Robert Fabbi

The crossroads brotherhood


December AD 25

‘Marcus Salvius Magnus, I’ve come to you as my patron in the hope that you will right the wrong that is being done to me. In the three years that you have been the Patronus of the Crossroads Brotherhood, here in the South Quirinal district, you have seen that I’ve always paid the not inconsiderable dues owed for your continuing protection in full and on time. I have always provided you with information on my clients, when you have asked for it. I have always offered you free use of my establishment, although you have never availed yourself of that, as my goods are not, I believe, to your taste.’

Magnus sat — leaning back in his chair with his elbows resting on the arms, his hands steepled, his forefingers pressed to his lips — and looked intently at the slight, auburn-haired man standing on the other side of the table as he continued to list examples of his loyalty to the Crossroads Brotherhood, under whose protection lived every trader and resident on the southern slope of the Quirinal Hill. Wearing a tunic of fine linen, outrageously unbelted, and with long, abundant hair tied back in a ponytail, he was of outlandish appearance, but not unattractive — if you liked that sort of thing. Although in his late thirties, his skin was as smooth as a young woman’s, clinging tightly to his fine-boned cheeks and jaw. His sea-grey eyes, lined with traces of kohl, sparkled in the soft lamplight and watered slightly in reaction to the smoky fug produced by the charcoal brazier in the small, low-ceilinged room that Magnus used to transact business with the more important of his many clients. Through the closed door behind him came the muffled shouts and laughter of the well-fuelled drinkers in the tavern beyond.

Magnus had no need to hear of the man’s commitment to him and his brothers, he already knew him to be trustworthy. What interested him was the fact that he felt compelled to affirm it at such length. He was evidently, Magnus surmised, building up to ask a very large favour.

Next to Magnus, his counsellor and second-in-command, Servius, shifted impatiently in his chair and scratched his balding grey hair. Magnus shot him a displeased glance and he settled, stroking the wrinkled skin sagging at his throat with a gnarled hand. Servius knew full well that a supplicant had the right to fully state his claim — however long-winded — to the protection of the only organization in Rome that would look after the interests of his class.

‘And finally, I am always at your disposal to help repel incursions from the neighbouring Brotherhoods,’ the man eventually concluded, causing Magnus to smile inwardly at the thought of such an effeminate in a street fight, ‘should they try to take what is rightfully ours — as they did, not one hour ago.’

Magnus raised his eyebrows, concern seeping onto his battered, ex-boxer’s face — this was unwelcome news. ‘You’ve been robbed, Terentius? By whom?’

Terentius pursed his lips and almost spat on the floor before remembering where he was. ‘Rivals from the Vicus Patricius on the Viminal.’

‘What did they take?’

‘Two boys, and they cut up two others; one very, very badly.’ Terentius looked down and indicated to his groin. ‘You understand?’

Magnus winced and then nodded thoughtfully. ‘Yeah, I take your meaning. You did right to come to me. Who are these rivals?’

‘They aren’t citizens — they came from the East a few years back.’

Magnus looked at Servius in the hope that his counsellor’s long lifetime’s supply of knowledge of the Roman underworld would extend to these Easterners.

‘They’re Albanii,’ Servius informed them, ‘from the kingdom of Albania in the south-east Caucasus between Armenia and Parthia on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Like a lot of eastern barbarians they’re inordinately fond of boys.’

Magnus grinned. ‘Well, there’s a big market for them here as well. I can understand why they’ve set themselves up in competition to you, Terentius. Have you lost much business to them?’

Terentius looked at the chair in front of him and then back at Magnus who nodded. With a grateful sigh he sat down — not used to being upright for so long, Magnus mused with a hint of a smile.

‘It was fine for the first couple of years,’ Terentius said, taking the cup of wine that Servius offered. ‘They were no threat to me: cheap with substandard, dirty boys who took no pride in their appearance. And besides, the house was more than half a mile away. But what it lacked in class and service it made up for with turnover.’

‘A quick in and out, as it were?’

‘What? Oh yes, I see. Well, they worked their boys hard, day and night and soon were making good money but still they didn’t trouble me as their clients were from the lowest part of society. I kept my elite clientele: senators, equestrians and officers of the Praetorian Guard, some of whom still occasionally ask for me.’ Terentius smiled modestly and smoothed his hair with the palm of his hand.

‘I’m sure that a professional with your experience is a sound investment for an evening,’ Servius commented diplomatically; his hooded eyes betraying no irony.

Terentius inclined his head slightly, acknowledging the compliment. ‘I do not disappoint and neither do my boys.’ He took a delicate sip of wine. ‘However, at the beginning of this year these Albanians decided to move upmarket, competing directly with me; and by this time they could afford to. They bought a more lavish place, close to the Vinimal Gate, and began to stock it with the best boys that they could find.

As a result of Tacfarinas’ revolt being crushed last year, the slave markets had started to fill up with the most delicious boys from Africa and, naturally, I wanted my pick of these brown-skinned beauties.’

‘Naturally,’ Magnus agreed.

‘Unfortunately so did my rivals and, regrettably, they too have good taste. I suggested an agreement with them whereby we wouldn’t always bid against each other, but they refused. Even on the very young ones that we train up so they are able to do most things with finesse by the time they’re starting puberty; you can charge a premium for them. I couldn’t let all the best ones go: my stock would have deteriorated over the next few years whilst theirs went up — I would lose my standing. So, I bid over the odds for the best.’

‘Which must have pissed off our Albanian friends no end,’ Magnus observed.

‘Yes, but they still ended up with a goodly amount of beautiful, if over-priced, young flesh, and because the Praetorian Guard’s camp is just outside the Viminal Gate, I started to lose some trade. I had little choice but to lower my prices and do deals: two for the price of one, eat and drink for free on your second consecutive evening, and that sort of thing. But they responded with similar policies and now, because of the huge outlay that we’ve both made this year we’re slowly driving each other out of business and, what’s more, our clients all know it so they bargain even harder when they walk through the door.’

Magnus shook his head, he could see the problem: if Terentius’ business went under then the South Quirinal Brotherhood would lose quite a chunk of its income. ‘And so this evening the Albanians decided to up the stakes and try and force you out.’

‘My men beat them off but the damage to my reputation is done; there were quite a few clients in the house when we were attacked.’

‘So you want me to negotiate a financial settlement with Sempronius, Patronus of the West Viminal?’

Terentius’ pale eyes hardened. ‘No Magnus, this is beyond that now. I want you to get my two boys back and then I want you to destroy these Albanians. Kill them all and their boys. The money that I’ve paid over the years to this Brotherhood entitles me to that.’

Magnus looked at Servius and shrugged. ‘He’s got a point Brother; and besides, we can’t let an attack like that in our area go unpunished — but how do we do it without starting a war?’

The counsellor thought for a few moments looking at Terentius. ‘How well protected are these Albanians?’

‘They have the best protection: the Vigiles. One of their Tribunes has been using the Albanians as a way to ingratiate himself with the Praetorian Guard. So the Vigiles ensure there’s never any trouble near the house and provide an escort for the boys to and from the Praetorian camp should an officer wish to enjoy them in the comfort

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