Steven Saylor

The Venus Throw

At dice I sought the Venus Throw. Instead: damned Dogs-the lose-all low!

PROPERTIUS, Elegies iv, vii: 45-46

We've all heard about Alexandria, and now we know about it-the source of all trickery and deceit, where the plots of all the mimes come from.

CICERO, Pro C. Rabirio Postumo, 35

Democritus disapproved of sexual intercourse as being merely the act whereby one human being springs from another-and by Hercules, the less of that the better! On the other hand, sluggish athletes find that sex rejuvenates them; sex can relieve hoarseness, cure pain in the loins, sharpen eyesight; sex can restore mental balance and banish melancholy.

PLINY, Natural History, x x v III,58



Chapter One

Two visitors at the front door, Master.' Belbo looked at me

from under his brow and shifted from foot to foot uncertainly. 'Their names?' 'They wouldn't say.' 'Familiar faces?'

'I've never seen them before, Master.'

'Did they say what they wanted?'

'No, Master.'

I pondered this for a moment and stared into the flames of the brazier.

'I see. Two men-'

'Not exactly, Master… '

'Two visitors, you said. Are they both men or not?' 'Well,' Belbo said, wrinkling his brow, 'I'm pretty sure that one of them is a man. At least I think so…' 'And the other?'

'A woman-I think. Or maybe not…' He looked thoughtfully but without much concern into the middle distance, as if trying to remember what he had eaten for breakfast.

I raised an eyebrow and looked beyond the flaming brazier, through the narrow window and into the garden, where the statue of Minerva kept watch over a little fishpond. The sun was beginning to lower. Days in Januarius are all too short, especially for a man of fifty-four like myself, old enough to feel the cold in his bones. But the daylight was still strong enough to see clearly, certainly clearly enough to tell if someone at the door was male or female. Was Belbo's sight beginning to fail?

Belbo is not the cleverest of slaves. What he lacks in brains he has always made up for with brawn. For a long time this hulking mass of bulging muscles and straw-colored hair has been my bodyguard, but in recent years his reflexes have grown noticeably slower. I had thought I might be able to start using him as a doorkeeper, reasoning that his long service at my side would enable him to recognize most of my visitors and that his size should intimidate those he didn't. Alas, if he couldn't even tell the difference between a man and a woman it would hardly do to have him answering the door.

Belbo ceased to ponder the middle distance and cleared his throat. 'Should I show them in, Master?'

'Let me see if I understand you: two strangers of indeterminate sex, who refuse to give their names, have come to call on a man with a lifetime's worth of enemies, here in the most dangerous city in the world. Show them in, you ask? Why not?'

My sarcasm was apparently too subtle. Belbo nodded and left the room before I could call him back.

A moment later he returned with my visitors. I stood to greet them, and realized that Belbo's eyes were indeed still sharp, probably sharper than my own. Had I seen this couple across the street or walking through the Forum, I might have taken them to be exactly what they appeared to be, a rather small young man with delicate features, dressed in an ill-fitting toga and wearing a broad-brimmed hat (despite the less than sunny weather), and a much older, much larger woman wrapped in a stola that modestly covered her from head to toe. But on closer inspection, there was something amiss.

I could see nothing of the young man's body, obscured as it was by the loose folds of his oversize toga, but his face was not quite right; there was no sign of a beard on his cheeks, and his soft, beautifully manicured hands moved with a delicacy that was not masculine. Also, instead of lying flat around his ears and the back of his neck, his hair appeared to have been pushed up under his hat, which meant it must be unusually long. The color of his hair was odd as well-dark at the roots, but turning blond where it was tucked up under the brim of his hat, which he declined to take off.

As for the woman, a woollen mantle draped over her head obscured much of her face, but I could see that her cheeks had been painted, and not too expertly, with a rose-colored blush. The wrinkles of her neck hung down in folds considerably looser than the folds of the stola that strained to contain her bulk, especially around the middle. Her shoulders seemed a bit too broad and her hips too narrow. Nor did her hands seem quite right, for Roman matrons take pride in keeping their flesh as pale as possible, and hers were dark and weathered as if by many years of exposure to the sun, and while any woman vain enough to color her cheeks might be expected to take good care of her fingernails, those of my visitor were ragged and bitten down to the quick. The couple stood mute beside the brazier.

'I understand that you've come to pay me a visit,' I finally said.

They merely nodded. The young man pursed his lips and peered at me, his face stiff. The old woman tilted her head so that the brazier lit up her eyes. Between lashes stained black with antimony I saw a flash of apprehension.

I waved to Belbo, who fetched a pair of folding chairs and placed them opposite my own.

'Sit,' I offered. They did, demonstrating even more clearly that things were not what they seemed. The wearing of the toga is an art, as is the wearing of the stola, I imagine. From their manifest awkwardness it seemed highly unlikely that the little man had ever worn a toga before, or that his companion had ever worn a stola. Their clumsiness was almost comical.

'Wine?' I offered.

'Yes!' said the young man, sitting forward, his face suddenly ani-mated. His voice was high and somehow too delicate, like his hands. The old woman stiffened and whispered 'No!' in a hoarse voice. She nervously fiddled with her fingers, then bit at her thumbnail.

I shrugged. 'For myself, I feel the need of something to stave off the chill in the air. Belbo, ask one of the serving girls to bring some water and wine. And something to eat, perhaps?' I looked inquiringly at my visitors.

The young man brightened and nodded eagerly. The woman glow-ered and struck at his arm, making him

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