By the time we returned to the inn, Androcles and his wife were serving dinner to our party, other guests, and a crowd of locals. A buxom servant girl immediately attracted Tacitus' attention. The tables and benches had been placed closer together than earlier in the afternoon, to clear a space in the center for entertainment.

I suppose I groaned too loudly when a plate of greasy meat was set in front of us, the sort of thing one usually gets in public establishments, smothered with sauces to disguise how long it had taken to get from the market to the table.

"Too much for you delicate palate?" Tacitus asked with a trace of mockery.

"I find this sort of thing indigestible," I said, pushing the plate away and reaching for bread. "I suppose my uncle spoiled me in that regard. Meals in his house were lighter, fresher. And I hate to eat sitting on a bench. Why can't we find room to recline? It's so much more healthful."

"Why can't you just relax and stop being such a prig? We have convivial company. We don't have to sleep in our wagon tonight. And it appears we're going to have some entertainment."

"Oh, that will be the perfect culmination to the day," I said. I detest the noisy entertainments that so often accompany Roman (and Greek) dinners. My uncle spoiled me in that regard, too, I suppose. Or perhaps he just encouraged a natural inclination. Dinner in his house was always a calm affair, almost
Socratic, with a trained slave reading a book, followed by conversation on the topic of the reading. If music was played, it was always of the most soothing kind, an aid to digestion.

The servant girl slapped a pitcher of cheap wine on the table. Tacitus grabbed her hand and kissed it before she could get away. She gave him a broad smile and a wink. Two musicians settled themselves in a corner and struck up a seductive tune on a flute and a tambourine. I braced myself for some sort of lascivious dance. I did not expect the innkeeper's twelve-year-old daughter to perform it.

As the throbbing of the music grew more insistent she threw her head back and waggled her skinny hips suggestively. Her gauzy costume made no secret of her budding womanhood. Androcles watched with a gleam on his pasty face, circulating through the crowd and nudging one man, then winking at another. This 'noble man' was auctioning his child off for the night. I couldn't stand to watch any longer, so I grabbed some bread and cheese and a cup of wine and went upstairs to my room.

* * * *

I was awakened just after daybreak by a loud wailing outside my door. In my first moment of waking I thought I was back at Vesuvius, during the eruption, with people running around in panic, screaming uncontrollably. Rushing out of my room I found Androcles, wringing his hands in despair and moving his feet as though willing them to run but unable to make them obey.

"What's the matter?" I asked, grabbing his arm.

"He's dead!" The innkeeper gasped and pointed to the open door of Cornutus' room, directly across from mine. "Lucius Cornutus is dead!"

"Dead? By the gods! What are you saying?"

"His heart!" He clutched his hands to his own heart.

I couldn't believe this fellow had the medical knowledge to recognize that Cornutus had some problem with his heart. I grabbed his shoulders and shook him. "What about his heart?"

After several false starts, he managed to sputter out, "He doesn't . . . have one any more."