Pompeii, July, 79 AD
LUCIUS METELLUS CARBO rubbed his knee after the ankle of his mangled leg turned in one of the deep wheel ruts on the streets of Pompeii. It was hot today for the Ludi Apollinares, the special festival of games and arts in honor of Apollo. Hot enough to make olives drop from the trees and leave dark marks on pale marble. Hot enough that he’d rather be in the pleasant coolness of the baths, having his knee rubbed by any slave he could summon that was good at hiding any distaste for touching Lucius’s wasted leg. But despite his preference to stay in the seclusion of his home and shun contact with people, here he was in his best sandals, a new tunic, and the purple-trimmed toga he was entitled to wear as a member of the Roman Senate… not that he had ever sat there.
Not after the destruction of his legion, the once proud XV Primigenia.
He limped painfully away from the crowd now, wishing he could go home, but he still had an errand. He’d promised his friend, Titus Flavius, who was dabbling in local politics, to see if he could find some entertainers for his upcoming banquet.
Flavius appreciated a very earthy kind of entertainment and wasn’t huge with coin, so Lucius figured entertainers culled from the brothel would appeal to his tastes. He would make the arrangements and pay for it as his contribution to Flavius’s campaign, as he approved of the issues Flavius proposed to speak for.
He hobbled by the baker’s, glancing through the open doors of the shop at a beefy man slapping round loaves into shape on a simple wooden table while another man opened the iron door of the oven to retrieve now-baked loaves. The inscription and phallus in relief etched in stone caught Lucius’s attention: Hic habitat felicitas. Happiness indeed lived for a man who enjoyed his food and his cock.
Lucius didn’t pause, even for the sardines laid out with salt and glittering with oil in the fierce sun, though his stomach growled, reminding him he’d had his plain soldier’s staple of porridge flavored with bacon this morning and nothing else, not even watered wine or figs.
But Lucius had little appetite for anything. His face tightened as he thought of his personal shame.
He paused at a water fountain, hoping it would be clear today. Lately the fluid had been a little unpredictable, even warm and brackish. It was water from the main stream brought by aqueduct into the city, so by rights it should not fail, even during the summer drought. Fortunately, it flowed cool this afternoon, so he gratefully drank his fill, wiping his hands dry discreetly on his clothing as he looked at his rippling reflection in the water. The noon sun made it look like gems shot light around his image’s head like a crown, and he remembered what it had been like to be young and glittering, the glorious, handsome legate on the rise.
Now silver shot in his dark brown hair at the temples and his eyes had lost the hardness of a warrior, a conqueror.
HE HEADED to the street where the brothel was, bits of graffiti illustrating what specialties could be found in the dim little alcoves. Beyond hanging curtains, he could hear the sounds of grunts and whimpers. It might be early, but when a man got that itch…. And once upon a time, Lucius may have come here, since he had been a lusty man, but not since the spear had shattered his leg in Germania, had left him broken.
Lucius hadn’t had an encounter with anyone since that time. His bad limb couldn’t have taken the strain of fucking, and he found he’d lost all interest in the things he used to do before he’d spent months in mud and blood: before he’d seen so many of his men die, starved, crying out in fear in the misty, spirit-cursed forest.
He idly studied the illustrations on the arches over the whores’ cribs. None stirred him, nor did the sounds. The truth was, although he had bedded both men and women in his life before, he had always preferred his male lovers. But he had been ambitious back then, wary of getting the reputation for someone preferring to live as a Greek. Ironically, now that it wouldn’t matter, he couldn’t touch someone for fear of seeing revulsion in his eyes.
He flinched at the sound of a slap and an exclamation of pain. Since his injuries, he was sensitive. He had even nursed a sparrow with a broken wing over the spring, something that the old Lucius would never have done. He frowned, thinking it must have cost the customer extra; some did like their congress rougher, true, but if the goods were damaged….
A soft, accented voice whispered, “Please, Sir, no more—”
The voice held Lucius’s attention, the familiar tones of someone from Gaul, captured there and sold into a life of slavery, most likely. He sounded young, fighting tears. Lucius scolded himself for listening as he waited for the proprietor. He had heard the sounds of despair from boys before, usually right before they tried to gut him.
The thought stirred painful memories like smoke rising from a blackened altar, so Lucius closed his eyes, willing himself to forget. Why did he still wake in the middle of the night with his heart pounding? Why did he sometimes lose himself, forget he was here in Pompeii and seem to live again as he had on the battlefield?
Still, hardened as he was, he found himself walking towards the rough curtain shielding an alcove beyond the wooden stairs that led up to more beds above. He lifted away the cloth to see a young man with a long, pale back lying over a crude stone bench, presenting his ass for the pleasure of three wealthy young men. Lucius noted that the slave’s back was bleeding from deep welts delivered by a switch.
The boy twisted to cover himself, daring to resist, despite being a slave; one customer shoved the switch into his mouth, while another grabbed the young man’s long staff and gave it a painful tug.
Lucius had seen so much… and yet, this seemed so unnecessary. There was enough death, enough pain in this world that to seek it for mere amusement….
“Enough!” he barked, his voice booming out with the assurance of one who had commanded men, whose words had been life.
“Who are you?” one pouty boy dared ask.
“Never you mind,” Lucius gritted. “Leave the Gaul.”
But the ring leader persisted, perhaps having seen the weariness in Lucius’s eyes and taken it for weakness. “What right have you to—”
Lucius picked up a stool by the doorway and hit the mouthy one in the face with it. He followed with a brutal kick that shot pain up his leg like red lightning but stopped the soft youth before he could push it further. The fool would probably have wanted it to come to knives, and then Lucius would have killed him.
“Out!” he ordered all three, folding his arms. Seeing he was a trained soldier and not a lazy city dweller, they lost no time in grabbing their semi-conscious friend and dragging him by the arms away from Lucius’s presence.
Lucius sagged a little and his hand found his scarred knee, patting it like an old friend. It would give way soon, or he’d be up all night from the shooting pains. He wasn’t sure some days what was worse: living in shame and disgrace or being dead and rotting as an abandoned bundle of bones in a desolate place.
After catching his breath, he studied the young man and reluctantly had to appreciate his startling beauty. He looked to be in his early twenties, with eyes like vivid blue stones, the pale silken skin that must have surely attracted his admirers, pink lips so perfect to take a man’s swollen cock and suck him to ecstasy. Indeed, this one was extraordinary for such a common brothel.
Tear tracks dripped silent on a clenched face, but the young man glared at Lucius with more hate than for his abusive clients. Ah. He’d seen a Roman soldier before. Probably been sold into slavery after his town or village had been taken.
“You’ll be alright now,” Lucius said gruffly, and then he turned to leave, running a hand through his hair, wondering what such a beautiful boy had made of the mongrel who had come to his rescue.
“Roman lord,” the young man called, his accent still a little thick. “Why save a whore?” The voice was soft but seethed with the flames of hate.
“Because….” His throat tightened as he remembered. Lost. Hiding. And then someone had found him. A boy. Taken his hand and led him from the place where all his men, his comrades and his friends and his lover, had been starving, haggard. “I just don’t think it’s necessary,” he answered honestly, softening his tone to add, “Go clean yourself up, boy.”
Lucius let the curtain fall and thought this might be the only time he’d ever lifted such fabric in a whore’s crib and not enjoyed the body he’d found there.
But that was another life.
He limped back to the table where the brothel owner now waited, helping himself to the offered bread, which he dipped in a small bowl of olive oil. It lodged thick in his throat. He kept seeing those startling, gem-like blue eyes.
The owner said nothing about the three youths Lucius had ousted, probably because they’d been embarrassed by losing the tussle that left Lucius struggling to push aside his impressions of the slave. He ordered the entertainment for his friend’s banquet, but all the time he dickered, he was aware that he was being observed by another pair of eyes than those of the owner.
Finally, he asked, “The boy in the back room. What’s his story?”
“Fine goods, yes? I rent him out usually by the week to those with, ah, Greek tastes. He was a nobleman’s toy, but he was a little too spirited. Here he is learning his place. He’s a sweet lay if you’d like to try out his mouth or ass.”
“Not now,” Lucius said, not wanting to say not ever. “He’s… hurt.”
“He didn’t want to take them all, but it was enough coin that he could have a day or two to recover.” The man shrugged, scratching his thick neck.
“Still, I would like….” Lucius sighed. He lowered his voice, not wanting the Gaul to overhear. “What is his name?”
The proprietor blinked, pushing back springy black hair with beringed fingers, studying Lucius sharply, no doubt seeing his interest in the Gaul and thinking to turn it to his own profit. “Name? You would have to ask him, my lord.”
“Here.” Lucius handed the man more coin. “Give him those few days to recover.”
“You don’t want him? I can strap him down and stop his foreign talk if you prefer. He’s not so proud then.”
Mulling over his exchange with the beautiful slave, Lucius realized he’d been talking to the boy using some of the rough words he’d picked up in Gaul. He’d been there so long on campaign, he hadn’t noticed.
“No… Just let him be. And I’ll be around to check,” Lucius warned sternly.
“I’ll send him to you if you have a house, for your bed and to attend you in your bath. He’s good at that, at least, good sir!” The man eyed the coin, obviously hoping for more.
Lucius sighed, thinking of his family home, which did indeed sport a small bath. And his aching leg. Well, it was one way to know if the boy wasn’t put to work right off, but he wasn’t sure he wanted eyes the color of the noon sky on his leg. “All right, but not today,” Lucius said crossly, weary now. He wanted his bed and hoped only that he could sleep without pain. Perhaps he’d summon the Greek physician and drink his potion of brief forgetfulness. “Tomorrow’s soon enough.” Tomorrow the thought of the boy wouldn’t twist his belly with a hunger he could never satisfy.
As he left, he caught a glimpse of the stone blue eyes before the curtain twitched sharply closed again. He’d probably made a huge mistake. A young man as defiant as that one was likely to use Lucius’s own knife on him rather than rub the twisted leg.
Retracing his steps, he fell in the street and panted, fighting tears. Finally he managed to make it to a bench, where he sat near a small group of old men.
When he got home, he slid down to the hard pebble mosaic sprawling in neat squares around the floor of his atrium and lay, breathing his relief.