Authors: Marilyn Todd
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Historical mystery, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
Come Saturday night, when the moon had reached half and the rest of the Empire rejoiced at the equinox in full voice, the relatives and guests of Sergius Pictor were gathered round his dining table, leaning on their elbows and playing with their food in abject silence. The little girl who strummed the lyre might just as well have not bothered.
‘Look at us.’ Sergius drove the point of his knife into the tabletop as the pork and stuffed marrows were cleared away virtually untouched. ‘You’d think we were facing mass execution.’
He was right. No appetites, no colour, no feelings even. Just a numbness, in both body and spirit. Passing time until Something Else Happened.
More eyes were watching the blade quivering in the woodwork than the irritation which washed over Sergius’ face. ‘There’s a madman on the loose, I can’t deny it,’ he snapped. ‘But I’m buggered if he’s going to take us down with him.’
Too late, thought Claudia. On the walls, Ganymede was swept off to his new job on Mount Olympus and he was the lucky one. He got away.
‘Won’t anyone answer me? Are we to sit in silence for the rest of our lives?’
‘You think we sing and tell jokes, yes, while the killer pick us off one by one?’ The lines in the Celt’s face became trenches, and the girl on the lyre hit two duff notes in succession.
‘That’s why Taranis wears long pants,’ Timoleon growled in something close to his normal manner. ‘He’s always wetting them.’
‘Tch!’ The Celt made a gesture that none of them had seen before but they all recognized as vulgar. The gladiator curled his lip in disdain.
But small though the squabble was, the spell had been broken. Pallas made a lunge for the prawn rissoles before they were cleared from the table, perhaps not with his usual vigour, but he hung on to them none the less.
‘What exactly do you have in mind?’ Orbilio asked, and Claudia was surprised that, although he addressed the question to Sergius, his eyes flashed dark on Tulola.
Sergius began to sniff victory. ‘At this very moment,’ he said, ‘half of Rome is comprehensively pissed and the other half’s well on the way. What say we forget this maniac and celebrate ourselves? Tomorrow?’
‘I think that’s a wonderful idea,’ gushed Alis.
‘Me too.’ Euphemia speared a scallop with the same knife she’d drawn on Claudia. ‘I’m fed up seeing your miserable faces all the time.’
Hark who’s talking, thought Claudia, ‘Celebrate how?’ she asked.
Sergius wiggled his blade out of the tabletop and called for the fruit. ‘I rather thought an outing to the springs would be nice.’
‘I d-don’t think we should leave—’
‘Rubbish, sweetie.’ Tulola waved aside the Tribune’s protests. ‘It’s a brilliant idea. This hanging around is driving us demented, even you, Salvian, young as you are.’ She leaned over and tickled him under the chin until he turned red as a turkey cock.
‘M-my uncle—’ he spluttered.
But Sergius was not a man to be put off the scent. ‘Come along, you lot, what do you say?’
Careful glances were exchanged, which in turn became conspiratorial glances until finally they became smug, triumphant glances.
And at least ten hands shot up.
In Rome, Senator Quintilian bade farewell to the last of his callers and settled back contentedly, running his hands over the carved boar’s head that comprised the arm of his chair. This was the time of day he liked best, when the long, noisy line of clients and lobbyists had finally trickled away, leaving behind their dreary petitions, most of which he’d burn later. Dismissing his scribe, he poured himself a large glass of tansy wine and closed his eyes. Skilful time management ensured him one hour—one single, solitary, precious hour—before different calls were made upon his person, usually generated by that ambitious wife of his, but just as important, nevertheless.
Later, of course, he would take himself off to the baths for a long dip, a spot of exercise, another dip, then a massage, preferably in the company of a buxom whore, each enterprise designed to refresh him both physically and mentally. However, it was this lull before the noonday rush that nourished his spiritual needs, this Golden Hour, where time was meaningless and he could admire the marble on his walls and on his floors and of his statuary, gloat over his successes in the Senate House, brush up on his oratory.
Here, in the peace and splendour of his own office (he daren’t set foot outside, or his wife would nab him), calmed by the aromatic wine, memories would be awake. Of the Gallic campaigns of his youth. Of the curios he’d brought back from Egypt and Noricum and Thrace. Of the political struggles over the years, triumphs and failures, good times and bad.
Surrounded by exquisite works of art, he could block his ears to the sounds of the city on the far side of the wall—the cries of the mendicants, the hammering of the restoration work, the brawls, the brays and the barks—and reminisce about his sons, the first two, strapping boys who had both died fighting alongside their Emperor, and about his first wife, fifteen years in her grave. Then he would cheer himself up thinking about the three boys his second wife had given him, because Diana, Goddess of Fertility, had blessed the Quintilian line.
Nothing but sons, he was proud of them all.
The youngest was a funny little chap, my word he was, waddling up on those fat little legs of his, chortling away. Only this morning, Quintilian had watched him in the peristyle, racing his toy chariots between the columns. Whose idea was it, anyway, to harness them to mice? Comical, I can tell you, watching the big black
‘Who the hell are you?’
‘Letter, sir!’ The messenger saluted and closed the door behind him.
Bloody hell, who let him past? Quintilian looked at the scroll on his desk. It could wait. That idle sod of a secretary could read it aloud after luncheon. Where was I? Ah, the racing mice. Yes, that little fellow of mine’s a real chip off the… There was something oddly familiar about the seal on that scroll. Of course it was upside down, he couldn’t see properly…
What the buggery?
Quintilian blinked and sat up straight. Damnation, that was his own seal! He ripped it open and began to read. Mars Almighty, it was from the Widow Seferius. How the hell did she do that?
‘To refresh your memory, Vixen Hill was purchased yesterday on your behalf’—no salutation, straight in, he noticed—‘and I ended up with Hunter’s Grove. With me so far, Senator?’
Quintilian’s frame began to shake with silent laughter. I’m with you, Claudia, my love, my little doxy. But you don’t listen, do you? How many times did I tell you, don’t meddle in business. I’m sorry you’ve wasted your money on a patch of exhausted soil, but you had it coming. Oh, you women, you think you’re clever, getting a surveyor to report on the land, but I’m way, way ahead of you, girlie. The report you saw was a forgery. Surprised, Claudia? Shouldn’t be. For five pieces of silver that weasel who lives under the aqueduct will copy anything, it was easy to change the names of the plots. Give in gracefully, there’s a good girl. So you got a bloody nose? This letter will have got it off your chest—a very beautiful chest, if I may say so, my dear, one I hope to get closer acquainted with in the not too distant future—let’s call it quits, shall we? Think about my offer, it’s a generous one, and besides, you can’t keep the business, can you? In, what, eighteen months you’ll be forced to remarry, it’ll pass to your husband, so you may as well enjoy the money while you’re able. Let us therefore be friends, Claudia. Don’t let bitterness come between us, eh?
He picked up the scroll and read on.
‘I know you don’t approve of women in commerce, Quintilian, but I wasn’t sure you’d stoop so low.’
Low? A spot of forgery? You should see some of the other tricks of the trade, Mistress Seferius, this is just skating the surface.
‘On the other hand, it seemed sensible to take certain precautions. Such as asking the surveyor to make two reports, one verbal and one written.’
Quintilian’s shoulders began to stiffen.
‘Ah, I see you have guessed. For some time, I’ve suspected one of my secretaries of spying—documents rearranged, that sort of thing—it seemed sensible to leave nothing to chance, and that included swapping the names round. It’s not entirely clear what you will be able to do with Vixen Hill, but I’m sure you’ll think of something, Senator. That is a very useful little stream which runs through it.
‘PS: You do realize its source begins in Hunter’s Grove, don’t you? I’ll let you know well in advance when I plan to divert it.’
A world away from the Vale of Adonis, with its narrow fertile belt and dark encroaching forest, the Spring of Sarpedon surrounded itself with rich green meadows from which wooded hills rolled gently backwards, growing blue and hazy with the distance. Sacred white oxen grazed and lowed on grass heavy with anemones and dew, larks sang on the wing and peacock butterflies gorged themselves on nectar.
Unlike the sulphur pools, today was no public holiday. There were no sausage-sellers, no rope-walkers, no acrobats on Sarpedon’s holy turf—and yet it was impossible for spirits to remain low amid such Arcadian beauty. The mechanics for water collection remained well out of sight, ensuring this remained a tranquil place, where bodies and differences could be aired without impediment, a place for promenading and serenading. Tall cypresses cast shade on the lakes, crack willows dangled their fingers in the water, ferns sprang up like children. Blushing maidens wore garlands of blue iris and vervain, young men showed off their prowess at rowing on the lake, the poor scattered handfuls of flour, instead of metal, as offerings.
When the wagon lurched to a halt in the temple forecourt, Sergius was still expounding about his ideas for the future and if enthusiasm was rewarded in gold, he would be richer than Midas by now, thought Claudia. It had troubled him deeply, seeing his trainer reduced to a ghost—and she realized that Corbulo had not yet told Sergius of his intentions to leave when his contract was up. Either that, or Sergius was confident of talking him round. Any fool could see there was a glittering future in these circus spectaculars. Equally, he would argue, only a fool would walk away.
Corbulo’s attendance today had uplifted not only Sergius. Everyone’s spirits had been given a boost. That’s not to say they hadn’t barred their doors and windows overnight, but here, out in the open, under a wide and welcoming sky, the general consensus was that the killer could only be one of Sergius’ hired henchmen and that’s the price you pay for taking on transitory labour. He should have employed men from Tarsulae. Never mind there are no young men left, and never mind the locals would have blabbed to all and sundry. It was his own fault, he was told, he’ll know better next time.
Yet all too quickly the badinage was cut short as news about the Regent spread, and as they crossed the bridge to the island, the tone was sombre. It was Agrippa this, Agrippa that, and Taranis was confused.
‘I no understand. Why unrest in Rome?’ he asked, throwing his hands in the air. ‘Why threat of uprising?’
‘Exiles,’ croaked Corbulo. It was the best he could manage since someone had tried to restring his vocal chords, though it only partly explained his reluctance to talk. The trainer had changed. Often one does, when confronted with death, but while his was a dangerous profession, there was no comparison with assault from a back-stabber. Some men, Claudia knew, were never the same after a cowardly attack. They turned inwards upon themselves, became sullen, withdrawn, and although she prayed the gentle Corbulo would pull out of it, inside she feared for him.
‘How you mean, exiles?’ persisted Taranis, but it was left to Sergius to explain. Behind him, rugs were being spread out on the grass.
‘He means folk have short memories. Three generations of civil war are quickly forgotten, they only remember being moved away from their own land to live in the city, and for some it’s still an alien culture.’
‘They choose to go, no? Is not forced upon them?’
‘This is the second generation we’re talking about. Men with time on their hands, men who see themselves at the mercy of state handouts.’
Yes, thought Claudia. It is never fathers, but sons, who grow restless.
The prospect of a fierce civil backlash did not seem to bother the Celt particularly, rather the opposite, in fact. She was watching Corbulo, red muffler round his bruised neck, carving away at a piece of wood, when Salvian appeared at her elbow and relieved her of her wrap. His face was set, and yet Claudia had a feeling this had little to do with the death of Agrippa.
‘Everything all right?’ she asked, with a significant nod in Tulola’s direction. All morning Tulola had been skewering him with her eyes, and twice Claudia heard her hiss ‘Pansy!’ at him.
‘She’s giving me a hard time,’ the Tribune confided, ‘because I wouldn’t come to her bed last night.’ No stammer? ‘Can’t imagine why,’ he added. ‘She knows I’m married.’
Claudia’s laugh nearly burst free, but she swallowed it just in time. No, no stammer. Salvian was fast becoming his own man. He’d overtake his uncle in no time, and neither Tulola nor Macer would understand why.
The clouds on his face passed away. ‘I know who the killer is,’ he whispered, and this time Claudia’s laugh was not restrainable. Growing up he might be, but not fast enough. The expression on his face was just like a six year old’s on his birthday.
‘You don’t believe me, do you?’ he said, without animosity. ‘It was something my uncle said, which put me on to it.’
Claudia made a brave stab at solemnity. ‘You mean that, like Macer, you think I dunnit?’
Salvian handed back her neatly folded palla. ‘Lord, no,’ he said seriously. ‘You have to make allowances for my uncle, Claudia, it’s—well, it’s understandable, I suppose. Not so long ago, he investigated a robbery, where the shopkeeper said he was raided but the injury to his head was nothing worse than a bruise. Later he confessed he’d staged the whole thing to stave off his creditors. I gave you chance to escape,’ he added, ‘and, to be honest, I was surprised you came back.’