fact the moment I saw him there, in deep conversation with my girlfriend, I sank into a mood where almost any sort of treason seemed a bright idea.

'Hello, Marcus,' said Helena-paying far too much attention to putting on a neutral face.


'Afternoon,' I forced out.

'Marcus Didius!' The young Caesar was effortlessly agreeable. Refusing to let it fluster me, I stayed glum. 'I came to commiserate about the loss of your apartment!' Titus was referring to one I had been renting just recently which had had every advantage-except that where this repulsive den somehow stayed upright in defiance of all engineering principles, the other had collapsed in a cloud of dust.

'Nice shack. Built to last,' I said. 'That is, to last about a week!'

Helena giggled. Which gave Titus an excuse to say, 'I found Camillus Verus's daughter waiting here; I've been keeping her occupied:' He must have known I was trying to lay claim to Helena Justina, but it suited him to pretend she was a model of modest propriety just waiting for an idle prince to pass the time of day with.

'Oh thanks!' I retorted bitterly.

Titus glanced at Helena Justina in an appreciative way that left me feeling out of things. He had always admired her, and I had always hated it. I was relieved to see that despite what she had told me, she had not painted her eyes as if she was expecting a visitor. She did look delicious, in a red dress I liked, with agates on slim gold hoops swinging from her ears and her dark hair simply twisted up in combs. She had a strong, quick-witted face, rather too self-controlled in public, though in private she would melt like honey in the warm sun. I loved it, so long as I was the only one she melted for.

'I tend to forget you two know one another!' Titus commented.

Helena stayed silent, waiting for me to tell His Caesarship just how well. I held back stubbornly. Titus was my patron; if he gave me a commission, I would do it for him properly-but no Palace playboy would ever own my private life.

'What can I do for you, sir?' With anyone else my tone would have been dangerous, but no one who enjoys existence makes threats to the Emperor's son.

'My father would like a talk, Falco.'

'Are the Palace clowns on strike then? If Vespasian is short of laughs, I'll see what I can do.' Two yards away, Helena's brown eyes had assumed an unforgiving steadiness.

'Thanks,' Titus acknowledged easily. His suave manner always made me feel he had spotted yesterday's fish sauce spilt down my tunic. It was a feeling I deeply resented in my own house. 'We have a proposition to put to you:'

'Oh good!' I answered darkly, with a moody scowl to let him know I had been warned the proposition was dire.

He eased himself off the folding door, which lurched sickeningly but stayed upright. He made Helena a slight gesture, implying that he thought she was here to discuss business so he would not intrude. She rose politely as he strode to the door, but she left me to see him out as if I were the sole proprietor.

I came in and started fiddling with the rickety door. 'Someone should tell His Honour not to lean his august person against plebeians' furniture:' Helena remained silent. 'You have on your pompous look, my darling. Was I rude?'

'I expect Titus is used to it,' Helena replied levelly. I had omitted to kiss her; I knew she had noticed. I wanted to, but it was too late now. 'The fact Titus is so approachable must make people forget they are talking to the Emperor's partner, a future Emperor himself.'

'Titus Vespasianus never forgets exactly who he is!'

'Don't be unfair, Marcus.'

I ground my teeth. 'What did he want?'

She looked surprised. 'To ask you to see the Emperor-to talk about Germany, presumably.'

'He could have sent a messenger to ask me that.' Helena was starting to look annoyed with me, so naturally I became even more stubborn: 'Alternatively, he could quite well have talked about Germany himself while he was here. And in greater privacy, if the mission is sensitive.'

Helena folded her hands at her waist and closed her eyes, refusing to quarrel. Since normally she fought me at the slightest opportunity, that was bad news in itself.

I left her out on the balcony and slouched indoors. There was a letter on the table. 'Is this scroll for me?'

'Mine,' she called out. 'It's from Aelianus in Spain.' She meant the elder of her two brothers. I had received the impression Camillus Aelianus was a prick-eared young bastard I wouldn't be seen drinking with; but since I had yet to encounter him in person, I kept quiet. 'You can read it,' she offered.

'It's your letter!' I rejected her unbendingly.

I went into the inner room and sat on my bed. I knew exactly why Titus had visited us. It had nothing to do with any mission he was offering me. It had nothing to do with me at all.

Sooner than I expected, Helena came in and sat beside me quietly. 'Don't fight!' She looked equally gloomy as she dragged my fingers apart, forcing me to hold her hand. 'Oh Marcus! Why can't life be simple?'

I was not in the mood for philosophy, but I changed my grip to something slightly more affectionate. 'So what did your regal admirer have to say for himself?'

'We were just talking about my family.'

'Oh were you!' In my head I ran over Helena's ancestral pedigree, as Titus must have done: senators for generations (which was more than he could say himself, with his middle-class, tax-farming Sabine origins); her father a stalwart supporter of Vespasian; her mother a woman of unblemished reputation. Her two young brothers both abroad doing their civic duty, with at least one of them bound for the Senate eventually. I had been assured by everyone that great things were expected of the noble Aelianus. And Justinus, whom I had met, seemed a decent lad.

'Titus seemed to be enjoying the discussion. Did he talk about you?' Helena Justina: liberal education; lively character; attractive in a fierce, unfashionable way; no scandals (except me). She had been married once, but divorced by consent and anyway the man was dead now. Titus himself had been married twice-once widowed, once divorced. I had never been married, though I was less innocent than both of them.

'He's a man-he talked about himself,' she scoffed. I growled. She was a girl people talked to. I liked to talk to her myself. She was the one person I could talk to about pretty well anything, which I felt made it my prerogative.

'You know he's in love with Queen Berenice of Judaea?'

Helena gave a little smile. 'Then he has my sympathy!' The smile was not particularly sweet, and hardly aimed at me. After a moment she added more gently, 'What are you worried about?'

'Nothing,' I said.

Titus Caesar would never marry Berenice. The Jewish queen came with a vividly exotic history. Rome would never accept an alien empress-or tolerate an emperor who tried to suggest importing one.

Titus was romantic, but realistic. His attachment to Berenice was supposed to be genuine, yet a man in his position might well marry someone else. He was the heir to the Roman Empire. His brother Domitian possessed some of the family talents, but not all. Titus himself had fathered a young daughter, but no son. Since the Flavian claim to the purple had been principally based on offering the Empire stability, people would probably say he ought to look actively for a decent Roman wife. Plenty of women, both decent and otherwise, must be hoping that he would.

So what was I supposed to think if I found this prestigious character talking to my girl? Helena Justina made a thoughtful, graceful, sweet-natured companion (when she wanted to); she always had sense, tact, and a high concept of duty. If she had not fallen for me, Helena was exactly the sort that Titus should be looking for.

'Marcus Didius, I chose to live with you.'

Вы читаете The Iron Hand of Mars
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату