It was said on numerous occasions that the good Roman citizens cared about only two things: bread and entertainment. No one had clarified that, in truth, the people cared mostly about entertainment. Unlike bread, quality fun never went stale.
Cumulus had never witnessed, much less participated in, traditional merriment of the Romans. He felt slightly overwhelmed however, when he set off towards the Coliseum early in an afternoon and soon encountered a great crowd that headed in the same direction.
The Coliseum bubbled with life, pretty much like a Wal-Mart during the grand opening. Beer bellied fathers with dark, sunburned skin, dressed in Saturday best trailed behind their large bosomed wives, who in turn yelled at their unruly children. Countless junk food stalls, selling hot dogs, pizzas or ‘Nubian roast specials’ emanated a crematorium stink of burning flesh or cheesy, onion-pregnant fumes. Young teenagers with spiky hairdos and fake tattoos on their forearms were walking in twos or threes, scowling at their elders and betters, or eyeing passing girls. Elderly pairs whose appearance spelled a ‘professional librarian’ or, even worse, a ‘schoolteacher’ shot alarmed glances towards the less cultured citizenry, engaged in unwholesome activities. Groups of soldiers enjoyed their last jug of wine before the show at numerous wine stalls, attracting wistful sideway glances from solid family men, whose health, or wives, or both, prevented them from the joys of drinking. Wealthy people arrived in litters, carried by their slaves, inspiring considerable envy in everyone. In short, it was a typical early Saturday afternoon before a big gladiator fight.
Cumulus was squeezing and elbowing his way through the crowd, trying to locate the main entrance, when he spotted the large figure of his friend, looming behind a bared area further ahead, by the Coliseum wall. Cletius seemed to be deeply engrossed in the process of reading something from a much-crumbled piece of parchment. His honest and normally docile face was twisted by rage so much it looked like a mask from a Greek tragedy. The rumble of his voice resembled an awakening volcano.
- Fucking script! – he bellowed, once Cumulus approached him, - They gave us these new scripts, see? And I cannot get not a single damned word straight! Who the hell wrote it? Some unemployed poet?
- Can I help you with it? – volunteered Cumulus.
- Nah, thanks juss’ the same, pal. It doesn’t matter. What pisses me off however is that the boss knows I’m not a lit’rary person and still he gives us these! Just look at it! ‘Walk valiantly toward the enemy without dropping your gait!’ Huh? How d’you like it? What the hell is a ‘gait’ and how to walk ‘valiantly‘? Shall I be wriggling my ass like a prostitute or somethin’ like that?
- No, it means walking bravely, see?
- All right then.
- And the gait means a manner of walking.
- Then why the fuck they couldn’t juss’ say ‘walk straight and be brave’ or somethin’? Why put all these shit in the writing? Not that I am completely illiterate guy, mind, but I’ve killed a good part of my mornin’ just trying to understand this! Do I look like a reader to you or something?
- Well, no…
- Do I look like a damned bookworm? A fucking professor? I’m a gladiator through and through! Any fool can spot that! I tell you, pal, they do it out of spite. See, they wanna drive us harder for the miserable pay we are getting! Oh well, that’s life for you, mate. No peace for a working man! And how are you doing today? That bloodsucker of your restaurant manager really let you have a free day then.
- Well, actually he fired me this morning.
- Did he? Damn! What luck! So you’ll be looking for work again, huh?
- Maybe. I guess I’ll…
- And where are you staying now?
- I’ve met this lady and…
- Hah! Lady, huh? Way to go man, way to go! And did you check out those coach surfers I told ya ‘bout?
- Yeah but…
- No-good bunch of fools, are they? I thought as much! And who in his right mind would let some guy from the street snooze on his couch, come to think of it, huh? Anyway, lemme get out of here and I’ll show you the way in, all right?
- Juss’ wait here, man! I’ll be with ya in a moment.
Cumulus turned around and started watching the crowd. It crossed his mind that he was getting used to his perpetual confusion. After all, it didn’t really matter, what you remembered, it was important what you were able to forget.
* * * *
Half an hour later Cletius accompanied him through the entrance and to the upper level to the row of free seats.
- So you’ll be all right then, - Cletius said, - Well, enjoy the show and keep an eye for me. I’ll be fighting in the second sequence, with Wild Gauls.
- All right. Thanks, Cletius.
-You’re welcome, pal. Enjoy the show.
- Will I see you after the fight?
-I recon so. The boys´d want to hit the town after work so I’ll show you my crew, so to speak, and we’ll have a few drinks and then we’ll see… All right, I’ll be off then.
The circus was filling up fast. Cumulus had a persisting feeling that it reminded him of …Well, he could not tell exactly what the rows of spectators reminded him of, yet the feeling of a vague recognition buzzed inside his skull like a beginning of a headache. He rubbed his temples and sighed.
Meanwhile, the rows of spectators exploded in loud cheers. There was a commotion on the biggest balcony, then somebody shouted ‘Hail the Emperor! Hail Caesar!’ and everybody started to chant ‘Caligula! Caligula!’
Cumulus squinted at the dressed in a snow-white toga crowned guy who was leaning on the balcony rail and waiving to the crowd. There were more cheers and chants; then the announcer, occupying the next, smaller balcony, roared:
- Hello again, the people of Rome! Welcome to the show! Thanks to the kindness and exceptional care of our beloved Caesar and his foundation for entertainment and sports, today we are proud to present an extra special program! The first number of our show is…’ The man made a dramatic pause and yelled,
- The star of one hundred deadly fights, the famous Pigeon! Give the guy your hearty welcome, folks!
The public exploded in cheers and catcalls once again while the big wooden gates, leading to the arena, opened and out of them ran a group of scantily clad girls. They formed two lines and began to perform bodily jerks, while shaking something that looked like bunches of feathers, high above their heads. The next moment a group of heavily armed men emerged from the gates and trotted to one side. The crowd hollered. Cumulus, half deafened by the new wave of catcalls, stared at the fighters in a morbid fascination. His heart was pounding and his hands were shaking. ‘Maximus, Maximus!’ he mumbled, transfixed by the sight, then gasped, startled by the sound of what he had uttered. He began to feel terribly dizzy and looked around himself while the powerful voice of the announcer reverberated in his ears.
‘Here comes the barbarian team! The leader of barbarians- you can easily recognize him by the red beard and the evil grin on his beastly face- spells out the last orders to his teammates! Yes! They seem so sure of themselves right now! They stretch their wiry limbs and attempt to form a fighting line but what can barbarians know about any such things? Huh! Just wait and see. They’ll surely try their favorite trick – to fall on their opponent like a pack of hungry wolves but don’t fret! We will find out soon enough what the good guys can achieve. Aha! Here comes our hero and his unbeatable brave boys! Here! Here! Look!’
Another group of armed men emerged from the gate and started to run across the arena in a single file. The man at the head of it wore a strange outfit, adorned with what looked like a grotesque pair of wings, flapping on his sides. The upper part of his face was hidden by a mask and his breastplate bore some symbol. He waived to the crowd, showing off his astonishingly muscular frame. The circus broke into applauses.
‘Pigeon! Pigeon! Pigeon!’
‘And here our great Pigeon, ‘– announcer was almost howling, ‘The fighters are taking their prospective positions now. In a few moments the fight will begin.’
‘Pigeon! Pigeon! Pigeon!’
‘All right! The opponents are rising their shields and… Yes! They run towards each other. Ah! What a crush! The barbarian on the far left flank goes down. Wow! Good thrust! Blood is gushing from the fellow by buckets! Here you go! Another of their team is down. Way to go, guys, way to go! The blond barbarian tries to balance on his knee while he is counter blocking two guys at once but… Oh, no! Now the fellow in the yellow helmet, a guy from Pigeon’s team is down. What a shame. But wait! Pigeon himself is making a good progress towards the enemy leader. Watch the Red Beard! Hah! He seems to be a brave enough fella but he clearly lacks in the art of maneuver. Yeah! Yeah! Get him, man! Once more! Way to go! Aaaaaaahh! True to his name, Pigeon literary flies above his enemies! Go, man! Go, go, go! Yes! The Red Beard is down! Hurrah! For just a moment Pigeon stumbles on someone’s arm but regains his balance and goes on. What a wild show! I wonder, whose arm is it? Fighters perform the swordplay at such a close range that it is impossible to see who else is down. It looks like it is getting more and more difficult to fight down there – the whole area is now littered with dead or dying bodies, cut off limbs and whatnot. Aha! A huge barbarian bodily picks up his opponent, raises him in the air and hurls him into the midst of Pigeon’s team, or at least what is now left of Pigeon team. Hah! Hah! Hah! Nice move but I doubt it helps. Yes! Pigeon cuts him down with his sword like a rotten tree. The fight is nearly over. Get them, guys, get them! All right! It seems like there are only two barbarians left alive. Both of them are badly wounded. They surrender! A victory! Shall Pigeon let them go or shall he kill them? That’s always a million-sestercii question. Let’s hear what the people say!’
‘Aha! The people demand death but what is the opinion of the Caesar? Hah! He shakes his head and points his thumb up. The barbarian scoundrels will live then! Hurrah to the Caesar!’
‘Hurrah!’ – echoed the crowd.
‘And now, ladies and gentlemen – a thirty-minute break before the second show!’
* * * *
He was a man to be reckoned with. In fact, he was THE MAN. Even a slightest frown on his pallid face, aimed at a fat senator, a consul, a priest or a wealthy aristocrat threw these unfortunates into paroxysms of panic. Yet he was a man with a sense of humor, although it seemed that practically no one was able to appreciate it. People simply grew scared. They started to mutter in a trembling voice, stutter or turned dull waiting for whatever they had pictured was coming. They were dumb and deaf to the intricate art of Pranks of the Naughty God. But then, they were not Gods. He was a God. It hardly mattered if they believed in him or not as long as he had his way. And he always had his way.
He beckoned the General of the Praetorian Guards to step closer and said:
- Say, Gallicus, how old do you recon this fellow Pigeon is.
- I can find out for certain, sire, but I believe he is around forty.
- Forty? Oh, no, you don’t say. He looks like an old man to me.
- I agree, sire. He looks rather old indeed.
- I believe I’ve watched him fighting so many times during this year, and the previous one too… yet he is still alive and well. He does appear to be quite well, general, doesn’t he?
- Yes, sire. He looks healthy enough.
- You know, it just crosses my mind that he truly reminds me of an old actor, a famous actor at that, who has been around for only Gods know how long, and so everybody has grown accustomed to his face and seems to like him, and yet you cannot help but wonder ‘When are you going to retire?’. Isn’t it so, General?
- Quite true, sire.
- I think we should ask him to take part in the second sequence as well, what do you think, Gallicus?
- Do you mean, sire, that you want him to join the Wild Gauls or …
- To fight on the side of the Untamed African Animals, you wanted to say.
- Hmm, yes, sire. Precisely that, sire.
- Personally, I feel the poor and still untamed African Animals can do with some help from our everlasting hero.
- I will let him know your wish right away, sire.
- Thank you, Gallicus. You do that. In the name of Priapus, you are a truly professional fellow.
The face of Claudius Gallicus reddened but he quickly masked it with a happy smile, bowed deeply and withdrew.
- Run, fool, run, while you still have legs to run with, - smirked Caligula and took a delicate sip of his wine.
* * * *
Cletius was sitting at a small table, struggling to get drunk but his thoughts were somewhere else, but he remained painfully sober. The place was the favorite gladiatorial hangout, which meant that the service was quick and sloppy; the air reeked of sweat and beer tried to mask itself as a testosterone cocktail. ‘The Boys’ eyed him wearily but refrained from comments. It was one of not-so-rare times when Cletius needed to talk to someone. He nodded to Cumulus - a faithful, but a noncommittal listener and said,
- That is why I hate this job, pal. Well, I guess I don’ need to go into the dirty details, since you saw everything but shit! How did you like it, huh? I ask you, how did you like it?
Cumulus shrugged. Cletius banged the table with his fist and went on.
- Well, I recon these so called Wild African Animals were OK. Did you know that a half of them were specially trained, huh? I mean, there’s no harm in that if you wanna a good show but don’t want to damage people and your prop..propprty, but shit, man! When an old lion starts pissing in a corner and tries to go to asleep, I call it cheating, man. As simple as that! On the other hand, I still don’ unnestan why they told us to dress up like clowns in this fucking outfit with furs and so on. Wild Gauls, huh? Wild Gauls my ass! I wonder if any of them management bastards ever saw a real Gaul. I mean there are plenny of Gauls in this damned city but oh well… I’m talking ‘bout a real fighting Gaul, you know. And here we were, just a bunch of clowns! Well, a coupla tigers were fierce enough. Three of our boys are badly scratched but Pigeon! I know who ordered him to go and fight!
Cletius lowered his voice and hissed,
- This Great Caesar of ours, that’s who! A crazy bastard! I mean, everybody knows he’s as loony as a loony bin! Sleeps with his own sisters. And that’s not political news any more, mind! Fucks boys right and left but it’s juss’ small stuff. I’ve heard he’s got him some older dude who also fucks him. Can ya picture all these shit? Besides… I don’ know juss’ how many good people he killed, a dirty scum! He and his fucking praetorians… Secret police… Oh man! He does it easily, seems like, I mean, killing people and shit… Just like this very afternoon. But what I am babbling about? You saw that shit yourself!
- No, I didn’t see anything strange. What’s happened?
- Ah! Yeah, right. You couldn’t see anything ‘cause it happened not on the arena but later, in the locker room. Well, did you notice Pigeon’s got hisself this huge cut on his head?
- Yes, I’ve noticed but I didn’t notice who did it to him.
- Hah! All I can say, pal, that it wasn’t me. Oh, no sir! A good fighter as I am, I am no match for that guy, lemme tell you. I mean, I’ve got me professional pride, man but I am a just guy, you see. Never badmouthed talented people. But anyway, where was I? Ah, yes! So he’s got this cut on his head but it was OK. Then listen what happened! Did you see him approaching Caligula right after the fight? Juss’ went on and gave the bastard a salute. Did you see it?
- Sure, I saw it.
- Then listen here. Caligula comes forward and approaches the guy. It looks like he’s telling him something, maybe compe…compelimenting! him on his skill and all that shit. Then he takes a tiny bottle out of his snow white toga, opens it and pours a bit of what’s inside right on Pigeon head, right on his bleeding cut. And everything seems all right except ten minutes later Pigeon goes back to the locker room, starts taking off his armor and shit and falls down dead as a stone! I mean, they summoned a doctor, right enough, and do you know what the doctor said?
- That the poor guy was poisoned! There was plenty of that shit in this wound of his, can you imagine? I am asking you, why this crazy bastard did him in? Huh? I mean, why? Pigeon was a hero! And he went and poisoned the guy right in front of everybody. And no one noticed! I call it a bloody crime, man. That’s why I am so sad. That’s the kind of business I am in, man! It’s a bloody shame.
- Oh, my!
- Yeah, man. Drink your beer and let’s get another, while we´re still alive!
* * * *
Cletius was staggering along an obscure alley. He stopped for an occasional break and cursed his temporary weakness. He managed to get wasted at last but the drunkenness failed to bring him consolation. He squinted at the shadowy perspective of the nearest corner and cursed loudly, as he caught a sight of two silhouettes, standing there. It looked highly suspicious. The taller one who pushed against the wall, was giggling and arguing subsequently, while a smaller and a fatter one was making somewhat futile attempts to grab the taller one around the middle. Cletius stepped closer and listened.
- Oh, come on, honey! Don´t be coy with me, all right? I am a good guy and I am a believer! – croaked the smaller figure, who was obviously a man. Cumulus, who had departed earlier in the evening, would have been able to recognize him at once. The other person, dressed as a woman, giggled in a rather low voice and replied:
- Chill off, darling. I’ve got to go now. Maybe we meet tomorrow.
- I cannot possibly wait till tomorrow, or my name is not Nikodimos, - replied Nikodimos sullenly,- My body is simply on fire, as it is. In the name of Priapus, stop fooling around, sweet. I fell in love with you the moment I saw you at that tavern. Now, what is your problem?
A woman cackled and pushed Nikodimos away with an unwomanly force. The unfortunate couch surfer nearly fell off his feet.
- Shit! What are you doing? – He roared, gaining his balance and lowering the head threateningly, - You wanna piss me off? I’ll show you a thing or two, then!
Cletius released a roar and darted forward.
- Hey, you punk! Leave a good girl alone! – He snarled, seized Nikodimos by the collar of his flashy toga and bumped him against the wall. The couch surfer wailed and tried to wriggle out of the gladiator’s grip. At this moment, Cletius suddenly realized that he finally found a proper relief for this evening and began to shake his victim, lifting him up and holding his plump body well above the ground.
- Don’t you fuck with me, rapist! I am a pro killer, - He growled.
- Help! Help!
Nikodimos gasped and thrashed in the air, like a fish on a fishing rod. The woman, whose honor Cletius was protecting, broke into squawks of laughter. Then something strange happened. Cletius blinked, as a mighty blow hit his head from behind. He let go of Nikodimos, turned around and froze at the sight of four men, dressed in black. The men stepped forward and seized the gladiator’s arms, then twisted them behind his back. Cletius groaned and tried to shake the men off but it was virtually impossible.
He fell on his knees and growled, as the men tied his hands securely and punched his face a couple times. Nikodimos squealed and broke into a run. Meanwhile the woman, who had enjoyed the spectacle while standing nearby, approached the fallen gladiator and eyed him with a grin. Cletius started to say something, then looked up and closed his mouth again.
The ’woman’, or rather a young man, dressed as a woman, was shaking with guffaws. He was tall, but thin, with an unnaturally pallid face and blond, almost colorless hair. He could be called attractive except that his lover lip was too thin and curled under his upper one, which produced a menacing effect, and his watery eyes sparkled with what could be defined as playful madness. Of course, it was too dark in the alley to see much more of him but what Cletius had seen was enough.
- Well, well, well! My valiant hero, - said the pallid man, - Are you all right? Did this vile Greek pervert shake you too much? I think it was more the other way around, huh?
Cletius didn’t reply.
- I think I shall be leaving now. It is getting late. But you guys are perfectly welcome to play with him as you like, - said the man and started walking off.
- Lemme go, you bastards, - hissed Cletius, trying to get onto his feet.
- Quiet, you, - replied one of the men and thrust a small metal sign into the gladiator’s face, - Praetorian police!
Cletius gulped and went limp.
- Let’s drag this bag of horseshit to the quarters! – Barked the Praetorian, then turned to Cletius and gave him a kick, - And you be quiet, you son of a whore, or you´ll be in Elysium tomorrow!
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