thank me for inflicting on his elegant associates a rude ditty by a woman. But those very associates had plied us with a brew of startling power, so I raised my winecup and as Rutilius blearily responded, I read it anyway.

`Ladies and gentlemen, we must depart, but here's just one final epigram entitled 'No-longer-a-maiden's Prayer':

There are those

From whom a rose

Would make me smile;

And others

I treated like brothers

Every once in a while.

An occasional kiss

Hardly came amiss

Or drove anyone wild

But the gods rot

The selfish sot

Who fathered this child!

I could see Maia laughing helplessly. It was the first time since I had told her she was widowed that she had showed pure, spontaneous mirth. Rutilius Gallicus owed her that.

By then the audience were so glad of something short that they roared applause.

It had been a long night. People were keen to disperse to winebars or worse. Rutilius was being carried off by his old-fashioned wife and his unexpectedly decent friends. We had time to assure one another that our evening had gone well, but he did not invite me to discuss our triumph at his house. That was fine, I need not invite him home to mine either.

I was preparing myself for ridicule from my own family and associates. I pointedly ignored the writers' circle as they toddled off in their battered sandals to whatever attic rooms they infused with their sour sweat. Petronius Longus pushed through them brutally. `Who in Hades was the tedious ding-dong you two hired for the eulogy?'

`Don't blame us.' I scowled at the smug businessman's back as he meandered off in the midst of his clients. `If I knew who he was, I'd arrange to meet him in a nice quiet place and I'd kill him!'

As an informer, I should have known that was a stupid thing to say.


A STRANGE WOMAN, your sister,' mused Petronius Longus the next day.

`Aren't they all?'

Petronius was intrigued by Maia's cheeky ditty; Helena must have told him who really wrote it. At least it distracted him from abusing my poetic efforts. Off duty now, he was heading home for a morning's nap in the apartment we sublet to him across Fountain Court. Like a true friend, he had dropped in on our side; aggravating me would make his sleep sweeter.

`Does Maia Favonia still write poetry?' he asked curiously.

`Doubt it. She would say a mother of four has no time for scribbling.'

`Oh, she composed that one before she was married?'

`Maybe it explains why she hitched herself to Famia.'

Helena came out to join us from the inner room where she had been attempting to insert breakfast into our roaring one-year-old daughter. She looked tired. We men had been sitting on the porch, politely keeping out of the way. We made room for her. It was a squash. Worse when Nux, my dog, who was pregnant, shouldered in as well.

`So how is the happy poet this morning?' beamed Petro. He was about to enjoy himself after all. While he patrolled the streets half the night looking for muggers or gently interrogated arsonists with the helpful boot technique, he would have had ample time for dreaming up criticism. I stood up and said I had to meet a client. An old informing dodge, it fooled nobody.

`What client?' scoffed Helena. She knew how light my list was at present. Her brothers were supposed to be training as my juniors, but I had had to lay off Aelianus and I was thankful- that Justinus was away getting married in Baetica.

`The client I am intending to advertise for from the steps of the Temple of Saturn.'

`While the real possibilities are searching for you in the Basilica Julia?' suggested Petro. He knew how it was. He knew the casual way I worked.

I felt as if I had known Petronius Longus all my life. He seemed part of the family. In fact, we had only been friends since we were eighteen – for fifteen years or so now. Brought up a few streets from each other, we had first met properly in the recruiting office when we joined the army as lads trying to leave home. We then served in the same dud legion, in Britain, in part during the Boudiccan Revolt. Jove help us.

We both escaped service using similar `serious wound' pleas; lay low together for a joint miracle recovery; came home virtually bonded at the drinking arm. Petro then married. Well, that forced a slight breach, because I did not. Not for a long time, anyway. He also acquired an enviable job in the vigiles, which I did not even try to emulate. He had three children, as a Roman legally should; I was only now bestirring myself to follow suit and I might give up the idea if little Julia kept up her current screaming fits. Now Petro was estranged from his wife, which I would never be from mine. Still, he had probably thought the same of himself and Silvia once.

Petro had never been quite the upright character people believed him to be. It was rumoured that he knew my deceased sister Victorina in his early years, but then most people had known Victorina, an unavoidable blot on the Aventine. Men were aware of her anyway; she had made sure of that. Petronius only met the rest of my ghastly family later, after we came home from the army. Maia, for instance. I can remember the day I introduced him to Maia. At the time I was still getting used to the fact that while I had been a legionary in Britain, my younger sister – my favourite sister, in so far as I could tolerate any of them – had not only married without consulting me, but had produced two children and become visibly pregnant again. The first daughter subsequently died young, so that would have been with Cloelia. Cloelia was now eight.

Petro had been surprised when he met Maia, for some reason; he asked why I had never mentioned her. I might have felt worried by his interest, but Maia was obviously a decent young mother and the next thing I knew, he was marrying Silvia. At least we had avoided the awkward situation where little sister falls for elder brother's handsome friend. Who is never interested, of course.

For Maia to set herself up with Famia had seemed a desperate act, even before he really took to the drink. Still, girls have to find a way to leave home too. Always vibrant and attractive, she had been dangerously self- willed. Maia was the kind of young woman who seems to offer something special – special and mature. She was intelligent and though virtuous, she always seemed to know what good fun was. The kind that even experienced men can fall for very heavily and yearn for obsessively. Marriage and motherhood had seemed a good safe option to those of us who felt responsible for Maia.

Petronius thought her a strange woman, did he? That was rich, if he really did once flirt, or worse, with Victorina. Maia and she had been exact opposites.

While I was musing, Petronius had fallen silent, despite the glorious opportunity to rib me about the Auditorium of Maecenas last night. He must be tired after his shift. He never talked about his work much, but I knew how grim it could be.

Helena had her eyes shut, letting the sun soak into her as she tried to blot out the distant, wearing tantrum from Julia. The screams soared in volume. `What can we do?' Helena asked Petro. He had three daughters, taken away by his wife to live with her boyfriend in Ostia; his children were all past the hysterical phase. He had lived

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