'Squinting at wax tablets gives me eyestrain.' Lucius sipped his broth. 'Anyway, I didn't ask you here to critique my personal pleasures, Gordianus. There's something in the Daily that I want you to see.'

'What, the news about that rebellious Roman general terrorizing


'Quintus Sertorius!' Lucius shifted his considerable bulk. 'He'll soon have the whole Iberian Peninsula under his control. The natives there hate Rome, but they adore Sertorius. What can our two consuls be thinking, failing to bring military assistance to the provincial government? Decimus Brutus, much as I love the old bookworm, is no fighter, I'll grant you; hard to imagine him leading an expedition. But his fellow consul Lepidus is a military veteran; fought for Sulla in the Civil War. How can those two sit idly on their behinds while Sertorius creates a private kingdom for himself in Spain?'

'All that's in the Daily Acts?' I asked.

'Of course not!' Lucius snorted. 'Nothing but the official government line: situation under control, no cause for alarm. You'll find more details about the obscene earnings of charioteers than you'll find about Spain. What else can you expect? The Daily is a state organ put out by the government. Deci probably dictates every word of the war news himself.' 'Deci?'

'Decimus Brutus, of course; the consul.' With his ancient patrician connections, Lucius tended to be on a first-name basis, sometimes on a pet-name basis, with just about everybody in power. 'But you distract me, Gordianus. I didn't ask you here to talk about Sertorius. Decimus Brutus, yes; Sertorius, no. Here, have a look at this.' His bejeweled hand flitted over the pile and plucked a scroll for me to read.

'Society gossip?' I scanned the items. 'A's son engaged to B's daughter… C plays host to D at his country villa… E shares her famous family recipe for egg custard dating back to the days when Romulus suckled the she- wolf.' I grunted. 'All very interesting, but I don't see-'

Lucius leaned forward and tapped at the scroll. 'Read that part.


' 'The bookworm pokes his head outside tomorrow.

Easy prey for the sparrow, but partridges go hungry.

Bright-eyed Sappho says: Be suspicious!

A dagger strikes faster than lightning.

Better yet: an arrow.

Let Venus conquer all!''

Lucius sat back and crossed his fleshy arms. 'What do you make of it?'

'I believe it's called a blind item; a bit of gossip conveyed in code. No proper names, only clues that are meaningless to the uninitiated. Given the mention of Venus, I imagine this particular item is about some illicit love affair. I doubt I'd know the names involved even if they were clearly spelled out. You'd be more likely than I to know what all this means, Lucius.'

'Indeed. I'm afraid I do know, at least in part. That's why I called you here today, Gordianus. I have a dear friend who needs your help.'

I raised an eyebrow. Lucius's rich and powerful connections had yielded me lucrative work before; they had also put me in great dan-ger. 'What friend would that be, Lucius?'

He raised a finger. The slaves around us silently withdrew into the house. 'Discretion, Gordianus. Discretion! Read the item again.'

'The bookworm-''

'And whom did I call a bookworm only a moment ago?' I blinked. 'Decimus Brutus, the consul.' Lucius nodded. 'Read on.'

' 'The bookworm pokes his head outside tomorrow…'' 'Deci will venture to the Circus Maximus tomorrow, to watch the races from the consular box.' ' 'Easy prey for the sparrow…''

'Draw your own conclusion from that-especially with the men-tion of daggers and arrows later on!'

I raised an eyebrow. 'You think there's a plot against the consul's life, based on a blind item in the Daily Acts? It seems far-fetched, Lucius.'

'It's not what I think. It's what Deci himself thinks. The poor fel-low's in a state; came to my house and roused me out of bed an hour ago, desperate for advice. He needs someone to get to the bottom of this, quietly and quickly. I told him I knew just the man: Gordianus the Finder;'

'Me?' I scowled at an olive pit between my forefinger and thumb. 'Since the Daily is a state organ, surely Decimus Brutus himself, as consul, is in the best position to determine where this item came from and what it really means. To start, who wrote it?'

'That's precisely the problem.'

'I don't understand.'

'Do you see the part about 'Sappho' and her advice?' 'Yes.'

'Gordianus, who do you think writes and edits the Daily Acts?' I shrugged. 'I never thought about it.'

'Then I shall tell you. The consuls themselves dictate the items about politics and foreign policy, giving their own official viewpoint. The drier parts-trade figures, livestock counts and such-are compiled by clerks in the censor's office. Sporting news comes from the magistrates in charge of the Circus Maximus. Augurs edit the stories that come in about weird lightning flashes, comets, curiously shaped vegetables, and other omens. But who do you think oversees the society news-weddings and birth announcements, social engage-ments, 'blind items,' as you call them?'

'A woman named Sappho?'

'A reference to the poet of ancient Lesbos. The consul's wife is something of a poet herself.'

'The wife of Decimus Brutus?'

'She wrote that item.' Lucius leaned forward and lowered his voice. 'Deci thinks she means to kill him, Gordianus.'

'My wife…' The consul cleared his throat noisily. He brushed a hand nervously through his silvery hair and paced back and forth across the large study, from one pigeon-hole bookcase to another, his fingers idly brushing the little title tags that hung from the scrolls. Outside the library at Alexandria, I had never seen so many books in one place, not even in Cicero's house.

The consul's house was near the Forum, only a short walk from that of Lucius Claudius. I had been admitted at once; thanks to Lucius, my visit was expected. Decimus Brutus dismissed a cadre of secretaries and ushered me into his private study. He dispensed with formalities. His agitation was obvious.

'My wife…' He cleared his throat again. Decimus Brutus, high-est magistrate in the land, used to giving campaign speeches in the Forum and orations in the courts, seemed unable to begin.

'She's certainly beautiful,' I said, gazing at the portrait that graced one of the few spaces on the wall not covered by bookcases. It was a small picture, done in encaustic wax on wood, yet it domi-nated the room. A young woman of remarkable beauty gazed out from the picture. Strings of pearls adorned the masses of auburn hair done up with pearl-capped pins atop her head. More pearls hung from her ears and around her throat. The chaste simplicity of her jewelry contrasted with a glint in her green eyes that was challeng-ing, aloof, almost predatory.

Decimus Brutus stepped closer to the painting. He lifted his chin and squinted, drawing so close that his nose practically brushed the wax.

'Beautiful, yes,' he murmured. 'The artist didn't capture even a fraction of her beauty. I married her for it; for that, and to have a son. Sempronia gave me both, her beauty and a baby boy. And do you know why she married me?' The consul stepped disconcertingly close and peered at me. With another man, I would have taken such proximate scrutiny as an intimidation, but the myopic consul was merely straining to read my expression.

He sighed. 'Sempronia married me for my books. I know, it sounds absurd-a woman who reads! — but there it is: she didn't as-sent to the marriage until she saw this room, and that made up her mind. She's read every volume here-more than I have! She even writes a bit herself-poetry and such. Her verses are too… passionate… for my taste.'

He cleared his throat again. 'Sempronia, you see, is not like other women. Sometimes I think the gods gave her the soul of a man. She reads like a man. She converses like a man. She has her own motley circle of friends- poets, playwrights, dubious women. When Sempronia has them over, the witticisms roll off her tongue. She even appears to think. She has opinions, anyway. Opinions on everything-art, racing, architecture, even politics! And she

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