Chapter 8: The Sins of the Mothers
Flailing, she sprang upright like the fabled Minerva born from the head of Jupiter, blinded still, no longer by the maw of dark eternity, but the burning brightness of sunlight, struggling against the gritty embodiment of physical reality--the overpowering entrapment of bone, muscle, flesh, and mind. A cry erupted past her lips, strangled and terrified, striking out with hands and voice in mindless instinct to stave off the grip on her shoulders. Like a wild hawk ensnared in a cage too small for its vast spread of wings, her soul thrust forth against the confines of skin and mortal containment—one last attempt to break free.
Bound, entrapped, she thought her heart would explode within her ribcage, so fast was it racing in this irrational, involuntary fear. She heard herself half-sob, half-scream, "I can't--" still thrashing about mindlessly, a victim thrown over a cliff-side, falling to the decent below.
"I can't…can't see!"-- A gasp, another intake of air, "--can't…feel," shuddering, weeping in desperation. Breathless.
And the ancient, primordial fear pervading her sense retreated from the shape of word, the soothing direction of guidance as arms encircled her, fingers stroked gently along face, shoulders, and hair.
"Breathe, my lady. Breathe."
Over and over, she heard that low voice wash through her senses, repeating those same, simple words. "Breathe, my lady. Breathe." Hypnotic and comforting, the command was in-sync with the slow, rocking sway of her form embraced by the source of that calming, centering presence.
There was a reason why mothers spoke to their young ones, why men tempered panicked animals with such tones.
Gradually, her struggle punctuated by terrified sobs, lulled, quieted. Lucilla felt herself being laid back gently, the softness of the mattress underneath her, the covering of a light, linen sheet being pulled over her body, lent a comforting security further breaching that initial recovery from…
No, for surely death could not be so smothering, full of that overwhelming sense of drowning, sucked into an eternal Well saturated with visions of simultaneous past, present and possible future. Death, as she had always envisioned it, was peace: quiet, comforting, retiring. Where she had been was something entirely different—the great cauldron of creation and infinite potential; a place…a place her mind, again imprisoned by her mortal cognition, organic brain and fiber, was already beginning to lose sense of—images blurred and confused, remaining just beyond her current capability to try and grasp; put order to memory and decipher meaning.
A cool cloth was wiped across her brow, wet with cleansing water. The sensation helped to ground her further back in her body, and breathing took on the mindless motion of autonomic function once more. She tried to move, feeble attempt, finding her limbs as heavy as granite pillars, and gave up the effort. For the moment at least.
"Not yet, Lady. But soon," the voice welled like smooth silk to her ears.
So, for a time, she simply laid there. A span which she did not try to track, lulled into hypnotic stillness before physical stimuli forced her to try and absorb the material world. Eyes closed, the cloth being soaked across her forehead at infrequent intervals, her limbs remained weak with weighted lethargy. A piece at a time, small foci broke through this calm façade of rest.
A breeze blew through the room, gentle and fragrant with the sweet aroma of ripened hay, wild carrots, and tansy. The wisp of veiled curtains covering the window by her bed flapped in a graceful, soft motion with the light gusts of air. Sunlight behind closed lids; at times, a shifting of shadow blocked, temporarily, the warmth, the impression of brightness filtering through the window.
The reassuring comfort of soft, smooth hands upon her brow was accompanied by the stir of that others woman's breathing, a settling of weight as she arranged herself, sitting next to where Lucilla lay, recumbent.
Small foci, a piece at a time.
Sounds carried on the light, airy breeze. A distant cry of children's laughter, laboring servants beyond the boundaries of this interior, walled room. The occasional, far-off lowing of cows in pastures to the south, past the villa's central work-yard, was interspersed by a much closer, melodious chirping of the birds upon the window ledge.
Breath. Breathe. A deeper sigh and slow, enlivening warmth began to crawl up Lucilla's legs, to her stomach, her head, easing a pressure she hadn't been aware of; relaxation seeping over her body. She continued, contentedly, to drift toward sleep--the natural progression of her exhausted body and her over-wrought soul.
Until the blow of a voice, deeper, roughened with the edges of masculinity, caught Lucilla like a fish-hook to the mouth, tugging her mind back to the immediacy of the absolute present.
"You are certain she has…," The voice faltered for an instant, overcoming a tide of feeling before continuing. "She has…come back to us…completely?"
She knew that voice, tried to remember exactly…tried to place who it belonged to--if trusted ally or despised enemy. Tried…
And with the barreling force of an approaching avalanche, Lucilla drew breath in sharply, memory like a jagged knife in the cradle of her mind, at long last, daring to open her eyes.
"We shall learn soon enough, Master Gracchus," that lovely, swelling of feminine resonance replied.
The harsh glare of sunlight greeted her vision, and Lucilla blinked twice, a third time, before physical sight dissolved color, form, and motion into a sharper, detailed contrast. One last rapid closure of eyelids and Sekt-aten's willowy frame, outlined in the sun's afternoon rays entering through the narrow window by the bed, resolved into a single person rather than two indistinct images.
"Can you understand me, Lady?" The Nubian woman's high, sloping forehead was furrowed with worry, her eyes, like the night sky set into milky-white opals, dark with concern. She held Lucilla's hands in her own, encouragement and subtle comfort.
"Very well, Sekt-aten," the daughter of Marcus Aurelius managed to rasp out past dry, tender vocal chords. "Very well," she repeated, sighing minutely.
Still weak, she turned her head--pillowed upon goose-down cushions--carefully, not yet courageous enough to attempt sitting upright.
The bedroom she had come to acquire since occupying Quintus' country-villa was a simple, tastefully decorated abode. In the morning and early afternoon, the greatest amount of light shone through the window, obliging the need for a lady's dressing-table set in the corner, toward the foot of the bed. An artfully crafted stool complemented the ensemble, along with a bronze mirror and boar-bristle brush adorning the table's surface. Containers of rice-powder, pencils of eye-kohl, lip-staining balm, and eye-shadows, preserved in their fine lead granules--various components of any well-to-do woman's dressing ritual-- were curiously lacking, by preference of the lady herself. Her bargain with Quintus concerning their legal arrangement required her to make this agrarian property commercially successful, performing the rustic duties of a rural villa-owner's wife, not flounder in ostentatious displays of accessorizing.
Thus, amid her interminable sorrow, grieving the violent death of her son, emotionally isolated from the household staff and fieldworkers, she managed, unintentionally, and without her conscious knowledge, to captivate both the overseer of the wool-production, and the master of vineyards. A novice to such trades, she endeavored, in two months, to learn what there was about the gathering and manufacture of sheep-fur; the harvest of grapes and the fermentation of wine. None too adverse to running her fingers through the greasy, untreated tufts of newly sheared fleeces, nor walk the vineyards in the sweltering, mid-day heat, examining for aphid and worm infestations, Lucilla's determination to grasp the intricacies of rural economy impressed the two men to the point of near worship. Aulus and Petalius, respectively, would have swum across the wine-dark sea to Greece if Lucilla only asked.
Frankly, to Lucilla's way of thinking, her strenuous days offered a sort of temporary respite from her memories of Lucius. While performing such tasks, her appearance remained of little concern, so intent was her focus on grading the grapes for the next vinalia, or rating the quality of sheep-thread, anticipating the autumnal markets of Rome, late season shipments departing Ostia.
Night, however, proved more difficult. At night, Lucilla could hear her son's cry of child-terror in the soft, gentle breeze whispering throughout Latium's gente countryside of terraced, golden fields, the surrounding, distant hills. At night, she dreamt of his skull, split with a sword, his brains spilling out upon the shining, immaculate surface of the white-marble floors, an augury's sacrifice beneath the impassive magnificence of granite pillars lining the halls of the Imperial Palace.
Staring past Sekt-aten, still seated next to her upon the bed, Lucilla appeared to be studying the seductively beauteous nymphs supporting the dressing table's four corners. Hand-wrought in beech-wood, each nymph was draped in flowing swaths of cloth, revealing plump shoulders, rounded thighs, and full breasts.
In truth, it was exceedingly difficult meeting Gracchus' gaze, where he had positioned himself as comfortably as possible, upon the sandy-colored stool, he and the seat awash in shadows from the setting sun. It couldn't have been easy, given that the furniture piece provided the bare minimum in terms of support, the seat molded in a fixture of entwined ivy running along tripod struts.
"One thing can be said for the dowries accompanying the women of the Aemilii: they always had the financial resources to decorate their new home with faultless adornment—well-crafted, deceptively simple, durable and elegant," the ex-Senator commented, finally breaking the awkward silence of an appropriate opening. "The tradition, if I might say so, has been one of those better established amongst the founding families. I never would have realized your chosen inception as the newest member would be to, instead, partake in country-rituals and harvest celebrations."
Ah, the stinging bite of that cultured sarcasm.
His pointed criticisms were rarely directed at her, and she could generally hold her own against Gracchus' critiques, relying on an equally cultivated, scathing wit. It might have been helpful had her verbal capacity not chosen to fail at this moment, a dry throat and cracked lips her traitors, mangling words, and she sounded like a squawking, enfeebled crow.
Proffering her mistress a goblet of cool water, Sekt-aten shot the ex-senator a look full of irritation.
Embarrassed, impatient with her weakened state, Lucilla pondered angrily, it might have been equally helpful in dealing with Gracchus, if he still didn't retain the capacity for chiding her like a young girl caught with her hand in the honey-pot.
Ignoring the elder man for the moment, Lucilla let her Nubian handmaid assist her in sitting upright, pillows behind her back, gulping the clean water—ambrosia of the gods to her parched throat—loudly and greedily.
Refreshing and moist, the liquid, along with the movement, gradual and slow as it remained, helped to clear some of the lassitude from her weighted limbs, reorient her mind, and sort her thoughts. Finally, clearing her throat once, twice, and swallowing a final time, she said, into the hush of the summer evening, "Such words of well-wishing, Gnaeus Gracchus? It's been a number of years since I sacrificed the girl's tunica for the stola and palla of womanhood. Are you here to congratulate me on my new marriage, or castigate my behavior as the freshly appointed mistress of Quintus' villa?"
Lost in her thready voice was a bitterness she couldn't fully conceal.
From beneath thick, spiky brows, mottled an iron-gray, and a shock of white hair which had not thinned, even into his sixth decade, there was a softening in the hard irony shining out of the retired politician's brown eyes. "When the old pride-leader has fallen, and a new lion-king has taken over the collective, one does not blame the lioness for seeking protection with the conqueror to safeguard her own welfare."
And for that moment, his words, expressing the solemn knowledge of her recent losses, provided a much needed condolence; allowed her a space to absorb the fact his comfort came without pity—a mannerism typical of Gracchus' behavior toward her. There also existed, in that moment, acting in the way of an old injury which never fully healed, a sad, distant regret filling Lucilla's heart, the reluctant admission this was more sentiment than she would ever have received from her father. A father who had loved her, but never understood her.
To the now deceased Caesar, the daughter of Marcus Aurelius had been an enigma of womanhood: cherished for her intelligence, appreciated for her political insight, and prized for her beauty. The combination made her a grand commodity for buying a man's loyalty as co-emperor in those bygone years of her adolescence; simultaneously denying her a throne, an empire she had been the most worthy to rule.
Of them all--the fatuous politicians, the contentious military aristocracy, and her ruthless siblings--she was the one who understood the factions of the Senate; the shifting loyalties between patrician and plebian; the balance provided by the equestrians. Lucilla had learned her history lessons well, anticipating the vagaries of the army, realizing the utter importance of a consistent grain supply. Should a populace suffer famine too many years in a row, grow underfed, enduring the tragedies of constant warfare, not allowed to produce the material and food-based items transported via the Empire's vast network of roads, that populace presented a threat to the stability of Roma Mater.
Two lessons she had neglected to incorporate during the years of her schooling, however. One--women did not rule empires, and especially in the years of war characterizing the majority of her father's reign, women absolutely could not command legions.
The second lesson--the center of every observance running through Lucilla's mind at that moment--the bitter axis upon which the core of her days revolved since that decisive night, so many years ago in Syria, was the final, ultimate realization women—particularly women of power—did not chose where to lay their hearts.
Hot and humid had that night been--late summer, the same time of year as this present moment--harvest time. Perhaps, then, it was the season accounting for this sudden wave of painful recollection, Sekt-aten and Gracchus, two physical presences in the room, fading to the background, submerged by memory. Maximus, storming out of that other room, on the far side of the Eastern Empire, emerged from the shadows of the past. For a wild, irrationally emotional second, she had fancied forfeiting her pride and ambition, daring the young centurion's hurt rage, discovering her impending marriage to Verus. Contemplated running after him into the hallway of that house where the governor had put up her, and her father's retinue, for the duration of their stay. Contemplated pursuing him, dragging at his hand and pleading at his feet for his forgiveness, admitting through tears of frustration and helpless rage, she hadn't a choice in who she wished to take as a husband. Asserting the possibility she would rather have run off with him-- this young centurion newly promoted to the rank of tribune in her father's legion--than spend her years as a patrician wife hanging upon the arm of the co-emperor.
Asserting, and finally declaring a love she never truly admitted.
Until another night, years later, when she uttered words culminating in a brief revival of hope—and remembrance. I have been alone all my life…
Realizing, in that one shared moment, seeing a faint glimmer across Maximus' face of the young legionnaire from the western province of Hispania, the man he had been before the slave—even before the general—gallant and carefree, his cheeky humor disguising an intensity of feeling and burning intelligence that had captured her heart so long ago--it was already too late.
So tender, so soft his gaze had been: You laughed more--words so full of regret.
And her heart broke all over again, as it had that night, years before in Syria; as it only would, one other time, watching her son be struck by a sword, his child-skull no match for the cold bite of forged steel.
Beneath all of this re-lived remorse, though, was, once more—that cold, hard rationalization always in the back of her mind—the sting of her own reason. Something she was beginning to understand a trace of, little-by-little, revived in snatches of image coming back to her gradually, reflections of that strange world absorbed in gloom, dark possibility, where her soul had been lost these last days.
The truth was, that night, long ago, in hot, humid Syria, she had, indeed, a choice. And she decided, freely, of her own accord, driven by duty, and a decision involving imperatives more pressing than her ambition, or her fickle, love-addled teenage heart. Duty to Rome, the attainment of Augusta to her husband's rank, for she was a Daughter of Romans, in the same way she would become a Mother of Romans.
"Anyone of sound mind and just heart knows his death was never your fault, Lucilla," Gracchus' voice broke through the scattered sequence of her thoughts.
Never aware of closing her eyes, the ex-senator's utterance brought her abruptly back to the setting of the room with a start, early evening birdsong filtering through open shutters, seemingly carried by the rays of pink-gold sunset streaming between the billowing curtains.
She couldn't broach that subject quite yet, the pain too new, too close to the bleeding core of her battered heart.
"Quintus," she elected to speak at last, borrowing from Gracchus' previously introduced metaphor, "is hardly what one would call the conquering lion; though, I suppose in his own way, he possesses a certain brand of courage."
Scrutinizing the polished former Senator seated upon the stool, waiting for his response, Lucilla noticed, for the first time, haggardness, a hanging of the skin under his eyes, adding years to an otherwise well-preserved, scholarly featured man. The awareness brought her out of her own enmeshment of grief momentarily, realizing, all at once, he too, had known his own suffering in the months since Commodus' death.
In spite of events lending their turmoil to the ex-senator's concealed thoughts, his visage was still sharp, precise, brown eyes piercing like a bird's, catching every detail in the world about him.
He knew that look, the way she held his gaze with barely a flicker of betraying emotion—a hard, considering expression, heavy-lidded, conveyed in a just-perceptible tilt of her head. In the years of their acquaintance, he'd come to recognize varying degrees of similar facial impression, practiced facades she offered the public world reflecting disparate meanings from flirtation to her cutting intelligence mulling over the latest political escapade. It would have worked on the vast majority of the Senate who had fallen under the spell of her beauty—her iconoclastic illusion abounding with untouchable stateliness and Roman matron-hood.
Her mother, too, had been particularly skilled at this same tactic, using physical charm, a fine patrician loveliness, to veil the underlying surge of feeling. Oh, child of my heart, there's no need to hide so much from me, he thought in woe. But he humored her for a while longer, the irony returning to his tone, accommodating her casual attempt at discourse. "He's cautious. He thinks before he acts. His father, the elder Laetus Amelianus, was much the same, biding his time, waiting to see how circumstances in the government fell before choosing loyalties bent on improving his own position."
"One might be inclined to name such a trait cowardice," her defensive pride breaking through, a fleeting impression of rueful scrutiny warring with a bare glimmer of sorrow—quashed abruptly.
Gracchus heard the scorn, though, plain to a man who had known this woman since she had been a child of eight years, despite her best effort keeping her voice neutral.
The awareness did nothing to temper his reply. "Or, one might call it prudence," he insisted with mocking lightness, and a deeper purpose.
He saw her eyes flash at that, Lucilla obviously not agreeing, as the Nubian woman, a silent shadow till this moment, her legs folded underneath her, seated on the floor next to the bed, hissed in disproval.
Recalcitrance in slaves was something he thought Lucilla had learned long ago not to tolerate. He meant to say something about that…later. Of more consequence to the present, this child of his dearest friend, much beloved emperor, was enveloped in a self-destructive cycle of mourning—a sorrow that was quickly transforming to a malignance in her soul. If he had learned nothing else all those years ago, from the woman who eventually became his brother's wife, it was the hard fact that when a wound was horridly infected, on the verge of gangrenous, the only way to salvage the limb was to re-open the injury and let foul pus drain out.
Cruel, but cleansing.
So it was with Lucilla, and his carefully placed remark: "Cowardice as a descriptor might be better applied, had Quintus ever demonstrated an inclination of short-siding his orders, avoiding the instructions of his superiors in the midst of a battle. To the best of my knowledge, child, he is accomplished enough on the field, and fulfills his commands to the peak of correctness. If his reputation for avoiding initiative is non-existent when his own life or interests are at risk, neither has he made it a habit to skirt duty."
"Not exactly the qualities of a general," the daughter of Marcus Aurelius bit out.
Gracchus' thin lips hinted a brief smile, humorless. "Nor those necessary for a leader of men. But they are the qualities that keep one alive."
And watched, in the ensuing silence filled by the distant calls of laboring men, the sounds of various farm animals in the fenced pens beyond the central work-yard, marking their location in this rural villa, Lucilla's face became a mask of sorrow, struggling to absorb the truth of his provoking statement. In one blink, the hard glitter of her eyes was extinguished by a wincing, reflexive twitch across the curve of an aristocratic cheek, her fragile composure dissolving like salt in a glass of water.
Gods, is she so destroyed, he wondered silently, feeling an anguish of his own, witness to the core of her pain. It shouldn't have been so easy shattering the mask of her carefully construed pride. It nearly broke his heart.
The Nubian handmaid, displaying the most tactful behavior—in his opinion--yet exhibited by the dark-skinned woman, murmured in undertones to her mistress, something of retrieving a flask of wine and glasses more apropos for night-time refreshment. Lucilla graced her with a passing look of desperate gratitude, and he waited for Sekt-aten to remove herself promptly before speaking, her form that of a sinuous shade moving soundlessly through the gloom of sundown.
In the course of this carefully orchestrated conversation, his next words were not going to be easy for either of them. "He loves you, you know. He always has. He's taken an amazing risk accepting your hand in marriage."
She should have responded in spiteful dignity, her head springing up, her eyes brimming with affront, while she admonished him in a heated lashing of temper regarding the lack of otherwise available choices presented during her banishment upon Capri. In the repertoire of recollection, that was how the old Lucilla would have reacted--willfully, spirited, and ambitious.
Instead, there was only this hollow-cheeked ghost of a woman he'd come to know some twenty years ago, purplish smudges of exhaustion silhouetting each eye, collapsing into herself, bowing her head in plain misery, the snarls of cinnamon-chestnut waves falling about her slender shoulders, streaks of honey and earth against the un-dyed cotton of her sleeveless shift.
"I know," she intoned through the empty strain of unshed tears. "It is his weakness, and will become his own source of pain as the years go by."
Unthinking, Gracchus reached out with his hand through the shadows of impending dusk, futile action induced by her withering defeat, catching only air between his fingers. He sat too far away from her to do other than advise in fatherly comfort, "His love, Lucilla, is also your protection. A source, you would be well-advised to cultivate," he finished gently.
"How can I, Gracchus? Oh gods, how can I?" She implored, distress and agitation making her shake her head in denial of her circumstances, chafing her hands roughly along the skin of her upper-arms. "I tried to make decisions that would set us all free, ensure our protection. The only thing I've managed is to imprison us behind more walls of deception--invite more death," the last coming out in a breathless rasp, sounding like a strangled cat.
In the rose-gilt sunlight of a summer evening, a breeze playfully casting the drapes about, dimming and brightening patterns of shadow across Lucilla's form, the bed, onto a fresco of bright meadow greens, sylvan browns, showing two hares frolicking in fields of clover and hayseed along the opposite wall, this woman who had been a daughter, sister, and wife of Caesars nearly broke. Clawing for control of her grief, she drew her legs up, wrapping her arms around them, tugging and tangling the linen sheet in the process. Turning her face aside to rest a cheek upon her knees, looking directly at Gracchus with a troubled, searching expression, he had an unexpected image of this same woman, the age of twelve--child on the brink of adulthood--contending with the event of her mother's death. Searching, seeking answers, seeking comfort, which Gracchus could not provide.
The vividness of his remembrance did nothing to assuage the fact he would have traded the accomplishments of his lifetime, relived the failings of his career, the pain of his own losses--personal and otherwise--to ease her sorrow, lessen the turmoil of her father's death, her brother's demise and her son's murder.
Daughter, wife and sister she might have been, but she had also been a mother, the sad occurrence of Lucius' death making Gracchus feel an unexpected rush of outrage at such a waste of innocent life.
And lending certain clarity upon the true, unstated source of her torment.
Finally allowing himself to shuffle across the short distance to her bed, his stride surprisingly spry for a man his age, Gracchus sighed heavily under his breath, containing his own feeling. Unresisting, the daughter of his heart--this daughter of Marcus Aurelius--complied to the encirclement of his arms about her person.
The posture was one of shared mourning.
"Your decisions, the consequences you feel yourself guilty for, Lucilla, did not arise by your doing, singly," each word more difficult to utter than its syllabic predecessor, their only purpose to reveal the deep pain abiding in these past months, the lost years.
Stroking back the matted strands of her hair, he kissed the top of her head gently. "Oh Lucilla, the crimes that transpired since the death of your father go back so much further than the unfortunate inception of your brother's reign," his voice loosing it's practiced calm, threatening to betray him and break, like this exquisite woman digging her fingers into his arm and shoulder, her face buried in his chest, clutching him in a failing effort to fend off a rising tide of grief.
"All those years ago,"--child of my soul, the endearment unvoiced--,"your marriage to Verus seemed a reasonable insurance toward securing the eastern half of the Empire. Not only did I wrong you by failing to argue harder with your father to delay your marriage, I wronged Marcus, failing to believe your commendations regarding young Maximus Decimus Meridius.
"Had we--," he broke off, faltering, feeling Lucilla convulse in his arms all at once, the sound of that name spoken aloud—a man she had never stopped loving-- inviting her final wretched, muffled bereavement. "Had we but listened to you, then," he continued, resolving to speak through her cracked sobbing, "so much would have been different. So much," he whispered--words full of lamentable regret.
It seemed instinctive to comfort, absorb her wracking anguish by rocking her against him, murmuring periodic shushing sounds into her hair. He'd done no less that night she'd sworn, stamped, raged and ultimately broken down; weeping in helpless fury, emoting to Gracchus, as she never would have to her father, against the decision to marry her off to Lucius Verus. And it was Gracchus who calmed the willful child of Marcus Aurelius, his soothing patience, his reasoning, whittling away her adolescent daydreams of love and Venus' seductive infatuations. After all, there were few people Marcus' daughter relied on, confiding the deepest secrets of her heart; she trusted him, as her father did. Besides, he, Gnaeus Sempronius Gracchus Calpurnianus—who had once been Gnaeus Crescens Britannicus Calpurnianus--understood with greater sympathy than many of the royal family's acquaintance might have suspected, what price the inevitability of duty inflicted upon the golden dreams of childhood, and the illusion of love existing only in poetry, immortalized in song.
The rational voice of logic, ultimately, inevitably, won. Later, the following day, Annia Aurelia Galleria Lucilla would be summoned by her father, Imperator Marcus Aelius Aurelius Antoninus, to state in a mild, flat voice, her glad acceptance to Lucius Verus' offer of marriage. Her reward, sore consolation for a torment she would rather die than ever let her father deduce, a look of warm, approving pride in her father's distracted gaze. An assemblage of Syrian ambassadors had been awaiting audience, rankling out the terms of a truce, Gracchus recalled, constructing the shaky peace in those first days after the Parthian War. In such perspectives, one could excuse Marcus' carelessness regarding the concerns of his children; the affairs of State always took precedence over the needs of family--the sacrifice of great men.
His mind was ordered back to the present, suffering the storm of Lucilla's convulsive sorrow, her breathing harsh and rapid. He could feel acutely, where her tears soaked the light gray cotton of his knee-length, country-tunic; over his heart, in a strange way he felt it made her wounds his own, and for a time he simply let her fall of grief go on, unabated by silence, lost to the quiet sounds of summer's peaceful twilight—a gentle breeze blessed by a musical chirping of crickets, and the piercing sweetness of avian birdsong.
"You see," the ex-senator intoned softly into the matted, unkempt locks of the weeping woman's hair, "historians in later ages, I fear, shall never cease to ponder on why Marcus chose Commodus as his official heir those five years ago. It was a cruel mockery of Fate, though," he expounded bitterly, "bidding him change his mind in the days before his death. By the time your father died, and General Maximus was named Protector of Rome, your centurion-turned-general had achieved a place in your father's heart closer than that of his own surviving son. But what human, Lucilla," he stipulated grievously, feeling his own tears escape forth now, soaking her hair, "can anticipate the fickle will of Fortuna."
She didn't notice; another wheezing intake of breath, a spasm through her slender form, shaking her shoulders, and she could only clutch harder, fingers digging into his arms. Trying, desperately, to fold into herself, escape the true source of her great pain.
"My son, Gracchus!" she choked out, "My son is dead because of me! My son!"
"Not because of you, Lucilla," he said through the broken sound of his own sorrow, definite intent no less absolute in its reckoning. "Because of Virius Lupus."
Words of truth and comfort, merely freeing her to weep still harder, shudders breaking over her slim frame, heart-wrenchingly delicate in his arms
And he simply held her, cradling her as though she were a child weeping for the loss of her pet kitten, not a woman fully grown, lamenting a parent's worst nightmare regarding the fate of a beloved son.
In the meantime, night had drawn its full solstice across the bedroom, where Gracchus, raising his head, could see through the window, out to the sky, the first twinkling stars and a sliver of moon suspended up above—lone pearly crescent lost to the deep, dark purple of the world's vast dome.
Whether from exhaustion or because his presence had, in some part, soothed a fraction of Lucilla's tortured sorrow, he only knew that she quieted eventually, her torn sobs fading away with the last of the birdsong, the cacophonous sounds of men finishing their farmyard duties. With the cooler wash of night, late summer afternoon's indolent zephyr picked up strength, bringing a gusty purity into the room, the promise of rain—humid air, clashing in purpose, opposing the cooler heights of the Apennines. Frogs, inhabiting muddied banks of the stream slithering a transit through the villa's southern and eastern pastures, added a muted chorus of high-pitched piping, humble medley accompanying clouds dancing past the ivory-pale face of the moon, wispy veils of an eastern beauty, crafting the timeless ballad of wind for the audience of blue-black night.
It was strange, the impression one could form, feeling like an actor in a play, awaiting cues for the next transpiring scene—Sekt-aten gliding back into the darkened room, in due course, holding an oil-lamp, just as Lucilla inhaled a steadying breath, taking the incentive to push herself out of his arms, and lean back against her pillows.
"He will answer for his crime. I vow that," said the daughter of Marcus Aurelius, cold venom permeating her shaking voice—the tonic of vengeance—remedy for the evident moisture in her eyes.
The Nubian handmaid had placed the lamp on the table, its licking flame jumping about in the night-tide breeze, striking over the two goblets of beaten copper she held in her hands with flickering, reddish-gold radiance, the narrow stems of inlaid ivory, dusky in the shadowed room. From a slim-necked pitcher of green glass, she poured a garnet-dark river of wine into each chaliced vessel, her long-limbed gestures embodying fluid ease.
"You're servant is not exactly a deaf mute, dearest," the retired senator stated, his express disproval smacking of the schoolmaster's tone, teacher to novice student. Lucilla, no matter how aggrieved, had grown-up in a court full of intrigue and subterfuge, knew better than to utter words full of undisguised intention before the likes of household servants.
The Nubian woman shot him a look full of ill-concealed annoyance for a second time that night, handing his goblet to him, her obsidian eyes shimmering dark mystery, dared him to bespeak her mistress when she elected the liberty of not leaving straight-away. Instead, she sat upon the beech-wood stool he'd occupied earlier, in the corner, her graceful purpose belied by a composed bearing, hands crossed contritely in her lap, dark-skinned wraith melting soundless into the murky shadows.
"I do not need to be a mute in order to discriminate the information meant only for the precinct of this room, Master Gracchus," filtered Sekt-aten's velvet-voiced response from her place, clothed in a white, linen-sheathed gown, her form seemed incandescent in the dancing lamplight.
It would have been beneath his status, putting a recalcitrant servant in her place with a castigating retort; opting, simply, to cock a skeptical eye-brow toward the Nubian, when Lucilla found her voice again, her words taking the edge off a strained moment.
"I would speak for her, but you heard her as well as I did," articulated the daughter, wife, and sister of Caesars, studying him and her Nubian handmaid with fleeting amusement, a transitory gleam which turned the lovely curve of lips up, reaching the empty light of her eyes before dying away.
He sniffed softly, a stifled displeasure, but the Nubian was essentially Lucilla's responsibility; if the fates saw fit to accuse them of treason, plotting to take the life a murderous Praetorian, then what little faith he still retained in gods and justice would dissolve to an echo of absent belief. The potential for disloyalty existed in all of them. Why should he think himself, or Lucilla, any more immune than a servant in the quest of changing allegiances when it came to protecting their own interests in the cut-throat game of a city eternally awash in politics and power-scruples?
Then, pushing the thought from his mind, he took an appreciative sip of the smooth, spicy beverage in his goblet—his cue for the next scene-shift in their precise discourse. "An attempt was made upon Pertinax's life last week."
The effect of his pronouncement was almost immediate, a faint glimmer of reflective, pondering intelligence beginning to shine in Lucilla's eyes. She too, took a long swallow from her wine-glass, seeming to savor the dry hint of virgin grapes picked in the early spring, crisp in their new growth, the wine's full aroma of embellished flavor washing over her tongue, down her throat. The way she used the back of her hand, just then, to rub away tracks of tears upon her cheeks, eyes swollen and red-rimmed, was so very mundane for a woman whose lineage defined the essence of noble inheritance.
A motion, he realized, she utilized as a gradual recovery for her poise, surreptitiously re-establishing an internal equilibrium, similar to the employment of her casual comment. "It was coming. I'm amazed the old goat managed to retain his hold on the throne this long. According to Quintus, there were—are," she amended,"--quite a number of the Praetorian buckling under the constraints Helvius placed on their salaries, their behavior toward the citizenry."
His proximity to Lucilla, where he remained seated on the edge of the bed, allowed him to watch the shadows skipping across her fine-boned profile, marveling that even Cornelia of the Gracchi, legendary ancestress of his adopted family, or Aurelia—dauntless mother of Julius Caesar—would have found a matchless rivalry from this child of the Antonii.
"The plot might have succeeded," Gracchus continued, "had the chosen heir not seen the pitfall in their scheming. Helvius in Ostia, checking on the grain supply, Virius Lupus and your husband accompanying our new Emperor, and unbeknownst to all of them—an upheaval of aspiring dissidents left in Rome. They hauled a poor, unsuspecting Claudius Pompeianus from the opulent chambers of his mansion on the Palatine, newly acquired property due courtesy of his marriage to your elder sister, Fadilla."
Lucilla sipped delicately, once more, from her goblet, one elegant brow arching in consideration of the news he imparted, though her visage, marred with exhaustion and gaunt, remained classically bland. Her only remark, a truncated, "Better my sister than I. In some ways, it's good to see Fadilla eventually received her reward, trying to be our brother's coddled pet during the years of his reign."
Oh, most certainly a formidable rival in the legacy of honored Roman matrons. He understood, at that moment, a sense of fatherly pride warring with his deeply buried relief, the woman she had been wasn't lost, after all, in the depth of her sorrowing soul. She'd been hiding though, a broken spirit, the shards of a shattered sword, needing only the recourse to gather the pieces of her torn will and re-smelt them, forming a blade, sharper and more terrible than the form of her previous incarnation.
"Ah, well, be that as it may, but Claudius also has your sister—his new wife--to thank for her close affiliation with Marcia, whose skills in the bedroom must have been tantalizing enough for Falco to pardon her previous employment with your brother," that observation eliciting both eye-brows to arch with royal expectation upon Lucilla's patrician façade.
"Falco being a key conspirer, I assume," the daughter of Marcus Aurelius speculated.
"And Marcia, his new-fangled mistress, endowed with Eros' blessings to the point of becoming his key confidant—thank the balls of Mars—and hasn't a wit more ability to keep from blabbing the details of a good scheme any better than a feline in her heat can keep from breeding with a tomcat."
To his heart's joy, his sardonic statement drew an unexpected chortle from Lucilla, muted and tired-sounding, but lifting for all it was worth.
"From Sosius Falco to Marcia to Fadilla," the daughter of Marcus Aurelius pondered—seeming indifference. "Thus, Falco's plot was nipped in the bud before it blossomed to full flower?"
Gracchus' short laugh was full of ironic amusement, clearly enjoying the task of rendering his version of the treasonous episode. "Not if you consider nipped in the bud entailing Pompeianus being dragged all the way through the maze of streets that is our sprawling, turbulent, chaotic Queen of Cities. From the Palatine, across the jumble of the Campus Martius, to the Praetorian Fort upon the Capitoline, the eager usurpers managed to bestow the honorifics of Caesar, ready with a crown of laurel, before they realized he was appealing to the pity of the well-intended masses, bewailing his ill-health—gouty joints, rheumy eyes, and an increasingly forgetful mind. One can't be expected to rule an empire when one cannot even distinguish between his daughter and his daughter's pet monkey from Arabia."
"My, he's become awfully decrepit for a man who was reported to be hunting at his leisure, enjoying his freshly acquired rural estates in Gallia Narbonnensis over the spring, additional luxury from Fadilla's dowry. What is he, forty-five at most," Lucilla's tone, full of dripping sarcasm. "He knew Pertinax and his accompanying Guard had already been alerted in Ostia, didn't he?" The animated sip she took or her wine provided just the correct amount of eloquent detachment to her question.
Gracchus wasn't fooled, sensing there was a slowly kindling fury beneath her newly collected composure.
"Of course," he answered. "This hasn't been substantiated by any of Gaius' retainers, but my guess is Claudius gambled on Pertinax' s clemency, knowing full well Falco's faction was coming to fetch him to the Praetorian camp. I imagine, some hours before his self-appointed supporters arrived, knocking on his doorstep, he discreetly sent off a hurried dispatch to Ostia. Fadilla may be as callow as a virgin on her wedding night, but she knows her husband is discriminating in his political alliances, enough to realize he hasn't the influence with older, established members of the senate—particularly the consuls--to retain a prayer's breath for a bid on the throne."
Lucilla's face was drawn, livid-pale in the shadows of the room, her eyes, wide, normally a wondrous muddling of ocean-green and brown, catching, for an instant, the sputtering flare of the lamp on the dressing-table, striking to a simmering dark-gold.
"It's unfortunate she didn't have the same imperative toward moral duty when it came to preventing Commodus' ascension," her brittle voice echoed into the corners of the gusty bedroom.
The air had become heavier with the tang of impending rain, and Gracchus could see, peering out the window, past the billowing curtains, clouds sweeping across the sky upon the impetus of furious, atmospheric winds chasing from the heavens to the earth. Those winds, swirling puffs of dust through the work-yard, causing a riotous cracking of branches and leaves from the trees at the far perimeter, reached his ears through the enshrouding night.
His manner became more solemn, losing that momentary, refreshing start of humor with which he'd begun the recounting.
"The full assembly of the Senate had turned out by the time Pertinax and his attending Guard arrived," he said haltingly, watching as the daughter of his heart gripped the stem of her copper wine-glass with white-knuckled fingers.
His own goblet previously forgotten, he took a long swig of the beverage before proceeding, suddenly needing the comfort of its suffusing warmth poured into a belly gone cold, a spleen dreading the effect his words would have on her hard won calm.
"It was obvious, by this point, who the ring-leader was in organizing the usurpation. Many of the witnesses—whether because they genuinely believed Sosius Falco should have been tried for treason as an Enemy of the People, or they were simply wanting to dissociate themselves from a plainly failed mutiny—were calling for outright justice," Gracchus explained.
Far out to the east, lightening flashed, pure and cutting brilliance--knives of white-lashing across the night-tapestry of the gods' domain—speeding down from the heavens, signaling the squalor of an imminent storm blowing up across the open countryside.
"Quintus," he revealed softly, "your Quintus, Lucilla, argued for Falco's innocence like the fabled Cicero."
Drawing in breath, this beloved daughter of his soul, exquisite gem amongst women, closed her eyes, veiling the naked pain in their orbs before it could betray her, and leaned her head back, pale skin tight over chiseled features like white death.
Silence filled the room, into which the only sounds were of the women's quiet, regular breathing, an occasional rustling of fabric when Sekt-aten shifted upon the stool, the rising and dying away of storm-driven bursts pummeling the stone walls of the villa.
He said nothing for the moment, letting Lucilla work through the turmoil she must have been re-experiencing all over again.
She finally mastered herself. When she was ready, she raised her head, breathing too regularly to not be thinking about it, her speech just a little too controlled, the expression of hurt and betrayal not quite hidden beneath her exhaustion.
"How...how could he," she rasped brokenly. "Gods, how could he," she uttered again in cowed disbelief, shaking her head. "I thought he understood…understood how I hate that man almost as much as I despise Virius Lupus."
Her eyes rested on him, full of accusation, shining, but no tears spilled forth. "You say he loves me, Gracchus. Do you suppose this is how Quintus demonstrates the honesty of his sentiment—by defending a man who deserves to suffer the death of traitors? The man who conspired with the murderer of my son?"
The ex-senator was sure her quaff of wine had been over half-full; became easily finished off with two deep swallows, promptly re-filled by the unpretentious gesture of the Nubian woman pouring more of the silken-red vintage into Lucilla's goblet.
He nodded permission for his own goblet to be topped-off when Sekt-aten proffered the glass beaker at him silently, before resuming her place upon the stool, shrouded by the cloak of shadow and lamplight.
His voice was full of concern for her distress. "In the end, dearest, there were very few alternatives for Pertinax to follow. Your brother's policies of taxing and commerce made an awful lot of people wealthy—not necessarily the choicest personages," placing a comforting hand on her forearm as he continued. "The Praetorians are even more dangerous, thinking of themselves as demagogues, beholden to no moral conscience except the sound of coin in their personal coffers, and gross displays of entertainment amongst the City's inhabitants. You see, Helvius Pertinax's reforms have not been applauded by an even reception from all factions."
The sound of thunder rumbling out in the distance across the countryside seemed to signal Lucilla's own personal struggle coming to a final closure. She sighed resignedly, something passing, being freed from her inner-thoughts with the sound.
"And Quintus understands the thin line Pertinax walks between the Senate, the Guard, and the People right now," she said, placing slender fingers of her hand atop his—fond gesture of long time familiarity. "I follow your reasoning perfectly, dear Gracchus. It still makes this no easier to accept."
He simply shook his head, not sure how to respond, deciding forthwith, her remark was rhetorical.
The lamp by the table sputtered in a strong rush of air entering the room just then, swishing the curtains out, and catching Lucilla's attention so that she turned away from him. Her gaze was lost to the black darkness of the emptied work-yard from whence the errant draft blew in, lifting cinnamon wisps of her hair so they spilled down her back and arms, separating her profile from his view.
Unable to see her face through the web of her hair, her posture reflected contemplation, so withdrawn had she become--an utter sense of motionless integrity. He thought, unbidden, of Pygmalion's statue in the reverse--Lucilla finally giving up breathing, and rather than a sculpture coming to life, life had fluttered away with the advent of the blustering storm, swallowed by the night to leave behind, in place of warm, living flesh, only an exquisite creation of marble and stone.
Drops of rain began to spatter dully on the stone window ledge.
Lucilla broke her deceptive stillness, reaching out to latch the shutters.
At which moment, the most deafening--BOOM--Gracchus, or either of the two women, ever heard, erupted directly over what seemed the very roof of the villa, lightening flashing a blinding crack as the foundations of the domicile vibrated to the core of its indwelling, timber base-work.
They all seemed to react at once: Lucilla flinching back from the window, Gracchus covering his ears against the shock of pure sound snapping through the air, and Sekt-aten, flying off the stool with a startled yelp, as though a heated iron poker storked her in the backside.
It was the first uncontrolled movement Gracchus had seen the ebony-skinned woman exhibit all evening.
He waited a few short-breathed moments before uncovering his ears, his inhalations muffled to his hearing, not sure if another sonic blast would hammer the villa yet again. Lucilla sat, frozen up against her pillows, her Nubian handmaid visibly trying to regain her own equanimity, one long-fingered hand resting around her neck, awed terror evident in the gasping rise and fall of her breast.
The awareness of humanity's humble motives, cast insignificant before Nature's random displays of grandiosity. It was an uncomfortable perception for all three of them, with the flashing, blessedly silent, lightening illuminating the room—blazing white luminance, a subtle reminder of the heavens' potential for unrestrained episodes of elemental fury.
Amid the flares of intermittent blue-white light, the driving rain pattered like dull stones tumbling into water, washing over the sill, and pouring down the wall next to the bed. The confusion of shifting shadow from the lamplight, combined with the flashing bolts of electric discharge, his ears still ringing with the aftermath of the thunderous shock, Gracchus wasn't sure if his senses hadn't been distorted in their interpretation of vision or sound. Cautiously, he uncovered his ears, seeing Lucilla with equal hesitancy, shift across the bed to finish drawing the shutters closed, blocking out the assault of rain.
Seeing her shoulders shaking as she leaned back against her stacked down-pillows, her head thrown back, exposing the queenly column of her throat, her hands crossed over one another, about her neck. Hearing…hearing he wasn't sure what, at first; then, figured out it was the unfamiliar sound of her mirth, cleansing and freeing where tears could not go, and anger could not purge. Laughter, scratchy and grating in the back of her throat, morbidly reflected the infrequency of its occurrence in the last months.
"Oh--," she gasped out, failing to finish her thought, the rail of her hesitant amusement overcoming her ability to speak for a moment. "Oh," she tried again, "are we such cowards as that? You would think none of us has ever seen a summer storm," she managed through the sudden hilarity. "Gracchus, you looked like a boy who just spent a night in a graveyard, daring the ghosts to come and haunt you, surprised when they took you up on your presumption, and Sekt-aten—," She never got the rest of her analogy out, doubling over in the bed, letting the perplexing, contrary laughter drain the rest of her words, Sekt-aten's velvet-resonating glee float into the blinking gloom from the corner, echoing her lady's merriment.
He could have chosen to take affront, arguing his reputation for humor, notoriously compared to a pile of wet wood for all the joy he seemed to derive off of other's fun--especially when it was at the expense of his own mannerism—would become irreparably damaged.
Except in the strict code of the laws governing his life, his demeanor toward others, one of those absolutes that had always gone unstated—when Lucilla laughed, there was no resisting the enticement sharing her joy, however short-lived.
Eventually, almost reluctantly, she let go of a last chiming remnant of her mirth, silence filled with the tapping of rain on wooden shutters, the ever present hush of wind, quaking thunder in the skies sheltering the vast expanse of rural Latium—the clamor of Nature taking precedence in the obscure aura of flickering lamplight captured in the bedroom.
She studied him with a steady, frank gaze, unclouded by remnants of her earlier sorrow, her tone dry, ironic when she enunciated the evidence of her pondering mind.
"You know, Gracchus, I must admit, regrettably, I've neglected to be completely forthright with you…up until now, of course. As novice as I might be to interpreting the imperative of divinity via the signals of elements, even I couldn't miss the command of the gods, plain in resounding thunder."
He felt a wiry eyebrow climb in confused query, the reflexive crease form across his forehead.
"I feel it's only fair to exchange a tale for a tale," Lucilla's eyes teeming mimed glee, her voice tinged with dulcet, syrupy mockery. "You see, your brother's wife and your niece were in Rome during the Calends of May, and Maximus is possibly—most probably, if their talents for physic are worth any amount of recognition—still alive, somewhere upon the Isle of the Mighty, by now."
Neither of them paid heed to the low gasp of astonishment from the corner where Sekt-aten remained seated.
"M-M-Mmm-," he stammered dumbly, like a tongue-less idiot, stuck on the initial syllable of the first word trying to squeeze past lips numbed with shock. So much for his renowned urbanity; the implication of Lucilla's little revelation was no less shattering to his cultivated self-possession than if she'd simply said, the entire city of Pompeii was covered by dust and ash; Atlantis fell to the bottom of the ocean, Gracchus.
Across her beautiful, fine-molded features, Lucilla's smile could have been the sun sweeping brilliant and sparkling over winter glades, swathed by spruce and conifer, crystalline icicles a spectrum of dazzled purity.
"Try again, dearest Gracchus," she patted his hand sympathetically. "I realize the bewilderment such news can provoke."
Of course she did. There was just a little too much sly, catlike maliciousness in that smile for her not to realize the weight of what she just pronounced.
"Maeve and Nemhyn?" He spit out, finally—forcefully, his voice cracking like a teenage boy's. Stupid question--no one else in his family fell under the description of such kin-labels.
"I'm sure you're wondering why they didn't reveal themselves to you during their sojourn in our Eternal City. In my humble opinion," she offered with faux-sweetness, "I would venture to guess it had something to do with avoiding a holding cell right next to yours beneath the dank halls of the Coliseum."
Her statement, as she'd intended, broke through his dulling fit of incredulity, eliciting a sudden, reluctant chortle. "No doubt," he conceded, quieting to listen as this enigma of woman-hood, before him on the bed, began to impart the episode of her rendezvous with Maeve—formidable wife of his brother--beneath the Arena's dismal, imposing archways.
Noting the tightness over Lucilla's brow, hearing—as he could hear the storm blowing with wailing fury outside--a stricture in her voice, the faint indicators of a presently buried grief he wasn't sure would ever completely disappear from her demeanor. Gracchus' silence was one of calm patience while the daughter of his soul described how she'd dared entry into the Holy Citadel, disguising herself, and the other two women, as masked priestesses--all to spirit the inert form of a hero-gone-legend out from the clutches of death and intrigue always pervasive in the Capitol. Pervasive, like the rancid odor of the shanty neighborhoods on the lower banks of the Tiber; the ceaseless stream of peoples flowing in and out of the City's gates when the night-guard monitored the arrival of newcomers into the arms of the Rome.
Amid the low rumble of thunder growling harsh and distant in the night beyond, Lucilla, at length, fell quiet upon the conclusion of her story--rain against wooden shutters, a disappointing anticlimax given the allegations potentially arising should news of her revelation be discerned by the wrong ears.
"A palace drudge," was all Gracchus could think to add. For a moment, he fancied hearing Maeve's pointed remark, the cadence of her northern brogue softened by Latin inflection. "I can't imagine my brother's wife was overly felicitous in discovering how--or rather who—you used in replacing Maximus' honored status upon his pyre to conceal the—", coughing with emphasis,"—ehm…unexpected departure."
Lucilla's responsive glance was full of barbed irony. "Your family does have some rather peculiar mores regarding slaves and their rights, Gracchus; ruthless compassion not being one of them."
"Yet, here, in front of your own slave," he nodded toward the shadowed corner where Sekt-aten continued to reside, "you detail a potentially treasonous act with as much guilelessness as if the Nubian were your own mother. And Antius always called me the blind idealist," he laughed dubiously, the sound of dry leaves in autumn.
Lucilla, gallant lady of Roman nobility; daughter, wife, and sister of Caesars—mother to a murdered son—may not have joined in his amusement with open laughter this time, but there was definitely a keen humor shining in her eyes, in spite of the wan gauntness scrawled upon her pallid face.
"Think what you will, Gracchus," she said wryly. "You always have. But maybe you would trust her more if you knew it's because of…my Nubian, that Gaius is safely nursing his little snakebite holed up in his own country-estates, tended by his latest feminine exploit, rather than suffering a slow death of asphyxiation, foaming at the mouth, tongue swollen, and seizing like a rabid dog."
Frowning, Gracchus turned to consider the shadowed form of the woman enshrouded by partial, gilt-flamed illumination, sitting—an ebony statue of mystery--in the corner by the dressing table.
Onyx-eyed, the Nubian held his gaze with reptilian glitter; her slow smile—pearly teeth, even, sharp, and strong—mirroring an equally reptilian chilliness.
"Snake-handler," she vocalized in tones like silk-fabric hissing, gentle, to the floor. "Egypt abounds with serpents, as Italia does. I was one of Gauis' former mistresses…once. During the time of our…liaison, we established an understanding. When we concluded our relation, he set me up with a man who dealt in the craft of serpent-kind, who knew what I had been in my own land. He appreciated the expertise I could bring to his trade."
The ex-senator didn't want to ask, finding it a challenge to his long-practiced poise, in holding the obsidian flatness of her eyes. "What exactly were you, back in your homeland?"
Shifting forward on the stool, the dark-skinned woman's form came more into the flickering lamplight—glass and jade beads clattering as her intricately braided hair, gathered at her occiput, waist-long, fell over one bare-skinned shoulder, svelte black next to the incandescent white of her gown. From above high-boned cheeks, long-slanted eyes studied him over the foot of the bed, her heavy-lidded expression one, almost, of seduction. For a piercing heartbeat in which he felt his pulse shudder through his veins, his breath quicken with—gods, was that desire—he could understand why Gauis had fallen under the enticement of this woman's dark sorcery.
Until her smile, a thing cold and completely inhuman, seemed to contort in the hag-like shadows writhing about the room, to a skeleton's grimace of mocking horror.
"Mistress of Anubis," she whispered, dangerous and serpentine, the Nubian's tone underscored by a sudden lashing of wind and rain upon the shutters of the window.
The icy-wet blast strained the lock holding the shutters closed, the screech of wind leaking between the wooden slots belling the curtains out in an angry flutter, licking the low flame of the lamp on the table.
With the immediacy of crashing waves, the glamour of deadly beauty fell away from the Nubian's visage, and she leaned back upon the stool, her deep chuckle holding no trace of previous wicked temptation. Gracchus relaxed at the sound of it, realizing the dark-skinned woman--daughter of a red desert land whose repute for magic usually caused the most stalwart, common-sensical of Romans to loose the contents of their bowel in quivering, superstitious fear—had been plying a ruse.
He glanced quickly at Lucilla, seeing her face expressionless, unreadable, watching him and her servant through the red-shadowed glow permeating the bedroom.
The Nubian's explanation, stated in her normal, sweet-silken timbre, caught his attention once more. "If men who traffic in the art of assassination using the Guardians of the Underworld don't seek to know the different types of snake-kin, then I am certainly not going to help them along by providing the weapon to murder a man who I once held a certain loyalty to. It takes an experienced eye to decipher between the species of Egypt whose venom can truly kill an adult person, and the lines of serpents borrowing the similarity of appearance utilized by their deadlier cousins. The latter are no more harmful than a child's puppy." When Sekt-aten smiled this time, it held nothing more threatening than the pleasure she gleaned from fooling dangerous men in a game of their own making.
"I am from the land of the Nile. Obviously, the snakes my former master and I dealt in were clearly those of the venomous type."
It was said so straight-faced, Gracchus almost lost the implied wit—only to begin chuckling with deprecating ponderance a moment later.
"Poor Gaius, he's going to be so disappointed when he finds this out," Gracchus insisted, catching Lucilla's eye, her tired smile an affirmation of his own dry amusement. "He was utterly convinced his constitution was simply that indomitable, surviving an attempted assassination from a poisonous snake—the old Sabine blood…not watered down by my Latin relatives, were his exact words."
The youngest daughter of the Antonii brought a hand to her mouth, trying to stifle a stubborn yawn contorting her appreciative snigger, failing in her effort as the deep, resonating sigh surmounted her attempt to speak. "Oh," she exclaimed, quirking a wry grin, semblance of apology. "Poor Gaius, indeed. I think the wine is finally hitting me, Gracchus," she voiced, heavy with weariness, and—he thought—not a little exasperation at her own physical tiredness, impatient with the brevity of her recent recovery from a deep unconscious.
Reading her lady's bodily signals, cued as any attentive servant, properly trained, ought to be, Sekt-aten was one step ahead of him, rising from her stool to assist Gracchus in getting Lucilla more comfortable in bed. The dark-skinned woman finished arranging the pillows, tucking the linen sheet, as though the daughter of Marcus Aurelius were a young child rather than a woman just into her third decade.
Gracchus stepped back from the side of the bed, waiting. Lucilla's head, upon the pillows, was turned askance, studying Sekt-aten who knelt to the floor before her lady's reclining form, fingers of both women, entwined, a lattice-work of ebony and ivory in the wavering flame and shadow.
"Katabasis," the dark-skinned woman's voice echoed the soft hush of wind, dropping its wailing tempest, only to rage back against the villa's sturdy stone-walls, blasting a furious gale of rain to rattle the shutters of the window.
He didn't know if it was the Nubian's voice, or the sensation of glacial claws pebbling his skin, sweeping in with the lashing rain, defiant splashes of water managing to evade the barrier of the shutters, pooling along the inner-trough of the concrete-framed trellis. "Don't fear your vision, Mother of Romans. There are greater forces at work than the actions of a few abominable, self-serving men."
Another whisper of air rose, sounding like the keening wail of lost souls, bringing an unusual chill to the room, out of season for a night abundant with the stifling humidity of late summer.
"That's what I am afraid of," said Lucilla, low-voiced and tired. "Katabasis," she repeated then, a mantra of hope to comfort her bruised spirit.
Tresses of her hair curled, lifted in the ceaseless wail of the tempest outside, fluttering motionless to the edge of the linen sheet drawn at her chin. The evasive gust continued, swishing lacy curtains, molding past the Nubian's kneeling posture--the fine material of her white dress contoured against her sinuous body--then tugged at the hem of his own tunic, before trailing out the door in a whistling departure to the hall beyond.
The notion was quite plain to Gracchus, there were deeper meanings behind the women's words--allusions to events in the grove of Diana Nemorensis--he was not privy to at the current moment.
With a certain decisiveness, Sekt-aten kissed Lucilla's hand; then, rose to her feet, motion like the graceful weaving of dancer's arms, taking her leave with a bow toward Gracchus. Her eyes glittered with inscrutable darkness, burning over him just before she exited the small room.
Her parting action, the dark-skinned woman's expression, left him feeling more than a little agitated, for reasons he really didn't think he wanted to contemplate.
He shook off the uncomfortable impression, bending to stroke back the disarray of Lucilla's tangled hair, spread across the pillows.
"You should rest, child," he advised gently, followed by, daughter of my heart—always the silent endearment.
With a father's unstated love, the seasoned senator kissed her forehead, watching in the darkness, her reluctant eyelids begin to close, losing the battle to impending oblivion.
"We have discussed…delicate matters here, tonight. It will be no benefit to either of us, nor my brother's illustrious wife--," oh Maeve, what have you done, he pleaded to the deity of his own wistful heart, and perhaps, the memory of an old love,"--nor our elusive general-turned-slave, if we are too tired on the morrow for thinking clearly on subjects posing the potential for danger this one presents."
He wasn't sure if she registered his last words. In the moments it took to straighten, cover the paces from the bed to the dressing table, and retrieve the lamp—flame and darkness casting wild shadows about the small room--he heard, just perceptible beneath the gusting rage of the storm outside, Lucilla murmur in a somnolent voice.
"Artos," a word, a breathless sigh, meaning indecipherable.
Pausing, he turned back at the doorway, but she'd already descended to the regular rhythm of true, good, sound sleep.
He hoped, facing back to the gloom of the outer hall surrounding the villa's insular garden, hers would be a dreamless slumber, as well.
I don't add addendums, usually—but this one might be necessary…I don't know.
Firstly—I apologize for my lack of knowledge regarding Rome's topography. Attempting to construct scenes from my memory (been there twice, hope to return innumerable times, and all I remember is the Forum was really long, I could have wandered through the ruins for days, and there were lots of hilly-streets) of how the City is layed out, and apply that to maps based on the ancient layout, is quite difficult, amid roman-britain, sarmatians, etc. etc. Oh yeah, and life in general;) I owe a huge amount of debt to www.roman-empire.net; and bill thayer's elaborate, and hopefully eternal site, entitled the Lacus Curtius. If people are interested, plug the title into a google search. I, unfortunately, don't remember the URL at the moment.;)
Secondly—I'm lazy. It was simply too easy (and maybe Gladiator's script writers meant for this), in perusing online texts of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to utilize the convenience of the two Quintuses ("Quintii" hahaha—humor me;): Quintus Laetus Amelianus (Praetorian Quintus), and the Quintus Sosius Falco (senator Falco) for the first attempted coup against Pertinax.
Also, I have skewed history tragically, here, and will do so more, as the story evolves. Lucilla was the sister married to Claudius Pompieanus; Fadilla (her older sister), managed to outlive Lucilla in truth, but again—creative license to have Fadilla marry the man, instead; plus, good excuse to insert new, potential character later on, next time we return to Rome.
Commodus did have a concubine named Marcia. Although the movie focused (oddly enough), on his uh…incestuous side, I frankly think it would have been more interesting to throw in the existence of his mistress. Oh well. Plus, it seemed natural she would have gone from the bed of the dead emperor, to the bed of his surviving senatorial support (Falco). Gotta get along, somehow, after your emperor bites the dust, and unless you were an empress, or lucky enough to be a widow, or had very generous/wool-brained male relatives, there just weren't many options for women, even well-to-do women, in those days.;)
Thirdly and Lastly—in my extremely scant knowledge of provincial royal families in the Empire, the upper/officer class of the Roman military machine, and how they dealt with their sons, I have been trying to find a reasonable explanation for how Senator Gracchus could be related to someone named M. Antius Crescens Calpurnianus (who was, in truth, an acting governor of Britain contemporary to the setting of this story). I wish I had the book on-hand where I have found this (can cite title in next chapter), but it was not an unusual thing for families of upper-class nobility, to adopt out sons to families, say of senatorial ranking should they wish their own sons to have access to a public/political career in the capitol—an avenue which would otherwise have not been open to them. The family of the Sempronius Gracchii was an old branch running back to one of the older lines of Rome (and is probably more familiar from the events of the brother's Gracchii during the era of the Republic). I know there are several inconsistencies with my construction of how these things worked in Imperial Rome, but, once more, for the sake of creative license, I see no reason why a branch of the Sempronius Gracchii could not still have been in existence by the time of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, with connections to the senate.
Anyway, for those who really get squelched-up over these kind of things, I apologize, once again, but—sad to say—we have one more chapter dedicated to a reminiscence of Gracchus', going into a little more detail of his earlier years—and a forbidden love.
Then, back to Roman-Britain, Hadrian's Wall, Sarmatians, some new characters, and Maximus finding an ally in the most unlikely of creatures—a horse.