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Latin has been my soul’s anchor ever since my second semester of college. I don’t know why that should be, but I can tell you how it happened.

I took two years of Latin in high school because it was that or Spanish. Neither option appealed to me, but I had to take some foreign language. My grades were adequate but nobody was going to mistake me for a Latin scholar, and I don’t recall getting any particular pleasure from the classes.

My plan in college (the University of Iowa) was to major in chemistry, go to law school, and become a patent attorney. Chemistry required German, so I started German with the expectation that I’d never read another line of Latin.

I pretty quickly realized that I wasn’t cut out to be a chem major (or, I suspected, a patent attorney), so I switched to history. I continued with German (which I didn’t actively dislike), because I didn’t believe that I could ever get back into Latin after a year away from the language.

That’s when things get kind of odd. College was a complete disruption of my life. Everything had changed. I don’t mean everything was bad—Iowa’s huge library in particular was a wonderful resource for somebody like me who can get interested in a wide range of subjects—but everything was different. I found myself thinking of Latin as the one part I might reclaim of the, well, youth which I’d surrendered when I left home.

I borrowed an old copy of the Latin book I’d used in high school and studied it on my own. Studied it for the first time, really: in high school I’d shown a flair for sight translations but I hadn’t bothered much about grammar. I started regular course work in my third semester and took about all the Latin courses offered at Iowa before I graduated. (I wound up with thirty semester hours and asked if I could call Latin a double major with my history. The administration agreed.)

I entered Duke Law School in 1967. That was stressful too; I took Latin courses in the main university to settle me. (They’d never had anybody do that before, but there were no rules against it.)

When I was drafted out of law school I couldn’t take courses, but I carried my Oxford Classical Text of Horace through basic training and as much of Southeast Asia as I saw. I continue to read Latin for pleasure. I also read extensively on classical subjects, because they interest me and I’ve got a good formal grounding from my undergraduate days.

Naturally I’ve used a lot of classical backgrounds in my fiction, SF as well as fantasy and horror. I wrote “The False Prophet” to fill out a collection of previously written stories in a classical milieu.

Something I’ve come to realize is that many readers think they know things about ancient Rome. When they read a contrary statement in a story of mine, some assume I’ve made a stupid mistake. Well, I do make stupid mistakes (for example, the time I nearly severed a tendon while sharpening a knife), but when the subject is Roman history or culture, the smart money is going to bet on me.

A universal case is that educated people don’t want to believe that Roman shields were made of plywood. I had a stranger call me from California to tell me that plywood hadn’t been invented until the nineteenth century. Roman shields were made of three plies of (generally) birch, glued together. The grain on the front and back layers ran crosswise, but it was vertical on the central ply. Archeologists call the material plywood (What on Earth else would they call it?); the educated man in the street finds that truth ridiculous.

I once complained that I should feel lucky that I don’t get similar objections when I mention that most Roman buildings were concrete. The next day I got a query from an editor who wanted to know whether my mention of “Roman concrete” was a mistake.

A similar problem involves readers who believe that colloquial Latin should be translated into something closer to William Morris than to normal English. There’s a place for high style, but it doesn’t get much use among soldiers or ordinary people in general, now or two thousand years ago. My dialogue (like that of Martial, Catullus, Petronius, and a very long list of other Latin writers) tends to be colloquial in form.

A lot of reading and research went into these stories; but my heart went into them too.

* * *

The big young man, grinning at Dama through the doorway of the City Prefect’s private office, had the look of a killer. Dama knew the fellow’s name, Lucius Vettius—and knew that he was an officer in the imperial guard, though at the moment he wore a civilian toga. Dama smiled back. “The virtuous Marcus Licinius Dama!” bellowed the nomenclator in a strong Syrian accent. Why couldn’t Gaius Rutilius Rutilianus—who was, by Mithra, City Prefect of Rome—buy servants who at least pronounced Latin properly?

“He didn’t mention that you’re only a merchant!” Menelaus whispered to

Dama in amazement. “No, he didn’t,” Dama agreed without amplifying his response. The nomenclator was wearing a new tunic. So was the doorkeeper who’d let

Dama and his older companion into Rutilianus’s reception room with a crowd of over a hundred other favor-seekers. The tunics were best-quality Egyptian linen and represented a hefty outlay—

Even to Dama, who imported them along with the silks which were his primary stock in trade. “His companion,” cried the nomenclator, “the learned Faustus Pompeius Menelaus!” The nomenclator paused. “Known as The Wise.’’ Menelaus suddenly looked ten years younger. He straightened to his full height and fluffed his long gray beard.

Though Dama said nothing as the pair of them stepped into Rutilianus’s private office, the nomenclator had earned himself a bonus by the degree to which his ad-libbed comment had brightened the old man’s face.

Menelaus and Dama’s father had remained friends throughout the latter’s life. Dama stopped visiting his parent when disease and pain so wracked the older man that every conversation became a litany of insult and complaint; but Menelaus continued to come, to read aloud and to bear bitter insults because to do so was a philosopher’s duty—and a friend’s.

“Well, he sure looks the part, doesn’t he?” quipped Caelius, one of the four civilians standing around the Prefect’s couch. “Got any owls nesting in that beard, old man?”

“Looking the part’s easy enough,” countered Vulco.”If you want a philosopher of real learning, though, you’ll hire Pactolides.”

“I think it’s unchristian to be hiring any sort of pagan philosopher,” said Macer. “Severiana won’t like it a bit.”

“My wife doesn’t make the decisions in this house,” the Prefect said so forcefully that everyone listening knew that Rutilianus was as much voicing a wish as stating a fact.

The Prefect shifted his heavy body on the couch and scratched himself. Though the morning air was comfortable by most standards, Rutilianus was sweating despite having dispensed with the formality of his toga while handling this private interview.

The men were the Prefect’s friends, advisors, and employees—and wore all those separate masks at the same time. Except for Vettius (who was about Dama’s age), they’d accompanied Rutilianus during his governorships in Spain and North Africa. They carried out important commissions, gave confidential advice—and picked up the bits and scraps which form the perquisites of those having the ear of high office.

“Anyway,” offered Sosius, “I don’t think that there’s anything sinful about hearing advice on living a good life, even if it does come from a pagan.”

For what Dama had paid Sosius, he’d expected more enthusiastic support. Pactolides was getting much better value for his bribe to Vulco.

“Well, let’s hear what he says for himself,” the Prefect said, still peevish at the mention of his wife. He nodded toward Menelaus. “You can speak, can’t you?” he demanded. “Not much use in having a personal philosopher who can’t, is there?”

“Pactolides can speak like an angel,” muttered Vulco. “Voice like a choirboy, that man has . . . .”

Dama prompted his friend with a tap on the shoulder. Menelaus stepped forward and bowed. “If ever there was a man who was rightly afraid when called to speak in your presence, noble Rutilianus,” the old philosopher boomed, “it is I; and I sense—” he made a light, sweeping bow to the Prefect’s companions “—that those who participate in your counsels are well able to see my distress.”

Menelaus was a different man as soon as he began his set oration—confident, commanding; his tones and volume pitched to blast through the chatter filling a rain-crowded basilica when he addressed his students in one corner. Dama had worried that the old man’s desperate need for a job would cause him to freeze up when the opportunity was offered. He should have known better.

“—for my heart is filled with the awareness of the way you, armed like Mars himself, preserved the liberty of this Republic; and now, wearing the toga, increase its civil glory. For—”

The soldier, Vettius, crooked a finger toward Dama and nodded in the direction of the garden behind the office.

Rutilianus’s other councilors looked bored—Vulco was yawning ostentatiously—but the Prefect himself listened to the panegyric with pleasure. He nodded with unconscious agreement while Menelaus continued, “—while all those who have borne the burden of your exalted prefecture are to be praised, to you especially is honor due.”

Vettius, waiting at the door into the garden, crooked his finger again. Dama pursed his lips and followed, walking with small steps to disturb the gathering as little as possible—though Menelaus in full cry couldn’t have been put off his stride by someone shouting Fire! and the Prefect was rapt at the mellifluous description of his virtues.

The garden behind Rutilianus’s house had a covered walk on three sides, providing shade at all times of the day. The open area was large enough to hold a dozen fruit trees as well as a small grape arbor and a variety of roses, exotic peonies, and other flowers.

Military equipment was stacked beside the door: a bronze helmet and body armor modeled with idealized muscles over which a pair of naiads cavorted; a swordbelt supporting the sheathed dagger and long, straight-bladed spatha of a cavalryman; and a large, circular shield in its canvas cover.

Vettius followed Dama’s eyes toward the gear and volunteered, “I’m army— seconded to the City Prefect for the time being.”

There were two ways for Dama to handle his response. He made the snap decision that concealing his knowledge from this big, hard-eyed soldier couldn’t bring any dividends equal to getting the man’s respect from the start.

“Yes,” he said. “A decurion in the squadron of Domestic Horse.”

Vettius was surprised enough to glance sideways to make sure that canvas still covered the gilt spikes and hearts against the blue background of his shieldface. “Right, that’s me,” he agreed mildly. “The Prefect’s bodyguard, more or less. The name’s Lucius Vettius—as I suppose you knew.”

There was no question in the final clause, but Dama nodded his agreement anyway. He’d done his homework—as he always did his homework before a major sale.

This business, because it was personal and not merely a matter of money, was the most major sale of his life. . . .

“Let me hope,” rolled Menelaus’s voice through the open door and window of the office, “that my words today can be touched by a fraction of the felicity with which all Rome greeted the news that you had been appointed her helmsman.”

“I was wondering,” Vettius said, “just how much you’d paid Sosius?”

Dama prodded the inside of his cheek with his tongue.

“The reason I’m wondering,” the soldier continued, “is that he’s taking money from Pactolides too.” He laughed. “Vulco’s an unusually virtuous councilor, you know.”

Dama grimaced bitterly. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Vulco stays bought.”

“My words are driven out under the compulsion of the virtue and benignity which I see before me . . .” Menelaus continued in an orotund voice.

“I hadn’t thought,” continued Dama, choosing his words carefully, “that a decurion was worth bribing. Until now that I’ve met you.”

“I’d have taken your money,” Vettius said with the same cold smile as before. “But it wouldn’t’ve gained you anything. What I’d really like from you, Citizen Dama . . .”

Dama nodded his head upward in agreement. “Go ahead,” he said.

If not money, then a woman? A particular woman to whom a silk merchant might have access . . . ?

“ . . . is information.” The flat certainty with which the words came out of Vettius’s mouth emphasized the size and strength of the man speaking. He had black hair and spoke with a slight tang of the Illyrian frontier.

“Go ahead,” Dama repeated with outward calm.

From the office came “. . . though I fear that by mentioning any particular excellence first, I will seem to devalue. . . .”

“I can see why the old man wants to be Rutilianus’s tame philosopher,” Vettius said. “It’s getting harder and harder to scrape up enough pupils freelance to keep him in bread, onions, and a sop of wine . . . .”

Dama nodded.

“Thing is, I’m not quite clear what your part in the business might be, Citizen.”

This time the soldier’s smile made Dama measure in his mind the distance between him and the hilt of the sword resting against the wall. Too far, almost certainly.

And unnecessary. Almost certainly.

“Menelaus was a friend of my father’s,” Dama said. “A good friend. Toward the last, my father’s only friend. Menelaus is too proud to take charity from me directly—but he was glad to have me stand beside him while he sought this position in the Prefect’s household.”

Vettius chuckled. “Stand beside him,” he repeated ironically. “With a purse full of silver you hand out to anybody who might ease your buddy’s road.”

“. . . speak of the River Tagus, red with the blood of the bandits you as Governor slaughtered there?”

“He doesn’t know that,” snapped Dama.

“But you do, merchant,” the soldier said.”You take your family duties pretty seriously, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I do,” agreed Dama as simply as if he didn’t know he was being mocked . . . and perhaps he was not being mocked. “Menelaus is my friend as well as my duty, but—I take all my duties seriously.”

The big man smiled; this time, for a change, it gave his face a pleasant cast. “Yeah,” he said. “So do I.”

“I can see that,” Dama agreed, feeling his body relax for the first time since his interview with this big, deadly man began. “And it’s your duty to guard Rutilianus.”

“More a matter of keeping things from hitting the Prefect from somewhere he’s not looking,” Vettius said with a shrug.”So I like to know the people who’re getting close to him.”

He grinned. “Usually I don’t much like what I learn. Usually.”

Dama nodded toward the office, where Menelaus’s measured periods had broken up into the general babble of all those in the room.”I think we’d better get back,” he said. “I’m glad to have met you, Lucius Vettius.”

And meant it.

The Prefect called, “Ah, Vettius,” craning his neck to see over his shoulder as Dama and the soldier reentered the room. “We rather like Menelaus here, don’t we, gentlemen?”

Yes yes/Well-spoken indeed/Seems solid for a pagan

“Well, being able to spout a set speech doesn’t make him learned, sir,” crabbed Vulco.

He fixed Menelaus with a glare meant to be steely. Vulco’s head was offset so that only one eye bore, making him look rather like an angry crow.

“Tell me, sirrah,” he demanded, “who was it that Thersites fed his sons to? Quick, now—no running around to sort through your books.”

The philosopher blinked in confusion. Dama thought for a moment that his friend had been caught out, but Menelaus said, “Good sir, Atreus it was who murdered the sons of his brother Thyestes and cooked them for their father.”

Dama suppressed a laugh. Menelaus had paused in order to find a way to answer the question without making his questioner look too much of a fool.

Vulco blinked. “Well, that seems all right,” he muttered, fixing his eyes on his hands and seeming to examine his manicure.

“Yes, well,” Rutilianus agreed. “But you, Lucius Vettius. What information do you have for us?”

Everyone else in the room looked at the tall soldier: Menelaus in surprise, the Prefect and his companions with a partially concealed avidity for scandal; Dama with a professionally blank expression, waiting to hear what was said before he decided how to deal with anything that needed to be countered.

Vettius glanced at Dama. “I’d suggested to His Excellency,” he said, “that he let me see what I could learn about the learned Menelaus.”

“Of course,” Rutilianus agreed, raising his eyebrows. “After all, we need to be sure of the man who’s going to be responsible for the moral training of my children.”

His companions bobbed and muttered approval.

Vettius took a bi-fold notebook of waxed boards from the wallet in the bosom of his toga, but he didn’t bother to open the document before he said, “Menelaus comes from Caesarea in Cappadocia where his father was one of the city councilors.”

Like Dama’s father.

“Was schooled in Gaza, then Athens. Returned home and taught there for most of his life. Moved to Rome about five years ago. Gives lessons in oratory and philosophy—”

“Epicurean philosophy,” the subject of the discussion broke in, before Dama could shush him.

“Epicurean philosophy,” Vettius continued, giving Dama—rather than Menelaus—a grin that was not entirely friendly. “In the Forum of Trajan; to about a dozen pupils at any one time. Doesn’t get along particularly well with the other teachers who’ve set up in the same area. For the past three months, he’s been attacking one Pyrrhus the Prophet in his lectures, but the two haven’t met face to face.”

Dama was ready this time. His finger tapped Menelaus’s shoulder firmly, even as the older man opened his mouth to violently—and needlessly—state his opinion of Pyrrhus.

“Well, we know he’s a philosopher!” Caelius said. “What about his personal life?”

“He doesn’t have much personal life,” Vettius said. He betrayed his annoyance with a thinning of tone so slight that only Dama, of those in the office, heard and understood it. “When he’s a little ahead, he buys used books. When he’s behind—”

Menelaus winced and examined the floor.

“—which is usually, and now, he pawns them. Stays out of wineshops. Every few months or so he visits a whore named Drome who works the alleys behind the Beef Market.

“These aren’t,” Vettius added dryly, “expensive transactions.”

Dama looked at the philosopher in amazement. Menelaus met his gaze sidelong and muttered, “Ah, Dama, I—thought that when I grew older, some impediments to a calm mind would cease to intrude on my life. But I’m not as old as that yet. I’m ashamed to admit.”

Macer opened his mouth as if about to say something. Lucius Vettius turned toward the man and—tapped his notebook, Dama thought, with the index finger of his left hand.

Dama thought the soldier’s gesture might be only an idle tic; but Macer understood something by it. The councilor’s eyes bulged, and his mouth shut with an audible clop.

“Last year,” Vettius continued calmly, “Menelaus moved out of his garret apartment at night, stiffing his landlord for the eight-days’ rent.”

“Sir!” the philosopher blurted in outrage despite Dama’s restraining hand. “When I moved there in the spring, I was told the roof tiles would be replaced in a few days. Nothing had been done by winter—and my books were drenched by the first heavy rains!”

“The pair of Moors sharing the room now—” said Vettius.

“If you want to believe—” Vulco began.

“—say the landlord told them when they moved in that the roof tiles would be replaced in a few days,” Vettius continued, slicing across the interruption like a sword cutting rope. “That was three months ago.”

He turned to the philosopher and said coldly, “Do you have anything to add to that, Faustus Menelaus?”

Menelaus blinked.

Dama bowed low to the soldier and said, “My companion and I beg your pardon, sir. He did not realize that the life of an exceptionally decent and honorable man might contain, on close examination . . . incidents which look regrettable out of context.”

“Well, still . . .” Rutilianus said, frowning as he shifted on his couch. “What do you fellows think?”

All four of his civilian companions opened their mouths to speak. Macer was fractionally ahead of the others, blurting, “Well, Severiana certainly won’t be pleased if an opponent of Pyrrhus the Prophet enters your household!”

“Didn’t I tell you to leave my wife out of this?” Rutilianus snarled.

Macer quailed as though he’d been slapped. The other civilians froze, unwilling to offer what might not be the words the aroused Prefect wanted to hear.

Vettius looked at them with cool amusement, then back to Rutilianus. “If I may speak, sir?” he said.

“Of course, of course, Lucius,” Rutilianus said, wiping his forehead with a napkin. “What do you think I should do?”

Dama squeezed Menelaus’s shoulder very firmly, lest the old philosopher interrupt again—which Dama was quite sure would mean disaster. The soldier wasn’t the sort of man whose warnings, voiced or implied, were to be ignored without cost.

“I can’t speak to the fellow’s philosophy,” Vettius said.

He paused a half-beat, to see if Menelaus would break in on him; and smiled when the philosopher held his peace. “But for his life—Citizen Dama stated the situation correctly. The learned Menelaus is an exceptionally decent and honorable man, fit to enter your household, sir—”

Vulco started to say something. Before the words came out, the soldier had turned and added, in a voice utterly without emotion, “—or your council. From a moral standpoint.”

Vulco blanched into silence.

Dama expressionlessly watched the—almost—exchange. This Vettius could go far in the imperial bureaucracy, with his ability to gather information and his ruthless willingness to use what he had. But the way the soldier moved, his timing—thrusting before his target was expecting it, ending a controversy before it became two-sided—those were a swordsman’s virtues, not a bureaucrat’s.

Dama’s right palm tingled, remembering the feel of a swordhilt. In five years, he’d turned his father’s modest legacy into real wealth by a willingness to go where the profits were as high as the risks. He knew swordsmen, knew killers . . . .

“Even with the . . . ?” the Prefect was saying. His eyes looked inward for a moment. “But yes, I can see that anyone’s life examined closely might look—”

Rutilianus broke off abruptly as if in fear that his musings were about to enter territory he didn’t care to explore.

“Well, anyway, Menelaus,” he resumed, “I think we’ll give you—”

“Gaius, dearie,” called a silk-clad youth past the scowling nomenclator, “there’s somebody here you just have to see.”

Rutilianus looked up with a frown that softened when he saw the youth—the boy, really—who was speaking. “I’m busy, now, Ganymede. Can’t it wait . . . ?”

“Not an eentsy minute,” Ganymede said firmly, lifting his pert nose so that he looked down at the Prefect past chubby cheeks.

“Oh, send him in, then,” Rutilianus agreed with a sigh.

The nomenclator, his voice pitched a half-step up with scandal and outrage, announced, “The honorable Gnaeus Aelius Acer . . .” he paused “. . . emissary of Pyrrhus the Prophet.”

“That charlatan!” Menelaus snapped.

“It ill behooves a pagan to criticize a Christian, you!” Macer retorted.

“Pyrrhus is no Christian!” said Menelaus. “That’s as much a sham as his claim to know the future and—”

Dama laid a finger across his friend’s lips.

A young man whose dress and bearing marked his good family was being ushered in by the nomenclator.

Rutilianus glanced from the newcomer to Menelaus and remarked in a distant tone, “A word of advice, good philosopher: my wife believes Pyrrhus to be a Christian. A belief in which I choose to concur.”

He turned to the newcomer and said, “Greetings, Gnaeus Acer. It’s been too long since you or your father have graced us with your company.”

Instead of responding with a moment of small talk, Acer said, “Pyrrhus to Gaius Rutilianus, greetings. There is—”

There was a glaze over the young man’s eyes and his voice seemed leaden. He did not look at the Prefect as his tongue broke into singsong to continue:

“—one before you

“With whose beard he cloaks for boys his lust.

“Cast him from you hastily

“And spurn him in the dust.”

Pyrrhus’s messenger fell silent. “I think there’s a mistake—” Dama began while his mind raced, searching for a diplomatic way to deny the absurd accusation.

Menelaus was neither interested in nor capable of diplomacy. “That’s doggerel,” he said, speaking directly to the Prefect. “And it’s twaddle. I’ve never touched a boy carnally in my life.”

After a pause just too short for anyone else to interject a comment, the philosopher added, “I can’t claim that as a virtue. Because frankly, I’ve never been tempted in that direction.”

“Vettius?” the Prefect asked, his eyes narrowing with supposition.

The soldier shrugged. “I can’t prove an absence,” he said—his tone denying the possibility implicit in the words.”But if the learned Menelaus had tastes in that direction, some neighbor or slave would surely have mentioned it.”

“In his wallet—” Acer broke in unexpectedly.

“—the debaucher keeps

“A letter to the boy with whom he sleeps.”

“That,” shouted Menelaus, “is a lie as false and black as the heart of the charlatan whose words this poor deluded lad is speaking!”

Vettius reached toward the bosom of the philosopher’s toga.

Menelaus raised a hand to fend off what he saw as an assault on his sense of propriety. Dama caught the philosopher’s arm and said, “Let him search you now. That will demonstrate the lie to all these gentlemen.”

Vettius removed a cracked leather purse whose corners had been restitched so often that its capacity was reduced by a third. He thumbed up the flap—the tie-strings had rotted off a decade before—and emptied it, item by item, into his left palm.

A stylus. A pair of onions.

“I, ah,” Menelaus muttered, “keep my lunch. . . .”

Dama patted him to silence.

A half-crust of bread, chewed rather than torn from a larger piece. The lips of Rutilianus and his companions curled.

A tablet, closed so that the two boards protected the writing on their waxed inner sides. All eyes turned to the philosopher.

All eyes save those of Gnaeus Acer, who stood as quietly as a resting sheep.

“My notebook,” explained Menelaus.”I jot down ideas for my lectures. And sometimes appointments.”

Vettius dumped back the remainder of the wallet’s contents and opened the tablet.

“It’s in Greek,” he commented. He shifted so that light from the garden door threw shadows across the marks scored into the wax and made them legible.

“Yes, I take my notes—” the philosopher began.

“‘Menelaus to his beloved Kurnos,’” Vettius said, translating the lines rather than reading them in their original. “‘Kurnos, don’t drive me under the yoke against my will—don’t goad my love too much.’”

“What!” said Dama.

“Oh . . . !” murmured several of the others in the room.

“‘I won’t invite you to the party,’” the soldier continued, raising his voice to a level sufficient to bark commands across the battlefield,” ‘nor forbid you. When you’re present, I’m distressed—but when you go away, I still love you.’”

“Why, that’s not my notebook!” Menelaus cried. “Nor my words. Why, it’s just a quotation from the ancient poet Theognis!”

Dama started to extend a hand to the notebook. He caught himself before he thought the gesture was visible, but the soldier had seen and understood. Vettius handed the tablet to Dama open.

Pyrrhus’s messenger should have been smiling—should have shown some expression. Gnaeus Acer’s face remained as soft and bland as butter. He turned to leave the office as emotionlessly as he’d arrived.

Menelaus reached for Acer’s arm. Dama blocked the older man with his body. “Control yourself!” he snarled under his breath.

The message on the tablet couldn’t have been written by the old philosopher . . . but the forgery was very good.

Too good for Dama to see any difference between Menelaus’s hand and that of the forger.

“Lies don’t change the truth!”Menelaus shouted to the back of Gnaeus Acer. “Tell your master! The truth will find him yet!”

“Citizen Menelaus,” the Prefect said through pursed lips, “you’d better—” his mind flashed him a series of pictures: Menelaus brawling with Pyrrhus’s messenger in the waiting room “—step into the garden for a moment while we discuss matters. And your friend—”

“Sir,” Vettius interjected, “I think it might be desirable to have Citizen Dama present to hear the discussions.”

“We don’t owe an explanation to some itinerant pederast, surely?” said Caelius.

Rutilianus looked at him.”No,” he said.”I don’t owe anyone an explanation, Caelius. But my friend Lucius is correct that sometimes giving an explanation can save later awkwardness—even in matters as trivial as these.”

For the first time, Dama could see that Rutilianus had reached high office for better reason than the fact that he had the right ancestors.

A momentary tremor shook Menelaus’s body. The philosopher straightened, calm but looking older than Dama had ever seen him before.

He bowed to the Prefect and said, “Noble Rutilianus, your graciousness will overlook my outburst; but I assure you I will never forgive my own conduct, which was so unworthy of a philosopher and a guest in your house.”

Menelaus strode out the door to the garden, holding his head high as though he were unaware of Caelius’s giggles and the smug certainty in the eyes of Vulco.

“Citizen Dama, do you have anything to add?” the Prefect said—a judge now, rather than the head of a wealthy household.

“There is no possibility that the accusation is true,” Dama said, choosing his words and knowing that there were no words in any language that would achieve his aim. “I say that as a man who has known Menelaus since I was old enough to have memory.”

“And the letter he’d written?” Macer demanded. “I suppose that’s innocent?”

Dama looked at his accuser. “I can’t explain the letter,” he said. “Except to point out that Pyrrhus knew about it, even though Menelaus himself obviously had no idea what was written on the tablet.”

Caelius snickered again.

“Lucius Vettius, what do you say?” Rutilianus asked from his couch. He wiped his face with a napkin, dabbing precisely instead of sweeping the cloth promiscuously over his skin.

“In my opinion,” the soldier said, “the old man didn’t know what was on the tablet. And he isn’t interested in boys. In my opinion.”

“So you would recommend that I employ the learned Menelaus to teach my sons proper morality?” Rutilianus said.

For a moment, Dama thought—hoped—prayed—

The big soldier looked at Dama, not the Prefect, and said, “No, I can’t recommend that. There’re scores of philosophers in Rome who’d be glad of the position. There’s no reason at all for you to take a needless risk.”

And of course, Vettius was quite right. A merchant like Dama could well appreciate the balance of risk against return.

Pyrrhus the Prophet understood the principles also.

“Yes, too bad,” Rutilianus said. “Well-spoken old fellow, too. But—” his eyes traced past the nomenclator as if hoping for another glimpse of the boy Ganymede “—some of those perverts are just too good at concealing it. Can’t take the risk, can we?”

He looked around the room as his smiling civilian advisors chorused agreement. Vettius watched Dama with an expression of regret, but he had no reason to be ashamed of what he’d said. Even Dama agreed with the assessment.

The wheezing gasp from the garden was loud enough for everyone in the office to hear, but only Vettius and Dama understood what it meant.

Sosius was between Vettius and the garden door for an instant. The soldier stiff-armed him into a wall, because that was faster than words and there wasn’t a lot of time when—

Vettius and Dama crashed into the garden together. The merchant had picked up a half step by not having to clear his own path.

—men were dying.

It looked for a moment as though the old philosopher was trying to lean his forehead against the wall of the house. He’d rested the pommel of Vettius’s sword at an angle against the stucco and was thrusting his body against it. The gasp had come when—

Menelaus vomited blood and toppled sideways before Dama could catch him.

—the swordpoint broke the resisting skin beneath Menelaus’s breastbone and slid swiftly upward through the old man’s lungs, stomach, and heart.

Vettius grabbed Menelaus’s limp wrist to prevent the man from flopping on his back. The swordpoint stuck a finger’s breadth out from between Menelaus’s shoulder blades. It would grate on the stone if he were allowed to lie naturally.

Dama reached beneath the old man’s neck and took the weight of his torso. Vettius glanced across at him, then eased back—putting his own big form between the scene and the excited civilians spilling from the office to gape at it.

“You didn’t have to do that, old friend,” Dama whispered.”There were other households . . .”

But no households who wouldn’t have heard the story of what had happened here—or a similar story, similarly told by an emissary of Pyrrhus the Prophet. Menelaus had known that . . . and Menelaus hadn’t been willing to accept open charity from his friend.

The old man did not speak. A trail of sluggish blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. His eyes blinked once in the sunlight, twice—

Then they stayed open and began to glaze.

Dama gripped the spatha’s hilt. One edge of the blade was embedded in Menelaus’s vertebrae. He levered the weapon, hearing bone crack as the steel came free.

“Get back!” the merchant snarled to whoever it was whose motion blurred closer through the film of tears. He drew the blade out, feeling his friend’s body spasm beneath his supporting arm.

He smelled the wastes that the corpse voided after mind and soul were gone. Menelaus wore a new toga. Dama’d provided it “as a loan for the interview with Rutilianus.”

Dama stood up. He caught a fold of his own garment in his left hand and scrubbed the steel with it, trusting the thickness of the wool to protect his flesh from the edge that had just killed the man he had known and respected as long as he had memory.

Known and respected and loved.

And when the blade was clean, he handed the sword, pommel-first, to Lucius Vettius.

There were seats and tables in the side-room of the tavern, but Vettius found the merchant hunched over the masonry bar in the front. The bartender, ladling soup from one of the kettles cemented into the counter, watched hopefully when the soldier surveyed the room from the doorway, then strode over to Dama.

The little fella had been there for a couple hours. Not making trouble. Not even drinking that heavy . . .

But there was a look in his eyes that the bartender had seen in other quiet men at the start of a real bad night.

“I thought you might’ve gone home,” Vettius said as he leaned his broad left palm on the bar between his torso and Dama’s.

“I didn’t,” the merchant said. “Go away.”

He swigged down the last of his wine and thrust the bronze cup, chained to the counter, toward the bartender. “Another.”

The tavern was named At the Sign of Venus. While he waited for the bartender to fill the cup—and while he pointedly ignored Dama’s curt demand to him—Vettius examined the statue on the street-end of the counter.

The two-foot-high terracotta piece had given the place its name. It showed Venus tying her sandal, while her free hand rested on the head of Priapus’s cock to balance her. Priapus’s body had been left the natural russet color of the coarse pottery, but Venus was painted white, with blue for her jewelry and the string bra and briefs she wore. The color was worn off her right breast, the one nearer the street.

Dama took a drink from the refilled cup. “Menelaus had been staying with me the past few days,” he said into the wine. “So I didn’t go back to my apartment.”

The bartender was keeping down at the other end of the counter, which was just as it should be. “One for me,” Vettius called. The man nodded and ladled wine into another cup, then mixed it with twice the volume of heated water before handing it to the soldier.

“Sorry about your friend,” Vettius said in what could have been mistaken for a light tone.

“Sorry about your sword,” Dama muttered, then took a long drink from his cup.

The soldier shrugged.”It’s had blood on it before,” he said. After a moment, he added, “Any ideas about how Pyrrhus switched the notebook in your friend’s purse?”

Like everyone else in the tavern, the two men wore only tunics and sandals. For centuries, togas had been relegated to formal wear: for court appearances, say; or for dancing attendance on a wealthy patron like Gaius Rutilius Rutilianus.

Dama must have sent his toga home with the slaves who’d accompanied him and Menelaus to the interview. The garment would have to be washed before it could be worn again, of course. . . .

“It wouldn’t have been hard,” the merchant said, putting his cup down and meeting Vettius’s eyes for the first time since walking behind his friend’s corpse past the gawping servants and favor-seekers in the reception hall.”In the street, easily enough. Or perhaps a servant.”

He looked down at the wine, then drank again. “A servant of mine, that would probably make it.”

Vettius drank also. “You know,” he said, as if idly, “I don’t much like being made a fool of with the Prefect.”

“You’re still alive,” Dama snapped.

Vettius looked at the smaller man without expression. The bartender, who’d seen that sort of look before also, signaled urgently toward a pair of husky waiters; but the soldier said only, “Yeah. We are alive, aren’t we?”

Dama met the soldier’s eyes. “Sorry,” he said. “That was out of line.”

“Been a rough day for a lot of people,” said Vettius with a dismissive shrug. “For . . . just about everybody except Pyrrhus, I’d say. Know anything about that gentleman?”

The merchant chuckled. “I know what I’ve heard from Menelaus,” he said. “Mostly that Pyrrhus isn’t a gentleman. He’s a priest from somewhere in the East—I’ve heard Edessa, but I’ve heard other places. Came here to Rome, found an old temple that was falling down and made it his church.”

Dama sipped wine and rolled it around his mouth as if trying to clear away the taste of something. Maybe he was. He’d felt no twinge at mentioning Menelaus’s name, even though his friend’s body was still in the process of being laid out.

Menelaus had always wanted to be cremated. He said that the newer fashion of inhumation came from—he’d glance around, to make sure he wasn’t being overheard by those who might take violent offense—mystical nonsense about resurrection of the body.

Vettius looked past Dama toward the bartender.”You there,” he called, fishing silver from his wallet. “Sausage rolls for me and my friend.”

To the merchant he added, as blandly as though they were old friends, “There’s something about a snake?”

“Yes . . .” Dama said, marshalling his recollections.”He claims to have one of the bronze serpents that Christ set up in the wilderness to drive away a plague. Something like that. He claims it talks, gives prophecies.”

“Does it?”

Dama snorted.”I can make a snake talk—to fools—if there’s enough money in it. And there’s money in this one, believe me.”

He bit into a steaming sausage roll. It was juicy; good materials well-prepared, and the wine was better than decent as well. It was a nice tavern, a reasonable place to stop.

Besides being the place nearest to the Prefect’s doorway where Dama could get a drink.

He poured a little wine onto the terrazzo floor. The drops felt cool when they splashed his sandaled feet. Vettius cocked an eyebrow at him.

“An offering to a friend,” Dama said curtly.

“One kind of offering,” the soldier answered. “Not necessarily the kind that does the most good.”

Dama had been thinking the same thing. That was why he didn’t mind talking about his friend after all. . . .

For a moment, the two men eyed one another coldly. Then Vettius went on, “Happen to know where this temple Pyrrhus lives in might be?”

Dama hadn’t mentioned that Pyrrhus lived in his church. It didn’t surprise him that the soldier already knew, nor that Lucius Vettius probably knew other things about the Prophet.

“As it happens,” the merchant said aloud, “I do. It’s in the Ninth District, pretty near the Portico of Pompey. And—”

He popped the remainder of his sausage roll into his mouth and chewed it slowly while Vettius waited for the conclusion of the sentence.

An open investigation of Pyrrhus would guarantee the soldier an immediate posting to whichever frontier looked most miserable on the day Rutilianus’s wife learned what he was doing to her darling.

You know, I don’t much like being made a fool of with the Prefect.

Vettius wasn’t going to get support through his normal channels; but it might be that he could find someone useful who took a personal interest in the matter . . . .

Dama washed down the roll with the last of his wine. “And since it’s a Sunday,” he resumed, “they’ll be having an open ceremony.” He squinted past Venus and the smirking Priapus to observe the sun’s angle. “We’ll have plenty of time to get there, I should think.”

He brought a silver coin from his purse, checked the weight of it with his finger, and added a bronze piece before slapping the money onto the counter.”To cover the wine,” Dama called to the bartender. “Mine and my friend’s both.”

The two men shouldered their way into the crowded street, moving together as though they were a practiced team.

They heard the drum even before they turned the corner and saw the edges of a crowd which Vettius’s trained eye estimated to contain over a thousand souls. Dusk would linger for another half-hour, but torches were already flaring in the hands of attendants on the raised base of a small temple flanked by three-story apartment buildings.

“Are we late?” the soldier asked.

Dama dipped his chin in negation. “They want places near the front, and a lot of them can’t afford to buy their way up.”

His eyes narrowed as he surveyed the expensively dyed cloaks and the jewelry winking in ears and coiffures of matrons waiting close to the temple—the church—steps. “On the other hand,” he added, “a lot of them can afford to pay.”

The crowd completely blocked the street, but that didn’t appear to concern either the civic authorities or the local inhabitants. Vettius followed the merchant’s eyes and muttered, “Pyrrhus himself owns the building across the street. He uses it to house his staff and put up wealthy pilgrims.”

A flutist, playing a counterpoint on the double tubes of his instrument, joined the drummer and torch-bearers on the porch. Two of the attendants at the back of the crowd, identifiable by their bleached tunics and batons of tough rootwood, moved purposefully toward Vettius and Dama.

The merchant had two silver denarii folded in his palm. “We’ve come to worship with the holy Pyrrhus,” he explained, moving his hand over that of one of the attendants. The exchange was expert, a maneuver both parties had practiced often in the past.

“Yes,” said the attendant. “If you have a request for guidance from the holy Pyrrhus, give it on a sealed tablet to the servants at the front.”

Dama nodded and reached for another coin. “Not now,” said the attendant. “You will be granted an opportunity to make a gift directly to the divinity.”

“Ah . . .” said Vettius. “I don’t have a tablet of my own. Could—”

The other attendant, the silent one, was already handing Vettius an ordinary tablet of waxed boards. He carried a dozen similar ones in a large scrip.

“Come,” said—ordered—the first attendant. His baton, a dangerous weapon as well as a staff of office, thrust through the crowd like the bronze ram of a warship cleaving choppy waves.

There were loud complaints from earlier—and poorer—worshippers, but no one attempted physical opposition to the Prophet’s servant. Vettius gripped Dama’s shoulder from behind as they followed, lest the pressure of the crowd separate them beyond any cure short of open violence.

“Pyrrhus’s boys aren’t very talkative,’’ Vettius whispered in the smaller man’s ear. “Drugs, perhaps?”

Dama shrugged. Though the attendant before them had a cultured accent, he was as devoid of small-talk and emotion as the messenger who brought deadly lies about Menelaus to the Prefect. Drugs were a possible cause; but the merchant already knew a number of men—and a greater number of women—for whom religious ecstasy of one sort or another had utterly displaced all other passions.

Pyrrhus’s converted temple was unimposing. A building, twenty feet wide and possibly thirty feet high to the roof-peak, stood on a stepped base of coarse volcanic rock. Two pillars, and pilasters formed by extensions of the sidewalls, supported the pediment. That triangular area was ornamented with a painting on boards showing a human-faced serpent twined around a tau cross.

The temple had originally been dedicated to Asklepios, the healing god who’d lived part of his life as a snake. The current decoration was quite in keeping with the building’s pagan use.

There were six attendants on the temple porch now. The newcomers—one of them was Gnaeus Acer—clashed bronze rattles at a consistent rhythm; not the same rhythm for both men, nor in either case quite the rhythm that the staring-eyed drummer stroked from his own instrument.

The guide slid Vettius and Dama to within a row of the front of the crowd. Most of the worshipers still ahead of them were wealthy matrons, but a few were country folk. Vettius thought he also saw the flash of a toga carrying a senator’s broad russet stripe. More attendants, some of them carrying horn-lensed lanterns rather than batons, formed a line at the base of the steps.

Dama had paid silver for a second-rank location. The first rank almost certainly went for gold.

The merchant had opened a blank notebook and was hunching to write within the strait confines of the crowd. The tablet Vettius had been given looked normal enough at a glance: a pair of four-by five-inch boards hinged so that they could cover one another. One of the boards was waxed within a raised margin of wood that, when the tablet was closed, protected words written on the soft surface. A cord attached to the back could be tied or sealed to the front board to hold the tablet shut.

Dama finished what he was doing, grinned, and took the tablet from Vettius. “Shield me,” he whispered.

Vettius obediently shifted his body, though the two of them were probably the only members of the crowd who weren’t focused entirely on their own affairs.

Dama had been scribbling with a bone stylus. Now, using the stylus tip, he pressed on what seemed to be a tiny knot through the wooden edge of the tablet supplied to Vettius. The knot slipped out into his waiting palm. A quick tug started the waxed wooden back sliding away from the margin of what had seemed a solid piece.

“Pyrrhus the Prophet has strange powers indeed,” Vettius said as he fitted the tablet back together again. “Let me borrow your stylus.”

He wrote quickly, cutting the wax with large, square letters; not a calligrapher’s hand, but one which could write battlefield orders that were perfectly clear.

“What are you asking?” Dama whispered.

“Whether Amasius will die so that I get promoted to Legate of the Domestic Horse,” the soldier replied. He slapped that tablet closed. “I suppose the attendants seal these for us?”

“Ah . . .” said Dama with a worried expression. “That might not be a tactful question to have asked . . . ah, if the information gets into the wrong hands, you know.”

“Sure wouldn’t be,” Vettius agreed, “if I’d signed ‘Decurion Vettius’ instead of ‘Section Leader Lycorides.’”

He chuckled. “You know,” he added, “Lycorides is about dumb enough not to figure how a question like that opens you up to blackmail.”

He grinned at the pediment of the church and said, “Pyrrhus would figure it out, though. Wouldn’t he?”

Dama watched a heavy-set woman in the front rank wave her ivory tablet at an attendant. She wore a heavy cross on a gold chain, and the silk band which bound her hair was embroidered with the Chi-Rho symbol. Menelaus may not have thought Pyrrhus was a Christian; but, as the Prefect had retorted, there were Christians who felt otherwise.

“Hercules!”Vettius swore under his breath.”That’s Severiana—the Prefect’s wife!”

He snorted. “And Ganymede. That boy gets around.”

“Want to duck back now and let me cover?” the merchant offered.

Vettius grimaced. “They won’t recognize me,” he said in the tone of one praying as well as assessing the situation.

An attendant leaned toward Dama, past the veiled matron and her daughter in the front rank who were reciting prayers aloud in Massiliot Greek.

“If you have petitions for advice from the Prophet,” the man said, “hand them in now.”

As the attendant spoke, he rolled a lump of wax between his thumb and forefinger, holding it over the peak of the lantern he carried in his other hand. Prayers chirped to a halt as the women edged back from the lantern’s hissing metal frame.

Dama held out his closed notebook with the cord looped over the front board. The attendant covered the loop with wax, into which Dama then firmly pressed his carnelian seal ring. The process of sealing Vettius’s tablet was identical, except that the soldier wore a signet of gilt bronze.

“What’re you asking?”Vettius whispered under cover of the music from the porch and the prayers which the women resumed as soon as the attendant made his way into the church with the tablets.

“I’m asking about the health of my wife and three children back in Gades.”

“You’re not from Spain, are you?” the soldier asked—reflexively checking the file of data in his mind.

“Never been there,” Dama agreed. “Never married, either.”

The door of the church opened to pass an attendant with small cymbals. He raised them but didn’t move until the door shut behind him.

The music stopped. The crowd’s murmuring stilled to a collective intake of breath.

The cymbals crashed together. A tall, lean man stood on the porch in front of the attendants.

“Mithra!” the merchant blurted—too quietly to be overheard, but still a stupid thing to say here.

Dama understood about talking snakes and ways to read sealed tablets; but he didn’t have the faintest notion of how Pyrrhus had appeared out of thin air that way.

“I welcome you,” Pyrrhus cried in a voice that pierced without seeming especially loud, “in the name of Christ and of Glaukon, the Servant of God.”

Vettius narrowed his eyes.

Dama, though he was uncertain whether the soldier’s ignorance was real or just pretense, leaned even closer than the press demanded and whispered, “That’s the name of his snake. The bronze one.”

“Welcome Pyrrhus!” the crowd boomed. “Prophet of God!”

A double crack! startled both men but disturbed few if any of the other worshipers. The torch-bearing attendants had uncoiled short whips with poppers. They lashed the air to put an emphatic period to the sequence of statement and response.

Pyrrhus spread his arms as though thrusting open a double door. “May all enemies of God and his servants be far from these proceedings,” he cried.

“May all enemies of Pyrrhus and Glaukon be far from these proceedings!” responded the crowd.

Crack crack!

“God bless the Emperors and their servants on Earth,” Pyrrhus said. Pyrrhus ordered, it seemed to Vettius; though the object of the order was a deity.

“Not taking any chances with a treason trial, is he?” the soldier muttered.

“God bless Pyrrhus and Glaukon, his servants!” responded the crowd joyously.

The merchant nodded. Those around them were too lost in the quivering ambiance of the event to notice the carping. “What I want to know,” he whispered back, “is how long does this go on?”

“Pyrrhus! Liar!” a man screamed from near the front of the gathering. The crowd recoiled as though the cry were a stone flung in their midst.

“Two months ago, you told me my brother’d been drowned in a shipwreck!” the man shouted into the pause his accusation blew in the proceedings.

The accuser was short and already balding, despite being within a few years of Vettius’s twenty-five; but his features were probably handsome enough at times when rage didn’t distort them.

“Blasphemer!” somebody cried; but most of the crowd poised, waiting for Pyrrhus to respond. The attendants were as motionless as statues.

“His ship was driven ashore in Malta, but he’s fine!” the man continued desperately. “He’s home again, and I’ve married his widow! What am I supposed to do, you lying bastard!”

Pyrrhus brought his hands together. Dama expected a clap of sound, but there was none, only the Prophet’s piercing voice crying, “Evil are they who evil speak of God! Cast them from your midst with stone and rod!”


“You’ve ruined my—” the man began.

doggerel, Dama thought, and then a portly matron next to the accuser slashed a line of blood across his forehead with the pin of the gold-and-garnet clasp fastening her cloak. The victim screamed and stumbled back, into the clumsy punch of a frail-looking man twice his age.

The crowd gave a collective snarl like that of dogs ringing a boar, then surged forward together.

The paving stones were solidly set in concrete, but several of the infuriated worshipers found chunks of building material of a size to swing and hurl. Those crude weapons were more danger to the rest of the crowd than to the intended victim—knocked onto all fours and crawling past embroidered sandals, cleated boots, and bare soles, all kicking at him with murderous intent.

Vettius started to move toward the core of violence with a purposeful look in his eye. The merchant, to whom public order was a benefit rather than a duty, gripped the bigger man’s arm. Vettius jerked his arm loose.

Tried to jerk his arm loose. Dama’s small frame belied his strength; but much more surprising was his willingness to oppose the soldier whom he knew was still much stronger—as well as being on the edge of a killing rage.

The shock brought Vettius back to present awareness. The accuser would probably survive the inept battering; and one man—even a man as strong and determined as Lucius Vettius—could do little to change the present odds.

The mob jostled them as if they were rocks in a surf of anger. “Two months ago,” Dama said, with his lips close to the soldier’s ear, “he’d have been one of those kicking. That’s not why we’re here.”

The victim reached the back of the crowd and staggered to his feet again. A few eager fanatics followed some way into the darkness; but Pyrrhus spread his arms on the porch of the church, calming the crowd the way a teacher can appear and quiet a schoolroom.

Whips cracked the worshipers to attention.

“Brothers and sisters in God,” the Prophet called, clearly audible despite the panting and foot-shuffling that filled the street even after the murderous cries had abated.”Pray now for the Republic and the Emperors. May they seek proper guidance in the time of testing that is on them!”

“What’s that mean?” Dama whispered.

The soldier shrugged. “There’s nothing special I know about,” he muttered. “Of course, it’s the sort of thing you could say anytime in the past couple centuries and be more right than wrong.”

Pyrrhus’s long prayer gave no more information as to the nature of the “testing” than had been offered at the start, but the sentences rambled through shadowy threats and prophetic thickets barbed with words in unknown languages. On occasion—random occasions, it seemed to Vettius—the Prophet lowered his arms and the crowd shouted, “Amen!” After the first time, the soldier and merchant joined in with feigned enthusiasm.

Despite his intention to listen carefully—and his absolute need to stay awake if he were to survive the night—Vettius was startled out of a fog when Pyrrhus cried, “Depart now, in the love of God and his servants Pyrrhus and Glaukon!”

“God bless Pyrrhus, the servant of God!” boomed the crowd, as though the meaningless, meandering prayer had brought the worshipers to some sort of joyous epiphany.

Whips cracked. The musicians behind Pyrrhus clashed out a concentus like that with which they had heralded the Prophet’s appearance—

Pyrrhus was gone, as suddenly and inexplicably as he’d appeared.

The crowd shook itself around the blinking amazement of Vettius and Dama. “I don’t see . . .” the merchant muttered. The torches trailed sparks and pitchy smoke up past the pediment, but there was no fog or haze sufficient to hide a man vanishing from a few feet away.

“Is this all—” Vettius began.

“Patience,” said Dama.

The attendants—who hadn’t moved during the near riot—formed a double line up the stepped base of the building to where the drummer opened the door. Worshipers from the front of the crowd, those who’d paid for their places and could afford to pay more for a personal prophecy, advanced between the guiding lines.

Vettius’s face twisted in a moue as he and Dama joined the line. He shouldn’t have to be counseled in patience by a silk merchant . . . .

The private worshipers passed one by one through the door, watched by the attendants. A man a couple places in front of Vettius wore an expensive brocade cloak, but his cheeks were scarred and one ear had been chewed down to a nub. As he stepped forward, one of the attendants put out a hand in bar and said, “No weapons. You have a—”

“Hey!” the man snarled. “You leave me—”

The attendant on the other side reached under the cloak and plucked out a dagger with a wicked point and a long, double-edged blade.

The pair of women nearest the incident squealed in horror, while Vettius poised to react if necessary. The man grabbed the hand of the attendant holding his dagger and said, “Hey! That’s for personal reasons, see?”

The first attendant clubbed the loaded butt of his whip across the back of the man’s neck. The fellow slumped like an empty wineskin. Two of the musicians laid down their instruments and dragged him toward the side of the building. Twittering, the women stepped past where he’d fallen.

Vettius glanced at Dama.

“I’m clean,” the merchant murmured past the ghost of a humorless smile. He knew, as Vettius did, that the man being dragged away was as likely dead as merely unconscious.

That, along with what happened to the fellow who’d married his brother’s wife, provided the night’s second demonstration of how Pyrrhus kept himself safe. The Prophet might sound like a dimwitted charlatan, and his attendants might look as though they were sleepwalking most of the time; but he and they were ruthlessly competent where it counted.

As he passed inside the church, Dama glanced at the door leaves. He hoped to see some sign—a false panel; a sheet of mirror-polished metal; something—to suggest the illusion by which Pyrrhus came and left the porch. The outer surface of the wooden leaves had been covered with vermillion leather, but the inside showed the cracks and warping of age.

These were the same doors that had been in place when the building was an abandoned temple. There were no tricks in them.

A crosswall divided the interior of the church into two square rooms. The broad doorway between them was open, but the select group of worshipers halted in the first, the anteroom.

Crosswise in the center of the inner room, Pyrrhus the Prophet lay on a stone dais as though he were a corpse prepared for burial. His head rested on a raised portion of the stone, crudely carved to the shape of an open-jawed snake.

Behind the Prophet, against the back wall where the cult statue of Asklepios once stood, was a tau cross around which twined a metal-scaled serpent. The creature’s humanoid head draped artistically over the crossbar.

Pairs of triple-wick lamps rested on stands in both rooms, but their light was muted to shadow by the high, black beams supporting the roof. A row of louvered clerestory windows had been added just beneath the eaves when the building was refurbished, but even during daylight they would have affected ventilation more than lighting.

Vettius estimated that forty or fifty people were allowed to enter before attendants closed the doors again and barred them. The anteroom was comfortably large enough to hold that number, but the worshipers—he and Dama as surely as the rest—all crowded toward the center where they could look through the doorway into the sanctum.

Bronze scales jingled a soft susurrus as the serpent lifted its head from the bar. “God bless Pyrrhus his servant!” rasped the creature in a voice like a wind-swung gate.

Vettius grabbed for the sword he wasn’t carrying tonight. He noticed with surprise that Dama’s arm had curved in a similar motion. Not the sort of reflex he’d have expected in a merchant . . . but Vettius had already decided that the little Cappadocian wasn’t the sort of merchant one usually met.

“God bless Glaukon and Pyrrhus, his servants,” responded the crowd, the words muzzed by a harshly echoing space intended for visual rather than acoustic worship.

“Mithra!” Dama said silently, a hand covering his lips as they mimed the pagan syllables.

He knew the serpent was moved by threads invisible in the gloom. He knew one of Pyrrhus’s confederates spoke the greeting through a hole in the back wall which the bronze simulacrum covered.

But the serpent’s creaking, rasping voice frightened him like nothing had since—

Like nothing ever had before.

Goods of various types were disposed around the walls of the anteroom. Sealed amphoras—sharp-ended jars that might contain anything from wine to pickled fish—leaned in clusters against three of the four corners. From wooden racks along the sidewalk hung bunches of leeks, turnips, radishes—and a pair of dead chickens. In the fourth corner was a stack of figured drinking-bowls (high-quality ware still packed in scrap papyrus to protect the designs from chipping during transit) and a wicker basket of new linen tunics.

For a moment, Vettius couldn’t imagine why the church was used for storage of this sort. Then he noticed that each item was tagged: they were worshipers’ gifts in kind, being consecrated by the Prophet’s presence before they were distributed. Given the number of attendants Pyrrhus employed in his operation, such gifts would be immediately useful.

Pyrrhus sat up slowly on the couch, deliberately emphasizing his resemblance to a corpse rising from its bier. His features had a waxy stillness, and the only color on his skin was the yellow tinge cast by the lamp flames.

“Greetings, brothers and sisters in God,” he said. His quiet, piercing voice seemed not to be reflected by the stone.

“Greetings, Pyrrhus, Prophet of God,” the crowd and echoes yammered.

A pile of tablets stood beside the couch, skewed and colorful with the wax that sealed each one. Pyrrhus took the notebook on top and held it for a moment in both hands. His fingers were thin and exceptionally long, at variance with his slightly pudgy face.

“Klea, daughter of Menandros,” he said. The elder of the two praying women who’d stood in front of Vettius during the open service gasped with delight. She stepped through the doorway, knelt, and took the tablet from the Prophet’s hands.”Remarriage,” Pyrrhus said in the singsong with which he delivered his Verses, “is not for you but faith. You may take the veil for me in death.”

“Oh, Prophet,” the woman mumbled as she got to her feet. For a moment it looked as though she were going to attempt to kiss Pyrrhus.

“God has looked with favor on you, daughter,” the Prophet said in a distant, cutting voice that brought the suppliant back to a sense of propriety. “He will accept your sacrifice.”

From the bosom of the stola she wore, Klea took a purse and thrust it deep within the maw of the stone serpent-head which had served Pyrrhus as a pillow. The coins clinked—gold, Dama thought; certainly not mere bronze—beneath the floor. The bench served as a lid for Pyrrhus’s treasury, probably a design feature left from the days the building was a temple.

“Oh, Master,” the woman said as she walked back to her place in the anteroom.

Tears ran down her cheeks, but even Vettius’s experience at sizing up women’s emotions didn’t permit him to be sure of the reason. Perhaps Klea cried because she’d been denied remarriage during life . . . but it was equally likely that she’d been overcome with joy at the prospect of joining Pyrrhus after death.

The Prophet took another from the stack of tablets. “Hestiaia, daughter of Mimnermos,” he called, and the younger of the pair of women stepped forward to receive her prophecy.

Pyrrhus worked through the series of requests tablet by tablet. A few of the responses were in absolute gibberish—which appeared to awe and impress the recipients—and even when the doggerel could be understood, it was generally susceptible to a variety of meanings. Dama began to suspect that the man who’d been stoned and kicked from the gathering outside had chosen the interpretation he himself desired to an ambiguous answer about his brother’s fate.

A man was told that his wife was unfaithful. No one but the woman herself could know with certainty if the oracle were false.

A woman was told that the thief who took her necklace was the slave she trusted absolutely. She would go through her household with scourge and thumbscrew . . . and if she found nothing, then wasn’t her suspicion of this one or that proof her trust hadn’t been complete after all?

“Severiana, daughter of Marcus Severianus,” the Prophet called. Vettius stiffened as the Prefect’s simpering wife joined Pyrrhus in the sanctum.

“Daughter,” said Pyrrhus in his clanging verse, “blessed of God art thee. Thy rank and power increased shall be. Thy husband’s works grow anyhow. And morrow night I’ll dine with thou.”

Dama thought: Pyrrhus’s accent was flawless, unlike that of the Prefect’s nomenclator; but in his verse he butchered Latin worse than ever an Irish beggar did . . . .

Vettius thought: Castor and Pollux! Bad enough that the Prefect’s wife was involved with this vicious phony. But if Pyrrhus got close to Rutilianus himself, he could do real harm to the whole Republic . . . .

“Oh beloved Prophet!” Severiana gurgled as she fed the stone serpent a purse that hit with a heavier clank! than most of the previous offerings. “Oh, we’ll be so honored by your presence!”

“Section Leader Lycorides!” Pyrrhus called. Vettius stepped forward, hunching slightly and averting his face as he passed Severiana. The timing was terrible—but the Prefect’s wife was so lost in joy at the news that she wouldn’t have recognized her husband, much less one of his flunkies. Though Pyrrhus’s thin figure towered over the previous suppliants who faced him one-on-one, Vettius was used to being the biggest man in any room. It hadn’t occurred to him that he too would have to tilt his head up to meet the Prophet’s eyes.

Pyrrhus’s irises were a black so deep they could scarcely be distinguished from his pupils; the weight of their stare gouged at Vettius like cleated boots.

For a moment the soldier froze. He knew that what he faced was no charlatan, no mere trickster preying on the religiously gullible. The power of Pyrrhus’s eyes, the inhuman perfection of his bearded, patriarchal face—

Pyrrhus was not merely a prophet; he was a god.

Pyrrhus opened his mouth and said, “Evil done requited is to men. Each and every bao nhieu tien.”

The illusion vanished in the bath of nonsense syllables. Vettius faced a tall charlatan who had designs on the official whom it was Vettius’s duty to protect.

Rutilianus would be protected. Never fear.

“God has looked with favor on you, son,” Pyrrhus prodded. “He will accept your sacrifice.”

Vettius shrugged himself to full alertness and felt within his purse. He hadn’t thought to bundle a few coins in a twist of papyrus beforehand, so now he had to figure desperately as he leaned toward the opening to the treasury. He didn’t see any way that Pyrrhus could tell if he flung in a couple bits of bronze instead of real payment, but. . . .

Vettius dropped three denarii and a Trapezuntine obol, all silver, into the stone maw. He couldn’t take the chance that Pyrrhus or a confederate would know what he had done—and at best expose him in front of Severiana.

He stepped back into place.

“Marcus Dama!”the Prophet called, to the surprise of Vettius who’d expected Dama to use a false name. Diffidently lowering his eyes, the little man took the notebook Pyrrhus returned to him.

“God grants us troubling things to learn,” the Prophet singsonged.”Sorrows both and joys wait your return.”

A safe enough answer—if the petitioner told you he’d left his wife and three minor children behind in Spain months before. Dama kept his eyes low as he paid his offering and pattered back to Vettius’s side.

There were half a dozen further responses before Pyrrhus raised his arms as he had before making an utterance from the porch. “The blessings of God upon you!” he cried.

A single tablet remained on the floor beside the stone bench. Vettius remembered the well-dressed thug who’d tried to carry in a dagger . . . .

“God’s blessings on his servants Pyrrhus and Glaukon!” responded that majority of the crowd which knew the liturgy.

“Depart in peace . . .” rasped the bronze serpent from its cross, drawing out the Latin sibilants and chilling Dama’s bones again.

The doors creaked open and the worshipers began to leave. Most of them appeared to be in a state of somnolent ecstasy. A pair of attendants collected the tablets which had been supplied to petitioners who didn’t bring their own; with enough leisure, even the most devout believer might have noticed the way the waxed surface could be slid from beneath the sealed cover panel.

The air outside was thick with dust and the odors of slum tenements. Dama had never smelled anything so refreshing as the first breath that filled his lungs beyond the walls of Pyrrhus’s church.

Almost all of those who’d attended the private service left in sedan chairs.

Vettius and Dama instead walked a block in silence to a set of bollards protecting an entrance to the Julian Mall. They paused, each lost for a moment in a landscape of memories. No one lurked nearby in the moonlight, and the rumble of goods wagons and construction vehicles—banned from the streets by day—kept their words from being overheard at any distance.

“A slick operation,” Vettius said.

The merchant lifted his chin in agreement but then added, “His clientele makes it easy, though. They come wanting to be fooled.”

“I’m not sure how . . .” Vettius said.

For a moment, his tongue paused over concluding the question the way he’d started it: I’m not sure how Pyrrhus managed to appear and disappear that way. But though he knew that was just a trick, the way some sort of trick inspired awe when Pyrrhus stared into the soldier’s eyes . . . neither of those were things that Vettius wanted to discuss just now.

“. . . he knew what your question was,” Vettius’s tongue concluded. “Is the tablet still sealed?”

“Sealed again, I should guess,” Dama said mildly as he held the document up to the full moon. “They could’ve copied my seal impression in quick-drying plaster, but I suspect—yes, there.”

His fingertip traced a slight irregularity in the seal’s edge. “They used a hot needle to cut the wax and then reseal it after they’d read the message.”

He looked at his companion with an expression the bigger man couldn’t read. “Pyrrhus has an exceptional memory,” he said, “to keep the tablets and responses in proper order. He doesn’t give himself much time to study.”

Vettius gestured absently in agreement. The soldier’s mind considered various ways, more or less dangerous, to broach the next subject.

Three wagons carrying column bases crashed and rumbled past, drawn by teams of mules with cursing drivers. The loads might be headed toward a construction site within the city—but more likely they were going to the harbor and a ship that would carry them to Constantinople or Milan.

Rome was no longer a primary capital of the empire. It was easier to transport art than to create it, so Rome’s new imperial offspring were devouring the city which gave them birth. All things die, even cities.

Even empires . . . but Lucius Vettius didn’t permit himself to think about that.

“It doesn’t appear that he’s doing anything illegal,” the soldier said carefully. “There’s no law against lying to people, even if they decide to give you money for nothing.”

“Or lying about people,” Dama said—”agreed” would imply there was some emotion in his voice, and there was none. “Lying about philosophers who tell people you’re a charlatan, for instance.”

“I thought he might skirt treason,” Vettius went on, looking out over the street beyond. “It’s easy to say the wrong thing, you know. . . . But if Pyrrhus told any lies—” with the next words, Vettius would come dangerously close to treason himself; but perhaps his risk would draw the response he wanted from the merchant “—it was in the way he praised everything to do with the government.”

“There was the—riot, I suppose you could call it,” Dama suggested as his fingers played idly with the seal of his tablet.

“Incited by the victim,” the soldier said flatly. “And some of those taking part were—very influential folk, I’d estimate. There won’t be a prosecution on that basis.”

“Yeah,” the merchant agreed. “That’s the way I see it too. So I suppose we’d better go home.”

Vettius nodded upward in agreement.

He’d have to go the next step alone. Too bad, but the civilian had already involved himself more than could have been expected. Dama would go back and make still more money, while Lucius Vettius carried out what he saw as a duty—

Knowing that he faced court martial and execution if his superiors learned of it.

“Good to have met you, Marcus Dama,” he muttered as he strode away through a break in traffic.

There was a crackle of sound behind him. He glanced over his shoulder. Dama was walking toward his apartment in the opposite direction.

But at the base of the stone bollard lay the splintered fragments of the tablet the merchant had been holding.

The crews of two sedan chairs were dicing noisily—and illegally—beside the bench on which Vettius waited, watching the entrance to Pyrrhus’s church through slitted eyes. Business in the small neighborhood bath house was slack enough this evening that the doorkeeper left his kiosk and seated himself beside the soldier.

“Haven’t seen you around here before,” the doorkeeper opened.

Vettius opened his eyes wide enough to frown at the man. “You likely won’t see me again,” he said. “Which is too bad for you, given what I’ve paid you to mind your own business.”

Unabashed, the doorkeeper chewed one bulb from the bunch of shallots he was holding, then offered the bunch to the soldier. His teeth were yellow and irregular, but they looked as strong as a mule’s.

“Venus!” cried one of the chairmen as his dice came up all sixes.”How’s that, you Moorish fuzzbrain?”

“No thanks,” said Vettius, turning his gaze back down the street.

The well-dressed, heavily veiled woman who’d arrived at the church about an hour before was leaving again. She was the second person to be admitted for a private consultation, but a dozen other—obviously less wealthy—suppliants had been turned away during the time the soldier had been watching.

He’d been watching, from one location or another in the neighborhood, since dawn.

“I like to keep track of what’s going on around here,” the doorkeeper continued. He ate another shallot and belched. “Maybe I could help you with what you’re looking for?”

Vettius clenched his great, calloused hands, only partly as a conscious attempt on his part to warn this nuisance away. “Right now,” he said in a husky voice, “I’m looking for a little peace and—”

“Hey there!” one of the chairmen shouted in Greek as the players sprang apart. One reached for the stakes, another kicked him, and a third slipped a short, single-edged knife from its hiding place in the sash that bound his tunic.

Vettius and the doorkeeper both leaped to their feet. The soldier didn’t want to get involved, but if a brawl broke out, it was likely to explode into him.

At the very best, that would disclose the fact that he was hiding his long cavalryman’s sword beneath his cloak.

The pair of plump shopowners who’d hired the sedan chairs came out the door, rosy from the steam room and their massages. The chairmen sorted themselves at once into groups beside the poles of their vehicles. The foreman of one chair glanced at the other, nodded, and scooped up the stakes for division later.

Vettius settled back on the bench. Down the street, a quartet of porters were carrying a heavy chest up the steps of the church. Attendants opened the doors for the men.

Early in the morning, the goods Vettius had seen in the building’s anteroom had been dispersed, mostly across the street to the apartment house which Pyrrhus owned. Since then, there had been a constant stream of offerings. All except the brace of live sheep were taken inside.

Pyrrhus had not come out all day.

“A bad lot, those chairmen,” the doorkeeper resumed, dusting his hands together as though he’d settled the squabble himself. The hollow stems of his shallots flopped like an uncouth decoration from the bosom of his tunic.”I’m always worried that—”

Vettius took the collar of the man’s garment between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand. He lifted the cloth slightly. “If you do not leave me alone,” he said in a low voice, “you will have something to worry about. For a short time.”

Half a dozen men, householders and slaves, left the bath caroling an obscene round. One of them was trying to bounce a hard leather ball as he walked, but it caromed wildly across the street.

The doorkeeper scurried back to his kiosk as soon as Vettius released him.

Three attendants, the full number of those who’d been in the church with Pyrrhus, came out and stood on the porch. Vettius held very still. It was nearly dusk—time and past time that the Prophet go to dinner.

If he was going.

Pyrrhus could lie and bilk and slander for the next fifty years until he died on a pinnacle of wealth and sin, and that’d still be fine with Lucius Vettius. There were too many crooked bastards in the world for Vettius to worry about one more or less of ’em. . . .

Or so he’d learned to tell himself, when anger threatened to build into a murderous rage that was safe to release only on a battlefield.

Vettius wasn’t just a soldier anymore: he was an agent of the civil government whose duties required him to protect and advise the City Prefect. If Pyrrhus kept clear of Rutilianus, then Pyrrhus had nothing to fear from Lucius Vettius.

But if Pyrrhus chose to make Rutilianus his business, then. . . .

A sedan chair carried by four of Pyrrhus’s attendants trotted to the church steps from the apartment across the street. A dozen more of the Prophet’s men in gleaming tunics accompanied the vehicle. Several of them carried lanterns for the walk back, though the tallow candles within were unlighted at the moment.

Pyrrhus strode from the church and entered the sedan chair. He looked inhumanly tall and thin, even wrapped in the formal bulk of a toga. It was a conjuring trick itself to watch the Prophet fold his length and fit it within the sedan, then disappear behind black curtains embroidered with a serpent on a cross.

Three attendants remained on the porch. The remainder accompanied the sedan chair as it headed northeast, in the direction of the Prefect’s dwelling. The attendants’ batons guaranteed the vehicle clear passage, no matter how congested the streets nearer the city center became.

Vettius sighed. Well, he had his excuse, now. But the next—hours, days, years; he didn’t know how long it’d take him to find something on this “Prophet” that’d stick. . . .

The remainder of the soldier’s life might be simpler if he didn’t start at all. But he was going to start, by burglarizing Pyrrhus’s church and private dwelling while the Prophet was at dinner. And if that didn’t turn up evidence of a crime against the State, there were other things to try. . . .

A hunter learns to wait. It would be dead-dark soon, when the sun set and the moon was still two hours beneath the horizon. Time then to move to the back of the church which he’d reconnoitered by the first light of dawn.

Men left the bath house, laughing and chatting as they headed for their dinners. Vettius watched the three attendants, as motionless as statues on the church porch; as motionless as he was himself.

And he waited.

When Vettius was halfway up the back wall of the church, a patrol of the Watch sauntered by in the street fronting the building.

Watch patrols were primarily fire wardens, but the State equipped them with helmets and spears to deal with any other troubles they might come across. This group was dragging the ferules of its spears along the pavement with a tremendous racket, making sure it didn’t come across such troubles . . . but Vettius still paused and waited for the clatter to trail off in the direction of the Theater of Balbus.

Back here, nobody’d bothered to cover the building’s brick fabric with marble, and the mortar between courses probably hadn’t been renewed in the centuries since the structure was raised as a temple. The warehouse whose blind sidewall adjoined the back of the church two feet away was also brick. It provided a similarly easy grip for the cleats of Vettius’s tight-laced boots.

Step by step, steadying himself with his fingertips, the soldier mounted to the clerestory windows beneath the transom of the church. Each was about three feet long but only eight inches high, and their wooden sashes were only lightly pinned to the bricks.

Vettius loosened a window with the point of his sword, then twisted the sash outward so that the brickwork continued to grip one end. If matters went well, he’d be able to hide all signs of his entry when he left.

He hung his cloak over the end of the window he’d swung clear. He’d need the garment to conceal his sword on the way back.

The long spatha was a terrible tool for the present use. He’d brought it rather than a sturdy dagger or simply a prybar because—

Because he was still afraid of whatever he thought he’d seen in Pyrrhus’s eyes the night before. The sword couldn’t help that, but it made Vettius feel more comfortable.

There was a faint glow from within the building; one lamp wick had been left burning to light the Prophet’s return home.

Vettius uncoiled his silken line. He’d thought he might need the small grapnel on one end to climb to the window, but the condition of the adjoining walls made the hooks as unnecessary as the dark lantern he’d carried in case the church was unlighted. Looping the cord around an end-frame of the window next to the one he’d removed, he dropped both ends so that they dangled to the floor of Pyrrhus’s sanctum.

He had no real choice but to slide head-first through the tight opening. He gripped the doubled cord in both hands to keep from plunging thirty feet to the stone floor.

His right hand continued to hold the hilt of his naked sword as well. Scabbarded, the weapon might’ve slipped out when he twisted through the window; or so he told himself.

Pyrrhus’s bronze serpent gaped only a few feet from Vettius as he descended the cord, hand over hand. The damned thing was larger than it had looked from below, eighteen—no, probably twenty feet long when you considered the way its coils wrapped the cross. Shadows from the lamplight below drew the creature’s flaring nostrils into demonic horns.

At close view, the bronze head looked much less human than it had from the anteroom. There were six vertical tubes in each eye. They lighted red and green in alternation.

Vettius’s hobnails sparked as he dropped the last yard to the floor. The impact felt good.

Except for Pyrrhus’s absence, the sanctum looked just as it had when the soldier saw it the night before. He went first to the couch that covered the Prophet’s strongbox. It was solid marble, attached to the floor by bronze pivots. Vettius expected a lock of some sort, but only weight prevented the stone from being lifted. So . . . .

He sheathed his sword and gripped the edge of the couch with both hands. Raising the stone would require the strength of three or four normal men, but—

The marble pivoted upward, growling like a sleeping dog.

The cavity beneath was empty.

Vettius vented his breath explosively. He almost let the lid crash back in disgust, but the stone might have broken and the noise would probably alert the attendants.

Grunting—angry and without the hope of immediate triumph to drive him—Vettius lowered by main strength the weight that enthusiasm had lifted.

He breathed heavily and massaged his palms against his thigh muscles for a minute thereafter. Score one for the Prophet.

Vettius didn’t know precisely what he’d expected to find in the crypt, but there had to be some dark secret within this building or Pyrrhus wouldn’t have lived in it alone. Something so secret that Pyrrhus didn’t dare trust it even to his attendants. . . .

Perhaps there was a list of high government personnel who were clients of Pyrrhus—or who supplied him with secret information. The emperors were—rightly—terrified of conspiracies. A list like that, brought to the attention of the right parties, would guarantee mass arrests and condemnations.

With, very probably, a promotion for the decurion who uncovered the plot.

If necessary, Vettius could create such a document himself; but he’d rather find the real one, since something of the sort must exist.

The bronze lamp had been manufactured especially for Pyrrhus. Counterweighting the spouts holding the three wicks was a handle shaped like a cross. A human-headed serpent coiled about it.

Vettius grimaced at the feel of the object as he took it from its stand. He prowled the sanctum, holding the light close to the walls.

If there was a hiding place concealed within the bricks, Vettius certainly couldn’t find it. The room was large and clean, but it was as barren as a prison cell.

There was a faint odor that the soldier didn’t much like, now that he’d settled down enough to notice it.

He looked up at the serpent, Glaukon. Lamplight broke the creature’s coils into bronze highlights that swept from pools of shadow like great fish surfacing. Pyrrhus might have hidden a papyrus scroll in the creature’s hollow interior, but—

Vettius walked through the internal doorway, stepping carefully so that the click of his hobnails wouldn’t alarm the attendants outside. He’d check the other room before dealing with Glaukon.

He didn’t much like snakes.

The anteroom had a more comfortable feel than the sanctum, perhaps because the goods stored around the walls gave it the look of a large household’s pantry. Vettius swept the lamp close to the top of each amphora, checking the tags scratched on the clay seals. Thasian wine from the shipowner Glirius. Lucanian wine from the Lady Antonilla. Dates from—Vettius chuckled grimly: my, a Senator. Gaius Cornelius Metellus Libo.

A brace of rabbits; a wicker basket of thrushes sent live, warbling hopefully when Vettius brought the lamp close.

In the corner where the stacks of figured bowls had been, Vettius found the large chest he’d watched the porters stagger in with that evening. The label read: A gift of P. Severius Auctus, purveyor of fine woolens.

A small pot of dormice preserved in honey. Bunches and baskets of fresh vegetables.

The same sort of goods as had been here the night before. No strongbox, no sign of a cubbyhole hidden in the walls.

Which left Vettius with no better choice than to try that damned bronze serpent after—

Outside the front doors, the pins of a key scraped the lock’s faceplate.

Bloody buggering Zeus! Pyrrhus should’ve been gone for hours yet!

Vettius set down the lamp with reflexive care and ran for the sanctum. Behind him, the key squealed as it levered the iron dead-bolts from their sockets in both doorframes.

He’d be able to get out of the building safely enough, though a few of the attendants would probably fling their cudgels at him while he squirmed through the window. The narrow alley would be suicide, though. They’d’ve blocked both ends by the time he got to the ground, and there wasn’t room enough to swing his spatha. He’d go up instead, over the triple-vaulted roof of the warehouse and down—

The door opened. “Wait here,” called the penetrating, echoless voice of Pyrrhus to his attendants.

Vettius’s silken rope lay on the floor in a tangle of loose coils. It couldn’t have slipped from the window by itself, but. . . .

The door closed; the bolts screeched home again.

Vettius spun, drawing his sword.

“Beware, Pyrrhus!” cried the bronze serpent. “Intruder! Intruder!”

Vettius shifted his weight like a dancer. Faint lamplight shimmered on the blade of his spatha arcing upward. Glaukon squirmed higher on the cross. Its somewhat-human face waved at the tip of the bar, inches from where the rope had hung. The creature’s teeth glittered in wicked glee.

A chip of wood flew from the cross as Vettius’s sword bit as high as he could reach; a hand’s breadth beneath Glaukon’s quivering tail.

“Come to me, Decurion Lucius Vettius,” Pyrrhus commanded from the anteroom.

He couldn’t know.

The flickering lamplight in the other room was scarcely enough to illuminate the Prophet’s toga and the soft sheen of his beard. Vettius was a figure in shadow, only a dim threat with a sword even when he spun again to confront Pyrrhus.

Pyrrhus couldn’t know. But he knew.

“Put your sword down, Lucius Vettius,” the Prophet said. For a moment, neither man moved; then Pyrrhus stepped forward—

No, that wasn’t what happened. Pyrrhus stepped away from himself, one Pyrrhus walking and the other standing rigid at the door. There was something wrong about the motionless figure; but the light was dim, the closer form hid the further . . .

And Vettius couldn’t focus on anything but the eyes of the man walking toward him. They were red, glowing brighter with every step, and they were drawing Vettius’s soul from his trembling body.

“You are the perfect catch, Lucius Vettius,” Pyrrhus said. His lips didn’t move. “Better than you can imagine. In ten years, in twenty . . . there will be no one in this empire whom you will not know if you wish to, whom you cannot sway if you wish to. On behalf of Pyrrhus the Prophet. Or whatever I call myself then.

“Put your sword down, Lucius Vettius.”

The hilt of Vettius’s sword was hot, as hot and glowing as the eyes of the approaching Pyrrhus. He couldn’t hold the blade steady; light trembled along its sharp double edges like raindrops on a willow leaf.

But it didn’t fall from his hand.

Pyrrhus stepped through the doorway between the rooms. His shoulder brushed the jamb, brushed through it—form and stuccoed brickwork merging, separating; the figure stepping onward.

“I will have this empire,” Pyrrhus said. “And I will have this world.”

Vettius stared down a black tunnel. At the end of the tunnel glared Pyrrhus’s eyes, orange-hot and the size of the universe. They came nearer yet.

“And when I return to those who drove me out, when I return to those who would have slain me, Lucius Vettius,” said the voice that echoed within the soldier’s skull, “they will bow! For mine will be the power of a whole world forged to my design. . . .

“Put down your sword!”

Vettius screamed and swung his blade in a jerky, autonomic motion with nothing of his skill or years of practice to guide it. Steel cut the glowing eyes like lightning blasting the white heart of a sword-smith’s forge—

The eyes gripped Vettius’s eyes again. The Prophet’s laughter hissed and bubbled through the soldier’s mind.

“You are mine, Lucius Vettius,” the voice said caressingly. “You have been mine since you met my gaze last night. Did you think you could hide your heart from me?”

Vettius’s legs took a wooden, stumbling step forward; another step, following the eyes as they retreated toward the figure standing by the outer door. The figure of Pyrrhus also, or perhaps the only figure that was really Pyrrhus. The soldier now understood how the Prophet had appeared and vanished on the church porch the night before, but that no longer mattered.

Nothing mattered but the eyes.

“I brought you here tonight,” said the voice.

“No . . .” Vettius whispered, but he wasn’t sure either that he spoke the word or that it was true. He had no power over his thoughts or his movements.

“You will be my emperor,” the voice said. “In time. In no time at all, for me. With my knowledge, and with the weapons I teach you to build, you will conquer your world for me.”

The glowing eyes shrank to normal size in the sockets of the thing that called itself Pyrrhus. The bearded phantasm moved backward one step more and merged with the figure that had not moved since entering the church.

“And then . . .” said the figure as all semblance of Pyrrhus drained away like frost in the sunshine, “ . . . I will return home.”

The toga was gone; the beard, the pudgy human cheeks. What remained was naked, bone-thin, and scaly. Membranes flickered across the slit-pupiled eyes, cleaning their surfaces; then the reptilian eyes began to carve their path into Vettius’s mind with surgical precision.

He heard the creak of hinges, a lid rising, but the sound was as feint and meaningless as a seagull’s cry against the thunder of surf.

“Pyrrhus!” shrieked the bronze serpent. “Intruder! Guards! Guards! Guards!”

Vettius awakened, gasping and shaking himself. He felt as though he’d been buried in sand, a weight that burned and crushed every fiber of his body.

But it hadn’t been his body that was being squeezed out of existence.

The chest—A gift of P. Severius Auctus, purveyor of fine woolens—was open. Dama was climbing out of it, as stiff as was to be expected when even a small man closed himself in so strait a compass. He’d shrugged aside the bolt of cloth that covered him within the chest, and he held the scabbard of an infantry sword in his left hand.

His right drew the short, heavy blade with a musical sring!

“Guards!” Glaukon shouted again.

The serpent had left its perch. It was slithering in long curves toward Dama.

Pyrrhus reached for the door-latch with one reptilian hand; Vettius swung at him off-balance. He missed, but the spatha’s tip struck just above the lock plate and splintered its way deep into the age-cracked wood.

Pyrrhus hissed like tallow on a grill. He leaped toward the center of the room as the soldier tugged his weapon free and turned to finish the matter.

Glaukon struck like a cobra at Dama. The merchant, moving with a reflexive skill that would have impressed Vettius if he’d had time to think, blocked the bronze fangs with the scabbard in his left hand. Instead of a clack as the teeth met, light crackled like miniature lightning.

Dama swore in Greek and thrust with his sword at the creature’s head. Glaukon recoiled in a smooth curve. The serpent’s teeth had burned deep gouges into the scabbard’s iron chape.

Vettius pivoted on the ball of his left foot, bringing his blade around in a whistling arc that would—

Pyrrhus’s eyes blazed into the soldier’s. “Put down your sword, Lucius Vettius,” rang the voice in his mind. Vettius held as rigid as a gnat in amber.

There were shouts from outside. Someone knocked, then hammered the butt of his baton on the weakened panel. Splinters of gray wood began to crack off the inside.

Glaukon was twenty feet of shimmering coils, with death in its humanoid jaws. Dama feinted. Glaukon quivered, then struck in earnest as the merchant shifted in the direction of Pyrrhus who was poising in the center of the anteroom as his eyes gripped Vettius.

Dama jumped back, almost stumbling over the chest in which he’d hidden. He was safe, but the hem of his tunic smoldered where the teeth had caught it.


Several batons were pounding together on the door. The upper half of a board flew into the room. An attendant reached through the leather facing and fumbled with the lock mechanism.

down your sword, Lucius Vettius.

Dama’s sword dipped, snagged the bolt of cloth that had covered him, and flipped it over the head of the bronze serpent. Wool screamed and humped as Glaukon tried to withdraw from it.

Dama smiled with cold assurance and stabbed where the cloth peaked, extending his whole body in line with the blow. The sharp wedge of steel sheared cloth, bronze, and whatever filled the space within Glaukon’s metal skull.

The door burst inward. Pyrrhus sprang toward the opening like a chariot when the bars come down at the Circus. Vettius, freed by the eyes and all deadly instinct, slashed the splay-limbed figure as it leaped past.

The spatha sliced in above the chin, shattering pointed, reptilian teeth. Down through the sinuous neck. Out, breaking the collar bone on the way.

The blood that sprayed from the screaming monster was green in the lamp-light.

Attendants hurled themselves out of the doorway with bawls of fear as the creature that had ruled them bolted through. Pyrrhus’s domination drained with every spurt from his/its severed arteries. Men—men once more, not the Prophet’s automatons—hurled away their cudgels and lanterns in their haste to flee. Some of the running forms were stripping off splattered tunics.

The point of Dama’s sword was warped and blackened. The merchant flung his ruined weapon away as he and Vettius slipped past the splintered remnants of the door. Behind them, in the center of a mat of charred wool, the serpent Glaukon vomited green flames and gobbets of bronze.

Pyrrhus lay sprawled in a green pool at the bottom of the steps. The thin, scaly limbs twitched until Vettius, running past, drove his spatha through the base of the creature’s domed skull.

The soldier was panting, more from relief than exertion. “Where did he come from?” he muttered.

“Doesn’t matter.” Dama was panting also. “He didn’t expect more of his kind to show up.”

“I thought he was a phony. The tablets—”

They swung past the bollards where they’d talked the previous evening. Dama slowed to a walk, since they were clear of the immediate incident. “He was a charlatan where it was easier to be a charlatan. That’s all.”

Vettius put his hand on the smaller man’s shoulder and guided him to the shadow of a shuttered booth. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming back tonight?” the soldier demanded.

Dama looked at him.”It was personal,” he said. Their faces were expressionless blurs. “I didn’t think somebody in the Prefect’s office ought to be involved.”

Vettius sheathed his blade and slid the scabbard parallel to his left leg. If the gods were good, the weapon might pass unnoticed on his way home in the cloud-swept moonlight. “I was already involved,” he said.

The merchant turned and met Vettius’s eyes. “Menelaus was my friend,” he replied, almost too softly to be heard. “Lucius Vettius, I didn’t come here with a sword tonight to talk to my friend’s killer.”

In the near distance, the night rang with cries of horror. The Watch had discovered the corpse of Pyrrhus the Prophet.

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