NOTE: The results of ‘Nathan Burgoine’s Flash Fiction Draw for April were a dirt road (setting), historical fiction (genre), and rat poison (object.) I have another note following the story, but here’s what I came up with;
Murder on the Via Tullius
By Jeff Baker
It is a privilege to live around Rome, the most advanced city in the world. Not so much to work for Xanthus, even if he did pay me well. He had to; they didn’t call him “Xanthus the Misanthrope” for nothing. But he was rich and if he wanted to explore the roads and towns around Rome and drag me along as servant, secretary, what-have-you, I wouldn’t object.
We had walked so far away that the road wasn’t even paved. What I wouldn’t have given to be in a nice liter or chariot on the Appian Way. But no, we left the chariots behind to see “the real world.” Xanthus is as rich as a king and smarter than any scholar and yet he does things like this. It was almost fun at first, realizing that I was being paid to ride around and listen to Xanthus babble on about the Appian Way “a magnificent stone structure where there was nothing a mere fifteen summers ago.” But the walking, kicking up dirt and dust from the road, even when I knew there was a town ahead, was not how I wanted to spend my time. By now, Xanthus was rambling about our current destination; “the Aqua Tullius, the marvel of the age! Flowing, drinkable water moved to this dry region by the miracle of Roman ingenuity!” As he said this, he casually pulled off the bag he’d been carrying on his shoulders, his share of our provisions and handed it to me. I grunted as I re-arranged our bags on my shoulders. I wasn’t his slave, something most people assumed. Most slaves would not put up with Xanthus.
I had to admit, looking up at the stone archways supporting the aqueduct, it was amazing. Still in operation after all these centuries. And the dirt road had given away to stone. This was the fabled Via Tullius, a road whose reputation was far overshadowed by the Appian Way’s fame, even though it was far older, built toward the end of the rule of the great King Servius Tullius. Over to one side of the road were bushes and a villa or two.
And underneath the bushes was a man, face-down on the ground, a wooden pail at his side, a large ladle clutched in his hand. Not moving. Not breathing.
Xanthus stood over the man and stared.
“Clearly a landowner, a merchant of quality, certainly not a slave or servant.” Xanthus said. “Look at his tunic. Its length goes just below the knees. Not the garment of a working man or slave. Note the quality of the fabric. Also, it and his hands are clean. This man went out to get water and something happened.” He bent down and sniffed the bucket. He stood up and wrinkled his nose. “Sulphur. They use it to kill rats. The bucket smells of it. My guess is, someone intended to kill him, or maybe others. He must have been unwittingly drinking the stuff for days. You need a large quantity to get rid of a man that way.”
My mouth felt dry. I stared at the dead man in the warm sun. I prayed to Jupiter, Apollo, and the goddess Xanthus seemingly never listened to; Minerva. I did not want to be in this little town, Aqua Tullius or no and be blamed for possibly one killing while Xanthus tried to solve it like a puzzle a tutor would propose. The idea of winding up dead ourselves was one I found even less appealing. Xanthus looked around and for one awful moment I thought he was going to start calling out for help, but instead he pointed back the way we came and said “This way.” For once, I followed without qualm or reservation.
AUTHOR’S NOTE; not sure whether this is a story or part of a chapter! Anyway, I’ve been wanting to write about Xanthus the Misanthrope, rich and annoying, and his unnamed narrator since dreaming them up for another (unwritten yet) story some time ago. This month’s draw gave me the unexpected opportunity to play with these characters and the world of 290-something B.C.
April 5, 2018