Disclaimer: Characters and situations owned by HBO, at least in these particular incarnations. :)

Spoiler: until Death Mask in season 2, with some foreshadowing regarding later developments.

Thanks to: my dear beta-reader, Kathyh. Originally written for Yuletide 2017.

Ash and Iron

There was never any question of not attending Servilia's funeral procession. The story of her final curse was talked about throughout Rome within hours of her death, and if Atia had remained in her home during Servilia's funeral, as she'd tried in vain to outwait Servilia for the two days the latter had spent in front of her houdr, she'd have admitted to the power of the curse. She'd have admitted defeat.

Atia would never concede victory to Servilia, in anything. Never.

Especially not since the curse still echoed in her ears, and she knew in her bones it always would. People had spat at her and cursed her before, and she had laughed, had taken it as tribute to her increasing power. This was different. Servilia had offered her life to the gods of the underworld, and they had accepted. Servilia, once upon a time the consummate survivor and the most worldly woman Atia had known.

She'd go to the funeral, yes, to show her continuing invulnerability to curses. „And to be sure it wasn't some trick," she announced to Antony, even after fucking him most thoroughly had failed to drive the thought of Servilia away. „I wouldn't put it past that bitch to have faked the whole thing with some chicken's blood to spite me."

Antony, arms crossed beneath his head, regarded her with half closed eyes. He had to know that she was lying about her reason; undoubtedly he'd felt her shudder next to him when Servilia had struck. „Well, if you must," he said. „I've had my share of funerals, though, so I think I'll pass."

Rumor had it that he'd spoken Brutus' funeral oration, too, at Philippi, before having his ashes sent to Servilia. Atia hadn't asked him whether or not that was true. It had seemed a foolish male gesture to her, this honoring of dead enemies. If you despised them in life, why bother pretending otherwise once they were at last dealt with for good?

Yet she went, without her veil and with her hair, her real hair, open and dishevelled, as was the custom for women, to Servilia's funeral procession.

Octavia went with her. Atia, knowing how Octavia had once felt about the dead woman, was tempted to forbid it, yet Octavia was in a stronger frame of mind these days. How much of this was due to Octavian's friend Agrippa making cow eyes at her, Atia did not want to know. Besides, maybe Octavia, who'd gone from loving Servilia to hating her to at least pretending indifference, needed some other image to remember her by than the ash ridden crumpled form in front of their doorstep.

Brutus had been Servilia's only son, but she had three surviving daughters, and while the third one, Junia Tertia, had been married to Cassius, the second one was married to none other than Lepidus, these days the supposed partner of Atia's son and Mark Antony in their rule of Rome. This meant there was money galore to pay for mimes, musicians and professional mourners. Then there were the freedmen and clients of the Serviliii Caepionis and the Junii, as well as amazing number of bystanders, and when they all started to join in with the shrill sounds the paid mourners made at the start of the procession, it seemed to Atia almost as noisy as Caesar's funeral had been, which was infuriating.

„Whatever has she done to deserve this?" she hissed, and Octavia put a hand on her arm.

„I don't think they're mourning Servilia herself," Octavia said. She was pale, yet calm. Far calmer than Atia felt. „I think they're mourning the Republic."

Which was even more infuriating, Atia thought. No matter what she had pretended, Servilia hadn't cared about the Republic. Not really. If she had done, she wouldn't have been the woman Atia had modelled a great deal of her life on which had been the first, best reason to hate her to begin with.

Atia had first heard of Servilia through gossip, of course, before she ever met her. For all their pride in their descent from the Goddess Venus, the Julii had been in decline for generations. That Atia's mother had been married to a Senator of plebeian origin was one of many signs of this, and all the family's hopes to stop and reverse the decline now rested on Atia's uncle Gaius, her mother's brother. Unfortunately, early on he mostly made a splash through scandal. There were rumors about him and a Bithynian king, and then there were rumors about him and practically every wife of any influential man in the city. Supposedly, he even had affairs with the wives of Crassus and Pompey, apparently as an original way of introduction to their husbands.

„And Servilia," Atia's mother said indignantly while gossipping with her sister about how brother Gaius was letting the family down.

„Didn't Pompey kill her husband? Don't tell me brother Gaius is actually rutting with an available patrician woman. Mother will have his head. He needs his wife's money, he can't afford to divorce…"

„Oh, Servilia has married again," Atia's mother said. „Not that this is stopping her. Or Gaius. I tell you, if we're ever to gain influence again, someone needs to castrate him. After he's sired an heir."

Scandalous Uncle Gaius made all those affairs work for him, against expectations. The King of Bithynia bequeathed his realm to Rome. Pompey let it be known Uncle Gaius had his support for standing as military tribune, the first important step for any career in the army, and Atia's uncle was duly elected. Marcus Crassus, possibly the richest man in the Republic, sponsored him in a run for quaestor.

„He must really be good in the sack," Atia said, having picked up the expression recently and using it with delight. „Will Servilia get him something as well?"

Her mother slapped her on the wrist, but lightly. „Things are finally looking up for the Julii," she said. „Maybe we'll get you a good marriage. That might be where Servilia comes in. Her son got all this money from his dead father and her thieving grandfather, and she can trace her family back to the beginning of the Republic. On both sides."

While Servilia's grandfather had actually been infamous for plundering the temples of Tolosa and supposedly passing on that gold through his line despite being stripped of his citizenship for losing an entire army in the process, the rest of her ancestors were indeed impeccable, and thus her son sounded like a good potential husband for Atia, who resented being regarded as the offspring of the Julii's poorest branch. She wasn't yet old enough to marry, but soon she would be. When Servilia of the Juniii officially invited her mother and Atia for a visit, she was thrilled, and wildly curious.

Servilia, it turned out, was an elegant, blonde woman with a low voice and a seemingly effortless command of her household that was in stark contrast to Atia's own mother, who yelled at and cursed her servants frequently. Her son, on the other hand, was some boring boy who hardly got a word out and was soon slinking off somewhere to read his scrolls. Atia wasn't very impressed and couldn't suppress a grimace. Suddenly she felt Servilia's dark eyes on her, those eyes which provided such a startling contrast to her fair hair, and realised the other woman was watching her without expression. Atia felt slightly chilled.

„Well, children…" Atia's mother started, somewhat helplessly.

„Quite," Servilia said, still not turning her gaze away from Atia. Servilia herself could not yet have reached the ancient age of 30. Her first marriage supposedly happened when Servilia had been sixteen.

„I'm not a child anymore," Atia said, who was twelve years old, because that chilly feeling of being judged did not go away, and she refused to be scared; it always made her belligerent.

„I can see that," Servilia replied with some amusement. „But have you decided yet what kind of woman you want to be, Atia of the Julii?"

Nobody had asked her this before. Atia felt taken seriously in a way that was new to her. Bearing the family fortunes in mind, and the way Uncle Gaius' unusual methods seemed to be bearing fruit, Atia decided to be bold as well.

„I'm going to be the first woman of Rome!" she announced.

Her mother looked a bit embarrassed. Servilia smiled.

„You are your uncle's niece, to be sure," she said, and Atia felt thrilled. Then Servilia continued: „But how will you accomplish this?", and Atia's newfound joy in being taken seriously faded somewhat, because all she could think of in reply sounded dreadfully ordinary, not different than something any other girl would have said, and she was sure she'd lose Servilia's interest now.

„I'll marry the right man," she said, hating that she couldn't come up with something better, „and ensure he makes all the right alliances."

This time, her mother looked relieved, and even a bit proud. Servilia, on the other hand, shrugged, and Atia imagined she could almost see indifference and boredom setting in.

„And if he doesn't, I'll take a lover who damn well does!" she added with more desperation than boldness. Her mother, who'd been starting to drink from a cup, coughed and promptly ended up with hiccups which the slaves had to massage out of her. It did occur to Atia that if Servilia was indeed looking for a suitable bride for her son, this answer would probably cancel Atia out. Not to mention that Servilia could regard the remark as an insulting allusion to her relationship with Uncle Gaius. But at least Atia still had her hostess' complete attention.

„That will be a good start," Servilia said, this time without the undertone of amusement that had woven through all her previous remarks. Instead, she sounded utterly serious. „But you'll need something else. To become truly great, you need the right enemy, Atia. After all, we are all measured by the obstacles we overcome."

Negotiations between the Junii and the Julii for a marriage between Atia and Marcus never happened. „And no wonder," said Atia's mother angrily. „Whatever were you thinking, you little fool?"

Atia didn't reply. She listened to the maternal chastisement and then ran off to pester the most gossipy of the household slaves to tell her who Servilia's enemies were. This resulted in some interesting tales about how Servilia's half brother Marcus Porcius Cato, the rising star among the Optimates, supposedly had a bad relationship with her, and that Pompey, having killed her first husband, did not count as a friend. „But who among other women?" Atia insisted, and there, none of the slaves would agree to a name. Not even that of Uncle Gaius' first, now deceased wife, Cornelia, or his recently married second one, Pompeia.

„On the contrary, she's made sure to cultivate them as friends, young domina," the cook said.

Much like Uncle Gaius had made friends with the husbands of the women he slept with, Atia thought. Maybe that was why Servilia and he were together: they were alike. At any rate, for all her talk of finding the right enemy, Servilia had so far not singled out one above others.

It was something to keep in mind.

In the end, Atia was married to a moderately wealthy man of equestrian rank and no ambition to become the first man of Rome whatsoever, though Gaius Octavius at least could be persuaded to stand for a position as praetor. By that point, scandalous Uncle Gaius was no more referred to as scandalous within the family, nor indeed as Gaius, but had successfully gotten himself appointed Pontifex Maximus and was called by the family's eminently respectable cognomen of Caesar. He was still rumored to have affairs, though. Atia was pregnant for the second time that year, the year in which her uncle became Jupiter's highest priest, and she stubbornly clung to optimism. Her first born had been a girl, but this second child would be a boy, and her husband would start to take his career more seriously. After all, there were all kind of possibilities in the air, even for a man from the country. Look at Cicero, Atia thought, who had started out as a nobody from bloody Arpinum and this year was consul, having defeated the only man more scandalous and more in debt than Caesar used to be in the elections. Rumors were flying about just what Lucius Sergius Catilina was intending to do about this, not least because Cicero had taken to wearing armor in the Senate as a pointed gesture.

„As if anyone would ever commit murder in the Senate," Atia's grandmother Aurelia, Caesar's mother, scoffed when her granddaughter was visiting her. „Who does he think he is, Romulus? Nothing ever happens in the senate but endless talk, mark my words."

Murder wasn't committed in the Senate, but Catilina and several of his followers fled Rome, and Cicero told everyone about the conspiracy against the Republic he'd uncovered. Atia congratulated herself for not having tried to win over Catilina's wife; those debts had not been encouraging. Her attempt at befriending Cicero's wife, Terentia, on the other hand, had not been met by success. Terentia had looked her up and down and declared that a woman in her condition shouldn't be so eager to get out anymore, and basically sent her home like a stern aunt would a school girl. It was infuriating. What made it even worse was that they weren't alone; Servilia had been visiting Terentia at the time Atia called on the consul's wife. She looked as elegant and beautiful as ever, despite the fact that she'd borne three daughters in her second marriage. Atia felt every pound of her pregnant, swollen body in Servilia's presence.

„Allow me to offer you my litter," Servilia said to Atia. „I was intending to leave anyway."

At first, Atia wanted to decline or pretend she'd arrived in her own litter, but the truth was that she hadn't. She'd hated to be locked up in the house all the time with little Octavia and the slaves, and there was only one litter, which her husband these days took when attending all those emergency meetings in the senate.

Servilia's litter smelled of her perfume, sandalwood and some crocus if Atia wasn't mistaken. When they both reclining in it, Servilia said: „I wouldn't take it personally if I were you. Terentia is prone to bite anyone's head off, and so would you, if you were married to a man like Cicero. Besides, she's afraid people will remember that old scandal about her sister the Vestal and Catilina."

This sounded both like a friendly overture and an intriguing bit of gossip, which Atia had not expected. By the time they'd arrived at her house, Servilia hadn't finished telling her about the time Catilina and Terentia's sister the Vestal had been accused of an unholy affair, so Atia agreed to come with Servilia the rest of the way to the town residence of the Junii. Moreover, whatever else was true about her, Servilia's second husband Silanus was the consul designatus for next year, and thus Servilia could help Octavius, surely.

The house was much as she remembered, though thankfully free of that boring son of Servilia's, who was nowhere in sight.

„Do you think the conspirators would have murdered us all in our beds?" Atia asked, trying to sound serious and worldly, not like a young girl who was afraid. She wasn't afraid of anything. „Octavius says the consul has called for the death penalty for all who've been captured so far, without a trial."

„I think that a conspiracy with such obviously shoddy planning that its main target knew about it before anyone else did deserved to unravel," Servilia said, smiling enigmatically. Before Atia could reply to this one of the slaves reported there was news for the domina Servilia, a messenger from the senate. Servilia apparently had expected this and ordered the man to be brought to her. What he had to say made Atia sit upright. Servilia's husband Silanus, as next year's consul, had been instructed by Cicero to propose the ultimate punishment for the conspirators, and had done so, only to be foiled by Caesar who'd argued for life imprisonment instead, on the grounds that the death penalty for Roman citizens without a trial could set a dangerous precedent. Whereupon Silanus had said life imprisonment was what he'd meant by „ultimate punishment", and the Senate had appeared to follow suit when Cato, Servilia's brother, had saved the situation for Cicero by starting a fiery speech declaring nothing less than the death penalty would do, and what was more, that Caesar had to be in league with the conspirators to argue otherwise.

Servilia's face was expressionless. Atia felt slightly ill. This was neither her pregnancy nor family feeling of another sort. If her uncle was condemned as a conspirator, any chances any of the Juliii might have would die with him. Her unborn son would be lucky to call a farm his own, if anything at all.

„We have to do something," she hissed.

„What would you suggest?" Servilia asked slowly. Atia had that sense of Servilia's gaze on her again, and the feeling of being weighed that came with it.

„My father is dead," she said. „That makes Uncle Gaius head of my house. I'll - I'll say I'm giving birth, right now, and insist he be there, as Pontifex Maximus, to guarantee Jupiter's blessing for my son!"

Servilia's eyebrows rose. „You're that sure it will be a son then? Never mind, that is beside the point. I'm afraid it won't do. At best, it'll bring your husband here, while my wretched brother will insist it's all a pretense and continue with his accusations." Her long fingers drummed on a wax tablet she'd kept with her all through the afternoon. „Well," she continued, „I'm afraid it will have to be this, then. Poor Silanus."

The wax tablet had already been used; there were letters graven in it. Servilia now handed it over to the messenger and instructed him to hand it over to Gaius Julius Caesar, and, most importantly, in a way that would get noticed by Cato.

So she'd been planning ahead for this situation. Which meant Atia's Uncle and Servilia were still in contact, continuing their affair. Atia felt something odd inside her, something that tasted of bitterness and longing. She knew what it was to be a wife by now, but not only was Gaius Octavius much older than her, he also never told her anything she didn't have to wheedle and cajole out of him, and that was almost as much effort as it was for him with his flabby body to do more than spend his seed in her and grunt once he was done. Atia had a good imagination and access to a lot of gossip. She knew there was more to the act. Otherwise why would a Vestal risk being entombed alive just for doing it with Catilina? Once she'd done her duty and borne a son and heir, Atia was resolved to find someone who actually knew something of pleasing a woman.

„Why did you ask me to come with you?" she demanded, both because she wanted to know and because she didn't want to ponder the difference between Servilia's situation and her own any longer. „It wasn't just to tell me some old gossip, don't try to pretend it was."

Servilia clapped her hands and asked her servant to bring them some more spiced wine, and when the girl had left, she turned to Atia again.

„For one thing, you may have to go into labour soon after all," Servilia said calmly. „In a short while, my brother might storm in here and create a scene, but if there is one thing that will stop even a boor like Cato in his tracks, it's a woman giving birth. Men are so squeamish about bloodshed they can't control. For another... there was always the possibility you could have thought of something that would have spared me from exposing my husband to ridicule in front of the entire Senate."

The gall, Atia thought, half in admiration, half in fury. Here the woman was, admitting wanting to use Atia, and yet she also slipped in a little chiding to make Atia feel guilty for what was entirely Servilia's responsibility.

And yet, and yet. The truth was, Atia did feel a bit guilty. It would have been something, coming up with a brilliant idea to save her uncle and leave Servilia stunned and awed. When she tersely said: „I regret disappointing you, then," she found that she meant it. Something in Servilia's eyes shifted.

„You haven't yet, my dear," the older woman murmured.

As Servilia had predicted, it didn't take her brother long to storm into her house. Atia had never seen Cato before, and she wasn't impressed. His toga was shabby, and he stank, as if he hadn't bathed for days. He arrived, yelling „whore" and „how dare you?", and a lot of other things, some of which Atia mentally noted down for future use. It seemed that he had, as intended, spotted Caesar receiving the message, had seized this sight to accuse him of being in contact with the conspirators even now, and demanded the message to be read out loud in public.

„Never in my life was I so disgraced!" he thundered.

„If you insisted on private correspondence being read out in public more often," Servilia said, „you would have had that experience sooner."

There was something satisfied and vicious in her voice that was new to Atia. So Servilia was not all calm elegance and self possession. She truly does hate her brother, Atia thought, and by the way Cato stepped towards her, hands outstretched, the feeling was mutual.

It occurred to Atia that a traditionalist such as Cato might feel entitled to play the pater familias who had the right to execute his womenfolk for lack of chastity. True, Cato was younger than Servilia, but he was her next male relation, and thus he could even get away with it legally.

It wasn't that she owed Servilia anything. And the purpose of saving the Julii from being dragged down by Caesar being exposed as a conspirator had already been fulfilled; after Cato's suspicions had led to something so ridiculous, nobody would bother to take them seriously again. Atia could sit here and let it play out, Cato strangling Servilia. It wasn't her concern anymore.

But there was something about a man yelling „whore" at a woman who had outsmarted him that Atia loathed to her core. Besides, truth be told, Servilia was the most interesting woman in Rome, and the only one of note so far to bother having actual conversations with Atia.

Atia took a deep breath and started to scream. Startled, Cato turned around, as if he hadn't even noticed she was present until now.

„Juno, help me!" Atia yelled. „My son, my son wants to be born right now. And you", she added imperiously, pointing at Cato, „help or get out of the way, or the goddess will punish you!"

More likely than not, Cato had no idea who she was, other than the fact that her dress and manner proved Atia to be a woman of rank, not a slave or a freedwoman. But it seemed Servilia was right. Or maybe he just wasn't used to getting upstaged when shouting at someone. He stood, trembling like a momentarily startled deer. Atia screamed again.

„The pox on all women," Cato growled. His arms fell down. Then he left, stomping out with no less fury than he'd entered for all that he had been subdued. Servilia exhaled. The intense hostility that had exuded from her every pore like something you could breathe ever since her brother had entered the house disappeared, and she transformed into the gracious hostess she usually was once more.

„I apologize for such an unpleasant display of bad manners," she said softly, „but then, he is my half brother."

Atia usually wasn't curious about people's family feuds, or what lay hidden in their hearts, if it didn't immediately concern her and hers. But ever since learning about Servilia's bad relationship with Cato, she'd wondered about the reason, given what Servilia had said about the importance of enemies. After all, Cato might be an obnoxious boor, but he was quickly gaining influence within the Optimates, so one would expect him at the very least to be regarded as a useful relation. But there was something about the way Servilia said „half" in combination with the fact that Cato appeared younger than Servilia that lit a spark of insight in Atia.

„Your mother must have divorced your father to marry his father, didn't she?" she asked eagerly, pleased to have solved a puzzle, before recollecting that good manners should have prevented her from voicing this guess aloud. But then, women near the end of their pregnancy had an excuse for voicing their whims, and besides, she'd just done Servilia a massive favour.

„What's mine is mine," Servilia said without expression. It was a sentiment Atia could agree with. For future use, she noted that Servilia evidently didn't take well to being left, and if her mother had divorced Servilia's father to marry another husband and bear that man's children, Servilia, as one of the Servilii Caepionis, would have been left behind in her father's household.

Unfortunately, Atia could not use this particular bit of insight just then. All that screaming at Cato seemed to have triggered something. With a sharp pang of disbelief, she felt water running down her thighs.

There was still time for Atia to be brought back to her house, which wasn't that far away. The first time she'd given birth, at least an hour separated her water breaking from getting into proper contractions. Nonetheless, she was stunned when Servilia ordered her servants to get the litter ready to transport the Domina Atia. Not only were the streets packed due to all this conspiracy business, but Atia had imagined Servilia would and should be glad to offer her own house in such an emergency, given what had just passed.

„Don't be silly," Servilia said, effortlessly reading her thoughts from Atia's obviously outraged face. „If you are right and this really is a son you're carrying, he needs to be born in his father's house. Men are awfully pedantic about such circumstances. If it's another daughter, you still want your own servants and midwife to attend you and help you over the disappointment. As a daughter and mother of three daughters, I'm in a position to know."

All this might have been common sense, not ingratitude or spite, but Atia didn't want common sense. She wanted comfort, sympathy and above all appreciation. Servilia had always secretly hated her, Atia decided, ever since Atia showed lack of interest in Servilia's precious son, and now that Atia had learned some of her secrets, Servilia wanted to get rid of her. This, Atia would never, ever forgive.

„My daughter isn't a disappointment to me," Atia hissed, throwing diplomacy and manners to the winds. „Nor will my son be. They're mine, they'll always be mine, and since I'm not ever going to let them go, none of them will turn into a cold-hearted bitch!"

Infuriatingly, Servilia's face showed pity. „What a child you still are," she said condescendingly.

„But I'm not wrong," Atia shot back. Servilia didn't retort, which may or may not have been due to her servant announcing the litter was ready to go. Ignoring the uproar in her body, Atia insisted on walking out on her own.

Her resolution to hold up her head and not turn back once held true all the way into the litter, but when it was uplifted, the commotion outside told her someone else must have arrived. She poked her head out through the litter's curtains, hoping it would be Silanus in avenging husband mode. Let Servilia see how she dealt with him on her own. But the person who'd just entered the grounds of the Junii turned out to be none other than Atia's uncle, Gaius Julius Caesar.

Servilia had come to the door to see Atia off, so she was standing there, but she didn't run into his arms. That, Atia thought sourly, would have been too human. No, she just stood there, a slight smile on her lips, mirrored by Caesar's own. He greeted her by taking her right hand, and kissing her finger tips ever so slightly.

„We who were about to die salute you," he said, and Atia could hear Servilia murmur: „Did you doubt me?"

Caesar's reply, „never", was the last thing Atia heard, pushing back the curtain without announcing herself to her uncle. Instead, she ordered the slaves carrying her to go faster, and soon, she'd left the house of the Juniii behind. Never mind them, Atia told herself. She had a birth to prepare for. It would be a son, her son, and he, not her uncle, would be the glory of the Julii.

When the actors wearing the masks of the Servilii Caepionis acting out the parts of Servilia's noble ancestors finally appeared, Atia almost breathed a sigh of relief, because the mimes were the last but one part of any funeral procession. She noticed with satisfaction that no one dared to show any masks of the Junii, not with Octavian having made it clear he regarded honors to a family famous for tyrannicide as an invitation of his disfavor. And for all that he was the youngest Triumvir, Atia's son had made himself feared by now.

She was aware that the tension between Antony and him was as bad as ever. But would be dealt with by her and Antony marrying, wouldn't it. Atia would have all she ever dreamt of, both openly and secretly deamt of: her son making her proud, and her lover, the only man she hadn't been able to replace in her bed whenever she wished to, the only one she'd ever wanted to spend time with outside of it, becoming her husband. She'd truly be the first woman of Rome.

All the masked faces parading in front of Atia seemed to blur into one. She shook her head. When she'd ordered her men to produce graffiti ridiculing Caesar's affair with Servilia all over the city, she'd known very well that her uncle's position in Rome at that point was still precarious, and that he couldn't afford the army whose support he relied on regarding him as any woman's tool, especially with his old reputation. She'd bet on him ending a relationship that had endured one and a half decades for two simple reasons: survival and power. And yes, of course Servilia would be hurt. But that, Atia had told herself, wasn't the point, it was just a side effect, admittedly not an unwelcome one. The point was that there could be only one first woman of Rome, and it wasn't going to be Caesar's by then third wife.

„Why did you come to hate her so much, Mother?" Octavia asked beside her; her quiet question almost drowned in the still ongoing wailing. „Weren't the two of you friends once upon a time?"

Octavia really should know better by now. On the face of it, yes, Servilia and her son had been regular guests of Atia's during those eight years Caesar had spent in Gaul, as had Atia and her children in Servilia's house. But that hadn't been true friendship. It was more something between keeping an eye on each other and relishing the chance to interact with someone who was, whatever else was true, never boring. For all that Servilia belatedly discovered her passion for the Republic once Caesar had dumped her, Atia had never heard about her seeking the company of embittered Terentia, equally dumped by Cicero, or of that bore Cornelia whom Pompey dared prefer to Atia's own daughter. No, Servilia had instead spent her time seducing Octavia and messing with her head.

„No," Atia said harshly in reply to her daughter's question. „No, I saw through her from the start."

And she had, hadn't she? If anything, she'd underestimated quite how cold-hearted a bitch Servilia had turned out to be. Manipulating Octavia into committing incest that could have gotten the foolish girl killed if there'd ever been any public accusation and witness. And then Caesar's death. Caesar hadn't died for finishing off the Republic and making himself Master of Rome. He'd died for turning his back on Servilia, that was the truth, and it hadn't been Atia's fault, no, it hadn't. She couldn't have known. She couldn't have known Servilia would go that far.

„What's mine is mine," she heard Servilia say on that long ago day when little Octavian had been born, who'd turned into such an impressive man, if an oddly distant one at the moment.

Atia could see Servilia's corpse now, carried on a bed-like tray behind the mimes. They had cleansed her and dressed her up to look like the imposing figure she'd been; a woman who'd kept her figure into middle age, whose Greek chiton undoubtedly had been woven and embroidered on Rhodes, whose wig of honey-coloured hair was impeccably coiffed, and whose feet had been put into what definitely looked like silver sandals. Well, Lepidus and his wife, Servilia's second daughter had money to burn. But the body's eyes were closed, and, Atia realised, that was why it didn't look like Servilia at all. In life, you could never encounter Servilia, whether it was casually on the street, litters passing, or at a formal reception, without feeling those intent dark eyes on you, observing, challenging, judging.

And now that gaze would never rest on Atia again.

„Well, I didn't," Octavia said ruefully. „But I - feel pity for her now. All else is gone. Both the love and the hate. And that's something, I suppose."

Octavia had grown up. But not for the first time, Atia couldn't help but acknowledge how very different her daughter was from herself. Indifference towards Servilia was the one attitude Atia had never mastered. As her enemy's carefully made up body drew closer to where Atia and Octavia were standing, about to pass them by on its way to the pyre, Atia could still hear Servilia's voice ringing in her ears. Curse this woman! Send her bitterness and despair for all of her life. Let her taste nothing but ashes and iron.

If Servilia had hated her that much in the end, Atia thought, fury burning in her, she had no right to give up. To end the game like that. Never mind striking a devastating final blow, that was for men, not for women. Women knew better, surely. Servilia had, once upon a time, telling Atia about the need for obstacles, the need for an enemy to measure herself against.

Without Servilia, there was no enemy left to tell Atia who she needed to be.

The corpse was passing close enough that Atia could smell any scent of decay had been overpowered by someone liberally using Servilia's old perfume, sandalwood and crocus. It suddenly made Atia smile. Not just iron and ash, she thought. There is sweetness in the air as well, and the reason why I'm tasting it is you, you infernal, magnificent bitch.

„Mother," Octavia, who must have spotted that smile, whispered reprovingly.

„Hush," Atia said, and imperiously held up her hand. She could see the carriers looking at her, at each other, doubt and fear in their eyes. They knew who she was, of course. Who she had been to Servilia. Who her son was.

Bowing their heads, they stopped walking and put down the tray in front of Atia. Behind them, Servilia's daughters, who like Atia and Octavia wore their hair open and undone, looked up in anger, but the fear was in their eyes as well.

„I mean no insult," Atia said graciously. „I simply want to pay my tribute."

She knelt down next to the body. No, with the eyes closed, this truly wasn't Servilia, but the slight figure of a dead woman who could have been anyone's mother, or grandmother, even. Yet everyone knew the spirits of the dead were still hovering around their bodies until they were burned, which meant Servilia had to be here somehow.

Atia knew all about dead bodies. The rigor mortis had to be gone by now, given the time that had passed between Servilia's suicide and this procession. Bending over the body in a way that made sure her long, dishevelled hair was shielding them from view, Atia quickly used two fingers to open the mouth and remove the coin placed there to ensure Servilia could pay Charon and cross the river Styx on her way into the Underworld.

Straightening up, Atia rose again, the palmed coin cold, so cold, in her warm hand.

„Hail and farewell, Servilia of the Junii," she said out loud. „Hail and farewell."

As the tray was uplifted once more and the procession moved on, Atia's heart beat faster. She'd had the last word, after all. What was more, she'd ensured Servilia would not be able to disappear into the realm of the dead. Instead, Servilia would be forced to stay around Atia, haunting her from now till the end of Atia's life.

Which was as it should be.