in his own right. He was too polite to draw comparisons between us, but I did.

'Does Verus approve of this?'

'How could he, sir?'

'Does he allow it?'

I said quietly, 'Helena Justina is a sweetly eccentric girl.' I could tell from his face Titus had already learned that. I wondered what he had said to her; then I wondered more painfully what she had said to him.

He moved in his seat, closing our interview. He could dismiss me from his throne room; he could order me out of Rome; but both of us were a good deal less certain whether he could exclude me from Helena's life. 'Marcus Didius, my father needs you to take a journey. I feel that would be best for everyone.'

'Any chance of Baetica?' I ventured cheekily.

'Wrong direction, Falco!' he whipped back with more relish than he should. Recovering, he murmured, 'I was hoping to entertain the lady here last Thursday. I was sorry that she would not come-still, most people like to celebrate their private feasts amongst those who are closest to them:' This was some kind of test. I stared at him, giving nothing away. ' Helena Justina's birthday!' he explained, like a man throwing a double six with weighted dice.

It was news to me. He could see that.

With difficulty I restrained my instinctive reaction, which was to punch his superbly barbered chin straight through his handsome teeth to the back of his Caesarly skull.

'Enjoy Germany!'

Titus subdued his air of triumph. But that was when I forced myself to accept the plight Helena and I were in. If this situation had become awkward for her, it was positively dangerous for me. And whatever scabby mission I was to be despatched on this time, it would suit Titus Caesar most of all if I failed to finish it.

He was the Emperor's son. There were plenty of things he could do to make sure that once he sent me out of Rome, I would not be coming back.


I was passed through the perfumed offices of three chamberlains, lost in my own moody thoughts.

I am not completely deficient. After ten years of what I called a successful love life, a new girlfriend's birthday was something I reckoned to find out fast. I asked Helena; she laughed off the question. I tackled her father, but without his secretary's list of family feasts, he dodged the issue shiftily. Her mother could have told me, but Julia Justa had better ways of upsetting herself than by discussing her daughter with me. I even spent hours in the Censor's office searching for Helena's birth certificate. No luck. Either the Senator had panicked on the arrival of his first-born (understandably) and had failed to register her properly, or else he had found her under a laurel bush and could not call her a Roman citizen.

One thing was certain. I had committed domestic sacrilege. Helena Justina might overlook many insults, but my bumming off to Veii on her birthday was not one of them. The fact I didn't know it was her birthday was irrelevant. I should have done.

'Didius Falco, Caesar:' Before I was ready to concentrate on political matters, a major-domo who reeked of long-standing vanity and recently braised onions announced my name to the Emperor.

'That's a long face. What's up, Falco?'

'Woman trouble,' I admitted.

Vespasian enjoyed a laugh. He threw back his great head and guffawed. 'Want my advice?'

'Thanks, Caesar.' I grinned. 'At least this heartthrob didn't run off with my armpurse or elope with my best friend:'

We hit a small moment of stillness, as if the Emperor had remembered with disapproval who my latest heartthrob was.

Vespasian Augustus was a beefy bourgeois with a down-to-earth manner who had risen to power on the tail of a vicious civil war and then set out to prove that men who lacked flash ancestors could still own a talent to rule. He and his elder son Titus were succeeding- which guaranteed that the snobs in the Senate would never accept them. Still, Vespasian had been struggling for sixty years-too long to expect easy recognition, even when he wore a purple robe.

'You're in no hurry to know about your mission, Falco.'

'I know I don't want it.'

'That's normal.' Vespasian humphed mildly, then told a slave, 'Let's see Canidius now.' I didn't bother wondering who Canidius was. If he worked here, I didn't like him enough to care. The Emperor beckoned me closer. 'What do you know about Germany?'

I opened my mouth to say, ' Chaos!', then closed it again, since the chaos had been stirred up by Vespasian's own supporters.

Geographically, what Rome calls Germany is the eastern flank of Gaul. Sixty years ago, Augustus had decided not to advance across the natural boundary of the great River Rhenus-a decision dragged out of him by the Quinctilius Varus disaster, when three Roman legions were ambushed and wiped out by the German tribes. Augustus never recovered. It was probably this throne room which he used to pace, groaning, ' Varus, Varus, give me back my legions:' Even so long after the massacre I myself felt extreme reluctance to spend time where it had occurred.

'Well, Falco?'

I managed to sound impartial. 'Sir, I know Gaul and our Rhine provinces played a rich part in the civil war.'

It was the recent Vindex revolt in Gaul which had sparked everything by causing Nero's downfall. The governor of Upper Germany crushed the revolt, but on his recall to Rome after Galba claimed the throne, his troops refused to take the New Year's oath to Galba. When Galba died, Otho took over in Rome, but the Rhine legions rejected him and decided to elect their own emperor.

They chose Vitellius, then governor of Lower Germany. His reputation was as a brutal, loose-living drunk- obvious imperial material by the standards of the time. From Judaea, Vespasian challenged him. Seeking to pin down the legions in Germany who were his rival's main supporters, Vespasian contacted a local chieftain who might raise a diversion. It worked-too well. Vespasian grabbed the imperial wreath, but the rebellion in Germany ran completely out of control.

'A part which culminated dramatically in the Civilis revolt, Caesar.'

The old man smiled at my careful neutrality. 'You are familiar with events?'

'I read the Daily Gazette.' I matched his sombre tone. It was a bleak moment in Roman history.

The fiasco in Germany had had everything. At the time, Rome itself was a city torn apart, but the shocking scenes on the Rhine outdid even our own problems of panic, fire and plague. The leading rebel-a Batavian hothead called Civilis-had attempted to unite all the European tribes in some impossible vision of an independent Gaul. During the mayhem he managed to cause, a string of Roman forts were overrun and burnt. Our Rhenus fleet, which had native rowers, rowed itself over to the enemy. Vetera, the only garrison which held out with any credit, was starved into submission after a grim siege; then the troops who surrendered were set upon and slaughtered as they marched out unarmed.

While the native revolt raged up and down Europe, the mood of our own troops also deteriorated. Mutinies occurred everywhere. Officers who showed any spirit were assaulted by their men. There were wild tales of legionary commanders being stoned, making a run for it, and hiding in tents disguised as slaves. One was murdered by a deserter. Two were executed by Civilis. The governor of Upper Germany was dragged from his sickbed and assassinated. In a particularly horrific incident, the legate from the surrendering fort at Vetera was sent off in chains by Civilis as a present to an influential priestess in the barbarian part of Germany; even today his fate remained unknown. Finally, at the height of the upheavals, four of our Rhineland legions actually sold their services and we had to endure the ultimate horror of Roman soldiers swearing allegiance to the barbarians.

It sounds fantastic. At any other period it would have been impossible. Yet in the Year of the Four Emperors, when the whole Empire blazed in ruins while the imperial contenders slogged it out, this was just one especially

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