The Favour Of The Gods
by Lin

The house of the Julii was quiet after Atia and Octavian had left to visit Servilia. Octavia was glad of it, glad of some rest from her mother's unnerving thoughtfulness, and her brother's coldness. He'd been born cold, that one, but now it was next to impossible for her to bear.

It could have been worse, she knew that: at least the invitation to visit Servilia had meant her family wouldn't be taking her with them to the gladiatorial games next to the Senate.

Octavia no longer had an appetite for shedding anybody else's blood. Even her mother's. She knew - her brother knew - all Rome knew, probably - that her mother had murdered her husband, and she couldn't lay a finger on Atia for it, because there was no way to cut through her mother's lies, and denials, and false oaths.

The elegy she'd written for him flashed back into her mind:

"A black day stole you before your time, And drowned you in the bitter river of death."


The Julii's head slave Castor watched his mistress Atia carried out of the house in a litter, while her son walked by her side.

There was enough work to be done that Castor was glad he didn't have to send any of the young male slaves with them.

There was no need for the attendants. Now peace was restored, the City once again was enjoying the favour of the gods. Even Caesar had dismissed his bodyguard.

Castor made sure the rest of the slaves were not going to loaf the morning away, and went to count the tribute supplied by Atia's grateful clients.

Mistress and son were away; the household was busy; Octavia's mind was not in this world.

Thus in all of the rooms of the house of the Julii, there was nobody who heard the first noise come from the gladiatorial games taking place next to the Senate; nobody who could tell their grandchildren they were the ones who heard the single groan, like the first strike of an axe felling a tall ash tree in the virgin forest.


Earlier that morning, just as Atia and Octavian had been about to depart, something had held Octavia back from running into the courtyard and begging her mother to take her to Servilia's house and leave her there, and she couldn't for the life of her say what that was.

Octavia told herself she would have had the courage, she really would. This one time she would have deliberately braved Atia's anger, but - no. What had stopped her must have been a sign telling her to seek the favour of the gods for her cursed family.

Octavia turned and walked as far away as she could from the door by which her mother and brother had left, through the depths of the house and right out into the garden, where she could see out over the Tiber past the city walls.

A sudden flight of black birds flashed past her, wheeled away into the sky over the river, and disappeared.


At the other end of the house, word reached Merula that Corax the doorkeeper had just seen two senators, running down the street. It didn't make sense to her: aristocracy, running?

She left Atia's rooms, and went out to the courtyard to find out what was going on.

Corax was in the middle of his story. Merula knew he'd been bred in the house, and was reliable. She saw Castor the head slave listening to him. "Not a slave to be seen, and the fat one, Licinius, I swear, he went down to the Senate in a litter, he always does."

The other slaves gathered round.

"Long way from the Senate for the likes of him."

"Those litter-boys'll catch it, daft buggers, trying to run away."

"Did you see who was chasing them?"

"Nobody," said Corax. "Nobody else in the street at all."

"He's right," said Castor. "It's deserted."

They fell silent. There was always somebody in the street: there was a temple next door, every morning all the senators' dependents trudged up the hill to pay their respects, and back down again, while the senators' wives always had people coming and going on errands for them.

Something was wrong.

"Them priests next door," said the cook, awkwardly.

"Eunuchs," said Castor, loudly, aware he needed to keep up morale. "Piss theirselves at their own shadow."

"Yeah, well," said the cook, ignoring him, "they only tole me there's a riot in the Forum. Burning up shops and everything."

"Can't hear nothing," said Castor glaring at him. "Everybody. Back to work."

"Look," said Corax. He pointed out over the street, past the temple of the Great Mother, in the direction of the Forum. From the other side of the hill, a couple of wisps of dark smoke were rising into the air.


Octavia stared out over the City without seeing any of it. In three days' time, she would be allowed to watch the priests' procession from the Great Mother's temple that began the goddess's annual festival.

Her mother had forbidden her to join in, claiming it was against the law for a Roman citizen. These days, Octavia thought of herself as an initiate first and a citizen afterwards, but she had shrugged, and claimed indifference. For all she knew, or cared, it probably was against the law, but she knew that what her mother really wanted to avoid was the scandal of her only daughter being seen flagellating herself in public, making everybody ask what dreadful pollution she had incurred.

She still planned to purify herself in private.

Back in the shrine outside Rome in the hills, Octavia had told her brother that their entire family was accursed of the gods, and she still believed that.

One way or another, they were all polluted, mostly by blood: Atia, poor Octavian, and as for uncle Gaius ...

Some nights Octavia lay awake wondering who she'd end up killing under the curse of the Julii before her life was done.

She feared ritual purification was not going to be enough to stop her.

Atia might have forbidden her daughter to join the procession, but she was perfectly happy for her daughter to attend the Day of Rejoicing's great feast in honour of the goddess at its close, seeing it only as a party with the best sort of people there.

As an initiate, Octavia knew the feast was a ritual celebrating the mysteries of life, just as the goddess's servant in her understood that the most important day in the ritual week was the sombre day before the feast, a grim fearsome celebration the mystery of death.

And soon the Day of Blood would be here.


"Trouble," said Merula. She stood there, folded her arms, and waited for orders.

Octavia shrugged. There was always trouble in Rome. One day, a dog running through the streets with a human hand in its mouth, she'd seen it herself through the curtains in her litter; another day, her mother assuming they were all going to be raped to death by a gang og slavering proles and sending her off to beg reinforcements from Servilia.

She bit her lips, hard.

Octavia reminded herself she was a different person now.

"Leave us," she said, and snapped her fingers to dismiss the slave.


Privately Merula had always thought Octavia was soft in the head, and so when she went back out into the rear courtyard, she was ready to fake the young mistress's orders herself.

But Castor had already barred the outer doors and posted a lookout on the top of the roof. Merula noticed some of the younger slaves were hanging around, talking, empty-handed. She knew the barring of the doors was as much to keep them in as others out.

The mistress and her son could be anywhere, out in the open in the streets, and no bodyguard, as if it were an ordinary day.

"No word?" she asked.

"About the mistress? Nothing," he said.

Merula weighed what he hadn't said. She made the sign to avert the evil eye. "Go on."

He grimaced. "Saw Faustus from two doors down, made it back from the Street of the Cloth-dyers. All boarded up. And now the Jews are kicking off, wailing."

"So?" said Merula. Nobody could figure out the Jews.

He leaned forward, and whispered. "Outside Caesar's house."

At that, Merula frowned. Caesar had been the Jews' patron from way back. Senators, Jews, now Caesar: whatever the trouble was, it was getting too close. Signs against the evil eye weren't going to be enough: it was time to propitiate the gods of the house with a proper sacrifice.

Then Castor drew her aside. "This goes no further," he said. "Faustus said he saw old Aemilius running down the street like the Furies were after shoving a fiery snake up his arse, and there was blood on his tunic. Plenty of blood."

"Serves him right," said Merula. Senator or no, Aemilius was a mean old tyrant who'd rather throw his sick slave out into the streets to die than call a physician.

"Wasn't his blood," said Castor.

Merula drew her shawl tighter. She kept her eyes on the young slaves by the doors. "Faustus say what Aemilius was running from?"

"No," said Castor. He shrugged. "Maybe it's a who."

"Hah," said Merula and spat. "Haven't seen any graffiti with Aemilius getting knifed in the back."

They both remembered six months' worth of graffiti, and just who had always been shown getting knifed in the back.

"Take that back!" said Castor. "Gods beneath us, take it back!"


The little group had rounded the corner and were halfway down the street before Glaucus the lookout recognised them.

The litter had been abandoned: too easy to ambush. The eight litter- bearers were walking very fast, in a tight group surrounding Atia and Octavian. He had his arm round his mother, as awkwardly as if he had never willingly touched her before, but he wasn't looking at her. Too busy scanning the street for trouble.

Atia wasn't looking anywhere, not even where she was treading, to judge from her dress. Somebody was going to pay for that with the skin off their backs.

"Open the gates!" Glaucus yelled. "The mistress. Her son. They're coming."

"Anybody following them?" said Castor, as the younger men went to unbar the outer doors.

"Don't think so."

"Yes or no?" said Castor. If there was going to be fighting when the doors were opened, they had to know or be mown down like grass.

Glaucus turned to look back along the street. "Nobody." He reached for the ladder to climb down.

"Good," said Castor. "Stay up there until I tell you different, or I'll flog you myself."

He turned back to the younger men. "That bar goes back up the instant the mistress and the young master are safe inside, you hear me?"

The heavy oak beam crashed as it was removed, and the heavy doors creaked on their hinges as the slaves pushed them open.

The noise brought Octavia out of the garden into the courtyard, where she stopped on the house steps and stared at the strangers who turned out to be her mother and brother.

This time there was nobody in the house of the Julii who did not hear the sound coming from the gladiatorial games next to the Senate, and it was not the festival cheering of a Roman crowd celebrating brave men who taught others how to die.


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