Face ClaimCarlos Bernard
Secundus simply sighed at her response. Of course Livia would throw that back in his face, as though he had ever shown disinterest in her affairs. Most of his attention, until recent months, had been on her and her numerous, ever-changing emotional states. If singing had put a smile on her face, he would have loved to listen, rather than watch her sour face and hear her stoic silence as he continued to push for them to finally ensure an heir. In her grief, the woman had refused to do her duty, and even now that he had taken action to relieve her of it, she seemed to be unhappy with that as well. Did she want him to enter her bed, or to keep out of her chambers? It seemed the woman could not make up her mind. She scarcely seemed to understand how much he had sacrificed by taking her slave to bed in her stead. Until they produced a child, Livia would continue to treat him as though he had failed as a husband.
Still, as she walked away, he thought that perhaps he had won some ground back. Now that she knew that he would appreciate her singing, perhaps she would bring some music into their life. After all, that was the purpose of this exercise. Vibia gave him what he desired because that was her purpose, while Livia was unwilling to do hers. Secundus intended to carry out his duties, even if his wife would not, but he thought that confronting her with Vibia had already had an effect. She seemed interested in her, waiting towards the woman and waiting for her song to conclude before speaking. He wondered what they might say about him, when they were left to their own devices, but resisted the urge to listen in. Gossiping was women's work. He attended to the other guests, letting the esteemed men of the senate bore him as the two women spoke.
As guests demanded some of his wife’s attention, Secundus began to greet them properly. This part of the evening bored him. He knew that he must maintain these relationships in order to perform his senatorial duties, but these old men bored him with their talk. In truth, Secundus found himself tiring of life as he continued to age with the ceaseless march of time. He hoped that he would not need to continue for much longer after fathering an heir. For the moment, anyway, the interesting portion of the evening was broken up by pointless prattle.
Drinking wine to keep himself in a healthily ebullient mood, Secundus discussed gladiatorial matches, modern politics, recent marriages, and the like. These old men gossiped just like the women that Livia flitted about with. He wished there were men who understood what was important in life, but not a single one of them had attended this party. Vibia knew how to talk to him; perhaps that, as much as he other skills, was what he paid her for. He nodded as politely as he could manage while gritting his teeth.
When they found a spare moment to share in one another’s lovely company, Secundus listened to his wife’s comment. Had she already decided to take offense at merely meeting Vibia? Perhaps this had gone better than he initially expected. He wondered which, if any, of their guests had guessed her other skillset- the women might be less likely to, he thought, although perhaps Livia’s vanity caused her to assume that they would discover it somehow. Did she expect him to answer honestly, and give the game away so soon?
“Vibia is a lovely woman,” he said in lieu of answering Livia's question. “Trust me when I say that she sings with a heavenly voice. Why do you never sing for me?”
Secundus listened to the man’s description of the guard’s training regimen inattentively. Although he admired Gaius for his role, the details of the process did not interest him. He did note Gaius’ mention of his service in Britannia. He wondered whether he had learned anything worthwhile. Secundus waited for Gaius to finish speaking before raising an arm. One of the servers approached, and he ordered more food for them both- a spiced meat dish for himself. He gestured for Gaius to select something for himself.
Returning to their conversation, Secundus realized that Gaius had asked him a question. A demonstration? Secundus felt the old ache of his injury, sustained in Germania. Yes, perhaps he would like to see a demonstration. The praetorian guard stood between the Roman machine and those who intended to do it harm. Secundus wanted to know whether he could trust in the stability of this place. Matters in his household continued to worsen, and he would enjoy standing on firmer ground for once. Perhaps these young warriors could offer more comfort than his treacherous wife.
“A demonstration of their skills would please me greatly. Do you believe your men are prepared for an outside observer to pass judgment?”
Secundus studied his wife’s face as she insulted Vibia’s makeup. She averted her gaze, looking at the walls rather than their guest. A shame that he would have to miss whatever expression she might make, but he would have many more opportunities. Vibia was already proving herself a master at provoking Livia. She had mentioned her time in Antiochia simply to undermine the other woman’s skills. Even the use of the phrase ‘ply your trade’ was designed to wound her. His lip curled up into a smile. Vibia had much tougher skin than that. She would need to bring more than catty remarks to bear against a woman of Domus Venus.
Basking in Vibia’s wry smile, Secundus watched as the two competed. Their conversation was a competitive sport, with each woman taking turns trying to prove herself to the other- despite, he thought with some amusement, lacking any interest in him. He had made the right decision to invite Vibia here today, since it drew out this side of Livia. He had missed seeing this ferocity when it was turned against someone besides him. Hearing Vibia directly call Livia’s bluff, and address the painted elephant in the room only made his smile widen. He made no attempt to hide his pleasure in watching them go back and forth. Vibia finally made a move to leave as the other guests arrived, and he schooled his smirk into something more politic.
“Of course. I would be happy to facilitate this friendship. The two of you share much in common.”
Secundus gave no indication that he recognized the irrationality of his paranoia. If his suspicions tarred all slaves in Rome with the same brush, he would investigate every single one of them. For now, that meant scrutinizing Rufus. The young man seemed to be certain of him assessment. Could he really trust him? Secundus huffed, not willing to admit that he had overreacted to a minor theft. Listening to Rufus calmly describe the scenario, though, the mundanity of it all continued to stare him in the face.
Only a few sesterces- he could accept the loss without losing sleep over it. He should do so. Secundus stewed in his impotent rage, despite what might be the preferred method of coping with such a loss. He wanted to strangle the criminal that had stolen from him, and Rufus was his last clue, the last possible chance to find out who had done this. He could not simply let the grievance go. He refused to.
“Nevertheless,” he spat out, unable to resist letting anger color his voice. “You have seen nothing else? Nothing useful?”
Secundus listened attentively. Unlike his colleagues, who repeatedly disrespected Rome and its institutions, Gaius valued his role as citizen and soldier. What made him respectable and respectful also made him gullible. Secundus feared that he would compromise himself unduly- especially as naïve as he seemed around women. He ought to give the younger man some advice on how to comport himself. Perhaps he would appreciate words of wisdom from someone with many more years of experience.
“Hearing your assessment of the guard gladdens me. I had heard poor things- and seen evidence of a decline in quality myself- but I am grateful to you for your service to Rome and to the emperor. I commend your dedication to the necessity of the eternal battle.”
Secundus had, himself, grown softer than his prime years. Although his head often pounded with a bloodlust that senatorial combat could never satisfy, he had stayed off the battlefield. Perhaps he should return to it. All able-bodied men of sound mind should be prepared for it. His mind remained sound, hang anyone who said otherwise. If there was anything to teach here, it was about preserving one’s mind despite the onslaught of violence- which an active soldier knew better than did an aging politician. Not much to offer Gaius after all.
“How do you train them? Commanding soldiers is a lost art,” he said carefully. Secundus did not intend to offend the man, and in his experience, most soldiers were easy to offend. They rose to anger quickly- something he knew quite well, as a man with quite a temper himself. Even in this conversation, he felt his skin prickle at comments uttered without intended malice.
Secundus stared stonily at Livia throughout her outburst, a sense of dread creeping up his spine. He did not see children as toys. He merely wanted to ensure his family’s legacy. He ignored her dirty look as she left the room. The gods watched over his marriage as with any other. Whatever they willed, he would accept the result. He was certain that they did not will him to die without leaving behind a child; it was Livia’s willfulness that had required these machinations.
Secundus looked at Aglaea, a smile playing on his face. She had been the source of some comfort, and now she would give them a child. Sometimes the gods’ blessings came unexpectedly, from surprising quarters. He wondered what the child might look like; enough of his dark hair and skin to disguise the mother’s identity, he hoped. Otherwise, this plan would become much more difficult to carry out. Still, for the first time in years, Secundus found himself looking forward to the future.
“May I be excused?”, she asked, and of course, Secundus could allow her that much. She was giving the Varus family a great gift. With the slave and his wife gone, Secundus set himself to planning for the child’s arrival. There were many things he would need to do to prepare for an heir to his name.
Secundus smirked. The sound of her disdain got his blood pumping harder. While he once hoped for a marriage, instead he'd found himself in a skirmish; he knew how to survive those much better, anyway. He scarcely mourned the loss of the wide-eyed, foolish dreams of his youth; Germania had crushed them long before Livia came along to spit on their grave. Secundus glanced over at Aglaea, only to find her by the window. He narrowed his eyes at her back, but said nothing. He turned back to Livia.
"That seems to be the best that we can hope for. Aglaea's baby tragically dies unborn, while ours survives. Aglaea, you will serve as our child's nurse- for as long as your mistress sees fit."
Then, he looked back at Aglaea, offering a determined smile. He half-expected Livia to say her body slave should have the entire raising of their child, and hang tradition. Secundus thought that she would eventually come to see reason, even if it took applying to Tertius for his help controlling her. He would need to find a way to keep Horatia busy- drive her and her sister further apart. Livia could keep her distracted, if she were willing; she knew better than he how to upset Horatia.
"Perhaps you can argue with Horatia. Speak the truths which you have hidden from her for too long. Do this at the right time, and she will stay away long enough for the child to be born."
Secundus stayed close to Livia. Although they rarely touched one another, he wanted to imply that they were husband and wife in more than just name alone. He performed for the benefit of the other guests- Vibia would not be fooled, nor did he aspire to fool her. Her job was to wedge them apart, provoking Livia's jealous rage- for all that she expressed no interest in her husband, she could not want him to stray.
His eyes twinkled as he realized what Vibia was doing. Secundus admired her brazen attempts to unbalance Livia. Ignoring the domina within her own domus- between that and her revealing clothing, Vibia had selected tonight's presentation perfectly. He watched, enamored, as she spoke of his history with music. He was sure that he had missed some carefully-concealed, womanly barb that was not meant for men to understand. He would watch Livia's reaction to determine how pointed Vibia's words had been.
As Vibia complimented their home, Secundus began to put on the usual veneer of proper host: although charisma was not part of his natural talents, Secundus had long displayed a professional, proper demeanor around senators and other patricians. Vibia knew better than to believe it- she had seen his true nature- and Livia, too, be disgusted rather than impressed. Still. The guests needed to believe that he was a proper Roman.
"I hope that you find tonight's venue quite satisfactory, Vibia. I know that perhaps you have ventured into more exotic places in previous performances, but I hope that your role as my greatest act of devotion to the gods will suffice. Livia, have you ever heard Vibia play? Certainly someone as" -prissy, vain, selfish- "discerning as yourself must have listened to a musician of her caliber. One one of your trips into Rome, you must have taken in the arts."
Secundus smiled knowingly. The praetorians were honestly more his type of man, he thought. Although he liked very few people, Secundus much preferred rowdy to respectable. Maintaining his aura of propriety took reigning in many of his impulses. The elite guards impressed with their skills, not with their ability to blow hot air- he would have liked to live like that. Perhaps he ought to surround himself with more of them. He could cultivate Gaius as a companion- nothing like a friend, but someone whose company he could enjoy.
"How do the praetorians feel about the current state of things? With politics being as they are, there has been less need of you as of late, no?"
Topics I Participated In
In honor of the Volturnalia, Secundus had joined in the day’s public festivities. Senators were expected to make appearances at these things; they represented most of a man’s religious life, so he performed the necessary civic duties. However, this year, he most looked forward to the night’s festivities. Secundus had been planning this party for many days now. Several of the men of the senate had been invited to join in. It would be a night of feasting, drinking, games, and music.
Livia, as usual, had taken no interest in helping him plan the occasion. She considered any time spent with him wasted time. Secundus did not mind that. It made his plan easier. He could arrange for Vibia to perform as the night’s entertainment without it rising to his wife’s notice any sooner than the party itself. Although he only planned her to use her skills with the cithara, if any of the other guests took her up on another offer, he had not intention to stop them.
Secundus hoped that Livia would guess what Vibia was. He imagined her affronted expression vividly as he supervised his slaves’ preparations. He wanted to provoke a reaction from her- something other than the meek, mouselike behavior of recent months. For someone so bitter and angry, she insisted on remaining dormant. Perhaps she was waiting for him to show weakness. He would force her to play her hand first.
As the day’s festivities began to come to close, Secundus watched as the household finished its preparations. The party would begin soon; if everything went as planned, Vibia would be the first to arrive, with senators filing in very shortly after. Livia, who had been in her room all day, would likely want to be ready to greet their guests. He told one of the slaves to go fetch her- no need to disturb her mood before she’d had a chance to meet their guest of honor
May, 75 AD
After discovering that his money had been stolen under Aglaea's inattentive eye, Secundus had been looking for a way to find the culprit. Secundus happily seized on her mention of a male slave, Rufus, that she had spoken with shortly before she noticed the purse missing. Now, Secundus had elected to investigate the matter personally. Although they were due back in Tibur soon, he could not let this matter rest. No one could steal from the Varus family without some action being taken. It did not take long to arrange the meeting. Rufus served a master who moved in much the same circles as Secundus, and finding him lingering while his master attended to some business was easy enough. Spotting him across the way, Secundus strode purposefully towards the man. The physical description did not quite due the hair justice, he thought with some amusement.
"Are you Rufus? You spoke to one of my slaves, by the name of Aglaea. I have urgent business which requires your assistance."
Late September, 75CE
Aglaea groaned softly as she leaned over the bucket, seated on the floor of her room adjacent to Livia's bedroom. Ever an early riser, for a few days now, the woman had been woken up in the mornings with horrible nausea, yet unable to get anything up. It was a most perplexing ailment, as it seemed to disappear after a while of its own volition. Surely, the cook was doing something wrong, and Aglaea resolved to go and give her a piece of her mind. Just as soon as she was able to rise from the floor.
Life recently had been nothing but chaotic - actually, it had been chaotic ever since Secundus had come into their lives. The man sowed chaos wherever he went, frightening Livia and bullying the house staff, mumbling to himself and forcing Aglaea into the position of protecting her mistress from laying with him. Aglaea had soon decided that she would lay with Secundus and yet protect herself at the same time. Like many Roman women, Livia took silphium in order to prevent pregnancy, and like any good body slave, Aglaea was responsible for retrieving the tincture from the apothecary whenever they ran out. But unlike a good body slave, Aglaea took a small amount every time she saw Secundus, hoping with her limited knowledge of the substance that it would be enough to stop pregnancy and all the symptoms that came with it.
Her head shot up from the bucket with wide eyes. It couldn't be... but what else? No sickness from food showed itself with nausea without vomiting. And now that she thought of it, she was a few days late for her monthly cycle. Oh, God. With the sudden realization hitting her like an enormous weight, she stayed stock still for several seconds, before burying her head in her hands, weeping quietly in despair and misery. How could she ever explain this to her mistress? And what would happen to the child once it was born? How would Secundus react? Would Livia send her away and refuse to ever see her again? And how could Aglaea blame her for that if she did? It seemed a horrible betrayal without context.
She had done everything she knew to do to prevent herself from bearing Secundus's child. She couldn't bring a child into this household with a clear conscience, knowing what sort of father he or she would have. And the consequences this would have for her relationship with Livia, her nearest and dearest friend... her heart broke.
In time, the tears subsided and she began to think logically. She just wouldn't tell Livia. She could wear a tunic that flowed more to hide her bump, maybe bind the bump with cloth to limit the appearance. And then, when her time came, she could slip out of the house, have her baby somewhere safe, and then return to act like nothing would happen. Perhaps she could even leave the child on the doorstep and pretend as though it was a foundling - those were common enough in Rome. Wiping her eyes clear, and feeling the despair and nausea subside, she dressed for the day. She could act as though nothing had happened. She had lied before.
Once dressed, she slipped into Livia's room to help her dress. The day had to go on.
Late August, 75CE
It had been a good couple of months for Gaius. He’d been promoted to optio in the Praetorian guard and quickly proven himself worthy of the station. This naturally came with a substantial pay upgrade and he was considering moving from the barracks to a house of his own. He’d been touring around a nearby neighborhood, in the market for a simple domus that he could afford, and though he’d been unsuccessful, he was still in a good mood. Since it was getting dark, he decided to stop in the poppina for a drink and something to eat before returning to the Praetorian barracks for the night.
He made his way into the upper section of the establishment, pleased that he was allowed here instead of the lower section. The wine here was better as well as the service. He smiled shyly at an attractive young server, just thinking that a domus was empty without a lady to guide it. He would have to remedy that situation soon. Gazing at the woman, he didn’t notice someone standing with his back to him, and bumped into him. “Oh, my apologies,” he said, blushing as the server giggled. Then he looked at the man he’d bumped into and vaguely recognized him. “Secundus? Is that you?”
Aglaea shivered as she pulled her shawl closer about her. It was wintertime in Rome, and a chill had stolen through the house despite the efforts of the house slaves to stave it off. But there was not only a physical chill, but one that had seeped into the hearts of those newest to the Varus household, particularly Aglaea. Only a day or two after the marriage of Livia Justina and Secundus Quinctilius Varus, the latter had presented a proposition to Aglaea: lay with him in the place of her mistress, lessen her burden by bearing her master's child. And this was the source of the chill that had entered the slave's heart.
She had recently found a new faith, Christianity, but the texts of Judaism had given her trouble about the moral questions of the situation. How could she possibly take Secundus to bed and sleep well at night, with him being a married man? And, moreover, the husband of her own mistress. Though she supposed that the act of adultery was a sin reserved for those of a higher social standing - perhaps it didn't quite apply to slaves, and that was one hope she held onto. And if not, she prayed every night for forgiveness of her sins, should her acts prove to be such.
Secundus had asked for her sparingly, at least, she had to give him that. Only a few rendezvouses, every other month or so. But every time she was sent for, she felt a chunk of ice fall into her stomach. Besides her moral questions, Aglaea had been skimming a little off the top of Livia's silphium every month when she was asked to retrieve it from the apothecary. She really hadn't been educated about how much to take, so she could only hope that she'd taken enough to delay the inevitable result of her meetings with her master.
Tonight was one of those meetings, it seemed. After seeing her mistress safely tucked to bed, she'd been preparing to retire herself, when a young house slave had come to her with a message. She was to meet Secundus in the tablinum, that place where she had agreed to carry Livia's burden, after midnight when the rest of the house had drifted off and they wouldn't be noticed. Now she shivered against the cold that came both from within and without as she entered the tablinum and dipped her head to the man waiting there. "Good evening, dominus. You sent for me."
Title inspired by this song
July 75 AD, one week after the earthquake
The earthquake was a week behind him now and slaves and workers were busy repairing most of Rome – including Tertius’ house, of course. The ceiling had to be improved, he wouldn’t forget how bloody Charis’ arms had been the morning the earthquake happened… and all because plaster from the ceiling in her room had fallen down. And her fellow slaves had not helped the pregnant and pretty young Charis.
And that was just one thing that had to be repaired. There were several others too. But that was his own home. Now however, he’d been sitting in the tablinium, deep in thought. He had not heard anything from his siblings after the earthquake. He hoped his sister and her grown children were alright, as well as Livia of course. And Secundus, he supposed, but he didn’t bother considering him much. Tertius had tried his best to be friendly with his brother, when he returned from Germania, but Secundus kept blaming him for returning to Rome and not searching for his captured brother. And he hadn’t liked how Tertius had run things while he’d been away. Things had just spiraled the wrong way and Tertius was only happy to marry and move away from his childhood home.
Since then, the brothers didn’t see each other a lot. Tertius still received visits from his sister and the children of course, but not from Secundus. Still, he was worried about his family and decided to go and take a look at the house of the Pater Familias of the Varus family. Hopefully Secundus was in the countryside, as he often was.
He didn’t bother to bring any slaves with him. The travel through Rome wasn’t long to reach the old house. It was kind of strange to knock here, but he did and a slave let him in. He just wanted to see how much damage had been done here and if Secundus even cared to repair it. The house where they grew up. He probably didn’t care. Quietly Tertius moved through the house and into the peristyle to take a closer look.
Vibia primped and preened as she always did before a client. Her various pots of lotions and potions and cosmetics were well used but still did the job as she etched kohl around her bright blue eyes and dabbed rosewater on her throat and between her thighs. There was no need to spend hours agonising over an outfit choice for this job, however. This wasn't the first time Secundus had visited her, and she knew him well enough to know what he liked. There was also the chance that perhaps the nature of her job wouldn't come into play at all, and he'd just be after conversation. But not being an oracle and knowing for definite, she still dressed in her usual sort of attire of a gauzy tunica that revealed more than a hint of what curves lurked underneath, with her rare, bright blonde hair half pulled up and half left to trail in waves over her shoulders and down her back.
She made no move to attend the atrium where clients mingled and chose girls, and instead stayed in her room. Secundus knew the way, and this was a pre-booked arrangement. No need to parade herself this evening like cattle ready and waiting to be picked.
Instead, she reclined on her bed, fingers twirling through a strand of her hair as she glanced at nothing in particular. Secundus was better than some but worse than others, not that it really mattered. She wasn't a slave and thus had more say in the clients she serviced but ultimately her employment rested on her willingness to service all who chose her. Besides, the man was useful. Whilst she didn't - or hadn't - sold any of his secrets back to her handlers in both the Syndicate and the Servian Collegium, it didn't mean she wouldn't. There was something intriguing about the man lurking just beneath the surface and she was determined to pry it out of him. And when she did, she'd decide what to do with it.
A noise alerted her to a visitor and the door swung open, and the curtain beyond it pulled back. Vibia propped herself up on her elbows and gave a sly, seductive smile. "Hello stranger."
May, 75CE - After The Crush of the Crowd
Even after Aglaea's enjoyable conversation with Rufus, it was time to return home and tell Livia what had happened. The slave wasn't really afraid that Livia would be angry, and she was sure that between the two of them, they could smooth it over with Secundus, if he even found out. But Aglaea was still kicking herself. How could she have been so stupid? She'd been in Rome for fourteen years and never been pickpocketed - and now, the one day she doesn't tie her coin purse on tightly enough, someone in the crowd took advantage of her oversight. And now she had to confess.
Aglaea took the back entrance into the domus, greeting a few friends in the kitchen before seeking out her mistress and finding her in the master bedroom. "Livia - could I speak with you for a moment?" She seemed alone, so she figured it was safe. "You sent me shopping this morning... I got what you asked for but I... I lost the rest of the coin." She bit her lip, trying to judge the woman's reaction. "It wasn't a lot of money, but... I figured you should know."