I had cursed when I found one of my sisters wanting to berth alongside my dearest crony. That can damage a male friendship. But it was far more uncomfortable when Petro was dumped.

He must have taken it hard. Helena had to tell me his reflex action: 'Marcus, you won't like this. Petronius has applied for a transfer to the vi giles cohort at Ostia.'

'Leaving Rome? That's madness!'

'There may not be a job there for him,' Helena tried soothing me.

'Oh rats, of course there will! It's an unpopular posting who wants to be stationed downriver at the port, outwitting customs diddlers and duck-billed cargo thieves? Petro's a bloody good officer. The Ostia tribune is bound to jump at him.'

I would never forgive my sister.

'Don't blame Maia,' said Helena.

'Who mentioned Maia?'

'Your face speaks, Marcus!'

Helena was suckling the baby. Julia was sitting at my feet, repeatedly head butting my shins, annoyed to be no longer the sole object of attention in our house. That was certainly true; I ignored the little darling steadily. Nux chewed at one of my bootstraps.

'Don't be such a hypocrite,' Helena enjoyed pretending to be a serene mother, rocking the new baby to sleep in her arms. It was an act; she was placidly thinking up ways to slate me. 'Own up. You hated the idea of Petronius and Maia growing close. He was your friend and you refused to share him.'

'And she's my sister. Her husband had died suddenly; she was vulnerable. As her head of household' we never counted Pa 'I did not want her messed about.'

'Oh you admit Petronius has a bad record!' Helena smiled.

'No. Never mind his other women. He has been Maia's dogged follower, while my sister turns out as fickle as a flea.'

ISo what do you want?' Helena was easily roused by causes. 'That Maia Favonia should move straight from one husband to another, simply because an interested man is available and it is socially convenient? Shall she have no time to readjust after losing the husband we all pretend she loved?' Helena could be very dry and strikingly honest. Loving that tipsy loser Famia had been out of the question; I laughed harshly. Julia whimpered; I reached down and tickled her.

'No, Maia deserves time to reflect.' I could be reasonable, even when it hurt. 'She is well suited to working in Pa's warehouse and it's doing her good.' Maia was keeping Pa's records more truthfully than he did- and learning about the antiques business.

'Pius Aeneas graciously approves!' Helena was sneering. She took a tough line with traditional Roman values.

'I do approve.' I was losing, but I stuck to it doggedly. Any head of household tries to stand up to the witch who ties him up in knots.

Plenty of women at our level of society ran businesses. Most started out in partnerships with husbands, then as widows some chose to stay independent. (Independent widows with fears of being cheated were good news for informers. Their children brought in fees too- afraid the widows were planning remarriage with bloodsucking gigolos.) 'If Maia does make herself financially independent, she might still want a man in her bed '

'And dear Lucius Petronius/ said Helena wickedly, 'with all that practice, would be adequate!' I decided against commenting. Helena had a warning look in her eye. 'I think Maia will want a man in her life, Marcus. But not yet.'

'Wrong. Last I saw, Petronius was hanging back. At the Festival of Vertumnus, Maia tried throwing herself at him.'

'Petronius was afraid of being hurt. Maia misjudged that. And she herself may be confused, Marcus. For one thing,' Helena suggested, 'she had been married a long time, and may have lost her confidence.'

'Marriage makes you forget the arts of love?' I scoffed.

Helena Justina looked up at me, straight into my eyes, in a way that was intended to make me wish I had not asked. Both the children were with us; I had to let that pass.

I was sure Maia had not simply mishandled her relationship with Petro. She knew how strongly he felt. She was a straight dealer. She had been all set to start something serious- then she completely backed off. Something made her do that.

Helena and Maia were good friends. 'What happened?' I asked quietly.

'I'm not sure.' Helena looked troubled. She had an idea- but she hated it.

I considered the situation. There was one possibility. Before my sister so briefly became interested in Petronius, she had an abortive friendship with another man. 'Anacrites!'

Well, she had sunk low there.

Maia deserved better in life than the dice she had shaken out for herself. First as a young girl, she had opted to marry Famia. He may have looked amiable, and even stayed friends with her in his dozy way. Anyone connected with Maia would be stupid to give up on her. But Famia was a low proposition. He was a horse doctor for the Green charioteer faction and he drank continually. In his defence, he allowed Maia a free hand to run their household and bring up their children respectably which she could have done twice as well without his presence.

Maia was finally widowed and, newly unattached, she took on the traditional role of flighty piece. Her first foray was to adopt a male friend of stunning unsuitability, as widows like to do. Her chosen companion was Anacrites, the Chief Spy. Spies are never reliable lovers, due to their life of risk and their lying natures. Anacrites was also my sworn enemy. We had been forced into occasional shared work for the Emperor, yet I never forgot that Anacrites had once tried to have me killed. He was shifty, jealous, vicious and amoral. He had no sense of humour and no tact. He never knew when he should keep to himself. And I reckoned he took up with my sister just to get back at me.

A woman would have to be cracked to hitch up with a chief spy- any spy- but Maia always believed she could handle anything. Anacrites knew our family not only because he had worked with me; he had lodged with my mother. Ma thought he was perfect. I presumed my sister knew that our parent had a blind spot about men (well, dear Mother had married our father, for one thing). Maia also knew how I saw Anacrites. Anyone who looked that plausible had to be fake.

Eventually even Maia sensed a dangerous imbalance in their friendship. Anacrites was too intense for her. She told us they had parted. She would have been tactful. She was even a little upset. If I could see it, he must have known too. He should have withdrawn gracefully.

It was for the best. But would that maggot agree to let go? At last I understood the problem. 'Helena, are you saying Anacrites is harassing Maia?'

Helena usually shared her worries with me, though sometimes she hugged them to herself for a long time first. Finally she burst out, 'I am frightened for her. She changed so suddenly.'

'The children are very quiet.' Still, they had lost their father less than a year ago.

'Have you spoken to Anacrites lately, Marcus?' |

'No.' I had thought it might be embarrassing. I expected him to plead with me to intercede with Maia. In fact, he had never addressed the point.

If it hurt him to be rejected, he could react very nastily. Maia would not change her mind. So then Anacrites might do anything…

Being the man he was, of course he did.

my sister must have discovered what had happened in the late afternoon. After a normal day working with Pa at the Saepta Julia, she collected the children from my mother's house and returned home. By chance, I came along shortly afterwards. There was never any hope of her hiding the situation. Even before I went into the house, I had sensed the disaster.

As I strolled up the road where they lived, I had seen Maia's three youngest children. She had left them waiting outside; that was unusual. The two girls and Ancus, the nervous one, were clinging together in a group on the pavement, opposite where they lived. Marius, the eldest, was missing (in defiance of his mother, I learned later, he had raced off trying to find me). Maia's street door was open.

This was one of the Aventine's few good locations. People would think it rude to form a nosy crowd. Even so,

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