Helena, being such a family girl, would have been deeply hurt. She must have been brooding over this without me noticing. And then Titus had loomed, with his threat of disaster: It was like her to say nothing much. And like me, when she did finally appeal for help, to turn my back on her.

The moment I read that letter I wanted to wrap her in my arms. Too late, Falco. Too late to comfort her. Too late to shelter her. Too late for everything, apparently.

I was not surprised when a short, bitter message came for me, saying that Helena could not tolerate Rome any longer and had gone abroad.


So that was how I let myself be sent to Germany.

Without Helena, there was nothing for me in Rome. It was pointless to try catching up with her; she had timed her message so that the trail was cold. I soon grew tired of members of my family making it plain they had always expected her to dump me. I could produce no defence; I had always expected it myself. Helena's father often used the same baths as me, so avoiding him became tricky too. Eventually, he spotted me trying to hide behind a pillar; he shook off the slave who was scraping his back with a strigil, and rushed over in a cloud of scented oil.

'I am relying on you, Marcus, to tell me where that daughter of mine is-'

I swallowed. 'Well, you know Helena Justina, sir-'

'No idea either!' her father exclaimed. Next thing, he was apologising for Helena as if I was the one who ought to be offended by her extravagant behaviour.

'Calm down, senator!' I tucked a towel around him soothingly. 'I've made my business out of tailing other people's treasures when they disappear. I'll track her down.' I tried not to look too worried at my lies. So did he.

My friend Petronius did his best to jolly me along, but even he was fairly amazed.

' Abroad! Falco, you have the brain of an inadequate catfish. Why couldn't you have fallen for a normal girl? The kind who rushes home to mother whenever you upset her, but then slinks back the next week with a new necklace you'll have to pay for?'

'Because only a girl who likes pointless dramatic gestures would fall for me.'

He let out an impatient growl. 'Are you looking for her?'

'How can I? She could be anywhere from Lusitania to the Nabataean desert. Leave off, Petro; I've had enough stupidity!'

'Well, women never travel far alone:' Petronius himself had always favoured simple, timid fluff-balls-or at least women who convinced him that was what they were.

'Women are not supposed to travel. That simple rule won't deter Helena!'

'Why did she flit?'

'I can't answer that.'

'Oh I see: Titus!' The Praetorian Guard must have been spotted by one of his troopers when they were squatting outside my house. 'That's you finished, Falco, anyway!'

I told him I was tired of other people's optimism, then I slouched off by myself.

The next time a summons came from the Palace, ostensibly from Vespasian, I knew it must really be Titus who was plotting to remove me from the scene. I suppressed my annoyance, and made a vow to extract the largest fee I could.

For my interview with the purple I made a sartorial effort, as Helena would have wanted me to. I wore a toga. I had a haircut. I kept my lips pressed close together to hide my republican snarl. That was the most any palace could ever hope for from me.

Vespasian and his elder son were governing the Empire in effectual partnership. I asked for the old man, but the receiving official had gum in his ears. Even with a written invitation from his father, apparently it was Titus on that night's duty rosta to handle pleas, pardons and wine-bar rejects like myself.

'Wrong throne room!' I apologised, when the limp flunkey passed me in to him. 'Sir, I gather the good of the Empire will be best served by despatching me elsewhere! Rumour says your noble father has a horrible proposition I'm just dying to hear.'

Titus recognised my jibe at his personal motives. On hearing the news I might be leaving, he gave a short laugh, which I did not join. He signalled a slave, presumably to lead me to the Emperor, but then held us back. 'I've been trying to get wind of a certain female client of yours,' he admitted-too offhandedly.

'So she gave us both the slip! What did she tell you?' He made no answer; at least Helena favoured me with angry messages. Feeling braver, I risked sneering. 'She's travelling. Fraternal visit, apparently. She received a letter from the noble Aelianus recently, in high dudgeon over some imagined slight.' I saw no need to confuse Titus by saying it was over me.

Titus frowned warily. 'Surely if her brother was annoyed, avoiding him would be more logical?'

'Helena Justina's reaction would be to rush straight there.' Titus was still looking quizzical. I believe he had had a sister himself, an impeccable girl who had married a cousin and then died young in childbirth, as Roman women from good families are supposed to do. 'Helena likes to face up to things, sir.'

'Does she!' he commented, perhaps with irony. Then he asked more thoughtfully, 'Camillus Aelianus is in Baetican Spain? But surely he's too young for a quaestorship?' Would-be senators normally serve as provincial finance officials just before their formal election to the Curia at twenty-five. Helena's brother had two or three years to go before that.

'Aelianus is the son his family all think a lot of.' If Titus wanted Helena, he would need to bone up on her relatives. I described the situation for him with a familiar ease: 'The Senator persuaded a friend in Corduba to find the boy a staff position ahead of time, to give him the early benefit of experience abroad.' Judging by the way he had written to his sister, this plan to teach Aelianus diplomacy was a waste of time and cash.

'Does he demonstrate special qualities?'

I replied gravely, 'Camillus Aelianus seems well equipped for a spectacular public career.'

Titus Caesar glanced at me, as if he suspected I might be suggesting that the normal criterion for rapid advancement in the Senate was a touch of the dungheap. 'You seem well briefed!' He eyed me shrewdly, then called up an outdoor messenger. 'Falco, when did Helena Justina leave?'

'No idea.'

He muttered something to his mercury; I caught a mention of Ostia. Titus realised I had overheard. 'The lady is a member of a senatorial family; I can forbid her leaving Italy,' he told me defensively as the messenger left.

I shrugged. 'So she's taken an unauthorised holiday. Why not? She's not a vestal, or a priestess of the imperial cult. Your predecessors in office might have had her exiled to an island for displaying such independence, but Rome expected better from the Flavians!' Still, if he could find her-and I had myself already spent a day fruitlessly searching the Ostia quays-I was quite prepared to let Titus have my lady escorted back to Rome. I knew she would be handled respectfully because of her status. I also knew that Titus Flavius Vespasianus was in for a Charybdis of trouble if he ordered it. 'Helena Justina will object forcibly to being hooked off her ship. I'll stay if you like,' I offered. 'Her ladyship in a temper may be more than your Praetorian Guard can handle without help!'

Titus made no attempt to call back his messenger. 'I'm sure I can mollify Helena Justina:' No woman he ever seriously wanted would be able to turn her back on him. He smoothed down the ample folds of his purple tunic, looking grand. I planted my feet apart and just looked tough. Then he demanded abruptly, 'You and Camillus Verus's daughter seem unusually close?'

'Do you think so?'

'Are you in love with her?'

I gave him a simple smile. 'Caesar, how could I presume?'

'She's a senator's daughter, Falco!'

'So people keep telling me.'

Both of us were heavily aware of his father's power and of how much authority had already devolved on Titus

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