the potential. He was going to build a mighty port to

dominate the eastern end of the Mediterranean, where safe harbours were few and far between. You don’t spend years beating up the world’s famous cities without acquiring a sense of what will impress visitors - and what will last. Alexander had incentives. If you are founding a new place and putting your own nametag on it, you get it right.

‘He laid out everything himself

‘Well you don’t become the greatest general in history unless you know to never trust subordinates!’

‘Apparently’ Helena informed me, ‘he had brought no chalk - or, since his satchel was full of maps of Mesopotamia, there was not room for enough. So some ingratiating courtier told him to use bean flour instead, to mark out the street plan. He went to endless trouble over the alignments - he wanted the cooling, health-giving winds from the sea to waft in for the inhabitants - they are called Etesian winds, by the way -’

‘Thank you, dearest.’

‘Then when Alexander had finished, a huge dark cloud of birds rose up off Lake Mareotis and devoured all the flour. The books say -’ she was frowning - ‘Alexander was persuaded by soothsayers that this was a good omen.’

‘You disagree?’ I myself was busy devouring - the array of bread, dates, olives and sheep’s cheese that Uncle Fulvius had provided.

‘Well, obviously, Marcus. If the birds ate the markings, how did Alexander’s nice Greek grid of streets ever get built?’

‘No allowance for myth and magic, Helena?’ asked my uncle.

‘I cannot believe Alexander the Great let himself be bamboozled by a bunch of soothsayers.’

‘You chose an extremely pedantic wife,’ commented Fulvius.

‘She chose me. Once she made her views known, her noble father handed her over very quickly. This should perhaps have worried me. Still, her attention to detail comes in handy when we work.’ I enjoyed alluding to our work. It kept Uncle Fulvius on the alert. The old fraud liked to imply he was involved in undercover dealings for the government. I myself had taken on tasks as an imperial agent but I had never found anyone official who knew about this uncle of mine. ’Informing needs scepticism as well as good boots and a high expenses budget, don’t you find, Uncle Fulvius?’

He jumped up. ‘Marcus, my boy, can’t sit around chatting! Cassius will look after you. He’s around somewhere; he likes to flap and he loves being domestic! We have a grand treat laid on this evening - I do hope you will like it. Dinner is in your honour - and I’ve invited the Librarian.’


Once Fulvius had bustled out of earshot, Helena and I both groaned. Still drained by travel, we had been hoping for an early night. The last thing we wanted was to be paraded as Roman trophies in front of some uninterested provincial dignitary.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the provinces. They supply us with luxury commodities, slaves, spices, silks, curious ideas and people to despise. Egypt ships at least a third of Rome’s annual corn supply, plus doctors, marble, papyrus, exotic animals to kill in the arena, fabulous imports from remote parts of Africa, Arabia and India. It also provides a tourist destination that - even allowing for Greece - must be unparalleled. No Roman lives until he has scratched his name indelibly on a timeless Pharaonic column, visited a Canopus brothel and caught one of the hideous diseases that have led Alexandria to produce its world-famous medical practitioners. Some visitors pay up for the extra thrill of camel-riding. We could miss that. We had been to Syria and Libya. We already knew that to stand near a spitting camel is a loathsome experience, and one of the ways all those doctors keep in business.

‘Fulvius is only excited that we are here.’ Helena was the decent, kindly one in our partnership.

I stuck to vitriol. ‘No; he’s a social-climbing snob. He’ll have some reason to ingratiate himself with this big scroll-beetle; he’s using us as an excuse.’

‘Maybe Fulvius and the Librarian are best friends who play board games every Friday, Marcus.’

‘Where does that put Cassius?’

We soon found out where Cassius was: in a hot kitchen in the basement; in the middle of organising menus; and in a tizz. He had a cohort of puzzled staff working for him, or in some cases against him. Cassius had clear ideas how to run a party, and his system was not Egyptian. Since I believed Fulvius might have first met him cavorting with the worshippers of Cybele on the wilder shores of Asia Minor, his businesslike approach to a lie- down banquet surprised me.

‘We ought to be nine couches, to be formal, but I’m settling for seven. Fulvius and I don’t believe in touting invitations around the baths, just to make up numbers. You attract fat bores with no morals, who will be sick in your peristyle. It goes without saying, they never ask you back ... I thought your father would be here with you, Falco?’

‘Did he write and tell you that? No chance, Cassius! He did suggest imposing himself - I forbade the devious old bastard to come.’

Cassius laughed, the way people do when they cannot believe you are serious. I glared. My father and I had spent half of my life estranged, and that was the half I liked. He worked in the antiques trade, in that specialism where ‘antique’ means ‘put together yesterday by a man with a squint in Bruttium’. My smooth-tongued father could make ‘doubtful provenance’ sound like a virtue. Buy from him and you would get a fake, but so flagrantly overpriced you could never admit to yourself that he diddled you. Ten to one a handle would fall off while you lugged the object home.

‘He is not coming. I am serious!’ I declared. Helena snorted. Cassius laughed again.

Despite greying hair, Cassius was sturdily built; he went weightlifting twice a week. If ever Fulvius got into bother, Cassius was supposed to fight their way out of it, though I had seen this bodyguard in action and had no faith in him. A handsome chunk, he was about fifteen years younger than my uncle, who must be ten years older than my parents; that put Fulvius well into his seventies, Cassius late-fifties. They claimed they had been together for a quarter of a century. My mother, who always knew everyone’s private business, swore her brother was a loner who had never set up house. That just showed how elusive Fulvius could be. For once Ma was wrong. Fulvius and Cassius had anecdotes that went back decades, involving several provinces. Certainly Cassius was getting flushed over his canape recipes like a man who had spent years having mental breakdowns over parties he had hosted. His act was polished and he was heartily enjoying it.

Helena offered to help, but Cassius sent us out sightseeing.

As soon as we stepped outside, the customary local who knew strangers had arrived jumped up from the gutter where he was patiently waiting. We knew better than to hire a guide for the sights. We elbowed him aside and headed away briskly. He was so surprised, it took him some moments to gather himself together to curse us, which he did with sinister muttering in a strange language.

He would be there every day. I knew the rules. Eventually I would weaken and allow him to take us somewhere. He would get us lost; I would lose my temper; the unpleasantness would convince him that foreigners were loudmouthed, insensitive braggarts. In a couple of centuries the accumulated loathing from such incidents would lead to a vicious revolt. I would be part of the cause, just because I had wanted an aimless hour or two, walking hand in hand in a new city with my wife.

Today at least we escaped by ourselves. Aulus must have been up with the light and had hoofed to the Museion to try to convince the academic authorities he was a worthy scholar. If students had to have rich fathers, he would barely qualify. If brains were required, he was on even stickier ground. Albia was sulking because Aulus went out without her. Our two little daughters also rebuffed us; they had discovered where the servants hung out waiting for cute little girls in matching tunics to happen along looking for raisin cakes.

For Aulus to play the intellectual was fine with me. He wanted the kudos of saying he had studied at Alexandria, whilst I could use an agent in the Library. If he failed to worm his way in by himself, I would have to fix it with the Prefect, but our cover would look better if Aulus got his feet under the reading-tables independently. Besides, I hate prefects. Begging for official favours never works for me.

Egypt has been kept as a personal jewel case for the emperors, ever since Octavian - subsequently renamed Augustus - sank Antony’s ambitions at the Battle of Actium. Since then, emperors clung on to this glittering province. Others are governed by ex-consuls, but not Egypt. Every emperor sends trusted men of his own to run

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