The sweat-soaked messenger gasped for breath as he raced up the stone steps to Lawrencus Yulus’ fortress in Hustings. Clutching a roll of parchment, he ran down the dark corridor and pounded on the doors of the ruler’s chamber.

Lawrencus, wearing only a satin loincloth and a heavy gold chain, grabbed his toga as the doors burst open. Kneeling behind him was a small bald man.

“How dare you burst in on us like this!” roared Lawrencus. “Pleatus the tailor is giving me a private fitting in preparation for the Battle of Amalgamatus. Now he’s lost his thread.”

The messenger dropped the scroll and fled.

“Great Caesar!” said Lawrencus, picking it up. “It says here that Scrutinus the auditor has discovered Napierion’s sewers, aqueducts and streets haven’t been updated since the quake of AD31.”

He studied the scroll and suddenly understood how he’d ended up owing 80 million drachmas to the moneylenders while those smug Napierions had stayed debt-free. It was an outrageous dereliction of civic duty. He wished he’d thought of it.

“Napierions might call me Debtus Maximus, but my waterworks are in excellent order for their age,” said Lawrencus proudly.

“The citizens of Hustings quench their thirsts from the abundant bladders of Artesia, the God of Fresh Water, but only after it has been magically enhanced by Fluoridus, the God of Strong Teeth. It’s got such miraculous powers that we’re thinking of bottling it for the pilgrim market in Lourdes.

“Hustings’ roads are the best-maintained in the country because we’re always repairing them. We’re also cutting chariot speeds on rural roads to reduce wear and tear.

“And as for sewage, by the time Hustings’ citizens discharge their waste into the sea it’s so pure you could bottle it. In fact a group of investors has approached me to do just that.

“So if Scrutinus or anybody else wants to start sniffing around my outfall, they’d be very welcome,” said Lawrencus.

“Perhaps you could hold an open day,” murmured Pleatus.

“You know Lawrencus, I sometimes wonder where we would be today without all of your borrowing,” he said after a few minutes.

“We wouldn’t have spent millions on an unsafe Operus House or a Stadium Heretuscany. We wouldn’t be able to employ all those highly qualified scribes in your headquarters; we’d have no district scheme, no town planners or building inspectors, no dog-control officers or parking wardens. But thanks to you, Hustings has them all.”

Lawrencus stared down at the man’s shiny head. He had the uneasy feeling the fellow was mocking him.

“How long is this going to take?” he growled. He’d been holding his stomach in for several minutes and was getting giddy. Red dots danced before his eyes.

“How long is a piece of string?” replied the small bald man, adding up the knots.

“Uh oh, looks like you’re a size 96XD now, so we can forget about body-hugging armour. What about a calf-length leather skirt, with Moroccan brass inlays, silverstudded belt and elephant-hide sandals?”

Lawrencus gritted his teeth.

“Just get on with it,” he hissed, “and don’t stick any chook feathers on my helmet this time. I don’t want the gods looking down on me and seeing a bantam’s backside.”

The bald man nodded and slid a bunch of white chicken feathers back into his bag. “I’ve got ostrich, pheasant, partridge or peacock,” he said.

Lawrencus frowned. “Peacock,” he replied. “Smart choice,” smiled the small bald man. “Peacock will certainly make you stand out on the battlefield. I’ll add a couple of designer dents in your helmet for that grizzled-veteran look”

Lawrencus said nothing. The fellow was starting to annoy him.

The small bald man leaned forward.

“Bullish Doltus will be wearing a longnecked helmet crowned with a plume of ostrich feathers for the amalgamation battle.

It’ll have a narrow visor, earmuffs and a large mouthpiece.”

The small bald man hoisted armour plating on to Lawrencus’ shoulders and strapped a heavy brass breastplate on his chest. The ruler’s body, once as rock-hard as the limestone hills he grew up on, sagged under the weight. He could barely breathe and his right knee was starting to give out.

“I hear regional chairman Fentonious Wilfus wants his helmet to reflect both his rural background and his council,” continued the small bald man, “so he’s getting a brass sheep’s head surrounded by turkeys, set in a golden pond.

“The leaders of Wairorus and the Central Bay of Hawks say they can only afford basic helmets, with feathers from two headless chooks.

“So when the great amalgamation battle begins, the gods will look down on Heretuscany and see a peacock fighting an ostrich, a bunch of turkeys standing on the sideline and two headless chooks dancing in the distance.”

The small bald man smiled and left the chamber.

Lawrencus twirled slowly around the room, flickering candlelight transforming him into a shimmering, god-like figure. The whole of Heretuscany now lay within his grasp. He relaxed his stomach.

There was the sound of metal grinding and a chorus of creaking leather. A brass buckle snapped and embedded itself in the far wall.

“We have a size 100D in stock at the moment,” a voice called from down the corridor.

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