'Who in Hades are you?' he had the nerve to demand.
Wild thoughts that my mother had taken a lover to brighten her old age flashed into my mind, then scuttled away sheepishly. 'Why don't you tell me first?' I answered, giving him an intimidating glare.
'Not yet, soldier.' I had guessed his profession. Though his tunic was faded to a thin pink, I was closely inspecting the two-inch-thick studded soles of military boots. I knew the type. I knew the garlic breath, the scars from barracks squabbles, the cocksure attitude.
His mean eyes narrowed warily but he made no attempt to remove those boots from my mother's hallowed work surface. I dropped the bundle I was carrying and pushed back the cloak from around my head. He must have recognised the wet tangle of the Didius family curls.
'You're the brother!' he accused me. So he had known Festus. That was bad news. And apparently he had heard of me.
Acting like a man visitors certainly ought to have heard about, I sought the upper hand. 'Things seem to have grown slack around here, soldier! You'd better clear the table and straighten up, before I kick the bench from under you.' This subtle psychology worked. He swung his boots to the ground. 'Slowly!' I added, in case he planned on jumping me. He eased himself upright. One good thing about my brother had been that people respected him. For at least five minutes (I knew from experience) associated respect would attach to me.
'So you're the brother!' he repeated slowly, as if it meant something.
'That's right. I'm Falco. And you?'
'What's your legion?'
'Fifteenth Apollinaris.' It would be. My surly mood deepened. The Fifteenth were the unlucky outfit my brother had graced for several years-before he made himself famous by flinging his handsome carcass over a hot Judaean battlement into a thicket of rebels' spears.
'So that's how you knew Festus?'
'Agreed,' he sneered condescendingly.
While we talked I was aware of restless movements behind me from Helena and the others. They wanted their beds-and so did I. 'You won't find Festus here, and you know why.'
'Festus and I were good mates,' he declared.
'Festus always had a lot of friends.' I sounded calmer than I felt. Festus, rot his eyes, would enter into a drinking pact with any skunk which had mange and half its tail missing. Then, generous to the last, my brother would bring his new friend home to us.
'Is there a problem?' the legionary enquired. His air of innocence was suspicious in itself. 'Festus said any time I was in Rome-'
'You could stay at his mother's house?'
'That's what the boy promised!'
It was depressingly familiar. And I knew the Fifteenth Legion had been redeployed recently from the Judaean war zone back to Pannonia-so presumably large numbers of them would now be asking for a spell of leave in Rome.
'I'm sure he did. How long have you been here?'
'A few weeks…' That meant months.
'Well I'm glad the Fifteenth Apollinaris has been augmenting Junilla Tacita's budget!' I stared him out. We both knew he had made no contributions at all to my mother's housekeeping. What a home-coming. First my wrecked apartment, now this. It seemed that while I was away Rome had filled up with unscrupulous losers all looking for rent-free beds.
I wondered where my mother was hiding. I felt an odd nostalgia to hear her nagging me while she spooned hot broth into my favourite bowl and pulled me out of my sopping clothes like when I was a child. 'Right! Well, I'm afraid I shall have to unstick you from your billet, Censorinus. It's needed by the family now.'
'Of course. I'll shift as soon as possible…'
I stopped smiling. Even my teeth were tired. I gestured to the pathetic band I had brought with me. They were standing in silence, too exhausted to join in. 'I'd be glad if you'd make your arrangements fairly briskly.'
His glance went to the shutters. Outside we could hear the rain splashing as hard as ever. 'You're not going to turn me out on a night like this, Falco!'
He was right, but I owed the world a few punches. I grinned evilly. 'You're a soldier. A bit of wet won't hurt you…' I might have gone on amusing myself, but just at that moment my mother came into the room. Her beady black eyes took in the scene.
'Oh you're back,' she said, as if I had just come in from weeding a carrot patch. A small, tidy, almost tireless woman, she brushed past me, went to kiss Helena, then busied herself prying free my sleepy niece.
'Nice to be missed,' I muttered.
Ma ignored the pathos. 'We had plenty you could have been doing.'
She did not mean picking ticks off a dog. I saw her glance at Helena, plainly warning that there was bad news for later. Unable to face whatever crises had befallen the Didius clan, I dealt with the problem I knew about. 'We need a refuge. I gather big brother's old bed has already been claimed?'
'Yes. I thought you might have something to say about that!'
I could see Censorinus starting to look nervous. My mother peered at me expectantly while I tried to work out what I was supposed to do. For some reason she seemed to be playing the helpless old soul whose big tough son had emerged from his warren to defend her. This was quite out of character. I handled the situation delicately. 'I was merely commenting on a fact, Ma-'
'Oh I knew he wouldn't like it!' Ma announced to no one in particular.
I was too tired to resist. I squared up to the legionary. He probably thought he was tough, but he was easier to tackle than a devious mother with complicated motives.
Censorinus had grasped that the game was over. Ma was now making it plain that she had simply let him lodge there while she waited for someone else to argue about it. I was back: her agent for the dirty work. There was no point fighting my destiny.
'Listen, friend. I'm worn out and chilled to the bone, so I'll be blunt. I've travelled a thousand miles at the worst time of year to find my apartment wrecked by intruders and my own bed full of rubble from a leaking roof. In ten minutes' time I intend to be flat out in the alternative, and the fact that my alternative is where you've been making yourself at home is just fortune's way of warning you that the gods are fickle friends-'
'So much for hospitality to strangers!' Censorinus scoffed at me. 'And so much for comrades who tell you they're mates!'
Uneasily I noticed a threat in his tone. It had nothing to do with what we seemed to be discussing. 'Look, I want the spare room for me and my lady, but you're not being turned out into the night. There's a dry attic that's perfectly liveable-'
'Stuff your attic!' the legionary retorted; then added, 'And stuff Festus, and stuff you!'
'Whatever makes you feel better,' I replied, trying not to sound as if for this family, the one good aspect of Festus's death had been that we did not have to dole out free food and lodging to an endless succession of his colourful friends.
I saw Ma pat the legionary's shoulder. She muttered consolingly, 'I'm sorry, but I just can't have you here upsetting my son…'
'Oh Jupiter, Ma!' She was impossible.
To speed things up I helped Censorinus pack. As he left he gave me a malevolent glare, but I was too preoccupied with the joys of family life to wonder why.
Helena and Ma combined efforts to allocate space to my party. Our servants were briskly rushed off to the attic. My young niece Augustinilla was tucked up in Mother's own bed.
'How's Victorina?' I forced myself to ask. We had been looking after the child for my older sister whilst she was ill.
'Victorina died. ' Mother gave the news matter-of-factly, but her voice was tense. 'I wasn't going to tell you tonight.'