‘It has happened again!’ Valerius turned, ready to defend himself, but it was only old Honorius, the water commissioner, bearing down on him from the direction of the Circus Maximus, rheumy eyes bulging in a face the colour of a ripe plum. ‘It can’t go on!’
‘No,’ Valerius said reassuringly, not quite certain what couldn’t go on.
‘Thousands of gallons a day from the water castle up on the Cespian Height. A veritable river siphoned off somewhere between there and the Subura. Stolen from the state. Larceny on a grand scale. It must be stopped.’
‘It will be.’
Honorius glared at him. ‘But when? When will you prosecute our case?’
‘I need a little more time.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Imperial business.’
Honorius’s outraged expression softened. ‘Ah,’ he said knowingly. ‘State business.’
‘Two weeks? Perhaps a month?’
The water commissioner sniffed. ‘Two weeks then.’
Valerius watched him go. The man was like a hunting dog; he would never lose the scent. All he thought about were his aqueducts and his pipes, his water castles and his springs. But without the aqueducts and men like Honorius to ensure they were maintained Rome would be a desert, and a stinking one at that. Not only did water from the Aqua Claudia and the New Anio and their like slake the thirst of a million people through private supplies and public fountains, it also served to flush out the sewers into the Tiber, taking the threat of disease and plague with it. During the preparations for the case, Honorius had hammered into him the history of Rome’s waters. How the city had been supplied by the Tiber and local springs until three hundred and fifty years earlier, when the censor Appius Claudius Crassus had brought to Rome the waters of a spring on the Lucullan estate eight miles outside the city. Aqua Appia was the first of the nine, and was followed forty years later by Old Anio, which took its supply from above the falls of Tivoli. Then, more than a century later, came Aqua Marcia, the first to be carried above ground and her waters travelling an astonishing fifty-four miles to reach Rome; Emperor Augustus had given Rome the Julia, the Tepula, the Virgo and the Augusta, used mainly for irrigation; Gaius Caligula had begun the Claudia, which was completed by the uncle whose name it bore, and Claudius had also ordered the construction of the New Anio, the most modern and technically advanced. If the water castle the commissioner spoke of was on the Cespian Height between the Viminal and Esquiline hills, it must be on a spur of Old Anio which entered the city close to the Porta Viminalis.
But Valerius had more pressing concerns. He was certain he was being followed.
During Suetonius’s campaign of retribution in the wake of Boudicca’s rebellion, Valerius had lived with the constant threat of ambush from defeated British tribesmen with nothing more to lose. He had developed an instinct for survival akin to a third eye. The alarm signal was a prickle at the back of his neck and it had been prickling for days now. He’d tried all the usual methods to detect his watchers: backtracking when it would be least expected, stopping suddenly as if he’d changed his mind about something, turning off into some narrow alleyway where a follower would be easier to identify. Nothing. Today he’d been more subtle.
When he reached the house he walked straight through the atrium and the kitchens to the garden. Marcus waited with his backside perched on a stone cabinet where the winter vegetables were stored, crunching a pear from one of the trees that lined the walls. The old gladiator grunted a welcome.
‘You weren’t seen?’ Valerius had installed the five men in a rented house about a quarter of a mile away, beyond the city wall.
Marcus shook his head. ‘I came by the servants’ entrance. Anyone spying on you would watch the front door. They’re not interested in the slaves, but I was careful in any case. We stayed well back. Knowing your route and the timings helped a lot, although the old boy with a beetroot for a nose almost caught us out.’
‘Honorius, the water commissioner.’ Valerius smiled. ‘I couldn’t get rid of him.’
‘Well, he did us a turn. They were good. They kept their distance and switched places often enough to make sure you wouldn’t mark them.’ He described three men, and Valerius hadn’t noticed any of them. ‘I thought there were only the three of them, but with you stopped for so long they got a little confused, eyeing each other up as if they didn’t know what to do. Next thing they’re having a conference in a doorway with this fourth fellow. Stocky lad, looked as if he knew how to handle himself. He had that aware look, if you know what I mean?’
‘Anything to distinguish him in a crowd?’
Marcus pondered for a few seconds. ‘At first I thought he was just another hired thug. But there was something about him that didn’t fit. Maybe the way he walked? Then I got a proper look at him. You can tell when a man’s been knocked about, even if it was a while ago. The left side of his face looked as if someone had shoved it in a furnace.’
Valerius smiled at the perfect description of Rodan. So, he’d been right, but what to do about it? ‘If I need to, can I lose them?’
Marcus considered the question. ‘There’s nobody better at starting a fight than Serpentius.’ He nodded towards the far corner of the garden and Valerius noticed with a chill the slim figure standing motionless in the shadow of one of the trees. ‘He’ll start on one of them. Their friends will come running. You slip off up the nearest alleyway and I’ll cover your back. We can meet up later if you need us again. Where are they now, Snake?’
The Spaniard didn’t hesitate. ‘One watching the house from across the street, the other two in the bar on the corner. The ugly one left as soon as he saw you home.’
Valerius turned to Marcus. ‘Is there anything else I should know?’
The gladiator grinned. ‘Your old nag came first in the race of the day.’
‘That horse-faced old bitch Lucina. She thought she was being slippery, but I had Heracles on her and he’s a handy lad for such a big lump. She likes her gardens does Lucina, and there’s one she’s taken to visiting regularly up on the hill by the Temple of Diana. Very private, high wall, but as I say he’s a handy lad and he slips over it so’s he can keep an eye on her while she’s smelling the pretty flowers. Lucina does the rounds, but she’s not taking that much interest. Heracles thinks maybe she’s only there to get away from the old man, except she’s too watchful and he has to hide in a bush a couple of times in case she spots him. After about fifteen minutes it happens. Out of the trees on the far side a man appears. Oh ho, thinks Heracles, now the fun starts. He’s young, good-looking if you like them skinny, rich clothes, and shoes that won’t fall apart in the rain. Just what a dry old sow like Lucina needs to get the juices running again. Next thing they’ll be at it like rabbits on the grass. Only they aren’t. He’s respectful. He stands just the right distance away. He listens to what she says, he bows and he leaves.’
‘Just like that?’ Valerius knew from the glint in Marcus’s eye there was more to come.
‘Just like that. Only now Heracles has a problem. Does he stay with Lucina, who we know is up to something, or does he try to follow the boyfriend?’
‘He’s a bright lad.’
‘That’s right. He’s a bright lad. He skips up the nearest tree and over the wall, sprints round to the far side of the garden just in time to see the boyfriend disappearing down towards the meat market. Now your young man is a proper aristocrat, begging your lordship’s pardon, who knows how to stay busy doing nothing for hours on end. Heracles sticks with him as he wanders from shop to shop, only looking, never buying, stops in a tavern and spends an hour over a cup of warm wine and a sausage. You’re biding your time, thinks Heracles. You’re waiting to meet somebody. But if he does, Heracles misses it, because all of a sudden it’s up and we’re off, to a big house across the other side of the Via Flaminia from the Septa Julia and so fast we struggle to keep up. He owns the house, or thinks he does — you can tell by the way he treats the doorman — and it’s only a few minutes before he’s out, in a new tunic and cloak, and we’re off again. To the Palatine.’
Valerius went over the details, trying to follow the young man’s reasoning. ‘He knew he was being followed, or suspected he was.’
‘Or he was just making sure he wasn’t. Heracles doesn’t think he was seen.’
‘Yes, that would fit just as well. Where did he go on the Palatine?’
‘Heracles stayed with him until he walked up the Clivus Palatinus, then he left him. Did he do wrong?’
‘No. Someone would have questioned him and he might have ended up in trouble. He did well. Make sure he’s rewarded.’
Marcus nodded. ‘Before he came to report to me he went back to the Via Flaminia and asked at a stall across the street who the big house belonged to.’ Valerius sensed that, in his roundabout way, the gladiator had just come to the point. ‘The name was Cornelius Sulla.’
Valerius remembered languid eyes and a mocking smile across the great receiving room in the Domus Transitoria. Cornelius Sulla was one of Nero’s favourites who had taken particular delight in seeing him fall from grace. An arrogantly handsome boy-man with soft golden curls that fell in waves to his neck and a bloodline that went back to the great dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Yet if the blood held iron, Cornelius was careful not to display it. Nero treated him like a pet, forever absent-mindedly stroking and caressing his flesh, while Cornelius purred with pleasure and asked for more. Some of Fabia’s more scurrilous gossip hinted that the young aristocrat was the plaything of the Emperor and his wife, with Torquatus acting as ringmaster, and Valerius could believe it. The question was why a man whose future seemed so bound to Nero would risk everything by consorting with the woman who had declared herself the Emperor’s greatest foe?
‘I want Heracles to stay with Cornelius, and he can have Serpentius’s help if he needs it. We need to know everywhere he goes when he’s not at the palace, and everyone he talks to. I want Sextus and Felix watching my back. We’ll leave Lucina for the moment. It’s plain she knows she’s being watched by Torquatus. She has taken one gamble this week; she’s unlikely to take another.’
Marcus disagreed. ‘By meeting Cornelius in secret she has proved she’s prepared to risk everything. That makes it more likely she’ll act, not less.’
‘You may be right,’ Valerius admitted. ‘But there’s nothing we can do about it.’
He spent the evening at Olivia’s side, just listening to the sound of her breathing. He remembered the morning of her eleventh birthday, when he understood she would one day be beautiful, and the irrational conflict that had raged between pride and jealousy. Soon she would leave and become someone else’s friend. It seemed unfair that he would lose her just when she was becoming interesting. He had watched her grow from girl to woman and was surprised that the battle inside became all the more intense, and that it was accompanied by sensations he would never begin to understand. She was intelligent, perhaps wiser than he was; elegant, cultured and refined. He resented it. For a short time, when teenage arrogance overwhelmed good judgement, they had hated each other, but it didn’t last. When she was betrothed he had punched a wall with such impotent fury that he’d almost broken his knuckles, and when she married he went off to sulk among the olive trees the moment the traditional rites had been observed. She was part of him, and he of her.
Two deaths had brought them back together. First, when the thing in their mother’s breast had eaten the life out of her. Mama’s decline had been long, undignified and accompanied by a pain that no amount of courage could conquer, or tincture of poppy dull. As the ashes were placed in the family sarcophagus, Valerius and Olivia had stood side by side, united in their desire to replace the lifetime of love that had been torn from their father. On the day of her husband’s funeral it had been Valerius Olivia had turned to for support rather than Lucius. He wondered now if that reversal of roles after the death of one husband had been part of the reason for his poor choice of her next. In the aftermath of the storm that had followed Valerius had found himself responsible for her. Now he had failed her.
Amidst all the uncertainties he knew only one thing. He had to find Petrus.