Rome is a famously noisy city, particularly after dark: laden carts continue to rattle along ruts as old as Romulus, their drivers hollering eye-watering curses at anyone or anything which gets in their way; none of the many who frequent the hundreds of brothels, taverns and all-night snack bars ever seem to feel the need to keep their voices down; dogs yap and howl; then long before dawn the craftsmen take up their tools and schoolmasters begin carping at their pupils. Those not native to the city have to learn to adapt. Some simply bury their heads under their pillows. The richer sort have close-fitting shutters over their windows or slave-musicians to lull them to sleep. There is even a merchant with a tiny workshop just behind the temple of Saturn who specialises in making little perfumed beeswax bungs for the ears with strings through the middle to allow them to be easily extracted. Servilia, born on the Palatine itself, has always slept well enough through the nocturnal cacophony, but tonight she sits up in her study, her head slightly tilted to one side; she is listening to the disconcerting quiet of her city under military occupation.

Quiet, but not silent. The landlord of the one tavern still open on the hill is in the process of finally ejecting his last couple of patrons, who have lingered long enough into the night that their grunts and obscenities echo across a deserted street. It's bloody raining; Hercules, it's like a bull's pissing on us out here! Come on, let us back in for just one more, caupo, just a small one. What about another game of dice? May Venus smile on you. Miserable bastard. Must be another tavern open somewhere. Leather soles slap the wet pavement erratically; one of the pair starts to slur out the third line of a popular song, but is cut off abruptly by what sounds like a very hard thump across the ear. Almost immediately, a sharp whine, a strangled yell and a bout of urgent barking: she wonders if it was the singer or his critic who tripped over the stray dog. The pair meander away, their mumbled bickering blending into the wind as they reach the end of the road and turn west towards the slope that leads down towards the Circus and the river beyond. The landlord – a generous honorific, considering that his bar is little more than a shelf and a couple of tables at the back of his olive shop – hurriedly rattles his wooden shutters into place. He retreats inside and bars the door with a heavy iron bolt. After a few heartbeats, the high, jerky cry of a newborn rips the silence. Wincing, she tells her maid to close the balcony door to muffle the noise: after bearing four infants of her own, she has no wish to endure the crying of anyone else's. Then she waves her off to bed. The girl needs to be up before dawn to finish packing.

The house is as uncannily quiet as the streets: half the slaves have already gone down to the coast to prepare her summer villa, which isn't usually opened up until after the Games of Apollo in Quinctilis. They have instructions to buy more braziers and heavy drapes to keep out the chill from the sea. She will have to keep to a handful of smaller rooms. Antium is a miserable little town in the winter, but Rome is a worse place to be during a civil war.

She remembers the years after she married her first husband. Terrible years when first Marius, then Sulla, had marched on Rome and had the heads of their many enemies jammed onto spikes and displayed in the forum, still dripping blood. Her husband had just entered upon his political career and refused to leave the city; she had lived in constant dread – which worsened after their son was born – that thugs would burst into the house or even waylay Brutus in the street. She feels a smidgen of that cold fear tonight, which is why sleep evades her, but not the all-consuming terror of all those years ago. She is virtually an old lady now – fifty-seven! - and few enough years are left to her anyway. Her children are all grown, most with children of their own; she can do little for them but worry. Aside from that, she is convinced that the man who controls Rome with his paltry single legion has no wish to do her or her family harm. His march through Italy by all accounts has been astonishingly peaceful, and no lists of men to die have yet been posted. But then, a dark voice in her mind interjects, he's only been in the city for two days. Plenty of time for all that if he wins… We loved each other once, she retorts. You loved him, it replies, but you haven't set eyes on him for years. Who knows what his feelings for you are or ever were? It doesn't matter one way or the other, she concludes firmly. Either he remembers me fondly and I'm safe or I'm nothing to him and he ignores me.

She pours herself a cup of wine, adding only a dash of water. She hopes that it might help her sleep. Settling herself at her desk, she takes up the iron stylus to scratch brief notes to two of her daughters. Junia and Secunda will be safe enough here: their husbands are both staunch allies of Rome's new master. Her youngest, whose husband has sided with the senate, will be arriving in the morning to join her mother in exile. Tertia's stepson Gaius, a boy of nearly ten seething that his father didn't take him off to join the resistance, will come with them. She sets the second tablet precisely on top of the first, ready to be entrusted to the messenger boy, and opens a third, but gets no further than the opening address before she upends the tablet over the lamp flame and melts the words into oblivion. When her son returns to the city, there will be someone here to tell him where she is and that is enough.

She considers sending for Melcis, her masseur – it has become a habit of hers lately to prepare for sleep by stretching herself out on a deeply padded couch in a small chamber connected to her bedroom just along the hallway and having the Spaniard plough her oiled flesh with his hard hands. She imagines his palms smoothing downwards, parallel to her spine, then sliding back up across her ribs, skirting the tops of her buttocks. Up, down, up, shoulders again, the back of her neck, which welcomes the firm push of his hand's heel. Her breath will catch as he finds a length of muscle as tightly wound as a skein of wool, but he will be careful, pain never quite overcoming pleasure. As he works the tension out of her body, her thoughts will begin to drift and soften. Yes, she resolves, she will write a last list of instructions for the major domo's assistant, who will be staying here with a half dozen hired guards, and then summon Melcis.

The amber wax is still soft and warm around her thumb. There are a few debts that will need to be settled and she begins to write out the names of the merchants, the amount to be paid and for what. She doesn't bother to refer to her account books: names and figures have always come easily to her and stay locked in her head without effort, even as she gets older.

A light rapping on the balcony door tugs her face up wide-eyed and a fist squeezes her heart. Her first thought is that it must be a thief or an assassin, but it occurs to her that neither of those would announce their presence and she calms a little. Several more taps: he knows she's here and awake from the lamplight: no one with any sense in this city where devastating fires are all too common leaves a flame unattended through the night. She looks back towards the door into the corridor and thinks about shouting for her maid in case her instincts are wrong, but the words stick.

She finds herself on her feet, reaching for the latch with trembling fingers. Juno, if it isn't who she hopes it is, these might be the last moments of her life.

He wears a hooded cloak, but the few lamps in the room behind her provide just enough light to make her almost gasp in relief and then wrinkle her brow.

'How on earth did you get up here?' she asks, incredulous.

Caesar smiles away the last ten years. 'Good evening, Servilia. Mind if I come in out of the rain?' His voice is a little deeper, a little rougher, but the undercurrent of amusement is entirely familiar.