Sissi shifted her position on the wooden chair. She surveyed her surroundings. A plain table, even plainer walls, and beat-up stools. Aelia had immediately hushed her in a surprising show of clearheadedness and led her to this room. It was dusty and dark and most likely in disuse, but Sissi still looked around in disgust. For all her airs and perfumes, Aelia didn't apply the same rigorous discipline to her villa.
Sissi had made the slightest attempt to leave earlier, but in truth, she was glad Aelia had insisted upon her staying. A respectable daughter of one of the oldest Roman families did not want to get caught up in a scandal of this proportion, but all the same, she sipped at her tea calmly.
"Well, you wanted to know, did you not? Now, come on. You can sit down, and I'll bring you refreshments," Aelia had said, gripping her arm firmly. "Come now." With urgency, she'd moved Sissi into the villa where the other vampires were at.
Above excitement though, fear reigned boldly. What would happen to her? What would happen to her family? What would happen to her friends? Rome's situation was precarious enough with the emperor's recent squandering of the city's coffers.
"You're still here. I wasn't sure if you'd wandered off." Aelia stood at the room's curtainless entrance; now that she could think more clearly, Sissi suspected she was in slave quarters and was thankful that Aelia had at least thought of that. She could not have the other guests knowing she was here. "Is the tea good?" Aelia asked.
"Good. I sent my slaves to fetch me a fresh batch of tea leaves this morning, but all they could find were two-day old leaves." She sighed.
"Find more competent slaves. I find that shipments from Dacia and Caledonia prove to be most fruitful."
"Ah, but finding good slaves is such a task. My favourites always manage to die too."
"If you play favourites, you will end up as Livia Drusa did." Livia Drusa had been infamous for her cruel treatment of her slaves and had eventually paid with her life for it.
"And life is nothing without risk, no? But, enough of this. I did not have you stay so that I could convince you of my eternal innocence. I have a proposition for you."
"A proposition? Of what sort?"
"I want to take advantage of the situation at hand."
Sissi jumped to her feet. "Take advantage? The emperor has just been murdered and you're speaking of politics?"
"But it is always politics, is it not?" Aelia's frown dipped further, ever the picture of a weary maiden if one didn't know better. When she looked up, her eyes were grim. "We are patricians, Caecilia, the descendents of the original founders of Rome and forever destined to play the game of politics. You are foolish if you do not think the others in my villa are already plotting to take advantage of the emperor's death. And worse yet, we are women in a man's world."
She was right.
"You know I am right," Aelia continued. "And that is why we must plot before the others, form alliances before the others; it is a race against time, and we-"
"Spare me the speech. You are looking for an alliance?"
"Yes, you were always smart, Sissi. There's a reason why you dislike me so much when the other women simply fawn over my necklaces and rings and gasp at my gossip."
She tried to calm her breathing and keep her voice steady. Though she did not need to breathe, it was a habit most vampires picked up to appear more human. "I do not dislike you."
Aelia smiled, white teeth lit up in the silver moonlight. "You are sixteen and sheltered by your parents, Caecilia, and it is showing. You will learn to lie as you age."
"And what do you have to gain by such accusations?"
"I am not as stupid as my reputation belies. Help me, and I will help you. I like you, Caecilia. You are inexperienced, but you are also intelligent."
"The emperor has just died."
"And that's why this is the most opportune time! As women, we are disallowed in the political arena, but there are other ways of gaining influence." One glance at the excitement that clearly shone from Aelia's eyes, and Sissi wasn't sure if the woman were distraught about the emperor's death in the least. Her hair had been carefully redone since she'd left Sissi in the dining room, and a different brooch sparkled in the hollow of her neck.
"We should be mourning him. I think I'll go home now, actually. My head is clear and my feet are steady. My parents will wonder where I am if I am gone for too long."
"You do not wish to stay and see the emperor?" Aelita asked. "He is in the floor above us."
Her answer was automatic. "No."
"Fine. But think about my words, Caecilia. You are widowed, and you are young. You could do much with your position in society, marry anyone you wished, befriend anyone you wished. Choose your friends wisely." With a last sorrowful glance, one that Sissi wasn't entirely sure if it was fabricated or real, she flashed away from the room.
Sissi massaged her forehead wearily. Her head was still fogged, but she was hesitant to stay at Aelia's villa for too long. She'd only come to enjoy the festivities, and she'd gotten the death of the emperor. Tonight had not gone as she wished. She could feel a headache coming on. Walking into the hallway, Sissi peered into the rooms, looking for where her slaves had gone.
"Mistress!" the child cried at the sight of Sissi.
"We're heading back to the villa now." Their hunched backs and obedient tones reminded her of who she was, and she slipped into the position of the privileged daughter of one of the most influential families of Rome.
"Yes, Mistress," the older slave said. She was biting her lip. Sissi nearly rolled her eyes. The slaves and their insatiable need for gossip. "I'm sure you've heard, have you not?"
They at least had the sense to appear clueless. "What are you talking about?" The younger one mumbled.
"The emperor's death." She said airily. "It's a tragedy for Rome, of course. I trust you will tell no one of my visit here tonight and your lips shall remained sealed of the emperor's murder until it is made public."
"Yes, mistress," they murmured.
She didn't miss the way their eyes cast down though, eyelashes covering surely bright eyes. She sniffed and held her chin high. There was a reason why they were slaves, as only inferior creatures would blindly bow down to the will of others. "Let us go."
She led the way, once again, and the journey back was quicker than before. Her breathing was quick and erratic, a habit of panicked humans, and all she wanted was to go home and pretend the night had never happened. Aelia had done well though, and her words edged themselves firmly into Sissi's thoughts.
You could do much with your position in society, marry anyone you wished, befriend anyone you wished. Choose your friends wisely. The words lay stuck in her mind until she fell into a restless sleep.
It was late morning before she woke up, and she darted around the room in a sore attempt to make herself presentable before walking down to the dining room. Sissi had already missed the early morning meal, but she was sure that it wouldn't be long until the prandium, the small meal they took at noon. She slipped on a fresh tunic and then a stola, the silk folds pooling on the floor. She made note to talk to the clothes maker about proper measurements and their importances, but her mind was far more preoccupied with her parents.
Had the emperor's death reached the populace yet? Or, at the least, the patricians, and by extension, her parents? Had her parents noticed her absence last night?
She rushed down to dining room, hoping her mother would be weaving or directing the household slaves. Three couches in the most luxurious material available within the empire surrounded a small table. The sun slanted oblique upon the mosaic floor. Meanwhile, the fourth side consisted of the entrance and a view out to the gardens, so that slaves would have room to serve the food. Traditionally, women sat on hard stools when dining. As evidence that Bacchus, the god of wine and madness was the one playing with her fate, her mother sat at the table on a wooden stool, golden hair already done up in an intricate braid that bespoke her status. Since business obligations were normally scheduled in the morning, her father was most likely in a meeting.
Claudia Iuventia bore delicate features that Sissi herself had inherited, but as with Aelia, her feminine features masked a masculine nature. The only sign that her mother was anything but a lovely face was the frosted blue eyes that for so much of Sissi's childhood, had taken in every mistake, every wrongdoing. Even now, after they had reached adulthood, she still held a strong grip on her children.
"Caecilia," her mother spoke. "I see you have finally woken from your slumber?"
Sissi swallowed. It was both perplexing and frightening that her mother had not sent a slave to wake her up, and she knew to be nervous. "Yes, mother. I had a restless night."
"So restless that you seem to have forgotten what today is." Her mother arched a brow. "I spoke to you last week about our guests for today's cena."
The cena was the meal traditionally taken mid-afternoon after the prandium. It was the largest meal of the day, and as such, business activities and meetings were traditionally ceased after the prandium to bathe and prepare for the cena. With guests, the meal might last for hours, and it was a headache of manners and remembering all the social connections the guests had and their relative social standings. She had faked illness in the past, but her mother's expression brooked no exceptions.
"Yes, today's cena," she replied, emulating the cool tone of her mother. "I do recall you speaking of it."
Her mother eyed her from her position at the table, making no move to invite Sissi to sit down. She dipped a bit of emmer bread in honey and chewed while Sissi waited. When she finished, she asked, "Do you?"
"Then you will also recall of whom I spoke of."
"Of whom, mother?"
"Why, the guests we will be entertaining. A proper Roman matron, and a widow no less, remembers her commitments, does she not?"
She gritted her teeth. Her mother took every chance to remind her that she had already been married once and after the mourning period was over, would be married again. "And what are you suggesting, mother? Am I not a proper Roman by all virtues of society? I pray to Juno every day that I may do well for our family."
Her mother stood up in a fluid moment, blue eyes burning. "Do not lie to me, Caecilia. You were at that woman's domus last night! The same woman who murdered the emperor."
Sissi staggered back, anywhere to get away from her mother's grasp. "W-what are you talking about?"
"You know what I'm talking about."
"I-" Her mother's hand was half-raised as if to strike at her. Sissi was more preoccupied with other thoughts though. Had Aelia truly killed the emperor? She had seemed so upset.
Her mother continued on. "I will not have you associate with a murderer."
She attempted to choke out some words, but they would not come. All she could see was Aelia's feverish eyes, frantic with worry. Had it been worry for Rome and her people, or had Aelia's thoughts lay somewhere else. Had Sissi unknowingly talked to a murderer?
"I did not know she was a murderer!" she blurted out.
"So you admit you were there." Her mother's smile was cold.
"I-" Her shoulders slumped. "Yes, I was there." A loud crack sounded, and she felt a stinging upon her face. Her cheek felt almost numb. Her mother had slapped her.
"It appears you do not understand the consequences of your actions. You are sixteen, old enough to understand what associating with a harlot like Aelia will do to your reputation. Not to mention, the emperor's death, Caecilia."
"No one saw me there. I promise," she said quickly.
"Except that wretched girl, no?"
"Yes." Sissi looked down. "Aelia saw me."
"And you do not think that she will attempt to condemn you? She will be desperate in the aftermath of the emperor's death, desperate the deflect the blame from herself. You are too convenient a target."
"We are not sure that she is the murderer."
"It appears you did not pay attention in your lessons, yet I am not surprised. You have not been listening, have you?"
"I have only just woken up, mother."
"A proper Roman matron is never lazy or late. But never mind that. Aelia Nasica was arrested early this morning. They found a piece of her cloak by the emperor's body, and she and the emperor had been missing before he was found."
"No," she whispered, though she was not sure to whom she was whispering to. To the gods or to her mother, it was all the same.
"I must bathe now," her mother announced, moving towards the entrance of the dining room. "We shall speak of this and your punishment later. You would do well to bathe too." She wrinkled her nose. "Our guests will not want to smell a slave." And in a flurry of perfume and silk, Claudia Iuventia was gone.
notes: hello! I haven't been dutifully working on this as much as I'd like, and truth be told, I researched so much for this story that I got a bit sick of it, but I was browsing through my old writing again, saw this, and couldn't resist picking it up. I can't update regularly to save my life, and this world is near and dear to my heart, so I'm doing my best to write it how I want it. That being said, that doesn't mean I'm closed to criticism. By any means, if you have CC, I'm open to it.
Anyway, as this is a completely different universe than 21st-century Paris, and I'm doing my best write Rome as it really was, there are a few things I feel like I need to clear up. Feel free to skip this, but I'm hoping it'll make reading this a little easier.
names: I'm following Roman naming conventions. This is a huge mess especially since the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire both span several centuries. You don't need to know much, but for the sake of authenticity, the names have been altered. Some are recognisable. Some will hopefully seem more similar if I do the characterisation correctly.
language: even though I'd love to, I've never studied Latin. I've worked in a few words that I hope lend to the atmosphere of this story.
culture: I've researched a lot, and there is a lot that I'm still very confused on. Sources and websites contradict each other much of the time, so if you ever see something that doesn't look quite right, don't hesitate to shoot me a PM.
characters: the lives of upper class Romans really intrigue me, and as such, that's what I want to be writing about that. With that though comes a few limitations. There will not be a wide range of ethnicities here. I'm writing about Romans, and yes, I am aware that stories often are not historically accurate, but I'm attempting to make this as historically accurate as possible. I'm writing in the world of Roman nobility to be specific, and to be even more specific, I'm writing about patricians-that is, the descendants of the original settlers of Rome. To be frank, the little diversity that you will see will most likely only come in the form of slaves. Please do not read on if this offends you.