resume her social life.

One discovery surprised me. If I were to believe the bathing attendants, Sertorius, the renegade general in Spain, was a far hotter topic of conversation among Sempronia's circle than was the consul, his wife, and the charioteer. Like my friend Lucius Claudius, they believed that Sertorius intended to wrest the Spanish provinces from Rome and make himself a king. Unlike Lucius, Sempronia's friends, within the whispered hush of their own circle, applauded Sertorius and his rebellion.

Decimus Brutus had dismissed his wife's friends as frivolous people, careless of appearances, naive about politics. I tried to imagine the appeal a rebel like Sertorius might hold for such dilettantes. Were they merely infatuated by the bittersweet glamour that emanates from a desperate cause?

From the baths, I moved on to the Circus Maximus, or, more pre-cisely, to the several taverns, brothels, and gambling dens in the vicinity of the racetrack. I paid bribes when I had to, but often I had only to drop the name of Diocles to get an earful. The consensus among the circus crowd was that the charioteer's tastes ran to young athletes, and always had. His current fascination was a Nubian acro-bat who performed publicly during the intervals between races, and was thought to perform privately, after the races, in Diocles's bed-chamber. Of course, the Nubian might have been only a cover for another, more illicit affair; or Diocles, when it came to his lovers, might have been something of a juggler himself.

If Sempronia's circle was abuzz about Sertorius, the circus crowd, disdainful of politics, was abuzz about the next day's races. I had a nagging sense that some of my informants were hiding something. Amid the horse talk and the rattle of dice, the raucous laughter and the cries of 'Venus!' for luck, I sensed an edge of uneasiness, even foreboding. Perhaps it was only a general outbreak of nerves on the night before a racing day. Or perhaps, by then, I had shared too much wine with too many wagging tongues to see things clearly.

Still, it seemed to me that something untoward was afoot at the Circus Maximus.

Cocks were crowing when I left the neighborhood of the circus, trudged across Rome, and dragged myself up the Esquiline Hill. Bethesda was waiting up for me. Her eyes lit up at the sight of the pouch of silver, somewhat depleted by expenditures, which she eagerly snatched from my hands and deposited in the empty household coffer.

A few hours later, my head aching from too much wine and too little sleep, I found myself back in the consul's study. I had agreed to arrive at his house an hour before the first race to deliver my report, such as it was.

I told him all I had learned. The secondhand gossip of bathing attendants and tavern drunks seemed trivial as I recounted it, but Decimus Brutus listened in silence and nodded gravely when I was done. He squinted at the portrait of his wife.

'Nothing, then! Scorpus is drowned, and the Finder finds nothing. Have you outsmarted me after all, Sempronia?'

The portrait made no reply.

'I'm not done yet, Consul,' I told him. 'I shall attend the races today. I'll keep my eyes and ears open. I may yet-'

'Yes, yes, as you wish.' Decimus Brutus vaguely waved his hand to dismiss me, never taking his furiously squinting eyes from the image of Sempronia.

A slave escorted me from the consul's study. In the atrium, a small retinue crossed our path. We paused as the train of women flitted past, escorting their mistress from one part of the house to an-other. I peered into their midst and glimpsed a wealth of auburn hair set with pearls. Green eyes met mine and stared back. Hands clapped, and the retinue came to a halt.

Sempronia stepped forward. Decimus Brutus had been correct: the picture did not do her beauty justice. She was taller than I expected. Even through the bulky drapery of her stola, her figure sug-gested a lithesome elegance that carried through to the delicacy of her long hands and graceful neck. She flashed the aloof, challenging smile which her portraitist had captured so well.

'You're new. One of my husband's men?' she said.

'I… had business with the consul,' I said.

She looked me up and down. 'There are circles under your eyes. You look as if you were out all night. Sometimes men get into trouble, staying up late… poking their noses where they shouldn't.'

There was a glint in her eye. Was she baiting me? I should have kept my mouth shut, but I didn't. 'Like Scorpus? I hear he got into trouble.'

She pretended to look puzzled. 'Scorpus? Oh, yes, my husband's all-purpose sneak. Scorpus drowned.'

'I know.'

'Odd. He could swim like a dolphin.'

'So I heard.'

'It could happen to anyone.' She sighed. Her smile faded. I saw a glimmer of sympathy in her eyes, and a look that chilled my blood. Such a pleasant fellow, her look seemed to say. What a pity it would be if one had to kill you!

Sempronia rejoined her retinue, and I was shown to the door.

By the time I reached the Circus Maximus, all Rome seemed to have poured into the long, narrow valley between the Palatine and Aventine Hills. I pushed through the crowds lined up at the food and bev-erage shops tucked under the stands, stepping on toes and dodging elbows until I came to the entrance I was looking for. Inside the stadium, the seats were already thronged with spectators. Many wore red or white, or waved little red or white banners to show their affiliation. I swept my eyes over the elongated inner oval of the stadium, dazzled by the crazy patchwork of red and white, like blood spattered on snow.

Restless and eager for the races to begin, spectators clapped, stamped their feet, and took up chants and ditties. Cries of 'Diocles in red! Quicker done than said!' competed with 'White! White!

Fast as spite!'

A high-pitched voice pierced the din-'Gordianus! Over here!' — and I located Lucius Claudius. He sat by the aisle, patting an empty cushion beside him. 'Here, Gordianus! I received your message this morning, and dutifully saved you a seat. Better than last time, don't you think? Not too high, not too low, with a splendid view of the finish line.'

More important, the consular box was nearby, a little below us and to our right. As I took my seat, I saw a silvery head emerge from the box's private entrance. Decimus Brutus and his fellow consul Lepidus were arriving along with their entourages. He had made it safely to the circus, at least. Partisan chants were drowned out by cheers. The two consuls turned and waved to the crowd.

'Poor Deci,' said Lucius. 'He thinks they're cheering him. The fact is, they're cheering his arrival, because now the races can begin!'

There was a blare of trumpets and then more cheering as the grand procession commenced. Statues of the gods and goddesses were paraded around the racetrack on carts, led by Victory with wings outspread. As Venus passed-favorite of gamblers as well as lovers-coins showered down from the crowd and were scooped up by her priests. The procession of gods ended with an enormous gilded statue of Jupiter on his throne, borne upon a cart so large it took twenty men to pull it.

Next came the charioteers who would be racing that day, slowly circling the track in chariots festooned with the color of their team, red or white. To many in the stands, they were heroes larger than life. There was a chant for every racer, and chants for the lead horses as well. The noise of all the competing chants ringing out at once was deafening.

Never having been a gambler or a racing aficionado, I recognized few of the charioteers, but even I knew Diocles, the most renowned of the Reds. He was easy to spot by the extraordinary width of his shoulders, his bristling beard, and his flowing mane of jet-black hair. As he passed before us, grinning and waving to the crowd, I tried to see the reaction of Decimus Brutus, but I was able to see only the back of the consul's head. Did Diocles's smile turn sarcastic as he passed the consular box, or did I only imagine it?

The procession ended. The track was cleared. The first four char-iots took their places in the starting traps at the north end of the cir-cus. Two White chariots, a principal along with a second-stringer to regulate the pace and run interference, would race against two Red chariots.

'Did you get a racing card?' Lucius held up a wooden tablet. Many in the stands were using them to fan themselves; all around the red-and-white checkered stadium, I saw the flutter of racing cards.

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