Don’t eat the figs

19th of August 14 CE. Nola, bay of Naples

I was at my desk when my steward Ceryllus padded in to tell me of a death during the night. I was of course expecting it. I had prepared for this moment and in my head was a list of the things I must now do. I rose with the first, carefully-thought-out speech, on my lips – “May the gods receive my husband the Emperor Augustus into the place they have surely prepared for him” – when I realised that Ceryllus had actually said the wrong name.

“Nisus? Nisus the junior accounts keeper?”
“I’m afraid so, Lady Livia,” said Ceryllus. “He – the body – has just been discovered in his room.”
“Take me to him.” I took a step towards the corridor, and Ceryllus coughed artificially.
“I should warn you, Madam, that it does not look like a completely natural death.”
I raised my eyebrows, while my thoughts ran through every possible scenario, and said, “Nevertheless.”
Ceryllus’ face twitched in distaste but I waved it away with, “Yes, yes, I do realise, it will not be pleasant.” He knows me well, and made no more protest.

I don’t often visit the slave quarters in any of my houses but as Ceryllus led the way I was pleased to see everything as it should be. Corridors were swept, the paint work clean and glimpses into the myriad cubicles showed a uniform neatness which I found pleasing. And then we came to the quarters of the unfortunate Nisus. The smell that welcomed me as we turned a corner was harbinger of the truly revolting scene. Nisus lay on the bed, his hands balled into fists which seemed to pummel at his chest, his knees drawn up. He lay in filth and his vomit spattered the floor, the wall and the cracked plate which lay next to the bed. I surveyed the scene in silence, a fold of my overdress pulled across my mouth and nose, and turned slowly in the tiny room, looking for anything that seemed out of place. I had of course noted the plate, and sure enough, in the corner was a half-eaten fig.

“This looks like food poisoning to me,” I said to Ceryllus. “Find out what he ate last night. Destroy any leftovers as a precaution.”
“I shall make enquiries, Madam,” said Ceryllus.
“And have him washed, the bedding burned, and the room scrubbed down,” I said and he nodded.

I took one last look around, and as Ceryllus stepped from the room to call for a couple of minions I took a pace forward and picked up the half-eaten fig from the floor, using a fold of my wrap. I may be an old woman but I can move swiftly when I wish. I went back to my desk, and buried the fig in the ashes of my little brazier. It would burn when I lit it later that day. I would claim the privilege of age and have a fire in my room despite the warm days we were enjoying. I then continued with my work.

I have found that when I am in urgent need of a plan the best thing to do is something else. I knew that by the afternoon I would have thought of something but it was a pity that all my careful work over the last few months were now wasted. I had used poison to induce a number of bouts of stomach upsets in my husband – easily done, he always had terrible digestion – and my piece de resistance, as the Greeks say, was to smear the figs on his favourite fig-tree with a large dose of aconite in honey. It had not crossed my mind that the wretched slave would ruin everything with his greed. Once Augustus heard of this he would be vigilant over his eating once more and I would have to think of another plan. So annoying, because everything was arranged and postponing it all would involve a lot of trouble. With an effort I put all these thoughts to one side and took up a list of requests put together by my secretary for my approval.

I have for many years looked after the interests of Roman girls, setting up a school and providing dowries for a select worthy few. I was absorbed in weighing up three candidates for my generosity when a gentle cough told me that Ceryllus was back. His face when I looked up was very troubled indeed, and my heart leapt. Surely, it couldn’t be…?

“Don’t smile,” I warned myself.

“Madam, I bring the worst possible news,” said Ceryllus, and satisfaction blossomed inside me.  Ceryllus too had clearly rehearsed this moment. “To our everlasting grief the emperor Augustus,” he paused delicately, “has passed peacefully in his sleep. Lady Livia, I would like to convey the condolences of the whole household. To you, his wife of more than fifty years, this must bring the greatest sorrow.”

Even as one part of my mind was incredulous at such great luck as Augustus dying naturally at just the right time, another appreciated the way that training a slave is never wasted. 

“Who else knows?” I asked.

“The slave who found him came straight to me and I have made sure that he will not talk to anyone else. He was also on duty last night as the Emperor’s dresser, so he is frightened. He won’t talk. The Praetorian Guard on duty has gone to inform his officer. We can rely on the Guard, Madam.” I nodded, pleased. It was time to see my husband.

There he lay, Augustus, leader of the Roman world, neatly tucked into a cocoon of blankets. He always felt the draught, and even in the summer needed several blankets. He looked very calm as though he had just slipped away in his sleep and I heard myself murmur, “At least he wasn’t cold.” Ceryllus nodded gravely beside me.

So – had my husband died naturally at exactly the right time? He was after all an ill old man, worn out by constant work and my own little contributions, and nobody would be suspicious. Apart from me. I have always mistrusted coincidence.

I made sure that I stood for some time with bowed head as all this went through my head, then left the room to give the necessary orders. By now the officer commanding today’s Praetorian Guard had arrived, but he and Ceryllus knew what to do. A detailed plan had been worked out for the last twenty years and was reviewed every year. To my amusement, this plan had been given the codename “Olympus has fallen”. Really, how ridiculous men are!

“And now I shall go and find some peace in the garden,” I said when I had finished telling them what to do. “When I am back in my office, Ceryllus, I would like you to send to me the slave who attended him last night. I wish to know my husband’s last words.”

I turned to the officer. “And both of you, do not talk about this to anyone else in the household. Unless there is a good reason otherwise, nobody must know.”

The officer saluted and marched off and Ceryllus nodded. I went straight to our own small private courtyard where an elderly gardener was watering the pots of herbs in the shade. In the middle of this courtyard was a healthy little fig tree with plenty of fruit hanging from its lowest branches. It took no more than a quick glance to see that the four figs that had been hanging temptingly from the lowest branch last night had gone. The slave had yielded, my husband had not, and yet both had died. Something was wrong.

It was already too hot to stay watching the old gardener in the courtyard and I walked slowly back to my study. There I thought first about Tiberius, my only surviving child, son of my useless and forgettable first husband. I had spent years manoeuvring him into this position, and if the ungrateful wretch had followed instructions he should arrive soon, at which point we would announce the death of Augustus, Father of his Country. Then my son would take over Rome, and if he knew what was good for him he would keep me on as his most valued councillor. Although one never knew with Tiberius.

Next, I went to the shelf and pulled down my medicine cabinet. I went through it, pulling open every drawer, my mental inventory alert. The packets of dried herbs on view had not been disturbed, I thought, but they were harmless anyway. I felt right to the back corner of one drawer and drew out the twist of paper hidden there. Opening it up, I saw that the leaves of aconite remained, just as I had left them. My poisoner had sworn they were effective if mixed with something sweet, and given in increasing doses over time. The unfortunate slave should not have died at a first dose, but he might have had a weakness already, and poison, however much one studies, is an inexact art. I took the little twist of paper, and pushed that too into my brazier, to join the fig. Finally, I opened the inner case with its neat row of bottles and spotted it at once. My precious little bottle of liquid distilled from the opium poppy was empty! So that was how it had been done – but who had done it?

I sent for a plate of olives and bread and some wine. I had thought when imagining this moment, that I would indulge in a little day-dreaming, seeing myself at my son’s side as I steered him to power, but until I had worked out who had used my poppy-juice to kill Augustus there would be no rest. I felt the beginnings of anger, most unusual for me, but along with the food came my steward with a very young slave in tow. I sat up, prepared to extract an answer.

“Madam, this is Anthus, who attended the emperor last night and found him this morning,” said Ceryllus and he faded back into the corridor at my nod. The nervous youth in front of me had reddened eyes and had already cut a lock of his hair from his fringe in honour of his master. My heart warmed just a little. He was the first of many who would mourn, feeling the loss of their kindly old emperor. Augustus always had a soft spot for the young and no doubt this boy thought that he had meant something to his master. 

“There is no need to be afraid,” I began, for I have always inspired fear in the slaves. “I merely want you to tell me about our beloved Augustus’s last night.”

The boy nodded and cleared his throat. 

“He summoned me soon after dinner,” he began, “and asked me to fetch his usual hot drink from the kitchen. When I came back he poured some liquid from a little bottle into the drink and said it would help him sleep.”

“Did he tell you what this was?” I asked.

“He said it was a sleeping draught that he had got from your medicine cabinet, Madam,” said the boy. “He said it was his revenge, but he said that as though it was a joke, Madam.”

Revenge? My stupid husband genuinely thought that killing himself was revenge on me? Melodramatic fool!

“Oh yes,” I said and sighed, giving just a small, wobbly smile to show that I had understood the joke. “I am glad that he slept peacefully at least. And what was the last thing he said?”

The boy thought. “He gave me a tip when he handed the cup back to me. I was surprised, he usually saved up the tips and gave them to me on the last day of the month. I helped him into bed and – oh! – he asked me to take a message to you in the morning. I’m sorry, Madam, I forgot, what with – everything.”

That got my interest of course.

“He said to tell you that the fig tree in the garden had gone rotten and he hoped you had not eaten any of the figs.”

I stood quite still.

“The figs?”

“Yes, Madam.”

I nodded and dismissed him with a wave. He scuttled out, relief shining from his face, but I heard his sobs as he ran down the corridor.

I stood quite still, making sure that none of my fury showed. Oh, it was a small revenge, but with this last message Augustus made it clear that he had outwitted me – me! I had run the Roman Empire for him for all these years, and he couldn’t even have the decency to let me kill him off! My jaw hurt with the effort of not gritting my teeth. 

I went back out into the courtyard and called the old gardener over.

“I want this fig tree uprooted and burned. It is the Emperor’s wish. He said – says – that it has gone rotten. I want you to destroy it immediately. Do you understand?”

He mumbled an assent, not looking at me. I hoped I had entrusted this last task to someone with wit enough to follow instructions precisely, but the men in my life have all been fools. 

“And,” I said as I turned away, “make sure that you burn all of it. Don’t eat the figs.”

2 Responses

  1. Delightful! Thank you so much for another enjoyable short story. And, to quote Tennessee Williams, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that were true?”

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