Authors: Marilyn Todd
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Historical mystery, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
The couch was set down in the middle of the courtyard and a table placed beside it. When this had been piled high with fruit and cakes, Sergius brought his arm down as a signal to start. Ears flapping, a brightly costumed elephant lumbered towards the line Corbulo had been inspecting, which, to Claudia’s astonishment, was no drawing after all, but an enormously sturdy rope. When the trainer swished his baton—up, across and back—Claudia drew in her breath. She was, she realized with a tingle of excitement, about to witness something far in excess of ordinary.
Slowly, very slowly, with the gems on his coat glittering in the afternoon sun, the elephant obeyed Corbulo’s commands. Clambering up the blocks and without so much as changing pace, he marched across the tightrope, down the blocks the other side and made for the table. Then, like the good Roman that he was, he rolled on to the couch and proceeded to help himself from the goodies spread before him. Stunned by the performance, Claudia nevertheless drew the line at petting the wrinkly lump, which Tulola and her brother had rushed to do, until gradually she became conscious of the grey eyes of the trainer concentrated upon her.
‘Impressed by my Abyssinian cow?’
Who wouldn’t be? ‘Your team is riding into history, my friend.’
‘My—? Oh, the labourers were just drafted in to help with the exhibition.’ He tossed his baton into the air and caught it as it fell. ‘I always work alone.’ The elephant was revelling in the praise, his button eyes twinkling as he demolished bun after bun. ‘Can’t stand interruptions, it interferes with the training, the concentration, mucks everything up.’
‘Then your talents will make you one very rich man, Corbulo.’
Irritation clouded his face. ‘This isn’t about money,’ he snapped, then nodded towards the surrounding sheds. ‘You know, I’ve trained monkeys to ride chariots, leopards to sleep with hares and when Barea’s finished with it, I’ll have that Spanish spitfire dancing to the flute.’
‘And is your passion purely confined to animals?’ She was only partly teasing.
‘Oh no.’ A fire lit his tundra-dark eyes. ‘Since you ask—’
The flirtation got no further. The little blonde slave girl, the one who’d screamed her bloody head off this morning, came running up. She shot Claudia a nervous glance, gave her a wide berth and ground to a halt in front of Sergius.
‘Please, sir, it’s the Prefect,’ she said breathlessly, darting another furtive glance in Claudia’s direction. ‘He’s here.’
Marcus Cornelius Orbilio was woken by the sound of hammering. In Rome, the city that never sleeps and refuses to let anyone else sleep either, hammering was not unusual, night being the only time goods traffic was permitted through the streets. In consequence, much of the Emperor’s massive restoration programme had to be undertaken by torchlight, and if you add on the constant throb of axles being whacked, wheels bumped, sacks thumped, you’re in for a fun-packed show.
This hammering, however, was altogether different. It seemed to come from within the walls of his own house. Struggling to sit up, Orbilio realized the pounding was closer than he thought. Mighty Mars! It was inside his skull.
He flopped back on the bed and groaned. His mouth was furred his eyeballs tender, and the same instinct that told him it was a long haul to daybreak scoffed at his chances of getting back to sleep. Every joint and every bone ached to the marrow, his skin was dry and his gut felt like someone had plaited his intestines. Putting tentative fingertips to pounding temples, Orbilio was forced to face facts. There was no remedy
to medical science for the condition that racked his youthful body and he cursed silently. Surely, in this golden age of peace and prosperity, a cure for hangover could not be that difficult?
A chill breath of wind brushed his cheeks and he noticed he hadn’t closed the shutters. His blurred vision could just about determine a reddish tinge to the sky and his mouth turned down. Another oaf, clumsy with his tallow and, whoosh, up goes another tenement, killing as many occupants when the building collapses as are killed in the fire itself, the poor sods trapped by the same heavy safety chains they needed for their doors in the first place. Did the landlords care? Did they hell! A few new timbers, a bit of plaster and, hey presto, here’s a brand new tenement—we can charge double the rent.
Regardless of what he professes, Augustus doesn’t give a shit. He makes the odd sop, like limiting storeys to six, but what good’s that when tenants sleep four to a bed, there’s just one toilet on the ground floor and water has to be hauled from the street? What would it take to form a fire corps, eh? Remus, a million people are crammed in this city. Fires break out four, five, six times a day. If the Emperor truly cared about his people, he’d forget lavishing the spoils of war on stone and marble and organize cohorts to man pumps and form chains—
Orbilio stopped short.
Jupiter in heaven, this is treason!
Worse, he suddenly became aware of a figure buried under the covers beside him. He felt a trickle of sweat run down his forehead. Suppose—oh, Janus. Suppose he’d been thinking aloud? Soft snores reassured him she was sleeping deeply, before a second question formed on his lips. Who the hell was she?
He would not, he swore, touch another drop. Not one more drop. He pinched the bridge of his nose. Croesus, he thought he had his drinking under control, but there were times lately when chunks of his life disappeared without trace. Small chunks, but they were missing none the less. Like tonight…
The intensity of the blaze changed the oblong of light in the wall from red to yellow, then a splintering crash told him the army had been called in and were doing what they normally did. They grabbed long poles and tore the building down. Far quicker. Far easier. And it wasn’t their fault, was it, if families were trapped inside?
He sighed with envy. In an ideal world, it would be nice to close one’s mind to life’s less appealing aspects, but Orbilio had discovered long ago that his conscience was a shrew, nagging him like a fishwife, prodding him with her bony finger whenever he wanted to be idle. He could feel her now—prod, prod, prod—and she wouldn’t stop until she got what she wanted.
The most cursory glance assured him his bedmate wasn’t the little redhead. Even bombed, he wouldn’t be that stupid. Without doubt he’d enjoyed their brief dalliance, teaching her things she’d never dreamed of even though she was married herself, until it slipped out who her husband was.
Gisco. The charioteer. Gisco, whose jealous nature and volatile temperament were legendary. In fact, the last man who’d forced Gisco to wear the cuckold’s horns had been found in a back alley, bound and gagged, with his balls tied round his neck…
When he’d learned that, he’d bundled the redhead into her clothes and out the side door in one single motion, but for Marcus Cornelius Orbilio, twenty-five years old and so healthy he was verging on immortality, the flame of Venus burned strong.
Thus—lying beside a total stranger, as the tenement fire snuffed out a dozen lives and wrecked scores more—he was able to run his hands abstractedly through his hair and tell his conscience to piss off. He was young and single and had no dependants, why shouldn’t he sow his wild oats? Then he felt it again. Prod, prod, prod. The fishwife had picked up the word ‘single’ and was throwing it back at him.
‘You’re an aristocrat, Marcus, whose ambition burns as fiercely as that inferno in the valley below. To pass through those ivory-inlaid doors of the Senate, my boy, you need a wife to your name.’
Mother of Tarquin, he needed the reminder like he needed the hammering in his head, but one thing was certain. Never again would he make the mistake of letting his family contract a political alliance. Divorced, thankfully, from a profligate wife who ran off with a sea captain, he resolved that the next time he married, it would be for love.
Orbilio rolled over on to his stomach. In a bid to circumvent the rules, he had cultivated the acquaintance of a crusty ex-tribune, ex-prefect, ex-consul. Sucking up to people was not Orbilio’s strong point, but if it meant smoothing a primrose path to the Senate House, so be it, and only last night the ex-tribune, ex-prefect, ex-consul had confirmed to him personally that, in his eyes, merit was paramount and Orbilio need have no further qualms.
It was on the strength of those wheels being oiled that Orbilio had got so comprehensively oiled himself. No, sir. He would not be coerced into marriage again, not even by his own uncle, and especially not to the poor creature his uncle was pushing at him. The girl was fourteen years old, for gods’ sake! He rolled on to his back again. The appeal of pubescence was lost on Orbilio. He wanted a companion, a friend, a lover. A woman to laugh with, cry with, grow a wrinkled old rind with, not a mechanical producer of sons. With Gisco’s little redhead wife he’d enjoyed vigorous sex flavoured with the fun of conniving and the spice of forbidden fruit, but what he needed, what he desperately missed (and it sounded corny but there you are), what he needed was the love of a good woman.
Or, in Orbilio’s case, the love of a bad woman.
A woman, for instance, whose untamed locks had a shine you could shave in, whose spicy perfume sent shockwaves down a man’s spine, whose very image haunted him from sun-up to sun-down—after which, the pain increased tenfold.
When he took a woman like that into his arms, there would be none of the hurried thrusts and quick gratification he’d sought with Attica. He would light lamps, thousands of them, on every level and every ledge, every surface and every sill and, in the flickering heat, he would kiss her eyelashes and drown in the dip of her collarbone. He would explore every inch of her skin until his tongue tingled with the taste of her sweat, then let his nose wallow in the scent of her curls—long damp tendrils that clung to her breasts, short damp tendrils that led down to heaven.
The moon would rise and the moon would fall before he was through, and there would be no question of forgetting her name as he sometimes had with Attica.
He would whisper it, over and over again. Claudia Seferius. Claudia Seferius. He would run his tongue gently round her ear, feel the flutter of her breasts. Claudia Seferius. Claudia Seferius. The featherlight touch of his fingertips would part her thighs, pulsing, pulsing, the drumbeat of their hearts setting the tempo. Claudia Seferius. Claudia Seferius. Faster and faster their bodies would sway until finally in unison…
The knock made him jump. ‘Sorry to disturb you, sir. There is a messenger outside who says he cannot wait until morning.’
Shit! ‘No matter, Tingi, I wasn’t asleep.’ Now wasn’t that the truth?
Grateful to the darkness which hid the throbbing thickness between his legs, Orbilio opened the door to his Libyan steward.
‘The young man is also in rather a distressed state, sir.’
He recognized him the second he set eyes on him. Standing in the shadows, that muscular form was unmistakable, despite the bandage round his head, and Orbilio felt his heart lurch.
He was never sure of the relationship between them—
Claudia called him a boy, but here stood a man, barely younger than himself, the slave whose eyes never wavered from his mistress and who hung closer than her own shadow. Jealousy alone, though, had not rearranged Orbilio’s heartbeat. The injuries Junius had sustained might well be mirrored on Claudia.
Drawing himself up to his not inconsiderable height and throwing a towel round his waist, Orbilio listened to the words tumbling out of the exhausted Gaul. Pinch me, I am dreaming.
‘Mistress Seferius, you say, is accused of murder?’
Junius nodded sullenly.
‘Of a complete stranger?’
He nodded again, and Orbilio was no fool. The slave liked him as much as he, himself, liked the Gaul. How it must stick in his craw, this visit.
‘And she doesn’t know you’ve sent for me?’
‘No. Sir.’ The sir was either an afterthought, forgivable under the circumstances, or it was added as an insult.
Orbilio met the stare head on and gave no quarter in his own. ‘Give me the address again.’
It was with a satisfying sense of mischief that he despatched the weary bodyguard to saddle up, then nudged the sleeping beauty in his bed.
Nothing, not a moan, not a groan, not a twitch. Dammit, where did he get her from? Vaguely he remembered doing the rounds of several taverns, but surely he’d not lowered himself to picking up a common whore? Praise the gods, the quality of the garments on the floor set his mind at rest. At least he’d had the sense to pick up a courtesan. Catching his reflection in the glass, unshaven, sunken-eyed, with his head coming off at the hinges, it was a miracle he’d been any use to her, except those scattered clothes spoke volumes…
‘Up you get.’ He gave her bottom a gentle kick and realized he hadn’t paid her. Remus! He drew on a fresh woollen tunic. What was the going rate? Tavern whores charge eight asses, but a high-class hooker? Think, man, think!
Sluicing water over his face and wincing as the cold water dribbled down his arm to his elbow, Orbilio heard himself humming. Claudia Seferius! In trouble up to her beautiful, kissable lips and who’s the chap to pull her out of the mire? The humming turned into a whistle. Murder isn’t necessarily a job for the Security Police and the Security Police isn’t necessarily confined to murder cases, but it
what Orbilio did best. He towelled himself dry and decided the stubble on his chin could wait. With his widespread network of informants and spies, he’d solve it in no time—then let’s see how many of my letters she returns.