This menace who loathed fledglings must be a humorless traditionalist of the worst type.

Maybe he had slipped on their mess, which the goslings frequently deposited in large quantities. You can imagine the problems we now had at home.

Gaia blinked. “You must not upset the Flamen!” she commented, in a rather strange tone.

“I shall treat this Flamen as he deserves.” I had managed not to meet him face-to-face; I just heard his moans from a harassed acolyte. I meant to avoid him. Otherwise, I would end up telling some powerful bastard where he could shove his wand of office. As a state procurator, I was no longer free to do that.

“He is very important,” the girlie insisted. She seemed nervous of something. It was obvious the Flamen thought too much of himself. I hate members of ancient priesthoods, with their snobbery and ridiculous taboos. Most of all I hate their undercover influence in Rome.

“You speak as if you know him, Gaia!” I was being satirical.

That was when she floored me: “If his name is Laelius Numentinus, he’s my grandfather.”

My heart sank. This was serious. Tangling with some hidebound king of the cult priesthoods over a couple of ill-placed goslings was a bad enough start to my new post, without him finding out his darling grandchild had approached me, wanting me to act for her. I could see Helena raising her eyebrows and wincing with alarm. Time to get out of this.

“Right. How do you come to be here, Gaia? Who told you about me?”

“I met somebody yesterday who said that you help people.”

“Olympus! Who made that wild claim?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Who knows you are here?” asked Helena in a concerned voice.


“Don’t leave home without telling people where you are going,” I rebuked the child. “Where do you live? Is it far?”


From indoors came a sudden loud cry from Julia. She had crawled away and disappeared, but was now in some urgent trouble. Helena hesitated, then went to her quickly in case the crisis involved hot water or sharp objects.

There was nothing that a child of six could need from an informer. I dealt with divorce and financial double- dealing; art theft; political scandal; lost heirs and missing lovers; unexplained deaths.

“Look, I work for grown-ups, Gaia-and you ought to go home before your mother misses you. Is that your transport in the street?”

The child looked less sure of herself and seemed willing to descend to the elaborate conveyance that I had seen waiting below. Automatically I started wondering. A rich and richly spoiled infant, borrowing Mama’s fine litter and bearers. Did this happen often? And did Mama know that Gaia had pinched the litter today? Where was Mama? Where was the nursemaid Gaia ought to have attached to her even inside the family home, let alone when she left it? Where, thought the father in me without much hope of a serious answer, was Gaia’s anxietyburdened papa?

“Nobody listens to me,” she commented. From most children of her age it would have been petulance; from this one it sounded simply resigned. She was too young to be so certain that she did not count.

I relented. “All right. Do you want to tell me quickly what you came for?”

She had lost faith. Assuming she ever had any in me. “No,” said Gaia.

I was several steps down from her, but I could still look her in the eye. Her young age would have been a novelty if I had been prepared to take her commission-but my time for pointless risks was past. With my new post from Vespasian, ludicrous though it was, my social status had improved dramatically; I could no longer indulge in eccentric decisions.

I managed to find the patience you are supposed to lavish on a child. “We all have quarrels with our relatives, Gaia. Sometimes it matters, but mostly it comes to nothing. When you calm down, and when whoever offended you has had time to do the same, just apologize quietly.”

“I haven’t done anything to apologize for!”

“Neither have I, Gaia-but take my word, with your family, it’s best just to give in.”

She marched past me, head in the air. Encumbered by Nux and the gosling, I could only stand aside. But I leaned over the railing as she reached street level, and within hearing of the litter-bearers (who ought to have known better than to bring her) I ordered her in a fatherly manner to go straight home.

Helena Justina came out to me, as I was watching the litter move off. She regarded me with her fine brown eyes, eyes full of quiet intelligence and only half-hidden mockery. I straightened up, stroking the gosling. It let out a loud, appealing squeak, at which Helena humphed. I doubted that I impressed my beloved too much either.

“You let her go, Marcus?”

“She decided of her own accord.” Helena obviously knew something. She was looking concerned. Immediately I regretted my rebuff. “So what wonderful job from this Gaia have I just cruelly turned down?”

“Didn’t she tell you? She thinks her family want to kill her,” said Helena.

“Oh, that’s all right then. I was worried it might have been a real emergency.”

Helena raised an eyebrow. “You don’t believe it?”

“Granddaughter of a chief priest of Jupiter? That would be a highprofile scandal, and no mistake.” I sighed. The litter had already vanished, and there was nothing I could do now. “She’ll get used to it. My family feel like that about me most of the time.”


LET’S GO BACK a day and get things straight.

Helena and I had just returned from Tripolitania. It was a rushed sea trip, hastily taken after Famia’s ghastly death and funeral. My first task after the journey had to be breaking the bad news to my sister. She must have expected the worst from her husband, but his being eaten by a lion in the arena would be more than even Maia could have foreseen.

I needed to hurry, because I wanted to tell Maia quietly myself. Since we had brought back with us my partner Anacrites, who was lodging with my mother, Ma was bound to discover what had happened pretty quickly. My sister would never forgive me if anyone else heard the news before she did. Anacrites had promised to maintain silence on the subject for as long as he could, but Ma was notorious for worming out secrets. Anyway, I had never trusted Anacrites.

Burdened by my responsibilities, I rushed off to my sister’s house immediately we arrived in Rome. Maia was out.

All I could do then was slink back home, hoping I could find her later. As it turned out, Anacrites was removed from any danger of gossiping with Ma because both he and I were sent messages summoning us to a meeting on the Palatine to consider the Census results. By coincidence, I later discovered that Maia herself was missing from home because she too was attending a function with a royal connectionnot that I would ever have expected it from my soundly republican sister-though her fancy do was at the Golden House on the other side of the Forum, whereas we went in search of the narrow pleasures of bureaucracy at the old imperial offices in the Palace of the Claudian Caesars.

The reception that Maia was attending would be relevant to all that happened subsequently. It would have been handy for me to have warned her to do some eavesdropping. Still, you rarely know that in advance.

For once, I was visiting Vespasian in full confidence that he had nothing to complain about.

I had worked on the Census for the best part of a year. It was my most lucrative employment ever, and I had myself identified the opportunity. Anacrites, previously the Emperor’s Chief Spy, had been my temporary partner. This had proved an oddly successful arrangementgiven that he had once tried to have me killed, and that I had always hated his profession in general and him in particular. We had been an excellent team, screwing cash out of lying taxpayers. His meanness complemented my skepticism. He took a filthy line with the feeble; I charmed the tough. The Secretariat we reported to, not realizing how good we would be, had promised us a substantial

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