Rome. That great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire were irresistibly drained, and in which Marcus Caelius Piso Vannus found himself all too abruptly. He’d been with the Fifteenth Apollonian Legion since before Syria, served as their surgeon, fought with them and healed them, until one stray Jewish arrow had sent his life spinning out of control. He’d never managed the twenty years of service that would earn him the benefits of a veteran, never had much else to fall back on – the legacy of having ex-slaves for parents – and so simply gravitated back to Rome in the hope of finding a future less bleak than the grey life he had to look forward to.
He’d hardly expected that future to come from a patrician; the kind of man whose judgement upon meeting Vannus was so clearly written in his narrowed eyes and upturned nose. No Cornelius should ever have considered consorting with a common doctor, let alone the son of a freedman, and Amulius Cornelius Celatus looked just the part to spurn him. Yet, a day after their first meeting, Vannus found himself standing in a half-respectable insula on the Aventine, and quite honestly considering moving in.
The part where he saved Celatus’ life just sealed the deal.
It was Statius who introduced them – an old friend from before the legions who’d apprenticed for an apothecary and became Vannus’ teacher in turn. They ran into each other on the streets, and Statius chuckled when he heard of Vannus’ problems with accommodation, in that comforting, knowing way of his, and told of a young man also looking for cheap rooms, who often came to his shop and messed about with his samples. Statius warned Vannus that the man was a bit odd; Vannus, in turn, reminded him that he was currently living two streets away from the city wall. Odd would be just fine if it got him a little further from the slums.
So Statius took him back to the shop, and pointed out a young, dark-haired man, and settled behind the counter with a smirk. The stranger was tall, and unnaturally pale for a Roman, with underfed limbs and high-peaked cheeks, and an unmistakeably superior bearing; but if Vannus could handle an arrogant new legate every few years in the Fifteenth, then he could certainly handle this patrician. He had never been fazed by nice hair and an immaculate toga, and, when it was offered, he gripped the man’s hand with all the strength and surety that had been hammered into him by his superiors over the years, and refused to baulk under the patrician’s iron gaze.
“Vannus, was it?” said the stranger, with an amused glance at Statius. Vannus lifted his chin.
“Piso,” he corrected, lamenting having ever trusted his old friend with his British name. “Marcus – Caelius Piso. Salve.”
And if the other man had let just a hint of surprise grace his absurd face, Vannus took it as an enormous victory.
“Salve, Piso,” he said, and his grey eyes flashed as he turned back to the wooden benches behind him, littered with glass bottles and a bitter, organic smell. “You’ve been in Judaea, I perceive.”
Vannus blinked, and tilted his chin. “Sorry?”
“Serving under Vespasian, I imagine.”
Vannus shifted on his feet, and frowned. “By the oracles,” he murmured, “how did you...”
He was interrupted.
“How do you feel about the cithara?” Remarkably, the man was still engrossed in his bottles. Across the counter, Statius caught Vannus’ eye and smirked.
“I play the cithara when I’m thinking,” said the stranger, which explained nothing, “and sometimes I don’t talk for days, would that bother you? If we’re going to share rooms in an insula, we ought to know the worst about each other.” His smile was not encouraging.
Vannus shot a calm, accusatory glance at Statius, who shrugged with eternal nonchalance.
“Who said anything about an insula?” asked Vannus, thrown off-balance by the man’s half-prophetic knowledge.
“I did.” Again, explaining nothing. “Yesterday, I was complaining to Statius about needing someone to share the cost of the rent. Now here he is, back from the forum and introducing me to an old friend clearly just back from military service in Judaea. It was no difficult leap.”
It looked like he was finishing up. Strings of herbs were being pushed away, and his toga artfully re-draped across shoulder and arm.
“How did you know about Judaea?” Vannus tried again to ask, but it appeared the man was not listening.
“I have my eye on a few modest rooms on the Aventine,” he said – “together we ought to be able to afford it. We’ll meet there tomorrow evening, around the seventh hour. Sorry, I have to go – reports of a corpse on the via Curiarum, I’d like to look into it.”
He snatched two small, corked bottles from the bench and tucked them into the folds of his toga, ready to sweep out.
“Is that it, then?” Vannus frowned, turning to watch him go. The man stopped, and swivelled, offended at having been questioned.
“Is that what?”
“We’ve only just met, and now you assume I’ll go look at your rooms?”
“Is there a problem?” The look the stranger shot at Statius radiated aristocratic arrogance, as if he were asking the equite ‘how do you put up with this rubbish?’ Vannus studiously ignored it.
“I don’t know a thing about you,” he almost growled, “I don’t know where we’re to meet, I don’t even know your name.”
Again, the stranger’s eyes flashed like iron, and an enigmatic smile played about his mouth. When he spoke, it was like a recitation, or a piercing prophecy.
“I know you’re a military surgeon recently returned from Judaea. I know you injured your shoulder while with the Fifteenth Apollonian Legion, but were dishonourably discharged in the end. I know you come from British stock, and that your father was a slave, but you were born free, a particularly contentious point which strangers often get wrong. And I know you have a limp that comes and goes, and you suspect it might be false – quite correctly I’m afraid.”
His smile was knowing, superior, cold, and the best challenge Vannus had seen in months.
“That’s enough to be going on with, don’t you think?”
With Vannus left stone-faced and bewildered, the man sauntered to the door onto the street. With his head around the jamb, he left his final word. “The name’s Cornelius Celatus, and the address is two-hundred and twenty-one on the via Pistoris.” Unbelievably, he finished with a wink. “Vale!”
The last folds of his toga disappeared onto the street, and Vannus shifted his weight, wishing he had something to hold onto. Turning, he looked to Statius, who, as ever, seemed as if he knew everything, and sympathised.
“Yes,” he said, without being prompted – “he’s always like that.”
And then, several things happened.
The insula on the via Pistoris was remarkably nice, and certainly far nicer than Vannus’ lodgings in the shadow of the city wall. Celatus was already waiting in the courtyard when Vannus arrived, heedless of the handful of chickens and slaves milling about him.
“Cornelius,” said Vannus in greeting, and was met with a clasped hand and a frightening smile.
“‘Celatus’, please,” he corrected.
Vannus refused to show his surprise, and commented, “This is a nice place. Well-situated.”
“Yes, the landlady, Hirtia,” said Celatus, sweeping toward one of the back rooms, “she’s given me a special offer. She owes me a favour. A few years ago her husband got himself sentenced to death – I was able to help matters.”
Vannus was taken aback. “You kept her husband from being executed?”
Celatus stopped, and looked back at him with pride and a small amount of glee. “Oh no, I ensured it.”
Vannus turned at the interruption, but Celatus was smiling. An old woman approached them, wearing a neat purple stola and a welcoming smile, to wrap Celatus’ shoulders in a maternal embrace.
“Hirtia, this is legionary Caelius Piso,” he said, indicating Vannus behind him.
“Come in, then, come in!” she said, standing back to usher them into the hall. “The rooms are just upstairs.”
Celatus led the way, having clearly been there before, and Vannus followed, his limp uneven on the narrow stairs. Celatus’ expression was of enigmatic pride, like that of a priest or a street vendor, when he opened the door behind him and led the way into the main room.
It was the spacious, centre room at the front of the building, with a table and chairs, an old couch by one wall, half a makeshift kitchen in one corner, and a few stools and side tables littered about. There were also crates of old books and papers, scrolls and sheaves of parchment and papyrus overflowing onto every surface amidst the chaos. There was, affixed with a knife to the hearth, a stack of correspondence. Hirtia pointed out the bedrooms to the left – Celatus, of course, had already claimed the one facing the street. Vannus wondered if he was making contingencies in case of a fire – he felt the copious amounts of written foliage would be an extra hazard.
And then: there was a little messenger boy in the doorway, and a summons from a legate of the vigiles; Celatus sweeping out with a flick of his toga; Hirtia tutting and milling and retreating with a reminder that she was generous, but her slaves were not theirs to share; and Celatus again, softer and stiller like he’d accidentally waded into a mystery.
“You’re a doctor,” he said, as if the consequences had only just occurred. “In fact, you’re an army doctor.”
Vannus turned, and adjusted his leg, and cleared his throat.
“Were you any good?”
His answer came with a jutted chin, and no dissimulation.
“You’ve seen a lot of injuries, then,” Celatus concluded – “violent deaths.”
Vannus’ answer was a terse affirmative.
“A bit of trouble, too, I assume.”
“Of course, yes,” said Vannus, “enough for a lifetime.” He hastened to add: “Far too much.”
Celatus’ grey eyes flashed, like a spark in the fog, with mischief, and knowledge, and just a hint of danger.
“Would you like to see some more?”
Vannus knew the words even as they formed on his tongue.
“Oh, Mithras, yes.”
With two denarii and a conspiratorial smile, Celatus acquired for them a ride in the back of someone’s cart, trotting and trundling up towards the Caelian Hill in relative silence. As the city rattled and murmured about them, Vannus watched it pass, and felt a buzz of curiosity well again inside him, now that Celatus’ grey eyes and marble-cut limbs had returned and stirred up his life into – this.
“All right, you have questions,” said Celatus out of nowhere, and facilitated Vannus’ restless bewilderment.
“Yes, where are we going?”
Celatus arched a look at him as if he were an unintelligent slug on the bottom of his shoe. “To a crime scene,” he drawled. “Next.”
“Who are you?” Vannus asked, only absently, though he felt the full weight of the question somewhere in his chest. “What do you do?”
Celatus threw the question back at him, though – “What do you think?” – and Vannus wondered if he ever answered a question simply if there was a more cunning way to do it. He acquiesced.
“I’d say... some sort of scholar, or detective, but –”
“But the vigiles don’t work with detectives.”
Celatus’ smile was childlike and proud. “I’m a consulting detective,” he said, “the only one in the world, I invented the job. When the vigiles or the senate need help, or someone needs a problem solved, they consult me.”
“But the senate doesn’t consult amateurs!”
Celatus’ chin tilted towards him with infinite condescension, and his grey eyes flashed with intent. “When I met you for the first time yesterday, I said you’d been in Judaea, and you looked surprised.”
Vannus saw that he might finally get his answers, his bile stirring that it was at Celatus’ sole leisure. “Yes, how did you know that?”
“I didn’t know, I saw.” He launched into an explanatory tone. “Your expression, your haircut and bearing, say that you’re disciplined, and you wear the gait of a practiced marcher and a soldier’s boots on your feet, not to mention the tattoo on your hand, still visible despite wear and fading over the years – so, clearly from the legions; but your reaction to Statius’ shop was not the distrust of the usual citizen, but familiarity, even interest, so you have copious medical experience, even training. So: an army doctor, obvious. The cohort surgeon, judging by your age. You wore a dagger in your belt with an image of Apollo in the handle, and though your face has traits of the Northern provinces, you have a deep tan, cut off in the lines of your tunic and lorica: you’ve been somewhere with much sun, and little privacy or leisure. You hold your left shoulder stiffly, and though you limp when you walk, you didn’t ask for a chair when you were standing – I have a theory about injuries of the mind that you might want to hear. The Fifteenth Apollonian Legion is currently attacking the Jews in their revolt, led by Vespasian. Inference? You’ve been in Judaea.”
Vannus fought hard to keep his face calm. “You said I was dishonourably discharged.”
“You’re looking for someone to share the rent, of course you didn't leave with honour.” He almost stopped there, Vannus could tell; but it was as if, once he’d begun to spill his thoughts, he couldn’t stop, and words came falling from his tongue like gifts from the divine. “Then there’s your father.”
Vannus looked up, and dreaded the rest.
“Your physical aspects say northern, and you stopped me from calling you ‘Vannus’ – a typically British name, which you once entrusted Statius with, but wouldn’t allow a stranger, so it’s a private name for family and friends. You were particularly insistent on that point, implying a level of insecurity brought on by constant assumptions about your status; but your legionary and surgeon’s positions and the lack of any markings of a slave indicate that you were born free. The next bit’s easy, you know it already.”
Vannus was surprised to realise that he did. “My... name.”
“Caelius Piso,” Celatus recited – “clearly the names of your family’s owners. Not British, but Roman, and common: there are countless Caelii in this city alone, and twice as many Pisones. You adopt two Roman names, but keep a secret British name on the side? Your parents gave you that along with their patron’s names, handed down from father to son, commemorating both histories of the family. The Roman-born son of a British freedman. There you go, you see? You were right.”
“I was right?” Vannus blurted, at the end of Celatus’ litany. “Right about what?”
“The senate doesn’t consult amateurs.”
There was silence for a long and pressing pause, as the cart bumped along and the noise of the city swelled and swirled around them; but Vannus’ only focus was Celatus, who had glanced at him and known him like no one else had done, seen every detail and parsed it with stunning accuracy. His eyes were back on the receding street, now, and his face a mask of expressionless marble.
“That...” Vannus tried – “was amazing.”
Celatus – stunningly – hesitated.
“Do you think so?”
“Of course it was, it was extraordinary, it was quite...” He was breathless with the impact of this sudden wonder. “Extraordinary.”
“That’s not what people normally say.”
“What do people normally say?”
Celatus drew a breath, and caught Vannus’ eye.
And Celatus smiled, and Vannus smiled with him, and though he suspected it to be for different reasons, he felt something shift nonetheless.
In the end, they chattered with relative ease all the way to the Caelian, where the cart-driver dropped them off three streets from their destination and grinned at Celatus as he left. The patrician returned the expression with a smile that slipped from his face the moment he spun around, and led the way with a rapid, intent step. Vannus was surprised he didn’t trip on his toga.
Two streets later, they were met by a woman in a ragged stola and thick, close-shorn hair.
“Salve, freak,” she said in greeting, eyeing Celatus with an expression of disgust only matched by Celatus’ for her.
“I’m here to see your master,” said Celatus, with contempt.
“Why?” she asked, and Vannus couldn’t help but smile at her cheek. It was nice to see a slave give impertinence where impertinence was due.
“I was invited,” said an irritated Celatus. Her only response was a repetition.
“I think he wants me to take a look.”
“Well you know what I think, don’t you?”
Vannus watched the exchange with the simultaneous surprise and interest of a stranger watching friends be familiar. As Celatus moved to push past the woman, however, a large and burly man in perfect armour and the insignia of the vigiles stepped forward, holding his spear-shaft before Celatus’ chest. Celatus looked at him as he might inspect something dredged from the bottom of the Tiber.
“Let him through,” sighed the slave, and the soldier acquiesced. As Celatus moved to march forward, however, and Vannus made to follow, the soldier held out his spear again – this time, with the head pointed at the centre of Vannus’ breast.
“Who’s this?” Dido demanded of Celatus, whose mouth tightened.
“Caelius Piso, a doctor and colleague. Piso, this is Dido. An old friend.” The final words were engulfed in a sneer.
“A doctor?” repeated Dido, with obvious disbelief. “You, hanging around a doctor?”
Vannus made to interrupt, but Celatus beat him to it.
“An army doctor,” he growled. “Piso served with the Fifteenth Apollonian, as their surgeon.”
Dido relented with a half-step back, and Vannus noticed that even the soldier of the vigiles raised his spear a fraction. He wondered what the man had thought of him before.
Dido, however, rallied admirably. “Officer he may be,” she said, “but since when exactly have you had a colleague?” Her mouth tilted into a nasty smile, and she looked to Vannus and asked, “Did he just follow you home one day?”
“Age,” said Vannus, realising he may be the only person of the four of them sane enough to make a concession. “Would it be better if I just waited –”
“No,” Celatus snapped, and glared harder at the soldier’s spear.
With a resigned roll of the eyes, Dido relented. She nodded at the soldier, who raised his spear and let Vannus pass, and marched them down the street, calling out: “Domine! The freak’s here!”
Out of a smaller house, with darkened windows, came an old and worn-looking soldier – clearly a legate – unhelmeted, his silver hair shining in the light of the evening and the torches around them. He thanked his slave, and glanced curiously at Vannus as he led them through into the house’s leaf-strewn atrium.
“Who’s this?” he asked.
“He’s with me,” Celatus snapped. The man looked back with obvious impatience.
“Yes, but who is he?”
“I said, he’s with me.”
With the long-suffering of a father, the legate dropped the question, and turned instead to face Vannus directly. “Valerius Laevinus,” he said, sticking out a hand, “legate of the vigiles.”
Vannus smiled to one side, with pride at the officer’s respect for a seeming commoner, and at his pointed ignorance toward Celatus’ imperiousness.
“Caelius Piso,” he said, grasping the man’s hand. “Former surgeon to the Fifteenth Apollonian.”
Laevinus’ brow raised momentarily, impressed, before Celatus cut off the interaction.
“Yes, yes, well done, you’ve finished the niceties,” he snapped, “now can we please move on to the body?”
Laevinus sighed, and turned. “Her name’s Volumnia, according to her slave,” he said as they passed the central pool, “she doesn’t live here.”
“No, this house has been abandoned for three months,” Celatus mused; Laevinus sent him a curious glance, but didn’t ask.
“Apparently she has connections with the imperial court, that’s why we’re here. Her slave went looking for her after she didn’t return home last night, then contacted one of the emperor’s freedmen. According to her account, last night they were at a dinner not far from here. Volumnia sent her girl home early to prepare the bedroom, but ended up back here instead.”
“Has the girl been tortured to verify the information yet?”
“There hasn’t been time,” said Laevinus, “but we’ve already found free witnesses to verify her statements, so there doesn’t seem to be any need.”
They passed through a short, dark hall before ducking into the kitchen near the back of the house, descending a few steps to where a woman in a rich, pink stola and an unbelievable hairstyle lay dead, face-down on the floor, illuminated by the few torches in brackets on the walls. In the dirt beside her were inscribed a few broken letters of Greek: Νεμε. Vannus did not baulk at the sight of the body, but did fall still, and close his eyes just for a moment.
Celatus paused below the doorway, a silent statue, holding his hands out like feelers in the air.
“Shut up,” he snapped, without heat. Laevinus frowned.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You were thinking,” retorted Celatus, “it’s annoying.”
Vannus felt his lips purse.
Then, Celatus went to work, and Vannus could not form another thought that wasn’t astonishment.
First, he crouched beside the body, sweeping back the folds of his toga and inspecting the woman’s elaborate jewellery. He ran his fingertips along her clothes, smelled at her hair, shuffled about on the floor and peered at the backs of her ankles.
“She took a litter instead of walking,” he said, as if thinking aloud.
“Her slave said the same,” Laevinus agreed, unperturbed. “She regularly used a litter, treated bearers well. She took one to the dinner and back and sent her girl home on foot on her own. Normally they would have shared the ride.”
Celatus hummed absently, as if the information was of no import, and continued to inspect the body. Vannus couldn’t fathom just what he was seeing down there, almost on all fours, sniffing and touching and peering with the utmost intensity at the dead woman. He was like a hound on a scent, or a cat teasing its prey, and not at all like the reserved and haughty patrician his name suggested. Vannus wondered when the last time was that a Cornelius deigned to touch a kitchen floor with his bare hands.
Finally, Celatus stood, and spent a moment staring at the body as a whole, from on high.
“She may be Greek,” Laevinus suggested, nodding at the letters in the floor. “N-e-m-e: it could be the beginning of a name – Nemerte, or something similar. But they’re clearly Greek letters...” He trailed off as Celatus rolled his eyes hugely and turned around.
“She’s not Greek,” he said. “Any half-educated idiot in the city speaks Greek, a high-born woman like this would obviously know how to write it. She’s Roman, I’m sure of it, look at her hair.”
“But – the message –”
“Nemerte, certainly – or? Nemesis, the Greek personification of revenge. Look at her hand, Legate, she clearly didn’t write this message herself.” With hardly a break in the sentence, he turned on Vannus. “Now, Caelius, what do you think?”
Bewildered, he glanced over at Laevinus, who bore an expression of practiced resignation.
“About – the message?” he asked, reluctant to reveal his only passing knowledge of spoken Greek, and his absolute lack of the written language.
“About the body,” Celatus corrected, “you’re a medical man.”
Vannus glanced again at Laevinus, who nodded at the dead woman with a sigh. “Oh, Juno protect me, go ahead,” he grumbled, and stepped out into the hall, calling to his men to keep the room empty while Celatus worked. Still utterly taken aback, Vannus approached where Celatus had crouched beside the body, and eased himself to the floor across the woman’s back, wary of his aching leg. He looked at her for a moment, seeing nothing, and then averted his gaze to meet Celatus’.
“Well?” asked the patrician.
“What am I doing here?”
“Helping me make a point,” Celatus hissed. Vannus, calm, retorted almost immediately.
“I’m supposed to be helping you pay the rent.”
“Oh, but this is more fun,” Celatus whispered with a smirk that was all secrets and mischievous glee.
“Fun?” Vannus replied. “There’s a woman lying dead.”
Celatus imitated deep thought. “Perfectly sound analysis,” he concluded, “but I was hoping you’d go deeper.”
Vannus stared at him for a long moment, wondering just what it was this patrician wanted from him. In the end, he relented, and pulled his leg in to kneel properly over the body. He checked the woman’s hands, knowing there to be no obvious wounds, examined her face and neck, and smelled her stolen breath before he straightened.
“She asphyxiated,” he concluded, adjusting his leg. “Passed out, and choked on her own vomit. I can’t smell any wine on her, but she may have had a seizure, it could be some sort of drug...”
Celatus smiled to one side, and straightened as Laevinus returned.
“This is the fourth of these murders to have occurred in six months,” he announced. Laevinus looked mildly stunned, but Celatus, heedless, barrelled right over his (and Vannus’) confusion with insights hardly possible. “There may have been more that I wasn’t alerted to, but I am sure of the other three. One senator, a boy of fourteen, and a merchant’s wife. They all appeared, dead, in places they had no reason to be. From the tests I was able to run, they all seemed to have been killed by the same, apparently self-administered, poison. This woman is the fourth. No reason to be in this house, let alone the kitchen, and I’ve no doubt that the poison is the same.”
“For Juno’s sake,” Laevinus scoffed, “if you’re just making this up –”
“Someone else was here,” Celatus insisted. “I could provide for you my evidence for the other murders, but that much is obvious.” He stepped back, pointing at the ground around them and bending and gesturing with his explanations. “There are a man’s footsteps visible under the tramplings of your soldiers, Legate – a short but strong man, judging by the length and firmness of the prints, who followed his victim into the room, stood in one place for some time while she faltered and took the poison, then knelt to inscribe the message on the floor, but was interrupted, and ran away.”
Though Vannus wanted nothing more than to scorn the man’s outrageous arrogance, he couldn’t help the exclamation that escaped his lips at the train of observation.
Celatus glanced at him in passing with a frown. “The culprit is likely either a freeborn man, or the freedman of a rich family,” Celatus continued, pacing around the body. “He has the freedom of movement to kill four people in different parts of the city at different times of the year. He’s been educated in Greek, and the inscribing of the message shows no signs of the roughness or long nails of a particularly hard life. In addition to this, he is both smart and ruthless. This is the first murder to be accompanied by a message, clearly it was to throw us off. Fully, it would have read ‘Nemesis’ – he knew this woman was connected to the court, and that her death would be investigated, but this was as random as the other murders, not revenge. This means that he knew her. He may have known her in advance, or followed her the night of the murder, but he knew who she was, and though the murders are random, he killed her anyway. Our killer is intelligent enough to try to throw us off, and ruthless enough to kill an imperially-connected, aristocratic woman with impunity.”
The facts were worrying. The paths which Celatus had taken to them...
“Fantastic,” Vannus found himself saying. Celatus, previously distracted, stilled and turned to him.
“Do you know you do that out loud?” he asked under his breath.
“Sorry, I’ll shut up.”
“No,” Celatus countered, “it’s... fine.”
Vannus wondered how often the man received an honest compliment; then he remembered Celatus’ less-than-courteous manner.
Laevinus interrupted Vannus’ thoughts.
“Volumnia’s family will be looking for justice,” he said. “Can you find the killer?”
Celatus’ mouth lifted in prideful self-confidence as he resumed his movement. “I need to interrogate the woman’s household,” he announced, “particularly her personal slaves and litter-bearers. I need to establish the events of last night.”
A few, faint lines creased Laevinus’ brow. “She didn’t have litter-bearers.”
Celatus, in mid-turn, stopped, and stared at the legate.
“Say that again.”
“She didn’t have personal litter-bearers,” Laevinus repeated. “According to the slave, her husband never used the litter, so they hired fresh men for the night whenever the wife wanted to go out in it. But she didn’t have any of her own.”
It was as if a blast of wind had blown through the house. Suddenly, an enormous change was wrought in Celatus: instead of turning and divulging secrets, suddenly he was flying through the house and demanding answers.
“The litter,” he shouted at any and all vigiles present, “did anyone see the litter or its bearers around this house?”
Laevinus and Vannus followed him out of the kitchen, and watched as he flitted into the atrium.
“Celatus,” Laevinus called, “there was no litter, the bearers are gone!”
“But she took the litter there,” Celatus seethed, turning back to them, “they would have taken her home, taken her here. They would have been the last people to – oh.” His entire face lit up, his eyes and mouth falling wide and his hands flying in to clasp before his lips. “Oh!”
“What,” frowned Laevinus, “what is it?”
“A random killer is always interesting,” Celatus smiled. “You have to wait for them to make a mistake.”
“We can’t just wait!”
“Oh, we’re done waiting,” shouted Celatus, “look at her, just look! The most capital mistake! Contact her household,” he ordered turning away again and forcing Laevinus and Vannus to follow into the atrium as he disappeared onto the street. “Find out what you can about the dinner last night, find the litter-bearers!”
“Yes,” Laevinus called, his frown only growing, “but what mistake?”
With his toga flying about him, Celatus leaned back out of the front hallway and shouted one, final word before he parted.
And then he was gone. Laevinus directed his men to gather the body for the family, and Vannus was left to limp and stumble his way back out of the grand and empty house, while soldiers bustled and worked around him. He made it back to the street and was one, crowded block away before he realised that he had no idea where he was. The shabby, commanding figure of Dido stood ahead of him, and, as he approached on uneven feet, she saw him, and turned with curiosity and suspicion.
“He’s gone,” she said, without preamble.
“Yes, he just took off.” Her brow lifted unkindly. “He does that.”
“Is he coming back?”
Her expression was shrewd. “It didn’t look like it.”
Vannus nodded, and looked about him.
The buildings were unfamiliar.
Dido sent a soldier off on some task, and made to walk past him.
“Sorry,” he said, “where am I?”
She looked at him like he’d gone mad. Perhaps he had.
“The via Honoris,” she answered, “on the Caelian Hill.”
“Right,” he said, as vague and unhelpful as he felt, and moved to pass her. “Thanks.”
She watched him leave with incisive eyes, and called after him before he could go far.
“You’re not his friend,” she said with authority. Vannus turned. “He doesn’t have friends.” She looked him up and down, assessing in an entirely different way to Celatus’ analysing gaze, and asked: “So who are you?”
“I’m...” Vannus began – “I’m nobody, I just met him.”
Dido’s expression conveyed an alarming amount of cynicism, and she stepped towards him with an air of conspiracy. “All right, I’ll give you bit of advice, then,” she said: “stay away from that man.”
Vannus was torn between curiosity, and an instinctive and vehement defensiveness. He tried to keep the demand from his voice. “Why?”
Again, Dido looked at him with an assessing and cynical gaze.
“Do you know why he’s here?” she said. “He isn’t paid or anything – he likes it. He enjoys it. The weirder the crime, the more he does, and d’you know what? One day, just showing up won’t be enough.” Her smile was cold, confident, and helpless. “One day we’ll be standing around a murder or a torture, and Cornelius Celatus will be the one that put it there.”
Vannus was inclined both to agree and to loudly argue. He’d seen Celatus greeting Hirtia, seen his pure and childlike joy at the idea of a new puzzle; he’d seen his instinct to find the killer.
“Why would he do that?” he finally asked.
“Because he’s rich, noble, and insane,” said Dido with absolute surety. “Those types always get bored.”
Before she could do much more than smile with rueful knowledge, Laevinus’ voice called for her from the empty house, and she turned to answer it. As she walked away, however, she looked over her shoulder and threw a final warning out for Vannus.
“Stay away from Cornelius Celatus.”
Then she was gone, and Vannus was left alone in the darkened street.
He was halfway between the Esquiline and the Subura before an elegant and heavy-curtained litter stopped pointedly beside him. Its bearers wore lavish collars, and sharp, bright swords at their hips, and from within the wide interior of the litter, a deep, smooth, vaguely menacing voice spoke to him.
“Get into the litter, Caelius Piso,” it said, with the quiet imperiousness of a consul. “I would make some sort of threat –”the slave nearest to Vannus moved one hand to his impressive short sword – “but I’m sure your situation is quite clear to you.”
Vannus saw little choice. One of the litter-bearers held back a curtain, and Vannus climbed in.
The litter was plush, cushioned and roomy enough for more than two. The bearers bore it smoothly along the winding streets.
The man across from him was an enigma.
His toga screamed money, even in its simplicity. It told Vannus of a senatorial position. The man himself was not fat, but he carried the extra weight of someone unused to hard work, and every movement of his was executed with the kind of calm deliberation and restraint that was spoken of in the same breath as old Cato and the Republic.
Vannus hated him without hesitation.
There were threats. There were veiled insults. There was the calm and arrogant directing of the conversation, as if Vannus should have been grateful the man had even deigned to talk to him. After the jabs at his status, his position, and his family, and the quiet assurance that a man like Celatus – and like that across from him – was significantly lowering himself even to consort with a man like Vannus, there came the final straw: the offer of a bribe.
Vannus turned him down with an absoluteness which came from years of training himself not to listen. A soldier’s screams were less undesirable than this man’s offers. But as he ordered the litter to stop and moved to leave, the stranger pulled a familiar dagger, Apollo-handled, from the cushions beside him.
“You’ll be needing this,” he said, with a wide, omniscient smile, and placed Vannus’ own dagger into his hand.
Vannus leapt from the litter as if it were on fire; and found himself standing on the via Pistoris.
In his defence, Vannus had little better to do. The evening was drawing further and further on, and it seemed increasingly unlikely that he would make it back to the Quirinal in good time. He just hoped that he wouldn’t find the rooms empty.
He found Celatus draped across the old couch against the wall with his toga bunched up around his waist, his eyes closed, and his hands pressed together above his mouth.
“Lounging about like a woman, now, are we?” Vannus quipped, deadpan. “And I thought the constant running around was inappropriate.”
Celatus smirked from where he lay, seeming unsurprised at Vannus’ appearance.
“Yes, I never was one for the statesman’s walk,” he said. “Nearly drove old Polymede to tears, and grandmother Vergilia never did quite forgive me.”
Vannus rolled his eyes, and strode forward to peer out of the windows and make sure there were no opulent litters lingering nearby. “But as long as you’re comfortable,” he grumbled, “who cares about your family’s reputation, yes?”
Celatus glanced at him, his grey eyes almost mischievous. “I wasn’t expecting you,” he said, instead of a reply.
“No, I had an unexpected ride over,” said Vannus absently, still peering out the window. “I met a friend of yours, in fact.”
Celatus’ reply was confused and frowning. “A friend?” he repeated, as if the very idea were absurd.
“Well, an enemy,” Vannus corrected; he was unsurprised when this mollified his companion.
“Oh.” Celatus relaxed, then his interest perked up once more. “Which one?”
At this, Vannus took a half-step back, focusing on Celatus. “He called himself your arch-enemy. Who is he?”
Celatus relaxed back into the couch and sighed. “The most dangerous man you’ve ever met, and not my problem right now,” he said, in one breath.
“Is he your brother?” Vannus asked, with suspicion.
Celatus’ eyes snapped open, and he sat up to stare at Vannus as if he had only just noticed his presence. But instead of an answer, he only asked a question that did not follow.
“Are you hungry?”
Vannus stared. He blinked.
“We have an appointment to keep,” Celatus babbled, standing and rearranging his toga over his shoulder. “I didn’t expect you to come, but you may be an invaluable help. Another set of eyes is always useful.”
“Sorry,” Vannus interrupted, following him to the door, “where are we going?”
“Just a little tavern nearby,” said Celatus, “nothing special.” His smile was not reassuring. “Come along, Piso!”
And with that, he was out the door, and Vannus – against all his better judgement – followed.
“I went to Volumnia’s house,” Celatus explained as they walked, “and asked around for any information about the litter-bearers.”
Vannus was two steps behind him in pace, and half a mile in thought.
“Did you find them?”
Celatus’ smirk was becoming infuriatingly familiar. “I did indeed,” he said. “Apparently the family used to hire them regularly from a nearby shop, the loiterers around there are always looking for work. I found two of the men who carried Volumnia from the dinner party –”
“From the dinner?” Vannus interrupted. “Then what on earth happened to her?”
Celatus glared down at him with impatience. “Apparently, one of the men who bore our victim from her house was then persuaded, for a fee, to give the job to another man. This one directed the litter on the way back from the dinner, and convinced the others – at swordpoint, I might add – to abandon their temporary mistress. That man is our murderer.”
He’d achieved all that in barely an hour?
“Amazing what a few loose sestertii will get you,” Celatus finished, as if having read Vannus’ astonished mind.
“I don’t understand,” said Vannus, “where are we going? Why aren’t we trying to find the killer?”
“I have some trusted employees on the job,” Celatus replied. “They’ll get the message to him.”
Vannus arched an eyebrow. “A few of your family’s slaves?”
“Oh, Minerva, no,” Celatus scoffed. “Slaves are far too untrustworthy, especially in my family. I have a sort of... network.”
Celatus’ smirk was back in full force. “It is truly astounding what a street urchin will do for a few asses,” he said, “and even more wondrous what he can get away with. Those children are my eyes and ears all over the city.”
“And you pay them?”
Celatus’ nose wrinkled. “Of course I pay them!”
Vannus fell silent. The crease in Celatus’ brow and the haughty manner in which he kept his gaze straight ahead was both aristocratic and somehow… embarrassed. Vannus doubted that he was the first person so ask about the urchins. He wondered; then he suppressed a smile. He doubted that he was the first person to ask about the urchins, and he doubted it to be only thrift which had inspired Celatus to the plan.
The keeper of the tavern they reached was a generous man by the name of Antius, with a full, dark beard and a fuller smile. Apparently, Celatus had once provided evidence that he’d been thieving when he was suspected of murder. Vannus let it be.
“Anything in the house,” he said, with a hearty grin, “free, for you and for your boy!”
Vannus’ head jerked up as he sat. “I’m not his boy,” he snapped; Antius did not appear to have heard him.
“Wine, will it be then?” he asked, and Celatus waved an impatient hand in nonchalant dismissal. Vannus pursed his lips.
“Mixed wine, please,” he said to Antius, who favoured him with a condescending nod. “And a loaf of bread.” As Antius grinned and left them, Vannus called after him, indignant. “And I’m not his boy!”
He was ignored.
“You may as well eat,” said Celatus, the bulk of his attention focused on the narrow window onto the street. “We may be here some time.”
The wine appeared, and then the bread, and Vannus, though loathe to act any part even resembling that of Celatus’ slave, took it upon himself to slice and serve: it didn’t appear as if Celatus had a thought left to spare for supper. Eventually, Vannus cleared his throat, and embarked.
“People don’t have arch-enemies,” he said bluntly. “In real life.” It took a moment, but Celatus’ gaze did deign to drop upon him, confused, as if conversation was not familiar to him. “So who did I really meet today?”
Celatus did not answer the question. “What do people have then,” he asked instead, “in their real lives?”
Vannus shrugged away his derision. “Family,” he said, unspecific. “People they like, people they don’t like. Patrons, clients, friends.” He cleared his throat again. If he was going to get information out of Celatus, he would have to be blunt. “Girlfriends, husbands.”
Celatus’ eyes were still riveted on the bustling street. “It sounds dull.”
“You don’t have a girlfriend, then?” Vannus asked with a mild smirk.
“Girlfriend?” Celatus repeated absently. “No, not really my area...”
Vannus glanced up at him from his meal, performed first a mental, than a physical double-take, and froze. He wasn’t... was he? It certainly wouldn’t be out of character for an aristocrat like him.
He let out a short “Oh,” and glanced away for just an instant. That would explain Antius’ assumption, at least. “Do you have a... boyfriend, then?” Celatus peered at him, turning his head properly for the first time in the conversation, and Vannus hastened to add: “Which is fine, by the way.”
“Not everyone would agree with you,” said Celatus, couched more in curiosity than defence.
Vannus shrugged. “I’ve known all sorts.”
Celatus said nothing, and Vannus saw he’d require prompting.
“So, you’ve – got a boyfriend then?”
The exchange was getting stranger by the moment.
The conversation lingered.
“You’re unattached,” Vannus babbled, turning back to his bread. “Just like me. Right.” He cleared his throat. “Good.” And determined to just stop talking.
The bread and oil became remarkably engaging – until the moment Celatus peered at him again, and his eyes widened and dropped.
“Er – Piso,” he said in a low voice, “I think you should know that I consider my work to be my highest priority, and while I’m flattered by your interest, I’m not actually…”
Vannus almost choked on his food. He shook his head, and kept his voice down. “No –” he stuttered, “no, I’m not – asking – no.” He caught Celatus’ eye, trying to properly convey his sincerity. “I’m just saying…” He sighed. “It’s fine. It’s all fine.”
His dismissal, thank all the gods, was picked up by Celatus, who let out a minute sigh and a low, murmured expression of thanks. Vannus was just beginning a desperate mental search for a new topic of conversation when Celatus’ spine stiffened, and his nose, like that of a bloodhound, rose.
“Look at that,” he said, nodding out of the window. Vannus looked. “A litter standing empty across the street. See the leader?”
Vannus peered. A litter with two carriers had been set down with the kind of ease only used when there was no one within. The man at the front – short and stocky, with whitening hair and the teeth of a rat – was standing and looking about him, as if he expected there to be someone to meet him.
“Is that –” Vannus began, and stared at Celatus with bewildered eyes.
“After interrogating the last victim’s litter-bearers, I instructed one of my boys to contact the man and ask him to meet me here.” He gave a cold and triumphal smile. “I gave certain words as an inducement.”
“That’s our murderer…” Vannus could not help but notice that he fit Celatus’ earlier description.
“He is indeed.”
With a sudden flurry of movement, Celatus was on his feet, his dark cloak in one hand and his imperious face held high. Vannus was barely out of his seat when Celatus traversed the tangled crowd on the road with the upright stride of someone who had power, and knew it. Standing without the door of the tavern, bread and wine abandoned, Vannus pinned his cloak about his shoulders and adjusted the dagger on his belt. Before he could take further action, however, Celatus had ducked into the litter, and disappeared.
It wasn’t hard to follow the litter. The narrow, winding streets and straggling crowds made it easy for Vannus to duck, and hide, and remain unobserved. By the time the litter stopped, a few torches had been lit here and there, and the muddy cobbles lay in untrodden shadow. The murderer lowered his load, and dismissed his fellow, who dashed into the night with fear and a few new coins. Then words were being exchanged, in a rusty dialect and Celatus’ familiar, dark tones, and a dagger was drawn, and the two men disappeared into an empty-windowed house.
Vannus followed them.
The insula was dark and barren, gutted by fire and abandoned, but standing, in perfect desertion. Blackened beams were visible in the light of the moon and the city which filtered into the courtyard from above. The walls were streaked with soot, the plaster crumbling on the lower levels and wood rotting away on the upper, and the ground was thick with dusty ash and debris. Celatus and the killer slipped into one of the ground-floor rooms, and Vannus crouched beside the hollow doorway to listen.
They talked. They talked about murder, and information, and discovery. They talked about how smart they both were, and Vannus bristled. The litter-bearer explained how he did it: bribing men to disappear when asked, or tracking down lonely citizens, and offering a choice of two bottles: one poisoned, one safe. Whichever the victim chose, the killer would take the other. An elaborate game, playing with choices and minds, spitting on Fortune.
Celatus, then, explained his own methods – how he’d come to his conclusions, and traced the man, and forced him to reveal himself. What he could tell of the man now he saw him: apparently, the killer was dying. Apparently, he had a new patron.
Apparently, he was offering Celatus the same choice.
And that man – that infuriating, keen, condescending, wonderful, terrible man – could not help but take the challenge.
There was only so much that Vannus would withstand, half-knelt below the window and listening in. Only so much he could let be, when he heard two corks twisting out of place and the murderer whispering malicious encouragements in Celatus’ ear, goading him on with the perfect challenge, the perfect lure.
In war, the Furies had made sport of Vannus’ companions; in Rome, Mars would find no spectacle.
He knew, loosely, how the two men were situated in the room – that the killer was closer to the door, and facing inward, toward Celatus. He knew that the man had a dagger, and was engrossed in enticing Celatus’ insatiable, unsteady mind.
He knew that there was a dagger at his back, and a man, both friend and foe, who was endangering his own life.
Vannus slid to his feet, took two swift steps into the room, and stabbed.
Celatus’ face, as the killer’s body slid out of the way and onto the floor, was a blank, fallen expression of shock, a mask from some old Greek comedy. He was still holding, before his mouth, the little glass bottle that the man had given him – the other had tumbled and emptied onto the floor when the murderer fell. After a moment, Vannus caught Celatus’ eye, and lowered his sword arm, stepping back from the body.
“Don’t you dare drink that.”
At the calm order, Celatus’ fingers twitched, and the second bottle fell, the tinkle of the thick glass muffled by dead leaves and dust.
“We should –” he stammered, but seemed to run out of words.
“Dump the body in the Tiber?” Vannus suggested. Celatus shook his head in a single, sudden jerk.
“No, it’s too far.”
Vannus conceded the point. “We can’t leave him here, he’ll start to smell.”
Celatus finally looked down, at the stocky corpse at their feet. “I wouldn’t worry about that,” he said. “There are always those looking for bodies in this city. The dogs at least will find him soon enough.”
With a hum and a nod, Vannus glanced over both shoulders, and turned back to Celatus with a faint frown creasing his brow.
“Shall we go then?” he said, verging on a bark. “Only, I don’t want to be caught and dragged to trial by his family.”
“Weren’t you listening?” said Celatus. “He doesn’t have any family, not one that would bother to pay a lawyer. And his patron family cut him off months ago, that’s why he was killing. For this new sponsor of his.”
“Yes, I heard.” Vannus’ lips pursed. “Mercurialis, the man who plays patron to murderers.”
For the first time since the old man had died and revealed Vannus alive in his place, Celatus smiled, a small, smug twitching at one corner of his mouth.
“Now that is interesting...”
On the walk back to the via Pistoris, Vannus wiped his sword on the inside hem of his tunic, and asked Celatus whether he’d be informing the vigiles of their find.
“I’ll let Laevinus know the killer has been removed from the picture,” he said in ominous tones. Vannus saw the concession as a minor victory. Slowly, they made their way through empty, post-midnight streets, overshadowed by the crooked, hunkering masses of the insulae and, hovering above, the dim, grey glow of the approaching dawn.
“Hungry?” Celatus asked, as they neared CCXXI. Vannus’ stomach growled.
“I know a good place nearby which sells food from the eastern provinces,” Celatus mused. “I’m sure we can convince them to open up a little early for us.”
He smiled down at Vannus, and Vannus, in his turn, smiled back. Years of military training, however, had taught him how to take advantage in an attack.
“So, was he your brother then?”
He felt a thrill of pride as, for a moment, Celatus frowned in confused. Then the patrician’s expression soured.
“Yes, all right, fine,” he muttered. “You’ve been met by my charming brother Sollemnis.” He sneered the name like it was a rotting eel. “I should have known he’d stick his fat nose into my affairs.”
“He brought me my dagger,” said Vannus with contempt. “How did he get into my room? How did he know it?”
Celatus answered with reluctance. “My brother,” he sighed, “is a quaestor. You might say that he holds a minor position in the Roman senate; but you might also say just as well that he is the Roman senate.” He nose wrinkled with distaste. “He knows everything and everyone in the empire, from the emperor’s court to your room on the Quirinal, and yet he can’t stand to be on his own two feet for more than a minute.”
“Yes, I might have guessed as much,” Vannus quipped over his mild astonishment, “judging by the litter he picked me up in. That thing was so expensive, it looked like you could eat, fuck and sleep in it all your life without worry.”
His words startled a snort of laughter out of Celatus, who stared down at him for a moment in something like wonder, and laughed again, a smile breaking open his face, luminous in the dark. Vannus laughed, too, then all of a sudden he was chuckling, and stuttering, and giggling along. Their voices echoed softly amongst the graffiti and the shuttered windows as they mocked the senate, each other, and overbearing brothers. There was food on the horizon, and the sun lingering behind, and Vannus’ dagger nestled at the small of his back. Celatus was alive, a murderer was dead, and there was something in the grin being sent his way which was not smug, or knowing, or false – but fond.
No one seemed to expect Celatus to be friendly.
Vannus wondered if they’d ever tried simply being his friend.