each expected to have all the attention, so as each arrived, the other had to be shepherded out some other way. We did this without making it obvious. If Pa walked in to mouth more excuses about the grinder, Ma would openly storm off, they had lived apart for nearly thirty years and took pride in proving it had been a wise decision. If Helena's mother were here when her father dropped by, he liked to play at being invisible so he had to be shunted into my study. It was tiny, so it was best if I were out at the time. Camillus Verus and Julia Justa did live together, with every sign of fond toleration, yet the senator always gave the impression he was a hunted man.

I wanted to discuss with him my summons from Italicus. Unfortunately when he called I was not at home, so he had a snooze in my one-man den, played with the children, drank us out of borage tea, and left. Instead, I was stuck with breakfast with his noble offspring. When Helena and her brothers assembled together, I began to see why their parents had allowed all three to leave their large but shabby home in the Twelfth District and share my desperate life in the much lower-class Thirteenth. The boys still lived at home, in fact, but hung around our easygoing house a lot.

Helena was twenty-eight, her brothers slightly younger. She was the partner of my life and work, that being the only way I could persuade her into my life and bed. Her brothers nowadays formed the junior sector of Falco and Associates, a little-known firm of private informers who specialised in background investigations of the family type (bridegrooms, widows and other cheating, lying, money-grubbing swine just like your own relatives). We could do art theft recovery, though that had been slack lately. We would hunt for missing persons, persuading rich teenagers to return home – sometimes even before they had been ravaged by their unsuitable lovers – or we would track down moonlit-flitters before they had unloaded their wagons at their next rental (although for reasons associated with my pauper past, we tended to be kind to debtors). We specialised in widows and their endless legacy problems, because ever since I was a light-hearted bachelor, I had done so; now I just reassured Helena they were my clients' half-mad aunts. I, the senior and more skilled partner, was also an imperial agent, a subject on which I was supposed to keep my mouth shut. So I shall do so.

Breakfast was where we all met up. In the manner of traditional Roman marriages, Helena Justina would consult me, the respected head of our household, about domestic issues. When she had finished telling me what was wrong, what part she felt I had played in causing it, and how she proposed to remedy the matter, I would gently concur with her wisdom and leave her to get on with it. Then her brothers would arrive to take orders from me on our current cases. Well, that was how I saw it.

The two Camilli, Aelianus and Justinus, had never been too friendly together. Matters had deteriorated when Justinus ran off with Aelianus' rich betrothed, thus persuading Aelianus that he wanted her after all (whereas he had been lukewarm about Claudia until he lost her) while Justinus soon saw that he had made a big mistake. However, Justinus had married the lass, for Claudia Rufina would one day possess a great deal of money and he was intelligent.

The brothers took their usual opposing attitudes to the Silius request.

`Damned chanter. Don't give him the time of day, Falco.' That was Aelianus, the elder, tolerant one.

`It's bloody interesting. You should see what the bugger wants.' Justinus, undogmatic and fair-minded, despite the bad language.

`Ignore them,' said Helena. She was older than Aelianus by one year and Justinus by two more; the big sister routine never died. `What I want to know, Marcus, is this: just how important was the document you fetched from Lanuvium? Did it affect the outcome of the trial?'

This question did not surprise me. Women, who have no legal capacity in our system, are not supposed to take an interest in the courts but Helena refused to hear patriarchal fossils telling her what she could or could not understand. In case you are provincials from maternalist societies, some sort of unfortunate Celt, for instance, let me explain. Our strict Roman forefathers, scenting trouble, had decreed that women should be innocent of politics, law and, wherever possible, money. Our foremothers had gone along with it, thus permitting the feeble sort of woman to be `looked after' (and fleeced) while the strong sort overturned the system merrily. Guess which sort I had chosen.

`You need to know what the trial was about first,' I set about explaining.

‘Rubirius Metellus was accused of trafficking in offices, Marcus.'

`Yes.' I refused to be surprised that she knew. `While his son was the curule aedile in charge of road maintenance.' A twinkle appeared in Helena's fine brown eyes. I flashed a grin back. `Oh, you asked your papa.

`Yesterday.' Helena did not bother to be triumphant. Her brother Aelianus, a repressed traditionalist, tossed olives into his open mouth after a tut of disgust. He wanted a routine sister, so he could lord it over her. Justinus gave a superior smile. Helena took no notice of either, simply saying to me, `There were a lot of charges against Metellus, though not much evidence for any of them. He had covered his tracks well. But if he was guilty of everything he was accused of, then his corruption was outrageous.'

`The court agreed with that.'

`So was your document important?' she insisted.

`No.' I glanced at Justinus, who had ridden to Lanuvium to fetch it. `Ours was only one of a whole bunch of sworn statements that Silius Italicus produced at the trial. He was bombarding the judge and jury with examples of misconduct. He lined up every pavement-layer who had ever bought favours and had them all say their piece: I gave the Metelli ten thousand, on the understanding it would help us win the contract for repairs to the Via Appia. I gave Rubirius Metellus five thousand to get the contract for maintaining the gullies in the Forum of Augustus…'

Helena sniffed her disapproval. For a moment she leaned back with her face turned to the sun, a tall young woman in blue, quietly enjoying this fine morning on the terrace of her home. A lock of her fine dark hair fell free over one ear, its lobe bare of ear-rings this morning. The only jewellery she wore was a silver ring, my love gift from before we lived together. She looked at ease, but she was angry. `It was the son who held the office, and who abused his influence. He was never charged, though?'

`Papa had all the money,' I pointed out. `There was no financial mileage in accusing a legal minor who had not been emancipated from parental control. People who have no money of their own never get sued. The case still worked in court: Silius played it by painting a picture of a powerless junior, trapped under the authoritarian paternal thumb. The father was judged a worse character because he had subjected a weakling to his immoral influence at home.'

`Oh, a tragic victim of a bad father!' Helena scoffed. `I wonder what his mother is like?'

`She was not in court. Dutiful matron who plays no part in public affairs, I expect.'

`Knows about nothing, cares about less,' Helena growled. She believed a Roman matron's role was to take strong umbrage at her husband's failings.

`The son may have a wife of his own too.'

`Some washed-out whimpering wraith,' decided my forthright girl. `I bet she parts her hair in the middle and has a high little voice. I bet she dresses in white. I bet she faints if a slave spits… I hate this family.'

`They may be charming.'

`Then I apologise,' Helena said. Adding viciously, `And I bet the young wife wears lots of dainty bangles – on both wrists!'

Her brothers had emptied all the food dishes so began to take more interest. `When they worked the scam,' suggested Justinus, `it probably helped that Papa received the bribes while Junior sealed the dodgy deals behind the scenes. A little separation would let them cover their tracks better.'

`Almost too well,' I told him. `I heard Silius had a hard time winning.

Helena nodded. `My father said the verdict caused surprise. Everyone was sure Metellus was as guilty as Hades, but the case had dragged on too long. It was mired in bad feeling and had lost public interest. Silius Italicus was reckoned to have bungled the prosecution and Paccius Africanus, who defended Metellus, was thought to be the better advocate.'

`He's a viper.' I remembered him going for me harshly at the trial.

`Doing his job?' asked Helena mischievously. `So why do you think Metellus was successfully convicted, Marcus?'

`He was a grubby cheat.'

`That would not have mattered.' Helena smiled drily.

‘They voted against him on technicalities.'

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