Eucher went to relieve himself in the garden. Afterward, he wandered awhile among patches of cheery colors that reminded him of his uncle’s villa in Africa.
A man approached. He was in his later years with graying temples and a careful manner. He wore an orange freedman’s cap and dirty-blue tunic, and his fingers were stained with black and purple ink. Bowing, he introduced himself as a copier from the imperial library at Ravenna.
“What do you want here?” Eucher demanded, not feeling as harsh as he tried to sound; the fragrant flowers and warm wine had begun to push concerns from his mind.
“The Master of the Imperial Library has ordered new volumes. I was copying in the Consul’s library. I couldn’t help overhearing a discussion outside the library.”
“Of course you could. Servants go deaf on command.” Eucher waited for him to explain, but he remained silent
The man withdrew a step. “It was the Augustus himself, Master.”
“‘Lord Tribune’, you ignorant shit. I’m not your master.”
“Yes, Lord Tribune. I’m not blessed with a sharp mind, only a tireless hand and a good memory for faces.”
Eucher felt the hair on his neck stiffen. “Say it.”
The scribe stepped a little closer, glancing furtively about.
“If it’s worth anything, I’ll pay you.” Eucher pulled out a few copper coins.
“To any man here but you,” he said, looking at the coins, “my information would be worthless. But to you, Lord Tribune, it’s worth gold.”
Glancing around, Eucher confirmed they were in a secluded turn of the garden, only apple trees near enough to overhear. “You think because some fool freed you that you’re free to argue with me?”
The scribe kept his eyes on the copper and said, “I’m a freedman of the Anicii. I’ve been in the homes of all the greatest families of Rome, but in May I was at Ravenna.” His tale was becoming interesting.
Eucher led him down a path farther away from the house. “What faces do you recall?”
“The glorious Patrician,” he answered. “Greater still, my pitiful life was blessed beyond deserving when I saw our Holy Father, the sacred Augustus, walking through the courtyard. I threw myself onto my face. He allowed me to lie before him as he spoke with his ministers. There were so many attendants about, but later, after they left, I heard one of them speaking with him. He had a man brought to him, a man I didn’t know until I saw him in the baths tonight.” They walked two more steps, and he said, “Your Adjutant.”
“The eunuch?” The scribe gazed at Eucher with raised brows, as if he expected I would be surprised. Dropping his arm, I said, “Doesn’t every fool think to make a wage selling what’s already sold.” Eucher tossed him the copper. “His very purpose in my office is to inform on me. You think I wouldn’t know that? Keep the copper. You’re fortunate I don’t have you whipped.”
Eucher began to walk away, but the scribe said, “There’s more, Lord Tribune. What your Adjutant gave to the glorious Augustus. He mentioned your name. He had a letter someone had written you. They both seemed disturbed by it. I recall the Augustus’s words precisely: ‘this is all we need’.”
Nausea rose in Eucher’s gut. He realized he had underestimated the eunuch. Arsace was more treacherous than he thought. He slipped off a bracelet of silver and slapped it in the scribe’s hand. “There’s enough silver here to buy your family pork for a year.” Eucher knew the man wouldn’t feed his family. He would sell the silver for two gold coins that he would click together for the whores.
The scribe left, and shortly after, Theodore arrived. “Tribune,” he said, walking slowly toward Eucher, his hands locked behind his back. Eucher could tell he had made his way through the garden to find him, though he tried to appear surprised.
The hair over his ears was wet. The color of his nose made it clear his overheating was the result of too much wine. Despite that, he was a distinguished-looking man, well-proportioned but short. His manner was reserved, but his tone warmly confidential. “How are you enjoying the Consul’s dinner?”
“Overwhelmed,” Eucher answered honestly.
Theodore continued with pleasant questions about the house, the food, the guests. Finally, he came to what brought him into the garden. “We were all surprised by the choice for Italy this year.” He gestured down the path, and they walked. “The Patrician’s chosen to cleanse the army of atheists, and yet he entrusted the prefecture to a man who holds a priesthood of Jupiter.”
“The Augustus is responsible for those decisions.”
“Do you think so?” he asked with curiosity.
Eucher relented without much consideration. “Yes, I suppose all of us were surprised, Lord Prefect.” He observed the title Theodore still carried. He had served as Prefect of Gaul two years before. “Your tax in Gaul was praised for its fairness and thoroughness. I don’t think Gaul’s been so efficiently taxed since Julian.”
Comparing him to the emperor the Christians call “the Apostate” made Theodore shift with discomfort. As with Gallus, Theodore’s discomfort was oddly appealing to Eucher.
Theodore said, “Many officials see their posts as honors and let their administrators do the work. Who’s better suited for tedious tasks than men who’ve served the same office for ten years? I understand the thinking, but I take my duty seriously. Let the bookkeepers total the wheat and honey. I make sure the totals are met.”
“The Patrician has been absorbed with what’s happening in Gaul and in Constantinople. I can’t imagine he would knowingly slight your claim. Or rather, that he would fail to advise the Augustus on your suitability.”
“No, but it’s precisely because of the invasions that he needs men who know the year’s need and how the levies can meet it. A prefect needs the respect of the provinces he governs, and I’m afraid Longinian isn’t that man. Even his fellow atheists are upset with him. You were young, but I’m sure you heard the criticism he received when he fined the Prefect for taxes he claimed he owed?”
“Yes, the prefect was Flavian.” Eucher finally knew the basis of Theodore and Flavian’s comradery at the dinner: the mutual dislike of Longinian.
Theodore was trying to persuade Eucher of his qualifications, as if he thought he possessed influence, but Theodore already held the “Illustrious” rank. He was well-situated by family, wealth, and alliances to achieve any office he wanted in due time, so his deference was disquieting. Until it occurred to Eucher that Theodore might not be thinking Eucher had influence so much as a future.
Lavender flowers seemed to gush from a bush beside Eucher. He leaned down and drew their fragrance in deep. He needed a moment to settle his nerves. When he rose, he continued, “I’m riding to meet the Patrician in a few days—”
“I already have men at Ravenna. They’ve submitted my petition in Consistory. I simply thought you might have information, Tribune. I’d never presume.”
“Of course not.”
“Our fathers were bonded in an alliance that served both well. It’s fitting we should benefit in the same way. How many times have I read the poem praising my father, written by the great Claudian, who was a client of your father?”
“Bishop Augustine dedicated a book to your father, as well,” Eucher pointed out. “Your father was loved by all.”
“With seven offices. Who can’t enumerate his achievements? Your uncle, too.”
Mentioning Lampadius made Theodore shift again.
“The Patrician judges him harshly,” he said defensively. “There was nothing unique in what my uncle said. The sentiment of the Senate has gone against peace.” He looked back toward the portico. “Maybe you’ll do me the honor of visiting before I return to Ravenna. I’ll send a man to your father’s house. That’s where you’re staying?” He nodded toward the dinner and smiled. “I’m sure Pelagius is missing our conversation.”
Eucher left the dinner much too sober. He was worried about the alliances he had seen but even more concerned with Theodore’s expectation that he harbored ambition.
The Consul wasn’t one to worry about. Indeed, he could be an ally, although the Anicii were well-educated and politically-entrenched. Eucher once thought their prestige was due to scholarship, but he discovered that, mostly, they were just rich.
Their position meant they were political collaborators—men of convenience. A man couldn’t live so well and so long as the Consul had if he were a man of principle.