The Library: Per Aspera ad Gaudia
Through Despair to Joy
A novella written for Camp NaNoWriMo 2019. Based on the fairy tale Le Prince Marcassin or The Boar Prince.
When an aging mother wishes for a child, three spirits come to her in a dream, offering to grant it. But the third spirit hides a laugh behind her hand, and when the child is born, the mother learns that she has given birth to a boar. Set in a fictionalized Roman Republic.
m/m, 20k, cw: accusations of sexual assault, suicidal ideation, body horror
Once long ago, in the time of the glorious Republic, when men ruled as their own kings, there lived a Senator, Lucius Flavius, called Scaurus for his clubbed foot, and his wife Sammia Maxima. For years, the two had longed for children, and attempted as often as they could, but The Mother of Mothers had turned her gaze from the couple, and despite their offerings and sacrifices, Sammia was growing older. Entering her 37th year, Sammia despaired, for surely it had grown too late for her to conceive.
She visited the homes of her younger sisters, and held her nieces and nephews, some of them now too grown to lift comfortably, and she wept with longing.
Scaurus was kind, and did not blame his wife. Indeed, as he looked upon the numerous healthy children of the Sammia clan, he wondered if the problem lay within himself. Knelt before the Winelord's altar, he prayed for virility and fertility, for only one child of his own blood. He did not consider it so large an ask.
Still, they could only continue to try. Even as years advanced, Sammia was still beautiful, even if her beauty more and more was marred by melancholy.
One day, after praying to The Mother of Mothers as she so often did, Sammia decided to take a walk outside the city walls, just for a little while. The day was pleasant and the breeze was sweet. She drew her shawl—her palla—up over her head, shielding it from the sun as she walked. She didn't walk far, but out into an empty field, left fallow for the season, she saw something strange. A tree, ringed with stones, sat alone among the wildflowers. She approached slowly, tilting her head. Perhaps it held some nymph—a Melia specifically, Sammia thought as she got closer, for it was an ash tree.
Around its base, past the stones, were several bushes of strawberries. Sammia bent to pick some, the juice sweet upon her tongue. But following sweetness came a wave of weariness, and she sat beneath the shade of the tree, soon fast asleep.
She dreamt of three figures, two men and a woman. The taller of the men was beautiful, fair-haired and pale-skinned, draped in a white silk toga trimmed in gold. The shorter man had a jovial, boyish smile, and a mop of dark curls. He was clothed in the rich dark green of a cypress tree. The woman's orange hair was piled atop her head, loose and wild—a peasant's hairstyle—her tunic pale red and trimmed in silver.
The fair man knelt beside her with a gentle smile. "Dear Sammia Maxima, we have heard your prayers, and we wish to give answer."
Sammia's heart throbbed, her voice lost to the dream.
He passed his hands over her stomach, not touching. "My gift is that your son will be handsome and kind, beloved by those whose lives he touches."
He stood and allowed the boyish man to approach. He did touch her stomach, the contact sending warm tingles across her skin. "Mine is that you will see him happy and successful in his endeavors, always on the side of justice."
And the boyish man straightened up and gestured for the woman to come forward. As she did, however, Sammia noticed a wicked gleam in her eye. The woman did not kneel, did not touch. Instead she laughed, mumbling secret words behind her hand. Sammia saw both men frown in response before she woke.
It had not been long, but it had been long enough for the sun to have moved noticeably across the sky. Sammia looked up into the branches of the tree, contemplating her dream. Did she dare to hope it had been more than wishful thinking?
She got to her feet and plucked more strawberries, laying them at the tree's roots, and drew three bronze coins from the pouch at her belt, one for each figure, adding them to the small, red berries. "I dedicate this offering to He of Sleep, who sent forth that dream. I ask only that it was premonition and not desire."
Sammia ran a hand over her belly, drew her palla tighter across her torso, and returned to town.
Her husband returned later in the day, as Sammia was finishing the day's tasks. He touched his lips to her cheek as he lay down beside her for their evening meal. Distracted by the events of the afternoon, Sammia ate little, her gaze far away.
"What ails you, wife of mine?" he asked, and took her hand in his own.
Sammia frowned. She hesitated to speak the dream aloud, in case its magic departed. But Scaurus' lips were drawn with worry, and she could not bear to see his distress. She smoothed the lines in his forehead with her mouth. "I had a strange dream this afternoon," she explained, and described the three figures and their gifts. "Do you think they were truly emissaries of the gods?" she asked in a soft voice.
Scaurus breathed out of his nose, his lips pursed. "It is possible," he conceded. "But I caution against losing yourself to hope, Sammia. If it was a mere dream, hope could prove more dangerous than skepticism."
Sammia nodded. "You are right, my husband. But it is similarly unwise to turn away from godly gifts, for fear of insult."
"We shall ask the midwife to examine you in a month's time," Scaurus agreed. "We will see if your dream proves true."
And though her wise husband had warned her against a fool's hope, Sammia fell asleep that night and dreamt of a baby suckling at her breast.
After a month that seemed to creep slow as honey on a winter's day, during which Sammia checked anxiously for any sign of blood and found none, the midwife arrived. With practiced, strong hands, she examined Sammia's body, clucking her tongue thoughtfully as she did.
Sammia's heart pounded in anticipation as the midwife brought forth two bags of grain, and bid her to urinate within them. "You may well be pregnant," she said, wiping her hands upon a rag. "We shall conduct this final test. Should the barley sprout first, you are carrying a son. Should it be the wheat, a daughter. And if neither sprout, you remain barren."
When Sammia finished, the midwife set the bags aside. "Send for me should one of them sprout, Lady Sammia."
"I shall. Thank you, midwife."
And pulling her palla up over her head, the midwife departed, leaving Sammia to continue her fitful waiting.
One day passed. Then two. Sammia peeked into the bags as often as she could, her stomach fluttering. In the afternoon of the third day, her heart leapt, for within the bag of barley, small green sprouts had emerged.
She sent for the midwife straightaway, and wept with happiness, clasping her belly in both hands.
When Scaurus returned, he found his wife still beaming. "We're going to have a son."
Throughout the pregnancy, Scaurus fretted over his wife, who took every inconvenience, every annoyance as blissful. Her belly swelled and her back ached as the months went on, but her happiness was radiant.
As her ninth month approached, Sammia and Scaurus both prayed for a swift labor and a healthy birth, sparing no expense. Even after her water broke and the labor pains began in earnest, Sammia smiled.
The labor was long, and Scaurus was disallowed from the room where she was. He paced, his walking stick tapping an impatient staccato upon the marble floors of his villa. Two of Sammia's sisters had come to aid their eldest sibling alongside the midwife, leaving Scaurus and their husbands to attend the children while they worked.
Scaurus looked at the most grown of the boys, nearing his manhood. He looked like Sammia, with his long, once-crook'd nose and his warm brown eyes. Scaurus wondered if their son would resemble more her or himself, and rubbed his pointed chin and thin lips. He hoped the child—his son!—would look like Sammia.
Sammia's cries of pain grew louder beyond the hallway, and Scaurus paced faster, his nerves afire. The youngest of the children, a girl of only four years, stared toward the sound, her thumb in her mouth as her father held her, ignorant of the fact that one day, she would likely face the same pain.
After hours upon hours, and long after Sammia's cries had ceased, Sammia Secunda emerged from the bedchamber, her expression grave. "Scaurus," she said. "You need to see this."
Fearing the worst, Scaurus hurried behind her, the clack of his stick suddenly much too loud against his ear. As they approached Sammia's room however, she appeared well enough, pale and sweaty with exertion, but sleeping. Secunda instead took him to another room, where Sammia Tertia stood, anxious, with a wrapped bundle in her arms.
"How. How is he?" Scaurus asked.
Tertia took a steadying breath and turned the bundle around. Swaddled in cloth, sleeping peacefully, lay no human child, but a boar, brown-striped. Scaurus sank into a chair, his stick clattering to the ground, numb shock pumping through his body. He should have known such a dream was an ill omen indeed.
"What should we do?" Secunda asked quietly. "We told our sister the babe was healthy for fear the shock would kill her, but we cannot hide this forever."
His first instinct was to have the animal thrown into a sack and disposed of, a shameful secret never brought to light. But he thought of his dear wife, the joy she'd felt at the pregnancy, and he found he could not do it—at least not yet.
"We will tell her before taking action," he decided. "For now, have one of the swine suckle it, until my wife is recovered enough to think properly."
They nodded, and Tertia took the boarlet away, leaving Secunda to stoop and fetch Scaurus' stick, so he could visit his wife. She stirred as he approached, and smiled. "A baby boy," she said, her voice rough with weariness.
Scaurus' heart clenched. "Yes, indeed, Sammia," he said tightly. "A baby boy."
"I want to see him. He must be hungry." Sammia began to sit up, but Scaurus gently pushed her back down.
"Your sisters are tending to him. You need to rest, my dear."
"No buts, Sammia," he said, his hand on her shoulder pressing firmly. "Rest."
Her eyes narrowed. "Is he ill? Is that why you will not bring him to me?"
Scaurus' mind raced. "Yes," he said finally. "He's ill, but your sisters will tend to him. Don't worry. Rest, recover, let your milk begin to flow."
Her eyes welled with tears. "Please, Sundriver, healer, protector of the young, watch over my son," she whispered.
His stomach aching with the weight of his lie, Scaurus pressed his lips to his wife's forehead, and spoke no more.
Scaurus could not keep the secret long. After two days of confinement to her bed, Sammia insisted on seeing her son. In the night, while Scaurus slept, she rose, wincing as pain lanced through her battered body. But she pushed on, walking the rooms, seeking her child.
When she could not find him, she was incandescent in her rage. Tearing still tender flesh, Sammia sprinted to her husband's bedchamber, blood soaking into her white tunic. She roused him by boxing his ears, then dragged him upright, the bloodlust of the Warbringer burning in her eyes. "Where is my child?" she asked slowly, venomously.
Looking into her face, Scaurus knew his life hung upon his answer. "He is… not what you were promised," he said carefully.
"Show me." She pulled him from the bed, still stark naked, and pushed the stick into his hand.
"You're bleeding, Samm—"
And so Scaurus, his body stiff with lack of sleep, undignified in his nudity, hobbled out into the courtyard and toward the pig pen. The boarlet, its brown and white hair obvious among the pigs, lay asleep against the sow that had taken to nursing him. Scaurus gestured toward it. "That, Sammia, is what you gave birth to."
Sammia stared, then leaned heavily on the fence before her, all the fight draining away. Tears fell from her tired eyes.
Scaurus put his arms around her, holding her close. "It isn't your fault, Sammia. You were tricked by some malevolent daemon, praying upon your loving heart. With your leave, I'll have the monster drowned. You need not look upon it again."
Horror contorted her features. "No!" she cried and entered the pen, kneeling to take the boarlet into her arms. He stirred, snuffling softly as he sought a teat to suckle. Sammia offered her own, and he took to it eagerly. She looked at her husband, gaze fierce even through her tears. "No. This is our child, whether you care for him or not. If you seek his death, you must bring mine as well."
Scaurus bowed his head in acquiescence. "As you say, Sammia. But it will not bear my name."
She sniffed. "Then he will bear my father's, for he had no sons to take it." She stroked her son's coarse hair. "Caius Sammius, you are my son, and mine alone if need be."
Scaurus shook his head and held out his arms. "Very well. He is Caius Sammius Aper." The final name, Aper, was the name of the creature in his wife's arms.
Proudly, Sammia placed the boarlet into his embrace—a formal acceptance of her son into his domain, though he would not give his name. He held the child only briefly, enough to show intent, before he handed him back. "Now, come back inside, Sammia. Let your sisters tend to your wounds."
Now content, her son held tight to her breast, Sammia followed.
Scaurus returned to his duties. The story of the boar had spread quickly, and he garnered much sympathy. His fellow Senators joked over which god must have sired the boar while his wife lay asleep, and really, what else could one do when so cuckolded but joke?
Aper grew slowly, more slowly than a natural boar, and so Sammia often carried him about, swaddled to hide his body from prying eyes. When he was two months old, she brought him to the tree under which she'd had that fatal dream.
She stood before it, her posture defiant. "Is this the handsome son you promised me? You lying, fraudulent wish-granters. Who could love a man such as this? He shall be reviled, not beloved."
She had not expected an answer, so when the fair man stepped out from behind the trunk, Sammia stumbled back, clutching her child tight.
He glittered in the sunlight, and his dark eyes were sad. "Do not grieve, sweet mother, for a day will come when you see him as beautiful."
Sammia frowned, running her fingers over Aper's soft snout. "I cannot believe you, daemon."
He gave her a melancholy smile. "And yet you must." The man stepped backward and vanished into the trunk of the tree, and before Sammia could even blink, the tree shrank and retreated into the earth as well, leaving only a patch of wild strawberries.
Troubled, Sammia returned home, and told Scaurus what she had seen.
"Another dream?" he asked with the air of a man put upon by Fate. "Have you not learned to put those false promises behind you, Sammia?"
She sniffed and marched away, rocking Aper gently as she returned to her chambers. She looked at his small body, still infant-striped, and his warm, brown eyes and brought her head to his with a small smile. "Even if the world shall turn from you, I will love you, Caius Sammius. This is my promise."
He snorted and licked her nose.
Sammia threw herself into the care and keeping of her son. Once he was weaned, she had the estate's servants and slaves prepare elaborate meals, feeding him fine wines, and the most succulent grapes. She taught him to walk upon two legs as a man, and to take to wearing fine clothes befitting his station.
Though her sisters feared for her mind, they noted that the care of Aper kept her quite content, and so aided how they could.
To the surprise of all, at the age of three years, long after his cousins, Aper spoke for the first time. "Please, Mother, could I have another piece of fish?"
And in shock and delight, Sammia answered, "Of course you can, my dearest," and gave him another generous slice. The staff tittered amongst themselves. Perhaps there really was a man within the boar's skin.
To please his wife, Scaurus made sure Aper had the finest tutors and was groomed into a proper gentleman. He learned etiquette, fashion, history, music (though, lacking fingers, he could not play anything). But despite this, or perhaps because of it, Aper did not often leave the estate. Most of his days were spent within its walls and courtyard, pretending he did not hear what the staff whispered behind his back.
There was no one he could call a friend, even as child grew to fledging adult. As a man, he might have grown a beard. As Aper, he grew tusks, which he had filed down, disliking how they protruded from his mouth. He enjoyed hearing stories, but could not handle the scrolls and papyri delicately enough to read them alone. And he hated relying on the slaves to do such things for him.
So, Aper spent a lot of time in the garden. He was good at tilling soil, disposing of weeds, and caring for his plants. Despite him doing a laborer's work, Sammia did not stop him, though she often watched him from the villa, her palla drawn tight, expression melancholy when she thought he wasn't looking. With an educated mind and a sharp wit, her son should have been shadowing his father in the Senate, learning the rules of politics. He should have been Lucius Flavius, the bearer of his father's name and legacy. Instead, he dug in dirt.
Still, when he looked to her, she smiled and supported him. She was his mother after all; that was her most sacred duty.
By the time Aper had lived eighteen years, both he and his mother had given up on him ever shedding his boar's skin, and the heavy weight of expectation hung over them—the expectation of marriage.
As a citizen of the Republic, Aper was expected both to marry and to have children, both of which seemed utterly impossible. "You are a good candidate," Sammia told him one evening over dinner. They often ate separately from Scaurus. "We will simply talk up your bloodline and your intelligence and your status. The family will assume you are ugly and think little of it."
Aper's nose scrunched dramatically in his disgust. "I will not marry by deception; it would not be fair to the poor girl who is saddled with this." He shook his head in emphatic demonstration.
Sammia sighed. "Then what would you have me do, my son?"
He lay heavily upon the floor, his food half-eaten, his eyes sad. "I don't know, Mother. I wish I did."
Moved by her son's heartache, Sammia went to her husband.
The years had not been kind to their marriage. Where once they had been close, the problem of Aper had cracked the bowl that held their love. But perhaps, Sammia thought, when the world was quiet, and the moon hung bright overhead, perhaps if she could marry Aper off to someone he loved and could love him, perhaps she and Scaurus could begin to rebuild. A cracked bowl could be repaired, after all, even if it could not again be made whole.
And so Sammia went to her husband.
Age was heavy on his face. Gray streaked his dark curls, as if he wore a stormcloud. "What need brings you to me, Sammia?" he asked wearily, setting aside a sheaf of papyri, turning to look at her.
"I've heard it told that Catius, the servant of Senator Antonius has died, leaving behind a widow and two beautiful daughters. And that the Widow Luria is known for her ambition."
"You speak truly, but I know not what you are implying."
"An ambitious mother, eager to marry her daughters up, would be exactly the right sort to provide a spouse for my dear son. But he does not wish to foist himself upon someone unexpecting. So I propose bringing them under our wing, having them here. Then, the daughters will know my son's affliction, but also have an eager mother at their backs."
Scaurus stroked his chin, his eyes half-lidded in thought. "You think in politics, my dear Sammia. But, if you believe it has merit, very well, I shall have the offer extended to the Widow Luria and the Catia children."
Sammia's smile was radiant as she kissed her husband's cheek and bid him good night.
The Widow Luria was all too eager to take Scaurus' offer. Though he did not bring up marriage to her explicitly, he suspected she understood the intent.
Aper lurked when the new members of the household were introduced. The Widow Luria was a regal and imposing woman, with dark hair wound up in an elaborate bun atop her head, laced through with delicate, glimmering threads and pearls. Her stola was deep yellow, with a richly embroidered red palla.
"My elder daughter, Catia Potestas," she said in a warm, deep voice.
Potestas had creamy pale skin, her dark hair shot through with auburn where the light touched it. Her eyes were large and green, with long lashes that almost brushed her cheek when she blinked, casting a demure glance around at the gathered family and staff.
"And my younger daughter, Catia Invidia."
Invidia was more striking than she was outright beautiful. She had the regal features of her mother, with thick, expressive brows and full lips, pursed slightly as she bowed politely. Her sweeping gaze held an edge of rebellion, and her dark eyes lingered on Aper, standing quietly in one of the side hallways, half-cloaked in shadow. They narrowed thoughtfully, as if surveying him.
"And, of course, my son, Aulus Catius Helva."
This introduction seemed more of an afterthought, but Helva was just as eye-catching as his sisters, with honey-yellow waves of hair drawn back from his face with a band, drawing the gaze to eyes as pale as Potestas' and lips as full as Invidia's, with a prominent Cupid's bow beneath a straight, elegant nose.
His eyes followed Invidia's, finding Aper, but he only nodded politely and turned away, back to Flavius Scaurus and his wife.
Aper had hardly ever seen such lovely people in one room, though perhaps that was to be expected, given that he hardly left the estate, and so rarely saw an unfamiliar face.
Overcome with sudden shyness, Aper slipped away to his garden. Sammia watched him go, tapping an idle finger against her lower lip. She turned back to the Widow Luria and her children. "You will be expected to work, but so long as you do, this home is open to you," she said.
"Your generosity is well-received, Domina Sammia Maxima," the Widow Luria said warmly, and bowed once more. "My daughter Potestas is an accomplished weaver, and Invidia is a wonderful embroiderer. It is she who decorated the palla you see upon my person." She held out her arm to display the delicate craftsmanship. "And my son Helva is a natural with horses."
Sammia smiled. "Your daughters' skills will be put to good use. However, I had another use in mind for Catius Helva, if I may."
He glanced up at his name, as his mother agreed. "Please make use of him in whatever way you wish."
"Walk with me," Sammia told him, gesturing him forward. "Let us discuss."
The corridor was empty as they walked side by side. Helva held back the urge to chew nervously at his nails. The Domina Sammia was serene, either oblivious to his anxiety, or else politely ignoring it. "My son is of an… unusual constitution, as I'm sure you are aware," she began.
"Yes, my lady. Though I admit, it was still a shock to see the rumors true."
"As you can imagine, his upbringing has been difficult, on him and on our family. The poor boy has, to my knowledge, never had a friend. But you two are of similar age, and you are new to the estate, which will have piqued his curiosity. So, my proposal is simply this: be a friend and confidante to my dear son."
Before he could school his expression, a bitter twist came to his lips. "And, I imagine, should he tell me something you would want to know, I am to pass it along?"
For the first time since their meeting, Domina Sammia seemed suddenly gentle. "No, though I understand why you may assume so. However, I want only for my son to have a friend. A young man should not rely so deeply upon his mother."
Helva softened to her. Not all mothers were like his own, he reminded himself sternly. Some mothers cared for their children beyond what gains could be made through them. "Very well. I shall do my best, Domina, though I hope you understand that something like friendship cannot be guaranteed."
"I do. I expect only for you to try." She stopped walking and gestured out toward the courtyard. It bloomed with various plants, arranged with an organization that spoke to the rationality of man, but with a wildness that spoke to a bestial sensibility.
Aper's tunic, dark blue, hung from a rod seemingly designated for the purpose, and the… man? himself was working the earth, his hairy back to the two of them, focused upon whatever task he had decided to undertake.
Domina Sammia nodded to Helva, and stepped away, back into the villa proper. Taking a steadying breath for his nerves, Helva stepped into the garden.
Aper turned with a soft snort, then froze, struggling upright. Realizing his nakedness, he gestured toward his tunic. "Could you please help me with that?" he asked awkwardly.
Helva nodded and fetched the tunic, assisting Aper in getting it on. Murmuring words of thanks, he quickly moved away from Helva, his head shaking from side to side as he sought a place to obscure his monstrous appearance.
"This is a beautiful garden," Helva said conversationally, as if unaware of the tension between them. "Is it your design?"
"Ah, yes," Aper replied. He nudged some of the soil with his foot, his gaze down. "There is little I can do without hands, so…" He waved his arms, shifting his two-toed hooves.
"Yes, I imagine you are exempt from military service." He said it lightly, but Aper winced, expecting a condemnation.
"Indeed. But you yourself appear to be of the proper age. Why are you not a legionnaire?"
Helva tapped under his eye with a finger. Aper leaned closer and saw what he was indicating—his pupils gleamed silvery-white in the sun; cataracts. Aper hadn't noticed them inside. "Weak eyesight," he explained. "I was determined to be not even useful as a bookkeeper, despite my literacy."
"That's a shame. I'm sorry," Aper said. He relaxed a little, in the company of someone also "insufficient" in the eyes of the Republic.
Helva shrugged. "My mother was disappointed. She weeps for my marriage prospects."
Aper snorted a laugh. "You are hardly the only one! Imagine trying to convince a young woman to kiss this horrible mess." He gestured to his face.
Helva laughed too. "I admit, I have it easier than you do, especially if my mother gets her way and marries my sisters up in status."
"A rising tide lifts all ships?" Aper suggested.
Helva nodded. "Indeed. The Catia family is currently nothing special except by virtue of age and the fact my sisters are beautiful."
"You sound bitter." Aper gestured for Helva to walk with him around the courtyard, following paths laid by his own snout.
With a shrug, Helva walked, his gaze forward. "I will be making no marriages on my beauty alone. Unable to serve, the youngest son of a family with no patriarch, no real wealth to speak of. It will be a wonder if I marry at all."
Aper nodded thoughtfully. "It's a shame, because you certainly are beautiful," he said.
Helva flushed. "Your flattery is heard and appreciated, Flavius Aper."
Aper stopped, leading Helva to turn in confusion. "I'm not of house Flavia," Aper explained in a tight voice. "My father has not allowed it. I have a name only because my mother gave me hers."
"I'm sorry to have rubbed salt in such a wound. Shall I call you Sammius Aper then?"
Aper shook his head. "Just Aper will do, if you will permit me to do the same, Catius Helva." His mouth drew back from his tusks, and Helva realized he was attempting to smile.
Helva smiled back. "Of course, Aper. I hope we outcasts can be friends."
Aper snorted again with laughter, snuffling softly as he attempted to subdue it. "Friends," he said wonderingly. "I would like that very much, Helva."
Helva's stomach made a furtive sort of wiggle. Aper had a lovely voice, deep and resonant, and had a dark sense of humor that appealed mightily to Helva's sensitivities. A flush once more crawling up his cheeks, Helva turned away, looking around at the varied plants surrounding them.
"I don't suppose you could arrange a meeting with your eldest sister, as friends?" Aper was joking, with a tone of There is no way such a thing could be done, but Helva still felt the familiar sting of being overshadowed.
In the end, like most of his other friendships after Potestas grew from girl to woman, he was to be a stepping stone, a foot in the door to the prize of wooing someone actually desirable. But he returned the comment with a smirk. "You imagine I won't defend her honor as any proper brother would?"
Aper laughed. "It never hurts to ask the question!"
Maybe not you, Helva thought.
As the weeks went on, Aper and Helva spent a lot of time together. Upon realizing that Aper had difficulty in holding scrolls and papyri to read, Helva became his reader.
Aper had resisted at first, pushing back against feeling crippled, but Helva had a nice voice, and… friends helped each other, right? So, Aper allowed it, reclining on a low sofa as Helva read aloud poetry and treatises and philosophy. They would often end up debating the subjects upon reaching the end, their conversations carrying them long into the night.
Aper loved it. Helva did not look at him with the pity often shown him by the other staff of the estate, or the melancholy of his mother that she so often tried to disguise. Helva met him where he was, not expecting him to be someone else. Helva laughed at his jokes, sometimes even snorting unattractively as he did, just like Aper.
As they grew closer as friends, a running joke of Helva's lovely sisters emerged. Every so often, in a lull of conversation, Aper would ask, "So have I proven myself worthy of a Catia woman?", to which Helva would make some reply of, "No, you really believe in Plato's theory of forms," or "No, you think Plautus is actually funny," or "No, you just implied that Achilles was the erastes of Patroclus."
Potestas was soon betrothed anyway, to a legionnaire (holding of the rank of optio, second to a centurion) named Ennius Galeo, whose family was well-known to Scaurus, and who had proven his skill at war.
The Widow Luria was certainly pleased with such a result. Ennius Galeo was an upstanding citizen, well-liked by his superiors and underlings alike, and was well on his way to making a real name for himself—extremely impressive for a man of simple blood.
He arrived at the estate with a small fanfare, and made a show of formally asking Potestas for her hand. She had wept with joy at such a good match, so close to herself in age, and even fair of face, with a smiling mouth and deep-set, deep brown eyes. His dark curls feathered around his face, just tickling the stubble dusting his jaw. Potestas could love such a man, she thought happily.
The joke of marriage lost some of its wind then, as Aper grew melancholy. It had been fun when she was only somewhat unattainable, but now it was too real. Helva did his best to cheer his friend's dreary mood, but he seemed quite determined to wallow.
Sammia, who was well-tuned to her son's moods, noticed the shift. When Catius Helva had first become his friend, his demeanor had improved dramatically, but now it had returned to its dismal baseline. And she knew precisely why.
Cursing her foolish husband's politics, Sammia knew she had to fix this herself, and so she went directly to the Widow Luria, as a mother to a mother. Luria received her warmly, offering food and drink as Sammia sat, crossing her ankles. She took the offered wine and gave Luria a pleasant smile. "Thank you for seeing me upon such short notice, Luria."
"Oh, my lady, you know I could not refuse."
They laughed about both the yoke of propriety and the sticky web of hierarchy that bound them. "You are a smart woman," Sammia commented.
Luria raised her glass in acknowledgement. "A woman must be, to live in such a world." She took a sip of wine. "Now, pleasantries exchanged, what do you need of me, Domina?"
"You know I love my son dearly," Sammia began, and Luria nodded.
"Oh, of course. You are such a gentle woman to do so."
Sammia hated that reaction, common as it was, as if it would have been expected of her to drown her son as Scaurus had suggested, as if such a thing was not anathema to the very conceit of motherhood. But now was not the time. She bit back a sour response by drinking her wine. "You may have noticed that he has been out of sorts since your Potestas' betrothal."
Luria frowned. "I must be honest, Domina, but I had not noticed any such thing. However, you know him best. Is there something you need from either of us?"
Sammia set her glass aside, steepling her fingers. "You want only the best for your daughter, for her beauty demands it. Ennius Galeo is a fine match. He is the best of his blood, a fine soldier who will enjoy a bountiful retirement. And he is quite handsome in his way."
Luria nodded along, but her expression was shrewd.
Sammia continued, "However, he is only the best of his blood. I offer you a counterproposal. Betrothe Potestas to my son. He is of patrician stock, will inherit quite well whether or not my husband deigns to formally induct him into the Flavia family, and such magics which have been enacted upon him are so often erased by love. Your daughter would be treated as an empress, so grateful he would be to be a proper man."
Luria considered. Ennius Geleo was a good match, but the son of a Senator made for a much better one—truly the best that she could even imagine to hope for. She refilled both of the wine glasses, and held hers up. "I accept your proposal, Domina Sammia."
Sammia tapped her glass against Luria's. "It's been a pleasure."
When the Widow Luria went to the chamber her daughters shared, she found Potestas in a tizzy, excitedly talking about her 'dear Galeo'. He had taken her out to a play that afternoon, and had gifted her the flowers she was meticulously braiding into her long hair. Invidia was clearly jealous and bitter about her sister's fortune, but Potestas was blissfully unaware, continuing to talk at length about how lovely his hands were, how graceful the curve of his neck, how delicate his speech.
Luria coughed and both girls turned, their expressions suddenly worried. It wasn't often their mother visited them so late in the evening. Luria gave them both a wide smile. "How are my lovely young ladies doing?"
Invidia mumbled some response while Potestas launched back into her detailed account of the afternoon.
Luria cut her off with a hand. "While I am happy you had such a lovely day, I'm afraid we've received a better offer for your hand from Domina Sammia, and so we shall be calling your previous engagement off."
Potestas was stricken. "But, Mother—!" she tried, but Luria cut her off with a glare.
"There are to be no 'buts', Potestas," she said and then left, brooking no argument.
Invidia hid a laugh behind her hand, but it was more out of shock than cruelty.
Potestas wiped the tears that flowed from her eyes, a grim determination spreading across her lips. She rose and wrapped her hair back in a simple cloth, then dressed.
"What are you doing?" Invidia whispered.
"I'm not letting her marry me off to some monster without a fight," she said. "I'm going to talk to Galeo. Will you cover for me?" Her gaze was beseeching.
After a heartbeat, Invidia nodded. "Of course, sister."
With a grateful smile, Potestas covered herself in an ordinary, plain palla—turning herself nondescript—and slipped out of the estate, making her way toward the inn where Galeo was staying.
The moon hung full overhead, lighting her path. The city was strange at night; every shadow menaced, but Potestas would be no creature's bride, even if that meant defying her mother. Luckily, the inn was close, and Fortune had smiled upon her—there, sitting by the fire was Galeo, playing some sort of game of cards with his soldiers.
He was lovely in the firelight, the warm glow painting his features, casting soft shadows. He looked up as she approached the table, as did his men. They began to whisper excitedly, though they were quickly cut off by Galeo's hand. "What has happened, Catia Potestas?" he asked, taking in her hasty, thoughtless dress and her bloodshot eyes. "Come, we can go to my room to speak."
The soldiers exchanged lascivious glances and smiles, but Potestas did not see them, so relieved she was to feel Galeo's hand in hers. Once safely alone in his room, she told him everything she knew—that her mother had decided to renege on their so-recent arrangement, and chosen to marry her off to the pig of Flavius.
He listened carefully, stroking her hand with his as she choked back a fresh wave of tears. "What can I do?" she asked, wretched in her fear.
Galeo considered, chewing on his lip. "I have one idea, but you may not like it."
She laughed, an edge of hysteria cracking her voice. "Please, anything is preferable than the life of a pig's wife."
"We could elope," he said. "I have friends in Alexandria who would take you in if I asked, and it would be simple enough for me to be assigned there permanently, for I have worked there already."
"Alexandria!" she gasped softly. She had never seen it, had never even dreamed one day she could. Her eyes shone with wonder. "Would you not face anger from your family?"
He smiled. "Anger? No, not at all. It is quite a prestigious assignment. It will take some time, but I could arrange passage for you aboard a ship, and then… we marry. Then, even the gods themselves could not break our bond."
Potestas' heart thrummed with excitement and nerves. "How long will it take?" she asked.
He considered. "A few months, perhaps. I will need to send quite a few letters across the Sea, which will take time."
"A few months…" She nodded. "I should be able to delay it that long. Have one of your men write to my brother, Catius Helva, at the Flavia estate. That should be enough to escape heavy scrutiny."
Galeo lifted her hand to his lips. "It will be done, my treasure."
She blushed at the contact, her stomach prickling with desire. And she saw matched desire in his eyes.
They moved as one, their lips coming together in a heady rush. When they broke apart, Potestas whispered. "Only a few months."
Pushing aside the neck of her stola, he kissed her shoulder, murmuring, "I shall be counting the days."
And covering herself once more, Potestas returned home, buoyed by hope and relief and love.
Aper was ecstatic as he prepared for the formal betrothal. The evening of the affair, he had his tucks filed down, his hair washed and perfumed, and wore a formal toga, expertly pinned to drape properly over his improper form.
When Potestas entered the room, beautifully adorned, her hair swept back and decorated with flowers, his heart ached in joy. She was going to marry him! Him!
He gifted her with a golden necklace, with an emerald pendant that complemented the color of her eyes. He could not put it upon her himself, of course, but Helva provided his hands, kissing her temple as he finished. Aper was so glad to have him as a friend.
Potestas showed him the contract of her dowry. It was not the dowry of a proper patrician woman, but Aper did not care. Taking the quill carefully between his toes, he signed his name, and she did the same. The contract was then passed to Scaurus, who signed without a word and passed it to Helva, who signed in place of his father.
Closing her eyes, Potestas offered her cheek, which Aper delicately pressed with his snout—the closest thing he could do to a proper kiss.
"You will be cherished," he said softly as he pulled away.
Potestas gave him a brief smile as answer. He wished he could return it.
After the customary sacrifice to the Fruitbearer, a party followed, with wine and merriment. Aper danced quite deftly for someone with hooved feet, and drank deeply, seeking refuge from the stares of those gathered.
After several hours of drinking and dancing, and pretending he didn't notice that both his betrothed and father had retired early, Aper was utterly content. "Helva!" he called, his nose red with wine he'd failed to drink. "Come! Tell me of your sister!"
Helva rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "What do you wish to know, Aper?"
"What does she like? How can I make sure she is happy and cared for?"
Helva thought. "She enjoys plays, and wakes early. Her favorite season is spring, for she loves the flowers."
"Then we must set the date for before the season's end!" Aper cried. "I would bathe her in flowers, should she wish it."
With a chuckle, Helva took away the bowl of wine Aper had been drinking from. "That might be a bit much, my friend. Perhaps a bouquet of flowers you grew yourself? And remember that Maius is not the month for a marriage. Perhaps the first of Iunius?"
Aper considered this, swaying slightly with drink as he did. "Yes, these are acceptable. You are good to me, my friend."
Helva put an arm around him, giving him a short embrace. "As you are to me. Now, come, you are deep in your cups—bowls even—and should sleep."
Aper snuggled into the embrace, his own body tingling with joy at being touched. "As you say, Helva." As he tried to rise to his feet, they slid out from beneath him, and he squealed in surprise. He snorted with laughter. "I suppose I shall be walking four-legged. Can you remove my toga so I do not tread upon it, Helva?"
"Of course." Helva knelt and undid it, folding it over his arm to keep it off the floor.
They walked together back to Aper's chambers, where Helva hung the toga up and helped Aper prepare for bed. He fell asleep quickly, his snores rumbling through his blankets.
Helva smiled and shook his head. He was glad for Aper's happiness, though he could tell Potestas was less enthusiastic about the match. She had liked Ennius Galeo. Perhaps he could help her to see Aper was not the beast she feared?
Thinking the problem over, he was surprised to come face to face with a messenger outside the door to his room. "Catius Helva, I've a message for you from Sergius Varus." He held out the scroll.
Helva's brow furrowed. He had no knowledge of any man by that name, but he took the message. "It is received, thank you."
As the messenger departed, Helva stepped inside and unrolled it. The message was exceedingly brief: Please pass the enclosed letter to Catia Potestas.
His stomach churning, Helva unrolled the letter.
My dearest Potestas,
Your passage is arranged for the evening of the second Tubilustrium, the 23rd of Maius. At the docks, near sunset, you shall meet with Ennius Calidus, my brother. He will be wearing a red rose, a symbol of my love for you. Once you arrive in Alexandria, seek out Lartius Cursor of the VIII Italica. He will convey you to the home of Gellius Dento, who has agreed to house you.
I will meet you there as soon as I can.
Swift winds and safe travels, my love.
He had everything he needed to intervene. Potestas was conspiring to breach the contract of betrothal, shame both the Catia and Flavia families, and break the heart of Helva's friend.
He should intervene. Nay, it was his duty to intervene.
And yet… It was clear Potestas had signed the betrothal under duress from their mother, and she had grounds to take Aper to court to declare him an unfit match, for he would not be providing her with children. Helva rubbed his chin. He also loved his sister, and the idea of him playing a role in forcing her to marry Aper left his heart aching.
In the end, he rolled Galeo's letter up once more, and went to his sisters' chamber. He found them speaking in low voices, suddenly falling silent as he entered. Potestas had removed Aper's necklace.
Stone-faced, Helva handed her the letter.
Her eyes widened as she realized what it was, her gaze beseeching. "Please don't tell," she whispered, her voice strangled.
His heart was heavy in his chest. "I won't."
Helva was melancholy, and as a good friend, Aper knew it was his duty to cheer him. But what? He dug into the soft spring earth of his garden, removing unwanted mushrooms and weeds, working as he pondered. A gift? Perhaps, but what? Helva didn't seem all that impressed by things.
Aper knew he had a private altar to the Winelord in his room. So, perhaps some wine? Or some pretty bauble to decorate it? What sort of things would one give to the god of wine, besides wine?
So lost in thought and work, Aper didn't notice Helva approaching until he'd touched his back, causing Aper to snort in surprise. Helva was smiling, but there was still a sharp edge of sadness. Maybe he was upset that Aper was marrying his sister? Did he think Aper unworthy of her? (That wouldn't be a surprise; he was.) "You're soon to miss the midday meal, Aper. Best clean off and come inside."
"Ah, thank you, my friend." He shook off the dirt and stood as Helva helped him back into his tunic. "Oh!" he cried in sudden realization. Fortunately, he was able to bite back the ensuing words, to avoid spoiling the surprise. A theatrical mask for the altar! Surely that would soothe Helva's spoiled mood.
"Remember something important?" Helva asked mildly.
Aper snorted, showing his teeth in what he knew was a poor excuse for a smile, but he did his best. "Something like that."
But of course, Aper wished to pick the gift out himself, which meant he had to leave the estate. He was not a complete hermit, of course, but… leaving meant stares, and whispers, and shocked gasps. And he hated them. Still, despite that, he wanted to do well by his friend.
So, Aper donned his tunic, then had one of the servants pin him into his formal toga. He would be overdressed for a foray into town, but he would also be, unambiguously, a citizen of the Republic and the son of a Senator. It was heavy, the wool rubbing uncomfortably against his hair. He took a deep breath, held his head high, and went into town, flanked by two of the Flavia guards.
The main thoroughfare was torture. Sweat clung to the bare skin of his nose as strangers' conversations died at the sight of him. The guards had to ward off more than one overly-curious adolescent, while Aper stared straight ahead, pretending he didn't notice them.
In the theater district, at least, there was a sense that strangeness was life's natural course, and few people even gave him more than a second glance. Aper relaxed slightly and looked over some of the sellers, cross-legged upon their blankets of wares—illustrations of popular actors, trinkets that no doubt related to popular plays, and some of the actors' small personal effects. It was one of the latter sellers who had what Aper was looking for—a collection of theatrical masks.
The seller, a skinny woman, a little older, though wearing it well, gave him a practiced professional smile as he approached. Aper didn't miss that she was clothed in a toga—the mark of a loose woman. "How can I help you, young lord?" she asked.
Aper blinked in surprise at being addressed so easily and courteously. It was a rare patrician who was so proper. Perhaps it was not the prostitutes who were uncivilized. "I was looking for a mask to decorate the altar of a dear friend who keeps a shrine to the Winelord."
She smiled. "You've come to a fine place." She picked up one of the masks, painted white and decorated with dried ivy, and held it up to her face. "A fine tribute to the Winelord, indeed, wouldn't you agree?"
"How much are you asking, mask-seller?"
She lowered the mask, her eyes glittering. "A denarius."
Aper snorted. "You make me laugh, mask-seller, but I am no fool."
"It was worth a try," she said with a smirk. "Two asses."
He handed her the two bronze coins and took the mask, sliding it carefully away. Task achieved, Aper hurried home, back through a roiling sea of anxiety and unwanted attention.
Once back in the estate, Aper quickly shed the toga, giving himself an animalistic shake to rid himself of the itchy echoes of the wool. When he returned to his garden to relax, he ran into Helva. "I don't often see you go into town," Helva said, tilting his head in interest. "What were you doing?"
Aper's ears twitched and he did his awful little smile. "You shall see. Come to my chambers after the evening meal tonight."
Helva's dun-colored brows crept up his forehead. He wished he could read Aper's expressions better. A small, secret part of him wished it was meant as the euphemism his heart was determined to understand it as. Fool, he chided himself. He is smitten with Potestas, and you are betraying his trust.
Aper sniffed. Helva's melancholy, rather than lifting at the prospect of a surprise, had instead deepened. He wished he knew the cause.
After the evening's meal, as promised, Aper brought Helva to his chambers. Helva was tense, his shoulders high. Aper wished for hands so he could push them down. He wished he could embrace his friend. But wishes were simply wishes, so he removed the mask from his bag, showing it to Helva. "You have been sad of late, my dear friend, and I hope a gift and a listening ear will do some good?" He twitched both of his ears, drawing a smile from Helva.
Helva took the mask, turning it over in his hands. "It's beautiful, Aper. He will love it." He sighed and raised it to his face. "I'm sorry that I have given you cause for anxiety, Aper. I should be celebrating your joy at finding such a good betrothed."
"Do you have some trepidation? You know her better than I, Helva. Please, share with me the burden of your worries."
Helva ached to do so. He would be hurt regardless of Helva's actions; shouldn't Helva, as a friend, try to soften the blow?
But what if Aper's grief turned to rage, as man's sorrow so often did, and Potestas became its victim? Helva couldn't allow that.
He closed his eyes behind the mask. "Do not trouble yourself on my account, Aper. But excuse me while I give this a place of prominence." With a brief smile he knew looked as false as it felt, Helva fled the room.
He placed the mask upon the altar, sighing as he knelt before it and covered his head, murmuring familiar hymns of praise and majesty. He lit the incense and breathed its familiar scent, then took a long drink of wine, letting it wash over him and settle within him. Wine was good refuge for a wavering heart.
Perhaps Aper might even forgive him.
The morning of the 23rd, the day of the second Tubilustrium, began with the cry of trumpets. When Aper had been a child, the festival of war had excited him—he'd been under the naive assumption he would be free of his 'curse' by the time he grew up, and so the military would eventually be a part of his life as a proper citizen of the Republic.
He'd bade the servants to lift him up over the wall so he could watch the dancers—priests of the Warbringer—leap and and play their trumpets through the streets, winding their way to the temple district. He'd even attended the sacrifice a time or two.
But now, after so many years of bitterness and resignation, the trumpets only annoyed him.
He grunted and burrowed deeper into his blankets, squeezing his eyes shut against the sunlight. Eventually, the horns faded and he crept out, washing his face in the trough provided for that purpose. He rubbed his head against a towel to dry off, then summoned a servant to help him dress, and finally made his way out to breakfast, a good hour or two later than usual.
Because of his late start, he wasn't surprised to find himself alone. Usually Helva was there, waiting to eat with him, but perhaps he was out enjoying the festival? Brooding upon the old hurts of unworthiness, Aper ate.
After breakfast, Aper exercised and walked around his garden. It didn't need any tending today, but he wished it did. Boredom itched like fleas beneath his skin. He decided to seek out his betrothed. Perhaps they could talk, get to know one another a bit more. His hooves clicked against the marble as he walked toward the women's chambers.
He gave his mother a respectful nod as he passed her by, his heart warmed by the encouraging smile he got in return. But Potestas was not in the room she shared with her sister, the room empty except for the beds and clear desk, rolls of vellum piled neatly to one side. Aper sighed. He supposed the whole family was out then.
Might as well go back to bed, he figured gloomily, and did just that. He didn't even bother wriggling out of his tunic.
He woke to chaos.
Panicked footfalls rushed past his doorway, frantic, hissing voices bouncing off the marble walls.
Aper leapt to his feet and stopped a servant who was attempting to pass by. "What is happening?" he asked.
The man was ashen. "It's your betrothed, my lord. She's gone missing."
Aper's heart stopped. No.
On all fours, uncaring of his tunic, Aper sprinted through the halls, skidding to a halt in front of Potestas' room. Invidia was sitting, dead-eyed upon her own bed, her brow furrowed. Helva was seated beside her, but rose when Aper entered. "Aper!" he gasped.
"Why was I not told right away?" Aper demanded, unable to stop his lips from pulling back away from his teeth, exposing even more of his tusks.
Helva shook his head, miserable. "I have no idea. I'm sorry, Aper."
"What happened? Were you there?"
Helva nodded, his gaze drifting to his sister. "We were following the procession, and then afterwards, Potestas was gone. I've no idea where she went."
Aper paced fitfully across the room, until his eyes fell upon the desk. There was a scroll out of place. Standing up on two legs, Aper pinned it down to unroll it open across the wood.
In neat, straight writing it said, I'm sorry. You will not see me again. -M. Catia Potestas
Angrily, he swiped it onto the floor, where Helva scooped it up to read. "Oh… Oh, Aper, I'm so sorry." He moved towards Aper, perhaps to embrace him, but Aper was already back on all fours, running out to his garden.
Once there, he took deep breaths, panting from exertion and from a manic grief and anger that left him nearly breathless. And yet, beneath the hurt, there was a dark sense of vindication. Of course she would ultimately find him unsuitable. He was unsuitable. She was clever to realize it before they were wed.
Uncaring of his clothing, Aper slumped into the flower bushes, hiding his face from the sun's judging eyes.
Aboard the ship, Potestas, dressed carefully to disguise her face while she remained in the city, was terrified. She had never before been on such a vessel.
But Ennius Calidus had his brother's gentle manner, and the red rose pinned to his tunic. He would be Potestas' escort to Alexandria, and to her new life. In some ways, he was her psychopomp—though instead of leading the living to death, he was guiding one dead towards life.<