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Chapter VIII

I descended the steps of the temple, wincing at the pains that enveloped my body like a cloud. I might have persuaded Asklepiodes to lend me a litter and some slaves, but I was determined to walk lest I grow too stiff to move at all. I crossed the bridge to the riverbank. This was the old wooden bridge. The fine stone bridge that now stands there was built the next year by the Tribune Fabricius. In the city, the celebration was still in full roar. Applause greeted me wherever I showed my bandaged head, and red-dripping wineskins were held out to me by the score, but I only sipped at a few, just enough to ease my way to my house. I wanted a dear head that evening. It took a great effort of will, because I desired nothing more than to drink until my pains were forgotten and lose all my cares in the city's festal mood. I was weary of murders and intrigues and scheming politicians and generals.

Ladies wearing the brief tunic and feminine toga of the courtesan offered themselves to me freely, but my mind was so fixed upon a single woman that I was not even tempted. Infatuation is a terrible thing. Musicians wound through the streets playing flutes and cymbals, and behind them danced women in the fashion of Bacchantes; their hair unbound and dressed only in animal skins or flimsy chitons open down one side. This was a Greek custom frequently forbidden by the aediles or the Censors, but it had been a few years since the last censorship and the aediles had more important concerns, anyway. A vendor handed me a flat loaf wrapped around a heap of thin-sliced lamb, fried onions and olives, all of a delightful greasiness. This I devoured hungrily, for I had had nothing since breakfast and I knew I would have to drink with Catilina and his cronies or else be suspect. It was so good that, when another vendor offered me a broad fig-leaf heaped with grilled sausages. I accepted that too. These needed something to wash them down, so I next took a cup of unfermented apple juice at a stall, along with a handful of figs and dates.

Women rubbed themselves against me for luck and 1 did not complain. Men tried to do the same and I did complain. I was hero for a day, but for a day only. The Roman people are infinitely distractable, and I would be forgotten by the next day.

I reached home pleasantly stuffed and let my elderly house slaves fuss over me for a while. They might treat me like a hero for as much as two days, or perhaps even three, if I did nothing to offend them in the meantime. Cassandra wanted to strip the fine bandages from my head and try her favorite poultice on me, but I preferred to trust Asklepiodes's more professional treatment.

When the sun drew low to the west, I donned a decent tunic and opened my arms chest. Inside were my swords, my field armor and my parade armor, my daggers and my caesti. I took a sheathed pugio and thrust it beneath my tunic, under the girdle. Then I took up a caestus . I had won the boxing gloves in a long-ago game and I had stripped one of its complicated straps, leaving only the thick, bronze bar that went over the knuckles. With its half-inch, pyramidal spikes it was just the thing to give an assailant a truly memorable punch. I tested it to make sure the single strap was still snug against my palm and then tucked it beneath my tunic on the other side, where I could reach it easily with my left hand.

I did not fear trouble from Catilina or his men, but it was likely that Clodius and his men might be prowling the city and he was unstable enough to attack me on sight. I would have to watch out for Clodius until someone else should enrage him. That would not be long.

Clodius acquired enemies the way Caesar picked up votes.

Leaving word that I would return late, I left my house and entered the darkened streets. The revelry had quieted some, but not entirely, by any means. It is seldom truly quiet in the Subura, but by this time most of the roistering had moved indoors, although in the open squares and courts of some neighborhoods, tables had been erected and the dwellers of the local insulae sat back, picking their teeth contentedly. The day's sacrifices had provided plenty of meat and the harvest was in, so fruits and vegetables were plentiful and cheap. Fall was usually a good time in Rome, unless the harvest had been bad. Then it would become necessary to squeeze the provinces.

I reached Orestilla's house without encountering Publius or his myrmidons. The janitor let me in and I went into the atrium. A cheer went up at my arrival. Catilina rose and took my hand.

"Well done, Decius, well done!" His arm around my shoulders, he turned to face the others and gestured grandly. "Here is our hero, at last. We've been awaiting your arrival, Decius."

There were a dozen men present, and all of them rose from their seats to congratulate me. Some of them I knew already: Curius, Cethegus Sura, Laeca, the twin beards, Thorius and Valgius. The latter two showed the trophies of their vigorous efforts on my behalf that morning. Thorius sported a bandage around his head, although it was not as artistic as my own. Valgius had a pair of black eyes, nearly swollen shut. There was a bulky, balding man in the tunica laticlavia with the narrow red stripe; an eques. The rest bore no marks of distinction.

"Decius," Catilina said when the balding man approached, "this is Publius Umbrenus, a prominent businessman with interests throughout Gaul." So this was the mysterious financier who had been speaking with the Allobroges.

"I knew your father in Gaul," Umbrenus said. He had the false heartiness of an auctioneer.

The others were introduced, but I had little oppor tunity to absorb more than their names: Publius Gabi nius Capito, Lucius Bestia, Marcus Fulvius Nobilior and Lucius Statilius were all of the equestrian order, although they had purposely attended in common tunics. They were living proof that not every eques was a wealthy businessman, for these were as ragged and hungry a pack of ne'er-do-wells as one could ask for. Some were ruined entrepreneurs like Umbrenus, others had never reach high enough to achieve ruin.

There were others, but the rest were not from Rome. They were minor nobles from various Italian municipia and coloniae. I no longer remember their names, although they are to be found in the court records. I remembered 'what Milo had said about malcontents. It gave me cause to reassess the fairly rosy picture I had of the empire's condition. In truth, only the city of Rome itself was relatively tranquil. Everywhere else there was discontent and unrest.

Amid the backslapping and embracing, Catilina's brows went up at a faint clink from under my tunic. I displayed my weapons for their admiration.

"I wasn't taking any chances on encountering Clodius this evening," I told them. Several of them grinned and exposed the grips of daggers or short swords beneath their tunics.

"You won't find anyone here who's squeamish about carrying arms," Catilina chuckled. "But you needn't have bothered yourself about Clodius. He's safe at home, being nursed by his beloved sister and complaining piteously of his wounds. He says that only serpents are in the habit of biting men on the heel."

"Hence your new name around town," Cethegus said, "Metellus the Viper."

"I like the sound of that," I said.

"I heard one of his sycophants at the baths this evening," said Laeca, toadying it up superbly. "He was declaiming some new verse he'd cobbled together, likening Clodius to Achilles, wounded in the heel by a coward." He laughed loudly and falsely. "As if the man who carried the head of the October Horse from the Forum to the Subura single-handed could be accused of cowardice!"

"You'll be the talk of Rome for some time to come, Decius," Catilina said.

"And forgotten next time I stand for office," I said, remembering my role.

"But then, that's why we're all here," Catilina said. "We are all fed up with the fickleness of the electorate. They were spoiled by the Gracchi and have been growing worse ever since." He paused while the others made grumbles of agreement. "Now, I would never want to see us return to monarchy, but things were best when decisions were made by the Senate and the Centuriate Assembly, all solid men of property and military experience, patrician and plebeian both. Now they hand out citizenship to anyone, even freedmen." Then he remembered the non-Romans present and added, hastily, "And on top of that, our demagogues have robbed the municipia and coloniae of their old rights of self-government without giving them a commensurate place in the government." That was the sort of mistake Caesar never would have made. Catilina just wasn't a born politician.

"Very true," said one of the strangers. "We Italian allies supposedly have citizenship, but we must come here to Rome for the voting if we want to be represented. We crowd into tents and tenements at a miserable time of year." The man was glowering, his words bitter. "Then, as often as not, we are cheated of our vote. Whenever an issue that might favor us comes up for a vote, the speakers carry on endlessly, or the augurs suddenly see omens decreeing that the vote must be delayed. Then they wait until we must return home before voting." This was indeed a common abuse of the day, and the allies had much just cause for grievance.

I put on a stern face. "Such injustice is intolerable!"

"And we will see it corrected," Catilina said. "Gentlemen, take your seats and let us get down to business."

We seated ourselves and slaves came in to set a table with pitchers of wine and platters of fruit, nuts, olives and the like. This was not a dinner party, but Romans cannot talk seriously without refreshment save in the

Senate and the courts, and there we are just pretending to be dignified. The slaves withdrew. Like most such homes, this one had no internal doors in that part of the house, so we could see into the peristylium and the adjoining rooms and be sure that no one was lurking in them.

"Orestilla has locked the domestic slaves in the rear of the house," Catilina said. "We may all speak openly, without fear of being overheard." He looked around the room with the eagle-eyed gaze of a general proudly surveying a veteran legion. "I will make no speeches. The time for that is past and the time for action is at hand. Let us hear your reports. Publius Umbrenus, let us hear yours first."

Umbrenus rose as if addressing the Senate, his left hand going up as if to grasp that fold of the toga just below the collarbone that is so beloved by orators. Remembering that he was not wearing his toga, he grasped a handful of tunic instead.

"My agents in Gaul have been successful and the tribes will rise upon our signal. Roman government in the Transalpine Province is weak. When Lucius Murena came back to Rome to stand for the consulship, he left his brother Caius to rule in his stead as legatus. To Gauls, that's like a king leaving his idiot son in charge while he goes raiding in someone else's territory. It is an invitation to rebellion.

"My negotiations here in Rome with the envoys of the Allobroges have been most successful. Their support consolidates our grasp on the northern part of the province. They were hesitant at first, but when I demonstrated to them the extent of our preparations, our power, our backers, then they were eager to cooperate. They stand in readiness to receive our orders."

"Excellent," Catilina said. "Marcus Fulvius, speak to us."

Nobilior stood. He was a thin, nervous man who was of some kinship to Fulvia, the mistress of Curius. "My preparations in Bruttium are now complete," he reported. "When you give the signal, Consul"-he addressed this title to Catilina-"they will rise. You may be assured of the complete loyalty and support of the Bruttians."

I solemnly raised my cup and took a long drink in order to avoid bursting into laughter. If ever there was an assurance of disaster, it was to have the Bruttians on your side. They succumbed to every enemy of Rome who ever marched against us from the south. They harbored Pyrrhus and they harbored Hannibal and even Spartacus tarried there for a while, since the Bruttians weren't up to fighting a pack of runaway slaves. They weren't even proper Latins, speaking as much Greek and Oscan as Latin. In truth, nobody knew exactly what they were, and nobody cared. Nobilior sat.

"Lucius Calpurnius?" Catilina said. Bestia stood. That year he had been elected one of the tribunes of the plebs for the coming year. Since Sulla, the lowest of the tribunes had little more authority than a low-ranking quaestor like me. About all that was left to them was the power to summon the plebs to vote on a proposed law and submit the decision to the Senate for ratification.

"Unlike you men of action"-Bestia smiled around at his listeners-"I have had little part in the preparations for this epoch-making revolution, which will return men of birth and nobility to their rightful place." His words were the proper ones for a gathering like this, but something seemed wrong about him. Despite his raggedness, there was a steely resolve in his stance. Beneath his words and behind his eyes I saw a sort of mockery, as if he were amused by all this.

"My time will come after you have all sprung to arms," Bestia went on. "When the uprising is in full roar throughout Italy, from the tip of Bruttium to Cisalpine Gaul, and in Transalpine Gaul, when our new Consul is at the head of his army and marching upon Rome, then, as Tribune-elect, I shall call upon the people to rise up and oust the usurper Cicero. With me at their head, they will throw open the gates and welcome our new Consul to his curule chair in the Curia."

"Decius Caecilius," Catilina said, "you seem skeptical." Apparently, I had not been guarding my expression.

"Cicero is contemptible," I said, "but what of his colleague, Caius Antonius?"

"He will already be out of Rome," Catilina said. "He is so anxious to get to Macedonia and start looting that Cicero is all but threatening him with arrest to make him stay in Rome long enough to make a show of finishing his year in office." Catilina leaned back in his seat and laughed richly. The others quickly joined him. "He'll be summoned back to Rome, of course, but by that time we will be firmly in control, and he'll have no more luck than his brother Marcus had in Crete." He nodded toward Valgius. "Quintus, of our two youngest colleagues, you seem to be marginally better able to speak this evening. Tell us how you have fared among the laureled youth of Rome."

Valgius rubbed his bearded jaw ruefully. "If that flunky of Clodius's had kicked a little harder, I'd not be speaking until next Saturnalia. Marcus and I"-he nodded toward the bandaged Thorius-"have been untiring in our work among the young men of senatorial families. All of those who have spurned our Consul in the past, those who have sought to prosecute him and those who are sure to resist us when the uprising begins, have been marked out. Their sons will kill them in their beds as soon as they hear the trumpets sound."

Catilina caught my expression. "Oh, don't worry, Decius. We won't make you kill old Cut-Nose. He's never offended me and he'll come around as soon as he sees how the wind is blowing."

"That's a relief," I said to cover my confusion. "We have our differences, but things between us haven't deteriorated to that point yet."

"But then," said Cethegus, "you really must kill someone, Decius."

"I must?"

"Oh, but of course." Cethegus's tone was as sarcastic and insinuating as ever. "All of us have."

"It's a sort of initiation," Laeca said. "Rather like joining one of the mystery cults. Each of us proves his sincerity and loyalty to our cause by killing someone."

"You have to admit it's an effective and unquestionable display of solidarity." Still with that hint of inner amusement.

"I see. Anyone in particular?" I inquired.

"That's the easy and agreeable part," Catilina said. "You recall that once before, several of us discussed how we were all but ruined by the moneylenders?"

"I recall it," I said.

"Well, then, there you are. What can be more pleasant than to kill a creditor? You mentioned that you have had to borrow heavily to support your current office and against your future aedileship. To whom are you so deeply in debt?" He sat back, smiling.

I lifted my cup and drank slowly, frowning into the depths of the excellent Massic. It swirled red as blood in the lamplight reflected from the silver bottom. I was pretending to be pondering my answer. Actually, I was frantically trying to find a way out of this. If I couldn't come up with a credible answer, I might not walk from this place alive. Actually, it was almost pleasant not to have Aurelia on my mind.

Then inspiration struck. It was one of those moments of blinding insight that are sometimes granted by our guardian genii. Of course, there are philosophers who insist that each of us has two genii, one good and one evil, and it was from the latter that I had most of my near-suicidal inspirations, but they all seemed brilliant at the time. In any case, I was in no position to discriminate. I lowered my cup.

"Asklepiodes, the Greek physician," I said.

Everyone looked puzzled. "The doctor to the gladiators?" Curius said.

"Do you think that's all he is?" I said. "That's just for surgery. For medicine, he doctors the rich, like all Greek physicians. Why, people come from as far away as Antioch and Alexandria for his treatment." I looked around at them, as if we were all men of the world and understood these things. "Discreetly, of course. He specializes in those condition people prefer not to talk about. Lisas the Egyptian alone keeps him on a retainer of a million sesterces a year just to treat him for those diseases he's always picking up from his incessant perversions."

"I never would have guessed it," Umbrenus said.

"And," I said, leaning forward and speaking conspiratorially, an excellent way to speak in such a gathering, "do you think that being physician and surgeon to the gladiators is not a way to grow rich?" I paused and drank, letting the implications sink in. "He knows who is in top form and who isn't. And who better than their own physician to make sure that a champion isn't quite up to his next fight? That's the time to make the long-odds bets, my friends. And he doesn't give that information away, he sells it, or passes it along in return for favors."

"So that's why you win so often at the fights," Bestia said.

"It seems almost a shame to waste a resource like that," Laeca added.

"But I'm up to here in debt to the wretched Greek-ling," I said, raising a hand level with my bandaged scalp. "He only gives me tips in hope that I'll be able to pay him back a little of what I owe him."

"Yes," Catilina said, "let's not cheat Decius Caecilius out of his just revenge. A true Roman shouldn't bet on the munera anyway. They are supposed to be funeral games, after all. Races are the proper contests for gambling." He turned to me and smiled. "Very well, it's settled, then. Decius, you can kill Asklepiodes. But we have little time, so you must act soon-within two days. Is that agreeable?"

"Oh, decidedly," I assured him. "The sooner the better."

"Excellent. Now, Valgius, what about the fires?"

"Our teams have been assigned their sites," said the bearded one. "On the appointed night, the fires will begin all over the city. The authorities will have a busy time of it, I assure you all."

He resumed his seat and I drank, deeply this time. It was far worse than I had thought. Thus far, they had plotted treason, murder and parricide, serious crimes but not exactly uncommon. This was arson. Fire-raising was the most hated and feared crime in Roman law.

Arsonists taken in the act had reason to envy men who were merely crucified.

And yet, horrible as it all was, I had difficulty in crediting any of what I was hearing. I knew with certainty that these men had committed murder, I had seen the evidence. But revolution? This was like boys playing at war, naming themselves general, each pretending to be a cohort or century. Surely, this pack of strutting posers and babbling loons could not possibly hope to overthrow the majesty of the Roman government? And yet I had witnessed the effectiveness of some of their acts. It left me with one conviction: there was somebody else behind all this, somebody who was not about to appear personally before these lunatics.

I had questions to ask, but I wanted to ask them of Catilina, not these madmen. He was not without his own strain of insanity, but most of the great men of that day were mad to some extent or other. He was far more intelligent than the others, I was sure, although I had my suspicions about Bestia. But I was sure that Catilina was not going to risk everything with only the support of such as these.

A few others tendered their reports, each of them as vaporous and self-deceiving as the others. It was like a dream, except that I knew they were shedding real blood in their ramblings, the blood of citizens.

And I have never taken kindly to the murder of citizens, nor even of resident foreigners under Rome's protection. Some of the victims may not have been particularly savory, but others had been upright members of the community. At any rate, people who do not die in the natural course of things have a right to die by their own hand, or else be put to death only after the proper deliberations of state. That is why we have crosses and arenas. They should not die violently at the hands of malefactors and I have never been able to tolerate such criminal behavior.

If ambitious men wanted to kill one another in the pursuit of power, they had my full blessing to do so. Every such demise made the world a better place. But in doing so they had no right to kill ordinary citizens guilty of no more than going about their everyday lives. If their armies wished to follow their generals and slaughter one another in furthering the ambitions of those men, I was satisfied. I yield to none in my admiration of the Roman legionary, but soldiers are men who bear arms, kill and die as a profession. That does not constitute a right to victimize those who merely go about their lawful occupations.

The truth was that I was not a man of greatness as that age, which now seems almost as remote as the days of Homer, judged such things. I had no ambition to lead armies, to conquer new provinces, to come home a triumphator. I was a Roman in the old sense of the word. I was a citizen of a hill town on the Tiber that had, through an astonishing set of circumstances, found itself to be master of the world. I wanted to live with my neighbors, govern over them as my birth and education gave me competence, and, when necessity dictated, fight in their defense to the extent that my less than heroic capabilities allowed.

I enjoyed parties at the Egyptian embassy where the mighty of the world gorged and connived, but I also enjoyed the celebrations of Subura workmen where a whole guild had to pool their dues to buy an amphora of decent Falernian and the loaves were the only white bread those men ate all year. The corner temple of Jupiter near my house, where I attended sacrifices on most mornings, had only five priests. One of these was free-born, two were freedmen and two were slaves. That was the Rome I loved, not the imperial fantasy that the likes of Crassus and Pompey and so many other fought over. It was men like these who had destroyed the old Rome. Now Catilina wanted to be one of them.

And yet, for all his foolishness and brutality, I could not help liking Catilina, in a grudging sort of way. He was like an importunate puppy, or a rambunctious boy who insists upon barging in on the debates and solemnities of his elders, waving his wooden sword and shouting his shrill battle cries, annoying everybody and impossible to ignore. He had hubris in plenty, as the Greeks define such things, but he had little meanness and even less pretentiousness. I sincerely hoped that, after all his murders and treasons, he would be given a quick, easy and dignified death.

The drinking went on for some time after the serious talk was over. We walked out into the street and made our farewells as personal slaves were released from the rear of the house to accompany their masters home. Thorius, bandaged head and all, crawled into a litter borne by a matched team of Nubians, which I assumed must be borrowed. Since he had come by his wounds in my ostensible defense, I felt it incumbent upon me to be solicitous.

"Fine rig, Thorius," I said, winking. "Who is she? Rich man's wife?"

He managed to smile, despite what was probably a broken jaw. "Not this time. Bought the litter and the slaves myself." Then he sagged back into the cushions and was carried away. I noticed other such anomalies. Bestia walked away with a new toga, its hem not merely dyed with the murex purple, but embroidered in the Scythian fashion with interlacing animal and vegetative designs. Granted, he had been promised a curule position, worthy of the toga praetexta when Catilina should come to power, but a purple stripe was all that was necessary. That toga was worth the loot of a medium-sized municipality. These things, I was sure, were the gifts of Catilina, a notably penurious man. Where was he getting the money?

As we saw them off, Lucius kept a hand on my shoulder, a plain sign that he wished me to remain behind. I was nothing loath, for more than one reason. When they were all departed, we returned to the atrium and were given wine by the slaves. We sipped and sat in silence for a while.

"Go ahead, Decius Caecilius," Catilina said after a while. "Ask the questions that have been burning you all evening."

"Not just this evening, Lucius," I said. "But for a long time, at least since the dinner at Sempronia's house."

He sat back in his chair, in that disarming manner he had. "Let me see, what questions might you have? Could it be this: Why is Sergius Catilina involved with this pack of half-baked imbeciles? How does he think that he stands a chance of snatching power when his followers are such trash?" He slid his eyes sideways, arching his brows and fixing me with his gaze. "Confess it. Isn't that what you were thinking?"

I knew what a sacrificial ox feels like when the flamen's assistant brings the hammer down between its brows. Still, we Metelli have always been quick on our feet.

"I saw what nonentities they were when I came in, such of them as I had not already dismissed on earlier acquaintance. I take it that you are using them for whatever service they may render."

He leaned forward and laced his fingers before him. "Exactly. Decius, you are a man of experience, descended from one of the greatest of the Roman families. You are obviously not going to be taken in by those buffoons we saw tonight. May I be candid with you?"

I leaned forward likewise. "Please do." I wondered how many of the others had been offered this heart-to-heart. Had the bearded Valgius been flattered thus, told he was honored above the others by the master's confidence?

He leaned back. So did I. "But tell me," he said. "What is missing? What struck you wrong? I would like to know how perceptive you are." This is an excellent way for a man to pretend to omniscience in a puzzling situation, causing another to reveal unseen ramifications while giving away nothing himself. I have used it myself on a number of occasions.

"Lucius," I said, "nobody does a thing like this without the connivance of highly placed men. Who is it? Who backs you? There are no more than ten men who could be working with us." Nice bit of phrasing, that, I thought. "Who are they?"

Catilina smiled smugly. It was the look of a man who is sure of his position. At least, it was the look of a man who wanted to give that impression.

"There are a good many," he said, "all of them well fixed, but all of them cautious. You don't get to be great and rich without being cautious." He paused for effect. "Lucullus is one of them."

I frowned deliberately. "He has retired from public life. He has riches and glory enough already. What has he to gain from an adventure like this?"

"He hates Pompey. You will find that to be true of all our supporters, Decius. They all hate Pompey and they fear, rightly, that the man wants to make himself king of Rome."

This, for once, had great credibility. Pompey had robbed many worthier men of their rightfully won glory. Throughout his career he had specialized in letting others do most of the fighting and then bullying the Senate into giving him their commands so that his men were only in on the kill. The anti-Pompeian faction in the Senate might well contemplate desperate action to forestall a coup by Pompey. Everyone remembered Sulla's infamous proscription lists.

"What Lucullus spends on a single banquet could finance a war," I admitted, "and the moneylenders are always howling for his blood in the Senate and the assemblies."

"And there are others," Catilina went on. "Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, for instance. He has the best legal mind of this generation, and will be able to convince everyone that all shall have been done by correct constitutional form. And he is your own father's patron. He will be looking out for your career, as will I."

"I confess these sound far better than the likes of Valgius and Cethegus. Who else?"

"Don't despise those men too readily. Can a general fight a war by himself? No, he must have loyal legionaries and auxilia. He must have expert centurions to provide leadership at the lower levels. Valgius and the other bearded young ones provide the street-level violence. They have nothing to lose."

"And are therefore eminently expendable," I said.

"Exactly. It's not a bad way for a young man to start out in politics. Plenty of action and excitement, and none of the tedium of grubbing for votes in the Popular Assemblies, eh? I did much the same work myself, for Sulla."

"I hadn't thought of it that way," I admitted.

"You must learn to think this way, Decius," he said earnestly. "Aristocratic attitudes are all very well when one thinks only of ruling, but you have to retain the common touch when you are organizing. Even fools and louts have their uses."

"I must remember that."

"Do. Umbrenus is a failed money-grubber, but he has done excellent service in organizing the Gauls for us. And Bestia will be truly valuable as tribune. Of course, I plan to do the same thing Sulla did when I am Consul: I will put the tribunes firmly back in their place. It was a disgrace giving them the power of veto in the first place."

"I couldn't agree more," I said. I wanted to urge him back to the original point. "Now, you mentioned that there were others?"

"Oh yes. There is Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, the praetor, and Caius Julius Caesar."

"Caesar? I can well believe he wants to kill off moneylenders and as pontifex maximus he will lend a certain dignity to our revolution, but is he dependable?"

Catilina shrugged. "He can be depended upon to look out for his own interests. Nobody can sway the Popular Assemblies like Caius Julius. Granted, he's worthless as a leader of men. His military experience is negligible for a man his age and his priestly office forbids him to see human blood, but you can bet that all the omens will favor us and the gods will be on our side. And, as pontifex maximus, Caesar is in charge of the calendar. He can make the Consul's year in office much, much longer than the conventional twelve months."

"Ahh," I said, the light dawning. "That will give you plenty of time to make the, shall we say, adjustments necessary."

"To include making certain that the next year's Consuls are the two men of my choice. Now, even with Caesar's manipulation of the calendar, it may be that I shall require more time to complete my work."

"But these Consuls will be your men," I said, "and on commission of the Senate, the Consuls can name a Dictator."

A broad grin split his face. "I knew you were quick, Decius. That is the office worth having! Six months as Dictator and I will reform the state and give Rome a decent government once more. It will be a government of the best men, and you shall be among them. And it will be perfectly legal, according to our ancient constitution. Hortalus will see to that."

Rome had not had a Dictator in 139 years. A true dictator, anyway. The dictatorship of Sulla had been unconstitutional. The thought Of Catilina with six months of total imperium, answerable for none of his acts when his term of office was done, was chilling. Yet, it was conceivable that there were men in Rome who would rather see that than a virtual kingship for Pompey. This brought us to the prime question.

"Lucius, all of this sounds excellent. Your consulship and subsequent dictatorship will be the salvation of Rome. But what of Pompey? Even choosing the best season, when travel for him will be difficult, he could be outside Rome, with his army, within six weeks of learning about our revolution. What then?"

"It takes no time to raise an army in Italy," Catilina said. "Sulla's discharged veterans are everywhere, and there are others. Have no fear on that account. And we have been caching arms all over the peninsula. Even," he chuckled, "within the Temple of Saturn itself."

I let my jaw drop and my eyes go wide. "The Temple of Saturn?"

"Yes. Can you think of a better place? It is right in the middle of the Forum, where my men, once armed, shall control the center of the city. And they will be in control of the treasury. Our greatest cache is in the house of Cethegus. After arming themselves there, my men will go to seize the city gates." This was valuable information.

"Then," I announced, "my mind is at ease. Oh, one more thing: There are always two Consuls, if we are to follow strict constitutional form. Who is to be your colleague?"

Now he smiled and patted me on the shoulder. "Let me keep some secrets, eh, Decius? Rest assured that you will have no qualms about my choice." Now he rose from his chair and stretched. "It seems to have gotten late, You don't want to be wandering these streets on such a night, Decius. Stay here. We've plenty of guest rooms."

I rose, feigning more stiffness than I felt, which was still considerable. "I thank you. I may need a few days to recover from the festival."

He called for a slave and, after much comradely leave-taking and backslapping, I followed the slave to one of the guest rooms that opened off the peristylium. It had a bed of generous size and a marble table that bore a three-wicked lamp supported by a bronze statuette of a satyr who sported the shameless erection common to those carefree mythical creatures.

The slave left and I sat on the bed, thinking hard. I knew that I had little time left for thinking. Too much was missing from Catilina's story, and I had no idea how much to believe of what he had said. I was sure that some of the names he had given me were included only to impress me. Hortalus, for instance. I certainly had no reason to believe in the man's integrity, but I knew Hortalus was far too intelligent to be mixed up in anything as harebrained as this conspiracy. He was a veteran conspirator himself, and he had always played a cautious role. Caesar? Then, as always, that man was impossible to fathom. Lucullus? This I doubted, but his detestation of Pompey just might have led him into something rash.

What troubled me most was the one name Catilina had not brought up. Where was Crassus in all this? He coveted Pompey's military glory. He was the man who was rich enough to raise and pay his own legions. And Catilina was getting money from somewhere, if his lavish gifts to his followers were anything to go by.

The talk of Sulla's discharged veterans was nonsense. They hadn't fought in seventeen years and would be no match for Pompey's men, fresh from the Asian campaigns. Crassus, though, had veterans spotted in enclaves all over Italy who would make a much more credible fighting force. Plus, he could buy up auxilia from Gaul or Africa as needed. But was he foolish enough to back Catilina?

There came a scratching at the door curtain and I stopped thinking. The blood left my head and traveled to regions of more immediate utility. I tried to speak but did not even manage to clear my throat. The curtain swept aside and there stood Aurelia, dressed in her flame-colored silken gown. As she entered, I saw that she wore pearls, but I could not tell whether they were part of the huge rope she had worn when I met her, for they disappeared beneath the gown.

"Decius, that bandage is most becoming. You look like a soldier home from the wars."

She held out her hands and I took them, drawing her close. "I think my greatest fear at the festival was that I might be in no condition to be with you tonight," I said.

"I knew you would be here," she whispered. "Didn't I say you were a hero?" She came into my arms and pressed her lips to mine, her tongue sliding enticingly into my mouth to play with mine. I was not sure of my heroism, but I now snared much in common with that bronze satyr on the table.

Our lips parted for a moment and with hands suddenly grown clumsy I fumbled with the clasps that fastened her gown at the shoulders. She smiled maliciously and gave me no help, merely running her hands over my body, her smile widening when her fingers found and judged the state of my excitement. Then the gown slithered down her body in that impossibly sensual manner peculiar to pure silk. It paused as if it could not make its way past the rich swell of her breasts and hung for a moment on their hardened tips, then it was past them and slid down the swell of her belly and over the rondure of her hips, down her thighs and calves to pool on the floor around her feet. She stepped back for a moment to let me admire her.

I had seen the little statues that the Red Sea sailors bring back from India. These depict the handmaidens of the gods, called yakshi. They have huge hemispherical breasts that have no sag like mortal flesh, and waists small enough to span with both hands. Their hips and buttocks are likewise round and everything about them is a supernatural exaggeration of the feminine, yet they are as graceful as gazelles. They are more sensuous than the attendants of Venus and I had always regarded them as mythical, yet now I saw a living yakshi before me.

The lamplight played on flesh the color of palest amber wine, except for delicate, brown nipples that graced her breasts more beautifully than the finest jewels. She had adopted the fashion among highborn ladies of having her body plucked clean of hair and smoothed with pumice, and I found myself envying her depilator. Below the dimple of her navel the swell of her belly blossomed into a more richly curved mound, divided at its bottom by that vertical cleft which Greek sculptors always modestly omit, but in which the Indian and Etruscan artists take delight.

I sat on the bed and drew her to me with my hands at her impossibly small waist just above the hips. I tongued her navel and savored her musk, feeling the shivers that rippled her spine. Her hands delicately caressed the back of my head, then began tugging urgently at my clothes. I stood again and began to pull off my tunic, and now she stood back to watch. She still wore her pearls, the amazing rope looping behind her neck and crossing between her breasts to wrap thrice around her waist. It offset her nakedness to an incredibly provocative degree.

At last my subligaculum fell away and she began to caress me lasciviously, but a frown of concern creased her smooth brow.

"Decius, you've been hurt worse than I thought! How can you bear the pain?" I was covered with cuts and bruises, although the worst of the cuts were bandaged. There was nothing to be done about the long whip-stripe that divided my back diagonally.

"Pain is the least of my sensations just now," I assured her.

"But we must see to it that you suffer as little as possible," she said. "Let me guide you." Slowly, we fell back on the wide bed. With incredible delicacy, she arranged our bodies so that I was enveloped by the richness of her flesh while she never pressed against my many sore spots hard enough to cause agony. She used her mouth with a precision I had thought possible only to the hands of an artist. When at last neither of us could stand more delay, she gently pushed my shoulders back against the bolster and sank down upon me as lightly as a cloud, yet with a thick, furry cry that might have been wrenched from the throat of a maenad. Slowly, and then with mounting urgency, she began to ride me as I had ridden the October Horse that morning.

Chapter VII | The Catiline Conspiracy | Chapter IX