by Donald S. Crankshaw
"One thousand sesterces! I'm selling you a home, not a horse!" Titus Fabius Didimus
If you're spending that much for your horses, it's no wonder you're broke, Septimus
thought. What he said was, "It's twice what Crassus would offer."
"Crassus would at least have the decency to wait until the house was on fire before going
that low," Didimus muttered. He dabbed his round face with a handkerchief despite the chilly air.
The heating pipes that ran under the floor did little good if no one stoked a fire in the furnace.
Septimus propped himself a little higher on the dining couch and gestured around the
room with his free hand. Frescoes gave an illusion of depth to the wall with painted hallways
leading into the distance, and a small shrine held figurines of gods--Septimus recognized Mars.
"When's the last time you spent a night in this house?" he asked. "I know for a fact that the only
slave that stays here is the one you chain to the doorpost to watch the entrance. The rest either
refuse, or run away when you try to force them."
Didimus waved his hand in what was supposed to be a negligent manner, but only
succeeded in looking spastic. "Superstitious Gauls. I just need to buy more Greeks."
The girl bringing their food and filling their wine looked Greek, but she acted as nervous
as her master, refusing to meet Septimus's eyes and scurrying about as if afraid to stand in one
place for too long. She and the door slave had been the only two he'd seen since arriving, though
there had to be one in the kitchen making the food. Even so, it was all dishes that could be
prepared quickly: cold bread, boiled meat with dipping sauces, and plenty of spiced wine, not
nearly diluted enough. The cook had certainly not been at work since the dark hours of the
morning, not in this house.
"I also hear that you had some priests from the temple of Mars perform a cleansing,"
"What of it?" Didimus demanded. "Of course I wanted to get rid of any spirits this place
may have accumulated since Marcus Regulus's death."
"Especially Regulus's own. But that wasn't the only cleansing you've tried, and after four
attempts during the past year, you must be wondering how effective they are. I'd think that if any
of the priests could cleanse this house, they'd have managed it by now."
"And you think that Babylonian witch of yours can do better?"
"If she can't, that's my problem, isn't it? Let Mercury judge me if I'm trying to cheat you."
Septimus tipped his cup to pour a splash of wine on the floor to honor the god of commerce.
After that, it was just haggling. Didimus let the house go for only twelve hundred
sesterces. Septimus had been willing to go as high as fifteen.
"What do you think?" Septimus asked.
Maga paused at the shrine, the charms at her belt tinkling with her movement. Behind the
figurines was a fresco of two young men flanking an older one, an image of a snake beneath their
feet. The tassels on the long sleeve of her red dress brushed against the lintel as she picked up the
figurine of a spear-wielding armored man with a long beard and a tall crest on his helmet. "It is
too early to think things," she said, causing the thin red veil covering her nose and mouth to
flutter. "These are your gods?"
"Some of them," Septimus said. "That's Mars, the god of war. He should also ward off
"He is not doing that good job," she said. Her Latin was broken and strangely accented.
Maga claimed to be from Babylon, but she was far from the first mystic he'd met who had made
that claim. Maybe she even was: her dusky skin and long dark ringlets of hair suggested origins
farther east than Greece, and he couldn't place her accent from anywhere among Rome's
"Can your god do better?" Septimus asked, switching to Greek. Maga was better with
Greek than Latin.
"My god would cleanse this house with fire and be done with it." Maga set the figure
down and hugged her arms to her chest. The gesture made her seem younger than he thought she
was. Her face was unlined and there was no gray in her hair, but she had to be as old as he was. "I
do not like the feel of it."
"I'm not trying to sell to Crassus at a loss," Septimus said.
"No, you do this for the profit."
"Of course. You cleanse the house, we stay long enough to prove that it's no longer
haunted, and then I sell it for at least three times what I paid." It was as much of the truth as he
had been willing to share with Maga so far. "Exactly like the first two houses."
"I keep saying, first house was not haunted. Just silly noises and superstition. The second
house had a weak daeva. Anyone knowing proper rituals could get rid of it. This one is different,
more dangerous. Mortal dead."
The second house had been especially disappointing for Septimus. He didn't expect every
supposedly haunted house to actually be haunted, but Maga had assured him that there was a
daeva in the second one. Even so, Septimus had never seen anything before Maga's purification
ritual, and during it, just shadows in a dark room filled with incense and lit only by a small wood
flame. Any medium with a hint of showmanship could have managed as much. Even if he had
thought he'd seen something, he was never sure afterward.
"And a mortal ghost is harder to get rid of than a daeva?" Septimus asked.
"A . . . ghost? Ghost is more complicated. A daeva is a being of darkness, repulsed by
things of light. Even dead people are still attracted to light. Most linger for a purpose. If we can
satisfy that purpose, it will depart of its own will."
She left the shrine and continued to circle the dining room, pacing around the three dining
couches and the small table, her bare feet brushing against the floor's mosaic of the fall of Troy.
The doors to the room opened and Timor entered.
"All our things are moved in, along with enough food for several days," Timor said.
Septimus's manservant was tall, just a bit shorter than his master, and he wore a beard in the
Greek fashion that he was irrationally proud of. "Since Didimus appears to have left us all his
furniture, we should have everything we need."
"Good," Septimus said.
"Also, I found out why he needed to chain his doorman here. This was his key." Timor
handed over a long iron bar bent at both ends.
"This is just a latch-lifter," Septimus said. "It wouldn't keep out anyone even halfway
"Exactly," Timor said. "So Didimus bolted the doors to the floor instead, and kept a slave
here to let him in and out."
Septimus shook his head. "I'm glad you convinced me to get better locks for my house."
Timor's demonstration of how easy it was to get past the simpler locks had been very persuasive.
"We'll use the floor bolts too, but I'm not chaining a doorman here." He wouldn't make anyone
stay in this house but himself, Timor, and Maga. "In the meantime, what did you find out about
the late Marcus Quirinius Regulus, our mortal dead?"
"The former owner of this house had the most consistent reputation in all of Rome: his
patron hated him, his clients hated him more, and his slaves hated him most of all."
"I was hoping you'd learned something I didn't already know. If his slaves hadn't hated
him, they wouldn't have murdered him."
There was a sharp intake of breath from Maga. "His slaves, they killed him?"
"That is what the Senate decided when they had them put to death," Timor replied.
"How many were his slaves?"
"They almost executed all five hundred."
"But they could not all have helped kill him. Five hundred would not fit in this house."
"Most of them were fieldworkers on his country estates. They probably never saw the
"Enough, Timor," Septimus said. The Greek had been his personal slave since Septimus
was born, so he sometimes forgot that he should not speak so freely in front of others, even
Maga. "The Senate decided against executing the ones on his other estates. Only the dozen or so
who lived here were killed."
"Only because you talked them out of it. They would have killed them all otherwise."
Maga turned toward Septimus. "You talked them out of it?"
"It didn't seem right, not when they were nowhere near him. Even if we couldn't be sure
who killed him, they weren't part of the plot."
"You did not know who killed him, and you executed a dozen slaves anyway? How is that
"Unjust?" Septimus protested. "His slaves hid his death for three days while they plotted
their own escape, letting his body rot rather than be properly cremated. They were only found out
when his patron came demanding to see him over some debt and became suspicious when he
noticed the smell. It's no wonder he still haunts this place with that sort of treatment. I was against
executing the field slaves, but the household slaves were clearly not innocent."
"Besides," Timor added, "punishing all the slaves of the household for the murder of their
master encourages us to report any murder plots before they happen, at least if we value our own
"You agree with this?" Maga demanded.
"I didn't say that. I'm just explaining the logic."
"Perhaps it would help if you looked at the courtyard, Maga," Septimus said before she
could speak again. It surprised him that she was so upset over Roman justice for murderous
slaves, but foreigners could be touchy. "The slaves said that's where the body was found."
Maga folded her arms and frowned at the both of them, but after a few moments she gave
a sharp nod and headed out the double doors and into the peristyle courtyard. Septimus and
Timor followed her onto the covered walkway that surrounded the yard, which had been allowed
to go to seed. The exotic flowers that Didimus had planted had died, and the remainder of the
garden had been overrun by weeds. Even the stone walkways were coming apart, with weeds
growing between some paving stones and the roots of the tree in the center displacing others. The
tree itself was an ugly, twisted thing hunched over the garden, yet still taller than the roof of the
covered walkway. The branches swayed in the wind whipping past the rooftop, the dead brown
leaves fluttering. Dark and pale patches riddled its bark.
"Is that an oak tree?" Septimus asked. "It looks diseased."
"I think so," Timor said. "The leaves are right."
"Are they?" All the leaves Septimus could see were dried and shriveled; he couldn't tell
their shape from here. Maybe it came from that grove Regulus had owned near the Labicana
Road. He had always claimed it was sacred to some god. "So what should we do now, Maga? Is
there some ritual we should perform?"
"For now, we wait. I do not perform any ritual until I know more."
Timor helped Septimus unwrap his toga. Once the heavy and confining garment was off,
Septimus swung his left arm back and forth a few times, relishing the ability to move freely. "Be
glad you don't have to walk around in that thing all day."
"A lot of citizens only wear their togas for formal occasions," Timor said as he folded the
"The lower classes are free to wear what they want. More is expected from Senators."
Septimus sat down on the sleeping couch in just his tunic. He was uncomfortably aware that he
would be sleeping in the same bed as Regulus had. The room was large as sleeping rooms went,
with space for a chest and a pallet which Timor would be using, but not even the rolling hills
painted on the walls could make the room feel expansive. "Do you suppose we'll encounter
"I doubt it," Timor said. He glanced toward the wall which stood between them and the
room Maga had taken, and lowered his voice. "She's just another fraud, you know."
"Maybe," Septimus admitted. He'd met plenty of frauds who had claimed they could
communicate with the dead. All of them had been happy to take his money, most of them had put
on a good show, but none had done anything that Timor couldn't explain.
"It was all smoke and shadows, Septimus. Nothing real."
Septimus wasn't so sure. He thought he'd seen--well, thinking something didn't make it
so. But it wasn't the second house that had convinced him. "The first house. She denied that the
house was haunted. Refused to perform any ritual or take any money. There wasn't anything to
do, she said."
"That just makes her all the more clever at cheating."
"Maybe. There's something about her, though, something different."
Timor sighed. "It's because she's a pretty woman, isn't it? You haven't been with anyone
since . . . If you'd go see Marcia like I keep suggesting, then you wouldn't be taken in just because
"Even if it weren't too soon after Livia's death, Marcia and I haven't been together since
before I got married."
"It's been years, Septimus. Most men wouldn't grieve so long."
"Well, most men aren't being pushed by their slaves to bed the woman responsible for their
"Fine. Forget about Marcia. Bed the witch if you want; just don't trust her."
"Enough, Timor. This isn't about Marcia or Livia."
"That's not true; you know it isn't."
Septimus didn't bother to argue. He'd never had much interest in spirits before his wife
died. Afterward, he'd consulted with dozens of mediums and oracles, seeking to speak with her
one last time, to try to explain, to seek forgiveness. He'd have lost his fortune to those charlatans
thrice over without Timor, who was always there to point out the tricks, the lies, the
inconsistencies in their performances. "Let's just go to sleep." He lay down to suit his own words.
Timor rolled his eyes, but he didn't say anything more as he put out the lamp, casting them
Nothing happened the next few days, but it was a tense sort of nothing. Septimus and
Timor went through their normal routine, or as normal as it could be without the rest of
Septimus's household. Timor wasn't much of a cook, and he couldn't keep the furnace going on
his own, so it was a cold, empty, and hungry house that they stayed in. Septimus took every
opportunity to dine with friends, or at his own residence, though it was an hour's walk each way.
They would bring food back with them each time to tide them over between trips. A couple of
times they even went to a thermopolium for a light lunch, though it was more an excuse to get
away from Regulus's house than out of fondness for the food served.
Inside the house, Septimus was continually ill at ease. Even Timor felt it, though he would
never admit it. The air was thick and heavy, and it sometimes felt like an effort to breathe.
Septimus woke at odd moments, his breath short and heart pounding, with no recollection as to
what had startled him. In the silence of the night, he imagined he heard barely audible
susurrations, just below the threshold of understanding. Night and day, he kept thinking he saw
something out of the corner of his eye, but he could never find it when he looked. More than once
as he worked in Regulus's study, writing or reading the dry histories Regulus had collected, he
sensed someone in the room with him and started to say something to Timor or Maga, only to
realize that he was alone.
If Maga felt the same disquiet as Septimus, she did not show it. Septimus would come
across her, reading in the study, or eating some of their food, or standing in the middle of the
atrium or dining room staring at nothing. But most of the time she spent in the courtyard, sitting
cross-legged under the dead, ugly tree. She was always respectful, but she never said much, and in
answer to Septimus's questions about what they should do, she would only say that they must
wait, that it wasn't time yet. When, after days of worry and too little sleep, he grew angry and
demanded that she do something, she replied, "What should I do? You tell me. The wrong ritual
only makes things worse. So I wait; I look and I listen and I learn. Then I will know what I should
do. If you cannot wait, then you do not have to stay."
But Septimus was determined to see this through. He had as much courage as this foreign
witch, and this time he would see proof of this ghost. He had to. After so many charlatans, so
many broken promises and ruined hopes, doubt had settled deep in his bones. If every claim about
the afterlife was false, was there anything there at all? The fear that there was no reunion with
Livia, no forgiveness, no hope in his future, had kept him awake many long nights. He desperately
needed a reason to believe.
Septimus locked the floor bolts on the doors to the study and shoveled some charcoal into
the brazier. The window let in cold but no light from the courtyard, so the only illumination came
from the brazier and the three-spouted oil lamp on its stand. It was just enough to read by. He
should have gone to bed, but another sleepless night spent tossing and turning didn't exactly count
as restful. Perhaps reading one of the histories Regulus had collected would bring Somnus's
poppies to him.
Septimus frowned as he passed the wax tablet lying open on the writing table--four
wooden sheets bound together at one edge, their recessed centers filled with a layer of wax
covered by Regulus's sloppy script and sloppier poetry. Who would have thought the man would
write poetry? It did not surprise Septimus that it was lewd and arrhythmic. He just wondered who
kept taking it down. Maga was the most likely, as he knew she spent a lot of time in the study
when he and Timor were out.
After clearing the writing table, he found a scroll containing Timaeus's On Pyrrhus in one
of the cubbyholes on the wall, and settled down to read on the couch. If Timaeus's long
digressions and imagined speeches couldn't put him to sleep, nothing would. By the time Timaeus
was halfway through the history of Rome's priestly colleges--and getting half of it wrong, as
could only be expected of a Greek--Septimus was beginning to nod off.
He startled awake at the clatter of wood hitting the tiled floor. Blinking his blurry eyes,
Septimus searched for the source until he found the wax tablet on the floor by the couch. He
picked up the tablet, wondering how Regulus's raunchy poetry had gotten so far from the shelf
where he had put it away--or had he forgotten and left it on the table's edge? That was more
likely than for the tablet to have skipped halfway across the room after falling from the shelf. He
closed the tablet, wrapped the strap around it, and carried it across the cold floor to place it in the
center of the table, where there was no chance of it falling. He then lay back down. The Timaeus
scroll had rolled under the couch while he dealt with the tablet, but Septimus left it where it was.
He was tired enough that he didn't need it any longer.
His eyes were growing heavy again when there was an unmistakable clack of wood
against wood. He sat up and saw the tablet now lying open on the table.
"I closed it," Septimus muttered. "I'm certain I did." He stood up, the floor even colder
against his feet than it had been mere moments ago, and walked to where the tablet lay open.
Written across the bad poetry, in large, ugly letters that looked like they had been scraped with a
fingernail instead of a stylus, were the same words over and over again. "Let me go. Let me go.
Letmegoletmegoletmego . . ."
Septimus looked away, his breathing harsh and the cold air burning his throat. His heart
pounded loudly in his ears as he searched the dim surroundings for signs of anyone besides
himself. No one could have entered through the bolted doors. "Hello," he tried, but his throat was
so tight that barely a whisper came out. "Is anyone there?" The words were louder this time,
though the darkness seemed to swallow them up.
His answer came when the wax tablet began to rattle on the table. Septimus slammed his
hand down on it and held it still, though it continued to vibrate beneath his palm. "Stop that!" One
of the wicks in the oil lamp went dark, and the room became even dimmer. Then another, and
Septimus could barely see the words on the tablet. When the last wick went out, the only light
came from the glowing embers in the brazier, casting a red pall over everything still visible in the
Septimus felt, rather than heard, someone behind him, and he turned quickly. No one. His
breath was coming in short gasps and he felt light-headed. He had known that seeking out ghosts
would be dangerous, and he'd thought he was ready for it, but he was more frightened now than
he had ever been. Even in the army, he'd never been as completely helpless against an enemy,
never as completely alone.
The scent of the smoldering brazier was growing stronger as thick clouds of smoke
dimmed the light even further. He coughed as it burned his nose and mouth, and couldn't stop
Septimus lunged for the doors. He could barely see them in the darkness and the smoke,
and they didn't budge when he slammed into them. His fingers were slow and clumsy as they
sought out the floor-bolts that held the doors closed. At first the bolts seemed stuck, and he could
barely twist them. He banged against the doors and hoarsely shouted for help, but that only served
to wind him faster and fill his lungs with the astringent smoke. Darkness was creeping at the edge
of his vision when he finally managed to pull the left bolt free and tumble through the door into
Blessedly cool air bathed his face and filled his nostrils, and light from the moon nearly
blinded him. He lay where he was, breathing hard, seeing only the concrete of the walkway
surrounding the garden. Finally he looked up, and saw Regulus standing over him.
Regulus loomed gigantic over Septimus's prone form. His ruddy face was now pale and
bloodless, and his small, hollow eyes stared straight ahead as bloody hands clutched at the gaping
wound in his belly, trying to stuff the entrails back in through the ruined tunic. Blue lips mouthed
words in barely a whisper. Septimus's every muscle screamed in revulsion, but instead of
scrambling away like any sane man, he held still and listened, holding his breath to hear the
whispered words of a dead man. Regulus's heavy jowls quivered as he muttered the same words
over and over again: "Let me go."
"How?" Septimus pushed himself up, but by the time he reached his knees, Regulus was
"You really saw him?" Timor asked. He stood by the table rather than reclining on any of
"Saw him and heard him," Septimus replied. They were gathered around the dining table
for breakfast the morning after Regulus's appearance. Septimus tore off a hunk of bread and
dipped it in olive oil before taking a bite. He should have been tired, but instead he felt a stream of
nervous energy running through him. There was life after death. He felt foolish for ever doubting.
Surely he would see Livia again. Surely she would forgive him. "You don't think I just imagined
it, do you?"
Timor spat out an olive pit. "I don't know. Are you sure you weren't dreaming?"
"I'm sure," Septimus said. "Maga, what do you think?"
Maga swallowed a mouthful of the cheese she'd been nibbling on. She claimed not to like
olives, which was absurd. Septimus had never met anyone who disliked olives. It was like
disliking grapes, or wine. "I think it important to know what holds him. He wanted you to, what
did he say, 'Let me go'?"
"Well, I'm not holding him here."
"Don't look at me," Timor said. "I certainly don't want him around."
"So how do we 'let him go'?"
Instead of answering right away, Maga took a sip of her water. She had refused even the
most watered-down wine. "The dead," she said finally, "they must be given the proper rites."
"Regulus was given the proper rites. I attended his funeral myself." Just because Septimus
hadn't liked the man didn't mean he couldn't show respect to a fellow Senator. "His ashes were
interred in his family tomb outside the Esquiline Gate."
"Unlike his slaves," Timor said. "They were left to rot on their crosses and be eaten by
Septimus gave Timor a sharp look, which his slave pretended, as usual, not to see.
"That is how you dishonor your dead?" Maga asked. "Let them be eaten by animals?" She
shook her head.
"Do our punishments offend you?" Septimus asked.
"Yes, but that is not what I mean. It is strange you look down on being consumed."
"You don't consider that dishonorable?" There were times when Septimus forgot that
Maga was a barbarian.
"No, but the dead themselves must decide whether they were honored correctly."
"They were dishonored because they were criminals." Septimus took a sip of his wine.
"The punishment was harsh, true. Crucifixion is always ugly. I avoided the Labicana Road until it
was over." He was not one of those who enjoyed watching people die, even when justice was
"I do not know where that road is," Maga said.
Septimus put his cup down. "Outside the Esquiline Gate."
"Where Regulus was buried, yes?"
"His bones were probably still warm when the people who hated him most were crucified
right outside his tomb," Timor said.
They all exchanged a long look.
"So their remains mingled, at the same time and place," Maga said. "But one was given
honor, while the others were not. And he was murdered, while the others executed unjustly. It is
no wonder they clung to him, unwilling to let him go while they could not."
"Are you saying that's why he's still here?"
"It seems likely."
"Is there some way to stop this?" Septimus asked. "To get rid of Regulus and the slaves?"
"If you gave the slaves funeral rites . . ."
Septimus shook his head. "That's not possible. Their bodies were torn apart, their bones
scattered by animals. I can't give funerals to bodies I cannot find."
"If not the slaves, then Regulus. He must be separated from the scattered remains of the
"You mean remove his ashes from his tomb?" Septimus asked. "Can't you just exorcise
"The dead must be honored, not shunned," Maga said. "If you wish to end this, the
remains of the enemies must be separated."
Septimus sighed. "Very well. Let's go rob a grave."
"When I got up this morning, I didn't think I'd be robbing a crypt," Timor whispered.
"It wasn't my idea," Septimus replied, his eyes flicking to the movement he saw in the
corner of his eye. Nothing was there when he looked, but he couldn't escape the feeling that
Regulus had accompanied them. "If it makes you feel any better, I think this is what Regulus
"I might feel better if I were sure that he hated the idea," Timor said.
They hadn't brought candles or lamps with them, electing to work by the light of the
moon. The clouds had mostly given way with nightfall, so the moon gave the graves lining the
Labicana a pearly luminescence. The Regulus crypt was one of the older ones, the friezes worn
and discolored. They showed famous members of the family, no doubt, but Septimus didn't
recognize any of them. The bronze door on the side of the crypt facing away from the road was
relatively new, however, and the stern gods gracing it made him feel ashamed. Pluto and
Proserpina, Jupiter and Juno and Mars would not approve of what he was doing.
I'm helping the dead man here, not robbing him, he told the watching gods. A small,
honest part of him pointed out that he was only doing it so he could sell Regulus's house at a
Timor, meanwhile, was examining the door. There was a long, horizontal slot with a larger
hole at the end. Timor poked a long piece of bent metal in the hole. "Looks like a pin lock. It
shouldn't be that difficult."
Septimus snorted. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were a seasoned grave robber."
"Septimus, please," Timor said. He lifted his metal bar inside the hole, and nodded to
himself. "Anyone with a little mechanical aptitude and a knowledge of how locks work could
open one of these."
"And a steady hand, I presume."
"A very steady hand. You trust me with these things because I know how to figure them
out. Now could you hand me those thin metal bars. It looks like there are six pins, so I'll need five
more to open this lock."
It took a long time for Timor to open the lock, trying to hold the metal bars in place with
one hand while adjusting them with another, all the while complaining that he didn't have enough
hands and implying that Septimus should help, then telling his master to stop hovering whenever
he tried. Septimus settled for staying back and holding the small metal box Timor had been
carrying. Finally, Timor's rattling bars worked, and he slid his metallic collection along the slot,
dragging the latch along with them. Then he grabbed hold of the handle and pulled the door open.
"See," Timor said. "Easy."
Septimus smiled and patted his slave on the back. "Let's not make a habit of this." He
glanced about again, making sure no one could see them from the road, before motioning Timor
into the tomb. Five stone steps led down to the floor. Open windows criss-crossed with stone sat
high in the wall and let in some light, but not nearly enough. They were in a long room,
surrounded on three sides by a waist-high stone dais. On the dais, or in niches in it or the wall
above it, were dozens of urns. The Regulus family, going back centuries, along with freedmen and
their most loyal retainers. Occupying the floor of the tomb were couches and a shrine, for when
the family visited during festivals. And, he was relieved to see, a bronze lampstand glimmering in
Septimus glanced at the windows, but thought the risk of one lit lamp leaking out enough
light for anyone to notice was small. So he opened up the small metal box he held and blew on the
coal partially buried in the sand inside until it started to glow. Lighting a taper with it, he touched
it to the wick of one of the lamps, which flickered to life. It looked like there was still some oil
A single oil lamp did not cast much light. Septimus pulled it off the lamp stand and waved
it toward the side of the tomb. "Let's see if we can find Marcus Regulus's urn," he whispered.
Septimus and Timor went down the side of the tomb, reading off the name and year of
death written on each urn. It took a while, but they found Marcus Regulus's remains in an arched
niche in the dais. Timor took hold of both sides of the stone urn, and slowly slid it out of its
"This is heavy," he said as he lifted it, clutching it to his chest.
They jumped as something crashed to the floor. There, near the steps, was an older urn
made of clay, lying in pieces on the floor. Ash hung in the air above it.
Neither of them had been close enough to knock the urn over.
"Is someone there?" Septimus called.
There was another crash behind them, and they turned to see another urn lying on the
"Who's doing this?" Septimus turned, straining his eyes as he tried to see who or what was
behind the disturbance.
Another urn fell, and this time Septimus was looking right at it as it seemed to leap from
its place on the wall. Then another, and another, and soon all the urns seemed to be rocking in
"Run!" Timor said as he bolted for the exit. Septimus followed on his heels, driven by a
terror even stronger than when he'd met Regulus. He lost the lamp somewhere along the way, and
the only light was the silvery glow of the moon. Scorched bones crunched beneath their feet, and
the air was heavy with ash. It swirled around the room as if stirred by a fitful breeze, or a dozen
The door began to close, but Timor barreled through it, throwing it back open. Septimus
hurled himself up the stairs and through the door moments later, and it clipped him on the arm as
it swung shut again and sealed with a metallic boom.
They placed Regulus's urn within Septimus's own family tomb, beside the Triumphal
Road, well away from where the slaves had been executed. Septimus prayed Regulus would be at
peace, and offered grain and salt and violet petals, promising to honor Regulus as he would his
own ancestors during the Parentalia. He just hoped doing so would not offend the ancestors who
now shared their tomb with a stranger.
Before leaving, he stopped by Livia's urn, running his fingers over the epitaph carved in
her nameplate. May she forgive in death what she could not in life. He now had hope that he
would see her again, but he didn't dare hope for forgiveness. Not yet. In his mind, he saw other,
bitter words, written in ink and stained with blood.
It was early morning when they entered the city gates, and the sun had begun to rise by the
time Maga let them into Regulus's house.
"It is done?" she asked.
"It's done," Septimus said, fighting back a yawn as he wavered on his feet. "Will this stop
"We shall see."
"Do you think Regulus . . . Is he at peace now?" Regulus had been more like the desperate
ghosts of Homer's Odyssey than the perfected souls of Plato. Was that all there was after death,
or was that reserved only for men like Regulus?
"At peace? I do not know. I cannot see what happens to spirits once they leave this world.
My people believe that we face judgment at death. Perhaps your gods judge the dead as well."
Thinking of the judgment a man like Regulus would face, Septimus was not certain that he
had done the man a favor.
The next few days were quiet. The constant menace that had weighed on Septimus since
he moved into the Regulus house seemed to have evaporated. He no longer saw shapes out of the
corner of his eye, or thought he heard whispering. He slept peacefully at night, no longer troubled
by the restlessness that had plagued him, and he only had one dream about that night in the
Regulus tomb. He suspected there would be an outcry when the Reguli discovered the disarray
inside their crypt, and his worry about that--as unlikely as it was to be traced back to him and
Timor--cost him more sleep than any remaining concern about ghosts.
He and the others settled into a routine, though the lack of ghosts did not make the home
more comfortable. Perhaps by the Ides, he'd have a few more of his slaves come over to help
maintain the place, and invite a few friends and rivals over for a dinner party.
But if Septimus was relieved and pleased with their success, nothing about Maga's
behavior had changed. She continued to lurk about the house, quietly observing everything and
meditating and praying to her strange god, and always returning to that twisted tree, as if
expecting to read the truth in its branches. He asked her if she had discovered anything new, if the
haunting was over and the house was cleansed, and always she said, "Wait and see."
It was enough to drive Septimus mad, but he had hired her because he believed in her. As
infuriating as she could be, her advice seemed to have worked, and he had to at least take her
Plans for the dinner party progressed, and Septimus brought over more of his household
to help get everything in order. The house was dusted, swept, and scrubbed from top to bottom.
A pleasant warmth rose from the tile floors from the fueled furnace of the hypocaust. Smells of
simmering pork filled the air, as the cooking staff kept the rest of the household well fed under
their heavy workload. By the day before the dinner, there had still been no ghostly encounters.
When he went to bed that night, Septimus was optimistic about the next day, despite
Maga's frustrating ambivalence. So of course he had to quash his good mood.
He held the scroll without opening it, his eyes tracing the blood stains visible on the
outside. He didn't need to open it, as he knew exactly what his wife's last letter said.
I have seen her letter. I know what that woman demands in order for you to adopt your
own son. Rather than suffer the shame of divorce so that you can have what you always wanted, I
give it to you with my death. You and that poisonous wench deserve one another.
It felt like he was so close, that the divide between life and death had grown thin. If only
he could see her, he could swear he never planned to leave her, beg her forgiveness, somehow
make things right. He still held the scroll, unopened, when sleep came.
It was dark when he woke. The air was cold against his face and the room silent. Livia's
scroll slipped from his hand as he untangled himself from his blankets and stood up. It was too
dark to see, except for a tiny bit of flickering light coming through the narrow double doors.
Septimus stepped on Timor's pallet as he felt his way with his fingers and toes, but his slave was
not there. He reached the doors and pushed them open.
The moon was only half-full tonight, and most of the light came from a single torch in the
garden. Its flickering light made the tree seem to shiver and sway, its shadow dancing across the
slaves standing in a semicircle around his door. All the slaves in the house were there: the cook
and his assistants, the maids and the porters, even Timor. Septimus's eyes darted over the ten of
them, trying to make sense of what was happening.
"You let him go." It was Timor who spoke, but he sounded odd, as if he were imitating a
"We held him here," Martius, the cook, said, speaking like a Greek, though the man's
family had been in Rome for generations.
"But you freed him," Aula, the oldest of his maids, finished.
Septimus's dry throat seized up as he tried to swallow. He focused on his manservant.
"You're not Timor, are you?"
"We are the unmourned, the unhonored, the forgotten," Timor said.
"We hunger," another of the maids spoke.
"I can feed you," Septimus told them. "Like during Lemuria." Even as he said it, it seemed
ludicrous that the ritual black beans would satiate these spirits.
"We hunger for justice," Martius snarled. "Our bellies growl for it, our throats are parched
for it. Can you feed us that?"
These spirits were nothing like Regulus had been. These had not just their wits, but a
philosopher's unattainable ideal of justice. "What do you know of justice?" Septimus returned.
"You murdered your master, a citizen and a Senator. Your deaths were just!"
There was a sudden silence, as if all sound had been swallowed by the night. Septimus's
breathing sounded harsh in his ears, his heart beat like a drum, but the slaves were as still as
statues. Then Timor spoke, "Your slaves consider you a good man, but you are no better than the
master who beat us, who killed slaves with impunity unless they belonged to another. When one
of us finally killed him, my only regret was that I had not done it myself."
"You should have reported the crime immediately," Septimus said. "His killer would have
"And you would have spared the rest of us? We were dead the moment Regulus was. Our
only hope was escape."
"The law--" Septimus began.
"Your law only protects the powerful. It has no authority over us now. Our only law is
that of the hungry dead: the greater the wrong, the stronger the spirit. And we have been greatly
The slaves stepped closer and tightened the circle around him. None of them had
weapons, but he had little chance against all of them.
"You're sacrificing my slaves for your vengeance. They'll be killed just as you were!"
Another stillness went through them, and then Timor spoke again, "Let them join us. If
you care for them as they believe, you will suffer all the more."
They came for him then. He tried to fight them off, punching and wrestling, but he was
like a child. Even old Aula was stronger than he was. They picked him up and bodily carried him
to the twisted tree and pressed him against it, raising his wrists up to the high branches and
holding his feet against the wide trunk. The rough bark was cold, colder than it should be even in
the chill air, and it seemed to drain the heat from his body. He shivered, and it seemed as if the
tree shivered with him. Only now did he catch a glimpse of red among the roots. Maga! Her red
veil and clothes were nearly hidden, wrapped from head to toe in the tree's roots. Tears leaked
from her eyes as they fastened on Septimus.
Timor reappeared, this time carrying a large hammer and a long iron spike. Septimus's
eyes widened. "You wouldn't. I'm a Roman citizen . . ." He trailed off as he realized what little
effect such words would have.
"We were crucified on trees from the same grove as this one," Timor said. "You'll die the
same way." The executioners must have taken trees from Regulus's grove by the Labicana Road
to make crosses for the slaves. They must not have known that the grove was sacred.
Septimus closed his eyes and held his tongue. Crucifixion was a long, slow death. Too
slow. His guests would arrive before he could die. If he could hold firm through this agony and
endure the ultimate degradation that a Roman citizen could suffer, he might survive this.
"Of course, we may need to speed things up," Timor said as he came around the tree and
lifted the spike to press against his master's wrist. "We wouldn't want you to live long enough to
greet your dinner guests." A jolt of terror gave Septimus the strength to try to pull free, screaming
and thrashing, but he only managed to kick Timor in the shin before the slaves pinned him again.
Trembling ran through all Septimus's limbs, and blood ran down his arm from where he'd
cut himself on the spike. Martius's large hands held his arm firm against the tree trunk. His limbs
were already stretched to their limits by his captors, and the strain made it difficult to draw breath.
Timor placed the iron spike at his wrist again and raised his hammer.
"You don't want to do this!" Septimus said.
"Of course I want to," the ghost in Timor's body replied.
"I'm not talking to you! Timor, please stop."
"Do you really think . . . ?" Timor fell quiet, the hammer unmoving.
"Even if you agree with this spirit, even if you secretly hate me, you are the most
stubborn, honorable slave--no, the most honorable man I know, the best man I know. Don't let
this, this invader make you do this thing. Not just for me. He can only kill me. But you--he can
make you to be like him, and there can't be anything worse than that."
The hand holding the hammer began to tremble, and the other slaves watched Timor
uncertainly. Septimus began to hope. Then, Timor's hand tightened on the hammer until the
knuckles turned white and his eyes hardened. Septimus turned his face away. Livia, I'm coming!
And then he saw flames rip outward from the roots, which crumbled to ash and fell away,
as Maga sat up, her eyes ablaze. She seized Timor's ankle and flame limned his body as she
chanted something in her indecipherable language.
Timor screamed, and for a moment all was chaos. The hammer and spike fell to the
ground, and Timor collapsed. The other slaves cringed from the flame, and Septimus pulled his
blood-slicked wrist free and punched Martius in his face, staggering him, then seized the hair of
the slave girl pinning his foot and tried to yank her loose.
Maga's voice cut off suddenly and the flames died. Their brief moment of resistance died
with the flames, as Martius seized hold of Septimus's arm again and Maga was pushed to the
ground by three of the slave women, one of whom had her hands pressed against the medium's
throat. Only choked, breathless words emerged as Maga tried to speak, "The tree . . . destroy . . ."
It was hopeless now, as Septimus could no more destroy the tree than he could break free.
The slaves looked to Timor, who had regained his feet and stood looking at the scene, not even
singed by the flames of a moment ago, his face twisted in some emotion that Septimus could not
read. "Hold them," Timor said. "But don't kill them yet. We will find a suitable punishment for the
witch." Timor went to the lone torch and drew it from the sconce before walking over to the
subdued Maga. He waved the torch in her face, close enough to singe her eyelashes, forcing her
to turn her face away. "If she likes fire so much we should burn her. Someone bring me lamp oil."
Aula ran off to fetch the oil. As they waited, Timor passed the torch painfully close to Maga and
watched as she squirmed to try to avoid it, but it seemed to Septimus that the tree roots writhed
When Aula returned with a clay oil jug, Timor took it from her and hefted it in one hand.
He looked at Maga, who tried to turn away but was unable to twist far while being held fast.
Timor raised the jug higher, and then hurled it into the branches of the tree. The jug shattered,
sending stray shards and oil everywhere, some of it dripping into Septimus's hair.
Timor strode past the startled slaves and touched the torch to the oil coating the tree
limbs. It ignited immediately.
Septimus had never heard anything like the keening, creaking, grinding cacophony of the
shuddering tree. Its movement loosened the hands grasping him, and with a shout he pulled
himself free and shoved Martius aside. His teeth clacked together painfully as his feet hit the
ground, and the girl who had been holding his feet stared at him with wide-eyed shock. She
scuttled away as he took a step forward. A heavy branch struck him in the back and he stumbled,
and then ducked beneath the swinging branch. He stumbled over thrashing roots and landed on his
knees at Maga's side. She was trying to untangle herself from the roots, and he set to helping her
pull free. Timor joined him, shoving away the slaves who had been holding her. They were
looking around in confusion.
Septimus spared a glance to his manservant. "Are you--?"
"Me again?" Timor said as they pulled Maga out. She was remarkably calm, considering
the chaos around them. "Yes. I was--" He shook his head. "It was a nightmare."
"We must get out of here," Maga said as she got to her feet with Timor's help.
Septimus followed her gaze to see that the fire had spread to the roof of the house. "We
can save it. If everyone . . ." He looked around at his slaves. Some were weeping, others were
huddled in fear, and still others just stood there, looking around unseeing. They were in no
condition to stop a fire. More than just the house needed rescuing. "Let's get everyone out of here
first, then maybe we can save the house."
By the time they were outside, it was too late. Septimus's neighbors had already gathered,
but they seemed more interested in saving their own homes than in helping him with his. The fire
seemed to have spread from the roof, and smoke billowed from every opening. Septimus knew he
couldn't stop it on his own.
And then Crassus showed up. Dozens of slaves followed him, carrying axes and hooks and
buckets, and they surveyed the house with professional eyes.
"Hail, Septimus!" Crassus said, sounding cheerful despite his perpetual frown. "It looks
like I won't be making that dinner party after all."
Septimus sighed. "No, I suppose not."
"I can help by relieving you of this unfortunate house. How does five hundred sesterces
sound? That's a more than fair price given the house's condition."
Septimus glanced at Crassus, then back at the house, and he couldn't help chuckling.
"What's so funny?" Crassus demanded.
That only made Septimus laugh harder. "Nothing," he gasped, once he had caught enough
of his breath to do so. "Nothing at all." Maga had been right. If he had burned the place down
when she suggested it, he could have saved himself a lot of trouble.
"Thank you, Aula," Septimus said as his slavewoman finished pouring the wine. "Will you
give us a moment?"
Aula nodded, keeping her eyes downcast. She had not spoken to him or even looked
directly at him since Regulus's house had burned down. He had not been entirely comfortable
around her either. Who'd have thought that an elderly woman could overpower him? He had
grown soft since retiring from the legions.
Once she had left and closed the door to the dining room behind her, Septimus gestured to
the couch opposite him and said, "Sit down, Timor."
"Master?" Timor said.
"Please, Timor," Septimus said, gesturing again. "Don't make me order you."
His slave reluctantly sat on the edge of the couch, as if ready to spring up at the least
rebuke. By contrast, Maga lounged comfortably on the third couch, her eyes half-lidded as though
she were on the verge of dozing. Septimus knew better than to trust that.
The dining room in his own house was considerably less gaudy than the one in Regulus's.
The walls were a calming blue, with scrollwork at the top and bottom, and the tile floor was an
abstract pattern. Livia had selected both shortly before they learned that she was barren. She had
changed after that, lost interest in the affairs of the household, and in him, it seemed. She could
never believe that he was not ashamed of her, that he had no desire to return to Marcia. All he had
wanted was for his and Marcia's son to join their household, but Marcia's price had been too
steep. He prayed that Livia was not suffering anything like what Regulus and his slaves had.
Surely she could not hate him so much that she lingered, hungry for vengeance.
"I wanted to talk to you--both of you--about what happened that night," Septimus said.
"It's been five days, and I think we've all been avoiding it."
Maga's eyes fully opened at that, and she shrugged, "I did what you pay me to, yes? What
more is there to say?"
Timor, meanwhile, had risen to his feet and started pacing, though there wasn't really
enough room to do so. "I don't want to talk about it. I nearly killed you."
"But you didn't," Septimus reminded him. "You broke free of it when neither Maga nor I
"We were not possessed like him," Maga said. "I take care not to be, and neither of us
were . . . similar enough to the ghosts to be possessed."
"I'm nothing like that ghost!" Timor protested.
"But you are a slave, as was he," she said. "You are of this city, you speak his language.
And if Septimus had died, you would have been killed just as he was."
That made Septimus shift uncomfortably on his couch. It hadn't just been him that the
ghosts had nearly killed. If he had died, the same Roman justice that had killed Regulus's slaves
would have killed his as well. But it would have been his fault more than theirs, for bringing them
to that damned house. What would justice really be in that case? That in turn led to uncomfortable
questions about the justice Regulus's slaves had received, questions he wasn't ready to answer.
"But you freed me from him," Timor told Maga.
Maga shook her head. "No. You were already fighting him. That is what allowed me to
struggle free. I made it easier for you to free yourself, that is all."
"Like I said, you're the best man I know," Septimus told him.
"I . . ." Timor stopped pacing. "I'm sorry. I wish I could tell you that I faced down that
ghost to save you, but the truth is, I was terrified for myself. While that ghost was inside me, our
spirits were so entangled that I could hardly tell where he ended and I began. And the half-life he
clung to was torture for him. He hated Regulus, and you, but he hated himself too, and the fate
he'd chosen, and his inability to let go. All I could think was that I didn't want to end up like him,
tortured to death but still clinging to this world, seeking revenge but never being satisfied. I didn't
want to hurt you, you know that Septimus, but that wasn't what gave me the strength to break
Septimus rose and placed a hand on Timor's shoulder. "Neither of us were at our best that
night, but you give yourself too little credit, my friend. Whatever you went through, you saved us
all in the end." Timor shrugged and looked to the floor, and Septimus turned to Maga. "How
much did you know? You suspected something about that tree. Why didn't you say something
"I was uncertain," Maga said. "I did not know the connection between the tree and the
slaves' deaths, just that something was wrong about it, and that the house did not yet feel settled.
So I meditated, tried to discover the connection. I could not."
"You should have warned me. I could have cut down that damned tree."
"I did not know that destroying the tree would help. It may have made things worse, if
doing so freed what it held. Only when the ghosts showed themselves did I know for certain." She
frowned at her own words. "Almost certain."
"You still weren't sure?" Septimus asked.
"Mostly sure. Ghosts are . . . mysterious, you see."
"So you just sat under that tree, meditating, until it caught you."
"Well, not the tree itself. It was the spirits tied to the tree that controlled it. But yes, that
did surprise me. I may have . . . dozed."
"You fell asleep?" Timor scoffed.
"I was tired. It is hard work, meditating for days on end. You should try it and then tell me
that you would not fall asleep."
Septimus raised his hand to stop Timor from saying more. "As much as more warning
would have been nice, you also came through in the end, Maga. Next time, though, I want you to
tell me more about your suspicions. Even when you're uncertain, they may help me understand
She hesitated before nodding.
It was Timor who raised the obvious question. "Next time?"
"It seems that Crassus has acquired a home that even he cannot sell. Something about a
bloodstain that keeps returning. I think we should take a look."
"You're mad, Septimus," Timor said.
Septimus laughed. "Perhaps. You don't have to accompany me."
"There's no way I'll let you go without me. You'll just get yourself killed."
Septimus looked to Maga, who shrugged. "You are still paying me," she said. "I will still
help you with your ghosts."
"It's settled then," Septimus said. "Let's see if we can cleanse Crassus's latest investment.
If nothing else, he can put out the fire once we're done."