance!"
He left then, and I pondered his words.  His constant self pity was infinitely trying, yet there was truth in his words...and I was left with a new insight, namely that sometimes the mountain's pinnacle is the most desolate, most dangerous and lonely place of all.
That day, before leaving me, he'd said he would call for me if he needed me.  I was puzzled, but didn't let it worry me too much.  I secretly savoured the moment we'd had in the garden, and time spent worrying about his motives would have spoiled it for me. Things got back to normal in due course.
One night I had just settled down to bed when I felt a hand touch my shoulder. I jumped. It was a Praetorian. "The Emperor wishes to speak with you." he said.  Hurriedly, I kicked off my snarled bedclothes and dashed to my water-bowl to wash my face, making myself more presentable.  The guard politely turned his back as I scrambled into my simple gown.  I was about to put up my hair when the guard, sensing I was dressed, turned around. "Hurry" he commanded. "Caesar does not like to be kept waiting." I slid my feet into my sandals but left my hair loose, flowing to my waist in a wavy curtain of flame.  I hoped Commodus would not scold me for appearing before him with hair unkempt.
However, as I followed the guard through the corridors, n I began to feel uneasy.  What if he'd misinterpreted our amiability in the garden as evidence of devotion to him, and was looking to use this "factor" to blackmail me into spying for him, perhaps even on my fellow members of staff?  I knew, from first hand experience, how manipulative he could be.  In anticipation, I revived my long-abandoned plan of escape in the back of my mind.
But what if...what if there was another reason for him wanting to "see" me?  I was aware that on occasion my fellow slaves - male and female - had been summoned from their beds in order to "service" the Emperor, yet I had never been.  In fact, one night I even saw Hestia creep back into bed, her face pinched and worried.  She grabbed me by the shoulders.  "Please don't tell Cleandrus!" she croaked, urgency in her voice.  I knew very well where she had been.  Cleandrus had been in the same place exactly two nights before. Obviously, I couldn't tell her.
We arrived at the door to the Emperor's chambers.  The guard signalled for me to stay put while he went inside. "She is here, Sire" I heard him say.
"Bring her in, Atticus"
He was sitting at his desk, his eyes shadowed with what looked like exhaustion. I bowed. "Sire."
"Come , Vinca. Sit." He indicated the seat on the opposite side of the desk. I took the seat, trying not to look apprehensive.
He fixed me with his luminous eyes. "You may recall that I said I would call for you if I needed to speak to you."  He sounded serious, as if giving a dictation.  "That time has come." He leaned back in his chair, looking at me intently, as if daring me to reply."
"Permission to speak, Sire?"
"You may"
I took a deep breath. "Pardon me Sire, but surely nothing I have to say could possibly be of interest to you.  I am but a mere slave, and you would surely benefit from rest rather than my humble company..."
"Oh don't be so silly, Vinca. I simply wish to speak with you. By the Gods, I don't expect you to address the Senate for me or anything like that!  And moving off the subject, do stop that ridiculous bowing every time you open your mouth.  It vexes me so.  Anyway, just because you are a slave doesn't mean you have no opinions.  You are a very bright girl, and I enjoy your company.  So come through to my room, and we will talk."
Gingerly, I followed him.  He asked me to pour him some wine, "and to get some for yourself."  I was astonished.  We perched on the edge of the bed.  Was he going to try to seduce me? I reluctantly concluded that the idea was not as distasteful as it would have once seemed.
But he didn't.  We talked for a while, and he confessed that he was very tired, but he couldn't sleep.  He asked me about my hair.
"What an extroardinary colour it is!" he said. "And so abundant, so thick! Do you put henna on it?"
"No Sire, it is all natural"
More wine was poured. My head began to feel light. I felt more carefree than I had done for some time. "So," Commodus asked. "What hidden talents does our wonderful Vinca profess, in additon to her considerable domestic ones?"  He looked at me teasingly.
"I, er, I could try to sing for you..."
"Sing for me?" He burst into peals of laughter. "Can you sing?" 
"Well, as I said Sire, I could try..."
"Very well." He clapped his hands together with delight. "Go ahead.  Sing for me"
So I did. It was an old Briton folk song, sweet, melodious and haunting. When I finished, Commodus was smiling, shaking his head in amazement.
"Ah, a woman of multiple talents.  Come, lie here with me, Vinca.  Sing me to sleep"
I lay down on the bed.  Smiling, he nestled closer, putting his arm around me.  I fliched, and to his credit, he noticed. He gazed up at me.  "I'm not going to...take advantage of you Vinca, of that you can be sure. I don't want that with you. Sing for me instead."  I relaxed, and began to sing.
It was another folk song, this one reminiscent of a lullaby, evocative of soft, undulating breeze, of whispering snow,  of sad, silent clouds in gentle procession.  Needless to say, the song brought back memeories, and I lost myself in it.  I looked down at Commodus. His eyes were wet with tears.
"My mother used to sing to me" he said.