Chapter 1: A Mysterious Encounter
That day felt like a good day to spend money on books, Ovid thought. Well, to be quite honest, every day was potentially a good day to spend money on books, really, but that one felt like the perfect occasion to indulge in superfluous yet deeply satisfying purchases. Which is why Ovid had chosen to go to the most fancy and renowned book-seller in Rome. Fancy, renowned and expensive, he thought, painfully, while eyeing a particularly elaborated wooden book-case whose title tag, made of, oh, ivory, showed off Vergil’s bright red name. He did not have nearly enough money for that, but he was sure he could find something he could afford without feeling too guilty about it. He turned to a shelf bearing slenderer volumes and started browsing the titles. He had just picked up Propertius’ latest book of elegies, which he actually still needed to read, when someone beside him made a not-too-discrete noise of disapproval.
‘Wouldn’t spend my money on that. ‘t’s not worth it, really.’
Ovid looked up. The person who had spoken was a thin man in an elegant embroidered tunic with artfully tousled dark hair and a sickly-looking pale skin, who looked somewhere in his late twenties and who was currently rearranging the books on the shelves. Weirdly, Ovid thought, he had not noticed his presence before. At all.
‘You don’t like Propertius?’
The man shrugged. ‘I have nothing against his poetry. Well, that’s not true, I do, but the thing is really just that he pissed me off recently and I’m not willing to let it go.’ After saying this he picked one of the volumes he had just repositioned so they were placed in the most visible part of the shelf, and then turned towards Ovid, flashing a toothy grin. ‘Why don’t you get this instead?’
Ovid took the book the man was handing him. A particularly fancy edition of Catullus’ elegiac verses. ‘I…thanks, but I already own a perfectly good edition of Cat- wait…you know Propertius?’
‘You can never own too many editions of Catullus. Besides, this one has some nice new additions your old edition surely doesn’t have.’
Ovid gave him a perplexed look. ‘New additions? Catullus’s been dead for…thirty-five years or something like that. I highly doubt he can write anything new. But now, about Propertius…’
The man wrinkled his freckled aquiline nose in an expression of annoyance. He almost looked offended by Ovid’s words. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘maybe he can’t. But this edition includes new corrections and a couple of unpublished things that have been found recently. And then, it’s pretty.’
Ovid sighed, choosing not to insist on the Propertius topic further, and looked at the book he was holding in his hands. The man was right, it was pretty, and after all, yes, you can never own enough editions of Catullus. On the other hand, though, he did need Propertius’ latest book, and he did not have enough money for both. He sighed again and handed the volume back to the other man.
‘As tempting as this is, I need to read Propertius. I’m working on some poems right now, and I…’
The man’s wide bright light-green eyes suddenly lit up, and he grinned even more broadly than before, flashing two eerily long canines that gave the smile something…unsettling. ‘You write? You’re a poet?’
As soon as Ovid heard those words, he beamed and smiled proudly. ‘Yes, I am. My name is Publius Ovidius Naso, and I’m a poet. Well, I haven’t published anything yet, but I am indeed working on my first project right now. It’s a…new take on erotic elegy.’
The man looked positively intrigued now. ‘Oho, that sounds interesting. Have you given any reading of it so far? Do you have a patron?’
Ovid looked away. Exposure was definitely a thing his poetry lacked right now, to be honest. ‘Well, no, not yet, but…I’m sure I’ll find someone who’s interested in it. Eventually.’
The man remained silent for a moment, looking at him pensively. ‘Hmmm. We’ll see.’ Then he slipped the papyrus roll into a fancy and expensive-looking book-case and handed it back to Ovid, giving him an enigmatic smile: ‘anyway, Fortune favours you today, as I…happen to have a soft spot for budding poets. You can keep this, free of charge. As for Propertius’ book…you’re gonna pay the full price for that, sorry.’
Ovid’s eyes fell on the volume in his hands and widened in surprise. ‘What? Really? I…well, thank you, really…’ Then he raised his eyes to look at the man, smiling a little, and he added: ‘what kind of bookseller gives away expensive books for free?’
The man laughed. ‘Oh, I’m not the bookseller. I just roam this place from time to time. Now, though, I should be going. Pleased to meet you.’ He made a gesture of farewell, whispered something to the actual shopkeeper, and then turned and walked away. Ovid lingered in silence for a moment, at loss for words, but then, before the other man could disappear from his sight, he exclaimed: ‘wait…you haven’t told me your name!’
The man glanced at him over his shoulder, flashing him another unsettling grin before vanishing among the crowd. ‘You wouldn’t believe it.’
Chapter 2: A Poet's Story Begins
Later that day, Ovid sat down in his study and let the mysterious man’s gift slip out of its case, closing his eyes as he smelled the rich scent of cedar oil emanating from it. The papyrus had been polished incredibly finely and it was smooth to the touch, and the umbilici were made of dark wood decorated with mother of pearl details. A fine object indeed. He started to unroll it, delicately, revealing Catullus’ name painted in bright red letters, followed by neatly written elegiacs, but as he pulled to unroll more of it, a piece of paper slipped off the book and fell to the ground. Ovid picked it up and saw there was something scribbled on it, in dark red ink, scrawled in a nearly illegible handwriting. He squinted, trying to make a sense out of it.
‘I give you…permission to…enter my house?’ Ovid murmured, finally managing to tell the letters apart. He frowned, perplexed. What was that even supposed to mean? Did that strange man put it in there? When exactly did he find the time to do that? Maybe, he thought, it merely ended up in there for a mistake, and was meant to be received by someone else. A message to a lover, perhaps? Ovid smiled a little, amused by the possibility that he might have just inadvertently prevented a meeting between two lovers. That would have been ironic indeed.
Then he just shrugged, put both the piece of paper and the book away, and started reading Propertius’ latest book instead, which the man at the bookshop had indeed not payed for. He went on reading for a while, hearing his own voice dance on the elegiac couplets, until it got too dark to go on without straining his eyes too much. He yawned. He was suddenly feeling very tired, so he got up and decided to go to sleep so he could wake up early in the morning to start working on new poems.
Later, as Ovid was about to fall asleep, the memory of the mysterious man’s unsettling smile glinted before his eyes one more time, and then all went dark.
The following morning Ovid woke up to the odd uncomfortable feeling that something was not quite right. He felt as if his sleep had been…different from usual, unnatural, somehow, even if he could not say why he was feeling so. Maybe the cause was that he had dreamt someone had stolen all his poems, which was indeed a terrifying nightmare. Yes, he concluded, it was probably just one of those weird sensations dreams leave when they dissolve into daylight. He stretched his limbs a bit and then got up. He walked to the basin he kept in a corner of his bedroom and splashed cold water on his face. Much better. Still, he decided to go and check his writing tablets, just to reassure himself they were indeed safe and sound. Yes, he thought while opening the chest in which he kept them, surely nothing could have happ-
Ovid blinked several times, hoping the vision of the very much empty chest in front of him would magically disappear, but to his great dismay, nothing changed. His tablets were gone. All gone. Ovid could physically feel the blood leaving his face, and before he could decide whether he wanted to scream or cry or do both things at once, one of his servants ran into the room, all out of breath.
‘Master, your presence is asked downstairs. Immediately.’
Ovid did not even turn his head towards him, his gaze still fixed upon the empty chest. ‘Not…not now.’
‘It’s important. There is a messenger waiting in the atrium, he says he was sent by Valerius Messalla Corvinus.’
Now that was enough to distract Ovid from the missing poems for a moment. ‘Me- Messalla? That Messalla? What…what does he want from me?’
‘He wants to talk to you about important matters. The messenger says he will take you to his house, once you’re ready to go.’
Ovid froze for a moment, mouth ajar, trying to coax his brain into forming coherent thoughts even though the double shock that had just hit him was making it very hard to do so. He decided he could leave panic aside for a moment, so he just nodded to the slave and forced his shaky legs to walk to his room so he could get dressed properly.
The trip to Messalla’s house felt hazy, almost like a dream. When he was brought into the tablinum, though, a voice calling his name brought him back to reality.
‘Ah, you must be Publius Ovidius Naso, the aspiring poet! My name is Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus. I assume you already know who I am.’
Ovid stared at the man in front of him for a very long moment, trying to find his voice and ending up replying with a very faint ‘yes.’
Messalla laughed. ‘Now, now, don’t give me that scared look, I’m not going to eat you. I suppose you already suspect why I asked you to come here.’
Ovid swallowed hard. ‘I…well, I…can hope it’s because of my poetry, but I cannot see how you might have heard of it…’
Messalla gave him a funny look. ‘Well, I read it of course. I admit I could only read a few poems, as they were only brought to me earlier this morning, but I liked what I saw. And then, our common friend told me he thinks you are a very promising poet, and I have complete trust in his judgement. To get to the point…I am offering you to join my circle.’
Ovid blanched out. He was now more and more convinced he was just dreaming, and he would have woken up any moment now. Still, he forced himself to think of a reply, just in case he was indeed awake and speaking to the real Messalla. ‘I…would be greatly honoured to accept your offer, but…I don’t think I know who this…common friend you speak about is…’
As Messalla opened his mouth to talk, a familiar voice came from the atrium. ‘That would be me.’
Ovid turned and to his great surprise he saw that the person who was currently walking towards them was none other than the mysterious man he had met in the bookshop the day before. He looked a bit dishevelled and even paler than before, but his freckled face was lit up by a cheerful expression. He stopped before them and took a generous gulp of what looked like wine from the fancy silver cup he was holding. ‘Hey, ‘Salla. Ovid. Sorry, I’m late.’
Messalla sighed. ‘Yes, Gaius, you’re late. As usual. Where were you, now?’
The man, Gaius, kept drinking until the cup was empty, then he gave Messalla a mischievous smile and winked. ‘Take a wild guess.’
Ovid stared at the man for a moment, still dumbfounded, then he was hit with the realization of what must have happened to his missing poems. ‘You. You snuck into my own house and stole my tablets, didn’t you?’
Messalla glared at Gaius. ‘You stole them from him?’
Gaius’ lips curled into a smug smile. ‘I merely borrowed them. And then, it was for a good purpose!’
Messalla pinched his nose and sighed again. ‘Still, you sneaked into his house to steal his poems. We’ve talked about that being bad etiquette.’
Gaius wrinkled his nose in annoyance. ‘He gave me explicit permission to do so. To enter his house, I mean, not to ste- ahem, borrow his poems. Besides, I didn’t even drink from him, not even a little sip, even if he does look delicious and I was feeling quite thirsty. I’ve behaved well enough for my standards.’
Ovid frowned. ‘I didn’t give you…oh wait. The message hidden in the book was yours, wasn’t it?’
Gaius flashed one of his wide grins. ‘It was indeed. I always keep some of those in my pockets, just in case. Glad that worries you more than me saying you look delicious.’
Ovid shrugged. ‘It’s not the first time someone says that about me.’
Gaius raised his eyebrows and he opened his mouth to reply, visibly amused, but was immediately cut off by Messalla. ‘Gaius, please. We have a new poet, which means he needs to be informed about…everything. Which is your duty, if I’m not mistaken.’
The man rolled his eyes. ‘Yes, of course. I will follow the usual procedure, and then I’ll perform the…initiation, if he chooses to join us.’
Ovid lit up. ‘Initiation? As in poetic initiation? Now that sounds intriguing. What is it? A sort of ceremony? Am I going to join some sort of secret club?’
Gaius laughed. ‘Soooort of. Now jot that enthusiasm down, though. You still haven’t heard the joining conditions.’
Ovid snorted. ‘As long as my poems get published, nothing would make me refuse, not even if I had to sign the contract with my own blood.’
Gaius chuckled and gave him an amused look. ‘Glad to hear that. Now come with me, we have a lot to talk about.’
He nodded a farewell to Messalla, he draped his cloak over his shoulders so his head and his arms were well-covered, then moved to leave, and Ovid followed him. As they were walking through the house and towards the front door, Ovid suddenly grabbed Gaius’ arm and stopped him. Although it was summer, and the freshness of the morning had already been replaced by a heavy heat, his skin, he noticed, felt weirdly cold. Ovid did not give much attention to it, though, as he was worried by more pressing matters. ‘What about my tablets, though? Can I have them back?’
Gaius smiled, more warmly this time. ‘Don’t worry about them. I asked my scribe to make a copy of them, just in case, and then I’ll have the original ones brought back to your house.’
He moved to walk away, but Ovid did not let go of him yet. ‘Well, thank you, that’s a relief. Now tell me, though…does your name stop at Gaius?’
Gaius looked away, an unreadable expression painted on his face. ‘No, it doesn’t.’
Ovid smiled and tried to meet his eyes. ‘I’d like to know the name of the man to whom I owe my full gratitude, even though he sneaked into my house to steal my poems.’
The other man laughed breathlessly. ‘As I told you yesterday, you wouldn’t believe it.’
Ovid raised his eyebrows. ‘You don’t know that.’
He sighed, still not looking at Ovid. ‘Fine. Let’s imagine, just for a moment, that I decided to tell you that my name is Gaius Valerius Catullus. And that I am indeed that Catullus. The poet. What would you say about it?’
Ovid stared silently at him for a while, then, slowly, he spoke. ‘I would say you look incredibly good for someone who’s been dead for almost forty years. And who would be seventy-something years old if he were alive today, anyway. And I’d say that yes, you are right. I wouldn’t believe you.’
The young man closed his eyes and sighed. ‘Thought so. No one ever does. Now let’s go, before the sun becomes unbearable. I’d rather not faint before we reach our destination.’
The self-proclaimed Catullus did end up fainting a couple of times, and at some point Ovid had to pick him up and carry him or else the walk would have taken them the whole day. He seemed to be really sensitive to direct sunlight, which, Ovid thought, was not that strange, given how pale he was.
‘I just…underestimated the sun today,’ he panted, trying to shade his face with his cloak as much as he could.
Ovid rolled his eyes. ‘I’d never seen someone so sensitive before. How can you survive summers in Rome if sunlight does this to you? Anyway…are we far from our destination? You’re skinny but my back’s starting to hurt.’
‘No, we’ve arrived. It’s that door over there. You can drop me now, I can manage on my own.’ He hopped off Ovid’s arms and walked, half stumbling, towards the building. Shortly after he knocked, the door was opened by a thin bearded man who looked like he had not slept in a week and whose hair had clearly never seen a comb before. He immediately glared at Catullus, even though there was a hint of amusement in his eyes.
‘Gaius, you dumbass. You seriously went outside under this sun? I’m surprised you’re not unconscious.’
Catullus laughed and stepped in to hug the other man. ‘I’m also glad to see you, my cranky friend. Anyway, I had an important thing to do, and I couldn’t wait. Besides, it’s not like it will kill me.’ Then he turned back to Ovid. ‘This is my friend Lucretius. Lucretius, this is my guest, Publius Ovidius Naso.’
Ovid raised an eyebrow. ‘Lucretius? Let me guess, Catullus. Now you’ll try to convince me this is the famous and very much dead poet Titus Lucretius Carus?’
Lucretius just stared at Ovid for a long moment and then shot another glare to Catullus. ‘Please, Gaius, tell me this is just another prettyboy you brought in for your personal recreational purposes and not a new poet. Especially not another elegist.’
Ovid crossed his arms and huffed, offended. ‘Do I look like a prostitute to you? Yes, I am a new poet and yes, I write elegies, although I will let you know they are quite different from anything that you might have seen before. And anyway, your friend here happens to think I’m extremely talented.’
Before Lucretius could reply, Catullus chimed in and cut both off. ‘Yes, Lucretius, Ovid is a poet, he just…hasn’t been informed about the…joining terms yet.’
Lucretius raised his eyebrows. ‘Oh, I see. Well, I’ll leave you to your duties, then.’
Catullus smiled at him. ‘Thanks. Is everyone home?’
Lucretius closed the door behind them, then turned to walk towards the atrium and the other two men followed him. ‘Almost everyone, yes. Even Publius, actually. He came back from Naples yesterday.’
Catullus whistled. ‘Him? In Rome? That’s a rare event indeed. Did he finally change idea about joining us?’
Lucretius sighed. ‘No, he didn’t. He’s just here to visit Horace.’
While Catullus and Lucretius were talking, Ovid lingered for a moment, his attention caught by a beautiful mosaic portrait of the Muses that ran around the impluvium, which itself was adorned, right in the middle, by an exquisite Greek bronze depicting Apollo with a lyre. As he raised his eyes again, his gaze caught a glimpse of something odd. The sun was high in the sky, and it filled the atrium with a bright warm light. And yet, unlike everything else, the two men in front of him did not seem to cast a shadow on the floor. Before he could take a better look, though, they stepped out of the light and into a room. Ovid shrugged it off, deciding his eyes were probably just playing tricks on him, and then followed them inside.
As soon as he walked into the room, Catullus grabbed him by an arm and pulled him close. He was, oddly, stronger than his thin frame might have suggested. Standing by Ovid’s side, he waited until a few people entered the room. When Ovid looked at the men who were now in front of him, his eyes immediately widened, and his heart skipped several beats. As a matter of fact, it skipped so many beats he thought he would have died, or at least fainted, right on the spot. And rightfully so: he was now standing at the presence, and this time his eyes were not mistaking him, of none other than the poets Propertius, Tibullus, Horace and, oh, immortal gods above, even Vergil. And the last man who entered the room was, without doubt, Maecenas. Ovid suddenly forgot how to breathe, and would have probably collapsed straight on the ground, had Catullus not been holding him tight. Catullus flashed his usual toothy grin to the audience and started to speak.
‘My dear friends, I have excellent news to announce today. Our small circle might soon be ready to welcome a new, incredibly talented member. The man I brought here today is Publius Ovidius Naso. He is a young budding poet of refined style and cheeky wit, whom I believe is destined for greatness.’
They all smiled at Ovid and greeted him. Propertius snorted. ‘Either that or you brought him in because you’ve got a thing for curly blondies.’ He immediately got elbowed – hard – by Horace.
Catullus glared at Propertius. ‘Thanks, Quintus. Anyway, Messalla already agreed to be his patron. But Ovid here still doesn’t know about the nature of our secret society, nor has he been informed about the joining conditions, and so h-.
‘I accept, whatever the conditions might be,’ said Ovid, in a breath.
Catullus sighed. ‘No, really, trust me, you have to listen very carefully to what I have to say before you agree to anything.’ While he was saying this, he led Ovid to a desk placed in the middle of the room and invited him to sit down on the chair in front of it. Once Ovid complied, Catullus pulled a parchment from the folds of his cloak and put it on the desk. Ovid looked down at it and saw it contained a long and finely written text. Catullus pointed at it and resumed talking. ‘That is the contract you need to sign in order to join us. Now, since the contract, once sealed, cannot be rescinded in any way, I ask you to read it very, and I stress the very, carefully before signing it. Now, though, before you read it I…’
Ovid looked up at him. ‘How do I sign it? Materially speaking, I mean.’
Horace walked next to him and placed a small dagger next to the parchment, then patted him on the shoulder, giving him a friendly smile. ‘With your own blood. Just a few drops, don’t worry, no need to waste it.’
Ovid raised his eyebrows. ‘Oh. Oh, wow. I was being hyperbolic earlier but…well, alright. Dramatic and theatrical, I like it.’
Catullus sat on the edge of the desk and leaned forward, placing a hand on Ovid’s. ‘Yes, but please, before you do anything, before you even read it, you should listen to the story I have to tell.’ Then he straightened up and looked away, pensively, as though he were trying to find the right words to start with. Meanwhile, Ovid glanced down at the document and his eyes immediately fell on the part that stated that his poems would have been published as soon as he could provide the revised and final version of the manuscript. He quickly read the text to himself, muttering under his breath. He was going to be published. He was going to give public readings. He was going to be famous. There was also a long part concerning some kind of blood tribute and the promise that he would have been granted the gift of immortality – that must have meant the, oh, much dreamed poetic immortality! – but he just skimmed it. His fingers brushed lightly against the hilt of the dagger.
Catullus, at last, cleared his throat and started talking. ‘It all began during a hot summer night of many years ago…’
Horace interrupted him. ‘Uh, Catullus…’
Catullus went on, ignoring him. ‘…I was about to turn thirty years old, but the cruel fate…’
Catullus shoot a glare at Horace. ‘You know I don’t want to be interrupted when I tell my st-‘ He froze, silent, mouth agape, staring at Ovid. His arm was currently dripping with blood and he was proudly holding the contract, now marked with dark red stains.
‘Here, done! I, uh, kind of bled all over the text too. Is that a problem?’
Both Horace and Propertius were visibly trying not to laugh. Tibullus and Maecenas were also trying not to laugh, but were more discreet about it. Vergil was just rubbing his temples as if he had been hit by a sudden headache. Lucretius was silently mouthing something that looked like a ‘what an idiot.’ Catullus opened and closed his mouth a few times, still staring at Ovid. ‘What have you done?’
Ovid raised an eyebrow. ‘Well, I signed it.’
Catullus grabbed the parchment from Ovid’s hands, staring at it in disbelief. ‘You. Not only you haven’t listened to me, you signed it without reading it?’
Ovid shrugged. ‘I did give it a quick read.’
Catullus closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, then he looked at the document in his hands. ‘You mean you read things like you will be granted immortality and you just…went along with it without asking yourself any question?’
Ovid raised an eyebrow. ‘Poets are immortal, metaphorically speaking. Sure, I thought the part about the blood ritual or something like that was a bit weird, but hey…there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for this kind of exposure.’
Catullus facepalmed. Tibullus stepped in, resting a hand on Ovid’s shoulder. ‘I…am sure we are all glad to welcome you into our circle and I can assure you did make a good choice, but…I don’t think you understand what you exactly just signed up for.’
Ovid looked up at him and furrowed his brow. ‘What do you mean?’
Catullus groaned in exasperation. ‘He means that if you had listened to what I had to say you’d know you just signed up for being granted immortality, actual immortality, at the cost of being turned into a superhuman creature of the night and having to drink human blood for the rest of your days, you dumbass!’
Ovid fell silent for a long moment, staring at Catullus, mouth agape. ‘I’m sorry, what?’
Propertius walked forward, rolling his eyes, then grabbed the dagger that was now lying on the table, still red with Ovid’s blood, and just thrust it into Catullus’ chest. Ovid gasped, eyes wide, as the man let out a high-pitched scream of pain.
‘You BASTARD, what the FUCK?’ He looked down at the red stain that was now blooming on his clothes. ‘Was that fucking necessary? You poked a hole through my favourite tunic! Look at it, you ruined it!’
Propertius shrugged. ‘It was out of fashion anyway. At least this saves us endless explanations he wasn’t going to believe anyway.’
Ovid stared at the scene in utter disbelief. While Catullus was yelling very creative insults to Propertius, who seemed quite unfazed, he walked forward, a bit wobblingly, then reached out and very gingerly touched the hilt of the dagger still plunged deep into Catullus’ chest, right into the heart, to make sure it was not some kind of trick. It was not. The dagger was very much real and, by all means, the man should have been lying dead on the floor, and yet he was visibly alive, visibly angry, and looked like he was more offended by Propertius’ impoliteness than worried by what should have been a fatal hit. While Ovid was examining the wound, Catullus stopped yelling and looked down at him.
‘What do you want now, an autopsy? Don’t touch it, it hurts.’
Ovid slowly retracted his hand, his gaze still fixed on Catullus’ chest, then he raised his head and looked at him in the eye. ‘Y- you are…not dead.’
Catullus pulled the dagger out of his chest, a disgusted expression crossing his face, then he looked at Ovid again and gave him an unimpressed look. ‘You don’t say. What part of you will be granted immortality you did not understand?’
Ovid opened and closed his mouth a few times, at loss for words. In the end, he managed to let out a whisper. ‘What are you?’
Catullus wrinkled his nose. ‘Who are you, thank you very much. As I have already told you, I am the poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, and as you can see, I’m not dead. Oh, and just for you to know, although I stopped aging at twenty-nine, I’m actually sixty-four, and not in my seventies like you were claiming earlier this morning. Are you more inclined to believe me, now that Propertius kindly gave you a demonstration of the fact I can’t die?’
Ovid suddenly felt his head spinning very fast, as if he was going to faint, so he took a couple of steps back and slumped down on the chair. He chuckled, breathlessly. ‘I…I suppose I am more inclined to believe you, yes, but…how? Are you some kind of…semidivine creature? A demon blessed with poetic talent?’
Catullus laughed, showing off his way too sharp canines. ‘Not that I know, no. I haven’t always been like this. I was turned into what I am now, like everyone else in this room except for you. And for Vergil, he chose not to join us and we respect his choice. You, on the other hand, signed the contract, which means that you will soon become one of us. One thing at time, though. Now sit back, I will tell you the story of how I became…this.’
Horace sighed. ‘Do we have to listen to it as well, again?’
Catullus grinned. ‘Oh, yes, absolutely. Now be silent, and lend me your ears.’
The story is currently set in 20 BC, which means Ovid is 23 (he was born in 43 BC).
Chapter 4: (Love)biting
I changed the rating due to the presence of sexual themes (but the story, in general, won't feature any explicit scene). The protagonist is Ovid, after all...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“It all began a hot summer night of many years ago. I was twenty-nine at that time, and yet I was about to meet my premature end.” Catullus’ lips curled into a slightly bitter smile. “I was burning with the sort of fevers Roman summers can bring, and it was clear there was no hope left for me. That night…I remember the moon was high in the sky, it was way past midnight, but I was awake, not wanting to fall asleep, fearing I would have never woken up again. But then…while I was there, lying on my bed…all of a sudden, a figure emerged from the darkness, beautiful and cold like the moon…my love, my curse, my Lesbia…”
Ovid gasped. “So she was real, I knew it! Was she really Clodia? That Clodia?”
Catullus chuckled amusedly. “She was indeed real, and yes, she is that Clodia. Still, when she appeared before my eyes like that, seemingly out of thin air, I thought she was a fever-induced vision, or a dream. She walked next to me, and touched my cheek, gentler than ever before. ‘You are a bastard, truly a bastard, my dear Catullus,’ she said, as kind as ever, ‘but you are also a great poet, and I can’t let you die like this.’ She sat on my bed, and slowly leaned towards me. I was breathless, lost in those deep dark eyes of hers. ‘Do you want to live forever, Catullus?’ she asked. I replied that yes, I wanted to live, and then she asked me to make love to her one last time. I was feverish, with a foot in the grave, and we had technically broken up, but…how could I say no to that? I was going to die soon anyway, so I decided to leave all my worries behind and just enjoy the last spark of life that still burned inside me. And oh, I did burn when she stood naked before me, and…”
Vergil interrupted him, pinching his nose and sighing. “And I’m sure you can go on with your story without giving us the…details, Gaius. Especially for those of us who would be hearing them for the third time.”
Lucretius rolled his eyes. “Sixth, in my case.”
Spoilsports, Ovid thought. “Well, I wanted to know the details.”
Horace put a hand on Ovid’s shoulder. “I’m sure Catullus would be more than happy to give you all the details later, maybe in private, maybe over a nice cup of blood, but now I would too like him to get on with the story…some of us don’t want to waste the whole day listening to it.”
Catullus crossed his arms and clucked his tongue. “Killjoys. Alright, alright, I’ll get to the point. So, we were in the throes of passion, and right when we were both about to…”
Everyone groaned, collectively. “Catullus.”
“Stop being so Catonian, it’s the core of the story, I can’t leave it out! Anyway, as I was hitting my climax, she sank her sharp teeth deep into my neck – and it wasn’t a normal lovebite, no! It was a bite like that of a she-wolf! She pierced the flesh with ease, and I tried to cry out, but the voice died in my throat...After one short moment of pain, she started sucking my blood, and all I could feel was a sweet, soothing pleasure. And just before I could slip into unconsciousness, she kissed me, one last time, and told me I would live.” He sighed. “I thought I was dead. And yet, to my great surprise, I woke up a few days later, fully alive and fully healed. The sickness that was killing me was gone. As I soon discovered, when Clodia bit me she turned me into something…new. More than human. I can’t get sick anymore. I don’t age anymore. I can’t die, and I’m very hard to kill. All of which is great, yes, but, as you will soon discover, comes at a price.”
Ovid’s mouth felt suddenly very dry, and he swallowed hard. “Which…is?”
“We…have to drink human blood.”
Ovid’s dark eyes grew wide. “You…you have to kill people to survive?”
Catullus wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Of course not! We don’t need that much blood, a few gulps can keep us sated for a while. And well, we don’t exactly need it to survive, but if we don’t drink it…well, the thirst will become unbearable and we…miiiight start attacking people out of desperation. And we definitely don’t want that to happen. We’re all refined and talented gentlemen here, after all.”
Ovid’s head was spinning really fast. Too many things were happening at once, and they were all completely absurd. And yet, they were so absurd they couldn’t possibly not be true. Slowly, he shifted his gaze from Catullus to the other poets in the room. Now that he gave them a better look, there was indeed something odd about their appearance. Their skin was slightly paler than normal, almost as though they were sick, their eyes somewhat too heavy, their teeth too sharp – albeit not as much as Catullus’. And they definitely did not cast a shadow. “So…you’re all…like him?”
Horace patted his shoulder. “We are, yes. And you’re about to join us.”
Ovid shuddered, a cold shiver running down his back. “Wait, wait, I…I’m not sure…I’m not sure I want to…”
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s not as bad and scary as it sounds,” said Propertius. “You won’t have to worry about death anymore, and women will find you more attractive…what else could you want?”
Ovid furrowed his brow. “I’m young, healthy, and I’m already attractive enough, thanks, I think I can manage on my own right now…”
Maecenas sighed and gave Ovid a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry, boy, but you can’t go back now. I hate being strict, but I must be, especially after…what happened with Gallus. You did sign the contract and you know our secret, so…you must become one of us, now. Orders from above.”
“But…wait, Vergil knows your secret too, and yet he’s not…one of you…why can’t I do the same?” protested Ovid.
Horace shrugged. “Vergil is Vergil. Write an Aeneid, and then maybe you’ll get to choose. Besides, he never signed the contract.”
Ovid opened and closed his mouth a few times, at loss for words. He was tempted to reply that given time, he could’ve written something even better than the Aeneid, but then decided not to take the risk of making things worse, so he just lowered his head, silently, and fixed his gaze on the floor. There seemed to be no way out of it.
His head jerked back up as he felt Catullus’ cold fingers curl gently around his plump arm. “Come on now. The sooner we get over with it, the easier it will be for you.” He pulled Ovid up, his touch kind but firm, and then, after nodding silently to the others, led him out of the room and into another. Ovid followed him, resigned. It wasn’t such a bad perspective, after all, right? He was surely going to become a famous poet, which was everything he wanted, and then…well, he would get used to the rest, eventually. As soon as he heard Catullus lock the door behind them, he turned to face him.
“So,” Ovid began, licking his dry lips, “here we are. Do you…need me to do anything in particular?”
Catullus smiled and shook his head, his eyes soft and kind. “No, just lie down on that couch and try to relax. It won’t hurt much, don’t worry.”
Ovid nodded, and sat down on the edge of the couch. “So, do I, uh, need to remove my clothes?”
Catullus gave him a confused look. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Aren’t we going to have sex?”
Catullus blinked several times, mouth ajar. “Well, if you insist…”
Ovid furrowed his brow. “Isn’t it part of the…ritual, I mean? You said that Lesbia…”
Catullus stared at him for a moment, silently, then he burst into laughter. “No, no, all I need to do is to bite you and then let you drink a few drops of my own blood…the sex wasn’t…it was just…a pleasant addition, I guess. Mostly part of mine and Clodia’s…aesthetic.”
“Oh. Oh, I see,” Ovid replied, a small part of him slightly disappointed. Not that he fancied men, of course, and not that the specific man in front of him was particularly handsome, but there was something charming about him, and it could’ve been…intriguing nonetheless. That was Catullus, after all. You don’t meet a Catullus every day.
Catullus raised an eyebrow, an amused expression plastered on his face; he looked like he was dying to add some impertinent comment, but he ended up choosing not to. “Still, if I were you I’d take the toga off. It looks fancy and blood stains are damn hard to remove.”
Ovid promptly complied. It was indeed the best garment he owned and ruining it would have been a pity. He folded it with Catullus’ help, then put it aside and lied down on the couch, trying to make himself comfortable. Which was quite difficult, as he was starting to feel the cold grip of anxiety grow increasingly stronger and tighter inside his chest. Catullus leaned towards him and placed a hand on Ovid’s, smiling.
“Hey, relax, it’s gonna be all right. The bite is not even that painful.”
“I’m not worried about pain, I’m worried about…what will come after it,” replied Ovid, his voice way shakier than intended.
Catullus opened his mouth to reply, but then he closed it, lowering his eyes. He lingered for a moment, then he gently pushed Ovid’s chin up, so his neck was fully exposed. Catullus bent his head down on Ovid’s shoulder, tickling his cheek with his hair; Ovid closed his eyes and took a deep, shaky breath. Despite the anxiousness, he couldn’t help noticing that Catullus smelled incredibly nice, a scent like that of cedar wood, and he had to admit the shivers caused by Catullus’ lips brushing gently against his neck were more likely to be of pleasure than of fear, especially given the interesting directions said shivers were taking. He bit his lower lip, suddenly regretting the decision of taking his toga – whose fabric was much thicker and heavier than the tunic he was currently wearing – off.
Catullus lingered for an excruciatingly long moment, his breath warm against Ovid’s skin, but then, right when Ovid could already feel the prickle of Catullus’ sharp teeth on his neck, Catullus suddenly backed off and sat up, shaking his head. “Oh, I can’t do this, I just can’t.” He glanced back at Ovid, frowning. “You don’t want this, do you?”
Ovid remained silent for a moment, then gingerly sat back up and shook his head. “I…no, I don’t. I mean, not right now, at least. I…it’s all happening too fast, and I…feel I need more time to decide whether I want this or not. Also, I don’t want to look twenty-three for the rest of my life.”
Catullus stood up and started pacing nervously around the room with his chin in his hand, as if in deep thought. Then he stopped and sat back on the couch, leaning towards Ovid, face to face, his expression resolute and a spark twinkling in his bright eyes. “Tell me, Ovid…how good are you at lying?”
Ovid grinned. “Oh, I’m the best.”
It's worth mentioning that ancient Romans didn't have a name for what we now call vampires. The closer thing, I think, are the Lamiae, who prey on the blood of children, but they're quite different from anything this story portrays.
Chapter 5: How To Scam Vampires
Catullus grinned back, then lowered his voice to a whisper. “Splendid. Then…maybe there’s a way out of this. Just do what I say, and you’ll be fine, alright?”
Ovid nodded. “Alright, no problem. What’s your plan?”
Catullus shot a quick nervous glance at the door and then leaned even closer. “If we let them believe I turned you into one of us, you will be able to both benefit from the contract and to keep your full human self, at least for a while. Still…you will need to pretend you’re like us, and you’ll need to be convincing.”
Ovid shrugged. “I’m sure I can manage. I’ll apply a bit of makeup to look paler, I’ll pretend to drink blood, et cetera…got it.”
Catullus raised an eyebrow. “It’s not that simple, I’m afraid. There are some things they are inevitably bound to notice, like your body temperature, or the fact you still cast a shadow…”
“The teeth too, maybe?”
“No, I don’t think so. Not everyone has noticeably long canines. I mean, I do, but I can assure you these aren’t much bigger than the previous ones. What’s significantly different is the sharpness, really, and I don’t think anyone will check whether your teeth cut or not.”
Ovid chuckled. “Yeah, no, I admire them and all, but I can safely say there’s no way any of them could get that close to my mouth. So, beside these details? Anything important I should know?”
Catullus nodded. “Yes, but we can discuss about it later, possibly far from this place. Right now, you’ll just have to pretend you’ve been…initiated. What happens normally is that the person who gets bitten starts feeling dizzy and fatigued, then falls asleep for a few hours, sometimes even an entire day, and then – “
“But you said you woke up again after a few days…”
Catullus grimaced. “Yeah, that’s because Clodia had drained me of nearly all my blood. We don’t usually do that.”
Ovid cocked his head and smiled. “I still want to hear the full story, you know? I have the feeling it’s a very interesting one…”
“Well,” chuckled Catullus, “it is indeed. But it’s a long one too, so you’ll need to wait.” He started fumbling in the folds of his cloak and pulled out what looked like a linen bandage. “Now come here and bare your neck, I need to make it look convincing.”
Ovid tilted his head to the side a little and raised an eyebrow. “I thought you said you would not bite me…”
“I won’t,” muttered Catullus, who started wrapping the gauze around Ovid’s neck, “I’m just going to bandage you, so they won’t see there’s no bitemark. Hoping they won’t check.”
Ovid nodded, but he felt slightly disappointed. He was hoping for something a bit more…theatrical than that. “Why would I need bandaging,” he asked, “if I’m supposed to be turned into someone who cannot die?”
“Well, since I am a refined and well-mannered gentleman and I would have left most of your blood inside your veins, your neck would be bleeding right now, and since you’re clearly an equally refined and well-mannered gentleman,” he replied, gesturing towards Ovid, “you wouldn’t want to get blood on your clothes, right?”
“The concept itself is convincing, I concede you that,” replied Ovid, “but the bandage should at least be stained with blood…”
Catullus crossed his arms and huffed, slightly annoyedly. “Yes, that was indeed the last touch I wanted to add. But we’ll use my blood, no need to waste yours.”
“Or…you know,” Ovid started, smiling wryly, “as long as it doesn’t have any permanent consequences…you could always take a little bite. Just a nip, nothing harmful…”
Catullus cleared his throat and shifted on the couch he was sitting on next to Ovid, as though he was suddenly feeling uncomfortable. “Uh…no, it’s…better if I don’t.”
Ovid cocked his head, watching Catullus’ reaction to his proposition with newfound interest. He decided to push the matter further. “Just out of curiosity…what would happen if you bit me?”
“Nothing at all,” said Catullus, avoiding eye contact and shrugging in a way that was probably meant to look nonchalant but had ended up looking rather clumsy and nervous. “A…normal bite can’t turn you, but still…having your neck pierced by fangs is not exactly pleasant.”
Ovid smirked a little. “Oh, I don’t know about that…I’ve always found neck bites quite…pleasurable. But jokes aside, you can take some of my blood, if you want it. I owe you my mortal life after all, it’s the least I could do.”
Catullus froze, mouth agape, something eerie twinkling in his eyes; then, after a long moment, he squeezed his eyes shut and vigorously shook his head. “No, please, don’t…offer it to me.”
“Why not?” He grinned smugly, brushing his fingers against Catullus’ arm, “earlier this morning you said I look delicious…”
“Oh, believe me, you do,” replied Catullus, laughing breathlessly. “There’s no blood as delicious as that of a poet, I’m afraid…of a good poet, that is. Which is precisely why I shouldn’t taste it, not even a single drop. I don’t want to risk…harming you.”
“Harm me? You said a few sips are enough to sate you…that would hardly harm me, I’m young and healthy…”
Catullus looked away and started chewing on his lower lip. He looked very flustered now, and there was something resembling a faint blush painting his freckled cheeks. Ovid had to admit to himself that that was indeed a titillating sight. “That’s true,” said Catullus, “but you see…what we need is one thing, what we want is…well, sometimes it’s hard to…it’s…”
Ovid raised an eyebrow. “…it’s something that leaves you wanting more?”
Catullus closed his eyes and nodded. “Yeah…yeah. It’s a kind of thirst that’s not always…very easy to control. Even if nobody here will ever admit it.”
Ovid chuckled. “Don’t worry, I don’t judge. Still…I bet this detail wasn’t mentioned by the contract I signed, huh?”
Catullus grimaced. “No, it was not. Which is one of the many reasons I think you deserve to be able to get to know us, truly know us, and then decide whether you want to join us or not.”
“And you have my full gratitude for that,” replied Ovid, resting his hand on Catullus’ shoulder and squeezing it lightly, this time giving him a warmer smile. Catullus smiled back. His sharp teeth, Ovid noticed, were slightly crooked, a detail that somehow made the smile even more charming.
“Oh, it’s nothing, really,” he said, shrugging, “Just did what I thought was…the right thing to do.”
After saying this, Catullus brought a thumb to his mouth and dragged its pad against the tip of one of his canines, making what looked like a rather deep cut into it. Then he quickly pressed it against the bandage around Ovid’s neck, tinging the white fabric with a blooming red stain. When he retrieved his hand, the cut was already fully healed.
“Perfect,” he added, smiling. “Now we’re ready to go. Remember, you sh-”
“Won’t they, like,” Ovid interrupted him, “be able to smell that this is your blood and not mine?”
Catullus wrinkled his nose. “We’re people, not animals. And besides, as far as they know, I gave you some of my blood to drink, so I guess it wouldn’t be surprising for them to find its smell on you. But again, we don’t just…go around sniffing people. That’s bad etiquette, and…”
“So,” Ovid interrupted him again, “that’s how the ritual goes? You drink someone’s blood, they drink yours, and that’s it?”
Catullus nodded. “Yeah, pretty much.”
“So you would’ve just…bled into a cup and handed it to me or something like that?”
Catullus’ lips slowly curled into a grin. “Oh, no…that’s way too prosaic for my tastes. I usually do it through a kiss.”
Ovid raised his eyebrows, his mouth falling open into a silent ‘ah’, and Catullus gave him an amused look. “Am I not Catullus? What could be more Catullan than granting immortality with a kiss?”
“I don’t know…a hundred, maybe? Or a thousand?” replied Ovid, leering jokingly. Or at least half-jokingly.
Catullus laughed and patted Ovid’s plump thigh. “I’m so glad I found you, Nasellus,” he said, a spark lighting up his light green eyes. He lingered for a moment, gaze fixed on Ovid, then he hopped off the couch and nodded at the door. “Come now, let’s go,” he whispered. “Remember, you should be feeling as though you were going to faint any minute now.”
Ovid nodded and got up. Catullus helped him put his toga back on, and then he moved to unlock the door, but before he could open it Ovid stopped him, frowning, a thought suddenly worrying him. “Wait…before we go, there’s one thing I need to ask you.”
“Sure, ask away.”
“Will I…will I get in trouble for this?”
Catullus considered the question for a long moment, silently, then he shrugged. “Nah, I don’t think so. Technically speaking, I am responsible for what happens to new members.”
“So…will you get in trouble?”
“Well, if they find out I didn’t do what I was supposed to do, then I probably would, yes,” groaned Catullus. “We’ve got strict rules and I’ve just broken…at least two or three of them. But you know what?”
Catullus grinned. “Fuck their rules.”
Ovid laughed, then he put on a fatigued expression and leaned on Catullus, clinging to his arm to make it look like he could barely stand on his feet. Catullus gave him a nod of approval and wrapped an arm around Ovid’s shoulder, then they walked out of the room and went back into the tablinum, where the other poets were waiting for them. As soon as they walked in, they were welcomed by warm cheering. Messalla, who had seemingly arrived while they were away, walked towards them and gave Ovid a firm pat on his shoulder.
“Ah, Ovid! I’m glad to see we can truly welcome you now.”
Ovid bowed his head and put a hand on his heart. “I truly could not be more grateful for the opportunity you gave me. And, of course, I am honoured to be part of such an illustrious circle.”
“We should celebrate,” exclaimed Horace, clapping his hands.
“As much as I dislike agreeing with Horace,” said Propertius, “he’s right. This would be a splendid occasion for a party! What do you say, Maecenas?”
Maecenas nodded, smiling. “I think it can be arranged, yes.”
Ovid beamed. An exclusive party with the most famous Roman poets ever? Including some dead ones? That was indeed a dream becoming true. “Oh, that would be perfect,” he said, enthusiastically, “a party to celebrate poetic immortality! With poetry, music, beautiful girls…oh, right, and blood of course. Lots of it. For our, uh, blood-drinking needs, am I right? Sounds positively refined but with a touch of debauchery, I love it already.”
He heard Catullus take a deep breath. “I think,” Catullus said, “Ovid needs to rest right now. We’ll think about celebrating him later, alright? Now I’ll bring him home, so he can complete his transformation in peace.”
“You want to go outside now? Under this sun? Just stay here,” said Maecenas, frowning, “you can take him to one of the guestrooms upstairs. Besides, he will be thirsty when he wakes up, he should stay here where he can drink…safely.”
Catullus groaned a little. “Can’t you just lend us a litter? I want to take him to my place, so I can…take care of him personally. He’s my responsibility, after all.”
Maecenas opened his mouth to reply, most likely with a negative answer, but before he could speak Horace nudged him with his elbow and winked. “Come ooon, Gaius, he wants to take care of him personally…just let him, yes?”
Ovid noticed everyone exchanged knowing glances – and a few wry smiles too – and silently wondered how exactly Catullus usually took care of new arrivals.
“Oh, fine, do as you wish,” sighed Maecenas, “I’ll have a litter made ready for you. But do come back with him as soon as he’s ready, alright?”
“And then we party,” added Ovid.
Catullus tightened his grip on Ovid’s arm and started pulling him towards the door. “Yeah, sure, sure. Now let’s go, I’d rather get home before you faint,” he said, in a slightly exasperate tone. “See you, everyone.”
Ovid waved a goodbye to the poets, smiling, and followed Catullus out of the room – not that he had any other choice, given the fact that Catullus was dragging him away. Once they were distant enough, Catullus lowered his head and whispered into Ovid’s ear. “Alright, it went better than I expected. No one suspected anything. Now let’s get out of this house before we run out of luck.”
Ovid raised an eyebrow. “Was this rush really necessary, though? Everything was going smoothly, why couldn’t we stay a little longer? I just met all the most important poets in Rome and I couldn’t even talk to them…”
“You’ll talk to them another day,” Catullus cut him off, huffing. “Trust me, it’s better if you don’t come back here for a while. Just work on your poems and keep a low profile, alright? I’ll think about the rest.”
Ovid opened his mouth to protest, but Catullus had already turned away and walked into the hall, so Ovid just followed him resignedly. Catullus hopped into the litter that Maecenas had ordered to be made ready for them and pulled Ovid into it as well, then he said something to one of the slaves and they were finally brought out of the house.
Chapter 6: Catullan adventures
Catullus’ house was not much far from the one they had departed from, so the trip had been rather quick. Ovid had tried to start a conversation a couple of times, but Catullus had promptly shushed him up, replying only by mouthing a ‘later’. As soon as the doors of his house, a small urban villa, were closed behind them, Catullus breathed in relief and his frown immediately changed back into a cheerful expression.
“Welcome,” he exclaimed, turning to face Ovid, “to my not so much humble abode. As you can see, bestowing the gift of immortality to one of the most powerful men in Rome, namely Maecenas, has been quite rewarding.”
Ovid looked around him in amazement. The walls were covered by some of the finest frescoes he had ever seen, their motifs and scenes separated by niches containing exquisite Greek bronzes. And this was only the hall. “I can see that. Do you think they have a spare villa for me as well?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” chuckled Catullus. “Now come”, he added, walking towards the impluvium, whose colonnade had been equipped with thick rust-coloured curtains, probably to shield the porch from the light coming from the roof opening. “I personally need a drink and probably so do you. I’ll have something made ready for us, so we can lie down, relax, and finally have a civil conversation in peace.”
“That would be great, thanks,” said Ovid, following him. The hot summer day had indeed made him very thirsty, and hungry too.
Catullus led him into a beautiful small room whose walls were decorated by mythological scenes, and Ovid smirked a little when he realized that the main theme of the pictures was Ariadne on Naxos. Catullus said something to a servant and then plopped down on an elegant wooden couch covered by a fine red cushion. He looked at Ovid and gestured towards the other couch, distanced from his own only by a small table. “Please, make yourself at home. My servants will soon bring some food and wine for you.”
Ovid thanked him and lied down on the couch, whose pillows, to his great pleasure, were as soft and comfortable as they looked like. After a couple of minutes, a slave came in and brought a little tray bearing delicious-looking flatbread with some cheese and honey to the side, and two drinking goblets filled with dark red liquid. Catullus promptly took one and smiled at Ovid.
“So, Nasellus,” Catullus said, stretching his limbs out like a cat and then sprawling on his couch, “tell me more about you. All I know so far is your name and the fact that you’re a good poet.” He cocked his head and smiled as he brought his goblet to his lips and took a sip from it. “Which, to be fair, is all I care about, but I’d like to know something more anyway.”
Ovid smiled back and took a sip from his own cup too, which, luckily, was filled with wine – a fine wine at that – then he dipped a piece of the warm flatbread into the honey jar and took a bite from it. “Well, there’s not much to say about me so far. I’m from Sulmo, I’m of equestrian rank, my family wants me to become an orator…”
“Ew”, said Catullus, wrinkling his nose in disgust.
“Yeah, I know. I do not want to, of course. I think I was born to be a poet and I have no intention of wasting my talent like that.”
“You don’t have to worry about that anymore, anyway. You can dedicate all your time to poetry now, if you wish so.”
Ovid gave Catullus a warm smile. “Thanks to you. I am really grateful to you…for everything. If I can repay you somehow…”
“Oh, don’t mention it. I’m always happy to help poets in need. Just…as I said, it’s important that no one discovers I didn’t turn you into one of us. No one, understood?”
“Understood. Don’t worry, I’m a great actor, no one’ll suspect anything,” said Ovid.
Catullus reclined back on his couch and sighed. “I hope so. Remember, right now you are supposed to spend a few days here to complete your transformation and to be taught how to live your new life by me, your…let’s say…mentor. If anyone pays us an unexpected visit, act accordingly.”
Ovid nodded. Still…he was a curious man by nature, and there was something he had been dying to ask, even though it was possibly an inopportune question. But then again, he loved being inopportune. “If I may ask…what exactly do you teach to new members of your club? Because, you know,” he said, taking another sip from his wine, “everyone earlier seemed inclined to give a…certain kind of interpretation to the fact you brought me here…”
Catullus snorted into his goblet and gave Ovid a funny look. “Yeah, well, I’ll be honest here, that might have something to do with the fact I have a certain, ahem, reputation and you’re…kind of my type.”
Ovid raised his eyebrows a bit. He felt he should have been somewhat worried by the statement, but the only effect it had on him was to titillate his curiosity even more. “And by that you mean…”
“Exactly what you think I mean. Pretty dark eyes, blond curls, a wry smile…et cetera. You got the idea. Now, I won’t lie,” said Catullus, taking another sip – more of a gulp, really. “I habitually have sex with both women and men, and when I say men yeah, I include adult men. I stopped giving a fuck about my reputation long ago. I’m officially dead, anyway, so I don’t exactly have an actual reputation outside our small circle, and most of the members of said circle are really not in the position to judge, if you know what I mean.”
Not particularly surprising, Ovid thought, licking his lips. “So…do they now assume you brought me here to…”
Catullus burst into laughter. “To fuck? They probably do, sorry. But don’t worry, I’ll make sure to specify you’re not…interested next time I see them.” He tilted his head to the side and smiled amusedly. “And in case you’re worried about my actual intentions, no, I did not bring you here to seduce you. Or be seduced, for that matter. I don’t sleep with humans anymore. No matter how pretty the human is.”
Well, those were good news, were they not? Ovid felt the need to make it clear his own interests lied solely in women, just in case, but what actually came out from his mouth was, to his surprise, an entirely different thing. “Would this be going differently,” he blurted out, his voice way less nonchalant than he had intended it to be, “were I not human?”
Catullus raised his eyebrows and flashed a fully fanged grin. Which was, weirdly, a most definitely pleasant sight. “Maybe so, or maybe not, who knows. But you are human, so you don’t need to ask yourself that.”
“Not that I’m interested,” Ovid quickly added, “I’m merely…”
“Curious?” Catullus gave him an unreadable look, a slight smile on his lips. “Aren’t we all...”
Ovid opened his mouth to reply but, for once, he found himself at loss for words. He could not help noticing Catullus looked extremely amused by the whole situation. At last, the silence between them was broken by Catullus’ voice. “So, Ovid…you’re from Sulmo? I’ve never been there, what is it like? Is it pretty?”
Ovid was slightly taken aback by the sudden change of topic, but he went along with it. “Er…it’s…a beautiful town, yes, but…it’s nothing compared to Rome. The City truly stole my heart.”
Catullus smiled a little. “Oh, I understand you. I too have fallen in love with Rome since the very beginning. I still remember seeing it for the first time and thinking…here’s where I belong. Although I do go back to Verona sometimes. As you probably know, that’s where I come from.”
“Yeah, I know, and I can hear that,” replied Ovid, chuckling.
Catullus grimaced. “Fuck, really? That damn accent is too contagious. I visited Verona three weeks ago. Three weeks ago! It should be gone by now, and yet…”
Ovid smiled amusedly. “It’s kind of charming, actually.”
Catullus laughed, showing off his sharp canines. “Now you’re just being politely dishonest. You should hear me when I get back from my usual summers in Sirmio. I’m unbearable.”
“Oh, right, your villa in Sirmio…do you still have it? Isn’t…isn’t it a problem that you’re technically, you know…”
“Dead?” He lowered his gaze, swirling the blood in his goblet with a nonchalant expression on his face. “Not really. I still own all my family’s estates. Thanks to my powerful and helpful friends, I am legally Gaius Valerius Catullus, legitimate son and only heir of famous poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, who definitely got married before dying and had a child who, incidentally, looks exactly like him. Except,” he added, with a hint of bitterness in his voice, “he’s not a poet like his father, of course.”
Ovid gave him a thoughtful look, his curiosity being tickled once more. “Speaking of that, I…don’t understand…why did you stop writing poetry? The other poets you introduced me to are like you and yet they are definitely still active…how was your situation any different from theirs?”
Catullus closed his eyes and sighed deeply. Very deeply. “It was Clodia’s fault. Admittedly, she didn’t do it on purpose, and she even apologized to me for it, and believe me, that’s not something she does very often. Not sincerely, anyway. Nonetheless, I’m still very much mad at her because of how things went.”
Ovid raised an eyebrow. “What did she do?”
Catullus sighed again and emptied his cup. “As I told you, she did turn me, but she had also drained all my blood while doing so, and since I was already dying on my own, that knocked me off completely. No pulse, no sign of life, nothing at all. Everyone thought I was dead, and since it was summer, they just proceeded with the funeral as quickly as possible. Clodia tried to steal my body before the ceremony, but she didn’t make it in time, so they just…”
“Oh, no,” gasped Ovid, putting a hand on his mouth.
Catullus grimaced. “Yeah. Big pyre and everything. You’d think the fire would’ve woken me up, but…it didn’t. I didn’t feel a single thing. Annnd…poof, there I was, turned into a big pile of ash. Now that I think about it, it’s even kind of funny. If you’re into black humour, that is.”
Ovid gave him a horrified look. “What the fuck? How did you survive that?”
“I told you,” he said, trying to drink from his goblet and wrinkling his nose when he found it empty, “we aren’t easy to kill. Clodia managed to have my ashes stolen from my grave and brought to her, and then she just…waited until that pile of ash and bones slowly turned back into…me. When I woke up at last, about a week later, I was reborn, healed, immortal, and yet…I was dead to everyone else. I couldn’t get back to my old life. I couldn’t pretend nothing had happened, I mean, people saw me burn on the funeral pyre! Catullus was dead. And no poet can write from the grave.”
Ovid felt his chest tighten. He gave Catullus a look full of sincere compassion and leaned across the table, reaching him and placing a hand on Catullus’. “I’m sorry. I can imagine how terrible it must’ve been for you.”
Catullus smiled, slightly tiredly. “Yeah, it was. But it happened many years ago, and I moved on. Mostly. And then, a poet’s premature death adds a certain kind of charm to the poems themselves, I suppose.”
“It does,” Ovid said, trying to sound as supportive as possible, “and I’m sure it will make you even more famous in the long run. A fiery, sensitive soul, suffering from an unrequited love, whose life gets cut short too soon by the cruel fate…people love that kind of thing. I, for one, have always been moved deeply by your story.”
Catullus laughed. “Well, thank you. But really, sad things aside, at least I’m alive, and I’m living a fun life at that. And working for Maecenas pays well.”
“How exactly did you end up working for him, by the way? That’s not exactly something easy to achieve…”
“Well, that’s a long story…are you sure you want to hear it all?”
“But of course,” chuckled Ovid, “I told you I’m curious about it. We have all the afternoon, anyway, I’m not going anywhere.”
“Me neither,” replied Catullus, “but I am nocturnal, which means I usually sleep during daytime, and as you can see, I’ve been awake the whole night and the whole day too. I’m pulling the equivalent of an all-nighter right now.”
Ovid pouted a bit. “But…there are so many things I want to know…”
Catullus sighed. “Oh, fine, I’ll tell you the whole thing. But don’t be surprised if I fall asleep in the meantime.”
Rome, 54 BC
The hot, damp air felt particularly heavy that night, and it smelled like rain, the unmistakeable signs of an approaching thunderstorm. Catullus pulled his cloak further onto his head and cursed under his breath. The last thing he needed that night was to get soaked, but he had nowhere to go, so he just resigned himself and curled up onto the tiled roof he was currently sitting on. His only other option would have been going back to Clodia, and he was determined not to do that. Not this time, not after what happened because of her. Sure, she had actually apologized this time, and she had even sounded sincere, but…he was not going to let that go. He did not need her, oh no. So there he was, sitting on a random roof, completely penniless, homeless, and he was starting to grow thirsty too. He was alive, yes, but at what cost?
Maybe there was a place he could go to.
By the time he reached Licinius Calvus’ house, thunders had started to roar, and he could already feel the first drops of rain seep through his cloak. He decided the safest way to enter the building unnoticed was to go for the window of Calvus’ study, so he climbed all the way up to the second floor and sat on the windowsill, peeking inside. Although it was late, way past midnight, he could see his friend was still awake. He was crying, and quite hard at that. Aww, he must have been mourning him! Well, he was about to be pleasantly surprised, then. Hopefully. Catullus took a deep breath and knocked on the window glass.
“Come in,” sobbed Calvus, not even raising his head. Catullus, having obtained the permission to enter the house, which he now needed for some reason he did not quite understand, pushed the window open and stepped into the room. Calvus had evidently not heard him come in, because he got up to open the door instead. Catullus cleared his throat.
“I’m here,” he said.
Calvus froze where he stood. Then, after a few seconds, slowly, visibly shaking, he turned his head to face him. As soon as his gaze fell on Catullus, his eyes grew wide and all the colour was drained from his face, leaving a pale greenish tint in its place. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, visibly wanting to scream but clearly not finding the voice to do so.
“Hey, Licinius…it’s me…” said Catullus, gingerly taking a step towards his friend, causing Calvus to step further back until his back hit the wall.
“Y-you are dead,” he managed to croak out, “I saw it, I-I saw your bo- your body, lifeless, I-I was at your funeral, and…”
Catullus swallowed hard. “I know, but…”
“W-why did you come here, am I, am I hallucinating? Are you a ghost? Is this a haunting, are y- are you haunting me?”
Catullus’ brow furrowed in confusion. “What? No, I…”
“W-we organized a great funeral for you, everyone cried, we did e- we did everything that had to be done, I even composed some poetry for the occasion,” Calvus went on, sounding increasingly more hysterical, “I-I haven’t done anything to earn a haunting and…wait is this, is this for that one time I seduced that boy you liked? I told you, I didn’t know you were interested too, I apologized! I was a, I was a good friend! I’m the least friend you should be haunting right now, I…oh fuck, I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
“Stop panicking, you dumbass, I’m not haunting you! I’m not even dead,” replied Catullus, in a slightly exasperated tone, “do I look dead to you?”
“Yes, you do,” whined Calvus, “with that deadly paleness, the purplish circles around your eyes, that emaciated face…alright, to be fair that’s just what you’ve always looked like, but…you’re dead, I know, I kissed your corpse goodbye, I saw you burn on your funeral pyre!”
Catullus started rubbing his temples. “I know, but I didn’t actually die, I…listen, I know it’s unbelievable, but I’m not dead. In fact, I’m immortal now. Before whatever kind of fever I had this time could kill me, Clodia came to me and performed some kind of…magical blood ritual to me and turned me into some sort of…deathless creature of the night, and I...”
Calvus blinked several times. “And you expect me to believe that?”
“You assumed I was a ghost haunting you,” huffed Catullus, “how’s my ex-girlfriend turning me into a deathless creature of the night any harder to believe than that? We’re talking about Clodia...”
Calvus stared at him for a long moment, the terrified expression slowly fading away and being replaced by something halfway between sorrow and relief.
“Whatever that…means, would…would it mean,” he finally stammered out, his eyes twinkling with tears, “I can have my friend back?”
Catullus cracked a trembling smile, his own tears already rolling down his cheeks. “Yeah.”
Calvus got up, a bit wobblingly, then he walked towards Catullus and threw his arms around him, hugging him tightly. “Then I’m willing to believe it. And then…”
Catullus smiled against Calvus’ shoulder. “Yeah?”
“Thinking about it,” he said, chuckling, “I’m not that surprised Clodia can do that.”
Catullus was woken up by the uncomfortable prickle of sunlight on his skin. He huffed annoyedly, pulling the bedsheet over his head. Much better. It took him a few more hazy seconds to realize he was, in fact, naked, and that he was, in fact, currently draped over an equally naked Calvus. Well, it was certainly not the first time he woke up like that, and possibly not even the last, so he was not particularly surprised, especially given the…current circumstances. He sat up on the bed, stretching his arms out, then started poking Calvus’ face until he tiredly opened one eye.
“Do you really have to do that?”
Catullus grinned. “I just wanted to say good morning until my nocturnal self goes back to sleep, and…”
As soon as Calvus pulled the bedsheets down to his chest, Catullus’ heart sank. On his neck, right above the left shoulder, was a flashy red bitemark. And, judging by how deeply the four canines had dug into the flesh, it was most definitely not a mere lovebite.
Calvus gave Catullus a confused look. “What is it, what…wait, is that…is there blood on your face?”
Catullus clapped his mouth shut with both his hands.