Narsissus Turncoatius, still (just) the first man in Rome, stirred uneasily on his couch at the sound of a scrabbling at the door. Since his disastrous campaign against the Plebians, which ended with his legions decimated and the Plebian leader, Billious Shorticus, pitching his tents within sight of Rome itself, he had slept badly. Not because he was leading the Patrician party which he had hijacked to disaster – to have been disturbed about that would have required a more robust conscience than he possessed, but because he knew assassination plots against him were gathering.
He had claimed to be able to attract the votes of the masses (like his hero, Mousey Dung of Cathay) but a million who had voted for his predecessor had not voted for him. Even his faithful catamites among the Fair Faxes and the Ay Bee Cees had begun to turn against him.
“Infamy!” He thought, repeating the time-hallowed classical quotation, “Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”
He would have to get another sword, he thought. He wished his own were not lodged so firmly in his predecessor’s back, as, to the sound of a whining noise, he padded across the tessellated chamber and opened the door. Relief washed over him. It was no assassin, it was only Krud, the deposed and now insignificant former leader of the Plebians. Krud crawled in and grovelled at his feet.
“You promised me a sinecure!” He whined. “You promised!”
Narcissus Turncoatius could barely restrain a laugh. The wretched creature had been the leader (briefly) of Rome for a couple of years of misrule, yet remained naive enough to believe in Narcissus’s promises! If it was no longer a threat to him, it was no use to him either. The Bishop still supported it, Heaven knew why. Perhaps to set it up to fail on a larger stage than any now available to it here. But to Narcissus it hardly seemed worth the effort. Krud was a spent force, almost as unpopular and despised as … well, never mind. Let promises and sinecures be reserved for those with a capacity to return the favour — that was statecraft.
With a sandal to the fair, globular head, he pushed the cringing figure away across the floor, out of possible dagger-range.
“It wasn’t much of a job anyway,” he told the pitiful creature, now attempting to lick his sandals. “Envoy to the Barbaricum. You wouldn’t have enjoyed it. It was beyond your abilities.”
“I have copies of my letters to you!” Krud wailed, grovelling in his tunic for the scrolls.
Tuncoatuis stepped sharply back, fearful that the verminous Pleb. might dislodge some lice. But then he remembered lice had displayed a curious reluctance to share his own garments. “They have some dignity” a philosopher had told him, using another of those strange words whose meaning he really would have to look up some day. “They care about the company they keep.”
The scrolls, dated April 4, May 1, and June 28, showed Krud’s claim that Narcissus had agreed to back him for the grand sinecure on several occasions
Krud had written that he and Narcissus had talked about the promised grand sinecure via a private messaging service known as Wickr as early as September the previous year. Krud said he had believed he had support from both Narcissus and the Bishop. The dates of the scrolls showed Krud and Narcissus had been discussing the matter even before Narcissus Turncoatius’ assassination of his own predecessor.
“You in fact sent me a message on your preferred Wickr system where you stated that you and the Bishop were ‘as one’ in your support for my candidature,” Krud had written in the scroll dated May 1.
Narcissus took the duplicate scrolls and read them briefly, striking a statesmanlike pose as he did so. Then he bent his head and spoke in solemn and imperial tones to the figure hunched at his feet.
“Get out,” he said, “before you find yourself a star attraction in the arena.”
As the door closed behind the departing petitioner, Narcissus stuffed the three scrolls he had taken from him into a brazier and returned to his couch. Something like a smile of self-satisfaction returned to his lips as he watched the smoke. Krud might go crawling to Billious Shorticus. “And the best of Roman luck there!” Narcissus thought. The idea that Krud might have made other copies did not cross his mind.
He had proved to himself, as well as to Krud, that there was nothing small or narrow-minded in his Statecraft. He was prepared to betray Plebian and Patrician alike.
Quadrant Online readers owe the translation above to Hal G.P. Colebatch