'We have visitors, Diana.'

'Yes, Papa, I know. I saw Belbo let them in at the front door. I was on my way to tell Mother, but I thought I'd have a closer look first.' 'A closer look?'

She gave me a bemused, exasperated look, such as Bethesda gives me when I belabor the obvious. 'Well, Papa! It's not every day that a eunuch and a man dressed as a woman come calling on you, is it?'

She looked at my visitors and smiled sweetly.

They didn't smile back, but instead looked glumly at each other. 'I told you that the pretense was worthless. Even a child saw through it!' grumbled the old man in the stola, no longer disguising his voice or his Alexandrian accent. He wearily pushed back the mantle from his head. His silver hair was pulled back from his face and knotted at the back of his neck. His forehead was wrinkled and covered with spots. The folds of flesh hanging from his chin quivered and he suddenly looked ridiculous, an unhappy old man with painted cheeks and painted eyes.

The eunuch in the toga covered his mouth and giggled tipsily. 'But you look so pretty in makeup!'

'Enough of that!' growled the old Egyptian. His mouth settled in a deep frown and his jowls drooped as he stared bleakly into the flames, his eyes full of despair.

Chapter Two

This is my daughter, Gordiana, whom we call Diana.' I took her soft, smooth hand in mine. 'Diana, we are honored by the presence of Dio of Alexandria: philosopher, teacher, esteemed member of the Academy, and currently the chief ambassador to Rome from the people of Egypt.'

With the unstudied dignity of a distinguished man used to being formally introduced and hearing his titles recited, Dio stood, clasping his hands before him, pulling his shoulders back. His self-possession seemed peculiarly at odds with his strange costume; with his painted face and his feminine garments he looked like the priest of some eastern cult-which was precisely what his companion turned out to be.

'And this,' said Dio, gesturing to the little eunuch, who likewise stood, though a bit tipsily, 'is Trygonion, a priest at the Temple of Cybele here in Rome.'

The eunuch took a little bow and pulled off his hat, from which tumbled a mass of pale yellow hair. The color was a bleached, unnatural shade of blond. He ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head to untangle the curls.

'A philosopher… and a gallus!' Diana said wonderingly. The last word gave me a start. Gallus is the Latin term for a castrated priest of the Great Mother, Cybele. All the galli are foreigners, since by law no Roman can become one. The word is pious in the mouths of the goddess's adherents, but others sometimes use it as a vulgar epithet ('You filthy gallus!'); the idea of men becoming eunuchs, even in the service of the divine, remains foreign and repulsive to most Romans. I couldn't remember ever having taught the word to Diana, but then she is always coming out with things I never taught her. She learns them from her mother, I suspect.

'Yes,' Dio said ruefully, 'puzzle that, Gordianus: what could a philosopher and a gallus possibly have in common-the man who lives by reason, and the man whose life is the surrender of all reason? Ha! Circumstances make strange bedmates. The more desperate the circumstances, the odder the bedmates.' He cast a sidelong, gloomy glance at the eunuch, then suddenly looked doubtful. 'I do not intend this metaphor literally, of course. You do have this phrase in Latin, yes? About circumstances and bedmates?'

'Something close enough.'

He nodded, satisfied that he had made himself understood. His Latin was in fact impeccable, though his accent was distinctly Alexandrian, with the particular inflections of those born in Egypt whose ancestry and primary tongue are Greek. Hearing him speak freely, I now recalled his voice from many years ago. It had grown coarser with age, but was undeniably the same voice I had listened to so attentively on the steps outside the temple of Serapis in Alexandria when I was a young man, eager to learn all I could about the world. Dio's voice took me far back in memory and far away from Rome.

Introductions finished, we sat, except for Diana, who excused herself and left the room, no doubt to go tell her mother.

Dio cleared his throat. 'You remember me, then?'

'Teacher,' I said, for that was what I had always called him in Alexandria, and it now felt awkward to call him by his name, though I was long past the age of deference, 'of course I remember you. You'd be a hard man to forget!'

'I had thought, after so many years… And then, when they told me your name, how could I know for sure that it was the same Gordianus whom I had known so long ago? To be sure, the name is unusual, and also they seemed to think that you had been to Alexandria as a young man, and what they said of you sounded like the tree that would have grown from the sapling-this expression you have also, yes? And I have used the correct tenses? Good. Still, with so much danger around me, so many betrayals-you understand why I could not come to you openly? Why I hesitated to reveal myself to you? Why I had to be suspicious even of your very fine wine?' He looked at me uneasily and chewed a fingernail. 'Even when I saw you, I was not quite sure that you were the Gordianus I had known in Alexandria. Time changes us all, and you wear a sort of disguise as well, you know.'

He gestured to something on my face. I touched my chin and realized that he meant my beard.

I smiled. 'Yes, I was clean-shaven back then. Alexandria is too hot for beards, and I was too young to grow a decent one anyway. Or do you mean all the gray among the black? Gray hair and wrinkles are a kind of involuntary disguise, I suppose, worn by anyone who lives long enough.'

Dio nodded and studied my face, still trying to decide whether he could trust me. 'I have to be very careful,' he said.

'Yes, I know something about your situation,' I said. 'Your journey from Alexandria, the attacks on your entourage after you landed down in Neapolis, the threats against you here in Rome, the fact that the Senate looks the other way. There's plenty of talk in the Forum these days about what people call 'the Egyptian situation.' '

'Still, how did you guess it was Dio?' asked the little gallus, pouring himself another cup of wine. 'Our disguises got us safely through the streets. Granted, they may be less convincing at such close quarters-'

'Yes,' said Dio, 'how could you possibly have known it was me? Surely you didn't recognize my face, hidden in shadow and painted like a woman's, and after all these years. And surely it was not my voice, for I tried to speak like a woman and as little as I could, and you have not heard me speak for so long.'

'Teacher, I'm not sure exactly why you've come to see me, but I assume it has something to do with the reputation I've made for myself: Finder, I'm called. I knew who you must be almost at once. If I couldn't figure out as small a thing as that, coming to see me would be a waste of your time.'

'Elucidate,' said Dio, in his expressionless teacher's voice.

'Yes, make yourself clear!' laughed the little gallus, lifting his wine cup and shaking out his bleached curls.

'Very well. That you were not what you wished to appear was immediately evident to me, as it was to Diana, and even to Belbo, my doorkeeper.'

'What gave me away?' said Dio.

I shrugged. 'Little things. Who can list all the differences between the ways that men and women walk and talk and hold themselves? An actor on the stage can convincingly portray a woman, but an actor trains for the task. To simply paint your face and put on a stola is hardly an impersonation.'

'Then the pretense was not at all convincing? Be specific! I have to know, because if I cannot succeed with this disguise, then I must find another. It could mean the difference between-between life and…' He bit at his fingernails again, but finding nothing left to gnaw at, pulled nervously at the wrinkles that hung from his neck.

'Your fingernails gave you away, for a start. Roman matrons make a ritual of their manicures.'

'Ah!' He looked at his nails with disgust. 'A terrible habit. It's come back to me only since I arrived in Italy. I cannot seem to stop myself.'

'You might grow back your nails, but your hands would still give you away. Such brown, weathered hands-no Roman matron has hands like yours, and neither does any citizen of standing. Only slaves and farmers have such hands-or visitors from foreign climes where the sun stays hot all year long and burns everyone brown as a nut, from King Ptolemy down to the lowest field slave.'

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