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Everything Comes in Pieces


Echo
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February, 74CE

Aglaea shivered as she pulled her shawl closer about her. It was wintertime in Rome, and a chill had stolen through the house despite the efforts of the house slaves to stave it off. But there was not only a physical chill, but one that had seeped into the hearts of those newest to the Varus household, particularly Aglaea. Only a day or two after the marriage of Livia Justina and Secundus Quinctilius Varus, the latter had presented a proposition to Aglaea: lay with him in the place of her mistress, lessen her burden by bearing her master's child. And this was the source of the chill that had entered the slave's heart. 

She had recently found a new faith, Christianity, but the texts of Judaism had given her trouble about the moral questions of the situation. How could she possibly take Secundus to bed and sleep well at night, with him being a married man? And, moreover, the husband of her own mistress. Though she supposed that the act of adultery was a sin reserved for those of a higher social standing - perhaps it didn't quite apply to slaves, and that was one hope she held onto. And if not, she prayed every night for forgiveness of her sins, should her acts prove to be such. 

Secundus had asked for her sparingly, at least, she had to give him that. Only a few rendezvouses, every other month or so. But every time she was sent for, she felt a chunk of ice fall into her stomach. Besides her moral questions, Aglaea had been skimming a little off the top of Livia's silphium every month when she was asked to retrieve it from the apothecary. She really hadn't been educated about how much to take, so she could only hope that she'd taken enough to delay the inevitable result of her meetings with her master. 

Tonight was one of those meetings, it seemed. After seeing her mistress safely tucked to bed, she'd been preparing to retire herself, when a young house slave had come to her with a message. She was to meet Secundus in the tablinum, that place where she had agreed to carry Livia's burden, after midnight when the rest of the house had drifted off and they wouldn't be noticed. Now she shivered against the cold that came both from within and without as she entered the tablinum and dipped her head to the man waiting there. "Good evening, dominus. You sent for me."

Title inspired by this song

@Járnviðr

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Secundus's temper flared brightly in the winter months, as though he needed it to keep warm. If his slaves would only do their jobs, if his wife would only touch him, if he could move with the spryness of a youth again...there were many things to be angry about, lately. Livia did not behave as though she were dominus. She grieved like a child, keening and moaning rather than fulfilling her duties. When his brother had died, Secundus had not grieved. There was no time for indulging feelings. Livia had been indulged too long by her previous husband, he thought darkly.

Aglaea had been distant as well. It was natural for a body slave to cling to her mistress. More concerning was that the light he had seen in her on that long, sleepless night was fading quickly. Was the idea of bearing his child that disgusting? She seemed so lost, these days. He had thought that the suggestion brilliant, at the time, but as their conversation receded into the past, Secundus questioned his own judgment. Bedding a slave was one thing; this was something else. He had never quite forgiven Tertius his mistakes in this arena, yet now he was considering the same. Still. He needed a child, and taking a beautiful woman to bed was no great difficulty. Secundus put his doubts out of his mind.

However, as the months went on, his faith in the project dimmed. Surely, he was more potent than this? Secundus nearly considered asking Tertius for advice on the matter. He continued to ask for her. Secundus could not miss the opportunity to have a child before he grew too old to sire one. He continued to leave Livia to her grief. As long as he had Aglaea, he would not need to ask too much of her. It was a strange balance they had struck, but he hoped his wife would use her borrowed time to recover well.

On this night, Secundus felt his bones complaining of the strain the cold winds placed on them. Secundus barked at one of his slaves to call for Aglaea, and awaited her impatiently, his eyes closed, as he poured wine for them both. The other slaves would attend to Livia, keeping her incurious and well-occupied during her latest bout of tears. He opened his eyes at her words.

"Good evening, Aglaea. Sit, please, and rest your feet. I am sure my wife has kept you busy."

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Aglaea hovered indecisively in the doorway to the tablinum. Every meeting followed the same general formula, and the first parts were always the most awkward. She could almost handle this arrangement better if Secundus simply slipped into her room, did his business, and left. But he seemed to want to connect with her beforehand and that made everything much more disconcerting. Also adding to the tension that had fallen about her shoulders was Secundus's bouts of rage that occurred now more frequently. Aglaea herself was certainly better suited to warmer weather, but her temper didn't flare like his, nor did anyone else's. She had to wonder if his enhanced anger in the cold had to do with the vague stories she'd picked up from the house slaves. Something about Germania...

The Judaean couldn't keep her master waiting, though, so she decided it was best to just get it over with, starting with Secundus's 'courtship' of sorts. She finally entered the room at his beckoning and sat on the edge of a day bed, accepting the cup of wine that he had poured but not drinking, grasping it in her hands with white knuckles. Secundus suggested that Livia had kept her busy and she gave a ghost of a smile. "Yes, well... I suppose she is not unlike any other noble Roman woman in that regard. Domina, along with most Roman women, take a lot of upkeep." Aglaea had no such luxury, though she was afforded the right to wear finer clothes than the house slaves, as well as a precious few pieces of jewelry she reserved for special occasions. 

She gazed around the tablinum for a few moments in silence, unsure of what was expected of her. She wondered if light conversation would only delay the true purpose of this meeting, but if he wanted conversation, she could provide it. "We haven't spoken in some time, dominus. How have you been keeping? This cold weather settles in the bones." 

@Járnviðr

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Secundus watched her intently. She seemed uncomfortable, more than he would have expected. Perhaps the rooms were too cold for her tastes. She seemed hesitant to speak ill of her mistress, so Secundus let the matter lie. Livia was likely trying to poison her slave against him. He imagined that she felt somewhat possessive of her. He might have, had he any slaves worth protecting. Next time, he would have to inform her well in advance, so that she could urge Livia to bed more urgently. The time they had together was so limited. He wanted her to feel safe with him.

"Does it grow tiresome? Service? I would have talked back and been beaten within an inch of my life on the first day."

He asked with a casual air. He wasn't sure what he wanted to hear. Honesty? Surely none could be truly happy as a slave. He had been desperately unhappy during his years in Germania. But perhaps there was more to it. Secundus had seen the close bond between Livia and Aglaea. He envied them their intimacy. He only felt that when he sought out the right sort of person- a barber, a whore, or someone similarly capable of attending to his needs and his needs alone, for the right price. Without allowing her to overcome her shock to answer, Secundus continued:

"The cold does not belong in Rome, and we will soon fight it back past our immortal hills. The cold will return each year, long after death claims us, but the Romans will never stop fighting through to the next year. I have been keeping as well as can be expected."

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Aglaea felt his eyes and knew why he was watching her. It was obvious to anyone that she was uncomfortable - it wasn’t exactly a situation that inspired comfort. Going behind  the back fo the woman she had served for years, bearing a child that should have been hers. It was too much to be stood with comfort, so he would have to acclimate himself to that or find some other woman to impregnate. 
 

She gaped at him openly as he asked his question. Why should a slave owner care about the slave’s tiredness? It was beneath him, to ask such a thing or even to wonder about it. Even Livia, dear to Aglaea though she was, hardly noticed the way she fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, or noticed the aching feet from standing all day. A slaves exhaustion only became a problem worth noticing when she collapsed. But he didn’t give her a chance to respond before moving on. 

 

He said that he was keeping well, after speaking poetically about the cold. Aglaea could appreciate poetry - she was educated, after all. But why be poetic when there was business to attend to? She finally took a sip of the spiced wine and felt a measure of calm. But she had started to wonder something, at her earlier thought about Secundus choosing someone else. Why had it been her? She gazed at him for a moment, feeling suddenly bold. “Why did you choose me, dominus?” Was it proximity on the night in question? Or to get back at Livia for her emotional state? She wondered. 

 

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Secundus looked into his cup. Why had he chosen her? To punish Livia? Or to spare her? He wondered what his wife would think if she found it; better her body slave than someone else, or the worst betrayal of their marriage? She had surely accepted that he might visit the women of Domus Venus. This, though, was different. He'd always believed that the worst kind of men bedded their slaves. So now that he was joining their ranks...he wanted a child. He wanted a child, and Aglaea had been extremely convenient. Her proximity meant that he could maintain some discretion. A slaveborn child was not worse than no child, no heir to his family name. Secundus had chosen Aglaea because he was running out of time. He could not wait for Livia.

There had been some desire to punish Livia. She had not been performing her duties. A wife's job was to offer solace, and instead, she trudged through a grief that he did not understand and could not free her from. Secundus was left alone with his thoughts in the empty villa; he had demanded that she come stay with him to prevent infidelity, but he found that her fidelity lacked many necessary components. She had not strayed, he believed, due to lack of opportunity. Livia might take any man who could make her feel anything besides sadness- and he was no such man. For that reason, too, had he selected Aglaea. Livia should see how easily a slave could fill her role.

"Because you are hers, and because I need a child. Are you doubting the wisdom of my decision?"

@Echo

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It was funny, in a way; just before they had learned that Livia was to be married to Secundus, Aglaea had been feeling the urge to find someone to love and cherish, unlike the casual relationships she'd had sparingly in the past. She wanted someone she could take care of and provide for, even in her limited freedom as a slave. And had Livia married someone more open to other people's suggestions, she might have pursued it again. But now she had a greater responsibility, one that had been thrust upon her without her really getting a chance to say 'no.' She now felt that there was no way she could become close with another man with Secundus's shadow over her at all times. He certainly wouldn't let her, either. She felt a brief bout of grief for what might have been. 

Secundus challenged her, asking whether she was doubting him and she cast her eyes down again, suddenly afraid of his wrath again and cursing her own boldness. How else could he have interpreted that question, other than doubting him? "No, dominus. Of course not." But she was doubting him - of course she was. It was a cruel stroke of fate that she and Livia were so close, as it seemed to be the very reason she had been chosen for this task. She took a healthy drink of wine, hoping to settle her nerves and numb her senses to make everything more manageable. 

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Secundus leaned back, closing his eyes. He breathed in and out, just feeling the warmth of the wine. This decision had been meant to simplify matters, yet everything seemed more complicated. He wondered if this was how his brother had made so many mistakes, or if he operated only on impulse and passion. Secundus had chosen this in order to alleviate the pressure he had placed on Livia. The woman needed a softer touch, for now. His attempts at speaking with her had all ended in hurled invective. He simply could not understand how to control her, and it caused endless, unneeded conflict. So he had removed the pressure of children, and in return, he had the company of someone who respected him more than his wife did. Or so he had thought. Aglaea was doubting him, as though the two of them were equals.

"I should clarify our arrangement. I realize I may have erred in explaining to you what I need. I need a slave who will keep me company, and who will assist my wife and I in producing a child. I do not seek only a night's entertainment, or I would not need to seek it at home. What I need from you, Aglaea, is your voice. Domina listens to you, for whatever reason her grief-addled mind has produced. I need a child. If she is unwilling, then your role as a part of this household is to convince her. My orders fall on deaf ears, and she cowers from me. You are her bosom companion. If she is unwilling, in her grief, only then do I have need of you as a mother. The nature of our arrangement depends on whether Livia is ready to provide me a child, and asking her such questions only leads to strife. Do you understand?"

It was more than he had ever said to a slave in his life. Secundus ignored the strange feeling of subversion. He continued to ask her what she thought and what she felt, which he knew his parents would never have asked a slave. However, there was nothing wrong with that, he reasoned. As her master, he had every right to be as open and honest about his intentions as he wished. He was not asking for her input, or her advice. He was asking for her to use her unique position to his advantage, and so she needed that information.

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Aglaea watched the man intently as he spoke, absorbing every word. She had, perhaps, misunderstood his intentions in some ways. She had assumed that he was not willing to try with Livia and so had chosen to try with Aglaea instead, who had less of a voice and a choice in the matter. If his intention was, instead, to coerce Aglaea into becoming his puppet, he was mistaken about the depths of her loyalty. Of course, she would rather the woman take responsibility for producing Secundus an heir, but the nature of her loyalty prevented her from forcing her to do anything that caused her harm. In addition, Livia was her own creature, and though the two women were close, the slave had never been very successful in coercing her into doing things she didn't want to, despite her efforts in less serious matters. 

The Judaean would take on what she had to in order to make her mistress's suffering less severe. If that meant laying with her husband under the cover of night with no one else the wiser, then so be it. But Secundus had to understand Aglaea as well, and since she had interpreted the way he was speaking to her to be almost like an equal, she decided to meet him in turn, consequences be damned. He couldn't hurt her, after all; she was too valuable because of her usefulness. 

"Dominus... I cannot make my mistress do what she does not want to or cannot do. She is grieving for her first husband, and she is an emotional woman. I cannot say when her grief will lessen, if it ever will. Please forgive me, but I will not allow her to take on something that she cannot handle." She gazed at him, her voice steady and sure. "If that means that our... arrangement must continue, then I will accept that. I cannot accept my mistress becoming too overwhelmed that she does something rash." Aglaea wasn't sure if Livia would be foolish enough to take her own life over something like this, but she felt it might drive her point home.

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Secundus glowered as he listened to her words. The very idea that his wife would never perform her duties- what was the point of marrying, if not to lie with him and produce children? He stood, leaving his glass. He paced around the room, arms crossed. Livia was too melancholy, but Aglaea was clearly too spirited. If only he could have one women with both of their virtues, he might have been able to get somewhere, but instead, he had a slave who might have been willing if not for his wife, who would perhaps never touch him at all.

You are forgiven, if it is forgiveness that you seek. If my wife will not treat our marriage with the respect that it deserves, then I must ask that you serve in her place. You understand that I am not a young man, and yet I remain childless. Our arrangement must continue, if you wish to protect your mistress in this way. Are you quite certain you could not convince her?

After all, he couldn’t be certain that it would even be the same, with his slave. Secundus had never slept with a slave before, and starting now left him at a disadvantage. His morbid sense of humor prompted him to ask Tertius for suggestions, but his paranoia prevented him from indulging such a childish urge. It would only have the benefit of scandalizing Tertius, but the cost to his reputation would be great. That was true of every detail of this arrangement. And yet. He still wanted a child, and he did not trust in his own body to keep him alive long enough to wait for Livia; it had betrayed him in Germania, and he could not rely on it for anything of this importance.

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Aglaea noticed his glower as she spoke but she continued until she was finished. She couldn't continue with the arrangement without letting him understand her mind, at least this part of it. Aglaea was not the simplest person - she had a mind of her own and enjoyed many things that upperclass women also enjoyed, owing to her education by her first mistress. She even had a mannish enjoyment of books and philosophy. And she was not at all open about her newfound faith, lest she be punished or even killed for those beliefs. But Secundus was attempting to have a child with her, and it was important that he knew what she thought about the situation. She wondered exactly how much he knew about Livia's life before he married her. 

He responded once she was finished, giving her forgiveness and saying that since Livia was not willing, she would have to serve in this role. Then he asked whether she was certain Livia could not be convinced. She answered slowly, trying to convey that she was serious about her answer. "Livia was... very close to her last husband. I have never seen her through such a situation before, as it has never happened before. But I don't think she will grieve forever, at least in the way that she is now." She knew Livia would never forget her last husband. She had truly loved him. But she hoped that these words would allow her master some respite - it was a difficult situation all around, not least of all for the man of the household. 

"Dominus... are you aware that domina lost a child before she was wedded to you?" She gazed at him momentarily before continuing. "I suspect that this is why she does not feel safe in being with you in that way. Childbirth is difficult and dangerous, and women become attached to the children they carry in their wombs." She had seen slave women give birth to deathly still children, keening as she had never heard another before. "She may need more time yet, before she is ready to move on from these losses." Now, she fixed him with her steady, calm gaze. "I understand that our arrangement must continue. I am ready to serve you."

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Secundus listened dourly as Aglaea communicated her speculation. Hearing that there was some hope was somewhat comforting. If he had one child by Aglaea, there still might be time later when Livia was more recovered. Still, it was true that an unfamiliar kind of grief would challenge the woman differently;  Secundus had never lost a wife, and so he did not know how it must be to live with it. Perhaps he needed to be more patient. He could move slowly, biding his time. One day, Livia would be ready once more to live as a man's wife, and not just a ghost.

Or so he had hoped. Secundus's heart sank as Aglaea confided in him the dark truth. He had been married off to a widow who had already lost a child. That would explain why her father had pushed for the marriage so strenuously. Pieces of his wife had already been taken by this dead husband and infant, and he would never be able to claim them as his own. How could he have accepted this without thinking to ask more about her past? He had simply been grateful that his difficulty finding a bride had been so easily resolved. Now, he was trapped in a marriage to a wife who could never bed him long enough to produce children.

"I am not a patient man," he admitted. "I married to ensure that I might soon have an heir. It was not out of love for Livia. She is a beautiful woman, but beauty matters less than children. If I had known- I cannot wait for her. I ask that you not tell your mistress of our arrangement. She takes everything I do as a slight against her."

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Aglaea dimly realized she might have given Secundus the wrong impression. Livia had lost a child, certainly, but it was because Gnaeus had died, shocking her into an early labor. Aglaea could tell that Secundus cared very deeply about his progeny and about his lineage carrying on after him. If he knew the circumstances of Livia's stillbirth, he might be more understanding. "I do not mean to give you the wrong impression, dominus. Her child was not lost because of any fault of her own body. The shock of her husband's death caused it." Aglaea's heart wrenched as she thought of those terrible days, and surprised even herself by feeling tears prick at the corners of her eyes. Gnaeus's death had been like losing a brother, and Livia's baby's death was like losing her own daughter. 

"I believe that if she were to conceive, a calm environment would ensure a healthy delivery. Once she comes around." Aglaea's life mission was, after all, to give Livia as much peace as she could. It was the motivation behind every action she took in this shadowy household. As her master spoke, she frowned slightly. If she were, by some misfortune, to fall pregnant, she wasn't sure that she could hide it from Livia for very long, excepting actions such as binding her growing belly with cloth and hoping Livia would think she was only gaining weight. She wouldn't speak of their arrangement to her mistress, though; not unless it bore fruit. 

After a moment's pause, Aglaea stood, wrapping herself once more with the shawl and approaching her master slowly. "You say you are not a patient man. If it will give you peace, no word of this conversation will pass Livia's ears. And if you are ready to go to bed, there is no need to be patient anymore tonight." She placed a comforting hand on his arm, looking up at him due to their height difference. 

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Secundus turned away. He heard Aglaea defend her mistress, yes, but he also heard that her grief was greater still than he had imagined. He had married someone who could perhaps never give him what he needed, and there was nothing he could do now to change that. Aglaea promised him that it might change one day- and she knew Livia better than he knew her, a fact which stung deeply. He was the master of the house. He should have every right to know his wife, to lie with her, and to sire her children. Instead, her miasma of despair held his rights and responsibilities as paterfamilias hostage. Livia had lost daughter and husband, and now he could have neither son nor wife.

A calm environment. A calm environment. Because even the newest slave in the household could see how unstable he was. Secundus knew that his temper rested on the shakiest of foundations, triggering from the lightest touch. This awareness did nothing to tame it. At Aglaea's words, his anger rose. He had done everything within his power to make his wife comfortable. That included this repugnant, ill-considered plan to bed a slave and use her to bear his heirs. What had he been thinking? Yet, what else could he do? The choice between forcing himself upon his wife and sleeping with her slave was ultimately a simple one. He would not resort to taking from Livia something which should be able to give him willingly. What man would do that? He would seek out whores, and rely on Aglaea for producing children in the case that Livia did not come to her senses before senescence came upon him.

Secundus turned to face her again as she stood. He heard her words, and gazed into her eyes. In the moment that she touched his arm, he felt a lurching sensation as his anger surged, along with a desperate fear, one he had not felt since Germania. Everything in him screamed out to hit her, to remove the threat. She was not the master here. He was.

"No more patience," he growled, and took her to bed.

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