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Secundus narrowed his eyes. By her tone, he knew that Livia must be hinting at something. It was just like her to play coy, one of the many ways her barbs were used against him. There was nothing about Aglaea that her mistress did not already know, except- he smiled, breaking eye contact. Of course. There was only one thing that he knew about his slave that Livia did not. He looked at Aglaea, disapproval plain on his face. For her to betray his confidence in this way was to dishonor his family name. They should have been allies in this, against Livia's protestations of innocence. He looked back at his wife.

"Why repeat the words of your slave, who has spoken so clearly on the subject? I can see that you have already decided to stubbornly dig in your heels, and pretend virtue. You are no paragon, Livia, for refusing to provide me a child of your own. Surely you see the wisdom in this? A solution to satisfy all parties involved. You, myself, and your father."

Secundus spat the words out like the venom that they were, rising with bile in his throat. He hated this household. He hated the slaves that could play neither sycophant nor ally, the wife who wished for his death, and he hated perhaps most of all the weight of his parents' legacy, dishonored every day by his failures. If only he could bring Livia to heel, he might stand some chance of salvaging his reputation. If only she would take her slave's child as her own- it would not be difficult, if they simply returned to Tibur, he thought, mind already racing ahead.

@Liv @Echo

 

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Aglaea followed her mistress into the room where Secundus sat, her chin level with the ground for once. The conversation she had just gone through with Livia had changed her somehow, made her see that Secundus was someone she should not respect. She had decided that for once, while they were alone in this room, discussing terms, she would speak to him as though she were his equal. 

Livia began the conversation, asking if her husband had anything to tell her about Aglaea and himself. The Judean had been hoping for a rush of grim pride upon seeing him cower, but the man rose to the occasion, keeping his cool and saying that it was obvious that the slave had already wagged her tongue. As he fixed her with an expression of disappointment, she met his eyes with a cool expression. "You have cause to celebrate, Secundus," she said, her voice matching her expression. "You have a child on the way."

Her eyes narrowed as she thought back on all the times she'd come to his bed, her stomach lurching in anger. "And don't think I didn't try to prevent this. No child deserves you as a father."

@Liv @Járnviðr

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Secundus blinked. A child on the way…? Surely- his eyes flitted down to the slave’s belly, but of course there were no signs yet. He looked back up at her face, his expression momentarily parting to reveal his hopeful joy at the possibility of children- and the dark, sullen look that overtook it as he understood the meaning of her words, and saw her own expression. She had tried to- of course she had, he thought bitterly. She hated him as much as her mistress did. Of course she would try to deprive him of a legacy.

So you and my wife,” he spat out, “have been conspiring against me, but you’ve finally failed. I’m proud of you, Aglaea. I did not think you capable of this kind of cruelty. How long have you known?”

He thought back to the last time he had bedded her. It must be a recent discovery. Had she been- how had she tried to prevent the pregnancy? He supposed now he knew where that supposedly “stolen” money must have gone- when had she bought the herb? Secundus huffed, looking away. He placed his hands behind his back, beginning to pace like a caged tiger. They needed to plan how to handle this now, and they were arguing with him over it!

 @Echo @Liv

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Aglaea faltered for a moment at the venom in his voice, fearing physical violence from the man. But then her anger flared at his suggestion of cruelty and she found her boldness once more. Was it not more cruel to drive a wedge between Aglaea and her mistress? Was it not cruel for Secundus to bed his wife's slave without concern of whether she really wanted to sleep with him, or to bring a child into the world knowing its father's imbalances? "It takes a cruel man to know cruelty, does it not? Everyone in this house cowers from your tempers, Secundus. If anyone here is cruel, it is you." She set her jaw in an effort to control herself. "I learned this morning. And yes, I have failed. It is my most egregious failure."

She returned to the idea of she and Livia conspiring against him, realizing that Livia might be the one to receive the brunt of his anger, since her child protected her for the most part. "Livia had nothing to do with this. She only learned of your... plot this morning. My efforts to prevent bringing a child into your household were my efforts alone." There was no need for him to know that Livia, too, was taking silphium. "I kept my word until it was no longer tenable."

@Járnviðr @Liv

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It only felt fair to let Aglaea voice her dissatisfaction freely - or as freely as she could - given the gruesome things she had had to put up with; it was possibly the only chance at retribution the body slave would have for quite some time. It suited Livia just as well, allowing her to keep a cooler head rather than immediately bark back the insults on the tip of her tongue. To an outsider, or a nosy slave listening in, she would seem the slighted party, maintaining a modicum of propriety while her husband debased himself by flinging poison at her and her slave. 

"I knew nothing of this until today," she said at last, lips pursed and tone as flat as a swamp on a hot day. "I daresay it is you who has been conspiring against me, making use of my property in the most dreadful of ways behind my back." Of course Aglaea was far more than property, she was a friend, but if Livia stuck to the legal status she could hardly be accused of being simply an overemotional wife. It gave her pleasure to see Secundus pacing about aimlessly, and for a second the corner of her mouth quirked before she reigned it in again.

Folding her arms over her chest, Livia gave him a look of profound disgust and leant back in her seat, briefly glancing at Aglaea with a terse nod. "You have obtained your desired result, Secundus. Since you have had ample time to think the situation through, do tell me. How did you envision the rest of this twisted fantasy of yours to play out?"

@Járnviðr @Echo

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Secundus listened to Aglaea's words patiently- for it took a kind of patience to listen to venom spat from a slave's lips and curb the urge to silence her by force. He had not taken enough care to hide from her; Aglaea had seen the barbarism within his heart, and it had turned her against him. Cruelty begets cruelty; the venom inside him and his wife had infected her veins. Perhaps soon they would all poison one another to death. He hoped he could outlast Livia.

"My plot-" he began, outraged as she leveled her accusations, but bit back the retort. Secundus continued to pace. One glance around the domus confirmed her claims, anyway: the other slaves cowered out of reach of their master, providing no comfort or support as his household collapsed around him.

Luckily, just when he began to feel an inkling of despair, Livia spoke. She spoke of conspiracy- who had he conspired with? Agalea was their property, not an accomplice. His wife had cast him as the villain, and so her refusal to provide him children became his own 'twisted fantasy'. It was obvious what he wanted; he had always been clear on that point.

"My fantasy, Livia? I fantasize about having children to carry on my family name," he shouted.  Catching himself, he lowered his voice to a gruff whisper. "Now, we both have what we wanted. I, a potential heir, and you, a reason not to join me in bed. You will rest here, in our villa, as your pregnancy progresses. You will birth our child in private, with the tireless support of your slave. My darker complexion may influence the child's looks, but no one would dare question the child's maternity. If they assume you slept with another senator- well, let them assume that. The child will not be born a slave."

@Liv @Echo

Edited by Járnviðr
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Aglaea gazed at him as he spoke to Livia, her jaw still set angrily. Yes, everyone had what they wanted - except Aglaea, of course, who hadn't mattered as more than property since she had been enslaved. She scoffed quietly to herself as he said that bit, but her derision quickly turned to shock and despair as Secundus said that both she and Livia were to be sequestered at the villa until the child was born. She sank quietly into a seat next to Livia, staring at Secundus with a shocked expression. "You - you can't possibly expect us to stay locked away that long - nine months!" Her last statement was breathless as she felt the walls beginning to close around her. The domus had felt like a prison for years, but now that she couldn't occasionally leave it...

She rested her elbows on her knees and buried her face in her hands, trying to stop the closed-in feeling from progressing. The thought of nine whole months sequestered, not permitted to see anyone, not her friends or her fellow Christians - think of how many meetings she would miss because of this! And how could she expect to find a solution that prevented Secundus from getting the child when she couldn't even leave the house? Dark clouds were gathering and she wasn't sure she had the strength to fight them. "Please, dominus," she said quietly, looking back up, "please, don't do this."

@Liv @Járnviðr

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Livia's fingers twitched with the ache to make violent contact with Secundus' face and slap the audacity out of him, even as she flinched in her seat at the increased volume of his voice. No matter how often it happened, she didn't think she would ever get used to it for as long as she lived. "And do you think I don't wish to hold a child of my own?!" Her tone rose a octave and took on a hint of desperation as she leant forward, on the verge of standing up before something inside her told her to remain seated; she would not be taken any more seriously if she appeared to have lost control. Livia breathed heavily through her nose, sparing a look of solidarity at Aglaea who was now sat next to her, seemingly in total disbelief.

Preposterous. Did he really expect her to bow her head, murmur her acquiescence and go along with it without so much as batting an eye? And yet, as much as Livia wanted to rebel against it, what other choice did they really have? It was no secret that neither of her pregnancies had progressed as desired, so it would hardly be odd for her to be wary and reclusive with another one - and kept company by her trusted body slave, obviously. That insufferable husband of hers had planned well, she had to give it to him. But perhaps he could still be deterred by that ever-present ghostly threat: what others thought of him.

"And do you sincerely believe I would entertain no visitors during those months? My sister, my brothers, even my father, who all care for my well-being." Never mind that she and Horatia had had a falling out or that Publius and Lucius were likely not particularly interested in women's issues; Secundus did not need to know that. "Your sister, who might want to offer advice, probably bringing your niece along. Men may be easily fooled, but not women who are mothers." She narrowed her eyes, wishing for a second that arrows could shoot out of them and pierce him a thousand times. "They will ask questions, and they will want to touch and rub and feel the child kicking. What am I supposed to do then? Ask them to turn around, fetch Aglaea and swap our heads?"

Her chest heaved with frustration and she felt the lump in her throat again, as big as Sisyphus' boulder. Like it, it seemed insurmountable. Livia began to feel the first signs of tears threatening to make an appearance, but blinked repeatedly in an attempt at keeping them at bay. She couldn't possibly spend the best part of a year a prisoner in Tibur, away from all the little things that brought her a small measure of joy. Secundus was seldom reasonable and thus extremely hard to reason with, but he discounted her emotions while giving in to his. Such treacherous waters to navigate...

"People will start talking if they feel something's not right. And ultimately they will wonder why you seem so determined to keep your wife out of everybody's sight, even family, and start whispering amongst themselves." Jupiter be damned if Livia's reputation was also dragged through the mud because of this 'plot'; it wouldn't be the first time, nor the last, that Secundus insisted that she keep him company in his misery.

@Echo @Járnviðr

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Secundus ignored Aglaea’s pleas. Nine months was nothing, he thought uncharitably as he watched her hysterics. Women would complain of nine months of captivity, when it was for the good of the family. He had withstood far worse with less complaint, but of course she and Livia were the ones who needed his leniency. His kindness. Aglaea had been kind to him once, when she was new to his household, but her feelings had curdled. That, too, rested on Livia’s shoulders. It all came back to her.

His wife demanded that he consider her plight. Of course he had considered it. Secundus had considered the likelihood that Livia would bear his child. He had seen her in the depths of her grief and known that he needed to take drastic action. If Livia would simply accept this scheme- support it- then she would never need to worry about it again. But as she continued on, he realized that some of her objections had merit. He had thought of her sister and brothers, who had not worried him at all. But his sister, or her father- they could not keep this secret forever.

It will be some time yet before anyone would expect you to be showing. We can come up with a plan together. This is in your best interest, Livia. We will keep your father away with promises of grandchildren, if only you are given time to rest. Your sister- manufacture some argument at the right time, and she will stay away.”

@Echo @Liv

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It seemed as though there was no hope of Secundus reconsidering his ghastly plan. Livia felt her heart sink; how could she make him realise it was untenable? And to be forced into motherhood in this manner... yes, she wanted children, but in some nebulous and obscure future where he wouldn't be the father. Not to mention the effect it could have on Aglaea, doomed to have her child raised alongside her but never able to tell them the truth about their parentage. If Aglaea eventually found herself in the same dark depths as Livia had, unable to shake off the grief, could Livia stand by her in the same way and repay the kindness? The only one for whom the situation seemed advantageous was the man who had got them in it in the first place.

"The arrival of a child has a tendency to make people put slights and arguments behind their backs and make peace," she argued back, feeling like she was grasping at straws but wanting to exhaust every single possibility before eventually admitting defeat. "Not that I expect you to know or understand this," Livia added under her breath, giving Secundus a look that was equal parts fury and disappointment. "And you must not forget that they all know Aglaea to be my body slave and would expect her to look after me in such a situation. What then, when she starts showing? Mistress and slave supposedly pregnant at the same time, yet only one child is born? I don't know why you think people so daft that they would not see through the ruse!"

Livia laced her fingers together to keep them from shaking visibly, breathing sharply through her nose. 'Come up with a plan together', he said - why did she have to?! Despair was starting to settle in the pit of her stomach again, and Livia felt suddenly very tired. If only she could go to sleep and wake up the next day to find out it had all been a terrible nightmare...

@Echo @Járnviðr

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Secundus glared frostily at Livia. It seemed that despite her claims about her relationship with her sister, the arrival of this child would not allow he and his wife to make peace- which suggested to him that Horatia might be similarly unimpressed. As for the logistics of the plan- she had a point. How long could they allow Aglaea to leave the house before her pregnancy would be noticed? They would need to account for that, as well.

"She will need to miscarry."

Yes, it would be quite simple, if they planned properly. The people of Rome knew that he had heeled his household well, and would not be surprised if Aglaea were forced to remain at the villa with Livia. They spent months there at a time- with Livia occasionally returning to Rome in the early months, before she would be showing- meanwhile, they would pretend that Aglaea had already been pregnant for months- the timing would be delicate.

"Aglaea discovered her own pregnancy months ago. You have not become pregnant yet, but she will begin to show shortly, and was forced to tell us the truth. As such, she will be remaining in the villa until further notice. That also gives us the excuse to spend more time there, during which you will finally become pregnant with my child. You may be seen in public for a few months before people would start to ask questions we cannot answer. The only risk is Horatia."

@Liv @Echo

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Livia forced herself to remain minimally focused as Secundus spoke; the temptation to shut down and disconnect from reality was great, but dangerous. She shielded her eyes with her palm, rubbing her forehead as if she had a headache, and sifted through her husband's plan. Miscarry? It did not make much sense to Livia, but in the grander scheme of things it was as sound a solution as any. "And I assume that as far as the world is concerned, Aglaea's baby will not survive, correct?" she ventured, still hiding part of her face and avoiding eye contact although her voice dripped with disdain.

What more was there to say? It was a dreadful little plan Secundus had concocted, and one he would see to completion unless the gods saw fit to intervene. Pregnancy and childbirth were not risk-free affairs, as she knew so well, and a lot could happen. Supposing the child did not make it after all...? Livia shuddered, willing the thought away. It was what her husband deserved, but Aglaea should never have to know such pain, even if her lack of forethought meant the two of them would be confined to the villa in Tibur for half a year. The notion made Livia want to throw herself into the stream that run through the property the moment they got there.

"I will leave it up to you to figure out a way to deal with my sister. After all, you have planned all this so thoroughly..." Even if she and Horatia weren't on the best of terms at that exact moment, Livia drew the line at actively aiding in the abhorrent deception. Would she be able to love the child as her own, if it arrived safely? She thought so, provided it did not look like the spitting image of its father.

@Járnviðr @Echo

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Aglaea had been listening to the whole conversation in a daze of hurt and fear. Aglaea needed time away from the household sometimes, at least once a month. How could she be expected to stay inside, cooped up, and stuck with the woman she betrayed, knowing that she can't stop the baby coming. And knowing that when it came, she would have to pretend that it wasn't hers, that her baby had died, that the new baby in the house was Livia's, and she was just the slave... Would they let her act as a wet nurse? Perhaps she could have some time with the child before it didn't need her milk anymore and Livia took over...

She stood suddenly and walked to the window, staring out of it with her back to the other two. Her arms crossed over her body as she felt tears prick her eyes again, as though she was trying to keep everything inside. But as she stared out the window, a thought crossed her mind. What if she didn't have to watch her child grow up from a distance? What if... there was another way? What if she could find a way to get the child away from the house? 

It would be difficult to find a way to do it, cooped up in the villa. But if she slipped away in the middle of the night, after she had proven herself to be trustworthy... she could run away, find her way back into the city, have her baby, and give it away. As the thought crossed her mind, she tensed as though someone could read her thoughts. It seemed like the only option, but so nearly impossible... who would help her? She couldn't do it alone, and she couldn't expect Livia to help her. She seemed too alright with accepting her baby as her own...

@Liv @Járnviðr

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Secundus smirked. The sound of her disdain got his blood pumping harder. While he once hoped for a marriage, instead he'd found himself in a skirmish; he knew how to survive those much better, anyway. He scarcely mourned the loss of the wide-eyed, foolish dreams of his youth; Germania had crushed them long before Livia came along to spit on their grave. Secundus glanced over at Aglaea, only to find her by the window. He narrowed his eyes at her back, but said nothing. He turned back to Livia.

"That seems to be the best that we can hope for. Aglaea's baby tragically dies unborn, while ours survives. Aglaea, you will serve as our child's nurse- for as long as your mistress sees fit."

Then, he looked back at Aglaea, offering a determined smile. He half-expected Livia to say her body slave should have the entire raising of their child, and hang tradition. Secundus thought that she would eventually come to see reason, even if it took applying to Tertius for his help controlling her. He would need to find a way to keep Horatia busy- drive her and her sister further apart. Livia could keep her distracted, if she were willing; she knew better than he how to upset Horatia.

"Perhaps you can argue with Horatia. Speak the truths which you have hidden from her for too long. Do this at the right time, and she will stay away long enough for the child to be born."

@Liv @Echo

 

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The sudden motion of Aglaea standing up and walking away from them drew Livia's attention for a moment, and she briefly followed her body slave with her gaze before being distracted by Secundus' voice. Given the circumstances, Aglaea's self-control was commendable even as she heard them discuss the child's fate. Livia was not sure she would have been so restrained had their positions been switched.

"How dare you." Livia stared at her husband with as much contempt as she could muster, his words leaving a slimy, revolting feeling in the air. "To talk about children living and dying as if they were toys for you to play with." He spoke so callously because he had never lost one, obviously, and not for the first time she wished he had remained forever lost in the woods of Germania. "Be careful that you don't jinx yourself."

Livia stood up slowly, every small careful gesture hiding the frustration she felt. Secundus was almost right: she should speak hidden truths to Horatia, but not so her sister would stay away. All Livia wanted was for someone to rescue her from this nightmare - could Horatia aid in taking the first step, provided they could speak more or less freely? They hadn't exactly parted on a friendly note.

With a dirty look at Secundus she smoothed her stola, clearly intent on leaving the room. Aglaea could follow or not, Livia would let her decide; she wouldn't be able to make many decisions, however small, in the coming months. "The gods know what will come out of this tangled web you weave, Secundus," she observed in a snippy tone to mask the contradictory feelings swirling inside her. Disgust, betrayal, anger - but also hope for a tentative new beginning...

@Echo @Járnviðr

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Aglaea turned to watch as Livia made her exit, feeling a fresh pang of guilt upon her words. All that she had said was what was she, Aglaea, was thinking. Secundus had truly lost touch with reality if he thought children could be used like pawns - her own child to be seemingly lost like an unimportant trinket, while he really went into the arms of Livia and Secundus. Aglaea was to be relegated to the role of a wet nurse - such an impartial, impersonal role in the child's life. All at once, her plan fell down around her ears and despair set in. There was no way she could pull it off alone and she had no real allies in this world. Acquaintances, casual friends - but no one who would risk themselves to help her and her child. And there was no way Secundus would let his child out of his sight once it was there, and little chance of him letting Aglaea herself have any sort of loose leash during the months leading up to the birth. She could only hope that once the child was weaned, she could convince Livia to sell her or free her. She couldn't bear watching her child grow up without it ever knowing who she really was. 

But though despair had settled deep in her chest, she felt that surprising calm that came with a situation being outside of your control. There was nothing she could do. Why should she waste tears? She gazed blankly at Secundus once Livia had left, appreciating the other woman's intent in letting her choose whether to follow. Aglaea thought she might find her way into the garden for the rest of the day, perhaps leave the domus altogether. "May I be excused?" There was nothing in her voice. No coldness now, no sadness. Nothing. Because there was nothing she could do, there was nothing to color her voice. And she had no voice anyway - not really. 

@Járnviðr @Liv That's me done! Thanks for the amazing thread <3

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Secundus stared stonily at Livia throughout her outburst, a sense of dread creeping up his spine. He did not see children as toys. He merely wanted to ensure his family’s legacy. He ignored her dirty look as she left the room. The gods watched over his marriage as with any other. Whatever they willed, he would accept the result. He was certain that they did not will him to die without leaving behind a child; it was Livia’s willfulness that had required these machinations.

Secundus looked at Aglaea, a smile playing on his face. She had been the source of some comfort, and now she would give them a child. Sometimes the gods’ blessings came unexpectedly, from surprising quarters. He wondered what the child might look like; enough of his dark hair and skin to disguise the mother’s identity, he hoped. Otherwise, this plan would become much more difficult to carry out. Still, for the first time in years, Secundus found himself looking forward to the future.

May I be excused?”, she asked, and of course, Secundus could allow her that much. She was giving the Varus family a great gift. With the slave and his wife gone, Secundus set himself to planning for the child’s arrival. There were many things he would need to do to prepare for an heir to his name.

THE END

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