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Sestia Vaticana

Come Dine With Me

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February 75CE – the day after the events in “History in Action”

 

Domus Affinii Gallii

 

How Brysias maintained her composure as she helped her mistress try on the sixth outfit change of the evening was a miracle in self-restraint. Her mistress had been restless and ill-tempered for most of the day, fussing over little things. She had called the cook up on three occasions to discuss the dinner plans, seemingly each time forgetting she had asked before. She had then spent several hours agonising over dresses for her voluminous wardrobes and was – in Brysias’ view, very unfairly – taking out her frustrations on her long suffering, ever faithful Parthian companion. Brysias held up a polished bronze hand mirror which her mistress positively snatched out of her hand and peered into the blurred reflection intensively. Brysias did not like this Lucius Cassius. She did not like how her mistress had looked at him. The man was too handsome, too confident. Her mistress was still a foolish girl, in her opinion, and was not fully aware of the dangers of the world. That was why her mistress needed her. She would keep her safely away from predators like this man. Brysias was all her mistress needed. A man would only make her unhappy.

 

Sestia could probably second guess Brysias’ thoughts. Her attendant had been even more sullen than usual all day. She made many pointed comments about the late Lucius Afinius and her father as if to seek to remind Sestia of them at every turn. Sestia was determined to ignore her. “Go and check on the boys, make sure they are ready,” Sestia commanded her, dismissing her scowling grumpiness from the room. “Oh, and go make sure the cook is ready too,” she called after her. From the waving of her head, Sestia could tell Brysias was mimicking her silently as she walked away and hurled a sandal after her in the direction of her head. It missed and smacked harmlessly against the bedroom wall. Brysias didn’t even flinch.

 

Finally left alone, Sestia decided that this outfit would do. Why she was torturing herself over this she wasn’t sure. She kept looking herself up and down in the bronze mirror but this could only give a hazed, blurred image of what she looked like. Her slaves had spent ages ironing her ebony hair straight, releasing the tight packed curls until they flowed like jet black water down to beyond her shoulders. They had then torturously curled it again in lighter, larger, gentle waves. Part of this was held up at the back, in current fashion, letting the rest cascade down. The chiton she had chosen was a light orange silk. Her dressmaker had made amendments before to give it an unusual plunge effect at the front, allowing her to show off an impressive cleavage. The remainder of the chiton was closely fit – again, a break with current fashion – to enhance the contours of her body that age and motherhood had gifted her. A single pendant of lapis lazuli adorned her neck, nestled down gently in her chest. Her eyes were lined with Aegyptian kohl, accentuating the natural curves and dips to create a deeper, darker effect. Her lips were adorned with a rouge made from crushed shells and plant extracts. Rummaging quickly on her dresser, she pulled out the stopper on a large green glass vial of scent, bought at great expense, from Syria, She dabbed her wrists, neck and chest with the precious liquid, filling the room with the rich aroma of roses and frankincense. She elected to keep her feet bare instead of shoe them, showing off delicately hand-painted inked patterns Brysias specialised in painting with a liquid she called henna.

 

Yet even with all this she still could not shake a worry. One moment she worried she looked sloppy, ugly, too out of fashion. The next she worried that she had made too much of an effort, looking like the sort of voracious harlot that the poets joked all widows were. Deciding that she would probably never be satisfied, she sighed and headed out to review the arrangements made in the triclinium. This was one of the rooms that had been refashioned since her return to the city. The couches were newly re-upholstered. Their cushioning was soft, the covers a rich scarlet. The walls of the room were of similar colour – a pleasing palette of various dark reds, with the walls given modern murals: on two walls, a false window had been painted, giving the viewer the impression they were looking out into a luscious garden, complete with exotic animals, plants and fountains. On another wall several nubile maidens were locked in a frozen, graceful dance, their limbs interlocked forever in a moment of delightful self-abandon.

 

One of her slaves was setting out the house’s finest silver drinking vessels on the table. In the corner of the room a tripod had been set up, holding a large silver bucket on which was embossed a scene of the Olympian Gods reclining at a meal – an expensive piece of craftsmanship that had been part of her dowry given to her late husband by her father. The bucket was filled with crushed ice, bought at large expense from a vendor of luxuries such as this earlier that day and preserved at great difficulty. A large amphorae of white wine had been decanted into two glass bottles which were now placed in here to cool. An extravagance which she hoped would be noticed.

 

She looked up as she heard footsteps approach. A slave stood before her, head bowed down and eyes on the floor. She was one of the pretty, flaxen haired Germanic barbarians that had come as a job lot when she had first returned to Rome. She looked like a statue of Diana. “Domina, the steward says that Lucius Cassius Longinus and his daughter have arrived.” Suddenly Sestia felt an anger – completely irrationally – that if Lucius Cassius were to see this slave then she would surely look bad by comparison. “Go to the kitchen immediately and do not even think of coming out of there until I order you to do so, do you understand? Even if there is a fire you stay in there. I will know if you have disobeyed!” The slave nodded and hurried backwards out of the room. Sestia turned to the house slave laying the central table and told him to go have their guests shown through, she would greet them here.

@Sara

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Longinus tugged at the edge of his pallium, pulling it up further over his shoulder as he sat, biting his lip in the litter. He preferred to walk, wherever possible, but with little Cassia in tow he decided to have mercy on her legs and used the litter for the trek to the Esquiline. He nudged his daughter with his leg, smiling a little: "Sestia Vaticana is very much looking forward to meeting you, she promised to show you all of her things." Cassia looked up at him with a scowl and vague disinterest. So like her mother. "I didn't want to come, papa." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, withdrawing his leg. "I know, but we sometimes have to do things we don't want to do, and I brought Metella with you," He grinned, "So if it's really boring, you can go and play with her." Poor Metella was lumped with Attis walking besides the litter as they made the journey. The thought seemed to brighten his daughters mood a little and she nodded, tugging at the fine tunica the British slave had dressed her in. 

He, himself, had hesitated in dressing. Feeling like a teenage girl he had rummaged through various outfits - finding them frustratingly threadbare or apparently out of fashion. He had no need for fine clothes most of the time, but was now kicking himself for his apathy. Still, the deep blue tunica and pallium, richly embroidered around the edge were serviceable and he'd even had a shave for the occasion. Titus would be proud, he was sure. 

His mother, on the other hand, was horrified at the notion that he was going to dine at a widows house - whom he'd never met - and who was most definitely not on her list of prospective brides. He'd shut down that conversation as soon as it'd started, trying to explain that Sestia was just good company and it would be good for her granddaughter to have some warm female company. But he couldn't deny there was a flutter of anticipation in his chest at the thought of seeing her. He hadn't felt like this since he was a lovesick teenager and one of the kitchen slaves had caught his eye. Of course, the outcome of that flutter of attraction had been his illegitimate son but he obviously had no such intentions with Sestia. He flushed a little at even the thought of it. 

With a jolt, the litter was finally set down and Longinus stepped out, holding out a hand for Cassia who gingerly took it and clambered out of the plush interior. As they entered, two slaves in step behind. As they entered the domus he blinked, its beauty was remarkable. Sestia had evidently started to give it a new life judging by the freshly painted walls and he grinned broadly. Even Cassia managed a smile. As they were escorted through to the triclinium he hesitated upon seeing her. To say she looked beautiful was an understatement, and he greeted her with a broad smile after he remembered himself. "Sestia...you look..." He blinked. Was complimenting a woman's appearance a no-go in polite society? "Thank you for having us for dinner," He corrected himself and then lightly placed a hand on his daughters shoulder, "My daughter Cassia Antonilla." Cassia offered a shy smile and a nod of her head. Longinus waved behind him to Metella and Attis; "Her nurse." Attis' role, presumably, would be obvious.

 

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Sestia beamed a smile as they entered. Cassia was a pretty young girl, delicate looking in her opinion, in contrast to her more rugged father. Sestia watched as he looked at her. He had started to say something but left it hanging. Look...what? She wanted to know. Oh, do act your age, she scolded herself internally. Walking over, her silk fabric rustling like gently running water, she came across and knelt down so she was on eye level with Cassia. She knew she ought to have greeted Lucius Cassius first but she was sure he would not mind the minor infraction of social etiquette. 

She smiled as she looked at the girl who stared back at her a little hesitant and unsure. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Cassia. Your pater has told me all about you. He certainly didn't lie when he said you were a very beautiful young lady." She was unsure whether to give sympathies about her mother. She decided against it in case it should upset her. "I do hope we can be good friends. I only have sons and would have loved to have a daughter to share my interests with. I have asked my maid to leave out some of my best jewelry and thought you might have fun trying it on? Would you like that?"

She stood at her full height. She drew closer to Lucius Cassius and politely offered him each cheek for the polite kiss convention allowed on a familiar greeting. "Lucius Cassius, you are welcome in my home, do come in, I am so glad you have come. Here, let me get you both something to drink." She clicked her fingers and two slaves moved silently from the corners of the room where they had been stood unobtrusively and they poured wine from the cooled jugs into the silver beakers. The one for Cassia was heavily watered down with spring water. The ones for the adults were only given a small dash of water. Sestia preferred her wine strong and potent and assumed Lucius Cassius, a soldier, would do likewise and, in any event, was likely to have drunk far worse than what her house had to offer.

"Please, sit down," she said, indicating the vacant couches. She headed across to hers and reclined, her left arm braced against a cushion, and against the hand of which she supported her head. She let herself spread out lengthwise, her henna painted feet conspicuous at the end, delicately resting against a smaller bolster. She reached across onto the table, took a deep, long sip of wine and set the cup back. 

Before she could say anything else, her sons scurried into the room. Well, rather, Vaticanianus scurried in with the eagerness of a ratting terrier. Gallus followed him in, looking surly but at least he had donned a fresh tunic. Brysias would have terrified him into it. Vaticanianus had dressed up properly too but, to her horror, he had a huge smear of black ink across the chest. Her eyes widened in shock. Brysias bustled in after them, sending her mistress an imploring look - she knew exactly how Sestia was likely to react. 

The younger boy, however, did not seem to care in the slightest. Her hurried across, his sandals slapping on the cleaned mosaic floor and he thrust himself up on the couch next to Cassia. He looked at her inquisitively like a dog might at a new objected. He then turned to Lucius Cassius. "When you were in Britannia did you ever see a giant?" he asked, completely out of the blue and without any seeming awareness of basic social propriety. Sestia rolled her eyes. 

"Magna Mater! You come in here all messy and, without so much as a greeting to your elders, you come to bother good Lucius Cassius with your silly questions!" she scolded. "Come here!"

Vaticanianus gave a devilish grin to the girl and Lucius and came across to his mother, safe in the child-like knowledge that his cheekiness was still - just - on the acceptable side. Sestia licked her finger and tried to rub the mess off his chest but it was going nowhere. "Lucius Cassius and his daughter will think that we live in the Arena menagerie with you looking like that." The young boy looked back at her, still smiling sweetly. Sestia gave a sigh of frustration. "Both of you greet Lucius Cassius and his daughter Cassia properly, like you have been taught." The two boys lined up before the guests and gave formal greetings - Gallus sullenly, Vaticanianus with a devilish charm. They then sat down on the vacant third couch, none-too-obviously waiting for the food to arrive. 

"You must be good boys this evening and show Cassia around and show her your toys. Lucius Cassius will expect to have some serious, grown up conversations this evening and not be troubled all night with nonsense talk about giants, faeries and blue goblins, do you understand?"

@Sara @Sharpie (for Attis' awareness)

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Cassia seemed to lighten as the woman knelt down to greet her and inched steadily away from Longinus. She added a quiet "Yes please, I would like that." At the offer to peruse Sestia's jewellery collection and Longinus mouthed a silent 'thank you' as his host stood to her full height and they greeted one another formally. Gratefully accepting the wine and moving to the couches he went in the corner closest to Sestia, leaving Cassia on the end by herself. Which, in hindsight as her sons bounded in, was probably a mistake. He moved to stand to greet them formally but before he could one of them took a seat and immediately opened up a round of questions. 

He didn't even notice the youth's disarray until his mother scolded him. Blinking he answered the question as the lad was getting primped and straightened out by Sestia, to try and keep the mood up. "No, no giants. They're just like us really over there," He shrugged, realising that it probably wasn't what they wanted to hear; "Albeit, some of them paint themselves blue before battle and they're all oddly pale and it never stops raining." He grinned and glanced back to Sestia, "A little different to Carthage, I imagine." 

Cassia, for her part, sat quietly at the end of the couch, fiddling with the trim on her tunica as if she had nothing to contribute. Sensing his daughters discomfort, Longinus smiled at her, "Sestia has only recently come back to Rome. Where she was before was beautiful, so I've heard," So she told me in that beautiful description, "And hot." Cassia's interest was piqued and she shuffled forward on the couch, "You'd much prefer it there than if I took you to Britannia, hm?" Cassia only nodded and asked, tentatively; "Why did you come back if it was so nice in Cat...Catharge?" 

 

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"We left Rome a few years ago because my husband passed away and we went to go live with my father - he is the Proconsular governor of Africa and was one of Caesar's generals, so we had someone to look after us." The boys weren't listening. They were busy making a nuisance (albeit a quiet one) to each other - Vaticanianus digging his brother in the ribs and Gallus retaliating with a "give over, would you?" They could go like this for hours. It was unlikely to become anything more serious. Sestia threw Brysias a silent look and she quietly, barely noticeably, stepped forward and gave the boys a look that made them settle down.

Sestia carried on. "Carthage is a very beautiful and old place. It has some amazing buildings. Sometimes you can see dolphins in the harbour. They jump up and down and play with the ships, it is very funny to watch."

"And there are lions in the hills and they eat people!" Vaticanianus broke in with his gap toothed smile. Sestia decided not to rise to the bait. It was typical that her sons would fail to be well behaved and make her look like a fool in front of guests. Again, Sestia took the mental high road and did not rise to it.

"It is very, very warm too. They have huge deserts and nothing grows there. But some people still live on these seas of sand and they travel across them on these strange animals called camels. Have you ever seen one? They are like huge horses but have these strange humps on their back."

"And they spit at you," giggled Vaticanianus.

Sestia looked to Brysias again. This time she made a 'come hither' gesture. "Look," she said to Cassia as Brysias came across, carrying a small wooden box with a delicately inlaid lid. Brysias handed her mistress the box and retreated to her post. She gave a stern look to the slaves Lucius Cassius had brought with him, as if to say she had the measure of them, both. Sestia could have torn her hair out in frustration at her dysfunctional household! 

She opened the lid of the box and held it out to the young girl. Inside were carved wooden animals, excellently made with a great level of detail. They were all animals from Africa: bulky elephants, roaring lions, gangling giraffes and sullen camels. They had been toys of the boys but they had grown out of them so they had sat on a shelf, untouched. "These are the sort of animals you can see over there. Look here, here's a camel," she said, holding one of the carved pieces out. She passed the box over, placing it next to her on the couch. "Maybe you can see if there are any others you like in there?"

Several slaves now entered, bringing in great silver dishes and bowls which they set down on the central table. The room was soon full of a melange of sumptuous, intermingled flavors and aromas. "I thought it might be interesting to give you a taste of Africa?" she said, indicating the food. "These are all recipes from Carthage."

There were bowls of bean and chickpea salads; flatbreads with olives and marinaded garlic cloves; lamb slow cooked with spices and fruits; honeyed dates and figs; fish stews and a whole fish, stuffed with meats and vegetables. Another slave laid out linen cloths to be worn over the shoulder to be used for wiping fingers. Yet another went round, freshening up the cups. The boys looked ready to pounce. "Our guests will go first," Sestia said.

"If this is all a bit different and not what you like, don't worry, I won't be upset, I have asked the cook to make Roman dishes too," she said with a smile at Cassia.

Looking at Lucius Cassius she smiled, "That goes for you too, legate. If there is something not to your taste, please say. A noble Cassius Longinus may well turn his patrician nose up at decadent African food as Cato the Censor would have wanted you to!" she joked.

@Sara

 

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Longinus smiled to himself at Sestia's recall of Carthage. Cassia sat transfixed, almost in awe of the beautiful woman and her tales. When the little box was brought over to her, Cassia hesitated a moment - her hand hovering over the open box as if unsure if she could take them. When Sestia set it down next to her, Longinus watched his daughters reaction. She hesitated for one more moment before she dove her little hands in and plucked out an elephant and a giraffe, holding them in her fingers. She offered a genuine smile, one of the first he'd seen since that awful day in October, and smiled up at her; "C-can I have them?" Longinus arched a brow, not feeling the need to step in and correct his daughter for her presumption. He glanced across at Sestia instead, leaving the decision with her. 

But they were interrupted by the food and his eyes widened. She'd certainly spared no expense! He grinned and shuffled to sit up a little, so Cassia had room (although she barely glanced up and instead focused on running her little fingers over the ornate carved animals). 

"I'm not fussy," He raised up his hands - having lived off of army food for years, he hardly had refined tastes - but he realised how it sounded and glanced across at her sheepishly, "But it does look lovely. As do you." He grinned boyishly and spoke in a low murmur just for her, "I was going to say so earlier but...is it polite?" Her boys, contrary to her instruction were circling the food with their hands and chattering between them. "I liked your curls though," He added and gestured at her hair with a grin, "You honestly didn't need to go to such effort for me." He thought he heard Attis do a very unsubtle cough behind him but ignored it. 

Cassia tentatively peered out over the food and gestured for a slave to serve her some of the lamb and flat breads. Longinus waved a hand a hand similarly, and so as not to be impolite glanced across at her two sons. "So tell me then boys, what do you intend to do in the future?" He glanced at the elder of the two and smiled, "Your mother tells me you're due to take the toga virilis soon? I put mine on at sixteen and then went galavanting off to Britannia at..." he frowned, trying to recall what felt like eons ago, "Eighteen, I think? Nineteen maybe, as Tribune for Decimus Silanus." He wondered if the great man's name would ring a bell or pique any interest. 

 

TAG: @Lauren

Edited by Sara

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"Of course you can have them!" Sestia said, smiling at the girl conspiratorially. She handed her the entire box. "Maybe one day you will be able to go to Carthage yourself and see all these animals? It is much more different than seeing them in Rome. The animals seem much...happier." The young girl seemed very happy with the animals and was lost in thought with them straight away. It allowed her an opportunity to speak quietly with her father over her head as she rummaged through the box.

She put on a playful face, feigning shock in an overt manner, "Lucius Cassius, you are too used to having men do whatever you want! Who is to say that I did all this effort, as you put it, for anyone besides myself?" Her smile ought to give away the fact she was joking and was pleased by the compliment. A shame about the curls, though, but she would make a mental note of that. She was too used to the former men in her life's opinions - both her father and late husband had found her curls distinctly un-Roman and that they should be quite literally ironed out. She idly played with a long strand of gently curling black hair that had fallen over her forehead, before tucking it back behind her ear, rearranging the shimmering blue pendant in her cleavage before helping herself to something from the table. 

Lucius Cassius was doing an admirable job at trying to engage with her sons. The pair were a handful and it had been a while - certainly not since she left her father's roof several long weeks ago, that they had had a man in the house. She looked over at them and gave them a prompting gesture. Gallus had been interested in hearing the name of Decimus Silanus. It was shameful that both her sons were so much more aware of contemporary history than she was. She felt bashful for her lack of knowledge. 

"I would like to be a consul one day," Gallus finally said in a measured way, before going on in his usual sombre fashion, "there has not been one in several generations of my line."

"Your grandfather was a consul, silly," Sestia reminded him.

"Yes, but he is a Sestius Vaticanus, and so not one of us," the teenager said. 

Vaticanianus broke in. "What was Decimus Silanus like? I want to be a legate and I want to win lots of battles and a whole new province for the Empire and then the Emperor will give me triumphal regalia and I can sit in a special box at the games! Did you fight in any big battles in Britannia? Grandfather's fought in battles and he fought with Caesar and in the civil war and that is why Caesar is his friend. Does Caesar mind that you might stab him?"

"What!" Sestia gasped, horrified.

"What?" the boy asked, completely unphased in the manner of a youth his age who cannot see what he may have done wrong. "I thought Cassius killed God Caesar?"

Sestia put her hand on Lucius Cassius' arm and looked into his eyes, "Lucius Cassius, I am so sorry, please do excuse my son and his foolish talk, he does not use his brain before he thinks sometimes." Sestia was horrified that the magical evening she had hoped for (but hoped for what?) might be undone so quickly and by her own sons of all people. 

@Sara

Edited by Lauren
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Longinus choked and coughed, managing to struggle down the wine he had in his mouth before he spluttered it everywhere all over her lovely mosaic floor. He grinned broadly and chuckled, shaking his head at Sestia; "It's fine, and fortunately its never come up in conversation with our current Caesar. And I have no intention of repeating my ancestors mistakes." He glanced at the boy conspiratorially, took another sip of wine, "Alas my family haven't had the best of luck with our Princeps. Cassius and Caesar, and my namesake of course was brother in law to Caligula for a while," He chuckled again, "Until he met his untimely end like most did in that time." It was amusingly ironic that Caligula had the poor Lucius Cassius Longinus murdered to simply free up his sister, only to be murdered himself by another Cassius. Evidently his gens shouldn't be trusted around knives.

"But a position as a consul or legatus are admirable aims. After Silanus passed," Better to say that than murdered, "I was appointed temporary command of the legions at twenty one," He glanced across at Sestia - wondering if she understood just how unprecedented and almost unbelievable it was, "I'd be happy to regale you with plenty of stories or put you in touch with any of my men who have returned to Rome, if you're interested but I don't wish to bore your mother or my daughter to death with stories."

He grinned and nudged his daughter who looked up from her toy animals with a frown, "The stories of Brit-Britannia are boring. Mater said it was just lots of rain and angry men." Longinus grinned and chuckled, "That too. It was mainly rain and angry men." He affirmed and Cassia picked at her food, evidently to enjoying the lamb but the flatbreads were passable for her fussy children's taste. He, himself, was enjoying it and he inclined his head; "It's delicious thank you." About to open up another conversation, he was interrupted by her elder son glancing at him with a narrowed gaze. 

"So why are you having dinner with us again? How do you know my mother?" 

 

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Sestia was one step away from throwing her head into her hands in despair at her children. She was going to have to come up with a reason to send them off on an errand or something if only to stop herself from flinging herself out a window.

At least Lucius Cassius had handled the offensive question with good grace and humor, it was unlikely the first time he had heard such talk and probably had a pre-prepared speech for it. Vaticanianus smiled, obviously pleased with the answer he had received. He had no great reverence for anything, really. He was probably more interested that the "bad" Cassius had led an army at Philippi and, before that, against the Parthians. He had an amazing knowledge of history for his age but it tallied with his general interests. "Twenty one is very young that's amazing. How did he die?"  He was amazed by it and it did seem very young to be in charge of a legion and one in combat too. Sestia, however, wondered more about what harrowing toll it must have taken to leave a legion in the hands of one only just in the first flush of manhood? Something truly awful must have come to pass and she couldn't help but wonder how Lucius Cassius truly felt about it. He was all jokes and bluster now but was there more to it than that?

"Oh, I don't find such stories boring at all. Rome is far more dull by comparison. It is always nice to hear about places you have never been, especially if they are magical and mythical isles like Hyperborea," she said, dropping it in and wondering if she had used it right.

Her elder son's question was somehow more unsettling than his younger brother's well meaning but faux-pas laden babbling. He was very conscious of his imminent role as the head of the household (legally speaking). He had very much inherited his father's severe and taciturn streak. This encompassed his dealings with his own family in a way which frankly often worried his mother. She worried he was starting to see her less as a mother, a care giver, than as another female family member to be dealt with in the scope of family politics and traditional mores. To him, she worried that he did not realise that she was a person too.

With more poise than her fraying temper ought to have allowed she once more refused to give in to a desire to talk sternly. "Lucius Cassius and I knew each other many years ago, before I married your father. We did not know each other well but our families moved in the same circles. The Cassii Longinii are a very noble family. Like Lucius Cassius says, they were connected with the former princeps' family."

The answer clearly did not please her son. He kept that narrowed look in his eyes as if trying to make it clear that he thought something was up and, whatever that something was, he disapproved. He probably had the old fashioned belief that she should pine away in a dark room, marking time before she departed to Hades, as her only existence was given form by her relation to his late father.

This was all turning out to be a damn disaster, really. The hours spent preparing now seemed oddly ridiculous. She ought to have spent the time drilling her children into ensuring they did not misbehave. 

"Perhaps," she asked the boys, "you would be polite young men and show Cassia and her nurse around the house? We have had the peristyle garden completely redecorated and the fountain is quite a work of art. You could also show her all the books in your father's library, that is, if you like reading, Cassia?"

@Sara

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Sestia may not have found the stories dull, but he knew full well little Cassia did. Judging by the way she animatedly touched and played with the figurines, she was in her own little world and wouldn't have cared a fig should Longinus drone on and on about British tribes and customs. But he knew her moods could change in an instant, much like her mothers could, and he didn't want to be on the receiving end of her tears or tantrums. 

The boy's question caught him off guard a little, particularly when it was combined with the suspicious glare he was giving Longinus. He was relieved that Sestia took charge and let her explain. That didn't seem to settle him, however, and he added for good measure: "And as I said, I'm not long returned to Rome myself and looking to reconnect with old acquaintances." Not that his opinion seemed to matter much to the boy who shrugged a little and went back to slumping against the couch, glancing between his mother and his food. 

At her suggestion the boys could give Cassia a tour, she brightened up a little - finding their company more tolerable than her fathers it seemed. She nodded and ventured, cautiously: "Can I pater?" He nodded and smiled, "Of course you can. Thank you boys for being so generous." He arched a brow, almost in challenge. The younger enthusiastically shot up and drew next to Cassia, helping her off her couch whilst Gallus sat stoically still. He half expected the lad to say no and sit there, continuing to look suspiciously between his mother and her guest. But a sly smile from Longinus and a look of challenge shook him to his senses and he stood, silently following the younger two out of the room - escorted by a quiet Metella. 

Now they were alone, besides the slaves that hovered around silently, Longinus grinned. "I'm sorry - I didn't mean to confront your son, I just have a feeling I'm not the most welcome in his fathers home." He sighed and took a sip of the refreshing cold wine, "For which I don't blame him. It must be hard." Even if it had been years since his passing, he knew that was a wound that would never heal. 

 

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Once the children had left and the noise of their footsteps receded down the hall, Sestia finally gave way to her emotions and slouched back on the couch, pushing her index finger and thumb against the bridge of her nose and giving a sigh. The folds of her dress slipped a little, hugging her form tighter thanks to her position. Unexpectedly she gave a laugh and propped herself up into a more traditional position.

 

Oh, Lucius Cassius, who would have children?” she said, rhetorically. What she wanted to say she very well could not. She could not exactly declaim to the world at large, like an actress in a play, the inner workings and cogitations of her confused mind to some silent, brooding audience. Could she really say that she had no idea what she had expected? That she had no idea what was actually going on. What was the end game here? She did not know really why she had invited him here. Yes, on one level it was out of friendship and a sense of empathy for his poor daughter. Yet, on another, there was some other untouchable element that fuelled her thinking that had made her want to extend this invitation for herself.

 

Million denarii question: for what? Honestly, because she wanted attention. She wanted to be normal. To have grown up conversations. To not be a mother for just half an hour. To be a woman and – you know – just do something because it made her feel good. Then that led on to the next part of the farce. How did she think matters were going to play out then? She was not a playwrite: she could not set down a pre-ordained manner of reactions in others, no matter how much she could want to do that. She could hope, yes. She could prophesy, yes. But could she actually control anything, no? So, the sum total we have here is that I, she thought to herself, have done something for confused reasons, most of which I don’t even want to admit to myself, yet now somehow feel let down because I have not had what I didn’t know I didn’t want? The whole train of thought was so ridiculous that she couldn’t help but laugh again.

 

I am sorry, Lucius – may I call you just that? It is so formal to give you a proper naming, especially after all this. I am sorry for my sons. One thinks too much, the other thinks too little. Perhaps if I have a third he will do just right?”

 

She shook her head, setting her jewellery tinkling and hair bobbing. “You must forgive my eldest. Legally, this is his house and I am his mother. I fear he sees me as a chattel that comes with the place. He sees another adult male in here and believes he should be on equal footing.” She shrugged her half-bare shoulders. “You didn’t confront him, I thought you were very fair. After all, there is nothing untoward going on. I do not need anyone to be censorious of my behaviour – beyond my conscience over there,” she said, lazily indicating in the direction of Brysias.

 

You must think that all this has been a terrible affront to your dignity and I am sorry. Clearly it seems I am fated not to be allowed to indulge myself in putting my desires before those of others.”

 

For companionship,” she added quickly, lest she should sound like a predatory widow from a Greek farce.

 

Men have no such problems. I, sadly, have little in the way of avenues for my time unless I wish to go weaving with wizened old widows which I would rather avoid, all things being considered.”

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"Of course." He interjected. He usually went by his cognomen, Longinus, given there were an abundance of Lucius' floating around but it was nice in a way to be differentiated by this woman. Longinus was the name of the man who led armies in battle and fought viciously with his wife, Lucius instead could be a man who spoke about poets and interior design. She wasn't the only one who had done her homework for this dinner, after all.

He let her speak at length and only when she claimed that the evening thus far had been an affront to his dignity did he stop her and placed a work-worn hand on her shoulder. He forgot himself, momentarily and kept it there before he realised the impropriety and removed it to clench unseen by his side. "Don't be so daft," He grinned and laughed, "I've dealt with plenty of young men who think they know everything and more in my time, and your son is no different. It's fine, honestly." It might be construed as an insult and perhaps it was meant as one, or at the very least it was meant as a shared observation that he was taciturn and serious for a youth of his age. Shaking his head but keeping the rueful smile on his lips he arched a brow, "I'd say my family are better but should I invite you for dinner at my domus between Cassia asking a thousand questions on your dresses and jewellery and my mother interrogating your pedigree, you'd have a terrible time." And that was no exaggeration. As his dear mother had been informed that he was away to dinner, he'd received a barrage of inquisitive questions that lasted no shorter than twenty minutes about Sestia. 

He wanted to reassure her or more than that, give her son a good dressing down but he knew it wasn't the time or place. Instead, he arched a brow: "And when he does come of age, what then for you?" His eyes twinkled mischievously and a smile tugged at his lips, "If weaving with wizened old widows is not in your interests?" 

 

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Sestia made no move to slink off his hand. Well, things had taken a strange turn so one further lack of propriety would not a disaster make, she thought to herself. She smiled gently at his words. In many ways she was in no position to complain but, concurrently, in many ways she had ample grounds to. Raising children without a paternal figure was not impossible. Even in homes untouched by tragedy, more often than not a father may be away soldiering or administering provinces without his family for years at a time. Wives back home just got on with it. In cases when mortality had claimed the spouse it was still not an impossibility. How many poor women on the Aventine struggled to raise large broods of children without a man? Could she then really complain at the intermittent stresses her children occasioned her when – unlike those poor women – she had an army of slaves to take them off her hands and a comfortable income to mean she did not always have to look over her shoulder. Thinking like this reassured her but at the same time also made her feel somewhat selfish for stressing in the first place.

 

However, behind the smile she did still worry. Her eldest was now soon, legally, to be a man and – knowing him – would expect to take the administrative reins of his family and his patrimony without guidance. Longinus may have seen such young men many times before, and so had she, but that did not mean that legions of them did not spring up with sad regularity. None were as blind as those who would not see and few people saw less far than those flushed with the first tastes of freedom and youth. She might make light of it and joke but there was a kernel of actual worry – no, fear, even – at what her son may do with his position. Oh, not that he would hurt her or anything, don’t be silly. Rather, as the head of the family she, and her activities, were to a large degree dependent on what degree of leniency he would show her. Once he was a man he would take charge of the finances. If he wanted to lessen her allowance or cut her off completely he could. He would also have charge over the slaves and the bulk of the clients he had inherited from his father. If he ordered his slaves not to let Sestia out of the house then they were obliged, for fear of their lives, to follow his orders. Whilst she hoped it would never even come close to this, she knew that the fact he knew he could do that rested in the back of her son’s mind. She let out an involuntary shiver. She briefly creased her brow in silent frustration, again fuming at the sour turn the evening had taken.

 

She tried to shrug it off with a fresh smile and a resetting of her composure. “Ah, so you have one of those mothers, do you?” she asked, wryly. “I find them oddly intriguing. Shows me how I ought not to be!” she joked. Her own mother was hardly protective. Fiery in her earlier days, years of relentless passive aggression and outright fights with her ill-suited husband had tempered her ardour and cooled her manner, honing the edges off until she now acted with glum, morose acceptance to much of what came her way. It was not that she did not love her children but she seemed to take less interest in them than she might otherwise. Since leaving Carthage she had heard nothing from her, whereas she had been bombarded with authoritative letters from her father. Even whilst she had lived with them in Africa she had seen little of her mother. She busied herself with her own affairs – engaging in Gods know what religious sect or other – or otherwise immuring herself in her suite of rooms with only her body slaves for company. She wondered whether her mother would care much if she wrote to her saying she had remarried, even if she wrote to say she had remarried the Augustus himself. Very little could pierce the dark veil of depression.

 

Gallus takes the toga virilise next year and then I am reprieved as head of the household. I suppose I am free then, subject to his decision of my future. Oh, there is still my youngest to concern myself with but he is following hot on his brother’s heels. You’ve seen what he’s like. If it wasn’t because he is still too short to mount a horse without help he would already be off, run away to join the legions, I imagine. I don’t see him hanging around long after he is able to make his own way. My eldest won’t be one to wait for decades before marrying, like his father. He will prefer to get on with it, I’m sure, and so a new woman will appear and complete my displacement. I hope that brings liberation rather than resentment. I have seen it go both ways in others.”

 

She tapped her finger against her chin, as if in thought.

 

Hmmm…how would I rather occupy myself? Now that is difficult. A rich indulgent husband would be, I suppose, ideal. I have dealt with a husband far older than me, perhaps I should go to the other extreme and find one much younger” she teased.

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He grinned, "My mother is an...indomitable woman." Understatement of the century, but he shrugged. He was hard on her sometimes. "But I'm an only child and so I didn't have any siblings to share her...particularly smothering brand of love with." He grinned. He would have loved a brother, or a sister. Maybe that was why he felt such affinity in the legions, and why he consistently pined for them? That sense of brotherhood and camaraderie was not something he received at home and so he had to find it elsewhere. It certainly made sense, the more he thought about it. It was also why he was determined not  to confine his daughter to the same brand of isolation as he experienced, and why she desperately needed a sibling. 

He listened to her and sighed. It could surely not be easy, to have the tantalising taste of freedom as a woman unaccompanied and free from male authority being snatched away by one's own son. It was not something he could relate to, but he wondered briefly if that's how his mother had felt. He had only been twenty-three when he had taken on the mantle of pater familias himself.

"The legions wouldn't be a bad life for somebody like your youngest, it'll make him more serious if nothing else." He chuckled. Much as Attis or his friends might believe it, Longinus himself had matured through life in the military - even if he still held his own particular brand of erratic energy and mischievousness. 

But at her joke he spluttered a laugh and grinned broadly. Gods, she really was excellent company. Bar a few exceptions most women his age (or at least, an age appropriate for him to socialise with) would be horrified at the frankness of her conversation, or her jokes. But Sestia gave as good as she got and it was astoundingly refreshing. "Hmm," He considered, leaning in a touch unconsciously, "I'll have to wrack my brain for rich, indulgent young men." Whilst he had astounding wealth from his turns as legate, and indulged almost every type of humour, at thirty-five he certainly wasn't freshly a man anymore. "Do you have any particular...preferences for your men?" He grinned. He really should stop this flirting, but he couldn't help himself, and was enjoying it beyond measure.

 

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Sestia could feel a pair of dark brown eyes boring into the back of her head, sending a concentrated beam of pure judgment and disapproval at her. She was in many ways frankly surprised that the uppity Brysias had not caused some minor scene in a bid to derail the conversation. Well, there was still time. Even her minder got bored and day dreamed from time to time. She doubted she was making eyes at Longinus’ attendant across the room.

 

“Ah, the lot of an only child can be a difficult one,” she commiserated. She had a brother, one whom she loved greatly, if only because he had been her only true and proper companion in her childhood. Her father had placed a huge burden on his shoulders, expecting him to become a younger version of himself, wanting him to take to command seamlessly and become another great general in his turn. When her brother turned out to be a very different breed indeed, her father’s wrath and anger had never simmered down to this day. Her brother preferred a quiet life and had no interest in politics or military matters. He had been very lucky in managing to be given the hand of a daughter of the late Imperial house by whom he now had a sizeable brood of children in whose veins Imperial and Sestius blood intermingled. Perhaps the knowledge of this helped cause him and his wife to keep away from Rome as often as they could.

 

I have a brother who I esteem greatly but he prefers to keep himself and his family away from Rome when he can.”

 

She felt girlishly embarrassed all of a sudden at the final question he posed. It was her fault, for her careless, cheerful talk had taken this turn and he had only picked up on it. She felt the conflicting pressures of wanting to retain a proper decorum yet at the same time feeling the need to throw out a witty rejoinder. With regards to the disapproval she already likely had from her attendant she felt there was little danger in adding a little more to it. As they say, you might as well be killed for a sheep as for a lamb.

 

Hmmm, a good and valid point. Young, rich and indulgent is a tricky trinity but I can’t imagine that it is impossible. Perhaps I should have my steward go out and post an advert in the Saepta, requiring all eligible men who fit the above criteria to present themselves at the Domus Afinii Gallii for appraisal.”

 

A sharp intake of breath from behind her demonstrated that her shadow was reaching breaking point on the biting of her tongue. Any more and she risked shearing it clean off and probably shattering her teeth too in stress.

 

“No, no, money doesn’t bother me,” she said, taking another sip of her drink. “My late husband left me quite well off. Besides, in my experience, a balance sheet is not the best bedrock of a marriage. As for my preferences, well, I should think that they are actually nothing too unachievable. A husband who does not complain his joints hurt in the cold. One who does not believe the evening over at sunset. One who has teeth and so can still leave a mark…on his food,” she added mischievously after a tiny but pregnant pause.

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Longinus laughed loudly and genuinely at her joke (Gods he hoped it was a joke, given he didn't fit her stringent criteria) and as it fell into a chuckle he arched a suggestive brow; "I'd be happy to help appraise them, although I'm a ruthless judge, you might have to turn them all away. And then you'd just be left with me," He grinned mischievously, "What a shame that would be." He heard Brysias tut and felt her glare in the back of his head but he couldn't help himself. It had been years since he'd flirted like this, and certainly he hadn't done so with somebody quite so enticing as Sestia. He had to struggle to avert his eyes from her cleavage as if to prove the point. Gods she was beautiful. 

He grinned at her list of requisites and arched a brow; "So given the single men of Rome, you're asking the impossible - surely?" He chuckled before shaking his head and glancing at her with uncharacteristic seriousness, "Any man would be lucky to have you," He smiled, "If that's not too forward to say." It probably was but for some reason doubted she'd mind. 

He was about to speak when a clattering sound from another room caught his attention and he frowned. The sound of a scold from Metella and laughing from a young man followed and he rose a brow. Reluctantly pushing himself up from the couch to stand, he arched a brow and extended a hand for her to rise herself. Far too forward. "Care to check on the little demons we call our children?" He just prayed Cassia wasn't crying, whatever had happened. Crying little girls was hardly his forte. 

 

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She coloured in a pleasing way at his comments. She felt a little butterfly of excitement fluttering in her stomach. This was the sort of thing she read about in the more trashy scrolls that she pretended she didn’t actually read but in fact devoured them voraciously. Of course her parameters were not so stringent that no one could fit the bill. Some nights, lying alone in the large bed of the house and listening to the unending stream of night-time traffic below, she wondered whether she might in fact take anybody to husband. Many widows, she knew (although she didn’t know any personally) used the licence afforded to them by lack of immediate male authority to entertain a troops of no-strings callers, or even in a reversal of the usual order of things, start poaching from their own male slaves. She blushed at the thought. Whilst it had its appealing aspects, it was a sure fire means to natural opprobrium. She could only imagine the wrath of her father if he ever thought that she was dallying with a boyfriend for personal sport, as it were. There was probably some arcane law in the Twelve Tables that he would rely on to slaughter the boyfriend and then cast her into the Tiber, presumably tied in a sack along with a snake, a monkey and a chicken in the manner of the nutty Romans of old who seemingly had little to do but concoct bizarre punishments for various things.

 

She was digressing, as was usual when she was flustered. The urge came again to give a witty riposte. Or why not develop the theme a little more? It was a little unorthodox and rather bold, of course, to think in such a way after only such a short return to acquaintanceship but it hadn’t prevented the thoughts from cropping up. Even before returning to Rome the idea of marrying again had planted itself firmly in her mind. Not just for her own reasons but also practically speaking for reasons of maintaining her own freedom of movement. She knew her father would probably have none of it but, with suitable distance between them and a desire to move quickly, there would not be much he could do. Her sons may be an issue but they were still in her power. But now that this had been said – even if it were a joke – it still gave her new eyes with which to look at the man in front of her.

 

A Cassius Longinus was a name steeped in nobility. Yes, there was the issue of the “bad” one who had had the misfortune to try to kill a man who became a God and, well, it hadn’t worked out well for him. Still, it hadn’t caused the family that much loss, besides them now having to carry that weight around with them. The family was still noble. Presumably still rich. Lucius must be very wealthy indeed. Seldom did generals return from war as paupers. Noble and properly Roman. Her family with its nouveau-riche background and Phoenician heritage could scarcely expect better than that in a match. A general too, her father would surely like that. Her sons could benefit from the connections…Then there was the personal level. How would she feel about a husband like Lucius Cassius? Running his household, attending functions as his wife, doing her wifely duties...she only realised now that she was biting her bottom lip. She immediately stopped and blushed deeper.

 

It was in this way fortunate and unfortunate in equal measure that their conversation was terminated abruptly by a clatter from outside. She stood up, readjusting her dress to fall properly over her curves. Brysias hurried forward and busied herself re-arranging her mistress’ hair. For once, Sestia let her. Rolling her eyes in a long suffering fashion she indicated for Lucius to follow her. She ought to see what was going on. It then occurred to her that she hoped no one had been hurt. That would really sour things. Still, she couldn’t hear any tears so, unless one, other or all of them were dead, there was presumably hope…

 

They reached the covered colonnade of the peristyle garden. Off from here were the doors to a number of private rooms: the study, her children’s’ bedrooms, Brysias’, hers. In the open centre was the beautifully maintained new garden, hung heavy with climbing plants and tiers beds of flowers with succulent, rich and heavy colours. The floor of the colonnade ran the full length of the square with a series of new mosaics. Split equally into four sections, each compass point’s side had a different season: Winter for the north, Spring for the East, Summer for the South, Autumn for the West. Each season had suitably topical scenes frozen in tessellated beauty. A hunt for Autumn – a boar fleeing from the hounds and spears into a forest dipped in autumnal reds, ochres and golds. Summer was a riot of leisure. Charioteers careering round a track, farmers hard at work in vineyards, women exercising in sportswear in a gymnasium, men likewise in their own. Winter was picked out in greys, blacks and whites where – unlike the other seasons which were noticeable for their abundance of images – was noteworthy for its absence of much at all.

 

Now, lying across the cornucopia of life in Summer, were shards of broken pottery and a great spattering of soil and tendrils of plant-life. At regular intervals along the four walls large urns had been placed on copper tripods, fashioned into the images of lions and leopards. Inside each urn were plants native to Africa – long, spikey leaves stooping and trailing down the sides. Clearly one had been –accidentally or intentionally – overturned. The result of which was an almighty smash and mess. No bodies appeared underneath it which was something…

 

What on Earth is going on here?” she asked in the sort of motherly tone that strikes fear into a child caught out.

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Longinus couldn't help but grin roguishly at the view; both feminine and horticultural as they moved through to the garden.

Cassia stared wide eyed up at the woman, removing the nail she had been nibbling nervously from her mouth as she quickly looked to Metella, her British minder for support. When Metella only cast an arched eyebrow down, the little girl looked to her father for reassurance. Longinus just stared back at her with a puzzled sort of frown that was reserved for slaves, usually, who couldn't follow his instructions. Sestia's two sons stood to the side, the younger blushing but looking down meekly. Cassia, noticing that she was not about to get any sort of help stuttered quietly; "I...I was looking at the plants w-with G-gaius and it tipped over." She hurriedly looked away and Longinus arched a brow at her nurse, "Metella?" The woman sighed and shrugged her shoulders; "It's true, although I did tell young domina to be careful and was told to be quiet." The irritation oozing off of her was palpable, as was Cassia's shame. The elder son, Gallus, stood silent and broody - as if irritated by  this childishness. 

Longinus turned to Sestia and with a sigh, lightly brushed a hand over her arm in a way a familiar female friend might. He didn't think about how it looked. "Cassia Antonilla you will apologise to Sestia, and I expect you to clean this up." The little girl looked flabbergasted. That was what slaves were for, in her mind. She looked at her father with a frown of petulance but then relented and mumbled a; "I'm sorry Sestia." Very quietly. 

Longinus turned to his host with a look of apology on his features, "It'll teach her that things she breaks don't magically disappear because one is wealthy." He indicated with a brief nod to Attis, Brysias and Metella as if they were nothing more than signs of wealth. Whilst he made use of his own slaves, he was not above mucking in himself. Life in the military - at least before he'd had the sense to bring his body slaves on campaign with him after his promotion to legatus - meant he knew how to sew rips in tunics, cook on an open flame and clean his own equipment. Not that he had the mind to make Cassia do anything of the sort, but it would be a good lesson to her that she was not above clearing up mess. Which she seemed to be understating as with hesitant fingers she picked up shards of smashed pottery.

Speaking in a hushed tone, out of the earshot of the children and hopefully the slaves he arched a playful brow at her; "I insist you come to my domus soon so I can pay you back for the smashed pot." He grinned. And hopefully, if he could drag his mother to the baths with Cassia, they might actually get to have an uninterrupted conversation. His grin broadened and he looked away. Yes, Lucius, that's all you want isn't it...a conversation...

 

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Was it wrong that Sestia was taken aback and almost a little excited by the young girl’s father’s reaction? You could tell that the legate was a man much used to authority given the quick and draconian orders he was willing to give, even to his own daughter. There really was not much harm done. Such urns were ten a penny at the river-side warehouses. It was not some priceless antique. If it had been it would have been foolish of her to leave it out, particularly when there were children around. Although the girl had taken responsibility for the accident she wouldn’t have put it past her youngest son to have had more than a passing involvement. It would not have been the first “accident” he had been involved in that he had let another take the blame for.

 

However, she did not want to undercut Lucius Cassius’ parenting. It was a shocking faux-pas of parenting generally to either discipline the child of another or else undermine the discipline placed on a child by their own parent. She knew that Lucius Cassius and his daughter must have a strained relationship at present. Men who spent long periods commanding others in theatres of war tended to forget that not everyone was a soldier. Children were to follow commands, yes, but they rarely did so with the obedience of an indentured legionary.

 

She stooped down and took the little girl’s hand, lifting her head up so they were looking eye to eye. “That was very kind and brave of you to say sorry but, honestly, please do not worry, there is nothing to forgive. Accidents happen! You are not in trouble at all.

 

She kept hold of the girl’s hand as she stood back up again and turned to her father. “All good generals should allow themselves to be swayed by some mercy. I don’t think this young lady should have to tidy all this mess up, especially when she is a guest under my roof. Now, I am not trying to interfere with the rights of a father, only I would hope you would do me the favour of overlooking this little accident, too. Especially when she is dressed up so nicely it would be a shame to have it messed up. There is a time and a place for disciplining young women, I think, and this is not one of them?

 

There were, in her experience, many ways to try and soothe the hot-headedness of men. Distraction almost always succeeded. With men like her father, getting him onto the “good old days” derailed him for hours. With her late husband, an appeal to his belly would always overturn the dictates of his head. Others were distracted by feminine wiles. So, her final comment with its double meaning – although verging dangerously into the territory of harlotry (in the eyes of the prudish and chaste) – might hopefully have the appropriate effect.

 

Besides, she had been a young girl not that long ago and had had a stern, disciplinarian soldier for a father. His punishments had been severe, if not brutal. A caning at times, on other occasions the punishment was more psychological – being made to stay in her room with no company, sometimes for days on end. Whilst she did not think anything of the sort were taking place here, she would hate for the girl to remember always the time she had been forced to clean up shards of pottery and piles of soil when slaves looked on. Sestia could appreciate the likely intention in Lucius Cassius not to create a pampered princess but, in her experience, often the more you tried to prevent something, the easier you brought about the feared result unexpectedly.

 

She led the girl over to her father and, once close enough, heard him make the offer of a reciprocal visit.

 

I would be happy to accept. I have clearly set the bar very low, so you ought not to have trouble in finding means of entertaining me to better effect?”

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