There was a bad harvest across half the empire, the following year, and he finally abandoned the grain subsidy. Then there were terrible rains and all the old rotten suburbs of the city flooded; the money had to come from a general levy and so Illyria rioted anyway.
‘So much for the grain subsidy,’ Alario said, half-teasing, and Sophia smiled and didn’t reply. He looked at her.
She lifted her eyebrows.
‘I said nothing,’ she said, and he laughed.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘Tell me what you think.’
‘The riots,’ he said, patiently, and she shrugged.
‘They don’t like the levy,’ she said and something about the dry tone of her voice made him pause.
‘You don’t like the levy?’ he said, amazed. ‘But what choice is there? We can’t let men drown in the suburbs, Sophia.’
‘Why not?’ she inquired. ‘We let them starve everywhere else.’
He stared, appalled by this unreasonableness, and she sighed.
‘If they were drowning in Illyria,’ she said. ‘Would you draw a levy on Parvenia?’
‘Of course not,’ he said automatically and then stopped. She shrugged again, picked up her scarf.
‘Then expect riots in Illyria,’ she said, and turned away. He caught her wrist.
‘Wait,’ he said. ‘Let me – wait.’
She waited silently. Her face had somehow retained a trace of the gauntness she had gained over the year of Justin’s illnesses; although colour and flesh had returned, and the shadows under her eyes had faded, something about the lines of her face seemed permanently altered. She looked tired, he thought, but that wasn’t right; she was as grimly energetic as she had ever been, and the cool exultation of battle was in her face as she watched him. But something was gone, and gone for good.
He tried to think what she was saying, the inside-out picture of the world she apparently carried in her head. It was his empire, Parvenia’s empire. Why would he sacrifice the city for the sake of the provinces? She saw the thought in his face and her mouth curled, a little contemptuously. He felt himself flush like a reprimanded child and a strange kind of fury overtook him; he felt his grip on her wrist change, tighten, and saw her draw a breath. It wasn’t a sensible time or place – late afternoon in the small dining parlour, a room with no lock to the door – but the contempt had faded from her mouth, at least, and her strange eyes held his with a kind of apprehensive challenge.
He made it quick, out of the necessities of time and place, and she offered no resistance. Still he felt oddly brutal about it afterwards, looking down at her shocked white face in the daylight and watching her hands faintly tremble as she pulled her tunic back down. He hadn’t even kissed her. He hadn’t felt desire, he thought. Only fear. Fear? That was absurd. What was there for him to fear in Sophia? But when she had looked at him with that cool ironic contempt, his stomach had tightened with something that felt exactly like fear. And now she had that lost vague look and he felt even worse.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, and her eyes jerked up to his face. Her gaze settled, sharpened.
‘Why?’ she asked, cool again. Her braids were back in place and her face regained its usual calm as he watched. She would never, it seemed, admit that he could hurt her. He shook his head.
‘It was foolish of me,’ he said. ‘I was – I wanted you.’ A lie, and they both knew it, but she said nothing. ‘I’ll think about what you say. About the provinces.’
She nodded, unsmiling, and left him. He spent that night with Clara, trying not to think about anything. She was in a petulant humour, her husband having slighted her in some way she couldn’t quite explain to him, but she was delighted to see him, her great conquest, the emperor himself, and he basked in her delight, in the pink glow of admiration in her cheeks when he spoke of riding out to pacify Illyria next month.
Sophia wasn’t, he thought, drawing his fingers through Clara’s soft perfumed hair, a restful woman; even in the days before Justin had been born, when she had been struggling to please him as best she could, there had been an edge of challenge to her every word and touch. It was so much easier to sleep peacefully beside Clara, who expected nothing but pretty words and pretty gifts and a little play at being in love. If he ever hurt Clara, she would cry out and he would console her and that would be all. She wouldn’t look at him with Sophia’s distant eyes, all cold judgment, and turn all his dreams uneasy.
What does she want from me? he wondered. He had thought it was love as he knew it, sweet words and kisses and promises of fidelity but Sophia would not be satisfied even with the most slavish fidelity. She wanted something more, something appalling. Clara frowned, aware of his distraction, and he apologised and kissed her. It didn’t matter, he decided. He wouldn’t think tonight.