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AU - 70AD

The villa in Baiae

The letters had become so infrequent as of late that when it had been handed to her that morning Horatia had to squint at the writing on the outside to try and understand who had sent it. It was now almost nine years since Aulus had left that fateful night in sixty-two - Horatia had thought only for a few months, or a couple of years at most. Yet here she was, twenty-seven with a nine year old son and seven year old daughter, neither of whom could remember their father and the latter had never even met him. The letter was brief - no longer the tomes they used to write to one another and she set it down carefully on the table in the garden.

What could she say in response to his enquiries? The children were as healthy as they had ever been? His parents were well but it had been some months since she'd last seen them - preferring to isolate herself at the villa out of their prying ways? She was well - bored and desperately lonely - but healthy? It was all meaningless chatter that didn't warrant the papyrus it would be written on, and she couldn't bring herself to elaborate any further that basic pleasantries. The infrequency of the letters between them - she knew - wasn't helping her feel any more connected to the man she called her husband, but it was all she could do. What could you say to a man you had only known for eighteen months before he disappeared from your life for almost nine years? The thought was a depressing one and she folded the letter - placing it under a book scroll she had been reading to consider later. It did her mind no good to dwell on Aulus. 

The villa was quiet today - the children were down at the beach with their nurses and a small army of slaves to keep them safe. She only had a skeleton staff here - the majority were back at Tiberius' domus in Rome and when she heard the gentle sound of footsteps she glanced over her shoulder, surprised to see somebody else. Seeing Felix's face, she smiled gently and inclined her head in greeting. He was a kind man, an honourable one - even if a slave. Given to her by Aulus before his departure to keep her safe, he had accompanied her throughout the years of her isolation as a familiar stalwart. He had seen her at her worst - desperately lonely and depressed at the isolation her husbands absence had forced her into - and at the happier times; the birth of her daughter, their growing up, her birthdays and losses. Felix had been through it all. Was it any wonder that the children likely saw the gentle giant of a man as more of a father than their own blood? 

She smiled gently at him and gestured to the seat opposite her; "The children are at the beach." She offered and pushed over the small jug of wine she had on the table, "You can relax a little." In truth, had she the authority to do so (which she most certainly did not) she would have freed him. His companionship went beyond the boundaries of a slave and a mistress, although it never dipped into impropriety - at least not badly. They talked, but never much more than that. "Are you busy?" She enquired, realising he might have better things to do than sit in the gardens with her.

 

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Life had settled into some kind of a permanent twilight in the household. Aulus had been away for the better part of a decade, and yet his presence was still lingering. Felix held to his last orders: keep Horatia and the children safe. It was one simple task to center his entire life on.

They left the city behind, and with it a lot of the latest news and the hustle and bustle of society. Life in Baiae was slower, simpler. Felix kept watch over his domina and the children, growing up without their father. There was not much else to do. Watching the boy and the girl grow he felt affection for them. He would never imagine them as his own, of course. But he kept their mother company, and saw the toll the years took on her, even if she was trying to hide it. She was an admirably strong woman.

The household was quiet today. Felix wandered, making sure everything was as ordered. The news of a letter spread among the other slaves. From he dominus? He headed to the gardens. He knew Horatia liked to be alone out there, especially when she was dealing with fresh news. She looked up when she heard him approach (he always made sure not to sneak up on her when she was lost in thought).

"The children are at the beach. You can relax a little. Are you busy?"

"Thank you, domina." Felix sat, filling a cup with wine after some hesitation. Even now, after so many years, it felt out of place to sit and share a drink with the mistress of the household. "I have already run errands for today." he glanced at the letter on the table "Is everything alright?"

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Even as Felix joined her, she felt the melancholy of her current situation deep in her bones and her eyes lingered on the letter - half hidden underneath the scroll. Felix must have noticed her look and she arched a brow up at him - offering a wavering smile; "Everything is fine." She managed but it sounded as truthful as if she were to say she was the new Emperor. With a deep sigh she sipped her wine and reluctantly pulled out the letter - running slender fingers over the battered little square. "My husband wrote, the first letter in months." She swallowed and set down the wine, moving to turn the letter over in her hands - flipping it between her fingers but making no move to open it. 

"He writes that everything is well in Britannia and things are going well." She said, eyes fixated on the neat little folded letter. Hesitantly, she set it down and moved her fingers to clench into the fabric of her stola under the table. "He..." She hesitated. She trusted Felix, and had used him as a sounding board more and more as the years had worn on but as a woman who had been brought up to be faithfully loyal to her father and husband until her last breath, to be disparaging came uneasily to her. But she was upset, and Felix was here where Aulus was not. "He does not say if he will come home soon, or that he misses us." She smiled sadly and brushed the letter under the scroll again - out of sight and out of mind. Aulus - even in the few months she had known him before his departure - had been a practical sort of man, and she hardly expected him to fill his letters with flowery professions of love, but the absence of affection after so many years stung her deeply. 

"So no news, really, if that was what you were wondering." She smiled wryly and sipped her wine.

 

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"Everything is fine. My husband wrote, the first letter in months." 

Everything was not fine, Felix could tell. He knew his domina well enough. He also knew about the letter, and he suspected she'd assumed as much, even if she'd never say. He kept an eye on news going in and out of he house; he considered it a part of his job. And he knew exactly how long it had been since the last letter. Longer than the one before.

"He writes that everything is well in Britannia and things are going well. He... He does not say if he will come home soon, or that he misses us." 

Felix felt a pang in his chest, watching her struggle with the words. She was a loyal and patient wife, stronger than any woman he knew, but she was still human, and a mother, left alone by the man who was supposed to be at her side. Felix knew it pained her to say even this much against him. He felt the same way about his master.

"So no news, really, if that was what you were wondering." 

Felix considered his words. He was not sure what to say. He will be home soon had worn out about six years ago, and at least it's not bad news was useless, and also in bad taste. He sipped some wine and set down his cup too. "I am sure he misses you domina. And the children. Any man would." Well, that was not much better, either. But really, how would someone not miss a family like theirs? Felix sighed, knowing full well he was not helping. In moments like this he never was. "Is there anything you need?"

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Horatia offered a half-smile and shook her head; "I doubt it." She said before she could stop herself, being overly candid. "I...was nineteen when he left, didn't even realise I was with child...I'm twenty-seven now Felix, I doubt he'd recognise me if he saw me in the street." In truth she'd changed very little. She had always been fastidious about her appearance - seeing her physique and youthfulness as a sign of good breeding and wealth, and had maintained her looks as well as she could. Still, it had been almost nine years and no-one could reasonably say that she looked identical to the young girl he'd left in the domus that fateful night.

His question made her smile though and she relaxed back into her chair with a little sigh and a shake of her head; "Just company." She was so, deeply, desperately lonely. Her father would have scolded her - she was sure - if he knew she was seeking companionship in a slave, but what else could she do? To divorce Aulus now would seem cowardly, as if she could not be constant and dutiful. That ship had sailed years ago and all she had now was to wait until the day he returned. If he ever did, wiling away the hours alone or with her children for company. 

"I never thought my life would end up like this." She said more to herself, forgetting for a moment that Felix was sat across from her and she swallowed, sadness blooming across her face.

 

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 "I doubt it. I...was nineteen when he left, didn't even realise I was with child...I'm twenty-seven now Felix, I doubt he'd recognise me if he saw me in the street." 

Well that's his fault. Felix was surprised at the bitterness that thought came to him with. Horatia was wrong on that point, but he could feel the sentiment behint it. She was still beautiful, and no one in their right mind could think otherwise. He doubted Aulus himself fared this well. Of course, being a slave, he could not just go talking about how his domina was a very attractive woman. So he asked her if she needed anything. 

"Just company." 

"I can do that." Felix nodded with a small smile. He had been constant company to her over the years. Not the way a husband or even a friend would have been, of course, but at least he was present, letting her know she was not completely alone.

"I never thought my life would end up like this." 

She looked sad. Felix doubted she let those words slip intentionally. For a moment, his hand moved, reaching out to her across the table, then stopped. What in the gods' name are you doing?

"I wish I could help more." he admitted, the same way she spoke her own confession. He had been tasked with keeping her and the children safe, which he did. But it was starting to feel like less than enough. He cleared his throat. "Would you like to take a walk, domina?"

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Horatia noted the movement of his hand - hovering in the corner of her eye but made no attempt to move her hand away. She felt a shameful little burst of disappointment as he placed it down again. Nine years, or almost nine, with no physical contact had been as painful as the loneliness but even melancholy as she was - she was not about to admit that anytime soon. 

"You've helped more than you know, Felix." She said gently, and completely honestly. Because it was true! Without him she doubted she would have made it to Baiae during the Civil War - or weathered the complete seclusion she now found herself in. He had been a pillar for her, although there was no way she could really demonstrate it - she was not his owner, she was just his mistress. She bit her lip as she looked at him and then turned her face down, blushing a little in shame. 

His suggestion, however, was a welcome one. She rarely ventured out of the house these days - preferring to spend the endless hours alone in the garden or with the children. Rome had become too much for her - every dinner she attended with her friends and their husbands, every conversation with Aulus' parents and her own siblings and father had reminded her what she no longer had; the safety of a functioning marriage. So she had withdrawn out here, for months at a time, finding the genuine peace of the place a perfect match for the loneliness she felt on the inside. 

Nodding her head she offered a wan smile to him and offered; "The orchard? I hear it's starting to flower." It was also private, where she felt the other slaves lingering around the villa were unlikely to eavesdrop on their conversation if they wished to be more candid. And she did. Now she had unburdened herself a little, she felt the desperate need for release. She stood silently from the chair, and gestured with her head and a little smile to Felix; "Fetch some food from the kitchen, and some wine. It would be nice to enjoy the sun for a little longer." And forgo the daily ritual of dinner with the children by herself. "Titus and Calpurnia can dine alone this afternoon, bring enough for yourself as well." Anything to escape the monotony of the life she'd found herself in, and without another word, she quietly moved to the door where a slave waited - having obviously listened - with sandals and a palla for her.

 

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"You've helped more than you know, Felix." 

He hoped he did, but he didn't feel like it. Horatia had always been kind to him, even on her bad days, more that it would have merited for being a slave. She was just a kind person, even after all the years of loneliness her life her put her through. Her eyes lit up a little at his suggestion though, and Felix was happy to see that.

 "The orchard? I hear it's starting to flower."

"That sounds lovely, domina." Wherever she wanted to go, he'd go, as long as she was moving outside the household, taking in some fresh air and sunshine. He'd make sure she was safe. The orchard was also away from prying eyes. She probably chose it on purpose, so that her being upset would not be the talk of the household. 

"Fetch some food from the kitchen, and some wine. It would be nice to enjoy the sun for a little longer. Titus and Calpurnia can dine alone this afternoon, bring enough for yourself as well."

"Yes, domina." Felix nodded, standing up and heading for the kitchen. The kitchen slaves were taking a break, but he didn't need to bother them; he gathered enough food into a basket, and some wine and water with it, before he headed back to the door to meet Horatia. He picked up a cloak on the way, in case she got cold, or wanted to sit. The orchard was not planned for pleasure walks the way the gardens were. "Ready to go, domina."

He let her lead the way; as long as people could see them, he would not dare walk beside her. He followed a step behind as usual, instead.

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Horatia nodded with a light smile and exited the villa. It was not far to walk to the start of the orchards but it was farther than she had gone in weeks. She walked down the path silently for some time, her eyes scanning the horizon. On one side were fields, slaves littering them to tend to the crops and on the other the sea stretched out to the horizon and beyond. The secluded little beach that lay below the cliff they walked was where the children had headed but she took the other path as it forked, leading up a gentle incline to the orchard. 

Her cheeks were flushed with the exertion and the sea breeze as she drew to a stop by the entrance to the neat little rows of trees stretching beyond them. Her hair - neatly pinned up when she left - was now mussed by the wind and bright auburn flyaways got in her eyes as she tried to sweep them behind her ears. She glanced over her shoulder to Felix as she attempted to sort out her hair, a genuine little laugh breaking  the silence; "The wind...I can't talk to you if you're behind me." She jerked her head to him to suggest he walk in step with her. 

"Do you know how to swim?" She enquired without prompting, the thought occurring to her. "I used to love to swim when I was a girl. My father was a legate in Hispania, he took us to the coast when he had leave from his duties...maybe that's why I like it here, and why I pulled you away from your friends in Rome so selfishly." Really a mistress could never be selfish with her slaves - they had to do as they were bidden and she would't have thought twice about asking his opinion on removing herself to Baiae. But she wondered, for a moment, if he felt as lonely here as she did. "Do you...miss Rome?" 

 

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They left the household and walked up to the orchard; it was not a long walk, but the wind from the sea and the sunshine was a clear change from the mood and atmosphere of the house. By the time they reached the trees, Horatia's hair was out of place and her face was flushed. She suddenly looked several years younger. She laughed a little, and it was a welcome sound. Felix didn't remember when he'd last heard her laugh like that.

 "The wind...I can't talk to you if you're behind me."

Felix nodded and caught up to her in a long stride. Now that they were in the orchard, they were hidden from the eyes of the people working the fields.

"Do you know how to swim?"

"Barely, domina." he answered with a smirk. Having been born and raised in Rome, he never really had the chance to learn. Since they moved out to Baiae, he practiced some with the help of local fishermen - mostly so that he could keep the children safe on their trips to the beach. He was not very confident in his skill, though.

"I used to love to swim when I was a girl. My father was a legate in Hispania, he took us to the coast when he had leave from his duties...maybe that's why I like it here, and why I pulled you away from your friends in Rome so selfishly."

I didn't have any friends. Felix had been very young when Aulus left the household in a hurry, and designated him as Horatia's personal slave. He had his parents in the household, and was on good terms with the other slaves... but friendship was something different. 

She knew how to swim, and she liked it too. Felix suddenly had the mental image of Horatia swimming in the bright waters of Baiae, but he pushed the thought into the back of his mind. It felt... too private.

"Do you...miss Rome?" 

"Not really, domina." he admitted with a small smile as they walked along. The trees were beginning to bloom, showing bursts of white and pink flowers and the buzzing of early bees. "I didn't have much to keep me there anyway. And this... it's not the high society of Rome out here. But it's kind of beautiful." he breathed in the fresh air, looking at her as they walked side by side "Do you miss the city?"

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She smiled, a touch relieved that he didn't seem to have minded being shipped out to the countryside. Not that his views on the matter would have swayed her, at least not back when she had first decided on this grand decamp to the villa. "It is beautiful. And peaceful." She agreed with a nod and a little smile. She had never been one for crowds - she  had endured them when she had first married as Aulus wished to be in Rome, and she had been in a haze of newly-wedded bliss. Now, however, now she had a modicum of agency, she preferred to sequester herself away from the hustle and bustle of the city (and her in-laws) and take in the quietness of the countryside. She could understand now why Claudius had liked Capri quite as much as he did.

She shook her head at his question, "No...not really." She swallowed the lump in her throat and wound her arms around her waist. "It was...getting harder to socialise. All of my friends have their husbands and new children, my siblings too..." She looked down at the grass as they walked between the trees, "And...and it made me sad, to know I would not have either anytime soon. Even couples holding hands in the Gardens of Sallust used to upset me." She laughed and shook her head, relieved to unburden herself but feeling silly; "It's foolish I know...I should be happy, I have my children and my health but..." She glanced up at him with sadness lingering in her blue eyes, "It can be hard sometimes...to be the wife of a man so successful he is never at home." She phrased it diplomatically. Nobody could begrudge her for saying her husband was so successful that he had to leave, and she found it difficult, surely?

 

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"It is beautiful. And peaceful."

It was. Felix found that he liked Baiae. It reminded him of the Greek home his mother talked about, but he'd never seen. He imagined the Hellas of laughing gods and eternal summer kind of the same as this blooming countryside. And the scenery did wonders for Horatia; she looked like she was more at peace in the orchard than back at the household, even if she was hugging herself against the memories of the city.

 "No...not really. It was...getting harder to socialise. All of my friends have their husbands and new children, my siblings too... And...and it made me sad, to know I would not have either anytime soon. Even couples holding hands in the Gardens of Sallust used to upset me."

Felix listened to her; it was unusual to hear his domina speak so honestly about her life, and about the sadness she harbored since she'd been abandoned... no, he scolded himself, left behind... in Rome by her husband. She was a young woman, beautiful and still full of life to live. A good mother, but a lonely wife. She deserved a lot more. She deserved not to envy people holding hands in the gardens. 

"It's foolish I know...I should be happy, I have my children and my health but... It can be hard sometimes...to be the wife of a man so successful he is never at home."

"It is not foolish at all. Everyone deserves companionship." he noted, immediately feeling he crossed a line. Was he speaking against his master? He didn't have the right to. And yet, he couldn't help but feel bitter towards him for leaving Horatia without care. Or even a loving touch. She stood among the trees, looking like a painting, still hugging herself. "Domina, are you cold? I brought a cloak. In case you need it..."

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She smiled at his forthrightness. In other circumstances he could be disciplined for being so candid, especially when it could be disparaging about his master, but right then and there, Horatia found it a balm for her loneliness and couldn't care a whit. "You do not have companionship, are you as lonely as I am?" She asked, boldly. It was one thing to discuss that she found her position hard, another to admit she was lonely. Yet even if she had misjudged Felix and he would report back to Aulus all that she'd said and all that she'd done, what would Aulus do? Thousands of miles from home? And how could he begrudge her feeling so desperately lonely when he had left her all alone? 

"Oh..." She blinked at unwound her arms from her waist, blushing, "No...no I'm fine, thank you Felix. Lets keep walking, it's good to stretch my legs and I've been keeping you in that house for too long." Even with the villa's vast size, she didn't doubt the young man was bored witless. 

She turned on her heel and walked further into the orchard. The only sounds here were that of the bees and the wind rustling through the trees. In a few months it would be a hive of activity as slaves picked and sorted the apples and other crops but for now, all there was was apple blossom which drifted fragrantly through the afternoon sun. She must have walked for five, ten minutes or so before she stopped. She hoped Felix had remembered the route back to the villa because all she could think of was how at peace she had been, drifting between the neat, ordered lines of trees. 

She held out her hands for the cloak with a little smile and moved to stretch it down on the ground, before taking a seat and slipping her sandals off. It was cooler now, but still warm for a spring evening. "You'll eat with me?" She asked, although she needn't have given he didn't have a right to refuse, "It's been a while since I've eaten dinner with another adult alone." Even if that adult is a slave. She didn't realise just how sad it was, that she was trying to play house, play wife to a slave whilst her own husband wiled away the years in some far off land of mists and rain.

 

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"You do not have companionship, are you as lonely as I am?" 

How was he supposed to answer that? Felix had no wife or lover in the household. He'd slept with a few women occasionally over the years, but he was not exactly in a position to start a family. Sometimes he thought about it, but the thought itself felt strange. He had a duty to do, and his master's family to look after. Was he lonely? Maybe. But not in the way Horatia was. He offered her a cloak, hoping at least it would be a comfort.

"Oh... No...no I'm fine, thank you Felix. Lets keep walking, it's good to stretch my legs and I've been keeping you in that house for too long." 

They walked on. The orchard was beautiful, and the peace of the place seemed to have a calming effect on Horatia as well. One could get lost in the sea of blossoms and bee songs, like nothing outside of it existed. They walked in silence, and Felix didn't mind.

Eventually, Horatia stopped, took the cloak, and spread it on the ground, kicking her sandals off. Felix remained standing. It would have been bold of him to assume he was allowed to sit on the cloak with her.

"You'll eat with me?" It's been a while since I've eaten dinner with another adult alone." 

An adult. Felix spent his life being defined by his status as a slave; it was strange to be referred to as "another adult."

"As you wish, domina." he knelt on the edge of the cloak, placing the basket between them, and unpacking the food he'd brought. Bread, cheese, olives, some pastries from the kitchen. He also took out the jar of wine and two cups. He was only going to bring one, not planning on sharing dinner with his domina, but she'd ordered otherwise. If it was a comfort to her to share a meal, who was he to refuse? "I hope this is alright. I am afraid I am not as good at dinner conversation as the adults you were used to in Rome." he added with a small smile.

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Horatia chuckled and poured herself some wine, not standing on formality; "You'd be surprised, most conversation in Rome centres on whose children are marrying, whose land is fertile and whose wife has been scandalous...at least that's what women's conversations centre on." She sighed a bit to herself and tucked a strand of her bright auburn hair behind her ear. It got...tiresome after a while, even if Aulus was home she suspected it would be equally dry. 

She broke off a little bread and nibbled at it, eyeing Felix. Gods if her father could see her now she'd receive a tongue lashing to end her days, but where was the harm? It was not as if she was doing anything lewd, was it? It was just conversation. Unorthodox conversation, mind, but just conversation. 

Trying to steer her thoughts to safer pastures she stuttered out; "I...I've been thinking, for a few months, years perhaps that I s-should go to Britannia." She swallowed and turned feline blue eyes up to her slave, "To surprise Aulus...but I suspect it's a bad idea." She rubbed her arm self-consciously. Bad for a number of reasons; primarily  that it just wasn't done that wives abandoned their constant waiting and went off in search of errant husbands, certainly not alone. Besides, what if he turned her away when she arrived? The humiliation didn't bare thinking about. "Have you ever been out of Italia, Felix?" She asked, genuinely curious.

 

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Horatia poured herself some wine. Felix didn't touch the other cup. Bringing the food and drinks was one thing, but deep down something still kept him from eating and drinking with his domina. Conversation was as far as he'd go for now.

 "You'd be surprised, most conversation in Rome centres on whose children are marrying, whose land is fertile and whose wife has been scandalous...at least that's what women's conversations centre on."

Felix chuckled. He'd never been privy to the conversations of women, let alone noble women. But if that was what they really talked about, maybe he was not missing out on all that much.

Trying to find an acceptable position in their small dining space,Felix decided to settle down at Horatia's feet, on the edge of the cloak. At least this way he was not looking down at her anymore.

"I...I've been thinking, for a few months, years perhaps that I s-should go to Britannia...  To surprise Aulus...but I suspect it's a bad idea.... Have you ever been out of Italia, Felix?"

"No, domina" he shook his head "Can't say I have. My father was born just outside of Rome. My mother is from Greece, but she doesn't talk about it much. I think... this might be the farthest I have been from the city." he admitted with a sheepish smile. Once again he was keenly aware that Horatia deserved a much more interesting dinner guest. 

"Going to Britannia... would be dangerous. It's a long road, domina, for someone like you to travel for..." for a man who wants you at home. "Even though I am sure dominus would appreciate your dedication."

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"Greece?" She smiled gently and sipped her wine, genuinely interested; "Do  you know whereabouts? I stayed in Greece for a summer to visit my brother and..." She trailed off. Her wedding was not something she wished to dwell on. She had been so happy, over joyously so at this handsome, strong, ambitious man that had wanted her as a wife. Where had all of that disappeared to? She suspected somewhere in the narrow sea in the intervening nine years. 

She listened now, however, at his words and felt embarrassment colour her cheeks. "For somebody that might not want me anymore?" She finished his sentence with a sad melancholy in her voice. She was not a woman who was generally self-conscious; being born into the ruling class of the most powerful empire on earth had given her profound confidence, but this break with Aulus had severely dented that pride. She shook her head and hoped the colour was fading from her cheeks as she sipped her wine. She spoke quietly, almost afraid to admit it - even to a slave like Felix whom she trusted intimately with her life; "And if he does come back...it has been so long, he could well decide a new bride is what he needs for a fresh start in Rome." And she'd have waited almost a decade for nothing; her youth wasted, her life over. 

"I'm sorry," She managed to snap herself out of it, "He's my husband and of course...he is doing what is right but sometimes..." She drifted off and glanced to the side, off of Felix's face into the distance. It was sometimes what? 

 

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"Greece? Do  you know whereabouts? I stayed in Greece for a summer to visit my brother and..." 

Felix could tell Greece brought back memories for his domina. He was not sure if they were bad memories, or melancholy, or good memories colored by all that happened after. She seemed pensive. The conversation returned to her idea for visiting her husband in Britannia - which would have been a dangerous road to take on. 

"For somebody that might not want me anymore?"

Felix flushed as she said the words he managed not to say. It would have crossed a line for him to accuse his master of something like that, but even from Horatia it was as close to rebellion as she'd ever gotten. Felix shook his head. He could not really imagine any man who wouldn't want her as their wife.

"And if he does come back...it has been so long, he could well decide a new bride is what he needs for a fresh start in Rome... I'm sorry. He's my husband and of course...he is doing what is right but sometimes..." 

"Sometimes it is hard to stay strong." Felix finished her sentence. She had been holding her chin up and her house in order for almost a decade. It was more than most women would have managed. "There is no man in the world in their right mind who wouldn't want you, domina." he added more quietly. It was just a statement of fact. "It's just a question of whether they deserve you." That last part was definitely crossing a line. Aulus would have him lashed if he ever found out he was saying such things. Felix looked away, hoping he didn't just ruin the whole evening. 

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Horatia felt her cheeks flush a bright crimson at his words. When was the last time she had been complimented like that? Surely years? It wasn't as if she ever frequented the markets anymore to get even the banal pleasantries of people trying to flog their wares with cheap compliments. "I..." She fell quiet as he finished speaking. To say such a thing crossed a line she knew he'd likely never crossed before. No slave in their right mind would be openly disparaging of their master, especially not to said masters wife. She stuttered a little, still flushed by the wind and her own coyness but didn't say anything for quite a few moments. 

When she did speak, she did so slowly and moved a hand lightly to brush his shoulder to urge him to look at her. "I sincerely hope you're not a trap...designed to catch out my impertinence, sent by Aulus." She managed a breathy laugh and let her hand settle on the cloak, tantalisingly close to his own hand. Her body urged her to reach out and take his own, but sense and years of a rigorous Roman upbringing forbade her from doing so. Even if her own proximity to him now was just as dangerous as she leaned in, "Just this conversation...it has made me feel more alive than I've felt in..." She looked down, embarrassed, biting at her lip. She couldn't bring herself to finish her sentence but slowly, and incredibly tentatively, reached out to brush his fingers with her own. 

 

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Horatia blushed a bright shade of pink at his words. Felix stole a glance at her and looked away again. He couldn't quite tell if she was embarrassed by his bold compliment, or angry at him for speaking out of turn. 

"I... I sincerely hope you're not a trap...designed to catch out my impertinence, sent by Aulus." 

Felix looked at her when she lightly touched his shoulder, and his brow furrowed at her words. He was not a trap. But he had no way to prove it, and he could not fault Horatia for suspecting him. Or anyone and anything.

"I'm not, domina." he said simply. Whether she would read the honesty in his words, it was up to her. He doubted Aulus even remembered who he was.

"Just this conversation...it has made me feel more alive than I've felt in..."

Her fingers brushed his. Felix glanced down at the gentle touch, frozen, as if a butterfly had landed on his hand and he did not want it to fly away. It was not the first time they had touched, but so far, all of their contact had been within the limits of his work - helping her in and out of litters and carriages, and other such moments. This was something different.

She must have been so lonely. Such a woman as her, left alone for years without the comforting touch of the man she was married to. Without the comforting touch of anyone. Even surrounded by slaves and household servants, the only people allowed the familiarity of holding her were her children, and they were growing up fast.

"Domina." Felix whispered, as if the trees in the orchard could hear "Do you wish me to hold you?"

@Sara

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That he did not react to the gentle ministrations of her fingers made shame creep in to her chest and she pulled her hand away quickly, embarrassment colouring her cheeks again. She opened her mouth to apologise, horrified at her own foolish needs when he spoke and she blinked up at him. "No, no..." She shook her head and purposefully moved farther away from him on the cloak. 

How could you be so wanton? So foolish? She chided herself, hearing the voice of her father scolding her in her head. If he could see her now - alone with a slave, flirting gently, Gods knew what he'd say. What would Aulus say? The man she had thought she had loved? They had only been wed for eighteen months before his departure and she was a practical woman, she had not fallen head over heels for him as the old stories said she might, but love and gentle easiness had blossomed there. What was she doing? Throwing it all away for a man, no - a slave! - who seemed not to even want her back? She was surprised as the last thought entered her head and stung the most. His gentle words had not seemed like a man toying with overstepping the boundaries of his position - no, they seemed like the words of a man who was just following orders. 

"I...I would not make you do that if you did not wish to, I'm being foolish." She waved a hand and swallowed the lump stuck hard in her throat. She felt humiliated, wrung out, and more alone than ever.

 

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"No, no..." 

Horatia moved away from him and blushed a deeper shade of red. Did she regret the gentle touch? Did he do something wrong by not reacting? Or by not pulling away? His mistress might have suspected he was a spy for Aulus, but he also had reason to worry she might punish him if he crossed a line she was testing. She needed to be sure she was safe around her own slaves. Felix sat back as well, and hung his head.

"I...I would not make you do that if you did not wish to, I'm being foolish."

He looked up again. She looked miserable and disappointed, but still beautiful. Gods, how was she still so beautiful with so much sadness? And she thought she was being foolish, just by reaching out to him. Maybe in the eyes of the world, she would have been. 

"It is not my place to wish such things." he said quietly, watching her. "It was selfish of me to offer. But believe me, domina, there is nothing I wouldn't do for you."

@Sara

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She swallowed, feeling humiliation and embarrassment wrap around her shoulders like a cloak she could not shrug off. His words - quiet and gentle - did not help ease her conscious much, at least not at first. She sat in the silence for a while, contemplatively, and sipped at her wine. She had pushed everybody away it seemed; Aulus, her own family, her in-laws and now even her slaves. How had she ended up here? 

"I..." She what? She hesitated again and sipped at her wine. His words ran through her mind. "It...it was not selfish, how could it be selfish?" She didn't look up at him as she spoke - her loose strands of hair instead whipping against her flushed cheeks. 

She frowned as she continued to speak, feeling the catharsis of being honest - even when she should not have been. Horatia considered she'd never been more open in her life, than in this moment; "I just...I thought for a moment, a very brief moment, that you might..." She struggled to get the words out, "Want me. But I sometimes forget you are a slave and do as you are bidden." Nothing more. She could for-see herself, in her darkest moments, being a woman who took comfort in the gentle touch of somebody - just for some pure, unadulterated affection, she could not see herself as a woman who commanded her slaves thusly. That was too much a humiliation for her to bare. "I'm sorry, Felix." She frowned and shook her head, unsure why she was apologising but thinking it was necessary.

 

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"I... It...it was not selfish, how could it be selfish?"  

How could he possibly explain? How could he tell his master's wife that he'd offered, hoping she'd order him to hold her, to wrap his arms around her? How could he make her understand that his only way of doing what he had been wishing to do for years was for her to order him?

Horatia didn't look up. She looked embarrassed. 

"I just...I thought for a moment, a very brief moment, that you might... Want me. But I sometimes forget you are a slave and do as you are bidden. I'm sorry, Felix."

Felix stared at her. It must have taken a lot from her, saying those words; speaking honestly, saying things she would have never been allowed to say, that he would have never been allowed to hear. His heart skipped, with a mix of worry and excitement that was too hard to contain. 

"You misunderstand, domina." he said gently; this time he reached out, brushing his hand against hers. If she had changed my mind, if she had already regretted her moment of honesty, he was going to be punished for this. He was willing to risk it. "I was being selfish, because I hoped you would say yes. You are allowed to wish such things, and I'm not. But that doesn't mean I don't."

@Sara

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Horatia felt her heart beat against her ribs in a way she hadn't felt in years. That unfamiliar mix of anxiety and pleasure ran across her and she did not withdrew her hand from his as he lightly brushed his fingers over her own. She listened to his words with a lump stuck in her throat. She felt light-headed as she moved to wind her fingers through his own, until she was holding his hand gently. 

"It's because you're a good man Felix." She murmured quietly, and still did not look up at him. She felt her cheeks grow hot as she sat there - hand entwined with his own. She heard scurrilous stories of course about women and their affairs but she couldn't recall reading anything of a woman merely holding the hand of her slave. She was evidently a novice in scandal, but this felt dangerous enough. 

She moved lightly so they were closer again, but did not let go of his hand. Her voice was quiet as she spoke, as if the trees that canvassed them were listening; "I...wish you to do whatever you wish to do, when we are alone, now." She swallowed the lump in her throat and tentatively - very slowly - moved her other hand to brush away a few loose strands of hair from his face; the most natural act for a married couple in love, but it being decidedly odd for a mistress and her slave. "But...if anybody were to find out, even a-about this..." She squeezed his hand and swallowed. Who knew what her father, what Aulus would do?

 

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