No one could say for certain quite how it started. Some blamed that pot-bellied quarrymaster, home from Numidia. Others suggested it was the legacy of two Lebanese flautists passing through on their way to Iberia. Who could say? But like the first blue wisp of a heath fire, it passed virtually unnoticed, for the citizens of Rome had more pressing things on their minds.
The first two weeks of May had been treacherously hot. A vicious reminder of why so few festivals were scheduled in a month set aside not for rejoicing, but for restraint. For purification rites rather than revelry. Some years the problem was cold, scorching the vines and wizening the buds. Other years rain, inducing the blight and the mildew and worms in the cattle. In fact, so grim were May’s auspices, marriages were rarely contracted and, as crops in the countryside shrivelled, cityfolk discovered that, virtually overnight, Rome was transformed from a glamorous metropolis into a stinking, fly-riddled furnace.
What use were great soaring arches, triumphal basilicas, if your children had no air to breathe? When the meat for your dinner turned rancid, fruit rotted and the poison from the quills of the wryneck bird could not hold back the rats? No longer confined to the slums, vermin scampered openly over the Forum and left droppings on tables and plates and on pillows. Sleep was impossible. And when people arose, crotchety and drained, their tunics would cling to their flesh regardless how often they bathed. Purple hollows formed under their eyes and even Old Man Tiber began showing his age. Dark brown and sluggish, his treacly current stank worse than the sewers, and although aqueducts fetched treasured water down from the hills, the channels were covered and this generated heat of its own.
Thus, as a million souls gulped tepid water and prayed to Jupiter for mercy’s sake, for all our sakes, please send a change in the weather, so the little blue wisp gathered strength.
At first it was just the wife of a carpenter. A slight hoarseness. A fever. A few livid spots on her chest. Crushed by the heat and mistrustful of doctors, she dosed herself with fenugreek and took to her bed, smug at the money she’d saved.
Then two small boys, the sons of a wheelwright, succumbed and their mother had no such qualms about medics. They had expelled her husband’s bladder stones, cured her sister’s colic and eased her father’s pain with henbane when he lay dying. But by the time the physician arrived at her home, four more cases had been reported on the Quirinal Hill.
And the little blue wisp that was Plague prepared to lay to waste its territory.
One hundred miles to the north the air was no less sultry, the heat every bit as oppressive, yet the plague was the least of Claudia’s worries. She’d needed out, and she’d needed out fast, and this luxurious spa was as good a place as any to lie low for a while. Only ‘Hrrrrow!’
Inside her cage, Drusilla, Claudia’s blue-eyed, cross-eyed dark Egyptian cat, took the opportunity to remind her mistress how uncomfortable it was inside this wooden crate and how long it had been since she’d had a proper mouse, adding that if Claudia had any decent feelings whatsoever, she’d stop buggering about and get the hell indoors.
‘Stow it, you flea-riddled feline,’ Claudia hissed back. ‘I could have left you in Rome!’ To contend with feral dogs scavenging the runnels, to be chased from the bakeshops, kicked aside by the hucksters, snarled at by beggars. ‘You, my girl, should count your lucky stars. Just look where I’ve brought you.’
Stretching out before them, the placid waters of Lake Plasimene shimmered in the haze, its reed-lined shores a blur, the wooded hills which sheltered them the merest blue smudge. In place of the multitude of sweating humanity all snapping, bumping, joggling their way through a maze of twisty lanes, day crickets rasped among the pines like blunted woodsaws and a spotted lizard scampered over the flagstones to disappear into a crack in the wall. Here, the air was redolent with bay trees and balm, and lavender and pinks filled the place of stale wine from smoky taverns and the sulphurous stench from the fullers’ yards.
From the corner of Drusilla’s wooden crate came a subdued ‘Mrrr’ at the pronounced absence of screaming children, the graunch of mill-wheels, the deep piles of mule shit.
‘I know.’ Claudia sighed in sympathy. ‘Hell, isn’t it?’
She paused outside the gold-painted gates to tip the lackey who had carried her trunk. It was not too late to turn back…
Oh, come on, who are you kidding? Thanks to the epidemic, half the city’s emptied out. There isn’t one goddamned bed from the Alps to the Sorrentine peninsula which has not been laid claim to, be thankful you’re booked in here! She shifted Drusilla’s crate to her other hand and passed through the archway. Nailed to the gate was a schedule of events and Claudia scanned the list. Thanks to Pylades the Greek discovering a spring on this cliff-like promontory which projected several hundred yards into the lake, all manner of diversions appeared to be on offer, from mud wallows to massage, perfuming to pedicures, and let’s not forget the spa waters themselves, but…
‘What’s on at the arena?’ she enquired of the janitor.
‘No arena.’ He sniffed. ‘Only the foundations dug out so far.’
Fair enough. ‘The theatre?’
‘Well, the walls is mostly up. I reckon first production should open, come autumn.’
Good grief, a girl could have popped her clogs from boredom long before then. ‘Then,’ Claudia lowered her voice, ‘where will I find the dice games?’
‘Yes, yes, I know they’re illegal.’ That never stops them. ‘Where can I join in?’
‘Ah,’ he said, scratching his beard, ‘there’s a choir performing tonight.’
‘Hrrrrroww.’ The sound might have come from Drusilla or her mistress.
With a depressing sense of foreboding, Claudia followed the travertine path towards the flight of red marble steps. Catering purely for the monied classes, Pylades had spared no expense in constructing this magnificent lakeside retreat, incorporating libraries and loggias, museums and great works of art… and choirs. Across the lake, a great crested grebe dived for molluscs and a black tern hovered over its reflection in the shimmering waters. Dammit, this exile into purgatory wouldn’t be necessary if she’d been given half a chance to explain! To point out that she’d looked upon that money as a loan. That come the end of the month she’d intended to replace those wretched coins, perhaps even add a spot of interest, should a certain Syrian charioteer finish first again.
I mean, the cash had been in a depository, for heaven’s sake. Who the hell checks their depository?
The answer, unfortunately, was one Sabbio Tullus, owner of said fortune. With the plague having no respect for status, age or gender, Tullus adjudged that now might be a prudent time to vacate the city and spend a few weeks overseeing his estate in Frascati and, fearing robbery in his absence, decided to take his silver along for the ride.
Claudia couldn’t say who was the more surprised. Tullus, finding a gaping hole in the repository wall. Or Claudia, loading up her satchel.
The instant that key had rattled the lock, she was out through the gap like an elver, but there hadn’t been time to reposition the loose block of stone. Tullus, goddammit, had seen her!
Typical that for all the resort’s opulence and splendour, there wasn’t a living soul to be seen. Not counting the gateman, the only other human on the planet appeared to be an immense Oriental, standing with his feet set solidly apart and his arms folded across his tight black leather vest, staring towards the misty blue hills which cradled Plasimene. Apart from a topknot on the poll, his head was shaved and glistening, and the only other outcrop of hair sprouted from his upper lip, which, like the topknot, hung disproportionately long. Pegging him as the sort of chap whose idea of releasing an animal into the wild meant kicking a cat off a cliff, Claudia reckoned he’d be just the sort Tullus would send to ask for his money back.
But then again, a dozen bruisers on her tail was better than the course he had actually taken.
As the searing heat beat down upon her back, Claudia groaned. The gods must be wetting themselves on Olympus at the mess she’d gotten into. I ask you, fancy calling out the army! Jupiter, Juno and Mars, what was the silly sod thinking of? Not that the military was concerned with the theft of a few silver denarii-no, no, that was a civil, as opposed to a criminal, misdemeanour. Rather, Claudia believed, their ears pricked up because one of the caskets in that strongroom happened to belong to Tullus’ nephew, who in turn was related by marriage to a second cousin of the Emperor’s wife.
The connection was distant. But not so distant that it failed to qualify as potential treasonable theft!
The authorities could prove nothing, of course. A feeble little thing like me, officer? Surely a case of mistaken identity? I’ll have you know, I’m a respectable young widow, and just look at this house, it boasts two storeys, a peristyle and an internal bath room, do I look like a common criminal? But the authorities weren’t stupid. This theft concerned the Emperor and, like the tiger, they were prepared to stalk their prey, waiting for that one, fatal mistake.
Then the letter came. Luck? Or was the motive more sinister?
Mounting the red marble steps, Claudia glanced back towards the spa’s bath complex, its limestone walls sparkling white in the sunshine with red valerian tumbling from urns set on pedestals. Relax. No one there. To the right of the path, nestling in a grove of immature walnut trees, sat the tiny, circular shrine dedicated to Carya, the nymph of the spring. There was nobody there, either, apart from a toothless old peasant woman rocking herself back and forth, and why should there be? Heaven knows, she’d taken a convoluted enough route to arrive here, had left enough false trails to confuse even the most zealous trufflehound.
In any case, why shouldn’t an old friend of Claudia’s husband cancel his furlough in order to deal with the crisis in the public water supply? And why, having done so, shouldn’t he take pity on the pretty young widow and offer her the booking here instead? Paranoia is setting in once I suspect every stroke of luck which comes my way! There was nothing, she decided, nothing at all which could trouble her here, except maybe her jaws locking open from yawning too much.
‘There you go, poppet.’
Slipping the latch to Drusilla’s cage, Claudia marched towards the entrance, where two liveried Nubians heaved open the mighty oak doors and where, inside, Pylades himself was waiting to greet her.
‘Welcome.’ He stretched out both hands. ‘Welcome, my dear, to Atlantis.’
Would you believe it? If someone had asked the resort’s founder what he was expecting, Pylades would have demurred that, with her accommodation paid for by a man whose name was not Seferius, it was really none of his business, and largely this was true. He’d seen them come, he’d seen them go. Some loud and blowsy, some blushing and timid, some actually believing their married benefactors loved them and intended to set up home one day. In this instance, however, when Claudia swept into the Great Hall like a whirlwind, ignoring the vast rolling seascapes which covered the walls and the honeycomb ceiling inset with ivory and mother-of-pearl but complaining instead of a lack of stimulating entertainment, Pylades resolved to break with tradition and make this young lady his business.
When the tornado finally paused for breath and became aware that the temperature in the Great Hall was several degrees cooler than outside, thanks to canvas awnings which shaded the clerestory windows and the cascade of iced water which rippled down a channel in its stepped marble floor, the Greek had already drunk in the rounded curves of her hips, the tilt of her luscious chin, the tumble of her wayward curls-now, there was a neck ripe for nuzzling! He imagined his tongue gliding down to that sumptuous cleavage, where… Clasping his hands together, he held them in front of his body to conceal the change which was beginning to take place.
‘You travel light, I see,’ he said, referring to her single trunk. Always an encouraging sign.
‘Alas,’ she smiled, and he had cause to thank his prudent use of hand space, because her fluttering eyelashes induced a further quivering in his loins, ‘since there was but the one place left on the ship which set me down along the coast, my servants and baggage were forced to follow by road.’
‘Ah, the plague, the plague.’ Pylades nodded wisely. ‘Indeed, my dear, you’re fortunate this reservation was made before the contagion broke out, we are turning even senators away for lack of space.’
Was it too soon to make his move? Like curving a shepherd’s crook, you had to judge the temperature of the chestnut pole absolutely right. Too hot and it’ll snap. Too cold, the wood won’t bend. He considered the accommodation-a room with a wide double couch and a view directly overlooking the lake. Then he considered the sparsity of her luggage and ways she might reward the gift of a brand-new wardrobe complete with slippers, stoles and parasol. Maybe a pendant or two, if she performed that little trick he liked so very much…
‘Your man friend is not accompanying you?’ he ventured.
‘The term, Pylades, is family friend.’
It excited him the way her eyes flashed. Hrrrmph. ‘To the right, across the bridge over the watercourse, is the banqueting hall,’ he explained, ‘and beyond that the twin-storied sun porch. Straight ahead of you is our famous Athens Canal, with the domed loggia leading off to the right.’
As he continued to acquaint her with the layout of Atlantis, Pylades could only think of her eyes shining with gratitude at the magnificent embroideries, the shawls, the sandals he presented her with every time she spread herself across that wide double couch…
‘You will, of course, need a man to guide you,’ he told her, his gaze latching on to the points of her breasts. ‘A red-blooded male, a real man, who can steer you to unimagined pleasures.’
‘Can you point me one out?’
Beneath his clasped hands, something went limp and the arrival of a tall, middle-aged man striding across the hall could not have been better timed. With only a cursory smile at the guest, the newcomer peered at Pylades. ‘Everything all right?’ he enquired. ‘Only you seem somewhat red in the face.’
The Greek smiled wanly back. ‘Kamar,’ he introduced weakly, ‘our resident physician.’
‘Who is either sorely overworked,’ the Seferius woman said tartly, ‘or else has nothing to do.’