Magistrate Ovid stood naked before Praetor Atticus, wearing only the required girdle and covering for his face. Holding the mask required the use of one hand, while the other kept the wide belt from slipping off his sweaty midsection, leaving no opportunity for modesty.
“Take the cursed mask off, Ovid,” said the Praetor from his cushioned divan. His right leg lay awkwardly across a wooden stool with splints on either side. He grimaced from the exertion and leaned back with a sucking of breath through his teeth.
Praetor Atticus had fallen from his mount a few days before when an asp had appeared from behind a clump of rocks outside of Alexandria. The meaning of that prophetic encounter was not lost on the nobility, leaving him in a precarious position with few willing supporters, thus the unexpected request for help. Atticus had had the horse killed, leaving Ovid to wonder if the horse was the lucky one in this instance.
Ovid let the mask drop, blinking away the sweat dripping from his forehead. The air was as thick as a lion’s mane. “Apologies—”
“Apologies, nothing,” said the Praetor. “I see your hands are empty. Which means you have failed to find the stolen amulet. I can only assume that because of your girth that you could not properly search the house, thus sealing both mine and your fates. By the gods, you could at least visit a vomitorium from time to time. A lesser man would have brought me the son’s guilt.”
The heat inside the villa was oppressive. Ovid wasn’t sure how the Praetor could stand it. He wiped his forehead again and tried to convince the spots in his vision to disappear.
“I … I …”
The Praetor pushed himself upright. “Magistrate Ovid! Rally your senses!”
Ovid’s knees turned to water and the floor came rushing towards him. There was a brief internal war between the incoming shame and the sweet relief of temporary oblivion, but he hit the tiles before a victor could be decided.
Earlier that morning, Magistrate Ovid had been dining in his garden when the messenger arrived. The olive-skinned youth fought his way through the overgrown bushes, ducking frantically when a bee buzzed his face.
Ovid was staring at his plate, a frown hanging on his lips. The hunk of bread was charred on three sides. His salted olives had been purchased at a street vendor deep in the Rhakotis district, rather than the Emporium where the best quality foods were sold. They were grey and reeked of spoiled vinegar. Even the boiled duck egg sitting in the clay-fired cup didn’t look … acceptable. But that was his fault. He hadn’t mastered cooking since he’d had to release his servants due to a lack of funds.
The messenger hesitated, glancing between the meager table and the disorderly state of the garden.
“I presume you’re looking for Magistrate Ovid.” The messenger nodded. “You have found him.”
Ovid held his hand out, expecting the scroll to be placed there. The messenger’s mouth still hadn’t closed.
The effects of poverty were becoming more apparent to Ovid, who had already felt the impact in his stomach. Since he’d refused his father’s support, keeping up a proper appearance was becoming more difficult by the day. The salary for his position should have come with more coinage, but his superiors, especially Praetor Atticus, were diverting funds and there was nothing he could do about it.
“The scroll,” said Ovid, trying to infuse it with a tone of command.
To his surprise, it worked and the messenger handed it over. Then, before he exited the garden, the youth said, “How can you live like this? Have you no pride?”
That a member of the lower class would dare say such a thing showed Ovid how low he had fallen. The nobility were meant to be admired and envied, or at least in Ovid’s eyes, left alone.
Ovid instantly regretted taking the letter when he saw the name at the bottom. Praetor Atticus, his superior—a man who had despised him since they’d served in the Legion together—had commanded him to deal with a matter in the noble district. The names reeked of political intrigue and Ovid knew getting involved would be like plucking weeds beneath a herd of foraging elephants.