'It's a great deal of money,' I told her. She snorted. 'If he tells the truth.'

'I think he does. A man doesn't survive in a city like Rome for as long as I have without gaining a grain of judgment. Marcus Mummius is honest, insofar as he can be. Not very forthcoming, I'll admit-'

'But he won't even tell you who sent him!'

'Indeed, he won't tell me, but he openly admits that he won't. In other words, he tells the truth.'

Bethesda made a rude noise with her lips. 'You sound like one of those orators you're always working for, like that ridiculous Cicero, saying truth is a he and a lie is the truth, however it happens to suit you.'

I bit my tongue and took a deep breath. 'Trust me, Bethesda. I've stayed alive until now, haven't I?' I looked into her eyes and thought I saw a slight warmth amid the cold fire. I laid my hand on her shoulder. She shrugged it off and turned away. So it always goes.

I stepped closer and put my hands on the back of her neck, sliding them under the cascades of her hair. She had no right to refuse me, and did not draw away, but she stiffened at my touch and held her head high, even when I bent to kiss her ear. 'I will come back,' I said. 'After five days I return. So the man promises.'

I saw her cheeks tighten and her jaw tremble. She blinked rapidly, and I noticed the fan of wrinkles that time had gathered at the outer corner of her eye. She stared at the blank wall before her. 'It would be different if I knew where you were going.'

I smiled. Bethesda had known only two cities in her life, Alexandria and Rome, and except for the voyage between has never ventured a mile outside either one. What could it matter to her whether I was going to Cumae or Carthage?

'Well,' I sighed, 'if it will give you any comfort, I suspect that Eco and I will be spending the next few days somewhere in the vicinity of Baiae. You've heard of it, haven't you?'

She nodded.

'It's a beautiful little region down the coast,' I said, 'inside the Cape of Misenum, situated on the bay which the locals call the Cup, across the water from Puteoli and Pompeii. They say the views of Capri and Vesuvius are quite splendid. The richest of the rich build fine homes on the seashore and bathe in hot mud.'

'But how do you know where you're going if the man won't tell you?'

'It's only a guess.'

Bethesda softened beneath my touch. She sighed, and I knew that she was reconciled to my going, and to the prospect of being the mistress of the house for a few days, having sole command over the other slaves. From previous experience, I knew that in my absence she was a thoroughly ruthless tyrant. I only hoped that Belbo would be able to bear up under her harsh rule. The thought made me smile.

I turned and saw that Eco waited in the doorway. For an instant his face held an expression of intense fascination; then he crossed his arms and rolled his eyes, as if to deny any interest or sympathy with the moment of tenderness he had interrupted. I quickly kissed Bethesda's cheek and turned to go.

Marcus Mummius was pacing in the vestibule, looking weary and impatient. He threw up his hands when I appeared and hurried out the door, not even waiting for me to catch up, only giving me a look over his shoulder that showed what he thought of wasting so much time to say good-bye to a woman, and a slave at that.

We hurried down the steep path that descends the Esquiline hill, watching for pitfalls by the light of Eco's torch. Where the path ended, spilling into the Subura Way, four horses and two men awaited us.

Mummius's men looked and acted like legionnaires out of uniform. Beneath their light woollen cloaks I caught the glint of knives, which made me feel safer at the prospect of venturing through Roman streets after dark. I reached inside my cloak and touched my own dagger. Mummius had said that all my needs would be supplied, but I preferred to bring my own weapon.

Mummius had not counted on Eco, so I was given the strongest mount and he rode behind me, clutching my waist. Where my body is broad and thick through the shoulders and chest (and in recent years, through the middle as well), Eco's is thin and wiry; his added weight was hardly enough for the beast to notice.

The evening was mild, with only a faint early-autumn chill in the air, but the streets were nearly deserted. In times of trouble, Romans shun the darkness and lock up their houses at sundown, leaving the streets to pimps, drunks, and thrill seekers. So it was in the turmoil of the civil wars and the gloomy years of Sulla's dictatorship; so it was again now that the revolt of the Spartacans was on everyone's lips. Terrifying stories were told in the Forum about whole villages where citizens had been overwhelmed and roasted alive by slaves who ate their former masters for dinner. After sundown Romans refused party invitations and vacated the streets. They locked their bedchamber doors to keep out even their most trusted slaves while they slept, and they woke up from nightmares, drenched in sweat. Chaos was loose in the world again, and his name was Spartacus.

We clattered through the Subura past alleys that stank of urine and rotting garbage. Our way was lit here and there by the glow from open windows along the overhanging upper storey; snatches of music and drunken laughter wafted over our heads and faded behind us. Above us, the stars looked very far away and very cold, a sign of a frosty winter to come. It would be warmer down in Baiae, I thought, where summer lingers in Vesuvius's shadow.

The Subura Way emptied at last into the Forum, where the hooves of our horses echoed unnaturally loud about the deserted squares and temples. We skirted the more sacred areas, where horses are not allowed even by night, and headed south across the narrow valley between the Capitoline and Palatine hills. The smell of straw and dung predominated as we passed by the great cattle market of the Forum Boarium, quiet except for the occasional lowing of the beasts in their pens. The enormous bronze ox on its pedestal loomed above us, a great horned silhouette against the starry sky, like a giant minotaur poised on a ledge.

I tapped Eco's leg and he leaned forward, bringing his ear to my lips. 'It's as I thought,' I whispered. 'We make for the Tiber. Are you sleepy?'

He tapped me emphatically twice.

'Good' I laughed. 'Then you keep watch while we drift downriver to Ostia.'

More of Mummius's men waited on the riverbank, ready to take our horses as we dismounted. At the end of the longest pier our boat was ready. If in my sleepiness I had pictured a slow, casual journey down the Tiber to the coast, I was mistaken. The boat was not the tiny skiff I had imagined, but a small barge oared by a dozen slaves with a helmsman at the rear and a canopy amidships, a vessel built for speed and strength. Mummius wasted no time in ushering us aboard. His two bodyguards followed, and we cast off immediately.

'You can sleep if you care to,' he said, indicating the space beneath the canopy, where a mound of blankets had been haphazardly tossed. 'Not very luxurious, and there's no slave woman to keep you warm, but there are no lice. Unless they've crawled off one of this lot.' He gave a sharp kick to the shoulder of one of the rowers. 'Row!' he bellowed. 'And you'd better keep sharper time than you did on the journey upriver, or I'll have the lot of you moved onto the big ship for good.' He laughed without mirth. Back in his element, Mummius was beginning to show a more jovial personality, and I was not sure I liked what I saw. He placed one of his men in charge and crawled under the blankets.

'Wake me if you need to,' I whispered to Eco, squeezing his hand to make sure I had his attention. 'Or sleep if you can; I doubt there's danger.' Then I joined Mummius beneath the tent, nestling against its farther edge and trying hard not to think of my own bed and the warmth of Bethesda's body.

I tried to sleep, but without much success. The creaking of manacles, the sluicing of the oars through the water, and the unending churning of the river against the bottom of the barge finally lulled me into fitful half-sleep, from which I woke over and over, always to the sound of Marcus Mummius's snoring. The fourth time I awoke to the raucous noise I poked my foot from under my blankets and gave him a gentle kick. He stopped for a moment and then resumed, making noises like a man slowly being strangled to death. I heard low chuckles of laughter and rose on my elbows to see his two guardsmen smiling back at me from the prow. They stood close together, talking quietly, wide awake. I looked behind and saw the helmsman at his station, a bearded giant who seemed to see and hear nothing but the river. Eco crouched nearby, gazing over the low bulwark into the water, looking like a statue of Narcissus contemplating his reflection beneath the starry sky.

Eventually Mummius's snoring quieted and blended with the slapping of water on wood and the steady, rhythmic breathing of the rowers, but still the deep, healing embrace of Morpheus eluded me. I tossed and turned uneasily inside the blankets, too hot and then too cold, my thoughts straying down blind alleys and doubling back on themselves. Dozing brought sluggishness without rest, stillness without refreshment; when we at last reached Ostia and the sea, I was a duller man than the one Marcus Mummius had lured from his bed some hours before. In the strange disjuncture of time and space that clouded my mind I imagined that the night would never end and we

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