'Here, Papa.' She entered the room and stepped into the circle of light. Her long hair, let down for the night, hung loose over her shoulders, shimmering like black water under starlight. Her eyes — the almond-shaped, Egyptian eyes inherited from her mother — were slightly swollen with sleep.

'What's the matter?' she said, yawning. 'What are you doing here, Eco? Why is everyone up? And what's all the noise from the street?'

'Noise?' I said.

She cocked her head. 'I suppose you can't hear it very well, here at the back of the house. You can certainly hear it from my room. They woke me up.'


'People in the street. Running. With torches. Yelling something.' She wrinkled her nose, which she does when she's puzzled. Seeing the blank look on my face, she turned to her mother, who stepped towards her with embracing arms. At seventeen, Diana is still enough of a child to appreciate such comforting. Meanwhile, Eco kept to one side, wearing the glum expression of a messenger in a play who bears ill tidings.

I finally realized that something must be truly, terribly wrong.

A short time later, I was dressed and walking at a fast clip through the dark streets at Eco's side, together with his four bodyguards.

I turned my head anxiously as a group of stern-looking young men came running up from behind and passed us. Their torches cut through the air with a whoosh. Our shadows danced crazily up and down the street, growing huge as the torches passed close by and then dwindling like wraiths into the darkness as the torchbearers left us behind.

I tripped against an uneven paving stone. 'Numa?s balls! We should have brought torches ourselves.'

'I'd rather my bodyguards keep their hands free,' said Eco.

'Yes, well, at least we have enough of those,' I said, eyeing the four formidable young slaves who surrounded us, one ahead, one behind, one to each side. They had the look of trained gladiators — stiff-jawed, flinty-eyed, alert to every movement in the street around us.

Good bodyguards are expensive to purchase and expensive to feed. My daughter-in-law Menenia had complained each time Eco added another to their household, saying the money would be better spent on kitchen slaves or a better tutor for the twins. 'Protection comes first,' Eco would tell her. 'It's the times we live in.' Sadly, I had to agree.

My thoughts settled on Eco's wife and children, whom he had left in his house over on the Esquiline Hill. 'Menenia and the twins…' I said, walking fester to keep up with him. My breath made clouds in the air, but at least the pace kept me warm. Even as fast as we were walking, another group of men came up from behind and passed us, their torches sending our shadows into headlong flight.

'They're safe. I had a new door put on the house last month. It would take an army to break it down. And I left my two biggest bodyguards to look after them.'

'Just how many bodyguards do you own nowadays?'

'Only six — the two at home, and the four with us.'

'Only six?' I still had only Belbo, whom I had left behind to look after Bethesda and Diana. Unfortunately, Belbo was really too old to be an adequate bodyguard any longer. The other household slaves could hardly be expected to put up much of a fight, if something truly terrible were to happen…

I tried to push such thoughts from my mind.

Another group of men came rushing up from behind us. Like us, they carried no torches. As they passed in the darkness, I noticed Eco's bodyguards grow tense and reach inside their cloaks. Strangers without torches in their hands could be carrying something more dangerous, like daggers.

But the group passed without incident. Up ahead, someone flung open the shutters of an upper-storey window and leaned out 'What in Hades is going on tonight?'

'They've killed him!' cried one of the men ahead of us. 'Murdered him in cold blood, the cowardly bastards!'

'Killed who?'

'Clodius! Clodius is dead!'

The shadowy figure at the window was silent for a moment, then let out a long, ringing laugh that echoed in the cold night air. The group ahead of us came to an abrupt halt.

'Trouble!' said Eco. I nodded, then realized the hushed remark was a signal to his bodyguards. They tightened their ranks around us. We pressed on at a faster pace.

'So where — ' gasped the man at the window, barely able to speak for his laughter, 'where is everybody headed in such a hot rush? To a celebration?'

The group in the street erupted in angry shouts. Some raised their fists. Others stooped over, searching for rocks. Even on the Palatine Hill, with its immaculate streets and elegant houses, there are loose stones to be found. The man at the window kept laughing, then suddenly yelped. 'My head! Oh, my head! You filthy bastards!' He slammed his shutters on a hail of rocks.

We hurried on and turned a corner. 'Do you think it's true, Eco?'

'About Clodius being dead? We'll know soon enough. Isn't that his house, straight ahead? Look at all the torches gathered in the street! That's what brought me out tonight — we could see the glow reflected off the clouds. Menenia called me up on the rooftop to see. She thought the whole Palatine Hill must be on fire.'

'So you thought you'd come see if your Papa was singed?'

Eco smiled, then his face turned grim. 'On the way, down in the Subura, I saw people everywhere in the streets. Gathered at corners, listening to speakers. Huddled in doorways, talking in low voices. Some ranting, some weeping. Hundreds of men heading for the Palatine, like a river rushing uphill. And all saying the same thing: Clodius is dead.'

The house of Publius Clodius — his new house, for he had purchased the place and moved in only a few months before — was one of the city's architectural marvels, or monsters, depending on one's point of view. The houses of the rich on the Palatine Hill grow larger and more ostentatious every year, like great preening animals devouring the little houses around them and displaying ever more sumptuous coats. The coat of this particular beast was of many-coloured marble. By the glow of the torches in the street one could see the glimmering sheen of the marble veneers and columns that adorned the outer terraces — polished green Lacedaemonian porphyry, Egyptian red marble mottled with white dots like the pelt of a fawn, yellow Numidian marble with red veins. These terraces, set into a hillside and planted with roses stripped bare by winter, surrounded the gravel-paved forecourt. The iron gate that normally barred entrance to the court stood open, but the way was completely blocked by the mass of mourners who filled the court and spilled out into the street.

Somewhere beyond that crowd, at the far side of the forecourt, was the entrance to the great house itself) which sprawled across the hill like a self-contained village, its various wings surrounded by yet more terraces and connected by porticoes lined with yet more multicoloured marble columns. The house loomed above us, a miniature mountain of deep shadows and shimmering marble, lit from within and without, suspended dreamlike between the lowering clouds and the hazy reek put forth by the torches.

'What now?' I said to Eco. 'We can't even get into the forecourt. The crowd's too thick. The rumour must be true — look at all these grown men weeping. Come, best to get back home and look after our families. No telling what will happen next.'

Eco nodded but didn't seem to hear. He stood on tiptoe, straining to see within the forecourt. 'The doors to the house are shut. No one seems to be going in or out. Everyone's just milling about — '

There was a sudden pulse of excitement in the crowd. 'Let her through! Let her through!' someone shouted. The crush grew even greater as people stepped back to make way for some sort of conveyance coming through the street. A phalanx of gladiators appeared first, roughly shoving and elbowing their way forwards; People did their best to get out of the way. The gladiators were enormous, like giants; Eco's bodyguards were mere boys by comparison. They say there are islands beyond the northernmost reaches of Gaul where men grow that big. These had pale faces and scraggly red hair.

The crowd in front of us compressed. Eco and I were squeezed together, with his bodyguards still in a ring around us. Someone stepped on my foot. My arms were trapped at my sides. I caught a glimpse of the approaching litter, supported on the shoulders of bearers who dwarfed even the giant gladiators. Suspended above the crowd, the red and white striped silk canopy shimmered in the flickering torchlight.

Вы читаете A murder on the Appian way
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