'Oh-it was daft.' As I gave in, I sensed Helena smiling. She loved to see her aunt get the better of me. 'A clash of ideas. The King and his architect were daggers drawn, and Verovolcus took it upon himself to defend his royal master's taste in an extreme way.'

'I met Pomponius,' Aelia Camilla said. 'A typical designer. He knew exactly what the client should want.'

'Quite. But King Togidubnus is now on his third major refit to the palace; he has strong opinions and is very knowledgeable about architec-ture.

'Were his demands too expensive? Or did he keep making changes?' Aelia Camilla knew all the pitfalls of public works.

'No, he just refused to accept any design features he hated. Verovolcus bore the brunt; he was supposed to liaise between them, but Pomponius despised him. Verovolcus became just a cipher. He did away with Pomponius so a more amenable architect could take over. It sounds stupid, but I think it was the only way he could reassert his own control.'

'It casts interesting light on the British situation.' Helena was seated in a wicker chair, her favorite type. With her hands folded over her woven belt and her feet on a small footstool, she could have been modeling memorials for submissive wives. I knew better. Tall, graceful, and grave, Helena Justina read widely and kept up with world affairs. Born to bear and educate senatorial children, she was giving culture and good sense to mine. And she kept me in hand. 'Representing progress we had the Great King; an ideal provincial monarch-civilized, keen to be part of the Empire, utterly go-ahead. Then there was Verovolcus, his closest aide, still at heart a tribal warrior. Murdering the Roman project manager was repugnant to the King, but Verovolcus honored darker gods.'

'I never dwelt on his motives,' I admitted. 'So was it really just an artistic feud that blew up out of proportion- or more political? Was Verovolcus expressing barbarian hatred for Rome?'

'How did he react when you confronted him with the crime?' asked Aelia Camilla.

'Spat fury. Denied it. Swore he'd get me.'

'Just like any cornered suspect,' Helena observed. Our eyes met. Communal discussions made me ill at ease. I would much have preferred a private boudoir exchange.

'So, Marcus, let me understand you,' her aunt pressed on intensely. She moved against the embroidered cushion at her back, so her bangles shivered and gold flickers freckled the ornately coffered ceiling. 'You told Verovolcus he would not be tried for the murder, but must go into exile. The punishment for a Roman would be exclusion from the Empire.'

'But for him I suggested Gaul.'

We all smiled. Gaul had been part of the Empire for longer than Britain, but we were Romans and for us even Gaul was backwoods territory.

'He could have sailed straight to Gaul from Novio.' From his couch, Gaius' thoughtful voice proved me right: he had been listening in. 'True. I assumed he would.'

'Would riding off to Londinium seem less obvious to his friends? Less shameful, say?' Maia enjoyed a puzzle.

'Or was he heading somewhere else?' Helena tried. 'No, if you pick up transport in Londinium it always goes across to Gaul. He gained nothing by coming here.'

Petronius spoke, dour as a bad-tempered oracle: 'There is nowhere beyond Britain. The only way is back!' He hated Britain.

So did I. I played it down while I was the procurator's guest. Hilaris had been in Britain so long he had lost his nostalgia for the real world. Tragic.

'If Verovolcus came to Londinium,' mused Aelia Camilla, 'would he have had to hide?'

'From me?' I laughed. So did rather too many of my friends and relatives.

'He thought he was a fugitive, though in fact,' Aelia Camilla said demurely, 'you had not told the governor!' I tried not to feel guilty. 'Verovolcus didn't know that. So he might have skulked in that bad district to lie low?'

'What's the bad locale, Falco?' asked Petronius. A professional question. At home, he was a member of the vigiles. 'A bar.'

'What bar?' At least he had revived and taken an interest. Petro was a big, active man who seemed cramped in smart indoor locations. He could have relaxed on a padded couch with lion's head feet as I did, but he preferred to ignore what passed for comfort here, hugging his knees uncomfortably and scuffing the striped woolen rugs with his sturdy paramilitary boots.

I felt an odd reluctance to tell him about the crime scene. 'A black little hutment at the back of the wharves.'

'Whereabouts, Falco?' His brown eyes quizzed me. Petronius knew when I was stalling for some reason. 'How did you get there?'

'You don't mean you want to take a look?'

'Take the road down from the forum, bear left, and go into the worst alleys you see,' explained Hilaris. 'It was called the Shower of Gold-incongruously. There was a dim painting on the outside wall. Did you notice that, Falco?' I had not. The hovel had hardly been the kind of place where Jupiter would flash in through a window disguised as a shower of gold-or anything else-to reach the arms of a lady friend. The waitress we met would surely repel divinities. 'What's your interest, Lucius Petronius?' Hilaris then asked. He spoke politely, but I reckoned he regarded Petro as an unknown quantity who should be watched.

'Nothing at all.' Petro lost any interest he had. Apparently.

'Out of your jurisdiction.' I said it sympathetically. Petro was missing Rome.

He gave me a bitter, rather ambiguous smile. He even missed his work, it seemed. Maybe his conscience was pricking. I had still not extracted how he managed to bunk off on leave for a couple of months. I knew he was between postings, but his very request for a transfer off the Aventine would have used up any goodwill from his old vigiles tribune. The new one, presumably, just wanted Petro on the squadron-house bench as soon as possible.

'Any bar is a good haven for Lucius Petronius!' My rude sister was scathing. They had been bickering since Petro had reached us, bringing her children to rejoin her. He had done her a favor-not that Maia thought so.

'Good idea,' Petronius smacked back, jumping up and sauntering to the door. Once, I would have headed after him, but I was a good husband and father these days. (Well, in public, I mostly managed to look like one.) Helena sucked her teeth anxiously. Maia shot Petro a superior look. By accident or on purpose, he slammed the door as he left.

The procurator and his wife tried to avoid showing how weary they were of their visitors' guests squabbling.

I closed my eyes and pretended to doze off. It fooled no one.


I used to believe,' Helena complained to me privately later, 'Lucius Petronius and Maia were trying to decide what they wanted. Sadly, I think they know now-and it's not each other.'

My sister and my friend both had tragic histories. Petro, once seemingly respectable, domesticated, and kind to tabby kittens, had plunged into a crass affair. He had strayed from home before, but this was with a gangster's wife, which was disastrous. Even his tribune became touchy about it, and his wife divorced him. Silvia took his daughters away to Ostia, where she now lived with a low-grade seasonal street-food seller; she had humiliated Petronius as much as possible.

Maia, equally settled apparently, had then been widowed. This situation is often to be welcomed, though even the deadbeats and wastrels my sisters married were rarely eaten by arena lions in Tripolitania after a trial for blasphemy. Few families on the Aventine could boast of so much excitement, and we were trying to keep the dishonor quiet, for the sake of Maia's children. Lying about it no doubt added to her sense of isolation. She had made other mistakes too. Bad ones. She had made a fool of herself with Anacrites the Chief Spy, for one thing. That was a situation we could not talk about at all.

'I thought they just needed time.' Helena sighed.

'Oh, they may yet be prodded into close proximity-but you'll need to use a long stick.' Petronius Longus was a big lad, and my sister could be volatile.

'Better not to interfere, Marcus.'


If the bad thing about staying in an official residence was constant small talk, the good was that on the

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