Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Spring 2008 Results




The Labours of Mediocus

Copyright © Mitchell Lewis 2008


Mediocus stood beside his ivory toga rack, distracted by a dying fly on his window sill.

"Well?" asked his servant. "What will it be today? Vermilion?"

"No."

"Bronzed scarlet?"

"No."

"Sparkling azure?"

Mediocus sighed.

"No. I'll go with brown."

"Lion brown? It is Tuesday after all."

"No. Just brown."

"My lord, you always choose brown. You own such splendid garments but they go unexhibited. It is almost a sin."

"I appreciate your concern Slavicus, but you know it is not in my nature to be splendid."

"As you wish. Bend over."

"Excuse me?"

"So I can furnish you with your toga, my lord!"

"Oh yes. Of course. No, wait. I will dress myself today. Wait outside the door. I will be but a moment."

"My lord?" called Slavicus. "I have received the second summons for breakfast. If we are much longer we may go hungry til brunch. I, who was raised on thistles and mud will survive but I fear for you."

"Help me, good Slavicus!" cried Mediocus, flinging back the door.

"Oh, my lord," laughed Slavicus. "What a tangle you are in. Wipe your eyes on my sleeve while I free you."

"Look at him," said Maximus Caesar to his wife Deirdre. "He is a wretch. Who takes toast over quail's heads? He has not the raw animal courage of his first brother Leonicus or the physical presence of his second brother Giganticus."

"You are too hard on the boy," said Deirdre. "He is manlier than his third brother, Gaius."

"Bah," said Maximus. "I have two and a half sons. Leonicus and Giganticus are expanding my empire in parts unknown -"

"Persia and Syria," said Deirdre.

"Yes, yes. And even Gaius is making a name for himself."

"Yes, on the stage."

"He still draws blood, though it be of chicken!"

"Well, my love," said Deirdre. "You may have had something to do with Mediocus' lack of ambition."

"I?"

"I wanted to name him Magnificus. You insisted on Mediocus."

"Such bold talk!"

"A bold man needs to hear bold words, my love."

"You are right, Deirdre. You put many of the simpering generals in my army to shame. Now let me understand you. Are you saying the boy's lack of anything of which to boast is my fault?"

"A man's destiny is his own but where was Mediocus when you were scarring your more glorious sons with the rod?"

"It was for their own good!" spluttered Maximus. "Look at them now!"

"I dare not argue, but were it not for the diversion of needlework and dance, young Gaius may have shared the fate of your fourth son."

"Yes," said Maximus, hanging his head. "I am indeed a lucky man. Well, what would you have me do?"

"Set the boy an example."

"An example?"

"Yes. What could be more inspiring for a boy than to see his father hold aloft the dripping heart of a Nubian? We have a roomful of them downstairs."

"No," said Maximus, who ordered his steak well-done for a reason. "I have a better idea. He will face a series of challenges, as in days of old. He will become a man or die."

"That is only fair, my love."

"What a day this is becoming," said Mediocus, whose hearing was anything but average. "I am the unluckiest man alive, but it sounds like I will soon be dead anyway. Oh, if only I was born a slave!"

"Yes," said Slavicus, wiping the saliva off his chin to butter another slice of toast for his master. "It's quite the life.

"You look troubled, my lord," said Slavicus.

"Indeed I am," said Mediocus, rubbing his chin.

"May I be of help?"

"Oh, I hope so Slavicus. I certainly do. It's quite a dilemma."

"Oh?"

"Should I harness a pair of Arabian steeds to my chariot or will slave boys do?"

"Yes, quite a dilemma. Though memory of my unhappy youth tempts me to suggest the horses, my allegiance to you is stronger."

"Thank you," said Mediocus. "Though your answer puzzles me more than the riddle."

"It's quite simple, my lord. Strap on the slave boys. It's only around the corner, after all."

"I'm sorry," said the drycleaner. "I can't hand over anything without a ticket. Especially not a toga as wondrous as Maximus'. How do I know you are Mediocus anyway? You could be anyone."

"Oh, Slavicus!" cried Mediocus, falling to his knees. "I am vanquished! Find me a sword. Oh, father!"

"Wait," said the drycleaner, holding forth the fine garment. "Nobody is spilling blood on my clean floors. Here, take it. You don't need a ticket."

"But I could be anyone," sobbed Mediocus.

"No, I've heard about you," said the drycleaner. "You are undoubtedly Mediocus."

"Brilliant!" said Slavicus, whipping the slave boys into action. "Your wit is sharper than any sword in the land."

"What do you mean?"

"To cry like that. Genius! And it was so natural. Gaius would have much to fear if you were to challenge him as Emperor of the stage."

"Yes," said Mediocus, swallowing the lump in his throat. "Deception has always come easily to us Caesars. Let us not speak of it again."

"The boy has done well," said Deirdre, with a mother's smile.

"Yes," said Maximus grudgingly. "I don't know how he did it. I myself have tried to reclaim my toga for many a month but my imperial power is meaningless without that ticket. I'm sure I will stumble across it in a pocket somewhere. Nevertheless, I am glad to see it again. It has seen me through many battles."

A broad grin spread across his face.

"Happy memories, my love?" asked Deirdre.

"No – far better!"

"You have devised the second challenge?"

Maximus' mighty head bobbled with laughter.

"Indeed I have, my love! Indeed I have!"

"Slavicus!" cried Mediocus. "Slavicus!"

"I am coming," puffed the slave, towel unrolled in case his master had fallen into his comfort throne again.

"Slavicus, I fear I am lost!"

"No, my lord. You must remember what I told you last week. If the bed is adorned with a gladiator-print quilt you are in your own bedroom."

"No, Slavicus. It is not that. My second challenge is upon me. What do you know of smiting?"

"Smiting? Well, I know it can get ugly."

"Yes," said Mediocus, tears starting in his eyes. "That is what I feared."

"It can't be that bad," said Slavicus. "Who are you to smite?"

"The Greeks!" sobbed Mediocus.

"Indeed. Well, the Greeks can be tough. They are nearly as civilised as us. Will you be smiting any Greek in particular?"

"No. Just Greeks."

"Wonderful!"

"Slavicus, have you gone mad?"

"No. All we need to do now is find an average Greek. Why smite warriors when you have a loophole such as this?"

"Warriors?" trembled Mediocus.

"Never mind," said Slavicus. "Leave it to me. Just do as I say."

"My lord, I hear a knocking on the door," said Slavicus, thrusting a sword into his master's hand and jamming a helmet on his head. "You must answer it!"

"Do I have to?" moaned Mediocus. "I -"

"Yes, my lord, it is of the utmost importance that you answer the door. Hurry!"

"Oh, but -"

"Go!"

"What do you want?" asked Mediocus, examining the poor specimen at the doorstep.

"You ordered a salad?"

"A what? Who are you? Are you a senator?"

"I'm a student from Athens, working my way through school. Did you order a salad or not?"

"What are these lumps?" asked Mediocus, staring into the bowl.

"They are croutons."

"Well that's odd. I would never order such a thing. You may go away now."

"My lord!" hissed Slavicus, whispering in Mediocus' ear. A look of understanding flashed in the Caesar’s eyes.

"Wait!" he shouted. "Boy! Come back! I have something for you."

"It would want to be a tip," said the Athenian, not anticipating the thump on the head from the flat of Mediocus' sword.

"What in the name of Zeus?" he cried.

"I have smited you!" said Mediocus triumphantly.

"Smote," corrected Slavicus.

"Whatever the word," said Mediocus, "my second challenge is complete!"

"Good for you," said the Athenian, rubbing his head and pointing to the mess on the ground. "Who's going to pay for this? The boss will dock my pay if I come back empty-handed."

"That's hardly fair," said Mediocus, reaching for a pouch of gold from the folds of his toga. "I am not unreasonable. This should cover it. Now will you tell all you meet about how I smited - smote - ah, hit you?"

"Damn that boy!" said Maximus from the window. "How does he do it?"

"Why do you fuss so?" asked Deirdre. "Why did you set these challenges if you don't want him to succeed? Would you rather he die?"

"I don't know any more," said Maximus, slumping onto his bed. "I need a drink. Will you lend me a tenner?"

"Certainly, my love, though I daresay a man of your standing should not need recourse to his wife's purse."

"You are right!" said Maximus, leaping from the bed. "And thus you lay the seed for the third challenge!"

"Do you know something?" asked Slavicus, plucking the last cube of fetta from the bowl. "I believe those Greeks are onto something. That was delicious."

"Indeed?" said Slavicus, content with running his tongue across the marrow he'd saved in the cavities of his teeth.

"Yes. Frightfully expensive, but well worth it. If only those people had a culture to speak of."

"I hear their yogurt is the best in the world."

"Really? That is interesting but such talk must wait. My third challenge puzzles me."

"How so?"

"Well, how does one exact tribute, exactly?"

"Exactly!"

"What?"

"One exacts tribute exactly. There is no other way to do it."

"Right," said Mediocus, rubbing his temples.

"My lord?"

"What?"

"Do you understand?"

"Yes, yes, of course. I will exact tribute exactly."

"Exactly."

"Right. Simple. Will you accompany me though? I might need someone to carry my bags."

"Of course.

"Who are you to exact tribute from?" asked Slavicus.

"Minions. Do you know of minions? They sound like onions."

"Minions will be far simpler to exact tribute from, my lord. Onions recognise no master and keep no fortune."

"Oh, to be an onion!"

"Indeed, my lord. Shall we go?"

The adventurers stood before the door of Florence.

"Should we knock?" asked Mediocus.

"We are not Mormons, my lord. We have come to exact tribute. You should tear the door from its hinges but it appears to be unlocked. We can simply walk in."

"How thoughtful!"

"Yes. While we're here we must remember to pick up more slave boys. The ones who brought us here appear to be dead. Rome to Florence in an hour is quite an effort."

"Well it was worth it," said Mediocus. "With any luck we'll be home for dinner."

"This is an interesting town," said Mediocus. "Quiet but charming in its own way. Who rules the people?"

"Your father, my lord."

"Really? I wonder if he knows. He should pay a visit one day."

"Yes, I'm sure the people would be thrilled."

"Undoubtedly. Slavicus?"

"Yes?"

"Where are the people?"

"They are lining the streets, my lord. They appear to be on their knees."

"Why?"

"I don't know. I shall ask."

"Well?" asked Mediocus, considerably unnerved by the rumble of thousands rising to their feet at once.

"My lord, they have seen nothing like you. Your presence strikes them with awe."

"Really? I expect we'll have no trouble exacting tribute then. We might even get a discount on the slave boys. What is it about me that makes an entire town fall to its knees?"

"What do you notice about the people?" asked Slavicus.

"Now that they show their faces I see they are horrendously ugly."

"Indeed. What else do you notice?"

"I notice many things," said Mediocus, turning the question cunningly. "But I am a Caesar. What do you notice, Slavicus?"

"The naked infants on their mothers' tired breasts. The fathers, weeping silently for sons lost for the advance of an invisible line. The intricacy of the frescoes that adorn the walls, revealing an understanding of the glorious life beyond this one, a life that is not for them -"

"Slavicus, enough! You're reminding me of Gaius. Just tell me why I am so awesome."

"My lord, you rush to the point magnificently!"

"Royally?"

"If you like. Look at their togas."

"What of them?"

"They are dusty white."

"Well, it's a dusty town."

"Indeed, but look down at your own garment, my lord."

"It is brown."

"Yes, but what a brown! These people have seen nothing so magnificent. They know only periwinkle, sapphron and sorrel. That is why they bow to you."

"If only my father could see this!" said Mediocus, blushing. "Such a sight might soften his heart."

"Oh, I'm sure he will be satisfied by the treasure you have claimed," said Slavicus.

"Treasure?"

"Yes. The bags of gold around your feet."

"Ah! I hadn't noticed. I was going to ask for a round hundred but this is much better. Can the people afford such a sum?"

"Certainly. They were only keeping it for drunken centurions anyway. The town may take many generations to recover but it will survive."

"That's a relief."

"And take a bag of onions!" cried an old woman, unable to resolve her inner conflict of natural ebullience versus quiet awe.

"Well, that was easy," said Mediocus as Slavicus tethered the fresh slaves. "But I get the feeling we're being watched."

"Very perceptive, my lord. You have enthralled them. Only you can break the spell."

"What should I do? Sing a song?"

"Probably not."

"Paint a picture?"

"No. That might shatter the illusion somewhat."

"Slavicus, you vex me! What would you have me do?"

"It mightn't hurt to say a few words. The occasion appears to demand it."

"Very well. What should I say?"

"My lord, you have proven yourself worthy of the name Caesar. Trust yourself. Take to the podium they erect so hastily."

Mediocus stood before the sea of dusty white, repulsed by the faces of the people but warmed by something he hardly recognised.

"My lord, are you okay?" asked Slavicus.

"Yes," whispered Mediocus, wiping away a tear. "I have known no greater love than these people give."

"Yes, my lord," said Slavicus. "Send it back."

Mediocus nodded, raising his hands to the sky.

"Citizens," he declared. "You have no master but me! Now go back to your work."

"Well?" he asked, leaping from the podium. "How was that?"

"Fine, my lord," said Slavicus. "Hardly original but it will do. Shall we pick up a salad on the way home?"

"I think not Slavicus. I am inspired. Tonight I will create something that will bring fame to the name long after we are dead! But where to start? Wolf meat or chicken?"

"Wolf meat can be tough, my lord. Go with chicken."