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'Rumour had it you were drunk. I've been sent to shove your head under a fountain and drag you off home safely.'

'I'm sober-but I'll get drunk with you now if you like,' Pa offered. I shook my head, though I knew it was a kind of truce.

He sat back on the old couch, considering me. I stared back. Since he was perfectly sober and not visibly brooding, it seemed time to put an end to my pointless trip. Something was delaying me. There was something I had been thinking about subconsciously.

'So what are you hanging about for, Marcus? Want to have a talk?'

'There's no more to say.' There was only one chance for this sort of submission, so I waded straight in: 'I could ask you a favour, though.'

My father was startled, but managed to rally: 'Don't strain a gut!'

'I'll ask you once, and if you say no we'll forget it.'

'Let's not make a Pythian dance out of it.'

'All right. You've got five hundred thousand sesterces bricked into the wall chest behind you, am I right?'

Father looked guarded. He dropped his voice carefully. Involuntarily he glanced towards the gloomy red curtain behind his couch. 'Well yes, that's where it is-at the moment,' he added, as if he suspected me of planning to steal it. His suspicion reassured me. Some things remained beautifully normal, even though I felt sick and light-headed.

'Consider this then, Father. If we had never found the Zeus, you were so sick of having auctions disrupted we would have paid the money to Carus, with no prospect of recouping it. Your money chest and my bank box in the Forum would both be empty now.'

'If you want your contribution back-'

'I want more than that,' I apologised.

My father sighed. 'I think I know what's coming.'

'I promise this is the first and only time in my life I'll lean on you.' I took a deep breath. There was no need to think about Helena; I had been thinking about her for the past twelve months. 'I'm asking for a loan.'

'Well, what are fathers for?' My father could not decide whether to mock me or to groan. There was no suggestion of refusing, even for a joke.

Asking the question had made me feel nervous myself. I grinned at him. 'I'll let you see the grandchildren!'

'What more can I ask!' quipped Geminus. 'Four hundred thousand was it? Carus paid up in big gold ones. At four sesterces to the denarius and twenty-five denarii to the aureus, that will be four thousand-'

'It has to be invested in Italian land.'

'Land then. I dare say I can find an agent to buy us a bog in Latium or a bit of Alban scrub… ' He rose from the old couch and pulled back the curtain, fetching out the key on its greasy thong. 'You'll want to have a look at it.'

We stood side by side as he unlocked the chest. Even before the lid came up completely I could see the soft gleam of the aurei sparkling under the heavy woodwork. The money chest was full. I had never seen so much gold. The sight was both soothing and terrible.

'I'll pay you back.'

'Take your time,' said my father gently. He knew what this had cost me. I would be in hock to him for the rest of my life-and that had nothing to do with the money. The four hundred thousand was only the start of this debt.

He closed down the lid and locked the chest. We shook hands. Then I went straight to the Palatine and asked to see Vespasian.

LXXII

Under the Flavian emperors the imperial palace was being run with an atmosphere so professional it was positively staid. Sufficient Neronian flimflam remained here to make their serious efforts appear almost ridiculous by contrast. Beneath the exquisite painted panels, stuccoed ceilings with frivolous arabesques, extravagant carved ivory and massed beaten gold, sober teams of bureaucrats now toiled to drag the Empire back from bankruptcy and make us all proud to belong to Rome. Rome itself was to be rebuilt, its most famous monuments meticulously restored while carefully chosen additions to the national heritage would be positioned at suitable spots: a Temple of Peace, nicely balancing a Temple of Mars; the Flavian Arena; an arch here; a forum there; with a tasteful number of fountains, statues, public libraries and baths.

The Palace had its quiet times, and this was one of them. Banquets were held, since a cheerful and well-run banquet is the most popular form of diplomacy. The Flavian regime was neither mean nor cold. It valued teachers and jurists. It rewarded entertainers. With luck, it would even reward me.

In normal circumstances personal petitions for social advancement would be left with the Palace chamberlains to await a decision in maybe months' time, although reviewing the Senatorial and Equestrian Lists was a Flavian priority. One of Vespasian's first acts had been to appoint himself Censor, with the aims of conducting a headcount for taxation purposes and bringing new blood to the two Orders from which public posts were filled. He had his own ideas about suitable people, but never despised the noble Roman art of putting oneself forward. How could he, after he, a rather despised member of the Senate, had put himself forward successfully for the post of emperor?

Adding my scroll to the mountain in a chamberlain's office did not suit the Falco temperament. Since I was known as an Imperial agent I walked in, looking as if I had some sinister affair of state on my mind, and jumped the queue.

I was hoping to find the old Emperor in jovial mood after his dinner. He worked early and late; his most redeeming country virtue was simply getting things done. Evenings were when he was in good spirits, and when favours should be asked. Evening was therefore when I turned up in my toga and best boots, barbered neatly but not effeminately, aiming to remind him of successful missions on my part and old promises on his.

As usual, I left my luck with the Guard on the door. Vespasian was out of Rome.

The Flavians were famous as a family team. Having two grown sons to offer long-term stability had been Vespasian's chief qualification. He and his elder son Titus were virtually partners now; even the younger, Domitian, took a full part in public duties. The night I came to beg for advancement both imperial sons were working; the chamberlain, who knew me, told me to choose which Caesar I wanted to see. Even before I had made up my mind I knew the best choice was to walk away. But I was geared up for action, and could not back down.

Not even I could ask Titus, who had once cast interested eyes on Helena, to give me promotion so I could snatch the girl myself. There had been nothing between them (as far as I could ascertain), but without my presence there might have been. He had a pleasant mentality, but I hate to push a man beyond reasonable limits. Tact necessarily intervened.

'I'll take Domitian.'

'Best thing. He's doing the public appointments nowadays!' The Palace staff laughed. Domitian's fervour in handing out postings left and right had caused even his mild father to criticise.

Despite jumping the queue, I had to wait about. I ended up wishing I had brought one of the judge's encyclopaedias to read or my will to write. But finally it was my turn, and in I went.

Domitian Caesar was twenty-two. Handsome; solid as a bullock; curly-topped, though hammer-toed. Brought up among women while his father and Titus were away on public duties, instead of his elder brother's sweet disposition he now had the introverted, obstinate air that is more often found in an only child. In his first acts in the Senate he had made mistakes; as a result he had been demoted to organising poetry competitions and festivals. Now he conducted himself well in public, yet I distrusted him.

There were reasons for that. I knew things about Domitian that he would not want repeated. His reputation as a plotter had foundation: I was in a position to indict him for a serious crime. I had promised his father and brother they could rely on my discretion-but my knowledge was what had prompted me to choose him of the two young Caesars, and I walked into his presence tonight full of confidence.