'I never-'

'Yes, you said many lives were at stake, and you spoke of babies wailing in the Jaws of Hades. Now, you could have been speaking in metaphors, like a poet, but I suspect there is a conspicuous absence of poetry in your soul, Marcus Mummius. You carry a sword, not a lyre, and when you said 'Jaws of Hades' you meant the words literally. I've never seen it for myself, but the Greek colonists who originally settled around the Cup believed they had located an entrance to the underworld in a sulphurous crater called Lake Avemus — also known as the Jaws of Hades, Hades being the Greeks' word for the underworld, which old-fashioned Romans still call Orcus. The place is only a brisk walk, I hear, from the finest homes in Baiae.'

Mummius looked at me shrewdly. 'You are a sharp one,' he finally said. 'Maybe you'll be worth your fee, after all.' I heard no sarcasm in his voice. Instead there was a kind of sadness, as if he truly hoped I would succeed at my task, but expected me to fail.

An instant later Mummius was swaggering out the door and bellowing over his shoulder. 'I suppose you'll be hungry, after snoring all day. There's food in the mess cabin amidships, probably better than what you're used to at home. Too rich for me — I prefer a skin of watery wine and a hard crust of bread — but the owner always stocks the best, or what the merchants tell him is best, which means whatever is most expensive. After you eat you can take a long nap.' He laughed. 'Might as well, you'll only get in the way if you're awake. Passengers are pretty useless on a ship. Not much for them to do. Might as well pretend you're a bag of grain and find a spot to gather mould. Follow me.'

By changing the subject, Marcus Mummius had avoided admitting that Baiae was our destination. There was no point in pressing the matter; I already knew where we were going, and now a greater matter weighed on my thoughts, for I was beginning to suspect that I knew the identity of my mysterious new employer. Who could have afforded so ostentatious a means of transport for a mere hireling, and a barely reputable one like Gordianus the Finder, at that? Pompey, perhaps, could muster such resources on a private whim, but Pompey was in Spain. Who then but the man reputed to be the richest Roman alive, indeed the richest Roman who had ever lived — but what could Marcus Licinius Crassus want of me, when he owned whole cities of slaves and could afford the services of any free man he desired?

I might have badgered Mummius with more questions, but decided I had taxed his patience enough. I followed him into the afternoon sunlight and caught a whiff of roasted lamb on the bracing sea breeze. My stomach roared like a Hon, and I abandoned curiosity to satisfy a more pressing appetite.

Mummius was wrong to think that I would be bored with nothing to do on the Fury, at least as long as the sun was up. The ever-changing vista of the coast of Italy, the wheeling gulls overhead, the work of the sailors, the play of sunlight on water, the schools offish that darted below the surface, the crisp, tangy air of a day that was no longer summer but not quite autumn — all this was more than enough to occupy me until the sun went down.

Eco was even more entranced. Everything fascinated him. A pair of dolphins joined us at twilight and swam alongside the ship until long after darkness had fallen, darting in and out of the splashing wake. At times they seemed to laugh like men, and Eco mimicked the sound in return, as if he shared a secret language with them. When at last they disappeared beneath the foam and did not return, he went smiling to his bed and fell fast asleep.

I was not so lucky. Having slept most of the day, I faced a sleepless night. For a while the shadowy coast and the sparkle of stars on the water charmed me quite as much as had the luminous afternoon, but then the night grew colder, and I took to my bed. Marcus Mummius was right: the bed was too soft, or else the blanket was too rough, or the faint starlight through the porthole was too distracting, or the noises Eco made in his sleep, mimicking the dolphins' laughter, grated on my ears. I could not sleep.

Then I heard the drum. It came from somewhere below, a hollow, throbbing beat slower than my own pulse but just as steady. I had been so exhausted the night before that I had not heard it; now I found it impossible to ignore. It was the beat that drove the slaves at their oars below deck, setting the rhythm that carried the ship closer and closer to Baiae. The more I tried not to hear it, the louder it seemed to rise up through the planks, beating, beating, beating. The longer I tossed and turned, the further sleep seemed to recede.

I found myself trying to recollect the face of Marcus Crassus, the richest man in Rome. I had seen him a hundred times in the Forum, but his visage escaped me. I counted money in my head, imagining the soft jingle of coins in a purse, and spent my fee a dozen times over. I thought of Bethesda; I imagined her sleeping alone with the kitten curled up between her breasts, and I traced a path by memory from room to room through my house in Rome, like an invisible phantom standing guard. Abruptly an image rose unbidden in my mind, of Belbo lying across my portal in a drunken stupor, with the door wide open for any thief or assassin to step inside…

I gave a start and sat upright. Eco turned in his sleep and made a chattering noise. I strapped on my shoes, wrapped the blanket around me like a cloak, and returned to the deck.

Here and there sailors lay huddled together in sleep. A few strolled the deck, watchful and alert for any danger from the sea or shore. A steady breeze blew from the north, filling the sail and raising gooseflesh wherever the blanket did not cover my arms and legs. I strolled once about the deck, then found myself drawn towards the portal amidships that led down into the galley.

It is curious that a man can sail upon many ships in his life and never wonder at the hidden motive power that drives them, yet this is how most people live their lives every day — men eat and dress and go about their business, and never give a thought to all the sweat of all the slaves who laboured to grind the grain and spin the cloth and pave the roads, wondering about these things no more than they wonder about the blood that heats their bodies or the mucus that cradles their brains.

I stepped through the portal and down the steps. Instantly a wave of heat struck my face, warm and stifling like rising steam. I heard the dull, throbbing boom of the drum and the shuffling of many men. I smelled them before I saw them. All the odours that the human body can produce were concentrated in that airless space, rising up like the breath of demons from a sulphurous pit. I took another step downward into a world of living corpses, dunking that the Jaws of Hades could hardly lead to a more terrible netherworld than this.

The place was like a long, narrow cavern. Here and there lamps suspended from the ceiling cast a lurid glow across the pale naked bodies of the oarsmen. At first, in the dimness, I saw only an impression of rippling movements everywhere around me, like the writhing of maggots. As my eyes adjusted I slowly made out the details.

Down the centre ran a narrow aisle, like a suspended bridge. On each side slaves were stationed in tiers, three-deep. Those against the hull were able to sit at their stations, expending the least effort to power their shorter oars. Those in the middle were seated higher and had to brace themselves against a footrest with each backward pull, then rise from their seats to push the oars forward. Those on the aisle were the unlucky ones. They ran the catwalk, shuffling back and forth to push their oars in a great circle, stretching onto their toes at full extension, then kneeling and lurching forward to lift the oars out of the water. Each slave was manacled to his oar by a rusted link of chain around one wrist.

There were hundreds of them packed tightly together, rubbing against one another as they pushed and pulled and strained. I thought of cattle or goats pressed together in a pen, but animals move without purpose. Here each man was like a tiny wheel in a vast, constantly moving machine. The drumbeat drove them.

I turned and saw the drummer at the stern, on a low bench that must have been just below my bed. His legs were spread wide apart. His knees grasped the rim of a low, broad drum. Thongs were wrapped around each hand, and at the end of each thong was a leather ball. One by one he lifted the balls in the air and brought them down upon the skin of the drum, sending out a low pulse that throbbed through the dense, warm air. He sat with his eyes closed and a faint smile on his face as if he were dreaming, but the rhythm never faltered.

Beside him stood another man, dressed like a soldier and holding a long whip in his right hand. He glowered when he saw me, then snapped his whip in the air as if to impress me. The slaves nearest him shuddered and some of them groaned, as if a wave of pain passed over them.

I pressed the blanket over my mouth and nose to filter the stench. Where the lamplight penetrated through the maze of catwalks and manacled feet, I saw that the bilge was awash with a mixture of faeces and urine and vomit and bits of rotting food. How could they bear it? Did they grow used to it over time, the way men grow accustomed to the clasp of manacles? Or did it never cease to nauseate them, just as it sickened me?

There are religious sects in the East which postulate abodes of eternal punishment for the shades of the wicked. Their gods are not content to see a man suffer in this world, but will pursue him with fire and torment into

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