Laeta mentioned his friends' names, which I did not bother to memorize. These were just scroll-shufflers. I wanted to meet men with the kind of status owned by the great imperial ministers of olden days-Narcissus or Pallas: holding the kind of position Laeta obviously craved himself.

Small talk resumed. Thanks to my ill-placed curiosity I had to endure a rambling discussion of whether the Society had been founded by Pompey the Great (whom the Senate had honored with control of both Spanish provinces) or Pompey the rival of Caesar (who had made Baetica his personal base).

'So who are your members?' I murmured, trying to rush this along. 'You can't be supporting the Pompeys now?' Not since the Pompeys fell from grace with a resounding thud. 'I gather then that we're here to promote trade with Spain?'

'Jove forbid!' shuddered one of the high-flown policy-formers. 'We're here to enjoy ourselves amongst friends!'

'Ah!' Sorry I blundered. (Well, not very sorry; I enjoy prodding sore spots.)

'Disregard the name of the Society,' smiled Laeta, at his most urbane. 'That's a historical accident. Old contacts do enable us to draw on the best resources of the province for our menu-but the original aim was simply to provide a legitimate meeting ground in Rome for like-minded men.'

I smiled too. I knew the scenario. He meant men with like-minded politics.

A frisson of danger attended this group. Dining in large numbers-or congregating in private for any purpose at all-was outlawed; Rome had always discouraged organized factions. Only guilds of particular merchants or craftsmen were permitted to escape their wives for regular feasting together. Even they had to make themselves sound serious by stressing that their main business was collecting contributions for their funeral club.

'So I need not really expect to meet any substantial exporters of Spanish olive oil?'

'Oh no!' Laeta pretended to look shocked. Someone muttered to him in an undertone; he winced, then said to me, 'Well, sometimes a determined group of Baeticans manages to squeeze in; we do have some here tonight.'

'So thoughtless!' another of the scroll-pushers sympathized dryly. 'Somebody needs to explain to the social elite of Corduba and Gades that the Society of Baetican Olive Oil Producers can manage quite well without any members who actually hail from southern Spain!'

My query had been sheer wickedness. I knew that among the snobs of Rome-and freed slaves were of course the most snobbish people around-there was strong feeling about pushy provincials. In the Celtic faction, the Spanish had been at it far longer than the Gauls or British so they had honed their act. Since their first admission to Roman society sixty or seventy years ago, they had packed the Senate, plucked the plum salaried jobs in the equestrian ranks, conquered literary life with a galaxy of poets and rhetoricians, and now apparently their commercial tycoons were swarming everywhere too.

'Bloody Quinctius parading his retinue of clients again!' mut-

tered one of the scribes, and lips were pursed in unison sympathetically.

I'm a polite lad. To lighten the atmosphere I commented, 'Their oil does seem to be high quality.' I collected a smear on one finger to lick, taking it from the watercress salad. The taste was full of warmth and sunshine.

'Liquid gold!' Laeta spoke with greater respect than I anticipated from a freedman discussing commerce. Perhaps this was a pointer to the new realism under Vespasian. (The Emperor came from a middle-class family, and he at least knew exactly why commodities were important to Rome.)

'Very fine-both on the food and in the lamps.' Our evening was being lit with a wide variety of hanging and standard lights, all burning with steady clarity and of course, no smell. 'Nice olives, too.' I took one from a garnish dish, then went back for more.

'Didius Falco is famous for political analysis,' commented Laeta to the others. News to me. If I was famous for anything it was cornering confidence tricksters and kicking the feet from under criminals. That, and stealing a senators daughter from her lovely home and her caring relatives: an act which some would say had made me a criminal myself.

Wondering if I had stumbled on something to do with Laeta's motive for inviting me, I carried on being reverent about the liquid gold: 'I do know your estimable society is not named after any old table condiment, but a staple of cultured life. Olive oil is any cook's master ingredient. It lights the best homes and public buildings. The military consume vast quantities. It's a base for perfumes and medicines. There's not a bathhouse or athletic gymnasium that could exist without oily body preparations-'

'And it makes a fail-safe contraceptive!' concluded one of the more jolly stylus-shovers.

I laughed and said I wished I had known that seven months ago.

* * *

Feeling thoughtful, I returned my attention to the food. Plainly this suited the others; they wanted outsiders to keep quiet while they showed off. The conversation became encoded with oblique references to their work.

The last speaker's remark had me grinning. I could not help thinking that if I passed on the stylus-shover's suggestion Helena would scoff that it sounded like making love to a well-marinaded radish. Still, olive oil would certainly be easier to obtain than the illegal alum ointment which we had intended to use to avoid starting a family. (Illegal because if you took a fancy to a young lady who was of the wrong status you were not supposed to speak to her, let alone bed her-while if your fancy was legal you had to marry and produce soldiers.) Olive oil was not cheap, though there was plenty available in Rome.

There was a suitably Hispanic theme throughout the meal. This made for a tasty selection, yet all with a similar presentation: cold artichokes smothered in fish-pickle sauce from the Baetican coast; hot eggs in fish-pickle sauce with capers; fowl forcemeats cooked with fish-pickle and rosemary. The endives came naked but for a chopped onion garnish-though there was a silver relish dish of you-guessed-it placed handily alongside. I made the mistake of commenting that my pregnant girlfriend had a craving for this all-pervasive garum; the gracious bureaucrats immediately ordered some slaves to present me with an unopened amphora. Those who keep frugal kitchens may not have noticed that fish-pickle is imported in huge pear-shaped vessels-one of which became my personal luggage for the rest of the night. Luckily my extravagant hosts lent me two slaves to carry the dead weight.

As well as the deliciously cured hams for which Baetica is famous, the main dishes tended to be seafood: few of the sardines we all joke about, but oysters and huge mussels, and all the fish harvested from the Adantic and Mediterranean coasts-dory, mackerel, tuna, conger eel, and sturgeon. If there was room to throw a handful of prawns into the cooking pot as well, the chef did so. There was meat, which I suspected might be dashing Spanish horse, and a wide range of vegetables. I soon felt crammed and exhausted-though I had not so far advanced my career an inch.

As it was a club, people were moving from table to table informally between courses. I waited until Laeta had turned away, then I too slipped off (ordering the slaves to bring my pickle jar), as if I wanted to circulate independently. Laeta glanced over with approval; he thought I was off to infiltrate some policy-molders' network.

I was really intending to sneak for an exit and go home. Then, when I dodged through a doorway ahead of my bearers and the garum, I crashed into someone coming in. The new arrival was female: the only one in sight. Naturally I stopped in my tracks, told the slaves to put down my pickle jar on its elongated point, then I straightened my festive garland and smiled at her.


She had been swathed in a full-length cloak. I like a woman well wrapped up. It's good to ponder what she's hiding and why she wants to keep the goodies to herself.

This one lost her mystery when she bumped into me. Her long cloak slithered floorwards, to reveal that she was dressed as Diana the Huntress. As definitions go, 'dressed' was only just applicable. She wore an off-one- shoulder little gold pleated costume; one hand carried a large bag from which emerged a chink of tambourine clackers while under her spare armpit were a quiver and a silly toy hunting bow.

'A virgin huntress!' I greeted her happily. 'You must be the entertainment.'

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