Sunday Serial – Dying to be Roman XXIII

Dying to be Roman by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook is a whodunit set in a modern day Britain where the Roman Empire still rules. If you missed previous episodes you can start reading from the beginning.

VI

There were two other men in the hot bath, lazily reclined and talking in low voices. They were both, Dai could not fail to notice, wearing heavy Patrician rings so even when naked they were still marked out as superior beings, paunches and all.
“It is incredible who they allow in here nowadays,” one said, his eyes flicking contemptuously over Dai. “Shouldn’t be allowed.”
“I didn’t think natives were allowed in these baths – never seen one before, anyway,” his companion agreed. “I’ll have a word with the curator, we can get it removed.”
Dai was grateful the heat had already made his skin very flushed or hIS reactIon to their words might have been visible, as it was he decided it was not worth creating an issue that might fall back on Julia to deal with as she was the one who had signed him in as her guest. That was the only way any non-Roman would be allowed in a public premises deemed ‘sub aquila’ – where you had to walk under the eagle on the portico to get inside, and it meant she was personally responsible for his behaviour. So, instead, he curtailed his bathing and pulled himself out of the pool on the far side to from where the Romans lounged.
He had to walk past them to leave the pool room and as he did so, one made a crude gesture with one finger, his patrician’s ring glinting gold. Dai froze mid stride and turned back, fists balling as he did so.
“At least,” he said tightly, “I have a real dick and not just a picture of one on a ring.”
The water beside him erupted and he decided not to wait whilst the two heaved themselves from the water like bull seals onto a rock. Forgoing Roman tradition, Dai bypassed the cold bath and dressed quickly, vaguely aware of one of the two praetorians explaining to his irate fellow bathers that if anyone was going to be ejected from the baths it would be them and not the esteemed guest of their Tribune’s foster-sister.
He was still red-faced and not feeling happy when he stepped out of the lift an
d into the rooftop restaurant where he was meeting Julia. It was the sort of place that on his own meagre salary he would have struggled to pay for a starter. There were waving fronds of palm trees and wall sized tanks of tropical fish, a central water feature and tables both sheltered in the gigantic greenhouse or available on an open terrace overlooking the Tamesis.
Dai found mention of Julia’s name had him led by a silent servitor to one of the more secluded tables, made almost completely private by the positioning of various flowering shrubs. He ordered a jug of the house Falernian and hoped it would appeal to Julia’s palate. The menu made him feel a strong nostalgia for his usual favourite eating- out option. But he somehow doubted they would run to a garum and chip butty in this establishment.
He read through the ‘Prandium’ menu and wondered if he should settle for dove, or thrush, or splash out on a peacock salad. He usually preferred to avoid larger fowl when eating anything Roman as you never knew what it might be stuffed with, but this promised ‘Wafer thin curls of delicate roast peacock flesh, braised with honey and served on a bed of rocket and watercress.’
It seemed the best of an unattractive range of options. He wondered if Julia would want something more traditional and pondered the idea of watching her crunching baby mouse bones. It occurred to him, then, with a slight shock of surprise, that he could forgive her even that. He glanced at his wristphone and realised more time had passed than he had thought since they had parted; and she should be joining him any moment. The thought tripped up his heartbeat and he poured a glass of the Falernian, sipping at it to try and distract himself.
He was reaching to fill up the glass for a second time, then stopped and checked the time again. Unless she had decided to go for a full- on makeover, surely she should have been finished by now? Then he remembered something so stunningly simple his blood ran cold.
Marcella Tullia Junius was a woman.
He left the restaurant at a run, almost throwing the distraught servitor demanding payment out of his path. Using his wristphone he first contacted Edbert, who barely let him finish before swearing loudly and breaking off the call. Guessing that meant the burly Saxon had not seen her either, he quickly informed the praetorians so they could hopefully prevent Edbert bursting into a room full of naked Roman matrons. The screams told him he was too late.
They were all too late.
Julia had vanished.

Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook

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