JUST IN CASE
Chapter VI, where Nil gets a new name and a death sentence in absentia
Palatine Hill is busy in nighttime, but the mornings… well, that’s a completely different story. Oh, sure, there is always somebody around, it’s just not the splendor of the nights. In the nighttime there is a lot of guests, and every guest tries to do his best. The best clothes, the best hairstyle, the best jewelry, the best women. Especially like the last night with the great reception to celebrate Veneralia, the festival in honor of Venus, the goddess of love…
The large reception hall have been full of jesters, politicians, imperial court freeloaders, and other parasites. Not that anybody cares to distinguish one kind from another. Not a lot of white clothes today; that’s not the goddess’s favorite color. Bright green, blue, and yellow togas color the place. Tunics are still white. Well, you want your purple stripes, showing your senator or equestrian rank, to be visible in the palace. Not that they matter as much these days in Rome as they have before, but there is still a lot of power behind them. An abundance of oil lanterns and candles of the best beeswax lighten up the place. No smoky torches for the emperor, but the doors to the garden are still opened a bit to let the fresh air in. And between small talk, doublespeak, evocative hints, and occasional blunders, everybody hails Venus for most of the night with a great help from the god of wine Bacchus, who is not neglected either.
The mornings are different. Accidental people are gone, jesters too, even politicians are not here, except for the most persistent ones. Nights are for the public – selected elite public. But mornings are shared with your own kind.
The emperor made an effort and opened his eyes. The sight was not soothing at all. He’d rather see that girl from last night. He could not remember her name, but who cares? It certainly would be better than what he saw now, which was Tigellinus who was equally struggling to keep his eyes open.
“Butler!” the emperor almost whined. The sound of his own voice resonated all over his body, and especially his head. Anyway, the result was achieved and the butler appeared almost immediately.
“Good,” the emperor said, “bring me and the prefect that Hyperborean morning drink of salted cucumber juice.”
It was already several months since he switched to this strange drink as a cure for morning hangover. Some of the palace courtiers brought in the recipe claiming it to be an invention of Hyperborean people, the people populating the mysterious northern land that nobody had really seen but many had heard about. Many suspected that it did not even exist and, frankly, there was not much evidence to prove otherwise. Real or not, nobody cared. Too far, too North, too cold, and the empire had better things to worry about.
Anyway, the drink was real, and it was helping a lot. The emperor drank a few deep long gulps of the invigorating liquid and began to feel much better. Now he could turn his head and move his eyes. With some surprise, he noticed that the girl was nearby all the time, still mostly naked and sleeping mere inches from him. For a few moments, he was puzzled by the question of what she was doing around him shortly before he blacked out. Keeping in mind the amount he drank, she was hardly of any use to him at that time. The thoughts were moving in his head slowly, like an old cart squealing and squeaking on a narrow and empty street. Wait, the squeaking was not exactly in the head, it was in the right ear. He turned the head to the left; yes, definitely in the right ear.
While the emperor enjoyed introspection, Tigellinus drank some of the liquid too and was now able to move. The large hall was mostly clean. In a few hours, servants cleaned up the tables and floors, carefully arranged the guests who dropped into sleep right at the table, put out the candles and lanterns, and now only the gloomy daylight coming from the garden doors lit up the place. Both men stood up and slowly walked through them outside. The fresh cold spring air revived both a bit.
“You know,” the emperor said, “I never get why nobody follows up the compliments that Petronius gives me. When you praise me there is always somebody who cheers up and shouts ‘Right!’ But not with Petronius. Why?”
“They probably think that he will get even more influence on you if they join his compliments,” Tigellinus answered. “Why does it bother you?”
“Not bother, just puzzles,” the emperor said. “Remember, yesterday he said that my voice is so strong that people in Greece could enjoy my singing. Pretty elegant, isn’t it? By the way, about the games. Do you think the public applauded me sincerely enough?”
“They’d better.” The prefect attempted to chuckle, but hangover struck him again.
“Dirty pigs! They don’t appreciate my talent,” the emperor complained. “I have to waste my talent on dirty stupid pigs who populate this city.”
“True, Caesar,” Tigellinus said. “They don’t deserve your talent. They don’t deserve to live in this city.”
“And speaking of the city,” the emperor continued, “what do we have around? Here on Palatine everything is beautiful and nice, but go down to areas populated by plebs, and what do you see? Dirty narrow streets, stinking air, utilitarian brick and wood boxes filled with creatures who gorge, copulate, and produce even more stink. I hate this city. How beautiful I could make it if I could build it on an empty place.”
“Well, nothing is lost yet,” Tigellinus said.
“What do you mean?” the emperor asked.
“You know, those Christians we talked about before. I have reliable data that they are going to set a massive fire in the city.”
“Well, I have one Egyptian doctor,” Tigellinus said, “who will try to set fire to the house of his Jewish colleague.”
A qualm distracted the emperor for a moment, but then the prefect’s words started to seep in. He looked at Tigellinus with a puzzled expression.
“Ophonius, you said ‘Christians’, right?”
“Yes, you see, Christians are Jews, so we have a Jew, and they never broke their connections with Egypt, and we have an Egyptian...” Tigellinus broke off.
The emperor gave him a frown, then closed his eyes, put his hands on his temples, and quietly whined.
“Not good, right?” Tigellinus asked.
“No, not good at all,” the emperor said. “You need to have something more convincing for the Romans to put the blame on the Christians. And, if you forgot, they have to really burn Rome first to put the blame on them.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Tigellinus said. “I’ve already sent a man to Egypt–”
“To do what? Put the blame on Christians?”
“Ophonius, what the hell are you doing?” The emperor turned to the prefect with a face wry of hangover headache. “First you say that some sect is trying to burn Rome. Fine, nothing new. Then you say that they may succeed, right? And now I hear that one of your men is in the middle of all of that? Do you want the people on the streets to think that I did it?”
“How will they know that he is one of our men?” Tigellinus asked. “He is on the mission, undercover.”
“Look, I don’t want to know what he is doing,” the emperor said. “Just do the right thing. And remember, I’d like to rebuild the city if our enemies burn it. But I will not burn it myself! And I don’t want you or any of your people to try it. I prohibit that. Do you understand me clearly?”
“Yes, Caesar! Absolutely clear,” Tigellinus said, hiding a derisive smile under the mask of diligence.
“And if this man’s cover blows up, I want to be sure that nobody tries to blame me or you. Is that clear?” The emperor paused until Tigellinus gave him a nod. “Now, what can we do?”
“Can we say that he is a traitor?”
“Not bad,” the emperor said. “But what about the Christians? I guess your guy has a Roman name, right? Who will believe that he is a Christian?”
“Right,” Tigellinus agreed. “Let’s give him a new name. I have a Jewish slave in my house. He cleans the toilets, but otherwise he is quite a bright boy. He says that their names start from ‘ben’, which means ‘son of’. Say, son of a man named Titus will be ‘ben Titus.’ How about ‘ben Nihil’?”
“Son of Nothing? Is it a joke? Anyway, still too Roman.” The emperor snorted, thought for a few seconds, and then asked, “What is the name of this slave of yours?”
“Ben Jámen? Not bad,” the emperor said. “Let’s call him ben Jamen from now on. That sounds Jewish enough and it will be easy to present as a Christian name.”
“Sure thing,” Tigellinus said. “So, from now on the former Praetorian Guard and traitor, a Christian by the name ben Jamen, is going to be the leader of the scoundrels who are going to burn Rome.”
“I still hope he does not,” the emperor said. “Don’t forget, that’s just in case his cover blows up. You know what? Maybe we should put him on a post scriptum list. You know, just in case. That makes a lot of sense. We found out he is a traitor and gave him a death sentence. Too bad he escaped, but we did our part, right? That would cover our story just fine.”
“Consider it done, Caesar,” Tigellinus said
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