'Falco, you half-arsed donkey-drover! Who let you back into Rome?'
'Public demand for my civilising influence.'
'Hah! Good trip?'
'Wish I had stayed there-my apartment's wrecked.'
'Oh really?' Lenia, who had connections with the snail slime I called my landlord, assumed an expression as though she would love to talk further, but must urgently dash to the pie shop before the ovens cooled.
'You know it is!' I retorted. In a dispute with the landlord there was no future; still, raising my voice eased the knot that was strangling my liver.
'Don't involve me. Speak to Smaractus…'
'I'm looking forward to the pleasure!'
'He's out of town. ' That parasite Smaractus had probably heard I was back and arranged himself a six-month stay at his holiday home on Lake Volsena. Yachting would be a cold sport in March. 'So people got in, did they?' Lenia must have spotted the interlopers every time they took the stairs. In fact, they had probably stuffed a silver coin in her fist to find out where there was an empty roost. 'That's terrible!'
I gave up the struggle. 'Are my womenfolk here?'
'There's been some toing and froing. Your sister dropped in earlier.' That could have meant any one of five-no, four now. Victorina was gone.
'Maia?' Only Maia would put herself out for me.
Lenia nodded. 'Oh, and that bastard Petronius was looking for you.'
This was better news. Petronius Longus, captain of the Aventine Watch, was my closest friend. I was looking forward to swapping insults while regaling him with lurid lies about my foreign trip.
'How are the wedding plans?' I shouted at Lenia as I bounded for the stairs.
'Progressing!' That was bluff. Lenia and Smaractus were supposed to be linking fortunes, only somehow neither could bring themselves to the point of sharing their money bags. 'What about yours?' she retaliated.
'Oh, at about the same wonderful stage…'
I nipped for the stairs before this line of questioning bit too hard.
I guessed that my rooms had reached the point of getting worse before they could be improved. On the landing outside there was hardly room to squeeze through the mounds of broken furniture and swag bags of jetsam in order to reach the front door.
Helena Justina met me coming out. She was carrying a heavy bale of rubbish, wrapped in what was left of a cloak with its corners knotted. She looked exhausted. Helena was stubborn and courageous about the squalor she had to live in alongside me, although she had been delicately reared. I could see her strength was failing. She knocked into the discarded frame of my bed, bruised herself badly, and spoke a word no senator's daughter should have known; she must have picked it up from me.
'Here-give me that!'
She edged away from my outstretched hand. 'I have to keep going. Don't upset my balance, or I'll drop.'
'Drop on me,' I murmured temptingly. Using my strength I took the bundle from her; Helena drooped against me, letting her full weight collapse while she held on around my neck.
Manfully I supported both my lass and the bundle of rubbish, pretending it was effortless. When she had made her point, she tickled my neck unfairly so I had to let go of the bundle. It crashed downstairs for a couple of landings. We watched, though with no interest in chasing after it.
'Ma gone?' I asked hopefully. She nodded. 'That's all right then!' I murmured, starting to kiss her while we still stood amidst the chaos on the landing. Mine was the only apartment on the sixth floor, so we were assured of privacy. Revived by a day in Rome, I didn't care who saw us anyway.
After a while I stopped, held Helena's hot, tired face between my hands and gazed into her eyes. I watched peace making itself at home in her soul. She smiled slightly, while she let me take the credit for calming her. Then her eyes half closed; she hated me to know the effect I had. I hugged her and laughed.
We went into the apartment holding hands. The place was virtually empty, but now clean. 'You can sit on the balcony,' Helena told me. 'We washed it out-and scrubbed the bench.'
I took her with me. It was nearly dark and pretty cool, but that made a good excuse for huddling close. 'The apartment has never been so clean. It's not worth it. Don't wear yourself out over this dump, fruit.'
'You won't want to stay long at your mother's.' Helena knew me.
'I can bear living at Ma's if I have you to protect me.' That was surprisingly true.
I kept her there, looking at the view while she rested. Ahead of us an aggressive wind was driving clouds at a fast pace above the Tiber and a dull threat of rain darkened our normal vista across to the Ianiculan. Rome lay below, sullen and muted, like a disloyal slave whose sins had been found out.
'Marcus, you never told me properly what happened when you saw the soldier yesterday.' That's the trouble with gazing at views; once people start feeling bored, gluey issues may be raised.
My attention lingered on the winter scenery. 'I didn't want to worry Ma.'
'She's not here; worry me.'
'I wanted to avoid that too.'
'Keeping things to yourself is what worries me most.'
I gave in. She was badgering, but I like being badgered by Helena. 'I saw Censorinus at the caupona, but we got nowhere. He told me some of my brother's cronies in the legion lost money on importing Greek statues.'
'So what's their point?'
'Our Festus gaily assured them all he would see them right for the loss.'
'He failed though?'
'He promptly dropped off a battlement. Now they want me to square matters, but Censorinus refused to come clean about the original deal…'
As I tailed off Helen's interest sharpened. 'What happened?' She knew I was hiding something. 'Was there trouble at the caupona?'
'It ended in fisticuffs.'
'He started it.'
'I hope so! But I bet you were digging your heels in?'
'Why not? Nothing else they can expect if they choose to be secretive.'
Helena had to agree. She thought for a moment, then asked, 'Tell me about your brother. I used to have the impression everyone approved of him. Now I can't decide what your feelings are.'
'That's it. Neither can I sometimes.' He had been eight years older than me. Distant enough for an element of hero worship-or for the other thing. Part of me hated him; though the rest loved him much more. 'He could be a trial. Yet I couldn't bear losing him. That sums him up.'
'Was he like you?'
'No.' Probably not.
'So are you taking this any further?'
'I'm waiting to see.'
'That means you want to give up.' It was a reasonable comment. But she didn't know Festus. I doubted if I could escape; even if I tried doing nothing, the situation was out of control.
Helena was starting to hunch against the cold. I said, 'We need some dinner.'
'We can't keep imposing on your mother.'
'How right-let's go and see your parents!'
'I thought you might say that. I brought a change of clothes. I ought to bathe first…'
I surveyed her; she looked filthy, but full of fight. Even a layer of grime could not smother her resourceful character. Being covered with dust enhanced the brightness of her great dark eyes, and when her hair was slipping out of its pins I only wanted to help dismantle it… If there had been a bed, we would have gone no further that evening. There was no bed, and no reasonable substitute. I grinned ruefully. 'My darling, it may not be a bright idea to bring you to your parents looking as if you've spent all day working like a slave in a furnace-house. On the other hand, bad treatment is all your noble relatives expect from me, so let's go and use your papa's private bathhouse for free.'