The Venus Throw

Steven Saylor

The Venus Throw

CHRONOLOGY

Part One: NEX [death, usually violent death: murder]

Part Two: NOXIA [a fault or offense: a crime]

Part Three: NOX [the goddess Night, sister of Eros; blindness; gloom]

Part Four: NEXUS [a binding or tying together]

CHRONOLOGY

Listed below are some significant events preceding the action of The Venus Throw, which begins in mid-January, 56 B.C.

90 B.C.

Gordianus in Alexandria.

80 B.C.

King Soter of Egypt dies; succeeded briefly by Alexander II, then by Ptolemy Auletes. Sulla dictator in Rome; Cicero's first major speech, in defense of Sextus Roscius; the events of Roman Blood.

76 B.C.

Appius Claudius (father of Clodia and Clodius) dies.

75 B.C.

First senatorial attempt to act on the alleged will of Alexander II bequeathing Egypt to Rome.

72 B.C.

Second year of Spartacan slave revolt; the events of Arms of Nemesis.

68 B.C.

Clodius incites mutiny in Lucullus's army.

65 B.C.

Crassus as censor makes a foiled attempt to declare Egypt a tributary province of Rome.

63 B.C.

Cicero's consulship; the events of Catilina's Riddle. Caesar and Pompey attempt to exact Egyptian tribute with Rullan Legislation, foiled by Cicero.

62 B.C.

Clodia's husband Quintus Metellus Celer governor of Cisalpine Gaul. Clodius disrupts the celebration of the Good Goddess.

61 B.C.

Clodius tried for the Good Goddess scandal and acquitted.

59 B.C.

Caelius prosecutes Antonius (Cicero defending). Caesar as consul arranges for King Ptolemy to be recognized as "Friend and Ally of the Roman People" in return for thirty-five million denarii. King Ptolemy raises taxes in Egypt, angering the populace. Clodius becomes a plebeian in order to run for tribune. Clodia widowed by the death of Quintus Metellus Celer.

58 B.C.

Clodius tribune. Cicero forced into exile (March). Roman takeover of Egyptian Cyprus. King Ptolemy flees to Rome.

57 B.C.

Cicero returns from exile (September). Caelius supports Bestia for praetor. The delegation of one hundred Alexandrians, headed by Dio, arrives in Italy.

At dice I sought the Venus Throw. Instead: damned Dogs-the lose-all low!

PROPERTIUS, Elegies

iv, vii: 45-46

We've all heard about Alexandria, and now we know about it-the source of all trickery and deceit, where the plots of all the mimes come from.

CICERO, Pro C. Rabirio Postumo, 35

Democritus disapproved of sexual intercourse as being merely the act whereby one human being springs from another-and by Hercules, the less of that the better! On the other hand, sluggish athletes find that sex rejuvenates them; sex can relieve hoarseness, cure pain in the loins, sharpen eyesight; sex can restore mental balance and banish melancholy.

PLINY, Natural History, x x v III,58

PARTONENEX

CHAPTER

ONE

Two visitors at the front door, Master." Belbo looked at me

from under his brow and shifted from foot to foot uncertainly. "Their names?" "They wouldn't say." "Familiar faces?"

"I've never seen them before, Master."

"Did they say what they wanted?"

"No, Master."

I pondered this for a moment and stared into the flames of the brazier.

"I see. Two men-"

"Not exactly, Master… "

"Two visitors, you said. Are they both men or not?" "Well," Belbo said, wrinkling his brow, "I'm pretty sure that one of them is a man. At least I think so…" "And the other?"

"A woman-I think. Or maybe not…" He looked thoughtfully but without much concern into the middle distance, as if trying to remember what he had eaten for breakfast.

I raised an eyebrow and looked beyond the flaming brazier, through the narrow window and into the garden, where the statue of Minerva kept watch over a little fishpond. The sun was beginning to lower. Days in Januarius are all too short, especially for a man of fifty-four like myself, old enough to feel the cold in his bones. But the daylight was still strong enough to see clearly, certainly clearly enough to tell if someone at the door was male or female. Was Belbo's sight beginning to fail?

Belbo is not the cleverest of slaves. What he lacks in brains he has always made up for with brawn. For a long time this hulking mass of bulging muscles and straw-colored hair has been my bodyguard, but in recent years his reflexes have grown noticeably slower. I had thought I might be able to start using him as a doorkeeper, reasoning that his long service at my side would enable him to recognize most of my visitors and that his size should intimidate those he didn't. Alas, if he couldn't even tell the difference between a man and a woman it would hardly do to have him answering the door.

Belbo ceased to ponder the middle distance and cleared his throat. "Should I show them in, Master?"

"Let me see if I understand you: two strangers of indeterminate sex, who refuse to give their names, have come to call on a man with a lifetime's worth of enemies, here in the most dangerous city in the world. Show them in, you ask? Why not?"

My sarcasm was apparently too subtle. Belbo nodded and left the room before I could call him back.

A moment later he returned with my visitors. I stood to greet them, and realized that Belbo's eyes were indeed still sharp, probably sharper than my own. Had I seen this couple across the street or walking through the Forum, I might have taken them to be exactly what they appeared to be, a rather small young man with delicate features, dressed in an ill-fitting toga and wearing a broad-brimmed hat (despite the less than sunny weather), and a much older, much larger woman wrapped in a stola that modestly covered her from head to toe. But on closer inspection, there was something amiss.

I could see nothing of the young man's body, obscured as it was by the loose folds of his oversize toga, but his face was not quite right; there was no sign of a beard on his cheeks, and his soft, beautifully manicured hands moved with a delicacy that was not masculine. Also, instead of lying flat around his ears and the back of his neck, his hair appeared to have been pushed up under his hat, which meant it must be unusually long. The color of his hair was odd as well-dark at the roots, but turning blond where it was tucked up under the brim of his hat, which he declined to take off.

As for the woman, a woollen mantle draped over her head obscured much of her face, but I could see that her cheeks had been painted, and not too expertly, with a rose-colored blush. The wrinkles of her neck hung down in folds considerably looser than the folds of the stola that strained to contain her bulk, especially around the middle. Her shoulders seemed a bit too broad and her hips too narrow. Nor did her hands seem quite right, for Roman matrons take pride in keeping their flesh as pale as possible, and hers were dark and weathered as if by many years of exposure to the sun, and while any woman vain enough to color her cheeks might be expected to take good care of her fingernails, those of my visitor were ragged and bitten down to the quick. The couple stood mute beside the brazier.

"I understand that you've come to pay me a visit," I finally said.

They merely nodded. The young man pursed his lips and peered at me, his face stiff. The old woman tilted her head so that the brazier lit up her eyes. Between lashes stained black with antimony I saw a flash of apprehension.

I waved to Belbo, who fetched a pair of folding chairs and placed them opposite my own.

"Sit," I offered. They did, demonstrating even more clearly that things were not what they seemed. The wearing of the toga is an art, as is the wearing of the stola, I imagine. From their manifest awkwardness it seemed highly unlikely that the little man had ever worn a toga before, or that his companion had ever worn a stola. Their clumsiness was almost comical.

"Wine?" I offered.

"Yes!" said the young man, sitting forward, his face suddenly ani-mated. His voice was high and somehow too delicate, like his hands. The old woman stiffened and whispered "No!" in a hoarse voice. She nervously fiddled with her fingers, then bit at her thumbnail.

I shrugged. "For myself, I feel the need of something to stave off the chill in the air. Belbo, ask one of the serving girls to bring some water and wine. And something to eat, perhaps?" I looked inquiringly at my visitors.

The young man brightened and nodded eagerly. The woman glow-ered and struck at his arm, making him wince. "Are you mad?" she whispered gruffly. I thought I detected a slight accent, and was trying to place it when I heard her stomach growl.

"Yes, of course, exactly," the young man muttered. He too had an accent, faint but vaguely eastern. This was curious, for only Roman citizens wear the toga. "No food, please," he said.

"How unfortunate," I said, "for we have some very good must-cakes left over from breakfast this morning, flavored with honey and pepper in the Egyptian style. My wife comes from Alexandria, you see. I spent some time there myself as a young man – oh, that must have been over thirty years ago. The Egyptians are famous for their soft breads, as I'm sure you know. My wife says it was a baker at the mouth of the Nile who discovered the secret of leavening and dedicated his first loaf to the great Alexander when he founded the city."

The woman's mouth began to twitch. She pulled at her mantle to shade her eyes, but I could feel her gaze on me as hot as the flames of the brazier. The little man's face lost its animation and turned stiff again.

Belbo returned with a small folding table which he set between us. A serving girl followed with three cups and two ewers, one of water and one of wine. The girl poured wine into each cup and then departed, leaving it to me to apportion the water. "For myself, in the cold months I take it almost straight," I said, leaning forward and adding only a splash of water to the nearest cup. "And you?" I looked at the young man. He held up his forefinger and pressed his thumb against the furthest joint. "A knuckle's worth of water," I said, pouring, then looked at his companion. "And will you join us after all?" She hesitated, then copied the little man's gesture. Again I noticed her bitten nails and the sun-weathered flesh of her hands.

"You won't regret it," I said. "This comes from my private stock. I still have some jars of wine remaining from my brief tenure as a farmer up in Etruria a few years ago. It was a very good year-for the wine, anyway." I handed them each a cup. Before I could pick up my own, the woman quickly put hers down and reached for mine. "I changed my mind," she whispered hoarsely. "Less water will suit me. If you don't mind."

"Of course not." I picked up the cup she had abandoned and held it before my lips, pretending to savor the bouquet. She watched me intently and put her cup beneath her fleshy nose, sniffing at it cautiously with no pretense of enjoyment, waiting for me to take a sip before she would do the same. It was an absurd moment, like a scene in some hackneyed comedy, except that had we been on a stage the audience would have hooted at us for playing our parts too broadly.

At last I put the cup to my mouth and drank, letting the red wine linger on my lips for a moment before licking them clean, to show her I had swallowed. Only then did she sip cautiously from her cup. Her companion, having watched this interchange as if awaiting permission, put his cup to his lips and drained it. "Excellent!" he exclaimed, his voice slipping into a higher register. He cleared his throat. "Excellent," he said again in a voice that was deeper but still distinctly feminine.

For a moment we sipped our wine in silence, listening to the crackling of the brazier. "You seem cautious about stating your purpose," I finally said. "Perhaps you could begin by telling me your names."

The little man looked at the woman, who then turned away from the flames and hid her face in shadow. After a moment the little man looked back to me. "No names," he said softly. "Not yet."

I nodded. "As you wish. What do names matter, anyway? Names are but a cloak, a garment which men put on and take off. A disguise, if you will. Don't you agree?"

The little man looked at me with gleaming eyes-was he intrigued, or had he simply drained his cup too quickly? His companion kept her face in shadow, but again I felt the heat of her gaze. "A name is not the same as a thing," she finally whispered.

I nodded. "So I was taught long ago-when I lived in Alexandria, as a matter of fact. And yet, without names, we have no way of discoursing with one another about the things those names represent."

The woollen mantle nodded gravely up and down.

"A thing is called one name in Greek, another in Latin," I said. "The thing remains the same. That which applies to things must also apply to persons. King Ptolemy of Egypt, for example, is King Ptolemy, whether we give him the Greek title basileus or the Latin title rex."

The figure in the stola drew a sharp breath and seemed on the verge of speaking, but held back.

"So it is with the gods themselves," I went on. "Romans call the father of the gods Jupiter; Greeks call him Zeus. 'Jupiter' is an onomatopoeia for the sound of lightning striking the earth, while 'Zeus' captures the sound of a thunderbolt cutting through the air. Thus do names convey to the ear what the eye and the soul of man perceive, however imperfectly."

"Exactly!" whispered my visitor. The head tilted to reveal the eyes, which were fixed upon me with the excitement of a teacher who hears his pupil repeating back to him a lesson learned long ago but never forgotten.

"Still, names are not things," I said, "and while the study of names may fascinate us, it is the study of things, or more precisely our human perception of things, which must occupy anyone who cares to discover philosophy. For example: I see the flame in this brazier, yet how do I know that it exists?"

The little man, who had availed himself of more wine during my discourse, laughed out loud. "Simple – put your hand into the flame!"

I clucked my tongue disapprovingly. "You must be of the Epicurean School, if you believe that by sense perception alone we can determine the actuality of existence. Epicurus taught that all sensations are true; still, the fact that I am burned by the fire should be no proof to you of its existence, since you would feel no pain."

"Ah, but I would hear you scream."

"Perhaps; but there are those who can endure such pain without screaming. If I didn't scream, would the fire be any more or less real? What if I did scream, and you happened to be deaf and looking elsewhere-would I still have been burned? Then again, if I were to scream, and if you were to hear me, you still would have no way of knowing whether my pain was real or a sham."

"You seem to know a lot about such things," said the young man, who smiled and took another sip. I noticed he had spilled a bit of wine on his toga.

"A little. Philosophy is the creation of the Greeks, of course, but a Roman may attempt to comprehend it. My old patron Cicero made himself something of an expert on philosophy, to help his oratory. From the Skeptics he learned that a proposition is always easier to disprove than to prove-a useful thing for a lawyer to know, especially if he has no scruples about defending guilty men."

I took a long sip of wine. The mood in the room had changed completely. My visitors' frosty suspicion had melted into trust. The com-forting cadence of philosophic discourse was familiar ground, as I suspected it would be.

"But just as a name is not a thing, so appearance is not existence," I went on. "Consider: two visitors come to my home. At first glance, they appear to be a man and a woman, and this is clearly the impression they wish to give. But on closer scrutiny this is only an impression, not the truth; thus do my senses tell me and my powers of logic deduce. Questions follow: if the man is not a man, and the woman is not a woman, then what are they? Who are they? Why do they wish to be perceived as something they are not? Who are they trying to fool, and why? And why do they come to the house of Gordianus the Finder?"

"And do you know the answers to all these questions?" rasped my visitor in the stola.

"I think so, to most of them, anyway. Though some things about your companion still puzzle me…" I looked at the little man, who smiled in a way I couldn't account for, until I realized that he was smiling not at me but at someone behind me.

I turned to see my daughter, Diana, in the doorway.

Her posture was tentative, as if she had merely paused to have a look into the room and would move on at any moment. She wore the long-sleeved gown that children of both sexes wear, but at thirteen she was already beginning to fill the garment in ways unmistakably feminine. Her dark blue gown merged with the dimness of the hallway, so that her face, lit up by the brazier, seemed to hover in the air. Her skin, which had the creamy texture and the rosy glow that my visitor's painted cheeks so crudely mimicked, made the darkness of her long eyelashes and her thick eyebrows all the more pronounced. The flames caught the highlights of her long black hair, which was parted in the middle and fell down her shoulders. Her brown eyes peered at us curiously and with a hint of amusement. How like her mother she had always been, and how more like her she became every day! Sometimes it seemed to me that I had nothing to do with creating her, so completely was she cast in Bethesda's image.

She smiled faintly and began to move on. "Diana," I called, "come here for a moment."

She stepped into the room, wearing that mysterious smile she in-herited from her mother. "Yes, Papa?"

"We have visitors, Diana."

"Yes, Papa, I know. I saw Belbo let them in at the front door. I was on my way to tell Mother, but I thought I'd have a closer look first." "A closer look?"

She gave me a bemused, exasperated look, such as Bethesda gives me when I belabor the obvious. "Well, Papa! It's not every day that a eunuch and a man dressed as a woman come calling on you, is it?"

She looked at my visitors and smiled sweetly.

They didn't smile back, but instead looked glumly at each other. "I told you that the pretense was worthless. Even a child saw through it!" grumbled the old man in the stola, no longer disguising his voice or his Alexandrian accent. He wearily pushed back the mantle from his head. His silver hair was pulled back from his face and knotted at the back of his neck. His forehead was wrinkled and covered with spots. The folds of flesh hanging from his chin quivered and he suddenly looked ridiculous, an unhappy old man with painted cheeks and painted eyes.

The eunuch in the toga covered his mouth and giggled tipsily. "But you look so pretty in makeup!"

"Enough of that!" growled the old Egyptian. His mouth settled in a deep frown and his jowls drooped as he stared bleakly into the flames, his eyes full of despair.

Chapter Two

This is my daughter, Gordiana, whom we call Diana." I took her soft, smooth hand in mine. "Diana, we are honored by the presence of Dio of Alexandria: philosopher, teacher, esteemed member of the Academy, and currently the chief ambassador to Rome from the people of Egypt."

With the unstudied dignity of a distinguished man used to being formally introduced and hearing his titles recited, Dio stood, clasping his hands before him, pulling his shoulders back. His self-possession seemed peculiarly at odds with his strange costume; with his painted face and his feminine garments he looked like the priest of some eastern cult-which was precisely what his companion turned out to be.

"And this," said Dio, gesturing to the little eunuch, who likewise stood, though a bit tipsily, "is Trygonion, a priest at the Temple of Cybele here in Rome."

The eunuch took a little bow and pulled off his hat, from which tumbled a mass of pale yellow hair. The color was a bleached, unnatural shade of blond. He ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head to untangle the curls.

"A philosopher… and a gallus!" Diana said wonderingly. The last word gave me a start. Gallus is the Latin term for a castrated priest of the Great Mother, Cybele. All the galli are foreigners, since by law no Roman can become one. The word is pious in the mouths of the goddess's adherents, but others sometimes use it as a vulgar epithet ("You filthy gallus!"); the idea of men becoming eunuchs, even in the service of the divine, remains foreign and repulsive to most Romans. I couldn't remember ever having taught the word to Diana, but then she is always coming out with things I never taught her. She learns them from her mother, I suspect.

"Yes," Dio said ruefully, "puzzle that, Gordianus: what could a philosopher and a gallus possibly have in common-the man who lives by reason, and the man whose life is the surrender of all reason? Ha! Circumstances make strange bedmates. The more desperate the circumstances, the odder the bedmates." He cast a sidelong, gloomy glance at the eunuch, then suddenly looked doubtful. "I do not intend this metaphor literally, of course. You do have this phrase in Latin, yes? About circumstances and bedmates?"

"Something close enough."

He nodded, satisfied that he had made himself understood. His Latin was in fact impeccable, though his accent was distinctly Alexandrian, with the particular inflections of those born in Egypt whose ancestry and primary tongue are Greek. Hearing him speak freely, I now recalled his voice from many years ago. It had grown coarser with age, but was undeniably the same voice I had listened to so attentively on the steps outside the temple of Serapis in Alexandria when I was a young man, eager to learn all I could about the world. Dio's voice took me far back in memory and far away from Rome.

Introductions finished, we sat, except for Diana, who excused herself and left the room, no doubt to go tell her mother.

Dio cleared his throat. "You remember me, then?"

"Teacher," I said, for that was what I had always called him in Alexandria, and it now felt awkward to call him by his name, though I was long past the age of deference, "of course I remember you. You'd be a hard man to forget!"

"I had thought, after so many years… And then, when they told me your name, how could I know for sure that it was the same Gordianus whom I had known so long ago? To be sure, the name is unusual, and also they seemed to think that you had been to Alexandria as a young man, and what they said of you sounded like the tree that would have grown from the sapling-this expression you have also, yes? And I have used the correct tenses? Good. Still, with so much danger around me, so many betrayals-you understand why I could not come to you openly? Why I hesitated to reveal myself to you? Why I had to be suspicious even of your very fine wine?" He looked at me uneasily and chewed a fingernail. "Even when I saw you, I was not quite sure that you were the Gordianus I had known in Alexandria. Time changes us all, and you wear a sort of disguise as well, you know."

He gestured to something on my face. I touched my chin and realized that he meant my beard.

I smiled. "Yes, I was clean-shaven back then. Alexandria is too hot for beards, and I was too young to grow a decent one anyway. Or do you mean all the gray among the black? Gray hair and wrinkles are a kind of involuntary disguise, I suppose, worn by anyone who lives long enough."

Dio nodded and studied my face, still trying to decide whether he could trust me. "I have to be very careful," he said.

"Yes, I know something about your situation," I said. "Your journey from Alexandria, the attacks on your entourage after you landed down in Neapolis, the threats against you here in Rome, the fact that the Senate looks the other way. There's plenty of talk in the Forum these days about what people call 'the Egyptian situation.' "

"Still, how did you guess it was Dio?" asked the little gallus, pouring himself another cup of wine. "Our disguises got us safely through the streets. Granted, they may be less convincing at such close quarters-"

"Yes," said Dio, "how could you possibly have known it was me? Surely you didn't recognize my face, hidden in shadow and painted like a woman's, and after all these years. And surely it was not my voice, for I tried to speak like a woman and as little as I could, and you have not heard me speak for so long."

"Teacher, I'm not sure exactly why you've come to see me, but I assume it has something to do with the reputation I've made for myself: Finder, I'm called. I knew who you must be almost at once. If I couldn't figure out as small a thing as that, coming to see me would be a waste of your time."

"Elucidate," said Dio, in his expressionless teacher's voice.

"Yes, make yourself clear!" laughed the little gallus, lifting his wine cup and shaking out his bleached curls.

"Very well. That you were not what you wished to appear was immediately evident to me, as it was to Diana, and even to Belbo, my doorkeeper."

"What gave me away?" said Dio.

I shrugged. "Little things. Who can list all the differences between the ways that men and women walk and talk and hold themselves? An actor on the stage can convincingly portray a woman, but an actor trains for the task. To simply paint your face and put on a stola is hardly an impersonation."

"Then the pretense was not at all convincing? Be specific! I have to know, because if I cannot succeed with this disguise, then I must find another. It could mean the difference between-between life and…" He bit at his fingernails again, but finding nothing left to gnaw at, pulled nervously at the wrinkles that hung from his neck.

"Your fingernails gave you away, for a start. Roman matrons make a ritual of their manicures."

"Ah!" He looked at his nails with disgust. "A terrible habit. It's come back to me only since I arrived in Italy. I cannot seem to stop myself."

"You might grow back your nails, but your hands would still give you away. Such brown, weathered hands-no Roman matron has hands like yours, and neither does any citizen of standing. Only slaves and farmers have such hands-or visitors from foreign climes where the sun stays hot all year long and burns everyone brown as a nut, from King Ptolemy down to the lowest field slave."

"Ptolemy!" Dio spat the name.

"Yes, I saw your agitation earlier when I spoke his name, which gave further confirmation to what I already suspected: that Dio of Alexandria had come to pay me a visit."

"But you still haven't explained how you came to have such a suspicion in the first place," said the gallus. " 'Elucidate!' " he quipped, mimicking Dio.

"By steps, then: My visitor is dressed as a woman but is not a woman. My visitor must be a man, then, with a reason for concealing himself-I confess that I overlooked the possibility that either of you might be a eunuch. A man in trouble, perhaps in danger-that seemed likely from your nervous mannerisms and the fact that you refused any food, despite the fact that your stomach was growling. From your brown hands and your accent, I knew you must be foreign."

I shrugged. "But there's a point where explaining the discrete steps in a logical progression of thought becomes too tedious to bother with- would you agree, Teacher? Like asking a weaver to explain how a tapestry was made by taking it apart thread by thread-what a mess you'd have! Suffice it to say that given what I had already deduced, the supposition leaped to my mind that my visitor must be Dio of Alexandria. I've heard of your plight; rumor says that you've been hiding in private houses here on the Palatine Hill; suddenly it occurred to me that this foreign stranger with a desperate demeanor might be Dio. To test the possibility, I felt you out. I spoke of philosophy, my days in Alexandria, King Ptolemy. Your reactions confirmed my suspicions. This is not philosophy or mathematics, Teacher, but I think you must see how my mind works, and how I have put to use the ways of thinking which you taught me long ago."

Dio smiled and nodded. How curious, that in the fifth decade of my life I could still be warmed by the approval of a teacher I hadn't seen and had scarcely thought about for thirty years! "And what about Trygonion?" Dio said.

"Yes, what did you make of me?" asked the little gallus, his eyes sparkling. (I say 'his eyes,' though many people, perhaps most, would say 'her eyes'; as often as not, eunuchs are referred to as females, which seems to please them.)

"I confess, Trygonion, that you stumped me. I knew that you weren't what you pretended to be, but I got it wrong. I assumed you must be a young woman in a toga and hat, trying to pass herself off as a man."

The gallus threw back his head and let out a throaty laugh. "A logical balance, I suppose, for those who think of things as one or the other: a young woman in a toga, to match an old man in a stola!"

I nodded. "Exactly. The expectation of symmetry seduced me into error."

"So you took me for a woman!" said Trygonion, sitting low in his chair and fixing me with a feline gaze. "Who did you think such a woman might be-the philosopher's slave, his daughter, his wife?" He reached over and stroked the top of Dio's wrinkled hand with his fingertips; the philosopher made a face and drew back at the touch. "Or his Amazon bodyguard, perhaps?" Trygonion laughed.

I shrugged. "Your features and your voice confused me. Eunuchs are rare in Rome; I overlooked that possibility. I saw that you were unaccustomed to wearing a toga, as might be expected of a woman-but also of a foreigner. I did notice your accent, but it's faint, and not Egyptian; Phrygian, I assume, now that I know you're a gallus. Your Latin is almost that of a Roman. You must have lived here a long time."

"For ten years. I came to serve at the Great Mother's temple here in Rome when I was fifteen, the very year that I consecrated myself to her worship." By consecrated, Trygonion meant castrated; Dio winced. "So, the gallus proved a harder riddle to solve than the philosopher," the little priest said, looking pleased with himself.

"As is only logical," said Dio irritably, "given that philosophers strive for lucidity, while the priests of Cybele make a religion of mystifying the senses."

"And yet our host's young daughter perceived the truth at a glance," said Trygonion.

"A beautiful girl," said Dio softly, wrinkling his brow. "Such insight on the part of a child seems almost preternatural, don't you think, Gordianus?" Trygonion looked at me shrewdly. "Perhaps your daughter is a witch."

Dio scowled and shifted uneasily, but I decided to indulge the gallus's sense of humor rather than take offense. "Diana's mother grew up in Egypt, which has many eunuchs. Diana was born with Egypt in her blood, so I suppose she knows a eunuch when she sees one. I'd like to take credit for her cleverness, but certain insights definitely come from her mother."

"Perhaps they are both witches," said Trygonion.

"Enough of your rudeness," growled Dio. "These galli think they can say anything and behave however they choose, under anyone's roof. They have no shame."

"That's not all we lack," said Trygonion with a straight face.

Whatever the source of her insight, Diana had also put her finger on the more perplexing mystery that lay beyond the thin disguises of my guests: what were they doing together? It was clear that they had no love for each other.

"If you've had enough wine," I said, knowing that Trygonion had drunk more than his share while Dio had barely touched his cup, "and if we've talked enough of your disguises, perhaps we should speak of more serious things. Why have you come to me, Teacher, and what do you want from me?"

Dio cleared his throat. "You spoke a moment ago of what you Romans call 'the Egyptian situation.' I take it, then, that you know of the false will of King Alexander, the schemes of Caesar and Pompey to get their hands on the wealth of Egypt, the wholesale murder of my colleagues who have come to seek justice from the Senate of Rome -"

I raised my hand. "Perhaps you should begin at the beginning and explain to me each step that brought you to my door. But to start, I want only the simplest answers to two simple questions. First: why have you come to me?"

Dio looked at me for a long moment, then gazed into the flames of the brazier. His voice trembled. "I have come to you because there is no one else in all Rome to whom I can turn for help, no one else I can trust-if indeed I can trust even you."

I nodded. "And second: what do you want from me, Teacher?"

"I want you to help me to-" He choked on the words. He turned his gaze from the brazier to me, so that I saw the flames dancing in his eyes. His jaw quivered and the fleshy folds of his neck shook as he swallowed hard. "Help me. Please! I want you to help me to…"

"To help you do what?"

"Stay alive!"

Chapter Three

With his great mane of dark hair, his towering physique (not yet gone to fat), and his amiable manner, the philosopher Dio had been a conspicuous figure in the Alexandria of my youth. Like most of the upper class of Egypt, Dio was of Greek blood-with a touch of the Scythian, he had claimed, to account for his height, and a bit of the Ethiop to account for his dark complexion. He had been a familiar sight on the steps of the library attached to the Temple of Serapis, where philosophers met to debate one another and instruct their pupils.

As a young man I had ended up in Alexandria after a long journey and had decided to stay there for a while. That was where I met my future wife, Bethesda, or more precisely, where I purchased her; she was a slave offered for sale at the great slave market, very young and very beautiful. (And a troublemaker, the auctioneer had begrudgingly admitted, which was why I was able to afford her; but if what she gave me was trouble, I only craved more of it.) Thus I passed the hot Alexandrian nights in a haze of lust; and during the day, while Bethesda kept herself busy in my shabby little apartment or went to the market, I gravitated to the library steps and sought out Dio. 1 was no student of philosophy- I lacked the money for formal education-but it was a tradition among Alexandrian philosophers to engage common men in conversation from time to time, at no charge.

Now, thirty years later, I could recall only bits and pieces of those conversations, but I vividly remembered how Dio had fanned my youthful passion for truth into white-hot flames with his rhetorical conundrums, just as Bethesda had fanned my other passions. In those days I had everything I needed, which for a young man is not much: an unfamiliar city to explore, a partner in my bed, and a mentor. We do not forget the cities, or the lovers, or the teachers of our youth.

Dio was attached to the Academic school. His mentor was Antiochus of Ascalon, who in a few years would become the head of the Academy; Dio was one of the great philosopher's leading proteges. In my ignorance I once asked Dio where the Academy was, and he laughed, explaining that while the name originated from a specific site – a grove near Athens where Plato taught-it applied nowadays not to any par-ticular place or building, but to a discipline, a school of thought. The Academy transcended borders; kings might be its patrons, but they had no hegemony over it. The Academy transcended language (though of course all great works of philosophy, including those of the Academics, are written in Greek). The Academy embraced all men, and yet belonged to none. How could it be otherwise with an institution dedicated to discovering fundamental truths?

How does a man know what he knows? How can he be sure of his own perceptions, let alone those of others? Do the gods exist? Can their existence be proven? What is their form and their nature, and how can men discern their will? How can we determine right and wrong? Can right action lead to an evil result, or wrong action to a good outcome?

To a young Roman, barely twenty, in an exotic, teeming metropolis like Alexandria, these were heady questions. Dio had studied them all, and his quest for knowledge was a profound inspiration to me. Dio was hardly more than ten years my senior, but to me he seemed infinitely wise and worldly. In his presence I felt quite out of my depth, and I was immensely flattered that he would take the time and effort to explain his ideas to me. Sitting on the steps of the library while his slaves shaded us with parasols, we would discuss the differences between intellect and sensation, range the senses in order of reliability, and consider the specific ways that men depend upon logic, smell, taste, sight, hearing and touch to make sense of the world.

Thirty years had passed. Dio had changed, of course. He had seemed old to me then, but now he truly was old. The mane of dark hair had turned to silver. His belly had grown big and his skin had grown loose and wrinkled. But his broad back was unstooped. Unused to having his arms covered, he pulled up the sleeves of his stola to reveal a pair of muscular forearms as brown and weathered as his hands. He looked as healthy as myself, and given his size and robustness, he was probably stronger.

You'd be a hard man to forget,

I had told him. Now, as he implored me to help him stay alive,

I almost said,

You look like you'd be a hard man to kill.

Instead, after a considerable pause, I changed the subject. "What I find surprising, Teacher, is that you should remember me after all these years. I was your pupil only in the most casual way, and my time in Alexandria was relatively brief. After I left, I heard that your mentor Antiochus succeeded Philo as head of the Academy; your life must have become very busy after that, conversing with kings, playing host to diplomats, advising the great and powerful. How curious, that you should remember making the acquaintance of a footloose young Roman who liked to loiter on the library steps, eavesdropping on the discourses of his elders and occasionally daring to converse with them."

"You were something more than that," Dio said. "You say that you would be a poor Finder if you could not deduce the identity of a visitor like myself. Well then, what sort of philosopher would I be, if I could not recognize and remember a kindred spirit when I met one?"

"You flatter me, Teacher."

"I most certainly do not. I never flatter anyone, not even kings. Not even King Ptolemy! Which is one reason I find myself in this terrible state." He smiled weakly, but in his eyes I saw the haunted look of a man oppressed by constant fear. He stood and began to pace nervously around the small room, hugging his arms to his chest and shaking his head. Trygonion sat with folded hands and watched him with a curious expression, content to be silent.

"Do you remember the things we used to talk about on the library steps, Gordianus?"

"Only bits and pieces, I'm afraid. But I remember your eloquence when you spoke of perception and truth, of how the teachings of Plato and the Stoics had been clarified rather than refuted by the Academy-"

"Is that what you remember? How strange! That's not at all what I recall of our conversations."

"But what else was there, except talk of philosophy?"

Dio shook his head. "I don't remember talking of philosophy with you, though I suppose I must have. All those abstract fancies and high-minded ramblings-how pompous I must have seemed to you!"

"Not at all – "

"No, what I remember are the stories you told, Gordianus." "What stories?"

"About your adventures out in the great world! About your long, roundabout journey from Rome to Egypt, and your visits to the Seven

Wonders along the way, and your exploits in Alexandria. How dull my own life seemed by comparison. How old you made me feel, as if life had passed me by! While my colleagues and I lounged under parasols, debating good and evil, you were out in the streets, encountering good and evil in the flesh, taking part in the whirling drama of life and death. Who was I to speak of discerning truth from falsehood, when sitting beside me on the steps of the library was the young Roman who had solved the riddle of the cat murdered in the Rhakotis district, which caused half the populace of the city to riot?"

"You remember that story?" I said, amazed.

"I have never forgotten it! Even now I can close my eyes and hear you telling the tale while philosophers and shopkeepers gathered around to listen in awe."

"The killing of a mere cat caused the city to riot?" Trygonion turned a heavy-lidded, dubious gaze at each of us in turn.

"You obviously have never been to Alexandria, where cats are gods," said Dio curtly. "Only a few years ago a similar incident occurred. The culprit was a Roman, or so they said. But given the political climate in Alexandria these days, any pretext will do to stir up the mob to chase a Roman through the streets, cat killer or not." He stopped his pacing and took a halting breath, then another. "Do you think we could retire to another room? The brazier is too hot. The air grows stuffy."

"I could call Belbo to unshutter another window," I suggested.

"No, no, perhaps we could step outside for a moment?"

"As you like."

I led them into the garden. Trygonion made a show of shivering and hugging himself, flapping the folds of his toga in an undignified, decidedly un-Roman fashion. Dio studied the fishpond with an abstracted air, then gazed up at the darkening sky, took several deep breaths and resumed his pacing, which brought him to a startled halt before the statue of Minerva. The virgin goddess held an upright spear in one hand and clutched a shield in the other. An owl perched on her shoulder and a snake coiled at her feet. The whole statue was painted in such lifelike color that the goddess seemed to breathe and gaze down on us from beneath the visor of her crested helmet.

"Magnificent," he whispered. Trygonion, loyal to the Great Mother, gave the goddess of wisdom only a cursory glance.

I stepped alongside Dio and gazed up at the statue's familiar face. "The only female in the place who never talks back to me. But then, she never seems to listen to me, either."

"She must have cost a small fortune."

"Probably, though I can't tell you the cost. I gained her by inheritance, more or less, like the rest of this house. The tale of how that came to pass would fill a book."*

Dio surveyed the portico that surrounded the garden, clearly impressed. "Those multicolored tiles above the doorways-"

"Fired by artisans in Arretium. So my late benefactor Lucius Claudius once told me, when I was merely a visitor here."

"And all these finely carved columns-"

"Salvaged and brought up with great difficulty, so I was told, from an old villa at Baiae, as was the statue of Minerva. All are of Greek design and workmanship. Lucius Claudius had impeccable taste and con-siderable resources."

"And now all this is yours? You've done well for yourself, Gordianus. Very well, indeed. When they said that you lived in a fine house here on the Palatine, I wondered if it could be the same man who'd led a wanderer's life in Alexandria, living from hand to mouth."

I shrugged. "I may have been a wanderer, but I always had the humble house of my father to come back to here in Rome on the EsquilineHill."

"But surely that couldn't be as fine as this. You have prospered remarkably. You see, I judged you rightly when I met you long ago in Alexandria. I have known many wise men, philosophers who crave knowledge as other men crave fine wines or sumptuous clothing or a beautiful slave-as a glittering possession that will bring them comfort and earn other men's esteem. But you sought after truth as if you wished to marry her. You yearned for truth, Gordianus, as if you could not live without breathing her perfume every morning and night. You loved all her mysteries in equal measure-the great mysteries of philosophy as well as the practical mystery of discovering the killer of an Alexandrian cat. To search for truth is virtue. For your virtue the gods have rewarded you."

I could think of no response but a shrug. In the thirty years since I had last seen Dio I easily could have died a hundred times, for my labors had often brought me into danger, or I could have fallen into ruin like so many other men. Instead I owned a fine house on the Palatine and counted senators and wealthy merchants among my neighbors. Dio's explanation of my good luck was as reasonable as any other, though it seems to me that even philosophers cannot say what causes Fortune to smile on one man and show spite to another. Watching him resume his fitful pacing, I couldn't help thinking that Dio, for all his years of devotion to finding the truth, had the haggard look of a man whom Fortune had abandoned.

*'Catilina's Riddle (St. Martin's Press, 1993).

It had been some time since I had conversed at length with a philosopher. I had forgotten how much they loved to talk, even more than politicians, and not always to the point. We had rambled far from the purpose of Dio's visit. It was beginning to grow chilly in the garden.

"Come, let's go back into the house. If the brazier is too hot, I'll have the serving girl bring you some cool wine."

"Heated wine for me," Trygonion said, shivering.

"Yes, more of your very fine wine," Dio murmured. "I'm quite thirsty."

"Hungry, as well?" I said. My own stomach rumbled. "No!" he insisted. But as he stepped through the doorway he tripped and stumbled, and when I reached out to steady him I felt him trembling. "When did you last eat?" He shook his head. "I'm not sure." "You can't remember?"

"Yesterday I dared to take a walk outside, disguised as you see me now, and bought some bread in the market." He shook his head. "I should have bought more to eat this morning-but of course someone could have poisoned it while I slept… "

"Then you've eaten nothing at all today?"

"The slaves tried to poison me at the last place I stayed! Even at the house of Titus Coponius I can't feel safe. If one man's slaves can be bribed to kill a houseguest then so can another's. I eat nothing unless I see it prepared with my own eyes, or unless I buy it myself in the markets where it could not possibly have been tampered with."

"Some men have slaves to taste their food for them," I said, knowing the practice was especially common in Dio's Alexandria, where the inbred, rival monarchs and their agents were forever attempting secretly to do away with one another.

"Of course I had a taster!" said Dio. "How do you think I escaped the attempt to poison me? But the problem with tasters is that they must be replaced, and my stay in Rome has exhausted my resources. I don't even have money to make my way back to Alexandria once the weather warms and the sailing season begins." He stumbled again and almost fell against the brazier.

"But you're faint with hunger!" I protested, gripping his arm and steering him toward a chair. "I insist that you eat. The food in my house is perfectly safe, and my wife-" I was about to add some extravagant estimation of Bethesda's culinary skills, but having just been praised as a seeker of truth I said instead, "My wife is not at all a bad cook, especially when she prepares dishes in the Alexandrian style."

"Your wife cooks?" said Trygonion. "In such a grand house as this?"

"The property's more impressive than my purse. Besides, she likes to cook, and she has a slave to help her. Here she is now," I added, for in the doorway stood Bethesda.

I was about to say more by way of introduction, but the look on her face stopped me. She looked from Dio to Trygonion, then back at Dio, who in his faint seemed hardly to notice her, then at me, all with a scowl that after thirty years of living with her I could not account for. What had I done now?

"Diana told me that you had visitors," she finally said. Her old Egyptian accent asserted itself and her tone was even haughtier than usual. She scrutinized my visitors so harshly that Trygonion nervously dropped his eyes, and Dio, finally taking notice of her, blinked and drew back as if he had looked into the sun.

"Is something wrong?" I said, secretly grimacing at her with the side of my face. I thought this might make her smile. I was mistaken.

"I suppose you want to eat something," she said in a flat voice. The way she twisted her mouth would have spoiled the looks of a less beautiful woman.

Ah, that was it, I thought-she'd been in the doorway longer than I'd realized and had overheard my qualified endorsement of her culinary skills. Even so, a mere lifting of her eyebrow would have sufficed to express her displeasure. Perhaps it was the fact that I had packing to do for a trip the next day and was leaving the work to her while I entertained visitors in my study-and dubious visitors at that. I took another look at Dio, with his rumpled stola and clumsy makeup, and at Trygonion, who played with his bleached hair and nervously fluttered the folds of his toga under Bethesda's harsh gaze, and saw how they must appear to her. Bethesda acquiesced long ago to the parade of disreputable characters through our house, but she has never hidden her disdain from those she dislikes. It was clear that she thought very little of the Egyptian ambassador and his companion.

"Something to eat-yes, I think so," I said, raising my voice to capture my visitors' attention, for they both seemed spellbound by Bethesda's stare. "For you, Trygonion?"

The little gallus blinked and managed to nod.

"And for you, too, Teacher-I insist! I won't allow you to leave my house without taking some food to steady you."

Dio bowed his head, looking tired and perplexed, trembling with agitation and, no doubt, hunger. He muttered something to himself, then finally looked up at me and nodded. "Yes – an Alexandrian dish, you said?"

"What could we offer our visitors? Bethesda, did you hear me?"

She seemed to wake from a daydream, then cleared her throat. "I could make some Egyptian flatbread… and perhaps something with lentils and sausage… "

"Oh yes, that would be very good," said Dio, staring at her with an odd expression. Philosopher he might be, but hunger and homesickness can addle the mind of any man.

Suddenly Diana appeared at Bethesda's side. Dio looked more con-fused than ever as he gazed from mother to daughter. Their resemblance is striking.

Bethesda departed as abruptly as she had appeared. Diana lingered for a moment and seemed to mimic her mother's scowl. The longer I live with a woman the more mysterious the experience becomes, and now that there are two of them in the household, the mystery is doubled.

Diana turned on her heel and followed her mother with the same quick, haughty stride. I looked at my guests. In comparison to comprehending a woman, I thought, comprehending another man-even a philosopher in a stola or a gallus who had given up his sex-was really not so difficult.

The serving girl brought us wine and some crusts of bread to stave off our hunger until the meal was ready. A chill had crept in from the garden, so I called on Belbo to stoke the brazier while I closed the shutters. I glanced outside and saw that twilight had descended on the atrium, casting the face of Minerva into inscrutable shadow.

With more wine in his stomach, as well as a bit of bread, Dio at last found the fortitude to recount the events which had reduced him to such a state of uncertainty and fear.

Chapter Four

Best to begin at the beginning," sighed Dio, "insofar as that's possible with such a twisted tale. You know something of the story already -" "Refresh my memory," I said. "Very well. All my life, Alexandria has been in constant political upheaval. The members of the royal Ptolemy clan wage unending warfare against each other. For the people of Alexandria, this has meant bloody massacres and crushing taxes. Time and again the people have risen up to drive ruler after ruler out of the capital. One Ptolemy goes into exile, another takes his place-I won't recite the list. Whoever is winning occupies Alexandria, with its great granaries and royal treasury. Whoever is losing flees to Cyprus and plots his return. Fortunes reverse and the rulers change places, while the people endure. I forget which Ptolemy was on the throne when you were in Alexandria, Gordianus-"

"Alexander, I believe."

"Yes, that's right; a couple of years later he was chased out of the city by an angry mob and died in suspicious circumstances. Then Alexander's brother Soter took the throne. Eight years later Soter died, leaving no legitimate sons. That was twenty-four years ago."

Dio put his fingertips together. "The only legitimate male heir of Ptolemaic blood was Soter's nephew, named Alexander like his father. He happened to be residing here in Rome at the time of Soter's death, under the dictator Sulla's protection; this is where Rome first enters the story. Backed by Roman diplomacy-and by funds borrowed from Roman bankers-Alexander II returned to Egypt to claim the throne. To do so he had to marry his aunt, Soter's widow, because she refused to step down as queen. Marry her he did-and summarily murdered her. The queen had been well liked. Her death ignited the fury of the mob."

"The same mob which rioted over the death of a cat?" Trygonion sniffed. "I shudder to imagine what they did over the murder of a popular queen!

"You anticipate the story," said Dio, slipping into his lecturing voice. "Alexander II then announced a rise in taxes so that he could repay his Roman backers. That was the final spark. Nineteen days after he ascended the throne, the new king was dragged from the royal palace and murdered by the mob. They tore him limb from limb."

It was tales such as this which Romans like to cite to make themselves feel proud of the relative civility of our republic. As a young man I had admired the Alexandrians' passion for politics, though I could never accustom myself to their propensity for sudden, extreme violence. Alexandrian healers peddle a poultice with the Egyptian name "cure-for-a-human-bite-which-draws-blood," and most households keep a sup-ply on hand-a fact which says much about the Alexandrians.

"Now we come to the beginnings of the current crisis-the Egyptian situation, as you call it, Gordianus. After the brief and inglorious reign of their cousin Alexander II, two of Soter's bastards came forward to press their claim for the throne."

"Brave men!" quipped Trygonion.

"One bastard took Cyprus. The other took Egypt, and has since reigned for twenty years-proof that a man can keep himself on a throne without possessing a single kingly virtue. His full name in the Greek" – Dio took an orator's breath- "is Ptolemaios Theos Philopator Philadelphos Neos Dionysos."

"Ptolemy, God: Father-Lover, Brother-Lover, the New Dionysus," I translated.

Dio curled his lip. "In Alexandria, we simply call him Ptolemy Auletes-the Flute-Player."

"The Piper!" Trygonion laughed.

"Yes, King Ptolemy the Piper," said Dio grimly, "whose only known accomplishment is his skill on the flute, which he loves to play day and night, sober or drunk. He stages choruses in the royal palace and plays the accompaniment. He debuts his own compositions at diplomatic dinners. He organizes contests and pits his talent against common musicians. How did Egypt ever deserve such a ruler? He epitomizes and exaggerates all the baser qualities of his decrepit line-indolent, self-indulgent, luxury-loving, licentious, lazy… "

"He should have been a gallus rather than a king," laughed Trygonion.

Dio looked at him sidelong. "I am compelled to agree with you."

"I remember something Cicero said about him in a speech," I said. " 'Nearly everyone agrees that the man who occupies the throne of Egypt today neither by birth nor in spirit is like a king.' And there are those who say the Piper's reign is illegitimate and always has been, because of a will that was made by his unfortunate predecessor."

"Ah, yes, and there you put your finger upon the heart of the matter," said Dio. "Shortly after the death of Alexander II at the hands of the mob, from the very start of King Ptolemy's reign, a rumor began to circulate to the effect that Alexander II had left a will, bequeathing all of Egypt to the Senate and people of Rome."

Trygonion raised his eyebrows. "A splendid prize! The granaries! The treasure house! The crocodiles! But surely no one could believe such a tale. Such generosity is preposterous."

Dio sighed, exasperated. "You show your ignorance of both politics and history, gallus. Preposterous as such an idea may be, it is not without precedent. Attalus of Pergamum bequeathed his kingdom to Rome over seventy years ago; it became a province of the empire and to this day supplies the people of this city with subsidized grain. Forty years ago Apion left Cyrene to Rome; Apion was a Ptolemy and Cyrene was once a part of Egypt. And less than twenty years ago Bithynia was left to Rome by its last king."

"But why would any king do such a thing?" asked Trygonion.

"To save his country from the bloodshed of a disputed succession; to spite his presumptive heirs; to protect his people from being conquered by rival kingdoms even more oppressive than Rome; to bow to the tide of Roman expansion." Dio sighed. "In my lifetime, Rome has gained Pergamum, Cyrene and Bithynia by inheritance, and Pontus and Syria by conquest. Two years ago Rome seized Cyprus without a skirmish; King Ptolemy's brother committed suicide. Rome has overrun the East. Of all the kingdoms that grew out of the empire of Alexander the Great, only one remains: Egypt."

"And now the rumors are circulating again, about a will made by Alexander II bequeathing Egypt to Rome," I said. "King Ptolemy's sleep must be uneasy."

Trygonion nodded sagely. "I wouldn't care to be the slave who has to change his bed sheets."

"Vulgar, vulgar," Dio muttered through clenched teeth. "Rome now dominates the East. This is a fact which no one denies. But the people of Egypt demand a ruler who will resist that domination. Our land was ancient beyond imagining even before Alexander the Great came and founded Alexandria. The kingdom he established flourished with beauty and learning while Romulus and Remus were infants suckling the she-wolf. We have no need of Roman ways or Roman government. But instead of standing firm against Roman domination, King Ptolemy quivers with fright and offers whatever concessions are demanded of him. The people of Alexandria demand that he redeem Cyprus from Roman rule and restore it to the kingdom; instead he plays host to the Roman commissioner sent to plunder the island. To quiet talk about the alleged will, he gives a 'gift' of thirty-five million denarii to Caesar and Pompey, so that Caesar can bribe the Roman Senate and Pompey can pay off his own troops. The bill is passed along to the people of Egypt in the form of higher taxes. Our taxes go directly into the pockets of Roman senators and soldiers-we might as well be a Roman province! And what does King Ptolemy receive in return? A tentative acknowledgment by the Roman Senate of his legitimacy as king, and a plaque set up on the Capitoline Hill, inscribed to the honor of Ptolemaios Theos Philopator Philadelphos Neos Dionysos, 'Friend and Ally of the Roman People.' To be a friend and ally is all very well, but to pay for the privilege he bleeds his own people white with taxes. The people's anger finally drove Ptolemy to flee the city, fearing for his life. He fled all the way here to Rome, where Pompey put him up in a great rambling villa with a vast household of slaves to serve him."

"For thirty-five million denarii, he should expect such royal treatment!" said Trygonion.

Dio scowled. "He spends his time practicing his flute and drafting letters to the Senate begging them to restore him to his throne against the wishes of the Egyptian people. But it is too late for that. His daughter Berenice has already been named queen of Egypt."

"A woman?" said Trygonion, who seemed genuinely intrigued.

"It was not my choice," said Dio hastily. "Philosophers have influence in Alexandria, but so do astrologers. It was the star-gazers who insisted that the time is right for a woman of the Ptolemaic line to rule Egypt."

"It strikes me that you may be too hard on King Ptolemy, Teacher," I said cautiously. "All his life he's seen kingdom after kingdom swallowed up by Roman imperialism, sometimes by war, sometimes by statecraft. His position has always been precarious. He must know that he's kept his throne this long only because the Romans can't settle among them-selves who should reap the rewards when Egypt is taken over. I know something of these matters, Teacher. A man can't live in Rome and be entirely ignorant of what goes on in the Forum. During Ptolemy's reign there have been several attempts by the Senate to act on the alleged will of Alexander II and to stake a Roman claim on Egypt. Only the Senate's internal bickering and rivalries have prevented those attempts from being carried out. During Cicero's consulship, I remember, Caesar and Pompey tried to put themselves on a board of governors to oversee the takeover of Egypt; Cicero killed the legislation with one of his brilliant speeches by claiming, in so many words, that Caesar and Pompey would ultimately make themselves kings. Now Caesar and Pompey have taken to extorting money directly from King Ptolemy."

Agitated, Dio began to speak, but I held up my hand. "Hear me out, Teacher. If Ptolemy bends to Roman wishes so that he can stay in power, even if he pays for the privilege with silver to keep the Romans at bay, how can you fault him for that? So far, by one means or another, he's kept the Romans from moving into Alexandria and taking over the imperial palace. That indicates to me that King Ptolemy must possess more diplomatic expertise than you give him credit for."

"He bends too far for the Romans," said Dio sternly. "What does it matter whether they conquer us outright, if they can use King Ptolemy as their private tax collector to drain our lifeblood?"

"Perhaps; but I think I see a contradiction, Teacher. Why do you resist Roman rule if you despise your own rulers so very much?"

Dio sighed. "Because, ultimately, the Ptolemies rule over Egypt by the will of the people. When they rule badly, the people rise up and cast them out. When they rule tolerably, the people tolerate them. Such a system may lack the perfection of Plato's ideal republic, but it suits the people of Egypt and has done so for hundreds of years. On the other hand, if Egypt should become a Roman province under the sway of a Roman governor, its people will become mere vassals of Rome, and we shall have no say at all over our destiny. We shall be drafted to fight in wars that are not of our choosing. We shall be forced to abide by laws dictated to us by a Senate of wealthy Romans who live too far from Alexandria to hear the complaints of its people. We shall become just another outpost of Rome's empire, watching our wealth become Roman plunder. Our statues and carpets and paintings will decorate the houses of Rome's rich; our grain will fill the stomachs of the Roman mob, and you can be sure that any payment will be far less than fair. Egypt is a great and free nation; we will not become minions of Rome." Dio took a deep breath. A tear glinted in his eye, and the gravity of his expression was oddly heightened by the feminine cosmetics that colored his weathered, wrinkled face. The absurdity of his costume could not disguise the depth of his emotion.

"But this is all academic, if you'll pardon the pun," said Trygonion blandly but with a twinkle of mischief in his eyes. "If the former king, Alexander II, really did leave a will bequeathing Egypt to Rome -"

Dio exploded. "No one in Egypt believes in the validity of the so-called will, because no one in Rome is able to produce it! The will of Alexander II is a fiction, a fraud, a pretext for the Roman Senate to go meddling in Egyptian affairs, a device to make whoever rules Egypt grovel at their feet. 'You may hold sway for the moment,' they say, 'but you cannot be legitimate without our approval, and you can never be anything but an impostor, for Egypt was left to us by our puppet Alexander II and we may choose to exercise our hegemony at any time.' They wave an imaginary scrap of parchment in the air and call it a will. King Ptolemy was a fool to play along with such a lie. 'Friend and Ally,' indeed! The plaque on the Capitoline should read, 'Piper and Puppet of the Roman People.' "

"But now you've replaced the puppet," I said.

"The Piper has been booed off the stage!" cried Trygonion.

Dio clenched his teeth. "The crisis which revolves around Egypt's "throne may be a matter of amusement to you, gallus, but to the people of Egypt I assure you it is not. Roman diplomats and merchants in Alexandria seldom go out of doors these days, for fear of being torn apart by the mob. Rabble-rousers make speeches against Roman greed, and even my fellow philosophers neglect their teaching to engage in heated debate about the Roman threat. That is why I came to Rome, heading a delegation of one hundred Alexandrians: to demand that the Roman Senate stop meddling in Egyptian affairs and to ask for their recognition of Queen Berenice."

"I see a contradiction, Teacher," I said quietly. "To request the Senate's approval of your new monarch implies, in itself, that the Senate has a right to meddle in your affairs."

Dio cleared his throat. "In philosophy we seek the ideal. In politics, as I have learned to my bitter enlightenment, we seek whatever accommodates. So it was that I came to Rome at the head of the delegation of one hundred. So many distinguished voices, we thought, simply could not be ignored, even by your lofty senators. And that is where this despicable farce turns to tragedy!"

He put his hands to his face and suddenly began to weep, so profusely that even Trygonion was stunned. Indeed, the little gallus seemed deeply moved by the old philosopher's tears, biting his lips in sympathy, pulling at his bleached hair and rubbing his hands together in agitation. I have heard that the galli, cut off from the circle of earthly passion, are given to sudden transports of extreme and inexplicable emotion.

It took Dio a moment to compose himself. The fact that a philosopher of his stature should have lost control and given vent to such an outburst, even briefly, testified to the depth of his despair.

"This is how it was: we landed down in Neapolis at the very end of the autumn sailing season. I had friends there, members of the Academy who offered us lodgings. That night, men armed with knives and clubs came crashing into the houses where we were staying. They up-turned furniture, set curtains afire, smashed priceless statues. We were roused from sleep, dazed, barely able to fend them off. Bones were broken and blood was spilled, but no one was killed, and the attackers escaped. The assault put such fear into some of our party that a few set sail for Alexandria the next day."

Dio stiffened his jaw. "The attacks were well organized and planned in advance. Do I have proof of King Ptolemy's complicity? No. But one need not see the sun to deduce its presence by the casting of a shadow. The midnight attacks in Neapolis were engineered by King Ptolemy, have no doubt. He knew that we were coming to dispute his right to the throne. His agents were ready for us.

"After that we moved on to safer quarters in Puteoli, to regroup and plan our strategy for approaching the Senate. We stayed closer together and guarded ourselves at night, but we made the error of thinking that we would be safe walking in the town forum in broad daylight. One afternoon a group of fifteen men, led by one of my Academic colleagues, Onclepion, went out to buy provisions for our journey up to Rome. Out of nowhere they were set upon by a group of small boys who began to pelt them with stones. The boys shouted curses. When passersby stopped to ask why, the boys told them that the Alexandrians had been defaming the honor of Pompey and his troops with vicious slanders. Some members of Onclepion's group, simply to protect themselves, began to shove at the boys and tried to drive them off by throwing stones in return. One of the boys suddenly screamed, clutched his head and collapsed in the dust-or feigned collapse, as I suspect, for I'm told that his body was not found afterward. The crowd that had gathered was sparked into a frenzy, and soon a mob of grown men and women had joined the boys to stone the Alexandrians, who found themselves surrounded on three sides and trapped against a wall. Have you ever witnessed a stoning, Gordianus?" Dio shuddered. Beside him, the little gallus shivered in empathy. "Thirteen of them were killed that day, stoned or trampled to death. Only Onclepion and his slave managed to escape. Onclepion boosted the slave onto the top of the wall, and the slave managed to pull his master after him. But Onclepion was blinded in one eye, and his slave lost several teeth.

"That was the outrage at Puteoli. More men deserted the delegation that night, until only sixty of the original one hundred remained. I thought it best to head immediately to Rome, before some further incident occurred. The trip was not easy. The oxen we hired to pull our wagons fell to their forelegs just outside Capua and died with blood-flecked bile pouring from their mouths-poisoned, I had no doubt, since they all died in the span of an hour. More of the delegation deserted.

"Halfway to Rome, we stopped to spend a night off the Appian Way at an estate owned by my acquaintance Palla. It was a rustic house in the woods which he kept for hunting boar, simple and without luxuries but with provisions for a great many visitors. Palla himself was absent, staying at one of his villas north of Rome, but his slaves had been told to expect us. To accommodate us all, they crowded our sleeping couches close together, blocking the hallways. That very nearly proved disastrous.

"It was a scream from Onclepion that woke me in the night. At first I thought he cried out in pain, because of his ruined eye. Then I smelled the smoke. It was only by the will of the gods that no one was burned alive that night, for the doors had all been blocked from the outside by handcarts, the type that slaves use for trundling bales of hay. The building quickly filled with smoke. We at last managed to break through one of the doors. The cart blocking it had been loaded with heavy stones! Somehow, we all escaped into the woods, where we stood and watched as the house was consumed by flames. I have never known such fear as I knew that night, for at any moment I looked for King Ptolemy's henchmen to descend on us from out of the woods, forcing us to choose between being hacked to death or fleeing back into the burning house. But the attack never came. Why should King Ptolemy mount a full assault, when a handful of agents can set a fire and possibly kill everyone at once? Especially if they have the help of someone inside."

"Then you think that Ptolemy had agents within the delegation?"

"From the beginning! Oh yes, I have no doubt of that, ashamed as I am to say it. How else could his men have known which houses to attack in Neapolis? Or known when Onclepion's party was setting out for the market in Puteoli, so as to set the little boys upon them? How else did someone poison the oxen's water trough that morning in Capua, without anyone taking notice? King Ptolemy has ruled Egypt these twenty years by bribery, treachery and terror. His agents know how to use the weak and silence the strong.

"On the morning after the destruction of Palla's house, beside a stream in the woods, and with Palla's slaves keeping watch for an attack I still dreaded might come, I called a meeting of the delegation. I expected some desertions, but I was shocked at how few decided to continue on to Rome. Only fifteen! Even Onclepion joined the ranks of those who made up their minds to turn back that morning. I told them that they would find themselves trapped for the winter in Puteoli or Neapolis, unable to find ships to carry them home, for the sailing season was over. But they would not be dissuaded. Once King Ptolemy saw that they had turned back from Rome, and no longer intended to address the Senate, he would stop his attacks against them-so they reasoned, and no argument from me could change their minds. Onclepion even engaged me in mock debate over the matter. I was appalled at the tawdry way he excused his own cowardice with sophistry. Even more appalling was the fact that after our debate was over, five of the men who had originally stood by me that morning claimed to have been won over by Onclepion's eloquence and joined the deserters!

"Only ten then remained of the one hundred who came from Alexandria to confront the Senate, armed with righteous indignation and the certain favor of the gods for a just cause. Attended only by our slaves we made our bedraggled way to Rome. There was no grand entrance for us! Instead we slunk through the gates like thieves, hoping to escape notice. We dispersed ourselves about the city, staying with friends and acquaintances; many turned us away, when they learned of the tribulations we had brought upon our hosts in Neapolis and Puteoli, and the destruction of Palla's property! Meanwhile, we petitioned the Senate for an audience-but the Senate answered us with silence."

He turned toward the brazier and stared into the flames. "What a winter! No winter in Alexandria was ever so cold. How do you Romans stand it? I cover myself with blankets at night and still I can't stop shivering. What misery! And the murders… "

He began to shake and couldn't seem to stop.

"Shall I call a slave to bring you a blanket?" I said.

"No, no, it's not the cold." He hugged himself, and at last managed to take a deep breath and stopped shaking. "During those terrible days in Neapolis and Puteoli and on the road, I kept one thought in my mind:

When we reach Rome,

I told myself,

when we reach Rome…

"But you see, there was a fallacy in my reasoning, for I never really finished that thought. When we reach Rome-then what? Did I tell myself, When we reach Rome, there shall be only ten of us left? Did I ever think that the Senate would snub us, and refuse even to hear me? Or that there would be still more treachery and betrayals, until I would lose my faith even in the men I most trusted when we left Alexandria? Or that we would be murdered one by one, until only a handful remained-by the very fact of their survival, traitors and tools of King Ptolemy? Do you understand what has happened to me, Gordianus?" He held out his hands in a gesture of supplication, and on his face I saw the full measure of his despair. "I left Alexandria full of worry but also full of hope. Now…"

"Murders, you said. Here in Rome?"

"Yes. At least three since we arrived. We all stayed in different houses, under the roofs of men I thought we could trust. I feared another full-scale attack, you see, until I realized that Rome is Rome, not Neapolis or Puteoli. Even King Ptolemy would never dare to stage a massive assault or manufacture a riot in the shadow of the Senate. The men who rule Rome tolerate such flagrant crimes at a distance, but not in their presence. No foreign king could be allowed to stir up the masses or set fires or practice open warfare in Rome itself."

"You're right. Senators reserve those privileges for themselves."

"So the king changed his tactics. Instead of trying to kill us all at once, he turned to assassinating us one by one."

"By what means?"

"Quietly. By poison. Suffocation. Stabbing." "With the complicity of their hosts?"

Dio paused. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. Slaves can sometimes be bribed or blackmailed. But masters can be bribed or blackmailed as well, especially when the pressure comes from the kind of men allied with King Ptolemy."

"Men such as Pompey?"

He nodded. "And I suspect there are respectable Romans-perhaps even senators-who are not above committing a murder or two to gain Pompey's favor or repay some debt they owe him."

"Be careful, Dio. So far you've accused your own king of being behind this slaughter. Now you're implicating a man who happens to be Rome's most beloved general and very possibly her future dictator."

"I tell you, these are the men behind the killings. King Ptolemy is not even in Rome any longer. He's retired to Ephesus for the winter, leaving everything in Pompey's hands. And why not? Pompey has as much to gain as Ptolemy if the king can keep his throne, so Pompey has continued the attacks against the delegation. Since we arrived in Rome, his agents have snuffed us out one by one."

I shook my head. "You admit that you have no proof of your alle-gations against King Ptolemy, Dio. Do you have proof of what you say against Pompey?"

He glared at me and was quiet for a long time. "A few nights ago, in the house of Lucius Lucceius, someone tried to poison me. Do you want proof of that? My slave died horribly, writhing and gasping on the floor, only moments after tasting a portion of soup that was served to me in my private room!"

"Yes, but-"

"And my host, Lucius Lucceius, despite his knowledge of philosophy, despite the disdain he espouses for King Ptolemy, is Pompey's friend."

"Do you know where the poison came from?"

"Earlier that day, a certain Publius Asicius paid a call on Lucceius. A handsome young man – I happened to see him as he was leaving the house, and I asked Lucceius his name. That night, my slave was poisoned. The next morning, after I fled from Lucceius's house, I made some inquiries about his visitor. They say this Publius Asicius is a young man of easy morals who indulges in poetry and wine and dabbles in politics with no fixed agenda, willing to do anything to curry the favor of anyone who can advance his career."

I sighed. "You have just described a whole generation of young Romans, Teacher. Many of them may be capable of murder, including, quite possibly, this Publius Asicius. But mere proximity to the scene of a crime is not-"

"Asicius is also said to be in debt to Pompey, for some very large loans which the general made to him."

"Still…"

"You see, you have no rejoinder for that, Gordianus. The chain goes back to Pompey and thence to King Ptolemy."

"Your host, Lucceius-did you confront him with your suspicions?"

"Even as my taster lay writhing on the floor! I insisted that Lucceius come and witness the atrocity himself. I demanded that he find out how the soup had been poisoned."

"What was his response?"

"He pretended to be appalled, of course. He said that he would interrogate each of his household slaves himself, and torture them if necessary. Perhaps he did, or perhaps not. I left the next morning, desperate to be away from the place. I told Lucceius that I would be staying at the house of Titus Coponius, but he has made no effort to contact me."

Trygonion, who had been silent for a while, cleared his throat. "Having escaped alive from the man's house, perhaps you would have been wiser not to tell Lucceius where you were headed next." The gallus made a wry face and seemed to be in a mood to cause trouble again, but what he said made sense.

"Am I then to behave like a fugitive or a criminal?" demanded Dio. "Skulking from shadow to shadow, hoping no one sees me, praying that the world will simply forget my existence? Already I put on this absurd disguise to go out during the day-is that not shame enough? I refuse to vanish altogether. To do so would give King Ptolemy unconditional victory. Don't you understand? I am all that remains of the delegation of one hundred who came to speak for the people of Alexandria and their new queen. If I allow fear to turn me invisible and mute, then I might as well never have come to Rome. I might as well be dead!"

With that, Dio gave another shudder and began to weep again. I watched him fight back the tears and struggle to compose himself. Over the last months he had endured much misery and seen unspeakable tragedy, and for all his travails he had nothing to show but bitterness and shame. I was awed by his perseverance.

"Teacher," I said, "what is it that you want from me? I can't force the Senate to hear your demands. I can't make Pompey waver in his support of King Ptolemy. I can't resurrect the dead, or redeem those who betrayed you."

I waited for Dio to answer, but he had not yet composed himself, so I went on. "Perhaps you wish for me to ferret out the truth, so that justice can be done. That's why men usually come to me. But you seem satisfied that you already know the truth. I'm not sure what good it will do you. That's the odd thing about truth, how much one craves it, yet how useless it often is. If you're thinking of bringing charges of murder against King Ptolemy, I'm not sure that a Roman court has jurisdiction over a friendly foreign monarch; I am sure that nothing could be done without the Senate, and we know that you can't rely on them. If you're thinking of bringing a charge against Pompey, then I would advise you to think again. Pompey has enemies, to be sure, but not one of them would be willing to attack him openly in a court of law, no matter how compelling the evidence. Pompey is much too strong."

I wrinkled my brow. "Perhaps it's this Publius Asicius against whom you want to bring charges, for attempting to poison you. If he did put Lucceius's slaves up to it, then you might have a case, provided that Lucceius is not the creature of Pompey that you suspect him to be, and is willing to let his slaves testify against Asicius. Such a trial might be useful. This Publius Asicius can't be too important if I've never heard of him, and that means he might be vulnerable. A trial against him could draw attention to your cause and elicit sympathy. Even so-"

"No, Gordianus," Dio said. "It's not a trial I seek. Do you think I expect justice from a Roman court? I come to you seeking merely to save my own life, so that I can continue with my mission."

I bit my lip. "Teacher, I can't offer you accommodations under my roof. I can't guarantee your safety, for one thing. While I place great trust in my household slaves, this house would hardly be secure against assassins as determined as your enemies appear to be. And then there's the danger to my own family. I have a wife, Teacher, and a young daughter-"

"No, Gordianus, I don't ask to spend a single night under the roof of your splendid house. What I need is your help in deciding whom I can trust and whom I cannot. They say you have ways of finding the truth. They say you have a sense for it, as other men have a sense of smell or taste. You say that truth is often useless, but it might save me now. Can I trust my new host, Titus Coponius? I met him in Alexandria. He is wealthy, educated, a student of philosophy-but can I entrust my life to him? Will he betray me? Is he another of Pompey's tools? You must know how to find out such things."

"Perhaps," I said cautiously, "but the task is more complicated than you may realize. If only you had come to me wanting to recover a stolen ring, or trying to find out whether a rich merchant did or did not murder his wife, or seeking to trace the origin of a threatening letter. Such mysteries are simple, and relatively safe. But to ask the kinds ofquestions you would have me ask, of those who would know the answers, would almost certainly attract the attention of powerful men… "

"You mean Pompey," said Dio.

"Yes, perhaps even Pompey himself." I nervously tapped at my chin. "I would hate for you to think me a coward, Teacher, afraid to move for fear of offending powerful men. In years gone by, I've dared to beard a few lions when the cause demanded it. Sulla the Dictator, for one, when I looked for the truth behind the murder of Sextus Roscius. Marcus Crassus, when he sought to slay a whole household of slaves. Even Cicero, when he grew reckless with power in the year of his consulship. Fortunately, so far, I've never crossed paths with Pompey. I don't wish to do so now. As a man grows older, and presumably wiser, he grows more cautious."

"You won't help me, then?" The despair in his voice made me feel a prickle of shame.

"Teacher, I can't. Even if I were eager to do so, it would still be impossible, at least for a while, because I'm about to go on a long trip. I leave at dawn. My wife has been busy all day packing my things… " I paused, surprised at how hollow my words sounded. What I said was true, and my trip had been planned for a long time. Why did I feel as if I were making excuses?

"Then you cannot help me," said Dio, staring at the floor.

"If the trip were less important," I began, and shrugged. "But it's to see my son Meto. He's been serving under Caesar in Gaul. I haven't seen him for months. Now he's at Caesar's winter quarters in Illyria, hardly close but considerably closer than Gaul, and he may be there for only a short while. I can't miss the chance to see him." "I see," said Dio.

"In other circumstances, I would recommend that you pay a call on my elder son, Eco. He's twice as clever as I ever was-but he's coming with me to visit Meto. We'll both be gone until at the least the end of the month, perhaps longer. The uncertainties of traveling in the winter, you understand… " Again, the words sounded hollow in my ears. I shifted uneasily in my chair, and the room suddenly seemed hot. "Of course, after the trip-that is, when I come back to Rome… "

Dio fixed me with a gaze that pulled at the hair on the back of my neck. I had seen such a glassy stare only in the eyes of dead men, and for a moment I was so unnerved that I couldn't speak. I cleared my throat. "When I come back to Rome, I'll be sure to send a messenger to you at the house of Titus Coponius-"

Dio lowered his eyes and sighed. "Come, gallus, it's time to go. We've wasted our time here."

"Hardly wasted, if that smell is what I think it is," said Trygonion cheerfully, as if oblivious to what had just passed between Dio and myself. A moment later a serving girl passed in the hallway carrying a tray of food, followed by two others who carried little folding tables.

We retired to the adjoining dining room, where we each reclined upon a couch. The folding tables were placed before us. Bethesda appeared, with Diana following after her, but they did not join us. The two of them made a point of carrying in the first course and serving it themselves, ladling the first portions of the lentils with sausage onto the plates of my guests, then onto mine, and then watching while we each took a bite. Under their scrutiny, the philosopher, the gallus and I nodded and made noises of approval. Satisfied, Bethesda and Diana retired, leaving the service to the slave girls.

Miserable and desperate as he might be, Dio was also a very hungry man. He swallowed great spoonfuls of food and called to the serving girl for more. Beside him Trygonion ate with even greater relish and an appalling lack of manners, using his thumb to push food onto his spoon and popping his fingers into his mouth. Barred from the ecstasies of sex, the galli are said to be notorious gluttons.

Chapter Five

Midwinter night descended on Rome, cold, clear and still.

Once my guests had eaten, they quickly departed. Telling his tale had exhausted Dio. Stuffing his yawning belly had made him sleepy. He was ready for an early bed. Smarting from a twinge of guilt, I almost relented from my earlier refusal to put him up and was ready to offer him a bed, if only for the night; but Dio with a

few curt words made it quite clear that he was set on making his way back to the house of Titus Coponius. If he was sharp with me, how could I blame him? He had come to seek the help of an old acquaintance and was leaving empty-handed. Desperate men – even philosophers-do not accept rejection graciously.

I insisted that Dio take Belbo along to see him safely home. This seemed the least I could do. Trygonion hid his long hair in his hat and adjusted his toga, Dio covered his head with the mantle; again they became impostors at Roman manhood and womanhood. Under cover of darkness they departed as they had come.

Having dispatched my guests, I was faced with the chore of finishing my packing for the trip to Illyria to see Meto. Bethesda had done much, but certain preparations can be made only by the traveler. With the short winter days allowing less daylight for travel, I planned an early start and so had hoped to be abed early, but the preparations kept me up until midnight. It was just as well; once I finally did crawl into bed I couldn't sleep, thinking about Dio and his plight. I reached out to touch Bethesda's shoulder, but she turned away from me, peeved about something.

As I pondered the strange visit, it occurred to me that there were some things I had neglected to find out. Someone had recommended that Dio come to see me. Who? And what was he doing in the company of the little gallus? The two of them seemed like oil and water, and yet Dio obviously trusted Trygonion enough to go out with him in disguise.

Ah well, I thought drowsily, these questions could wait until I returned from Illyria and saw Dio again. But as soon as this thought crossed my mind, I remembered the look I had seen in the philosopher's eyes-the look of a man already dead. I gave a start and was suddenly wide awake.

I turned on my side and reached for Bethesda. She exhaled noisily and pulled away. I called her name softly, but she pretended to be asleep. What had I done wrong? At what had she taken offense? A bit of moonlight strayed onto the bed, illuminating her hair. She had rinsed it with henna that morning, to give it luster and to cover the gray. The smell was familiar, comforting, erotic. She could have helped me to fall asleep, I thought, but she seemed no more willing to comfort me than I had been willing to help Dio. I stared into the tangle of her hair, an impenetrable forest, pathless and dark.

I tossed and turned and at last rolled out of the bed and onto my feet. I was already wearing a long tunic to keep warm. I stepped into my shoes and reached for a woolen cloak.

Out in the atrium, beneath the shadowed gaze of Minerva, I looked up at the firmament of bright twinkling stars. The air was cold and clear. I studied the constellations, and to tire my mind I tried to remember all their names, both Latin and Greek, which I had learned when I was young in Alexandria: the Great Bear, which Homer called the Wagon and others call the Seven Ploughing Oxen; the Little Bear, which some call the Dog's Tail; the Goat, which some say has the tail of a fish…

Still I couldn't sleep. I needed to walk. A few circuits around the fountain in the atrium was hardly enough to drain my restlessness. I walked to the front door and unbolted it. I stepped over the threshold and onto the smoothly paved street.

At night, the Palatine is probably the safest neighborhood in Rome. When I was a boy, it was as mixed as any other neighborhood in the city, with rich and poor, patricians and plebeians all crowded together. Then Rome's empire began its great expansion, and some families became not merely wealthy but phenomenally so, and it was the Palatine, with its proximity to the Forum and its elevation above the less wholesome airs of the Tiber and the cramped valleys, which became their neighborhood of choice. Over the years tall tenements and cramped family dwellings were torn down block by block, and in their places were built great houses separated here and there by strips of green and little gardens. There are still humble dwellings among the mansions on the Palatine, and occupants who are far from wealthy (I'm proof of that), but by and large it has become an enclave of the rich and the powerful. I live on the southern side, just up the hill from the House of the Vestals down in the Forum. In a circle of no great circumference around my house- hardly further than an arrow's flight-I count among my neighbors Crassus, Rome's wealthiest man, and my old patron Cicero, who the previous September had made a triumphant return from political exile and was busy rebuilding the house which an angry mob had destroyed two years before.

Such men own bodyguards-plenty of them, and not merely brutes but well-trained gladiators-and such men demand order, at least in their immediate vicinity. The roving, drunken gangs of troublemakers who terrorize the Subura at night know better than to bring their rowdiness to the Palatine. Rapists and petty thieves practice their crimes in other places on more vulnerable prey. And so, after dark, the streets of the Palatine are quiet and mostly deserted. A man can take a brisk stroll up the street on a chilly winter's night beneath a waxing moon, alone with his thoughts, and not fear for his life.

Even so, when I heard the sound of drunken voices approaching, I felt it prudent to conceal myself until they passed. I stepped back against a wall, beneath the deep shadow cast by the branch of a yew tree. I was just across the street from a venerable old three-story tenement at the end of my block. The place was exceptionally well built and well maintained, the property of the Clodii, an ancient and distinguished patrician family. It had withstood the changes on the Palatine, and was still divided between shops on the ground floor and apartments above. The whole of the middle floor was rented to Marcus Caelius, the young man who had embroiled me a few years before in Cicero's battle of wits with Catilina. It was his voice, together with another, that I now heard approaching from the eastern end of the street.

I stayed hidden in the shadows. I had nothing to fear from Caelius, but I was in no mood for company, especially drunken company. As he and his friend drew closer, careening up the street, I saw their shadows first, cast before them by the moonlight like spidery, elongated wraiths. They walked with their arms around each other's shoulders, twisting this way and that, laughing and conversing in shouts and whispers. It wasn't the first time I'd chanced to see Marcus Caelius coming home in such a state. Not much more than thirty years old and uncommonly good-looking-remarkably handsome, actually-Caelius was of that particular class of young Romans whom Dio had spoken of that afternoon when he described Publius Asicius, the man he suspected of trying to poison him: charming, quick-witted young men with good backgrounds but uncertain prospects, notorious for their complete lack of scruples, witty and well educated with a taste for hard drinking and scandalous poetry, affable, ingratiating, and never under any circumstances to be trusted. Caelius and his friend were probably returning from a late-night party at some fashionable house nearby. The only surprise was that they hadn't brought a young woman or two with them, unless, of course, they were satisfied to make do with each other for the night.

They stopped in the street before the entrance to Caelius's private stairway. Caelius banged on the door, and while they waited for a slave to come open it I overheard some of their drunken conversation. When I heard Caelius say the name 'Asicius" I gave a start. Probably, I thought, I merely imagined it, putting it together from a sigh and a hiss; I had just been thinking about Dio's description of Publius Asicius, and so had the name in my mind. But then I heard it again. "Asicius," Caelius said, "you ass, you very nearly flubbed it this time as well! Two disasters in a row!"

"Me?" cried the other man. I couldn't see him well for the darkness, but like Caelius he appeared to be tall and broad-shouldered. His words were slurred, some shouted, some muttered, so that I could catch only fragments of what he said. "I'm not the one who… you neglected to tell me that we'd have to… and then, to find… already!… and the look on his… oh go on, off to Hades with you, Caelius, along with that pitiful Egyptian… "

The door rattled and opened. Caelius and his friend moved to enter simultaneously and bumped into each other. Something clattered on the pavement; moonlight flashed on steel. Caelius turned back, stooped down and picked up the dagger that had been dropped. That was when he looked up and saw me in the shadows across the street.

He squinted drunkenly and turned his face sidelong, trying to decide whether I was a man or merely a shadow. I held my breath. He stepped slowly toward me, holding the dagger in his hand.

"Where in Hades are you off to now?" moaned Asicius. "Come on, Caelius, it's cold out here. You said you'd warm me up!"

"Shut up!" Caelius whispered hoarsely. He was halfway across the street, staring straight at me.

"Caelius, what-is someone there?"

"Shut up, Asicius!"

The night was so still I thought they might be able to hear the pounding of my heart. Caelius's dagger glinted in the moonlight. He stepped closer and tripped on a paving stone. I flinched.

"It's only me, neighbor," I said, through gritted teeth.

"Only-you, Gordianus!" Caelius grinned and lowered his dagger. I sighed with relief.

"Who is he?" demanded Asicius, swaggering up behind Caelius and reaching inside his tunic. "Trouble?"

"Oh, probably not," said Caelius. In the moonlight, with a smile on his lips, he looked like Apollo done in white marble. "You're not looking for trouble tonight, are you, neighbor?"

"Out for a walk," I said. "I leave on a trip tomorrow. I can't sleep."

"Cold for a walk, isn't it?" said Asicius.

"Not too cold for you to be out," I said.

Asicius growled, but Caelius slapped him on the shoulder and laughed. "Go home and get some sleep, Gordianus! Only people up to no good are out at this time of night. Come on, Asicius. Time to warm you up." He put his arm around his companion's shoulder and drew him back to the doorway. They disappeared inside and the door slammed shut.

In the stillness of the night, through the closed door, I heard their muffled voices and the clump of their heavy footsteps on the stairway. These sounds quickly faded, and the empty street seemed almost preternaturally quiet. The cold suddenly penetrated my cloak, making me shiver. I walked back to my house taking quick, careful steps. Everything was bland oyster-white and fathomless black shadow. Cold moonlight had turned the world to stone.

I slipped back into bed. I might have stayed awake for a long time, staring into the darkness above, but Bethesda rolled toward me and snuggled against me, and I fell asleep almost at once.

As planned, my son Eco came calling before daybreak. Belbo brought horses from the stable, and the three of us set out through the quiet gray streets of the waking city. We took the Flaminian Way and passed through the Fontinal Gate, leaving the dangers and deceits of the city behind us, at least for a while.

Chapter Six

The journey was without incident, except for a brief but wave-tossed crossing from Fanum Fortunae, at the terminus of the Flaminian Way, across to the Illyrian shore. In winter there are only a handful of boatmen who will ferry passengers across the Adriatic Sea, and on this trip we discovered why, for we very narrowly escaped a sudden squall that easily could have sent boat, Belbo, horses, Eco and myself to the bottom of the sea.

Before we left Fanum Fortunae, I had insisted on visiting the famous grounds consecrated to the goddess Fortune and leaving a few coins at her temple. "Better spent tipping the boatman," Eco had muttered under his breath. But after surviving the wet, windy crossing, it was Eco who suggested we give thanks at the nearest temple of Fortune. Pounding rain turned the wooden roof into a drum. Inside the rustic little temple incense swirled, coins jangled, and the goddess smiled, while the trembling in my knees and the queasiness in my stomach gradually subsided.

With our feet back on solid ground, even the arduous, rain-soaked journey up the rugged coastline and over the windswept hills to Caesar's winter quarters seemed like a holiday.

After he became a soldier in the legions of Gaius Julius Caesar in Gaul, I didn't see my son Meto for months at a time, though we conversed often by letter. This was fortuitous in a way that I could never have foreseen.

Meto's letters came to me by military messengers. This is a common way to send all sorts of correspondence, since only very wealthy men can afford to have slaves merely for the purpose of carrying letters, while military messengers range far and wide throughout the empire and are more reliable than merchants or pleasure travelers. Letters leaving Caesar's camp, as it turned out, were not entirely private; the messengers who carried them usually read them to make sure that they contained no compromising information. One of Caesar's most trusted messengers, impressed by Meto's style and observations, passed a copy along to one of Caesar's most trusted secretaries, who thought it worthwhile to pass it along to Caesar himself, who then moved Meto out of the tent where he had been ordered to polish newly minted armor and into the com-mander's staff.

Between conquering Gaul and vying for control of Rome, it seems that the great man finds time in his busy schedule to keep a minutely detailed journal. While other politicians leave their memoirs as monuments to posterity, Caesar intends to distribute his (so Meto suspects) as a tool in his election campaigns. The people of Rome will read of Caesar's extraordinary skills of leadership and his triumphs in spreading Roman civilization, and then rush to support him at the polls- provided, of course, that things continue to go as Caesar wishes in Gaul.

Caesar has slaves to take his dictation, of course-Meto says the commander often dictates while on horseback riding from camp to camp, so as not to waste time-and he has slaves to assist in the collation and compilation of his notes, but as my own experience has often borne out, the rich and powerful will make use of other men's talents wherever they find them. Caesar happens to like Meto's prose style-never mind that Meto was born a slave, received only sporadic tutoring in mathematics and Latin after I adopted him, and has no experience at practicing rhetoric. Ironic, too, is the fact that Meto, who chose to be a soldier against my wishes, now finds himself a tent-bound literary adjutant in-stead of a sunburned, wind-bitten legionary. It would be hard, I imagine, for one of his humble origins to rise much higher, with so many patricians and sons of the rich vying for honor and glory in the upper ranks.

Which is not to say that he no longer faces danger. Caesar himself takes extraordinary risks-this is said to be one of the keys to the hold he has over his men, that he faces the enemy alongside them-and no matter what his day-to-day duties, Meto has seen plenty of battle. His role as one of Caesar's secretaries simply means that during quiet times, instead of building catapults or digging trenches or making roads, Meto labors over his commander's rough drafts. Just as well; Meto was never very good at working with his hands or his back. But when the crisis comes and the enemy must be faced, Meto puts down his stylus and takes up his sword.

Meto had plenty of hair-raising tales to thrill his older brother and set his brooding father's teeth on edge. Ambushes at dawn, midnight raids, battles against barbarian tribes with unpronounceable names-I listened to the details and wished I could cover my ears, as images ran riot through my head of Meto in hand-to-hand combat against some hulking, hairy Gaul, or dodging a rain of arrows, or leaping off a catapult consumed by fire. Meanwhile I watched him wide-eyed, at once amazed, appalled, proud and melancholy at how thoroughly the boy had vanished and the man taken his place. Though he was only twenty-two, I counted a few gray hairs among the shock of unruly black curls on his head, and his jaw was covered with stubble. His speech, especially in the excitement of recounting a battle, was salted with crude soldier's slang-could this really be the boy whose prose Caesar found so admirable? Relaxing in his quarters, it was Meto's custom to wear the same garment day after day, a dark blue, much-washed woolen tunic. I raised an eyebrow at his slovenliness but said nothing, even when I noticed the numerous murky spots, large and small, which stained the fabric in various places. Then I realized that the stains were clustered where his armor joined and around the edges of his leather coat. The spots were bloodstains, made where the blood of other men had soaked through his battle gear.

Meto told us of mountains he had crossed and rivers he had forded, of Gallic villages with their peculiar sights and smells, of Caesar's genius at outwitting the tribes and putting down their rebellions. (Much of the commander's behavior sounded like gratuitous cruelty and base treachery to me, but I knew better than to say so.) He confirmed that the Gauls were uncommonly big, many of them veritable giants. "They think of us as a midget race, and make fun of us to our faces," he said. "But they don't laugh for long."

He was eager for news of Rome. Eco and I shared with him all the gossip we could remember, including the latest maneuvers regarding the Egyptian situation. "Pompey and your beloved commander seemed to have matched scores in the latest round," Eco noted, "extorting equal hoards of silver from King Ptolemy in return for bribing the Senate to smile on his claim to the Egyptian throne. It's Crassus who's been left out."

"And what does Crassus need from Egypt?" said Meto, who had his own reasons to dislike the millionaire quite apart from his loyalty to Caesar.

"He's rich enough."

"Crassus will never be rich enough for Crassus," I said.

"If he wants to keep his hand in the contest," said Meto, absently reaching for his short sword and fiddling with the handle, "Crassus will need to wrangle another military command from the Senate and score some victories to impress the people. Silver buys votes, but only glory buys greatness." I wondered if these words came from Meto himself or from Caesar, whose finances become more precarious even while the list of his conquests grows longer.

"But Pompey has pacified the East, and now Caesar is pacifying Gaul," said Eco. "What's left for Crassus?"

"He'll simply have to look further afield," said Meto.

"Well, Egypt is as far as I care to cast my thoughts," I said, and proceeded to relate what I had learned from Dio on the night before I left Rome. From his proximity to Caesar and his staff, Meto already knew a little about the murders of the Alexandrian envoys, but had not realized the scale of the scandal. He seemed genuinely appalled, and I found myself wondering how someone who had become so inured to the carnage of battle could be alarmed any longer by mere murder. The thought made me uneasy, as I suddenly felt the growing distance between Meto and myself. Then, as I continued to describe the peculiar circum-stances of Dio's visit and my guests' absurd disguises-the philosopher as a woman, the gallus as a man – Meto burst out laughing. His laughter encouraged me to pile on more details, which made him laugh all the harder. Suddenly the stubbly jaw and the bloodstains faded from my sight. The harrowing tales and the crude soldier's slang were forgotten. I saw the face of the laughing little boy I had adopted years ago, and found what I had come searching for.

As it turned out, Eco and I were gone from Rome for almost a month, and did not return until after the Ides of Februarius. First a snowstorm detained us. Then I fell ill with a cough in my chest. Then, just as I was well enough to travel, Belbo fell ill with the same complaint. While some men might scoff at postponing a trip to coddle a slave, it made no sense to me to go traveling over dangerous back roads with a sick body-guard. Besides, I welcomed the excuse to spend more time with Meto.

On the way back, we happened to cross the Adriatic using the same intrepid boatman and in the same boat as before. I had no trouble getting Eco to pause for a few moments in the temple of Fortune before we set sail. Happily for our crossing, the sky was clear and the waters were calm.

Back in Rome, Bethesda seemed to be in considerably better spirits than when I had left. Indeed, her attentions to me on the night of my return could have stopped the heart of a weaker man. Once there had been a time when a month's separation was enough to build our appetites for each other to a ravenous pitch; I had thought those days were long gone, but on that night Bethesda managed to make me feel more like a youth of twenty-four than a bearded grandfather of fifty-four. Despite the aches and pains of the previous days' long hours on horseback, I arose the next morning in excellent spirits.

As we ate our breakfast of Egyptian flat bread and millet porridge with raisins, Bethesda caught me up on the latest gossip. I sipped at a cup of heated honeyed wine and listened with only half an ear as she explained that the miserly senator across the way was finally putting a new roof on his house, and that a group of Ethiopian prostitutes appeared to have taken up residence at the home of a rich widower who keeps an apartment up the street. When she turned to affairs down in the Forum, I paid closer attention.

Bethesda had a soft spot for our handsome young neighbor Marcus Caelius, the one whom I had run into on the night before my departure. According to Bethesda, Caelius had just finished prosecuting a case which had set the city abuzz.

"I went down to watch," she said.

"Really? Th e trial, or the prosecutor?"

"Both, of course. And why not?" She became defensive. "I know quite a lot about trials and the law, having lived with you so long."

"Yes, and Marcus Caelius is exceptionally good-looking when he gets himself all wound up with an exciting oration-eyes flashing, veins bulging on his forehead and neck… "

Bethesda seemed about to respond, but thought better of it and stared at me straight-faced.

"A prosecution," I finally said.

"Against whom?"

"Someone called Bestia."

"Lucius Calpurnius Bestia?"

She nodded.

"You must be mistaken," I said, with a mouth full of millet. "I think not." Her expression became aloof.

"But Caelius supported old Bestia for the praetorship last fall. They're political allies." "Not any longer."

This was entirely credible, given Caelius's reputation for fickleness, both in love and politics. Even when he was publicly allied with a candidate or cause, one could never be quite sure of his real intentions. "On what charge did he prosecute Bestia?"

"Electoral bribery."

"Ha! In the fall he campaigns for Bestia, and in the spring he tries the man for illegal campaigning. Roman politics!" I shook my head.

"Who defended?"

"Your old friend Cicero."

"Oh, really?"

This added a new wrinkle to the matter. Marcus Caelius had made his entry into public life as Cicero's pupil and protege. Then, during the turmoil of Catilina's revolt, he parted ways with his mentor-or perhaps he only pretended to do so, in order to spy for Cicero. Throughout that tumultuous episode, Caelius's real allegiance remained a mystery, at least to me. Afterward, Caelius left Rome for a year of government service in Africa. On his return he seemed to have left the camp of his old mentor for good, going up against Cicero in court and actually getting the better of the master orator. Later, when the Senate exiled Cicero and his enemies went on a rampage and destroyed Cicero's beautiful house on the Palatine, it was my neighbor Marcus Caelius who came knocking at my door with the news-complaining that the windows of his apartment afforded no view and asking if he could watch the flames from my balcony! The way the lurid glow danced on his handsome face, it was impossible to tell whether Caelius was appalled or amused, or perhaps a little of both.

After much political wrangling, the Senate had recalled Cicero from exile, and he was back in Rome. His house on the Palatine was being rebuilt. And now, according to Bethesda, he had again matched wits in a court of law with his one-time pupil Marcus Caelius.

"Well, don't keep me in suspense," I said. "How did the case come

out?"

"Cicero won," Bethesda said. "Bestia was acquitted. But Caelius says the jury was bribed and vows that he's going to prosecute Bestia again."

I laughed. "Tenacious, isn't he? Having once defeated Cicero in court, I imagine he simply can't stand being bested by his old teacher this time. Or did a single speech not suffice for Caelius to adequately slander Bestia?"

"Oh, for that purpose I think the speech did very well."

"Full of venom?"

"Dripping with it. In his summation Caelius brought up the death last year of Bestia's wife, and the death of his previous wife before that. He practically accused Bestia of poisoning them."

"Murdering one's wives can't have much to do with electoral brib-

ery."

"Perhaps not, but the way Caelius brought it up, it seemed entirely appropriate."

"Character assassination," I said, "is the cornerstone of Roman jurisprudence. The prosecutor uses any means possible to destroy the accused's reputation, to make it seem more likely that he's committed whatever crime he's accused of. It's so much easier than producing actual evidence. Then the defender does the same thing in reverse, accusing the accusers of various abominations to destroy their credibility. Strange, to think that once upon a time I actually had a certain amount of respect and even admiration for advocates. Yes, well, I've heard the rumors that Bestia did his wives in. Both died relatively young, with no preceding illness and without a mark on them, so naturally people say he poisoned them, though even poison usually leaves some evidence."

"There wouldn't have been much evidence if it was done the way that Marcus Caelius implied," said Bethesda.

"And how was that?"

She sat back and cocked her head. "Remember that this was said in a court of law, before a mixed audience of men and women alike, not in a tavern or at one of his orgies. Marcus Caelius is a very brazen young man." She did not sound wholly disapproving.

"And a brazen orator. Well, out with it. What did he say?"

"According to Caelius, the quickest of all poisons is aconitum."

I nodded. Many years of investigating the sordid means of murder have given me some familiarity with poisons. "Aconitum, also called panther's-death, harvested from the scorpion-root plant. Yes, its victims succumb very quickly. But when swallowed in sufficient amount to cause death, there are usually noticeable reactions in the victim and plentiful evidence of foul play."

"Ah, but according to Caelius, the poison was not swallowed."

"I don't follow you."

"According to Caelius, if aconitum touches a woman's genitals, she will die within a day."

I raised an eyebrow. Even with all my experience of poison, this bit of information was new to me, and I was not sure I believed it. "What Caelius says is possibly true-though I'm inclined to wonder how anyone could ever have discovered such a curious thing. But then, I suppose there's not much that Marcus Caelius doesn't know about female genitalia."

"Ha!" Bethesda's eyes sparkled. "Even Cicero didn't come up with that one."

I turned up my palms to show modesty. "So, Caelius accused Bestia of having poisoned his wives by… " I left the sentence unfinished. There seemed no delicate way to complete it.

"He did not accuse Bestia outright. Having stated the properties of aconitum, and having worked himself up to a feverish pitch, Caelius pointed his finger at Bestia and shouted, 'Judges, I do not point the finger of guilt-I point at the guilty finger!' "

I choked on a mouthful of porridge. "Outrageous! Just when I was beginning to think that Roman orators had degraded their craft to the lowest level of indecency and bad taste, along comes a new generation to push the limit even further. Oh Minerva," I added under my breath, glancing out the window at the statue in the garden, "preserve me from a day in court! 'I point at the guilty finger.' Ha!"

Bethesda sipped from her cup of honeyed wine. "Anyway, Bestia was acquitted, finger and all."

"I suppose Cicero made a stirring speech for his defense."

She shrugged. "I don't recall."

Cicero's speech would probably have made a greater impression on her, I thought, had the man delivering it been as young and good-looking as Marcus Caelius.

"Fortune smiled on Lucius Calpurnius Bestia, then."

"Though not on his wives," said Bethesda dryly. There was a flash of something like anger in her eyes, but then a smile crept across her lips. "Speaking of young Caelius reminds me of another bit of gossip from the Forum," she said.

"Also involving Caelius?"

"No, involving his landlord."

"I see. And what fresh outrage has Publius Clodius perpetrated now?" Clodius owned the apartment building down the street, the one in which Caelius had his lodgings. In his mid-thirties and a patrician of impeccable lineage, Clodius had made himself much feared in recent years as a rabble-rouser and exploiter of populist resentments. It was Clodius, as tribune, who had masterminded the Roman takeover of Cyprus in order to finance his scheme to pass out free grain to the people of Rome. Once friendly to Cicero, he had almost single-handedly engineered Cicero's exile and was now his archenemy. His political tactics were crude, relentless and often violent. Just as men like Caelius were pushing the boundaries of oratory in the courts, men like Clodius were pushing the boundaries of political intimidation. Not surprisingly, the relationship of the two men went beyond that of landlord and tenant. They had become frequent political allies, and they shared a personal bond as well. It was well known that Caelius was the lover, or at least one of the lovers, of the rabble-rouser's widowed older sister, Clodia.

"Well, I didn't witness the incident myself, but I heard about it at the fish market," said Bethesda, practically purring. "It seems that Pompey was down in the Forum, arriving with his retinue at some trial or other that was about to begin."

"Could this have been the trial of Pompey's confederate Milo, for breach of the peace?"

Bethesda shrugged.

"With Clodius acting as prosecutor?" I added.

"Yes, that was it, because Clodius was there with a large retinue of his own, made up of some very rough types, apparently."

To describe Clodius's notorious gang of troublemakers as "rough" was to understate the case. These were strong-armers of the lowest order, some hired, some obligated to Clodius for other reasons, some voluntarily in his service to sate their appetites for violence.

For a man like Clodius to be prosecuting anyone for breach of the peace seemed ironic, but in this case the charge was probably justified. The accused, Milo, had his own rival gang of ruffians ready to rampage through the streets supporting whatever political cause their master happened to favor at the moment. Where great men like Pompey, Caesar and Crassus contested one another in exalted spheres of financial and military prowess, vying for mastery of the world, Clodius and Milo strug-gled with one another for immediate control of the streets of Rome. The greater powers allied themselves with these lesser powers for their own purposes, and vice versa. At the moment, Milo was Pompey's enforcer in Rome, so Pompey was obligated to speak in Milo's defense. Clodius, whether acting for Caesar, or Crassus, or entirely on his own, appeared to be badgering Milo chiefly to get at Pompey. Clodius seemed determined to undermine Pompey's attempts to take control ofthe notorious Egyptian situation…

This chain of thoughts caused me to remember my visit from Dio the previous month, and I suddenly felt uneasy. "By the way," I said, "do you remember the odd pair who visited me on the day before I left for Illyria? I was wondering if you had heard from them, or if you knew-"

Bethesda gave me her Medusa look. Her anecdote was not to be interrupted. "There was a great crowd gathered for Milo's trial, too many to fit into the open square where it was being held, so the mob spilled out into the nearby streets. When Pompey appeared, there was much cheering from the crowd. You know how the people adore Pompey."

"The Conqueror of the East."

"Exactly. But then Clodius appeared atop some high place and began shouting to the mob below, which was apparently packed with his sup-porters. Most people were too far away to hear what he was shouting, but whenever he would pause the mob below him would cry out with one great voice, 'Pompey!' Even those too far away to hear Clodius or even see him could hear the name of Pompey being shouted in unison. It was like a slow chant: 'Pompey!' A pause. 'Pompey!' A pause. 'Pompey!' Well, apparently Pompey heard his name being called, for they say he pricked up his ears and broke out in a broad grin, then changed his course and began making his way toward the shouting, thinking he was being lauded by the crowd."

"A typical politician," I remarked, "beating a path toward his adoring supporters like a calf heading for the teat."

"Except that this milk was sour. As he drew closer, the smile vanished from Pompey's face. First he saw Clodius, pacing back and forth atop the ledge, addressing the mob below and clutching himself with laughter whenever they responded with the cry of 'Pompey!' When Pompey drew close enough to hear what Clodius was shouting, he turned the color of a hot flame."

"And what set Pompey's cheeks ablaze?"

"Clodius was posing a series of questions, like riddles, over and over, and the answer was always the same-'Pompey!' "

"And what were these questions?"

"Like his friend and tenant Marcus Caelius, Clodius is a very brazen man… "

"Please, wife, no false modesty. I've heard you blast dishonest vendors in the market with curses that would make even a man like Clodius blush with shame."

"You exaggerate, husband."

"Only slightly. Well?"

She leaned forward.

"The chant went something like this:

What's the name of the general who's generally obscene?

Pompey!

Who peeks up his soldier's skirts when they're marching on parade?

Pompey!

Who makes like a monkey when he scratches his skull?

Pompey!"

This last was a reference to the great commander's habit when deep in thought of scratching the back of his head with his forefinger, and was innocuous enough, though with a bit of pantomime I had no doubt that Clodius could make it quite scathing. The other riddles were typical invective of the sort that might have been directed at any politician or general. All in all, such doggerel was pretty tame stuff, and hardly in a league with Caelius's quip about Bestia's guilty finger. But then, Pompey was not as accustomed as other politicians to the free-for-all of the Forum. He was used to being obeyed without question, not to being insulted in public by a Roman mob. Generals make thin-skinned politicians.

"But in the end," said Bethesda, leaning forward and lowering her voice, "it was Clodius who got the worst of it." "How did that come about?"

"Some of Milo's men heard the shouting and came running. Soon there were enough of them to drown out Clodius and his gang. Their chants were positively shocking."

"Oh, probably not all that shocking," I said, idly shaping the last of my breakfast porridge into little peaks and valleys, feigning indifference.

Bethesda shrugged. "You're right, they weren't really shocking at all, since one has heard all those rumors before. Though I imagine hearing them chanted by a mob in the Forum must have made even Clodius squirm."

"What rumors?" I said, giving in.

"About Clodius and his older sister. Or half sister, I should say."

"Clodius and Clodia? Oh, yes, I've heard whispers and a few nasty jokes. Never having met either of the doubtless charming siblings face to face, I wouldn't presume to second-guess the secrets of their bed-chamber. Or bedchambers."

Bethesda gave a delicate snort. "Why Romans should make such a fuss over relations between a brother and sister makes no sense to me anyway. In Egypt, such unions began with the gods and have a long and sacred tradition."

"No such tradition exists in Rome, I can assure you," I said. "What exactly did the mob chant?"

"Well, it started with something about Clodius selling himself to older men when he was a boy -"

"Yes, I've heard that story: when their father's early death left them in financial straits, the Clodii boys rented out little brother Publius as a catamite, and with considerable success. It could all be a spiteful lie, of course."

"Of course. But the chant went something like this:

Clodius played the girl

While he was still a boy.

Then Clodia made the man

Into her private toy.

And then more of the same, only more and more explicit."

"The Greek vice, coupled with the Egyptian vice," I observed. "And easterners complain that we Romans aren't versatile' in matters of sex. How did Clodius react?"

"He tried to keep up his chant against Pompey, but when Milo's men began to drown him out, he disappeared pretty quickly, and not with a smile on his face. The chanting finally broke into a scuffle between Milo's and Clodius's gangs."

"Nothing too serious, I hope."

"Not serious enough to disrupt the trial."

"Probably only a few heads split open. And how did the trial turn out? Was Milo acquitted or found guilty of disturbing the peace?"

Bethesda looked at me blankly, then shrugged. "I don't recall. I'm not sure I ever heard."

"Probably because no one cares a whit. What they all remember and what they'll keep talking about is the scandal of Clodius's reputed incest with his sister being shouted aloud in the Forum. What's the difference in their ages-five years? Well, the widow Clodia does have a reputation for liking younger men, like our neighbor Marcus Caelius. I wonder what he thinks of having his lover's alleged incest made into a ditty by the mob?"

"Actually, Caelius and Clodia are no longer lovers, and Caelius isn't on such good terms with Clodius anymore," said Bethesda.

"How could you possibly know that?" I shook my head in wonder. "You haven't been slinking off to some of these wild Palatine Hill parties, mixing with the sophisticated young set in my absence, have you?"

"No." She leaned back on her couch with a smile and luxuriously stretched her arms above her head. The gesture was unabashedly sensual, evoking memories of the night's pleasures, as if to demonstrate that despite my teasing she would indeed fit in quite well at a Palatine Hill debauch, were she not so acutely aware and protective of her hard-won role as a respectable Roman matron.

"Or has young Caelius been confessing the secrets of his love life whenever the two of you happen to meet in the street?" I said.

"Not that either. But we have ways of sharing what we know."

"We'?"

"We women," said Bethesda with a shrug. She was always vague about her network of informants, even to me. I had spent a lifetime ferreting out secrets, but Bethesda could sometimes make me feel like an amateur.

"What caused the parting of the ways," I asked. "Surely sophisticated lovers like Clodia and Caelius don't abandon each other over trifles like infidelity or a bit of incest."

"No, they say it was-" Bethesda abruptly frowned and creased her

brow.

She was teasing me again, I thought, trying to add suspense to the

telling. "Well?" I finally said.

"Politics, or something like that," she said hastily. "A falling out between Clodius and Caelius, and then trouble between Caelius and

Clodia."

"You're well on the way to making a poem, like the mob in the Forum: Clodius and Caelius, and Caelius and Clodia. You need only insert a few obscene verbs. What sort of falling out? Over what?"

She shrugged. "You know I don't follow politics," she said, suddenly fascinated by her fingernails.

"Unless there's a good story involved. Come, wife, you know more than you're telling. Must I remind you that it's your duty, indeed your obligation under the law, to tell your husband everything you know? I command you to speak!" I spoke playfully, making a joke of it, but Bethesda was not amused.

"All right, then," she said. "I think it was something to do with what you call the Egyptian situation. Some falling-out between Clodius and Caelius. How should I know anything about the private dealings of men like that? And who should be surprised if an aging whore like Clodia suddenly loses her charms for a handsome young man like Caelius?"

I had long ago learned to weather Bethesda's moods, as one must weather sudden squalls at sea, but I had never quite learned to comprehend them. Something had set her on edge, but what? I tried to recollect the phrase or topic that had offended her, but the sudden chill in the room numbed my mind. I decided to change the subject.

"Who cares about such people, anyway?" I picked up my empty cup, twisted my wrist to set the dregs aswirl, and stared into the vortex. "I was just wondering a moment ago, about those odd visitors I had on the day before my trip."

Bethesda looked at me blankly.

"It was only a month ago. You must remember-the little gallus and the old Alexandrian philosopher, Dio. He came seeking help, but I wasn't able to help him, at least not then. Did he come calling again while I was gone?"

I waited for an answer, but when I looked up from my cup I saw that Bethesda was looking elsewhere.

"It's a simple enough question," I said mildly. "Did the old philosopher come asking for me while I was gone?"

"No," she said.

"That's odd. I thought that he would; he was so distraught. I worried about him while I was away. Perhaps he didn't need my help after all. Have you heard any news of him, through your vast network of spies and informants?"

"Yes," she said.

"And? What news?"

"He's dead," said Bethesda. "Murdered, I believe, in the house where he was staying. That's all I know."

The swirling dregs in my wine cup slowed to a stop, the porridge in my stomach turned to stone, and in my mouth I tasted ashes.

Chapter Seven

It was not until several days after my return to Rome that I found time to write a letter to Meto. I recounted to him the events which had transpired in my absence – Cicero defeating Caelius in the trial of Bestia despite the accusation of "the guilty finger" (the perfect anecdote for Meto to share with his tentmates!), Pompey's embarrassment on his way to Milo's trial, the obscene chant about Clodius and Clodia.

Since I had made such a story of Trygonion's and Dio's visit when I saw Meto in Illyria, I felt I should let him know what had become of the philosopher. Merely a matter of keeping him informed, I told myself, as I began setting down the words. But as I wrote, I began to realize that telling the tale was in fact my chief reason for writing the letter. Dio's murder had left me with a nagging sense of guilt, and writing down the gory facts for Meto's perusal, painful though it was, somehow eased my conscience, as if describing an event could mitigate its awfulness.

When it comes to correspondence, I am not Meto; my prose will never capture great Caesar's admiration. Nonetheless, I will copy down a bit of what I wrote to Meto on that last day of Februarius:

Also, son, you will probably remember the tale I told you about my visit from Dio, the philosopher I once knew in Alexandria, and the little gallus named Trygonion. You laughed when I described to you their absurd disguises-Dio dressed like a woman, and the eunuch in a toga trying to pass himself off as a Roman.

The sequel, I fear, is quite the opposite of funny.

What Dio dreaded came to pass, only hours after he left me. That very night, as I was making ready for my journey to see you, Dio was being viciously murdered in the house of his host, Titus Coponius.

I learned the bare fact that Dio had been murdered from Bethesda on the morning after my return to Rome. She claimed to know no details at all. Bethesda took a disliking to Dio the instant she laid eyes on him, and you know how she is-from that moment on he might as well not have existed; even her appetite for gossip seems unstirred by his murder. I had to discover the details for myself, posing discreet questions in the proper quarters. This was not difficult, though it took some time.

It seems that there had been a previous, failed attempt to poison Dio. He mentioned this to me himself on the night of his visit. Apparently some slaves of his previous host, Lucius Lucceius, were suborned (doubtless by agents of King Ptolemy) to poison Dio's food, but succeeded instead in killing his sole remaining slave, who had taken on the role of food taster. Dio fled from Lucceius's house to that of Coponius.

It was from the house of Coponius that Dio came to call on me, and to ask for my help. If only I had offered to let him spend the night in my house! But then his assassins might have done their bloody work here, under my roof. I think of Bethesda and particularly of Diana and I shudder at the thought.

Poison having failed, Dio's enemies resorted to less subtle means. After leaving my house, Dio returned to Coponius's as quickly as he could-darkness had fallen and Dio feared the streets, even disguised as he was and with Belbo along for protection. As for Trygonion, Belbo says that he went along as far as Coponius's door and then went his own way, perhaps returning to the House of the Galli, which is also here on the Palatine, close by the temple of Cybele. No one seems to know much about this gallus, and no one can explain to me his relationship to Dio.

What follows is secondhand information, some of it thirdhand-which makes it gossip, really-but I think it's reliable.

Back at Coponius's house, Dio shut himself alone in his room, refusing to take any dinner. (He had already eaten at my house, and was very fearful of being poisoned.) The household of Coponius retires early, and soon after dark everyone was abed except the slave who had been posted inside the front door to keep watch through the night. At some point (before midnight, according to the watchman) there was a noise from the back of the house, where Dio was quartered.

The watchman went to investigate. Dio's door was locked. The slave called his name and rapped on the door. Finally the slave pounded so loudly that Coponius himself (in the bedroom adjoining) was awakened and came to ask what the matter was. At length the door was broken down and Dio was discovered on his sleeping couch, lying on his back with his eyes and mouth wide open, his chest pierced by gaping wounds. He had been stabbed to death in his bed.

A window in the room opened onto a small courtyard. The shutters of this window were open and the latch had been forced from outside. The killer or killers apparently crept over a high wall, skulked across the terrace, broke into Dio's room through the window, murdered him, then skulked away.

The killer or killers escaped unseen.

It was a wretched end to a distinguished life. That Dio foresaw his destruction and spent his final days in a city far from home, dreading every shadow, casts an even gloomier pall over his fate. That he came to me, asking for my help on the very day of his murder, fills me with agitation. Could I have prevented the deed? Almost certainly not, I tell myself, for the men who wished to see Dio dead have resources far beyond anything I could forestall. Yet it seems a cruel jest of the gods to have brought him back into my life after so many years and then to have snatched him away so violently. I have seen much carnage and suffering in my life, yet it never be-comes easier to bear. It only becomes harder for me to fathom.

Now every member of the embassy which arrived last fall from Alexandria has been murdered or has fled back to Egypt or has otherwise vanished from sight. (The few still in Rome, I am told, have either pledged their allegiance to King Ptolemy or been bribed to keep silent; no doubt some or all of them were the king's spies from the beginning.) The people of Rome should be ashamed that such an atrocity could occur not just in Italy but in the very heart of the city itself. To be sure, there are those who say that Dio's murder is such an outrage that the Senate will be shamed into taking some action to punish his slayers (if not King Ptolemy, then at least his henchmen). The Senate may even move to repudiate the king and recognize Queen Berenice, which was the object of Dio's mission. While he lived, the Senate would not even allow him to officially address them, but in death Dio may yet achieve what he desired: an Egypt with a new, independent ruler.

Can justice follow upon a tragedy such as Dio's murder? Considering the state of Rome's courts and the persons whose interests are at stake, I strongly doubt it. But I refuse to brood overmuch concerning this matter. Had I accepted Dio's commission to expose his enemies, I might now feel some obligation to pursue the matter of bringing his killers to justice. Fortunately, my rejection of his commission was explicit. I told him that I could not help him and gave him a good reason. My conscience is clear. The task of finding the blade which drew Dio's lifeblood, and punishing the hand that wielded it, does not fall to me.

Whatever happens next, it will not involve me, and for that I am glad.

Rereading that letter now, I see that my statements regarding the circumstances of Dio's death are marred by a number of errors, some of them quite significant. But no statement was more in error than the final one, which I read now with a shudder of amazement. How could I have been so blithely, smugly unforeseeing? What a perilous world we move through, like men blindfolded. The past and future are equally obscure, and broad daylight can hide as many dangers as the landscape of the night.

PART

TWONOXIA

Chapter Eight

Almost a month passed before I had occasion to write to Meto again.

To my beloved son Meto, serving under the command of Gaius Julius Caesar in Gaul, from his loving father in Rome, may Fortune be with you.

I write this letter on the twenty-ninth dayof Martius, an uncommonly warm day for so early in the spring-we have thrown open all the windows and the after-noon sunshine is hot on my shoulders. I wish you were here beside me.

Alas, you are not. Nor are you safely at ease in Illyria, where I last saw you. I learned in the Forum of your sudden move to Gaul not long after my visit. They say that Caesar was called to put down a revolt by some tribe with an un-pronounceable name-I won't even try to spell it. I presume that you have gone along with him.

Take care, Meto.

Given your movements, I have no way of knowing if my letter of a month ago has reached you, or will reach you after this one, or will ever reach you at all, but since one of Caesar's message bearers (a young soldier who has carried my letters to you before) is about to leave for Gaul and says he will take along a letter from me if I can finish it within the hour, I am writing very quickly and will simply give you what news I can, even at the risk of conveying events that make little sense for lack of context. (Don't show this letter to your commander, please. I fear that a man who dictates his memoirs on horseback would hardly accept being rushed as an excuse for fashioning such awkward sentences.)

Hopefully, you did receive my last letter, and so you know of the murder of Dio. I scoffed at those who said Dio's murder was too big a thing to go without consequence and that the scandal would result in someone being punished, but it seems that I was wrong and they were right, up to a point.

The scandal has been enormous. Dio was even better known and more highly regarded than I had realized-or did murder make a martyr of him and render him larger and more beloved in death than he was in life? For a man who is now spoken of in such tones of awe, he was certainly treated very shabbily in the final months of his life, shuffling from one reluctant (perhaps treacherous) host to another, expending his resources until his purse was empty. The senators who now speak of Dio as a second Aristotle and weep at the mention of his name are the same men who refused to allow Dio to speak in their chambers not long ago.

(I've suddenly remembered that old conundrum, which Dio posed to me as a young man in Alexandria: Is it better to be beloved in life and despised after death, or despised in life and revered after death?)

So the debate in the Senate over the Egyptian situation grinds on, freshly fueled by this shameful outrage. Meanwhile a charge of murder was recently brought against one Publius Asicius.

I must say that I was not surprised to see Asicius accused of Dio's murder. Dio himself suspected this young man of being involved in the failed poisoning attempt at the house of Lucius Lucceius, and told me as much when he visited me. On the very day that Dio's food taster died of poison, Asicius had paid a visit to Lucceius. By itself, this is a merely circumstantial connection. But then, after Dio left my house, and probably not long after he was stabbed in his bed, I happened to encounter Asicius and our neighbor M.C. in the street, and while I overheard them say nothing directly incriminating, the circumstances, at least in retrospect, struck me as highly suspicious.

So when I heard that the charge had been brought against

Asicius, I felt greatly relieved, thinking that if he was guilty, then perhaps the whole ugly truth would be given a chance to come out-and without having to become involved myself. (I imagine you sometimes feel the same relief in your work for Caesar, when an odious task is unexpectedly accomplished without any effort on your part, as if some friendly god had decided to do you a favor.)

But the gods can be fickle with their favors. Who do you think stepped forward to defend Asicius? Yes, the best defense advocate in Rome, our old friend Marcus Cicero.

When I heard that news, my hope abruptly dwindled. Many things may happen in a trial where Cicero is one of the advocates, but the emergence of the truth is seldom one of them. If justice triumphs, it happens in spite of Cicero's smoke and mirrors, and will have nothing to do with whether or not the truth was spoken.

They say that Cicero and Asicius were both away from Rome, down the coast, when Asicius was arraigned-Cicero in Neapolis, Asicius across the bay at his family's villa in Baiae. To discuss the case, Asicius went to fetch Cicero and took him back to Baiae in his magnificent litter. Well, not his, exactly, but a litter lent to Asicius by-can you believe it?- King Ptolemy.

(The complicity is absolutely damning! You would think that a man accused of murdering King Ptolemy's enemy would hide his connections with the king rather than flaunt them, but like most men of his generation, Asicius can't seem to resist any opportunity to show off.)

The litter was an enormous eight-man affair, elaborately decorated (Egyptian litters make the most elegant Roman conveyances look plain) and attended by no fewer than a hundred armed bodyguards, also lent to Asicius by King Ptolemy. (If the king supplied the bodyguards for Asicius's physical defense, who can help but conclude that it was also the king who hired Cicero for Asicius's legal defense?) Can you see it in your mind-Cicero and Asicius discussing the upcoming murder trial while they proceed along the shore borne aloft in a litter, lolling about in Egyptian luxury with a hundred swordsmen in their train?

I missed the trial; a relapse of the cough which plagued me in Illyria kept me from venturing down to the Forum.

Bethesda went to watch, but you can imagine the sort of report she came back with-I was informed that Asicius is quite good-looking, if a bit wasted and pale (Bethesda has heard that he drinks to excess); that Asicius's friend, our handsome young neighbor M.C., was nowhere in sight; and that Cicero was as long-winded and boring as ever.

And oh, yes, that Asicius was acquitted of murdering Dio.

I now regret having missed the trial, for I should like to have heard with my own ears the evidence presented. But I do not regret having missed whatever devious conjurer's tricks Cicero used to distract, disorient and ultimately persuade the judges. I don't need the aggravation.

So, for better or worse, the matter has come to a conclusion. Poor Dio shall go unavenged, but his legacy may yet prevail-

I lifted my stylus from the parchment, distracted by a knock. I turned in my chair and saw Belbo in the doorway.

"The messenger's come back, Master. He says he must have your letter now if he's to take it for you."

I grunted. "Show him in. No need to make him wait in the hallway." I returned to the letter.

I must close abruptly. Caesar's message bearer has re-turned.

I have foolishly spent this precious hour recounting Forum gossip and left myself no time to speak of family matters. Know that all is well. Bethesda is as always, and Diana becomes more like her mother every day (more beautiful, more mysterious). Eco continues to prosper, though I often wish I could have taught him a less dangerous trade than his father's, and his beloved Menenia has proved herself a woman of surpassing patience, especially in bringing up the uncontrollable twins. Imagine having two four-year-olds squabbling and stubbing their toes and catching colds…

I must close. The messenger has entered the room and stands before me, glancing over his shoulder at the statue of Minerva in the sun-filled atrium, tapping his foot impatiently.

Take care, Meto!

I dusted the parchment with fine sand, then pursed my lips and gently blew the sand away. I rolled the parchment, slipped it into a leather jacket and sealed the cylinder with wax. As I handed it reluctantly to the messenger, thinking of things left unsaid, I took a closer look at the man. He was dressed in a soldier's regalia, all leather straps and clinking steel and blood-red wool. His jaw was stiff and his countenance stern.

"How old are you, soldier?" "Twenty-two."

Meto's age exactly; no wonder the fellow looked to me like a child playing soldier. I studied his face, searching for some sign of the horrors he must have beheld already in his young life, and saw only the bland innocence of youth framed by a soldier's helmet.

His stern expression abruptly softened. He looked puzzled. I realized he was staring beyond me at someone in the doorway.

As I swung about I heard Belbo bluster, "Master, another guest- I told him to wait in the foyer, but he's followed me anyway-"

At first I hardly saw the visitor, blocked as he was by Belbo's bulk. Then he slipped into view, and what he lacked in stature was more than made up for by the gaudy splendor of his garb. He was covered from the neck down in a gown of vibrant red and yellow. Silver bracelets dangled from his wrists, a silver pectoral with glass beads hung from his neck, and his ears and fingers sported silver rings. His cheeks were painted white. On his head was a multicolored turban, from which his bleached hair hung down in wavy tresses. The last time I had seen him he had been dressed in a toga, not in the vestments of a priest of Cybele.

"Trygonion," I said.

He smiled. "You remember me, then?"

"I do. It's all right," I said to Belbo, who continued to hover uncertainly, ready to interpose himself between the gallus and myself. Belbo could easily have lifted the little priest over his head and could probably have snapped him in two, but he kept his distance, afraid to lay his hands on a holy eunuch. Trygonion had slipped into my study without missing a step, while a man three times his size blustered for him to stay back.

Belbo gave the gallus a disgruntled look and withdrew. Behind me I heard the clearing of a throat and turned to see the soldier slipping my letter into a leather pouch. "I'm off, then," he said, nodding to me and then looking at the eunuch with a mixture of curiosity and distaste.

"May Mercury guide you," I said.

"And may the purifying blood of the Great Goddess spring from between her legs and wash over you!" added Trygonion. He pressed his palms together, making his bracelets jingle, and bowed his head. The soldier wrinkled his brow and hastily moved to depart, uncertain whether he had just been blessed or cursed. As he moved to slip out the narrow doorway, he turned sideways to avoid touching the eunuch, but Trygonion deliberately shifted his stance so that their shoulders brushed, and I saw the soldier shudder. The contrast was striking, between the stern, virile young Roman in his military garb and the diminutive, grinning, foreign-born gallus in his priestly gown. How odd, I thought, that the larger, stronger one, trained to kill and defend himself, should be the one to shiver in fear.

Trygonion seemed to be thinking the same thing, for as the soldier stomped down the hallway the eunuch looked after him and made a trilling laugh. But as he turned back to me his smile quickly faded.

"Gordianus," he said softly, bowing his head in greeting. "I am again honored to be admitted into your home."

"It would seem I had little choice over whether to admit you or not, considering how giants give way before you and soldiers flee in panic."

He laughed, but not in the trilling way he had used to mock the soldier. It was a throaty chuckle, such as men exchange over a witticism in the Forum. The gallus seemed able to change his persona at will, from feminine to masculine, never seeming wholly one or the other but something which was neither.

"I've been sent to fetch you."

"Oh?"

"Yes, imagine that – a priest of Cybele, dispatched like a messenger boy." He cocked an eyebrow. "Dispatched by whom?" "By a certain lady." "Does she have a name?"

"Of course she does-many names, though I'd advise you to avoid the more scandalous ones and call her by the name her father gave her, unless you wish to have your face slapped. That is, until you get to know her better."

"What name is that?"

"She lives here on the Palatine, only a few steps away." He gestured toward the door with an ingratiating smile.

"Still, before I go off to see her, I think I should like to know her name and what business she might have with me."

"Her business involves a certain mutual acquaintance. Two mutual acquaintances, actually. One living; one… dead." He looked coy, then somber. Neither expression seemed quite genuine, as if he had exchanged one mask for another. "Two mutual acquaintances," he repeated. "One, a murderer-the other, the murderer's victim. One who even now moves through the Forum, laughing with his friends and flinging obscenities at his enemies, while the other moves through Hades, a shadow among shadows. Perhaps he will meet Aristotle there and debate him face to face, and the dead can decide which of them knew more about living." "Dio," I whispered.

"Yes, I speak of Dio-and Dio's killer. That's the business I've come about."

"Whose business?"

"The business of my lady. She has made it her business." "Who is she?" I said, growing impatient.

"Come and see. She longs to meet you." He raised an eyebrow and leered like a pimp procuring for a whore.

"Tell me her name," I said slowly, trying to keep my temper.

Trygonion sighed and rolled his eyes. "Oh, very well. Her name is Clodia." He paused, saw the expression on my face, and laughed. "Ah, I see that you've already heard of her!"

Chapter Nine

Onour way out, we passed Bethesda and Diana in the hallway.

"Where are you going?" Bethesda cast a chilly glance of recognition at Trygonion, crossed her arms and gave me the Medusa look. How could such a woman ever have been anyone's slave, least of all mine? Diana stood alongside and slightly behind her mother. She too drew back her shoulders and crossed her arms, affecting the same imperious gaze.

"Out," I said. Bethesda's arms remained crossed; the answer did not suffice.

"The gallus may have some work for me," I added.

She stared at the little priest so intently that I would hardly have been surprised to see him turn to stone. Instead, he smiled at her. The two of them seemed impervious to each other. Trygonion was not intimidated; Bethesda was not charmed. "You'd better take Belbo with you" was all she had to say before uncrossing her arms and proceeding down the hallway. Diana followed, mimicking her mother's movements with uncanny precision-until I swung around and tickled her under her arms. She let out a scream of laughter and ran forward, stumbling into Bethesda. They both turned and looked back at me, Diana laughing, Bethesda with one eyebrow raised and the merest hint of a smile on her lips.

"Take Belbo!" she repeated before turning her back and walking on. Now I understand, I thought: she remembers Trygonion from his visit with Dio, she knows about Dio's murder, and now, seeing me leave with Trygonion, she fears for me. How touching!

The three of us-the gallus, Belbo and myself-stepped out into the bright afternoon sunshine. The warmth in my study had seemed mild and the air sweet, like early springtime; here in the street, the sun had heated the paving stones and the air was hot. Trygonion produced a tiny yellow parasol from the folds of his robe, opened it up and held it aloft.

"Perhaps I should have brought my broad-brimmed hat," I said, squinting up at the cloudless sky.

"It's only a short walk," said the gallus. "Straight ahead for a block or two, then off to the right."

We walked up the street and passed the apartment building where Marcus Caelius lived. The shutters of all the upper-story windows were closed, despite the heat. Could he be sleeping, at this time of day? What a life!

The building was owned by the rabble-rouser Publius Clodius; now I was on the way to see his sister. What a small town Rome is, I thought, and growing smaller with each passing year. I had never met either of the notorious Clodii. They were distant cousins of my old patron Lucius Claudius, but our paths had never crossed. That had suited me. In recent years I've grown increasingly selective both of those I choose to help and of those I choose to offend. From what one heard about them, Clodia and Clodius were the sort it was best simply to avoid.

An obscure citizen lamenting the theft of his family's silver; an old acquaintance threatened by anonymous letters; a young wife unfairly accused of adultery by her vindictive mother-in-law-in my semiretirement, these struck me as the sort of people to whom I should lend my expertise. Men who deal in raw power, who control vast networks of secret operatives, who dispatch strong-armers to crush their opponents- the Pompeys and King Ptolemies of this world-these struck me as men I should take extreme care to avoid offending, even if it meant passing up the chance to help an old friend; even though it had meant turning my back on Dio of Alexandria.

Now I found myself on the way to the house of Clodia, supposedly to discuss some matter relating to the murder of Dio, following a priest of Cybele carrying a bright yellow parasol through the sunny streets of the Palatine. The gods delight in surprising men with the unexpected- and are notorious for the cruelty of their mirth.

Clodia's house was situated at the end of a little cul-de-sac off a quiet lane. Like the houses belonging to most patrician families, it looked old and showed an unassuming face to the street.

The windowless front was stained with a muted yellow wash. The doorstep was paved with glazed red and black tiles. Twin cypress trees framed the rustic oak door. The trees soared to a great height; I had often noticed them from the balcony at the back of my house, but had never known exactly where they were located. Like the house, the cypresses had obviously been there for many years.

The slave who answered the door was a burly young man with a neatly trimmed black beard and bushy eyebrows that grew together above soulful brown eyes. He opened the door only halfway and smirked when he saw Trygonion. He hardly looked at me or Belbo. "She's gone out," he said, crossing his arms and slouching against the door frame.

"Gone out?" said the gallus. "But I only just left her, to go fetch this fellow."

The doorkeeper shrugged. "What can I tell you? You know how she

is."

"But she knew I was coming straight back," said Trygonion in a petulant voice. "Where has she gone?"

"Down to the river." "What, to the markets?"

The slave narrowed his eyes.

"Of course not. You know she never goes to the public markets anymore. Afraid Milo's men will be there to start up the chants about her. Pretends she doesn't care, but you know how she hates that." The slave arched his right eyebrow, which created a striking effect, since his eyebrows were joined.

"She's gone down to her place on the Tiber. Said it was the only spot to be on a beautiful day like this. 'Everyone will be at the river,' she said. Looking to catch an eyeful, I imagine-the swimmers."

A sudden twitch at the corner of his mouth turned into a smile, as a hand belonging to someone hidden behind the door slipped across the gap and made its way onto the slave's backside. The visible patch of wrist moved in a sinuous fashion, like a wriggling snake. The young doorkeeper gave a ticklish start and flexed his muscular forearms. "She should have taken me with her," he sighed, "but I'm managing to stay busy."

"Did she leave any word for me?" asked Trygonion, exasperated. "She must have!"

From just beyond the door I heard a woman's laugh, then a smiling face appeared, pressed cheek to cheek with the burly doorkeeper. "Don't worry, she didn't forget you," the woman trilled. Her voice had a cultured accent and her chestnut hair was extravagantly put up, though a few stray tendrils had escaped the pins and combs. The lines around her eyes and mouth had been skillfully softened with makeup, but I could see she was no longer young. "Barnabas is teasing you! Aren't you, Barnabas? Wicked!" She playfully bit the slave's ear.

Barnabas laughed brusquely and jerked away, freeing his ear from the woman's gleaming white teeth and his buttocks from her grip. "Off with you, then!" she said, laughing and snapping her fingers. "Go on! I'll tend to you later." She growled deep in her throat and clicked her teeth. The door slave departed.

"It's a Hebrew name, you know," she said, turning back to us. "Barnabas, I mean. Clodia says it means 'consolation.' She should know!" The woman laughed, and I caught the smell of wine on her breath.

"What did Clodia say about me?" demanded the gallus.

"About you, Trygonion? Hmm, well, we all know where your name comes from, don't we?" She looked at him knowingly.

"Never mind!" snapped the gallus. "What did she say before she

left?"

The woman's expression soured, undoing the illusion of her makeup. "Oh, all right, then. She said she simply couldn't stay indoors for another instant, and she's been dying to get down to her place on the river for days, so she told Chrysis to call for her litter bearers and pack up a few things and off they went in a cloud of dust. She asked me to come along, but I told her I was too, too despondent and in great need of consolation. Ha!" She barked out a laugh, showing perfect white teeth. "So, since I was staying, Clodia asked me to please give you a message if you should happen to come around, to tell you that you and your" – she looked at Belbo and me blearily, as if noticing us for the first time – "your friends, or whatever, should trot down to the river and meet her there. Is that clear enough?"

"Yes, thank you," said Trygonion curtly. He turned around and hurriedly strode away, taking the longest steps his short legs would allow.

"Cut off their balls and see what pests they turn into," the woman muttered between clenched teeth. She shrugged and slammed the door.

"Horrible woman!" Trygonion said as Belbo and I caught up with

him.

"Slow down," I complained. "Who is she?"

"Just a neighbor. Nobody. A cousin or something. I don't have money for a litter, do you? I suppose we can walk."

Which we did. As we made our way down the western slope of the Palatine, through the cattle markets, across the bridge and up the west bank of the Tiber, at several points I considered telling Trygonion that I had changed my mind and was turning back. What was I doing, after all, coming at the summons of a woman I had happily avoided until now, to discuss a matter from which I had deliberately distanced myself? Blame it on Cybele, I thought, as I followed her priest, his parasol held resolutely aloft.

It is a sign of wealth and good taste to own a green patch on the banks of the Tiber. Such estates are something of a cross between a park and a garden; the owners call such grounds horti. There is usually a structure of some sort-sometimes no more than a rustic retreat with quarters for the groundskeeper and a few guests, sometimes a whole complex of buildings. The grounds themselves are often a mix of wilderness and cultivation, depending on the size of the property, the owner's proclivities and the gardener's skill; patches of tall grass and woodland may be interspersed with rose gardens, fishponds, fountains, and stone-paved walkways adorned with statuary.

Clodia's horti were unusually close in. A hundred years ago, the property must have been well out in the countryside, but the city had greatly expanded since then. It was an enviable location for a piece of riverfront property and must have been in her family for generations.

The impression of great age was reinforced by the grounds them-selves, which on such a warm, windless day had the feeling of a place where time stopped long ago. The immediate approach was a long, narrow lane bordered by sprawling berry bushes which met overhead, shading the way. This tunnellike path opened onto a broad field of grass kept closely mown by a pair of goats which bleated at our approach. Facing the meadow and perpendicular to the river, which was almost entirely obscured by an intervening stand of dense trees, was a long narrow house with a red-tiled roof and a portico running along the whole front. The open meadow was as private as any walled garden in the city, for the view on all sides was shielded by tall cypress trees and majestic yews.

"She won't be in the house, but I suppose we can take a look all the same," said Trygonion.

We crossed the meadow and stepped under the shade of the portico. Trygonion rapped on the nearest door, then pushed it open and stepped over the threshold, beckoning to Belbo and me. Each room of the long house opened onto the next, and every room had its own door onto the long portico, so that one could walk from end to end of the house either along the shaded outdoor walkway or through each room in succession.

I could tell at once that the house was empty. It had the feeling of a place left unoccupied all winter, which had not yet been brought back to life. The air was still and cool inside, the walls and the sparse furnishings exhaled a slightly musty, odor, and every surface had a thin coating of dust.

We followed Trygonion slowly from room to room as he called

Clodia's name. In some of the rooms, dropcloths covered every object. In other rooms the cloths had been pulled away, apparently quite recently, for they still lay carelessly crumpled on the floor. Having acquired a furnished house on the Palatine, I know a few things about furniture. The pieces I saw in Clodia's house on the Tiber were of the sort which fetch astonishing prices at auction nowadays, especially among our burgeoning empire's new rich who have no such treasures in their obscure families-sleeping couches saved from the flames of Carthage, their plush cushions so faded that the exotic patterns can barely be made out; gilded cabinets and trunks with massive iron hinges of a sort no longer made; ancient folding chairs that the Scipios or the Gracchi brothers might have sat on.

There were paintings as well, in every room, and not theatrical wall paintings such as are fashionable among the wealthy nowadays, but portraits and historical scenes painted in encaustic on wood and mounted in elaborate frames. These were darkened by age, their smooth surfaces covered by a skein of very fine cracks. Collectors set great store by these qualities, which time alone creates and which cannot be mimicked by human artists. There were also tiny sculptures mounted here and there on pedestals, none of them taller than a man's forearm, in keeping with the small scale of the rooms, and all of rustic subjects to match the rustic mood of the place-little statues of Pan and Silenus, of a slave boy pulling a thorn from his foot, of a wood nymph kneeling on a rock.

We came to the end of the house and stepped back onto the covered portico. Trygonion peered toward the woods on the opposite side of the meadow, where I could see nothing. "No, she wouldn't be over at the kitchens or the slave quarters or the stable," he said. "She's down by the water, of course." We set out across the meadow again, toward the grove of trees along the river. In their shade, we came upon a statue of Venus- not a small, decorative object like those in the house, but a magnificent, towering bronze upon a marble pedestal. The goddess looked out on the water with an expression of almost smug contentment on her face, as if the river flowed merely to give music to her ears, and the city on its further bank had been erected for no other purpose than to amuse her.

"Extraordinary," I whispered. Beside me Belbo stared up at the statue dumbly, a look of religious awe on his face.

"Do you think so?" said Trygonion. "You should see the one at her house in the city." He turned and walked on, humming a hymn to Cybele. His mood seemed to lighten with each step that brought him closer to the river, and to the red and white striped tent pitched on the bank.

We stepped out of the trees and into the sunlight. A mild breeze stirred the lush grass. The tent stood out in dazzling relief against the bright green grass, the darker green of the river beyond, and the glaring azure sky above. Its fine silk panels shivered in the delicate breeze. The red stripes wavered like slithering snakes against a field of white, then, by a trick of the eye, the illusion was reversed and the stripes became white snakes against a field of red.

From somewhere I heard the sound of splashing, but the tent and the high trees on either side blocked my view of the river.

"Wait here," said Trygonion. He stepped inside. A little later he stuck his head out the flap. "Come in, Gordianus. But leave your body-guard outside."

As I moved toward the flap it was pulled aside by an unseen slave within. I stepped into the tent.

The first thing I noticed was the scent, a perfume I had never smelled before-elusive, subtle and intriguing. The instant I first smelled it, I knew I would never forget it.

The red and white silk softened the bright sunlight, filling the tent with a warm glow. The panels facing the river had been rolled up, letting in the view and framing it like a picture. Sunlight danced on the green water and cast lozenges of light into the tent, where they flitted and danced across my hands and face. I heard the sound of splashing again and now I saw its source, a group of young men and boys, fifteen or more, who frolicked in the water just beyond the tent. Some of them wore bright-colored scraps of cloth about their loins, but most were naked. Beads of water clung to their sleek flesh; in the sunlight they glimmered as if chased with jewels. When they moved into the shade beneath trees they became dappled, like spotted fauns. Their splashing caused the lozenges of light to dance wildly inside the tent.

I walked toward the center of the tent, where Trygonion awaited me with a beaming smile on his face. He stood beside a high couch strewn with red and white striped pillows, holding the hand of the woman who reclined upon it. The woman was turned so that I could not see her face.

Before I reached the couch a figure suddenly appeared before me. She looked hardly older than a child but wore her auburn hair coiled atop her head and was dressed in a long green gown. "Mistress!" she called, keeping her eyes on mine. "Mistress, your guest is here to see you."

"Show him to me, Chrysis." The voice was sultry and unhurried, deeper than Trygonion's but unmistakably feminine.

"Yes, Mistress." The slave girl took my hand and led me before the couch. The smell of perfume grew stronger.

"No, no, Chrysis," her mistress said, laughing gently. "Don't put him directly in front of me. He's blocking the view."

Chrysis tugged playfully at my hand and pulled me to one side.

"That's better, Chrysis. Now run along. You, too, Trygonion-let go of my hand, little gallus. Go find something for Chrysis to do up at the house. Or go look for pretty stones along the riverbank. But don't let one of those river satyrs catch either one of you or who knows what might happen!"

Chrysis and Trygonion departed, leaving me alone with the woman on the high couch.

Chapter Ten

“The young men you see in the river wearing loincloths are mine. My slaves, that is-my litter bearers and bodyguards. I let them wear loincloths here at the horti. After all, I can see them naked anytime I wish. Also, it makes it easier for me to pick out the others. Any young Roman worth being seen naked knows that he's allowed to come swimming along my stretch of the Tiber anytime he wishes-so long as he does it in the nude. They come down from the road along a little pathway hidden beyond those trees and leave their tunics hanging on branches. At the height of summer on a hot afternoon there are sometimes more than a hundred of them out there, diving, splashing each other, sunning themselves on the rocks – naked by my decree. Look at the shoulders on that one… "

I found myself staring at a woman of no few years-knowing that she was about five years older than her brother Publius Clodius, I calculated that she was probably forty, give or take a year. It was hard to say whether she looked her age or not. However old she looked, it suited her. Clodia's skin was certainly finer than that of most women of forty, the color of white roses, very creamy and smooth; perhaps, I thought, the filtered light of the tent flattered her. Her hair was black and lustrous, arranged by some hidden magic of pins and combs into an intricate maze of curls atop her head. The way that her hair was pulled back from her forehead gave emphasis to the striking angles of her cheekbones and the proud line of her nose, which was almost, but not quite, too large. Her lips were a sumptuous red which surely could not have been natural.

Her eyes seemed to glitter with flashes of blue and yellow but mostly of green, the color of emeralds, sparkling as the sunlight sparkled on the green Tiber. I had heard of her eyes; Clodia's eyes were famous.

"Look at the gooseflesh on them!" She laughed. "It's a wonder they can stand to go in the water at all. The river must still be frigid so early in the year, no matter how warm the sunshine. Look how it shrivels their manhoods; a pity, for that can be half the fun of watching. But notice, not one of them is shivering. They don't want me to see them shiver, the dear, brave, foolish boys." She laughed again, a low, throaty chuckle.

Clodia reclined on her divan with her back against a pile ofcushions and her legs folded to one side beneath her. A long stola of shimmering yellow silk, belted below her breasts and again at her waist, covered her from her neck down. Only her arms were naked. Even so, no one could have called the costume modest. The fabric was so sheer as to be trans-parent, so that it was hard to tell, in the glittering light from the sun-spangled river, how much of the sheen of her contours came from the shiny silk and how much from the sleek flesh beneath. I had never seen a dress like it. This must have shown on my face, for Clodia laughed again, and not at the young men in the river.

"Do you like it?" She looked steadily into my eyes as she smoothed her palm over her hip and down her thigh to the bend of her knee. The silk seemed to ripple like water before the advancing edge of her hand. "It comes all the way from Cos. Something new from a famous silkmaker there. I don't think any other woman in Rome has a dress like it. Or perhaps they're like me, not quite brave enough to wear such a garment in public." She smiled demurely and reached up to the silver necklace at her throat. She spread her fingers, and I could clearly see, thanks to the transparency of the silk, that while she rolled one of the lapis baubles between her forefinger and thumb, with her little finger she delicately stroked one of her large, pale nipples until it began to grow excited.

I cleared my throat and glanced over my shoulder. The young men in the water were now throwing a leather ball back and forth among themselves, making a game of it, but every now and then they shot glances toward the tent. No wonder they had come to the river on the first warm day of the year, I thought. They came to look at her no less than she came to look at them. I cleared my throat again.

"Is your throat dry? Did you walk all the way from the Palatine?" She sounded genuinely curious, as if walking for any distance outdoors was a feat she had watched her litter bearers perform but which she had never attempted on her own.

"Yes, I walked."

"Poor dear, then you must be thirsty. Here, look, before she left,

Chrysis put out cups for us. The clay pitcher holds fresh water. The wine in the silver decanter is Falernian. I never drink anything else."

The vessels were set on a little table beside her. There was no chair, however. It appeared that visitors were meant to stand.

My mouth was in fact quite dry, and not entirely from the heat of the day. Clodia's cup was already full of wine, so I reached for the pitcher of water and poured myself a cup, drinking it slowly before I poured myself another.

"No wine?" She sounded disappointed.

"I think not. It's bad for a man my age to drink wine after exerting himself in the heat of the day." If not bad for my bowels, I thought, then bad for my judgment in such company. What would the transparent silk dress begin to look like after a cup or two of strong Falernian?

"As you wish." She shrugged. The silk pooled above her shoulders, then rippled like a sheet of water over her breasts.

I finished the second cup of water and put it down. "There was a reason you sent the gallus for me?"

"Yes, there was." She turned her gaze from me and fixed it on the young men in the river. I watched her eyes flit back and forth, following the leather ball. Her face remained impassive.

"Trygonion said it had something to do with Dio."

She nodded.

"Perhaps I should close the tent flaps," I said.

"Then what would the young men in the river think?" The idea of scandal seemed to amuse her, as did my growing consternation.

"If we need a chaperon, call back your handmaiden."

"Do we need a chaperon?" The look in her eyes was unnerving. "You obviously don't know Chrysis; she would hardly qualify for the role."

"Trygonion, then."

At that she laughed aloud and opened her mouth to speak, then thought better of it. "Forgive me," she said. "When I have business to conduct with a good-looking man, I like to indulge in a little teasing first. It's a fault of mine. My friends have learned to overlook it. I hope that you'll overlook the fault as well, Gordianus, now that I've confessed it."

I nodded.

"Very well. Yes, I wanted to consult you regarding the untimely death of our mutual friend, Dio of Alexandria." "Ourmutual friend?"

"Yes, mine as well as yours. Don't look so surprised, Gordianus. There are probably a great many things about Dio that you didn't know.

For that matter, there are probably a great many things about me that don't know, despite all you may have heard. I'll try to be brief and to the point. It was I who suggested to Dio that he should go to your house to seek your help on the night he was murdered."

"You?"

"Yes."

"But you don't know me."

"Even so, I know of you, just as you undoubtedly know of me. Your reputation goes back a long way, Finder. I was a girl of seventeen, still living at home, when Cicero made such a splash defending that man accused of parricide. I remember my father talking about the case for long afterward. I didn't know of the role you played until many years later, of course, when I learned the details from Cicero himself-how Cicero loved to rehash that old case, again and again, until his triumph over Catilina finally gave him something even bigger to crow about! Cicero used to speak of you often to my late husband; on a few occasions he even recommended that Quintus seek out your services, but Quintus was always stubborn about using his own men for snooping and such. I shall be honest with you: Cicero didn't always speak highly of you. That is to say, from time to time when your name was brought up, he sometimes used words that should not be repeated aloud by a respectable Roman matron such as myself. But we've all had our fallings-out with Cicero, have we not? The important thing is that even when he was infuriated with you, Cicero always made a point of praising your honesty and integrity. Indeed, when Quintus was governor up in Cisalpine Gaul, Cicero and his wife Terentia came for a visit, and one night after dinner we all played a game of questions and answers; when Quintus asked Cicero what man he would trust to tell the truth, no matter what, do you know whom he named? Yes, Gordianus, it was you. So you see, when Dio asked us to whom he might turn for help, the name of Gordianus the Finder came to my mind at once. I didn't know at the time that you and Dio already knew each other; Trygonion told me about that after their visit to you."

"I suppose I'm flattered," I said. "You know, then, that I met Dio in Alexandria, years ago?"

"Trygonion explained it to me." "But how is it that you knew Dio?"

"Because of his dealings with my brother Publius, of course." "What dealings?"

"They met shortly after Dio arrived in Rome. The two of them had much to talk about."

"I should think that Dio and Publius Clodius would have had a hard time finding common ground, considering that it was your brother who engineered the Roman takeover of Egyptian Cyprus."

"Water under the bridge, as the Etruscans say. Far more important to Dio was my brother's opposition to Pompey. Publius offered Dio a much-needed ally in the Senate. Dio offered Publius a means to cheat Pompey of his ambitions in Egypt."

"And your place in all this?"

"There's something about sharp-witted older men that I find simply irresistible." She gave me another of her unnerving looks. "And what did Dio see in you?" I asked bluntly.

"Perhaps it was my well-known love of poetry." Clodia shrugged elegantly, causing the sheer silk to catch and drag across her nipples.

"If you and your brother were such great friends and supporters of Dio, why didn't he stay at your house where he'd be safe, instead of moving from one dubious host to another, staying barely ahead of his killer?"

"Dio couldn't stay at my house for the same reason that you may not lower the flaps of this tent, Gordianus. A man and a woman together, you understand. Dio's position with the Senate was precarious enough without having it further eroded by sexual innuendos. Nor could he have stayed with Publius; imagine the rumors that would have set off, about the Egyptian troublemaker hatching plots with the famous rabble-rouser. Notoriety exacts a price. Sometimes our friends must stay at arm's length, for their own good."

"Very well, Dio was your friend, or ally, or whatever, and you sent him to me for help. I had to refuse him. A few hours later he was dead. You and your brother didn't do a very good job of protecting him, did you?"

Her lips tightened and her eyes flashed. "Nor did you," she said icily, "who had known him far longer than I had, and whose obligations must have run far deeper."

I winced. "Just so. But even if I had agreed to Dio's request, I would've been too late to save him. By the time I woke up the next morning-no, even before I fell asleep that night-he was already dead."

"But what if you had said yes to Dio? What if you had agreed to begin looking after his safety the next morning, helping him decide whom to trust and whom to fear? Wouldn't you have felt some obligation after his death, to try to bring his murderer to justice?"

"Perhaps… "

"And do you feel no such obligation now, simply out of respect for an old friendship? Why do you hesitate to answer?"

"Doesn't everyone know who was behind Dio's murder?"

"Who?"

"King Ptolemy, of course."

"Was it King Ptolemy who slipped poison into Dio's soup in the house of Lucceius? Was it Ptolemy himself who stole into Dio's room and stabbed him to death?"

"No, of course not. It was someone acting on the king's behalf-"

"Exactly. And do you feel no obligation to see that this person is punished, if only to give solace to Dio's shade?"

"Asicius has already been tried for the crime-"

"And acquitted, the swine!" Her eyes flashed. "Nemesis will have to deal with him in her own fashion. But there's another man, even more culpable than Asicius, who has yet to be brought to justice. You could help, Gordianus."

Though there was no chance that the men in the river could over-hear, still I lowered my voice. "If you mean Pompey-"

"Pompey! Do you think I would send you against Pompey? That would be like sending a one-armed gladiator into the arena to take on an elephant." Her laughter was like sand in my face. "No, Gordianus, what I want from you is very simple, and well within your capabilities. How many times have you investigated the circumstances of a murder? How many times have you helped an advocate find evidence that would prove a man guilty or innocent of such a crime? That's all I want from you. I'm not asking you to topple a king from his throne or pull down a colossus. Only help me bring down the wrath of the law on the man who killed Dio by his own hand. Help me punish the cold-blooded killer who plunged a dagger into Dio's breast!"

I expelled a heavy breath and turned to stare at the sunlight on the

river.

"Why do you hesitate, Gordianus? I'll pay you for your labors, of course, and generously. But I expected you to leap at this opportunity, out of your respect for Dio. Is his shade not whispering in your ear even now, pleading for vengeance? He asked for your help once before, while he was still alive-"

"These days, in a case such as this-in a matter of murder-I usually defer to my son Eco. He's younger, stronger, quicker. Those things often matter when the stakes are so high. Sharp ears and eyes can mean the difference between life and death. An old fellow like myself-"

"But your son never knew Dio, did he?"

"Even so, I think it's Eco you want."

"Well, never having seen him, it's hard for me to say whether I would want him or not. Does he look like a younger version of you?" She looked me up and down, as if I were a slave on the auction block.

I bit my lip for having mentioned Eco, imagining him in my place, alone with such a creature. What was I thinking, recommending him to her? "Both of my sons are adopted," I said.

"They look nothing like

me."

"They must be ugly, then," she said, affecting a frown of disappointment. "Well, then, you're the man I want, Gordianus, and there's no way around it. Will you help me or not?"

I hesitated.

"For Dio's sake?"

I sighed, seeing no way out. "You want me to find out who murdered

Dio?"

"No, no!" She shook her head. "Didn't I make myself clear? We already know that. What I need from you is your help in collecting evidence to convict the man."

"You know who murdered Dio?"

"Of course. You know him, too, I'm sure. Until a few days ago, he lived just up the street from you. His name is Marcus Caelius."

I stared at her blankly. "How do you know that?"

She leaned forward, absently running her hands over her thighs. The movement pressed her breasts together and caused the sheer cloth which outlined her nipples to shimmer. "Until recently, Marcus Caelius and I were on rather intimate terms. He and my brother were also close. You might say that Caelius was almost like a brother to both of us."

The way she said it, the implication was vaguely obscene. "Go on."

"Not long before the poison attempt was made on Dio in the house of Lucius Lucceius, Caelius came to me asking to borrow a considerable sum of money."

"So?"

"He told me he needed the money to pay for some games being held in his home town, Interamnia. Apparently Caelius has an honorary post on the local council there. In return, there's an obligation to help pay for local festivals; that's the way Caelius explained it to me, anyway. It wasn't the first time he asked to borrow money from me."

"Did you always oblige him?"

"Usually. You might say I had developed a habit of indulging Marcus Caelius. He always repaid me, but seldom with money." "Then how?" "With favors." "Political favors?"

Clodia laughed. "Hardly. Let's just say that I had an itch and Caelius knew how to scratch it. But I'm digressing. As I said, the sum of money

he asked to borrow was rather large-considerably larger than he'd ever requested before."

"Enough to pay for an awful lot of scratching," I said.

Her eyes flashed. "Why, yes, perhaps that's what I was thinking when I foolishly agreed to give Caelius the loan. Afterward, I became apprehensive, and made some inquiries. Imagine my displeasure when I discovered that the games at Interamnia are held in the autumn, not the spring. Caelius's pretense for the loan was a complete fiction."

"He would hardly be the first young man to lie to a beautiful woman to get her money."

Clodia smiled at this, and I realized that I had called her beautiful without even thinking; I had meant to say 'an older woman,' surely. The flattery was all the more sincere for being spontaneous, and I think she sensed this.

Her smile faded. "I believe Marcus Caelius used the money to obtain poison and then to bribe one or more of Lucceius's slaves to try to kill Dio with it."

"You said it was a large sum of money."

"Poison isn't cheap; the stuff has to be reliable, and so does the person selling it. Nor is it cheap to bribe the slaves of a rich master to commit such a crime." Clodia spoke with authority, as if she had personal knowledge of such matters. "The connection occurred to me only later, after Dio was dead. Little things-the tone of Caelius's voice and the look on his face whenever the subject of Dio arose, cryptic comments he would make, my own intuition."

"These are hardly evidence."

"Evidence is what I want from you, Gordianus."

"Whatever the truth of the matter, it wasn't the poison attempt that killed Dio. What about the stabbing?"

"Early on the evening of the murder, Caelius was at my house, which isn't far from that of Titus Coponius, where Dio was killed. Caelius was carrying a knife, concealed inside his tunic."

"If it was concealed, how-"

"I assure you, nothing on Marcus Caelius's person was hidden from me that night," she said with a brittle smile. "He was carrying a dagger. He was also nervous and fretful, in a state such as I had never seen him in before, and drinking more than was good for him. I asked what was wrong; he said there was an unpleasant task ahead of him, and that he would be relieved when it was done. I pressed him to tell me what it was, but he refused. You men, with your little secrets. I said, 'This unpleasant task which you dread so much-I hope it's not the task I asked you here to perform.' 'Of course not!' he said, and proceeded to demonstrate as much. But our lovemaking that night was a disappointment, to say the least. Caelius was about as effectual as one of our shriveled friends in the river today. Later, when his friend Asicius came by to collect him, Caelius was eager to leave. Well then, I thought, let the boys go off and play with each other. A little later that night-only moments after the two of them left my doorstep, I imagine-Dio was stabbed to death."

I paused for a long moment before speaking, puzzled not by the details of Clodia's story but by her whole manner of speaking. I had never heard a woman talk of her sexual relations in such frank terms, and with such acid in her voice. "You realize that everything you've told me connecting Caelius with Dio's murder is merely circumstantial."

"Then here is another circumstance: the next night, when Caelius came calling on me, he brought me a little gift-a silver necklace with lapis and carnelian baubles-and boasted that he could now repay every sesterce of the money he had borrowed from me."

"And did he repay you?"

She laughed. "Of course not. But from the way he talked, I had no doubt that he had come into some money. He had performed his task, you see, and been handsomely paid off."

"Is this merely your assumption?"

Clodia wasn't listening. She stared at the roof of the tent, remem-bering. "Our lovemaking that night was quite the reverse of the previous evening. Caelius was a veritable Minotaur-horns rampant, eyes aflame, his flanks glossy with sweat… "

I opened my mouth to speak, but before I could interrupt her it was done for me by the approaching sound of a man's laughter, deep and throaty, accompanied by splashing footsteps. Clodia snapped out of her reverie and sat forward on her couch. On her face was a look of pure joy.

I turned to see a man taking high steps through the shallows along the riverbank, striding toward the tent. Like the other men in the river he was naked. The light of the lowering sun glittered on the water behind him, casting him in shimmering silhouette; beads of water on his shoulders and limbs sparkled like points of white flame outlining the dark mass of his body. As he emerged from the river he raised his hands and pressed the water from his hair, showing the sleek muscularity of his shoulders and arms. On dry land his stride became a swagger, and though his features were still shadowed in silhouette, I could see the flash of a broad smile on his face.

"Darling!" The word emerged from Clodia's lips like a breath made audible, as uncalculated as a moan or a sigh. There was no pretense or teasing in her voice, no slyness or innuendo. She sprang from the couch to meet the man as he stepped into the tent. It was hard to say which of them looked more naked, the sinewy, long-limbed man wearing nothing but beads of water, or Clodia in her gown of transparent yellow silk. They embraced and kissed each other on the mouth.

After a moment Clodia drew back and took his hands in hers. Where her gown had become wet from being pressed against his body, the silk was even more transparent and was molded to her like a second skin. She turned her head, saw me gaping and laughed. The man did likewise, as if he were her mirror image.

"But darling," she said, squeezing his hands and giggling like a girl, "why didn't you simply come in through the tent flap? What on earth were you doing out in the water with the others? And when did you join them? How could I not have noticed?"

"I only just arrived," he said, with a laugh deeper than Clodia's but uncannily similar. "I thought it would be fun to slip in among your admirers and see if I could attract your notice. Which I didn't, apparently!"

"But I was distracted, darling, by something very important!" She nodded toward me and affected a sober expression. The teasing tone had returned to her voice. She was performing again, but for whom? "It's about Dio, darling, and the trial. This is Gordianus, the man I told you about. He's going to help us punish Marcus Caelius."

The man turned his beaming smile on me. I recognized him now, of course. I had seen him at a distance in the Forum on many occasions, haranguing his mob of followers or keeping company with the great powers of the Senate, but never naked and wet with his hair slicked back. How very much like his sister Publius Clodius looked, especially when one saw the two of them together, side by side.

Chapter Eleven

I remember something you used to tell me, Papa, when I was starting out on my own: 'Never accept a commission without obtaining

some sort of retainer, no matter how small.' " Eco cocked his head and gave me a penetrating look. "What is your point?" I said.

"Well, when you left Clodia's horti this afternoon, was your purse heavier than when you arrived?" This was his way of asking if I had accepted Clodia's commission to investigate the murder of Dio- how typical of Eco to get directly to the heart of the matter!

Despite the summerlike warmth of the day, darkness had fallen early; it was still the month of Martius, after all. By the time I left Clodia's horti, shortly after her brother's arrival, the sun was already sinking, turning the Tiber into a sheet of flaming gold. It was twilight by the time Belbo and I reached home, trudging back across the bridge, through the shut-down cattle markets and back up the Palatine. Night fell, with a slight chill in the air. After a hurried meal with Bethesda and Diana, despite the tiredness of my legs I again set out with Belbo across the city to take counsel with my elder son.

We sat in the study of the house on the Esquiline Hill, which had once been my house and my father's before that. Now it belonged to Eco and his brood. His wife Menenia was elsewhere, probably trying to put to bed the squabbling twins, whose high-pitched screams of laughter occasionally rent the cool evening air.

I had just described to Eco my interview with Clodia, up to the arrival of her brother and my departure shortly thereafter.

"When I left the lady's horti," I said, "my purse was substantially heavier."

"So you did accept her commission?" I nodded.

"Then you do believe that Marcus Caelius murdered Dio?" "I didn't say that."

"But you'll be looking for evidence to convict him." "If such evidence exists."

"Clodia's reasons for suspecting him seem to me tenuous, at best," said Eco. "But then, you've begun investigations with less to go on and still managed to dig up the truth."

"Yes. But to be honest, I'm a little uneasy about the whole affair."

"I should think so!"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, Papa, everyone knows that Caelius and Clodia were lovers. And Caelius and Clodius are political allies and drinking partners, or used to be. For that matter, there may have been something more than friendship between the two of them. Or the three of them, I should say."

"You mean the three of them in one bed?"

Eco shrugged. "Don't look surprised. A woman like Clodia-well, you said yourself that there wasn't a piece of furniture in the tent except for her couch."

"So?"

"Papa! You assumed that you were meant to stand. From what I've heard, the woman is more hospitable than that. If there was no chair, only a single couch, perhaps that meant that you were invited to recline."

"Eco!"

"Well, from the dress you say she was wearing-" "I should have been less descriptive."

"You should have taken me along with you. Then I could have seen for myself."

"You're well into your thirties now, son. You should be able to think of something besides sex."

"Menenia never complains." He grinned.

I tried to make a grunt of disapproval, which came out sounding more like a hum of curiosity. Eco had chosen a black-haired beauty not unlike Bethesda for his wife. In how many other ways was she like Be-thesda? I had wondered about this from time to time, in the perfectly natural way that a man of my years ponders the younger generation and their goings-on. Eco and Menenia… naked Clodius and his sister in her transparent gown…

At just that moment, one of the twins let out a scream from elsewhere in the house. I was jolted from my reverie, rudely reminded that physical pleasure can have consequences.

"We stray from the subject," I said. "I told you I felt uneasy about accepting this commission from Clodia, and you said, 'I should think so.' "

"Well, it all seems rather unsavory, don't you think? Perhaps even suspicious. I mean, there's an odd smell to it. Look, Papa, all you really learned about Caelius from your interview with Clodia is that he borrowed some money from an older, richer woman-under false pretenses, to be sure-and failed to repay her. Oh, and that he happens to carry a knife on his person, which is technically illegal inside the city walls but done by most people with any common sense these days. Until very recently these two were lovers, and now she's after evidence to convict him of murder. What are we to make ofthat? Caelius was her brother's confidant, and now the two Clodii accuse him of being a hired assassin for King Ptolemy, or for Pompey, which is the same thing. Why, Clodius is Caelius's landlord-Caelius lives in that apartment just up the street from you."

I shook my head. "Not anymore. Clodius kicked him out." "When?"

"A few days ago. I didn't know about it until today when Clodius told me himself-standing there naked in the tent, dripping wet, nonchalantly discussing his real estate with me. Funny, the gallus and I walked by the place on our way to Clodia's house and when I saw that all the shutters were closed on such a warm day, I thought Caelius must be inside sleeping off a hangover. Instead it turns out that the apartment is empty. Caelius has gone back to live at his father's house on the Quirinal Hill-where he'll undoubtedly stay, until his trial is finished."

"Then they're definitely bringing charges against him?"

"Oh yes, charges have already been filed. But not by Clodius."

"Then by whom?"

"Can you guess?"

Eco shook his head. "Marcus Caelius has too many enemies for me to hazard a guess."

"The charges were filed by the seventeen-year-old son of Lucius Calpurnius Bestia."

Eco laughed and mimed with his outstretched arm. " 'Judges, I do not point the finger of guilt-I point at the guilty finger!' "

"So you know that story?"

"Of course, Papa. Everyone knows about Caelius accusing Bestia of poisoning his wives. I only regret that you and I were gone visiting Meto when that trial took place. I heard about it secondhand from Menenia."

"It was Bethesda who told me about it. Well, it looks as if Bestia may soon exact his revenge on Caelius."

"Has the date for the trial been set?"

"Yes. The charges were actually filed five days ago. Given the customary ten days allowed for the two sides to prepare their arguments, that puts the beginning of the trial only five days from now."

"So soon! You don't have much time."

"Isn't that always the way? They come to us thinking we can pull evidence out of thin air."

Eco cocked his head. "But wait, you're saying the trial will start two days after the Nones of Aprilis. If it goes on for more than a day it would overlap with the opening of the Great Mother festival."

I nodded. "The trial will go on despite the holiday. Lesser courts are suspended during the festival, but not the court for political terrorism.

"Political terrorism? Then it's not a simple murder trial?"

"Hardly. There are four charges against Caelius. The first three accuse him of organizing the attacks on the Alexandrian embassy-the midnight raids in Neapolis, the stoning in Puteoli and the fire at the estate of Palla. I'll take no part in investigating those matters. My only concern is the fourth charge, which relates directly to Dio. It accuses Caelius of attempting to poison Dio at the house of Lucceius."

"What about the actual murder, the stabbing at Coponius's house?"

"Technically, that's also included. But Publius Asicius has already been acquitted, and the prosecution is wary of trying to prove the same case against Caelius. Instead, they want to concentrate on the earlier poisoning attempt. Of course, I'll find out what I can about the stabbing at Coponius's house, as a corroborative detail."

"And to satisfy your own curiosity."

"Of course."

Eco pressed his fingertips together. "A politically charged trial, held during a holiday when Rome will be packed with visitors, with Cicero's estranged protege as the accused and a scandalous woman in the back-ground-this could turn into a spectacle, Papa."

I groaned. "All the more reason for my misgivings. All I need now is for some of Pompey's or King Ptolemy's strong-armers to come banging at my door, warning me to back away from the investigation."

Eco raised an eyebrow. "Do you think that's likely to happen?"

"I hope not. But I have a bad feeling about the whole affair. As you said, there's an odd smell to it. I don't like it."

"Then why not back away? You don't owe Clodia any favors-or do you? Are you telling me everything that happened in her tent today?" He affected an insinuating smile.

"Don't be absurd. I owe the woman nothing but the retainer I left with. But I do feel an obligation."

He nodded.

"To Dio, you mean."

"Yes. I refused him to his face when he asked me for help. Then I talked myself out of going to the trial of Asicius -" "You were sick, Papa."

"Yes, but was I that sick? And then, when Asicius was acquitted, I told myself that was the end of it. But how could it be the end, with no one convicted of the crime? How could Dio be at rest? Still, I managed to shun the obligation I felt, to shove such thoughts to the back of my mind-until yesterday, when the gallus arrived to bring me face to face with my own responsibility. It was Clodia who summoned me, but it wasn't only her."

"Her brother Clodius as well?"

"No, I mean to say that those two are only the agents of something larger. It begins with Dio, but where it ends only time will tell. Some greater power seems determined to pull me into this matter."

"Nemesis?"

"I was thinking of another goddess: Cybele. It was one ofher priests who accompanied Dio to my house, and the same priest who came for me yesterday. Do you think it's only a coincidence that the trial will be held during the Great Mother festival-the celebration consecrated to Cybele? You know, it was one of Clodia's ancestresses who saved the statue of Cybele from being lost in the Tiber when it was brought from the East long ago. Do you sense the link?"

"Papa, you grow more religious as you grow older," said Eco quietly.

"Perhaps. More fearful of the gods, anyway, if not more respectful. Leave them out of it, then. Say that this is merely between myself and the shade of Dio. My sense of obligation runs deeper than my misgivings."

Eco nodded gravely. As usual, he understood me completely. "What do you want from me, Papa?"

"I'm not sure yet. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps only to listen to my doubts, and nod if I say something that remotely makes sense."

He took my hand in his. "Tell me if you need more than that, Papa. Promise me."

"I promise, Eco."

He released me and sat back. From elsewhere in the house I heard one of the twins shrieking. Surely it was time for them to be in bed, I thought. Through the gaps in the shutters I could see that the world outside was dark.

"What does Bethesda think?" said Eco. I smiled. "What makes you think I told her anything?" "You must have told her something when you ate dinner with her tonight."

"Yes – a somewhat expurgated version of my visit to Clodia's horti."

"Ha! Bethesda would have appreciated the detail of the naked bath-ers, I think." Eco laughed.

"Perhaps, but I left them out of it. Just as I left out the description of the dress which seems to have intrigued you so much."

"I think it intrigued you first, Papa. And Clodius's emergence from the river, as naked as a fish from the sea?"

"Omitted-though I did leave in the siblings' embrace."

"And their kiss?"

"And the kiss. Well, I had to give Bethesda some grist for gossip." "And what does she think of the accusation against Marcus Cae-

lius?"

"Bethesda stated quite flatly that it was absurd." "Really?"

'Impossible!' she said. 'Marcus Caelius could never have committed the crime. The woman is defaming him!' I asked her upon what she based her opinion, but the Medusa look was the only answer I got. Bethesda has always had a weakness for our dashing young neighbor. Or ex-neighbor, I should now say."

"She'll miss having him living just up the street."

"We shall all miss the occasional spectacle of watching Caelius stumble out his front door in the middle of the day with tousled hair and bloodshot eyes, or seeing him carouse through the street with a prostitute from the Subura, or hearing his drunk friends recite obscene poetry from his window at night-"

"Papa, stop!" Eco choked with laughter.

"It's no joking matter, I suppose," I said, suddenly grim. "The young man's whole future is at stake. If he's convicted, the best that Marcus Caelius can hope for will be a chance to flee into exile. His family will be shamed, his career ended, all his prospects ruined."

"It hardly seems punishment enough, if he's guilty."

"If he's guilty," I said. "Which it's up to me to find out."

"And if you find that he's not guilty?"

"I'll report that to Clodia."

"And will that make any difference to her?" said Eco shrewdly. "You know as well as I do, Eco, that Roman trials are only incidentally about guilt and innocence."

"You mean that Clodia may be more interested in destroying Caelius than in punishing Dio's killer?"

"That thought has crossed my mind. A woman scorned-"

"Unless it was she who scorned him, Papa."

"I suppose that's one of the things I'll need to find out."

"If you believe the rumors, Caelius wouldn't be the first man she's destroyed," said Eco. "Though I suppose exile and humiliation are more merciful than poison."

"You refer to the gossip that she murdered her husband three years

ago."

He nodded. "They say that Quintus Metellus Celer was healthy one day and dead the next. They say that his marriage to Clodia was always stormy-and moreover that Celer and her brother Clodius had become fierce enemies. The rift was ostensibly over politics-but what man could abide having a brother-in-law for a rival in his bed?"

"But which brother-in-law was the usurper-Clodius… or Celer?"

He shrugged. "I suppose that was up to Clodia to decide. Celer was the loser; he lost his life. And now Caelius? Perhaps any man who comes between this brother and sister is risking more than he realizes."

I shook my head. "You repeat these scandalous charges as if you knew them to be true, Eco."

"Only because I think you should consider very carefully what sort of people you're dealing with. You've made up your mind to go through with this, then?"

"To try to find the truth about Dio's murder, yes."

"Under Clodia's auspices?"

"It was she who hired me. Circumstance led her to me-circum-stance, or Cybele."

"But the political danger of associating yourself in any way with Clodius-"

"I've made up my mind."

He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Then I think at the very least we should review what we know about these Clodii, before you go off pursuing their interests or pocketing any more of their silver."

"Very well, what do we know about them? And let us be careful to separate fact from slander."

Eco nodded. He spoke deliberately, carefully framing his thoughts. "They are patricians. They come from a very old, very distinguished family. They have many renowned ancestors, many of whom served as consuls, whose public works are scattered all over Italy-roads, aque-ducts, temples, basilicas, gates, porticoes, arches. Their relatives are intermarried with families of equal stature in such a tangle that even a silkmaker could never unravel all the threads. The Clodii are at the heart of Rome's ruling class."

"As fractured and at odds with itself as that class may be. Yes, the respectability of their ancestry and their connections is beyond question," I agreed. "Though one always has to wonder how the rich and powerful became so in the first place."

Eco shook his finger at me. "Now, Papa, you've already bent your own rule-mixing facts with innuendo."

"Facts only," I conceded. "Or at least, anything not a fact must be clearly identified as hearsay," I amended, realizing that it might otherwise be impossible to talk about Clodia and Clodius at all.

"Well then," Eco continued, "to begin with, there's the spelling of their name. The patrician form is Claudius, and their father was Appius Claudius. But Clodius and all three of his sisters changed their spelling of the family name to the more common form some years ago, with an o, not the posh-sounding au. That must have been when Clodius decided to cast his lot as a populist politician and a rabble-rouser. I suppose it helps to give him the common touch when he's consorting with his hired strong-armers and brick throwers, or canvassing for votes among those who live off the grain dole he established."

"Yes, but what advantage does it give to Clodia?" I wondered.

"From your description of the goings-on at her horti this afternoon, I'd imagine she craves the common touch as well. Gossip, I confess!" Eco hurriedly added, as I raised a finger.

"Another fact, then," I said. "They're not full-blooded siblings."

"I thought they were."

"No, Clodia is the eldest of the lot, and she had a different mother from the rest. Her mother died giving birth to her, I believe. Soon after, Appius Claudius married his second wife and sired three boys and two more girls, the youngest of the boys being Publius Claudius, now Clodius. Clodius must be about your age, Eco, thirty-five or so, and Clodia is about five years older than him."

"They're only half siblings, then," Eco said. "So any copulation- conjectural or otherwise-would be only half incest, I suppose."

"Not that such a distinction would matter to anyone this side of Egypt," I said. "Actually-more gossip-one hears that Clodius has been the lover of all three of his sisters, the two full-blooded, younger ones as well as his big sister Clodia. Just as one hears that Clodius was groomed as a catamite by his older brothers when he was a boy, to sell his sexual favors to wealthy rakes."

"But I thought Clodius and his family were wealthy to begin with."

"Fabulously wealthy by our standards, Eco, but not by those of their peers. During the civil wars, when Clodia and Clodius were children, their father Appius was on the side of Sulla. When Sulla's fortunes ebbed, Appius had to flee Rome for several years. His children had to fend for themselves in a city full of enemies. Clodia, the oldest, was barely into her teens. It can't have been easy for those children. Those were hard years for everyone." This was something I hardly needed to tell Eco; it was in those years of chaotic civil strife that his own father had died and his mother had been reduced to such poverty that she eventually abandoned him to fend for himself in the streets, until I took him into my home and adopted him.

"When Sulla eventually triumphed and became dictator, Appius Claudius returned and for a short while thrived. He was elected consul in the year that Sulla retired. Then he took his reward, a provincial governorship-of Macedonia, I think-where he could bleed the locals for taxes, collect tribute from their chieftains and thus provide his sons back home with silver to start their political careers and his daughters with dowries. So it goes for a Roman with a successful political career. But not in the case of Appius Claudius. He died in Macedonia. The taxes and tributes were collected by his successor, and the only thing the children of Appius Claudius got back from Macedonia were the ashes of their father. They must have gone through a bad patch after that. They were never so poor that they dropped from sight, but one can imagine them scrimping and cutting corners to keep up appearances- the kind of petty humiliations that privileged patricians find so galling.

"And without a father in the house, the children must have made their own rules. Did young Clodius and his sisters carry on like rutting sheep without a shepherd to separate them? I don't know, but growing up in a turbulent, often hostile city with their father absent for years at a time, and then losing him while they were still quite young, must have brought the siblings close together-perhaps uncommonly or even un-naturally close. And while I seriously doubt that young Clodius was ever a prostitute in the strictly commercial sense-that kind of talk reeks of slander-given the circumstances, it's not hard to imagine him using whatever attributes he possessed to curry favor with those who could help him and his brothers get ahead. It's also not hard to imagine that there were those who found him desirable. Even now Clodius still has the look of a boy-sleek-limbed, slender-hipped, broad-chested. Smooth skin. A face like his sister's… "

"Yes, I was forgetting that you've just seen him naked," said Eco, raising his eyebrows.

I ignored his teasing. "The third name attached to their branch of the Claudian line is Pulcher, you know-'beautiful.' Clodius's full name is Publius Clodius Pulcher, and his sister is Clodia Pulcher. I don't know how far back the name goes, or which of their ancestors was vain enough to add it, but it certainly fits the current generation. Pulcher, indeed! And yes, I speak advisedly, having just seen both of them naked, or near enough-fact, not gossip! You know, I can well imagine that there are those, having seen the two of them together, who rather like to picture Clodia and Clodius making love, whether it's true or not." "Papa, your eyes are glazing over!"

"They most certainly are not. But never mind all that. Everyone knows that the Clodii are good-looking, and everyone suspects that they both have far too much sex for anyone's good. What else do we know about them? I think the first time that I ever heard of Clodius was when he acted as a prosecutor in the trials of the Vestal Virgins."

"Ah, yes, when he accused Catilina of seducing the Vestal Fabia."

"But when both Catilina and the Vestal were acquitted, things got so hot for Clodius in Rome that he had to flee down to Baiae until the furor cooled down. He burned his fingers on that one. I don't suppose he was even twenty at the time. I could never make out what his object was, except to stir up trouble. Perhaps he wasn't quite sure himself, just testing his powers."

"The next thing I remember about him happened a few years later," said Eco. "Something about stirring up that mutiny among the troops."

"Ah, yes, when he went off to serve in the East as a lieutenant under his brother-in-law Lucullus. Clodius styled himself as the soldiers' champion. They were already dissatisfied with the way Lucullus was driving them from campaign to campaign with no end in sight and no sure prospect of a reward, while Pompey's troops were already receiving farms and settlements for fewer years of service. Clodius made a famous speech to the troops, saying they deserved more from their general than the chance to lay down their lives protecting his personal caravan of camels laden with gold. 'If we must never have an end to fighting, shouldn't we reserve what's left of our bodies and souls for a commander who will reckon his chief glory to be the wealth of his soldiers?' "

"Papa, what a head you've always had for remembering speeches, even those you've heard only secondhand!"

"Such a memory is as much a curse as a blessing, Eco. Anyway, you can see that Clodius was a rabble-rouser even then, making himself the advocate of the masses against their rulers, setting himself up in opposition to the status quo. No wonder he switched to the plebeian form of his name."

"And then more scandal," said Eco. "The affair of the Good God-

dess."

"Yes. Was it only six years ago? Ironic that the man who started out by prosecuting a Vestal Virgin and her alleged lover should have gotten himself into such a sacrilegious scandal. The hearsay-gossip, not fact-was that Clodius was carrying on with Caesar's wife, Pompeia, but Caesar had caught on and set his mother to watch Pompeia like a hawk, so that it became impossible for the lovers to meet. Never one to let his appetites be denied, Clodius concocted a scheme to reach Pompeia. He decided to sneak into the women's festival of the Good Goddess, Fauna, which was being held that year in Caesar's house. No men allowed, of course. How could Clodius get in? By dressing up as a woman! Imagine him all fancied up as a singing girl in a saffron robe with purple hose and slippers-I wonder if his sisters helped dress him up."

"Perhaps it wasn't his first time in a stola," said Eco.

"I suppose he couldn't resist the idea of taking Pompeia in Caesar's own bed, with Caesar's own mother and scores of other women chanting and lighting incense in the next room. I wonder if Clodius planned to keep his stola on while he did it?"

"Papa, I object! You're letting your lurid imagination seduce you into accepting hearsay, and then compounding the slander."

"Granted, Eco. I shall try to get back to the facts. The story goes that Clodius almost pulled it off. In the haze of the incense and the confusion of the chanting and dancing-who knows what sort of rituals these women engage in behind closed doors?-Clodius managed to make his way into the house and to find one of Pompeia's slave girls, who was expecting him. She went to fetch her mistress, but when she failed to return, Clodius became impatient and started wandering through the house on his own, staying out of the light as much as he could, observing the proceedings."

"Wouldn't you love to know what he saw?"

"Wouldn't every man, Eco? But it was Clodius's bad fortune to be spotted by another serving girl, who saw his hesitant manner and innocently asked him who he was looking for. He told her he was looking for Pompeia's serving girl, but he was unable to disguise his deep voice. The girl let out a shriek. Clodius managed to hide in a storage room, but the women lit torches and searched the house until they rooted him out and drove him into the street."

"Well," said Eco wryly, "if nothing else, Clodius disproved the old superstition we all learned as boys, that any man who witnesses the secret ceremonies of the Good Goddess will be instantly struck blind."

"Clodius could still see, granted, but he might have wished to be struck deaf, so as not to hear the clamor he set off. The women went home and told their husbands, and you know how men are with gossip. By the next morning, the scandal was the talk of every tavern and street comer in Rome. The pious were outraged, the impious were amused, and I have no doubt that some from both camps were more than a little envious. The matter was much talked about for a season and then put aside for months, until some of Clodius's enemies decided to bring him to trial for sacrilege.

"At the trial, Clodius claimed that he was innocent and that the women were mistaken, because during the festival of the Good Goddess he had been fifty miles from Rome. Clodius and Cicero were still on friendly terms back then, and when the prosecution called Cicero to testify, Clodius expected him to back up his alibi. Instead, Cicero dutifully affirmed that he had seen Clodius in Rome on the day in question. Clodius was infuriated. That was the beginning of the bad blood between them."

"But Clodius was acquitted nonetheless," said Eco.

"Yes, by a slim majority of the fifty-odd jurors. Some say there was outright bribery by both sides; others say that the jurors simply voted along political lines. At any rate, Clodius was vindicated and emerged stronger than ever. He became bolder about using the street gangs he had been organizing to swell his retinue and intimidate his enemies. As for Caesar, the cuckolded husband, his only response was to divorce Pompeia, even though he publicly insisted that nothing untoward had occurred between her and Clodius. When the paradox was pointed out to him-why divorce Pompeia if she had been faithful?-he said, 'I have no doubt whatsoever about her fidelity, but Caesar's wife cannot be tainted even by suspicion!' Well, Caesar can't have been too offended by Clodius. The two of them have turned out to be close allies."

"As demonstrated by the way Caesar helped Clodius get his tribunate."

"Exactly. Clodius wanted to be elected tribune, but was barred from doing so, since it's a strictly plebeian office, off-limits to patricians. What was Clodius's solution? With Caesar pushing the paperwork, he managed to get himself adopted by a plebeian almost young enough to be his son, and so got himself officially enrolled as a plebeian-which outraged his fellow patricians and delighted the mob, who elected him tribune. At last Clodius was a commoner in fact as well as in name."

"I see a pattern," said Eco. "If a man can't witness the rites of the Good Goddess, Clodius will make himself a woman. If a patrician can't run for tribune, then Clodius, who has the most patrician pedigree in Rome, will make himself a plebeian."

"Not a man to let himself be stymied by technicalities," I agreed. "During his year as tribune he managed to get a lot done-introducing a grain dole to please the mob, arranging for the Roman takeover of Egyptian Cyprus to pay for the dole, and passing a law to send Cicero into exile."

Eco nodded. "But now Cicero is back in Rome, and Clodius's ally Caesar is off conquering Gaul. The big political issue of the moment is the Egyptian crisis, which brings us up to Dio's ill-fated mission. If we believe Clodia, Clodius made himself a friend of poor Dio before he was killed-and now they want you to find evidence against Clodia's lover Marcus Caelius to convict him of the murder."

"An admirable summing up," I said. "I think we've managed to sort out a few truths from the slanders and come up with a few conclusions about Clodius's character, though I'm not sure where it all leaves us. I haven't changed my mind. In the past I've worked for men whose means and morals were at least as questionable as his. I see no point in refusing a commission from Clodius if it leads me to the truth of Dio's murder."

"What about Clodia, then?"

"What about her? All right, let's take a look at Clodia. The same rules: truth only, except for gossip identified as gossip-though I think the rule will be even harder to observe with Clodia than with Clodius. I think we've probably heard more about her and know less. But I'll begin. She was the first child of Appius Claudius, raised by a stepmother among younger half siblings-did this circumstance make her stronger, more responsible, more independent? Mere speculation. We do know that she married young, before her father died and left the family in financial straits, so she managed to bring a good dowry to her marriage with a cousin, Quintus Metellus Celer-which may help to explain her independence when it came to butting heads with her husband over family squabbles and political differences. In any dispute, even with Celer, she appears always to have sided with her siblings."

"The Clodii against the world?" said Eco.

"It sounds admirably Roman when you put it like that. Could all those rumors of incest merely reflect the jealousy of less beautiful, less beloved outsiders? Why not give Clodia the benefit of the doubt, and put down the rumors of her adulteries and incest to malicious tongues?"

"You're the one who spent the afternoon at her horti, Papa, watching her ogle naked men."

"Yes, well, it's true that she doesn't do much to stamp out the lies about her, if they are lies. And there's no doubt that her marriage to

Celer was stormy. There are plenty of witnesses to that, including Cicero, who used to be their frequent houseguest back when he was on friendly terms with the Clodii. But it should count for something that despite their troubles, Clodia and Celer did stay married for twenty years-"

"Until Celer mysteriously died three years ago."

"Yes, well, we've already talked about the rumor that she poisoned him. It's worth noting that no one ever brought charges against her, as someone in Celer's family might well have done, had there been any evidence. Any time anybody notable in Rome dies of anything but an accident, there's someone who'll say it was poison. Just as there are those who will always whisper that any exceptionally beautiful woman-or man, for that matter-is a whore. While we've both heard plenty of rumors, when it comes down to it, we don't really know very much at all about Clodia, do we?"

Eco leaned back and pressed his fingers together. "I think, Papa, that you are letting the transparent yellow gown cloud your better judgment.

"Nonsense!"

"It covers your eyes like a veil." "Eco!"

"I'm serious, Papa. You told me to be honest with you, so I will be. I think that Clodia is probably a very dangerous woman, and I don't like it that you're working for her. If you must do so, for Dio's sake, then I hope you'll see as little of her as possible."

"I've already seen quite a bit of her."

"I mean what I say, Papa." There was no levity in his voice. "I don't like it."

"Nor do I. But some paths a man must walk, taking whatever ways are opened to him by the gods."

"Well," said Eco with an edge in his voice, "I suppose a religious argument can put an end to any discussion."

And if it didn't, then what happened next did, for at that moment two tiny human missiles came hurtling through the room like fireballs hurled from a catapult. One chased the other at such a speed that I couldn't tell which was the pursuer and which the pursued; I often found it hard to tell the twins apart even when they were standing still. At the age of four there was not much to distinguish them. Gordiana (whom Meto had called Titania from birth, because she was so big) was perhaps slightly larger than her brother Titus, but the two of them were dressed for bed in identical, long-sleeved tunics that went down to their ankles, and they had the same long, golden locks-a legacy from their mother's side of the family, which was perhaps why Menenia had so far refused to clip a single curl.

Never slowing down, the two of them tore across the study and disappeared into the next room. A moment later their mother followed after them. She seemed quite calm and was even smiling.

"Are you men finally finished with your serious discussion?" she asked. Menenia comes from a very old plebeian family, as respectable as it is obscure. Some of her ancestors managed to obtain the consulship hundreds of years ago; that will always count for something, but it hardly puts food on the table. Still, Eco was lucky to make the match, considering his adopted father's far less distinguished ancestry, and Menenia herself is above reproach in every way, the model of a Roman matron. She even knows how to handle her mother-in-law with effortless tact; I only wish that I could do as well at staying on Bethesda's good side.

"Yes, wife," said Eco, "I believe we're done with discussing life and death and justice and the gods, and other such trivial matters."

"Good. Then perhaps you both have a moment to spare for your offspring. The only reason the twins have been flying about in such a frenzy is because they refuse to go to bed without a last chance to say goodnight to their grandfather."

"Well, then, make them wait no longer," I said, laughing, and before I had a chance to brace myself, out of nowhere two fair-haired fireballs came hurtling straight toward my lap.

The hour had grown late; Bethesda would be expecting me home. I said a quick farewell to Eco and Menenia and finally extricated myself from the surprisingly strong grips of Titus and Titania-no easy task, for each took hold of one of my hands and refused to let go. When I yelled for Belbo to come help me, I was hardly joking.

Belbo and I made our way down the Esquiline Hill beneath the light of the waxing moon, back through the Subura, where the streets were busy even at this hour, and across the Forum, where the temples were quiet and the broad, moonlit squares almost deserted. Above our heads the cold sky was full of stars. As we passed the House of the Vestals I shivered and pulled my cloak more tightly about my throat, thinking it was the night air seeping into my bones.

Just beyond the House of the Vestals, near the steps of the Temple of Castor, we turned sharply to the north, onto the broad footpath called the Ramp, the best shortcut from the Forum up the steep face of the Palatine Hill to the residential district. The Ramp is well traveled, but even in daylight it can seem secluded and secretive, hemmed in at its lower portion by the stony base of the Palatine and the high rear walls of the House of the Vestals, and shielded along both sides of its upper course by close-set rows of cypress trees. At night the Ramp is a place of deep shadows, even when the moon is full. "The perfect place for a murder," Bethesda had once exclaimed before turning around in mid-course and refusing ever to take the path again.

I felt another sudden chill and knew that it had nothing to do with the night air. We were being followed on the path, and not by chance but stealthily, for when I signaled Belbo to stop, I heard behind us the faint sound of footsteps that stopped a moment later. I turned and peered down the mostly straight path but could make out no movement among the dense shadows.

"One man or two?" I whispered to Belbo.

He wrinkled his brow. "One, I think, Master."

"I agree. The footsteps stop all at once, without any shuffling or whispering. Do you suppose the two of us have anything to fear from one man, Belbo?"

Belbo peered at me thoughtfully. A bit of moonlight illuminated his furrowed brow. "Not unless he has a friend waiting at the top of the path, Master. That would make it even odds."

"And what if he has more than one friend up there?"

"Do you want to turn around, Master?"

I peered into the darkness below, then into the shadows ahead. "No. We're almost home."

Belbo shrugged. "Some men have to go all the way to Gaul to die. Others can do it on their own doorstep."

"Just keep your hand on the dagger inside your tunic, and I'll do the same. Keep to a steady pace."

As we neared the top of the path I realized what a perfect place of ambush it would provide. Once upon a time I could take the steep path without missing a breath, but not any longer; a winded man makes an easy target. Even Belbo was breathing harder. I listened for the steps behind us, or for any sound from ahead, but I heard only the beating of my heart and the rush of air in my nostrils.

As we neared the top of the Ramp the cypress trees thinned on either side and the way opened up, dispersing the shadows with moonlight and allowing glimpses of the houses up ahead. I could even see a bit of the roof of my own house, which made me feel at once reassured and uneasy. Reassured to be so close to safety, uneasy because the gods sometimes resort to the most appalling ironies in discharging the fates of mortals. We were almost clear of the path but there were still plenty of shadows where any number of assassins could be concealed. I steeled myself and peered into the pockets of darkness.

At last we stepped from the Ramp onto the paved street, only a few doors from my house. The way was clear on either side. The street was deserted and quiet. From an upper story nearby I heard the quiet singing of a woman crooning a lullaby. All was tranquil.

"Perhaps we should play ambushers," I whispered to Belbo after I caught my breath, for now I could hear the sound of our follower's footsteps approaching. "If someone is after us, I should like to have a look at him."

We drew back into the shadows and waited.

The footsteps grew nearer, until at any moment the man would catch up with us and emerge into the moonlight.

Beside me Belbo gasped. I stiffened, wondering what was the matter.

Then Belbo sneezed.

It was only a partial sneeze, for he did his best to stifle it, but in the stillness it might as well have been a thunderclap. The footsteps stopped. I peered into the darkness and was able to discern the man's vague outline, a silhouette among mottled shadows. From his posture he seemed to be peering back at me, trying to make out where the sneeze had come from. An instant later he vanished, and I heard footsteps running down the Ramp.

Belbo gave a jerk. "Shall we go after him, Master?"

"No. He's younger than us-probably a lot faster."

"How do you know?"

"Did you hear him breathing hard?"

"No."

"Exactly. Neither did I, and he was close enough that we would have heard, had he been winded. He has strong lungs."

Belbo hung his head, chagrined. "Master, I'm sorry I sneezed." "Some things even the gods can't stop. Perhaps it was for the

best."

"Do you really think he was following us?"

"I don't know. But he gave us a scare, didn't he?"

"And we gave him a scare!"

"So perhaps we're even, and that's the end of it," I said, but I felt uneasy.

We walked hurriedly up the street to my house. Belbo rapped on the door. While we waited for the slave to open it I pulled him aside. "Belbo, whether we were followed or not-don't mention this to your mistress. No need asking for trouble. Do you understand?"

"Of course, Master," he said gravely.

I thought for a moment. "And don't tell Diana, either."

"That goes without saying, Master." Belbo smiled. Then his jaw suddenly began to quiver and his face contorted. I gripped his shoulder, alarmed.

Belbo threw back his head and sneezed again.

Chapter Twelve

The next morning I rose early, ate a frugal breakfast of honey and bread, offered my beard to Belbo for a trim (I trust no one else to use anything sharp near my neck), donned my toga, since I intended to pay some formal visits, and stepped out of the house. The fresh, dewy air was bracing; the lingering chill of the night was tempered by the morning's warm sunshine.

I filled my lungs with a deep breath and headed up the street with Belbo beside me.

The Palatine seemed to me particularly lovely that morning. Of late, whenever I left the immediate vicinity of my house, I had been struck by how dirty and grubby so much of Rome had begun to seem, especially the Subura with its brothels and taverns and foul-smelling little side streets, and the Forum with its toga-clad hordes of politicians and financiers going about their frenzied business. How much more pleasant the Palatine was, with its shaded, well-paved streets, its quaint little shops, orderly apartments and handsome houses. One could breathe in such a neighborhood, and walk even in the busiest part of the day without knocking elbows with a hundred rude, shoving strangers.

I had gotten used to living in a rich man's neighborhood, I realized, and the adjustment had not been difficult at all. What would my father say, who had lived all his life in the Subura? Probably, I thought, he would be proud of his son's material success, however unconventionally I had acquired it. He would also probably remind me that I should keep my wits about me and never be deceived by appearances. The rare and beautiful things that wealth and power can buy are often only decorations to conceal the way that such wealth and power were attained. Yes, a man can breathe freely on the airy, spacious Palatine-and a man can also stop breathing. Something more awful than knocking elbows with strangers had happened to Dio. The quality of a man's bedsheets counts for nothing if his sleep is forever.

The way to the house of Lucius Lucceius took us past the apartment building from which Marcus Caelius had recently been evicted. As we passed I paused to take a look. Not only was the upper story deserted, but a sign had been painted in handsome black letters on the corner of the building:

FOR SALE BY OWNER, PUBLIUS CLODIUS PULCHER.

Beneath this was a drawing of some sort. I stepped across the street for a closer look and saw that it was a crudely rendered graffito showing a man and woman entangled in sexual intercourse. At first glance, it struck me that their positions were absurdly acrobatic; on closer examination I decided that they were physically impossible. Running from the woman's gaping mouth was a scrawled caption, with almost all the words misspelled:

THERE'S NOTHING LIKE A BROTHER'S LOVE!

The artist was too poor a draftsman to have captured any recog-nizable features, but I had no doubt whom the copulating figures were meant to represent. The graffito had probably been left by one of Milo's rabble, I thought, though Clodius and his sister had plenty of other enemies. Considering the misspellings, the vandalism could hardly be attributed to Marcus Caelius. Or could it? Caelius was wickedly clever enough to deliberately disguise his handiwork as that of a lesser intellect.

Belbo and I moved on. After numerous twistings and turnings down smaller side streets we reached the house of Lucius Lucceius. As befitted the domicile of a wealthy and respected senior senator, it presented an irreproachable facade. The only ornamentation was the massive wooden door, which looked very old and was carved with elaborate swirls and bound with massive iron clasps that had the savage look of the finest Carthaginian handiwork. It was not unlikely that the door had been brought back from the sack of Carthage itself; I have seen many such trophies in the homes of those whose families conquered Rome's rivals. Belbo, unawed by its history or design and seeing only a door, knocked upon it.

It was quickly answered by the door slave, with whom Belbo ex-changed the requisite formalities. A moment later I was admitted into the foyer, and then into a sparsely furnished study. The walls were decorated with Carthaginian war trophies-spears, swords, pieces of armor and even a pair of elephant tusks. The white-haired master of the house sat before a table littered with scrolls, styluses, wax writing tablets and bits of parchment.

"I can allow you only a moment," he said, without looking up. "I know who you are, of course, and I can guess what you're doing here. There's the chair. Sit down." At last he put down the scroll over which he had been poring and squinted at me. "Yes, I remember your face. First time I saw it was when Cicero pointed you out to me in the Forum- must have been fifteen years ago during the trials of the Vestal Virgins. Damned Catilina, corrupting a Vestal and getting away with it! It was I who prosecuted him for murder, you know, the year before he staged his little uprising. Didn't win that case, did I? Probably would have been better for everyone concerned if I had, Catilina included-he could be off somewhere enjoying his exile right now, buggering all the pretty boys in Massilia or wherever. By Hercules, you look fit! I'd have thought you'd gotten as old as me by now!" With that, Lucius Lucceius smiled broadly and pushed himself from the table. He was a remarkably ugly man with great bristling eyebrows and an unkempt mane of white hair.

He leaned back and rubbed his eyes. "Need a break anyway. Working on my history of the Carthaginian wars. Great-great-great-grandfather helped Scipio Africanus put an end to Hannibal, left the family a pile of scrolls nobody's read in years. Fascinating stuff. When I've finished writing it I'll browbeat all the friends and family into buying copies. They won't bother to read it, but the work keeps me busy. Gordianus, Gordianus," he mused, staring at me and wrinkling his brow. "Thought you were retired, not even living in Rome anymore. Seems somebody told me you'd left it all for a farm in Sicily."

"Etruria, actually. But that was a while ago. I've been back in Rome for several years now."

"Still retired?"

"Yes and no. I take on simple cases now and then, just to keep myself busy. Rather like you writing your history, I imagine."

From the flash in his squinting eyes, I saw that Lucceius took his role as historian more seriously than his self-deprecation indicated. "So,' he said curtly, "Cicero has sent you around to collect my statement. Afraid it's not ready."

I stared at him blankly.

"Well, so much else to do," he said. "That is why you're here, isn't it? This business about young Marcus Caelius being brought to trial by those rascals claiming he tried to do in Dio?"

"Yes," I said slowly. "That is why I'm here."

"Surprised me-well, surprised everybody, I imagine-when I heard that Cicero was going to handle the boy's defense. Thought those two had fallen out for good, but there you have it. Things get dicey and the naughty schoolboy goes running back to his tutor. Rather touching, really."

"Yes, it is," I said quietly. Was it really possible that Cicero had taken on Caelius's defense? The news was startling, but made perfect sense. Cicero had successfully defended Asicius, probably to please Pompey. Pompey would be pleased to see Caelius acquitted as well, and Cicero was the man to do it. As for the feud between Caelius and Cicero, the same pragmatism that can make friends into enemies in the blink of an eye can do the reverse as well. "So your statement for Cicero isn't ready yet?" I said.

"No. Come back tomorrow. Actually, surprised he sent you to fetch it instead of that secretary of his, the one who picks over all the tiny details."

"Tiro?"

"That's the one. Clever slave."

"Yes, well, I suspect Tiro will be the one who comes to collect your statement eventually. But as long as I'm here, perhaps I could ask you a few questions."

"Go on."

"About Dio."

He waved his hand. "It will all be in the statement."

"Still, perhaps it could save us all some time-you, me, Tiro, Cicero-if you could give me an idea of what exactly will be in the statement."

"Just what I told Cicero. Dio was my houseguest for a while, and then moved on. As simple as that. All this nonsense about poisoning- 'Nasty rumors spread like olive oil, and leave a stain like red wine.' "

"But there was a death in this house, wasn't there? Dio's slave, his taster-"

"Worthless slave died of natural causes, and that's the end of it." "Then why did Dio move on to the house of Titus Coponius?" "Because Dio was frightened by his own shadow. Saw a stick on

the ground, swore it was a snake." Lucceius snorted. "Dio was as safe here as a virgin in the House of the Galli. That's the beginning and end

of it."

"And yet, Dio believed that someone in this house tried to poison

him."

"Dio had no damned sense. Look what happened to him at Coponius's house, then tell me where he was safer!"

"I see your point. You were good friends, then, you and Dio?"

"Of course! What do you think, I'd ask an enemy to sleep under my roof? He'd sit here during the day, where you're sitting now, and we'd talk about Aristotle, or Alexandria, or Carthage in the days of Hannibal. Gave me some good ideas for my history." Lucceius looked aside and bit his lip. "Wasn't a bad fellow. Sorry to see him go. Of course he did have some nasty habits." He smiled grimly. "Picking the fruit before it's ripe and all that."

"What do you mean?"

"Never mind. No point gossiping about the dead." " 'Picking the fruit…'?"

"Liked them young. One of those. Nothing wrong in that, except a man should keep his hands off what belongs to his host. I'll say no more." From his face I could see that he meant it.

"You said that Dio's slave died of natural causes. What killed him?"

"How should I know?"

"But a death in the house -"

"The death of a slave, and another man's slave at that." "Surely someone noted the symptoms."

"What do you think, I summon a fancy Greek physician every time a slave has a stomach ache? Slaves take ill every day, and sometimes they die."

"Then you can't be sure that it wasn't poison. Dio thought so."

"Dio thought lots of things. Had quite an imagination-made a better philosopher than historian."

"Still, if someone in the household could tell me exactly how the slave died, what he complained of before the end-"

I was stopped by the look on Lucceius's face. He stared at me for a long moment. His bushy eyebrows gathered above his squinting eyes. "Who sent you here?"

"I'd rather not say."

"Wasn't Cicero, was it?"

"I come as a friend of Dio's."

"Meaning that I wasn't? Get out."

"My only interest is discovering the truth about Dio's death. If you were truly his friend-"

"Get out! Well, go on. Up! Out!" Lucius Lucceius picked up a stylus and waved it like a dagger, glowering at me as I stood and walked to the door. I left him bent over his scrolls, muttering angrily to himself.

The slave who had shown me in was waiting in the hallway to show me out, but before we reached the foyer a formidably large woman stepped into the hallway and blocked our path.

"Go on, Cleon," she said to the slave. "I'll show the visitor out myself." From the tone of her voice she was clearly the mistress of the house, and from the slave's obsequious manner as he backed away I gathered she was not the sort of Roman matron who allowed her slaves much latitude.

Lucceius's wife was as ugly as her husband, though she looked nothing like him. Instead of bristling eyebrows she had only two lines painted above her eyes. Her hair might have been as white as his, had it not been dyed red with henna. She wore a voluminous green stola and a necklace of green glass with matching earrings. "So, you're Gordianus the Finder," she said abruptly, appraising me with a caustic gaze. "I heard the slave announce you to my husband."

"What else did you hear?" I said.

She appreciated my bluntness. "Everything. You and I should talk." I looked over my shoulder.

"Don't worry," she said, "no one eavesdrops on me in this house. They know better. Come this way."

I followed her into another wing of the house. I might as well have entered another world. Where Lucceius's study had been an austere museum of war trophies and musty documents, his wife's quarters were flamboyantly decorated with intricately embroidered hangings and precious objects of metal and glass. One long wall was painted to show a spring garden in bloom, all pale greens and soft pinks and yellows.

"You deceived my husband," she said wryly.

"He thought I came from Cicero. I didn't contradict him."

"So you merely let him believe what he wanted to believe. Yes, that's the best way to handle Lucius. He wasn't intentionally lying to you, you know. He's convinced himself that nothing untoward took place in this house. Lucius has a hard time dealing with the truth. Like most men, most of the time," she said under her breath. She walked about the room, picking things up and putting them down.

"Please, go on," I said.

"Appearances matter more than facts to Lucius.

To have had a houseguest poisoned under his roof, or even a houseguest's slave, is thinkable to him. So it simply never happened, you see.

Lucius will never, ever admit otherwise."

"But such a thing did happen?"

She stepped to a small table covered with a number of identical clay figurines. They were about the size of a child's fist and brightly painted. She picked one of them up and idly turned it over in her hand. "Who sent you here asking questions?"

"As I told your husband, a friend of Dio's."

She snorted.

"Never mind. I can guess who sent you."

"Can you?"

"Clodia. Am I right? Don't bother to answer. I can read your face as easily as I can read Lucius's."

"How could you possibly guess who hired me?"

She shrugged and twirled the little clay figurine between her fore-finger and thumb. It was a votive statue of Attis, the eunuch consort of the Great Mother, Cybele, standing with his hands on his plump belly and wearing his red Phrygian cap with its rounded, forward-sloping peak. "We have ways of sharing what we know."

'We'?"

"We women."

I felt a prickling sensation in my spine, a sense of having had the same conversation before-with Bethesda, when she told me that Clodia and Caelius were no longer lovers, and I asked her how she could possibly know such a thing: We have ways of sharing what we know. For an instant I had a glimmer of insight, as if a door had been opened just enough to let me catch a glimpse of an unfamiliar room. Then she started to talk again and the door was shut.

"There's no doubt that Dio's slave was poisoned. You should have seen the poor wretch. If Lucius had kept his eyes open instead of looking away when the man was dying, he might have a harder time making that glib pronouncement about 'natural causes.' But then Lucius has always been squeamish. He can write his little accounts of women being spitted on stakes and children being chopped into pieces at the fall of Carthage, but he can't stomach watching a slave throw up."

"Was that one of the symptoms?"

"Yes. The man turned as white as marble and went into convulsions."

"But if the slave was poisoned by tasting food intended for Dio, how did the poison get into the food?"

"It was put there by some of the kitchen slaves, of course. I think I know which ones."

"Yes?"

"Juba and Laco. Those two fellows were always up to something. Too smart for their own good. Had fantasies of buying their freedom some day. Juba must have sneaked out of the house that afternoon, because I caught him sneaking back in, and when I questioned him he tried to get out of it by playing stupid and spouting a lot of double-talk, the way slaves do. He said he'd gone to the market to fetch something, I don't remember what, and even held up a little bag to show me. What nerve! It was probably the poison. Later I caught him whispering to Laco in the kitchen and I wondered what they were up to. They're the ones who prepared the dish that killed Dio's slave."

"Dio told me your husband had a visitor that day."

"Publius Asicius. He's the one who was later accused of stabbing Dio at Coponius's house, though they couldn't prove it at the trial. Yes, he came by to visit Lucius at just about the time Juba must have been sneaking out. But I don't think Asicius delivered the poison, if that's what you think. He didn't go near the kitchen slaves."

"But he could have been here as a distraction, to keep your husband busy while Juba sneaked out of the house to get the poison from someone else."

"What an imagination you have!" she said wryly.

"Where is Juba now? Would you let me speak to him?"

"I would if I could, but he's gone. Juba and Laco are both gone."

"Gone where?"

"After his taster died, Dio was quite upset. He screamed and ranted and demanded that Lucius determine which of the slaves had tried to poison him. I pointed out the suspicious behavior of Juba and Laco, but Lucius wouldn't hear of any suggestion that there was poison involved. Even so, a few days later he decided that Juba and Laco-trained kitchen slaves-would be of more use doing manual labor in a mine. Lucius owns an interest in a silver mine up in Picenum. So off the slaves went, out of reach, out of mind."

She held up the clay figurine of Attis and stroked it with her forefinger. "But this is the most curious fact: when Lucius made his pronouncement about sending Juba and Laco to Picenum, they suddenly offered to buy their freedom. Somehow, from the few coppers Lucius gave them every year to celebrate the Saturnalia, the two ofthem had managed to save up their own worth in silver."

"Was that possible?"

"Absolutely not. Lucius accused them of pilfering from the house-hold coffers."

"Could they have done that?"

"Do you think I'm the sort of woman whose slaves could steal from her?" She gave me a look calculated to make a slave soil himself. "But that was the explanation Lucius decided on, and nothing will ever sway him from it. He took the silver away from them, sent them off to an early death in the mines, and that was the end of it."

"Where do you think the slaves obtained the silver?"

"Don't be coy," she said. "Someone bribed them to poison Dio, of course. Probably they received only partial payment, since they didn't finish the job. If I were the master of this house I'd have tortured them until the truth came out. But the slaves belong to Lucius."

"The slaves know the truth."

"The slaves know something. But they're far away from Rome now." "And they can't be compelled to testify anyway without their master's consent."

"Which Lucius will never give."

"Who gave them the silver?" I muttered.

"How can anyone find

out?"

"I suppose that's your job," she said bluntly. She walked back to the little table and replaced the clay figurine of Attis. I drew alongside her and studied the tiny statues.

"Why so many, all alike?" I asked.

"Because of the Great Mother festival, of course. These are images of Attis, her consort. For gift-giving." "I never heard of such a custom." "We exchange them among ourselves." "'We'?"

"It has nothing to do with you."

I reached to pick up one of the figurines, but she seized my wrist with a startlingly strong grip.

"It has nothing to do with you, I said." After a moment she released me, then clapped her hands. A girl came running. "Now you had better go. The slave will show you out."

Chapter Thirteen

The easiest route to the house of Titus Coponius, where Dio had died, took me back the way I had come. Passing the former residence of Marcus Caelius again, I noticed that the FOR SALE announcement was untouched, but the obscene graffito beneath it had already been daubed over with paint.

Clodius's henchmen could be accused of many things, but not idleness.

Titus Coponius saw me at once, and soon I was seated in his study with a cup of wine in my hand. If the study of Lucius Lucceius was a hoary homage to the conquest of Carthage, the study of Titus Coponius was a tribute to the enduring triumph of Greek culture. Black-on-red drinking cups, too ancient and precious for use, were displayed on shelves. Small statues of the great heroes and busts of the great thinkers were displayed on pedestals against the walls. A pigeonhole scroll case was full of cylindrical leather slipcases, and on the little colored tags hanging from each cylinder I glimpsed the names of the old Greek playwrights and historians. The room itself was impeccably appointed, with high-backed Greek chairs and a Greek carpet with a geometrical design, all harmoniously in proportion to the space they occupied.

Coponius was a tall man with a long rectangular face and a hand-some nose; even seated he had an imposing air. His hair was clipped short and was very curly, black on top but gray on the sides. His clothing and manner were as elegant as the room in which we sat. "I suppose you've come about Dio," he began.

"What makes you think so?"

"Come now, Gordianus. I know you by reputation. I also know that Bestia's son has brought charges against Marcus Caelius for trying to poison Dio, among other things. It hardly takes a philosopher to figure out your reason for coming to the house where Dio died. What I don't know is who sent you-Bestia's boy for the prosecution, or Caelius for his defense."

"Neither, actually."

"Now that's a puzzle."

"Not to everyone, apparently," I said, thinking of Lucceius's wife. "Does it matter who sent me, so long as I seek the truth?"

"Most men have some ulterior motive, even in seeking for truth. Revenge, vindication, power-"

"Justice. For Dio."

Coponius put down his wine cup and folded his long, elegant hands in his lap. "Some day, when we both have a great deal more time, we should discuss that word, 'justice,' and see if we can come up with a mutually acceptable definition. For the short term, I assume you mean you seek the truth in order to identify Dio's killer. A straightforward enough ambition-but I don't think I can help you."

"Why not?"

"I can't tell you what I don't know." "Perhaps you know more than you realize." "A conundrum, Gordianus?" "Life is full of them."

Coponius contemplated me with a catlike gaze. "As I understand it, the charges against Caelius involve attacks on the Egyptian entourage on its way to Rome, and an alleged attempt to poison Dio at Lucceius's house. What happened in this house isn't even cited in the formal list of charges."

"Technically, it is. But the prosecution intends to concentrate on the attempted poisoning, and use the actual murder of Dio as a corroborative detail."

"Then you do come from the prosecution." Coponius gave me a brittle smile. "Don't misunderstand. I don't mind you coming around asking questions. I went through all this before, when Asicius was pros-ecuted. I shared all I know with both sides, and in the end I helped neither. The simple fact is that the killers left nothing behind to give themselves away. Asicius was prosecuted on hearsay, not evidence. Yes, 'everyone knows' that he was somehow involved, just as 'everyone knows' that King Ptolemy must be at the back of it, but the proof was never put forward, and you won't find it in this house."

"Still, I should like to know what happened here."

Coponius took a sip of wine and turned his catlike gaze on me again. "I knew Dio in Alexandria," he finally said. "A few years ago, my brother and I spent some time there. Gaius, always the practical one, was interested in studying the financial workings of the grain markets. I found myself drawn instead to the steps of the library at the Temple of Serapis, where philosophers discussed the very things we're talking about-truth, justice, conundrums. That was how I met Dio."

"That was how I met him as well," I said.

Coponius raised an eyebrow. "You knew Dio in Alexandria?"

"Briefly, and long ago. I was quite young. My instruction from Dio was strictly informal."

Coponius understood at once. "Ah, you were one of those young men too poor to afford an education who linger on the steps hoping to catch the eye of one of the philosophers. Mendicants for wisdom, Dio called such young men."

"Something like that."

"There is no shame attached to such begging. The more one must struggle for wisdom, the more honor attaches to its attainment. My relationship with Dio was more formal than yours, I imagine. By the time I met him he had been elevated to the highest ranks of the Academy, and seldom appeared on the steps of the library; it was only by chance that I happened to meet him there. I invited him to dine on several occasions with Gaius and myself at the house we had rented in the imperial district. Dio knew all the Greek thinkers by heart. He could discourse for hours on the laws of perception and rational thought. Gaius would yawn and go to bed early, but I would stay up until dawn listening."

"Your brother doesn't care for philosophy?"

Coponius smiled. "Not particularly. But Gaius and Dio managed to find common interests. I was the one left out when the two of them went looking for adventure in the Rhakotis district." He raised a suggestive eyebrow.

"Dio never struck me as particularly adventurous."

"Then you didn't know him as I did, and certainly not as Gaius

did."

"What do you mean?"

"Dio was considerably older than my brother and me, but he still had appetites. Rather strong appetites, actually. He enjoyed showing Gaius what he called 'the secrets of Alexandria.' "

" 'Picking the fruit before it's ripe,' " I said to myself.

"What?"

"Something that someone else said about Dio."

"Ripeness is a matter of taste. With Dio it was more a question of bruising the fruit, I would say." "I don't understand."

Coponius fixed me again with his feline gaze. "There are those who would say that Dio's particular appetites were a flaw in his character, a sign of some imbalance in his humors. I myself have never been a slave to the flesh; my life is of the mind, and this seems to me ideal. Given my temperament, I'm often tempted to pass judgment on other men's weaknesses, but for friends I forgo such judgments. We must remember that while Dio's blood was Greek, his spirit was Egyptian. These people are more worldly than we are, earthier, in many ways cruder and more primitive. They make greater allowance for things we might consider out of bounds. On the one hand, Dio was a paragon of logic and reason; but on the other, he could release himself into a state of ecstasy beyond reason. If his pleasure sometimes depended on acts which you or I might consider to be cruel or excessive-"

"I don't understand."

Coponius shrugged. "What does it matter? The man is dead. His teachings are his legacy, along with his efforts on behalf of his country-men. Few men can claim as fine a monument." He stood and began to slowly pace, running the palm of his hand over the tops of the busts that lined the wall. "But you came to talk about Dio's death, not his life. What is it you want to know, Gordianus?"

"I already know the bare facts of the murder-what everyone knows, as you say. But water from the mouth of the spring is freshest. I want to hear whatever you or anyone else in the household can tell me about the exact circumstances of that night."

"Let me think back… " He paused before a bust of Alexander. "I was here in my study when Dio came in that evening. I had just finished eating my supper, alone, and had come here to do some reading. I heard a couple of the slave girls tittering out in the hallway. I called them in and asked them what they were laughing at. They said that my houseguest had come in dressed as a woman!"

"Hadn't he worn the same costume before?"

"Apparently so, slipping in and out of the house without my seeing him, accompanied by that little gallus who was always visiting him. Dio behaved very secretively in this house. He kept to his room with his door locked. He wouldn't even join me for meals. When he asked to stay with me, I had hoped that the two of us would share some civilized conversation as we had in Alexandria, that we would dine together and discuss philosophy or politics. I was rather disappointed at his aloofness, and a little irritated."

"He was a very frightened man."

"Yes, I realized that. Which is why I stayed out of his way. If he wished to hide in his room all day, or slip in and out of the house without telling me, I decided to say nothing. I wish now that I had somehow taken steps to intervene, though I'm not sure what I could have done."

"Dio was a hunted man. You must have known he was in terrible danger."

"Of course. That's why I kept a watchman posted inside the door every night. Even so, I never imagined that anyone would actually break into this house and commit such an atrocity. It seemed unthinkable."

"Would you show me where this unthinkable thing occurred?"

Coponius led me down a long hallway to the back of the house. "The watchman was posted in the foyer at the front of the house. When the assassins broke into Dio's room, he didn't hear it. I myself was sleeping in the room next door and heard nothing."

"Did Dio cry out?"

"No one heard him if he did."

"Would you have heard him?"

"I was sleeping, as I said, but I should think a scream would have awakened me. The walls aren't that thick. On other nights I was able to hear-well, never mind."

"You were about to say something?"

"This is the room." Coponius pushed opened a door and gestured for me to enter.

It was a small room, sparsely furnished with a sleeping couch, a chair, and a couple of small tables. A carpet covered the floor. Metal hooks were mounted in the walls for hanging clothing and lamps.

"How did the assassins get in?" I said.

"Through that window, by the couch. The shutters were drawn and latched, I'm sure. Dio would have seen to that, if only to shut out the cold. The latch has been repaired, but you can still see where the wood was splintered when the shutters were forced open."

"Was the old latch made of bronze, like this one?"

"This is the very same latch, hammered straight by a smith and reattached in a different place."

"This seems to be a rather strong latch. I should think that forcing it from the outside would have made some noise."

"I suppose."

"A considerable noise."

"It couldn't have been that loud-"

"Perhaps not a loud enough noise to awaken you in the next room, or even to be heard by your watchman at the front door, but surely loud enough for Dio to hear if he was lying on this couch."

"You might think so, yes. But as I told you, no one heard Dio cry out. I suppose he was a very sound sleeper. Or perhaps the breaking of the latch didn't make as much noise as you seem to think."

"We could argue the point forever," I said. "Or shall we make an empirical test?"

"Do you mean-?"

"If you'll let me."

Coponius shrugged.

"Go on."

I unlatched the window and stepped through it, into the courtyard beyond, which was surrounded by a high wall. Inside the room, Coponius latched the shutters. I pushed on them, testing their strength, and realized it would take a considerable effort to force them open. I looked around and spotted a loose stone. Clutching it in my fist, I struck a hard blow against the shutters. With a sound of splintering wood the shutters flew open and the metal latch went flying across the room and landed on the carpet.

I climbed through the window. "Tell me, was the broken latch found across the room like that, lying on the floor?"

"Why, yes. I'm sure of it. I remember, because when I came into this room I stepped on the latch and cut my bare foot."

"Then we can assume that the shutters were forced open with at least as much force on that night, and must have made as much noise. I would say that was noisy enough to wake anyone in this room."

"Yes," Coponius agreed, fretfully tapping his forefinger against his

lips.

"And yet, Dio didn't cry out."

"Perhaps he was awakened from a deep sleep, unable to comprehend. Or perhaps he comprehended only too well and was paralyzed with fright."

"Perhaps. Was his throat cut?"

"No. All the wounds were in his chest."

"How many wounds?"

"I'm not sure, exactly. Quite a few."

"There must have been a great deal of blood."

"Some blood, yes."

"A struggling man, stabbed repeatedly in the chest-the room must have been covered with blood."

Coponius wrinkled his brow. "When we came in the room, it was very dark, of course. The slaves held lamps. Shadows swung all about. I remember seeing blood-I don't know how much. Does it matter?"

"Probably not. You don't still have the sleeping tunic Dio was wearing, or the cushions he was sleeping on?"

"Of course not. They were burned."

I looked around the room, imagining Dio on the couch, silent, terrified, being stabbed repeatedly in the chest. Somehow the image did not make sense. "Your watchman finally did hear something, and came to investigate."

"Yes."

"Would you let me speak to him?"

"Of course." Coponius summoned the slave, a sturdy young Greek named Philo, who looked keen enough. I asked him exactly what he had heard on the night that Dio died.

"A noise, coming from this room."

"What kind of noise?"

"A banging kind of noise."

"Not a scream, or a moan?"

"No."

"Splintering wood, cracked hinges?"

"No, more like something being knocked onto the floor."

"When we came in," Coponius interjected, "everything was in disarray. The tables were upended, the chair on its side. The scrolls Dio kept by his bedside were scattered about."

"When you heard the banging noise," I said to Philo, "how quickly did you come?"

"Right away. I heard more noises while I was running down the hallway."

"How did you know where the noises were coming from?" "As I got closer I could tell that they were coming from inside this room."

"So you tried to open the door?" The slave hesitated. "Not right away."

"Because you were frightened?"

"No… "

"No? I would have been. It takes nerve to open a door with strange sounds coming from the other side, especially in the middle of the night."

"I wasn't scared. Excited in a way, my heart beating fast, but not scared."

"Then why didn't you try to open the door, Philo?" "I called out Dio's name instead." "Did he answer?"

"No. There was another banging noise." "Then you tried the door?" "Not right away… " "What were you waiting for?" "For them to finish!" Philo said, exasperated.

"To finish killing Dio?"

"Of course not! For Dio to finish his business, if that's what he was up to." The slave made a face and looked away. "The master knows what I mean."

I looked at Coponius, who looked back at me blandly and pursed his lips. "Philo means that such noises could have meant something besides… danger."

"Danger to Dio, anyway," said Philo under his breath.

"That's enough, Philo," said Coponius sharply. "Get back to what-ever you were doing."

The slave left us. I turned to Coponius. "These noises-"

He sighed. "Shortly after Dio came to stay here, he-how shall I say this?-he appropriated one of my slaves for his own use."

I nodded. "The last slave he owned had died tasting his food."

"That's not what I mean." Coponius shook his head. "He was a troubled man, in great distress. If ever a man needed something to take his mind off his problems, it was Dio. There was a young serving girl who caught his eye. He decided to make use of her. For his pleasure. He used her almost every night."

"With your permission?"

"I was never asked, actually. It was presumptuous of Dio to simply take what he wanted, to be sure, but under the circumstances I decided I would be a selfish host if I withheld the use of a slave from a guest, especially since I had no plans to use the girl myself, at least not in that way."

"I see. Then Philo thought he might simply be hearing the sounds of Dio using the girl." "Exactly."

"All the bumping and thumping-surely you heard it, too."

"Eventually it woke me. At first, I made the same assumption that Philo made. 'At it again!' I thought. I shut my eyes and tried to get back to sleep."

"Did Dio always make so much noise?" "Not always."

"What on earth would he do to the girl?"

"I hardly see how that's any of your business, Gordianus. I've been

indiscreet in telling you as much as I have. May Dio's shade forgive me. I begin to grow tired of this interview-"

"But eventually Philo realized that something was terribly wrong," I said, pressing on.

"Yes. When the bumps and knocks stopped, things got a bit too quiet. He called out Dio's name, louder and louder-I could hear him calling, so Dio should have been able to. I could also hear him rattling Dio's door, which was locked, of course. I got up then and told Philo to fetch some others. They brought torches and together managed to break down the door. Inside we found the shutters open, the room a mess… and Dio dead on his couch."

"And the slave girl?"

"She wasn't in the room at all, as it turned out. She was in the slaves' sleeping quarters."

I walked to the window and peered out. "How did the assassins get onto the terrace in the first place? It seems to be surrounded by a high wall."

"They must have scaled it. They couldn't have come in the front because of Philo, and the side walls were set flush against the houses on either side. The wall enclosing the little courtyard out back runs along a little alley. There's a gate in the wall, but it was securely locked. They had to have climbed over from the alley."

I nodded. "It's a high wall-too high for a man to climb without help, I should think."

"Do you want to test that as well?" Coponius raised an eyebrow.

"No. I think we can assume that there were at least two assassins, to help each other over the wall. Did your neighbors see anything?"

"None of my neighbors can see into the courtyard behind the house. The alley is practically unused. I doubt that anyone could have seen anything, unless they happened to be standing on a rooftop, which would have been unlikely on a chilly Januarius night. Besides, if anyone had seen something, I'd have been told. I'm on good terms with my neighbors. They were all quite upset by the murder."

I walked about the room, idly tapping my forefinger against the metal hooks set into the walls. "So the slave girl wasn't with Dio when the murder occurred?"

"As I told you, she was asleep in the slave quarters."

"Could I talk to her?"

Coponius shook his head. "Not possible."

"Why not?"

"I sold her to a slave dealer here in the city."

"Was there something wrong with her?

Coponius hesitated. "After the use Dio made of her, she was no longer suitable to serve in my house."

"You don't mean she was crippled?

"Of course not. Oh, a few strap marks and bruises, perhaps, but nothing that wouldn't fade with time. Possibly a scar or two, but nothing that would show unless she was naked. Nevertheless, she was damaged property. It simply wouldn't do to keep her in the household; much better to pass her on. I'm sure some other master will find her suitable-perhaps even find her value enhanced by the instruction Dio gave her." He shrugged. "I never intended for the girl to become a pleasure slave, but it must have been the will of the Fates."

"Or of Dio." My mouth was dry.

"The subject is distasteful to me," said Coponius. "Indeed, this whole conversation has begun to tire me. I should think that you've already found out more than you need to know."

"More than I intended to, anyway."

"Then perhaps you should be going. Here, I'll summon a slave to show you out." He clapped his hands.

The slave who came running was Philo. Coponius didn't notice. Having dismissed me, his mood abruptly darkened. He didn't even bid me farewell as he walked to the window and gazed out at the sunny courtyard, idly fingering the newly broken latch with one hand.

In the foyer I put my hand on Philo's shoulder and drew him aside. "The slave girl we were talking about-what's her name?"

"Zotica. But she's not here anymore."

"I know. Your master sold her to a dealer. You wouldn't know which dealer, would you?"

The slave hesitated, scrutinizing me. He peered up the hallway and bit his lip. "The master sold her to a man down on the street of the Scythemakers," he finally said. "I don't know his name."

I nodded. "Let me make sure I understand: when you broke into his room and found him dead, Dio was alone. Zotica wasn't with him."

"That's right."

"What about earlier that night?"

He looked at me and then peered up the hallway again. "Oh, all right, why not tell you? She's gone now, anyway, the poor child. Yes, Zotica was with Dio earlier that night. He came in wearing that ridiculous outfit, dressed up in a stola, if you can believe it, and in a foul mood, even fouler than usual. He snapped his fingers at Zotica and told her to come tend to him in his room. 'To help him take off his makeup,' quipped one of the other serving girls. 'No, just to help him take off!" said one of the others. They were always mean to Zotica because she was the youngest, and the prettiest, but I think they were also glad that Dio had settled on using her instead of them."

"So Dio went to his room and took the girl with him."

"Yes, but later he must have sent her away."

"Why do you say that?"

"The rest of the household had gone to bed. I was standing watch at the front door. I heard something in the hallway and went to have a look. It was Zotica walking up the hall, away from Dio's room. She was naked, clutching her gown and hiding her face in her hands, sobbing."

"Clutching her gown? Why wasn't she wearing it?"

"Why do you think? I figured the old man had ripped it off of her and torn it too badly to wear. I asked her what was wrong, but she just shook her head and ran toward the slave quarters. I figured he'd finished with her early, and been even rougher than usual."

"How long was this before the noise you heard later, when the assassins came?"

"Oh, quite a while before."

"But when you heard those noises and went to investigate, you told me you thought they might have been the sounds of Dio and Zotica… "

He shrugged. "I thought she might have slipped back into his room. But she hadn't. When we were breaking down the door to Dio's room, Zotica was off in the slave quarters with the other girls. There's no question about that. She woke some of the slaves with her weeping when she came in, then kept them awake with her sobbing, even when they threatened to beat her. There's no doubt that she was with the other slaves when Dio was stabbed."

"Still, I should dearly like to have a talk with her. Tell me, when you broke into the room, what exactly did you see?"

Philo was thoughtful. "Chair and tables overturned. Window shutters open. Dio on the couch, dead."

"How did you know he was dead?"

"The look on his face!" Philo turned pale, remembering. "Such a look-his eyes and mouth wide open with a look of pure horror, as if he'd seen the face of Cerberus himself."

"Pure horror-and yet you never heard him cry out?"

"Never."

"But to have such a look on his face, he must have known he was under attack, he must have felt the blows. Why did he not scream?" "I don't know. I only know I never heard him." "Did you see the wounds?"

"Very clearly. I helped undress him later, when the men from the necropolis came to take him away."

"How many times was he stabbed?"

"Six or seven times, I think. Maybe more. All in the chest, close together."

"How close?"

He held up his palms side by side. "Two hands could have covered the wounds."

"But surely he thrashed about. A frightened man startled from sleep, horrified. He's stabbed the first time-surely he cries out. Surely he thrashes and twists to avoid the next blow."

"Perhaps his arms were held down and his mouth was covered."

"How many men would that take?"

"The room was a mess. Perhaps there was a whole gang of them milling around in there."

"Perhaps. I suppose there was blood everywhere, on the walls and carpet?"

Philo wrinkled his brow. "Not really."

"And the sleeping tunic he wore-that must have been soaked with blood."

"Around the wounds, yes."

"But not-"

"Philo! I thought you were showing Gordianus to the door." Coponius appeared at the far end of the hall. He crossed his arms. "Yes, Master!"

"There was something I forgot to ask him," I said. "Just a small detail-"

"Farewell, Gordianus."

I took a deep breath. "Farewell, Titus Coponius."

Belbo was waiting for me outside the front door, sitting in a patch of warm sunshine. Together we took a silent walk through the streets of the Palatine, breathing in the smells of midday cooking, listening to the noises that echoed up from the Forum. I walked merely to walk, with no particular goal. I needed to think.

I was beginning to discover a side to Dio that I had never guessed at. This disturbed me. I had also begun to piece together the sequence of his final days and hours. The gory drama of his death seemed forthright enough; it only remained to determine who had broken into his room that fateful night. Yet I could not put aside a nagging feeling that some-thing was very, very wrong.

Chapter Fourteen

The girl is important.

I'm not sure how, but I can't help thinking so." "What girl?" said Eco. "The slave girl, Zotica.

The one Dio was…"

"Important?" said Eco. "But how? If she'd been in the room when the killers broke in, she'd be a witness, though I doubt they would have left her alive. Unless of course she was in on their plan, in which case they'd have had no need to break in the shutters-she'd have let them in.

But then they'd have broken the shutters and killed her anyway, to keep her from talking… but all this takes away from what we know, which is that the girl was not in the room when Dio was killed." "Still…"

I had finally tired of walking and thinking and had gone home for something to eat, to find that Eco and his family had dropped by. While the women and children visited in the garden at the heart of the house, Eco and I sat in the little atrium just off the foyer, basking in a narrow shaft of warm sunlight. I told him all I had learned that morning from my visits to Lucceius and Coponius.

"It's too bad that Cicero's entered the picture," said Eco. He shook his head. "Imagine, Cicero taking on Marcus Caelius's defense, after the bad blood between them!"

"There's a lot at stake," I said. "The charges are serious-serious enough to send even a brash fellow like Caelius running back to his old teacher. I'm sure Cicero made him promise to be a good boy from now on and always support the status quo. It must have been quite a coup for Cicero, bringing the errant sheep back into the fold."

"And, provided Cicero gets him off the hook, Caelius will get a chance to betray his old mentor all over again," observed Eco.

I laughed. "Exactly. I suppose the two of them deserve each other."

"Still, too bad it's Cicero for the defense. Even if you do find compelling evidence against Caelius -"

" – Cicero will probably make it go up in a puff of smoke while he takes the judges down some completely irrelevant path to Caelius's ac-quittal. Yes, I was thinking the same thing myself. Having worked for Cicero, we know just how thoroughly unscrupulous and damnably persuasive he can be. It's not much fun, being on the opposing side."

Eco closed his eyes and leaned back against a pillar, letting the sun warm his face. "But the really bad news is about the slaves in Lucceius's kitchen being sent off to work the mines in Picenum. If Lucceius's wife is right, those two are at the very heart of the matter. If they were bribed to administer poison, they must have some idea of who paid them, or should at least be able to yield up a clue. They're the link in the chain, the ones you need to go to next. But there they are, away up in Picenum, and no matter what they know, it doesn't sound like Lucceius would ever let them testify."

"Yes, it's frustrating. But I suppose someone could trek up to Picenum and try to get at them. Even if they can't testify, they might lead us to someone who could."

Eco half opened one eye and peered at me sidelong. "I have no pressing business for the next few days, and it's always nice to get out of Rome. Just say the word, Papa."

I smiled and nodded. "Perhaps. I suppose it is the next logical step. Still, I keep thinking about the girl… "

"The girl?"

"The slave girl, Zotica. I should have a talk with her. She might know something."

"I'm sure she knows a great deal, Papa. But do you really want to hear it?"

"What do you mean?"

Eco peered at me shrewdly, narrowing his eyes in the bright sunshine. "Tell me, Papa, do you want to talk to this Zotica to find what she knows about the murder, which is probably nothing-or do you wish to talk to her to satisfy your own prurient curiosity about the things that Dio did to her?"

"Eco!"

"If she told you that her treatment from Dio was not nearly as cruel as you've been led to think, you'd be relieved, wouldn't you?" I sighed. "Yes."

"And what if the opposite happened? What if the things that Dio did to her were quite as appalling as you fear, and even worse? I know how you felt about Dio, Papa-the way he died, the fact that he came to you for help. But I also know how strongly you feel about those who abuse slaves in such a fashion."

"Coponius may have been slandering Dio," I said.

"It hardly sounds like it. From the way you tell it, Coponius talked about Dio's bedroom habits only reluctantly, and he was more embarrassed than judgmental, as if he was telling you that Dio was flatulent or snored. And what about the slave, Philo? He told the same story."

"Slaves like to gossip as much as their masters." I shook my head. "I don't like having my memories of Dio tainted by hearsay."

"Ah, but from the girl's lips it wouldn't be hearsay."

"So you think I want to find this girl for no other reason than to put my mind at rest about Dio?"

"Isn't that it, Papa?" His sympathetic gaze made me feel suddenly unsure of myself.

"Partly, yes. But that's not the only reason," I insisted. "There's something else, something I can't quite put my finger on."

"Another intuition from the goddess Cybele, guiding you on?"

"I'm serious. I can't help but feel that this Zotica knows something, or did something… "

"Or had something done to her," said Eco under his breath.

"Eco, you said I could call on you if I needed help. This is what I want you to do: find this slave dealer on the Street of the Scythemakers. Find out what became of Zotica."

"Are you sure, Papa? It seems to me that my time would be better spent trying to contact Lucceius's kitchen slaves. And if I'm to do that, I should get started. It will take me a day to get to Picenum, another day to get back, plus the time spent there. Since the trial is only four days away-"

"No, find out about the girl first. You can get started this afternoon. It's too late to leave for Picenum today, anyway."

Eco shook his head at my stubbornness. "Very well, Papa. I'll go and see if I can track down this Zotica for you. If her story is awful enough, I suppose it may save me the bother of needing to go up to Picenum."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well," Eco began, but he was interrupted.

"If Dio was such a bad man, why are you bothering to find the person who killed him, anyway?"

"Diana!" I turned and saw my daughter standing in the doorway.

"Can't I come and be with you, Papa?" She walked to me and took my hand. Her long straight hair glittered blue-black in the sunlight. "The only thing Mother and Menenia talk about is the twins, and all the twins want to do is pull my hair and scream in my ears. They're such little monsters! I'd much rather be with you and Eco."

"Diana, why did you say that?"

"Because the twins are monsters – Titania is a harpy and Titus is a cyclops!"

"No, why did you say what you said about Dio? No one said he was a bad man."

Diana looked at me blankly.

"I think," said Eco, "that someone has been eavesdropping, and for quite a while."

"No I haven't!"

"It's a very bad habit, Diana, especially when your brother and I are discussing business."

"But I told you, I wasn't eavesdropping." She stepped back and crossed her arms, and gave me her version of the Medusa look.

"Diana… "

"Besides, Papa, isn't eavesdropping what you and Eco do for a living? I don't see why you should pick on me for doing it, even if I was, which I wasn't."

"It's a matter of showing respect to Papa," said Eco.

"No one in this house seems to have any respect for me," said Diana. "Whenever the monsters come over I might as well be made of stone." She turned and left the room.

"My, my," said Eco. "Is that what it's like to have a thirteen-year-old daughter in the house?"

"Just wait," I sighed.

"Perhaps you've been ignoring Diana."

"I probably have. She's becoming difficult."

"It was the same with Meto, remember?"

"It started later with Meto, and that was different. That I understood, whether I liked it or not. But with Diana, I don't understand. Not at all. She's the only one of you who's actually of my own flesh and blood, but sometimes I think Bethesda created her all by herself."

"She's more like you than you realize, Papa."

"Yes, I'm sure you're right." I tried to remember what we had been talking about, but found myself musing instead on the scent of jasmine that lingered in the warm air. Diana had recently begun to use the same fragrant oil that Bethesda used to scent her hair, just as she had begun to occasionally use her mother's jewelry and scarves. I closed my eyes. I breathed in the fragrance; it might have come from either of them. Diana was becoming so much like her mother…

I was interrupted by the sound of a cleared throat. I opened my eyes, blinking at the bright sunshine. "What is it, Belbo?"

"A caller, Master. The little gallus again. He says that you must come with him at once."

"Come with him?" I turned my face back to the sun and closed my eyes again. My legs ached from too much walking. The sunshine was making me sleepy.

"Yes, you must!" piped a familiar voice. I opened my eyes to see Trygonion slipping past Belbo into the atrium. His silver bracelets jangled and glittered in the sunlight, and his red and yellow robes were dazzling. Eco raised his eyebrows. Belbo stamped his foot in frustration.

"Clodia needs you," said Trygonion. "At once! It's a matter of life and death!"

"Life and death?" I said skeptically.

"And poison!" said Trygonion, exasperated. "The monster is planning to poison her!" "Who?"

"Caelius! Clodia!"

"Trygonion, what are you talking about?"

"You must come at once. There's a litter waiting outside."

I wearily got to my feet.

"Do you want me to come with you, Papa?" said Eco. "No. I'd rather you got started finding Zotica." "Take Belbo with you, Papa."

"No need to take along that hulking brute," said Trygonion. "You'll be in the litter. It's well guarded."

"Shall I tell Bethesda you'll be back for dinner?" said Eco, raising an eyebrow.

"Bait me all you like, Eco. I'm not letting you come along," I said. His laughter followed me out of the atrium.

The litter in front of my house was far more impressive than I would have expected even Clodia to send for a mere hireling. The box was draped with red and white striped silk, like Clodia's tent on the Tiber. The poles were of polished oak, borne aloft by a team of bare-chested slaves with oxlike shoulders, dressed in white loincloths and thick-soled sandals. Every one of them was blond-Scythians, perhaps, or captured Gauls from Caesar's conquests. I had seen them before, among the young men cavorting in the river at Clodia's horti. A small retinue of bodyguards stood behind, probably recruited from Clodius's gang. I didn't like the looks of them, which meant they had the right look for a bodyguard.

Trygonion snapped his fingers. With well-practiced efficiency, the bearers lowered the box. A slave put down a block of wood so that we could step inside.

I gestured for Trygonion to enter but he shook his head. "I have business elsewhere. Go ahead, climb in!"

I stepped onto the block and parted the curtains. A melange of exotic scents issued from within. Jasmine was among them, along with frankincense and sandalwood and more elusive scents-Clodia's smell. The inner draperies were of some heavy, opaque fabric, making the interior of the box seem very dark after the bright sunlight of the street. I was already inside, settling back against the cushions and being lifted aloft, before I realized that I was not alone.

"Thank you for coming." A hand touched my arm. I sensed her presence, smelled her scent, felt the warmth of her body.

"Clodia!"

She stirred beside me. Her leg brushed against mine. She laughed softly and I smelled her breath, warm and moist against my face and vaguely smelling of cloves.

"You sound surprised to see me, Gordianus."

"I thought the litter was empty." As my eyes adjusted to the dimness I saw that there was yet another occupant. Across from us, settled against the cushions at the front of the box, was the auburn-haired handmaiden, Chrysis. She smiled and nodded.

"A woman learns early never to step into a litter without knowing who's inside," said Clodia. "I should think men could profit from the same rule, though the danger may be different."

The ride was impeccably smooth. I parted the nearest curtain and saw that our pace was very quick. From behind us I could hear the sound of the bodyguards trotting to keep up.

"We don't seem to be headed toward your house, Clodia."

"No. What I have to tell you is best discussed away from curious ears." She saw me glance at her handmaiden. "Don't worry about Chrysis. No one is more loyal than she." Clodia extended her leg and touched her bare foot against the slave's. She leaned forward, as did Chrysis. When their faces met Clodia gave the girl a kiss upon the forehead and gently stroked her cheek.

Clodia leaned back. I felt her warmth next to me again. "It's too dark," she murmured.

"Chrysis, beloved, open the inner curtains."

The slave girl moved nimbly about the compartment, pulling back the heavy inner curtains and tying them to hooks at each corner. The box remained private, concealed by the translucent red and white striped curtains, which wavered in the breeze. The sounds of the street rose and fell as we swiftly passed by. From time to time the chief of the litter bearers whistled to signal a turn or a stop or a change in pace, but the box never pitched or swayed. A lethargic sense of luxury crept over me, the feeling of being borne effortlessly aloft in a private world from which the squalor of the street was excluded.

The sudden, unexpected nearness of Clodia's body was intoxicating. She was so close that I could see her only in sidelong glances, never all at once; like an object held too close before the eyes, she dominated my senses even while she eluded them. In the filtered glow of sunlight through silk curtains, the flesh of her arms and face appeared as smooth as wax, but radiant with an inner warmth. Her stola was as transparent as the one she had worn before, but was of a different shade, a creamy white the exact color of her flesh. As we passed through dappled patches of sunlight and shadow, the illusion that she was naked was sometimes uncanny, until she moved, whereupon the dress moved with a life of its own, as if the shimmering fabric, provoked by her touch, sought to caress all the hidden places of her body.

The box was suspended so as to stay level when the poles were tilted, but I could tell when we began the sharp descent down the western slope of the Palatine toward the Forum Boarium. The noises from outside grew louder as we passed through the great cattle market. The congested streets forced the bearers to come to numerous stops, and the smells of roasted flesh and live beasts for sale intruded on Clodia's perfume. The spell within the box slackened. I felt as if I were waking from a dream.

"Where are we going?" I said.

"To a place where we can talk privately."

"To your horti on the Tiber?"

"You'll see. Tell me what you discovered today."

As we passed through the cattle market, and then through a gate in the old city wall and into the Forum Holitorium, the great vegetable market, I told her what I had learned at the houses of Lucceius and Coponius. My account was more businesslike and circumspect than the one I had given Eco; she was not paying me, after all, to look into Dio's sexual habits.

"You see why it would be difficult to pursue the charge against Caelius for killing Dio," she said. "The crime couldn't be proved against Asicius, and probably can't be proved against Caelius, though everyone knows the two of them were accomplices. The attempted poisoning is the key. But you're right, Lucceius will never allow his slaves to testify He'd have them put to death first, rather than lose face at a public trial What a hypocrite! A true host would want to see a crime against his guest avenged, rather than pretend it never happened." She stirred beside me, and it seemed to me that her body had grown warmer.

"I wonder if we could somehow trick Lucceius into selling the two slaves to me?" "Possibly," I said. "Not likely."

"Then I could compel them to testify. The court would insist that their testimony be extracted by torture, of course, which would take it out of my control… "

"Am I here to discuss strategy? Trygonion acted if there was some terrible crisis at hand. Something about poison…"I parted the nearest curtain a bit to catch a glimpse of the marketplace. Vendors were selling plucked chickens and bundles of early asparagus.

Clodia put a finger to her lips. "Almost there."

A few moments later the litter stopped. I thought we had merely come to another congested spot until I felt the box being lowered and Chrysis sprang up to open the outer curtains. She produced a hooded cape which she deftly draped over her mistress as Clodia stepped out of the box. I stayed where I was, uncertain whether I should follow. We appeared to be at the southwestern foot of the Capitoline Hill, on the fringes of the vegetable markets, still very much in the heart of the city. What sort of privacy could such a spot offer?

Chrysis sat back against the cushions. She smiled and raised an eyebrow. "Well, go on! Don't be shy. You won't be the first man to pass through those gates with her."

I stepped from the litter. Covered by her cape, Clodia was waiting, and at my appearance she turned and walked quickly to a high brick wall which appeared to enclose a corner of land against the craggy base of the Capitoline. There was a wooden door in the wall, for which she produced a key. The hinges creaked as she pushed the door open. I followed her inside and she closed the door behind us.

All around us were sepulchers of weathered marble, adorned with plaques and inscriptions, carved tablets and statues. Cypress and yew trees reared up from the jumble of marble. The brick wall shut off the teeming city behind us. The sheer base of the Capitoline loomed before us, with blue sky above.

"There's no more secluded spot anywhere in the city," said Clodia.

"What is this place?"

"The ancient burial ground of the Claudii. It was granted to us back in the days of Romulus when our ancestors moved to Rome from the Sabine lands. We were enrolled among the patricians and given this

parcel, just outside the old city boundaries, to be our family burial ground. Over the centuries it's become filled with shrines and sepulchers. Clodius and I used to play here as children, imagining it was a little city all to itself. We hid from each other in the sepulchers and walked down the pathways in make-believe processions. The sepulchers were great palaces and temples and fortresses, and the pathways were broad avenues and secret passages. I could always scare him, pretending to raise the lemures of our ancestors." Clodia laughed. "Five years is such a difference between children." She pushed the cape from her shoulders and carelessly laid it atop a stone bench.

The westering sunlight, reflected off the stony face of the Capitoline, cast a faintly orange glow over everything, including Clodia and her shimmering stola. Trying not to stare, I found myself pondering the wall of a nearby tomb, on which a carved tablet depicted the stained and weathered faces of a husband and wife long dead.

"Then, when I was older, I would come here to be alone," Clodia said. She walked among the monuments, running her hands over the pitted stone. "Those were the bad years, when my father was always away, either exiled by his enemies or off fighting for Sulla. My stepmother and I didn't get along. Looking back now I know that she was sick with worry, but then, I couldn't stand to be in the house with her, so I would come here. Do you have children, Gordianus?"

"Two sons and a daughter."

"I have a daughter. Quintus always wanted sons." There was an edge of bitterness in her voice. "How old is your girl?" "Thirteen. She'll be fourteen in August."

"My Metella is just the same! Just beginning that difficult age, when most parents are glad to shuttle a girl off into marriage so that she can become someone else's problem."

"We've made no plans yet for Diana."

"She's lucky to be home, and lucky to have a father there. Girls need that, you know. Everyone always talks about boys and their fathers. It's only the male children anyone cares about. But a girl needs a father as well, to dote on her, to teach her. To protect her."

She was lost in thought for a long moment, then seemed to wake to her surroundings. She smiled. "And of course, when I got a little older still, I brought boys here. My stepmother allowed my brothers to do whatever they wished, but she was strict with her daughters and with me, or tried to be, though it brought her nothing but grief. Oh, there was many a secret tryst in this place, beneath these trees, on that very bench. Of course, all that ended when my father betrothed me to cousin Quintus," she said glumly.

"And now that you're a widow, do you still bring suitors here?"

Clodia laughed. "What an absurd idea. Why do you ask?"

"Something Chrysis said as I was leaving the litter."

"Naughty Chrysis. She was teasing you, I'm sure. Oh, I suppose the gossips say such things about me-'Clodia meets her lovers at midnight in the Claudian graveyard! She drags the young men into the sepulchers and deflowers them while her ancestors gasp in shame!' But these days I really much prefer a couch and pillows. Don't you?" She stood sideways and turned her face to look at me straight on. The reflected sunlight seemed to turn her stola to a thin mist that clung to her naked flesh and could have been dispelled with a puff of breath.

I looked away, and found myself nose to nose with a stately bas-relief of a horse's head, the ancient symbol of death. Death as departure; death as something more powerful than man. "You were going to explain this talk of poison."

She sat on the bench, using her cape for a cushion. "Marcus Caelius is plotting to murder me before the trial."

She allowed this statement to reverberate for a moment, then went on. "He knows that I have evidence. He knows that I'm planning to testify against him. He wants me dead, and if he had his way, I'd be joining the shades of my ancestors before sundown tomorrow. Fortunately, the slaves whom Caelius thought he could seduce have remained loyal to me, and have informed me of his plot."

"What plot?"

"This very morning Caelius obtained the poison he plans to use. He bought a slave to test it on. The wretched man died in horrible agony while Caelius watched. It took only moments. Caelius wanted a quick-acting poison, you see, and had to make sure it would do the job."

"How do you know this?"

"Because I have spies in Caelius's house, of course. Just as he thinks he has spies in mine." She stood up and began to pace. "This was his plot: to have a friend of his meet some of my slaves tomorrow afternoon at the Senian baths and hand over the poison to them, whereupon they would bring the poison home and Chrysis would put it into my food. His agent approached the slaves yesterday, including Chrysis. The slaves pretended to agree, but instead they came to me and told me everything."

"What made Caelius think he could suborn your slaves?"

"Marcus Caelius used to be a welcome guest in my home. He got to know some of the slaves, including Chrysis, rather well-well enough, I suppose, that he thought he could sway them with promises of silver and freedom if they would help him murder their mistress. He under-estimated their loyalty to me."

I stared at her, trying to decide whether I should believe her, and found myself studying the shape of her body instead. I shook my head. "So the plot has been uncovered. You've nipped it in the bud. Why all this secrecy? Why tell me about it at all?"

"Because Marcus Caelius doesn't know that his plot has been spoiled. He thinks my slaves have agreed to follow his orders. He still plans to go through with it. Tomorrow afternoon, his agent will arrive at the Senian baths, carrying the little box of poison. My slaves will be there to receive it from him – along with witnesses. We shall seize the poison, expose the agent, produce the evidence in court, and add another count of attempted murder to the charges against Marcus Caelius."

"And you want me to be there?" I said.

She drew close to me. "Yes, to help seize the poison. To witness everything that happens."

"Are you so sure you can trust your slaves, Clodia?" "Of course."

"Perhaps they're not telling you everything."

"We all have to trust our slaves in the end, don't we?"

"Then why have you brought me here, away from your house, away from your bodyguards and litter bearers, where even Chrysis can't hear?"

She lowered her eyes. "You see through me. Yes, I can't be certain. No one can ever be certain of anything in this world. Yes, I'm a little frightened-even of my slaves. But for some reason I trust you, Gordianus. I imagine you've been told that before."

With her head bowed and her eyes lowered, I noticed the remarkable line of her eyebrows, like the wings of a bird in flight. Then she turned her face up and all I could see were her deep, luminous green eyes.

"Clodia, you asked me to find evidence that Marcus Caelius tried to kill Dio. Whether you're pursuing this matter for the sake of justice, or for political gain, or simply to hurt Caelius, I don't know, nor do I really care. I agreed to take part for one reason: to do what I can to put Dio's shade at rest. This warfare between yourself and Caelius-broken love affair, festering hatred, whatever-is of no concern to me."

She stepped even closer and looked steadily into my eyes. I felt the heat of her body, as I had felt it in the litter. Her eyes seemed impossibly huge. "Love and hatred have nothing to do with it. Don't you see, Gordianus, it's all tied to Dio's murder. That's why Caelius wants to kill me, not because I loved him once and don't anymore, but because I'm trying to prove what he did to Dio. That's why I want you to go to the Senian baths tomorrow, to help foil his plot against me and expose it for all of Rome to see. This is all a part of the case against Caelius, which is the only way to bring Dio's killer to justice."

I stepped back from her. "The Senian baths," I said ruefully. "I suppose I could do with a hot plunge. At what time?"

A smile barely registered on her lips. "I'll send a litter to take you there tomorrow afternoon. Chrysis will go along, to give you more details on the way." She picked up her cape and handed it to me, then turned so that I could drape it over her shoulders. She leaned back, barely pressing her body against mine. "Oh, and tonight I'll send over the silver you may be needing."

"Silver for what?"

"To buy those two kitchen slaves of Lucceius's, of course, the ones who took part in the plot against Dio. That is, if you're able to track them down. You'll need ready silver if you're to buy them from under the nose of Lucceius's foreman at that mine up north, or bribe him into letting you have them. How much silver do you think that would take? Well, let me know before we part, and I'll send it to you to-night."

"I'll send back a receipt with the same courier," I said.

She pulled the cape about her neck and smiled. "No need for that. I'm sure you'll return any silver that's still unspent after the trial. You see, Gordianus, I really do trust you."

"Would you mind if we took a little side trip?" said Clodia, when we were back in the box and aloft.

"As long as I'm back in time for my dinner," I said, thinking of Bethesda.

"It will take only a few moments. I have an urge to go up on the Capitoline, just to take in the view. The air is so clear today, and the sun will be setting in the west." She nodded to Chrysis, who stuck her head out of the curtains and gave instructions to the chief of the litter bearers.

We passed back through the vegetable and cattle markets, crossed the valley between the Palatine and Capitoline hills, and entered the Forum. The day was waning, but a glimpse outside showed me that the squares were still thronged with men in togas going about their business. I appreciated the privacy of a closed litter-how else could a man cross the busiest spot in Rome side by side with a scandalous woman, without anyone seeing him?

Clodia's entourage did not go unnoticed, however. At one point we crossed paths with some of Milo's gang, who must have recognized the distinctive red and white striped curtains of the box.

"Bring out the whore!" one of them shouted. "Are you in there with her, Clodius?"

"Wet the bed again and gone running to your big sister?" "She'll kiss it and make it all better!" "Or bigger!"

There was a sudden jolt as the litter came to a halt. From outside we heard more obscene taunts, then the sounds of a skirmish. The moment had a peculiar, nightmarish quality; inside the box we were hidden, but also blind to the outside world, so that the obscenities seemed to come from disembodied voices and the scuffling noises were all the more alarming, their causes unseen. I heard the slither of steel pulled from scabbards, then more shouts. Beside me Clodia's body seemed to radiate heat. I glanced at her face, which remained expressionless. I thought I saw her ears turn red, but it might have been a trick of the light within the box.

The litter began to move again, then abruptly stopped.

"Turn it over!" someone shouted.

"Make a bonfire of the bitch!"

Staring straight ahead, Clodia reached for my hand and squeezed it. I gritted my teeth and sucked in a breath. From outside came the sounds of clashing steel, along with yells and grunts.

Finally the litter began moving again and rapidly picked up speed, leaving a chorus of obscene taunts behind us. Clodia stared straight ahead. Gradually she relaxed her grip and let go of my hand. She let out a barely audible sigh, then gave a start when a gruff voice called her name from outside.

"The chief of the bodyguard," she said to me, regaining her composure. She pulled back the curtain. A straw-haired gladiator with a crooked nose trotted alongside the litter.

"Sorry about that," he said. "Nothing to worry about. They got the worst of it. Milo's men won't try a stunt like that again anytime soon!"

Clodia nodded. The man grinned, showing rotten teeth, and Clodia let the curtain drop.

We turned sharply to the left and then to the right again, going up the long steep ramp that ascends to the summit of the Capitoline.

We passed by the chief monuments, the Auguraculum and the great Temple of Jupiter, and headed past the Tarpeian Rock to the less built-up southern end of the hill. The litter came to a stop. Clodia donned her cape and we stepped from the box. The spot was deserted and silent except for the sound of wind in my ears.

The sky above us swirled with the orange and purple clouds of a

spectacular sunset. The Tiber was a sheet of gold and the whole western horizon was aflame. "You see?" said Clodia, wrapping herself in her cape. "I knew it would be marvelous!"

I stood beside her, staring at the sunset. She pointed at something directly below us. "If you look straight down, over the edge of the cliff, you can see just a bit of the brick wall that closes off the Claudian burial ground, where we were. You see, there? And just beyond that, the Temple of Bellona, built on the same parcel of land by one of my ancestors, the Appius Claudius who was victorious against the Etruscans two hundred years ago. Instead of holding a triumphal parade, he built a temple at his own expense and dedicated it to the war goddess Bellona, and gave it to the people of Rome to be his monument. Sulla was especially fond of Bellona, you know. He gave her credit for his victories. I remember him once telling Father, 'Thank your ancestor for me, the next time you talk to him, for building Bellona such a fine place to live here in Rome.'

She smiled and turned her back on the sunset, walking slowly until she came to the opposite side of the hill. Across from us the Palatine loomed with its great jumble of rooftops. A little more to the south the view opened up. In the valley between the Palatine and the Aventine hills lay the vast expanse of the Circus Maximus with its long racetrack. Clodia pointed to the regions beyond. "Over there the Appian Way begins, and runs south all the way to Campania and beyond. And there, crossing the Appian Way, joining the wall for a stretch, is the Appian aqueduct, which has been bringing water into the city for almost three hundred years. These works are the legacy of my family. And those men in the Forum dare to call me such names!"

She stared at the view for a while, blinking as if the wind had blown dust in her eyes, then looked over her shoulder. A stone's throw away was the southernmost of the temples that crowd the Capitoline. "I need to go inside, just for a moment," she said. She strode toward the temple steps and left me behind, wondering whether I had just seen a patrician's pious desire to burn a bit of incense for her ancestors, or a woman's need to hide a sudden burst of tears.

The litter bearers rested. The bodyguards threw dice. Chrysis remained within the canopied box. I shuffled about the paved square in front of the temple, staring at the flagstones. Suddenly I realized which temple it was, the Temple of Public Faith, and remembered the inscription that had been added some time ago to the marble parapet in front of the building.

The inscription wasn't hard to find. In the fading light I read the chiseled letters with a feeling of odd detachment:

PTOLEMAIOS THEOS PHILOPATOR PHILADELPHOS NEOSDIONYSOS

FRIEND AND ALLY OF THE ROMAN PEOPLE

When all else was said and done, King Ptolemy was the reason behind everything: Dio's journey to Rome and his gruesome death, the Egyptian machinations of Pompey and Clodius and the rest of the Roman Senate, the impending trial of Marcus Caelius. But as the philosophers point out, the single trunk of a tree, so clear to see at its base, becomes increasingly obscure the farther one proceeds into the branches.

I didn't have to look up to know that Clodia had finished her business in the temple and was silently descending the steps toward me. I smelled her perfume.

Chapter Fifteen

I stepped from Clodia's litter onto the street in front of my house just as the last of the day's light was retreating from the rooftops into the ether. The red and white striped litter departed. The stamping feet of Clodia's bodyguards left a haze of dust in their wake, which made the empty, twilit street even murkier. I rapped on my door, but Belbo was slow in opening it.

Some apprehension-a tap on the shoulder from Fortune, as they say-caused me to glance over my shoulder. Across the street I saw the figure of a man. He wore a toga, and from his pose he appeared to be standing still and watching me. I turned and rapped on the door again. I tried the latch, just in case the door might have been left unbarred. It had not. I looked over my shoulder again.

The figure had moved closer, into the middle of the street. In the dimness and dust I could make out nothing but a silhouette.

Where was Belbo when I needed him? No need to take along the hulking brute, Trygonion had told me when I left the house. You'll be in the litter. It's well guarded. Now I found myself alone on my own doorstep, without a bodyguard, without a weapon. I rapped on the door again, then turned to face the man. If I was to be stabbed, I'd prefer to look him in the eye rather than have my back turned. Of course, the man was probably just some passing stranger, I told myself, even as I went through the catalogue in my mind of all those who might want to put a stop to any further investigation into the murder of Dio – King Ptolemy, Pompey, Marcus Caelius, Clodius's enemy Milo, whose gang had just threatened Clodia in the Forum-men notorious for using whatever means were necessary to snuff out their opposition.

The figure drew nearer, taking halting steps. It was the way he walked that frightened me. If he knew me, why didn't he simply walk up to me, or call my name? If he was merely passing by, crossing the street on his way to some destination, why did he approach in such a hesitant fashion?

I suddenly remembered the stalker who had followed us up the Ramp on the previous night, the figure who had abruptly turned and fled back into the darkness.

"Citizen," I said, finding my voice. "Do I know you?"

A puff of wind caused the dust that hung in the air to swirl and disperse. Somewhere far above the earth a bit of cloud caught a dying ray of light and cast a faint glow into the gloomy street, and I caught a glimpse of the stranger's face. Surely not an assassin, I thought. Not with a face like that…

Still, my heart began to pound in my chest.

The door rattled. From inside I heard the sound of the bar being lifted. The door swung open and I quickly stepped back, colliding with something and turning to see Belbo smiling down at me sheepishly. "Sorry to take so long, Master. The mistress insisted that I come help her-"

"Never mind, Belbo. Do you know that man?"

"What man, Master?"

The figure had vanished, as quickly and surely as the dust in the air swirled and vanished at the least puff of wind. I peered up and down the street.

"Who was it, Master?"

"I don't know, Belbo. Perhaps nobody."

"Nobody?"

"A stranger, I mean. A man who just happened to be passing by. No one at all."

Even so, later that night I found myself remembering the young man's face-a dark, gaunt face with a scraggly beard and piercing eyes. It was a face marked by some terrible catastrophe, with the kind of look one sees on men of a fallen city, numb with despair except for eyes suffused with a hopeless longing too poignant to bear. The memory of it made me shiver. It was not a face I would care to see again.

I was in time for dinner. Bethesda received my compliments on her ragout of lamb with lentils with a barely perceptible nod and commented that Diana had done most of the cooking.

A courier from Clodia arrived some time later, bearing the silver she had promised. She must have counted out the coins herself. They smelled faintly of her perfume.

As we prepared for bed, Bethesda asked me how my work was going. Suspecting that Diana had reported everything she had overheard me discussing with Eco, I gave as perfunctory an answer as I could without telling an untruth.

"And what did that woman want with you this afternoon?" she said, unbelting her stola.

"She wanted to hear what I had to report." I said nothing about the alleged new poison plot or Clodia's scheme to send me to the Senian baths.

"That woman has sent you down the wrong path, you know."

"The wrong path?"

"Going after Marcus Caelius."

"But Bethesda, 'everybody knows' that Caelius is involved."

Bethesda let the stola fall and stepped out of it, standing nude for a moment. "You tease me by pretending that I would believe a thing simply because it's gossip. Why? Because I'm a woman? You're the one paying heed to gossip." She reached for her sleeping gown and pulled it on. I tried to imagine her in a gown made of transparent silk from Cos. Bethesda saw the look on my face and softened a bit. "You have no reason to suspect Caelius, only that woman's word for it. It would be a terrible thing for a young man to be punished for a crime he did not commit."

"And if he did commit the crime?"

She shook her head and began to pull out the various pins and clasps that held her hair up. She sat down in front of her mirror at the little table that held her boxes of cosmetics and unguents, and began to brush her hair. She seemed a little surprised but made no protest when I took the brush and began to do it for her. Nor did she protest when I put down the brush and ran my hands over her shoulders, then bent down to press my lips to her throat.

We made love that night with a heat that staved off the chill in the room. I tried very hard not to think of Clodia. I might have succeeded had it not been for her perfume. It had permeated my clothing and my skin. It had gotten onto my hands from touching her silver and thus onto Bethesda. The smell was faint, elusive, insidious. As soon as I would forget about it, lost in the tangle of Bethesda's hair, there it would be again, filling my head and conjuring up images beyond my control.

The next morning Eco came by with news of the slave girl Zotica. The previous afternoon, while I had traversed the city in Clodia's litter, he had made his way to the Street of the Scythemakers and located the slave dealer.

"Zotica is no longer in Rome," he said. "The dealer claims he tried to place her in a rich man's household, figuring he could fetch the highest price by returning her to the type of place she came from. But apparently the marks on her body were a little more apparent than Coponius let on. Nobody wanted her for a serving girl or a handmaiden. The man ended up selling her to another dealer who specializes in pleasure slaves."

"So she ended up in a brothel?"

"Maybe, but not in Rome. The second dealer hemmed and hawed and held out his hand for some coins and finally remembered that he had her sent with a consignment of slaves down to an establishment in Puteoli."

"I'll repay you for the bribe, Eco. Meanwhile, what do you think it would cost to buy such a slave girl?" I produced the little bag of silver that Clodia had lent me.

"Considerably less than that," said Eco. "Where did it come from?"

I explained.

"Clodia is a sharp woman," he said. "More and more I long to meet her. If only my father didn't keep getting in the way."

"Clodia could eat us both for breakfast, suck out the marrow and turn our knucklebones into dice without batting an eye."

"That might be a memorable experience."

"I advise you to stick with Menenia, and also to stick to the subject."

"Then I'll say it again: Clodia is a sharp woman. It's a clever idea, trying to buy those slaves from under Lucceius's nose. Of course, a fellow could get killed trying to do something like that."

"You needn't worry about it."

"Papa, I was joking. Of course I'll go up to Picenum to see if I can find these slaves, and find out what they know. And if it's at all possible, I'll bring them back with me for the trial."

"No, you won't."

"Papa, you're not thinking of doing it yourself?" "No."

"Then it's up to me. I dread the saddle sores, but Menenia has a treatment for that which I'll look forward to."

"No, Eco, you won't be going up to Picenum. But you can get just as saddle-sore riding down to Puteoli and back."

"Puteoli? Papa, surely you don't want me to go chasing after Zotica instead of finding the kitchen slaves who may hold the key to everything? There's no way that I can do both. Picenum is north, Puteoli is south, and the trial starts in three days. I'll barely have time to get to either of those places and back. It's one or the other."

"Yes. Well, then, it's Zotica."

"Papa!"

"Eco, you must do as I ask."

"Papa, you're letting sentiment cloud your judgment." "Sentiment has nothing to do with it."

He shook his head. "Papa, I know how your mind works. You think for some reason that it's up to you to redeem this slave girl. Very well – but there'll be plenty of time for that after the trial is over. Right now it's those two slaves up in Picenum that we need. That's a dubious enough prospect, given all the complications that could arise, but at least it makes sense. At least it wouldn't be a waste of my time."

"So you think you'll be wasting your time if you go down to Puteoli to find Zotica and find out what she knows."

"Yes, a terrible waste of time, considering how little we have. What could this Zotica possibly know about Dio's death?"

"Find her for me, Eco." I placed the bag of silver in his hands. "Here, I'll prove to you that sentiment has nothing to do with it. If the girl knows nothing, if she has nothing to tell us about who killed Dio, then don't bother to buy her. Leave her where she is. But if she does have something to say, buy her and bring her back with you."

He bit his lips and tossed the bag from hand to hand. "Not fair, Papa. You know that I'll buy her no matter what, to please you."

"As you think best, Eco. Only I'd suggest that you get started. The days are still short, and you're missing the best hours for riding."

In the afternoon a litter came for me, just as Clodia had said.

It was a considerably less conspicuous affair than her grand litter with its red and white canopy. This litter had plain woolen curtains and was just big enough for two people to sit face to face. Belbo joined the handful of bodyguards while I climbed into the box and sat opposite Chrysis, who stared back at me with an enigmatic smile on her face, idly coiling her auburn hair around a forefinger. I found myself thinking that she could not possibly be as young and naive as she looked. The litter rose in the air and began to move.

"So," I said, "exactly what is it that Clodia wishes me to do at the baths today?"

Chrysis stopped playing with her hair and ran the forefinger over her lips as if erasing her smile, leaving an even more enigmatic expression on her face. The gesture reminded me of her mistress.

"It's very simple. Almost nothing, really. You're to wait in the changing room. One of Clodia's men will find you."

"How will I know him?"

"He'll know you.

Now, Caelius's agent, the man who's bringing the poison, is named Publius Licinius. Do you know him?" "I don't think so."

"No matter. Clodia's man will point out Licinius to you when he arrives."

"And then what?"

"Caelius's scheme calls for Licinius to pass the poison to one of Clodia's slaves. But as soon as Licinius hands over the box of poison, some of Clodia's friends are going to seize him and make a public scene. They'll open the box to show everyone what's inside. Then they'll twist Licinius's arm until he confesses what he was up to and who sent him."

"Why should he confess?"

"Some of Clodia's friends are very good at twisting arms. I mean that literally." Chrysis laughed at her own wit.

"What am I to do? I'm a finder, not an arm-twister." "You're there to witness what takes place." "Why?"

"Clodia says you have a reputation for being a good observer."

We took a winding path down the eastern face of the Palatine and were soon in the square in front of the Senian baths, jostling for space with all the other litters. "I'll wait here," said Chrysis. "Bring me news as soon as anything happens. And don't do anything naughty with the other boys."

"What do you mean?"

"Please! We know the sort of things you men like to do with each other in the baths." She raised an eyebrow, recalling another of Clodia's gestures.

"Are all the slaves in your mistress's household as insolent as you?" "Only her favorites." When Chrysis giggled she looked even more like a child.

I walked up the steps, signaling for Belbo to follow.

I paid the attendant in the foyer, who handed Belbo a towel. We walked down a hallway and into the long, narrow changing room with its elaborately coffered ceiling and rows of wooden benches. Patrons came and went in various stages of undress. A number of fully dressed slaves stood idly about, alone or in small groups, waiting while their masters took their plunges. Whenever the heavy wooden door to the bathing rooms opened, from beyond came echoes of conversation and laughter and the sound of lapping water. The distinctive odor of the baths washed over me-a mixture of sweat and steam accented by the tang of wood smoke from the furnaces, with a musty hint of mildew.

I loitered for a bit, waiting for someone to approach me, then began to feel conspicuous in my street clothes. I took off my tunic and handed it to Belbo, who found an empty niche for it among the cubbyholes that lined the walls. I lifted my arms and Belbo wrapped the towel around my waist. I slipped off my shoes and let out a little sigh as my bare feet touched the floor, which was heated to just the right temperature by the hot-water pipes underneath.

"I know that sigh!" said a voice beside me. "Like a poem: the sound a man makes the moment his bare toes settle onto a heated floor."

I turned my head and barely nodded, thinking the man was simply another patron. Then I saw his face.

The look of despair was gone, replaced by a sardonic smile. It was a handsome face despite its gauntness and the scraggly beard, but there was a keenness about his brown eyes that made them hard to look into.

"You were outside my house last night," I said.

"I suppose I was."

That explained it, then-he was Clodia's man, the one I was to meet. Still, why had he followed me up the Ramp and then run away? Why had he lingered outside my house the night before, and then vanished without introducing himself?

"The Senian baths are still the best in Rome," he said, toweling his damp hair. He was naked and still wet from the hot plunge, with wisps of steam rising from his flesh. His limbs were slender and his chest narrow. There was no fat on him at all. I could have counted his ribs and tapped a drumbeat on his hip bones. "They keep the cold water cold and the hot water piping hot. It's close by the Forum, so there's always someone interesting to talk to. But it's not too far from the Subura, so there's usually a bit of trash about to liven things up. Like that lecherous serpent Vibennius."

"Vibennius?"

He nodded toward the opposite side of the room. "See those three fellows over there? Vibennius is that rakish-looking fellow with the fleshy rope hanging down to his knees, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed and nothing to hide. Busy Fingers, he's called, for more than one reason. Look at that smarmy expression on his face-you can tell he's up to something rotten. That's his son, the young fellow with the remarkably hairy buttocks, leaning over at the bench taking off his shoes.

Have you ever seen such a woolly bottom? Really, it makes me queasy to look at it, like a beard growing at the wrong end. Appropriate, I suppose, since he uses the hole down there like a mouth. From the way he's flexing and wriggling his buttocks, you'd think he was chewing on something tough. That's obviously what that third fellow has on his mind, the bald sap sitting there on the bench staring at Junior's hairy rear end with that slack-jawed expression. I don't see the point of the towel on his lap, do you? It's not hiding what's on his mind. Like a soldier at attention in a tent! Do you suppose the sap is waiting for a kiss from Junior's bearded lips?"

I looked at the stranger beside me, trying to make out his expression-disdain, amusement, envy? Whatever, his preoccupations seemed far removed from our immediate reason for being at the baths, and I was about to say so, when he gripped my arm and nodded intently. "See there, Junior's finished undressing. He bends over to pick up his shoes- well, really, he might as well make himself into a hairpin. Now he unbends, picks up his clothes, turns to the wall. Do you suppose he really has to stand on tiptoes like that to reach the cubbyhole, or is he just showing off his shapely thighs? The bald sap certainly appreciates the show-oh, Eros, he's actually groping himself! Look at that smirk on Papa Vibennius's face. Now Junior regally strides toward the door to the tubs, arching his shoulders, thrusting out his backside, walking just a bit on tiptoe-could an Egyptian catamite do it better? Sure enough, the sap takes the bait. He's on his feet, heading after those hairy buttocks like a hound trailing a rabbit. He's at the door; he's through the door. And now look at Busy Fingers!"

While we watched, Vibennius looked discreetly right and left, uncrossed his arms, turned around and began rooting about in one of the cubbyholes.

"Oh really, this is too much!" The man beside me threw down his towel and strode across the room. I followed, with Belbo trailing behind.

The man walked up behind Vibennius and tapped him on the shoulder. Vibennius gave a start and swung around with a guilty look on his face.

"Still up to your old tricks, Busy Fingers? Robbing randy bathgoers while your boy leads them on a chase?"

"What?" The man was dumbfounded for a moment, then flashed an uncertain smile. "Catullus! What in Hades are you doing here? I thought you were off playing imperial governor somewhere."

"Somewhere, yes, and sort of. A year in Bithynia under Gaius Memmius was quite enough. I thought he was going to make me rich, but Memmius just took me along to read my poems to him. Couldn't blame him for craving a touch of culture; Bithynia's a hellhole. Couldn't wait to get out of the place; came back early, as soon as the weather allowed. It's so good to be back in a truly civilized place like Rome, where a fellow's likely to get robbed while lusting after a pair of hairy buttocks."

"What are you talking about?" Vibennius giggled nervously and looked about, shifty-eyed.

"Vibennius, you disgust me. For Cybele's sake, leave the poor sap's things alone. What did you expect to find that would be worth taking? His smelly loincloth?"

"Catullus, you jest. I was just looking to make sure that my son put his shoes away. Oh, but that explains it – I must have gotten mixed up. I've been looking in the wrong niche. I wondered why everything looked so unfamiliar!"

Catullus laughed scornfully and shook his head. "Vibennius, I should report you to the management. But they'd probably cut off your busy little fingers and throw them in the furnace, and then we'd all have to suffer the stench. Why don't you go see what your boy is up to? Then the two of you can pull your other bathhouse trick."

"What do you mean?"

"You know, the one where Junior finds a dark corner and grabs his ankles to lure the unsuspecting sap, and as soon as he's got him in a death grip with that bearded mouth, you sneak up behind and start goosing the fellow with your busy fingers, loosening him up for what's to come."

"Catullus, you slander me!"

"On the contrary, Vibennius, your 'massages' are quite famous."

Vibennius crossed his arms and looked smug. "From your foul mood, I'd say you could use a good 'massage,' Catullus."

"Get any closer to me with that ugly thing, Vibennius, and I'll tie it in a knot."

"And what if the rope isn't slack enough for tying?" Vibennius smirked.

Catullus stepped toward him. I retreated toward Belbo, expecting blows. Instead Catullus grinned. "Oh, Vibennius, it is good to be back."

Vibennius opened his arms. "You wicked goat, how we've all missed your sharp tongue," he said, embracing Catullus and slapping his back.

I blinked, not sure what to make of this display, then gave a start when a hand touched my shoulder. "Gordianus?" said a voice be-hind me.

I turned and saw the vaguely familiar face of a burly young man with a neatly trimmed beard and soulful brown eyes. It was the way his eyebrows grew together into a single line that jarred my memory-he was the slave who had answered Clodia's door. He stood before me fully dressed and slightly out of breath. "Barnabas," I said. "Hebrew for 'consolation.' "

"That's right." He nodded and lowered his voice. "Chrysis said you were already here. Publius Licinius is on his way now, with the box." I frowned. "You're the one I'm supposed to meet?" "Yes."

"Then who -?" I turned toward Catullus and caught just a glimpse of his enigmatic grin before Barnabas pulled me back and hissed in my ear. "Licinius just walked in! Come with me." He took me by the arm and led me across the room with Belbo lumbering behind. "In the green tunic," Barnabas whispered.

The young man did look familiar, though I had never met him- I had seen him in the Forum, and walking through the streets of the Palatine in the company of Marcus Caelius. He was nervously glancing from side to side and fiddling with something in his hand.

"We part now," whispered Barnabas. "Just stand aside and watch. Make sure you keep your eyes on the pyxis!" By this he meant the tiny box Licinius carried in his hand, one of those elaborately decorated containers with a hinged lid and a latch, so favored by ladies for keeping their powders and unguents-and by poisoners for keeping their poisons. The pyxis Licinius carried appeared to be made of bronze with raised knobs and inlays of ivory. He turned it over and over in his palm.

Licinius spotted Barnabas and sighed with relief. He stepped forward to meet the slave, but Barnabas signaled with a nod that they should withdraw to a corner of the room. As Barnabas turned, his eyes very briefly met mine, making sure I would follow. I glanced over my shoulder, wondering where Catullus and Vibennius had got to, but I couldn't find them in the throng of clothed and naked flesh. The dressing room suddenly seemed to have gotten considerably more crowded.

Barnabas arrived at the corner and turned. Licinius reached him and began to extend his hand, obviously eager to pass along the pyxis. Then the mad scramble and the shouting began.

Since I had arrived in the changing room I had been studying the crowd, trying to spot Clodia's arm-twisters. I had marked down several likely candidates, judging by their brawniness, and sure enough, these were among the men who suddenly rushed Licinius. But there were more of them than I would have expected, at least ten. Among them, to my surprise, was the busy-fingered Vibennius.

They moved to apprehend Licinius the moment the pyxis changed hands, but their timing was premature. Someone shouted an instant too early, or someone bolted toward the box before he should have, or perhaps Licinius was simply so nervous that he froze in midtransaction and panicked before the box reached Barnabas's hand. Whatever the exact sequence of events, the pyxis was never handed over. It remained in Licinius's possession as he wheeled about in alarm and began to dodge and dart around the room, slipping through the grasp of his would-be captors. I caught a glimpse of his face and thought I had never seen a man who looked so much like a rabbit, and a frightened rabbit at that. But the pyxis remained tightly grasped in his white-knuckled grip.

The brawny arm-twisters would have made persuasive captors, but what they had in muscle they lacked in agility. Arms closed on empty air as the rabbit scurried by. Heads banged together as Licinius slipped through their pincers. It was like a comic scene performed by mimes, but more elaborately choreographed than anything I'd ever seen on a stage.

The rabbit made for the main exit, but the way was blocked. "Hand over the pyxis!" someone shouted. "Yes, the pyxis!" "Hand it over!" "Poison! Poison!"

The bystanders witnessing this spectacle wore various expressions of confusion, outrage and mirth. Some seemed to think it was merely a game, while a few scrambled for safety under the wooden benches. In the throng I spotted the sharp-tongued Catullus, who watched with wide-eyed surprise.

Licinius, unable to get out through the blocked entrance, wheeled about and headed for the unguarded door into the bathing rooms. Just as he reached it, the door was opened by an old man draped in a towel. Licinius knocked him to the floor. With a great whoop, Clodia's arm-twisters followed, leaping over the old man like hounds over a log.

"Damnation!" muttered Barnabas as he rushed by me, grabbing my

arm.

We followed in the rabbit's wake, past a giant tub full of shouting and laughing bathers. One of the arm-twisters had fallen on the wet floor and kept slipping as he tried to get up. We angled past him and ran through another door into the innermost room, where the air was thick with steam from the hot pool. Confusion reigned as a tumult of splashing and a chorus of shouts echoed through the dimly lit room.

"Block the door! He'll try to slip back out!"

"Poison!"

"Don't let him throw the pyxis into the pool!" "Did someone say 'poison in the pool'?"

"Poison? Let me out!"

There was a great deal of running and slipping and colliding as the arm-twisters tried to find Licinius. Some of them stepped into the piping-hot pool with hisses of discomfort and poked about.

"He must be here!" said Barnabas. "The door's blocked and there's no other way out."

"Of course there is," I said, pointing to a dark corner. "The door to the furnace room."

Barnabas groaned and ran to pull the door open. Sweltering air poured out from the dark passage beyond. Barnabas took a few hesitant steps, tripped against something and let out a gasp. "Hades! A corpse!"

There was something in the darkness at his feet, but not a corpse, unless corpses have two heads and writhe about.

"Get lost!" moaned one of the heads.

"Go find your own!" wheezed the other.

Barnabas gave a start. "What-?"

"It's woolly-bottom and the bald sap!" I said.

This meant nothing to Barnabas, but he caught on quickly enough. "Did someone else pass this way?"

"Yes," gasped one of the voices. "The idiot stepped on my hand! He'll have passed through the furnace room and be out in the alley by now. So – if you don't-mind -"

Barnabas groaned.

The writhing figures on the floor thrashed, gasped and bleated in ecstasy.

I pulled Barnabas back into the bathing room and shut the door behind us. Now the farce had everything, including a climax.

PART

THREE

Nox

Chapter Sixteen

Chrysis fretted all the way back to Clodia's house. She insisted

i that I come along to explain what had happened. I think she was afraid to break the bad news to her mistress alone. The litter bearers turned down the little cul-de-sac, with the bodyguards and Belbo following behind, and deposited us in front of the house. Belbo and I waited on the red and black tiled doorstep, looking up at the towering cypress trees on either side while Chrysis rapped on the door and then clutched my hand to draw me inside. Belbo followed.

"What do you mean, she's not here?" I heard her say to the slave who opened the door.

"She's gone off," said the old man. "I don't know where."

"For what? For how long?"

He shrugged. "Nobody tells me anything. But-" "Surely she didn't decide to go down to the Senian baths herself," mumbled Chrysis, nipping at a fingernail. "No, she would have seen me. Unless we passed each other on the way. Oh, Attis!" Chrysis made a little yelp of frustration. "Wait here," she called to me as she disappeared down a hallway. "Or in the garden," she added, waving vaguely toward the center of the house.

While Belbo stayed in the foyer, I walked through the atrium beyond, down a wide hallway, through a colonnaded archway and finally down a short flight of steps into the open air and sunlight. The garden was square, surrounded by a covered portico. There was a low platform at the opposite end, which appeared to be a stage, for behind it was a wall painted with a jumbled cityscape, like a theatrical backdrop. In front of the platform there was a small lawn with room for several rows of chairs. At each of the four corners of the garden were cypress trees taller than the roof. In the center of the garden was a small fountain with a statue of a naked Adonis. Bronze fish beneath his feet emptied water into the pool from their gaping mouths. I walked closer to have a look at the mosaics that lined the bottom. Beneath the splashing water the images of dolphins and octopi quivered against a shimmering field of blue.

The Adonis was captured in the act of kneeling-knees bent, upraised palms extended, his face turned upward with a radiant expression. It was obvious to whom he was showing obeisance, for on the stairway which I had just descended, atop a high pedestal looking out over the whole garden, was an enormous bronze statue of Venus, even more magnificent and more opulently detailed than the one which decorated Clodia's horti on the Tiber. The goddess was naked above the waist; the folds of cloth gathered about her hips seemed frozen in the act of fluttering to the ground. The curves of her body were sumptuous, and the painted bronze gave the illusion of pliant flesh, but the size of the statue was out of scale, disconcertingly large, more intimidating than beautiful. Her hands were captured in gestures of eloquent tenderness, more motherly than erotic, but this was at odds with her face, which was strangely impassive, severe in its beauty. Her unblinking lapis lazuli eyes stared down at me.

As I stood before the fountain, studying the Venus from Adonis's point of view, I began to notice the echoing sounds of chanting and music from somewhere nearby, rising and falling and obscured by the splashing of the fountain, but now growing abruptly louder and faster. I heard the piping of flutes, the rattling of tambourines and the jangling of bells, along with a strange ululation that was nothing like normal singing. I thought I heard words, but the splashing fountain kept me from making them out. The music grew louder, the tempo accelerated. I stared at the face of Venus. The longer I looked into her lapis lazuli eyes the more it seemed as if the statue might actually move or speak. She blinked-or I blinked-and I felt a sudden tremor of apprehension. I was not alone.

But it was not the goddess who had joined me. The voice behind me was decidedly masculine. "They're at it again!"

I turned around to see a man on the low stage, dressed in a toga. He had been naked the last time I saw him.

"Every year it's the same." Clodius shrugged and made a face. "If

I were Clodia, I'd complain, but I suppose my dear sister is too fascinated by the galli to want to stop their fun. And it is only once a year." "What's only once a year?"

"The Great Mother festival, of course. The Temple of Cybele is just over there," Clodius said, pointing behind him. "The House of the Galli is right beside it. For days before the festival they practice, practice, practice. It all sounds hopelessly wild and discordant to a Roman ear, doesn't it? And the singing-hardly better than screaming. But then, I'd scream too if they'd cut my balls off." He hopped off the stage onto the lawn and sauntered toward me. "You know, it's absurd, but I've forgotten your name."

"Gordianus."

"Oh yes. Clodia's new man, the one to get the goods on Marcus Caelius. Been busy?" "Busy enough."

"Clodia's not here at the moment. Some errand or other. The door slave should have told you. He's getting old."

"He did say something, actually. But Chrysis suggested I wait here."

"I see. Oh, that's right, today was to be the little drama down at the Senian baths. How did it go?"

"That's why I came. To tell Clodia."

He stared at me with green eyes uncannily like those of his sister. "And? What happened?" When I hesitated, he scowled, which made his face impossible to read. Was he feigning boyish petulance, or showing genuine anger? The scowl did nothing to spoil his good looks; it merely rearranged them. "Oh, I see," he said. "You're here to report to Clodia, not to me. She said you were the loyal type. Rare enough in Rome these days. But my sister and I have no secrets from each other. No secrets at all. And I should hope you have nothing to hide from me, Gordianus. I've certainly hidden nothing from you." He gave me a knowing look. When I said nothing, he laughed. "That's a joke. About what I was wearing the day we met." He shook his head. "She also said that you have no sense of humor."

"You seem to have discussed me at length."

"My sister likes to get my opinion of the men she's dealing with. She could use some advice! Clodia hasn't always exercised the best judgment, choosing whom to trust. As in the case of Marcus Caelius, which brings us back to the Senian baths. How did it go? Here, we'll sit on the bench in the shade, and if we're lucky Chrysis will come walking by and I'll send her for some wine."

As we sat I noticed that another man had stepped onto the stage, a giant whose face glinted like a broken shard of ebony in the sunlight. He leaned against the painted wall with his arms crossed, watching us from a distance. He was incredibly ugly, with a bullish neck and enormous arms. Beside him Belbo would have looked like a child. He curled his upper lip in a snarl that made my blood turn cold.

Clodius saw my reaction and glanced over his shoulder. "That's the Ethiop. Clodia gave him to me last year. Goes everywhere I go. Keeps an eye on me. The loyal type, like you. A couple of months ago, one of Milo's men came up to me in the Forum and waved a knife at me. He never saw the Ethiop coming-don't let his size fool you, he's fast as lightning. The Ethiop grabbed the fellow from behind and broke both of his arms, just like that." Clodius snapped his fingers twice. "No one's threatened me in the Forum ever since. But don't worry, he's completely harmless to my friends. Oh, that noise! If those galli aren't mad already, they'll surely drive each other crazy by nightfall. Can you imagine being in the same room with them? What sort of goddess would want to go into a temple with such a racket going on? Now, about the baths…"

I told Clodius about the farce I had witnessed. He listened in silence, making expressions of disgust and amusement. "So Licinius got clean away?" he finally said.

"Yes."

"And the pyxis with him?" "I'm afraid so."

He sneered. "I wish I'd been there. I'd have grabbed Licinius by the balls and squeezed until he croaked out everything he knew. Then I'd have stuffed the poison down his throat, pyxis and all. Hung the corpse up by the heels and dragged it into the trial that way-an exhibit for the prosecution! You want evidence, Cicero? Here's our evidence!"

Up on the stage, the Ethiop heard the anger in his master's voice and looked at me as if mulling over which arm to break. I shifted uneasily on the bench.

"I suppose your sister will be quite displeased."

Clodius's demeanor changed in the blink of an eye. He laughed. "Don't count on it. She adores a bit of drama, you know. Loves comedy even more. Well, just look at what she's done to this garden. Made it into her private theater so she can bring in mimes from Egypt to amuse her friends, and host recitals for whatever poet has caught her eye lately. No, once Clodia has thrown a priceless vase or two across the room and given a few slaves a good beating, I think she'll see the humor in it. Well, look who's here-and just when my throat was getting dry."

Chrysis appeared at the top of the steps, beneath the Venus. When she saw us she began to turn back, but Clodius clapped his hands and waved her over.

"Chrysis, darling, bring us some honeyed wine-I'm in the mood for something sweet. And perhaps some dates. And some of those little seed cakes that Clodia's cook always keeps in the kitchen. Will that suit you, Gordianus?"

I nodded.

"Will that be all?" said Chrysis, lowering her eyes. Clodius growled. "Don't tease me, little one."

"I don't intend to tease you," said Chrysis, keeping her head bowed.

"Harpy! Go on and fetch the wine, before I grab you and ravish you right here, in front of the guest. Or better yet, I'll put the Ethiop to the job and Gordianus and I will watch while the two of you make a baby up on the stage." Chrysis turned pale and quickly departed. "So young," Clodius murmured, gazing after her. "That auburn hair, that pale flesh. Delicious-I should like to pour honeyed wine all over her and lick it up. But Clodia forbids it. Won't let me touch the girl. I suppose she thinks it would spoil her. Or maybe Chrysis is in love with another of the slaves; Clodia is sentimental that way. Anyway, I keep my hands to myself. My sister and I always respect one another's property."

I noticed that the chanting of the galli had stopped for a moment. Suddenly it started up again with shrill piping and a clashing of cymbals. Clodius made a face. "Well, I suppose we can somehow work around the loss of the pyxis," he said, gazing abstractedly at the statue of Adonis. "This crazy attempt to poison Clodia is just further corroboration of the charge that Caelius tried to do the same to Dio at Lucceius's house. He used Clodia's money to buy the poison and bribe Lucceius's slaves, she came to suspect him, and now he's trying to stop her from telling what she knows by poisoning her. A reckless, desperate man-that's the picture we'll paint for the judges. Clodia says you've tracked down some slaves that Lucceius has hidden away in a mine somewhere."

"Perhaps."

"Didn't she give you some silver, in case you're able to find these slaves and buy them?"

"That was mentioned," I said uneasily. "It may not yield anything worthwhile."

"It had better. We need stronger evidence. It's our job, you see, Clodia's and mine, to get the goods on Caelius concerning the poison attempt on Dio. Others are concentrating on the crimes Caelius perpetrated against the Egyptians on their way up to Rome. Let's hope they've come up with something stronger. Witnesses! That's what we need. Credible witnesses-we could walk through the Forum right now and find ten men who'd swear to Caelius's guilt, but they'd be about as reputable as a drunken general; bad witnesses merely water down a good oration. The strongest thing in our favor is the thought that's on every, one's mind: if Marcus Caelius didn't murder Dio, who did?" "I've been pondering that myself."

"We don't want the judges to ponder too much. They might come up with someone else!" Clodius smirked.

"You don't believe Caelius is guilty?"

"Of course I do," he said sharply. "You really don't have a sense of humor, do you?"

"How is it that you're both involved in this affair, you and your sister?"

"We each have reasons to want to see Marcus Caelius get what he deserves. As do you." "I?"

"Caelius murdered your old teacher. Isn't that why you're here? Your reason is personal, like Clodia's. Mine is political. Each has his own incentive. What do the judges care?"

I nodded. "What I mean is, do you and your sister do everything together?" The double meaning struck me as soon as I spoke, which was too late to call back the words.

"I believe that our wine and seed cakes have arrived," said Clodius.

Chrysis descended the steps bearing a tray, followed by another slave who carried a folding table. While they set the food and drink before us, the chanting from the House of the Galli stopped for a moment, then resumed at a different pitch and tempo. The priests were singing a new song, if indeed the keening noises constituted a song.

Clodius sipped from his cup and looked thoughtful. "I never drink honeyed wine without thinking of the bad old days."

"The bad old days?" Clodia had used a similar phrase.

"After Papa died. The lean years. We were expecting him to come home from Macedonia with wagons full of gold, and instead he left us saddled with debts. Well, that sort of crisis can happen even in the best families. A good thing in the end: it sharpened our wits. You do what you must. You prove to yourself that you can get by on your own, and you're never afraid of the world again. It made us closer; we learned we could depend on each other. Clodia was the oldest, and the keenest. Like a mother to the rest of us."

"You already had a mother."

"Clodia was closer than a mother. At least to me she was." He gazed into his cup. "But I was talking about the honeyed wine. We were poor, you know, but the dinner parties never stopped. That was our investment in the future, those dinner parties. My sisters needed hus-bands. My older brothers needed to launch their careers. And so the dinner parties, every night. For the guests, honeyed wine. But not for us. Into our cups the slaves would secretly pour the cheapest wine. We drank it with a smile. The guests were fooled, and never knew that we couldn't afford honeyed wine for everyone. That was excellent training for a career in the Forum, learning to put on a pleasant face even when something disagreeable is going down your throat."

He put the cup to his lips and drank. I did the same. "The wine is excellent," I said. "But if your sister isn't here, there's really no reason for me to stay."

He shrugged. "She may come back at any moment."

"Where is she?"

"Probably gone to her horti, or off to visit someone. She took Metella with her."

"Her daughter?" It seemed hard to imagine Clodia as a mother, or to imagine what her daughter would be like.

"My dear niece. Willful, like her mother. But also beautiful, like her mother. And she adores her uncle."

"Like her mother does?"

He took a bit of seed cake. "Perhaps not quite that much. Dam-nation, they've started singing again!"

"I think I'm getting used to it," I said. "There's one phrase they keep repeating that's rather pretty. There, that's it." The music floated above our heads.

Clodius laughed and shook his head. "Watch out, or the next thing you know you'll have a strange urge to run off to Phrygia to have your balls lopped off." He poured himself another cup and insisted on pouring another for me.

The wine spread through me with a delicious warmth. "As long as I'm here, there is something I should ask you," I said. "Go on."

"A few days ago I was out after dark and noticed someone following me. I think I spotted the same man outside my house last night, and today he spoke to me at the baths. I'd decided he was one of Clodia's men, but then found I was mistaken. Would you know anything about it?"

"About a man following you? No."

"You seem to be rather protective of your sister. I thought per-haps-"

"That I'd have you followed, to investigate my sister's hireling? Don't be ridiculous. I offer Clodia advice when she asks for it, but she deals with whomever she chooses. I have no control over her associates, friends or lovers. What did this fellow look like?"

"Young – not quite thirty, I'd say. Medium height. Slender, dark. A scraggly beard, but he's just back from a trip; maybe he was at the baths to have it shaved. Good-looking, in a hungry sort of way. His eyes-there's something sad about them, almost tragic. But today at the baths he seemed anything but sad. Sharp-tongued."

Clodius looked at me curiously. "Did he tell you his name?"

"No, but I overheard someone call him-"

"Catullus," said Clodius.

"How did you know?"

"There's only one: Gaius Valerius Catullus. So he's back already?"

"His friend at the baths said something about him returning early from a government post out East."

"I knew he'd hate it. Catullus loves Rome too much. Those country boys always do, once they've gotten a taste of the big city."

"He wasn't born in Rome?"

"Hardly. From some backwater up north; Verona, I think. Clodia met him the year Quintus was governor of Cisalpine Gaul and they were stuck up there."

"Then there is a connection between Clodia and this man Catul-lus?"

"There used to be. That was finished before Catullus left Rome last spring. Finished on Clodia's side, anyway. You think he was following you?"

"Yes. Any idea why?"

Clodius shook his head. "He's a strange one. Hard to make out. No interest in politics; thinks he's a poet. Clodia thought so too; half of his poems were about her. Women love that sort of crap, especially from fools like Catullus. The sort who bleeds from love; a walking hemorrhage, and bitter about it too. I remember him reciting from this very stage one summer night, standing where the Ethiop is standing now, with the beautiful young poets and their starry-eyed admirers gathered around, crickets chirping, moon above. He'd lull them with words like honey, then stir the pot and show them the worms at the bottom. Self-righteous, foul-mouthed, long-suffering. He even made one about me."

"A poem?"

Clodius's jaw tightened. "Not much better than the doggerel Milo's gang comes up with, and considerably nastier. So he's back? Clodia will hear from him soon enough, I imagine. If you catch him following you again, my advice is to give him a good blow to the jaw. He's no fighter. His tongue is his weapon. Good for making insults and poems, and not for much else, according to my-according to those who have reason to know. Look, this little bit of food has only made me hungrier, and the sun's getting low. I'm not leaving until I see Clodia. Stay and have a proper dinner with me." I hesitated.

"I told you, she may show up at any moment. She'll want to know exactly what happened at the baths, from your lips. If I try to tell her, I'll either get angry and choke or else laugh in all the wrong places."

Slaves came to clear away the wine and cakes. I asked one of them to fetch Belbo from the foyer. He came lumbering down the steps, peering up at the monstrous statue of Venus with a proper expression of awe. Then he spotted the Ethiop across the way. The two of them flexed their shoulders, dilated their nostrils and exchanged suspicious glances.

"Yes, Master?"

"Take a message to Bethesda," I told him. "Tell her I'll be dining elsewhere tonight." "Here, Master?"

"Yes, here, at Clodia's house." I winced, realizing how it would sound to Bethesda. If she only knew that I was dining alone with another man to the sound of singing eunuchs, with a giant Ethiop playing chaperon!

"And then shall I come back, Master?"

Before I could answer, Clodius raised his hand. "No need, Gordianus. I'll see that you get home safely."

He gave me a cool look, challenging me to show distrust. I shrugged and nodded. "No need to come back afterward, Belbo," I said. "I'll find my way home."

Belbo cast a final suspicious glance at the Ethiop, then turned, craning his neck to take in the full, frightful splendor of the Venus as he walked up the steps.

Twilight fell. With a mad crescendo of tambourines and shrill piping, the chanting of the galli abruptly ceased. A serene silence followed.

"Well," said Clodius, "I suppose even eunuchs have to eat. It's a warm night. Now that the racket's over, shall we stay in the garden to eat?"

Couches were brought, along with lamps. The dinner was simple but exquisite. Clodia's pleasures apparently included those to be had from owning a fine cook. It was a meal to be eaten slowly and savored, accompanied by leisurely conversation.

"The galli!" said Clodius, sipping noisily at his fish soup. "What do you know about the cult of Cybele, Gordianus?"

"Not a lot. I sometimes see the galli in the streets on the days of the year when they're allowed to go begging in public. I've heard the invocations to Cybele at the Great Mother festival. And of course I've met your sister's friend Trygonion. But I've never heard anything like the music I heard here this afternoon."

"The cult has been in Rome a long time, yet most people don't know much about it. It's an interesting story, how Cybele first came to Rome."

The wine and food had put me at ease. I was almost able to forget the glowering presence of the Ethiop, who stood cross-armed on the stage and watched us eat. "Tell me."

"It happened back in the days when Hannibal was rampaging through Italy, and no one could drive him out. The College of Fifteen Priests consulted the Sibylline Books, and found an oracle: if an invader should take root in Italy, the only way to expel him would be to bring the Great Mother goddess to Rome from her shrine in Phrygia. At that time King Attalus ruled Phrygia, and happened to be our ally. Still, the goddess herself had to be consulted. When her Phrygian priests put the question to her, she shook the earth and told them, 'Let me go! Rome is a worthy place for any deity!' So King Attalus agreed to make a gift of the statue of Cybele, along with the great black rock which fell from the sky at the dawn of time and first inspired men to worship her."

"How do you know all this?" I said.

"Gordianus, you impious man. Don't you know that I'm a member of the College of Priests? I'm privileged to look at the Sibylline Books. I sit on the committee that regulates the galli and the worship of the Great Mother. Which is fitting, since there's a family connection going all the way back to Cybele's arrival in Rome."

"You mean the tale of Claudia Quinta," I said.

"You know the story?"

"Only vaguely, and never as told by one of the great woman's descendants."

Clodius smiled. "The ship bearing the sky-stone and the statue of Cybele arrived at the mouth of the Tiber and sailed inland to Rome, attended by great crowds along the riverbank. But when the ship pulled alongside the dock to unload its divine cargo, it sprang a leak and began to founder. The dignitaries on the dock were thrown into a panic. Just imagine: a group of politicians out for a day of impressing the masses suddenly find themselves in the midst of a catastrophic omen-the Mother Goddess sent to save Rome from Hannibal is about to sink into the Tiber! More honeyed wine?" "Not for me."

"A bit more, surely." He gestured to one of the slaves to fill my cup- "Anyway, it was my ancestress Claudia Quinta who saved the day. Only the purest virgins and most upstanding wives were allowed to wel-come the Great Mother to Rome, and there had apparently been some grumbling about letting Claudia Quinta take part in the ceremony. Some-thing about her loose morals and the bad company she kept-does this sound like someone we know? But that day she was vindicated. She stepped forward and seized the mooring rope, and miraculously the ship began to rise again. Thus Cybele showed her divine approval of Claudia Quinta. The pious say this proved her purity. Of course, when you actually picture the scene-a woman reaching out and grasping a slick rope, the big boat bobbing up like a swollen wineskin-well, Claudia Quinta must have had an amazingly skillful touch.

"The mud-spattered sky-stone and the statue were unloaded from the ship and cleaned up-the ritual bathing of the statue is still a part of the annual festival. The Temple of Cybele was built here on the Palatine and dedicated with great ceremony, with Claudia Quinta as the guest of honor. Just as the oracle had promised, Hannibal was driven from Italy. And today, generations later, we have to put up with the singing of the galli here in Clodia's garden!

"What must they have thought, our staid, dour ancestors, when they got their first look at the Phrygian priests who arrived with Cybele, with their outlandish costumes and jewelry, their long bleached hair and high, lisping voices? Or when they saw how the priests worshiped Cybele, with whirling dances and wild frenzies, and secret ceremonies in the middle of the night? Or when they learned that the consort of the Great Mother was a beautiful, castrated youth called Attis? Not the kind of consort to give a female much pleasure, I should think. Perhaps Cybele prefers a woman with a skilled hand, like Claudia Quinta. I prefer Venus myself. There's no ambiguity about what Venus wants from Adonis, is there?" He gazed up at the towering statue. "When they got a taste of what the Great Mother's cult was really like, our stern, stiff-jawed ancestors must have felt rather queasy.

"But then, Rome has a way of gobbling up anything that lands on her plate and shitting it out as something acceptably Roman-art, cus-toms, habits, even gods and goddesses. That is Rome's genius, to conquer the world and adapt it to her convenience. The cult of Cybele was simply cleaned up for popular consumption. The Great Mother festival is just like every other festival, with plays and chariot races and animal shows in the Circus Maximus. None of those inscrutable rites that Cybele's followers practice in the East-ecstatic riots by worshipers in the streets, all-night vigils of men and women together in the temple, the chosen faithful crawling through tunnels that drip blood. We Romans don't care much for that sort of thing, whatever the religious pretext. And no mention, ever, of Attis! We'd rather not think about the castrated lover. So the official celebration of Cybele became another chance for state priests and politicians to put on plays and circuses for the people. Of course, what the galli and their inner circle of worshipers do behind closed doors is another matter… Oh, I don't believe it!"

With a shiver of tambourines, the music had recommenced.

"They must have finished their dinner and now they're at it again," said Clodius glumly. "Do you suppose they eat like normal men?"

"Trygonion showed a hearty appetite the night he ate at my house."

"When was that?"

"When he came with Dio, asking for my help. The night of the murder."

"Ah, yes. When he talked the poor old man into playing dress-up with him. Clodia told me about it. Dio, going out in a stola-it's too painful for me to imagine. That's Trygonion, longing to be something he's not and pulling others into his fantasy world."

"The gallus seems to have a curious relationship with your sister."

Clodius smirked. "Another example of Clodia's questionable judgment. Like Catullus, like Marcus Caelius."

"You're not saying that she and Trygonion…?"

"Don't be stupid. But in some ways he's no different from the men who've come and gone in this house with their balls intact: they all let Clodia treat them like slaves-for a while, anyway. We haven't seen much of Trygonion lately. He's busy preparing for the festival with the other galli. That might be him we hear now, blowing on his flute." He frowned. "You don't suppose Clodia could be over at the House of Galli, concocting some sort of entertainment for her party?"

"Her party?"

"Clodia always throws a party on the eve of the Great Mother festival. It's the first social event of the spring. Three nights from now." "But that's the opening day of the trial."

"Purely by coincidence. One more reason to celebrate, if all goes well. This garden will be full of people, and up on the stage-well, every year Clodia has to outdo herself. Maybe this year Trygonion will play his instrument for us." He laughed crudely.

"I won't be able to come. I got myself elected aedile this year, so I'm in charge of overseeing the official events of the festival-too busy for pleasure. I'll probably have to miss the trial as well. Too bad. I should like to watch Caelius squirm. I love a good trial." His green eyes glittered. In the lamplight he looked uncannily like his sister. "I even enjoyed my own trial. You remember that, don't you, Gordianus?"

"I wasn't there," I said cautiously. "But I think that everyone re-members the Good Goddess affair."

He drank deeply of the honeyed wine. "From that ordeal I learned three things. First, never trust Cicero to back you up. Stab you in the back, more likely! Second, when bribing a jury, account for a comfortable margin of victory. You'll sleep better the night before. I did."

"And third?"

"Think twice before putting on women's clothing, for whatever reason. It did me no good at all."

"It did Dio no good either," I said.

Clodius made a dry little laugh. "Perhaps you have a sense of humor after all."

The older I get, the more easily I fall asleep without meaning to.

At the end of our meal Clodius got up, saying he had to relieve himself. I relaxed and closed my eyes, listening to the chanting of the galli. The pleasing phrase I had heard before recurred, and I followed it along until it seemed that I was floating on the strange music, rising above Clodia's garden, levitating face to face with the monstrous Venus, then flying even higher. Rome was a toy city beneath me, moonlit, her temples made of little blocks. The music rose and fell, and I was carried along like a bubble on a wave, like a feather in a mist, until someone whispered in my ear: "If Marcus Caelius didn't murder Dio, who did?"

I woke with a start. The voice had been so clear, so close, that I was puzzled to find myself alone. The lamps had died. The sky above was spangled with stars. The garden was dark and quiet, except for the soft splashing of the fountain. Someone had put a blanket over me.

The blanket smelled of Clodia's perfume.

Too much honeyed wine, I thought. Too much rich food. Yet I felt clear-headed and refreshed. How long had I slept?

I pushed away the blanket. The night was too warm for it. I stood, stretched my arms and looked around, still not quite certain I was alone. But there was no one in the garden, except for the suppliant Adonis and the towering Venus, huge and black in silhouette. Her eyes glittered dully in the starlight. Again I had the unnerving feeling that the statue was about to come to life. I shivered and was suddenly eager to leave the garden.

At the top of the steps 1 paused to quietly call out-"Clodius? Clodia? Chrysis?" – but no one answered. The house was absolutely still. I might have been in an empty temple, shut up for the night. I walked through the hallway and the atrium, into the foyer. Surely there would be a slave at the door, perhaps the same old man who had let us in that afternoon.

But the slave at the door was Barnabas, fast asleep. He sat on the floor, leaning against the wall, his head tilted back so that by the faint starlight which seeped in from the atrium I could see his face with its joined eyebrows. There was something gathered about him on the floor, a puzzling shape which I slowly realized was the body of Chrysis, asleep with her head nestled on his lap. In the utter stillness I could hear their quiet breathing.

Clodius had promised to see me safely home, which I took to mean an escort. It was only reasonable that I should wake Chrysis or Barnabas and tell them what I needed. But their repose was so perfect that I feared to move, not wanting to disturb them.

A hand touched my shoulder. I turned and stared into the darkness. The Ethiop was so dark that for a moment I couldn't see him at all.

"My master said I was to take care of you if you woke up," he said, with an accent I could barely understand.

"Clodius is still here?"

The giant nodded.

"And Clodia?"

"She came, while you slept."

"Perhaps I should see her before I leave."

"They've gone to bed."

"Are they asleep?"

"What difference does that make?" By the faint light, I couldn't tell whether the giant was grinning down at me or gritting his teeth. The garlic on his breath was overpowering. Gladiators and strong-armers eat it raw to give themselves strength.

He unbolted the door and swung it open, letting it bang against the sleeping figures on the floor with a smirk of disdain. Chrysis let out a sleepy whimper. Barnabas grunted. "Poor excuse for a door slave," the Ethiop sneered. "She's too soft on her slaves. Well, go on. I'll be right behind you."

"No," I said. "I'll go alone." The man made me uneasy.

The Ethiop crossed his arms and looked at me grimly. "The master gave me specific orders."

"I'll see myself home," I said. It was suddenly a battle of wills.

At last the Ethiop made a face of disgust and shrugged his brawny shoulders. "Suit yourself," he said and closed the door on me.

It was such a short way to my house, and the night was so silent and so deep, surely there was nothing to fear.

Chapter Seventeen

Rome slept. The great houses and apartment buildings of the Palatine were dark. The streets were silent, except for the

sound of my own footsteps. What was the hour? Dusk and dawn seemed equally distant, like opposite shores impossible to make out from the middle of a vast, black sea. I felt utterly alone, the last man awake in Rome.

Then I heard footsteps behind me.

I stopped. The footsteps stopped a heartbeat later. I took a few steps. The footsteps behind me resumed. Gordianus, I whispered to myself, you've finally done it, taken the final risk of a lifetime full of foolish risks. You've fallen into the lazy habit of relying on Fortune's favor, always assuming that the goddess will make allowances for your foolishness and shield you at the last moment because the singular drama of your life for some reason intrigues her and she wishes it to continue. Now Fortune's interest has waned; she's turned her attention elsewhere for as long as it takes to blink an eye, and you will be snuffed out, removed from the world's story for good.

A part of me believed this and steeled for the worst. But another part of me knew that it was impossible for me to die just yet, and merely gave lip service to the possibility, to let Fortune know that I wasn't taking her for granted, and to gently remind her she had better do something, and quickly.

The footsteps behind me speeded up. I fought the urge to run and instead turned around. I refused to end up as one of those corpses found with knife wounds in the back.

The street was narrow, the shadows deep. The figure moved toward me with a slightly unsteady gait. The man was alone, and unless I was mistaken, had been drinking too much wine. It's the poet Catullus after all, I thought, the man whom Clodius told me not to fear.

Unless, of course, it was Marcus Caelius, drunk and coming after me with a knife. Or some nameless henchman of King Ptolemy. Or a garlic-eating gladiator sent by Pompey. Or someone else with a reason to kill me, thinking I knew something I didn't.

He stopped several paces away. I still couldn't make out his face, but it obviously wasn't the Ethiop; the man wasn't big enough. He appeared to be of medium height, with a slender build. When he spoke, I recognized Catullus's voice.

"So she's gotten tired of picking apples off the tree the moment they're ripe. Now she's poking around in the mulch heap." He sounded only slightly drunk, sarcastic but not particularly threatening.

"I'm afraid I don't follow you," I said.

"Aren't you awfully old to be warming a spot in her bed?" "Whose bed? I don't know what you're talking about." He came a few steps closer. "We should find a patch of light so I can watch your face while you lie to me. You know whose bed." "Maybe. But you're mistaken."

"Am I? The damned gallus carries messages back and forth between you, takes you to her horti. You go riding around in her litter with the curtains closed, and stay at her house until the middle of the night. You must be her new lover."

"Don't be absurd."

He backed off a bit and began to circle around me. I suddenly realized that he might be more frightened of me than I was of him. He was the one who had turned to flee on the Ramp.

"At least she's finished with Caelius, though I can't see why she'd throw him over for the likes of you."

"You insult me," I said. "Shall I go on insisting on the truth-that I'm not Clodia's lover-and let the slur against my manhood stand? Or shall I tell a lie to refute the insult, say that Clodia is my lover and tells me nightly that I'm twice the man Caelius is, and four times the man that you are, Gaius Valerius Catullus."

I thought I might have pushed him too far, but my instinct was true: he came to a stop and barked out a laugh. "You must be a nit-picking orator, like Caelius. One of those word-murdering, truth-twisting advocates from the Forum. Why haven't I heard of you before, old man?"

"Because I'm not an orator. I'm a Finder, Catullus."

"Well, you found out my name. What's yours?" "Gordianus."

He nodded. I saw him more clearly now. He still had the scraggly beard on his jaw, despite his trip to the baths. The tragic look had returned to his eyes, even when he smiled.

"Are you thirsty, Gordianus?"

"Not particularly."

"I am. Come with me."

"Where?"

"It's time we talked. About her." "I didn't say why. I said where." "Where else, at this time of night?"

Take a winding pathway to the foot of the Palatine, to a spot just behind the Temple of Castor and Pollux. Turn left. Proceed down the narrow alley (stinking of urine, and black as pitch at night) that runs behind the buildings on the north side of the Forum. As the slope of the Palatine curves away on the left-hand side, letting the alley open a bit, you will come to a cluttered area of little workshops and warehouses south of the Forum, east of the cattle markets and the river. Look for the little pillar which name the shops and businesses. As you draw near to the ninth signpost you will see the pool of light cast by the lamp hung outside welcoming those who cannot or will not sleep, and who cannot or will not stop drinking, whoring and gambling. This is the place which Catullus called the Salacious Tavern.

Actually, the place has no name, or none to be read on the signpost outside. Atop the little pillar, instead of an inscription, is an upright marble phallus. The lamp which casts such a lurid glow is carved in similarly suggestive shape. Perhaps inspired by these fine examples o craftsmanship, less skilled artists have drawn crude graffiti on the wall outside, graphically depicting various uses to which such phalli might b put.

Catullus rapped on the door. A little trap opened. A bloodshot eye peered at us. The door swung open.

"They know me here," said Catullus. "And I know them. The win is wretched, the whores are lice-ridden, and the patrons are the lowest of the low. I should know. I've come here every night since I go back."

We stepped into a long narrow room partitioned here and there b

folding screens. The room was packed with patrons who stood in groups or sat on chairs and benches around little tables. The lamps were fueled by an inferior oil that created as much smoke as light, filling the room with an amber haze that made my eyes water. I heard laughter and cursing and the clatter of dice followed by hoots of triumph and groans of despair. The crowd was made up almost entirely of men. The few women were obviously there to ply their trade.

One of them suddenly emerged from the haze and wrapped herself around Catullus like a clinging vine. I blinked my watery eyes and the vine resolved into a supple redhead with a heart-shaped face.

"Gaius," she purred. "One of the girls told me you were back. And with a beard! Here, let me kiss it."

Catullus stiffened and drew back with a pained expression. "Not tonight, Ipsithilla."

"Why not? It's been a whole year since I've made a meal of you. I'm famished."

Catullus managed to smile.

"Not tonight."

She drew back, lowering her eyes. "Still pining for your Lesbia?"

He winced and took my arm, leading me to a bench that had just been vacated. A slave brought us wine. Catullus was right; the quality was wretched, especially after the honeyed wine that Clodius had given me. But Catullus drank without hesitation.

Next to us, clustered around a little table, a group of rough-looking young men were playing with dice of the old-fashioned kind, made from the rectangular anklebones of a sheep, with numbers-I, III, IV, VI- painted on each of the four long sides. Each man in turn would scoop the four dice up in a cup, rattle them, cry out the name of a deity or his mistress, and cast them on the table. A referee figured out the combination and shouted the name of the throw, which would be followed by cries of gloating or derision.

"When I was young, the laws against gambling were more strictly enforced," I said, "except of course during the Saturnalia."

"It's always Saturnalia inside the Salacious Tavern," quipped Ca-tullus.

"Hercules!" shouted one ofthe gamblers. The box rattled, the bones clattered. "A Taurus Throw!" declared the referee-three ones and a six.

The next gambler cried a woman's name and tossed the dice. 'Dogs!" cried the referee. "Four ones – nothing lower!" The player groaned at such bad fortune, and cursed the mistress whose name he had called out for luck.

Catullus stared blearily at the crowd. The haze was so thick I could hardly make out faces, let alone recognize anyone. "You wanted to talk " I said.

"I've lost my tongue for it. I want more wine."

"Then I'll talk. Was it you who followed me up the Ramp two nights

ago?"

"Yes."

"Who sent you?" "No one."

"Then why follow me?"

"I was following you before that. Perhaps you're not as sharp as you think. I was outside her house when you came calling that afternoon with Trygonion.

I'd just gotten back into town."

"You'd just arrived and you went straight to Clodia's house?"

He put a finger to his lips. "In this place, call her Lesbia."

"Why?"

"It's my secret name for her. In the poems. In places like this."

"Why 'Lesbia'?"

"Lesbos was the island of Sappho, who understood love better than any poet before or since. And Homer called the women of Lesbos 'the most beautiful women in the world.' "

"Wasn't Homer blind?"

He gave me a sour look. "Agamemnon speaks the line."

"Very well: Lesbia. When you went to Lesbia's house that day, didn't they tell you she'd gone out?"

"No. I didn't knock on the door. I was waiting. Watching. I wasn't ready to see her again, not face to face."

"Waiting and watching from where? It's a dead-end street."

"There are doorways deep enough to hide in. Then you came along with your bodyguard and the little gallus. I was close enough to overhear the word 'horti,' so when you headed off, I followed. What did the two of you get up to, alone inside her tent?"

"I don't think that's any of your business."

"More to the point, what did the three of you do after Lesbius showed up, naked and dripping from the river?" "Lesbius?"

"You know whom I mean."

"You saw him come into the tent?"

"I hid among the trees and bushes on the riverbank." He grinned bleakly. "You must think I'm an utter fool." "Did you follow me when I left?"

"All the way to your house, then over to that other house in the

Subura, then back. You never knew until the Ramp, did you? You set a trap for me at the top, you and your bodyguard, so I made like a rabbit. If you're like most of the low-lifes she takes for lovers, I figured you might be pretty dangerous."

"I told you, I'm not her lover. Just her 'hireling,' as Clodius calls

me."

"Lesbius!" he insisted. The cheap wine was beginning to take effect. "Anyway, you could be her lover and her hireling both. She's far above the likes of you, but she's been known to bend over for love."

"The Venus Throw!" shouted the referee, setting off an uproar next to us. Someone slammed his fist on the table, making the dice jump, and shouted an accusation of cheating. The others closed ranks to calm him down.

"The Venus Throw," said Catullus. "When all four dice come up different. Not the highest total, just the luckiest. Why do you suppose

that is?"

"Because Venus craves variety?"

"Like Lesbia. Except when she craves her own flesh:

Lesbius is Pulcher-Pulcher meaning beautiful – and he must be, because Lesbia loves him far better than Catullus and all his clan, whom Lesbius would sell down the river

to pay three upright men willing to let him blow them… a kiss!"

I smiled and nodded. "Clodius said you made better poems than Milo's men. And nastier."

"Lesbius," insisted Catullus, "demeans me with such praise." "You seem to be talkative after all."

"But as thirsty as ever. Where is that serving slave?" He banged his cup against the bench, but the noise was lost in the hubbub. "I suppose you'll see her again, eventually," I said. He stared bleakly into the amber haze. "I already have." "I mean face to face. To speak to her." "I spoke to her today. I spent the afternoon with her."

"What?"

"This morning I finally knocked on her door. The old slave told me she'd gone out early, taking her daughter to visit some cousin. So I wandered around and ended up at the Senian baths. It was only coincidence that I happened to see you there, and that ridiculous chase after Caelius's friend. What was it all about?"

"I'll tell you later. Go on, about… Lesbia."

"I finally left the baths and headed back to her house. On the way I recognized her litter outside the house of one of the Metelli. She was just leaving, with her daughter. The two of them were stepping out the door. Before I could turn, she saw me. It was hard to read her face. It always has been. A face unlike any other, except one. Do you suppose that Lesbia and Lesbius can read each other at a glance? Like looking in a mirror? The rest of us study their faces for hours and still can't be sure what's behind them. Something about her eyes-like a poem in a foreign tongue. But more perfect than any poem. More painful.

"She invited me into her litter. 'To go where?' I said. 'Home. I'm expecting a man to bring me some news,' she said. I suppose she meant you? 'I don't want to go there if there'll be someone else,' I told her. She paused for a long time, looking at me. Finally she said, 'Metella can stay here with her cousins a while longer. You and I will go to the horti.'

"That was a mistake, of course. On a warm day like this, with all the naked toads jumping about in the water and leering at her while Lesbia leered back at them. Did she flirt with them merely to hurt me? Or do I flatter myself? At least Chrysis wasn't there to fetch the comeliest toad into her tent, which is their usual game. She invited me to her upcoming party. She was very polite. 'You must have some new poems you can read for us, something inspired by your travels.' As if I was an acquaintance she could call on to entertain her admirers. But do you know what?" He smiled grimly. "It so happens that I do have a new poem, and I will be reading it at her party. Something to fit the theme of the Great Mother festival. I suppose you'll be there."

"Me? I haven't been invited. Strange, isn't it, considering that I'm her new lover and all."

"Don't needle me, Finder. I've been pricked enough for one day. At sundown she decided it was time to leave the horti, just when I'd made up my mind to say what I needed to say to her. She had to pick up Metella, she said, and she was expecting her brother tonight. 'You're welcome to come along,' she said-as if I could stomach being with both of them at once. I told her I'd walk back into town by myself."

"But you ended up outside her door again."

"Like a moth to a flame, except that this flame freezes instead of burns."

The serving slave suddenly appeared and at Catullus's insistence poured fresh wine into our cups. I sampled it and was tempted to spit it out, but Catullus drank without complaint.

"So, what exactly happened at the baths today?" he said. "At the horti, when I told Lesbia I'd been at the Senian baths, she was suddenly all ears, pressing me for everything I'd seen of that ridiculous chase. She knew what it was about, didn't she? But she was as tight-lipped as you."

No wonder Clodia hadn't bothered to wake me when she came in, I thought. From Catullus and then from Barnabas she had probably heard more than enough details about the botched capture of Licinius and the pyxis. Or had she been too eager to be with her brother to bother with the hireling's report?

"You know about charges pending against Marcus Caelius?" I said.

"It's all I've heard about since I got back to Rome. They say he's up to his neck in it this time."

"Your Lesbia and Lesbius have a hand in the prosecution. Not officially, but they're eager to gather evidence against him on a particular charge of attempted murder."

"So I've heard. Is that what she's hired you for?"

"Yes."

"Then it's come to that, between her and Caelius. I've loved them both. The glittering Venus of Roman society, the petulant Adonis. Who could be surprised when the two of them decided to love each other and turn the country bumpkin from Verona out of their beds? Those two together, without me – that was more than I could stand." The wine was beginning to slur his speech. "It was better when her husband was still alive. Good old Quintus Metellus Celer, the stodgy goat. She was faithful to me then! But after Celer died, she became her own woman, and everyone else's woman as well. Even that was better than having her choose a favorite and shut me out altogether. But then she picked Caelius and I became just another of her multitude of used-up lovers. This tavern is full of the wretches. I could point out a dozen men who've had her. I thought a year away would dull the pain. But the wound still bleeds, and I still crave the knife that cut me."

"She doesn't love Caelius anymore," I said. "He rejected her, as far as I can tell. She's bitter. She's determined to see him destroyed, obsessed with it, if that's any comfort to you."

"Comfort? To know that another man truly got inside her, made her care enough to feel pain when he turned away, made her ache enough to want to destroy him? Me she dismissed with a flick of her wrist-no more scraps for the dog! Caelius deserts her and she goes crazy. Where's the comfort in that?"

"The desire for destruction is mutual, at least according to Lesbia. That's what the incident at the baths was about. Caelius's friend Licinius was there to deliver poison to some ofher slaves, because Caelius thought he could bribe them to murder their mistress."

"Murder Clodia?" Catullus was startled enough, or drunk enough to forget the pseudonym. "No, Caelius would never do that. I don't believe it."

"She claims he tested the poison on a slave first, and watched the man die before his eyes."

"I can believe that. Caelius could kill a slave without a twinge of guilt. But I can't believe that he would use the same poison on her."

"Not even out of desperation? The charges against him are serious. He'll be ruined for life if he's found guilty. Humiliated, forgotten, exiled from Rome."

"Exiled from Rome-I know that loneliness." Catullus stared into his cup.

"To save himself, don't you believe that Caelius would destroy your Lesbia?"

"Destroy Lesbia? No, not her. Never." "Perhaps he never loved her quite as you did."

"None of them ever loved her as I did." Catullus stared bleakly into the crowd, then stiffened. "Hades!" he whispered. "Look who just came in."

I squinted through the haze at three newcomers who stood near the entrance, searching the room for a place to sit. "Marcus Caelius himself," I said. "Accompanied, if I'm not mistaken, by his friends Asicius and Licinius."

Caelius saw Catullus. His face registered simple surprise, followed by a lightning flash of emotion. Then a mask fell into place, which lifted for only an instant to show his confusion when he saw me. He hesitated, then gestured for his companions to follow as he approached us.

"Catullus!" he said, flashing a sardonic grin. "How long have you been back?"

"A few days."

"And you haven't come to call on me? My feelings are hurt."

"Actually, I did drop by your place," said Catullus. "Your old place. The neighbors said Clodius had kicked you out and put the building up for sale. They said I'd find you back at your father's hovel on the Quirinal

Hill."

"You should drop by." Caelius's smile never wavered.

"The Quirinal is a little out of my usual orbit. Besides, I shouldn't think that your father's house would be a suitable place for entertaining guests in your accustomed style."

"I don't know what you mean."

"The wine, the singing, the whores, the inventive sleeping arrangements. I can't see your papa approving."

"All that's behind me now," said Caelius.

"At least until after your trial. Then you may have to leave every-thing behind whether you want to or not."

The mask almost cracked. "I mean to say that I've seen fit to put aside some of the more boisterous habits of my youth, and to sever some of my more questionable associations. Perhaps you were right not to come calling on me after all, Catullus. One does have to hold to certain standards when inviting a guest into the house of one's father. It was thoughtful of you to spare me the embarrassment of shutting the door in your face."

There was a long pause, during which Catullus swirled the dregs in his cup and watched them spin, pursing his lips thoughtfully. "I think," he finally said, in a hard, low voice that made me hold my breath, "that for you to insult me in that way, Marcus Caelius-"

Caelius stiffened, as did his friends.

"For you to have insulted me in that fashion," Catullus went on, "by which I mean building an argument out of complicated sentences by logical steps-well, what I think about that, Marcus Caelius, is that you haven't drunk enough wine tonight!"

Caelius's face went blank, then he laughed. "Not nearly enough. And for you to do such a sloppy job of insulting me, Gaius Catullus, I think you must have already had far too much to drink!"

"I can't argue with that," said Catullus, grinning and swallowing the dregs.

"No matter," said Caelius. "The night's still young. Plenty of time for me to get stinking drunk, and for you to sober up."

"I take it that you know my friend here, Gratidianus," said Catullus.

"Gordianus," I corrected him. "Yes, Marcus Caelius and I are acquainted. We used to be neighbors."

"And a few times our paths have crossed in the courts," added Caelius. "Though never quite as they are crossing now."

I shrugged. "I'm not sure I-"

"But isn't it true, Gordianus, that a certain lady has hired you, and not for the purpose that she usually hires men?"

"You aren't worthy of kissing her middle finger," said Catullus, no longer friendly. "You certainly aren't worthy of insulting her."

Licinius, who had been peering at me, suddenly spoke up. "Wait, now I remember where I've seen this man before. He was there today, at the baths, when I-"

"Shut up, Licinius," growled Caelius.

"It isn't true, is it, Caelius?" Catullus leaned forward earnestly, his mood having shifted in the blink ofan eye. "It isn't true, what Gratidianus tells me-you wouldn't actually do her harm, would you? Not to her. Not for any reason. And certainly not by -"

"Shut up, Catullus," I said, clenching my teeth.

"Say, 1 recognize him, too!" Asicius stepped closer, peering at me. "He's the one who was hiding in the shadows across the street from your old apartment on the Palatine, Caelius, on the night that we took care of the old-"

"Shut up, Asicius!" cried Caelius, loudly enough to startle the gamblers next to us. One of them scratched his throw, sending the dice flying onto the floor-a bad omen which caused some of the players to vacate the table at once, whereupon those who remained began to shout accusations of bad faith at the quitters.

Catullus stood, a little unsteadily. "Are you looking for a place to sit, Caelius? Here, take my seat. The Salacious Tavern just became a little too salacious for even my tastes. Are you coming, Gratidianus?"

"Gordianus," I said under my breath, getting to my feet. Asicius and Licinius shoved past me and sat on the bench. As I stepped by him, Caelius seized my arm and put his mouth to my ear. "You're mistaken, you know. I didn't kill Dio, I swear."

"That's only one of the charges against you, Marcus Caelius."

He gripped my arm painfully hard and kept his voice low. "But you're only concerned with Dio, aren't you? You want to put his spirit to rest, because you knew him in Alexandria back in the old days." His handsome face was no longer nonchalant. A reckless, desperate man, Clodius had called him. I looked into his eyes and saw fear.

"How do you know these things, Marcus Caelius? How do you know about Dio and me, and about Clodia hiring me?"

"Never mind. What matters is that you're mistaken. It wasn't me. I didn't kill the old Egyptian. I swear to you by the shades of my ancestors!"

"And your friend Asicius?"

"He didn't kill Dio, either."

"Who did?"

"I don't know. But it wasn't me."

"And the night of the murder-where had you been with Asicius, before I saw you? What were the two of you up to? Tell me that, and swear by your ancestors."

"That's more than I can tell you."

"But still not enough."

Caelius squeezed my arm. "Gordianus-"

"Gratidianus!" said Catullus, seizing my other arm. Caelius released

me and I found myself being pulled toward the entrance, my head reeling from the stench of oil smoke and cheap wine.

Behind me I heard a stranger cry out, "By Venus! I wager everything and put my trust in the goddess of love!" Then a clatter of dice, and then the same voice, exultant amid groans of defeat: "The Venus Throw! The Venus Throw! It conquers all!"

Out in the street I breathed the fresh air and looked up at a clear sky spangled with stars. "Why such a rush to get me out of that place?"

"I couldn't leave you behind to tell them everything I'd just told you… about her."

"I wouldn't have done that. And please, stop calling me Gratidianus. My name-"

"I know what you call yourself. But for me you'll always have another name, the one I give you. Just as she has another name. In case I should write a poem about you."

"I can't imagine what sort of poem that would be."

"No?

Gratidianus thinks he's clever, and he must be, because Lesbia loves him, far better than Catullus and all his clan-"

"Stop, Catullus. You're too drunk to know what you're saying." "A man is never too drunk to make a poem."

"Just too drunk to make sense. I think I'd better find my way home." I looked up the alley. Beyond the lurid glow cast by the phallic lamp above the door, the way was swallowed up by an unreassuring darkness.

"I'll walk you home," offered Catullus.

A drunken poet for a bodyguard! What would happen if Caelius and his friends decided to come after us? "Quickly then. Do you know another route? Where no one would think to follow?"

"I know every path leading to and from the Salacious Tavern. Follow

me."

He led me on a circuitous route, slipping between warehouses set so close that I had to walk sideways to get through, picking a way around trash heaps where rats scurried and squeaked, and finally ascending a steep footpath up the western slope of the Palatine. It seemed a good route for avoiding assassins, but rather treacherous for a man who had been drinking as much as Catullus. I expected him to fall and break his neck at any moment, taking me with him, but he attacked the climb with only an occasional misstep. The climb seemed to sober him. His lungs were certainly strong enough. While I labored for breath, he had plenty left over to give vent to his thoughts.

"If only we could all become eunuchs!" he declared. "What man wouldn't be happier?"

"I suppose we could become eunuchs, if we wanted."

"Ha! The act is harder than you might think. I know, I've seen it with my own eyes. While I was in Bithynia, I took a journey to the ruins of old Troy, to find the place where my brother's buried. So far from home! On the way back a stranger asked me if I'd like to see the initiation rites of the galli. He wanted money, of course. Took me to a temple on the slopes of Mount Ida. The priests wanted money, too. I felt quite the gawking tourist, dropping coins into all those eager hands, just another crass, thrill-seeking Roman looking for a taste of the 'real' East. They took me to a room so smoky with incense I could hardly see, and so loud with flutes and tambourines I thought I'd go deaf. The rite was under way. The galli chanted and whirled in a weird dance, like fingers of the goddess keeping time. The young initiate had worked himself into a frenzy, naked, covered with sweat, undulating with the music. Someone put a shard of broken pottery into his hand-'Samian pottery,' the guide whispered in my ear, 'the only kind sure to avoid a putrid wound.' While I watched, the fellow turned himself into a gallus before my eyes. All by himself-no one helped him. It was quite a thing to see. Afterward, when the blood was running down his legs and he couldn't stand any longer, the others swarmed around him, swaying, chanting, shrieking. The guide sniggered and poked me in the ribs and made a show of covering his balls. I ran out of the place in a panic."

Catullus fell silent for a while. We reached the top of the path and entered the maze of dark, silent streets.

"Imagine the freedom," Catullus whispered. "To leave the appetites of the flesh behind."

"The galli have appetites," I said. "They eat like men."

"Yes, but a man eats and is done with it. The craving I'm talking about feeds on itself. The more it's fed, the hungrier it grows."

"A Roman controls his appetites, not vice versa."

"Then perhaps we aren't Romans any longer. Show me a man in Rome who's larger than his appetites."

I thought about this while we made our way through the winding, deep-shadowed streets.

"But even castration can't guarantee an end to passion," Catullus resumed. "Look at Trygonion!" "What about him?"

"Don't you know where his name comes from? The famous epitaph by Philodemus?"

"Should I recognize that name?"

"Barbarian! Philodemus of Gadera. Probably the greatest living poet of the Greek tongue."

"Oh, that Philodemus. An epitaph, you say?"

"Written years and years ago for a dead gallus called Trygonion. Can you follow the Greek?"

"I'll translate in my head."

"Very well:

Here lies that tender creature of ladylike limbs,

Trygonion, prince of the sex-numb emasculates,

Beloved of the Great Mother, Cybele,

He alone of the galli was seduced by a woman.

Holy earth, give to this headstone a pillow

Of budding white violets.

"That old poem is how our Trygonion got his name. I don't remember what he was called before, something Phrygian and unpronounceable. One time, teasing him about his weakness for Lesbia, I called him our little Trygonion, the gallus who fell for a woman. The name stuck to Trygonion the way Trygonion sticks to Lesbia. I think of him whenever I consider castrating myself. It might do no good, you see. A useless gesture. Sometimes passion is stronger than flesh. Love can last beyond death, and in some rare instances a man's weakness for beauty can even outlive his testicles."

"Trygonion is that devoted to Lesbia?"

"He suffers as I suffer, but with one great difference."

"Which is?"

"Trygonion suffers without hope." "And you?"

"While a man still has his balls, he has hope!" Catullus laughed his peculiar, barking laugh. "Even slaves have hope, as long as they have their balls. But a gallus in love with a beautiful woman-"

"So much in love that he would do anything for her?"

"Any at all, without question."

"So much in love that he might be blinded by jealousy?" "Driven mad by it!"

"He could be dangerous. Unpredictable… "

"Not nearly as dangerous as Lesbia." Catullus was suddenly giddy, trotting ahead of me and circling back, leaping up to swing at lamps hung from upper-story windows along the street. "Damned bitch! The Medea of the Palatine!"

"Medea was a witch, as I recall, and rather wicked."

"Only because she was 'sick at heart, wounded by cruel love,' as the playwright says. A witch, yes, and wounded-only it's me she's bewitched, and Caelius who wounded her. Medea of the Palatine! Clytemnestra-for-a-quadrans!"

"A quadrans? As cheap as that?"

"Why not? The price of admission to the Senian baths." "But Clytemnestra murdered her husband."

"Agamemnon deserved it!" He whirled like a frenzied gallus. "Medea of the Palatine! Clytemnestra-for-a-quadrans!" he chanted. "Who calls her such things?"

"I do!" said Catullus. He abruptly stopped his whirling and staggered ahead of me, gasping for breath. "I just made them up, out of my head. What do you think? I'll need some fresh invectives if I'm to get her attention again."

"You're a strange suitor, Catullus."

"I love a strange woman. Do you want to know a secret about her? Something that no else in all the world knows, not even Lesbius? I wouldn't know myself, if I hadn't spied on her one night. Do you know that giant monstrosity of a Venus in her garden?"

"I happened to notice it, yes."

"The pedestal appears to be solid, but it's not. There's a block that slides out, opening a secret compartment. It's where she keeps her trophies."

"Trophies?"

"Mementos. Keepsakes. One night in bed with her, happily dozing after hours of making love, I felt a tickling at my groin. I opened one eye to see her clipping away a bit of my pubic hair! She stole out of the room with it. I followed her to the garden. From the shadows I watched her open the pedestal and put what she had taken from me inside. Later I went back and figured out how to open the compartment, and I saw what she kept there. Poems I had sent her. Letters from her other lovers. Bits of jewelry, clippings of hair, childish gifts her brother must have given her when they were little. Her love trophies!"

He suddenly staggered against a wall and clutched his face. "I wanted to destroy it all," he whispered hoarsely. "I wanted to scoop up all her treasures and throw them on the brazier and watch them burst into flame. But I couldn't. I felt the eyes of the goddess on me. I stepped back from the pedestal and looked up at her face. I left her mementos alone. If I destroyed them, I knew she would never forgive me."

"Who would never forgive you-Venus or Lesbia?"

He looked at me with tragic eyes. "Is there any difference?"

Chapter Eighteen

The wrath ofAchilles would pale beside the wrath ofBethesda.

Her anger runs cold, not hot. It freezes rather than scalds. It is invisible, secretive, insidious. It makes itself felt not by blustering action, but by cold, calculated inaction, by words unspoken, glances unreturned, pleas for mercy unheeded. I think Bethesda shows her anger in this passive way because she was born a slave, and remained a slave for much of her life, until I manumitted and married her to bear our daughter in freedom. Her way is the way of slaves (and the hero of Homer's Iliad): she sulks, and broods, and bides her time.

It was bad enough that I had sent Belbo home alone from Clodia's house, leaving myself without a bodyguard to cross the Palatine by night. Bad enough, too, that I eventually came home smelling of cheap wine and the rancid smoke of tavern lamps. But to have spent the night with that woman!

This was ridiculous, of course, and I said so, especially as I hadn't even seen Clodia all night.

How then did I explain the lingering smell of perfume on me?

A smarter man (or even myself, less worn out and sleepy) would have thought twice before explaining that the perfume came from a blanket that the lady in question must have put over him when he unwittingly dozed off in her garden-

That was that. I spent what little remained of the night trying to find a comfortable position on a cramped dining couch in my study. I'm used to sleeping with a warm body next to me.

I'm also used to sleeping until at least daybreak, especially after having stayed up half the night. This was not to be. It wasn't that Bethesda woke me; she simply made it impossible for me to go on sleeping. Was it really necessary to send the scrub maid to clean my study before dawn?

Once I was awake, Bethesda didn't refuse to feed me. But the millet porridge was lumpy and cold, and there was no conversation to warm it up.

After breakfast, I shooed the scrub maid from my study and shut the door. It was a good morning, I decided, to write a letter.

To my beloved son Meto, serving under the command ofGaius Julius Caesar in Gaul, from his loving father in Rome, may Fortune be with you.

I write this letter only three days after my last; Martius is gone and the Kalends of Aprilis is upon us. Much has happened in the meantime, all revolving about the murder of Dio.

Our neighbor Marcus Caelius (now our former neighbor; Clodius evicted him) has been accused of the murder of Dio, and related crimes having to do with the harassment of the Egyptian envoys, as well as a previous attempt (by poison) on Dio's life. I have been hired by friends of the prosecution to help find evidence against Caelius. My only interest is to determine who killed Dio, so that I can put this nagging affair to rest, for my own peace of mind if not for justice's sake.

I will attempt to explain the details later. (Perhaps after the trial, which begins the day after tomorrow.) What is foremost in my mind now, what I would long to discuss if you were here with me, is something else.

What is this madness which poets call love?

What power compels a man to thrust himself against the lacerating indifference of a woman who no longer loves him? What drives a woman to seek the absolute destruction of a man who rejects her? What cruel appetite makes a man of rational intellect crave the debasement of his helpless partners in sex? How does a eunuch, supposedly impervious to love, become enamored of a beautiful woman? Is it natural for a brother and sister to share a bed, as we are told the gods and goddesses of Egypt sometimes do? Why do the worshipers of the Great Mother emasculate themselves in religious ecstasy? Why would a woman steal a lock of her lover's pubic hair to cherish as a keepsake?

You must wonder if I'm mad to pose such questions. But in fact they may have as much to do with the murder of Dio and the upcoming trial of Caelius as do the intrigues of Egyptian politics, and I find myself baffled. I fear I have become too old for this kind of work, which requires a mind in empathy with the world around it. I like to think I am wiser than I used to be, but what use is wisdom in making sense of a world that follows the dictates of mad passion? I feel like a sober man on a ship of drunkards.

We say it is the hand of Venus that compels these strange behaviors, as if that put the matter to rest, when in fact we say "the hand of Venus" precisely because we do not understand these passions and cannot explain them, only suffer them when we must and watch, perplexed, the suffering of others…

There was a rapping at the door. I steeled myself for a chill wind and called, "Come in." But it was not Bethesda who entered. It was Diana.

She closed the door behind her and sat in the chair across from my writing table. There was a shadow on her face. Something was troubling her.

"Mother is angry at you," she said. "Is she? I hadn't noticed." "What are you doing?" "Writing a letter to Meto."

"Didn't you write to him just a few days ago?" "Yes."

"What does the letter say?"

"This and that."

"Is it about your work?"

"In a way. Yes, it's about my work."

"You're writing to Meto because you've sent Eco on a trip, and you need someone to talk to. Isn't that it?" "You're very perceptive, Diana."

She lifted her hand and pushed back a strand of hair that had fallen over her cheek. What remarkably lustrous hair she had, like her mother's before the strands of gray began to dull it. It fell past her shoulders almost to her breasts, framing her face and throat. In the soft morning light her skin shone like dusky rose petals.

"Why don't you share your troubles with me, Papa? Mother does. She tells me everything."

"I suppose that's the way of the world. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons."

She looked at me steadily. I tried to look back at her, but found myself looking away. "The boys are older than you, Diana. They've shared my work, my travels." I smiled. "Half the time when I begin a sentence, Eco finishes it."

"And Meto?"

"Meto is different. You're old enough to remember some of what happened while we were on the farm-Catilina, the trouble between Meto and me, Meto's decision to become a soldier. That was a great test of the bond between us. He's his own man now and I don't always understand him. Even so, I can always tell him what I think."

"But Eco and Meto aren't even your flesh. You adopted them. I carry your blood, Papa."

"Yes, Diana, I know." Why then are you so mysterious, I thought, and why is there such a gulf between us? And why do I keep these thoughts to myself instead of speaking them aloud?

"Can I read the letter, Papa?"

This took me aback. I looked down at the parchment, scrutinizing the words. "I'm not sure you'd understand, Diana." "Then you could explain."

"I'm not sure I'd want to. If you were older, perhaps."

"I'm not a child anymore, Papa."

I shook my head.

"Mother says I'm a woman now."

I cleared my throat. "Yes, well, then I suppose you have every right to read your mother's personal letters."

"That's cruel, Papa. You know that Mother can't read or write, which is hardly her fault. If she had been raised as a Roman girl…"

Instead of an Egyptian slave, I thought. Was that what was disturbing Diana, her mother's origins, the fact that she was the child of a woman born in slavery? Diana and I had never really talked about this, but I assumed that Bethesda had discussed it with her, in some way. They certainly spent enough time talking to each other in private. Did Diana bear some resentment against me, for having bought her mother in an Alexandrian slave market? But I was also the man who had freed Bethesda. It all seemed terribly complicated, suddenly.

"Even most Roman women don't learn to read, Diana."

"The woman you're working for can read, I imagine."

"I'm sure she can."

"And you made sure I was taught to read."

"Yes, I did."

"But what good is the skill, if you forbid me to use it?" She looked at the letter in front of me.

It was uncanny, the way she used her mother's stratagems to get what she wanted-circular logic, stubborn persistence, the uncovering of guilts I hadn't known I felt. They say the gods can put on the guise of someone we know and move among us without anyone guessing. For a brief, strange moment a veil seemed to drop, and I sensed that it was Bethesda herself in the room with me, disguised to confound me. Who was this creature Diana, after all, and where had she come from?

I handed her the letter and watched her read it. She read slowly, moving her lips slightly. She had not been taught as well as Meto.

I expected her to ask the identity of the people I referred to, or perhaps for a clearer explanation of the passions I described, but when she put down the letter she said, "Why do you want so badly to find the person who killed Dio, Papa?"

"What is it I say in the letter? 'For my own peace of mind.' "

"But why should your mind be unsettled?"

"Diana, if someone who was close to you had been hurt, wouldn't you want to avenge that person, to redress the wrong done to them, if you could?"

She thought about this. "But Dio wasn't close to you." "That's presumptuous of you, Diana." "You hardly knew him."

"In a way, that's true. But in another way-"

She picked up the letter. "Is he the one you mean, when you speak of the 'man of rational intellect'?" "Yes, as a matter of fact." "Wasn't he a cruel man, then?" "I don't really know." "But in the letter, you say-"

"Yes, I know what I say." I cringed at the idea of hearing her read it aloud.

"How do you know such a thing about him?" She peered at me intently.

I sighed. "From certain things I was told by the men who played host to him. Dio apparently took liberties with some of their slave girls. He may have been rather abusive. But I don't really know. People don't like to talk about that sort of thing."

"He wasn't that way when you knew him in Alexandria?"

"If he was, I knew nothing about it. I saw a very different side of

him."

She looked at me thoughtfully for a long moment. It was not a look she had learned from Bethesda. It was a keen, pensive look, very deep and entirely her own-or perhaps she had picked it up from me, I thought, flattering myself. How foolish and remote it suddenly seemed, that strange, disoriented moment when I had imagined she was her mother in disguise.

She stood and nodded gravely. "Thank you for letting me read the letter, Papa. Thank you for talking to me." Then she left the room.

I picked up the letter and read it through again. I winced at the catalogue I had made of other people's passions, and especially at what I had said of Dio:

What cruel appetite makes a man of rational intellect crave the debasement of his helpless partners in sex?

What had I been thinking, to put such thoughts in a letter?

I would wait until after the trial to write to Meto, when I had something of substance to relate. I called on one of the slaves to light a taper from the fire in the kitchen and bring it to me. When she returned I took the taper from her, put the parchment into the empty brazier and burned it to ashes.

I spent the day snooping.

If Caelius had indeed plotted to poison both Dio and Clodia, where had he obtained the poison?

Poisonings have become lamentably common in Rome, and in re-cent years I have become more familiar with deadly potions and powders than I would have dreamed possible. From time to time considerable quantities of various kinds of poison pass through my own hands, and I have a strongbox especially for storing them; clients, having seized a quantity of poison as evidence, prefer to safeguard the stuff with me rather than in their own homes, especially if they suspect a family member or a slave of wanting to do them in.

For a price, anyone can obtain poison in Rome, but the reliable, discreet sources-the sort to which I imagined Caelius would go-are relatively few. Over the years my work has acquainted me with most of them to one degree or another. Interviewing these creatures was a job I would rather have left to Eco, but since Eco was away I set out to do it myself, with a purse full of coins for bribes and Belbo for protection. It was a miserable task, rather like hunting for snakes under rocks. Since I happened to know which stones the snakes preferred, I simply went from one to the next, lifting them up and bracing myself for a succession of unpleasant encounters.

The search took me to a number of disreputable shops on the outskirts of the Forum; over to the old, run-down baths near the Circus Flaminius; to the waterfront shipyards and warehouses of the Navalia; and finally, following the advice of an informant, back to the place that Catullus had called the Salacious Tavern. By the light of day it had an air more decrepit than salacious; the gamblers were gone and the whores looked ten years older. The only patrons were a few unshaven drunkards who looked incapable of getting up from their benches; some, whom I recognized from the previous night, had apparently never left.

I had been told to seek out a man who called himself Salax ("The tavern is named after him," my source had joked). He was easy enough to spot, since in place of a real nose he wore a leather one. ("Whatever you do, don't ask him how he lost his nose!" I had been warned.) He admitted readily enough to knowing Marcus Caelius-a frequent visitor to the tavern-but about poisons he declared himself completely ignorant, and became no more knowledgeable even when I rattled my coin purse. Instead he pointed toward the idle whores and suggested another way to lighten my purse.

I had looked under all the rocks I knew. The snakes had all bared their fangs and hissed, but for better or worse not one of them had produced any poison.

It was possible, even likely, that Caelius had obtained poison not on his own but from the same source which had hired or compelled him to harass the Alexandrian envoys-directly from King Ptolemy, or per-haps from the king's friend Pompey. In that case I could expect no luck at all in tracking the poison. The network of spies and lackeys who worked for Pompey and the king would reveal nothing to an outsider.

If Caelius killed Dio at the bidding of Dio's enemies, why had he done so? Because he was in debt to Pompey? That seemed distinctly possible. If so, I might be able to find someone who at least knew of the debt. I returned to the Forum and sought out a different set of sources, more conversant with politics than poison. It was easy enough to find men willing to talk, but impossible to find hard facts. It was as Clodius had said: plenty of people professed to 'know' the 'truth' (Caelius tried to poison Dio and failed, then Caelius and Asicius together stabbed Dio), but no one seemed to have any real evidence.

I found men who had attended the trial of Asicius and talked with them at length. The common knowledge was that Asicius was guilty and everyone knew it, but among the judges the weak-minded had been dazzled by Cicero's defense and the weak-willed bribed by King Ptolemy's gold-together, a safe majority. Yet, when I questioned these men about the trial itself, about the speeches and the witnesses who had given evidence, it seemed to me that the prosecution had been able to come up with little more than I had-hearsay and innuendo. Perhaps the judges had simply acquitted Asicius for lack of proof. It was a frustrating day.

The sun was beginning to set as Belbo and I trudged up the Ramp. I suddenly realized that I had seen nothing of Catullus all day. Perhaps I had finally convinced him that I was not his rival in love. The absurdity of the notion made me smile.

But my smile stiffened when we reached the top of the Ramp and I saw what was in front of my house.

"Belbo, I must be seeing things. I hope so."

"What do you mean, Master?"

"Do you see a group of idle bodyguards lounging outside my front door?"

"Yes, Master."

"And do their faces look familiar?" "They do, Master. An ugly lot."

"And is that not a litter in their midst, set against the wall while the bearers relax in the street?" "It is, Master."

"And does the litter not have red and white striped curtains, drawn back so that we can see that the box is empty?" "That is so, Master."

"Do you know what this means, Belbo?" He quailed at the realization. "I think so, Master… " "Cybele, spare my manhood! Clodia is in my house-and so is Bethesda."

One of Clodia's bodyguards had the temerity to challenge me outside my own front door. Fortunately the man's captain recognized me. He berated his underling and then actually had the manners to apologize to me. Not all of Clodius's gangsters were completely uncivilized, but every one of them looked capable of killing a man without blinking. Seeing them gathered outside my house set my teeth on edge.

Once inside, I drew aside a slave girl who was passing through the foyer. "Is your mistress here?"

"Yes, Master. In the garden."

"Shhh. Keep your voice down. Do I have a visitor?" "There is a visitor, Master, yes."

"Tell me that your mistress is napping in the garden, and that my visitor is quietly secluded in my study."

The slave looked at me, perplexed. "No, Master. The mistress is entertaining the visitor in the little garden at the back of the house." "Oh, dear. Has the visitor been here long?"

"Quite some time, Master. Long enough to have finished the first ewer of wine and sent for another."

"Have you heard… shouting?" "No, Master." "Harsh words?"

She frowned. "Please, Master, I never eavesdrop."

"But you'd notice if your mistress had, say, strangled the other woman, or vice versa?"

The girl looked at me strangely, then managed an uneasy laugh. "Oh, you're making a joke, aren't you, Master?"

"Am I?"

"Shall I go tell the mistress that you're home?"

"No! Just go on about your business, as if I'd never come in."

I quietly made my way to the back of the house. It was possible, from a little passageway off my bedroom, to look through a screen of ivy into the small private garden where Bethesda and Clodia were sitting. They were not alone. Chrysis sat on a pillow at her mistress's feet. Diana was seated next to her mother, holding her hand. Their voices were low, hardly more than a murmur. Their tone was somber. They seemed to be deep in serious discussion. That was the last thing I had expected. What on earth could these women have in common?

I reached out with my forefinger and pushed aside an ivy leaf to get a better look at Clodia. Even in an unassuming stola of soft gray wool she was stunningly beautiful. At least she'd had the sense to put on decent clothing before she came calling at my house. I looked at Bethesda, expecting to see jealousy on her face. Instead her expression was pensive and melancholy, mirroring that of the other women.

Clodia's voice was so low that I had to strain to hear.

"With me, it was an uncle, not blood-kin, but one of my step-mother's brothers. Like you, I kept it a secret. I was fifteen, a bit older than your Diana. My father had just betrothed me to my cousin Quintus, but with Father away from Rome the wedding had to wait. That was quite all right by me. I wasn't eager for marriage, like some girls. But of course, if I had been married, then perhaps… " She took a breath and went on. "Uncle Marcus had always looked at me in a certain way. You know what I mean." The other women nodded sympathetically. "Perhaps it was the betrothal that set him off, thinking that once Quintus took me he would never have the chance again. One day, at the family horti, he caught me alone." She took a deep breath. "Afterward, one wonders how the gods could allow such a thing to happen."

"You never told your stepmother?" said Bethesda.

"I hated her then. I hated her even more after what Uncle Marcus did. He was her brother, after all. I didn't trust her. I thought she might take his side."

"What about your own brothers?" said Diana.

"I should have told them. I did tell Publius, but not until many years later, after Uncle Marcus was dead."

"But your sisters-surely you told them," said Bethesda.

"My half sisters were closer to their mother than to me. I couldn't trust them not to tell her. No, the only person I told was an old slave woman who had been with my father since long before I was born, and I told her only when I began to realize that Uncle Marcus had planted a baby in me. She showed me what to do, but she warned me that if I aborted the child I might never be able to have sons."

"A Roman superstition!" Bethesda clucked her tongue.

"Still, it proved to be true. That was another reason I never told my husband about what Uncle Marcus did to me, and what followed; Quintus would have blamed me for giving him a daughter instead of a son. He would probably have blamed me for tempting Uncle Marcus. It's the way men think. Quintus knew he wasn't the first, but he never knew about Uncle Marcus. He died, never knowing."

I listened, disturbed, and then astonished by what Clodia did next: she leaned forward and took Bethesda's hand, the one Diana was not already holding, and pressed it between her palms. "But you said that it was the same with you, Bethesda-that you kept it a secret."

Bethesda lowered her eyes. "Who could I have told? A free Roman girl might have recourse to law or family-but an Egyptian slave girl in Alexandria? The man had done the thing often to my mother while she lived; she told me that the master's abuse would kill her in the end, and it finally did. After she died, he turned to me. I was much younger than you were, Clodia, not even old enough to bear a child. He did the thing to me only once, or tried to. I suppose he thought I would be docile, like my mother, but after the things she had told me I knew what to expect and I decided I would die before I let him have his way with me. He tied my wrists with a rope, the way he had tied her so many times. He liked to hang her on a hook on the wall. I had seen her like that, seen what he did to her, and when he tried to do the same things to me a kind of madness came into me, the madness the gods put into men and women to give them strength beyond their bodies. I was more limber than he realized. I wriggled free. It turned into a battle. I bit him as hard as I could. He threw me against the wall, so hard I thought I'd been crushed like a beetle. I couldn't breathe. My heart stopped beating. He could have had his way with me then. He could have killed me. He was a powerful, respected man. No one would have thought the less of him for the death of a slave. No one questioned the death of my mother. No one would have questioned my death."

"Oh, Mother!" Diana drew closer to her. Clodia bit her lip. Chrysis bowed her head. Bethesda's eyes glittered, but her cheeks remained dry. "I lay on the floor, stunned. I couldn't move, not even a finger. I waited for the sky to fall. But do you know what he did? He turned as white as a cloud, mumbled a curse and left the room. I think the shade of my mother must have spoken in his ear, shaming him. Instead of having me killed, he simply got rid of me. He sent me to the slave market. I was not a very satisfactory slave, apparently." She managed a brittle smile. "Men would buy me and return me before the day was done. I was sent back to be resold so many times that the man at the slave market made a joke of it. I was still young. I suppose I was beautiful-almost as beautiful as you, Diana. But word spread among the buyers that I was poison, and no one would bid on me. Finally, of course, the right man came for me. I think it must have been a whim of the goddess the Romans call Venus that sent him to the slave market that day, with barely enough coins in his purse. I was the cheapest slave on the block, and still he could barely afford me!"

The other women laughed at that, even as they wiped their eyes.

"And your husband knows nothing of what happened to you before you met? Of what the man did to you, and your mother?" said Clodia.

"Nothing. I never told him, and I think I never will. I told my daughter, because I thought she should know what befell her grand-mother. And now I have told you."

I was appalled, bewildered, dumbfounded-not only at what Bethesda had said, and the fact that she had kept such a secret from me, but at the unaccountable intimacy between the women in my garden. What strange alchemy had transpired to make them so unguarded with one another? Where were the normal barriers of slavery and status that should have separated them? The world seemed to tremble beneath my feet, just as my fingers trembled as I closed my spy-hole in the ivy and silently fled to my study.

Chapter Nineteen

At length, I sent a slave girl to inform Bethesda that I had returned and was in my study. Clodia appeared soon after, along with Chrysis. They were both smiling, as if they had just shared a good laugh. The visit with Bethesda and Diana had apparently ended on a happy note, which confused me all the more-how could they speak of such dreadful things and then part laughing?

"I dropped by to see if you had anything to report, and you weren't here," said Clodia, feigning petulance. "I trust you've been busy on my behalf, out scraping up something useful about Caelius-perhaps some fresh news about those slaves he bribed to poison Dio?"

"Nothing as useful as that, I'm afraid. Have you been here long?"

"A while."

"I hope you weren't bored."

"Not at all. Your wife made me feel very welcome." "Did she?"

"Yes."

"Good."

That was the gist of the interview, and Clodia and Chrysis soon departed.

Darkness fell. Dinner was served. I was uneasy, unable to look at Bethesda or at Diana in quite the usual way. I asked Bethesda what she had thought of our visitor.

"An interesting woman" was all she said.

"I take it she put your mind to rest, concerning my whereabouts last night."

"Yes." Bethesda did not elaborate.

"Well, good. All's back to normal, then?"

"I was never aware of any disruption to our routine," said Bethesda.

I bit into a crust of bread. This saved me from biting my tongue.

It was a quiet meal. As the last course of savory onions with wine was served, Bethesda cleared her throat. "Our visitor invited us to a party."

"A party?"

"The day after tomorrow. Clodia says she has a party every year, to mark the beginning of the Great Mother festival." "And she invited you?"

Bethesda bristled at my skepticism. "She invited both of us."

"I don't think the sort of parties Clodia throws are likely to be -"

"I shall be hard pressed to find a suitable stola for the occasion."

She peered thoughtfully into the middle distance, contemplating her wardrobe.

I sighed. For Bethesda, a personal invitation from a patrician like Clodia must have seemed almost too good to be true, an opportunity not to be missed, an acceptance into Palatine society. I was surprised myself, though I was beginning to learn not to be surprised by anything Clodia did.

Later that night, in bed, Bethesda pressed herself against me and asked me to hold her. As I took her in my arms, I longed to tell her that I knew her secret, that I understood her silence, that it made no difference. But the words did not come. Instead, I used my hands and lips and tongue to show her what I felt. Afterward, contented, she fell into a deep sleep. But I remained awake long into the night, staring into the darkness above, wondering how a man can ever think he knows the whole truth of anything.

The next morning I sent a messenger to Eco's house, to see if he had returned. The messenger came back with the news I expected: Eco was not yet back. He would come to me as soon as he arrived, I thought, no matter what the hour.

If he didn't arrive soon, anything he discovered would be of no use. The trial would begin the next morning.

I decided to spend the day in my study rather than to go down to the Forum again to search for evidence concerning Caelius and poison.

I had spoken in enough ears; word of what I was seeking would continue to spread without me. Perhaps a limb that was barren yesterday would bear fruit today. If so, it would be wise to stay where any messenger could be sure to find me. And of course, Eco might arrive at any mo-ment.

I began another letter to Meto, and ended by burning it, as I had the last. The thing on my mind was not something I could share with him in a letter. Bethesda and Diana spent the day sewing in the garden. They seemed to be in good spirits, talking to one another in low voices and laughing. I watched in silence, content merely to observe, like a guardian keeping watch on the living.

It was not an informer, but Trygonion who finally came knocking at my door that afternoon, so frantically that Belbo made no effort at all to restrain the little gallus from rushing into my study.

"Come!" he cried, trembling and gasping for breath. "Come at once!"

"What now, Trygonion?" I sighed.

"He's done it! He's actually done it!

Despite all her precautions. Oh, Cybele, damn his eyes!" He clutched his face and stamped his feet. "Trygonion! What's happened?"

"He's poisoned her. She's dying! Oh, please, come at once!"

It was no wonder that Trygonion was out of breath; he had run all the way from Clodia's house, and expected me to run all the way back with him. We arrived in the little dead-end street like gasping runners after a marathon. The door to Clodia's house was not even shut, but stood open as Trygonion had left it.

"Hurry!" He grabbed my hand and pulled me after him. He was surprisingly strong for one who looked so delicate. I tried to keep up, but he was faster, and ended up dragging me through the foyer and the atrium, across the central garden, under the portico and down a long hallway. Outside a doorway hung with a heavy curtain a group of slaves were gathered, murmuring among themselves. They parted for Trygonion, who pulled me past the curtain into the room beyond.

Outside was bright sunshine, but inside the room it might have been midnight. The windows, like the door, were covered with heavy curtains. The only illumination came from a few lamps, which burned very low.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw Clodia reclining on a sleeping couch with ornately carved ivory legs and plush pillows. She was covered with a woolen blanket. Her face and hands looked pale and waxen in the dim light. "Trygonion?" she whispered.

"Mistress!" he cried, addressing her as if he were her slave. He ran to her side and took her hand. "I came back as quickly as I could."

"Is Gordianus with you?"

"Yes. Save your breath, please."

"Why? Do you think I have so little left?" She laughed weakly. The gallus contorted his face. "Trygonion thinks I'm going to die," she said, turning her glittering eyes to me.

"What happened, Clodia?"

"I think it must have been something I ate." She made an arch expression, then winced.

"Have you summoned a physician?"

"My brother owns a very skilled healer who happens to know a great deal about poisons. Publius has reason to be concerned about poi-son, as you can imagine. The physician came while Trygonion was gone. He's outside the door now, I imagine; I couldn't stand having him in the room with me."

"What did he say?" asked Trygonion frantically.

"He said, 'I think it must have been something you ate.' " She smiled wanly. "He wanted to know how much of the powder I swallowed, and when. Early this morning, I told him, but I felt no ill effects until almost midday. He says I'm very lucky to have eaten so little of it. As it is -"

"What powder?" I said. "Didn't Trygonion explain?"

"No time. We ran all the way," the gallus said.

"The powder that I came across in the kitchen," she said. "Imagine that! How many mornings have I ventured into the kitchen before my breakfast is ready? Never. But today, for some reason, I was awake early, and hungry, and when I called for Chrysis she didn't come, so I went to the kitchen myself. You should have seen how Chrysis jumped when I stepped into the room. She stood by a little table, and on the table was a bowl of honeyed millet. 'Is that for me?' I said. Chrysis said nothing. I walked to the bowl and saw the little box beside it, and the crumbly yellow powder inside the box. 'Some sort of spice?' I said. I suspected nothing, you see."

"A crumbly yellow powder?"

"Yes, not like any spice I know of. I touched my finger to my tongue, dabbed it in the powder and touched my tongue again. I did it without thinking. The powder didn't taste at all bad, really, only a bit earthy. Then I saw the look on Chrysis's face. All at once I knew."

I heard a strange whimpering behind me. I turned my head. The whimpering seemed to come from the opposite corner of the room, from near the floor. I thought it might be a dog. Then my eyes caught a slight movement, higher up. I peered into the deep-shadowed gloom, confused, then suddenly perceived the shape of a body suspended upside down from the roof. It was a nude woman hanging from a rope tied around her ankles, twisting very slightly. She whimpered again.

"Silence!" shouted Clodia. She sat upright, then fell back against her pillows. Trygonion fretted over her until she slapped his fawning hands away. "I sent for Trygonion at once. He came running from the House of the Galli. He was the one who thought of sending for Publius's physician. I waited and waited for the man to come; it turned out he was down at the herb market and no one knew where he had gone. At first I wasn't worried. I felt fine. Then at midday the discomfort began, and the physician still hadn't arrived. I took to my bed, and Trygonion kept fretting over me until I thought to send him for you, Gordianus."

"Why me?"

"You must know more than most men about poisons. I thought you might be able to tell me something about the yellow powder. Fetch it, Trygonion."

He tore himself from her side and went to a little table crowded with tiny boxes and bottles. A burnished mirror was hung on the wall above the table, reflecting the somber light of the lamps and affording a startling glimpse of Chrysis hanging from the ceiling across the room. Trygonion returned with a little pyxis. I stepped to the nearest lamp and studied the contents.

"Is it too dark to see?" said Clodia. "I can't have the lamps any brighter. The light hurts my eyes."

"I can see well enough. I may be wrong, but I suspect this is a substance called gorgon's hair. It comes from the root of a plant that grows wild on the shores of Mauretania. It used to be quite rare in Rome, but one sees it more and more nowadays. It's very potent, acts fairly quickly, and has almost no flavor, so that it can be mixed with almost any kind of food."

Clodia closed her eyes and nodded. "You see, Trygonion, I told you that Gordianus would know. The physician said the same thing."

"Did he explain the effects?"

"He hardly needed to. I've discovered them for myself." "Dizziness, nausea, a sensation of coldness, a painful sensitivity to light?"

She nodded, keeping her eyes shut. "How much did you swallow?"

"Only that single small taste. Once I saw the look on Chrysis's face I knew what I'd done."

Again, I heard the whimpering from the corner of the room. "Silence!" cried Clodia.

"If you swallowed no more than that-" "Then I'll survive, yes? That's what the physician said." It would be a stupid physician who told a powerful, dangerous woman that she was going to die, if there was even the slightest possibility that she might survive. The powerful do not appreciate being given bad news, especially if it turns out to be false. Better for the physician to assure his master's sister that she would live; if she didn't, she would be in no position to vent her disappointment on him. But the physician was probably right. I knew something of gorgon's hair and its effects, and such a small dose seemed unlikely to kill her.

"If the physician said you'll be better, then I'm sure-" "Don't you have your own opinion?" Her voice was sharp. "You recognized the poison. You must know how it works."

"I know many poisons by sight, but it's others who use them, not

me."

"Of course you're not going to die!" Trygonion insisted. Clodia allowed him to fuss with her blanket and caress her hands.

"I thought you'd forestalled the poison plot against you," I said. "So did I. But that farce at the Senian baths must have been only a diversion staged by Caelius. He wanted me to think I had got the better of him, when all the time his viper was already at my breast. The slave I trusted more than any other!"

Over in the corner, Chrysis whimpered and twisted in space. My eyes had grown used to the darkness and I was able to see her more clearly. Her smooth, naked flesh was scored with mottled stripes.

"The little spy weeps because I had her beaten," said Clodia in a low voice.

"Her punishment has only begun." "She confessed to you?"

"Not yet. But Caelius must have spies in my house, just as I have spies in his. Who better than Chrysis? And I caught her in the act of poisoning my food! If I hadn't happened to step into the kitchen at that moment-"

"Why do you think this poison came from Caelius?" Clodia gave me such a withering look that I sucked in my breath. Had Catullus ever known that look? Then she shuddered and winced and shut her eyes. "Who else?" she demanded in a weak voice. "We know he already had the poison. What I didn't know was the slave he would use to get the stuff into my house. Chrysis, not Barnabas!"

"You think this is the same poison that he tested on his own slave?" "Of course." "It's not."

She bit her lips and shifted beneath the blanket. "What do you mean?"

"The poison Caelius administered to his slave acted very quickly. You told me so yourself, and I assume that your spies gave you an accurate report. The slave died in agony, you said, while Caelius watched. 'It took only moments,' you said. This can't be the same poison. The Mauretanians say that gorgon's hair is like 'a coiled snake in the belly.' Once ingested, it bides its time before striking. The victim feels no ill effects for a while, then the symptoms come on suddenly. You told me that you tasted the powder in the morning but felt no effects until midday. That hardly sounds like Caelius's 'quick-acting' poison." "So? He decided to use a different poison."

"Perhaps. If you'd let me, I'd like to take what's left of this poison with me. If I remember correctly, I happen to have a bit of gorgon's hair at my house, locked in a box where I keep such things." My son Eco had been given the stuff months ago, by a man whose wife was trying to poison him. Eco passed it on for safekeeping to me; he won't have poison in his house because of the twins. I'd almost forgotten about it. "I should like to compare this powder with the bit I have at home -"

Clodia hesitated. "Be sure to return it," she whispered, closing her eyes. "It's evidence against Caelius."

The interview seemed to be over.

Clodia turned uncomfortably on the bed. Chrysis twisted from the ropes. Then Trygonion bent close to Clodia's ear and said in a low voice, "The other box." She frowned.

"Mistress, the other box," he said again.

The grimace she made came from something other than physical discomfort. "Yes, show him. Let him see for himself."

Trygonion took the box of poison from me. He went to the little cosmetics table and came back holding a different pyxis in the palm of his hand, with his nose wrinkled and his arm extended, as if to keep the thing as far from himself as possible. I recognized it at once.

"It's the same pyxis Licinius was carrying at the Senian baths," I said. "Are you sure?" whispered Clodia.

"Bronze, with raised knobs and inlays of ivory. Exactly the same." "The brute! The monster!" said Trygonion, thrusting the box at me. "Go on, look inside."

"It arrived this morning," said Clodia. "Left by a messenger on the front doorstep. What was he thinking? To torture me with this obscene joke while I lay dying? Is he laughing even now?" She sucked in a shuddering breath and began to sob.

I took the tiny box from Trygonion and opened the lid. Within was a pearly, opalescent liquid, perhaps a kind of lotion or cream, I thought. I touched my finger to it and gave such a start that I dropped the box, spilling its contents on the floor. Trygonion stared at the globules of congealed semen with fascinated revulsion.

"Damn him!" Clodia thrashed on the bed. Trygonion rushed to her. I backed away and bumped into the cosmetics table. I turned and stared blindly at the unguents and philters. Among them I noticed a little clay figurine of Attis, Cybele's eunuch consort, exactly like the ones I had seen in the room of Lucius Lucceius's wife. The dim lamplight caught his red cap and lit up his serenely smiling face.

Clodia continued to moan and curse. Trygonion hovered over her. The dropped pyxis lay on the floor, its spattered contents glistening in the lamplight.

I backed away again. One of the lamps began to gutter and the room grew darker. I bumped into something solid but yielding. The rope made a cracking noise above and behind me. A low whimpering rose from below. With a start I turned and realized I had collided with the suspended body of Chrysis. Seen upside down in the flickering light, her staring eyes and nostrils were so grotesque that her face became inhuman, unreadable. Her lips moved. I bent my head, straining to hear, but her whisper was drowned by Clodia's sobbing cry behind me.

"Punish her! Punish her again!"

Beyond the heavy curtain that blocked the door I heard a murmur and a rustling among the slaves gathered in the hall. I stared at Chrysis's soundlessly moving lips, hardly knowing what I was seeing, then finally came to my senses. I stepped toward the door and pushed my way past the curtain.

The slaves in the hallway scattered and regrouped like brooding hens. As I made my way down the hall a figure approached and passed me, taking long, quick steps toward Clodia's room. It was the slave Barnabas, clutching a leather whip between his fists. He stared straight ahead, his jaw tightly clenched. His face was drained of all emotion except for his eyes, in which I glimpsed a strange mixture of determination and dread.

At home, I found Bethesda going through her wardrobe, trying to find something suitable to wear for Clodia's party. "What do you think, the blue stola or the green one? And for a necklace-the carnelian beads, or the lapis lazuli ones you gave me last year?"

"I'm afraid it's rather unlikely that there'll be a party after all."

"But why not?"

"Clodia is ill." To explain what had just transpired at Clodia's house was beyond my energy.

"Perhaps she'll feel better in the morning," said Bethesda, frowning.

"Perhaps. We'll see whether she shows up at the trial tomorrow morning."

"Yes, the trial! She won't miss that. She'll have to feel better, and then she'll have the party after all. She's put so much planning into it."

"Into the trial?"

"Into the party, silly."

I nodded. "No word from Eco?"

"None."

I suddenly realized that I had forgotten the box of gorgon's hair which I had intended to borrow from Clodia, to compare with the poison stored in my own strongbox. I had no desire to go back for it. For the moment, I forgot about it.

Chapter Twenty

Bethesdawas prescient. In the morning, when we went down to the Forum to watch the trial, Clodia was already there in

the great square in front of the Rostra, seated behind the prosecutors in the midst of a great many of her retainers. She

was pale and her eyes were listless, but the crisis had apparently passed. She looked in our direction and smiled wanly-not at me, I realized, but at Bethesda, who nodded and smiled in

return. For me Clodia had no smile, only a raised eyebrow, as if to ask if I had any last bit of information to give her. I pursed my lips and shook my head. Eco had still not returned, and none of my nets had snagged a fish.

It was the day before the beginning of the Great Mother festival. For six days Rome would celebrate with games and competitions, religious processions and plays, private parties and public ceremonies. After the festival, members of the Senate would briefly reconvene before taking their traditional Aprilis holiday at their country estates. Rome would shut down, like a great gristmill grinding to a halt. On the eve of all this, the mood in the Forum was a combination of rush and relaxation- hectic hurry to take care of final business together with the delicious anticipation of the coming days of indolence and pleasure.

This giddy mood was heightened even more by the raucous atmosphere which always attends a major trial, especially a trial as rich with the promise of scandal as this one. With no other courts in session, every advocate in Rome was in attendance, and with so much recent debate over the Egyptian situation and Dio's death, most of the Senate had come to watch. Those wise enough to plan ahead had sent slaves to the Forum at dawn to put down folding chairs and hold places for them. I had sent Belbo to do just that for Bethesda and myself. I scanned the cluttered rows and spotted him waving to us from an excellent place near the front, just behind the benches where the seventy-odd judges would sit. We made our way to our seats. Before Belbo withdrew to the great crowd of gawkers and idlers that continued to gather at the periphery, I told him to keep an eye out for Eco, who might still show up at the last moment.

Before us, beyond the judges' benches, was the open square, from which the advocates would deliver their speeches. To the left sat the prosecutors with their assistants and witnesses. This was where Clodia sat. Barnabas sat next to her, and nearby I recognized "Busy Fingers" Vibennius and several others who had taken part in the fruitless chase at the Senian baths.

Directly opposite the prosecutors, to our right, were the benches of the defendant, accompanied by his advocates, family, supporters and character witnesses. The parents of Marcus Caelius were dressed all in black, as if in mourning. His mother's eyes were puffy and red and her cheeks were wet with tears; his father had white stubble on his jaw and unkempt hair, giving him the look of a man half crazy with worry. The parents of every accused man show up in court looking just the same. If Caelius had children, they would have been standing in rags, weeping. Such traditional means of evoking pity in the judges began so long ago that no advocate would consider allowing his client's family to show up looking less than wretched.

Seated beside Caelius were his two advocates. Cicero was looking leaner and sharper than when I had seen him last; a year of bitter exile had trimmed his belly, taken in his jowls and polished his eyes to a fine glitter. Gone was the fat complacency that had settled on him after his year as consul and his triumph over Catilina. In its place was a look at once haunted and eager-haunted because he had learned that Rome could turn viciously against him, eager because he had successfully lashed back at his enemies and was again in the ascendant. The eagerness in his eyes recalled the headstrong young advocate I had first met many years ago, but the hard set of his jaw and the bitter line of his lips belonged to a much older man. As an advocate Cicero had been ambitious, unscrupulous and brilliant from the very beginning-a dangerous man to take on in a court of law. Now he looked more formidable than ever.

As for Marcus Crassus, the richest man in Rome seemed to have stopped aging in recent years. He was a few years older than I, but looked closer to forty than sixty. Some joked that Crassus had made a deal with the gods to let him grow richer with passing time instead of older. If so, even that deal was not sweet enough to satisfy him; he looked as stern and discontented as ever. Crassus was a man who could never succeed enough for his own satisfaction. This restlessness drove him from triumph to triumph in the arenas of finance and politics, setting a pace that his less gifted colleagues could not hope to match and bitterly resented.

Beside these two old foxes, Marcus Caelius looked strikingly young and fresh, almost boyish. A good night's sleep or some other tonic had erased the slack dissolution I had seen on his face at the Salacious Tavern. Caelius had always been a mime of sorts, able to put on roles and shrug them off to suit the moment, and for this occasion he mimed the bright-eyed innocence of youth with uncanny precision. His cleverness had gotten him into trouble before; in recent years he had strayed from his mentors Crassus and Cicero, perhaps even betrayed them in the pursuit of his own fortunes. They might reasonably have turned their backs on him now, but all differences had apparently been reconciled. They were three foxes sitting in a row.

I turned my eyes from the defense to the prosecution. Leading them was young Lucius Sempronius Atratinus. If Caelius looked fresh beside his weathered advocates, Atratinus looked positively childlike. He was only seventeen, barely a man in the eyes of the law. But youthful passion can count for much with Roman judges, who have sat through too many speeches to be much impressed by false indignation or tired blustering, no matter how experienced the advocate. Young Atratinus's interest in prosecuting Caelius was the extension of a family feud; it was Atratinus's father, Bestia, against whom Caelius made his notorious pun about the "finger of guilt." Atratinus's pursuit ofCaelius's destruction was a virtuous act in the eyes of a Roman court, where loyalty to fathers counts for so much.

Flanking Atratinus were his fellow prosecutors. I knew little about them. Lucius Herennius Balbus was a friend of Bestia's and more familiar to me by sight than by ear; I had never heard him argue a case, but the sight of his well-fed body scurrying back and forth in the Forum (like a giant egg wearing a toga, Eco had once said) was impressed on my memory. Publius Clodius was the third prosecutor-not Clodia's brother, but one of his freedmen, who accordingly bore the same name; thus the Clodii were represented among the prosecutors in an indirect way, as they no doubt preferred, by name but not by blood.

Gnaeus Domitius, the presiding magistrate, mounted his tribunal. The judges were sworn in. The trial commenced with the reading of the formal charges.

There were five charges in all. The first four dealt with incidents of violence against foreign dignitaries, whose persons were sacrosanct; violence against them was technically violence against their protector, the Roman state, and so qualified for prosecution under the law against political terror. The charges were grave: that Marcus Caelius master-minded attacks at Neapolis to intimidate the newly arrived Alexandrian delegation; that he instigated a riot against the delegation at Puteoli; that he perpetrated arson against the delegation during their stay at the property of Palla, on their way to Rome; that he attempted to poison the head of the delegation, Dio, and subsequently took part in Dio's murder.

To these was added another, new allegation: that Caelius had attempted to poison Clodia. There were reactions of surprise among many in the crowd, including Bethesda.

"What are they talking about?" she whispered.

I shrugged and tried to look ignorant.

"You told me she was ill, not poisoned!"

I put a finger to my lips and nodded toward the defendant's bench, where Crassus had risen to make a statement. "It should be noted by our presiding magistrate Gnaeus Domitius and by the judges that this final charge is a new one, appended by the prosecution only yesterday, in fact. The defense has hardly been given the customary amount of time to prepare an argument in response to so serious an accusation. Thus we would be within our rights to protest the inclusion of this charge, indeed, to insist that it be thrown out and argued in a separate trial, or, if it is to be included, to demand a postponement of this trial. Further, given that this is a court convened solely to try cases of political violence, it hardly seems suitable to include a charge of attempted poisoning against a private citizen. However, as the prosecution seems to believe that this charge is in fact related to the others, and as my esteemed friend and colleague Marcus Cicero assures me that he is fully prepared to defend our client against it, we make no objection to its inclusion in this trial."

Crassus nodded gravely to the presiding magistrate and the judges and sat. On Cicero's face I saw the quiver of a smirk, barely repressed. It was a look I knew well; the great orator was feeling smug about some-thing. Could it be that he was secretly pleased to have the charge of the attempted poisoning of Clodia included among the rest? What conjurer's trick was he planning this time?

Formalities concluded, the trial could begin. The three prosecutors would speak first, then Caelius and his advocates would respond. After the orations, witnesses for both sides would deliver their statements.

Given the number of speakers and the numerous charges to be discussed the trial would surely last for more than one day.

A Roman trial is only ostensibly about establishing guilt or inno-cence. At Rome, all trials are to some extent political, and a trial for political violence is overtly so. Roman judges are not merely citizens seeking the truth about a specific act; they are a committee of the state and their purpose is to make a political as well as a moral judgment. A trial typically deals with the whole life of the accused-his reputation family connections, political affiliations, sexual practices, virtues, vices. Judgment is rendered not merely on whether the accused did or did not commit a specific crime, but on the entire character of the accused, and for the good of the body politic as a whole. Cicero himself put it plainly at a trial held the year before his own exile: "When rendering their verdict, judges must consider the good of the community and the needs of the state."

Moreover, everyone knows that judges are more influenced by the orations of the advocates than by the testimony of the witnesses who follow. "Arguments count for more than witnesses," as Cicero has often said. The deductions a good orator draws from the internal evidence of a case (asserting, "Because of this, it stands to reason that…") are more persuasive than the bald statements of any given witness, no matter that the witness testifies under oath (or in the case of slaves, under torture).

Atratinus rose to deliver the first speech. His clear young voice carried exceedingly well, and his oratorical delivery, if not polished to a dazzling shine, had the ring of sincerity.

Atratinus dwelled exclusively on Caelius's character-his well-known dissipation, his extravagance, the disreputable haunts he was known to frequent. Atratinus's righteous indignation would have sounded forced and false coming from many older advocates, but Atratinus was young and unsullied enough to be credible when he frowned on Caelius's excesses.

Caelius was untrustworthy, said Atratinus. No wise man would turn his back on Caelius, or else Caelius was likely to slander and mock him, as he had slandered and mocked his own mentors behind their backs, chose who were at this very moment closest to him; his notorious lack of respect for these men was sadly evident to everyone else in the court except themselves, apparently. Now that he had finally gotten himself into more trouble than he could handle, the crass opportunist was only too happy to make use of the elders he had betrayed, not only his mentors, but his own father, whom he had abandoned to go live by himself in a Palatine apartment where he could indulge all his vices away from paternal

and make fun of the humble house on the Quirinal Hill from which he had fled, and to which he had now unwillingly returned in his distress. There were more sincere ways to show respect to one's father, Atratinus insisted, pausing with a meaningful smile so that no one would miss the example he himself presented.

Nor would it be wise for any woman to turn her back on Caelius, he said, for the fellow was capable of far worse than mockery and slander- as we would see when the charge of the attempted poisoning of Clodia was dealt with by another speaker.

Atratinus played on these themes of dissipation and disreputable conduct, turning them over and over as a man turns a jewel in his hand, to see the various ways it catches the light. By turns he sought to outrage the judges, to appeal to sentiment, to make them laugh.

Politically, he said, Caelius had flirted with the cause of the depraved revolutionary Catilina. Sexually, he had assaulted the wives of Roman citizens; witnesses would be called to verify these charges. Witnesses would also be called to attest to Caelius's violent nature; there was the case of a senator named Fufius whom Caelius had beaten up at the pontifical elections in front of a crowd of horrified onlookers. And if these indications of Caelius's character were not damning enough, con-sider the way he swaggered and strutted and spat out his speeches when playing the prosecutor at other men's trials, or debating in the Senate. And the appalling color of the stripe on his senatorial toga! Where everyone else's was traditionally somber, almost black, his was a garishly bright, bold purple. At the reminder of this impropriety, I saw quite a few judges nod their gray heads.

Worst of all-because it was this vice which most seriously threat-ened to destroy the republic-was Caelius's extravagance with money. In this Caelius represented the very worst aspect of his generation, which was set so firmly apart from wiser, more senior men such as the judges, as well as from less experienced but more virtuous young men of Atratinus's age, who looked on the spendthrift habits of men like Caelius with dread and dismay. What would become of the Republic if such men were not stopped? They squandered fortunes on licentious behavior and spent huge sums on electoral bribery, corrupting everyone and everything they touched. Then, finding themselves bankrupt, as they inevitably must, and stripped by their own debauchery of all moral sense, such men resorted without hesitation to the most fiendish crimes to replenish their coffers. To get his hands on Egyptian gold, Caelius had covered his hands with Egyptian blood. In so doing he had cast a bloody stain on the dignity and honor of the Roman state.

"If ever there was a case which proved the sad necessity for courts such as this one, this is that case. If ever there was a man who full deserved the condemnation of this court, Marcus Caelius is that man." So Atratinus concluded.

I turned to Bethesda and asked what she thought. "Rather too young for my taste," she said. "But a pleasant voice."

The freedman Publius Clodius spoke next. His speech dealt with the first three charges against Caelius. Where Atratinus had shown a kind of prim distaste at having to pollute himself with cataloguing Cae-lius's crimes, Clodius attacked with the relish of a man wielding a red-hot poker. He did not hesitate to make crude jabs and thrusts, but he also pulled back from time to time, confident in his weapon's power to inflict damage even from a distance. Paroxysms of disgust were punctuated with abrupt full stops, during which, standing stock-still and emotionless, Clodius would deliver some of his most acid comments, eliciting gasps and laughter from the crowd. It was a technically dazzling speech.

The virtues or vices of Caelius's character might ultimately be matters of opinion, he conceded, especially in a time when so many Romans had become sadly confused about such things, but the outrages committed against the Alexandrian envoys were simple matters of fact. A hundred of the most respected men in Egypt had come to Rome to petition the Senate. As ambassadors, they carried the protection of the gods and the state. Yet they had been met with unremitting violence, intimidation, fire and ultimately murder. Word of this scandal had spread from the Pillars of Hercules to the borders of Parthia, undermining Rome's prestige with her subjects and allies and inflaming her already precarious relations with the volatile kingdom of Egypt.

The places and dates of these attacks were well documented. The prosecution would produce witnesses who would swear that in each in-stance – at Neapolis, at Puteoli, and at Palla's estate-Marcus Caelius had been seen in the vicinity shortly before the attack, in the company of known assassins. Further, as other witnesses would attest, Caelius had been heard shamelessly bragging in public about his part in the massacres. What sort of man was so imprudent as to boast of engineering such atrocities? Clearly,a man with the depraved character of Marcus Caelius.

Clodius proceeded to give a vivid account of each attack, piling on gory details, painting tableaus of pity and terror, invoking the shades of the unavenged dead.

Why, he asked, had Marcus Caelius perpetrated such violence? The reason was obvious: for financial gain. A man like Marcus Caelius, from a humble but respectable family, could hardly engage in the high living he was famous for without incurring massive debts. Witnesses would be called to document his reckless spending habits. If Caelius wished to dispute these witnesses, and if he had nothing to hide, let him open his private account books for the court. Was he willing to do that? If not, why not? Because, Clodius alleged, those account books would reveal the payments Caelius had received to mount his campaign of terror against the Alexandrian envoys. To finance his own disgusting pleasures, Caelius had sold out the good name of the whole Roman people. Clodius's indignation came to an appropriately thunderous climax that had the crowd stamping their feet with appreciation. He returned to the bench mopping sweat from his forehead like a boxer.

I turned to Bethesda and raised an eyebrow. "Well?"

"Everybody knows that freedmen try harder," she said. "But all that blustering and waving of arms only makes me nervous."

"I noticed you fidgeting. Afraid for your precious Marcus Caelius?"

" 'Oratory is all very well when there are no facts to go on,' " she said. I looked at her amazed, as I always am when she unexpectedly quotes some old Roman proverb. It's natural of course that she should pick up such things from me and from going to trials, but there's some-thing jarring about hearing them repeated with an Egyptian accent. "And so far," she said, "they've said nothing about the death of Dio, nor about any attempt to poison Clodia."

"I suspect that will come next."

Lucius Herennius Balbus mounted the Rostra to conclude for the prosecution. If Atratinus had played outraged youth, Herennius was the stern, admonishing uncle, castigating Caelius's character from an older, wiser, but no less scandalized perspective. He began and ended his speech by reciting the litany of Caelius's vices. In between, he dealt with the death of Dio and the "bare escape" of a certain Roman lady who had the misfortune to know more about Caelius's crimes than was healthy for her.

That lady, he said, would testify about a loan which she had made to Caelius, ostensibly to put on games in his hometown for the sake of his political career-when in fact no such games had taken place. The money she lent him had been used to bribe slaves in the house of Lucius Lucceius, in an attempt to murder Dio by poison, and thus put an end once and for all to the decimated Alexandrian delegation by destroying its leader. That particular plot had failed, but Dio, alerted to the danger, had fled to another house, and it was there that he eventually met his end. By whose hand, everyone in the court must know: the assassin Publius Asicius. Never mind that Asicius had been acquitted at his own trial; it was common knowledge that the prosecution and defense had conspired together to throw the case in Asicius's favor. Caelius and Asicius, partners in so many other vices, had been partners in this outrage as well-witnesses would be called who would place the two very close to the house where Dio was staying on the night of his murder. Like a tree with many branches, the Alexandrian delegation had been ruthlessly hacked away, limb by limb, until only the trunk remained. Caelius had not been satisfied until that, too, was destroyed.

Here Herennius delivered an encomium to Dio, reciting his many honors and achievements, naming the men who had bravely given him shelter in his days of despair, mourning the loss of so brilliant a philosopher, lamenting the shame that had been visited upon Rome by his murder.

What of the final charge against Caelius, that of ruthlessly seeking the death by poison of a great Roman lady, the descendant of one of the city's oldest and proudest families, the widow of one of her most distin-guished citizens? The lady was present and would, strength permitting, testify herself to the outrage plotted against her.

At one point, Caelius had aligned himself with the lady's brother- just one more of his fickle, never-to-be-trusted alliances-and this brought him into the lady's acquaintance. Sad day for her! Young and good-looking, Caelius was a quite charmer, to be sure-proof of that was the fact that he'd talked two men he'd stabbed in the back into repre-senting him today! Using all his skills he had charmed the lady out of a rather large loan. Later, she had cause to regret her trust in the scoundrel, not only because the loan was never repaid-typical, predictable!- but because with mounting horror she realized the use to which Caelius had put the money. His Egyptian coffers had run dry, but his mission was not yet finished, so he used her gold to bribe another man's slaves to poison Dio. The realization shocked the lady to her senses. Disgusted with Caelius's indecency and his murderous bent, outraged that she had been duped into financing his crimes, she decided to do something about it; she agreed to appear as a witness at this trial. A brave act, to make herself the enemy of a murderer-and almost fatal, as it turned out. To silence her, Caelius decided to poison her.

"Those of us who have attended all too many trials for murder know the sad pattern," said Herennius, lowering his voice to a confidential tone. "Let a man once descend to using poison on another human being and, sooner or later, he will try the same thing again. Poisoning becomes a habit, a secret vice, like certain other things men do in the dark. Until he is stopped, by the law or by the gods, a poisoner will repeat his vile crime over and over again."

Thus, having fallen into this vice with his attempt on Dio-if indeed it was his first poisoning!-Caelius not surprisingly resorted to poison to rid himself of the troublesome lady. He tested the stuff first on one of his own slaves. (Not on one of his old, trusted slaves, to be sure; Caelius had purchased a slave specifically to test his poison, as one might buy a cheap garment intending to use it as a rag and then throw it away. If he cared to deny the fact, let Caelius produce that slave in court alive and well.) Then Caelius approached some of the lady's slaves (like a typical poisoner, repeating the same mode of operation) and tried to bribe them to administer the poison. But the loyal slaves betrayed the plot to their mistress, and she cleverly sought to trap Caelius's agent in the act of handing over the deadly stuff.

Herennius proceeded to give a completely straight-faced account of the disaster at the Senian baths, which provoked some snickering among the spectators; the story had made the rounds. To verify the incident, he said, the slaves whom Caelius had thought to suborn would testify. So that they would not have to suffer the indignities of torture, and to reward them for their loyalty, these slaves had been manumitted and would testify as freedmen.

Herennius sighed with exasperation. "Caelius's attempt to poison Dio failed. So did his first attempt on the lady. But still Caelius did not give up! Only hours ago, the lady came very close to death, thanks to Caelius's relentless, insidious efforts to do her in. Look at her now, at her pale face and languid eyes, at her helpless trembling! One need only see her to know that something truly terrible has transpired. 'What awful thing was done to her?' you ask. But no, I shall refrain from relating the sordid details of this latest, almost successful attempt to murder her. Since the gods have seen fit to spare her from Caelius's murderous plots, let her tell the story. Let the tale of her hairbreadth escape emerge from her own shocking testimony. I only pray to the gods that she will continue to recover and be strong enough to testify!"

Regarding this latest outrage, the judges would also hear the written confession of the wretched slave girl Caelius had seduced into betraying her mistress. Her testimony was even now being extracted under torture, as the law required.

There would also be a third, surprise witness to corroborate. Her-ennius cast a chilly smile at the bench opposite. "That man's testimony should be of special interest to the defense, I imagine. The esteemed Marcus Cicero himself has declared this witness to be 'the most honest man in Rome.' Wait until you hear what that fellow has to tell us about the attempts to poison this lady, Cicero! I wonder what you'll have to say then about the depraved murderer sitting beside you!"

This struck me as a clever but dangerous ploy on the part of Her-ennius, to leave a damaging revelation to his witnesses so that it could emerge as a surprise at the very end of the trial, rather than to include it in his oration, where he could shape and deliver the accusation himself The advantage was the sympathy to be stirred by a poison survivor telling her own story; the defense would be hard-pressed to anticipate and neutralize ahead of time any surprises that might emerge from such testimony. Who, I wondered, was this alleged "most honest man in Rome"? I looked at Cicero to catch his reaction and found him, oddly enough, staring straight at me.

Chapter Twenty One

I don't believe for a moment that he poisoned her," said Bethesda,

"any more than I believe that he killed the Egyptian." After three long orations, the court had adjourned early so that the defense advocates could present their responses in succession on the following day. Bethesda and I immediately headed home, where she proceeded to get ready for Clodia's party, even though nightfall was still hours away.

"But Clodia insists that he did."

"She's mistaken," Bethesda frowned at the burnished mirror she held in her hand. "This necklace will never do. Hand me the silver one."

"It can't be both ways," I said. "One of them is lying. What a pity that you have to choose between Clodia and Caelius. What a choice for anyone to have to make!"

"Right now, I am trying to choose a necklace," she said. "The silver one, please."

I searched her dresser for a silver necklace and found myself lost amid the clay jars of unguents and little glass vials of perfume. My eye caught a flash of bright red.

"What's this?"

"What?"

I picked up the little clay figure of Attis, identical to the ones I had seen in the room of Lucceius's wife and on Clodia's dresser. The smiling eunuch stood with his hands on his fat belly, with a bright red Phrygian cap on his head. Bethesda glimpsed its reflection and put down her mirror.

"You shouldn't touch that."

"Where did it come from?" "It came while we were at the trial today."

"I asked where it came from, not when." "It's a gift."

"Who sent it?"

"Who do you think?" Bethesda took the statue from me. She put it back on the dresser, then scooped up a long silver necklace and reached for her mirror. "You're hopeless. Go away and tell Diana to come help me dress."

We arrived at Clodia's door at the last moment of twilight, when the hard edges of the world begin to soften and grow hazy like the mind of a man ready for sleep. But while the world might be drowsy, the party-goers at Clodia's house were wide awake. The brightly lit dining room off her garden was alive with music and conversation. Slaves were jus beginning to show the guests to their places at the dining couches when we arrived. It was an odd mixture of impeccably dressed patricians and scruffy-looking young poets, of radical politicians and aging courtesans, of exotic-looking foreigners and even a few galli. The air was heavy with the world-weary sophistication that passes for style in Rome these days.

Bethesda clutched my arm. On her face was a look so unlike her that it took me a moment to figure out what it was: panic. "What are we doing here?" she whispered.

"Attending what appears to be a very fashionable party, with very fashionable people."

"Why?"

"I think it was you who insisted that we come," I said dryly.

"I must have been out of my mind. Take me home at once."

"But we haven't eaten yet." The smells wafting from the kitchen made my mouth water.

"We haven't even said hello to our hostess."

"That is exactly why we should go this instant. It will be as if we never came."

"Bethesda-"

"This is absurd. Look at me."

I stepped back and did just that.

"Yes? I see a beautiful woman, immaculately dressed and made up. She looks like no one else here."

"Exactly! Anyone can tell I don't belong."

"Why not?"

"I'm not even Roman."

"Of course you are. You're my wife."

"We're not rich."

"No one could tell from the jewelry you're wearing."

"My accent!"

"It gives you an air of mystery." "I'm the oldest woman here." "You're the most beautiful woman here."

"He's absolutely right, you know." I turned to see Catullus at my elbow, holding a cup of wine and wearing a slack grin. "Gratidianus, I didn't expect to see you here."

"Clodia invited us," said Bethesda, a little too insistently.

"She invited me, too, do you believe it?" said Catullus. "Against her better judgment, I'm sure, or against her brother's judgment, anyway. But he's not here-busy with tomorrow's festivities-and I am, so to Hades with him! Let nothing spoil my triumphant return to Palatine society! What a bunch of leeches, lechers and losers." Catullus surveyed the crowd, his grin dripping with acid. "What a bizarre menagerie Clodia's put together: the worst poets and the crookedest politicians in Rome; bankrupt nobles and obscenely wealthy ex-slaves; beautiful boys and homely prostitutes. Did I say homely? Ugly enough to turn a man to stone-no obscene pun intended. And here before me, the most honest man in Rome, accompanied by-" He paused and his expression sobered a bit. "Just as you put it, Gordianus: the most beautiful woman here."

"My wife," I said. "And this, Bethesda, is Gaius Valerius Catullus, just back from a year of government service in Bithynia."

Bethesda nodded knowingly.

"The poet," she said.

He raised an eyebrow. "Am I that famous? Or have you been talking about me behind my back, Gordianus?"

"Not me," I said, trying to make something of the cryptic smile on Bethesda's face and wondering what else Clodia confided to her about Catullus at their first and only meeting. At least Bethesda seemed to be getting her bearings, for which I was glad.

A serving slave arrived to show us to our places. Couches were gathered in U-shaped groups around serving tables. The seating was two to a couch, allowing plenty of room to sit up or recline. As it turned out, Catullus was put at the couch next to ours, at my right. For the moment there was no one else to share his couch. Had Clodia placed us together on purpose, or simply because we were the last guests to be invited? Our group of couches was situated in a corner of the room, the farthest away from the hostess's. That suited me; it would allow Bethesda to feel less conspicuous. But Catullus was not pleased. "Banished back to Bithynia," I heard him grumble.

A senator named Fufius was shown to the couch at Bethesda's left.

He was the man whom Atratinus had accused Caelius of assaulting during an election, and would be testifying as a prosecution witness. Fufius was accompanied by a very young courtesan. Bethesda raised an eyebrow, and I could read her mind: the girl was hardly older than Diana. But Bethesda seemed somewhat mollified when the senator gave her an appraising look and an appreciative smile.

Clodia had not yet appeared and her couch was unoccupied. Catullus scanned the faces of those who still stood and milled about. "Who will take the place of honor beside our hostess tonight? Let me see: husband Quintus is down in Hades, brother Publius is off making last-moment arrangements for tomorrow's festival, and lover Caelius-ah, he's on trial for murder, isn't he? Poison, wasn't it? Well, I suppose we wouldn't want a poisoner at our dinner party, no matter how superior his stud service. Still, someone will have to share the couch with our queen. Not one of her other brothers, I think; Publius would go crazy with jealousy. Perhaps that ranting freedman who spoke at the trial today. He has Publius's name, if not his looks, and we've seen that he can fill in for his ex-master, in public speaking anyway. But it's rather hard to imagine the likes of him lying with his head on her lap while she dabbles sauteed sparrow brains into his mouth, isn't it? Ah, there she is, our Lesbia. Almighty Venus! Where on earth did she get that dress?"

"You can see right through it," murmured Bethesda.

"I happen to know that the fabric comes from Cos," I said, showing off.

"Something new from a famous silkmaker there."

"I thought you weren't her lover," growled Catullus. Was he teasing me again, or truly angry? Suddenly he let out a barking laugh, so loud that several heads turned to look. "Oh no, not Egnatius!" he whispered. "I thought she was done with him."

Clodia took her place at her couch. Joining her was a tall, muscular young man with a full black beard and a dazzling smile. I recognized his face from the Salacious Tavern.

"Very handsome," said Bethesda.

"If a stud horse could stand upright and grin he'd look like Egnatius, and women would call him handsome, I suppose." Catullus curled his upper lip. "The foul-mouthed Spaniard with the sparkling smile. But then, don't Spaniards always have the whitest teeth? You know how they get such white teeth, don't you?"

Bethesda inclined her head inquiringly.

"If Egnatius is the lord of the feast, all I can say is: check your wine cup before you take a swig."

"What do you mean?" asked Bethesda. Catullus cleared his throat and began:

"Egnatius is forever smiling to show off that dazzling grin.

Go to a trial-"

He started to laugh and covered his mouth until he could stop. The senator and his courtesan leaned closer to listen. "No, wait, let me start over. I'll change it up a bit, especially for tonight. Let me think… " He clapped his hands. "Yes:

Egnatius is forever smiling to show off that dazzling grin.

In court tomorrow, Cicero will have everyone weeping:

'Pitiful poisoner, er, prisoner!'

– except for Egnatius, who'll grin.

And when Caelius is run out of town, his mother mourning,

'Only son! Good as dead!'-for her sake, Egnatius will grin.

It's a sickness, that grin: everywhere, everywhen.

Social grace? Social disease, I'd call it!

Look Egnatius, listen up: Had you been born Roman,

Or Sabine, or Tiburtine, obese Etruscan or Umbrian slob,

Or a swarthy Lanuvian with teeth just as perfect,

Or a Transpadane from my own dear, sweet Verona,

Or any man who cleans his teeth in the regular way,

Still I'd curse that grin. It's inane. It offends!

Ah, but you come from Spain-and Spaniards every morning, As we know, scrub their teeth white and rub their gums rosy With the stuff that squirts out of their bladders. Yellow cleanser! So flash that perfect grin-it only goes to show how much You've been guzzling from your own chamber-pot. I'd rather my own teeth should rot!"

The old senator clapped. His courtesan giggled. Bethesda grudged a crooked smile and whispered in my ear: "Are all his poems so vulgar?" "All the bits I've heard."

"Surely his love poems are different," she sighed, looking puzzled. Clodia's attraction to Marcus Caelius made perfect sense to her, but Catullus's appeal eluded her.

At that moment, Catullus's couch partner arrived. I should have known who it would be; his presence added the final measure of perverse imbalance to our little dining group. "Have I just arrived at the end of one of your poems?" quipped Trygonion, sliding onto the couch. "What fortunate timing."

Catullus scowled and snorted, but only to hide a deeper reaction. His jaw stiffened and quivered. He blinked uncontrollably. Not only had Clodia banished him back to Bithynia; she had seated him side by side with her emasculated pet. No one but me seemed to notice that Catullus was barely managing to fight back tears.

When everyone was seated, Clodia welcomed her guests with a very brief speech and the promise that she would strive to greet everyone more personally as the evening progressed; this evoked a low, suggestive whistle from a young man with a scraggly beard and a very bad haircut at a table nearby. His companions made a playful show of slapping him down for his presumptuousness. I saw Catullus wince.

The evening commenced with the arrival ofthe first course, a goose-liver paste fit for the gods of Olympus. An exquisite Falernian wine washed away all cares. Soon Bethesda was charming Senator Fufius with stories of her native Alexandria, while his neglected young courtesan played with her food and pouted. The senator seemed genuinely fascinated by everything Bethesda had to say. "I've never been to Egypt myself," he wheezed, "but of course with all this debate and controversy of late, one has to wonder what all the fuss is about." Even Trygonion and Catullus began to converse in fits and starts, if only because neither of them could keep his mouth shut for long. They traded barbs and competed at casting aspersions on various people in the room. They kept silent about those within earshot-the chief advantage of sitting next to them, I decided.

At length the dinner ended, or at least the first dinner of the evening; there would be more food and wine later. The time for entertainment had arrived. The guests moved to the garden, where folding chairs and couches had been placed in front of the little stage. I was happy to take my leave of Catullus and Trygonion, but the senator stayed close to Bethesda, with his courtesan following behind. Slaves continued to move among the guests, offering tidbits and delicacies to those with bottomless stomachs and making sure that no cup stayed empty for long.

The entertainment began with a mime show, one of those performances with a single unmasked actor speaking all the roles. The performer was new to Rome ("Just arrived in town," announced Clodia, "after spreading laughter from Cyprus to Sicily"), but the little playlets he performed were the old standards, raunchy skits about a slave talking back to his master, and a matchmaker trying to convince a husband he needs a second wife, and a doctor accidentally treating the wrong patient with a series of hilariously painful cures. The actor suggested costume changes in an instant with the barest theatrical devices-a scarf transformed him into a bashful young maiden, a hideously exaggerated bracelet made him a rich lady, a child's wooden play-sword turned him into a swaggering general.

The crowd tittered at every obscenity, groaned at the terrible puns, and roared with laughter at the climax of each skit. The actor was quite extraordinary; Clodia knew how to choose an entertainer. In the gaps between skits, Bethesda informed the old senator that mimes had originated in the streets and squares of Alexandria, where wandering actors would set down their boxes of props and put on impromptu shows for whatever coins the crowd might toss their way. That was still the only real way to see a mime, Bethesda insisted, though she supposed that the man Clodia had found was clever enough for a Roman audience.

The actor concluded his final skit to great applause. Clodia stepped onto the stage.

"And now, something very special," she said. "An old friend has returned from his wanderings in the East-"

"Like Odysseus?" said someone. I looked around and saw that it was the young man with the bad haircut.

"If Catullus is Odysseus, does that mean Clodia is Penelope?" said one of his friends.

"I hope not," said another. "You know what Odysseus did to Penelope's suitors-he crashed a party and killed them all!"

"As I was saying," said Clodia, raising her voice above the laughter, "an old friend is back. Wiser, one presumes; certainly older, if only by a year; and with new poems to share with us. I mean our dear friend from Verona, Gaius Valerius Catullus, whose words have touched us all."

"And wounded a few of us!" yelled someone.

"While he was in the East, Catullus tells me, he took a journey to look at the ruins of ancient Troy. He climbed pine-covered Mount Ida, where Jupiter sat to watch the Greeks and Trojans do battle on the plain below. He saw the place where his beloved brother is buried, and performed a funeral rite. And while he was there, he saw something that few men have ever seen. He was invited to witness the secret rites at the Temple of Cybele, including the ceremony by which a man becomes a gallus in the service of the Great Mother."

I expected to hear more lewd comments at this point, but instead a hush fell over the crowd.

"This experience, Catullus tells me, moved him to compose a poem in honor of Attis, the consort of Cybele, the lover who gave up his sex in her worship, the inspiration of all the galli since. On the eve of the Great Mother festival, what could be more appropriate than the first public recitation of this poem?"

She left the platform. Catullus took her place. His lids looked heavy, his eyes bleary and he seemed to barely avoid falling as he stepped onto the stage. I held my breath, wondering how he could possibly perform before an audience. He was too drunk, too bitter, too unsure of himself, too weak. He seemed to be thinking the same thing. For a long time he stood completely still, his shoulders slumped, staring first at his feet, then at something above the heads of the audience. Was he bemused by the giant Venus behind us, or simply gazing into space?

But when he finally opened his mouth to speak, the voice that emerged was unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was light and airy yet strangely powerful, like a glittering net thrown over the audience, like a whisper in a dream.

I have heard countless orators in the Forum, listened to many actors on the stage. Their voices are their tools, skilled at shaping utterances suitable to the occasion; words emerge at their decree like slaves suited to a particular task. But with Catullus, everything seemed reversed. The words were in control; the poem ruled the poet, and used not just his voice but his whole body for its delivery, shaping his face, gesturing with his hands, causing his feet to pace the stage all to the poem's purpose. The poem would have existed with or without the poet. His presence was merely a convenience, since he happened to have a tongue which the poem could use to deliver itself to the ears of Clodia's guests on that warm spring night in her garden on the Palatine:

"Attis sailed his swift vessel through the deep waves

And set his eager feet upon the Phrygian shore.

He entered the sunless forest, where his mind became

As dark as the dense woods around him.

Moved by madness, he picked up a sharp stone.

He sliced off his manhood. He rose up transfigured:

A woman, the blood dripping from between her legs

Giving life to the dank, pungent earth.

Attis snatched up a drum and beat it, making music

To the Great Mother and her mysteries,

Singing rapturous falsetto to the servants of Cybele:

'Come galli, all together, to the groves on the mountain.

Sea salt stings the wound-turn away from the sea.

Turn away from Venus. Rid yourselves of manhood.

Leave that loathsome sort of love behind you,

Embrace the ecstasies of unsexed passion…' "

It was a long, strange poem. At times it became a chant, and the poet a dancer, moved to sway and stamp his feet by the poem that possessed him. The audience watched and listened, spellbound.

It was the story of Attis, and the madness of Attis, which moved him on a dark night, in a dense forest, far from home, to castrate himself and consecrate his existence to the Great Mother, Cybele. Still bleeding from his wound, he summoned the followers of the goddess and led them in a wild, ecstatic procession up the slopes of Mount Ida to her temple. They sang shrill chants, beat on drums, clanged cymbals, whirled about in frenzied, delirious dances with Attis leading them, until at last they fell exhausted into a deep, dreamless sleep.

When Attis woke, his madness had passed.

He saw what he had done.

He was horrified.

He ran to the seashore and gazed at the horizon,

sorry that he had ever left his homeland.

As a boy he had been a champion of the games,

a decorated athlete, a wrestler.

With his beard he became a man of the city,

known, respected, called upon.

What was he now?

A shipwrecked soul unable ever to return to his home,

neither man nor woman,

a fragment of his former self, sterile,

miserable, terribly alone.

His fanatic devotion had cut him off

from all that mattered to him, had cost him everything,

even his humanity.

Up on Mount Ida,

Cybele heard his wretched lament.

She looked down to see Attis weeping on the beach.

Did Cybele take mercy on Attis,

or was she only being practical

when she sent her lion down to the beach, not just to fetch Attis back, but to rend Attis's mind

and make him mad once and for all?

Attis in his sanity was too miserable for a life of worshiping Cybele, but in his unsexed state

what other life was he fit for?

So the roaring lion went crashing

down the mountainside and drove

Attis back into the forest, back into the

madness and raving ecstasy,

back into a life of loyal, unsexed

slavery to the Great Mother.

Catullus shivered, as if the poem were slowly releasing him from its grip. His voice began to fade, until the final lines were barely audible:

"Goddess, Great Mother Cybele,

guardian of Ida,

Madden other men-not me!

Give others your raving dream.

Avert your furies from my house.

Draw others into your scheme!"

Catullus was transformed. Mounting the stage, he had looked like a man stupefied by wine and self-pity, all soft and uncertain. Now his face was haggard and his eyes glowed, like a man emerging from a terrible ordeal, winnowed to his essential core. He stumbled a bit leaving the stage, not like a drunken man but like a man drained of all energy.

The garden was silent. Around me I saw raised eyebrows, uncertain frowns, thoughtful nods, grimaces of distaste. Sitting close by the stage Clodia stared unblinking at the spot Catullus had vacated. Her face was blank. Did she consider the poem a tribute to her, or the opposite, an insult? Or could she not see herself in a young man's poem about inescapable obsession, the obliteration of dignity and freedom by overwhelming passion, and the unequal, disastrous union of a mere mortal with an aloof, uncaring goddess?

Behind me I heard a stifled sob, like the sound of a woman weeping, so soft that except for the utter quiet I would never have noticed. I turned my head. Away from the other guests, on the steps leading down into the garden, a figure sat by the pedestal of the monstrous Venus, concealed in its shadow. He hugged his ankles as if to keep from shivering and hid his face against his knees, but by his dress I knew it was Trygonion.

Chapter Twenty Two

After Catullus's performance, the party never regained quite the same air of levity, despite the relentless parade of entertainments that followed. This included several other poets, better known than Catullus, who had been placed at the beginning of the evening as a sort of warm-up for those who followed. But no other poet who recited that evening left any lasting impression, at least not on my ears.

There were also dancers and jugglers and a concluding set of excruciatingly crude but very funny skits by the mime. During a break in all this entertainment our hostess found her way to our comer. She greeted Bethesda with outstretched arms and a kiss. "Did you receive the gift?"

"Yes, thank you. It arrived at the house while we were down at the Forum." Bethesda gave me a sidelong glance.

Clodia nodded. "Good. Now you're one of us. Yes, I saw you both at the trial. What do you think, Gordianus? How did it go for us today?"

"I suppose Bethesda said it best: 'Oratory is all very well when there are no facts to go on.' "

Clodia gave me a quizzical smile. "Was it Bethesda who said that? I thought it my ancestor Appius Claudius, the one who… well, never mind. May I talk to you privately? Senator, amuse this lady for a moment while I take her husband away on business."

She led me out of the garden, into a private chamber. The walls were painted a rich red, decorated with rustic scenes of satyrs and nymphs.

"You're looking much better today," I said.

"Am I? I thought I looked rather horrible when I saw myself in the mirror this morning. I considered calling off the party, but it would have been the first time I ever missed giving a party on the eve of the Great Mother festival. Even when Quintus and I were up in Cisalpine Gaul – "

"Did you have Chrysis tortured today?"

She looked at me blankly for a moment. Even by the lamplight reflected off the red walls her face looked pale. "Actually, I took you aside to talk about more important matters. But since you ask, Gordianus-yes, Chrysis was tortured today. Not by me, of course. By officials of the court. Surely you know that a slave can't give a statement in a trial without being tortured? Otherwise she might simply say whatever her mistress told her to say."

"So the logic goes."

"The bitch was about to poison me. I caught her in the act."

"Did she confess?"

"Yes."

"Did she implicate Caelius?"

"Of course. You can hear her statement read tomorrow, just before my own testimony."

"The statement which she gave under torture."

"You seem to have an unwholesome fixation on torture tonight, Gordianus. I should think you'd had enough of torture listening to that awful poem of Catullus's! Really, when he told me that he had an ideal poem for the Great Mother festival… " She gave a little shudder, then brightened. "But I won't have to use torture to get you to testify tomorrow, I hope."

"Me?"

"Of course. Who else could Herennius have meant when he said the man Cicero called 'the most honest man in Rome' would be testifying against Caelius? You need only tell what you witnessed with your own eyes at the Senian baths, and here in my house yesterday, when you saw what was done to me."

"What if I decline to testify?"

She seemed surprised. "No one can compel you. But I thought you wanted to see Caelius punished."

"I wanted to discover Dio's killer."

"It's the same thing, Gordianus. Everyone else in Rome has figured that out, so why haven't you? Oh, yes, I know, you're a man who demands proof. Well then, you should have come up with those slaves ofLucceius's, the ones involved in the poison plot. You were going to track them down and buy them for me, you said. Did anything ever come of that?"

"No."

"Too bad. They would have made superb witnesses. I gave you silver to buy them, didn't I?"

"I'll return the silver."

"The trial's not over yet. There's no hurry." "I'll have to wait until my son Eco gets back to Rome-" "Forget about the silver, Gordianus. There's no need to return it. Do you understand?" "I'm not sure."

"Consider it part of your fee. Now, of course you'll testify tomorrow. You must."

"Must I?"

"If you care about justice at all. If you want to put Dio's shade to

rest."

"If only it was clear to me exactly how Dio died."

She sighed, exasperated. "Asicius and Caelius broke into Coponius's house and stabbed the poor wretch."

I ignored her, counting days in my head. "There's still a chance that Eco might arrive tonight, or tomorrow-"

"Good. If he does, and if he brings word of those slaves, then perhaps we can add their testimony. But I told you, forget about the silver."

We were speaking at such cross-purposes that I hardly heard her. "There was something else," I said. "Something I'd forgotten. When I left your house yesterday, I intended to take with me that bit of gorgon's hair, to compare it to some of the same poison in my strongbox at home. I forgot it, somehow… " I shuddered, remembering the ugliness of Chrysis's degradation and my flight from Clodia's bedchamber.

"Could I take the gorgon's hair home with me tonight?"

Clodia hesitated. "I'm afraid not. Herennius has it. He said he might want to produce it as evidence tomorrow, when I give my testimony. Though I don't suppose showing the judges a lump of poison is likely to be as shocking as showing them a bloody dagger or whatever. Is it important?"

"No, I suppose not. I only wanted to make sure that I knew what the stuff was, for my own satisfaction."

"If it would help convince you to testify, then I wish I still had it. I suppose I could somehow arrange to get the stuff back from Herennius, though it's rather late. In the morning there'll hardly be time-"

I shook my head. "Don't bother."

"No? Good!" She laughed weakly. "I don't think I could stand to deal with one more troublesome detail tonight. I really am awfully tired.

Clodius's physician says that I shouldn't expect to feel completely Well for quite some time. To tell you the truth, I feel quite awful. I couldn't eat a bite of anything that was put in front of me tonight. I'll simply have to trust that the cook was up to his usual standard. Now, Gordianus assure me that you will testify tomorrow. Don't make me go to bed fretting about it. As I said, you need only tell the court what you've seen with your own eyes."

I looked at her for a long moment, at her huge green eyes made all the more lustrous by illness, at the smooth white flesh of her throat curving down to her breasts and the sleek lines of her body wrapped in the transparent silk. I breathed in her perfume. What if Caelius had succeeded in poisoning her? She would be dead now, already beginning to rot. The idea was appalling, intolerable: the glittering eyes shut forever, the perfect body eaten by worms, the perfume overpowered by the stench of putrefaction.

"Yes, I'll testify. I don't see why not."

She smiled and kissed me, full on the mouth, and pressed her body against me as if she had read my thoughts and wanted to show me that she was still very much alive and warm to the touch. From the garden I heard the sound of a poet declaiming, punctuated by laughter and applause.

Clodia broke the kiss and stepped back. "I'd better take you back to Bethesda before she comes looking for you. Egyptian women are uncommonly jealous, I'm told."

The party had no formal ending, or at least none that I stayed for. After the mime's encore, another meal commenced with the guests seated in new combinations. Eventually, those who had eaten and conversed and laughed and drunk enough began to wend their ways to the front door. Bethesda and I were among the first to leave. Catullus and Trygonion seemed to have disappeared.

"You look very thoughtful," said Bethesda on the way home.

"And you look rather smug. Did you enjoy yourself that much?"

"Enjoyment was not really the point," she said, suddenly haughty.

"What did Clodia mean by what she said to you?"

"When?"

"She asked if you had gotten the little statue of Attis. You said yes, and then she said, 'Good, now you're one of us.' "

"Did she say that?"

"Bethesda, I'm in no mood to be teased."

"She only meant that I had been accepted by the other women here on the Palatine. The women who matter, anyway.

Thanks to Clodia."

"Is that all she meant?"

"What do you mean, is that all? Think of it, of where I come from, who I am. I dreaded it when we moved from the farm back to Rome, into such a house, such a neighborhood. I never let you see how I felt, of course, but it was just as I feared. They treated me very badly at first."

"Treated you badly?"

"Ignored me, shut me out. But after tonight, things will change. The others will treat me differently. As if I were one of them."

This struck me as highly unlikely, but I shrugged. "Why not? Almost anything seems to be possible in Rome these days."

For some reason Bethesda took offense at this comment and didn't say another word to me all the way home.

Diana had stayed up for us. She demanded that her mother tell her everything about the party. While they settled in Diana's room, talking of what the women had worn and how they had dressed their hair, I escaped to our bedroom.

I stripped off my toga and put on a shabby tunic. I kept a lamp burning so that Bethesda could find her way around the room. I lay down on the sleeping couch and shut my eyes against the flickering light, but I couldn't sleep. I had drunk too much, eaten too much, heard too much poetry. From down the hall I could hear Diana's and Bethesda's muffled laughter. The sound reminded me of the sound of distant laughter in the garden, when Clodia had kissed me…

I had asked her for something, hadn't I? The poison, that was it! The gorgon's hair, so that I could compare it to the same stuff that Eco had given me to safeguard. Again, I had come home without it. Of course, I didn't really need Clodia's sample to make the comparison; I remembered clearly enough what the stuff had looked like. I had held it up to the lamplight, while Chrysis twisted in the corner and sobbed…

I shifted on the sleeping couch, determined to fall asleep, but the laughter from Diana's room kept me up, and my thoughts kept twisting endlessly in space, like Chrysis suspended upside down from the ceiling. Finally I got up and reached for the lamp.

There was a little storage room down the hallway from our bedroom, cluttered with rolled rugs and folded chairs and wooden boxes. After a brief search I found the strongbox amid the jumble. I tried to remember where I had hidden the key, and then realized I didn't need it. The little lock on the strongbox had been broken.

I took the box into the bedroom and set down the lamp so that it would light the inside.

There wasn't much inside the box-a blood-encrusted dagger that had been important at another trial, a few letters and some other mementos that I didn't want anyone else to touch. Among them was the little pyxis of poison that Eco had asked me to keep for him, not wanting to have it in his own house with the twins.

I picked up the pyxis by the rim of the lid, which came open. I gave a jerk, thinking I had clumsily spilled the contents, then realized there were no contents to be spilled.

The pyxis was empty. Only a few traces of poison remained, com-pacted against the inside corners of the box, identical to the crumbly yellow powder that Clodia had shown me.

What did it mean?

I set the pyxis aside and looked in the strongbox again, thinking the poison must have spilled inside. I saw no yellow powder, but I did see something else, a small object easily overlooked: an earring. It was a simple design, a little silver crook with a green glass bead for ornament. I recognized it at once; it was one of Bethesda's old earrings.

The crook of the earring was bent. I looked again at the broken lock of the strongbox. The metal facing was scored with tiny scratches. The aperture was small; the crook of the earring would have been ideal for poking inside.

What had happened was obvious: the earring had been used to force the lock.

I sat and stared dumbly at the earring, the strongbox and the empty pyxis, at first puzzled, then stunned, then furious.

Diana and her mother gave a start when I pushed aside the curtain and stepped into the room. I held the empty pyxis in my outstretched hand.

"Can you explain this?" I said, trying to keep my voice steady.

They both looked at me as if they hardly knew me. Would I have known myself in a mirror at that moment?

Neither of them spoke. "I asked if you could explain this." I said. They stared at me dumbly.

"Very well. It needs no explaining." I held up the earring. "You must have been in a considerable hurry, Bethesda, to have left this behind. That was careless, very careless. Didn't you realize I'd find eventually?"

She stared blankly at the earring. "Please, Bethesda, don't pretend that you don't recognize it. Even I recognized it, and you claim I neve notice jewelry! It's one of a pair that you've had for years." I sighed

suddenly more sad than angry. "Did gaining her favor mean so much to you? Did you not know how she would use the poison-not just to fool the court, but to make a fool of me!" I snapped the pyxis shut and threw the earring on the floor. Diana gave a start and drew against her mother, frightened. For a moment I felt ashamed, but then my anger returned. I paced the floor.

"She's made a fool of you as well, can't you see that? Inviting you to her party, giving you that abominable statue, making you think you could belong to her circle. Sharing shameful secrets with you, whispering behind my back in the garden! She made up whatever you wanted to hear, I imagine. She's had a lot of practice at that. It's what she does with her lovers, so why not with you? Did you really think she wanted to be your friend, a woman who talks about her ancestors as if they were gods, stooping to share gossip with a woman who was born a slave?"

I stopped my pacing, trying to quiet my rage, but I only grew angrier. I clutched the pyxis so hard that the corners cut the palm of my hand. "Wife, you have taken part in deceiving me! Do you deny it?"

Bethesda made no answer.

"You have deliberately deceived me! Do you deny it?" "Mother-" said Diana, clutching at Bethesda's arm. Bethesda covered the girl's face and pulled Diana against her breast to quiet her. "Do you deny it?" I shouted.

Bethesda looked steadily into my eyes, shrewd and unflappable to the last. "No, husband. I do not deny it." "You took part in deceiving me?"

"Yes."

We stared at each other for a long moment. Bethesda never blinked. I threw the pyxis on the floor and left the room in a rage. My shouting had roused Belbo, who rushed after me as I raced out the door and up the night-dark street.

The polite manner of knocking on a door is with the foot, but that night I used my fist to bang on Clodia's door. The banging reverberated in the still night air, loud enough to wake neighbors, I thought, but the slaves took a long time to answer. Did the noise frighten them, or did they simply think me rude? At last a slotted peephole slid open and two eyes peered out. Even in the darkness I recognized them by the single brow above them.

"I want to see your mistress, Barnabas."

"It's late. You can see her tomorrow at the trial."

"No, I must see her tonight."

The eyes studied me dispassionately. I realized how I must look, wearing my sleeping tunic, my hair mussed. The peephole closed. I paced back and forth on the narrow doorstep while Belbo stood in the street behind me, yawning and blinking.

At last the door opened. I slipped inside, but Barnabas closed the door in Belbo's face.

He led me through the foyer, down the steps and across the garden By the light of a few low-burning lamps I was able to see that the garden was not entirely deserted. Coupled figures moved and whispered in the shadows. Suddenly, like a fawn in the forest, a naked girl went running across our path, taking great bounding strides. It was the girl who had dined with Senator Fufius. She turned her head and gave a startled laugh as she passed, then vanished. A moment later Fufius, naked and drunk, went chasing after her.

Barnabas led me into the red-paneled room off the garden. He set a lamp on a small table and left. I had plenty of time to study the nymphs and satyrs on the walls before Clodia appeared in the doorway. Her hair was unpinned and hung down past her shoulders. She wore a transparent white robe belted only at the waist, so that it was open between her breasts. The naked patch of flesh shimmered in the red light reflected off the walls. She smiled wearily.

"If you wanted to stay, Gordianus, why did you leave? Ah yes, to take Bethesda home. But now you're back. Did someone at the party catch your eye?" She moved sinuously toward me, her eyes heavy-lidded, a faint smile on her lips.

"You had a slave tortured today for no reason."

The lids became heavier. The smile stiffened. "That again? Please, Gordianus, surely a man of your age has accustomed himself to the ways of the world."

"Some things a man never gets used to. Lies, deceptions, conspiracy. "

"What are you talking about?"

"And bribery, of course. That's what the silver was for, wasn't it? Not for purchasing slaves to testify, but an outright bribe, nothing more or less-so that when the time came I would do whatever you wanted. The man whose honesty was boasted of by Cicero himself-that's why you wanted me in the first place, thinking I'd come in handy somehow or other. Ah, yes: we'll throw the fellow in Cicero's face on the last day of the trial. Let Cicero spin out his oration, then have this fellow who Cicero says is honesty personified take the stand and make Cicero look like an idiot. Did you think you could buy me with silver? Or have you

never met a man whom silver, or that smile of yours, couldn't purchase?" "Really, Gordianus, it's awfully late in the evening -" "-and late in the trial for me to be upsetting your scheme. The

supposed delivery of the poison at the Senian baths-were you behind

that as well?"

"Don't be absurd!"

"Perhaps it was a part of your scheme, perhaps it wasn't. But what-ever your intention, something went wrong. The evidence against Caelius that you hoped to capture, or manufacture, never came together. You realized that the mere allegation that Caelius wanted to poison you was too thin to impress the judges. So you came up with this further scheme. How did you know there would be poison in my house? Or did Bethesda just happen to volunteer the knowledge, and you instantly saw how to make use of it?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. I told you, Gordianus, it's

late-"

"Did you merely fake the symptoms? Your brother's physician could have told you how to do that, once you showed him what kind of poison you'd come up with. Or did you actually swallow a bit of the stuff, letting him advise you on the dose-not enough to kill you, certainly, but just enough to make you sick, to make your performance perfect, to be sure that you fooled me and everyone else. Yes, I think that would be more like you, to exercise your dramatic flair to the limit, to court a bit of danger, to play for the highest possible stakes. But to hand that poor slave girl over to the torturers for the sake of authenticity-that was really going too far, Clodia, even for you. Of course, you could be sure that she'd tell them the story exactly as you wanted, since they'll only hand her back to you once they're finished, and if she hasn't done her job properly you can make things even worse for her. This absurdity of torturing slaves to get at the truth-"

"You've gone completely mad, Gordianus. You're raving."

"Then why do I suddenly feel so perfectly lucid, for the first time since I met you, really. It's just as they say: you cast a spell. I thought I'd be immune, but only a fool could think that, and that's what you've played me for. But now my eyes are open, and I have to wonder just how deeply you've dug yourself into this campaign of destruction against Mar-cus Caelius. If the poison charges are a fake, then what about the murder charges? What about Dio-'that poor wretch,' as you call him? Might you have had some hand in murdering him-for no better reason than to incriminate Marcus Caelius?"

"Ridiculous! When Dio died, Caelius and I were still-"

"Then perhaps Caelius did take part in the murder. But who's to say that your brother isn't ultimately behind it all, if he and Caelius were still allies then, just as you and Caelius were still lovers? And this money you loaned to Caelius, that you claim he used in his poison plot against Dio-perhaps you knew all along what the money was for; perhaps the plot was your idea to begin with, and Caelius just another of your puppets My eyes are open, Clodia, yet everything becomes more and more obscure to me. In light of my growing confusion, I think I should decline to testify at the trial tomorrow, don't you? Not for the prosecution, anyway. Perhaps I might testify for the defense-yes, let Cicero call the most honest man in Rome to talk about how Clodia set him up to make Marcus Caelius look like a would-be poisoner." "You wouldn't dare!"

"Wouldn't I? Then I suggest that you drop everything to do with this fake poisoning. Tear up the deposition that Chrysis gave under torture. Don't whisper a word about the gorgon's hair poisoning when you testify. Do you understand? Because if you do, I'll give testimony myself and refute everything you say. How will your case against Caelius look then, with your own scheme exposed? So much for the shocking revelations that Herennius promised as a climax to the trial!"

Clodia's eyes flashed. Her lips trembled. Fury flared on her face and then dimmed as she struggled to contain it. Once again I was struck by her wan and haggard look-was she really mad enough to have poisoned herself deliberately? Was she so totally, relentlessly consumed with destroying Caelius? What was such a love like, to end in such hatred and degradation? And most puzzling of all, at least to me: at that moment- her body ravaged by self-induced poisoning, her duplicity exposed, her scheme to use me in tatters-how could Clodia still look so breathtakingly beautiful to my eyes? So beautiful that I couldn't stand to look at her, but had to turn my back and look elsewhere, at the rutting nymphs and satyrs who cavorted with mindless, guiltless, sterile passion on the walls.

"Outrageous," she finally muttered. "What you say is utterly outrageous. Where do I begin? It's absurd. It's mad. Has Caelius somehow gotten to you? Or Cicero? Why have you turned against me, Gordianus?'

"I told you in the beginning, my only interest was to find Dio's killer. I won't be used as a tool to help satisfy your spite against an ex-lover. I suppose you're accustomed to using men and having them enjoy it, but I have no appetite for that sort of thing, Clodia."

"Yes, I could tell that from the beginning." Her voice was low and weary. Though my back was turned, I sensed her approach. I felt her warm breath against the back of my neck. "That's why I never tried to use that sort of persuasion with you. You'd only have seen through it, resented it. You're an unusual man, Gordianus. I'm not used to such strength, such integrity-yes, just as Cicero said. Lucky Bethesda! So I never considered seducing you, Gordianus. I rejected the thought, know-ing it would only offend you. Even though I was tempted, more than once.

I took a deep breath and turned to face her. The expression on her face was dejected, poignant, utterly convincing. "Clodia. You are a remarkable woman. You never give up, do you?"

I expected a flash of anger or the hint of a smirk, but her expression only became more perplexed, more pained. "Remarkable!" I whispered.

I stepped past her, suddenly anxious to leave, thinking that I might yet do something I would later regret. But the doorway was filled by a tall, imposingly muscular young man who stood with his arms crossed, wearing only a tiny loincloth. Catullus's lampoon was uncannily, unerringly accurate. Even as he made a point of blocking my exit, Egnatius the Spaniard had a grin on his face.

"Who is this worm?" he said. "Should I smash his face in?"

"Shut up, you fool," growled Clodia. "Get out of his way."

Egnatius stepped aside. As I passed I wrinkled my nose. It was stale wine I smelled, but I pretended otherwise. "Is that urine on your breath?"

The Spaniard's grin finally cracked.

Chapter Twenty Three

Belbo was waiting for me outside the front door. Without a word I started walking down the street, then realized I had no idea where to go. Going home to Bethesda was out of the question.

I might have imposed on Menenia, but what would my daughter-in-law have thought if I came begging for a place to sleep in the middle of the night? If only Eco would come back… Suddenly Belbo grunted and pulled me aside. His alarm was caused by a figure who stood concealed in the shadows of

a doorway. Poor Belbo thought the man might be a thief or killer. I knew better.

I shook my head, partly in disgust, partly in relief. "Catullus! Don't you have any better place to be at this time of night?"

"No. And neither do you, apparently." He stepped from the doorway to show a face that looked as haggard and pained as my final glimpse of Clodia's face. We stared at each other in the moonlight. "I hope I don't look as wretched as you do," said Catullus.

"I was about to say the same thing to you."

He managed a crooked smile. "What shall we do?"

"Wait for the sun to come up, I suppose."

"And until then? Where shall we go?"

"Where else?"

The Salacious Tavern was doing great business on the eve of the festival. We were lucky to find places to sit.

"I don't like the look of this place, Master," said Belbo. "Ah, but some of the girls seem to like the looks of you, big fellow," said Catullus. Belbo looked around uncertainly.

"I don't suppose we'll run into Marcus Caelius and his friends again." I surveyed the crowd through the amber haze of lamplight and smoke.

"Here? In the middle of his trial?" Catullus barked a laugh. "Not likely. Don't you imagine he's home with papa and mama, humming funeral dirges and looking through his wardrobe for something suitably shabby to wear tomorrow? 'Oh, Papa, I know I'm supposed to look down-trodden, but can I help it if I look stunning in everything?' "

Even Belbo cracked a smile. Wine was brought. Catullus drank greedily and wiped his mouth. "What were you doing in her house tonight, wearing nothing but an old sleeping tunic?"

"Catullus, please! No more of this nonsense about her… and

me.

"Then why?"

"There was some unfinished business between us." "In the middle of the night?" "It couldn't wait."

He snorted, then called to the serving slave for more to drink. I swirled the untouched wine in my cup. "If Caelius is guilty of all those crimes against the Alexandrian envoys, isn't that enough? Why would she feel compelled to manufacture new charges against him? You know her better than I do. Would she actually poison herself in order to make others think that Caelius had poisoned her?"

"You're distracting me with riddles," grumbled Catullus. "It's Clodia who's driven us both to distraction." "Lesbia!" he insisted.

I stared at my wine and felt queasy. "If I'm going to drink any of this, I'll need to cut it with plenty of water."

"Well, then, we'll have the man fetch you some fresh water from the Appian aqueduct!"

"You mean the one that her ancestor built for us?" I said. "Exactly!" Catullus smirked. "Then we can head out on one of the roads her ancestors so thoughtfully laid down for us-"

"And pour a libation to a god in one of the temples they erected for us."

Catullus laughed. "I see she's given you the grand speech about the feats of her ancestors and their incomparable largesse. Rome would still be a pigsty beside the Tiber if it hadn't been for all those Appius Claudii at the dawn of history."

"So Clodia-Lesbia-seems to think."

"But I'll wager she didn't tell you about the Appius Claudius who tried to rape Verginia." "No. A scandal?"

"Well, it's not one of those edifying ancestor legends the Clodii like to repeat to every stranger they meet. But the story's just as true and it tells more about Lesbia than all that crowing about aqueducts and roads."

"Tell me."

Catullus paused to hold out his cup to the serving slave, but provided such a wobbly target that the wine spilled all over the floor. "Perhaps you've had enough," I said. "Perhaps you're right." "What I need is a bed under my back." Catullus burped and nodded. "Me, too." "Where are you staying in the city?"

"I keep some rooms in a place up on the Palatine. Just a bed and some books. Do you want to go there?" "You'd share your bed with me?"

"You wouldn't be the first!" Catullus laughed. "Bring along your slave to play watchdog. He can sleep on the floor in the anteroom and start barking if he hears you cry 'rape!' "

Catullus's place on the Palatine was as sparsely furnished as he had said. Against one wall was a large sleeping couch. Against the other was a pigeonhole bookcase filled with scrolls.

He saw me squinting at the little tags in the dim lamplight. "Greek poetry, mostly," he explained, taking off his toga. "Books and bed. All a man needs. Anything more would only distract from the experience."

"Of reading the books?"

"Or using the bed." He slipped into a tunic and fell back onto the sleeping couch. "Come on, there's room enough for two. Though I warn you, I'm drunk enough that I might attack you."

"I'm an old man with stiff joints and a grizzled beard."

"Yes, but you smell irresistible."

"What?"

"You smell of her perfume."

"And you stink of wine, Catullus. Better than urine, I suppose."

"What?"

I told him briefly of my encounter with Egnatius, thinking it would amuse him that I had been able to use something from his poem for my own parting shot, not realizing until I was well into the story that telling it was a mistake.

"Then he's with her right now," he said, gritting his teeth. "Egnatius and Lesbia. Damn them both!"

"You started telling me a story at the tavern," I said, thinking to distract him.

"A story?"

"A scandal about one of her ancestors. An Appius Claudius. Not the builder of the temple, or the aqueduct-"

"Oh yes, the one who tried to rape Verginia. The only ancestor they don't like to talk about. Yet he exemplifies the current generation better than any of those virtuous paragons on their pedestals. You asked me if she would do something as mad as poisoning herself, just to spite a lover. Of course she would. It's in her blood."

"Her blood?"

"Here, I'll tell you the story. This was long ago, in the first days of the republic, after the kings had been thrown down but before the patricians and plebeians found a way to live together in peace. The chronology's rather vague to me-I'm a poet, not a historian!-but at some point a group of ten strongmen managed to seize control of the state. The called themselves decemvirs and set off a reign of terror. For the good of Rome, of course-to solve the current crisis, in response to the growing emergency, et cetera, et cetera."

"And Appius Claudius was one of these decemvirs?"

"Yes. Now there was also in Rome at this time a beautiful young girl named Verginia, the daughter of Verginius. She was a virgin, betrothed to a rising young politician. But one day Appius Claudius happened to see her on her way to the girls' school in the Forum and fell head over heel in lust for her. He followed her everywhere, in the streets and markets, trying to lure her away from the watchful eyes of her nurse, determined to seduce her. But Verginia was a virtuous girl and wanted nothing to do with the lecher. She spurned him outright, but the more she rejected him, the more determined he was to have her.

"Finally he hatched a scheme to get his hands on her, if only for long enough to give her a poke. He waited until her father was away on military duty, then gave instructions to one of his lackeys, a man named Marcus. One morning, when Verginia was entering the Forum with her nurse to attend the girls' school, Marcus and some of his men seized her. The people around were shocked and wanted to know what was happening. Marcus said that the girl was his slave and he was reclaiming her. People knew perfectly well that Verginia was the daughter of Verginius, but they also knew that Marcus was Appius Claudius's lackey and they were afraid of him, so when he made such a show of blustering about justice and the law and his rights they allowed him to take Verginia off to the tribunal to decide the matter legally.

"Of course the sole presiding judge was none other than the decemvir Appius Claudius. His lackey Marcus recited a preposterous story that Verginia was not Verginius's daughter at all-she was actually the daughter of one of his own slaves and had been stolen from his house as an infant and palmed off on Verginius as his own flesh and blood. Marcus claimed he could produce the evidence for all this later. The point was that the girl was actually a slave, his slave, and he was reclaiming her as was his legal right.

"Up on the tribunal, Appius Claudius pretended to consider all this as if he'd just heard it for the first time, when of course he was the author of the plot. You can imagine him moving his lips along with Marcus as the man recited the lines Appius had written for him! Finally he declared that only a formal hearing could determine the girl's status. Virginia's friends explained that her father was away on military duty, but could be back in Rome the next day. Appius Claudius agreed to hear the case then. In the meantime, he ruled, the girl would remain in the custody of Marcus. Verginia shrieked! The crowd shouted in protest and the girl's nurse fainted dead away, but Appius Claudius pointed out that according to the law Marcus couldn't be made to hand the girl over to the custody of anyone but her father, and since Verginius was not present, she would therefore have to remain in Marcus's custody until such time as her father arrived to claim her. Verginia would be in Marcus's hands- in Appius Claudius's power-for the whole night to come. Can't you see the fox licking his chops up on the tribunal, playing with himself beneath his toga?

"The ruling was crazy, and there was plenty of muttering and indignation, but nobody ventured to speak openly against it. That's how cowed the people were under the rule of the decemvirs. Marcus started to leave the court, hustling the weeping Verginia along with him.

At this point Verginia's betrothed young lover, the rising politician, arrived on the scene, and delivered an outraged speech about how Appius Claudius was using the law to make slaves of everyone in Rome just for the purpose of satisfying his own lust. He would die himself, the young man vowed, before he would let his betrothed spend a night away from her father's house. The girl was a virgin, and it was a virgin he intended to marry.

"He stirred the crowd to a frenzy. Appius Claudius called for armed lictors to keep order, and threatened to have the young orator arrested for starting a riot. But to keep the situation from getting completely out of hand, Appius Claudius agreed to let the girl go home with her uncle for the night and made the man post a huge bond in silver to make sure Verginia would show up for her hearing.

"At dawn the next morning the city woke in a fever of excitement. Verginius, back from his military duty, appeared in the Forum leading his daughter by the hand – he in mourning, she in rags, followed by all the women of the family making lamentations. There was a trial, or something resembling a trial, with each of the sides presenting arguments and Appius Claudius presiding as sole judge. Evidence and common sense counted for nothing. The verdict was decided before the trial began. As soon as the arguments were finished, Appius Claudius announced that Verginia was the slave of Marcus, not the daughter of Verginius. Marcus was free to claim his property.

"The crowd was stupefied. Nobody uttered a word. Marcus began pushing his way through the crowd, heading for Verginia. The women around her burst into tears. Verginius shook his fist at Appius and cried out, 'I meant my daughter for a bridal bed, not for your brothel! No man who owns a sword will put up with this sort of outrage!'

"Appius Claudius was prepared for this. He'd received alarming reports of an uprising being planned against the decemvirs, he claimed, and so just happened to have a troop of armed lictors on hand to keep order. He called them out and told them to draw their swords and clear the way so that Marcus could claim his property. Anyone who obstructed this act of justice would be killed on the spot as a disturber of the peace. Marcus strode forward through the cordon of steel and laid his hands on Verginia.

"Verginius finally seemed to lose heart. With tears in his eyes he called to Appius Claudius: 'Perhaps I have been terribly mistaken all these years. Yes, perhaps you're right and the girl isn't really my daughter after all. Let me take the child and her nurse aside for just one moment so that I can talk to them both privately. If I can reconcile myself to this mistake, I can give her up without violence.' Appius granted this request, though in retrospect one has to wonder why. Perhaps he wanted to savor the actual moment of acquiring the girl, of seeing her fall into Marcus's clutches, and didn't mind an excuse for stretching out the ordeal just a bit longer.

"Verginius took his daughter to a little street off the Forum. He ran into a butcher's shop, grabbed a knife, and ran back to Verginia. Before anyone could stop him, he stabbed her in the heart. She died in his arms, convulsing and spitting blood, while he stroked her hair and whispered to her over and over, 'It was the only way to set you free, my child, the only way.' He staggered back into the Forum carrying her body. The crowd parted for him, stunned into silence, so that Verginius's cries echoed through the Forum.

'This blood is on your hands, Appius Claudius! The curse of my virgin daughter's blood is on your head!' "

Catullus fell silent. I stared into the darkness above us. "Quite a story," I finally said. "What happened next?"

"Verginius and the young man who was to have been his son-in-law led an uprising. The decemvirs were brought down. Appius Claudius was arrested."

"Was he punished?"

"He killed himself in prison, awaiting trial."

"No wonder the Clodii don't brag about him. But I don't see how the story relates to your Lesbia."

"Don't you? You see, there's this particular strain of madness in their blood. Yes, the Clodii have a heritage of building, creating, rising to glory and triumph. But there's also this other aspect, this unwholesome tendency to obsess, this inability to see beyond a thing they desire but cannot have. If they come to want a thing, they'll do anything to get it. Anything! And if their skewed judgment takes them down the wrong path, don't expect them to realize the error and turn back. Oh no, once set upon it, they'll run the course, even straight into disaster. And all in the name of love! They'll wager everything on the slim chance that when the dice are cast they'll score the Venus Throw."

"Are you sure you're speaking of Clodia? Or could it be yourself you're describing, Catullus?"

He was silent for a long moment. "I suppose I wouldn't love her as I do if we weren't alike in certain ways."

He was quiet then for so long that I thought he must have fallen asleep, until he murmured, "Cicero speaks tomorrow."

"What?"

"At the trial."

"Yes."

"She should have known better than to take him on. Cicero is a dangerous man."

"I know. I saw what he did to Catilina when he made up his mind to destroy him. All it took were words."

"Clodia thinks everything comes down to bodies, and sex. She doesn't understand the power of words. It's why she thinks my poetry is weak." He was quiet, then said, "Cicero was in love with her once. Did you know that?"

"I once heard a very vague rumor of some such thing, but it sounded like nonsense to me. Cicero, in love with anyone but himself?"

"Infatuated, anyway. He was great friends with her husband, Quintus. Always visiting their house, back when Quintus was alive and the place was… well, respectable enough for a man like Cicero to feel at home. Clodia was a lot more restrained back then; more discreet, anyway. I think she rather liked having to carry on her affairs behind someone else's back-the secret meetings, the danger of getting caught, the wicked thrill of cuckolding her husband. And of course, a married woman can simply turn her back on a lover the moment she tires of him… "

"But Cicero? Preposterous. He despises people like her."

"Are there other people like Clodia?"

"You know what I mean."

"Perhaps he despises her now, but back then… this was during the worst part of Clodia's marriage, the last few years before Quintus died, when the two of them fought all the time, even in front of company. Especially in front of company. They fought about everything-Clodia's affairs, her brother's career, money, politics. I've always thought that's what intrigued Cicero-seeing her at her most argumentative. He could ignore the fact that she was beautiful, but she was also clever and sharp-tongued. A voluptuous beauty who could argue a man like Quintus into the ground-well, Cicero developed quite a fascination for her. That happens to men like him sometimes, who keep their natural appetites all bottled up. Suddenly they find themselves madly in love with the most inappropriate person. I suspect Clodia was a bit intrigued by him- the perverse attraction of opposites. I'm not sure whether they ever did anything about it. She told me they did, but I figured she was just lying to hurt me. This was years ago, but it makes him all the more dangerous to her now."

"Dangerous?" I said, not quite sure what he meant. I was getting very sleepy.

"Men like Cicero don't like to dwell on that sort of memory. They see it as weakness. They prefer to stamp it out."

I tried to imagine Cicero as a lover-prim, dyspeptic Cicero-but I was too sleepy to make the mental effort, or too afraid it would give me bad dreams.

"Tomorrow-oh, no, light's coming through the shutters. The sky's beginning to lighten already," Catullus groaned. "Not tomorrow, then: today. Today the Great Mother festival begins, and down in the Forum, someone will be destroyed."

"How can you be certain?"

He tapped his earlobe. "The gods whisper in a poet's ear. Today, someone will be publicly annihilated. Humiliated. Ruined forever." "You mean Marcus Caelius."

"Do I?"

"Who else?"

He stretched his body in a paroxysm of yawning. "Things could go one way or the other. Even the gods will have to wait and see."

"What do you mean?" I murmured. Then I must have fallen asleep or else Catullus did, because I never heard him answer.

PART FOUR

NEXUS

Chapter Twenty Four

After a fitful hour or two of sleep I opened my eyes. Morning

I light was creeping in around the shuttered windows, but 1 think it was Catullus's snoring that woke me. I crept to the anteroom, kicked Belbo awake, and told him to run home as fast as he could and fetch my best toga. He was back before I had finished washing my face.

"I suppose someone was minding the door," I said, while he helped me dress. "Yes, Master."

"Was there any word of Eco?" "No, Master."

"Nothing at all?"

"Nothing, Master." "Was your mistress up?"

"Yes, Master."

"What did she have to say? Any message for me?"

"No, Master. She didn't say a word. But she looked -" "Yes, Belbo?"

"She looked more displeased than usual, Master."

"Did she? Come, Belbo, we'll need to hurry to catch the start of the trial. I'm sure we can find something to eat on the way. There'll be plenty of vendors out for the festival." As we were leaving, Catullus appeared from the bedroom, looking haggard and bleary-eyed. He assured me he would be down at the Forum before the trial started, but he looked to me as if he would have to be raised from the dead first.

Belbo and I arrived just as the defense was beginning its arguments With no slaves sent ahead to hold a chair for me, I found myself near the back of the crowd, which was even larger than the day before. I had to stand on tiptoes to see, but I had no trouble hearing. The well-trained orator's voice of Marcus Caelius rang through the square.

As Atratinus, the youngest of the prosecutors, had begun their case the day before, so young Caelius began his own defense; as Atratinus had dwelled on the defendant's character, so did Caelius. Was this the morally depraved, sensation-seeking, too-handsome young murderer that the prosecution had portrayed? One would never have known it from Caelius's appearance and manner. He was dressed in a toga so old and faded that even a poor man might have thrown it out. It must have come from a musty chest in his father's storage room.

His manner was as humble as his clothes were shabby. The fiery young orator famous for his rapid delivery and biting invectives spoke on this day in a calm, measured, thoughtful cadence, oozing with respect for the judges. He declared himself innocent of all charges; these horrible, spurious accusations had been lodged against him by people who had once been his friends but were now his enemies, and their only goal was to destroy him for their personal satisfaction. A man could hardly be blamed for the treachery of false friends; still, Caelius regretted his poor judgment in ever having associated with such people, for he could see the pain and suffering it had caused his father and mother, who were with him again today, dressed in mourning and barely controlling their tears. He regretted, too, the burden that the trial had placed on his loyal friends, beloved mentors and trusted advocates, Marcus Crassus and Marcus Cicero, two truly great Romans whose example he had admittedly failed to live up to, but to whom he would turn again for renewed inspiration when this ordeal had passed, provided the judges in their wisdom saw fit to give him that chance.

Caelius was deferential but not servile; modest but not cringing; adamant about his innocence, but not self-righteous; saddened by the wickedness of his enemies but not vindictive. He was the model of an upstanding citizen falsely accused and confidently looking to the revered institutions of the law to give him justice.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see the bloodshot eyes of Catullus. "I don't suppose I've missed much blood and gore yet," he said.

"Milk and honey is more like it," quipped a man nearby. "This fellow Caelius wouldn't harm a fly!" There was a ripple of laughter, then a round of shushing from those who wanted to hear every word of the speech.

"Milk can curdle," Catullus whispered in my ear, "and sometimes you find a bee drowned in the honey, with its stinger intact." "What do you mean?"

"Caelius fights better with a sword than with a shield. Wait and listen."

Sure enough, the tone of Caelius's speech began to change, as if, having gotten the necessary business of humbling himself out of the way, it was time for him to go on the offensive. The shift was so gradual, the insinuations of sarcasm so subtle, that it was impossible to say exactly when the speech was transformed from a meek protestation of innocence into a biting invective against his accusers. He attacked the speeches that had been made against him, pointing out their reliance on hearsay and circumstantial evidence, their lapses of logic, their obvious intent to besmirch his character. The prosecutors were made to look not just vindictive, but petty as well, and slightly absurd, not least because Caelius himself managed to maintain an aura of impeccable dignity while he insulted their logic and motives and assaulted them with vicious puns.

"Stingers in the honey," whispered Catullus.

"How did you know?"

He shrugged. "You forgot how well I know Caelius. I could lay out the entire course of his speech for you. For example, he'll be turning to her next." He looked toward the bench where Clodia sat, and the sardonic smile on his lips faded until he looked as grim as she did.

Sure enough, Caelius proceeded to make a veiled attack on Clodia, though not by name. Behind the prosecution and its sham arguments, he said, there was a certain person intent on doing him harm – not the other way around, as she had charged. The judges would know whom he meant-"Clytemnestra-for-a-quadrans." The crude joke, implying that Clodia was both a husband-killer and a cheap whore, elicited a wave of raucous laughter. Where had I heard it before?

"I make no claim to being ignorant of the lady," said Caelius. "Yes, I know her-or knew her-quite well. To my discredit, alas, and to my dismay. But little to my profit; sometimes Cos in the dining room turns out to be Nola in the bedroom." This elicited more laughter and even some appreciative applause. The pun was multiple and all the more stinging for its wicked intricacy. Cos suggested the island from which Clodia's transparent silks had come, and therefore the open, vulgar allure of sex; Nola was famous for its impregnable fortress, which had resisted not just Hannibal but a siege by Clodia's own father. Cos also punned with coitus, sex, and Nola with nolo, or no sex. In other words, what the lady lewdly promised at dinner was later frigidly withheld in the bedroom. With a single turn of phrase, and without saying anything explicit, Caelius had managed to suggest that Clodia was not just a temptress but a tease (likely to give poor value even for a quadrans!), to suggest that he had never actually slept with her, and to remind the court of one of her father's military defeats, the siege of Nola. After a moment's pause there was another smattering of applause, as more listeners realized just what a gem of compression Caelius had delivered.

Catullus didn't laugh or applaud, I noticed. "Wickedly clever," I said, wondering if he had missed the pun.

"Thank you," he muttered, apparently not listening. His eyes were on Clodia, who looked distinctly uncomfortable. Catullus smiled sadly.

Caelius expanded on the metaphor. Just as a man could be in the vicinity of Nola without breaching her walls (more laughter from those finally getting the joke), so one could be in the vicinity of Neapolis or Puteoli without being guilty of staging an attack on foreign visitors; or take an innocent stroll across the Palatine at night without dropping in to murder an ambassador. "Has it come to this?" said Caelius. "Not guilt by association, but guilt by geographical proximity? Shall a man's enemies follow his footsteps, note any crimes which happen to take place in the immediate area, and then accuse him so that he has no alibi? It seems hardly credible that even the most inept of advocates could expect a panel of Roman judges to take this kind of 'evidence' seriously. Assumptions should be based on what is seen, not unseen; known, not merely 'suspected.' "

He pulled a small object from the folds of his toga. A few spectators in the front rows laughed out loud when they saw what it was. "For instance," he went on, holding up the object so that it glinted in the sunlight, "when one sees a simple little pyxis such as this, what does one assume that it contains? A medicinal unguent of some sort, or a cosmetic powder, or a perfume infused into wax, perhaps-the sort of thing that anybody might take along to the baths. Or so a reasonable person might assume. A person of a more morbid state of mind might guess that something else was in the box-poison, perhaps. Especially if that person was herself well acquainted with using poison." From my distant vantage, there was no way I could be sure of what the pyxis looked like. It must have been only my imagination that perceived it to be made of bronze, with little raised knobs and inlays of ivory that caught the sunlight-identical to the pyxis that Caelius's confederate Licinius had brought to the Senian baths, and that had been left, filled with something unspeakable, on Clodia's doorstep as she lay poisoned in her house.

More laughter spread through the crowd. I looked at Clodia. Her eyes were aflame and her jaw like granite.

"An imagination of a particularly lewd bent might imagine something even more outrageous in such an innocent little pyxis-a token of spent desire, perhaps, deposited by a frustrated lover weary of trying to shimmy up Nola's walls." At this there were outright hoots of laughter. Somehow the story of the pyxis and its obscene contents must already have spread through the city. Who had repeated such a scandalous story- a slave in Clodia's household? Or the man who had sent her the box? It was clear from the look on Clodia's face that Caelius's brazen allusion to the indecent gift had taken her completely by surprise, and the callous amusement of the spectators appalled her even more. Caelius, never once looking at her, put the pyxis away and smiled blandly.

"Master!" Belbo tugged at my toga.

"Belbo, I'm trying to listen."

"But Master, he's here!"

I turned about, prepared to snap at him, then felt a surge of joy. Not far away, at the edge of the crowd, Eco stood on his toes peering into the sea of heads.

"Belbo, you sharp-eyed lookout! Come, he'll never spot us in this crowd. We'll go to him."

"You're not leaving, are you?" said Catullus.

"I'll be back."

"But the best is yet to come." "Memorize the jokes for me," I said.

We came upon Eco just as he was beginning to push his way into the throng. His tunic was dirty and his brow pasted with sweat, as might be expected of a man who had just finished a hard ride up from Puteoli. His face was haggard but when he saw us his eyes lit up and he managed a weary smile.

"Papa! No, don't hug me, please. I'm filthy. And sore! I rode all night, knowing the trial must have already started. It's not over,

is it?"

"Not yet. Another full day of speeches-" "Good. Perhaps there's still time, then." "Time for what?" "To save Marcus Caelius."

"If he needs saving," I said, thinking Caelius was doing a pretty good job of defending himself. "If he deserves to be saved."

"I only know that he doesn't deserve to be punished for Dio's murder."

"What are you saying?"

"Caelius didn't kill Dio."

"You're certain?"

"Yes. I found the slave girl, Zotica, the one who was with Dio the night he died… "

"If it wasn't Caelius and Asicius, then who?"

"I brought the girl back with me…"

Eco suddenly looked very

tired.

"The girl killed Dio?" I frowned. We had considered and rejected that possibility already. "No."

"But she knows who did?"

"Not exactly." Why would Eco not look me in the eye? "All I can say is that your intuition was right, Papa. The girl was the key."

"Well? What did you find out?"

"I think you'd better talk to her yourself, Papa."

The crowd behind us laughed at something, then laughed again, louder. I looked over my shoulder. "Caelius is just getting to the heart of his speech. Then Crassus will speak, then Cicero -"

"Still, I think you'd better come, Papa. Quickly, before the trial gets any further along."

"Can't you just tell me what the girl told you?"

His face darkened. "I don't think that would be wise, Papa. It wouldn't be fair."

"To whom, the slave girl?"

"Please, Papa! Come with me." The look on his face convinced me. What terrible secret had so unnerved my son, who had seen all the corruption and duplicity that Rome had to offer?

He had left the girl at his house in the Subura. We walked there as quickly as we could, threading our way through streets crowded with food vendors, acrobats and merry-makers.

"Where did you find her?" I asked, stepping out of the way of a drunken band of gladiators coming up the street. They snarled at Belbo as they passed.

"In one of the hill towns of the far side of Vesuvius, miles from Puteoli. It took some looking. First I had to find the brothel-keeper who'd bought the allotment of slaves that included Zotica. Do you have any idea how many establishments like that there are down on the bay? One after another told me he'd never seen Zotica, and they all wanted a bribe just to tell me that much, and even then they all seemed to be lying just to spite me. Finally I found the man who'd purchased her. But she'd been useless to him, he said. 'Worse than useless-nobody wants a girl with scars on her,' he told me, 'not even the mean ones.' Besides that, she'd turned wild." "Wild?"

"That's what he calls it. I suppose a man like that tends to see slaves in conditions that most of us don't, or not very often. Her mind isn't quite right. Maybe she was always a little addled; I don't know. I think she must have been treated well enough in Coponius's house at the beginning, though the other slaves tended to pick on her. Then Dio came along. The girl was innocent, naive, maybe even a virgin. She had no idea of the kinds of things that Dio had in mind for her. She couldn't understand why he wanted to punish her when she'd done nothing wrong. She kept quiet about it at first, too afraid ofDio to resist him, too ashamed to tell anyone. When she finally did complain to the other slaves, some of them tried to intercede for her, but Coponius couldn't be bothered. Then, after Dio was killed, Coponius couldn't get rid of the girl fast enough. Since then she's been traded from hand to hand, abused, ill treated, unwanted. It must have seemed like a nightmare from which she couldn't wake up. It's done something to her mind. She can be perfectly lucid sometimes, but then… you'll see. It's made her unfit to be any kind of slave. When I finally found her she was living in the fields outside a farmer's house. He'd bought her for a kitchen slave and found her useless even for that. 'The girl's a scratcher and a biter,' he told me. 'Scratches and bites for no reason, like an Egyptian cat. Even beating won't do any good.' No one around would buy her, so the farmer turned her loose, like people do to old or crippled slaves, making them fend for themselves. I didn't even have to pay for her. I just had to find her, and then make her come with me. I thought I'd gained her trust, but even so she tried to run away twice, first outside of Puteoli and then again as we got close to Rome this morning. You see why it's taken me so long to get home. And I thought you were sending me on an easy job, Papa!"

"If the girl told you what we needed to know, maybe you should have let her go."

Darkness shadowed his face again. "No, Papa. I couldn't just repeat her story to you. I had to bring her back to Rome, so you could hear her for yourself."

Menenia was waiting for us at the door, with folded arms and an uncharacteristically sour look on her face. I thought the look must be for Eco, for having brusquely rushed off to find me after dropping off the slave girl-young wives expect a bit more attention from husbands arriving home after a trip. But then I realized that the look was aimed at me. What had I done, except quarrel with my wife and not come home last night? Menenia couldn't possibly know about that already-or could she? Sometimes I think that the ground beneath the city must be honeycombed with tunnels where messengers constantly run back and forth carrying secret communications between the women of Rome.

Eco had locked the girl in a small storage room off the kitchen. At the sight of us, she jumped up from the wooden chest where she'd been sitting and cowered against the wall.

"I imagine she's frightened of Belbo," said Eco.

I nodded and sent him out of the room. The girl relaxed, but only

a little.

"There's nothing to be afraid of. I already explained that to you, didn't I?" said Eco, in a voice more exasperated than comforting.

Under better circumstances, the slave girl Zotica might have been at least passably pretty. She was far too young for my taste, as flat and bony as a boy, but one could see the delicate beginnings of a woman's face in her high cheekbones and dark eyebrows. But now, with her unwashed hair all sweaty and tangled and dark circles beneath her eyes, it was hard to imagine her as the object of anyone's desire. She certainly had no place in a brothel. She looked more like one of those furtive, abandoned children who haunt the city's streets looking for scraps of food and run in packs like wild beasts.

Eco sighed. "Did you eat anything, Zotica? I told my wife to see that you were fed."

The girl shook her head. "I'm too tired to eat. I want to sleep."

"So do I. You can sleep soon. But now I want you to talk to someone."

The girl looked at me warily.

"This is my father," Eco went on, though I wondered what the word could mean to the child, who had probably never known a father. "I want you to tell him what you told me. About the man who came to stay at your master's house here in Rome."

The very mention of Dio caused her to shiver. "About how he died, you mean?"

"Not only that. I want you to tell him everything." The girl stared forlornly into space. "I'm so tired. My stomach hurts."

"Zotica, I brought you here so that you could tell my father about

Dio."

"I never called him that. I never even knew his name until you told me."

"He came to your master's house and stayed there for a time." "Until he died," she said dully.

"He abused you."

"Why did the master let him? I didn't think the master knew, but he did. He just didn't care. Then I was spoiled and he had to get rid of me. Now no one has any use for me."

"Look at her wrists, Papa. The rope cut them so badly that you can still see the scars."

"It's because I pulled at them," the girl murmured, rubbing at her wrists.

"He tied them so tight, then put me over the hook."

"The hook?" I said.

"There were metal hooks in the walls in his room. He'd tie my wrists and lift up my arms and trap me on the hook, so my toes barely touched the floor. My wrists would bleed. The rope would twist up even tighter when he'd turn me around. He would use me from the front, then the back. Beat and pinch and prod. Stuff things in my mouth to keep me quiet."

"You should see the scars, Papa, but I'd be ashamed to make her lift up her dress to show you. You realize she's talking about Dio." Eco looked at me accusingly, as if I were responsible for the secret vices of a man I'd admired for so many years. My face turned hot.

"A hook," I whispered.

"What?"

"A hook."

"Yes, Papa, imagine it!"

"No, Eco, it's something else…"

"Yes, there's more. Go on, Zotica. Tell him about that final night."

"No."

"You have to. After that, we'll leave you alone, I promise. You can sleep for as long as you want."

The girl shuddered. "He came in dressed…" She made a miserable face and shrugged. "Like a woman, I suppose. He looked awful. He made me come to his room. He made me take off my gown. 'Use it for a rag,' he said. "Wipe off this silly makeup.' He sat in a chair while I cleaned his face. He kept stopping me, fondling me, sliding his hand between my legs, making me bend over-acting just like always." The girl shook her head and hugged herself.

"But then he pushed me away. He made a face and grabbed his stomach. He crawled onto his bed and made me lie next to him. Because he was cold, he said. But he felt hot to me. He pressed himself against me naked and I felt like I was being burned wherever he touched me. Then he started shivering, so much that his teeth chattered, and he made me fetch him more blankets. He told me to lower the lamp because the light hurt his eyes. He tried to get up from the bed but he was too dizzy. I asked him if I should go for help, but he told me not to. He was afraid. More afraid than I'd ever seen anybody, even a slave about to be whipped. So afraid I almost stopped hating him. He covered himself with the blankets and rocked back and forth on the bed, clutching himself biting his hands. I stood across the room as far away as I could, hugging myself because I was naked and it was cold. Then he turned on his side and vomited on the floor. It was awful. He closed his eyes and wheezed and gasped for air. Then he was quiet. After a while I shook him, but he wouldn't wake up. I just sat there on the bed, looking at him for a long time, afraid to move. Then it was over." "What do you mean, over?"

She looked me in the eye for the first time.

"He died. I saw him die."

"How could you be sure?"

"His whole body suddenly shook with a terrible fit. He opened his eyes and his mouth gaped open, like he was going to scream, but nothing came out except a horrible rattle. I jumped up from the bed and stood against the wall. He seemed to have turned to stone just like that, with his eyes and mouth wide open. After a while I walked over to him and put my ear to his chest. There was no heartbeat. If you'd seen his eyes- anyone would know they were the eyes of a dead man."

"But the stab wounds," I said. "The window broken open, and the room a shambles-"

"Let her finish, Papa." Eco nodded to the girl.

"I didn't know what to do." Her jaw quivered and she wiped her eyes. "All I could think was that the master would blame me, and punish me. He would think that I killed the old man somehow. So I cleaned up the vomit-I used my gown, the one he'd already made me use for a rag to clean his face. Then I crept out of the room."

"Where the door slave Philo saw you in the hallway," I said. "Naked and weeping, clutching your gown. He thought Dio had finished with you early. But Dio was already dead. Did you tell your master?"

She shivered and shook her head.

"But why not?"

"All that night I lay awake in the slave quarters, thinking about what had happened. The master would think I had poisoned the old man. I didn't! But the master would think I did, and what would he do to me? I cried and cried, while the other slaves hissed at me to be quiet and go to sleep. But how could I sleep? Then there was an awful commotion from the old man's room. The whole house came awake. They'd broken into the room and found him. Now they'll come to me, I thought. They'll kill me, right here and now! My heart pounded in my chest so hard I thought I'd die."

She let out a sob, then twisted her lips into a crooked smile. "But something amazing had happened. They didn't blame me at all. They thought the old man had been stabbed to death. Killers had broken into his room after I left him, they said, and cut him up with knives. I didn't know what to think. But the master never blamed me, so I never told anybody what had happened. With the old man dead, I thought every-thing would be like it was before." The smile vanished. "But instead everything changed. The master sold me. Everything just got more and more awful… "

"You're safe now," said Eco gently.

The girl sagged against the wall and closed her eyes. "Please don't make me talk anymore. If only I could sleep… "

"No more talk," Eco agreed. "Stay here for now. One of the slaves will come to show you where you can sleep."

We left her weeping softly and muttering to herself, her face pressed against the wall as if she could somehow melt into it.

I followed Eco into the garden. "What does it mean?"

"It means that Dio was poisoned, Papa."

"But the stabbing -"

"He was stabbed after he was already dead. You remarked yourself how little blood there seems to have been for so many wounds, how the wounds were all close together in his chest and there was no sign that he put up a struggle. Because he was already dead."

"But someone broke into the room that night and scattered everything about. Someone stabbed him. Why?"

"Perhaps it was Titus Coponius himself, because he didn't want it to get out that Dio was poisoned under his roof, and he wanted to make the death look like the work of assassins. But that's not really the point,

is it?"

"What do you mean, Eco?"

"The important thing is that Dio was poisoned."

"But how? Where? By whom? We know that he would touch no food in Coponius's house. And only a short time before, he left my house with a full stomach! As cautious as he was, he wouldn't have eaten anything else that night."

"Exactly, Papa."

"Eco, say what you mean!"

"You needn't shout, Papa. You must be thinking the same thing."

I stopped pacing. We stared at each other.

"Perhaps."

"The symptoms the girl described: if it was poison, what do you

think-"

"Gorgon's hair," I said.

"Yes, I thought the same thing. Some time ago I gave you some gorgon's hair for safekeeping. I didn't want the stuff in my house with the twins. Do you remember?"

"Oh yes," I said. My mouth was dry.

"Do you still have it? Is it still where you put it?"

My silence gave him the answer. Eco nodded slowly. "The last meal Dio ate was at your house, Papa."

"Yes."

"That's where he must have been poisoned." "No!"

"Did someone use the gorgon's hair I gave you? Do you still have it or not?"

"Clodia!" I whispered. "She wasn't pretending to be poisoned, then. The gorgon's hair she showed me could have come from Caelius, after all. Certainly not from Bethesda-not if the gorgon's hair in my house had already been used… "

"What are you whispering, Papa?"

"But Caelius couldn't have killed Dio, not if he was poisoned first. You're right, he's innocent, of that crime at least… "

"I can't hear you, Papa." Eco shook his head, tired and exasperated. "The only thing I can't figure out is why anyone in your household would have wanted to poison Dio in the first place. Who knew the man, much less had any reason to want him dead?"

I thought of my old Egyptian mentor, who secretly liked to tie up young slave girls and abuse them, and particularly liked to bind their wrists and hang them on hooks. I remembered the women in my garden, exchanging secrets about men who had raped them when they were young. I thought of Bethesda when she had been a slave in Alexandria, and the powerful, respected master who had used her mother so cruelly that he killed her, and would have done the same to Bethesda if she hadn't fought back and found herself carted off to the slave market instead, where a poor young Roman smitten by her beauty emptied his purse to pay for her, never dreaming he would take her back to Rome and make her his wife, obliging her to serve dinner to his guests and to give the first heaping portion to an esteemed visitor such as Dio of Alexandria…

I had said to her,

You have deliberately deceived me!

Do you deny it?

And she had answered,

No, husband, I do not deny it. 'And I thought I understood!" "Papa, speak up-"

"Cybele help us!" I shook my head.

"I think I know the answer,

Chapter Twenty Five

Eco pressed me for an explanation, but I only shook my head. We made our way back to the Forum in silence through the hot, crowded streets of the Subura. The sky was cloudless and the sun directly overhead, casting a harsh, glaring light onto a world without shadows. Lit so brightly, objects became perversely indistinct. Edges ran together and views of the distance had no depth. The throngs of people going about their holiday

business seemed faceless. I stared at them, not quite able to make them out. Old or young, male or female, smiling or frowning, standing quietly or shoving their way through the street, all seemed blurred together and equally strange. The city itself was unreal, dreamlike and slightly absurd. This feeling only intensified as we entered the Forum and rejoined the immense crowd attending the trial of Marcus Caelius.

Catullus was where I had left him. "You missed Caelius's climax!" he said. "He did it into that little pyxis, to show everyone how. No, I'm only joking! But it was a good climax for all concerned. One thing about Caelius, he always strives to satisfy whoever he's with, not just himself. No judges or spectators left hankering and unfulfilled at Nola's walls, so to speak."

I stared at him blankly, unable to make sense of what he was saying. He went on, nonetheless. "Then you missed Crassus's whole speech. Just as well, actually. Nobody had a climax there! Seems Crassus was trying to get Caelius off the hook for all those killings on the way up from Neapolis, but if you ask me, Crassus never did learn how to give a decent speech. Plodding, plodding! Words, words, words, and not a memorable pun among them. He should stick to what he knows, making piles of money, and simply bribe the judges instead of boring them to death with bad rhetoric. He made Caelius look as guilty as Caelius managed to make, himself look innocent! It's all up to Cicero now. Who's this?" "My son," I said absently, and introduced Eco.

"Well, good, you're both here for the real speech. Cicero's about to begin. Come, let's see if we can't move up a bit…"

We managed to move considerably closer, so that I was able to see quite clearly the figure now stepping before the judges. Slender and frail when I first met him long ago, Cicero had become plump and thick-jowled in the years of his prosperity. The political triumph of his con-sulship had been followed by near-ruin, when his enemies managed to banish him; counterlegislation passed by Cicero's allies eventually welcomed him back, but not before the great man passed eighteen months in exile, during which time much of his property was destroyed by the mob. In his months away from Rome, Cicero had grown lean with worry, or so it was said. From the way his toga clung to his frame as he swaggered before the court, it looked to me that he had made short work of regaining both his girth and his stature.

Clodius had once been Cicero's political ally, then his nemesis. Even now Clodius was attempting to keep Cicero from rebuilding his ruined house on the Palatine, claiming that the property had been legally seized by the state and sanctified for religious use, and so could not be recovered by Cicero. The two enemies waged war against one another in every arena they could find-on the floor of the Senate, in courts of law, in the reading of omens by priests and augurs. Between them burned the kind of hatred that can be extinguished only by death.

That was reason enough for Cicero to hate Clodia, perhaps, since she was her brother's staunchest supporter and a party to his schemes. But what of the vague rumor which Catullus had repeated, about a stunted love affair between Clodia and Cicero, back when her brother and Cicero were allies? Perhaps he hated Clodia for reasons that had nothing to do with politics, or with Clodius. That would help to account for what he did to her that day. Or perhaps, like a good advocate, he simply did whatever was necessary to make sure Marcus Caelius was acquitted of the charges against him.

As I watched Cicero deliver the final oration of the trial-one of the finest of his career, some would later say-I felt as if I were watching a play. Like a play, the action seemed distant from me, the dialogue out of my control; I was a spectator, powerless to stop or alter the course of unfolding events. But a playwright strives to elucidate some truth, whether mundane and comic or grand and tragic. Where was the truth in this strange play? Who was the villain, and who the tragic figure? It seemed to me that I was witnessing the sort of play where the action becomes increasingly tangled and absurd, until there is no way out of the mess except to bring on a god or a messenger to deliver a speech that makes sense of everything. But the messenger from offstage had already arrived: Eco, bringing the slave girl up from the south. Now I knew the truth about Dio's death, but no one on the stage seemed to know-not Cicero, nor Caelius, nor Clodia. For me to reveal what I knew, to play the part of the god from the machine, was impossible. How could I incriminate my own wife?

I could only watch, helpless and mute, as the battle between Clodia and Caelius reached its climax. Poison, deception and false accusation had already been deployed to attack and counterattack. Now Cicero, like a hoary old general, was brought out to deliver the final assault. Words would be his weapon. She doesn't understand the power of words, Catullus had said of Clodia. She was about to learn, in front of all Rome.

"Judges," Cicero began, bowing his head respectfully and surveying the long rows of the jurymen, looking from face to face. "If there should be anyone present here today unfamiliar with our law courts and their customs, he must wonder at the terrible urgency of this particular case, seeing that all other public business has been suspended for the holiday and this is the one and only trial being held in the midst of public festivities and games. Such an observer would undoubtedly conclude that the defendant must be quite a dangerous fellow, a hardened renegade guilty of some crime so terrible that the whole state will collapse unless his transgressions are dealt with at once!

"One would explain to such an observer that we have a special law which deals with criminal behavior against the state. When traitorous Roman citizens take up arms to obstruct the Senate, or to attack magistrates, or to try to destroy the government itself, we are obliged to proceed with trying such men regardless of holidays. Our observer would surely not object to such a law, dedicated to the preservation of the state itself. But he would want to know exactly what sort of charges were involved in the present case. Just imagine his reaction at being informed that no real crime or outrage was before the court at all. Instead, a talented, vigorous, well-liked young fellow is being prosecuted by the son of a man against whom the defendant recently brought charges. Furthermore, the whole prosecution has been organized and financed by a whore."

The crowd collectively sucked in a breath. There were a few out-bursts of laughter which rang all the louder in the general silence. Caelius had made fancy allusions to Clytemnestra, and convoluted puns about Cos and Nola. He had even held up a pyxis and alluded to the story of the semen-filled box. But Cicero, in the first moments of his speech, had called Clodia an outright prostitute. It was an announcement and a warning: nothing would be held back. I tried to see Clodia's reaction, but the crowd had shifted and my view was blocked.

"What would our hypothetical observer think of all this?" Cicero continued. "No doubt he would conclude that the chief prosecutor should be excused for bringing such a flimsy case-Atratinus is very young and inexperienced, and his devotion to his father is understandable. Our observer would further conclude that the malicious tantrums of the woman in question ought to be better controlled, or at least confined to her bedroom. Also, good judges, our observer would conclude that you are being sorely overworked, since everyone but you has the day off!"

This brought a round of appreciative laughter from the front rows and a lessening of tension, except from the prosecutor's section, where I caught a glimpse of Clodia. Her face looked so rigid she seemed to be wearing a mask.

Cicero continued with a defense of Caelius's character. He dismissed whatever political differences might have put a distance between himself and his young protege. That was all over now. If Caelius had made mistakes, he was entitled to do so, as was every young man so long as he conducted himself with integrity and honesty.

"Ah, but the prosecutors have accused Caelius of being in debt, and thus, presumably, vulnerable to bad influences and a life of crime. They have demanded that he hand over his account books for inspection. My reply to this is simple. There are no account books! A young man like Caelius, still subject to his father's authority, doesn't keep his own account books. The prosecution says that Caelius has borrowed heavily, but they will be unable to show any proof of this. Ah, but he must have been living beyond his means, they say, because of that luxurious apart-ment he kept on the Palatine, which he rented from Clodius for the amazing sum (so they tell us) of thirty thousand sesterces a year. The figure is absurd! Ten thousand sesterces is more like it. Well, you can see what's going on here when you realize that Clodius recently put the building up for sale and is asking a lot more than it's worth. The pros-ecution is doing Clodius a favor by inflating his rent receipts, so that he can swindle some fool into paying him three times what that rat-infested eyesore is really worth!"

The crowd laughed. Cicero shook his head in mock dismay, but seemed barely able to keep from smiling at his own cleverness. A serious trial about the assassination of foreign dignitaries had suddenly become an inquiry into malicious female revenge and shady real estate dealings.

Was Caelius on trial for murder, or the Clodii for their vices? The crowd seemed happy to follow Cicero's lead so long as he amused them.

"You reproach Marcus Caelius for moving out of his father's house into that apartment on the Palatine, as if it showed him to be a bad son when in fact he took the place with his father's blessing. You imply that he moved there so that he could throw wild parties, when in fact he moved there because he was beginning his political career and needed a place closer to the Forum. But you're absolutely right when you say that it was a mistake for Caelius to take that apartment on the Palatine. What a source of grief the place turned out to be! That was when all his troubles

began or more precisely, when all this malicious gossip began-when our young Jason went a-journeying and found himself in the neighborhood of that Medea of the Palatine."

"Medea of the Palatine"-I had heard the phrase before, just as I had heard someone call Clodia "Clytemnestra-for-a-quadrans" before Caelius did so. It was Catullus, on the night he first took me to the Salacious Tavern.

Who calls her such things?

I had asked him

I do! I just made them up, out of my head. What do you think? I'll need some fresh invectives if I'm to get her attention again…

I turned and stared at Catullus, who kept his gaze straight ahead.

"I shall come back to this Medea and her part in this affair in due course," said Cicero, with a hint of menace. "Right now I should like to spare a few words for the so-called witnesses and the various fictions which have apparently been concocted to support the prosecution's case. One of these tales refers to a certain Senator Fufius. The old fellow will supposedly testify that during the election of pontiffs Caelius physically assaulted him. If the senator decides to go ahead and testify, I shall ask him why he did not press charges shortly after the alleged assault took place, instead of waiting so long. Does he come forward now on his own initiative, or at the behest of those behind the prosecution? If it's the latter, as I think we all know it must be, then what a sad reflection on the producers of this tawdry drama, that they can coerce only one member of the Senate into putting on an actor's mask and speaking the lines they've scripted!

"Nor am I impressed by the witnesses who will supposedly tell us how their virtuous wives were molested by Caelius on their way home from a dinner party one night. What high principles these outraged nighthawks must have, to wait until now to bring these charges. At the time, they didn't even ask to meet informally with Caelius to resolve any grievances they may have had.

"Supposedly there will be yet more witnesses, with shocking revelations. But I don't think we should count on hearing anything the least bit believable, or expect to see anyone even remotely credible on the witness stand. You know as well as I do, judges, the sort of riffraff that can be found loitering around the Forum on any given day, men with, nothing better to do who are willing to come forward and testify to almost anything under oath, so long as someone pays them to do so. If the prosecution insists on bringing hired actors into these proceedings, I have faith, gentlemen, that your experienced judgment and common sense will see through their testimony to the greed that underlies it."

Was it my imagination, or was Cicero looking directly at me? So much for the surprise witness whom Herennius had promised to bring forth, the man whose honesty had awed even Cicero! With a single pre-emptive remark I was dismissed as a bribed perjurer. The attack was wasted, of course. I had already refused to appear as Clodia's surprise witness. But that was when I had cause to think that her poisoning was a sham, that she had borrowed the gorgon's hair from Bethesda to deceive me. Now it seemed that she truly had been poisoned. I glanced at her face and saw how listless she still seemed. Had she really come so close

to death?

"For my part," Cicero continued, "I have no intention of troubling you with any witnesses. The facts of the case are solid and unshakable. The truth doesn't hinge on what a given witness may or may not say. What value is 'evidence' that can be distorted and manipulated or purchased outright? I prefer to use the rational method, rebutting error with proof, answering falsehoods with facts, laying everything open to the harsh scrutiny of reason.

"You've just heard my colleague Marcus Crassus do exactly that. He took on the charges about Caelius's role in the disturbances at Neapolis and Puteoli with such clear elucidation that I wish he had also dealt with the question of Dio's murder. But really, what more is there to be said about that matter? We all know the ultimate perpetrator of the crime. We also know that he fears no retribution and doesn't even bother to deny what he's done. The man's a king, after all, and not subject to Roman justice. Furthermore, the fellow who was accused of being that king's agent-Publius Asicius-has already stood trial. He was found innocent. Some say the trial was tainted, but I say that's nonsense-and I should know, as I defended Asicius myself. Now the prosecutors are trying to make us think that Caelius was another of the king's agents, that he was Asicius's confederate in that terrible murder. Where have the prosecutors been for the last few months? Could it be that they never got the news that Asicius was acquitted? What a waste of their time, and yours, judges, for them to try to link Caelius with Asicius, since Asicius was found innocent!" Cicero threw up his hands in exasperation.

"Let us move on to the heart of the matter. The prosecution has said a great deal about character. I agree absolutely that character is the central issue here, though not necessarily the character of Marcus Caelius. Yesterday, judges, I saw how closely you followed the arguments of my friend Lucius Herennius. He said a great deal about financial irresponsibility, unbridled lust, immorality, and other youthful vices. Herennius is usually a mild-mannered fellow, tolerant, urbane, very temperate and modern in his outlook. But here in court yesterday he seemed to turn into one of those frowning, moralizing, upright old tutors who made us quiver with dread when we were boys. He called Marcus Caelius to task in terms harsh enough to make even the sternest father blanch. He went on and on about the evils of wild living until even I began to quail a bit. Was it proper, he demanded to know, that I should defend a man who has sometimes accepted dinner invitations, who has gone for walks in fashionable gardens along the Tiber, who has on one or two occa-sions in his life splashed on scent from a bottle, who has even gone wading in mixed company down at the beaches at Baiae? Such appalling behavior is unforgivable!

"Or is it? Come, Herennius, I think we all know of men who have indulged in a bit of high living in their youth, who have then turned around and made themselves into perfectly respectable citizens. Everyone agrees that young men must be allowed a certain amount of recklessness. Nature has given them strong sexual appetites, and as long as they indulge those appetites without wrecking someone else's home, the wise thing is to let nature run its course. Understandably, those of an older generation like myself are concerned over the troubles that can arise from the excesses of youth. But it seems to me unfair, Herennius, that you should exploit our reasonable concern to stir up suspicion and prejudice against a particular young man. You recite a whole catalogue of vices to incite our moral abhorrence, but your posturing distracts us from the actual person of Marcus Caelius. He is no more guilty of such excesses than most young men. He deserves our indulgence no less. He should not be condemned for the failings of his entire generation!

"Let us move on to something more specific, namely this business about gold and poison. Both of these alleged transactions revolve around the same person: supposedly, the gold was taken from Clodia and the poison was given to her. Now here at least we have some genuine ac-cusations! All the other charges in this case amount to innuendos and insults, better suited to a shouting match than to a sober court of law. Saying that Caelius seduces other men's wives, that he brawls and takes bribes and so on and so forth-these are slanders, not accusations, groundless slurs of the sort uttered by prosecutors who tend to let their blustering get out of control. But about these last two charges, concerning the gold and the poison, there's something a bit more tangible. Yes, I sense that there must be something to these accusations-or rather, someone behind them, a certain individual with a very deliberate goal.

"Here's the first story: Caelius needed gold and got it from Clodia- with no witnesses about, mind you. Proof, anyone would think, of considerable friendship between them. The second story: Caelius decided to murder Clodia, got hold of some poison, bribed collaborators, fixed a time and place to convey the poison to those who would administer it. Evidence this time of overpowering hatred!

"Judges, this entire case revolves around Clodia, a woman of high birth-and low reputation. I'm not here to rake up scandal, and I get no enjoyment from impugning the virtue of a Roman lady. However, since the whole case against my client originates from this woman, and since it's my duty to defend my client, I have no choice but to deal with the accusations as forthrightly as I can. Still, in talking about this woman I will strive to say no more than is absolutely necessary to refute the charges. Indeed, I feel obliged to watch what I say very carefully, since everyone knows of the unfortunate enmity that exists between myself and this woman's husband."

There was a burst of laughter. Cicero pretended to look confused. "Oh, did I say husband? I meant to say her brother, of course; I can't imagine why I'm always making that mistake." He shrugged and smiled. "Well then, my apologies, judges, for having to drag a lady's name into these proceedings. Really, I never imagined I should find myself in a court of law fighting with a woman-especially this woman, who is said to be the friend of every man she meets."

He waited for the laughter to die down. The crowd had shifted and I was able to see Clodia again. Her face was stiff but even from a distance I could see the alarm in her eyes. She had begun to realize the full magnitude of the mistake she had made in taking her grievances against Caelius into a public arena.

Cicero cleared his throat. "Let me begin by asking the lady this: shall I lecture her in the stern manner of our forefathers, or in a milder, more moderate fashion? If it's the former, then I should call on the dead to do the lecturing, one of those stern-looking, full-bearded fellows who gaze down on us from old statues. Why not one of the lady's own ancestors? Appius Claudius the Blind would be appropriate, since he won't have to suffer the pain of looking at her."

There was laughter, then a murmur of anticipation as Cicero slipped into the role of the blind ancestor, narrowing his eyes, holding up his arms, removing all traces of the comic from his voice.

"Woman! What sort of legitimate interest could you possibly have in a fellow like Caelius so much younger than yourself? How did you ever come to feel so close to him that you lent him gold, or to feel such hatred that you came to fear poison? Have you no pride, no sense of decorum? Are you totally ignorant of your family and its achievements? Don't you know that your father, and uncle, and grandfather, and great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, and his father all served as consuls? Or that you yourself were the wife, while he lived, of Quintus Metellus Celer, a man whose virtues surpassed those of all other men? Having come from so great a household, and having married into another great house, what was your business with this youth, Marcus Caelius? Was he a cousin, an in-law, a close friend of your husband? No, none of these things. What reason did you have to insinuate yourself so intimately into his life, except a wanton desire to exercise your own voracious appetite for young flesh?"

Still playing blind Claudius, Cicero shook his head and went on. "If the example set by the men of your lineage fails to shame you, then perhaps the women can do so. What of Claudia Quinta, who proved her purity when she saved the ship that brought to Rome the Great Mother, whose festival we celebrate today? Consider the renown that her virtue added to your house. Or the famous Vestal Virgin, Claudia, who shielded her father against an angry mob with her own pure body? Why do you share your brother's vices instead of your ancestors' virtues? We famous Claudii of old, did we refuse the peace offered by Pyrrhus and tear up his bargain, only so that you could drive your daily sexual bargains? Did we build the first aqueduct to bring water to Rome, only so that you could use it to wash yourself after your incestuous copulations? Did we build our great road, only so that you could parade up and down it in the company of other women's husbands?"

The harshness of Cicero's voice kept anyone from laughing. He lowered his arms and looked straight at Clodia, who returned his stare with a look of pure malice.

"I drop the role. I speak to you directly now. If you intend to go on with your testimony, then you will also have to explain how such intrigues could have come about in the first place. The prosecutors, at your behest, have dinned a list of suggestive phrases into our ears: adulterous orgies, wild beach parties, all-night revels, dancing at dawn, unending drunken debaucheries. Did you think you could accuse Caelius of debauchery without exposing your own debauchery to the scrutiny of the court? It was madness to think so. I see by your face that you would like to avoid such an unpleasant spectacle. Too late to stop it now!"

For a long moment Cicero and Clodia stared at one another in silence while the spectators looked on. Then he stepped back and softened his posture. He smiled sweetly.

"But I see you don't care for the stern-lecture approach. Well, then, forget those rustic old ancestors and their upright morals. I'll borrow a more modern voice to try to talk some sense into you-why, I'll pretend to be your own beloved little brother. That should be appropriate. No one is more worldly, that's for sure. And no one has ever loved you better, ever since you were children. Does he still have those nightmares that make him wet the bed, so that he has to come sleep in yours? Pity he's in charge of the festivities today and can't be here beside you. But I can imagine what he might say."

Cicero put on a simpering expression and waved his arms in a spastic manner while the crowd shrieked with laughter. "Sister, sister, what a mess you've gotten yourself into! What's this craziness all about? Have you lost your mind? Yes, I know, I know, it was that boy down the street who caught your attention-tall, good-looking, pretty eyes. It set your old, tired blood racing. You wanted to see more of him-every inch of him! Getting your hands on him would be easy enough, you thought. Young men are always short of money, and you love to flaunt our inheritance.

"But sister, sister, it didn't work out the way you wanted, did it? Some young men don't care for the company of a grasping, older woman, no matter how much money she's got. Well then, get over it! You've got your horti on the Tiber, where you go to watch the young swimmers and size them up. What's the place for, except to provide you with a new lover every day? Why keep pestering this particular young fellow, who obviously doesn't want you?"

Cicero dropped the simpering role of Clodius and turned his back on Clodia. He strode across the open space toward the defendant's benches. "And now it's your turn to receive a lecture, Marcus Caelius." He wagged his finger. Caelius put on the face of an attentive schoolboy, all raised eyebrows and bland innocence. "I'll need a father's voice to deal with you, young man-but what sort of father? One of those old men with hearts of iron, who would blame you for everything and say, 'Why on earth did you settle so close to that whore in the first place? Why didn't you have the sense to run away the first moment you saw her!' To such a gloomy old man Caelius might well defend himself by saying that nothing improper ever occurred, whatever gossips may say to the contrary. How can a young man in a city so full of malicious rumors possibly avoid being tarnished by loose talk? Living so close to that woman and being seen in her company, it's no wonder people assumed the worst. Even the lady's own brother can't visit her without wriggling his tongue- I mean, setting tongues wagging.

"Now, as regards the woman, at the moment it's not my object to criticize her. My point is to lecture Marcus Caelius. So for the sake of argument, let us imagine a purely hypothetical woman; any resemblance to Clodia will be purely coincidental, I assure you. Imagine a woman who shamelessly offers herself to every man she meets, who has to mark a calendar to keep her lovers straight, who opens the doors of her houses at Rome and Baiae to every sort of lecherous degenerate, who lavishes expensive gifts on her stable of kept young studs. Imagine a wealthy, lascivious widow carrying on like a common whore, without the least regard for what anyone thinks. Now I ask you, if a young man should happen to be a bit free in his relationship with such a woman, can any man here really hold him accountable for his misconduct?

"Imagine a woman so deeply sunk in depravity that she no longer bothers to seek privacy and darkness to practice her vices. Quite the opposite-she builds a stage in her garden so that she can show off her special skills before an audience lined up to enjoy them! Bear in mind, I'm speaking hypothetically, simply to make a point-don't laugh! Now with this woman, this hypothetical woman, everything about her is an invitation to sex: the way she walks, the see-through gowns she wears, the obscenely pouting way she holds her mouth, her smoldering gaze, the foul language she uses, the easy way she embraces everyone at her parties, pressing herself against them and kissing them with her open mouth. She's not simply a whore, but a particularly lewd and depraved old whore. Now, really, if a young man should find himself in the clutches of such a woman, can anyone be genuinely outraged if he should follow the course of nature? Is that young man guilty of vice-or of simply seeking relief?

"The woman is a whore, after all-the hypothetical woman, I mean-and even the sternest moralist looks the other way when a young man goes off to relieve himself with a prostitute. That is the way of the world, and not just in our present permissive age. Even our virtuous ancestors allowed for the use of prostitutes. The practice has never been frowned upon or forbidden in any time or place that I know of.

"Now someone will object, and say, 'Is this the sort of standard to which Cicero would hold a young man, especially a young man who was given into his charge to be educated in rhetoric? Loose morals, easy virtue, a nod and a wink?' Of course not. But judges, honestly, was there ever a man on earth so high-minded and strong-willed that he could reject all temptation and devote himself exclusively to the pursuit of virtue? A man without the least interest in leisure or lovemaking or simply having fun? Show me such a man and I will declare him super-human! Such men exist in our history books, fine moral examples from the days of Rome's rise to greatness, but you will look for them in vain in the streets of the city today. These days, even among the Greek philosophers, who once set so high a moral standard in their writings (unmatched by their actions, unfortunately), you will find little to encourage adherence to pure virtue; quite the opposite, in fact. The Epicureans tell us that a wise man does everything for pleasure. The Academics, by twisting words, claim that virtue and pleasure can be one and the same. Alas, the old-fashioned Stoics, who cling to the straight and narrow path of virtue, find themselves stranded all alone in their lecture halls.

"Nature herself has endless tricks to lull a man's virtue to sleep while waking up his appetite for pleasure. She tempts the young down all sorts of dangerously slippery paths, but to compensate she lavishes on them great stamina and exquisite sensitivity. Show me a young man who despises the sight of beauty, who derives no pleasure from scent or touch or taste, who plugs his ears to keep out sweet music; I and a few others might argue that a youth of such purity has been blessed, but I think most of you would say he was cursed by the gods!

"Enough, then, of absolute standards! Let youth be permitted its pleasures. Let immaturity be allowed to flirt with foolishness. If he has a strong character, a young man will not be diminished by these expe-riences but will eventually outgrow them and be ready to take his place as a man of affairs in the Forum. Who can doubt that Marcus Caelius has already done so? You've watched him match wits with me here in the Forum. You've seen how eloquently he defended himself here today. What a superb orator! Let me tell you, from my own experience, cultivating that degree of skill requires enormous dedication and discipline. Marcus Caelius has reached a stage in his career where he no longer has the time or inclination to follow frivolous pursuits.

"Now then, we have navigated our way through the rocky shoals and treacherous reefs. From here on, clear sailing! Let us get back to those two charges against Caelius. The gold: Caelius is said to have gotten it from Clodia in order to bribe the slaves of Lucius Lucceius to kill Dio. Grave charges, to be sure, asserting that a man plotted to murder a diplomatic envoy, and instigated slaves to kill their master's guest- heinous crimes!

"But I have to wonder: would Clodia have given this gold to Caelius without asking why he wanted it? Surely not! If he told her it was to murder Dio, then she was in on the plot. Is that why you came here today, woman, to make a confession? To tell us how you raided your secret treasure chest, denuded that statue of Venus in your garden adorned with all those pretty trophies from your lovers, so that you could hand over the booty to Caelius for criminal use? Did you make Venus herself an accomplice in crime?"

I glanced at Catullus, for it seemed to me that from the corner of my eye I had seen his lips moving, as if he was reciting Cicero's speech along with him. He noticed my scrutiny, flashed something between a smile and a wince, and turned away. I looked at Clodia and caught a glimpse of her pale, rigid face before the crowd blocked my view.

Cicero went on. "If Caelius was as intimate with Clodia as the prosecutors maintain, then surely he shared with her the purpose to which he intended to put the gold. On the other hand, if the two of them were not on such intimate terms, then surely she never gave him the gold at all! Which is it, Clodia? Did you lend a man money to commit an unspeakable crime, making a criminal of yourself? Or is the truth that you never lent him the money at all?

"The accusation simply will not stand up, and not just because the character of Marcus Caelius is wholly at odds with such a loathsome, skulking plot. He's too smart, for one thing. No man with any sense would entrust a crime of such magnitude to the slaves of another man! On purely practical grounds, I have to ask: how is Caelius supposed to have made contact with these slaves of Lucius Lucceius? Did he meet with them directly-very rash-or through an intermediary? May we have the name of this go-between? No, because no such person exists. I could go on and on with such questions. How many must I ask to show how totally implausible the whole charge is, and how utterly without proof?

"To put the matter to rest, let us hear from Lucius Lucceius himself, who has provided a sworn deposition on the matter. I remind you that he was not only Dio's good friend and dutiful host, but a man who pays scrupulous attention to detail, as anyone familiar with his historical writings can attest. Surely if Lucceius had discovered that slaves belonging to him were plotting with an outsider to murder his guest, if he ever had even the least suspicion of such a thing, Lucceius would have gotten to the bottom of it. What citizen could do less, with his own honor at stake? Listen, then, to what he has to tell us."

A clerk came forward to read the deposition. Cicero walked to the defendant's bench, where his secretary, Tiro, handed him a cup of water. I thought back to my interview with Lucceius, how adamantly he had refused to acknowledge the slightest possibility that something had been amiss in his house, how his wife had known better, how the kitchen slaves who must have known something had been sent off to the mines and would never tell anyone what they knew.

The clerk cleared his throat, "I, Lucius Lucceius, under solemn oath, make this statement on the Kalends of Aprilis: That for a period in the month of Januarius, Dio of Alexandria, my esteemed friend, was a guest under my roof; that while he was my guest, nothing occurred to endanger his safety; that any rumors to the contrary, particularly rumors asserting a breach of loyalty among my household slaves, are completely scurrilous; that Dio left my house of his own choice and in good health; that I myself know nothing which might shed light on the circumstances of his death."

Cicero stepped before the judges. "There you have it: a wild, wholly unfounded accusation that emanates from a household of wanton de-bauchery and wickedness; and a level-headed, sober response, from a household of impeccable standards. On one hand, we have the word of a foul-tempered, raving, sex-crazed woman; on the other, the sworn affidavit of one of the most respectable men in Rome. Need we hesitate about choosing whom to believe?

"On then to the accusation that Caelius plotted to poison Clodia. I confess, I can't make heads or tails of this story. Why should Caelius want to do such a thing? To avoid paying back the alleged loan? But did Clodia ever ask to be repaid? To keep Clodia from telling what she knew about the attempt on Dio's life? But there was no such attempt, as we have just established. Indeed, I would suggest that this nonsense about gold and a plot against Dio was fabricated precisely to provide a motive for this other fabrication, that Caelius tried to poison Clodia. One fabrication is invented to provide a motive for another fabrication! Lie builds upon lie, slander upon slander.

"The prosecution alleges that Caelius once again attempted to commit murder by bribing someone else's slaves-this time, Clodia's slaves, to do in their mistress. And this, after having failed to pull off the same kind of plot with Lucceius's slaves! What kind of man puts his whole fate into the hands of another person's slaves, not once but twice? At least credit my client with having a brain!

"And just what sort of slaves are we talking about? In the case of Clodia's household, this is an important point. As Caelius must have known if he ever visited her house, the relationship between Clodia and her slaves can scarcely be described as normal. In a household like that, headed by a woman who behaves like a prostitute, where abnormal lusts and unheard-of vices are practiced on a daily basis, where slaves are invited to share an inordinate amount of intimacy with their superiors- well, those slaves are slaves no longer. They share everything with their mistress, including her secrets. They become her companions in loose living. In a household like that, the people on the bottom are sometimes quite literally on top."

I caught sight of Clodia, who seemed to physically shrink from the gales of laughter that roared through the Forum. Cicero held up his hand to quiet the crowd. "Keeping slaves in that fashion has one virtue, at least: such corrupted, pampered slaves must be almost impossible to bribe. Caelius must have known that, if he was as intimate with Clodia as we've been led to believe. Ifhe knew the situation, surely he would have known better than to try to insinuate himself between such a woman and her slaves-a tight spot for any man to wriggle into! If he didn't realize the situation, then how could he have been so intimate with the slaves that he would consider bribing them? The allegation contradicts itself.

"Now, about the alleged poison-where it came from, how it was to be handed over, and so on. The prosecutors tell us that Caelius had it in his house. He wanted to test it, so he bought a slave for just that purpose. The poison was effective. The slave died very quickly. The poison… "

Cicero's voice was suddenly choked by a sob. He clenched his fists and rolled his eyes upward. "Oh, immortal gods! When a mortal commits a terrible crime, why do you close your eyes to it? Why do you allow the villain to go unpunished?" He gasped and shivered, as if struggling to hold back tears. The rollicking speech came to an abrupt halt. The crowd was jolted into uneasy silence.

Cicero stood absolutely still, like a man paralyzed by emotion and fighting to regain control: "Forgive me," he finally said, in a hoarse, trembling voice. "But the very mention of poison…

"Let me explain myself, judges. It was the bitterest day of life, that day when I saw my friend Quintus die before my eyes. Quintus Metellus Celer, I mean, the man whose death made that woman a widow and freed her to do as she pleased. Such a fine man he was, dedicated to serving Rome and full of the strength to do it! I remember the last time I saw him here in the Forum, going about his business, in excellent health and high spirits, full of plans for the future. Two days later I was, called to his deathbed, where I found him racked with pain, barely able to breathe. His mind had begun to fail, but at the very end he became lucid again. His last thoughts were not of himself, but of Rome. He fixed his gaze on me as I wept, and in broken words he tried to warn me of the storm that hung over my head, the tempest that was brewing for the whole state. 'Cicero, Cicero, how will you hold out against them without me to hold them in check?' He wept then, not for himself, but for the future of the city he loved, and for the friends who would no longer have his protection. I often wonder how differently things might have turned out had he lived. Would his cousin Clodius have succeeded with a tenth of his mad schemes if Quintus Metellus Celer had been alive to oppose him? Would his wife Clodia have fallen into the downward spiral of disrepute that has ultimately brought us here today?

"And now that woman has the audacity to speak of fast-acting poisons! How much does she know about the subject? Enough, apparently! If she goes ahead with her testimony, perhaps she will tell us exactly how much she knows about poison, and how she came to know it. When I think that she still lives in the house where Celer died, when I think of what she has since turned that house into, I wonder that the walls themselves had not rebelled in disgust and come toppling down around her!"

Cicero bowed his head for a long moment, seemingly overcome with emotion. As for Clodia, one would never have known what a famous beauty she was, from the way she looked at that moment. The bones of her face seemed ready to break through the skin. Her eyes smoldered like coals. Her mouth was a hard, straight line showing a glint of teeth between bloodless lips.

"Excuse me, judges," said Cicero, recovering himself. "My memories of a noble and valiant friend have greatly upset me, I fear. And some of you, too, as I can see. But let us persevere with this distasteful, petty business, and be done with it.

"Very well: the story goes that after testing the poison on a hapless slave, Caelius handed it over to a friend of his, Publius Licinius. You see him here today, sitting proudly among Caelius's supporters, not the least bit ashamed to show his face despite the slander against him. Licinius, they say, was to give the poison to some of Clodia's slaves at the Senian baths, in a little pyxis. Ah, but the slaves had betrayed the plot to their mistress, so she sent some friends to lurk on the premises and seize Licinius in the act of handing over the poison. So goes the story, anyway.

"I am eagerly waiting to discover the identities of the upstanding witnesses who are supposed to have seen, with their own eyes, the poison in Licinius's hands. So far, their names have not been mentioned, but they must be very reputable fellows indeed. In the first place, they are intimates of such a lady. In the second, they agreed to lurk about the baths in the middle of the day, a job suitable only to the most respectable of men."

I felt the skin prickle on the back of my neck. Cicero was talking about me, among others. Even without hearing my name mentioned, I felt cut by his scorn, exposed and flustered. What then was Clodia feeling at this moment?

"But don't take my word for the worthiness of these witnesses, these midday bathhouse skulkers," Cicero continued. "Their actions speak for them. We are told, 'They hid out of sight and watched everything.' I'm sure they did. That type loves to watch! 'They bolted out of hiding accidentally.' Oh dear, premature ejaculators-what a deplorable lack of manly self-control! The story goes that Licinius made his entrance and was just about to hand over the incriminating pyxis but had not quite done so, when these superb, anonymous witnesses burst forth-where-upon Licinius drew back the pyxis and took to his heels in flight!"

Cicero shook his head and made a face of disgust. "Sometimes, no matter how badly a tale is told, a shred of truth shines through. Take this shabby little drama, for instance, authored by a lady with so many other tawdry tales to her credit. How devoid of plot, how sorely lacking for an ending! How could all these fellows have let Licinius slip from their grasp, when they were posted and ready, and he suspected nothing? What was the point of capturing him as he handed over the poison, anyway? Once it passed out of his hands he could claim he had never seen it before. Why not seize him the moment he entered the baths, hold him down and force a confession from him with all those bystanders for witnesses? Instead, off Licinius goes, with the lady's gang in hot pursuit, bumbling and tripping all over each other. In the end, we are left with no pyxis, no poison, not a single shred of evidence. Really, what we have here is the finale of a mime show, not a proper play but the sort of silly farce that sputters to an unsatisfying end-no climax, just a bunch of clowns bumbling off the stage.

"If they come forward to testify, I look forward to seeing the cast of this little mime show. This trial could use some comic relief! Let's have a look at these young dandies who enjoy play-acting as warriors under their mistress's command, scouting the familiar terrain at the Senian baths, laying an ambush, crowding into a bathtub and pretending it's the Trojan Horse. I know the type: all glib and witty at dinner parties, and the more they drink the wittier they become. But idling on soft couches and chattering by lamplight is one thing; telling the truth be-neath the hot sun in a court of hard wooden benches is something else again. If they can't even find their way around the baths, how will they find the witness stand? I give these so-called witnesses fair warning: if they decide to come forward, I will turn them upside down and shake the foolishness out of them, so that we can all see what's left. I suggest they keep their mouths shut and find other ways to curry their lady's favor. Let them cling to her, do tricks and compete to grovel at her feet-but let them spare the life and career of an innocent man!

"And what of that slave to whom the poison was to be handed over, who is also to appear as a witness?" I searched the faces of those on the prosecutors' benches-a glum lot of faces, at the moment-and spotted Clodia's man Barnabas, looking as ifhe had swallowed something unpleasant. "I am told that he has just been freed by his mistress, made a citizen by her hand-or by her brother's hand, since a woman cannot legally manumit a slave on her own. What was behind this act of liberation? Was it a reward for loyalty and services beyond the normal call of duty? Or was there a more practical consideration? For, now that he's a citizen, the fellow cannot be subjected to the normal means of obtaining evidence from a testifying slave. Torture tends to bring out the truth; no amount of rehearsal can prepare even the best comic actor to recite falsehoods to a hot poker.

"Incidentally, we should hardly be surprised that all this bother about a pyxis has given rise to an extremely indecent story concerning another pyxis and its contents. You know the story I mean, judges. Everyone's talking about it. Everyone seems to think it's true. Why not, since it fits so well with the lady's indecent reputation? And everyone finds the story hilarious, despite the obscenity of it. The gift could hardly be called inappropriate, when one considers the receptive nature of the butt of the joke. There, you see, you're all laughing even now! Well, true or not, obscene or not, funny or not, don't blame Marcus Caelius. The joke must have been pulled by some young wanker with a clever hand and a wayward bent."

Again, from the corner of my eye I thought I saw Catullus's lips moving. When I turned to stare at him he looked at me darkly and moved away, losing himself in the crowd.

Clodia's face was a study in misery. Cicero accepted another sip of water from Tiro and waited for the laughter to die down. "I have now stated my case, judges. My task is done. The task is now yours, to decide the fate of an innocent young man."

He proceeded to his summation: a brief recapitulation of Caelius's career, a recitation of his virtues, an appeal to be merciful to his distraught father, a final, scornful dismissal of the spurious charges against him. I heard these words only vaguely. I couldn't take my eyes off Clodia. I saw a woman utterly unnerved, pale, defeated, confused, resentful. She looked as if she had been poisoned again, and polluted as well: Medea had become Medusa, to judge by the shifty-eyed friends who squirmed on the benches around her. They looked nervously here and there but turned their faces from Clodia, as if the merest glance from those haunted eyes might turn a man to stone.

Chapter Twenty Six

Cicero's speech was followed by a recess, after which, the magistrate declared, the testimony of witnesses would commence. The common sentiment in the crowd was that the trial would probably carry over for at least another day, given the number of witnesses expected to testify. But when the court reassembled, the prosecutors were embarrassed to reveal that most, indeed virtually all, of their scheduled witnesses had declined to appear. The coterie of young men who had filled the benches around Clodia had vanished. So had Clodia herself.

The supporters of Caelius could hardly contain their triumph. Even Caelius's father, dressed in his ragged funeral garments, looked smug.

A handful of witnesses dared to appear-some of the outraged husbands whose wives had been insulted by Caelius, Senator Fufius, and even a couple of the "bathhouse skulkers." The prosecutors, who had clearly lost heart, perfunctorily interviewed them. Cicero cross-examined them with effortless panache, restraining his wit lest it appear wasted on such minor opponents. The spectators began to disperse. The drama had reached its climax with Cicero's oration, and only the most inveterate believers in surprise endings held out to see what the verdict would be.

The judges tallied their votes and announced their decision. Marcus Caelius was not guilty.

I felt relieved of a great burden. What if they had declared him guilty of all the charges against him, including Dio's murder? How could I have remained silent? But they had not declared him guilty; the crisis was averted. Still, what of the poison plot against Clodia? Cicero had argued that it was all a fiction concocted by Clodia herself, just another part of her scheme to take vengeance on Caelius, and the judges had agreed. But what if Caelius had tried to poison her? Had I no obligation to speak up?

The moment had passed, and there was no undoing it. I told myself that my sole intention from the outset was to discover the truth about Dio's death. As for Caelius and Clodia, whatever the truth of their intrigues against each other, surely I owed nothing to either of them.

After the verdict was announced, Caelius's supporters broke into cheering and gathered in a ring around him. The prosecutors and their assistants glumly dispersed. Some of the judges went to congratulate Caelius and pay compliments to Cicero and Crassus for their orations. Spectators headed off to see what activities connected with the Great Mother festival were still going on elsewhere in the city. Slaves gathered up folding chairs and carried them off.

"Where shall we go now?" said Eco.

"I think I want to be alone for a while," I said. "Take Belbo with you. I don't need a bodyguard anymore. The trial's over and I'm no danger to anybody."

"Still, Papa, it's a holiday. People get rowdy-"

"Please, Eco, take Belbo with you. Or better yet, send him home to Bethesda. I'll feel better knowing he's there while I'm not." "Where are you going?" "I'm not sure."

"Why don't you go home yourself?" I shook my head. "Not yet."

"Papa, what's going on?" He lowered his voice. "If Dio was poisoned in your house, who did it? And why? You know, don't you?" I shook my head. "We'll talk about it later." "But Papa-"

"I'll spend the night at your house, if that's all right. Have the slaves fix up a couch for me to sleep on."

"Of course, Papa. Are you sure you don't want me to come with you? We could talk."

"Talk is not what I need. I need to think, and I can think more clearly if I'm by myself."

This last turned out to be untrue. I wandered the city in a daze, paying no attention to where I was going, my thoughts turning in sluggish circles.

Why had Bethesda deceived me? Had it been left to her, would she ever have told me the truth? Of course, I knew why she had remained silent. How does a woman tell her husband that she's poisoned his respected old mentor under his roof, right under his very nose? Still, she had reason. Did she think I wouldn't understand? Why had she never told me of her mother's death and about the terrible thing that had happened to her before I found her? Did she trust me so little, even after all our years together?

My own feelings confused me no less. Was I angry, or hurt? Did I want to punish Bethesda, or beg for her forgiveness? I felt as if I had done something wrong, but 1 couldn't say what it was. I knew I had been made a fool of; Bethesda had known the truth all along and yet had let me plod down the wrong path in darkness. Was she amused at my folly? Did she fear my reaction if I should discover the truth? Or did she simply think that she could get away with never telling me, and considered that easiest for everybody? She knew the truth was precious to me, and she had withheld it from me. I resented her for that. Under my roof, before my eyes, she had murdered a man she hated. I understood her reason, but still I was appalled and shaken by the enormity of it. Perhaps she was right not to trust me with the truth after all.

I passed revelers and vendors in the street, heard the roar of a large crowd from the Circus Maximus, went by a square where a stage was being put up for a performance the next day, heard tambourines and looked up to see a group of galli dancing on a rooftop. Now and again I heard snatches of conversation which must have been about the trial:

So the young man got off completely… clever Cicero… had no idea the woman was such a wanton. the Clodii will think twice before trying a stunt like that again… everybody laughed-you should have seen the bitch's face… who gives a damn about those Egyptians anyway?… they stone women like that in other countries… 'Did I say husband? I mean brother, of course-I'm always making that mistake!'… 'Not just a whore, but a particularly lewd and depraved old whore'… from what's said about her, someone probably should go ahead and poison the monster…

I kept walking. Hours passed. The sky grew dark. The streets became empty. Still I walked. I never knew where I was headed until I got there.

The phallic lamp above the entrance burned bright, promising warmth and light within. I rapped on the door of the Salacious Tavern and the doorman let me inside.

As a rule I drink no more than other men, and less than most. That night, I felt like getting drunk. The slave who brought wine was glad to help me in the pursuit.

The room was so noisy that I could hear only snatches of conversation, much of which was about the trial. Cicero's jokes were repeated and obscenely embellished. The story of the pyxis and its contents was told in numerous variations, and arguments broke out over which version was correct. Wine prompted crude bursts of insight: "Caelius may have screwed the bitch before, but it was Cicero who screwed her today!" The consensus seemed to be that Caelius had escaped by the skin of his teeth, and that Clodia had been ruined for good, and it was all for the best. I sat and drank, making no particular effort either to listen or not listen, letting the words of strangers enter my ears as they might. When my cup was empty, I called for the server to fill it again.

It was quite late in the evening when the door opened and a large party came stamping in. They were mostly young, too well groomed and poshly dressed for the place. They had obviously come from some other, more respectable venue. There were shouts of greeting and then a general cheer as the patrons recognized Marcus Caelius. He acknowledged the show of support with a smile and a wave, then made a tipsy bow that turned into a stumble. His friends Licinius and Asicius each grabbed an arm to pull him upright. I was surprised, but only a little, to see Catullus in the group, looking even drunker than Caelius.

Caelius and his friends took over a corner of the room. He ordered a round of the tavern's best wine for everyone, which earned him another cheer. The drowsy midnight mood of the place was dispelled and the room was suddenly loud and festive again. I stared glumly at the dregs in my cup and wondered if I dared to have it filled again. The glow of the wine had begun to pall and I was beginning to feel slightly queasy. When the server passed me I covered my cup with my hand and shook my head.

"What's wrong?" a voice shouted. "Gordianus won't drink the wine I offer? I'll wager it's better than whatever cheap slop you've been guzzling."

I turned and saw Caelius watching me from across the room, his lips pushed out in a mock pout.

"No insult intended," I muttered.

"What's that? Can't hear you!" Caelius cupped his ear and grinned. "You'll have to come closer." I shook my head.

Caelius snapped his fingers, and a moment later a couple of brawny bodyguards were on either side of me, lifting me up by my elbows and carrying me across the room. They sat me down on a bench across from Caelius, who laughed and clapped his hands like a child watching a magic trick.

"You're in an awfully good mood tonight," I said. "Why not? If things had gone badly today I'd be on a boat heading for Massilia right now." He made a face. "Instead, here I am surrounded by my friends, in the heart of the most wonderful city in the world." Licinius and Asicius sat on one side of him, Catullus on the other. The rest of his party had gathered around a nearby table to throw dice. "I'm free!"

"Free? I thought Cicero had you in his snare again. You owe him quite a favor now. Does he know you're out carousing tonight, making a liar of him?"

"Cicero?" Caelius made a rude noise with his lips. "Don't worry, I can handle him. I've been doing it for years." "The student controls the teacher?" "Something like that." "You're a spoiled brat, Marcus Caelius."

"And people love me for it! Except maybe you. Why won't you drink the wine I offer?"

"I've had enough tonight. You look like you've already had rather a lot yourself. You, too, Catullus."

Catullus looked back at me blearily and blinked a few times. He seemed to be at a level of inebriation that made him neither giddy nor maudlin, but simply numb.

"So you think we've had too much to drink?" said Caelius. "We've only started! Server! Bring out more of your best wine, for everyone!"

"Are you sure you can afford such extravagance?" I said.

Caelius smiled. "All my debts are paid off."

"I thought you had no debts."

"Didn't you pay attention to Cicero in court today? I don't even keep ledger books, Gordianus! All my finances are in Papa's name." "I see. Technically, you have no debts."

"That's how it works nowadays. But like I said, all the debts are paid off."

"Even the ones you owed to Pompey?"

He hesitated for only a moment.

"Even those."

"But not repaid with coin?"

"No. With services rendered."

Next to him, Licinius and Asicius stiffened. "Caelius!" said Asicius. Caelius laughed. "Don't worry, the trials are over. Your trial, Asicius, and my trial, and we are both as innocent as lambs."

"You should learn how to shut up, Caelius!" snapped Licinius. "Shut up about what?" I said.

"Oh, my friends think I talk too much. But where's the danger now? I'm free!"

"Then perhaps you could set my mind at rest about a few things," I said.

Licinius and Asicius fidgeted, but Caelius smiled blandly at me. "Why not?" Next to him Catullus stared obliviously into space and moved his lips, composing a poem in his head, perhaps.

"Do you remember when I last saw you, Caelius, here at the tavern? You swore to me by the shades of your ancestors that you didn't murder Dio."

"Yes, I remember. I told you the truth."

"And you swore that it wasn't Asicius, either."

"Also true."

"But when I asked where you were and what you were up to on the night Dio died, you refused to tell me."

"How could I tell you, with the trial still pending-" "Caelius, shut up!" snapped Asicius.

"I believe you," I said, "when you swear that you didn't kill Dio. It's my belief that he died of poison. And yet, someone broke into Coponius's house that night, and Dio was found with stab wounds in his chest. Can you explain that, Caelius?"

"Now you bring up a very interesting point,"

Caelius said, raising one eyebrow, "and as a matter of fact-"

"Caelius, you fool, shut up!"

"Relax, Asicius. The trial is over, and Gordianus can be trusted with the truth. Can't you, Gordianus? Swear to me by the shade of your father that you'll keep secret what I'm about to tell you."

I hesitated only a moment. "I swear."

"Caelius, you're an idiot!" Asicius stamped his foot and angrily left the room. Licinius stayed behind, looking around warily for eavesdroppers. Catullus stared blankly into his cup.

"Asicius! What an ass. He always was death to a good conversation." Caelius smiled. "Where were we?"

"The night Dio died-"

"Ah, yes. Well, it was the oddest thing. You see, I was supposed to kill Dio. It's exactly as you had it figured, I'm sure. King Ptolemy wanted to get rid of Dio, and so did Pompey. I owed Pompey a pile of gold which I couldn't possibly repay. So it was up to me to do old Dio in."

"Just as you arranged the attack on the Alexandrian envoys when they arrived in Neapolis."

Caelius nodded. "And kept up the attacks in Puteoli and on the way up to Rome. The Egyptians were almost too easy to frighten. They're about as courageous as pigeons. But pigeons scatter when they're attacked, and there were so damned many of them!"

"And the last one left was Dio."

"Exactly. And that pigeon made a nasty mess."

Licinius rolled his eyes. "Caelius, you're crazy to be telling him

this."

"Shut up, Licinius. Has my judgment ever steered me wrong? Gor-dianus is like a dog with a bone. He'll never let go of this thing until he's got the truth. Now that it can't hurt us, better to simply tell him so that he can go find another bone to chew. He's sworn himself to secrecy! Now where was I?"

"All the Egyptians gone but Dio."

"Ah, yes. Well, I tried to get the kitchen slaves to poison him at Lucius Lucceius's house, of course. Having met that idiot Lucceius once at a party, I figured I could get away with just about anything under his roof. But the slaves bungled it and killed Dio's taster instead, and off Dio went to Coponius's house. A good thing Lucceius is the type to see no evil, or he could have forced his slaves to testify against me and ruined everything.

"So it was on to Titus Coponius's house. Titus is no fool, and his slaves are as loyal as slaves come. Added to that, Dio was more wary than ever, and Pompey was really beginning to press me. Well, there was nothing to do but sharpen the daggers and go on a midnight raid. I needed help for that, so I called on Asicius. He's the one who actually staged the raids on the envoys down south for me. He's been one of King Ptolemy's agents for years. Knows a lot more about daggers and blood and that sort of thing than I do."

"Thank the gods he's not here to hear you!" groaned Licinius, covering his face. Catullus was busy poking at something in the bottom of his wine cup.

I nodded. "Then you and Asicius-"

"Oh yes, we went out that night with every intention of killing old Dio. Sorry. I know he was your old teacher and all that. But Egyptian politics is a nasty business."

"You had no confederates inside Coponius's house?"

"Not a single one. Too dangerous. His slaves are too loyal, as I

said."

"But you knew the room where Dio was staying."

Caelius shrugged. "Not too hard to figure out. I'd stayed in the house as a guest myself."

"So the two of you climbed over the wall, broke in the window, burst into Dio's room-"

"And found him lying on his couch as dead as King Numa. I'll never forget the sight of him-mouth gaping open, eyes staring. Oh yes, most definitely dead."

"Then what?"

"What else could we do? Pompey had sent us to kill Dio, and he knew we intended to use daggers. I didn't want Pompey to think that Dio had died of natural causes, or that someone else had murdered him. I wanted my debt discharged! So we went ahead and stabbed him, enough times to kill him if he'd still been living-"

"More than enough, from what I heard."

Caelius shrugged. "Then we made a bit of a mess in the room, as if there might have been a struggle, and then we got out of there as quickly as we could. The next day everyone was saying that Dio had been stabbed to death in his bed. Pompey was satisfied, my debts were discharged, and I figured that was the end of it. But Asicius was never secretive about his links to King Ptolemy. His enemies decided to put him on trial for murdering Dio. Ptolemy hired Cicero to handle the defense, and Cicero got Asicius off. The prosecution never really had enough evidence against him."

"Nor against you, it seems."

"Especially not with Cicero on my side." Caelius grinned.

"Yes, that explains it," I said. "Stabbed after he was already dead. No one in Coponius's house noticed the discrepancies-hardly enough blood spattered about for so many wounds, and the wounds all neatly close together, not spread around. No struggle. And the slave girl, too afraid to tell what she knew… "

"What's that?" said Caelius. "You're muttering to yourself, Gordianus."

"Was I? A bad habit. Yes, you've put my mind to rest about Dio. The old dog can stop gnawing that bone. But I have another bone with some marrow still left in it."

"Do you? Server, more wine!"

"The violence against Dio and the Alexandrian envoys weren't the only charges against you."

"No-and a good thing, too!" "What do you mean?"

"Why, Clodia adding that poisoning charge at the last minute. Crassus said we should disallow it. He said it was technically too late for the prosecutors to include it and that we didn't have time to prepare a defense. Cicero told him he was mad, that it was a gift from the gods. 'Don't you see? They've given us exactly what we need! Now we have every reason to drag Clodia into the case, and that will be the end of the prosecution.' And he was right, of course. If Clodia had kept out of sight, I'd have been in much worse trouble. But with Clodia right there, showing her face, bringing her own accusation against me, Cicero was able to turn the trial on its head. Not 'Did Caelius murder the Egyptians?' but 'Why is that wicked woman trumping up charges against the poor boy?' And it worked, brilliantly! The prosecution was totally discredited. Accusing me of trying to poison Clodia actually weakened all the other charges."

"Yes, Caelius," I said quietly, "but what about the accusation itself?"

Catullus suddenly looked up from his wine cup and showed signs of life. Caelius gave me a supercilious grin. "Gordianus, a Roman court has declared me to be an innocent man, wrongfully accused. What more do you need to know?"

"The truth," I said. I reached for his arm. The force I used caught him by surprise.

He dropped his cup. Wine splashed on the floor. Caelius's body-guards lurched forward. He kept them back with a shake of his head and spoke to me through gritted teeth.

"Gordianus, you're hurting my wrist. Let go, or I shall tell them to cut your hand off."

"The truth, Caelius. It goes no further than me. I swear by the shade of my father."

"The truth? Licinius here very nearly got caught with a pyxis full of poison at the Senian baths. He managed to empty the stuff into one of the tubs on his way out-a waste of good poison! But I put the pyxis to good use later."

"Caelius, shut up!" Licinius clenched his fists.

"And the second attempt?" I said. Catullus stared at Caelius.

"The truth?"

"Tell me!"

He jerked his arm free and rubbed his wrist. "The second attempt almost succeeded. I'm glad now that it didn't. Cicero was right. Dead, Clodia would have been truly dangerous to me, an object of sympathy. Alive, she was an object of scorn, an asset to me in spite of herself. So it worked out for the best. Clodia got off with a bit of indigestion, and I got the sympathy of the judges."

"The poison you used for the second attempt-"

"Different from the first time. I'd wanted to use something very quick to act; I didn't want her to suffer. But Licinius threw that batch away, so I ended up trying something called-what is it called, Licinius?"

"Gorgon's hair."

"Yes, that's it. It would have taken a bit longer, I'm told, but been just as effective. I am sorry that Chrysis got caught, poor thing. She's so delicate, and now Clodia will take it all out on her."

Catullus spoke in a slurred voice. "Caelius, you told me-" "What you wanted to hear, Catullus, and you never want to hear the truth, do you? So what if I tried to poison her? What do you care? She despises you even more than she does me."

"Caelius, you lying bastard!" Catullus lurched toward him.

Caelius drew back and lifted his hands, a signal for his bodyguards to rescue him. It happened so quickly that I experienced the journey from the bench to the street outside as a blurred moment of levitation, followed by a hard landing on my posterior. When my head stopped spinning I saw that Catullus was sitting on the paving stones beside me. After a moment, he rolled forward onto his hands and knees, crawled to the gutter and was violently ill.

A little later he crawled back to me. "You should try that," he said, wiping his chin. "You'd feel better."

"I don't want to feel better."

"Self-pitying bastard. You sound like me. What have you got to be sad about?"

"Woman trouble." "At your age?"

"Live long enough, whelp, and you'll see. It never ends." "Then how do men stand it?" The brief relief of vomiting gave way to his usual misery.

"So Caelius really did try to poison her?" "Not once, but twice. He told you otherwise?" "He lied to my face."

"Imagine that! What were you doing in his company tonight, anyway?"

Catullus looked even more miserable.

"Don't tell me," I said. "Let me guess. You were sharing in the celebration, since you helped him write his speech. You helped Cicero write his speech as well."

"How did you know?"

"The look on your face at the trial today. You couldn't help but en-joy hearing your phrases spoken aloud. That business about 'Clytemnestra-for-a-quadrans' and 'Medea of the Palatine'-it had to come from you. Likewise the reference to those lovers' trophies Clodia keeps in her secret treasure box under her statue of Venus. You told me no one knew about that but you, and you only found out by accident. I saw her face when Cicero mentioned it. So did you. That was the last straw for her, the moment she broke. He stripped her naked, and you helped. You knew the jokes that would hurt her the most. The crudest puns, the nastiest metaphors. Are you the poet of love, Catullus, or the poet of hate?"

" 'I hate and I love. If you ask me how, I do not know-' "

"Stop quoting yourself! Why did you do it?"

"Don't you know?"

"I thought you loved Clodia. I thought you hated Caelius." "Which is precisely why I had to help him destroy her." "You baffle me, Catullus!"

"She had to be destroyed. It was the only way. Now I can reclaim

her."

"What are you talking about, Catullus?"

He clutched my arm. "Don't you see? As long as she had this burning passion for Caelius, I could never get her back. She'd put up with anything from him, any abuse. But now he's gone too far. Now she can't possibly love him anymore, not after what they did to her at the trial today. Caelius and his advocates have made her the laughingstock of Rome! Yes, I helped. I went to Caelius the morning after we ran into him here at the tavern. I told him I had some ideas for his speech. Cicero was quite excited to have me along. The three of us had quite a time, going through the orations, adding jokes, wondering just how far we should go. That pun about the pyxis-"

"Don't make me hear it all again!"

"It's not that I'm proud. But it had to be done. She had to be brought down. She'd become too full of herself, too proud, too arrogant, ever since Celer died and she started running her own household. Now she's been broken, in the only way it could be done. We took everything that made her strong-her beauty, her pride, her love of pleasure-and turned it against her. Her own ancestors were turned against her, the ones she's always gloating about! She'll never be able to brag about the family monuments again without everyone snickering behind her back. She can't even turn to Clodius, not in public. It's me she'll turn to."

I shook my head. "Catullus, you are surely the most deluded man I ever met."

"You think so? Come with me right now, to her house. You'll see."

"No, thank you. Clodia's house is the last place on earth I'd care to be at this moment. No, that's not quite true. The last place I'd want to be is in my own house. But then, it's also the only place I want to be."

"Now who's not making sense?" Catullus staggered to his feet. "Are you coming with me or not?"

I shook my head, which seemed to go on spinning after I stood up. "Farewell then, Gordianus."

"Farewell, Catullus. And-" He turned and looked back at me blearily. "-good luck."

He nodded and stumbled off into the darkness. I waited for my head to stop spinning and tried to figure out the direction to Eco's house. The Subura seemed a long way off.

Chapter Twenty Seven

I woke late the next morning. My head felt as if a whole toga had been stuffed inside it; I could taste scratchy wool on my tongue. Dunking my head in cold water helped. So did eating a bit of food. I stepped shakily into the garden at the heart of Eco's house and found a place to sit in the sun. After a while Menenia walked by, beneath the portico. She acknowledged my presence with a nod but did not smile. A little while later Eco sauntered out to join me.

"You came in awfully late last night, Papa." "Who's the son here, and who's the father?" "Can we talk now?" "I suppose so."

"About Dio, and how he died. You never told me yesterday what you think."

I sighed. "You were right, about the poison in my house being used to kill him."

"But who did it?"

I took a deep breath, then another. It was hard to say it aloud. "Bethesda."

Eco looked at me steadily, less surprised than I expected him to be. "Why?"

I told him about the conversation I had overheard in my house, between Clodia and Bethesda. "It must have been Dio she was talking about. Dio was the powerful, respected man who owned her mother. She

never said anything about it to me. Never! Not a single word! But she must have recognized Dio the moment she saw him." "Did he recognize her?"

"He looked at her strangely, I remember. But she was hardly more than a child when he last saw her, and he had a great many things on his mind. No, I don't think he knew who she was. But she surely recognized him. I think back now and realize how oddly she behaved that night. I thought it was because I was going away! What I find so appalling is how quickly she must have made the decision to kill him – no deliberation, no hesitation. She got the poison, fixed the dinner, made a special portion for the guest and then watched him eat it, right in front of me!"

"You have to talk to her, Papa."

"I'm not ready. I don't know what to say."

"Tell her you know what she did. Go on from there."

"Go on, as if it makes no difference that my wife is a murderer? That she compromised the honor of my house by killing a guest? She should have come to me."

"Before or after she poisoned Dio?"

"If not before, then certainly after! There, you see how angry it makes me to talk about it? No, I'm not ready to go home to her yet. I wonder if I ever will be."

"Don't talk that way, Papa. You must understand why she did it. Look, I wasn't taken entirely by surprise by what you've just told me. I had a lot of time to think on the ride up from Puteoli, wondering how Dio could have been poisoned in your house and by whom. Bethesda does the cooking, Alexandria was a common thread-I figured she might somehow be responsible. So I've had more time to think about this than you have, and to make up my mind that it makes no difference. I was with Zotica all that time, seeing what the brute did to her. I can't be sorry that someone killed him. If it was Bethesda, and if she had as much reason to hate the man as Zotica did, then what is there to forgive?"

"But it was murder, Eco! Cold-blooded, calculated, committed in secret. Does my name and my household stand for nothing? We are not murderers!" I stood and began to pace around the garden. "Talking does no good. I need to be alone again. I need to think."

"Not another walk?"

"Why not?"

"You'll wear out the streets, Papa. Where will you go?"

A completely unrelated thought entered my head. "I'll take care of my last bit of business with Clodia. The money I gave you for your trip south-you must have a lot left over."

"Quite a bit."

"It's Clodia's money. It was meant to bribe me so that I'd testify for her, or else it was meant to pay for the slaves of Lucceius. Who knows what she really had in mind? Either way, she didn't get what she paid for, did she? Never say I'm like Caelius, that I took money from Clodia and didn't return it. Go fetch it, will you? I'll take it back to her right now. At least I can wash my hands of that affair and put it behind me for good."

Eco went into the house and returned with a purse full of coins. "By the way, how is Zotica doing?" I said. "Now that she's rested, is she any calmer?"

Eco lowered his eyes. "Is something wrong?"

"After we talked to her yesterday, Menenia showed her to a place where she could sleep, and left her alone. It was a mistake to let her out of the locked pantry. When I came home from the Forum… "

"Oh, no!"

"She ran away, Papa. I can't say I'm surprised. I told you, she's turned wild, like an animal. I doubt that we'll ever see her again."

Heading to Clodia's house by the shortest way would have taken me by my own front door, so I took a roundabout route. The day was hot and the way was steep. I arrived sweaty and winded.

I rapped on the door. After a long pause I rapped again. Finally the peephole opened. A dispassionate eye observed me. "My name's Gordianus," I said. "I have business with your mistress."

The peephole was shut. After a long wait it opened again. The eye that now perused me was penciled with makeup. From the other side of the door I heard a familiar but unexpected voice. "It's all right, I know him. We can let him in."

The door swung open to reveal the gallus Trygonion. After I stepped inside he motioned to the slave to shut the door behind us. "What business could you possibly have with Clodia?" he said tersely. He walked at a hurried clip toward the garden and I followed. "Did she forget to pay you?"

"As a matter of fact, she overpaid me; gave me money for expenses I didn't incur." I jiggled the bag of coins. "I'm here to return it."

Trygonion looked at me as if I were mad, then nodded and sighed. "I understand. You wanted an excuse to see her again." "Don't be ridiculous!"

"No, really, I do understand. But I'm afraid you can't see her."

"Why not?"

"She's gone." "Where?"

He hesitated. "Down to her villa at Solonium. She left early this morning, before dawn. She wanted to slip out of the city without being seen." We arrived at the steps leading down to the garden and stopped beneath the giant Venus. I found my eyes wandering to the pedestal, where Catullus had said she kept her trophies in a secret compartment. Trygonion noticed.

"She emptied it before she left. She burned everything that could be burned. You can see the ashes in that brazier over there. The things that wouldn't burn-jewels and necklaces and such-she took with her. To throw into the sea, she said."

"But why?"

He shrugged. "How can a eunuch understand these things?" He walked to the fountain. Suddenly the sound of chanting echoed through the garden, coming from the House of the Galli.

"Why aren't you with them?" I said.

"I'll join them soon enough. She sent a messenger for me in the middle of the night, saying she needed my help. 'I have to leave,' she said. 'I can't stand it here.' She always goes south for a month right after the Great Mother festival, like a lot of rich people do. Down to Baiae, usually. But she wasn't waiting for the festival to be over, and she wasn't going to Baiae. 'Solonium,' she said. 'It's closer, and nobody ever goes there. I never want to see anybody again.' " He smiled ruefully. "I thought she intended for me to go with her."

The chanting grew louder and faster. Trygonion closed his eyes and moved his lips with the words, then blinked and gazed at the sunlight reflected in the fountain. "But she didn't want me to go with her. 'I need someone to close up the house for me,' she said. 'I'd ask Clodius, but he mustn't come near this place, not for a while. You'll do it for me, won't you, Trygonion? Make sure the windows are all shuttered and locked, put the good wine away so the slaves can't get to it, dispatch some last-minute letters for me, that sort of thing.' I said, 'Yes, of course. Have a good trip.' "

Together we studied the broken sunlight on the water. "Right before she left, as she was going out the door, she turned back. She called my name. I ran to her. She said, 'Oh, and don't tell anyone where I've gone.' I said, 'Of course I won't.' But I suppose it's all right to tell you, Gordianus. You can keep a secret. You are the most honest man in Rome, aren't you?" His lips curled into a sardonic smile.

"Did a visitor come, late last night?"

Trygonion gave me a blank look, then smiled wanly. "Oh, you mean the poet, the one who recited that awful thing about Attis at the party. Yes, one of the slaves told me he came beating on the door in the middle of the night, drunk and demanding. Bad timing; Clodia was in no mood to be harassed. She sent Barnabas and some of the burlier freedmen to run him off. I think he got away with nothing worse than a broken nose."

I thought of poor Catullus, lying alone in his dreary little room with his books, hung over with a bloody nose. "And a broken heart. She's a cold woman."

Trygonion looked at me sharply. "You're like all the rest. You think she feels nothing. Of course she feels everything. How could she not, being who she is? She feels everything. It amazes me that she can bear it."

The chanting became dreamlike, magical. The bits of sunlight on the water were dazzling. "And you, Trygonion? Are you the same? Everyone thinks you feel nothing, but in reality -"

He looked at me steadily, his eyes swimming with tears, daring me to go on, but I left the rest of the thought unspoken.

I took the same circuitous route back to Eco's house.

"Perhaps you should write a letter to Meto," Eco suggested. "Doesn't that often help to clear your head?"

"I don't think it would be wise to put incriminating information about my wife in a letter."

"You can always burn it afterward. Don't you often do that, anyway?"

I sometimes think my sons know me too well. I asked Eco to show me where he kept his writing tools.

I sat in his little study and stared at the blank parchment for a long time, then finally wrote:

To my beloved son Meto, serving under the command of Gaius Julius Caesar in Gaul, from his loving father in Rome, may Fortune be with you.

I write this letter on the Nones of Aprilis, the second day of the Great Mother festival…

I put down the stylus and stared again at the parchment. There was a sound from the doorway. I looked up and saw Meto looking back at me. The gods delight in catching us off our guard. The threads of our lives weave back and forth across one another, intersecting in a pattern no mortal can discern: my thoughts had turned to Meto and now he stood before me in the flesh, as if my desire had conjured him up.

"By Hercules!" I whispered. "What are you doing here?"

His older brother suddenly appeared behind him. They both burst out laughing.

"You knew, Eco!" I said. "He was already here when you suggested I write the letter!"

"Of course! I couldn't resist the joke. Meto arrived right after you left for Clodia's house. When we heard you coming back, I made him go and hide. You should see the look on your face!"

"Playing tricks on your father is despicable."

"Yes, but at least you're smiling," said Eco.

I pushed the parchment away from me. "A good thing you're here, Meto. Writing it all down would have been impossible!"

He smiled and sat down beside me. "I'm lucky to be here in one piece."

I put my hand over his and drew in a breath. I was always worried for him, knowing the dangers he faced in Gaul. But that wasn't what he meant.

"The riot, over near the Forum," he explained.

"Surely it's still going on. Didn't you see it on your way back from the Palatine?" "I took a roundabout route… "

"There's a play being put on for the festival," Eco interjected. "Apparently some of Clodius's hooligans commandeered the stage and set off a riot. Instant revenge for the nasty things that were said about him at the trial yesterday."

"Put a man like Clodius in charge of a festival and he'll use it for his own petty ends," said Meto in disgust. "Politicians are all the same. But what's this business about a trial?"

I tried to explain as succinctly as I could, but after a moment Meto held up his hand. "It's all too complicated. Give me military strategy any day!"

I laughed. "But what are you doing in Rome? Is Caesar here?"

"He's up in Ravenna, actually, but you never heard me say that. Having a secret meeting with Crassus. Then he's going to Luca to meet with Pompey. Caesar wants to appoint more generals and raise four legions; he'll need the help of those two to get the Senate to approve the expenditures and to quash complaints that he's becoming too powerful. If you ask me, the three of them are going to resurrect the Triumvirate, and make it work this time. It's inevitable. Sooner or later, the Senate will become entirely defunct. The Senate can't rule itself, much less an empire! It's nothing more than a hindrance now, another obstacle in Caesar's way. A rotten limb that needs to be pruned. All this judicial haggling, politicians constantly dragging each other into court-this nonsense has to stop sooner or later. From what you've said, this trial of Caelius is just one more example of how far the standard has fallen." "But what's the alternative?" said Eco.

Meto looked at his brother blandly. "Caesar, of course."

"You're talking about a dictator, like Sulla," I said, shaking my

head.

"Or worse," said Eco, "an outright king, like Ptolemy."

"I'm talking about a man who can lead. I've seen with my own eyes what Caesar can do. All this petty squabbling in Rome seems quite absurd when you're up in Gaul, watching Romans conquer the world."

"Pompey and Crassus are hardly petty," I said.

"That's why a triumvirate is the answer," said Meto. "Temporarily, anyway. But you never heard me say that."

"What about men like Clodius and Milo?" said Eco. "Or Cicero, for that matter? Or Caelius?"

Meto made an expression to show that such men were beneath contempt. What had his service to Caesar done to my son?

I had only a moment to ponder the question, for the twins suddenly rushed into the room in a burst of laughter and golden hair. Meto might know a thing or two about military strategy, but he was no match for his niece and nephew. Titania advanced from the left, Titus from the right. Each grabbed hold of an arm and climbed onto him.

"When did they get so big? And so strong!" Meto laughed.

"They intend to wrestle you, I think," said Eco, chagrined.

"Or at least immobilize you," I said.

"They've succeeded." Meto grunted. The twins squealed with triumph.

"You'd better give up now, while you can," I suggested. "Gaul-fighting Uncle Meto can take a lot rougher treatment than their delicate old grandpa, and they know it."

"I give up!" gasped Meto. The twins released him at once and then turned to mount a skirmish against me. Their attack turned out to be an assault of harmless hugs and kisses, to which I submitted without a struggle.

"But what's this?" I said.

"What?" said Titania.

"This piece of jewelry pinned on your tunic?"

"A gorgon's eye!" cried Titus. "It gives her magical powers, and I have to get it away from her, even if I have to chop her head off!"

"But where did it come from?" My mouth was suddenly dry. It was an earring of simple design, a silver crook with a green glass bead-the twin of the earring which had been used to force the lock of my strongbox, and which had been carelessly dropped inside when the poison was taken.

"It came from the land of Libya, where the Gorgons live," said Titania. "It can make you invisible. That's what Titus says."

"Yes, but how did you come to have it?" From the tone of my voice she knew I wanted a serious answer.

"She gave it to me," said Titania. "She told me she'd lost the other one and she didn't want it anymore."

"Who gave it to you?"

Titania told me. My heart sped up.

"And will it really make me invisible?" she said.

"No." My voice shook. "I mean, yes. Why not? The other earring made her invisible. To my eyes, anyway. It made me think I saw the truth, when I couldn't begin to see it. Oh, Cybele!"

Eco furrowed his brow. "Papa, what are you talking about?"

"I have to go home now. I think I may have been very, very wrong about something."

Belbo answered the front door. At the sight of me he broke into a grin. "Master! Thank the gods you're here!" "Is something wrong?"

"No, nothing at all… now that you're back." "Has her mood been that terrible?"

Belbo rolled his eyes in answer, then jumped at the voice from behind him.

"Whose mood?" Bethesda's voice was like frost in the springtime.

I nodded to dismiss Belbo, who quickly disappeared. Bethesda and I looked at each other in silence for a long moment. "Where have you been?" she finally said.

"I spent the night at Eco's house."

"And the night before that?"

"I was in bed with a drunken poet, actually."

She snorted. "Did you see the trial yesterday?"

"Yes."

"Quite a spectacle, wasn't it?" "You were there?"

"Of course. Belbo held me a place at the very front. I never saw you, though."

"I was standing at the back. I never saw you either." "Strange, isn't it, that we could be so close and yet not see each other." Her gaze softened a bit.

"Caelius was acquitted. I was glad." "So was I, I suppose."

"But what they did to Clodia was horrible." "Yes, it was appalling."

"I wanted to stop them. I would have stopped them, if I could have."

"I felt the same."

"Now she's left the city," said Bethesda. "How did you know that?"

Bethesda saw the look on my face and scowled. "Don't be so suspicious. Do you imagine there's some sort of secret conspiracy of women? A slave brought a note from Clodia this morning. I was supposed to visit her tomorrow, and she wanted to let me know that she wouldn't be home. She didn't say where she was going, only that she was leaving Rome at once."

She crossed her arms and walked into the garden. I followed. She kept her back to me. "I apologize for deceiving you, husband. You know the truth, don't you?"

"I think I do."

"I should explain. That man – Dio – I can hardly say his name. Back in Alexandria, before you bought me -" "I know." "How could you?"

"I overheard you talking to Clodia the other day, in the garden at the back of the house."

She looked over her shoulder. Her eyes lit up as she comprehended, then became clouded. "But I never said his name! I made a point of not saying his name to Clodia."

"Even so…"

She nodded and turned her face away.

"You should have told me, Bethesda. You should have told me long ago." I stepped closer and put my hand on the back of her neck.

She reached up and touched my fingers. "Then you understand?"

"I can't be sorry that Dio's dead. When I think of what he did to you and your mother, and to who knows how many others… "

"Then say you forgive me."

"Forgive me first, Bethesda, for having had less faith in you than I should have."

"I forgive you, husband."

"And I forgive you, wife, for deceiving me."

"And for poisoning a guest in your house?" "You confess?"

She took a deep breath. "Yes."

I shook my head. "No. I can't forgive you for poisoning Dio." She stiffened.

"But I will forgive you for continuing to deceive me with a false confession."

She turned. From the way she looked up at me, searching my face for signs of what I knew, I was satisfied that I had found the truth at

last.

A little while later I was sitting in my library, looking out the open windows onto the garden. The vines and flowers were in bloom. Bees and butterflies flitted in the bright sunshine.

Diana appeared in the doorway. "You wanted to see me, Papa?"

"Yes."

She looked grave for a moment, then brightened. "Mother says that Meto is back."

"Yes, for a short visit. He's at Eco's house. They'll all be coming over for dinner soon."

"I can't wait to see him."

I nodded and found myself unable to look at her. I watched the bees and butterflies instead. "Did your mother tell you what I wanted to talk to you about?"

"Yes, Papa." She suddenly hardened her voice, the way her mother always did at the beginning of an argument to show that she would not be shaken.

"When did your mother first tell you about Dio? About what he did to her?"

"Years ago, Papa. As soon as I was old enough to understand." "And yet she never told me!"

"It was between her and me, Papa. A thing for a mother to tell a daughter. Men have secrets they never share with women."

"I suppose we do. So, when Dio came to the house that day-"

"When you introduced him, I had no idea who he was. Mother had never told me the man's name, only how wicked he was. But when I told Mother the visitor's name and where he was from, I saw from her face that something was terribly wrong. All at once I knew. 'It's him, isn't it?' I said. She couldn't be sure, so we went to have a look."

"Yes, I remember the way you both looked at him, and the way he

looked at you. No wonder he was startled by the sight of you, especially when the two of you stood side by side! How much you look like her, when she was young. I saw every look that passed between the three of you, and yet I understood nothing-like a dog watching orators debate. And to think, I was the one who suggested that the two of you fix something for Dio to eat! Was it your mother who told you to get the poison?"

"No, Papa. I thought of it myself. I knew where the poison was-" "Of course you did, because I made such a point of warning you about it when I got it from Eco. So dangerous, I thought, to have poison in a house with a child. Dangerous in a way I never considered! But your mother must have known when you mixed it into Dio's portion?"

"No. I did it while her back was turned, then made sure that I did the serving."

"You did it all on your own! In the blink of an eye you made up your mind to kill a man, then fetched the poison, slipped it into his food, and… "

Diana lowered her eyes.

"All on your own!"

She nodded. I shook my head. "When did Bethesda give you those old green-glass earrings of hers?"

Diana sighed. "Ages ago, Papa. She tired of them, and there were scratches in the glass, so she let me have them. I wore them from time to time."

"And I never noticed. Of course, Bethesda wears her hair up, showing her ears. You still wear your hair down, like a girl… "

"It's funny. I can't remember wearing them that day. I can't even remember using one of them to pry open the lock on the strongbox to get at the poison, but I suppose I must have. It's like it all happened underwater. I didn't realize until days later that I'd lost the earring. I looked everywhere for it. Everywhere but inside your strongbox. Finally I gave up on finding it. I gave the widowed earring to Titania."

"Yes, Titania told me." I shook my head. "You left the lock just as it was, broken. You never even tried to replace the poison you'd taken, if only with something that looked similar." I winced. "That fact alone should have told me that Bethesda wasn't responsible. She would have covered her tracks! You behaved like a child, Diana, thinking you could leave such clues and not be found out. When did you tell your mother?"

"Not until just the other day, after Clodia's visit."

"Why did you wait so long? I'm not surprised that you didn't tell me, but I thought you had no secrets from your mother?"

"I meant to tell her right after Dio left the house. I wanted to. But

I was suddenly afraid. Then I was confused. The next day, after you were gone, we heard that Dio had died. I could see that Mother was pleased, though she never spoke a word. But everyone said that Dio had been stabbed to death, and if that was so, how could I have poisoned him? Maybe the stuff was harmless, I thought, not poison at all, just a yellow spice. Maybe I had only imagined doing it. It all seemed so strange. I didn't know what to do. I just wanted to forget and be done with it."

I nodded. "So Bethesda didn't know the truth until after Clodia's visit. All her protests that Caelius was innocent were only statements of opinion! She was also sure that Caelius could never have poisoned Clodia. Well, she was wrong on both counts-Caelius tried his best to kill Dio and Clodia both. So much for Bethesda as a judge of character. So much for me, admiring Dio! What prompted you to finally tell her?"

"It was hearing her tell Clodia what happened to her and her mother when she was a girl. I was amazed to hear her talk about it to anyone but me. It made me cry. That was when I finally made up my mind to tell her I poisoned Dio, not because I was proud of what I did, but because I didn't want to have any secrets from her. So that night, after Clodia left, I told her. She said that we mustn't tell anyone. 'Not even Papa?' I said. 'Especially not him!'

"But a couple of days later, after the two of you came back from Clodia's house, Mother came into my room to tell me about the party, and then you burst in, shouting at her. You'd gone looking for the poison and found the broken lock and the empty pyxis. You threw the earring on the floor-and suddenly I realized where I had lost it. But what you said made no sense. You seemed to think that for some reason Mother had stolen the poison for Clodia… "

I groaned and shook my head. "I accused her of deceiving me, and she admitted it-but we were talking about different things! I thought she had given the poison to Clodia behind my back, but the deception was something else-she knew you had poisoned Dio and kept it from me."

Diana nodded. "After you went storming out of the house, Mother told me, 'If he does figure out the truth, keep your mouth shut. Let me take the blame.' But you found me out, didn't you, Papa?" She spoke without recrimination, but rather with a hint of pride – of Bethesda for shielding her, of me for finding her out.

I looked at her face in the soft light from the garden and saw a girl-child with lustrous black hair and the beginnings of a woman's beauty. "I don't know what to make of you, Diana. You're a mystery, like your mother. Why did you do it? What gave you the strength to go through with it?"

"How can you not understand, Papa? Do you remember when we were in this room the other day and I wanted to see the letter you were writing to Meto? It was a letter about the work you were doing, looking into Dio's death. I asked you why it was so important for you to know who killed Dio. You talked about peace of mind. You said to me, 'If someone who was close to you had been hurt, wouldn't you want to avenge that person, to redress the wrong that was done to them, if you could?' Of course, Papa! That's exactly what I did. I did it for Mother. I did it for the grandmother I'll never know. Would you have me undo it, if I could? If you could turn back time, would you have me do nothing, instead?"

I studied her face, confused, and tried to remember what I believed about murder and justice, right and wrong.

"Wouldn't you have done the same thing yourself, Papa?"

For an instant the veil of mystery dissolved. The eyes that looked back at me were as familiar and empty of secrets as my own eyes in a mirror. Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. I put my hands on her shoulders and kissed her brow. From the garden came the noise of the family arriving for dinner-Eco, Menenia, Meto, the all-conquering twins. I drew back and looked into Diana's eyes again, and saw with a shiver of regret that the veil had returned. She was a mystery again, distinct and wholly of herself, another mortal adrift in the cosmos: out of my control, beyond my comprehension. The moment of recognition was fleeting, as such moments always are, like music which fills the void to overflowing and then vanishes in the twinkling of an eye.

AUTHOR'S

NOTE

Within thirteen years, many of the players in the trial of Marcus Caelius would be, in the historian T. P. Wiseman's phrase, "spectacularly dead" – Clodius murdered during a skirmish with Milo's gang (an angry mob burned the Senate House the next day); Crassus massacred along with twenty-thousand troops in his ill-fated campaign for military glory against the Parthians; Pompey a casualty of the tumultuous Civil War; Cicero a casualty of the peace. Republican judicial restraints on "political violence" clearly failed, as did the second attempt by Crassus, Caesar and Pompey to form a stabilizing triumvirate; at the end of the road stood Augustus.

King Ptolemy would also be dead, leaving his children (including the famous Cleopatra) to fight over Egypt and to fend off Roman domination for a little while longer.

As for Marcus Caelius, he shifted allegiance once too often, and against the wrong man. Unable to convince a garrison of soldiers to revolt against Caesar in the middle of the Civil War, his ambitions ended in a violent death. His colorful correspondence with Cicero survived to make him the darling of historians like Gaston Boissier ("In the history we are studying, there is perhaps no more curious figure than Caelius") and W. Warde Fowler (who called Caelius "the most interesting figure in the life of his age"). Early on, the first-century commentator Quintilian delivered the judgment of posterity: Marcus Caelius "deserved a cooler head and a longer life."

Catullus died the soonest of any, in 54 B.C., of unknown causes. He was probably about thirty years old.

What of Clodia? After the trial, she vanishes from the scene (though I suspect that Gordianus may not have seen quite the last of her). We get a glimpse of her again nine years later in some of Cicero's letters to his friend Atticus, who appears to have been on good terms with Clodia. Looking to buy property where he can enjoy his retirement ("A place to grow old in," Atticus assumes, to which Cicero bluntly replies, "A place where I can be buried"), Cicero asks his friend to check out various horti that might be for sale around Rome.

This is Cicero, in Shackleton Bailey's translation: "Clodia's gardens I like, but I don't think they are for sale." And a few days later: "But you say something or other about Clodia. Where is she then or when is she coming? I prefer her grounds to anyone's except Otho's. But I don't think she will sell: she likes the place and has plenty of money: and how difficult the other thing is, you are well aware. But pray let us make an effort to think out some way of getting what I want."

So far as I can tell, the very last we hear of her is in a letter of April 15,44 B.C., in which Cicero writes to Atticus: Clodia quid egerit, scribas ad me velim ("I should like you to tell me what Clodia has done"). Was Cicero seeking clarification of a bit of gossip he had heard? Was he inquiring about Clodia out of the blue? We do not know.

I should like to acknowledge some of the books I encountered in my research. Foremost among them is T. P. Wiseman's superbly annotated Catullus and His World: A Reappraisal (Cambridge University Press, 1985), which ranges far and wide to render a vivid picture of Catullus and his circle of history, fiction, and academic myth.

Studies of Catullus abound, from Tenney Frank's venerable Catullus and Horace (Henry Holt and Company, 1928) to Charles Martin's insightful and thoroughly modern Catullus (Yale University Press, 1992). There are numerous translations of his poems. The Penguin edition by Peter Whigham is accessible (in every sense); Horace Gregory's 1956 translation may be harder to find, but rewards the search. Readers with some Latin will find The Poems of Catullus: A Teaching Text by Phyllis Young Forsyth (University Press of America, 1986) frank and useful.

The famous oration in defense of Marcus Caelius can be found in Michael Grant's translation of Selected Political Speeches by Cicero (Pen-guin, 1969). R. G. Austin's commentary on the Latin text (Oxford, 1933; third edition 1960) is delightfully sharp.

Some odds and ends: Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult by Maarten J. Vermaseren (Thames and Hudson, London, 1977) is a treasure trove of information about the Great Mother and her eunuch priests. Back From Exile: Six Speeches Upon His Return, translated with notes by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (American Philological Association, 1991), gives a lucid picture of Cicero's ongoing feud with Clodius. The melodramatic tale of Appius Claudius the decemvir and the hapless Verginia is found in Book Three of Livy's History of Rome. An explication of the Nola pun in Caelius's speech (of which we have only a few secondhand quotations) can be found in T. W. Hillard's ' 'In triclinio Coam, in cubiculo Nolam: Lesbia and the Other Clodia" (Liverpool Classical Monthly, June 1981).

Steven Saylor

The Venus Throw

CHRONOLOGY

Part One: NEX [death, usually violent death: murder]

Part Two: NOXIA [a fault or offense: a crime]

Part Three: NOX [the goddess Night, sister of Eros; blindness; gloom]

Part Four: NEXUS [a binding or tying together]

CHRONOLOGY

Listed below are some significant events preceding the action of The Venus Throw, which begins in mid-January, 56 B.C.

90 B.C.

Gordianus in Alexandria.

80 B.C.

King Soter of Egypt dies; succeeded briefly by Alexander II, then by Ptolemy Auletes. Sulla dictator in Rome; Cicero's first major speech, in defense of Sextus Roscius; the events of Roman Blood.

76 B.C.

Appius Claudius (father of Clodia and Clodius) dies.

75 B.C.

First senatorial attempt to act on the alleged will of Alexander II bequeathing Egypt to Rome.

72 B.C.

Second year of Spartacan slave revolt; the events of Arms of Nemesis.

68 B.C.

Clodius incites mutiny in Lucullus's army.

65 B.C.

Crassus as censor makes a foiled attempt to declare Egypt a tributary province of Rome.

63 B.C.

Cicero's consulship; the events of Catilina's Riddle. Caesar and Pompey attempt to exact Egyptian tribute with Rullan Legislation, foiled by Cicero.

62 B.C.

Clodia's husband Quintus Metellus Celer governor of Cisalpine Gaul. Clodius disrupts the celebration of the Good Goddess.

61 B.C.

Clodius tried for the Good Goddess scandal and acquitted.

59 B.C.

Caelius prosecutes Antonius (Cicero defending). Caesar as consul arranges for King Ptolemy to be recognized as "Friend and Ally of the Roman People" in return for thirty-five million denarii. King Ptolemy raises taxes in Egypt, angering the populace. Clodius becomes a plebeian in order to run for tribune. Clodia widowed by the death of Quintus Metellus Celer.

58 B.C.

Clodius tribune. Cicero forced into exile (March). Roman takeover of Egyptian Cyprus. King Ptolemy flees to Rome.

57 B.C.

Cicero returns from exile (September). Caelius supports Bestia for praetor. The delegation of one hundred Alexandrians, headed by Dio, arrives in Italy.

At dice I sought the Venus Throw. Instead: damned Dogs-the lose-all low!

PROPERTIUS, Elegies

iv, vii: 45-46

We've all heard about Alexandria, and now we know about it-the source of all trickery and deceit, where the plots of all the mimes come from.

CICERO, Pro C. Rabirio Postumo, 35

Democritus disapproved of sexual intercourse as being merely the act whereby one human being springs from another-and by Hercules, the less of that the better! On the other hand, sluggish athletes find that sex rejuvenates them; sex can relieve hoarseness, cure pain in the loins, sharpen eyesight; sex can restore mental balance and banish melancholy.

PLINY, Natural History, x x v III,58

PARTONENEX

CHAPTER

ONE

Two visitors at the front door, Master." Belbo looked at me

from under his brow and shifted from foot to foot uncertainly. "Their names?" "They wouldn't say." "Familiar faces?"

"I've never seen them before, Master."

"Did they say what they wanted?"

"No, Master."

I pondered this for a moment and stared into the flames of the brazier.

"I see. Two men-"

"Not exactly, Master… "

"Two visitors, you said. Are they both men or not?" "Well," Belbo said, wrinkling his brow, "I'm pretty sure that one of them is a man. At least I think so…" "And the other?"

"A woman-I think. Or maybe not…" He looked thoughtfully but without much concern into the middle distance, as if trying to remember what he had eaten for breakfast.

I raised an eyebrow and looked beyond the flaming brazier, through the narrow window and into the garden, where the statue of Minerva kept watch over a little fishpond. The sun was beginning to lower. Days in Januarius are all too short, especially for a man of fifty-four like myself, old enough to feel the cold in his bones. But the daylight was still strong enough to see clearly, certainly clearly enough to tell if someone at the door was male or female. Was Belbo's sight beginning to fail?

Belbo is not the cleverest of slaves. What he lacks in brains he has always made up for with brawn. For a long time this hulking mass of bulging muscles and straw-colored hair has been my bodyguard, but in recent years his reflexes have grown noticeably slower. I had thought I might be able to start using him as a doorkeeper, reasoning that his long service at my side would enable him to recognize most of my visitors and that his size should intimidate those he didn't. Alas, if he couldn't even tell the difference between a man and a woman it would hardly do to have him answering the door.

Belbo ceased to ponder the middle distance and cleared his throat. "Should I show them in, Master?"

"Let me see if I understand you: two strangers of indeterminate sex, who refuse to give their names, have come to call on a man with a lifetime's worth of enemies, here in the most dangerous city in the world. Show them in, you ask? Why not?"

My sarcasm was apparently too subtle. Belbo nodded and left the room before I could call him back.

A moment later he returned with my visitors. I stood to greet them, and realized that Belbo's eyes were indeed still sharp, probably sharper than my own. Had I seen this couple across the street or walking through the Forum, I might have taken them to be exactly what they appeared to be, a rather small young man with delicate features, dressed in an ill-fitting toga and wearing a broad-brimmed hat (despite the less than sunny weather), and a much older, much larger woman wrapped in a stola that modestly covered her from head to toe. But on closer inspection, there was something amiss.

I could see nothing of the young man's body, obscured as it was by the loose folds of his oversize toga, but his face was not quite right; there was no sign of a beard on his cheeks, and his soft, beautifully manicured hands moved with a delicacy that was not masculine. Also, instead of lying flat around his ears and the back of his neck, his hair appeared to have been pushed up under his hat, which meant it must be unusually long. The color of his hair was odd as well-dark at the roots, but turning blond where it was tucked up under the brim of his hat, which he declined to take off.

As for the woman, a woollen mantle draped over her head obscured much of her face, but I could see that her cheeks had been painted, and not too expertly, with a rose-colored blush. The wrinkles of her neck hung down in folds considerably looser than the folds of the stola that strained to contain her bulk, especially around the middle. Her shoulders seemed a bit too broad and her hips too narrow. Nor did her hands seem quite right, for Roman matrons take pride in keeping their flesh as pale as possible, and hers were dark and weathered as if by many years of exposure to the sun, and while any woman vain enough to color her cheeks might be expected to take good care of her fingernails, those of my visitor were ragged and bitten down to the quick. The couple stood mute beside the brazier.

"I understand that you've come to pay me a visit," I finally said.

They merely nodded. The young man pursed his lips and peered at me, his face stiff. The old woman tilted her head so that the brazier lit up her eyes. Between lashes stained black with antimony I saw a flash of apprehension.

I waved to Belbo, who fetched a pair of folding chairs and placed them opposite my own.

"Sit," I offered. They did, demonstrating even more clearly that things were not what they seemed. The wearing of the toga is an art, as is the wearing of the stola, I imagine. From their manifest awkwardness it seemed highly unlikely that the little man had ever worn a toga before, or that his companion had ever worn a stola. Their clumsiness was almost comical.

"Wine?" I offered.

"Yes!" said the young man, sitting forward, his face suddenly ani-mated. His voice was high and somehow too delicate, like his hands. The old woman stiffened and whispered "No!" in a hoarse voice. She nervously fiddled with her fingers, then bit at her thumbnail.

I shrugged. "For myself, I feel the need of something to stave off the chill in the air. Belbo, ask one of the serving girls to bring some water and wine. And something to eat, perhaps?" I looked inquiringly at my visitors.

The young man brightened and nodded eagerly. The woman glow-ered and struck at his arm, making him wince. "Are you mad?" she whispered gruffly. I thought I detected a slight accent, and was trying to place it when I heard her stomach growl.

"Yes, of course, exactly," the young man muttered. He too had an accent, faint but vaguely eastern. This was curious, for only Roman citizens wear the toga. "No food, please," he said.

"How unfortunate," I said, "for we have some very good must-cakes left over from breakfast this morning, flavored with honey and pepper in the Egyptian style. My wife comes from Alexandria, you see. I spent some time there myself as a young man – oh, that must have been over thirty years ago. The Egyptians are famous for their soft breads, as I'm sure you know. My wife says it was a baker at the mouth of the Nile who discovered the secret of leavening and dedicated his first loaf to the great Alexander when he founded the city."

The woman's mouth began to twitch. She pulled at her mantle to shade her eyes, but I could feel her gaze on me as hot as the flames of the brazier. The little man's face lost its animation and turned stiff again.

Belbo returned with a small folding table which he set between us. A serving girl followed with three cups and two ewers, one of water and one of wine. The girl poured wine into each cup and then departed, leaving it to me to apportion the water. "For myself, in the cold months I take it almost straight," I said, leaning forward and adding only a splash of water to the nearest cup. "And you?" I looked at the young man. He held up his forefinger and pressed his thumb against the furthest joint. "A knuckle's worth of water," I said, pouring, then looked at his companion. "And will you join us after all?" She hesitated, then copied the little man's gesture. Again I noticed her bitten nails and the sun-weathered flesh of her hands.

"You won't regret it," I said. "This comes from my private stock. I still have some jars of wine remaining from my brief tenure as a farmer up in Etruria a few years ago. It was a very good year-for the wine, anyway." I handed them each a cup. Before I could pick up my own, the woman quickly put hers down and reached for mine. "I changed my mind," she whispered hoarsely. "Less water will suit me. If you don't mind."

"Of course not." I picked up the cup she had abandoned and held it before my lips, pretending to savor the bouquet. She watched me intently and put her cup beneath her fleshy nose, sniffing at it cautiously with no pretense of enjoyment, waiting for me to take a sip before she would do the same. It was an absurd moment, like a scene in some hackneyed comedy, except that had we been on a stage the audience would have hooted at us for playing our parts too broadly.

At last I put the cup to my mouth and drank, letting the red wine linger on my lips for a moment before licking them clean, to show her I had swallowed. Only then did she sip cautiously from her cup. Her companion, having watched this interchange as if awaiting permission, put his cup to his lips and drained it. "Excellent!" he exclaimed, his voice slipping into a higher register. He cleared his throat. "Excellent," he said again in a voice that was deeper but still distinctly feminine.

For a moment we sipped our wine in silence, listening to the crackling of the brazier. "You seem cautious about stating your purpose," I finally said. "Perhaps you could begin by telling me your names."

The little man looked at the woman, who then turned away from the flames and hid her face in shadow. After a moment the little man looked back to me. "No names," he said softly. "Not yet."

I nodded. "As you wish. What do names matter, anyway? Names are but a cloak, a garment which men put on and take off. A disguise, if you will. Don't you agree?"

The little man looked at me with gleaming eyes-was he intrigued, or had he simply drained his cup too quickly? His companion kept her face in shadow, but again I felt the heat of her gaze. "A name is not the same as a thing," she finally whispered.

I nodded. "So I was taught long ago-when I lived in Alexandria, as a matter of fact. And yet, without names, we have no way of discoursing with one another about the things those names represent."

The woollen mantle nodded gravely up and down.

"A thing is called one name in Greek, another in Latin," I said. "The thing remains the same. That which applies to things must also apply to persons. King Ptolemy of Egypt, for example, is King Ptolemy, whether we give him the Greek title basileus or the Latin title rex."

The figure in the stola drew a sharp breath and seemed on the verge of speaking, but held back.

"So it is with the gods themselves," I went on. "Romans call the father of the gods Jupiter; Greeks call him Zeus. 'Jupiter' is an onomatopoeia for the sound of lightning striking the earth, while 'Zeus' captures the sound of a thunderbolt cutting through the air. Thus do names convey to the ear what the eye and the soul of man perceive, however imperfectly."

"Exactly!" whispered my visitor. The head tilted to reveal the eyes, which were fixed upon me with the excitement of a teacher who hears his pupil repeating back to him a lesson learned long ago but never forgotten.

"Still, names are not things," I said, "and while the study of names may fascinate us, it is the study of things, or more precisely our human perception of things, which must occupy anyone who cares to discover philosophy. For example: I see the flame in this brazier, yet how do I know that it exists?"

The little man, who had availed himself of more wine during my discourse, laughed out loud. "Simple – put your hand into the flame!"

I clucked my tongue disapprovingly. "You must be of the Epicurean School, if you believe that by sense perception alone we can determine the actuality of existence. Epicurus taught that all sensations are true; still, the fact that I am burned by the fire should be no proof to you of its existence, since you would feel no pain."

"Ah, but I would hear you scream."

"Perhaps; but there are those who can endure such pain without screaming. If I didn't scream, would the fire be any more or less real? What if I did scream, and you happened to be deaf and looking elsewhere-would I still have been burned? Then again, if I were to scream, and if you were to hear me, you still would have no way of knowing whether my pain was real or a sham."

"You seem to know a lot about such things," said the young man, who smiled and took another sip. I noticed he had spilled a bit of wine on his toga.

"A little. Philosophy is the creation of the Greeks, of course, but a Roman may attempt to comprehend it. My old patron Cicero made himself something of an expert on philosophy, to help his oratory. From the Skeptics he learned that a proposition is always easier to disprove than to prove-a useful thing for a lawyer to know, especially if he has no scruples about defending guilty men."

I took a long sip of wine. The mood in the room had changed completely. My visitors' frosty suspicion had melted into trust. The com-forting cadence of philosophic discourse was familiar ground, as I suspected it would be.

"But just as a name is not a thing, so appearance is not existence," I went on. "Consider: two visitors come to my home. At first glance, they appear to be a man and a woman, and this is clearly the impression they wish to give. But on closer scrutiny this is only an impression, not the truth; thus do my senses tell me and my powers of logic deduce. Questions follow: if the man is not a man, and the woman is not a woman, then what are they? Who are they? Why do they wish to be perceived as something they are not? Who are they trying to fool, and why? And why do they come to the house of Gordianus the Finder?"

"And do you know the answers to all these questions?" rasped my visitor in the stola.

"I think so, to most of them, anyway. Though some things about your companion still puzzle me…" I looked at the little man, who smiled in a way I couldn't account for, until I realized that he was smiling not at me but at someone behind me.

I turned to see my daughter, Diana, in the doorway.

Her posture was tentative, as if she had merely paused to have a look into the room and would move on at any moment. She wore the long-sleeved gown that children of both sexes wear, but at thirteen she was already beginning to fill the garment in ways unmistakably feminine. Her dark blue gown merged with the dimness of the hallway, so that her face, lit up by the brazier, seemed to hover in the air. Her skin, which had the creamy texture and the rosy glow that my visitor's painted cheeks so crudely mimicked, made the darkness of her long eyelashes and her thick eyebrows all the more pronounced. The flames caught the highlights of her long black hair, which was parted in the middle and fell down her shoulders. Her brown eyes peered at us curiously and with a hint of amusement. How like her mother she had always been, and how more like her she became every day! Sometimes it seemed to me that I had nothing to do with creating her, so completely was she cast in Bethesda's image.

She smiled faintly and began to move on. "Diana," I called, "come here for a moment."

She stepped into the room, wearing that mysterious smile she in-herited from her mother. "Yes, Papa?"

"We have visitors, Diana."

"Yes, Papa, I know. I saw Belbo let them in at the front door. I was on my way to tell Mother, but I thought I'd have a closer look first." "A closer look?"

She gave me a bemused, exasperated look, such as Bethesda gives me when I belabor the obvious. "Well, Papa! It's not every day that a eunuch and a man dressed as a woman come calling on you, is it?"

She looked at my visitors and smiled sweetly.

They didn't smile back, but instead looked glumly at each other. "I told you that the pretense was worthless. Even a child saw through it!" grumbled the old man in the stola, no longer disguising his voice or his Alexandrian accent. He wearily pushed back the mantle from his head. His silver hair was pulled back from his face and knotted at the back of his neck. His forehead was wrinkled and covered with spots. The folds of flesh hanging from his chin quivered and he suddenly looked ridiculous, an unhappy old man with painted cheeks and painted eyes.

The eunuch in the toga covered his mouth and giggled tipsily. "But you look so pretty in makeup!"

"Enough of that!" growled the old Egyptian. His mouth settled in a deep frown and his jowls drooped as he stared bleakly into the flames, his eyes full of despair.

Chapter Two

This is my daughter, Gordiana, whom we call Diana." I took her soft, smooth hand in mine. "Diana, we are honored by the presence of Dio of Alexandria: philosopher, teacher, esteemed member of the Academy, and currently the chief ambassador to Rome from the people of Egypt."

With the unstudied dignity of a distinguished man used to being formally introduced and hearing his titles recited, Dio stood, clasping his hands before him, pulling his shoulders back. His self-possession seemed peculiarly at odds with his strange costume; with his painted face and his feminine garments he looked like the priest of some eastern cult-which was precisely what his companion turned out to be.

"And this," said Dio, gesturing to the little eunuch, who likewise stood, though a bit tipsily, "is Trygonion, a priest at the Temple of Cybele here in Rome."

The eunuch took a little bow and pulled off his hat, from which tumbled a mass of pale yellow hair. The color was a bleached, unnatural shade of blond. He ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head to untangle the curls.

"A philosopher… and a gallus!" Diana said wonderingly. The last word gave me a start. Gallus is the Latin term for a castrated priest of the Great Mother, Cybele. All the galli are foreigners, since by law no Roman can become one. The word is pious in the mouths of the goddess's adherents, but others sometimes use it as a vulgar epithet ("You filthy gallus!"); the idea of men becoming eunuchs, even in the service of the divine, remains foreign and repulsive to most Romans. I couldn't remember ever having taught the word to Diana, but then she is always coming out with things I never taught her. She learns them from her mother, I suspect.

"Yes," Dio said ruefully, "puzzle that, Gordianus: what could a philosopher and a gallus possibly have in common-the man who lives by reason, and the man whose life is the surrender of all reason? Ha! Circumstances make strange bedmates. The more desperate the circumstances, the odder the bedmates." He cast a sidelong, gloomy glance at the eunuch, then suddenly looked doubtful. "I do not intend this metaphor literally, of course. You do have this phrase in Latin, yes? About circumstances and bedmates?"

"Something close enough."

He nodded, satisfied that he had made himself understood. His Latin was in fact impeccable, though his accent was distinctly Alexandrian, with the particular inflections of those born in Egypt whose ancestry and primary tongue are Greek. Hearing him speak freely, I now recalled his voice from many years ago. It had grown coarser with age, but was undeniably the same voice I had listened to so attentively on the steps outside the temple of Serapis in Alexandria when I was a young man, eager to learn all I could about the world. Dio's voice took me far back in memory and far away from Rome.

Introductions finished, we sat, except for Diana, who excused herself and left the room, no doubt to go tell her mother.

Dio cleared his throat. "You remember me, then?"

"Teacher," I said, for that was what I had always called him in Alexandria, and it now felt awkward to call him by his name, though I was long past the age of deference, "of course I remember you. You'd be a hard man to forget!"

"I had thought, after so many years… And then, when they told me your name, how could I know for sure that it was the same Gordianus whom I had known so long ago? To be sure, the name is unusual, and also they seemed to think that you had been to Alexandria as a young man, and what they said of you sounded like the tree that would have grown from the sapling-this expression you have also, yes? And I have used the correct tenses? Good. Still, with so much danger around me, so many betrayals-you understand why I could not come to you openly? Why I hesitated to reveal myself to you? Why I had to be suspicious even of your very fine wine?" He looked at me uneasily and chewed a fingernail. "Even when I saw you, I was not quite sure that you were the Gordianus I had known in Alexandria. Time changes us all, and you wear a sort of disguise as well, you know."

He gestured to something on my face. I touched my chin and realized that he meant my beard.

I smiled. "Yes, I was clean-shaven back then. Alexandria is too hot for beards, and I was too young to grow a decent one anyway. Or do you mean all the gray among the black? Gray hair and wrinkles are a kind of involuntary disguise, I suppose, worn by anyone who lives long enough."

Dio nodded and studied my face, still trying to decide whether he could trust me. "I have to be very careful," he said.

"Yes, I know something about your situation," I said. "Your journey from Alexandria, the attacks on your entourage after you landed down in Neapolis, the threats against you here in Rome, the fact that the Senate looks the other way. There's plenty of talk in the Forum these days about what people call 'the Egyptian situation.' "

"Still, how did you guess it was Dio?" asked the little gallus, pouring himself another cup of wine. "Our disguises got us safely through the streets. Granted, they may be less convincing at such close quarters-"

"Yes," said Dio, "how could you possibly have known it was me? Surely you didn't recognize my face, hidden in shadow and painted like a woman's, and after all these years. And surely it was not my voice, for I tried to speak like a woman and as little as I could, and you have not heard me speak for so long."

"Teacher, I'm not sure exactly why you've come to see me, but I assume it has something to do with the reputation I've made for myself: Finder, I'm called. I knew who you must be almost at once. If I couldn't figure out as small a thing as that, coming to see me would be a waste of your time."

"Elucidate," said Dio, in his expressionless teacher's voice.

"Yes, make yourself clear!" laughed the little gallus, lifting his wine cup and shaking out his bleached curls.

"Very well. That you were not what you wished to appear was immediately evident to me, as it was to Diana, and even to Belbo, my doorkeeper."

"What gave me away?" said Dio.

I shrugged. "Little things. Who can list all the differences between the ways that men and women walk and talk and hold themselves? An actor on the stage can convincingly portray a woman, but an actor trains for the task. To simply paint your face and put on a stola is hardly an impersonation."

"Then the pretense was not at all convincing? Be specific! I have to know, because if I cannot succeed with this disguise, then I must find another. It could mean the difference between-between life and…" He bit at his fingernails again, but finding nothing left to gnaw at, pulled nervously at the wrinkles that hung from his neck.

"Your fingernails gave you away, for a start. Roman matrons make a ritual of their manicures."

"Ah!" He looked at his nails with disgust. "A terrible habit. It's come back to me only since I arrived in Italy. I cannot seem to stop myself."

"You might grow back your nails, but your hands would still give you away. Such brown, weathered hands-no Roman matron has hands like yours, and neither does any citizen of standing. Only slaves and farmers have such hands-or visitors from foreign climes where the sun stays hot all year long and burns everyone brown as a nut, from King Ptolemy down to the lowest field slave."

"Ptolemy!" Dio spat the name.

"Yes, I saw your agitation earlier when I spoke his name, which gave further confirmation to what I already suspected: that Dio of Alexandria had come to pay me a visit."

"But you still haven't explained how you came to have such a suspicion in the first place," said the gallus. " 'Elucidate!' " he quipped, mimicking Dio.

"By steps, then: My visitor is dressed as a woman but is not a woman. My visitor must be a man, then, with a reason for concealing himself-I confess that I overlooked the possibility that either of you might be a eunuch. A man in trouble, perhaps in danger-that seemed likely from your nervous mannerisms and the fact that you refused any food, despite the fact that your stomach was growling. From your brown hands and your accent, I knew you must be foreign."

I shrugged. "But there's a point where explaining the discrete steps in a logical progression of thought becomes too tedious to bother with- would you agree, Teacher? Like asking a weaver to explain how a tapestry was made by taking it apart thread by thread-what a mess you'd have! Suffice it to say that given what I had already deduced, the supposition leaped to my mind that my visitor must be Dio of Alexandria. I've heard of your plight; rumor says that you've been hiding in private houses here on the Palatine Hill; suddenly it occurred to me that this foreign stranger with a desperate demeanor might be Dio. To test the possibility, I felt you out. I spoke of philosophy, my days in Alexandria, King Ptolemy. Your reactions confirmed my suspicions. This is not philosophy or mathematics, Teacher, but I think you must see how my mind works, and how I have put to use the ways of thinking which you taught me long ago."

Dio smiled and nodded. How curious, that in the fifth decade of my life I could still be warmed by the approval of a teacher I hadn't seen and had scarcely thought about for thirty years! "And what about Trygonion?" Dio said.

"Yes, what did you make of me?" asked the little gallus, his eyes sparkling. (I say 'his eyes,' though many people, perhaps most, would say 'her eyes'; as often as not, eunuchs are referred to as females, which seems to please them.)

"I confess, Trygonion, that you stumped me. I knew that you weren't what you pretended to be, but I got it wrong. I assumed you must be a young woman in a toga and hat, trying to pass herself off as a man."

The gallus threw back his head and let out a throaty laugh. "A logical balance, I suppose, for those who think of things as one or the other: a young woman in a toga, to match an old man in a stola!"

I nodded. "Exactly. The expectation of symmetry seduced me into error."

"So you took me for a woman!" said Trygonion, sitting low in his chair and fixing me with a feline gaze. "Who did you think such a woman might be-the philosopher's slave, his daughter, his wife?" He reached over and stroked the top of Dio's wrinkled hand with his fingertips; the philosopher made a face and drew back at the touch. "Or his Amazon bodyguard, perhaps?" Trygonion laughed.

I shrugged. "Your features and your voice confused me. Eunuchs are rare in Rome; I overlooked that possibility. I saw that you were unaccustomed to wearing a toga, as might be expected of a woman-but also of a foreigner. I did notice your accent, but it's faint, and not Egyptian; Phrygian, I assume, now that I know you're a gallus. Your Latin is almost that of a Roman. You must have lived here a long time."

"For ten years. I came to serve at the Great Mother's temple here in Rome when I was fifteen, the very year that I consecrated myself to her worship." By consecrated, Trygonion meant castrated; Dio winced. "So, the gallus proved a harder riddle to solve than the philosopher," the little priest said, looking pleased with himself.

"As is only logical," said Dio irritably, "given that philosophers strive for lucidity, while the priests of Cybele make a religion of mystifying the senses."

"And yet our host's young daughter perceived the truth at a glance," said Trygonion.

"A beautiful girl," said Dio softly, wrinkling his brow. "Such insight on the part of a child seems almost preternatural, don't you think, Gordianus?" Trygonion looked at me shrewdly. "Perhaps your daughter is a witch."

Dio scowled and shifted uneasily, but I decided to indulge the gallus's sense of humor rather than take offense. "Diana's mother grew up in Egypt, which has many eunuchs. Diana was born with Egypt in her blood, so I suppose she knows a eunuch when she sees one. I'd like to take credit for her cleverness, but certain insights definitely come from her mother."

"Perhaps they are both witches," said Trygonion.

"Enough of your rudeness," growled Dio. "These galli think they can say anything and behave however they choose, under anyone's roof. They have no shame."

"That's not all we lack," said Trygonion with a straight face.

Whatever the source of her insight, Diana had also put her finger on the more perplexing mystery that lay beyond the thin disguises of my guests: what were they doing together? It was clear that they had no love for each other.

"If you've had enough wine," I said, knowing that Trygonion had drunk more than his share while Dio had barely touched his cup, "and if we've talked enough of your disguises, perhaps we should speak of more serious things. Why have you come to me, Teacher, and what do you want from me?"

Dio cleared his throat. "You spoke a moment ago of what you Romans call 'the Egyptian situation.' I take it, then, that you know of the false will of King Alexander, the schemes of Caesar and Pompey to get their hands on the wealth of Egypt, the wholesale murder of my colleagues who have come to seek justice from the Senate of Rome -"

I raised my hand. "Perhaps you should begin at the beginning and explain to me each step that brought you to my door. But to start, I want only the simplest answers to two simple questions. First: why have you come to me?"

Dio looked at me for a long moment, then gazed into the flames of the brazier. His voice trembled. "I have come to you because there is no one else in all Rome to whom I can turn for help, no one else I can trust-if indeed I can trust even you."

I nodded. "And second: what do you want from me, Teacher?"

"I want you to help me to-" He choked on the words. He turned his gaze from the brazier to me, so that I saw the flames dancing in his eyes. His jaw quivered and the fleshy folds of his neck shook as he swallowed hard. "Help me. Please! I want you to help me to…"

"To help you do what?"

"Stay alive!"

Chapter Three

With his great mane of dark hair, his towering physique (not yet gone to fat), and his amiable manner, the philosopher Dio had been a conspicuous figure in the Alexandria of my youth. Like most of the upper class of Egypt, Dio was of Greek blood-with a touch of the Scythian, he had claimed, to account for his height, and a bit of the Ethiop to account for his dark complexion. He had been a familiar sight on the steps of the library attached to the Temple of Serapis, where philosophers met to debate one another and instruct their pupils.

As a young man I had ended up in Alexandria after a long journey and had decided to stay there for a while. That was where I met my future wife, Bethesda, or more precisely, where I purchased her; she was a slave offered for sale at the great slave market, very young and very beautiful. (And a troublemaker, the auctioneer had begrudgingly admitted, which was why I was able to afford her; but if what she gave me was trouble, I only craved more of it.) Thus I passed the hot Alexandrian nights in a haze of lust; and during the day, while Bethesda kept herself busy in my shabby little apartment or went to the market, I gravitated to the library steps and sought out Dio. 1 was no student of philosophy- I lacked the money for formal education-but it was a tradition among Alexandrian philosophers to engage common men in conversation from time to time, at no charge.

Now, thirty years later, I could recall only bits and pieces of those conversations, but I vividly remembered how Dio had fanned my youthful passion for truth into white-hot flames with his rhetorical conundrums, just as Bethesda had fanned my other passions. In those days I had everything I needed, which for a young man is not much: an unfamiliar city to explore, a partner in my bed, and a mentor. We do not forget the cities, or the lovers, or the teachers of our youth.

Dio was attached to the Academic school. His mentor was Antiochus of Ascalon, who in a few years would become the head of the Academy; Dio was one of the great philosopher's leading proteges. In my ignorance I once asked Dio where the Academy was, and he laughed, explaining that while the name originated from a specific site – a grove near Athens where Plato taught-it applied nowadays not to any par-ticular place or building, but to a discipline, a school of thought. The Academy transcended borders; kings might be its patrons, but they had no hegemony over it. The Academy transcended language (though of course all great works of philosophy, including those of the Academics, are written in Greek). The Academy embraced all men, and yet belonged to none. How could it be otherwise with an institution dedicated to discovering fundamental truths?

How does a man know what he knows? How can he be sure of his own perceptions, let alone those of others? Do the gods exist? Can their existence be proven? What is their form and their nature, and how can men discern their will? How can we determine right and wrong? Can right action lead to an evil result, or wrong action to a good outcome?

To a young Roman, barely twenty, in an exotic, teeming metropolis like Alexandria, these were heady questions. Dio had studied them all, and his quest for knowledge was a profound inspiration to me. Dio was hardly more than ten years my senior, but to me he seemed infinitely wise and worldly. In his presence I felt quite out of my depth, and I was immensely flattered that he would take the time and effort to explain his ideas to me. Sitting on the steps of the library while his slaves shaded us with parasols, we would discuss the differences between intellect and sensation, range the senses in order of reliability, and consider the specific ways that men depend upon logic, smell, taste, sight, hearing and touch to make sense of the world.

Thirty years had passed. Dio had changed, of course. He had seemed old to me then, but now he truly was old. The mane of dark hair had turned to silver. His belly had grown big and his skin had grown loose and wrinkled. But his broad back was unstooped. Unused to having his arms covered, he pulled up the sleeves of his stola to reveal a pair of muscular forearms as brown and weathered as his hands. He looked as healthy as myself, and given his size and robustness, he was probably stronger.

You'd be a hard man to forget,

I had told him. Now, as he implored me to help him stay alive,

I almost said,

You look like you'd be a hard man to kill.

Instead, after a considerable pause, I changed the subject. "What I find surprising, Teacher, is that you should remember me after all these years. I was your pupil only in the most casual way, and my time in Alexandria was relatively brief. After I left, I heard that your mentor Antiochus succeeded Philo as head of the Academy; your life must have become very busy after that, conversing with kings, playing host to diplomats, advising the great and powerful. How curious, that you should remember making the acquaintance of a footloose young Roman who liked to loiter on the library steps, eavesdropping on the discourses of his elders and occasionally daring to converse with them."

"You were something more than that," Dio said. "You say that you would be a poor Finder if you could not deduce the identity of a visitor like myself. Well then, what sort of philosopher would I be, if I could not recognize and remember a kindred spirit when I met one?"

"You flatter me, Teacher."

"I most certainly do not. I never flatter anyone, not even kings. Not even King Ptolemy! Which is one reason I find myself in this terrible state." He smiled weakly, but in his eyes I saw the haunted look of a man oppressed by constant fear. He stood and began to pace nervously around the small room, hugging his arms to his chest and shaking his head. Trygonion sat with folded hands and watched him with a curious expression, content to be silent.

"Do you remember the things we used to talk about on the library steps, Gordianus?"

"Only bits and pieces, I'm afraid. But I remember your eloquence when you spoke of perception and truth, of how the teachings of Plato and the Stoics had been clarified rather than refuted by the Academy-"

"Is that what you remember? How strange! That's not at all what I recall of our conversations."

"But what else was there, except talk of philosophy?"

Dio shook his head. "I don't remember talking of philosophy with you, though I suppose I must have. All those abstract fancies and high-minded ramblings-how pompous I must have seemed to you!"

"Not at all – "

"No, what I remember are the stories you told, Gordianus." "What stories?"

"About your adventures out in the great world! About your long, roundabout journey from Rome to Egypt, and your visits to the Seven

Wonders along the way, and your exploits in Alexandria. How dull my own life seemed by comparison. How old you made me feel, as if life had passed me by! While my colleagues and I lounged under parasols, debating good and evil, you were out in the streets, encountering good and evil in the flesh, taking part in the whirling drama of life and death. Who was I to speak of discerning truth from falsehood, when sitting beside me on the steps of the library was the young Roman who had solved the riddle of the cat murdered in the Rhakotis district, which caused half the populace of the city to riot?"

"You remember that story?" I said, amazed.

"I have never forgotten it! Even now I can close my eyes and hear you telling the tale while philosophers and shopkeepers gathered around to listen in awe."

"The killing of a mere cat caused the city to riot?" Trygonion turned a heavy-lidded, dubious gaze at each of us in turn.

"You obviously have never been to Alexandria, where cats are gods," said Dio curtly. "Only a few years ago a similar incident occurred. The culprit was a Roman, or so they said. But given the political climate in Alexandria these days, any pretext will do to stir up the mob to chase a Roman through the streets, cat killer or not." He stopped his pacing and took a halting breath, then another. "Do you think we could retire to another room? The brazier is too hot. The air grows stuffy."

"I could call Belbo to unshutter another window," I suggested.

"No, no, perhaps we could step outside for a moment?"

"As you like."

I led them into the garden. Trygonion made a show of shivering and hugging himself, flapping the folds of his toga in an undignified, decidedly un-Roman fashion. Dio studied the fishpond with an abstracted air, then gazed up at the darkening sky, took several deep breaths and resumed his pacing, which brought him to a startled halt before the statue of Minerva. The virgin goddess held an upright spear in one hand and clutched a shield in the other. An owl perched on her shoulder and a snake coiled at her feet. The whole statue was painted in such lifelike color that the goddess seemed to breathe and gaze down on us from beneath the visor of her crested helmet.

"Magnificent," he whispered. Trygonion, loyal to the Great Mother, gave the goddess of wisdom only a cursory glance.

I stepped alongside Dio and gazed up at the statue's familiar face. "The only female in the place who never talks back to me. But then, she never seems to listen to me, either."

"She must have cost a small fortune."

"Probably, though I can't tell you the cost. I gained her by inheritance, more or less, like the rest of this house. The tale of how that came to pass would fill a book."*

Dio surveyed the portico that surrounded the garden, clearly impressed. "Those multicolored tiles above the doorways-"

"Fired by artisans in Arretium. So my late benefactor Lucius Claudius once told me, when I was merely a visitor here."

"And all these finely carved columns-"

"Salvaged and brought up with great difficulty, so I was told, from an old villa at Baiae, as was the statue of Minerva. All are of Greek design and workmanship. Lucius Claudius had impeccable taste and con-siderable resources."

"And now all this is yours? You've done well for yourself, Gordianus. Very well, indeed. When they said that you lived in a fine house here on the Palatine, I wondered if it could be the same man who'd led a wanderer's life in Alexandria, living from hand to mouth."

I shrugged. "I may have been a wanderer, but I always had the humble house of my father to come back to here in Rome on the EsquilineHill."

"But surely that couldn't be as fine as this. You have prospered remarkably. You see, I judged you rightly when I met you long ago in Alexandria. I have known many wise men, philosophers who crave knowledge as other men crave fine wines or sumptuous clothing or a beautiful slave-as a glittering possession that will bring them comfort and earn other men's esteem. But you sought after truth as if you wished to marry her. You yearned for truth, Gordianus, as if you could not live without breathing her perfume every morning and night. You loved all her mysteries in equal measure-the great mysteries of philosophy as well as the practical mystery of discovering the killer of an Alexandrian cat. To search for truth is virtue. For your virtue the gods have rewarded you."

I could think of no response but a shrug. In the thirty years since I had last seen Dio I easily could have died a hundred times, for my labors had often brought me into danger, or I could have fallen into ruin like so many other men. Instead I owned a fine house on the Palatine and counted senators and wealthy merchants among my neighbors. Dio's explanation of my good luck was as reasonable as any other, though it seems to me that even philosophers cannot say what causes Fortune to smile on one man and show spite to another. Watching him resume his fitful pacing, I couldn't help thinking that Dio, for all his years of devotion to finding the truth, had the haggard look of a man whom Fortune had abandoned.

*'Catilina's Riddle (St. Martin's Press, 1993).

It had been some time since I had conversed at length with a philosopher. I had forgotten how much they loved to talk, even more than politicians, and not always to the point. We had rambled far from the purpose of Dio's visit. It was beginning to grow chilly in the garden.

"Come, let's go back into the house. If the brazier is too hot, I'll have the serving girl bring you some cool wine."

"Heated wine for me," Trygonion said, shivering.

"Yes, more of your very fine wine," Dio murmured. "I'm quite thirsty."

"Hungry, as well?" I said. My own stomach rumbled. "No!" he insisted. But as he stepped through the doorway he tripped and stumbled, and when I reached out to steady him I felt him trembling. "When did you last eat?" He shook his head. "I'm not sure." "You can't remember?"

"Yesterday I dared to take a walk outside, disguised as you see me now, and bought some bread in the market." He shook his head. "I should have bought more to eat this morning-but of course someone could have poisoned it while I slept… "

"Then you've eaten nothing at all today?"

"The slaves tried to poison me at the last place I stayed! Even at the house of Titus Coponius I can't feel safe. If one man's slaves can be bribed to kill a houseguest then so can another's. I eat nothing unless I see it prepared with my own eyes, or unless I buy it myself in the markets where it could not possibly have been tampered with."

"Some men have slaves to taste their food for them," I said, knowing the practice was especially common in Dio's Alexandria, where the inbred, rival monarchs and their agents were forever attempting secretly to do away with one another.

"Of course I had a taster!" said Dio. "How do you think I escaped the attempt to poison me? But the problem with tasters is that they must be replaced, and my stay in Rome has exhausted my resources. I don't even have money to make my way back to Alexandria once the weather warms and the sailing season begins." He stumbled again and almost fell against the brazier.

"But you're faint with hunger!" I protested, gripping his arm and steering him toward a chair. "I insist that you eat. The food in my house is perfectly safe, and my wife-" I was about to add some extravagant estimation of Bethesda's culinary skills, but having just been praised as a seeker of truth I said instead, "My wife is not at all a bad cook, especially when she prepares dishes in the Alexandrian style."

"Your wife cooks?" said Trygonion. "In such a grand house as this?"

"The property's more impressive than my purse. Besides, she likes to cook, and she has a slave to help her. Here she is now," I added, for in the doorway stood Bethesda.

I was about to say more by way of introduction, but the look on her face stopped me. She looked from Dio to Trygonion, then back at Dio, who in his faint seemed hardly to notice her, then at me, all with a scowl that after thirty years of living with her I could not account for. What had I done now?

"Diana told me that you had visitors," she finally said. Her old Egyptian accent asserted itself and her tone was even haughtier than usual. She scrutinized my visitors so harshly that Trygonion nervously dropped his eyes, and Dio, finally taking notice of her, blinked and drew back as if he had looked into the sun.

"Is something wrong?" I said, secretly grimacing at her with the side of my face. I thought this might make her smile. I was mistaken.

"I suppose you want to eat something," she said in a flat voice. The way she twisted her mouth would have spoiled the looks of a less beautiful woman.

Ah, that was it, I thought-she'd been in the doorway longer than I'd realized and had overheard my qualified endorsement of her culinary skills. Even so, a mere lifting of her eyebrow would have sufficed to express her displeasure. Perhaps it was the fact that I had packing to do for a trip the next day and was leaving the work to her while I entertained visitors in my study-and dubious visitors at that. I took another look at Dio, with his rumpled stola and clumsy makeup, and at Trygonion, who played with his bleached hair and nervously fluttered the folds of his toga under Bethesda's harsh gaze, and saw how they must appear to her. Bethesda acquiesced long ago to the parade of disreputable characters through our house, but she has never hidden her disdain from those she dislikes. It was clear that she thought very little of the Egyptian ambassador and his companion.

"Something to eat-yes, I think so," I said, raising my voice to capture my visitors' attention, for they both seemed spellbound by Bethesda's stare. "For you, Trygonion?"

The little gallus blinked and managed to nod.

"And for you, too, Teacher-I insist! I won't allow you to leave my house without taking some food to steady you."

Dio bowed his head, looking tired and perplexed, trembling with agitation and, no doubt, hunger. He muttered something to himself, then finally looked up at me and nodded. "Yes – an Alexandrian dish, you said?"

"What could we offer our visitors? Bethesda, did you hear me?"

She seemed to wake from a daydream, then cleared her throat. "I could make some Egyptian flatbread… and perhaps something with lentils and sausage… "

"Oh yes, that would be very good," said Dio, staring at her with an odd expression. Philosopher he might be, but hunger and homesickness can addle the mind of any man.

Suddenly Diana appeared at Bethesda's side. Dio looked more con-fused than ever as he gazed from mother to daughter. Their resemblance is striking.

Bethesda departed as abruptly as she had appeared. Diana lingered for a moment and seemed to mimic her mother's scowl. The longer I live with a woman the more mysterious the experience becomes, and now that there are two of them in the household, the mystery is doubled.

Diana turned on her heel and followed her mother with the same quick, haughty stride. I looked at my guests. In comparison to comprehending a woman, I thought, comprehending another man-even a philosopher in a stola or a gallus who had given up his sex-was really not so difficult.

The serving girl brought us wine and some crusts of bread to stave off our hunger until the meal was ready. A chill had crept in from the garden, so I called on Belbo to stoke the brazier while I closed the shutters. I glanced outside and saw that twilight had descended on the atrium, casting the face of Minerva into inscrutable shadow.

With more wine in his stomach, as well as a bit of bread, Dio at last found the fortitude to recount the events which had reduced him to such a state of uncertainty and fear.

Chapter Four

Best to begin at the beginning," sighed Dio, "insofar as that's possible with such a twisted tale. You know something of the story already -" "Refresh my memory," I said. "Very well. All my life, Alexandria has been in constant political upheaval. The members of the royal Ptolemy clan wage unending warfare against each other. For the people of Alexandria, this has meant bloody massacres and crushing taxes. Time and again the people have risen up to drive ruler after ruler out of the capital. One Ptolemy goes into exile, another takes his place-I won't recite the list. Whoever is winning occupies Alexandria, with its great granaries and royal treasury. Whoever is losing flees to Cyprus and plots his return. Fortunes reverse and the rulers change places, while the people endure. I forget which Ptolemy was on the throne when you were in Alexandria, Gordianus-"

"Alexander, I believe."

"Yes, that's right; a couple of years later he was chased out of the city by an angry mob and died in suspicious circumstances. Then Alexander's brother Soter took the throne. Eight years later Soter died, leaving no legitimate sons. That was twenty-four years ago."

Dio put his fingertips together. "The only legitimate male heir of Ptolemaic blood was Soter's nephew, named Alexander like his father. He happened to be residing here in Rome at the time of Soter's death, under the dictator Sulla's protection; this is where Rome first enters the story. Backed by Roman diplomacy-and by funds borrowed from Roman bankers-Alexander II returned to Egypt to claim the throne. To do so he had to marry his aunt, Soter's widow, because she refused to step down as queen. Marry her he did-and summarily murdered her. The queen had been well liked. Her death ignited the fury of the mob."

"The same mob which rioted over the death of a cat?" Trygonion sniffed. "I shudder to imagine what they did over the murder of a popular queen!

"You anticipate the story," said Dio, slipping into his lecturing voice. "Alexander II then announced a rise in taxes so that he could repay his Roman backers. That was the final spark. Nineteen days after he ascended the throne, the new king was dragged from the royal palace and murdered by the mob. They tore him limb from limb."

It was tales such as this which Romans like to cite to make themselves feel proud of the relative civility of our republic. As a young man I had admired the Alexandrians' passion for politics, though I could never accustom myself to their propensity for sudden, extreme violence. Alexandrian healers peddle a poultice with the Egyptian name "cure-for-a-human-bite-which-draws-blood," and most households keep a sup-ply on hand-a fact which says much about the Alexandrians.

"Now we come to the beginnings of the current crisis-the Egyptian situation, as you call it, Gordianus. After the brief and inglorious reign of their cousin Alexander II, two of Soter's bastards came forward to press their claim for the throne."

"Brave men!" quipped Trygonion.

"One bastard took Cyprus. The other took Egypt, and has since reigned for twenty years-proof that a man can keep himself on a throne without possessing a single kingly virtue. His full name in the Greek" – Dio took an orator's breath- "is Ptolemaios Theos Philopator Philadelphos Neos Dionysos."

"Ptolemy, God: Father-Lover, Brother-Lover, the New Dionysus," I translated.

Dio curled his lip. "In Alexandria, we simply call him Ptolemy Auletes-the Flute-Player."

"The Piper!" Trygonion laughed.

"Yes, King Ptolemy the Piper," said Dio grimly, "whose only known accomplishment is his skill on the flute, which he loves to play day and night, sober or drunk. He stages choruses in the royal palace and plays the accompaniment. He debuts his own compositions at diplomatic dinners. He organizes contests and pits his talent against common musicians. How did Egypt ever deserve such a ruler? He epitomizes and exaggerates all the baser qualities of his decrepit line-indolent, self-indulgent, luxury-loving, licentious, lazy… "

"He should have been a gallus rather than a king," laughed Trygonion.

Dio looked at him sidelong. "I am compelled to agree with you."

"I remember something Cicero said about him in a speech," I said. " 'Nearly everyone agrees that the man who occupies the throne of Egypt today neither by birth nor in spirit is like a king.' And there are those who say the Piper's reign is illegitimate and always has been, because of a will that was made by his unfortunate predecessor."

"Ah, yes, and there you put your finger upon the heart of the matter," said Dio. "Shortly after the death of Alexander II at the hands of the mob, from the very start of King Ptolemy's reign, a rumor began to circulate to the effect that Alexander II had left a will, bequeathing all of Egypt to the Senate and people of Rome."

Trygonion raised his eyebrows. "A splendid prize! The granaries! The treasure house! The crocodiles! But surely no one could believe such a tale. Such generosity is preposterous."

Dio sighed, exasperated. "You show your ignorance of both politics and history, gallus. Preposterous as such an idea may be, it is not without precedent. Attalus of Pergamum bequeathed his kingdom to Rome over seventy years ago; it became a province of the empire and to this day supplies the people of this city with subsidized grain. Forty years ago Apion left Cyrene to Rome; Apion was a Ptolemy and Cyrene was once a part of Egypt. And less than twenty years ago Bithynia was left to Rome by its last king."

"But why would any king do such a thing?" asked Trygonion.

"To save his country from the bloodshed of a disputed succession; to spite his presumptive heirs; to protect his people from being conquered by rival kingdoms even more oppressive than Rome; to bow to the tide of Roman expansion." Dio sighed. "In my lifetime, Rome has gained Pergamum, Cyrene and Bithynia by inheritance, and Pontus and Syria by conquest. Two years ago Rome seized Cyprus without a skirmish; King Ptolemy's brother committed suicide. Rome has overrun the East. Of all the kingdoms that grew out of the empire of Alexander the Great, only one remains: Egypt."

"And now the rumors are circulating again, about a will made by Alexander II bequeathing Egypt to Rome," I said. "King Ptolemy's sleep must be uneasy."

Trygonion nodded sagely. "I wouldn't care to be the slave who has to change his bed sheets."

"Vulgar, vulgar," Dio muttered through clenched teeth. "Rome now dominates the East. This is a fact which no one denies. But the people of Egypt demand a ruler who will resist that domination. Our land was ancient beyond imagining even before Alexander the Great came and founded Alexandria. The kingdom he established flourished with beauty and learning while Romulus and Remus were infants suckling the she-wolf. We have no need of Roman ways or Roman government. But instead of standing firm against Roman domination, King Ptolemy quivers with fright and offers whatever concessions are demanded of him. The people of Alexandria demand that he redeem Cyprus from Roman rule and restore it to the kingdom; instead he plays host to the Roman commissioner sent to plunder the island. To quiet talk about the alleged will, he gives a 'gift' of thirty-five million denarii to Caesar and Pompey, so that Caesar can bribe the Roman Senate and Pompey can pay off his own troops. The bill is passed along to the people of Egypt in the form of higher taxes. Our taxes go directly into the pockets of Roman senators and soldiers-we might as well be a Roman province! And what does King Ptolemy receive in return? A tentative acknowledgment by the Roman Senate of his legitimacy as king, and a plaque set up on the Capitoline Hill, inscribed to the honor of Ptolemaios Theos Philopator Philadelphos Neos Dionysos, 'Friend and Ally of the Roman People.' To be a friend and ally is all very well, but to pay for the privilege he bleeds his own people white with taxes. The people's anger finally drove Ptolemy to flee the city, fearing for his life. He fled all the way here to Rome, where Pompey put him up in a great rambling villa with a vast household of slaves to serve him."

"For thirty-five million denarii, he should expect such royal treatment!" said Trygonion.

Dio scowled. "He spends his time practicing his flute and drafting letters to the Senate begging them to restore him to his throne against the wishes of the Egyptian people. But it is too late for that. His daughter Berenice has already been named queen of Egypt."

"A woman?" said Trygonion, who seemed genuinely intrigued.

"It was not my choice," said Dio hastily. "Philosophers have influence in Alexandria, but so do astrologers. It was the star-gazers who insisted that the time is right for a woman of the Ptolemaic line to rule Egypt."

"It strikes me that you may be too hard on King Ptolemy, Teacher," I said cautiously. "All his life he's seen kingdom after kingdom swallowed up by Roman imperialism, sometimes by war, sometimes by statecraft. His position has always been precarious. He must know that he's kept his throne this long only because the Romans can't settle among them-selves who should reap the rewards when Egypt is taken over. I know something of these matters, Teacher. A man can't live in Rome and be entirely ignorant of what goes on in the Forum. During Ptolemy's reign there have been several attempts by the Senate to act on the alleged will of Alexander II and to stake a Roman claim on Egypt. Only the Senate's internal bickering and rivalries have prevented those attempts from being carried out. During Cicero's consulship, I remember, Caesar and Pompey tried to put themselves on a board of governors to oversee the takeover of Egypt; Cicero killed the legislation with one of his brilliant speeches by claiming, in so many words, that Caesar and Pompey would ultimately make themselves kings. Now Caesar and Pompey have taken to extorting money directly from King Ptolemy."

Agitated, Dio began to speak, but I held up my hand. "Hear me out, Teacher. If Ptolemy bends to Roman wishes so that he can stay in power, even if he pays for the privilege with silver to keep the Romans at bay, how can you fault him for that? So far, by one means or another, he's kept the Romans from moving into Alexandria and taking over the imperial palace. That indicates to me that King Ptolemy must possess more diplomatic expertise than you give him credit for."

"He bends too far for the Romans," said Dio sternly. "What does it matter whether they conquer us outright, if they can use King Ptolemy as their private tax collector to drain our lifeblood?"

"Perhaps; but I think I see a contradiction, Teacher. Why do you resist Roman rule if you despise your own rulers so very much?"

Dio sighed. "Because, ultimately, the Ptolemies rule over Egypt by the will of the people. When they rule badly, the people rise up and cast them out. When they rule tolerably, the people tolerate them. Such a system may lack the perfection of Plato's ideal republic, but it suits the people of Egypt and has done so for hundreds of years. On the other hand, if Egypt should become a Roman province under the sway of a Roman governor, its people will become mere vassals of Rome, and we shall have no say at all over our destiny. We shall be drafted to fight in wars that are not of our choosing. We shall be forced to abide by laws dictated to us by a Senate of wealthy Romans who live too far from Alexandria to hear the complaints of its people. We shall become just another outpost of Rome's empire, watching our wealth become Roman plunder. Our statues and carpets and paintings will decorate the houses of Rome's rich; our grain will fill the stomachs of the Roman mob, and you can be sure that any payment will be far less than fair. Egypt is a great and free nation; we will not become minions of Rome." Dio took a deep breath. A tear glinted in his eye, and the gravity of his expression was oddly heightened by the feminine cosmetics that colored his weathered, wrinkled face. The absurdity of his costume could not disguise the depth of his emotion.

"But this is all academic, if you'll pardon the pun," said Trygonion blandly but with a twinkle of mischief in his eyes. "If the former king, Alexander II, really did leave a will bequeathing Egypt to Rome -"

Dio exploded. "No one in Egypt believes in the validity of the so-called will, because no one in Rome is able to produce it! The will of Alexander II is a fiction, a fraud, a pretext for the Roman Senate to go meddling in Egyptian affairs, a device to make whoever rules Egypt grovel at their feet. 'You may hold sway for the moment,' they say, 'but you cannot be legitimate without our approval, and you can never be anything but an impostor, for Egypt was left to us by our puppet Alexander II and we may choose to exercise our hegemony at any time.' They wave an imaginary scrap of parchment in the air and call it a will. King Ptolemy was a fool to play along with such a lie. 'Friend and Ally,' indeed! The plaque on the Capitoline should read, 'Piper and Puppet of the Roman People.' "

"But now you've replaced the puppet," I said.

"The Piper has been booed off the stage!" cried Trygonion.

Dio clenched his teeth. "The crisis which revolves around Egypt's "throne may be a matter of amusement to you, gallus, but to the people of Egypt I assure you it is not. Roman diplomats and merchants in Alexandria seldom go out of doors these days, for fear of being torn apart by the mob. Rabble-rousers make speeches against Roman greed, and even my fellow philosophers neglect their teaching to engage in heated debate about the Roman threat. That is why I came to Rome, heading a delegation of one hundred Alexandrians: to demand that the Roman Senate stop meddling in Egyptian affairs and to ask for their recognition of Queen Berenice."

"I see a contradiction, Teacher," I said quietly. "To request the Senate's approval of your new monarch implies, in itself, that the Senate has a right to meddle in your affairs."

Dio cleared his throat. "In philosophy we seek the ideal. In politics, as I have learned to my bitter enlightenment, we seek whatever accommodates. So it was that I came to Rome at the head of the delegation of one hundred. So many distinguished voices, we thought, simply could not be ignored, even by your lofty senators. And that is where this despicable farce turns to tragedy!"

He put his hands to his face and suddenly began to weep, so profusely that even Trygonion was stunned. Indeed, the little gallus seemed deeply moved by the old philosopher's tears, biting his lips in sympathy, pulling at his bleached hair and rubbing his hands together in agitation. I have heard that the galli, cut off from the circle of earthly passion, are given to sudden transports of extreme and inexplicable emotion.

It took Dio a moment to compose himself. The fact that a philosopher of his stature should have lost control and given vent to such an outburst, even briefly, testified to the depth of his despair.

"This is how it was: we landed down in Neapolis at the very end of the autumn sailing season. I had friends there, members of the Academy who offered us lodgings. That night, men armed with knives and clubs came crashing into the houses where we were staying. They up-turned furniture, set curtains afire, smashed priceless statues. We were roused from sleep, dazed, barely able to fend them off. Bones were broken and blood was spilled, but no one was killed, and the attackers escaped. The assault put such fear into some of our party that a few set sail for Alexandria the next day."

Dio stiffened his jaw. "The attacks were well organized and planned in advance. Do I have proof of King Ptolemy's complicity? No. But one need not see the sun to deduce its presence by the casting of a shadow. The midnight attacks in Neapolis were engineered by King Ptolemy, have no doubt. He knew that we were coming to dispute his right to the throne. His agents were ready for us.

"After that we moved on to safer quarters in Puteoli, to regroup and plan our strategy for approaching the Senate. We stayed closer together and guarded ourselves at night, but we made the error of thinking that we would be safe walking in the town forum in broad daylight. One afternoon a group of fifteen men, led by one of my Academic colleagues, Onclepion, went out to buy provisions for our journey up to Rome. Out of nowhere they were set upon by a group of small boys who began to pelt them with stones. The boys shouted curses. When passersby stopped to ask why, the boys told them that the Alexandrians had been defaming the honor of Pompey and his troops with vicious slanders. Some members of Onclepion's group, simply to protect themselves, began to shove at the boys and tried to drive them off by throwing stones in return. One of the boys suddenly screamed, clutched his head and collapsed in the dust-or feigned collapse, as I suspect, for I'm told that his body was not found afterward. The crowd that had gathered was sparked into a frenzy, and soon a mob of grown men and women had joined the boys to stone the Alexandrians, who found themselves surrounded on three sides and trapped against a wall. Have you ever witnessed a stoning, Gordianus?" Dio shuddered. Beside him, the little gallus shivered in empathy. "Thirteen of them were killed that day, stoned or trampled to death. Only Onclepion and his slave managed to escape. Onclepion boosted the slave onto the top of the wall, and the slave managed to pull his master after him. But Onclepion was blinded in one eye, and his slave lost several teeth.

"That was the outrage at Puteoli. More men deserted the delegation that night, until only sixty of the original one hundred remained. I thought it best to head immediately to Rome, before some further incident occurred. The trip was not easy. The oxen we hired to pull our wagons fell to their forelegs just outside Capua and died with blood-flecked bile pouring from their mouths-poisoned, I had no doubt, since they all died in the span of an hour. More of the delegation deserted.

"Halfway to Rome, we stopped to spend a night off the Appian Way at an estate owned by my acquaintance Palla. It was a rustic house in the woods which he kept for hunting boar, simple and without luxuries but with provisions for a great many visitors. Palla himself was absent, staying at one of his villas north of Rome, but his slaves had been told to expect us. To accommodate us all, they crowded our sleeping couches close together, blocking the hallways. That very nearly proved disastrous.

"It was a scream from Onclepion that woke me in the night. At first I thought he cried out in pain, because of his ruined eye. Then I smelled the smoke. It was only by the will of the gods that no one was burned alive that night, for the doors had all been blocked from the outside by handcarts, the type that slaves use for trundling bales of hay. The building quickly filled with smoke. We at last managed to break through one of the doors. The cart blocking it had been loaded with heavy stones! Somehow, we all escaped into the woods, where we stood and watched as the house was consumed by flames. I have never known such fear as I knew that night, for at any moment I looked for King Ptolemy's henchmen to descend on us from out of the woods, forcing us to choose between being hacked to death or fleeing back into the burning house. But the attack never came. Why should King Ptolemy mount a full assault, when a handful of agents can set a fire and possibly kill everyone at once? Especially if they have the help of someone inside."

"Then you think that Ptolemy had agents within the delegation?"

"From the beginning! Oh yes, I have no doubt of that, ashamed as I am to say it. How else could his men have known which houses to attack in Neapolis? Or known when Onclepion's party was setting out for the market in Puteoli, so as to set the little boys upon them? How else did someone poison the oxen's water trough that morning in Capua, without anyone taking notice? King Ptolemy has ruled Egypt these twenty years by bribery, treachery and terror. His agents know how to use the weak and silence the strong.

"On the morning after the destruction of Palla's house, beside a stream in the woods, and with Palla's slaves keeping watch for an attack I still dreaded might come, I called a meeting of the delegation. I expected some desertions, but I was shocked at how few decided to continue on to Rome. Only fifteen! Even Onclepion joined the ranks of those who made up their minds to turn back that morning. I told them that they would find themselves trapped for the winter in Puteoli or Neapolis, unable to find ships to carry them home, for the sailing season was over. But they would not be dissuaded. Once King Ptolemy saw that they had turned back from Rome, and no longer intended to address the Senate, he would stop his attacks against them-so they reasoned, and no argument from me could change their minds. Onclepion even engaged me in mock debate over the matter. I was appalled at the tawdry way he excused his own cowardice with sophistry. Even more appalling was the fact that after our debate was over, five of the men who had originally stood by me that morning claimed to have been won over by Onclepion's eloquence and joined the deserters!

"Only ten then remained of the one hundred who came from Alexandria to confront the Senate, armed with righteous indignation and the certain favor of the gods for a just cause. Attended only by our slaves we made our bedraggled way to Rome. There was no grand entrance for us! Instead we slunk through the gates like thieves, hoping to escape notice. We dispersed ourselves about the city, staying with friends and acquaintances; many turned us away, when they learned of the tribulations we had brought upon our hosts in Neapolis and Puteoli, and the destruction of Palla's property! Meanwhile, we petitioned the Senate for an audience-but the Senate answered us with silence."

He turned toward the brazier and stared into the flames. "What a winter! No winter in Alexandria was ever so cold. How do you Romans stand it? I cover myself with blankets at night and still I can't stop shivering. What misery! And the murders… "

He began to shake and couldn't seem to stop.

"Shall I call a slave to bring you a blanket?" I said.

"No, no, it's not the cold." He hugged himself, and at last managed to take a deep breath and stopped shaking. "During those terrible days in Neapolis and Puteoli and on the road, I kept one thought in my mind:

When we reach Rome,

I told myself,

when we reach Rome…

"But you see, there was a fallacy in my reasoning, for I never really finished that thought. When we reach Rome-then what? Did I tell myself, When we reach Rome, there shall be only ten of us left? Did I ever think that the Senate would snub us, and refuse even to hear me? Or that there would be still more treachery and betrayals, until I would lose my faith even in the men I most trusted when we left Alexandria? Or that we would be murdered one by one, until only a handful remained-by the very fact of their survival, traitors and tools of King Ptolemy? Do you understand what has happened to me, Gordianus?" He held out his hands in a gesture of supplication, and on his face I saw the full measure of his despair. "I left Alexandria full of worry but also full of hope. Now…"

"Murders, you said. Here in Rome?"

"Yes. At least three since we arrived. We all stayed in different houses, under the roofs of men I thought we could trust. I feared another full-scale attack, you see, until I realized that Rome is Rome, not Neapolis or Puteoli. Even King Ptolemy would never dare to stage a massive assault or manufacture a riot in the shadow of the Senate. The men who rule Rome tolerate such flagrant crimes at a distance, but not in their presence. No foreign king could be allowed to stir up the masses or set fires or practice open warfare in Rome itself."

"You're right. Senators reserve those privileges for themselves."

"So the king changed his tactics. Instead of trying to kill us all at once, he turned to assassinating us one by one."

"By what means?"

"Quietly. By poison. Suffocation. Stabbing." "With the complicity of their hosts?"

Dio paused. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. Slaves can sometimes be bribed or blackmailed. But masters can be bribed or blackmailed as well, especially when the pressure comes from the kind of men allied with King Ptolemy."

"Men such as Pompey?"

He nodded. "And I suspect there are respectable Romans-perhaps even senators-who are not above committing a murder or two to gain Pompey's favor or repay some debt they owe him."

"Be careful, Dio. So far you've accused your own king of being behind this slaughter. Now you're implicating a man who happens to be Rome's most beloved general and very possibly her future dictator."

"I tell you, these are the men behind the killings. King Ptolemy is not even in Rome any longer. He's retired to Ephesus for the winter, leaving everything in Pompey's hands. And why not? Pompey has as much to gain as Ptolemy if the king can keep his throne, so Pompey has continued the attacks against the delegation. Since we arrived in Rome, his agents have snuffed us out one by one."

I shook my head. "You admit that you have no proof of your alle-gations against King Ptolemy, Dio. Do you have proof of what you say against Pompey?"

He glared at me and was quiet for a long time. "A few nights ago, in the house of Lucius Lucceius, someone tried to poison me. Do you want proof of that? My slave died horribly, writhing and gasping on the floor, only moments after tasting a portion of soup that was served to me in my private room!"

"Yes, but-"

"And my host, Lucius Lucceius, despite his knowledge of philosophy, despite the disdain he espouses for King Ptolemy, is Pompey's friend."

"Do you know where the poison came from?"

"Earlier that day, a certain Publius Asicius paid a call on Lucceius. A handsome young man – I happened to see him as he was leaving the house, and I asked Lucceius his name. That night, my slave was poisoned. The next morning, after I fled from Lucceius's house, I made some inquiries about his visitor. They say this Publius Asicius is a young man of easy morals who indulges in poetry and wine and dabbles in politics with no fixed agenda, willing to do anything to curry the favor of anyone who can advance his career."

I sighed. "You have just described a whole generation of young Romans, Teacher. Many of them may be capable of murder, including, quite possibly, this Publius Asicius. But mere proximity to the scene of a crime is not-"

"Asicius is also said to be in debt to Pompey, for some very large loans which the general made to him."

"Still…"

"You see, you have no rejoinder for that, Gordianus. The chain goes back to Pompey and thence to King Ptolemy."

"Your host, Lucceius-did you confront him with your suspicions?"

"Even as my taster lay writhing on the floor! I insisted that Lucceius come and witness the atrocity himself. I demanded that he find out how the soup had been poisoned."

"What was his response?"

"He pretended to be appalled, of course. He said that he would interrogate each of his household slaves himself, and torture them if necessary. Perhaps he did, or perhaps not. I left the next morning, desperate to be away from the place. I told Lucceius that I would be staying at the house of Titus Coponius, but he has made no effort to contact me."

Trygonion, who had been silent for a while, cleared his throat. "Having escaped alive from the man's house, perhaps you would have been wiser not to tell Lucceius where you were headed next." The gallus made a wry face and seemed to be in a mood to cause trouble again, but what he said made sense.

"Am I then to behave like a fugitive or a criminal?" demanded Dio. "Skulking from shadow to shadow, hoping no one sees me, praying that the world will simply forget my existence? Already I put on this absurd disguise to go out during the day-is that not shame enough? I refuse to vanish altogether. To do so would give King Ptolemy unconditional victory. Don't you understand? I am all that remains of the delegation of one hundred who came to speak for the people of Alexandria and their new queen. If I allow fear to turn me invisible and mute, then I might as well never have come to Rome. I might as well be dead!"

With that, Dio gave another shudder and began to weep again. I watched him fight back the tears and struggle to compose himself. Over the last months he had endured much misery and seen unspeakable tragedy, and for all his travails he had nothing to show but bitterness and shame. I was awed by his perseverance.

"Teacher," I said, "what is it that you want from me? I can't force the Senate to hear your demands. I can't make Pompey waver in his support of King Ptolemy. I can't resurrect the dead, or redeem those who betrayed you."

I waited for Dio to answer, but he had not yet composed himself, so I went on. "Perhaps you wish for me to ferret out the truth, so that justice can be done. That's why men usually come to me. But you seem satisfied that you already know the truth. I'm not sure what good it will do you. That's the odd thing about truth, how much one craves it, yet how useless it often is. If you're thinking of bringing charges of murder against King Ptolemy, I'm not sure that a Roman court has jurisdiction over a friendly foreign monarch; I am sure that nothing could be done without the Senate, and we know that you can't rely on them. If you're thinking of bringing a charge against Pompey, then I would advise you to think again. Pompey has enemies, to be sure, but not one of them would be willing to attack him openly in a court of law, no matter how compelling the evidence. Pompey is much too strong."

I wrinkled my brow. "Perhaps it's this Publius Asicius against whom you want to bring charges, for attempting to poison you. If he did put Lucceius's slaves up to it, then you might have a case, provided that Lucceius is not the creature of Pompey that you suspect him to be, and is willing to let his slaves testify against Asicius. Such a trial might be useful. This Publius Asicius can't be too important if I've never heard of him, and that means he might be vulnerable. A trial against him could draw attention to your cause and elicit sympathy. Even so-"

"No, Gordianus," Dio said. "It's not a trial I seek. Do you think I expect justice from a Roman court? I come to you seeking merely to save my own life, so that I can continue with my mission."

I bit my lip. "Teacher, I can't offer you accommodations under my roof. I can't guarantee your safety, for one thing. While I place great trust in my household slaves, this house would hardly be secure against assassins as determined as your enemies appear to be. And then there's the danger to my own family. I have a wife, Teacher, and a young daughter-"

"No, Gordianus, I don't ask to spend a single night under the roof of your splendid house. What I need is your help in deciding whom I can trust and whom I cannot. They say you have ways of finding the truth. They say you have a sense for it, as other men have a sense of smell or taste. You say that truth is often useless, but it might save me now. Can I trust my new host, Titus Coponius? I met him in Alexandria. He is wealthy, educated, a student of philosophy-but can I entrust my life to him? Will he betray me? Is he another of Pompey's tools? You must know how to find out such things."

"Perhaps," I said cautiously, "but the task is more complicated than you may realize. If only you had come to me wanting to recover a stolen ring, or trying to find out whether a rich merchant did or did not murder his wife, or seeking to trace the origin of a threatening letter. Such mysteries are simple, and relatively safe. But to ask the kinds ofquestions you would have me ask, of those who would know the answers, would almost certainly attract the attention of powerful men… "

"You mean Pompey," said Dio.

"Yes, perhaps even Pompey himself." I nervously tapped at my chin. "I would hate for you to think me a coward, Teacher, afraid to move for fear of offending powerful men. In years gone by, I've dared to beard a few lions when the cause demanded it. Sulla the Dictator, for one, when I looked for the truth behind the murder of Sextus Roscius. Marcus Crassus, when he sought to slay a whole household of slaves. Even Cicero, when he grew reckless with power in the year of his consulship. Fortunately, so far, I've never crossed paths with Pompey. I don't wish to do so now. As a man grows older, and presumably wiser, he grows more cautious."

"You won't help me, then?" The despair in his voice made me feel a prickle of shame.

"Teacher, I can't. Even if I were eager to do so, it would still be impossible, at least for a while, because I'm about to go on a long trip. I leave at dawn. My wife has been busy all day packing my things… " I paused, surprised at how hollow my words sounded. What I said was true, and my trip had been planned for a long time. Why did I feel as if I were making excuses?

"Then you cannot help me," said Dio, staring at the floor.

"If the trip were less important," I began, and shrugged. "But it's to see my son Meto. He's been serving under Caesar in Gaul. I haven't seen him for months. Now he's at Caesar's winter quarters in Illyria, hardly close but considerably closer than Gaul, and he may be there for only a short while. I can't miss the chance to see him." "I see," said Dio.

"In other circumstances, I would recommend that you pay a call on my elder son, Eco. He's twice as clever as I ever was-but he's coming with me to visit Meto. We'll both be gone until at the least the end of the month, perhaps longer. The uncertainties of traveling in the winter, you understand… " Again, the words sounded hollow in my ears. I shifted uneasily in my chair, and the room suddenly seemed hot. "Of course, after the trip-that is, when I come back to Rome… "

Dio fixed me with a gaze that pulled at the hair on the back of my neck. I had seen such a glassy stare only in the eyes of dead men, and for a moment I was so unnerved that I couldn't speak. I cleared my throat. "When I come back to Rome, I'll be sure to send a messenger to you at the house of Titus Coponius-"

Dio lowered his eyes and sighed. "Come, gallus, it's time to go. We've wasted our time here."

"Hardly wasted, if that smell is what I think it is," said Trygonion cheerfully, as if oblivious to what had just passed between Dio and myself. A moment later a serving girl passed in the hallway carrying a tray of food, followed by two others who carried little folding tables.

We retired to the adjoining dining room, where we each reclined upon a couch. The folding tables were placed before us. Bethesda appeared, with Diana following after her, but they did not join us. The two of them made a point of carrying in the first course and serving it themselves, ladling the first portions of the lentils with sausage onto the plates of my guests, then onto mine, and then watching while we each took a bite. Under their scrutiny, the philosopher, the gallus and I nodded and made noises of approval. Satisfied, Bethesda and Diana retired, leaving the service to the slave girls.

Miserable and desperate as he might be, Dio was also a very hungry man. He swallowed great spoonfuls of food and called to the serving girl for more. Beside him Trygonion ate with even greater relish and an appalling lack of manners, using his thumb to push food onto his spoon and popping his fingers into his mouth. Barred from the ecstasies of sex, the galli are said to be notorious gluttons.

Chapter Five

Midwinter night descended on Rome, cold, clear and still.

Once my guests had eaten, they quickly departed. Telling his tale had exhausted Dio. Stuffing his yawning belly had made him sleepy. He was ready for an early bed. Smarting from a twinge of guilt, I almost relented from my earlier refusal to put him up and was ready to offer him a bed, if only for the night; but Dio with a

few curt words made it quite clear that he was set on making his way back to the house of Titus Coponius. If he was sharp with me, how could I blame him? He had come to seek the help of an old acquaintance and was leaving empty-handed. Desperate men – even philosophers-do not accept rejection graciously.

I insisted that Dio take Belbo along to see him safely home. This seemed the least I could do. Trygonion hid his long hair in his hat and adjusted his toga, Dio covered his head with the mantle; again they became impostors at Roman manhood and womanhood. Under cover of darkness they departed as they had come.

Having dispatched my guests, I was faced with the chore of finishing my packing for the trip to Illyria to see Meto. Bethesda had done much, but certain preparations can be made only by the traveler. With the short winter days allowing less daylight for travel, I planned an early start and so had hoped to be abed early, but the preparations kept me up until midnight. It was just as well; once I finally did crawl into bed I couldn't sleep, thinking about Dio and his plight. I reached out to touch Bethesda's shoulder, but she turned away from me, peeved about something.

As I pondered the strange visit, it occurred to me that there were some things I had neglected to find out. Someone had recommended that Dio come to see me. Who? And what was he doing in the company of the little gallus? The two of them seemed like oil and water, and yet Dio obviously trusted Trygonion enough to go out with him in disguise.

Ah well, I thought drowsily, these questions could wait until I returned from Illyria and saw Dio again. But as soon as this thought crossed my mind, I remembered the look I had seen in the philosopher's eyes-the look of a man already dead. I gave a start and was suddenly wide awake.

I turned on my side and reached for Bethesda. She exhaled noisily and pulled away. I called her name softly, but she pretended to be asleep. What had I done wrong? At what had she taken offense? A bit of moonlight strayed onto the bed, illuminating her hair. She had rinsed it with henna that morning, to give it luster and to cover the gray. The smell was familiar, comforting, erotic. She could have helped me to fall asleep, I thought, but she seemed no more willing to comfort me than I had been willing to help Dio. I stared into the tangle of her hair, an impenetrable forest, pathless and dark.

I tossed and turned and at last rolled out of the bed and onto my feet. I was already wearing a long tunic to keep warm. I stepped into my shoes and reached for a woolen cloak.

Out in the atrium, beneath the shadowed gaze of Minerva, I looked up at the firmament of bright twinkling stars. The air was cold and clear. I studied the constellations, and to tire my mind I tried to remember all their names, both Latin and Greek, which I had learned when I was young in Alexandria: the Great Bear, which Homer called the Wagon and others call the Seven Ploughing Oxen; the Little Bear, which some call the Dog's Tail; the Goat, which some say has the tail of a fish…

Still I couldn't sleep. I needed to walk. A few circuits around the fountain in the atrium was hardly enough to drain my restlessness. I walked to the front door and unbolted it. I stepped over the threshold and onto the smoothly paved street.

At night, the Palatine is probably the safest neighborhood in Rome. When I was a boy, it was as mixed as any other neighborhood in the city, with rich and poor, patricians and plebeians all crowded together. Then Rome's empire began its great expansion, and some families became not merely wealthy but phenomenally so, and it was the Palatine, with its proximity to the Forum and its elevation above the less wholesome airs of the Tiber and the cramped valleys, which became their neighborhood of choice. Over the years tall tenements and cramped family dwellings were torn down block by block, and in their places were built great houses separated here and there by strips of green and little gardens. There are still humble dwellings among the mansions on the Palatine, and occupants who are far from wealthy (I'm proof of that), but by and large it has become an enclave of the rich and the powerful. I live on the southern side, just up the hill from the House of the Vestals down in the Forum. In a circle of no great circumference around my house- hardly further than an arrow's flight-I count among my neighbors Crassus, Rome's wealthiest man, and my old patron Cicero, who the previous September had made a triumphant return from political exile and was busy rebuilding the house which an angry mob had destroyed two years before.

Such men own bodyguards-plenty of them, and not merely brutes but well-trained gladiators-and such men demand order, at least in their immediate vicinity. The roving, drunken gangs of troublemakers who terrorize the Subura at night know better than to bring their rowdiness to the Palatine. Rapists and petty thieves practice their crimes in other places on more vulnerable prey. And so, after dark, the streets of the Palatine are quiet and mostly deserted. A man can take a brisk stroll up the street on a chilly winter's night beneath a waxing moon, alone with his thoughts, and not fear for his life.

Even so, when I heard the sound of drunken voices approaching, I felt it prudent to conceal myself until they passed. I stepped back against a wall, beneath the deep shadow cast by the branch of a yew tree. I was just across the street from a venerable old three-story tenement at the end of my block. The place was exceptionally well built and well maintained, the property of the Clodii, an ancient and distinguished patrician family. It had withstood the changes on the Palatine, and was still divided between shops on the ground floor and apartments above. The whole of the middle floor was rented to Marcus Caelius, the young man who had embroiled me a few years before in Cicero's battle of wits with Catilina. It was his voice, together with another, that I now heard approaching from the eastern end of the street.

I stayed hidden in the shadows. I had nothing to fear from Caelius, but I was in no mood for company, especially drunken company. As he and his friend drew closer, careening up the street, I saw their shadows first, cast before them by the moonlight like spidery, elongated wraiths. They walked with their arms around each other's shoulders, twisting this way and that, laughing and conversing in shouts and whispers. It wasn't the first time I'd chanced to see Marcus Caelius coming home in such a state. Not much more than thirty years old and uncommonly good-looking-remarkably handsome, actually-Caelius was of that particular class of young Romans whom Dio had spoken of that afternoon when he described Publius Asicius, the man he suspected of trying to poison him: charming, quick-witted young men with good backgrounds but uncertain prospects, notorious for their complete lack of scruples, witty and well educated with a taste for hard drinking and scandalous poetry, affable, ingratiating, and never under any circumstances to be trusted. Caelius and his friend were probably returning from a late-night party at some fashionable house nearby. The only surprise was that they hadn't brought a young woman or two with them, unless, of course, they were satisfied to make do with each other for the night.

They stopped in the street before the entrance to Caelius's private stairway. Caelius banged on the door, and while they waited for a slave to come open it I overheard some of their drunken conversation. When I heard Caelius say the name 'Asicius" I gave a start. Probably, I thought, I merely imagined it, putting it together from a sigh and a hiss; I had just been thinking about Dio's description of Publius Asicius, and so had the name in my mind. But then I heard it again. "Asicius," Caelius said, "you ass, you very nearly flubbed it this time as well! Two disasters in a row!"

"Me?" cried the other man. I couldn't see him well for the darkness, but like Caelius he appeared to be tall and broad-shouldered. His words were slurred, some shouted, some muttered, so that I could catch only fragments of what he said. "I'm not the one who… you neglected to tell me that we'd have to… and then, to find… already!… and the look on his… oh go on, off to Hades with you, Caelius, along with that pitiful Egyptian… "

The door rattled and opened. Caelius and his friend moved to enter simultaneously and bumped into each other. Something clattered on the pavement; moonlight flashed on steel. Caelius turned back, stooped down and picked up the dagger that had been dropped. That was when he looked up and saw me in the shadows across the street.

He squinted drunkenly and turned his face sidelong, trying to decide whether I was a man or merely a shadow. I held my breath. He stepped slowly toward me, holding the dagger in his hand.

"Where in Hades are you off to now?" moaned Asicius. "Come on, Caelius, it's cold out here. You said you'd warm me up!"

"Shut up!" Caelius whispered hoarsely. He was halfway across the street, staring straight at me.

"Caelius, what-is someone there?"

"Shut up, Asicius!"

The night was so still I thought they might be able to hear the pounding of my heart. Caelius's dagger glinted in the moonlight. He stepped closer and tripped on a paving stone. I flinched.

"It's only me, neighbor," I said, through gritted teeth.

"Only-you, Gordianus!" Caelius grinned and lowered his dagger. I sighed with relief.

"Who is he?" demanded Asicius, swaggering up behind Caelius and reaching inside his tunic. "Trouble?"

"Oh, probably not," said Caelius. In the moonlight, with a smile on his lips, he looked like Apollo done in white marble. "You're not looking for trouble tonight, are you, neighbor?"

"Out for a walk," I said. "I leave on a trip tomorrow. I can't sleep."

"Cold for a walk, isn't it?" said Asicius.

"Not too cold for you to be out," I said.

Asicius growled, but Caelius slapped him on the shoulder and laughed. "Go home and get some sleep, Gordianus! Only people up to no good are out at this time of night. Come on, Asicius. Time to warm you up." He put his arm around his companion's shoulder and drew him back to the doorway. They disappeared inside and the door slammed shut.

In the stillness of the night, through the closed door, I heard their muffled voices and the clump of their heavy footsteps on the stairway. These sounds quickly faded, and the empty street seemed almost preternaturally quiet. The cold suddenly penetrated my cloak, making me shiver. I walked back to my house taking quick, careful steps. Everything was bland oyster-white and fathomless black shadow. Cold moonlight had turned the world to stone.

I slipped back into bed. I might have stayed awake for a long time, staring into the darkness above, but Bethesda rolled toward me and snuggled against me, and I fell asleep almost at once.

As planned, my son Eco came calling before daybreak. Belbo brought horses from the stable, and the three of us set out through the quiet gray streets of the waking city. We took the Flaminian Way and passed through the Fontinal Gate, leaving the dangers and deceits of the city behind us, at least for a while.

Chapter Six

The journey was without incident, except for a brief but wave-tossed crossing from Fanum Fortunae, at the terminus of the Flaminian Way, across to the Illyrian shore. In winter there are only a handful of boatmen who will ferry passengers across the Adriatic Sea, and on this trip we discovered why, for we very narrowly escaped a sudden squall that easily could have sent boat, Belbo, horses, Eco and myself to the bottom of the sea.

Before we left Fanum Fortunae, I had insisted on visiting the famous grounds consecrated to the goddess Fortune and leaving a few coins at her temple. "Better spent tipping the boatman," Eco had muttered under his breath. But after surviving the wet, windy crossing, it was Eco who suggested we give thanks at the nearest temple of Fortune. Pounding rain turned the wooden roof into a drum. Inside the rustic little temple incense swirled, coins jangled, and the goddess smiled, while the trembling in my knees and the queasiness in my stomach gradually subsided.

With our feet back on solid ground, even the arduous, rain-soaked journey up the rugged coastline and over the windswept hills to Caesar's winter quarters seemed like a holiday.

After he became a soldier in the legions of Gaius Julius Caesar in Gaul, I didn't see my son Meto for months at a time, though we conversed often by letter. This was fortuitous in a way that I could never have foreseen.

Meto's letters came to me by military messengers. This is a common way to send all sorts of correspondence, since only very wealthy men can afford to have slaves merely for the purpose of carrying letters, while military messengers range far and wide throughout the empire and are more reliable than merchants or pleasure travelers. Letters leaving Caesar's camp, as it turned out, were not entirely private; the messengers who carried them usually read them to make sure that they contained no compromising information. One of Caesar's most trusted messengers, impressed by Meto's style and observations, passed a copy along to one of Caesar's most trusted secretaries, who thought it worthwhile to pass it along to Caesar himself, who then moved Meto out of the tent where he had been ordered to polish newly minted armor and into the com-mander's staff.

Between conquering Gaul and vying for control of Rome, it seems that the great man finds time in his busy schedule to keep a minutely detailed journal. While other politicians leave their memoirs as monuments to posterity, Caesar intends to distribute his (so Meto suspects) as a tool in his election campaigns. The people of Rome will read of Caesar's extraordinary skills of leadership and his triumphs in spreading Roman civilization, and then rush to support him at the polls- provided, of course, that things continue to go as Caesar wishes in Gaul.

Caesar has slaves to take his dictation, of course-Meto says the commander often dictates while on horseback riding from camp to camp, so as not to waste time-and he has slaves to assist in the collation and compilation of his notes, but as my own experience has often borne out, the rich and powerful will make use of other men's talents wherever they find them. Caesar happens to like Meto's prose style-never mind that Meto was born a slave, received only sporadic tutoring in mathematics and Latin after I adopted him, and has no experience at practicing rhetoric. Ironic, too, is the fact that Meto, who chose to be a soldier against my wishes, now finds himself a tent-bound literary adjutant in-stead of a sunburned, wind-bitten legionary. It would be hard, I imagine, for one of his humble origins to rise much higher, with so many patricians and sons of the rich vying for honor and glory in the upper ranks.

Which is not to say that he no longer faces danger. Caesar himself takes extraordinary risks-this is said to be one of the keys to the hold he has over his men, that he faces the enemy alongside them-and no matter what his day-to-day duties, Meto has seen plenty of battle. His role as one of Caesar's secretaries simply means that during quiet times, instead of building catapults or digging trenches or making roads, Meto labors over his commander's rough drafts. Just as well; Meto was never very good at working with his hands or his back. But when the crisis comes and the enemy must be faced, Meto puts down his stylus and takes up his sword.

Meto had plenty of hair-raising tales to thrill his older brother and set his brooding father's teeth on edge. Ambushes at dawn, midnight raids, battles against barbarian tribes with unpronounceable names-I listened to the details and wished I could cover my ears, as images ran riot through my head of Meto in hand-to-hand combat against some hulking, hairy Gaul, or dodging a rain of arrows, or leaping off a catapult consumed by fire. Meanwhile I watched him wide-eyed, at once amazed, appalled, proud and melancholy at how thoroughly the boy had vanished and the man taken his place. Though he was only twenty-two, I counted a few gray hairs among the shock of unruly black curls on his head, and his jaw was covered with stubble. His speech, especially in the excitement of recounting a battle, was salted with crude soldier's slang-could this really be the boy whose prose Caesar found so admirable? Relaxing in his quarters, it was Meto's custom to wear the same garment day after day, a dark blue, much-washed woolen tunic. I raised an eyebrow at his slovenliness but said nothing, even when I noticed the numerous murky spots, large and small, which stained the fabric in various places. Then I realized that the stains were clustered where his armor joined and around the edges of his leather coat. The spots were bloodstains, made where the blood of other men had soaked through his battle gear.

Meto told us of mountains he had crossed and rivers he had forded, of Gallic villages with their peculiar sights and smells, of Caesar's genius at outwitting the tribes and putting down their rebellions. (Much of the commander's behavior sounded like gratuitous cruelty and base treachery to me, but I knew better than to say so.) He confirmed that the Gauls were uncommonly big, many of them veritable giants. "They think of us as a midget race, and make fun of us to our faces," he said. "But they don't laugh for long."

He was eager for news of Rome. Eco and I shared with him all the gossip we could remember, including the latest maneuvers regarding the Egyptian situation. "Pompey and your beloved commander seemed to have matched scores in the latest round," Eco noted, "extorting equal hoards of silver from King Ptolemy in return for bribing the Senate to smile on his claim to the Egyptian throne. It's Crassus who's been left out."

"And what does Crassus need from Egypt?" said Meto, who had his own reasons to dislike the millionaire quite apart from his loyalty to Caesar.

"He's rich enough."

"Crassus will never be rich enough for Crassus," I said.

"If he wants to keep his hand in the contest," said Meto, absently reaching for his short sword and fiddling with the handle, "Crassus will need to wrangle another military command from the Senate and score some victories to impress the people. Silver buys votes, but only glory buys greatness." I wondered if these words came from Meto himself or from Caesar, whose finances become more precarious even while the list of his conquests grows longer.

"But Pompey has pacified the East, and now Caesar is pacifying Gaul," said Eco. "What's left for Crassus?"

"He'll simply have to look further afield," said Meto.

"Well, Egypt is as far as I care to cast my thoughts," I said, and proceeded to relate what I had learned from Dio on the night before I left Rome. From his proximity to Caesar and his staff, Meto already knew a little about the murders of the Alexandrian envoys, but had not realized the scale of the scandal. He seemed genuinely appalled, and I found myself wondering how someone who had become so inured to the carnage of battle could be alarmed any longer by mere murder. The thought made me uneasy, as I suddenly felt the growing distance between Meto and myself. Then, as I continued to describe the peculiar circum-stances of Dio's visit and my guests' absurd disguises-the philosopher as a woman, the gallus as a man – Meto burst out laughing. His laughter encouraged me to pile on more details, which made him laugh all the harder. Suddenly the stubbly jaw and the bloodstains faded from my sight. The harrowing tales and the crude soldier's slang were forgotten. I saw the face of the laughing little boy I had adopted years ago, and found what I had come searching for.

As it turned out, Eco and I were gone from Rome for almost a month, and did not return until after the Ides of Februarius. First a snowstorm detained us. Then I fell ill with a cough in my chest. Then, just as I was well enough to travel, Belbo fell ill with the same complaint. While some men might scoff at postponing a trip to coddle a slave, it made no sense to me to go traveling over dangerous back roads with a sick body-guard. Besides, I welcomed the excuse to spend more time with Meto.

On the way back, we happened to cross the Adriatic using the same intrepid boatman and in the same boat as before. I had no trouble getting Eco to pause for a few moments in the temple of Fortune before we set sail. Happily for our crossing, the sky was clear and the waters were calm.

Back in Rome, Bethesda seemed to be in considerably better spirits than when I had left. Indeed, her attentions to me on the night of my return could have stopped the heart of a weaker man. Once there had been a time when a month's separation was enough to build our appetites for each other to a ravenous pitch; I had thought those days were long gone, but on that night Bethesda managed to make me feel more like a youth of twenty-four than a bearded grandfather of fifty-four. Despite the aches and pains of the previous days' long hours on horseback, I arose the next morning in excellent spirits.

As we ate our breakfast of Egyptian flat bread and millet porridge with raisins, Bethesda caught me up on the latest gossip. I sipped at a cup of heated honeyed wine and listened with only half an ear as she explained that the miserly senator across the way was finally putting a new roof on his house, and that a group of Ethiopian prostitutes appeared to have taken up residence at the home of a rich widower who keeps an apartment up the street. When she turned to affairs down in the Forum, I paid closer attention.

Bethesda had a soft spot for our handsome young neighbor Marcus Caelius, the one whom I had run into on the night before my departure. According to Bethesda, Caelius had just finished prosecuting a case which had set the city abuzz.

"I went down to watch," she said.

"Really? Th e trial, or the prosecutor?"

"Both, of course. And why not?" She became defensive. "I know quite a lot about trials and the law, having lived with you so long."

"Yes, and Marcus Caelius is exceptionally good-looking when he gets himself all wound up with an exciting oration-eyes flashing, veins bulging on his forehead and neck… "

Bethesda seemed about to respond, but thought better of it and stared at me straight-faced.

"A prosecution," I finally said.

"Against whom?"

"Someone called Bestia."

"Lucius Calpurnius Bestia?"

She nodded.

"You must be mistaken," I said, with a mouth full of millet. "I think not." Her expression became aloof.

"But Caelius supported old Bestia for the praetorship last fall. They're political allies." "Not any longer."

This was entirely credible, given Caelius's reputation for fickleness, both in love and politics. Even when he was publicly allied with a candidate or cause, one could never be quite sure of his real intentions. "On what charge did he prosecute Bestia?"

"Electoral bribery."

"Ha! In the fall he campaigns for Bestia, and in the spring he tries the man for illegal campaigning. Roman politics!" I shook my head.

"Who defended?"

"Your old friend Cicero."

"Oh, really?"

This added a new wrinkle to the matter. Marcus Caelius had made his entry into public life as Cicero's pupil and protege. Then, during the turmoil of Catilina's revolt, he parted ways with his mentor-or perhaps he only pretended to do so, in order to spy for Cicero. Throughout that tumultuous episode, Caelius's real allegiance remained a mystery, at least to me. Afterward, Caelius left Rome for a year of government service in Africa. On his return he seemed to have left the camp of his old mentor for good, going up against Cicero in court and actually getting the better of the master orator. Later, when the Senate exiled Cicero and his enemies went on a rampage and destroyed Cicero's beautiful house on the Palatine, it was my neighbor Marcus Caelius who came knocking at my door with the news-complaining that the windows of his apartment afforded no view and asking if he could watch the flames from my balcony! The way the lurid glow danced on his handsome face, it was impossible to tell whether Caelius was appalled or amused, or perhaps a little of both.

After much political wrangling, the Senate had recalled Cicero from exile, and he was back in Rome. His house on the Palatine was being rebuilt. And now, according to Bethesda, he had again matched wits in a court of law with his one-time pupil Marcus Caelius.

"Well, don't keep me in suspense," I said. "How did the case come

out?"

"Cicero won," Bethesda said. "Bestia was acquitted. But Caelius says the jury was bribed and vows that he's going to prosecute Bestia again."

I laughed. "Tenacious, isn't he? Having once defeated Cicero in court, I imagine he simply can't stand being bested by his old teacher this time. Or did a single speech not suffice for Caelius to adequately slander Bestia?"

"Oh, for that purpose I think the speech did very well."

"Full of venom?"

"Dripping with it. In his summation Caelius brought up the death last year of Bestia's wife, and the death of his previous wife before that. He practically accused Bestia of poisoning them."

"Murdering one's wives can't have much to do with electoral brib-

ery."

"Perhaps not, but the way Caelius brought it up, it seemed entirely appropriate."

"Character assassination," I said, "is the cornerstone of Roman jurisprudence. The prosecutor uses any means possible to destroy the accused's reputation, to make it seem more likely that he's committed whatever crime he's accused of. It's so much easier than producing actual evidence. Then the defender does the same thing in reverse, accusing the accusers of various abominations to destroy their credibility. Strange, to think that once upon a time I actually had a certain amount of respect and even admiration for advocates. Yes, well, I've heard the rumors that Bestia did his wives in. Both died relatively young, with no preceding illness and without a mark on them, so naturally people say he poisoned them, though even poison usually leaves some evidence."

"There wouldn't have been much evidence if it was done the way that Marcus Caelius implied," said Bethesda.

"And how was that?"

She sat back and cocked her head. "Remember that this was said in a court of law, before a mixed audience of men and women alike, not in a tavern or at one of his orgies. Marcus Caelius is a very brazen young man." She did not sound wholly disapproving.

"And a brazen orator. Well, out with it. What did he say?"

"According to Caelius, the quickest of all poisons is aconitum."

I nodded. Many years of investigating the sordid means of murder have given me some familiarity with poisons. "Aconitum, also called panther's-death, harvested from the scorpion-root plant. Yes, its victims succumb very quickly. But when swallowed in sufficient amount to cause death, there are usually noticeable reactions in the victim and plentiful evidence of foul play."

"Ah, but according to Caelius, the poison was not swallowed."

"I don't follow you."

"According to Caelius, if aconitum touches a woman's genitals, she will die within a day."

I raised an eyebrow. Even with all my experience of poison, this bit of information was new to me, and I was not sure I believed it. "What Caelius says is possibly true-though I'm inclined to wonder how anyone could ever have discovered such a curious thing. But then, I suppose there's not much that Marcus Caelius doesn't know about female genitalia."

"Ha!" Bethesda's eyes sparkled. "Even Cicero didn't come up with that one."

I turned up my palms to show modesty. "So, Caelius accused Bestia of having poisoned his wives by… " I left the sentence unfinished. There seemed no delicate way to complete it.

"He did not accuse Bestia outright. Having stated the properties of aconitum, and having worked himself up to a feverish pitch, Caelius pointed his finger at Bestia and shouted, 'Judges, I do not point the finger of guilt-I point at the guilty finger!' "

I choked on a mouthful of porridge. "Outrageous! Just when I was beginning to think that Roman orators had degraded their craft to the lowest level of indecency and bad taste, along comes a new generation to push the limit even further. Oh Minerva," I added under my breath, glancing out the window at the statue in the garden, "preserve me from a day in court! 'I point at the guilty finger.' Ha!"

Bethesda sipped from her cup of honeyed wine. "Anyway, Bestia was acquitted, finger and all."

"I suppose Cicero made a stirring speech for his defense."

She shrugged. "I don't recall."

Cicero's speech would probably have made a greater impression on her, I thought, had the man delivering it been as young and good-looking as Marcus Caelius.

"Fortune smiled on Lucius Calpurnius Bestia, then."

"Though not on his wives," said Bethesda dryly. There was a flash of something like anger in her eyes, but then a smile crept across her lips. "Speaking of young Caelius reminds me of another bit of gossip from the Forum," she said.

"Also involving Caelius?"

"No, involving his landlord."

"I see. And what fresh outrage has Publius Clodius perpetrated now?" Clodius owned the apartment building down the street, the one in which Caelius had his lodgings. In his mid-thirties and a patrician of impeccable lineage, Clodius had made himself much feared in recent years as a rabble-rouser and exploiter of populist resentments. It was Clodius, as tribune, who had masterminded the Roman takeover of Cyprus in order to finance his scheme to pass out free grain to the people of Rome. Once friendly to Cicero, he had almost single-handedly engineered Cicero's exile and was now his archenemy. His political tactics were crude, relentless and often violent. Just as men like Caelius were pushing the boundaries of oratory in the courts, men like Clodius were pushing the boundaries of political intimidation. Not surprisingly, the relationship of the two men went beyond that of landlord and tenant. They had become frequent political allies, and they shared a personal bond as well. It was well known that Caelius was the lover, or at least one of the lovers, of the rabble-rouser's widowed older sister, Clodia.

"Well, I didn't witness the incident myself, but I heard about it at the fish market," said Bethesda, practically purring. "It seems that Pompey was down in the Forum, arriving with his retinue at some trial or other that was about to begin."

"Could this have been the trial of Pompey's confederate Milo, for breach of the peace?"

Bethesda shrugged.

"With Clodius acting as prosecutor?" I added.

"Yes, that was it, because Clodius was there with a large retinue of his own, made up of some very rough types, apparently."

To describe Clodius's notorious gang of troublemakers as "rough" was to understate the case. These were strong-armers of the lowest order, some hired, some obligated to Clodius for other reasons, some voluntarily in his service to sate their appetites for violence.

For a man like Clodius to be prosecuting anyone for breach of the peace seemed ironic, but in this case the charge was probably justified. The accused, Milo, had his own rival gang of ruffians ready to rampage through the streets supporting whatever political cause their master happened to favor at the moment. Where great men like Pompey, Caesar and Crassus contested one another in exalted spheres of financial and military prowess, vying for mastery of the world, Clodius and Milo strug-gled with one another for immediate control of the streets of Rome. The greater powers allied themselves with these lesser powers for their own purposes, and vice versa. At the moment, Milo was Pompey's enforcer in Rome, so Pompey was obligated to speak in Milo's defense. Clodius, whether acting for Caesar, or Crassus, or entirely on his own, appeared to be badgering Milo chiefly to get at Pompey. Clodius seemed determined to undermine Pompey's attempts to take control ofthe notorious Egyptian situation…

This chain of thoughts caused me to remember my visit from Dio the previous month, and I suddenly felt uneasy. "By the way," I said, "do you remember the odd pair who visited me on the day before I left for Illyria? I was wondering if you had heard from them, or if you knew-"

Bethesda gave me her Medusa look. Her anecdote was not to be interrupted. "There was a great crowd gathered for Milo's trial, too many to fit into the open square where it was being held, so the mob spilled out into the nearby streets. When Pompey appeared, there was much cheering from the crowd. You know how the people adore Pompey."

"The Conqueror of the East."

"Exactly. But then Clodius appeared atop some high place and began shouting to the mob below, which was apparently packed with his sup-porters. Most people were too far away to hear what he was shouting, but whenever he would pause the mob below him would cry out with one great voice, 'Pompey!' Even those too far away to hear Clodius or even see him could hear the name of Pompey being shouted in unison. It was like a slow chant: 'Pompey!' A pause. 'Pompey!' A pause. 'Pompey!' Well, apparently Pompey heard his name being called, for they say he pricked up his ears and broke out in a broad grin, then changed his course and began making his way toward the shouting, thinking he was being lauded by the crowd."

"A typical politician," I remarked, "beating a path toward his adoring supporters like a calf heading for the teat."

"Except that this milk was sour. As he drew closer, the smile vanished from Pompey's face. First he saw Clodius, pacing back and forth atop the ledge, addressing the mob below and clutching himself with laughter whenever they responded with the cry of 'Pompey!' When Pompey drew close enough to hear what Clodius was shouting, he turned the color of a hot flame."

"And what set Pompey's cheeks ablaze?"

"Clodius was posing a series of questions, like riddles, over and over, and the answer was always the same-'Pompey!' "

"And what were these questions?"

"Like his friend and tenant Marcus Caelius, Clodius is a very brazen man… "

"Please, wife, no false modesty. I've heard you blast dishonest vendors in the market with curses that would make even a man like Clodius blush with shame."

"You exaggerate, husband."

"Only slightly. Well?"

She leaned forward.

"The chant went something like this:

What's the name of the general who's generally obscene?

Pompey!

Who peeks up his soldier's skirts when they're marching on parade?

Pompey!

Who makes like a monkey when he scratches his skull?

Pompey!"

This last was a reference to the great commander's habit when deep in thought of scratching the back of his head with his forefinger, and was innocuous enough, though with a bit of pantomime I had no doubt that Clodius could make it quite scathing. The other riddles were typical invective of the sort that might have been directed at any politician or general. All in all, such doggerel was pretty tame stuff, and hardly in a league with Caelius's quip about Bestia's guilty finger. But then, Pompey was not as accustomed as other politicians to the free-for-all of the Forum. He was used to being obeyed without question, not to being insulted in public by a Roman mob. Generals make thin-skinned politicians.

"But in the end," said Bethesda, leaning forward and lowering her voice, "it was Clodius who got the worst of it." "How did that come about?"

"Some of Milo's men heard the shouting and came running. Soon there were enough of them to drown out Clodius and his gang. Their chants were positively shocking."

"Oh, probably not all that shocking," I said, idly shaping the last of my breakfast porridge into little peaks and valleys, feigning indifference.

Bethesda shrugged. "You're right, they weren't really shocking at all, since one has heard all those rumors before. Though I imagine hearing them chanted by a mob in the Forum must have made even Clodius squirm."

"What rumors?" I said, giving in.

"About Clodius and his older sister. Or half sister, I should say."

"Clodius and Clodia? Oh, yes, I've heard whispers and a few nasty jokes. Never having met either of the doubtless charming siblings face to face, I wouldn't presume to second-guess the secrets of their bed-chamber. Or bedchambers."

Bethesda gave a delicate snort. "Why Romans should make such a fuss over relations between a brother and sister makes no sense to me anyway. In Egypt, such unions began with the gods and have a long and sacred tradition."

"No such tradition exists in Rome, I can assure you," I said. "What exactly did the mob chant?"

"Well, it started with something about Clodius selling himself to older men when he was a boy -"

"Yes, I've heard that story: when their father's early death left them in financial straits, the Clodii boys rented out little brother Publius as a catamite, and with considerable success. It could all be a spiteful lie, of course."

"Of course. But the chant went something like this:

Clodius played the girl

While he was still a boy.

Then Clodia made the man

Into her private toy.

And then more of the same, only more and more explicit."

"The Greek vice, coupled with the Egyptian vice," I observed. "And easterners complain that we Romans aren't versatile' in matters of sex. How did Clodius react?"

"He tried to keep up his chant against Pompey, but when Milo's men began to drown him out, he disappeared pretty quickly, and not with a smile on his face. The chanting finally broke into a scuffle between Milo's and Clodius's gangs."

"Nothing too serious, I hope."

"Not serious enough to disrupt the trial."

"Probably only a few heads split open. And how did the trial turn out? Was Milo acquitted or found guilty of disturbing the peace?"

Bethesda looked at me blankly, then shrugged. "I don't recall. I'm not sure I ever heard."

"Probably because no one cares a whit. What they all remember and what they'll keep talking about is the scandal of Clodius's reputed incest with his sister being shouted aloud in the Forum. What's the difference in their ages-five years? Well, the widow Clodia does have a reputation for liking younger men, like our neighbor Marcus Caelius. I wonder what he thinks of having his lover's alleged incest made into a ditty by the mob?"

"Actually, Caelius and Clodia are no longer lovers, and Caelius isn't on such good terms with Clodius anymore," said Bethesda.

"How could you possibly know that?" I shook my head in wonder. "You haven't been slinking off to some of these wild Palatine Hill parties, mixing with the sophisticated young set in my absence, have you?"

"No." She leaned back on her couch with a smile and luxuriously stretched her arms above her head. The gesture was unabashedly sensual, evoking memories of the night's pleasures, as if to demonstrate that despite my teasing she would indeed fit in quite well at a Palatine Hill debauch, were she not so acutely aware and protective of her hard-won role as a respectable Roman matron.

"Or has young Caelius been confessing the secrets of his love life whenever the two of you happen to meet in the street?" I said.

"Not that either. But we have ways of sharing what we know."

"We'?"

"We women," said Bethesda with a shrug. She was always vague about her network of informants, even to me. I had spent a lifetime ferreting out secrets, but Bethesda could sometimes make me feel like an amateur.

"What caused the parting of the ways," I asked. "Surely sophisticated lovers like Clodia and Caelius don't abandon each other over trifles like infidelity or a bit of incest."

"No, they say it was-" Bethesda abruptly frowned and creased her

brow.

She was teasing me again, I thought, trying to add suspense to the

telling. "Well?" I finally said.

"Politics, or something like that," she said hastily. "A falling out between Clodius and Caelius, and then trouble between Caelius and

Clodia."

"You're well on the way to making a poem, like the mob in the Forum: Clodius and Caelius, and Caelius and Clodia. You need only insert a few obscene verbs. What sort of falling out? Over what?"

She shrugged. "You know I don't follow politics," she said, suddenly fascinated by her fingernails.

"Unless there's a good story involved. Come, wife, you know more than you're telling. Must I remind you that it's your duty, indeed your obligation under the law, to tell your husband everything you know? I command you to speak!" I spoke playfully, making a joke of it, but Bethesda was not amused.

"All right, then," she said. "I think it was something to do with what you call the Egyptian situation. Some falling-out between Clodius and Caelius. How should I know anything about the private dealings of men like that? And who should be surprised if an aging whore like Clodia suddenly loses her charms for a handsome young man like Caelius?"

I had long ago learned to weather Bethesda's moods, as one must weather sudden squalls at sea, but I had never quite learned to comprehend them. Something had set her on edge, but what? I tried to recollect the phrase or topic that had offended her, but the sudden chill in the room numbed my mind. I decided to change the subject.

"Who cares about such people, anyway?" I picked up my empty cup, twisted my wrist to set the dregs aswirl, and stared into the vortex. "I was just wondering a moment ago, about those odd visitors I had on the day before my trip."

Bethesda looked at me blankly.

"It was only a month ago. You must remember-the little gallus and the old Alexandrian philosopher, Dio. He came seeking help, but I wasn't able to help him, at least not then. Did he come calling again while I was gone?"

I waited for an answer, but when I looked up from my cup I saw that Bethesda was looking elsewhere.

"It's a simple enough question," I said mildly. "Did the old philosopher come asking for me while I was gone?"

"No," she said.

"That's odd. I thought that he would; he was so distraught. I worried about him while I was away. Perhaps he didn't need my help after all. Have you heard any news of him, through your vast network of spies and informants?"

"Yes," she said.

"And? What news?"

"He's dead," said Bethesda. "Murdered, I believe, in the house where he was staying. That's all I know."

The swirling dregs in my wine cup slowed to a stop, the porridge in my stomach turned to stone, and in my mouth I tasted ashes.

Chapter Seven

It was not until several days after my return to Rome that I found time to write a letter to Meto. I recounted to him the events which had transpired in my absence – Cicero defeating Caelius in the trial of Bestia despite the accusation of "the guilty finger" (the perfect anecdote for Meto to share with his tentmates!), Pompey's embarrassment on his way to Milo's trial, the obscene chant about Clodius and Clodia.

Since I had made such a story of Trygonion's and Dio's visit when I saw Meto in Illyria, I felt I should let him know what had become of the philosopher. Merely a matter of keeping him informed, I told myself, as I began setting down the words. But as I wrote, I began to realize that telling the tale was in fact my chief reason for writing the letter. Dio's murder had left me with a nagging sense of guilt, and writing down the gory facts for Meto's perusal, painful though it was, somehow eased my conscience, as if describing an event could mitigate its awfulness.

When it comes to correspondence, I am not Meto; my prose will never capture great Caesar's admiration. Nonetheless, I will copy down a bit of what I wrote to Meto on that last day of Februarius:

Also, son, you will probably remember the tale I told you about my visit from Dio, the philosopher I once knew in Alexandria, and the little gallus named Trygonion. You laughed when I described to you their absurd disguises-Dio dressed like a woman, and the eunuch in a toga trying to pass himself off as a Roman.

The sequel, I fear, is quite the opposite of funny.

What Dio dreaded came to pass, only hours after he left me. That very night, as I was making ready for my journey to see you, Dio was being viciously murdered in the house of his host, Titus Coponius.

I learned the bare fact that Dio had been murdered from Bethesda on the morning after my return to Rome. She claimed to know no details at all. Bethesda took a disliking to Dio the instant she laid eyes on him, and you know how she is-from that moment on he might as well not have existed; even her appetite for gossip seems unstirred by his murder. I had to discover the details for myself, posing discreet questions in the proper quarters. This was not difficult, though it took some time.

It seems that there had been a previous, failed attempt to poison Dio. He mentioned this to me himself on the night of his visit. Apparently some slaves of his previous host, Lucius Lucceius, were suborned (doubtless by agents of King Ptolemy) to poison Dio's food, but succeeded instead in killing his sole remaining slave, who had taken on the role of food taster. Dio fled from Lucceius's house to that of Coponius.

It was from the house of Coponius that Dio came to call on me, and to ask for my help. If only I had offered to let him spend the night in my house! But then his assassins might have done their bloody work here, under my roof. I think of Bethesda and particularly of Diana and I shudder at the thought.

Poison having failed, Dio's enemies resorted to less subtle means. After leaving my house, Dio returned to Coponius's as quickly as he could-darkness had fallen and Dio feared the streets, even disguised as he was and with Belbo along for protection. As for Trygonion, Belbo says that he went along as far as Coponius's door and then went his own way, perhaps returning to the House of the Galli, which is also here on the Palatine, close by the temple of Cybele. No one seems to know much about this gallus, and no one can explain to me his relationship to Dio.

What follows is secondhand information, some of it thirdhand-which makes it gossip, really-but I think it's reliable.

Back at Coponius's house, Dio shut himself alone in his room, refusing to take any dinner. (He had already eaten at my house, and was very fearful of being poisoned.) The household of Coponius retires early, and soon after dark everyone was abed except the slave who had been posted inside the front door to keep watch through the night. At some point (before midnight, according to the watchman) there was a noise from the back of the house, where Dio was quartered.

The watchman went to investigate. Dio's door was locked. The slave called his name and rapped on the door. Finally the slave pounded so loudly that Coponius himself (in the bedroom adjoining) was awakened and came to ask what the matter was. At length the door was broken down and Dio was discovered on his sleeping couch, lying on his back with his eyes and mouth wide open, his chest pierced by gaping wounds. He had been stabbed to death in his bed.

A window in the room opened onto a small courtyard. The shutters of this window were open and the latch had been forced from outside. The killer or killers apparently crept over a high wall, skulked across the terrace, broke into Dio's room through the window, murdered him, then skulked away.

The killer or killers escaped unseen.

It was a wretched end to a distinguished life. That Dio foresaw his destruction and spent his final days in a city far from home, dreading every shadow, casts an even gloomier pall over his fate. That he came to me, asking for my help on the very day of his murder, fills me with agitation. Could I have prevented the deed? Almost certainly not, I tell myself, for the men who wished to see Dio dead have resources far beyond anything I could forestall. Yet it seems a cruel jest of the gods to have brought him back into my life after so many years and then to have snatched him away so violently. I have seen much carnage and suffering in my life, yet it never be-comes easier to bear. It only becomes harder for me to fathom.

Now every member of the embassy which arrived last fall from Alexandria has been murdered or has fled back to Egypt or has otherwise vanished from sight. (The few still in Rome, I am told, have either pledged their allegiance to King Ptolemy or been bribed to keep silent; no doubt some or all of them were the king's spies from the beginning.) The people of Rome should be ashamed that such an atrocity could occur not just in Italy but in the very heart of the city itself. To be sure, there are those who say that Dio's murder is such an outrage that the Senate will be shamed into taking some action to punish his slayers (if not King Ptolemy, then at least his henchmen). The Senate may even move to repudiate the king and recognize Queen Berenice, which was the object of Dio's mission. While he lived, the Senate would not even allow him to officially address them, but in death Dio may yet achieve what he desired: an Egypt with a new, independent ruler.

Can justice follow upon a tragedy such as Dio's murder? Considering the state of Rome's courts and the persons whose interests are at stake, I strongly doubt it. But I refuse to brood overmuch concerning this matter. Had I accepted Dio's commission to expose his enemies, I might now feel some obligation to pursue the matter of bringing his killers to justice. Fortunately, my rejection of his commission was explicit. I told him that I could not help him and gave him a good reason. My conscience is clear. The task of finding the blade which drew Dio's lifeblood, and punishing the hand that wielded it, does not fall to me.

Whatever happens next, it will not involve me, and for that I am glad.

Rereading that letter now, I see that my statements regarding the circumstances of Dio's death are marred by a number of errors, some of them quite significant. But no statement was more in error than the final one, which I read now with a shudder of amazement. How could I have been so blithely, smugly unforeseeing? What a perilous world we move through, like men blindfolded. The past and future are equally obscure, and broad daylight can hide as many dangers as the landscape of the night.

PART

TWONOXIA

Chapter Eight

Almost a month passed before I had occasion to write to Meto again.

To my beloved son Meto, serving under the command of Gaius Julius Caesar in Gaul, from his loving father in Rome, may Fortune be with you.

I write this letter on the twenty-ninth dayof Martius, an uncommonly warm day for so early in the spring-we have thrown open all the windows and the after-noon sunshine is hot on my shoulders. I wish you were here beside me.

Alas, you are not. Nor are you safely at ease in Illyria, where I last saw you. I learned in the Forum of your sudden move to Gaul not long after my visit. They say that Caesar was called to put down a revolt by some tribe with an un-pronounceable name-I won't even try to spell it. I presume that you have gone along with him.

Take care, Meto.

Given your movements, I have no way of knowing if my letter of a month ago has reached you, or will reach you after this one, or will ever reach you at all, but since one of Caesar's message bearers (a young soldier who has carried my letters to you before) is about to leave for Gaul and says he will take along a letter from me if I can finish it within the hour, I am writing very quickly and will simply give you what news I can, even at the risk of conveying events that make little sense for lack of context. (Don't show this letter to your commander, please. I fear that a man who dictates his memoirs on horseback would hardly accept being rushed as an excuse for fashioning such awkward sentences.)

Hopefully, you did receive my last letter, and so you know of the murder of Dio. I scoffed at those who said Dio's murder was too big a thing to go without consequence and that the scandal would result in someone being punished, but it seems that I was wrong and they were right, up to a point.

The scandal has been enormous. Dio was even better known and more highly regarded than I had realized-or did murder make a martyr of him and render him larger and more beloved in death than he was in life? For a man who is now spoken of in such tones of awe, he was certainly treated very shabbily in the final months of his life, shuffling from one reluctant (perhaps treacherous) host to another, expending his resources until his purse was empty. The senators who now speak of Dio as a second Aristotle and weep at the mention of his name are the same men who refused to allow Dio to speak in their chambers not long ago.

(I've suddenly remembered that old conundrum, which Dio posed to me as a young man in Alexandria: Is it better to be beloved in life and despised after death, or despised in life and revered after death?)

So the debate in the Senate over the Egyptian situation grinds on, freshly fueled by this shameful outrage. Meanwhile a charge of murder was recently brought against one Publius Asicius.

I must say that I was not surprised to see Asicius accused of Dio's murder. Dio himself suspected this young man of being involved in the failed poisoning attempt at the house of Lucius Lucceius, and told me as much when he visited me. On the very day that Dio's food taster died of poison, Asicius had paid a visit to Lucceius. By itself, this is a merely circumstantial connection. But then, after Dio left my house, and probably not long after he was stabbed in his bed, I happened to encounter Asicius and our neighbor M.C. in the street, and while I overheard them say nothing directly incriminating, the circumstances, at least in retrospect, struck me as highly suspicious.

So when I heard that the charge had been brought against

Asicius, I felt greatly relieved, thinking that if he was guilty, then perhaps the whole ugly truth would be given a chance to come out-and without having to become involved myself. (I imagine you sometimes feel the same relief in your work for Caesar, when an odious task is unexpectedly accomplished without any effort on your part, as if some friendly god had decided to do you a favor.)

But the gods can be fickle with their favors. Who do you think stepped forward to defend Asicius? Yes, the best defense advocate in Rome, our old friend Marcus Cicero.

When I heard that news, my hope abruptly dwindled. Many things may happen in a trial where Cicero is one of the advocates, but the emergence of the truth is seldom one of them. If justice triumphs, it happens in spite of Cicero's smoke and mirrors, and will have nothing to do with whether or not the truth was spoken.

They say that Cicero and Asicius were both away from Rome, down the coast, when Asicius was arraigned-Cicero in Neapolis, Asicius across the bay at his family's villa in Baiae. To discuss the case, Asicius went to fetch Cicero and took him back to Baiae in his magnificent litter. Well, not his, exactly, but a litter lent to Asicius by-can you believe it?- King Ptolemy.

(The complicity is absolutely damning! You would think that a man accused of murdering King Ptolemy's enemy would hide his connections with the king rather than flaunt them, but like most men of his generation, Asicius can't seem to resist any opportunity to show off.)

The litter was an enormous eight-man affair, elaborately decorated (Egyptian litters make the most elegant Roman conveyances look plain) and attended by no fewer than a hundred armed bodyguards, also lent to Asicius by King Ptolemy. (If the king supplied the bodyguards for Asicius's physical defense, who can help but conclude that it was also the king who hired Cicero for Asicius's legal defense?) Can you see it in your mind-Cicero and Asicius discussing the upcoming murder trial while they proceed along the shore borne aloft in a litter, lolling about in Egyptian luxury with a hundred swordsmen in their train?

I missed the trial; a relapse of the cough which plagued me in Illyria kept me from venturing down to the Forum.

Bethesda went to watch, but you can imagine the sort of report she came back with-I was informed that Asicius is quite good-looking, if a bit wasted and pale (Bethesda has heard that he drinks to excess); that Asicius's friend, our handsome young neighbor M.C., was nowhere in sight; and that Cicero was as long-winded and boring as ever.

And oh, yes, that Asicius was acquitted of murdering Dio.

I now regret having missed the trial, for I should like to have heard with my own ears the evidence presented. But I do not regret having missed whatever devious conjurer's tricks Cicero used to distract, disorient and ultimately persuade the judges. I don't need the aggravation.

So, for better or worse, the matter has come to a conclusion. Poor Dio shall go unavenged, but his legacy may yet prevail-

I lifted my stylus from the parchment, distracted by a knock. I turned in my chair and saw Belbo in the doorway.

"The messenger's come back, Master. He says he must have your letter now if he's to take it for you."

I grunted. "Show him in. No need to make him wait in the hallway." I returned to the letter.

I must close abruptly. Caesar's message bearer has re-turned.

I have foolishly spent this precious hour recounting Forum gossip and left myself no time to speak of family matters. Know that all is well. Bethesda is as always, and Diana becomes more like her mother every day (more beautiful, more mysterious). Eco continues to prosper, though I often wish I could have taught him a less dangerous trade than his father's, and his beloved Menenia has proved herself a woman of surpassing patience, especially in bringing up the uncontrollable twins. Imagine having two four-year-olds squabbling and stubbing their toes and catching colds…

I must close. The messenger has entered the room and stands before me, glancing over his shoulder at the statue of Minerva in the sun-filled atrium, tapping his foot impatiently.

Take care, Meto!

I dusted the parchment with fine sand, then pursed my lips and gently blew the sand away. I rolled the parchment, slipped it into a leather jacket and sealed the cylinder with wax. As I handed it reluctantly to the messenger, thinking of things left unsaid, I took a closer look at the man. He was dressed in a soldier's regalia, all leather straps and clinking steel and blood-red wool. His jaw was stiff and his countenance stern.

"How old are you, soldier?" "Twenty-two."

Meto's age exactly; no wonder the fellow looked to me like a child playing soldier. I studied his face, searching for some sign of the horrors he must have beheld already in his young life, and saw only the bland innocence of youth framed by a soldier's helmet.

His stern expression abruptly softened. He looked puzzled. I realized he was staring beyond me at someone in the doorway.

As I swung about I heard Belbo bluster, "Master, another guest- I told him to wait in the foyer, but he's followed me anyway-"

At first I hardly saw the visitor, blocked as he was by Belbo's bulk. Then he slipped into view, and what he lacked in stature was more than made up for by the gaudy splendor of his garb. He was covered from the neck down in a gown of vibrant red and yellow. Silver bracelets dangled from his wrists, a silver pectoral with glass beads hung from his neck, and his ears and fingers sported silver rings. His cheeks were painted white. On his head was a multicolored turban, from which his bleached hair hung down in wavy tresses. The last time I had seen him he had been dressed in a toga, not in the vestments of a priest of Cybele.

"Trygonion," I said.

He smiled. "You remember me, then?"

"I do. It's all right," I said to Belbo, who continued to hover uncertainly, ready to interpose himself between the gallus and myself. Belbo could easily have lifted the little priest over his head and could probably have snapped him in two, but he kept his distance, afraid to lay his hands on a holy eunuch. Trygonion had slipped into my study without missing a step, while a man three times his size blustered for him to stay back.

Belbo gave the gallus a disgruntled look and withdrew. Behind me I heard the clearing of a throat and turned to see the soldier slipping my letter into a leather pouch. "I'm off, then," he said, nodding to me and then looking at the eunuch with a mixture of curiosity and distaste.

"May Mercury guide you," I said.

"And may the purifying blood of the Great Goddess spring from between her legs and wash over you!" added Trygonion. He pressed his palms together, making his bracelets jingle, and bowed his head. The soldier wrinkled his brow and hastily moved to depart, uncertain whether he had just been blessed or cursed. As he moved to slip out the narrow doorway, he turned sideways to avoid touching the eunuch, but Trygonion deliberately shifted his stance so that their shoulders brushed, and I saw the soldier shudder. The contrast was striking, between the stern, virile young Roman in his military garb and the diminutive, grinning, foreign-born gallus in his priestly gown. How odd, I thought, that the larger, stronger one, trained to kill and defend himself, should be the one to shiver in fear.

Trygonion seemed to be thinking the same thing, for as the soldier stomped down the hallway the eunuch looked after him and made a trilling laugh. But as he turned back to me his smile quickly faded.

"Gordianus," he said softly, bowing his head in greeting. "I am again honored to be admitted into your home."

"It would seem I had little choice over whether to admit you or not, considering how giants give way before you and soldiers flee in panic."

He laughed, but not in the trilling way he had used to mock the soldier. It was a throaty chuckle, such as men exchange over a witticism in the Forum. The gallus seemed able to change his persona at will, from feminine to masculine, never seeming wholly one or the other but something which was neither.

"I've been sent to fetch you."

"Oh?"

"Yes, imagine that – a priest of Cybele, dispatched like a messenger boy." He cocked an eyebrow. "Dispatched by whom?" "By a certain lady." "Does she have a name?"

"Of course she does-many names, though I'd advise you to avoid the more scandalous ones and call her by the name her father gave her, unless you wish to have your face slapped. That is, until you get to know her better."

"What name is that?"

"She lives here on the Palatine, only a few steps away." He gestured toward the door with an ingratiating smile.

"Still, before I go off to see her, I think I should like to know her name and what business she might have with me."

"Her business involves a certain mutual acquaintance. Two mutual acquaintances, actually. One living; one… dead." He looked coy, then somber. Neither expression seemed quite genuine, as if he had exchanged one mask for another. "Two mutual acquaintances," he repeated. "One, a murderer-the other, the murderer's victim. One who even now moves through the Forum, laughing with his friends and flinging obscenities at his enemies, while the other moves through Hades, a shadow among shadows. Perhaps he will meet Aristotle there and debate him face to face, and the dead can decide which of them knew more about living." "Dio," I whispered.

"Yes, I speak of Dio-and Dio's killer. That's the business I've come about."

"Whose business?"

"The business of my lady. She has made it her business." "Who is she?" I said, growing impatient.

"Come and see. She longs to meet you." He raised an eyebrow and leered like a pimp procuring for a whore.

"Tell me her name," I said slowly, trying to keep my temper.

Trygonion sighed and rolled his eyes. "Oh, very well. Her name is Clodia." He paused, saw the expression on my face, and laughed. "Ah, I see that you've already heard of her!"

Chapter Nine

Onour way out, we passed Bethesda and Diana in the hallway.

"Where are you going?" Bethesda cast a chilly glance of recognition at Trygonion, crossed her arms and gave me the Medusa look. How could such a woman ever have been anyone's slave, least of all mine? Diana stood alongside and slightly behind her mother. She too drew back her shoulders and crossed her arms, affecting the same imperious gaze.

"Out," I said. Bethesda's arms remained crossed; the answer did not suffice.

"The gallus may have some work for me," I added.

She stared at the little priest so intently that I would hardly have been surprised to see him turn to stone. Instead, he smiled at her. The two of them seemed impervious to each other. Trygonion was not intimidated; Bethesda was not charmed. "You'd better take Belbo with you" was all she had to say before uncrossing her arms and proceeding down the hallway. Diana followed, mimicking her mother's movements with uncanny precision-until I swung around and tickled her under her arms. She let out a scream of laughter and ran forward, stumbling into Bethesda. They both turned and looked back at me, Diana laughing, Bethesda with one eyebrow raised and the merest hint of a smile on her lips.

"Take Belbo!" she repeated before turning her back and walking on. Now I understand, I thought: she remembers Trygonion from his visit with Dio, she knows about Dio's murder, and now, seeing me leave with Trygonion, she fears for me. How touching!

The three of us-the gallus, Belbo and myself-stepped out into the bright afternoon sunshine. The warmth in my study had seemed mild and the air sweet, like early springtime; here in the street, the sun had heated the paving stones and the air was hot. Trygonion produced a tiny yellow parasol from the folds of his robe, opened it up and held it aloft.

"Perhaps I should have brought my broad-brimmed hat," I said, squinting up at the cloudless sky.

"It's only a short walk," said the gallus. "Straight ahead for a block or two, then off to the right."

We walked up the street and passed the apartment building where Marcus Caelius lived. The shutters of all the upper-story windows were closed, despite the heat. Could he be sleeping, at this time of day? What a life!

The building was owned by the rabble-rouser Publius Clodius; now I was on the way to see his sister. What a small town Rome is, I thought, and growing smaller with each passing year. I had never met either of the notorious Clodii. They were distant cousins of my old patron Lucius Claudius, but our paths had never crossed. That had suited me. In recent years I've grown increasingly selective both of those I choose to help and of those I choose to offend. From what one heard about them, Clodia and Clodius were the sort it was best simply to avoid.

An obscure citizen lamenting the theft of his family's silver; an old acquaintance threatened by anonymous letters; a young wife unfairly accused of adultery by her vindictive mother-in-law-in my semiretirement, these struck me as the sort of people to whom I should lend my expertise. Men who deal in raw power, who control vast networks of secret operatives, who dispatch strong-armers to crush their opponents- the Pompeys and King Ptolemies of this world-these struck me as men I should take extreme care to avoid offending, even if it meant passing up the chance to help an old friend; even though it had meant turning my back on Dio of Alexandria.

Now I found myself on the way to the house of Clodia, supposedly to discuss some matter relating to the murder of Dio, following a priest of Cybele carrying a bright yellow parasol through the sunny streets of the Palatine. The gods delight in surprising men with the unexpected- and are notorious for the cruelty of their mirth.

Clodia's house was situated at the end of a little cul-de-sac off a quiet lane. Like the houses belonging to most patrician families, it looked old and showed an unassuming face to the street.

The windowless front was stained with a muted yellow wash. The doorstep was paved with glazed red and black tiles. Twin cypress trees framed the rustic oak door. The trees soared to a great height; I had often noticed them from the balcony at the back of my house, but had never known exactly where they were located. Like the house, the cypresses had obviously been there for many years.

The slave who answered the door was a burly young man with a neatly trimmed black beard and bushy eyebrows that grew together above soulful brown eyes. He opened the door only halfway and smirked when he saw Trygonion. He hardly looked at me or Belbo. "She's gone out," he said, crossing his arms and slouching against the door frame.

"Gone out?" said the gallus. "But I only just left her, to go fetch this fellow."

The doorkeeper shrugged. "What can I tell you? You know how she

is."

"But she knew I was coming straight back," said Trygonion in a petulant voice. "Where has she gone?"

"Down to the river." "What, to the markets?"

The slave narrowed his eyes.

"Of course not. You know she never goes to the public markets anymore. Afraid Milo's men will be there to start up the chants about her. Pretends she doesn't care, but you know how she hates that." The slave arched his right eyebrow, which created a striking effect, since his eyebrows were joined.

"She's gone down to her place on the Tiber. Said it was the only spot to be on a beautiful day like this. 'Everyone will be at the river,' she said. Looking to catch an eyeful, I imagine-the swimmers."

A sudden twitch at the corner of his mouth turned into a smile, as a hand belonging to someone hidden behind the door slipped across the gap and made its way onto the slave's backside. The visible patch of wrist moved in a sinuous fashion, like a wriggling snake. The young doorkeeper gave a ticklish start and flexed his muscular forearms. "She should have taken me with her," he sighed, "but I'm managing to stay busy."

"Did she leave any word for me?" asked Trygonion, exasperated. "She must have!"

From just beyond the door I heard a woman's laugh, then a smiling face appeared, pressed cheek to cheek with the burly doorkeeper. "Don't worry, she didn't forget you," the woman trilled. Her voice had a cultured accent and her chestnut hair was extravagantly put up, though a few stray tendrils had escaped the pins and combs. The lines around her eyes and mouth had been skillfully softened with makeup, but I could see she was no longer young. "Barnabas is teasing you! Aren't you, Barnabas? Wicked!" She playfully bit the slave's ear.

Barnabas laughed brusquely and jerked away, freeing his ear from the woman's gleaming white teeth and his buttocks from her grip. "Off with you, then!" she said, laughing and snapping her fingers. "Go on! I'll tend to you later." She growled deep in her throat and clicked her teeth. The door slave departed.

"It's a Hebrew name, you know," she said, turning back to us. "Barnabas, I mean. Clodia says it means 'consolation.' She should know!" The woman laughed, and I caught the smell of wine on her breath.

"What did Clodia say about me?" demanded the gallus.

"About you, Trygonion? Hmm, well, we all know where your name comes from, don't we?" She looked at him knowingly.

"Never mind!" snapped the gallus. "What did she say before she

left?"

The woman's expression soured, undoing the illusion of her makeup. "Oh, all right, then. She said she simply couldn't stay indoors for another instant, and she's been dying to get down to her place on the river for days, so she told Chrysis to call for her litter bearers and pack up a few things and off they went in a cloud of dust. She asked me to come along, but I told her I was too, too despondent and in great need of consolation. Ha!" She barked out a laugh, showing perfect white teeth. "So, since I was staying, Clodia asked me to please give you a message if you should happen to come around, to tell you that you and your" – she looked at Belbo and me blearily, as if noticing us for the first time – "your friends, or whatever, should trot down to the river and meet her there. Is that clear enough?"

"Yes, thank you," said Trygonion curtly. He turned around and hurriedly strode away, taking the longest steps his short legs would allow.

"Cut off their balls and see what pests they turn into," the woman muttered between clenched teeth. She shrugged and slammed the door.

"Horrible woman!" Trygonion said as Belbo and I caught up with

him.

"Slow down," I complained. "Who is she?"

"Just a neighbor. Nobody. A cousin or something. I don't have money for a litter, do you? I suppose we can walk."

Which we did. As we made our way down the western slope of the Palatine, through the cattle markets, across the bridge and up the west bank of the Tiber, at several points I considered telling Trygonion that I had changed my mind and was turning back. What was I doing, after all, coming at the summons of a woman I had happily avoided until now, to discuss a matter from which I had deliberately distanced myself? Blame it on Cybele, I thought, as I followed her priest, his parasol held resolutely aloft.

It is a sign of wealth and good taste to own a green patch on the banks of the Tiber. Such estates are something of a cross between a park and a garden; the owners call such grounds horti. There is usually a structure of some sort-sometimes no more than a rustic retreat with quarters for the groundskeeper and a few guests, sometimes a whole complex of buildings. The grounds themselves are often a mix of wilderness and cultivation, depending on the size of the property, the owner's proclivities and the gardener's skill; patches of tall grass and woodland may be interspersed with rose gardens, fishponds, fountains, and stone-paved walkways adorned with statuary.

Clodia's horti were unusually close in. A hundred years ago, the property must have been well out in the countryside, but the city had greatly expanded since then. It was an enviable location for a piece of riverfront property and must have been in her family for generations.

The impression of great age was reinforced by the grounds them-selves, which on such a warm, windless day had the feeling of a place where time stopped long ago. The immediate approach was a long, narrow lane bordered by sprawling berry bushes which met overhead, shading the way. This tunnellike path opened onto a broad field of grass kept closely mown by a pair of goats which bleated at our approach. Facing the meadow and perpendicular to the river, which was almost entirely obscured by an intervening stand of dense trees, was a long narrow house with a red-tiled roof and a portico running along the whole front. The open meadow was as private as any walled garden in the city, for the view on all sides was shielded by tall cypress trees and majestic yews.

"She won't be in the house, but I suppose we can take a look all the same," said Trygonion.

We crossed the meadow and stepped under the shade of the portico. Trygonion rapped on the nearest door, then pushed it open and stepped over the threshold, beckoning to Belbo and me. Each room of the long house opened onto the next, and every room had its own door onto the long portico, so that one could walk from end to end of the house either along the shaded outdoor walkway or through each room in succession.

I could tell at once that the house was empty. It had the feeling of a place left unoccupied all winter, which had not yet been brought back to life. The air was still and cool inside, the walls and the sparse furnishings exhaled a slightly musty, odor, and every surface had a thin coating of dust.

We followed Trygonion slowly from room to room as he called

Clodia's name. In some of the rooms, dropcloths covered every object. In other rooms the cloths had been pulled away, apparently quite recently, for they still lay carelessly crumpled on the floor. Having acquired a furnished house on the Palatine, I know a few things about furniture. The pieces I saw in Clodia's house on the Tiber were of the sort which fetch astonishing prices at auction nowadays, especially among our burgeoning empire's new rich who have no such treasures in their obscure families-sleeping couches saved from the flames of Carthage, their plush cushions so faded that the exotic patterns can barely be made out; gilded cabinets and trunks with massive iron hinges of a sort no longer made; ancient folding chairs that the Scipios or the Gracchi brothers might have sat on.

There were paintings as well, in every room, and not theatrical wall paintings such as are fashionable among the wealthy nowadays, but portraits and historical scenes painted in encaustic on wood and mounted in elaborate frames. These were darkened by age, their smooth surfaces covered by a skein of very fine cracks. Collectors set great store by these qualities, which time alone creates and which cannot be mimicked by human artists. There were also tiny sculptures mounted here and there on pedestals, none of them taller than a man's forearm, in keeping with the small scale of the rooms, and all of rustic subjects to match the rustic mood of the place-little statues of Pan and Silenus, of a slave boy pulling a thorn from his foot, of a wood nymph kneeling on a rock.

We came to the end of the house and stepped back onto the covered portico. Trygonion peered toward the woods on the opposite side of the meadow, where I could see nothing. "No, she wouldn't be over at the kitchens or the slave quarters or the stable," he said. "She's down by the water, of course." We set out across the meadow again, toward the grove of trees along the river. In their shade, we came upon a statue of Venus- not a small, decorative object like those in the house, but a magnificent, towering bronze upon a marble pedestal. The goddess looked out on the water with an expression of almost smug contentment on her face, as if the river flowed merely to give music to her ears, and the city on its further bank had been erected for no other purpose than to amuse her.

"Extraordinary," I whispered. Beside me Belbo stared up at the statue dumbly, a look of religious awe on his face.

"Do you think so?" said Trygonion. "You should see the one at her house in the city." He turned and walked on, humming a hymn to Cybele. His mood seemed to lighten with each step that brought him closer to the river, and to the red and white striped tent pitched on the bank.

We stepped out of the trees and into the sunlight. A mild breeze stirred the lush grass. The tent stood out in dazzling relief against the bright green grass, the darker green of the river beyond, and the glaring azure sky above. Its fine silk panels shivered in the delicate breeze. The red stripes wavered like slithering snakes against a field of white, then, by a trick of the eye, the illusion was reversed and the stripes became white snakes against a field of red.

From somewhere I heard the sound of splashing, but the tent and the high trees on either side blocked my view of the river.

"Wait here," said Trygonion. He stepped inside. A little later he stuck his head out the flap. "Come in, Gordianus. But leave your body-guard outside."

As I moved toward the flap it was pulled aside by an unseen slave within. I stepped into the tent.

The first thing I noticed was the scent, a perfume I had never smelled before-elusive, subtle and intriguing. The instant I first smelled it, I knew I would never forget it.

The red and white silk softened the bright sunlight, filling the tent with a warm glow. The panels facing the river had been rolled up, letting in the view and framing it like a picture. Sunlight danced on the green water and cast lozenges of light into the tent, where they flitted and danced across my hands and face. I heard the sound of splashing again and now I saw its source, a group of young men and boys, fifteen or more, who frolicked in the water just beyond the tent. Some of them wore bright-colored scraps of cloth about their loins, but most were naked. Beads of water clung to their sleek flesh; in the sunlight they glimmered as if chased with jewels. When they moved into the shade beneath trees they became dappled, like spotted fauns. Their splashing caused the lozenges of light to dance wildly inside the tent.

I walked toward the center of the tent, where Trygonion awaited me with a beaming smile on his face. He stood beside a high couch strewn with red and white striped pillows, holding the hand of the woman who reclined upon it. The woman was turned so that I could not see her face.

Before I reached the couch a figure suddenly appeared before me. She looked hardly older than a child but wore her auburn hair coiled atop her head and was dressed in a long green gown. "Mistress!" she called, keeping her eyes on mine. "Mistress, your guest is here to see you."

"Show him to me, Chrysis." The voice was sultry and unhurried, deeper than Trygonion's but unmistakably feminine.

"Yes, Mistress." The slave girl took my hand and led me before the couch. The smell of perfume grew stronger.

"No, no, Chrysis," her mistress said, laughing gently. "Don't put him directly in front of me. He's blocking the view."

Chrysis tugged playfully at my hand and pulled me to one side.

"That's better, Chrysis. Now run along. You, too, Trygonion-let go of my hand, little gallus. Go find something for Chrysis to do up at the house. Or go look for pretty stones along the riverbank. But don't let one of those river satyrs catch either one of you or who knows what might happen!"

Chrysis and Trygonion departed, leaving me alone with the woman on the high couch.

Chapter Ten

“The young men you see in the river wearing loincloths are mine. My slaves, that is-my litter bearers and bodyguards. I let them wear loincloths here at the horti. After all, I can see them naked anytime I wish. Also, it makes it easier for me to pick out the others. Any young Roman worth being seen naked knows that he's allowed to come swimming along my stretch of the Tiber anytime he wishes-so long as he does it in the nude. They come down from the road along a little pathway hidden beyond those trees and leave their tunics hanging on branches. At the height of summer on a hot afternoon there are sometimes more than a hundred of them out there, diving, splashing each other, sunning themselves on the rocks – naked by my decree. Look at the shoulders on that one… "

I found myself staring at a woman of no few years-knowing that she was about five years older than her brother Publius Clodius, I calculated that she was probably forty, give or take a year. It was hard to say whether she looked her age or not. However old she looked, it suited her. Clodia's skin was certainly finer than that of most women of forty, the color of white roses, very creamy and smooth; perhaps, I thought, the filtered light of the tent flattered her. Her hair was black and lustrous, arranged by some hidden magic of pins and combs into an intricate maze of curls atop her head. The way that her hair was pulled back from her forehead gave emphasis to the striking angles of her cheekbones and the proud line of her nose, which was almost, but not quite, too large. Her lips were a sumptuous red which surely could not have been natural.

Her eyes seemed to glitter with flashes of blue and yellow but mostly of green, the color of emeralds, sparkling as the sunlight sparkled on the green Tiber. I had heard of her eyes; Clodia's eyes were famous.

"Look at the gooseflesh on them!" She laughed. "It's a wonder they can stand to go in the water at all. The river must still be frigid so early in the year, no matter how warm the sunshine. Look how it shrivels their manhoods; a pity, for that can be half the fun of watching. But notice, not one of them is shivering. They don't want me to see them shiver, the dear, brave, foolish boys." She laughed again, a low, throaty chuckle.

Clodia reclined on her divan with her back against a pile ofcushions and her legs folded to one side beneath her. A long stola of shimmering yellow silk, belted below her breasts and again at her waist, covered her from her neck down. Only her arms were naked. Even so, no one could have called the costume modest. The fabric was so sheer as to be trans-parent, so that it was hard to tell, in the glittering light from the sun-spangled river, how much of the sheen of her contours came from the shiny silk and how much from the sleek flesh beneath. I had never seen a dress like it. This must have shown on my face, for Clodia laughed again, and not at the young men in the river.

"Do you like it?" She looked steadily into my eyes as she smoothed her palm over her hip and down her thigh to the bend of her knee. The silk seemed to ripple like water before the advancing edge of her hand. "It comes all the way from Cos. Something new from a famous silkmaker there. I don't think any other woman in Rome has a dress like it. Or perhaps they're like me, not quite brave enough to wear such a garment in public." She smiled demurely and reached up to the silver necklace at her throat. She spread her fingers, and I could clearly see, thanks to the transparency of the silk, that while she rolled one of the lapis baubles between her forefinger and thumb, with her little finger she delicately stroked one of her large, pale nipples until it began to grow excited.

I cleared my throat and glanced over my shoulder. The young men in the water were now throwing a leather ball back and forth among themselves, making a game of it, but every now and then they shot glances toward the tent. No wonder they had come to the river on the first warm day of the year, I thought. They came to look at her no less than she came to look at them. I cleared my throat again.

"Is your throat dry? Did you walk all the way from the Palatine?" She sounded genuinely curious, as if walking for any distance outdoors was a feat she had watched her litter bearers perform but which she had never attempted on her own.

"Yes, I walked."

"Poor dear, then you must be thirsty. Here, look, before she left,

Chrysis put out cups for us. The clay pitcher holds fresh water. The wine in the silver decanter is Falernian. I never drink anything else."

The vessels were set on a little table beside her. There was no chair, however. It appeared that visitors were meant to stand.

My mouth was in fact quite dry, and not entirely from the heat of the day. Clodia's cup was already full of wine, so I reached for the pitcher of water and poured myself a cup, drinking it slowly before I poured myself another.

"No wine?" She sounded disappointed.

"I think not. It's bad for a man my age to drink wine after exerting himself in the heat of the day." If not bad for my bowels, I thought, then bad for my judgment in such company. What would the transparent silk dress begin to look like after a cup or two of strong Falernian?

"As you wish." She shrugged. The silk pooled above her shoulders, then rippled like a sheet of water over her breasts.

I finished the second cup of water and put it down. "There was a reason you sent the gallus for me?"

"Yes, there was." She turned her gaze from me and fixed it on the young men in the river. I watched her eyes flit back and forth, following the leather ball. Her face remained impassive.

"Trygonion said it had something to do with Dio."

She nodded.

"Perhaps I should close the tent flaps," I said.

"Then what would the young men in the river think?" The idea of scandal seemed to amuse her, as did my growing consternation.

"If we need a chaperon, call back your handmaiden."

"Do we need a chaperon?" The look in her eyes was unnerving. "You obviously don't know Chrysis; she would hardly qualify for the role."

"Trygonion, then."

At that she laughed aloud and opened her mouth to speak, then thought better of it. "Forgive me," she said. "When I have business to conduct with a good-looking man, I like to indulge in a little teasing first. It's a fault of mine. My friends have learned to overlook it. I hope that you'll overlook the fault as well, Gordianus, now that I've confessed it."

I nodded.

"Very well. Yes, I wanted to consult you regarding the untimely death of our mutual friend, Dio of Alexandria." "Ourmutual friend?"

"Yes, mine as well as yours. Don't look so surprised, Gordianus. There are probably a great many things about Dio that you didn't know.

For that matter, there are probably a great many things about me that don't know, despite all you may have heard. I'll try to be brief and to the point. It was I who suggested to Dio that he should go to your house to seek your help on the night he was murdered."

"You?"

"Yes."

"But you don't know me."

"Even so, I know of you, just as you undoubtedly know of me. Your reputation goes back a long way, Finder. I was a girl of seventeen, still living at home, when Cicero made such a splash defending that man accused of parricide. I remember my father talking about the case for long afterward. I didn't know of the role you played until many years later, of course, when I learned the details from Cicero himself-how Cicero loved to rehash that old case, again and again, until his triumph over Catilina finally gave him something even bigger to crow about! Cicero used to speak of you often to my late husband; on a few occasions he even recommended that Quintus seek out your services, but Quintus was always stubborn about using his own men for snooping and such. I shall be honest with you: Cicero didn't always speak highly of you. That is to say, from time to time when your name was brought up, he sometimes used words that should not be repeated aloud by a respectable Roman matron such as myself. But we've all had our fallings-out with Cicero, have we not? The important thing is that even when he was infuriated with you, Cicero always made a point of praising your honesty and integrity. Indeed, when Quintus was governor up in Cisalpine Gaul, Cicero and his wife Terentia came for a visit, and one night after dinner we all played a game of questions and answers; when Quintus asked Cicero what man he would trust to tell the truth, no matter what, do you know whom he named? Yes, Gordianus, it was you. So you see, when Dio asked us to whom he might turn for help, the name of Gordianus the Finder came to my mind at once. I didn't know at the time that you and Dio already knew each other; Trygonion told me about that after their visit to you."

"I suppose I'm flattered," I said. "You know, then, that I met Dio in Alexandria, years ago?"

"Trygonion explained it to me." "But how is it that you knew Dio?"

"Because of his dealings with my brother Publius, of course." "What dealings?"

"They met shortly after Dio arrived in Rome. The two of them had much to talk about."

"I should think that Dio and Publius Clodius would have had a hard time finding common ground, considering that it was your brother who engineered the Roman takeover of Egyptian Cyprus."

"Water under the bridge, as the Etruscans say. Far more important to Dio was my brother's opposition to Pompey. Publius offered Dio a much-needed ally in the Senate. Dio offered Publius a means to cheat Pompey of his ambitions in Egypt."

"And your place in all this?"

"There's something about sharp-witted older men that I find simply irresistible." She gave me another of her unnerving looks. "And what did Dio see in you?" I asked bluntly.

"Perhaps it was my well-known love of poetry." Clodia shrugged elegantly, causing the sheer silk to catch and drag across her nipples.

"If you and your brother were such great friends and supporters of Dio, why didn't he stay at your house where he'd be safe, instead of moving from one dubious host to another, staying barely ahead of his killer?"

"Dio couldn't stay at my house for the same reason that you may not lower the flaps of this tent, Gordianus. A man and a woman together, you understand. Dio's position with the Senate was precarious enough without having it further eroded by sexual innuendos. Nor could he have stayed with Publius; imagine the rumors that would have set off, about the Egyptian troublemaker hatching plots with the famous rabble-rouser. Notoriety exacts a price. Sometimes our friends must stay at arm's length, for their own good."

"Very well, Dio was your friend, or ally, or whatever, and you sent him to me for help. I had to refuse him. A few hours later he was dead. You and your brother didn't do a very good job of protecting him, did you?"

Her lips tightened and her eyes flashed. "Nor did you," she said icily, "who had known him far longer than I had, and whose obligations must have run far deeper."

I winced. "Just so. But even if I had agreed to Dio's request, I would've been too late to save him. By the time I woke up the next morning-no, even before I fell asleep that night-he was already dead."

"But what if you had said yes to Dio? What if you had agreed to begin looking after his safety the next morning, helping him decide whom to trust and whom to fear? Wouldn't you have felt some obligation after his death, to try to bring his murderer to justice?"

"Perhaps… "

"And do you feel no such obligation now, simply out of respect for an old friendship? Why do you hesitate to answer?"

"Doesn't everyone know who was behind Dio's murder?"

"Who?"

"King Ptolemy, of course."

"Was it King Ptolemy who slipped poison into Dio's soup in the house of Lucceius? Was it Ptolemy himself who stole into Dio's room and stabbed him to death?"

"No, of course not. It was someone acting on the king's behalf-"

"Exactly. And do you feel no obligation to see that this person is punished, if only to give solace to Dio's shade?"

"Asicius has already been tried for the crime-"

"And acquitted, the swine!" Her eyes flashed. "Nemesis will have to deal with him in her own fashion. But there's another man, even more culpable than Asicius, who has yet to be brought to justice. You could help, Gordianus."

Though there was no chance that the men in the river could over-hear, still I lowered my voice. "If you mean Pompey-"

"Pompey! Do you think I would send you against Pompey? That would be like sending a one-armed gladiator into the arena to take on an elephant." Her laughter was like sand in my face. "No, Gordianus, what I want from you is very simple, and well within your capabilities. How many times have you investigated the circumstances of a murder? How many times have you helped an advocate find evidence that would prove a man guilty or innocent of such a crime? That's all I want from you. I'm not asking you to topple a king from his throne or pull down a colossus. Only help me bring down the wrath of the law on the man who killed Dio by his own hand. Help me punish the cold-blooded killer who plunged a dagger into Dio's breast!"

I expelled a heavy breath and turned to stare at the sunlight on the

river.

"Why do you hesitate, Gordianus? I'll pay you for your labors, of course, and generously. But I expected you to leap at this opportunity, out of your respect for Dio. Is his shade not whispering in your ear even now, pleading for vengeance? He asked for your help once before, while he was still alive-"

"These days, in a case such as this-in a matter of murder-I usually defer to my son Eco. He's younger, stronger, quicker. Those things often matter when the stakes are so high. Sharp ears and eyes can mean the difference between life and death. An old fellow like myself-"

"But your son never knew Dio, did he?"

"Even so, I think it's Eco you want."

"Well, never having seen him, it's hard for me to say whether I would want him or not. Does he look like a younger version of you?" She looked me up and down, as if I were a slave on the auction block.

I bit my lip for having mentioned Eco, imagining him in my place, alone with such a creature. What was I thinking, recommending him to her? "Both of my sons are adopted," I said.

"They look nothing like

me."

"They must be ugly, then," she said, affecting a frown of disappointment. "Well, then, you're the man I want, Gordianus, and there's no way around it. Will you help me or not?"

I hesitated.

"For Dio's sake?"

I sighed, seeing no way out. "You want me to find out who murdered

Dio?"

"No, no!" She shook her head. "Didn't I make myself clear? We already know that. What I need from you is your help in collecting evidence to convict the man."

"You know who murdered Dio?"

"Of course. You know him, too, I'm sure. Until a few days ago, he lived just up the street from you. His name is Marcus Caelius."

I stared at her blankly. "How do you know that?"

She leaned forward, absently running her hands over her thighs. The movement pressed her breasts together and caused the sheer cloth which outlined her nipples to shimmer. "Until recently, Marcus Caelius and I were on rather intimate terms. He and my brother were also close. You might say that Caelius was almost like a brother to both of us."

The way she said it, the implication was vaguely obscene. "Go on."

"Not long before the poison attempt was made on Dio in the house of Lucius Lucceius, Caelius came to me asking to borrow a considerable sum of money."

"So?"

"He told me he needed the money to pay for some games being held in his home town, Interamnia. Apparently Caelius has an honorary post on the local council there. In return, there's an obligation to help pay for local festivals; that's the way Caelius explained it to me, anyway. It wasn't the first time he asked to borrow money from me."

"Did you always oblige him?"

"Usually. You might say I had developed a habit of indulging Marcus Caelius. He always repaid me, but seldom with money." "Then how?" "With favors." "Political favors?"

Clodia laughed. "Hardly. Let's just say that I had an itch and Caelius knew how to scratch it. But I'm digressing. As I said, the sum of money

he asked to borrow was rather large-considerably larger than he'd ever requested before."

"Enough to pay for an awful lot of scratching," I said.

Her eyes flashed. "Why, yes, perhaps that's what I was thinking when I foolishly agreed to give Caelius the loan. Afterward, I became apprehensive, and made some inquiries. Imagine my displeasure when I discovered that the games at Interamnia are held in the autumn, not the spring. Caelius's pretense for the loan was a complete fiction."

"He would hardly be the first young man to lie to a beautiful woman to get her money."

Clodia smiled at this, and I realized that I had called her beautiful without even thinking; I had meant to say 'an older woman,' surely. The flattery was all the more sincere for being spontaneous, and I think she sensed this.

Her smile faded. "I believe Marcus Caelius used the money to obtain poison and then to bribe one or more of Lucceius's slaves to try to kill Dio with it."

"You said it was a large sum of money."

"Poison isn't cheap; the stuff has to be reliable, and so does the person selling it. Nor is it cheap to bribe the slaves of a rich master to commit such a crime." Clodia spoke with authority, as if she had personal knowledge of such matters. "The connection occurred to me only later, after Dio was dead. Little things-the tone of Caelius's voice and the look on his face whenever the subject of Dio arose, cryptic comments he would make, my own intuition."

"These are hardly evidence."

"Evidence is what I want from you, Gordianus."

"Whatever the truth of the matter, it wasn't the poison attempt that killed Dio. What about the stabbing?"

"Early on the evening of the murder, Caelius was at my house, which isn't far from that of Titus Coponius, where Dio was killed. Caelius was carrying a knife, concealed inside his tunic."

"If it was concealed, how-"

"I assure you, nothing on Marcus Caelius's person was hidden from me that night," she said with a brittle smile. "He was carrying a dagger. He was also nervous and fretful, in a state such as I had never seen him in before, and drinking more than was good for him. I asked what was wrong; he said there was an unpleasant task ahead of him, and that he would be relieved when it was done. I pressed him to tell me what it was, but he refused. You men, with your little secrets. I said, 'This unpleasant task which you dread so much-I hope it's not the task I asked you here to perform.' 'Of course not!' he said, and proceeded to demonstrate as much. But our lovemaking that night was a disappointment, to say the least. Caelius was about as effectual as one of our shriveled friends in the river today. Later, when his friend Asicius came by to collect him, Caelius was eager to leave. Well then, I thought, let the boys go off and play with each other. A little later that night-only moments after the two of them left my doorstep, I imagine-Dio was stabbed to death."

I paused for a long moment before speaking, puzzled not by the details of Clodia's story but by her whole manner of speaking. I had never heard a woman talk of her sexual relations in such frank terms, and with such acid in her voice. "You realize that everything you've told me connecting Caelius with Dio's murder is merely circumstantial."

"Then here is another circumstance: the next night, when Caelius came calling on me, he brought me a little gift-a silver necklace with lapis and carnelian baubles-and boasted that he could now repay every sesterce of the money he had borrowed from me."

"And did he repay you?"

She laughed. "Of course not. But from the way he talked, I had no doubt that he had come into some money. He had performed his task, you see, and been handsomely paid off."

"Is this merely your assumption?"

Clodia wasn't listening. She stared at the roof of the tent, remem-bering. "Our lovemaking that night was quite the reverse of the previous evening. Caelius was a veritable Minotaur-horns rampant, eyes aflame, his flanks glossy with sweat… "

I opened my mouth to speak, but before I could interrupt her it was done for me by the approaching sound of a man's laughter, deep and throaty, accompanied by splashing footsteps. Clodia snapped out of her reverie and sat forward on her couch. On her face was a look of pure joy.

I turned to see a man taking high steps through the shallows along the riverbank, striding toward the tent. Like the other men in the river he was naked. The light of the lowering sun glittered on the water behind him, casting him in shimmering silhouette; beads of water on his shoulders and limbs sparkled like points of white flame outlining the dark mass of his body. As he emerged from the river he raised his hands and pressed the water from his hair, showing the sleek muscularity of his shoulders and arms. On dry land his stride became a swagger, and though his features were still shadowed in silhouette, I could see the flash of a broad smile on his face.

"Darling!" The word emerged from Clodia's lips like a breath made audible, as uncalculated as a moan or a sigh. There was no pretense or teasing in her voice, no slyness or innuendo. She sprang from the couch to meet the man as he stepped into the tent. It was hard to say which of them looked more naked, the sinewy, long-limbed man wearing nothing but beads of water, or Clodia in her gown of transparent yellow silk. They embraced and kissed each other on the mouth.

After a moment Clodia drew back and took his hands in hers. Where her gown had become wet from being pressed against his body, the silk was even more transparent and was molded to her like a second skin. She turned her head, saw me gaping and laughed. The man did likewise, as if he were her mirror image.

"But darling," she said, squeezing his hands and giggling like a girl, "why didn't you simply come in through the tent flap? What on earth were you doing out in the water with the others? And when did you join them? How could I not have noticed?"

"I only just arrived," he said, with a laugh deeper than Clodia's but uncannily similar. "I thought it would be fun to slip in among your admirers and see if I could attract your notice. Which I didn't, apparently!"

"But I was distracted, darling, by something very important!" She nodded toward me and affected a sober expression. The teasing tone had returned to her voice. She was performing again, but for whom? "It's about Dio, darling, and the trial. This is Gordianus, the man I told you about. He's going to help us punish Marcus Caelius."

The man turned his beaming smile on me. I recognized him now, of course. I had seen him at a distance in the Forum on many occasions, haranguing his mob of followers or keeping company with the great powers of the Senate, but never naked and wet with his hair slicked back. How very much like his sister Publius Clodius looked, especially when one saw the two of them together, side by side.

Chapter Eleven

I remember something you used to tell me, Papa, when I was starting out on my own: 'Never accept a commission without obtaining

some sort of retainer, no matter how small.' " Eco cocked his head and gave me a penetrating look. "What is your point?" I said.

"Well, when you left Clodia's horti this afternoon, was your purse heavier than when you arrived?" This was his way of asking if I had accepted Clodia's commission to investigate the murder of Dio- how typical of Eco to get directly to the heart of the matter!

Despite the summerlike warmth of the day, darkness had fallen early; it was still the month of Martius, after all. By the time I left Clodia's horti, shortly after her brother's arrival, the sun was already sinking, turning the Tiber into a sheet of flaming gold. It was twilight by the time Belbo and I reached home, trudging back across the bridge, through the shut-down cattle markets and back up the Palatine. Night fell, with a slight chill in the air. After a hurried meal with Bethesda and Diana, despite the tiredness of my legs I again set out with Belbo across the city to take counsel with my elder son.

We sat in the study of the house on the Esquiline Hill, which had once been my house and my father's before that. Now it belonged to Eco and his brood. His wife Menenia was elsewhere, probably trying to put to bed the squabbling twins, whose high-pitched screams of laughter occasionally rent the cool evening air.

I had just described to Eco my interview with Clodia, up to the arrival of her brother and my departure shortly thereafter.

"When I left the lady's horti," I said, "my purse was substantially heavier."

"So you did accept her commission?" I nodded.

"Then you do believe that Marcus Caelius murdered Dio?" "I didn't say that."

"But you'll be looking for evidence to convict him." "If such evidence exists."

"Clodia's reasons for suspecting him seem to me tenuous, at best," said Eco. "But then, you've begun investigations with less to go on and still managed to dig up the truth."

"Yes. But to be honest, I'm a little uneasy about the whole affair."

"I should think so!"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, Papa, everyone knows that Caelius and Clodia were lovers. And Caelius and Clodius are political allies and drinking partners, or used to be. For that matter, there may have been something more than friendship between the two of them. Or the three of them, I should say."

"You mean the three of them in one bed?"

Eco shrugged. "Don't look surprised. A woman like Clodia-well, you said yourself that there wasn't a piece of furniture in the tent except for her couch."

"So?"

"Papa! You assumed that you were meant to stand. From what I've heard, the woman is more hospitable than that. If there was no chair, only a single couch, perhaps that meant that you were invited to recline."

"Eco!"

"Well, from the dress you say she was wearing-" "I should have been less descriptive."

"You should have taken me along with you. Then I could have seen for myself."

"You're well into your thirties now, son. You should be able to think of something besides sex."

"Menenia never complains." He grinned.

I tried to make a grunt of disapproval, which came out sounding more like a hum of curiosity. Eco had chosen a black-haired beauty not unlike Bethesda for his wife. In how many other ways was she like Be-thesda? I had wondered about this from time to time, in the perfectly natural way that a man of my years ponders the younger generation and their goings-on. Eco and Menenia… naked Clodius and his sister in her transparent gown…

At just that moment, one of the twins let out a scream from elsewhere in the house. I was jolted from my reverie, rudely reminded that physical pleasure can have consequences.

"We stray from the subject," I said. "I told you I felt uneasy about accepting this commission from Clodia, and you said, 'I should think so.' "

"Well, it all seems rather unsavory, don't you think? Perhaps even suspicious. I mean, there's an odd smell to it. Look, Papa, all you really learned about Caelius from your interview with Clodia is that he borrowed some money from an older, richer woman-under false pretenses, to be sure-and failed to repay her. Oh, and that he happens to carry a knife on his person, which is technically illegal inside the city walls but done by most people with any common sense these days. Until very recently these two were lovers, and now she's after evidence to convict him of murder. What are we to make ofthat? Caelius was her brother's confidant, and now the two Clodii accuse him of being a hired assassin for King Ptolemy, or for Pompey, which is the same thing. Why, Clodius is Caelius's landlord-Caelius lives in that apartment just up the street from you."

I shook my head. "Not anymore. Clodius kicked him out." "When?"

"A few days ago. I didn't know about it until today when Clodius told me himself-standing there naked in the tent, dripping wet, nonchalantly discussing his real estate with me. Funny, the gallus and I walked by the place on our way to Clodia's house and when I saw that all the shutters were closed on such a warm day, I thought Caelius must be inside sleeping off a hangover. Instead it turns out that the apartment is empty. Caelius has gone back to live at his father's house on the Quirinal Hill-where he'll undoubtedly stay, until his trial is finished."

"Then they're definitely bringing charges against him?"

"Oh yes, charges have already been filed. But not by Clodius."

"Then by whom?"

"Can you guess?"

Eco shook his head. "Marcus Caelius has too many enemies for me to hazard a guess."

"The charges were filed by the seventeen-year-old son of Lucius Calpurnius Bestia."

Eco laughed and mimed with his outstretched arm. " 'Judges, I do not point the finger of guilt-I point at the guilty finger!' "

"So you know that story?"

"Of course, Papa. Everyone knows about Caelius accusing Bestia of poisoning his wives. I only regret that you and I were gone visiting Meto when that trial took place. I heard about it secondhand from Menenia."

"It was Bethesda who told me about it. Well, it looks as if Bestia may soon exact his revenge on Caelius."

"Has the date for the trial been set?"

"Yes. The charges were actually filed five days ago. Given the customary ten days allowed for the two sides to prepare their arguments, that puts the beginning of the trial only five days from now."

"So soon! You don't have much time."

"Isn't that always the way? They come to us thinking we can pull evidence out of thin air."

Eco cocked his head. "But wait, you're saying the trial will start two days after the Nones of Aprilis. If it goes on for more than a day it would overlap with the opening of the Great Mother festival."

I nodded. "The trial will go on despite the holiday. Lesser courts are suspended during the festival, but not the court for political terrorism.

"Political terrorism? Then it's not a simple murder trial?"

"Hardly. There are four charges against Caelius. The first three accuse him of organizing the attacks on the Alexandrian embassy-the midnight raids in Neapolis, the stoning in Puteoli and the fire at the estate of Palla. I'll take no part in investigating those matters. My only concern is the fourth charge, which relates directly to Dio. It accuses Caelius of attempting to poison Dio at the house of Lucceius."

"What about the actual murder, the stabbing at Coponius's house?"

"Technically, that's also included. But Publius Asicius has already been acquitted, and the prosecution is wary of trying to prove the same case against Caelius. Instead, they want to concentrate on the earlier poisoning attempt. Of course, I'll find out what I can about the stabbing at Coponius's house, as a corroborative detail."

"And to satisfy your own curiosity."

"Of course."

Eco pressed his fingertips together. "A politically charged trial, held during a holiday when Rome will be packed with visitors, with Cicero's estranged protege as the accused and a scandalous woman in the back-ground-this could turn into a spectacle, Papa."

I groaned. "All the more reason for my misgivings. All I need now is for some of Pompey's or King Ptolemy's strong-armers to come banging at my door, warning me to back away from the investigation."

Eco raised an eyebrow. "Do you think that's likely to happen?"

"I hope not. But I have a bad feeling about the whole affair. As you said, there's an odd smell to it. I don't like it."

"Then why not back away? You don't owe Clodia any favors-or do you? Are you telling me everything that happened in her tent today?" He affected an insinuating smile.

"Don't be absurd. I owe the woman nothing but the retainer I left with. But I do feel an obligation."

He nodded.

"To Dio, you mean."

"Yes. I refused him to his face when he asked me for help. Then I talked myself out of going to the trial of Asicius -" "You were sick, Papa."

"Yes, but was I that sick? And then, when Asicius was acquitted, I told myself that was the end of it. But how could it be the end, with no one convicted of the crime? How could Dio be at rest? Still, I managed to shun the obligation I felt, to shove such thoughts to the back of my mind-until yesterday, when the gallus arrived to bring me face to face with my own responsibility. It was Clodia who summoned me, but it wasn't only her."

"Her brother Clodius as well?"

"No, I mean to say that those two are only the agents of something larger. It begins with Dio, but where it ends only time will tell. Some greater power seems determined to pull me into this matter."

"Nemesis?"

"I was thinking of another goddess: Cybele. It was one ofher priests who accompanied Dio to my house, and the same priest who came for me yesterday. Do you think it's only a coincidence that the trial will be held during the Great Mother festival-the celebration consecrated to Cybele? You know, it was one of Clodia's ancestresses who saved the statue of Cybele from being lost in the Tiber when it was brought from the East long ago. Do you sense the link?"

"Papa, you grow more religious as you grow older," said Eco quietly.

"Perhaps. More fearful of the gods, anyway, if not more respectful. Leave them out of it, then. Say that this is merely between myself and the shade of Dio. My sense of obligation runs deeper than my misgivings."

Eco nodded gravely. As usual, he understood me completely. "What do you want from me, Papa?"

"I'm not sure yet. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps only to listen to my doubts, and nod if I say something that remotely makes sense."

He took my hand in his. "Tell me if you need more than that, Papa. Promise me."

"I promise, Eco."

He released me and sat back. From elsewhere in the house I heard one of the twins shrieking. Surely it was time for them to be in bed, I thought. Through the gaps in the shutters I could see that the world outside was dark.

"What does Bethesda think?" said Eco. I smiled. "What makes you think I told her anything?" "You must have told her something when you ate dinner with her tonight."

"Yes – a somewhat expurgated version of my visit to Clodia's horti."

"Ha! Bethesda would have appreciated the detail of the naked bath-ers, I think." Eco laughed.

"Perhaps, but I left them out of it. Just as I left out the description of the dress which seems to have intrigued you so much."

"I think it intrigued you first, Papa. And Clodius's emergence from the river, as naked as a fish from the sea?"

"Omitted-though I did leave in the siblings' embrace."

"And their kiss?"

"And the kiss. Well, I had to give Bethesda some grist for gossip." "And what does she think of the accusation against Marcus Cae-

lius?"

"Bethesda stated quite flatly that it was absurd." "Really?"

'Impossible!' she said. 'Marcus Caelius could never have committed the crime. The woman is defaming him!' I asked her upon what she based her opinion, but the Medusa look was the only answer I got. Bethesda has always had a weakness for our dashing young neighbor. Or ex-neighbor, I should now say."

"She'll miss having him living just up the street."

"We shall all miss the occasional spectacle of watching Caelius stumble out his front door in the middle of the day with tousled hair and bloodshot eyes, or seeing him carouse through the street with a prostitute from the Subura, or hearing his drunk friends recite obscene poetry from his window at night-"

"Papa, stop!" Eco choked with laughter.

"It's no joking matter, I suppose," I said, suddenly grim. "The young man's whole future is at stake. If he's convicted, the best that Marcus Caelius can hope for will be a chance to flee into exile. His family will be shamed, his career ended, all his prospects ruined."

"It hardly seems punishment enough, if he's guilty."

"If he's guilty," I said. "Which it's up to me to find out."

"And if you find that he's not guilty?"

"I'll report that to Clodia."

"And will that make any difference to her?" said Eco shrewdly. "You know as well as I do, Eco, that Roman trials are only incidentally about guilt and innocence."

"You mean that Clodia may be more interested in destroying Caelius than in punishing Dio's killer?"

"That thought has crossed my mind. A woman scorned-"

"Unless it was she who scorned him, Papa."

"I suppose that's one of the things I'll need to find out."

"If you believe the rumors, Caelius wouldn't be the first man she's destroyed," said Eco. "Though I suppose exile and humiliation are more merciful than poison."

"You refer to the gossip that she murdered her husband three years

ago."

He nodded. "They say that Quintus Metellus Celer was healthy one day and dead the next. They say that his marriage to Clodia was always stormy-and moreover that Celer and her brother Clodius had become fierce enemies. The rift was ostensibly over politics-but what man could abide having a brother-in-law for a rival in his bed?"

"But which brother-in-law was the usurper-Clodius… or Celer?"

He shrugged. "I suppose that was up to Clodia to decide. Celer was the loser; he lost his life. And now Caelius? Perhaps any man who comes between this brother and sister is risking more than he realizes."

I shook my head. "You repeat these scandalous charges as if you knew them to be true, Eco."

"Only because I think you should consider very carefully what sort of people you're dealing with. You've made up your mind to go through with this, then?"

"To try to find the truth about Dio's murder, yes."

"Under Clodia's auspices?"

"It was she who hired me. Circumstance led her to me-circum-stance, or Cybele."

"But the political danger of associating yourself in any way with Clodius-"

"I've made up my mind."

He stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Then I think at the very least we should review what we know about these Clodii, before you go off pursuing their interests or pocketing any more of their silver."

"Very well, what do we know about them? And let us be careful to separate fact from slander."

Eco nodded. He spoke deliberately, carefully framing his thoughts. "They are patricians. They come from a very old, very distinguished family. They have many renowned ancestors, many of whom served as consuls, whose public works are scattered all over Italy-roads, aque-ducts, temples, basilicas, gates, porticoes, arches. Their relatives are intermarried with families of equal stature in such a tangle that even a silkmaker could never unravel all the threads. The Clodii are at the heart of Rome's ruling class."

"As fractured and at odds with itself as that class may be. Yes, the respectability of their ancestry and their connections is beyond question," I agreed. "Though one always has to wonder how the rich and powerful became so in the first place."

Eco shook his finger at me. "Now, Papa, you've already bent your own rule-mixing facts with innuendo."

"Facts only," I conceded. "Or at least, anything not a fact must be clearly identified as hearsay," I amended, realizing that it might otherwise be impossible to talk about Clodia and Clodius at all.

"Well then," Eco continued, "to begin with, there's the spelling of their name. The patrician form is Claudius, and their father was Appius Claudius. But Clodius and all three of his sisters changed their spelling of the family name to the more common form some years ago, with an o, not the posh-sounding au. That must have been when Clodius decided to cast his lot as a populist politician and a rabble-rouser. I suppose it helps to give him the common touch when he's consorting with his hired strong-armers and brick throwers, or canvassing for votes among those who live off the grain dole he established."

"Yes, but what advantage does it give to Clodia?" I wondered.

"From your description of the goings-on at her horti this afternoon, I'd imagine she craves the common touch as well. Gossip, I confess!" Eco hurriedly added, as I raised a finger.

"Another fact, then," I said. "They're not full-blooded siblings."

"I thought they were."

"No, Clodia is the eldest of the lot, and she had a different mother from the rest. Her mother died giving birth to her, I believe. Soon after, Appius Claudius married his second wife and sired three boys and two more girls, the youngest of the boys being Publius Claudius, now Clodius. Clodius must be about your age, Eco, thirty-five or so, and Clodia is about five years older than him."

"They're only half siblings, then," Eco said. "So any copulation- conjectural or otherwise-would be only half incest, I suppose."

"Not that such a distinction would matter to anyone this side of Egypt," I said. "Actually-more gossip-one hears that Clodius has been the lover of all three of his sisters, the two full-blooded, younger ones as well as his big sister Clodia. Just as one hears that Clodius was groomed as a catamite by his older brothers when he was a boy, to sell his sexual favors to wealthy rakes."

"But I thought Clodius and his family were wealthy to begin with."

"Fabulously wealthy by our standards, Eco, but not by those of their peers. During the civil wars, when Clodia and Clodius were children, their father Appius was on the side of Sulla. When Sulla's fortunes ebbed, Appius had to flee Rome for several years. His children had to fend for themselves in a city full of enemies. Clodia, the oldest, was barely into her teens. It can't have been easy for those children. Those were hard years for everyone." This was something I hardly needed to tell Eco; it was in those years of chaotic civil strife that his own father had died and his mother had been reduced to such poverty that she eventually abandoned him to fend for himself in the streets, until I took him into my home and adopted him.

"When Sulla eventually triumphed and became dictator, Appius Claudius returned and for a short while thrived. He was elected consul in the year that Sulla retired. Then he took his reward, a provincial governorship-of Macedonia, I think-where he could bleed the locals for taxes, collect tribute from their chieftains and thus provide his sons back home with silver to start their political careers and his daughters with dowries. So it goes for a Roman with a successful political career. But not in the case of Appius Claudius. He died in Macedonia. The taxes and tributes were collected by his successor, and the only thing the children of Appius Claudius got back from Macedonia were the ashes of their father. They must have gone through a bad patch after that. They were never so poor that they dropped from sight, but one can imagine them scrimping and cutting corners to keep up appearances- the kind of petty humiliations that privileged patricians find so galling.

"And without a father in the house, the children must have made their own rules. Did young Clodius and his sisters carry on like rutting sheep without a shepherd to separate them? I don't know, but growing up in a turbulent, often hostile city with their father absent for years at a time, and then losing him while they were still quite young, must have brought the siblings close together-perhaps uncommonly or even un-naturally close. And while I seriously doubt that young Clodius was ever a prostitute in the strictly commercial sense-that kind of talk reeks of slander-given the circumstances, it's not hard to imagine him using whatever attributes he possessed to curry favor with those who could help him and his brothers get ahead. It's also not hard to imagine that there were those who found him desirable. Even now Clodius still has the look of a boy-sleek-limbed, slender-hipped, broad-chested. Smooth skin. A face like his sister's… "

"Yes, I was forgetting that you've just seen him naked," said Eco, raising his eyebrows.

I ignored his teasing. "The third name attached to their branch of the Claudian line is Pulcher, you know-'beautiful.' Clodius's full name is Publius Clodius Pulcher, and his sister is Clodia Pulcher. I don't know how far back the name goes, or which of their ancestors was vain enough to add it, but it certainly fits the current generation. Pulcher, indeed! And yes, I speak advisedly, having just seen both of them naked, or near enough-fact, not gossip! You know, I can well imagine that there are those, having seen the two of them together, who rather like to picture Clodia and Clodius making love, whether it's true or not." "Papa, your eyes are glazing over!"

"They most certainly are not. But never mind all that. Everyone knows that the Clodii are good-looking, and everyone suspects that they both have far too much sex for anyone's good. What else do we know about them? I think the first time that I ever heard of Clodius was when he acted as a prosecutor in the trials of the Vestal Virgins."

"Ah, yes, when he accused Catilina of seducing the Vestal Fabia."

"But when both Catilina and the Vestal were acquitted, things got so hot for Clodius in Rome that he had to flee down to Baiae until the furor cooled down. He burned his fingers on that one. I don't suppose he was even twenty at the time. I could never make out what his object was, except to stir up trouble. Perhaps he wasn't quite sure himself, just testing his powers."

"The next thing I remember about him happened a few years later," said Eco. "Something about stirring up that mutiny among the troops."

"Ah, yes, when he went off to serve in the East as a lieutenant under his brother-in-law Lucullus. Clodius styled himself as the soldiers' champion. They were already dissatisfied with the way Lucullus was driving them from campaign to campaign with no end in sight and no sure prospect of a reward, while Pompey's troops were already receiving farms and settlements for fewer years of service. Clodius made a famous speech to the troops, saying they deserved more from their general than the chance to lay down their lives protecting his personal caravan of camels laden with gold. 'If we must never have an end to fighting, shouldn't we reserve what's left of our bodies and souls for a commander who will reckon his chief glory to be the wealth of his soldiers?' "

"Papa, what a head you've always had for remembering speeches, even those you've heard only secondhand!"

"Such a memory is as much a curse as a blessing, Eco. Anyway, you can see that Clodius was a rabble-rouser even then, making himself the advocate of the masses against their rulers, setting himself up in opposition to the status quo. No wonder he switched to the plebeian form of his name."

"And then more scandal," said Eco. "The affair of the Good God-

dess."

"Yes. Was it only six years ago? Ironic that the man who started out by prosecuting a Vestal Virgin and her alleged lover should have gotten himself into such a sacrilegious scandal. The hearsay-gossip, not fact-was that Clodius was carrying on with Caesar's wife, Pompeia, but Caesar had caught on and set his mother to watch Pompeia like a hawk, so that it became impossible for the lovers to meet. Never one to let his appetites be denied, Clodius concocted a scheme to reach Pompeia. He decided to sneak into the women's festival of the Good Goddess, Fauna, which was being held that year in Caesar's house. No men allowed, of course. How could Clodius get in? By dressing up as a woman! Imagine him all fancied up as a singing girl in a saffron robe with purple hose and slippers-I wonder if his sisters helped dress him up."

"Perhaps it wasn't his first time in a stola," said Eco.

"I suppose he couldn't resist the idea of taking Pompeia in Caesar's own bed, with Caesar's own mother and scores of other women chanting and lighting incense in the next room. I wonder if Clodius planned to keep his stola on while he did it?"

"Papa, I object! You're letting your lurid imagination seduce you into accepting hearsay, and then compounding the slander."

"Granted, Eco. I shall try to get back to the facts. The story goes that Clodius almost pulled it off. In the haze of the incense and the confusion of the chanting and dancing-who knows what sort of rituals these women engage in behind closed doors?-Clodius managed to make his way into the house and to find one of Pompeia's slave girls, who was expecting him. She went to fetch her mistress, but when she failed to return, Clodius became impatient and started wandering through the house on his own, staying out of the light as much as he could, observing the proceedings."

"Wouldn't you love to know what he saw?"

"Wouldn't every man, Eco? But it was Clodius's bad fortune to be spotted by another serving girl, who saw his hesitant manner and innocently asked him who he was looking for. He told her he was looking for Pompeia's serving girl, but he was unable to disguise his deep voice. The girl let out a shriek. Clodius managed to hide in a storage room, but the women lit torches and searched the house until they rooted him out and drove him into the street."

"Well," said Eco wryly, "if nothing else, Clodius disproved the old superstition we all learned as boys, that any man who witnesses the secret ceremonies of the Good Goddess will be instantly struck blind."

"Clodius could still see, granted, but he might have wished to be struck deaf, so as not to hear the clamor he set off. The women went home and told their husbands, and you know how men are with gossip. By the next morning, the scandal was the talk of every tavern and street comer in Rome. The pious were outraged, the impious were amused, and I have no doubt that some from both camps were more than a little envious. The matter was much talked about for a season and then put aside for months, until some of Clodius's enemies decided to bring him to trial for sacrilege.

"At the trial, Clodius claimed that he was innocent and that the women were mistaken, because during the festival of the Good Goddess he had been fifty miles from Rome. Clodius and Cicero were still on friendly terms back then, and when the prosecution called Cicero to testify, Clodius expected him to back up his alibi. Instead, Cicero dutifully affirmed that he had seen Clodius in Rome on the day in question. Clodius was infuriated. That was the beginning of the bad blood between them."

"But Clodius was acquitted nonetheless," said Eco.

"Yes, by a slim majority of the fifty-odd jurors. Some say there was outright bribery by both sides; others say that the jurors simply voted along political lines. At any rate, Clodius was vindicated and emerged stronger than ever. He became bolder about using the street gangs he had been organizing to swell his retinue and intimidate his enemies. As for Caesar, the cuckolded husband, his only response was to divorce Pompeia, even though he publicly insisted that nothing untoward had occurred between her and Clodius. When the paradox was pointed out to him-why divorce Pompeia if she had been faithful?-he said, 'I have no doubt whatsoever about her fidelity, but Caesar's wife cannot be tainted even by suspicion!' Well, Caesar can't have been too offended by Clodius. The two of them have turned out to be close allies."

"As demonstrated by the way Caesar helped Clodius get his tribunate."

"Exactly. Clodius wanted to be elected tribune, but was barred from doing so, since it's a strictly plebeian office, off-limits to patricians. What was Clodius's solution? With Caesar pushing the paperwork, he managed to get himself adopted by a plebeian almost young enough to be his son, and so got himself officially enrolled as a plebeian-which outraged his fellow patricians and delighted the mob, who elected him tribune. At last Clodius was a commoner in fact as well as in name."

"I see a pattern," said Eco. "If a man can't witness the rites of the Good Goddess, Clodius will make himself a woman. If a patrician can't run for tribune, then Clodius, who has the most patrician pedigree in Rome, will make himself a plebeian."

"Not a man to let himself be stymied by technicalities," I agreed. "During his year as tribune he managed to get a lot done-introducing a grain dole to please the mob, arranging for the Roman takeover of Egyptian Cyprus to pay for the dole, and passing a law to send Cicero into exile."

Eco nodded. "But now Cicero is back in Rome, and Clodius's ally Caesar is off conquering Gaul. The big political issue of the moment is the Egyptian crisis, which brings us up to Dio's ill-fated mission. If we believe Clodia, Clodius made himself a friend of poor Dio before he was killed-and now they want you to find evidence against Clodia's lover Marcus Caelius to convict him of the murder."

"An admirable summing up," I said. "I think we've managed to sort out a few truths from the slanders and come up with a few conclusions about Clodius's character, though I'm not sure where it all leaves us. I haven't changed my mind. In the past I've worked for men whose means and morals were at least as questionable as his. I see no point in refusing a commission from Clodius if it leads me to the truth of Dio's murder."

"What about Clodia, then?"

"What about her? All right, let's take a look at Clodia. The same rules: truth only, except for gossip identified as gossip-though I think the rule will be even harder to observe with Clodia than with Clodius. I think we've probably heard more about her and know less. But I'll begin. She was the first child of Appius Claudius, raised by a stepmother among younger half siblings-did this circumstance make her stronger, more responsible, more independent? Mere speculation. We do know that she married young, before her father died and left the family in financial straits, so she managed to bring a good dowry to her marriage with a cousin, Quintus Metellus Celer-which may help to explain her independence when it came to butting heads with her husband over family squabbles and political differences. In any dispute, even with Celer, she appears always to have sided with her siblings."

"The Clodii against the world?" said Eco.

"It sounds admirably Roman when you put it like that. Could all those rumors of incest merely reflect the jealousy of less beautiful, less beloved outsiders? Why not give Clodia the benefit of the doubt, and put down the rumors of her adulteries and incest to malicious tongues?"

"You're the one who spent the afternoon at her horti, Papa, watching her ogle naked men."

"Yes, well, it's true that she doesn't do much to stamp out the lies about her, if they are lies. And there's no doubt that her marriage to

Celer was stormy. There are plenty of witnesses to that, including Cicero, who used to be their frequent houseguest back when he was on friendly terms with the Clodii. But it should count for something that despite their troubles, Clodia and Celer did stay married for twenty years-"

"Until Celer mysteriously died three years ago."

"Yes, well, we've already talked about the rumor that she poisoned him. It's worth noting that no one ever brought charges against her, as someone in Celer's family might well have done, had there been any evidence. Any time anybody notable in Rome dies of anything but an accident, there's someone who'll say it was poison. Just as there are those who will always whisper that any exceptionally beautiful woman-or man, for that matter-is a whore. While we've both heard plenty of rumors, when it comes down to it, we don't really know very much at all about Clodia, do we?"

Eco leaned back and pressed his fingers together. "I think, Papa, that you are letting the transparent yellow gown cloud your better judgment.

"Nonsense!"

"It covers your eyes like a veil." "Eco!"

"I'm serious, Papa. You told me to be honest with you, so I will be. I think that Clodia is probably a very dangerous woman, and I don't like it that you're working for her. If you must do so, for Dio's sake, then I hope you'll see as little of her as possible."

"I've already seen quite a bit of her."

"I mean what I say, Papa." There was no levity in his voice. "I don't like it."

"Nor do I. But some paths a man must walk, taking whatever ways are opened to him by the gods."

"Well," said Eco with an edge in his voice, "I suppose a religious argument can put an end to any discussion."

And if it didn't, then what happened next did, for at that moment two tiny human missiles came hurtling through the room like fireballs hurled from a catapult. One chased the other at such a speed that I couldn't tell which was the pursuer and which the pursued; I often found it hard to tell the twins apart even when they were standing still. At the age of four there was not much to distinguish them. Gordiana (whom Meto had called Titania from birth, because she was so big) was perhaps slightly larger than her brother Titus, but the two of them were dressed for bed in identical, long-sleeved tunics that went down to their ankles, and they had the same long, golden locks-a legacy from their mother's side of the family, which was perhaps why Menenia had so far refused to clip a single curl.

Never slowing down, the two of them tore across the study and disappeared into the next room. A moment later their mother followed after them. She seemed quite calm and was even smiling.

"Are you men finally finished with your serious discussion?" she asked. Menenia comes from a very old plebeian family, as respectable as it is obscure. Some of her ancestors managed to obtain the consulship hundreds of years ago; that will always count for something, but it hardly puts food on the table. Still, Eco was lucky to make the match, considering his adopted father's far less distinguished ancestry, and Menenia herself is above reproach in every way, the model of a Roman matron. She even knows how to handle her mother-in-law with effortless tact; I only wish that I could do as well at staying on Bethesda's good side.

"Yes, wife," said Eco, "I believe we're done with discussing life and death and justice and the gods, and other such trivial matters."

"Good. Then perhaps you both have a moment to spare for your offspring. The only reason the twins have been flying about in such a frenzy is because they refuse to go to bed without a last chance to say goodnight to their grandfather."

"Well, then, make them wait no longer," I said, laughing, and before I had a chance to brace myself, out of nowhere two fair-haired fireballs came hurtling straight toward my lap.

The hour had grown late; Bethesda would be expecting me home. I said a quick farewell to Eco and Menenia and finally extricated myself from the surprisingly strong grips of Titus and Titania-no easy task, for each took hold of one of my hands and refused to let go. When I yelled for Belbo to come help me, I was hardly joking.

Belbo and I made our way down the Esquiline Hill beneath the light of the waxing moon, back through the Subura, where the streets were busy even at this hour, and across the Forum, where the temples were quiet and the broad, moonlit squares almost deserted. Above our heads the cold sky was full of stars. As we passed the House of the Vestals I shivered and pulled my cloak more tightly about my throat, thinking it was the night air seeping into my bones.

Just beyond the House of the Vestals, near the steps of the Temple of Castor, we turned sharply to the north, onto the broad footpath called the Ramp, the best shortcut from the Forum up the steep face of the Palatine Hill to the residential district. The Ramp is well traveled, but even in daylight it can seem secluded and secretive, hemmed in at its lower portion by the stony base of the Palatine and the high rear walls of the House of the Vestals, and shielded along both sides of its upper course by close-set rows of cypress trees. At night the Ramp is a place of deep shadows, even when the moon is full. "The perfect place for a murder," Bethesda had once exclaimed before turning around in mid-course and refusing ever to take the path again.

I felt another sudden chill and knew that it had nothing to do with the night air. We were being followed on the path, and not by chance but stealthily, for when I signaled Belbo to stop, I heard behind us the faint sound of footsteps that stopped a moment later. I turned and peered down the mostly straight path but could make out no movement among the dense shadows.

"One man or two?" I whispered to Belbo.

He wrinkled his brow. "One, I think, Master."

"I agree. The footsteps stop all at once, without any shuffling or whispering. Do you suppose the two of us have anything to fear from one man, Belbo?"

Belbo peered at me thoughtfully. A bit of moonlight illuminated his furrowed brow. "Not unless he has a friend waiting at the top of the path, Master. That would make it even odds."

"And what if he has more than one friend up there?"

"Do you want to turn around, Master?"

I peered into the darkness below, then into the shadows ahead. "No. We're almost home."

Belbo shrugged. "Some men have to go all the way to Gaul to die. Others can do it on their own doorstep."

"Just keep your hand on the dagger inside your tunic, and I'll do the same. Keep to a steady pace."

As we neared the top of the path I realized what a perfect place of ambush it would provide. Once upon a time I could take the steep path without missing a breath, but not any longer; a winded man makes an easy target. Even Belbo was breathing harder. I listened for the steps behind us, or for any sound from ahead, but I heard only the beating of my heart and the rush of air in my nostrils.

As we neared the top of the Ramp the cypress trees thinned on either side and the way opened up, dispersing the shadows with moonlight and allowing glimpses of the houses up ahead. I could even see a bit of the roof of my own house, which made me feel at once reassured and uneasy. Reassured to be so close to safety, uneasy because the gods sometimes resort to the most appalling ironies in discharging the fates of mortals. We were almost clear of the path but there were still plenty of shadows where any number of assassins could be concealed. I steeled myself and peered into the pockets of darkness.

At last we stepped from the Ramp onto the paved street, only a few doors from my house. The way was clear on either side. The street was deserted and quiet. From an upper story nearby I heard the quiet singing of a woman crooning a lullaby. All was tranquil.

"Perhaps we should play ambushers," I whispered to Belbo after I caught my breath, for now I could hear the sound of our follower's footsteps approaching. "If someone is after us, I should like to have a look at him."

We drew back into the shadows and waited.

The footsteps grew nearer, until at any moment the man would catch up with us and emerge into the moonlight.

Beside me Belbo gasped. I stiffened, wondering what was the matter.

Then Belbo sneezed.

It was only a partial sneeze, for he did his best to stifle it, but in the stillness it might as well have been a thunderclap. The footsteps stopped. I peered into the darkness and was able to discern the man's vague outline, a silhouette among mottled shadows. From his posture he seemed to be peering back at me, trying to make out where the sneeze had come from. An instant later he vanished, and I heard footsteps running down the Ramp.

Belbo gave a jerk. "Shall we go after him, Master?"

"No. He's younger than us-probably a lot faster."

"How do you know?"

"Did you hear him breathing hard?"

"No."

"Exactly. Neither did I, and he was close enough that we would have heard, had he been winded. He has strong lungs."

Belbo hung his head, chagrined. "Master, I'm sorry I sneezed." "Some things even the gods can't stop. Perhaps it was for the

best."

"Do you really think he was following us?"

"I don't know. But he gave us a scare, didn't he?"

"And we gave him a scare!"

"So perhaps we're even, and that's the end of it," I said, but I felt uneasy.

We walked hurriedly up the street to my house. Belbo rapped on the door. While we waited for the slave to open it I pulled him aside. "Belbo, whether we were followed or not-don't mention this to your mistress. No need asking for trouble. Do you understand?"

"Of course, Master," he said gravely.

I thought for a moment. "And don't tell Diana, either."

"That goes without saying, Master." Belbo smiled. Then his jaw suddenly began to quiver and his face contorted. I gripped his shoulder, alarmed.

Belbo threw back his head and sneezed again.

Chapter Twelve

The next morning I rose early, ate a frugal breakfast of honey and bread, offered my beard to Belbo for a trim (I trust no one else to use anything sharp near my neck), donned my toga, since I intended to pay some formal visits, and stepped out of the house. The fresh, dewy air was bracing; the lingering chill of the night was tempered by the morning's warm sunshine.

I filled my lungs with a deep breath and headed up the street with Belbo beside me.

The Palatine seemed to me particularly lovely that morning. Of late, whenever I left the immediate vicinity of my house, I had been struck by how dirty and grubby so much of Rome had begun to seem, especially the Subura with its brothels and taverns and foul-smelling little side streets, and the Forum with its toga-clad hordes of politicians and financiers going about their frenzied business. How much more pleasant the Palatine was, with its shaded, well-paved streets, its quaint little shops, orderly apartments and handsome houses. One could breathe in such a neighborhood, and walk even in the busiest part of the day without knocking elbows with a hundred rude, shoving strangers.

I had gotten used to living in a rich man's neighborhood, I realized, and the adjustment had not been difficult at all. What would my father say, who had lived all his life in the Subura? Probably, I thought, he would be proud of his son's material success, however unconventionally I had acquired it. He would also probably remind me that I should keep my wits about me and never be deceived by appearances. The rare and beautiful things that wealth and power can buy are often only decorations to conceal the way that such wealth and power were attained. Yes, a man can breathe freely on the airy, spacious Palatine-and a man can also stop breathing. Something more awful than knocking elbows with strangers had happened to Dio. The quality of a man's bedsheets counts for nothing if his sleep is forever.

The way to the house of Lucius Lucceius took us past the apartment building from which Marcus Caelius had recently been evicted. As we passed I paused to take a look. Not only was the upper story deserted, but a sign had been painted in handsome black letters on the corner of the building:

FOR SALE BY OWNER, PUBLIUS CLODIUS PULCHER.

Beneath this was a drawing of some sort. I stepped across the street for a closer look and saw that it was a crudely rendered graffito showing a man and woman entangled in sexual intercourse. At first glance, it struck me that their positions were absurdly acrobatic; on closer examination I decided that they were physically impossible. Running from the woman's gaping mouth was a scrawled caption, with almost all the words misspelled:

THERE'S NOTHING LIKE A BROTHER'S LOVE!

The artist was too poor a draftsman to have captured any recog-nizable features, but I had no doubt whom the copulating figures were meant to represent. The graffito had probably been left by one of Milo's rabble, I thought, though Clodius and his sister had plenty of other enemies. Considering the misspellings, the vandalism could hardly be attributed to Marcus Caelius. Or could it? Caelius was wickedly clever enough to deliberately disguise his handiwork as that of a lesser intellect.

Belbo and I moved on. After numerous twistings and turnings down smaller side streets we reached the house of Lucius Lucceius. As befitted the domicile of a wealthy and respected senior senator, it presented an irreproachable facade. The only ornamentation was the massive wooden door, which looked very old and was carved with elaborate swirls and bound with massive iron clasps that had the savage look of the finest Carthaginian handiwork. It was not unlikely that the door had been brought back from the sack of Carthage itself; I have seen many such trophies in the homes of those whose families conquered Rome's rivals. Belbo, unawed by its history or design and seeing only a door, knocked upon it.

It was quickly answered by the door slave, with whom Belbo ex-changed the requisite formalities. A moment later I was admitted into the foyer, and then into a sparsely furnished study. The walls were decorated with Carthaginian war trophies-spears, swords, pieces of armor and even a pair of elephant tusks. The white-haired master of the house sat before a table littered with scrolls, styluses, wax writing tablets and bits of parchment.

"I can allow you only a moment," he said, without looking up. "I know who you are, of course, and I can guess what you're doing here. There's the chair. Sit down." At last he put down the scroll over which he had been poring and squinted at me. "Yes, I remember your face. First time I saw it was when Cicero pointed you out to me in the Forum- must have been fifteen years ago during the trials of the Vestal Virgins. Damned Catilina, corrupting a Vestal and getting away with it! It was I who prosecuted him for murder, you know, the year before he staged his little uprising. Didn't win that case, did I? Probably would have been better for everyone concerned if I had, Catilina included-he could be off somewhere enjoying his exile right now, buggering all the pretty boys in Massilia or wherever. By Hercules, you look fit! I'd have thought you'd gotten as old as me by now!" With that, Lucius Lucceius smiled broadly and pushed himself from the table. He was a remarkably ugly man with great bristling eyebrows and an unkempt mane of white hair.

He leaned back and rubbed his eyes. "Need a break anyway. Working on my history of the Carthaginian wars. Great-great-great-grandfather helped Scipio Africanus put an end to Hannibal, left the family a pile of scrolls nobody's read in years. Fascinating stuff. When I've finished writing it I'll browbeat all the friends and family into buying copies. They won't bother to read it, but the work keeps me busy. Gordianus, Gordianus," he mused, staring at me and wrinkling his brow. "Thought you were retired, not even living in Rome anymore. Seems somebody told me you'd left it all for a farm in Sicily."

"Etruria, actually. But that was a while ago. I've been back in Rome for several years now."

"Still retired?"

"Yes and no. I take on simple cases now and then, just to keep myself busy. Rather like you writing your history, I imagine."

From the flash in his squinting eyes, I saw that Lucceius took his role as historian more seriously than his self-deprecation indicated. "So,' he said curtly, "Cicero has sent you around to collect my statement. Afraid it's not ready."

I stared at him blankly.

"Well, so much else to do," he said. "That is why you're here, isn't it? This business about young Marcus Caelius being brought to trial by those rascals claiming he tried to do in Dio?"

"Yes," I said slowly. "That is why I'm here."

"Surprised me-well, surprised everybody, I imagine-when I heard that Cicero was going to handle the boy's defense. Thought those two had fallen out for good, but there you have it. Things get dicey and the naughty schoolboy goes running back to his tutor. Rather touching, really."

"Yes, it is," I said quietly. Was it really possible that Cicero had taken on Caelius's defense? The news was startling, but made perfect sense. Cicero had successfully defended Asicius, probably to please Pompey. Pompey would be pleased to see Caelius acquitted as well, and Cicero was the man to do it. As for the feud between Caelius and Cicero, the same pragmatism that can make friends into enemies in the blink of an eye can do the reverse as well. "So your statement for Cicero isn't ready yet?" I said.

"No. Come back tomorrow. Actually, surprised he sent you to fetch it instead of that secretary of his, the one who picks over all the tiny details."

"Tiro?"

"That's the one. Clever slave."

"Yes, well, I suspect Tiro will be the one who comes to collect your statement eventually. But as long as I'm here, perhaps I could ask you a few questions."

"Go on."

"About Dio."

He waved his hand. "It will all be in the statement."

"Still, perhaps it could save us all some time-you, me, Tiro, Cicero-if you could give me an idea of what exactly will be in the statement."

"Just what I told Cicero. Dio was my houseguest for a while, and then moved on. As simple as that. All this nonsense about poisoning- 'Nasty rumors spread like olive oil, and leave a stain like red wine.' "

"But there was a death in this house, wasn't there? Dio's slave, his taster-"

"Worthless slave died of natural causes, and that's the end of it." "Then why did Dio move on to the house of Titus Coponius?" "Because Dio was frightened by his own shadow. Saw a stick on

the ground, swore it was a snake." Lucceius snorted. "Dio was as safe here as a virgin in the House of the Galli. That's the beginning and end

of it."

"And yet, Dio believed that someone in this house tried to poison

him."

"Dio had no damned sense. Look what happened to him at Coponius's house, then tell me where he was safer!"

"I see your point. You were good friends, then, you and Dio?"

"Of course! What do you think, I'd ask an enemy to sleep under my roof? He'd sit here during the day, where you're sitting now, and we'd talk about Aristotle, or Alexandria, or Carthage in the days of Hannibal. Gave me some good ideas for my history." Lucceius looked aside and bit his lip. "Wasn't a bad fellow. Sorry to see him go. Of course he did have some nasty habits." He smiled grimly. "Picking the fruit before it's ripe and all that."

"What do you mean?"

"Never mind. No point gossiping about the dead." " 'Picking the fruit…'?"

"Liked them young. One of those. Nothing wrong in that, except a man should keep his hands off what belongs to his host. I'll say no more." From his face I could see that he meant it.

"You said that Dio's slave died of natural causes. What killed him?"

"How should I know?"

"But a death in the house -"

"The death of a slave, and another man's slave at that." "Surely someone noted the symptoms."

"What do you think, I summon a fancy Greek physician every time a slave has a stomach ache? Slaves take ill every day, and sometimes they die."

"Then you can't be sure that it wasn't poison. Dio thought so."

"Dio thought lots of things. Had quite an imagination-made a better philosopher than historian."

"Still, if someone in the household could tell me exactly how the slave died, what he complained of before the end-"

I was stopped by the look on Lucceius's face. He stared at me for a long moment. His bushy eyebrows gathered above his squinting eyes. "Who sent you here?"

"I'd rather not say."

"Wasn't Cicero, was it?"

"I come as a friend of Dio's."

"Meaning that I wasn't? Get out."

"My only interest is discovering the truth about Dio's death. If you were truly his friend-"

"Get out! Well, go on. Up! Out!" Lucius Lucceius picked up a stylus and waved it like a dagger, glowering at me as I stood and walked to the door. I left him bent over his scrolls, muttering angrily to himself.

The slave who had shown me in was waiting in the hallway to show me out, but before we reached the foyer a formidably large woman stepped into the hallway and blocked our path.

"Go on, Cleon," she said to the slave. "I'll show the visitor out myself." From the tone of her voice she was clearly the mistress of the house, and from the slave's obsequious manner as he backed away I gathered she was not the sort of Roman matron who allowed her slaves much latitude.

Lucceius's wife was as ugly as her husband, though she looked nothing like him. Instead of bristling eyebrows she had only two lines painted above her eyes. Her hair might have been as white as his, had it not been dyed red with henna. She wore a voluminous green stola and a necklace of green glass with matching earrings. "So, you're Gordianus the Finder," she said abruptly, appraising me with a caustic gaze. "I heard the slave announce you to my husband."

"What else did you hear?" I said.

She appreciated my bluntness. "Everything. You and I should talk." I looked over my shoulder.

"Don't worry," she said, "no one eavesdrops on me in this house. They know better. Come this way."

I followed her into another wing of the house. I might as well have entered another world. Where Lucceius's study had been an austere museum of war trophies and musty documents, his wife's quarters were flamboyantly decorated with intricately embroidered hangings and precious objects of metal and glass. One long wall was painted to show a spring garden in bloom, all pale greens and soft pinks and yellows.

"You deceived my husband," she said wryly.

"He thought I came from Cicero. I didn't contradict him."

"So you merely let him believe what he wanted to believe. Yes, that's the best way to handle Lucius. He wasn't intentionally lying to you, you know. He's convinced himself that nothing untoward took place in this house. Lucius has a hard time dealing with the truth. Like most men, most of the time," she said under her breath. She walked about the room, picking things up and putting them down.

"Please, go on," I said.

"Appearances matter more than facts to Lucius.

To have had a houseguest poisoned under his roof, or even a houseguest's slave, is thinkable to him. So it simply never happened, you see.

Lucius will never, ever admit otherwise."

"But such a thing did happen?"

She stepped to a small table covered with a number of identical clay figurines. They were about the size of a child's fist and brightly painted. She picked one of them up and idly turned it over in her hand. "Who sent you here asking questions?"

"As I told your husband, a friend of Dio's."

She snorted.

"Never mind. I can guess who sent you."

"Can you?"

"Clodia. Am I right? Don't bother to answer. I can read your face as easily as I can read Lucius's."

"How could you possibly guess who hired me?"

She shrugged and twirled the little clay figurine between her fore-finger and thumb. It was a votive statue of Attis, the eunuch consort of the Great Mother, Cybele, standing with his hands on his plump belly and wearing his red Phrygian cap with its rounded, forward-sloping peak. "We have ways of sharing what we know."

'We'?"

"We women."

I felt a prickling sensation in my spine, a sense of having had the same conversation before-with Bethesda, when she told me that Clodia and Caelius were no longer lovers, and I asked her how she could possibly know such a thing: We have ways of sharing what we know. For an instant I had a glimmer of insight, as if a door had been opened just enough to let me catch a glimpse of an unfamiliar room. Then she started to talk again and the door was shut.

"There's no doubt that Dio's slave was poisoned. You should have seen the poor wretch. If Lucius had kept his eyes open instead of looking away when the man was dying, he might have a harder time making that glib pronouncement about 'natural causes.' But then Lucius has always been squeamish. He can write his little accounts of women being spitted on stakes and children being chopped into pieces at the fall of Carthage, but he can't stomach watching a slave throw up."

"Was that one of the symptoms?"

"Yes. The man turned as white as marble and went into convulsions."

"But if the slave was poisoned by tasting food intended for Dio, how did the poison get into the food?"

"It was put there by some of the kitchen slaves, of course. I think I know which ones."

"Yes?"

"Juba and Laco. Those two fellows were always up to something. Too smart for their own good. Had fantasies of buying their freedom some day. Juba must have sneaked out of the house that afternoon, because I caught him sneaking back in, and when I questioned him he tried to get out of it by playing stupid and spouting a lot of double-talk, the way slaves do. He said he'd gone to the market to fetch something, I don't remember what, and even held up a little bag to show me. What nerve! It was probably the poison. Later I caught him whispering to Laco in the kitchen and I wondered what they were up to. They're the ones who prepared the dish that killed Dio's slave."

"Dio told me your husband had a visitor that day."

"Publius Asicius. He's the one who was later accused of stabbing Dio at Coponius's house, though they couldn't prove it at the trial. Yes, he came by to visit Lucius at just about the time Juba must have been sneaking out. But I don't think Asicius delivered the poison, if that's what you think. He didn't go near the kitchen slaves."

"But he could have been here as a distraction, to keep your husband busy while Juba sneaked out of the house to get the poison from someone else."

"What an imagination you have!" she said wryly.

"Where is Juba now? Would you let me speak to him?"

"I would if I could, but he's gone. Juba and Laco are both gone."

"Gone where?"

"After his taster died, Dio was quite upset. He screamed and ranted and demanded that Lucius determine which of the slaves had tried to poison him. I pointed out the suspicious behavior of Juba and Laco, but Lucius wouldn't hear of any suggestion that there was poison involved. Even so, a few days later he decided that Juba and Laco-trained kitchen slaves-would be of more use doing manual labor in a mine. Lucius owns an interest in a silver mine up in Picenum. So off the slaves went, out of reach, out of mind."

She held up the clay figurine of Attis and stroked it with her forefinger. "But this is the most curious fact: when Lucius made his pronouncement about sending Juba and Laco to Picenum, they suddenly offered to buy their freedom. Somehow, from the few coppers Lucius gave them every year to celebrate the Saturnalia, the two ofthem had managed to save up their own worth in silver."

"Was that possible?"

"Absolutely not. Lucius accused them of pilfering from the house-hold coffers."

"Could they have done that?"

"Do you think I'm the sort of woman whose slaves could steal from her?" She gave me a look calculated to make a slave soil himself. "But that was the explanation Lucius decided on, and nothing will ever sway him from it. He took the silver away from them, sent them off to an early death in the mines, and that was the end of it."

"Where do you think the slaves obtained the silver?"

"Don't be coy," she said. "Someone bribed them to poison Dio, of course. Probably they received only partial payment, since they didn't finish the job. If I were the master of this house I'd have tortured them until the truth came out. But the slaves belong to Lucius."

"The slaves know the truth."

"The slaves know something. But they're far away from Rome now." "And they can't be compelled to testify anyway without their master's consent."

"Which Lucius will never give."

"Who gave them the silver?" I muttered.

"How can anyone find

out?"

"I suppose that's your job," she said bluntly. She walked back to the little table and replaced the clay figurine of Attis. I drew alongside her and studied the tiny statues.

"Why so many, all alike?" I asked.

"Because of the Great Mother festival, of course. These are images of Attis, her consort. For gift-giving." "I never heard of such a custom." "We exchange them among ourselves." "'We'?"

"It has nothing to do with you."

I reached to pick up one of the figurines, but she seized my wrist with a startlingly strong grip.

"It has nothing to do with you, I said." After a moment she released me, then clapped her hands. A girl came running. "Now you had better go. The slave will show you out."

Chapter Thirteen

The easiest route to the house of Titus Coponius, where Dio had died, took me back the way I had come. Passing the former residence of Marcus Caelius again, I noticed that the FOR SALE announcement was untouched, but the obscene graffito beneath it had already been daubed over with paint.

Clodius's henchmen could be accused of many things, but not idleness.

Titus Coponius saw me at once, and soon I was seated in his study with a cup of wine in my hand. If the study of Lucius Lucceius was a hoary homage to the conquest of Carthage, the study of Titus Coponius was a tribute to the enduring triumph of Greek culture. Black-on-red drinking cups, too ancient and precious for use, were displayed on shelves. Small statues of the great heroes and busts of the great thinkers were displayed on pedestals against the walls. A pigeonhole scroll case was full of cylindrical leather slipcases, and on the little colored tags hanging from each cylinder I glimpsed the names of the old Greek playwrights and historians. The room itself was impeccably appointed, with high-backed Greek chairs and a Greek carpet with a geometrical design, all harmoniously in proportion to the space they occupied.

Coponius was a tall man with a long rectangular face and a hand-some nose; even seated he had an imposing air. His hair was clipped short and was very curly, black on top but gray on the sides. His clothing and manner were as elegant as the room in which we sat. "I suppose you've come about Dio," he began.

"What makes you think so?"

"Come now, Gordianus. I know you by reputation. I also know that Bestia's son has brought charges against Marcus Caelius for trying to poison Dio, among other things. It hardly takes a philosopher to figure out your reason for coming to the house where Dio died. What I don't know is who sent you-Bestia's boy for the prosecution, or Caelius for his defense."

"Neither, actually."

"Now that's a puzzle."

"Not to everyone, apparently," I said, thinking of Lucceius's wife. "Does it matter who sent me, so long as I seek the truth?"

"Most men have some ulterior motive, even in seeking for truth. Revenge, vindication, power-"

"Justice. For Dio."

Coponius put down his wine cup and folded his long, elegant hands in his lap. "Some day, when we both have a great deal more time, we should discuss that word, 'justice,' and see if we can come up with a mutually acceptable definition. For the short term, I assume you mean you seek the truth in order to identify Dio's killer. A straightforward enough ambition-but I don't think I can help you."

"Why not?"

"I can't tell you what I don't know." "Perhaps you know more than you realize." "A conundrum, Gordianus?" "Life is full of them."

Coponius contemplated me with a catlike gaze. "As I understand it, the charges against Caelius involve attacks on the Egyptian entourage on its way to Rome, and an alleged attempt to poison Dio at Lucceius's house. What happened in this house isn't even cited in the formal list of charges."

"Technically, it is. But the prosecution intends to concentrate on the attempted poisoning, and use the actual murder of Dio as a corroborative detail."

"Then you do come from the prosecution." Coponius gave me a brittle smile. "Don't misunderstand. I don't mind you coming around asking questions. I went through all this before, when Asicius was pros-ecuted. I shared all I know with both sides, and in the end I helped neither. The simple fact is that the killers left nothing behind to give themselves away. Asicius was prosecuted on hearsay, not evidence. Yes, 'everyone knows' that he was somehow involved, just as 'everyone knows' that King Ptolemy must be at the back of it, but the proof was never put forward, and you won't find it in this house."

"Still, I should like to know what happened here."

Coponius took a sip of wine and turned his catlike gaze on me again. "I knew Dio in Alexandria," he finally said. "A few years ago, my brother and I spent some time there. Gaius, always the practical one, was interested in studying the financial workings of the grain markets. I found myself drawn instead to the steps of the library at the Temple of Serapis, where philosophers discussed the very things we're talking about-truth, justice, conundrums. That was how I met Dio."

"That was how I met him as well," I said.

Coponius raised an eyebrow. "You knew Dio in Alexandria?"

"Briefly, and long ago. I was quite young. My instruction from Dio was strictly informal."

Coponius understood at once. "Ah, you were one of those young men too poor to afford an education who linger on the steps hoping to catch the eye of one of the philosophers. Mendicants for wisdom, Dio called such young men."

"Something like that."

"There is no shame attached to such begging. The more one must struggle for wisdom, the more honor attaches to its attainment. My relationship with Dio was more formal than yours, I imagine. By the time I met him he had been elevated to the highest ranks of the Academy, and seldom appeared on the steps of the library; it was only by chance that I happened to meet him there. I invited him to dine on several occasions with Gaius and myself at the house we had rented in the imperial district. Dio knew all the Greek thinkers by heart. He could discourse for hours on the laws of perception and rational thought. Gaius would yawn and go to bed early, but I would stay up until dawn listening."

"Your brother doesn't care for philosophy?"

Coponius smiled. "Not particularly. But Gaius and Dio managed to find common interests. I was the one left out when the two of them went looking for adventure in the Rhakotis district." He raised a suggestive eyebrow.

"Dio never struck me as particularly adventurous."

"Then you didn't know him as I did, and certainly not as Gaius

did."

"What do you mean?"

"Dio was considerably older than my brother and me, but he still had appetites. Rather strong appetites, actually. He enjoyed showing Gaius what he called 'the secrets of Alexandria.' "

" 'Picking the fruit before it's ripe,' " I said to myself.

"What?"

"Something that someone else said about Dio."

"Ripeness is a matter of taste. With Dio it was more a question of bruising the fruit, I would say." "I don't understand."

Coponius fixed me again with his feline gaze. "There are those who would say that Dio's particular appetites were a flaw in his character, a sign of some imbalance in his humors. I myself have never been a slave to the flesh; my life is of the mind, and this seems to me ideal. Given my temperament, I'm often tempted to pass judgment on other men's weaknesses, but for friends I forgo such judgments. We must remember that while Dio's blood was Greek, his spirit was Egyptian. These people are more worldly than we are, earthier, in many ways cruder and more primitive. They make greater allowance for things we might consider out of bounds. On the one hand, Dio was a paragon of logic and reason; but on the other, he could release himself into a state of ecstasy beyond reason. If his pleasure sometimes depended on acts which you or I might consider to be cruel or excessive-"

"I don't understand."

Coponius shrugged. "What does it matter? The man is dead. His teachings are his legacy, along with his efforts on behalf of his country-men. Few men can claim as fine a monument." He stood and began to slowly pace, running the palm of his hand over the tops of the busts that lined the wall. "But you came to talk about Dio's death, not his life. What is it you want to know, Gordianus?"

"I already know the bare facts of the murder-what everyone knows, as you say. But water from the mouth of the spring is freshest. I want to hear whatever you or anyone else in the household can tell me about the exact circumstances of that night."

"Let me think back… " He paused before a bust of Alexander. "I was here in my study when Dio came in that evening. I had just finished eating my supper, alone, and had come here to do some reading. I heard a couple of the slave girls tittering out in the hallway. I called them in and asked them what they were laughing at. They said that my houseguest had come in dressed as a woman!"

"Hadn't he worn the same costume before?"

"Apparently so, slipping in and out of the house without my seeing him, accompanied by that little gallus who was always visiting him. Dio behaved very secretively in this house. He kept to his room with his door locked. He wouldn't even join me for meals. When he asked to stay with me, I had hoped that the two of us would share some civilized conversation as we had in Alexandria, that we would dine together and discuss philosophy or politics. I was rather disappointed at his aloofness, and a little irritated."

"He was a very frightened man."

"Yes, I realized that. Which is why I stayed out of his way. If he wished to hide in his room all day, or slip in and out of the house without telling me, I decided to say nothing. I wish now that I had somehow taken steps to intervene, though I'm not sure what I could have done."

"Dio was a hunted man. You must have known he was in terrible danger."

"Of course. That's why I kept a watchman posted inside the door every night. Even so, I never imagined that anyone would actually break into this house and commit such an atrocity. It seemed unthinkable."

"Would you show me where this unthinkable thing occurred?"

Coponius led me down a long hallway to the back of the house. "The watchman was posted in the foyer at the front of the house. When the assassins broke into Dio's room, he didn't hear it. I myself was sleeping in the room next door and heard nothing."

"Did Dio cry out?"

"No one heard him if he did."

"Would you have heard him?"

"I was sleeping, as I said, but I should think a scream would have awakened me. The walls aren't that thick. On other nights I was able to hear-well, never mind."

"You were about to say something?"

"This is the room." Coponius pushed opened a door and gestured for me to enter.

It was a small room, sparsely furnished with a sleeping couch, a chair, and a couple of small tables. A carpet covered the floor. Metal hooks were mounted in the walls for hanging clothing and lamps.

"How did the assassins get in?" I said.

"Through that window, by the couch. The shutters were drawn and latched, I'm sure. Dio would have seen to that, if only to shut out the cold. The latch has been repaired, but you can still see where the wood was splintered when the shutters were forced open."

"Was the old latch made of bronze, like this one?"

"This is the very same latch, hammered straight by a smith and reattached in a different place."

"This seems to be a rather strong latch. I should think that forcing it from the outside would have made some noise."

"I suppose."

"A considerable noise."

"It couldn't have been that loud-"

"Perhaps not a loud enough noise to awaken you in the next room, or even to be heard by your watchman at the front door, but surely loud enough for Dio to hear if he was lying on this couch."

"You might think so, yes. But as I told you, no one heard Dio cry out. I suppose he was a very sound sleeper. Or perhaps the breaking of the latch didn't make as much noise as you seem to think."

"We could argue the point forever," I said. "Or shall we make an empirical test?"

"Do you mean-?"

"If you'll let me."

Coponius shrugged.

"Go on."

I unlatched the window and stepped through it, into the courtyard beyond, which was surrounded by a high wall. Inside the room, Coponius latched the shutters. I pushed on them, testing their strength, and realized it would take a considerable effort to force them open. I looked around and spotted a loose stone. Clutching it in my fist, I struck a hard blow against the shutters. With a sound of splintering wood the shutters flew open and the metal latch went flying across the room and landed on the carpet.

I climbed through the window. "Tell me, was the broken latch found across the room like that, lying on the floor?"

"Why, yes. I'm sure of it. I remember, because when I came into this room I stepped on the latch and cut my bare foot."

"Then we can assume that the shutters were forced open with at least as much force on that night, and must have made as much noise. I would say that was noisy enough to wake anyone in this room."

"Yes," Coponius agreed, fretfully tapping his forefinger against his

lips.

"And yet, Dio didn't cry out."

"Perhaps he was awakened from a deep sleep, unable to comprehend. Or perhaps he comprehended only too well and was paralyzed with fright."

"Perhaps. Was his throat cut?"

"No. All the wounds were in his chest."

"How many wounds?"

"I'm not sure, exactly. Quite a few."

"There must have been a great deal of blood."

"Some blood, yes."

"A struggling man, stabbed repeatedly in the chest-the room must have been covered with blood."

Coponius wrinkled his brow. "When we came in the room, it was very dark, of course. The slaves held lamps. Shadows swung all about. I remember seeing blood-I don't know how much. Does it matter?"

"Probably not. You don't still have the sleeping tunic Dio was wearing, or the cushions he was sleeping on?"

"Of course not. They were burned."

I looked around the room, imagining Dio on the couch, silent, terrified, being stabbed repeatedly in the chest. Somehow the image did not make sense. "Your watchman finally did hear something, and came to investigate."

"Yes."

"Would you let me speak to him?"

"Of course." Coponius summoned the slave, a sturdy young Greek named Philo, who looked keen enough. I asked him exactly what he had heard on the night that Dio died.

"A noise, coming from this room."

"What kind of noise?"

"A banging kind of noise."

"Not a scream, or a moan?"

"No."

"Splintering wood, cracked hinges?"

"No, more like something being knocked onto the floor."

"When we came in," Coponius interjected, "everything was in disarray. The tables were upended, the chair on its side. The scrolls Dio kept by his bedside were scattered about."

"When you heard the banging noise," I said to Philo, "how quickly did you come?"

"Right away. I heard more noises while I was running down the hallway."

"How did you know where the noises were coming from?" "As I got closer I could tell that they were coming from inside this room."

"So you tried to open the door?" The slave hesitated. "Not right away."

"Because you were frightened?"

"No… "

"No? I would have been. It takes nerve to open a door with strange sounds coming from the other side, especially in the middle of the night."

"I wasn't scared. Excited in a way, my heart beating fast, but not scared."

"Then why didn't you try to open the door, Philo?" "I called out Dio's name instead." "Did he answer?"

"No. There was another banging noise." "Then you tried the door?" "Not right away… " "What were you waiting for?" "For them to finish!" Philo said, exasperated.

"To finish killing Dio?"

"Of course not! For Dio to finish his business, if that's what he was up to." The slave made a face and looked away. "The master knows what I mean."

I looked at Coponius, who looked back at me blandly and pursed his lips. "Philo means that such noises could have meant something besides… danger."

"Danger to Dio, anyway," said Philo under his breath.

"That's enough, Philo," said Coponius sharply. "Get back to what-ever you were doing."

The slave left us. I turned to Coponius. "These noises-"

He sighed. "Shortly after Dio came to stay here, he-how shall I say this?-he appropriated one of my slaves for his own use."

I nodded. "The last slave he owned had died tasting his food."

"That's not what I mean." Coponius shook his head. "He was a troubled man, in great distress. If ever a man needed something to take his mind off his problems, it was Dio. There was a young serving girl who caught his eye. He decided to make use of her. For his pleasure. He used her almost every night."

"With your permission?"

"I was never asked, actually. It was presumptuous of Dio to simply take what he wanted, to be sure, but under the circumstances I decided I would be a selfish host if I withheld the use of a slave from a guest, especially since I had no plans to use the girl myself, at least not in that way."

"I see. Then Philo thought he might simply be hearing the sounds of Dio using the girl." "Exactly."

"All the bumping and thumping-surely you heard it, too."

"Eventually it woke me. At first, I made the same assumption that Philo made. 'At it again!' I thought. I shut my eyes and tried to get back to sleep."

"Did Dio always make so much noise?" "Not always."

"What on earth would he do to the girl?"

"I hardly see how that's any of your business, Gordianus. I've been

indiscreet in telling you as much as I have. May Dio's shade forgive me. I begin to grow tired of this interview-"

"But eventually Philo realized that something was terribly wrong," I said, pressing on.

"Yes. When the bumps and knocks stopped, things got a bit too quiet. He called out Dio's name, louder and louder-I could hear him calling, so Dio should have been able to. I could also hear him rattling Dio's door, which was locked, of course. I got up then and told Philo to fetch some others. They brought torches and together managed to break down the door. Inside we found the shutters open, the room a mess… and Dio dead on his couch."

"And the slave girl?"

"She wasn't in the room at all, as it turned out. She was in the slaves' sleeping quarters."

I walked to the window and peered out. "How did the assassins get onto the terrace in the first place? It seems to be surrounded by a high wall."

"They must have scaled it. They couldn't have come in the front because of Philo, and the side walls were set flush against the houses on either side. The wall enclosing the little courtyard out back runs along a little alley. There's a gate in the wall, but it was securely locked. They had to have climbed over from the alley."

I nodded. "It's a high wall-too high for a man to climb without help, I should think."

"Do you want to test that as well?" Coponius raised an eyebrow.

"No. I think we can assume that there were at least two assassins, to help each other over the wall. Did your neighbors see anything?"

"None of my neighbors can see into the courtyard behind the house. The alley is practically unused. I doubt that anyone could have seen anything, unless they happened to be standing on a rooftop, which would have been unlikely on a chilly Januarius night. Besides, if anyone had seen something, I'd have been told. I'm on good terms with my neighbors. They were all quite upset by the murder."

I walked about the room, idly tapping my forefinger against the metal hooks set into the walls. "So the slave girl wasn't with Dio when the murder occurred?"

"As I told you, she was asleep in the slave quarters."

"Could I talk to her?"

Coponius shook his head. "Not possible."

"Why not?"

"I sold her to a slave dealer here in the city."

"Was there something wrong with her?

Coponius hesitated. "After the use Dio made of her, she was no longer suitable to serve in my house."

"You don't mean she was crippled?

"Of course not. Oh, a few strap marks and bruises, perhaps, but nothing that wouldn't fade with time. Possibly a scar or two, but nothing that would show unless she was naked. Nevertheless, she was damaged property. It simply wouldn't do to keep her in the household; much better to pass her on. I'm sure some other master will find her suitable-perhaps even find her value enhanced by the instruction Dio gave her." He shrugged. "I never intended for the girl to become a pleasure slave, but it must have been the will of the Fates."

"Or of Dio." My mouth was dry.

"The subject is distasteful to me," said Coponius. "Indeed, this whole conversation has begun to tire me. I should think that you've already found out more than you need to know."

"More than I intended to, anyway."

"Then perhaps you should be going. Here, I'll summon a slave to show you out." He clapped his hands.

The slave who came running was Philo. Coponius didn't notice. Having dismissed me, his mood abruptly darkened. He didn't even bid me farewell as he walked to the window and gazed out at the sunny courtyard, idly fingering the newly broken latch with one hand.

In the foyer I put my hand on Philo's shoulder and drew him aside. "The slave girl we were talking about-what's her name?"

"Zotica. But she's not here anymore."

"I know. Your master sold her to a dealer. You wouldn't know which dealer, would you?"

The slave hesitated, scrutinizing me. He peered up the hallway and bit his lip. "The master sold her to a man down on the street of the Scythemakers," he finally said. "I don't know his name."

I nodded. "Let me make sure I understand: when you broke into his room and found him dead, Dio was alone. Zotica wasn't with him."

"That's right."

"What about earlier that night?"

He looked at me and then peered up the hallway again. "Oh, all right, why not tell you? She's gone now, anyway, the poor child. Yes, Zotica was with Dio earlier that night. He came in wearing that ridiculous outfit, dressed up in a stola, if you can believe it, and in a foul mood, even fouler than usual. He snapped his fingers at Zotica and told her to come tend to him in his room. 'To help him take off his makeup,' quipped one of the other serving girls. 'No, just to help him take off!" said one of the others. They were always mean to Zotica because she was the youngest, and the prettiest, but I think they were also glad that Dio had settled on using her instead of them."

"So Dio went to his room and took the girl with him."

"Yes, but later he must have sent her away."

"Why do you say that?"

"The rest of the household had gone to bed. I was standing watch at the front door. I heard something in the hallway and went to have a look. It was Zotica walking up the hall, away from Dio's room. She was naked, clutching her gown and hiding her face in her hands, sobbing."

"Clutching her gown? Why wasn't she wearing it?"

"Why do you think? I figured the old man had ripped it off of her and torn it too badly to wear. I asked her what was wrong, but she just shook her head and ran toward the slave quarters. I figured he'd finished with her early, and been even rougher than usual."

"How long was this before the noise you heard later, when the assassins came?"

"Oh, quite a while before."

"But when you heard those noises and went to investigate, you told me you thought they might have been the sounds of Dio and Zotica… "

He shrugged. "I thought she might have slipped back into his room. But she hadn't. When we were breaking down the door to Dio's room, Zotica was off in the slave quarters with the other girls. There's no question about that. She woke some of the slaves with her weeping when she came in, then kept them awake with her sobbing, even when they threatened to beat her. There's no doubt that she was with the other slaves when Dio was stabbed."

"Still, I should dearly like to have a talk with her. Tell me, when you broke into the room, what exactly did you see?"

Philo was thoughtful. "Chair and tables overturned. Window shutters open. Dio on the couch, dead."

"How did you know he was dead?"

"The look on his face!" Philo turned pale, remembering. "Such a look-his eyes and mouth wide open with a look of pure horror, as if he'd seen the face of Cerberus himself."

"Pure horror-and yet you never heard him cry out?"

"Never."

"But to have such a look on his face, he must have known he was under attack, he must have felt the blows. Why did he not scream?" "I don't know. I only know I never heard him." "Did you see the wounds?"

"Very clearly. I helped undress him later, when the men from the necropolis came to take him away."

"How many times was he stabbed?"

"Six or seven times, I think. Maybe more. All in the chest, close together."

"How close?"

He held up his palms side by side. "Two hands could have covered the wounds."

"But surely he thrashed about. A frightened man startled from sleep, horrified. He's stabbed the first time-surely he cries out. Surely he thrashes and twists to avoid the next blow."

"Perhaps his arms were held down and his mouth was covered."

"How many men would that take?"

"The room was a mess. Perhaps there was a whole gang of them milling around in there."

"Perhaps. I suppose there was blood everywhere, on the walls and carpet?"

Philo wrinkled his brow. "Not really."

"And the sleeping tunic he wore-that must have been soaked with blood."

"Around the wounds, yes."

"But not-"

"Philo! I thought you were showing Gordianus to the door." Coponius appeared at the far end of the hall. He crossed his arms. "Yes, Master!"

"There was something I forgot to ask him," I said. "Just a small detail-"

"Farewell, Gordianus."

I took a deep breath. "Farewell, Titus Coponius."

Belbo was waiting for me outside the front door, sitting in a patch of warm sunshine. Together we took a silent walk through the streets of the Palatine, breathing in the smells of midday cooking, listening to the noises that echoed up from the Forum. I walked merely to walk, with no particular goal. I needed to think.

I was beginning to discover a side to Dio that I had never guessed at. This disturbed me. I had also begun to piece together the sequence of his final days and hours. The gory drama of his death seemed forthright enough; it only remained to determine who had broken into his room that fateful night. Yet I could not put aside a nagging feeling that some-thing was very, very wrong.

Chapter Fourteen

The girl is important.

I'm not sure how, but I can't help thinking so." "What girl?" said Eco. "The slave girl, Zotica.

The one Dio was…"

"Important?" said Eco. "But how? If she'd been in the room when the killers broke in, she'd be a witness, though I doubt they would have left her alive. Unless of course she was in on their plan, in which case they'd have had no need to break in the shutters-she'd have let them in.

But then they'd have broken the shutters and killed her anyway, to keep her from talking… but all this takes away from what we know, which is that the girl was not in the room when Dio was killed." "Still…"

I had finally tired of walking and thinking and had gone home for something to eat, to find that Eco and his family had dropped by. While the women and children visited in the garden at the heart of the house, Eco and I sat in the little atrium just off the foyer, basking in a narrow shaft of warm sunlight. I told him all I had learned that morning from my visits to Lucceius and Coponius.

"It's too bad that Cicero's entered the picture," said Eco. He shook his head. "Imagine, Cicero taking on Marcus Caelius's defense, after the bad blood between them!"

"There's a lot at stake," I said. "The charges are serious-serious enough to send even a brash fellow like Caelius running back to his old teacher. I'm sure Cicero made him promise to be a good boy from now on and always support the status quo. It must have been quite a coup for Cicero, bringing the errant sheep back into the fold."

"And, provided Cicero gets him off the hook, Caelius will get a chance to betray his old mentor all over again," observed Eco.

I laughed. "Exactly. I suppose the two of them deserve each other."

"Still, too bad it's Cicero for the defense. Even if you do find compelling evidence against Caelius -"

" – Cicero will probably make it go up in a puff of smoke while he takes the judges down some completely irrelevant path to Caelius's ac-quittal. Yes, I was thinking the same thing myself. Having worked for Cicero, we know just how thoroughly unscrupulous and damnably persuasive he can be. It's not much fun, being on the opposing side."

Eco closed his eyes and leaned back against a pillar, letting the sun warm his face. "But the really bad news is about the slaves in Lucceius's kitchen being sent off to work the mines in Picenum. If Lucceius's wife is right, those two are at the very heart of the matter. If they were bribed to administer poison, they must have some idea of who paid them, or should at least be able to yield up a clue. They're the link in the chain, the ones you need to go to next. But there they are, away up in Picenum, and no matter what they know, it doesn't sound like Lucceius would ever let them testify."

"Yes, it's frustrating. But I suppose someone could trek up to Picenum and try to get at them. Even if they can't testify, they might lead us to someone who could."

Eco half opened one eye and peered at me sidelong. "I have no pressing business for the next few days, and it's always nice to get out of Rome. Just say the word, Papa."

I smiled and nodded. "Perhaps. I suppose it is the next logical step. Still, I keep thinking about the girl… "

"The girl?"

"The slave girl, Zotica. I should have a talk with her. She might know something."

"I'm sure she knows a great deal, Papa. But do you really want to hear it?"

"What do you mean?"

Eco peered at me shrewdly, narrowing his eyes in the bright sunshine. "Tell me, Papa, do you want to talk to this Zotica to find what she knows about the murder, which is probably nothing-or do you wish to talk to her to satisfy your own prurient curiosity about the things that Dio did to her?"

"Eco!"

"If she told you that her treatment from Dio was not nearly as cruel as you've been led to think, you'd be relieved, wouldn't you?" I sighed. "Yes."

"And what if the opposite happened? What if the things that Dio did to her were quite as appalling as you fear, and even worse? I know how you felt about Dio, Papa-the way he died, the fact that he came to you for help. But I also know how strongly you feel about those who abuse slaves in such a fashion."

"Coponius may have been slandering Dio," I said.

"It hardly sounds like it. From the way you tell it, Coponius talked about Dio's bedroom habits only reluctantly, and he was more embarrassed than judgmental, as if he was telling you that Dio was flatulent or snored. And what about the slave, Philo? He told the same story."

"Slaves like to gossip as much as their masters." I shook my head. "I don't like having my memories of Dio tainted by hearsay."

"Ah, but from the girl's lips it wouldn't be hearsay."

"So you think I want to find this girl for no other reason than to put my mind at rest about Dio?"

"Isn't that it, Papa?" His sympathetic gaze made me feel suddenly unsure of myself.

"Partly, yes. But that's not the only reason," I insisted. "There's something else, something I can't quite put my finger on."

"Another intuition from the goddess Cybele, guiding you on?"

"I'm serious. I can't help but feel that this Zotica knows something, or did something… "

"Or had something done to her," said Eco under his breath.

"Eco, you said I could call on you if I needed help. This is what I want you to do: find this slave dealer on the Street of the Scythemakers. Find out what became of Zotica."

"Are you sure, Papa? It seems to me that my time would be better spent trying to contact Lucceius's kitchen slaves. And if I'm to do that, I should get started. It will take me a day to get to Picenum, another day to get back, plus the time spent there. Since the trial is only four days away-"

"No, find out about the girl first. You can get started this afternoon. It's too late to leave for Picenum today, anyway."

Eco shook his head at my stubbornness. "Very well, Papa. I'll go and see if I can track down this Zotica for you. If her story is awful enough, I suppose it may save me the bother of needing to go up to Picenum."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well," Eco began, but he was interrupted.

"If Dio was such a bad man, why are you bothering to find the person who killed him, anyway?"

"Diana!" I turned and saw my daughter standing in the doorway.

"Can't I come and be with you, Papa?" She walked to me and took my hand. Her long straight hair glittered blue-black in the sunlight. "The only thing Mother and Menenia talk about is the twins, and all the twins want to do is pull my hair and scream in my ears. They're such little monsters! I'd much rather be with you and Eco."

"Diana, why did you say that?"

"Because the twins are monsters – Titania is a harpy and Titus is a cyclops!"

"No, why did you say what you said about Dio? No one said he was a bad man."

Diana looked at me blankly.

"I think," said Eco, "that someone has been eavesdropping, and for quite a while."

"No I haven't!"

"It's a very bad habit, Diana, especially when your brother and I are discussing business."

"But I told you, I wasn't eavesdropping." She stepped back and crossed her arms, and gave me her version of the Medusa look.

"Diana… "

"Besides, Papa, isn't eavesdropping what you and Eco do for a living? I don't see why you should pick on me for doing it, even if I was, which I wasn't."

"It's a matter of showing respect to Papa," said Eco.

"No one in this house seems to have any respect for me," said Diana. "Whenever the monsters come over I might as well be made of stone." She turned and left the room.

"My, my," said Eco. "Is that what it's like to have a thirteen-year-old daughter in the house?"

"Just wait," I sighed.

"Perhaps you've been ignoring Diana."

"I probably have. She's becoming difficult."

"It was the same with Meto, remember?"

"It started later with Meto, and that was different. That I understood, whether I liked it or not. But with Diana, I don't understand. Not at all. She's the only one of you who's actually of my own flesh and blood, but sometimes I think Bethesda created her all by herself."

"She's more like you than you realize, Papa."

"Yes, I'm sure you're right." I tried to remember what we had been talking about, but found myself musing instead on the scent of jasmine that lingered in the warm air. Diana had recently begun to use the same fragrant oil that Bethesda used to scent her hair, just as she had begun to occasionally use her mother's jewelry and scarves. I closed my eyes. I breathed in the fragrance; it might have come from either of them. Diana was becoming so much like her mother…

I was interrupted by the sound of a cleared throat. I opened my eyes, blinking at the bright sunshine. "What is it, Belbo?"

"A caller, Master. The little gallus again. He says that you must come with him at once."

"Come with him?" I turned my face back to the sun and closed my eyes again. My legs ached from too much walking. The sunshine was making me sleepy.

"Yes, you must!" piped a familiar voice. I opened my eyes to see Trygonion slipping past Belbo into the atrium. His silver bracelets jangled and glittered in the sunlight, and his red and yellow robes were dazzling. Eco raised his eyebrows. Belbo stamped his foot in frustration.

"Clodia needs you," said Trygonion. "At once! It's a matter of life and death!"

"Life and death?" I said skeptically.

"And poison!" said Trygonion, exasperated. "The monster is planning to poison her!" "Who?"

"Caelius! Clodia!"

"Trygonion, what are you talking about?"

"You must come at once. There's a litter waiting outside."

I wearily got to my feet.

"Do you want me to come with you, Papa?" said Eco. "No. I'd rather you got started finding Zotica." "Take Belbo with you, Papa."

"No need to take along that hulking brute," said Trygonion. "You'll be in the litter. It's well guarded."

"Shall I tell Bethesda you'll be back for dinner?" said Eco, raising an eyebrow.

"Bait me all you like, Eco. I'm not letting you come along," I said. His laughter followed me out of the atrium.

The litter in front of my house was far more impressive than I would have expected even Clodia to send for a mere hireling. The box was draped with red and white striped silk, like Clodia's tent on the Tiber. The poles were of polished oak, borne aloft by a team of bare-chested slaves with oxlike shoulders, dressed in white loincloths and thick-soled sandals. Every one of them was blond-Scythians, perhaps, or captured Gauls from Caesar's conquests. I had seen them before, among the young men cavorting in the river at Clodia's horti. A small retinue of bodyguards stood behind, probably recruited from Clodius's gang. I didn't like the looks of them, which meant they had the right look for a bodyguard.

Trygonion snapped his fingers. With well-practiced efficiency, the bearers lowered the box. A slave put down a block of wood so that we could step inside.

I gestured for Trygonion to enter but he shook his head. "I have business elsewhere. Go ahead, climb in!"

I stepped onto the block and parted the curtains. A melange of exotic scents issued from within. Jasmine was among them, along with frankincense and sandalwood and more elusive scents-Clodia's smell. The inner draperies were of some heavy, opaque fabric, making the interior of the box seem very dark after the bright sunlight of the street. I was already inside, settling back against the cushions and being lifted aloft, before I realized that I was not alone.

"Thank you for coming." A hand touched my arm. I sensed her presence, smelled her scent, felt the warmth of her body.

"Clodia!"

She stirred beside me. Her leg brushed against mine. She laughed softly and I smelled her breath, warm and moist against my face and vaguely smelling of cloves.

"You sound surprised to see me, Gordianus."

"I thought the litter was empty." As my eyes adjusted to the dimness I saw that there was yet another occupant. Across from us, settled against the cushions at the front of the box, was the auburn-haired handmaiden, Chrysis. She smiled and nodded.

"A woman learns early never to step into a litter without knowing who's inside," said Clodia. "I should think men could profit from the same rule, though the danger may be different."

The ride was impeccably smooth. I parted the nearest curtain and saw that our pace was very quick. From behind us I could hear the sound of the bodyguards trotting to keep up.

"We don't seem to be headed toward your house, Clodia."

"No. What I have to tell you is best discussed away from curious ears." She saw me glance at her handmaiden. "Don't worry about Chrysis. No one is more loyal than she." Clodia extended her leg and touched her bare foot against the slave's. She leaned forward, as did Chrysis. When their faces met Clodia gave the girl a kiss upon the forehead and gently stroked her cheek.

Clodia leaned back. I felt her warmth next to me again. "It's too dark," she murmured.

"Chrysis, beloved, open the inner curtains."

The slave girl moved nimbly about the compartment, pulling back the heavy inner curtains and tying them to hooks at each corner. The box remained private, concealed by the translucent red and white striped curtains, which wavered in the breeze. The sounds of the street rose and fell as we swiftly passed by. From time to time the chief of the litter bearers whistled to signal a turn or a stop or a change in pace, but the box never pitched or swayed. A lethargic sense of luxury crept over me, the feeling of being borne effortlessly aloft in a private world from which the squalor of the street was excluded.

The sudden, unexpected nearness of Clodia's body was intoxicating. She was so close that I could see her only in sidelong glances, never all at once; like an object held too close before the eyes, she dominated my senses even while she eluded them. In the filtered glow of sunlight through silk curtains, the flesh of her arms and face appeared as smooth as wax, but radiant with an inner warmth. Her stola was as transparent as the one she had worn before, but was of a different shade, a creamy white the exact color of her flesh. As we passed through dappled patches of sunlight and shadow, the illusion that she was naked was sometimes uncanny, until she moved, whereupon the dress moved with a life of its own, as if the shimmering fabric, provoked by her touch, sought to caress all the hidden places of her body.

The box was suspended so as to stay level when the poles were tilted, but I could tell when we began the sharp descent down the western slope of the Palatine toward the Forum Boarium. The noises from outside grew louder as we passed through the great cattle market. The congested streets forced the bearers to come to numerous stops, and the smells of roasted flesh and live beasts for sale intruded on Clodia's perfume. The spell within the box slackened. I felt as if I were waking from a dream.

"Where are we going?" I said.

"To a place where we can talk privately."

"To your horti on the Tiber?"

"You'll see. Tell me what you discovered today."

As we passed through the cattle market, and then through a gate in the old city wall and into the Forum Holitorium, the great vegetable market, I told her what I had learned at the houses of Lucceius and Coponius. My account was more businesslike and circumspect than the one I had given Eco; she was not paying me, after all, to look into Dio's sexual habits.

"You see why it would be difficult to pursue the charge against Caelius for killing Dio," she said. "The crime couldn't be proved against Asicius, and probably can't be proved against Caelius, though everyone knows the two of them were accomplices. The attempted poisoning is the key. But you're right, Lucceius will never allow his slaves to testify He'd have them put to death first, rather than lose face at a public trial What a hypocrite! A true host would want to see a crime against his guest avenged, rather than pretend it never happened." She stirred beside me, and it seemed to me that her body had grown warmer.

"I wonder if we could somehow trick Lucceius into selling the two slaves to me?" "Possibly," I said. "Not likely."

"Then I could compel them to testify. The court would insist that their testimony be extracted by torture, of course, which would take it out of my control… "

"Am I here to discuss strategy? Trygonion acted if there was some terrible crisis at hand. Something about poison…"I parted the nearest curtain a bit to catch a glimpse of the marketplace. Vendors were selling plucked chickens and bundles of early asparagus.

Clodia put a finger to her lips. "Almost there."

A few moments later the litter stopped. I thought we had merely come to another congested spot until I felt the box being lowered and Chrysis sprang up to open the outer curtains. She produced a hooded cape which she deftly draped over her mistress as Clodia stepped out of the box. I stayed where I was, uncertain whether I should follow. We appeared to be at the southwestern foot of the Capitoline Hill, on the fringes of the vegetable markets, still very much in the heart of the city. What sort of privacy could such a spot offer?

Chrysis sat back against the cushions. She smiled and raised an eyebrow. "Well, go on! Don't be shy. You won't be the first man to pass through those gates with her."

I stepped from the litter. Covered by her cape, Clodia was waiting, and at my appearance she turned and walked quickly to a high brick wall which appeared to enclose a corner of land against the craggy base of the Capitoline. There was a wooden door in the wall, for which she produced a key. The hinges creaked as she pushed the door open. I followed her inside and she closed the door behind us.

All around us were sepulchers of weathered marble, adorned with plaques and inscriptions, carved tablets and statues. Cypress and yew trees reared up from the jumble of marble. The brick wall shut off the teeming city behind us. The sheer base of the Capitoline loomed before us, with blue sky above.

"There's no more secluded spot anywhere in the city," said Clodia.

"What is this place?"

"The ancient burial ground of the Claudii. It was granted to us back in the days of Romulus when our ancestors moved to Rome from the Sabine lands. We were enrolled among the patricians and given this

parcel, just outside the old city boundaries, to be our family burial ground. Over the centuries it's become filled with shrines and sepulchers. Clodius and I used to play here as children, imagining it was a little city all to itself. We hid from each other in the sepulchers and walked down the pathways in make-believe processions. The sepulchers were great palaces and temples and fortresses, and the pathways were broad avenues and secret passages. I could always scare him, pretending to raise the lemures of our ancestors." Clodia laughed. "Five years is such a difference between children." She pushed the cape from her shoulders and carelessly laid it atop a stone bench.

The westering sunlight, reflected off the stony face of the Capitoline, cast a faintly orange glow over everything, including Clodia and her shimmering stola. Trying not to stare, I found myself pondering the wall of a nearby tomb, on which a carved tablet depicted the stained and weathered faces of a husband and wife long dead.

"Then, when I was older, I would come here to be alone," Clodia said. She walked among the monuments, running her hands over the pitted stone. "Those were the bad years, when my father was always away, either exiled by his enemies or off fighting for Sulla. My stepmother and I didn't get along. Looking back now I know that she was sick with worry, but then, I couldn't stand to be in the house with her, so I would come here. Do you have children, Gordianus?"

"Two sons and a daughter."

"I have a daughter. Quintus always wanted sons." There was an edge of bitterness in her voice. "How old is your girl?" "Thirteen. She'll be fourteen in August."

"My Metella is just the same! Just beginning that difficult age, when most parents are glad to shuttle a girl off into marriage so that she can become someone else's problem."

"We've made no plans yet for Diana."

"She's lucky to be home, and lucky to have a father there. Girls need that, you know. Everyone always talks about boys and their fathers. It's only the male children anyone cares about. But a girl needs a father as well, to dote on her, to teach her. To protect her."

She was lost in thought for a long moment, then seemed to wake to her surroundings. She smiled. "And of course, when I got a little older still, I brought boys here. My stepmother allowed my brothers to do whatever they wished, but she was strict with her daughters and with me, or tried to be, though it brought her nothing but grief. Oh, there was many a secret tryst in this place, beneath these trees, on that very bench. Of course, all that ended when my father betrothed me to cousin Quintus," she said glumly.

"And now that you're a widow, do you still bring suitors here?"

Clodia laughed. "What an absurd idea. Why do you ask?"

"Something Chrysis said as I was leaving the litter."

"Naughty Chrysis. She was teasing you, I'm sure. Oh, I suppose the gossips say such things about me-'Clodia meets her lovers at midnight in the Claudian graveyard! She drags the young men into the sepulchers and deflowers them while her ancestors gasp in shame!' But these days I really much prefer a couch and pillows. Don't you?" She stood sideways and turned her face to look at me straight on. The reflected sunlight seemed to turn her stola to a thin mist that clung to her naked flesh and could have been dispelled with a puff of breath.

I looked away, and found myself nose to nose with a stately bas-relief of a horse's head, the ancient symbol of death. Death as departure; death as something more powerful than man. "You were going to explain this talk of poison."

She sat on the bench, using her cape for a cushion. "Marcus Caelius is plotting to murder me before the trial."

She allowed this statement to reverberate for a moment, then went on. "He knows that I have evidence. He knows that I'm planning to testify against him. He wants me dead, and if he had his way, I'd be joining the shades of my ancestors before sundown tomorrow. Fortunately, the slaves whom Caelius thought he could seduce have remained loyal to me, and have informed me of his plot."

"What plot?"

"This very morning Caelius obtained the poison he plans to use. He bought a slave to test it on. The wretched man died in horrible agony while Caelius watched. It took only moments. Caelius wanted a quick-acting poison, you see, and had to make sure it would do the job."

"How do you know this?"

"Because I have spies in Caelius's house, of course. Just as he thinks he has spies in mine." She stood up and began to pace. "This was his plot: to have a friend of his meet some of my slaves tomorrow afternoon at the Senian baths and hand over the poison to them, whereupon they would bring the poison home and Chrysis would put it into my food. His agent approached the slaves yesterday, including Chrysis. The slaves pretended to agree, but instead they came to me and told me everything."

"What made Caelius think he could suborn your slaves?"

"Marcus Caelius used to be a welcome guest in my home. He got to know some of the slaves, including Chrysis, rather well-well enough, I suppose, that he thought he could sway them with promises of silver and freedom if they would help him murder their mistress. He under-estimated their loyalty to me."

I stared at her, trying to decide whether I should believe her, and found myself studying the shape of her body instead. I shook my head. "So the plot has been uncovered. You've nipped it in the bud. Why all this secrecy? Why tell me about it at all?"

"Because Marcus Caelius doesn't know that his plot has been spoiled. He thinks my slaves have agreed to follow his orders. He still plans to go through with it. Tomorrow afternoon, his agent will arrive at the Senian baths, carrying the little box of poison. My slaves will be there to receive it from him – along with witnesses. We shall seize the poison, expose the agent, produce the evidence in court, and add another count of attempted murder to the charges against Marcus Caelius."

"And you want me to be there?" I said.

She drew close to me. "Yes, to help seize the poison. To witness everything that happens."

"Are you so sure you can trust your slaves, Clodia?" "Of course."

"Perhaps they're not telling you everything."

"We all have to trust our slaves in the end, don't we?"

"Then why have you brought me here, away from your house, away from your bodyguards and litter bearers, where even Chrysis can't hear?"

She lowered her eyes. "You see through me. Yes, I can't be certain. No one can ever be certain of anything in this world. Yes, I'm a little frightened-even of my slaves. But for some reason I trust you, Gordianus. I imagine you've been told that before."

With her head bowed and her eyes lowered, I noticed the remarkable line of her eyebrows, like the wings of a bird in flight. Then she turned her face up and all I could see were her deep, luminous green eyes.

"Clodia, you asked me to find evidence that Marcus Caelius tried to kill Dio. Whether you're pursuing this matter for the sake of justice, or for political gain, or simply to hurt Caelius, I don't know, nor do I really care. I agreed to take part for one reason: to do what I can to put Dio's shade at rest. This warfare between yourself and Caelius-broken love affair, festering hatred, whatever-is of no concern to me."

She stepped even closer and looked steadily into my eyes. I felt the heat of her body, as I had felt it in the litter. Her eyes seemed impossibly huge. "Love and hatred have nothing to do with it. Don't you see, Gordianus, it's all tied to Dio's murder. That's why Caelius wants to kill me, not because I loved him once and don't anymore, but because I'm trying to prove what he did to Dio. That's why I want you to go to the Senian baths tomorrow, to help foil his plot against me and expose it for all of Rome to see. This is all a part of the case against Caelius, which is the only way to bring Dio's killer to justice."

I stepped back from her. "The Senian baths," I said ruefully. "I suppose I could do with a hot plunge. At what time?"

A smile barely registered on her lips. "I'll send a litter to take you there tomorrow afternoon. Chrysis will go along, to give you more details on the way." She picked up her cape and handed it to me, then turned so that I could drape it over her shoulders. She leaned back, barely pressing her body against mine. "Oh, and tonight I'll send over the silver you may be needing."

"Silver for what?"

"To buy those two kitchen slaves of Lucceius's, of course, the ones who took part in the plot against Dio. That is, if you're able to track them down. You'll need ready silver if you're to buy them from under the nose of Lucceius's foreman at that mine up north, or bribe him into letting you have them. How much silver do you think that would take? Well, let me know before we part, and I'll send it to you to-night."

"I'll send back a receipt with the same courier," I said.

She pulled the cape about her neck and smiled. "No need for that. I'm sure you'll return any silver that's still unspent after the trial. You see, Gordianus, I really do trust you."

"Would you mind if we took a little side trip?" said Clodia, when we were back in the box and aloft.

"As long as I'm back in time for my dinner," I said, thinking of Bethesda.

"It will take only a few moments. I have an urge to go up on the Capitoline, just to take in the view. The air is so clear today, and the sun will be setting in the west." She nodded to Chrysis, who stuck her head out of the curtains and gave instructions to the chief of the litter bearers.

We passed back through the vegetable and cattle markets, crossed the valley between the Palatine and Capitoline hills, and entered the Forum. The day was waning, but a glimpse outside showed me that the squares were still thronged with men in togas going about their business. I appreciated the privacy of a closed litter-how else could a man cross the busiest spot in Rome side by side with a scandalous woman, without anyone seeing him?

Clodia's entourage did not go unnoticed, however. At one point we crossed paths with some of Milo's gang, who must have recognized the distinctive red and white striped curtains of the box.

"Bring out the whore!" one of them shouted. "Are you in there with her, Clodius?"

"Wet the bed again and gone running to your big sister?" "She'll kiss it and make it all better!" "Or bigger!"

There was a sudden jolt as the litter came to a halt. From outside we heard more obscene taunts, then the sounds of a skirmish. The moment had a peculiar, nightmarish quality; inside the box we were hidden, but also blind to the outside world, so that the obscenities seemed to come from disembodied voices and the scuffling noises were all the more alarming, their causes unseen. I heard the slither of steel pulled from scabbards, then more shouts. Beside me Clodia's body seemed to radiate heat. I glanced at her face, which remained expressionless. I thought I saw her ears turn red, but it might have been a trick of the light within the box.

The litter began to move again, then abruptly stopped.

"Turn it over!" someone shouted.

"Make a bonfire of the bitch!"

Staring straight ahead, Clodia reached for my hand and squeezed it. I gritted my teeth and sucked in a breath. From outside came the sounds of clashing steel, along with yells and grunts.

Finally the litter began moving again and rapidly picked up speed, leaving a chorus of obscene taunts behind us. Clodia stared straight ahead. Gradually she relaxed her grip and let go of my hand. She let out a barely audible sigh, then gave a start when a gruff voice called her name from outside.

"The chief of the bodyguard," she said to me, regaining her composure. She pulled back the curtain. A straw-haired gladiator with a crooked nose trotted alongside the litter.

"Sorry about that," he said. "Nothing to worry about. They got the worst of it. Milo's men won't try a stunt like that again anytime soon!"

Clodia nodded. The man grinned, showing rotten teeth, and Clodia let the curtain drop.

We turned sharply to the left and then to the right again, going up the long steep ramp that ascends to the summit of the Capitoline.

We passed by the chief monuments, the Auguraculum and the great Temple of Jupiter, and headed past the Tarpeian Rock to the less built-up southern end of the hill. The litter came to a stop. Clodia donned her cape and we stepped from the box. The spot was deserted and silent except for the sound of wind in my ears.

The sky above us swirled with the orange and purple clouds of a

spectacular sunset. The Tiber was a sheet of gold and the whole western horizon was aflame. "You see?" said Clodia, wrapping herself in her cape. "I knew it would be marvelous!"

I stood beside her, staring at the sunset. She pointed at something directly below us. "If you look straight down, over the edge of the cliff, you can see just a bit of the brick wall that closes off the Claudian burial ground, where we were. You see, there? And just beyond that, the Temple of Bellona, built on the same parcel of land by one of my ancestors, the Appius Claudius who was victorious against the Etruscans two hundred years ago. Instead of holding a triumphal parade, he built a temple at his own expense and dedicated it to the war goddess Bellona, and gave it to the people of Rome to be his monument. Sulla was especially fond of Bellona, you know. He gave her credit for his victories. I remember him once telling Father, 'Thank your ancestor for me, the next time you talk to him, for building Bellona such a fine place to live here in Rome.'

She smiled and turned her back on the sunset, walking slowly until she came to the opposite side of the hill. Across from us the Palatine loomed with its great jumble of rooftops. A little more to the south the view opened up. In the valley between the Palatine and the Aventine hills lay the vast expanse of the Circus Maximus with its long racetrack. Clodia pointed to the regions beyond. "Over there the Appian Way begins, and runs south all the way to Campania and beyond. And there, crossing the Appian Way, joining the wall for a stretch, is the Appian aqueduct, which has been bringing water into the city for almost three hundred years. These works are the legacy of my family. And those men in the Forum dare to call me such names!"

She stared at the view for a while, blinking as if the wind had blown dust in her eyes, then looked over her shoulder. A stone's throw away was the southernmost of the temples that crowd the Capitoline. "I need to go inside, just for a moment," she said. She strode toward the temple steps and left me behind, wondering whether I had just seen a patrician's pious desire to burn a bit of incense for her ancestors, or a woman's need to hide a sudden burst of tears.

The litter bearers rested. The bodyguards threw dice. Chrysis remained within the canopied box. I shuffled about the paved square in front of the temple, staring at the flagstones. Suddenly I realized which temple it was, the Temple of Public Faith, and remembered the inscription that had been added some time ago to the marble parapet in front of the building.

The inscription wasn't hard to find. In the fading light I read the chiseled letters with a feeling of odd detachment:

PTOLEMAIOS THEOS PHILOPATOR PHILADELPHOS NEOSDIONYSOS

FRIEND AND ALLY OF THE ROMAN PEOPLE

When all else was said and done, King Ptolemy was the reason behind everything: Dio's journey to Rome and his gruesome death, the Egyptian machinations of Pompey and Clodius and the rest of the Roman Senate, the impending trial of Marcus Caelius. But as the philosophers point out, the single trunk of a tree, so clear to see at its base, becomes increasingly obscure the farther one proceeds into the branches.

I didn't have to look up to know that Clodia had finished her business in the temple and was silently descending the steps toward me. I smelled her perfume.

Chapter Fifteen

I stepped from Clodia's litter onto the street in front of my house just as the last of the day's light was retreating from the rooftops into the ether. The red and white striped litter departed. The stamping feet of Clodia's bodyguards left a haze of dust in their wake, which made the empty, twilit street even murkier. I rapped on my door, but Belbo was slow in opening it.

Some apprehension-a tap on the shoulder from Fortune, as they say-caused me to glance over my shoulder. Across the street I saw the figure of a man. He wore a toga, and from his pose he appeared to be standing still and watching me. I turned and rapped on the door again. I tried the latch, just in case the door might have been left unbarred. It had not. I looked over my shoulder again.

The figure had moved closer, into the middle of the street. In the dimness and dust I could make out nothing but a silhouette.

Where was Belbo when I needed him? No need to take along the hulking brute, Trygonion had told me when I left the house. You'll be in the litter. It's well guarded. Now I found myself alone on my own doorstep, without a bodyguard, without a weapon. I rapped on the door again, then turned to face the man. If I was to be stabbed, I'd prefer to look him in the eye rather than have my back turned. Of course, the man was probably just some passing stranger, I told myself, even as I went through the catalogue in my mind of all those who might want to put a stop to any further investigation into the murder of Dio – King Ptolemy, Pompey, Marcus Caelius, Clodius's enemy Milo, whose gang had just threatened Clodia in the Forum-men notorious for using whatever means were necessary to snuff out their opposition.

The figure drew nearer, taking halting steps. It was the way he walked that frightened me. If he knew me, why didn't he simply walk up to me, or call my name? If he was merely passing by, crossing the street on his way to some destination, why did he approach in such a hesitant fashion?

I suddenly remembered the stalker who had followed us up the Ramp on the previous night, the figure who had abruptly turned and fled back into the darkness.

"Citizen," I said, finding my voice. "Do I know you?"

A puff of wind caused the dust that hung in the air to swirl and disperse. Somewhere far above the earth a bit of cloud caught a dying ray of light and cast a faint glow into the gloomy street, and I caught a glimpse of the stranger's face. Surely not an assassin, I thought. Not with a face like that…

Still, my heart began to pound in my chest.

The door rattled. From inside I heard the sound of the bar being lifted. The door swung open and I quickly stepped back, colliding with something and turning to see Belbo smiling down at me sheepishly. "Sorry to take so long, Master. The mistress insisted that I come help her-"

"Never mind, Belbo. Do you know that man?"

"What man, Master?"

The figure had vanished, as quickly and surely as the dust in the air swirled and vanished at the least puff of wind. I peered up and down the street.

"Who was it, Master?"

"I don't know, Belbo. Perhaps nobody."

"Nobody?"

"A stranger, I mean. A man who just happened to be passing by. No one at all."

Even so, later that night I found myself remembering the young man's face-a dark, gaunt face with a scraggly beard and piercing eyes. It was a face marked by some terrible catastrophe, with the kind of look one sees on men of a fallen city, numb with despair except for eyes suffused with a hopeless longing too poignant to bear. The memory of it made me shiver. It was not a face I would care to see again.

I was in time for dinner. Bethesda received my compliments on her ragout of lamb with lentils with a barely perceptible nod and commented that Diana had done most of the cooking.

A courier from Clodia arrived some time later, bearing the silver she had promised. She must have counted out the coins herself. They smelled faintly of her perfume.

As we prepared for bed, Bethesda asked me how my work was going. Suspecting that Diana had reported everything she had overheard me discussing with Eco, I gave as perfunctory an answer as I could without telling an untruth.

"And what did that woman want with you this afternoon?" she said, unbelting her stola.

"She wanted to hear what I had to report." I said nothing about the alleged new poison plot or Clodia's scheme to send me to the Senian baths.

"That woman has sent you down the wrong path, you know."

"The wrong path?"

"Going after Marcus Caelius."

"But Bethesda, 'everybody knows' that Caelius is involved."

Bethesda let the stola fall and stepped out of it, standing nude for a moment. "You tease me by pretending that I would believe a thing simply because it's gossip. Why? Because I'm a woman? You're the one paying heed to gossip." She reached for her sleeping gown and pulled it on. I tried to imagine her in a gown made of transparent silk from Cos. Bethesda saw the look on my face and softened a bit. "You have no reason to suspect Caelius, only that woman's word for it. It would be a terrible thing for a young man to be punished for a crime he did not commit."

"And if he did commit the crime?"

She shook her head and began to pull out the various pins and clasps that held her hair up. She sat down in front of her mirror at the little table that held her boxes of cosmetics and unguents, and began to brush her hair. She seemed a little surprised but made no protest when I took the brush and began to do it for her. Nor did she protest when I put down the brush and ran my hands over her shoulders, then bent down to press my lips to her throat.

We made love that night with a heat that staved off the chill in the room. I tried very hard not to think of Clodia. I might have succeeded had it not been for her perfume. It had permeated my clothing and my skin. It had gotten onto my hands from touching her silver and thus onto Bethesda. The smell was faint, elusive, insidious. As soon as I would forget about it, lost in the tangle of Bethesda's hair, there it would be again, filling my head and conjuring up images beyond my control.

The next morning Eco came by with news of the slave girl Zotica. The previous afternoon, while I had traversed the city in Clodia's litter, he had made his way to the Street of the Scythemakers and located the slave dealer.

"Zotica is no longer in Rome," he said. "The dealer claims he tried to place her in a rich man's household, figuring he could fetch the highest price by returning her to the type of place she came from. But apparently the marks on her body were a little more apparent than Coponius let on. Nobody wanted her for a serving girl or a handmaiden. The man ended up selling her to another dealer who specializes in pleasure slaves."

"So she ended up in a brothel?"

"Maybe, but not in Rome. The second dealer hemmed and hawed and held out his hand for some coins and finally remembered that he had her sent with a consignment of slaves down to an establishment in Puteoli."

"I'll repay you for the bribe, Eco. Meanwhile, what do you think it would cost to buy such a slave girl?" I produced the little bag of silver that Clodia had lent me.

"Considerably less than that," said Eco. "Where did it come from?"

I explained.

"Clodia is a sharp woman," he said. "More and more I long to meet her. If only my father didn't keep getting in the way."

"Clodia could eat us both for breakfast, suck out the marrow and turn our knucklebones into dice without batting an eye."

"That might be a memorable experience."

"I advise you to stick with Menenia, and also to stick to the subject."

"Then I'll say it again: Clodia is a sharp woman. It's a clever idea, trying to buy those slaves from under Lucceius's nose. Of course, a fellow could get killed trying to do something like that."

"You needn't worry about it."

"Papa, I was joking. Of course I'll go up to Picenum to see if I can find these slaves, and find out what they know. And if it's at all possible, I'll bring them back with me for the trial."

"No, you won't."

"Papa, you're not thinking of doing it yourself?" "No."

"Then it's up to me. I dread the saddle sores, but Menenia has a treatment for that which I'll look forward to."

"No, Eco, you won't be going up to Picenum. But you can get just as saddle-sore riding down to Puteoli and back."

"Puteoli? Papa, surely you don't want me to go chasing after Zotica instead of finding the kitchen slaves who may hold the key to everything? There's no way that I can do both. Picenum is north, Puteoli is south, and the trial starts in three days. I'll barely have time to get to either of those places and back. It's one or the other."

"Yes. Well, then, it's Zotica."

"Papa!"

"Eco, you must do as I ask."

"Papa, you're letting sentiment cloud your judgment." "Sentiment has nothing to do with it."

He shook his head. "Papa, I know how your mind works. You think for some reason that it's up to you to redeem this slave girl. Very well – but there'll be plenty of time for that after the trial is over. Right now it's those two slaves up in Picenum that we need. That's a dubious enough prospect, given all the complications that could arise, but at least it makes sense. At least it wouldn't be a waste of my time."

"So you think you'll be wasting your time if you go down to Puteoli to find Zotica and find out what she knows."

"Yes, a terrible waste of time, considering how little we have. What could this Zotic