Tales of Ancient RomeBy: S. J. A. Turney
Of course, it was Postumus that fed Mister Socks, which might go a long way to explaining it. Many of the others just kicked the station cat and would happily evict the menacing, evil creature. It was Postumus that had renamed ‘That Smelly Bastard Cat’ as Mister Socks. It was so much nicer.
Running along the corridor, he spotted the four legged terror of the station crouched in a doorway, hissing at the danger all around. Beyond, the inferno had gripped the corridor, making it impassable to man and beast alike. Through the doorway, the glow of violent orange spoke volumes. A rafter fell between the two of them, roaring with dancing flames and sealing off the cat. Even the wooden frame of the balcony above the light well on remaining wall was starting to char and fall away.
“Don’t worry Mister Socks. I’m coming.”
Carefully, he edged toward the burning beam and jumped across it, just as another fell where he had been standing but a moment before. His heart lurched. A whole insula, just for the sake of a late night snack and forty winks!
Reaching out, his face turned away from the searing heat, he reached out for Mister Socks, muttering soothing noises.
The cat turned its one baleful eye on him and leapt away, momentarily touching the charring balcony to gain leverage, and dropped to the courtyard below, landing, as expected, on its feet. Postumus leaned close to the balcony and stared down to see Mister Socks give him a superior glance, turn, display its bottom in graphic detail, and then prance away to the safety of the street.
Standing straight and taking in ragged breaths, the vigil nodded to himself and turned. Taking two steps carefully across the burning rafters, he felt his bowels loosen a little as a third crashed down next to him, bouncing off his foot and hurting his little toe.
A moment later, he was back at the stairs.
Carefully navigating the first, he passed over the cracked second step and winced as the third almost gave under him. He could feel the hot glow beneath him and a gust of warm air blew his tunic up around his armpits.
Pushing it back down coquettishly, he stepped as lightly as possible down the stairs to the first turning. The fire on the floor below was blazing, filling the corridors. There was no way out that did not involve passing through a wall of fire.
Taking yet another deep breath and gagging and coughing on the roiling smoke, he unfastened his cloak from around his neck and wrapped it around him as thoroughly as he could, leaving a small spy-hole to see through.
Damn that cat.
Safranius was going to crucify him.
The people out in the street would be watching in amusement as the fire-watch station burned down, knowing damn well who was at the heart of the problem.
Lowering his head, Postumus charged into the sheet of roaring flame, his legs pumping as they scorched and seared while he ran, heedless of the pain, through the corridor, around the bend, past the well-room and its blessed water, through the courtyard, where he managed a couple of deep, cleansing breaths without slowing, and on into the far side of the building.
The main corridor ran from the light well and past rooms that had once been people’s residences, out past the shops that occupied the outer façade, looking onto the street.
Without pausing, he ran on along the corridor. The flames had not yet consumed the main entrance, but it was dark and solid with smoke.
Choking, wheezing, and stinging red from the heat, Postumus burst out into the street, the twin hills of the Palatine and Caelian rising before him, behind the insulae opposite. He stopped, heaving breaths, bent double with his hands on his knees, coughing up black dust and spitting soot onto the road.
Mister Socks appeared from nowhere and rubbed around his red raw ankles, purring affectionately.
It was then that Postumus straightened and looked about him.
Buildings flowered with blooms of flame. Roiling black columns rose from insulae along the street. Flames burst from windows and screaming citizens ran wildly in the thoroughfare, their panic infectious.
The city was afire.
But something Safranius had taught him had apparently stuck in his brain after all.
How to track the source of a fire.
Buildings were burning all the way along the street and up side alleys also. But the progression was clear. The insula of the Second century in the Fourth cohort of vigiles was the furthest gone and the epicentre of the spreading chaos.