Steven Saylor

Arms of Nemesis

The bays of Naples

At the Time of the Spartacan Slave Revolt, 72 B.C.

Part One

Corpses, Living and Dead


For all his fine qualities — his honesty and devotion, his cleverness, his uncanny agility — Eco was not well suited for answering the door. Eco was mute.

But he was not and has never been deaf. He has, in fact, the sharpest ears of anyone I've ever known. He is also a light sleeper, a habit held over from the wretched, watchful days of his childhood, before his mother abandoned him and I took him in from the street and finally adopted him. Not surprisingly, it was Eco who heard the knock at the door in the second hour after nightfall, when everyone in the household had gone to bed. It was Eco who greeted my nocturnal visitor, but was unable to send him away, short of shooing at him the way a farmer shoos an errant goose from his doorway.

Therefore, what else could Eco have done? He might have roused Belbo, my strong-armer. Hulking and reeking of garlic and stupidly rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Belbo might have intimidated my visitor, but I doubt that he could have got rid of him; the stranger was persistent and twice as clever as Belbo is strong. So Eco did what he had to do; he made a sign for my visitor to wait in the doorway and came rapping gendy at my door. Rapping having failed to rouse me — generous helpings of Bethesda's fish and barley soup washed down with white wine had sent me fast asleep — Eco gingerly opened the door, tiptoed into the room, and shook my shoulder.

Beside me Bethesda stirred and sighed. A mass of black hair had somehow setded across my face and neck. The shifting strands tickled my nose and lips. The odour of her perfumed henna sent a quiver of erotic tingling below my waist. I reached for her, making my lips into a kiss, running my hands over her body. How was it possible, I wondered, that she could reach all the way over and around me to tug at my shoulder from behind?

Eco never liked to make those grunting, half-animal noises eked out by the speechless, finding such measures degrading and embarrassing. He preferred to remain austerely silent, like the Sphinx, and to let his hands speak for him. He gripped my shoulder harder and shook it just a bit more firmly. I recognized his touch then, as surely as one knows a familiar voice. I could even understand what he was saying.

'Someone at the door?' I mumbled, clearing my throat and keeping my eyes shut for a moment longer.

Eco gave my shoulder a little slap of assent, his way of saying 'yes' in the dark.

I snuggled against Bethesda, who had turned her back on the disturbance. I touched my Lips to her shoulder. She let out a breath, something between a coo and a sigh. In all my travels from the Pillars of Hercules to the Parthian border, I have never met a more responsive woman. Like an exquisitely crafted lyre, I thought to myself, perfectly tuned and polished, growing finer with the years; what a lucky man you are, Gordianus the Finder, what a find you made in that slave market in Alexandria fifteen years ago.

Somewhere under the sheets the kitten was stirring. Egyptian to her core, Bethesda has always kept cats and even invites them into our bed. This one was traversing the valley between our bodies, picking a path from thigh to thigh. So far it had kept its claws hidden; a good thing, since in the last few moments my most vulnerable part had grown conspicuously more vulnerable and the kitten seemed to be heading straight for it, perhaps thinking it was a serpent to play with. I snuggled against Bethesda for protection. She sighed. I remembered a rainy night at least ten years ago, before Eco joined us — a different cat, a different bed, but the very same house, the house that my father left me, and the two of us, Bethesda and myself, younger but not so very different from today. I dozed, nearly dreaming.

Two sharp slaps landed on my shoulder.

Two slaps was Eco's way of saying 'no,' like shaking his head. No, he would not or could not send my visitor away.

He tapped me again, twice sharply on the shoulder. 'All right, all right!' I muttered. Bethesda rolled aggressively away, dragging the sheet with her and exposing me to the dank September air. The kitten tumbled toward me, sticking out its claws as it flailed for balance.

'Numa's balls!' I snapped, though it wasn't fabled King Numa who found himself wounded by a single tiny claw. Eco discreetly ignored my yelp of pain. Bethesda laughed sleepily in the darkness.

I snapped out of bed and fumbled for my tunic. Eco was already holding it ready for me to crawl into. 'This had better be important!' I said.

It was important, just how important I had no way of knowing that night, and not for some time after. If the emissary waiting in my vestibule had made himself clear, if he had been frank about why and for whom he had come, I would have bent to his wishes without the least hesitation. Such a case and such a client as fell into my lap that night are few and far between; I would have fought for the chance to take on the job. Instead, the man, who curtly introduced himself as Marcus Mummius, affected an air of portentous secrecy and treated me with a suspicion that bordered on contempt.

He told me that my services were needed, without delay, for a job that would take me away from Rome for several days. 'Are you in some sort of trouble?' I asked.

'Not me!' he bellowed. He seemed incapable of talking in a tone of voice reasonable for a sleeping household. His words came out in a series of grunts and barks, the way that one speaks to an unruly slave or a bad dog. There is no language as ugly as Latin when it is spoken in such a fashion — barracks-fashion, I mean, for as sleepy as I was and as numbed with the evening's wine, I was beginning to make certain deductions about my uninvited guest. Disguised behind his well-trimmed beard, his austere but expensive-looking black tunic, his finely made boots and plush woollen cloak, I saw a soldier, a man used to giving orders and being instantly obeyed.

'Well,' he said, looking me up and down as if I were a lazy recruit fresh out of bed and dragging my feet before the day's march. 'Are you coming or not?'

Eco, offended at such rudeness, put his hands on his hips and glowered. Mummius threw back his head and snorted in a fit of impatience.

I cleared my throat. 'Eco,' I said, 'fetch me a cup of wine, please. Warmed, if you can; see if the embers are still glowing in the kitchen. And a cup for you as well, Marcus Mummius?' My guest scowled and shook his head sharply, like a good legionnaire on guard duty.

'Some warm cider, perhaps? No, I insist, Marcus Mummius. The night is cool. Come, follow me into my study. Look, Eco has already lit the lamps for us; he anticipates all my needs. Here, sit — no, I insist. Now, Marcus Mummius, I take it you've come here offering me work.'

In the brighter light of the study I could see that Mummius looked worn and tired, as if he had not slept properly for some time. He fidgeted in his chair and held his eyes open with an unnatural alertness. After a moment he sprang up and began pacing, and when Eco came with his warm cider he refused to take it. Thus does a soldier on a long watch refuse to make himself comfortable for fear that sleep will come against his will.

'Yes,' he finally said. 'I have come to summon you-'

'Summon me? No one summons Gordianus the Finder. I am a citizen, no man's slave or freedman, and at last report Rome was still a Republic, amazingly enough, and not a dictatorship. Other citizens come to consult me, to ask for my services, to hire me. And they usually come during daylight. At least the honest ones do.'

Mummius appeared to be working hard to contain his exasperation. 'This is ridiculous,' he said. 'You'll be

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