Lindsey Davis

One Virgin Too Many


I HAD JUST come home after telling my favorite sister that her husband had been eaten by a lion. I was in no mood for greeting a new client.

Some informers might welcome any chance to flourish their schedule of charges. I wanted silence, darkness, oblivion. Not much hope, since we were on the Aventine Hill, in the noisiest hour of a warm May evening, with all Rome opening up for commerce and connivance. Well, if I couldn’t expect peace, at least I deserved a drink. But the child was waiting for me outside my apartment halfway down Fountain Court, and as soon as I spotted her on the balcony I guessed that refreshments would have to wait.

My girlfriend, Helena, was always suspicious of anything too pretty that arrived in a very short tunic. Had she made the would-be customer wait outside? Or had the smart little girl taken one look at our apartment and refused to venture indoors? She was probably linked to the luxurious carrying chair with a Medusa boss on its smoothly painted half door that was parked below the balcony. Our meager home might strike her as highly undesirable. I hated it myself.

On what passed for a portico, she had found herself the stool that I used for watching the world go by. As I came up the worn steps from the alley, my first acquaintance was with a pair of petite, wellmanicured white feet in gold-strapped sandals, kicking disconsolately against the balcony rail. With the thought of Maia’s four children, frightened and tearful, still burning my memory, that was all the acquaintance I wanted. I had too many problems of my own.

Even so, I noticed that the little person on my stool had qualities I would once have welcomed in a client. She was female. She looked attractive, confident, clean, and well dressed. She appeared to be good for a fat fee too. A profusion of bangles was clamped on her plump arms. Green glass beads with glinting spacers tangled in the four-color braid on the neck of her finely woven tunic. Adept boudoir maids must have helped to arrange the circle of dark curls around her face and to position the gold net that pegged them in place. If she was showing a lot of leg below the tunic, that was because it was such a short tunic. She handled her smooth emerald stole with unflustered ease when it slid off her shoulders. She looked as if she assumed she could handle me as easily.

There was one problem. My ideal client, assuming Helena Justina permitted me to assist such a person nowadays, would be a pert widow aged somewhere between seventeen and twenty. I placed this little gem in a far less dangerous bracket. She was only five or six.

I leaned on the balcony newel post, a rotting timber the landlord should have replaced years ago. When I spoke my voice sounded weary even to me. “Hello, princess. Can’t you find the door porter to let you in?” She stared at me scornfully, aware that grimy plebeian apartments did not possess slaves to welcome visitors. “When your family tutor starts to teach you about rhetoric, you will discover that that was a feeble attempt at irony. Can I help you?”

“I was told an informer lives here.” Her accent said she was upper class. I had worked that out. I tried not to let it prejudice me. Well, not too much. “If you are Falco, I want to consult you.” It came out clear and surprisingly assured. Chin up and self-confident, the prospective client had the bright address of a star trapeze artiste. She knew what she wanted and expected to be listened to.

“Sorry, I am not available for hire.” Still upset by my visit to Maia, I took a sterner line than I should have done.

The client tried to win me over. She hung her head and looked down at her toes pathetically. She was accustomed to wheedling sweetmeats out of somebody. Big brown eyes begged for favors, confident of receiving what she asked. I simply gave her the hard stare of a man who had returned from imparting tragic news to people who then decided to blame him for the tragedy.

Helena appeared. She cast a frowning gaze over the cutesy wearing the bangles, then she smiled ruefully at me from behind the slatted half door that Petronius and I had built to stop my one-year-old daughter crawling outside. Julia, my athletic heir, was now pressing her face through the slats at knee level, desperate to know what was going on even if it left her with grazed cheeks, a squashed mouth, and a distorted nose. She greeted me with a wordless gurgle. Nux, my dog, leaped over the half door, showing Julia how to escape. The client was knocked from her stool by the crazy bundle of rank fur, and she shrank back while Nux performed her routine exuberant dance to celebrate my homecoming and the chance that she might now be fed.

“This is Gaia Laelia.” Helena gestured to the would-be client, like a seedy conjurer producing from a tarnished casket a rabbit who was known to kick. I could not quite tell whether the disapproval in her tone related to me or to the child. “She has some troubles regarding her family.”

I burst into bitter laughter. “Then don’t look to me for comfort! I have those troubles myself. Listen, Gaia, my family view me as a murderer, a wastrel, and a general all-around unreliable bastard-added to which, when I can get into my apartment I have to bathe the baby, cook the dinner, and catch two baby birds who keep crapping everywhere, running under people’s feet and pecking the dog.”

On cue, a tiny bright yellow fledgling with webbed feet ran out through the gaps in the half door. I managed to field it, wondering where the other was, then I grabbed Nux by her collar before she could lunge at it, and pushed her down the steps; she scrabbled against the backs of my legs, hoping to eat the birdie.

Bangles clonked angrily like goatbells as Gaia Laelia stamped her little gold-clad foot. She lost some of her previous air of maturity. “You’re horrid! I hope your duckling dies!”

“The duckling’s a gosling,” I informed her coolly. “When it grows up”-if ever I managed to nurse it from egg to adulthood without Nux or Julia frightening it to death-“it will be a guardian of Rome on the Capitol. Don’t insult a creature with a lifelong sacred destiny.”

“Oh, that’s nothing,” scoffed the angry little madam. “Lots of people have destinies-” She stopped.

“Well?” I enquired patiently.

“I am not allowed to say.”

Sometimes a secret persuades you to take the job. Today mysteries held no charm for me. The terrible afternoon that I had just spent at my sister’s had killed any curiosity.

“Why have you got it here, anyway?” demanded Gaia, nodding at the gosling.

Despite my depression, I tried to sound proud. “I am the Procurator of Poultry for the Senate and People of Rome.”

My new job. I had only had it a day. It was still unfamiliar-but I already knew that it was not what I would have chosen for myself.

“Flunkey for Feathers.” Helena giggled from inside the door. She thought it was hilarious.

Gaia was dismissive too: “That sounds like a title you made up.”

“No, the Emperor invented it, the clever old boy.”

Vespasian had wanted me in a position which would look like a reward but which would not cost him much in salary. He thought this up while I was in North Africa. At his summons I had sailed all the way home from Tripolitania, eagerly hoping for position and influence. Geese were what the imperial joker inflicted on me instead. And yes, I had been awarded the augurs’ Sacred Chickens too. Life stinks.

Gaia, who knew how to be persistent, still wanted me to explain why the yellow bird was living in my house. “Why have you got it here?”

“Upon receipt of my honored post, Gaia Laelia, I rushed to inspect my charges. Juno’s geese are not supposed to hatch their own eggs on the Capitol-their offspring are normally fostered under some wormy hens on a farm. Two goslings who didn’t know the system had hatched out-and on arrival at the Temple of Juno Moneta I found the duty priest about to wring their sacred little necks.”


“Somebody complained. The sight of scampering goslings had annoyed some ancient retired old Flamen Dialis.” The Flamen Dialis was the Chief Priest of Jupiter, top greaser to the top god in the great Olympian Triad.

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