Chapter 54 in my novel of a Vestal Virgin in ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
I spent a few days in the Archive with Camerina, making a record of my conversations with the queen. I avoided sleeping in the Nook, for I felt reluctant to meet the Goddess again so soon, and feared another terrible dream, heralding the bloodshed to come.
Yet the Divine One was not so easily put off.
In my despair, I sought out my burial vault, and climbed through its narrow entrance, carrying my lamp. I found it untouched as always, though a film of dust had settled on the couch, and its fabric had rotted. I examined the decayed bag which held the items I carried on the day of my execution. There was a little silver capsule with locks of hair from my parents, and an ornament from my childhood, a golden bee. Ennia’s pearl and coral necklace had gone to one of the treasure caches, my gift to Romalia. Finally there was a waxed tablet and stylus of the kind used in Roma. I held it in my hands, and longed for the simplicity and innocence of my old life as a Vestal, when I had placed all my trust in the Goddess.
“Why are you sorrowful, my little light?” She asked. “Romalia is prosperous and its future nearly secure. Octavius is a man of traditional bent, and believes that a woman’s place is in the home spinning wool and bearing children, but the person he trusts above all is his sister. Amata will befriend Octavia, and thus I shall exert my will upon Caesar’s heir. He will be revered, and peace will come to Italia.”
I could hear, but not see the Goddess. My hand tightened around the ivory stylus, thinking of the heavy price to be paid for that peace. “Divine Lady, in Romalia we value freedom from men’s oversight above all. But even here, am I truly free?”
The divine perfume of Her presence pervaded the cold vault, where I had once been left to perish. “You willingly accepted the chains of duty,” said the Goddess, “and now I grant release. By the old reckoning, it has been thirty years to the day since you entered the House of the Vestals, and your service is complete. You may remain in Romalia as a free woman, living according to my ordinances, or you may depart, and live under the rule of men. Choose your freedom, Lucia, and choose your chains.”
I nodded. I would not allow myself to ask what the future had in store, but at least I knew what I wanted. When I emerged from the vault, I shared my plans only with Dru and with Anna, my oldest friends in Romalia. Dru said, “I always thought that you would leave us, for even the Archive cannot satisfy your lust for books. Go with the Goddess’ blessing as a free woman.”
Anna hugged me and said, “Never forget that that Romalia is your true home.” She had another dog now, Charon. Once a shivering puppy found huddling in some weeds near the Hill Gate, he was now full-grown, a bit larger than Cerberus, and just as energetic in looking after the goats.
I walked to Azdrubal’s house, but found only the old seaman Danel there. He was too aged now to climb the rigging or man an oar. Much to his dismay, Az had forced him to retire from sea voyages, employing him as the steward and caretaker of his house at Roma.
“Mistress Clara!” he cried in surprise, when he opened the door. “Is it really you? Come in, come in, honored lady!” He looked me up and down, frowning, and I saw that he was shocked at my appearance, for the gown and veil which I had once worn to visit Az were long gone. He seated me at a little table in the kitchen, and bustled about, poking into jars and sacks in search of dainties appropriate for this unusual occasion. After he had served me, and I had convinced him, with difficulty, to sit in my presence, I asked whether Azdrubal was on a trade voyage. “I hoped to find him here, for it is early in the month of Mars, and the sailing season has hardly begun. I have important business to discuss with him.”
“The Shipmaster went to Sicilia,” said Danel in his Punic-accented Latin. “He left a week before the Kalends, and it is two weeks since. I expect him soon. Mistress Clara, he has become a Roman citizen, thanks to the generosity of Caesar! You can marry him at last!” Clearly, Danel believed that this had been the reason for my refusal of Az’s suit, and it was a plausible guess. Many a woman of the Senatorial class would spurn mere cohabitation, and non-citizens did not have access to marriage under Roman law. Of course, Danel was unaware that under Roman law I no longer existed, and thus could not marry.
“Then… he has not married?” With so many years now passed, I had been prepared to find Azdrubal wedded to a Punic woman by his people’s customs, or perhaps contracted to a common-law wife.
“No, no, mistress, for he would have none but you,” Danel said simply.
Azdrubal, I reflected, would scarcely be grateful to his steward for revealing so much, yet perhaps Danel knew best. “You are very kind. I shall return within a week’s time, in the hope of finding him home.”
“Mistress Clara! Please do not leave yet. The Shipmaster would skin me, if I let you go without some way to find you again. He is much changed since you left us,” said Danel reproachfully. “Drusus refused to convey his messages to you. For years, he walked the streets each winter, hoping to meet you in the crowd! ”
“I see that I have caused both of you great pain, Danel,” I said. “I thought only of my own sorrows. I hope to be forgiven by him, and by you. I promise to return soon.”
Danel looked disapproving at the idea of my seeking his forgiveness. He said pointedly, “Mistress, if you will forgive me for saying so, you are clearly in need. The Shipmaster will feed me to the sharks if I do not see to your comfort! Will you not stay until he returns?”
“I cannot, for I have other business.”
The old man’s whole face creased as he frowned again, shaking his head. “The mother of the young master to go about on foot, clothed this way, without a veil! It is not fitting!” he muttered.
Unwittingly, he had found words that pierced my heart. Before I could stop myself, I seized his gnarled hands and cried, “Is he well? Oh Danel, tell me of my son!”
Pleased at this, he enveloped my small hands in his large ones, rough and cracked from many years of hauling salt-soaked ropes. “Mistress, a hearty one he is, and never sick a day. He looks like his father right enough” —this was spoken with strong approval— “but there’s something of you in his eyes.”
“Not a day has passed, the last ten years, when I did not think of him.”
“That’s as it should be,” pronounced Danel. After that, he would not let me depart until I had accepted a bundle containing two finely woven cloths of dark blue and green, suitable for a modest matron’s robe, and a smaller square of silk for a veil. He rooted around in a storeroom until he found some silver dress pins, and lamented that he had no ladies’ shoes on hand.
“I am quite satisfied to find no ladies’ shoes in this house,” I told him, smiling.
My next task was to speak to Caesar. I went to the Royale, hoping that his freedman Gaius Julius Ariston might recognize me. During Caesar’s time in Gallia, Ariston had welcomed the few letters I gave him, and I used to visit him once in a while, to ask for news. I stood among the throng of clients in the vestibule, all better-dressed than me, and all hoping for an appointment with the busy Pontifex Maximus, who also happened to be Dictator of Roma. But Ariston quickly spotted me and beckoned me into his room, a small space equipped with a table, a bench, and a wall cabinet like a dovecot. This held many small compartments into which Ariston sorted that portion of Caesar’s correspondence which involved his priestly duties.
“Caesar mentioned you a few days ago. I have deposited a message for you in the shrine of Plenty, saying that he wishes you to continue your visits to the queen.”
“I must speak with him, Ariston. Before the Ides.”
Ariston looked doubtful. “The Dictator is extremely busy, Lucia. I make no promises.”
I lowered my voice. “This concerns his personal safety. It is a matter of the utmost urgency.”
He nodded. “In that case, come on the evening before the Ides, in the second hour. I expect him then, though I cannot guarantee that he will see you.”
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss