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Early January, 76 AD - at the villa in Tibur

 

Livia read the missive once more, although by now she knew the words in it by heart. She should have been happy for her brother-in-law for attaining such a prestigious position, but all she saw at the moment was the sanctimonious Horatia gloating yet again at how perfect her life was. Wife to a consul! That was something Livia would never be; Gnaeus' flame had been snuffed out far too early, and the thought of Secundus even dreaming of it sent her into a fit of disdainful giggles.

As much as she wanted to refuse the invitation, she knew it was an impossibility. To be absent would be not only insulting but proof of bitterness and envy, and whilst she did feel that way, Livia had to keep up appearances. She put down the letter with a grunt of annoyance and went to her room, mentally going over the clothes she possessed that could fit such an occasion. It would have to be appropriate in all respects... and in order to be as accurate as possible, she would need a model.

"Aglaea!" she called out, already rifling through a few stolas. The dark green one always complimented her eyes nicely, but Livia wasn't sure there was enough fabric to make the folds have the desired appearance. At the sound of her body slave's steps, she turned round with the green stola in hand and held it out at Aglaea, pointedly averting her gaze from the slave's waist; just because she had mostly come to terms with things, it didn't make them a less touchy topic. "You must try this on. My sister has invited us to dinner later this month."

@Echo

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At just over five months of pregnancy, Aglaea was beginning to feel a great deal of apprehension. Her baby - no, Livia's baby- would be born soon, taken from her arms, and she had no plans to prevent that. She felt nearly hopeless. No sooner than she had begun to grow stout, the family had all packed up and retired to the villa in the countryside, far away from prying eyes or blessed moments of freedom snatched away. Each day was much the same as the one that came before it, and the monotony was grinding on the slave and everyone else. She would awake early as always and prepare herself for the day, only to enter Livia's rooms to awaken her and dress her properly, though who was to see if she were not perfectly attired? She attended Livia all day, until it was time to retire. Sometimes, Aglaea stole away from her bedroom for a precious few moments of aloneness at night, though usually shepherded back to her proper place by a guard. 

Perhaps the most trying part of the whole ordeal was Livia's attitude. When Aglaea had let her secret burst forth those months ago, she had hoped to gain an ally in hating Secundus and his plan, perhaps even enough to help her prevent the child from growing up in his household. But Livia almost seemed to have accepted it, and in rare moments, Aglaea thought she saw a glimmer of hope in Livia's eyes, that betrayed her burning desire for a child. If only it could be someone else in this position!

Today, Aglaea was taking a few moments to sit down on a bench in the hallway near her mistress's room. It was becoming harder and harder to stand for long periods of time and she found herself winded, and with a curious ache in her lower back that might have portended the future pain of childbirth. She heard her mistress's voice echo through the house and, with an effort, lifted herself from the seat and proceeded into the room. The child in her belly was awake and active, fluttering around with those unknown movements of unborn children, but Aglaea stilled her hand before it could reach to rest over her growing bump. She had learned early on that Livia didn't care for motions indicating that Aglaea was different, had another life with her. 

"Yes, domina?" She said cautiously. Her language had become more formal recently, almost like verbally walking on eggshells to prevent any outbursts. Her mistress explained that her sister had invited them to a dinner and Aglaea's eyebrow raised in silent confusion. "And... you plan on attending?" Am I to go as well? was the thought that flitted through her mind unbeckoned. She knew not to argue, though, and took the garment from the other woman. Laying it carefully on the bed, she undressed with her back to Livia, an unconscious position of modesty. Then, she lifted the garment over her head and let it fall. Livia was taller than she was by an inch or two, but the dress fit well, though green was not the best color for Aglaea. "This color suits you, domina. May I help you select some jewelry to match?"

@Liv

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From her own unsuccessful experiences Livia knew that pregnancy could bring about severe cases of forgetfulness, but she hadn't expected it to extend to a lack of common sense. Aglaea asked the silliest questions nowadays, almost as if she was afraid of thinking for herself. Where was the intelligent and perspicacious  companion Livia had grown so accustomed to? 

"Of course!" Whether she wanted to or not was of no importance. "Her husband has been appointed consul, so I can't very well not attend," Livia explained in a patronising tone as she bent over and inspected the hem of the stola covering Aglaea's toes, delaying the inevitable. "Well, perhaps I could, but that would just send Horatia sniffing about like a hound and make things even worse," she concluded, pinching the hem to draw it up the equivalent of their height difference and satisfied with the way it looked around the feet.

Aglaea was right that green suited Livia better than her own darker complexion, but the colour was superfluous; it was all about the fitting. "Hmm, sure," she acquiesced absentmindedly, straightening up again and examining Aglaea's midsection with a critical eye. The roundness was more prominent by the day, staring Livia in the face like a ripening melon and reminding her of her failures. But this time was going to be different. This time she would not need to undergo such trials. She frowned, unhappy at how the flowing fabric caught in her slave's belly. Drawing attention to it was exactly what she wanted to avoid. Perhaps if she tied the belt a little higher, right under the breasts, it would make the bump less noticeable...? "Aglaea, breathe in and hold it."

With surprisingly deft hands for one attended to all her life Livia set to work, brow smoothing over as the new adjustments neatly hid the bump under artful draping and folding. "Good!" she beamed eerily, clapping in contentment. Now she knew how to replicate it so nobody would ask uncomfortable questions at the dinner, and if they arose later on, well - babies arrived early all the time, and given her history nobody would find it odd. Not even nosy Horatia. "Walk around a bit," she commanded as she took a few steps back, hand tucked under her chin. "What pieces were you thinking of? Would emeralds make it too much green overall?"

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Aglaea inhaled slowly at the sound of her mistress's impatience. She knew that their dynamic had changed dramatically since that day and Aglaea was not willing to further anger her mistress by returning to those casual, sisterly connections. She feared that Livia might view it as impertinence now that Aglaea had gone behind her back. "Of course, domina. How silly of me." Never mind that it was silly to go out in public and risk the entire operation being exposed by the nosy Horatia and her eagle eye. Aglaea would hold her tongue on that topic. 

Livia was obviously distracted by her attempts to understand how to dress as a pregnant woman, so Aglaea didn't respond, obeying when she was bidden to hold her breath. It was such a fascinating role reversal, this brief moment of being dressed by the Roman matron. The slave shot Livia a bewildered look as she clapped, but quickly smoothed it over as they met eyes. Obediently, she began to walk around the room, feeling slightly uncomfortable in the dress. "Yes, emeralds would be too much," she said, glad for something to focus on. "Perhaps that lovely diamond necklace, or the moonstones. Or pearls. Anything white would be a nice contrast." She glanced at Livia as she passed her, wondering what was going through her mind. "You think this will convince Horatia that you are... with child?" She didn't know where the question had come from, but she tensed slightly as she heard the words leave her mouth. How would Livia react? 

@Liv

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Livia narrowed her eyes, staring unblinkingly at her slave's form as Aglaea walked around and the robes billowed about her. An outsider's perspective was more useful than Livia's own muddy recollections of what it had felt like to have her clothes adjusted differently to accommodate a growing bump, and Horatia's attention to detail would not forgive any mistakes, however innocent. It occurred to her with a mirthless smile that the life of a politician might be full of such subterfuges, designed to pull the wool over his opponent's eyes. A shame that the sisters stood on opposite banks of the river, but it was what it was.

"You may stop," she instructed as she went over to Aglaea to adjust the belt a fraction of an inch higher. "You're right, pearls would suit the occasion. Expensive and understated - don't want my dear sister to think I'm stealing her thunder," Livia added with a coquettish smirk, fingers doing their nimble dance. She took a step back once again to evaluate the change and nodded to herself, taking a mental note of the exact height the belt sat at; when she wore the stola, it would have to be adjusted again, but it was good to have a starting point. 

The question posed was more complicated than it seemed at first approach. Although part of her resented it, she decided to enlighten Aglaea as to her reasoning all the same - after all, until recently her body slave had had a good head on her shoulders. "That's the tricky thing. She needs to believe it just so. An inkling, nothing too obvious. If it's very noticeable she will want to touch it," Livia wrinkled her nose in displeasure, "and if it's not noticeable at all she will ask inconvenient questions when it comes. What I need is for her to suspect it, but only to the point where she would be vexed if she were to ask and be told she is mistaken." Relying on Horatia's decorum and sense of propriety was key to the plan. 

"Fetch me those pearls, will you?" Though her eyes were still trained on Aglaea, Livia's gaze was far beyond the other woman. So much depended on appearances, if their deceit was to be successful. Would they be able to pull it off? The gods willing, Horatia would be too busy being the perfect hostess to preoccupy herself too much with her younger sister.

@Echo

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Aglaea stopped as she was instructed and stood still, her eyes following Livia's movements carefully. She had been under the impression that Livia had told Horatia that she was with child, hence the sudden move out to the countryside, for fresh air. But then she remembered, part of the plan was that Horatia shouldn't know, due to the need for her not to ask questions. "Forgive me, domina. I have had trouble remembering things of late. I will do my best to be better." 

She stared at Livia fully now, as she called the baby "it" as though he or she was some inconvenient object. "It?" she whispered, suddenly choked up. She had spent so long thinking about their situation that she hadn't factored in Livia's reaction much. She was being awfully casual about someone else's baby. Perhaps she had begun to believe the lie that Secundus planned to feed the world, that the child was his legitimate son or daughter. And though she often thought of the child as an "it," hearing the world aloud had triggered a reaction unexpectedly. 

Grateful for an excuse to turn her back, she went to the engraved wooden bureau and fished through the jewelry box sitting on top of it, finally producing a pearl necklace and a pair of matching earrings. "And am I to be there? I cannot hide... myself... as easily with my tunica."

@Liv

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Livia remembered the forgetfulness, the sleepiness, the hunger. The butterfly movements that she had originally thought to be an upset stomach. But she hadn't had the chance to feel actual kicks to the ribs, or toss and turn endlessly at night because no position was comfortable enough to sleep in. She did not want Aglaea's dreams to be dyed a blood red, nor for her not be rewarded with a cry of victory at the end. Until things had come to a successful conclusion, Livia didn't dare fully hope. "We don't know if it's a boy or a girl, do we? Hence it," she observed, voice as cold as ice as she took the earrings with a hasty motion and put them on herself, trying to ignore Aglaea's harrowed expression. She mustn't give in too much.

The necklace was Aglaea's job. Livia stood with her back to the slave, scooping any stray locks of hair out of the way so that access to her nape was unobstructed. "I think it would be good for Ursa to come with me this time. She needs to learn how to behave in such situations." Particularly if, the gods forbid it, something happened to her esteemed body slave. She willed the thought away, not wanting to entertain it for even a second.  "Besides," Livia added in a tone that was both snippy and concerned, "you should get some rest. Clear your head of worries, and find your focus again." More Livia, less baby - just as it had been before and must be afterwards. So that the charade would not be uncovered. So that things went back to the way they used to be and the two of them could be thick as thieves again. 

"Will you get me a mirror?" It was unnecessary, really; Livia knew well how the pearls looked on her. The request was an assertion of control more than anything, a bastion of normalcy when so much was changing. The change in subject was that too. "I wonder how many guests there will be. Horatia will go all out, I'm sure of it." For once she hoped Secundus' lack of patience for social get-togethers would work to her advantage and allow them an early retreat - Pater would be glowing with pride, eyes on his lucky eldest daughter with nary a thought for his less fortunate youngest one.

@Echo

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Unlike Livia, Aglaea had given her fears of miscarriage or stillbirth to her God. She knew that her faith would be rewarded, that she would have a healthy baby when the time came. But she wondered still if that was what she wanted, if it was what was best for the baby after all. The fears that she would not be able to slip away before or after the baby was born to get it away still kept her up at night, helped along with the discomfort of a growing body. Aglaea heard the icy tone her mistress took on and grimaced, clasping the necklace around Livia's neck quicker than she normally would. 

Taking a step back, she watched Livia, wanting to find something to say but coming up short. What was there? It was almost as if they had just met for the first time and had not grown close. There seemed to be an unbridgeable gap between them and neither wanted to take the leap: Livia, the slave thought, out of selfish pride, and Aglaea herself out of fear. "Yes, domina," she said quietly, fetching an ornate silver mirror from a side table and depositing it into her hands. 

A moment of silence stretched on until Livia broke it. "Enough people to conceal you, I am sure. I will let Ursa know how to behave ahead of time. You are right, she does need to learn." She bit her lip, then sighed heavily. "Livia... what has happened to us? I miss you. I miss... the way things were. Before." Tears welled up in her eyes again. 

@Liv

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Livia took the silver mirror without a word and brought it up to her face, craning her neck this and that way to catch a better glimpse of the string of pearls about it. Aglaea would surely be proven right: it wasn't every day that your husband was made consul, so the party's guest list was bound to extend all the way to Syria and feature the crème de la crème of Roman society. "Be sure to give her some pointers on how not to embarrass me. I don't want her making merry with the other slaves and forgetting herself."

She put the mirror down, ready to hand it back to Aglaea, when the body slave's outburst made her stop and tighten her grasp around the handle; her fingernails dug half-moons into the fleshy heel of her hand. The tears threatening to spill from Aglaea's dark eyes made Livia's lip quivered, and she clamped down on it hard to stop it, a metallic taste reaching her tongue as the thin skin broke. She dipped her head, turning her gaze away - she couldn't take it. After a long pause, Livia opened her mouth. "So do I," she admitted, voice barely above a whisper, still not bold enough to brave eye contact again. "You are more of a sister to me than Horatia ever will be." Wetness was beginning to pool at the corners of her eyes, and she wiped it away hastily with the back of her hand. "But we can't turn back time, can we? Not even the gods can!" Her tone was louder now, shriller. " 'Before' is gone forever... You're going to have my husband's baby, how can things go back to the way they were after this?" Livia shook her head helplessly, having given up on fighting back tears.

It was all Secundus' fault.

If not for him, things would not have changed in the first place.

Why was he the one coming out of this mess that he had created unscathed?

The teardrops that spilled down Livia's cheeks were hot with rage.

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