Authors: Marilyn Todd
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Historical mystery, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
When he was home, that is. Since the army he didn’t really have a job—not what Dad called a proper job, any road. Private commissions Fronto calls them. Nothing regular, but he always treats his Billikins to a new tunic or a silver bangle when he comes home, and adds a bit to the house—a bust or a frieze or something—so it pays handsome. Whatever it is.
Well, I suppose I’ll have to wait before giving him me message. Balbilla shrugged her shoulders, kissed her sleeping infants then trudged back up the hill towards her father’s shop. I expect he’s got held up, she thought as she passed the flushed face of the advocate’s secretary sneaking back into the law courts, and we’ll have a good old laugh when I tell him how worried I was.
‘You daft pudden,’ he’ll say. ‘You know I gets called out all hours.’
Oh, he was a popular man was her Fronto. She just wished she knew why he hadn’t come home last night.
Watched pots never boil, this is a fact. They simmer gently for hours and hours, then the instant you turn your back, over they go, leaving a godawful mess for some poor sod to mop up. So staring into space with your fingers crossed is unlikely to improve a cat’s navigational facilities. Neither, Claudia acknowledged ruefully, is self-imposed starvation. While the midday meal had come and gone, who knows, there might be scraps in the dining room?
Well, there was a scrap. Of sorts. On the couch beneath the window a knot of squirming limbs and tangled linen writhed like serpents, and a man’s doughy buttocks rose and fell in the grip of long, hennaed talons. Claudia spun on her heel, but a woman’s voice restrained her.
‘Don’t rush off, sweetie. I’ve been meaning to catch you.’
Claudia’s fingers remained gripped round the door latch as she considered Tulola’s definition of the verb ‘catch’. ‘Gooseberries were never my favourite fruit,’ she said to the woodwork. ‘You can join me in the garden when you’re not quite so…busy.’
‘Who’s busy?’ Tulola disentangled herself and stretched sensuously. The Egyptian hairstyle was quite unruffled apart from the fringe. ‘You recognize Timoleon, don’t you?’
‘Not from that angle.’
Claudia studied the frescos as the hunk adjusted his tunic and then, to her surprise, he began swaggering, as though he was waiting for something. God knows what. Did he expect her to go all-of-a-flutter at his magnificent physique, his jewels, his finery? Because, if so, he was in for something of a shock. Far from handsome, his face was battle-scarred, his body musclebound and while, yes, the clothes and gewgaws were expensive, they were ostentatious and gaudy. In fact, the air he gave off was of a man going rapidly to seed, and for a chap on the good side of thirty, it did not bode well.
Tulola ran her finger down his cheek. ‘You’ll know him best as Scrap Iron.’
she recognized him. It was the hair that fooled her, he’d grown it long and dyed it yellow, and in the year since the gladiator had retired, he’d laid down more fat than was good for him. ‘A true son of Rome.’
Immune to sarcasm, the cocky sod puffed up even further. ‘That’s me right enough. Fifty-seven crowns in me eight years. Show me another bugger who’s done that!’
‘An impressive record.’ Claudia felt a pang of conscience. For all his trumpery, you couldn’t fault his talents in the arena and it wasn’t Timoleon’s fault she was about to be handed over to the army. Then she remembered his reputation. He was an arrogant son of a bitch, a trouble-maker on and off the sand.
‘Cold steel and no quarter, that’s my motto.’
I know, Timoleon, I know. You earned your laurels by sparing no one. Which included the life of a fighter who’d once spared you at the point of his sword.
‘Did you see me pitched against Strongarm?’ He jumped up and began to demonstrate. ‘Billed as the best in the business, he was.’
‘Oh, you’re the best, sweetie,’ purred Tulola, but the gladiator was back in the arena.
‘Typical sodding Samnite, hiding behind that great shield of his and trying to whack me with just that one arm exposed. Strongarm, geddit? But I’m quick, me. Nips behind—’
Claudia had switched off long ago, intrigued with the harem’s relationship with one another. Talk about claustrophobic. Did they know they were in competition? Was it the competition that kept it hot? Or had, as Tulola’s remark intimated, each one been led to believe he was special?
‘—cuts his leg straps and spears him where he lay. Strongarm, my arse! Tripped by his own leg greaves, silly sod.’
‘Then there was that time I—’
‘Time?’ Claudia jumped on
word. ‘Glad you
reminded me, I’m meeting—’ think, think ‘—Sergius.’
? Claudia, can’t you, for once, think before you open your stupid mouth?
‘Lord, yes. I’d forgotten all about the show, as well.’ Show? What show? Tulola had finally detached herself from the gladiator. ‘We’ll lead the way, it’s quite difficult otherwise.’
‘Huh. You won’t catch Scrap Iron ankle-deep in elk shit.’ Timoleon seemed to think he’d made a joke and bellowed with laughter. ‘But hurry back, we’ve got unfinished business.’ He emphasized his point with a lewd gesture, which somehow managed to encompass Claudia in the motion.
Tulola blew him a kiss. ‘Quite something, isn’t he?’ she said in her low, husky drawl, and Claudia forced herself to be objective about it.
Once, maybe, she acknowledged. By definition, the retarii had to be fast, because theirs was the most dangerous role of all. Bareheaded and armourless, they had only net, trident and dagger to protect themselves, and once they were cornered they stood no chance. Claudia had watched Scrap Iron in action—indeed, had backed him in many a fight. A real daredevil, provoking his lumbering, but superior, opponents by a courageous exhibition of darting and diving, slashing and thrusting until the weight of their armour eventually exhausted them. A true professional, he made it look easy, but Claudia knew Timoleon would have spent hour after agonizing hour practising the moves that had made him famous—and that had also saved his life. She gave a non-committal grunt in reply as they passed from the cool of the atrium into the warmth of the courtyard, as her mind tried to evaluate what type of woman blatantly manipulates several men at a time, pitting one against the other in her sexual politics. Did Tulola, in her arrogance, ever stop to consider the danger?
By the fountain, Taranis sat slumped with an old felt hat shading his head. Tulola nudged him with her foot as they passed. ‘Wake up, my little blue warrior.’ She turned to Claudia. ‘Sometimes, if I ask nicely, he’ll paint himself with woad in bed. Quite a turn on. Hey!’ She raised her voice to the Celt. ‘It’s time for Sergius’ show.’
‘Ach.’ The battered hat shook from side to side. ‘You go. Tell me about it after.’
‘Honestly.’ Tulola linked her arm through her companion’s as she led the way to the orchard. ‘For a man who’s supposed to be supplying bears for next season, you can’t get him near the zoo. Anyway, sweetie, what I wanted to ask you is, how much will you take for your henchman?’
Claudia passed her faltering step as a trip over a paving slab. ‘The driver’s hired help, I’m afraid.’
‘Not that ugly lug, I’m talking about your Gaul.’
‘Forty gold pieces? He’s very handsome and, ooh, those muscles.’
Bumble-bees searched the last of the pale pink blossoms, and a kitchen slave with a baby on her hip gathered basil and purslane and mint.
‘I’m afraid’, Claudia spoke in a confidential whisper, ‘I can’t sell him.’
‘Aha! The stallion services your own stables.’
‘No, no. I
sell him. He’s—how can I put this?’ she glanced up at the unfurling leaves for inspiration ‘—incomplete, poor boy.’
Tulola’s arm recoiled like a striking snake. ‘A eunuch? That’s no bloody use.’
Claudia nodded sympathetically. ‘Tragic, isn’t it?’
As they climbed the steps of the terrace, she calculated that it would cost her two gold pieces to keep his trap shut, possibly three since pride was involved. Men! They get het up over such trifles, don’t they? Not that it was Junius who concerned Claudia at this moment.
‘Earlier, down by the fishpond, your baby sister showed me one of her charming little keepsakes.’
‘I don’t have a sister—oh, do you mean Euphemia?’
‘The sort who causes more ructions than a dozen earthquakes?’
Tulola laughed. ‘That’s her and she belongs to Alis, not me.’
‘Euphemia’s her sister.’
Good life in Illyria, what a turn-up for the books. Where Alis was pale, Euphemia was dusky. Where Alis was high-breasted, Euphemia was voluptuous, and where Alis was respectability personified, Euphemia had temptress written all over her.
‘Half-sister, really,’ Tulola explained, steering her guest through the labyrinth of pens and sheds, barns and outhouses. ‘Alis’ father divorced her mother on grounds of adultery. Apparently it was only a matter of days from the mother marrying her lover that Euphemia was spared the stigma of bastardy.’
I’m not sure the moody baggage entirely escaped, thought Claudia, with the pungent smell of animals and ordure hitting her full blast as they turned the corner into an open yard. Say what you like about Timoleon, he had a fair point. Dainty leather sandals with open toes would not have been Claudia’s first choice of footwear.
‘Whatever she said, sweetie, just ignore the silly cow, she’s—’
‘Ladies!’ The ancestry of the man who greeted them with an extravagant flourish of his hands was beyond question. Only a true Etruscan stood that tall, moved with such grace but, like most Etruscans, his looks were marred by the distinctive double bump on the bridge of his nose.
‘Our trainer, Corbulo,’ purred Tulola. ‘Scrumptious, isn’t he?’
No, but unlike the other two there was at least an intriguing quality about him, enhanced by the contrast between high cheekbones, which would sit well on a prince, and the horny hands of what was unquestionably a son of the soil. Because for all the splendour of his spangled costume, when he performed that theatrical gesture, the calluses were plain for all to see.
‘You are here to witness the performance to end all performances, is that it?’ Appreciative grey eyes twinkled at Claudia.
‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world.’ Miss Euphemia Sulkyboots would have to wait.
‘This way, then.’
They followed him past a penned rhinoceros, two caged lions and an enclosure packed with beady-eyed ostriches, their sharp beaks barely out of pecking range. Corbulo fell into step with Claudia and grinned.
‘Not afraid of those Mauritanian chickens, are you?’
‘Let’s say the prospect of them being turned into fans perks me up no end.’
They were passing a particularly ugly warthog when Tulola stopped abruptly. ‘Hey! Barea!’ On the far side of the ostrich compound, a skinny individual in a yellow tunic and slicked-back hair was leading a black stallion in a circle by a rope. ‘Come and watch!’
The horse-breaker signalled acknowledgement, handed the rope to a bald man and cleared the fence like a trained athlete. Oh, for gods’ sake, thought Claudia. How many of them are there? What goes through Barea’s head when he smells Timoleon’s unguent on his lover, or are his brains as sparse as his flesh? Does he care? Or was the way she drapes a proprietorial arm around his neck reward enough? Corbulo, busily inspecting a line between two sets of blocks, seemed oblivious. To his left and below them, a palisade enclosed a group of snoozing crocodiles and to his right a curious giraffe poked its head through a special opening in the roof.
‘Hello, lover, who’s your friend?’ Claudia placed the accent as coming from the Iberian peninsular, but couldn’t pin it closer than that.
‘Don’t pretend you don’t know,’ admonished Tulola, playfully biting the young man’s ear. ‘You were there this morning when Claudia had that dreadful encounter with the dead man. You heard the screams.’
Barea’s eyes glistened with curiosity and, like the Celt before him, he seemed to find the prospect of violence exciting. His hands began to caress Tulola’s hips. ‘I trust the experience hasn’t scarred you?’ he asked, not waiting for an answer before his tongue danced with Tulola’s. Sweet Janus. I thought I was disturbing Tulola in the dining room earlier, but clearly it’s Tulola who’s disturbed. In the valley below, gazelle bounded gracefully and smoke from a charcoal kiln rose high into the air. Maybe a cross-eyed cat was also skulking along the wayside?.
‘Feeling better, now?’ Sergius emerged from one of the sheds and made his way down the steps to join Claudia as a gang of labourers lugged an oversized couch into the yard.
‘That’s the spirit.’ The grin he gave was sincerity itself and, despite her circumstances, Claudia laughed inwardly.
Smile at the nice lady and she won’t stick a knife in you.
Oh, Sergius, Sergius. I wonder what your face will look like once I’ve slapped out my lawsuit.
Tulola jemmied herself free of the horse-breaker and sauntered over to join her brother and his guest. ‘Barea can’t stay. Some trouble with the gelding.’
Claudia glanced over her shoulder. Trouble was an understatement. The rope had caught and the bald man was being pulled round the ring on his stomach as the black stallion reared and bucked in a cloud of dust. Poor sod. If he didn’t get trampled, he’d probably choke to death.