Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
I stayed on at Tibur, sharing dinner again with Proba the following evening and then contracting a malady that caused my eyes to burn. It put me in a foul mood.
The Anician physician mixed me broth and then suggested I spend the following day at the cold bath. I ignored his advice and made an offering to Ascelpius instead. Then I went to the hot bath where I met a charming girl named Charista, who slipped away from her mistress to see for herself what an imperial man might be like. She claimed to be a slave of Proba’s granddaughter, Demetrias.
I took her back to my room at the villa, where she resisted and then relented and then enjoyed.
Afterward, as we lay together, she told me about her mistress. “She’s only eight,” Charista explained. “She doesn’t want to take vows.”
“And who would blame her?” I said, brushing Charista’s pale skin and resting my hand on one breast, a satisfying weight in my palm, heavy and pliant. “Would you be a virgin all your life?”
“Of course not, Lord.”
“How old are you?”
She hesitated as if she would lie. “Seventeen already.” She looked at Gallus. “He doesn’t look like much of a guard.”
“He’s my bath boy.” Gallus stiffened indignantly.
“Oh,” she said, still watching him.
“Do you have a husband?”
“I won’t, if the Mistress has her way. Do you think it’s wrong for me to want a family?”
“You should have your family.”
“I’m glad you feel that way, Lord,” she replied with a smile.
After a moment, I realized what she meant. “You think this night gave you a child? How will you explain it? Who will you claim—”
“Oh, not you, Lord. Everyone will think it was Demetrias’s father. So you see, no one will ask, and everyone will assume, and only he’ll know because he doesn’t have the strength any longer to father a child.”
“Don’t you know who I am? You should be flattered.”
She stuttered a few words I didn’t understand. Then she said, “Of course I’m honored, Lord, but have you heard the tale of the two jars?”
“I’m not interested in childish fables.” After a moment of silence, I relented and asked her to tell me her story.
“My mother told it to me. She made me promise to think of it often, since I serve the most important family in all the empire. Did you know that?”
“Everyone knows of the Anicii.”
“The story goes like this: there once were two jars, one of bronze and one of clay, floating in a river. As they reached a rough current, the bronze jar swore to the other it would stay far away to prevent the brittle jar from being shattered in a collision. But the weak can’t be trusting when dealing with the strong, and so the clay jar said, ‘Your promises are kind, but I’m still afraid because I know whether the rough water brings me up against you or you against me, only I’ll be the victim of the disaster.”
“You’re a bright girl.”
After she left, I lay staring at the door, wondering what it would be like when I was married to Placidia. I planned to have well-educated sons and daughters and a villa near Tibur. I had no interest in a military command, nor in a provincial office like the one coveted by Volusian. “Prefect of Rome,” I said aloud. “Like Flavian. Make the City what it was meant to be again. Maybe in time I can even convince the Augustus to return imperial funds to the temples.”
Gallus said nothing.
“Do you think it’s true what Proba said of Placidia?”
Still he said nothing.
“Answer me, Boy.”
“How would I know?”
“I think it’s true. Proba’s right, that she’s an ambitious woman. But I’ve never thought she was mad for it. It’s disappointing that you’re not more useful.” I glanced at the door and added, “Now that girl was useful.”
“You were here.”
His face tightened. “I sometimes forget you’re from a race that raped the daughters of your allies and celebrate it as a noble beginning.”
I laughed and rolled off the couch. As I walked to him, I said, “Yes, let’s discuss the founding of Rome: brutal men and fertile women—what’s more noble than that?”
Wetness stained his temples, and his face was flushed. Rubbing his cheek left sweat on my hand, and I reached my fingers into his hair and drew his face near.
“I don’t have much use for women,” I said. “They have few pleasures of their own.”
“You don’t care about others’ pleasure.”
“Little Gallus, you don’t believe that.” His bitter accusation hurt, as it was meant to. “Pleasure is all that matters to me. I only meant that most women think being desired is an achievement. You and I know it’s feeling desire that’s the achievement. Proba, too, I think. She’s quite wise.”
He smelled of musk, and beads of sweat rested across the swelling of his upper lip. “Have you forgotten what I am?” I muttered, resisting the desire that had me only inches from his face.
“You don’t let me forget.”
“It would be cruel to let you forget.” As we watched each other carefully, I thought of Proba and backed away. “The old woman enjoys our discussions, but I may have to finish this business with her.”
Rocking my hips, I repeated, “Business.”
“Does it please you to mock a slave?”
His complaint was sobering. “You’re such a serious boy. I wish you’d laugh. You don’t even smile. Even those things you claim to love don’t lighten your heart.”
I refused to let his preoccupations become mine. “The pleasures of their sex don’t even make you curious, do they, my little Greekling? What a feast for the wolves you’d be. You shouldn’t trust me. You shouldn’t trust any of us.”