/ Language: English / Genre:adv_history, / Series: Empress of Rome

Nest of vipers

Luke Devenish


Luke Devenish

Nest of vipers

Beautiful scribe for Iphicles's words

The new prophecies of Cybele

The son with blood, by water's done, the truth is never seen.

The third is hooked by a harpy's look — the rarest of all birds.

The course is cooked by a slave-boy's stroke; the fruit is lost with babes.

The matron's words alone are heard, the addled heart is ringed.

The one near sea falls by a lie that comes from the gelding's tongue.

The doctor's lad will take the stairs, from darkness comes the wronged,

No eyes, no hands and vengeance done, but worthless is the prize.

One would-be queen knows hunger's pangs when Cerberus conducts her.

One brother's crime sees him dine at leisure of his bed.

One would-be queen is one-eyed too until the truth gives comforts.

When tiny shoes a cushion brings, the cuckoo's king rewarded.

Your work is done, it's time to leave — the sword is yours to pass.

Your mother lives within this queen: she who rules beyond you.

The end, the end, your mother says — to deception now depend.

So long asleep, now sleep once more, your Attis is Veiovis.

PROLOGUE

Portunalia

August, AD 65

Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus

Germanicus engages in a new series of reprisals against those he distrusts

The tar-soaked wick smoked for a moment, hovering above the brazier before it sizzled and spat and burst into flames. The choir on the terrace erupted into a hymn to Vulcan — the great god of fire — and we palace slaves, arranged along the walls and floors and terrace edges, muttered our rehearsed prayers. The expressions of the guests who watched on from the banqueting hall ran from excitement to disgust to jaded indifference, but the eyes of the condemned who were staked to the poles in the garden widened at the lighting of this instrument of their doom. The wretches gave out looks of such dread that the sycophants among the dinner guests applauded the sight. Other guests took their cue, the squeamish among them feeling ill at what was next for the condemned, even though they clapped and cheered for its commencement.

Our master heard nothing but approval in this noise, as he only ever did now. The thought of public opposition and loathing was more than he could bear. He basked in what he told himself was unconditional and undying love. He laughed at the cheers, sang along with the hymn and waved the long birch rod from which the tar-wick burned. Then he leaped from his dais with a howl, misjudging the distance and landing in the flowers. The dinner guests increased their clamour, as if our master were making a comedy for them — as if he weren't mad and obese and intoxicated at all.

The Christians writhed at their poles, staked in rows. Their imminent suffering was to be prolonged — they all knew it. Their deaths were meant for my master's entertainment. He had disliked past executions when the fun had been marred by the condemned bursting into thanks to their god, so these Christians were gagged. They would blaze in silence.

Musicians blasted on tubas and my master ran up the nearest garden path, the tar-wick held high in the air. 'Which one first?' he screamed over his shoulder to his friends. 'Which will be the first to burn?'

A tumult of hollering and pointing and throwing of food scraps came as each guest tried to outdo the others in identifying the inaugural performer.

'This one?' Our master poked his flaming birch at a staked Christian. 'Or this one? Or what about this pretty one? Look how pretty she is!'

The sycophants united in this choice and our master gazed up at the bound girl, roped high to her stake, her bare feet and legs coated in tar. 'What you are about to feel will bring pleasure to so many.'

He touched the tar-wick to her feet, holding it there and staring into her eyes as her agony commenced. The girl ignited with an intensity that knocked our master from his feet. The dinner guests shrieked with laughter and our master sprang up again, burping and hiccuping and then guffawing at his own antics, before falling into an abrupt silence that every guest and slave and singer and musician echoed in an instant.

Our master stared, mesmerised by the Christian girl as she burned like a sun — her rags, her hair, her flesh ablaze. The glow of her filled the evening garden like a sunset.

'Can you hear your Christ?' he whispered to her. 'Can you hear him now? What does he say to you? That you were wrong to have faith in him? That he is not a god at all?'

A voice was heard from beyond the garden walls, high and pure above the crackle of the flames.

' Parricide! '

Our master jerked from his trance as something was hurled over the wall, landing near his feet. It was a shoe, rough and wooden. A female guest screamed as she recognised it for the symbol that it was.

' Parricide! '

Another voice rang out, strong and deep. ' Where has your mother gone? '

A second object was flung into the garden, landing in the plants. It was the pair to the shoe.

' You've killed her, king! '

' Parricide!'

Watching from my slave's position by the wall, I knew what would come next.

'Stop them — ' the female guest who had screamed started to say. The third and final garment from the parricide's wardrobe was thrown into the banquet: a stinking, bloody wolf's skin.

' Now you've got something to wear when we condemn you, parricide! '

Fear flushed my master's face, and the woman now vomited oysters. The very worst of the invited sycophants stood up slowly on his couch, smiling widely and cynically at our tormented master, before placing his hands around his mouth and shouting, 'Hail, Caesar!'

There was shocked silence. Then the cry was taken up by all — guests, slaves, singers and musicians. The shouts of the accusers outside were drowned.

Our master's good humour returned; he smiled and nodded and gave a moment's thought to picking up his lyre. Then he caught my eye where I stood by the wall, and the look I gave was enough to make him forget the thought. He accepted some honeyed wine given to him by the beautiful, smiling Acte and flung his tar-wick aside, instructing the guards to light the rest of the condemned at once.

The dining slaves took this as their cue to offer trays of Trojan pig to the guests. Acte cast me a weary glance and I nodded, tilting my head towards the garden. She nodded back.

We made our leave to sit at a bench, well away from the party and the fires. We felt sympathy for the Christians — how could we not? Their suffering was undeserved. Rome had been destroyed by another's hands — they were innocent of it — but scapegoats were needed and the Christ cult's refusal to recognise all gods but its own offended too many deities. All the same, I was glad the condemned wore gags — and glad, too, that our garden bench was sufficiently upwind.

We had commenced the final days — we knew it now. There was very little time left to us; only the faintest echoes of long-ago prophecies remained, and soon they too would be silent and then forgotten. And so would we.

Acte and I settled in the warm evening air to return to our great labour. She had a small stack of fresh wax tablets already at hand.

'Do you think,' I asked, feeling the twinge of an old wound in my back, 'that what we're about to record will be confusing to someone who might choose to start reading the history here and not at an earlier point?'

Acte gave this consideration. 'We will help them, then,' she said. 'It is only fair. Why should they read of the earlier crimes and intrigues if they find greater enticement in the horrors ahead? Let us explain the most important past moments. The prophecies about the four great kings of Rome, for example — we should detail those.'

My mind wandered as I remembered the strange words of the goddess who had uttered them.

Acte wrote them down, speaking them aloud as she did so. She had not been born when they had first been uttered, yet she still knew them by heart. ' From the two, four will come, four who will rule.. '

I closed my eyes, remembering.

' The first will be he who nests for the cuckoo… '

'Yes…' I whispered.

'That was the Emperor Tiberius. And the cuckoo's egg that he nested was his "son", Sejanus, who was not his son at all.'

'Quite so.'

Acte continued writing. ' The second will be he who wears his father's crown…'

I nodded again.

'That was the brat, Little Boots,' said Acte, 'not yet king in the history so far, but destined to be so in what we write of tonight.'

I said nothing.

'Iphicles?' She could always tell when I was withholding something. 'Little Boots was the prophesied second king, was he not?'

'We'll get to all that in time,' I said.

'Sometimes I think you like to keep things mysterious just for my entertainment.'

I didn't deny it.

' The third will be he whose heart has no eyes. The fourth will be he who poisons the breast…' She completed writing the two remaining lines of the prophecy. 'These last two kings have not yet been revealed in our history so far.'

'Quite so.'

She waited for me to say something else, but I didn't. ' Will they be revealed?' she asked.

I echoed a phrase I had dictated when I first began our task: 'My intention is to entertain you,' I quoted, 'and once that is achieved, I will seek to enlighten you. I know of no other way to approach this history. You are my master and there is no alternate path for me but that which leads to your pleasure.'

Acte just rolled her eyes. 'Have it your way then. Shall we start?'

I heard the joints in my old arms crack as I stretched them in front of me. I felt tired and weary, more so than I ever had. Yet I felt invigorated by my great task, too. I nodded at my beautiful scribe. ' I am well over a hundred years old,' I began. ' My hair is gone, my skin is flaked, and the bones of my limbs are as fragile as glass. Most people think I am sixty — in itself a venerable age — but, in truth, I am the oldest slave in the empire.'

Acte wrote my words smoothly and fast — she now had a practised hand.

' Yet it doesn't do to advertise,' I continued. ' I am actually a god, you see — a god in mortal form. It was once my belief that I was the god Attis made mortal, the son and lover of the Great Mother, Cybele, goddess of the East. But this changed. The events I am about to detail exposed that I am not Attis at all, but another god. In time I shall reveal my true self to you.'

'Good,' said Acte, looking up. 'A suitable beginning.'

'Only suitable?'

'It won't hurt to edit it a little later,' she replied. 'Keep going, Iphicles.'

I narrowed my eyes, but continued all the same. ' I began my journey towards divine self-discovery when I made the greatest sacrifice any man can — freeborn or slave. I cut off my testicles and gave them as offerings to my then mistress, Livia Drusilla, who was herself the goddess Cybele in mortal form. My purpose at that time was only to serve her, and through this service I intended to do all that I could to fulfil my goddess's prophecies. Serve and fulfil I did. And the prophecies grew to be many.'

'Good,' said Acte again.

'You do not need to tell me "good", Acte.'

'No? Then I won't. I'll simply write.' There was a twinkle in her eye.

I went on. ' Lately I have arrived at the other purpose of my mortal life. More than simply enabling prophecy, my task on this earth is to record it. And yet now that I have commenced upon such a history, I can feel the strength falling away from my body in the tiniest of drops, like beads of perspiration. I am dying, I think. This great task is killing me. But perhaps it is a good death? Surely, when I am done, I will ascend to my reward? '

Acte pulled me from my reverie. 'One question must be answered before any of this, Iphicles.'

I was annoyed. 'What question is that?'

'If you're not in a mood to take this history seriously then perhaps we should wait until tomorrow to resume it,' said Acte, laying her stylus flat on the tablet.

I narrowed my eyes. 'My mistress?' I said. 'My domina? Is that what you're alluding to?'

'Yes, your domina,' said Acte. 'Livia Drusilla. At the point where our previous work on the history ended, you had drugged her and kept her in a state of endless sleep.'

I felt somewhat ashamed.

'Do I need to remind you that you violated her in that drugged state, Iphicles, and did so repeatedly?'

I couldn't look at her.

'The same domina you say you loved beyond all others?'

'You know my reasons for all that,' I replied.

'Perhaps. But how can you claim you loved her?'

I said nothing.

'No other issue is of greater importance. Did Livia die or did she recover?'

A chill gripped my spine.

'Iphicles?'

'We will get to all that in time. I swear it.'

Acte frowned again at my evasion.

I cleared my throat, hoping she'd pick up the stylus. 'There are three women I wish to bring to the foreground first, you see. They are the women on whom this entire section of my history pivots. I cannot emphasise their significance enough, Acte. In the Rome of their day, while my domina was so… incapacitated, there were no other women more loved than these three — or more loathed.'

'How could they have been both?' The stylus remained where it lay.

'It was how Rome was, back then. These women polarised the people. And each woman schemed for the same thing.'

'And that thing was?'

'To achieve what my domina had achieved. To be the Augusta. To be Empress of Rome.'

Acte took the stylus in her hand again. 'Which woman succeeded?'

I looked to the evening sky. She would have to wait and see.

'Very well. So was one of these women Agrippina, perhaps?'

'She is the first of the three,' I nodded.

'Very good. And the second?'

'Blind Apicata.'

'Excellent. And who is the third?'

'A woman I once overlooked.'

'Who?'

'Livilla.'

Unable to place this woman, Acte read back through some of the tablets again to find reference to her. 'Oh yes,' she replied. 'Here she is.'

'Livilla was Castor's wife,' I said. 'Castor, the son of the Emperor Tiberius. Castor, who was kind yet jealous, and who hated the Praetorian Prefect Sejanus with all his heart.'

'I'd barely noticed her,' said Acte. 'Shall we start with this Livilla, then?'

'Yes. But the slave-boy will be our focus.'

'Which slave-boy?'

'An important one.'

'Has he been in the history before?'

'He hasn't — but now he must enter.'

'Who is he, Iphicles?'

I felt a tear swell in my eye. I brushed it away before it had the chance to roll down my cheek. 'He is my son.'

Acte looked down respectfully at the wax tablet, her hand poised. 'I didn't know.'

I closed my eyes and saw a tiny speck of light within the darkness. 'Clio,' I whispered. 'Muse, is that you?' The speck of light twinkled like a star and the first of the new words began to fall upon my tongue, and as they did, the first drops of perspiration left my body once more. Mortal death edged closer.

'There was a phrase I used for this slave,' I said, my eyes still closed, 'a phrase the Emperor Tiberius coined, although he meant it for Sejanus. He loved that man like a son, you know.'

'I do know,' said Acte softly. 'Yet you felt it better fitted this slave — your own son. What was the phrase, Iphicles?'

I opened my eyes and told her.

THE PARTNER IN MY LABOURS

Mercuralia

May, AD 20

Forty-five years earlier: the Senate and

People of Rome award Praetorian Prefect Aelius Sejanus the insignia of the Praetor

The young slave was bewildered by what had been said to him, so Livilla repeated it. 'We adore you, Lygdus, we truly do. You're a pet to us, boy.'

He clung to these words from the corner of the animal pen where he had tried to hide. 'Your pet, domina?'

'My little lamb,' she said. 'That's what I'm telling you. You're our most special of slaves.' She leaned forward and whispered into his ear so that none of the other servants would hear. 'You're the one I love most.'

Pleasure flushed Lygdus's young face. Never before had something so kind been said to him. It was like she had seen inside his heart. He had never known the woman who had borne him. His mistress was the only mother he had. And to think that she loved him… 'I love you too, domina,' he replied.

'Good slave,' Livilla said, standing up again with a smile. She adjusted a long strand of ebony hair from where it had come loose from her pins. She smoothed her day gown with her palms. All would be right now.

Lygdus righted himself, getting up from the corner where he had flung himself when they had tried to break the news.

'Do you know what is expected of you now?' Livilla asked him.

In truth, he did not. He looked to the faces of the other watching slaves in the pen around him. They all looked away, not meeting his eye, except for the Greek steward, Pelops, who grinned openly at him, concealing something in his hands. 'Yes, domina,' Lygdus lied, holding her cherished words against the soft flesh beneath his ear where she'd whispered them.

'Just devotion,' she said, 'what you've always given us — and friendship and truthfulness.'

'Yes, domina.'

'You're thirteen years old — nearly a man. And my daughter is approaching her womanhood. She's very pretty, isn't she, Lygdus?'

'Very,' he said automatically.

'A temptation for some,' said Livilla, nodding affectionately at him and, perhaps, Lygdus half-sensed, a little sadly. He thought for a moment that he'd given her confirmation of something she hadn't even asked.

'Have I done something wrong?' he asked, trembling.

'If what must happen today does not happen, then I'm quite sure you will do wrong in time,' Livilla said. 'But with today will come a transformation — and through that, release. You will never be at risk of doing wrong again.'

'I won't need to be beaten?'

Livilla shook her head, and the strand of dark hair fell from her pins once more. She was so beautiful to him; so dark and alluring. 'You won't be punished in any way,' she said. 'You will be perfect — our perfect slave.'

'That's what I want to be,' he said, staring into her nightblack Claudian eyes — the eyes that she shared with her grandmother Livia. 'That's all I could ever want, domina,' he whispered.

Livilla clicked her fingers and two male slaves seized Lygdus from either side. He struggled but Livilla's tone was soothing again. 'No one's going to hurt you, Lygdus. In your transformation you'll feel no pain at all.'

She clicked her fingers a second time and the slaves forced him to the ground. He tried to crouch on his knees but they kicked his legs out from under him so that he lay flat upon his back on the cold earth. The ground was spongy and moist. He looked up and saw the cobwebs and dust that clung to the rafters, and he wondered how many other lambs had shared this view. That was what she had called him — her little lamb.

'Say a prayer…' His domina 's voice floated to Lygdus from somewhere far away.

'To which god?' he whispered.

He heard her footsteps echo on the paving stones outside as she left the pen and made her way towards the garden and the house beyond. He tried to raise his head to glimpse her retreating form. ' Domina.. To which god, domina?'

The grinning steward's face was like a death mask. 'Cybele,' Pelops smirked. 'She'll have a place in her heart for you, son.'

Two more slaves came forward and took Lygdus's ankles, forcing his legs apart. A sudden fear coursed through him as he tried to struggle.

'Keeping still ensures that nothing goes that needn't,' Pelops said. One of the slaves reached up and snatched at Lygdus's loincloth, pulling it away and exposing him. He was erect; they all saw it — the effect of his domina whispering in his ear. 'Keep still,' Pelops ordered.

Lygdus now saw what Pelops had kept hidden within his hands. It was a razor. He went to scream but a hand clapped hard across his mouth.

'Don't want the domina hearing this — it upsets her,' said Pelops, unwinding a piece of string.

Lygdus shrieked into the hands that silenced him. The steward went between his legs and wound the string around his scrotum until his testes glowed purple. Pelops flicked the razor and Lygdus felt a pain that was worse than any he had known. Two crimson streams of blood shot across the earth. All hands released him.

'My blood!' Lygdus cried. The flow didn't stop, pooling where he lay, soaking into the soil. 'My blood will drain away…'

'It knows when to stop,' said Pelops. The other slaves filed out of the pen.

'What if it doesn't?' Lygdus sobbed.

Pelops shrugged. 'Then you won't be the first.' He joined the slaves outside and Lygdus was left alone.

What were his domina 's words? Lygdus tried to remember what she had said that had so filled his heart. But they were forgotten now, lost in his pain. All Lygdus could hear was Pelops's voice, like another kiss on the soft flesh beneath his ear: 'You won't be the first.' But this was a lie. Surely no other slave had suffered like this in the name of 'transformation'? Surely no other slave had been sent on this path to 'release'?

He was the first, the very first. He was the only slave to suffer such a fate in Rome.

But he was wrong, of course, naive as he was. There was certainly another. Soon, very soon, we would meet.

The two lost children clambered and leaped and slid among the rocks, hurting themselves in their efforts to impress one another and to seem immune to all that fate had dealt them. They never cried — it was a point of honour. They were cousins in blood, descendants of the Divine Augustus, who would not have cried either, no matter how badly his skinned knees and stubbed toes hurt him. They awoke before dawn and went straight to the most bountiful of their hunting grounds, plucking crustaceans from the little pools, finding pretty shells and time-smoothed stones and tiny jewel-coloured fish.

The crustaceans were edible, delicious even — they had established this very soon after they had been washed ashore — and when Burrus showed Nilla how to strike a spark from the dry, brittle grass that dotted the dunes, and how to feed the spark with driftwood until the smoke became a blaze, they had the means to eat the crabs and anything else they caught. It became another point of honour for Nilla never to let the fire go out. She woke in the night and tended it, before snuggling against the sleeping Burrus's warm, brown back. When Burrus thought there might be oysters and clams beneath the waves, Nilla joined him in practising at holding her breath. When each felt they could hold it far longer than they had ever thought possible, they flung themselves into the waves, clutching stones for weight, and succeeded in dislodging molluscs from the sea bed.

The children's outer clothes turned to rags, falling from their bodies and lying discarded in the sand. When Burrus lost his loincloth in a dive, he didn't care; his Lady Nilla would have to accustom herself to his nakedness. When he awoke one morning to see that Nilla was naked too, he made no comment on it. They were savages now, he imagined; the niceties of life at Oxheads meant nothing to them, and never would again. He and Nilla were like man and wife. If Burrus felt a growing sexual desire for her, he didn't understand the impulse for what it was; he was still too young, and so was she. To Burrus, it was protectiveness he felt, nothing more. And yet he loved her with all his being.

They were happy. They hunted for food for hours on end, and when they caught it they ate it. With bellies full, they sat in the shallows, talking, laughing and inventing tales of heroism in which they were the players. When night came, they slept near the fire. At first they kept a distance between themselves — they were mistress and slave, after all — but when the nights grew colder necessity forced Burrus to hug his Lady tightly to him to stop the chattering of her teeth. She complained at first but he insisted. He would not let her suffer. Soon hugging each other was an unconscious thing, as unplanned as thinking or breathing.

Nilla gave Burrus his freedom. She did so spontaneously; he hadn't hinted that it was his heart's greatest desire. She didn't know the manumission ceremony and nor did he, but they had heard that a statement needed to be repeated three times, so Nilla said, 'I set you free, I set you free, I set you free.'

They were equal now. Nilla shyly told him that she had fallen in love with him. It had happened, she said, on their arduous swim, but in her heart she knew it was before. They had been on board a ship that was taking them to her parents in Antioch. But when Burrus had been beaten by Nilla's two bullying brothers, he had thrown himself into the sea, and Nilla had followed him, without a thought of doing otherwise. To have done such a thing for one as lowly as a slave meant she must have loved him truly and not thought of him as lowly at all. Then Burrus had saved her. She had copied his swimming strokes and he had kept her from the waves. Now Nilla loved him as her mother loved her father, she told him.

But Burrus told Nilla she was only a girl — that she was too young for love. Nilla sulked at that, but later Burrus confessed to his Lady that of course he loved her too. He had loved her since she was born and he would love her until he died. They kissed. It was funny and not unpleasant, but they didn't kiss again. Each sensed that this was something for which they weren't quite ready.

'Will we ever be found?' Nilla wondered.

Burrus said yes, but his heart told him no. They had seen no ships, no men and no smoke, except for that from their fire. This shore was a lost place, forgotten or unknown.

'Are we still within the Empire?'

Burrus thought it likely that they weren't.

Days became weeks and then something more, something no longer measured with time. Their skin turned pink and then red and then brown. Nilla's long, fair hair went gold in the sun — a halo of fire in the breeze. Burrus's thick, dark locks went lighter too, growing in curls that fell across his eyes. Their bodies became hard; they were strong now, agile. The last of their softness was swept away.

Their only problem was water.

When it rained, they tried to drink as much as they could, running around with their mouths wide open, catching the raindrops in their cupped hands. Sometimes water gathered in puddles in the land behind the dunes, but it quickly drained away and days went by before it rained again. There were cacti in the dunes. Burrus was the first to try one and he badly pricked his tongue. But the taste was sweet and water dripped from the flesh. With care, this sustained them for a time, but Burrus knew it wasn't enough.

'We need to find the mouth of a stream,' he said, 'some place where water comes down from the hills.'

Nilla agreed, looking up and down the rocky beach. 'Which way should we go to find one?'

Burrus wanted her to think that he knew. 'East,' he said, confidently. 'Towards the morning sun.'

They took nothing with them. Their rags were long lost and when they were hungry they looked for cacti and crabs. The walk was hard, though the weather was consistent. The days were warm but the nights brought a chill. One night they lost control of the fire they'd started and a blaze swept through the scrub. Burrus and Nilla clapped and cheered at the thrill of destruction. When they awoke again in the dawn, they saw what the fire had left them. A litter of rabbit kittens, caught in the scrub blaze, was waiting as a cooked breakfast. Burrus made a prayer to Vulcan. As they gnawed upon the carcasses, they sensed movement in the bushes behind them.

It was a man holding a sword.

Although the sun was bright and warm upon her face, Apicata could see nothing of it. Her eyes were open and aimed at the smiling wedding guests, who nodded and bobbed to her in the gardens all around, but she could not see the expressions upon their faces. An unknown illness had claimed her vision, although her appearance betrayed little sign of it. To the world she still seemed sighted, at least until she was spoken to directly, when her unfocused gaze betrayed her. But the malady had not been wholly cruel. It had left a gift in place of what was stolen. Apicata's ears heard more than the keenest of the palace dogs.

' Veiovis…'

She knew there was a conversation taking place that was hushed and urgent, somewhere to her right.

' Veiovis…'

Apicata shifted on her stone bench while she waited for the doors to the banquet hall to open. She hoped the slaves were running late; she didn't want to go inside until she had determined who this woman was, who was so engaged in this halting, laboured discussion. It was a conversation that would see the woman thrown from the Tarpeian Rock if other people learned of it.

' So long asleep…'

Apicata sensed the presence of a child nearby and took her ears away from the conversation for a moment. 'Hello, little flower,' she said. 'We've met before but I'm very bad with names.'

The child was startled at being spoken to. 'I'm Lepida,' she whispered.

'Lepida, of course you are, and how pretty you look today.'

The child was pleased by the compliment and yet confused by it. This mysterious woman wasn't even looking at her.

Apicata beckoned Lepida to move closer. 'Do you remember who I am?'

Lepida knew she had never met this woman before, yet she had the presence of mind to offer an answer. 'You are the mother of the bride.'

'Yes, I am,' said Apicata. 'My daughter is marrying into the family of the Emperor. That is why we're all here.'

Lepida didn't need this to be explained to her. 'I love weddings. You must be very happy.'

Apicata nodded. 'I am also the wife of Praetorian Prefect Sejanus. My husband has a very special job. He exposes traitors for the Emperor.'

Without understanding why, the child felt fear.

'You mustn't tremble,' Apicata said. 'You are an innocent child. You know nothing of such things.'

Lepida was silent, staring into the eyes of this woman who seemed to see her and yet did not.

'Do you notice, over there,' Apicata whispered, 'just a little distance away in that quiet corner of the garden, there is a woman talking to a very strange man. Do you see them?'

Lepida saw.

'Who is the lady?'

Lepida bit her lip.

'Who is the lady?'

The child said nothing.

Apicata placed her fingers on Lepida's bare arm. Despite the warmth of the spring sun, her fingers were cold. 'Who is the lady, child? You know her, don't you?'

'She is Aemilia, my mother…' The girl pulled her arm away. 'She isn't a traitor. She has done nothing wrong.'

'Of course she hasn't,' said Apicata. 'I am merely asking, that's all. I recognised her but couldn't place her.'

'You want people to think you can see them, but you can't. You can't see anything.' Lepida ran away from Apicata's reach.

'It's true, child,' Apicata whispered after her, amused. 'But I can hear like the wolves themselves.'

She turned her head to the hushed conversation again, to the treasonous, reckless words between the child's noble mother, Aemilia of the Aemilii, and Thrasyllus, the last soothsayer in Rome. The old and broken man was barely lucid, slumped in the dirt while the embarrassed guests ignored him as they would an epileptic. Apicata couldn't imagine why the Emperor Tiberius had permitted his seer to attend the wedding — if he was even aware he had. Perhaps the old man had wandered in, having escaped from wherever it was that Tiberius kept him locked away? No one but Apicata knew who the soothsayer actually was, but clearly Aemilia had chanced an accurate guess.

Although the noble mother was making it seem to those who might be watching her that she wasn't talking to this soiled, unpleasant man, to Apicata, who could only listen, it was obvious what Aemilia was doing. The noble woman sought answers about the future — answers about her children, about her house. The words the soothsayer was saying meant nothing to Apicata, but it hardly mattered. In daring to ask at all, Aemilia had placed the point of Apicata's sword neatly at her own ribs. Apicata would bide her time before letting the woman know of it.

The Praetorian Prefect's blind wife believed no one else witnessed this scene, but she was wrong. I, Iphicles, the lowly slave, saw it too, from where I was shepherding my young dominus, Little Boots, towards the banquet. The soothsayer spoke as if from a thousand miles away: ' The third is hooked by a harpy's look; the rarest of all birds …'

His words meant nothing to me either, but I took note of them all the same.

The doors to the banquet hall opened and the dining slaves announced the commencement of the wedding feast. Apicata arose and waited for someone to guide her in. As she stood there, smiling pleasantly, she wished she could reassure the girl Lepida that whatever she might fear, her mother would not be exposed as a traitor. It would be a needless waste. Apicata had already gathered several intriguing truths about the noble Aemilia, just as she had about so many highborn women in Rome. This new transgression now made the matron among the most useful people there were.

Apicata had no use for Aemilia just yet, but would in time. Her only disappointment was that she would never see the look on the patrician woman's face when the nature of this use was revealed to her.

When the moment came, Apicata would have to imagine it. Blindness had taught her that imagined moments were far often more delightful than reality anyway.

Nilla and Burrus froze with the rabbit bones still in their mouths. In the glare of the dawn they saw that the man's teeth were white — he was smiling at them. He tucked his sword inside his belt and raised his hand in a wave. Only then did the children remember their nakedness, but they had nothing to cover themselves with. The man came nearer, as huge as a mountain, with shoulders as wide as a giant's. His hair was gold, just like Nilla's, and his brown, freckled skin was laced with dozens of scars. He squatted on the sand beside them.

'Are you a gladiator?' Burrus asked him.

The man laughed. 'How did you guess that, boy?'

Burrus pointed at the scars.

'My fighting days are behind me now,' he sighed. 'I've got too old.'

'How old are you?' Nilla asked.

'Thirty years. I'm the oldest gladiator there is, I think.'

'You must have won many fights,' Burrus marvelled.

'I did.' He held out his hand. 'My name is Flamma.'

Burrus accepted the handshake as a newly made freedman, not a slave. 'I am Burrus. And this is the Lady — '

But Nilla stopped him from telling the gladiator her full patrician name. 'I'm just Nilla,' she said. 'We're looking for water.'

'Ah,' said Flamma. 'I can show you where to find some then. There's a stream mouth just beyond the point.'

Burrus grinned at Nilla. 'See? We were right to head east.'

She agreed. 'Would you like some rabbit?' she asked Flamma.

The gladiator's eyes were at the horizon.

'Would you?'

He flicked his eyes to her. 'You're very kind.' Nilla handed him one of the charred rabbit kittens and he stuffed it in his mouth. 'Let's eat on the way to the stream,' he suggested, chewing.

Burrus and Nilla looked surreptitiously at one another. 'Are you our friend, Flamma?' Nilla asked.

Something caught in his throat, but he swallowed it along with the rabbit. 'I'd be honoured to be your friend,' he said. He stood, towering above them. 'Come on. I'll show you where there's good water to drink.'

The children rose, and when Flamma held out his huge hands to them it seemed only natural and right, as his new friends, to fall in on either side of him and place their own hands in his.

'Do you get lonely out here?' Flamma asked them.

They'd never even thought of it. 'We have each other,' said Nilla. Then, giggling, she added, 'We're in love.'

Burrus reddened and complained. 'That's our business, Nilla — a great gladiator doesn't want to know about that.'

Nilla just laughed. But when she looked to see what Flamma thought, his eyes were trained on the horizon again, squinting into the sun. 'Walk faster,' he said. But he had sandals on his feet and the children did not.

Nilla stepped on a grass thorn. 'Ow!' She tried to pull it out with her free hand. 'It's stuck in my toe.' She waited for Flamma to release her other hand so that she could sit down and pull the thorn out, but he held it tightly. 'The thorn,' Nilla said.

Burrus suddenly saw why Flamma stared at the horizon. 'Run!'

But Flamma held their hands in his fists, even when they kicked him and pulled at him and sank their teeth into his flesh. They were less than blowflies to him, less than gnats, but he felt ashamed. He hated himself for so easily betraying children.

Flamma only let them go when the men with the nets had arrived.

The nuptials were performed as a confarreatio — the patrician wedding rite — which caused quiet affront to some because the bride was not, in fact, patrician. But this was not to be acknowledged out loud, and a sacred tradition as old as Rome itself was crushed underfoot. But at the wedding banquet, once the rites were done, one guest gave expression to the city's feelings, and in doing so brought the union undone.

It started with a few sprinkles of water. In honour of Mercury, wedding guests reached from their couches to dip their fingers into their water bowls and then let the contents dribble onto their foreheads. It was a joke — Mercury was only acknowledged by merchants on this, the Ides of May, not by patricians. But the barb behind the jest was not apparent to those who picked up on the idea, mimicking the guest who had started it.

Nero and Drusus, the teenage grandsons of the Emperor, were the first to follow the lead, sprinkling themselves liberally with water. Then their sisters Drusilla and tiny Julilla did so, seated in chairs at the base of the boys' dining couch. Their cousin Tiberia took it up next, plunging her whole hand into a water bowl and letting it dribble on her face as she laughed. Her mother, Livilla, tried to stop her, but Tiberia was enjoying herself too much to listen. The bride and her patrician groom were next, Aelia and Hector, still babies too, despite the wedding that had been thrust upon them. Other guests around the Imperial children followed, and soon water was sprinkling everywhere, making the marble floors slippery.

Alone among the children, my dominus, Little Boots, remained stony-faced, his hands in his food, his face creasing with the concentration of stripping flesh from a bone. He looked up at me where I stood by his side in faithful attendance, and I nodded at the wisdom of his foresight in not participating with his brothers and sisters and cousins. Little Boots cast a glance at Tiberius. The Emperor sat in a throne with the wedding guests arranged around him. His mind was elsewhere. He could hear the laughter, but he wasn't taking it in. His eyes were on the open windows and the clear spring sky. Little Boots looked back at me again with a smirk and I gave him a shrug, before our gaze went to the Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus, who sat frozen with his blind wife, Apicata, at the parents' couches.

Sejanus may as well have been as sightless as his wife at this moment. The Prefect was blind to every guest in the room but one: the guest who had first dipped his fingers in the water, in mockery of Sejanus because he was not a patrician.

Sejanus was equal to Castor in every aspect but one: he did not have the Emperor's blood in his veins. The power, the wealth, the love, trust and loyalty that were Sejanus's by merit from the very first day he had entered Tiberius's life were worthless without this. Castor alone was the Emperor's son, with the blood of the Claudii inside him. Lacking it, Sejanus was only the 'son'. From blood came the heir.

'I think the god is honoured enough now, don't you?' Castor called out to him. And then, by way of explaining what he had started, he added, 'I couldn't risk offending Mercury for you on this happy day, could I, Sejanus? I remembered just in time what you like to do for Mercuralia.'

There was a gasp to Sejanus's left. Castor's crippled cousin Claudius had got his meaning, his hand only inches from his own water bowl, and he paled at the naked insult.

Castor guffawed.

Mortified, and with his wits already half-pickled in wine, Claudius did the first thing he could think to distract the room's attention. He plucked an early-season grape from a tray of fruit and tossed it high in the air.

'I'll show you a trick!' he shouted. He turned his face upwards to catch it, shutting his eyes as the grape plummeted, pelting him with a splat. All those around him shrieked with glee at the sheer stupidity of this act, including Sejanus, who was taken by surprise.

At once the water was forgotten, as guests started scrabbling for grapes of their own. The Emperor's grandsons Nero and Drusus flung the little purple orbs about, trying to catch them in their mouths. Desperate to keep Sejanus laughing, Claudius threw whole handfuls of grapes in the air and stumbled about after them, snapping his jaw like a seal. Sejanus doubled up with laughter. Castor's pinch-faced wife, Livilla, tried to rein in the children from this sport but none would listen to her. Freed from supervision by their own mother's absence from the wedding, Drusilla and Julilla slid wildly about on the marble floor, chasing the cascading grapes and pelting their cousin Tiberia with them, who happily threw them back.

At their bridal couch the children Hector and Aelia now tried to look as if they were above such revelry, but it was hard. Ten-year-old Aelia looked towards her father, Sejanus, who was slapping his thighs, and was bewildered that her tasteful wedding feast had descended into something so Plautine. Nine-year-old Hector cringed, as his own father, the crippled Claudius, tried for one laugh too many and skidded on the fruit mush, hitting the floor and catching his head on a table edge. His cry of pain brought the biggest cheer yet from the guests, and it was all too much for Hector.

'I'll show you how it's done,' he announced to the room, looking accusingly at his father. Claudius was an ignoble parent in Hector's eyes; lame and cursed with a stammer, he had never held high office or a post in the legions, or even a diplomatic position. He was a fool, the Imperial family joke, and Hector was ashamed of him.

When Claudius had told his son of the unexpected betrothal to Aelia, Hector had been delighted, not shocked by the prematurity of it, as his father had expected him to be. To Hector, this union with Sejanus's daughter was a gift from the gods — the one hope he would ever have of being freed of his father's impediments. He didn't care one bit that Aelia was haughty and sarcastic and that they wouldn't be permitted to live with each other until they turned thirteen. All that mattered was that he had gained a new father in the handsome and courageous Sejanus. After all, Hector's grandfather had been the bravest of warriors, killed before his time by a treacherous horse, and it had been Sejanus himself, aged little more than Hector was now, who had walked a thousand miles with Tiberius, accompanying the body to Rome.

Hector selected a fat grape from a tray and rolled it between his fingers. His cousins and playmates were engaged in the same task all around him, but they plucked and threw their fruit without care or deliberation. Hector alone knew the real trick to this. He'd spent hours in the garden doing this very thing, tossing grapes and berries and nuts to the sky and never failing to catch them in his teeth. He could do the trick in his sleep.

With a flick of his wrist Hector sent the grape towards the ceiling, and it seemed, to me and Little Boots, who continued to watch without participating, that time and motion slowed as the little ball of skin and juice and pips achieved its zenith in the fug of incense smoke and soot from the oil lamps. Then it began its descent. I knew what would happen next as if I'd always known, but of course I hadn't. I just experienced that flash of certainty, that confirmation of another's fate that comes with being divine.

Hector caught the grape in his mouth with a plop. Watching sprawled on the floor, Claudius burst into applause. 'Well caught, Hector!'

It was only when Sejanus mirrored the praise that Hector gave a proud little smile, but it was short-lived. A look of consternation crossed his face and he opened his mouth to say something, but no words came. His hands flew under his chin and his eyes went wide. He coughed — a terrible rasp, like a carpenter's file being dragged across a plank. He fell to his knees.

His little bride, Aelia, cried out, 'It's caught in his throat!'

Claudius tried to struggle to his feet but Sejanus reached the boy first, leaping from his dining couch, as Apicata stared after him in blind bewilderment. Hector's eyes were like glass. The grape was lodged in his windpipe.

'Thump him! Thump him!' Claudius stammered, helpless in the mush.

Sejanus threw the boy face-down and hooked an arm under his waist, raising Hector's rump in the air as if to violate him. Then he slammed the heel of his palm between Hector's shoulderblades. 'Breathe!' Sejanus shouted at him. 'Breathe!' He banged the boy's back like a drum, clenching his hand into a fist, punching him, pounding him. Hector's head danced and jerked. The spit dribbled from his lips, slick and frothy on the marble. Sejanus willed the boy not to choke; too much depended on him, far too much.

Then the grape spat free.

'Thank the gods! Thank the gods!' cried Claudius. Unable to find traction for his feet, Hector's crippled father slid across the floor like an engorged serpent, embracing Hector where he lay, kissing the cheek that was still too young for razors or pimples. 'It's all right now,' Claudius whispered to him. 'You're all right now, no harm done. Sejanus saved you.'

He raised the boy up and Hector's head lolled at an obscene angle, swinging like a lead weight on the end of a string. His neck had snapped.

Claudius's frenzied sobbing at last brought the Emperor from his daze. The draught of an Eastern flower he consumed in secret shrouded Tiberius's mind like a mist. But it parted just enough to let him take in the scene.

'Is the boy an acrobat?' he asked Sejanus, puzzled, and noting the strange contortion to Hector's body.

When her efforts at comforting her shattered daughter Aelia made no impact, blind Apicata abandoned the sobbing girl to a wet nurse. There was nothing to be done and, truth be told, Apicata was not devastated by the calamity. She regarded the crippled Claudius in a poor light. Indeed, she viewed the entire Imperial house as something obscene, for all its glamour. Although she hadn't said so at the original betrothal announcement, Apicata had felt little pride in the prospect of joining her family with Rome's rulers. She despised them. Yet that didn't preclude her from wanting to be them. And in order to be them, Apicata felt it necessary to study them.

When Sejanus's devotion to Tiberius had required his family to leave their own house and reside inside Oxheads, the Imperial residence, Apicata had enjoyed wandering the palace corridors at night. Her own ease in darkness gave her an advantage she didn't have in the daylight. She was rarely observed, and when she was, she was merely ignored.

With her daughter sobbing in the wet nurse's bosom, Apicata felt her way along the walls of the palace corridors until she reached the suite of my comatose domina, Livia Drusilla. Livia's state of perpetual sleep was now so well known inside Oxheads — if not yet outside in Rome — that she no longer had guards. Livia's son, the Emperor Tiberius, couldn't conceive of anyone wishing to harm his mother — she was already near dead. Blind Apicata slipped into my domina 's sleeping chamber quite easily.

Once inside, she listened to the air being drawn into Livia's lungs — a movement so slight you could rest a feather on her lips. Apicata placed her hands on my domina 's form, caressing her flesh. Livia was soft and warm. She laid her fingers on Livia's head and pulled the hairs at her temple, feeling the skin stretching from the skull. This was a girlish torture intended to make any victim wince. But when no reaction came, Apicata fumbled for the skin at my domina 's throat, taking a handful of it in her sharp-nailed fingers and crushing it like a square of silk. If she'd had her sight she would have seen the bruise this caused. But still there was no reaction from the sleeper, nor would there have been if Apicata had taken a knife to my domina 's wrists and hacked off her hands. Livia was now upon this earth in body only. In spirit she was elsewhere, sent there in secret by me, who loved her most.

'So long asleep…' Apicata whispered.

'She fascinates you, doesn't she?' I said from the door.

Apicata stood upright. She hadn't heard me enter — a rare lapse for her.

'Don't be frightened,' I said, approaching. 'I am only a slave.'

But Apicata wasn't frightened. She studied me intensely, as if her eyes still saw light. 'I know who you are,' she said. 'You're Livia's creature — the one who doesn't age.'

I was flattered, being then over seventy years old. Most people at Oxheads believed me to be no more than forty at that time.

'Livia was ageless too,' said Apicata, 'but the skin at her throat is like a soft leather bag. Has age caught up with her, creature?'

'It has,' I confirmed, but I didn't tell her that the years would melt away again if I allowed my domina to wake up. 'What fascinates you so much about her, Lady?'

'It's repulsion, not fascination.' Apicata made to leave but I prevented her. She gasped at my daring to touch her.

'I've seen you in here before,' I said. 'Of course it's fascination. I've observed you stroking my domina and smelling her flesh. I even saw you place your hand between her thighs.'

Apicata drew breath, saying nothing.

'I told you not to be frightened, and I meant it,' I said. 'I am fascinated too — by you, Lady.'

I could tell that Sejanus's blind wife was considering whether to scream for a guard, but I knew she wouldn't.

'How did this happen, then?' she said to me at last. 'This strange state she exists in. She's neither dead nor alive, but she's breathing. How did it happen to her?'

The answer was simple. I had achieved the thing I had longed for since I had gazed upon my domina for the very first time, six decades before — I had entered Livia's sex and taken her forcefully. But with my useless eunuch's prick I'd had to employ a phallus, and the poison I smeared on the thing had reduced Livia to this state. But I told Apicata nothing of that. Nor did I tell her why I had done it, which was somewhat more complicated. 'It is a mystery,' was all I said.

Of course, this was not enough for Apicata. 'Is someone scheming against her?' she asked. 'Is this some plot, creature?'

I shrugged, then remembering she couldn't see I repeated that I was only a slave — how should I know? 'Rome is full of so many intrigues, Lady.'

Apicata again made to leave, and this time I stood aside, although I suspected she had more to say. I was right. 'My husband used to pleasure your domina, did you know that, creature?'

'I did know,' I told her, although I had only learned of it at the very end of their illicit liaison. 'She took joy in his attentions — she praised the girth of him,' I added, conjecturing. I wanted to see what game Apicata was playing with me.

But she merely nodded. 'He pleasured her with my encouragement. The Augusta Livia was lonely — a sad state for such a great lady. I saw it as a civic service to make her feel loved again.'

I wanted to laugh. Livia had intended to kill Sejanus during their final encounter, and Apicata certainly hadn't been privy to that. But my own plans had diverged from Livia's by then and I couldn't allow her to do it. I needed Sejanus alive, so Livia took the poison in his place.

'Sejanus was very shocked when this happened to her,' said Apicata. 'It upset him.'

'My domina will wake again one day,' I lied, 'and perhaps when she does she will find things changed — and changed in a way that pleases her. And perhaps she will remember her pleasures again, too, and the friends who think fondly of her still.'

Apicata said nothing for a moment and I feared I'd been too oblique. I wanted her to think of us as allies, not enemies.

'It is nice to have friends,' she said at last, then she felt her way to the door and left me.

I stared after Apicata for a few moments, letting my eyes lose focus while I gathered my thoughts. Then a figure crept into my peripheral vision, startling me. It was my young master, Little Boots.

'You should be in bed, domine,' I admonished him.

'But the blind woman creeps around the halls and wakes me up,' he said.

'How could she wake you up when you're supposed to be sleeping inside your mother's house?'

'I still heard her.'

Lies, of course. Little Boots had stolen out of bed purely to see me, using the slaves' tunnels that linked the Imperial family's various houses. I indulged him and patted a chair for him to sit upon. Little Boots did so, pulling his knees up to his chin, while I set about preparing my domina for the night.

'So, did you hear my talk with the Prefect's wife?' I asked as I rubbed a salve on the bruise Apicata had left at my domina 's throat.

He had heard every word, the monkey. 'The choking has upset Sejanus,' he said, matter-of-factly. If Little Boots had shed any tears for his hapless cousin Hector, he was over them now. 'What do you think Sejanus will do? It must have wrecked his plans.'

I answered that it must have wrecked them badly, even though neither of us knew what Sejanus's plans were. All we knew for certain was that Sejanus had so far caused the death of Little Boots's father, Germanicus, who was the Emperor's nephew and adopted son. This secret murder, which had so devastated Little Boots's mother, older brothers and younger sisters, had left Little Boots himself far from grieved. He had loved his father, but he loved the idea of his father being dead even more. It was because of the prophecies, about which I shall speak more in time.

'It is my guess,' I pondered, 'that because Sejanus has seen that your father's murder will never be traced back to him, he'll only grow bolder in his wickedness.'

'Yes,' said Little Boots, nodding — very sagely for his eight years.

'And with his hopes ruined to marry his daughter into your family, he'll have anger and humiliation in his heart.'

'That's good then, isn't it?' said Little Boots, his eyes shining at the thought.

'Well, yes,' I had to agree. 'Good for what you and I must achieve with even greater secrecy than Sejanus, domine,' I added.

He dismissed my caution. 'I want to be the second prophesied king right now, Iphicles. I'm sick of waiting. There are things I want to do to Rome.'

'You're too young right now. You don't know enough yet.'

'There have been kings in Egypt younger than me.'

'And they were murdered for it.'

That quietened him for a moment. Then his eyes were shining again. 'Who's going to be murdered next in Rome? My big brothers, do you think? Nero next? Or Drusus?'

'It's a terrible thing to hear you hope for their deaths so casually,' I said.

He was incredulous, pointing an accusing finger at my sleeping domina. 'You helped her kill more people than I can count on my hands — and all just to put my grandfather Tiberius on the throne.'

'Be quiet,' I hissed. 'Your grandfather was prophesied, too.'

'He's not much of a king.'

'Little Boots!'

He was unrepentant. 'I bet you talked about your murders all the time — especially with that hunchback witch who used to mix up all the poisons.'

'Quieten down. You only know these dreadful things because I told you when I was ill and raving, domine.'

'I nursed you back to health.'

'Yes, yes, and I'm very grateful.'

'That was when you told me I was a god — and that you were one too.'

Not for the first time, I regretted how much I had told Little Boots in my illness. 'My divine state is no business of yours.'

' My divine state is. The old soothsayer said I was divine too. I was there when he said it, remember?'

I threw my domina 's ointment down and stalked across the room to grip him hard by the shoulders, shaking him. 'Now, listen. Perhaps you will be divine but you are not divine yet — you are only a boy, and not a very nice boy either, and certainly not a boy who is worthy of a throne.'

He stared in shock at me.

'You will wear the crown that was meant for your murdered father — it was prophesied — but your father was loved by all of Rome. It breaks my heart that he was not the chosen one — he deserved to rule — and it certainly broke my domina 's heart. Your father would have been a good and honest king, but it was not to be and that's all there is to it. So…' I stared hard at him. 'Will you be loved, Little Boots?'

He went to answer but I shook him again. 'Not if you carry on like this, you won't. You must look in your heart, domine, and think hard on how the people will love you. Nothing is guaranteed. If you gain the throne tomorrow, you'd still be "the prophesied" but you wouldn't last a minute. Not one minute.'

I released him and he was silent for a long time. 'I'm sorry,' he said at last. 'You are right, Iphicles.'

It was a concession from him — not something I received very often. Affection overcame me and I hugged him. 'You'll be a glorious king one day, Little Boots,' I whispered. 'Just let your loving Iphicles help you become it.'

He kissed my cheek.

'Now. Your older brothers,' I said, breaking the hug. 'The first thing for you to learn is that even though they're marked for death, we must never disrespect them or make jokes about it. If we do, they'll learn of it, and then we'll be the first ones they visit when they come back as shades.'

'Do the ghosts of all the others haunt you, Iphicles?'

'No,' I answered truthfully. 'I loved and respected all those I led towards death, but I did what I did because prophecy demanded it — and because my domina demanded it. I did nothing for pleasure or excitement or revenge. All those who died would have learned the reasons for my actions when they went to the Underworld — and it would have helped them rest, knowing why they had to die. Plus I always spit the beans.' My decades-long habit of spitting mouthfuls of black beans during Lemuria — the festival of the dead — always proved very effective against ghosts. 'I advise you to try spitting them too, Little Boots.'

He nodded again.

'Your older brothers' deaths will not be easy to achieve,' I went on. 'Your poor mother has got them so surrounded by loyal slaves and protectors that poison could never be administered.'

'I'll help get it through,' Little Boots suggested.

I slapped his hand. 'You will not.'

'You can get it through, then,' he said. 'You're a very cunning slave.'

I slapped his other hand. 'And end up being fed to the bears? Some good I'll be to you then.'

Little Boots turned petulant. 'I want my brothers murdered now, Iphicles — they're standing in my way!'

'What have I just been saying to you? Respect and patience.'

He tried not to look sulky, even though he was, and I retrieved my domina 's wooden phallus from its chest, wrapped in its silk shroud. 'Keep going on like this and Sejanus will think of poisoning you next,' I told him.

'He wouldn't — '

'He will in time, if he wants the throne — and what else would he want? You're an obstacle in his path, just like your poor brothers are.'

Little Boots was on the verge of tears. 'But I don't want to die..'

'Don't worry,' I said. 'Your poor mother keeps you protected too — Sejanus will never be able to poison you either.'

'But you have to give me extra protection, Iphicles.'

'Then you should stop sneaking out of bed at night.'

Chastened, he shut up. I was right, of course. He would become Sejanus's target. It was inevitable.

'So who will it be then?' he whispered to me after a few minutes. 'Who will Sejanus murder next?'

I smeared the special ointment on my domina 's phallus and was ready to put it to its purpose. 'You know the answer to that,' I said. 'If you don't, then you're even sillier than you'd have me believe.'

He stuck out his bottom lip, but I could tell that he knew the answer.

'So our job is to see if we can help Sejanus in his next murder without being discovered ourselves. And then we'll help him with the one after that, and then the one after that. And then, when everyone with the blood of the Claudii in their veins has been killed off except you, we will kill Sejanus himself and you'll be king. Simple.' There was nothing simple about it, of course. Six decades of such carnage had taught me that. But at least we had prophecy on our side.

Little Boots smiled, feeling happy. 'I'll go back to my bed and see if my dreams can give me clues.' With that he vanished into the gloom.

Alone again with my domina, I began my nightly ritual of easing the smeared phallus inside her to maintain her endless sleep. I congratulated myself at how my approaching divinity had brought me such cleverness. My domina would never wake up — I could promise it — and when we were eventually reunited upon Olympus I knew she would forgive me for everything I had done — and everything I would do. It was from her Claudian womb that four great kings had been prophesied to spring. The glories of their reigns were and would be entirely for my domina. Her son Tiberius, the first of the four, had been placed on the throne by Livia herself. But she had been naive to think the other three would owe their ascendency to her efforts alone. After all, no one had received greater schooling as her apprentice than I.

If it hadn't been the day of young Hector's death, perhaps I would have had my wits better about me. I was distracted, my mind on Little Boots and the prophecies and Rome. I wasn't paying attention to my domina 's slender hands. Livia was lost with Somnus in her dreams, her body no longer hers to control, and yet, impossibly, as I gently wielded the implement that kept her in this state, her useless fingers, so long lifeless by her sides, slowly began to curl into tight, hard fists.

She no longer slept as soundly as I intended.

Sejanus squatted on the floor among the ruins of the wedding banquet, his head cradled in the hands that had broken the neck of his young son-in-law. It was no surprise to him to hear Castor's voice — barely a whisper — seep inside his ear, as it always did when fate brought him low. He had been expecting it — almost hoping for it; how could Castor resist the urge?

'My father calls you "the partner in my labours",' Castor's voice whispered, and Sejanus imagined his enemy's lips speaking from just behind his ear. It was almost as if he could have turned and kissed them if he wished — or bitten them off.

'My father's partner,' Castor's voice repeated. 'How consoling that must be. Clutch it as you clutch the pretty Praetor's insignia he gave you, Sejanus, and take comfort from these things. They're all that will ever comfort you. You can be his partner, after all, but not his son, and never his heir.'

Sejanus stiffened, but he wouldn't open his eyes. He wouldn't acknowledge Castor's voice as the phantom that it was. It suited Sejanus at times like this to think of the phantom's whisperings as real.

'What a blow the boy's death must have been to your hopes of marrying into my family,' Castor's voice went on. 'It's best if you give up that dream now.' Sejanus imagined the sound of Castor breathing deeply through the nose, then stopping abruptly, as if detecting a thing he disliked. 'No matter how many Claudian princes you marry your brats to, you'll never scrub the stink of the kitchens from your hair.'

Sejanus opened his eyelids only once he had imagined the phantom leaving the hall. In his mind's eye he saw his enemy's retreating wedding tunica, still stained by grapes and fruit. Then his thoughts wandered to the things that Castor didn't see, and didn't know, and would never know until it was all too late.

These were a comfort to him, even if nothing else was.

Apicata could tell who it was at the other end of the corridor by perfume alone. Livilla reeked like a whore's funeral, drenched in more gladiolus oil than anyone else at Oxheads. Apicata paused in her progress for a moment and waited, assuming a respectful expression. When Livilla drew near, headed in the opposite direction, Apicata made a little show of waiting for her to say something. But Livilla said nothing, as Apicata well knew she would, so she stepped into her path.

'Lady Livilla, didn't you see me here in the dark?' Apicata said. She could feel the look of contempt on the patrician woman's face — not that she cared.

'I saw you clearly enough,' said Livilla.

'Do you look well tonight? I would be so pleased to know.'

There was an odour to Livilla that lay somewhere beneath the cloy gladiolus. A raw, salty smell. Fetid. Apicata's nose wrinkled as she tried to determine it.

'I look very well indeed,' said Livilla. 'My husband tells me I am glowing like the sun.'

'Does he? How nice for you,' said Apicata, smiling. She decided that this was where their discourse should end and she made to move on.

But she had unleashed something within Livilla. 'Don't you want to know why?'

With such an invitation Apicata wasn't sure how she could resist. 'Has something happened?'

'I am with child.'

Apicata was taken aback. 'What a wonderful thing,' she said, 'and after so many barren years since the birth of Tiberia. Your husband must have given up hope of ever getting a son.'

Livilla remained silent, but Apicata knew she was sneering. The buried stink of her grew, as if Livilla's heartbeat was racing. The smell was sour in Apicata's nostrils. 'How many months have passed?' she asked.

'Nearly eight,' said Livilla.

Apicata failed to stop the look of shock that took her.

'I'm quite advanced,' said Livilla, with pleasure in her voice at Apicata's expression. 'The augur promises me that the skies indicate a boy.'

It was Apicata's turn for silence. If Livilla was so visibly with child, then why had no one told her of it before now? Why had her own husband, Sejanus, not bothered to report it?

'Do you wish to feel my son?' Livilla whispered into Apicata's darkness. Before Apicata could decline, Livilla snatched at her hand and placed it on her full, taut belly. 'The augur is right, isn't he? You can tell I'm carrying a boy.'

Apicata smelled the fecund stink of sex. Livilla was moist in her loins — an obscenity in a woman carrying child. The foul, rank odour of Livilla squeezed Apicata by the throat. She murmured the words of a curse in her mind. This child would never see adulthood and its father would fall, taking the bitch Livilla with him, she vowed. Apicata used this inner malice as a shield, a source of quiet strength. 'I believe you are right,' she said at last. 'It is the feel of a boy. I wish an easy birth for you.'

'Thank you,' said Livilla.

Apicata removed her hand, nodded and smiled, then made to continue her passage down the corridor. Livilla said nothing more. After several steps Apicata sensed that Livilla hadn't moved from where they had stood together — she could hear no movement in the opposite direction. Apicata continued a little further before she stopped again. She could hear nothing at all of Livilla behind her. Apicata slowly turned around. She knew that Livilla must still be standing there — and she knew that Livilla would be looking right at her.

'You think you're untouchable?' Apicata whispered low under her breath.

'I don't think it — I know it,' Livilla said.

Apicata gasped at the patrician woman's blind arrogance. Then she laughed. 'Only my husband, Sejanus, is untouchable,' she whispered, 'because only my husband strives to rid Rome of traitors. Only my husband has dedicated his life to this task in his undying love for the Emperor. And only my husband can say that the hands of vile ambition can never, ever bring him down.' She waited for any sound at all to come from Livilla's direction.

'I don't doubt your words,' Livilla said.

Apicata remained where she was for what seemed like an eternity. Then, when Livilla's retreating footsteps told her the conversation was done, Apicata used her nose to return to the place where Livilla had stood. She dropped and held her face an inch from the floor. The juice of Livilla's sex had run down her legs, falling to the floor like raindrops.

'She is a slut,' Apicata whispered to herself, 'the lowest and filthiest of sluts. She's on heat like a she-wolf while she carries an innocent in her belly.'

Apicata stayed where she was for some minutes, crouched low and inhaling, willing her hatred to empower her.

Livilla felt in darkness for the crack in the wall and found it — then gently pushed forward. At once the sounds and scents of the Emperor's night-time garden caressed her as the hidden door invited her outside. The air was warm and tinged with honey, but she was not there to admire the flowers. The garden was her thoroughfare, the secret path she took to her secret devotions. Livilla intended worshipping her god tonight.

She felt the thrill of anticipation and the longing for pleasure. Her god would need his comforts, she told herself. His spirits had been brought very low, and she, his most loyal acolyte, would be assiduous in her ministrations. The libations she would make would heal her god, replenish and inspire.

Livilla entered the little grotto that lay behind the secret door, throwing a backward glance into the corridor as she went to pull the door closed behind her. She thought she heard a footfall and listened. But there was nothing. The scented breeze lured her into the garden.

Her shoes in her hand, she tripped lightly along the path, which led to a gate opening onto the street. Her god's attendants were already waiting patiently as Livilla's thighs rubbed together, slick and pungent. She had been suffering in an unbearable state of arousal all day, all through the wedding and the calamity that followed. Her senses had been addled by it. She had spoken like an automaton to Claudius and Sejanus of her sorrow at what had happened, but her emotion had been false. All she could think about was her god and the pleasures she would gift to him. She brushed her sex with her fingers, as if by accident. Her bead was hard and full.

The attendants nodded a greeting to Livilla while they held the heavy gate open just enough for her to glide through to the litter. She thought she heard another footfall and a shiver shot along her spine. She threw a glance behind her but the only noise to be heard was from the velvet wings of a bat.

'There is no one there, Lady,' one of the attendants whispered, knowing what she feared.

She smiled at him, thankful, but she had a recollection of a moment like this before, when she had passed through the same gate and looked over her shoulder to see the face of her little daughter, Tiberia, staring back. The girl had vanished like a ghost on that occasion and Livilla had later wondered what she had really seen. Had it been her own guilt?

She dismissed all notions of shame and remorse from her mind. Why should there be guilt in worshipping a god?

'Hurry, Lady,' the slave whispered.

Livilla stepped forward and the gate clicked closed behind her. The garden was gone. She reclined upon the litter cushions and felt the hard, swollen bead in her sex again as the curtains were drawn around her, protecting her from Rome. Still she sensed the eyes that remained hidden behind the wall — eyes that knew her and knew her secrets. Knew what she really was.

She had been seen — of course she had — by eyes that would say nothing of what they saw for now. They were not her daughter's eyes, nor the sightless orbs of Apicata. These were the eyes of another. Eyes that loved her like a child. Eyes that loathed her like coming death.

When the castrated slave Lygdus returned to the great house, he clutched his domina 's secret to his heart, with no inkling of how he might use it. He had seen her slip from her bedroom and had not intended to trail her as far as the Emperor's garden. But when she failed to notice him and he followed further, Lygdus became intoxicated by the tiny amount of power this gave him. She did not know he was there. She did not know he knew. He had stealth.

But the castrated boy failed to see the other set of eyes that watched from the banks of flowers. So absorbed was Lygdus in his little victory over his mistress that he missed the soothsayer. The aged Thrasyllus still sat where he had been since the wedding, half-hidden by leaves and shadows.

The old man found his mouth filling up with words just as the slave slipped away. The soothsayer wanted to call out and stop him — some of the words concerned Lygdus, after all. But he let him go. Lygdus was not the goddess's intended recipient. The words the Great Mother, Cybele, gave Thrasyllus to impart were meant for another: she who was so long asleep. Thrasyllus closed his eyes and let the words come.

The son with blood, by water's done, the truth is never seen.

The third is hooked by a harpy's look — the rarest of all birds.

The course is cooked by a slave-boy's stroke; the fruit is lost with babes.

The matron's words alone are heard, the addled heart is ringed.

The one near sea falls by a lie that comes from the gelding's tongue.

The doctor's lad will take the stairs, from darkness comes the wronged,

No eyes, no hands and vengeance done, but worthless is the prize.

One would-be queen knows hunger's pangs when Cerberus conducts her.

One brother's crime sees him dine at leisure of his bed.

One would-be queen is one-eyed too until the truth gives comforts.

When tiny shoes a cushion brings, the cuckoo's king rewarded.

Your work is done, it's time to leave — the sword is yours to pass.

Your mother lives within this queen: she who rules beyond you.

The end, the end, your mother says — to deception now depend.

So long asleep, now sleep once more, your Attis is Veiovis.

When Sejanus came to their bed, Apicata had already arranged herself upon the linen, lying on her chest with her arms resting beside her, two cushions placed beneath her loins so that her rump was raised and displayed for him. She said nothing, knowing how deep his despair at the destruction of their plans had been, and she intended saying nothing when he took her — her silence aroused him most. Afterwards, she would begin to soothe him with words, coaxing him back to confidence and hope.

But Sejanus made no move to enter her, and Apicata realised that sodomy would not please him tonight. Leaving the bed, she sank to her knees in front of him, pressing her lips to his thighs. The smell of him was sour — he had not washed — but there was nothing about this man that could repulse her. She took him in her mouth, tasting his dirt and sweat, but his sex wouldn't grow. He lifted her away. Apicata sat next to him at the edge of the bed, and was heartened that when she placed her hand in his he did not let go.

After a time he said, 'They don't deserve my father's love.'

'Who don't?'

'His family. Any of them. They don't love him back. They pretend to love him, but it's false.'

'Only your love is true, husband.'

'It breaks my heart for him.' He wept a little then and Apicata knew simple joy when he placed his head at her breast while the tears flowed. She stroked his hair, placing her lips in the curls. He had a hero's hair, her husband — the hair of Hercules.

When he stopped, she said, 'You will think of a new plan, Sejanus, and I will help you in it.'

He lay back on the cushions.

'My ears are always open. I hear the things no one else can hear.'

He closed his eyes and his breathing grew fainter. Apicata placed her mouth to his thighs and took him again, for her own contentment if not for his. She lost herself in the motion. Her mind was freed from her body, from the shackle of her blindness, as it always was in this pleasure. She remembered what she'd heard in the garden before the banquet hall doors had opened — the conversation between the soothsayer and the noble matron. Apicata played it over in her mind until inspiration came.

Then she said, 'I have a plan of my own, husband. Would you like to hear it?'

But Sejanus was asleep.

'No matter,' she whispered. 'I will enact it on my own account and then delight you with what occurs.'

She nestled into his loins and allowed sleep to claim her too.

Veiovia

May, AD 20

One week later:

Emperor Tiberius Julius Augustus rejects the Senate's proposal that a golden statue of Mars the Avenger be erected in memory of Germanicus

The shocked cry that came from the beautifully dressed patrician was every bit as satisfying as Apicata had imagined it would be. It cut through the air, as polished and sharp as a blade.

'I know everything,' Apicata smiled. 'And, what's more, the festival of Veiovis begins today.'

The noble Aemilia went wide-eyed, clasping her hand across her mouth.

'Isn't that appropriate?' Apicata continued.

'Veiovis?'

'Our god of deceivers. It is the right of all Romans to call upon Veiovis to protect just causes and give pain and deception to our enemies. But you already know that, don't you, Aemilia? And what cause is more just than protecting the Emperor from treason? You, who are so accomplished in deception, must surely appreciate that? Yet perhaps you're not quite as accomplished as you would like to be? You were overheard in your treason by a blind woman, after all.'

'Oh gods…' Aemilia stammered.

Apicata laughed. Overwhelmed, Aemilia flew from her chair and ran uselessly around the room, sobbing into her balled-up veil. The look on the patrician matron's face, had Apicata been able see it, matched exactly the image Apicata had conjured in her mind. Aemilia's beautiful face was creased with fear.

One of her maids came running to the receiving room to see what had upset her mistress, but Aemilia begged the girl to get out. When the slave had pulled the door closed, Aemilia sank to her knees. 'Please. Not this!'

Apicata sipped the cup of watered wine she had been given. 'How dreadful,' she said. 'And yet I can tell how ashamed you are of your crimes, Aemilia.'

The patrician matron bit her lips.

'It must be a relief for you, though, now that your guilt is unburdened. You can face your fate with a lighter heart.'

'You low bitch!' Apicata pretended the insult had not been said. 'How did you know?'

'About the witchcraft you've been practising? It wasn't very hard. My husband and I enjoy the loyalty of informers. Your mistake was in being so good at all those spells and curses you do, Aemilia. People love success — they talk about it.'

Perspiration ran down Aemilia's high cheekbones. 'Please believe me… I don't practise magic with any seriousness — it's just for my amusement.'

'Don't offend me with lies,' said Apicata, sipping her wine. 'It's within my power to have you thrown from the Tarpeian Rock for the magic alone, but you've also consulted with a soothsayer. Such a thing is banned across the Empire, and you did it in the very heart of Oxheads. Just imagine the punishment you'll get for that.'

Aemilia began sobbing again, and Apicata leaned forward. 'Will it be the bears, do you think, or the jackals for you?'

'Mother?' The bewildered voice of a child came from the other side of the closed door.

Apicata stood and, remembering exactly the number of steps she had taken from the door to get to the chair, retraced them. She spoke through the door crack. 'Your mother is in no harm, girl, but she will be if you listen to another word of this private conversation.'

The child gave a cry from the other side, recognising Apicata's voice.

'You remember me, don't you, Lepida? I'm the wife of the Praetorian Prefect. What a lovely talk we had at the wedding.'

When she heard Lepida running down the hall towards the stairs, Apicata returned to where she had been seated. 'I will ask this once, Aemilia. Are you recovered?'

The matron went still.

'Good.' Judging where Aemilia lay on the floor, Apicata reached for her cup of watered wine and tossed the contents in Aemilia's face. 'Remain on the floor while we discuss our arrangement. It becomes you.'

Neither woman said anything for a time.

'Does your husband know?' asked Aemilia at last.

'He doesn't know a thing about your crimes, and I see no reason for him to. What purpose would it serve?'

'What do you want from me?'

Once Apicata had told her, she said, 'It's nothing you haven't done for others, is it?'

Aemilia confessed this was true. 'But not against someone so.. '

'Powerful? Yet who has more power right here?'

When Apicata gave permission for Aemilia to move — but not stand — the beautiful patrician crawled like a dog to the small cedar box she kept hidden under the loose boards of the floor. The box retrieved, she asked Apicata what sort of material she would prefer. There was a choice when it came to constructing these things.

'Which material would Veiovis enjoy?' asked Apicata.

Aemilia tried to force her hands to stop shaking. 'Lead. Perhaps lead…'

The girl Lepida told her sister what had happened outside their mother's receiving room door but the younger girl didn't believe it. Domitia wanted to march up the stairs to see for herself, but Lepida's horror at the prospect was so real that Domitia knew something very frightening was taking place in their house.

'It was the blind woman — the one at the wedding. Her husband hunts down the traitors.'

'But our mother is not a traitor!'

Lepida wanted to echo this denial but now found that she couldn't. Perhaps their mother was a traitor, and this was why the blind woman had come? 'What does "traitor" even mean? Nobody seems to know.'

Domitia tried to define it but found that she barely could. 'It's someone who hates Rome.'

'Is that really our mother?'

Domitia shook her head vehemently, but Lepida was still unsure. 'She talked to a very strange man at the wedding… What if he was a traitor?'

Domitia didn't know what to think and the two girls found comfort in crying for a time. When their tears had dried, they were left feeling angry.

'How dare this blind woman offend us by upsetting our mother?' said Domitia, the younger girl, wiping a hand under her nose. 'We are the Aemilii. What is she?'

'Not even patrician,' whispered Lepida.

'What would the great Augusta Livia do in this terrible situation? Or widow Agrippina?'

'They would both be outraged.'

'And their fury would give them courage,' Domitia declared.

There was barely two years' difference in their ages, but Lepida assumed a motherly role and took Domitia's hand. They retrieved a sharp knife from the kitchens, and when the worried slaves tried to accompany the girls, aware that something distressing was taking place in the rooms above, Lepida thanked them for their concern but said she would call upon them only if the situation was dire. They were patrician ladies, after all, and should be able to handle dangers with nothing more than their wits. The slaves agreed, hiding their relief, but wanted the girls' brothers to accompany them. Lepida rejected this, too. Their younger brother, Aemilius, was only seven and yet would hog all the glory once their mother was rescued. Besides, he was in the Forum with his tutor, and they could not waste time waiting for him to return home. The slaves then pointed to Ahenobarbus, Lepida's twin, who glanced up from his place by the fire. Not only was he cursed with ugly red hair, he was also mute and half-witted. The girls pronounced him useless in a crisis and left Ahenobarbus gazing into the kitchen furnace.

Still holding hands, but with Lepida now clutching the knife, the sisters crept up the broad marble stairs and along the corridor to their mother's room. The door was now wide open. Inside, they found Aemilia sitting in her favourite chair, staring blankly at the walls.

Lepida dropped the knife and rushed to her first. 'What has happened?'

'Where is the blind woman?' said Domitia.

The anxiety was all too much and both girls burst into tears again.

'The Praetorian Prefect's wife has gone,' said Aemilia. There was an unsettling edge to her voice, a desperation — or exhilaration — that their mother was just managing to keep at bay.

'What did she want? Why was she here?'

'To blackmail me. To force me to help her against my will.'

The sisters wept again.

'Oh Mother! What did you do?'

'I did as she asked. I had no choice.'

Only now did the girls see the strange items spilled on the floor at their mother's feet. Little tablets made of clay and wood, pieces of twine and hair, a stylus, feathers from birds. Lepida stared at the dried-up husk of a toad. 'Are you going to die?' Lepida sobbed. 'Is this woman going to take you away as a traitor?'

'Ssh,' said Aemilia, smoothing her oldest girl's hair. But she didn't answer the question. Whatever fear she had felt when Apicata had revealed what she knew, Aemilia felt free of it now. The blind woman had been right. Her heart was lighter for sharing a burden. 'That man I spoke to at the wedding was a soothsayer,' she said. 'I was reckless and foolish to do it, but there he was just waiting to be spoken to, and so I did.'

Both girls went very pale.

'It's illegal to speak to such a person — I know it, girls. It has made me a criminal. That's what the blind woman has used against me. That and, well, some other things.'

'How did you even know what he was?' Lepida whispered. 'I saw that man — he just looked like a dirty slave to me. Or a beggar.'

Aemilia tried to explain it. 'I had never seen him before in my life. I didn't even know his name. I still don't. But I just knew what he was. He was staring at me so intently, you see. He wanted me to talk to him.'

'But why?'

Aemilia smiled, and in doing so her heart felt lighter still. It seemed so appalling in the bleakness of her circumstances, yet she actually felt happy. She realised the significance of what had befallen her. 'It was destined that he would speak to me — and that the blind woman would overhear it. The gods intended both things to occur. The blind woman's blackmail is not a curse at all, but a blessing, girls. We are destined to prosper from it.'

'The gods?' said Domitia.

'One god — Veiovis, our god of deception. I have learned that he favours us, you see.'

The girls just stared at their mother.

'But he is a very bad god,' said Lepida. 'A lying god…'

'Not for everyone. Behind every lie is a truth.'

'Mother, he is a frightening god — there are vermin in his temple,' said Domitia. 'He doesn't even have priests.'

'Perhaps he has no wish for them?'

The frightened sisters stared into their mother's beautiful brown eyes. Desperation was etched deeply on her soul, but excitement boiled there too. She was balanced on a sword's edge.

'Please,' whispered Domitia. 'What did the soothsayer tell you about Veiovis, Mother?'

'He told me about the rarest of birds,' Aemilia began, 'and the woman who is so long asleep…'

The Nones of June

AD 20

Two weeks later: laws against celibacy lead to profit for those who inform against the 'deliberately childless'

The young midwife stared in confusion at the object in her hand. It was the length and breadth of a woman's finger, nothing more, and yet it had weight to it. It was heavy, covered by a small linen sock. The young woman went to take it out for closer inspection.

'I wouldn't do that,' said Apicata.

The midwife stopped. 'What is it?'

Apicata told her and the midwife dropped the thing as if it was poisoned. It bounced dully at the fountain's edge and sank to the bottom of the shallow courtyard pool.

'Pick it up,' said Apicata. Her tone was such that the midwife obeyed, dipping her hand in the water and retrieving the thing. She held it fearfully in her fingers.

'It is not addressed to you, therefore it cannot hurt you,' said Apicata. 'It is harmless for you.'

But the midwife couldn't stop shaking. Apicata reached out and gripped the young woman's arm. 'Do you know who I am?'

Of course the midwife did.

'What I do, I do in response to provocation. I have been pushed to do this thing — do you understand me?'

'I do, Lady.'

Apicata retrieved a small purse that hung from her girdle and gave it to the young midwife. 'This is yours. There'll be another just like it once I've learned of what happens when my little present is found.'

The midwife emptied the purse into her hand. There were five gold coins, a staggering amount of money. She stopped shaking as she stared at the shining Emperor's heads. 'I will tell you as soon as it's done, Lady.'

'Don't bother. I will only pay you when I've heard the account from others. But do not worry. I have no doubt at all that I will hear.'

The young midwife slipped the coins back inside the purse and placed the sinister little object and its sock in with them. She briefly wondered if the golden Emperor's heads would be tarnished by their companion, corrupted in some way. Then she decided it didn't matter. Money was money, no matter how little it might shine by day's end.

The warm morning in early summer brought people into the open air. Hundreds flocked through the annual slave fair, which was held on the Field of Mars before the start of the festival for the war goddess, Bellona. Some shopped in earnest but many more just browsed, the slave fair being a great haunt for those who enjoyed ogling the less fortunate. But the widow Agrippina strode across the market flagstones with the sole purpose of restocking her household. Malaria had returned to Rome with the warmer weather and she'd lost half her staff to the pestilence.

As the trusted companion slave of her youngest son, Little Boots, who was busy this morning with his tutor, I was included among the retinue of friends, surviving servants, freedmen and beggars that now accompanied Agrippina everywhere. Some forty attendants milled about but I managed to hold my place behind her shoulder. At Agrippina's left and right, her two greatest friends, Sosia and Claudia, guided her through the market clamour with radiant, public smiles.

Short and squat, Sosia Galla was loved for her sharp eye and quick mind. She was fiercely loyal to beautiful Agrippina. Sosia thought nothing of kicking the ankles of those who moved too slowly in front of them and then smiling challengingly when they turned on her to complain. Claudia Pulchra, at Agrippina's right, was a Claudian cousin possessing a dark allure that almost eclipsed Agrippina's famed golden hair and milky skin. Claudia's loyalty was as steadfast as Sosia's, and both friends harboured scars on their hearts from Agrippina's husband's untimely death.

There was a buzz of excitement in the crowd that the widow was among them. Agrippina's celebrity burned as brightly as the sun. No other woman's face was then as known and as loved by Rome — not even my sleeping domina 's. And no other woman's tragedy was known as intimately, or was so passionately discussed. If Rome could have crowned its queen, the crown would have belonged to Agrippina.

The caged slaves awaiting auction were the focus of the three women's attention, but my eyes were on the other features around us. 'Look, Lady,' I spoke before thinking. 'They're giving the domina new hair.'

Agrippina looked. The Field of Mars's statue of Livia was having a fashionable bronze hairstyle fitted, so that she wouldn't look outdated. I thought this was happy news, of course, but I should have known better than to express it to Agrippina. The widow hated my domina.

'It means that the Augusta is still in people's hearts,' I explained to her. 'They want her to keep up with the times.'

Agrippina said nothing and Sosia cast a censuring look at me. Rome was still even to learn of my domina 's 'illness', although the goddess Rumour was concocting stories to explain Livia's long absence from public view.

The din of panpipers and musicians playing tambourines and cithara increased in volume for a moment, then ceased, creating expectation in the crowd.

'The mangon is appearing,' Claudia motioned.

Agrippina could not be expected to bid personally, so that was my role here. The lavishly dressed mangon — or slave trader — looked like he was off to a festival banquet instead of a slave sale. He came into view from behind his caged captives, rubbing his hands together cheerily and greeting customers he recognised in the crowd. He saw Agrippina with her friends and changed his expression to one of deep respect, bowing to her, before he continued greeting others. Agrippina absorbed this with dignity, and I could tell she approved of it, as did Sosia and Claudia.

'He knows who you are, Lady,' I said, 'and he respects you.'

'Good,' said Agrippina. 'You can use that to drive down his price.'

The gate on the first of the slave cages was released and the mangon 's assistants poked sticks through the bars at the dozen grime-caked men. With nothing to protect them, they cowered, before realising they were expected to come out so that the buyers could examine them. Agrippina frowned as they started to emerge.

'Sardinians,' said Claudia, using the slang term for cheap captives not necessarily from Sardinia but from anywhere with a repressed population. Nerve-wracked, they looked like Britons to me. A commotion from behind the cages caught our attention. A woman was screaming, begging for her life in Latin. A ripple went through the crowd as all craned their heads to see what was happening. But Agrippina and her friends looked away from the distasteful scene.

I saw the source of the drama — a female slave was being dragged from a holding area that was covered from view. She was older and with few physical charms. The clothes she wore were rags but I could tell that they had once been fine garments. She was not a regular slave.

'What's happening?' Claudia whispered to me, still looking elsewhere.

'A woman is being taken away by the mangon 's men.'

'Why?'

'She is not being offered for sale,' I muttered.

'Has she committed a crime?' asked Sosia, who was too short to see, even if she'd wished to.

'Yes,' was all I could say. It didn't matter what that crime was, only that the wretched woman had been accused of it and was now facing the price.

'They won't do it here, will they?' said Claudia, appalled, as she realised this too.

Agrippina gave her friend a look and moved a short distance away to speak with some other members of her retinue.

'No, Lady,' I whispered.

Beyond us, among the auction crowd, people began to part and retreat as an ass-drawn cart trundled into the marketplace, led by a naked, leather-masked driver. Cries of disgust broke out from some as they realised what he was, while others — slaves, many of them, and freedmen with strong memories — could do nothing but stare. Claudia was compelled to look and she paled with dismay. 'That's not… him, is it?'

I shook my head, blinking back tears of pity for the condemned slave woman. 'No, Lady,' I said. 'The carnifex is too polluted to be here — he's not allowed inside the city. He has sent a man in his image to retrieve her.'

The ass-driver's leather mask would strike terror in anyone, let alone a slave. It was a copy of the mask worn by the real carnifex — the public executioner — who was forbidden to offend the gods by showing his accursed face. The slave woman's cries were terrible.

'Make it swift for her, Cybele,' I whispered in prayer to the Great Mother.

The mangon 's men bundled the woman inside the stinking cart, binding her hands to an iron hook.

Claudia saw what I had already noticed. 'Her clothes are well made — she speaks in Latin. Is she a well-born woman?'

'Slavery can be the fate of even the greatest, Lady,' I said. 'She could be the mother of a chief.'

'Which means she stood against Rome,' said Agrippina, coldly. The widow had returned to us and was keen for this upsetting spectacle to end.

Claudia shuddered, nodding. There was nothing more to add. But as the ass-drawn cart trundled away from the market, I felt the stirring of a tremor at my feet. It was tiny at first, barely there, but I felt it, a movement deep in the ground. At once my memory rushed back sixty years, to when I had felt such a tremor before. It had been in the cave of Cybele, where my domina and I had heard our destinies revealed. The earth bucked again now and I staggered in my shoes. I looked around but I knew the truth already — no one else had felt the tremor. I was alone in my experience. For a moment or two more I tried to appear as if all was right while the fair screeched on around me. But the beast continued to churn below the earth while I appealed in desperate silence to the skies.

'What is wrong with you, Iphicles?' said Agrippina. 'The carnifex 's man is gone.'

I smiled and went to make a joke, but then my eye fell on the statue of my domina. The updated hairstyle, cast in bronze, slipped from the statue's head, striking the skull of the sculptor's assistant. The man fell to the ground as his fellows rushed to him. The heavy bronze hair had snapped in two.

My mouth grew dry. The slave woman, the carnifex, the tremor and the statue — they were a portent, an omen. Together they made a signal meant for me and no one else. But what did they mean?

The mangon clapped his hands, casting winks and smiles, anxious to get the proceedings underway and lift the spirits of the crowd. The stick-wielding assistants forced the disgorged captives to strip off their rags.

'Shall I bid for any of these, Lady?' I asked, hoping I had pulled myself together.

'These men are good for nothing but field work — they'll last two years at best. Health and skills are what I want today — good vernae. Slaves born in captivity — like you.'

'Agrippina!'

A voice behind us made us turn. Castor was approaching with a large retinue of his own. Agrippina's older sons, Nero and Drusus, were among them.

'Good morning, Mother,' Nero called out.

Her face lit up with pleasure as Castor's mass of rowdy followers merged with her own. 'Well, this is nice — some extra company while I shop today,' Agrippina shouted above the noise. She and Castor kissed, and then the boys exchanged embraces with her, before everyone greeted Sosia and Claudia.

Nero looked at the captives for sale. 'I don't think much of these — where will you put them all?'

'I don't want those poor men,' Agrippina said. 'I'm after household slaves to replace the ones I lost. They're just selling off the dross first before they bring out the decent men.'

Castor exchanged a quick look with the two boys. 'You won't need to be too extravagant today,' he said to Agrippina.

Sosia laughed.

'When am I extravagant?' said Agrippina, knowing why Sosia thought it funny. Agrippina was famously frugal. 'All I want to do is restock my house in a fashion that Germanicus would have approved of.'

The deliberate mention of her dead husband made Castor flinch a little; Germanicus had been his adopted brother. Castor shifted on his feet, where his right arch pained him with an abscess that never seemed to heal. 'All the same, Father is encouraging us to show new restraint with household expenses,' Castor said. 'It sets a good example.'

The three women stiffened. If anyone else but Castor had presented Agrippina with one of Tiberius's petty directives, all three would have spat in his face. But Castor was one of the family members of whom Agrippina was fond. She beamed with grace, but gave no assent that the Emperor's word meant anything to her. Instead she turned to me. 'A fan slave, I think, should be added to our shopping list, Iphicles. I feel a need for one of those. And a scissors slave. How can I be expected to cut up my own meat?' She was being provocative for Castor's benefit, but I nodded obediently.

Another look passed between Castor and her boys and Agrippina saw it this time. 'What is it — do you think Tiberius will be shocked?' she asked dryly.

I had noticed a change in the way Nero and Drusus stood next to Castor, no longer as nephews might with their uncle, but with the deference shown to a man with whom they shared a closer bond.

In front of us at the auction block a landowner's overseer purchased the Britons, completing the transaction with the scribes while the mangon took a gulp of wine, dribbling it on his gaudy robes. While the mangon drank, a giant of a man, greater than six feet tall, with long, yellow hair tied back with a wire, came out from the covered area. His thick, bare arms and hands, crossed across his broad chest, were covered in battle scars. He looked like the most fearsome of German warriors.

'Look at that one, Lady,' I whispered.

Agrippina saw him. The warrior's gaze — if that's what he was — found her among the crowd, as if drawn to her by a spell. They held each other in their looks for a moment, Lady and slave, each assessing the other, appraising and measuring their respective strengths.

'Is he for sale, Lady?'

The two continued to fill their eyes with each other before the golden-haired warrior broke the connection.

'A brute like that would be uncontrollable,' said Agrippina.

Castor cleared his throat. 'There has been news this morning, since you mention my father.'

'I didn't mention him,' said Agrippina, turning her back to the giant. 'You brought him up.'

Nero and Drusus smiled indulgently at their mother. They held knowledge she did not.

'I am very fond of these two fine boys of yours,' said Castor. 'You know that, don't you?'

'Of course I do,' said Agrippina, warmly. She turned her head to the auction block again. The first of the domestic slaves were emerging. Sosia and Claudia made little exclamations of pleasure with the appearance of several attractive young boys.

'Aren't they sweet?' said Agrippina. 'Should I purchase myself a little pet, Iphicles?'

I nodded, but my eye was on Castor.

'I will always be a protector to them for as long as Nero and Drusus need it,' Castor went on, 'in memory of their father.'

'I know you will,' said Agrippina. She wasn't looking at him anymore.

Castor glanced at the boys, and they nodded at him encouragingly. 'With Nero about to gain his robes of manhood, and Drusus only a year away from it too, I have asked my father for his permission to have the boys placed in my care.'

Agrippina blanched and spun around. Her retinue of supporters sensed that something had shocked her and strained to listen above the din of the crowd.

Castor went on. 'They have no father now. It seems like a sensible idea.'

' You asked him? You went to Tiberius and gave him this… betrayal of Germanicus on your own accord?'

Castor paled. 'It is not a betrayal, Agrippina.'

The boys looked around us, fearing their mother was gathering unwanted attention.

'What else have you done but betray me with this, Castor? You may as well poison me too.'

'Mother, please,' said Nero. 'No one is talking about anything like that here.'

'Your father was poisoned,' Agrippina turned on him. 'You know that — you were there when he died in my arms — and you know by whose hand it was done.'

'It was Piso, Mother,' said Drusus, 'and his wife, Plancina.'

'They were his agents.'

'Agrippina, for the gods' sake,' Castor appealed to her.

She stared into his eyes. There was kindness there, a genuine love for her, along with a deep concern for her welfare. She guessed the truth. 'You didn't go to him to ask permission at all, Castor. He summoned you.'

Castor's embarrassment was plain. 'I… I care for the boys.'

'But it was all his idea?'

'We want this, Mother,' Nero tried to tell her.

'We love our uncle,' said Drusus. 'This is what's best for us.'

'This is what's best for Tiberius,' said Agrippina. 'He wants you both away from me. He's frightened I'll turn your minds against him.'

'Mother, please. This is terrible,' Nero said. 'We want our uncle to adopt us.'

Agrippina lurched with a fury into the mass of attendants, forcing her way through. 'What about what Rome wants?' she cried over her shoulder. Sosia and Claudia kept pace, striding behind her, their faces still smiling as if nothing was untoward. Confusion gripped the two groups of followers, with Agrippina's trying to make their way through the throng of Castor's clients.

'Where are you going?' Castor shouted after her. 'Agrippina!'

But she was unstoppable.

I stayed where I was, standing still among the clamour all around me. My mind stayed fixed upon the events of the morning — the carnifex, my domina, the strange portent. My teeth ground in my head; I was at risk of being overwhelmed. I forced my mind back to the task at hand. I was here to buy slaves. Tiberius's doings, Agrippina's rage — these were unimportant to me. It was just another day.

My eye wandered across the new parade of vernae slaves that emerged from the market cells. These were healthy slaves, experienced in household service — and many were attractive too, their appeal enhanced by their nakedness. Thanks to the kindness of Agrippina's long-dead mother, Julia, I could read and write, so I scanned the information scrolls around the slaves' bare necks. Each one's health and nationality was detailed, and his or her accomplishments too, along with warrants assuring buyers that the slave had no tendency towards thieving, suicide or epilepsy.

My eye settled on two young children tightly holding each other's hands — a girl of no more than five and a boy of eight or nine. Their scrolls had no warrants but they wore telltale caps on their heads: they were marked as thieves. Alone among the slaves for sale, they showed no fear at their predicament, only courage and a determination that they would never be separated.

Nilla and Burrus recognised me at once, of course, and I, with joy, sang praise to all the gods at finding them again.

'You have a look about you as if you've willfully broken your confinement,' said Antonia, suspicious of her daughter.

Livilla groaned. 'I have been shut up inside this room as a prisoner of my bed, Mother — ask any of my slaves.'

'They wouldn't dare say otherwise, the way you treat them. No, I'm sorry, but you have that look, Livilla, the look you've always had when you do wickedness behind me.'

'Mother, for the gods' sake, I am not a child. And why would I risk wandering pointlessly around the halls when the baby is so close? I could catch a chill from the mists.'

'For years your poor Castor has waited for a son from you, and now you risk everything by exposing yourself to dangers.'

'If you are going to do nothing else but throw hurtful accusations at me, then please leave.' Livilla rolled on her side in the bed, turning her back on all the fussing occupants of the birthing room. Her eyes caught those of the castrated Lygdus, who was pressing himself against the far wall. Livilla was made uncomfortable by the drops of blood that still soaked daily into the hem of his tunica. He had gained weight too, which she disliked in a young eunuch. 'Make yourself busy, Lygdus, if you insist on staring at me rather than doing the job you're supposed to be doing at the front door.'

Lygdus bowed and fell to his knees. At a loss as to what might be deemed 'useful', he began moving the floor dust into little piles with his palms. From the other side of the room the young midwife suddenly sat up straight in her chair at the sight of his pointless activity. The senior birthing mistress in the chair beside her only glanced in the young eunuch's direction once before respectfully addressing Antonia.

'The domina has never once left this room since we have been in attendance this last seven days, Lady,' she said.

The young midwife watched Lygdus's fluttering hands like a cat.

The aged and revered Antonia narrowed her eyes at the senior midwife but chose to give her daughter the benefit of the doubt. 'If you insist then, Livilla.'

'I certainly do.' But she kept her back to her mother, her left arm held protectively across her belly.

Antonia stood to leave. 'I have other calls to make this morning. My friend Aemilia is unwell. Perhaps she'll be glad of my attentions.'

Lygdus's fingers connected with something jammed in a gap between the floorboards under Livilla's bed. He gripped it, unable to squeeze beneath the bed to properly see what it was. He tugged at the thing by the fabric it seemed to be encased in. The object came free. 'Have you lost something, domina?' he whispered to Livilla, holding the surprisingly heavy little object up for her to see.

Livilla glanced at him with only minor interest, but the young midwife stiffened in her chair. 'I've never seen it before,' said Livilla.

Lygdus gave it to her and Livilla upended the little sock. A tiny roll of flattened lead fell into her palm. She looked at it uncomprehendingly for a moment, as did Antonia, who had paused in leaving the room. Then mother and daughter met eyes in a shared moment of horror.

'It's a curse tablet!' Livilla screamed, flinging the lead aside. It bounced across the floor, stopping at the guilt-ridden young midwife's feet. 'Oh my gods!'

'Witchcraft!'

'How did it get inside here?'

The young midwife shrank into the wall.

'Open it,' said Antonia. 'Open the foul thing.'

The young midwife froze. Her senior colleague stooped with creaking joints to retrieve it, trying to look as if she felt no fear. 'Could it hold a blessing, Lady?'

Antonia snatched the thing from her and Livilla wailed. 'I won't let you see it, daughter,' said Antonia, 'but I must read it to know who would wish us ill will.'

'Are you sure it's not a blessing?' said the old midwife again.

Antonia dug her nails under the curl of rolled lead. The tablet bent easily in her fingers and she smoothed the abhorrent thing in her palm.

'Tell me what it says,' moaned Livilla.

'It's indecipherable…'

Livilla threw herself from her bed and snatched the tablet from her mother's hands.

'Livilla!'

'It's written backwards…'

'Oh help us, gods,' cried Antonia, feeling weak.

'A mirror — where's my mirror?'

Fearful and bewildered, Lygdus picked up the polished silver disk that Livilla used to study her complexion. ' Domina…'

Livilla plucked it from him and held the tablet to its surface with shaking hands. Legible words were revealed in the reflection. White-faced, Antonia read them with her daughter. By Veiovis, may the child of the slut Livilla lose its eyes and its ears and its mouth and its head.

Only Lygdus, young and strong, had the speed to catch his mistress as she slipped forward. He stopped her swollen belly from striking the ground. But the effort of saving Livilla tore open his wound, causing fresh blood to spill down his leg, before it was lost in a greater flood. Livilla's waters broke around him, gushing to the floor from her loins.

When the tortures of labour went on to claim her, so did the irrationality of terror. With every stab in her guts she begged the goddesses who guided her — Venus, Diana and Juno — to tell her who had invoked the god of deception and lies to curse her so cruelly. When, after an hour of this, she claimed that Venus had given her the answer, no amount of appalled dissuasion from Antonia could shift Livilla's conviction. Lygdus had done it, Livilla screamed — he had found the curse tablet under her bed only because he had placed it there. The eunuch had invoked Veiovis to curse her for his castration.

By the second hour of her agony Livilla was only persuaded not to crucify Lygdus by Antonia's desperate proposal of a lesser punishment. For every contraction that gripped Livilla's womb, Lygdus received a stroke of the nail-studded whip. In short time his screams were louder than hers, which became a comfort to Livilla in her fear.

None found this punishment more difficult to observe than the guilt-ridden young midwife.

The two Praetorians on duty opened the doors to such a shocking scene that they rushed into the room with their swords drawn. Agrippina ran in behind them with a sharp scream, leaving Sosia and Claudia to stare after her in confusion. Tiberius was sprawled on the floor, struggling to get up from where he had fallen, as Consular Senator Gallus gripped him around the knees, sobbing like a child. The guards were so alert to assassination attempts that Gallus was only just saved from being cut to pieces by Tiberius himself.

'Wait!'

The men halted with their swords raised.

'The fool has lost his reason but he's not trying to kill me,' said Tiberius. 'Get off, Gallus,' he winced, kicking at the senator.

Gallus let go, realising that his show of supplication had nearly been the death of him. 'Caesar,' he stammered. 'I… I meant no harm.'

'You caused it anyway — just get out.' Tiberius saw Agrippina standing behind the guards with a look of dark disgust on her face. He knew it had nothing to do with Gallus and clambered to his feet.

The Consular Senator tried to exit backwards, bowing as he went, but he struck a lampidarium, nearly pulling it down before Agrippina's quick actions steadied it. She kept her eyes hard upon Tiberius. Gallus's tears started again and he crawled out of the reception room weeping noisily. There was a stunned lull in his wake, and then the guards made it clear they wanted an explanation. Agrippina realised that Charicles, Tiberius's physician, was also in the large room, seated in a chair with a scroll in his lap, and quite unperturbed by any of it.

'The idiot Gallus thinks he's the target of a plot,' Tiberius addressed the guards like boys. 'Villains are attempting to smear him, he claims. All rubbish, of course. Gallus is deluded with self-importance.'

'And why would that be?' Agrippina asked. Charicles glanced up from his scroll. There was a look of defiance in Agrippina's face. 'Because he married your former wife?'

The past year's experiences had taught Tiberius that the best way to deal with his headstrong widowed daughter-in-law was to seize the advantage from her early. He lurched forward and kissed her on the forehead, placing his arms around her broad shoulders. In the room outside, Sosia and Claudia stared in disgust. The sheer unexpectedness of this gesture disarmed Agrippina long enough for Tiberius to dismiss the guards. He reached into the folds of his robes and pulled out some aureus coins.

'Gallus's union with my former wife Vipsania is something Rome celebrates,' he said, tossing the coins to the Praetorians and waving them out of the room. 'But if this has inflated his sense of self then perhaps it can't be helped. Vipsania is a fine woman, after all, much admired.'

This was an invitation for Agrippina to bring up Tiberius's cruel divorce of Vipsania prior to his marriage to Agrippina's late mother. But she saw it for the trap it was and went straight to the point of her visit. 'My sons,' she said. 'I wish to speak to you about Drusus and Nero.'

'Do you seek my advice on some matter?'

The Praetorians closed the doors on the conversation and on Sosia and Claudia outside. Only the physician Charicles remained in the huge room with them.

'I seek an explanation,' said Agrippina.

Tiberius kissed her on the forehead again, embracing her tightly and pressing his lips to her skin. 'My poor daughter-inlaw,' he said at last. 'Your grief has left you slow in recognising the benevolence of my actions.'

Agrippina reeled from his breath as rage stuck in her throat. She forced herself not to react. 'You are right,' she said. 'My grief for your adopted son is unending — I will never be rid of it, and nor will I wish to be.'

'Nor I,' said Tiberius, unblinking in his smile. The odour of him was sour in the air.

'Together we are united in our devotion to his sons,' said Agrippina. 'We want them to live with those who love them most.'

'Of course we do.' Tiberius made a movement to suggest he was going to kiss her again and Agrippina tensed in his arms. Then he playfully released her but remained standing next to her in unpleasant intimacy. 'I have a new idea,' he said.

She waited.

'We'll knock holes in the walls that separate your house from Castor's.'

'Castor's house is this house — Oxheads.'

'No, no, no,' said Tiberius. 'Castor and his household are entirely separate.'

'The buildings are connected. It is all one.'

'Is it?' Tiberius considered this as if the layout of the Imperial family's homes had never been revealed to him. 'Perhaps you're right. Then your house will be connected, too. We should have done it long ago, when Germanicus was still alive. We're one family, after all. As soon as your sons are moved into their new rooms in Castor's house this afternoon, we'll set the slaves to work on your walls. Then it won't feel like the boys have moved away from you at all, Agrippina. It'll feel like your house has expanded. All that extra space.'

He placed an aged and withered arm around her shoulder again, and it felt to Agrippina like his skin was alive with worms. Tiberius returned his lips to her hair, breathing in her perfume for a moment as he nibbled at her. She willed herself to swallow her rage again.

'When Nero turns fourteen, I will commend him to the Senate,' said Tiberius. 'I will propose that he is given the privilege of seeking the quaestorship, too, five years before the legal age, and the priesthood of Jupiter. I will ask the Senate to mark these honours with generous donatives to the people, naturally. Rome will think quite well of Nero as a result — don't you agree, Agrippina?'

She knew he was dangling her son's future before her like a jewel. Any objections she held could only seem baseless now. 'He will be popular,' she said.

Agrippina heard her friends' voices rise in some unseen commotion on the other side of the doors.

'Yes, he will be,' said Tiberius. He raised his lips from her hair and placed his hands at his side. He made no signal that Agrippina should go, but neither did he say another word. Agrippina just looked at him, boring deep into his eyes. She thought she saw the glow of triumph within them. She imagined braying, mocking laughter.

She turned on her heel and walked swiftly to the door. It was only as she was about to slap her palms on the bronze panels to summon the guards that Tiberius spoke again.

'He'll be betrothed as well. Nero, I mean. To my granddaughter Tiberia, Castor and Livilla's girl. She's very pretty. What do you think, Agrippina?'

'I think we'll be lucky if her mother allows her even to attend the wedding,' said Agrippina. 'What if there's a mist she might catch cold from?'

Tiberius erupted in laughter, throwing his head back. When it ended, there were tears on his cheeks. 'Livilla's obsession with illness extends to poor Tiberia, it's true,' he said, wiping his face with his hands, 'but like all good daughters-in-law, Livilla will see the sense in following a father's advice. There will be a wedding day, mist or no mist. I'll give thought to betrothing Drusus too.'

He paused again, looking at Agrippina with a paternal smile. Then his gaze lost focus. He saw her but no longer saw her, as if she had already left the room. 'Charicles?'

The physician looked up from his scroll at the other side of the huge room.

'Do I have unpleasant breath?'

'It is possible, Caesar…'

'What should I do about it?'

'Chew ginger. And then drink perfume mixed with wine. I will arrange it for you.'

Agrippina slapped her hands against the heavy plated doors. The Praetorians pulled them open from outside and she stumbled into the corridor, unable to choke back her sobbing. Sosia and Claudia rushed to her, trying to tell her something as the doors closed again. But Agrippina didn't hear them as she sank to the mosaic floor, her body wracked with grief for her murdered husband, her murdered mother, her murdered father, her murdered brothers and her tiny daughter too — all lost, all dead, all taken from her far too soon. She wept for her loved ones and she raged in her heart against Tiberius for what she believed was his part in so much misery.

When no more tears were left, Agrippina allowed herself some comfort in the cold floor tiles. They were sobering somehow. They brought her back to the present again, to what she must do in her husband's name. She saw there was a pattern in the floor — one she had never noticed before.

'Look,' she whispered to her friends, 'dancing skeletons. It's a reminder to enjoy life, since death can come so easily.'

Sosia gently lifted Agrippina's head from the floor. Agrippina looked up then and saw me waiting for her.

'Lady,' I said. 'I have good news for you.'

'Do you?' she said. 'It will have to be something very special for me to consider it good, Iphicles.'

I stood aside and let her see.

The tiny girl was clothed now, but she still held tightly to her boy-slave's hand.

'Mama,' Nilla said. She let go of Burrus and ran forward to hug and kiss the woman she had believed she would never see again. The slave Nymphomidia, Burrus's own mother, wept at her son's side, as Sosia and Claudia now joined in too.

But Agrippina had no more tears left to give. She clung to the daughter she had long thought drowned, whispering her name. 'Agrippinilla… my Agrippinilla,' she said softly. 'My little Nilla.'

The steward had a smile to split his face in two as Castor returned home from a long morning at the magistrate's courts, accompanied by his nephews Nero and Drusus. Agrippina's reaction at the slave market still weighed heavily upon Castor as he lifted his feet before crouching Lygdus. The young eunuch began removing their leather street shoes, his every movement agony from where the nailed whip had scourged him. He was dressed in a fresh scarlet tunica, to better hide his new wounds.

'What is it? You look odd,' Castor said, conscious of the pain behind the eunuch's movements.

Lygdus lingered over his master's liberated feet and saw that the abscess on his master's arch was no better. He cast a glance at the grinning steward, Pelops. There was an understanding in place among the slaves about all that had happened today. 'My back is stiff, domine, that is all,' Lygdus lied.

The steward grinned all the more as Lygdus began rubbing a salve on Castor's sore foot. 'There has been happy news while you were away, domine,' Pelops said.

'Happy?'

There was a scurry of movement in the atrium beyond the entrance hall, a flap of women's gowns. Castor looked past Pelops and saw that most of the household slaves were assembled in the light-filled central room, kneeling on the floor and looking through to him expectantly.

'What's the matter with everyone?'

Tiberia popped her head into the hall. 'Please come inside, Father — we're all waiting for you.' She cast a quick smile at Nero, but the smile he returned was for politeness only.

Lygdus gave a whimper at having to rush his one and only pleasure — sponging perfumed water over three pairs of bare feet. Castor didn't wait for the slave to dry him. He walked into the atrium after Tiberia, leaving wet footprints behind him as all the servants bowed to the floor.

Castor laughed. 'What a lot of silliness — what's got into you all?' Then he saw. The two midwives were among the servants. They rose before him, presenting a bundle in fresh, white linen. It was a baby.

'Your son has been born, domine,' the senior woman announced. She placed the boy upon the marble floor at Castor's feet.

A rush of emotion overcame Castor in the surprise. 'I have a son?' He stooped to lift the child, formally accepting the boy, and all the household slaves burst into applause. Lygdus and Pelops joined the throng. The baby stirred and opened his eyes, grumbling a little at the noise. His eyes were perfectly formed, as were his ears, his mouth and his head.

'The Lady Livilla's labour came early — and very fast,' said the senior midwife. 'It lasted barely three hours. One of the easiest births we've attended, domine.'

The younger midwife kept her eyes hard on the floor. Antonia had commanded that no mention was to be made by anyone of what else had occurred. Not that the guilt-ridden midwife would have mentioned it anyway.

'Where is Livilla?' said Castor, transfixed by the baby.

'With the Lady Antonia, resting,' said the senior midwife, 'but she waits for you, domine.'

Castor cradled his son. 'You weren't expected to come today,' he whispered to the little bundle, 'but I'm so glad you did.'

The young midwife risked raising her eyes in Lygdus's direction, but the beaten eunuch didn't notice her. Weakened by his ordeal, he pressed his back against the wall. The midwife saw that he left a smear of blood behind him.

'I have a baby brother now,' Tiberia whispered to Nero, whose feet were still wet too. 'Aren't you happy for me?'

Nero made the appropriate face.

'His name will be Gemellus,' Castor announced to his nephews. 'He'll be as a brother to you.'

The household slaves applauded again, repeating the name.

'Welcome, Gemellus!' Drusus shouted above the noise.

Castor moved into the middle of the room, with Tiberia and the boys behind him, while the servants surged around them to give praise.

On the periphery Lygdus echoed the cries of the others as he detached himself from the group, keeping one eye on the entrance and edging further along the wall. Only Pelops looked away from the baby for a moment when he thought he heard the sound of the front door pulling closed. But the hall was empty; he told himself he was hearing things. Why would anyone wish to depart the house on such a happy day for their master?

Tiberius strained to write by lamplight, but the glow was so poor that the letters ran together under his hand. He finished the pen stroke and then couldn't even discern whose name he had added to the list. He knew the name in his head — of course he did — but did the scroll match? He held it closer to the flame, squinting to bring the letters into sharper focus as he took another sip of his draught. The effects of the Eastern flower let his mind knit together again, however briefly, and he saw that his writing was just legible.

Tiberius did not intend reading from the list himself tomorrow. That task was beneath him and he deemed it too painful. Instead, he would listen in silence, just as he had when all the earlier lists had been read out by whichever toady of the moment stepped up to serve his Emperor. Tiberius didn't care which fawning senator claimed the task — all that mattered was that the names be read out loudly and correctly. Tiberius hated to be responsible for an innocent man being accused of treason. Or, more precisely, he hated to be responsible for a loyal man being accused.

The scroll was too close to the lamp and the papyrus caught alight. Tiberius clutched it in his hands, not comprehending what was happening. The names were illuminated beautifully. Then the flames met his fingers and still he didn't drop the burning paper. He just read and reread his favourite's name.

'Gallus… dear Gallus,' he whispered. Then he felt the pain of the fire and cried out.

Sejanus flung the study door open and a gust of air blew the oil lamp out. He planted his boot on the flaming papyrus scroll, extinguishing it. Tiberius was left staring and dazed.

'Are you hurt, Father?'

Tiberius tried to focus on Sejanus's face, confused at who this was. 'Is that you, Castor?'

'Are you hurt, Caesar?' Sejanus said, with an edge.

'No, boy,' Tiberius said, realising it was Sejanus. Then he saw the lamp was out. 'Look at that — the best omen I know.'

Sejanus regarded the old man with deep love and indulgence. Tiberius was sixty-one but seemed so much older. Years of consuming opiates had made him haggard. His health was still sound, but his mind drifted badly at night.

'What is the omen, Caesar?'

'The lamp going out like that — it's happened to me before. And when it does it always means that my battle the next day will be won.'

'What is your battle tomorrow?'

'Perhaps it's not a battle then, but it will be an effort for me. I have signed your new treason list — it's bound to cause a fuss.'

Sejanus lifted his boot from the charred papyrus.

'Oh,' said Tiberius, realising.

Sejanus tried to pick up the papyrus but it fell to ashes in his fingers. 'I'll have the list drawn for you again, Caesar.'

'Don't bother.'

'Caesar?'

'It was Fate, an act of the gods. The men on the list must now be spared.'

'They were guilty men — '

Tiberius waved his hands. 'Perhaps they weren't. The gods think otherwise. Let's leave them be.'

Sejanus remained standing there in confusion.

'What is it, boy?'

Sejanus suddenly gripped Tiberius by the hand, kissing it. 'Everything I do, I do for you, Caesar.'

'Of course you do.'

'I have given my life to defending you — to saving you from enemies.'

'I know how loyal you are to me.'

'The city is full of traitors — jealous, evil men and women who want to harm you, who want Rome for themselves…'

'And you root them out for me — I am very grateful.' He placed his free hand on the young Prefect's head, stroking his thick, black hair.

'I am nothing without you,' Sejanus whispered.

Tiberius nodded, accepting these words, even though they embarrassed him. Sejanus stood again at last. 'There has been a death,' he said. 'Someone you know has opened a vein in their bath.'

'Is it Gallus? It all got too much for him, did it?'

'It's Vipsania.'

Tiberius went white. Then he lurched forward in the semi-darkness, crashing his fists on his desk, trying to find his draught goblet. The drug eluded him until Sejanus slipped it into his hands. Tiberius gulped at the dregs.

When he'd drained the last, he found that the grief of his former wife's suicide had ceased before he had even begun to feel it.

Sejanus left Tiberius alone again and took several moments to collect his thoughts on the other side of the doors. He felt some pity for Vipsania. She had been a noble woman and widely liked, but she had been wrong to remarry again when Tiberius divorced her. It had insulted Tiberius.

Sejanus saw that the Tribune Macro was signalling him. 'What is it?'

There was a smirk on his second-in-command's face. 'A slave wishes to speak with the Emperor.'

'He doesn't speak with slaves.'

'The eunuch says he's from Castor's household and has news of great importance for Tiberius.'

Sejanus considered this for only a second before rejecting it. 'It's a kitchen squabble. Throw him out.'

As huge as a bull, Macro saluted Sejanus and pulled open a door. Sejanus caught only a glimpse of Lygdus cowering behind it before turning to depart.

'Won't he see me?' Lygdus asked the Tribune as he watched Sejanus walking away.

'Why would he, turd? You're offensive.'

Lygdus was immune to abuse. He stared at Macro's large, square feet encased in their woollen house-shoes. 'But the news I have is important — my domina has delivered her child.'

'That news is his son's to break, then, not yours.'

'But there's more.'

'Spit it.'

Lygdus lowered his voice. 'It's a secret… too important… I would never have told it, but she's pushed me to it, you see… and she lied when she called me her little lamb.'

Macro struck him with the back of his hand.

The new blood from Lygdus's day of wounds dried brittle on his skin as he fled.

The young eunuch couldn't risk knocking at the bronze front door. He couldn't risk approaching the side entrances along the alleys that would take him into the kitchens, or the gardens or the lavatories either. He couldn't risk taking any of the labyrinthine tunnels that connected his master's house and the houses of the other family members with the Emperor's home, the house he'd just fled. He couldn't risk anything. He had been missing for hours. He was trapped.

Lygdus tried to melt into the twilight shadows as he waited under the ancient yew tree. In his blood-sodden scarlet tunica and knee-high woollen boots, he stood out like the gaudy Saturnalian novelty Livilla intended him to resemble. He was a pet to her; loved, she claimed, but really loathed, he now knew. He was her little joke.

The edifice of his master's house loomed high above him. The shops on either side of the front door were shuttered and closed. The street was nearly deserted, save a few shuffling beggars and prostitutes, who were darting towards the Forum to begin their night's work. In the distance, towards the bottom of the hill, the sounds of flutes and cymbals could be heard — and laughter. Musicians were entertaining revellers at a tavern. Lygdus had never been permitted to visit such an establishment. He had never been permitted to leave his master's house without purpose. If they found him out here, Lygdus would never be permitted to do anything again.

He wept miserably, wondering how his wretched life could grow any worse. Yet he knew that it could. Only the appeals of the Lady Antonia had saved him from crucifixion today. The injustice of being accused of planting the curse tablet chewed at his heart. He had no idea how the filthy thing had found its way under his domina 's bed. In a way, he almost understood why Livilla had blamed him for it. Who else in the house was so low and abused as he was? Who else harboured so much hatred?

A hooded figure appeared in the twilight, lurching up the cobbled road towards the house. Lygdus tried to press himself into the bark of the yew tree, painfully aware of his scarlet bulk. But the figure didn't see him. It was a young man, tall and slim under the hood. The sound of his step was odd, as if he walked on one foot not two. Yet he wasn't a cripple. Lygdus listened to determine it. The tread was hard then soft, hard then soft. He saw why. The young man was missing a shoe — one foot was bare. He lurched within a few steps of where Lygdus cowered. Lygdus smelled the wine on the young man's breath. The hood slipped from his head as he raised his hand to thump at the door to Castor's house.

The door was opened by one of the kitchen slaves, a boy scarred from the spits. 'Good evening, young Master Nero,' the boy simpered.

Nero ignored him and went to move inside as Lygdus saw his chance. Nero was drunk. The steward Pelops was no doubt in a similar state, given that he'd left a kitchen slave on door duty. The newborn baby was being celebrated. No better hope would present itself for gaining entrance to the house undetected. Lygdus leaped to his feet and took his place in Nero's wake, just as the kitchen slave was closing the door. The boy recognised him and gave him a startled look, but Lygdus stared him down, willing the boy to believe he'd been in the young master's company all evening. The boy nodded and bolted the door behind them. Only then did Nero seem aware of Lygdus for the first time.

The eunuch sneered at the kitchen slave. 'Go back to the spits.'

The boy opened his mouth to complain but the look on Lygdus's face was enough to make him obey. Lygdus smoothly took the cloak from Nero's shoulders, keeping his eyes downcast. Nero said nothing, but his wine-drenched breath was strong. Lygdus sensed him trying to work out what was amiss. Lygdus sank to his knees. 'You are missing a shoe, domine,' he said, still not raising his eyes.

'Lost it, fell off,' said Nero, his voice thick with drink. He slumped into a chair.

Lygdus removed Nero's remaining sandal. Both feet were black with street dust. Lygdus clung to the small amount of pleasure the sight and smell of them gave him — the one joy he knew. He turned to the footbath stowed beneath the janitor's box, his back to Nero so that the young dominus couldn't see his relief that he hadn't been exposed. He heard the young man's breath grow heavier and he wondered if Nero had fallen asleep. On his hands and knees, Lygdus poured fresh water from a ewer into the shallow bronze bath and reached to a vase of herbs, tearing off some leaves.

He felt the rear hem of his scarlet tunica being lifted.

Lygdus froze, his eyes fixed on the footbath water and the herbs, his weight on his hands, his fat buttocks raised in the air before his drunken young dominus. Neither said a word as Nero's fingers touched Lygdus's flesh and then hooked beneath the fabric of the loin cloth. Nero gently pulled, and the loin cloth unravelled, slipping to the floor.

One tear, then another rolled down Lygdus's nose and struck the footbath water. He had brought this ultimate shame upon himself, he knew. The young dominus had realised that Lygdus had been outside the house without permission, and now he meant to enjoy him in a manner that was only discussed in shameful whispers. Lygdus knew he would be treated brutally by Nero now, and perhaps even maimed. There was nothing he could do and nothing he could say. His endless suffering would only increase. More tears fell into the bath, and Lygdus cursed himself in his heart for being such a novice in this world, forever misjudging things. To have believed that such a naked approach to the Emperor would ever succeed was a fool's mistake, and he deserved the failure. Now he deserved everything that would come from Nero.

Something snapped in the young eunuch's mind. He span around with anger in his face, pulling his tunica down to cover himself.

'Kill me, domine — I don't want to live if all that's left to me is your prick. Stab me in the guts if you want, but you'll never rape me while I'm alive.'

Nero flushed and fell back into his chair.

There was a long, shocked silence while Lygdus kept his rage-filled eyes on his young master. 'Well, domine?'

He realised that Nero was trembling. In his abject drunkenness Nero had expressed the desire he kept hidden from Rome. This, his darkest secret, he fought constantly within himself, and the sordid lust, never satisfied, grew stronger and ever hungrier within the prison of his heart.

Lygdus saw that Nero was desperate and ashamed and he suddenly understood. The moment was Lygdus's now — the one moment in his life that was unequivocally his. He could choose to show his triumph and humiliate Nero, and then enjoy a few days' intoxicating joy before Nero took the vengeance that would inevitably come. Or he could show that he was discreet and honourable and, if his master was discreet and honourable in return, then Lygdus would not sink so low as to betray him.

Lygdus chose the second option. With a last, loaded look, he lowered his eyes and turned to drag the footbath across the floor and under his young master's feet. Lygdus lifted the right and then the left foot, placing them in the herb-scented water and watching the dust and grime dissolve. Then he began to knead the flesh, gently pressing the arches and squeezing the toes. He glanced up only once and saw that Nero's eyes were now closed. Lygdus returned to his task, and when his heart at last stopped racing, he felt the gradual return of pleasure, however faint.

For all that was loathsome and vile about Nero, he still had handsome feet.

Apicata lay prone in silence as her husband claimed his pleasure from her in the manner that was said to leave the wives of lesser men unhinged. She thought nothing of the degradation — not when her husband was Fortuna's favourite. To Apicata there was only a deep, rich honour in inflaming such lust in her prince. Her body was her husband's to employ in all the ways that pleased him. All that mattered, she whispered to herself through the low, perverted act, was that Sejanus be pleased by all she could give. She drew immeasurable comfort in knowing she was desired. For too long his lusts had seemed perfunctory, his pleasures taken hurriedly upon her body without a word. She had feared she now repelled him and she blamed her eyes for it. Did it repulse Sejanus to penetrate a wife who could not see him? But now her husband had returned to her renewed, and his moans of deep release were cherished companions to her total, tomb-like stillness.

When he was spent, Apicata dripped perfume on all the linens, blocking out the bestial stink of the pleasure. Then she lay next to Sejanus, listening to his breath. He was awake, breathing in the scent.

'Castor has a newborn son,' he said.

'I know.'

Apicata expected him to ask how she knew, given that the child had been born only hours ago. But Sejanus rolled onto his side, turning his back to her. For one delirious moment Apicata started to compose the words in her head that would tell him of the witchcraft and the dreadful, unimaginable curse that now hung over Livilla's newborn child. But when she went to speak of it, she sensed that her husband had drifted off to Somnus. Despair stabbed her, as so often happened when she was left alone in the wake of pleasuring him. Did he love her? Was she really his future queen? Or was she his whore, never called as much to her face, but derided as a whore in his mind? Was that all she was to him?

She thought upon Aemilia again. The matron's magic had great potency, made all the stronger as it came from highborn hands. Apicata resolved to visit the patrician woman a second time.

Apicata resolved to use Aemilia's witchcraft to banish despair from her bed.

The Ides of June

AD 20

One week later: Emperor Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus accepts a Senate proposal that he, Livia, Antonia, Agrippina and Castor be thanked by Rome for avenging the death of Germanicus. At the Emperor's request, Claudius, the crippled brother of Germanicus, is not included in Rome's thanks

'Aemilia, how very kind,' said Antonia approvingly. 'It is nothing at all,' said Aemilia, presenting her birth gift to the Claudian women. 'Look, Livilla, isn't that thoughtful?' Antonia hovered above her daughter in the bed. Livilla made a strained smile from where she rested, nursing her infant son.

'It is nothing,' Aemilia repeated. 'Merely a small token from the Aemilii in expression of our great joy at your happy event.'

Livilla's daughter, Tiberia, perched at the end of her mother's woollen mattress, smiling at Aemilia's accompanying daughters. 'That's very pretty fabric you've wrapped the gift in.'

The sisters smiled back. 'It's silk,' said Domitia.

'Where do you suppose silk comes from?' wondered Tiberia.

'Nobody knows,' said Domitia, 'only that it comes from the East.'

'I heard that it's squeezed out of worms,' Lepida ventured.

Already on edge at the prospect of receiving more presents since the curse tablet, Antonia and Livilla flinched at the thought of something made from worm excrement. 'Well, well… we should see what's inside the pretty fabric then, shouldn't we?' Antonia said. But neither she nor Livilla made any move to touch it.

Tiberia was oblivious. 'Can I?'

A flash of fear passed between Livilla and her mother.

'I'm sure you'll like it,' said Lepida.

'We thought it was very beautiful,' Domitia agreed.

Aemilia smiled, placing her hands on her daughters' shoulders. But her eyes intently watched Livilla in the bed. Livilla clutched her infant son to her bosom, unaware of Aemilia's look. Her eyes were fixed on Tiberia's fingers as the child undid the silken wrap.

'Oh! Look,' said Tiberia. It was a hand-mirror, made from the finest polished silver and decorated at its edges with pieces of aquamarine. Tiberia stared at her own pretty face in it. 'I have never seen one that reflects so beautifully.'

Domitia and Lepida nodded at each other approvingly.

'It's like looking at myself through a window,' said Tiberia. 'It's so very clear.' Then she saw a spot on her chin. 'Why didn't you tell me I had a pimple, Mother!'

'It is only a very small one,' said Lepida, trying to be helpful.

Tiberia covered her chin with her hand, dismayed.

Beaming with relief that the gift was nothing that might have upset the fragile Livilla, Antonia took the mirror from her granddaughter's hands. 'It is quite exquisite, Aemilia,' she said, kissing the Aemilii matron on the cheek, 'and chosen with your famous good taste.'

Aemilia accepted the revered Antonia's kiss with affection, but her eyes stayed upon Livilla and the baby.

Antonia brought the mirror to the mound of gladiolus-scented cushions that supported Livilla at the head of the bed. 'See? Isn't it beautiful? Now you can give away your old mirror to one of the slaves …'

Livilla caught sight of her own pale, drawn expression in the reflection, and in doing so saw the precise moment when revelation changed it. A tremor of horror swept her face and she looked up to see Aemilia's beautiful chestnut eyes boring into own, her hands at the waists of her daughters.

'The old mirror had become so tarnished,' Antonia went on. 'You were lucky to see anything in it at all.'

Livilla's jaw snapped shut in terror. She felt unable to breathe. Then it seemed as if her baby son stopped breathing too. Tiny Gemellus went limp in her arms. 'My son…' she tried to say.

Aemilia's eyes gave nothing away. But Livilla looked behind them and saw that they were dead. For the brief moment that her baby's breath left his lungs, Aemilia of the Aemilii had the sightless eyes of a blind woman.

Then Gemellus's chest filled with air.

'Thank you so much, Aemilia,' said Antonia, wholly unaware. 'You really are far, far too kind to us.'

Livilla stumbled into the Palatine street with her mother's bewilderment ringing in her ears. 'No, just… go back inside, Mother.'

'But, Livilla — '

'Go back inside!'

Livilla pulled the front door closed behind her, blocking Antonia from seeing into the street. 'Just tell me what's happened. You're not well enough to go out…' her mother's muffled voice cried from behind the door.

Livilla scanned up and down the busy thoroughfare. 'My litter.. Where is it?' she shouted into the throng. Customers and slave assistants in the shops on either side of her door stared in surprise. 'Don't look at me! Do you know who I am?'

Nervous, they looked at the ground or at their purchases.

'My litter! Why is it taking this long?'

She heard the sounds of running steps and panting men as her official litter came lurching and swaying up the hill in the hands of her six bearers, with her lone Imperial lictor, whose job it was to clear the way, at the head. The men had been summoned at haste from the lecticarii station at the banks of the river and were unprepared for her emergency. The shabby transport was dirty with the mud from recent rains.

'Hurry!' Livilla screamed at them.

The bearers staggered on the cobbles, tripping to a halt where Livilla stood. She spat on the ground in front of them. 'Too long!' She hoisted herself inside. Her abdomen hurt her, still stretched and raw from the birth.

'Where to, Lady?' the panting lictor asked.

'To the House of the Aemilii.'

'There will be an additional passenger,' said Aemilia. The finely boned matron slipped from the shadows of the yew tree where she had been waiting and slid inside Livilla's transport.

'Wait!' Livilla cried. The bearers lifted and then dropped the litter again in confusion. 'Move away — move away from here,' Livilla yelled at the men outside. 'Leave us be in here — and keep anyone else away.'

The lictor took charge of pushing back the bearers and all pedestrians. He thought that his mistress was of unsound mind. A cleared circle soon surrounded the stationary litter.

Livilla stared at Aemilia in horror. 'So it was you?'

'Yes,' said Aemilia. There was genuine sorrow in her beautiful face. 'The blind woman has me in her claws.'

'That foul bitch! Both of you — to curse my unborn child!' Livilla began to weep, until anger stemmed her tears. She clenched her jaw, bearing her teeth.

'He is a beautiful boy, born whole and well,' Aemilia began to say.

'The curse you sent him will haunt him into manhood! I will kill you for this — you know that, don't you? You'll die for this in agony.'

Aemilia nodded. 'I would do the same in your place.'

Livilla could only stare at the fallen woman in incomprehension. 'Why make yourself known to me? Why flaunt your crafts by giving me the mirror as an obscene reminder of what you did to my child?'

'To show you that Veiovis is a two-faced god,' said Aemilia simply. 'The blind woman summoned a deity who delights in deceit, and she is a fool for it. I made a curse tablet for her under duress. Now let me make one for you. Let me promise you that the powers I summoned for the dog Apicata will be nothing to the powers I summon on a patrician woman's behalf.'

Livilla stared at her in fear. Then she twitched the litter curtain to address the lictor holding back the pedestrians. 'Take us to the Aemilii.'

Neither woman said another word for the duration of the short journey. Neither woman took her eyes from the other's delicate, highborn face.

Summania

June, AD 20

One week later: the rebel army of the nomad Tacfarinas resumes hostilities in Numidia, raiding villages and looting extensively

The day was warm but the flesh on Livilla's arms rose as if she were chilled. She clutched her summer cloak about her shoulders, pulling the collar of it up to press against her hair. She took a step forward, and then another, forcing herself to brave the ascent up the damp, moss-covered stairs. She glanced behind her, catching eyes with her eunuch where he waited in the square. She glared at him hard. 'Do not move!' she hissed. 'Do not move an inch until I return for you.'

She turned to look upwards again, and the malevolent temple loomed high before her, vile and foreboding, shrouded in shadow on its densely wooded hill. The sun hadn't touched the temple's doors in all the centuries it had stood in this place, blocked from the rays by glowering, guarding oaks. The stale, dank structure was older than Rome, a relic from Etruscan times, like the sinister god it housed. Sly Veiovis loathed all that was light. The deity of deception demanded that his acolytes worship him in mire.

'Please welcome me, dark god,' Livilla whispered, taking care with each tread on the slimy, uneven steps. 'I am new to your home but the need I have for your love is great. Please welcome me, Veiovis…' She felt the little bag that was slung at her shoulder, and the three precious objects within. She touched them inside the soft leather, reassured by their purpose. She would enter this dark place. She would damn the bitch blind woman to hell.

Loose masonry shifted under her foot and she lost her balance, falling forward with a cry to crack her knee on the blunt step edge. Pain shot through her limb like a spear thrust. She tried to rise, but the agony of it was worse than childbirth.

'Veiovis,' she gasped. 'Admit me, foul god…'

The watching eunuch in the square did not move.

A wind gust whipped the cover from Livilla's head, picking her long, black hair from its pins and tossing it into her eyes, shrouding her. The vast, iron door creaked inwards in the draught, exposing the temple's maw. But nothing could be seen inside. The open door was a sneer, mocking Livilla and enjoying her pain, yet daring her to venture forward to receive more.

She crawled up the remaining steps on her hands and knees, her leg limp behind her. When she reached the temple portico, she dragged herself along on her belly, her summer stola fouled in the lichen and slime.

Livilla reached the door and clawed herself upright, clutching at her precious bag. Her knee throbbed, coursing pain the whole length of her body. She stared into the gloom. There was no light at all. No windows and not a single lit lamp. Only the door admitted the daylight from outside, just as it admitted acolytes.

'Do you see me, Veiovis?' Livilla's eyes began to adjust and the god's blackened bronze statue emerged from the shade. She gasped when she saw it fully. One hand clutched a fistful of lightning bolts, while the other rested on the horned head of a goat. Veiovis's image was that of a god no longer young but not yet elderly. He was neither handsome nor heroic. He was ordinary, dressed in a simple tunica. If Veiovis had been a man, no one would have looked twice at him in the Forum. Yet Livilla sensed something familiar about this god, as if she had passed him in the Forum — and not once but many times — and yet had never stopped to see him.

Livilla sensed a fluttering at her lips as her breath quickened. A drip of fluid left her sex, running down the soft, inner flesh of her thigh and pooling at the wound of her knee. She felt lust surge in her heart, lust for this deceiving god. She let go of the great doorway and placed her weight upon her weakened leg. The pain seemed less. 'You are a god of healing too, Veiovis,' she whispered. 'I see it in your face.'

She moved forward, edging into the tomb-like hall. A stench gripped her nostrils — like spoiled fruit or rotting flesh. Livilla breathed in deeply, letting the foulness fill her. 'Your perfume, god

… the smell of your power.' The reek gave her courage. Livilla held her head high, staring hungrily at the statue, her hand at the darkening fabric at her loins. 'I am here for you, my god. Claim me. Take me. Strike me with the lightning that you hold…'

A squeal of vermin made her scream. A dozen black rats threw themselves at her slippered feet, nipping at her, sinking their teeth into her toes, tearing at the hem of her ruined stola.

'My god!'

Livilla spun on her weakened limb to flee, but her knee gave way and she crashed hard to the floor as the vermin flew like crows at her beautiful face and hair.

Outside the dark temple Lygdus heard his domina 's screams. He lurched awake at the sound, plucked from the vicious fantasies that filled his daydreams. He ran up several of the slick, dank steps and then stopped. His domina screamed again, a bloodcurdling noise that felt as if it stripped the skin from his back. His young brow creased at the memory of all he had so recently suffered at her hands, and he took a single step back. Livilla screamed again and Lygdus took two more steps backwards, reaching the broken flagstones of the temple's neglected square.

'Save me!' Livilla screamed from deep inside the temple's murk.

The sound of her terror thrilled the young eunuch. It was like the music and laughter from the happy tavern down the hill that he, a lowly slave, was forbidden to know. Her terror was a joy.

His eyes glittering, Lygdus returned to the place where his domina had told him to wait. 'Perhaps your god will save you, domina… or perhaps not,' he whispered into his cupped hands.

Livilla struck the first rat dead with the hammer she snatched from the bag; the vermin's skull split like a berry. She wielded the stout, iron head of the implement at the next rat and then the next, splattering their brains on the floor. Vermin flew at her other hand and Livilla struck at them wildly, crushing her palm but killing the beasts, feeling nothing else now in her terror of what had to be done. She heaved herself upright, her leg twisting before her. She bit back the pain of it and lurched towards the statue of the god, her eyes filled with what so many other desperate acolytes had already left for their god before her: curse tablets.

The last of the rats flew at her slipperless feet, but Livilla felt nothing of them — her determination to reach the statue's plinth was her one goal. She threw herself forward and grasped hold of the edge of the stone with her fingernails as she fell once more, crashing to her knees. The pain nearly made her lose consciousness, but Livilla summoned all the will that was hers as a Claudian and as a granddaughter of the great Augusta Livia. She plunged her hand into the bag and brought out the flattened square of lead. She didn't repeat aloud the words that were written on it; she didn't need to. They were already etched into her heart. She plunged her hand into the bag again and seized a long bronze nail. Then she slapped her leaden curse tablet against Veiovis's plinth, dislodging others. Gripping the heavy hammer in her fist, she drove the nail into the tablet, striking it again and again, nailing the evil of Aemilia's new curse to the base of the dark god.

'Read me!' she screamed at Veiovis. 'Read my curse and grant it!'

A sharp slap to his cheek awoke Lygdus.

'Get up.'

' Domina…'

She slapped him again, harder. 'I said get up. We're done here.'

Lygdus scrambled to his feet, shocked at the sight of his mistress. Livilla was caked in slime and filth, with the blood of rats splattered along her arms. Her long, black mane was wild like a witch's hair. Her eyes were frightening, rimmed with gore and glittering with malicious triumph from their night-black depths. Her wounded leg twisted before her.

'What happened to you, domina?'

Livilla just laughed and Lygdus felt his skin crawl.

'Do you want to redeem yourself, little lamb?'

Lygdus bit back his anger. His domina now knew that he was innocent of planting the curse tablet under her bed, and yet she treated him as if she didn't. 'I'll do anything to serve you, domina,' he muttered.

Livilla made the young eunuch carry her down the slope of the wooded hill to where her litter waited, well away from Veiovis's surrounds. As he stumbled and slid on the stones, she told him what must happen next in her plan to destroy the blind woman.

She told Lygdus what he must do if he wanted to return to his domina 's heart.

The Kalends of July

AD 20

One week later: Decrius, Commander of the Numidian battalion at Pagyda River, fights to his death against the overwhelming forces of Tacfarinas. His fleeing men abandon his corpse

Apicata emerged into sunshine from the huge bronze door that admitted only the very best people of Rome into the noble house of the Aemilii. She heard it close sharply behind her and she laughed. They despised her, of course, this great patrician clan, but they would have despised her even if she wasn't blackmailing their matriarch. They would have despised her on principle. She was lowborn, the daughter of a man of wealth but no distinction, while they were only one step removed from deities. It thrilled Apicata to know that these arrogant demigods now bowed to her word and hated her like an illness. She marvelled at the all-consuming loathing felt for her by the trapped Aemilia, and it gave Apicata ecstasies to think that she would never let the Aemilii go. When Apicata was queen, she would formally enslave the Aemilii, she decided, removing their names from the official records of Rome. Then she would turn on the other noble houses, one by one, making slaves of their finest too.

Apicata moved unimpeded along the narrow, winding street that would take her down the hill to where her maids waited. No one dared accost her or ask what she had hidden inside the earthenware pot that she clutched to her breast. No one would dare do anything to her at all, because there was no one who didn't know who Apicata was. She was the Praetorian Prefect's wife. In Rome, she was fear.

'What are you carrying, Lady?'

Apicata was brought to a halt at the young man's voice.

'What's in the pot? Is it magic?'

She flushed red. 'How dare you address me?'

'Don't be like that. What's inside it? Tell me what it is, blind woman.'

Apicata tried to shove the stranger from her path, grabbing a fistful of slack flesh as she thrust her right hand at him, clutching the pot tighter with her left.

'Ow!'

'Get out of my way.'

He offered no resistance, so she easily slipped past him, increasing her pace down the hill.

'It must be very special,' the stranger called after her.

'Girls!' Apicata shouted into the air for her waiting maids. 'Where are you? Come here to me!' She had lost count of the number of steps she had taken from the Aemilii door towards the bend in the street where she had ordered her sedan chair to wait for her. The total distance was sixty paces, and she had gone at least half that — or was it something less? She could hear her maids' voices, but the step count flew out of her head. 'Come to me,' she called, panicked. 'I have lost the number — '

Apicata reached the bend before she realised it, and the abrupt descent of the street made her lose her footing, pitching her forward. She fell hard on her face, the pot smashing beneath her. She lay there dazed, blood filling her mouth as she heard the sounds of her frightened maids running towards her.

' Domina! '

' Domina, your face!'

'There's blood!'

'She has hurt herself — let me help you lift her,' said the voice of the young man who had accosted her. Apicata tried to tell her women that this youth must not be allowed to touch her, but the words, when they came, were garbled.

'She has struck her head,' said the young man.

Apicata felt herself being lifted from the cobbles. 'No… no, wait…' The broken pot and its contents were exposed. 'Don't… touch it…' She twisted in the young man's grip and tried to stretch towards the ground to save what was most precious. Her fingertips brushed a tiny wax hand.

'You'll drop her!'

'I've got her, look,' said Lygdus. Apicata weighing nothing in his arms, he tossed her into the chair of her sedan. The maids rushed around to dab at her bloodied face and Apicata tried to fight them off, but the pain in her head made her faint.

When one of the maids went back to where her domina 's pot had smashed, she found nothing there but pieces of broken clay. She thought she remembered there being something more. She looked around for the young eunuch who had been so helpful but he was gone.

Aemilia closed the great bronze door a second time, shutting the scene in the street from view. It was done.

'Mother?' said her oldest daughter, Lepida. The girl was fearful.

Aemilia smoothed the girl's hair. 'We must summon your brothers now,' she said.

The younger girl Domitia looked grim. 'Aemilius is with his tutor in the Forum.'

'His schooling is done now. It is his day to act as a man. Ask the steward to retrieve him, will you, Domitia?'

'And Ahenobarbus?'

'He'll be sitting by the kitchen furnace. Send him in here.'

'Yes, Mother.' Domitia left the hall.

Lepida was left to stare as her mother retrieved a folded piece of papyrus. 'You remember what this letter says, don't you, Lepida?'

The girl's eyes filled with tears, but she wouldn't shame her mother by shedding them. 'It is your confession, Mother.'

Aemilia nodded. 'The day has arrived and now it must be sent.'

Lepida bit her lip.

'When your brothers are here, you are to go — the four of you together — all the way up the hill to Oxheads, just like we spoke of. Do you remember?'

'Of course, Mother.'

'You will have your brothers with you but be sure to take some amulets. Aemilius will speak to the guards.'

'He's only seven.'

'He is now a man,' Aemilia stressed. 'Tell him to show the guards Ahenobarbus's red hair. They will be very struck by that. Soldiers think such things lucky.'

'I understand.'

'When you are admitted into the presence of the Emperor, you are to give my confession to him. You are to tell him that your heart is broken by doing it, but that you have no choice. Your love for Rome is stronger than your love for a mother who so betrays it.'

Lepida nodded and a tear broke free of her will, slipping down her nose. Aemilia's voice caught in her throat and she kneeled, grasping her daughter in her arms, kissing her face and hair. 'I will soon be gone, but you will not need me.'

'But we will, Mama, we always will,' Lepida sobbed.

'Not at all. You have your destinies now. Each one of you has been chosen by Veiovis to know power — even poor Ahenobarbus. The Aemilii will be great again — it is the god's will — and each of you will be given your path. Veiovis has decided it.'

Lepida wept as if her heart would break.

'Ssh,' said Aemilia tenderly. 'Ssh, my little pearl. Your brothers will come to know what it is to stand at the very summit of Rome, and your sister will know it too. But the path that will be given to you, Lepida, is the path that will lead the Aemilii to a power no man before us has known.'

Lepida fell silent, her cheeks wet with tears.

'Because it will be a woman's power, my daughter, not a man's. It is the power of she who is so long asleep… It is the power of the rarest of birds.'

'Pitiable,' said Livilla, as Lygdus handed her the stolen contents of the jar.

Lygdus said nothing, oblivious to the significance of the strange objects he had taken from the blind woman's broken pottery. 'Am I redeemed now, domina?' he muttered.

'Hmm?'

'Am I redeemed?'

Livilla was distracted by her little Laconian puppy dashing into the room. 'Scylax!' She swept up the dog in her arms, kissing its snout and ears as it licked her cheeks and beat its tail like a whip. 'My little lamb,' Livilla murmured lovingly at the beast. 'Mama loves her little lamb.'

When Livilla remembered Lygdus again, he had gone.

She dismissed him from her thoughts. Putting the pup aside, she picked up Aemilia's magic in her hands. There were two red wax figures, a man and woman, closely entwined. The man had human hair, black and thick, glued to his head. At the loins of the figure was an oversized wax phallus, thick and curved, piercing the sex of the wax woman.

'Pitiable,' said Livilla again. The pup Scylax cocked his head to the side, waiting for his mistress to kiss him. But Livilla was focused wholly on the witchcraft. She guessed who the figures were meant to represent — the blind woman and her husband. The wax woman had Apicata's light brown hair. 'She fears she's losing him,' Livilla smirked.

Digging her nails into the wax, she prised the two figures apart. The phallus of the man slipped out easily, exposing a yawning cleft in the woman. Livilla carefully placed the Sejanus figure aside and regarded the wax Apicata. She brought the head of it to her mouth, gripping her teeth around it and holding the figure there, enjoying the sensation of Apicata's hair upon her tongue.

Then she clenched her teeth together and bit the head from the neck, swallowing it. She gagged as the wax ball slid down her throat. Placing her hands at her belly Livilla felt the churn as her stomach greeted her enemy's head. In a few days the hairy wax ball would reappear again, having passed through Livilla's body. Livilla would order a slave to scoop it from the lavatory and, following Aemilia's instructions to the letter, she would enact the final outrage of Apicata's demise.

Ludi Plebeii

November, AD 20

Four months later: the patrician matron Aemilia of the Aemilii is found guilty of witchcraft, poisoning and consulting with astrologers regarding the Imperial house

I flinched a little when the mangon 's six scribes felt the swords plunge deep and hard between their ribs. Some of them had looks of incredulity upon their faces, while the others showed a sad resignation that their lot as slaves had come to this. I met the eyes of one with a look I hoped held sorrow and compassion as the steel buried in his chest. Agrippina's loyal men showed no compunction at all in stabbing these literate, valuable men, withdrawing their blades and wiping them on the fallen slaves' tunicae. But I felt it was excessive. They had done no wrong; their master was the criminal. With the scribes gurgling in death upon the floor and adding to the blood shed by the other auction assistants, Agrippina's men looked to their patroness for her next directive.

'Onwards,' she said. 'He is hiding in this stinking hole somewhere.'

The dozen men surged through the tawdry rooms and dank, dark cells of the mangon 's compound, calling out his name as children would in a hide-and-seek game.

Left in their wake with the scribes' corpses, I imagined I heard a muffled sob. 'Listen…'

Nilla and Burrus, waiting with me, hadn't heard.

'Listen… there!' I ran my hands along the rough, wooden wall of the compound's atrium.

'What is it, Iphicles?' said Burrus.

'There's a hidden room behind this wall. I heard the bastard crying. Help me find the door, Burrus.'

'Like the door to the Emperor's garden?'

I had forgotten that he knew Oxheads' architectural surprises as well as I did. 'Press gently. We'll find it if we're smart.'

Burrus and Nilla joined me in running their hands along the wall, and I saw the way they stood next to each other — closer and more intimate than a mistress and slave should be.

'Move away,' I hissed at Burrus. 'You look unseemly standing that close, boy.'

Burrus stayed as he was.

'Move!'

'We have a secret,' Nilla whispered to me, feeling along the wall surface with her palms.

I guessed now what it might be and I didn't like it. 'Don't tell me anything I don't need to hear, Lady. Just help me find the man who enslaved you, if you're not bothered by the way Burrus stands next to you so disrespectfully.'

'The mangon thought he enslaved me but he never did,' said Nilla, smiling. 'And I never did anything he told me to, either.'

'Then he must have beaten you for being disobedient — and for that he deserves what's coming to him.'

'Burrus took all my beatings for me,' said Nilla. She was humble in revealing this, and it was clear how very much she loved and respected the boy.

'Burrus is very brave — ' I began to say.

'Burrus is free,' said Nilla. 'That's our secret. I freed him when we were living on the shore together. That's why he was not enslaved by this man either. We were both free when the mangon took us — so the enslavement was illegal.'

I shook my head at this childish logic and moved to another part of the shabby atrium wall, sure that a door was hidden there somewhere. I listened again for the sob but there was nothing. All I could hear was Agrippina's men deep inside the slave complex, looting the mangon 's coin chests as they searched for him. 'You are too young to perform manumission,' I told Nilla, 'and Burrus is too young to be freed. Only your mother can perform something like that in this household — or your uncle Castor.'

Burrus said nothing, concentrating on the task. I waited for Nilla to tell me I was wrong, but she said nothing either. I saw the sly looks they passed between themselves. 'Burrus is not free,' I reiterated. 'Drop these silly notions at once, Lady — it's not fair to him.'

'I know what I know,' said Burrus quietly.

'You know nothing, boy!'

'Mother has given me Burrus,' said Nilla. 'Did you know that?'

'Which only proves he's a slave — you can't "give" a freedman, Lady.'

Nilla just shrugged. 'If Burrus is mine, then it means I can treat him as I like. So I choose not to treat him as a slave.'

I scoffed. 'What are you then, Burrus?'

'I am Nilla's friend,' he said. And for a moment I felt an emotion catch in my throat at his simple, innocent dignity. In his love for Nilla he was just like me in my lifetime of love for my domina. But in Burrus's passionate desire to be free he was nothing like me at all. This dream of his was something I had never had and could never hope to understand.

I felt the wall beneath my fingers give way minutely as I pressed against it. When I leaned away, the section clicked softly into alignment once more.

'In here, Lady!' I called to Agrippina. 'The man is in here.'

All three of us heard the muffled sobs again and knew I was right.

Agrippina and her dozen men returned from where they had been pillaging the mangon 's goods, and I stood aside with Nilla and Burrus as the hidden door was battered in with axes. It soon fell into pieces, revealing a windowless anteroom where the bejewelled mangon cowered and wept on a bed. The giant German warrior we had seen at the slave auction stood impassively by the anteroom wall. I caught Nilla creasing her brow at the sight of him.

Agrippina saw him too and remembered. 'Kill the barbarian first,' she said.

Two of her loyal men threw themselves into the room with their swords raised but didn't get two feet closer before the warrior disarmed them with his bare hands. The men were left winded in dismay. The warrior produced a sword of his own and tossed it onto the floor, along with those taken from the men. His eyes flicked to Nilla and there was kindness in them before he turned to Agrippina. 'Kill me, then,' he said, in clear, unaccented Latin. 'But not in the room of this pig. I would rather die in the street where I can breathe the air and see the moon. I know why you're here. Your vengeance is well deserved, in my view.'

Agrippina stared at him in astonishment — as did the mangon. 'Defend me!' the mangon ordered. But the giant man just crossed his arms over his chest, waiting for whatever would happen next. The two disarmed men sprang forward again and pinned the mangon to the bed by his shoulders, followed by another two, who held his legs. Then the remaining men filled the room to restrain the golden-haired warrior. He made no struggle. All waited for Agrippina's word.

It took her a long moment to pull her eyes from the warrior's features. He was battle-worn and coarse, and yet he had a powerful beauty. He had been an Adonis in his youth, it was clear, but maturity had toughened him, turning his body into an instrument of death. She pulled her gaze away. 'See, Nilla,' she whispered, wanting her daughter to feast upon the scene of the mangon 's humiliation. 'This will be justice done.'

Nilla was pale, but she held steady in the face of all the violence she had seen so far. Burrus stood resolute by her side. 'Yes, Mother. Justice.'

Agrippina cast a determined look to me but I glanced at the floor. Her unstable thirst for vengeance had led her back to the slave market, but I knew it would give her no release, no matter how brutal her retributions. Agrippina's hatred of the mangon was nothing compared with the depth of her loathing for Tiberius. All this made me extremely uncomfortable, given the extent to which I myself was responsible for Agrippina's grief. But she was ignorant of that, of course, and I was determined she would remain that way. I had prophecy on my side and I drew comfort from the certainty it gave me while I played my games, hiding my true feelings from the world like any accomplished slave — or god.

One of the men handed Agrippina a short, thick, legionary's sword and she felt the weight of it, surprised by its lightness. The mangon 's eyes widened and he scrabbled on his back in the bed like an upended beetle. The men pinned him down harder.

'You enslaved my daughter — how can I not make you suffer?' she said.

'But I didn't know who she was — ' 'No excuse.'

'How could I have known? She never told me!'

'Such a beautiful patrician girl? A great-granddaughter of the Divine Augustus? You knew.'

'I didn't know anything!'

Agrippina wielded the sword inexpertly, dragging the tip along the mangon 's tunic and splitting the fabric that stretched across his fat, round gut. A red line streaked his flesh. 'Please,' he screamed, 'I'll do anything!'

She flicked the sword at his foot and was startled by how easily it took off a toe. The nub of flesh and bone bounced across the floor as the mangon howled with pain.

Nilla kept her eyes on the scene although it disgusted her. The golden-haired warrior showed no reaction. But when Nilla met his eyes again, he smiled at her. There was apology in his face, but also acceptance of whatever Fate would bring.

Suddenly Nilla turned to her mother. 'Please do not kill Flamma.'

'Who?'

'This barbarian. His name is Flamma.'

Agrippina flicked the sword at another toe.

'Please, Mother. No more killing tonight, once the mangon is done.'

Agrippina gave her daughter a look that was unfocused and lost. I saw the terrible despair in her face, the tormenting grief, and I wished to the gods that I could deliver her from it somehow — without exposing my guilt. For all that I had done, I meant Agrippina no personal ill will. But when she turned to look at the giant again, she was shocked to find pity in his eyes. Angry, she jabbed the sword near his face. 'Don't you dare feel sorry for me, barbarian.'

Flamma didn't flinch or take his eyes from her.

'Mother,' said Nilla gently, 'we would do well to have Flamma as our own slave. He is very strong and brave — but also kind.'

'He kidnapped you, Nilla — there was nothing kind in that. He is a barbarian.'

'My grandfather was a barbarian,' said Flamma, 'but not I, Lady. I am neither a warrior nor a German. I lived my life as a gladiator before this cur purchased me. I kidnapped the children as I was ordered, but it stuck in my heart to do so. It was wrong. It was always obvious to me that the girl was highborn.'

'Shut up!' screamed his pinned master.

Agrippina was again transfixed by Flamma. 'You look too old to be a gladiator,' she said.

'I am thirty years,' he agreed, 'but I was the best gladiator in Antioch in my prime.'

Agrippina faltered at the reminder of the place where her husband had died.

'I fought before the great Germanicus once.'

'Mother,' said Nilla, as Agrippina's eyes began to mist.

'It was the highest honour I have known,' Flamma went on, speaking softly to Agrippina, 'fighting before that great and noble man — and achieving victory before him too. I was the last man standing that day and Germanicus threw me a wreath. My life is worthless now, but if I could dedicate whatever I have left to something, it would be to avenging his memory.'

Agrippina blinked back her tears, raking Flamma's face for the smallest hint of cynicism or flattery, or the stink of claims made in haste by a frightened, cornered man. But Flamma showed none of these things. He was courageous and sincere. She turned to Nilla. 'Will justice still be done if we spare this man? Is that what you want?'

The girl nodded. 'Flamma will be loyal to us if he is made ours, I know it.'

The sword slipped from Agrippina's fingers, clattering to the wooden floor. 'We will take this man then,' she said to the room. 'The mangon can keep his pathetic life — if not his toes. Cut the rest of them off.'

The men began their work on the shrieking slave-seller while Agrippina pulled her palla tightly around her shoulders and led Nilla from the room. Flamma's deep blue eyes watched after her, revealing nothing. Agrippina stopped at the door and turned around to look at him one last time. The men paused in slicing up the mangon 's feet.

'The greatest gladiator in Antioch, are you?'

Flamma bowed slightly. 'I claimed that title in my prime, Lady.'

'Well, you're in Rome now, gladiator. Perhaps your prime will return?' She looked to the leader of her men. 'Put this Flamma out to fight. There will be arena combats for the Ludi Romani next year. Let's have him prepared for them so that we can see whether thirty years is the maximum age a gladiator can attain in Rome — or whether the very best from Antioch can live to see thirty-one.'

She ushered Nilla from the room, refusing to meet the gladiator's gaze again.

The guards announced their presence at the great bronze door, beating on it twice with a sword hilt and then waiting in silence. Seated in her upstairs receiving room, with her four children arranged around her like the statues of household gods, Aemilia heard the noise and closed her eyes. 'They are prompt,' she said. She took a last sip of the Falernian wine she cradled, savouring its fine taste. 'Exquisite,' she said, after a moment.

The children wore their mourning clothes already, their faces streaked with grief. Aemilia's two sons, the young Aemilius and the red-haired mute, Ahenobarbus, just seven and fifteen respectively, wore the unbleached funeral togae of men. Lepida and Domitia, fifteen and thirteen, were mirrors of their mother's great beauty, despite their undressed hair and grey stolae. Three of the four heirs of the Aemilii looked at their mother with a depth of love that went beyond any words. The fourth heir, Ahenobarbus, was unable to look at anything but the flame of the oil lamp.

Aemilia stood, placing the cup on her table and reaching for a goblet of water. She drank deep, carefully wetting her lips with it, before putting it aside. 'I am ready now,' she said.

The children assembled in a line.

Smoothing her simple white gown at her lap, she lifted the edge of the silk shawl she wore at her shoulders so that it rested on her hair.

'You look beautiful, Mama,' said Aemilius.

Aemilia placed her lips to his and then kissed his hands. The boy pressed his palms to his face when she released him, holding them there with his eyes closed. Aemilia moved to the mute Ahenobarbus, kissing him in the same way.

'You are simple, you cannot speak, and these are things that won't be fixed, my son. But still Veiovis has marked you — remember that.' Ahenobarbus kept his pale blue eyes fixed on the lamp flame.

Aemilia embraced her girls.

'Remember everything I have told you,' she whispered to

Lepida. She turned to them all. 'Always look for the path. Veiovis will offer it, but it is up to you to see what he offers and recognise it for what it is. The chance for power will come for each one of you — it is promised. The Aemilii will be great again. The hopes of our ancestors rest in your hands.'

All the children except Ahenobarbus nodded, their eyes shining.

She laid her hands at her belly as if something kicked inside her, and then placed them at her breast.

'Are you ready, Mama?' said Aemilius.

She nodded. 'Very much. Let us descend.'

Aemilia led the small procession of her family from her receiving room into the airy passage outside. She looked past the balustrade and down to the beautiful garden for the last time. Some of the potted trees still held their red and golden leaves from autumn. 'You'll tend my garden for me, won't you?' she asked of no child in particular.

'Yes, Mother,' Domitia whispered.

Aemilia touched her youngest daughter's cheek. 'The pleasures it brings are very simple ones, you'll find, but the escape it can bring you from all of Rome's woes, well…' Her voice trailed away.

'Wait, Mother, let me pick something from the garden for you to carry,' Domitia said.

'We don't have time for it, child — the guards will grow impatient of me.'

'I can do it, please — the flowers will add to your beauty.'

Aemilia smiled, pressing her hands to her belly again.

Domitia ran down the passage towards the stairs. The assembled household slaves in the atrium below looked up at her with red-rimmed eyes as she came towards them, two steps at a time. 'Scissors! Or a sharp knife!'

A kitchen slave had a knife at his belt. 'Here, domina.'

Domitia took it from him and ran through her dead father's study and into the courtyard garden beyond. The first of the winter bulbs were in flower, sweet-smelling narcissi, and Domitia slashed the knife at their stalks. She looked to the floor above and saw her mother's pale face smiling down at her. Aemilius had his hand at her forehead, wiping her brow. 'See, Mother, look,' Domitia called, gathering a small bunch. Aemilia's hands were at her belly again.

Domitia left the knife and ran back through her dead father's study and into the great atrium. The red-eyed slaves parted like the winter flowers she had harvested as Domitia flew towards the stairs. Her mother waited at the top, smiling with love. Domitia held the little yellow bunch before her as she ascended, panting and out of breath. 'Look, they're so lovely, Mother.'

Aemilia leaned forward, almost touching the flowers with her fingertips. 'Thank you,' she whispered, inhaling the rich scent. Then the light of love went out in her eyes.

'Mother?'

Aemilia fell, crashing hard on the stairs. Her body tumbled past as Domitia screamed, still clutching the flowers in her fist. The revered matron of the Aemilii came to rest in the arms of her household slaves, who caught her before she struck the atrium floor. The sweet perfume of the narcissi was the last thing Aemilia had known before the poisoned Falernian wine had spared her from the Tarpeian Rock.

Aemilius opened the great bronze door to the waiting Praetorians. 'My mother's life is not the Emperor's to take,' he told them with dignity. 'She wishes the Emperor to know that she has claimed that great privilege herself.'

The Praetorian Tribune nodded, neither surprised nor outraged. 'Any last words?'

Aemilius didn't hesitate, handing the Praetorian Domitia's little bunch of flowers. 'She praised her winter bulbs,' the boy said. 'And she asked that you place these in a vase of water for the Emperor's pleasure.'

Returning from the broken mangon 's house, I was late in performing my nightly services for Livia. Unwrapping the silk from the phallus, I placed the fertility tool under the bedclothes while I moved away to tidy my domina 's feeding implements. I kept her nourished via hollow reeds, which I filled with soup and slid down her throat. I was rinsing these in a pail of water when I had the sensation of being watched.

'Little Boots, get back to your bed at once,' I called out.

There was no reply. I turned around to see where he was but there was nothing, only my domina in her endless slumber.

'Go — now,' I hissed into the shadows of the oil-lit room.

There was no answering sound. The boy wasn't there. I turned back to where I'd been dipping the reeds in the pail and felt the eyes again.

The faintest voice whispered in the lamplight. ' So long asleep..'

I spun around. There was still no one but my domina, the phallus a lump under the linen.

'Who's there?' I cried out. I began to fear it was a vengeful spirit from the dead. 'Who are you? Is it Tiberius Nero? Marcellus?'

The shades did not reply.

Uneasy, I returned to my task. But as I took the reed from the pail and let the water drip free, another chill gripped me. I knew there was no one else in the room, and yet the certainty that I was not alone was terrible. I forced myself to remain where I was and not turn around a third time, so that the ghost couldn't enter my soul through my eyes. I kept my fearful gaze fixed upon the pail of water.

'What do you want?' I murmured. 'Please, tell me how I can make amends for what I've done to you.'

There was not another sound in the room — not a sound in all of Oxheads, it seemed to me. It took a great toll on my courage, but I compelled myself to turn around once more and face the spectre. But the room was unchanged. My domina was still lost in sleep on her bed.

As I stepped forward to reassure myself that my mind was playing tricks, my foot connected with an object and sent it spinning across the tiles. It was the phallus I had hidden under the bedclothes. How had it fallen from the bed without me hearing it?

I stooped to retrieve the wooden implement from the floor, and as I raised myself I glanced at my domina 's eyes.

They were wide open.

Matronalia

March, AD 21

Four months later: the Numidian rebel leader Tacfarinas sends diplomats threatening perpetual war upon Rome if he is not paid off with land

There are only two days in the calendar when Roman slaves are not required to work. The better-known is Saturnalia, which falls in the middle of winter, when household roles are reversed and nervous slaves are 'waited upon' by their masters for an evening meal. It's a sham, of course. If any slave dared cook and serve the sort of slops our masters hurl at us on that day, we'd meet agonising deaths with the carnifex. Yet we all giggle and joke, pretending we're living like princes while our 'servants' get steadily drunk before giving up the game and retiring to bed. We 'masters' are then expected to clean up the mess. No pity is given to any slave who may have taken the frivolity a step too far, putting on airs and forgetting his place. Many an idiot has woken up the following day to a savage whipping from his dominus as the natural order of the household is returned.

The other day off for slaves is Matronalia, Juno's festival of motherhood, when women wear their hair long and loose and are forbidden to tie belts around their gowns. On this day mothers receive presents from their husbands and daughters, and each household mistress prepares a 'special' evening meal for her slaves. Like Saturnalia, it's a sham too, but when your life is one of servitude and drudgery interspersed with occasional cruelty, any day that takes you out of the humdrum is still to be cherished. But in the year the rebel Tacfarinas sent his stinking envoys to Rome, I lived in growing terror as Matronalia approached.

At Oxheads, the household's official mistress was still my domina, asleep or not, and I was expected to ensure that she was fit to be seen when the day came. It didn't matter that she couldn't cook a meal — she was only expected to say that she had. In the first two years of Livia's sleep-filled state, Matronalia had not been a trial for me. Without knowing the reasons behind her sleep, Tiberius understood that his mother was unfit to be displayed before the assembled palace slaves; he let it be known, truthfully, that she was too unwell for the job. Antonia had performed the duties instead, that redoubtable mother of Livilla, Claudius and the dead Germanicus. But this year Oxheads' mistress was 'awake'.

Kneeling at the centre of his band of supporters, Castor stared into his grandmother's open eyes. 'But she is awake, Iphicles — look at her.'

Jostled and elbowed by the dozen or so men who had crowded with Castor into Livia's suite, I tried to hide my desperation as I explained. 'Her eyes are open, yes, domine, but that's all. There's nothing behind them. Her mind is still asleep. She cannot appear at Matronalia.'

Castor waved a hand in front of Livia's staring eyes. She blinked. 'My grandmother can see me,' he said.

I knew it was true, but still I tried to cover. 'The physician says that while her eyes seem to be working, her mind is not. She can't speak and she can't move.' I pinched the flesh on Livia's arm. 'She can't feel, domine — you see, she has no feeling.'

I noticed Little Boots worming his way in among the crowd of men.

Castor slapped my hand from his grandmother's arm. 'The physician is wrong — she can feel it.' Indeed, my domina 's eyes were watering. 'She can't communicate it.' Castor glared at me. 'And if I ever see you pinching her like that again, I'll have you flogged, Iphicles, is that clear?'

I saw Little Boots stifle a laugh at my discomfort. 'Yes, domine,' I cringed.

'Help me sit her up,' Castor ordered.

I bent forward to help him lift her in the bed, but his supporters shoved me aside and several of them gave their assistance to Castor in my place, arranging my domina against her pillows so that she sat upright and surveyed the whole room.

'Look,' said Castor in amazement. Livia's eyes began to focus on what was now in front of her — the bed linen, the drapery, the faces of Castor's friends gaping back at her. 'She can see everything now! She's the Augusta again.' He kissed her cheek. 'I've missed you so much, Grandmother,' he whispered. 'Will yourself to speak to me again — I know you can do it. Rome needs you.'

Livia's head lolled a little as he embraced her. Her stare fell upon Little Boots and I saw him go pale.

Castor noticed the boy. 'Nephew,' he said, beckoning Little Boots forward, 'your great-grandmother wants your kiss.'

I saw the repulsion flooding Little Boots's face and I felt a terror at what he might do or say that could risk exposing us both.

'Kiss her,' said Castor. 'Help her gain the strength to recover.'

Little Boots looked at me, frightened. The smile I attempted was a grimace. 'Your great-grandmother loves you,' I croaked.

Little Boots gingerly stood on his toes, leaning across my domina 's bed. Her eyes shifted in their sockets, remaining fixed upon him like the eyes of a statue. He brushed his lips against her cheek and then withdrew behind the bedhead where her staring eyes couldn't reach him.

'Iphicles,' said Castor.

I kept my gaze to the ground, fearing that if I lifted my head Livia would look at me with terrible accusation; perhaps the power of her inner fury would even fill her with voice. In the months since her eyes had reopened, I had done everything I could to keep them closed, short of poking them out with a pin. I had plunged the room into near-darkness, closing the window shutters and putting out the oil lamps. I had kept my gaze averted from her face at all times as I fed and bathed her, placing shrouds and shawls and sometimes even cushions across her eyes just to block out her stare.

But no matter what I did, I knew she could see. I knew she was conscious and I knew what she was thinking. She planned her vengeance on me. I doubled the amount of ointment I smeared upon the phallus, and then tripled it, until there was enough in her nightly doses to stun a horse into paralysis. But my domina had built up such a resistance to it that nothing I gave her would send her back to Somnus again. It was fast becoming clear that unless she somehow returned to sleep, my only option would be to kill her, my domina, whom I loved more than my own life. I would have to kill her in order to fulfil the very prophecies to which her own life had been dedicated. I would have to kill her to allow Little Boots to become the second king. If I did not, she would awaken fully and kill me, and then kill Sejanus for what he'd done to her chosen second king, Germanicus.

When it came to the prophecies, Livia placed her wishes above the divine words themselves. This had brought her disaster but she had failed to learn. I had studied the lessons instead.

'Iphicles, look at me,' said Castor with a tone that permitted no argument.

I lifted my head and Livia's vengeance-filled eyes were indeed upon me.

'We owe you a great debt for the service you have given in caring for the Augusta,' said Castor.

I opened my mouth, trying to speak.

'A great debt,' Castor repeated. 'But I fear we exploited your love for my grandmother, leaving you to care for her wholly on your own.'

I was being relieved of my duty. Castor was reading me my death sentence.

'But Iphicles wanted to look after great-grandmother all by himself,' Little Boots piped up from behind the bedhead. 'He sent the other slaves away.' He thought he was helping me with this damning defence.

'And we should never have allowed that to happen. Iphicles is too old.'

I swallowed. My mouth felt like it was full of sand. 'I don't feel old, domine,' I rasped.

Castor dismissed this and I saw a spark of malicious glee within my domina 's stare. She relished my pain — it would lead to her freedom. I threw myself onto the floor at the end of the bed. 'Please, domine,' I wailed. 'Don't take me away from her. I've given my whole life to serving my domina — I promised I'd never leave her.'

Castor's friends and supporters were disgusted by my display.

'You're old and tired,' Castor told me. 'I think you've earned a good rest.'

' Domine, please — please!' I writhed upon the tiles.

There was a long, condemning pause while I choked and sobbed. When at last I stopped, I raised my head to see that several of Castor's friends had already left the room, unable to bear me. My domina 's eyes were closed now, but she was listening, I knew. She believed she was free at last.

'You can stay then,' Castor said.

Livia's eyes sprang open.

'But I will provide you with help.'

I held my breath.

'A slave from my household will join you and take over most of your tasks. You can supervise.'

I darted a look at Little Boots. He was as shocked by the reprieve as I was.

My domina 's eyes began to narrow, calculating what this would mean for me and for her.

'Who will this slave be?' I whispered, hoping my tone conveyed the correct gratitude to Castor.

'I have a eunuch in my household. He lives to serve. I will send him here.'

My fear of being banished from ever seeing the prophecies fulfilled was gone. My courage returned and I met my domina 's eye with a level stare. But her look had a dark excitement to it now. She knew better than anyone what I was capable of, but she also knew what Castor had done. He had never intended to remove me from caring for her. Why would he? He understood that no one loved her more than I did. He knew that my obsession for her was so all-consuming that I had even sacrificed my manhood just to honour her. But all the same, he didn't trust me. Castor knew I had secrets, but he was unsure of what they were. This eunuch was to be his spy in uncovering them.

If my domina had found her voice at that moment, she would have laughed and laughed at my predicament.

'I would have thought he'd be more upset about it,' said Livilla to her husband as they ate their breakfast of wine-soaked bread.

'It's a change of scene for him — new tasks, new responsibilities,' said Castor. 'It's good to vary a slave's experiences every now and then. Keeps them interested in life, stops them becoming depressed.'

'You're too slack with them,' said Livilla.

'And you're too harsh. It's why they don't love you.'

Livilla was hurt to hear this said but tried to pretend she wasn't. 'It's better to be feared.'

'No, it isn't,' said Castor. He sat up in the dining couch, breakfast done.

Livilla's pup, Scylax, came to lick the dripping wine from her fingers. 'The eunuch is already depressed — or just plain sullen and disobedient. He used to be such a sweet-tempered boy. I don't know what's come over him lately.'

Castor had a theory but didn't bother inflaming his wife by sharing it. 'He will join our grandmother's house this morning. I have told him to pack anything he feels he might need.'

Livilla scoffed. 'The slave's got possessions now?'

'Things that might be useful in his work. Honestly, Livilla, try to think of a kind departing word you can say to Lygdus — you owe him that at least.'

Livilla glared as Castor walked out of the dining room. 'What's that supposed to mean?' she called after him. But he had gone. Livilla kissed the slender head of her beloved Laconian. 'I won't miss that fat lump,' she told the pup. 'Good riddance to him. I hope my grandmother gives him hell.'

Leaving the house to spend the morning at the magistrates' courts, Nero found Lygdus waiting in the entrance hall. The eunuch had chosen to take nothing with him, despite Castor telling him he should.

'You're leaving us, I hear?' said Nero.

Lygdus was surprised it warranted any comment. He met the young dominus 's eyes for a moment, before Nero was the first to look away. Lygdus automatically bobbed to the floor and ran a damp piece of sponge across Nero's street shoes, wiping the dust from them. 'Yes, domine,' he mumbled. 'I am being sent to the household of the Augusta.' Nero said nothing else on the matter.

When Lygdus was done, he stood, keeping his eyes downcast and waiting for Nero to walk out to join his retinue. But Nero stayed where he was. When Lygdus dared to meet the young master's eyes again, he was confused by the lack of shame or anger there. Instead there was a look to Nero's face that the eunuch barely knew. Was it affection?

'Thank you,' Nero said, 'for all that… Well, just thank you.'

Lygdus gaped. Then he felt an object placed in his hand. It was a gold aureus coin. He looked at Nero in astonishment but the young man was already joining his retinue in the street outside. When the front door closed, Lygdus stayed staring at the coin for a long time. He had never known what it was to hold such a thing. He turned the weight of it over in his palm, wrapping his fingers around it and uncurling them again to stare at the golden image of the Emperor's profile.

When the time came to make the very short journey to the Augusta's house, Lygdus left the aureus sitting in the bottom of the footbath water. Let the next foot-washing slave find it, Lygdus thought. The House of Castor had mutilated him, and now, just as they decided they should be rid of his embarrassment, they deigned to grace him with compensation. No. Lygdus had his dignity intact, if nothing else. His butchered manhood would not be paid for in gold.

But as he stepped into the daylight, Lygdus felt a pang of regret. The Augusta's household could well be worse than the home he was leaving. He would endure it, of course, no matter how bad it was. That was his lot as a slave. But how sad it would be to look back on his life and know he had rejected the one act of kindness that had not been a mask for cruelty. The young master had rewarded him out of gratitude. It wasn't hush money. Lygdus had been given the coin because he had already held his tongue and would have done so even if he had not been rewarded. Nero recognised nobility in Lygdus, yet Lygdus was only a slave.

Lygdus ducked inside again and retrieved the coin from the footbath.

As he reappeared in the daylight with the wet aureus tucked inside his loincloth, the faintest echo of a whisper touched his ear.

' The one near sea falls by a lie that comes from the gelding's tongue…'

Startled, Lygdus turned to see who had spoken to him.

There was no one there.

The Kalends of April

AD 21

One month later: Julius Sacrovir of the Aedui sows the seeds of rebellion in Gaul

With Livia's 'recovery' the order was given that she should be paraded around Rome like a goddess, as a part of Castor's public retinue. Whenever her grandson traversed the Forum, fronted the courts, witnessed the floggings or attended the Senate, the Augusta was to accompany him, sitting upright in a canopied throne held by eight litter-bearers. This would provide an indelible image for Rome, the city for which spectacle and display was all.

It fell to me — and my new 'apprentice', Lygdus — to coordinate these processions. I tied Livia's neck and torso to the back of the throne, then draped her in concealing robes and placed a diadem on her head. Lygdus made a contribution to these preparations that could only be described as token. It became clear to me that he was lazy and offensive and showed no talent for work. All he did was eat, sleep and complain. Yet still I had to suffer his daily presence along with the nagging certainty that he was Castor's agent. This meant I couldn't slight him, or — which would have been more deserved — strike him in the teeth and push him down the stairs. And the stealth required to employ the phallus under these circumstances was exhausting in the extreme. Lygdus was my millstone.

I carefully watched my domina 's eyes during these preparations, as did Little Boots whenever he was present. If Livia had any objection to being exhibited, we saw no sign of it in her. To the people of Rome who witnessed her passing by in the canopied throne, she seemed regal and worthy of awe. They were glad she was back. Castor's public dignity increased tenfold when people saw that she was with him. The fact that she neither spoke nor moved but only stared fixedly into the middle distance seemed to strike no one as odd. But this was no surprise. In her days as the wife of Augustus she had rarely spoken in public; more often, she'd been seen exactly as she was now.

On one occasion, in glorious spring, when the streets and temples were vivid with flowers, the domina 's processional preparations took longer than usual. In addition to her diadem and robes, I was attempting to hang garlands on her person, Castor's order being that she should remind the people of the goddess Flora. But various slaves had been in and out of the suite since dawn, filling me in on a developing morning of scandal in the Forum. Burrus's mother Nymphomidia stole in, eating pears from a bowl.

'Have you heard about Annia Rufilla?'

This was a notorious widow whose financial improprieties had brought her before the courts. 'She's been convicted of fraud,' I said. 'That's old news, Nymphomidia.'

The slave's lips peeled into a smile. 'You haven't heard then?'

'I've been hearing it all morning.'

'Sounds to me like you've been hearing the old news, Iphicles. Oh well, I won't trouble you,' said Nymphomidia, crunching a pear and making to go.

I saw that listening Livia was keen for the next instalment and decided to allow her this pleasure. 'Tell me, then — what's happened now?'

Nymphomidia had become used to speaking to me as if Livia wasn't even in the room. 'Annia's been screaming in the Forum that Gallus is a cunt. She called him a boy-lover, too, and said he took it up the arse.'

I guffawed and Livia's eyes shone with mirth. 'She can't say that sort of thing in the Forum! Gallus is a senator.'

'And he's also the magistrate who convicted her.'

'Has Gallus found out?'

'She was on the Senate steps. It was hard for him to miss it.'

I laughed again. 'I suppose she's been arrested?'

'Guess again,' said Nymphomidia. 'Gallus sent the lictors out with their rods raised ready to give her one, but they stopped in their tracks when she pulled a surprise out of her palla.'

'A knife? Why would they care if she killed herself?'

'It wasn't a knife — it was a bust of Tiberius.'

I felt a twinge of dread and caught my domina 's eye again. Her look of amusement had turned malicious. 'What did Annia mean by doing that?'

'To have Gallus accused of treason.'

'That doesn't make sense.'

'If the lictors had beaten her, she would have dropped the bust — it would have smashed on the ground. Gallus would have been seen as the one who had caused it.'

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. 'People are being accused of treason for breaking busts of the Emperor now?'

'Where have you been, Iphicles? It's very lucrative for those who make such accusations. They get a share of the traitor's estate.'

That was the first time, I think, that I questioned the wisdom of Cybele. It had been the Great Mother's prophecies that I had dedicated my life to fulfilling, and this had led me to commit many crimes. But everything had been necessary for the greater good of Rome, I had always told myself, and for the greater glory of my domina, Cybele's mortal manifestation. And without this certainty, how else could I have continued with so many innocent dead around me? Yet, hearing the news of Annia's shameless behaviour, I wondered whether the actions of Tiberius, the prophesied first king, could also be called for the 'glory of Rome'. Tiberius's vanity had allowed this travesty to happen — and it opened the door for so much more.

'What did Gallus do?'

Nymphomidia took another bite of her pear. 'What could he do? She caught him, it's the perfect revenge. She's still out there now, dragging his dignity through the horseshit while he sits in the Senate blocking his ears.'

There was a tiny sound from the back of my domina 's throat, barely perceptible, but loud enough for Nymphomidia and me to hear in the brief silence.

The slave dropped her pear. 'Did the Augusta just speak?'

I would have denied it, anxious to cover all evidence of my domina 's returning senses, but the news had unsettled me and I wasn't fast enough with my reply before the noise came again.

Nymphomidia peered into my domina 's face. 'She is speaking. What are you trying to say, Lady?'

Livia kept her eyes fixed wholly upon me and I felt an old chill grip my spine again. 'She's not saying anything,' I insisted.

'But she is, Iphicles.'

'No,' I said, ill in my guts. 'She's not saying anything… she's laughing.'

Livia's wicked eyes glinted. It was true.

When Nymphomidia made her hasty excuses to leave, I flew to the chest that held the phallus. 'Things will be worse with you finding voice again,' I hissed at Livia. 'Do you love it that your son Tiberius's rule brings such shameful things to pass? Do you think it glorifies you all the more with people so debased? I am starting to wonder whether this is really for Rome's good at all. Perhaps it is time for the second king to ascend. A boy's rule can only be better than this sort of disgrace — especially if he has wise heads to guide him.'

I flung the lid of the chest open. It was empty. Livia made the tiny noise again, mocking me from her processional throne. I ripped the linen from her bed to see if I'd left it there in my distraction, but I hadn't. 'Where is it?' I spat at her. 'I'm going to make you sit on the thing for the whole procession just to punish you.'

Her eyes flashed fire.

I ran from chest to chest, flinging them all open. I pulled a tapestry from the wall, exposing the storage shelves of vases and ornaments behind it. There was no sign of the wooden fertility implement anywhere in the room.

'I know what you do with this thing,' said Lygdus.

I span around in shock. The young eunuch was lolling at the door, cradling the phallus in his hands.

'I know what you do — you shove it inside her.'

All words failed me in my exposure.

Lygdus smirked. 'You think I just stuff myself with cakes all the time while whining like a brat? I'm studying you, Iphicles, in all the hours we spend together. I study you like a book.'

I said nothing, waiting for him to make clear his intentions.

Lygdus placed the phallus tip beneath his nostrils and gave it a little sniff. He recoiled. 'So is this what her sex smells of? This stinks like poison.'

My guilty silence was the most the damning noise I could have made.

Lygdus's eyes widened. 'This is poison?'

The time it took for the breath to leave my lungs was all I had to decide on how to respond. Lygdus wasn't screaming in horror, or calling me a monster or a wretch. He was staring in shock, yes, but there was something else, too. He was impressed. I saw the merest shadow of my reflection in his eyes.

'It paralyses her,' I said.

Lygdus dropped the thing like it burned his hands.

'But it's failed. She can already see again and now she's beginning to speak.'

A wave of thrilled delight washed over the eunuch's face. 'You hate the Augusta?' he whispered.

Of course this wasn't true. I loved my domina more than anything and everything there was. But I saw in his smile the answer he wanted me to give, so I said, 'I hate her with all my soul.'

Lygdus gave a little giggle. 'Really?'

I nodded, solemn.

'Well, I can beat that — I hate them all!'

I burst out laughing in surprise.

'I want to see them dead. I want to see them nailed to trees. Every last dominus, every domina — they're all pigs. I want to slaughter them. I want to eat them.'

I had to steady myself.

'They cut off my balls,' Lygdus went on. 'They left me in a sheep's pen with the blood and the pain, and no one even cared if I lived or died. But I beat them — I didn't give up. Yet still I swelled like an elephant and my voice stayed like a boy's.'

I tried hard not to laugh now.

'I heard they cut off your balls too?' he said.

I couldn't tell him that I had made this sacrifice myself. 'It's true,' I lied.

The eunuch leaped from the door and threw his arms around me. 'We're brothers,' he declared, kissing my face and hair, 'brothers in suffering.'

I could only nod.

Lygdus stopped his kisses and took a step back to examine my face. 'Have you ever hurt one?' he whispered. 'One of them — have you ever hurt one, Iphicles?'

I took my final gamble. It was time for the truth again, or at least a version of it. 'I've done more than hurt — I've killed one, Lygdus. More than one, actually.'

Lygdus went white. I felt the back of my tunica belt, letting my fingers rest on the dagger I kept there. I intended killing him if I had misjudged my gamble, and would have to face the consequences later. Everything hinged on what he would do next.

The eunuch sank to his haunches and started kissing my shoes.

'What are you doing?'

'Show me your skills,' he begged me. 'Let me learn from your wisdom, Iphicles.'

'Stop that — let go of me.'

'I want to kill them too.'

'What?'

'Trust me, Iphicles — I want to kill them like you.'

I tried to pull my feet away but one of my woollen house shoes came loose in Lygdus's hands. The eunuch seized upon my bare foot, plunging his tongue between the spaces and placing my toes within his lips. My repulsion only lasted a few moments. I looked back to my domina, who was watching the whole exchange from her throne.

I gave her a long, bright smile, showing her every one of my teeth. She could not return the smile, but I wondered then, if she had regained the ability, whether she would have grinned back at me regardless of our differences. If only because I so richly deserved it.

I looked down at the fawning Lygdus and thanked the Great Mother for the gifts she continued to give me.

When my domina was nearly smothered in garlands and ready for her procession, Lygdus and I resumed our conversation while we waited for the litter-bearers. I asked the eunuch what he expected to gain from such murderous desires. Lygdus claimed to want nothing. Money had no appeal for him, nor did sexual pleasure, he said. The only things that held his interest were matters of the heart. His greatest desire was to serve a master who loved him. But he had given up this dream as hopeless. None of them would love him. This was why he wanted them dead.

I suspected the young eunuch was not wholly right in the head, but when I thought of the intense interest he had shown in my feet I could only marvel. Perhaps Lygdus's 'deserving master' could even be a slave?

It was then that he told me about his thwarted visit to Tiberius. Thrown by this revelation, I went very still. 'Why did you go to see him, Lygdus?'

The eunuch told me that he'd wanted to inform the Emperor of the birth of Livilla's boy. I absorbed this. 'But Tiberius would have found out himself the same night. Why did he need to hear it from you?'

Lygdus raised his eyes again and his look was flirtatious. 'Because I knew what no one else knew, Iphicles, and I still know it now.'

Although my eyes narrowed, my smile took on a shadow of flirtation too, just to encourage him to tell me. 'What would that be?'

Lygdus placed a hand upon his breast to feel the heartbeat fluttering beneath the mound of his flesh. 'My dominus Castor is not the father of that child.'

After a long moment I said, 'No one else knows it?'

'No one but my domina, Livilla, and she'll never dare tell anyone. And the baby's father knows it too. He's always known.'

'And how do you know?'

'I overhear my domina 's prayers.'

The eunuch had greater stealth and cunning than I had given him credit for. All he lacked was execution. There was another long pause as we stared at each other.

'And who is the father?' I asked at last, my voice the lowest of whispers.

Lygdus told me.

I gave a sigh of pleasure as so many things made sense. I fancied I heard Livia make a similar noise, although I'm sure there was little pleasure in it for her. But when I looked to her, she gave nothing away. We heard the litter-bearers' boots echoing up the corridor towards the suite. Castor's Forum procession was starting.

'Perhaps it's time the secret lovers came out into the open?' I whispered to Lygdus.

'They'll never do that. It would ruin them both.'

'Perhaps we can do something so that there will be no scandal? Perhaps we can make them see that they have a hope of being happy one day?'

'Will we kill someone to do it?'

The eight litter-bearers entered the room and took their positions under the poles that ran along each side of my domina 's throne. I saw the glint of what I thought were tears in her eyes. Tears of what, I wondered. Horror? Misery? Or, perhaps — dared I allow myself to hope it — even excitement? I knew she had heard every word we'd spoken. The bearers lifted her and I saw her eyes no more. I turned back to Lygdus.

'Yes, we will,' I whispered. 'We will kill someone very soon. And not long after that, we will kill again. And then again.'

Lygdus laughed with delight and we took our places in our domina 's wake, trailing among the other household slaves who streamed from all corners of Oxheads as Livia's throne was borne along the great halls. We crossed the front threshold and left the grand house, stepping into the golden light of day. Livia looked resplendent as Flora. The eunuch basked in her reflected glory as the mob in the street began to shout and cheer the sight of their Augusta. Lygdus preened as though the cries were meant for him. I indulged him in this folly of youth. In my state of advanced years the love of the mob meant very little. Too often I had seen it turn.

' Why do you kill them?' he whispered to me once we had begun our progress down the Palatine. 'Is it for vengeance?'

I could have lied and claimed this to be true. Looking back on it now, I see how much less painful it would have been if I had. But in my happy realisation that I had found in Lygdus not only a kindred spirit and an ally, but also that very rarest of things in Rome, a friend, I chanced the greatest risk I had taken in my life.

'I do it all for Cybele,' I said.

He blinked at me in confusion. 'For the Great Mother?'

I nodded, my eyes shining with joy. Then I told him everything about the prophecies and divinity, and how Cybele gave her greatest gifts to her eunuchs. We had reached the Forum by the time I was done, and hundreds of people trailed behind and around us, screaming my domina 's name. Lygdus was bewildered by what I had told him, the glories of the procession forgotten. His heart burned with new hope and possibility.

I pointed to the head of the procession, where Castor walked like a prince, his baby son in his arms and his three fine nephews by his side. 'See,' I said, 'see up there? There he is — our second prophesied king.'

Lygdus struggled to comprehend it all. 'My dominus Castor?'

'No, not him…'

'Then the second king is Nero…?' he said in wonder.

I shook my head, still smiling, and showed him who it really was that Cybele had ordained.

'Little Boots?'

I closed my eyes, nodding. 'And what a king he will be.' I was enraptured. But when I opened them again, my spirits soaring to the skies, I saw the look of utter confusion that remained upon the eunuch's face. I guessed why he was so puzzled — Little Boots was still a boy, after all.

'The Great Mother is unknowable,' I said. 'We cannot understand all that she commands. All we know is this: everything she does, she does for Rome.'

Lygdus nodded slowly, and for the remainder of the procession, for the full duration of our long, magnificent path, he repeated all that I had told him, whispering it under his breath, telling himself to believe.

Dazzled by the possibilities that his once bleak future now held, Lygdus wanted nothing more than to find the comfort that was mine in holding so much deep certainty in my heart. He wanted to achieve the blissful ignorance that I nursed in the blindness of such faith.

I would not discover it for many years, but Lygdus tried and failed, and tried and failed, and tried that much harder again that day to achieve these things that were mine. And when the tiny, nagging doubts flared up in his heart, biting, gnawing and grinding against his conscience, Lygdus beat them back, enraged that comfort and ignorance were denied to him. He would achieve all that I had achieved, Lygdus told himself violently.

As all the gods were his witnesses, he would achieve what was mine.

MY SOLACE IN THIS TIME OF WOES

Ludi Romani

September, AD 21

Five months later: the rebel forces of Sacrovir occupy Augustodunum, Gaul, taking the sons of the Gallic nobility hostage

We elbowed and kicked against the surging mass of gawpers, trying to force our way through to catch a glimpse of the gladiators' banquet. The size of the crowd was impossible to measure, as was the distance to the raised dining couches on the other side of the Forum that held the leading gladiators of the Ludi Romani — the Roman Games. They could have been twenty feet away, or a hundred. The monuments of the Forum seemed to bend and recede beyond the heads of idolatrous fans.

My own head span in the haze and I felt like weeping in frustration. Yet I could think of no other way to achieve our mission, so we had to go on. We had a goal, a vital plan, but we were still too ill-equipped to commence it. The only way we could obtain what we needed was by reaching a vantage point where we could see everyone present at the gladiators' public feast. If we could survey the whole crowd, I reasoned, perhaps I would somewhere see her, the woman whose skills were essential for the success of our scheme. In my gut I knew she was present.

'Keep going!' I yelled to Lygdus over my shoulder. 'We can do this!'

Those we kicked and struck were doing the same to us and to everyone else besides. Sexual invitations and lusty cheers were flung at the gorging gladiators, merging with cries of pain and outrage as the crowd thrilled and brawled. We were in a scene from a nightmare, beyond our depth in a putrid pool of scratching, spitting, stamping ghouls. Fist blows rained upon me. Hair was yanked from my head and my eyes were blackened. Two of my teeth had already been loosened by a fuller armed with a club — a man I knew well and usually admired, because he washed my domina 's linen. But like everyone else, the excitement of the games had made him lose his mind. I was in danger of losing my own.

'Move forward, Lygdus!' I yelled. 'I think I can see the Thracians up ahead!' Indeed, I could just see a glimmer of the Balkan warriors' gilt crowns.

The noise around us was like the pits of Hades as we forged forward. The gladiators stuffed themselves as if reclining on Olympus. Still, the crowd's din was nothing to the noise they would make tomorrow when the same idols would be let loose upon each other for the games. The gladiators would savour hell tomorrow, and the mob's turn would come to sit high above and watch the spectacle of death. But neither Lygdus nor I gave a fig for the games. Like most slaves, we found the idea of fellow men of servitude going to such bloody deaths repellent. And today's traditional 'last feast' we thought equally as vile. We were only among them at all because I clung to such a slim hope.

'I'm dying!' cried Lygdus from somewhere behind me. 'Iphicles!'

I turned and managed to locate him. He was poking the eyes of a youth he was gripping by the throat. 'You're not dying,' I yelled. 'You're showing him who's boss!'

The youth tore himself from Lygdus's hands and managed to lurch away. Lygdus struggled through the seething mass of men and women to reach me.

'Can you see the gladiators?' he shouted above the din.

We strained to see above the heads in front of us and caught a clear view of a table of Thracian fighters, and behind them a group of Celts, all gorging on platters of food.

'How will they fight tomorrow with their bellies so full?' Lygdus wanted to know.

'We need to get on those platforms,' I yelled at him.

'Where the dining couches are? The gladiators will do you in for it!'

'I'll pretend I'm a serving slave.'

'They'll kill you, Iphicles.'

'I have to be able to see the whole crowd,' I insisted. 'We've waited months for the Ludi Romani to begin. She loves them too much to resist returning to Rome.'

'I still don't understand. Just who is this "she"?'

'I told you.'

'Not very well,' Lygdus muttered.

I stared at the massive Thracians. Lygdus was right. They would kill me if I dared to mount their platform. 'There are other platforms, further forward,' I shouted, 'with different men — not so fierce.'

Lygdus was doubtful. 'This woman you seek — why do we need her at all?'

'For what she can give us. Now follow me.'

'But what about the stuff you've got for Livia? Can't some of that be spared?'

'No, it cannot!' I cried. 'She's a threat enough already. I need every last smear. What we need for our new plan is a very different kind of poison. One that doesn't just incapacitate — we need one that kills.'

Progress became easier once we made it closer to the dining platforms. The gladiators were protected by bodyguards, and the presence of so many armed men — the gladiators included — made the spectators with the clearest view of the feast suppress their violence. The brawls were confined only to the middle and the back.

We wove through the tightly packed youths and women who ogled their idols with such unwholesome glee. I heard an offer of marriage made by a widow — and the acceptance of it given by a laughing gladiator, should he survive tomorrow's butchery. Among the gladiators were groups of free men, 'volunteers' who had sold themselves into fighting at the games because of hard times. We saw one of them freeing his own household slaves in a theatrical act of manumission.

'He'll regret that if he wins,' Lygdus proclaimed.

I saw a familiar face weaving through the crowd in front of us and let out a cry of surprise. Lygdus saw who it was. 'It's the dominus..'

Castor was approaching, flanked by the stoutest men of his retinue.

'We'll be caught!' Lygdus wailed.

'We're doing nothing wrong,' I hissed in his ear. 'Half of this rabble are slaves just like us.'

'Do you want him to see us?' Lygdus asked, incredulous.

In truth, I didn't. 'Duck down,' I spat. We dropped like stones as Castor and his friends passed perilously close to where we hid. They were heading for the gladiators' platforms. Crouching in the dust gave the crowd around us license to kick and stamp upon us. We didn't dare cry out. After several minutes of this torment I struggled to my feet again, delivering blows to the worst of the jokers. My body was bruised and aching.

'Can you see him?' Lygdus croaked from the ground.

I was staring Castor directly in the face.

'Iphicles?' said Castor in surprise.

Guilt made me tremble like a kitten.

'You're a follower of the gladiators too, are you?'

'Yes, domine,' I stammered, 'when permission is given for me to attend the games.' I prayed to the Great Mother that he wouldn't ask whose permission I had sought today, given I hadn't sought it from anyone.

'Who is attending my grandmother?'

I felt Lygdus quaking at my feet. 'The eunuch,' I lied. 'He is more than capable, domine. And he has come to love her too.'

Lygdus buried his face into my sandals in terror that Castor would see him. But the crowd around us was so thick that Castor couldn't see anything below my shoulders. Yet, he sensed that something was being hidden from him. I tried to summon a smile of reassuring innocence as a trickle of urine ran down my leg. A man from his retinue caught his attention.

'They await you on the platform.'

A path had been cleared through the throng for him.

Castor shot me a warning look and then moved on. I gave a sigh of profound relief, and then realised that Lygdus was lapping the pooled urine from between my toes. 'Stop it,' I said, pulling my feet from his grip.

'Is he gone?' Lygdus simpered.

'Yes — get up.'

He heaved his bulk upright as Castor shouted words of enthusiasm to the same gladiator who had been freeing household slaves.

'We've got to move further on,' I said, propelling Lygdus in front of me. 'We'll go where Castor can't see us but where we can see everyone.'

We took a different route through the stinking mass of street scum, attempting to skirt Castor and his men. All around us the beggars, pickpockets, prostitutes and mercenaries yelled in united devotion to men who would be dead before tomorrow's nightfall.

'Don't they see how doomed this all is?' Lygdus shouted above the din. 'Their love is so wasted.'

'They live in hope,' I replied. 'Everyone believes their favourite will survive, beating all the others to fight another day.'

'And when their favourites don't? Aren't they broken by it?'

'No, they simply find a new favourite. No one takes it as seriously as you think, Lygdus.'

Lygdus covered his ears to the hysteria, finding this hard to believe.

We neared another platform, where a group of Greek fighters were making emotional farewells to their friends. 'I hate all this killing!' Lygdus screamed at those around us, without a breath of irony. I didn't remind him that we were here so that we could obtain the very means to kill.

I saw the platform I needed. A wretched group of men, sickly and weak, were slumped on ill-cushioned couches without a canopy to protect them from the sun. These were the condemned men, criminals from the equestrian class to be put to the slaughter in the opening minutes of the games. Badly armed and little trained, their purpose was to provide quick and easy deaths at the hands of the favourites in order to raise the crowd's excitement for blood. If they'd been born of the lowest orders, they would have been fed to the beasts. But as knights it was considered fitting that they be given a chance to save themselves from execution by fighting for it. This was another of Rome's shams. They were as doomed as the guiltiest slaves thrown to the jackals. The faces of these men were stark and haunted by their imminent deaths. The food sat untouched before them. Their mouths and bellies were empty with fear. There was only one bodyguard assigned to these accursed men and his attention was elsewhere.

I pinched Lygdus. 'This will do.'

'Iphicles, don't — '

I stole forward so I could clamber onto the platform. The lone bodyguard saw me.

'Get off!' He drew his sword.

I took a chance on my lie. 'I'm the serving slave,' I claimed.

He creased his brow.

'I have to pick up the fallen food. If I don't, then how will it be burnt in offering to the gods?'

The guard had never seen me before but I kept a look of such pathetic certainty on my face that he gave me the benefit of the doubt. 'It's a waste of time offering food from these bastards,' he said. 'Their throats are cut already.'

One of the wretches broke into sobs.

The guard held out his arm to hoist me up to his level. Lygdus stared up at me in amazement. I winked at him. Then I looked at the faces of the doomed men on the dining couches. Would any of them register that I wasn't their serving slave at all? They seemed to look at me without seeing me. I couldn't risk exposing my lie, however, so I fell to all fours and began crawling around the table and couches, ostensibly picking up scraps. There was nothing to be found — the food hadn't been touched. After several minutes I saw that Lygdus was following my progress carefully. His face was at the platform's side, not far from mine, where I kneeled behind the rear couch.

'Tell me when the guard is distracted again,' I hissed.

Lygdus craned his neck to see where the guard was. 'He's distracted now. He's jumped off the front of the platform.'

I stood upright to see. The guard was in the midst of the crowd, looking out at the people and not back at his doomed charges. Suddenly I saw a face I knew — but it was not the one I was looking for. Golden-haired Flamma sat upright in a chair on a platform he shared with no one else. If a couch had been offered to him for the occasion, he had clearly spurned it, choosing a simple, rough-hewn chair and table at which to eat his meal. He glanced in my direction without registering that we had met each other under less exultant circumstances. No emotion showed in his face. The oldest fighter by far, he was also the calmest. Flamma acknowledged no one in the crowd, and few acknowledged him. He lacked celebrity. He was a nonentity in this throng. That he was also a violent brute, I had no doubt. He could likely dismember a man with his bare hands. Yet I still felt compassion for him, and I muttered a little prayer to Cybele that he might be permitted to win this last time.

'Can you see her anywhere?' Lygdus appealed to me from the ground. 'Can you see the woman we need?'

I dismissed Flamma from my thoughts and peered into the boiling sea of Romans. 'Sorceress Martina,' I whispered into the wind, 'I know you're out there somewhere — you must be. I need your magic — I need your poison. Please, just make yourself seen…'

Lygdus lacked my patience. He threw a sticky plum pit at me, which bounced hard off my head. 'I've had enough — do you hear me, Iphicles?'

'That's too bad,' I replied, glaring at him. 'There's only one path open to us now and this is it. Since Aemilia of the Aemilii's demise, there's been a distinct lack of reliable poisoners in Rome. So we've got no choice but to keep searching for our unreliable one: Martina.'

He popped another plum between his lips.

'Perhaps you're not suited to this work, Lygdus,' I said. 'Best be on your way, then. See you at Oxheads.'

I turned on my cushion to look down at the stage and Lygdus's fury escalated. I heard him sucking his plum, planning to pelt me with a second pit. He swallowed the pulp and spat the missile into his hand.

'Throw a pit at me again and you'll regret it,' I said, my eyes on the musicians far below.

Lygdus stood up and let fly. I caught the pit in my fingers without even needing to see it. He was astounded. 'How did you…?'

I punched him hard in the groin and then remembered that, like me, he didn't have all that much left to harm down there. He went to slap me but I snatched his hand and sank my teeth into it.

'Ow!'

'Sit down and stop acting like a baby,' I said.

He plopped onto his cushion, nursing his hand. 'We've been to every event at the Ludi. Days and days of it, and never any sign of this woman.'

'Not quite every event,' I said, staring at the stage again. 'We haven't seen the pantomimus yet. So why don't you shut up — it's about to begin.'

'She won't be here. She's not even in Rome.'

'I said shut up.'

'These seats are terrible — we can barely see the stage.'

'We're here to see the audience, idiot.'

'All I can see are the backs of heads.'

'She's a freedwoman. If she's here, she'll be sitting in the seats directly in front of us slaves.'

'At least give me a better idea of what she looks like.'

What could I tell him? I had no concept of what Martina's appearance might be. In the many decades I had known her, she was either a ravishing beauty or a hideous crone. She was both, yet neither. She could change before my eyes. Sometimes the look of her shimmered like the haze on a distant road, making her features melt and fade. Sometimes, if I looked at her closely, she seemed to have no face at all. The only way to get a clear picture of Martina's appearance was by squinting at her from the corner of my eye, and even then this was unreliable. She was a sorceress, as ageless as my domina and me. She was an unknowable creature of our peripheral vision.

'Martina has a hump on her back.' This deformity was the only thing I could guarantee in her.

In truth I was beginning to despair. I feared I'd been wrong in imagining what would lure her back to Rome. In my heart I dreaded that with so much of the Imperial family's blood on her hands, Martina's desire for self-preservation might outweigh her love of entertainments.

'We were lucky not to be killed at that terrible feast,' Lygdus whined anew, 'and then we had to endure the games themselves and all that noise and smell, and then you made me attend the chariot races.'

'I didn't make you attend anything.' I pointed at the steps that would take him down and out of the Theatre of Pompey. 'That's the way out. Go.'

But he stayed where he was, settling in for a session of complaints. 'I should return to Castor,' he said, 'and beg him to let me wash his feet again. Week after week he's tried to get me to tell him the secrets I've learned about you — and week after week I lie that I've discovered nothing.'

I felt very uncomfortable. The fear of Castor exposing me was real. Lygdus held power over me and I had allowed this in the spirit of friendship. Still, I longed to corrupt him with crime so that he would become as guilty as I was and be as keen to hide it. But without Martina's magic I was stymied.

'My time spent with you has not served me well,' said Lygdus, resorting to his most well-worn phrase.

'It's starting.'

Far below us on the stage the musicians' warm-up notes ceased, and the audience took their lead. A hush of expectation fell across the huge open-air space.

'I'm bored already.' Lygdus's voice carried like a bird's cry.

I would have hit him but several freedwomen turned around to glare. I searched their faces. None were Martina. 'It's his first time at the musica muta,' I whispered to them in apology. Looks of superiority crossed the freedwomen's faces and they turned around again.

On the distant stage a single flautist among the musicians began to play the notes of a haunting tune. Then the eight men of the chorus came on from their side entrance and the crowd made polite applause. The men wore half-masks, obscuring their eyes and heads but leaving their mouths exposed. When they were arranged in their places, one of the chorus men produced a scabellum — a wooden clapper board — and held it high in the air.

The flautist stopped. The chorus spoke in one voice: 'Presenting Echo and Narcissus!'

The freedwomen swooned in front of us.

'That old story?' said Lygdus.

The chorus man with the clapper board began a rhythmic beat, keeping time like a water clock, opening and closing the arms.

The star pantomimus leaped onto the stage from the entrance at the opposite side and the crowd burst into cheers. His entire head was covered by a blank mask that removed all hint of his features. And yet it seemed that he owned the most desired face in the world, so expressive was his body in conveying exquisite beauty and grace. His limbs and torso suggested youth — perhaps he was no more than fifteen. His limbs were lean, yet muscular. His feet were brown and bare. His tunica was yellow, feather-light and brief, floating around his hips as he danced.

The acknowledgement the pantomimus gave the crowd was heartfelt, given with the simplest gestures to make him seem humble and moved. There wasn't a theatregoer in Rome who disliked the musica muta. Its players were adored celebrities. They expressed actions, feelings and passions more beautifully and intelligently than was possible with the spoken word. They never uttered a sound. Instead their audiences projected the most alluring words imaginable upon them, wholly within the mind. The great stars of Augustus's day — Bathyllus, Pylades, Hylas — had all retired, but a new generation of mimes competed in their wake, fighting for the fame and wealth that came to the very best of them. Yet they were not without controversy. Women were feared susceptible to the sensual dances and mythological themes — not that it stopped them attending. Some mimes had been known to perform at private dinner parties and intimate engagements hosted by patrician wives. Some were even said to perform naked.

As the pantomimus finished his gestures of thanks, the rest of the musicians joined the flautist in resuming the opening tune, filling the theatre with a lush, evocative score. The chorus began to recite the canticum — the text of the play. 'When Narcissus, the son of Cephisus, reached his sixteenth year,' they announced, 'he seemed both man and boy.'

The mime began to dance as the mythical youth.

'Many boys and many girls fell deeply in love with him,' said the chorus, 'but his beautiful body held a pride so strong that none of his suitors dared touch him.'

The commotion at the side of the auditorium caught Lygdus's attention before it caught mine. He made a little cry.

'See, you're enjoying it now,' I said, my eyes on the stage.

Lygdus pointed. 'Guards.'

A dozen Praetorians were flooding the stage from the wings.

'This isn't in the play,' I said.

A hobnailed boot connected with the backside of the dancing pantomimus and sent him sprawling, mask first, on the hard marble floor. He grazed the skin from his knees. Several of the musicians cried out. The guards turned their attention to them and plucked the instruments from their hands.

'Don't break it!' one of them cried. The guard who had the musician's cithara gave a questioning look to a superior officer. I felt sick when I saw who it was.

'Sejanus!' Lygdus said. 'What's happening? What's going on?'

Sejanus nodded and the guard with the cithara dropped the instrument to the ground with a clatter. The other guards did the same. By now the chorus had stopped the canticum and joined the bewildered musicians staring at the pile of instruments. All of them took off their masks except one — the man who held the clapper. The humiliated pantomimus remained where he had fallen, his own mask still in place. He didn't move.

Sejanus walked to the front of the stage and, ignoring the mime, took a long, solemn look at the faces of the bewildered audience. It took a moment for fear to strike some of them, but when it did they began to cover themselves under veils and shawls. Sejanus smiled. 'Yes, hide yourselves if you like,' he addressed them, 'hide your shame.'

There were howls from some of the senators' seats.

'The shame is yours! You have interrupted the musica muta, Prefect!' one senator shouted. 'What is the meaning of it?'

'Explain yourself, man!' demanded another.

Sejanus cleared his throat, his smile vanishing. 'Performances of the musica muta are now banned from the Ludi.'

A terrible quiet fell upon everyone, on and off the stage.

'Banned,' Sejanus repeated.

People began to look at each other in fright, but the senator who had first spoken stood up in his seat so the audience could see who he was. Lygdus and I craned our heads to look. 'It's Silius,' I said. 'Sosia's husband. He's a friend of Agrippina's.'

Dignified and impressive, Silius addressed Sejanus without deference. 'A ban of this nature would surely come from a senatorial decree, Prefect?' he called out. 'Yet I can't remember any such decree being passed. How could that be?'

Sejanus kept his eyes upon Silius for what seemed like minutes before he deigned to respond. 'Also forbidden is the attendance of senators at private homes that host the musica muta. Senators are similarly forbidden from visiting the homes of artists who make a living from these entertainments. Walking down the street with these artists, or engaging with them in any other way, is also forbidden.'

The stunned audience was deathly still but Silius remained standing. 'The Emperor chooses not to discuss these measures with his senators at all?'

Sejanus said nothing.

'On what grounds have these bans been made?' Silius demanded.

On the stage at Sejanus's feet the fallen pantomimus made an almost imperceptible movement with his fingers. His first digit and his thumb curled together to make an O, visible to no one but himself and the few patrician men of the front row whose eyes would not meet Sejanus's. The pantomimus snaked his other hand along the marble with his index finger pointing. It met the little O and the outstretched finger crept snugly inside the hole in a low and crude gesture that was unmistakable to those few who could see it. A patrician man laughed before clapping his hand across his mouth.

Sejanus planted his boot on the pantomimus 's fingers. 'The bans are made on the grounds of obscenity,' he declared, grinding the digits into the stage.

Because, as slaves, our seats were the very worst in the Theatre of Pompey, being in the final tier and only available when unwanted by the freedwomen who occupied the rows in front, Lygdus and I were among the last to leave the cancelled performance. Sejanus left his guards in place to ensure an orderly exit of the crowd and instructed that the artists of the musica muta be forced to remain on stage until every member of the audience had gone, slaves included. The message was clear: the artists, whether celebrities or not, were now deemed lower than slaves.

As the ranks of Roman society filed past the stage, first one, then another of the bravest fans whispered words of sympathy to the pantomimus, who stood dignified and erect, his broken hand oozing blood at his side. Without Sejanus present, the Praetorians acted as if nothing was amiss — even they believed the bans were excessive. With the guards' indifference the words of condolence grew more passionate and the pantomimus made a signal to one of the chorus men standing behind him. The one holding the clapper board — the only one still wearing a half-mask — stepped forward and loosened the strings of the pantomimus 's full head mask, lifting it from him and revealing a face that was every bit as beautiful as the face of mythical Narcissus. The pantomimus remained where he stood, letting his beauty be seen by all. Some of the departing women began to weep at the sight of him and, on the stage, the musicians joined in.

When it came the slaves' turn to file past the stage and leave, the pantomimus would have been forgiven had he turned around or averted his eyes. Every slave already understood and was offended by the insult that had been given to him in being forced to remain until we had gone. The star of the musica muta was as loved by Rome's lowest as he was by those of the very highest rank. No one wished to see him debased. But the mime stayed in place and bestowed a smile of immeasurable love and warmth upon us slaves. Hearts soared.

Lygdus began to sob. 'It's so unfair,' he said. 'The dancing was beautiful, and the music too. Why deny us this? What point does it serve?'

He'd certainly changed his tune. 'It's obvious,' I replied as we filed past. 'Tiberius is threatened by their popularity.'

'But he lets the gladiators fight, and they're even bigger celebrities.'

'How many are still alive after the Ludi?' I asked. 'They're no threat when they're dead — but great actors live on for years.'

'He fears anyone who might be more loved than he is,' said Lygdus in disgust, seeing the truth now.

I nodded, but my eyes were on the men of the chorus.

'If that's his problem, then good luck, Rome,' said Lygdus. 'Who isn't more loved? He'll be banning every one of us.'

'It may come to that,' I said. The lone chorus man who had retained his mask was now loosening it from his face.

'Well, it's terrible,' said Lygdus. 'Rome is becoming a joyless place.'

'Perhaps there is still a little joy left,' I said.

'No, there's nothing,' said Lygdus, wiping tears from his eyes.

The chorus man let the mask hang from his fingers as his eyes met mine in the line of slaves.

'No really,' I insisted. 'I think you might find that joy is still ours — yours and mine, Lygdus — though we'd be wise to keep quiet about it.'

'What are you talking about?' he said.

I pointed to the man who had removed his mask. Under his stage robes was the ill-concealed mound of a hump on his back. He was not a man at all.

'I give you Martina,' I smiled at the astonished eunuch.

Every seat in the arena was filled except the most important. In the hot summer sun, the golden seat shone from the middle of the Emperor's box like an empty cup or an unworn crown. Every person could see it — the throne was made all the more conspicuous by its vacancy. The assembled gladiators standing in their ranks on the sandy arena floor looked in confusion at the space where the Emperor should have been.

A trainer screamed at them from the perimeter. 'Just make the oath anyway!'

The moment spoiling fast, some of the fighters began hurriedly reciting the famous words as they extended their right hands, with other men catching up halfway. Rather than being a proud, courageous salute of centuries' tradition, the oath became unintelligible to the mob.

'Hail, Tiberius, from men about to die!'

The Ludi mob cheered out of habit before tuba blasts from the musicians' tiers saw tumbling paegniarii clowns rush across the sand and steal the attention, allowing the unsettled gladiators to file back to the periphery and prepare. Flamma was the last to take his place, seating himself on a rough wooden bench to watch on alone. No one sat with him; he had not been befriended by the other fighters, and he was unconcerned by it. The arena was no place for friendships, Flamma knew; those who made them found themselves facing their friends in combat. Better loneliness with no feelings at all for his fellow men. Flamma knew that to feel anything was to risk a moment of hesitation, a moment when thought and not instinct might take control of your weapon. Hatred, too, could be as fatal as affection. Fighting required no conscious thought at all for Flamma; when he hacked and killed, his mind was elsewhere. He had reached the top by employing his instincts as a leopard might, or a python. He knew when to conserve his strength and watch and wait for his prey. He knew when to employ his might in sudden, lethal explosions.

The paegniarii clowns played out their barely comical act, attacking each other with sticks and whips, while Flamma stretched his finger joints, pressing his palms together and testing the limits of his flexibility. He bent back each hand as far as it would go. No one looked at him; no one observed what he did. He was old and spent in the eyes of all, and he knew this gave him his one advantage: no one expected him to excel.

The clowns beat each other bloody while the mob laughed half-heartedly. Then the musicians blasted upon tubas again, adding drums and cymbals to the cacophony. The arena choir joined in with a popular theatre song — hymns to the gods being inappropriate for this place — and the beaten paegniarii dragged each other to the gates. Flamma now stood and stretched his limbs, bending forward and back from his hips, placing his fingertips, then his knuckles, and then his palms on the sandy arena floor. A few of the other fighters glanced at him; marking him as an easy kill, should their names be matched with his in the lots, they looked away.

Flamma remained standing and stretching as the next of the warm-up acts commenced. The second-rate lusorii fighters came on, gladiators of lesser experience yet to find their feet in the arena. They were armed with wooden spears and swords; weapons that could injure but not kill. With another blast from the tubas they threw themselves at each other with theatrical intensity, vying for any crumbs of attention that might be theirs from the mob. The choir continued to sing, and some in the mob now sang along with them.

Flamma looked to the tiers to gauge the mood of the Ludi fans. Half the people, at best, were watching the combat with anything approaching concentration; many gossiped to their friends or threw coins to the arena vendors, buying snacks and programs. It was the gladiators of the first rank that they really wanted to see, the banquet stars, the men who inspired the passions of the graffiti-scrawlers of Rome.

Flamma shaded his eyes to peer in the direction of the Imperial box. The Emperor's golden throne remained empty but the seats around it were filled with well-dressed men and women — the Imperial family, Flamma guessed. Somewhere among them she was there, she who now owned him. He looked for the golden hair — the hair that mirrored his own — but all the Imperial women wore veils and flower wreaths and he couldn't tell which of them was Agrippina, or even if she was there at all.

Why had she claimed him, Flamma wondered. Why hadn't she simply killed him, like all the rest? To have died among slaves would have been a fitting end to his lowly life, and Flamma would have embraced it as his due. But Agrippina had been unable to pull her gaze away from him, repeatedly drawn to his eyes, his hair and his body, just as she had been at the slave auction. Then she had spared him, and yet she had never come to see him again in the long months that had led to the Ludi. Flamma believed that she had claimed him only as a means of pleasing her daughter.

It was of no matter, anyway. The golden gladiator had made a plan on the night she had revealed herself to him as a spectacular Fury, an exquisite goddess of vengeance. He had decided what he would do and he was glad of the certainty it brought him; there was a comfort in it. It left him unburdened and so much lighter in his heart. While all the men around him saw only the shadows of their impending deaths, Flamma saw no shadows at all, only brightness.

He took to his bench once more and folded his arms across his chest. The sun was warm on his skin and he closed his eyes, letting himself doze. He followed the events on the arena floor without watching or listening; he knew the program by heart. The lusorii continued their theatrics for another hour or so and were rewarded with growing interest from the mob. People kept to their seats as the main event drew closer; men ceased greeting their friends and doing business.

Several lusorii had broken their limbs by the end of their combats, and the mob cheered enthusiastically as the bone-setters approached. Then those paegniarii that could still move hobbled on for another round of clowning before the musicians blew the tubas again and the mob hooted wildly in reply, knowing what was to follow. A man of rank from the Imperial box was thrown a sword from the arena floor. Flamma opened his eyes a crack to see who had stepped forward to do the blade test in the absence of the Emperor. He saw that it was Castor, the Emperor's son. Flamma shut his eyes again, not needing to observe the 'tests', such as they were: Castor stabbing melons with the sword, slicing ropes, stabbing the tip into wood — all to the approval of the mob. The blade was officially pronounced 'cut-throat'.

The tubas blew the same long note again and again, like the drip of a water clock. The sound was sombre now, ominous, and a hush began to fall across the arena. When the huge mob became silent, the tubas stopped their noise. His hand high in the air where all could see it, Castor drew the first two tokens — on which were written names — from deep inside a shining silver bowl.

'Hylas and Adonis!'

The mob screamed with delight and Flamma blocked his ears to it. Castor drew more tokens and read out more names, and the mob continued to roar its approval at the exciting combinations of fighters selected by chance. Flamma continued to doze and only vaguely stirred when his own name was read out. He missed the name of his opponent but was unconcerned; he would learn it soon enough.

One by one the combats started, in the order of their selection. Heavy Samnites with their oval shields and plumed, visored helmets fought hard against the nimble, near-naked Gauls. Bare-headed, net-throwing retiarii dodged the relentless pursuit of the 'chasers' — the lance-wielding secutores — hurling their nets at them when they could. The tuba blasts were replaced by trumpets, and harmonic trills from pipes and flutes. The choir sang songs of love and romance, happy songs, comic songs. Trainers shouted from the sidelines, hounding the men on. Slaves wielding nail-barbed whips and irons heated in coals rushed about, lashing and goading any man who lagged. The mob screamed obscenities and encouragements at the fighters, begging them to maim and blind and kill.

Whenever a man fell, the musicians blew their trumpets long and hard so that no one missed the climax. The mob called out 'He's fucked!' and the broken man, if he had any strength, laid down his weapons and raised a single finger of his left hand in a plea for mercy. The decision fell to Castor, in the Emperor's place, but he deferred to the wishes of the mob. The fate was always the same for men who valued their lives too dearly: the mob disapproved and Castor made the gesture of doom with his thumb, pointing it in the air and making the downward motion as if he held a stabbing sword. The fighter was pierced in the neck by his opponent.

One by one the selected fighters fought; one emerged victor and one met his death. Young African slaves raked the bloodstained sand. Bodies were dragged to the Porta Libertinensis, the Gate of the Goddess of Burials, by arena slaves dressed as Mercury. Other men, wielding hammers and dressed as Rhadamanthus, made sure the dead were truly dead.

At last it was Flamma's turn. He stood up slowly, tightening the broad leather greaves he wore around his thighs. Satisfied, he collected his weapons. He had no helmet to wear, being designated a 'Thracian', but he picked up the small, square shield that came with his rank and the long, curved scimitar that was his sword. He walked all the way into the very centre of the arena before he bothered even looking at his opponent. The fighter was younger than Flamma by at least ten years, lithe and quick-footed. Flamma met the man's eyes for only a moment before his opponent lowered his visor, blocking his face from view.

In the final seconds before Castor raised a handkerchief in the Imperial box to signal the commencement of combat, Flamma looked up at the mob. They were baying for his blood like jackals.

Flamma smiled, happy for them. Soon enough, his blood would be theirs.

My domina 's eyes widened in shock as Lygdus and I guided the cloaked Martina into the room. She let her hood fall to her shoulders so that Livia could see her fully.

'You never thought you'd see this old witch again, did you, domina?' I smirked. 'Well, here she is, and now our plans can progress.'

I imagined that Martina would find amusement in Livia's paralysed state. 'I used one of your own potions on her,' I told the sorceress. 'Well, it was one you'd given to her many years ago and she'd forgotten about. But I hadn't, thank the gods. I remembered it when I needed it most.'

Martina was unsmiling, peering into Livia's eyes. 'How long has she been like this?'

'More than two years now. Since she learned about Germanicus — and learned that Sejanus was behind it too. She was his secret lover, you know — she wanted to kill him in revenge. But I couldn't allow that to happen.'

Martina's eyes glazed over.

'The prophecies,' I whispered. 'They had to come first — something the domina had forgotten.'

Martina yawned — but kept her eyes on Livia's face.

'I feed her, of course, and massage her limbs.'

'Why didn't you just kill her?' she said.

I was shocked. 'But I love the domina more than the whole world. You know that better than anyone.'

Lingering at the door, Lygdus looked ready to run from the room.

'What's the matter with you?' I hissed.

'Her face,' he stammered. 'In the shadows she's so beautiful — but when she steps into the light…'

Martina looked at him with a sneer and Lygdus went white. 'What are you?' he whispered.

'I am Martina,' she said, 'and I'm here for my own delight, no one else's.'

I tried to pretend that Lygdus had nothing to be concerned about. 'We're old friends,' I told him.

'Very old,' said Martina. 'The only one missing is Plancina. What's happened to her?'

I replied with truthfulness that I didn't know. I assumed she was dead. Livia's eyes narrowed as they flicked briefly to mine before returning to Martina's.

'Well, you've seen the domina now,' I said, 'just as you asked, so let's get to business. Will you help me?'

Martina pulled her eyes away from Livia and fixed me with a stare to freeze oil. 'I help no one, slave — you should know that very well. Martina only looks out for herself.'

Years of rich experience had taught me how to respond to her provocations. 'It's yourself you'll be helping most of all.'

Martina waited.

'Tiberius has banned the musica muta — and here you are starting a whole new life with the best pantomimus in Rome. But how will you have any amusement if you can't perform at the Ludi, and if the best houses on the Palatine are closed to you?'

Martina continued to wait.

'It's time for Tiberius to go,' I whispered. 'He's no good for Rome — he's making it a joyless place. Did you know you can now be convicted of treason if you accidentally break a bust of his image?'

Martina's tongue ran across her lips. 'You're not persuading me.'

I raised the stakes. 'We need to kill more of them — it's as simple as that.' At the door, Lygdus conquered his fright and leaned forward to catch my words, his eyes glowing. 'It's time to get things ready for the second king,' I said. 'We already know who it is, you see — Thrasyllus confirmed it.'

I saw her eyes glazing over again. The merest reference to the prophecies always caused her to lose interest. 'Look, it's someone who'll immediately restore the musica muta,' I said, omitting to add that Little Boots had never actually been allowed to attend such lascivious diversions, although I was confident that he'd enjoy them when the time came.

I saw her weighing this up in her head. Again her weakness for Roman entertainments would prove to be my Trojan horse. 'Please, Martina,' I whined, although I could already see her weakening.

She reached into her stola and Lygdus's eyes went as wide as bowls. Her hand emerged, fingering a blue glass vial. My heart raced at the sight of it but I knew not to ask how it was that she always travelled bearing poisons. I saw that the breath had quickened in my domina 's chest too.

'This one is very slow,' said Martina.

'Good, good — it'll creep up over time, just like the one you gave my domina 's first husband.'

Her look held disdain that I should dare to refer to her past successes.

'A drop of this in the cena?' I suggested. 'A drop in every evening's meal?'

'That'll destroy it,' she said. 'Flavours and spices make it lose its power.'

This was a different poison than I had encountered before.

'It works across many months,' Martina went on, 'and when it finally builds to the right dose within the victim, delirium follows, then death.'

'But it can't be put in food?'

'Didn't I just tell you that, slave?'

'Then how do I administer it?'

This was of no concern to Martina.

'What about wine?'

'That will destroy it as effectively as food.'

'Water then?'

'You could try it.'

'It works in water?'

'It works very well,' Martina replied. 'But it tastes of nettles. And there's a nasty aftertaste of sour apples too.'

This left me bewildered. 'How can I give it without the victim knowing?'

Martina just smiled. 'Aren't you supposed to be a cunning slave?'

I saw a malicious spark in watching Livia's eyes.

'I know how to do it,' Lygdus suddenly piped up.

I wouldn't hear him. 'This is typical of you,' I spat angrily at Martina. 'Your gifts are never gifts, are they? They're torments!'

'Iphicles!' Lygdus cried out from the door. He could see our hopes being lost to the wind.

I wouldn't be warned. 'Why can't you just give us something that works?' I demanded of the witch. 'Like the poison you used on Marcellus — and poor Agrippa too? Or the same stuff you gave to the domina to feed Octavian? Why do you have to make things so hard?'

Martina's fingers snapped around the vial in a fist. 'I've changed my mind,' she said. 'Find yourself another witch.'

'Iphicles!' Lygdus wailed in despair.

I leaped at Martina's hands, screaming obscenities at her. We grappled like monkeys as I scratched and bit at her to prise the vial from her grasp. Martina spat in my eye and the foul phlegm seemed to sizzle like burning oil. 'Give it to me! Give it to me!' I shrieked.

She kicked me in the shins and I howled in further pain. 'You filthy whore!'

Martina cackled with glee until I robbed her of power by throwing myself hard to the floor, taking her with me and causing us to roll together like serpents in a ditch. Then all light left the room as a colossal form fell from the heavens to land on top of us, flushing the wind from our lungs and pinning us both beneath its bulk. It was Lygdus. The vial shot from Martina's hands and went spinning across the floor.

'Get it!' I spluttered.

All three of us scuttled after the thing but I managed to gain the lead. I heard a sickening thud as Lygdus kicked the pursuing Martina. I couldn't see where the vial had gone. 'Find it!' I screamed.

Lygdus upturned furniture and threw aside chairs. He flung himself at the tapestry that covered the wall and ripped it from its rings, exposing the storage shelves behind. The vial was lodged in the lowest space, wedged against earthenware bowls. 'I see it!' He snatched it up in triumph.

As the eunuch and I turned around to gloat at Martina, I saw the tiniest movement at my domina 's lips. Something was there and then wasn't; something small and white. Had she swallowed it? My head was ringing and my nose was running blood. I decided my eyes were playing tricks. Martina stood next to her, grinning at us, her left arm hanging loose from her shoulder. Lygdus had dislocated it when he'd kicked her.

'Well, that was fun,' she purred. She took hold of her swinging arm and manipulated herself for a moment until the limb popped back into place. She'd clearly experienced a dislocation before.

With that, she strode regally to the door, the rays of rosy sunset striking the hump on her back through the open windows. She paused for a second, letting the sun turn the stola fabric a dull orange where it stretched across her deformity. Liking the effect this had upon Lygdus, she gave him a wink. He looked like he was about to be sick.

'Well, I'll be off, then,' she said.

She stole into the corridor and was gone.

I gave no further thought as to how she might leave Oxheads without me to escort her — she'd been pulling similar escape tricks for decades. Likewise, I gave no other thought as to how I might find her again. I was arrogant in my victory; I had won the poison and now held the power of life and death in my hands.

But as Lygdus and I relished our little triumph, we were startled when Martina's head reappeared. 'Let me know when it works, won't you?'

A little thrown, I nodded automatically. But it was only when she had vanished again that it occurred to me she had not been looking in my direction when she made her final words.

She had been looking at my domina.

The blood of twelve good men stained the sand at Flamma's feet, his own blood with them, running from his limbs in streams. Yet still he stood, while none around him did. He was the last left alive. He had dispatched his first opponent in little more than a minute, and the astonished mob demanded he be given another. When that man, too, had joined his colleague in death, another man was thrown at him, and then another and then another, until the mob lost count. Flamma killed them all. Some took little more than seconds, others longer, providing the mob with the spectacle they craved.

At first no one knew his name; few had even listened when it was announced. But as the bodies piled up around him and, from the Imperial box, Castor forbade the slaves to carry them away, the mob demanded to know who he was — this star they had never seen before, who killed his fellow men as easily as mice. When the twelfth and final man was dead, Castor called out the question so that the enthralled and dumbfounded mob would hear the reply and remember it.

'I am Flamma,' he answered.

His name was taken up by all, repeated like an echo around the tiers — like a prayer. Their cherished favourites were barely minutes dead but already the mob had a new star — a shining, freshly painted god to laud in bright graffiti all over Rome. Another cry arose at once: 'Thirteen! Thirteen! Thirteen!'

Castor listened to it build then looked to the exhausted, bloody man staring up at him from the sand. Castor's foot abscess gave him pain but it was nothing, he knew, to what this Flamma must feel, having killed twelve and now facing the mob's demand that he take on a thirteenth. 'They want your fight to go on,' Castor called down to him.

Flamma just nodded, ready, blood trickling into his eyes.

Castor felt for the handkerchief and went to raise his hand to signal that a thirteenth opponent be brought. Then a woman stood up in her seat behind him and held his arm. Flamma saw her whisper in his ear, and as she did so, her hooded veil fell from her head, revealing rings of golden hair. It was Agrippina. Castor's brow creased but she was adamant in what she said to him. Castor nodded at last and Agrippina returned to her chair, folding her hands in her lap but leaving her fallen hood upon her shoulders.

Castor turned to the mob. 'We have a new hero at this Ludi and his name is Flamma!'

The mob was ecstatic.

'But twelve good kills is enough for a hero — Hercules himself stopped at that amount. Flamma is named the Widow's champion!'

The mob reacted with glee to this news.

'So, I say that Flamma has earned a rest,' Castor concluded. 'Let him fight again for us another day!'

There were some howls of disappointment at first, until cries of support for Castor's words — and Agrippina's connection — began to drown out the others. Then sentiment took hold entirely and the arena mob rose to its feet, stamping and screaming and applauding Flamma, while the musicians took their cue to blast upon the tubas and the choir began a reprise of the most popular song.

Flamma's eyes met Agrippina's, where she sat upright and graceful in her chair. She was so very far above him, like the goddess of vengeance that he likened her to, while he was far beneath, her savage beast of prey. But there was pride in Agrippina's eyes, pride in his achievements — pride that she had been the one who had claimed him. Flamma mouthed two heartfelt words to her — 'thank you' — which Agrippina saw and understood with a smile.

Then he gripped his sword in his fingers and plunged it into his chest.

My domina let the little white ball loll upon her tongue, feeling it there and enjoying the sensation of its textured surface. It was hard and strong, but not so strong that it wouldn't shatter if she bit it. She was gentle with this thing — it was precious.

Livia's mouth filled with spittle and the desire to swallow was strong, but this special thing could not be eaten. A string of drool left her lips, gathering at her chin and I saw it — although at this time I had no idea of what she harboured.

'Look at you, domina,' I chastised.

I mopped her face and she wouldn't look at me as I did so. I took this for shame on her part and returned to my place at the wall, feeling the little blue vial safely in the pocket of my tunica as I began to snooze.

My domina waited until my eyes were closed before allowing the little white ball to slip beneath her tongue. There it rested, safe and warm. She had nestled such a thing with her body once before, long ago, when she had mothered a chicken's egg cupped in her hands until a tiny rooster emerged. This new thing was also an egg, and Livia had the will to mother it for the many months required until a very different beast would emerge.

It would be a test of her endurance, but she would pass. She had to.

The baby within this egg would be her saviour.

The Day of Ill Omens

October, AD 21

One month later: the anniversary of the Battle of Arausio

Only those who have never known true disaster use a word like 'catastrophe' with ease, applying it to trivial matters — a ruined hairstyle, an oil-stained gown, a malaria plague in the slave quarters. But those who have suffered through calamity at its worst and survived it remember forever the day that it befell them; the horrors and loss are seared into their minds. If there are enough survivors — and for many catastrophes, this has not been so — the date passes into the shared memory of a nation. In Rome we declare dies nefasti — days of ill omens — when true catastrophes occur. They become annual dates marked on the calendar — to be feared.

On an official level the courts are suspended on the nefasti, and the Senate too; no voting may take place. On an unofficial level some people choose not to leave their beds, spending the day with covers drawn across their faces or in the company of distracting slaves. Others polish their household gods — the Lares and Penates — and say urgent prayers to their family's genius, the spirit that is passed down from their ancestors. But others still — younger people, mostly, and those blessed with arrogance and a belief in their own indestructibility — laugh in the face of such measures and go about their business as they would on any other day.

The third day before the Nones of October is the anniversary of the Battle of Arausio, one of the blackest dies nefasti of them all. On this day, one hundred and twenty-six years before the events I am about to detail, one of the greatest catastrophes in history befell Rome. Two vast armies of the Republic ranged themselves against the marauding Germanic tribes of the Cimbri and the Teutoni. The two armies of Rome had two great commanders, Caepio and Maximus, whose bitter personal feud prevented the armies from cooperating. The debacle that ensued saw the destruction of both commanders and over eighty thousand Roman men.

Livilla counted herself among those Romans who paid no heed to dies nefasti. The greatest military loss that Rome had ever known meant nothing to her. Instead, she was merely startled to find the eunuch in the hall.

'Lygdus? Are you serving us again?'

The crouching eunuch's hands hovered over her street shoes, not daring to touch yet. 'If my domina allows it.'

'Aren't you attending my grandmother?'

'Of course.' He raised his face and made a shy smile at her. 'But I miss my domina.'

Livilla rolled her eyes. 'What are we to do with you?' But she didn't move her feet when Lygdus's moist, fat fingers made contact. She allowed him to slip off her shoes.

'Perhaps I can serve two great ladies?' he whispered.

'That depends upon your master,' Livilla said, closing her eyes and sinking into a chair as Lygdus began to gently rub her feet. In truth, she had missed her attentive slave and had no intention of objecting to Livia being abandoned.

Carrying her purchases from the textile market, Livilla's maids slipped past the eunuch's bulk — one of them deliberately kicked him in the rump as she did, displeased to see him back. Lygdus barely felt it. 'What a pleasure it is to comfort you, domina,' he breathed into Livilla's toes.

She half-opened one eye and saw that Lygdus had filled a footbath. 'That looks very inviting,' she sighed. 'You think of everything. Pull it over here so that I can bathe my feet in it.'

Lygdus stiffened. 'I have this balm instead, domina.' He held up a little earthenware pot. 'It is soothing and sweet smelling.'

'Can't I bathe my feet first?'

'Try this wonderful balm — it is one of the domina Livia's.'

Livilla opened both her eyes. 'Why fill a bath for me and then not use it?'

Lygdus pressed his face into the floor. 'It is not filled for my domina,' he mumbled with the deepest apology. 'It is for my dominus. '

There was a long pause, and Lygdus felt his breath condensing on the floor mosaic.

'Is he home?' Livilla asked.

'Not yet,' said Lygdus. 'The dominus is out with his nephews.'

A dab of something cold touched Livilla's arch. She shivered. Then Lygdus's caring hands began to smooth the cream into her skin. The chill of it soon went away. 'The balm,' Lygdus said.

Livilla smelled the scent of roses. 'It is very nice,' she murmured, closing her eyes once more.

Lygdus cast a quick glance at the brimming footbath in the corner. He applied another dab of balm to Livilla's heel, making the scent of roses stronger. He breathed in deep — and Livilla did the same. 'The perfume is exquisite, isn't it, domina?'

'I adore roses,' Livilla sighed.

Lygdus sighed too — with relief. The wisps of steam from the footbath would go undetected. The eunuch had not felt wholly confident in the lies he would have told Livilla, had she asked him why the master's bathwater smelled of nettles and sour apples.

Saturnalia

December, AD 21

Two months later: Sacrovir of the Aedui, the leader of the Gallic rebellion, commits suicide at Augustodunum in the face of certain defeat

The first crack in the shell awoke my domina at once. In the blackness of her room, while my soft snores came from the pallet near her bed, Livia felt the egg turn beneath her tongue of its own accord. The crack widened. The beast was being born. Gently, Livia let the egg rise to rest upon the surface of her tongue, so that the tiny thing inside could fill her mouth when the moment came. She opened her lips, letting the night air play upon her teeth and gums while the creature struggled within.

The beast flexed itself, pressing hard against its prison and gaining strength, forcing itself free. Excitement threatened to claim Livia, but she willed herself to stay silent, making no sound that would betray the indescribable happiness she felt. The crack in the shell widened again. The beast pushed with all its might and a lid was made. The egg opened and the beast's head emerged. The tiny thing took its first breath of the scented night air.

On my pallet I stirred, as if aware in my dreams that something marvellous and new had entered the world. ' Domina…' I breathed in my sleep. 'Are you all right, domina?'

The beast in Livia's mouth went still. When I made no more sound, Livia opened her lips wide in the dark. The smell of desert sands emerged, the smell of heat and wind and beating desert sun. The newborn beast slipped past her lips and took its first view of the world. In the blackness of the room it looked around itself with cunning, vicious eyes. It was a viper, a night adder — a beast of darkness and death.

The tiny serpent slid down my domina 's cheek, nestling in the cup of her throat for a moment before it slipped inside the space between her breasts. It was her child, this beast, and it loved her as a child must love its mother. The snake encircled my domina 's nipple, its tongue flicking her skin in loving caress. Then it opened its mouth to suckle.

Livia gave a cry as the fangs met her flesh. I stirred in my sleep again. 'Are you all right, domina?' I muttered.

'Hush now,' Livia whispered in my dreams. 'My baby is feeding at my breast…'

The Kalends of March

AD 22

Three months later: Gaius Junius Silanus, governor of Asia Minor, is found guilty of offences against the majesty of Tiberius and banished to the island of Gyaros

The pantomimus danced with such a grace as Tiberius had never before seen. The beautiful youth leaped and fell and leaped again, as if his body weighed no more than a leaf. His every gesture was exquisite; his every emotion was conveyed with perfection unsurpassed.

'Obscene,' Tiberius whispered under his breath. 'This is obscene.' His hands clapped in time with the humpbacked chorus member, who wielded the clapper board and looked at him with such fixed intensity. 'This is obscene,' he muttered again.

'Uncle?'

He became aware of the shambling presence beside his curule chair. How long had it been there? He refused to acknowledge it, keeping his eyes glued to the beautiful pantomimus. 'Filth,' he said louder.

'Uncle, please.'

Tiberius looked down with annoyance and saw that it was Claudius. 'You're pathetic,' he told him. Claudius didn't disagree. Tiberius found pleasure in this and was immediately glad that his crippled nephew had come to greet him. 'Have you been standing there long?'

Claudius nodded. 'About my request, Uncle?' He peered uneasily at a filth-caked pile of rags slumped on the other side of Tiberius's chair. The rags stirred a little.

'Yes, yes — but what do you think of the musica muta?'

Claudius was stricken, unsure what response was required, until he took refuge in the place that usually served him best: the truth. 'I adore them, Uncle.'

'So do I!' said Tiberius. 'Do you find them obscene?'

'I find them… erotic,' said Claudius.

Tiberius digested that word and found that it didn't sit well with him. He went back to clapping again. The filthy rags stirred once more.

'Uncle?'

Tiberius seemed to notice him for the first time. 'What is it?'

'About my request… to the haruspex… regarding my situation?'

'What of it?'

'I wonder if I might hear his reply?'

'How should I know?'

Claudius cleared his throat, aware of the eyes of the musica muta artists upon him. 'He is sitting there beside you, Uncle.'

Tiberius looked down at the pile of rags with surprise. 'Thrasyllus? Have you been here all along?'

The broken haruspex moaned where he lay, rank and foul in his rags, stinking like the worst of the sewers.

'You were about to command him to tell it to me, Uncle.'

'Why not command him yourself? He's been very compliant since I initiated the beatings. He almost never gets things wrong anymore.'

Although he felt ill from the smell, Claudius went to address the shattered form of Thrasyllus. But something stopped him again. He looked at the two Praetorians slouching at the door with heavy pouches of gold hanging from their belts. 'Caesar has forbidden anyone to hear the words of soothsayers directly,' Claudius reminded Tiberius.

The look on Tiberius's face suggested he had never heard of such a directive.

'It is a capital crime. You banned all soothsayers from Italy. Only Caesar's haruspex remains — at your personal service.'

Tiberius was confused for a moment. Then he fumbled on the low table in front of his chair until his hand connected with his goblet. He picked it up and took a sip of the rich, thick liquid it contained. The sickly sweetness of it reached Claudius's nostrils, making him feel more nauseous still.

Claudius cleared his throat again. 'My request to Thrasyllus… was actually your request, Uncle.'

'Was it?'

'You said I was pathetic — a disgrace to your house. You said my son Hector's death was my own fault — that I had brought it on through being a cripple and a halfwit.'

'I did say all that, didn't I?' Tiberius recalled.

Claudius had no argument with any of it. 'You said you would ask your haruspex what the future held for me. You said it might provide me with clues as to how I might… not offend you any further.'

Tiberius stared imperiously at the pile of fetid rags beside his chair. 'Speak, haruspex, and stop wasting our time.'

Thrasyllus's voice was like a draught of stale air from a long-closed tomb. ' New love awaits…'

Claudius's heart leaped.

' Love so great… your blinding love… the rarest of birds …'

Claudius's eyes filled with tears and he stooped to kiss the hem of Tiberius's robe. 'Thank you, Uncle, thank you. I've been so lonely since my son died…'

' Love brings the new son… the son of the isles…'

Claudius's eyes boggled in astonishment and he fell into sobs of joy. Tiberius let him continue for several minutes, finding it gratifying for a time, before he grew tired of the display and pulled the fabric from his nephew's lips. Claudius righted himself again. 'Does the haruspex… Does he name this new love for me, Uncle? Does he say where I can find her?'

Tiberius kicked Thrasyllus with his foot and the haruspex started to choke. ' M… m… mes…'

'Speak clearer!' Tiberius kicked him again.

' Mes… mess…'

'It's Misenum!' Tiberius clapped his hands together excitedly. 'That's where she is, nephew, at the home of Rome's fleet. I'd say she's the daughter of an admiral.'

Claudius shone with amazement. 'I will take myself to Misenum at once, Uncle.'

'A fine idea.'

' Unborn… the love is unborn…'

'What does that mean, Uncle?'

Tiberius aimed his boot squarely at Thrasyllus's chin, and then, when the broken haruspex 's head snapped sharply back at the neck, Tiberius bent down in his chair to slap hard at the man's cheeks. 'Speak clearer!'

' Here… for Mercury…' Thrasyllus slipped into unconsciousness.

Claudius looked bewildered, as did Tiberius for a moment. Then the Emperor saw that the pantomimus had paused in his dance. 'Did I ask you to stop?' he said to the musica muta artists. They resumed their performance with vigour.

'Shall I leave, Uncle?

'Unborn… for Mercury…' Tiberius pondered. Then a smile split his face like a wound. 'The girl isn't born yet — she's still in the womb! But Thrasyllus says she'll be here for Mercury — don't you see, halfwit? He's named the very date of her birth! She'll pop out on the next day of Mercury — and she'll be born in Misenum!'

Things were moving all too fast for the bewildered Claudius, and he felt his weak left leg begin to shake.

'Now get out,' said Tiberius.

Claudius fell over and struck his chin on the marble as he leaned forward to bow. Tiberius roared with laughter and then abruptly stopped, glaring hatefully at him. Claudius scuttled to the door with the sniggers of the two Praetorians hissing in his ears. Tiberius forgot about his nephew immediately, his eyes wandering back to the dancing pantomimus.

The mound of rags stirred. ' The third…'

Tiberius kicked him again.

' The third…'

He stared at the moaning haruspex.

' The third…'

Tiberius decided he'd been remiss in claiming to his nephew that Thrasyllus was never wrong anymore. Sometimes the fool soothsayer came out with things that couldn't be more absurd.

Lygdus seized the moment as soon as he spotted the vacant fuller's pot at the side of the road to the Palatine Hill. Breaking from Castor's interminable procession, he dashed to the front of the reeking laundry premises, where the earthenware pot stood beneath the sign that said 'Relieve yourself'. The fuller needed lakes of urine to bleach his clients' togae white, and Lygdus was happy to provide — but only when he had the pot to himself. Burdened with the shame of castration, Lygdus hid his tiny eunuch's penis behind his hand as he relieved himself. He was startled when another man joined him.

'Good thinking,' said Nero. 'You've got to take advantage of any pot you can find on these stupid processions — right, Lygdus? They stretch on for hours.'

The slave forgot himself and laughed, before remembering who and where he was. Nero hoisted up his toga and began adding his urine to Lygdus's in a strong, pungent jet.

'The fuller won't like my piss very much,' Nero said. 'Too much wine inside me — they reckon it makes it useless for washing clothes. It doesn't bleach. That's why they never put these pots outside taverns.'

Lygdus tried to continue concealing himself behind his hands but it was impossible.

'We won't tell him though, will we?' said Nero. 'Poor old fuller.'

'No, domine.'

'Another secret we'll keep to ourselves.'

Lygdus met his young master's eye. There was no threat behind the statement, no kind of warning in his face — only trust and amusement. Lygdus had never betrayed what had taken place that night in the entrance hall, and Nero was very aware of it. To Lygdus's mortification, Nero cast his eyes at Lygdus's undeveloped penis.

'It must have been painful, what they did to you.'

Lygdus flushed red and hurriedly tucked himself away, still dripping inside his loincloth, pulling down his tunica to cover himself.

'I'm sorry,' said Nero, and Lygdus saw that he was. 'I didn't mean to embarrass you. I think it's disgusting what they did to you — it's degenerate. That sort of thing belongs in the East, not here in Rome. It's an insult to the Fathers. And when I get a say in these matters I'm going to ban it. What do you think of that?'

'It… it was the domina Livilla's doing,' Lygdus whispered.

Nero frowned. 'Well, it wasn't your dominus Castor's orders — did you know that? Bitch Aunt Livilla did it to you without my uncle Castor even knowing about it.'

Lygdus just stared at this candid revelation.

'He was livid when he found out,' said Nero. 'Hit the roof about it. I shouldn't tell you this, but he's never stopped feeling guilty about it either. It's why he gave you such a cushy job washing all our feet.'

Lygdus felt like he was living in a dream. A young dominus was willingly sharing a confidence with him. This was something he had never even known was possible between a master and slave.

'I shouldn't tell you this either,' said Nero, lowering his voice even further as he shook himself off at the pot, 'but you could milk that guilt for all it's worth with my uncle. He likes you an awful lot, Lygdus.'

The eunuch's face was a picture of amazement and Nero laughed. 'Don't look so surprised! I like you too — why wouldn't I? Stick with my uncle and me and you won't go wrong. Think about it. Castor's going to be Emperor one day. One day soon, I'd say.'

Lygdus looked strange as he rejoined me on the procession route. I asked him what was wrong.

'Nothing,' he replied. 'Just…'

I swished a long fan across my resplendent domina 's face as she swayed high above us in her throne. 'Just what?'

'Just that… Sometimes they're capable of being kind, aren't they? The masters…'

'Sometimes, yes — but not very often, in my experience.' I swished the fan again and saw that Livia's eyes were upon us. It seemed like a good moment to boost Lygdus's resolve. 'When the second king is on the throne,' I whispered, 'you and I will know more kindness than we can imagine, Lygdus. Just you wait and see.'

Lygdus tried to imagine how much kindness that could possibly be, given that the kindness he just experienced — mixing his piss with a master's in the fuller's pot — was already more kindness than he thought had existed on this earth.

'Just wait,' I whispered. 'The second king will see us living like gods.'

'You told me you're a god already, Iphicles.'

'Well, yes,' I said. 'A god who serves his goddess closely. But you must admit I don't live like one.'

Lygdus conceded this was true.

'These things will change. Just keep it up with the footbaths,' I whispered. 'Everything is going exactly to plan.'

Lygdus nodded obediently. Yet his eyes, as he did so, were not on me but on Nero, far ahead at the front of the procession with Castor, the Emperor's chosen heir.

The Nones of March

AD 22

One week later: Lucius Ennius, a wealthy equestrian, is charged with treason for melting down a silver statue of the Emperor to use as plate

The bewildered steward stared open-mouthed at the gesturing, jabbering man who clung to the doorway for support, raving like a madman trying to make a fantastical story seem real.

'He is patrician,' the nomenclator slave at the steward's shoulder whispered as they both stared at the man. 'The accent suggests it — and it suggests that he's from Rome, as well.'

Claudius pointed wildly into the sumptuous rooms behind them, stammering on.

'You've never seen this man before?' the steward whispered back to his colleague.

The nomenclator shook his head. 'It's my job to remember names for the dominus — and I've never seen this poor bastard in my life.'

Claudius's stammer intensified, the desperation stark in his face.

'Give him some watered wine,' ordered the steward.

The nomenclator thrust a cup into Claudius's hand, but he shook so much that it slipped from his grip and clattered to the tiles.

'He's having a fit,' said the steward. 'I saw things like this in the wars.'

'Will it kill him?' said the nomenclator in alarm.

The steward stepped forward and punched Claudius squarely in the eye. 'Not now it won't.'

Claudius screamed and threw his hands up to protect himself, before falling into an abrupt and fearful silence.

The two slaves raised their eyebrows at one another and then addressed Claudius slowly and deliberately, as they would a child. 'The admiral, our master, is not home, domine.'

'Not him I want to see…' Claudius managed to gasp, his breath jagged in his chest as he tried to pull himself together.

'Who, then?'

'The blinding love… the rarest of birds…'

The slaves cast shocked looks at each other.

'Must meet her… it's why I've come… it's been foretold.'

'But how do you even know about her…?' asked the steward in astonishment.

'Thrasyllus foretold… and today is Mercury…'

Looks of fear came to the servants' faces. 'Our master is not home,' the nomenclator said hurriedly again. 'He is out at sea. Please go now, domine.'

'No,' stammered Claudius. 'I must meet her… It's why I've come… for the rarest of birds…'

'Who are you?' demanded the steward.

'Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus,' Claudius spat out in a rush. 'Nephew of the Emperor.'

The two slaves went white. Then they threw themselves onto the floor of the entrance hall. 'Spare us, domine!'

Claudius broke wind in his hurry, staggering past the prostrate servants into the middle of the admiral's exquisite atrium. 'Where is she?' he shouted into the void. 'Let me see my precious child!'

The servants scrambled to their feet to pursue him. 'We'll have to show her to him.'

'We've got no choice in it!'

'Where is she?' Claudius wailed.

'The tablinum, domine — she's in the master's study!'

They reached him just as he flung back the embroidered curtain that divided the atrium from the admiral's private room. The curtain ripped from its rings, spilling at their feet in a billowing bundle.

Claudius stared into the lavishly decorated study. It was empty. 'Where is she?'

'You are looking at her, domine.'

An outraged shriek pitched Claudius to the floor and he threw his hands to his mouth in horror. A ghost-grey Fury bestrode the admiral's desk, filling the room with a volcanic anger that burned in her face as she fixed him with her pus-coloured eyes. Claudius tried to flee on his knees but she leaped to the floor and advanced upon him, flinging her feathered arms high in the air.

Claudius's screams of terror proved even louder than her cries of abject disgust.

In Rome a Palatine father was presented with his firstborn child. He looked at the tiny thing swaddled in linen at his feet, while the midwives waited with bated breath, praying to Diana that he'd pick the baby up.

'Is it a girl then?' he asked them flatly.

The midwives nodded, keenly aware that a son had been hoped for. 'And the domina is doing well — very little blood lost in the labour,' the older of them added.

But the father made no move to embrace the child. He tapped the baby lightly with his foot. The baby squirmed a little but didn't stir. 'Is it healthy?'

'Very healthy. She will be a beautiful child, you can see it in her tiny face — an asset to you, domine.'

The father stood up, stepping over the baby. The midwives looked at each other in confusion — then looked to the wet nurse.

' Domine?' the wet nurse asked.

The father stopped.

'Are you… rejecting this child?'

'Don't be a fool.'

Relief flooded the servants. 'You have a name for her, then, domine?'

'Her name will honour mine, not her mother's,' was all he said over his shoulder before leaving the room.

The servants looked at each other again for a moment, and the wet nurse took up a clean wax tablet from her master's desk. 'The family name is Messala,' she told the midwives. 'We will find a name for her from that.' She scratched down a few letters, disliked what they made, and scratched them out before trying another derivative. 'There,' she said.

The oldest midwife cradled the tiny girl again. 'What is she called then?'

The wet nurse showed her the name: Messalina. They all agreed that it was as pretty a name as any inauspicious daughter could ask for.

'You'll find a husband one day who loves you more than Daddy does,' the old midwife whispered reassuringly to the baby.

'That won't be hard,' the wet nurse muttered.

Claudius came to consciousness to find the Fury perched on a chair back, looking disdainfully at him where he lay on the floor. The panicky servants tried to force more watered wine into his hands.

'The rarest of birds…' he stammered.

'She is very rare,' agreed the nomenclator. 'Rarer than a jewel.'

'The admiral brought her back from Egypt,' the steward added. 'He said the Pharaoh breeds them.'

Claudius realised that this Fury was not much larger than a raven.

'He says she's a parrot, but she's not a very pretty one.'

'What she lacks in looks she has gained in brains.'

'H — how…?' Claudius stuttered.

The servants stared at each other in exasperation, brought to their wits' end by his unfathomable behaviour. 'You told us you knew of her. You keep calling her "rare"!'

'That's why we let you in here, domine!'

Claudius fell into stammering again and slopped the wine.

The steward and the nomenclator stood up in disgust. 'It's because she can talk, domine, just like a man!'

Watered wine ran down Claudius's neck. 'That's… that's impossible.'

The servants folded their arms in scorn and cocked their heads at the Fury. 'What do you say to that, then, bird?'

The ghost-grey parrot span on the chair back, presenting her behind to Claudius. She lifted her tail and expelled a shower of thick, milky excrement at him, before spinning around to stare again defiantly.

'Veiovis!' the Fury shrieked.

The wet nurse brought in the baby girl to lie next to her sleeping mother. The newborn stirred and the wet nurse hushed the child. The young mother woke; aged barely seventeen, she was little more than a child herself.

'Has he seen her?' Lepida whispered.

'Shush, now — you should rest,' the wet nurse soothed.

'Has my husband seen her?'

The wet nurse nodded.

'Did he name her Messalina?'

The wet nurse didn't like to say that she herself had given the baby this name since the father had shown so little interest. 'It is a very pretty sound upon the tongue,' she said, pleased that Lepida seemed to have hoped for this very name for the girl herself.

Lepida smiled and sank into her cushions, snuggling the tiny baby to her. It was as if unexpressed anxieties washed from the young mother's face. A serenity took her, and the wet nurse was heartened to see it. All mothers should be at peace when safely delivered of a longed-for child, she believed.

She smoothed Lepida's brow. 'The next one will be a boy, just you wait and see. Then your husband will call you his queen.'

Lepida seemed far away. 'I will not be a queen,' she whispered. 'It is not my fate.'

The wet nurse wanted to assure the girl that she didn't mean this literally, but when Lepida appeared to fall asleep, the other woman tiptoed from the birth room to take her place upon the pallet outside the door.

Alone with her child, Lepida's eyes were closed, but she was not yet with Somnus, treading lightly in the netherworld between wakefulness and dreams.

'Do you see her, Mother?' she whispered into the night air. 'Do you see her here with me?' In Lepida's mind, the gentle spirit of her dead mother, Aemilia, was strong inside the room. 'She has joined us at last.' Lepida kissed her baby's silken head. 'Her destiny begins, and the destiny of the Aemilii with her. You can sleep in peace now, Mother. All is in place for the rarest of birds…'

Castor awoke in the night and sensed an animal in his room. It was not Livilla's pup — she kept the beast so perfumed that its presence was unmistakable. This beast had a smell of its own, one he couldn't place. It was neither fetid nor stale. It was not unpleasant.

Castor lay still in his bed for a moment, trying to identify what the animal was and why it might have brought itself to his sleeping room. It made no noise upon the floor. The sound of its breathing was indiscernible. Castor felt no fear of being harmed by it. He slowly sat upright and swung his feet to the floor. The smooth, cool scales that he immediately felt beneath his soles told him what his visitor was: a serpent, lying in wait for him. He identified the smell — desert sands and hot winds.

The snake didn't wiggle beneath his feet or arch backwards to bite him. It stayed as still as a stone — and yet it was very much alive, because Castor could feel the minute expansion of its lungs taking in air. Carefully, he lifted his feet again, giving his eyes time to adjust to the darkness. The serpent writhed free and slid noiselessly along the floor. It paused once, turning its head to look directly at him.

'Why are you here?' Castor asked. Even if the serpent had answered him, Castor would have remained unafraid, because he knew already that this was no earthly animal. It was a portent. The snake continued towards the door and into the corridor outside, lingering near the sleeping form of Lygdus on his slave's pallet. Castor gently shook the eunuch awake.

'What is it, domine?'

Castor pointed into the shadows. Lygdus gave a little cry of fear but Castor placed his hand across his mouth. 'Ssh. I don't want anyone else to know.'

Lygdus's eyes were wide, but he nodded. The serpent held him in its night-black gaze in a way that almost seemed to mock him.

'Come with me as I follow it,' Castor said.

Lygdus paled. 'Follow it, domine?'

'You are valued by me,' said Castor. 'I want you to see it too and be my witness to whatever it may reveal.'

In the darkness Lygdus blushed with unexpected emotion. Castor was already advancing down the corridor and Lygdus began to follow. He did not know why, but somehow he sensed that the serpent was here not only for the master, but for the slave as well.

The low sounds of voices stirred me from my own slumber. In the darkness of my domina 's room I listened from where I lay at the foot of Livia's great bed. There were two men approaching — I could hear the padding of their bare feet upon the floor tiles. I recognised the tread of one. 'Lygdus?' I muttered. 'Is that you?'

Something cold brushed against my face where I lay. I gave a shout of fright and leaped up. My bare feet made contact with dry, scaly flesh. 'A snake!'

I ran to throw open the window shutters to let in the light of the moon. When I turned back to the room, in my terror I saw the ghostly faces of Castor and Lygdus staring at the floor.

' Domine,' I gasped. 'I felt a serpent!'

Lygdus gave me a beseeching, fearful look and Castor pointed at the carved leg of Livia's bed. The small, thin form of an infant viper was entwined around the carving. 'There it is — kill it!' I said. But none of us moved.

The viper slowly wound itself up the bed leg until it reached the edge of my domina 's woollen mattress. Then it disappeared beneath the linen.

'It will bite her!' I cried. Neither Lygdus nor Castor made any move, so I ripped the linen from Livia's sleeping form, shaking it in horror. Nothing emerged. Gripped by fear, I beat the mattress around my domina 's body, hoping to drive the snake out of hiding. But when nothing came, I was forced to feel beneath her torso and limbs for any sign of the serpent.

There was nothing there. The viper had vanished. Livia remained in deepest sleep.

I saw the look in Castor's eyes again — an expression echoed by Lygdus. 'It was a message,' Castor said. 'A message from the gods, I think.'

I was bewildered. 'From the gods, domine?'

Castor stayed silent for some time, pondering. 'From one god, I believe. The Divine Augustus.'

This left me utterly incredulous, but I struggled hard to hide it.

'He watches over my grandmother from Olympus. He loved her so very much, you know. Well, of course you know, Iphicles.'

I said nothing, knowing far more than Castor could ever be privy to.

'He sent the serpent to me and I followed it all the way here, to my grandmother's bed. It is obvious what he meant to tell me.'

I went very still. 'Yes, domine?'

'Serpents are sacred to Asclepius. If we take my grandmother to the temple of the god of medicine, she will be cured.'

I felt sick to my guts and tried to catch the eye of Lygdus. But the eunuch wouldn't look at me at all. His eyes were on his master. Castor laid his hand upon the eunuch's fleshy shoulder and then removed it again. There was an atmosphere of profound reverence between them. Castor's affection for my apprentice was unmistakable.

The Nones of April

AD 22

One month later: Praetorian Prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus prevents a fire at the Theatre of Pompey from spreading to nearby temples and is rewarded by the Emperor with a statue of his likeness erected in the theatre's ruins

In Flamma's slow journey towards death he encountered a strange bird. Its plumage was a dull, metallic grey like a pigeon's, but the bird itself was larger in size, and with three blood-red feathers in its tail. Its pus-yellow eyes didn't blink as it stared at him.

'Are you from Hades?' Flamma asked the creature. 'Are you my escort to the place of the dead?'

'Why did you do it?' the creature questioned him in return.

Only a bird from Hades could have the power of speech, Flamma marvelled. After so many months of hovering near the edge of the precipice, at last his end was close. He tried to find the right response for the creature but felt himself already drifting towards oblivion.

'Those beasts are obscene!' I gasped. ' Domine, you cannot allow this!'

'Ssh,' Castor hissed at me.

'But, domine, snakes are bad enough — '

'You heard the god's words.'

'I heard the priests' words.'

Castor glared hard at me. 'It would be disappointing for my grandmother should I grow to dislike you now, Iphicles, after so many years as your friend.'

I shuddered at the warning in the words. 'Yes, domine,' I nodded, but my anxiety was devouring me.

The priests of Asclepius finished the final examination of my apparently sleeping domina. She lay wrapped in a shroud on the damp temple floor. The head priest nodded to Castor.

'It is as you first thought?' Castor asked him.

The head priest nodded again. 'The god's serpent may have brought you here, Lord, but the sacred serpents of this temple cannot help the Augusta. She is beyond their reach.'

Castor's mouth tightened. 'Very well. If there is no other option.'

'There is not.'

Behind them another priest secured six whining dogs that pulled tight against their leashes.

'This is wrong, domine,' I wailed. 'It defiles her.'

'Out!' said Castor, turning on me.

' Domine?'

'Out, Iphicles. Now! We'll collect you again when my grandmother's treatment is over.'

'How can such a thing be called treatment — ' I began, but Castor's glare silenced me. 'Please don't make me leave,' I begged.

'Then allow your domina to receive the god's attentions in silence.'

I whimpered, my guts tying into knots, but I said nothing more. I was in terror not at how Asclepius's treatment might harm my domina, but at the far more alarming prospect of its proving successful. The god of medicine was unpredictable. What if the strange snake really had been a sign of his interest in Livia's recovery? While I certainly doubted that the Divine Augustus had had anything to do with the serpent's portent, the nature of the medicine god's ways were unknown to me. Once, as a disrespectful youth, I had spat a ball of phlegm on the god's temple threshold when I believed him ill-disposed towards my then master, Tiberius Nero. I had been wrong in that belief. Asclepius had held no feelings towards Tiberius Nero at all, ill-disposed or otherwise. But what god would remain indifferent to the spitballs of a slave?

The six temple hounds pulled against the tethers, their claws scraping against the floor. I hid my eyes, but couldn't stand not knowing and uncovered them again.

'Release them,' said the head priest.

The dogs' master dropped the leashes and the dogs leaped forward in a single motion, flying at my domina where she lay still upon the floor. I wanted to scream but Castor's eyes were on me.

'Go well, domina,' was all I could mutter, but the sentiment was false. I wanted her to sleep forever and never wake up.

The first of the temple hounds detected an odour to Livia's sex and pressed its snout between her legs, inhaling what she hid beneath the shroud. A second dog followed and then a third, before all six dogs were snuffling and licking, baring their teeth to pull the shroud from my domina 's most private parts.

With relief I saw Castor flush and look ill at what the dogs were doing. 'What is this?' he shot at the head priest. But the old man just shook his head gravely and held up a hand, reassuring Castor that nothing was out of place. The dogs had Livia's shroud in pieces now and her private parts were exposed. Their six snouts had spread her legs apart, nuzzling her obscenely. I hoped Castor would vomit.

'She is the Augusta!' he appealed to the head priest. 'Pull the dogs off her, for pity's sake!'

The head priest was immovable. 'They have found the location of her illness, Lord. If it is distressing for you, then look away, but I cannot stop the god's beasts now. They are curing her. They are making her whole.'

It was too much for Castor and he left the room. I stayed for only a moment more, my eyes boring into my domina 's closed lids. She knew I was there and her right eye opened just a crack.

'This isn't going to work,' I hissed at her. 'Give it up, domina — this isn't going to succeed.'

Livia winked at me. Each of us had our secret plans; the Fates would decide whose came first to bud.

Feeling weak with disgust and tiredness, Castor listened to the head priest's directives from a stone bench in the temple's portico. My heart anxious, I pulled off Castor's street shoes to let his foot abscess air. It annoyed him that it never seemed to improve, but he'd grown accustomed to its constant ache.

'So I must bring my grandmother back here again?'

The head priest confirmed it. 'Asclepius insists, Lord.'

Castor grimaced but gave a nod. 'How often must it be done?'

'That is for the god to say,' said the head priest, 'but he has chosen her for his attention. Few are so favoured, Lord. Certainly the Augusta must return here twice a month until further signs of improvement are seen. You say she has been awake and watchful, and yet she shows no sign of this today. I believe you have brought her to Asclepius just in time — she was beginning her descent to death. But with the attentions of the dogs, perhaps this will now be reversed.'

'Only perhaps?' said Castor. He wanted certainty that this divine defilement of his grandmother would see her made well.

'There are no absolutes with Asclepius,' said the head priest.

'Very well,' said Castor. 'My grandmother will return here twice a month.' He closed his eyes, leaning back on the bench against the temple wall for a moment, his bare legs stretched before him. 'The god's serpent was sent to me. I have faith we will see improvement.'

He waited, expecting the head priest to agree, but the old man said nothing. Then he felt a tickling at his foot. He opened his eyes and saw that one of the temple dogs had its snout pressed against the unhealed abscess.

'Get off,' said Castor, pulling his foot away.

The dog backed off but tried to return again.

'Off!' said Castor.

I slipped the street shoes onto his feet again.

'You have a sore,' said the head priest.

'It mends on its own accord,' said Castor. 'It doesn't require the god's attentions.'

'As you wish.'

Castor stood and walked away, refusing to allow himself to limp. I followed behind. Restraining the dog, the head priest stared hard at our retreating backs. For very differing reasons, neither of us turned around.

The Nones of March

AD 23

Eleven months later: Praetorian Prefect

Lucius Aelius Sejanus concentrates all nine cohorts of the Praetorian Guard into a single camp at the Viminalis Gate

The dream that came to the master was so vivid that he cried out in his sleep. His slaves were made fearful by the noise but none dared wake him. Their master slept so little as it was; any slumber, however dream-filled, was better than insomnia. Still, they consulted among themselves and decided to record what their master spoke, in order to show it to him at dawn. These dreams were portents, they sensed — messages from the gods for their master. But none of the slaves had been granted the gift of literacy. They couldn't write. Then they remembered the slave who could.

They sent for me.

When I arrived, their master's state was unchanged — he was speaking aloud, as if engaged in a conversation with spirits. I was hesitant to enter. This was not a household in which I held authority. I was wary of this master — and wary of the mistress, too. But the slaves assured me that their mistress slept soundly at the other end of the house — she would never know of my presence. And just to make sure, someone had already been sent to wait outside her door to warn me if she stirred.

I accepted my task and sat down to interpret and record what the master spoke aloud in his strange, wakeful sleep.

In the dream he spoke to his father. The words he used were the most loving a son could employ, words that any father would weep with joy to hear. But the dream father who received them barely heard the words at all. They made no impact. They were acknowledged only cursorily.

This made the son increase the intensity of his devotion. He reached inside his chest and found his own beating heart. He scooped it out with his hands and placed it on a tablet, laying it at his father's feet. Then he found an urn inside his chest, where his heart had been. He opened it and saw that it contained all his hopes in life — his bright future, his keen ambition, his pride. He scooped the urn out of himself and placed it at his father's feet, next to his beating heart.

Then the son dug inside again to see what else he could find to offer. He found his own children there, two of them — a boy and a girl. The girl had known misery. He gave her to his father in the hope that he'd cure her. Then he gave his precious son too. But the father remained indifferent.

In despair the master fled from his father's sight. Weeping overtook him, both in his dream and in his sleeping chamber, where I recorded everything among the fearful slaves. He fell to wrenching sobs that saw him curl up like a foetus in his bed. But still he didn't wake. Then abruptly he stopped. In his dream he had glanced over his shoulder to his father in the distance. The old man was no longer alone — the master's brother had joined him — a rival for their father's love. But now the father was laughing, his face softened with affection and joy. He was kissing the rival brother's hand.

'He is no son to you, Father,' the master called out in his sleep. 'I am your son — it is me.'

But the father was deaf and the master couldn't be heard. The brother heard him perfectly, however, and turned to sneer at him, as he always had from the very first day they had met. The brother dismissed the master, pronouncing him inferior, ill-born and weak. 'You're just a slave,' the brother taunted him.

The master was consumed with rage. 'I'll kill you for this!' he called out. 'I'll kill you for it!'

In the room some of the listening slaves gasped with shock to hear their sleeping master shouting this from his bed. But others looked grimly at each other, knowing better what this dream was about. 'What else can he do?' one of them muttered. 'He does in his dream what he should do in life.'

But in the dream the master's courage failed him. He called out for his wife.

In the sleeping room the slaves jumped with fear and ran about to ensure the doors were closed. When they were sure their mistress couldn't hear, they crouched at the walls to observe what would happen next. The master's wife came to him in his dream and his sobbing resumed. The brother was right to call him weak and inferior; the sobbing was shameful. But the most loyal of the slaves in the sleeping room begged in whispers to the others that they remember this was only a dream, not life. The others nodded, echoing his words. Their master was a man they admired. After the Emperor, he was the highest man in Rome. The Empire would be his one day.

The dream wife comforted the master, nursing him like a boy. She dried his tears with her veil and told him that his father's love would soon be his, but only if he honoured his threat. He must kill his brother. There was no other way. Then he would be rid of him forever. Then his father would give him back his heart and his hopes and his children. Then he would win back his future.

The master vowed that murder would be his tool; it would serve him as his slaves. It would empower him. It would make him a king.

The dream wife offered him some wine. He took it from her, brushing his fingers against her hand as he did so. She laughed and tossed her hair free of its ribbons. The long, dark tresses tumbled to her bare shoulders. He drank deeply from the cup and whispered his desire that she release her breasts for him. She did so, gently lifting them from where they rested, letting the sun kiss her milky skin. The master moaned with pleasure as he saw them. He drank deeply from the wine again, and then cupped his wife's breasts in his hands, cradling the full, round weight of them. He lightly gripped her nipples between his fingertips, and then pressed his mouth to them, suckling.

He pulled his lips away only to drink the last of the wine as his dream wife slipped out of her garments, letting the silk slip slowly down her thighs to the ground. She asked him to enter her and he rose in his dream to comply. Listening inside the sleeping room, the youngest slave couldn't hide his own arousal. The oldest slave struck him in the loins with a spoon. As he prepared to mount his dream wife, the master sat upright in his bed, still asleep, his eyes still closed. His brow was slick with sweat; the fabric of his tunica was dark with moisture at his chest and armpits. A slave crept forward to mop his master's head, but I shot my arm out to stop him. Nothing must wake the master, I knew. The true meaning of the dream was nearly here — the message from the gods.

In the dream the master's loins went slack and cold. He could not rise; his wife's nakedness enflamed his heart but nothing else. His legs and arms went cold — his torso, too — and then his hands. In the sleeping room the master's teeth began to clash together as he continued to speak the vivid scene in his mind. The slaves looked at each other in increased alarm.

'We must wake him now — look at him,' one of them whispered at me.

But I willed them to silence, for suddenly the dream's truth was speaking to me and me alone. The message from the gods was for Iphicles, not the master. They spoke to me as one of them — their equal. They saw my nascent divinity, earned in sacrifice, and they welcomed me. They promised me the joys that would come once I had served the great prophecy to its very end — once I had crowned the fourth king. And with this promise came their assistance. They would aid me in my plans. And I realised they were aiding me at that very moment.

The master lurched forward in his bed and then threw himself back against the pillows. 'I cannot enter you. I cannot have you,' he shouted to his dream wife.

And in his dream she began to fade away, her breasts still bare, her cleft moist and waiting for him. But he was unable. He was unworthy. He was not a man.

The master screamed with terror and all the slaves shook where they crouched at the walls. They began to weep, but still none woke him. The master screamed again — a dreadful howl — then tore his tunica from his throat. The fabric ripped, revealing his chest livid with sores.

'Look at him! Look at him!' cried the youngest slave.

The others slapped the boy hard, but nothing would wake the master now, I knew. No noise could bring him back. Froth bubbled from his lips, first white and then pink, as blood began to rise in his throat. The scarlet phlegm spewed through his lips.

The slaves were in terror. 'Master!' they screamed. 'Master, please wake up!'

Livilla threw the chamber door wide just as Castor opened his eyes and saw her. Then he saw Lygdus, the slave that had been posted to wait by his wife's door, and he saw the flash of unspeakable guilt that filled the eunuch's face. I saw Lygdus, too, and I expected him to throw me a smile of triumph at this heady victory, a grin of joy at this job well done. But he showed me nothing of the kind. Castor's eyes bore into him and the eunuch knew that his master realised how totally he had been betrayed. Castor looked to the uncomprehending Livilla, standing with her mouth wide and her long hair loose upon her shoulders. He tried to warn her — to tell her what a viper Lygdus was, coiled inside their home.

'My wife…'

But she didn't understand.

Castor's last breath bubbled from his lungs. The final words he heard were the echo of a whisper in his ear.

' The son with blood, by water's done, the truth is never seen.. '

Suddenly she was aware of his absence. Her husband's space in the bed was warm, the scent of him was strong and reassuring upon the linen — and yet she was alone. His side was empty. Apicata lurched awake and ran her hands beneath the covers to make sure it was true. He was gone. She sat up without making a sound and let her toes rest upon the mat. In her nakedness she felt the cold, but she wouldn't risk the moment's ignorance that would come from putting on garments and distracting her ears.

She strained to determine the noises of her sleeping house. She heard the gentle rise and fall of her daughter's chest as she slumbered in her room across the peristyle. She heard the louder snores of her gangly son. She strained to hear the breathing of the sleeping maids upon their pallets outside her own door and realised there were none. The slaves must be awake — or they had been moved. Then she heard the low murmur of her husband's voice in his study.

Apicata felt for her tunica at last and pulled it on. Then she found her woollen palla and wrapped it tightly around herself. She felt for her shoes next to the bed but her foot only found one. Perhaps Sejanus had kicked the other in accident as he left? She felt under the bed to see if she could find it and instead connected with something she didn't recognise: a small, oblong box, less than the length of her hand. Her senses told her it was nothing to be alarmed by, and yet it perplexed her by being there. It was smooth to the touch. She shook it and something rattled. It was sealed tightly and her fingers couldn't open it. But the absence of her husband was more pressing, so Apicata left the little box on the bed, intending to prise the thing open when she returned.

Barefoot, she crept to the door and listened. Sejanus's voice grew louder — he was questioning someone. She stole into the open hallway, where the row of chambers ran along one side and the courtyard of the peristyle along the other. There was a chill breeze; an owl hooted as it saw her from where it was perched upon the gutter. There was a good omen in that, Apicata thought, but she couldn't remember what it was. She stole towards the study, but before she had gone more than a few paces Sejanus emerged and saw her in the shadows.

She stopped, caught out. 'Has something happened, husband?'

There was shock in his voice — but excitement too. 'Castor is dead.'

She held her hand out to steady herself against a pillar.

'He died of a fever — he was raging in nightmares.'

'But… I could have helped you in this, as I have with all the other things we've planned together. Why didn't you let me know it was coming so soon after Germanicus? Why didn't you share it with me, husband? Couldn't I have made the task easier in some way?'

Sejanus was as ignorant of Lygdus and the poisoned footbaths as his wife was, but Apicata assumed that it was her husband who had somehow brought on Castor's death. He didn't want her to know that he had been thrown by the sudden development. 'I was protecting you,' he said eventually.

There was a tone to his voice that she couldn't identify; it sat oddly in her ear. 'I didn't need protecting with Germanicus.'

'This was different. We… we had no agent to do our work for us this time.'

She found his face with her hands. 'You did this alone?'

He avoided answering. 'I have to leave,' he said, taking her hands from his cheeks. Apicata heard the unmistakable noise of a dog's claws clicking on the floor tiles. Although she couldn't see it, she heard and smelled the presence of a large hound emerging from Sejanus's study and brushing its snout against his hand. Apicata recoiled, frightened, but didn't ask where this beast had come from or why it was there.

'I have to leave,' Sejanus said again, moving past her to their sleeping room.

The dog's breath was strong and rank in her nostrils. 'I'll never betray your secrets — your secrets are mine,' she whispered after him.

Sejanus snatched at a cloak and began pulling on his boots. From the corner of his eye he saw the little oblong box that Apicata had left on the bed. It took his curiosity for only a second before he dismissed it.

Apicata was standing where he'd left her when he came out again. 'Congratulations, then,' she whispered as he went to pass her.

For a moment he felt the old emotion that always confused him. He had not felt it for some time — several years, in truth — but it was with him now, as it sometimes was when she became like this: pliant, vulnerable and so full of love for him. Was it love he felt in return, however small? He could never determine it. All he understood was that it was an emotion, but it was different from love as he felt it for others. 'What is wrong with you?'

'You've taken another step closer to your great destiny,' said Apicata. 'The destiny that Fortuna chose when she gifted you Julia's letter.'

He grunted an acknowledgement. The dog panted at his side. 'It was you who killed Castor, wasn't it, husband?' Her voice held an unmistakable note of doubt. 'Who else could it be?' he said over his shoulder as he left her, the dog at his heels.

The temple sacristan was disturbed in his dreams by a scratching at the door. This was not the night when he habitually left the keys in the hands of others and sought out a tavern to sleep in. This was his free night, and his bed was just that — his own. He tried to dream on but the scratching continued, steady and persistent.

'Go away,' the old man muttered from his cot, not allowing himself to wake.

'Sacristan!' the scratcher whispered.

It was her, although it should not have been. 'It is not your time to use the temple,' he answered. But already his dreams were melting away into the shadows.

'Let me in,' she whispered into the door's crack. 'I need it now.'

Sleep left the sacristan and he sat up in his cot, feeling his old joints ache as he sought his woollen shoes. It was cold. The air around him wouldn't warm until the morning. Somewhere in the distance he heard a sentry call the watch of Gallicinium, the second hour past midnight. This was very late, even for her.

'Hurry,' she whispered from the other side of the temple's bolted front door.

'Concordia hurries for no man or woman,' was his reply as he pulled a cloak around his shoulders. He emerged from his little sleeping chamber to enter the hall of the ancient temple, and the rats fled from the goddess's statue, where they'd been gorging on the fruit in her cornucopia. The sacristan hated that the late-night visitor would see this sacrilege — it was his job to keep the goddess free of vermin — but a man could only do so much. This was another reason why he made all nocturnal worshippers stick to prearranged bookings.

'Hurry!' she whispered again.

A single oil lamp was still alight and he adjusted the wick so the flame grew brighter. Then he pulled back the door bolt. 'I did not expect you tonight, Lady.'

Livilla slipped inside and the sacristan saw that her hair was undressed, flowing loose to her shoulders. She had dressed with haste too, throwing a rough cloak over a stola that was meant for the bedroom, not the streets.

'Are you unaccompanied, Lady?' He didn't like this.

'A friend is delivering a message for me.'

'But where… where are the gentleman's slaves? The men who usually bring you here?'

She held him with a piercing look. 'I have come alone.' She dug into the purse knotted at her wrist and pulled out some aureus coins. They shone in the dim light of the oil lamp as she counted them — six in all. 'Is this enough?'

The sacristan had to lean upon the doorjamb for a moment. 'More than enough, Lady.'

'Good. Leave me with Concordia.' She held out her hand for the keys.

Sejanus took them.

Livilla cried out with the shock of seeing him appear behind her so suddenly. She hadn't heard him approach. Sejanus poked his finger into the pouch inside his cloak and pulled out some more aureus coins — another six.

'Take these,' he said to the sacristan.

The old man shot Livilla a look, fearful she'd reveal she'd just paid him. But Livilla held her tongue.

The sacristan hurried down the temple steps, hoping he'd make the tavern without harm. The streets were full of thieves, and he'd be lucky if there was anything better than sacks to sleep on when he got to the tavern. But it didn't matter. He had more gold in his possession than he'd ever known. He was only vaguely aware of the huge, lean Laconian dog that lurked in the shadows as he passed. The loyal dog Scylax placed his head upon his paws, having retrieved Sejanus for his mistress.

Inside the temple Sejanus and Livilla stared at each other for a long moment before either dared to speak. Each tried to read the other's thoughts, and each believed they had underestimated the other in ways that both excited them and made them wary. But each was burdened by a misconception.

It was Sejanus who spoke first. 'Our day is here, then?'

Livilla's heartbeat was deafening in her ear, but she smiled — a slow, feline curl that played upon her lips and had everything of her grandmother Livia's allure to it. 'It is here — thanks to my king.'

Sejanus was tripped up by her words. He believed it was Livilla who had found the means to bring them closer to their dream. Who else could have brought on Castor's death so suddenly? 'Thanks to my queen,' he replied.

Livilla felt a moment's confusion too, but she quashed the doubt from her mind. Of course it was Sejanus who had killed Castor. No one else could have done it. No one else could have been as skilful and bold. She dropped the coarse woollen palla to her feet and let Sejanus run his hands along the thin fabric at her belly and then to her breasts. The night air was chill but she didn't care. Her nipples were hard for him already — and Sejanus, she saw, was hard for her too.

He spread her eagerly, his fingers at her cleft, and the pungent, fetid juice of her was slick inside her sex. The stink of her arousal filled the stale temple air. She moaned for him.

'Castor is dead… Now I'm wholly, truly yours, my god.'

His hands cupped her mons, his fingers pinching at the shining jewel that was her bead. He tossed her into the air like a cloth doll, catching her in his long, sinewy arms before he tore the stola from her breasts with his teeth. The fabric fell about Livilla in shreds as he heaved her rump onto Concordia's altar, parting her legs once more and revealing her fully in the golden light of the oil lamp. His fingers, hands and mouth were at her sex and she arched her back, panting with pleasure, raising her lips to meet his flicking, darting tongue.

Sejanus lapped at Livilla, drinking from the fountain of her womanhood, while Livilla's thoughts were only of her son. The grieving boy Gemellus was being comforted by his wet nurse at Oxheads. He believed his father was dead, but soon Livilla would tell him the truth of the matter: his father was very much alive. His father was Sejanus. His father was the real heir to the throne of Rome.

Alone in the entrance hall to Castor's house, Lygdus let the tears spill down his cheeks where no one could see him. He covered his mouth with his hands as the sobs of anguish came, torn raw from his heart. 'I'm so sorry for it, domine,' he stammered into his fingers. 'I'm so sorry for it…'

He tried to make a fresh map in his mind to guide his future. But now he could see that only one road was his. For all these months he had forced himself to believe that his lowly slave's existence would be devoted to murder and crimes, and that by living in this way he would become elevated. He had forced himself to hold on to the faith that his humble life — and the life of Rome — would be made the better for what he would do. But now he knew this would not be so, and could never be. He had failed.

Lygdus knew in his heart he would fail from the moment I had told him of Cybele and the prophecies and my sacrifice. He had ignored his doubts but the truth was inescapable now. He was shattered by what he had done. He was overwhelmed by his actions and not transported to some higher plain at all. He was sickened with the foulest remorse.

Lygdus had murdered his dominus, taken another man's life. He had lied, betrayed and killed, and the road he had travelled to achieve these things would now be his forever.

He would kill and kill again, just as I, his mentor, killed as easily as I breathed. He would kill without pleasure or love or belief. He would kill to survive. He would kill or be killed. And with each new death his stench would grow. He was a murderer now — a vile assassin.

He would never be free and he would never be clean, even if he became a god for it.

When Apicata's maids let themselves out of the kitchens, they stood very still, straining to hear any sounds that might suggest that their master remained in the house. He had ordered them from the corridor where they slept when the strange dog had appeared, scratching at the front door. They knew it held a message under its collar, but none saw what it was because Sejanus ordered them from his sight.

Among themselves, the maids agreed they'd been sent away because Sejanus didn't want them seeing things they might report to their mistress. He kept secrets from her, they well knew. But she kept secrets from him too, which they felt evened the score.

When they at last returned to their pallets, they were shocked to find their mistress curled up on one, asleep. They consulted in whispers.

'Should we wake her?'

'It would be terrible.'

'But she's in a slave's bed when she's a mistress.'

'Let her sleep. Perhaps she'll wake up of her own accord.'

Apicata was left where she was and the other slaves spread themselves among the remaining pallets as best they could. One of the maids, a girl called Calliope, found herself with nothing to sleep on. Upset, she crept into her mistress's sleeping room, hoping there might be a rug she could arrange on the floor. She saw the strange little oblong box where it lay upon the bed. Without giving it any thought, she picked it up.

The box was smooth in her hand and it rattled. In the dim light of the moon Calliope saw there was a little spot on the box where she could pry the lid with her fingernail. She did so and the lid popped off. Three little objects fell out. She stared at them for a full second before she saw with horror what they were. The tiny torso of a wax doll was detached from its head. The head itself was befouled, as if pulled from a sewer, and the eyes were absent. The doll was Apicata. It was a work of witchcraft.

Calliope nearly shrieked, but she managed to stop herself, fearful of alerting the other maids. She knew that she would somehow be blamed for this, and maybe even accused of planting the witchcraft in the first place. The third item from the box was a scrap of rag on which something had been written. Unable to read, she stared blankly at the tiny letters. She shoved the three horrid things back in the box and reattached the lid. It was not a box at all, she now knew, but a tiny coffin.

Calliope kicked it under the bed and made a prayer to the household gods that she be nowhere nearby when the evil thing was found again.

The nail that held Livilla's curse to the base of the temple's god lost its hold in the stone and fell away, dropping the lead tablet to the floor.

The curse landed with its words facing downwards and only its blank side visible to the god who towered above. Not that it mattered. The deity of deception had already read the plea for his assistance that was scratched into the other side.

It had amused him, Livilla's request. And now Veiovis was enjoying himself greatly as he honoured the unique nature of her curse.

The Kalends of April

AD 23

Two weeks later: Emperor Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus delivers the funeral eulogy for his son

The weeping of the boys somewhere outside his room woke Flamma. The dreadful, wracking sobs brought him back to miseries he hadn't felt since his earliest days at the Ludi. The sound jarred Flamma from his slow, steady path towards death.

His eyes opened and saw the startled reaction on the face of the slave-boy Burrus, watching over him in the bed while applying fresh spiderweb and vinegar to his wound. Flamma tried to speak but his throat only croaked like a toad's.

'Ssh,' said Burrus. He wiped a cloth dipped in water across Flamma's brow.

The gladiator waited, letting the phlegm and blood drip down his gullet before trying again. 'I hear boys weeping…'

A tear slipped from Burrus's eye and he rubbed it away with the cloth. 'It is the domina 's sons — Nero and Drusus.'

'Why do they cry?'

'Because of what has befallen us.'

'I don't understand.'

'Castor is dead — their adoptive father.'

Delirium took Flamma again and it was another day before he found his way back to the surface. When he did, he saw that the grey bird was there. 'How did Castor die?' he asked it, as if the conversation hadn't ended.

But the bird had no answer, and instead posed its most pressing question. 'Why did you do it?'

The effort of trying to answer made Flamma lose his fight to stay conscious. When he woke again, it seemed like only seconds later, but the light had changed and Burrus had returned, dressed in different clothes.

'The boys have stopped crying,' Flamma remarked.

'They have gone to the funeral with my domina and her daughters.'

Flamma let this sink in. 'Castor was a good man.'

Burrus nodded.

'What killed him?'

Burrus lowered his voice to a whisper. 'They say it was a river fever, but my domina, she says — ' But he stopped himself, knowing it was unwise to say more.

'Death's bird is trying to escort me,' Flamma told the boy after another while.

Burrus just looked confused and poured some broth into Flamma's mouth. The gladiator coughed it up, but when Burrus tried again Flamma found he could swallow. It was good. He gulped a few mouthfuls.

'Death's bird has been talking to me, Burrus…'

'Talking?'

'That's what I said.'

'Perhaps it was Fury?'

'Are the Furies hounding me to hell?'

'Fury is Claudius's pet bird — he found it in Misenum. She can talk.'

Burrus wiped Flamma's brow and gave him some more broth. Flamma closed his eyes, and when he opened them again the boy had gone and the room they had placed him in was bathed in a rich, rosy light.

Agrippina was there. With her golden hair that so mirrored his own.

'Why did you do it?' Agrippina asked him.

'It was my time to die,' said Flamma.

'It was not. And neither is it now. You won a great victory.'

'I am old and spent.'

'You are younger than I am.'

'It was my time to die then and it is my time to die now. I don't want to live in this life anymore.'

'Are you disgraced? Are you guilty of a crime?'

'I am a gladiator,' Flamma said, as though that answered everything.

Agrippina frowned. 'So you did it to insult me. And to insult my dead husband, when you told me you revered him. You lied.'

Flamma wept a little and she coolly dabbed at his tears with a square of linen until he stopped again. 'You plunged that blade into your chest but it didn't kill you,' said Agrippina. There was an unmistakable note of respect to her tone.

'Not yet,' said Flamma, 'but I'm still in this deathbed.'

'You are recovering slowly — the physicians have assured me of it.'

'Just let me die.'

'I will not. You are my property. And since the Ludi you have been worth a great deal of money to me. I'd be a fool to let you die.'

Flamma shut his eyes tight in frustration, and when he opened them again the rosy glow had left the room and the darkness had returned. The girl Nilla was there, lighting an oil lamp.

'I'm ashamed that I tricked you,' he told her.

'I've forgiven you for that,' said Nilla.

He wept again but she didn't dab at his tears as her mother had.

When he'd stopped, she asked, 'Why did you do it?'

Flamma found that he didn't know anymore. 'Your father was a great man,' he whispered to her.

Nilla nodded.

'Was he murdered?'

Nilla nodded again, sombre.

'Who would do such a crime?'

Nilla told him what her mother believed — Tiberius.

He frowned. 'This must be avenged.'

Flamma returned to sleep, and as he dreamed he found that he had lost his way along death's path. The steps he took no longer led him there. When he awoke, it was morning. Agrippina had brought her loom into the doorway of his chamber and was weaving cloth in the glow of the dawn.

'I will make a bargain with you, Lady,' he called out to her.

Startled, she turned around on her stool to him, raising a brow.

'An exchange,' he said. 'Let me help you gain vengeance. Let me give you skills. Let me strengthen you. Let me show you what should be done, if you must kill.'

Agrippina stared at him for a moment. She left her loom and crouched beside him at the bed. 'I accept.'

He smiled, relieved.

'What can I give you in return, Flamma?'

He found himself reaching out to hold her hand. It was slender in his broad, brown palm, but her fingers were long and supple like his. There was a well of hidden strength to her hands, he saw. 'Death,' he said. 'Just give me death, Lady.'

Angry, she threw down his hand as if it burned her.

Livilla's conclamatio wails of grief filled the corridors of Oxheads long after the funeral had ended. Sometimes Tiberia's voice was added to that of her mother's, and more often the voice of the little boy, Gemellus, joined in too. But mostly it was just Livilla weeping, especially in the hours of darkness. During those long nights her revered mother, Antonia, joined her, a widow herself for many decades. On these occasions Livilla's grief intensified into hysteria. She gave more grief than we slaves could bear.

Sejanus ordered me to close the door of my domina 's suite against it, but Tiberius stopped me.

'I need to hear it,' he murmured, withered and aged at his mother's bedside. 'She grieves so much. It comforts me to know that Castor was loved.'

I made no comment on the sincerity of Livilla's grief and simply bowed, leaving the door open, before I pressed myself against the wall, trying to become invisible. Indeed, I was invisible to Sejanus and Tiberius — they paid me no heed — but my domina was ever aware of me and I felt the boiling hatred behind her eyes. With Castor's death the trips to Asclepius's dogs would cease — I would make sure of it. My plans had come to bud before hers.

Sejanus returned to mixing a new draught of the Eastern flower. Tiberius watched his actions intently, knowing that the drug would take away his pain. In his hands he held my written record of Castor's death dream.

'How could he have thought he wasn't my son?' he asked from the depths of his despair. I knew this question wasn't directed at me and so said nothing.

'It was a dream, Caesar,' Sejanus answered without looking at him. He was carefully measuring the ingredients. 'Dreams can't be taken literally. There are other meanings to them.'

'There is no other meaning here,' Tiberius said. 'He believed I loved his brother more.'

Sejanus paused. Then he said, 'But Germanicus is four years dead. How could Castor still have thought such a thing, Caesar?' He waited, his face betraying nothing of what he hid in his heart.

Tiberius looked up from the papyrus, bewildered. 'So he truly thought I loved Germanicus more?'

Sejanus made a show of embarrassment, as if he was privy to a confidence he had never shared with his Emperor.

Tiberius's tears flowed. 'No… no. Germanicus was my adopted son — my nephew — but he wasn't my blood son.'

Sejanus said nothing, his face a tragic mask.

'Didn't he understand that? Didn't he realise the truth?'

'He knew that the Divine Augustus had wanted you to adopt Germanicus,' Sejanus answered with reluctance. 'This suggested succession plans.'

'That was my mother's doing,' Tiberius spat, glaring viciously at Livia. She met his eye but gave nothing. 'Augustus was insensible to that decision — Castor knew that.'

Sejanus's sad look suggested otherwise. 'He only knew that neither the Divine Augustus nor the Augusta expressed such wishes about him. Castor knew that Germanicus was the better man — the greater general. He knew that his brother's gifts as an ambassador made him invaluable to Rome. He knew that his own gifts were only administrative at best.'

Tiberius wept in despair. 'He was my right hand here in Rome. He was invaluable to me — I am lost without him.'

Sejanus said nothing and began mixing ingredients again, letting the seed he had planted take root in Tiberius's heart. He stirred the draught slowly as he waited, but did not offer the relief it would bring yet. He knew that a more important task must be dealt with first.

The seed bore fruit. An appalling realisation dawned on Tiberius, and for a brief moment's terror Sejanus feared it was not the one he had strived for.

'Castor caused his brother's death?'

Sejanus's flood of relief almost shook the mask from his eyes. He threw himself at the base of Tiberius's chair, shedding tears of gratitude to the gods, but in his performance he dressed it as grief. 'I've always feared it, Caesar,' he whispered. 'I've always suspected it in my heart.'

'You never said it to me.'

'How could I accuse the son you loved?'

Tiberius sank into the cushions, feeling what little remained of his strength ebbing away. After a time Sejanus's weeping ceased and there was silence. A goblet was placed in Tiberius's hand and his fingers curled around the neck. It was the draught.

With a sip he could take away his pain, just as he had done when his brother Drusus had died. With only a gulp of the Eastern flower's nectar he would lose all reason for his suffering, just as he had when his wife Vipsania had opened her veins. With little more than a mouthful of the potion he would obliterate all thoughts in his head, except those that cast reflection upon his greatness. But as I watched him, invisible at the wall, I saw that his broken heart spoke to him, halting him, wanting to know how he'd been so blind to his son. How had he missed the vital signs? Tiberius's heart demanded an explanation: if gentle Castor had envied Germanicus so much that he'd had him poisoned, how and why had Tiberius missed his boy's murderous intent?

I saw all this playing in Tiberius's face, the goblet at his lips not yet sipped. And I saw that Tiberius knew the answer to provide. He understood how he'd missed it, how he'd let both his sons slip through his fingers like sand. There was only one answer he could ever give that explained it all: the Eastern flower.

Sejanus left the room, gently pulling the door closed behind him, despite Tiberius's orders. Tiberius heard him commanding the Praetorians outside that the Emperor was not to be disturbed while he was grieving with his mother. When we heard Sejanus's boots echoing down the corridor, Tiberius rose from the couch and tipped the goblet into the bowl I used for my domina 's waste.

Tiberius had no doubt that Sejanus loved him as a father. But Sejanus was not his son. Tiberius knew that the devoted Prefect would never harm him and that his daily preparation of the draught was only to make his Emperor happy, nothing more. I studied Tiberius as he promised himself that he had finished with the Eastern flower. He would never tell Sejanus; it would upset him, Tiberius knew. I continued to watch as Tiberius hoped aloud that he would find the will to be strong.

He stuck the tip of his little finger into the excrement bowl and withdrew it, dabbing it on his tongue. The taste was foul. From now until the final breath the mighty gods granted him, he would begin his days in this way, he vowed. He would upend his draughts in shit.

What finer way was there to ensure he stuck to his resolve?

Lemuria

May, AD 23

One month later: Emperor Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus orders the banishment of all musica muta artists from Italy, despite widespread appeals for clemency

When together in a pack, the three sisters could be bitches. Often it was Nilla and Drusilla who banded together against the youngest girl, five-year-old Julilla, making her life a hell. Nilla was eight and Drusilla seven, so their younger sister was easily captured, tortured or teased. She was also forever overlooked by her mother and forgotten by the household slaves. Burrus usually observed attentively from the walls with the other companion slaves, and sometimes with Lygdus and me for company. Whether we were there or not made no difference to the girls' torments. I would never interfere unless the child's life was imperilled, and because Nilla and Drusilla never quite took things that far I merely blocked my ears every time little Julilla's screams became too deafening. But Burrus found the games distressing and fought against his natural urge to weigh in.

Sometimes I heard him admonishing Nilla afterwards for the cruelty of her play — something that no other slave would dare do to his mistress without fear of the whip. But Nilla accepted his rebukes respectfully, and this spoke much to the great bond that existed between them. But it only ever altered her behaviour for a few days before she resumed again, and then Burrus would privately admonish her anew.

Whatever had occurred after they had leaped together from the ship, they barely spoke of it. If Nilla had suffered agonies, she never told anyone, not even her mother. What was known and understood was that Nilla had survived the waves thanks to emulating Burrus's strokes. When they had made it to land, they had lived as best they could on an unknown shore, catching crabs and oysters. Then they had been found, but not by men who meant them well. These matters were not discussed within the walls of Oxheads, and they were little mentioned outside them either, for all I knew. Nilla's memorial urn had been removed from its position upon her father's tomb inside the mausoleum of Augustus. Her reappearance in Rome had been officially ascribed to the benevolence of the gods. People accepted it. No one asked questions about the toeless mangon.

But little Julilla found a hole in the story and, through this, realised she had a rod with which to beat her big sister. The novelty of the worm turning was so delicious that Drusilla switched sides, and together the younger girls waged a new battle against the elder.

'Why were you found in a slave market, Nilla?' Julilla asked when the three girls were taking their midday meal.

Drusilla sat up to see what would happen. 'Yes — when will you ever tell us, Nilla?' she echoed. 'What is your answer for being found like that?'

Burrus tensed at the wall, but I only yawned. Lygdus was silent beside me. In the months since Castor's murder he had become somewhat withdrawn but I knew this would pass. I had felt similarly a lifetime ago, when my own first master, Tiberius Nero, had also succumbed to Martina's brews.

'The correct moment to ask was when your sister was found,' I offered to Julilla, 'but time has moved on now and your sister doesn't wish to be reminded of such unpleasantness.'

Nilla calmly continued eating.

Julilla pushed. 'Was it because you were enslaved like Burrus? Were you two slaves together?'

Burrus stepped forward purposefully from the wall. I coughed at him in warning, but it was Nilla who held his eye and he stood still.

'Is what Julilla says right?' Drusilla chimed in. 'Had you become a slave, Nilla?'

'How shameful!' cried Julilla. 'And Iphicles told me you were found in the nude.'

I narrowed my eyes. I had told the child nothing of the kind. Nilla knew the truth — she saw me as her liberator — yet she felt it was time to confront the incongruities of her disappearance. She stood up and gazed with deceptive calm at her sisters.

'It's true,' she said.

Her sisters gasped, as did the various companion slaves at the wall. Burrus made no sound and I merely studied my fingernails.

'But I was falsely enslaved,' said Nilla. 'It was wrong, you see, and that was why I was freed.'

Julilla found this unsatisfactory. 'Did you have an iron collar on?'

Nilla flinched at the memory. 'Against my will.'

'And you were nude?'

'I'd been forced to undress like all the others.'

Julilla made a look to Drusilla that shone with scandal. 'Then you're a slave no better than Burrus or Iphicles. Or fat Lygdus! A slave!'

Nilla clenched her teeth and Lygdus opened his eyes a crack, squatting next to me.

'A filthy slave,' cried Drusilla with glee. 'She's right, you know, Nilla. It's a stink you can't wash out. The stink of a slave!'

Julilla giggled. 'Filthy, filthy, filthy! I'm so ashamed to have you as my big sister!'

Little Boots entered the children's suite without the girls realising it and instantly settled on the correct course of action to take. As Julilla and Drusilla shrieked in helpless mirth, he walked swiftly to his youngest sibling and delivered a sharp slap to her cheek. It left Julilla stunned into silence for a moment, allowing him to deliver two more slaps, harder and louder, before her shrieks became those of pain and shock.

Little Boots turned next to Drusilla. 'You are very dear to me,' he told her, 'but you cannot insult our sister like this.'

Drusilla covered her cheeks in fear.

'Take your hands away,' Little Boots ordered her calmly. 'You must submit to this, Drusilla — you've brought it upon yourself.'

Mortified, she slowly removed her hands and stared at him, trembling. I saw that Lygdus was holding his breath as he now watched.

Little Boots delivered a blow so harsh that it threw Drusilla to the floor.

'Stop sobbing,' he told the two of them.

Drusilla was about to begin, but she bit it back. Julilla ceased at once, too devastated to disobey. As Little Boots went to take his place in his dining seat, he walked past Lygdus and me where we were squatting near the wall. The tip of his hobnailed soldier's boot struck Lygdus in the leg. It was so fast as to only be accidental, but Lygdus gave a cry of outrage before he could help himself.

Little Boots stopped. 'Are you all right, eunuch?'

'Yes, domine,' said Lygdus automatically, looking to the floor.

Little Boots gracefully took his place among his sisters, helping himself to a serve of the midday meal I had leaped up to offer him. After a short pause he began a polite conversation. 'It has been an important morning for our elder brothers,' he told the girls. 'Do you wish to know the news?'

'I do,' said Nilla, smiling at him as if none of the violence against Drusilla and Julilla had taken place.

'I have come from the Senate. I was allowed to listen to the proceedings from an alcove behind a curtain.'

I chortled to myself. Livia had made judicious use of such alcoves herself, once upon a time. Little Boots saw my reaction and the look he gave me had a twinkle to it.

'Our grandfather Tiberius presented Nero and Drusus to all the senators. He called our brothers his "solace in this time of woes". It was very impressive. Then he called upon the senators to be our brothers' mother and father, and to nurture them as the great-grandsons of the Divine Augustus.'

'But they already have a mother,' Drusilla said in a small, broken voice.

'It's a symbol,' said Little Boots. 'What he was asking was that the Senate joins him in protecting them. He fears assassins.'

His sisters were quiet.

'I think it's nonsense, of course,' said Little Boots. 'Who'd want to kill Nero and Drusus? Rome loves our brothers.'

I felt uneasy, reminded once again that Little Boots was still only a boy, prophecies or not. He was treading a dangerous line — in part, I suspected, simply to show off. But I wasn't sure at whom he was aiming it. When I lifted my eyes from the floor for a second, I realised he was staring directly at Lygdus.

'Somebody killed Father,' said Nilla, 'and Father was loved by Rome too.' Nilla had been missing at the time of their father's death, and so her grief for Germanicus was still rawer than that of the other children.

'That was Piso and Plancina,' Little Boots reminded her.

'I don't see why they murdered Father,' said Nilla. 'It doesn't make sense.'

'Jealousy,' said Little Boots. 'Piso was jealous. I was there, remember? I saw it for myself in Athens and Antioch.'

Nilla's eyes held a look of great seriousness. She had given her father's death a great deal of thought. 'I believe that Piso's jealousy is a lie put out by our grandfather to cover a truth that is too distressing for Rome.'

Little Boots paled slightly. 'And what is the truth then?'

The younger girls had forgotten that he'd struck them now. They were held by this conversation.

'Our father was killed because he was in line for the throne.'

Little Boots wouldn't let himself pull away from his sister's eyes, although he felt an overwhelming urge to do so. 'Who would have done such a thing?'

'I thought Uncle Castor might have done it,' said Nilla, 'but that was before…'

Little Boots said nothing for several moments, and neither did anyone else. Finally he spoke. 'Nero and Drusus are in line for the throne now — that's really what it was all about in the Senate today.' He glanced across at me again.

'I had already worked that out,' Nilla said soberly, 'and so had Iphicles, I'm sure.'

Little Boots continued his meal in utter silence. Some of the other companion slaves, now very nervous, began making distracting music on the flutes they carried. Little Boots whistled along to the tunes before abruptly standing, his meal done.

'I feel like going to the baths.'

'Let me escort you, domine,' I said.

'Yes, I would like that.' But he moved to join me just as Lygdus was heaving his bulk upright. Little Boots's heel landed squarely on Lygdus's hand. He put his full weight upon it, unaware, he wanted us to believe, that he was standing on anything other than the floor. 'I should like to visit the markets, too. Bring coins with us, Iphicles.'

'Yes, domine,' I said.

He rocked back and forward on Lygdus's hand. 'And I think we shall visit a brothel. Perhaps that one you like so much in the Subura?'

'You have not yet received your toga virilis,' I reminded him. 'You are too young to visit such places.'

Lygdus gave a whine and Little Boots stopped, saying nothing. Then he deliberately pressed his boot heel into the eunuch's hand as hard as he could. 'I permit few people to tell me what I can and cannot do, Iphicles.'

'As should be so,' I murmured. 'You have the blood of the Divine Augustus in your veins.'

He lifted his foot from Lygdus's hand and the eunuch gave a tiny sob of relief. But before he could shift it, Little Boots stamped on him savagely again. 'I only allow my wisest friends to instruct me, because of the love they show.'

I bit back my anger. 'Your wisest friend's love is unwavering, domine.'

Little Boots smiled his cupid's smile and released Lygdus's hand. 'I have never doubted it.' He looked at Lygdus as if seeing him for the very first time. 'Why don't you accompany me to the baths instead, fat Lygdus? Iphicles can attend to the Augusta. It would be nice to have you with me at the baths. I feel as if we hardly know each other.'

Whatever it was that Lygdus felt at that moment, he hid it well. I felt proud of him. 'It will be an honour, domine,' he whispered.

'Yes, it will be,' said Little Boots.

Once he had left the room, I saw the confusion on the younger sisters' faces.

'What have you done to make him mad, fat Lygdus?' Julilla asked.

'It is a matter between Lygdus and your brother,' I said hastily, answering for him. In truth I had no idea at all of what had prompted Little Boots's treatment.

Nilla gave me a penetrating look. 'I think it is a matter between Lygdus and our brother and Iphicles,' she said. 'And perhaps one day we will learn exactly what it is all about?'

Unnerved by the child, I was lost for a reply.

The widow Livilla's first public appearance following Castor's death was an attempt to gauge Rome's reaction to her loss. She decided to journey to the Baths of Agrippa to see what sort of reception she might receive. She anticipated a bleak silence — which would not have been at all dismaying — and perhaps some weeping from the bath slaves. Livilla had little expectation of much beyond that, but it would still have pleased her.

She well remembered the public mourning that had dragged on for months and months for Germanicus, fanned by Agrippina's wails. Her sister-in-law's excessive grieving had made such a profound impact upon the city that a benchmark had been set for all widows. But Agrippina had been aided by a dead husband who had been adored by Rome, and Livilla knew that Castor had not been quite so revered. This had nothing to do with his character — he had been a kind-hearted and generous man — but he was impeded by his lack of high achievement. Everything Castor had done had been on a governmental level, away from the battlefield, with the sole aim of glorifying Tiberius. This meant he had never received credit where it was due to him. Livilla felt sad that his memory would soon dim, yet in truth her tears had long ceased flowing — if they had ever genuinely flowed at all. But Rome remained of the belief that the Lady Livilla was inconsolable.

The red-painted litter with the leather roof and feather-filled bed was new, a purchase Castor had made shortly before his death. The bearers that carried it were new too — paid freedmen, not slaves — and were dressed in bright-red tunicae with thick leather pads on their shoulders where they supported the poles. It was difficult for Livilla to suppress her sense of self-importance at being borne in such a fine transport. Hers was surely the best in Rome. But the progress she and Tiberia, her daughter, made down the Via Sacra — the Sacred Way — towards the Forum was slow. Travel through the city's heart was never rapid at the best of times, but this was somnambulistic.

'Why are we taking so long?' she asked no one in particular.

Tiberia made to lift the curtain and see.

'Don't you dare look out,' Livilla snapped at her. 'People are not to glimpse our faces.'

Tiberia tried to determine what she could through the fabric without raising it. 'It's impossible to see what's delaying us, Mother.'

Livilla called out to the lictor whose job it was to clear a path. 'What's going on out there? Why are we so slow today?'

'It's the mob, Lady,' the lictor called back. 'There's more of 'em here than usual.'

'Is there a criminal being whipped?'

'No, Lady. There's another litter trying to head in our direction, but that's all.'

'Then why so slow — why so many people?'

'I think they are here for you, Lady.'

Livilla felt a sudden thrill. 'I don't understand.'

'It is your first appearance on the streets. People are here to honour you.'

Livilla and Tiberia exchanged looks of amazement. Then Tiberia found herself crying. 'It's all because of Father. They're here because of our love for him.'

Livilla patted her daughter's hand consolingly, but her heart was soaring.

'Do the people wish to speak to me?' she called out to the lictor. She heard him conversing with some of the mob. He came closer to where she and Tiberia reclined behind the litter curtain.

'I think they would, Lady,' he whispered into the fabric. 'Some of them have even torn their clothes for you. Many of them are weeping.'

Livilla felt so excited she was short of breath. 'I will then,' she managed to reply. 'Pinch me,' she hissed at Tiberia.

'What, Mother?'

'Pinch me — pull my hair or something.'

'I can't do that.'

Livilla tried to slap her own face. 'I need to make my eyes water.'

Tiberia picked up her mother's other hand and sank her teeth into it.

'Ow!' Her eyes moistened with the pain. 'Good girl.'

Tiberia looked at her oddly. 'I don't think you should leave the litter, Mother — you're not recovered at all.'

Livilla felt very much recovered but didn't say so. 'They want me to speak to them. I must do so for your father's sake.'

Tiberia began to softly cry again and Livilla again patted her hand. 'I know,' she said. 'I know.'

She drew her veil across her face so that only her eyes could be seen and then raised the litter curtain. Distressed and haggard faces stared back at her. Livilla felt as if her heart was beating in her throat. Her eyes stayed moist on their own account. She was humbled. The litter-bearers lowered her transport to the flagstones. The lictor had already placed a stool for her and she rested her slippered feet on it. Then she stood fully upright to give her a more appropriate height. She looked down at the plain and simple faces of the ordinary Romans — the plebeians, the freedmen and the slaves. Some of them she even recognised. They were Castor's former clients, bereft without their patron. She stood on her toes and craned her neck to see beyond the first few rows. The mob was easily twenty deep, stretching up and down the Via Sacra. There were more people crowded into the entrances of the expensive shops that lined either side of the street. All in all, there were several hundred people waiting to hear her address them.

Livilla's tears flowed down her cheeks without any need for inducement — tears of pride. As a woman, she had never had reason or permission to speak in public in her life. And yet a large crowd had now assembled to hear her. She readied herself to speak.

'Sister!'

Livilla turned in shock. The occupants of the litter that had been approaching from the other direction had alighted and were now forcing a path through the crowd towards her. Three women.

'Sister!'

It was Agrippina with her friends, Sosia and Claudia.

Heads began to turn from Livilla towards the one true widow of Rome. Livilla's moment was being snatched from her.

'My friends,' Livilla began. 'Dear friends of my poor husband.. '

Agrippina pressed her way forward, her face set in such an expression of determination that the rest of the words died on Livilla's tongue. Then Livilla's face flashed with a sudden and terrible fear, something that Agrippina didn't register, nor her friends. But I certainly saw it, being the first slave among Agrippina's trailing retinue. I read the stark terror in Livilla's look and it was obvious to me that she thought Agrippina was about to accuse her.

But Agrippina embraced her sister-in-law, pulling her down from the stool and into Sosia and Claudia's arms. Livilla's fear was replaced by confusion.

'We are together — we are one in what we've suffered,' Agrippina declared. Her voice was high and raised — she intended the crowd to hear it. 'Both our husbands have been taken from us, taken from Rome — taken by the same man!'

Livilla nearly fainted in horror.

'Taken by the same man!' Sosia repeated, her voice holding surprising power.

The watching crowd fell spellbound. Agrippina's retinue of a hundred men and slaves forced themselves among the bewildered throng of Castor's bereaved clients and other onlookers.

'Stop it,' Livilla hissed in Agrippina's ear.

'You know who we accuse,' said Claudia.

'Stop it!' Livilla screamed. She scrambled to get back inside her litter again, taking the bearers by surprise. Half the men lifted, the others didn't, causing the canopied platform to shudder and sway.

'Mother, what are you doing?' Tiberia cried out from inside as Livilla clambered in.

'Take me home!' Livilla screamed at the bearers. Outside, the confused lictor gathered up the stool again. Agrippina and her women friends cast calculating looks at each other and then Agrippina threw herself into the litter, causing Livilla and Tiberia to yell with fright. The six bearers staggered to keep their balance.

Agrippina gripped Livilla by the wrist. 'He killed Germanicus.'

'Let go of me, for the gods' sake!' cried Livilla.

'He was jealous of him — he knew Germanicus would outshine him and he couldn't stand it. He would rather have seen him dead — so that's what he arranged.'

In her fragile emotional state, Tiberia would ordinarily have burst into fresh tears at such a distressing development, but now she was riveted by her aunt's intensity. 'Who? Who arranged it?'

Agrippina stared at the girl. 'You poor little child…'

'Whom do you accuse, aunt?' Tiberia insisted. 'Tell me.'

Livilla tore her wrist from her sister-in-law's grip. 'Don't you dare speak his name, Agrippina.'

'Now he has killed your husband too, jealous of Castor just like he was jealous of Germanicus — he's insane.'

'Castor died of a fever, a river mist…'

'No one believes that, Livilla — not one person in Rome.'

'I believe it — I know it. I saw him when he died.'

Tiberia snatched at Agrippina's clothes. 'Please, tell me who did these terrible things to us, Aunt.'

Livilla slapped Agrippina hard across the cheek. 'If you say Sejanus's name aloud he will kill you — do you understand? He will kill you for it.'

Tiberia blanched. 'The Praetorian Prefect?'

'You never heard me say it,' Livilla threatened her. 'You never heard me, girl.'

But it was Agrippina's turn for bewilderment. 'But I accuse Tiberius…'

Livilla threw a shocked hand to her lips as her face went very white.

'Prefect Sejanus is a soldier,' said Agrippina. 'He has no reason to kill my husband or yours — his role is to serve his betters. He is not even a patrician.'

It took Livilla a long moment to steady herself. She had guessed very wrongly where Agrippina's accusation would lie, and in doing so had made a fateful mistake. Outside, the litter was moving so slowly through the surging crowds that I was easily able to keep up and overhear this desperate conversation. But Agrippina's intensity was so great that she missed the significance of what Livilla had said, so certain was she that Tiberius was to blame. Agrippina produced a scrap of papyrus from the folds of her woollen palla.

'Someone sends me these. I don't know who, but he is a friend.'

Livilla allowed the papyrus to uncurl in her hand. It was a torn fragment from something much larger and she dimly recognised the lettering.

'It's by my mother, Julia,' said Agrippina. 'She wrote this while imprisoned, and not long before she died. She thought my grandfather, the Divine Augustus, was coming to forgive her, but she learned too late that he had fallen to the same hand that had taken all those before him.'

Livilla began to read it… your golden brothers murdered in their prime, never realising, never seeing death come…

She couldn't believe what she was seeing. 'But this is — '

'About your own grandmother. Livia killed my three brothers and many more; she killed my father, Agrippa, and she killed my mother's first husband, Marcellus. And do you know why? So no one would stand in the path of Tiberius taking the place of the Divine Augustus.'

Outside the litter my throat went very dry. This was the first I had learned of the mysterious letter fragments. My own role in all those murders was, of course, considerable. Had Julia guessed this and also written about me?

Inside the litter Livilla's mind frantically tried to work out who the mysterious 'friend' might be who had sent them. Then she realised that it could only be Sejanus, and she took a secret pleasure when she thought of the likely motive behind his plan. It was solely intended to incite reckless action from Agrippina. Outside, I drew the same conclusion, but my anxiety certainly wasn't lessened any.

'My grandmother Livia is near death,' Livilla said to Agrippina. 'How could she have murdered your husband and now my husband too?'

'She didn't. Tiberius kills in her place now — he wants to rule forever.'

Livilla stared at Agrippina. This was why Agrippina was the widow of widows — her grief was all-consuming. It addled her mind. She was losing her judgement, along with her tact and her reason. Soon, Livilla sensed, it would bring on Agrippina's destruction. She felt sorry for her for this, but not unduly so. Livilla and Agrippina were travelling two very different paths, and Livilla knew that only one of them would ever taste destiny. She softened her look to her. 'What will you do?' she whispered.

Agrippina's eyes filled with tears of relief. 'You believe what I've said, don't you?'

Livilla avoided answering directly. 'What will you do?'

I strained to listen from the other side of the litter curtain.

'You saw the crowd of men that follows me?'

'Yes.' Livilla didn't mention that she, too, was now attracting her own considerable retinue.

'They would fight for me if I asked them to. They would defend me against enemies who wish to harm me for making the accusations I make.'

'Accusations against Tiberius?' Livilla whispered, feeling a secret surge of excitement.

Agrippina confirmed. 'Will you join me if the time comes?'

Livilla's mind raced with how best to answer. Eventually, she just nodded. There seemed no other reply to give that wouldn't send the unstable Agrippina into a rage. But Agrippina was made so emotional by this show of apparent support that she hugged Livilla for many minutes.

When Agrippina finally left them alone again and the litter was once more making progress in its return to Oxheads, Livilla noticed her daughter. Tiberia had been deeply affected by all that her aunt had said and done.

'Her mind is unsound,' Livilla told her. 'Her grief has driven her mad. You mustn't believe what she tells you.'

Tiberia nodded. 'She loved Uncle Germanicus so much,' she said, 'more than you loved Father, I think.'

For the second time that morning Livilla feared she had become transparent. But Tiberia's observation, however accurate, had no accusation attached. 'I don't mean to offend you, Mother. You loved my Father — of course you did — but not like Aunt Agrippina loved my uncle. Her love for him was like the love between immortals, I think.'

'Your aunt loved too much,' Livilla said. 'It's very dangerous — a weakness in her.'

Tiberia nodded again, but it was obvious she now looked at things differently. 'When you told me I was betrothed to cousin Nero, I wasn't very excited at first.'

'You mustn't worry about that now,' Livilla began to say.

'But he is my aunt's son, so perhaps he loves as she does — and perhaps he will come to love me with such devotion too? I would be pleased if he did — I look forward to the day we are married now.'

For the first time in a long time the rush of sadness that came to Livilla was very real. But she couldn't risk warning her sensitive daughter as to why. Instead she said, 'When the time comes, the groom who marries you will love you very much, Tiberia. I'll make sure of it.'

Tiberia smiled, happy, as her mother looked guiltily away.

In the street outside, Agrippina waited for her retinue and litter to reach her as Livilla's lurched up the street. The crowds were thick with her supporters, along with many others who were not officially aligned with her faction, yet who still looked upon her with awe. Unlike other patrician women Agrippina had no fear of the rabble. All around her faces beamed with affection and approval. No one spoke or called out to her, such was the respect she commanded. So when the strange words slipped inside her ear, she was surprised by them.

' One would-be queen is one-eyed too until the truth gives comforts…'

She turned around but no one was standing close enough to have spoken them. No one else had even heard them. When Sosia and Claudia reached her, she was pensive.

'Livilla gives her support?' Sosia asked.

Agrippina nodded. 'The truth gives comforts…' she murmured.

'What was that?'

Agrippina felt as if she had just been on the verge of unveiling something, or perhaps she had already unveiled it, yet had somehow missed it, despite a 'truth' standing right in front of her. She had been distracted by something else. Was she herself the distraction?

'Am I one-eyed?' she asked her friends as they climbed into her litter.

Sosia and Claudia cast quick looks at each other.

'You are certainly driven,' said Claudia, tactfully.

Agrippina nodded. 'As was my Germanicus.' Yet she wondered if this was what had been meant.

Little Boots swam with sleek, practised strokes to the edge of the chilled frigidarium pool and hung to the marble edge for a moment, looking over his shoulder to be sure it was really happening. When he knew with certainty that it was, he hoisted himself to the side and stood dripping in the cool, fresh air. A horrified bath slave, no older than Little Boots's twelve years, stood gaping at the wall of the bath hall. He was the only other occupant who hadn't fled.

'Linen,' said Little Boots, aware of the slave without looking at him.

The slave stayed frozen.

'Bring me linen.' He turned to face the boy, showing eyes shot red with blood.

The slave trembled and started to weep.

'If you don't bring linen to dry me right now — '

The boy sprang forward, snatching at a pile of bath linens and knocking most of them into a puddle of water. He slipped as he ran to Little Boots, gashing his knee, but he righted himself in his terror and threw the length of fabric he carried at Little Boot's back.

'Dry me…'

The slave sobbed with fear.

'Don't make me tell you again. You are a bath slave. I am a prince. You are nothing. I am all.'

The wretched boy patted at Little Boots's thin arms and shoulders. Little Boots walked around the perimeter of the pool, forcing the slave to stumble after him until Little Boots halted at the place that gave the best view. He stared with fascination into the depths of the cloudy water while the bath slave shut his eyes.

'The others ran, but you stayed,' Little Boots whispered to him. 'Do you admire me for what I do? Are you impressed by it?'

The boy was too terrified to do anything but nod.

'Good. Then you are the sort of slave I'll be wanting at Oxheads one day. An unshakable slave with courage and fortitude…' His voice faded away. He was mesmerised by the water.

Feeling sick to his guts, the bath slave sensed a flash of movement and turned to see me entering the frigidarium room. The look he gave me was a hopeless, desperate appeal and I noiselessly took the towel from him, pressing my hands to Little Boots's back.

' Domine… where is the eunuch Lygdus?'

Little Boots lurched in fright and tore himself from my touch.

'Where has he gone, domine?'

'You made me do it! It's all your fault, Iphicles!' He sprinted naked across the room, rushing for the door before I could stop him.

' Domine!'

The bath slave threw himself into the freezing pool, gasping at the shock of it, before plunging beneath the surface. I saw then whom he meant to save. Lygdus lay still at the bottom. With a shout of horror I threw myself into the water and, together with the slave, heaved and strained to bring Lygdus to the surface. We dragged his bulk to the long row of steps and fell there, coughing and weeping, as Lygdus's lifeless body lay inert, half in and half out of the chilly pool. I beat my fists on his chest, ordering him to live, until good sense gripped me and I remembered what I had done when I had once found Plancina in a lifeless state. I placed my mouth upon Lygdus's slack lips, pinching closed his nose and forcing the air from my lungs into his. His chest rose and fell and I suppressed my panic, willing myself and the bath slave to remain calm while I fought to win back the life.

At last the air rushed into Lygdus's lungs on its own and he belched a torrent of cloudy water. Weeping with relief, I clung to him. 'It was all a mistake,' I told him. 'The boy is excitable, irrational at times, but he has a good heart and he will learn to love you, Lygdus, just wait and see. He will learn to love you just like he loves me.'

I found the courage to look into Lygdus's eyes and found no trace of anger or accusation there. He just looked at me, seemingly without emotion at all.

'Please believe me,' I begged him. 'Tell me you believe that it was all a mistake, just a silly boy's play. Tell me that you know it to be true?'

Lygdus nodded once, and that was all. Overjoyed, I told myself that he had done so with the utmost conviction, with a rigid faith in the word of Cybele that was almost, truly almost, as iron-hard as my own.

The Ides of April

AD 24

Eleven months later: the war against the rebellious Numidian forces of Tacfarinas ends with his suicide in the forest of Auzea

Screaming at the top of her lungs, Agrippina threw herself forward, her sword raised high above her head and her eyes blazing with all the hatred and fury she contained in her heart. But Flamma deflected her and she slipped on the tiles, knocking her head at the fountain's edge.

'Lady, please — ' I cried.

'I said leave me!' She was bruised and grazed from previous falls and fresh blood trickled from her temple.

'But you're injuring yourself.'

'How does a man learn sword-craft?' she shot at me.

Watching, Nilla gave me a cold look for my slave's petty concern and I saw that Burrus mirrored it. Chastened, I took my place next to my fellow slave Nymphomidia at the edge of the peristyle, feeling no less uneasy.

'Once more,' said Flamma.

Agrippina sprang to her feet and rushed at the hulking gladiator, repeating her scream, hatred still firing in her eyes. She got a sword stroke in, and then another, before the gladiator deflected her once more and she crashed hard to the ground. Agrippina lay there, panting and dazed. I wanted only to stop this but the child Nilla's fierce eyes were upon me, forcing me to keep silent.

Flamma waited, watching Agrippina impassively. Slowly, she got to her feet and stood before him once more with an exultant look. The gladiator nodded then.

'Is this what you claimed me for, Lady?'

'What other use have you?'

Flamma guffawed. 'Well, you got two strokes in — your best effort yet.'

She lunged at him without a sound, seizing the advantage of surprise. Her blade slashed his upper arm, and before he could respond she plucked a knife from her waist and nicked his thigh with it. The gladiator caught her under the ribs with his shield, lifting her feet from the ground. For a brief second their eyes connected, both registering amazement, but deep respect too, before Agrippina was thrown to the ground again. The fall left her winded and unable to draw breath. The noise she made was terrible to my ears as she tried to suck the air back into her lungs. I clenched my hands into fists, desperate to aid her somehow, but I knew it was pointless and I was very aware of Nilla's eyes. At last Agrippina's breath returned, but her strength was gone and she remained where she had fallen in the dust. Nilla moved to her and gently stroked her mother's brow, whispering loving words.

I couldn't hold myself back any longer. 'How long will this go on?'

'Until I am dead,' said Flamma. 'That's our agreement, and there's no shame in it from where I'm standing.'

I quaked at the huge man addressing me directly.

'It will finish when the Lady has killed me — isn't that so, Lady?'

Agrippina's eyes remained closed, but she managed to nod her head in the dust. Flamma began to dab at his flesh wounds with a linen rag moistened in water.

'You will teach Nilla the same skills before that happens,' Agrippina spoke from the ground.

The gladiator looked up and met Nilla's gaze. I saw the hesitation in his face. 'She is too young for it.'

'I am nine,' said Nilla, without a trace of fear.

He considered this for a moment and then nodded. 'As you wish,' he replied to Agrippina.

Nymphomidia pushed Burrus forward slightly, so that he caught the gladiator's attention. Long-limbed and ungainly, he was now the tallest in the courtyard apart from Flamma himself. But his build was still slim.

'You will teach another one, too,' said Agrippina from the ground, her eyes still closed. 'You will teach this boy, Burrus.'

The gladiator looked Burrus up and down. 'And how old are you now, lad?'

'Fourteen.' Like Nilla, he met the professional killer's gaze levelly.

'A man, then,' said Flamma. 'Very well. This is turning into quite a school.'

Agrippina gave a hacking cough and a new trickle of blood ran from her lips, but she nodded at the gladiator's words.

'But only one of you will kill me,' Flamma said. This was not a question or even a request, but a statement of fact. 'And that is you, Lady, and no other.'

'That is our agreement,' said Agrippina.

'And it will be my honour,' said Flamma. 'Your husband was the greatest man in Rome — he should have been Emperor.'

I kept my eyes hard on the ground, frightened of what he might see in them if I dared to look up.

'My training you in sword-craft is vengeance for his death, and when you kill me you will be ready to take your own vengeance.'

Agrippina opened her eyes and there was profound gratitude in her face. 'Your sacrifice will be remembered by Rome, I promise you,' she whispered, 'and you will live like a king in this house while we learn from you.'

He picked up the sword from where it had fallen from Agrippina's hand and tossed it high in the air. 'Who's next for their lesson?'

Burrus leaped forward and caught the sword. Then he turned and presented it to Nilla, bowing his head. She took it from him, weighing it in her hand and curling her tiny fingers around the hilt.

Flamma smiled. 'You are your mother's daughter, child.'

'And vengeance burns in me just as strong,' Nilla said.

It was never the corpulent Senator Silius's first choice to avail himself of public lavatories, but when nature's call made evacuation imperative he was glad the facilities were there. His bladder was not what it was, he was sorry to admit; it needed emptying far more often than it once had, even though he tried to counter things by drinking less. Silius's bowels demanded hourly easing as well, so all in all he knew it was either the civic latrines that received him when he was caught short away from home — or the banks of the Tiber with the beggars. The latrines, he knew, were marginally less unsavoury.

He halted his retinue in its noisy progress from the Senate. 'My apologies, friends,' Silius said, waving his large and expressive hands at the latrine enclosure at the edge of the Forum. 'You know the drill by now, I'm sure.'

His slaves and clients cracked good-natured jokes as he descended the steps. 'Send someone ahead to tell my lovely wife I have been delayed,' he called over his shoulder. 'No need to tell Sosia the reason — she'll guess it herself.'

The assembled men laughed and one of the slaves was detached to take the message. At the bottom of the steps Silius stuck his head inside the entrance, trying not to look apprehensive. He had campaigned for seven long years in Germany, after all, and had endured far less hygienic conditions than this. But still, as a general, he had always been granted privacy. The nature of the public latrines was just that — inescapably public. The usual arrangement was a dozen or so raised openings in a row where there was nothing else to look at but one's fellow defecators, male and female. There was no room for modesty.

The attendant lavatory slave bowed — an ugly boy with deformed ears.

Silius realised with relief that there was no one else inside. 'What good fortune,' he declared to the boy.

The ugly lad smirked. 'Got the throne room all to yourself, domine.'

Silius ruffled the boy's hair and strode past him to select a suitable squatting hole. At least they were clean. The boy had been at work with his brush. Silius made his selection and hoisted himself onto the platform, pulling his toga folds above his hips and untying his loin cloth. Placing his feet in the rests, he closed his eyes and sighed with contentment as relief began to come. When he opened his eyes again, he found the cauliflower-eared boy standing unexpectedly close.

'Are you Gaius Silius?'

Silius hesitated in replying until dignity won out, despite the circumstances, and he confirmed that he was.

The boy was impressed. 'You're the great general, then?'

Silius nodded.

'You beat that bastard Sacrovir.'

Silius shrugged.

'I saw your triumph.'

'Good for you, lad.' He would have got up to leave if his bowels weren't informing him to hold fast for a second act.

'You're the one man in Rome that old Tiberius won't dare charge with treason,' said the boy, laughing. 'Must be nice to feel safe.'

Silius was taken aback with astonishment but the boy just kept laughing. 'What an extraordinary thing to say,' said Silius, a politician first and a general second. 'Those charged with treason deserve their fate — it is no laughing matter. Give me a sponge.'

The boy tapped his nose, as if well aware of a joke behind Silius's words, and went to the bucket of wiping implements, fossicking for a clean one. 'No offence meant, domine,' he said. 'All I mean is that you're in the best place of all because old Tiberius needs you.'

'Yes, well,' said Silius, waiting for the sponge.

'Of course he does — you kept your German army loyal when others fell into mutiny, didn't you?' The ugly lad was remarkably well informed about political and military affairs.

'Give me the sponge,' said Silius, holding out his hand.

The boy held on to it. 'But you did, domine — you kept them loyal. Even Germanicus couldn't have done that.'

Silius looked around the room. They were definitely alone — just himself and an ugly boy of no worth or consequence. What did it matter if he humoured such a slave? 'If the German revolt had spread to my brigades, Tiberius would never have kept his throne, it's true,' said Silius.

The boy's eyebrows raised in awe. 'Really, domine?'

'It would have tipped the balance — too many against him. But I kept my lot loyal and he kept his crown. So you're right, boy,' Silius winked. 'Tiberius really does owe me one.'

The deformed slave giggled and gave him the sponge on its stick. As Silius applied it to his backside, the slave watched him with eagle eyes.

'Don't worry,' said Silius, now wishing the boy would leave him. 'I'll give you a tip in a moment.'

But the boy didn't budge, his eyes glued to the senator.

Suddenly Silius leaped into the air with a shriek. A crackle of flames shot from the latrine hole and he looked down into the sewer with shock. A toy papyrus boat of the type made for children sailed the flowing water below him, laden with blazing leaves.

The ugly lavatory boy stuck his head in the hole and screamed into the sewer. 'Duro, you cocksucker! I'm going to call the vigiles on you!'

He pulled his head out again as Silius rubbed his hindquarters in bewilderment. 'I'm sorry, domine,' the boy said. 'It's that bastard Duro who minds the lavatories further up the cloaca maxima. He thinks it's a great laugh to send his practical jokes downstream to scare off my best customers.'

Silius threw a handful of brass coins at the boy and hurried up the steps.

In the indignity of having the hair singed from his buttocks, Silius lost all recollection of what he'd said to the boy. But afterwards, as more customers came and went, some tipping and others not, the slave with the misshapen ears enjoyed one of the happiest afternoons he had known. What he clutched in his heart was far better than any handful of dupondii he might have collected from a day's arse-wiping.

Silius thought he had thrown him brass but really he had given him gold.

The cream-coloured heifer behaved with perfect docility. The rope around its neck was slack; the beast didn't need to be pulled, moving forward of its own accord, clueless to its fate and with its belly swollen with calf. All the good omens were piling up before the heifer and its unborn had even been offered to the gods. The small group of assembled pontifices cast pleased little nods at each other across the dim hall of the curia regia.

At eighteen, and the youngest of the dozen priests by some years, Nero signalled what he hoped would be read as his own pleasure at the heifer's docile progress, raising his eyebrows at anyone who looked back at him. One of the older priests went to frown, before catching himself and remembering who Nero was, and then attempted to turn the glare into a sort of spasm. Nero came close to laughing, but when his eyes darted to the victimarius who held the heifer's rope, he was startled by the new look the man returned. The victimarius smiled back at him boldly, with none of the unquestioning respect that Nero expected from lesser-ranking men. The man had a knowing smirk that constituted a challenge. Nero was thrown but couldn't pull his eyes away. The man could see through him.

Nero had felt a growing panic in the presence of this victimarius from the moment he had joined the college. His grandfather, Tiberius, as pontifex maximus, had introduced Nero with great solemnity to all those who conducted the sacrifices. But when Nero made his first greeting handshake with this man, a bolt of lightning travelled up his arm. The victimarius had done nothing outwardly provocative but Nero sensed something unsettling to him. With every sacred handshake they had shared since, the lightning bolt had intensified. This man excited him.

Nero stared across the dim hall of the curia and the victimarius 's smile widened. In a gesture so fast it could have been overlooked by anyone else, the man reached to his genitals and gripped them under his tunica, before bringing his hand to where it could be seen again, all the while grinning. Nero felt his pulse surge at the sight. The augur began sprinkling roasted barley grains on the heifer's head and the victimarius hung back, letting his eye leave Nero. Then he stepped down from the altar as the aged popa took his place — the man whose job it was to stun the beast with a hammer. The victimarius disappeared into one of the dark anterooms, without a single glance behind him.

Waiting in the shadows was Lygdus.

Nero was aware of how sacrilegious it was to develop an erection during a meeting of the pontifical college, but it was useless trying to will it away. Crossing his legs in his curule chair only added to the pressure, and he cursed the victimarius for giving him the look he had — the look that had inflamed him. Nero knew for sure now that the man wanted him, having already suspected it for months, and Nero also knew that he would be unable to ignore it any longer. He feared he had sprung free from the confines of his loincloth; only the linen of his striped priest's toga was keeping him from exposing himself — and his secret.

The assembled priests began to chant as the old popa swung the first hammer blow to the base of the heifer's head. The beast fell forward on its knees and remained there stunned, its fat, pink tongue lolling through its lips. Another good omen was acknowledged by the assembled men — the popa had achieved his task with a single blow. The stern cultrarius stepped forward to exchange places with the popa, and Nero took advantage of every eye being fixed upon the man's knife as it plunged into the heifer's throat. He rose from his chair and slipped behind the circle of priests.

From the shadows Lygdus watched him go.

If Nero hadn't found the smiling victimarius waiting for him in the anteroom, just as he hoped he would, he would have returned to his chair, frustrated certainly, but present for the officiating priest's libations as the dying heifer's blood was collected in bowls. But Nero missed the vows for wellbeing that were asked of the gods, and in doing so he missed something of great importance. Prayers asking for Nero and Drusus's wellbeing were offered before prayers asking for the wellbeing of Tiberius. It was a mistake. Lygdus heard it and stopped in surprise for a moment. Then he stole towards the anteroom and glimpsed inside. The victimarius was posed as Lygdus himself had once been posed — on his knees and his hands before Nero.

Nero turned with fright when he saw movement at the door. Lygdus lowered his eyes. 'My young dominus is safe,' he whispered. 'No one will see. No one will know.'

The pleasure was too great for Nero, the excitement in the victimarius 's eyes. He could not leave. He could only smile at Lygdus, who glanced up to receive the young dominus 's gratitude, briefly basking in it before stealing away.

In the shadows of the great hall Lygdus found me.

'Is he engaged in a shameful act?' I asked eagerly.

Lygdus gave a small nod, looking away from me.

I began making notes on a wax tablet I carried.

'Not yet,' Lygdus whispered.

'Not yet what?'

'We shouldn't spread rumours yet — it is far too soon. Don't you think so, Iphicles?'

I was surprised. 'No time like now.'

'I think we should keep it to ourselves. Gather more information. It will serve us better in time.'

I was not used to hearing opinions from others regarding my great tasks, and the novelty of it made me grant what he'd said a certain wisdom. 'Good idea. But did you hear the prayers?'

He looked grim.

'The officiating priest must be mad to make a cock-up like that. Still, it's been said now and there's no withdrawing it. Run to Sejanus before anyone else beats you to it,' I said. 'He should hear what was said and you should be the one to tell him — it will give him reason to trust you. Run — I will watch over the sodomites.'

Lygdus made the appearance of leaving me there, but stopped and turned round. 'We should let others tell him, Iphicles. If the information comes from us, it will place too much of his attention in our direction. He will begin to expect us to tell him things, and that wouldn't be good, would it?'

I confessed this hadn't occurred to me. 'You are right again,' I said, impressed with his fast-developing aptitude for intrigue.

He nodded and was silent for a moment while I smiled paternally at him. Then he whispered, 'Will Nero die for what he does?'

I could not be certain in such uncertain times. In Augustus's day such things would have caused little more than a minor scandal, but now… 'Eventually,' I replied. 'As you have suggested, Lygdus, the effect will be accumulative. The safer he feels, the more shameful acts he will certainly go on to commit, and the worse things will be for him in the long run. But you must keep careful watch and then tell everything to me, leaving nothing out.'

Lygdus nodded again.

'He is a dominus no different from any other,' I encouraged him. 'Think upon how much you enjoyed Castor's death and then imagine how it will be when we achieve Nero's.'

Lygdus said nothing.

'Everything we do, we do to build a better Rome, a golden Rome, the city foreseen by the goddess — '

'How much better will it be?' he interrupted me. There was something odd about his manner, but in my pleasure at his company I dismissed it.

'It is my belief now that the Great Mother intended Tiberius to be the first king only to make the people appreciate the qualities of the second king all the more. For every glaring fault that Tiberius has, and for every cruel injustice that he brings, Little Boots's rule, when you and I take him to the throne, Lygdus, will be so much more glorious in contrast.'

'Is that what the prophecy actually said?'

A tiny cry of doubt rang sharply in my heart, making me lose my thoughts for a moment.

'Iphicles?'

The cry came again, unintelligible and devoid of meaning — except for the sensation of doubt itself. Why was I feeling it?

What did it mean?

'Is that what the prophecy actually said, Iphicles?'

I recovered my wits. 'Thrasyllus said that the second king would wear his father's crown. Little Boots's father was Germanicus — a man more loved by Rome than any other. When Little Boots reigns, his father's glory will become his own — that's what the words mean.'

'Will he make the slaves free?'

I was thrown. 'Is that what you want, Lygdus?'

'With all my heart.'

I was moved to hear this; I, who had never desired anything but to be close to those I served. But I knew that a Rome without slaves would be a Rome left in ruins. We slaves were Rome, and to free us would be to lose us. Mass emancipation would never happen, no matter how golden the king. 'Your wishes will be answered,' I lied to him as I would to a child. 'Keep praying to the Great Mother.' With time I hoped that Lygdus would appreciate the true joys of slavery and forget his dreams.

The eunuch nodded, giving the appearance of digesting all I'd said, and I felt a rush of unexpected feeling for him that must have shown in my face.

'What is it, Iphicles?'

I shook my head, embarrassed. 'You… you are doing very well at this, Lygdus,' I whispered. Then I darted into the shadows. I briefly saw his bulk illuminated in the light of a lamp before I reached the door to the street outside and was gone.

I knew what I felt for him — of course I did — it was pride. But that same pride wouldn't let me speak of it. I, the slave Iphicles, who had willingly sacrificed my manhood to my domina, sacrificed my hopes of fathering children too. But the Great Mother had rewarded her Attis. Lygdus was my apprentice, yes — my assistant in destiny — but he was more than this. He wasn't yet seventeen. He was raw, unsophisticated and had so much more to learn. I was his teacher, and it was my duty to be so if destiny was to be achieved. But it was also my joy — the joy a father felt. Cybele had blessed me a thousand times over. She had given me a son in Lygdus.

But my son, once I had gone, returned to his task of keeping watch over Nero. He discreetly pulled the door closed, keeping his vigil on the other side. He didn't care if Nero had seen him do it — in a way, he hoped he had. The more Nero came to believe that Lygdus was a very special slave, the more Lygdus had hope that he would one day become one.

As the eunuch waited, he crouched in the shadows, making a solemn, sacred vow. He muttered an oath to all the gods, a furtive pledge of betrayal that he intended, at all costs, to keep hidden from me.

'Nero is the son of Germanicus too,' he whispered to himself.'Sometimes I think you forget that, Iphicles.'

Tiberius's eye was on the large silver bowl that sat on the floor in an alcove, beyond the tapestry that hung behind his ivory curule chair. And although Tiberius occupied the chair and had his back to the tapestry and the alcove and the bowl, Sejanus knew that it was still where Tiberius's eye was aimed, if only within his churning, tortured heart. Tiberius hoped that by hiding the shameful bowl from view and filling the room with witnesses, he would be better able to resist what the bowl offered. But Sejanus knew better.

Sejanus's own eye was at the peephole in the heavy bronze doors, which Tiberius was yet to realise allowed a viewer to look outside the receiving room or to look in. From the other side of the doors Sejanus stared at Tiberius intently, waiting for the old man to reply to him. He knew the Emperor had heard what had been asked — Sejanus had seen the words strike Tiberius like a pebble thrown at the surface of a pond. The ripples of understanding slowly spread to the water's edge.

'Civil war?' said Tiberius.

'She has a faction, Caesar. She gathers more supporters to her side every day,' said Sejanus from outside, through the join of the doors.

Tiberius made to wave his hand in a gesture he intended to be dismissive, but the effort was too much for him and his hand flopped at his side.

'It's what she plans, Caesar — the streets are full of it.'

'Your spies are paid to tell you these things,' Tiberius muttered. 'Hasn't it occurred to you that this only encourages them to fabricate?'

Sejanus felt the hurt in his heart at this but said nothing, waiting.

Inside the room two of the youngest choirgirls began to cry softly. 'Stop that,' Tiberius said. The girls did.

The petrified choirmaster attempted to speak without raising his head from the floor where he had prostrated himself before Tiberius's curule chair. 'Caesar?'

'Stop that,' said Tiberius again. He turned slowly around in his chair until the rich, golden tapestry filled his vision. It was beautiful.

'But if the choir could just sing for you, Caesar…' the choirmaster tried to say.

Tiberius slapped his hand on the chair's arm and a slave shuffled forward with an iron rod in his hands. 'Hit him,' said Tiberius.

The slave struck the prostrate choirmaster twice on the legs, and the hapless man bit back his pain as the forty assembled children of the Patrician Youth Choir bit back their own cries of fear and distress.

The room stayed in tomblike silence. Tiberius rose unsteadily from his chair and fell to his knees before the tapestry.

'Civil war can be avoided, Caesar,' Sejanus said from the other side of the door, still watching Tiberius through the peephole.

The reminder that Sejanus was still there snapped Tiberius from the tapestry. 'How?'

'By removing the ringleaders.'

'Who are they?'

'I have made a list,' said Sejanus. He began to slip a sheet of papyrus under the door. 'And I have detailed some other matters — '

'More tall tales from spies, you mean.' Tiberius watched the papyrus curl under the door — as did the frightened children of the Patrician Youth Choir. But he didn't move to read it. 'I will not have my daughter-in-law attacked, Sejanus,' he said, as his eye returned to the tapestry. 'Grief has made Agrippina unstable — she isn't well. She no longer knows her own mind.'

Another wave of hurt crushed Sejanus. 'But she plots against you, Caesar. I have the evidence. She is a danger to you.'

'She no longer knows her own mind.'

Sejanus said nothing for a time. Then he said quietly, 'She is innocent — a figurehead for the sedition of others.'

Tiberius ran his hands along the rich embroidered fabric. 'She is a widow worthy of Rome's respect.'

'You will see that I have not even listed her,' said Sejanus. 'You have no reason to fear for her, Caesar.'

'Good. Very good…'

Another child began to weep from the choir. The slave with the iron rod tensed himself, expecting to be called for further disciplinary measures. But Tiberius only brushed aside the tapestry from the wall.

'Why don't you sing something?' he said over his shoulder.

The children gaped at each other in bewilderment. From the floor in front of the curule chair the prostrate choirmaster dared to raise his head a fraction. 'What would please you, Caesar?'

Tiberius gazed into the alcove. 'Something pretty…'

The choirmaster looked to the rod-wielding slave to see if he would be beaten again, but the slave seemed as confused as he was. The choirmaster stood gingerly, his legs black with bruises. 'Choir,' he called to the frightened children, 'let's start with number fourteen.'

The children haltingly began to sing as a tiny voice inside Tiberius willed him not to move a muscle of his hand, even though he let it hover in the air. The tiny voice then willed him not to go any further, even though his hand began to circle and descend. The tiny voice then told him he was weak and effeminate if he intended giving in to his cravings, and that if he went any further it was clear he lacked the resolve of the Fathers.

The tiny voice was familiar — a voice Tiberius knew and loved — yet he hadn't heard it in many long years. It was the voice of his dead brother.

'Shut up! Just shut up!' Tiberius screamed as his fingers made contact with the rim of the large silver bowl.

The children snapped into silence.

'Who told you to stop?' Tiberius turned on them. 'Sing!'

The children lurched into song again as Tiberius felt the contents of the bowl with his fingertips.

From the peephole at the door Sejanus saw everything. He was shamed by the sight — disgusted by it too. He knew that his Emperor was debasing himself. But he also knew that it was best that it happened — best for Tiberius, best for Rome. 'Shall I summon the slave to remove your night soil, Caesar?' he spoke through the door join.

Tiberius shook his head. Then he placed his face inside the bowl. The taste was unexpectedly sweet; the draught of the Eastern flower had obliterated all the filth and impurities with its healing magic.

'Have you read the names upon the ringleader's list yet, Caesar?'

The Emperor paused in lapping his excrement. 'I will read it shortly,' he replied, feeling much better humoured. 'I shall read it with considerable attention.'

Drusus's eyes were on Sosia's yellow stola. The feather-light fabric of it transfixed him in the last of the sun's rays, which streamed through the windows of the dining room. The desire to reach out from where he lay on his couch and touch the lovely garment was so strong it was dangerous. It made Drusus's heart beat like a musician's instrument; it made the sweat gather in the pits of his arms. His practised look of calm hid the frenzy of excuse-making that raged inside his mind. If he touched it, Drusus told himself, he could claim he'd seen a bee on Sosia's arm and that he'd sought to brush it off. Or he could say he'd seen the stola about to snag on a furniture nail. Or he could even say that he simply wanted to feel it, which was the truth — why should it be thought of as shameful? The garment was overwhelmingly beautiful. It was a pleasure to Drusus's eyes — and it was surely an unparalleled pleasure to the skin, too. His hand left the dining cushion and floated in the air, towards his mother's unwitting friend as she delivered her news.

'Drusus,' said his grandmother Antonia.

His hand fell back to the dining cushion with a clap as Antonia looked sternly at him. 'Have you been listening?'

Drusus reddened. His grandmother knew everything — all the contemptible urges and needs that dwelled within him. She knew what he wanted; she knew what he was. She had even written a letter about it to his father, Germanicus, that he had been ordered to deliver in person so that he would receive the consequences. But when the family came to Antioch, they found his father dead. His grief-maddened mother had opened the letter, but the words inside had not been written by his grandmother at all; they said nothing about him. When Drusus read the letter himself, it made no sense; it just contained lurid accusations. All that had mattered to Drusus was that the terrible words — 'transvestite', 'perversion', 'obscene' — had not been there and would never be seen. But his grandmother still knew, even though she had not sought to use it against him since.

'Listening to what?' said Drusus.

There was an uncomfortable pause among the dinner guests. Sosia and her senator husband, Silius, were Agrippina's guests of honour, both seated at her right. Antonia and her widowed daughter Livilla were also in attendance, along with all of Agrippina's children except for Nero. The two youngest sisters began to giggle in their chairs, but the older girl, Nilla, watched her brother Drusus with quiet interest. Agrippina cast an indulgent look at Sosia and Silius, but Antonia's look grew darker.

'Listening to what Sosia has been telling us,' Antonia said. 'It is very serious, Drusus — the Emperor has worked himself up into a state about it.'

'I think it's ridiculous,' said Agrippina. 'What on earth does it matter?'

Antonia's look moved to her daughter-in-law. 'Tiberius is not.. wholly well.'

I hovered among the serving slaves, taking all this in.

'His mind is troubled,' Antonia said — and it was all she would say.

'He's madder than ever,' said Sosia, who had none of Antonia's tact.

The corpulent Senator Silius looked pained from where he sprawled on his dining couch.

'Well, it's true,' said Sosia for his benefit. 'We're among friends here and we can speak with honesty, can't we? His mind is slipping, cracking, whatever you wish to call it. He's making decisions that are deranged — he finds treasonous activities that simply aren't there.'

'He was kind when he was young — a good and decent man,' said Antonia. 'I'll never forget how good he was to me when his brother, my husband, died — your great father, Livilla.'

Curled up like a cat on her own couch, Livilla said nothing, concentrating intently on her food.

'But he is not that man anymore,' Antonia went on. 'Yet perhaps I could still get through to Tiberius? He has no women around him, you see. His only friends are his guards. He needs a woman's words.'

'He might listen to you,' said Agrippina, although she held little faith.

'Is this about the prayers?' asked Drusus, his mind leaving the lure of Sosia's stola.

'Of course it is,' said Antonia. 'The priests made an unforgivable error — unforgivable.' She turned to Livilla. 'Don't you have anything to say about it?'

Livilla looked up at her mother. 'It was all very unfortunate,' she replied. Then she returned to sucking the flesh from a chicken wing.

'But all they asked for was my wellbeing,' said Drusus, 'and Nero's, too. I'm pleased to know they care.'

Antonia was incredulous. 'They asked for it before they asked for the Emperor's wellbeing, Drusus. That's the sort of protocol breach that upsets your grandfather greatly.'

His two youngest sisters wisely ceased their giggles and an uncomfortable pause returned. Drusus caught Nilla's eye and saw how intently she followed what was being discussed. He understood now what the problem was. 'But he would never think that the mistake was mine, would he? Or Nero's?'

'What he thinks is unfathomable,' said Agrippina, sipping her wine. In truth she was just as upset by what had occurred as Antonia was, but she was refusing to show it.

'He's had all the priests questioned by Sejanus,' said Sosia. 'All except Nero, obviously.'

Livilla's eyes flicked up from her chicken bone before she threw it to the floor. She held her fingers out for another and, as I was the slave nearest to hand, I offered the serving tray to her. She took a fresh wing from me as if I didn't exist.

'What did the priests tell him?' asked Antonia.

'That it was all an accident, an oversight,' said Silius from his couch. He was a large man, unattractive in his dining tunica, and his dignity was always diminished whenever he wore anything other than his toga. Resuming her seat next to him, Sosia placed her hand upon his. 'But still it's put Tiberius into one of his fogs,' said Silius.

Drusus vaguely wished his older brother were there, so that he could share the burden of this unpleasantness. But Nero had taken to avoiding evening meals with his family.

I took a small jug of liguamen from one of the other serving slaves and dribbled the pungent fish sauce over Little Boots's food, using the opportunity to catch his eye. He had been silent throughout the entire meal, which was nothing new, but he had been steadily avoiding me since the incident with Lygdus at the baths. I presumed he was still guilt-ridden, and not for the first time I attempted to mend things between us. But the look he gave me as I poured the sauce was chilling. This caught Antonia's attention.

'At least Little Boots was spared this unpleasant incident,' she said. Her favouritism for her youngest grandson was never far from the surface, and Little Boots always knew how to exploit it.

'They spared me their prayers, Grandmother, but they didn't spare me an insult,' he piped up.

'Little Boots — what a thing to say!' Agrippina admonished him.

'Why did my welfare count for nothing with the priests, then? And Nero and Drusus's welfare counted for everything?'

Drusus groaned at his brother's predictable sulking. 'Because you still piss the cot?' he suggested.

Little Boots threw a finger bowl at him.

'Ow!'

Agrippina was suddenly on her feet and Little Boots shrieked as he found his earlobe pinched between her sharp fingernails. 'Mother — let go!'

She looked to me. 'Iphicles, will you conduct Little Boots into the atrium and instruct him on how to conduct himself at the evening meal?'

The two youngest girls shrieked with mirth again but ceased when Agrippina turned her glare upon them.

I bowed. 'Yes, domina.'

Agrippina released her youngest son and Little Boots shot off from his place on his grandmother's couch and ran from the room. 'He may be twelve, but he is not too old for the rod,' Agrippina said to me.

I bowed again, deeper this time, and followed the boy. I found him in the atrium with a murderous look to his face. 'Are you really so idiotic, domine?' I reproached him.

He was enraged by my choice of words and went to strike me.

'Stop it,' I said. 'Just stop it.' I grabbed his wrists so that he couldn't lay a blow on me, but he was surprisingly strong for his age and we grappled a moment longer before he gave in. I released him again. 'There.'

'The priests insulted me,' he pouted.

'Who cares if they did?'

' You should care!'

'I'm thrilled they ignored you, and do you know why? To be ignored is to be safe from Sejanus — and from Tiberius, too. Look at the trouble Nero and Drusus have gained for themselves. To be overlooked is to see our destiny come to pass.'

He looked at me levelly. ' Our destiny? Are you the second king too?'

As ever with him, I knew when to upbraid and when to assuage. 'Of course not, Caesar,' I said, knowing that he would love me calling him that. 'My role is only to serve.' I gave my deepest bow, knowing also how well he enjoyed physical displays of devotion. But when I righted myself, I saw that his expression was unchanged.

'I'm surprised you notice me at all.'

' Domine?' I said.

'You have no time for me at all nowadays.'

'I labour tirelessly for you.'

'I wonder.'

' Domine, please, stop all this and come back to the dining room.'

'You say you work tirelessly for me, Iphicles, but how do I know? You tell me nothing of what you actually do.'

I hissed into his ear, mortified that someone might overhear him. 'If you knew, you would be endangered by it. To keep you ignorant is to keep you safe.'

'You promised me that I'd be helping.'

'You are helping,' I claimed.

The murderous look returned to his face. 'Don't treat me like a child, Iphicles, or you'll regret it.'

I took an involuntary step back from him and he instantly liked the effect his words had on me. At least he was smiling now, so I tried again, phrasing with extreme care. 'When the next plan is in place, domine, I will tell you all about it and then you can participate in it with me.'

'With you and fat Lygdus?'

'Your jealousy is so insulting — ' I began.

He kicked me viciously in the shin. 'So I'm jealous of a fat eunuch slave? Jealous of a turd without any balls? You insult me, Iphicles — you offend me like the filthy slave you really are. And you haven't got any balls either, have you?'

'Little Boots!'

We span around. The entire family had entered the atrium. Sosia and Silius were about to go home. A fierce, loaded look passed between Little Boots and me before he responded sullenly to his mother. 'What?'

A violent pounding on the front door of Agrippina's house shocked us all from the exchange.

' Open in the name of the Emperor! '

Agrippina and Antonia blanched. Had the accident with the priests' prayers led to Drusus being marked for arrest?

'Not my son…' Agrippina murmured.

'This is madness — I'll talk to them,' Antonia said quickly.

Agrippina rushed to Drusus and clutched him to her. He gave a terrified whimper as he realised what was happening. 'Am I being arrested?'

The pounding came again. 'Open up — this is Tribune Naevius Sutorius Macro of the Praetorian Guard!'

'No!' Agrippina cried out.

I alone saw the little thrill that took Livilla's face.

Drusus burst into sobs. 'I did nothing! It was all the stupid priests!'

'Courage, boy,' said Silius, wrapping his street cloak tightly across his dining tunica. 'All is not lost. There are means to appeal.'

'They'll kill me first!'

A crash came from the door as the guards started battering it with a wooden ram. The household's slaves began to shriek from everywhere in the house.

'Stop it! Control yourselves!' Agrippina shouted at them.

Antonia gathered herself to her full dignity and strode as far as the salve mosaic that marked the spot on the floor between the atrium and the entrance hall. Her voice carried like an arctic wind in her rage. 'This will now cease!'

The slaves stopped their cry and the guards stopped their battering.

'You will leave this house!' Antonia commanded the men on the other side of the door.

There was a brief silence, during which Sosia moved towards Agrippina, taking her hands to comfort her. Drusus tried to choke back his sobs. We could hear the low voices of the guards conferring outside.

I saw Antonia's strength falter slightly. She was as terrified as any of us but she fought hardest to cover it. She was a model to Rome, after all. 'I am Antonia of the Julii,' she called out again after a moment, 'and you will tell my brother-in-law the Emperor that his family loves and honours him. If he has been fed falsehoods regarding treason, then we will refute those falsehoods with dignity — and not with arresting guards. We will see him face to face in the comfort of his tablinum, as befits his family.'

'Thank you,' Agrippina whispered to her mother-in-law.

Antonia looked over her shoulder and gave Agrippina a small nod of reassurance to her. 'They will not dare do this,' she whispered.

The front door groaned on its pivots as the guards struck it again with the ram.

'You defile this home!' Antonia screamed at the men outside. 'How dare you insult us like this!'

In the terror of the moment I noticed Little Boots. He gave me a look that was reckless and defiant; he was excited by what was happening and not frightened at all. I realised what he meant to do. 'No!' I hissed at him.

He sprang past his grandmother and into the entrance hall.

'Little Boots!' cried Agrippina.

I could only stare in dread, my hopes of controlling him gone. He was not a boy, and he planned to prove it to me here and now. He wanted to be the one who let in his brother's doom.

Antonia lurched after him. 'Gaius — don't!'

Little Boots wrenched back the bolt from the door just as the guards swung the ram again. The door flew inwards, striking Little Boots hard in the face and flinging him backwards. Blood and spittle sprayed in the air.

A bull of a man, ugly and coarse, Tribune Macro filled the hall as he entered it, taking a cursory glance at Little Boots slumped on the floor tiles. Antonia stood rigidly before him, opening and closing her mouth to speak, but finding that her words had dried up. Senator Silius rolled forward, placing a protective hand upon Antonia's shoulder as he met Macro's eye without fear or contempt, unassailable in his dignity.

'You would break these noble women, Tribune? Is that what you intend to do?'

Macro looked him up and down. 'Who are you, sir?'

'I am Gaius Silius, senator and general,' he said, drawing himself up to his full height and hoping his unflattering dining tunica was well hidden beneath his cloak.

Macro nodded to the two Praetorians who had entered behind him. The men moved past Macro, brandishing chains. 'Then I am here to arrest you, senator and general.'

Cries of shock came from the women. Drusus stared dumbly about him in disbelief. He was not the one the Praetorians had come for at all.

Silius paled, but he retained his composure. 'And what is the charge, Tribune?'

Macro smiled. The question didn't really need to be asked, given that the answer was the same for everyone. 'Treason,' he said, then adding as an afterthought, 'and extortion.'

Sosia threw herself into the hall, livid at the outrage. 'You filthy scum! This man was awarded a triumph barely a year ago! This man crushed the rebellion of Sacrovir and held his own army in unbroken loyalty to the Emperor when others around him fell into mutiny. This man is owed a debt by Tiberius!'

We held our breaths to see what would come from this outcry. Bleeding on the floor, Little Boots began to cry.

'Are you his wife?' Macro asked.

'I am Sosia Galla, wife of Silius and mother of his children.'

A second length of chains was produced by the men. 'Then I am here to arrest you too,' said Macro. 'You were in league with the rebel Sacrovir as man and wife — you profited from his rebellion. The charges are the same — treason and extortion.'

Agrippina gave a piercing scream, gripping her hair in her hands. Then she ran across the atrium to the wall where the wax masks of her ancestors rested in alcoves.

'Mother!' cried Nilla.

Agrippina pressed her lips to the wax image of Germanicus. Then she snatched up the sword she kept hidden behind his mask.

'Mother, no!' Nilla screamed. 'It is not our time for this — '

But Agrippina was deaf to her daughter as she advanced slowly upon Macro, her face black with hatred, the sword clutched in her fist.

Flamma came in from the garden, still wearing his straw hat and with his feet brown and bare from where he had been lazing in the afternoon sun while instructing Burrus in his sword practice. Agrippina turned and saw the gladiator and the slave-boy following behind him. Livilla saw Flamma too, and astonishment marked her face. She had never encountered him before and had no idea who or what he was. All she knew was that this was a man of obvious and considerable strength.

Flamma held Agrippina with his eyes, and with an almost imperceptible movement of his head he signalled 'no'. Her lower lip trembling, Agrippina stayed where she was, but her arm that held the sword lowered slowly to her side before her strength left her entirely. Drusus was able to catch his mother before she fell and struck her head on the tiles. The two youngest girls rushed to Agrippina's side, trying to rouse her. Flamma stayed in the atrium just long enough to determine that his mistress was unhurt, before he retired again, taking Burrus with him. The boy-slave looked over his shoulder just once to catch eyes with Nilla. She nodded to him that she was not frightened or hurt.

Livilla took in the entire scene with amazement. I saw the quick, loaded look she cast at Macro, who had not moved a muscle or barely blinked an eye.

'Well, then,' he said finally to the room.

Silius and Sosia were dragged out the front door and into the street by the guards. There they found a mob awaiting them.

' It's them! Look, it's them! '

Silius's cloak fell open as the Praetorians bound his hands, exposing his lurid dining tunica. The jeers were exultant.

' Look what he's wearing! '

The mob's attendance had been paid for by Sejanus, of course.

In all this horror and disgrace Little Boots moaned pathetically in a heap, his face crushed and bloody from where the door had struck him. I confess that at that moment I hoped he would be scarred by it for life.

Sejanus returned home, feeling weary and drained. He closed his eyes as his slaves removed his bronze cuirass and boots, and when they made to remove the rest of his garments he made no argument. He liked them to admire his nakedness, enjoying their envy. He opened his eyes as his undergarments were removed and saw the large Laconian dog in the atrium, waiting patiently with its head on its paws.

Sejanus was thrown, recognising the animal.

'It belongs to a visitor, domine,' said the steward.

Sejanus knew who the visitor must be.

The steward bowed. 'She arrived, wishing to speak to you when you returned. Because she is the Emperor's daughter-inlaw I knew you would never object to me admitting her — or her dog.'

'Of course not,' said Sejanus, betraying nothing.

'She is waiting in the tablinum.'

'And where is my wife?'

'The mistress Apicata is at the baths with her maids.' Then, as if it were of no account, the steward added, 'She is not expected for some hours yet, domine.'

Sejanus met the eyes of his steward, but the man hinted at nothing. His face was a servile mask. The steward clapped his hands and a fresh tunica was pulled over Sejanus's head.

'Has the Lady Livilla been given wine while she waits for me?' Sejanus asked as the tunica was tugged down his chest and torso.

'Of course, domine.'

With Sejanus properly dressed, the steward and the other slaves bowed and peeled away to the corridors that led from the reception rooms. Sejanus strode across the atrium towards his curtained study at the other end, watching the loyal dog by the wall. Scylax lifted his head.

'You are the only slave attending your mistress?'

Scylax wagged his tail.

'You grow ever more prized, then.'

The dog returned his head to his paws.

Sejanus flung the curtain aside, both angered and aroused by Livilla's risk-taking. 'You are reckless,' he whispered.

The room was empty.

'Livilla?'

An empty goblet stood on a side table next to a jug of wine. Most of the contents had been consumed. He saw the young maid Calliope dart across the courtyard beyond the room. She froze when she saw her master, but she was already frightened by something else, it was clear.

'Get to the kitchens,' he called out to her.

The girl scurried into the shade.

'Wait.'

The girl froze again. Sejanus left his study, descending the row of steps that led into the peristyle garden. Calliope visibly shook as he approached her.

'You tell your mistress anything — anything at all — and I will know about it, girl, understand me? Then I'll kill you for it.'

Calliope nodded, her teeth knocking together in her mouth.

'Only I will ever win — not my wife and certainly not her slaves.'

Calliope's teeth clinked like pebbles.

'Go.'

The girl fled.

When Sejanus entered the sleeping room he shared with his wife, he found Livilla lying face-down upon the bed, with cushions beneath her sex to raise her rump for him. He tore the fresh tunica from his body and spread his fingers at her rear, savouring the heat of her lust for him. 'Stay silent, my love,' he murmured. 'Stay as still as a tomb.'

Livilla made no noise at all as he claimed her. Why would she? The love she gave her god was as silent as it was sacred, and she relished its continued secrecy. It inflamed her, even though she gained such perverse pleasure from risking exposure. And Livilla's knowledge that her enemy, Apicata, also slept in the very place she now defiled was almost as heartwarming as the knowledge that the little coffin with its decapitated doll still rested undiscovered beneath the bed.

As Sejanus reached his climax, a tiny voice kissed the air near Livilla's ear.

' One would-be queen knows hunger's pangs when Cerberus conducts her…'

Startled, she turned her head to see who'd spoken. There was no one else there. Sejanus fell spent at her side. The voice had not been his — it was a woman's tongue, a voice from far away. Livilla did not feel frightened, only puzzled. What had been meant?

Movement at the door distracted her as Sejanus sank into sleep. It was Scylax. Half-pinned beneath her lover, Livilla wouldn't risk waking him by shifting herself. She stretched her arm to the edge of the bed and wiggled her fingers. Scylax padded up to her and began licking her hand.

Livilla drifted into sleep, tickled by the hungry dog.

Vestalia

June, AD 24

Two months later: Emperor Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus refuses, without explanation, all requests to award a triumph to General Publius Cornelius Dolabella, victor over Tacfarinas

The sun was warm, the breeze sweet and fresh and clean. There were swallows in the sky, spiralling high and free in the blue. The clamour at his feet was inconsequential in such loveliness, on such a perfect day, when he was feeling such wellbeing and relief as he took his place in the chair upon the summit of the Arx. Silius held himself proudly, straightening his back against the hard wooden board. As the boys pushed the cord through, threading it under his chin and then out through the board again, Silius smiled indulgently at them. He was not distressed, he wanted them to know; he was not in despair. The day was too pretty for it.

The cord tightened almost at once, yet Silius barely noticed, distracted by the boys' whispers. 'You mean to offend me?' he asked them. 'Humiliate me, lads? My great achievements were my only crime. My success has brought me here — nothing less than that. I'm flattered by what it's given me.' He went to add more but found he couldn't. His larynx was crushed. No matter.

The Temple of Capitoline Jupiter stood in serene splendour to his right; to his left and in front of him, as far as his eyes could see, Rome spread out like a tiler's mosaic. The long white strip of the Gemonian Stairs ran from his feet down the slope of the Arx, reminding Silius of a German stream bobbing with broken ice. The limbs and heads and torsos of those who had sat in the chair before him were like pebbles in this stream; the dogs that feasted upon the carrion were like frogs.

Silius lifted his eyes and gazed with fascination at his city, filling his heart with its streets and temples, its forums and gardens, its theatres, mansions and slums. He saw now that there were swirls and patterns he had never seen before among the seven teeming hills he thought he knew like he knew his own hands. It was as though a god's hand had formed the design, and not a million petty men across a thousand violent years. The city was divine indeed from this lofty view, and it comforted Silius, seated as he was so near to the gods. The boys began to twist the cord tighter, enjoying their task — once, twice and again. No final words allowed? No matter.

Silius had said all he had to say; there was nothing left to his life's great experience but simply being. He was content with that. He had earned it, he felt. He had devoted his life to fighting for Rome, and it was good to know with certainty that he had devoted himself to something so worthy. He had done his duty, everyone knew, and Rome was destined to endure even when those who had built and loved and glorified it perished, one by one, right up to the very greatest.

He took what air he could before the cord prevented him and he felt his windpipe crush. He could still see, he could still hear, but the cord bit deep and his head fell forward on its own. He looked again down the stairs. The dogs were waiting for him now, wagging their tails and calling. He smiled indulgently once more and tried to reach out his hands to make them come closer. But he couldn't move. No matter. It was enough to see their happy looks, their licking tongues, their excited dancing.

He felt his vision fade, and with it his pain, before the cord was loosened abruptly. The boys pulled it from his throat and in surprise he went to place his hands at the wound before recalling, again, that movement was beyond him. His throat throbbed and his pain and vision rushed back. Confused, he tried to shout out, 'It isn't done yet, fools — I'm still here, aren't I? The job isn't finished.' Then he guessed that this was the new procedure. Executions had changed from the days of the Tarpeian Rock.

When the boys waved the hook in front of him, Silius felt gratitude. An extra moment of life was a treasure still, a gift from the skies. When they drove the barb deep into his belly and up through his ribs, he smiled as his head lolled to and fro in mockery of their inept cruelty. 'You want agony?' he smirked at them. 'You should see what the Germans do. This is a picnic by the Tiber in comparison.'

They pulled him from the chair. Silius wanted to tell them that he would have come willingly; they could have saved their sestertii on such expensive grapples if they'd simply asked him to take his place on the stairs with the other traitors. But he was glad to be guided if it gave him another moment of rest, contemplation and joy.

The warmth of the sun was his again as they dragged him down the stairs by the hook — the blue of the sky, the tumult of swallows.

The tide of barefoot women washed down from the hills like rain. Their hair unbound, their stolae coarse and undyed, they were Vesta's penitents, ready to sweep out her temple and package her dirt safe from thieves. From each patrician home more women trickled from the doors, adding to the stream, swelling the numbers to a torrent. Voices rose to the heavens in song. The Temple of Vesta in the Forum threw its doors wide to receive them, as the virgins within began passing out brooms, standing aside as the first of the women began to sweep. The sacred flame of the goddess crackled and waved; Vesta was welcoming.

Sosia moved through the flow of female devotion. She was part of them, yet not; a patrician, but no longer one of their class. She strode with dignity against the tide, cutting a tiny, narrow path. The way opened before her; behind, her path was swallowed by the mass.

Sosia's hair was loose, her feet were bare and her stola was of the roughest, greyest wool. She was no different to any other woman in the street on this sacred day except in her purpose. Vesta had been denied to Sosia, as had all the other gods. Sosia's home was no longer hers; her husband and her children had been taken from her. She was without possessions — without slaves, even. She had been forbidden to hold money, or to beg for it, or to throw herself upon the kindness of friends. She was a non-person; no longer patrician, no longer privileged and no longer Roman. She was to leave.

As she made her progress towards the Servian Wall, women recognised her. Some stopped and stared, fear marking their faces in the moment of recognition before they looked to the ground. Others clutched at her clothes or touched her arms, whispering words of compassion as they passed. One woman kissed her hair. But Sosia walked on, her eyes dry of all tears until she found the one face she searched for.

Agrippina flew at her friend, and when she reached her, clutched her tight, her lips at her ear. 'I'll save you,' she said. 'I'll find a way to save you — '

Sosia shook her head. 'Save yourself,' she said, and she broke down at last. The women around them stopped as one, aware of who the two were and why they wept and clung to each other. Those who lacked courage held back, frightened, but those for whom nobility was as much a part of them as the very air they breathed moved forward, forming a ring around the broken friends.

'Protect yourself,' Sosia repeated. 'Save your children, your sons. Take them away from Rome — make them forget the injustices done.'

'I cannot — you know I cannot,' Agrippina wept.

'This vengeance will destroy you, then,' Sosia said. 'It's what your husband warned — it'll kill you if you stay on this path. Please, Agrippina, save yourself. This reckless courage is meant for men, not for us. It's meant for men…'

Agrippina brushed the hair from her treasured friend's face and kissed her lips. 'I will save you,' she vowed, acknowledging nothing that Sosia had said. 'I will find you when all this is done and I will save you. Have faith in me.'

Sosia nodded, but in her heart she knew they would never meet again. 'I love you,' she whispered.

Then she turned and was gone in the tide.

The tiny cry of an infant told me the pomerium was close, and as I saw the row of white cippi stones appear, marking the limits of Rome, I saw the babies too, abandoned at birth and exposed outside the walls. I moved among the scattered tombs, hoping to find a clear view of the road without being seen myself, but a cry distracted me from my purpose. It came from the only infant still alive from the night before; there were half a dozen others cold and dead. It was a miracle this baby hadn't perished in the chill dawn air, or been taken yet by foxes or some childless wife. I peered at where the tiny thing lay among the wildflowers, naked and streaked with birth blood. I brushed the ants from its face. It was not deformed — that I could tell. Its only crime, I supposed, was being born female in a household that had hoped for a male. This was how such misfortunes were righted in Rome.

A movement at the roadside took my focus. Among the carts and bullocks and chains of slaves, a woman in undyed wool stumbled on the stones, nearly falling, before she righted herself and made to carry on. Sosia's bare feet were bleeding already, I saw. I glanced at the tiny infant helplessly and then stole forward, weaving around the tombs to place myself ahead of her. When Sosia drew near, I stepped onto the road. No one else paid attention.

'Lady,' I called, as loudly as I dared.

Sosia stopped still, thrown at seeing me. Then she made to move past. 'I am exiled, Iphicles. No one can speak to me.'

I sank to one knee before her. 'I am so sorry, Lady.' Tears were forming in my eyes. 'You don't deserve this fate — you are blameless.'

She said nothing, staring at the ground. I glanced around us to assure myself we were still being ignored. Then I reached into the sack I carried and retrieved a pair of street shoes. 'For your feet — please take them.'

She stared at them for a second, but made no move to accept. I laid the shoes on the road before her. 'Lady, here.' I showed her what else was in the sack — bread and cheese, and a small jug of wine. 'Take them, Lady.'

Sosia resumed walking, leaving the items by the road. Stricken, I scooped them into the sack again and ran after her. She stopped when I caught her.

'Let me be, Iphicles — I am of no concern to you.'

'Your children,' I stammered. 'I'll try to protect them — I'll do what I can.'

Sosia stared at me. 'What can you possibly do? You're only a slave.'

My desire to tell her that I was much more than a slave was so strong that I felt myself succumb to it. 'Trust me. I can help them. I have means.'

My words were beyond Sosia's comprehension.

'Their deaths,' I whispered, 'serve no purpose to anyone — this makes my task to protect them easier, don't you see?'

'What purpose did my husband's death serve?' Sosia demanded.

'None, Lady,' I said. 'It was a low, criminal act.'

'And my exile? That's criminal too?'

I nodded.

'And yet both still occurred. So now my children are as dead as their parents.' She went to move on.

I held her arm. 'This will change,' I assured her.

' This?'

'This rule — this misrule — of Tiberius.' I looked about me in fear of being overheard, but no passersby on the road around us gave us the slightest attention. 'There are some who labour towards ending his time — to bring on the second king,' I told her.

She stared at me again with something new behind her eyes. I had shocked her with my manner, my confidence, my certainty — none of which befitted a slave. 'Those who labour — is this you?' she asked.

I paused. Could I dare to trust her with the life's work that both empowered and corrupted me? 'Yes, Lady,' I whispered.

She reeled.

'The second king has been chosen, prophesied by the haruspex Thrasyllus with the words of the Great Mother. I do everything I can to bring this king's time forward — I labour for it tirelessly.'

'These labours — what are they?'

I missed the anger that was growing in her voice, blushing and looking to the ground. 'They are what must be done,' was all I could say.

It was the longest time before I raised my eyes, and when I did I saw her horror, her black disgust. 'Germanicus,' she whispered.

I paled.

'It was you who killed him… it was you!'

I tried to explain. 'It is not as it looks — I did not kill Germanicus.'

'Was he this prophesied king?'

'No, Lady.'

'Who is, then? Sejanus?'

'No, Lady, I swear — '

'Who else have you killed for this? Castor?'

She saw me fall paler still. 'Oh my gods — I see your guilt!' She lurched and turned where she stood, running back along the road towards the distant city walls again.

'Lady! Lady, please stop!'

'Murderer!' she gasped, stumbling on her bloodied feet. 'Murdering slave!'

'Lady, please, no — '

She turned and pointed at me. 'I will find Agrippina and I will tell her what a viper she harbours — what a poisonous viper!' She fled again along the stones.

Despair crushed me. I had sought to help her, to ease her exile, to promise her that hope was still hers, if only she had patience and strength. But she had seen my naked face and it had terrified her. This, I realised then, was the fate of all gods. We saved nothing in our efforts to achieve destiny. We only destroyed.

I reached inside the sack and found the knife I had meant to give Sosia as a weapon to defend herself with. I felt the blade — it was blunt, yet would do. Sosia stumbled and fell ahead of me, raging incoherently against my crimes. But with her undyed stola and wild, long hair, she was like a mad woman to those who travelled along the road. She was stubbornly, determinedly ignored.

Sosia screamed when she looked back and saw the knife glitter in my hand. 'Let me get to her,' she begged of a man driving a carruca. 'Take me to Agrippina — let me tell her!'

The driver struck her with his whip so that she fell back hard upon the cobbles. She clawed to her feet and began to run once more, limping badly now, and leaving little prints of blood upon the stones.

I continued to follow, keeping her pace, the knife tucked inside my tunica. Soon she would fall again and be unable to rise. I would pull her behind the tombs to the place where the baby wept, and there I would finish her — and perhaps the child too. It would be merciful for both of them.

Sosia screamed again and continued running. Death had her in its scent. It must come for her now — she had forced its hand. I was only death's tool. But it gave me no pleasure to be so — no pleasure at all.

The Nones of January

AD 25

Seven months later: the historian Aulus Cremutius Cordus succeeds in starving himself to death midway through his protracted treason trial. His books are burned in the Forum

Tiberius sat on his favourite chair in his favourite corner of his garden, rugging himself up against the chill. The winter sun would hit him shortly, as soon as the first rays cleared the top of the garden wall. He was happy to wait until it shone; he wanted the warmth to lick his bones. He made himself comfortable on the cushions and pulled his fur-lined cloak tight around his throat.

'Tiberius…'

He started at the voice, recognising it.

'Tiberius…'

He looked about the garden around him. 'Is that you, Antonia?'

'Are you in good health?'

'I am. Such a fine winter's day.'

'I would like to see you. To talk about things.'

Tiberius was confused. 'Aren't you seeing me now?'

'You know I'm not.'

Tiberius's mind was always slow to work while the sun's rays remained hidden.

'I am on the other side of this wall.'

Tiberius got up from his chair in wonder and made his way towards the garden's edge. 'On the other side?'

'Yes.'

There was silence while Tiberius ran his palms across the cold, stone surface.

'Why won't you let us visit you?' Antonia asked, after a moment.

'Who?'

'Your family, who loves you.'

Tiberius tried to recall the reason.

'Why won't you let me visit you, at least?'

'You are welcome any time.'

'The guards turn me away. They turn us all away — on your orders, Tiberius.'

'Absurd. I'll have them flogged for it. Come and see me today, Antonia. It would be so nice to have some wine with my old friend.'

He heard Antonia start weeping.

'Yes. It would be very nice. There are so many things I would like to talk to you about.'

'Then I look forward to it.'

He started to turn away.

'Do you remember when your brother died, Tiberius? My husband? Do you remember when he died?'

A stab of pain brought ugly memories back.

'We grew so close, you and me. No one else ever understood the depth of the loss we felt.'

Agonising grief creased his face. He remembered his brother. Then he remembered his son. Then he remembered why it was easier to keep his family at bay. He felt cold. 'I don't think I can see you today, after all.'

'Tiberius?'

'No. Now go away.'

'Please let me see you.'

'I said go away.' He hurried back to the comfort and safety of his chair. If Antonia had remained behind the wall, she said nothing else and was as good as gone. Soon her intrusion began to recede as Tiberius resumed his wait for the sun. His grief was forgotten.

There was movement among the denuded winter shrubbery and he saw that Thrasyllus was curled in the snow.

'You are naked, haruspex?'

The soothsayer said nothing.

Tiberius waved for an attendant slave; it took a long time for one to come because so few were allowed to attend him. When one at last arrived, crawling on his hands and knees, Tiberius pointed at the haruspex. 'He is naked. Where are his clothes?'

'You ordered us to strip him, Caesar.'

Tiberius considered this, and then dismissed it as ridiculous. 'That's a bald lie.'

The slave remained on his hands and knees.

'Take off your clothes and give them to him. He is too valuable to waste in this way.'

'Yes, Caesar.' The slave began to undress in the snow, tossing his clothes at Thrasyllus's frostbitten feet.

'Put them on him — can't you see he's ill?'

The slave did his best to fit the clothes to Thrasyllus as Tiberius clapped his dry, cracked hands with a noise that barely rose above the winter birds. But the choirmaster was tuned to him. The man straightened from where he had fallen against the steps, waving his shattered hands towards where he hoped the children would still be. He had lost his sight with so many beatings, but his hearing remained sound. The children saw him and picked themselves up from where they huddled in groups in their soiled and ragged clothes; many were ill. Their memories of mothers and fathers and happy homes had dimmed, so that these things seemed like dreams to them now. Some could not remember when they first came to Oxheads — or when they had been told that they would not be returning home. Out of habit and fear, they began the morning's first song.

Tiberius regarded his morning correspondence. Direct contact with his person had been banned in favour of written petitions, and the sense of liberation this gave him hadn't faded. No longer were his mornings wasted with people he despised; he could sit in the sun and force anyone who wished for his guidance to write to him — and write prettily too. He enjoyed laughing at what they requested from him, but as an unspoken rule he only read letters from people who pleased him; he returned letters unopened to those who didn't. The morning's scrolls were bundled in canisters. He took a quick look at the contents and then kicked the lot aside. They were all too long — and boring. He wanted diversion. Other letters, written on folded, flattened papyrus, had been placed in a pile. Presuming these missives to be briefer than the scrolls, he began to examine them. The first two were immediate rejects. He scratched a cross on them in black ink and threw them to the ground.

The next letter was from Sejanus.

Tiberius smiled. With the children's hoarse, broken voices ringing pleasantly in his ears, he began to read.

Caesar, It has become my habit to confide my hopes and wishes to your ears as readily as I do the gods. Since the days of our Great Walk together, I have asked for nothing more than to watch you and protect you and to serve you as a common soldier. That you have rewarded me with high distinctions is something I treasure, Caesar, but have never craved. The most glorious honour I have won is the reputation of being worthy of your friendship.

Moved, Tiberius closed his eyes for a moment as the sun's rays began to glow at the top of the wall. He reached his hand along the seat until his goblet was slipped inside it, placed there by the shivering, naked slave. He sipped, and the Eastern flower kissed him just as the sun did. He opened his eyes again and read on. The tragedy of the boy Hector's choking will never leave me, but the honour of the union between he and my girl only grows, despite his premature death. I have heard that the Divine Augustus, when seeking a first marriage for his daughter, even entertained some thoughts of worthy men drawn from the Equestrians. If this is so, and if a husband is sought for a widow of Caesar's family, then I will make the first request that I have ever made of my Emperor. Please think of a friend who finds his reward simply in the glory of friendship.

Tiberius stopped reading in surprise. Then he carefully reread the sentences. He reached for his goblet as the children reached the end of their song. 'Again,' he commanded them, his eyes on the letter and his voice already slurred with the draught. He tried to free his mind of its clouds, hoping the sun's rays would help him, but the struggle was too much. He let the pleasure claim him and turned his energies to recalling who the widows in his family actually were. His mother was one, he knew; Antonia was another. Were there more?

He returned to the letter. If Caesar grants my request, know this: his family will be made all the safer against the unjust displeasure of Agrippina. Sejanus

Tiberius frowned. Or rather, he thought he should frown, but when the impulse came to do so, he found that his face remained placid in the dawning sun. Yet still the thought to frown was there; something stirred deep within him to prompt it — was it a warning? He couldn't be sure. It wasn't the same as the reactions he had to the long lists of citizens accused of treason; those merely sickened him. This was something else, a feeling far darker. He was reminded of the honk of the sacred geese from the summit of the Capitoline. Those famous noisy geese had once saved Rome from the Gauls with their alarm.

What were his geese telling him, Tiberius wondered. Where, if anywhere, was the threat?

' The matron's words alone are heard…' said a tiny voice in his ear.

Tiberius turned to Thrasyllus in the snow. 'I no longer like you in my garden, haruspex. I no longer like you here at all. What you say has become meaningless. Do not let me find you here when I return to my chair tomorrow.'

Apicata knew the sound of crisp, smooth, quality papyrus when it rubbed against the skin of her husband's rough hands. It was the sound she heard now and it meant he had a letter. There was no other noise to be heard but the dry, soft rustle as he clutched it, worrying the surface with his fingertips. The letter consumed him utterly.

Apicata waited patiently at her loom, her own hands smoothing and tightening the yarn with the bar, crushing it in. She reached for the weights, adjusting them. 'Is there news, husband?'

She sensed his eyes on her briefly before he returned to what he read. Apicata's patience was her strength. After another minute or so she tried again. 'Is it the Emperor who writes? Is he happy with you?'

This time she didn't even sense him looking up at her. The letter held him totally. Apicata rose to her feet and stood still for a moment. When Sejanus made no comment, she crept towards him across the courtyard, knowing where the earthenware pots stood in her path and gliding around them, never missing her step. She reached him and kneeled. 'Is it bad news?' she whispered.

Still Sejanus said nothing, rereading the words.

Her face was at his knees in his chair. Apicata pressed her cheeks against the flesh of them, holding herself there for a moment, until slowly she felt his legs begin to give. She pressed her face further, her lips and eyelashes brushing his thighs. Apicata began to pleasure him, the movements of her tongue and lips so practised now, so automatic, that she didn't need to think or feel or plan. Her ears stayed fixed on his response — the gradual quickening of his pulse and breath, the low, guttural moans that slowly grew from his belly and up into his throat. She lived for his pleasure; she lived to love him.

He gripped her by the hair and tugged her mouth away. She thought it was passion and tried to resist him, clinging with her lips, but he slapped at her head and threw her to the ground. Apicata lay there, dazed, as Sejanus stood up from his chair, twisting the papyrus into a stick.

'Was it bad news, husband?'

He threw the twisted letter into the air, and then turned and left her to her loom.

Apicata knew she had covered every inch of the courtyard, crawling on her hands and knees along the paving tiles, feeling under the plants, inside the ivy, reaching into the branches of the low trees. She raked her fingers through the fishpond, dredging through the weed and mud, but still she couldn't find it. So she began the process again.

It was long after midnight when she finally located the letter, blown into a corner behind a leafless, dormant rose. She snagged her stola on the thorns, pricking her skin and drawing blood. To retrieve the twisted sheet of papyrus she had to thrust her bare hand into the heart of the plant. But just as she had the thing in her fingertips, a gust of wind took it from her grasp. Apicata forced her hand again and again into the midst of the thorns, but she couldn't find the letter.

It was lost.

The nightmare that tormented him was always the same: the golden-haired man cursed him and beat him viciously with the rod and Thrasyllus could not escape, no matter where he crawled or what he said or what he tried to read in the bowels of the bird. And even when he saw precisely what lay ahead for the man — for this golden-haired king — still he was beaten until his every bone was smashed and he was nothing but pulp and mash upon the ground, like the guts of his pigeons. Then the nightmare would end as the golden-haired king left the place of imprisonment and Thrasyllus would wake up weeping and shivering and calling out for the Great Mother, who never came. But this time when the nightmare ended it was different. The Great Mother was with him, here in the snow.

'Ssh,' she soothed him.

His fevered eyes drank in the sight of her. 'Cybele?'

'Ssh,' she said. She laid her hand upon his brow and felt how cold he was — as chilled as stone. Her image began to melt and drip in his gaze.

'Are you really Cybele?'

'Ssh,' she repeated.

Thrasyllus saw in his mind another mother, one lost in the past — a mother who loved him and suckled him. 'You killed her, Cybele.' 'No.' 'You killed my mother… hacked the flesh from her. It was you.' 'Ssh.' Cybele's touch seeped deep inside him, easing the pain, erasing the fear. 'It was another… I never held the blade. Your mother was taken by another one — look inside my heart and see this is true.'

Thrasyllus stared into the Great Mother's eyes, and the rays of perception illuminated what he found there. The goddess spoke the truth. Cybele could not lie to him. His mother had been killed by a lowly slave's hand.

Thrasyllus felt his love for the goddess return.

'You must answer me a question,' Cybele said, stroking his cheek. 'It is not a painful question — it is the same question the slave claims you have already answered for him. But I doubt the answer, you see — it seems so unlikely to me, so impossible.'

Thrasyllus waited.

'Who will be the second king?'

Thrasyllus told her.

Cybele was visibly shocked, thrown by the news that she, as a goddess, should surely already have known. Yet patently she did not.

'So the child will rule,' she muttered to herself. 'The child really will rule.' She was shaken. 'What a thing to give to Rome.' 'They are not the same,' said Thrasyllus. The goddess stopped.

'The prophecies, they are not the same. "The child will rule" does not pertain to the second king.'

The goddess stared at him. 'Not the same?'

Thrasyllus shook his head. 'The reign of the second king will be brief.'

'But he is not the child who will rule?'

The haruspex shook his head again, saying nothing, assessing her. That she was divine, he did not doubt, but that she was not the Great Mother — at least not yet — he was now becoming certain. But what was she, then? Who was she?

She was devastated. 'This child who will rule is not one of the four kings?'

'No, goddess.'

'From whose womb is it born?'

He told her.

The anxiety left her face again and she placed her hands upon her belly in reverence. 'Yet how could this be? How could this possibly be?'

'Because the child will be queen, not king.'

The goddess closed her eyes and a single tear rolled from her lids, slipping down her cheek.

'Are you unhappy, goddess?' Thrasyllus asked.

'Oh no,' she replied, her voice growing more distant. 'I don't think I have ever known such profound happiness in my life.'

'Good,' said Thrasyllus. 'When you are ready, I will tell you more of your prophecies.'

'There are more?'

'Many more. They come in echoes of whispers.'

'Tell me now.'

'It is not time, goddess.'

'Of course it is. Tell me now — I insist upon it.'

'But you are sleeping.'

She looked incredulous. 'Are you blind? I'm wide awake!'

I woke gasping from my dream, sweat coursing down my back. The linen was glued to me and my thin pallet was sodden with perspiration.

' Domina.'

Lying next to me, Lygdus awoke with a start. 'What's happened?'

'The domina — ' I stammered. My limbs wouldn't work; my blood was sluggish in my veins. 'Help me stand, Lygdus.'

Confused, Lygdus heaved his bulk from the floor and pulled me upright. I tried to walk but my legs buckled beneath me.

'The domina — take me to the domina.'

Lygdus picked me up in his arms and carried me to Livia's great bed in the centre of her sleeping room. 'See?' he whispered. 'It was just a bad dream, Iphicles. The domina is safe.'

Livia slept, seemingly unchanged in any way from when we had placed her upon her pillows at sunset. Then we saw the slow movement beneath her linens. I flung back the sheets just as the viper emerged from her sex.

'It's inside her!' Lygdus screamed.

The serpent saw us and tried to return to my domina's warmth, but in my terror I was too quick for it. I seized it by the head, pulling it out and flinging it into the air. The viper fell to the floor and tried to slither into the shadows beneath the bed, but Lygdus had the presence of mind to snatch up a stool. He crashed it onto the serpent's back, breaking its spine, but still the creature moved. Lygdus brought the stool down hard again, and then again and again, until the snake was bloody and crushed and still.

We stared at it together, our heartbeats racing, panting like fearful dogs.

'It was inside her,' Lygdus said. 'Inside her hole. Living inside her.'

I could only nod, as sick to my stomach as he was.

Agonalia

January, AD 26

One year later: Gaius Poppaeus Sabinus begins a suppression of rebellious Thracian mountain tribesmen

The shock was so great that Apicata didn't even feel it. She heard the terrible words and then she heard her daughter screaming out her name from somewhere deep within the house, but the chill wind blew everything away from where she stood dumbly facing her own front door. Along with the words went her response to what the man — this unknown Praetorian — had told her. She stood mute.

'Lady?' said the Praetorian at her door.

She managed to find something to say to him. 'It is so cold here.'

There was a moment's silence, then the Praetorian repeated exactly what he had said only a minute previously when she had returned from the baths. He repeated the words to the very letter — he had rehearsed them, clearly — but Apicata still felt nothing. They were too unreal, too horrific. In her mind's eye she saw the same words being ripped away by the wind again, carried far beyond her comprehension.

'Lady?' said the Praetorian. 'Do you understand what I am telling you, Lady?'

'Yes… I'm not sure.'

'For the reasons I have told you, I cannot admit you to your home. It is no longer your home. Those are Prefect Sejanus's orders.'

'Yes. Yes, now I see.' But she could not see anything. Apicata sensed the Praetorian standing aside to let the last of her bewildered maids file into the house. The wind was arctic. She heard her daughter's broken sobs.

'I must go to her.'

The Praetorian stopped her. 'You said you understood me, Lady.'

'Yes, I do, but — '

'Your daughter is no longer your concern.'

'Of course. Yes, now I see.' But Apicata could not see anything.

The young maid Calliope pretended to take an offering to the street Lares in order to slide past the Praetorian standing inside her master's door. The soldier showed more interest in her budding breasts beneath her tunica than he did in her slim reason for leaving the house, and the girl was happy only that she'd managed to fool him. She had no intention of visiting the Lares 's shrine, although she did conceal an offering of a different kind in her earthenware bowl. When the front door slammed behind her, she looked up and down the narrow Palatine street, trying to guess which way she should head first. Then the decision was made for her when she glimpsed her mistress slumped in the doorway of a house across the road. Calliope ran across, praying she was not being observed by the Praetorian through the peephole.

' Domina.'

Apicata stirred from her state of bewilderment.

' Domina — are you all right?'

'Calliope?'

'It is me, domina, yes,' the maid said, crouching next to Apicata and clutching at her hands.

'I am waiting here until my husband returns,' said Apicata, trying to summon her dignity. 'He'll avenge this insult to me. He'll have the man who refused me admittance to my home crucified.'

Calliope slipped the little oblong box into her mistress's hands.

'What is this?'

The young maid began to cry. 'I found it under your bed months ago, domina, but it frightened me, so I kicked it under there again. I didn't want to be the one who brought it to your notice — I thought you would accuse me of being the enemy who had placed it there. But when this terrible thing happened at the front door, I knew I must show you this evil, because there might be answers inside as to who caused this dreadfulness.'

Apicata went very still.

' Domina?'

'Did you open it?'

'I did,' said Calliope.

'Open it again.'

Calliope hooked her fingernail under the slot in the box and the lid fell free. Her lip curling in disgust, she placed the wax doll's torso and its severed head in Apicata's cupped palms. Her mistress rolled them in her fingers, detecting the absence of eyes in the head. She brought the head to her nose and smelled it. She recoiled. Bewilderment left her face, replaced by a dull rage.

'What else is in the box, Calliope?' she asked slowly.

'Just a tiny piece of rag.'

'Is something written on it?'

'There is a single word, but I cannot read it, domina.'

'You know your letters. You're not an ignorant girl. Read them out to me one by one and I will tell you what it spells.'

Calliope struggled to determine what was there. 'It starts with a V,' she began.

'Yes?'

'Then an E, I think.'

'Good.'

Calliope squinted. 'The next letter is I, then an O.'

Apicata stopped breathing as realisation hit her. She recalled the warning words of Thrasyllus, overheard so long ago in Tiberius's garden while she waited for her daughter's wedding to begin.

' Domina?'

Apicata stood up.

'There's another V.'

'Of course there is,' said Apicata. She began staggering down the street, her hands stretched out in front of her for protection.

'I haven't read you all of the letters!' Calliope called out.

Apicata lost her footing on the cobblestones, crashing hard to the ground. But she righted herself at once and continued fumbling blindly forward.

Calliope rushed up and snatched her arm. 'Stop! Where are you going, domina?'

'To defy the one who has done this to me.'

'Then let me help you — let me guide you there.'

'Go home. I am marked by the god of lies.'

'I don't care. I will not leave you.'

Apicata clutched the girl to her, kissing her wet cheeks. 'Then be my eyes and read me what is written on another thing. Can you do that for me?'

'I will try, domina.'

Apicata began pulling Calliope along with her.

'What am I to read?'

'We haven't reached it yet.'

'But what will it be?'

Apicata's heart was in her throat as she told her. 'A curse tablet.'

Claudia Pulchra stared from the edge of the blackness. It wasn't large, this hole — no more than the span of a man's arms, perhaps — and yet it yawned far wider than Agrippina's beautiful friend and cousin had ever imagined in childhood's nightmares. It was called the Tullianum — the Cistern. It was older than anyone knew and fouler than the worst pits of the Underworld. It haunted the dreams of all Romans, and when Claudia had been a little girl she had been threatened with this hole by her wet nurse — she'd been told she'd be tossed into it for her wickedness. Claudia had claimed not to believe in it — but she knew in her soul, as did everyone in Rome, that wickedness truly led to this place. The Tullianum was real, inescapable. The nightmare was true.

The Tullianum had two levels. The first, where Claudia stood, was where wretches were chained before trial. The second, the subterranean level, was a cavern where water had once pooled after rain. There was one entrance only — the hole in the floor. What lived within it was unknown. To enter it as a prisoner was final.

'What can you see?' Sejanus asked her.

Claudia could see nothing — nothing at all.

'Lean forward. Look into the hole.'

Claudia went to struggle but Macro had tied her hands too securely. His face splitting into a grin, he pulled hard on the rope from the other side of the chasm. Claudia staggered forward, her toes inches from the lip. The Tullianum yawned before her.

'See anything now?'

'Please — '

'Please what?'

'Please don't do this!'

'You've brought it on yourself,' Sejanus said. 'It needn't have been this way.'

'I am a highborn woman, and this… this — '

'Prison?' Sejanus suggested.

'It is for men — it is for lowborn men.'

'They threw King Jugurtha down there. And the Cataline conspirators. They were highborn.'

'I am a woman,' said Claudia. 'This is wrong!'

'What's wrong is treason,' said Sejanus. He looked to the grinning Macro and nodded. The Tribune tugged again and Claudia's arms flew out before her.

'I'm innocent.'

'That is unproven.'

'I've done nothing.'

'Your accusers say you've used spells and poisons against the Emperor.'

'I am not a witch — it's insane.'

'Times have changed,' said Sejanus. 'Witches are all around us now. Look how many lie hooked on the Gemonian Stairs.'

Claudia began to sob. 'Please spare me…'

Sejanus took his place carefully behind her, the tips of his boots snug against her bare heels. He hooked his chin over her slender shoulder, nuzzling her beautiful hair as he placed his arms tight around her belly. She felt the heat of him in the small of her back, pressing against her. He stared into the blackness with her.

'What's inside it? Are there others down there? Or will it only be you when you hit the bottom?'

In the heart of the gloom something slithered. Pinpricks of gold glittered in reflection, caught and held in the blackness.

'Do you see them, Claudia?' She couldn't pull her eyes from what was down there. He kicked his boot against the heel of her left foot and she lost hold. He clutched her to him, not letting her fall. 'What do they eat, do you think?'

'Have mercy!'

'Spare yourself by serving Rome.'

'I can't — it is a betrayal of her…'

Sejanus looked to the Tribune and Macro gave a final, vicious pull to the rope as Sejanus released his hold. Claudia plunged forward, tumbling and twisting, her screams just a crack in her throat as her breath was ripped from her. Her arms snapped taut above her head as she reached the rope's length, her shoulders pulled from their joints. She swung in the void like a bough.

Macro secured the tether to a hook, spitting on his rope-burned hands.

Pinpricks of gold glittered from all sides within the blackness. Broken, naked, starving men crawled on their bellies towards her.

'What do they eat?' Sejanus whispered from above. 'What do they eat, do you think, pretty Claudia?'

Calliope's shrieks at the rats were like vicious little knives stabbing in her mistress's ears, and for once Apicata was glad to be blind, if only to be spared the sight of the temple's vermin.

'Find it,' Apicata ordered the girl.

'How can I find it among so many, domina?'

'Use the eyes the Fates have spared you. Find it!'

The young maid sobbed, snatching at the scores of curse tablets nailed to the base of the statue and trying to determine what they might say from single letters alone. It was hopeless, doomed.

'Find it!' Apicata flung a fistful of the vermin's filth at her. 'Find it for me!'

Calliope fled, rushing from the hall and down the slimy, broken steps, not letting herself stop until she felt the kiss of sunshine on her face again and breathed air that smelled crisp and clean and not foul like the breath of the damned.

Apicata screamed after her with threats of violence, but when her voice cracked hoarse, echoing in the emptiness, she turned to begging for the girl to return to her, begging for her help to find the truth. But Calliope was gone and Apicata was left to fumble, all alone in the slurries of dung, praying loudly to Veiovis to lead her to the tablet that would let her know the truth.

The god observed her with dispassion until her desperation stirred something in his heart. He was not an evil god, just mischievous. To foster lies and hidden truths was surely not as vile as the gods who fostered agony and death. But then perhaps he was no different? Perhaps he was so much worse?

Apicata turned sharply at the crack of masonry from above. A finger from the god's right hand detached itself and fell. Covering her head, Apicata screamed in terror, not knowing what it was, but nothing struck her. The finger landed without injury upon the floor. And perhaps, if Calliope had stayed loyal to her mistress, she could have seen this and informed Apicata where it pointed.

A rat brushed the stone digit as it scurried to its nest, flipping a fallen curse tablet. Scratched words now faced the god again and anyone who had the eyes to read them:

I curse Apicata, that she will never know what I have taken from her until it is too late.

Sejanus left the dank, stinking Tullianum with the screams of those awaiting trial in his ears. He gave the appearance of being deaf to them as Macro followed behind him. The wardens slammed the heavy iron door in their wake, cutting off the prisoners' sounds, and in the brief silence of this respite Macro smirked, pleased with the afternoon's work.

'You find pleasure in what we do, Macro?'

The Tribune just raised his eyebrows, smiling. But the look Sejanus gave him was cold. 'What pleasure is there in finding evil inside Rome? Evil in women? Evil in little children? How can you enjoy it when you know how greatly the Emperor is betrayed?'

Macro recomposed himself. 'My pleasure comes from knowing that the Emperor is avenged by what we uncover, Prefect.'

'We're soiled by this work, but it's the means to an end.'

The two men wrapped their cloaks tightly around their bodies as the bitter winter wind blew hard from the north along the flagstones.

'Will we ever find the last of traitors, Prefect?' Macro asked. 'Will we reach an end of this?'

Sejanus considered. 'I believe that we will. I believe it's inevitable. Then Rome will be clean.'

Macro nodded, but when he glanced into his superior's eyes he saw they had the faraway look that, he believed, they had more often than befitted a prefect. Sejanus looked like an acolyte lost in the worship of an idol. For his part Macro didn't believe in any gods. To him they were clay-footed, just like men. All Macro had faith in was wealth. Serving as a Praetorian was the most lucrative job a man could attain for himself in Rome if he was unencumbered, as Macro was, by birth, tradition and class.

The Forum was nearly empty. The courts were closed and the Senate had finished its business for the day. Only beggars huddled in the alcoves that offered protection from the wind. The guards brought horses, preparing an escort back to the Viminal Gate, as Sejanus glanced behind him up the long Gemonian Stairs. In contrast they were choked with people: men, women and children lying blank-faced and idle on the rough stone steps, underdressed for the weather, as though it were a summer's day. Some were even naked. They sat demurely, many of them, their arms upon their knees or across their chests. Others sprawled in obscene poses, their breasts and genitals lolling in front of them. Every one of them was dead. It was too cold even for the dogs to feast on them. Sejanus felt soiled by this work.

Macro caught his attention, nodding towards a woman in a long grey palla, her feet incongruously shod in bath slippers. 'Prefect…'

Sejanus looked. It was his wife. She could see him, yet could not see him; she knew where he was and knew that he could see her fully. She said nothing, wanting only to be seen.

'Has she been told yet?' Macro asked.

Apicata had borne two children for Sejanus, a daughter and a son; she had kept his house and shared his dreams. She had shown him nothing but loyalty, yet still it wasn't love Sejanus felt for her — and this made what needed to be done all the easier.

'It was my order that she be told,' said Sejanus. His horse was ready for him.

'Upon her return from the baths?'

'That was my order.'

Man and wife stood still as the statues of the gods that loomed high above them.

'Perhaps she hasn't returned to your home then, Prefect? Perhaps she is still to hear it?'

Sejanus looked at his wife for the last time. 'She has heard.'

He mounted his horse and joined the Praetorian escort to the Viminal Gate.

Apicata waited until the sound of the retreating hooves was lost in the icy wind. Then she waited until the night birds started their cries and she knew that the thin sun had set, ending the day. She had no plan, no idea of what to do or where to go, so she continued waiting. At least there was a certainty of action in this, if not any goal.

Apicata waited exactly where she knew Sejanus had taken his final look at her, burning her image into his mind. She remained where he had seen her and she did not move. She continued to wait as Rome's most desperate and destitute crept around her in the darkness, as fragile as winter leaves in the wind. She waited as she heard the transactions they made with the low and brutal men who purchased them and used them and then discarded them again. She waited as a man asked her if she was for sale. She said nothing in reply, continuing to stand, continuing to wait. When he felt her breasts, she allowed him to — what did it matter now? But when he offered her money, she didn't raise her hands, keeping them balled up tight inside her palla until he finally moved on.

She waited as the rain began to fall lightly around her, turning heavier after a time, before ending in hailstones that struck and bruised her face. She waited as the snow followed later, gathering in small drifts at her feet. She waited as the sentries announced watch after watch: Prima fax, Concubia, Intempesta, Inclinatio. She waited as she slipped to the ground, the snow cushioning her fall, her limbs weighing heavier than stone. Finally, she waited as a kind woman cradled her head in her lap, singing to her softly, until Apicata could find the strength to speak.

'I am destroyed,' Apicata whispered.

'It happens to all of us in time.'

'I never felt it come. I never even sensed its approach.'

The woman clicked her tongue. 'There was something of that in my own fall, too,' she said. 'Such is Rome.'

Apicata felt comforted and reached for the woman's hands, seeking her touch, her warmth, her humanity. But the hands that found her, that brushed against her palms and fingers were not hands at all, but stumps. The hands were gone.

Apicata had no emotion left when she recognised the woman's voice and realised to whom it belonged. She felt only release. She had completed a cycle. Apicata had once blackmailed this woman into committing murder, and now her own life was ready to be taken in turn. It was justice.

'Finish me,' Apicata whispered. 'Take your revenge — finish me.'

'Don't be foolish,' Plancina answered with a laugh. 'I want to hear what happened first.'

Carmentalia

January, AD 26

One week later: Gaius Poppaeus Sabinus thwarts an attack upon his strongholds by the rebellious Thracians but suffers the destruction of a legion of Thracian auxiliaries loyal to Rome

Then a torn, soiled and barely readable curl of papyrus was handed to me by a young maid, my first impulse was to dismiss it. But the girl Calliope pointed out the remnants of the wax seal on the back of the message, saying that it warranted some kind of attention. I stared at what she showed me then and waved at Lygdus to open one of my domina 's chests. I told the girl to pick out whatever she liked. She chose a jewelled brooch, although she seemed to find little joy in it. She could have taken the lot, for all I cared — for I had realised the letter's worth. I had recognised the handwriting.

I asked Calliope to tell me how she found this letter. She said there was little to tell. Her master Sejanus had received it many months ago, and whatever was written upon it had angered him because he screwed it up and threw it away in the garden. The girl's mistress, Apicata, had searched for the letter without success but had then been exiled from the house. Calliope had later found the letter hidden in the leaves of some ivy. She had now decided to show it to another's eyes — my own. She did not know what was written on it. I thanked her for bringing it to me ahead of any other person in Rome, and I asked her why she had done this.

'I admire you,' she whispered. 'You give hope to other slaves.'

I looked at Lygdus and I imagined that he shared this sentiment — it seemed to me that his eyes were shining. I was moved for only a moment before I felt unease. 'But how do you even know of me?'

Calliope cast a look at Lygdus, who just looked to the ground. 'I know,' was all she would say.

When the maid was gone, Lygdus swore that my fears were baseless; no one knew of me, and my actions were hidden from Rome. I wanted to believe him but I saw my domina watching us from her bed. She had seen the slave and heard what was discussed. The look she gave me had nothing but confirmation to it. She wanted me to know that my fears were very real, that my actions were only hidden from a part of Rome — the Rome that ruled. The Rome that served knew me very well.

I read the letter aloud to Lygdus — and to my domina. It was from Tiberius, of course. My son, Your request has moved me deeply but I must ask for your patience while I devote myself to a period of impartial consideration of it. Other men's plans depend so much upon their ideas of their own interest, but Emperors, who must regulate their actions by public opinion, are in a different position. For this reason, my beloved son, I cannot yet give the answer to your request that my heart wants so freely to give — the answer being that Livilla herself will decide whether she ought to marry again.

Lygdus's eyes opened in amazement. 'Sejanus asked for my domina Livilla's hand?'

I was cautious, rereading the words.

'They're both so reckless,' Lygdus said. 'And yet even Tiberius can't see what's going on!'

'He can see something,' I said, concerned.

'He can't see anything — he's given the answer. He says Livilla is free to choose Sejanus if she wishes it.'

I looked to my domina. Her eyes had a malicious gleam again. She knew the truth, of course, and so did I, being far more familiar with Tiberius's double-speak than the eunuch was. 'He's given nothing at all — just the hope of an answer. He's delaying Sejanus.'

'But why?'

Livia kept her night-black eyes upon mine. 'I don't know,' I said. 'But something Sejanus has done or said has struck Tiberius differently. Something is wrong…'

Lygdus looked uneasy now. 'What if Sejanus falls?'

'He'll never fall — Tiberius loves him.'

'But what if he does? What if something happens?'

'Nothing will happen. They are too closely bonded.'

'But what if he does?'

I lost patience with him. 'Get on with your work. Go and spy on Nero.'

Lygdus immediately shut down. 'Nero doesn't need spying on today,' he said.

'He needs spying on every day — do you think the domina ever took a day off when she was making plans like ours? Give me something new I can write down and place in the file I'm keeping on him.'

'Nero is blameless today,' Lygdus insisted. I stared at him for a moment and a blush came to his cheeks. But he kept his fat arms crossed on his chest and his lips pursed in determination.

'Lygdus, are you keeping something from me?'

'Of course not.'

'It's been quite a few months since you've given me anything useful about Nero — what has he been up to?'

'Matters of government,' Lygdus said. 'The law courts — that sort of thing. He's been very boring.'

'His private life is not very boring.'

'It is now. He's gone right off that vile victimarius.'

Something wasn't ringing true, but I had never known the devoted eunuch to lie to me. 'Lygdus,' I said, keeping my voice low with inherent warning, 'you will go and attend Nero right now.'

'No, I won't.'

I slapped his face with such a blow that the sound of it rang in the air. Then a high-pitched laugh made the two of us spin around in shock. Livia's night-black eyes blazed like a furnace.

'The domina!' Lygdus clutched his face in shock. 'She laughed!'

I stared at Livia, incredulous. 'No, it was someone else — there is someone else in here.' I began to open doors and pull aside tapestries. 'Who's in here?' I shouted into the empty rooms. 'Who dares to spy on us?'

By the time I accepted the fact that no one else was in the domina 's suite at all, Lygdus had slipped away. Putting his worrying behaviour aside for the time being, I returned to my domina 's bed to find that her tongue was now poking from between her closed lips. It was as though she were mocking me.

'You are not regaining your voice, so don't try to pretend that you are,' I scolded her, trying really to convince myself. 'I've stopped your visits to Asclepius, and that disgusting snake you harboured is dead. If you were getting well again, domina, you aren't any more.' I prised open her jaw and jabbed her tongue back inside her mouth.

I picked up Tiberius's letter again. There was more to it than I had read out aloud — another paragraph. I knew in my gut that Sejanus had made a false step somehow — that he'd done something that made Tiberius's reply to him a carefully veiled warning. Your simplicity of thought and abhorrence of ambition is my greatest treasure, my son, but it leaves you — and leaves your Emperor — open to insinuation from others who are not so pure. You are mistaken, I fear, if you hope that Livilla will have the strength of mind and heart to pass her future years with a Roman knight. How could it be tolerated by those who have seen her brother, her father and her most noble ancestors take the highest patrician offices of state? Already venal and jealous men claim openly that you forget your rank and act beyond it — claims I deny and deplore — and from their dislike of you they also condemn me. I can endure it — but you, my loyal son in all but my blood, should not be expected to. Your Emperor does not expect you to.

I tried to read what was unwritten. These were merely more delaying words; the heart of Tiberius's exception to Sejanus's request was not clear. I read the final passage. While I pass my time in impartial consideration, may I make a new request of you, my son? It is not an onerous call, but is only this: when feminine jealousies occur within my house, I fear for my grandsons' gentle hearts. I ask you to protect them. Nero and Drusus are now grown men, but their hearts are soft, like the hearts of boys, as they still have so much to learn. Little Boots and Gemellus are very much boys still. Feminine jealousies risk all; sons will always honour their mothers. It is my deepest wish that no grandson of mine should ever rival the other, so that when the time comes for me to name one as my heir, I will do so in the knowledge that the others will celebrate him, not defy him.

My pulse began to race as I finally saw the glimmers of Tiberius's secret heart opening before me. Nothing is too great to be undeserved by your tireless goodwill towards me, my son. My period of impartial consideration of your request will end so much the sooner when Agrippina embraces me again as a father. When I look into her eyes and see my affection for her returned, happiness will be shared by all. Unity, not enmity, will then be ours, my son. It truly will.

I placed the soiled papyrus on a table, feeling lightheaded. I needed to sit. When I had gathered my thoughts, I knew without question what Sejanus had done — and I knew what it was that Tiberius most secretly desired. Sejanus, the former physician's apprentice of redoubtable loyalty but doubtful origins, had overstepped himself in his obsession with destroying Agrippina. The Emperor was in love with her.

The only way forward for Sejanus was to smash that love into tiny pieces. His claims of plots and factions and prominent ringleaders scheming in secret for Agrippina's cause had failed to dent the love in Tiberius's heart. Others might be guilty, but Tiberius believed Agrippina to be wholly innocent. And yet it was unlikely, I knew, that Sejanus had not already conceived of another way to deprive Agrippina of her most devoted protector. As I pondered on what this might be, my domina 's tongue slipped from her lips once more, lolling at me. It was naked mockery, but this time I left her tongue hanging, allowing her to look undignified and comical.

'Laugh at me all you like, domina,' I said, smirking into her onyx eyes, 'but I am going to help Sejanus, not hinder him — and there's nothing you can do to stop me.'

The Kalends of February

AD 26

Three weeks later: following the suicide of the warrior Tarsa, the besieged Thracian tribesmen are weakened by dissension

I was not a witness to the following scene and, because of it, my absence proved pivotal for what happened after.

Agrippina was so uncharacteristically calm in the face of what had been told to her that her friend feared Agrippina had misheard her. But when the friend went to repeat herself, the widow shook her head, stopping the friend's words.

'I believe it,' Agrippina said.

The friend fell silent, watching as Agrippina rose from her chair and went to the balcony, standing there with her back to the friend, looking out across Rome. She stayed there a long time, and the friend's inner torment felt like knives in her chest as she waited. But she gave no sign of this when Agrippina reappeared, her face set hard.

'It has come then,' Agrippina said, 'as I knew it would.' The trusted friend nodded while Flamma watched from the door. Agrippina turned to the gladiator. 'And here we are with our lessons not even finished.'

He shrugged. 'I'm not dead yet, if that's what you mean.'

'Indeed you're not, which means I am not yet ready.'

Flamma stepped properly into the room, filling it with his vast frame. 'You are ready for anything, Lady, and have been for many months. I'm not yet dead because I've been expecting you to kill me — it puts me on my guard. And I'll be honest with you — I would like to see you win your vengeance.'

Tears came to Agrippina's eyes. 'Then I must take it now — the time has come, Flamma.'

In her corner of the room, where she listened intently, Nilla gave a look to Burrus, who nodded once in unspoken agreement. Nilla stood. Although only eleven, she was as tall as her mother. 'That would be a mistake,' Nilla said to her.

Agrippina stared at her eldest daughter. Something in Nilla's certainty stopped her from admonishing her. 'Why, Nilla?'

'What Grandfather Tiberius intends is a threat — there's no mistaking it — but there are worse threats than this, Mother.'

'Worse than wanting me dead?'

'Worse than wanting you dead in this manner,' said Nilla. 'It is an unimaginative attempt on your life that he's planning — it shows no courage, no boldness. He may want you dead, but not enough to ensure it.'

The adults in the room looked at one another in some surprise, but only Agrippina kept her eyes steadily upon her daughter. Flamma spoke first. 'The girl has learned a lot from her sword-craft,' he said.

Agrippina agreed. 'So you don't advise me to take the steps for which I have long prepared myself?' she asked Nilla.

'Your loyal men would fight for you at a moment's notice, we know that,' said Nilla, 'but I think it would be a mistake to ask them to do so now. It is too soon, Mother, and if the call is made then we will be unable to reverse it.' She took a step closer to Agrippina, reaching out to grasp her hands. 'This threat from Tiberius is a test, yes, but not the final one. That test will come.'

Agrippina looked at her daughter as tears of pride came to her eyes. 'So what should I do?'

Burrus moved forward and spoke quickly and quietly in Nilla's ear. Then Nilla turned back to her mother and detailed their plan.

Afterwards, when Nilla had left and Flamma had begun another sword-craft session with Burrus, Agrippina clutched her loyal friend to her heart, whispering thanks. 'If it were not for your ears, I would be going to my death. I owe you everything.'

Claudia hugged Agrippina in return and whispered her undying, incorruptible love. The tears she wept were real. As Claudia left Agrippina to prepare for what she had falsely told her would be Tiberius's attempt upon her life, she felt her feet and calves ache from where the prisoners in the Tullianum had bitten her. She heard again the sobs of gratitude that had been hers when Macro had hauled her from the hole. And she heard again, too, the promise she had made to Sejanus to betray Agrippina with a lie that was as foul as it was simple.

When Agrippina's door closed behind her in the street, Claudia told her slaves that she would like to look at the Tiber — she always enjoyed the view from the Fabrician Bridge. When her slaves stared nervously at this request, she asked them why it was so unusual. They said nothing, and neither did Claudia as the litter carried her all the way down the Palatine, across the Forum and towards the river.

When they reached the bridge, Claudia left her litter and stood staring out at the water from the stone barrier that ran along the bridge edge. She glanced at her slaves and saw the quick, frightened glances they gave each other. Claudia asked them what was wrong, but still they said nothing. Silently, they recalled how their domina had been in recent weeks, and recalled, too, her unexplained absence and return. She watched them as they silently acknowledged the contrast in their domina before and after these occurrences, and they looked back at her and saw the emptiness, the shocking bleakness deep in Claudia's eyes. But they spoke of none of these things aloud, and eventually expressed surprise that their domina hadn't heard of what had been happening here lately — that too many people had been throwing themselves into the Tiber from this very spot at the Fabrician Bridge; it was no longer a pleasant place to be.

Claudia knew exactly what they feared and why, but she told them not to be foolish. Such a low, desperate act was a suicide worthy only of a traitor, she told them — a disgusting traitor, lower than a dog. Their tears slid down their cheeks as she lifted herself to stand high upon the bridge barrier, looking out at the rushing current, the wind catching at her gown and hair. She repeated her words to them, just to make sure they fully understood. To throw oneself into the Tiber was a suicide worthy of a dog, she said, a cowardly dog, and the worst type of traitor in Rome. And when she saw that they knew and yet still forgave her for it, she stepped off the barrier and was gone.

Every time I glanced at her, Agrippina seemed barely to be eating. Her mouth was never full, her hands held nothing, and yet her plate, when I looked at its contents, was missing whatever the dining slaves or I had given her. At first I took note of this in my mind without turning it into a thought as such, being too occupied with my domina. But it was because of my domina that I realised what was amiss with Agrippina.

Livia's so-called 'recovery' meant that, on occasions when Tiberius requested it, she was included in his evening meals. When such calls came, Lygdus and I arranged her carefully in a high-backed chair, which was then carried into Tiberius's vast triclinium by her throne-bearers. She stared fixedly at whoever else was dining and ate nothing, but gave the appearance of eating plenty. She couldn't speak or move her jaw, but we heaped her plate with food and surreptitiously flicked bits to the floor while we attended her, to make it seem as if she'd somehow ingested them.