An excerpt from the following short story was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Rendezvous: A Literary Celebration of Historical Romance. Here it is in its entirety. Please enjoy.
“Look here, domina,” the slave commanded, raising a hand and tracing an imaginary circle in the air, just above his head of dark, cropped hair.
Octavia stared, confused by the juxtaposition of a slave giving an order while using the deferential domina, “Master”. The slave still held his hand high, so that the sleeve of his tunic fell down to his shoulder, showing a tanned arm no less muscled than that of a gladiator in the coliseum. Tanned, or just brown? Octavia wondered. She had not thought to ask her husband where the slave came from. Perhaps he was taken captive in Hispaniola, or Carthage. Or perhaps he was nothing more than one of the familia rustica, a simple farm slave turned brown in the sun.
The slave stopped walking and turned to face her. She stopped as well, with surprise teetering on the edge of anger. The sudden silence behind her, no more shuffling sounds of sandals, told her that her procession of slaves had also halted.
The slave’s eyes were brown and calm, with no insubordination in them, or worse, ridicule. But he met her eyes squarely, something that none but her oldest vernae, the trusted slaves born in her household, might do.
“Servus,” she said, addressing him as “slave” rather than using his name, to remind him. “You forget yourself. Or, at least, you forget something.”
“Domina,” the slave said, “I just mean to suggest that if you set your eyes on a point, one that is high, it will help.”
Her eyes were already set on a high point – on his own eyes, which were a good foot higher up than her’s, so that she had to tilt her head back and stick her chin out. She did not understand what he was saying, which made her feel foolish, which made her angry. But in the instant it took for her to draw breath for a rebuke, it dawned on her how proud she looked with her head held high, and how for a few seconds her flush of shame had disappeared. At that thought, her cheeks burned again as she snuck a quick glance around, remembering that she should be afraid of being seen. But she saw only simple, brown tunics in the street, none of the light-colored togas or stolas of the upper-class. It was rather early for someone of Octavia’s rank to be out.
“Walk on, servus, and move quickly to make up for the time you’ve wasted,” Octavia said. He nodded, and complied silently.
But she set her gaze where he had pointed, as she fell into step behind him. And she found that it did force her to hold her head high, and it kept her from making out faces as they moved through crowds, so that when they finally arrived at the tent of the slave-traders, the Venalitii, she did not know whether they had passed anyone who might know her. It did not bring back her dignity, but it helped her from drowning in her shame.
Standing in front of the tent of the Venalitii, however, was another matter. They were as browned as her slave, skin rough and dry, faces coarse and made up of aggressive lines, as if they’d been carved from rock by a child. They wore swords and whips at their belts. Octavia stopped a few feet away, making eye contact with the nearest one to show that she was not just lost; she had come on purpose. Though the straggle of a dozen or so slaves at her back, standing with shoulders bowed and eyes anywhere except on the Venalitii, announced her purpose just as clearly.
“Lady,” the man said, stepping forward. “You honor us. It is not every day that a great lady stands before me.” He smirked, and Octavia’s cheeks burned. Her disgrace was obvious, even to a simpleton. Women of her rank did not sell slaves directly; they sent their head slave, their atriensis, to put them up at auction. But she needed to dispense with them quickly, and quietly, and she could not send her atriensis to do it, because she needed to sell him, too.
“I have need of your services,” she said simply.
He bowed again. “Lady, I would be honored to service you.” Laughter broke out from the surrounding tents. Octavia pushed away a desire to spit on his face and turn on her heels, and began her business.
She tried to stare at a point just above the Venalitius’ head, like the slave had suggested, as she presented each of the slaves, listing their history and their merits. But although it forced her to hold her head high, it did not have the same effect on her emotions as when she stared at her own slave. She could still see the Venalitius in her peripheral vision, his face ugly and leering like a vulgar statue. Her eyes shifted as she went on, until she was watching her slave instead. That was better. It was even haughtier to avert her gaze as she spoke to the slave-trader, and that suited her. And besides, her slave’s posture was so sure – head high, shoulders back, muscles somehow tensed but relaxed at the same time, that she felt her own body settling into the pattern he set before her.
He stands like a war-hero, she thought to herself, and not a slave. By Jupiter, where did my husband get him from?
The thought came to her just as she presented her atriensis, her head slave, more well-trusted than her own husband had been before his death. She stumbled over the slave’s name as her thoughts went elsewhere. But then he stepped forward and gave it himself, and not only his personal name but his full name, with her husband’s name and family attached.
“Pharnaces Verginius Quintus servus,” he declared with a fierce, animal pride, like a hunting cat that will not give up its prize to jackals.
A chorus of laughter sounded out. Octavia did not love her husband’s memory enough to declare his name proudly. Or perhaps she loved herself too much to tie herself to his dishonor. Her cheeks flushed darker but still she kept her head high, her eyes on the slave who stood like he was free.
“I see, lady, why you have come to us by yourself,” the slave-trader said. His face was changed now; though his mouth still twisted into a smirk, he was showing too much teeth, and his eyes were lit up oddly. It is like a wolf before a kill, Octavia thought to herself.
She was right. The Venalitius had spotted a wounded deer among the herd. When he gave her his offer for the lot of slaves, she cried out, trying to turn her despair into anger.
“You insult me,” she said, wrenching her eyes from her slave to look at the slave-trader in the face. “You do not offer me half their worth.” She glanced about quickly to see that the other Venalitii were watching, and laughing. She would not get a higher price from them.
“Perhaps you may get a better price at public auction,” the slave-trader said, his grin slowly spreading wider.
“You insult me, and you insult the dead. I am the wife of a patricius,” Octavia cried out.
“I would never insult the name of your husband,” the slave-trader replied, bowing low, “Or his wondrous legacy of generosity.” The other Venalitii chuckled, the sound turning into a great murmur, like breaking waves.
“So, I will offer you five hundred denarii more,” he continued, raising his hands to quell the murmer, like a priest commanding the sea. “But not for the sorry lot behind you. For this one here,” he said, pointing to the slave in front of her. Octavia turned to look at him again – solid, muscled and proud – and felt more shame at the thought of selling him, taking silver denarii for his life and honor, than she had felt all morning.
“I have changed my mind. I will not sell him to you,” she said, her eyes back on her slave – on his frame now, his brown skin, not the imaginary spot inches above his head that he had pointed out. Her head lifted up, her chin lifted out and she clenched her jaw muscles stubbornly. “And you will give me the same amount for the rest of them.”
That evening, Octavia let her hair down without the help of her ornatrix. The ornatrix had been a young girl, and frequently made mistakes, or at least, did not arrange Octavia’s hair quite the way she wished. She had cursed her many times, to her face and behind her back. She cursed her again now for arranging the braided bun too tight for Octavia to unfasten – or at least, Octavia did not know the proper way to unfasten it, and could not make it out with her fingers.
“Domina,” Octavia heard from the doorway. She turned from the mirror to see her slave.
“Yes – servus?” she said. She had been about to call him by his personal name. She usually called her slaves by their personal names, or even by nicknames. But there was something about it being only the two of them in the entire domus that made her hesitate.
“There is a man at the door. He wishes to see you,” the slave said.
“Who is it? What is his name?” she asked sharply.
“He says his name is Appius, but he would not give me his family’s name, and he would not tell me his business.”
Octavia breathed out in relief. “It is probably only a debt collector. Here,” she said, taking her purse from her waste and tossing it to the slave. It rattled with denarii, the purchase price for her household. “Give him whatever I owe him, and ask him for a writ of payment.”
“Yes, domina,” he said. Octavia turned back to the mirror. Still the slave stood at the door; she could feel him there, his presence solid and patient, like the old stallion that her husband would ride on longer journeys. She had been forced to sell that horse weeks ago, just after the funeral procession. That was when she thought she’d be able to discharge her husband’s debts by selling only the animals. The remembrance made her want to laugh a bitter, ringing laugh. She had not yet known the full extent of his indebtedness.
“Is there something else?” Octavia asked without turning around.
“Yes, domina. Is there – is there someone you are expecting to whom I should not give admittance?”
Her hands stopped pulling at the braids. She let them fall to her sides, and dropped her gaze as well, her eyes coming to rest on the silver pots that held her ointments and creams, the ones that bore the seal of her father’s house: a blackbird holding a coin in its beak.
“Yes. Anyone from the house of Publius Cornelius Merula.”
“You – you are decided in that?”
Octavia turned around. The slave looked surprised, thrown off. Octavia felt pleased, for a moment, that she was able to spark a reaction in him, that she had forced something past his usual cool composure.
“I am decided,” she said.
Octavia spent the rest of the day arranging and rearranging her jewelry, counting in her head how much she might get for the lot of it, then stopping – picking out some pieces, the ones she might save, the ones she wanted to save. But she knew that even if she sold every pearl, every chunk of silver, even the marble in the floors and her bed frame made of carved bone and glass inlay – still she would not have enough to discharge her debts. She rearranged and rearranged, and wept – but they were the tears of the proud, full of anger and bitterness instead of weakness. By the time dusk fell, she was empty and finished. She lay on her bed, the one that had cost her husband a legionary’s yearly salary, and closed her eyes as if dead.
It was the smell of food that brought her back.
“And so you are a cook as well?” Octavia said from the entrance to the kitchen. She had tried to stay in her room, tried to tell herself that it would be easier if she starved to death before the last of the debt collectors came. But she was hungry from missing the midday meal. And she was not yet used to being hungry.
The slave looked up from a smoking fire, where chunks of meat sizzled on a spit. But he only smiled, and turned back to his work.
“I believe my husband purchased you to bear our litter,” Octavia continued. “He said nothing of other skills.”
“I have many skills, domina.”
“And I have no litter, not any more. I was cheated on that, too,” she said bitterly. “It was worth more than 30 denarii, much more.”
The slave did not respond. He moved to the side, to a small pot set over another fire, and poured the bubbling mixture into a small bowl. Octavia watched as he took the spit from the fire, pulling the meat off with his bare fingers, but moving so quickly and gracefully that she doubted he had been burned. Finally he drizzled olive oil over the mixture, and turned, holding the bowl out.
“I could serve your meal in your bedroom, domina – or I could serve you in the dining room,” he said, holding out the bowl.
Octavia laughed. “A woman, eating in the tricilinium – what a scandal. But who is there to see, other than you? I have taken a lifetime of meals in my room. I will eat in the triclinium, and I will lie on my husband’s couch, and you can pretend you are one of his business associates, come to give me good news.” She was not sure, as she said it, whether her voice went high as with a joke, or as if she were about to cry. The slave nodded, and followed her out the door.
The stew was good, made from root vegetables and greens, but it was not good enough to distract Octavia from the silence. She lay on her husband’s couch, in the center of the room, as she had longed to do so many times before. But the room was empty, and more than that, the house was empty, but for her and the slave. And he she could not even see, as he stood in the hallway, by the door so that he was close if she called for something, but out of sight as she ate.
“Servus,” she called finally, just as the silence began to take on a buzzing sound, “Come here.” He entered immediately and stood before her, calm and solid, like a mountain.
“I told you that you would pretend to be one of my husband’s business associates, and so you must lie on one of the couches,” she said.
“Yes, domina,” he said. She watched his face as he slowly lowered himself to the couch opposite from her. Again she noticed a small crack in his composure as he performed an impropriety that would get some slaves killed. She wondered briefly if he had ever lied on a couch. The thought bothered her. She did not like to think of him as so different from her, as something distant and unknown.
“Servus,” she said. “How old are you?”
“How old do you suppose I am, domina?”
She laughed. “I have you lie on a couch, and now you avoid answering questions as well as any senator?”
The slave smiled, and met her eyes, but still said nothing.
“I would say you are twenty-three, or twenty-four,” Octavia said.
The slave nodded. “Indeed, domina.”
“Indeed, what? Is it twenty-three, or twenty-four?”
He smiled again, wider than before. “It is whichever you would say it is, domina.”
She laughed, but this time it was forced. “I would have you tell me the truth, and I would have you talk to me like one of my husband’s business associates, and not a slave – to continue our fiction.”
“Then as a business associate, I will turn your question back on you.”
“How old am I? Ha!” she said. “I am twenty-nine, far past my prime.”
“As a business associate with a flattering tongue, I would tell you that you are mistaken, and you cannot be a day over twenty-one.”
“Ha!” Octavia laughed again. “This is a fiction.” She looked down at her bowl, which was empty now. Still she was hungry. “I am indeed twenty-nine, and I am indeed past my prime. There is no man of position who would marry me now, except perhaps an elderly widower who cares not how old his bride is, or whether she is a virgin, or whether she was previously disgraced.”
The slave nodded again but dropped his eyes, and silence took the room the way winter takes a forest.
“Servus, were you born a slave?”
“It matters little, whether I was or not. I am now.”
“Certainly it matters, whether it was all you knew, or you had to grow used to it.”
“It does not change that I am not free now.”
“So you were born free? Where are you from? You are too dark to be Germanic. But you could be Gallic, or from Carthage. Or you could be Greek – sometimes you talk to me as if you were a Greek philosopher.”
“Even if I were born in the Forum Magnum itself, I would not be a Roman, not without my freedom, and a citizenship.”
Octavia felt as if she were just reprimanded, though for what, she had no idea. The confusion made her feel like the ground was shifting beneath her, like she was not reclining in her own domus but staggering somewhere else, somewhere unfamiliar.
“The fiction is over,” she said with a hint of sharpness. “I am asking you whether you were born a slave, and where you are from, servus.”
“And I will answer you clearly, domina, when you tell me why you would not sell me, and why you will not see anyone from your father’s house.”
Octavia set her bowl down on the floor, hard so that it clattered as if it were about to break. “I am finished, servus. I will be in my room. I expect you to carry out the nighttime duties even though you are alone in them, and to have breakfast prepared in the morning.”
“Certainly, domina,” the slave said, inclining his head so low that she could no longer see his face.
The next morning, Octavia woke in a panic. She was not sure what had woken her until she became aware of a touch on her arm, and the quiet murmur of her slave.
“Domina, it is me.”
She breathed out in relief and reached for his arm as if to steady herself, though she was still lying down, in no danger of falling. His forearm was hard and muscled under her hand, as she’d imagined it’d be, but also warm, which surprised her. She realized that she’d been thinking of him as a cold, immoveable thing, like something made of rock. But of course his skin would be warm against hers.
A shout rang out from the street below, and the panic came back, faceless and senseless.
“A man wishes to see you,” the slave said.
“A debt collector? Pay him, and get rid of him,” Octavia said. But as she said it, the slave shook his head just slightly, and another shout rang out from below, and Octavia understood why she had woken in a panic.
“Tavi! Tavi!” the man was yelling. It was muffled by the walls but the two syllables of Octavia’s childhood name were distinguishable, like when one hears the sound of a creek from very far away.
The slave nodded, seeing the realization on her face. “Yes, it is a man from the house of Publius Cornelius Merula.”
“It is not him? It is not my father himself?” she asked, still panicked.
“If it is, he is dressed very humbly for a patricius. But no, I believe he has only sent a man to you.”
“Tell him I will not see him – no,” she cried out, pulling on his arm even though he had not yet moved. “Say nothing, do not go to him. Let him shout until he gives up and leaves.”
“Yes, domina,” the slave said, nodding. Then, with a frown: “Domina, your father cannot wish you harm?”
“No, of course not. He wishes to take me back to his house, and cancel my debts.”
“And you will not go?”
“No, I will not.”
The slave frowned again. “Domina, are your debts great?”
Octavia drew in a rattling breath, one that made her feel as old as the wind.
“They are great enough that I could sell everything in this house, until I had nothing but a roof over my head and a tunic on my back, and still I might not pay them back. And I might have to sell the tunic, as well.”
“Well, as the lady of the domus, you are free to walk your rooms bare, if you wish,” he said, with a straight face but the hint of a joke in his eyes. Then he frowned again. “Would that not be a start, though?”
“What, going bare?”
“No.” He sighed, an act that made him seem warm and human again, like less of a rock. “Domina, let me help you.”
An hour later, the contents of Octavia’s room was organized on her bed in a large, glittering pile plus one small one that held only a hairbrush, a pin, and ointment for her face – all of it at the slave’s direction, or rather, encouragement. He had stood by her, murmuring sensible things in her ear, as solid and trustworthy as he was, until finally she was able to resign herself to selling most of the things. Though by the end, she had felt as disoriented as if she’d just stepped out of a whirlwind, as if he’d put a spell over her and she had just woken up.
The pieces of furniture – the stools, the couch, the benches and her vanity table – were gone as well. He had carried them to the main door, ready to be brought to the market and sold. The only item left in the room was her bed.
After helping her sort through the small items, he had set to work silently on the furniture, heaving a couch onto his back, leaving for a moment and then returning to take the next item. Octavia found herself listening for his footsteps when he left, and then watching him when he returned, and soon she was wishing he would speak to her again. But then he did, and she wondered if she had wished too soon.
“Domina,” he said. He had just returned from taking the large couch, the one with marble legs carved into the shape of lion’s mouths, the one that Octavia’s husband had paid extra to import, because of the weight. His face was flushed red and there were drops of sweat on his chest. He leaned against the doorframe, watching Octavia as she sorted through a pile of silver stola pins, trying to calculate how much she might get for the lot. Likely he was only getting his breath back before continuing, but the thought of his eyes on her made her count the same pins over and over, each time forgetting what number she had settled on.
“Do you mourn for your husband?” he asked.
“Do you think that I do?” Now her hands trembled as she picked through the pile.
“If you do, you hide it.”
“Indeed,” she replied, and forced herself to look up. His face was not impassive; he wore a slight frown, and again she felt pleased despite her distress, pleased to be the impetus of some emotion in him. “No, I do not mourn for him. I mourn only for myself.”
“Yes,” he said. “I thought so. You do not hide much.”
She looked down at her stola pins quickly, unsettled by the comment. She hoped that he hadn’t seen the way she had rearranged herself earlier so that she could watch him when he came in from the door. And she hoped he did not now see the pink in her cheeks. In her periphery she watched him move away from the door, towards her. But he stopped before he reached her, and put a hand on the frame of the bed.
Octavia felt a need to put more words out into the air. “Our match was not one of love,” she said, “It was for position. He was almost as old as my father when we married.”
“That was clearly the case, from the little I saw of him.”
Octavia waited for him to say something more, but he did not.
“I had always supposed my husband was a fool,” she added. “But he let me alone, and I had whatever I wanted. Now in death, I know for certain that he was a fool, and that I was, too. And now I am ruined, and even my friends will not speak to me, and I do not have enough to pay off his debts.”
“You had no idea,” the slave asked, though he spoke it more like a statement than a question.
“I had no idea,” she said, but something in her chest squirmed uncomfortably, until she opened her mouth and spoke the truth to him. “That is – servus, have you ever seen something that you did not wish to see?”
“Certainly. Many things, domina.”
“There were moments,” Octavia continued. “Moments when I almost saw it, and I wished so badly that I did not, that I almost did make myself blind.”
“What do you mean, domina?”
Octavia hesitated, but something inside her squirmed again, demanding to be released. She spoke again.
“Sometimes, at the coliseum, or at the amphitheatre, slaves would demand to speak to him – well-dressed ones, educated ones – and he would not meet my eyes when he left to consult with them. I told myself they were infidelities, not money troubles.”
The slave laughed, a big sound that surprised her. “And so you comforted yourself with the thought of infidelities. You Romans are the most backwards of people.”
“Ah, so you are foreign-born?” she cried out. “You are not of Rome.”
“Can any man be born outside of Rome’s grasp, unless he was born in the stars themselves? Is not the whole world under Rome’s thumb? But no, I speak like that because I am not a citizen of Rome, nor will I ever be.”
His words stirred a fierce pride in Octavia. It was common for her to feel the swelling greatness of Rome inside her, the way she did as he spoke. It was the same the kind she felt when she looked on her Caesar at the games, or when the generals paraded through the streets after a victory. But what was not common was the fear mixed in with it. Before she had looked on Rome’s glory from above; now she saw it from below, from the mud and trampling boots of the legions.
When she looked up, there was compassion in the slave’s face, as if he knew what had just passed through her mind. Her cheeks flushed again. But this time he was the one who turned away, though he did turn before she saw a glimpse of some other emotion pass over his face. Which one, she did not know.
“You would get a good price for this bed,” he said, patting the frame with his hand so that it shook. “It must have been very costly when it was purchased.”
“Likely it was. But I do not know how much my husband spent for it. I do not know how much he spent for anything.”
“I can tell you how much he spent for me,” the slave said, his face turned to stone – but it was a tense impassivity, not the calm, relaxed expression he usually wore.
“It is of no consequence to me,” she replied sharply, distress reaching a high note inside her, though she did not know why.
“Certainly, domina,” he murmured.
“If we sold the bed,” she said quickly, “Where would I sleep? In your bed?”
He laughed. The sound was deep and rich, and she realized it was the first time she’d heard him laugh. She flushed again.
“I did not mean with you in it as well, I only meant, as the last bed in the house…if we are selling the others.”
“I knew what you meant,” he said, his laugh fading into seriousness. “But domina, I do not have a bed.”
“Then where you do sleep?”
“On the floor outside your room. Your atriensis did the same, before you sold him.”
Octavia stared. “I did not know…I suppose I never wondered where the slaves slept,” she said. She tried to think, and remembered how when the fever swept through, the one that had taken her husband – when she had cried out in the middle of the night for water, there was always a slave at her side. She had not thought they slept outside her room. She had not even thought about it enough to guess at where they slept. They were at hand when she woke up, at hand during the day, at hand when she retired, as if they were a part of the domus itself, made from marble instead of flesh.
“It is customary, domina, for slaves to sleep outside their masters’ chambers.”
“On the tile,” she said, then shivered. “No, I could not sleep on the floor.
“Then we will have to hope that this and the rest of the furniture is enough,” he said, gesturing to the pile of jewelry and linens and trinkets on the bed.
Octavia laughed the laugh that she would use with her husband when he tried to make jokes with her. “Enough? I could sell the entire domus, and everything in it, and it would not be enough.”
“Yes, domina,” the slave murmured, his face smoothing over to stone again.
Octavia skipped the midday meal again that day. The slave went back and forth from the market, carrying a different piece of furniture on his back each time and then returning to Octavia with more coins clinking in his money bag. She stayed behind, counting what he brought to her and arranging the smaller items. By the time the sun began to set, her stomach was growling loudly enough for her to enter the kitchen by herself. The slave was not yet returned; the last trip was taking him longer than the others, but that was expected because he had taken the heavy couch, the one with the marble legs. How he would carry it all the way to the market, Octavia did not know, but he’d lifted it onto his back without complaint.
The kitchen was small, and dirty by her standards; she wondered how her cook had stood to be in it all day. The fire was nothing but charred sticks and ash, not even embers to help her light it again. Neither could she take an ember from the furnace, because it was not yet lit, though it would be soon as the season changed. She would have to content herself with bread and wine until he returned. She had just ripped off a piece and dipped it in her wine glass when she heard the door open and close, and then the sounds of footsteps in the passageway.
He smiled at her as he stepped in, stopping in the doorway. It was a genuine, tired smile, the kind you would share with a fellow laborer after a long day, or that a farmer would give his wife when he came in from the fields.
“I believe that is it for the day. I will sell the rest tomorrow, domina.”
Octavia suddenly became aware of distinct pleasure and distress as he pronounced the word domina, and realized with surprise that she’d been feeling that way for the entire day, something in her churning and writhing every time he said it. She was not sure if she loved hearing him say it, or if she hated it.
“Here, domina, let me,” he said, drawing closer. He moved slowly and heavily, without his usual relaxed, cat-like power.
“You are tired. You should rest,” Octavia said.
“And will you prepare the meal?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
“I do not know how,” she replied, blushing slightly, then blushing more with the confusion of feeling a kind of shame she had never felt before.
“I know you do not. It is fine, domina. I will do it.”
Octavia waited in the triclinium on her husband’s couch, with the sort of agitated stillness that comes from not knowing what to do even though there is clearly something to be done.
It was perhaps half an hour later when the slave entered carried a single, steaming bowl.
“Here, domina,” he said, holding the bowl to her and inclining his head.
“You need not call me domina,” she said with a slight inhale that felt to her like a gasping for air. “We are the only two in the domus. It is clear you address me.”
“I am not sure I say it for clarity’s sake.” He hesitated at the end, as if he wanted to say it still. But he didn’t.
Octavia reached out, but instead of grabbing the bowl she grabbed his forearm.
“Ca – Caius. Bring your food in here, and eat with me.”
For a moment she was afraid the walls would stay in place between them, even though she had used his personal name, but then she felt his fingers curl around her as he handed her the bowl. She looked up to see him staring into her eyes, more boldly than any slave should stare, and she went almost breathless in the thrill of it.
“I will bring my food, and eat with you,” Caius said, turning and leaving.
When re-entered the room his eyes were down on the floor, and he sat down at the couch opposite Octavia, not the one directly at her right hand. It seemed like perhaps she had only imagined the moment earlier, and fear stirred in her. It grew and grew as the silence stretched on, as if it were eating the words that should have passed between them. Finally it was large enough to be agony, and Octavia spoke.
“Thank you,” she said.
“For making our meal,” she said.
“Is that all?” he asked, smiling.
“No. For helping me. For staying with me. I am alone, but for you.”
“I am not free to leave should I wish to.”
“Do you wish to? Would you wish to, if you could?” Octavia asked, looking down quickly at her bowl. She realized she had not touched it yet, and quickly brought a spoonful of the porridge to her mouth.
The answer came back cold and warm at the same time, like the sound that might come out of rocks if they could sing.
“No. I would not leave.”
Octavia looked up to see his eyes on her, emotion on his face again thought she realized she knew him too little to know exactly what he felt.
“I used the last of the meat,” he said.
Octavia looked down at her bowl, where browned pieces of beef floated among the brown beads of the boiled emmer grains.
“And the oil will run out tomorrow. But there is still plenty of grain,” he continued.
“Porridge with no meat, and without oil?”
“You will grow used to it,” he said. “It is not so bad, especially after a long day.”
“I am growing used to going hungry, too. That might perhaps be better than plain porridge.”
“You joke,” he said, “But those may be your only options.”
“We could run away together.” Octavia half whispered it, with her head down, as if to her bowl instead of to Caius, and she squeezed her eyes shut as if to hide herself from his reaction.
But he only laughed, warm and rich again. She looked up at him, and smiled.
“And where will we go?” he asked.
“Anywhere. Into the woods.”
“If you will not eat porridge without oil, and you will not sleep on the floor of your own domus, I do not think you will take well to living in the woods.”
“No. I will not.”
“There is one place we could go,” he said.
“Your father’s house.”
“I will not return there.”
“Was he truly so terrible? Is it better to starve to death, alone and ashamed?” Caius asked, gently, the way you might settle a spooked horse.
“My father is a kinder man than a Roman should be. But I will not return to him.”
“Why?” Caius asked. Octavia looked down at her bowl. A breeze blew in from the door, lifting up and then letting down the folds of her stola, but even that did not make a sound. When finally she brought a spoonful of porridge to her mouth, Caius sighed.
“Keep your secrets, domina,” he said.
“I asked you not to call me domina.”
“I wish to call you domina,” he said, getting up from the couch and heading for the door.
“Caius,” she called after him. “Were you born a slave, or was your freedom taken from you?”
“You mean, can a man change? Of course. As to whether you can change, domina, I do not know.”
That night, Octavia lay awake in her bed, straining to hear the sound of Caius’ breath from the hallway, where he slept on the floor. But the breeze coming through the window was strong and incessant, carrying with it the whisper of a coming chill. Twice Octavia set her feet on the floor. But each time she flung herself back down, afraid that if she went to him, he would choose his bed of cool tile over her.
The next day she woke to a bowl of porridge already made, and Caius’ face red from carrying more furniture to the market. They worked together all day, Octavia bundling up goods while he took them to sell. The both of them moved more slowly, as if being in each other’s presence made every movement difficult. But that was the only sign of anything between them. He was turned back to stone, and he called her domina, and she felt a haughty, commanding tone returning to her voice as the day went on, though she dared not call him servus.
More debt collectors came. Caius dealt with them, returning to Octavia with a report of their names and the amount of debt settled. But by the time the sun was low, making slanting shadows against walls, there were no more denarii to hand out, and no more goods to sell. Even the kitchen was laid bare, only a large pot left standing over the fire, in which the last of the porridge simmered. Octavia’s bed, however, remained.
That was where they ate their dinner, since there were no more couches in the triclinium. Octavia noticed how he sat on the far end, making sure not to brush even elbows with her. The silence buzzed in her head again, which was growing tight with the threat of tears, and finally she decided that if she could resign herself to starving to death alone in her domus, she might have the courage to be the first to speak.
“Why do you still call me domina?” she asked, her voice dead and flat.
“I call you domina because that is what I have called you since I first saw you, and I do not see any reason to change it now.”
“Even though it is changed between us?”
“There is not so much that has changed. I wanted you then, and I want you now.”
Octavia was not sure whether to rejoice at the words, he spoke them with such coldness.
“Does it matter to you if I call you servus?” she asked. “Would you be different with me, if I had not?”
“No. What does it matter, if that is what you wish to call me? I am Caius in my own head.”
“Are you a man, or a god?” she cried out. “How can you care so little for things? If I could, I would be stone like you. But I cannot. I have always been flesh, feeling everything, flushing red with shame. How do you move through the world without being touched by it?”
“I am not stone, nor am I a god. I am not even a man. I am a slave.”
“You are prouder than the best of the senators. You could take on pupils; brat princelings would pay to walk as you walk, and speak as you speak.”
“I am not proud. I have no pride. I have only dignity, and dignity is a humble thing at heart.”
“And I have all pride, and no dignity,” Octavia cried out. “And now you’ve ruined me more thoroughly than my husband did, because I will never forget how you speak to me, how you move, how you look next to other men. I will never be able to marry a rich old fool after seeing you.”
“Domina,” he murmured, putting his bowl down on the ground and angling his body to face her.
“Stop calling me that,” she cried.
“I call you domina of my own will, and even were I free I would be here with you, and that of my own will as well.”
“But you will turn to stone as you will, and you will not tell me who you are, and you will not touch me.”
Caius reached a hand out and wrapped his fingers around her forearm. Again she was surprised by how warm they were, how soft, how unlike cold marble.
“I will touch you, if you wish,” he said softly. Octavia reached out a hand and placed it on his chest; it too was warm. Then his other arm was around her, and she was pulled close, enveloped in warmth.
Octavia woke in the early hours. Her back was cold; the mantle had slipped, exposing her to the air. But the rest of her was warm, where she was still fitted against Caius’ body. She moved to shift the mantle, and he stirred.
“This is early for you,” he said, smiling slowly.
“Perhaps I wake at this time every day, but I do not leave my room until later. This is your first time in bed with me.”
“You don’t. I could hear your breath from the hallway, when I slept outside.”
She smiled a smile that surprised herself as much as it surprised Caius. He returned it, but only briefly before worry creased his face.
“You know that we must sell this bed.”
“Yes. I know.”
“Domina, why will you not return to your father’s house?” he asked gently. “You must tell me now.”
Octavia closed her eyes, and breathed out slowly. “I will tell you if you tell me whether you were born a slave.”
When she opened her eyes, his face was not stone but flesh, deep emotions passing over it like the shadow of clouds across the sun.
“I am Roman,” he said finally. A cold gust swept through the window as he pronounced the last word, finding gaps and entrypoints in the positioning of the mantle, so that the chill swept over Octavia as fully as if nothing stood between her and the air.
“I was born a slave, not ten minute’s walk from here, in the house of Numerius Cassius Metellus. He was my father. My mother was his wife’s attending slave.”
“And so you come from a line older and more noble than our Caesar’s line,” Octavia said. She had a sudden urge to laugh. “We are both children of patricii, and we both of us have no prospects.”
“I have no claim on my father,” Caius murmured, “And I would be beaten should I show up on his doorstep, demanding one. But you – your father sends men to your doorstep daily. What will they say to you, that you will not see them?”
Octavia realized, at that moment, that it is impossible to turn away from someone holding you. She considered burying her head against his chest so that he could not see her face. But she knew he would see that for the escape that it was. Instead, she took her eyes from his own and looked up, almost at the invisible spot above his head that she’d stared at on the day she chose not to sell him to the slave-traders.
“Domina,” Caius said. “Octavia. I would not have told you if I had known you’d continue to hide from me.”
She lowered her gaze back to his eyes, and drew a breath as if she were drawing the chill in the room into her lungs.
“When I was fourteen, my father asked me if I should like to marry to love or for position. I told him position. And will I now return to him disgraced, and with neither?”
“Would you be returning with neither?” Caius asked.
Octavia laughed. “You would call it love between us?”
“I am asking you if you would call it that.”
“No. I would not.”
Caius’ eyes were steady, almost amused. “And what would you call it?”
“It is the same thing I feel when I look on Caesar at the coliseum, on his throne and in his glory, or when I watch the legions march through the streets in triumph.”
“Is that not the same thing?”
“No. It is not. And now that I’ve seen it, I cannot bear to look on anything else. I could not present you to my father as my lover, you know that?”
“Yes. I know that. But it matters not to me what he thinks I am, if I am that in my own head, and if you call me that.”
Octavia was aware of many things at that moment. She was aware of the cold breeze picking at her skin. She was aware of the stillness in the room, the feeling of death, of something wrong, that comes to rooms made bare of anything. She was aware of the shame already making her cheeks red at the thought of going to her father after throwing away love for position and then losing that as well. But she was also aware of the warmth of Caius, of all the places his body touched hers, and how it tempered her burning face, made it seem like a background noise in the midst of an orchestra.
“Yes,” she said. “We will go to my father’s house.”