percentage of all underpayments we identified. Since we knew the Census had a short time scale, we had worked flat out. Laeta, our contact, tried to renege as usual, but we now possessed a scroll confirming that Vespasian loved what we had done for him, and that we were rich.

Somehow, at the end of our commission Anacrites and I had ended up without killing each other. Even so, he had done his best to come to a sticky end. In Tripolitania, the idiot had managed to get himself nearly killed in the arena. Fighting as a gladiator for real would damn him to social disgrace and harsh legal penalties if anyone in Rome ever found out. When he recovered from his wounds, he had to face life knowing I had acquired a permanent hold over him.

He had reached the meeting ahead of me. As soon as I entered the high, vaulted audience chamber, I was annoyed to see his pale face. His pallor was natural, but there were bandages under the long sleeves of his tunic, and I, in the know, could see him holding his body very carefully. He was still in pain. That cheered me up.

He knew I was supposed to be visiting Maia that day. Had I missed the palace messenger, I wondered whether dear Anacrites would have kept me in the dark about this meeting.

I grinned at him. He never knew how to take that.

I made no effort to join him across the room. He had plonked himself alongside Claudius Laeta, the papyrus bug we had out-flanked over our fee scale. Now our Census work was over, Anacrites wanted to edge himself back into his old job. Throughout this meeting, he stuck close to Laeta; they continually exchanged little pleasantries in an undertone. In reality, they were locked in a struggle for the same top position. Outside the individual offices where they plotted against one another, they put on an urbane act as best friends. But if either ever followed the other down a dark alley, one would be found dead in the gutter next day. Fortunately, perhaps, palaces tend to be well lit.

The meeting room had been set out in a square with cushioned thrones for the Emperor and his son Titus, the two official Censors; there were scroll-armed seats, which meant we were expecting senators, and hard stools for the lower orders. Scribes lined the walls, standing up. Most of the large assembly had bald heads and bad eyesight. Until Vespasian came in with Titus, who was in his thirties, Anacrites, Laeta, and myself stood out, younger even than the secretaries on the sidelines. We were among hard-bitten Treasury of Saturn types, the wizened mixtures of priestliness and moneycollecting who had now gleefully counted the Census revenue into ironbound strongboxes in the basement of their temple. Jostling them were envoys of senatorial status who had been sent to the provinces to extract taxes from the loyal members of the Empire overseas who had so gratefully accepted Roman rule and so reluctantly agreed to pay for it.

Later in his reign Vespasian openly called these envoys his “ sponges,” placed abroad to soak up money for him, with the implication that he did not care too much what methods they used. No doubt they had balanced their natural inclinations to use bullying and brutality against his clear wish to be known as a “good” emperor.

I knew one of the envoys-Rutilius Gallicus, assigned to arbitrate in a land dispute between Lepcis Magna and Oea. I met him out there. Somehow, between his first conversation with me and his departure he augmented his title until he was no longer a mere desert land surveyor but the Emperor’s special agent of the Census in Tripolitania. Far be it from me to suspect this noble fellow of engineering his remit. Obviously, as an ex-consul, he was well in at the Palace. In Lepcis, we had enjoyed the close social bonds of two Romans trapped far from home among tricky foreigners, but now I felt myself starting to regard him cautiously. He was more influential than I had previously realized. I guessed his rise had nowhere reached its zenith. He could be a friend-but I would not bank on it.

I saluted him unobtrusively; Rutilius nodded back. He was sitting quietly, not attached to any particular group. Knowing that he came to Rome as a first-generation senator from Augusta Taurinorum in the despised north of Italy, I sensed that he carried the outsider’s whiff. I reckoned it did not bother him.

Being a new man, sneered at by the patrician class, no longer served as a handicap since Vespasian, the ultimate rustic upstart whom nobody had ever taken seriously, had surprised the world and made himself Emperor. He now entered the chamber with the air of a curious sight-seer, but he went straight to his throne. He wore the purple on his solid frame with visible enjoyment, and without making any effort he dominated the room. The old man took his place centrally, a sturdy figure, forehead lined as if with a lifetime’s effort. That was deceptive. Satirists could make sport with his constipated appearance, but he had Rome and the whole Establishment just where he wanted them, and his grim smile said that he knew it.

At his side eventually was Titus, similarly thickset but half his father’s age and twice as cheerful. He delayed taking his seat as he gave affable greetings to those who had only recently returned to Rome from the provinces. Titus had a reputation as a nice softhearted darling-always a sign of a nasty bastard who could be bloody dangerous. He was providing the new Flavian court with vigor and talent-and with Queen Berenice of Judaea, an exotic beauty ten years his senior who, having failed to entrap Vespasian, had turned her blowsy charms on the next best thing. After only one day back in the Forum, I already knew that the hot news was that she had recently followed her handsome plaything to Rome.

Titus himself was supposed to be overjoyed by this dubious good fortune, but I was damned sure Vespasian would handle it. The father had built his imperial claim on high-minded traditional values; a would-be empress with a history of incest and interference in politics could never make a suitable portrait for the next young Caesar’s bedroom wall, not even if she sat for the artist sucking a stylus and looking like a stay-at-home virgin whose only thoughts were of kitchen inventories. Somebody should tell her: Berenice would get the push.

Titus, friendly fellow, smiled benignly when he noticed me. Vespasian noticed Titus smiling and scowled. Being a realist, I preferred the scowl.

The details of the ensuing meeting are probably subject to official rules for secrecy. The results are fully visible anyway. At the start of his reign, Vespasian had announced he needed four hundred million sesterces to put Rome on its feet. Shortly after concluding the Census, he was building and rebuilding on every plot in sight, with the astonishing Flavian Amphitheatre at the end of the Forum to set the seal on his achievements. That he achieved his huge fiscal target is hardly news.

Even with a chairman who hated dawdling and the smartest officials in the world to steer the agenda through, the budget for an empire is extensive. It took us four hours to appraise all the figures.

Vespasian never appeared to notice that he had grounds for extreme satisfaction with his new funds, though Titus raised complimentary eyebrows a couple of times. Even the Treasury men looked relaxed, which was unheard of. Eventually the Emperor made a short, surprisingly gracious speech thanking everyone for their efforts, then he was gone, followed by Titus.

The meeting was over, and I would have been out of there at a fast march had not a spruce slave shuffled Anacrites and me into a side room unexpectedly. There we kicked our heels and sweated among a group of nervous senators until we were shunted on to a private interview with Vespasian. He should have been lying down for a nap like a respectable pensioner; instead, he was still hard at work. We finally grasped that rewards were being handed out.

We had ended up in a much smaller throne room. Titus was missing, but, as we had joked during our wait, Titus looked tired; Berenice must be sapping his strength. Vespasian used both his sons as public props, but that was to accustom the public to their pink little imperial faces for when he passed on; he never really needed a sidekick. He could certainly manage a few brisk thanks for a pair of low characters like Anacrites and me.

Vespasian made it seem as if he was genuinely grateful. In return, he said, he was adding both our names to the equestrian list. This came out so casually I nearly missed it. I had been watching a wood louse scurry along a painted dado and only woke up when I heard Anacrites express an unpleasantly suave murmur of gratitude.

To be bumped up to the middle rank required land holdings worth four hundred thousand sesterces. Do not imagine our trusty old emperor was donating the collateral. He pointed out with a snort that we had screwed so much money from him in fees that he expected us to put aside the qualifying amount; he just bestowed on us the formal right to wear the middle rank’s gold ring. There was no ceremony; that would have required gold rings for Vespasian to hand out. He of course preferred people to buy their own. I did not intend wearing one. Where I lived, some thief would steal it the first time I went out.

In order to make a distinction between me, the freeborn conniver, and Anacrites, a publicly employed ex- slave, Vespasian then told Anacrites that he was still valued in intelligence work. I, on the other hand, was honored with the kind of horrible sinecure that the middle ranks traditionally crave. While working on the Census, I had prevented a fatal accident to the Sacred Geese on the Capitol. As a reward, Vespasian had created for me the post of Procurator of Poultry for the Senate and People of Rome.

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