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Lydia, come and look. A man is arguing with Gallus the porter.' Sulpicia rushed into the tablinum, causing the thread on Lydia's spindle to snap.
Lydia Veratia placed her spindle down with gratitude and went to stand next to her sister-in-law at the living-room window. Anything was better than the tedium of spinning, even watching her father's volatile porter argue.
'What's it about this time?' Lydia asked, peering out between the shutters. Gallus stood gesturing to an unfamiliar man. 'Fish sauce again? Or has Gallus picked a fight with a stranger?'
Sulpicia cupped her hand to her ear and leant further out the window. 'Something about a delivery of wine.'
'But that was taken care of two Nones ago.' Lydia peered down at the man towering over the hapless porter. His sandalled feet were planted firmly as if he were on the deck of a ship. The cut of his dark blue cloak and his embroidered tunic showed he was no mere servant. The man glanced upwards and Lydia caught the fullness of his golden gaze. A half-smile appeared on his lips. He inclined his head in her direction. Lydia banged the shutter closed and withdrew to the other side of the room.
'Undoubtedly Gallus can solve the query. I am forbidden from such things now.' She forced her lips upwards to show her father's edict no longer hurt. 'I am to be a proper Roman lady, and stay at my spindle while Father searches for an appropriate bridegroom.'
'Publius has sent another tablet,' Sulpicia said, coming to stand next to Lydia. She tucked her head into her neck and glanced up through her eyelashes. 'He wants to know if that last cargo of liquamen has been loaded or if it has been delayed yet again.'
A small pain started behind Lydia's eyes. She should have known Sulpicia would have an ulterior motive in finding her, something she wanted done. Normally by this hour, her sister-in-law would be at the baths, gossiping with her cronies or listening to the criers in the Forum giving the latest news of the war against the pirates. 'He should ask our father.'
'But Cornelius has been ill. I don't want to worry him, and it is ever such a small thing.' Sulpicia gave a tiny pout and put her hands over her expanding belly. The kicks from the baby she carried were clearly visible. 'You can find out for me, Lydia. Publius says the factor is refusing to release any more money until the cargo arrives. I just want to know when it was shipped. I'd search myself, but I have no idea where to begin looking and you know where everything is in the study.'
Lydia rubbed the back of her neck. She refused to give in to temptation. She had given her word.
'I told Publius before he left that he should guard his denarii well. Sometimes shipments of liquamen take time. The amphorae are an awkward shape. Besides, the more mature the fish sauce is, the higher the price in Corinth. Ofellius has a good reputation.'
'Publius was being careful.' Sulpicia gave a demure smile. 'He had a few unexpected expenses. It could happen to anyone.'
'Publius spends money far too easily.'
Sulpicia fluttered her eyelashes and laid a manicured hand on Lydia's arm. 'Check for me… as a special favour. The baby is due in a few months, and I possess as much grace as one of Hannibal's war elephants.'
'Father has forbidden me to go into his office. Women should be attending their household duties and not seeing to shipping lists. His temper is so uncertain these days. He has become a different man since his illness.' Lydia fought to keep the bitterness out her voice.
'Our father doesn't realise how you saved this house when he lay ill. You will be in and out before anyone notices.' Sulpicia lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. 'Gallus is busy with that man. Find the tablet and bring it here. If you won't do it for me, consider how upset our father will be when he finds out about Publius's debt. It might even bring on another attack.'
When Sulpicia put it like that, her request became more tempting. It would mean Lydia would have less time to spin, and she could check on the status of several cargoes. Her father meant well, but he had not recovered his former vigour. Things slipped or became misplaced. Gallus had been grumbling about having to find missing scrolls this morning. Lydia tapped her finger against her mouth. The news that her brother had reverted to his spendthrift ways might indeed send her father back to his bed. 'Publius ought to have been more careful.'
'I'll do your spinning for you, Lydia.' Sulpicia dangled the abandoned spindle from her fingertips. 'No one will know you were there. Cornelius has gone to the Senate. One quick look. That is all I ask.'
Lydia took a look at the huge pile of wool next to her stool.
'I will do it for you, Sulpicia, but only this one time.'
Enough of this delay and excuses from a porter.
Quintus Fabius Aro glowered at the closed door. How many days had his men been forced to kick their sandals? His ships stay idle in Ostia, waiting for the promised cargo of Falerian wine?
The money he'd receive from the wine would enable him to carry out the final stage in his plan. He'd finally be able to honour the vow he'd made on his father's deathbed. Aro's hand tightened on the hilt of his dagger. The Fabii would again be one of the first families of Rome.
The antechamber with its intricate mosaic floor and fully frescoed walls reeked of wealth and privilege, but when he looked closely at the central tiger motif, Aro spotted the signs of money trouble—a tile missing in the tiger's right eye, water damage on the fresco by the window and the marks of a charcoal brazier in the corner. Veratius Cornelius was not as well off as he pretended.
A grim smile stretched across Aro's face. Good. It served the cheat right. Nobody made Fabius Aro look like a fool.
Eighteen months ago on the deck of his favourite trireme, the Sea Wolf, he had bargained with Veratius Cornelius—a cargo of next year's Falerian wine in exchange for passage for himself and his spices to Corinth. It was time for the senator to make good his promise before the winds changed and it became impossible to sail for North Africa and Cyrene.
Three times he had sent his men, and three times they were sent away with the same assurance—the scroll had been mislaid and the wine would arrive tomorrow.
Now the senator would have to answer to him.
Aro cocked his head, listening. The inner room had been silent when the porter first showed him in. But there was a distinct scratch of stylus against papyrus. Aro lifted an eyebrow. Obviously, Veratius Cornelius believed his unwelcome guest had departed and had decided to resume his work, coward that he was.
By Neptune's trident, he should have made Veratius Cornelius swim for it when he rescued the man from the sinking ship, rather than wasting precious time and effort saving his worthless hide. He should have recalled his father's bitter statements about the Veratii and the way they twisted the truth.
'Where is the Falerian wine you promised, Veratius Cornelius?' Aro strode over to the door and flung it open. 'We had a bargain, you and I.'
He stopped and stared. Instead of the grey-haired senator bent over his tablets and scrolls, a woman dressed in a dark blue gown sat at the table. Her dark brown hair escaped in curling tendrils about her heart-shaped face. At the sound of the crash, her hand stilled, frozen in the act of making some note. Her hazel eyes widened, but she recovered quickly, hurriedly shoving a scroll under the pile of tablets that littered the table.
'Who are you? Honestly, Gallus gets worse and worse.' She arched one perfectly plucked eyebrow, but Aro noted the smudge of ink on her cheek. 'This is a private office. Leave at once!'
'You are not Veratius Cornelius.'
'No. I'm not.' She inclined her head and rather pointedly made a note with her stylus.
Aro waited for her to say something more, but all her attention appeared to be on her writing.
'You are alone.'
'Do you always state the obvious?'
'I have business with Senator Veratius Cornelius.'
'Many people have business with him. He is one of the leading senators in Rome.' She pointedly shuffled the tablets and gestured towards the door. 'You will have to wait your turn.'
Aro tapped his fingers against his thigh. He refused to be dismissed that easily, as if he were a lost messenger boy. Exactly who was she? Veratius Cornelius's wife? His mistress? And why was she here in Veratius Cornelius's office?
'It is imperative I speak with him.' Aro kept his tone measured and his eyes fixed on a point somewhere above her head. 'I'm Fabius Aro.'
He waited for the response and recognition that he deserved as head of the Lupan House, one of the most successful trading houses in the western Mediterranean.
'The name means nothing to me.' She sorted through another tablet. Her lips curved upwards, then she fixed him with the full force of her hazel stare. 'You might want to try his negotiator who deals with such things.'
'I already have. He sent me here.'
'He wasted your time.' She gave another nod towards the door. 'Pray don't waste any more.'
Aro ignored the invitation to leave. Veratius Cornelius would have to return at some point, and he intended to find out why the senator felt he could cheat him. It made little sense. There again, a high-born lady as this woman clearly was had no call to sort and shift through tablets and scrolls like a scribe.
'You're not supposed to be here.'
'I'm Lydia Veratia. I have a right to be here.'
The words were quick, too quick, and accompanied a slight toss of her hair and a defiant look. Aro stroked his chin. He doubted her words were the whole truth. Wherever Lydia Veratia was supposed to be, it wasn't here.
'Your father has no idea you are searching through his papers.'
'You are spouting nonsense.' She lifted her chin and met his gaze, challenging him, instead of cowering as most women and many men would have done. 'Of course I have permission. Why do you think otherwise?'
'You failed to scream. You kept silent instead of calling for the porter.' Aro ticked off the reasons on his fingers, beginning to enjoy himself as a look of discomfort crossed Lydia's face.
He reached over and tweaked the tablet from her hand. A shipping bill for liquamen, with the seal of the house of Ofellius attached. He would be tempted to wager that the fish sauce would never arrive at its destination. Ofellius had a tendency to use that particular seal for cargoes that mysteriously vanished.
'In fact, you want everyone to remain ignorant that you are in the senator's inner chamber, searching through his private scrolls.'
'Do you always deal in myths and legends?' She snatched the bill back, and rose. She was taller than he had expected, the top of her head about level with his nose.
'Shall we call the porter and see?'
A look of discomfort passed over Lydia Veratia's face.
'It is far from necessary,' she mumbled to the floor.
'Tell me when I might expect the senator and I will tell no one, I promise.' He forced his features into a pleasant smile, but continued to watch Lydia like a hawk. If he could get her on his side, it would make it much easier to find Veratius Cornelius. The coward, skulking while he sent a woman to do a man's job. 'My ship waits for the wine he promised to deliver over three weeks ago. We had an agreement, your father and I. Or is it as worthless as the bill of sale you hold in your hands? Mark my words, the fish sauce will not arrive in Corinth. When dealing with that trading house, you need to get your money first.'
She jerked her head up at the statement and her eyes blazed, full of fury.
'My father made no such agreement.' Her hand hit the table, causing the scrolls to jump and a pile of tablets to crash to the mosaic-tiled floor. 'Impossible, I would know if he had.'
'Do you know all of your father's business?'
'Most of it. He… he confides in me,' she said in a quiet voice. 'And… and you are wrong about the liquamen. It has been delayed. That's all.'
She shrugged and her shawl slipped, revealing the delicate cream of her neck. Her hand immediately rearranged the shawl and the brief glimpse was no more. A gesture designed to distract. He had seen other women use it too many times before to allow his thoughts to wander, but his blood stirred at the sight.
'Shall we find your father and discuss the matter? You show me I am wrong.' Aro put his hands on the table and leant forward. The colour drained from her face. 'You must know where he is and when he is expected to return. Or is that something else he decided not to share with you?'
'That is not any of your business.' She picked up the stylus and gestured towards the door. 'Go now or I really will call the porter. I can't think why you were left here on your own. What did you bribe the porter with?'
'The porter did not need any silver. He listened and understood.' His body tensed as he watched her eyes flicker about the room. What was she going to try now? What would she do to distract his attention this time? He was hard pressed to remember the last time he had faced such an intriguing and infuriating opponent. His reputation ensured everyone he encountered treated him with the respect he deserved as head of the Lupan House. 'Your father owes me a valuable cargo, and therefore it is my business.'
'We have failed to establish if he owes you anything.' She tilted her head to one side. Her lips curved upwards, but her knuckles showed white where her hand gripped the stylus. 'You offer no proof. You merely demand.'
Aro made a show of straightening his cloak, giving the deliberate impression he had time to spare. Neither Lydia Veratia nor her father must guess how precarious the situation was. Another hour and he'd have missed today's tide.