Saturday, February 4, 2012

"The Other Fall of Rome" by Kim Bond

Tuning out the soldiers’ argument just outside of the Cadara library, Gaius reached for the papyrus covered in mulberry linen. With a tug of the corn silk string closure, he loosed a world of exotic lands and distant wars. Many of the other Romans, even other citizens, were illiterate, so Gaius could often enjoy these hours of peace until sunset somewhat in seclusion.

By a mandate of the governor, all Roman guards were given formal instruction in reading as well as their physical training due to disquieting rumors of unrest with surrounding areas. Guards briefly inspected the letters carried by messengers with a strict command to intercept anything suspicious. Gaius hadn’t discovered a letter of treachery breaching the city, but he treasured his literacy more than the coins he earned. There was something he treasured even more than the pleasure of reading, though: Cleo.

Standing at post one day at the city’s gates, Gaius spotted capers rustling in a large bush forty paces off. A closer examination revealed two unkempt women with olive complexions. One of the women looked fortyish, and the other woman seemed to be in her late teens. Hoping to retrieve a reward for runaway slaves, he stowed them in his mud-brick home. During the months he sought their owner, Gaius grew to appreciate the older woman’s skills and resolved to keep them as his own slaves.

Though Cleo, the younger of the women, possessed no particular aptitude, she cleaned and served Gaius wine-drenched bread adequately. Cleo was not even particularly attractive in comparison to the Roman women strolling through the marketplace. Those women wore vibrant-colored cloaks, smelled of cloves, and glittered with flamboyant jewelry. Cleo wore only her beguiling charisma and hypnotizing appeal, but Gaius’ attraction to her escalated. Even now, as he carefully turned the pages of the papyrus, his thoughts drifted to her silky hair.

In frustration, Gaius closed the book and deposited it back on the wooden shelf among the others. He opened the library door and proceeded down the long marble hallway past the disputing soldiers and various rooms devoted to preening his fellow Roman citizens.

This particular complex, the Baths of Cadara, was exclusive to Roman citizens and boasted a costly admittance fee. However, it offered the best collection of books and maps, so Gaius preferred it.

The modest changing room Gaius entered consisted of a wall of stone alcoves overflowing with robes and sandals. Gaius spotted a Roman soldier by the name of Filo who frequented the baths regularly. Since soldiers’ incomes loomed over the incomes of most Roman citizens, the Baths of Cadara complex pampered much of the Roman army.

Rather noisily, Filo complained about his missing robe and sandals before he turned and greeted Gaius. Chuckling, Gaius told him to use a feather to cover himself. Filo grunted, looked down both hallways, and snatched up the robe from a neighboring alcove. Laughing harder now, Gaius entered the bath area.

About forty men, some nude and some scantily clad, stood in the bath area and talked in small groups. The baths and social stimulation normally pleased Gaius, but today he rushed. He longed to be home with Cleo. Gaius emerged from the water and allowed the attending young man to pat Gaius’ feet and sinewy legs with the towel before strolling down the marble pathway alongside the bath. Gaius dressed in his robe and sandals and quickly walked home.

When Gaius entered, Cleo noted his early arrival and apologized for not having the meal prepared. She quickly sliced some cubes of cheese and placed them onto his bronze platter. After she served the platter, she giggled and sat on his lap.

“Take me to the baths,” Cleo said whimsically as though she were the master and Gaius the servant.

Gaius’ eyebrow furrowed as he replied, “You are free to go to the baths any time I am at my post, Cleo. You do not need me to take you to the baths.”

“No, take me to the Baths of Cadara with you, please. It is my only wish,” Cleo pleaded.

Gaius sighed, “It is just not that simple. You must be a Roman citizen, and you are not, my dear.” In fact, to make Cleo a Roman citizen was his intention. With all of his heart, Gaius wanted to free her and be wed to her. The monogamy between them drove him crazy, but he did not want her to sleep with him because he was her master. The only way he would know she loved him was to set her free. But what if she received her freedom and left him? This fear sealed his lips about the intention to free her even in this opportune moment.

Gaius finally spoke, “Tonight, late at night, I will sneak you in.”

Cleo clapped her hands and said, “Oh, I cannot wait. Maybe I will do a dance for you in the pool.” Gaius covered his face with his hands and walked to his bedroom hoping she would sleep all through the night and forget the whole thing.

Cleo did not forget the whole thing. When the moon was high in the sky, she sat next to Gaius on his bed and stirred him. The two ran through the streets of Rome and climbed the gate of the vacant Baths of Cadara. Cleo seemed breath-taken by the grand statues and large pillars on either side of the pool. The shimmering waters gleamed with moonlight, negating the need for candlelight, but Gaius went in search of candles anyway when Cleo began to disrobe.

Gaius was gone only a few moments, but he thought the silence peculiar as he returned to the bath. Then he saw her. Cleo’s body lay next to the steps of the pool. The blood from her silky black hair mixed with the water on the gray marble walkway. Gaius grabbed her tiny body and held her to him sobbing like a child. Gaius reasoned she must’ve slipped.

Cleo was a woman, and a woman slave at that. There would be no trial. Gaius was not concerned for himself in the least, except that they were in the Baths of Cadara. He would be barred from ever entering again if they found his slave here. It would be difficult enough to live on without Cleo; the library could not be taken from him too. So Gaius scooped up her body and threw it over his shoulder. He struggled to climb the gate bearing the weight for both of them, but he managed.

Gaius took Cleo home and apologized to the older slave for her close friend’s death. The slave woman seemed fearful, as if Gaius had murdered her. While her master wept over Cleo’s body, she gathered a few belongings and fled through a window. If Gaius were not in this wretched state of mourning and loss, he might have noticed the older slave had left him, maybe even cared.

In spite of the pain, Gaius reported faithfully to his post every day. He intercepted the letters and read them rather stoically until he came across a letter from an Egyptian spy to the governor. Gaius read, “Prepare your armies to fight! Together with his allies, King Ptolemy of Egypt has mobilized many military divisions against Rome. He has resolved to avenge the death of his daughter, Cleopatra. Cleopatra was murdered at the hands of a Roman guard during an undercover mission to Rome. Your worthy informant, Akori.”

Cleopatra? Cleo? Gaius thought. It couldn’t be!

Gaius ran to deliver the letter to his general, only to find the officer’s throat had been slashed. King Ptolemy’s army moved in swiftly and Rome could not stand against the ruthless Egyptian army bent on avenging their beloved princess and the barbaric military skill of Egypt’s allies. And that’s how Rome fell and Egypt became the dominant ancient world power.

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Want to learn more about this author? Look Kim Bond up on the Contributors page, where you can see everything that each individual writer has contributed, visit their personal webpages, and more!

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