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10 April 75CE

Domus Afinii Gallii

Sestia could not get used to the quiet that now hung over her house during the day. Oh, yes, alright, there were still slaves pottering around, but a lifetime of seeing them as little more than moveable household furnishings meant that they, and their noise, simply disappeared into the background. What was lacking was the sounds of her sons playing or, more often, arguing. She was, of course, hugely honored and proud that they should now be going daily to the private school on the Palatine, where they shared lessons with the Imperial children and those of select other noble families, under the great aegis of the imperial tutors. The tutors were some of the finest minds in the entire Empire, far better than anything she could have afforded herself. However, the main benefit were the connections she hoped would be forged in the classroom, exercise yards and playgrounds between her boys and those of the other crème de la crème of the Empire.

Nevertheless, she still missed the noise. Fortunately she had plenty on her mind to occupy her. The affairs of estate management never ended. That wasn't the main thing, though. Instead, it was her new, unexpected and complicated relationship (for want of a better word) with Lucius Cassius Longinus that dominated her thinking. The joys and dangers of the same. Sometimes she found herself sat idly, staring out over the cascading plants in the peristyle garden, for almost hours at a time, just lost in thought.

Distraction was the key to dispelling melancholy. By now she had made a number of connections with contacts old and new in the city. She no longer felt so much of an outsider, a stranger. With many of these people she had made, and heard, suggestions of doing something, some event. She had leapt on the seeds of such an idea and ever since they had been slowly germinating in her mind. She enjoyed parties. She was free to have them, was she not? They were a useful cover under which to meet...

Several days earlier she had sent a note to her old acquaintance (now recently renewed), Horatia Justina, inviting her to visit her and assist her with her opinions in preparing for the party she planned to hold in the wake of Parilia. Horatia had willingly offered her services before and Sestia was glad to accept. It had been such a long time since she had planned anything like this herself. Besides, Horatia was bound to have far more contacts than she did and would know who invites should be sent to. There was so much to consider. Food, entertainments, the list grew as she just thought about it. Every now and again it struck her that she had perhaps bitten off more than she could chew with this. She repressed such urges and redoubled her resolve to push on with it to overcome such nerves.

Her steward broke in on her silence and announced that Horatia Justina had arrived. Sestia set down the scrolls she had been pretending to read, on Britannia, and rose to greet her once the steward has ushered her inside, to the table and chairs set out in the corner of the atrium, overlooking the garden she had spent so much on landscaping recently, now a riot of colour.

@Sara

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Horatia smoothed down her stola as she was admitted into the domus and withdrew the palla from her hair. She had been looking forward to this - although as always with social engagements, a pit of nerves sank to the bottom of her stomach. She had always considered herself fairly plain and quiet - a marked contrast to many women in Rome, and whilst a quiet nature was often deceiving of inner wit and charm - she nonetheless felt nervous at occasions such as this. Especially when faced with a woman who was as wonderfully vibrant as her house seemed to be. Yet Horatia was nothing if not an excellent student and had spent years of her life ensuring that she could converse with anybody who may cross her path; learning conversation topics, how to read social cues, how to project the charisma she often felt she lacked innately. It didn't make it any easier, mind. 

She spied Sestia setting down the scroll and her interest was piqued as it always was when confronted with reading materials - but she said nothing out of politeness, and instead leant up to leave the customary kiss of greeting on her friends cheek. "Sestia." She smiled gently and took a step back - her eyes already falling to the immaculately manicured garden, "Your domus is beautiful." Because it was - at least in part and it was evident that before long it would be fully transformed.

She was dutifully led to the seats in the corner, the smell of fresh flowers gently wafting over to her as she smoothed out the intricately cut but somewhat muted green stola she had donned for the occasion. "Before we get into planning and such," She smiled a touch mischievously - already feeling her mood settle, "I have to ask how you manage to keep your teenage children so quiet!" The only sounds moving through the domus being the gentle pads of slave's bare feet and the buzz of the bees in the garden.

 

TAG: @Lauren

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Sestia returned the polite kiss of greeting and indicated and vacant chair, before taking one herself.

"Horatia," she said with a smile, "you are too kind, and looking very well by the way." The house was looking much better. In the three full months that she had been back in Rome, she had invested heavily in workmen, plasterers, gardeners and artists coming in to comprehensively refurbish the drab Roman city mansion of her late husband's family. When she had married it was clear that this domus had not been decorated since the days of the late Republic, if not before. Her husband had liked its antique charm. She did not. Now freed from his presence and with access to ample funds, she decided (or, rather, had convinced herself) that it was appropriate for her to go about this rejuvenation in the interests of her children. For someone who had spent so many years being timid and demure, she was determined to use her home as a canvas for the personality she wanted to put forward to the world. The colours were vibrant, bold, challenging. The mosaics were laid by undisputed masters of their craft. She was particularly fond of the Four Seasons depiction which ran the length of the four walkways surrounding the atrium.

Although she was proud of the changes she had made, she still felt embarrassed when they were commented upon, as if even the most well meaning comment were somehow a dig at her overturning the legacy of her late husband's family. "You're too kind," she said again, colouring slightly and disguised her awkwardness by waving a slave away so as to pour the chilled wine herself.

"There's no magic there," she said after Horatia enquired about her children. "They are never normally this quiet if they are here. If they ever are this quiet when they're at home, I know something is wrong."

She wasn't sure how best to explain it. She was concerned that being honest would sound too much like bragging, which was not the case, although she was inordinately proud of the honour she had received. Clearly there were some benefits of being the daughter of Gaius Sestius Vaticanus. The social circles of upper class Rome could be so bitchy, she did not want to be thought to be one of those types. Well, she would find out sometime surely? "Recently the children were invited to join the school group led by the Imperial tutor, a favour bestowed on them by the Augustus thanks to my father's connection with him." She recalled the audience in the Aula Regia, in front of the entire Court and being spoken to by the Augustus himself. She didn't feel the need to mention that part of it as she hadn't covered herself with much glory. Besides, it would make her seem like an inveterate favour-seeker.

"Truth be told I am starting to find the quiet a bit disconcerting. I worry that this is what it will be like in the days to come when they leave."

There was too much truth in that so she changed the topic. "Which is all the more reason why it is important that I fill my time with exciting things to distract myself. Thank you so much for agreeing to help. A job shared is a burden halved."

@Sara

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Horatia inclined her head in thanks as Sestia poured them wine, and she took the cup. It was stronger and sweeter than wine she'd serve herself, but pleasant and she sipped away happily. Yet Sestia's awkwardness did not go unnoticed and Horatia filed it away for later, pondering what it could mean - until the words awkwardly fell out of her mouth and Horatia arched a brow in surprise - just for a moment - before a wide grin spread on her face. "That's fantastic news!" She grinned, and meant it. She was not a woman often prone to jealousy, nor was she somebody who particularly worried over the fate of her family. Titus' schooling was excellent; Aulus and Tiberius had spared no expense, and even if it was not as grandiose as being schooled with the imperial children, a bit of hard work to ingratiate himself with said imperial children would do him well. After all, one just had to look at how Aulus had developed and cultivated his friendship with the Augustus to realise that connections could be made later. 

Smiling gently, she reached a hand softly and laid it on Sestia's arm; "You needn't feel awkward on my account," She added and hoped Sestia would see her genuineness, "It's excellent news for your boys and my son is quite happy where he is." Of course, she'd still bring the matter to her father-in-law and Aulus' attention. She was cautious about sharing too much feminine gossip, but where it concerned the advancement of the male line of their family, it was important they should be aware. "How did it come about?" She asked - her tone light and smile still on her face. Nobody would perceive she was digging for information, and if they did, they wouldn't see any malice in it (given there wasn't any). She just liked to have a good grip on things.

Noting the change in topic - she refrained from commenting on Sestia's lamentation about her boys growing up and instead laughed a little shaking her head; "It's no burden for me, it will just be nice to plan something well. The social scene gets a little dry sometimes." She commented with her measured words. If Sestia wanted to read into the fact that 'it's no burden for me because I, unlike you, don't have much else to do' and 'the social scene gets a little dry sometimes because everybody here is dull as mud and plan the most gaudy affairs' then so be it, but she wouldn't say it outright. Sipping her wine and then setting it down, it wouldn't be becoming to be seen to drink copiously, she asked lightly; "Do you have a mind of who you'll invite?" She inquired and her slave diligently produced a tablet to begin writing it down for the women. 

 

TAG: @Lauren

 

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Sestia felt embarrassed for having felt embarrassed in the first place. There was nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, it had been an idea not of her own making but one spontaneously announced by the Augustus himself. Although she was hugely proud, part of her did wonder how the experience might alter her sons. It was hardly as though they were poorly off but no one, not even the wealthiest families in the Empire, could sit on a par with the Imperials. The children of the Palatine were used to a level of wealth and power that was simply alien to everyone else. It easily corrupted.

Given free rein to talk, she entered her natural gregarious state and wittered on happily. "Well, honestly, it was not my idea and was all rather sudden. My father had asked me, when I got back to Rome, to go to the Augustus' salutatio and pay respects on his behalf. I thought it was utter tosh really, I mean, why on earth would anyone take notice of a woman and two children in a room full of some of the most important persons in the entire State? Well, I have no idea how, really, if I'm honest, but we were singled out and, there I am, stood in front of the Augustus with my two boys and the eyes of the entire Aula Regia boring into the back of my head. I was quite lucky, really, all things considered, because the Augustus did most of the talking. He spoke with the boys and then, on the spot, told me I was to send them up to the Palace from then on, quite like that. Not that I am complaining, of course!" she added quickly at the end.

Conscious that she had been going on about herself and that stroke of good fortune, she thought instead of what she actually wanted her soiree to be. Truthfully, she knew very few people in Rome since her return. She would like, ideally, to situate herself back in the centre of a wide ranging social circle but that took work.

"Yourself and Aulus, of course," she said. There was one person whose name sprung to mind but she made an effort not to suggest it immediately. "I also owe a gratitude to a senator by the name of Sulpicius Rufus, who did me a good turn the other day - the same day, in fact, as I ran into you at the Games. It turns out that he is married to an old childhood friend of mine, Valeria Flacca, so there are two reasons there why I should send an invitation to them." She paused and thought further. "Really I ought to send an invitation to my brother and his wife but I am sure they will politely decline. These things don't seem to be their 'scene' anymore and I can understand that." She bit a fingernail pensively. "There is also another senator I met recently, Lucius Cassius Longinus, who has been very kind to my sons. It is appropriate that I should invite him too, I think."

"But I ought to keep the guest list open, I think? Do you know of anyone else that would be mortified if I were to make the mistake of failing to invite them - even if I don't know them yet! You know what social A-listers can be like!"

@Sara

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Horatia smiled genuinely but took down every iota of information that she could, for storage and potentially to be alluded to in conversation with Aulus and Tiberius. She was unsure when the last time her husband had met with the Augustus but she couldn't recall it happening this year. From Sestia's words, it sounded as if that meeting was overdue - especially if he was suddenly being quite so benevolent. 

As the conversation moved to the party, Horatia felt much more at ease. These events were second nature to her - not that planning events was necessarily her natural forte - but it was certainly up there. It wasn't as if women of their rank and sex had many opportunities to find their metier, and so they were all required to be proficient at the feminine arts of weaving, party planning and giving children. "That would be six, should your brother and his wife be unable to join us - and nine is better." At least for a proper convivium, but perhaps Sestia was thinking of something a little more informal. This was not her event, after all; "Unless you were thinking of something a little different than the usual dinners we attend?" She smiled lightly, "I will send a list once I've looked through my books of who you most definitely do not wish to invite lest you become a pariah." She grinned now - although she wouldn't indulge in mindless gossip by elaborating. 

"Tell me," She said with a sip of her wine now she'd picked it up once more, "What were you planning for it?" 

 

TAG: @Lauren

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Sestia paused, furrowing her brow as she considered the question. It was unfair of her to expect Horatia to have led the way and, after all, this was to be her party so she would actually have to set her stamp on it.

What would be normal would be a very typical, very placid and very traditional dinner party. The sort that a good Roman matron should host. Light music. Simple but abundant food. Expensive and abundant wine. The men would talk of masculine things and the women would pretend that did not bore them to tears. Sestia had been to hundreds like these and if you had been to one you had been to them all.

She wondered if it was this horrifically emerging self-destructive streak she noticed emerging in her but part of her wanted to do something that would be taken notice of. Nothing scandalous at least, well, not necessarily so. But something that would be talked about and probably grow in the telling. Then, within days, everyone would be talking about the party of Sestia Vaticana and either wishing they had been there or else lied about having attended. With a stroke she would them be catapulted into the center of social life in the capital. Her porter would be rushed off his feet answering the door to messengers carrying invitations to all sorts of events. People would give her presents and bribes just to get an invite. She could see it all now, played out in full color in her mind's eye.

She was brought back down to earth with a jolt when she realized that she didn't actually know how to achieve that. It was like she had Step One and Step Three sorted, she was just missing the all important Step Two.

She would need something different. Music and dancers were a given. She could have her steward go about and scour the city for suitable musicians. There were plenty of troupes who offered their services as exotic dancers. Gladiators. What about gladiators. A private bout was fine. It would cost a bit of money and the city authorities might not be too pleased, but she was not hosting munera, so it should be fine to contract for a private showing with a lanista?

"I know what I should host but I don't think that is what I want to host. I want something different. Or, at least, something that will be talked about. In a good way!" she hastily added.

@Sara

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Horatia smiled lightly, her bright blue eyes dancing with mirth. She knew the temptation to break free from their very specific, designated roles as high-born Patrician women but she had never even considered the notion seriously for more than a moment or two. What if it went wrong? What if her family were embarrassed? What if gossip spread? She supposed that helping with this sort of venture might be an ideal time to experiment. If went poorly and people queried her involvement she could always brush it aside with a little laugh and a 'oh I didn't really do anything, just seating charts and the like'. It wasn't meant to throw her friend - or acquaintance more aptly - under the bus, but she would never have had the strength of character to be irreverent with things like this.

She leant forward and rested her jaw in her palm as she mused. There were so many options!

After a little while she turned her eyes back up to Sestia and smiled, "A play perhaps? Music and poetry is a little over done..." Just a little she thought to herself, amused, if she heard the same verse read out again she might scream. "Or something that pays homage to Carthage? You're so recently returned..." She narrowed her eyes as the thought crystallised; "You mentioned to Titus about the elephants, not that - as large as your domus is - I suspect they'd fit in here," She grinned, "But a small one, perhaps?" Horatia had never seen an elephant, "Or any other exotics you could have dotted around the place?" She sighed, perhaps it wasn't a good idea after all. "Failing that - gladiators always interest our senatorial friends." Even if she had no stomach for it herself.

 

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Sestia giggled. Bless her, she forgot sometimes that not everyone had the same experience of Africa as she did. The idea of a small elephant amused her. Even the young elephant calves were about the size of a small horse. The idea of a dog sized one tearing about the place and being petted made her giggle again. "We might struggle with an elephant but I like the idea - a homage to Carthage is exotic enough to be different. Besides, it can always be dressed up in the appropriate Roman ways as a celebration of our historic conquest of the ancient enemy."

Just because an elephant might not fit did not prevent the use of other, smaller African animals and birds as ornamentation. She would send her steward to the Saepta where there would surely be some dealer of exotic species who could lease some out as a temporary menagerie.

Music and poetry were, as Horatia had said, simply done to death. The former was expected as standard and she would, of course, source the appropriate stuff but she could not rely on it alone. A play, however, was a novel idea. Usually she stayed away from public theatre as it drew the wilder elements of society considering as most of the stuff churned out by the modern, crowd-pleasing authors, was basically soft pornography. The theatres rarely put on the more refined and erudite old Roman and Grecian plays because they didn't draw the crowds. The idea of bringing a troupe in to perform something was certainly a novel idea. She would have to make sure it was something appropriate though. She would be mortified if they were to perform something hugely irreverent in her own domus!

"I love the idea!" she said and clapped her hands in delight. "I confess I haven't been to the theatre in Rome for such a long time because...well...you know...more often than not it is scarcely appropriate for a grown woman and certainly not for boys my sons' age. But that's just what they put on for the mob. There's plenty of more appropriate pieces for an occasion like this. I will have to find a troupe and discuss some ideas with them."

Another job for her steward because she would not be seen dead haggling with some director of a bunch of nefas low lives.

There was plenty of food for thought there. "Now, Horatia, please don't think that I'm going to let you get away without giving me some gossip! I know it might not be your thing but I will be honest and say I've missed all the scurrilous tittle-tattle! I enjoy laughing at how ridiculous it is!"

@Sara

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Horatia smiled, genuinely delighted that her ideas had been taken on board - and that she'd not be subject to another dry evening of poetry and sombre music. "Good, I'm sure it'll be a hit. And if it isn't," She laughed a little and sipped her wine, "Then you can blame it on the actors and say you were tricked out of your gold and swindled by some lowlifes." She chuckled. If Sestia pulled it off; the menagerie and the play, then she'd be the talk of gossip and weaving circles for weeks. She felt a pang of something that Horatia knew she'd never have the guts to pull off something so divisive; she played her life very safe, very controlled. It meant she was well respected as an ideal matron, but she had no doubt that some considered her dull or austere. 

She chuckled and dipped her head at Sestia's question, rolling her eyes but in good humour. "You know I don't go in for all of that." She arched a brow up at her friend, although she supposed Sestia wouldn't know, it wasn't as if they'd seen each other frequently for years. But despite the fact that she rigorously exercised self-control and didn't, herself, contribute to gossip by way of sharing what rumours she'd heard - she still heard a lot. She hosted a weaving group with some other senatorial women once a week at the domus, despite the fact it was not her favourite pastime, and picked up all sorts of tit-bits. 

Sipping her wine she sighed and tucked a strand of bright auburn hair behind her ear, "It's the usual really," She said - being careful with her words. She wouldn't give Sestia names, it wasn't her place to share such malicious gossip and implicate people, but she knew that the way to forge female friendships was with this sort of thing and so reluctantly gave in; "Women cuckolding their husbands with their handsome new slaves, and one apparently who is currently away in the country  giving birth to one with quite the different skin tone to both herself and her husband, but suspiciously similar to her Nubian litter bearer..." Horatia chuckled, "And another who is apparently so..." She tried to find the word, "High? On that grass that they make in Dacia that she just wanders round in a daze most of the time..." She shook her head, "Oh, and I was told that a particular widow was caught having an affair with some equite in the Suburra, if you can believe it!" Horatia was referring to a silly Fulvia Verecunda - girl - widowed at twenty three who was caught coming out of a brothel with her lover. She wasn't to know that that bit of gossip might hit a touch close to home for Sestia.

 

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"Oh, Horatia, you are too good! You make the rest of us look so bad by reveling in that sort of thing!"

It was a product of her previously far-too secluded life that Sestia had developed a mutual loathing and love of gossip. When you had very little to do it became a subject of endless fascination hearing about the more wild lives of others. It also gave you a sense of self-righteousness whilst, at the same time, sometimes leaving you with an oddly out of place feeling that you were perhaps missing out. Some women positively loved being the subject of public talk. The old adage went that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about. For all her high flying theories about living a life less restrained by tradition and obligation, she wondered if she could actually follow through on that and, if the need ever came, whether she would be strong enough to go around with her head held high in the face of whispers and giggles.

She felt mildly chastened by Horatia but, nevertheless, she still listened to what the far-better woman passed on. In her company she wanted to try and act a little more restrained so she was not thought to be ditsy but couldn't restrain herself from a clap and a gasp at the first two stories. "Gods, that is scandalous," she giggled. The matter of fact way that Horatia had said it too - as if each word was an effort to bring herself to say - just made it all the funnier.

Then, suddenly, the joking stopped.

Sestia felt her blood run cold and she had to set her cup down in case she let it slip. She tried to give no visible sign that she had been struck. She must surely be referring to her. She knew. Somehow she knew. Her heart was racing but not in the good way. She felt a knot in her stomach. Sick. She felt sick. Somehow she knew. If she knew then who else did? Was she teasing her? How did she know?

"W-who was that?" she asked tentatively.

@Sara

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Horatia had always had an eye for detail. She spent hours on her own appearance; fastidiously picking the right veil, the perfect stola, maintaining her figure even after two children. She was careful and composed in every word she said; picking up on all the non-verbal cues her friends and acquaintances let slip so she could offer the perfect conversation. She saw people, deeper than most. It was such perceptibility that made her an excellent asset for her husband and had she been born a man, she had no doubt she would have made an excellent politician. As it was, with the confines of her sex, she had to channel her hawkeye to the more mundane matters of female gossip, and unfortunately for Sestia, it had landed squarely at her door. 

The light stuttering, the eyes that opened a fraction wider than they should, the complete lack of humour even if moments ago she had been revelling of the gossip of other tales, the way she set down her cup...Horatia saw all. "Some young girl, Fulvia something." Horatia said matter of factly. She knew her second name but didn't wish to add to the train of gossip already started and so kept that bit just for herself. 

She glanced around and saw a slave hovering with a tray a little way off, but for all intents and purposes they were alone in Sestia's domus. Alone enough for a serious conversation. She had a creative mind, as well as an astute one, but she would not entertain thoughts of what could produce Sestia's almost imperceivable reaction until it was confirmed by the woman herself. "You know you can trust me." She said lightly and sipped her own wine, her steely blue eyes focused on her friends face, "I know it might have been years since we were girls and friends, but I can assure you I don't partake in mindless gossip, nor do I betray the trust of my friends or acquaintances." She sipped her wine again and then set down the half-full cup on the small table. "You've been meeting somebody in the Suburra?" Better out with it. If Sestia acted horrified, she could always apologise, but she didn't doubt that unless pushed, Horatia would ever hear the truth.

 

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Sestia said nothing. Although it turned out that it was about some other woman, it seemed that he reaction had betrayed her. There was no solace in the realization that she was clearly not alone in her actions.

It was not that she did not think she could trust Horatia. Or maybe it was? It had been such a long time. No one knew. Well, she assumed that Lucius had kept as much silence as she had but men were different. They talked. They boasted. They got drunk and things slipped out. What exactly could she say? Horatia was the epitome - or at least it seemed this way to Sestia - of appropriate senatorial female behavior. She could hardly divulge to her the shocking truth of what she had been doing and expect there to be no element of judgment whatsoever.

The problem was that, from her earlier reaction and clearly from her hesitancy now, she imagined that Horatia had guessed most of it anyway. If she was so minded she could well go round spreading the gossip without her verification because she felt she had no need of it.

She realized that she was stuck and she was angry at herself that she had come to this pass so soon. If Lucius had kept silent then she would be the one to talk first. How weak of her. She seemed to have given the game away so soon, so readily. She wasn't used to any of this, it was all so new and completely alien to her nature. She did not know what to do and felt so utterly low.

Before she knew it or could stop herself, she realized that she was crying, her shoulders heaving in silent sobs.

@Sara

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The silence that followed her question was deafening and Horatia felt herself tense minutely. She had hoped she'd been wrong, and that Sestia would fluster and get irate and Horatia would apologise and life could resume. She did not dare think, even for a moment, that a woman of Sestia's upbringing and rank - with a family as old as her own - could fall prey to the lust-driven designs of foolish men. 

Then came the tears and Horatia - without a second thought - flicked her wrist at the slave who stood a little gormless and he hastily retreated, leaving them entirely alone. Cautiously she moved on her seat so she was next to her friend and reached out a hand to squeeze Sestia's own firmly, as she did with her daughter when she was upset. "Sestia...Sestia..." She said quietly but firmly, willing the other woman to look at her. 

She reached out with her free hand and pushed hair back from the woman's face, smoothing it behind her ears. "It's done, no tears." She cautioned and ducked her head so she could meet her eyes, "I will not tell a soul." Not even her husband, it was not Aulus' place to know something like this unless it concerned him directly - which she doubted very much that it did. Her tone softened as she stroked the soft skin of Sestia's hand and willed her to meet her eyes, "I swear to you now, you can trust me. Wh...what's happened?" She had her own secrets that she kept; her miscarriage, the obscene amount of contraceptive herbs she took after each evening with her husband, but she didn't doubt that her own mysteries paled in comparison to this. She couldn't deny that she was partly intrigued, but tried to push that and the judgement that was roaring inside her to one side.

A woman needed help, not judgement or probing, and she'd be there for her. 

 

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Once the floodgates had been opened it was proving impossible to stop them. Only now she realized how much mental and spiritual strain and pressure she had been under these past weeks. Not that she regretted it and that was the problem. She knew what she had done was wrong. Wrong from the standpoint of what society dictated she should do. Wrong by the standards of what she would inevitably be judged against. She knew it was wrong. That single word over and over and over. She was a mother. Gods, if this was known then how long before her father would find out? Her actions would offend and damage his dignitas as her paterfamilias. He would take her children from her. He would take her independence from her. He would take Lucius from her. She would be banished, like Augustus' daughter Julia, to some remote estate in the back of beyond to atone for her perceived sin in a lengthy, lonely vigil with no one but slaves for company. Why had she diced with everything she had?

She felt Horatia lay a gentle hand on her shoulder and whisper calm words to her.

Well, the damage was done surely? Her guilt was written a thousand times over in each single tear. She had betrayed her family. She had betrayed herself and she had betrayed Lucius. All in a matter of weeks. Like the Sun's fiery chariot, what they had done had blazed so quickly and now the horses had run amok and the vehicle seemed to be careering out of control and it was all her fault.

"Oh Horatia," she said between sobs, "I've been so stupid and now I'll lose everything."

@Sara

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"Shhh, shhh." Horatia said softly, gently rubbing her fingers over Sestia's shoulder. Oh Gods what had she done? She was trying to keep the judgement from her heart and from her face but for a woman as completely by the book as she was, that was an almost impossible feat. She felt the faintest flickering of anger in her blood. Did Fulvia who had the affair, or Claudia who gave birth to the Nubian child, or Gods above - Sestia - not realise that women like Horatia also, occasionally, yearned for something more than childbearing and weaving? That she thought her intellect wasted on household management and polite conversations at dinner parties? But that was the way the world worked and it took insurmountable strength not to give in. She breathed through her nose, trying to expel the anger that her friend should have fallen into temptation. How easy it was for all of them, she thought, to cave and give into lusts. They had no idea how hard it was to be a proper Roman matron. 

But she wouldn't, couldn't, say that. As much as anger and judgement flared in her veins, she was also a compassionate woman - and a good friend. She could not sit idly by and watch somebody like Sestia fall into depression because of a mistake, a foolishness. No - what she needed was comfort and a plan. And Horatia would give her both. 

Gently, she moved and took her chair so she was facing directly opposite Sestia and moved her hand to the other woman's face, urging her to look up. "Nothing productive comes from tears." She offered a half-smile, "And...whatever it is, nobody knows. You won't lose everything but..." She sighed and withdrew her hand back to Sestia's own to squeeze, "You have to be smart now, and know what you are going to do. You're a grown woman," She squeezed Sestia's hand as if to emphasise her point, "Not some foolish teenager without any ability to change her course. Tell me, what's happened?" She asked, her brow creasing in a frown. Surely it was not as scandalous as Fulvia dallying with some equite upstart or Claudia bedding her litter bearer? Oh Gods above she hoped not, at least. 

 

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Sestia wiped her eyes. The tougher stance of Horatia pulled her back into the moment. She was so naturally inclined to follow dominant orders that it was almost a reflex. Controlling her breathing, she wiped at her eyes again, flushing from the foolishness of her outburst. Horatia was right. She was a grown woman. Not only did that mean she had a requirement to control herself but it also meant that she had a duty to face the consequences of her own actions. She had not been forced to do what she did. She had known, every step of the way, the eventual consequences that might flow from her decision to transgress the proper order of things. Perhaps, once the truth was out, there may be some merit in what people said, that in doing so sometimes a weight is lifted from your shoulders? Better that it should be here and now and at least slightly on her own terms.

But how to phrase it? She may as well be honest.

"I have..."

But how honest? Would Lucius forgive her if she was to be so open? Neither were married so it was not technically adulterous under the savage Augustan laws but she was, nevertheless, a ward of her paterfamilias and, by being licentious and carnal with her, he had offended the man's dignitas and damaged his property for which he could be sued in the courts. Socially, of course, Lucius would hardly be ostracized, for men were expected to be sexually incontinent. The Divine Julius, after all, had made a point  of belittling his political opponents by bedding their wives. Women, however, were far less fortunate. At best, she would have to hope for leniency from her father (ha!) and an expectation of the loss of invitations to all social functions open to polite society. Despite the fact that most of them were probably guilty of the same thing.

She sighed. Say the words, then they will no longer hold such a power.

"I have been sleeping with a senator for several weeks now. Not here. We meet in the Suburra."

@Sara

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Horatia managed to control her features but she could not control the sharp inhale of breath as the words tumbled from Sestia's mouth. Judgement filled her blood and colour rose in her pale cheeks. Gods, what a foolish woman - she'd been back in Rome all of two minutes and already succumbed to the lusty temptations of the Gods only knew who? She glanced down at the floor, admiring the fanciful mosaic fleetingly as she tried to collect herself. When she did glance back up at Sestia she sighed and resumed the soft stroking of the back of her hand.  

"You are a fool." She said, but with absolutely no malice in her tone, only weariness. Sestia needed to hear it - or perhaps she didn't, but Horatia felt inclined to say it regardless. She felt that wave of annoyance wash over her again but tried to set it aside, she needed to be the bigger (and better!) person her. 

Shaking her head she withdrew from her position and moved to sit next to her friend again. "I...presume he's married? Which is why you didn't do it...the proper way?" She felt her stomach lurch for a moment to imagine a married senator in bed with beautiful, vibrant, vivacious Sestia. What woman - what wife - could compare herself to the beautiful Carthaginian? She trusted her husband often more than she trusted herself, but that did not stop the brief images of Sestia's interludes with her husbands face on the body of her secret senator, from entering her mind. She reached out to take a sip of her drink and shook her head, "You have to finish it. For your children, if not for yourself. You see that, don't you?" There was no need to give direct instruction, she had no authority over Sestia to do so after all, but logical questions often fielded similar results in her experience. 

 

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For all her professions of being non-judgmental she knew that Horatia was appalled and was, of course, thoroughly judging her. How could she not? It was a simple and central tenet of the women of their class. You did not so something like this. If you did then you were fair game for being judged by virtue of the severity of your transgression. And, yes, she had been a fool.

Still, part of her did want to snap back but that would be unfair and she was, in any event, the one at fault. It was not as though she would have acted in such a way if her husband had been alive. After all, she had lived with that old man for years. Mostly in rural seclusion. If she had wanted to conduct an affair she would have had ample opportunity. But she hadn't. She had stayed true to her vows and the requirements of her class. Now she was freed from the binds of a husband she should now be judged, should she? For acting like this? The sad answer was "yes."

"His wife is dead. He isn't married." She said. She said it as if that was some form of justification. In her mind it partly was. She would not have done this if Antonia was still alive. She wouldn't have done so not because she didn't want to but because she would not want to be in the position Antonia would have been. The duped wife. Some women would not care being that homewrecker. She did. But Antonia was dead and so was her husband but still that formed no justification in the eyes of society.

Should she break it off? She should. Did she want to? No. Why? Reason screamed that she should. But why! That was what annoyed her. She was hurting no one? Well, no one save a bizarre, fluid and invisible notion of what was "right" and what was "wrong".

She nodded her head. "I know I should," she said quietly.

@Sara

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Horatia ran through the list of names she held in her head. She had always been fastidious in keeping lists of everybody she needed to know, their wives, their children...it made conversations much easier, and always meant that her family was regarded as being particularly kind when she could recall, at the drop of a hat, a wife's birthday or a child's age. She scanned through said list but realised, with irritation, that the list of currently sitting senators who were widowers was quite some length. 

Still, it didn't really matter given the subject and she frowned a little, shaking her head; "And why not court officially? Marry?" She recognised the quietness in Sestia's voice as one of sadness and sighed, feeling her temper calm a little. Some women were just easily led astray, she supposed. "If you don't wish to end it then there could be another way?" She offered a half smile and squeezed Sestia's hand. "He must be some man to make you feel like this, could you not approach your father and discuss a wedding?" Carefully omitting the fact that they had moved far beyond that already given their frequent trips to the Suburra. 

 

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"I mean...well...maybe...I don't think I have really thought about it like that. No because I wouldn't consider it but...but he has a daughter, and a mother who seems to rule the roost. I think he doesn't want to upset them?"

The idea of asking her father seemed ludicrous. Not that her father wouldn't be happy for her to re-marry. No, he would probably be cock-a-hoop. As a widow, she would not have to be provided with a dowry. She would move off the Sestius Vaticanus balance sheet and end up on her new husband's. The problem was control. Her father liked to feel in control. He was not a beast - although she made him sound like one - he would not be intentionally cruel (unless he had been drinking). Nevertheless, she could imagine how the conversation might go if she were to suggest she would like to marry someone. Automatically his back would be put up. It was no as though Lucius was a bad match. Hardly. One of the noblest and oldest families in Rome. Slight problem with the name but that was academic. He was a soldier like her father. He stood to have a long and successful career yet. He was not a fortune hunter. What was the problem?

Well, for a start, she didn't know whether Lucius actually wanted to "remedy" matters. Would he really care if things went sour? He was so loving but she didn't know whether he was in love. She could hardly ask him to marry her. That would be both presumptuous and demeaning. What if he said no?

"I don't know what my father would say. It is not as if he could say Lucius was not a good match but..."

@Sara

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"How could anybody be upset by the thought of marrying you?" She offered as a comfort. Sestia was a singular woman, that much was very clear, and a very different woman to herself but one that she had no doubt men fascinated over. She had that rare mix of natural charisma, beauty and wits which she was sure would drive most men to turn their heads in her direction. She tried not to feel the flame of jealousy wash over her. 

The name, however, stuck out. She was sure Sestia didn't mean to say it but Horatia caught onto it with fervour. She ran back through her mental lists, crossing out those Senatore who were widowed but with male children; Lucius Metellus and Macer were out and she frowned as she came to the dawning realisation of who it might be. "Lucius? Cassius Longinus?" Ah. That was unexpected. She knew he was a close friend of Aulus' and had always been unfailingly polite on the occasions they saw one another, although Horatia had always privately harboured the view he was a little to...irreverent and energetic for a proper, Roman senator. But he was nice. That he would willingly damage Sestia's reputation like this was a shock and she regretted her earlier promise that she would tell nobody about this; Aulus would be fascinated, but she reminded herself that it was not her place. 

"He's..." What? "An excellent match, surely if you approached your father he would agree? And from what I gather Longinus isn't a man to leave people in the dust in his wake. Even if he's caused said dust." She stopped stroking Sestia's hand and sighed, giving it a final squeeze before she withdrew it and took up her wine cup. "He surely likes you? Why else would he..." She coughed with a small smile, a blush on her cheeks, "Do...this?"

 

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Sestia did not say anything. Horatia was a clever and well connected woman. It was not too difficult for her to work out the culprit from those factoids that she had mistakenly dropped. She was heartened to hear how she had described him. It was only her insecurities that spoke to her in this way. Making her think that he may repudiate her. There was quite a big issue too. One she had only the smallest hint of and had shoved that thought - that fear away - hoping that if she might ignore it, it may only prove to be an illusion that would dissolve itself.

"I hope he would. I should like to. I...I...I love him but..."

Would she say it? No. Not yet.

"My father is a very controlling man. He would not like it if he did not think the idea was his own. He could not fault a man like Lucius, though. He is in many ways of higher social standing than father. But..."

Say it. You have said this much. You have to say it because even you can't deny that it is not there. There is something else. There is the real danger. The complication. You may as well say it. The damage has been done.

"Th-th-there is another reason why."

@Sara

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Oh Sestia. Horatia thought to herself sadly, but with some reproach. In her experience, and her view, love did not happen overnight - nor in a few encounters in the Suburra. It was easily confused with lust in that regard. No, love was something that grew between people. She had not loved her husband when she had married him; she had liked him, of course, otherwise she would not have consented, but she remembered vividly feeling that warm rush of love some ten months later when he held her newborn son for the first time. Seeing that had stirred something. Love, equally, required regular maintenance. After Aulus' return it had been work to build it back up. In that respect, she didn't think Sestia could truly be in love, but perhaps she was just a pessimist? 

Her curiosity was piqued though and any rational comment about Sestia's father; about urging Lucius to write to him and propose a suit was wasted as her intrigue got the better of her. "What else could there be?" She broached, carefully. Surely it was not what she feared? She glanced down furtively to Sestia's slim waist. Surely not? She kicked herself for not giving the supplier of her silphium to every woman in Rome. 

 

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"I'm pregnant," she said in barely above a whisper.

It wasn't confirmed but she knew that she was. She was late. Besides, she knew the feeling. She had already had two children. The signs were there. It was not as if this was somehow unexpected in the context of the circumstances but it was hardly as if it was something that either of them had planned. Not that either had taken any precaution against it.

A person practiced in this sort of affair would have. Yes, so she had been a fool in that regard. But what sort of woman of her class knew these sorts of things, Sestia thought. Was she supposed to have a list of druggists or abortionists who you would go to regularly? She was revolted by the thought. It was something, she had always reckoned, that was the topic only needed to be known by courtesans. And yet here she was. Pride, it is said, comes before a fall.

She hadn't told Lucius. She hadn't told anyone. If Brysias knew, she was for once in her life practicing the virtue of silence. She had no idea how Lucius would react. She did know, however, how society would act if she did not take some action. She could not let herself go around visibly pregnant in her situation. That would be game over. Should she try and...end it? Could she even bring herself to do so? No. The thought almost had her break down in tears again. She couldn't do that to herself or her unborn child. Why should it suffer for her weakness?

She could disappear. Go off to the country. Leave for months. Return to Rome, caring for the "orphan" or some cousin no one had ever heard of. It would be the only way. How would Lucius react to finding this out? For all his words she was sure he would walk. He would feel entrapped. The joke was it was she who was trapped and she had fashioned the prison from her own foolishness.

@Sara

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