Intense, until footsteps approached.

They were light, but reluctant-tired out by the long haul upstairs. Not boots. Not slipshod sandals either. Too long a stride for a woman, unless it was a woman I would not welcome. Too casual to be any man I needed to fear.

The feet stopped outside my door. There was a lengthy pause. Someone knocked. I leaned back on my stool saying nothing. Someone opened the door gingerly. The high-class odour of an extremely subtle unguent sneaked in and shimmied curiously around the room. A head followed. It had sharply layered dark locks, held in place by a fillet of braid. It was a haircut you were meant to notice. It looked clean, neat, well attended, and as out of place in the Aventine as bees in a feather bed. 'You Falco?' My own scalp began to feel dandruffy and hot. 'Who's asking?'

'I'm Xanthus. I was told you would be expecting me.'

'I'm not expecting anyone. But you can come in now you're here.' He came in. He was sneering at the place; that made two of us. He left the door open. I told him to close it. He did so as if he was afraid he would be grappled to the floor by a pair of wild centaurs and robbed of his manhood amid much whinnying.

I gave him a rapid scan. He was a daisy. Not the usual Palace messenger, with a brain as thick as his bootsoles. This one had class-in his queer way.

While I stared, the inappropriate shaving-lotion continued to make itself at home. The chin that was sporting the magic Eastern mixture had been bristling gently for about ten years. The messenger wore a white Palace uniform with gold on the hem, but the shoes I had heard on the apartment stairs were his gesture to personality: round-toed vermilion calfskin jobs that must have cost a lot of money, though they were in questionable taste. The sort of supple footgear a low-grade actor might accept in return for paying attention to a female devotee.

'Letter for you.' He held it out: the papyrus I had come to dread, solid as piecrust, and weighed down with an ounce of sombrely embossed wax. I knew it contained orders for my German trip.

'Thanks.' I sounded thoughtful. This odd bod in the lurid shoes already had me wondering. He was not all he seemed. Although that applies to most of Rome, with Titus Caesar jealously concerned about my private life I felt more nervous than usual about social frauds. I took the letter. 'Hang yourself up on a cloak-peg, in case I want to send a rude reply.'

'That's right!' he ranted bitterly. 'Give me your orders! My sole purpose is to dally on doorsteps while people read their correspondence.'

Something was wrong here. I needed to probe. 'You seem a restless sort of messenger. Are your corns worse than usual?'

'I'm a barber,' said he.

'Stick with it, Xanthus. There are fortunes to be made out of bristle for a man with a deft hand.' And other fortunes, too, for hired hacks who deftly applied sharp weapons to people's throats. I checked him over discreetly; if he was carrying a blade it was well hidden. 'Whose barber are you anyway?'

He looked thoroughly depressed. 'I used to shave Nero. He killed himself with a razor, I heard; probably one of mine. Since then they've all passed through my hands. I shaved Galba; I shaved Otho-I laundered his toupee as well, in fact!' For the first time it sounded like the truth: only a genuine barber would make so much of name- dropping eminent clients. 'After that, when he remembered to let somebody attack his fortnight's undergrowth, I even shaved Vitellius

Distrust had struck again. I rasped bleakly. 'You ever scraped Vespasian?'


'What about Titus?' He shook his head. I was too old to believe it. 'Know a man called Anacrites?'


Anacrites was the official chief spy at the Palace, and no crony of mine. If anyone at the Palace was commissioning a private extermination, Anacrites was bound to be involved. Especially if they were exterminating me. Anacrites would enjoy that.

I bit my lip. 'So how come, when a clean shave is as rare as an emerald in a goose's gizzard, an imperial razorman has been reduced to footslogging round the Aventine in his natty scarlet lace-ups?'

'Demoted,' he said (unhappily).

'To the seedier end of a delivery round? It's hardly apt. I think you're lying.'

'Think what you like. I did my best to satisfy whoever turned up under the towel, but I'm told there's no further call for my skills and since Vespasian hates waste, I'm reallocated to the secretariat.'


'It is, Falco! The Flavians have a set of strong chins. I had been assigned to Titus Caesar-'

'Nice mop of curls!'

'Yes. I could have done decent work on Titus:'

'But the victor of Jerusalem declines to trust his handsome epiglottis to a sharp Spanish blade in the hands of a man who has previously scratched Nero and Vitellius? Who can blame him, friend?'

'Politics!' he spat. 'Anyway, I'm now shoved off to tramp through the dung in stinking alleys and struggle up endless smelly stairs bringing so-called urgent despatches to unfriendly types who don't even bother to read them when I arrive.'

The complaints did not deflect me. 'Sorry, I'm not convinced. Did Titus send you here?' The barber shook his head impatiently, but by now I knew better. 'Stop jiggling like a whore on a busy night after the races.'

'Why the heavy suspicion? I'm just a runt they have no other use for.'

They had a use for him all right.

I broke open the scroll Xanthus had delivered, only to reveal more bad news.

My orders from Vespasian had been written by a secretary whose pretty Greek lettering would make a good vase decoration, though it was torture to read. While I struggled to decipher the rambling-rose script, the barber clung against one wall of the apartment. He seemed frightened of something. Possibly me.

When I had finished, I sat in silence. I was feeling bilious from the wine I had drunk with Canidius and from eating my sausage too fast. I would have been squeamish anyway. What I had to do in Germany was:

Deliver the Emperor's gift to the Fourteenth Gemina – and make a report to the Emperor.

Any fool could do that. I might even manage it myself.

Ascertain the fate of the most noble Munius Lupercus.

Who was he? I'll tell you: only the commanding legate of the legion at Vetera, the fort which had held out against the rebels to the verge of starvation before its surrendering troops were all butchered. All except Lupercus. The freedom fighters had sent him over the Rhine as a present to their thoroughly nasty priestess.

Attempt to curtail the activities of Veleda.

You guessed: Veleda was the priestess.

Ascertain the whereabouts of Julius Civilis -

'Oh gods!' Even with my long history of resistible commissions, this final task was unbelievable.

Ascertain the whereabouts of Julius Civilis, chieftain of the Batavians, and ensure his future co-operation within a pacified Gaul and Germany.

Vespasian had already sent two commanders-in-chief in full purple panoply plus nine trusted legions to undertake the reclamation of Civilis. Whatever the Daily Gazette trustingly reported from its pillar in the Forum, they must have failed. Now Vespasian was sending me.

'Bad news?' quavered Xanthus nervously.

'A disaster!'

'You're going to Germany, aren't you?' So I had intended, until I read this catalogue of impossible treats. Now the obvious thing was to head the other way. 'I really envy you,' the barber enthused, with the true tactlessness of his trade. 'I've always wanted to see something of the Empire outside Rome.'

'There are cheaper ways to be uncomfortable here. Try a hot afternoon in the Circus Maximus. Try a bad play at Pompey's Theatre. Try buying a drink near the Forum. Try shellfish. Try women. Go for a swim in the Tiber in August if you want to catch some exotic complaint: Xanthus, I badly need to think. Shut up. Get out. And try not to walk your horrible scarlet footwear in my direction again.'

'Oh I have to,' he assured me smugly. 'I'm coming back tomorrow to bring the package that you have to take to Germany.'

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