Chapter 4

He had profoundly underestimated Julia. When she asked him what had possessed him to marry this barbarian, there was nothing but laughing curiousity in her voice. Not a flicker of an eyelid betrayed the faintest trace of disappointment or anger or jealousy. She spoke as if she had always thought he would marry another woman, and she had always envisaged maintaining their liaison under that condition. When she slipped into his lap and kissed him, there was nothing but satisfaction at their reunion and the usual skilful concern for his pleasure. Afterwards, nursing wine, she ordered him to tell her about his wife and, as usual with Julia, he found himself saying more than he meant to.

‘A virgin at twenty-seven?’ Julia said, raising her fair eyebrows. His gaze dwelt with pleasure on her creamy flawless skin. ‘Poor creature. I hope you gave her some pleasure?’

‘I don’t know,’ he said, thinking of Sophia’s cool set face. ‘I don’t think she likes pleasure.’

‘Ah,’ Julia said lazily. ‘One of those women.’

He felt an odd discomfort at hearing Sophia so dismissed. She was, after all, his wife. She had a position to uphold. Julia looked at him and smiled reassuringly.

‘I won’t gossip,’ she promised. ‘You know that.’

‘Of course,’ he said, and meant it, but the discomfort lingered. When he got home that night, he found Sophia in his study, still awake, frowning over some papers. She had grasped the situation in the capital frighteningly quickly, making and keeping important friends with an ease that surprised him, and her counsel on appointments now was already worth more than the whole curia put together. She had, with whatever inward struggle, really given him the loyalty and intelligent service he had jokingly demanded from her that first night, five months ago, and his gossip with Julia was a poor reward; while she had little reason to care if he sought affection and pleasure elsewhere, he already knew her pride would be hurt to learn he had spoken of her in such terms to anyone.

‘Rufus says Ilyria is restless,’ she said, as he kissed her neck in penitence, and he looked over her shoulder at the scribbled report. ‘Grain shortages.’ He saw the moment when she scented Julia’s perfume; nothing changed in her face but there was a little shift in her body, a barrier up where she had been absently open to his touch before.

‘Grain shortages?’ he said, stepping away from her and seeing the tension leave her shoulders.

‘There’s been nothing wrong with the harvest in Ilyria this year,’ she said. ‘It’s your men, sponging off the farmers.’

‘I’d rather have a few farmers revolt than a legion,’ he said and her mouth went tight with annoyance. She was angrier about the farmers than about Julia, it seemed. He sighed.

‘It’s a big empire, Sophia. Compromises have to be made.’

‘It’s corruption and exploitation,’ she said in her precise inexorable voice. ‘And it will teach the Ilyrians to hate you. You wouldn’t need so many legions if you made fewer such compromises.’

He sighed. It was already an old argument.

‘Come to bed,’ he said. ‘We’ll talk about it in the morning.’

‘I thought,’ she said and hesitated, colouring. ‘Do you want -‘

He hadn’t. He had meant to sleep. He put his hand to her hair, now coiled in a true matron’s braids around her head, and began to draw out the pins. She stood very still, unresisting, and opened her mouth as he had taught her when he kissed her. Her hands came up to his shoulders, clutched, and released, and clutched again. She wasn’t, whatever Julia implied, actually frigid. She just wanted to be.

The next morning, he woke to find her gone. It was early, the birds only beginning their dawn chorus, and the sky was flushed gold and pink with the beginnings of sunrise. After he rose and dressed, he glanced out of the window facing his private garden and saw Sophia stending there, arms folded and looking up at the sky. He could make out her expression, and thought it a strange one to turn towards all that glowing beauty: combative, grim, as if nature itself was offering some bribe she was determined to resist. Or perhaps she was only warching the sun rise and he was being absurd. After a few moments, she put her hand to her forehead in an oddly childlike gesture. Then she saw him and her hand fell. She inclined her head and turned to go indoors.

At breakfast, he found that she had somehow managed to find out everything there was to know about grain production in the empire and how much of it seemed to vanish and what all the governors of all the provinces had ever had to say about it. In sheer self-defence, he agreed to look at the matter and her smile of triumph was so delighted that he had to laugh. She was the strangest woman imaginable, but there was a charm to her strangeness. His luck with whims, so far, was holding true.