XXXII

Valerius sent a message to Honorius requesting an urgent meeting at the commissioner’s offices. He could imagine the reaction when the engineer discovered that his lawyer was still neglecting his court duties. He wasn’t disappointed.

‘You are a disgrace to your profession, young man,’ Honorius spluttered. ‘We agreed a two-week suspension, yet it has been almost two months since I last laid eyes upon you. The villain should have been long since whipped and his supply capped. Now you have the audacity to come to me seeking assistance in some foolishness.’ But the old man’s eyes brightened when Valerius explained what he needed. ‘So you think these Christians are stealing my water?’

‘It’s possible. If they are, it will be in large amounts. The last time we spoke you talked of a veritable river?’

‘That is true. From the supply controlled by the water castle on the Cespian Height. But the source is a mystery. My investigators have been unable to discover a leak or a deliberate breach.’

Valerius hid his disappointment. He had hoped the break would be obvious, but if Honorius and his men were mystified it must be well hidden. The water castle on the Cespian Height overlooked the ancient temple of Juno Lucina, which was an omen if you liked. It was one of many dozens ingeniously sited across Rome to control the supply of water from the city’s aqueducts to the palaces, mansions, baths and public fountains, the ironworks and the tile factories and the state farms that thrived within the city boundaries. Each castle was sited on high ground and distributed water where it was needed through lead pipes and stone channels. As their name suggested, they were enormous structures, constructed in two or even three sections, and each contained a substantial reservoir in case of drought, or interruption of the supply from an aqueduct.

Honorius reached below his desk and produced a map of the water system, an enormous scroll formed of many different sections of parchment. He unrolled it and weighted it down with short sections of worn lead pipe.

‘See here.’ A plump finger indicated a point in the centre of the map. ‘The castle is one of the thirty-five supplied by the Old Anio, which takes its waters from the Tiber above the twentieth milestone and enters the city close to the Viminal Gate.’ Like every Roman, Valerius knew that the Old Anio, as opposed to the New Anio, was notorious for the poor quality of its waters, known universally as rat’s piss and of similar colour and taste, but Honorius insisted on elaborating. ‘Only six per cent of the supply will ever reach an imperial building, and that for the latrines. Most is used for industry or irrigation. The rest ends up in the Subura, where they are less inclined to complain about a little cloudiness.’

Mention of Subura reminded Valerius that the warren of streets overlooked by the Quirinal, Esquiline and Viminal hills provided a perfect refuge for a secretive cult like the Christians. It was here Petrus had set up his herb shop and surgery, and close by that they had stumbled upon the young man preaching at the crossroads. He noticed Honorius frowning.

‘Now that I consider it,’ the water commissioner mused, ‘this would be the perfect supply to tap if one needed any great quantity. We treat Old Anio with a little less respect than we give to the other aqueducts, precisely because of the quality of the water and whom it supplies.’ He shook his shaggy head. ‘Regrettable, but understandable. It may be that the engineer I sent to investigate this leak did not treat it quite as diligently as he would if he had been inspecting the Virgo or the Aqua Claudia.’ He let out an unlikely chuckle and Valerius recognized the enthusiasm of a true professional. ‘Perhaps it is worth taking a second look?’

Honorius summoned a work detail and they set off for the Cespian Height. Their route took them through the bustling heart of the Subura, but Honorius was a magistrate whose rank warranted the accompaniment of six lictors and their progress was swift as the crowds parted before the heavy ash rods of the bodyguard. As they walked, with the lictors at their head and the water gang behind, Valerius studied the narrow streets and wondered if he was wasting precious time. Was it really possible to find one man in all of this? Twenty minutes later they reached the base of the slope and it took another five to climb to the water castle. In scale, though not in splendour, the castle resembled its religious neighbour. This was clearly a working building, massive and brick-built, perhaps forty feet in height and forty paces long, supplied from the north by a main spur of the Anio.

The water commissioner came to a halt in the shade of the tower and instructed his men to check the exterior for leaks or signs of theft. ‘By the by,’ he turned to Valerius, ‘you must pass on my congratulations to your father.’ He waited for a reaction, but none was forthcoming. ‘Bassus the geologist mentioned it only yesterday. Strictest confidence, of course. Surely he must have told you?’

Valerius nodded distractedly, wondering what the old man was talking about. Honorius shrugged and returned to the matter of the tower. ‘You see,’ he explained, ‘how it supplies four main channels and numerous smaller ones.’ He called for a ladder as Valerius studied the stone conduits and lead pipes. ‘I do not normally do this these days, young man, but needs must and truth be told your little mystery quite invigorates me. I haven’t had so much excitement since the Marcia collapsed during the consulship of Hosidius Geta.’ He hauled his substantial bulk up the ladder, puffing noisily and resting every three steps, while Valerius hung on behind him with his good hand and tried not to look upwards. A gentle breeze ruffled the tree tops and from his perch Valerius noticed a hawk arc across the city seeking out some sleepy pigeon or sparrow. From this height they had an unsurpassed view across the shimmering rooftops to the marbled glory of the Forum and the columned temples of the Capitoline. The heart of Rome, laid out like some child’s toy or commander’s sand model. Valerius was reminded of the wooden table he had seen in Nero’s palace and he wondered again at its purpose. Did the Emperor look upon the cityscape as Valerius did now and glory in its colour and diversity and magnificence? Or were its people only so many ants striving to supply his imperial coffers? Doubtless both, knowing Nero’s capricious nature, plus a ruler’s paranoia that below each roof lay a potential enemy. Honorius reached a narrow terrace running around the castle and clambered awkwardly on to it over the low wall. Valerius joined him in front of a wooden doorway set into the brick. The water commissioner searched in a leather pouch at his waist and came out with a large key. ‘Good.’ He frowned absently. ‘It wouldn’t be the first time I’d forgotten you.’

The key turned easily in the lock and the door opened with only the barest squeak. Honorius ducked his head and ushered Valerius into the cool of the interior, where the rush of water echoing from the stone walls instantly assaulted his ears. Barred windows set high in the walls provided enough gloomy light to allow them to see each other, and as his eyes adjusted Valerius was able to make out the inside of the building. They stood on a walkway which encompassed three sides of a massive tank of dark, swirling water supplied by a foaming torrent at the far end. The constant movement and a sensation that something was about to emerge from the bottomless depths and swallow him made Valerius instinctively step back and make the sign against evil. Honorius saw his reaction and grinned.

‘It affects people like that the first time,’ he roared above the noise of the water. ‘But don’t worry, we don’t lose many.’

Still shouting, Honorius pointed to the wall and Valerius caught the shine of metal. He made out a number of strange levers of different sizes. ‘The smaller levers operate the opening and closing of separate pipes, the larger, the outlets for baths and factories and the imperial gardens. It is a simple system involving pulleys and axles. In theory, the leakage could come from any of these pipes; in practice it is most likely to come from the outlets with the biggest capacity.’

‘So the leakage doesn’t come from this castle?’ Valerius found himself shouting even louder than Honorius.

‘Not from the castle itself, but certainly from this system. We have measured the flow above and below the tower and the supply is down by as much as a tenth. I have the men checking each of the four major channels.’

‘Four?’

‘What?’

Valerius took the older man by the arm and led him through the door into sunlight and relative quiet. ‘You said four channels?’

‘No need to shout, young man. That is correct.’

Valerius walked around the terrace, leaning out to study the exterior of the castle and the channels running from it. ‘I believe I count five large outlets.’

Honorius glared, annoyed at the attempt to contradict him. ‘Yes, but the fifth is no longer in use. It is the conduit which once supplied the Glabrian baths. See,’ he pointed through the door, ‘the opening mechanism has been removed. The line has been dry for years.’

Valerius was Roman born and bred but he had never heard of the Thermae Glabrianae.

‘They were built, I believe, in the consulate of Marcus Acilius Glabro, more than two hundred years ago,’ Honorius explained in his dry voice. ‘But they were demolished in the time of Augustus. The family hadn’t had the money to maintain them for years. The land was handed to the state which naturally sold it to some unscrupulous property developer for housing.’

‘What land?’

‘The land where the baths had stood.’

‘No, I meant where?’

Honorius thought for a few moments and then walked to the northern end of the castle. ‘There,’ he said. ‘On the lower slope of the Quirinal Hill by the Vicus Longus.’ Valerius’s face lit up. Not the Subura proper, but close enough to make little difference. Honorius shook his head. ‘I see where you are going, young man, but it is not possible, I assure you. The apparatus has been removed and the conduit sealed. Only the commissioner and his staff have access to these towers. Come, I will prove it to you.’

He led the way back inside and retrieved another piece of equipment from the leather pouch. This was a metal tube about a handspan in diameter, which he handed to Valerius. He then lowered himself on to his belly with all the elegance of a collapsing water buffalo before shuffling to the edge of the walkway at a point close to where the Glabrian mechanism had once been fixed.

‘Pass me the ocular, young man,’ Honorius grunted. ‘And be careful with it. It is the only instrument of its kind.’

Valerius gave him the tube, noticing for the first time that one end was closed by a circle of remarkably clear glass. The water commissioner shuffled forward until he was able to place the closed end in the water and put his eye to the opening.

‘The dogs!’

‘What is it?’ Valerius asked. ‘What can you see?’

‘The dogs,’ Honorius repeated, this time in admiration. ‘How did they do it?’

‘Do what?’

‘They have jammed the gate open and they’re stealing my water by the lakeful. But the Glabrian baths were demolished more than half a century ago. Where is it going?’

Valerius stared at the dark waters. He didn’t yet have the answer to Honorius’s question, but he was going to find out.

Lucius looked down at the sleeping figure. Sleeping? No, not sleeping. Olivia was dying. The draughts of elixir he had smuggled into the house had given her strength and him hope, but now both were almost gone. Lucius closed his eyes and for the first time truly felt old. He had been a failure in so many ways.

Convention and tradition dictated that he should regard Olivia as a chattel over whom he had the power of life and death, but convention and tradition could never prevail over love. He had loved his daughter since the first day he had held her tiny body straight from the birthing room, porcupine-haired and squealing, the dark eyes sparkling even then with the intelligence and curiosity that would never leave them. He had loved her as child, girl and woman, and when the day came to give her away to another man he had wept in the privacy of his tablinum. How then could he have allowed his ambition to come before her happiness? The truth was that he had looked upon old Ahenobarbus and seen not a man, but an opportunity. Where the reality was foul-breathed, gap-toothed and pot-bellied, his mind had shown him a glittering reintroduction to the Emperor’s court on the arm of a man he could call son. Even when the horror on Olivia’s face opened his eyes to reality, his pride had not allowed him to acknowledge it. He was a Roman and he was her father; he had the right to command obedience.

Olivia gave a little whimper and he felt as if his heart had been chopped in two. He remembered a long night with Claudia at his side bathing their daughter’s sweat-soaked brow when she had fought some childhood sickness as she fought now, and the tears of relief when the fever broke the next day. Surely there must be a way. He prayed then, for God’s help, as he had prayed every night since she had become ill.

He still felt the pain, like some half-healed sword wound, of the day he had disowned her as his daughter. Yet she was his daughter and she had walked from the villa without another word, her chin held high and with an expression he had believed was contempt, but knew now had been pity. The true contempt had come from Valerius, and how could he blame his son when he himself had been in the wrong? Yet still his pompous patrician concept of dignity would not allow him to admit it. He had withdrawn to his villa and his hills and his olives, an empty husk of a man; empty of feelings, of dreams, even of hope. There he had wandered aimlessly and become old.

He touched Olivia’s head and recoiled at the clammy texture of her skin. Of course, she could never have come to him. He had no right to expect it, but he had dreamed of it every night. Every night he would go to the door of the villa and she would be there, smiling and asking his forgiveness. And in the dream, he gave it. And each morning when he woke he would despair, because he knew that even if she came, his true self would never allow him to do what was right.

When news came of the sickness, his first thought had been to go to her. Yet as his horse was being saddled all he could see were the long-nosed, disapproving patrician faces of men he had called his friends, and he heard a voice telling him that if he went he could never again call himself a Roman.

That was when the girl Ruth had been sent to him. She was only a slave, but her presence had opened a door and he had walked through it into the light of God, where Petrus had taught him that to forgive was a strength, not a weakness. He was still too proud to reveal his change of heart to Valerius, but from that day onward he had visited Olivia whenever it was possible. He had been planning to ask Petrus to help her when Valerius had tracked the healer down. Lucius had felt certain the Judaean would be able to cure her. Yet even that had not been enough. Now all hope was gone. What did they have left but despair?

He bowed his head, listening to the laboured rasp of her breathing. As his tears stained her coverlet a thin shaft of sunlight moved across the wooden floor to spotlight the deathly ivory of her features. It was only then that he understood God’s message. When all else is lost a man will always have his faith.

He still had his faith.

And now he knew what he must do.

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