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The Consul's Wife
"Honestly," muttered Lucius Claudius, his nose buried in a scroll, "if you go by these accounts in the Daily Acts, you'd think Sertorius was a naughty schoolboy, and his rebellion in Spain a harmless prank. When will the consuls realize the gravity of the situation? When will they take action?"
I cleared my throat.
Lucius Claudius lowered the little scroll and raised his bushy red eyebrows. "Gordianus! By Hercules, you got here in a hurry! Take a seat."
I looked about for a chair, then remembered where I was. In the garden of Lucius Claudius, visitors did not fetch furniture. Visitors sat, and a chair would be slipped beneath them. I stepped into the spot of sunlight where Lucius sat basking, and folded my knees. Sure enough, a chair caught my weight. I never even saw the attendant slave.
"Something to drink, Gordianus? I myself am enjoying a cup of hot broth. Too early in the day for wine, even watered."
"Noon is hardly early, Lucius. Not for those of us who've been up since dawn."
"Since dawn?" Lucius grimaced at such a distasteful notion. "A cup of wine for you, then? And some nibbles?"
I raised my hand to wave away the offer, and found it filled with a silver cup, into which a pretty slavegirl poured a stream of Falernian wine. A little tripod table appeared at my left hand, bearing a silver platter embossed with images of dancing nymphs and strewn with olives, dates, and almonds.
"Care for a bit of the Daily? I'm finished with the sporting news." Lucius nodded toward a clutter of little scrolls on the table beside him. "They say the Whites have finally got their act together this season. New chariots, new horses. Should give the Reds a run for the prizes in tomorrow's races."
I laughed out loud. "What a life you lead, Lucius Claudius. Up at noon, then lolling about your garden reading your own private copy of the Daily Acts."
Lucius raised an eyebrow. "Merely sensible, if you ask me. Who wants to elbow through a crowd in the Forum, squinting and peering past strangers to read the Daily on the posting boards? Or worse, listen to some clown read the items out loud, inserting his own witty comments."
"But that's the whole point of the Daily," I argued. "It's a social activity. People take a break from the hustle and bustle of the Forum, gather round the posting boards and discuss whatever items interest them most--war news, marriages and births, chariot races, curious omens. It's the highlight of many a man's day, perusing the Daily and arguing politics or horses with fellow citizens. One of the cosmopolitan pleasures of city life."
Lucius shuddered. "No thank you! My way is better. I send a couple of slaves down to the Forum an hour before posting time. As soon as the Daily goes up, one of them reads it aloud from beginning to end and the other takes dictation with a stylus on wax tablets. Then they hurry home, transcribe the words to parchment, and by the time I'm up and about, my private copy of the Daily is here waiting for me in the garden, the ink still drying in the sun. A comfy chair, a sunny spot, a hearty cup of broth, and my own copy of the Daily Acts--I tell you, Gordianus, there's no more civilized way to start the day."
I popped an almond into my mouth. "It all seems rather antisocial to me, not to mention extravagant. The cost of parchment alone!"
"Squinting at wax tablets gives me eyestrain." Lucius sipped his broth. "Anyway, I didn't ask you here to critique my personal pleasures, Gordianus. There's something in the Daily that I want you to see."
"What, the news about that rebellious Roman general terrorizing Spain?"
"Quintus Sertorius!" Lucius shifted his considerable bulk. "He'll soon have the whole Iberian Peninsula under his control. The natives there hate Rome, but they adore Sertorius. What can our two consuls be thinking, failing to bring military assistance to the provincial government? Decimus Brutus, much as I love the old bookworm, is no fighter, I'll grant you; hard to imagine him leading an expedition. But his fellow consul Lepidus is a military veteran; fought for Sulla in the Civil War. How can those two sit idly on their behinds while Sertorius creates a private kingdom for himself in Spain?"
"All that's in the Daily Acts?" I asked.
"Of course not!" Lucius snorted. "Nothing but the official government line: situation under control, no cause for alarm. You'll find more details about the obscene earnings of charioteers than you'll find about Spain. What else can you expect? The Daily is a state organ put out by the government. Deci probably dictates every word of the war news himself."
"Decimus Brutus, of course; the consul." With his ancient patrician connections, Lucius tended to be on a first-name basis, sometimes on a pet-name basis, with just about everybody in power. "But you distract me, Gordianus. I didn't ask you here to talk about Sertorius. Decimus Brutus, yes; Sertorius, no. Here, have a look at this." His bejeweled hand flitted over the pile and plucked a scroll for me to read.
"Society gossip?" I scanned the items. "A's son engaged to B's daughter . . . C plays host to D at his country villa . . . E shares her famous family recipe for egg custard dating back to the days when Romulus suckled the she-wolf." I grunted. "All very interesting, but I don't see--"
Lucius leaned forward and tapped at the scroll. "Read that part. Aloud."
"'The bookworm pokes his head outside tomorrow. Easy prey for the sparrow, but partridges go hungry. Bright-eyed Sappho says: Be suspicious! A dagger strikes faster than lightning. Better yet: an arrow. Let Venus conquer all!'"
Lucius sat back and crossed his fleshy arms. "What do you make of it?"
"I believe it's called a blind item; a bit of gossip conveyed in code. No proper names, only clues that are meaningless to the uninitiated. Given the mention of Venus, I imagine this particular item is about some illicit love affair. I doubt I'd know the names involved even if they were clearly spelled out. You'd be more likely than I to know what all this means, Lucius."
"Indeed. I'm afraid I do know, at least in part. That's why I called you here today, Gordianus. I have a dear friend who needs your help."
I raised an eyebrow. Lucius's rich and powerful connections had yielded me lucrative work before; they had also put me in great danger. "What friend would that be, Lucius?"
He raised a finger. The slaves around us silently withdrew into the house. "Discretion, Gordianus. Discretion! Read the item again."
"And whom did I call a bookworm only a moment ago?"
I blinked. "Decimus Brutus, the consul."
Lucius nodded. "Read on."
"'The bookworm pokes his head outside tomorrow . . .'"
"Deci will venture to the Circus Maximus tomorrow, to watch the races from the consular box."
"'Easy prey for the sparrow . . .'"
"Draw your own conclusion from that--especially with the mention of daggers and arrows later on!"
I raised an eyebrow. "You think there's a plot against the consul's life, based on a blind item in the Daily Acts? It seems far-fetched, Lucius."
"It's not what I think. It's what Deci himself thinks. The poor fellow's in a state; came to my house and roused me out of bed an hour ago, desperate for advice. He needs someone to get to the bottom of this, quietly and quickly. I told him I knew just the man: Gordianus the Finder."
"Me?" I scowled at an olive pit between my forefinger and thumb. "Since the Daily is a state organ, surely Decimus Brutus himself, as consul, is in the best position to determine where this item came from and what it really means. To start, who wrote it?"
"That's precisely the problem."
"I don't understand."
"Do you see the part about 'Sappho' and her advice?"
"Gordianus, who do you think writes and edits the Daily Acts?"
I shrugged. "I never thought about it."
"Then I shall tell you. The consuls themselves dictate the items about politics and foreign policy, giving their own official viewpoint. The drier parts--trade figures, livestock counts and such--are compiled by clerks in the censor's office. Sporting news comes from the magistrates in charge of the Circus Maximus. Augurs edit the stories that come in about weird lightning flashes, comets, curiously shaped vegetables, and other omens. But who do you think oversees the society news--weddings and birth announcements, social engagements, 'blind items,' as you call them?"
"A woman named Sappho?"
"A reference to the poet of ancient Lesbos. The consul's wife is something of a poet herself."
"The wife of Decimus Brutus?"
"She wrote that item." Lucius leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Deci thinks she means to kill him, Gordianus."
"My wife . . ." The consul cleared his throat noisily. He brushed a hand nervously through his silvery hair and paced back and forth across the large study, from one pigeon-hole bookcase to another, his fingers idly brushing the little title tags that hung from the scrolls. Outside the library at Alexandria, I had never seen so many books in one place, not even in Cicero's house.
The consul's house was near the Forum, only a short walk from that of Lucius Claudius. I had been admitted at once; thanks to Lucius, my visit was expected. Decimus Brutus dismissed a cadre of secretaries and ushered me into his private study. He dispensed with formalities. His agitation was obvious.
"My wife . . ." He cleared his throat again. Decimus Brutus, highest magistrate in the land, used to giving campaign speeches in the Forum and orations in the courts, seemed unable to begin.
"She's certainly beautiful," I said, gazing at the portrait that graced one of the few spaces on the wall not covered by bookcases. It was a small picture, done in encaustic wax on wood, yet it dominated the room. A young woman of remarkable beauty gazed out from the picture. Strings of pearls adorned the masses of auburn hair done up with pearl-capped pins atop her head. More pearls hung from her ears and around her throat. The chaste simplicity of her jewelry contrasted with a glint in her green eyes that was challenging, aloof, almost predatory.
Decimus Brutus stepped closer to the painting. He lifted his chin and squinted, drawing so close that his nose practically brushed the wax.
"Beautiful, yes," he murmured. "The artist didn't capture even a fraction of her beauty. I married her for it; for that, and to have a son. Sempronia gave me both, her beauty and a baby boy. And do you know why she married me?" The consul stepped disconcertingly close and peered at me. With another man, I would have taken such proximate scrutiny as an intimidation, but the myopic consul was merely straining to read my expression.
He sighed. "Sempronia married me for my books. I know, it sounds absurd--a woman who reads!--but there it is: she didn't assent to the marriage until she saw this room, and that made up her mind. She's read every volume here--more than I have! She even writes a bit herself--poetry and such. Her verses are too . . . passionate . . . for my taste."
He cleared his throat again. "Sempronia, you see, is not like other women. Sometimes I think the gods gave her the soul of a man. She reads like a man. She converses like a man. She has her own motley circle of friends--poets, playwrights, dubious women. When Sempronia has them over, the witticisms roll off her tongue. She even appears to think. She has opinions, anyway. Opinions on everything--art, racing, architecture, even politics! And she has no shame. In the company of her little circle, she plays the lute--better than our best-trained slave, I have to admit. And she dances for them." He grimaced. "I told her such behavior was indecent, completely unsuitable for a consul's wife. She says that when she dances, the gods and goddesses speak through her body, and her friends understand what they see, even if I don't. We've had so many rows, I've almost given up rowing about it."
He sighed. "I'll give her this: she's not a bad mother. Sempronia has done a good job raising little Decimus. And despite her youth, her performance of official duties as consul's wife has been impeccable. Nor has she shamed me publicly. She's kept her . . . eccentricities . . . confined to this house. But . . ."
He seemed to run dry. His chin dropped to his chest.
"One of her duties," I prompted him, "is to oversee society news in the Daily Acts, is it not?"
He nodded. He squinted for a moment at Sempronia's portrait, then turned his back to it. "Lucius explained to you the cause for my concern?"
"Only in the most discreet fashion."
"Then I shall be explicit. Understand, Finder, the subject is . . . acutely embarrassing. Lucius tells me you can keep your mouth shut. If I'm wrong, if my suspicions are unfounded, I can't have news of my foolishness spread all over the Forum. And if I'm right--if what I suspect is true--I can afford the scandal even less."
"I understand, Consul."
He stepped very close, peered at my face, and seemed satisfied. "Well, then . . . where to begin? With that damned charioteer, I suppose."
"Diocles. You've heard of him?"
I nodded. "He races for the Reds."
"I wouldn't know. I don't follow the sport. But I'm told that Diocles is quite famous. And rich, richer even than Roscius the actor. Scandalous, that racers and actors should be wealthier than senators nowadays. Our ancestors would be appalled!"
I doubted that my own ancestors would be quite as upset as those of Decimus Brutus, but I nodded and tried to bring him back to the subject. "This Diocles . . ."
"One of my wife's circle of friends. Only . . . closer than a friend."
"A suspicion, Consul? Or do you have sure knowledge?"
"I have eyes in my head!" He seemed to realize the irony of claiming his feeble eyesight as reliable witness, and sighed. "I never caught them in the act, if that's what you mean. I have no proof. But every time she had her circle in this house, lolling about on couches and reciting to each other, the two of them seemed always to end up in a corner by themselves. Whispering . . . laughing . . ." He ground his jaw. "I won't be made a fool of, allowing my wife to sport with her lover under my own roof! I grew so furious the last time he was here, I . . . I made a scene. I chased them all out, and I told Sempronia that Diocles was never again to enter this house. When she protested, I commanded her never to speak with him again. I'm her husband. It's my right to say with whom she can and cannot consort! Sempronia knows that. Why could she not simply defer to my will? Instead she had to argue. She badgered me like a harpy--I never heard such language from a woman! All the more evidence, if I needed any, that her relationship with that man was beyond decency. In the end, I banned her entire circle of friends, and I ordered Sempronia not to leave the house, even for official obligations. When her duties call, she simply has to say, 'The consul's wife regrets that illness prevents her.' It's been like that for almost a month now. The tension in this house . . ."
"But she does have one official duty left."
"Yes, her dictation of society items for the Daily Acts. She needn't leave the house for that. Senators' wives come calling--respectable visitors are still welcome--and they give her all the tidbits she needs. If you ask me, the society section is terribly tedious, even more so than the sporting news. I give it no more than a quick glance to see if family are mentioned, and their names spelled correctly. Sempronia knows that. That's why she thought she could send her little message to Diocles through the Daily Acts, undetected."
He glanced at the portrait and worked his jaw back and forth. "It was the word 'bookworm' that caught my eye. When we were first married, that was the pet name she gave me: 'My old bookworm.' I suppose she calls me that behind my back now, laughing and joking with the likes of that charioteer!"
"Her friends call her that sometimes."
"Why do you assume the blind item is addressed to Diocles?"
"Despite my lack of interest in racing, I do know a thing or two about that particular charioteer--more than I care to! The name of his lead horse is Sparrow. How does the message start? 'The bookworm pokes his head outside tomorrow. Easy prey for the sparrow . . . ' Tomorrow I'll be at the Circus Maximus, to make a public appearance at the races."
"And your wife?"
"Sempronia will remain confined to this house. I have no intention of allowing her to publicly ogle Diocles in his chariot!"
"Won't you be surrounded by bodyguards?"
"In the midst of such a throng, who knows what opportunities might arise for some 'accident' to befall me? In the Forum or the Senate House I feel safe, but the Circus Maximus is Diocles's territory. He must know every blind corner, every hiding place. And . . . there's the matter of my eyesight. I'm more vulnerable than other men, and I know it. So does Sempronia. So must Diocles."
"Let me be sure I understand, Consul: You take this item to be a communication between your wife and Diocles, and the subject is a plot on your life . . . but you have no other evidence, and you want me to determine the truth of the matter?"
"I'll make it worth your while."
"Why turn to me, Consul? Surely a man like yourself has agents of his own, a finder he trusts to ferret out the truth about his allies and enemies."
Decimus Brutus nodded haltingly.
"Then why not give this mission to your own finder?"
"I had such a fellow, yes. Called Scorpus. Not long after I banned Diocles from the house, I set Scorpus to find the truth about the charioteer and my wife."
"What did he discover?"
"I don't know. Some days ago, Scorpus went missing."
"Until yesterday. His body was fished out of the Tiber, downriver from Rome. Not a mark on him. They say he must have fallen in and drowned. Very strange."
"Scorpus was an excellent swimmer."
Copyright © 2005 by Steven Saylor