Title: Reversals of Fortune
Author: Lin (lin.morris@ btopenworld.com)
Summary: Who whom?
Disclaimer: HBO/BBC owns Rome
Six barrels of ice when Sirius the dog star is burning up the City
is a welcome gift, even from Atia.
Or at least it would have been, thought Servilia, if the rest of
Atia's gift to her hadn't included a stud slave with a cock the size of
Jupiter's. Of Jupiter Best and Biggest. Atia's implication was clear:
the ice was not for Servilia to use in her kitchens.
Atia's daughter Octavia stood helplessly in front of Servilia,
wishing her mother hadn't ordered her on this humiliating errand,
wishing she hadn't been told to spy on a woman she'd known since
she was a child, and wishing most of all that she hadn't had to insult
Servilia in her own house.
Even so, thought Servilia, the Gods only know why Atia sent the
tortoise. She glanced at the ornament sitting on a large stuffed
cushion held by the stud slave. Its shell was solid gold, where
it wasn't encrusted with jewels; it was too small and sharp-edged to
screw on, even if you put the cushion on top. It was as expensive
and useless as it was hideous - something to which the fat concubine
of a freedman in Narbo might aspire.
"To what do I owe this - generosity?" she asked the girl.
"It's a gesture of friendship," said Octavia, who could scarcely
get the words out. Atia's words, thought Servilia. They both knew they
Servilia choked down her anger. "Tell your mother," she said,
"that I hope one day to reciprocate her friendship."
Octavia understood her, easily, though privately the girl wondered
if her mother would. She ducked her head even lower, and turned to go
before Servilia's anger overwhelmed her.
Servilia thought, only Atia, only Atia could have thought of this.
Does the woman take me for a fool?
Anger made her think fast. The gifts meant Atia thought Servilia
could be bought, and bought cheaply. Likely, then, that Atia also
thought that Servilia hadn't worked out that Atia had made Caesar
renounce her - there was no gift that could make up for that. Or,
come to that, for the graffiti depicting them in the act that still
defiled the streets. '*Takes it up the arse*', indeed. Since the news
from the armies in Greece wasn't going Atia's way, she needed to
make sweet to the one woman still in Rome who had power on
the other side, against the coming time when she needed to save her
own skin. Exploiting Servilia's liking for her daughter so Atia could
use her as her spy was tacky and obvious: thus, perfectly in keeping
with Atia's character, while as for the gifts themselves ...
What this all added up to, calculated Servilia, was that Atia also
thought Servilia couldn't see through any of her schemes - or,
just possibly, she knew but didn't care. No matter, concluded
Servilia, Atia does indeed take me for a fool. Good, she thought, now
it is I who have the advantage.
The philosophers teach that anger is wrong, and that yielding to
anger is weakness and folly. They also teach that it is wrong to forget
your honour, and those who have insulted it. Although Servilia had
cursed Caesar and Atia both with death, dedicating them to the Gods of
the Inferno, that didn't mean she was content to sit back and do
nothing about them herself.
Mindful of the teachings of the philosophers, Servilia mastered herself,
and called Octavia back, to take a more diplomatic message to her
mother. She sent Octavia on her way with a kiss on her forehead
which was more chaste than she spent years imagining. The poor naïve
child, thought Servilia, she has no idea what she is in for.
Later, Servilia had the stud slave put to stoking the furnace for hot
water, and told the cooks to use the ice to make snow fruits.
As the days passed, the news coming out of Greece got worse for
Caesar and his kin, and better for the Pompeians and the Senate. When
Rome finally heard that the war was over, and Caesar would soon be
dead, Atia got her horse-dealer Timon to arrange protection for the
household, in exchange for a brisk fuck that enlivened an hour of an
otherwise dull afternoon.
But when her head cleared and she reviewed the pitifully few
slaves Timon had been able to muster, it was obvious they weren't big
enough, or numerous enough, to keep a mob of slavering proles from
sacking the house. In fact, Atia realised, she and her family might as
well be lying naked in the street.
Suddenly Atia was very glad she had made overtures to that raddled
sandal Servilia among the Pompeians. It was obvious to her that
Servilia suspected nothing, despite her daughter's opinion: the older
woman had no guile in her, none at all, because if she had suspected one
hundredth of what Atia had done to harm her, the Julii would have heard
all about it.
Atia smiled. She had bought Servilia's friendship for insurance against
such times as these, and now it was time to exploit the old crow's
inexplicable fondness for her frumpy daughter Octavia.
After all, she thought, somebody has to have brains around here.
Thus Atia sent her daughter Octavia to Servilia a second time, to beg
for some stout slaves with the name of the Junii round their necks to
hold the door against a mob out to tear Caesar's family to shreds.
Servilia hesitated just long enough to make Octavia's nerve break
before she consented.
Servilia looked over at Octavia, who was crying with relief. Her tears
had made the kohl start to run down her cheeks. Octavia had only
worn kohl because she didn't want to look like a beggar before
Servilia, when she came to, well, beg. So Octavia had borrowed her
mother's cosmetics slave and dressed better than she had since she
Octavia blinked away some tears, and saw Servilia kneeling before her.
"I must look a fright, " she snuffled.
"No, no, you look lovely, " said Servilia, who was not speaking out of
pure kindness. She smiled. "Well, yes, you do. A bit."
Then they both smiled.
What a wicked old harpy I really am, thought Servilia. I've known
Octavia since she was a little girl.
As if they understood each other, Servilia put her arms round
Octavia, and hugged her close. Octavia wondered if this was a little
too close, as one of Servilia's arms slid down from her shoulders to
around her waist, and slightly lower still. Octavia caught her breath,
Servilia noticed, and took care not to let her arm slip any lower, to
girl's round buttock.
Although Octavia's lips were level with Servilia's naked shoulder,
she didn't kiss it.
Nothing happened between them that a Vestal could find fault with.
That night, and several nights after, Octavia took care to send her
slaves out of her room when she went to bed, lest they saw her
behave in a manner most unbecoming a Roman lady, and reported
back to her mother.
Then, one hot August morning, Atia walked in on her daughter's
gloomy bedroom, where she saw the girl burning incense to Cybele. Not
that Atia was truly surprised by what her daughter did anymore: what
with wanting to marry for love, and then composing death poetry, she
supposed it was only a matter of time before the girl took up
"Mother, Great Mother, send others mad, make others sick, but me,
preserve and heal me, keep passion far from my house," chanted
"Must you? You're driving me insane with your wretched muttering - "
Octavia ignored her.
"Whatever's the matter?"
"*Nothing.* Mother, Great Mother, send others mad, make others
sick, but me, stay far from my house - "
"Oh, do stop that."
Atia noticed Octavia dumped a whole handful of the most expensive
incense on the burner, twice. She intervened again.
"Yes?" said Octavia.
"Servilia has invited you to weave with her tomorrow, " Atia
noticed her daughter's embarrassment. She continued, "I know, I know,
it's impossibly old-fashioned, I mean, weaving, really ... but what
can you do?"
"I can't possibly go," said Octavia, turning back to her altar.
"You can't possibly not," snapped Atia. "I've already accepted. We
must keep her happy ... for the time being."
Atia swept out, disappointed in her daughter's utter cluelessness.
The next day, Octavia summoned her mother's cosmetics slave early, as
well as stealing her best Egyptian perfume, and put on the lowest-cut
Coan silk dress she could get away with for day-time wear, before
setting out to Servilia's house on the Palatine before siesta-time.
The invitation was nothing a Vestal could find fault with, and didn't
Servilia know that, thought Octavia. Whereas her mother ...
Octavia leaned back into the cushions in the litter, as it occurred to
her that her mother Atia had no idea how much guile there was in
As the litter bearers slowly climbed the hill, the thought crossed
Octavia's mind that maybe she should fear Servilia more than she
feared her mother.
Deep inside Servilia's house, shaded from the heat of the day and with
no slaves present, Octavia and Servilia sat on separate chairs, in
front of a loom. They nibbled the snow fruits while Servilia explained
how the loom worked, for form's sake.
Octavia was impressed, despite herself: she'd have thought that
only Calpurnia of living aristocratic women knew what a loom actually
was, never mind how it worked.
Octavia ate more snow fruits and decided she'd still bet her dowry
on Calpurnia being the only living aristocratic woman who had ever
used a loom.
Servilia had just about had enough of biding her time and making
small talk, when, against her orders, her Greek slave woman burst in
with news from Greece.
The real news.
"Go on," said Servilia. She kept her voice level, but she could
hear the tremor in it.
"Uncle Gaius," thought Octavia in panic, and then "her son," and
then, "what is to become of us?"
"Caesar has won," said the slave, quickly, and, less quickly,
"Pompey's armies are completely destroyed."
Nobody in Rome, not the Chief Augur himself, had seen that
reversal of fortune coming.
"And my son?" asked Servilia. So much for the Gods of the Inferno.
"No word, " said the slave, who had the sense to withdraw
Octavia knew exactly how Atia would have borne this adversity, but
Servilia didn't wail, turn on her family, or order the slave to be
crucified, and that scared the girl. Instead, Servilia turned her head
aside to break into tears, silently, and it pained Octavia to
Now one had nothing left to live for, all was completely gone; and the
other had reached those depths of loss months ago. Now they both
had nothing left to lose, or to hold back from, it was Octavia's turn
to hold Servilia, to take the older woman into her arms.
Octavia turned Servilia's face to her own, and thought no, she
doesn't look like a fright. She really doesn't. Not to me. They stared
into each other's eyes, as if to say, "this we did know was coming,"
before they kissed, deeply.
It never did take much to muss up Octavia's hair, Servilia had
known that for years, and now she cupped her hands round the back of the
girl's head to shake her hair loose, before pushing the girl down on
Servilia had selected the dress that was easiest to slip out of, but
Octavia's plans evidently had gone to the other extreme, what with
all those fiddly little clasps to untie at the shoulder. It was
certainly tantalising - Servilia had to acknowledge Octavia knew what
she was doing - but perhaps a little too slow. Halfway, Servilia
grabbed a fistful of red silk, playing at threatening to tear the dress
off Octavia. The flash of panic on the girl's face stopped her.
Servilia was amused - not only is silk a great deal harder to rip
than most people suppose, but she wasn't planning to put Octavia in a
position where she had to start telling lies to her mother.
Not yet, anyway, and certainly not over a torn dress.
Nevertheless, Servilia didn't let go.
"Don't," pleaded Octavia.
"Hmm," said Servilia. She leaned away, on her side, looking down
"Promise?" asked Octavia.
"Yes." Servilia smiled. "Whatever would people say," she teased
the girl, "seeing you go home with your dress all torn?"
"She'd think I'd pounced on the stud slave," said Octavia bluntly,
"and he'd got carried away. You know she would."
And there's the big bad wolf in this little fairy tale, thought
Servilia. She seized the moment before it too could slip away.
Servilia let go the dress and put her hand palm down on the girl's
chest, where her heart was pounding as hard as Servilia's own.
She slid her hand outwards, smoothing the silk over the girl's left
breast. "You think I won't be?" she asked, circling her palm over
the hardening nipple.
Octavia was not expecting to hear wistfulness in Servilia's voice.
She didn't reply, but reached her left hand up into Servilia's hair,
round to the back of her neck, and slowly pulled Servilia's lips
back down to her own.
Later, Octavia reached up, put her left hand under Servilia's
right shoulder, and pushed her onto her back.
She wasn't particularly gentle about it.
"No," said Octavia, "like *this.*"
Now who's been taking who for a fool, thought Servilia, for an
instant, before she stopped thinking at all.
Afterwards, Octavia lay curled up at Servilia's side. She slowly
ran her fingers over the older woman's body, and Servilia shivered,
even though this was mid-afternoon in August.
She turned her head to look at Octavia.
"You're crying," said Octavia, realising she hadn't chased
Servilia's ghosts away.
"Am I? It's just the after-sadness," said Servilia, not wanting to
blame Octavia for that.
Octavia kissed her. " 'We are a dream of a shadow'," she murmured.
Then, "I could go to sleep right here," she said, snuggling in besides
"You really haven't done this before, have you," said Servilia.
Octavia began giggling, seeing how Servilia had been at her
wedding and therefore knew she hadn't come to her a virgin.
"I meant," said Servilia, "what I meant ... no, Octavia, stop it ..."
It was no good: she couldn't help laughing herself. At least the
absurdity chased the sadness away. When she could speak again,
she went on, "What I meant was ... you haven't taken a lover
before, have you?"
"You know I haven't," said Octavia. She supposed watching her
mother take lovers didn't count, not that her mother's complete
shamelessness could be any guide.
Servilia kissed her. "Listen to me." She was serious, Octavia
could tell that. "You can't stay here all night. It's just not done.
People would talk. The slaves would talk. There would
be a scandal." Meaning a fresh crop of inventively obscene
graffiti all over the City, although neither of them mentioned it.
"That's why, " she held a finger against Octavia's lips, to make
sure the girl didn't get the wrong idea, "you certainly can't come here
at night. These are dangerous times in Rome. So. You come in the
day," she tried to keep her voice serious, "and you go in the day. Like
a respectable woman. You mustn't be seen doing anything a Vestal
could find fault with."
Octavia put a hand over Servilia's eyes, and kissed the finger
Servilia was holding to her lips.
"Alright. So ... I have to go before the sun goes down," said
"It's not dark yet," Servilia pointed out, pulling her lover back
It was evening, before the sun went down. In the courtyard of the
house of the Junii on the Palatine, Octavia's eight litter bearers and
her escort stood awaiting their mistress. At the house door stood
Servilia's own slaves in a reasonably straight line.
It was time for their formal leave-taking. Servilia and Octavia
kissed each other on the cheek, once, taking care not to lean into it.
Before Octavia got into the litter, she turned. She pitched her voice a
little too loud to make sure the slaves all heard.
"Thank you for inviting me, Servilia," said Octavia. "It was
particularly thoughtful of you to teach me how to weave properly.
It will be pleasant to have something to pass the time with you in
these trying times."
"Not at all," said Servilia, "it was my pleasure," seeing for the
first time in the girl who was her lover a fleeting resemblance to her
Disclaimer:Characters (real and fictional) aren't mine, no money is made with these stories and history isn't changed. Damn.