Reversals Of Fortune
by Lin

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 weren't true.

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 was widowed.

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 the 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 god-bothering.

"Mother, Great Mother, send others mad, make others sick, but me, preserve and heal me, keep passion far from my house," chanted Octavia.

"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.

"Servil -

"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 Servilia.

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 immediately.

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 watch.

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 her bed.

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 at Octavia.

"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 her lover.

"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 Octavia.

"It's not dark yet," Servilia pointed out, pulling her lover back to her.


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 brother Octavian.


Silverlake: Authors / Mediums / Titles / Links / List / About / Updates / Silverlake Remix