The Emperor lifted his feet obediently. The slave slipped off the imperial slippers and lowered the imperial feet into the bowl of water. The temperature was just right, on the hot side of warm. The slave, after long years of performing the task, knew what he was doing.
“Josephus,” the Emperor intoned. “How many times have you washed our feet?”
Josephus did not look up from his work; beneath the surface, his hands massaged the Emperor’s arches. “I know not, sire. I lack the schooling to do the sums.”
The Emperor would not be satisfied. He set to calculating for himself. “Once a day equals three hundred and sixty-five times a year – and you have been with us for…” he pursed his lips. “How long is it now, since my South-Western campaign?”
The slave froze. He knew exactly how long. “Twenty-eight years, five months and thirteen days,” he said flatly. “Sire,” he added as a bitter afterthought.
“As long as all that! Fancy! So… Twenty-eight years times three hundred and sixty-five…” The Emperor fell to muttering as he tried to perform the mental arithmetic. “And five months, you say – that’s five by thirty…”
“Do not forget, sire, those days I washed your feet twice. Holy days. And those times your returned from battle besmirched with mud and blood.”
“Ah, yes, quite, quite. So, add on – let’s say a dozen holy days per year… My campaign in the Northern lands – that dragged on longer than expected – ye gods! Now I’ve lost track of where we had got to. Balls to it – I’ll have one of the scribes work it out. Ah! You do a good job, Josephus. You are a miracle worker with the pumice stone.”
The imperial head lolled backward as the Emperor gave himself over to the foot massage, closing his eyes and letting his thoughts drift. All his calculations dissipated like bubbles in the soap suds around his ankles. He sighed as Josephus gently lifted his feet from the bowl, swaddling each one in a soft towel and rubbing them dry, taking especial care with the imperial toes and the spaces between them. The feet dry, Josephus powdered them with perfumed talcum, a fragrance that reminded him of his homeland in the Southern continent – it had not just been slaves the Emperor had brought back with him. Again they rushed to the forefront of his mind, the memories of his homeland as vivid now as they had been all those years ago. The screams of the women, the men hacked to pieces, the children slaughtered…
As he fastened the straps on the Emperor’s sandals, criss-crossing them around the imperial calves, Josephus blinked away his tears. How many more lands, how many more lives, would these feet trample like grapes? How much blood would they wade through? How many heads would they kick?
Had I not been unmanned by the castrator’s blade, I would have the necessary fire within me to do something to bring an end to this bloody reign!
“Is there something wrong, Josephus?”
The Emperor’s words brought him out of his thoughts. Was that a note of concern in the old man’s voice?
“Tomorrow I shall trim your toenails, sire.” Josephus rose, picking up the bowl and the towels.
“Good man,” said the Emperor. He watched his trusty servant bustle out of the chamber. Good old Josephus, he mused!
If he wasn’t so good at his duties, I would have granted his freedom years ago.