paid, of course, if that's what you're worried about. In fact, I'm authorized to offer you five times your regular daily pay, considering the inconvenience and the.. travel,' he said cautiously. 'Five days of guaranteed pay, plus all your lodging and expenses.'

He had my full attention. From the comer of my eye I saw Eco raise an eyebrow, counselling me to be shrewd; children of the streets grow up to be hard bargainers. 'Very generous, Marcus Mummius, very generous,' I said. 'Of course you may not realize that I had to raise my rates only last month. Prices in Rome keep shooting up, what with this slave revolt and the invincible Spartacus rampaging through the countryside, spreading chaos-'

'Invincible?' Mummius seemed personally offended. 'Spartacus invincible? We'll soon see about that.'

'Invincible when confronted by a Roman army, I mean. The Spartacans have beaten every contingent sent against them; they've even sent two Roman consuls running home in disgrace. I suppose that when Pompey-'

'Pompey!' Mummius spat the name.

'Yes, I suppose that when Pompey finally manages to bring back his troops from Spain, the revolt will be quickly disposed of…' I rambled on only because the topic seemed to irritate my guest, and I wanted to keep him distracted while I drove up my price.

Mummius cooperated gloriously, pacing, gnashing his teeth, glowering. But it seemed he would not descend to gossiping about a subject as important as the slave revolt. 'We'll see about that,' was all he would mutter, trying feebly to interrupt me. Finally he raised his voice to command level and effectively cut me off. 'We'll soon see about Spartacus! Now, then, you were saying something about your rates.'

I cleared my throat and took a sip of warm wine. 'Yes. Well, as I was saying, with prices wildly out of control-'

'Yes, yes-'

'Well, I don't know what you or your employer may have heard about my rates. I don't know how you obtained my name or who recommended me.'

'Never mind that.'

'All right. Though you did say five times…' 'Yes, five times your daily pay!' trying to sound professionally cool while fountains of silver coins splashed in my head. Four hundred sesterces a day, multiplied by five guaranteed days of work, equalled two thousand sesterces. At last I could have the back wall of the house repaired, have new tiles laid to replace the cracked ones in the atrium, perhaps even afford a new slave girl to help Bethesda with her duties…

Mummius nodded gravely. 'It's as important a case as you're ever likely to be called for.'

'And sensitive, I take it.'


'Requiring discretion.'

'Great discretion,' he agreed.

'I assume that more than mere property is at stake. Honour, then?'

'More than honour,' said Mummius gravely, with a haunted look in his eyes.

'A life, then? A life at stake?' From the look on his face I knew that we were talking about a case of murder. A fat fee, a mysterious client, a murder — I had no resistance left. I did my best to make my face a blank.

Mummius looked very grave — the way that men look on a battlefield, not in the rush of excitement before the killing, but afterwards, amid the carnage and despair. 'Not a life,' he said slowly, 'not merely a single life at stake, but many lives. Scores of lives — men, women, children — all hang in the balance. Unless something is done to stop it, blood will flow like water, and the wailing of babies will be heard in the very Jaws of Hades.'

I finished my wine and set it aside. 'Marcus Mummius, will you not tell me outright who sent you, and what it is you want me to do?'

He shook his head. 'I've said too much as it is. Perhaps, by the time we arrive, the crisis will be over, the problem solved, and there'll be no need for you after all. In that case, it's best that you know nothing, now or ever.'

'No explanation?'

'None. But you'll be paid, no matter what.'

I nodded. 'How long will we be away from Rome?'

'Five days, as I said before.'

'You seem very sure.'

'Five days,' he assured me, 'and then you can return to Rome. Unless it's sooner. But no longer than that. In five days all will be finished, one way or another, for better… or for worse.'

'I see,' I said, not seeing at all. 'And where exactly are we going?'

Mummius pressed his Lips tightly shut.

'Because,' I said, 'I'm not at all sure that I care to be traipsing about the countryside just now, without even an idea of where I'm headed. There's a little slave revolt going on; I believe we were discussing it only a moment ago. My sources in the countryside tell me that unnecessary travel is highly inadvisable.'

'You'll be safe,' Mummius snapped with authority.

'Then I have your word as a soldier — or is it ex-soldier? — that I won't be placed in tactical jeopardy?'

Mummius narrowed his eyes. 'I said you'll be safe.'

'Very well. Then I think I shall leave Belbo here, for Bethesda's protection; I'm sure your employer can supply me with a bodyguard if I require it. But I shall want to bring Eco with me. I take it your employer's generosity will extend to feeding him and giving him a place to sleep?'

He looked over his shoulder at Eco with a sceptical gleam in his eye. 'He's only a boy.'

'Eco is eighteen; he put on his first manly toga over two years ago.'

'Mute, isn't he?'

'Yes. Ideal for a soldier, I should think.' Mummius grunted. 'I suppose you can take him.' 'When do we leave?' I asked. 'As soon as you're ready.' 'In the morning, then?'

He looked at me as if I were a lazy legionnaire asking for a nap before a battle. The commander's edge returned to his voice. 'No, as soon as you're ready! We've wasted enough time as it is!'

'Very well,' I yawned. 'I'll just tell Bethesda to gather up a few of my things-'

'That won't be necessary.' Mummius pulled himself up to his full height, still weary-looking but happy to be in charge at last. 'Anything you need will be supplied to you.'

Of course; a client willing to pay four hundred sesterces a day could certainly supply mere necessities like a change of clothing or a comb or a slave to carry my things. 'Then I'll take only a moment to say good-bye to Bethesda.'

I was stepping out of the room when Mummius cleared his throat. 'Just to be sure,' he said, looking at me and Eco in turn, 'I don't suppose either one of you has a problem with seasickness?'


'But where is the man taking you?' Bethesda demanded to know. (Yes, 'demanded'; never mind her status as a slave. If her impertinence seems unlikely, that is because you have not met Bethesda.) 'Who is he? What makes you think he can be trusted? What if he's been sent by one of your old enemies, just to lure you away from the city where he can slit your throat with no one to see?'

'Bethesda, if someone cared to slit my throat, they could go to far less trouble and do the job right here in the Subura. They could hire an assassin on any street corner.'

'Yes, and that's why you have Belbo to protect you. Why aren't you taking him with you?'

'Because I would rather he stayed here to protect you and the other slaves in my absence, so that I won't have to worry about you while I'm gone.'

Even roused from sleep in the middle of the night, Bethesda was spectacular. Her hair, black with strands of silver, tumbled about her face in unkempt glory. Even pouting, she maintained that same air of unshakable dignity that had first drawn me to her in the slave market at Alexandria fifteen years ago. I felt a shiver of doubt, as I always do at parting with her. The world is an unsafe and uncertain place, and the life I have chosen often courts danger. I learned long ago not to show my doubts. Bethesda did the opposite.

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