Seventeen Months Later, at Antium...

She looks up sharply from her writing desk at the sound of hooves on the gravel outside. Before she can tidy away her writing materials and push back her chair, Tertia has already raced through the doorway and stands wide-eyed, her fingers locked together so tightly that her hands are trembling.

'It must be a messenger,' she says. Servilia doesn't point out that she's stating the obvious: her heart is beating just as frenetically as her youngest daughter's.

She busies herself closing and stacking her tablets against the wall, sealing up the ink pot, organising the styluses and reed pens into separate boxes, rolling up the spare papyrus and storing it in its leather bucket under the table. Age has taught her that news is rarely to be welcomed and she is in no hurry.

'Mother.'

'Yes, yes, I'm coming. Where's Gaius?'

'With his tutor on the terrace.'

She nods. Better that the boy is well-occupied and out of the way for now, just in case. Her son Marcus had been seven when his father was killed and still too young to have had much to do with him. He hated his murderer on principle as a son should, but it wasn't a truly personal grief. Cassius, on the other hand, has taken a deep interest in his son's education since coming back from Syria, and Gaius worships him.

They reach the atrium just as the messenger is ushered in. The man's sandy hair is painted onto his scalp with sweat and his face is terracotta. She recognises him as one of Atticus' riders, which is both good and bad for the same reason. It means the information he brings will certainly be accurate – Atticus knows everyone and has well-informed friends on both sides of this war. No need to fear a mistake if the news is good; no hope whatsoever if it is not.

'Well?' she asks, her voice steady. She has been preparing for this moment ever since word came that Pompeius was at last marching to confront Caesar in battle in Thessaly after months of the pair of them playing cat and mouse. Unbidden, she sees an image of the striking young man her lover had been when she first met him nearly three decades before at his mother's Saturnalia dinner, all swagger and intensity. He is not so different now. He had looked at her that night as if she were some treasure he had thought lost, his dark eyes glittering in the lamplight.

The messenger thrusts out a scarlet scroll case. 'From Titus Pomponius Atticus in Rome, madam, with his compliments.'

'What has happened?' Tertia blurts out, unwilling to wait to read the letter.

'There was a battle, madam, in Greece.'

'Yes, yes, we know that, man! Who won? You must know, surely?'

He looks from one woman to the other, clearly unsure how his news will be received. 'Caesar.'

Her first stunned thought is simply how? The reports had claimed that Pompeius had the larger army and that Caesar's men were exhausted after their failure to capture Pompeius' base at Dyrrhachium. Of course, she feels a powerful surge of relief, but it is quickly overpowered by fear of what might have become of her son.

'And what about my brother?' demands Tertia, echoing her thoughts. 'And my husband? They were officers with Pompeius.'

'I-I don't know, lady,' stammers the messenger, clearly desperate to be gone.

Servilia looks meaningfully at her steward, who silently guides the poor man away to be fed and watered before he returns to Rome. The scroll case is heavy in her hand.

Some moments later, mother and daughter perch together on a couch in the villa's smaller dining room, the letter unsealed and unrolled.

Titus Atticus sends greetings to Servilia Caepionis.

My dear lady, I wanted you to know as soon as possible that Brutus and Cassius are alive and are on their way back to Italy. I enclose Brutus' letter to you and Cassius' to his wife.

Tertia lets out a strangled sound and grasps her mother's hand. 'Thank all the gods.'

Well! To general astonishment – even amongst his supporters, Caesar has decisively defeated Pompeius, who has fled who knows where. Africa, perhaps, or Egypt. I only have the most meagre of accounts of the battle itself to pass on, but it seems that Caesar had some of his legionaries use their throwing javelins as pikes against Pompeius' cavalry, which then panicked and exposed his left wing to a charge by Caesar's veterans. Clever, but hardly the stuff of legend. Thousands of Pompeius' men were killed and the rest have surrendered to Caesar. All his surviving officers – which is to say almost all his officers, since only Domitius is reported to have fallen - have accepted Caesar's mercy, including your two boys. I'm sure they have their reasons, Servilia, but I can't help but think – no, ignore that last sentence: I have never been a political man and have no grounds to justly criticise them.

Caesar has kept his promise, then. She wonders if he did dispatch men to find Marcus and Cassius as he said he would, or if they came to him of their own volition. In any case, they are both chained to Caesar's fortune forever now, which sickens her a little, no matter her personal feelings for him. If they want to continue their careers, they are honour-bound to help him and do harm to his enemies, and whatever opportunities they get will be entirely at his pleasure – as if he were some eastern monarch and they his courtiers.

She continues reading.

There is some hope yet. We hear that the remnants of the republican army are regrouping in Africa under your brother Cato and Metellus Scipio. In all likelihood, Pompeius will make his way there and lead them to victory in due course. I suspect this war is far from over. Our mutual friend Cicero was asked to take command, if you can believe such a thing! I love him dearly, but he is no general. Wisely, he refused and has sailed to Brundisium to await Caesar's return. For all the good he did by joining Pompeius, he might as well have stayed in Italy, as he yearned to do in the first place.

So, there it is. I plan to travel to Antium for a month or so in a few weeks, the weather still being so mild. I hope you won't mind my inviting myself to dinner. I do miss our conversations.

Farewell.

She and Tertia finish reading almost simultaneously.

'I'll go and tell Gaius his father is coming home,' Tertia says, rising. Servilia upends the scroll case and passes her daughter the letter from her husband. Let her read that in private.

She drifts back to her study with both her own letters clamped in her hand, the case forgotten on the couch behind her. Seated once more in her chair, she rests her face in her palms and feels the hardness of the tabletop against her elbows. All she hears for a time is her own laboured breathing. Marcus and all her family are safe. Caesar is alive. For now, all is as well as it can be.

She pulls a sheet of finest quality papyrus out of its bucket and wets the nib of her pen. Atticus will see to it that her letter finds Caesar, wherever he is.