has no shame. In the company of her little circle, she plays the lute-better than our best-trained slave, I have to admit. And she dances for them.' He grimaced. 'I told her such behavior was indecent, com-pletely unsuitable for a consul's wife. She says that when she dances, the gods and goddesses speak through her body, and her friends un-derstand what they see, even if I don't. We've had so many rows, I've almost given up rowing about it.'

He sighed. 'I'll give her this: she's not a bad mother. Sempronia has done a good job raising little Decimus. And despite her youth, her performance of official duties as consul's wife has been impeccable. Nor has she shamed me publicly. She's kept her… eccentricities… confined to this house. But… '

He seemed to run dry. His chin dropped to his chest.

'One of her duties,' I prompted him, 'is to oversee society news in the Daily Acts, is it not?'

He nodded. He squinted for a moment at Sempronia's portrait, then turned his back to it. 'Lucius explained to you the cause for my concern?'

'Only in the most discreet fashion.'

'Then I shall be explicit. Understand, Finder, the subject is… acutely embarrassing. Lucius tells me you can keep your mouth shut. If I'm wrong, if my suspicions are unfounded, I can't have news of my foolishness spread all over the Forum. And if I'm right-if what I suspect is true-I can afford the scandal even less.'

'I understand, Consul.'

He stepped very close, peered at my face, and seemed satisfied.

'Well, then… where to begin? With that damned charioteer, I suppose.'

'A charioteer?'

'Diocles. You've heard of him?' I nodded. 'He races for the Reds.'

'I wouldn't know. I don't follow the sport. But I'm told that Diocles is quite famous. And rich, richer even than Roscius the actor. Scandalous, that racers and actors should be wealthier than senators nowadays. Our ancestors would be appalled!'

I doubted that my own ancestors would be quite as upset as those of Decimus Brutus, but I nodded and tried to bring him back to the subject. 'This Diocles…'

'One of my wife's circle of friends. Only… closer than a friend.'

'A suspicion, Consul? Or do you have sure knowledge?'

'I have eyes in my head!' He seemed to realize the irony of claiming his feeble eyesight as reliable witness, and sighed. 'I never caught them in the act, if that's what you mean. I have no proof. But every time she had her circle in this house, lolling about on couches and reciting to each other, the two of them seemed always to end up in a corner by themselves. Whispering… laughing…' He ground his jaw. 'I won't be made a fool of, allowing my wife to sport with her lover under my own roof! I grew so furious the last time he was here, I… I made a scene. I chased them all out, and I told Sempronia that Diocles was never again to enter this house. When she protested, I commanded her never to speak with him again. I'm her husband. It's my right to say with whom she can and cannot consort! Sempronia knows that. Why could she not simply defer to my will? Instead she had to argue. She badgered me like a harpy-I never heard such language from a woman! All the more evidence, if I needed any, that her relationship with that man was beyond decency. In the end, I banned her entire circle of friends, and I ordered Sempronia not to leave the house, even for official obligations. When her duties call, she simply has to say, 'The consul's wife regrets that illness prevents her.' It's been like that for almost a month now. The tension in this house… '

'But she does has one official duty left.'

'Yes, her dictation of society items for the Daily Acts. She needn't leave the house for that. Senators' wives come calling-respectable visitors are still welcome-and they give her all the tidbits she needs. If you ask me, the society section is terribly tedious, even more so than the sporting news. I give it no more than a quick glance to see if family are mentioned, and their names spelled correctly. Sempro-nia knows that. That's why she thought she could send her little message to Diocles through the Daily Acts, undetected.'

He glanced at the portrait and worked his jaw back and forth. 'It was the word 'bookworm' that caught my eye. When we were first married, that was the pet name she gave me: 'My old bookworm.' I suppose she calls me that behind my back now, laughing and joking with the likes of that charioteer!'

'And 'Sappho'?'

'Her friends call her that sometimes.'

'Why do you assume the blind item is addressed to Diocles?'

'Despite my lack of interest in racing, I do know a thing or two about that particular charioteer-more than I care to! The name of his lead horse is Sparrow. How does the message start? 'The bookworm pokes his head outside tomorrow. Easy prey for the sparrow… ' Tomorrow I'll be at the Circus Maximus, to make a public appearance at the races.'

'And your wife?'

'Sempronia will remain confined to this house. I have no intention of allowing her to publicly ogle Diocles in his chariot!' 'Won't you be surrounded by bodyguards?'

'In the midst of such a throng, who knows what opportunities might arise for some 'accident' to befall me? In the Forum or the Senate House I feel safe, but the Circus Maximus is Diocles's territory. He must know every blind corner, every hiding place. And… there's the matter of my eyesight. I'm more vulnerable than other men, and I know it. So does Sempronia. So must Diocles.'

'Let me be sure I understand, Consul: You take this item to be a communication between your wife and Diocles, and the subject is a plot on your life… but you have no other evidence, and you want me to determine the truth of the matter?'

'I'll make it worth your while.'

'Why turn to me, Consul? Surely a man like yourself has agents of his own, a finder he trusts to ferret out the truth about his allies and enemies.'

Decimus Brutus nodded haltingly.

'Then why not give this mission to your own finder?'

'I had such a fellow, yes. Called Scorpus. Not long after I banned Diocles from the house, I set Scorpus to find the truth about the charioteer and my wife.'

'What did he discover?'

'I don't know. Some days ago, Scorpus went missing.' 'Missing?'

'Until yesterday. His body was fished out of the Tiber, downriver from Rome. Not a mark on him. They say he must have fallen in and drowned. Very strange.'

'How so?'

'Scorpus was an excellent swimmer.'

I left the consul's house with a list of everyone Decimus Brutus could name from his wife's inner circle, and a pouch full of silver. The pouch contained half my fee, the remainder to be paid upon the consul's satisfaction. If his suspicions were correct, and if I failed him, I would never collect. Dead men pay no debts.

For the rest of the day and long into the night, I learned all I could about the consul's wife and the charioteer. My friend Lucius Claudius might move among the rich and powerful, but I had contacts of my own. The best informants on Sempronia's circle of intimates, I decided, would be found at the Senian Baths. Such a close-knit group would visit the baths socially, in couples or groups, the men going to their facility and the women to theirs. Massage and a hot soak loosen the tongue; the absence of the opposite gender engenders even greater candor. What masseurs, masseuses, water bearers, and towel boys fail to overhear is hardly worth knowing.

Were Diocles and Sempronia lovers? Maybe, maybe not. According to my informants at the baths, reporting secondhand the gossip of Sempronia's circle, Diocles was notorious for his sharp tongue, and Sempronia had an ear for cutting remarks; there might be noth-ing more to their relationship than whispering and laughing in corners. Sempronia chose her friends, male and female alike, because they amused her or pleased her eye or stimulated her intellect. No one considered her a slave to passion; the abandon with which she danced or declaimed her verses was only part of her persona, one small facet of the steel-willed girl who had made herself a consul's wife and had read every volume in the consul's study.

Regarding a plot against the consul, I heard not a whisper. Sempronia's circle resented her confinement and their banishment from the consul's house, but the impression passed on by the bathing at-tendants was more of amusement than of outrage. Sempronia's friends considered Decimus Brutus a doddering, harmless fool. They playfully wagered among themselves how long it would take Sempronia to bend the old bookworm to her will and

Вы читаете A Gladiator Dies Only Once
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату