One morning as I headed down the Ramp with Mopsus and Androcles, the sheer perfection of the spring day banished all gloomy thoughts. My spirits rose on a zephyr of warm, sun-drenched air. On a sudden whim, I decided to tend to a task I had been putting off ever since my return.

We walked straight through the Forum without pausing. I wanted no rumors of catastrophe to spoil my mood. The daily dose of fear and mayhem could wait for another hour.

The boys didn't ask where we were going. They didn't care. To be out and about in the city on such a glorious morning was its own reward. Vendors hawked their wares. Slaves carried baskets to market. Matrons flung open their shutters to let in the mild, sweet air of spring.

We came to the Carinae district on the lower slopes of the Esquiline Hill, and walked down the quiet street to the blue and yellow house where Maecia lived. The black wreath of mourning still hung on the door. My buoyant mood faltered, but I took a deep breath and gave the door a few polite knocks with the side of my foot.

An eye peered at us through the peephole. Before I had time to state my name, the door swung open.

Mopsus and Androcles emitted squeals of delight. The noise startled me almost as much as the sight of Cicatrix abruptly towering over me.

My heart raced. I braced myself for one last joke from the gods. Had I unwittingly, on a perfect spring morning, delivered myself to Nemesis in the form of one of Pompey's trained killers? But the thought was irrational, a guilty reflex at the sight of the black wreath. Unless some secret network of messengers had relayed the news directly from Pompey, Cicatrix knew nothing about my crime. Nor did Maecia.

I cleared my throat. 'So this is where you ended up.' It made sense. All of Pompey's other relatives had left town.

Cicatrix raised an eyebrow, which further contorted the scars on his face. 'Until the Great One comes home.'

I grunted and made no comment.

Cicatrix glowered at me, then helplessly cracked a grin as he lowered his gaze to Mopsus and Androcles. 'But I left these two spies behind to take my place.' He crouched and playfully boxed at the two of them. The boys jabbed back at him and burst out laughing.

'Cicatrix, who's there?' The voice came from within.

He straightened immediately. 'A visitor, Mistress. Gordianus.' He stepped aside. Maecia appeared in the foyer.

The light from the atrium silhouetted her slender figure and haloed her sheer blue stola and the great shell- like fan of hair arranged atop her head. With her green eyes and creamy skin, without makeup or adornment, she had been beautiful when I last saw her. Now she took my breath away. More than anything else, it was her smile that transformed her. I had not seen her smile before.

'Gordianus! I understood from Cicatrix that you sailed to Dyrrhachium with Pompey.'

I looked sidelong at Cicatrix. 'An untrue rumor,' I said. 'There are so many circulating these days.'

'Come in. As for your slave boys…'

'I think they'd like to visit with Cicatrix- if that won't compromise his duties.'

'Of course not. They can help him guard the door.'

We stepped into the atrium. Where previously the corpse of Numerius had been displayed upon its bier, there was only bright sunshine. Through a colonnade I could see into the garden at the heart of the house. I caught a glimpse of another woman, seated amid flowering shrubs.

'Do you have a visitor, Maecia? If I'm intruding…'

'No, I'm glad you've come. We'll sit and talk in the garden for a while- the day's too beautiful to do anything else. But I want to speak to you privately first.' She led me to a little room off the atrium. She lowered her voice. 'Before he was expelled from your house, Cicatrix overheard your son say that you'd gone with Pompey.'

'A misunderstanding.'

'But you did go to Brundisium?'


'You saw Pompey?'

'I did.'

She hesitated. 'Did you ever find out why my son was murdered?'

I drew a breath. Perhaps, eventually, Pompey would tell her- if Pompey ever came back to Rome alive- but there was no way I could tell Maecia the whole truth. I could, however, answer this question.

'Yes, I know why Numerius was killed. He was attempting to blackmail someone, using information that he should have passed directly to Pompey.'

'And the gold I found?'

'He may have blackmailed others.'

'I knew it was something like that. But it wasn't Pompey who-'

I shook my head. 'No. Pompey was in no way responsible for Numerius's death.'

She sighed. 'Good. That was what I feared most, that Numerius betrayed Pompey, and Pompey found out. If my son had been a traitor, and Pompey put him to death for it- I could endure anything but the shame of that.'

'Then you must never think of it again, Maecia. I can't tell you who killed Numerius… but I know beyond any doubt that it wasn't Pompey. Your son wasn't as loyal to the Great One as he might have been, but he never betrayed him.'

'Thank you, Gordianus. You comfort me.' She touched my hand. My face flushed hotly.

Maecia noticed. 'You need a cool drink, Gordianus. Come into the garden. We're drinking honeyed wine.'

She led me down a hallway and through a colonnade into bright sunlight. The woman in the garden sat with her back to me. She wore a matronly stola and her hair was styled much like Maecia's. She looked over her shoulder. For a moment I failed to recognize her smiling face. I sucked in a breath when I realized it was Aemilia.

Maecia sat beside her and the two linked hands. A slave brought another chair and poured me a cup of wine, for which I was grateful. My face was still flushed and my mouth was suddenly dry. I had come prepared to see Numerius's mother, but not his lover.

The two of them seemed to be in unaccountably high spirits, holding hands and practically beaming. Perhaps it was simply the weather, I thought. Perhaps it was the honeyed wine. But why was Aemilia dressed as a married woman? As I observed the loose folds of her stola, I noticed a telltale swelling at her belly.

Aemilia saw the expression on my face. She grinned.

'You kept the baby,' I said, my voice hardly more than a whisper.

She patted her belly proudly. 'Yes.'

'But how? I thought…'

'My mother insisted that I get rid of it, at first. But Maecia wanted me to keep it. It's Numerius's child, after all. Maecia went to see my mother. It wasn't easy, but the three of us found a solution.'

Maecia explained. 'We devised a little fiction. Numerius and Aemilia were secretly married, you see, behind everyone's backs- why not? There's no one to say that they weren't. I even had the marriage recorded officially; the bribe was ridiculously cheap. As Numerius's widow, there's no reason Aemilia shouldn't have his child. That's why she's living with me now, as my daughter-in-law. And when Pompey, and Aemilia's father, and my brother and sons all come back…' Her eyes misted and there was a catch in her voice. 'When they come back, they may not be happy with what happened behind their backs, but what can they do but accept it?' She sighed. 'These things are so much easier to work out, with all the men out of the way.'

I nodded dumbly. Another conspiracy! More deceits and secrets and schemes- but meant to save life, not destroy it. From the foyer, I heard Mopsus and Androcles burst into giggles, joined by Cicatrix's braying laughter. The noise was infectious. Maecia patted Aemilia's belly and the two of them laughed as well.

I sipped my honeyed wine, and heard the echo of gods laughing.

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