It was Julia who found him Clara, which surprised him. It shouldn’t have. Her resentment at being dropped had shown for a few weeks but she was too clever to give up on her influence on him – influence she had held since before he was seventeen – in a fit of sulks. She waited until the child was born and Sophia was declared well out of danger; for all the months of the pregnancy, she did nothing but make friendly, faintly reserved conversation and avoided any attempt to hold him to her. It was at a dinner some weeks after the birth, with Sophia at home nursing the child, that she sought him out and put her hand in his and led him to Clara.
It was delicately, elegantly done. Clara was new to the city and terribly shy and scared to be in the presence of the emperor but Alario wasn’t at all frightening, was he? Clara blushed to her ears, very fetchingly, and it was only polite to put her at her ease and that was really all it took. Julia stayed beside them for the first ten minutes and then softly withdrew, catching his eye for a brief conspiratorial moment as she left. He had to admire her. She was only five years older than him, and had ceased to be his lover less than a year ago, but she was already positioning herself as his kindly aunt who brought him gifts. And Clara was an inspired choice of gift: pretty, young enough, a little gauche but with a promising glint of calculation in her eye when she glanced up at him.
She was a tall girl, with a slender willowy figure. Her chief beauty was a pair of large almond-shaped eyes that were astonishingly blue, the colour of the sea in summer. Her husband, a heavy senator twice her age, was known to be idiotically proud of those eyes and lavished her with sapphire rings, endless blue enamel necklaces and bracelets and even, obtained from some exotic corner of the Empire, a blue cat that stalked coldly through her apartments and rarely came to her hand. He liked the cat a great deal. It came and ate when food was offered but it tolerated no nonsense of any kind. He had a thread of a scar on his hand from his attempt to stroke its ears while it ate. Clara had looked briefly frightened at the sight of the blood, as if she thought he was the kind of petulant despot who would destroy anything that inconvenienced him, but she had laughed in relief when he laughed.
The child, a boy, was not as robust as could be wished. Illness after illness seized him and his survival on each occasion seemed a miracle. Sophia, shedding the brief roundness of pregnancy, began to seem terribly gaunt. He feared for her, spoke to her gently about her own health, but she only looked at him blankly. She was taking Clara hard, as he had feared she would. He was surprised by the pain he felt at the look in her face, the hard suffering set to her mouth, but it was inevitable. She had to come to it sooner or later and the earlier the better. It was simply how the world was.
Things got better, slowly. After that first terrible six months, the illnesses stopped. The child grew fat and robust, grinning up at him from his nurse’s arms. At the naming ceremony, on his first birthday, he bounced with such vigour that the priest almost dropped him. They named him Justin, for Alario’s father, and gave him the second name of Aldred for Sophia’s own father.
She smiled a little, thinly, as the priest stumbled to pronounce the strange name and he thought suddenly of the girl who had looked at him with such killing hatred in that barren room in that awful place. It seemed a long time ago. Then Sophia’s eyes met his and he saw her remember too. She looked at him with something like bewilderment, surprise, as if she was seeing him clearly for the first time in a long time. Justin set up a wail for his mother and Sophia put her hand on his round curly head and he stopped crying instantly. For a brief frightening moment, she looked down at the child as if he too was a stranger. Alario felt all the hair at the back of his neck stand up. Sophia saw the fear in him and her mouth curled faintly. She picked up the child, held him close to her breast, and turned her attention to the people.
The people had never quite grasped Sophia. She was regal and silent and looked good enough beside their emperor, and she was rumoured to be a frugal and careful woman, so they had no reason to hate her. But they had never shown any great warmth towards her until now. The baby and his endless rumoured illnesses made a difference, in any case, but it was the glittering triumph in Sophia’s face as she held up the child to view that made them cheer. He’s alive, she was saying. I kept him alive. They cheered and cheered, as she smiled one of her rare full smiles and the baby laughed in delight at being lifted so high. She looked, for the first time since she had come to the city, electric with power. When he stepped forward, put his hand on her waist to renewed cheers, she never turned her head, her eyes still on the surging crowd. This close, he could see the look in her face underneath the dazzling smile; she was watchful and interested, like a general observing the possibilities of an entirely new weapon. Hell. There was trouble here, he could feel it in his blood. He smiled, only half at the crowd. Anyway. At least it would be something new.