At the Pomegranate
“Only four of you this time?” Bruttia said as she put down her cup and wiped muslum from her mouth. “Your boss is either getting soft or running out of men.”
The four gangers paused and looked at one another, frowning. Then they looked at the assembled mass of drunks, whores and ne’er-do-wells that constituted the Pomegranate’s clientele. Maybe now, thought Bruttia, as they stand in one of the Subura’s most infamous tavernas whilst surrounded by the worst scum and villainy Rome has to offer, they realise they’ve bitten off more than they chew.
“Bruttia!” shouted the landlady, Nona. “I’ve told you before, if you want to entertain your men friends, you do it outside; I’m still replacing chairs from the last time!”
The Pomegranate’s patrons laughed raucous, guttural laughs made almost hysterical by their inebriation. Some jostled for a better view, others leered at the quartet of gangers. In one corner, noted Bruttia, the massive slab of scar tissue known as Faustus exchange a bet with his handsome friend, Little Hades. In another, the pirate Zenobius watched the unfolding confrontation even as he fed grapes to his parrot.
“Silence now, Nona,” said Bruttia as she rolled up her sleeves and squared up to her new victims. “This won’t take long…”
“I think this one is broken,” said Nona as she bent Bruttia’s bruised and bloodied finger upward.
“Really?” Bruttia hissed with barely suppressed pain and snatched her hand away. “If it wasn’t before, it is now.”
“Stop complaining,” said Nona as she dabbed at Bruttia’s split lip with a filthy rag dipped in wine. “At least you didn’t put money on the four gangers.”
Bruttia frowned and said, “You bet on those four idiots?”
“Of course I did,” said Nona with a smile. “Your luck has to run out soon, lady.”
The Pomegranate was almost empty now. The sun had gone down, and most of the regulars had either fallen asleep on various tables, benches or—in one lowlife’s case—the counter. Some had dragged Bruttia’s quartet of unconscious foe’s out and into the night, and what fate awaited the insensible fighters remained unknown. Other customers staggered outside with some prostitute or other, and one young, drunken actor had been selected by the grizzled Creon as tonight’s bedfellow. Now the empty taverna—with its chipped cups, blood-stained floor, smashed benches and broken tables—could be seen in all of its stygian glory.
But the Pomegranate—even in this, the twilight of its days—looked vibrant compared to Nona. Delicate and dry like an autumnal leaf, she rustled when she moved and rattled when she breathed. Presently she began to bind Bruttia’s swollen, bloodied knuckles.
“Seriously, Bruttia,” she said as she wrapped the dirty cloth about Bruttia’s hand, “You can’t live like this anymore. How old are you now?”
“I don’t know,” said Bruttia with a brusque, dismissive tone. What business is it of yours anyway, she thought. “I can’t remember.”
“You’re thirty five.”
Bruttia glared at the old woman and asked, “So what?”
“So you’ve lived about fifteen years longer than most people in your … what shall we call it? Profession?”
“That’s because I’m good at what I do,” said Bruttia. “Just ask those four gangers.”
“It’s because you’ve been lucky,” said Nona.
“Strange how the harder I fight the luckier I get.”
“And how long can that body of yours keep fighting?”
“As long as it has to.”
“As long as it takes to kill Vermio?”
Vermio. Just the sound of his name made Bruttia’s throat tighten and heart beat faster. She closed her eyes and inhaled. Oh Vermio, she thought as, fists clenched, she pictured his face. Slender, effeminate Vermio, with your makeup and beautiful hair, with your pretty lies and ugly betrayals. Oh, little brother dear…
She ground her teeth, fists clenched even tighter.
…How I want to kill you.
“What did he do to make you hate him so much?”
Bruttia opened her eyes and glared at Nona. The crone had never asked her outright before. Why ask now?
“Does it matter?” said a new, strange voice. “Making sure she kills him, that’s all that counts. Isn’t it, Bruttia?”
Bruttia and Nona turned as one to see the newcomer as she stood in the doorway. Leant against the doorframe, she danced a denarius across her knuckles whilst smirking at Bruttia and Nona.
“Valeria?” asked Bruttia. She winced slightly as she stood. Why is she—one of Vermio’s gang and a fighter supposedly loyal to Hostilius—here? she thought. It could be for one of only two reasons…
“What are you doing here?” asked Nona.
…One was to declare war…
“I came with a tip-off for you.”
…The other was to sell information.
“Then deliver your news and leave,” said Nona, her voice edged with scorn and heavy with menace. “Before I bring the wrath of Orcus upon you.”
“No need for threats when currency will do,” said Valeria. She pocketed her coin before holding forth the flat of her empty hand. “The information is yours for one solitary denarius.”
“Then take your money…” Bruttia took a denarius from the table—abandoned by some sot or other—and tossed it to Valeria. “…And say your piece.”
Valeria snatched the coin from the air before inspecting it. Perhaps satisfied it wasn’t fake, she slipped it into her pouch and smiled at Bruttia.
“Hostilius has ordered us to take Eurysaces’ bakery as sunrise.”
“Take it?” asked Nona. “What do you mean?”
“We’ve been ordered to seize the bakery for Hostilius. He’s standing as a candidate for the plebeian aedile, so he wants to gift bread to the masses and buy their votes.”
“And Eurysaces?” asked Bruttia. She fancied she already knew the answer.
“What about him?” said Valeria with a shrug. “Either he gives us the bakery, or we kill him.”
“And that worked so well when Durio demanded he give Hostilius the bakery, didn’t it?” said Bruttia with a smirk. “We’ve all heard how Eurysaces gave him a beating and sent him home empty-handed.”
“Tomorrow will be different,” said Valeria. “Tomorrow there’ll be three of us.”
“And by ‘us’, you mean…?”
“Me, Durio…” She looked Bruttia in the eye. “…And Vermio.”
Bruttia inhaled deeply, nostrils flaring as she looked down her nose and glared at Valeria. Eurysaces’ bakery lay here, in the heart of the Subura, not two blocks away from the Pomegranate. And Vermio would be there with only Valeria and the hapless Durio for protection. Could this be her chance to end Vermio for good…?
“Get out,” said Nona. “You’ve delivered your message and you’ve got your reward. Now go, before I curse you for the traitorous harridan you are.”
“Very well,” said Valeria as she turned to leave. Pausing, she looked over her shoulder and winked at Bruttia. “See you in the morning, Bruttia…
“…Don’t be late.”