Her footsteps echo against the walls, the ghosts of her secrets whispering. She stands with her head bowed, just beyond the isolation of the moonlight behind the building. Her breath gasps in the air and she waits.
Soon, there’s someone hurrying along her path, and she withdraws further into the shadows. But then there’s a voice, something soft and female and unnervingly maternal.
“Locusta,” the voice breathes, “have you come?”
“Yes,” she replies, and steps out from her safety.
“I need your help. I can trust you implicitly?”
“Of course. You must know who I am to have called me here.”
“Good. Now listen, I need you to advise me on something.” The other woman pauses, takes a breath, and Locusta can’t tell whether it’s from anticipation of the next part, or for dramatic effect. “I need to kill the emperor.”
Of course she can help.
Of course she could consult, give advice, prepare anything needed.
But does that mean she should?
A slow sickness of uncertainty begins to spread through her.
But you were trusted, were asked.
You could die.
You, or Claudius.
What if someone found out?
But if it all goes to plan…
Could it work?
It could work.
It has to work.
They consult again a few days later.
The woman comes into her workshop, head bowed once more, a pallium pulled over her face, masking half in uncertainty.
“Have you considered my proposition? Of course, I’d be very willing to offer a reward for your services. If you are successful, that is. However, I need your complete trust, your complicity. Will you help me?”
Locusta’s answer is softer than an exhale. “Yes.”
Suddenly, there’s a greater certainty, and an urgency, to the woman’s voice. “We must act quickly. I need you to help me decide how to do this. What are my options?”
“Many. How is it that you intend to poison him?”
“As discreetly as at all possible.”
“Then I would say that your most plausible option is to slip the poison in a place where it will be disguised; either in wine or in food would work well. And there are many types of toxins we could use in such case.”
“Will you give me time to consider?”
For the first time, the woman looks Locusta directly in the eye, who nods in response, before their connection is severed as her client turns away.
It’s only once she’s left the workshop that Locusta realises exactly who the woman is.
A procession – music and dancing and the flame of a red veil – a celebration – a public holiday – Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia…
A single name on her lips.
“I have a plan,” she states upon returning, drawn back by promise. “If I slip the poison into his food, he won’t notice it. And if I was to ensure he drank a good deal of wine beforehand, the dish would not need to be tasted. Would this work?”
“Yes, I think so. Have you thought about what type of poison you wish to use? Or a second plan in the event your first does not work?”
“This is where I require your help. I intend for my son, Lucius, to succeed him, and, as it currently stands, this is what will happen. However, if I was to choose a poison that worked too slowly, I fear he may understand my intentions and, even on the border of death, make it so that his own son would take over his reign. On the other hand, however, if it was to work too quickly, who knows where the suspicion will fall? What do you suggest?”
“I have a poison in mind that will work in a matter of hours, but, during that time, will also induce delirium and confuse his mind. It could easily be applied to a dish, and, if you succeed in inducing drunkenness before serving him, will be completely inconspicuous.”
Agrippina’s face falters for a moment as she eyes Locusta, her expression unreadable. Then she breaks into a smile, more sickly than honey.
“That sounds perfect. But wait – your second plan.”
“Yes. Do you have accomplices? Others assisting you beside myself?”
“I do. I have Halotus, a freedman at the palace, and I also intend to speak to Xenophon.”
“Speak to him. What I will do is provide you with everything you need. If it becomes known that the emperor has consumed poison, and it will, they will try everything they can to force the poison to leave his body. By which time, it will be too late. However, one thing they may do is to stimulate the back of the throat with a feather. If you were to tip one with a fast-acting poison, and hand this to the doctor to use, it will hasten death under the guise of hoping to prevent it.”
“When would you be able to do this by?”
“Do you have a set date?”
“As soon as possible. Narcissus is away – the only one who could stop me – and it must be done before he returns.”
“I can do it within two days if I have all the right components.” It isn’t a question, but appears as such. Whether it’s the power radiating from Agrippina, or the anticipation and disbelief of what she intends to do, she doesn’t know. But there’s a detachment there, too. It’s not like this is any different from anything else she’s done in a professional capacity. The end result is the same. A victim, cut from the world easily. It doesn’t matter who that is in the end, does it?
She mixes with an expert hand, selects only the best of ingredients, and fixes it under the dusty light of a crescent moon.
Her art may be in causing the death of another person, but at least there’s a twisted beauty in the fact she can care about making sure it’s done in the best way possible, isn’t there?
The final time she and Agrippina meet, they exchange no words except for a simple “Thank you” and “Good luck” and the poison slips between folds of fabric.
She’s a victim of the city.
Greed runs though the veins of the streets and a need to drain the cup of power burns through all, and whatever they need, she can give them.
News flies like quicksilver, whispers floating between the gossipers like the burnt feathers of a raven, and words will soon twist into bonds of poison ivy.
And as the city stands, the collection of heads bowed, the first threads of the web are already beginning to spin, and the rumours are just starting to take flight.
I heard Agrippina wanted her son to have power. That’s why she did it. That’s why she killed her uncle.
I heard Britannicus is in danger. I hope that he can stay safe.
I heard Xenophon has been given a large amount of money. We can be sure he was there. Maybe he killed the emperor.
I heard Locusta had something to do with it. She’s been meeting them secretly at the palace. She even had a private audience with the emperor to fully devise her plan.
I heard Halotus wanted to start a revolt with the others at the palace against the emperor. I don’t know why, but when no one would join him, he took matters into his own hands. He was the one who slipped him the poison.
The words flicker from person to person faster than a breath, and steadily become more and more absurd.
But when she catches her name, she knows it’s only a matter of time.
They arrest her at sunset.
It’s quick. It’s easy. She goes quietly, just as she has done all other times before.
The first thing the guards do is tell Agrippina.
“We’ve captured Locusta. The poisoner responsible for your husband’s death.”
“May I speak with her?”
“Do you want to consult with such a woman?”
“Yes. I have something I must tell her. In confidence.”
The cold is biting.
“Agrippina wishes to speak to you.”
They’ve come full-circle, back again to meeting beneath moonlight.
“Thank you,” Agrippina whispers to her, one hand on her shoulder. She then slips a small bag of aurei into her hands, which clatters like a phantom in their grasp.
“You are to let this woman go,” she tells the guards. “I am satisfied beyond doubt now that this woman had nothing to do with the honourable emperor’s tragic death. She is free to leave.”
Locusta thinks nothing of it again.
After all, the death of the emperor is just the same as the death of a beggar, is it not?
Death is un-judging, simple, equal for everyone.
A guest visits her workshop a few months later, his head bowed.
“Locusta, my mother recommended your services. I need to kill Britannicus. I need your help.”
Inspired by Tacitus, Annals 12.65
This marvellous short-story by 16-year-old Rosie Hodson from The Abbey School, Reading, was the first prize winning entry for the over 14s in the 2011 Golden Sponge-stick Competition. Well done, Rosie!