`Thank you,' I said in a polite tone. It was worth a fee bonus to me. `Details would be useful.'

`He refused to take my work, although I was his only son. Mine was as good as anyone else's – but he said he had found something wonderful. He was going to pretend Philomelus' story was worthless so he could pay nothing for it. He would even make Pisarchus pay the production costs, and then take all the profits. He was beside himself with excitement. Then he said that as the publisher of a high-class work, he could not afford to soil his name by selling mine alongside it.'

`So you killed him?'

`I never meant to do it. Once we started to fight, it just happened.'

His hysterical mother was now battering me, as she tried to fling her arms protectively around her boy. I let go of him and pulled her away.

`Leave it, Lysa. You can't help him. It's all over.'

That was true for her too. She collapsed, sobbing. `I can't bear it. I have lost everything -'

`Chrysippus, the bank, this house, the scriptorium, and your crazy son – then of course without the bank, you have probably seen the last of Lucrio…' I tried wheedling encouragement: `Admit to us that you had Avienus killed, and we can lock you up as well.'

Some women fight it all the way. `Never!' she spat. So much for my wild hope of claiming not one but two confession bonuses.

As the vigiles logged the evidence and prepared to take their prisoner away, Diomedes remained surprisingly calm. Like many who confess to ghastly crimes, ending his silence seemed to bring him relief. He was very pale. `What will happen now?'

Fusculus reminded him tersely: `Just like your evidence.' He kicked at the empty cushion case. `It's the Tiber for you. You'll be sewn in the parricide sack!'

Fusculus refrained from adding that the wretched man would share his dark death-by-drowning with the dog, the cock, the viper, and the ape. Still, I had told him yesterday. From his terrified eyes, Diomedes was all too aware of his fate.


IT SEEMED to take hours to conclude the formalities. The vigiles are I hard, but even they dislike taking in parricides. The dire punishment strikes horror into everyone involved.

Petronius left the patrol-house with me. We went home via my mother's, where Helena had gone to fetch Julia. I told Ma what Lucrio had said about her money being safe. Naturally, Ma replied that she had been well aware of that. If it was any of my business, she informed me, she had already reclaimed her cash. I mentioned that Nothokleptes seemed a good bet as a banker to me, and Ma proclaimed that what she did with her precious sacks of cash was private. I gave up.

When she asked if I knew anything about stories that my father had been involved in an altercation with Anacrites the other day, I grabbed Julia and we all went home.

By chance, as we crossed the end of the street nearby where my sister lived, who should we see but Anacrites himself.

Petronius spotted him first and caught my arm. We watched him. He was leaving Maia's house, unexpectedly. He was walking along with both hands in his belt, his shoulders hunched up, and his head down. If he saw us, he pretended not to. Actually, I don't think he noticed us. He was in his own world. It did not appear to be a happy place.

Helena invited Petronius to dine with us that evening, but he said he wanted to set his apartment straight after the fight with Bos. After she and I had eaten, I sat out on the porch for some time, unwinding. I could hear Petro crashing about opposite. From time to time he tipped trash off the balcony in the traditional Aventine manner: making sure he shouted warnings, and sometimes even allowing long enough for pedestrians to scuttle out of danger in the street below.

Eventually, with Helena's approval, I sauntered off-alone. I went to see Maia.

She let me in, and we went out onto her sun terrace. She had been having a drink, which she shared with me; it turned out to be nothing stronger than the goatsmilk she normally kept for the children. `What do you want, Marcus?' She was always abrupt.

We had been too close for too long for me to mess about being delicate. `Came to check you were all right. I saw Anacrites, looking grim. I thought you and he had had plans?'

`He had the plans. Far too many.'

`And too soon? You were not ready??

'I was ready to dump him, anyway.'

She might have been crying earlier; it was impossible to tell. If so, she had gone past needing to shed her woes and was now calm. She looked sad, but unrepentant. There were no visible doubts. I wondered when she had made up her mind. Somehow, I did not think that Maia had ever heard the rumours about Anacrites and our mother. But she might know he had given' Ma_ stupid advice financially. That would count against him with my sister, to a degree he might never have realised…

`I'm sorry if you have lost a friend.' I found that I really meant that.

`So am I,' said Maia quietly.

I scratched my ear. `I see him around town. He is bound to ask me, when he can face me, whether I think you mean it.'

`Then tell him what you think,' she said, being her old awkward self. I shrugged, then drank my milk..

We heard someone knocking at her door. Maia went to answer, leaving me relaxing in the sun. If it was another close associate, she would bring them out here; if it was door-to-door lupin-sellers, she would see them off and come back cursing.

Low voices were talking. Far be it from me to eavesdrop, but I was an informer; the new visitor sounded familiar. I leaned back, tucked the toe of my boot under the handle, and inched open the sun terrace door.

`My brother is here,' I heard Maia say, in an amused tone.

`Nice!' replied Petronius Longus, my supposed best friend, with what sounded like a sneaky grin. `Family conference?'

`Why, what sort of conference were you planning?' quipped Maia in a slightly lower voice. Surely she must have known I could overhear them. `What's this you've brought?' she demanded suspiciously.

I heard the squeak of the front door hinge, as if it was opening

wider. There was a rustling noise. `A garland of Vertumnus. It's his festival, you know -'

Maia laughed raucously. `Oh don't say it's my turn to be backed into. a corner, by Lucius Petronius, the Aventine seduction king, and enticed into a night of festival fun?' Maia was my favourite sister and a model of chaste Roman motherhood – but she gave me the impression that in the absence of action from Petro, she would consider cornering him. The innuendo was flagrant. He must have thought the same.

`Don't talk like that,' begged Petro, in a strange tone. `Maia Favonia, you will break my heart.'

`You're serious!' Maia sounded surprised. Not as surprised as me. `I don't want to be passing festival fun,' he bragged. What a fraud. `I won't ask what you do want then.' Something was going on, something sufficiently intriguing to stop me calling out a ribald joke.

`So?' asked Maia.

Then Petronius answered gravely in a formal tone, `I am reconstructing my apartment. I want to buy some replacement pots and foliage to put on the balcony…'

Maia laughed again, more quietly this time. `My dear Lucius, so that's how you do it! You murmur, 'Don't touch me, I'm too honourable!' Then you talk about potted plants.'

Petronius carried on patiently as if she had not interrupted. `They seem to have some good stuff at that stall below the cliff Will you come and help me choose?'

There was a pause. Then Maia said suddenly: `Good idea. I like that stall. I saw they are selling watering pots. You dunk them in a bucket of water, then you can rain a gentle shower onto your special plants…' She stopped, sounding wistful, remembering she could no longer afford treats.

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