My mother named me Cicero, which means Chickpea in Iridine. She told me I
was named after a famous patrician. I loved her. I wanted to help her out,
and as soon as I was big enough I'd kill rats on the street with a stick.
She'd skin them for me and I could sell the pelts for a sen each. Those
were happy days.
When I was seven I was big for my age and they let me join a kid gang. We
killed rats and cats and dogs, and also we looted the occasional corpse. We
spent more time arguing about how to split up the loot than we did hunting.
Eventually we settled on rules. The one to hit first got the pelt, the one
to hit second got the skull, the one who made the last hit before the death
got the stomach, and so on. What made it work was that we all had more to
gain from hunting together later than we did from the one dog. Also, the
longer we spent arguing the more likely some of the big boys would find us
and take it all. I told uncle Classius about that and he said it was the
same way with the grownups. Uncle Classius showed me a few tricks with a
wooden sword, and he tried to teach me about how to distract people's
attention away from some things and onto others, but I was too slow to
understand. I could tell he was disappointed. He might have been my
When I was 14 I was still big for my age and mama tried to keep me home at
night all the time. See, where we lived there were strangers who kept
coming in and doing whatever they wanted. They'd break into people's houses
and steal anything they found, and they'd attack people on the street and
kill them and loot the bodies. We were poor. The guys who could afford
good weapons and armor and training could do what they wanted and we
couldn't stop them. Some of the older kids vowed to kill the looters but
more often than not they got killed themselves. When a kid looked like he
was actually dangerous they'd call a bunch of looters together and gang up
on him. And even when some of the looters got killed there were always more
and more of them. They had us outnumbered. Every now and then one of the
grown men came home on leave from the army. They wouldn't let him bring his
weapons home but he'd clear out the looters with whatever gear came to hand.
Then in a couple of days he'd be gone and they'd come back. I asked one of
them who was staying with mama why he couldn't stay and protect us. He got
all sad and said it was more important to protect us from the Cinerans. I
asked him what was the point, if we were getting killed anyway? He said the
Cinerans would be worse, they'd make slaves out of us all, poor people,
rich people, looters, everybody. 'It isn't good here, but at least you're a
free man. Irideans will not be slaves.'
My gang argued about what to do when we were big enough. Selene said we
should go up to them and tell them we were people too, we were Iridene too,
and they should leave us alone. Nobody else thought that would work. After
all, Brutus robbed and raped anybody he could catch from other kid gangs,
and he knew they were Iridene. Baldur said we should stay home at night
and leave the streets to them, and just defend in the doorways if they tried
to come in, in a doorway they could only come at us one at a time. He
insisted they wouldn't burn down our houses; that wouldn't get them anything
at all. I wasn't sure they wouldn't. Most of us thought we should do our
level best to kill them regardless the odds. 'We are Iridine, dammit!' But
I remembered what Uncle Classius had said. Courage is for dupes and fools.
If you have a good plan and the means to carry it out, you can butcher the
fools who think their bravery will make the difference. I thought about his
advice and came up with a plan. It took ten of us. When we found a lone
looter we'd have three guys go after him, and three more in the alley on
either side to catch him if he tried to run away. The tenth guy would go
tell the others if he did run, so they could double-time it to his other
side -- wherever he went we'd be waiting for him. If more looters showed
up we'd get together and all run as a group. Maybe it was a good plan but
my growth had stopped; I was getting stronger but no taller. They wouldn't
follow me unless I was the tallest, and the tallest guy wouldn't try it out
because it wasn't his idea.
I listened carefully to uncle Classius when he'd talk to me. Here's a
sample story he told me from his army days:
'I was on picket duty. That means, me and one other guy were supposed to
stay outside the trenches all night. If the Cinerans sneaked up on us they
couldn't kill us both without making noise and that would alert the camp.
We were sacrifices, see. You can't be alert for them, not all night every
night you have picket duty. If you try you just stay scared at first and
after awhile you get bored. That's why the guy who sneaks up on pickets has
such a good chance. So anyway, it was raining, and we knew the Cinerans
weren't coming that night, and we were both pretty miserable. And Simulus
said he knew where there was a bar open, not very far. We could sit in a
warm dry bar all night and get back to our picket before dawn. No way would
an officer come check on us in the rain, with no moon. He could bring a
torch and be a shining target if there *were* any Cinerans, or he could
shout out the password and warn us he was coming -- he'd be hoping to catch
us asleep -- or he could try to sneak up on us and it would be a perfect
chance for us to kill him for a Cineran. They were supposed to check but
they hardly ever did.
'So I followed Simulus. I followed close, I wasn't sure I could find my
way back without him. He found the place but it wasn't lit up, and when he
pounded on the door some citizens started screaming inside. 'Don't hurt us,
we didn't do anything, we follow Ereal completely!' They lit a lamp and got
a good look at us before we ran off. It was the wrong place. He couldn't
find it, and as it turned out he couldn't find the way back either. At dawn
we were on a road somewhere. We got a ride on a provision cart heading back
to camp. We were in trouble.
'They hadn't had a good example for months, and it looked like we would be
it. They'd pick a ringleader to hang and the dupe would get fifty stripes.
The one who confessed would be the dupe, but if we both confessed they'd
hang us both. But they needed a confession. I told Simulus, deny
everything, don't talk, trust me. He said he would.
'They took us to legio commander Androcles. He smiled. 'You boys were
busy. You left your picket. You tried to loot some citizens. You are in
smelly sewage.' He questioned us separately. I told him that we'd heard
some suspicious noise at the next picket over, so we went to make sure they
were OK. But we got lost and spent the whole night looking for our place
again. I hoped Simulus wasn't saying anything, if he did Androcles would
find some difference between the stories, and tell us he knew we were lying.
He'd do that even if we'd been telling the truth, nobody can tell the same
story the same way. He sent us away and told us to go back to our unit but
wouldn't let us have any duties and we were not to talk to each other. The
other guys congratulated us for getting out of all the work.
'The next day he called us back and interrogated us some more separately.
I told him the same story. Simulus looked scared coming out. The second
day the guys weren't as happy about doing our work for us. The same thing
the third day. By then all our buddies were mad at us. By the end of the
week I was getting really tired of laying around. You wouldn't think a
soldier would be ready to beg for work, but I almost was. And Simulus was
looking more and more frazzled. The guys were treating us like we were
already dead but we just hadn't stopped twitching yet.
'The twelfth day I told him something new. 'You gotta understand. It was
the new moon and foggy. The Cinerans could have come right by us and not
found us. Simulus remembered a great brothel in easy walking distance, and
he told me if they threatened to report us we could just kill them all.
You'd have done the same thing in my place wouldn't you? Would you stand
around all night in a cold rain when you could...?' He laughed and said he
reckoned he would. 'Don't worry, Classius, I understand exactly and I want
to help you get all this over with.' He called in a scribe who wrote down
the whole story.
'The next day he called a court-martial, with our unit commander and his
commander and Androcles and his own commander in for the occasion. He told
me to tell him what happened again. 'We were on picket duty. We heard a
suspicious noise at the next picket over so we went off to make sure they
were OK. But we got lost and spent the whole night trying to find our
picket again.' Androcles jumped up from his camp stool, roaring. 'That
isn't what you told me yesterday!' I faced him. 'I told you the truth
every day for two weeks and you wouldn't take it. I finally figured out
that the story I told you yesterday was the only one you could hear.' His
mouth worked back and forth like he'd just been impaled. The court let us
'He could have had us killed anyway, but he cared more about keeping order
than about saving face. He could kill guys who disobeyed orders and
everybody else would obey orders, but if he killed guys for doing something
stupid everybody else would just get scared. If you kill all the stupid
soldiers then who's going to be on the front lines tomorrow?
'Simulus was a good guy. He didn't crack. He could have gotten us both
killed but he was brave enough to stick it out. He was a good soldier.'
And here's a story from when Classius went into politics:
'I looked at Cassius, and I admired him, and I wanted to be like him. But
I didn't know anybody who had any influence. Politicians do each other
favors, and they don't do favors for people who don't have favors to do in
return. I didn't have anything but my admiration for Cassius. But I
figured I didn't have anything to lose either. So I went to Plopulus, who
was the most influential guy there, and I asked to work for him.
'Plopulus asked me who sent me, and I said nobody. He told me that he had
eighteen other people applying for the job, and every one of them had an
influential politician backing him. Why did I think I had a chance? I said
I had nothing to lose. He grinned and told me I was hired. Then he gave me
my first lesson in politics. 'If I hired any one of those puukars, they
would have owed a favor to the guy who got them the job. I don't need that
and I won't have it. You belong to me and me alone. When you do somebody a
favor then later you can call it in for me. Don't accept any favors unless
you need it to do my work. If you're smart enough, when I retire you can be
I asked Classius's advice about the looters, next time he visited mama. He
looked pained. 'Nobody who lives where you live can do anything about them.'
I persisted. He said, 'Can you find a way to end the war? When the army
comes home the veterans who live there will protect the place. Assuming we
don't lose, or take too many losses.' I thought there had to be something I
could do. 'Leave. It's a battle you can't win, not head-on. If you leave
there's a chance they won't kill you and you have no chance here. Maybe
you'll find some way to get influence out in the world; you can have none
here.' I thought about it. Leave mama? She needed me to bring her
customers and protect her from them. But she'd get by. Baldur died. He
was drinking in a bar late, and got thrown out, and a pack of looters found
him on the street and killed him. He wasn't ready for them, he didn't even
have his boots on. I heard them yelling, 'Look! A thug!' and I wanted to
go to him but there were too many. Brutus killed a looter and got enough
loot to live on for two years. But he didn't have a plan to stop them
ganging up on him, he was just lucky.
I asked Classius if he could use his influence for me. 'You don't want
favors from me. My friends were fickle and my enemies persistent. You
don't need to inherit my enemies. But you don't need much just now. All
you need is a way out.' I looked up my cousin Sardinia, and she agreed to
help. It was right at my eighteenth birthday, and she helped me register
as an adult citizen. The magistrates told me my name was stupid and
enrolled me as 'Caucus'. I let them. Sardinia introduced me to lots of
people. Suddenly they didn't think of me as somebody they could just kill,
or anyway mostly not. Funny how that works. So long as they thought of me
as 'a thug' they felt fine about killing me any time they could catch me at
night. Once they saw me as 'Caucus' they seemed to think I was one of them.
And as a registered adult I could put my money in the bank instead of a hole
in the ground. Every now and then somebody steals some of it when I try to
deposit money, but it looks like once it gets into the bank it's safe. I
can actually save money and buy things that might not get stolen the next
day. Of course the stronger people will steal from me, it's always that
way, only not as fast. A lot of things have changed but I guess some are
just the same. I'd like to help out the people I grew up with but I don't
really know how.
Every now and then I go home to visit my mama. I have to be careful. One
night I saw Selene on the street. I said, 'Hi, Selene!'.
She got out her dagger and said, 'Just drop your money and leave.'.
'Selene, don't you remember me? It's me, Cicero, Chickpea. We were each
other's first lovers.'.
'Can you block this?', and she tried to stab me.
'Selene, don't be that way, it's *me*.'
But she wouldn't listen. As far as she was concerned, I didn't live there
any more. It's that way with everybody but mama, and mama seems like she
doesn't really welcome me except when I bring money. I'd like to find a way
to help my old friends but I'm not completely sure how loyal I ought to be
to them now. And I don't know what to do, either. Somebody told me I
should tell the constables, but the first three constables I looked at had
all gone to the alleys themselves to attack 'thugs'. Maybe a patrician who
was a politician could do something, but why would they? I asked uncle
Classius what patricians were like. 'You know how the thieves are the
richest people around, and the ones who tell everybody in the alleys what to
do? Patricians are just like the thieves you already know, only richer.'
I guess I'll just live my life until I die, like everybody else. It seems
like there ought to be something more, but damned if I know what it is.