“You always like to be obvious.”

Helena laid a hand on my shoulder, then removed it. I had come home a hunched, miserable bastard who needed to be comforted but would not allow it. She knew the signs. “You saw Maia this time?” she asked, though my filthy mood surely confirmed it. “Where had she gone yesterday?”

“She took one of her daughters to some function where young girls were being introduced to Queen Berenice.”

Helena looked surprised. “That doesn’t sound like Maia!” Rather like me, my sister despised establishment formality. Being asked to attend on Titus’ exotic lady friend would normally make Maia as rebellious as Spartacus.

Petronius seemed to know about it: “Something to do with the lottery for a new Vestal Virgin.”

Again, not like Maia.

“I had no chance for small talk,” I said. “You know Maia. As soon as she saw me, she worked out that I had bad news. I was home-yet where was Famia? Even he would normally have dropped his luggage at his own apartment before heading for a wine bar. She guessed.”

“How is she taking things?” asked Pa.

“Too well.”

“What does that mean? She’s a sensible type. She won’t make a fuss.” He knew nothing about his younger children, Maia and me. How could he? When he absconded from responsibility I was seven, Maia only six. He saw neither of us for over twenty years.

When I first told Maia her husband was dead, she fell into my arms. Then she backed off at once and demanded the details. I had rehearsed the story enough times, on the sea trip home. I kept it brief. That made it seem even more bleak. Maia became very still. She stopped asking questions. She ignored what I said to her. She was thinking. She had four children and no income. There would be a funeral fund to which the Green chariot faction had made Famia contribute, which would pay for an urn and an inscription which she did not want but which she would have to accept to give the children a memorial of their disreputable sire. Maybe the Greens would come up with a small pension. She would qualify for the pauper’s corn dole. But she would have to work.

Her family would help. She would not ask us to do it, and when we offered we would always have to say it was for the children. The children, who ranged from nine to three, were already frightened, bewildered, inconsolable. But they were all very bright. After Maia and I carefully explained that they had lost their father, I reckoned they sensed there was a secret we were keeping back.

My sister had known tragedy before. There had been a firstborn daughter who had died of some childhood disease at about the age the elder son, Marius, was now. I had been away in Germany when it happened, and to my shame I tended to forget. Maia would never forget. But she had borne her grief alone; Famia was never any use.

Petronius took Julia from Pa and handed her to Helena, giving Pa the nudge that they should leave. Pa, typically, failed to respond. “ Well, she’ll remarry of course.”

“Don’t be so certain,” Helena disagreed quietly. It was a rebuke to men. Pa failed to take this hint too. I buried my face in my hands for a moment, reflecting that an attractive, unprotected woman like my sister would indeed have to fend off a rash of propositions, many of them repulsive. That must be just one aspect of her despair in her new situation. Still, removing predators was one thing I could help her with.

“I bet…” Pa had been struck by one of his terrible mischievous ideas. “I bet your mother,” he suggested to me portentously, “will try to set her up with somebody we know!”

I could not bring myself even to try thinking up who he meant.

“Somebody else who’s been given a nice station in lifecongratulations, by the way, Marcus, and not before time; we must celebrate, son-on some better occasion, of course,” he conceded reluctantly.

Belatedly I caught on. “You don’t mean-”

“He has a good position with a sound employer, plenty of loot, prime of life, well known to us all-I reckon he’s obvious,” crowed Pa. “Your mother’s precious lodger!”

I kicked back my stool, stood, then walked off to my bedroom, slamming the door like an offended child. It had been a bad day, but now I felt truly sickened. Like all my father’s wild remarks, this had a deadly air of probability. If you ignored the fact the lodger was a poisonous, parasitic fungus with the ethics of a politically devious slug, here indeed was a salaried, propertied, recently elevated man who was longing to be part of the family.

Oh gods: Anacrites!


“WHAT’S THE TRUE story about Famia, then?” asked Petro, running into me in Fountain Court the next morning. I shrugged and said nothing. He gave me a sour look. I avoided his eye, once again cursing Famia for putting me in this position. “Bastard!” Despite his annoyance, Petronius was looking forward to trying to force it out of me.

“Thanks for taking Pa off last night.”

He knew I was trying to change the subject. “You owe me for that. I had to let him drag me to Flora’s and drink half my week’s salary.”

“You can afford a long night in a caupona then?” I asked narrowly, as a way in to probing where he stood with his wife.

Arria Silvia had left him, over what Petro regarded as a minor infringement of the marital code: his crazy affair with a dim daughter of a prime gangster, which had cost him suspension from the vigiles and much scorn from those who knew him. The threat to his job had been temporary, like the affair, but the loss of his wife-which meant the virtual loss of his three children-looked likely to be permanent. For some reason, Silvia’s angry response had come as a surprise to Petronius. My guess was, he had been unfaithful before and Silvia had often known it, but this time she also had to live with the unpalatable fact that half the population of the Aventine were grinning over what had been going on.

“I afford what I like.”

We were both dodging. I hoped this was not some fatal result of our attempted partnership. That had been just before I shackled myself to Anacrites. As friends since the army, Petronius and I had expected to be ideal colleagues, yet we had cut across one another from the start, each wanting his own way of doing things. We parted company after I found a chance to make a spectacular arrest without him; Petro reckoned I had kept him out of it deliberately. Since he was my best friend, breaking up with him had hurt.

When we fell out, Petro went back to the vigiles. It was where he belonged. He was enquiry chief of the Fourth Cohort, and even his pofaced hard-man tribune had to admit Petronius was damned good at it. He had thought he was going back to his wife too. But once Arria Silvia gave up on him, she had wasted no time finding herself a boyfriend-a potted-salad seller, to Petro’s complete disgust. Their children, all girls, were still youngsters, and although Petronius was entitled to keep them with him, it would be stupid to attempt to do so unless he remarried quickly. Naturally, like most men who throw away a happy situation for a trifle when they think they can get away with it, he now believed that all he wanted was his wife back. Silvia was settling for her beetroot molder instead.

Helena thought that, with his record, Petronius Longus might find it just as hard to acquire a new wife as to reclaim the old one. I disagreed. He was well built and decent-looking, a quiet, intelligent, affable type; he had a salaried position and had shown himself to be a handy homemaker. It was true that at present he was living in my squalid old bachelor apartment, drinking too much, cursing too openly, and flirting with anything that moved. But he had fate on his side. Looking bitter and wounded would work the right charms. Women love a man with a history. Well, it had worked for me, hadn’t it?

If I could not give him the whole story about Famia yet, I had plenty of other news. “I have a lot to tell you.” I had no compunction about exposing Anacrites’ dalliance with the gladiatorial sword. Petro would settle for that scandal, until the fuss died down and I could explain the Famia fiasco confidentially.

“Free for dinner?” he offered.

I had to shake my head. “In-laws.”

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