“Thanks,” I said. Smarming was expected.

“You deserve it,” the Emperor said, grinning. The job was rubbish, we both knew that. A snob might be thrilled to be associated with the great temples on the Capitol, but I hated the idea.

“Congratulations,” said Anacrites, smirking. In case he planned to annoy me anymore, and to remind him I could ruin him, I gave him the traditional gladiators’ salute. He fell silent. I let it go there; he was already enough of an enemy.

“Was I recommended for this position by some kind friend, Caesar?” Antonia Caenis, the Emperor’s long-term mistress, had before her death given me a hint that she might ask him to look again at my prospects. His gaze was direct. After forty or fifty years of respecting Antonia Caenis, past advice from her would always count with Vespasian.

“I know your worth, Falco.” Sometimes I wondered whether he ever remembered that I held some damning evidence against his son Domitian. I had never yet tried blackmail, though they knew I could.

“Thanks, Caesar!”

“You will go on to worthy things.”

I was hamstrung, and we both knew it.


Anacrites and I walked from the Palace together in silence.

For him, there was probably little change in store. He was expected to continue his career in state service, simply enhanced by his new rank. It might do him some good materially. I had always suspected that after a career in spying Anacrites had already stashed away a secret fortune. He owned a villa in Campania, for one thing. I had learned of its existence from Momus, a carefully cultivated nark.

Anacrites never discussed his origins, but he was undoubtedly an ex-slave; even a freedman at the Palace only acquired a luxury villa legitimately as a reward for an exceptional lifetime’s service. I had never worked out his age, but Anacrites was not looking at retirement yet; he was vigorous enough to have survived a head wound that ought to have finished him, he had quite a few teeth left and most of his sleeked-back black hair. Well, the other way Palace slaves collected pretty things was straightforward: bribery. Now he was in the middle rank, he would expect the bribes to be bigger.

We parted still in silence. He was not the type to offer a celebratory drink. I could never have swallowed it.

For me, the future looked dreary. I was freeborn, but plebeian. Today I had risen above generations of rascally Didii-to what? To being a rascal who had lost his natural place in life.

I left the Palace, exhausted and gloomy, knowing that I now had to explain my terrible fate to Helena Justina. Her fate too: a senator’s daughter, she had left her patrician home for the thrills and the risks of living with a low-down rogue. Helena might seem reserved, but she was passionate and self-willed. With me, she had faced danger and disgrace. We had struggled against poverty and failure, though we were for the most part free to enjoy our lives in our own way. It was a bid for independence that many of her status might envy but few would dare to choose. I believed she had been happy. I know I had been.

Now, after being promised equestrian status for the past three years, I had finally acquired it-together with all its restrictions. I would have to engage in refined branches of commerce, the lower reaches of local priesthoods, and the less well remunerated administrative posts. With the approval of my social equals and a nod from the gods, my future was settled: M. Didius Falco, former private informer, would have three children, no scandals, and a small statue put up in his honor in forty years’ time. Suddenly that did not sound much fun.

Helena Justina was stuck with permanent, boring, respectable mediocrity. As a source of scandal, I had definitely failed her.


SO MY FIRST day back in Rome was trying enough. I spent the evening privately at home with Helena, adjusting to our new status and what it might mean for us.

Next day I found Maia and broke her terrible news. Things were not improved by the fact that the trip which killed her husband had now brought special rewards for me. Of course I felt guilty. When Maia said I had no reason to reproach myself, I felt even worse.

I stayed with my sister most of the day. After that harrowing experience, I came home to find I had to deal with the child-client, Gaia Laelia. Then all I wanted was to go in and close the door.

The world, however, had now heard I was back. Indoors, there were no more clients, and for once neither creditors nor pathetic loanseekers. Instead, members of my intimate circle were lounging at my plain board table, hoping I would cook for them. One friend; one relative. The friend was Petronius Longus, who might have been welcome had he not been chatting like a crony to the relative I could least tolerate: my father, Geminus.

“I told them about Famia,” said Helena in an undertone. She meant the cleaned-up version.

We had agreed that only Maia herself was to know the full story. Famia had been sent overseas by the faction of charioteers for whom he had worked as a horse vet, looking for new stock in the Libyan stud farms. The remote locale enabled us to blur the details. Officially, he had been killed in an “accident” with a wild animal.

It was up to Maia when, if ever, she let it be known that Famia, a loud and bigoted drunk, had raucously insulted the Tripolitanian gods and heroes in the Forum at Lepcis Magna, to the point where hospitality to strangers had faltered and the inhabitants had beaten him up, thrown him before a visiting magistrate, and charged him with blasphemy. The traditional Tripolitanian penalty was to be torn apart by wild beasts.

The arena in Lepcis was awaiting a series of Games-normal in Africa, where blood sports to assuage the anger of insulted gods are regular even when the harsh Punic gods have not been insulted at all. The locals had a lion ready starved. Famia was dispatched the next day, before I even knew he had landed at Lepcis, before I realized what was happening or could attempt to prevent it. I had scrupulously told Maia the cause and manner of her husband’s death, while advising her to protect her children from the full horror at this stage. But the one thing I was not telling even her was that the magistrate who had sanctioned the execution in order to keep the peace in Lepcis had been my Census colleague, the Emperor’s senatorial envoy, Rutilius Gallicus. I had been staying in his house at the time. I was sitting alongside him when I found myself watching Famia die. Even without knowing that, Maia had blamed me.

Petronius and my father both eyed me curiously as if they too somehow suspected I was implicated up to my neck.

Helena relieved me of the gosling, which she placed in its basket alongside its squeaky sibling. Luckily our apartment was above the shop of a basket weaver, and Ennianus was always eager to sell us a new container. We had not told him I was fostering geese. I was already regarded as a clown in this neighborhood.

“Where did you rustle the fledglings?” scoffed Pa. “Bit skinny for roasting. By the time they can go in the pot, they’ll see you as their mother!”

I grinned, gamely. Helena must have told him about my new rank and the fine job that came with it. He would waste days thinking up bad jokes.

Petronius shoved Nux between his boots under the table. Julia was handed to her doting grandfather. Pa was hopeless with children, having abandoned his own to run off with a girlfriend. He loved Julia, however, preening himself because her other grandfather was a senator. She loved him back without needing a reason. The next generation all seemed eager to revere Pa even before they reached the age when they could sneakily visit him at his antiques emporium and be bribed with trinkets and tidbits.

Fighting my irritation, I found a stool and sat down.

“Drink?” offered Petronius, hoping to get one himself. I shook my head. Remembering Famia temporarily spoiled my taste for it. That’s the most poisonous aspect of drunkards. They cease to enjoy their own liquor-while observing the results of their excess kills its pleasures for the rest of us.

Petro and Pa exchanged raised eyebrows.

“Hard business,” commented Pa.

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