The first day she'd been in Nero's palace, Vicki had been acutely conscious of the way everyone had looked at her. She'd wondered if there was something about her that looked out of place, or maybe a mistake she was making in the etiquette. Now, after a morning exploring the Palace, she thought she had a better grasp on things. People weren't just giving her suspicious looks — everyone was giving everyone suspicious looks, all the time. When your position at court depended on the Emperor's whim, keeping up with who was in favour and who wasn't was a full-time job.
Without meaning to, Vicki had already overheard parts of three conversations and what had sounded like an extra-marital affair. The arrival of Maximus Pettulian — or rather, the Doctor — seemed to have caused consternation and quiet congratulation in equal measure. Rumours were circulating that someone called Faenius Rufus had been taken ill: could poison be the cause? Not for the first time, the Empress had dismissed her personal slave for spying, and had urgently sent out for a replacement. For entertainment value, Vicki decided, it beat soap operas hands down.
She emerged from the corridor into a small courtyard, and stopped to get her bearings. And to cool down; the weather was hot and muggy, and if she walked any distance without a pause, her linen stola tended to cling to her. At the centre of the courtyard was a simple square basin, half-full of water. She knelt beside it and dipped her fingers in—
Vicki looked around, startled. In one corner of the courtyard, in the shadow of a marble column, was a young woman beckoning to her. Of a height with Vicki, she had dark, untidy hair, and was wearing a faded red tunic.
"Me?" Vicki mouthed, pointing at herself.
The woman nodded, then darted through a door and disappeared.
Intrigued, Vicki gave chase. Beyond the door, another corridor led into areas of the palace she hadn't explored yet. It looked as if this part of the palace was functional rather than decorative; the walls were painted with panels of solid colour rather than elaborate frescoes, and the floor looked like bare concrete. For a moment, the woman was visible at a doorway some way down the corridor; then she disappeared into it and was lost to view.
When Vicki reached the doorway, she found that beyond it was a ladder, leading up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. There was no sign of the woman, but it was plain where she must be. Vicki climbed the ladder, and found herself in a dark attic, the tiles above her head so low that standing was out of the question.
"Hello?" she asked.
Someone moved in the darkness beside her, and a hot, damp hand covered her mouth.
"No sound above a whisper," a voice breathed into her ear. "Or we're both as good as dead."
Vicki nodded. The hand was withdrawn.
"Who are you?" she whispered.
"I need to know something first," the voice replied. "You're with Maximus Pettulian, aren't you?"
There was what might have been a relieved sigh. "I thought so. Right. I'm Clara."
"I'm Vicki." Vicki found she couldn't help adding "Clara doesn't sound like a very Roman name."
"I'm not Roman, I'm Brigantian."
"All right. Why did you bring me up here?"
"I'll tell you as we go. Follow me."
"But I can't see where you're going."
"Hang onto my ankle till your eyes get used to the dark."
Vicki felt around until her hand closed on the woman's calf. She let it slide down to her ankle, then said "Ready."
The two set off at a crawl, trying not to make any noise that could be heard in the rooms below.
"Do you work in the kitchen?" Vicki asked.
"That's right," Clara said. "How did you guess? Don't tell me, I stink of fish sauce."
"Well... yes. You do."
"Just spent the last hour stirring a big cauldron of it, that's why. That's pretty much all my boss lets me do. She thinks she's the gods' gift to cooking. Never listens to any of my ideas. I've come up with this recipe for a really light pastry, only I haven't quite got it to work yet. I'm sure if I practise enough it'll come right, but I never get the chance. Still, could be worse. I could be working in the laundry."
Vicki grimaced at the thought. Learning what the ancient Romans used to keep their togas white had been one of the less pleasant events of her visit.
"Anyway," Clara went on. "It's your master Pettulian. I think someone's trying to kill him."
"Yes, I know."
"Does he know who it is?"
"I don't think so."
"Right." Clara came to a stop. "Come up beside me."
Vicki crawled cautiously forward. There was a small crack in the ceiling of the room below, through which a tiled floor could be seen.
"This is the Praetorian Prefect's office," Clara whispered, her lips nearly touching Vicki's ear.
"The man who's in charge of the guards?" Vicki asked.
"That's right. I heard him outside the kitchen this morning. He said he'd meet whoever he was talking to at the fifth hour, here. Good job I found you in time. It can't be long till then."
In the stifling heat of the attic, seconds passed like minutes. Several times Vicki was sure her companion had mistaken the room, or the time of the appointment, but each time her curiosity kept her peering down through the crack.
Eventually, with the sound of sandals, a man entered the room. From above, all Vicki could see was that he was wearing military uniform, had dark hair, and was probably tall. He crossed to the far side of the room, out of the eavesdroppers' view. A minute or so later, a lighter step approached, and came to a stop.
"You wanted to speak to me, my lord?" a woman's voice asked.
"I did," the prefect replied, in cold, aristocratic tones. "When I spoke to you this morning, I mentioned the Corinthian lyre player, Maximus Pettulian. You have familiarised yourself with his appearance?"
"I have, my lord."
"And you know in which room he is staying?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Good. Now pay close attention. Do you have any delicacies in your kitchen that might tempt him?"
The woman seemed to pause, considering. "Stuffed dormice, my lord."
"They will do very well. Take some to Pettulian — but with an extra garnish." The prefect walked slowly across the room, a small phial visible in his hand. "One drop of this on every dormouse. If you succeed, you will be well rewarded. Go."
The woman turned, and hurried away.
"Come on," Clara hissed, grabbing Vicki's hand. Moving as quickly as they could while remaining silent, the two crawled forward once again.
"That was Martina!" Clara said, once they were safely out of the Prefect's earshot. "She's my boss in the kitchen. The sneaky cow."
"Who's the other one?" Vicki asked. "The man."
"That's just it. Normally the man in charge of the guards is Faenius Rufus. But a couple of days before your master showed up, Rufus went down with a fever. And then this man strolls in and takes over. Simeon of Pharsalus, he's called."
"And Nero let him take charge just like that?"
"Suppose he talked his way round him. There's a ladder here." Clara opened a trapdoor and began to climb down. "If he caught him in a good mood, he could ask for what he liked."
"Right." Vicki climbed down the ladder after Clara. "Well, I'll go back to our quarters, wait for the dormice to show up, and get rid of them."
Clara caught her by the arm as she turned to go. "That's fine, if that's all old Simeon does. But it won't be, will it? When he sees they haven't worked, he'll try something else."
"You're right." Vicki disengaged herself from Clara. "But I've still got to deal with the dormice now, haven't I? Or he won't need to try anything else."
No sooner had Vicki dealt with the dormice by throwing them down the nearest drain, than she found herself required to accompany the Doctor to the noon meal. Afterwards, the Doctor had insisted on returning to his quarters to 'commune with his Muse', in preparation for his performance on the lyre that evening.
Finding the afternoon even hotter and more oppressive than the morning, Vicki changed out of her dress into a light tunic. Then, walking on tiptoe so as not to disturb the Doctor, she crept out of the quarters they were sharing, and made her way in the approximate direction of the palace kitchens. Unfortunately, she had parted from Clara without naming a time or place where they might meet again, and so wandered about the service areas of the palace for some time. She eventually caught a glimpse of the familiar red tunic disappearing round a corner, hurried after it, rounded the corner a little too sharply, and cannoned into Clara, scattering the basket of apples she was carrying to the four winds.
"Look where you're going, can't you?" Clara snapped, dropping to hands and knees to retrieve the fruit.
"Sorry." Vicki hastily gathered up the apples near her, and restored them to the basket.
"Oh, it's you." Clara's temper seemed to subside. "Did you get to those dormice in time?"
"Yes, it was easy. But we still need to deal with Simeon."
Clara picked up the last apple. "How about this? He's only in charge of the guards because the Emperor lets him. If the Emperor decides he's no good, he'll be out on the street."
"I suppose that would work," Vicki said. "But how do we get Nero to decide that?"
Vicki considered the idea. "I'm not sure he'd listen to me."
"Well, he's not going to listen to me!"
"OK, give me a moment." Vicki considered what she'd seen of Nero. "Suppose Nero got to think that Simeon didn't like his poetry?"
"With you so far."
"Well, we could plant some evidence on Simeon and make sure Nero sees it. Wait, how about this? Suppose I pinch one of Nero's poems and scribble rude comments on it, and then put it in Simeon's room?"
Clara gripped her arm. "That's a brilliant idea. I know how we can get Nero there, too. Talk is, he's got a crush on one of the Empress's slave-girls. We send him a message saying she'll meet him there."
"Right," Vicki said. "I'll get the poem, you sort the message. Meet you back here in half an hour."
The door of Simeon's quarters swung slowly open, and Vicki and Clara tiptoed in.
"Right," Vicki said. "Here's the poem. 'On the Rape of the Sabines.' It goes on a bit."
Clara glanced at the scroll, on which the Emperor's florid script had been defaced by various blotchy, insulting annotations.
"I should think he'll blow his top when he sees that," she said. "Put it on that table... hey, someone's coming!"
"Nero?" Vicki said, then shook her head. Rather than the Emperor's sandalled feet, these were the heavy boots of a soldier. The thought of who it must be leapt into her mind, but before she could form words to express it, the door swung open and proved her correct.
"How very convenient," Simeon of Pharsalus remarked. In person he was tall and pale, his patrician voice matched by his bearing. He wore no helmet or armour, but a sword hung at his waist. "The prey present themselves to the hunter."
"I don't know what you mean," Vicki said, holding the manuscript behind her back.
"No; but I do. And I suspect our young friend here does." He took a few paces into the room, his eyes fixed on Clara. "You. You thwarted my plans in the Cave of Skulls, in the snows of Marinus, in Paris and in Cathay. Now I shall put an end to your meddling, once and for all."
"I don't understand," Vicki said.
"Nor will you, child. I see no occasion to prolong your life beyond today. And whatever you are trying to hide, you need not bother." He caught her by the shoulders, spun her round, and tore the scroll from her hand. Shoving her backward so she fell against the table, he glanced at the contents. "Is this trash really what the young women of today enjoy reading? But then, I was forgetting. Neither of you is a young woman of today."
"You're mad!" Clara exclaimed.
Simeon flung the scroll aside, stepped forward, and caught her by the chin. "Mad? No, it is I who see truly where others stumble blind. You may not know the truth, but you are an irritant, a pebble in a boot. It is time you were removed."
With his free hand, he drew his gladius. As he did so, Vicki's hand closed around something on the table behind her: something ovoid, hard to the touch, heavy.
Simeon drew his sword back for the killing thrust.
Vicki hurled herself at Simeon, and brought whatever was in her hand down on his head. It shattered in a shower of red wine. Simeon crumpled, the sword falling from his hand onto the tiled floor. Vicki looked down at the unconscious guard commander, then up at Clara. Their eyes met, and she found she couldn't stop herself smiling, then laughing.
"Steady on!" Clara grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. "There's someone else coming!"
Vicki got herself under control. "Bet you it's Nero this time," she said.
"Right. We need to hide."
They looked around. Simeon had kept his quarters as tidy as a military man could be expected to. There was no hope of concealment under the bed, or the table. The only possible place was a bronze-bound cupboard that stood against one wall, closer in size to a locker than a wardrobe.
With a wry shrug, Vicki pointed at the locker, and Clara nodded. They hurried over to it and clambered inside. There was barely room for one of them, let alone two, and as Vicki crouched down she was acutely aware that their tunics had ridden up, placing them in positively intimate contact with each other.
"My sweet!" Nero's voice called, though Vicki found it hard to concentrate on anything other than the sound of Clara's breathing and the warmth of her body. "My darling! It is your own Nero who—"
The door opened, and the Emperor's sweet nothings were instantly cut off.
"What in the name of Pollux?" Nero went on, in distinctly less flirtatious tones. "Simeon! Simeon! Why, the man's dead drunk. And what has he..."
Vicki wondered if she heard the rustle as he picked up the manuscript, or whether she imagined it. She certainly didn't imagine the howl of outrage that followed.
"Guards!" the Emperor screamed. "Guards! Remove this drunkard from my palace at once! Throw him to the lions! And the bears! And the crocodiles!" His voice, which had been rising in pitch, lowered. "You presume to criticise the prose of Nero Caesar? You dismiss my master work as 'rubbish'? You dare to vilify me as a 'filthy-minded pornographer'? I'll see you flayed alive for this!" The tramp of hobnailed boots announced the arrival of soldiers in the room. "Guards, take this man and throw him in the deepest, darkest, dungeon you can find..."
Unable to resist, Vicki let out a giggle.
"Did you hear something?" Nero's voice asked, alive with suspicion.
There was an awkward pause.
"Your Imperial Majesty, I do not," a German-accented voice replied.
"Hmm." Nero sounded momentarily distracted, but swiftly returned to the topic at issue. "Why is that vile traitor still here? Remove him from my sight at once! At once, do you hear?"
If Vicki had been in any position to giggle again, she would have. But she found herself quite incapable of doing so; Clara, lacking any other means of silencing her, had pressed her mouth firmly against Vicki's. It felt surprisingly good. Somewhere in the world outside was the distant sound of soldiers half-dragging, half-carrying Simeon out of the way, and of Nero mingling threats and curses with words of comfort to his abused manuscript. But they were all background to the more immediate sensations of the long kiss she and Clara shared, their bodies forced together in the cramped darkness.
It was some time after the last footsteps had receded that Clara cautiously pushed the cupboard door open. Red-faced and dishevelled, the pair more or less tumbled out onto the tiled floor.
"Thanks for that," Clara said.
Vicki sat up and tried to get her hair back into order. "Sorry. Thanks for what?"
"Saving my life, that's all. You're pretty good with an amphora."
"Oh. That." Vicki looked across at the shattered remains of the wine jar. "I might have killed him."
"Good for you if you had. And if he was a man in the first place. For my money he's a demon in disguise."
There was an uncomfortable pause.
"Sorry about... you know... in there," Clara said, gesturing at the cupboard. "Only I couldn't think how else to shut you up."
"No, it's all right." Vicki got to her feet, and straightened her tunic. "That was the first time anyone kissed me. Properly, I mean." She laughed. "I don't think I ever imagined it being in a cupboard, with the Emperor Nero outside."
"With a girl who smells of fish sauce," Clara added cheerfully, pulling her own tunic straight.
"I didn't mind that. Where did you learn to kiss like that?"
Clara smiled reminiscently. "From a Vestal Virgin."
"You're making that up," Vicki said.
"No, it's true. Her name was Nina. Don't look so shocked. This is Rome. That sort of thing happens all the time."
"Nameless depravities?" Vicki asked eagerly. "And orgies? I bet the Emperor has a lot of orgies."
Clara rolled her eyes. "All the time. And guess who's got to clear up afterwards."
"That's right. I'm just a kitchen skivvy. Everyone else gets the fun, I scrub the floor."
"Well..." Vicki paused briefly. But what, after all, was the worst Clara could say? "We could have an orgy now. Just a little one, for two of us."
Clara gave her a sharp look. "You're serious?"
"Don't I look serious?" Vicki shrugged. "All right, I probably don't. But yes, I am."
"Why not?" Clara closed the door of the room, then pushed the table across it. "I'll initiate you into the Mysteries of Nina."
"Mysteries?" Vicki repeated. "How many did she teach you?"
"Wait and see." Clara took her by the hand. "You'll be amazed how many things technically don't break a Vestal Virgin's vows."