When the news of Father’s death reached me, I felt a strange euphoria. It may have been relief. As courage had marked my father’s death, cowardice, it appeared, would be the final act of mine. Neither the past nor the future intruded until Placidia visited me. I hadn’t set eyes on her in over a year, and as she entered with her maid-servants, we were watched by the Master’s Men, who paced with boredom past the doorway, often fidgeting with their elegant batons.
Her eyes were bright, sparkling green like Volusian’s, but they were softer. Not that she was.
“The Illustrious Placidia.” I tried to smile. “You’re more radiant than ever. I was gone too long.”
“Too long at Rome,” she agreed. She had her women prepare a chair for her. After she sat down, they began fanning her. A silver ribbon wound through her chestnut hair, forming a high crown of layered curls. The curls spilled down around her eyes and ears, casually, like a child. It made her seem a little softer.
I drew my own chair up, leaned in, and breathed in her perfume.
“I wouldn’t have imagined,” she said once she was settled.
“Who would?” I was pleased to provoke a smile from her.
“What I meant is, I don’t believe what’s been said.”
“Neither do I. My father’s dead. Did you hear? His head’s on its way to Rome and then to the provinces to warn those with thoughts of defiance, although my father had not a moment of defiance in fifteen years. Your brother won’t even speak to me. How could he so easily murder his father?”
Her brightness diminished. “He wasn’t his father.”
“How many orphaned imperial children have lived to become rulers themselves? You both owe him everything.”
“It was you who confessed to Master Olympius.”
“You said you didn’t believe the lies.”
“That you sacrificed in Africa, that you allowed that senator…” She turned away. After a moment, she turned back. “You’ve agreed to take Holy Orders. That shows how wrong all those stories are. No one will hold you accountable for your father’s treason.”
“Do you believe that?”
“How could I not, Tribune?”
“Tribune? Why do you speak so distantly? Am I not the man you’re to marry?”
“That’s no longer possible.”
“Of course.” I nodded, imagining the fate that awaited me at Rome. “My mother won’t even come to see me. Olympius speaks piously, but I understand Christ sees into the hearts of men.”
“If you believed your father innocent, you would have stayed with him.”
“I’m not the man my father was.”
“Are you a coward then?”
“That’s always been your weakness.”
“I have many.” I touched her knee. She wore a dress of pink and green silk sewn diagonally. A gold belt wrapped over her shoulders, around her breasts, and finally around her waist. The fabric draped over her knees in heavy folds. She pushed my hand away, but I gripped the material, resisting her efforts.
I left my seat and pulled her from hers, drawing her to me and burying my face in her hair. She struggled while her women squeaked around us. They called to the guards. She hit my left shoulder with a solid fist, so I released her, and when the guards reached me, she sent them away. Her mild control of such arrogant men was an impressive new development, convincing me, finally, of the story Proba had told me.
“You must get your brother to see me,” I said, rubbing the soreness away.
“He doesn’t listen to me.”
“I’ve heard he does many things to you.” Her glare was satisfying. “Olympius won’t let me leave Ravenna. What he’s agreed to won’t happen.”
“It isn’t his choice, but the Church’s. You’re to be escorted to Rome.” She was uncertain whether to leave or sit back down. I sat and gestured for her to sit. She hesitated only a moment before sitting, too.
“You’re more beautiful than ever,” I told her as I watched her arrange herself.
“You’ll be ordained by Pope Innocent.” She spoke as if the last few minutes hadn’t happened.
“And castrated by the monks—if, that is, I even make it to Rome.”
“I was told you’re now a man of faith.” Her words were compassionate, but her expression showed disdain; weakness in a man was disgusting to her, as to any woman. “You came from Africa with letters from Bishop Augustine for the Lady Anicia Proba and Bishop Paulinus,” she said. “He thought highly of you. Do you think that means nothing? You have more friends than you know.”
“And enemies.” I wiped sweat from my forehead.
“Governing can be an unpleasant business.”
“You’re the sister of an emperor, Placidia, not one yourself, and even were you this emperor, you’d soon learn that what you think you know is only what you think you know. You’re more his daughter than your brother is his son, but it’s Honorius God set on the throne.”
With narrowed eyes, she muttered, “Maybe it’s true. Maybe those things one hears of you are true and not the scandal of jealous men.”
I knew she was the only one who could help me, but I stumbled along, led by a compulsive, destructive urge little different from my father’s. My cheeks were warm as if from a fever, and my chest hurt from a pressure that needed release. “My father was more devoted to your father than to his own family. But this isn’t Theodosius’s world. Your father’s heavy hand won’t work here. My father tried to maintain the world Theodosius left, but how could he when all your father left it was Honorius?”
“Your father was not as noble as you think.”
“I don’t think he was noble at all.” My headache was back. When I rested my head on my hand, Placidia called a girl to bring a cup of water. I took the few minutes we waited to observe her. She had shapely lips and high cheeks, all made red like wine from powdery cosmetics. Her breasts were perfectly round and full, accentuated by the criss-cross of her gold belt. I remembered her as both a compassionate and cold woman, motherly at a distance and often venomous to those who came too close. She hadn’t changed that much. She still complicated every man she knew. If I hadn’t made the mistake before, I might have fallen in love with her.
“He was ignorant,” I told her after I drank the water. “My father was ignorant of everything except war. It’s like he closed his eyes and jumped off a cliff. There’s nothing noble about that.”
“You may do the same. You must be cautious.”
“I’m nothing like my father.”
“Don’t fight Olympius,” she warned. “He’s a powerful man, and he can help you. He will, and so will I. Eucher,” her tone softened when she spoke my name, like when we were children. “I can’t help you if you won’t let me.”
“What would you do to help the rival of your brother? You have a better chance controlling him than me. Isn’t that what you’ve always hated about me? Isn’t that why you won’t let me see him?”
By sitting back, she confirmed my suspicion.
“Honorius never had a thought that was his own,” I said. “And you have so many of your own to share. That’s what I’ve always liked about you. It’s unfortunate how things have worked out.”
Her stare softening, she looked me over a few times. “Maybe things will not work out as you expect. I’ve been speaking with the bishop about building a new church in Ravenna. We’ll need many clerics.”
I felt my eyes widen and tried to show no expression at all, but then I began laughing at the idea of such a convenient arrangement that would nonetheless leave me serving both a god and a woman who wanted nothing but to destroy me.
Copyright © 2015 Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Historical fiction |