hoping to earn enough to eat by doing menial tasks like holding horses and selling the manure. He wore a ragged tunic and was anything but clean, but he had a pair of fairly serviceable sandals on his feet, which made it not impossible for him to walk so far, and I guessed that he’d be grateful for my paltry coin. I gave him a verbal message to deliver to my house, and he accepted the errand very readily.
It was not very satisfactory. I had no guarantee that he’d actually deliver it: it was several miles to my roundhouse, and I had no means of writing anything so I could not tell my wife to pay him extra when he came, which might have ensured that he actually arrived. But in the circumstances it was the best that I could do. I watched him out of sight and then I set off myself in the direction of Pedronius’s country house and the garden where the plaque was to be laid.
I did pause at the gatehouse at the city wall to ask if the sentries had seen my missing slave but, as I feared, there was no news of him. I gave them a good description and a different account (they had been alerted to watch for runaways), then I set off again.
It was a long trek from my workshop, and longer still from the swampy river suburb where the pie-oven was, so by the time I neared the villa the day was well advanced. I began to wonder if they would let me in, and, even if they did, whether I could complete the task before I had to leave. (I would have to go before the sun was set – the walk home meant several miles of lonely forest road, I had no lantern and there were bandits in the woods, as Gwellia, my wife, was always telling me.) But if I could get the plaque inside the gates at least, and put it in the garden where it was to be installed, it would be difficult for the customer to refuse to pay. I hurried down the roadway that led up to the house.
It was a large and handsome dwelling, conspicuously constructed to impress, as befitted a very wealthy man. No doubt that’s why the tax-collector had acquired it. A handsome high wall ran around the whole perimeter, with a gatehouse and a gravelled drive in front, leading through gardens to the handsome portico, while a smaller, rougher country track led round the side of it, winding off to farmsteads in the hills, and from that there was a rear entrance to Pedronius’s estate for the stables, servants and deliveries. That was where I was expecting to find Radixrapum with his load, but a glance along the lane there showed no sign of him. Surely he had not gone knocking at the front?
I was about to retrace my steps and look when a small boy in a turquoise tunic scuttled from the back gate out into the lane. He was not a lad I recognized from my previous visit, but that was not surprising. He was almost certainly a page, and – apart from the chief steward, who showed me where I was to put the plaque – I’d had no dealings with the indoor slaves.
I accosted him at once. ‘Are you a servant of Pedronius the tax-gatherer?’ I said.
The pageboy looked suspiciously at me. ‘And what is it to you, tradesman, whose slave I am?’ His voice was piping, but he spoke with an impudence far beyond his years. ‘Who are you anyway?’ He looked me up and down. I was still in my tunic and working clothes, of course. ‘What is your business here?’
‘I am Libertus the pavement-maker,’ I replied with dignity. ‘A tradesman, certainly, but a Roman citizen.’
I saw him blanch a little. ‘I’m sorry, citizen, I—’
I cut him off. I wanted information, not apology. ‘I have been working in the house. Your master has commissioned an Apollo plaque from me. He wants it put around the garden shrine. The site is all prepared and I have come to lay it now if that is still convenient. The work is delicate and I constructed it at home. Someone was to have delivered it for me.’
His young face cleared. ‘Ah, the mosaic. I heard that it had come, though they are not best pleased with how it