Authors: Gillian Bradshaw
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Hermogenes was almost asleep by the time the carriage stopped.
He'd hired the vehicle that morning in Ostia: a four-wheeled cart with a canvas awning, drawn by a team of four mules and driven by a villainous-looking muleteer with a knife scar on one cheek. It had a bench seat along each side: Hermogenes sat on one side, the slaves sat on the other, and the luggage went in the middle. They traveled for nearly four hours, rattling slowly through the town of Ostia and then on along the main road. At first Hermogenes had stared eagerly at everythingâthe streets and houses of Ostia; the market gardens and vineyards of the Tiber plain; the cypress trees, the blue hills in the distanceâbut it was a hot day, and the mules plodded steadily along a good road. The rumbling sway of the carriage was soporific, and he hadn't slept well for months. Gradually he slipped into a daze.
When the movement stopped, though, he sat up abruptly and looked around. They'd pulled into a large stableyard, and the driver was just tying the reins to a post. There seemed to be buildings around them again, but he was pretty certain that they hadn't gone through any city gates, and he was absolutely certain that this wasn't the place to which the driver had been paid to take them.
He leaned forward. “Why do we stop?” he demanded sharplyâthen wondered if he'd got the Latin quite right. Would “Why are we stopping?” have been better?
The driver grinned back at him, showing stubby brown teeth, and jumped down from the cart. He waved an arm expansively at a pair of stone towers just up the road. “That's the Ostian Gate.” He said it loudly: he didn't seem to believe that a Greek really might be able to understand Latin unless he shouted. “We're here. Rome. This is where we stop.”
Hermogenes glanced at the towers. They did look like a city gate, but if there had ever been a wall to go along with them, the city had swallowed it up. Shoddy houses of mud brick, and even shoddier tenement blocks, cramped and darkened the road. The livery stables where they had pulled in was the most substantial building around. He looked back at the mule driver with a frown. “This is the Via Tusculana?” He very much doubted it.
The muleteer shook his head. “No. This is as far as I can take the raeda. Understand? No carts are allowed into the city during the day.” He said the last slowly as though he were speaking to a child. “No carts”âhe slapped his vehicleâ“in the city”âhe pointed up the roadâ“during the day.” He indicated the bright June sun, which stood just past noon.
Hermogenes gave him a flat stare. “You agreed that you would take myself, my slaves, and my luggage, as far as the Via Tusculana.”
“No, no!” the mule driver protested with another stump-toothed grin. “I agreed to take you to Rome, and here we are. I can't take the raeda into the city. No wheeled traffic is allowed into the city during the day, understand?”
“How much further is it to the Via Tusculana?”
The man shrugged.
Some distance, then. Hermogenes looked at the road which led onward into Rome. Narrow, and ankle-deep in dung and dirt. There were no carts or carriages to be seen on it, so probably the man was telling the truth about wheeled traffic; most big cities had traffic regulations. He was still annoyed. The driver hadn't seen fit to mention this detail back in Ostia: instead he'd said that yes, he knew the Via Tusculana, and yes, he could take them there. That was why Hermogenes had hired him rather than one of his fellows.
He sighed. Menestor and Phormion, the slaves, were both watching him anxiously: neither of them spoke any Latin. “He says he can't go any further,” Hermogenes informed them in the Greek native to all three of them. “He says that carts aren't allowed into Rome during the day. He probably has an arrangement for porterage at this livery stables.” He turned back to the driver, reminding himself that this might, still, be an honest misunderstanding. “How do we reach the Via Tusculana?” he asked politely.
“You can hire porters and a sedan chair here.” The muleteer waved negligently toward the livery stables. “They'll bring you right to your friend's door. I can arrange it for you.”
“Ah. And their charge is included in the fare we agreed to pay you?”
The driver pretended surprise at the very idea. His knife scar suddenly became more prominent. “No, no, you pay them separatelyâ
you've paid me.”
It couldn't be pushed too hard, Hermogenes told himself. The driver would have friends aroundâthe stable workers, and any fellow muleteers in the vicinity as well. It would be lunacy to risk life and luggage in a brawl over a porter's fee. On the other hand, Hermogenes had no intention of allowing himself to be cheated any more than he absolutely had toâand he'd been careful to refuse the muleteer's demand for full payment in advance.
“Very well,” he told the driver mildly. “Will you go and find me two porters?”
The muleteer's grin returned, and he swaggered off toward the stable. Hermogenes snapped his fingers. Menestor and Phormion obligingly took hold of the big chest and dragged it out of the carriage. Hermogenes hopped down after them, then turned to take out the two baskets. Now at least the driver couldn't drive off with the luggage still on board.
Phormion flexed a hand he'd banged hauling the trunk out of the cart. “We don't want to carry this far,” he said, eyeing the heavy wood-and-leather chest with dislike.
Hermogenes nodded. Phormion and Menestor were capable of carrying the chest if they had to, but the local neighborhood didn't look the safest, and he would prefer them to have their hands free to deter any would-be robbers. The chest contained vital business documents and most of his funds for the journey: he could not afford to lose it.
“Take it on to the stables,” he ordered. “I'll hire porters.”
A couple of men lounging in front of the stables eyed them hopefully as they came up. The muleteer, however, had gone into the building, and was speaking to somebody just inside the doorânot a porter, by the look of that fine red tunic, possibly the head groom. Of course: the stable had an arrangement with drivers to take passengers out of the city, and with porters to take them into it. Hermogenes cast an assessing eye over the hopeful casuals: they looked strong and reasonably presentable. “I need porters,” he told them.
The muleteer glanced round in surprise, then hurried from the stable with the other man in his wake. Hermogenes smiled at them politely. The head groom, if that was what he was, gave an oily smile back. “Sir,” he began, ignoring the casual laborers, “Gallio says you need porters and a sedan chairâ¦”
Hermogenes raised his eyebrows. “No. I did not ask for a sedan chair. Only for porters to carry these things here to the house of Fiducius Crispus on the Via Tusculana.”
The groom smirked again. “Sir, it's a long walk, a couple of miles, and a gentleman such as yourselfâ¦”
“â¦ has spent too much time sitting already today,” said Hermogenes, with another false smile. “How much for two porters to the Via Tusculana?”
The groom grimaced reproachfully. “Two sestertii.”
He was undoubtedly expecting to get a cut of that very handsome fee. “Too much,” Hermogenes said calmly. “My slaves will carry the luggage. Gallio, here is the remainder of our fare.” He opened his purse, took out two small bronze coins, handed them to the mule driver, then turned away, snapping his fingers for Menestor and Phormion to pick up the chest again.
“Sir,” the groom began, but Gallio interrupted with an indignant cry of “This is only two sestertii!”
Hermogenes turned back to him. “Your charge was two denarii. I paid one in Ostia, and agreed to pay the second when we reached our destination. The cost of carrying the luggage to that destination is another two sestertii, it seems, so I have subtracted that from your fee.”
The muleteer's face darkened and the scar stood out again. “Don't cheat me, Greekling!” he said loudly.
Hermogenes was aware of Phormion and Menestor setting down the chest again, and saw the groom's eyes flick to them uneasily. Menestor was nothing to worry himâseventeen years old, a valet and clerkâbut Phormion was another matter. Big and dark, with a broken nose and cauliflower ear, he looked like the bodyguard he was. This was not going to end in blows, however: Hermogenes was determined on that.
He pretended surprise. “Cheat you?” he repeated. “No! At home if a mule driver agreed to take me from Canopus to my house near the harbor, he would not expect full fare if he set me down at the Canopic Gate. I would be entitled to subtract not merely the porters' fee, but something for the inconvenience as well. You do things differently in Rome, do you?”
The two casual laborers had been watching with close attention; at this one of them laughed. The muleteer's face darkened further.
The head groom intervened. “You must have misunderstood something, sir. If you agreed a price with Gallio, you must pay it. In Rome we pay the price agreed.”
“Even when you do not deliver the service agreed?” Hermogenes asked him. “Ah, well. I am a Roman citizen myself, as it happens: I will remember that.” He waited just a moment to let his citizenship register, saw the looks of uncertainty, then dug another coin out of his purse. “I will split our difference with you,” he offered. “Here is another sestertius.”
He'd judged it right: cheating a Roman citizenâparticularly one with a dangerous-looking bodyguardâwas more trouble than one sestertius was worth. The muleteer snatched his coin, spat emphatically, and strode off to see to his team. Hermogenes nodded politely to the groom and signaled for Menestor and Phormion to pick up the chest.
One of the casual laborers stepped forward. “Sir,” he said eagerly, “Quintus 'n me'd carry your things to Tusculana f'ra sestertius.” At least, that was what Hermogenes
he said. The accent was so thick that he had trouble following it.
“You don't want to hire men off the street!” exclaimed the groom, glaring at them.
“It is true, I hired Gallio that way,” said Hermogenes, smiling slightly. “And he promised to take me to my destination, then set me down two miles short of it. However, I hope these men will be more honest.”
! Gallio wasn't cheating you! You're a foreignerâ”
“Yes. A âGreekling,' as he put it.”
“âyou probably don't know how things are in Rome. Gallio couldn't take you to the Via Tusculana: carriages aren't allowed into the city during the day.”
“It is true, I did not know that. All the more reason Gallio should have explained it when I hired him.”
“You must have misunderstoodâ”
“I assure you, I did not misunderstand. I have been doing business with Romans since I finished school, and I cannot afford to misunderstand. Tell Gallio that he has lost custom by this. I might have hired him again, had he been honest. Good health.” He turned to the porters. “I accept your offer. I will pay you when we reach our destination.”
The porters grinned. The groom swore, then shrugged and went off back to his work. Menestor and Phormion stepped away from the heavy chest with expressions of relief.