A gruesome discovery leads Libertus on a dangerous quest . . . - Wealthy Volus, ex-lictor to the Imperial Governor of Gaul, is retiring to the town of Glevum. Libertus is sent to his new apartment, where he is informed that one of the ex-lictor’s treasure carts has been intercepted, the guards and horses brutally butchered. When his actions are misinterpreted by a network of spies, Libertus is suspected of involvement in the massacre and marched to the garrison to await trial. But after daringly escaping, Libertus embarks on a dangerous quest to discover the truth . . .
About the Author
Rosemary Rowe is the author of the Libertus Mystery series. She has also written more than a dozen bestselling textbooks as Rosemary Aitken.
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A Whispering of Spies
By Rosemary Rowe
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2012 Rosemary Aitken
All rights reserved.
Voluus the ex-lictor was a newcomer to Glevum, recently retired from the Provincial court in Gaul, and I had never met him yet – though I could guess from his profession what kind of man he was. Glevum is a free republic within the Empire and we don't have lictors here, but he had boasted publicly of what his previous duties were: personal attendant, bodyguard and on-the-spot torturer and executioner for the outgoing Roman governor of Gaul.
People were already whispering that he could flog a criminal with such precision that the wretch was 'half a breath' from death, and yet present him living to be crucified – an example of commendable professional expertise, since to lose a prisoner by beating him too much was an official failure on the lictor's part.
Of course, Voluus was retired now, so perhaps was past his prime – though no doubt he was still strong. A man must have a certain vigour to carry a bunch of hefty five-foot rods, each thicker than my arm, especially when the bundle is bound round a heavy axe – yet that was the nature of the fasces which, as lictor, he would have borne in front of his master in public at all times. So perhaps he was not as old as I supposed. I couldn't find anyone who knew what age he was, though I'd spent the whole morning trying to find out.
I would have liked to know who I was dealing with, but it seemed that very few people in the town had actually encountered Voluus at all. He had yet to move into the expensive apartment which he had recently acquired and no one I asked had met him face-to-face. So far he'd merely paid one visit some time ago to inspect the area, staying at the mansio while he looked round to find a place that suited him. Then, having found one (and allegedly having paid the full asking price in gold), he'd left his steward behind to get the property prepared, while he himself went to back to Gaul to supervise the shipping of his things. Of course, it takes a long time for things to come from Gaul, but at last the move was under way. Of that, at least, there was no lack of witnesses. Half of Glevum had seen the carts arrive.
Wagon-loads of his possessions had been lurching into town every evening for more than a moon, as soon as wheeled traffic was permitted past the gates. Gossips spoke in hushed tones of what was on the carts – sack-loads of onyx vases and priceless works of art, or maybe it was Gallic silver coins and crates of jewellery: the rumours varied on the detail. Whatever form his fortune took, it was clearly sizeable and the new apartment (which had belonged to a tax-collector previously) was said to be palatial and beautifully equipped. One of my informants – a former customer – had been inside it once.
'Alabaster pillars and fine marble floors throughout,' he told me with a laugh. 'So it's no use you turning up there, my good citizen pavement-maker, offering your services to lay mosaics in his rooms. He would not hire a Provincial craftsman to do work for him anyway – he'd think it was beneath him, however good you are.' He looked at my face and added in alarm, 'Dear gods, Libertus, don't tell me that you really do intend to call! I've heard that Voluus has a wicked temper when he's roused and flies into a tantrum at the slightest of affronts. What will he think if you just turn up unasked? And he won't want your mosaics, anyhow. I should save yourself a journey, if that's what you're thinking of.'
But of course that was exactly what I was on my way to do.
Naturally the errand was not my idea. Left to myself I would keep well away from him – or any ex-lictor – especially after the warning I'd received. But when one's wealthy patron suggests an enterprise, it is not wise for a humble citizen to demur, particularly when the patron in question is Marcus Septimus Aurelius, rumoured to be related to the Emperor and certainly the most important magistrate in all Britannia. Besides, this was less of a suggestion and more of a command: Marcus had summoned me to his country house yesterday specifically on purpose to send me on this task.
At the time, I was not sorry to receive his messenger. It had been a bright, cold spring morning – the Ides of March, in fact – which was how my patron knew that I would be at home, in my little roundhouse in the woods, and not in the mosaic workshop here in the colonia. (The fifteenth day of every month is seen as nefas, or ill-starred, but the IdesMartii is easily the worst. Since the assassination of the first Emperor, it has been deemed one of the most unlucky dates in the calendar, so much so that all courts and legal business cease, the theatres close and even a humble mosaic-maker like myself might reasonably shut up his shop and stay quietly at home.) I had been mentally planning a pleasant morning watching cabbage grow.
However, my wife, Gwellia, who like myself was born a Celt with scant belief in Roman auguries, had decided that – however unlucky the day – she had a task for me. The thatched roof of the little round dye-house that we'd built had sprung a small leak in the winter rains, she said, and this was the perfect opportunity for repairing it.
My pleas that it was an inauspicious date to begin an enterprise impressed her not at all. Anyway, she reminded me, the Emperor had recently renamed all the months in honour of himself, so this was now the Ides of Aurelius – and surely there could be no special curse on that? So when my patron's messenger arrived it was to find me on a home-made ladder, fixing bundles of new reeds in place, while my three slaves tied more bunches and passed them up to me, with Gwellia supervising proceedings from the ground.
When I heard that I was wanted I actually smiled. A summons to my patron could not be ignored (even my wife could hardly gainsay that!) so I scrambled down gratefully and dusted off my hands. 'Maximus!' I said briskly. 'Bring me some water so I can rinse my hands and face.'
The boy – who, despite his name, was easily the smallest of my slaves – grinned up with evident relief and hastened off to get the bowl. Gwellia glared at me.
'I suppose that you will want him to accompany you, now?' she said. 'You'll claim it won't be proper to arrive without a slave?'
I nodded. 'Well, it is expected that I'll have an escort, as I am a citizen!' I said placatingly. 'And Marcus did give me that red-headed pair of slaves. I shan't take both of them, only Maximus. He is not adept at bunching reeds, in any case. I'll leave you young Minimus and the kitchen slave to help. They will be more use. And look who's walking this way from the house next door!' I gestured to the path that led through my enclosure to the rear, where my adopted son was hurrying towards us down the hill. 'It's Junio. I'm sure he'll lend a hand. I taught him years ago to thatch a roof, so I can safely leave the rest of it to him.'
Gwellia looked doubtful, but Junio was delighted to be asked. He had been my slave for many years until I freed him and adopted him, and the fact that he was now a citizen himself had given him no false ideas of dignity. Indeed, he had seen me working on the roof and come on purpose to see if he could help, and he seemed positively flattered to be put in charge, so I left him to it. I quickly rinsed my face and hands, and (with Maximus's help) changed my dusty tunic and put my toga on. Then – accompanied by the returning messenger – I set off with my servant to see His Excellence.
I was glad to be relieved of thatching, which was cold and tiring work, and was gleefully expecting to be welcomed to the house and provided with some delicious dates or cheese and wine. However, when we reached the villa, it was not to be. Marcus was in the garden with his wife and child, I was told, and having left my slave sitting snugly in the servants' waiting room, I was led out to the draughty courtyard garden at the back. The day was beginning to look ill-starred after all.
Marcus was sitting in an alcove near the apple trees, wrapped in his warmest cloak, watching fondly as his young son pushed a leather horse on wheels. When he saw me, however, his demeanour changed. He motioned his family to leave us two alone and extended a vague, ringed hand for me to kiss.
I knelt and made obeisance, as I always did, though the paving stones were chilly on my ageing knees. 'Your servant, Excellence!' I murmured, to the ring. And added, as he permitted me to rise, 'That son of yours will make a fine cavalry officer some day.' I gestured towards where the boy was toddling indoors, accompanied by his mother and the nursery slave.
But flattery, even of Marcellinus, won no smile today. My patron indicated a low stool where the nursery slave had sat and, almost before I'd squatted down on it, he was speaking urgently. 'Libertus, I have need of your advice. Voluus the lictor. You have heard of him?'
'Indeed so, Excellence.' I was taken by surprise. 'He has been the talk of the whole town.' Marcus said nothing, so after a moment I added hopefully, 'He has bought a grand apartment, so I understand. The one that wealthy tax-collector used to have. Very close to where you have your own?'
My patron, like every magistrate, had a residence in town – owning a property of a certain size is a prerequisite of many civic posts. Marcus's was large and in a sought-after spot – the whole of the first floor over a wine-shop near the forum – though he rarely used the place, as far as I could see, perhaps because the floors above it swarmed with poorer tenants, with their noise and smell. Of course, the distance to the town was not an obstacle. Unlike humbler folk like me, Marcus didn't have to walk the weary miles there and back: there would always be a gig or litter, or at least a horse, to carry him each way.
'His flat is a lot further from the forum than my own. And I hear he paid a great deal for the privilege!' Marcus snorted. 'But he's still to be virtually my neighbour in the town. A lictor, indeed. What are we coming to? You know he's holding a welcome banquet for himself? Half the town council boast that they're invited to his feast. I don't understand what the attraction is. He's not even a person of real patrician rank, only a freeborn citizen of Gaul. He must think himself important because his master was. Well, we've never felt the need for such officials here.'
'I believe your friend the Governor Pertinax had lictors, Excellence,' I ventured doubtfully. It was never wise to contradict my patron in this way, but if I failed to remind him of some salient point he was inclined to blame me afterwards.
However, I was relatively safe. All his irritation was for Voluus today. 'Pertinax? Of course he had lictors – eight of them, in fact, the whole time that he was governor of Britannia. But for ceremonial purposes alone – to accompany him in public and to guard his house. Of course it is different now he's been promoted to the Prefecture of Rome – in the capital he has to have them all the time, even when he goes out to the baths – but while he was here, he didn't have men in fancy uniform dancing attendance everywhere he went, let alone waving their rods and axes in everybody's face, just to symbolize their powers of punishment. Certainly I never felt the urge to make a show like that!'
I stared at him. I hadn't thought of it, but of course if anyone was entitled to have lictors locally, it was His Excellence. Quite junior magistrates in other places had them, so I'd heard, simply as a token that they held imperium, which meant officially the right to read omens in the birds, but in practice the power to summon soldiery. However, Marcus, despite his rank, had nothing of the kind, even when travelling outside of the town. His escort was more generally composed of hulking men in tunics, armed with clubs and swords, which might not have the pomp of a lictorial guard, but was just as effective at expressing power and possibly better as protection on the local roads. Bears and wolves are not impressed by ceremonial symbols of success. I ventured to murmur something of the kind.
That amused him. He very nearly smiled. 'Indeed. But I did not bring you here to talk about my guard. The problem which disturbs me is this Voluus. If he were simply an ex-lictor, that would be one thing. One could just ignore him as a self-advertising citizen of no especial high-born rank. But this man clearly is immensely rich – and he has invited half of Glevum to his welcome feast. The question is, should I attend or not?'
I gave an inward sigh. If my patron was just fretting about whether to accept it seemed a trivial matter and I was keen to get inside. I did not have the benefit of a woollen cloak, and this brisk March wind chilled me to my bones. 'What about the other important citizens? What are they going to do?' I asked in a bright tone.
Marcus looked down his Roman nose at me. 'The other magistrates and councillors will take their lead from me,' he said, with some impatience. 'Several of them have sent to ask what I intend to do.'
Naturally! I should have worked that out myself. I tried to make amends. 'Then surely you may follow your own impulses on this? If he has no status does it matter if he's rich? Simple wealth is not the sole criterion of rank. The tax-collector who lived in that apartment till last year was never quite accepted in polite society, though he got to be immensely wealthy in the end. Surely it is more a question of where the money's from?'
Marcus beamed at me. 'Exactly, my old friend. Where does Voluus get his fortune from? A lictor gets a reasonable salary, of course, but the amount is fixed. It is a respectable amount, but nothing that would give him riches on the scale he seems to have.'
I shifted on my stool. 'Perhaps he inherited from a relative?'
Marcus shook his head. 'I can't discover links with any major family. It's hardly likely either. No member of a really rich patrician tribe would take a lictor's post. The position was originally intended for the plebs, and even now is generally reserved for simple freemen citizens – though there are a few exceptions in the Senate, I'm aware, with people representing different clans in Rome. But Voluus was never one of those. He was simply a guard and torturer for a Provincial governor.'
He seemed genuinely to want solutions, so I cast about for some. 'People might have paid him to reduce their punishment, perhaps?' I said, and knew by my patron's sigh that this was foolishness. 'Or his master may have given him some sort of parting gift?'
'Both those things are more than likely true – but cart-loads of treasure? Come, Libertus, we are talking of huge sums! He's rumoured to be nearly as wealthy as I am myself. So how does that occur? I suspect that he has important friends somewhere – who either left him lots of money for some service in the past, or are paying him handsomely to hush up what he knows.' He looked hard at me. 'He could even be a spy who serves the Emperor.'
That was a thought more chilling than the day. 'You think so?' I said.
Marcus nodded. 'And that is just the point. If he does turn out to have influence at court, it might be most imprudent to insult the man. And that's where you come in.'
'Me, Excellence?' Matters had taken an unpleasant turn. I was so startled that I almost jumped up from my perch. 'But what could it possibly have to do with me? I have not been invited to the feast.'
'Of course not, Libertus.' He was jovial now. 'You're not a councillor. Your own fault, of course, since you evaded my attempts to have you voted on to the curia, as I hoped to do last year. But that turns out to be very fortunate. Voluus will have never so much as heard your name, so that means that you can do this and he won't suspect the link.'
'Do what, exactly, Excellence?' I was beginning to think that the Ides of March were every bit as nefas as they were said to be.
'I want you to call at this apartment he has bought, and offer to lay a pavement there before he comes. I hear that the steward is already living there, making arrangements before his master arrives. I'll write a letter recommending you. That way you can get into the house and see if you can find out where Voluus got his wealth. The steward is obviously in his confidence.'
I goggled at him. 'Excellence! Rumour says the lictor will be here himself within a day or two.' At that time I hadn't heard about the marble floors, of course, so I just said lamely, 'How could I make a pavement in so short a time?'
Excerpted from A Whispering of Spies by Rosemary Rowe. Copyright © 2012 Rosemary Aitken. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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