Book title in original: Fabbri Robert. The Dreams of Morpheus

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Robert Fabbri

The Dreams of Morpheus

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OSTIA AND ROME, OCTOBER AD 34


With the sudden, harsh rasp of flint striking iron, a cascade of sparks penetrated the thick gloom, falling, like a shooting-star shower in minature, into a tinderbox. A quick series of soft exhalations to encourage the dry shreds of cloth and fine woodchippings to start smouldering were successful and soon a tiny flame illumined the scarred, ex-boxer’s face of Marcus Salvius Magnus.

One of his two companions, an ox-like man whose shaven head was sheened in sweat, reflecting the tinder’s weak glow, handed Magnus a small earthenware lamp.

Magnus held the oil-soaked wick to his flame and in an instant the lamp flickered alight but its radiance failed to reach the walls or the ceiling of the cavernous chamber filled with dark piles of imported goods, other than the corner in which they were standing. Exotic smells of eastern origin pervaded the warehouse’s dry, warm atmosphere. ‘Thanks, Sextus.’

Magnus listened for a few moments to the constant drone of shouts, laughter, orders, thumping and grinding that came from the harbour of the port of Ostia, just the other side of the building’s iron-reinforced wooden double-doors. Satisfied that their presence was undetected, he kept his voice low as he touched his flame to both of his companions’ lamps. ‘All right, lads, keep the lamps away from the main doors so the guards outside don’t see a flicker; keep very quiet and let’s find what we came for as quickly as possible. Cassandros, you take the left. I’ll do the centre and, Sextus, you search the right-hand side.’

As he stood facing Magnus, Sextus looked at his hands and attempted to work out which part of the warehouse he should be heading to; his forehead creased into a concentrated frown.

‘Over there, Sextus,’ Magnus hissed, pointing his lamp helpfully to his right as Cassandros moved off.

Sextus looked quizzically at his left hand and shook his head, clearly bewildered. ‘Right you are, Magnus.’

‘And don’t forget that the things we’re looking for should be wrapped in sackcloth and are thin, resinous-smelling tablets no more than a foot long and half that wide.’

‘Look for tablets in sackcloth; right you are, Magnus,’ Sextus rumbled, inwardly digesting his orders as he lumbered off into the gloom, his lamp throwing a Titanesque, flickering shadow of his bulk over the bare brick wall.

‘Keep your voice down.’ Magnus shook his head, wondering if his subordinate was up to the task, and decided that if the search was unsuccessful, Sextus’ area would be subjected to a rigorous second sweep. However, what Sextus lacked in brains was amply made up for in strength and loyalty, which made him a valuable member of the South Quirinal Crossroads Brotherhood of which Magnus was the patronus  – the leader.

Magnus began searching through sacks, relying more on his sense of smell than the lamp as the warehouse was evidently the property of a merchant who specialized in the import of Eastern spices, dried fruit, honey and, of course, the objective of their break-in. As he opened yet another sack, this one containing sweet-scented cinnamon bark, Magnus cursed the debt of honour that he owed to his patron, the senator Gaius Vespasius Pollo, which had obliged him to come down to the port of Ostia, the ravenous mouth of Rome. Through that mouth passed every commodity that could be bought anywhere in the world, be it silk from a land so distant that no one was certain of its name, or vividly coloured birds that could talk and seemed to live forever, or that which Magnus now sought: the resin of an Eastern flower that could unlock the realm of Morpheus.

Just why Senator Pollo wanted this substance that was only used in medicine – and then solely by the few who could afford exorbitant expense – and exactly why he preferred to have Magnus steal it rather than purchase it on the open market, Magnus neither knew nor cared. What mattered to him was to find it, then climb back up the rope that dangled from a hole in the corner of the ceiling to leave the vicinity as soon as possible before they attracted the attention of the guards outside or of the Ostia Vigiles. Like their counterparts in Rome, the ex-slaves who made up the Vigiles were not known for their kindness or courtesy to thieves.

Magnus rummaged through another sack, this one containing large nuts of a sort that he was unfamiliar with. He was beginning to wonder if the senator’s information was correct and the resin really was in this warehouse.

‘I’ve found the right sack, I think,’ Cassandros hissed from his side of the building. ‘It certainly smells right.’

Magnus made his way over as quickly as the gloom allowed, to find Cassandros examining a collection of two dozen or so dark resinous tablets; a smile cracked his full Greek-style beard which half concealed a vicious scar on his left cheek. He held out the prize as Magnus approached. ‘I reckon this must be it, brother.’

Magnus took the proffered bundle, smelt it and then pinched one of the tablets: it was hard and yet had some give in it. ‘I believe you’re right, brother.’

‘Are you going to try a bit to make sure?’

‘Bollocks I am; I ain’t ill so I ain’t about to take any medicine.’

‘I heard it was good fun, especially if you’re enjoying a firm hard body at the same time.’

Magnus grunted as he wrapped the tablets back in the sackcloth. ‘And I heard that it just took your mind off things whilst a doctor sawed your leg off. Anyway, not being Greek, I prefer my bodies soft and giving and I just happen to have one waiting for me back at our crossroads tavern. So, brothers, let’s get out of here as I’m keen to test just how soft and giving that body is.’

Magnus’ breath came in sharp gasps as he hauled himself up the last few feet of rope to scramble through the hole in the ceiling, into the attic; he felt the strong right hand of the brother waiting there clasp his wrist. ‘Thanks, Marius.’ He looked through the opening they had knocked in the wall and on into the gloom of the neighbouring attic. ‘Any sound from back there?’

‘Nothing to worry about, Magnus.’ Marius wiped the sweat from his brow with his left forearm; the stump at its end was bound with leather. ‘I went back and listened at the side door and whilst I was there it was checked – Vigiles, I assume – but as it was locked they moved on.’

Magnus felt the key hanging from his belt. ‘Servius did well to get the copy made.’ Magnus knew that was an understatement; exactly how Servius, his counsellor and second in command of the Brotherhood, had got a copy of the only key to the side door of the end warehouse in this terrace he did not know, but acquisition and information were his areas of expertise, honed by over forty years of life in Rome’s underworld. What Magnus did know was that it had not been cheap; however, Senator Pollo had financed the deal without seeming to care about the price, such was his desire for success and secrecy in this venture.

As Marius hauled Cassandros out of the hole, Magnus crawled into the next attic, holding the lamp up. Ahead, through the beams supporting the terracotta roof tiles, was another wall with a gap punched through it; a couple of rats scurried in the gloom. He looked back. ‘Hurry up, Sextus.’

‘Give us a hand, Marius,’ Sextus quipped as he struggled to squeeze his huge frame through the hole.

‘Very funny, brother. It’s still another couple of months to the Saturnalia and yet you’re already practising your joke.’

Sextus rumbled a deep laugh as he grabbed Marius’ hand and pulled himself clear of the hole.

‘Keep it down, lads,’ Magnus hissed. ‘Pull up the sack and then replace the floor. The senator was very particular about no one noticing there has been a break-in until the theft is discovered.’

Magnus took the sack, unfastened it from the end of the rope and gave it to Sextus, pointing to the heavy tool they had used to dislodge the bricks. ‘Bring the sledgehammer as well, Sextus.’

Marius and Cassandros replaced the two wooden boards that ran between the substantial ceiling beams, leaving them unnailed for fear of making unnecessary noise.

Satisfied that the boards had been relaid and their temporary removal would go unnoticed from the warehouse below, Magnus moved on. Keeping low, he scuttled across the second attic and through the wall, then passed across a third attic to the hole in the floor at the far corner through which they had accessed the space beneath the roof. The head of the military-issue scaling ladder, used for their ascent, rested against the wall just below floor level.

‘Down you go, brother,’ he whispered as Sextus joined him, sack and sledgehammer grasped in one massive hand.

With surprising agility, Sextus descended into the dark. Magnus sent the other two brothers down before placing the two loose floorboards on their sides at the edge of the hole. Feeling for the ladder with his foot, he descended a few rungs until his head was just below the level of the floor. He pulled the two floorboards over and shifted them until one fell neatly into place with the other on top of it. Pulling the second board across the remaining gap, he descended another rung, then reached up and, with his fingertips, adjusted the lie of the board until it clicked snugly into the hole.

‘Bring the ladder, brothers,’ Magnus ordered as he hit the ground. Padding over to the door, he pulled the key from his belt and slipped it into the lock, turning it with a metallic clunk that resounded off the walls with increasing volume but then was drowned by the door’s squeak as it swung open a fraction. Magnus grimaced, then peered out towards the harbour just twenty paces away to his right. Even though it was the sixth hour of the night the dockside still teamed with people, silhouetted in the light of hundreds of blazing torches as they unloaded scores of merchant ships that bobbed placidly at wooden jetties. Day and night had no meaning in Ostia. Rome’s appetite was insatiable and so, to prevent her from crying out with hunger, the business of landing her sustenance never paused, not even for a moment. He stuck his head round the door and looked left, up the street away from the harbour; no one was too close. Opposite was another door in a brick wall; the mirror image end of another terrace of warehouses. After a further quick glance right, he threw the door wide open. ‘Quick, lads, but don’t run, it’ll draw attention to us.’ He stood back so that his brothers could file through and then stepped out into the street, closing and locking the door behind him.

Walking swiftly, Magnus followed his companions left and then right into the street running behind the warehouses. Parallel with the harbour, it was lit only by the dim light oozing from open-fronted taverns and peopled by shadows. Drunken cries and raucous singing echoed up the high walls and the aroma of grilled meat mingled with those of sweat, urine and rotting refuse. Halfway to its end Magnus paused; a group of eight men in silhouette had turned into the street and were marching in two columns up the raised pavement towards him. ‘Shit! We can’t turn round. It would be too obvious. We brazen it out if we’re stopped, all right, lads?’

The brothers mumbled their agreement and followed their leader towards the representatives of the only real law enforcement in Ostia.

Magnus came to a set of three stones set in the road, placed there so that pedestrians could cross to the other side without soiling their feet, and positioned so that carts could still pass between them. ‘Marius and Cassandros, drop the ladder and stay on this side. Sextus, follow me.’ He crossed the street with Sextus carrying the sack as the Vigiles’ optio noticed the ladder discarded by Marius and Cassandros. ‘Don’t look back, Sextus.’ Magnus increased his pace as he heard the optio order his brothers across the street to halt and explain just why they had abandoned a perfectly good military scaling ladder at the sight of him and his men.

Magnus barged through a group of carousing sailors who thought better of taking exception to his manners at the sight of Sextus bearing down on them with a sledgehammer in his hand.

Then there came the sudden shout that he was dreading: ‘Halt!’

Magnus walked even faster.

‘You! Big man with the sack and your mate, halt!’

Magnus glanced round to see four of the Vigiles break into a run, heading towards him across the stepping stones, pulling their heavy cudgels from their belts whilst their comrades chased after Cassandros and Marius, who had used the distraction to hare off in the opposite direction. ‘Run!’ He sprinted away with Sextus in train, barrelling down the pavement regardless of other users who, in the main, ended up sprawled in the filth on the road.

Racing down the street, Magnus felt his chest tighten with every urgent pace and became horribly aware of his forty-four years. Very few of his brothers were under forty, most having served their twenty-five years under the Eagles or, as in Marius’ case, in the navy. He threw another look over his shoulder and saw that the much younger Vigiles were gaining. ‘We’ll have to turn and fight them, Sextus.’ He looked up and saw the end of the street. ‘You go left and then turn straight back at them; I’ll go right.’

Sextus nodded, frowning, looking at the sack in one hand and the sledgehammer in the other as he pounded along.

‘That way,’ Magnus shouted, pointing to the left. He hurtled right, round the corner, then immediately turned and, putting his shoulder down, ran back to it as two of the Vigiles charged round. With a crack of ribs and a stunted grunt, Magnus’ shoulder rammed into one of his pursuers’ chests, catapulting him back and felling him like a sacrificed beast. The other man sprinted on a few more paces before realising what had happened; he stopped and turned. But Magnus was ready for him and snatched at his right wrist as the Vigile raised his club. Holding it in an iron grasp, he forced it down and round. The Vigile’s breath puffed warm on Magnus’ face, wine and onion clinging to it, as the man was slowly forced down. His left hand lashed out at Magnus, cracking a tight-fisted punch into his cheekbone that caused light to flash across his eyes and his grip to loosen just enough for the Vigile to raise his arm a fraction. Realising that in a protracted trial of strength the younger man would get the better of him, Magnus jerked his knee up into his genitals and felt the satisfying squash of a testicle. The wind fled from his opponent as his eyes popped and his mouth opened in a silent scream; his legs buckled and he collapsed to the ground, clutching his groin. Allowing himself one stout kick at the man’s face as he passed, Magnus picked up his cudgel and ran on to where Sextus was grappling with his second assailant; the first lay staring sightlessly at the night sky, his mouth and nose pulverised by a huge blow from the sledgehammer.

Without pausing in his stride, Magnus slammed the heavy club over the back of Sextus’ opponent’s head and felt the skull crack; the man went limp in Sextus’ arms.

‘Time to go, Sextus, my lad,’ Magnus shouted as he picked up the sack and pelted towards the crowded port.

‘Magnus!’ Gaius Vespasius Pollo boomed, looking up from the breakfast he was obviously enjoying, next to the log fire crackling in the hearth of his atrium. He did not rise but indicated with a chubby, beringed hand that Magnus should take the chair opposite. ‘You were successful, I trust?’ He placed half a hard-boiled egg into his mouth and chewed vigorously, causing his jowls and chins to wobble.

Magnus handed his cloak to the young, blond doorkeeper and crossed the dimly lit atrium; the first signs of dawn could be seen in the courtyard garden through the window. ‘We were, senator.’ He sat, accepting a cup of warm, watered wine from another very attractive Germanic-looking slave boy.

‘You’ve not brought it with you, have you?’

‘Of course not, sir.’ Magnus took a slug of his drink. ‘I left it at the Brotherhood tavern. I stopped there before coming over to you for a bit of er … refreshment, if you take my meaning?’

Gaius chuckled and cast an admiring eye at the boy waiting on them. ‘I’m sure I do. How many tablets were there?’

‘A couple of dozen.’

‘More than expected; I assume you’ve kept a little something for yourself as commission?’

‘Just the one tablet.’

‘A fair price; but don’t let it be known.’ Gaius pulled a ringlet of carefully tonged dyed-black hair from in front of his eyes and fixed Magnus with a hard stare. ‘Were you seen?’

Magnus placed his cup down on the table between them. ‘Yes and no. We were challenged but only after we left the warehouse; all the lads got away – just. One lad was a bit too enthusiastic with a hammer and brought about an early demise to one of the Vigiles; but that might turn out to be a good thing.’

‘How so?’

‘Well, we left no sign of a break-in so the prefect of Ostia will only be concerned with who sent one of his ex-slave thugs to meet the Ferryman.’

‘Yes, but it would have been better to have had no fuss at all.’

‘Granted, but when the theft is noticed, if the owner reports it to the authorities, they’ll be too busy looking for a Vigiles murderer to care that much.’

Gaius raised a finely plucked eyebrow and slipped an olive between his moist lips. ‘I very much doubt that; not when they realise who the owner is.’

Magnus felt his insides lurch. ‘You said that it was no one important.’

‘Well, he’s not – in terms of Roman politics, that is. However, he does have some influential friends in the imperial household.’

‘Who is he?’

‘The Jewish Prince, Herod Agrippa.’

‘I heard that he’d fled Rome because of debt.’

‘He came back just recently; he managed to organise a very successful embassy of Parthian dissidents, which got him back in favour but not out of debt. The Emperor Tiberius rewarded him by making him tutor to his grandson, Tiberius Gemellus. So, in case the prefect takes a highly placed complaint of theft seriously and on the outside chance that you or one of your lads was recognised, I suggest you move the tablets out of your place to somewhere less obvious.’

Magnus downed the rest of his cup and held it out to be replenished. ‘Can’t you just dispose of them?’

‘I’m afraid not, Magnus; not yet. But I’ll send a message soon, telling you what I want done with them.’ Gaius heaved his massive bulk up from the chair, his tunic straining to contain copious folds of flesh, and stood whilst a third slave boy – equally as pretty – began draping his toga about him. ‘Now, I must greet the rest of my clients and then I’ve an appointment to see the Lady Antonia before I go to the Senate.’

‘She’s wanting a favour?’

‘No, I need her to return one. I’m hoping that as sister-in-law to Tiberius she can persuade him to grant my nephew, Vespasian, a travel permit to Egypt so that he can do some business there on his way back from Cyrenaica, once he’s finished his year as quaestor. As you know, senators are forbidden to enter that bounteous province without the Emperor’s permission and he doesn’t give that too easily.’

‘You’ll need to have done something very substantial for her to get that.’

Gaius smiled; his face aglow with firelight. ‘I already have, thanks to you, Magnus. What you stole was the very generous commission that Herod Agrippa received from the dissident Parthians for brokering their embassy. Antonia is going to sell it to recoup some of the considerable debt that he still owes her. You may find she’s in such a good mood that you’ll get a summons.’

‘Marcus Salvius Magnus, we have come to you because we hope that as the leader of the Crossroads Brotherhood in our quarter you can right the wrong that is being perpetrated on us.’ The speaker, Duilius, an older man in his fifties, whom Magnus knew to be conscientious with his monthly payments to the Brotherhood in return for their protection of his sandal and belt business near the Porta Collina, paused and spread his hands towards Magnus in supplication.

Magnus looked at the crowd of shopkeepers, traders, residents and businessmen before him, all from the South Quirinal. There were a lot of them, more than could fit into the room behind the tavern that he normally used for such meetings; hence they were grouped round the rough tables set outside at the apex of the acute junction between the Alta Semita and the Vicus Longus, both busy with morning trade. Such a large deputation could only mean one thing: it was a serious problem and he would have to solve it for them or lose considerable face, maybe even his position – or perhaps his life.

Magnus felt Servius shift his weight on the bench next to him.

‘Do you speak for everyone, Duilius?’ his counsellor asked, rubbing the loose wrinkled skin at his throat with claw-like hands.

‘I do.’

‘Then shall we three retire inside and discuss the matter in more comfort?’

‘No, Servius; all should witness the conversation.’

Magnus glanced at his counsellor; his rheumy eyes confirmed that this was indeed a serious problem that could not be ignored. He looked back at the delegation, steepled his hands and, leaning forward on the table, pressed them to his lips. ‘Speak, Duilius.’

‘For the last month or so we have been in receipt of short measures from the grain dole. We are entitled every market interval to one modius of grain per citizen, which normally fills a tub this big.’ He illustrated with his hands a tub about one foot across and not quite as tall. ‘However, recently the dole has often been one sextius short; not all the time, you understand, but a significant amount since we noticed and started checking.’

Magnus could see where this was going and he did not like it: he was headed for a clash with someone from the senatorial class. ‘You’re claiming that the aedile for this area is cheating you out of a sixteenth of your dole?’

‘Yes, Magnus. We think that he’s had some of the modius measures made smaller because the public slaves who distribute the grain still fill them all to the brim – and yet sometimes the measure is short. We know from acquaintances working in the granaries here in Rome and at Ostia that the stocks are dwindling and, until the first Egyptian grain fleet arrives next year, we are heading for a shortage, which always means higher prices. We believe that Publius Aufidius Brutus is skimming off the top of our dole and hording it for himself so as to sell it when the price inflates next year.’

Magnus nodded, able to see the logic in the aedile’s scheme; if it were true that Rome was heading for a shortage there would be fortunes to make in speculation.

‘Is this happening in other areas?’ Servius asked.

‘Does it matter? The fact is that it’s happening here, to us.’

Magnus turned to look at Servius. ‘Have any of the lads mentioned this to you?’

‘No, but if Brutus is clever, as I’m sure he is, then he wouldn’t try to cheat anyone that he knew was a member of the Brotherhood; he’ll make sure that the altered measures are only used at certain distribution points.’

Magnus grunted. ‘Well, he ain’t that clever; if he pisses off our people he pisses us off too.’

‘I imagine he will try to reach some sort of arrangement with us.’

Duilius cleared his throat. ‘That’s what we thought he would do, try to buy you off with a small percentage of the huge profit that he’s liable to make, then you and he will leave us to suffer.’

Magnus’ eyes hardened as he stood, almost pushing the bench over and Servius with it. ‘We take your money for two reasons, Duilius.’ He pointed to the altar of the Crossroads Lares embedded in the tavern’s walls; a flame burnt there constantly, tended by one of the brothers in turn. ‘First, to help service our sacred duty to the deities of this area, for the good of the whole community. Second, to protect you from outside interference. If you are being ripped off, then we will see justice done and not be bought off by the perpetrator, whomever it is – even if he comes from a family that has held the consulship. Do you understand me, Duilius? If I ever hear you questioning my honesty again things may not go so well for a few of your slaves and then how would your business be, if you take my meaning?’

Duilius held his hands up. ‘Forgive me, patronus; I didn’t mean to imply that you would take the bribe. I just meant that I thought you would be offered one.’

Magnus sat back down. ‘Very well.’ He looked round the crowd. ‘Is there anything else?’ There were negative murmurs and shakes of heads. ‘I’ll work out a way of having a private chat with Publius Aufidius Brutus and try to impress upon him the need to desist in this matter.’

‘We want more than that, Magnus,’ Duilius said. ‘We want him to return the grain he has already cheated us out of, or the cash equivalent.’

Knowing the greed of the senatorial classes in Rome – in fact, of all the classes in the city – Magnus felt that would be nigh on impossible; but to say so before he had even tried would be construed as weak. ‘Very well. I suggest you all go about your business now as you must have much to do.’ Magnus ran his fingers through his greying hair as the crowd dispersed and then turned to Servius. ‘Have Terentius come and see me at the eighth hour.’

Servius frowned. ‘What use is a whore-boy master in a business like this?’

‘It’s about the other current issue.’ Magnus got to his feet, shaking his head. ‘How do I put pressure on an aedile if he ignores my warning, as I suspect he will?’

‘Senator Pollo owes us for last night; perhaps he can exert some influence?’ Servius suggested, following Magnus back into the tavern.

‘I doubt it.’ Magnus headed for his table in the corner with a good view of the door; the few early morning drinkers made way for him and Servius. Cassandros stepped out from behind the amphorae-lined bar to place a full jug of wine and two cups on the table as they sat. ‘Senators don’t like to squeeze one another unless it’s at least partly for their own personal gain. Of course I’ll ask the senator but I guarantee he’ll say that he has no influence over Brutus, which means that he has nothing to gain by it.’

Servius pushed a full cup across the table. ‘Then let’s find a way to make Brutus’ humiliation of value to our tame senator. I believe his elder nephew, Sabinus, has managed to get himself elected as one of the aediles for next year.’

Magnus froze in the act of putting the cup to his mouth; he thought for a moment, then smiled and pointed his index finger at his counsellor. ‘Now that, my old friend, is deep thinking.’

Magnus heaved his way through the crowds in Caesar’s Forum with Marius and Sextus to either side of him; all three wore their plain white citizens’ togas. None of them spoke as they negotiated a passage through the milling citizenry listening to a case in an open-air law court, or petitioning the Urban Prefect or one of the lesser magistrates who carried out the city’s public business every day under the great equestrian statue of the former dictator that dominated his forum.

As they approached the magistrates presiding beneath the Divine Julius, Magnus glimpsed a young man in a senatorial toga, seated at a desk; his almost black hair was oiled and combed forward from the back of his head as if covering premature balding. Magnus stopped to look more closely. ‘There’s our boy, lads.’

‘He looks very pleased with himself,’ Marius commented as Brutus stood and grinned, grasping the forearm of an Easterner in a white headdress, and slapping his shoulder before taking a scroll from him.

‘Business always brings a smile to my  face, brother.’ Magnus moved forward as the Urban Prefect joined Brutus and his Eastern associate, dispensing back slaps and toothy smiles all round.

‘They must be doing a lot of business to be that happy,’ Sextus observed in his slow manner.

Magnus waited until the Easterner had moved off and Brutus had sat down, unrolling the scroll, before walking up to him. ‘Aedile?’

Brutus looked up from the scroll. ‘Mmm. Oh, it’s you; Magnus, isn’t it?’

‘You know perfectly well that’s my name, aedile.’

‘I don’t like your tone.’

‘I’m not asking you to like it; I’m asking you to listen to what I have to say.’

Brutus sighed. ‘You have a right to approach your magistrate; I’m listening.’

‘The people of my area believe they are being given short measures at the grain dole.’

‘Do they now?’ Brutus wrinkled his nose. ‘And what makes them believe  that?’

‘They’ve checked what they receive against what they know to be the correct measurement and they want me to ask you to look into it.’

‘I’ve heard from my sources that a nasty little specimen by the name of Duilius is stirring people up; no doubt it was he who asked you to come here. Well, you’ve asked me and I can assure you that they are wrong.’ Brutus leant closer to Magnus. ‘Perhaps, for a small consideration


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every month to your Brotherhood’s coffers, you could reassure Duilius and his friends for me?’

‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible, aedile; that is exactly what my people expect to happen. And it’s out of consideration for your well-being that I would ask you again to look into the matter.’

‘Are you threatening me, Magnus?’

‘Not at all, aedile; it’s just that I wouldn’t like to be responsible for your safety walking in an area where the people may have an unfounded grudge against you.’

Brutus scoffed. ‘The people know their place; they would never dare lay hands on an elected magistrate.’

‘So that’s a refusal then?’

‘There is nothing for me to refuse; the measures all conform to imperial standards and they all have the imperial stamp on them to prove that.’

Magnus held the aedile’s look for a good few moments; neither blinked. ‘Thank you for your time, aedile.’

Brutus sniffed and returned to reading his scroll.

‘What will you do now, Magnus?’ Marius asked as they negotiated a path towards the Senate House in the Forum Romanum.

‘Tempt a senator into doing what we want by dangling the chance of patronage in front of him.’

The steps to the Senate House were relatively deserted compared to the bustle of Caesar’s Forum behind it. Magnus glanced around at the few senators either on their way in or out of the ancient heart of government of the Roman world. The doors were open so that the Conscript Fathers could be seen at their deliberations by the populace; it was barely an eighth full. ‘We’ll have to wait, lads; he’ll be out soon.’

‘Magnus, I could no more ask that of the Urban Prefect,’ Gaius confided, ‘than invite him for a cosy dinner for two and some fun afterwards with my Germanic boys; it would be presumptuous.’

Magnus walked alongside his patron as Sextus and Marius cleared the way for them. ‘I understand that, sir; but if it were to come to his attention that this problem is potentially the cause of serious unrest that could result in him appearing ineffective to the Emperor, then perhaps he would consent to your suggestion in the Senate to order an examination of every modius measure used in the grain dole.’

‘Even so, my friend, what would there be in it for me in having Cossus Cornelius Lentulus expose Brutus, other than earning Brutus’ and his family’s enmity?’

‘If every measure in Rome is checked and not just the Quirinal, then Brutus will have no cause to suspect that your recommendation was targeting him.’

‘But I’ll have made myself conspicuous for no personal gain. They’re a consular family, you know.’

‘If the Urban Prefect uncovers a scam that’s been defrauding a section of the population from their rightful privilege, then the popularity he would gain could reflect well on the Emperor who had appointed him. I’m sure that Tiberius likes to have the people well looked after; and, since he now spends all his time on Capraea, he’ll be very pleased with Lentulus for doing such a good job in his absence. That would ensure Lentulus a long tenure of his very lucrative position; he’d be in your debt. Now, I believe that Sabinus is one of the aediles elected for next year …’ Magnus let his voice trail off.

Gaius licked his already moist lips as he made the connection. ‘Whose duties are allocated by the Urban Prefect. Lentulus would be particularly well disposed to my family if I had helped him to uncover such a wicked fraud on his beloved populace.’

Magnus nodded, his face composed into the most solemn and understanding of expressions. ‘Indeed, senator; the people whom he lives to serve deprived of the bread of life in such a callous manner, and thanks to your help he could right that wrong. He’ll look at you with tears of gratitude welling up in his eyes.’

‘I’m sure in that condition he would be willing to grant me the smallest of requests and give Sabinus the most prestigious of all the aedile posts; working with the prefect of the Grain Supply would really bring public attention to him and the whole family.’

‘I think it would be the least that Lentulus could do. I believe you would find your credit with him wouldn’t be exhausted for some time and that would far outweigh any enmity from a humiliated aedile, even if he does come from a consular family.’

Gaius slipped a pudgy arm round Magnus’ shoulders. ‘And I believe you may be right, my friend. But tell me, how will you make this issue a potential cause for unrest in order for Lentulus to take it seriously? Riots on the Quirinal might bring a heavyhanded response from the prefect and his Urban Cohorts.’

‘My thoughts entirely.’

‘So?’

‘Well, it’s occurred to me that on the Ides of October, in two days’ time, an official public brawl is scheduled. It would be a shame if everything started to get out of hand as the residents of the Suburra fight the residents of the Via Sacra for possession of the severed head of the October Horse.’

‘You asked to see me, Marcus Salvius Magnus.’

The soft voice just cut through the background chatter in the tavern; Magnus disengaged himself from the plump young whore sitting on his lap and looked up at his visitor and smiled. ‘Yes, Terentius.’ He removed the whore’s hand from under his tunic, adjusted his dress and sent her on her way with a satisfying slap on her buttocks before returning his attention to his visitor. ‘Sit down.’

As he sat, Terentius ran his hands down the back of his thighs to control his tunic which was unbelted, like a woman’s. He crossed his legs with studied elegance and with a modest smile accepted the cup of wine that Magnus proffered. ‘Thank you, Magnus.’

‘You’re looking good, Terentius.’

Terentius pulled back an errant lock of long, auburn hair, which had come loose from the ponytail into which it was tied, and secured it behind his ear. ‘Thank you, Magnus; I try my best.’

Magnus could see that he did. Although he was now in his forties, the whore-boy master certainly looked after his appearance: the pale skin over his high cheekbones remained smooth, his chin and neck were still taut, his lips full and subtly painted and his large eyes bright and interested, despite the life that he had led as first a whore and now a master. Very nice , was always Magnus’ immediate thought; closely followed by: if you like that sort of thing .

Magnus leant across the table. ‘How’s business?’

‘It’s very good.’ Terentius took a sip before adding, with a raised eyebrow, ‘But not good enough to justify an increase in what I pay to the Brotherhood.’

Magnus leant back, laughing, then reached across and laid a hand on Terentius’ arm. ‘Very good, I take your meaning, old friend. In lieu of that rise I need a favour.’

‘Anything for you, Magnus.’

‘Yeah, I’m sure. Well, I need something kept safe and secret for a few days.’

With a slight incline of the head, Terentius acquiesced.

‘Servius has it out the back; go and find him and he’ll have a couple of the lads escort you home.’

Terentius took another sip, placed his cup down and then stood. ‘I’ll hear from you shortly then?’

‘You will.’

Terentius smiled as he turned to go.

Magnus held up a hand. ‘Oh, one thing. Have you or your boys been having any trouble with short measures on the grain dole recently?’

‘No, Magnus.’

‘Any trouble with our local aedile?’

Terentius pouted and shook his head. ‘No, Magnus. I make sure that he’s very well disposed towards me; I give him free use of my establishment a couple of times a month.’

‘Do you now?’

‘Oh yes, it always pays to look after those who have power over you; you know that the offer’s always open to you too.’

As Terentius walked away, Magnus’ gaze lingered on him for just a moment too long for his own liking. He shook his head then looked around for the whore, feeling an urgent need to take her upstairs to the small room that he called home.

Thin, pale fingers of dawn poked through the window shutters as the constant clamour from the street below impinged once more on Magnus’ consciousness, hauling it from the realm of dreams.

He lay in the half-light, looking up at the roughly cut ceiling beams, listening to the whore’s soft breaths and running through in his mind what he needed to achieve in the next two days; the list was not long but it was tricky.

Once satisfied, he turned his attention to the business of his patron, Senator Pollo, pleased that he had helped to boost his patron’s standing with the most powerful woman in Rome, the Lady Antonia.

He was acquainted with Antonia, surprisingly given the vast social gulf between them, but unsurprisingly given her enjoyment for boxing and her penchant for a private round with the after-dinner-spectacle winner once her guests had departed. But that had been ten years or more ago when he had made his living that way after completing his time first in Rome’s legions, and then getting a lucky transfer to the Urban Cohorts which meant he only had to serve sixteen years and not the full twenty-five. Once he had fought his way to the position of patronus of his Brotherhood, using the substantial prize money that he had earned in his two years of gruelling, iron-fisted bouts, he had left the profession and the lady behind. Until, that was, their paths had crossed again after his patron, Senator Pollo, and his nephews, Sabinus and Vespasian, had risen in her favour. Now she summoned him as the fancy took her and because of her status he would be a fool to refuse; he grimaced to himself at the thought of a new summons as she was not getting any younger. He wondered how and to whom she would sell the tablets, and when Senator Pollo would require him to pick them up from Terentius and … At the thought of Terentius he turned the whore over, putting him to the back of his mind.

*

‘Magnus! you get prettier by the year.’

And you get slimmer by the year, Aetius.’ Magnus grasped his old comrade’s forearm and felt giving flesh where there once had been taut muscle. ‘Standards are really dropping in the Urban Cohorts if they allow figures like yours to parade under their banners.’

Aetius threw his bald head back and laughed, placing one hand on his ample belly. ‘I haven’t stood underneath a banner since they stopped making mail tunics that fitted me which, as quartermaster for the cohorts, was easy to organise.’ He swept his arm round his large, well-appointed office complete with mobile braziers, clerks and an oak desk of vulgar proportions. ‘When I re-enlisted for a further sixteen years I did so with a nice cosy and lucrative time in the stores in mind and none of that running up and down that the centurions seem so keen on.’

‘Quite right, old friend; all that running prevents a man from cultivating a decent paunch.’

Aetius gave Magnus a playful punch to the stomach. ‘Still firm; you must be doing a lot of running.’

‘Horizontally, Aetius, horizontally.’

‘I’m sure. But what can I do for you? I can’t recall being in your debt.’

‘You’re not; but how would you like me to be in yours?’

‘That, Magnus, would help me to sleep much easier at nights.’

Magnus pointed to his ear and indicated that Aetius should follow him outside away from eavesdroppers.

They walked out into the bright sunshine of an early autumnal day and crossed the courtyard of the Urban Cohorts’ newly constructed stores warehouse near the Tiber; the previous one having burnt down eight years before with, unfortunately, Aetius’ inventories and everything within. The fire had been a useful diversion for Magnus and his brothers who had business on the other side of the city and preferred to transact it without the interference of the Vigiles, whose main duty was firefighting. Convenient though it was for the Brotherhood it was a sad loss for the Urban Cohorts. However, having had plenty of warning of the blaze, in that it was Aetius himself who had set it at Magnus’ request, Magnus was very confident that not much of value had remained for the flames – apart from the precious inventories, that was.

They turned left out of the gate in order to avoid the reek of the tanneries along the riverbank; Sextus and Marius, who had been waiting outside, followed at a discreet distance.

As they entered the open space of the Forum Boarium in the shadow of the Circus Maximus, Magnus put an arm round his old comrade’s shoulders. ‘What’s the difference between a civil modius measure and a military one?’

‘Not much; both are bronze and both have the inscription acknowledging imperial regulation of weights and measures. The only difference would be that a military one has the legion, cohort and century to which it has been issued engraved upon it.’

‘But if it hasn’t been issued?’

‘Then it wouldn’t have a military engraving on it.’

‘That’s what I thought. I’ll take a dozen.’

‘A dozen? But these things are tightly regulated; they remain the property of the Emperor. They have to be signed in and out.’

‘I wasn’t for a moment thinking of having the Emperor’s. That could get us into serious trouble; I was planning to have yours.’

‘Mine?’

‘Yes, why not?’ Magnus’ grip tightened round Aetius’ shoulders. ‘I imagine quite a few were sadly destroyed in that fire all those years ago; I just want a dozen of them.’

‘I’ve only got half a dozen left.’

‘They’ll have to do then. How would you make them one sextius short?’

‘Put a false bottom in, of course.’

‘How long will that take?’

‘I’ve got a man who could do all six in a day, no questions asked.’

‘You sound confident.’

‘He’s done it before.’

Magnus stopped. ‘When?’

‘A couple of months ago.’

‘Who for?’

Aetius shrugged. ‘I don’t know; the deal was through a series of intermediaries. I only do business face to face with a very few trusted associates like yourself. There’s no way that I can find out who it was, Magnus, unless I jeopardise my anonymity and reputation for discretion.’

‘You don’t need to, my friend. Have the measures delivered tomorrow morning at the latest, but tell your man not to make too good a job of the false bottoms; I need them to be visible.’

‘They’re never exact.’

‘Good.’

Aetius rubbed his thumb against his fingers. ‘And what about, you know.’

Magnus slapped his back. ‘Aetius, I believe that your second sixteen years are up very soon and I don’t suppose they’ll have you back.’

‘No, I suspect you’re right.’

‘So you’ll be looking for a safe area from which you can operate discreetly and unmolested?’

Aetius grinned, displaying yellowing teeth. ‘Somewhere I can sleep easy at nights?’

‘My friend, everyone in the South Quirinal sleeps easy at night.’

It was almost the sixth hour of the day by the time that Magnus, Sextus and Marius reached the baths of Agrippa; but this was a perfect time to run into, as if by accident, the sort of people Magnus needed to see. For all those in the city who followed a regular work pattern, be it trade or political, the working day ran from the first hour to the eighth or ninth. After that there was time to relax before the main meal of the day towards the end of the afternoon. Consequently, after the eighth hour, the baths filled up with a different kind of clientele from those who frequented them earlier in the day. But it was the early arrivals that Magnus wanted to mingle with: the men who did not have a regular working pattern, men who did not do physical trade or politics but, rather, men who dealt in other commodities, the same commodities that Magnus dealt in – fear and protection. Men who could afford to while away the morning in the comforts of Rome’s public baths.

Having stripped and handed their clothes to one of the many slaves in the vestibule for safekeeping and received linen towels in return, Magnus led his brothers into the main hall of the baths where men exercised, relaxed, received massages, had their body hair removed and muscles massaged, or just strolled about chatting, scheming or gossiping.

‘Have a wander round and keep your eyes out for any members of the Suburra or Via Sacra Brotherhoods, lads,’ Magnus muttered as he looked around the throng. ‘No pointing, I just want to know who’s here and where they are.’

Magnus spread his towel on a leather upholstered couch and settled down to a shoulder massage from one of the many public slaves, while his brothers circulated through the high-domed hall that echoed back, with sharp clarity, the sound of hundreds of voices.

It was after too short a time of oiling, pummelling and kneading that Marius and Sextus returned.

‘Well?’ Magnus asked, dismissing the slave with a wave of his hand.

‘We saw some of those thieving bastards from the Central Suburra,’ Marius reported. ‘They’ve just come out of the fridigerium  and look to be on their way out. The scum from the eastern end of the Via Sacra are exercising over at the weight benches and-’

‘Is Dacien with them?’

‘Didn’t see him. But I did see Grumio with some of his lowlife from West Suburra heading towards the caldrium .’

‘Did you now.’ Magnus got to his feet, picked up the towel and stretched his shoulders with a couple of cracks. ‘Time for a sweat, I think, lads.’

Heat stung Magnus’ eyes as the heavy wooden door of the caldarium closed behind him; he looked around the dim interior, lit with ambient light from one small window in the wall opposite him, and saw a small group of naked men knotted round a shaven-headed, pot-bellied man of about his own age – in his early to mid-forties. Two slaves stood to either side of the group, fanning the hot air down on to them by vigorously twirling towels above their heads. All eyes in the group turned to Magnus and his two brothers as they approached. Neither party felt threatened as, by convention, there was a truce in all public baths – mainly because the only option in which a naked man could conceal a weapon was not that comfortable.

‘Grumio,’ Magnus said as he sat down on a stone bench, enjoying the warmth of it on his buttocks.

‘Magnus,’ Grumio replied, flashing gold teeth in an unconvincing smile.

A slave approached and began fanning Magnus and his brothers; the hot air beating down on them soon caused beads of sweat to prick out all over their bodies.

Magnus put his hands on his knees and lowered his head, ignoring his opposite number from the West Suburra.

Sextus grunted with pleasure with every down beat of the towel.

Marius closed his eyes and leant his head back against the wall, playing idly with the stump at the end of his left arm.

‘Word has it that you’ve got an issue with the aedile,’ Grumio said eventually. ‘I heard that you had a delegation.’

‘You heard right,’ Magnus replied without looking up.

‘Tricky situation.’

‘What’s it to you?’

‘Just making conversation.’

‘If it’s conversation that you want, then I heard that we’re heading for a grain shortage.’

‘Yes, I’ve heard that too from lads of mine in the granaries.’

‘And coincidentally the Via Sacra area is having the opposite problem to the Quirinal; they’ve got too much grain.’

‘I’d not heard that. What do you mean?’

‘Dacien at the east end of the Via Sacra and the aedile for the area have been registering false names on the dole list for the past few months.’

‘How do they do that? I’ve been trying for years.’

‘Don’t know; you’ll have to ask Dacien, who will probably deny it. But it’s a lot easier, I would assume, if you have an aedile on your side. Anyway, they have, and Dacien and the aedile are stockpiling the surplus to sell at a premium when the shortage hits in the spring before the first grain fleet arrives.’

Grumio hawked and spat. ‘They’ll make a fortune.’

‘They will; but do you want to hear the funny part?’

‘Go on.’

‘If the aedile were to be caught he’d be banished at the very least and his political career would be over. However, if Dacien were to be caught he would just slip away for a year or two and wait for all the fuss to die down.’

‘So Dacien has threatened to expose the aedile? Very sensible. What does he want?’

‘Well, quite rightly, he wants his people to be happy, so what would make them happier than this year to win the right to hang the head of the October Horse?’

‘They’ve got to fight us and the other Suburra Brotherhoods for that honour, and they hardly ever win because we outnumber them; how can the aedile fix that?’

Magnus got up and stretched. ‘As you know, I used to be in one of the Urban Cohorts and still maintain my contacts there. One of them, and I can’t say who for obvious reasons, has told me that the Via Sacra aedile has paid a substantial sum to a couple of the centurions to have their men come in on the side of the Via Sacra.’

Grumio was outraged. ‘They can’t do that. It’s always a fair fight.’

‘Of course, and they wouldn’t join in if it was just a fight; but if it had escalated into a riot?’

‘How are they going to do that?’

‘Turn it into a riot? My contact didn’t know, but I’m sure they’ll have thought of something. I’d be on your guard tomorrow if I were you, Grumio; and just remember that it was me that warned you.’

‘I will; but why did you?’

‘Let’s just say that I like to see fair play when it comes to the October Horse. It would bring bad luck to the whole city if the festival were to be meddled with.’ Magnus looked down at his brothers. Time to cool off, lads. Let’s leave these good gentlemen to contemplate what the Ides of October holds for them.’ With a curt nod to Grumio, he headed for the door.

‘So who told you that the cohorts were going to side with the Via Sacra?’ Sextus asked as they left the baths.

Magnus grinned and slapped his large companion on his broad back. ‘I could tell you had a question forming, brother, you’ve been chewing your lip for the last hour and frowning more than usual. Tell him, Marius.’

‘No one, brother. Magnus made it up.’

Sextus’ frown became even more furrowed. ‘How do you think of such things?’

‘Because I have to, Sextus. But just because I made it up doesn’t mean that it won’t become true, or at least partially true. Marius, go and find our old friend, Centurion Nonus Manilus Rufinus, at the cohorts’ camp and tell him that I may have an interesting business proposition for him.’

‘So what’s in it for me?’ Centurion Nonus Manilus Rufinus asked, leaning forward over the table in the private room behind the tavern that Magnus used for business. ‘If I have my men form up as if they are going to charge the Suburra factions in the fight it’ll cause a riot. There’ll be a lot of damage and quite a few questions asked; so it has to be worth my while.’

‘A noble sentiment, Rufinus.’ Magnus walked over to a strongbox in the far corner and slipped a key into the lock. With a dull click the lock turned; Magnus reached in and pulled out a thin, sackcloth-wrapped parcel. ‘I think you’ll find that this will make it worth your while.’ He placed it on the table and unwrapped it to reveal a tablet of dark resin. Taking his knife from its sheath, he cut it in half and pushed a chunk over to Rufinus.

Rufinus stared at it for a few moments. ‘What is it?’

‘That, my good friend, is worth more than gold.’

‘Yes, but what is it?’

‘The key to the realm of Morpheus. It’s a resin from an eastern flower that transports you to another place. Doctors use it to dull the pain when they’re operating; but only on their rich clients because it is very rare. Hardly any makes it into the empire and it’s very sought after by the medical profession.’

‘How much is that worth?’

‘As I said: more than its weight in gold – if you know where to sell it. My guess is that the Praetorian Guard or Urban Cohorts’ doctors would be very interested, or perhaps the doctors favoured by the Senate.’

Rufinus picked it up and felt the weight of it in his hand; he whistled softly. ‘Magnus, my friend, as always it’s a pleasure doing business with you.’

Magnus ripped the sackcloth in half and handed a bit to Rufinus to wrap his resin in. ‘Let the fight build up a bit and then threaten as if to join in against the Suburra, but do not make the move. That should be enough to make them attack you and then after that it becomes self-defence.’

Rufinus stuffed his half-tablet down his tunic. ‘What if I’m asked why I formed up against the Suburra?’

‘You’ll say that you thought the fight was escalating into a grain riot.’

‘What made me think that?’

‘Don’t worry, my friend; the evidence will be there. You leave that to me; it’ll be flying through the air.’

The Ides of October dawned bright and clear with a golden sun rising over the eastern hills, slowly drying the dew that glistened on Rome’s streets and roofs. The city bustled with an air of anticipation and very little business was attempted; instead, the main part of the citizenry made their way to the Campus Martius, outside the northern walls of the city, to celebrate the most important of the three annual equestrian festivals dedicated to Mars. It was the day when the October Horse would be chosen after a series of two-horse chariot races round a course on the Campus Martius; the right-hand horse of the winning pair would be sacrificed to the god of war and guardian of agriculture in an ancient rite to celebrate the completion of the agricultural and military-campaigning season.

Magnus and thirty of his brothers set out after completing their dawn rituals at the altar of the Crossroads Lares. Both Sextus and Cassandros carried sacks, each containing three of the modius measures that Aetius had delivered during the night. After a short walk they came to the one-storey house of Senator Pollo and joined his clients waiting outside its windowless frontage to escort their patron to the celebrations. Each man held the small bag of coins, their stakes for the day’s wagers, which they had received from their patron as they greeted him at his morning salutio  – a formality that Magnus was excused from due to his religious obligations at the same time.

Magnus formed up his brothers at the head of the clients, ready to beat a passage for the senator and his entourage through the dense festival crowds. All along the street other parties were assembling, some larger, some smaller, depending on the status of the patron.

The heavy wooden door, the only opening to the street in the plain burnt-ochre-painted wall, opened and Gaius appeared at the top of the steps to applause from the lesser men who relied on his patronage. Raising his hand in acknowledgement, he waddled down to the pavement and made his way towards Magnus, the crowd parting for him, many of them forced to jump down into the soiled street.

Gaius dropped a weighty purse in Magnus’ hand. ‘May the gods grant you good fortune, my friend.’

‘And may they grant the same to you, patronus.’

Gaius chuckled. ‘I rather think that our good fortune is down to our own efforts.’

‘Yeah, well, it don’t do any harm to entreat the gods as well.’

‘No, no, my friend, I quite agree; yet the rest of the city is probably entreating away and who will the gods grant good fortune to? I’ll tell you: just the bookmakers and the sensible few that bet on form and fitness rather than which racing faction the chariots are in.’

‘But these races aren’t factional.’ Magnus signalled to his brothers to move and the procession headed off down the hill.

‘Of course not; none of the four colours can be seen to be more favoured by Mars than the other. But come now, Magnus; you know as well as I that, apart from the young bucks racing for family glory, most of the charioteers are all apprentices of one of the colours – the Reds, Blues, Whites or Greens – and a lot of the horses, rather than being genuine warhorses entered by families of standing, as in ancient times, are, instead, veterans of the wars on the track. Don’t tell me that you don’t know which chariots belong to your beloved Greens just because they don’t sport their colours?’

‘It’s hard to bet against the Greens,’ Magnus mumbled as he hefted the heavy purse in his hand.

‘I seem to remember you betting on a Red one, two, three a couple of years ago, and doing very well out of it.’

‘That was business.’

Gaius pointed to the purse. ‘And so is this; you’ll notice that there is considerably more in there than I would normally distribute to you and your lads on a festival day.’

‘I was wondering about that; what do you want us to do, sir?’

‘Tomorrow, at the second hour, I want you to go to the House of the Moon in the stonemasons’ street on the Caelian Hill and take with you one of the tablets. Knock four times in quick succession, count three heartbeats and then repeat the signal. When asked to identify yourself say “Morpheus”. I don’t know how many men will be inside but at least two, I should imagine. You’re to go alone; leave the lads that accompany you at the end of the street. You should be quite safe.’

Should be quite safe ? That doesn’t sound like a hundred per cent guarantee.’

‘What is in this life, my friend? Anyway, they will examine the tablet and take a sample. Tell them how many others like it you have and they will name a price. Refuse the first two offers out of hand, then say that you have to consult about the third but you’ll have an


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answer within a couple of hours. Speed is of the essence now that the Urban Prefect has been informed of the theft.’

‘He’s been what?’

‘The theft was noticed yesterday and needless to say Herod Agrippa was apoplectic. He went to both the prefect of Ostia and the Urban Prefect here in Rome and demanded action. I don’t know what they can do in reality, but it would be best to conclude the deal and get the tablets out of the city and the money into Antonia’s hands as soon as possible.’

‘I quite agree; business like this is best done fast.’

‘Indeed. Now tell me, how will this other bit of business go today? Am I to be standing up in the Senate tomorrow, urging the Urban Prefect to launch an inquiry into weights and measures, and then proposing a vote of thanks?’

‘It’ll be fine; my mate, a centurion in one of the Urban Cohorts, will get his men into a provocative position and, with a little help from the lads and me, it should spark the riot.’

‘Urban Cohorts, eh? He’ll be sticking his neck out a bit; I hope you’ve paid him well.’

‘Don’t worry, senator, I … Oh shit. I bribed him with half of the tablet that I took as a commission.’

Gaius turned to Magnus in alarm. ‘Has he still got it?’

‘I don’t know; but I suggested who to sell it to: doctors who treat senators, Praetorian officers or Urban Cohort officers.’

‘Oh dear. In the circumstances, that’s the worst place to go.’

Magnus’ ears rang as the people of Rome cheered and whistled, roaring on the twelve teams in the final race of the festival as they hurtled round the temporary track on the Trigarium, the equestrian training ground set in the bend of the Tiber, on the north-west corner of the Campus Martius. Here they had spent the morning enjoying racing of the highest calibre: a dozen heats with twelve pairs of the finest stallions driven to extreme exertion by their charioteers, all contesting the privilege to partake in the ultimate race in honour of the god.

Tens of thousands crammed round the track, ringed by a stout and solid wooden barrier and lined with soldiers of the Urban Cohorts in full military panoply, as the festival took place outside of the pomerium , the sacred boundary of the City of Rome. Every vantage point behind the spectators, crammed twenty to thirty deep round the three-hundred-pace-long track with a turning post at each end, had been taken.

As the seven remaining teams still running approached the last lap, flanks and muzzles foaming with sweat, eyes rolling, great hearts pounding, charging forward to the cracks of whips over their withers, the noise escalated to deafening proportions. But Magnus did not notice; he did not cheer. Magnus just stood, unmoving, in the shadow of an equestrian statue of a long-dead patrician, waiting for news from Rufinus. His brothers had scoured the Campus Martius all morning, and had eventually found him and his century at the eastern end of the track. But with the press of people so tight, not even the bookmakers’ slaves who roamed the crowds taking bets could make it to the front rows. So Magnus had been forced to wait, uncertain whether Rufinus had attempted to sell his half of the resin, and whether it had come to the ears of the Urban Prefect.

The roar escalated to a point that would have competed with the battle-cry of the god himself, and tens of thousands of fists were punched into the air as the winning team crossed the finish line after seven laps of the track. The charioteer leant back on the reins, wrapped around his waist, to slow his victorious stallions – a pair of chestnuts with black manes and tails. The soldiers of the Urban Cohorts stationed at the eastern end of the track, under Rufinus’ command, locked shields as they forced a path through the cheering crowd for the victor. Magnus and his brothers shadowed the procession from the edge of the spectators as it made its way towards the altar of Mars at the heart of the Campus Martius where the Flamen Martius, Caius Iunius Silanus, the aged high-priest of Mars, waited, brandishing one of the sacred spears in readiness for the sacrifice. Wearing a fringed cloak over his toga, of double-thick wool and clasped at the throat, his head encased in a leather skullcap fastened by a chinstrap and with a point of olive-wood poking out of its top, he called on the deity to look down kindly upon the sacrifice of the best horse in the city.

Heads tossing, nostrils snorting, and with tails swishing, the two magnificent beasts high-stepped along the path forced for them by punched shield bosses, their hoofbeats and the jangle of their harnesses lost in the tumult. Taken up with the delirium of the moment and aware in some corner of their equine minds that the frenzy was due to their achievement, they held their heads high – skittering occasionally, only to be brought back under control by a sharp tug of the reins – as they progressed slowly through the crowd swirling about them.

Occasionally catching sight of Rufinus’ transverse, white-horsehair crest, Magnus kept pace with him, making sure his brothers stayed close, knowing he must wait for his chance to get to the centurion.

On reaching the altar, the right-hand horse was slipped out of its traces and the crowd, sensing the religious significance of the moment, began to hush as it was garlanded with pendants of bread; two priests of Mars moved into position on each side and grasped its reins. The Flamen Martius approached the unsuspecting animal with slow, deliberate, twisting steps so that his cloak fanned around him as he swayed left and then right. With his spear alternatively raised to the sky and then pointed at the October Horse’s chest, he repeated forms of words so ancient that their meaning was only vaguely clear to those not schooled in the rituals of Mars. Now, no other voice could be heard other than that of the priest, who was accompanied by the snorts and stamps of his unsuspecting victim.

With a final appeal to the heavens, he brought his spear down and, grasping it in both white-knuckled hands, rammed it, overarm, into the beast’s chest. The priests hauled on the reins as the October Horse screeched and made to rear; they kept it down as two more priests, with folds of their togas covering their heads, grasped the spear and, with a mighty effort, helped the Flamen Martius thrust it home and burst the heart of the gift to Mars. Transfixed on the spear and restrained by its reins, the beast tossed its head, arcing the pendants of bread through the air back and forth as blood flowed from the puncture in its breast; but this soon lessened as the victim’s heart, tangled on the iron blade within it, ceased to pump and the pressure dropped. Down came the great beast as its forelegs buckled, cracking its knees on the paved ground already slick with blood; they slipped forward as the Flamen and his assistants hauled the sacred spear free. Released from its supporting prop and with the strength rapidly fading in its muscles, the October Horse rolled its eyes so only yellowish-white was visible and, with an unnatural rattle in its throat, collapsed on to its left side, twitching erratically.

Not a sound could be heard once the last breath had fled the sacrifice; for a few moments all stood still, spellbound by the intensity of the ritual. The Flamen Martius broke that spell by taking an axe from the altar and moving to the rear of the carcass; one of his assistants moved to pull the tail straight and iron flashed in the sun. The tail was severed and then held upright by the assisting priest to prevent the precious blood within from spilling. Holding it aloft, the priest and two colleagues made their way through the crowd, which parted for them as they increased their pace, in order to take the tail to the Regia , where the sacred spears and the sacred shields of Mars were housed. There, on the Regia’s hearth, the blood would be sprinkled.

The Flamen moved to the front of the carcass, intoning prayers, as his remaining three assistants pulled at the dead head to straighten the neck. A murmur of anticipation spread through the crowd as the time approached when it would be decided where the severed head would reside for the year: nailed to the Regia, if the Via Sacra Brotherhoods won the fight by dragging it there, or to the equally ancient Mamillian Tower in the Suburra if the Brotherhoods from that quarter won.

With a final, hoarse call to the deity, the high priest of Mars brought the axe slicing through the air, over the top of his head, to thump down with the wet, solid blow of a butcher’s cleaver, burying itself deep in the neck. With this stroke, the Flamen’s job was done and he left it to his younger colleagues to part the head from the body. Once this had been achieved, the garland of loaves was thrown on to the altar to be consumed by fire, and its smoke twirled up in thanks for yet another harvest preserved.

Now it was time to fight for the head.

Ushered by the Urban Cohorts, the crowd dispersed, falling back from around the altar, allowing the massed Brotherhoods from the two contesting areas to line up facing each other with a hundred paces between them. Both contingents were several hundred strong, although the Suburra looked to be slightly larger than the Via Sacra; neither side had any obvious weapons other than cudgels and knuckledusters. Magnus saw Grumio in the front rank of the Suburra, looking suspiciously towards Rufinus’ Urban Cohort century and others beyond that had finally been freed from the press of crowds round them. Signalling his brothers to follow him, Magnus moved towards the centurion as the priests began to carry the severed head between the two competing sides, holding it aloft for all to see.

‘Have you tried to sell that resin yet?’ Magnus asked in a hushed voice as he sidled up to Rufinus.

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Because the Urban Prefect has now heard about it; it’s probably best to keep it hidden for a while.’

Rufinus raised his eyebrows, betraying mild alarm, whilst watching the priests place the head on the ground. ‘I’ve asked an intermediary to make some enquiries.’

‘Well, stop him.’

Rufinus nodded as the priests hurried away. ‘It’s the first thing I’ll do once I’ve earned it.’

The Flamen Martius raised his spear into the air and called on the deity to bless both sides in their sacred struggle to win through to their respective goals; and to entreat him that, whoever won, Rome would be seen as having discharged her duty to him.

He brought the spear down and with a mighty roar of violent anticipation both sides flung themselves forward to meet head on like two warlike tribes of the most primitive nature.

And the people of Rome cheered themselves hoarse.

Blood, teeth and screams flew through the air within an instant of the collision. The front two or three ranks – if they could be called that – of either side melded into a free-for-all that lost direction so that men fought towards all points of the circle and, with no uniforms or identifying marks other than facial recognition, lashed out at anything standing with brutal intent.

The area where the head had last been seen was more compact and a giant scrimmage had formed; it heaved back and forth as the participants within grappled and wrestled, trying to wrest possession of the head of the once-proud beast that had been declared the greatest horse in Rome.

As he watched, telling himself to concentrate on the business in hand and not be carried away by enjoyment of the spectacle, Magnus slowly led his brothers round the flanks of the Suburra contingent.

The scrimmage eased south, towards the city – the direction of both sides’ objectives – leaving a trail of unconscious and wounded participants in its wake. The spectators moved with it, as did the various centuries of the Urban Cohorts in order to keep the fight out of the grand buildings that lined its route through the Campus Martius.

Magnus and his brothers began to infiltrate the Suburra faction, keeping towards the edges.

‘Hand me a measure,’ Magnus said, holding out a hand to Cassandros.

The brother dipped into his sack and brought out a bronze modius.

Magnus weighed it in his hand and smiled with narrowed eyes. With a straight arm, he hurled it high into the air over the Via Sacra contingent. He did not see it land but he knew it would cause grievous injury or maybe death. Looking to his right, he saw that Rufinus had brought his men closer. ‘Right, lads, five left; hurl them all at Rufinus’ boys.’

Within a few moments five bronze missiles had landed amongst the Urban Cohort century, bringing two down, despite their helmets, shields and chainmail, and cracking the bones of a couple more. The response was instant. Shields came up, lines formed and swords were drawn, and left legs stamped forward as they faced the source of the attack: the Suburra faction.

A shudder went through those of the Suburra closest to Rufinus’ century as they saw the threat just paces from them.

Magnus signalled his brothers to withdraw, filtering back through the looser edges of the melee as, with a change of timbre to the roars, a section of the Suburra split off to attack the century that had formed up as if on the side of their opponents – just as they had been told it would.

And, just as Magnus had expected, the century took two paces forward, stamped their left feet down and slammed the bosses of their shields up and into the faces of their attackers, driving them back, bloodied and broken, before following up with the hilts or the flats of their swords to crunch down on the crowns of unprotected heads. Seeing their comrades under attack, other units of the Urban Cohorts came to the aid of Rufinus’ men, protecting their flanks so they would not be swamped as violence repaid violence in a sudden escalation that fed upon itself.

‘That should do it,’ Magnus muttered to himself as he watched the scrimmage for the severed head split off from the newly instigated riot in the direction of the city walls. He turned to his brothers. ‘Right, lads; we split up and walk away from this nice and slow, disgusted that such a sacred occasion should end in an attack on the city authorities.’

Pleased with his day’s work so far, Magnus walked up a set of three stone steps and rapped on an iron-studded, wooden door; an erect phallus painted above it advertised the type of business transacted within. A viewing slot slid back and the cold eyes of a man whose living was earned by the threat of violence stared through.

‘Evening, Postumus,’ Magnus said. ‘Me and the lads are here to see Terentius.’ He indicated back to Marius and Sextus who stood on the pavement; behind them the street was choked with wheeled vehicles, banned from the city by day, taking advantage of the fall of dusk to make their deliveries.

The door ground open; Magnus and his brothers entered past a hulking man who grinned with broken teeth. ‘I’ll send one of the apprentices to find him for you, Magnus.’ He closed and bolted the door before leading Magnus through the vestibule into a sweetly perfumed and subtly lit atrium. ‘Galen, the master’s steward, will look after you whilst you wait.’ Postumus indicated a middle-aged man of refined, well-preserved looks that were obviously enhanced with cosmetics.

‘Masters, you are welcome; please, follow me.’ Galen led them off as Postumus called a small boy of eight or nine to him and sent him on an errand.

Delicate chords of two lyres, ascending and descending in slow rhythm, thrummed in the background over the gentle patter of the fountain in the centre of the impluvium at the heart of the chamber, beneath the rectangular opening in the roof. Around the pool were set many couches upon which languished scantily dressed youths, each of a different combination of skin tone and hair and eye colour, but all possessing a beauty and allure not to be ignored, and Magnus found his eyes roving as the steward led them to a group of tables at the far end of the room.

‘Some wine, masters?’ Galen suggested as he bid them recline at a free table. ‘And perhaps some pastries?’

‘Just wine.’ Magnus set himself down, glancing left and right at the other tables; they were occupied by groups of men sipping from finely worked bronze and silver cups and nibbling at small delicacies laid out on platters before them, whilst examining from a distance the merchandise for hire. Here and there a client had a youth reclining next to him for closer perusal or to ascertain areas of expertise before coinage changed hands.

‘You won’t have time, Sextus,’ Magnus warned with a grin as his brother gawped, open-mouthed, at the feast of lithe flesh displayed all about. ‘We’re just here to make a pickup and then we’re back to the tavern; you can have a whore or two there if you fancy.’

Marius took a cup from a tray proffered by an effete man in his late twenties, who had evidently outgrown the desires of most of the clients and been relegated to waiting upon them. ‘We don’t really have to hurry back, do we, Magnus? I mean, well, I’m surprised by, er … how nice some of them look. Not all of them, mind you.’

‘No, no, of course not.’ Magnus took a large swig from his cup. ‘But I’m afraid this is far too refined a place for you two to frequent, lads; Terentius wouldn’t like you soiling the goods, Marius, and he certainly won’t be best pleased if our oversized friend, Sextus, caused unpleasant damage to one of the boys in his enthusiasm.’

‘I’m sure they’ll treat my boys with the greatest respect, Magnus.’

Magnus looked up; Terentius stood before them, hands clasped at his chest. His long, auburn hair had been dressed and woven in intricate coils on top of his head, held in place by jewelled pins and partially covered by a woman’s crimson palla; gold earrings dangled almost to his shoulders, exposed by the extended neckline of his ankle-length, pleated midnight-blue stolla. He smiled, his painted lips contrasting with whitened teeth and his eyes peering out through rims of kohl. Very nice , Magnus mused, if you like that sort of thing .

‘They’re welcome to enjoy themselves as my guest, Magnus, whilst I offer you some hospitality in my private chamber and discuss a business proposition with you.’

Magnus looked back at his two brothers and shrugged. ‘Well, if you really are interested, lads?’

Marius and Sextus nodded with ill-concealed eagerness.

Terentius signalled his steward to join them. ‘That’s settled then. Galen will help you make your choices; he’ll know just what is best if it’s your first time.’ He leant down and took the cup from Magnus’ hand. ‘You can have something of a far superior vintage if you follow me.’

Leaving Marius and Sextus to make their choice of entertainment with Galen, Magnus followed Terentius as he sashayed from the atrium, out into a surprisingly large courtyard garden imbued with the scents of damp, autumnal vegetation, then on round the colonnaded walkway, past curtained-off doorways that blocked the sights if not the sounds of passion, and finally to a set of double doors at the far end.

Terentius ushered Magnus into his private domain, which was everything that could be expected of a successful master of a respectable male brothel: a fine mosaic floor depicting numerous positions of male congress; frescoes of a similar nature but with famous lovers of Greek antiquity as their subjects, and furnishings of a lavish, but not vulgar, disposition.

‘Make yourself comfortable, Magnus.’ Terentius plumped up the cushions on a white-linen upholstered couch.

Starting to wonder as to his true motives in coming here, Magnus settled on the couch, resting an arm on its raised end and enjoying the fumes of whatever it was that had been sprinkled on the mobile brazier nearby.

‘Leave us,’ Terentius ordered as he poured two glasses of wine from a deep-blue glass decanter whose elegant long neck seemed too fragile to support its bulbous belly.

Magnus turned in surprise and saw an old slave leave the room; he had no recollection of noticing him as he entered.

Turning back, he accepted a goblet of matching glass to the decanter from Terentius who then sat in a high-backed, wicker chair draped with a deep-red damask cloth; he adjusted his palla so that it fell to either side in a manner that any Roman matron would have approved of.

‘To us and business, may the gods of this house look down kindly on us.’ Terentius raised his goblet and poured a small libation on the floor and then another on to the brazier before taking a sip.

‘Us and business,’ Magnus repeated. He tasted the wine, fragrant with fruit, rich and full as it assaulted his palate with a succession of flavours and hints of more, and he knew that although it was wasted on his rough tastes, Terentius had not misled him: it was one of the finest of vintages. ‘Very nice.’ He immediately regretted such a crass remark and covered his embarrassment by taking a whole-hearted gulp. ‘So, Terentius, what business have you in mind?’

Terentius ran his finger round the rim of his goblet, looking at Magnus as if trying to decide how best to approach the subject. He crossed his legs and raised his finely plucked eyebrows. ‘The tablets that you gave into my safekeeping.’

‘What about them?’

‘I know what they are, Magnus, and I know what they are used for.’

‘So?’

‘I also know what they can be used for; the potential that they have. I don’t mean their medical potential; I mean their potential in furthering the art of love.’

‘The art of love?’

‘Yes, Magnus. The resin in those tablets can unlock realms of pleasure known only to Morpheus himself; realms so large that a man could lose himself there for days on end.’

‘Really?’

‘Really, and I want to purchase some from you. With those tablets I could offer an experience so intense that no man having undergone it would want to seek his pleasure anywhere else but here. I would make a fortune and you would share in it, Magnus.’

Magnus drained his goblet and held it out for a refill. ‘What do you mean?’

Terentius picked up the decanter and poured. ‘I have heard stories from the East, from beyond the empire, of how to augment the senses by using this resin. It’s not how our doctors use it, made into a potion or just chewed; it’s a different and far more efficacious method.’ He placed the decanter back on the table, rose and walked over to a chest at the far end of the room. He removed one of the sackcloth-wrapped tablets and two broad-bladed knives before returning to his chair. ‘I’ll show you.’ He exposed the edge of the tablet, shaved off a sliver and then put the points of both knives into the brazier.

Magnus watched with interest as Terentius worked the sliver into a ball, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger. He then handed it to Magnus and removed both knives from the fire. He held one out. ‘Put the resin on the tip of the blade.’

Magnus obeyed; Terentius pressed the second blade down on it. Immediately fumes spiralled up; Terentius leant over and inhaled, pulling the smoke deep into his lungs. ‘Your turn,’ he said with a tight, almost choking voice.

Magnus opened his mouth and sucked in the white trail emitting from between the blades. He felt a harsh rasping in his throat and a warmth in his chest.

‘Hold it in,’ Terentius said, his voice higher from having held his breath.

Magnus did so for as long as he could, then exhaled a thin stream of smoke. He looked at Terentius. ‘Well?’

‘Give it time, Magnus; Morpheus needs to be woken from his slumbers before he will show you his realm.’

Magnus took a sip of wine and waited, contemplating the beauty of the glass. And it was beautiful, intensely blue in a way that he had never seen before; the bluest of blues. And yet, where the reflections of the brazier’s red glow played on it, the blue deepened into purple, flickering across the surface, picking out the fine engravings of grape-laden vines; imperial vines, he mused. He smiled to himself, enjoying the thought, then realised that red grapes were often purple in hue and was about to make a connection with … but then the goblet’s stem caught his attention: thin blue glass, so blue, but right at its heart a very fine line of purple; again, that must be a reflection from the fire. He looked across at the brazier, still smiling, yes, it was glowing; so comforting. His eyes rose to meet those of Terentius; they were wide open but their pupils had contracted to pinpricks, and he too was smiling. Magnus was about to say something but then the calm of the moment prevented him; it would be wrong to break so peaceful an atmosphere with harsh talk. His gaze drifted down. He discerned, with a widening of his smile, that the blue of Terentius’ stola matched that of the goblet – if it was held at certain angles. He experimented with the position of the goblet, looking between it and the stola. He noticed Terentius rise and walk past him; he heard the door open just as he discovered a fascinating new angle at which to hold the goblet. Then voices, followed by the soft click of the door reclosing. Terentius swished past him, a blur of blue motion – so beautiful, blue. The decanter glided towards him, it tipped; the glug of pouring wine so slow and regular. The taste of the wine, sublime. He looked up to thank Terentius; Terentius smiled down, his hands touching Magnus’ shoulders. His palla was gone; there was no crimson, only blue. And then there was no blue, just cream flesh, and Magnus understood. He heard the door creak open and soft voices approached from behind him; he felt his belt being unfastened. He raised his goblet and finished the last of the wine; it was taken from him as he sluiced the liquid around his mouth and allowed his tunic to be pulled over his head. A soft hand on his chest eased him back on to the cushions on the couch – soft, smooth and warm, so warm. He felt the hand stroke his hair and he opened his eyes; Terentius stood over him, his skin sheened with the glow of the brazier, and then he sat, revealing two more figures, lissom and delicate, one blond and one dark – both naked. One held out the knives; Magnus sucked in the spiralling smoke, holding it deep. As he laid his head down, feeling the sweet touch of multiple caresses, he saw the gates to the realm of Morpheus open and, with absolute calm and contentment, he floated forward to sample the dreams therein.

A damp cloth, warm and fragrant, dabbing his brow brought him back. For a while he did not open his eyes, content to enjoy the sensation of being cleansed.

‘What did you think?’ Terentius whispered.

What did  he think? He cast his mind back: the images, the colours, the acts, the abandon, the release, the pleasure; all as he had never experienced before. ‘Well, it weren’t natural and yet it seemed to come so easy, if you take my meaning?’

‘I do, Magnus; and now do you see how so much money could be made out of this?’

‘Fortunes.’ Magnus opened his eyes; Terentius was dressed and his hair pulled back into a ponytail. ‘But I doubt that you’d be able to afford even one tablet.’

‘How much are they each?’

‘I don’t know exactly, but more than gold. I’m going to-’ He sat up and looked around; early light crept in through the window. ‘What time is it?’

‘Halfway through the first hour of the day.’

‘Shit! Where are my clothes? And get me one of the tablets. Are Marius and Sextus still here?’

Terentius handed Magnus his tunic, belt and loincloth. ‘Yes, I’ve had them woken and they’ve been served breakfast.’

‘Served breakfast? They don’t have time for that.’

Within moments Magnus had dressed, strapped on his sandals and, with a tablet wrapped in sackcloth under his arm and Terentius following behind, was walking at a rapid pace through the garden. ‘Come to the tavern at dusk and I’ll have a reasonable idea as to how much the tablets are worth; meanwhile you work out how much you think you can make from each one; then we’ll know whether it’s viable.’

‘I’ll be there,’ Terentius confirmed as they passed through into the atrium.

‘No time for that, lads,’ Magnus said, grabbing a hunk of bread from the table at which Marius and Sextus were breaking their fast in delightful company. ‘We’re almost late.’ He hurried on through the room and into the vestibule. Postumus opened the door and Magnus stepped out into the street with his brothers following. As he headed at a brisk walk towards the Caelian Hill and the meeting at the House of the Moon in the stonemasons’ street, he addressed Marius and Sextus without looking at them. ‘I think it would be best all round if we didn’t mention where or how we spent last night.’

Finding the House of the Moon had been easy, with a carving above the door of Luna, the divine embodiment of the moon, cloak billowing behind her in the shape of a crescent moon as she rode in her oxen-drawn chariot. What had not been easy was concentrating on business and Magnus found his mind wandering as he sat opposite a brown-skinned man in his thirties with a thin face and lips, a sharp nose and tight curly black hair; Egyptian, Magnus had assumed when the man introduced himself as Menes.

Menes sniffed the tablet and looked across the table at Magnus, his dark eyes glinting with barely restrained greed. ‘How many these you say your patron had, my friend?’

Magnus hauled his attention away from some vivid image


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s of the night before and focused on one of the two thickset bodyguards standing behind the Egyptian. ‘I didn’t.’

Menes grinned in a manner that totally failed to convey any charm or warmth. ‘So, my friend, how much you want for this?’

Magnus took a moment to register the question. ‘Offer me a price.’

‘How can I make an offer when I don’t know how much is for sale? If I take a lot you make me special price.’

‘There is no special price, my friend ; whoever makes the highest offer gets to purchase as much as they want at that price. No discounts, understand?’

Menes’ grin widened into an obnoxious leer, which, by his manner, he evidently deemed to be a winning smile. ‘My friend, I make you good offer: three thousand denarii a tablet.’

Magnus almost choked with shock at such a high figure, but managed to transform it into a growl of indignation and, grabbing the tablet from Menes, pushed back his chair. ‘If you start so low, then I’ve wasted my patron’s time in coming here.’

Menes was on his feet quickly, his hands in the air, palms towards Magnus, laughing, cold and forced. ‘My friend, my friend, I see you are serious man of business; sit, please, sit, we have wine?’

‘No wine, Menes,’ Magnus said, pulling his chair back to the table, ‘and no jokes, just the right price.’

‘Yes, yes, right price.’ Menes sat down again and made a show of thinking for a few moments. ‘Three thousand, five hundred denarii.’

‘That’s enough of this nonsense.’ Magnus got to his feet, toppling his chair.

‘Five thousand!’

Magnus paused and looked at Menes. ‘Five thousand a tablet?’

‘Yes, my friend.’

‘There are twenty-three more.’

Menes’ eyes widened with unbridled greed. ‘I take them all, one hundred and ten thousand denarii; I can have the money in gold by dawn tomorrow.’

‘I need to consult my patron; you’ll have the answer by tonight.’ Magnus turned to go. ‘If you try to have me followed, the deal will be over as will be your life. And, my friend, there’s no special price. It’s one hundred and twenty thousand for all twenty-four; which in gold aurii is …’ He did a quick mental calculation, dividing by twenty-five. ‘Four thousand eight hundred.’

‘There is no doubt in my mind that this outrage was sparked by a growing mistrust within the more ignorant sections of the city’s population of the trustworthiness of the measures used in distribution of the grain dole.’ Gaius Vespasius Pollo was adamant and the force with which his right arm sliced down from above his head on the final word emphasised the fact. ‘Why else, Conscript Fathers, would the Urban Cohorts be attacked with bronze modius measures? Modius measures that had been fitted with false bottoms to make them one sestius short. We are all aware how much grain could be skimmed off and hoarded if just a tenth of the modius measures in the city were a sixteenth light. Not that any member of this house would organise such a thing, Conscript Fathers, for by the sacred law of the ways of our ancestors we in the Senate are forbidden to partake in trade.’ Gaius looked around the Senate House, his face flushed with exertion and righteous ire conjured up for the moment; many of the senators seated in rows on either side of the house nodded in agreement at this timely reminder of the ways of the ancestors. ‘But the equestrian class is not so tied and for a very few of them the making of money is a pursuit that they follow with no consideration for the consequences.’ He puffed himself up. ‘And we saw the consequences yesterday at the Festival of the October Horse!’ This time his right arm soared above his head, fist clenched, excess fat on his upper arm wobbling. ‘Conscript Fathers, we cannot allow the Emperor’s peace to be disturbed so. We must beg Cossus Cornelius Lentulus, the prefect of Rome, to organise an inspection of every modius measure in the city; only he can avert the oncoming crisis.’ With another powerful rhetorical gesture and a flurry of spittle, Gaius underlined the final word. ‘And I move that we write to the Emperor and thank him for his wisdom in appointing Lentulus to the post.’ With a final, outraged glare round the chamber, he walked back to his place, to the rumble of agreement, and sat down on his folding stool which strained beneath the pressure of his ample behind. His colleagues surrounding him patted him enthusiastically on the back, congratulating him loudly – all, no doubt, jealous that they had not taken the opportunity to so ingratiate themselves with the Urban Prefect.

The chorus of agreement continued as all eyes turned to Lentulus. He rose slowly and Magnus, watching from the Senate House steps through the open doors, noticed a grateful nod in Gaius’ direction.

‘Conscript Fathers, I am indebted to Senator Pollo for his expression of confidence in me and I shall do everything in my power to head off this crisis before it takes root,’ Lentulus declaimed as Magnus turned away with a satisfied expression, walking back down the steps to await his patron.

‘Do you trust Menes?’ Gaius asked as he and Magnus walked through the Forum, preceded by Sextus and Marius.

Magnus’ look was answer enough.

‘Nevertheless, we’ll proceed with the deal. That’s roughly what was expected, a very good price; that should help even Antonia’s score with Herod Agrippa. It should please her greatly, far more than my speech pleased your friend Brutus; you should have seen the way he looked at me. And then, as I was leaving just now, he sidled up to me and said I’ve made my last speech before my natural death. What do you think he meant by that, my natural death? How would he know when that will be?’

‘I don’t know, sir, but I would consider it to be a threat; I’ll have a couple of the lads posted outside your house, just to be safe, if you take my meaning?’

‘I’m afraid I do; I’ve made a bad enemy there.’

‘But a good friend of the Urban Prefect,’ Magnus pointed out.

‘That’s very true; it was a good morning’s sycophancy for me and I trust that it’ll solve your problem, Magnus. But what’s more, it will get me noticed by the Emperor and make him more disposed to grant Vespasian that entry to Egypt when he sees the transcript of the day’s debates tomorrow morning.’

‘Has Antonia asked him yet?’

‘Yes, she added the request to a letter that she despatched that day. Hopefully, she’ll have an answer when you take the money for the sale to her.’

‘What do you mean? I thought I just had to do the negotiation.’

Gaius slapped a chubby arm round Magnus’ shoulders. ‘I can’t be seen soiling the Senate’s reputation with such a grubby transaction and the Lady Antonia certainly can’t.’

‘What about Pallas, her steward?’

‘Oh, he’s chosen the location for the meeting and he’ll be close by to ensure safe delivery of the four thousand, eight hundred aurii back to the Lady, once you’ve completed the transaction.’

‘Four thousand, six hundred,’ Magnus corrected.

‘How so? There are twenty-four of the tablets.’

‘We negotiated a special price; the full deal was five thousand denarii each, but twenty-four tablets for the price of twenty-three.’

Gaius squeezed Magnus’ shoulder and looked at him sidelong. ‘I’m sure Antonia won’t fuss about two hundred aurii here or there. Get a message to the purchaser that the exchange will be at dawn tomorrow at the Temple of Asclepius.’

Magnus was about to argue but then paused and nodded slowly in approval. ‘Marius, go to the House of the Moon and tell them dawn at the Temple of Asclepius on the Tiber Island.’ As Marius ran off Magnus inclined his head to his patron. ‘That’s very clever of Pallas, sir; if I have my lads covering both bridges, Menes will find it very difficult to double-cross us and get away.’

‘We’ve a big problem on our hands,’ Servius announced, not looking up from the abacus and the scrolls of accounts he was working on as Magnus walked through the door of the tavern, refreshed from a few hours at the baths. ‘Our aedile has evidently not taken too kindly to the city-wide inspection of measures.’ He pointed over his shoulder to a man slumped in a dark corner of the bar.

Magnus approached him, frowning. ‘Duilius?’

There was no reply.

‘It was  Duilius,’ Servius informed him, still not looking up as the abacus clicked rapidly, ‘until about an hour ago.’

Magnus cupped Duilius’ chin and examined the face; there were no marks of violence. A swift perusal of the rest of his body showed no wounds, bruising or blood. ‘There’s not a mark on him! How did he die?’

‘We’re meant to believe that he died of natural causes; we found him-’

‘Natural causes?’

‘Yes. We found him sitting on the pavement just outside with his head between his legs as if he was being sick. Nobody can remember seeing him left there, although a drunken rabble did pass by just before, so it must have been them with arms round Duilius’ shoulders as if he was insensible with drink.’

Magnus examined the body again with a grudging respect. ‘What do you make of it?’

‘It’s a declaration of war; this is about who has authority in the South Quirinal. We may have managed to manoeuvre the Urban Prefect into an inspection of every measure in the city, forcing Brutus to quit his scam or face being exposed and humiliated; but in return he has shown us that he can get his revenge without attracting suspicion and accusations of murder. I would guess that Duilius won’t be the only sudden natural death around here.’

Magnus sat down, still looking in fascination at the unmarked corpse. ‘I think you may be right, brother; Brutus threatened our senator with a natural death very soon. I promised a guard round his house; have half a dozen stationed up there. If there is going to be another natural death, then it ain’t going to be us or Senator Pollo; and what better way to get rid of a magistrate with no questions asked. How was it done?’

‘Ah! It took me a while, but I think I’ve worked it out.’

Terentius walked through the tavern door as the sun slid into the west; Magnus rose from his table and indicated that he and Servius should follow him through to the back room.

‘Well?’ Magnus asked as they sat.

Terentius placed a wax writing-tablet on the table. ‘Each tablet weighs two and a half libra; with twelve uncia to a pound, that’s a total of thirty. Each one of those little balls weighs an obolus, which is forty-eight from each uncia, so from a tablet that’s one thousand, four hundred …’

‘… and forty from each tablet.’ Magnus whistled softly. ‘How much do you think you could charge your clients for one?’

‘For that luxury and including the boy, ten denarii easily.’ Terentius pointed to the writing-tablet. ‘It’s all in there, Magnus.’

Servius picked it up and read it quickly. ‘How much can you get a tablet for, Magnus?’

Magnus shook his head, unable to believe his luck. ‘I’ve just got one for free plus the half I have already, that’s-’

Servius flicked some beads on his abacus. ‘Twenty-one thousand, six hundred denarii or eight hundred and sixty-four aurii.’

‘But it’ll take some time to realise that money; at least a year, probably more,’ Terentius pointed out.

‘With no initial outlay to cover, that doesn’t matter, my friend,’ Magnus said, leaning back in his chair and beaming. ‘You take as long as you like and we’ll go fifty-fifty, five denarii each per sale.’

‘That’s generous, Magnus.’

‘I’d say it’s fair. You provide the boys and the premises and I’ll provide the resin; you can settle up once a month with Servius. In the meantime I would be very grateful if you could ensure that Aedile Brutus samples the new pleasure next time he frequents your establishment; in fact, encourage him to have two of those balls and then send me a message at whatever time of day or night it is.’

Terentius looked quizzical. ‘Certainly, Magnus.’ He stood to leave.

‘I’ll send a couple of my lads back with you to pick up the rest of those tablets.’

‘Of course, Magnus; will I see you later?’

Magnus was aware of Servius’ eyebrows raising a fraction and shook his head, waving a hand in dismissal. As the door closed behind Terentius, he turned to his counsellor. ‘Well, I had to sample the goods before I could decide whether to invest in them or not.’

‘Very wise. And what do you think?’

‘I think that it’s wasted on doctors; it’s much more than just a medicine.’

‘Will we really make that sort of money?’

‘Oh, yes, my friend; once those who can afford it try it, they’ll find it hard not to go back for more.’

‘And you?’

‘Now I know how good it is I daren’t have it again; not if I want to get things done, if you take my meaning?’ Magnus got to his feet, stretched and yawned. ‘Have all the lads assembled here two hours before dawn; wake me then.’

*

‘Magnus, wake up.’

Magnus roused himself and opened an eye to see Servius standing over him, holding a lamp. ‘Are all the lads downstairs?’

‘No, there’re still a couple of hours to go yet.’

‘Why wake me then?’

Servius indicated with his head to the door.

Magnus sat up in bed and squinted, trying to focus. ‘Rufinus! What are you doing here?’

‘Yesterday, after the festival, I went to tell my intermediary to stop making inquiries about selling the resin.’

‘Good. And?’

‘I couldn’t find him.’

‘Shit!’

‘It’s worse than that; he was found about an hour ago. It was all round the cohort very quickly because of the state he was in.’

‘Go on.’

‘He’d been tortured before they cut his throat. It was made to look as if they wanted to get the keys for the stores off him because some stuff was missing, but not enough in my opinion to warrant murder. Besides, I know Aetius-’

‘Aetius? Of course, who better to act as an intermediary; he can buy or sell anything.’

‘Could. But he wouldn’t have risked his life for a set of keys.’

‘But he would have risked it to keep his reputation for discretion.’

‘I’d asked him to approach a couple of doctors to see whether they would be interested.’

‘And one was the Urban Cohorts’?’

‘Exactly.’

‘Who went straight to the Urban Prefect, who immediately had a little chat with Aetius and, because he was killed having been tortured, we can assume that he gave them what they wanted.’

‘Yes, Magnus; they know my name.’ Rufinus handed his half-tablet of resin to Magnus. ‘This is no good to me; I need cash. I’m disappearing until all this dies down.’

‘Very wise, my friend.’ Magnus took the half-tablet, calculating its intrinsic worth, and knew that he could be very generous in buying Rufinus’ silence. ‘Servius, give the centurion twenty-five aurii.’

Rufinus’ eyes widened at the equivalent of two and a half years’ pay for an average legionary. ‘That’s good of you, Magnus.’

‘I’ll always help a friend. There’ll be another twenty-five for you if you haven’t mentioned my name by the time the fuss dies down. Now get going.’

‘Thank you, Magnus.’

Servius paused in the doorway as he followed Rufinus out. ‘There was a message from Antonia’s steward, Pallas. He’ll be at the river steps below the Temple of Asclepius half an hour before dawn.’

‘Are all your men in position, master?’ Pallas enquired as Magnus walked down the steps from the Temple of Asclepius to the Tiber; the groans of scores of sick slaves, left to die in the precinct of the god of medicine by masters refusing to pay for their treatment, blended with the gurgling of the river.

‘They are, Pallas.’ Magnus looked at the full-bearded Greek, aware that he was a slave, but in awe of the fact that with one question he had taken complete control of the operation; but he was used to it. In the course of his numerous contacts, in various capacities, with the Lady Antonia’s steward, he had developed a respect for Pallas’ judgement and discretion; Magnus knew him to be more than a mere slave. ‘I’ve got ten covering each bridge and a further ten round the temple; all with orders to keep out of sight. Plus I’ve ten of my best lads with me to guard the tablets and then transport the cash. Menes won’t be able to leave without handing over the money.’

‘Unless he tries to go by boat, which is why I took the precaution of bringing mine.’ Pallas stepped out of the six-oared river craft that had ferried him to the island. ‘We will return by river once the transaction has taken place. Get into position; I’ll be waiting here.’

Magnus nodded and picked his way back up the steps through the huddles of dead and dying slaves.

‘Looks like them,’ Marius announced as the first rays of dawn sun hit a high altitude cloudbank, accentuating ripples on its grey surface with highlights of deep red. ‘I’d say there are at least a dozen round that cart.’

Magnus watched the group cross the Fabricium Bridge from the Campus Martius, then turn off the main street bisecting the island and pull into the forecourt of the Temple of Asclepius.

‘My good friend!’ Menes exclaimed, walking towards Magnus with open arms as if it were a reunion of acquaintances of many years’ standing after an unreasonably long period of absence; the expression of joy on his face, however, registered as a rictus contort.

Not wishing to cause offence, Magnus subjected himself to the embrace which was nothing more than a clumsy attempt to frisk him for hidden weapons, which he returned; Menes was unarmed.

‘You have tablets, my friend?’

‘Naturally.’

Magnus indicated the cart. ‘Four thousand, eight hundred aurii?’

Menes inclined his head. ‘In twenty-four bags of two hundred.’

‘Take one of them away; my patron is only selling twenty-three of the tablets.’

Menes attempted to transform his expression into one of shock and deep disappointment, but succeeded only in gurning like a tragic actor’s mask. ‘My friend, we had a deal.’

‘For two hundred aurii a tablet; my patron has just decided to keep one for himself. Now, let’s do this. Sextus!’ The brother lumbered forward, holding a bulging sack. ‘Put them down here. Menes, have the money stacked next to them and then all our men will withdraw twenty paces whilst you and I check the contents.’

Menes eyed the bag as Sextus placed it down, his smile returning, before shouting in his own language. The tarpaulin was pulled back from the cart and half a dozen of his men began unloading the weighty bags concealed within. When twenty-three were piled next to the tablets, Magnus and Menes nodded to one another and gave the order for their guards to withdraw back into the tangle of sick slaves who were too ill to pay attention to events around them. Once they were alone in the centre of the forecourt, Magnus pulled a square piece of leather from his belt, spread it on the ground and, choosing a bag at random, poured the contents out.

With practised fingers, the contents were soon counted and, after three more random selections revealed totals of two hundred aurii for each bag, Magnus felt satisfied that Menes was not trying to cheat by underpaying. Magnus eyed the Egyptian in the growing light as he finished examining the last couple of tablets. He found it hard to believe that the man’s blatant greed would not tempt him into a double-cross.

‘Very good, my friend,’ Menes announced, rewrapping the final tablet. ‘Now we go, yes?’

Magnus nodded and called his brothers back. ‘Marius, have the lads take the sacks down to the boat.’

Standing opposite Menes, who was grinning furiously as if to convey a feeling of calm and normality, Magnus kept his eye on the Egyptian’s men as they turned their cart round and loaded the tablets under the tarpaulin.

It was no more than an anxious twitch of Menes’ eyes towards the cart, followed by an almost imperceptible tensing of his leg muscles in preparation for a quick sprint, which alerted Magnus; he dived to the left, putting Menes between him and the cart as a fletched shaft hissed through the air where his head had been. ‘Down!’ he bellowed as three more bows just grabbed from beneath the tarpaulin thrummed arrows towards his lads, felling two.

More sleek missiles spat through the dawn air, thumping one brother to the ground, the bag he carried bursting open in an explosion of dull gold.

Menes’ men, now all armed, ran forward, arrows nocked and bows drawn as they aimed at the chests of Magnus’ brethren.

‘Put the bags down, lads, and step back,’ Magnus ordered, edging towards Marius but keeping his eyes on Menes.

The Egyptian’s grin had morphed into a triumphant gloat. ‘Now we go, yes? But we take the money as well, no?’

Magnus looked round at the twelve bow-armed men covering his surviving brothers. ‘You can try, but I warn you: if you leave now without the money, you can keep the resin; if you don’t leave the money with us, you’ll all die.’

Menes croaked a cackling laugh. ‘Oh, you funny man, my friend. You hand over the money or you  all die.’

Magnus shrugged and pointed to the last few bags on the ground by Marius’ feet. ‘There’s a few, my lads have got the rest.’

Menes shouted in his own language and his men moved forward cautiously, stepping over recumbent slaves to retrieve the sacks.

‘Stay calm, lads,’ Magnus called. ‘Put the sacks on the ground and let them take the lot; it’s not our money so it’s not worth dying for.’

‘Very sensible, my friend,’ Menes said, hefting up a bag from the ground.

All but three of Menes’ men were obliged to shoulder their bows in order to pick up the coinage. Magnus’ brothers watched in silence as they carried the heavy bags away, taking care not to trip over the recumbent forms that lay moaning in the thin light.

And then a hand grabbed an ankle and a dull, shimmer of a blade was forced up into an unprotected groin, severing a testicle and releasing a cascade of blood on to a man who had hitherto been overlooked as too sick to be of consequence. More blades flashed up from the ground, more blood flowed, and Magnus’ brothers who had lain amongst the dying rose to life. Two went back down immediately as arrows thwacked into them, before the three remaining bowmen were despatched in a flurry of blades and blood.

Menes reacted instantly and fled for the cart, abandoning his men to be slaughtered in vengeance for brothers lost. Magnus smiled to himself and, indicating to Marius and Sextus to follow him, walked after the fleeing Egyptian as the cart driver urged his horse into action, clattering out of the forecourt and then turning right towards the Fabrician Bridge. Magnus did not rush; he knew there was no need to. As he stepped on to the main street the cart began to traverse the bridge. Midway it stopped.

‘Thank you, Cassandros,’ Magnus muttered, prowling forward as the cart attempted to turn a hundred and eighty degrees; behind it a line of silhouettes blocked the bridge.

The driver whipped the horse without mercy, trying to reverse it in order to complete the turn, but to no avail. The beast reared in the harness as its chest scraped against the brick parapet and sharp whip-inflicted pain seared along its back.

Menes leapt from the vehicle, grasping the sack of tablets, his head jerking left then right, like some demented bird, as if the situation might change at any moment and a way off the bridge would miraculously present itself.

‘Where were you going, my friend?’ Magnus called.

Menes froze and then cranked his mouth into the widest of grins. ‘No problems, no problems, my friend, no problems.’

Magnus stopped five paces from the Egyptian. ‘You see, that’s the funny thing; there is  a problem. You killed a few of my lads and took a lot of money.’

Menes laughed as if it was a matter of small import that could easily be cleared up over a cup of wine.

‘I’m going to kill you slowly for that, Menes, and then there’ll be no problem.’ Magnus lunged forward; the Egyptian stepped back, turned and leapt on to the bridge’s parapet, hurling himself into the river below, the sack clutched in his hand.

‘Shit!’ Magnus exclaimed, rushing to look over the edge. Menes was struggling with one hand to keep himself afloat, whilst still holding the sack with the other, as the river swept him away. He looked back up at Magnus, laughing, as he shouted in his own tongue. But in his triumph at escape he failed to see the danger that whistled in from the river steps. His face contorted into a grin more pronounced and rigid than he had ever concocted before as an arrowhead burst out of his right eye-socket, the eyeball skewered on the bodkin. The feathered shaft vibrated, embedded in his crown, and a few paces away Pallas, his expression passive, set down his bow and sent his oarsmen diving into the river as the dead Menes finally gave up his hold of the tablets.

‘It would seem that you’ve had a very successful morning, Pallas; keeping the tablets was an unexpected bonus,’ Antonia conceded, looking at the pile of moneybags and the wet sack of tablets on the mosaic floor of her private office at her residence on the Palatine. She looked at Magnus, her green eyes showing life in them that belied her seventy years but matched her highcheekboned, fading beauty that still needed little cosmetic augmentation. ‘And I have much to thank you for too, Magnus. I will pay the blood money for your men. Pallas.’ She indicated to the bags.

Pallas picked one up and gave it to Magnus.

‘I think that should cover it.’

‘Thank you, domina,’ Magnus muttered.

‘What’s the matter? You don’t look overly thrilled.’

Magnus looked at the bag and then down to the tablets. ‘Well, begging your pardon, domina, but I was wondering what you intend to do with them.’

‘I shall inform the Urban Prefect that they’ve fallen into my hands and that I shall return them to their rightful owner, so he needn’t concern himself about them any more. Then I’ll restore them to Herod Agrippa for the pleasure of watching him control his expression as I demand a substantial finder’s fee. I think that’ll be the point when he realises I was behind the theft and that it might be a good idea to pay off the debt he owes me to avoid further inconvenience in the future.’ She smiled at the thought.

‘If that is the case, domina, could I swap the aurii for one of the tablets?’

Antonia looked at Magnus, frowning. ‘And why would you want to do that?’

‘Let’s just say I know a use they can be put to that is worth far more than two hundred in gold.’

‘How?’

‘Well, it … er … if you inhale the fumes when it burns, it takes you to a place where pleasure has no bounds if you share it with another, if you take my meaning?’

‘I think I do, Magnus.’ Antonia smiled again and looked at Pallas. ‘Leave us.’

Magnus tried but failed to hide his alarm as the steward left the room.

‘Show me.’

Magnus walked through the tavern door soon after dusk, clasping a tablet under his arm and fit to drop; it had been a long day, although much of it was now a blur. He looked across to his table in the corner and saw Servius bent over his abacus; next to him sat a youth of notable beauty.

Magnus sat down, looked at the youth and then at Servius. ‘Is this what I think it is?’

‘Tell him,’ Servius growled, clacking his abacus.

‘The master says to tell you that everything is prepared in the matter that you spoke of.’

The fatigue fell away immediately. ‘Run back and tell him I’ll be there very soon.’

‘I’ll come with you. I had already sent Marius, Sextus and Cassandros up there about half an hour ago when the message arrived.’

‘Thank you, my friend.’ Magnus brandished the tablet. ‘I need to drop this off with Terentius anyway.’

Servius’ eyes glinted in the lamplight. ‘Another thousand or so aurii; just a fraction of that will reimburse our people for the grain that Brutus cheated them of. It’s been a good day.’

‘Indeed; and it’s just about to get better.’

‘Well, well,’ Magnus ruminated as he looked down at the recumbent form of Brutus, lying on the couch in Terentius’ private room. ‘You look to be enjoying yourself, aedile.’

Brutus looked up with unfocused, drooping-lidded eyes and stared at Magnus for a few moments, with no sign of recognition, before returning his attention to the genitalia of the writhing youth straddling his hips and riding hard.

Terentius signalled to a second youth busy flicking one of the aedile’s nipples with his tongue whilst caressing the other; he removed the two knives from the brazier and pressed them to either side of a small ball of resin on the table next to it. Smoke immediately spiralled up and the youth offered it to the aedile; even in his engrossed state, Brutus noticed the source of pleasure nearing him and turned his head to suck greedily at the smoke.

‘He certainly has developed the taste for it,’ Magnus observed as the door opened and Servius entered holding a rope; behind him came Marius, Sextus and Cassandros, struggling with a large tub of water.

Servius pointed to the floor next to the couch. ‘Set it down there.’ He looked down at Brutus who lay back with a fixed grin on his face. ‘Is he ready?’

‘He’s far too deep into Morpheus’ realm to notice anything,’ Terentius assured him. ‘Leave us, boys.’

The writhing youth eased himself off Brutus and, picking up his tunic from the couch, scurried, giggling, out of the room with his colleague.

‘Get him on his knees in front of th


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e tub, lads,’ Servius ordered, throwing the coiled rope on to the couch.

Sextus and Cassandros raised Brutus to his feet.

‘All forgotten, I’ve forgotten,’ the aedile mumbled as they lowered him on to his knees over the tub. ‘Ah, water; so much water.’

‘Head in and hold it there; but be very careful not to bruise him. Once he’s dead we hang him upside down to get all the water out, then dry him off and dress him and he’ll seem to have died of natural causes.’

As Brutus’ head disappeared beneath the surface Magnus turned to Terentius. ‘It’s probably best if you don’t witness this; the last time you saw him he was still alive.’

‘And in such capable hands,’ Terentius added with a smile as he walked away.

Magnus watched him go for a few moments before turning back to Brutus just as the convulsions started.

*

‘Natural causes?’ Gaius was shocked; he leant forward across the desk in his study, almost spilling an inkpot. ‘At his age? He couldn’t have been more than thirty-five or six.’

Magnus contrived to look equally shocked. ‘I know, sir; but there it is. He was found near the Viminal Gate soon after dawn this morning, in the Via Patricius. Not a mark on him so it is assumed that he just dropped down dead after some mighty exertions in one of the brothels along there.’

‘There’ll be an investigation.’

‘I’m sure there will.’

‘And if they find that it wasn’t natural causes can they trace it to you?’

‘I very much doubt it. He was found on the Viminal; not my area.’

‘Because if they can I might be implicated as well. How did you do it?’

‘You don’t need to know, sir; other than it was the same way he would have killed you.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because my client who made the original complaint against him was found dead of natural causes yesterday, soon after Brutus had threatened you. I think he was starting a spree of natural revenge.’

‘Yes, well, I suppose I should thank you, Magnus.’

‘Yes, I suppose you should, sir.’

‘But even so, I think that you should get out of Rome for a while whilst I try and persuade the Urban Prefect that young men of his age drop dead all the time of natural causes.’

‘Lucky that he’s in your debt.’

‘Yes, but I think this will use up the last of the favours he owes me; he did grant my request to make Sabinus the Grain Aedile next year. But I’m sure that the Lady Antonia will emphasise the unfortunate tragedy of the thing; especially as she failed to get me that imperial permission for Vespasian to enter Egypt.’ He picked up a wax tablet from his desk and looked at it ruefully. ‘She sent me the message this morning.’

‘Then it would seem that I’m the right man to go to Cyrenaica and tell Vespasian the bad news.’

‘Yes, my friend, it would seem that you are.’

Magnus stepped out of Gaius’ carriage on to the quayside at Ostia, helped by an extremely attractive groom. He ignored the youth’s languid eyes and coy smile and looked, instead, with a sinking heart at the hulking merchantman in which he was to spend the next half a month or so; her sides were stained with age and she exuded an unpleasant smell of rotting refuse.

‘I’m sorry, Magnus,’ Gaius said, ‘but it was all that I could get at such short notice; the sailing season’s over and there’re very few making the crossing at this time of year.’

Magnus glanced back at the terrace of warehouses in which, just six nights previously, he had organised the break-in that had somehow led to his enforced exile; he cursed vociferously.

Gaius smiled in sympathy as he gave him a handful of scrolls. ‘Letters for Vespasian.’

‘I’m sure he’ll be very pleased to have them.’

‘Yes, well, I should be getting back; the Lady Antonia has invited me and the Urban Prefect for dinner. I’m sure that by the time you return this matter will be completely forgotten.’

Magnus took his bag from the groom. ‘I’m sure it will, senator.’

‘Just mention my name to the trierarchos; I’ve paid in advance so there’ll be no problems.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Will you be all right?’ Gaius asked, his eyes lingering on the groom’s legs as he climbed up next to the driver who was equally as lissom.

Magnus grinned and slung his bag over his shoulder. ‘I’ve got nothing to do for the next fourteen or fifteen days, sir.’ He patted a small lump concealed underneath his tunic. ‘So don’t worry about me, I’ll put that time to good use; I’ve got a whole realm to explore.’



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