A Murder on the Appian Way

A Novel of Ancient Rome

Novels of Ancient Rome (Volume 5)

Steven Saylor

Minotaur Books

Chapter One

"Papa! Wake up!"

A hand gripped my shoulder and shook me gently. I pulled away and felt cold air on the back of my neck as the blanket slid away. I snatched it back and snuggled against it, burrowing for warmth. I reached for Bethesda, but found only a warm vacancy where she should have been.

"Really, Papa, you'd better wake up." Eco shook me again, not quite so gently.

"Yes, husband," said Bethesda. "Get up!"

What sleep is as deep as the sleep of a cold Januarius night, when the sky is a blanket of lowering clouds and the earth shivers below? Even with my son and wife yammering at me, I slipped back into the arms of Morpheus as easily as a boy slipping into a bottomless, downy bed of goose feathers. It seemed to me that two magpies were chattering absurdly in a tree nearby, calling me "Papa" and "Husband." They swooped down, fluttered their wings, pecked me with their beaks. I groaned and waved my arms to fend them off. After a brief battle they retreated into the frosty clouds, leaving me to dream in peace.

The frosty clouds burst open. Cold water splashed my face.

I sat upright, sputtering and blinking. With a satisfied nod, Bethesda placed an empty cup beside a flickering lamp on a little table against the wall. Eco stood at the foot of the bed, gathering up the blanket he had just pulled off me. I shivered in my sleeping gown and hugged myself.

"Blanket thief!" I mumbled grimly. At that moment it seemed the foulest crime imaginable. "Stealing an old man's rest!"

Eco remained impassive. Bethesda crossed her arms and arched an eyebrow. By the dim lamplight the two of them still looked suspiciously like magpies.

I closed my eyes. "Have pity!" I sighed, thinking an appeal to mercy might gain me just one more blissful moment of sleep.

But before my head reached the pillow, Eco gripped my shoulder and pulled me upright again. "No, Papa! It's serious."

"What's serious?" I made a desultory attempt to shake him off. "Is the house on fire?" I was irretrievably awake now, and grumpy—until I realized who was absent from the conspiracy to wake me. I looked around the room, blinking, and felt a sudden thrill of panic. "Diana! Where is Diana?"

"Here, Papa." She entered the room and stepped into the circle of light. Her long hair, let down for the night, hung loose over her shoulders, shimmering like black water under starlight. Her eyes—the almond- shaped, Egyptian eyes inherited from her mother—were slightly swollen with sleep.

"What's the matter?" she said, yawning. "What are you doing here, Eco? Why is everyone up? And what's all the noise from the street?"

"Noise?" I said.

She cocked her head. "I suppose you can't hear it very well, here at the back of the house. You can certainly hear it from my room. They woke me up."

"Who?"

"People in the street. Running. With torches. Yelling something." She wrinkled her nose, which she does when she's puzzled. Seeing the blank look on my face, she turned to her mother, who stepped toward her with embracing arms. At seventeen, Diana is still enough of a child to appreciate such comforting. Meanwhile, Eco kept to one side, wearing the glum expression of a messenger in a play who bears ill tidings.

I finally realized that something must be truly, terribly wrong.

A short time later, I was dressed and walking at a fast clip through the dark streets at Eco's side, together with his four bodyguards.

I turned my head anxiously as a group of stern- looking young men came running up from behind and passed us. Their torches cut through the air with a whoosh. Our shadows danced crazily up and down the street, growing huge as the torches passed close by and then dwindling like wraiths into the darkness as the torchbearers left us behind.

I tripped against an uneven paving stone. "Numa's balls! We should have brought torches ourselves."

"I'd rather my bodyguards keep their hands free," said Eco.

"Yes, well, at least we have enough of those," I said, eyeing the four formidable young slaves who surrounded us, one ahead, one behind, one to each side. They had the look of trained gladiators—stiff- jawed, flinty- eyed, alert to every movement in the street around us.

Good bodyguards are expensive to purchase and expensive to feed. My daughter- in- law Menenia had complained each time Eco added another to their house hold, saying the money would be better spent on kitchen slaves or a better tutor for the twins. "Protection comes first," Eco would tell her. "It's the times we live in." Sadly, I had to agree.

My thoughts settled on Eco's wife and children, whom he had left in his house over on the Esquiline Hill. "Menenia and the twins . . ." I said, walking faster to keep up with him. My breath made clouds in the air, but at least the pace kept me warm. Even as fast as we were walking, another group of men came up from behind and passed us, their torches sending our shadows into headlong flight.

"They're safe. I had a new door put on the house last month. It would take an army to break it down. And I left my two biggest bodyguards to look after them."

"Just how many bodyguards do you own nowadays?"

"Only six—the two at home, and the four with us."

"Only six?" I still had only Belbo, whom I had left behind to look after Bethesda and Diana. Unfortunately, Belbo was really too old to be an adequate bodyguard any longer. The other house hold slaves could hardly be expected to put up much of a fight, if something truly terrible were to happen . . .

I tried to push such thoughts from my mind.

Another group of men came rushing up from behind us. Like us, they carried no torches. As they passed in the darkness, I noticed Eco's bodyguards grow tense and reach inside their cloaks. Strangers without torches in their hands could be carrying something more dangerous, like daggers.

But the group passed without incident. Up ahead, someone flung open the shutters of an upper- story window and leaned out. "What in Hades is going on tonight?"

"They've killed him!" cried one of the men ahead of us. "Murdered him in cold blood, the cowardly bastards!"

"Killed who?"

"Clodius! Clodius is dead!"

The shadowy figure at the window was silent for a moment, then let out a long, ringing laugh that echoed in the cold night air. The group ahead of us came to an abrupt halt.

"Trouble!" said Eco. I nodded, then realized the hushed remark was a signal to his bodyguards. They tightened their ranks around us. We pressed on at a faster pace.

"So where—" gasped the man at the window, barely able to speak for his laughter, "where is everybody headed in such a hot rush? To a celebration?"

The group in the street erupted in angry shouts. Some raised their fists. Others stooped over, searching for rocks. Even on the Palatine Hill, with its immaculate streets and elegant houses, there are loose stones to be found. The man at the window kept laughing, then suddenly yelped. "My head! Oh, my head! You filthy bastards!" He slammed his shutters on a hail of rocks.

We hurried on and turned a corner. "Do you think it's true, Eco?"

"About Clodius being dead? We'll know soon enough. Isn't that his house, straight ahead? Look at all the torches gathered in the street! That's what brought me out tonight—we could see the glow reflected off the clouds. Menenia called me up on the rooftop to see. She thought the whole Palatine Hill must be on fire."

"So you thought you'd come see if your Papa was singed?"

Eco smiled, then his face turned grim. "On the way, down in the Subura, I saw people everywhere in the streets. Gathered at corners, listening to speakers. Huddled in doorways, talking in low voices. Some ranting, some weeping. Hundreds of men heading for the Palatine, like a river rushing uphill. And all saying the same thing: Clodius is dead."

The house of Publius Clodius—his new house, for he had purchased the place and moved in only a few months before—was one of the city's architectural marvels, or monsters, depending on one's point of view. The houses of the rich on the Palatine Hill grow larger and more ostentatious every year, like great preening animals devouring the little houses around them and displaying ever more sumptuous coats. The coat of this particular beast was of many- colored marble. By the glow of the torches in the street one could see the glimmering sheen of the marble veneers and columns that adorned the outer terraces—polished green Lacedaemonian porphyry, Egyptian red marble mottled with white dots like the pelt of a fawn, yellow Numidian marble with red veins. These terraces, set into a hillside and planted with roses stripped bare by winter, surrounded the gravel- paved forecourt. The iron gate that normally barred entrance to the court stood open, but the way was completely blocked by the mass of mourners who filled the court and spilled out into the street.

Somewhere beyond that crowd, at the far side of the forecourt, was the entrance to the great house itself, which sprawled across the hill like a self-contained village, its various wings surrounded by yet more terraces and connected by porticoes lined with yet more multicolored marble columns. The house loomed above us, a miniature mountain of deep shadows and shimmering marble, lit from within and without, suspended dreamlike between the lowering clouds and the hazy reek put forth by the torches.

"What now?" I said to Eco. "We can't even get into the forecourt. The crowd's too thick. The rumor must be true—look at all these grown men weeping. Come, best to get back home and look after our families. No telling what will happen next."

Eco nodded but didn't seem to hear. He stood on tiptoe, straining to see within the forecourt. "The doors to the house are shut. No one seems to be going in or out. Everyone's just milling about—"

There was a sudden pulse of excitement in the crowd. "Let her through! Let her through!" someone shouted. The crush grew even greater as people stepped back to make way for some sort of conveyance coming through the street. A phalanx of gladiators appeared first, roughly shoving and elbowing their way forward. People did their best to get out of the way. The gladiators were enormous, like giants; Eco's bodyguards were mere boys by comparison. They say there are islands beyond the northernmost reaches of Gaul where men grow that big. These had pale faces and scraggly red hair.

The crowd in front of us compressed. Eco and I were squeezed together, with his bodyguards still in a ring around us. Someone stepped on my foot. My arms were trapped at my sides. I caught a glimpse of the approaching litter, supported on the shoulders of bearers who dwarfed even the giant gladiators. Suspended above the crowd, the red and white striped silk canopy shimmered in the flickering torchlight.

My heart skipped a beat. I knew that litter. I had been carried in it myself. Of course she would be here.

The litter drew closer. Its curtains were closed, as of course they would be. She would have no desire to see the mob, or to be seen by them. But for a brief moment, as the canopy passed, it seemed to me that the curtains parted a tiny bit. I strained to see above the heads of the litter bearers but was confounded by the play of light and shadows that rippled across the red and white silk. Perhaps it was only a shadow I saw, and not an opening at all.

Eco's hand on my shoulder abruptly drew me back, out of the path of the gladiators who advanced alongside the canopy. He spoke into my ear. "Do you think—?"

"Of course. It must be her. The red and white stripes—who else?"

I was hardly the only man in the crowd to recognize the litter and to know who must be inside. These were Clodius's people, after all, the poor of the Subura who rioted at his command, the ex- slaves who looked to him to protect their voting rights, the hungry mob that had grown fat from his legislation to hand out free grain. They had always supported Clodius, as he had always supported them. They had followed his career, gossiped among themselves about his sexual escapades and family affairs, plotted terrible fates for his enemies. They adored Clodius. They might or might not have adored his scandalous older sister, but they recognized her litter when they saw it. Suddenly I heard her name, whispered by someone in the crowd. Others repeated it, then joined in unison, until the name became a soft chant that followed in the wake of her canopy:

"Clodia . . . Clodia . . . Clodia . . ."

Her litter passed through the narrow gateway into the forecourt. Her gladiators could have cleared the way by force, but violence turned out to be unnecessary. At the sound of her name the mourners in the court drew back in a kind of awe. A pocket of emptiness formed before the litter and closed after it, so that it proceeded swiftly and without incident to the far side of the court and up the short flight of steps to the entrance. The tall bronze doors opened inward. The canopy was turned so that its occupants could not be seen as they alighted and entered the house. The doors shut behind them with a muffled clang.

The chanting died away. An uneasy hush descended on the crowd.

"Clodius, dead," said Eco quietly. "It hardly seems possible."

"You haven't lived as long as I have," I said ruefully. "They all die, the great and the small, and most of them sooner than later."

"Of course. I only mean—"

"I know what you mean. When some men die, it's like a grain of sand thrown into a river—there's not even a ripple. With others, it's like a great boulder. Waves splash onto the bank. And with a very few—"

"Like a meteor falling out of the sky," said Eco.

I took a deep breath. "Let's hope it won't be as awful as that." But something told me it would be.

We waited for a while, trapped by the inertia that falls upon a crowd when something momentous looms. From those around us we picked up numerous, conflicting rumors of what had happened. There had been an incident on the Appian Way, just outside Rome—no, twelve miles away, at Bovillae—no, somewhere farther south. Clodius had been out riding alone—no, with a small bodyguard—no, in a litter with his wife and their usual retinue of slaves and attendants. There had been an ambush—no, a single assassin—no, a traitor among Clodius's own men . . .

So it went, with no sure truth to be found, only a single, unanimous point of agreement: Clodius was dead.

The lowering clouds gradually moved on to reveal the naked firmament—moonless, pitch- black, spangled with stars that glittered like ice crystals. The short, swift walk from my house had warmed my blood. The crush of bodies and burning torches had kept me warm, but as the night grew colder, so did I. I curled my toes, rubbed my hands together, watched my breath mingle with the smoke in the air.

"This is no good," I finally said. "I'm freezing. I didn't bring a heavy enough cloak." Eco seemed warm enough, I noticed, in a cloak no heavier than mine, but a man of fifty-eight has thinner blood than a man twenty years younger. "What are we waiting for, anyway? We found out what the panic was about. Clodius is dead."

"Yes, but how?"

I had to smile. He had learned his trade from me. Curiosity becomes a habit. Even when there's no money in it, a Finder can't help being curious, especially when there's murder involved. "We won't find out from this crowd," I said.

"I suppose not."

"Come on, then."

He hesitated. "You'd think they'd send someone out to talk to the crowd. Surely someone will come out sooner or later . . ." He saw me shivering. "Let's go, then."

"You don't have to leave."

"I can't let you walk home alone, Papa. Not on a night like this."

"Send the bodyguards with me, then."

"I'm not fool enough to stay in this crowd alone."

"We could split them up, two for you and two for me."

"No. I don't want to take any chances. I'll walk you home. Then I'll come back if I still want to."

We might have haggled over these logistics for a while longer, but at that moment Eco lifted his eyes to look at someone behind me. His bodyguards tensed.

"I'm looking for a man called Gordianus," said a rumbling voice above my head. I turned to find my nose pressed against an extremely broad chest. Somewhere up above was a ruddy face topped by a fringe of red curls. The fellow's Latin was atrocious.

"I'm Gordianus," I said.

"Good. Come with me."

"Come with you where?"

He cocked his head. "Into the house, of course."

"At whose invitation?" I asked, already knowing.

"At the lady Clodia's command."

She had seen me from her litter after all.

Excerpted from A Murder On The Appian Way by Steven Saylor.
Copyright © 1996 by Steven Saylor.
Published in April 2009 by St. Martin's Press.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.