[SL: I've spent most of my life going UNDER the word limit, so when I produced a 350,000 word novel, I was flummoxed. This is particularly the case when you consider that The Hand that Signed the Paper weighed in at a svelte 64,000 words. Most of the excess is what sf aficionados call 'world building', and as my agent points out, none of it is bad writing. It's just too much. And when there is too much, it has to go. I've hooked out 85,000 words so far, but there's more to do before I can get it ready for publication. Some of that world building is pretty good, though (even if I do say so myself), including this extended scene. Andreius Linnaeus is Yeshua Ben Yusuf's counsel; his parents are the Roman version of Manchester industrialists. This is their story.
At dawn, Angelus ‘Angel’ Linnaeus supervised the barge loading outside his mill gate, bolts of fabric in different colours, swatches and samples, yarn and thread. He had cause to swear at one of his weavers for getting in the lighterman’s way; he chased the lad back into the mill, where he yelled for the supervisor. Supposed to be teaching him a trade, not letting him dance about on the water. She hauled the boy off by the ear. Angel collected a heavy canvas bag — clothes and paperwork, mainly — from the mill office, turned out the gas lamp on his desk, reminded his clerk that he had full authority for the four days, strode out along the path and stepped nimbly into the cabin with the master. The master — bearded, Greek and wary — looked at the mill owner; the latter was one of the new class of Romans who’d moved to the Padan Plain and the Adriatic coast from Rome and Umbria. Lean as a crow, dark, curly and fierce, the young man ran his mill like his people’s generals ran the legions.
‘A business deal?’ the master asked.
‘If it goes to plan, yes’, Angel said, not looking at him and declining to introduce himself. ‘I’ve got the product, the Senator’s got the coasters.’
The master smiled; the mill owner was in a rough linen shirt and heavy cotton trousers, like a barbarian. His hands were stuffed in his pockets.
‘A Senator? I hope you’ve got some good clothes so you can dine.’
Angel grumbled at this. He’d been forced into town to buy two new tunics (probably sold the cloth in them myself) and a long stole. He’d even run to a haircut and a fine solid gold band, which fitted around his forehead. He drew the line at a toga — no one in his family had ever worn one, and he wasn’t about to start now. That was for higher-ups, not for the likes of him. After he came home from the store, he’d dressed in one set of the new clothes, looked in the mirror and admired the effect. He looked good; the gold set off his black curls well. About time you got yourself a woman, Angel. You’d be in demand, now.
‘Went and bought some, yes, out of necessity.’
The master smiled again, guiding the barge down the canal. They either piss it away like water, these Romans, or they’re as tight as a fish’s arse.
If all went well, there’d be a joint venture with Senator Flaccus from Angón with his ships and a big fat profit at the end of things. He smiled at the thought; he was pretty sure this one was in the bag, and four days as a guest at the Senator’s harbourside residence (how many houses does the fucker own?) promised to be an entertaining diversion. He sat on a bolt of cloth and admired the sun on the water, the fields, houses and a rival mill as they slid by.
Senator Lucius Flaccus — fat, balding but somehow impressive — was seated on his private pier in the sunshine enjoying a glass of wine, waiting as the barge glided in. A big cheese in the Parti Optimates, he was well dressed — thankfully, not in a toga, but in a rich, dark ankle-length gown — and if he objected to Angel’s appearance, he gave no sign. He stood up and extended his hand.
‘Good to meet you at last, Angel. You’re quite the success story — my wife’s very anxious to make your acquaintance.’
‘I hope I don’t disappoint her, Senator.’
They retired to Flaccus’ shipping offices and haggled for a good four hours, nailing down the terms of the deal while lightermen unloaded the barge. Angel was surprised the Senator didn’t want to inspect his samples; had the boot been on the other foot, he’d have gone over the contents of that barge with a fine-tooth comb. Instead, Flaccus paid for its contents in crisp notes. Angel pocketed the money with some care; he preferred to pay by cheque.
‘Consider it a little water to prime the pump.’
Angel enjoyed the deal-cutting; he was born to bargain and was good at it.
An obsequious man Flaccus identified as his lawyer joined them, gradually reducing the transaction to writing. After Angel was satisfied it was a true and correct record of their agreement, they both signed it. The lawyer gave both of them a carbon copy.
‘And now, after all that hard work,’ said Flaccus, ‘we play.’
Angel followed the portly Senator to his carriage and they made their way to his residence, all sweeping colonnades and manicured lawns and topiary and mosaic and parquetry floors. When they arrived, Flaccus pointed at two women in brown tunics waiting by the double-door and then waved his hand in Angel’s direction.
‘Take my guest to the baths. We dine this evening.’
They inclined their heads.
Angel flinched when he heard the form of address, and then remembered Flaccus’s politics. He keeps slaves. Should have realised that.
The older of the two – he noticed she had flecks of grey at the temples – picked up his bag, while the younger one took his hand, intertwining her fingers with his. He felt an instant sexual frisson: she was stunning. He suspected the two were mother and daughter. The older woman had the same high cheekbones and green almond eyes as the younger. Her hair was swept up in a functional bun, while the younger woman’s hung loose over her shoulders and down her back, black and glossy.
‘What’s your name?’
‘I am Monica’ she said, smiling at him.
He enjoyed being scrubbed, oiled and massaged without taking what was apparently on offer. He floated on his back at one point, admiring the glittering mosaic ceiling, when Monica swam up beside him and slid her hand across his chest. He corrected himself – upright now, while treading water — and took her wrists, crossing her hands in front of her breasts.
‘You don’t have to do that. If I want you, I will ask, and I will pay you.’
She nodded, looking down.
‘We’ve fitted the exterior up for the new electric light,’ Flaccus was saying, ‘but inside we prefer to stick to the old ways.’ Large braziers lit the smaller of his two banqueting halls, the one they were using. In the middle of the hall stood Flaccus’ new ‘toy’ as he called it. A model of the solar system, it was powered by paddle-wheel turned by a water fountain and moved before the diners’ eyes. Angel had seen a simpler one before—his mill worked on a similar principle, on a larger scale and steam-powered—but there was no doubt that the Senator’s mechanical acquisition was a thing of great beauty.
‘It’s quite old, fifty years or so,’ Flaccus was saying. ‘The chap who sold it to me hitched it to the water supply; otherwise you have to wind it up. I never get tired of looking at it.’
‘This is the clever part,’ Angel said, pointing at the interlocking set of gears. ‘This is what’s making us rich.’
Flaccus had invited half-a-dozen rich neighbours to make the acquaintance of the thrusting young industrialist from upriver, and they were now at the pleasantly squiffy stage. Angel found himself fielding questions about everything from construction to power to labour, all of them interested after his discussion of the Senator’s astronomical machine. He struggled to keep a grip on sobriety: Flaccus’s glasses were of the large, flat, decorative type, and seemed to hold about half a bottle each. Angel was a quick and greedy drinker when he got the chance; this time he was careful to keep stuffing himself with food as he went along. The experience of reclining to dine was very pleasant, and Flaccus had gone to town with the food and wine. Angel’s modest house up the decumanus from the mill did not run to a dining hall, and in any case there was little point: he spent most of his time in his office, dozing in an alcove behind his desk, apparently immune to the clack of looms and the dull thump of machinery.
The Senator’s wife was most pleased to meet him, as he’d said she would be.
‘Angel, Lucius keeps telling me how men like you are making the Empire rich.’
‘Well, men like your husband are making the Empire bigger; we’re always getting more places we can sell things. Onwards and upwards.’
Monica had changed into a simple cream robe, twisting her hair into a loose braid. It hung down her back. She served them, along with the woman Angel now knew to be her mother (he’d asked Flaccus) and a young man. With several glasses of wine coursing through his veins, he was finding it much harder to resist her charms. Flaccus — although Angel could not see him smirking in the flickering light — found this amusing.
‘You like her, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I do.’
The wine was also making him truthful.
‘I’ll have her dance for us.’
The young man reappeared with a pair of drums — one large, one small — and sat on the floor; Monica’s mother stood to one side with a cithara, although she sang for the most part — high, intense, even ecstatic. Angel had seen performances like this before, at the theatre in the presence of hundreds or thousands of others, but never in such an intimate setting. Monica started with one hand open behind her head and one hand open in front of her face, her elbows pointing out. Her dance was traditional and skillful: she did not strip off or approach any of Flaccus’s diners individually. She did not need to. Her movements were erotic without any further assistance. One of his lifelong memories would be of her sleek figure whirling and twisting behind Flaccus’ marvellous machine, its planets rotating one way, while she spun the other.
When she finished, her fingers pointing at the floor, her head thrown back, Angel could not speak. He rolled onto his stomach — he had a massive erection — and clasped his hands around the back of his head, looking down. The sexual vision he had in his mind’s eye was intoxicating.
Flaccus smiled and snapped his fingers, attracting her attention, and then pointed to Angel’s couch. The movement was so sudden he was caught unawares.
‘Take her for the night. She’s yours.’
She moved across the room, sitting — although, he noted, not reclining — beside him. He propped himself up on one elbow and handed her his cup. She curled both hands around it and drank, then handed it back, smiling at him. He reached out to touch her cheek; she was slippery with sweat. The casual way Flaccus had dispensed her made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Angel smiled at her with what he hoped was real warmth and handed her a chicken leg. She ate it, licking her fingers.
Flaccus found this vastly entertaining.
‘Despite the rumours, Angel, most slave-owners do not underfeed their slaves. That’s just Populares propaganda. She would not look like she does if we starved her.’
The rest of the diners had joined their host in chortling at his discomfort. Angel handed her his cup again. He turned to face Flaccus.
‘I don’t like slavery, Senator.’
Flaccus grinned at this. ‘How many ten year olds have you got employed in that mill of yours, Angel?’
Angel pursed his lips. There were a few.
‘Your lot and your Stoic friends are going to win the slavery argument sooner rather than later, after all the dreadful slave insurrections we’ve had. Enjoy the institution while you still can. Use her. I do.’
Flaccus’s wife had a sour expression on her face.
She intertwined her fingers with his again and led him to his guest room. He tugged her towards him and closed the door, kissing her with all the gentleness he could muster.
‘I want you, Monica. Do you want me?’
‘Let me give it willingly, mi domine Angelus. He just takes it.’
Deftly, she undid the tie behind her neck and dropped the cream robe at her feet. He stroked her breasts and kissed her again, this time with passion.
‘Not domine, Monica. Just Angel. I am Angel.’
She lay on her back and used her hands to draw her knees up and apart, waiting for him to mount her. He undressed, standing at the foot of the bed, watching her eyes fix on his cock. She pushed her knees wider apart. He shook his head, making a point of lying beside her, curling one arm around her head and stroking her cheek and hair. He began to pleasure her with his other hand, sliding a finger into her.
‘You’re very wet, Monica.’
She turned to face him, smiling, her face shiny with tears now. He coiled his lean brown arms around her and wriggled onto his back, pulling her on top of him.
‘I’ll fuck you like a free woman, Monica.’
She leant forward, over him, her hair framing his face.
The next night, there came a single knock on his door. He put down the book he was reading and went to answer it, perplexed at the interruption; he’d been about to turn out the gas lamp beside his bed. Monica stood on the threshold, dressed in a short blue tunic calculated to show off her long brown legs, her eyes made up with kohl.
‘Dominus Flaccus did not send for me.’
‘And you want to be with me, Monica?’
‘Very much, mi domine.’
She looked down; he put his fingers under her chin, lifted her face and gazed at her. She smiled, and he felt his cock begin to stiffen. He drew her into his arms, once again taking care to be gentle with her.
‘If Dominus Flaccus is angry with me for coming to you, will you speak for me?’
He closed the door behind her.
‘Of course. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he’s trying to get rid of you.’
‘Domina hates me. Once she cut off all my hair.’
Angel laughed, pulling her hips into his.
‘Maybe he is trying to get rid of you. If she divorces him, he’ll have to repay her dowry and any profit he made from the commixtio in the proportions it went in. He may lose his property qualification for the Senate.’
‘You’re very clever, mi domine.’
On the third day of his visit, after she’d voluntarily come to him again — and after he’d made several trips to the household shrine, burning incense and asking the Lares and the ancestors for their permission — he went to Flaccus.
‘How much do you want for Monica?’
Flaccus laughed fit to beat the band.
‘You’re very lucky my wife isn’t fond of her, Angel, otherwise she wouldn’t be for sale.’
Despite the fact that the transaction made him feel queasy, he negotiated for her with all his considerable skill, something that Flaccus found even more amusing than his conflicted restraint on the first evening.
‘I got her two abortions; didn’t want her to lose her figure,’ he said at one point. ‘You should get her medically examined if you want offspring.’
Angel resisted the temptation to kiss his teeth and curl his lip.
‘I’ll do that.’
Flaccus stood up and extended his hand.
‘As always, a pleasure to do business with you.’
Angel did not reveal his intentions. She collected her clothes and few personal possessions from the slaves’ quarters and hugged her mother.
‘He’s a good man. He will look after you.’
‘He’s gentle with me.’
Angel stood in the doorway, this time dressed casually. His hands were in his pockets. He’d left the gold band around his head; Monica told him it made him look good.
‘It’s a bit flash,’ he said.
‘You’re a bit flash.’
Early on the day of his scheduled return home, Angel took Monica into Angón’s Forum and went into the vaulted Basiliké Stoà. He spoke to a minor public official behind the front counter, paid money over and collected some paperwork. He sat down to fill it out. Monica propped her chin in her hands, watching him write. He took out her bill of sale and began copying information across into the blank spaces on the form.
‘What are you doing, Domine?’
‘Shhh. Let me finish here, and I’ll explain.’
One of the public employees walked towards them.
‘The magistrate will see you in half an hour.’
Angel nodded and kept writing. Monica rested one hand on his thigh. He smiled at this. Eventually, he collated all the documents, rolled them up and bound them with a length of dark pink tape. He stood up and held her hand to his chest.
‘I am going to manumit you,’ he said. ‘I can’t make you stay after that, but I would like you to stay with me. If Flaccus hasn’t hurt you too much, I would also like you to bear my children.’
She began to cry, and he folded her into his arms, rocking back and forth.
‘Thank you, Domine.’
‘You can only call me that for a little bit longer, Monica.’
Even though Flaccus was helping him get very rich (instead of just rich), had the Senator materialised before him at that moment, Angel would have laid him out.
The magistrate — grey haired, florid and harried — sat on a raised dais, behind a vast bench littered with stamps, papers and several empty inkwells. A tub of wax with a spoon perched upright in it hung above a candle. Rome’s eagle and the letters S.P.Q.R were carved into the stone behind him. Monica gazed up at the ceiling: it was decorated with maritime imagery. A mosaic telling the story of the Municipality of Angón was set into the walls: ships and fishermen featured heavily. She could not identify the language the labels were written in. She pointed it out to Angel.
‘It’s Greek. Angón was once mainly a Greek city.’
Angel handed the magistrate his paperwork. The latter read it through, scribbled something on a sheet of paper and rummaged under his desk for something — his head disappeared momentarily — and found it, handing Angel a decorative staff and a printed card.
‘That’s the correct form of words.’
He pointed to a spot on the floor and told Monica to stand there. Angel took his place opposite her.
‘Angelus Caius Linnaeus, do you manumit Monica, of the Isle of Sardinia, before me and all the Gods and Goddesses? Do you discharge her from all services or demand of service to be hereafter made either by you or any other person by, from, or under you?’
Angel read the words on the piece of paper, holding it up in front of his eyes.
‘I, Angelus Caius Linnaeus, do so manumit Monica, of the Isle of Sardinia, before you, Magistrate, and all the Gods and Goddesses. I do so discharge her from all services or demand of service to be hereafter made either by me or any other person by, from, or under me.’
‘Touch her with the staff.’
Angel reached out and touched the top of her head.
The magistrate signed and stamped the paperwork in front of him, spooned some of the hot wax onto the top document and then removed the ring from his little finger. He pushed it into the wax.
‘Given under my sign and seal, Magistrate of the Civitas of Angón, this day the Ides of May, in the year seven hundred and twenty-eight ab urbe condita. Monica Linnaea, you are free.’
Angel exchanged the staff and printed slip for Monica’s paperwork. The magistrate smiled at her as her erstwhile owner took her hand and pulled her close to him.
‘Good Fortune for both of you.’
Monica’s presence inspired him to renovate the little house on the decumanus and to abandon sleeping in the mill office; in her turn she decorated both places with Sardi talismans against the Evil Eye. Her husband was rich; people could look envy on him without even thinking and this had to be warded off. He learnt to work and sleep under a forest of blue and white glass, dangling mirrors and phallic statuettes. For some reason, she seemed to think these things were best when hanging from the ceiling or above the door. Angel’s clerk sometimes smiled at her collection, but Angel did not care. He was besotted with his wife, and if she wanted shrines and talismans, she could have what she wanted.
Monica was illiterate for the most part, which annoyed him. It turned out she knew her letters and how to write her name, and was a little better than that with arithmetic, but not much more. She was young enough for Flaccus to have educated her, even if only at the most basic level. Instead, he’d had her taught to dance and sing, which — to be fair — she often did for Angel. He found it arousing and she liked to please him. Angel hired a tutor and then sent her to adult education classes organised by the local office of the Parti Populares. She learnt fast, which he also liked: she had a good head for figures and in time developed a genuine appreciation for the theatre.
Sometimes it’s nice to watch other people do the performing, he’d say.
‘We go to the provinces and make them send their children to school for five years, but don’t do it in Italy,’ he complained to the district organiser who ran the classes. The organiser shrugged and made his usual attempt to interest Angel in joining the Populares and running for office — he’d satisfied the property qualification for the Senate after his second joint venture with Flaccus, under one of the new limited liability agreements. They’d made quite a few investors very rich as well as lining their own pockets. Angel now owned several mills and most of the town.
‘If it upsets you, perhaps you should try to do something concrete about it. Your story is a compelling one. It would do well for some people in our country to hear it.’
‘I won’t humiliate Monica like that,’ he said. ‘It’s her story, not mine.’
‘I take it the business with Flaccus is too profitable to jeopardize, then?’
Angel was nothing if not honest.
He waited until she was twenty-one before he fathered children on her, listening to the medica in Angón. You need to wait until she’s stopped being a child herself, the woman said. Enjoy the beauty of each other’s bodies for a few years.
First she bore him a daughter, who was named Monica for her mother but always called Moniculla by her parents. Next was a boy to take over the mills, which pleased Angel no end; he became Corinnus Angelus, after Angel’s father and Angel himself. Finally, there was another boy, one who inherited his mother’s almond eyes and straight black hair.
‘He’ll have to have a Sardi name,’ Angel said. ‘He looks like you.’
Monica ran through her small stock of Sardi boys’ names, finally settling on Andreius.
‘My mother’s brother, from before we were sold to the slaver in Rome.’
Angel gazed at the bundle in her arms and chucked his fingers under the baby’s chin.
‘He looks like a clever one. Maybe we’ll have someone clever in the family.’