We should celebrate mothers every day, of course. Aurelia is fierce in her protection of Marina her only child; it’s her greatest strength and her greatest vulnerability…
Caius smiled at me this time, but it didn’t reach his eyes. ‘Your mother’s right, you know. You have a duty to look after your rather, er, small family.’
I stood up and threw my napkin on the table. ‘The day I need you to teach me my duty doesn’t exist, Caius. Keep your nose out of my family affairs.’ I held my hand out to Marina, but fixed my gaze on my mother’s face. ‘I’m sure Nonna will allow you to leave the table now, Marina. We’re going for a walk outside in the fresh air.’
My mother gave a brief nod. I caught Caius’s second smirk out of the corner of my eye. One of these days…
Marina and I crossed the terrace and wound through the formal parterres and reached the swings at the side.
‘Nonna wants me to be friends with Caius Tellus,’ she said, ‘but I don’t like him. He makes me feel funny.’ I hugged her to me. She was so fragile; fine red-brown hair and a delicate face, light brown eyes like a frightened rabbit, not the bright Mitela blue like mine and my mother’s.
Never robust, Marina had coughed and wheezed her way through infancy, oored by the least infection.
My heart constricted as I recalled yet again that terrible day when she was just two. I’d rushed back, heart pounding, from the training ground. Still in my dusty green and brown combats, I’d stared down at my daughter; white, inanimate. I’d dropped to my knees and touched her forehead. Damp, cold, sweating. Her hand was equally chill. The nurse had wrapped her in light wool blankets and bonnet to prevent body heat loss and a drip line ran from her nostril up to a suspended plastic bag on a steel stand. I was a major in the Praetorian Guard and commanded some of the toughest soldiers in Roma Nova with the most modern weaponry on the entire planet, but I’d never felt more powerless.
Now I had to protect her against a subtler virus.
‘You don’t have to be friends with anybody you don’t want to, whatever anybody says – me and Nonna included.’
‘But Nonna said it was important. I have to get used to it for when he comes to live in our house.’
I stared at Marina. What in Hades was my mother hatching up now? All I could hear was an angry buzz in my head, soaring to deafening levels. Marina’s face tightened. She dropped my hand and shrank back.
‘It’s all right, darling. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.’ I swallowed hard. ‘I was a bit surprised, that’s all.’ I delayed, struggling to keep my temper and not frighten my soft child. ‘When did Nonna say that?’
‘Before lunch.’ She dropped her gaze to the ground.
I crouched down in front of her and touched her cheek.
‘Look at me, Marina. I promise you here and now that I will never be friends with Caius Tellus. He will not come and live with me. If Nonna invites him, you and I will go and live on the farm together.’
She lifted her head, two tiny wet streaks on her cheeks. ‘Cross your heart?’
‘And hope to die in the arena.’
Read more more in AURELIA
Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, will be published in Spring 2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series
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