When the body of Sextus Verpa, a notorious senatorial informer and libertine, is found stabbed to death in his bedroom, his slaves are suspected. Pliny, a very respectable young senator and lawyer, is ordered by the emperor Domitian to investigate. However, the Ludi Romani, "the Roman Games", have just begun, and for the next 15 days the law courts are in recess. If Pliny can't identify the murderer in that time, Verpa's entire slave household will be burned alive in the arena.
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Pliny is the newly appointed governor of a turbulent and corrupt frontier province seething with hatred of Rome. When a high Roman official is found murdered on a desolate hillside, Pliny must investigate the devotees of a barbarian god whose ranks may include a murderer, an unscrupulous faith healer who knows everyone's secrets, and a boy who struggles toward manhood though stricken with the "sacred disease." As Pliny pursues one lead after another, he is betrayed where he least expects it.