A gasp ran around the amphitheatre. I was gasping myself. Yard after yard of diamond-patterned scales ran from the basket to the ground. 'Keep away!' Grumio yelled at it. No use. Snakes are nearly deaf.
The python felt threatened by the clown's aggression; it opened its mouth, showing what seemed to be hundreds of curved, needle-sharp, backward-pointing teeth.
I heard a quiet voice. 'Stand still.' It was Musa. The keen snakekeeper. He seemed to have known what the chest contained. 'Zeno will not hurt you.' He sounded like some competent technician taking charge.
Thalia had told me pythons do not attack humans. What Thalia said was good enough for me, but I was not taking chances. I remained quite motionless.
The kid, still in Musa's arms, bleated nervously. Then Musa moved steadily past me towards the huge snake.
He reached Grumio. Zeno's tongue flicked rapidly through the side of his mouth. 'He is just taking your scent.' Musa's voice was gentle, yet not reassuring. As if to free himself for dealing with the python, he set down the kid. It leapt forwards. Tottering towards Grumio on fragile legs, it looked terrified, but Zeno showed no interest. 'I, however,' Musa continued quietly, 'already know you Grumio! I arrest you for the murder of the playwright Heliodorus and the tambourinist Ione.' In Musa's hand had appeared the slim, wicked-looking blade of his Nabataean dagger. He was holding it with its point towards Grumio's throat; it was merely a gesture, though, for he was still several feet from the clown.
Suddenly Grumio sprang sideways. He grabbed the kid, and threw it towards Zeno. The kid let out a pitiful bleat of terror, expecting to be bitten and constricted. But Thalia had once told me that snakes in captivity can be choosy. Instead of co-operating, Zeno executed a smooth about-turn. Plainly unhappy, he doubled up on himself with an impressive show of muscle and tried to leave the scene.
The great python sped straight into a group of stage scenery. Hitching strong loops of himself around whatever he encountered, almost deliberately he knocked things flying. The big ceramic jar crashed over, losing its lid. Zeno wound himself around the stage oven, then curled up on top of it, looking superior, as the contraption bowed beneath his enormous weight. Meanwhile, Grumio had gained ground on both Musa and me. He seemed to have a clear run to the exit and began to spring away from us.
From the overturned jar something else emerged. It was smaller than the python - but more dangerous. Grumio stopped in his tracks. I had started to pursue him, but Musa exclaimed and gripped my arm. In front of Grumio there was now another snake: a dark head, a banded body, and as it reared upright to confront him, a golden throat beneath the wide extension of its sinister hood. It must be Pharaoh, Thalia's new cobra. He was angry, hissing, and in full threat display.
'Retreat slowly!' Musa commanded in a clear voice.
Grumio, who was nearly ten feet from the reptile, ignored the advice. He seized a torch and made a sweeping gesture with the burning brand. Pharaoh made what was obviously a mere feint. He expected respect.
'He will follow movement!' Musa warned, still unheeded.
Grumio shook the torch again. The cobra let out a short, low hiss, then darted across the whole distance between them and struck.
Pharaoh moved back. Slamming down at body height, he had bitten the leather apron Grumio wore in costume as a slave. The leather must be snakeproof. It would have saved the clown's life.
But his ordeal had not ended. As he was struck that first ferocious blow, Grumio, terrified, staggered and then tripped. On the ground, he instinctively scrabbled to get away. Pharaoh saw him still moving, and rushed forwards again. This time he struck Grumio full on the neck. The downward bite was accurate and strong, followed by a fast chewing movement to make sure.
Our audience went wild. A kill on-stage: just what they had bought their tickets for.
Palmyra: the desert. Hotter than ever, at night.
SYNOPSIS: Falco Falco, a playwright, not in the mood to play the hired trickster, finds that as usual he has set everything to rights...
Something told me that no one was ever going to ask me what happened about Moschion and his ghost.
Musa and I emerged from the arena badly shaken. We had seen Grumio collapse in shock and hysteria. As soon as the cobra retreated by stages from his vicinity, we crept forward cautiously and dragged the clown to the gates. Behind us the crowd was in uproar. Soon the python was maliciously destroying props while the cobra watched with a menacing attitude.
Grumio was not dead, but undoubtedly he would be. Thalia came over to look at him, then caught my eye and shook her head.
'He'll be gone before dawn.'
'Thalia, should somebody catch your snakes?'
'I don't suggest anyone else tries!'
She was brought a long, pronged implement and ventured into the arena with the bravest of her people. Soon the cobra had been pinned down and reinstalled in his jar, while Zeno rather smugly returned to his basket of his own accord, as if none of the chaos should be blamed on him.
I stared at Musa. Clearly he had brought the python to the arena, ready for Thalia's act after the play. Had it been his idea to take the basket on-stage as a dangerous prop? And had he also known that Pharaoh was in the ceramic jar? If I asked him he would probably tell me, in his straight way. I preferred not to know. There was little difference between what had happened today and subjecting Grumio to the delays of a trial and almost certain condemnation ad bestias ad bestias.
A group of soldiers pulled themselves together. They took charge of Grumio, then, since the commander had told them to arrest all possible culprits, they arrested Tranio too. He went along with a shrug. There was hardly a case to answer. Tranio had behaved unbelievably, but there was no law in the Twelve Tables against sheer stupidity. He had given away the precious scroll of stories, failed to retrieve it, then allowed Grumio to carry on undetected long after he himself must have known the truth. But if he really thought that his own original mistake equated with Grumio's crimes, he needed a course in ethics.
Later, while we were waiting for the convulsions and paralysis to finish Grumio, Tranio would admit what he knew: that Grumio, acting alone, had lured Heliodorus up the mountain at Petra, making sure no one else knew he had gone there; that Grumio had been walking closest to Musa when he was pushed into the reservoir at Bostra; that Grumio had actually laughed with his tentmate about various attempts to disable me - letting me fall off a ladder, the knife-throwing incident, and even threatening to push me into the underground water system at Gadara.
When Helena and I finally left Palmyra, Tranio would remain in custody, though much later I heard that he had been released. I never knew what happened to him afterwards. It was Congrio who was to become the famous Roman clown. We would attend many of his performances despite those harsh critics at me Theatre of Balbus who dared to suggest that the great Congrio's stories were rather antique, and that somebody should find him a more modern scroll of jokes.
Life would have to alter for several of our companions. When Musa and I first left the arena, Philocrates, in great pain and covered in gore from a glorious nosebleed, had been sitting on the ground waiting for a bone-setter. He looked as if he had a fractured collarbone. His nose, and probably one of his cheekbones, had been broken in his fall. He would never again play the handsome juvenile. I tried to encourage him: 'Never mind, Philocrates. Some women adore a man who has a lived-in face.' You have to be kind.
Once she had ruled out any hope for Grumio, Thalia came to help mop up the drips of blood on mis casualty; I swear I heard her trying to negotiate to buy Philocrates' comic mule. The creature would be knocking people over regularly in Nero's Circus when Thalia returned home.
I myself was temporarily in trouble. While Musa and I were hanging on to each other getting our breath back, a familiar voice stormed angrily: 'Didius Falco, if you really want to kill yourself, why not just get run over by a dung-cart like everybody else? Why do you have to attempt your destruction in front of two thousand strangers? And why do I have to be made to watch?'
Magic. I was never so happy as when Helena was berating me. It took my mind off everything else.
'May as well sell tickets for the fight, and help you pay for my funeral -'
She growled, dragging the ghost's costume up and over my head to give me air. But it was a gentle hand that wiped my perspiring brow with her own white stole.
Then we were rushed by the Habib family. They had burst from their seats to tell us what a wonderful evening we had invited them to share - and to stare hard at Helena's lanky chaperone. I left the next part to the women. Helena and Thalia must have planned it in advance, and while Helena was taking her up into the tribunal, Sophrona must have been instructed to go along with it.
Helena hugged the girl, then cried to the Habib family gratefully, 'Oh thank you for looking after her - I've been searching all over for the naughty thing! But now she's found and I can take her back to Rome with me to her proper life. I expect you realised she was from a good family. Such a talented musician, but wicked to run away to be on the stage, of course. Still, what can you expect. She plays the instrument of emperors...'
I was choking quietly.
The Habib parents had weighed up the quality of Helena's jewels, some of which she must have been buying quietly from Nabataean caravans and Decapolis markets while my back was turned. They had seen the commanding officer treating her with extreme respect, since he knew that Vespasian himself wanted her whereabouts reported on. Now Khaleed put on a beseeching look. His father was salivating over their apparent good luck. Sophrona herself, like most girls, found she could easily slip into the appearance of being better than she was.
Khaleed's mother suggested that if the girl had to leave Syria, maybe the young couple could be married first. Helena then proposed that Khaleed should spend some time in Rome improving himself among the nobility...
'Isn't that nice?' uttered Thalia, with no apparent trace of irony. Nobody but me seemed to entertain any notion that once in Rome the forceful Thalia would persuade Sophrona that her best interests lay not in settling down, but in her public career as an organist.
Discussion was avoided because of a rumpus in the amphitheatre. Denied a full programme, the angry soldiers had started to tear up benches from the ramps.
'Jupiter! Better stop this! How can we distract them?'
'Easy.' Thalia grabbed hold of the young lady. 'Now you're nicely sorted out, Sophrona, you can do something in return. Buck up! I didn't bring it all the way from Rome just to let mosquitoes breed in the water tank...'
She signalled to her staff. With a speed that astonished us they lined up around a large low carriage. Calling some of Chremes' stagehands to help them, they wheeled it to the gate, counted three, then ran out across the open space. The audience stilled, and quickly resumed what was left of their seats. The shrouds dropped from the looming item. It was a hydraulus.
When levered off its carriage, the water organ stood over twelve feet high. The upper portion looked like a gigantic set of syrinx pipes, made partly of bronze, partly of reed. The lower part was formed from an ornamental chest to which bellows were attached. One of Thalia's men was pouring water carefully into a chamber. Another was attaching a footboard, a huge lever, and a keyboard.
I saw Sophrona's eyes widen. For a few moments she managed to hide her eagerness, performing a brief pageant of reluctant maidenhood. Helena and the rest of us went along with it and pleaded with her to take the stage. Next minute she was bounding out to give orders to those setting up the instrument for her.
It was obvious that playing the organ mattered. I decided I ought to introduce Sophrona to Ribes. Our moody lyre-player seemed like a young man who might be done a power of good by a girl with wonderful eyes who could talk to him about music...
Thalia grinned at Davos. 'Going to help me pump her bellows?' She could make the simplest question sound cheeky. Davos accepted the dubious invitation like a man, even though Thalia had a glint that promised even harder work for him afterwards.
A decent fellow. I reckoned he would cope. Just as they were about to leave us to provide Sophrona's support on-stage, Phrygia called Thalia back. She had teetered up, her long gangly figure balancing precariously on platform heels. She was waving at the equally tall figure of Sophrona.
'That girl...' She sounded anguished.
'Sophrona? She's just a waif I inherited with Fronto's circus.' The narrowing of Thalia's eyes looked unreliable to anyone who wasn't desperate.
'I hoped my daughter was here...' Phrygia was not giving up.
'She's here. But maybe after twenty years alone she doesn't want to be found.'
'I'll make everything up to her! I can offer her the best.' Phrygia gazed around wildly. Only one other female in our circle was the right age: Byrria. She snatched at the younger actress hysterically. 'We took you on in Italy! Where were you brought up?'
'Latium.' Byrria looked calm, but curious.
'Outside Rome? Do you know your parents.'
'I was an orphan.'
'Do you know Thalia?'
I saw Thalia wink at Byrria. 'Obviously,' said Thalia quietly, 'I never told your daughter a famous actress was her mother. You don't want girls getting big ideas.'
Phrygia threw her arms around Byrria and burst into tears.
Thalia shot me a look, one of calculation and amazement at what fools would believe when their eyes should tell them different. Then she managed to grab Davos and escape into the arena.
'Everything is going to be wonderful from now on!' Phrygia cried to Byrria. Byrria gave her the doubtful grimace of the usual ungrateful daughter who wants to make her own life.
Helena and I exchanged a glance. We could see the young actress considering what to do as she recognised her amazing luck. Out in the arena, Sophrona had no idea she was being displaced; she was being given plenty of options anyway. Byrria's determination to gain a place in the world had never been in doubt. She wanted a career. If she played along with Phrygia's mistake, she could not only demand good acting parts, but without a doubt she would sooner or later end up in command of the whole company. I reckoned she would be good at that. Loners can usually organise.
What Chremes had told us about the death of live theatre would probably not count. He had been despondent. There was still scope for entertainers, certainly in the provinces, and even in Italy if they adapted to the market. Byrria must know she had been offered the chance of her life.
Chremes, who appeared to need more time than his wife to consider his position, gave Byrria an embarrassed smile, then led Phrygia away to join most of our company, who had collected inside the gate of the amphitheatre. They were eagerly waiting to judge Sophrona's keyboard skills on the fabulous instrument. Byrria dallied behind with Musa, Helena and me. On the whole, I thought Chremes' position was a good one. If he kept his head down he could keep his wife, find himself promoting a popular and beautiful young actress, and probably have peace at home.
Davos, I thought, might soon want to be leaving the company.
If Davos joined forces with Thalia, there seemed a possibility that Sophrona might have lost a mother, but gained a father here today.
I lurched to my feet. 'I'm not a great fan of sonorous music' Especially after a nerve-racking physical experience. 'Don't let me spoil the fun for anyone else, but if none of you mind, I've had enough of this.' They all decided to come with me back to camp.
We turned away. Helena and I had our arms tightly around one another as we walked, in a sad and contemplative mood. Musa and Byrria were strolling in their normal manner, straight-backed, solemn-faced, side by side in silence and not even holding hands.
I wondered what would become of them. I wanted to think they would now find a quiet corner together and come to terms. Since it was what I would have done myself, I wanted them to go to bed.
Somehow I doubted that would happen. I knew Helena shared my melancholy feeling that we were watching a relationship fail to materialise.
Musa would return to Petra; Byrria would be well known in the Roman theatre. Yet they were obviously friends. Maybe she would write to Musa, and he to her. Maybe I ought to encourage it, one link at least to smooth the path to Nabataean assimilation into the Empire. Cultural contact and private friendship forging bonds: that old diplomatic myth. If he could overcome his urge to run a menagerie, I could see Musa becoming a grand figure in Nabataea. If Byrria became a major entertainment queen, she would meet all the Empire's men of power.
Perhaps one day in the future, when Byrria had exhausted her dreams, they would meet again and it might not be too late.
We had walked some distance. Dusk had long given way to night. Beyond reach of the arena torches we had to pick our way with care. The great oasis was peaceful and mysterious, its palms and olive trees reduced to vague dark shapes; its homes, and public buildings lost in their midst. Above our heads a myriad of stars plunged through their endless rota, mechanical yet heart-tugging. Somewhere in the desert a camel brayed its preposterous call, then a dozen others started harshly answering.
Then we all paused, and turned back for a moment. Awestruck, we had reacted to an extraordinary sound. From the place we had left sounded a resonance unlike anything any of us had ever heard. Sophrona was playing. The effect astonished us. If she was Phrygia's true daughter I could see exactly why Thalia wanted to keep the information to herself. Nothing should be allowed to interfere with such a remarkable talent. The public deserves to be entertained.
Around Palmyra, even the beasts in the merchants' caravans had ceased their cacophonous calls. Like us, they stood stock-still listening. The reverberating chords of the water organ rose above the desert, so all the camels were stilled by a wild music that was even more powerful, even louder, and (I fear) even more ridiculous than their own.