Horatia smoothed down the front of her stola, and then made her way to the atrium. She had decorated the domus in light flowers to try and make it seem less...imposing to her guest, and she'd dressed simply. Her stola was a light yellow to compliment her red hair, and finely but simply adorned with embroidery in that understated Horatia sort of way. Her hair, up as for all married women's, was only simply braided - none of the great Flavian up-dos for her, the weight of them could make a woman faint! Besides, Caecina had seemed a sweet albeit quiet girl from their brief meeting and Horatia had no desire to be ostentatious and scare her. How little she knew the girl!
As she swept into the atrium, a warm smile lit up her face. "Caecina, welcome." She paused in front of her and extended her hands in greeting, leaning to kiss the younger woman's cheeks in welcome. She tried to avoid the tugging feeling of...well...age when she looked upon her guest. She was only thirty-two! Why did she feel so ancient all of a sudden! "Come, I was thinking we could sit in the garden for a little while?" Her garden was her pride and joy, and her place of personal solitude where she withdrew when she needed space, or wanted to entertain close friends.
She had been surprised by the ask to meet the young woman, although she didn't doubt the intentions. She had had many similar meetings when she had been Caecina's age with friends of her mothers or other such matrons in Rome. All to do with preparing her for her wifely future she assumed, and now time had ticked on and she was doing the same for a new generation of Roman women. She tried to ignore the uncomfortable feeling settling on her shoulders. "Tell me, you've been in Rome long, or do you usually live in the villa?"
Horatia was grateful for his conversation...one-sided as it was. In other circumstances she might have lightly reprimanded him for his rudeness, but given where they were, she really didn't care. He was talking...gesturing...and she needed a distraction. And what a distraction the tattoo was! Her eyes widened slightly, and for a moment wondered if the boy had drawn it on with regular ink. But the edges looked as if they were blurred into his skin and her face took on focus.
"I...have heard about markings like this," She said and glanced up at him as he continued his gestures. She could pull out the archery one and one perhaps indicating space, openness. She nodded that she understood; "I...read a lot, when I have the time and I know that some tribes mark themselves, all across the Empire but hunting and archery?" She was a voracious reader - much to the amusement of her family - and her reading materials spanned all genres; light hearted fiction, poetry, technical reads on politics or war, and more anthropological studies of the provinces. It was the latter that gave her knowledge in this conversation. "I know tribes in the East are supposedly good archers, and mark themselves. Out near Dacia and Parthia or beyond maybe, is that...is that where you're from?"
December, 74AD - the Via Latina, a day's walk/half a day's ride from Rome
As was customary, Horatia lit the sprig of incense in front of the marker, erected some way back from the dusty road that drove south to Naples. Unlike many of the funerary monuments constructed on this route, the one she came to visit was set back into the forestry - concealed from travellers, and secluded. Her arms were covered in a thin film of goosebumps at the memories that flooded her mind in this place, and why she had deigned to visit, in secret. It had been twelve years but everything was as vivid as if she were reliving it yesterday; the wight of the toddler Titus in her arms, the ear piercing scream, the smell of blood, the feeling of fingers working under her tunica1. She swallowed the lump in her throat and wiped her eyes on the back of her hand. This was an evil place, full of awful memories, but one she had to visit.
A year after the incident she had erected the stone to Decius, the man that had lost his life here. He was a slave, his absence hadn't been commented on or noticed by her parents in law, or Aulus when he had returned home some seven years later, but Horatia keenly felt his loss. He had protected her, even in immense pain. He had been kind. And so she visited every year she could, on the anniversary of his passing, of that fateful day. She never told her husband or own family where she was going; insisting that she was going to visit a friend in a villa and so needed a horse and her freedman; employed for her protection. Said freedman stayed well back from her, standing with the horses on the road. Neither did her husband or her family know about the little monument she had erected; she used funds from her father which she had informed him was for repairs to a women's respite home in the Aventine. She had then told her parents-in-law a similar tale to get double the funds so she got her stone and the women got their home. Everybody won, but poor Decius.
She sniffed back her upset as she crouched in front of the marker, until she heard a twig snap; somebody walking through the clearing. She spun around on her heel and blinked, trying to figure out who it was.
1 Horatia is thinking about her flight from Rome to Baiae in the civil war, as recounted here.
"I wouldn't be averse to eighteen months in Greece," She said with a coy smile, "I'll be the talk of my weaving circle back in Rome though; Horatia Justina luxuriating herself on an extended holiday in Greece and returning with an esteemed husband." She chuckled. She was sure that gossip would spread as soon as the families agreed, and no doubt there would be rumours. She loathed gossip and chatter but she had heard all of the idle talk when Sevenia had found a husband and tied the knot in Hispania. Gods she dreaded the thought of being subject to the same vicious talk.
How sweet he sounded! Almost nervous. A frown creased her brow and she found herself unconsciously squeezing his hand a little tighter. At her realisation of what she had done, colour came to her cheeks. She was about as experienced with men as any woman her age and station, which was to say, not all.
"I should think so," She said a measured tone, "He...likes men who are sure of themselves, and wants somebody like that for me I think. He turned down previous suits because he felt the men had no spines, or were weak willed." She swallowed, "He was a military man in his youth and appreciates that. I just...think he wants somebody supportive for me, and one who can give him grandchildren as he has none now." Her colour deepened. She used her spare hand to sip at her wine and nervously flicked those feline blue eyes at him, "Dare I ask if your parents would approve of me?"
She felt a bolt of something akin to lightening shoot up her arm as he took her hand and breath left her chest. That familiar, odd tugging sensation in the pit of her stomach started again although who knew what it meant. She gripped his roughened fingers with her own, softly, but her thumb absently ran across the skin of his knuckles.
"That you'll try is enough for me." Horatia was far too practicable to believe in such things as love at first sight, but she was content that there was something here to lay a foundation on. Something good. His smile lit up her chest and she felt as if it may explode, or that she'd catch fire at the slightest movement from him. She'd have to speak to her body slave about this sensation, worried for a moment that it might not be something...normal. Her mother certainly hadn't spoken of feeling so...heated. She vaguely remembered a few passages in her scrolls that did, but she'd have to do more research.
She smiled softly, "I will write to her, I'd be glad to...after you've spoken to my father, of course." No point raising the woman's hopes (or souring her...) should her father then decline Aulus' suit, or Horatia's own research produced something negative. "I hope I'm the sort of woman she'd have chosen for you." She'd heard about hellish mothers-in-law from friends and acquaintances. Gods you're getting ahead of yourself here Horatia! But another thought struck her and she blinked up at Aulus, still softly holding his hand, "When...when does your term here finish?" 1
1 According to our timeline, June 61AD was when he and a 7 months pregnant Horatia returned to Rome, a year and seven months on from this meeting and eight months on from their wedding.
She felt colour come to her cheeks and glanced down at her hands. "You'll be shocked to learn, I'm sure, that most men don't entirely share that sentiment." She grinned up at him, joking, "I was told by a potential suitor that if I was to spend all my time reading, he couldn't marry me. I tried to explain that of course, duties and family come first but I think he was horrified by a woman reading for leisure at all." She chuckled and tucked a lock of bright hair behind her ear. She wanted to reach out and take his hand, see what it felt like, see if it fitted but held off. Instead, she murmured. "I...think you'd make me happy, more happy than I deserve, probably."
She reached out to touch her hair at his compliment, her cheeks still flushed. "Am I to understand then Aulus, that you don't like your women so...fashionable?" It was a teasing statement, but she followed it up with an amused grin and; "You barely glanced at me at the party when I had tried to make an effort, emulate the great and the good matrons and women I've met. Perhaps that's where I've been going wrong thus far?"
"Would...you have me speak to my Father? Or, I know he has a free afternoon tomorrow, should you wish to speak to him yourself." She really wasn't sure how these things were supposed to work - obviously! She had never been spontaneously proposed too before! "I...obviously can't make any sort of impression on your parents from here, but...I could perhaps write a letter of my own to them?"
"Of course, of course." She nodded as he agreed he'd have to write. She suddenly felt quite remarkably self-conscious. Aulus was from a great family, she knew that. What if she wasn't a good enough bride of their only son? Her father would likely rubbish such thoughts if he heard them, although she couldn't shake the doubt. It wasn't as if they could simply pop by to inspect her at any rate, either.
He was so sweet! So considerate! She blinked and glanced behind her at the slave, who had just about recovered from the shock although was casting Aulus a very clear glare. "I..." She didn't know what to say. Her gut told her she wouldn't regret this, and the fates had obviously divined that they be together - why else leave her alone the one day he chose to visit? "I don't need time," She said after a momentary pause, raising her eyes to his, "I'm happy...more so than that, to say yes." She swallowed the lump in her throat and tried to keep her smile soft and gentle but it stretched into a wide grin before she could help it.
Something just felt...right. And whilst Horatia was usually so meticulous with her planning, for once she didn't want to spoil a moment without overthinking. But, she had thought about it. Any nagging doubts she had, could be easily managed, she had a plan. She would accept today - as she had done, but ask her father to delay his response until she had time to ask around, do a little digging, meet him again once or perhaps twice before he accepted (and this was counting on the fact he would...although her father was stern and stubborn at times, so it wasn't a given). Aulus could have the satisfaction of her acceptance, and she could have the satisfaction of meticulously researching him before a final decision was made by her father.
One question, however, couldn't be answered by asking around and she spoke tentatively, leaning in a touch. "May...I ask, why me? Surely there are plenty of women who would make a perfect bride who you know better?"
Horatia felt like her heart had leapt into her mouth and she let out an incredulous, choked "What?" As he finished speaking. Usually the epitome of a composed, refined lady - she for once in her life, felt utterly and completely flustered. She watched him with wide, stricken eyes for a moment before she managed to catch her breath and actually speak again. "We...we've only just met, y-you wish to marry me?" Not exactly the romantic answer he was undoubtedly looking for, but Horatia was a sensible sort of woman foremost.
She shook her head again, "Of...of course I wouldn't object," She finally clarified with a soft smile now her senses were returning to her and her heart - thrumming against her ribs - started to return to a more normal rhythm. Out of the corner of her eye she swore she saw her body slave lean against a pillar for support, lest she faint.
The worries she had about potential spouses were mercifully mitigated in Aulus' case; he wasn't too old, he was very handsome, Publius spoke highly of him and his kindness today was something most men would not indulge. "Would...would your father not need consulting too?" She asked - ever the practical woman, although beneath the practicalities a grin lit up her face and her slender fingers couldn't stop trembling in anticipation.
Horatia smiled to herself at his ambitions - classic, for a man of his age and station, but the emphasis he placed on familial life was sweet. "Oh I have no doubt you'll rise through the ranks, Publius speaks very highly of you indeed - a bit with jealousy, I'm sure." She added afterwards as a small tease. Her brother was brilliant capable himself, but he always made a point of commending Aulus' drive and intellect when the man's name cropped up from time to time. And to be favoured by Publius was high praise indeed, as he'd inherited their fathers stern personality more than herself and her younger siblings.
She glanced sideways at him and tossed her hair back over her shoulder so it fell over her back, shrugging lightly; "I'm not so sure - it was supposed to be a few months at least, but I suspect if Father has his way he'd stay here until my Mother dragged him back by the hair of his neck." She chuckled, "Why do you ask?" She enquired, projecting coquettish innocence.
Horatia laughed, "If you find yourself bored in the military Aulus, a career in diplomacy would suit you - that was excellently deflected." And she shook her head at his question, "Not at all. I might not be able to contribute but I can listen, and there'll be other women there to speak to." Women who were older than her, and settled in their lives who would no doubt spend all evening prying into her life and her future worth with a fine tooth comb, but women nonetheless.
Finally finished with her almonds, she eyed the rest of the food but the flutter in her chest had negated her appetite somewhat. She bit at her lip, eyeing the wares before settling on a solitary date which she picked up and picked at as she spoke.
"And what of you, Aulus? I have such simple ambitions, wife, mother...what are your ambitions?" It probably sounded like prying and she remonstrated herself. She sincerely hoped he didn't see it as her sizing him up, which she wasn't - it wasn't her place to, but the question was borne out of genuine interest.