sophiamcdougall (sophiamcdougall) wrote,

A free ROMANITAS short story by Sophia McDougall

This story is set about 250 years before Romanitas. While none of the same characters are featured and  it can be read independently, it should function as an introduction to the world of the trilogy, in which the Roman Empire survives to the present day. It is also the origin story of a particular type of creature that is mentioned in all three books, and appears in book 3, Savage City. 

The Beasts in the Arena



A Romanitas short story by  Sophia McDougall




The lion died the same night as the Emperor.

It was Musca’s daughter who found the corpse. Merulina liked strolling through the vivarium in the mornings, would even sometimes take over the feeding from the slaves. Still, she sent the nearest boy to tell Musca, rather than coming herself, and when Musca came, she had already let herself into the cage and was sitting with the lion’s head in her lap, sadly stroking its mane. “Poor old Lollo,” she crooned. Outside the cage, her large white mongrel Caudex was whining softly, gazing reproachfully at the girl and the lion. Not out of sympathy with Lollo, as far as Musca could tell – jealous at the attention Lollo’s body was getting.

Musca grimaced. “Stop that,” he ordered Merulina. “We don’t know he wasn’t diseased.”

“You were just old, weren’t you, Lollo?” Merulina hummed fondly into the beast’s ear, and turned damp eyes to her father. “I always wanted to stroke him,” she said, laying her hand over a heavy golden paw.

The lion had been at the vivarium for fifteen years – most of Merulina’s life. But she had never seen him at work in the arena – that, Musca had always felt, was not a sight for young girls. Natural that she’d be upset, it was a part of her childhood gone, and she’d always been fond of the animals. Musca was sorry too, in a way. He’d certainly lost a valuable asset, though he couldn’t have expected poor Lollo to last many more years. And there was certainly something pathetic about the limp, soft blond corpse with its huge, sad, velvety dead face. Still, he could not forget that the heavy body had been nourished, in part, on human flesh. No one who hadn’t deserved it, surely, but still, he could remember the screams. He shivered, watching his daughter fondle the thick mane, and felt strange, primal relief that the creature he’d owned all this time was dead at last.

“I’ll have him stuffed,” he told Merulina. “You can stroke him then if you must.”

* * *

The news of the second death did not arrive until the next day, but then it flashed at electric speed across the longscript cables of the Roman world.

Musca was in the arena that morning with Balbillus, who ran the human side of the business’s modest spectacles, discussing how many of their small stock of hyenas they could reasonably afford to let the bestiarius kill. Musca liked to hang on to as many of his animals as long as he could. You could make more money out of exhibiting an animal regularly over the course of its life than by throwing it away, however dramatically, in a single day – especially nowadays. Balbillus had at first resented having to justify every beast that set hoof or paw in the ring, let alone died there, but the lower, steadier returns the vivarium brought in had helped keep the little arena in profit through some hard years.

“You can have the big one in the show. Just don’t kill it,” Musca was saying, “The kids like that one. We need it, especially with no Lollo.”

Then Balbillus’ wife Sarria came running across the sand waving a news-sheet and calling her husband’s name. Musca only glimpsed the headline before it was in Balbillus’ hands.


“Gods above,” said Balbillus, and covered his mouth.

“What?” said Musca, looking over his shoulder. For a foolish, dizzy second he almost wondered if he’d been getting the Emperor’s name wrong all these years. Then he seized the sheet of paper and, after frowning through several columns of shrill praise, found what he was looking for:  The Emperor Arcadius has died after a short illness. It was in very small print.

“Nasennius,” wondered Musca, “I’d never even heard of him.”

The shocked look briefly vanished from the couple’s faces: they met each other’s eyes, complicit in exasperated amusement and Musca flushed.  “The Emperor’s brother, Gaius Musca,” said Sarria patiently,

Balbillus looked virtuous. “I’ve always said a citizen ought to keep up with what’s going on in Rome.”

“Well, I know Arcadius had a son,” Musca protested irritably. It was true, though, he’d never followed politics with any interest. And he was not particularly inclined to mourn for Arcadius:  the main thing Musca knew about him was that subsidies for arenas, especially those out of Rome, had dwindled away to almost nothing. Still wasn’t this happening rather faster than it was supposed to?  He read the sentence about Arcadius again.  “I wonder if that’s the kind of illness that comes on after being smothered or stabbed?”

Balbillus let out an anxious giggle, but swallowed it abruptly.  “Stop that,” he hissed.

“I’m just joking,” said Musca.

“It’s a stupid joke.”

“Oh, come on.”  But they all three stood quietly for a moment, listening to the sounds of the slaves sweeping the sand and the gladiators practicing with their clubs,  and trying to gauge who was within earshot.

“Let’s just hope,” said Balbillus, carefully, “that the new Emperor likes the games,”


* * *

A week later, a longscript message arrived.


Musca moaned a protest to the gods.

There had been offers for Lollo from Rome before, of course. There were plenty of rich men who couldn’t see why a little southern city like Lupiae should have a lion of its own when Rome hadn’t. “But why should Rome have everything?” Musca had always said. “If they want to see a lion let them come here.”  The coast railway would take them most of the way. While Arcadius might have been flatly uninterested in the fate of the arenas, he had, at least, spent a lot of money on the new transport machinery.


But an Imperial commission was a different matter. And could Lollo not have held on another week?

But there was nothing to do but tell the truth, and he sent the boy to the longscript office with the reply:


There was no reply.

Musca decided to forget it had ever happened, and didn’t mention it to anybody. Balbillus was worried enough about the business as it was, and there was no point in spreading the disappointment to him too. Merulina, on the other hand, would probably only have been glad that at least poor Lollo had been able to die quietly at home, and Musca wasn’t in the mood for hearing it.

Oh well, he told himself. You can’t lose what you never had.

Although the fact remained that he had lost Lollo, and even long past his prime, Lollo had still been one of the vivarium’s chief attractions. You had to go a long way, these days, to see another lion.

But the sting faded. Musca read about Nasennius’ acclamation in a news-sheet and thought it didn’t really make much difference who was Emperor. Lollo’s death continued to affect his daily life much more. He and Balbillus had agreed that when Lollo came back from the tannery he’d be placed, on a small podium, in the lobby. But that still left the question of what to put in Lollo’s place.

With all the unrest in Africa, it was harder than ever to come by large animals.

“We might be able to get a Tupian Serpent,” he suggested to Balbillus. “There’s one in a shipment coming across to Lapurdum. But you never know if they’ll survive the journey and if it does, Rome might start bidding for it.”

“How are my boys supposed to fight a serpent anyway?” complained Balbillus. “How are you going to train it? What if we put it in front of a crowd and it doesn’t do anything?”

“Lollo didn’t do much, towards the end – but he still kept the punters coming in.”


 He continued working in his study in the little lodge at the entrance to the vivarium until late into the evening, and he was finally about to put out the gas lamps and go downstairs, when one of the slaves tapped on the door, and said in a faintly incredulous tone: “There’s someone here from Rome to see you, sir. From the Palace, he says.”


Musca’s first thought was not of the longscript exchange with the assistant arbiter, but of that foolish crack he’d made over the news-sheet the day of Nasennius’ succession. No one could really care what the Praepositus at a little southern arena that didn’t even have a lion any more said, could they?

He went downstairs, something chilly twisting in his gut.

A tall, gaunt young man with dark curls ruthlessly slicked down against his skull stood in the lobby. His expression was calm, his dress neat and sober, but his lips were tight between the long nose and chin, and there was faint damp flush across his beaky face, which perhaps accounted for the impression of tightly restrained untidiness, about to erupt.

“All right,” he said. “What have you got?”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m Falerius. I sent you a longscript,” said the stranger impatiently. “If you haven’t got a lion, what have you got?”


“Oh! Well, of course, for the Emperor, I’d be happy to do whatever I can,” said Musca.

Falerius only nodded and bared clenched teeth in what might possibly have been intended as an encouraging smile.

“I’ve got a couple of crocodiles,” offered Musca.

“No, no, crocodiles are no good; everyone’s got crocodiles. He’s seen crocodiles,” said Falerius rapidly, raking a large, raw-knuckled hand through his hair and then grimly smoothing it down again, leaving a stray curl protruding from the side of his head like a single horn.

“Well, I’d better show you round,” said Musca.

They took electric lanterns and went out to the vivarium.

The night was warm and Merulina had finished shutting up the monkeys and was walking Caudex past the enclosure that held Bellona the sea-elephant.

She said politely “Good evening,” but Falerius’ eyes were instantly fixed critically on Bellona and he did not appear to hear.  Merulina cocked her head curiously at her father.

“He needs a beast for the Colosseum, urgently,” said Musca in an undertone, not wanting to disturb Falerius' scrutiny.

“Not Bellona!” said Merulina, springing up as if to throw herself to the sea-elephant’s defence

“That’s what she’s for, Merulina,” sighed Musca. “She’s a … a warrior, not a pet.”


This was partly for Falerius’ benefit, but Falerius was frowning dubiously. “Striking creature,” he said, voice throbbing with strain.  “But how fast can it move?”

“Faster than you think. Of course, she’s a female, so she’s not quite as aggressive. It takes a certain amount of staging to set up a decent fight with a sea-elephant, but it is possible . . .”

“That’s not what he wants,” groaned Falerius, sounding so distressed that Merulina began to soften slightly.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Things are a little tense in Rome, what with everything,” said Falerius through his teeth. “And ... I . . . I’ve landed in this job rather . . . abruptly. There were supposed be some rhinoceri coming up from Lundae, but the rebels sabotaged the train line . . . They should never have tried to transport them that way in the first place.”

“Well, there are always the hyenas,” said Musca, soothingly. “They can be quite nasty when they’re roused.”

Merulina had no particular affection for any of the hyenas, so she led the way to their enclosure without complaint. But Falerius grimaced at them mournfully and said, “Scavengers.”

“They’re not just scavengers. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of them, I can tell you. Anyway, they’re definitely fast – you can stage a perfectly decent beast-hunt with hyenas, we do it here.”

“I want a fighting animal,” said Falerius. “Not a hunt, not waste disposal.  Something dramatic, something worth watching. Something I can pit a fighter against in an honest duel.

“Well, to be frank, other than bull-fights... you don’t get a lot of that sort of thing any more.”

“I know you don’t, why do you think I’m here?”  Falerius said wildly, with another grab at his hair. “What is that?”


He was pointing at a fat, grey-feathered, hook-beaked bird pecking at its feed in its cage. It stood almost a metre high. 

“That’s a
Menuthasian Pigeon,” said Merulina, proudly. “We have two. They’re quite friendly.”

Falerius stared at it hollowly. “I am so fucked,” he announced.

Musca scowled. “Will you kindly not use that kind of language in front of my daughter?”

Falerius didn’t listen: “I can’t put an oversized fucking pigeon in front of the Emperor. Especially not a friendly one. Oh gods! This is a disaster. He wanted a lion. He’s obsessed with having a lion! He remembers lions from when he was six! And I’m going to have to tell him there aren’t any left!”

“What?” said Merulina.

Falerius turned suddenly to Musca: “When did it die?” he demanded.


“The lion,” hissed Falerius despairingly.

“The nineteenth,” said Musca.

Falerius went pale. “Don’t tell anyone else that,” he breathed. “Gods above, you don’t want that to get around.”

“What? Why?”

“The Emperor, Heaven bless him,” said Falerius carefully, “is a man who likes his omens and portents, shall we say. Letting him know the last lion in the world died the day he took the throne is not going to go down well. You don’t want to be anywhere near that little fact.”

“But Lollo wasn’t the last lion,” said Merulina.

“Wasn’t he?” said Falerius sourly. “Tell me where the last lion bloody is, then.”

“Plenty of them running about in Africa,” said Musca.

Falerius shook his head. “No one’s seen one in the wild in eleven years.”

“Well, they’re not looking hard enough,” said Musca, jovially, but a strange shudder itched across his back.

“But the vivarium in Alexandria,” cried Merulina. “There’s a breeding pair – a set of cubs!”

“Dead,” said Falerius. “Plague. Don’t you understand, I’ve checked with every vivarium, every arena, every trader, every hunter? Why do you think I’m here?”

“What about tigers?” suggested Musca desperately.

“Oh, when did anyone last see a tiger,” scoffed Falerius.

“I thought Durmius had one, in Ctesiphon.”

“That was a mountain cat painted with stripes, don’t you know anything? There aren’t any tigers. We used them all up.  And I’m telling you you had the last lion in the world, and it has to go and sodding die just when my neck’s on the line.”

“Oh,” said Merulina suddenly – a soft, winded sound, and she sat down abruptly on the low wall running alongside the path.

“Well, blind gods,” breathed Musca, and sat down too.  “Poor old Lollo.”


* * *

“Maybe we could make something,” said Falerius later, when they were back inside the lodge, trying to steady themselves with wine.

Musca and Merulina laughed weakly, “Not to go into detail in front of ladies,” said Musca, “But you do know how animals are made?”

“Yes, but given time,” said Falerius, gravely, “surely, with enough time, one could breed something suited for the arena. Something suited just for that.” He gave Caudex a gloomy pat.  “They breed dogs for all sorts of things, don’t they?”

“Caudex would just lick you to death, wouldn’t you boy?” said Merulina.

“And of course I don’t have any time,” Falerius moaned, before burying his face in his hands.

“You can only do what’s possible,” said Musca, a little awkwardly, “the Emperor knows that, I’m sure.”

Falerius gave a bleak laugh. “I’ll take the hyenas,” he said. “I’ll make arrangements in the morning.” He rose to his feet, patting Caudex again. “I meant what I said. Don’t let it get about when your lion died.”


 * * *


The vigiles burst into Musca’s house two nights later. Musca lay, clutching reflexively at his bedclothes, while the lantern-beams swung wildly back and forth across his room and boots thudded down the passage outside. He could hear shrieks from the slaves’ quarters, a cry of shock from Merulina. He couldn’t stop himself repeating “I don’t understand.”

“You’ve been spreading malicious rumours about the Emperor’s right to the throne,” said the vigile captain, when Musca was sitting half-dressed and blinking in a chilly, whitewashed interrogation room in the vigile station.

“Come on, Gratus – you know me”. And indeed, Musca could remember the young captain as a shy, slouching boy lurking around the vivarium after fights to stare at the animals. To stare at Lollo.  “You know I’ve never been political, I never pay attention to anything going on in Rome,” Musca pleaded, and then worried that that too, was the wrong thing to say.  “Not that, not, ah . . . that I don’t care, or . . . I mean, I’ve always felt quite able to trust that the Senate and the Palace would always make the best possible decisions . . .”

“Well, how did this happen, then?”  Gratus kneaded his forehead. “Why am I getting all these longscript messages saying I’d better shut down this talk about omens in Lupiae or else?”

“For heaven’s sake -- I know even less about omens than about politics, we’re just . . .” a surge of self-pity moistened Musca’s eyes,   “. . . very simple people here,” he whimpered.

Gratus sighed “So what date did it die?”

Musca writhed. He supposed he could fudge by a day or two, but would the Emperor really be any happier to hear the last lion died just before or just after he secured the throne? Besides, he didn’t know what Merulina or the slaves might say.  “Well, it was around the eighteenth or the nineteenth, I suppose, I can’t remember exactly,” he mumbled at last. “My poor old lion, he couldn’t live forever, we never knew he was the last one.”

“This has gone all the way to Rome, you realise,” Gratus said. “The Emperor’s heard people in Lupiae are saying the last lion in the world has died and it’s a sign the gods are against him.”

“The Emperor?” moaned Musca. “But it wasn’t me. It wasn’t any of us. Maybe it was one of the slaves. Maybe it was Falerius.”

 “Who’s Falerius?” asked Gratus.


* * *

Merulina was shaken and dishevelled but nothing worse, when Gratus let them lurch out into the street just after dawn.


But some of the slaves were missing fingernails.

Musca had almost convinced himself that all this must be down to idle or malevolent gossip by his slaves, and he’d been promising himself  vengefully throughout the interrogation that when this was over  he’d turn them over to the arena for as extravagant a show as Balbillus could make of them.  He’d have threatened and accused them if he could have been sure his voice would not shake. But the desire to punish someone burned off by grudging degrees as he led the speechless little group home.  “Stop that. Stop crying, for heaven’s sake,” he snapped at last, when he couldn’t stand the maid-of-all-work’s stifled little sobs any more. By the time the slaves were beginning to the put straight the mess the vigiles had left behind (though the maid-of-all-work couldn’t do much with her hands) he’d  admitted to himself that even if they had mentioned the coincidence to someone, it would have seemed such an innocent thing to do.

“You can go and rest,” he told the girl gruffly.

He was tender-hearted in a way, like Merulina with her animals.


* * *

Falerius arrived again before they had begun to get over the shock.


“You’ve got to help me,” he announced, without any more preamble than last time. His hair was now in frank disarray and his clothes looked as if he’d slept in them, but oddly he seemed calmer than before, as if disaster had him pressed against the wall now, holding him still and steady.

“Help you?” Musca said. “Why should I? Everything was fine here before I ever heard your name. Now the vigiles are spying on me, the whole damn town’s got some kind of reputation for being a hotbed of treason – everything’s falling apart.”

“I didn’t set the vigiles on you. You did it to me,” Falerius observed. “For which, you know— Thanks.

“You didn’t tell them it was him, did you, daddy?” groaned Merulina.

“I had to say something!”

“Well, then,” said Falerius, with elaborate patience. “The point would seem to be that we are all in trouble, and we need each other’s help. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Oh, what do you want now? You’ve already taken my hyenas. I can’t produce a live lion now out of the air any more than I could last time.”

Falerius sucked in a lengthy breath through his nostrils and released it carefully. “The lion. Where is it now?”

“It’s at the tannery,” said Musca sulkily.

“It’s being stuffed then? Good. We’ll present the Emperor with the carcass, and . . .  we’ll convince him somehow it’s a good thing there are no more lions.”

How?” demanded Musca.

“Just take me to see the fucking lion!” Falerius spat.


* * *

Falerius began gagging before they had even turned into the tanners’ row. He staggered beside Merulina and Musca as they passed the leather shops and Musca, mildly surprised, reflected that for all his brusque imperiousness, the young man was still a soft citified northerner. 


Romans, he thought.

Merulina was coping far better, though she took deep sniffs at a little cloth bag packed with mint, cloves and rosemary. She didn’t want to sit at home and wait, she’d said, not with all this going on. In other circumstances, Musca would have wondered if she was slightly enjoying the novelty of walking out with a young Roman.

A fat, lopsided, hairy thing stood outside the door of Ambrosius’ shop, a painted sign leaning against its side.  It took some looking-at before it could be seen to have once been a wolf. At the sight of it, Falerius’ streaming eyes clenched despairingly shut above the handkerchief he’d clamped over his nose and mouth. Musca felt faintly defensive. Ambrosius was much the best in the trade that he knew of, far better than the fellow who’d made such an embarrassing mess of a wild boar six years before. It wasn’t an easy thing, to turn a corpse into any kind of approximation of a living animal, with nothing but wood shavings and wool and a pine skeleton under the skin.


One of the little apprentices, reeking of urine and chemicals, went to fetch Ambrosius, who arrived in another grand sweep of the stench from the curing vats.   Falerius swayed gently, but fixed the plump, reeking upholsterer with his unnerving glare.

“Lion,” he choked out through the handkerchief.

“We need to see how you’re getting on,” Musca translated. “We think… it might be a nice gesture if Lupiae presented the new Emperor with its lion, to mark his accession to the throne.”

“Lollo’s going out of town?” asked Ambrosius, genially disappointed. “I mean, of course, if that’s what the Emperor wants – but it’s a shame if our lion won’t be around. Especially since he was the last one in the world, wasn’t he?”

“You knew he was the last?” said Musca slowly.

“Well, I heard they lost the ones in Alexandria. It’s a funny thing, him dying just when the Emperor did.”


Falerius dropped his handkerchief and surged forward. “Have you been talking about that?” he asked roughly. “You stupid bastard.”

“Never mind,” said Musca hastily, as Ambrosius recoiled, baffled. “Never mind, there’s no time to worry about that now. We just need you to get Lollo into a state where he’s fit to visit the Emperor.”

Ambrosius blinked and looked back and forth between Musca and Falerius. “It’s nowhere near finished,” he said. “I did tell you. We’ve barely got the skin cleaned.”

“Well, finish it,” said Falerius. “Do it faster. Money’s no object.”


“Isn’t it?” worried Musca. It wasn’t at all clear to him whose money they were spending.

“Our lives are at stake, Musca,” said Falerius.

Ambrosius blinked. “Well – well – I mean, really? I suppose I could get it down to six weeks, but…”

 “Six weeks? We need it now,” Falerius almost howled.

 “But I haven’t even started on the frame. And it’s such a big job. It just doesn’t work that way.” 

“You’d better show us how far you’ve got,” Musca said, heavily.


Ambrosius led them out into the sun-drenched yard, past vats of quicklime and dye and the wet slurry of pigeon dung.  Lollo’s skin had just been hoisted out of a salt water bath, and lay flat and streaming on the dusty limestone slabs. Two slave boys were squatting over it, scraping off the remaining flesh and fat. Turned fur-side down, it was almost unrecognisable as having once been a lion, except for the sad wet heap of the mane, like a clump of seaweed on the stone.

“Oh, Lollo,” murmured Merulina.

Falerius said nothing. He reached silently for Merulina’s little packet of herbs, but nausea and despair caught him before he’d even lifted it to his nose, and he dropped into a crouch and vomited into one of the gullies between the vats. 

“It could make a nice wall-hanging, maybe?” suggested Musca hopelessly.

“We’re dead,” rasped Falerius, still on the ground. “I am, anyway.”

There was a silence, except for the scrape of the knife on the hide, and Falerius’ retching.

Then Merulina stepped forward, and thoughtfully lifted the wet flap of skin that had once been a paw.  “Lucius Ambrosius,” she said politely.  “Could you at least get Lollo dried out and cleaned up and do something about the head? Could you bulk it out, somehow, and put in glass eyes? That wouldn’t take so long, would it?”

Falerius looked up, wiping his mouth “What for?” he croaked.  “What are you thinking?”

“A lion-skin mantle,” said Merulina. “The skin of the last lion, as a cloak for a new Hercules. For a Roman hero. As a tribute from Lupiae.”

Falerius looked at her in sudden admiration and hope.


* * *


Merulina had to content herself with trying to wash away the smell of the tannery at home, for the women’s session at Lupiae’s small bathhouse was over for the day. But Falerius and Musca had themselves soaked and oiled and pummelled by the slaves, yet even the following day, Musca thought he could still detect a trace of the smell on them both, whenever they moved.

For twenty anxious hours, Musca and Merulina waited, while Falerius searched Lupiae and Brundusium and sent desperate longscripts to jewellers in Rome for a suitable golden pin to fasten the hanging strips of hide that had been Lollo’s forelegs about Nasennius’ shoulders.


Then Ambrosius’ slaves carried the skin round, with the stench still pulsing off it. The best Merulina and Musca could do was to  hang it up on trestles in the arena and burn incense in front of it, and drench the golden fur in as much rosewater as they could lay their hands on. As they worked, Musca was too busy and desperate to think of the first time the terrified, furious lion had been goaded into the arena, to remember Lollo roaring on the sand with blood on his huge paws and muzzle, while the crowd screamed.


Only after Falerius had taken the lion-skin mantle away on the train, in a trunk smelling of flowers and rotten flesh did it occur to Musca how completely the animal had been erased. No one in the future would know the sound it had kept deep in its red throat: waves tearing gravel from a beach, wind smashing trees. There would not be even a padded, bulging replica of a lion left in the world.


* * *


Musca studied each day’s news-sheets as he never had before. After a week, there was an engraving of a huge, muscle-bound, half-nude man draped in a lion-skin, standing in an attitude of triumph on the Rostra in the Julian Forum, the mane falling around his face.


There nothing about Falerius, nothing about Lupiae either.

“Well, there, it must be all right, then,” he said, uncertainly to Merulina. But he continued to feel in suspense. He sent a longscript to Falerius, but no reply came.

“I suppose we won’t see him again,” said Merulina, sadly.

Then Falerius strode into the lodge at the arena again one evening and said, “Can I have a job?”

Musca stared at him. “What?” he said, and wondered how life had come to mean saying what to Falerius with such regularity.

Falerius flung himself carelessly into a chair. “I’ve been fired,” he said.

“Fired?” repeated Merulina. “But why? But what about Lollo?”

“Oh, yes,” said Falerius, lounging sideways in the chair. “That went down very well.  The Emperor wore dear old Lollo to the Colosseum for his inaugural Games. He had to have two slaves to hold up the back end, of course, he could barely walk in the thing. Our noble Emperor surely has the spirit of a new Hercules, but physically…” He let out a short puff of rude, exhausted laughter. “He does not look much like the picture in the news-sheets, put it that way.”

Musca glanced around, anxious, but the slaves were busy in the kitchens and the vivarium, and his walls were thick.

“But you were still fired?” said Merulina indignantly.

Falerius grinned. “But not executed,” he said. And he gazed up at Merulina. “I think you saved my life.”

"He's  not . . . bothered about omens any more?" asked Musca.

“We’re safe,” said Falerius.  “As safe as anyone ever is.” Abruptly, he swung his legs to the ground and sprang upright again. “Now, about this job. I’ve got contacts, I know the business, I’m interested. I think it’s interesting. I can get you a rhinoceros cheap.”

Musca scoffed. “I’m not hiring. And even if I was. . .”

“I think you owe me.”

 “I think he’d be very helpful,” said Merulina. A faint blush hadn’t faded from her cheeks.


* * *



Nasennius died ten days after the birth of Falerius and Merulina’s third child.

Musca had let his son-in-law take over the vivarium by then, and he no longer lived in Lupiae.   He had a small villa on the coast, and he’d fallen in love with the woman he’d bought to keep house for him.  He sent a longscript with his congratulations, and took a carriage into Lupiae to see his new grandson. On the way, he bought a news-sheet about the new Emperor’s acclamation, and read it carefully.

It was October and the night would be cold, but the afternoon sunlight was still golden and clear and sweet as the wine Falerius opened when Musca arrived. They sat drinking in the stalls of the empty arena with Balbillus and Sarria.

“So, this Oppius Novius,” Musca said.

“Have you at least heard of him?” joked Balbillus.

Musca sighed, patiently.  “Yes, yes. He’s a Senator, I know that much. But you can tell us all about him.”

“He’s supposed to be clever,” said Balbillus, a little dubiously. “But . . . I’ve heard things about the Novii.” He looked around and dropped his voice.  Madness.

“They can be as crazy as they like for all I care,” said Falerius, loudly enough to set the stone hollow of the arena ringing. “They can’t possibly do worse than the last fellow.”


“You should be careful about saying things like that,” hissed Musca. He was always careful, himself, nowadays.

“Musca, it’s all right,” exclaimed Falerius.  It’s actually loyal and patriotic to say now that Nasennius was a horrible piece of work and I’m glad he stabbed himself.  Hail to Oppius Novius Augustus and all his heirs, and may the Novian Dynasty last forever.”

A hoarse baying noise, rhythmic as a saw and loud as breaking stone, rose from the vivarium.

“Feeding time,” said Falerius.

Over in the vivarium, Falerius was breeding dogs.

Musca could never resist teasing him about it. As they walked over to the lodge, they came across his eldest granddaughter sitting in the atrium, cuddling a tiny white-and-brown puppy.

“So that’s an Arena Hound, is it?” Musca said, laughing.

He expected Falerius to snap the little creature had nothing to do with his arena hounds, and was even more amused when Falerius scowled and said, “That’s one of the runts. No good for breeding, obviously, but the girls gang up on me – if I get rid of any of them I’d never hear the end of it.”

“They get that from Merulina. Well if you did use old Caudex . . .!” 

Falerius frowned again and dragged him through the atrium into the vivarium, past the cages to the yard space he’d managed to buy after Musca’s time.

The slaves were just about to set out the troughs of meat, and the dogs were waiting, tails beating back and forth, standing packed into a tight formation, and making that eager cry. None of them was much bigger than Caudex had been-- they were stocky, with small ears and blunt, stupid faces. Most of them were piebald, but some were a startling pure white with raw pink skin and reddish eyes. 

“Wait a moment,” called Falerius, to the slaves. And to Musca he whispered, “Watch them,” and let out a series of piercing whistles.  “See how they move.”


Musca watched, obediently, as the animals raced and wheeled across the yard. They were surprisingly graceful for their bulk. He shook his head. “They’re very well-trained. They stay close together, I suppose.”

“They can’t stand to be apart,” murmured Falerius.

“Well, they’re pack animals,” said Musca, and shrugged. “I’m sorry; I don’t see how ordinary dogs are ever going to be a replacement for a lion.”

“They’re not ordinary. They won’t be ordinary. You don’t understand,” said Falerius.


* * *


Musca was dismayed at how weak and wrung-out Merulina looked.  She placed the baby in her father’s arms, and flinched as another volley of barking rang through the windows.

 “I hate the noise they make.”

“Hmm,” said Musca, “No, you shouldn’t have to listen to that.” He jigged his grandson, who was also beginning to cry at the noise, easily up and down. “Come out to the villa,” he suggested, “The air’s better than here. It’s a good place for you to get your strength back.”

“But I’ll have to come back.”

“Oh, my dear,” said Musca, distressed.

“I hate them. They’re not like real animals. They’re not natural.  I hate what he wants them to be.”



* * *


Falerius watched the hounds in the yard.

They were not ready. Another ten years, and he thought he might have something worth showing to the public. But it would take longer still to refine and distil the creatures into the single, composite beast, the one ferocious mind in many bodies that he dreamt of.

He went out of the vivarium and saw starlings swing over the arena: the flock pulsed into a ball, a billowing sheet, a ribbon, the last of the sunlight catching each synchronous wingbeat.

Yes, he thought. Exactly like that.

One day, he knew, there would be packs of hounds that moved that way across the sand at the Colosseum, surging and pouring under the floodlights.

That would be something worth paying to see.


















Tags: romanitas, rome burning, savage city, short story
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