'What? Pomponius?' As financial procurator, Hilaris ultimately signed off the bills for the King's palace. He would know who the architect was-and that he had died. He would also have seen my situation review afterward. 'But your report said-'

'All it had to.' I sensed a slight awkwardness, as if Hilaris and I answered to different masters over this. 'I was on site to clear up problems. I put down the architect's death as a 'tragic accident.' There was no need to start a scandal by saying Togi's man had killed him. The King will rein in his people and the crime won't recur. A substitute is running the site, and running it well.'

Hilaris had let me talk him through it, but he remained unhappy. The report we were discussing had been addressed to the governor, but I had sent my own copy to Vespasian. I had always intended to give a more accurate statement to the Emperor later-if he wanted to know. Killing the story might help him preserve good relations with his friend the King. I did not care. I was paid on results.

The results Vespasian wanted were to stop a glut of wild expenditure on a very expensive building site. He had sent me, nominally a private informer, because I was a first-rate auditor. I had discovered a feud between the King as client and his officially appointed architect. When it flared up, with fatal results, we found ourselves left with nobody in charge of a multimillion-sesterces scheme-and chaos. Verovolcus, who had caused this mess, was not my favorite Briton. He was damned lucky that Gaul was the worst punishment I devised for him.

'Did Pomponius have relatives?' Hilaris was still fretting away at his retribution theory.

'In Italy. He had a boyfriend in Britain who was rather cut up, but he's working on the site. We beefed up his responsibilities; that should keep him quiet. I can check he has not left the area.'

'I'll send a messenger.' If Hilaris was overruling me it was tactful – so far. 'What is his name?'


'Did Verovolcus act alone?'

'No. He had a crony. A site supervisor. We arrested him.'

'Present location?'

Thank the gods I had been conscientious about tying up ends: 'Noviomagus. The King's responsibility'


'That I don't know-' Now I felt like a schoolboy who had neglected his homework. Flavius Hilaris might be my wife's uncle, but if I had bungled, I would be slated. 'Mandumerus had had only a secondary role and he was a local, so I let Togidubnus deal with him.'

'Mandumerus, you say.' Hilaris picked me up at once. 'I'll find out.'

I let him run with the line. In the long term, I could bunk off to Rome. Rome might give me a grilling, but I was up to it. Hilaris would live with the legacy of this tavern slaughter as long as he stayed in Britain. The royal connection was awkward enough. In addition, one of the Hilaris family's private homes stood in Noviomagus, just a mile from the King. Poor Uncle Gaius had been handed a personal 'bad neighbor' quarrel, if nothing else.

'Marcus, you don't think Togidubnus himself has punished Verovolcus in this way?'

'What a terrible thought!' I grinned. I liked Hilaris, but the devious minds of bureaucrats never cease to amaze me. 'The King was annoyed at the man's hotheaded action-but more annoyed with me for finding out.'

'Well, we are a step ahead of him so far.'

'I hope you are not suggesting a cover-up!' I offered satirically.

At that, Flavius Hilaris looked genuinely shocked. 'Dear gods, no. But we do have some grace to find out what happened-before the King starts slamming us with ballista bolts.' The use of a trooper's term from this quiet, cultured man reminded me there was more to nice, stylus-pushing Uncle Gaius than most people noticed.

I foresaw what was coming. 'You mean, I have time to do it?'

'Of course.' He beamed at me. I sighed. 'Well, thanks.'

'Didius Falco, we are exceptionally lucky to have you here!'

Oh yes. This was a very familiar situation, one that clients had exploited in the past: I was implicated. I had made the victim leave his home ground, and though I told myself it was not my fault he ended up in a strange bar, I felt guilty. So I was stuck.


Oh Juno! I thought we had left all that nonsense behind,' my sister Maia complained. All my sisters were renowned for despising my work. Maia might be a thousand miles from home, but she kept up Aventine traditions. 'Marcus! Britain may be a small province in the rump of the Empire, but does everything that happens here have to be related to everything else?'

'It is rather unusual to be drowned in a wine barrel,' said Aelia Camilla mildly.

'What barrel?' scoffed Maia. 'I thought the man was shoved down a well.'

'Same thing. Wine is a hugely popular import. From the River Rhenus area in Germany it often comes in enormous wooden casks which then make good well-linings at a small cost.'

Aelia Camilla, the procurator's wife, was a calm, intelligent woman, the unflappable mother to a bunch of fearsomely bright children. Like her husband she was both more competent and much more approachable than she appeared. The self-sacrificing pair had been born to represent the Empire abroad. They were wise; they were fair. They embodied noble Roman qualities.

That did not make them popular with colleagues. It never does. They did not seem to notice, and never complained. Expertise in the British situation buoyed them up. Under a different Emperor they might well have dwindled into oblivion. Under Vespasian they flourished surprisingly.

The slight friction between Aelia Camilla and my favorite sister Maia was a sadness to Helena and me. Being mothers several times over was not enough in common to create warmth. Maia-fashionable, pert, angry, and outspoken-was a different type. In fact, Maia shone in a different sky from most people. That was her problem.

This scene was taking place after lunch. Everyone official lived at the procurator's residence since the governor's palace was not yet built. Life abroad is communal. Diplomats are used to that. Lunch occurred without the governor; Frontinus took a tray in his office. (Whereas he hosted dinner, which was always formal, and rather a trial.) So now the procurator and his wife were eating gritty bread and travel-weary olives with just the four adults of my party. The couple were hospitable. When they first insisted that I bring Helena Justina to visit, they knew we were with our two baby daughters-although not that I was also accompanied by my moody sister, her four lively children, two excitable pet dogs, and my grumpy friend Petronius. Luckily Helena's two squabbling brothers and a loud nephew of mine had stayed behind in the south to go hunting and drinking. They could turn up at any minute, but I had not mentioned that.

Hilaris, to whom I had promised more details (while hoping to avoid it), lay on a reading couch apart, apparently absorbed in scrolls. I knew he was listening. His wife was speaking for him, just as Helena would often question my own visitors-whether I was present or not. The procurator and his lady shared their thoughts, as we did. He and I were parties to true Roman marriage: confiding to our serious, sensitive womenfolk things we never even told our masculine friends. It could have made the women domineering-but females in the Camillus family were strong-willed in any case. That was why I liked mine. Don't ask me about Hilaris and his.

Petronius Longus, my best friend, did not approve. Still, he was a misery these days. Having come out to Britain, either to see me or my sister, he had traveled to Londinium with us but apparently just wanted to go home. At present he was hunched on a stool looking bored. He was starting to embarrass me. He had never been antisocial or awkward in company before. Helena thought he was in love. Fat chance. At one point he had been after Maia, but now they rarely spoke.

'So, Marcus, Verovolcus was in trouble. Tell us about what happened to the architect,' Aelia Camilla prompted me. She behaved informally for a diplomat's wife, but she was personally shy and I had yet to deduce even which of her two names she preferred in private use.

'Confidential, I'm afraid.'

'Hushed up?' Helena's aunt leaped in again. Her great dark eyes were impossible to avoid. I had always found it difficult to play the hard man in her presence. While seeming gentle and bashful, she screwed all sorts of answers out of me. 'Well, we are all in government service, Marcus. We know how things work.'

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