I left my side-arm in the safe box in the vestibule and walked on past the marble and plaster imagines, the painted statues and busts of dead Mitelae from the gods knew how many hundreds of years. Only the under-steward was allowed to dust them; I’d never been allowed to touch them as a child.
My all-terrain boots made soft squelching sounds as I crossed the marble floor. This was the last private time I’d share with my mother and daughter for three weeks. A glance at my watch confirmed I had a precious hour.
Through the double doors, the atrium rose up for three storeys. Light from the late spring sun beat down through the central glass roof on to luxuriant green planting at the centre of the room like rays from an intense spotlight.
My mother disliked the vastness of the atrium and had partitioned a part of it off with tall bookcases, to make a cosier area, she said. Unfortunately, because of the almost complete square of tall units with only a body-width entrance at the far corner, and the way the shelving inside was arranged, you couldn’t see who was there until you were on top of them. I’d been trapped by some of her tea-drinking cronies more than once.
My mother, sitting on her favourite chintz sofa facing the entrance, looked up as I appeared in the gap. Two tiny creases on her forehead vanished when she stood and walked towards me with her arms extended. She greeted me with an over-bright smile.
I bent and kissed her cheek in a formal salute then looked over her shoulder to where my daughter, Marina, was sitting on the sofa, her small figure almost drowned by the large flowers. She was twisting her hands together and glancing in as many different directions as she could.
‘Marina, whatever is the matter, sweetheart?’ I strode over and crouched down by her. She stretched one hand out to grab mine and with the other pointed at the chair in the far corner.
Hades in Pluto.
‘Aurelia, how lovely to see you,’ he said in a warm urbane voice. Taller than his brother Quintus who nearly topped two metres, Caius was well built without being overweight. Sitting at his ease, one leg crossed over the other, he ran his eyes over my face and body. His hazel eyes shone and his smile was wide, showing a glimpse of over-white teeth through generous lips. Nothing in his tanned face with classic cheekbones would repel you on the surface. Others considered him very good-looking with almost film star glamour and charm. I knew better what kind of creature lay underneath.
Even as a kid he’d had a vicious streak; I’d never forget his hand clamping my neck, forcing my face down into the scullery drain, him saying he’d drown me in filth. I’d retched and retched at the smell of animal blood, the grease and dirty water. In the end, the cook had found us and hauled Caius off. I crouched there sweating and trembling; only horseplay, Caius said and laughed. The cook had given him a hard look, but the other servants were won over by Caius’s boyish smile. But when he’d stuck his hand up my skirt and tried to force me at Aquilia’s emancipation party, I’d kneed him in the groin so hard he couldn’t stand up for hours. I’d been in the military cadets for a year by then. But the others, woozy from wine and good spirits, gave him more sympathy as he writhed around on the terrace, playing to the audience.
After I joined the guard at eighteen, I hardly saw him except at formal Twelve Families events and even there, he’d smarm his way to the head of the food queue or make a beeline for the most vulnerable in the room, be it male or female. He was a taker in life, a callous one, and I loathed him with all my heart and soul.
I stood up, shielding Marina behind me.
‘Dear me,’ he said, ‘are you off playing soldiers again?’
I should have been given top marks for not slapping the smirk off his face.
‘Caius,’ I said, keeping my voice as cool as possible. ‘We’re having a private family lunch before I go on an extended operation, so I hope you’ll excuse us.’
My mother cast a pleading look at me. I closed my eyes for a second. She’d invited him to join us. How could she have?
I chewed my food slowly to try to reduce my tension. I was irritated Mama had chosen the breakfast room – a private family place – to eat in rather than the formal dining room. The servants flitted in and out with the food, and I said very little except to Marina, who pecked at her food.
‘Aurelia, you’re quieter than usual. I hope nothing’s wrong?’ my mother said too cheerfully.
Before I could answer, Caius intervened. ‘She does look a little pale. Don’t you worry, Felicia, that she takes too much on sometimes?’ He tilted his head sideways and pasted a concerned expression on to his face.
I speared a piece of pork and sawed through it like a barbarian, scraping the plate glaze below. I knew Caius was trying to make me rise to his bait, but I refused to play. At least my work as a Praetorian soldier was serving the state. He served himself with his gambling and whoring. He put in just enough hours at the charity committees he nominally sat on to appear to be contributing to Roma Novan life.
My mother smiled at him. ‘Yes, I do wonder. She was so exhausted after that last exercise abroad. You really understand, don’t you, Caius?’
He extended his hand and grasped hers and smiled. I was nearly sick.
‘“She” wasn’t exhausted,’ I cut across. ‘It was food poisoning, as you know very well, Mama. And it was all over within thirty-six hours.’
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, floored 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.’
Caius was drinking coffee with my mother when I returned alone to the atrium. He gave a knowing little smile when I requested an urgent private word with my mother. We walked in silence to an unused office at the back of the house. Its virtue was that it was part of the ancient building and had very thick walls.
‘What the hell are you playing at?’ I said. ‘And how in Hades do you think you have the right to pressure my five-year-old child to cosy up to that slimy bastard Caius?’
I stood a body-length away from my mother, further than my fists could reach.
‘Don’t use your rough soldier’s language with me, my girl. I’ve dropped enough hints over the past year, but you’ve been ignoring them. You need another child. As insurance.’
‘I hope you’re not serious, Mama.’
‘You have responsibilities. House Mitela needs heirs and Marina isn’t strong.’
I stared at her for a full minute.
‘I’m twenty-eight – not exactly past it,’ I said. ‘And I have two male cousins in the first degree.’
‘Neither of whom could inherit except by imperial decree. That hasn’t happened to the Mitelae yet. And Imperatrix Justina would be hard to persuade on this. Take my word for it.’
‘She can’t insist.’
‘No, but she’d speak about duty and history and make you feel like a shirker.’
‘For Juno’s sake, it’s the nineteen sixties. I’m not a breeding filly.’
‘No, but you are the heir to the senior of the Twelve Families whose sworn duty is to support the Apulian imperatrix and the continued existence of Roma Nova. Caius is an ideal prospect, personable and intelligent. He belongs to a good family that has been allied to ours for over fifteen hundred years.’
‘Don’t hide behind history, Mama. I know what you’re up to and the answer’s no. Not a hope. Ever.’
‘What’s wrong with him? I know you didn’t get on very well as children, but you’ve grown out of that awkward stage. You’re an adult now. Old Countess Tella would be pleased for an alliance with our family.’
No doubt Caius’s great-aunt would be thrilled. I was the bait for every other one of the Twelve. But I would choose my partner myself, not submit to some old girls’ cosy arrangement. I’d already had the dubious pleasure of one unsatisfactory companion in Marina’s father; I didn’t want a second one.
‘If you don’t get it, Mama, I don’t know where to start. Can’t you see how manipulative Caius is? He’s flashed his teeth at you, said a few smarmy phrases to lure you on to his side. Now he has you trying to finesse Marina.’ I snorted. ‘Look at his eyes sometime when he’s not trying to charm you. He’s mean and cruel. Ask his brother Quintus.’ I glanced at my watch. ‘I have to go now.’
‘Won’t you even talk to him?’
‘No. My mind’s made up. There is no more discussion.’
‘Well, have a think about it while you’re away.’
She made it sound like a holiday. We’d be freezing our arses off on a snow-covered mountain, grabbing three to four hours’ sleep, either bored out of our minds or targeted by tough criminals and snipers.
‘We’ll talk properly when I’m back, if you insist. But I don’t want Caius Tellus within fifty metres of Marina while I’m away. A hundred, preferably. Promise me that.’
Her eyes dropped under my intense stare.
‘Do you promise?’
‘Don’t be so angry, Aurelia. I’ll do as you ask. But try to calm down and think logically. You need more heirs.’
For a clever woman, my mother was sometimes so simple.
I tamped down the heat of anger rushing through my body.
‘Let me assure you, Mama, that even if Caius was the last man on earth, I’d rather kill myself than let him touch me.’
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