I did not need to peer at a sheep's sickly liver to know the omens were bad for me. 'What's the matter?' asked Helena quietly.

'There is something I have to say to you.'

'Well then, you had better get on with it.'

The standard-bearers were carrying their poles to the central arena. Giant men with bearskins or wolfskins, the animals' heads resting upon their helmets, and the paws crossed on their chests. They walked with their sombre pace to surround the governor, then speared the ground with the stout spikes of their carrying poles. The spikes held-the gods were in favour. So there the standards of the Fourteenth Gemina Martia Victrix stood. The golden eagle with the legion's number. The individual markers for each cohort of foot-soldiers, and the fringed square flags used by the cavalry. The Emperor's portrait taking pride of place. Battle honours from half a century. Their statue of Mars. And now, presented to the legion before the entire assembled company palm outwards as a symbol of either power or friendship, their mighty Hand.

Still kneeling beside Helena, I stared hard at the ceremony. 'I have finished my mission. It's time for me to leave. I've been thinking. Some women can achieve more good for the world than men.' Her finger was tickling the back of my neck; in a moment she would know it was inappropriate and she would stop. I forced myself to speak: 'Helena, for the sake of Rome you ought to marry Titus. When you answer his letter-'

A blaze of trumpets interrupted me.

Brilliant. My life's big gesture shattered by a misplaced musical blast.

The standard-bearer with the Hand received the governor's approval, then began to pace through the entire legion to display Vespasian's gift. He approached the cohorts. At each one their particular signal party went through a short routine of acknowledgement before he set off to the next. Throughout his slow march all the trumpets in the legion brayed.

Helena's hand lay completely still against my neck. To lose her sweet consoling touch would be unbearable. But I was tough. I would do it. I would make myself. If Helena Justina chose the Empire as her duty, I would send her back to Rome alone, while I opted for permanent exile, roaming the wilder edges of the Empire, or even beyond it, like a miserable ghost:

Just as I was about to spring from the dais and depart like a hero, Helena bent down to me. Her hair brushed my cheek. Her perfume enveloped me in a cinnamon haze. Her lips moved softly right against my ear: 'You can stop looking so pathetic. I wrote to him the day you left Colonia.'

Helena sat back. I crouched where I was. We watched the standard-bearer stamp his way decisively round two more infantry cohorts, then the trumpets stilled.

I looked up. Helena Justina tapped me gently on the nose with her knuckle, the one wearing the silver ring I had once given her. She did not look at me. She was gazing across the parade-ground with an expression of refined interest like any other high-born lady wondering how soon she could go home. Nobody but me could realise how obstinate, and how beautiful, she was.

My girl.

The chief standard-bearer of the XIV Gemina represented their senior tribune with the Emperor's Iron Hand. It was a handsome item, two feet high, and the man in the bearskin must be breathless from the weight. An armourer had regilded the chips in its decoration, but I happened to know that it had a dented thumb where I had bashed it against a bedstead in some crummy travellers' doss-house on my journey across Gaul.

'Are you staying with me, Helena?' I dared to ask meekly.

'No choice,' she said (after pausing to think about it). 'I own a half-share in your samian dinner service, which I don't intend relinquishing. So stop talking nonsense, Marcus, and watch the parade.'

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