He turned his eyes away, as Elia tugged lightly on his sleeve and Rufus filled his glass again, and the next time he looked in her direction, Julia was leaning close to her, murmuring in her ear, and Sophia was – smiling. A small wry smile, but real. She looked grateful to be spoken to, he realised with sudden chagrin, finally seeing her cold composure as the nervousness it really was.

Julia spoke again and Sophia glanced up at her and then raised her glass and attempted her first sip of wine. She grimaced like a child at the taste, her head jerking back in surprise and disgust, and a sudden tenderness for her opened in him like a wound. She was so young, somehow, for all her twenty seven years. Naive? No, but something like it. She was brilliant and sharp, the cleverest woman he knew, but also the most defenceless. Julia did not mean well, he could tell that from across the room, watching the false-fond smile lilt across her mouth as Sophia attempted another wincing taste of the wine, but Sophia couldn’t see it. She responded to the supposed kindness with what looked like real gratitude: restrained, careful, but foolishly earnest. Childish.

He ought, he supposed, to go over and rescue her. Julia would try to get her drunk out of sheer mischief, and the gods alone knew what her real game was. He didn’t go. Every time he looked over, Sophia looked a little more undone: the glass emptying, her face pinkening, laughing with her hand over her mouth as Julia flirted with young Marius, putting her hands up to her forehead and searching the room anxiously with her eyes. When she saw him looking at her, her mouth opened a little and then she looked away quickly, guiltily, her colour deepening. Her hair was coming down a little from its tight coil and she looked as awkward as an adolescent, trying not to look at him.

Julia’s mouth was thin with triumph as her eyes met his. She knew nothing bored him so soon as infatuation in a woman. He went over then, mostly because he disliked the look in her face and he couldn’t allow her to believe him quite transparent to her.

‘My love,’ he said, putting his hand on Sophia’s wrist, aware of the atmosphere of the room changing as everyone of any importance pricked up their ears and glanced from him to Julia and back again. Sophia was having trouble focusing on him, the fool, her eyes glazed. She had no head for the stuff at all. Her pulse was rabbit-quick under his touch.

He bore her off to Rufus and started Rufus off on the supply of the legions; even drunk out of her mind, Sophia couldn’t not argue the grain subsidy. But she looked at him too often, for no reason, and he thought grimly that he had to get her pregnant soon. She’d need the distraction.

The following morning she was badly hungover, pale over the breakfast table. He didn’t mention it and nor did she, her gaze bent on a report from the provinces. She looked, as ever, utterly blank and remote and, if it hadn’t been for the triumph in Julia’s face, he’d have thought he’d imagined the whole. But there was a faint nervousness in her when she finally met his eyes, handing him the report with a few clipped words about Ilyria, and he knew he hadn’t. He gave her a small close-mouthed smile and she inclined her head in reply. Her eyes were faintly, almost imperceptibly strained. He could have beaten Julia.

‘You liked the lady Julia Marcella,’ he said, offering her the dish of olives. ‘What did you talk of, I wonder?’

‘The customs of the city,’ she said, eying him cautiously as she refused the olives. ‘I am very ignorant, as you know, and she was kind.’

‘Was she indeed,’ he said dryly and she stilled all over. She was so, so quick. That was all it took. Her face became ice. She knew, just like that, that Julia was the lady of the perfume and her mind was already replaying the night, understanding the deliberation of it. She stood, a little abruptly.

‘Excuse me,’ she said and he excused her. He had better dismiss Julia, he thought gloomily. She too conspicuously believed she had the upper hand, both over him and his Empress. It wouldn’t do. No more little evenings with her murmuring in his ear and believing herself the puppetmaster of them all.

Damn. He’d enjoyed her a good deal, better than anyone since he’d been a very young man. Why were women so horrendously complicated? Ambitious, tricky, randomly foolish when you least expected it – he shook his head, suddenly feeling all his forty years. He’d get that heir and then go on campaign somewhere. Sophia could run the show capably in his absence and she, at least, wouldn’t try to overthrow him.

Twenty seven. She’d looked sixteen last night. But she knew armies and politics and logistics, anyway, even if it turned out she knew nothing at all about women and men. There was an odd, regretful pain in his chest but he ignored it. Everyone had to get through adolescence sometime.