It had got dark and by the time Dai had picked up Bryn it was well past time for the evening meal.
“Don’t worry, Bard, we’ll grab some chips and garum when we’ve done this,” Bryn said cheerfully. “So this woman is a real patrician and she was married to one of the sleaziest of sleazebag bad-boy Romans you could ever come across? You have to wonder how that could happen. I thought them families had all kinds of laws that said unless the entire gens agreed, three augurs all peed purple piss on the kalends and the lares farted ‘Salve Oh Divine Augustus’ in harmony, the marriage wasn’t valid?”
Dai grinned. After the day he had just been through it was good to have Bryn’s caustic humour.
“Something like that,” he agreed. “But maybe our friend Rufus just bribed, conned or blackmailed them all.”
“Poor bloody bitch, if so. Would mean she’d been sold off to a wrong ‘un, a real bad boy.”
This apartment block was almost the twin of the one Dai had visited with Julia earlier that day. The same placid exterior, the same mosaic floors with the same designs. It was like having a bad repeating dream. Except this time there was no corpse to welcome them at the door. Instead, there was a slightly sleepy looking, extremely beautiful girl. She had light brown hair piled up in a very fashionable style, and the most exquisite blue eyes which were set off by the lapis jewellery she was wearing. Dai regretted that so far they could only see her face on the screen by the door.
“Vigiles?” She barely glanced at the ID Dai offered and did not even ask their names. Dai had the feeling this was something of a routine event in her life. “What’s Roo-Roo done now?”
“Can we come in please, domina?” Dai asked politely. “This is something we need to talk about in person.”
“Well, you could,” she said smiling and then put a ripe strawberry in her mouth and licked the juice off her fingers.
“Uh, thank you,” Dai said, a little uncertain when the door remained closed. The face on the small screen smiled at him.
“You could,” she repeated, “but Roo-Roo would kill me if I had any men in the house when he was away.” She looked very serious.
“This is a very important matter concerning Roo-Roo – concerning your husband, domina. Please let me in, or if you insist I can send for a female vigiles to speak with you?”
Her expression changed and she screwed up her nose as if the very idea disgusted her. It seemed an extreme reaction.
“I’d better hope Roo-Roo doesn’t come home whilst you are here then.”
The apartment was less opulent on the inside than it appeared from outside. There was fine furniture and a couple of pieces of wall art, but it all had a worn look about it. Only the small niche where the lares sat gleamed with what looked to be several gold items, and one penate holding a cornucopia with jewels pouring from it. Dai wondered if he had interrupted her private devotions; as there was a small offering bowl visible and the slight smell of incense.
Octavia must have seen the direction of his gaze, because she walked quickly over to the niche and closed the doors, pulling the beautifully embroidered hanging over them. Then she turned to face the men, standing with her hands clasped behind her, almost looking defiant, as if engaging in the worship of her own household gods in her own house was something less than acceptable.
“I know you’ll think it all silly superstition,” she said, lowering her gaze demurely, “but I find it very comforting.”
Dai felt Bryn stir behind him and give a soft cough of embarrassment.
“Not at all, domina,” Dai told her, wondering how such a naive innocent could have wound up with a cunnus like Urbanus Hostilius Rufus. “Perhaps you would sit down and we can talk, there is something we need to tell you about your husband.”
She smiled and moved to one of the couches, arranging her stola with an easy grace and reclining on it completely, cradling her head on one arm as she looked at them with sky blue eyes.
“He’s in trouble again?”
“I am afraid it is a bit more serious than that. Do you have any friends or family near by? Anyone you could ask to stay with you for a few days?”
Octavia’s eyes glanced involuntarily at one of the inner doors and then looked back to Dai. She had coloured very slightly.
Deo Damnatus, Dai thought and exchanged a brief look with Bryn, she has a lover in the bedroom.
“He’s been arrested?” she sounded surprised.
“No,” Dai said, his tone flat. “I’m afraid he’s been murdered.”
Her mouth opened and she uttered a low cry came which picked up in pitch and intensity until it was a full-blown scream.
Dai found himself beside her, unsure whether he should slap her or hold her. She made the decision for him, sitting up and pulling him close, her hands gripping into his tunic as she almost stifled his face in her bosom.
“My Roo-Roo! My poor Roo-Roo!” she wailed.
With some difficulty, Dai disentangled himself and managed to hand her off to Bryn, who was not at all averse to having a beautiful young woman pressing herself against him as she sobbed.
“I’ll find you some tissues,” Dai said vaguely and moved to the door that Octavia had glanced at before. He was about to open it when she squealed.
“No! Not in there.”
Trusting Bryn to keep her from getting in the way, Dai opened the door to what he fully expected to be a lavish bedroom and a naked young man. Instead it was an undecorated room, with a simple double bed and cardboard boxes stacked up with clothes visible neatly folded in them. On the bed sat an elegantly dressed woman, who got to her feet as soon as she saw Dai. Her designer stola was draped in soft folds of silk about her. It took him a moment to place her, to think where he had seen her before. Then he realised he hadn’t, but he had seen pictures of her and the odd moment on TV when the news was covering some swish event. She had been on the arm of Tribune Decimus Lucius Didero.
Instinctively he bowed his head.
From Dying to be Roman by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook
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