I hear the soft stride of a woman long before my sharp eyes see her. She stands, facing me, confident. But she may have the wrong person. Or choice.
"Locusta? And if so, should I run or talk?"
I nod to her first question. I know not who she is, but she has a faint sense of humour that I am proud to hear. Her talk is not naive, but it weighs with burdens of thought and reality.
She means to come, I believe.
Perhaps she has thought this through.
"I assume I can trust you."
"My lips are sealed unless yours leak my secrets. You understand you will not live if you tell my trade."
I am always to the point. It fazes some, but most are too entangled in the enormity of this small talk to care.
She nods. Then takes a breath, more nervous than emphatic.
"I need you to kill the emperor."
I considered her request for sometime afterward, like I always do. I am not as heartless as people might think, and though money comes paramount, I am killing someone in the process.
However, this time, what confused me more than whether to assassinate the most important man in the empire, who was my client. Motives do not interest me normally, but I could not help but wonder who would risk death to kill someone so obviously hard to kill.
I was not at risk, she had assured me. And for the moment, I was inclined to believe her. Whoever she was.
We meet again, in a few days. This time, she comes to my workshop.
"Have you considered it thoroughly?"
"I will take you up on your request."
It was hard to resist the temptation of asking her name, but I resisted, as I always did. Temptation is my weak spot. Resisting is not.
"I want my son Lucius to succeed him. I thought poison – one that will not act too quickly, so as to uncover the plot, but not one that will be too slow, either. My son is in the emperor's favour at the moment. If the poison bides its time he will surely change his mind, and his son will inherit the title."
"In that case, poison is a good idea"
She has thought this through. Poison will work, I am confident.
"How soon do you wish for him to be gone by?"
A difficult question, but I feel I know her well enough to know she could handle it.
"Soon. Narcissus is away – only he can, and will, stop me."
"Fine. I suggest poison. I can prepare one that will not work too quickly, but during that time he will be delirious and confused. How do you intend to administer it?"
"Food. I can make sure he has drunk plenty of wine beforehand. That way, it won't need tasting."
"Halotus, who tastes the emperor's dishes. He is aware, and sure to avoid the mushrooms that I plan on poisoning. And I will ask Xenophon for his loyalty."
She nods. I inadvertently smile. A doctor always helps.
"When the truth comes out that the emperor has be poisoned, they will try everything to force the poison from his body. They may use a feather to encourage him to vomit. I will tip the feather in poison. Hand this to Xenophon, and in acting to help the emperor, you will aid the death."
"When will you be ready?"
"I can prepare everything for two days."
She swallows, perhaps now only realising she cannot turn back.
"I will be ready in two days'
She nods once more, and leaves.
One name stays in my mind.
Agrippina, wife and niece of Emperor Claudius.
The weather has only got grimmer. It foreshadows the disaster that will ensue if I continue through... This has gone too far. I could... No. This is the highlight of my little known career. I calm myself, unsure of what to do. This is the first time I have felt fear in a long time.
I know I can trust Agrippina, but I can hear a slow and dreaded stride as she approaches me. I hear no guards. She is alone.
She raises her right hand and nods.
I raise my left as a reply.
My hand pulls a small leather bag from a pocket inside my cloak.
She takes it and walks away.
And once she is out of sight, I turn and return to the workshop.
But not out of mind.
The rumour spreads like fire. I hear of it soon enough, and I believe I have feigned shock and grief to the right level. After all, one does not want to attract attention for being unsympathetic or too emotional.
I know that I will be a suspect and likely be taken for questioning, but I was summoned quicker than I expected, due to Agrippina's fears.
I come innocently, like every time before this one.
I have a private audience with her. It takes less than ten minutes. I talk loudly about how I could not have murdered the honourable Emperor Claudius as she barely listens and replaces the pebbles in my bag for the denarii we agreed on. The walls were thin; I was not taking any chances.
We walk to face the guards, Agrippina with her hand resting on my shoulder.
"Let her go. I am satisfied she had nothing to do with the honourable Emperor Claudius' death."
Everyone remembers to call him honourable now. Death is equal. He died from poison, the poison that I had conceived, and the poison I had handed to Agrippina, in powder and on feather. I had prepared it with care and caution. Though irony cannot have its toll, caution is necessary even when preparing poison. But I could have licked my fingers.
Can it matter to whether I kill an emperor or a beggar? Death is the same to everyone.
Except I am paid more for the first.
I nod, for the last time, to Agrippina, and walk away.
Neither Halotus nor Xenophon were sentenced. Agrippina had kept her word. But now my name was out, and I had suffered for it. Prison and execution.
"I have orders from the honourable Emperor Nero to release you."
I look up.
Soon, I am talking to the result of my hard work.
Like mother, like son:
"I need you to kill Britannicus."
I nod, listening.
[Based on Tacitus' account of the murder of Emperor Claudius (Annals 12.64)]
Another 12-year-old girl from St John's College School takes second place in the popular 11-13 age category of the Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition 2012! But see how different Sophie's story is from Lucy's. I love this one, too. Well done, Sophie. Well, done St. John's College School, Cambridge!