Lawrencus Yulus, consul of Heretuscany, awoke with a start. He lay in the darkness, his heart thumping and his brow damp with perspiration.
It was that cursed dream again. The one in which he imagined he’d stormed the walls of Napierion, scattering the troops of the Status Quotus movement and forcing the town’s legendary warrior queen Barbarus Arnottus to surrender her prized red high-heeled boots to him.
The recurring dream seemed so real that twice he’d searched his quarters in vain for those beautiful boots. Was amalgamation only a nightmarish dream? Was the thought of wearing those boots just some feverish nocturnal fantasy?
Lawrencus strode out on to his balcony. He stared at the flickering fires on the walls of Napierion in the distance. So near yet so far. Suddenly the doors of his quarters burst open and two burly centurions appeared holding a dishevelled prisoner between them. The man wore a battered straw boater and ragged striped blazer. A damn Napierion, thought Lawrencus.
“Sir, this man says if we spare his life he’ll lead us into the bowels of the Napierions,” said one centurion.
“Are you sure he hasn’t spent too much time in Turkish bathhouses?” murmured Lawrencus.
“No sire. He is a former council engineer and knows Napierion’s underground maze of tunnels and pipes like the back of his hand,” the centurion explained.
Lawrencus stared at the man thoughtfully, then slowly nodded. Could this be the breakthrough he needed?
Hours later, Lawrencus and a handful of soldiers stood beneath Napierion’s civic headquarters building. They had been led through a confusing maze of crumbling pipes and tunnels, many of them blocked or partly collapsed.
“So the rumours of Napierion’s rotting reticulation were true afterall,” thought Lawrencus.
The nervous prisoner had finally brought them into an underground room. A stone staircase led up to the floor of the building above. Yellowing scrolls filled much of the chamber. They appeared to be old engineering and drainage consultants’ reports. Some had not even been opened.
Three large closets stood at one end of the chamber. Lawrencus strode across and wrenched open one of the doors. He jumped back as a pile of bones and skulls cascaded onto the floor.
“So that’s where they keep their skeletons,” he thought.
The second closet was piled high with dried pieces of leathery human flesh. “Great Caesar, what are these?” he asked the prisoner.
“Tongues,” the man stammered. “They remove them from councillors after they get elected.”
The third closet was barricaded behind heavy iron bars and could not be opened. “What’s in here?” asked Lawrencus.
“The deeds of the town’s debt,” said the prisoner. “But nobody’s ever been allowed to see them.”
Lawrencus nodded. The crumbling reticulation system, skeletons in the closet, voiceless councillors and hidden debt all made sense now.
“I’ve seen enough,” he said. “Let’s get out of here before it collapses on our heads.”
It was clear that the constant procession of heavy chariots heading to the Port of Napierion was destroying the very foundations of the town. It would take only one extreme high tide to turn Napierion into the Venice of the South Seas. In a decade it could meet the same watery fate as Plato’s legendary metropolis of Atlantis.
With the flames of their torches now burning low, finding their way back through the underground maze was a nightmare. They stumbled into a long, stinking tunnel, its walls dripping with effluent and slime.
“What in the name of Juno is this?” hissed Lawrencus.
“It’s the excrementus extremus,” said the prisoner. “It discharges the town’s waste into the sea every hour.”
As he spoke, a rumbling, sloshing sound came from the depths of the tunnel behind them.
“Run!” screamed the prisoner.
They pounded through the darkness, knee-high in swirling excrement until Lawrencus saw a ladder leading up to the surface. He had no sooner scrambled up when a wall of sewage engulfed his companions, sweeping them out into Hawkus Bay.
Lawrencus trudged slowly home along the coast, his feet squelching in his sandals, pinching his nose to keep out the putrid smell. As he reached the gates of Hustings, a guard ran towards him, stopping several metres away as the wall of stench from his leader’s clothing reached him.
“Hail Lawrencus,” he called. “I have good news.”
“What is it?” snapped Lawrencus.
“The wealthy merchants and traders of the region are uniting behind your call for amalgamation,” said the guard. “They have put their names to a public notice of support which is being displayed in the town. I have a copy here.”
Lawrencus snatched the document and scanned the names. Some were familiar, others he recognised as coming from Napierion itself. He smiled to himself. Could the tide finally be changing in his favour?
“Don’t you see sir?” The guard said excitedly. “This could be the upswelling of an underground movement.”
Lawrencus looked down at his effluent-covered legs and sandals. Not for the first time he wished he really did have those coveted high-heeled red boots.
“I think I’ve experienced enough underground movements for one day,” he replied.