chatting. The nearer pair, those on the best-positioned couches beside Quinctius, had been silent while Laeta spoke to him; they overheard Laeta and the senator trying to outdo one another in urbane unpleasantness, although they hid their curiosity. An introduction to the Emperor's Chief Secretary seemed to impress them more than it had done the first two. Perhaps they thought Vespasian himself might now drop in to see if Laeta had tomorrow's public engagement list to hand.

'Annaeus Maximus and Licinius Rufius.' Quinctius Attractus named them brusquely. He might be patron to this group, but his interest in them hardly took a paternal tone. However he did add more graciously, 'Two of the most important oil producers from Corduba.'

'Annaeus!' Laeta was in there at once. He was addressing the younger of the two, a wide-shouldered, competent-looking man of around fifty. '-Would that make you a relative of Seneca?'

The Baetican assented with a head movement, but did not agree to the connection with enthusiasm. That could be because Seneca, Nero's influential tutor, had ended his famous career with an enforced suicide after Nero grew tired of being influenced. Adolescent ingratitude at its most extreme.

Laeta was too tactful to press the issue. Instead he turned to the other man. 'And what brings you to Rome, sir?'

Not oil, apparently. 'I am introducing my young grandson to public life,' answered Licinius Rufius. He was a generation older than his companion, though still looked sharp as a military nail.

'A tour of the Golden City!' Laeta was at his most insincere now, feigning admiration for this cosmopolitan initiative. I wanted to crawl under a side table and guffaw. 'What better start could he have? And is the lucky young man with us this evening?'

'No; he's out on the town with a friend.' The Roman senator Quinctius interrupted with ill-concealed impatience. 'You'd best find a perch, Laeta; the musicians are tuning up. Some of us have paid for them, and we want our money's worth!'

Laeta seemed satisfied that he had made his mark. He had certainly annoyed the senator. As we picked our way back across the room through the slaves who were lifting the food tables in order to clear a central space, Laeta muttered to me, 'Unbearable man! He throws his weight about to a degree that has become quite unacceptable. I may ask you, Falco, to help me with my endeavors to deal with him…'

He could ask as much as he liked. Keeping members of dining societies in order was not my work.

My host had not yet finished bopping upstarts on the nob. 'Anacrites! And who amongst our refined membership has deserved your attentions?'

'Yes, it's a working supper for me-' Anacrites had a light, cultured voice, about as unreliable as a dish of overripe figs. I felt bilious as soon as he spoke. 'I'm here to watch you, Laeta!' To do him justice, he had no fear of upsetting the secretariats. He also knew when to thrust his knife in quickly.

Their warfare was pretty open: the legitimate administrator, who dealt in manipulation and guile, and the tyrant of the security forces, who used blackmail, bullying and secrecy. The same force drove them; both wanted to be the dunghill king. So far there was not much difference between the power of a well-honed damning report on first-quality papyrus from Laeta, and a snide denunciation whispered by the spy in the ear of the Emperor. But one day this conflict was bound to reach a head.

'I'm quaking!' Laeta insulted Anacrites by using nothing worse than sarcasm. '-Do you know Didius Falco?'

'Of course.'

'He should do,' I growled. Now it was my turn to attack the spy: 'Anacrites may be disorganized, but even he rarely forgets occasions when he sends agents into hostile territory, then deliberately writes to let the local ruler know to look out for them. I owe this man a great deal, Laeta. But for my own ingenuity he might have had me tied out on a rock in the Nabataean desert for all the crows of Petra to pick clean my bones. And in the case of unwelcome visitors I don't believe the cruel Nabataeans bother to kill you first.'

'Falco exaggerates,' Anacrites smirked. 'It was a regrettable accident.'

'Or a tactical ploy,' I returned coolly. 'If I was at fault, I apologize.'

'Don't bother,' I told him. 'For one thing you're lying, and for another, it's a pleasure to continue hating your guts.'

'Falco is a wonderful agent,' Anacrites said to Laeta. 'He knows almost everything there is to know about tricky foreign missions-and he learned it all from me.'

'That's right,' I agreed mildly. 'Campania, two years ago. You taught me all the mistakes and bungles. All the ways to upset local sensitivities, trample the evidence and fail to come home with the goods. You showed me that-then I went out and did the job properly. The Emperor still thanks me for learning to avoid your mistakes that summer!'

Laeta took a turn: 'I'm sure we all profit from your mutual past relationship!' He was letting Anacrites know I was working for him now. 'The entertainment is starting,' Laeta smiled in my direction. The general noise in the room had dropped in response to signs of impending action from the dancer. Laeta patted me on the shoulder-a gesture I found highly annoying, though I made sure Anacrites did not see me react. 'Stay and enjoy yourself, Falco; I'd like to hear your opinion in due course…' It was obvious he was not talking about the musicians. He wanted Anacrites to think something was going on. Well, that suited me.

Only two vacant couches remained, at each end of the side rows on opposite sides of the room. I had decided my preference, but just at that moment someone beat me to it. It was a man I found hard to place-a fellow in a subdued oatmeal tunic, about my age. He dropped onto the couch as if it had been his place previously and was soon leaning on his elbows to watch the dancer, with his muscular legs sprawled behind him. He had an old scar down one forearm and bunioned feet that had done their share of tramping pavements. He spoke to no one but appeared sociable enough as he tossed grapes into his mouth and grinned at the girl who was about to perform.

I grabbed a wine refill to brace myself, then took the final couch-the one which was already partially occupied by my amphora of fish-pickle, alongside Anacrites.


There were two musicians, both with that deep black North African skin. One played the cithara, fairly badly. The other was younger and with more menacing, slanted eyes; he had a hand drum. He pattered on it in a colorful manner while the girl from Hispalis prepared to thrill us with the traditional gypsy display. I gave Anacrites a pleasant smile that was bound to annoy him as we waited to marvel at the suppleness of her hips. 'Diana looks hot stuff. Have you seen her before?'

'I don't believe so… What's our Falco been up to then?' I hated people who addressed me in that whimsical way.

'State secret.' I had just spent a winter delivering subpoenas for the lowest class of barrister and helping out as an unpaid porter at my father's auction house. Still, it was fun pretending that the Palace harbored a rival spy network, one run by Claudius Laeta over which Anacrites had no control.

'Falco, if you're working for Laeta, my advice is watch your back!'

I let him see me chuckle then I turned back to the dancer. She was giving us a few teasing poses with her golden bow and arrow: standing tiptoe on one foot with the other kicked up behind her while she pretended to shoot at diners, so she could lean back and show off her half-bared chest. Since this was Rome, it was nothing to cause a riot. Well, not unless any respectable equestrian went home and described her little Greek costume too graphically to his suspicious wife.

'I've been talking to young Camillus.' Anacrites had leaned across to whisper in my ear. I made a violent scratching movement as if I thought a beetle had landed on me. I just missed blinding him. He popped back onto his couch.

'Aelianus? That must have tried your patience,' I said. Just the other side of Anacrites Helena's angry brother was making sure he avoided my eye.

'He seems a promising young character. It's clear that he doesn't care for you, Falco.'

'He'll grow up.' The spy should have learned by now there was no future in baiting me.

'Isn't he your brother-in-law or something?' It was casually offensive.

'Or something,' I agreed calmly. 'What's he doing here? Don't tell me he heard there would be top men from

Добавить отзыв


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

Отметить Добавить цитату