Q. Aemilius Valerius
Today I was going to get sorted out, get organised, and become the young Roman patrician I should have been by now. Today I would sort out my accounts, buy some new slaves, plot selling a quarter of a racehorse to someone stupid enough to buy it, and then I would go home and be learned and strict, and disciplined and sober, and before you knew it the old Aemilius Valerius would be but a shadow, and in his place would stand the new, improved paterfamilias.
“I haven’t seen Fulvia Drusa for years. She’d be a lot older than you, I imagine.”
“Twelve years,” I told him. “You know how it is. I needed a wife with a good family name, and she wanted to be free of Fimbria’s relatives.”
“You get along then?”
“We muddle through.” But my smile implied more than that.
Julia Drusilla had the fortune to have inherited her mother’s looks, and the misfortune to have inherited her father’s personality. I would have liked her more the other way around, plain and sweet like honey on bread. As I arrived in the doorway of the sitting room, I almost choked on her perfume. Sixteen and sloe-eyed, she was always surrounded by clouds of the stuff that stole around corners before her like some advance scout party that went straight for the throat. Fulvia seemed to have developed an immunity—she was seated across from her poisonous daughter looking firm but fair.
Octavia had a smile that could light up dark rooms, when she used it. Since her divorce I’d been beating suitors away from the front door with a stick. That wasn’t entirely true, of course—that would be Hursa’s job. But I had received a few enquiries, ranging from the reasonably subtle “You and Fulvia must come for dinner soon, Valerius. Oh, and bring your sister!” to the downright blatant “What’s your sister’s dowry worth these days?”
Aulus Caldus Ruso
Aulus, Fulvia’s son from her second marriage, was playing with a wooden centurion and a bronze horse in the atrium.
“Good morning, Mouse.”
He waved at me. “Hello! Do you want to play soldiers with me?”
Mouse was eleven, a skinny little boy with a mop of dark curls, and he wouldn’t say boo to a goose—hence the nickname.
Free from the darkness of the colonnades, I took the opportunity to get a better look at the vigile. Atreus was about my age, maybe a year or two older, and tall. He was well-built, supple and lean, but with broad shoulders that hinted at underlying strength. His hair was brownish-gold, and he had a few freckles hiding under his sun-browned skin. His eyes were green. All small things, but I wondered if his mother had once been on friendly terms with a lonely barbarian. If my scrutiny made him uneasy, he gave no sign of it.
Juba was a big solid lump of Aethiopian with muscles that could crack walnuts and a talent for languages that was wasted on me. I’d known him for less than a year. On the day I’d got back from the army he’d opened the door to me, and that was the first time we’d met. My father had made him tag along as my bodyguard whenever I went out on a late night, and there had been a few of those when I was first back in Rome. He had always impressed me with his cleverness, his discretion, and, tonight, his homicidal loyalty.
An eighteen-year-old German, guaranteed to scare away burglars, door-to-door salesmen and friends I owed money. Sturdy and strapping? Hardly. Skinny and spotty, and as German as my right foot. His golden locks were less convincing than Aunt Marcia’s. Alright, there was German somewhere in his genealogy, but if Hursa so much as glimpsed a bearded barbarian in full-throated war cry, he’d faint like a girl.