XIV

Valerius couldn’t disguise his frustration. An entire week and the watch on Lucina Graecina had produced no new information.

‘There’s nothing we can do about it,’ he admitted to Marcus as they discussed their plans in the house on the Clivus Scauri. ‘We have to be patient.’

The former gladiator pursed his lips. Patience didn’t come easily to him. ‘I’ve sent Serpentius and Felix out into the streets beyond Subura to try to get a feel for the way the wind’s blowing. If you’re right, these people are fanatics, and fanatics find it even more difficult to sit still and wait than we do. Your man Petrus might be lying low, but I’m betting that one of his friends just can’t wait to stand up on a street corner and let everybody know why he’s in Rome.’

Valerius was impressed and said so. ‘But why beyond the Subura? Why not around the Porta Capena where most of the Judaeans live?’

Marcus frowned and tried to articulate what had been an entirely instinctive decision. ‘Because the followers of Christus are more likely to be known among the Judaeans, their own people, than they are among Romans. They dare not live among their countrymen for fear of betrayal. More sensible to stay in family groups in the main population. And beyond the Subura because I think your physician won’t have moved far. In the shadow of the Praetorian barracks will be as good a place to look as any.’

‘Serpentius will like that.’

‘I’ve told him to stay out of trouble, and he knows he’ll go straight back to the arena if he doesn’t. I doubt it will do any good, but it increases our chances from nought to a little more than nought.’

Valerius smiled and raised his wooden hand. ‘I’ve faced chances like that before, my friend, and I’m still mostly here, so I’ll accept the odds.’

Marcus grinned back, the deep shadows of his scars creating unearthly patterns on his skin. ‘A jar of wine on it then.’

They were interrupted by a shout from the door. Marcus stood and his hand strayed to his sword, but Valerius waved him down. A slave entered and announced that the ‘old master’ had arrived.

‘I’ll check with Serpentius and report back.’ The gladiator made his exit towards the kitchens, but Valerius was already on his way to greet his father in the vestibule.

‘It is too long since you graced this house, sir.’ Valerius bowed. ‘Come through to the atrium and I will have Julia bring us some wine.’

His father gave an embarrassed smile. ‘I am afraid I cannot stay long. I am in the city on business and I have a meeting at the seventh hour. I… I would like, if you permit it, to visit Olivia.’

Valerius didn’t attempt to hide his pleasure. ‘Of course, please come. You remember the way to her room?’

Olivia was as he’d left her. She’d hardly moved for a week. Valerius felt the pleasure at his father’s visit wash away to be replaced by a new hopelessness. If he couldn’t find Petrus, she would die. If he did find him, the Judaean’s fate would be inevitable and terrible. He looked up to find his father watching him from the other side of the bed.

‘Her illness is taking its toll on you also, I see,’ the old man said. ‘I am sorry. I should have offered my support much earlier. You are doing everything you can?’

‘Everything.’

‘Then all I can do is pray for her.’ The grey head bent over the dark hair and Lucius kissed his daughter tenderly on the forehead. His father’s unconscious affection made Valerius feel as if a fist had gripped his heart. For a moment all he wanted to do was carry them off, far away from the political cesspit Rome had become. He reached out for the old man’s shoulder, but withdrew his hand at the last moment. Lucius straightened. ‘I must go now.’

‘Do not stay away so long again.’

The old man gave a bittersweet smile. ‘If the Fates allow it.’

Valerius had barely seen his father to the street when Marcus, red-faced and breathing hard, rushed in through the kitchens. ‘You have to see this,’ he gasped.

They walked briskly through the streets and Marcus explained that he’d intercepted a message from Serpentius ten minutes after he’d left the house. He indicated a thin, ragged child jogging at their side. Valerius tossed the boy a silver coin, which the urchin caught skilfully. His face broke into an enormous grin when he realized what he had.

‘It was your fish,’ Marcus continued. ‘Serpentius has good eyes. He noticed another that had been freshly scraped on a brick where the Vicus Patricius meets the Via Subura. At the bottom of the Viminal Hill? It had the number seven scratched beneath it and he guessed it must mean the seventh hour. He took a chance on this being the day and it paid off. He’s there now.’

Valerius felt his heart quicken. ‘Petrus?’

‘No, a young man, not a lot older than the messenger. Hopefully, we’ll get to him before the Praetorians do.’

By the time they reached the road junction a crowd had gathered where an orator shouted to be heard above the clamour of insults and jeers. Marcus had been right: he was little more than a boy, perhaps seventeen, with arms and legs too long for his body and dark hair slicked greasily against his forehead and flecked with eggshell. His accent marked him as Judaean and provoked sneers from his audience, but he spoke with a calm determination that belied his age.

‘He’s a tough little runt,’ Serpentius said admiringly as he sidled up beside them. ‘They’ve been throwing rotting fruit and old eggs at him for twenty minutes. It’ll be rocks soon.’

Even as he spoke, the boy staggered and a line of blood ran down his cheek where he had been struck.

‘Bastards,’ the Spaniard muttered, but the boy’s eyes lit up as if he had just been offered a gift.

‘Jesus said: “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone” and no man among them would throw. I am not Jesus, but I repeat his words: Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone.’

‘Have one of these then,’ called a rough voice from the far side of the crowd. A stone the size of a hen’s egg smashed the boy in the mouth, drawing more blood and making it difficult for him to speak.

‘Jesus came to offer you everlasting life.’ The words were thick with pain and as mangled as his lips. ‘He died for you. Will you not live for him?’

‘Jesus?’ Valerius looked to Serpentius.

‘Must be his pet name for this Christus.’

‘If he died for me why haven’t I had anything from his will?’ The voice of the rock thrower was accompanied by cackling laughter from his friends.

‘He-’

‘The Guard!’ A cry from the direction of the Vicus Patricius interrupted the speaker. The street led directly towards the Castra Praetoria and the Praetorians were never gentle when breaking up an illegal gathering. The crowd quickly dispersed into the surrounding streets. Valerius saw the bleeding boy dart up a nearby alleyway and ran after him. After a few minutes his quarry slowed to a walk and Valerius took step beside him.

‘You spoke well,’ he said.

The boy looked up suspiciously, the blood still dripping from his mouth. ‘You are following me. I saw you with the watcher at the back of the crowd.’

‘Yes,’ Valerius admitted. ‘But I mean you no harm. I am not like them.’

The young Judaean managed a semblance of a smile. ‘Do not judge them too harshly. They know not what they do.’

‘You would forgive those who hurt you?’

The boy looked surprised. ‘Of course. It is our Lord’s teaching.’

Valerius took him by the shoulder. ‘I am looking for a man called Petrus. He is known as the Rock of Christus. Do you know where I can find him?’

The boy glanced down at the wooden hand resting on his arm. ‘If you seek the Rock of Christus for the right reasons, you do not have to look for him; he will find you.’ With a twist of his body he wriggled from Valerius’s grasp and ran off down the alley.

Valerius saw Serpentius slip after him and merge into the crowd. He turned to look for Marcus and found himself staring into the eyes of Ruth, his father’s slave girl. She quickly averted her gaze and walked in the opposite direction. But not before he recognized a look of pure hatred.

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