Tales of Ancient Rome

By: S. J. A. Turney


He would be less than happy to get back to the headquarters some time just before dawn to find it had been gutted by fire and all because the untrustworthy idiot he left in charge of the insula had started the stove in the kitchen to cook his fish supper and had come over ever so tired and gone to bed, leaving it burning.

Prat.

His days in the vigiles would almost certainly be numbered after this. Particularly given that debacle last week with the explosion at the emporium. His wages would be halved for the next thousand years to pay for the replacement pump.

Hurriedly throwing on a cloak and grateful that he’d gone to sleep wearing his tunic and breeches and not even unlacing his boots because he was so tired, he decided on his course of action. He would have to check the extent of the fire and get down to the yard. In the central courtyard that had previously been the light well for the insula, a series of large tablets on the walls bore the instructions and rules and regulations for all trainee vigiles. He would have to read them and remind himself of what to do next.

Reaching out, he grasped the door handle and pulled.

The words ‘back draft’ rose though the levels of denseness in his head a fraction of a second before the explosion of boiling fire blew the suddenly freed door into the room, knocking him flat, but miraculously protecting him from the worst of the heat.

Struggling out from under the battered portal, he peered fearfully around the room. The blast had calmed and the fire was starting to take hold on the walls and furniture in his room. Pulling himself upright, he wandered across to the large bronze mirror next to a small glowing oil lamp that seemed almost ridiculous in the circumstances.

His eyebrows had gone and his lush, curly black hair had disappeared as far back as his ears, leaving only tiny charred stumps. His face was covered in sooty grime, pink lines extending from his eyes where he had instinctively screwed them up.

He looked idiotic. But then people told him that under normal circumstances, too.

Leaning to the side, he peered out into the corridor. The formerly painted walls, white and red, with a decorative strip of something he couldn’t remember, were black, fire ripping its way along the wooden railing that surrounded the stair well. Leaning the other way, he could see the blanket of flame that filled the corridor, blocking off any chance of reaching the other stairs. Other than trying to jump down the fifteen foot drop into the light well, these stairs would have to do.

All the vigiles had practiced the jump, of course. They were supposed to be able to manage something as easy as that. It was often required in the course of duty. Postumus, with his somewhat portly figure and his apparently severed connection between mental function and the gangling muscle-free flesh he called limbs, had never managed anything but a temporarily-crippling belly-flop onto the hard floor. He had in the past year, broken one ankle, twisted another, cracked five ribs and broken his nose during training jumps. Two months ago Safranius had given up trying.

Honestly, if it weren’t for his illustrious lineage and the sizeable donations his long-suffering father made to help the vigiles, he would probably have been thrown out long ago.

Taking a deep breath and gagging on the smoke, he stepped closer to the stairs, muttering a quick and very fervent prayer to the lares and Penates of the building.

A flickering orange glow was visible through the cracks in the wooden staircase. Downstairs was already an inferno. But there was nothing else for it. He had to brave it.

Putting one foot delicately on the top step, he applied pressure and winced as it groaned and shifted underfoot. Biting his lip, he put all his weight on that leg and moved down a step. Another charred groan.

Postumus whimpered and hoped his bladder would hold under the panicked pressure.

He was just reaching out with his first leg again when a noise caught his attention.

‘Meeee-owwwwwooooo?’

“Mister Socks!”

The second step cracked as he turned hurriedly and ran back up into the corridor. Mister Socks was the station cat; a mangy, fat thing with an evil temper, one ruined eye, a perforated ear and a bad case of flatulence. Of the eighty periodical occupants of the building, the only one that treated Postumus as anything other than an unfortunate piece of furniture was Mister Socks. It wasn’t that he didn’t bite and scratch the overweight vigil; he did, and frequently, but less frequently than he bit and scratched the others.