So it hadn't been a dream after all! I exhaled heavily. My hands were shaking even more than before. How should I act towards Thalis now? This morning, he didn’t let it show at all. Or I hadn't noticed. Were all three brothers gay or bisexual? At least this put Gregory's words in a different light. They were still direct and perhaps impertinent, but no longer completely out of the blue. Should I apologize to him? Yeah... that would probably be best, I thought.
Taking another deep breath I stood up, but before I could go back inside two men stepped onto the porch. It was Alexios and Thalis. I wished they couldhave arrived two minutes later, I would have preferred to talk to Gregory before they all got together again. The two hardly looked up and almost collided with me.
Alexios startled. "Ah Phillip, it's you. I hope you had more success than we did? Let's go inside.“
I followed the two brothers, feeling a little queasy, but my unease wasunfounded as it turned out. Gregory occasionally gave me a sideways glance, but otherwise acted as if nothing was any different. Meanwhile, Thalis and Alex told me about their visits. I only listened with half an ear, but as far as I could understand, they had had little success.
"This one," Thalis just pointed to a name on a long list, "even chased me off the premises, flailing with his dagger."
Alexios shook his head. "I must admit, I had imagined it would be simpler. We must not despair though, brothers. Those were just a few names from a very long list of patients. And those who are sending us away now, we can come back to in a few months, when word of our skills should have gotten out!"
He continued in a theatrical manner. "Bear in mind, my brothers, all the fools here pretending to be doctors. Any cobbler, weaver, or even butcher can call himself a doctor. But have they sworn the Hippocratic Oath? Have they read the Dioscorides and know every known remedy? Did they study Celsus and Galen, who until recently was still working in Rome himself? No, they have not! - But we have. Real art will stand out!“
"I hope so," Thalis said dryly. He sounded much less convinced than Alexios. Maybe he just wasn't such a good actor.
Gregory spoke up. "I have good news for you. While you were out, someone stopped by and made an appointment for tomorrow."
"Really?", Alexios looked up in amazement, "who and for when?"
"Looked like a rich lady. Clodia Magni is her name. She wants to come in the afternoon.“
"You see," Alexios beamed, "word gets around fast!"
Gregory waved him off. "No false optimism, brother. The lady just happened to be passing and saw me through the window putting things away. She was a former patient here and came in to check."
Alexios sighed. "Never mind, one patient is already more than none." Then he turned to me. "So, did you find out anything?" he asked curiously.
The others now looked attentively at me. I cleared my throat.
"Yes, I did. But I don't really know what to make of it. So, this Iulia doesn't live there anymore. A neighbor named Cornelia has taken over the apartment, she did let me see the place. I've also spoken to another neighbor.“
Alexios made a gruff gesture towards Gregory. "Let him finish!"
"Very probably, yes," I continued. "However, I am far less certain aboutthe cause. The apartment has no windows only a balcony with a railing. To fall over it you would have to run onto the balcony at some speed, then stumble at just the right moment."
"Or just being drunk," Thalis interjected.
Alexios shook his head. "Our uncle wasn't a drunkard, he didn't think much of it... Look at his appointment books, filled to the brim."
I hesitated for a moment before continuing, not knowing how the brothers would react to the next part of my report. "There's something else. Cornelia claimed that Pericles was not really Iulia's doctor. He was her secret lover.”
A murmur went round. Gregory blew a whistle.
"Impossible!" Alexios proclaimed.
"Very possible!" Gregory countered, "What do we know? Countless men indulge in such pleasures when the opportunity arises.“
Alexios was not convinced. "I remember the last time I saw him and Helena, just before he moved to Rome. He loved her.“
"Sure, Alex. But that was over two years ago," Thalis replied. "A lot could have happened since then."
Alexios nodded tentatively. "I still don't believe it, but all right. Let's say it's a possibility we can't dismiss completely."
"Then we should also consider that perhapsHelena knew about it," Thalis said.
Gregory jumped up. "Ha! That's it. She caught them both red-handed and pushed him over the railing!"
Could it have played out like that? If she had acted out of jealousy, then wouldn’t Iulia rather be the victim? Besides, Helena was probably not strong enough to lift a grown man over the railing against his will, was she?
I imagined the scene. Pericles and Iulia are at it wildly in the bedroom when there's a knock at the door. Iulia interrupts their rendezvous to check. Helena's voice comes through the door, asking about her husband's whereabouts. In a panic, Pericles jumps up, scurrying out of the bedroom. He runs towards the balcony to hide on the outside wall next to the balcony door. He is understandably careless in doing so. He stumbles at the wrong moment and the law of inertia pushes him over the railing.
Yeah, it could have happened that way. I shared my thoughts with the others.
Thalis nodded. "We must confront her."
Alexios, however, raised his hands. "Not so fast, brothers. We should not do this."
We all looked at him questioningly.
"Very simply," he continued, "there are only two possibilities. Either she was telling the truth. Then we would only insult her by accusing her of having something to do with her husband's death or she lied and knows more than she's admitting. In which case, we'd offend her and risk to fall in disgrace. Remember, the lease is in Helena's name and until we get some income from the practice we are dependent on her twice over.“
The other two grumbled,but agreed. Thalis looked at me. "Were you able to find out where this Iulia lives now?"
I shook my head. "I'm afraid not. But I know where she probably works."
"Then perhaps you could intercept and question her there?" he suggested.
"Yes," Gregory agreed, "by the looks of it, she's the only eyewitness."
They were quite right. I just wasn't sure if there was any point in pursuing this matter any further. I had read too many crime novels not to know that something could happen to those who investigate such incidents too thoroughly.
Alexios didn't think much of the proposition either, but for other reasons. "I am of the opinion that we should leave the matter be. I mean, what do we expect to find out? Suppose it happened the way Phillip thought it could? Would Helena have been responsible for our uncle's death? More likely he himself, since he was cheating, not her.”
I agreed with Alexios. After discussing it for a while, we decided to stop investigating for now. He then suggested going upstairs to grab a bite for lunch. This found general approval. As the others left the room, Gregory held me back. He produced three coins and put them in my hand.
"Here, your three denari. The herbs were really in the box. You'll have to tell me how you did it some time.“
He stomped past me and followed the others upstairs. I stayed behind in amazement. I guess that was an apology of sorts, actually more than I would have expected from him. So that seemed to settle things between us for now. There was only one issue left, the thing with Thalis. I sighed. I would try to get a hold of him alone tonight.
The coins were still in my hand. I put them in my pocket. So, that's how I earned my first three Roman denari. I had to laugh for a moment. Only a small step from here to becoming a Roman millionaire. The trace of fun quickly disappeared though, making way for a melancholic feeling. I had to think of my family and friends I would never see again. Life in Rome at the current time would not be as pleasant as at home. The TTEK's battery would still be able to power Elisa's processor for just under two months. She revealed this to me this morning. I was dreading it. Not that I was afraid of not being able to get along without her,but I was afraid of being alone. Afraid that the last thing I had to relate to my world was gone. Even if it was just a VI on a silicon chip.
"Are you coming, Phillip?" Thalis shouted to me from upstairs.
I interrupted my brooding and caught up with the brothers. We spent lunch more or less in silence. Everyone was pondering their thoughts. There was bread, olives, and ham. It was common here to only have a light snack at lunchtime. The main meal was taken in the evening.
Later, the group split up again. Thalis and Alexios continued their visits while Gregory and I dedicated ourselves to the boxes. The clearing out, rearranging and putting away went much faster than expected. Especially since Gregory actually helped and didn't just sit around.
The rest of the day flew by. When we returned to the apartment for dinner, everyone was exhausted. Thalis and Alexios briefly reported their experiences. Thalis was very happy to have at least managed to getone former patient to make an appointment. First thing tomorrow at 10 am. Appropriately, Gregory and I were able to report that the practice was completely set up and ready to reopen officially tomorrow.
"Your opening! We should toast to that," Helena said.
All of them waved off unanimously. I believed they remembered their father as a cautionary tale. Well, who knew what Thalis would have done to me again at night. I thought, maybe I could have my own bed andI asked Helena about it.
"Yes, of course, Phillip. Sorry, I was only prepared for three arrivals yesterday. But I have arranged for another bed. Only it might be a little cramped in the dormitory."
"Thank you Helena", I said. "I might as well just sleep downstairs in the practice. There's plenty of room."
Alexios shook his head. "That will not be necessary. You can spend the night in the little study opposite the bedroom. We don’t need that for now."
That was settled. After dinner, I said good night and made my way to the back of the apartment.
Thalis rushed after me. He muttered something about wanting to help me put up the bed. I sensed him staring as we walked down the hall.Taking a deep breath, when I entered the room, I decided this was the opportunity I'd been waiting for to bring up last night. However, I didn't know what I wanted to say.
It didn't matter, because Thalis beat me to it. "Phillip, about last night. You didn't say anything. Um, do you remember anything at all?"
I looked at him. His gaze was uncertain, but he kept eye-contact. Maybe it was better if I pretended I didn't remember anything? But did I want that? Actually, being that close to him had been very pleasant. Reassuringly familiar in this largely alien world.
Thalis now looked down. "I already have a bad feeling about this. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have taken advantage of the situation like that."
No, I decided he didn't have to feel bad about it. "It's okay, Thalis. To be honest, I enjoyed it." I smiled at him.
He looked up and laughed in relief. "I'm glad. Anyway, you were totally drunk. It was unfair of me. However... you always have the option for a rematch."
He came a little closer and put one hand on my shoulder. His hand felt warm and comfortable. But... I didn't feel like rushing right into the next adventure. I had to sort out my thoughts and feelings first.
I took his hand and pushed it back gently. "Another time, Thalis. I'm tired today."
He stepped back and looked at me almost offended. "I already know what's going on. I've seen the looks you and Gregory give each other all the time.You're having fun with him while we're away!“
Before I could reply, Thalis turned around and left the room. I rolled my eyes. If there was one thing I had learned, it was that interpersonal relationships got much more complicated when sexual attraction was involved.
I stood on the veranda, looking down at my trembling hands. They were smeared with blood. My clothes also had red stains on them. I didn’t smoke. Though at that moment I would have changed my mind, given the opportunity.
As far as surgical interventions were concerned, my personal experience was limited. I still remembered the one time I had fallen off the ladder in a maintenance shaft in the ATR building. The results were bruised ribs and a broken leg. The latter had been repaired under local anesthesia. I had to lie flat for three days afterward to heal the fracture and the bruises, while nanobots were used for tissue regeneration. All in all not a pleasant experience - but what happened on this day in the practice of the three brothers was, of course, something very, very different.
The 10 a.m. appointment had been due. Two people arrived. One was the man who had made the appointment and supported by him, his father, the actual patient. The man explained that his father had fallen a few days ago, injuring his leg. It didn’t get better though, worse rather, so they sought medical advice.
The older man was put on the treatment table. Alexios and Gregory examined the leg. I only took a cursory look,quickly looking away, swallowing the emerging feeling of nausea. No, I thought, physician assistant was clearly the wrong profession for me. Alas, here I was in this room.
Gregory and Alexios threw an indistinct glance at each other. Then Gregory turned to the patient.
"It doesn't look good. I'm afraid we'll have to proceed with amputation."
The already pale face of the man became a shade paler. So did mine.
"Thalis, Phillip, you must assist me," Gregory continued, while he pulled various diabolically looking cutting instruments out of a drawer. "You will have to hold the patient."
I would very much like to forget the following minutes. Though they’d probably still haunt me in many a nightmare. Although Alexios had given the patient something that was supposed to ease the pain, judging by the cries it didn't help much. And then there was all that blood. The sawing noises. I clung to the railing of the veranda and emptied the remaining contents of my stomach over the balustrade.
Maybe I should ask the merchant Frugi if he has a job for me?
The door opened and Thalis stepped outbeside me. He grinned at the sight of my condition, hardly seeming to mind the whole thing.
"You'll get used to it. It doesn't happen that often, you know."
Luckily, the afternoon appointment was much calmer and muchless bloody.
"There she is!" Gregory exclaimed. He had been keeping watch at the window. "It doesn't look as if she needs my services. I'll be off. You can shake that rich chick by yourself."
He left his lookout post and disappeared upstairs into the apartment. I smiled. He had no problem sawing off the leg of a screaming man, but he didn't want to deal with a stuck-up aristocrat.
Steps could be heard from the hallway and a short time later the lady entered the practice. Two men followed close behind. The first one was dressed in leather armor, carrying a sword at his hip. His hair was shorn short and a scar on his right cheek gave him a grim military look. Probably her bodyguard. The second one was a slave, I guessed. He was rather slim, simply dressed and carried some of the lady's belongings.
Only now did I notice that the woman looked familiar. I'd seen that face before. Indeed, it was the lady in the litter whom I had met so rudely yesterday on my way back to the apartment.
Alexios greeted the patient politely, introducing himself and his brother while I stayed in the background.
"Greetings Clodia Magni, welcome to our practice! What can we, the nephews and successors of the wise Pericles, do for you today?"
You had to hand it to him, Alexios was good with words.
Clodia showed a subtle smile. "That's exactly how I imagined it. A young, enterprising doctor, filling the void left by Pericles' death. And there are two of them! I'm sure that in time you'll become even better known than your uncle!"
"It honors you to praise us in advance, but let us prove to you our skill, which is indeed in no way inferior to our uncles’. We have learned from him as well as from the best in the field."
While Alexios ensnared the lady verbally and led her to a chair, Thalis just smiled friendly. I could see he had trouble not making it look too fake. I had taken a seat at the desk, pretending to be intensively occupied with the patient's file. Pericles had been thorough with his notes and had created such a file for each patient. In it, symptoms, diagnoses, and prescribed treatments were recorded.
Alexios had instructed me that for the time being, maintaining these files would be my main task - as long as I didn't have to pitch in like I did this morning. This was all right by me, because I wanted to have as little to do with the treatments as possible.
Clodia's file was not very informative. She seemed to suffer from everything and nothing. Sometimes insomnia was noted, then headaches, and at other times digestive problems. Even a fertility problem was reported. Well, these were probably the consequences of the extravagant lifestyle, which the ancient like the modern high society fanciedalike.
Clodia rejected the chair offered by Alexios with an elegant but determined hand movement and sat down directly on the treatment table.
"It is the back that troubles me, dear medicus. It is most bearable lying down."
I skimmed the document again. Back was new. True to my instructions, I dunked the pen into the inkwell and added the symptom on a new line.
When I looked up again Clodia had already dropped all her clothes above the waist. I quickly looked somewhere else. Would I soon have to look at completely exposed old men? I shook myself a little, trying to repress the images that came to mind.
Alexios, on the other hand, looked very closely, which was in keeping with his function as a doctor. He asked the patient to lie on her stomach. Then he palpated her back, muttering something to Thalis now and then. Thalis nodded in agreement.
When Alexios had completed his investigation, he asked Clodia to sit up again. "Dearest, the cause of your suffering is quite obvious to the trained physician. Your bodily fluids are out of balance!“
"Truly! That you say that finally convinces me of your qualities, young Alexios. For in his time, your blessed uncle always emphasized this as well.
I took a look at the file again. Imbalance of the body fluids - whatever that was supposed to be - was noted. With double underlining. Of course, the brothers had studied the report in advance.
"What can you prescribe, dear medicus?"
For a while, Alexios seemed to think it over. He nodded his head thoughtfully, stroking his pointed beard.
"I suppose you bathe regularly, Clodia?"
"Of course! Every day, if it can be arranged, in the Trajan Baths. Pericles also practiced there, as I'm sure you know. His massages were so heavenly!"
"Yes, exactly. We want to continue this tradition, if possible. Regarding your back pain though, I recommend that after each bath you walk four laps in the surrounding park. Two in a clockwise direction and two against."
The patient looked slightly irritated. "And this is supposed to help with my back pain? I thought you were going to make a tincture for me?"
Thalis, who had previously left the talking to his older brother, now opened his mouth to reply, but Alexios beat him to it.
“Uh, yes... of course, we will prepare an ointment as well. But one works better with the other. The movement promotes the motion of bodily fluids."
He turned to Thalis, who looked at him with a slightly wrinkled forehead. "A bottle of dill oil for the lady," Alexios commanded.
Thalis hesitated for a moment, then he walked over to a cupboard. I picked up the pen again and noted the dill oil and the prescribed walks.
"Rub it on your back in the evening before you go to bed," Alexios continued addressing Clodia, who was about to put her clothes back on.
Thalis returned with a small bottle, which he handed to his brother. Alexios gave it to the patient. "I'll see you back in a week for a checkup. Until then, we wish you a speedy recovery.”
Clodia was visibly satisfied, thanking the brothers for the good advice. She waved to her slave. He brought her a small leather sack. Probably her purse. "What is your fee?"
"Today only fifty denari for examination and thirty for the medicine. The rest you have to pay only after the treatment is completed.”
With skilled fingers she loosened the cord that kept the bag closed. A moment later a handful of gold and silver coins changed hands. The two brothers accompanied their first patient to the door, thanked her once again and said goodbye. Clodia left the practice, her bodyguard in front, behind her the slave.
Alexios closed the door behind them. No sooner had it shut than Thalis breathed out audibly. "I'd rather assist Gregory with an amputation."
Alexios looked at his brother with an irritated look. "What do you have against the lady? She was really quite nice. Pretty, too. But I know you don't care about that."
"Right on, brother. I wasn't blinded by her looks like you might have been. I don't like her."
Alexios snorted. "Then I hope you at least like the eighty denari she paid us."
Thalis shrugged his shoulders and threw a glance out the window. Clodia was just getting into her litter that had been waiting outside the house along with her porters.
"What was that about the dill oil anyway?" Thalis asked. "That's no good. The chick's back hurts because she doesn't do a single fucking step, being driven around in that litter all day long!“
Alex giggled. "Yes, brother, that may be true. That's why I told her to exercise. However, when a rich lady wants an ointment... you give her one. And if you can charge thirty denari for it, even more so!“
"It's amazing. In Patrae, we might have been able to charge a tenth of that, if at all."
"Exactly Thalis, but there weren't any rich customers there either. And when we treat a worker here, we don't ask as much, of course. The trick is to always ask for just as much as the client can afford."
I smiled. This was an economic theory that my professor of business administration at the university would have signed off immediately. It was called 'perfect price differentiation'.
Thalis swayed his head back and forth. "Isn't that kind of immoral?"
"Is it not, on the contrary, highly moral?" Alexios countered with a laugh. "The rich who can afford it are charged more and thus subsidize the less fortunate."
"Well, if you look at it that way, you're right, Alex."