snapped? 'Ah well,' I said mildly. `You sit in the shade of a pine tree with your stylus and your great thoughts, fruit. I can easily run around after our darling daughter at the same time as I'm keeping a check on a bunch of slippery builders who want to destroy our new steam room. Then I can dash off my own little odes whenever there's a pause in the screaming and stonecutting.'

Every would-be author needs solitude and tranquillity.

It would have been a wonderful way to pass the summer, escaping from the city heat to our intended new home on the Janiculan Hill – except for this: the new home was a dump; the baby had embarked on a tantrum phase; and poetry led me into a public recital, which was foolish enough. That brought me into contact with the Chrysippus organisation. Anything in commerce that looks like a safe proposition may be a step on the route to grief.


I MUST HAVE been crazy. Drunk too, maybe.

Why had I received no protection from the Capitoline gods? All right, I admit Jupiter and Minerva might feel I was their most insignificant acolyte, merely slave to a sinecure, a placeman, a careerist, and a half-hearted one at that. But Juno could have helped me out. Juno really should have bestirred herself from leaning on one elbow, playing Olympian board games of hero-baiting and husbandtracking; the Queen of Heaven could have stilled the dice just long enough to notice that the new Procurator of her Sacred Geese had an unworkable glitch in his otherwise smooth-running social life. In short: I had stupidly agreed to be the warm-up act at someone else's poetry show.

My fellow author was a senator of consular rank. Disastrous. He would expect his friends and relatives to be seated on the comfortable benches while mine squashed into a few inches of standing room. He would grab most of the reading time. He would go first, while the audience was still awake. What's more, he was bound to be a bloody awful poet.

I am talking about Rutilius Gallicus. That's right. The same Rutilius Gallicus who would one day be the Urban Prefect – the Emperor's law and order chief, Domitian's strong-arm boy, that great man who is nowadays so greatly loved by the populace (as we are told by those who tell us what to think). Twenty years ago, at the time of our reading together, he was just any old ex-consul. Then, we still had Vespasian on the throne. As his legate in Tripolitania, Rutilius had recently solved a boundary dispute, for what that was worth (not much, unless you had the misfortune to live in Lepcis Magna or Oea). He had not yet become eligible to govern a province, was not yet famous for his German exploit, and nobody would ever have expected him to be the subject of heroic poetry himself. A celebrity in waiting. I thought him a pleasant mediocrity, a provincial just about holding up to wearing his senatorial purple.

Wrong, Falco. He was my friend, it seemed. I viewed this honour with great caution as I had gained the impression even then that he was also cosying up to Domitian, our least loveable imperial prince. Rutilius must think there was advantage in it. I chose my pals more carefully.

At home, with the matronly wife who hailed from his own town of origin – Augusta Taurinorum in northern Italy – and with whatever they possessed of a family (how should I know? I was just a newly-promoted equestrian; he might have befriended me as a fellow exile when we first met in faraway Africa, but in Rome, I would never be taken home to meet his noble kin), at home the gladsome Gallicus would be known as Gaius or whatever. I did not qualify to use his private name. He would never call me Marcus either. I was Falco; for me, he would remain `sir'. I could not tell if he knew there was mockery clothing my respectful tone. I was never too obvious; I like to keep my record clean. Besides, if he did become Domitian's crony, you never know where toadying may lead.

Well, some of us know now. But then you would never have marked down Rutilius Gallicus for favour and fame.

One advantage of sharing a platform with a patrician was that he hired a grand venue. Our stage was in the Gardens of Maecenas, no less – those luxurious walkways laid out at the back of the Oppian Hill, smashing through the old republican walls, and planted on the ancient burial grounds of the poor. (Lots of manure in situ, as Helena pointed out.) Now the Gardens lurked in the lee of the more recent Golden House; they were less well hoed and watered, but they still existed, owned by the imperial family since Maecenas himself died seventy years before. There was a belvedere nearby, from which Nero had supposedly watched the Great Fire rampaging.

Maecenas had been Augustus' notorious financier: funder of emperors, friend to famous poets – and an all- round truly disgusting pervert. Still, if I could ever find an Etruscan nobleman to buy my dinner and encourage my art, I would probably stomach him fingering pretty boys. Presumably he bought their dinners too. All patronage is pimping of some kind. I ought to be wondering what grateful actions Rutilius would demand of me.

Well, ours was a different situation, I told myself. My patron was a well-behaved Flavian prig. But no prig is perfect, at least when viewed from the Aventine stews where character flaws proliferate like hotroom mould, doing their desperate damage in rowdy plebeian families like mine and bringing us into conflict with the pristine elite. Why am I raving? Because Gallicus' big moment in Tripolitania had been ordering the public execution of a drunk who had blasphemed against the local gods. Too late, we discovered that the luckless loudmouth being eaten by the lion was my brother-in-law. Rutilius must be funding our joint recital out of guilt towards me, his house guest at the time.

Uneasily I wondered if my sister would enliven her widowhood by attending tonight. If so, would she work out the Rutilius connection? Maia was the bright one in our family. If she realised that I was reading alongside her late husband's trial judge, what would she do to him – or to me?

Best not think about that. I had enough worries.

I had previously tried giving a public performance, but due to some misadventure in advertising, nobody came. There must have been a riotous party the same night. Everyone I invited abandoned me. Now I was dreading yet more shame, but still determined to prove to my intimate circle that the hobby they sneered at could produce good results. When Rutilius had confessed that he too wrote poetry and suggested this recitation, I had expected him perhaps to make his own garden available, for a small gathering of trusted associates, to whom we would murmur a few hexameters at twilight, accompanied by sweetmeats and well-watered wine. But he was so all-round ambitious that instead, he went out and hired Rome's most elegant hall, the Auditorium in the Gardens of Maecenas. An exquisite site, haunted by literary echoes of Horace, Ovid and Virgil. To compliment the place, I learned that my new friend's personal guest-list was topped by his other dear friend, Domitian.

I was standing on the outer threshold of the Auditorium, with a very new scroll tucked under my arm, when my associate proudly broke this news. According to him, it was even rumoured that Domitian Caesar might attend. Dear gods.

There was no escape. All the hangers-on in Rome had heard the news, and the crowd pressing in behind me blocked any chance of bunking off.

`What an honour!' sneered Helena Justina, as she propelled me forward down the prestigiously tiled entrance ramp with the flat of her hand between my suddenly sweating shoulder blades. She managed to disguise her brutality by adjusting her fine, braid-edged stole at the same time. I heard delicate music from the massed gold disks of her earrings.


'Cobnuts.' The ramp had a steep gradient. Wound like a corpse in my toga, I had no freedom of movement; once pushed, I skittered down the long slope like a descending sycamore seed as far as the huge doorway to the interior. Helena steered me straight inside. I found myself reacting nervously: 'Oh look, my love, they have erected a modesty curtain, behind which women are supposed to hide themselves. At least you can fall asleep without

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