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"I heard that you were dead."
Such a brusque comment from Caesar's wife might have offended me had I not heard it already from so many others since I returned from Egypt to Rome, where everyone had apparently given me up for dead.
Having sent a slave to summon me, Calpurnia had received me in an elegant but sparsely furnished room in her house not far from mine on the Palatine Hill. There was only one chair. She sat. I stood and tried not to fidget while the most powerful woman in Rome looked me up and down.
"Yes, I'm sure one of my agents told me you drowned in the Nile," she said, gazing at me shrewdly. "Yet here you stand before me, Gordianus, as alive as ever—unless those Egyptians have learned to bring the dead back to life, not just mummify them." She fixed her chilly gaze on my face. "How old are you, Finder?"
"No! Have the Egyptians found a way to restore a man's youth? You look very fit for a man your age. You're ten years older than my husband, yet I daresay you look ten years younger."
I shrugged. "Great Caesar carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders. His enemies have been destroyed, but his responsibilities are greater than ever. The worries and cares of the world's master must be endless. My humble life has taken a different course. My obligations grow less, not more. I've had my share of strife, but now I'm at peace with the world and with myself. For the time being, at least . . ."
Having been summoned by Caesar's wife, I had to wonder if the tranquillity of my life was about to be sorely disrupted.
"When did I last see you, Gordianus?"
"It must have been almost exactly two years ago, just before I left for Egypt."
She nodded. "You went there because your wife was unwell."
"Yes. Bethesda was born in Egypt. She believed that she could be cured of her illness only by bathing in the waters of the Nile. The cure apparently worked, because—"
"Yet you spent most of your time in the city of Alexandria, along with my husband," she said, showing no interest in Bethesda's cure.
"Yes. I arrived in the midst of the civil war between Queen Cleopatra and her siblings. During the siege that confined Caesar to the royal palace for several months, I was trapped there as well."
"Where you became quite friendly with my husband."
"I had the privilege of conversing with him on numerous occasions," I said, evading the topic of friendship. My feelings toward Caesar were more complicated than that.
"Eventually, my husband was victorious in Egypt, as he's been victorious in every other campaign. He put an end to the civil strife in Alexandria . . . and installed young Cleopatra on the throne."
She spoke the queen's name with a grimace; Caesar's adulterous love affair with Cleopatra, who claimed to have borne his child, was a favorite topic of every scandalmonger in Rome. The grimace deepened the wrinkles on her face, and Calpurnia suddenly looked much older than when I had last seen her. She had never been a beautiful woman; Caesar had not married her for her looks but for her respectability. His previous wife had embarrassed him by falling prey to gossip. "Caesar's wife," he had declared, "must be above suspicion." Calpurnia proved to be hardheaded, pragmatic, and ruthless; Caesar had entrusted her to run his network of spies in the capital while he fought his rivals on distant battlefields. There was nothing frivolous in either her manner or her appearance; she made no effort to flatter her face with colorful cosmetics or her figure with elegant fabrics.
I looked about the room, which reflected the taste of its occupant. The walls were stained deep red and somber yellow. Instead of depicting an image from history or Homer, the impeccably crafted mosaic floor displayed an array of interlocking geometric patterns in muted colors. The furnishings were exquisite but few—woolen rugs, bronze lamp holders, and the single backless chair made of ebony inlaid with lapis tiles in which my hostess sat.
It was not the reception hall of a queen; those I had seen in Egypt, bright with gold and dripping with ornaments, their dazzle intended to intimidate all who entered. And yet, in fact if not in name, Calpurnia was now the queen of Rome; and Caesar, having defeated every rival, was its king, though for now he preferred the venerable title of dictator, the office our ancestors created so that a strong man could rule the state in times of emergency. But if rumors were true—that Caesar intended to make the Senate declare him dictator for life—how was he any different from the kings of olden days, before Rome became a proud republic?
"Caesar is in danger," Calpurnia said abruptly. She clasped her hands tightly in her lap. Her face was taut. "Great danger. That's why I've called you here."
The statement struck me as so peculiar that I laughed out loud, then checked myself when I saw the look on her face. If the most powerful man on earth, the victorious survivor of a brutal civil war that had wreaked havoc across the whole world, was in danger, what could Gordianus the Finder do to protect him?
"I'm sure that Caesar can look after himself," I said. "Or if he wants my help, then he can ask me—"
"No!" Her voice rose sharply. This was not the dispassionate, coldly calculating Calpurnia I knew but a woman touched by genuine fear. "Caesar doesn't realize the danger. Caesar is . . . distracted."
"He's too busy preparing for his upcoming triumphs."
I nodded. There were to be four triumphal processions in the days to come. The first, to celebrate Caesar's conquest of Gaul, would take place three days hence.
"Caesar is consumed with the planning and arrangements," she said. "He intends to give the people a series of spectacles such as they've never seen before. Small things fall below his notice. But small things can grow to be great things. They say the Nile crocodile begins life as a creature hardly bigger than my little finger."
"Yet it very quickly it grows into a monster that can bite a man in two."
"Exactly! That's why I've called you here, Gordianus—you have a nose for danger and a taste for finding the truth." She raised a finger. The gesture was so slight I barely noticed it, but an alert slave standing just outside the doorway hurried to her side.
"Bring Porsenna," said Calpurnia.
The slave departed without a sound. A few moments later, a gray-bearded man entered the room. He wore the yellow costume of an Etruscan haruspex. Over a bright tunic was a pleated cloak fixed at his shoulder with a large clasp of finely wrought bronze. The clasp was in the shape of a sheep's liver marked into numerous sections, with notations in the Etruscan alphabet etched into each section—a diviner's chart for locating omens amid the entrails. On his head the haruspex wore a high conical cap, held in place by a strap under his chin.
Haruspicy was the Etruscan science of divination. From ancient days, Rome's neighbors to the north worshipped a childgod called Tages, who had snakes for legs. Long ago, Tages appeared to an Etruscan holy man in a freshly plowed field, rising from the dirt and bearing books filled with wisdom. From those books the science of haruspicy was born.
Even before Rome was founded, the Etruscans were examining the entrails of sacri.ced animals to predict every aspect of the future, from the outcome of great battles to the next day's weather. They were also adept at interpreting dreams and at finding meaning in various phenomena. Lightning, freakish weather, strange objects fallen from the sky, and the birth of monstrously deformed animals were all attempts by the gods to communicate their will to mankind.
Haruspicy had never become a part of Rome's official state religion. To determine the will of the gods, Roman priests consulted the Sibylline Books and Roman augurs observed the flight of birds. (Roman priests sacrificed animals, to be sure, and offered the blood and organs to the gods, but they did not presume to predict the future from this pious activity.) Nevertheless, despite its unofficial status, the ancient Etruscan art of divination persisted. Believers consulted haruspices for guidance in personal and business affairs, and in recent years even the Senate had taken to calling upon a haruspex to read the entrails of a sacrificed beast before beginning the day's debate.
One of the charms of haruspicy was the fact that its practitioners used the Etruscan language in their rituals. Nobody spoke Etruscan anymore, not even the Etruscans, and the language is so different from every other language that the sound of it alone conveys an exotic, otherworldly quality.
Even so, there were plenty of nonbelievers who scoffed at what they considered outmoded superstitions practiced by charlatans. Cato, leader of the opposition's last stand against Caesar in Africa, once remarked: "When two of these yellowclad buffoons meet in the street, babbling in their incomprehensible tongue, it's a miracle that either can keep a straight face!" Of course, Cato had come to a terrible end, enduring perhaps the most wretched of all the deaths suffered by Caesar's opponents. All Rome would no doubt be reminded of the grisly details during one of the upcoming triumphs.
According to my son Meto, who had served with him for many years, Caesar, too, took a dim view of haruspicy. At Pharsalus, all the omens went against Caesar, but he ignored them and went to battle anyway, completely destroying the forces of his chief rival, Pompey. Caesar made a show of observing the old ways of divination, but when the haruspices weighed against him, he had only contempt for them.
From everything I knew of her, I would have assumed that Calpurnia placed no more faith in haruspicy than did her husband—yet here stood a haruspex in his gaudy yellow garments and peaked hat, looking at me with a smug expression on his face.
"This is the one they call the Finder?" he said to Calpurnia.
Porsenna nodded vigorously, causing his pointed hat to poke the air like a comical weapon in a mime show. "Indeed, this is the very man I saw in my dreams. This is the one who can help you, Calpurnia—the only one."
She raised an eyebrow. "Before, you said the other fellow was the man to help me—and we both know how that turned out."
"Yes, but I was right then as well, don't you see? Because that man, despite his misfortune, was the one to lead us to this man. Divination does not always guide us straight to the truth, like the furrow of a plow. Sometimes it meanders, like a stream. No matter. As long as we follow the precepts of Tages, we surely arrive—"
"What 'other fellow' are you talking about?" I said. "And what is it you want from me, Calpurnia? When your messenger summoned me, I came here at once. How could I refuse? Before I left for Egypt, you dealt with me honestly and fairly, and I owe you my respect for that, above and beyond your station as the dictator's wife. But I must tell you right now that if you intend to offer me some commission that involves poking into dark corners, uncovering ugly secrets, getting someone killed—or getting myself killed!—I won't accept it. I'm finished with that sort of thing. I'm too old. I won't have my tranquillity disturbed."
"I can pay you handsomely."
So she did intend to employ me for some sort of intrigue. I sighed. "Fortunately, I don't need your money. I would advise you to call on my son Eco—he does that sort of thing nowadays; and he's younger than I am, faster, stronger, probably twice as clever. Eco is away from Rome at the moment—a commission has taken him down to Syracuse—but as soon as Eco returns—"
"No! It's you we must have, Finder," said Porsenna. "Tages has decreed it."
"Just as the god previously decreed that you turn to that 'other fellow' you spoke of—the one who met with 'misfortune'? I don't like the sound of that."
Calpurnia made a sour face. "You'll at least hear me out, Gordianus." It was a statement, not a question, uttered in a tone to remind me that I was in the presence of the most powerful woman in Rome.
I took a deep breath. "What is it you want from me, then?"
"Seek the truth. Only that. And why not? It's your nature. It's the thing you were born to do; the gods made you thus. And when you find the truth, I wish you to share it with me—and with no one else."
"Truth? I thought you had Porsenna to find that for you."
She shook her head. "Haruspicy functions at one level. A fellow like you functions at another."
"I see. Instead of sifting through entrails, I dig in the dirt."
"That's one way of putting it. We each must use whatever skills we possess, do whatever is necessary . . . to save my husband's life."
"What is this threat to Caesar?"
"I was first alerted by my dreams—nightmares so terrible that I sought out Porsenna to interpret them for me. His divinations confirmed my worst fears. Caesar is in immediate and very terrible danger."
I sighed. "I'm surprised, Calpurnia. I thought you were not the sort to act on dreams or omens. Others, yes, but not you."
"You sound like my husband! I've tried to warn him. He scoffs at my fears."
"Have you introduced him to your haruspex?"
"No! Caesar knows nothing about Porsenna, nor must he ever know. It would only further arouse his skepticism. But I assure you: Caesar has never been in greater danger."
I shook my head. "Surely Caesar has never been in less danger. All his enemies are dead! Pompey, beheaded by Egyptians who wanted to please Caesar. Ahenobarbus, driven to earth and speared like a rabbit by Marc Antony at Pharsalus. Cato, driven to suicide in Africa. The survivors who were pardoned by Caesar, like Cicero, have been reduced to cowering sycophants."
"Yet some of them must wish Caesar dead."
"Some? Many, I should think. But wishes are not daggers. Have these men the will to act? Caesar thinks not; otherwise, he wouldn't have pardoned them. I trust his judgment. The man has been courting danger all his life, and getting the better of it. Once, in Alexandria, I stood beside him on a quay when a flaming missile from an enemy ship came hurtling straight toward us. I thought that missile was the end of us—but Caesar calmly assessed the trajectory, stood his ground, and never flinched. And, sure enough, the missile fell short. Another time, in Alexandria, I watched his ship sink during a battle in the harbor, and I thought he would surely drown. Instead he swam, wearing full armor, all the way to safety." I laughed. "Later, his only complaint was that he had lost his new purple cape—a gift from Cleopatra."
"This is not a laughing matter, Finder!"
Was it my mention of Cleopatra that rankled her? I took a deep breath. "Of course not. Very well, when you say Caesar is in danger, what exactly do you mean? Is there a particular person you suspect, or some particular group? Is there a conspiracy against him?"
"I don't know."
I frowned. "Calpurnia, why am I here?"
"To help me save Caesar's life!" She had begun to slump but now sat stiffly upright, grasping the arms of the chair with white knuckled hands.
"Porsenna will be our guide."
I shook my head. "I won't take instructions from a haruspex."
"Your orders will come from me," said Calpurnia sternly.
I sighed. Caesar was not yet a king, and the republic's citizens were not yet his subjects, yet Caesar's wife seemed incapable of accepting a direct refusal. Perhaps I could lead her by argument to see that employing me was simply not to her advantage.
"I acknowledge your sense of urgency, Calpurnia, but I don't understand what you want from me. What would you have me do? Where would I begin?"
Porsenna cleared his throat. "You can start by retracing the steps of the man we called upon to do this work before you. He delivered written reports to us."
"I take it this fellow came to a bad end. Yes, from the looks on both your faces, a very bad end! I don't care to follow in the footsteps of a dead man, Calpurnia." I directed my gaze at her, pointedly ignoring the haruspex, but it was Porsenna who replied.
"Those footsteps might lead you to the man's killer," he said, "and knowing who killed him might lead us to the source of the threat against Caesar. The fellow must have discovered something dangerous, to have paid for it with his life."
I shook my head. "Dreams, divination, death! I don't like anything about this affair, Calpurnia. I respectfully decline to become involved."
Porsenna was about to speak, but Calpurnia silenced him with a gesture. "Perhaps, if you saw the dead man. . . ." she said quietly.
"I don't see how that would make a difference."
"Nonetheless." She rose from the chair and proceeded toward a doorway. Porsenna indicated that I should follow. I did so reluctantly, with Porsenna behind me. I disliked the haruspex from first sight and didn't like having him at my back.
We walked down a long hallway, passing rooms as simply decorated as the one in which Calpurnia had received me. The house seemed empty; Calpurnia's slaves were trained to remain out of sight. We crossed a small garden ornamented by a splashing fountain with a splendid statue of Venus—Caesar's reputed ancestor—standing naked upon a gigantic seashell.
A man was sitting in the shade of the garden. He wore the voluminous toga of a pontifex, with its extra folds gathered and tucked in a loop above his waist. His mantle was pushed back to show a head of perfectly white hair. The old priest glanced up as we passed and gave me a quizzical look. I thought I saw a family resemblance to Calpurnia. His words confirmed it.
"Who have you brought into the house now, niece? Another spy? Or worse, another soothsayer?"
"Be quiet, Uncle Gnaeus! This is my affair, and I shall handle it as I see fit. Not a word to Caesar, do you understand?"
"Of course, my dear." The priest rose to his feet. He was a bigger man than I had thought. He took Calpurnia's hand. "Did I speak harshly to you? It's only because I think you're troubling yourself over nothing. You allow this haruspex to excite your fears, and insist on drawing others into this foolishness, and now we see where it leads—"
"I know what you think, Uncle Gnaeus. But if you cannot say words of support, say nothing!"
This served to silence Gnaeus Calpurnius, who dropped Calpurnia's hand and returned his gaze to me. He seemed to regard me with a combination of pity, scorn, and exasperation. I followed Calpurnia out of the garden and back indoors, glad to escape the old priest's scrutiny.
We walked down another long hallway. The rooms in this part of the house were more cluttered and less elegantly furnished. Finally we arrived at a small chamber, dimly lit by a single window high in the wall. It appeared to be a storage room. Odds and ends were piled against the walls—a rolled carpet, boxes full of blank parchment and writing materials, chairs one atop another.
In the center of the room, a body had been laid upon a makeshift bier. Flowers and spices had been strewn around it to mask the inevitable scent of putrefaction, but the body could not have been lifeless for more than a day, for it was still stiff. Presumably the corpse had been discovered after rigor began, for the petrified body retained the posture of an agonizing death, with shoulders hunched and limbs contracted. The hands were clutching the chest at a bloodstained spot directly over the heart. I avoided looking at the face, but even from the corner of my eye I could see that the jaw was tightly clenched and the lips were drawn back in a hideous grimace.
The body was clothed in a simple tunic. The darkened bloodstain was vivid against the pale blue fabric. There was nothing particularly distinctive about the garment—it had a black border in a common Greek key pattern—yet it seemed familiar to me.
"Where did you find the poor fellow?" I said.
"In a private alley that runs alongside this house," said Calpurnia. "The slaves use it to come and go, as do a few others—like this man—who don't wish to call at the front door."
"A secret entrance for your secret agents?"
"Sometimes. He was discovered at dawn, lying on the paving stones just outside the door."
"The body was already stiff?"
"Yes, just as you see him now."
"Then he had probably been dead—and lying undisturbed—for at least four hours. That's when rigor begins."
"That's certainly possible. To my knowledge, no one used that passageway during the night, so he could have been lying there since sundown. I presume he came here to tell me something, but before he could rap at the door—"
"Someone stabbed him. Are there more wounds?"
"Only this one."
"So he died of a single stab wound to the heart." His assailant must have been very lucky, or very quick, or else must have known the victim. How else could someone draw close enough to land such a perfect blow?
"Was there a trail of blood in the passageway?"
"No. He fell where he was stabbed." Calpurnia shuddered.
"His tunic . . . looks familiar," I said, feeling uneasy.
"Does it? Perhaps you should look at his face."
I stepped closer. The scent of flowers and spices filled my nostrils. My heart pounded in my chest. My mouth was dry.
"Hieronymus!" I whispered.
Excerpted from THE TRIUMPH OF CAESAR by STEVEN SAYLOR
Copyright © 2008 by Steven Saylor
Published in July 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.