Five things that never happened in Rome
It is twenty paces from Servilia to the door. She’s weeping on the floor, he doesn’t have to turn around to know that. His palm is still stinging from the slaps as the marble walls echo back the harsh, low sobs like a thousand Servilias surrounded him, but somehow that does not feel strange. He’s been grinding his teeth since his litter stopped outside her villa and his jaw is beginning to ache from it. He is the man who would be emperor of the known world and all he wants is for her to stop that sound.
If he can just make it through the archway, then perhaps he won’t be able to hear her anymore. He’s ten steps away, eight if he hurries, but he won’t rush, not with her black eyes on his back. He tries to think of the Republic, of maintaining social standing for the good of the people. He thinks of Marc Antony, who would never be swayed by a woman’s tears. He thinks of his wife, of her friendship and her family’s support. He cradles these thoughts against him like a talisman. Four steps, three. He’s halfway through the archway when she stops crying. He tries to move, and when nothing happens he tries again. Gaius Julius Caesar, by all the gods above and all the spirits below, you must go now.
The silence presses against him. It’s more than he can stand. He tells himself he is only looking to see if she has fainted, but he’s told enough lies to spot one when it’s told. She’s curled into herself, a tight knot of woman on the cold stone. Her arms are wrapped around her and she’s stroking her own hair for comfort. He doesn’t realize she’s been holding her breath until she gasps for air. He’s heard dying soldiers make sounds like that, when the pain was too much for their bodies or minds to bear any longer. Twenty paces away and she lifts her eyes to his.
Nineteen, eighteen, and she rises. Seventeen, sixteen, fifteen. It’s a blur of motion until she’s in his arms. He sinks to the ground, clutching her to him. He can feel her wet mouth open against the sleeve of his tunic as she twists her fingers into his hair. If he were a better man, he’d be outside in his litter by now, on his way home to a wife who loves him in her own way, in the best way she can. He wouldn’t be a man who’s begging for a woman’s forgiveness on his knees like a slave. He wouldn’t be kissing the palm marks on her cheeks and telling her he loves her and crushing her thin body to his. If he were a better man, he wouldn’t be doing any of those things. But he isn’t.
Octavian does not dream. He marvels at the stories his sister tells about images that bubble up behind her eyes in the night. All he sees when he sleeps is blackness. He crawls into bed with Octavia most nights, lying about nightmares full of invented phantoms to appease her. He listens to her breathing until it is slow and even before he reaches out to pass his fingertips over the skin of her neck, her arms, her lips. In the morning, he asks her about her dreams, anxious to hear any mention of familiar hands on her body.
Ever since he was a little boy, he has known there was something wrong with him. All the poets he read spoke of the strange and terrible beauty of women, and he believed them, that women were awful and pleasing at once, but the women about whom the poets wrote so fervently were not bound to them by blood. While his schoolfellows rhapsodized about the hips or breasts of common girls from the streets outside of their villas, he never looked twice at any of them, not even the pretty slaves his mother chose to attend him. For a time, Octavian thought he might be fortunate enough to be one of those who took pleasure from other boys, but he knows that is not true. Not when he feels her in his own flesh like poison.
There are time when he believes, like a fool, that he has control, that Octavia is his beloved sister and nothing more. But those times have grown fewer and far between lately. When she moans in outright ridicule of their mother and her new lover, Antony, he grows harder than he has ever been in his miserable life. He stands, excuses himself politely, and brings himself off behind a pillar in the courtyard in silence, biting down on his tongue until he tastes blood, her cries echoing in his head like damnation.
He knows her agenda. He’s known from before she asked to hear his poetry that afternoon. She wants Caesar ’s secret, but not for herself, of that he is sure. That is the only reason she’s sitting on his bed and beckoning him to join her. The only reason. But he lets her take his hand and pull his mouth to hers. Hope is a terrible thing. For half a heartbeat, he gives himself over to it. The feel of her tongue, the tickle of her breath on his cheek. The scent of her hair. And for that heartbeat, he is in Elysium.
He grips her by the wrists and pulls her into an embrace. She mistakes this for enthusiasm and sighs into her neck, and his resolve wavers. When he doesn’t respond, she tries to pull back, but he won’t release her. She starts to pound at him with her tiny fists. She curses him, loudly and with surprising variety, and then is silent for a long time. Octavian can feel her tears seeping through his clothes. Eventually, she returns to her chamber and he slips into his bed alone. That night for the first time, his sleep is filled with more than darkness.
Niobe is going to fall. He knows even before she touches the wide, stone rail of the balcony. He drops the knife as she slides back onto the ledge. She says Lucius, and he doesn’t know if she means him or the child, but it doesn’t matter now because she’s leaning backwards , but he’s quicker than she thinks and he seizes her wrist as she falls.
Vorenus slams into the ledge, the rough stone cutting the skin on his thighs to ribbons, but it doesn’t matter because he’s got her. She shouts in pain when her weight catches and she jerks to a halt in mid-air. He reaches over and clutches his wife’s arm. He bellows out loud, a low desperate noise, as he pulls her back over the wall. Once he has one of his arms around her waist, he lets himself fall backwards onto the floor, taking Niobe with him. She lays perfectly still in his arms. Only the shallow panting on Vorenus’s neck tells him she is alive. He tries to think of something to say, anything at all, but Niobe speaks first. “Promise me you won’t harm the child after you kill me.”
Vorenus is certain he misheard her. He grasps a handful of her dark hair and raises her face to his. She is pale and shaking, and there is fear in her black eyes as she stares back at him. He releases her and lets his arms fall limp at his sides. Niobe sits with her head down, waiting. Something dark roils is Vorenus and he tips his head back and opens his mouth. His scream is loud and long and unfamiliar to his own ears. When he is finished, he slumps to the ground and to his everlasting shame, begins to weep. He curls into himself, a broken ball of human suffering.
There is feather-light touch on his back, and then another, stronger one. Vorenus twists his head around to see Niobe bowed over him. She slides her hand off his back and across his shoulder to touch his face, cradling his jaw in her palm. There are no words for how he loves this woman, none at all, so he presses his mouth to hers as if he could breathe his heart into her. He expects her to shudder, to close against him, to push him away, and so he counts it a miracle when his wife kisses him back. He takes her there on the sun-warmed stones, not ten steps from their bed. Voices come and go in the street outside, but Vorenus can hear nothing but Niobe’s soft breaths and the steady beating of her heart when he lays his head upon her breast.
The first time Octavia feels the babe move in her belly, she is sitting at dinner with her mother. It feels like almost nothing, a flutter of wings beneath the skin. She wonders if she imagined it or if it was simple indigestion, but during dessert, it happens again. The quickening, she’s heard the servants call it. That night while she lays in bed, she thinks about her mother and Servilia’s curse and the way her brother stares at her when he thinks she isn't looking and her husband asleep in Atia’s bed, and she cries harder than she’s ever cried before. The next day when Jocasta offers her the opium pipe, Octavia says she has a headache and shrugs off her friend's protests.
She hasn’t seen Agrippa since the wedding. Octavian has been as good as his word and she hasn’t seen so much as the street outside the villa for days on end. Ever since Antony slunk away with the smallest possible contingent of soldiers to Egypt and exile, Atia has floated around as if expecting a summons from him at any second. Octavia has tried to bribe every slave in the villa for news of Agrippa, but not a single worthless soul would take her coin. So when Atia smiles like a doe-eyed girl and pushed her off to the kitchen, Octavia is already preparing to dismiss whatever warm body her mother has procured for her distraction.
He looks nervous in the warm sunlight streaming through the high windows. Octavia takes three steps and is in his arms. She feels him release a shuddering breath into her hair. She digs her nails into his back and steps further in to him. He speaks her name, softly and reverently. It sounds like a prayer on his lips.
Octavia honestly means to say “I’m so glad to see you,” but it comes out “I’m pregnant.” Agrippa pulls away and Octavia thinks she might die if he doesn't say something and that she might die if he does. He doesn't say a word. He just looks at her, his eyes skimming over her arms, her hands, her face. Octavia feels the tears coming up, hot and sharp. She tries to wrench her arms out of his grip, but he holds on until she stops struggling.
She can hear her heart pounding in her ears now as she prays to all the Gods to save her from this hell. Agrippa still says nothing. Then, to Octavia's shock, he kneels in front of her, smooths a hand over her dress, and kisses the flat plane of her stomach. The tears are coming fast now as Agrippa stands and frames her face with his fingers. He kisses her forehead and smiles, a pure and radiant expression that lights his entire person.
Octavia giggles into his chest as he wraps his arms around her. He shushes her, which makes her giggle harder. He holds a finger to his lips and reaches over to open the door. He stands in the afternoon light, smiling and unafraid, and holds out his hand. Octavia thinks of her mother in the next room, waiting for a message that will never come. She thinks of her brother, who will be emperor soon. Mostly, she thinks of the child in her belly as she puts her hand in Agrippa’s and steps into the sun. She hopes it has its father’s eyes.
Pullo had his doubts in the beginning. Vorenus’s wounds were extensive, but the stubborn bastard survived a month’s journey across deserts and oceans and damned if he’d die now that they were finally safe. Vorena the Younger wept buckets when they’d snuck out of the city in the night and left her box of hairpins behind by accident. They’d made quite the party: a half-dead Vorenus, his three children, one of them wailing, Aeneas under two heavy blankets with strict instructions to be silent, and Pullo driving the boniest old nag he’d ever set eyes on out of Rome. But as the miles passed, Vorena stopped crying and Lucius stopped bleeding, and Pullo’s doubts faded away as the season turned from summer to harvest.
When he thinks of Eirene these days, it is that she would have loved the groves of olive trees around the farm. Little Lucius certainly does, although at eleven, he isn’t quite so little anymore. Vorena the Elder keeps her virgin’s vows to the gods even in the country and seems happy enough to be of use to their neighbors when they need a bit of prayer. Pullo wishes Aeneas would follow her example. Just last week, he caught his son in the barn with a pretty slave girl from the neighbor’s stables, but the boy’s so damned handsome, as he brags to Vorenus, it can’t really be helped.
Pullo prays, too, more than anyone else on the farm. He prays for the things he’s done and the things he’ll do. These days, his prayers are mostly of gratitude for a good rain or pleas for a strong harvest instead of vengeance upon his enemies. He misses the soldier’s life sometimes and when Vorenus is quiet in the mornings on cool spring days, he knows his brother does as well. But Pullo has a son now and land to plow and a sweet woman from the town tavern in his bed more often than not, so if he regrets anything he doesn’t have time to dwell.
Vorenus has a wife these days, a laughing woman with the high cheekbones of the northern peoples. Sila came to take care of the children while he and Vorenus worked the fields. She cooked and cleaned and sang snatches of strange songs while she moved about the small villa. Pullo didn’t notice anything until one day, his friend and this woman stood side by side in the kitchen, humming a wordless tune together. Pullo drew her aside that night and warned her that Vorenus was a hard man to love. Sila laughed and kissed Pullo’s cheek and said they’d manage somehow and that was the end of it. They were married in the foggy depths of winter. She’s not Niobe and she doesn’t try to be, but she makes his brother smile and in the end, that’s all that matters to Pullo.
Today is Vorena the Younger’s birthday and her father has planned a picnic to celebrate. There is warm bread and grapes and lamb to eat and Aeneas is flicking fresh-pressed oil at Vorena, who blushes when he grins at her. Sila slaps Aeneas’s wrist away from the bowl of oil and he pouts until Vorenus ruffles his hair and asks about his schooling. The other Vorena leads a prayer over the food while Sila hums to the fussing baby in her arms. Pullo takes the babe from her so she can pry some food away from the ravenous children. Little Lucius sits next to his father, who is telling the story of their shipwreck from so long ago. Pullo coos to the baby who looks up at him with wide, blue eyes. The child’s name is Titus. The sun is warm and strong on Pullo’s face when he lifts it to the sky and smiles.