If Vannus had ever thought Celatus to have even a shred of ordinary stability, the thought was well and truly perished when he returned to CCXXIB with dinner wrapped in a parcel to find the patrician, in unbelted tunic and bare feet, throwing Vannus’ sword at the side wall of their living room.
His dagger was already sticking out of the woodwork.
“What –” Vannus spluttered, and set down the misshapen lumps in papyrus. “What in Jupiter’s name are you doing?!”
“Bored,” Celatus drawled, entirely unaffected. Vannus stepped forward and snatched two of their kitchen knives from Celatus’ unresisting hand.
“I’m bored,” Celatus repeated with a growl. Vannus pursed his lips and resisted the urge to shout again as he wrenched his weapons from the wall. Celatus, in the meantime, sighed like the east wind, and stalked past Vannus to flop down on the couch under the new wounds in the wood.
“There hasn’t been a decent case in weeks,” he moaned, which caused Vannus to scoff as the knives clattered from his hands to the table and he replied:
“Ten days, Celatus. That’s hardly weeks.”
“It is more than one week,” Celatus snapped, “therefore – weeks.”
Vannus rolled his eyes with a scowl, and stalked to his room to toss his sword and dagger on the bed. “They say the Gallic legions are rebelling, and you’re worried about being bored…”
Celatus hummed absently. “I heard it was the Spanish...”
“Look, I got those swallows you like from the stall down the road,” said Vannus, not listening. Celatus groaned, as if the very thought of food was too tedious for his enormous brain. “Seia’s slave caught up with me on the way home, she’s just got a patient in with a piece of wood through his leg.”
“It’s already dark outside,” Celatus whined, “surely she can’t call you in this late!”
Vannus levelled him with a very specific look. “A man’s leg is at stake,” he commanded. “I’m going to the Caelian. Eat your dinner.”
Celatus’ reply was to turn on his side and curl up, arching his back at Vannus, who blew an angry sigh through his nose and clenched his jaw as he left.
Five minutes later, Celatus thought he smelt smoke. He checked the chimney for obstructions, then peeked out of the window onto the street.
The insula opposite was ablaze.
It wasn’t until the next morning that word reached Vannus that the via Pistoris had been ablaze that night. He’d stayed too late at Seia’s, operating on the wounded workman, to go home, and snatched some rest in her rooms just before sunrise. The gossip had passed through the courtyard when he heard.
When he reached CCXXIB, the entire insula opposite was a blackened husk. He stopped by Hirtia’s rooms first, to check that she was okay (just a little flustered), and that no one had been inside when the fire broke out.
“No, no,” Hirtia said, “that building’s been empty for over a month, if I recall. Between the fever that broke out there, and the landlord going bankrupt, no one was living there, except maybe a few squatters.”
Vannus thanked her, and turned to the heavy task of checking after Celatus’ health.
He called his friend’s name as he took the stairs two at a time – but he needn’t have worried. Celatus, it turned out, was to be found sitting back in his chair by the hearth, immaculate in toga and shoes, and plucking irritably at his cithara; with his brother, Sollemnis, occupying the chair opposite. Vannus glanced over Celatus from afar, but could discern no visible injuries. At Vannus’ entrance, however, he clapped his hand over the strings of his cithara and looked up, and his mouth was tight when he spoke.
“Good morning, Piso,” he said, too sharp for comfort. His eyes flashed up and down the man’s body. “I see your patient is doing well. How was Seia’s hearth?”
Sollemnis had already stolen a languid glance at Vannus, and so didn’t need to look as he chided: “Couch, Amulius, it was the couch...”
Celatus’ eyes narrowed, first at his brother, then Vannus. “Oh, yes of course…”
Vannus gaped at them with furrowed brow, but decided it to be better not to ask. He shook his head, and perched himself on the edge of the couch.
“I’ve just been talking to my brother here,” said Sollemnis, with a bland smile at Vannus. “I suppose I should extend to you the same invitation I made to him.”
“Invitation?” Vannus frowned.
“I suggested to Amulius that he leave the city for a few months.” Sollemnis’ expression did not change. “For no reason in particular, it should all have sorted itself out by July, if…” He blinked. “If all goes according to plan, shall we say.”
“Plan, what plan?”
“That’s just what I said,” Celatus growled, as he plucked again at his cithara, “but of course, the great git can’t blab his imperial secrets to just anyone, can he?”
Vannus glanced between the two Roman brothers. “I – thought you were a senator.”
“Well, we all need a bit of job security, don’t we?” Sollemnis just bared his front teeth. “And I hear you’ve found an occupation for yourself, Caelius. A civilian surgeon, eh? And how is that going for you?”
“Fine, thanks,” Vannus replied, still frowning in distraction.
“And your work with Amulius has been good, I hear. Keeping him occupied is always such a challenge, it must be like living with one of the Furies.”
Vannus’ eyes stopped on him, and his reply was guarded. “Well, I’m never bored.”
“Good!” Sollemnis smiled again, like a cruel cat. “That’s good, isn’t it?”
A tense silence fell, as Vannus gritted his teeth against Sollemnis’ manner. Celatus twanged another chord out on his cithara.
“Well, I can see my advice will go nowhere in this little… household,” Sollemnis said, standing. “Rest assured, Amulius, that I am only interested in your well-being.”
“If you were interested in my well-being,” Celatus spat, “you wouldn’t have come here at all.”
Sollemnis ignored him. “Caelius,” he said as he moved to stand before Vannus – “you should know that our family owns a small villa near Arretium. Should you ever require housing outside of Rome, our slaves will treat you with the utmost hospitality, I am sure.”
He held out his hand, and Vannus stood, abruptly, to grasp it, with a tentative expression of thanks.
“Do keep in mind what I said, Amulius,” Sollemnis called as he left on ponderous feet. Vannus watched him until he could no longer be seen.
“… What was all that about?” he asked Celatus. Celatus’ face soured, and his lip curled.
“Just more nonsense about getting me out of the city as soon as something interesting happens,” he complained. “He’s done it before, it’s nothing to worry about. I’m sure something terribly political is about to happen and he’s afraid I’ll get injured during the next absurd conspiracy.”
Vannus had begun to shift on restless feet, but his attention, then, suddenly focused on Celatus. “Conspiracy?”
Celatus scoffed. “Honestly, Piso, it’s nothing to worry yourself over. The praetorians, bad as the rumours are, rarely worry about retired army surgeons sequestered away on the Aventine, not when they have emperors to protect or murder, according to their whim.”
Vannus sighed at him, and sat in his chair, which Sollemnis had so recently vacated. “I was still a child when Gaius was killed,” he said. “Our whole neighbourhood was terrified.”
Celatus shrugged, his focus more on his cithara than the conversation. “I wasn’t even old enough to have begun my schooling,” he mused. “We were living in our villa near Brundisium, anyway, so it hardly affected us.”
Vannus lips pursed. “Yes, well, perhaps if you’d been living a stone’s throw from the Castra Praetoria, you might have felt a little differently,” he snapped, and immediately regretted it, as he saw Celatus silently interpret his words to reveal where Vannus’ family had lived when he was eight, and set aside the information for later manipulation.
“In any case,” Vannus went on, eager to move the conversation away, “I have no intention of leaving Rome any time soon. Sollemnis may be worried, but you’re right – it shouldn’t be hard to just keep away from the Palatine for a week or two.”
Celatus smirked at him; but when he opened his mouth to reply, there came the clatter of heavy feet on the stair, and a moment later, Laevinus was standing before them, nodding in greeting to them both and breathing hard.
“You’re a little late to help with the fire,” Celatus sneered.
Laevinus rolled his eyes. “It’s – something else.”
One, patrician eyebrow rose with utter contempt.
“A message was delivered to us last night,” Laevinus said, in halting tones. “I thought it best to come to you personally.”
“Why come to me?”
Laevinus hesitated, enough that both Vannus and Celatus’ curiosities were undeniably piqued.
“You... quite need to see it,” was the eventual explanation. Celatus stood with an impatient sigh.
“All right then, where have you sequestered yourselves this time?”
Laevinus looked like he was biting his tongue inside his mouth. “Same as before, Celatus,” he chided. “A few insulae near the Porta Capena.”
It wasn’t at first obvious what message Laevinus had been talking about; but as they approached the via Appia, the legate’s shoulders became increasingly tense, and when the three turned the corner onto the street where the vigiles had taken up residence, suddenly everything made a lot more – and a lot less – sense.
Scrawled on the outer wall of the building opposite Laevinus’ quarters had been scrawled, in charcoal, a message, with letters as long as Vannus’ forearm:
CORNELIO CELATO, SALVE
I A V
Celatus’ footsteps came to a gradual halt as he reached the message. He stared for a long time at the words, while Laevinus and Vannus stayed at a step’s remove, hesitant to interrupt, hesitant even to approach. After a moment, Celatus stepped up until his nose was to the plaster, smelling, touching, inspecting the very blackness of the letters.
“Do you think this has something to do with what happened on the via Pistoris?” Vannus asked, quiet.
“Undoubtedly,” Celatus muttered to the wall. “The fire was well controlled, staged in an empty insula directly across from where I live, and now this…” His grey eyes flickered up to where his own name was spelled out in rugged, soot-black letters. “One from five…”
“That means four more fires,” Laevinus concluded, growing agitated. “There aren’t enough empty insulae in the city to go around.”
“Somehow, I doubt our mysterious culprit will be aiming for empty insulae next time.”
Both Vannus and Laevinus looked at him with sharp, fearful eyes. Vannus blinked.
“What makes you say that?” he asked, with a tight voice and tightening mouth. Celatus dropped to him a condescending glance over his shoulder.
“Do you remember the last time Rome burned?”
Vannus shrugged. “We were stationed in Alexandria at the time,” he said. “Heard the news, of course, but I was hardly there.”
But Laevinus’ face had darkened.
“The blame fell on almost every section you could think of,” he grumbled. “Christians, praetorians, Nero himself…”
Celatus snorted. “As if the emperor has the brains to incite such a successful conflagration.”
“Successful?” Vannus echoed, with a stiff neck and determinedly blank expression.
“Well, it destroyed half the city, didn’t it?” Celatus retorted. “If fire had a motive, that would be it.”
Laevinus’ expression, too, had now soured. “Thousands of people were killed,” he growled. “Livelihoods destroyed. Countless homes and businesses burnt to nothing.”
“To be replaced by Nero’s palace,” Celatus quipped. His attention, however, was still on the inscription on the wall, and he paid no heed to his fellows’ shaking heads and scoffing laughs.
“Did you hear?” Laevinus said as Celatus ignored them. “Apparently Vindex is leading a revolt in Gaul.”
“Yes, but it won’t come to anything,” Vannus shrugged. “These things so rarely do.”
“Well, you would know.” Laevinus smirked, and they chuckled together.
“Are you two quite finished there?” Celatus snapped, as he rounded on them like a scandalised matron. Two sets of eyebrows rose in sarcastic offence. “We do seem to have a serial arsonist on our hands.”
“A – sorry, a serial arsonist?” Laevinus repeated.
“He started the fire on the via Pistoris, obviously,” Celatus drawled.
“Obviously…” Vannus repeated on a sigh.
“That fire was not an accident – it was controlled, regular, timed and placed exactly where it was needed –”
“And?” snapped Laevinus in irritation.
“Well, that’s takes practice, doesn’t it?” Celatus smirked. “Practice, premeditation, planning. Our arsonist has done this before.”
Laevinus’ face was souring considerably. “What bastard would do such a thing?” he scowled. “As if Rome isn’t dangerous enough, he needs to add to our woes?”
Celatus shrugged. “Some people get their entertainment in peculiar ways,” he said, nonchalant. “You once believed the same of me, didn’t you?”
“Yes, well.” Laevinus shifted on his feet. “I was wrong, wasn’t I? All for the better, then. But this…”
“One from five,” Vannus said, and successfully cut off whatever cruel quip Celatus had prepared for his opening mouth. “The fire across from us was one, yes – but what does our culprit want from you?”
Celatus turned with a swirl of his toga back to face the inscription on the wall, as if new letters might have appeared when he wasn’t looking. “I’m not sure…” he muttered, with fingertips pressed together beneath his chin. “Perhaps more correspondence is to be expected –”
As if on cue, a woman appeared by Celatus’ elbow, out of breath and having just run up to them on the street without warning.
“Cornelius Celatus?” she asked. “I was told where to find you.”
“What do you want?” Celatus asked with a sneer.
“I was told to give you these,” said the woman between breaths, as she drew something from the satchel at her hip. Then she held out to Celatus –
“Shoes.” Vannus glanced between them and Celatus, waiting for a reaction. Eventually, Celatus stopped staring at the slave, and took with slow fingers the shoes from her hands.
“I’m to tell you that –” The woman’s demeanour was beginning to shake. “That you are to solve this puzzle, and tell me the answer, or –” She forced her voice to stop shaking. “Or my mistress dies.”
“Dies,” Celatus repeated. “How?”
“I can’t say.”
“Where is your mistress?”
“I can’t say.”
“Can you tell me anything –”
“No!” The woman’s expression had hardened by now, though her voice quivered. “My orders are only to bring you – the shoes and – and stay with you until it’s solved. If I do anything else –”
“Your mistress will be killed, yes I’m seeing the pattern,” said Celatus without patience. “So you’re to stay with us until I provide a solution?”
“By sunset,” the slave woman added. “That’s what I was told. By sunset tonight, or – or else –”
Celatus’ chin raised in a nod of understanding. “Or another fire breaks out.”
“And this time,” Vannus added grimly, “not in an empty house.”
“It’s – a pair of shoes!” Vannus voice was loud and incredulous as he trotted behind Celatus, the first in the patrician’s little train: Vannus, then the slave woman who’d been sent to them, then Laevinus, bringing up the rear with Dido, mouth pinched, in tow. “A child’s sandals! What can you possibly expect to see from them?”
Celatus, very suddenly, pulled up short, causing the whole line behind him nearly to tumble into each other. Heedless, however, Celatus turned on his heel, and stared down at a baulking, frowning Vannus with wide, silver eyes.
“What makes you say that?” he asked, voice soft and fascinated.
Vannus blinked up at him. “Say what?”
“A child’s shoes.”
“What, you –” Vannus glanced around at his audience – Laevinus and the slaves, and the dozens of people milling around and past them on the street. “I mean, they’re a bit big, obviously, but –”
Celatus continued to stare at him, with the focus of the sun through glass.
“Well, they’re almost certainly not a woman’s boots,” Vannus said, growing ever more hesitant, glancing down from Celatus’ face to the shoes in his hands. “But they’re still perhaps a little small for a man; but a child with big feet, now then they’d be perfect. They’re practically in tatters, but what man would let a good pair of sandals like that get so worn? That’s good leather, that, if he could afford them he’d be able to afford a good pair of boots. But children often get attached like that, and perhaps his parents were unwilling to buy new shoes for him if he was still growing fast.”
Celatus, atop his intrigue and superior manner, looked, unusually, surprised. There was a crease between his brows, as if the very fact of the novelty surprised him twice over,but still his eyes were wide and bright, and his entire body, now, turned toward Vannus.
“Good,” he muttered, then said it again, mouth wider this time. “Very good. Well done.”
Vannus stood still with his shoulders bent backward and his chin pulled in, leaning away from Celatus. “Thank… you?”
Celatus spun around and marched on. “I mean, if that’s the most you can give me, you’ve missed almost everything of importance, but it’s a start…”
Vannus rolled his eyes, and picked up the pace once more.
“Where are we going, anyway?” he called, as Laevinus, Dido and the other woman caught up with them.
“Home!” Celatus threw back at them. “Ordinarily I wouldn’t think it necessary, but in a case like this…”
Vannus frowned at him, jogging further to match his stride and walk beside him. “What do you mean,” he asked, with a brow like a newly-ploughed field, “a case like this?”
Celatus met his eye from over his sharp and high-born nose. “You have no suspicions as to who might be behind this?” he said, his voice lowered so as not to be heard by those behind them. Vannus’ quick, booted feet kept him moving even as his eyes were riveted on Celatus’ face. “A message, a mastermind, crime and threats…”
“You – you don’t mean…”
Celatus’ mouth twitched up at one corner.
“Mercurialis?” Vannus hissed. “Mercurialis, about whom we know nothing but for –”
“About whom you know nothing,” Celatus countered. “I’ve been doing some research, here and there... What connections I could find brought me to the image of a man quite the pyrotechnician, amongst other criminal pursuits.”
“And now he’s set his sights on you?”
Vannus’ tone was light, but he could not hide the worry that tinged his thoughts. Celatus glanced down at him again, intrigued.
“It seems so, yes,” he said, with a voice flat and unrevelatory. “But for now, let’s consider it a strong theory, rather than fact.”
His strides increased, and Vannus fell behind again, still trotting like an eager servant just to keep up.
Soon enough, the little band found themselves on the via Pistoris again, where Celatus dismissed Laevinus to his duties, but kept Dido and the other slave in the courtyard – the one in case they had need to contact the vigiles again, and the other for when the mystery was solved.
Vannus tried not to think about what would happen if it were not.
Up in their rooms, which still felt lightly singed, Celatus swept the debris off the table and dragged it over beneath the windows, as well as lighting a candle to keep up the light. He then placed the shoes on the table with something akin to reverence, and, despite that he’d neither addressed nor noticed Vannus follow him up, held out one hand and demanded Vannus’ knives.
“So, we know these almost certainly belonged to a child, with particularly large feet,” he intoned, once Vannus, grumbling, had brought out his surgical tools and handed Celatus a small and subtle, but hideously sharp, blade. Celatus sliced carefully at the worn and weary seams of the shoes as he spoke. “Despite their overuse, they’ve been kept in good condition – almost meticulously cleaned, some of the thongs have been replaced, the soles treated with cork for the winter and then removed…”
Vannus, standing behind him, closed his eyes and shook his head, caught between disbelief and absolute wonder.
“However, they haven’t been used for… quite some time…” As he spoke, Celatus’ voice slowed, as did his fingers on the shoes, as he turned them and peeled at their layers in his hands. “Ten, maybe twenty years, judging by the action of age on the leather, the dryness of any residue…” His eyes narrowed. “That’s Tiber mud,” he muttered, and tilted the soles of the shoes to Vannus for inspection.
“Of course you can identify mud from the Tiber,” Vannus sighed.
“And look –” Celatus held the right shoe up higher for Vannus to take. “Look at the inside sole, in the arch – what do you see?”
Vannus pulled a stool from nearby up along near Celatus, and leaned in to the candle with the shoe held out. Just below where the arch of the foot would have rested was a tiny spot of something rusty brown, around a needle-sized hole in the leather.
“Is that…” Vannus started, peering at the shoe. “Blood. Around a hole…”
Celatus held Vannus’ own knife out to him. “Would you care to do the honours?”
Vannus took the knife, and spread the already-half-collapsed sandal on the table before him, below the candle. Carefully, he slit open where the layers of leather at the sole were held together, slicing along the inner edge of the shoe and around the heel in one long, smooth curve of his steady hand. He peeled back the leather, to reveal, beneath the hole, a tiny, peaked –
“Thorn.” Vannus set down the knife and held down the lower sole to peel the shoe further apart. “It’s a thorn.”
“Don’t touch it,” Celatus warned gently. “It’s probably poisoned.”
The corner of Celatus’ mouth turned up, and he directed the look, both triumphant and condescending, at Vannus, his eyes glinting as the scant daylight hit them. “Why were we given these shoes?” he asked.
Vannus frowned, and winced at the interrogation. “As a clue,” he said, and tried not to shrug.
“A clue, yes, but to what?”
“We don’t know that, that’s what –”
“Think about it,” Celatus insisted. “A woman is being held against her will and under threat of death, unless we solve this puzzle. Whoever set this up – especially if it’s Mercurialis – clearly has criminal intentions. Why should not this be the clue to a crime itself? A child with big feet, who spends time around the Tiber, a thorn is hidden in his shoe, which, decades later, is given to –” All of a sudden, his expression froze, a blank double of his explanatory, investigatory face, and a small gasp of revelation passed his lips. He sat back from Vannus in his chair and whispered: “Oh.”
Vannus looked at him, then at the wall where Celatus’ dull, iron eyes were staring, then back at the man himself. “What?”
“Carvilius Pollio,” Celatus said, like it was the long-lost answer to a sphinx’s riddle.
Vannus’ frown deepened, and he turned a little in his seat. “Sorry, who?”
“Carvilius Pollio, Piso,” Celatus repeated, louder this time.
“And what’s that?”
“Well,” Celatus intoned – “it’s where I began.”
Dido was sent to fetch Laevinus to meet them outside the vigiles’ quarters once more. Celatus abandoned the shoes in their living room and, with Vannus leaping in his wake, practically ran from the building, picking up the slave woman from the courtyard on the way. The noonday sun had passed its zenith, and though the sky was not yet darkening, they hurried all the same, the looming threat of fire and danger and a time limit hovering over their spirits.
“Nineteen years ago,” Celatus explained as they hurried back through the streets, “a young boy, Carvilius Pollio, was among my generation of senatorial children. He was a braggart and a bully, but he was strong, and larger than most children – and he was an incredible swimmer. Used to challenge other boys to races in the Tiber, and he always won. One day, after classes, he took a group down to the river and challenged them to a race. The river wasn’t swollen or unusual that day, and the weather was fine. But halfway across, he had some kind of fit, apparently, in the water – he drowned long before anyone could fish him out. I heard about it, of course, through classmates and family gossip – but there was something wrong, something I couldn’t forget.”
“What was that?” Vannus asked, intrigued.
“What about them?”
“They weren’t there,” Celatus insisted. “I tried to convince his family to look into it, but I was just a child myself, no one would listen to me.” He glanced at Vannus’ blank face beside him, and capitulated. “All of his clothes had been left by the riverside,” he explained, “his tunic, belt, his mother’s shawl he’d brought with him against the cold; but there was no sign of his shoes. And he loved those shoes, you saw how well he treated them, how long he kept them beyond any reason.”
“If those are his shoes then…” Vannus began, and Celatus quickly picked up the tail of his sentence.
“It would explain everything,” he said, eyes flashing grey in excitement. “The thorn administered a poison, probably when he put them on after school or before going out to play. He took off his clothes to go swimming, and while in the water, the poison took affect – either it killed him on the spot, or paralysed him enough that he did simply drown. Either way, when no one was looking, the killer took the shoes to hide the only evidence of anything gone wrong. No one would care about some boy’s old, lost shoes when in mourning for their child.”
“So the killer must have kept the shoes, all these years,” Vannus concluded. Celatus glanced at him with a smirk.
Vannus stared, mouth slack, but eyes still terse.
“He’s our arsonist.”
They reached almost to the Porta Capena again hours before nightfall. The little group stopped before the black and looming message as Laevinus and Dido joined them.
“So what now?” Vannus asked, looking up, as Celatus was, at the sooty letters.
“We get his attention.”
Without warning, Celatus spun around and plucked the dagger from Vannus’ belt, inspiring a short string of cut-off oaths and protests. Celatus, however, wasn’t listening – instead, he carved letters as high as the others in the painted plaster with broad, strong strokes.
CREPIDAE CARVILII POLLIONIS
He stood back from the wall. His breath, from his detective passion and the rush over, was laboured, and Vannus, almost equally, felt his lungs work hard. Behind them, Dido and Laevinus were sceptical and entranced, and waiting. The slave woman beside them all was blank-faced with shock and fear; her hands were shaking.
And then, out of nowhere, a lit torch fell at their feet.
It had been dropped from high above, clearly, the flame guttering from its own wind, but still flickering. They all flinched, and stared at it for a long moment, until Celatus’ eyes widened, and his mouth curled in triumph.
“The fire is abandoned,” he said, as his eyes shone silver and his voice struggled against his restraint. “I’ve won.”
Immediately, Laevinus and Dido’s gazes leapt upwards, to the top of the building from which the torch must surely have been dropped, at the same time as the slave woman clapped her hands to her mouth, as her breath caught and tears came into her eyes.
“Dido,” Laevinus ordered, “get some of the men, search the building. Anything out of the ordinary, anyone not meant to be there –”
“Yes domine,” Dido snapped, with a quick bow of her head, and ran into the vigiles’ building behind them.
Celatus turned now to the slave woman, all restlessness and triumph.
“Now take us to your mistress.”
The woman led them to the right place on flying feet. In a private, apparently-empty house on the Viminal, she opened the hatch to a cellar and bounded down without hesitation. Celatus climbed down after her, and Vannus followed. Laevinus approached with a lamp to light the way, but Vannus stopped him with a hand on his arm and a warning glance.
Below, the room had been emptied, the dirt floor cleared except for a wooden chair to which a Roman woman had been tied, her ankles and wrists and waist bound and her mouth stopped with a gag. Even as the men jumped down, the slave woman was untying the gag, and the woman’s fearful sobs came out now loud and clear, heavy with relief. With that job done, however, the woman fell to her knees with her head and arms in her mistress’ lap, and let her tears flow free.
“Roxane, Roxane,” the Roman woman sighed between her own tears. “Thank you, thank you, Roxane, thank you…”
Vannus did not stop to view the scene. His dagger was loose in seconds, and he knelt behind the chair to cut the ropes on the Roman woman’s torso and wrists.
“What’s your name?” he asked, his voice firm and calm, and just soft enough to be friendly.
“Annia,” the woman sobbed, as she made only a cursory attempt to glance at him. With her hands freed, she leaned over her slave and embraced her as best she could. Vannus moved to the ropes on her feet, and smiled up at her.
“Your Roxane did well,” he said, earnest and kind like nothing else. “She clearly cares for you. You must be a very good mistress.”
Annia said nothing, only hushed both herself and her slave and held her closer.
“Piso,” came Celatus’ voice from where the light was better, just under the trapdoor. Vannus stood, and sheathed his dagger, and came to his side. “Look around…”
Finally, Vannus allowed himself to let his surgeon’s instincts fade, and took in the room around them. In every corner, by the wooden supporting beam, were piles of tinder and pitch, each connected to each other with trails of the flammable liquid. Among the piles of tinder, too, were scraps and mounds of a yellow powder, bundled along with the rest but left untouched by the pitch.
“Mithras and Mars…”
“Laevinus,” Celatus called up through the hatch above. “Is there a closed lantern somewhere up there?”
“Uh –” Laevinus’ face disappeared from view, and the scuffing of feet could be heard. “Oh, yes, in one of the rooms, hold on.” He reappeared in a few moments, holding a lit, enclosed lantern in his hands. “Will this do?”
“Yes,” said Celatus, and held up his hands for it. “Careful now.”
With the lantern safely held up by Celatus, he looked again to Laevinus and instructed him to help the women out of the cellar, then motioned with his head for Vannus to follow, and kneel by one of the bundles of flammability in a corner. He set the lantern on the ground, very carefully out of contact with the pitch and wood, and, almost lying on the ground, leaned forward to smell at the bundle, and the powder beneath it. Vannus, meanwhile, crouched just behind and beside him, and peered over his shoulder.
“Is that…” he began, frowning.
“Sulphur,” Celatus confirmed. “With all this in the room, one spark could set off the whole thing in moments. Particularly orchestrated to burn long and well enough to ignite the beams, and spread to the rest of the house…”
“And if Roxane didn’t do as she was told, or you didn’t solve it in time…” Vannus rested on one knee, and swivelled about to take in the small room, the tinder and pitch, the women climbing out to Laevinus’ calming explanations, and the rest of the house and world he could not see above. His thoughts were cut off, however, when Celatus smiled to himself, and whispered one word:
Vannus’ jaw tightened, and he did not turn back as he repeated the utterance, strict and steady.
“We had no way of knowing where the right house was,” Celatus explained, sounding almost delighted, “the slave was loyal enough not to risk telling us anything, not unless, perhaps, under torture, which we didn’t have time for anyway; the messages, the clue, the connection to my childhood...”
Vannus finally turned around again, and stared at him – not, any longer, in wonder.
“What was the point, then?” he asked, instead of reprimanding in the hopeless case. “Why set all this up, just for you?”
“Oh,” Celatus smirked, “I can’t be the only person in Rome who gets bored…”
Vannus pursed his lips and said nothing.
“We should get going,” Celatus finally snapped, standing. “The message said five – one fire may have been averted, but there’s three more, still, to find.”
Dido told them the details as they walked back towards the via Pistoris, leaving Laevinus to oversee the care of the women and the removal of the fire-starting tinder. According to Annia, her husband was away for the week in Ostia, on business matters, and had taken most of the household with him. Two masked men had broken into the house overnight, and restrained her in the cellar as they set up the fire’s fuel. They’d ordered her slave to where Celatus was to be, and told her exactly what she was and was not to say; then disappeared, leaving her alone in the dark.
“Fucking disgusting,” Dido ended with a growl. “That anyone would do such a thing, and just to goad you on…”
Pride and snide triumph warred on Celatus’ features, so that his mouth twisted about, half flat and half smirking at the slave. His expression cut off, however, when he realised that Vannus was not in support; in fact, he was no longer even with them.
Stopping in his tracks, Celatus turned, and frowned. “Piso?”
Vannus was standing in place almost two houses behind them, staring at the wall of one of the richer houses. “Celatus…” he began, but said no more, so Celatus pressed his lips together in annoyance and strode back to join him.
There, on a wall like any other they would have passed between the Viminal and Aventine, was another message. This time, the letters were smaller, less conspicuous; but they still spelled out Celatus’ name, and a blunt few words.
CORNELIO CELATO CALLIDO
II A V ARCITUM
CARVILIUS ME IRRISIT ERGO EUM FINIVI
SED HOC DE ME ET TE
NE TURBAM VIVIDAM FINIAS
Celatus stared at the message for a long moment, long enough that Vannus grew restless, and glanced from the message to his friend with increasing worry. Behind them Dido crossed her arms to hide her clenching fists.
“Well?” Vannus eventually snapped, as Celatus continued to do nothing.
“There should be a clue,” Celatus returned, clicking shut his teeth behind the words. “There should be something, someone should bring us a –”
His shoulders relaxed, and his eyes brightened, and Vannus clenched his jaw in response. They turned to the owner of the voice – he was black of skin and eyes, and rich in his tunic and shawl. There was a rough cloth in his hands, a hessian blanket at great odds with the man’s own finely-woven wool.
“My brother –” he said, and held out the bundle with trembling arms. “My brother’s been –”
“Taken from you,” Celatus finished, taking the cloth. “Threatened.”
“The men,” sobbed the stranger. “I’m to give this to you, they said, I’m to –”
Vannus stepped forward. “Just stay with us,” he said, in the voice he’d used with new recruits. “We know what we’re doing, we’ll make sure your brother is safe.”
“He only has until sunrise tomorrow…”
Dido came forth then, and took the new man a step away with a significant glance first at Vannus, then Celatus. Vannus took the hint, nodded, and turned.
“Well?” he said to Celatus, stepping up to his side. “What do you make of it?”
“I make that you’ll be right at home in this case,” Celatus said, then looked down at Vannus with an arched brow. “We need to start searching for a brothel.”
“Our new friend –”
Celatus ignored Dido’s correction. “He’s a wealthy man, judging by his clothes, no doubt his brother can be assumed to be the same: wealth like that is rarely earned alone. But this cloth –” He held up the bundle. “This is cheap, poor, common. Our last kidnapped victims were of no consequence to the actual case, so it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to assume the same here. The difference then was in years; now, I would suggest we have a difference in class to deal with.”
“So what’s our first move?” Vannus asked by his shoulder.
“We find where the blanket came from.”
Vannus’ brow creased, and his eyes narrowed. “And how in Jupiter’s name are we going to do that?”
Celatus smirked ahead of him, and fiddled with the bundle in his hands until he could hold a corner of it to Vannus’ eye. There, in thick, rough, but legible stitches, had been sewn the initials L.Q.
“Lupanar Q,” Celatus translated. “Some brothels and inns initial their sheets, cups, petty furniture, to ward against thieves who might try to resell them. So, the brothel of someone with a name beginning with Q. Know where we might start, Piso?”
Vannus scowled at his jesting implication. “All right,” he conceded, “so we’re looking for someone named by the letter Q. I’m not sure that narrows it down, precisely.”
“Ah, but,” Celatus smiled – “I happen to have a thorough working knowledge of this city, as you might remember – including brothels, taverns, and baths. Coarse fabric like this can’t have come from any of the high-end brothels, so we’re looking for somewhere of a lower standard – in the subura, perhaps, or around the Aventine. There is a, not particularly discreet, brothel in the subura which uses fabric exactly of this nature, and was plagued by thefts large and small throughout last year; owned by a man named Quirinus Evodius.”
“Lupanar Quirini,” Vannus finished for him, and was graced with a conspiratorial grin.
“It might do us good to ask a few questions of the man…”
It was nearly dusk by the time they reached the right building in the subura, a brothel marked by the head of Janus above the door. Celatus left Dido and Ploutammon out on the street, and, before anyone could proposition them, marched inside and demanded to see the owner of the establishment. He and Vannus were led to a large room facing onto the street, to wait for their quarry. He took his time; there was one chair opposite the desk, and, after a few silent glances and nodded heads, Vannus sat, while Celatus paces slowly around the room, peering with academic interest at the – rather graphic – paintings on the walls.
It was a long handful of moments, which stretched out in thick silence, until they were joined. Quirinus Evodius was an unremarkable man – pale, blonde, and clearly foreign, but laid-back and welcoming. He smiled at his guests as he entered, and waved one hand in welcome when Vannus began to stand from his chair.
“Oh no, please, sit!” he said, as he rounded the desk with his fingers against its surface. He beamed, and sat. “You’re very welcome! You know, we do a good deal here on groups – one girl will cost you each half if you share her, and I can get you two, or two boys, or even a combination, to share, at a special price –”
“We’re not here for your services, Quirinus,” Celatus snapped, with a curling lip and wrinkled nose. He tossed the bloody blanket onto the desk in front of him. “This belongs to your establishment, doesn’t it?”
Evodius looked at the coarse, stained cloth, and sighed, then moved to sit back behind the desk. Celatus continued his pacing, now moving closer to Evodius and his desk.
“So?” Vannus asked, when Evodius was not forthcoming. “What happened?”
“There was... an altercation with a client.”
Celatus was peering down at the clutter of papers and boxes and objects on Evodius’ desk. Vannus took over for him.
“An altercation?” he repeated. “Of what kind?”
“I’m not sure,” Evodius shrugged. “The girl told me he demanded something she didn’t want to do, but for all I know, she may have just been looking for an excuse to leave. Needless to say, I fired her immediately.”
“She killed a client then,” said Celatus. “When was this?”
“Few days ago, now.” Evodius’ face scrunched up in thought. “Yes, three days ago, in the evening. She was gone by the next morning – I was hoping no one would find out.”
“And do you know the man’s name?”
“‘Isandros’ was what he gave us,” Evodius shrugged. “He looked like a local, though, didn’t sound like he was giving us a fake one.”
“Did you have a nice holiday?” Celatus suddenly asked, oddly friendly.
Vannus tried and failed to hide his perplexed frown; Quirinus did only a marginally better job.
“You’ve been abroad, haven’t you?” Celatus went on. “Only, I noticed a lot of African-minted coins in your purse there.” He nodded at the leather purse, half-open, on Evodius’ desk.
“Oh! No,” said Evodius. “No, I wish, but no. We just had a few foreign clients in the last few days, they’ve been piling up I guess. My wife’d love a holiday, though – bit of time off.” He smiled up at them, jocular and polite.
“Could we see the room?” Celatus asked. “Where Isandros was killed?”
Evodius grimaced. “I doubt you’ll find anything of help to you,” he said. “As you can imagine, I was keen to sweep the incident under the rug – anything incriminating will have been replaced.”
“Ah well.” Celatus smiled in resignation, an expression gratingly false to Vannus’ eyes. “There’s nothing to be done about that, then, is there? Thank you, Quirinus –” He held out a hand for the man to shake. “You’ve been very helpful. Come on, Piso!”
Baffled, glancing between Celatus’ retreating back and Evodius’ confused, if polite, expression, Vannus hurried to his feet, and followed Celatus out of the building. The sky had darkened in their absence.
“So,” he huffed as he caught up to Celatus on the street and Dido and Ploutammon joined them – “do we try to find the girl, then?”
“No,” Celatus snapped, as he frowned at the cold, clear sky and tugged the folds of his toga closer. “It doesn’t matter about the girl – Quirinus Evodius is a liar.”
“What?” Dido interrupted. “What about? What happened?”
Celatus dropped a curling sneer in her direction, and refocused on Vannus. “There were an unusual amount of African-minted coins in Evodius’ purse,” he explained. “Far more than one would expect in a Rome-based business. He said he hadn’t been away when I asked him – but when he entered to greet us, he sat quickly, and kept one hand on the desk to steady himself. He was practically still swaying on his feet; not drunkenly, but rhythmically.”
Vannus’ brow creased as he followed Celatus’ words to their conclusion. “Are you saying he’s been on a ship?”
Celatus smirked in agreement. “In the last two days, I’d imagine. Hasn’t yet had time to lose his sea legs.”
“And he told us the murder happened three days ago.”
“I’m not sure there was a murder, yet…”
Vannus’ raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“Come on,” Celatus snapped, instead of explaining. “Let’s see if we can’t find where this Isandros lived…”
It was well into the night by the time they found the right house. Evodius had been right – Isandros was local: only three streets away, in fact. By asking around the neighbourhood for missing men, rumours of murder, or someone called Isandros, they eventually found their way to an apartment up three flights of stairs, where resided an Italian woman named Lanike and her two sons, and whence a money-lender named Isandros had just three days since gone missing.
“I’m so sorry,” she said as she greeted them, red-eyed and grimacing, “but I’ve searched for days and nothing’s come up. It’s so good to hear someone else has found something.”
Celatus’ face did something funny – screwed up and fell, as if in sympathy, although to anyone who knew him, the expression felt undeniably false. “My name’s Cornelius Celatus,” he said, his voice hoarse as from tears. “I was an old friend of your husband’s. We – we grew up together.”
Lanike looked down at his clothes, and grief warred with suspicion on her face. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t think he ever mentioned you.”
“Oh, but he must’ve done.”
Vannus, meanwhile, had his hands clasped behind his back, and was trying very hard not to interject. Dido and Ploutammon were simply stunned.
“This is horrible, isn’t it?” Celatus kept saying. “Just horrible, I only saw him the other day – same old Isandros, not a care in the world!”
Lanike’s expression was growing increasingly furious. “I’m sorry?” she spluttered. “My husband’s been hounded by debtors for months! Who are you?”
“Bit strange, that he was killed in that sordid place,” Celatus ploughed on, heedless. “No body or anything, who knows what could have happened – it’s a suspicious, isn’t it?” Unbelievably, a tear rolled down one cheek.
“No it isn’t!” Lanike insisted. “He’s gone to that brothel for years, especially when I was pregnant, it’s no surprise that he was there.”
“Oh, well!” Celatus looked like he was trying to share a joke, but no one was amused. “That was Isandros! That was Isandros all over!”
“No it wasn’t!” Lanike cried, now fully outraged. All of sudden, however, Celatus’ smile and tears were gone. His voice dropped, and his grey eyes flashed.
“Wasn’t it?” he repeated, intrigued all over. “Interesting.”
In seconds, he was out of the room, the rest of their group hurrying after and leaving Lanike, sputtering and with fists clenched at her sides, behind.
“What –” Vannus caught up to Celatus; he was getting a little sick of that. “What just happened?”
“People don’t like telling you things,” he explained, “but they love to contradict you. And: past tense – did you notice?” Vannus only frowned. “I referred to her husband in the past tense, she joined in. A little premature, wouldn’t you say, after all, no body’s been found.”
“I see,” Vannus began, then corrected. “No I don’t – what do I see?”
Celatus, however, had snatched the blanket back from Vannus’ hands, and was examining it by the poor light of the stars and occasional torch.
“Where now?” Vannus asked, and glanced back at where Dido and Ploutammon were hurrying behind them, the man’s face growing more harrowed by the minute.
“Light…” Celatus muttered, as he peered at the cloth in the dark. “I need some light.”
They returned to the via Pistoris. Ploutammon was given Vannus’ room to sleep in, while Dido flopped onto the couch to rest. In the meantime, Celatus set up a series of candles, lanterns and brass mirrors in an attempt to cast as much artificial light on the table as possible, while he spread the blanket atop it and investigated the wide, rusty stain.
Vannus tried to stay awake to help him, but nothing in Celatus’ manner indicated that he wanted him, and it wasn’t long before, slumped in his chair before the embers in the hearth, his eyelids drooped, and he dozed off into snatches of dreams which he never remembered.
Vannus sniffed, and jerked his head, and stared blankly at the floor.
It was Celatus who was saying his name. His voice was unusually soft – an unconscious gesture in favour of Dido and Ploutammon, and the too-early hush out on the street?
Vannus dismissed the idea. No doubt he was just too entranced in his newest discovery.
He shook himself, and pushed out of the chair, rolling his neck through three cricks as he approached.
“What is it?” he murmured, as he leant on hand on the back of Celatus’ chair and the other on the desk, carefully avoiding the array of lanterns, mirrors, and melted wax. Outside, the sky seemed a little less black.
Celatus stood, and motioned for Vannus to sit where he’d been. “Take a look at that stain,” he said. “What do you see?”
Vannus wiped his face with both hands, and rubbed at his eyes. He shifted forward in the seat, and leaned over the cloth.
“Blood?” he guessed, with a grimace.
Celatus seemed to stutter for a moment before – “Piso – please –” he insisted. “You’re acquainted with blood at least as much as I. What do you see?”
Vannus rubbed at his eyes again, took a deep breath, expelled it harshly, and leaned over the cloth once more. He stared at the ruddy stain, at its edges, at its thickest point.
He frowned; leaned closer.
“It’s not human.”
Celatus’ body stiffened beside him with a gasp, and Vannus would have bet his entire savings that, in that moment, the flashing of his grey eyes could have rivalled the inevitable sunrise.
“I can’t… say exactly what it is,” Vannus said. He leaned over a sniffed at the stain, then straightened a little and continued to peer at it. “Something in the consistency, the colour isn’t quite red enough, even for an old stain. And it smells all wrong.”
“It’s not human,” Celatus repeated. He leaned over, with one hand resting on the back of Vannus’ chair and the other on the table before them. “Piso –” His eyes were bright, and his cheeks and mouth lifting with a smile. “It’s not human.”
Ploutammon was woken. Dido was alert within seconds. Celatus left the blanket amongst the cluttered lamps and the remaining debris of Carvilius Pollio’s shoes, and led them from the building, chattering even as he ran.
“The blood was staged,” he explained, not looking back – “a pig’s or cow’s, but Isandros isn’t dead at all – his wife did a terrible job of hiding it.”
“So where is he?” Vannus panted, following.
“Numidia, at a guess,” said Celatus. “You remember the sign of Evodius’ brothel?”
“The head of Janus,” answered Vannus. “What about it? It was a reference to his name, surely.”
“The two-faced god of new beginnings?” Celatus smirked between breaths. “No. He helped them – helped Isandros disappear. A money-lender, Lanike said he was in trouble. And those children almost certainly had more than one father. This way, Lanike gets rid of a husband she doesn’t like – and Isandros gets away from angry clients and patrons. No doubt Evodius was handsomely paid.”
“So what now?”
“We need to let our friendly arsonist know before sunrise!”
Towards the east, the sky was just beginning to turn grey, and Celatus was grinning like a drunkard at Saturnalia.
This time, Celatus grabbed a burnt-out torch from the wall to inscribe the solution beneath the second message. In matching, blackened letters, he spelt out:
ISANDROS CUM EVODIO AD AFRICAM
They looked up at the tops of the buildings, waiting for any sign of a torch or a person, until --
“There!” Celatus cried out, pointing up at the insula opposite, from the roof of which dropped another lit torch. “Dido!”
“Got it!” She was in the building within seconds.
“Now,” Celatus turned to the terrified, panting Ploutammon, and demanded: “Where’s your brother?”
Vannus fetched Laevinus who, having spoken to his prefect, brought with him a small contingent of vigiles to keep the forum as empty as possible while the sun rose and Ploutammon led them straight to the temple of Castor and Pollux. In a back room there, surrounded, familiarly, by well-placed piles of tinder and wood, pools of pitch, and lumps of foul-smelling sulphur, a dark young man was bound, and nearly sobbed with relief when his brother appeared. Again, Vannus cut the hostage free while Celatus turned slowly on the spot and took in every inch of the room with his bright and open eyes, and again, they left Laevinus – and Dido, now – in charge, with other vigiles in tow, to clear up the dangerous materials and disperse the scene. Celatus and Vannus, however – the one dragged out by the latter – went straight to the nearest tavern, and ordered bread, and barley porridge, watered wine and a plate of dried figs. Vannus devoured what he could, while Celatus picked at the figs and a few crumbs of drippings-soaked bread.
“Nothing,” he hissed, fingers pinched tight around the next morsel. “Nothing found by either Dido or Laevinus, in either of the buildings. Our adversary must be clever to become invisible so quickly.”
He sounded so – impressed. Vannus scowled into his food, but did not reply.
“The only thing now, then, is to wait for the next message,” Celatus mused. “No doubt it will be made known to us like the others.
He was right. As they walked home after Vannus had eaten his fill, high up on a wall as they passed through the valley to the Aventine, was scrawled another ominous, black-lettered note.
CORNELIO CELATO PERICLITANTI
III A V ARCITUM
HAEC EST VITIOSA
RE VERA CAECUS
“This one’s blind…” Celatus muttered. Vannus’ eyes widened.
“Oh Mithras, what next…”
They waited on the street for a clue to arrive, but nothing came. The walk home was quiet.
Their clue, it turned out, was waiting for them.
In the courtyard at CCXXI, a sullen teenaged girl was sat, holding a yellow wig which piled its curls in intricate, complex patterns. She glowered as they entered, but did not stand
“Cornelius Celatus, right?” she scowled. He narrowed his eyes at her, but nodded. “I was told to give this to you.”
She tossed the wig at his feet, and his face screwed up further as he frowned down at the object.
“Well, what am I supposed to make of this?” he spat. “That could be anyone’s!”
“Could be,” Vannus sighed. “Luckily for you, I actually leave the house now and then for something other than business.”
Celatus’ iron gaze darted over to him, and he shrugged with one shoulder.
“That’s Pontia’s wig,” he said, nodding down at it. “She plays a lot of older prostitutes in the street comedies, she’s quite famous for it. Her wigs, especially, are very distinctive.”
“So, we have the wig of a famous woman,” Celatus said, cynical. “It’s probably safe to assume that something’s happened to her.”
“Murdered?” Vannus suggested. “Kidnapped? She could have run off somewhere, like the last one, but that hardly seems likely.”
Celatus peered down at him. “Why do you say that?”
“Well, she’s not exactly got bad prospects in Rome,” he shrugged. “Quite famous, very rich, anywhere else and she’d no doubt be taken down a notch or two. They say there’s even a marriage in store for her, to a wealthy senator – and she nearly forty and never married yet, that’s quite a good turn.”
Celatus’ steely eyes darted back and forth as his mind raced through the possibilities and Vannus watched on, swept away by wonder and anticipation. The girl who’d brought the wig was still sitting in the middle of the courtyard, pretending to ignore them.
“You know where Pontia’s household can be found?” Celatus soon asked and glanced at Vannus, who nodded in return. “Good. You go there, ask around – her family, slaves, recent events, anything, I need something to work with.”
“And what about you?”
His mouth twisted a little. “I’m going down to the Tiber past the sewers,” he said. “If she’s been murdered, that’s the most likely place for her body to have been dumped.”
“We’ll meet up again here, by lunch?” Vannus asked. Celatus turned, and pointed to the girl.
“You,” he snapped – “what time limit has he set?”
She looked reluctant to reply, but did, with a quiet growl to her voice. “Sundown,” she said. “By sundown, but I wouldn’t care if you were late.”
Celatus rolled his eyes. “You’ll be coming with me,” he ordered. “Let’s see if we can’t find a body in the river.”
Pontius Cinna, their victim’s brother, lived in her enormous house on the Caelian, with their troop of slaves and paid servants. Vannus was greeted by a pretty young slave called Rhesus, with trimmed nails and clean cheeks; and he was not the only well-kept slave in the house.
Cinna himself was loathsome. Vannus took an immediate dislike to him when his first concerns were not about his sister’s well-being – though he admitted she’d been missing for the last two days – but whether Vannus was a new client seeking patronage. His dislike grew when Cinna showed only the falsest, simpering worry for Pontia’s possible murder; worse still, the brother insisted repeatedly that Vannus watch his words when he gossiped with others about the state of things.
The whole house smelled of vinegar and lavender, and Vannus was relieved to finally remove himself from the cloying place, hoping Celatus had enjoyed more luck.
As it turned out, he had: Pontia’s body was found by the slave girl, caught on the banks of the Tiber downstream from the Cloaca Maxima.
“I recognised the wounds instantly,” Celatus babbled, pacing the room as Vannus pounded chickpeas into a paste and snacked on lettuce with the girl. “Have you ever heard of Baal?”
Vannus frowned down at his lunch. “It's an - eastern term, isn't it?” he muttered. “For some of their gods and lords.”
“Never mind the folklore,” Celatus snapped, “more than that – the name was given to an assassin from Parthia. A distinctive man, though I’ve only ever heard reports – unusually tall, with extremely strong hands, he squeezes the life out of his victims so as to leave no trace on the scene, then dumps the body in the nearest body of water, which often means it goes unfound, or if it is, most evidence is washed away –”
“Yes, Celatus, I understand,” Vannus sighed, picking up a jug of oil. “What did you find?”
“Bruises.” His face was ecstatic, as he paused in his pacing to meet Vannus’ eye. “Around the mouth and the nose, few other men would even be capable of such a feat, but the marks are a dead giveaway.”
“So now we go after an assassin?” The slave nicked a slice from the bread she was cutting, and Vannus swiped at her arm, though without much ire. “Sounds perfectly safe.”
“There’s no honour among thieves, Piso,” Celatus said, and practically laughed with delight. “No doubt this Baal will reveal his employer without much prompting, especially if we guarantee him time to leave the city.”
“I’ll warrant you anything it was the brother,” said Vannus. “I’ve never seen a man with less family sympathy, it’s just unnatural...”
“I wouldn’t rule out the rest of the household just yet,” Celatus added, “especially considering Cinna’s affair with that slave of his.” Vannus’ gaze darted up to him, and he frowned, his hand having paused on the pestle.
“What makes you say that?”
“Oh please,” Celatus drawled. “I heard what you recounted, not to mention listened to whatever gossip I could stir up on my way back. It’s practically common knowledge that Pontius is sleeping with Rhesus, and resents his sister for considering marriage and taking whatever dowry and inheritance she can with her.”
Vannus slathered the hasty paste on slices of bread, and popped another piece of lettuce in his mouth. “Well,” he said, between chews, “we’ll find out the truth soon enough.”
Celatus really did laugh, then, even as Vannus chased him to force a piece of bread into his hand. “This is the easiest one yet,” he chuckled. “Our arsonist seems to be getting lazy.”
He paid no heed to Vannus’ pursing mouth and tightening fists.
It was the assassin’s distinctive look which gave him away. Celatus’ idea was that he would hide away in the slums – in the shadow of the city wall, perhaps, or under arches and aqueducts where the beggars huddled. He was right; and it didn’t take them long to find a monstrously tall and gangly man, with wide, strong hands and suspicious eye, especially not when the paupers themselves were more than happy to help Celatus out, with or without the inventive of a few asses in coin. When the assassin saw them coming, he leapt to his feet and ran, but Vannus was well-trained, and before Celatus could do more than shout and raise his pace, Vannus had tackled their target to the ground and drawn his dagger, much to the outrage and fear of the surrounding crowds.
“You’re the assassin called Baal,” he said, a stern but obvious question. The man scowled, but grunted a ‘yes’. “You killed the actress Pontia.” Another growling affirmative. Celatus caught up, then, and stood behind the Baal’s head, looming over and trapping him between a patrician’s feet and a plebian’s knee on his chest.
“Who hired you?”
Celatus’ mirth was obnoxious and grating to Vannus’ temper.
“And you were so sure it was the brother…”
“Well I wasn’t far off, was I?” Vannus grumbled. “Rhesus’ motive was almost the same, anyway.” It wasn’t so much his being wrong that irked him – no, that he could handle; it was Celatus’ enjoyment of the fact, Celatus’ triumphant, lazy glee even though there was a blind woman trapped among pitch and sulphur, Celatus’ unbelievable enjoyment of the situation as if he’d forgotten that a woman had been killed just to preserve another’s glamorous lifestyle.
He clenched his jaw, and glanced back at where the slave girl strode, sulking, behind them. They’d picked her up at the via Pistoris after finding Baal, on their way to inscribe the answer under the most recent message, but she had come with them with utmost reluctance.
“I know you may not enjoy what you have,” Vannus said to her, trying to soothe, “but it is your lot in life. Perhaps if you –”
She turned blazing, angry eyes on him, and stopped in her tracks. Vannus stopped too, then, and turned to face her. A moment later, Celatus noticed his absence, and spun around on the spot with an impatient curl to his mouth.
Then, without warning, the girl gave a frustrated snarl, turned on her heel, and ran.
“Hey –” Vannus shouted. “Hey! No, come back, you can’t –”
“Leave it, Piso,” Celatus said, rolling his eyes. “Sick of abuses from her master, I’m surprised she stayed as long as she did.”
“But they’re meant to stay, Celatus,” Vannus insisted. “If Mercu— if the arsonist finds out she’s run off before he allowed it, he could set off the next fire before we can stop it! And we don’t have any idea where the next hostage is being kept –”
“Then there’s nothing to be done, Piso,” Celatus insisted. “It must at least take a while for the news to reach him, paths of communication to the last message and the right house from the ringleader. There’s still plenty of time until sundown.”
“We don’t know what might happen if he finds out she ran – if he thinks she’ll try and rescue her mistress, or tell someone what’s going on –”
“And how do you expect him to know so immediately our every move?” Celatus scoffed. “We still have time to get to the message and show we solved it before he ever finds out what she did, we can easily make it look as if we just dismissed her –”
He cut himself off as a distant scream reached their ears. Vannus’ face fell, even as Celatus’ superior expression froze.
“Fire!” someone was shouting, running in their direction down the street. “Fire, on the via Silani – quick, come quick!”
Bit by bit the crowd turned, and noticed, and people peeled off here and there to run back up to where the shouting figure had come from.
There was no question of whether Celatus and Vannus would follow.
It was only a few blocks away. By the time they reached it, almost an entire insula was ablaze, the fire roaring and spitting at the onlookers. People were passing buckets back and forth, running to the nearest fountains, and the buildings around the fire were emptying while members of the vigiles moved through the crowd, directing fleeing tenants and hastily dismantling and removing stalls and carts which might further fuel the growing flames.
Without question, Vannus dove into the crowd, grabbed a bucket, and joined the desperate attempt to put the fire out.
Hours later, the greedy flames had run out of food, and burnt down to embers which glowed bright in the gathering night among the blackened beams and crumbling bricks of the insula. The houses around it were stained and broken, but still mostly standing; the crowds had thinned as time wore on, but those who had persevered were soot-smudged and coughing against the smoke which burned in their throats like new infernos. Vannus stumbled out of the crowd and down the street to where Celatus still stood, tight-lipped and rigid as marble, but clean, having not tried to join the fight.
“Twelve people confirmed dead,” Vannus croaked as he approached. The sweat on his brow had mingled with smoke and ash, and he wiped at the mess with an equally messy hand. He coughed weakly into his arm. “Age, I need air and water.”
Celatus did not show any sign of having heard him, but still turned on his heel and lead the way back down the hill to the via Pistoris. Once there, he shut himself away in their rooms while Vannus stripped down in the courtyard and, with the help of Hirtia and one of her slaves, scrubbed at the soot-stains on his skin and the ash in his hair, until he was at least only as dirtied as usual. When he came up to join Celatus, his limbs and lungs were heavier still, but his fingers restless and his jaw tight.
“This was delivered by a messenger while you were busy,” Celatus said in a distant voice, and held out a wax tablet. The soldier stared at it, with its small, inscribed letters, and did not take it, instead lowering himself without ease into his own chair and resting his elbows on his knees, his hands limp between them.
Celatus dropped the message onto a small table beside him, and did not read it again.
IV A V
NUNC FALLACIA ULTIMA
“We should get something to eat –”
“I’m not hungry.”
Vannus closed his eyes, and did not raise his head. “You still need to eat, Celatus –”
“I’m not. Hungry.”
He pursed his lips and screwed up his brow. “I know you like to pretend that you’re above it all,” Vannus growled, “but you’re as human as the rest of us. You’ve barely eaten a thing in –” he glanced up at where the sky outside the windows was growing lighter – “almost three days, now, you need to eat, and rest, and at least pretend to have some compassion for the people involved in all this.”
Celatus glanced at him with sharp, flashing eyes, and sneered. “Compassion?” he repeated. “I solved the cases didn’t I? Even if the last one was ruined, I technically won. Isn’t that the most compassion I can show? Saving their lives?”
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Vannus growled as he stood, and rounded his chair to head to their makeshift kitchen. “That’s not what I’m talking about at all.”
“Then what exactly is your problem, Piso, because I can’t see what –”
“Twelve people are dead!” Vannus turned on his heel, finally to face Celatus full-on. “I know they weren’t all senators, but they were lives, Celatus, actual, human lives – just so I know, do you care about that at all?”
Celatus’ brow was arched up at his friend. “Will caring about them help to save them?” he asked, calm and steady. A mirthless laugh escaped Vannus’ lips, pulled up into a painful grimace of a smile.
“No,” he said. “No it won’t.”
“Then I will continue not to make that mistake,” Celatus snapped. “I care,” he added, “about solving puzzles, I care about finding crimes, and I care about keeping myself occupied until the next good case comes along. And just now, when someone is being so delightfully interesting, what good would it do me to focus on anything but the next solution? What good will your questionings, your worries, and your sympathies do for that?”
Vannus said nothing, but where he stood, he leaned over his hands on the back of his chair. His tight smile had slipped away like water over a feather, and when he let out the breath he’d been unconsciously holding, his gaze dropped to the floor, and his head went with it. From where Celatus sat, tapping his fingers, he sneered.
“Oh, I see, now you’re disappointed in me,” he said, through a curled lip. “Perhaps you should go back to your dull little life on the Quirinal, tell me how that’s going for you in a week. I look forward to hearing about your ignoble suicide.”
Vannus’ silence was shocked, then stoic, then resigned. “You’re unbelievable,” he sighed, and for once, it did not sound like a compliment, and it did not lift Celatus’ heart.
Vannus’ hands slipped from the chair and his back straightened, and he left the room.
It had been days, between the hostages, clues, and imminent conflagrations, since they had last had any rest. The argument had left both of them frayed and cross – ready to flare up again at any moment, but simultaneously too exhausted to do so. They spent the day apart, and, in the evening, with bile already rising, Vannus took off: changed his tunic, tightened his belt, and muttered about heading to Seia’s for the night. Something about a man recovering from a building accident. Celatus – reclining on the couch in determined insolence – ignored him.
The moment he was gone, however, Celatus was on his feet again, wrapping himself up in a thicker toga and walking through the deepening dusk up further onto the Aventine. There was an interpreter there whom he knew to be particularly reliable; better than the one in the valley, at least.
He reached the right building just after dark, and rapped on the open door to the shop.
“I was just about to close,” called the voice of Mykale from within. “Is it important?”
“I would say so, yes,” Celatus replied as he stepped into the room. There were stacks and drawers of ready amulets and spells behind the counter to his left, and herbs and potions on the shelves to his right. A small, young Egyptian woman spun around from clearing the counter, and smiled with a mixture of recognition and surprise as he entered.
“Cornelius,” she said, and though she sounded a little flustered, she held her ground. “I haven’t seen you in some time.”
“Well, you know what I’m like,” Celatus said with a nod, looking around at her paraphernalia.
Mykale smiled. “You like to figure things all out with your head before looking to the gods for help.”
His lip curled in distaste. “Don’t say it like that,” he complained.
“Why,” Mykale teased – “you afraid they’ll hear me?”
“I place no stock on gods,” Celatus sneered.
“But you’re not a fool,” Mykale replied. “I know. Come in, sit down,” she added, as she settled behind the counter. “Tell me what it is.”
Celatus adjusted his toga, and sat at the end of the counter with practised grace.
“It’s about Piso,” he finally said.
“He was in here just a few weeks ago,” Mykale said, “buying an amulet to protect his things from busybodies.” Her smile turned downward. “Was that anything to do with you?”
Celatus’ sniffed, but he didn’t answer. “I’ve been having a lot of dreams lately,” he said instead. “Piso features in most of them.”
Mykale’s eyes brightened with interest. “Well, the same dream seen many times in a row is a sure sign that you should be paying attention,” she said, and shifted forward in her chair. “There could be something to learn about your future with a new acquaintance like him. What happens in these dreams?”
Celatus flattened his lips, and went on. “They’re distressingly vague,” he growled. “But there have been so many of them…”
“A sign is a sign, Cornelius,” she insisted carefully, “whether you want to read it or not.”
“He’s distant,” Celatus blurted. His mouth tightened, and he chewed his tongue for a moment before going on. “Very distant, and I call to him, and he turns around – and I run towards him. But no matter how I run, I never get any closer. The world is tilting, as if in an earthquake, and I can’t keep a straight line. Sometimes he stands still, other times he runs towards me, but we never reach each other, no matter how fast we go. And there’s a – wave behind him, a flood coming towards us, about to strike.”
“Do you know where you are, in these dreams?” Mykale asked. “Is it somewhere specific?”
Celatus shrugged, for once nonplussed. “Rome?” he offered. “It could be any ordinary street in any town, really, but – it feels like Rome. But it’s empty. And as I run, I see myself in the wave, and – I have his eyes. Piso’s eyes. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Mykale’s mouth was pinched in thought for a moment; then she nodded, and spoke with renewed confidence and strength.
“Between the flood and the earthquake, I would caution you against an upcoming change of affairs, and a dangerous one, too,” she said. Celatus nodded, and revealed nothing, even as he thought: Mercurialis. “Beware of crowds,” she added; “though that you bear the eyes of another is a sign that you may still retain something dear to you.” The skin around her eyes grew tight, then, and Celatus could tell that the good news was over. “However, what troubles me most,” Mykale continued, slowly, “is the unpeopled town you run in. To see a friend in a dream is a good sign, but the fact that you do not meet him – and in an empty town…” Her lips pursed. “And there’s the added sign of seeing your reflection in the water.”
Celatus frowned. “What has that to do with anything?”
“Death, Cornelius,” said Mykale, matter-of-fact. “Either to you, or to some close friend. And how many friends do you have, exactly?”
The question was vague, and open-ended, but still Celatus’ iron gaze focused like a cat’s on its prey, and a muscle in his cheek twitched as his lip curled. “No,” he sneered. “I will not abandon him.”
“The dream is an obvious warning,” Mykale cautioned, quavering but insistent. “You have seen it time and again. Leave him, Cornelius, or you risk that your impending danger should fall on him as well.”
“I will not just leave his friendship because of a few sleepy visions!” Celatus cried, pushing out of his chair.
“You asked for my help, and here I give it to you!” Mykale retorted, and though she did not stand, she still glared up at his superior height with a moue of displeasure. “Leave Caelius Piso for some other life. The flood that threatens him? I advise you now: when in your dream you reach him, that wave will fall.”
Celatus scoffed again, and threw a handful of coins on the counter as he left.
When he got back to CCXXIB, Celatus growled, and tore his way from his immaculate toga before he tossed it to the ground. The room still smelled faintly of smoke from the first fire, and Mercurialis’ dissected clues were still strewn about the room. Celatus fled from them – stormed not into his own bedroom, but into Vannus’, where he immediately opened the trunk at the end of Vannus’ bed and dug through it for the amulet he’d bought from Mykale. He found it, but as he drew it forth, his haste dislodged Vannus’ set of surgical tools, and one wicked, hooked thing slipped out and swiped a shallow, stinging cut along the outer edge of his hand. Celatus hissed, and dropped the amulet in favour of whipping his hands out from the trunk and pressing his fingers to the wound.
He stared down with a snarl on his lips to where the little amulet lay, innocuous, amongst Vannus’ old armour and cloak, his surgical equipment, his swords and throwing knives. With a growling scoff, he shot to his feet and kicked at the trunk, so that it fell shut with a bang. He bound the wound with scraps of cloth from his own room, and threw himself on the bed fully expecting not to sleep at all.
He was unconscious within minutes.
In his dream, Vannus ran towards him, and called his name. Celatus sprinted for him, and fought the earth which heaved like the deck of a ship on the swell of a stormy sea, until the dark, dirty flood roared above them both, like fire and thunder. In a shot, Vannus was before him, his eyes white and empty, and he gripped Celatus’ arms and shouted: “Curre! Curre! Celate, tibi itum est!” But as the wave above them fell, Celatus dug in his heels and gripped his arms around Vannus’ shoulders, and bent his head over his friend’s neck, and held on – held on – Vanne, tene –
The wave crashed, and Vannus slipped further and further from his arms beneath the icy barrage; and though Celatus stirred in his sleep, he did not wake, but let the nightmare slide away into unburdened rest.
He was only going to visit Seia. That was all. She was beautiful, already once a widow, and cuttingly smart – a worthwhile doctor – and he wanted to love her.
But four figures in hoods and cloaks slipped from the dark alleys, and he hadn’t a chance.
He woke in shadow, on straw and mud, and slept again.
When he woke again, it was to the sound of ringing metal. He opened his eyes to iron bars all round, and a burly, dirty man beating upon them with a wooden rod.
“Come on, wake up, wake up,” he was shouting, “we have a new recruit to be trained!”
There was the sound of bodies moving on the straw and mud, in cells and rooms on all sides. Groans and jeers and curses snapped themselves off, and there was the clang of a cell door being opened – of Vannus’ cell door. Hands were on him, dragging him up.
“A deserter!” someone yelled. “Abandoned his fellow soldiers, and has been brought here now to rot with the rest of you.”
Vannus blinked the sleep and the headache from his eyes as he was handed to a pair of firm, dark hands, which led him through the jeering crush of men to a small room. Early morning sunlight peeled its way between the cracks in the woodwork, and as the door slammed behind him, Vannus stumbled, but remained upright, and tried to blink unconsciousness from his mind.
“You should know, Piso,” said a smooth and superior voice before him, “that I am a very wealthy woman. There are many, many people who will do what I say, no matter how bad the consequences may be.”
Vannus raised his head. The figure before him was short of stature for a man – just barely taller than Vannus himself – but less so for a woman. Her pitch-dark hair was shorn short against her skull, and, along with dark, deep-set eyes, contrasted starkly with her pale, northern skin. She wore a delicate toga, well-draped and immaculate as Celatus’, and her bearing, cool voice, and shadow-deep eyes spoke of nothing but superiority.
There was really no other conclusion.
“Mercurialis,” Vannus gasped out, even as he tried to straighten, and set his shoulders back.
She smiled. “Aulus Cassius, in fact,” she said. “I’m sure Amulius will be pleased to find out my full name – that is, should you ever have the opportunity to tell it to him.”
“You’re not –” Vannus began, but he hardly knew how to finish. His gaze was stuck on her improper dress. She saw where he was looking, and grinned.
“Quite what you expected?” she finished for him with a laugh like tin. “Well, in case you haven’t noticed, life is a lot easier in this city when people think you’re a man. And when anyone protests, I have enough money and knives at hand to make them change their minds.”
Her smile was like an adder about to strike.
“What do you want from me?” Vannus eventually asked, still blinking his eyes in his confused and tired state.
Mercurialis’ sharp eyebrows rose. “Five from five, little Briton,” she said, smiling. “You consort with Cornelius Celatus – in fact, he seems to have grown almost fond of you! Surely that’s reason enough to want rid of you.”
“I haven’t done anything.”
“But that’s precisely the point!” The last words were screeched in anger, and Vannus startled and jerked back a step. In an instant, Mercurialis was composed again. “You haven’t done – anything. Yet there you are, interfering with the most fun either of us geniuses have had in some time.” Her charming smile became a foul and dangerous snarl. “I’m getting you – out of the way.”
She turned to go, leaving through the door opposite to that through which Vannus had entered.
“He won’t play with you!” Vannus snapped after her. “He may be rash, but he’s not inhuman – he’s not like you!”
Mercurialis stopped in the doorway, and turned slowly on the balls of her feet. Her hiss was stuck somewhere between pleasant sibilance and a cursing, threatening hiss.
“He is me.”
Vannus’ breastbone seemed to turn to ice.
“I’ll see you in the arena, Piso,” Mercurialis tossed to him in parting, like a bone to a dog. “I’d say good luck, but really, I only wish you the worst.”
As the door shut behind her steady, strong feet, the one behind Vannus was thrown open again, and he was dragged out by strong hands on his arms. As he looked about him now, he saw, between the cells of earlier, proper barracks passing by in rows, and rooms stacked with weapons and crude armour. The sunlight slipped through cracks in the ceiling and walls, and Vannus came to know.
They’d made him a slave.
Vannus was still gone when Celatus woke.
He sent Hirtia’s slave to Seia’s, but the man returned saying that Vannus had never arrived. Immediately, Celatus’ heart tripped up and beat at double speed, and he sent the slave again out onto the street. In haste, he recruited boys from the street, and anyone who would accept a coin, to Seia again, Statius, Laevinus, Sollemnis; he took to the streets himself to try to trace Vannus’ movements through the tramplings of Rome. When he returned, the sun was high and hot, a blazing contrast to the last few days of lingering winter, and the messengers he’d sent brought no news; and a black-skinned man with a snarl and scars on his arms stood in the courtyard and said in his ear –
“Have you ever seen him fight?”
– and left.
Celatus stood where he was, as Hirtia emerged and asked in a tremulous tones if he’d found their friend. Other tenants milled about, and peered out of windows, and Celatus began to shiver in the midday sun.
“No,” he said, quite to himself, as the harsh realisation began to strike. “No.”
Hirtia had reached him, and peered now into his contorting face.
“Amulius, dear, what’s happened?” she asked. “Where’s Vannus?”
“He is a citizen,” Celatus growled as he turned to face the street. “How dare they.”
Hirtia’s concern was deepening, and she raised her hands to Celatus’ arms. “What’s happened?” she asked. “Where is he?”
Celatus tore from her grip and ran out onto the street, where the scarred man’s retreating back was just visible in the crowd.
“He’s not a slave!” he screamed. “Do you hear me? He is not yours to kill!”
They led him out in front of the crowd as the heat of midday began, and the sun passed its zenith in the sky. They’d given him food and water, and stripped him of his tunic, clothing him only in breeches that reached not to his knees and the scant armour of a gladiator: a small breastplate, the straps crossing over his bare back; an ill-fitting helmet; a manica to cover his right arm. He was given a small shield for his left hand, and a long spear for his right.
He was held among the sweaty press of frightened and determined men.
He was thrust out onto the sand, strewn with blood and hacked limbs, to face his fate.
The first round he won with ease – his opponent was an enraged boar, and he held, after all, a spear.
The second round was more difficult – three more gladiators came out, and they were set upon by two emaciated panthers; but he overcame his scant wounds and thrust his spear through gaping, fearsome jaws as the Circus’ scattered crowd cheered him on.
He was given a break.
He was brought back out.
The afternoon dragged on like a curse from Tartarus. Vannus’ wounds built up, small cuts, and grazes from the sandy floor, and abrasions from his ill-fitting straps. After an hour or two, they were brought back into the shady dungeons where they were held, and the beast hunts turned to executions, which ended only to be replaced by man-to-man fights. Vannus was given a short sword, now, along with his scratched and battered excuse for a shield, and as he thrust the brittle blade through an Italian’s breastbone, he knew that he would last, and dreaded the fact. He brought fights to a draw when he could, killed when he had to, and tried and failed to listen to the crowd’s demands; but he lived and kept living, and blinked the sweat and blood from his eyes whenever he could.
When the sun descended and it’s heat still hovered in the close air of the Circus, Vannus stood panting above the body of a terrified Greek, who’d pissed himself in the arena and died without dignity. The gates opened again, and Vannus forced his eyes to open and see what would be: they were not beckoning him in, no – but a tall, African man with scarred arms came out, wielding a sword and net.
The crowd was now substantial, the sun growing weaker as it prepared to fall. Vannus had long since given up his protests.
A trumpet blasted, and the crowd cheered. Vannus fell back into a familiar stance, with his undersized shield raised and his sword held close to his body, bending his knees over the dust. The gladiator across from him gave a cruel smile below his noseguard, and shouted as he attacked.