The graffiti on their building’s wall was scrubbed off at night by some of Hirtia’s slaves. On the floor above, Vannus couldn’t sleep for his anxiety, and Celatus for some experiment on identifying clothing fibres.
Two weeks later, the picture had returned. No one had seen a painter; they simply woke one morning in January to find the nauseating graffiti there again.
“Are you going to keep telling me it doesn’t mean anything?” Celatus drawled sometime in February, after the graffiti had reappeared for the second time, and as they walked towards the forum for food. Vannus felt his hands clench into fists as he marched, chin pulled back and neck stiff. He forced his fingers to open.
“It doesn’t,” he snapped. “And if it does, we ignore it. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”
He heard laughter behind his shoulder, and refused to look back at it.
“The woman in red was telling a story about the theatre last week,” Celatus said in a monotone, so matter-of-fact that Vannus rolled his eyes at the trick. Without thought, however, his shoulders relaxed by a fraction. They passed through the crowd with ease, as they always did when they weren’t on a case and running around without a thought for decorum, only for the thrill of the chase, the save, the solution. Celatus was wearing one of his nicer togas, and Vannus was sporting a new clasp on his cloak, one which no longer slipped open every other day. Their most recent client had paid well for the recovery of a piece of fresco meant for his family tomb.
“The city looks well,” Celatus remarked, in a small, private voice meant just for his friend.
“Perhaps because we narrowly avoided a civil war,” Vannus retorted, though the gravity of the comment was belied by the levity in his gait, and the shoulder which bumped against Celatus’ arm as they walked. “People aren’t expecting another revolt or a coup in the next few weeks.”
Celatus’ face went sour, a petty curl in his upper lip and the corner of his nose. “I hate it when Numitor’s right.”
Vannus smiled at that, almost smugly, but refused to rise to the bait. Celatus complained about his brother enough without being taunted into more.
“Fish, tonight?” he said instead, a peace offering as they neared the forum. Celatus shot back an immediate reply – “I’m not eating” – which Vannus promptly ignored, as he steered them both towards the stalls in the centre of the forum, with marble benches kept cold by running water they couldn’t see. But as he paid for a parcel of white meat, his eyes caught on one of the laneways running off the forum, directly opposite where he stood. It was shadowy, in the narrow space between two buildings, but he could see the wall clearly enough to make out what had been drawn on them.
There they were again: crudely painted, Britannus and Cornelius Irrumatus. Vannus felt sick.
“Let’s go home,” he said, a few asses lighter, with the wrapped fish under his arm. Celatus arched his eyebrows down at him.
“You mean you’re not going to force handfuls of cabbage on me as well?” he said. “Don’t be ridiculous. If you’re going to make me suffer, you might as well do it properly. Age.” He tucked his hand into crook of Vannus’ arm and steered the soldier back towards the shops and stalls despite his tight mouth and tense feet. Between buying a head of cabbage and a handful of walnuts Celatus wanted to snack on, Vannus fell back into his natural stance, and started looking for somewhere to buy a jar of peas. But in a quick moment, as they walked, Celatus ducked his head to Vannus’ ear.
“I saw it too,” he murmured. “No, don’t get upset –” He pulled Vannus along, through the stutter in his steps. “This can’t be allowed to get out of hand.”
“Give it another month, Celatus,” Vannus grumbled, and extricated himself from Celatus’ hold on his elbow so he could turn into one of the ground-floor shops, overflowing with shelves, crates, and jars of dried lentils, beans, and peas of all sorts along the walls. He waited for Celatus to follow, and it wasn’t until the man was standing by him in the relative gloom of the shop that he finished the thought. “It’ll pass.”
They marched home in silence, with arms full of groceries and stony, cautious expressions.
Four days before the kalends of March – while Vannus was out on a job with Seia – Sollemnis finally visited. It was not a meeting Celatus had been anticipating with any sort of joy, but he had been expecting it.
“Brother,” Sollemnis said, instead of any real greeting, after he’d unceremoniously climbed the stairs to the rooms at CCXXIB. Celatus did not rise from where he sat by the hearth, but only continued to pluck a tune from his cithara that he remembered hearing somewhere in the street. He’d liked the tune – the way it wasn’t entirely predictable but swerved away from conventionality, even the way he couldn’t hear it all through the din of Rome – and had begun early that morning to play with it, sitting otherwise motionless in his chair under the penates. Sollemnis sighed through his nose, and sat across from his brother.
“Amulius,” he said, “we need to talk.”
“No we don’t,” Celatus intoned, between notes. He picked up a plectrum from his lap and twanged out the tune more loudly.
“It isn’t about the paintings,” Sollemnis sighed, “although you know we’ll have to address those soon enough.”
“Can’t have little brother reflecting poorly on the family honour,” Celatus drawled back. He kept his eyes on the penates; this was not a conversation he was eager to have. From the corner of his eye, he could see his brother’s mouth tighten over his teeth, lips going flat, and let himself smile at the little victory.
Then Sollemnis spoke again, and Celatus’ cithara strings were tapped into silence.
“The treasury was broken into this morning.”
Celatus did not move his eyes from the penates on their shelf. He had a suspicion – and he absolutely needed to be certain.
“Was anything taken?” he asked, low and quiet, knowing the answer.
“No,” said Sollemnis. “But something was left behind.” His face was stern and blank: this was no siblings’ game. “You need to see it.”
Vannus stood at a table and washed blood from his hands in the courtyard behind Seia’s business.
“Will she live?” Seia asked, from where she was pounding lentils next to the clay stove in the corner. Vannus scratched with a blunt nail at the blood ingrained in the skin over the knuckles of his right hand.
“If she’s strong,” he said, rinsing his hands once more in the bowl. The table before him was littered with linen – both clean and bloody – along with bowls for washing, and a water jug. “Having survived the surgery is a good sign, and I trust you to look after her properly. It’s once she’s well that worries me.”
“She is missing half her arm,” Seia conceded, solemn-faced. Vannus nodded, his mood matching hers.
“I’ve seen enough of those kinds of injuries to know what they can do,” he said. “None of this will be easy for her.”
“Her friend Apollonous assured me she’d be able to keep the mill working until Thatres is well enough to take over again,” Seia explained, her words a little more clipped than her usual smoothness of voice. “And her family will be able to help. Her livelihood won’t be lost. She has support.”
“A few extra prayers to Apollo and Aesculapius wouldn’t hurt,” Vannus added, “for at least a month or two.”
At that moment, Menna entered the courtyard from the back door of Seia’s shop, with Vannus’ bloody knives in hand.
“Thatres is wrapped up and asleep,” she said. “Barely resting, but – asleep. Her brother’s with her.” She stopped across the table from Vannus and set out the knives, washing her hands in the bowl after him. Vannus picked up the jug and crossed the courtyard to refill it from one of the large buckets in the corner, water which he then poured into an empty bowl. One by one, he picked up the knives, rinsed them, and wiped them clean. He cleared his throat, and kept his eyes on his work.
“Thank you for not mentioning it before now,” he said, in a gruff voice, “but I suppose you’ve both heard about the graffiti.” Seen it, too, he didn’t say. It had been popping up in new places every so often for weeks since his and Celatus’ return from Ostia; the last one had been on the side of the Vestal House, and had involved the Britannus figure arrogantly fucking the Cornelius from behind. It had made Vannus’ stomach turn: as much as the idea was, abstractly, pleasurable, it was not something he had ever wanted to do.
Seia smiled at him as she scraped her crushed lentils into a steaming pot on the stove.
“I figured those were about you,” she said, teasing and light, and picked up the water bucket to add to her pot. “You two have been getting a reputation around the city for a while now, I kept hearing your names when people talked about criminals and trials. This is a bit less flattering, though, isn’t it?”
“Not for him,” Menna muttered, plucking up a piece of clean linen with which to dry the knives. Vannus looked up and caught her eye, and she was stony-faced: not glowering, but hardly smiling at him, either.
“I hate those pictures,” he said, with finality. “Celatus is my – my dearest friend, and I value his honour as much as my own.” He couldn’t hold her icy, dark gaze, and dropped his eyes back down to the knives. “I’d rather we weren’t talked about at all than be talked about like this.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Seia insisted, forcefully keeping her voice light in the face of Menna’s severity. “To me, I mean. Whether they’re true or not, I don’t much care what the two of you get up to in your own bed. It’s just sex. And if the two of you are happy, then all the better, I say.” She stirred her pot of lentils with determined calm. “Menna?”
The other woman sighed, and her hands on the knives slowed, while Vannus’ work had ground entirely to a halt as he watched her dark features.
“It’s not that,” she finally said, then sighed tightly. “What I want to know is, who’s painting these things?” She looked up at Vannus from beneath her fine brows. “Who’s spreading rumours about you both, who wants you dishonoured and friendless – and why?”
Vannus had no answer to that. He held Menna’s gaze for as long as she could – Mithras and Mars, he thought, she’s good – then dropped it again, to get on with his work, muttering, “I wish I knew.” The knives still needed to be sharpened, and cleaned with vinegar, and Seia would need help with her medicines before their patient Thatres could go home. Then there would be visits and check-ups, until the wound stopped leaking pus and properly healed, then at least one of them would need to guide her in getting her strength back after the injury and surgery had crippled her arm, her body, and her mind. It still astounded him how important these little things were, at least as important as Celatus’ grand mysteries and extravagant crimes. There was no blackmail in Thatres’ case, no murder, no simmering jealousies or hateful violence or elaborate, twisting schemes of extortion; just an accident in a mill. But it was as important to Vannus as Celatus’ work, and more important to Menna and Seia, let alone to Thatres herself. Small and precious, Vannus thought it was. Unassuming and world-encompassing.
“Menna,” Seia eventually said, breaking the silence, “would you get one of the amphorae from the storeroom? We have some honey wine to mix.”
Celatus left a note for Vannus that he’d gone to the Temple of Saturn, and Sollemnis insisted that they take his litter to the forum. It was as comfortable as ever, erring on the side of elegance over opulence, and swayed gently with the slaves’ steps as they moved through the streets.
“I assume you won’t be giving me any details until we get there,” Celatus grumbled, as he lifted the edge of the curtain to watch the city pass by, uneasy at not being able to observe their surroundings. Sollemnis angled his gaze back at his brother, smooth and judgmental.
“The guards were killed without any alarm being sounded,” he said. “The priests left shortly after sundown and returned to find the bodies just before dawn. Throats cut, extraordinarily deep, with the right hand from behind.”
“And nothing’s been taken,” Celatus mumbled, as he watched the people, shops, and houses of the Aventine slip past.
“The praetors are in imperial custody as we speak,” Sollemnis replied, “but they swore that nothing was shifted or removed, and their words are confirmed by the written records. Not a single as is missing.”
“But something’s been left behind.” Celatus said it with a glare at his brother for the deliberate mysteriousness, and Sollemnis sighed with an air of patient, eternal long-suffering.
“I do believe you need to see it for yourself,” he said. “It rather defies description.”
It was still morning by the time Vannus left Seia’s building. A small collection of corked bottles hung in a leather bag over his left shoulder, carefully wrapped so as not to crack against each other as he walked down from the Caelian Hill and made his way into the subura. He dropped the ointments and extracts off at their respective clients’ houses, and checked up on the wounds he needed to, and was on his way back south with a bag lighter in products and heavier in coin as the noonday sun reached its peak. The city was beginning to warm after winter, and he felt the prickle of sweat at the small of his back and the crooks of his neck with relief. Detouring around the crowded streets, Vannus slipped into a side alley he knew would bypass the better-known routes to the fora and major temples, where he could traverse misshapen paving-stones with speed between the sparse pedestrians. As he trotted down a little flight of steep steps, however, squeezing past a woman with a fringe of dark hair peeking out from under a veil, an olive-skinned hand gripped his upper arm and stopped him in his tracks, nearly toppling him with the sudden change in balance. With a short scrabble, Vannus regained his stance on the uneven ground and glared up at the woman two steps above him, with one foot above the other and his hand reaching on instinct for the one on his arm.
Before he could speak, the woman’s eyes met his, and she said, in a low, impassive voice: “You want to visit the treasury.”
Vannus’ frown deepened, in confusion rather than anger, and he stopped in his attempt to extricate her fingers from his arm.
“Why?” he asked, suspicious and short. The woman’s expression didn’t falter, but her eyes did drift down, to linger on his right leg.
“It’s a shame,” she said, “for a man of his stature to be debased by one so very close to slavery.”
With a breathless snarl, Vannus jerked his arm out of her slackened grip. In a moment, she had spun and walked away, and before he could think, Vannus was pushing himself into action, running in pursuit up the stairs.
“Who are you,” he shouted after her, “what do you know about us?!”
Before he could reach her, however, a dark arm – marked with scars – extended from a doorway on Vannus’ left, following a hand gripped around the hilt of a short dagger, and preceding a broad, too-familiar face. Vannus stumbled two steps back away from the knife as the man stepped into the middle of alley – suddenly deserted, Vannus noticed too late – to block his way.
“Don’t give me a reason,” said the man, and his voice was low and calm, and Vannus didn’t know if it was something in his tone or the memory of an exchange made amidst dust, sun, and blood which made it seem so fatalistic. His height above Vannus was only emphasised by the slope of the alley, and though Vannus clenched his hands into fists, he did not raise them. “I very much want to kill you,” the man went on, “but we have uses for you, first.”
With a flick of his wrist, the man tucked his dagger away into his belt, behind his back, and hidden by the tail of his cloak. He smirked down at Vannus, but received no reply beyond a steady, stony glare; and so he turned and marched away, disappearing into a tiny lane to one side before he could be swallowed up by the crowd on the main road. As much as he wished to follow, Vannus knew that it would be fruitless: the man would be gone, swallowed up by the myriad buildings, having slipped through a doorway here or an alley there, traversing routes even Celatus didn’t know. But for a long moment, Vannus watched where he had gone, memorising the moment, and making out of it a solid, understandable whole.
Someone bumped their shoulder into his, muttering something rude as they pushed past through the alleyway. People had reappeared, the noise from the main streets filtering back through the gap in the crowd where Vannus stood. There were more pressing matters at hand, he knew, than deciphering the route and meaning of that particular, persistent enemy. On slow but definite feet, Vannus turned and finally reached the bottom of the stairs, then marched down to the end of the alley and turned a corner back into more populated streets. He dodged someone pulling at the lead of a stubborn-looking donkey, and turned his steps west. Seia’s money could wait; in the meantime, Vannus’ breath was catching shallow in his chest, and he had a treasury to visit.
Sollemnis’ chair was carried to a halt directly in front of the Temple of Saturn, its towering pillars and broad facade looming with the ease of familiarity over the bustle of the forum. Here and there, a senator or worshipper ascended or descended the steps, but they were hardly enough to inspire suspicion as Celatus and Sollemnis climbed down from the litter and then up into the temple. Two Cornelii would undoubtedly have been intimidating enough, but Sollemnis waved his hand to keep the priests from bothering them as they passed through the main hall, and swept aside any questions from the praetorian guards at the back room. Thick, heavy doors were opened for them, and they both stepped inside the treasury of the Roman people with a calmness befitting their status. Only the slight twitch in Celatus’ fingers betrayed his restlessness.
A moment later, the writing on the back wall caught his attention, and he went very still. The letters were inscribed high up on the stones, in streaks of charcoal, each letter half the height of a man.
Sollemnis turned his cool gaze onto his brother, sidelong.
“I have little doubt this message is from the same person who started those fires two years ago,” he said. “Who has a particular interest in you.”
“Then why not leave the message somewhere I might see it?” Celatus mused, as he left his brother’s side and approached the wall with slow, intrigued steps. “Though I suppose… here I am…”
“You have a brother in the senate and court, Amulius,” Sollemnis drawled, “your seeing it was inevitable. But this threat is about more than you, this time. More than individual Romans, even than a city block. This is about Rome herself. Our whole city, people, and empire. If someone can break in here without trouble –”
“But she didn’t take anything,” Celatus breathed; he had nearly reached the wall by then, stepping blindly around chests of coin and the loot of decades of war, not seeing the gold, silver, or gems, or the legions’ standards carefully wrapped and propped up in the corners. Long, thin fingers reached up towards the letters. Sollemnis’ expression was more than grave: it was almost furious.
“Why?” he demanded.
Suddenly – from the body of the temple – there came the sound of new boots tapping under running feet, and a distant, well-known voice.
His fingers froze in mid-air, and a tiny gasp of air sounded from his nose. His eyes dropped from the letters to catch on the wall in front of him, to catch on nothing. The voice sounded again, closer.
“No, leave me alone, I’m here to find someone – Celatus, are you back here? Get off!”
“Let him through,” Sollemnis called, with a roll of his eyes, to the guards at the door, and they drew back their spears and released the hands on their swords to admit a small figure not in toga or armour, but an old tunic and cloak, with the strap of a near-empty leather bag hanging across his chest.
“Celatus,” Vannus panted, “what’s happened?”
Only then did he catch sight of the letters on the wall, large and blunt. His stumbling feet slowed, until he had stepped up to Celatus’ side, where he stopped and stared.
“Mercurialis,” he said, without a hint of realisation, only finality. Celatus frowned.
“You’re too early to have gone all the way home,” he said, and at last tore his gaze from the wall of the temple to look at his friend. “What happened?”
Vannus’ mouth was tight. “I received a message,” was all he said. Then, “I see you have, too.”
“Not the first,” Celatus muttered, prompting a wide-eyed look from Vannus. He capitulated quickly. “The day we returned from Ostia,” he said. “Remember the curse I pulled from the wall?”
“Mithras and Mars.”
“‘Nunc fers,’ it said,” Celatus muttered. “And then this…”
“‘Mea,’” Vannus read, without passion. “My what? My –” He looked around them at the cluttered room, the magnitude of the place finally dawning on them. He swallowed. “Pecunia?” he suggested. “Gaza? Signa, perhaps?”
“No,” Celatus murmured. “Nothing is missing,” he explained, “because she didn’t need to take anything from here. This was just to prove that she could, that if she ever decided she wanted something, even from a place like this, she could simply take it. But what she wants isn’t here.”
“And what does she want?” Sollemnis spat from behind them, arms crossed over his chest, uncharacteristically animated. His impatience with his brother was only matched by Vannus’. Celatus did not answer for a long moment, instead looking back up at the writing on the wall.
“The pearl,” he finally said. Vannus’ nose wrinkled in confusion.
“The what?” he asked, followed promptly by Sollemnis’ reply.
“No,” he snapped. “You must be wrong.”
“I don’t think I am,” Celatus drawled. “Do you have a better solution, Numitor?”
“It can’t be,” was the peevish response. Vannus’ frown suddenly shifted, from crease-browed confusion to outright perplexity.
“Not that pearl,” he said. “Not the one the man Vulca stole – you must be wrong. We left Rome before we could ever find it, she must have got her hands on it in the end!”
“My agents certainly never recovered it,” Sollemnis added, catching Vannus’ attention. “No one in the senate or the imperial court heard news of the thing.” A note of disdain curled his voice and lip. “Certainly not in the court, the bragging would have been both tasteless and endless.”
“I’m sure of it,” Celatus countered, and finally turned back to the room at large, and to his brother and friend. “I was the last person to almost find it, I’m the most likely person to find it again. All this – this campaign against my reputation, this threat here – they’re about the pearl. She wants me to find it again, and bring it to her.”
“All that just for a pearl?” Vannus wondered, incredulous. “You must be joking. I know they’re rare, but there is more than one in the world, why this one in particular?”
Celatus’ mouth lifted up at one corner, as his hands rose to clasp, fingertip to fingertip, beneath his chin.
“Because it was the object of our last game,” he said. “Our contest. This one, this pearl in particular, is more valuable than just its material worth. It has me involved in it. Our battle of minds.” He breathed out, and his smile grew. “She can’t let it go,” he added. “I’ve riled her up.”
Vannus’ mouth was tight, and his expression blank, with suppressed fury of which only Celatus could see the depth.
“No need to sound so happy about it,” he muttered, and by the arch of Sollemnis’ brow, he agreed with the sentiment.
“Mercurialis is a threat,” he countered. “Not just to you and your petty contests, but to Rome herself.” His expression was like unpainted marble, impassive and cold. “Stop her.”
“Listen,” said Vannus, as he and Celatus left the forum, “I have to bring this money back to Seia, she’ll be sick of waiting for me. Don’t do anything stupid while I’m out?”
Celatus smirked at him. “And what do you think I might do?”
With a roll of his eyes, Vannus sighed a response. “I wish I knew. Just keep your head down, would you? I got off easy today, but I’m not sure that’s going to last.”
Celatus frowned down at him from the corner of his eye. “What do you mean,” he said, “got off easy, what happened?” His eyes went narrow, flashing in the sunlight. “How did you get a message to come to the temple?”
“You remember the man who killed Vulca,” Vannus replied, as he kept his eyes on the road. Celatus cut him off before he could continue.
“The one you fought in the arena.”
Vannus’ mouth went thin and tight.
“Yes, that man.” He rolled his shoulders back, almost unconsciously, an attempt to keep the tension from his neck. “Well. A woman I’ve never seen before told me to go to the treasury, made some – insinuating remarks about us. Just came right up to me off the subura. I tried to follow her, and he showed up. Dagger in his hand, all ‘don’t give me a reason’.” He snorted, mirthlessly. “Apparently they still have a use for me.”
“He said that?” Celatus pressed, with eyes only for his friend. “They still have a use, he said –”
“He said ‘we’, yes,” Vannus muttered. “So if there was any doubt left about how closely he works with Mercurialis, I think we can forget it.”
“And you just let him go?” Celatus asked, incredulous. “Why didn’t you follow him, why –”
“He was armed, Celatus!” Vannus snapped out the corner of his mouth, as he refused still to meet Celatus’ gaze, marching them both through the city. “He’d just delivered a very serious threat, and I couldn’t dismiss the idea that you were in danger too. He disappeared, all right? I wasn’t thinking about following him, unarmed, into who knows what, I was thinking about you.”
Celatus had no response to that. After a long moment, Vannus drew them both to a halt at a broad crossroad, and waited for the clattering wheels of a cart full of sacks of grain to pass.
“I have to go back to Seia,” he repeated, and finally looked up at Celatus. “Will you meet me at home? Go straight there, don’t get distracted, don’t put yourself in danger.”
Celatus smirked at that, which caused Vannus’ mouth to purse.
“I’m not in danger, Vannus,” Celatus drawled. “Mercurialis wants the pearl, doesn’t she? In any other case, she could just take what she wants: find whoever has it, steal it, kill them, take it back, but this… This pearl has a history. If I already knew where it was, she could even simply torture me for the information –” he didn’t notice how Vannus sucked his teeth at that, going tense – “but this is different. She’s tasking me with finding it for her, before she gets bored and finds it for herself. Don’t you see?” His mouth turned back into a little grin of genuine, disturbing delight. “Leverage is all well and good, but it’s much more fun to make a game out of it, on even footing. I’m not in danger, because it would be breaking the rules to threaten me. It’d be the easy way out.”
Vannus was pressing his tongue to his back teeth behind pursed lips, in an attempt to hold back biting or revealing words. He breathed hard and steady for a moment or two.
“Just look after yourself,” he eventually forced out, “all right?”
Vannus returned Seia’s money to her – apologising for the delay – and begged a few days off from his duties in deference to Mercurialis’ threats. On the walk back to the Aventine, as the sun drew down towards the cluttered city horizon, he heard someone laugh as he passed them, followed by a shout in the crowd at his back.
“Bet that greedy Cornelian arse is keeping you busy!”
On nothing but instinct, Vannus’ steps ground to a halt, and his shoulders went tense and stiff; but when he twisted in place to find the voice, it had disappeared, and no faces in the crowd were turned to him in goading congratulation. His stormy eyes scanned the crowd, darting back and forth between ordinary faces and ordinary gaits, but nothing stood out.
Measuring a careful breath out through his nose, Vannus faced forward again, and marched on.
As time passed, nothing happened. Vannus tried hard to carry on with his work, but he was constantly on edge; and although Celatus dealt with one or two trifling cases in the meantime, he did not take on anything large or dangerous. Vannus didn’t know whether to be glad or worried: it could mean that he was being careful, but it could just as well mean that he was too busy chasing down a heavy-fated pearl instead.
In any case, Vannus took comfort in the one fact that Celatus spent most of his time at home. He was not out at all hours, as he so often was when investigating, flitting in and out of the house to change his clothes and maybe (maybe) eat a few mouthfuls of food. Instead, he bought food now and then, and fetched water every other morning, and lounged on the couch in their rooms, always thinking. It was Vannus who moved in and out, as he took up whatever work he could with Seia, or brought Menna home to check on how his burned shoulder was healing. At least Celatus seemed to appreciate her for that.
As he returned to CCXXIB from a surgery, after almost two weeks of nothing, Vannus was surprised by Hirtia meeting him in the courtyard, where she was feeding a small gaggle of unusually calm geese, and frowning.
“Oh, Vannus,” she said, and turned her stumped frown onto him as he skirted the geese, “I think Amulius is upstairs. That young woman from the vigiles came around, she didn’t look happy…”
Vannus stopped, and looked at her. “Dido?” he said, and pulled his toes out of the path of a peckish bird.
“Yes dear,” said Hirtia. “Laevinus already left but she stayed up there with Amulius – I’m not sure, but they all seemed in quite a hurry –”
Vannus’ feet scuffed against the dirt as he turned and hurried into the house, and only just managed to throw a, “Thank you, Hirtia!” over his shoulder as he went. He took the stairs up to his and Celatus’ rooms two at a time, and was out of breath by the time he reached the top, only partly from the exertion.
He was already pushing himself out of his chair with a sweep of his toga as soon as Vannus could be heard. “Thank Minerva,” he muttered – “don’t get settled, we need to go. Dido has something for us.”
“And you actually waited for me to come back?” Vannus retorted, as Celatus crossed the room and passed him to clatter down the stairs. “I’m impressed. Salve, Dido.”
“Salve,” she muttered, and her returning glance was burning and bitter. Vannus raised his eyebrows as he followed.
“What is it?” he called, as they passed through the gloom of the back of the building and then out again in the light of the courtyard.
“Kidnapping,” Dido spat. Celatus scattered the geese and she followed in his wake, as the explanation for her clenched fists came: “Some senator’s children.”
“Mithras and Mars,” Vannus breathed, shoulders slumping. “Sorry, Hirtia – How old?”
“The girl is eight,” Dido explained in clipped tones. “The boy is five.”
“What about Mercurialis?” Vannus shouted ahead in an attempt to reach Celatus’ broad, quick steps. “What about the pearl?”
“Long game,” Celatus threw back at him. “I’ve already sent people out to test the waters on my behalf, but this is much more immediately engaging.”
“Engaging,” Dido echoed past a curled lip, which prompted Vannus to give a small sigh of long-suffering.
“You know what he’s like,” he said, in quieter tones. Dido gave a short snort of laughter at that.
“Just because I’m used to it,” she said, “doesn’t make it less disgusting.”
With which remark she marched on ahead to lead Celatus into the street, where a horse-drawn cart was waiting. As soon as the two men were seated across from each other, she mounted the front and spurred the horse into motion, to send the three of them clattering along the street then down the hill into the valley, directed towards the Porta Capena. Vannus sucked on his teeth, lips pursing, and after a moment of peering at him, Celatus rolled his eyes and spoke before Vannus could even open his mouth.
“Not now,” he muttered. “I care. You know I care. I care about the very important things, and that is all. Crying and wailing and tearing my hair would do nothing to help find those children, so why should I?”
“You could have a little respect,” Vannus shot back. “I’m not asking you to rend your garments like a paid penitent – I’m just saying. Perhaps a little less excitement would do? And Mithras, please don’t grin like it’s Saturnalia.”
Celatus said nothing in response, and though his expression did sober by a fraction, a smile remained about his mouth all the way to the vigiles’ quarters near the gate. He was out of the cart as soon as Dido had pulled the horse to a halt, and marched towards the building with Vannus at his heels while she handed the reigns over to a young vigil. Laevinus was waiting for them just outside the door, and turned them around almost in the same moment as they arrived.
“I don’t like employing you right now,” he grumbled as he led Celatus and Vannus down the street, “not with the rumours about you two spreading like wildfire; but we need everything we’ve got for this.” He waved for a few of his watchmen to follow. “I’ll tell you about it while we walk.”
Dido joined them a moment later, hurrying back from the vigiles’ quarters, and as she did, she handed Laevinus a sword and belt, a similar weapon already strapped to her waist. It seemed that no precautions were being spared for the children of a senator; he had to be important.
“Ex-praetor,” Laevinus explained as he strapped on his belt and turned northeast, “Gaius Nonius Asprenas. He and his wife are currently abroad in the magistracy in Sicily, the children were boarding at an uncle’s house, they’d hired ex-gladiators for extra protection. They went to sleep last night, no one heard anything, then one of the servants found them missing from their beds at dawn this morning. Lucia and Lucius. Juno help us.”
“Juno won’t be any good at all,” Celatus muttered. “Chances of it being political?”
“I went to the curia this morning,” Dido said, “checked with everyone there. I even went to your brother. He can’t see any immediate enemies, but more than one person mentioned Sicily. It’s a good position, and if someone wants to take it from under Nonius’ feet, this could be the start of it.”
“Any clear suspects?” Vannus asked.
“Not that Sollemnis could identify,” Dido frowned.
“Then we won’t be following that line of inquiry,” Celatus snapped. “I need to see the house before I come to any conclusions.”
“It’s just past the Circus, near the Caelian,” said Laevinus. “You won’t have long to wait.”
Indeed, they didn’t. Vannus barely had time to set to rights all the facts in his head before the commotion in the streets grew more focused than the norm, and a few blocks later, they found the reason: an armoured man saluted Laevinus as they rounded the corner on which he stood, and three doors down – between a squat insula and a house with a carpet-maker’s shop at the front – a relatively modest patrician home was guarded with two vigiles on either side of the door, and a little gaggle of pedestrians all slowing as they passed by the curious spectacle.
“We’ve put men on every corner, and two pairs more roaming the surrounding streets,” Laevinus explained, as they approached the house, “but they’ve all had nothing to report. Here –”
The vigiles at the door all saluted as Laevinus pushed open the heavy front door and led the rest of his group inside. He left his men in the atrium, but took Dido, Celatus, and Vannus with him into a corridor to their right, and up a flight of stairs to the second level.
“Here,” he said, pointing down a slim hallway which adjoined to two rooms overlooking the street: “that’s where they slept. Lucia first and Lucius next. It’s only been myself and Dido up here, and we’ve found nothing, we have no idea where they are, what condition they might be in…”
Celatus had gone still, eyes flashing as they inspected the clean floor, the narrow windows onto the atrium, and the closed, wooden doors on their left. The rest of their party drew to a halt behind him, waiting for something – anything – to happen.
“Find them,” Dido finished for Laevinus, an unmistakeable order. “Before innocent children are hurt, and an important family destroyed.”
If Celatus had been listening, he made no indication of it; but he did not need telling twice. He stepped, slow and deliberate, down the centre of the corridor, watching everything: the floor, the walls, the doors, the open shutters on the window frames, even the ceiling warranted a check. The corners where wooden floorboards met stone walls were run over with a flash of silver eyes, and the brass door handles squinted at and barely handled by long, careful fingers.
“How important do you say this man is?” Celatus murmured, as with the slightest touch he opened the door to the young Lucia’s room.
“Very,” said Laevinus, over crossed arms. “His family is old, his position in the senate not famous, but crucial. If his place in Sicily is shaken, it will have consequences.”
Celatus seemed almost to glide in the child’s well-decorated room, as if he could not bear even the thought of his feet disturbing the scene.
“And there are the children to consider,” Vannus muttered, following him as far as the doorway.
“These children would not have been stolen so efficiently from their beds if not to disturb something larger than them,” Celatus murmured in return, as he pinched and prodded, lifted and turned, sniffed and searched and inspected every article in the room, from the undersized bedclothes, to the carved animals in their chest, to the drawers of clothes, and the chains of the oil lamps which were strung from hooks in the ceiling. “Here.” He was pointing to a narrow table on four, spindle legs which stood by the bed head, carrying a wax tablet and stylus, and a small clay lamp inscribed with zig-zags and spirals in the familiar, shaking hand of a child. There were large, simple Latin letters still visible on the tablet. “No oil.”
“Was there ever any oil?” Vannus countered, and Celatus curled his lip at him.
“Lamp,” he said bluntly. “Old rings on the table, too large for the lamp itself. Oil is poured from a larger bottle into the lamp, it leaks down the sides and leaves rings behind, and it is no longer there. Worth remembering. Next room.”
Vannus retreated into the hallway, back to Laevinus and Dido, and watched as Celatus stalked down the corridor to the next room, repeating his former process. Again, the door was closely examined, and again, he pushed it open with as little force and touch as possible. Everything inside was much the same as Lucia’s room, though there was no tablet, and more toys, including a soft doll of a soldier with real feathers in his plume by the bed. Celatus pointed to another bed-side table, smirking under his bright, sober eyes.
“Oil,” he said; and indeed, there stood a wide glass bottle half-filled with lamp oil, corked atop its narrow neck. “What happened to the girl’s, I wonder…”
With quickened steps, the brief search of Lucius’ room was over, and Celatus swooped out into the hall and back into Lucia’s room. Vannus stepped back towards the window as he suddenly passed, and was about to follow, when his heel gave a tiny smack, catching as it lifted off the floor. In an instant, he was ignoring the others as they searched the first room, and instead craning his neck to look down at his heel, then spinning and crouching in place.
“Here,” he called, half-subdued in voice. “I think –” Vannus touched the floor with tentative fingertips where he thought his heel had caught. He pressed here and there in the hand’s-breadth of space where the floor met the wall, until something stuck to his skin, and his heartbeat jumped into a canter. “Here,” he repeated, louder this time, rubbing the trace of something tacky between his fingertips. In a moment, Celatus was crouched beside him, with an empty glass bottle clutched in his hand. Vannus stared at it. “Where did you get that?
“Lodged behind Lucia’s mattress,” Celatus answered quickly. “What did you find?”
“Not sure.” Vannus pointed to the spot where his shoe had caught, and where a mottled crescent the size of his thumbnail was just visible from the right angle on the floor. “Something sticky.”
Celatus immediately leaned in, and as he turned his head this way and that, his eyes grew wide with interest. One, long finger reached out to dab at the clear-looking stain, and Celatus repeated what Vannus had done, rubbing what had come off between finger and thumb. He sniffed at the substance, then his tongue darted out – once, twice – and he met Vannus’ eye.
“Look at your shoes,” he said, and turned to Laevinus and Dido. “All of you, check your shoes, anything sticky, any trace of honey!”
“Honey?” Vannus echoed, and followed Celatus as he rose to his feet.
“Any trace!” Celatus repeated. “And I need a candle and a mirror, as much light as we can get in here – we need to see where this oil went!”
“My men will help you,” said Laevinus, and immediately, Celatus was gone – had rushed around the corner to the stairwell – to leave the other three to lift their feet and run questing fingers over the soles of their shoes. “Nothing,” was the response from Laevinus, followed by the same from Dido and Vannus, who had found only the smudge where he had stepped back to the wall. He looked at the others in turn.
“Honey,” he said again. “Here not long enough to have been cleaned away. Maybe the kidnappers brought it with them.”
In that moment, Celatus’ footsteps were on the stair, and he reappeared with a lit candle and a mirror in his hands, shielding the one with the other. “Get the lamps,” he said, spurring the vigiles’ feet into action, and turned to Vannus. “Anything?”
“We didn’t bring the honey in,” was the reply. “Listen, Celatus –”
“Ah, good,” Celatus snapped over him as Laevnius and Dido returned with the lamps. “Light them here.”
“Listen, Celatus,” said Laevinus, as he and Dido lit their lamps from the candle. “What are you thinking here? Will this help us find the children?”
“The bottle of oil is empty,” Celatus explained, as he direction the vigiles back towards Lucius’ room and held his mirror up behind the three flames, directing the faint glare over the floor. “Not just knocked to the ground in a puddle, not finished off and left to be refilled – emptied somewhere and hidden behind the mattress.” He was tilting the light back and forth, craning his neck, looking for something. Vannus kept his back to the wall, his heel in the honey again, elbow on the windowsill. “If she had time, if she heard the kidnappers coming, she might have left a trail. Emptied the oil into her hands, or her clothes, so that when she was led away – there.”
In the reflected light, a few drops of grease, once damp, could be seen on the floor outside Lucia’s room, forming the blurry shape of a naked foot, the heel and ball outlined. Celatus pulled his candle away from the group, darting to the floor with the light to follow the drops in a disjointed pattern which led first to Lucius’ door, gathering almost into what was once a footstep but was now just a streak of sheen on the boards, and then away again, along the door-side wall, dwindling out as it reached the stairwell.
Vannus’ shoes were catching in the honey again.
“The girl is smart,” Celatus was saying, as Vannus frowned down at the floor under the window where the smear of honey was joined by more crescent-moons. “She knows her parents are important, she would have heard about it, of course she would.” Vannus turned, and looked over the floor, the wall, the windowsill before him. “She’s been left here with her brother and uncle, under protection, no doubt she was given some half-truth excuse: Mummy and Daddy have to go somewhere far away for work, not for long, but it’s a very important place, these men here are to keep you safe…” Vannus leaned aside, trying to see around a window too narrow to fit his head. There was a flash of something around the corner. “She heard the kidnappers coming –”
“And the servants didn’t?” Dido interrupted. “The slaves, the extra guards, they heard nothing?”
“The servants and slaves presumably slept at the far end of the house, yes?” Celatus returned.
“Yes, but the guards certainly didn’t,” Dido retorted. “How could they have heard nothing, but the child did?”
At that moment, Vannus took the narrow window shutter between his fingers, and moved it back and forth with a faintly audible squeak, squeak on every hinge’s turn. The corridor fell silent, as Vannus looked up to see three pairs of eyes at the other end of the hallway turned on him. He could feel his heartbeat in his chest.
“Were these closed last night?” he asked. He could see Laevinus swallow.
“Yes,” the legate said. “We opened them for the light.”
Without response, Vannus again tilted his head, frowning out the window, then stepped forward to slide his right arm through the window up to his shoulder, with his back to the others. He fumbled about for a moment along the stones of the wall, then his fingers stumbled across what he was searching for. He tugged and twisted for a moment, then pulled back into the hallway, holding up a rolled and flattened square of lead.
“In a crack next to the windowsill,” he explained. The whole house seemed to be holding its breath. “I bet you anything I know who it’s from.”
“Mercurialis,” Celatus breathed.
“Say the kidnappers were the ones who left it here,” said Vannus. “They would have gotten past the guards and into the house, and come up the stairs straight to here. They opened the shutter to leave this outside, knowing we’d find it.” He gently pulled the shutter closed and open with his free hand. “The sound is innocuous enough that even if the guards heard it, they would have just put it down to the wind.”
“But the little girl heard it,” Celatus finished for him. “She heard it, and got frightened – thought about the extra security, thought about things that could go wrong – she’s a clever girl, you saw how advanced her letters were, she’s being taught well for a daughter – but she’s just a little girl. She can’t fight anyone off. So she pours out the lamp oil into her hands and feet, stays quiet when they tell her to, but she tries to leave a trail for us to follow…”
“Down the stairs,” Laevinus sighed, disappointed. “It can’t have lasted much longer. They got her first, then held her still while they fetched her brother, then took her back outside.”
“Leaving behind the oil trail,” Vannus finished for him – “and the honey.”
“And a note,” said Celatus. “Like the one at our home two months ago. This must be her new mode of communication. First the fires and the charcoal writing – we’ll have to go back to the treasury, see if she left anything there in lead – it won’t be easy to find –”
Laevinus’ voice was stern and imperious as he interrupted Celatus’ breathless intrigue.
“What does it say.” Celatus looked at him, and was met with a stony glare. “It might be nothing,” he said, “remember? It might just be a curse, left by anyone in the household. So what does it say?”
All eyes turned back to Vannus, who, with wary fingers, unrolled the lead, and turned it around so the letters were the right way up. In another moment, his eyes fell shut, and the lines around his eyes and mouth grew somehow deeper. He looked like he wanted to retch.
“What does it say?” Dido repeated, insistent, but not scared. Frowning, Celatus stepped forward and took the message from Vannus’ fingers. A moment later, he paled, and swallowed, hard.
“Mellitus,” he read out. “It’s – something Piso has called me –”
He broke off, and did not go on. Tentative, Laevinus took the curse from Celatus’ hand and looked it over himself, for far longer than it took to read the simple message.
“It could be nothing,” he said. “Mel could mean anything – you just found honey on the floor didn’t you?”
With a flash, Celatus looked up at Vannus, and bounded across to him, kneeling at his feet.
“Honey,” he said. “Honey, you found honey –” With his fingers and the light of his candle, he found the patches of honey Vannus had stood in, then started to move along the wall towards the stairwell, searching and fumbling. “Honey under the window where they would have stood for a while, leaving the note – here!” He brought his fingers up from a few paces away, with a trace of something golden and tacky under his nail. “Piso, check Lucius’ room –”
Vannus did as he was told, while the vigiles started to search, too. “Here,” Vannus was calling in a moment, crouching by the door jamb. “The same person stood here, leaving honey behind –”
“Here!” Dido shouted from further back. “Just a smudge, it isn’t much –”
“It collects where the kidnappers stood for a while, squeezing or dripping,” Celatus rambled – “keep looking!”
Piece by piece, drop by drop, they followed the trail of honey and oil down the stairs and back along the wall of the atrium. Here and there they lost the trail, then found it again, until it led them down the house to a side entrance onto a tiny yard near the servants’ quarters, just big enough for a visiting guest’s horse to be looked after. The door there had been recently oiled, and made no sound as they passed through it, where Celatus pointed to a narrow puddle of honey between the flagstones.
“They stopped to pick the lock,” he said. “The servants’ entrance is never barred.”
“Mithras and Mars,” Vannus muttered, as he crossed the yard to an empty archway leading onto an alley. Around the corner, among the scattered straw and dirt, was a pool of honey three hands wide, golden-brown and half-dried into the muck. The others gathered behind him, staring at the mess. “It’s not just a pointed comment,” Vannus said, glancing back out of the corner of his eye to where Celatus stood behind his left shoulder. “It’s a bloody clue.”
“Who leaves a clue like that?” Laevinus said, bewildered. “That makes it all but obvious!”
“She knew we’d find the trail,” Celatus answered, in a flat tone. “It’s all connected. The taunt, the clue, the trace –” He stopped himself suddenly, and looked down at Vannus. “You use honey,” he said. “For your work. Where do you buy it?”
Vannus shrugged. “There are all kinds of stores that sell it,” he said, “but only a few that do it in bulk, and go back to the source. I can think of a few warehouses by the river, and one or two merchants in the northeast of the city. Most of them import from Ephesus, but one or two are from nearby.”
“The warehouses,” said Celatus, latching onto the idea. “Any that have closed down recently – we must check them all.”
“Because the children are there,” Celatus returned, short and sharp. “Large, preferably abandoned space, where no one will look or accidentally pass by, with plenty of sweet stuff to keep them placated – They brought a cart from there to here, a cart that was used for transporting honey, one of them got it on their shoes and trailed it into the house, here it was dripping off the cart while they took the children –”
“I’ll send out my men,” Laevinus was already saying, backing away down the alley. “Dido – take a division to the river –”
“Yes, domine –”
She was already following him, and they both broke into a run as they reached the main road, shouting to the vigiles on guard. Vannus turned sharply onto Celatus.
“Is there anything else,” he snapped. “Anything at all that will help us narrow it down, we have no idea who took those children or what they’re planning to do with them –”
Celatus override him. “Nothing, nothing,” he said, shaking his head.
“There has to be something!” Vannus’ voice was rising without his command. “Anything, a trace in the honey – you can point to the mud on someone’s shoes and tell them where in Rome they’ve been, there must be something –”
Celatus pushed away from him, falling into a crouch next to the honey in the street. “There are so many contaminants,” he was muttering, “so many other people and vehicles, so much dirt passing through…”
“Please,” Vannus said, with dropping shoulders. “Celatus – they’re only children.”
“Hold this,” Celatus snapped, pressing into Vannus’ hand a few long stalks of grass with honey dripping from the ends. “There must be…” he carried on, to himself, picking through the mess of the street – “but if there isn’t… if there isn’t…” Suddenly, he shot to his feet, staring all about him almost wildly. “There isn’t,” he said, like a question; then he turned to Vannus, and repeated himself, more sure this time: “There isn’t!”
“Isn’t what?” Vannus said.
“Any more along the street!”
Celatus was grinning, and already rushing off down the alleyway after the vigiles, shouting back after himself:
“River reeds,” Celatus explained, after they’d caught up with Laevinus, and while they mounted fresh horses outside the vigiles’ quarters. “I found them in the honey from the cart, it’s not a certainty, but it pushes the possibility towards the river warehouses, it’s as good a place to start as any –”
“Understood,” Laevinus snapped. “Let’s just go.”
In silence, then, they cantered away, scattering pedestrians in their rush towards the Tiber. Dido had already disappeared into the city with her division of soldiers, headed towards the same warehouses as them, and Vannus could only hope that in the course of their searches, they would meet up again and utilise their full forces.
They split up when they got to the Aventine valley. Celatus and Vannus took a few of Laevinus’ men in one direction, and Laevinus took the rest in the opposite, and they cantered through the streets, inspecting every shop and storehouse they passed for traces of honey, or the Nonius children. They passed only one honey store, where the owner was surly and the building was small and bustling, with nowhere two children could have been hidden. By the time they met up with Laevinus again, he’d picked up Dido and her men, who had found nothing in the reaches of the neighbourhood further from the river.
Again, they each took a different direction, fanning out and moving north along the bend in the river, and it was Dido who found the promising house. After what felt like hours of pushing through crowds, interrogating shop owners, and breaking into the back rooms of stores, warehouses, and riverside sheds, her cry could be heard across the river, reaching Celatus and Vannus moments before one of her vigil servants came rushing towards them through the muddy streets.
“Ecce!” he shouted, beckoning to them until he could take hold of the bridle of Vannus’ horse and tug them along. “Domina’s found it!”
The vigil led them through a narrow warren of alleyways, until they emerged a few blocks later onto a wide street which, at some point on its edge, became muddy bank, reed beds, and sluggish Tiber water. At its other edge, Dido was waiting at the side of a broad, squat, stone building, with no windows, and boards over the double doors, the breaking of which she was overseeing.
“Boatman down the street pointed it out,” she said as the men dismounted. “Abandoned by a bankrupt honey merchant three months ago, hasn’t been bought up again. Laevinus?”
“No idea,” Vannus replied, out of breath from the ride. “But it’s all boarded up, how could they have just hidden two children in here last night?”
“Old boards,” Celatus started, and Dido finished the thought for him.
“New nails.” Her arms, crossed tight over her chest, tensed even further as she clenched her fists. “No other doors and no windows beyond a few slits under the roof. Those kids had no way out. That’s enough!”
At her cry, the vigiles working on the boards stepped back, leaving behind a few slats at the top and bottom of the doorway and a hole just large enough for the tallest of them – of a height with Celatus – to bend through. Without pause, Dido stepped forward, and with one kick forwards, burst the mouldering latch to fling the doors open inwards. She held out her hand, into which a soldier wordlessly passed a lit torch, and ducked under the boards, stepping over those at her feet and pressing forwards into the shadows with Celatus and Vannus at her heels.
They parted without word, each taking silent direction from the others, to lead the way through the musty, sweet-smelling gloom, out of which rows of empty amphora racks took shape. Praying that he would have no need for the sword he’d left at home, Vannus advanced by the faint light of Dido’s torch in the next aisle, nearly twisting his ankle in an unstoppered amphora buried in the sandy ground. He heard a faint sound, as of high, weak voices, ahead of him, and sped up, hissing out a warning to the others, until –
“Hic!” Dido cried into the dark from his left. “Adsunt!”
Startling, Vannus turned, trying to find a break in the wooden racks. None showed themselves, and instead, he simply struck out with his foot, and broke enough slats so that he could clamber through, climbing over broken and solid wood until he had a clear view of Dido’s torchlight near the back of the warehouse, which revealed her crouched over a pair of small, dark, shaking forms curled on the floor around another buried amphora, and Celatus approaching from the other side, just ahead of him. As one, they approached on swift feet, while Dido interrupted her routine hushing noises to hold the torch higher for them, and the soldiers behind them approached with more light.
“Something’s wrong,” she said, not looking up, as the two men reached her. “Piso, you’re a surgeon –”
Without needing any more hinting, Vannus ducked around her to kneel by the little huddling forms, which immediately thrilled him with pity and fear. Nearest to him was the little girl, who looked as if she had been healthy just a day before, but whose dark brown skin was ashen in his gentle hands, and whose breath came light, loose, and hardly often enough.
“Lucia,” he cooed, bending down to her. “Lucia, can you hear me?” Her eyelids shuddered, and she mumbled something incomprehensible, but would not – or could not – respond further. Vannus’ mouth went tight. “Lucia, I need you to look at me,” he said, more firmly. “Lucia, your parents will be very worried – you’re a good girl, Lucia, leading us here with the lamp oil, I just need you to do this one more thing…”
Still she did not wake, and, with his movements made sharp by worry, Vannus leaned in to peel open her eyelid, where he could see her pupil reduced to a pinprick in her dark eye, despite the mere light of a few torches. In his hand, which felt too large and too strong, her arm trembled.
“It looks like opium,” he muttered to Dido and Celatus, who was inspecting the little boy. “Celatus?”
“The boy looks the same as her,” he said, “certainly not better.” Bending down to the amphora they were crowded around, he inhaled deeply at its neck, then wiped a smear of honey from the lip and sucked it off his finger. “Yes, opium, I think,” he finished. “They left them here, with one jar of something sweet that they were sure to dig into when they got hungry. Mixed it with opium. Slowly but surely, they there poisoning themselves.”
“Ceres help them,” Dido mumbled, as if on instinct. “They need this out of them.”
“Take them to a professional,” Vannus said. “Take them to Statius, he works just east of the Palatine.”
“Well-known?” Dido asked.
“Very,” said Vannus. “You’ll find him. I trained with him, he’s not like an ordinary doctor.”
In an instant, Dido was scooping Lucia into her arms and standing tall, and giving hushed orders to one of her men to pick up the boy. They were out of the warehouse in moments, taking the light of their torches with them, and in the shadows, Vannus stood, and sensed as Celatus did the same nearby.
“Well done,” Vannus said, in an undertone, with a note of sarcasm belying the words.
“I have a feeling…” Celatus murmured, and Vannus arched a look up at the outline of him in the dark.
“Too easy?” he said, and could just see it when Celatus nodded.
“Nevertheless –” Celatus’ eyes glinted as he looked down at Vannus, taut with energy. “That was very impressive.”
“Was it?” Vannus frowned. “I only sent her to Statius.”
“Well, yes, but –” Celatus bit off the end of his sentence. Instead of finishing, he seemed to stop and think for a moment; then he stepped closer to Vannus in the gloom, pressed his hand to the small of his back, and kissed him, fast and firm. It took only a brief second for Vannus’ surprise to melt, and when Celatus pulled back, he huffed a laugh up at him through a crooked smile, and tugged him around to face him properly, arms looped behind his neck.
“Now, that’s been a while…” he murmured, all of a sudden realising just how long it had been since he’d simply enjoyed kissing Cornelius Celatus. The graffiti had weighed on their minds for weeks, and while he never really expected to have sex with him again, it was nice to stand close together in the dark and be, for just a moment, at shared peace. Like the sensation of coming home after a long journey and waking up in a familiar bed, rested and ready, and safe enough to take another risk.
Vannus kissed Celatus again. Because he was close enough, and he could.
“They’ll be waiting for us outside,” Celatus muttered next to Vannus’ mouth, lips almost moving against his skin. Vannus hummed, noncommittally.
“I suppose so.”
Celatus heaved with a soft, drawn-out sigh, and kissed Vannus’ cheek, near his jaw.
“We have a pearl to find.”
Shoulders slumping, Vannus slipped his arms from Celatus’ neck and stepped back.
“Let’s go,” he said; and led the way back towards the light of the street.
Three days passed, and it was as if Celatus had no case to work at all.
He sniped, and snapped, and played the same few notes on his cithara for hours on end. He burned through candles staying up all night, didn’t go to the baths, and refused even to wash his face. His only reaction to Vannus flicking water in his face as he reclined on the couch was to glare, wipe it off on his sleeve, and roll over with his back to the room. He refused private clients, and would not go to festivals, and when Laevinus sent word that the Nonius children’s kidnappers had been tracked down with ease from inquiries around the Aventine, he didn’t even seem to listen. Certainly he wasn’t surprised to hear they’d been hired by another party. Hirtia passed on the news that the children were recovering well, and he didn’t even look up.
Out on the street, the graffiti on their wall was accumulating faster than they could remove it, with the clear evidence of more than one hand, and emphatically crude additions scattered along the neighbouring buildings. When Vannus left the house for water one morning, he was faced with a bratty-looking young man he’d never met before, who wore the clean toga of recent office and carried a rod of wood in his fist, and told Vannus in no uncertain terms that his prospects would not be ruined by some distant cousin’s proclivities. Though Vannus was not to be cowed by a staff in the hands of a pre-senatorial politician, the boy was explicit enough about his connections to recall the memory of blood and sand, and ill-fitting armour, and the tales his parents had told. Violence was something Vannus could resist; the nearness of slavery was another matter.
It wasn’t fear, Vannus told himself, that stopped him from asking about the pearl. Fear – though it was, to his shame, not unknown to him – could not be the reason. Instead, he tried to convince himself that it was a healthy sense of protection, for himself and for his friend. It was an awareness of how unnecessary and dangerous playing that particular game would be. And though he could not know what Celatus was thinking, when he sulked for hours on end, and appeared from his room late in the day only to return there long after Vannus had resigned himself to attempts at sleep, it was enough to know that he was not doing anything himself to retrieve the pearl. Perhaps he had people searching and questioning on his behalf, perhaps he was mentally running through each possibility and narrowing down where it had to be; but at least, in body, he was still in their rooms, safe and whole, and where Vannus could watch over him.
At last, however, the inevitable had to occur.
“Cornelius!” came Laevinus’ voice from the stairwell not long after dawn on the ides. From the kitchen, Vannus spared a resigned glance for the tight-shut door to Celatus’ bedroom, and continued on with his breakfast, stirring up his soaked oats and deliberately ignoring the wine jug.
“He’s not awake yet,” he called back over his shoulder, and longed for something more than watery porridge. “Least, it doesn’t look like he is.”
“Well, get him up,” Laevinus groused, voice coming clear as he reached their rooms. “I have a case for him.”
Vannus raised his eyebrows at his breakfast.
“I thought you weren’t employing us anymore,” he said
“I’m not employing you,” Laevinus remarked. “Just passing on a reference. Dido’s waiting downstairs with a wagon. This isn’t our kind of work.”
“Fires to put out, and all that.”
Laevinus snorted. “Just get him out here, would you?”
“Just tell me about it,” Vannus replied, as he turned with his bowl in hand to cross into the main room. “Either he’s listening in, or I can pass –”
Vannus froze, and nearly dropped his breakfast. There stood Laevinus near the middle of the room, as expected; unexpected, however, was the person who stood at his shoulder. He wasn’t a very tall man, but he made himself seem taller by his bearing and the breadth of his shoulders. His swarthy skin and high cheekbones outlined a huge, twice-broken nose, and a smile, Vannus knew, to match, though it was not at the moment on display. His expression was grim, and his keen, dark eyes subdued, and though he wore a fine toga and civilian dress, he still carried a twisted staff of vine wood in his hand.
At the sight of Vannus, the man’s smile crooked into view in one corner of his mouth.
“Caelius Piso,” he said, as if in wonder, and Vannus felt his posture stiffen and straighten at the sound of his voice. “So you survived the sea voyage after all.”
Laevinus’ bewildered expression passed from one to the other of them, picked up by neither. “You know each other?” he said. “Why didn’t you say?”
“It seemed too good to be true,” said the taller man, as he stepped forward around Laevinus’ shoulder and stretched out his hand. “And Piso’s such a common name…”
With sudden, shaky movements, Vannus pushed his bowl to the crook of his left arm, and stepped forward to clasp the man’s hand.
“Ave, centurio,” he said in greeting, bowing his head for a moment as his mind fumbled for words. “How… I mean to say, why – How do you come to be here? Sir.”
“Oh, more than sir, now,” the man laughed, unleashing the force of his wide, grand smile, full of mirth and crooked teeth. “Haven’t you heard? I’m an eques, now. And nearly made it to primus pilus before I retired, so you’d better show a little respect.”
“Oh, of course,” said Vannus, bowing his head again, but with a hint of sarcasm in his carefully-bland expression. “I would never have shown respect before hearing of that.”
The man laughed again, and clapped Vannus on the shoulder, stepping closer again as he glanced back to Laevinus. He was still almost half a head taller than the surgeon.
“Piso here saved my life more than once,” he explained. “I was senior centurion of his cohort in the Fifteenth, didn’t you know?”
“No I didn’t know,” said Laevinus, as his expression lightened. “Well, fancy that. I’m sure Celatus would kill to meet you.”
“Yes, this detective of yours,” the man picked up, and gradually, his smile faded away as he talked. “You know him then, Caelius?”
“Yes,” Vannus forced out, “yes, he’s um – we’ve lived together for two years, now, he’s a good friend of mine.”
“And you work with him?”
Something grim fought with the smile Vannus wanted to give.
“Something like that,” he answered, unmoved.
“Well, go and get him, would you?” Laevinus sighed. “You need to move quickly.”
“What’s happened?” Vannus asked.
“It’s one of my brothers,” the man answered for Laevinus. “You remember Quintus?”
“The littlest, yes.” Vannus’ face fell. “What’s happened?” he said again, and the reply was quiet, and explained everything about the subdued expression on a man of such a character.
“We found him dead in his home last night.”
“Mithras and Mars.”
“And you heard him,” Laevinus added: “a new equestrian family, a veteran’s brother – this needs to be cleared up fast.”
“I’ll get him,” Vannus muttered, and left his porridge on the table as he crossed to Celatus’ room, briskly knocked, and slipped inside, shutting the door behind him. In the semi-darkness of the room, lit up only by strips of morning light from the high, narrow windows onto the street, he could see Celatus was already up and silently dressing, slinging his toga around his shoulder. Vannus was unperturbed.
“You heard all that, I suppose?” he said, in a low voice through which his words would not be distinguishable from the other room.
“What’s his name?” Celatus returned, matching his tone.
“Publius Sempronius Artabanos,” Vannus answered. “His family is Cappadocian, I’ve known him my entire career.”
“I don’t see that there’s anything to worry about –” Celatus started, but Vannus cut him off.
“My entire career, Celatus,” he said, and met his eye with a significant glance from under his grave brow. “I know how he sounds screaming for Jupiter under my knife, and he knows how I look being ordered out of the camp. I know how he laughs. I know the feeling of his staff on my back.”
“You respect him,” Celatus countered. “I could hear that much, at least.”
“He’s my centurion, for Mars’ sake,” Vannus hissed, “of course I respect him! He’s a good soldier, a loyal comrade, a friend. But he’s still my superior. He could ruin me.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Celatus murmured. Vannus let out a long, steady breath through his nose, and in a moment, he’d stepped up to Celatus, kissed him on the jaw, and retreated, slipping back out of the room and into the airier light of the rest of their home.
“He’ll be out in a moment,” he announced, straightening his shoulders, and crossed the room to his breakfast, settling in a chair at the table under the windows. “Have a seat, both of you. He shouldn’t be long, but I can never make promises, where he’s concerned.”
He needn’t have warned them. An instant after Sempronius Artabanos and Laevinus had settled – the centurio across from Vannus and the vigil behind him on the couch – Celatus appeared from his room, immaculate but for his naked feet. Without preamble, he approached Sempronius and held out his hand, his bearing reeking of patrician composure.
“Sempronius Artabanos,” he said, and the soldier stood to grasp his hand.
“Cornelius Celatus, they tell me,” was the reply. “Salve.”
Celatus let go of his hand and dragged his comfortable chair around the face the table. Settling into it, he clasped his hands, fingertip to fingertip, and said: “Tell me everything.”
Sempronius’ face went grave and still. Vannus recognised the expression from battle.
“My family became eligible for equestrian status at the last census,” he explained, straightforward and simple, “and I retired from the army at the beginning of this year. I’ve been in Rome for less than a month: no doubt you understand how precarious our position is.” Celatus said nothing, which Sempronius – aptly – took for encouragement. “My brother had gained the same status as I have,” he went on. “He dealt in metalworks and mines, as far as I know, with interests across the empire, that he worked hard to attain. I’ve been staying with him since I retired: he isn’t married yet, but he has a large household, with our sister’s daughters, and if I can, I’ll find another wife for myself, soon, and we can all live together. Or at least… That had been our plan.”
“His death,” Celatus urged, in a monotone. “Get to his death.”
“Yes, of course.” Sempronius cleared his throat. “I left early yesterday morning – I always wake early, army habits, you know –” This he said with a fraction of a smile, like a wink, in Vannus’ direction. “I went to the baths to train and wash, and we were to meet each other again at the chariot races for Mars’ festival. I never saw him arrive, but I supposed he’d been waylaid by friends, or he hadn’t found me, I thought I had no reason to worry. I spent the day with some old comrades, they would tell you everything I have: we dined, we watched the races, we dined again. My old friend Didius Micipsa – you remember, Piso, you pulled that sling stone out of his leg – we all went back to his house on the Viminal for some wine and music… I went back to my brother’s long after dark. The slaves and our nieces were all in bed. I went through the house to try to find Quintus and ask what he did during the festival, but he – there was no response. I found him in his office. He’d been stabbed in the chest.”
“I’m very sorry,” Vannus murmured, and Sempronius nodded at him, graver than ever.
“No one heard anything?” Celatus pushed in.
“Not a thing,” said Sempronius.
“Including the slaves?”
“Was your brother ever alone for long hours?”
Sempronius nodded, almost guiltily. “He doesn’t like to be interrupted while he works,” he said. “Everyone in the house has orders not to disturb him when he’s in his office. I almost didn’t open the door to check, last night, but that there was no light on inside. I don’t know how long he’d been there, but it could have been days, and so long as he was in his office, no one would have questioned it. He was already cold and stiff by the time I found him.”
Celatus’ fingers tightened on each other, and he exchanged a moment’s tense glance with Vannus in which they both conveyed the calculation: Six hours, at least.
“Was the weapon with the body?” Celatus asked.
The white in his face deepened around his mouth.
“Did he have any obvious enemies?”
Sempronius shrugged at that.
“Not that I know of,” he said. “No one specific. But places in the equestrian class are rare, any number of his merchant rivals would have been aiming at the position themselves. But I can’t believe any of them would go so far as to kill him for it.”
“You’d be surprised,” Celatus muttered, and Sempronius leaned forward in his chair.
“I need to know who killed him, and why, as soon as possible,” he said, earnest and firm. “This scandal could uproot the whole family, and so soon after we’ve finally risen… It would be disastrous.”
“I’ll do what I can,” said Celatus. “Take me to the house. Is the body still there?”
“It’s being prepared for the funeral, yes.”
All of a sudden, Celatus was on his feet, and snatching up a pair of boots from under the table.
“Then we haven’t a moment to waste.”
Vannus spared a moment to mourn for his half-finished breakfast, and stood to follow.
Laevinus left Dido to sit at the front of the wagon, going back to the vigiles himself while the three other men loaded themselves into the back, Celatus and Vannus on one side, facing Sempronius Artabanos on the other. Without the distraction of conversation, Sempronius’ expression had gone stony, and he leaned his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands together as they set off. Vannus could not remember a time he’d seen so little light on such a face.
“Are you all right?” he murmured, over the noise of the streets, and received no response. He tried again. “Artabanos.”
He looked up with only his eyes, and smiled with only his mouth.
“We’ll find out what happened to your brother,” Vannus said. “I am… very sorry for the loss.”
Sempronius shrugged at that, a tiny gesture on such a broad frame. “Quintus and I were never very good friends,” he said. “But he was my brother. My little brother.”
Wordlessly, Vannus held out his hand between them, and just as silently, Sempronius grasped it, tight and solid.
“Be brave, soldier,” Sempronius muttered, almost to himself, and Vannus clapped their joined hands once before they let go.
There was no crowd of mourners outside the Sempronius household, which lay between rich buildings in the shadow of the Palatine; but there were threads of gossipers on the street, pretending not to linger as they whispered with their fellows. Vannus kept his back straight and his chin high as they passed from the carriage to the heavy front door, which was hauled open for them by a Gallic-looking slave, and through a gloomy corridor to the atrium, which shone mockingly bright with the morning sun. Quintus’ body had been laid on a low, stone bench, his listless feet greeting them from beyond the shallow pool as they entered: he had never been the strongest man, and in death, he looked ever more skinny and grey, contrasted starkly with his rich, clean toga. Celatus made a beeline for the body, heedless of the household members scattered under the balconies, and when he reached out to pluck at the dead man’s clothes, Vannus had to hold out his arm before Sempronius, whose hand had tightened on his staff.
“Let him do what he must,” Vannus said, in a steady voice, as he turned his head towards the centurion but did not look at him. “That staff is for my back, not his.”
Sempronius – though his momentum abated – did not relax his grip. Leaving him rooted to the spot at the corner of the little pool, Vannus half-marched, half-sidled up to Celatus’ shoulder, and spoke low into his ear.
“Make this quick,” he said. “This is too personal. I don’t trust him not to lash out at us in his grief.”
“It will be quick,” Celatus hummed back. “That’s what I’m more afraid of.” He straightened up from the body and turned to Sempronius. “I need to see where he was found.”
With a sharp nod, Sempronius advanced, and led them back, beyond painted busts with half-familiar faces, into a well-lit office, which overflowed with racks of scrolls, sheets of papyrus and parchment, and more wax tablets, ink, and styluses than Vannus had seen outside of the Cornelii’s library in Arretium. Quintus’ mining interests had clearly been extensive.
“Who takes care of all of this now he’s gone?” Vannus asked.
“Me, I suppose,” Sempronius shrugged. “His will only covers the gains he made, but he has no children, and as his brother…”
“It looks like a lot of work.”
Sempronius shrugged, a little hysterically. “I have no mind for these things,” he said. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Celatus’ expression was still and blank, just verging on a frown.
“Where was his body when you found it?” he said, and Sempronius pointed to the corner opposite the door, where a patch of ground under one of the racks of scrolls was a little clearer of papers than the rest of the room.
“He was sitting against the wall. There was a little blood on some of the scrolls…”
Celatus followed Sempronius’ finger and crouched down in the corner, eyes darting over everything: the wall, the floor, the rack against the perpendicular wall.
“Has anything been moved, to your knowledge?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Sempronius said, shaking his head. “Except that I cleared away some of the stained papyrus.”
“There’s no blood.” The remark left Celatus’ mouth with the same ease with which another man would comment on having run out of lentils. Again, Sempronius answered.
“His tunic was stained all down his front,” he said, “but there was nothing much to be cleaned up.”
“Just his tunic?”
“He wasn’t wearing anything else.”
Nodding, short and sharp, Celatus rose to his feet and span around, striding out of the room. “I have some enquiries to make,” he said as he went, with Vannus and Sempronius at his heels. “I should be in contact again by tomorrow morning. Vale, centurio.”
With which he left Sempronius at the back of the atrium, and swept past the body of Quintus Sempronius Artabanos as if it wasn’t there at all. Dido had only just entered the house, and Vannus gestured to her as he passed on Celatus’ heels.
“I have a bad feeling,” he said under his breath as they left the mourning house. Out on the street, Celatus turned to the pair and sighed, shoulders falling.
“He was professionally killed,” he said, as quietly as he could, in clear deference to the gossipers about them. “A thin, fine blade, long enough to pierce the heart, but not long enough to stab all the way through the back and leave a mess. Sempronius said he was wearing a tunic, so not during normal hours, not expecting a visitor. No sign of any kind of struggle in the room, the chair was only pushed back, not even toppled; my guess is, the assassin broke into the house early in the morning before the Equirria, surprised Quintus in his office, muffled his voice, stabbed him, and left him to die. It wouldn’t have taken long.”
“Hera above,” Dido muttered.
“Quintus clearly didn’t have the strength to fight off an attack, certainly not one as sudden as this,” Celatus went on. “They could have been back out of the house the way they came well before anyone would have had a chance to raise the alarm.
“And the motivation?” said Dido.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Celatus returned, causing her to scowl. He deferred almost instantly. “Equestrian status,” he explained. “Without Quintus’ ability in the market, his income will steadily dwindle. Even if Publius had the same mind, he would find it difficult to keep the finances in order, but he’s a soldier, not used to wealth or numbers or juggling investments. I give it six months at most for the family’s wealth to drop back below the threshold; by the next census, they’ll be plebeians again.”
“Opening up two new spaces for someone else to worm their way into status and influence,” Dido finished for him. Vannus picked up the last of the thread.
“Gods above and below.”
The little group shared a subdued breath as the implications settled in.
“I have contacts,” said Celatus. “Ways of discovering who it was that murdered Quintus, and who, no doubt, paid them to do it. It should not take long. These are professionals we’re dealing with, not frightened little people with overflowing passions. They won’t even be trying to hide.”
“But it will be difficult to get a conviction,” said Dido, with the weary resignation of long experience. “They’ll need a very good lawyer if they want justice with so little proof.”
“I’ll give them Sollemnis’ details,” Celatus grumbled. “He knows the best of everyone in the city, and it will give him an extra matter to bother with, at least.”
By then, Vannus had crossed his arms, and sunk his head into his hand, rubbing at his brow.
“By Mithras,” he swore. “How could this happen?”
“With unfortunate ease,” Celatus replied, almost dispassionate; but Vannus felt too exhausted to lose his temper.
“Find out who did it,” was all he said. “Can I help?”
“No,” Celatus spat out. “That too will be unfortunately easy.”
“I’ll drive you back to your house,” said Dido to Vannus. “Valerius might be afraid of your bad reputation, but you’re both still our friends and allies, I won’t shy away from doing you favours. Cornelius?”
He shook his head. “I’m going to the subura first,” he said. “It’ll be tedious work, but my contacts are various, they’ll need –”
All of a sudden, he was cut off by a stone the size of Dido’s fist, which flew past his head as he ducked, and shattered against the wall behind him. It was followed by a shout from the crowd – “Fellator!” – and as Vannus turned, he saw the back of a tunic as it darted into a side street. He surged forward as if to follow; but Dido’s hand on his arm was fast and unrelenting.
“Let it go,” she muttered, and his reply came through gritted teeth.
It was Celatus who replied.
“You must,” was all he said, as he drew himself back up and brushed a bit of stone dust from his shoulder. “This isn’t your shame to bear.”
And before Vannus could argue, he’d spun on his heel and stalked away, to be quickly lost in the crowd and streets. Again, Vannus made to follow, but Dido’s hand on his arm held him back.
“Don’t,” she said, more softly than before. “I know it hurts, I know it feels like you’re abandoning him, but don’t. You’re on unstable ground as things stand.”
Vannus looked at her over his shoulder, and though he tried hard to convey how much he rebelled at such helplessness, her dark brown eyes returned his gaze with unflinching determination.
“Don’t,” she said again; and he was forced to acquiesce.
While Celatus was out finding the insufficient answer to the wrong question, Vannus sat in their rooms by his cold, half-eaten breakfast, and held his head in his hands. A young man was dead, his family in mourning, all for status, and there would be no satisfaction. Justice could not be served, and – even if it were – it would not solve the icy lump that sat in Vannus’ chest at the thought of the Sempronii’s needless grief. Crimes committed for human needs, murder done by passion, these things were not always easy to understand, but once solved, there was a certain wholeness to the knowledge that did good in the world, and to Vannus’ heart. Answers and explanations which, though they could not fix the problems of guilt and pain, could at least help to ease them in some small way.
The knowledge that Quintus Sempronius Artabanos had been swiftly and dispassionately done away with by someone who had never met him before that moment – for reasons to do not with his actions or his being, but merely greed for his class – eased nothing.
As still and grave as a painted statue, Vannus wondered: about Celatus and his work; about the Sempronii; about his own, old career, never quite dead no matter how far away it often seemed; about who had hurled that stone and insult. He wondered about Mercurialis, and why they had heard nothing from her since the dubious message at the Nonius house. He wondered whether, in all his listless cruelty, Celatus had figured out where the feted pearl had ended up. It seemed unlikely; but then, so did many things that Celatus made occur.
The nobilis himself returned at dusk, well after Vannus had eaten a late lunch and run an errand for one of Menna’s patients. He had once more retired to cradle his own skull, this time in his comfortable chair by the unlit hearth, when he heard footsteps on the stair – not rushed, not slow, just regular steps – preceding the appearance of Celatus, whose toga seemed to be on the verge of slipping from the curves of his shoulders. Vannus turned to look at him, but could not find the strength to stand.
With a shrug of each shoulder, Celatus left his toga in the middle of the floor, and sat across from his friend.
“As I thought,” he said, in a voice flat and unimpressed. “The killer was a man known as Androdamus. He may be hired from the right taverns near the walls on the Esquiline.”
“And who hired him?” Vannus asked, dreading the answer. Celatus’ expression darkened.
“A woman with pale skin and dark hair,” he said. “Wearing a toga. I think we can surmise. Finding out who hired her would be practically impossible, but I suppose the next census will be revealing.”
Vannus closed his eyes, and let out a long and heavy breath.
“Did you tell Artabanos?” he asked, and Celatus shook his head. “Then I’ll do it. Tomorrow morning.”
“Good luck.” Celatus’ voice was hoarse. Then he sat back in his chair, and slipped something from where it had been tucked into his belt. “Androdamus gave me this. A message from his employer, should I come asking questions.”
Vannus did not, by any means, want to read it. Nevertheless, he leaned out over the space between them, and took from Celatus’ fingers another tightly-rolled sheet of lead, which he unfolded all too easily. He did not want to know what it said, did not want to read any more words from Mercurialis; but then, people rarely wanted the things which would hurt them, with or without their knowledge of them. The curse tablet had another short message inscribed in it, in neat, Latin letters; having read it, Vannus merely handed back the heavy scroll and released a measured breath.
“I can’t make head or tail of it,” said Celatus. “Do you know what it means?”
Swallowing, Vannus nodded.
“Old soldier’s tale,” he explained, weary and solemn. “Some centurions, you know, they get a nickname: brave, or snotty, or short, or ‘keep marching’. That’s one of them: ‘bring me another’. The centurion who beats his legionaries so hard he breaks his staff, and just shouts, ‘bring me another’. And another. And another. We’ve all had leaders like that.”
Celatus had gone curiously still.
“And was Artabanos – a leader like that?” he asked, almost delicately. Vannus shrugged.
“No,” he said. “The man he replaced was.”
“But you were never…”
A mirthless chuckle escaped Vannus’ throat.
“You would have seen the scars by now if I had,” he said. “But I’ve treated them on others before. No soldier appreciates such a pointless approach to discipline.”
Celatus looked down at the message in his hands.
“Then I wonder why…”
“Isn’t it obvious?” said Vannus, catching his gaze. “She’s calling for another. She’s beating us, Celatus. Thoroughly, and without mercy.”
“We weren’t exactly given time to stop Quintus’ murder,” Celatus retorted. “And the killer has been found. We saved those children.”
Vannus only snorted at that.
“Very nearly too late, of course,” he said. “And Quintus is still dead, and his killer will no doubt go free. That’s life in Rome, I suppose. What use have we been there?”
“She won’t win,” Celatus insisted. “I will defeat her.”
“How?” Vannus snapped. “Short of letting me strangle her outright.”
“I have something she doesn’t” said Celatus. “Something she can’t beat.”
“‘Something she can’t beat’?” Vannus repeated, unimpressed. “Is this really such a game to you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Celatus said, with a roll of his eyes. “We’ve had this argument before, you know where it leads.”
“We’ve had this argument before, yes,” Vannus nodded, “because you never quite seem able to change your ways when it comes to this woman.”
“I have changed them.”
“Have you?” Vannus crossed his arms over his chest. “How?”
For a moment, Celatus merely sat and glared at him, lips tight and curled in pique. Then he crossed his legs, movements abrupt, pulled off his left boot, and, with a small, sudden movement, wrenched the heel away from the sole, exposing the nails. Then he tipped the shoe upside-down over his palm, and held his hand out to Vannus as if feeding a donkey.
“There,” he proclaimed, short and low. “Are you happy now?”
In the palm of his hand sat a round, white pearl, shimmering with its own rainbows in the feeble light of their rooms, almost – but not quite – a perfect sphere. Dread, cold and slick, dripped down Vannus’ throat and settled in his chest. He felt his expression fall.
“Where did you get this.”
“I started looking for it when we returned from Arretium,” Celatus said, perfunctory and remote. “As soon as you’d begun to recover. I knew it would become useful to me if I could find it, if Mercurialis tried to rope us into another contest.”
“I had no idea –”
“I don’t go everywhere with you at my heels.”
Vannus’ jaw was starting to go tight.
“And you’ve kept it,” he said. “Why?”
Celatus stared at him, uncomprehending.
“This is one of the rarest and most valuable gems in the empire,” he said, very precise, as if explaining something to a child. “It’s not exactly a first action advantage. I have to save this, until it’s the only thing left to use. Better that she not have it at all than that I waste it on something I can solve by myself.”
“You’ve kept this,” Vannus said again. Celatus frowned, as if about to accuse him of not listening, but the expression did nothing to deter him. “A man is dead, people are suffering, when you could have put her off just with this?”
“Do you really think this will stop her doing the same work she always has?” Celatus scoffed. “This is her profession, it’s what she does – she fixes other people’s problems.”
“And she’s deliberately fixing them in obscure and harmful ways just to taunt you,” Vannus continued for him, unwavering. “She comes in and out of our focus for a reason, she does these things, in this way, for a reason. And that reason is you.”
“Agreed,” Celatus nodded, and at last closed his hand over the innocent, incriminating pearl. “But her usual practices are still odious, her entire empire is odious. She needs to be eliminated completely, not merely beaten in one house or another.”
Vannus threw his hands in the air. “So eliminate her!”
“Not until I know the full extent of the game she’s playing!”
“So you’ll just allow people to die in the meantime?” Vannus cried. “You’ll allow families like Artabanos’ to grieve a loss that never had to happen?”
“Vannus, if I got distracted by every death in this city, I would never get a single thing done –”
“So you’ll accept the game,” Vannus sneered, launching himself out of his chair and beginning to pace, “I see. You’ll do what you must – do you think you’re play-fighting? Sitting in some room or up in the hills pushing toy cohorts around to be slaughtered? It doesn’t matter until it’s one of the few people you care about, but until then, you’ll let others die without a worry?”
Celatus’ mouth was tight again. “That isn’t how it is –”
“This is real, Celatus!” Vannus shouted, halted in his pacing to lean over Celatus. “Do you understand that? Can you not show even the smallest amount of compassion?”
“I can’t –”
“These are real lives, real people, and they’re not soldiers,” Vannus spat. “Drag me into whatever you want, drag Laevinus and Dido into it, but don’t you dare drag innocent people into your disgusting game.”
“I didn’t drag anyone in,” Celatus snarled, “Mercurialis did –”
“That’s no excuse for this kind of – of ignorance! This lack of care.” Vannus’ mouth was pursed over his teeth, disappointed and furious. “This isn’t you.”
Celatus only jeered.
“Oh, and you know me, do you?” he drawled. “Not just your catamite anymore, not just a war machine made for thinking, you’ve decided you know better?”
“That isn’t how I think.”
“But you profess to know how I do?” Celatus scoffed again, and sat back in his chair. “You know nothing. Don’t talk as if you’re above it all, Vannus, because you’re not. You and Laevinus, you and Dido, you and the rest of Rome – you think you’re immune to her strategies? Cornelius the heartless one, Cornelius the catamite, Cornelius the fucked one, the machine, the whore, can’t you see what she’s doing? What she’s done to Rome, to you?”
Vannus had no response to that. He stood in the centre of their shared home with his shoulder to Celatus and his arms crossed, and breathed, hard, as he tried to calm his pursed mouth, his stony cheeks, his glaring eyes, and his restless, violent feet.
“No,” he finally said, as simple as that. “No, I know who you are, Celatus, who you really are.”
“Do you?” Celatus sniped, with a drawling tone of disbelief, and Vannus turned to him at that, with a gaze so forthright that it could only silence Celatus’ irony.
“Yes,” he said. “You’re my friend. Carissimus meus. Nothing can change that.”
Celatus was unable to look away from his eyes.
“Nothing,” he repeated.
“And besides,” Vannus shrugged, turning back to the windows – “being this much of an annoying ass is more normal for you than she must realise.”
Tentative, and quite unsure, a smile crept into the corner of Celatus’ mouth, and when Vannus glanced back over at him, he returned the soldier’s scrutiny with honest, plain regard. At last – as he spoke again – submission was made to the justice of Vannus’ anger.
“If I worried myself sick,” he said, “about every person who was hurt in the course of my work – by my hand or anyone else’s – I would go mad. And so will you.”
Vannus sniffed, and looked at the windows again. “You’re too callous,” he muttered, and Celatus’ answering sigh was just audible in the wide, cluttered space.
“You know that isn’t the entire truth,” he replied, almost – though not quite – imploring. “You said it yourself: you know who I really am. Even with all of Mercurialis’ plotting. You know me.” He stopped, with an intake of breath just barely sharper than the norm, as if to say: Don’t you?
Vannus’ eyes fell shut, and his breath fell out of him, but when he opened his eyes again, they were clearer than ever, dark and bright and meeting Celatus’ own.
“Don’t ever forget yourself,” he said. “And don’t ever make me lose you.”
“Never,” Celatus returned, without hesitation, and it make Vannus smile, though not without a crease of pity at the corners of his eyes. After a moment, he looked away again, back at the windows, face reverting to solemnity.
“I’m going to the tavern down the road for something to eat,” he said, and listened as Celatus took a breath and shrugged off the uncomfortably personal conversation. “Will you come with me?”
“I’m not hungry,” Celatus answered. Vannus’ reply was immediate.
“I’m not asking you to eat.”
A moment passed in silence; then, wordlessly, Celatus tucked the pearl back into the heel of his boot and slipped it on; stood; and bent down to retrieve his toga. Vannus picked up his cloak from the couch and pinned it in place.
As they left the building, rough, surgeon’s fingers interlaced with the long hand of a detective, lyre-player, and amateur chemist, and would not let go until they stepped back off the street.
A common enough occurrence – a midnight quarrel on the street as someone emptied a chamber pot out the window onto a passing pedestrian’s head – made remarkable only by the word thrown down on them.
Vannus’ hands twisted into fists at his side, which took too much effort to unclench as they walked away, wiping stale piss from their brows. They marched home in silence, and though Vannus’ hands were tender as they washed Celatus’ hair and face, there was marble defiance in the way they flexed and clenched.
They left early again the next morning, in the hope of beating the gossiping crowds, and walked in the pre-dawn gloom to the Sempronius household, passing a forum eerie and empty at such an hour, with marble glowing ghostly in the dark. At the front of the house, they were met with half of a slave’s face peering wearily out from the window in the large front door.
“We’re here for Sempronius Artabanos,” said Celatus. “We have news about his brother’s killer.”
“Then you can tell it to me and be off,” said the woman, with a curled lip. Vannus sighed.
“I really think he’d rather hear from us himself –”
“I can assure you, he would not,” snapped the woman. “Not a man of your reputation, Cornelius.”
She pronounced his family name like something dirty and indiscreet, and understanding struck Vannus at once with an icy blow of horror like plunging into a river on a winter’s day.
“Nevertheless,” Celatus went on, as smooth as ever, “I feel that he will want the information I have to give.”
“Then you can give it,” the slave insisted, “to me.”
Celatus paused for the space of a breath, with a tight mouth and steely eyes. He gave the answer anyway.
“The assassin was a man called Androdamus. He may be found near the city wall on the Esquiline Hill. He was hired to free up another space in the eques. I don’t imagine a conviction will be easy.”
“And that’s all?”
Celatus’ chin remained as high as ever, his stance as smoothly superior.
“That is all.”
The woman nodded.
“Then you can fuck off now,” she said. “Do your family a favour and throw yourself down the Gemoniae.”
The window in the door was smacked shut on their cracked-open faces. Vannus’ hands were fists once more.
“Just walk away,” Celatus murmured.
“It will pass,” Vannus replied in an undertone as they turned back to the deserted street. “It has to pass.”
“Eventually,” Celatus replied, even quieter. The sun was still not visible as more than a faint, grey light in the eastern sky, just beginning to reach out and extinguish the starlight. Distantly, the faint patter of a solitary pair of running feet reached their ears.
“I should have seen this coming,” said Vannus. “I should have known Artabanos better.”
“It’s not your fault you had faith in your comrade,” Celatus arched down at him. “Foolish and optimistic faith, but nevertheless.”
“At least he’s retired,” Vannus spat out. “Won’t go spreading the news back through the whole legion.”
“I don’t know,” Celatus shrugged, “perhaps that would’ve been a good thing. It would surely boost your reputation for them to know that you’ve been fucking a Corn—”
“Don’t,” Vannus snapped, hackles rising. “Don’t say it like that, you know it isn’t like that.”
“Perhaps not, but –”
“But nothing.” Vannus’ knuckles were starting to ache from the strain of controlling his hands. “Even if that were the rumour that went around, I left that company in dishonour. They would find a way to twist it back against me.”
They walked in silence for a moment longer, and listened more to each other than to the gradual sounds of a waking city.
“In any case,” Celatus eventually said, “there’s another of Laevinus’ contacts that won’t be talking to us –”
He was cut off, as they rounded the street corner, by the flying form of a child sprinting towards them; the source of the running feet, Vannus realised too late. The child was perhaps eight years old, and collided into both of them, knocking them off-balance. Vannus caught the child, and in turn, Celatus caught Vannus, and the three of them righted themselves.
“Careful, boy,” said Vannus, with a strong attempt to keep the anxious ire out of his voice; but he was surprised out of his doctor’s calm by the child stepping back and widening his eyes.
“Caelius and Cornelius?” he said, panting hard, and the two men frowned, and caught each other’s eye.
“Yes,” said Celatus. “You have business with us?”
“It’s the old lady!” he cried. “On the Aventine, at your house – I was only passing, but there was a fire, a bad fire –”
Vannus’ heart plummeted.
“Hirtia,” he said, with a glance up at Celatus. “Not Hirtia, not her.”
“A fire?” Celatus repeated, focusing on the child.
“I think so, yes,” he replied between breaths. “They put it out, but the old lady was hurt – she said you were a doctor –”
“Thank you,” Vannus said to the child, already starting back out into the street. “Come on –”
Twitching, Vannus turned. Celatus stood still where they had been stopped, as unaffected as ever.
“You go,” Celatus repeated. “I have to tell Laevinus about Androdamus, then meet with my brother about the assassination – I don’t have time for a fire that’s already been put out.”
“At our home?” Vannus snapped. “Hirtia may be dying, Celatus –”
“Then you’ll be much more help than me,” was all the argument he received. “Go ahead – I’ll catch up with you when I can.”
Vannus was shaking his head, even as he backed down the street.
“We will have words,” he warned. “You – This is monstrous, even for you!”
And Vannus was gone, sprinting down the empty, crooked street towards the Aventine. When he was out of sight, Celatus looked down at the boy, who was still catching his breath.
“Run along, now,” he said. “Your task has been done.”
But the child was looking up at him, with the wide, dark eyes of an infant curiosity.
“You’re the detective man,” he said. “The one in all the paintings.”
Celatus pursed his lips. “You shouldn’t believe everything you see painted on walls.”
“My father says –”
“Ignore him,” Celatus said, overriding him. “Or better yet, consider what he’s saying, compare it to the observable facts, and come to your own conclusions.”
The boy was frowning.
“You don’t look very despicable,” he said.
“Well done,” Celatus drawled. “Now go home before you get trampled by a donkey.”
His dripping tone was enough to frighten the boy into fleeing, and he ran off the way Vannus had gone, though he turned a different corner. Secretly, Celatus hoped he had been paid well for his duty, however fatal it would prove to be. It was all right, however; at least that fate was not to befall the child.
Steady and composed, Celatus turned his feet towards the forum. There had been no smoke in the air when the strange boy came to them, not a single sound of alarm despite the lack of crowds to drown it out. More than it all, it had been a strange boy who brought the news, rather than one of Hirtia’s slaves, or any one of their half-familiar neighbours. There was no doubt in his mind about what it had to mean.
The climb up the Capitoline was desolate, and Celatus took it slowly; not out of fear, but for mere convenience. He already knew who would be waiting for him at the summit. What the Sempronius woman had said was to throw himself down the Gemonian Stairs. In reality, there was a more appropriate place for a man of such an ancient and noble family.
At the summit of the Tarpeian Rock, stood a deceptively small figure, with dark hair and bright eyes, and a toga that somehow suited her figure more than any established senator.
“There you are,” Mercurialis crooned. “I must say, I am quite pleased to finally meet you. Properly, that is.”
“The honour is mine,” Celatus stated, without any hint of honour, in return.
Mercurialis’ answering smile was sharp and bright even in the grey light of dawn.
“Odd words, coming from your mouth,” she said. “Haven’t you heard the rumours?”
“The ones you’ve been helping to spread?” Celatus returned, and still he was advancing, closing the distance between himself and Mercurialis, who stood near the edge of the cliff. She gave a sweeping bow at the accusation.
“I must say, you didn’t make it easy,” she said. “The two of you are very proud, I expected you to be hastily denying everything by now. Your stoicism has been admirable to watch, even if it was a hindrance.”
“Why do it, then?” said Celatus, and the question elicited a great slumping of Mercurialis’ shoulders, as she heaved a world-weary sigh.
“It keeps the boredom at bay,” she suggested. “That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? The work we do – such minds, constantly racing, constantly running themselves ragged –” Her expression scrunched up at that, and she nearly squeezed her head between her hands, as if fighting a terrible headache. She calmed herself with a very deliberate breath. “And for what?”
“A question for the philosophers,” Celatus shrugged, “not me.”
Mercurialis hummed narrow-eyed contemplation at that.
“You have been good at it, I will admit,” she said, suddenly smooth and casual again, as if they were talking about the weather or the price of meat. “Keeping me entertained. Our little – games.”
“Yes, games,” Celatus returned. He had reached her by now, and stood a foot away with his hands behind his back, facing the cliff, waiting for her move. “That’s what you call them, is it?”
She grinned at that.
“Don’t you?” she said. “When your little soldier’s not around. Isn’t that what you call them?”
Celatus did not answer. He resisted biting his own tongue. In the silence, Mercurialis’ head twisted almost imperceptibly – this way, and that – as if in an attempt to watch him from all angles. He would not be swayed by it.
“So what now?” he eventually said. “You’ve proved your point. You have the power to have anyone in your pocket. You could steal the entire Roman treasury, if you wanted, but you didn’t. Still, you sent Piso away and brought me here. Why?”
Her mouth spread out in a wide, tight-lipped smile, and she hummed a laugh as she finally began to move, pacing from side to side around him as she talked.
“It was a test, you see,” she said, conversational and light. “All this. I wanted to see for myself, find out just how good an adversary you were. You’ve been quite distracting, you know, in your efforts to help this little city – but it’s a distraction I didn’t really mind.”
“I suppose I should thank you for the compliment.”
“My pleasure.” She grinned wide for just a moment, then continued. “But I have a problem, now.”
“And what’s that?” Celatus asked, sounding bored, as he looked out over the city.
“Oh, my problem, my big, final problem,” Mercurialis mumbled to herself, with the tone of talking to a child. “We’ve hit an impasse. Which outweighs the other: entertainment, or efficiency?”
“You tell me,” Celatus said to the horizon. Behind him, Mercurialis laughed.
“You see, as much as I do love our games,” she said, “I have my own business interests to take care of. If you take those away, what do I have to support myself? But if I only had those, after all these months of sparring – oh, Pluto and Proserpina, what a dull world would I be returning to. So I decided: let’s make the decision. Let’s fight it out, once and for all, and discover which of us is pre-eminent.”
“Thank you for not consulting me about this decision of yours,” Celatus tutted; the fact that it made Mercurialis laugh sent ice down his spine.
“Now where would be the fun in that?” she breathed.
When Vannus careened round the corner and into the building at CCXXI, it was to find Hirtia humming to herself as she swept the dust from her rooms out into the courtyard. She looked up as Vannus stumbled, panting, to a halt before her, and her expression – a little startled, but generally content – caused Vannus’ heart to plummet.
“Salve, Vannus,” she said, all too calm. “You’ve been out early. What’s the matter?”
“A fire,” Vannus gulped out, trying to catch his breath. “The boy said there’d been a fire.”
“What, here?” Hirtia frowned, and shook her head. “No, nothing at all,” she said. “Calm as ever.”
It felt to Vannus as if he had no heart at all. The emptiness chilled him to the bone.
“By all the gods –”
He did not stay to hear her questions. The boy had not been sent from their home. Celatus had let him go, no doubt perfectly aware, somehow, that the message was faked, and there was only one adversary who could inspire such fascination in him.
Vannus turned his feet north, and ran.
“So,” Celatus arched down at Mercurialis as she at last returned to his front. “What now?”
She grinned at him, wide and savagely civil. “We’ve had our fun, haven’t we?” she said, as if they were sharing a childhood joke. “All this, it’s kept us very entertained. Yes?”
Celatus let one eyebrow rise in sarcastic judgement. “You could say that.”
“But you see, Amulius –” Celatus’ nose wrinkled at the use of his personal name – “these last few days, they haven’t been fun at all. In fact, they’ve been quite the opposite, to my disappointment. Do you know what they’ve been?”
“Pointless?” Celatus suggested, with the air of having his chin lifted, and being above it all. But even he could not resist the shudder in his chest when Mercurialis stepped close, and lowered her voice into something smooth, deep, and endlessly grave.
He glanced down at her, and tried not to let his apprehension show.
“I thought,” Mercurialis went on, still in that low, close tone, “that if I raised my game, so would you. But by Hades have you proved me wrong.”
“Have I?” Celatus countered, glaring down his nose at her. “The Nonius children are alive and well. Androdamus has been found out.”
Mercurialis head tilted at an unnerving angle on her neck.
“You must be joking.” She bared her teeth, and laughed just once, and tilted her head the other way, almost swaying with the movement. “You cannot possibly be so blind. Please, tell me you’re not that blind.”
Celatus had no patience for her slow taunts, and had snapped, “Blind about what?” before he could stop himself. In an instant, her eyes were closed and her mouth open on an exhale which might have been pleasure, or might have been pain: Celatus couldn’t tell. When she spoke again, she returned to her pacing, with an air of casual conversation.
“Have you heard?” she said, light and lilting. “Nonius Asprenas and his wife are on their way back from Sicily. Something to do with their children, he always was a family man, our Gaius. Of course, a province like that can’t be left unattended for long, so someone else was sent out in his place…” She stopped, and smirked askance at him. “I doubt he’ll be getting such an opportunity again.”
One edge of Celatus’ lip twitched.
“Senatorial rearrangements don’t interest me,” he said, but was overrun by Mercurialis’ smooth, self-satisfied voice as she paced around him.
“Well, we’ll see where the new governor goes from here,” she shrugged. “Though his coffers are a little emptier than they used to be, the senate has always appreciated a bit of austerity. And with two new positions just opened in the equestrian ranks, I don’t think our commerce will be so very adversely affected.”
“A man is dead for that,” Celatus said, watching her from the corner of his eye, and Mercurialis stopped at his shoulder and cocked her head up at him.
“Is that a problem?” she said. “I was only doing my job.”
“And again,” he drawled back, “the bureaucratic squabbles of status-hungry idiots don’t –”
“So you think you’re not a status-hungry idiot?” Mercurialis interrupted, making Celatus glare back.
She frowned, like a child pondering some difficult mathematics.
“Funny,” she said, almost to herself. “You’ve seemed more than a little bothered by that graffiti I’ve been putting up.” She looked up at Celatus from under her brow, almost mischievous. “Isn’t that just a matter of status?”
Celatus forced himself to roll his eyes. “Ah yes, your attempt to turn the city against me,” he said. “That has been a bit of a hassle. But I understand what you do, Cassius, and I promise you, it’s not so much of a challenge as you like to think.”
In one, serene movement, Mercurialis’ eyebrows drew up, and her eyes went wide. It was a consummate expression of disbelief, and it chilled Celatus to the bone.
“Oh, Amulius,” she purred, and Celatus’ jaw went tight: “you don’t know the half of it.”
“Why do you think your brother didn’t see Vespasian’s coup over the horizon?”
He refused to let his confusion show. His breathing was stiff.
“My brother’s seen the Flavians as potential rulers for years,” he started, but was swiftly cut off.
“Not in time to warn you away from the city again,” Mercurialis smiled. “No, I lent a little helping right hand here and there – a left hand, too, if I’m honest. Just to speed things along a bit.”
Celatus forced himself to carry on, undisturbed. “Imperial wranglings mean nothing to me,” he said, but Mercurialis’ smile only grew.
“You must be able to see by now that I can do what I like, to whomever I like. From the lowest slave to the emperor himself. They’re all the same to me; it helps when you know what it’s like, and oh, I know what it’s like, at every level. Secrets have never been secrets in this city, but you’d be impressed to know how many of them are mine. How many truths, and honours, and reputations are at my beck and call. After all,” she teased, as her grin went cooked – “who do you think lit that fire at your villa last year?”
Without any decision on his part, Celatus felt his head tilt down, and his mouth part in shock.
“I know accidents happen,” Mercurialis pouted, “but really, any slaves owned by the Cornelii ought to be much more careful than that.”
Mercurialis gave an enormous, over-exaggerated shrug, and stepped to one side.
“You should be thanking me, really,” she said, almost coy in her performance. “After all: it’s good luck to start a journey on the kalends.” Her glance at Celatus was direct, and indulgently triumphant. With a supreme effort, Celatus drew himself back up, and together.
“So you think you’ve won,” he said, more to the cliff’s edge than to her. “Every one of our contests has gone to you.”
She shrugged, arms wide, with the whole city behind her.
Celatus couldn’t stop the corner of his mouth from lifting. Without looking, he unclasped his hands from behind his back and held one out, opening his fingers to reveal a priceless little sphere of colour and light rolling in his palm.
“Then tell me what this is.”
There was a moment of fraught and heavy silence, where triumph seemed within reach; and then Mercurialis began to laugh. It started out as a chuckle, but slowly, she tilted back her head and laughed, full-bellied, in the pre-dawn light.
“You think,” she giggled, and paused to laugh again – “you think all this, can be solved with one little pearl?”
“Not just any pearl,” Celatus struck back, darting forward on one foot, “a particular pearl, this particular pearl. Our challenge, for all these months. Perhaps the little battles have fallen in your favour, but the war is mine. The game has gone to me.”
Without warning, Mercurialis burst forth, snarling and shouting and screwed to breaking point with rage. “WHAT – GAME?” she screamed, then with a breath, pulled herself back and stilled, staring up at him. Her cheeks were blank with offended pride. “What game?” she asked again, calmer than ever. “You – you’re not a game anymore. This, you think that undoes it all, all the disappointment you’ve been? I thought I’d found something, finally, something to keep all the tedious nothing at bay, but you’re not good enough for that, are you? You’re boring. You’re ordinary. You underestimate me. I gave you every chance to pull yourself ahead this time, to prove yourself the better, and you didn’t. You play by the rules, you care about people, about that awful, dull Briton of yours –”
Celatus spoke over her, not without a snarl. “Leave him out of this,” he tried to say, but Mercurialis was not heeding the interruption.
“I’ve won,” she said, final and sure. “This?” She nodded at the pearl in Celatus’ hand. “Is nothing. You, are nothing. I give it another week before Valerius and his little troops stop consulting you, and another week and a half beyond that before your private clients all dry out. I won. You lost. No gem can fix that.” And she stepped aside, with a sweep of her arm at the precipice behind her. “Only one thing left for a disgraced Cornelius to do.”
The suggestion was not a surprise.
“And if I don’t?” said Celatus, looking at Mercurialis, and not the cliff. “Will you push me?”
She smirked in response. “Where would be the victory then?” she said. “No, I have a much better incentive in mind.”
“Incentive for me to kill myself?” Celatus replied, with a raise of his eyebrow. He would not be cowed. “I’d love to hear it.”
Mercurialis laughed again; she was enjoying herself.
“You remember how I turned half the city against you in a matter of months,” she said. “Yes?”
His voice he made sound intentionally bored.
“How could I forget.”
“And you know how Titus Flavius will destroy Jerusalem in six months’ time?”
Celatus frowned. “What would that matter?”
“It matters quite a bit, I’d imagine,” Mercurialis frowned absently, “to the Jews whose most sacred temple will be ransacked and ruined.”
“Get to the point,” Celatus sighed.
Mercurialis grinned at him, unnervingly.
“And where did your precious soldier leave his legion, Celatus?” she said. “Was it Gaul? Or Egypt? Or Britannia perhaps – no, that’s where he left his murdered ancestors –”
“Get to the point.”
“Put it this way,” she went on, changing tack with disturbing speed: “When your boy’s cohort returns to Rome all bedecked with the spoils of Judaea – how do you think they’ll react when they hear their old surgeon who left the war in disgrace has been reduced to being fucked by a patrician for a living?”
Celatus’ eyes flashed, and turned on her, bright and piercing; their only effect was to make her smile grow wider.
“It doesn’t matter if it isn’t true,” she shrugged. “People will believe all sorts of things if you say it in the right tone. You never sucked that Briton’s cock, after all, but here we are.”
He tried so hard – so hard – not to react to that. Celatus strained with all his might, and all his mind, not to twitch at the memory of Vannus’ concerned protests, the mindless twitches in his legs, his helpless sounds of ecstasy; not to flinch at those memories being thrown back in his face as scandal, insult, absurdity; but Mercurialis froze, and her eyes went a little wide and dark, before her expression rounded out into one of open-mouthed, delighted realisation. ‘Omnino,’ Celatus thought, helplessly, ‘me, omnino necas.’
“Or did you?” Mercurialis breathed, holding back a cruel grin. “Did you suck his cock? Did he fuck your mouth?” She stepped closer, drew herself up to him, and though he blinked and flinched at her loathsome approach, he would not retreat. “Did you enjoy it?”
“You’re wrong,” Celatus tried to say, but his voice was shaking, and Mercurialis was laughing again.
“Oh, I am many things, Amulius,” she said, gliding back again, “but I am never, never wrong.”
All of a sudden, Mercurialis was composed again, pulled back into herself, pure and dignified; all Roman except for the uncanny sway in her neck.
“So,” she said. “I won. You fell for everything. You’re nothing now, you’re a high-born whore to a freedman’s son, and I’m done playing. There’s only one thing left for you to do.”
And she shifted her gaze from him to the edge of the cliff beyond them both, the Tarpeian Rock from which traitors and criminals had been flung to their deaths in the old days of the republic. A place of ignominy and ill-repute, of wretched honour and contempt. With her face still towards the cliff’s edge, Mercurialis’ eyes shifted back to her opponent.
“You’ve been shamed,” she said, low and sinister. “You’ve been ruined. No one would ever credit you with anything, now, not a nobilis who lets himself be fucked by that – commoner. You might as well jump.”
There was nowhere to get a horse this early in the morning, not without going off his intended course, and there was no force above or below the earth, let alone on it, that could make Vannus do that. And so he ran – sprinted, as fast as he could, as fast as his exhausted body would take him – back towards the Gemonian Stairs. He prayed as he went, half silent, half in panting breaths, begging for help, wishing he’d had time for sacrifice and offerings and hoping that his mere pleas would do.
‘Mercurius pedem velocem tribuas. Diana saevitiam canis tribuas. Juppiter vim, Mithras potestas, Apollo viam, tribuas. Eum servem. Servem. Servem.’
If Celatus was to meet Mercurialis, there was no direction their meeting could go that would not end in death. Mercurialis had already proved her fury – at the stolen pearl, at the constant hindrances, at the refusal to act by her rules – and she had proved her power; and Celatus was too aflame with pride and protectiveness towards his city, his people, his Vannus, to let her go, despite all his attempts to seem otherwise. Vannus knew that. Vannus knew him.
And so, Vannus ran.
Celatus felt himself frozen, as still as a bronze statue, with eyes only for the rock, until at least he wrenched them away and onto Mercurialis’ inscrutable expression.
“My honour,” he finally said, “is worth not so much as you seem to think. My family can disown me. Piso can desert me, and no connection with me will help you in six months’ time. This is not a victory for you.”
Celatus’ cheek twitched, curling his lip.
“Do you really think I’m going to do it?” he cried. “Just to save my honour, this is not the old republic anymore.”
Mercurialis only shrugged. “If you want more incentive,” she said, as if discussing a business deal, “you ought to know that I have certain people across the city who have their orders, should your body not be at the bottom of this cliff come morning.”
“Orders.” Celatus had been reduced to mere repetition. He felt sick.
“Put it this way,” she said, and turned to him with the implacable force of an oncoming flood. “Your friends will die if you don’t.”
Without his wanting to, Celatus’ breath stalled in his chest, and felt horror draw itself into the lines of his face. Cold, cold terror had slipped into his heart. He did not want to think – he could not think – not that, anything but that –
“Vannus,” he breathed, powerless to stop himself. Mercurialis lifted her brow and stepped towards him.
“Not just him,” she said. “Everyone.”
“Hirtia,” he said, fearful of the victorious confirmation in her eyes as she stepped ever closer.
“Everyone,” she repeated on a hiss, eyes wide and mouth open. “Your little friends with the vigiles, too. That doctor of his who did so much for you. Everyone. And don’t think you can defeat me with brute force, Celatus, that is not how this works. If I die, and you remain alive, no one can stop them from doing their jobs. Your friends will be dead within the hour – unless you jump.” She grinned up at Celatus, so close they were almost chest to chest, all schoolboy triumph in the face of his defeat. “So – age,” she added, with a nod behind her at the edge of the cliff, eyebrows comically raised as if in expectation of a child doing as it’s told. She stepped to one side, clearing his way. “Off you go.”
There was a rushing in Celatus’ ears. He was no longer looking at Mercurialis’ face, but stared past with blank eyes before a desperately-working mind. He had to waste time, that was all he knew – there had to be a solution, there had to, but he wouldn’t come to it with Mercurialis’ cruel teeth in his vision – but if he didn’t think of it soon –
Celatus moved forward on sluggish feet, and examined the edge of the Tarpeian Rock before him. Something, something, there had to be something –! He stepped towards it – once, twice more – and then, with the drop before him, and the forum and Rome spread out underneath him, to be surveyed, examined, mapped, dissected –
Something clicked. His eyes flashed up towards the paling horizon, and he felt a low, selfish chuckle grow within him, until it was tumbling from his mouth and Mercurialis was snarling behind him.
“What,” she snapped, “what is it, what have I missed?”
Celatus turned to face her over his shoulder – to see her wild lip curled back over bared teeth, her face like a Fury – and took two quick steps back to her side.
“If you die,” he repeated, “no one can stop them.” He felt the smile tug hard at one side of his mouth. “So you can stop them. If both of us live, you can still call them off.” He took a half a step sideways, angling himself away from her tight-lipped, half-entranced form. “I don’t have to die – so long as you live.”
Silence and stillness were the response. Then, after a long moment, Mercurialis drew a long, sudden breath in through her nose, closed her eyes, and stretched her neck in a luxurious, snake-like spiral, a reptilian twist, all composing relaxation, until her head was bent sideways on her neck and she was looking up at him with dark, blank eyes.
“Is that all?”
They would meet, in the empty, pre-dawn forum, the blank stone and well-worn marble, painted statues and walls their only companions. They would talk, of course: show off their minds, explain to each other in mutual, intellectual satisfaction how they had thwarted each other. But it would come to a head, in the end. They would grapple, and Vannus truly did not know who would come out the victor. He didn’t want to have to find out, either. They both had dramatic streaks, they would want to do it to prove a point – to each other, to Laevinus, to Vannus, to Rome – and almost without thinking, Vannus’ legs drew towards the looming swell of the Capitoline Hill. His breath seared loud and harsh in his ears, and his footsteps echoed pitifully through the empty forum as he crossed it, bending and craning his neck to try and see from every angle where the two might be found even as his destination grew closer. The Gemonian Stairs would be perfect: the place of execution, of ignominy, one or more bodies left open to the elements and to the prying eyes of Rome, the dishonour of either the unmanned detective or the criminal traitor put on display –
Booted feet skidded to a halt, and Vannus stopped, breathing hard, with the slope of the Capitoline on his left and the roof of an empty, pillared basilica down on his right. Realisation hit him like Jupiter’s lightning. Traitor; dishonour; shame; and the old-fashioned arrogance of the Cornelii. Mercurialis would use that to her advantage. She didn’t need to overcome Celatus hand-to-hand, only mind-to-mind, and she could tear his whole family’s honour apart by being all too certain in her post-mortem condemnation of her foe.
Vannus turned in place, to look back at where the Temple of Jupiter stood above him, an imposing shadow just beginning to lighten in the sunrise against the darkness of the western sky. His voice hissed out, unbidden, on his breath, as his chest went weak and tight all at once.
They wouldn’t be at the Gemonian Stairs. With a surge of movement, and a will strong enough to overcome any bodily weakness, Vannus turned, boots crunching in the dirt of the path. They would be at the temple, and the southern cliffs of the Capitoline.
They would be at the Tarpeian Rock.
Celatus would not let his face fall; he would not be deterred. One corner of Mercurialis’ mouth lifted.
“You think we can both live, and I won’t have your friends killed, and everything will be fine,” she said, then straightened her neck until it tilted back the other way, just enough to put him on edge. “And what, Amulius, do you think would ever induce me to call them back?”
Celatus tipped his head forward by a fraction, with his chin out, and narrowed eyes.
“Me,” he said, plain and low. A smile cracked open on Mercurialis’ mouth, splitting the corner of her lips to reveal a sharp tooth, as she righted her head.
“You?” she echoed, plainly indulging him, but Celatus leapt at the opportunity nonetheless.
“I’m you,” he said, “remember? That’s what you told Piso. That’s what you want, isn’t it?” His mouth twitched, a smile at the ideas unfolding in his mind and behind him on the cliff’s edge. “I don’t know whether to call it flattery or narcissism, but you want me to be with you. To be like you. To make the game interesting again.”
“But that’s just the problem,” Mercurialis returned, a fake simper, as her expression flattened again, and then creased towards darkness. “You aren’t like me. You’re boring. There’s no point in it, you’ve proved that.”
Celatus stepped closer, deliberately lowering his voice to say, “I could be.” He watched as Mercurialis’ head turned away so she could watch him from the corner of her eye, like one might a dog or lion of which they were wary. She was intrigued, he could tell: her expected victory was still a loss, and here he stood, handing her the triumph she had wanted all along. “I could be whatever you wanted of me, you know I could. I’m too smart to let the opportunity pass. And wouldn’t it be fun?” The sneer in his mouth was not entirely mocking, and he knew, he knew, in the dark of his dreams, that there was still a kernel of truth in the words. “I’d think for you, I’d plan with you, we’d guide each other to ever higher grounds of power. You and I, destroyers of men and cities, not with swords, or war machines, but only our wit to guide us. A game with the highest stakes, a gamble with the world. Touch a hair on Caelius Piso’s head and it will never be, but let him go – call off your people and leave all of them out of it, forever – and I could do it.”
He finished, Celatus timing himself, gripping his hands tight behind his back again, waiting for her response. There was a slyness to the tilt of her gaze – sideways, up at him – and, with the swiftness of winds, her hesitation dropped away into glee in her growing smile.
“I believe you would,” Mercurialis said, followed by a heavy breath of laughter in her throat. She stepped back and turning to appraise him anew. “You really would.” Smile turned to grin on her face, wide and sharp. “Or you’d make a very good game out of it. You’re not boring at all, are you?” She laughed again, a chuckle of revelation, triumphing at having been bested, and Celatus felt his heart swell in his chest as he turned to keep watching her. He could do it. Vannus would hate him, but at least he’d be alive to hate him, and that was worth more than everything else in Rome, in the whole empire, in the world. Heaven, earth, and the underworld would fold under the thought and touch of Cassius Mercurialis and Cornelius Celatus before he ever let Vannus die.
Mercurialis, assessing him, took another slow step back, the sole of her boot scraping against the dirt near the cliff’s edge. Celatus straightened his shoulders to draw himself up, and examined her in turn. Vannus would hate him, miss him, pray for him, curse him – but he would be alive to do it. Before him, Mercurialis nodded, and swallowed as she did, to deliberately sober her expression.
“Well done,” she said, as if congratulating him on a friendly wrestling match. “You’ve played the game. As long as I’m alive, you can save your friends. You’ve got a way out, you win.”
She slipped back another step, and the swelling of Celatus’ heart suddenly stopped, the knot in his mind not untied or unravelled, but sliced through with the blow of a sword. A pair of dark eyes looked up and caught his, and they shone from within with the light of the rising sun, and only then did Celatus see just how close she was to the edge of the cliff.
“Good luck with that.”
Then she took one more step, pushed herself backwards, and before Celatus could do anything more than open his eyes and gasp, Aulus Cassius Mercurialis disappeared over the edge of the rock.
Scrambling up the hill took all that was left in Vannus except for his soldier’s determination. His legs felt like water, and his knees wobbled, each muscle burning and trying to refuse his wishes. Every breath tore at his throat, his chest would not expand for air, and his vision nearly swam with sweat and fatigue. Below him, the beginnings of a crowd were trickling into the forum. The sun was rising, illuminating the temple, as Vannus staggered to a halt before it, arms flailing for balance. The platform of the hill spread out before him, overlooking the city as it began to wake.
It was empty.
Vannus tried to speak, but it came out only as a whisper, his voice exhausted in the rush and the climb. He stumbled forward, breathing hard, and looked all about him, turned this way and that, let his eyes dart to try to take in every part of the deserted clifftop at once. He took a breath, and forced his throat to obey.
His voice croaked, but rang out loud over the hill; the only response was his echo. Vannus turned back towards the cliff’s edge – the rock, the precipice, where the worst criminals were executed in the old days of the Republic, named after the first traitor to Rome – and tottered forwards.
He could not have stopped the name from escaping his lips even if he’d tried. The drop came closer, a line in his vision which blocked out everything else. As he reached the edge, he felt his legs draw him to a halt before he could fall, even as he dropped to his hands and knees and leaned ever further to see –
Two bodies, at the bottom of the Tarpeian cliff. One small, its toga embellished and neat, an arm bent too far out of shape to seem real, a leg crushed beneath the body, dark blood smeared across the rocks where it had rolled. The face was recognisable even from Vannus’ height: keen, dark eyes and white skin over a cruel, rictus grin. Another taller, skinnier, toga here tangled around where it lay on its side, and there spread out like incapable wings. Vannus saw a shock of dark, curly hair – trails of red against pale skin – dark, sticky liquid pooling beneath it – and he felt the air drain from his chest. There was no movement, and no sound. No breeze stirred the hilltop, and the sun had paused in its ascent. Under his palm there was something small, smooth, and round, and Vannus grasped it without thinking what it must be as he pushed himself back to his feet. Wearied legs stumbled back into life, and Vannus tripped to the side until the cliff was less sheer, and he could climb down, sliding against gravel and rock between the stiff, thorny arms of the plants that lived there, scrambling down a path that was barely a path at all. There were sounds dropping from his tongue as he breathed, fragments of a name he tried not to think.
More than halfway down, he collided with something, a body small and warm that moved at odds with his own. As he tried to regain his footing, two dusky arms rose and caught him, wrapped around his chest and pushed him back. He tried to fight them, but his limbs were too weak and his head too foggy to do more than struggle in vain.
“Don’t,” said a voice, tear-strained and delicate.
“Celatus –” he gasped in reply, but the arms only tightened.
“Don’t,” the voice repeated, “you don’t want to see. Stay here, please.”
“– Celatus –”
At last, his knees buckled, and without his consent, he was on the ground, being lowered on that precipitous slope by slender arms and a pleading voice. Mykale’s hands were on him then, one under his fist, and he opened his fingers to let the pearl drop into hers.
“I’m sorry, Piso,” she was saying, as her body pulled away and her hands stayed upon him, careful and certain. “I’m so, so sorry. They’ll take his body away, I’ve seen it, but you don’t want to. I feared this would happen. I’m so sorry, Piso, so, so sorry…”
He couldn’t get up. He wanted – needed – to run to Celatus’ side, to kneel by his body, to heal him and fix him as he so often had, to rouse him from slumber, to check his wounds and confirm – whatever he would have to confirm. But his body would not oblige. It had given way to an all-encompassing debilitation, worn out from running to the Aventine and back as though he were wearing Mercury’s slippers. He finally drew his eyes away from the turn of the cliff, around which he knew Celatus lay, and focused on the voice so close and grounding. He met Mykale’s dark eyes, and wet cheeks, and thought only of grey which would never flash silver again. There was no sound again, not even her voice, only the rushing of blood in his ears and breath in his lungs, a taunting rhythm of life, life, life, as Apollo’s light grew steadily brighter over the horizon, blazing truth down upon them. Vannus’ whole body shuddered with fatigue.
“I need to see him,” he murmured, voice thick over his heavy tongue, as he tried to push himself upright. Mykale shook her head and held him down.
“You can’t,” she said, almost choking on the words. “You mustn’t.”
“I’ve seen death,” Vannus replied, hollow and sure. “I have to see this.”
“No – Piso, please –”
Heedless – thoughtless – Vannus forced himself to his numb feet, coated in the dust of the cliff, and staggered down the last of the slope. His feet slid, and he stepped around the corner in time to see a straggling crowd as it formed around the two bodies at the foot of the rock. Two men in armour had abandoned doused torches at the edge of the crowd, and were lifting the bodies over their shoulders. Vigiles, a deep voice at the back of Vannus’ mind pointed out, but he was not listening, for between scarred, black arms, Celatus’ limbs were limp, his body empty and broken, and there was blood running in rivulets across his face and neck, sickeningly wet in his hair and clothes, both bright and dark. His eyes were open, but they did not glint in the gathering sunlight, but remained glassy and pale. Vannus wanted so badly to meet them one final time.
Then the two men marched away, all business, towards the nearest gutter or camp, taking the corpses out of the way of the populace and the new day.
Mykale stepped up behind Vannus, but did not touch him. He stood as still as marble, barely breathing, and watched until long after Celatus’ body was out of view. There were no tears in him to be spilled, no cries to be unleashed, no wailing to be heard, and his breath had finally calmed to regularity from his flight. He felt nothing: nothing but the drained sensation of having been suddenly hollowed out, with all his senses blunted and dull. His fingers hung heavy and useless at his sides, and though his legs trembled, they could not even collapse.
“Piso,” Mykale whispered, “go home.”
Vannus could not think of another course. He obeyed.
Vannus walked home in solitary silence as the business of the day in Rome began. He saw, and heard, and felt, but did not register the rising sun, the chatter of people and birds and dogs, and the streets under his feet. He felt numb – increasingly numb – until, by the time he reached the via Pistoris, he was almost faint with it. When Hirtia approached him in the courtyard, frowning and fretting with concern, he could do nothing but stare blankly at her, and notice as his shoulders drooped somehow further, his mouth remained slack and barely open, and the air continued to brush past his lips and tongue. He distantly thought how hurt she would be by the news, but could find nothing in him strong enough to tell her.
He managed it, in the end. Hirtia gasped, and took him up the stairs to the bewilderingly empty rooms at the front of the house. A few moments later, he stood alone by the hearth and heard Hirtia’s cries of grief from below.
Automatically, Vannus unlaced his boots, and slipped off his belt, then sank slowly into his chair. He looked at the empty space across from him, and thought nothing at all.
Sollemnis took over proceedings. Of course. A funeral was a family matter.
At the same time, Vannus felt torn. He wanted nothing, felt nothing; yet, simultaneously, there was a part of him that wanted everything. A part of him hated that he did not see the body, as Mykale retrieved it from exposure and prepared it for burial on the Cornelii’s behalf. It hated that he had no part in the plans, and that he had not yet had the energy to change out of the tunic he’d worn that day, or to leave the rooms at CCXXIB, let alone to carry his own weight all the way to the family home and view Celatus, with his feet pointed towards the door, ready for cremation. It hated that it was an unknown uncle who delivered the oration, and not him.
But he did go to the funeral. No concern for himself, only duty to the dead, gave him the strength to go to a bath and wash; to sit still and be shaved without splitting his neck open; to clean his boots and dress in fresh clothes. At Hirtia’s elbow, he straightened his shoulders and settled his hips, and marched out of the Aventine to join the procession at the forum, where he stared ahead and didn’t hear the eulogy or the rituals. With the wet eyes of Mykale urging him on, he swallowed hard and followed the line of priests, relatives, vigiles, old clients, and tenuous friends who pressed their solemn way beyond the walls of the city and out to the lavish Cornelius tomb.
Vannus ate the portion of the sacrifice allotted to him – just a morsel of beef – and watched the pyre burn.
Within a week, Vannus had moved out. The emptiness of the rooms at CCXXIB became stifling, their silence only emphasised by his own stillness and the racket that floated up from the street. In a panicked fit of energy, in the middle of the day, Vannus emptied all the drawers in his room and threw their contents into his trunk, clothes and bags and tools all mixed in with his old armour and weapons. He dragged the little chest of valuables from under his bed and shoved it after the rest. Then he stormed into the living room, snatched up books and scrolls and tablets he recognised as his, swept quill pens and little ink jars and a comb into a bag, plucked up a waterskin and a handful of cups and bowls. He shoved everything together into the one bag and trunk, took only a few knives and a loaf of bread from the kitchen, and stormed downstairs with all his belongings in his arms and his breath tearing at his throat. Hirtia met him at the bottom of the stairs, but he only gasped, “Nequeo – nequeo –” and hurried away. On the street, he’d turned two corners before he managed to gather himself and interrupt the path of a woman driving forward a mule-drawn cart full of lettuce, and convince her, with a handful of coins, to drop him off at the subura before she made her way to the forum to sell.
He slept that night in a windowless inn, and by mid-morning, had agreed on the rent for an attic room with a landlord whose insula squatted just outside the shadow of the city wall on the Viminal Hill: as far away as he could get from the Porta Capena, the Aventine, and the gate through which Amulius Cornelius Celatus’ funeral procession had walked. Only two days later, he was back at the via Pistoris, glaring with hollow eyes at a Sollemnis who sighed heavily and would not meet his gaze as he read out the part of Celatus’ will which left to Vannus the entire sum of his personal wealth in coins and jewels.
Vannus did not want the money; his pride and his grief could not accept it. Only at Sollemnis’ stiff-jawed insistence did he receive one small chest of coins, but still he refused the rest. It did not belong with someone who had so firmly failed to save the dead man’s life.
“Please visit him, Piso,” was the last thing Sollemnis said to Vannus’ departing shoulders. “He would want you to visit him. It’s your duty.”
Vannus’ only response was the dust stirred up by his heels as he marched away.
It was only in Menna’s arms, in the back room of Seia’s shop, that he, at last, wept.
The tomb was empty when Vannus arrived. He pressed at the heavy wooden door and surveyed the cleanliness inside: Sollemnis’ slaves had done a good job of cleaning up after the funeral.
It was like a small house, the Cornelius tomb, a larger home for the dead than some of the places in which Vannus had lived. It was certainly larger than the room he was renting. Though his mind had felt distant during the funeral, he found that his body still remembered the way, through rooms and corridors, to the place where Celatus’ urn had been interred. It was a beautiful thing – a small chest of fine marble, carved on three sides with figures of the seasons and his family in procession to a doorway under an arch. On the final side, Vannus knew, was carved a scene from his life: Celatus overseeing a murdered body, with the cowering culprit already in his hand, surrounded by little carved vigiles, the family of the victim, and the anonymous public. It had not been pointed out in the oration, but Vannus knew that he had been included: a short, plain man, clad in a tunic and soldier’s boots, with a sword at his hip and eyes only for Celatus. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, a part of him laughed in pleasure to have been carved standing between Celatus and the figures of Laevinus and Dido, as if to commiserate with them as well as translate and negotiate between the two parties, so often at odds.
None of it had been deliberate on the part of the sculptor or the Cornelii who had commissioned it; perhaps Minerva had had a hand in it.
Vannus swallowed in the close, dark room.
“I brought you som—” he tried to say, and cleared his throat when the words rasped into silence. “I brought you something,” he said again. “I know that, wherever you are, you probably don’t need these –”
His voice broke, and he stopped to collect himself, correct himself.
“What am I saying. I know where you are. And you don’t need these. But in case – just in case – …”
With a sharp sigh through his nose, Vannus reached into the bag at his hip and pulled out a pair of tin bowls the size of his palm, and one of his daggers. There was a hand’s-breadth of space between Celatus’ urn and the shelf above for him to place the offerings, and, unable to speak again so soon, Vannus did just that, and went on with his rites. Following the bowls and knife, he drew out a papyrus package of dried figs, lightly coated with honey, which he emptied into one of the bowls; and a small, stoppered bottle of wine which he poured into the other. With his finger, he caught the last drop which tried to escape when he was done, and sucked it from the skin before putting the bottle, cloth, and empty, oily papyrus back again. He took a breath which felt like a curse.
“I already had some of your beef, I know,” he said, as he picked out one of the figs from the bowl – “but we always did share these, anyway.”
He placed the fig on his tongue, and chewed, and swallowed, and took his hands away from the urn once and for all.
“As I said,” he muttered, “you probably don’t need them where you’re going, but my parents always made sure – anyway, you always forget to eat, and in case there’s some angry client or henchman you need to fend off without me… “
Vannus swallowed, hard.
“I’m going to marry Menna,” he said, very quietly, so that his voice did not have the chance to reach the far walls of the tomb and come back to him. “She’s good to me. She understands.”
He fell silent again. Without seeing it, he stared at the little figure of winter carved into the chest, and the door to which it gestured. He swallowed again, through the tightness in his throat.
“You were honourable,” he forced out. “No matter what graffiti, no matter what she said, what anyone ever says – you were a true Roman, with your virtues more intact than all the senate and generals combined, you were –” His breath ran out, and, after a moment, he gasped another in. “That’s all. No arguments.”
He sniffed, hard, an automatic response, as if he were trying to hold in something too big to contain. His feet had already carried him back a step, and half-turned him away from the casket, before he forced himself back to finally say what had been plaguing him, to finally push out, in a rushed and croaking tone –
“I just ask one thing, one more thing, carissime, for me, just for me, just –” He took a breath, with eyes only for carved figures and a closed door. “Stop – being dead. Come back to me now, and I’ll forgive you everything, and you can tell me what happened, on that cliff, what happened there, but please – it’s all I ask. Just stop it. Stop this.”
It was the futility of the task which finally brought him to tears. He ducked his head to hide them, even though the tomb was empty, and pressed the fingers of his left hand to his eyes as those of his right clenched hard against unstoppable tremors. But he was a soldier – his ancestors proud Britons, his parents freed, and he, a Roman, a soldier, an honourable man – and so, he would be strong. As he had to be.
He swallowed again, and sniffed, and flattened the line of his mouth as he raised his chin once more and straightened his back. Each shoulder twinged in its own kind of pain, and he nodded, once, sharp and strong, as if to say, My task is done.
Then Vannus turned on his heel, and left, to mourn in company, if not in peace.