'No?' said Lucius. 'Never mind, you can refer to mine. Let's see, first race of the day… ' The cards listed each charioteer, his color, and the name of the lead horse in his team of four. 'Principal Red: Musclosus, racing Ajax-a hero of a horse, to be sure! Second-string Red: Epaphroditus, racing a five-year-old called Spots-a new horse to me. For the Whites: Thallus, racing Suspicion, and his colleague Teres, racing Snowy. Now there's a silly name for a horse, don't you think, even if it is pure white. More suitable for a puppy, I should think-by Hercules, is that the starting trumpet?'

The four chariots leaped out of their traps and onto the track. Once past the white line, they furiously vied for the inner position alongside the spine that ran down the middle. Clouds of dust billowed behind them. Whips slithered and cracked as they made the first tight turn around the post at the end of the spine and headed back. The Reds were in the lead, with Epaphroditus the second-stringer successfully blocking the principal White to give his col-league a clear field, while the second-string White trailed badly, unable to assist. But in seven laps, a great deal could happen.

Lucius jumped up and down on his pillow. All around us, spectators began to place wagers with one another on the outcome.

'I'm for Snowy!' shouted the man across the aisle from Lucius.

A man several rows down turned and shouted back. 'The second-string White? Are you mad? I'll wager you ten to one against Snowy winning. How much?'

Such is the Roman way of gambling at the races: inspired by a flash of intuition and done on the spur of the moment, usually with a stranger sitting nearby. I smiled at Lucius, whose susceptibility to such spontaneous wagering was a running joke between us. 'Care to join that wager, Lucius?'

'Uh… no,' he answered, peering down at the track. Under his breath, I heard him mutter, 'Come on, Ajax! Come on!'

But Ajax did not win. Nor did the long-shot Snowy. By the final lap, it was Suspicion, the principal White, who had pulled into the lead, with no help from the second-string White, who remained far in the rear. It was a stunning upset. Even the Red partisans in the crowd cheered such a marvelous display of Fortune's favor.

'A good thing you didn't bet on Ajax,' I said to Lucius. He only grunted in reply and peered at his racing card.

As race followed race, it seemed to me that I had never seen Lucius so horse-mad, jumping up in excitement at each starting trumpet, cheering jubilantly when his favored horse won, but more often sulking when his horse lost, and yet never once placing a bet with anyone around us. He repeatedly turned his racing card over and scribbled figures on the back with a piece of chalk, muttering and shaking his head.

I was distracted by my friend's fidgeting, and even more by the statuelike demeanor of Decimus Brutus, who sat stiffly beside his colleague in the consular box. He was so still that I wondered if he had gone to sleep; with such poor eyesight, it was no wonder he had no interest in watching the races. Surely, I thought, no assassin would be so bold as to make an attempt on the life of a consul in broad day-light, with dozens of bodyguards and thousands of witnesses all around. Still, I was uneasy, and kept scanning the crowd for any signs of something untoward.

With so much on my mind, along with a persistent headache from the previous night's wine, I paid only passing attention to the races. As each winner was announced, the names of the horses barely registered in my ears: Lightning, Straight Arrow, Bright Eyes.

At last, it was time for the final race, in which Diocles would compete. A cheer went up as he drove his chariot toward the start-ing traps.

His horses were arrayed in splendid red trappings. A gold-plumed crest atop her head marked his lead horse, Sparrow, a tawny beauty with magnificent flanks. Diocles himself was outfitted entirely in red, except for a necklace of white. I squinted. 'Lucius, why should Diocles be wearing a scrap of anything white?'

'Is he?'

'Look, around his neck. Your eyes are as sharp as mine…' 'Pearls,' declared Lucius. 'Looks like a string of pearls. Rather precious for a charioteer.'

I nodded. Diocles had not been wearing them in the opening procession. It was the sort of thing a charioteer might put on for luck just before his race-a token from his lover…

Down in his box, Decimus Brutus sat as stiffly as ever, displaying no reaction. With his eyesight, there was little chance that he had noticed the necklace.

The trumpet blared. The chariots sprang forward. Diocles took the lead at once. The crowd roared. Diocles was their favorite; even the Whites loved him. I could see why. He was magnificent to watch. He never once used his whip, which stayed tucked into his belt the whole time, alongside his emergency dagger. There was magic in Diocles that day. Man and horses seemed to share a single will; his chariot was not a contraption but a creature, a synthesis of human control and equine speed. As he held and lengthened his lead lap after lap, the crowd's excitement grew to an almost intolerable pitch. When he thundered across the finish line there was not a spectator sitting. Women wept. Men screamed without sound, hoarse from so much shouting.

'Extraordinary!' declared Lucius.

'Yes,' I said, and felt a sudden flash of intuition, a moment of god-sent insight such as gamblers crave. 'Diocles is a magnificent racer. What a pity he should have fallen into such a scheme.'

'What? What's that you say?' Lucius cupped his ear against the roar of the crowd.

'Diocles has everything: skill, riches, the love of the crowd. He has no need to cheat.' I shook my head. 'Only love could have drawn him into such a plot.'

'A plot? What are you saying, Gordianus? What is it you see?'

'I see the pearls around his neck-look, he reaches up to touch them while he makes his victory lap. How he must love her. What man can blame him for that! But to be used by her in such a way… '

'The plot? Deci! Is Deci in danger?' Lucius peered down at the consular box. Even Decimus Brutus, ever the ingratiating politician, had risen to his feet to applaud Diocles along with the rest of the crowd.

'I think your friend Decimus Brutus need not fear for his life. Unless the humiliation might kill him.'

'Gordianus, what are you talking about?'

'Tell me, Lucius, why have you not wagered even once today? And what are those numbers you keep figuring on the back of your racing card?'

His florid face blushed even redder. 'Well, if you must know, Gordianus, I… I'm afraid I… I've lost rather a lot of money today.'


'Something… something new. A betting circle… set up by perfectly respectable people.' 'You wagered ahead of time?'

'I put a little something on each race. Well, it makes sense, doesn't it? If you know the horses, and you place your bet on the best team ahead of time, with a cool head, rather than during the heat of the race…'

'Yet you've lost over and over today, far more often than you've won.'

'Fortune is fickle.'

I shook my head. 'How many others are in this 'betting circle'?'

He shrugged. 'Everyone I know. Well, everyone who is anyone. Only the best people-you know what I mean.'

'Only the richest people. How much money did the organizers of this betting scheme take in today, I wonder? And how much will they actually have to pay out?'

'Gordianus, what are you getting at?'

'Lucius, consult your racing card. You've noted all the winners with a chalk mark. Read them off to me-not the color or the driver, just the horses' names.'

'Suspicion-that was the first race. Then Lightning… Straight Arrow… Bright Eyes… Golden Dagger… Partridge… Oh! By Hercules! Gordianus, you don't think-that item in the Daily…'

I quoted from memory. ' '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!' From 'Sappho' to 'Sparrow,' a list of horses-and every one a winner.'

'But how could that be?'

'I know this much: Fortune had nothing to do with it.'

I left the crowded stadium and hurried through the empty streets. Decimus Brutus would be detained by the

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