Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Three Dead Slaves - Prologue, Part 1

One of the many projects which is currently staring at me with passive-aggressive glee is what I usually refer to as The Roman Murder Mystery. Back in '07 and early '08, I churned out 300 pages for it, or about a third of the final project. I've recently pulled it out again, because it's spring, and because it's March 15th this weekend, which is a significant date when you're writing a mystery novel about the real people behind the death of Julius Caesar. So to get back into the groove, I'm breaking the novel's prologue into 5 pieces and posting them all this week. Here's the first part:

Three Dead Slaves

Prologue: Part 1

Alexandria, 730 A.U.C.

His cheeks are red, his thin-lipped mouth is twisted into a frown, and his eyes, lined with kohl like those of an Egyptian harlot, glow with the inner flame of an oncoming fever. There is a thick vein throbbing at the center of his forehead, just below the laurel wreath which he wears to conceal his baldness. The veins in his neck stand out like pillars supporting a temple. He is leaning forward like a spear at the ready, the long fingers of his feminine hands clutching the arms of a marble throne with all the ferocity of a man strangling a pair of snakes, a feat they say that Hercules performed once in his cradle.

But this tetchy, epileptic old ranter is not Hercules. He is Gaius Julius Caesar, Dictator of Rome, and he is facing a semi-circle of white-robed Senators, only two of whom (in a nice touch of sartorial irony) wear the purple. One of these two is young and tall and blessed with the body of a gladiator; the other is fat and bald and hunched like a spider bracing itself against a stomping foot. Guess which one is supposed to be Brutus. Both these men have their right hands in their togas; whatever they are hiding cannot be seen by the man in the laurel wreath from where he sits upon his burnished throne, but as they briefly turn their backs to him and nod at each other, those of us in the audience who are lucky enough to be looking at them can see the gleam of the afternoon sun as it flashes off their polished blades.

The actor playing Caesar raises his right hand. "Let the gods decide the issue!" he cries, and it is all I can do not to laugh out loud. Gaius Julius Caesar never once put his trust in heaven without first hedging his bets. This is, after all, a man who did not say "Let the gods decide the issue!" when he crossed the Rubicon; he said, "Let the dice fly!" The Butcher of Gaul was never one to petition heaven whenever he marched up to a crossroads. He had only one definition of piety -- bribing (or better yet, blackmailing) a priest into delivering omens that promised the success of whatever Caesar wanted, and the failure of everything else. I speak from personal experience –- I was in charge of delivering a wagonload of gold to the priests of Osiris in Egypt, when Caesar bribed them to approve his liaison with Cleopatra -- an incident which has yet to find a home in any of the official histories of our history-mad empire.

"I give this judgment to the hands of Jove!" this Caesar cries. "Trouble the gods, and trouble me no more!" And as the words leave his lips, he leaps to his feet in a movement that is swift, violent, and awkward, as if the golden throne beneath his bony buttocks has suddenly flamed up like a red-hot griddle. There is a look of fierce indignation in his bloodshot eyes, a look that is meant to inspire obedience and servility, a look that fairly screams "How dare you question me?" And that certainly fits the real Caesar's mood on the day of his death. On that fateful Ides of War, Caesar was not himself -- between the violent thunderstorms which turned the Forum into a wading pool and the feverish nightmares of his latest wife Calphurnia, the last living descendant of the goddess Venus had slept no more than two hours in his last twenty-four. As a result, he was uncharacteristically tetchy and irritable, his stomach was queasy, and according to Albinus, who heard him complaining about it as they walked to the Senate, the Dictator had pulled a muscle in his neck, which meant that he had to swivel his upper body around whenever he wanted to turn his head.

This particular actor's posture is nothing like that. It is not even an approximation of Caesar's deliberately deferential slouch -- the submissive posture which the Dictator adopted for all his dealings with the Senate. Instead, this actor is standing with his head held high, his shoulders squared as if for mortal combat, and his feet firmly planted upon the floor of the Senate chamber. With his right hand the actor points to the heavens; with his left hand he clutches at his toga like a drowning man clawing for air. It is a famous pose. The only problem is that it is not Caesar's famous pose.

"Gods above, he looks just like Cicero!" I announce.

Three men in the row in front of me turn their heads and glare at me as if I have just insulted their wives. Beside me, my son sticks an elbow in my ribs.

"Well he does," I whisper. "Cicero practiced that pose whenever he noticed anything that reflected his appearance, from a mirror to a puddle of dirty rainwater. He thought it looked Roman, and Cicero was obsessed with being Roman."

My son is not listening. Instead, he is rolling his eyeballs. In the eloquent language of youth, this is like a loud voice crying: "Once again you have discovered a new way to embarrass me."

I reply with a grunt which, in the universally recognized language of old age, announces that youth is wasted on the young. Especially snot-nosed whelps like my son Ptolemy Alexandros, who doesn't know the difference between Caesar and Cicero.

[ -- to be continued]

copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells

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