He had the look of a clerk about him or so Menas thought when he saw the slave on the block. A keenness in the eye and a telling indentation in his forefinger suggesting that he was not unfamiliar with the grasp of a stylus.
The auctioneer described him as ‘An Anatolian, 21 years of thereabouts. Only four careful owners. Look he is strong.” Lifting up the slave’s arm to demonstrate a complete lack of muscle. “Look at those legs! They can run, run fast for you!”
The slave, proving he knew Latin at the very least, looked downwards at his own skinny, knock kneed appendages.
“And he will breed, a good breeder this one. He will increase your stock by three a year every year!”
The distinctly sick look on the slave’s face disproving that.
Perhaps it was because he was last on the blocks and the crowd had spent all their coins on the preceding large chested Ethopian, large bosomed Ilyrian and large nosed Egyptian that Menas managed to secure the slave for a paltry hundred sesterces. A bargain.
“What’s your name?”
“Xerxes, but you can call me whatever you like, master.”
A pleasing deference and a good start to their relationship.
“We’ll stick to Xerxes. Easier that way, save me calling and nobody coming.”
“Yes, master,” said Xerxes with a spring in his step. Leaving Menas to wonder how such a capable slave had passed through four owners at his young age.
This mystery was quickly solved; Xerxes was keen, very keen with an enthusiasm for the tasks set him that veered on the annoying and then crashed straight into being downright infuriating.
It soon became clear that they could not share Mena’s cramped office what with Xerxes being well within throttling range. Menas did not trust himself to maintain control the next time his slave’s pen scratched on parchment every-single-damn-letter or broke into a jaunty whistle or cleared his throat which he did at least seventeen times a morning.
Instead Menas sent him down to sweep the sand of his gladiator training arena. A task that Xerxes engaged in with a diligence that was likely to get him killed, most particularly after his dressing down of The Annihilator for dripping blood onto his nicely swept sand. The Annihilator was only dripping blood because Xerxes’ over zealous sweeping had caused a sand cloud that had blinded him and allowed The Stabber to get a cheeky slash of his arm in.
For his own safety Menas sent him out into the town to purchase an animal for the upcoming beast fight. Telling him, “Find me something with teeth.”
Xerxes had near exploded with joy at being given such an honoured assignment, a sentiment he expressed with such frequency Menas was forced to threaten him with a whipping if he didn’t get on with it.
“It will be an honour to endure a whipping at your hands, master.”
Clenching his fists Menas managed to hold back.
He returned three hours later bouncing on his toes, excited as a child at this first chariot race.
“I found the most wonderful creature, master. You must come see it master. It’s going to make one amazing show. Aedile Amelianus will be ecstatic with you master for putting on such a good show for him. It has these stubby horns that could gouge out an eye, these long legs that could kick off a limb and a neck so long you’d hardly believe it. I reckon one long swipe of that neck could knock the beast killer off his feet and into the crowd! The third row at least master!”
“A long neck?” queried Menas with a sinking, swirling pot of horror churning in his stomach.
“Yes, master. Like you’ve never seen”
Menas reckoned he’d seen, he reckoned he’d definitely seen and he was imaging Aedile Amelianus reaction right now. “Show me.”
Xerxes took him outside where he proudly pointed to his purchase. “See master isn’t it beautiful? But vicious, very vicious.”
Menas looked the creature up and down. “It’s a giraffe,” he said.
“Oh is that how you say it? I’ve been saying ger-raff-ee. No wonder Dios laughed.”
Xerxes’ mispronunciation was not the cause of Dios the animal dealer’s laugher, of that Menas was sure.
The giraffe expelled a long black tongue, then preceded to quietly chew the leaves off a nearby pine tree.
“Oooh master look at that! Do you think that tongue is poisonous?”
Picturing Amelianus’ reaction to an hour of a giraffe munching away on grass whilst a beast killer flitted round its feet trying to entire it into a fight Menas felt the rage bubble up until he was incandescent. “YOU ARE FOR SALE! I AM SELLING YOU!”
He stormed off in a nicely flouncy exit that was ruined only by the plop, plop, plop of giraffe excrement hitting the ground behind him.
That evening after a heated exchanged with Dios who was clear he did not operate a refund policy, Menas sat by a flickering oil lamp trying to work out if he could afford at least a leopard. Discovering that his funds would barely run to a cat with mange.
“Have you brought me a troop of razor bill ducks? Or perhaps some man eating goats?”
“I’m sorry master,” said a forlorn Xerxes. “I’ll make it up to you master, honestly. Please don’t sell me.”
“I’m sorry but you’re just not suited to my business Xerxes.”
The slave looked up, met his eye daringly so, “And you master? I am suited to you?”
Why had he purchased him? Because he was outbid on the Egyptian? Because he’d got some coinage he thought he may as well use up? Or was it perhaps for some other reason?
Hadn’t he been a bit lonely since Tadius died? He looked at his slave. Scrawny yes, infuriating certainly. But earnest and willing , kind and clever. Filling the void of his grief.
“You suit me,” he said.