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A tour of Rome with Valerius

Here's an excerpt from Sub Rosa, in which we join Valerius and Juba as they head into the city and Valerius gets a haircut. I won't lie, there's not a lot of plot going on here, but these passages were some of my favourites to write. Valerius's voice is so much fun to get into, and I really enjoyed showing Rome at it's busiest and most chaotic, full of vibrant characters.

From my house on the Caelian Hill, the road sloped downwards towards the Forum on a gentle incline, dipped sharply where the Caelian met the Esquiline, and flattened out at a busy intersection where crowded apart- ment buildings suddenly blocked out the sunlight and balconies blossomed from faded facades and overhung the street. This neighbourhood was full of tradesmen and artisans who were on the way up, and the middle rankers who despised them but couldn’t afford to move. This was where the bustle of the city really began, and from here, it was only a short hop to the Forum.

Like most of the people in the big city, we were headed to the Forum. If you stood in the Forum on a busy day, sooner or later, all the people you needed to see (and a couple you needed to avoid) would cross your path.

The Forum was busy, awash with the usual crowd. The posers in clean tunics and togas making the right impression and drifting towards the Curia like flies on the trail of something, particularly rancid; the wheelers and dealers who ran the currency through their fingers like sand; the lawyers and clerks touting for business and pretending not to be, and the mob of tourists and wastrels with nowhere else to be.

We cut through the Forum and headed for my barber, who kept a few stools under a chalked sign in Fish Alley. The streets were narrower further away from the Forum and more crowded with artisans and their associated smells. My father had kept a barber at the house, but for all that, my banker Oufentius said that I was irresponsible, I knew an unnecessary expense when I saw one.

“Morning, Centhus, what’s the news in Fish Alley?” I asked when I sat myself down in front of my barber’s chalked sign. Juba took the stool next to me and watched as Centhus wielded his collection of razors deftly and tucked the spares into his low-slung apron with the recklessness of a man who placed no value on his testicles.

“The news in Fish Alley, Aemilius Valerius, is that Masso has sold his bakery to cover his gambling debts, and his wife is going to throttle him for it.” His eyes twinkled as he sharpened his razor. “Pollia Marca is pregnant again, this time to the sandal maker’s younger son. The boy’s been sent to visit relatives somewhere, so Pollia’s on her own still.”

“At least she’ll have plenty of children to provide for her in her old age.”

Centhus laughed and pulled a few of my stray curls over the razor. “Oh! And old Xeno finally paid the ferryman.”

Xeno was the senile old fishmonger who used to natter on in about twelve different languages, none of them intelligible, and force people to buy fish against their will. Many a time, I’d presented a massive, smelly specimen to my cook, only to have him feed it to the cat because it was no longer fit for human consumption. Fish Alley had lost its last fishmonger. It was the end of an era in this neighbourhood.

“That’s a shame.” I found it easy to feel real affection for people when they were no longer around to torment me.

“We’re running a collection for his wife and children,” Centhus added pointedly. “Lean your head back for me, sir.”

“I didn’t know he had any family.”

“Oh, yes,” said Centhus, shearing off another patch of wild curls. “Completely destitute now. Mind you, they always were. I suppose you could say now they’re completely destitute without the consolation of the old lunatic’s company.”

“Very charitable of you,” I commented, feeling in my purse for a few coins to salve my conscience.

Fish Alley was as crowded and as busy as always. The bakery smelled of smoke and fresh bread and was a hive of activity. People haggled, pushed and shoved, and hit each other with their baskets. A couple of likely lads leaned against the fountain at the entrance to the alley, doing their best to look muscular and dangerous. Up and down the alley, children played recklessly, screaming and yelling and ignoring their mothers. A group of muscular-armed harpies cackled outside a laundry and emptied their washing tubs out into the street. People hung out of windows and over balconies, calling to one another. Most of it was unfit for my ears. Clusters of baskets, gourds, and sandals hung under shop awnings, smacking unwary pedestrians in the head. An old woman was beating a swinging gourd with her walking stick and swearing. She turned her stick on the stall owner when he tried to stop her. A pair from the Urban Cohorts glanced into the alley from near the fountain, had a quiet word to the likely lads, roughed them up a bit, and told them to move on about their business. The real criminals slipped back out of the shadows they had popped into the moment the law appeared.

There were one or two faces I recognised. Masso, the baker, escaped the heat of his ovens and caught some fresh air out the front of his shop. He eyed the street warily and then slipped into the wineshop next door. The sandal maker, whose name I could never remember, sat under his awning, cutting strips of leather. Lacus, the beggar, meandered along the alley. A skinny little girl, her tunic hitched up indecently, sat at the counter of Fish Alley’s one and only thermopolium and leered at the skinny little boys. The waiter leaned over the counter and shoved her off the stool. He was pelted with bits of rubbish by her tribe of little boyfriends. Lacus, the beggar, sympathised hopefully with the waiter.

Centhus brushed the hair from my shoulders, whipped me around on the stool, and gave me a snappy shave. I closed my eyes rather than watch the razor flitting about in my line of vision.

I counted out my money to Centhus, with a bit of extra for the gossip. “See you next time, Centhus.”

“A pleasure as always, Valerius.” Centhus grinned. A pleasure because he overcharged me. I only let him because he was still cheap by comparison. My revenge was recommending him to Hursa.

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