me to go out there. But my life was hard enough. I had already written and turned down his request for help. Ill

the niggle from julius Frontinus had refused to go away. Next, I was summoned to a light afternoon chat with the Emperor. I knew that meant some heavy request.

Vespasian, who had domestic problems of his own, now lurked frequently in the Gardens of Sallust. This helped him to avoid petitioners at the Palace- and to dodge his sons too. Domitian was often at odds with his father and brother, probably thinking that they ganged up against him. (The Flavians were a close family but Domitian Caesar was a squit, so who could blame them?) The elder and favourite son, Titus, acted as his father's political colleague. Once a wonder boy he had now imported Berenice, the Queen of Judaea, with whom he was openly conducting a passionate love affair. She was beautiful, brave and brazen and thus hugely unpopular. It must have caused a few spats over breakfast. Anyway, Berenice was a shameless piece of goods who had already tried making eyes at Vespasian during the Jewish War. Now that his mistress of many years, Antonia Caenis, had recently died, he may have felt vulnerable. Even if he could resist Berenice, seeing his virile son indulging her may have been unwelcome. At the Palace Titus also had a young daughter who by all accounts was growing up a handful. Lack of discipline, my mother said. Having brought up Victorina, Allia, Galla, Junia and Maia every one a trainee Fury- she should know.

Vespasian notoriously distrusted informers, but with that kind of private life interviewing me may have seemed a peaceful change. I would have welcomed it too- intelligent chat with a self-made, forthright individualist- had I not been afraid he would offer me a bum task.

The Gardens of Sallust lie in the northern reaches of the city, a long, hot hike away from my area. They occupy a generous site on both sides of the valley between the Pincian and Quirinal Hills. I believe Vespasian had owned a private house out there, before he became Emperor The Via Salaria, still his route home to his summer estates in the Sabine Hills, runs out that way too. Whoever Sallust was, his pleasure park had been imperial property for several generations. Mad Caligula had built an Egyptian pavilion, packed with pink granite statues, to commemorate one of his incestuous sisters. More popularly, Augustus displayed some giants' bones in a museum. Emperors have more than a clipped bay tree and a row of beans. Here some of the best statues I had seen in the open air marked the end of elegant vistas. As I searched for the old man, I strolled under the cool, calming shade of graceful cypresses, eyed up by basking doves who knew exactly how cute they 'were.

Eventually I detected various shy Praetorians lurking in the shrubberies; Vespasian had taken a public stand against being protected from madmen with daggers which meant his Guards had to hang around here trying to look like gardeners weeding, instead of stamping about like bullies, as they preferred. Some had given up pretending. They were sprawled on the ground playing board games in the dust, occasionally breaking off to gulp from what I gently presumed were water flasks.

They had managed to corral their charge into a nook where it seemed unlikely any deranged obsessive with a legal grievance could burst through the thick hedge. Vespasian had piled up his voluminous purple drapes and his wreath on a dusty urn; he did not care how many snobs he offended with his informality. As he sat working in his gilded tunic, the Guards had a fairly clear view of his open-air office. If any high-minded armed opponent did rush past them, there was a massive Dying Niobid, desperately attempting to pluck out her fatal arrow, at whose white marble feet the Emperor might expire very tastefully.

The Praetorians tried to rouse themselves to treat me as a suspicious character, but they knew my name was on an appointment scroll. I waved my invitation. I was not in the mood for idiots with shiny javelins and no manners. Seeing the official seal, they allowed me through, making the gesture as offensive as possible.

'Thanks, boys!' I saved my patronising grin until I had marched into the safety of Vespasian's line of vision. He was seated on a plain stone bench in the shade while an elderly slave handed him tablets and scrolls.

The official name-caller was still flustering over my details when the Emperor broke in and called out, 'It's Falco!' He was a big, blunt sixty-year-old who had worked up from nothing and he despised ceremonial.

The boy's job was to save his elite master from any perceived rudeness if he forgot eminent people. Trapped in routine, the child whispered, 'Falco, sirT Vespasian, who could show kindliness to minions (though he never showed it to me), nodded patiently. Then I was free to go forward and exchange pleasantries with the lord of the known world.

This was no exquisite little Claudian, looking down his thin nose on the coinage like a self-satisfied Greek god. He was bald, tanned, his face full of character and heavily lined after years of squinting across deserts for rebellious tribes. Pale laughter seams ran at the corners of his eyes too, after decades of despising fools and honestly mocking himself. Vespasian was rooted in country stock like a true Roman (as I was myself on my mother's side). Over the years he had taken on all the snide establishment detractors; shamelessly grappled for high-level associates; craftily chosen long-term winners rather than temporary flash boys; doggedly made the best out of every career opportunity; then seized the throne so his accession seemed both amazing and inevitable at the same time.

The great one saluted me with his customary care for my welfare: I hope you're not going to say I owe you money.'

I expressed my own respect for his rank. 'Would there be any point, Caesar?'

'Glad I've set you at your ease!' He liked to joke. As Emperor, he must have felt inhibited with most people. For some reason I fell into a separate category. 'So what have you been up to, Falco?'

'Dibbling and dabbling.' I had been trying to expand my business, using Helena's two younger brothers. Neither possessed any informing talent. I intended to use them to lend tone, with a view to wooing more sophisticated (richer) clients: every businessman's hopeless dream. It was best not to mention to Vespasian that these two lads who ought to be donning white robes as candidates for the Curia were instead lowering themselves to work with me. 'I am enjoying my new rank,' I said, beaming, which was as close as I would let myself come to thanking him for promoting me.

'I hear you make a good poultry keeper.' Elevation to the equestrian stratum had brought tiresome responsibilities. I was Procurator of the Sacred Geese of the Temple of juno with additional oversight of the augurs' chickens.

'Country background.' He looked surprised. I was stretching it, but Ma's family came from the Campagna. 'The prophetic fowl get pesty if you don't watch them, but Juno's geese are in fine fettle.'

Helena and I had plenty of down-stuffed cushions in our new home too. I had grasped equestrianism rapidly.

'How is that girl you kidnapped?' Had the disapproving old devil read my thoughts?

'Devoted to the domestic duties of a modest Roman matron- well, I can't get her to weave wool traditionally, though she did commandeer the house keys and she is nursing children. Helena Justina has just done me the honour of becoming mother to my second child.' I knew better than to expect a silver birth-gift from this skinflint.

'Boy or girl?' Helena would have liked the even-handed way he offered both possibilities.

'Another daughter, sir. Sosia Favonia.' Would it strike Vespasian that she was partly named after a relative of Helena's? A dear bright young girl called Sosia, who had been murdered as a consequence of the first mission I undertook for him murdered by his son Domitian, though of course we never mentioned that.

'Charming.' If his eyes hardened briefly, it was impossible to detect. 'My congratulations to your '

'Wife,' I said firmly. Vespasian glowered. Helena was a senator's daughter and should be married to a senator. Her intelligence, her money, and her child-bearing ability ought to be at the disposal of the half wits in the 'best' families. I pretended to see his point. 'Of course I explain to Helena Justina continually that the cheap appeal of an exciting life with me should not draw her from her inherited role as a member of patrician society but what can I do? The poor girl is besotted and refuses to leave me. Her pleas when I threaten to send her back to her noble father are heart-rending'

'That's enough, Falco!'


He flung a stylus aside. Watchful secretaries slid forward and collected a pile of waxed tablets in case he dashed them to the ground. Vespasian, however, was not that kind of spoiled hero. He had once had to budget cautiously; he knew the price of tablet wax.

'Well, I may want to put space between you two temporarily.'

'Ah. Anything to do with Julius Frontinus and the Isles of Mystery?' I preempted him.

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