shoulder, 'come along and help me for a moment.'

Eco nodded to our guests and followed after her.

Mummius cocked an eyebrow. 'But I thought…'

'Yes, Bethesda was my slave. And for years I was very careful to avoid producing another slave by her. I wanted no children of my own blood, certainly not slave children.'

'But your son…'

'Eco came into my life unannounced. I thank the gods every day that I had the wisdom to adopt him. But I saw no reason to bring a new life into such a world.' I shrugged. 'After Baiae something stirred in me. Bethesda is now a freedwoman, and my wife.'

Mummius grinned. 'And now I see what you were busy doing nine months ago, last December, instead of going out to watch Crassus's ovation!'

I laughed and leaned toward him. 'Do you know, Mummius, I believe it did occur on that very night!'

Eco suddenly appeared at the far end of the peristyle. The two slave girls flanked him. All three wore expressions of shock, dismay, confusion, and joy.

Eco opened his mouth. For a long moment he seemed to be mute again. Then the words tumbled out. 'Bethesda says she's ready — she says it's beginning!'

Mummius turned pale. Apollonius smiled serenely. Meto whirled and clapped his hands. I rolled my eyes heavenwards.

'Another crisis arrives,' I whispered, feeling suddenly fearful, and then impossibly elated. 'Another story begins.'

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