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As it turned out, there was no need for anybody to say anything. The First Citizen and his wife were out for the evening at a reception, and off early the next morn-ing for the state opening of the Assembly. That is to say, Didius Maesus had owned a twenty per cent stake in a slaughterhouse where they made the best-quality air-dried sausage for the export trade, along with a large number of other sound investments.

His good mood lasted five weeks, until the ship sank in the Strait of Essedine with a full cargo of pepper and saffron. The little man thought for a moment. He was a study for a major sculpture, Man Thinking. A slight shrug; no harm in trying. Friend of mine used to say, a man of good family carries his pension between his legs.

No, I had an offer for the boy only last month, but of course I was flush then and told them to stuff it. I could borrow against the realty, invest it, pick a winner, clear off my debts with the profit and break off the betrothal. The little man folded his hands in his lap. Actual ready cash. And I spent a lot of money on the election, of course, and that was a joke. Beaten by a sausage-maker, very funny, ha ha. Makes you wonder why you ever bother in the first place.

The little man coughed, a strange noise, a bit like a bone breaking. Personally, I prefer to concentrate my energies on business. Still, your circumstances are a bit different. You could always afford the best senators money could buy. Fortunately, neither man heard. Could be worse. He had an upset stomach, ferocious stabbing pains between his navel and his groin that made him twist like a dancer. Will that do you? Well, maybe not solid. I can hardly stand upright. He nodded. His mistake had been throwing the stones out of the window, instead of burying them in the midden.

Attention to detail. Unless you want me to make a spectacle of myself in front of all those people. His mother shook her head. She nodded briskly. Her words coincided with yet another spasm, so the face he pulled was submerged in a greater reaction. His mother col-lected medicines, rather in the way a boy collects coins or seals or arrowheads; one or two genuine pieces, along with a whole load of junk.

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The last attack had left him gasping for air. It might do you good. Remarkably, it did. At least, it stopped up his bowels like a cork for three days. In a way, he was almost glad of it, since it gave him something else to think about apart from the bride and her family. His father was extremely subdued, which was unnerving, and sober, which was unprecedented. He owned a mirror.

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It was a small comfort to know there was someone who was even more wretched about the performance than he was, but the pain in his stomach was the only thing he could think about. The priest got his name the wrong way round: Bassianus Severus Arcadius. On the way home, he asked if it was still legal. His father assured him that it was.

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His cousin Renno came up from the country. On balance, he liked Renno. He was easy to talk to, usually had money and was handy in a fight.

His feet nearly touched the ground now. Renno yawned and stretched, wobbled a bit and sat up straight. In four years, she could be all right. There was a wicket gate in the back wall of the kitchen garden, put there to make it easier for the gardeners to carry manure from the stables without having to go through the main. From the stables you could climb out over the tack-room roof and drop down in the snicket that led to the alley that joined up with the public road, and nobody would know.

Renno frowned. Are you having trouble hearing me? Renno grinned. You can see why I keep quiet about my ear. They walked out of the alley gate into the street. The grain carts had made the early morning delivery and were heading back out of town, a long procession, like a funeral. When Renno shrugged, there was a suggestion of trying to shake off an annoying entanglement. All taken care of, naturally, and no harm done. There, satisfied? The boy smiled. Each year, the winners could play the army.

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  6. Renno bought four apples; a waste of money, since it was the season, and there were better examples of a better variety hang-ing from the branches in the orchard. They sat down in the shade of the Bank portico. He was very fond of apples and it was three hours since breakfast. He set fire to the day chapel. When Renno was really amused by something, he had this knack of silent laughing; his mouth opened in an enormous grin, but no sound came out. The boy looked down at his hands.

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    Renno breathed in deeply, the sign of great happiness. They succeeded, and in the pocket they found a purse con-taining twelve gold eagles and a considerable sum in provincial silver. The boy stared down into his porridge. He knew why his father had chosen family breakfast to make his announcement. Mother was keeping quiet, a truly ominous sign. Perfectly sound business, only they came unstuck over a government loan.

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    You will lend us this money or else. No security, obviously. Father frowned. Actually, he was winning. In the mean time, the Macers are stuck for liquidity, and I made them an offer.

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    Their bad luck, our opportunity. The boy and his sister exchanged swift glances. If Mother was prepared to allow actual numbers at the breakfast table, things were bad. For once — the one and only time — Mother was wrong. Father mortgaged everything and raised the money, and shortly afterwards the Treasury repaid the forced loan to the bank, with interest in full, out of the proceeds of the naval victory at Eupontis.

    She stood on tiptoe, grabbed at a high branch, missed and staggered a little. She laughed.

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