the sixteenth regnal year of the emperor titus flavius domitianus caesar augustus conqueror of germany, conqueror of dacia consul, censor for life our lord and god
The eleventh day before the Kalends of Germanicus [formerly September].
The sixth hour of the day. The island of Pandateria in the Bay of Naples.
A brassy sun beat down on the barren rock that for six weeks and four days had been Flavia Domitilla’s prison. She hurried along the path that wound down from the house to the black volcanic beach and, squinting into the sun, searched the haze for sign of a fishing boat coming over from Pontia. But the youth was here before her and was already waiting at the water’s edge. He gave a low whistle.
She glanced up over her shoulder to the white-washed cottage, far from the harbor, where she lived under the eye of her jailers. They dozed through the noonday heat. She reached into her bosom for the small packet wrapped in a square of silk cut from the hem of her gown. Her jailers would not allow her writing materials, but Flavia Domitilla had been very clever. She had trimmed scraps of papyrus from a volume of poetry which she had brought with her into exile, and by wetting the edges and pressing them together she had made two half-sheets large enough to print a message in tiny script using lamp black mixed with water for ink.
“The letter marked with an ‘S’—this one, it curls like a snake, you see? Think of the ‘sss’ of a snake. Deliver it to Stephanus— sstephanus—my house-steward. Our villa is on the Via Appia at the third milestone. Ask for the house of Flavius Clemens, my husband, I mean—was my husband. After you’ve done that, then deliver the letter marked with a ‘V’ to Sextus…Ingentius… Verpa.” She pronounced the name slowly to the youth, as though she were speaking to an idiot. “Look how the V is shaped like your hand when you raise it to say ‘vale’ to your friends; the same sound—vale, Verpa. He lives in Rome, in a big house with red columns near the east end of the Circus Flaminius. Anyone can show you. Give it to no one but him, you understand?”
The boy nodded.
“And when you’ve delivered both letters, come back here and describe Verpa to me exactly so that I know you haven’t cheated me and I will give you the other pearl earring.”
She needn’t have given up her pearl earrings, which were worth more than all the fish this boy could catch in a year. To help a cruelly imprisoned lady, to see Rome and go inside a rich man’s house, the youth would have done it for nothing.
He extended a brown and muscular arm to take the packet from her. “This man Verpa, he’s your kinsman? Your friend?”
“Not exactly. I need his help.”
“My father wants to know how long I’ll be away.”
“Seven, eight days if you have to walk the whole way from Naples, but I expect you’ll get a ride in some lady’s coach, a good-looking boy like you.”
He flashed her a white-toothed smile: “If the lady’s as beautiful as you, I won’t mind.”
“Off with you.”
She turned and went up the path again, thinking it not the least of her miseries that the grand-daughter of the Deified Vespasian and the niece of Emperor Domitian must suffer the impudence of a peasant. As beautiful as you? Her mirror told her how this furnace of an island was already ravaging her beauty. Fear etched its mark upon her too. Fear of withering and dying here, forgotten and alone. Fear that the emperor, who had ordered her husband strangled, might turn his wrath on their helpless children, too. Did he have them now? What would that monster not sink to?
Ingentius Verpa, the informer, had denounced her and her husband to Domitian on charges of “atheism” and following Jewish practices. Atheism meant refusing to worship the gods of the official state religion, with the emperor and his deified forebears among them. And an attraction to Judaism was tantamount to sedition. Even after the crushing of the revolt, hatred of the Romans still smoldered in Judaea. Not even kindred blood—she, Clemens, and the emperor were all of the Flavian clan—had sufficed to save them. After all, an emperor who believes himself to be a god is bound to resent atheism!
She sat down in the shade of her doorway and the goats came up to nuzzle her. She wasn’t as brave as the other God-fearers. She was ready to bargain for her freedom and her children’s lives with the one thing of any value she still had. And Verpa would help her because there was profit in it. If she must betray her friends, she thought, where else should she turn for help but to her enemy?
She fell on her knees then and prayed to the One God to forgive her for what she—a weak and sinful daughter of Eve— was about to do.
# # #
The seventh day before the Kalends of Germanicus. The eleventh hour of the day. Rome.
…I despise you. But if I must betray my friends where else shall I turn for help but to my enemy?
Verpa set the letter down, barked at a slave to bring him chilled wine, wiped his lips with a thick hand and wiped the hand on his thigh. Though the sun had sunk below the housetops, still the heat was insufferable; the fountains that leapt and splashed in his spacious garden did nothing to relieve it. He took a sip of wine and returned to the letter.
…I dare not write directly to the emperor. Too many eyes see his correspondence. Go to our house. Stephanus expects you and will show you where to dig. Take the horoscope that you will find under a paving stone in the garden. It predicts that my husband will sit on the imperial throne. What a cruel joke! Clemens rests with the Patriarchs now, better than any earthly throne.
There was a second horoscope—I don’t know who has it, though I could guess—that predicts the date of the emperor’s death, not many weeks from now. I don’t doubt that the plotters by now have chosen another candidate for the throne.
Bring my husband’s horoscope to the emperor with this letter. It will convince him that I am not lying. But tell him I will give him the other names only in return for my freedom, my children, and my property.
Do not try to deceive me, Verpa—I will answer no com- munication that doesn’t bear his seal. I’ve no doubt he will reward you for your trouble; he pays his informers well, as who should know better than you? Farewell.
Verpa allowed himself a smile of astonishment. It was seldom that he felt himself at a loss, but this—this had taken him completely by surprise. All the time he was preparing to denounce them for atheism, the two of them had been involved in a plot to assassinate the emperor and replace him with his cousin Clemens! It was easy to imagine how the plotters must have flattered Clemens, the last surviving male member of the dynasty, and he, that amiable sheep, had allowed himself to be persuaded despite the warnings of his hard-headed wife.
And who were these other conspirators that Domitilla was now so anxious to betray? Verpa had not spent thirty years as a Roman senator, courtier, and spy for four emperors without forming some shrewd opinions as to who some of them, at least, were. And what should he do with this information? His civic duty? Warn the emperor? No doubt he would be rewarded. But was there not perhaps a greater reward to be had if he played a different game?
# # #
Since the execution of his master and the banishment of his mistress, Stephanus, the house-steward, had taken to carrying his left arm in a sling, telling people that he had broken it in a riding accident. The sling concealed a narrow-bladed dagger. Now, with his right arm, he held a lamp over the three Syrian toughs as they grunted, putting their weight on the pry bar to move the stone. Verpa, hovering behind them, mopped his glistening face and cursed at them to hurry. The lamplight threw their shadows huge against the columns of the portico. Finally, the stone came loose, and Verpa shouldered the men aside, reaching for the oilskin packet that lay beneath it. Even a hand as steady as his shook with excitement. He was holding a fortune. After they had gone and Stephanus was alone in the dark, deserted villa, he unslung his arm, massaging the stiffness out of it, and ran his thumb along the edge of his dagger. He thought about what he should do.
Oddly enough, while Ingentius Verpa was digging in the traitor’s garden, somebody was digging in his own. The lady Turpia Scortilla, his mate of seventeen years, crouched in a shadowy corner, trowel in hand, excavating a hole in the ivy bed that bordered the wall. It only needed to be a small hole to hold the object that she intended to bury—a tablet of lead, covered with incised letters and wrapped around an iron spike. She had paid the witch a great deal of money for this thing; to possess it was a capital offense.
As she tamped the earth over it and pulled the ivy tendrils back into place, the clouds parted and a full moon cast its rays upon her. Isis, who is also Diana and Hecate, blesses me, she thought, and her heart beat harder. In a whisper she recited the words of the curse:
“I entrust this spell to you, Pluto and Proserpina, Ereschigal and Adonis,
And Hermes-Thoth Phokensepsou Erektathou Misonktaik,
And Anubis the powerful, who holds the keys of Hades, And to you divine demons of the earth.
Do not disregard me, but rouse yourselves for me. Destroy Sextus Ingentius Verpa—
Bind him, blind him, kill him. Pierce his heart, O gods.
Pierce his liver, O gods. Pierce his lungs, O gods.
I conjure you by Barbartham Cheloumbra And by Abrasax And by Iao Pakeptoth.
Let him not live another day!”
The lady Turpia Scortilla struggled to her feet and walked unsteadily into the house.
# # #
Ten days after he had left, the handsome youth returned. Flavia Domitilla flew down to the beach to meet him.
“Did you find him—Verpa?”
But the youth would rather tell of his adventures: he had gone to the Circus, but there were no races that day, but then he had gone to the Colosseum and watched men die amid the jeers of the crowd, and afterwards he had eyed the whores who plied their trade under the arches there.
His expression turned serious. “I found him. He’s a big man with a fringe of white hair, thick lips, a jaw that juts out like a boulder on a hillside. Muscle underneath the fat.”
“Not a nice man. I would have to be desperate, Lady, before I asked that man for a favor.”
She half-smiled; no words were needed.
“He pinched me and tried to make me go into his bedroom, the youth continued, “but when I wouldn’t he hit me and threw me down the stairs. His slaves stood by and did nothing except for one old fellow with a broken nose and crumpled ears, who picked me up and helped me out the door.”
The youth shrugged. “It’s nothing.” “But did he give you a message for me?”
The boy looked down. Flavia Domitilla asked him again, feeling a sudden coldness in her belly. It was plain that he did not want to answer, but she dragged it out of him.
“He said he hoped the climate on Pandateria agrees with you.” “Ahh!” She sank down on the stones. “That filth! He has abandoned me! O God of Abraham!” And she wept with her hair hanging over her face.
The sound of her wailing brought two of her jailers bounding down the path toward them, drawing their swords as they ran.
The youth leapt into his boat, rowed quickly away, and never went back again.