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.
Potestas would not miss her controlling mother, nor her spiteful sister, but sweet Helva her brother… He and only he would she miss. They had embraced at the docks, and wept in each other's arms.
"Be strong," he'd said as he tucked away her scroll of farewell. "Be brave. And be safe. And should the gods ever allow our paths one day to cross, embrace me as a brother."
"'Be strong, be brave, be safe,'" she murmured to herself as the sailors dropped the canvas and the wind filled them overhead. The dock began to slide away, the busy people shrinking and shrinking until they were gone, and soon only the twinkling firelight of a city that never slept was all that was visible in the swiftly darkening night.
Ennius Calidus put a light hand upon her shoulder. "And so your journey begins, Catia Potestas," he said. "How do you feel?"
She looked at him and gave him a smile. "Hopeful."
Helva almost followed Aper as he fled, but Invidia took hold of his wrist. "Don't," she said coldly. "Let the pig squeal it out alone."
Helva snatched his hand away. "Don't speak of him so crassly."
She rolled her eyes. "You treat him as a man, Helva, but you shouldn't. He's just some accursed, wretched creature, doomed to die at the end of some righteous blade."
That 'pig' is a truer friend than I, Helva thought miserably. And perhaps a better man for it.
Ignoring Invidia's spiteful words, Helva went out to the garden, where he knew Aper would be. He was half-hidden in the flowers, the blue of his tunic clear where the brown and red of his hair was not. For a long moment, Helva just looked at him, unsure of what he should do. But eventually he steeled his heart, schooled his expression, and entered the garden.
He sat cross-legged beside his friend, not speaking, not touching, just there.
The evening was warm and humid, the true heat of summer fast approaching. Soon the sun would become an enemy to hide from, traveling from shadow to shadow in a desperate attempt to escape its assault. But not tonight. The breeze was sweet through the garden, carrying the scent of flowers and fragrant wood.
Beside him, the bush rustled, and Aper's head emerged. Without a word, he lay his great head in Helva's lap. Never before had Helva seen such a wretched man. And he couldn't even cry.
Helva put his hand on Aper's head and smoothed it over his hair. "Is this okay?" he asked softly, worried he had overstepped some boundary, that his actions were too close to treating Aper as some sort of animal.
But Aper only snuffed and scooted closer, making himself more comfortable across Helva's thighs. Accepting this permission, Helva continued the slow, even strokes, combing out the thick hair with his fingers, picking out pollen and petals as he did.
"You are too kind to such a monster," Aper whispered and Helva's heart shattered in his chest.
Summer passed, sticky and slow, Aper and Helva often drifting to sleep beside each other in the afternoon's heat, their reading and discussion forgotten. Slowly but surely, Aper was healing from Potestas' betrayal, and Helva was growing more comfortable with his choices. Aper had not been broken by his sister's departure, and now Potestas was with a man whom she loved and would be happy with. Everyone, it seemed, had survived the ordeal.
So it was a shock when, as summer drew to a close, the Widow Luria informed Aper that her younger daughter wished for his hand in marriage, as an apology for the disgrace of her sister.
Helva did not believe it for a moment, even as Aper's eyes gleamed with joyful shock. He gave Aper a brief embrace, before walking straight to Invidia's room.
Her anger was manifest. The room lay in chaos, the bed overturned, the papyri thrown about, the ink splattered across the white marble walls. Invidia stood in the center, her tunic torn, ink staining her skin. She was breathing heavily, tears streaked down her cheeks.
Helva breathed softly and walked to her, carefully embracing her. "He is not the monster you fear," he said gently.
Invidia shoved him away, anger burning through her despair. "You will not have to fear him mounting you in the night like you are some fat-teated sow!" she shrieked.
"Invidia, he wouldn't do tha—"
"Maybe not to you!"
It should not have landed so heavily upon his heart, to be reminded Aper would not, could not, love him. "Invidia," he began, but she cut him off.
"I will not! I will run away first. I know you are a snoop. Where is Potestas? I shall write to her. She will aid me!"
Helva shook his head. "I know not where she is," he lied, for he knew in his heart that Potestas would not want Invidia back in her life. And likely, she was indebted to the friends of Ennius Galeo and was in no position to beg favors.
"Liar," Invidia hissed. "But no matter, I shall find another solution with or without your aid." She kicked a scroll of papyrus into the wall.
"How did she convince you to agree?" Helva asked, and leaned against the wall, his body suddenly overcome with fatigue.
"Threatened to turn me out if I did not comply. Said I'd have to make my own living as a whore. Said that the pig was the best I could hope for 'in my state'."
So, their mother had caught her with a man then. Helva wondered who it had been and if it mattered. He did not think Invidia was in love as Potestas had been.
Invidia glared at him, as if she were reading his thoughts, but said nothing more.
Helva closed his eyes. "I will help you," he said after a long moment, "but only so my friend would not have to suffer you as a wife."
Invidia gave him a toothy grin. "I care nothing for the reason, only the result."
Once more Aper was swept up in marriage preparations, buoyed by hope and excitement. Invidia had not the demure nature of her elder sister, but Aper did not mind. A strong woman could make for a well-managed home, and indeed, Sammia herself was a stubborn, wild woman compared to her sisters.
"Tell me of your sister," Aper said to Helva that evening. "How might I woo her properly?"
Helva rubbed his chin, thinking for a long moment. Finally he said, "She is decisive, and has good taste. She has a delicate eye and a deft hand. Gifts will woo, but they must be fine things."
Aper nodded thoughtfully. "Very well. We will marry soon then, so I will have better status to provide her with such things."
Helva's heart ached. "That seems to be a fine plan," he said, but he knew he was lying. Say that she hates you, his heart demanded. Do not feed him hope so callously.
But he held his tongue, for fear of Aper turning against him, and so the wedding preparations continued.
As the date of the ceremony approached, Invidia made and discarded a number of plans—from running away to suicide. Helva counseled her with reluctance, but perhaps even if this betrothal too was to end in disaster, Aper would be okay. It was a hope he clung to as the date was set and the wedding loomed.
And soon, with Invidia having enacted none of her plans, the wedding arrived. Aper was as cleaned up as he could be, his hair brushed with oil to give it a lovely sheen, his toga freshly laundered. And Invidia was beautiful, even as she felt a noose tightening around her neck. The Widow Luria beamed.
The ceremony was short, the proper sacrifices made, and the party began. Aper, drunk on wine and happiness both, was soon on all fours, unable to stand. Laughing, for once uncaring of the horror of his mouth, he walked outside to gulp down some fresh air. The sticky summer evening left him sprawled across the porch, his toga coming undone, the drink letting him not care.
He let himself dream, imagining a future where he had an estate of his own, Invidia—his wife!!—there when he returned from his political work. In children's stories, a charitable god could be moved by love or hard work. Perhaps the Warmaster would take pity on him one day and free him from this body. Or perhaps he could prove his worth to The Mother of Mothers by being a thoughtful and loving husband.
He drifted, ruminating on possibilities, while the party continued behind him, on the other side of the wall. Their voices made a soothing burble. Oh, it was Helva's voice. Aper smiled to himself. Helva had a nice voice. And they were brothers now, how perfect.
He was speaking to Invidia, his wife!, his perfect wife!! His!!
It took some time for the words to make sense.
"I have to do it tonight," Invidia said in a low voice, almost lost to the night's insects. "I ask only that you serve as lookout."
"I will do no such thing," Helva hissed in response, and Aper's ears twitched, flicking back to catch more of his words. Helva sounded upset.
"Coward!" Invidia's voice was shrill even as she fought to keep it quiet. "I know you helped Potestas. Why not me? Am I not in the same mire? Are we not the same blood?"
"Potestas did not want to kill my friend." The words came out in a rush, whispered still, but strong.
"You are my brother!"
Aper's head swam, but it was no longer with drink. Helva had aided in Potestas' disappearance? Invidia wanted to kill him?
Helva was not refuting her words. "Yes," he said after a long moment. "Yes, I am."
Suddenly sick, Aper's body trembled, his stomach threatening to spill. He didn't dare move as footsteps departed from the wall, moving quickly, heels hard upon the marble.
Aper wished he could cry.
Did the gods take such pleasure in his suffering? Was he to be denied all but his mother? Of course, she looked at him with pity and a longing for something better, but she loved him at least.
Should he let Invidia succeed? The thought was black and heavy, creeping into his heart like fingers of night, closing it in their grip. What use was he? No wife, no friend—only a mother who wanted, no deserved, a proper son.
When he heard no more people behind the wall, Aper rose to his feet and walked to his room with all the joy of a man going to his execution. After all, perhaps he was.
After hearing Invidia's plans, Helva knew he had to do something. He sought out Aper to warn him, but he had vanished from the party. So Helva began to scour the estate, checking first the gardens, then the library, until he found Aper asleep in his room.
He breathed a quiet sigh of relief and then resolved to guard him, taking a seat against the doorway, watching for his sister.
The summer night was hot, but the marble was cool beneath his wine-fevered body. He pictured what he would do when Invidia showed herself. First, ascertain if she did indeed have a weapon, then subdue her if necessary. Take the weapon. Then call for the guards?
Should he go for the guards now? What if she decided better of it and didn't come at all? What if she came while he was gone?
No, it was better to wait and catch her himself.
The wine was heavy on his head, but he fought the temptation of sleep. Invidia was quite a good sneak.
What would he do after she'd been taken by the guards? What would he tell Aper? What would Aper do?
He didn't seem a vindictive sort, especially not after what had happened with Potestas. He might not even call for Invidia's execution, though it would be in his rights. Aper was a good man like that.
Helva breathed. Should he wake Aper? No, what if Invidia indeed did not come? He would have scared Aper for nothing.
It was comfortable here against the wall. He pressed his cheek to the marble, letting it leech the heat from his skin. He and Aper were brothers now, for however briefly this marriage lasted (for surely it would be annulled). The thought sat strangely under his skin. He did not want to be Aper's brother.
He sighed, crossing his arms, stubbornly keeping his eyes open to watch for his sister. He was just moping over his lack of marriage prospects, he chided himself. Surely after Invidia's punishment—whatever it turned out to be—was carried out, their mother would turn her attention to him and find him a perfectly respectable plebeian girl. She might even be pretty. (He ignored how the thought turned his stomach; he had little interest in pretty women, despite expectation.)
The gods had no issue with a brief affair, or even a tragic love between men, but a marriage and children for the sake of the Republic was still expected of all citizens, even those unfit for her military.
And what was Helva even mooning about anyway? Aper had been clear he was very much interested in beautiful women.
Helva didn't notice his eyes slip closed, as he thought about what Aper might look like as a proper man—his hair the same color, but curled; the shadow of a beard across his jaw; strong, thick-knuckled hands from his years of working the soil of his garden. They would be rough, Helva imagined, callused, but his touch would be gentle, after so long of being unable.
Perhaps Helva could teach him affection, when his curse was lifted. It would set himself up only for pain, but he could then live knowing he had been the first and thus would never be forgotten, even if they drifted apart, drawn by duty. It was a soothing thought.
When Invidia approached Aper's room late that night, on all but silent steps, knife clutched tightly to her chest, she found Helva asleep against the wall, his head tipped to his shoulder, breathing softly.
Though he knew he would not sleep, Aper lay down upon his bed, his ears pricked for any sound. They caught the throb of his heart and the buzz of insects, but hours crept by without any trace of a footstep.
Perhaps she had decided against his murder? If that was the case, what should his next step be? He supposed he could take her to court, but would the judge see his horrifying visage and decide Invidia would be right to slaughter him? But he could not stay married to a woman who would see him dead. (Why had she agreed to the marriage anyway if she found him so disgusting?)
He stiffened as bare feet brushed the floor behind him.
He willed himself still, his body shaking with the effort as the footsteps approached. When they stopped beside his head, he sprang up and knocked his bulk into the person, sending them sprawling to the floor.
A long dagger spun across the marble. Invidia squirmed under his weight, her arms pinned. "Tell me why, o wife of mine," Aper said softly, his voice dripping with venom.
She snorted derisively, as if she had nothing to fear, though he could feel her trembling. "Would you want to marry you?"
"Then why did you?" He pressed his hoof painfully between her shoulder blades, drawing a grunt and a wince.
"Spoiled, selfish pig," she hissed. "You know nothing of a mother's tyranny."
Aper's nostrils flared, but he suppressed the snarl that threatened. "I could have been an ally," he said, and sadness crept into his heart. "I would have helped you."
"Pah! You are a beast. I'd wake just like this, waiting for you to violate me under the guise of husband."
Aper's heart ached. He leaned back, letting her arms free but keeping her torso pinned. She clawed at the ground, trying to pull herself free. "Yes, I am a beast. But I am a beast who would never have touched you without your permission," he said softly. "Sex is not a punishment."
This brought hesitation, and Aper stepped back. Wincing, Invidia rose to her feet, staring at him in confusion. "I have one final question," he said.
Her brows drawn, she replied, "Ask."
"Did your brother really help Potestas leave the city?"
"Of course he did. Did you really think he would let his favorite sister marry you?" There was bitterness in her voice, and a pain Aper knew well—the pain of being unwanted by those beloved.
Aper was so tired of being unwanted. He was so tired of being betrayed. "Go," he told Invidia. "Leave the city under cover of night. I will send no one after you, but I do not want to see you again."
For a long moment, Invidia just stared at him, wide-eyed in the dark. Then, she bolted, her pale tunic vanishing into the night.
Aper sat for a long moment, staring at the place she had been. Then, heavily, he got to his four feet and shook off his clothing. What was the point of playing the game? He wasn't a man, and there was no point in trying any longer.
As he left his room, he saw Helva stretched out across the floor outside his doorway, snoring softly, the wine still coloring his cheeks. Fallen asleep playing lookout, just as Invidia had asked. Should Aper wake him, confront him for his deception? For all those months pretending they were friends?
Or perhaps it hadn't been a deception. Instead, it was a simple calculation—family was more important. Aper supposed he couldn't blame Helva for that.
No, better to just leave.
Walking as quietly as he could, Aper passed his mother's room. She lay asleep, peaceful. She didn't know her son's wife had tried to kill him. Maybe she would assume the two left on secret honeymoon, giggling like illicit lovers. He breathed out a soft snort of derision. The thought was laughable.
But still he could not bring himself to say farewell. So he walked on and out into the night, where the Lady of Night was happy to swallow him whole.
Helva woke from troubled dreams to an aching head and an aching body. His joints crackled and popped as he rose from the floor, wincing against the early morning light. He sat for a moment, trying to remember why he was on the floor.
It returned to him in a rush. "Aper!" He scrambled to his feet, swaying as the change in position left him light-headed. Using the doorway to steady himself, he ran into the chamber, heart pounding. "Aper!"
His bed was empty, but there was no blood, nor a body. It was like nothing had happened. Maybe nothing had?
Pressing his fingers into his temples to try and control the hangover, Helva went out into the halls. "Have you seen Sammius Aper?" he asked one of the servants.
She adjusted her laundry basket where it sat against her hip. "Not since last night, no. Did you try his room? He's rarely up this hour."
Helva shook his head, ignoring how it made his stomach roil, and continued down the hallway, asking each person he saw and receiving the same answer, until he reached Lady Sammia's rooms. She was eating breakfast when he entered. Her brow furrowed, her eyes traveling over his surely-disheveled appearance. Helva did not let the embarrassment interrupt him. "Domina, have you seen your son?"
Her gaze sharpened and she set her food down. "No. Why?"
"He isn't in his rooms and no one has seen him."
"Have you checked the courtyard?" But she was already on her feet and gesturing for her servants to help her dress. "Check there, wash your face, and return to me."
Helva bowed his head and left, walking quickly as his head would allow. He needn't have bothered. The courtyard too was empty. He went to the fountain and washed his face, running his fingers over his teeth and tongue to try and wipe away the sour taste of the night. He rose, finally removed his formal toga, and met Domina Sammia back in her chambers.
She didn't seem surprised. "Leave that here and come with me." She pulled her palla up over her head and led Helva out of the estate and out to the main road. "I know of a place we might find answers."
Helva followed her out of the city and toward the farmers' fields, turning off the main road and on to one less traveled, not marked with paving stones. Ahead of them, a tree leaned over the trail, surrounded by green plants—strawberries perhaps, though it was too late in the season for the fruit. When he looked back at the tree, there was a young man atop a low branch, swinging his legs back and forth as he watched them approach.
He had a dark mop of curls, a summer green tunic, and the bare, callused feet of one who lived far from the city. Domina Sammia frowned at him and asked very simply, "Where is my son?"
The boy frowned and rocked his body from side to side to some unknown rhythm. "I don't know. And I would tell you if I did, dear lady."
"Then help me find him. I know your power well."
Helva looked at the boy. He didn't look particularly powerful per se, but there was an… uneasiness Helva sensed, like looking at bolts of fabric all side by side, all the same color, except for one, just slightly different from the others. This boy looked like any other, and yet he was not.
The boy hopped down from the branch, falling too slowly to be natural. From the air, he plucked a golden chain, then coiled it in his palm, closing his other hand over top. His eyes glowed emerald green for a split second and he opened his hands, drawing forth a necklace with a sapphire pendant. "This will help," he said, and held out his palm. "Watch."
Slowly, the boy turned on his heel, until the gem began to glow. "He's this way," he explained, pointing in the direction the gem was facing. "It will glow brighter as you get closer." With a smile, he offered it to Domina Sammia, who took it quickly from his palm, turning back the same direction. Just as before, the gem glowed.
"Thank you," she said, tears catching in her voice.
Gently, the boy patted her hand. "I hope you find him." His eyes darted to Helva, a knowing smile crossing his mouth. "You should be the one to look, I think."
Helva started at being addressed. "M-me?"
"Yes. You love him just as dearly, and you aren't obliged to."
Domina Sammia's gaze narrowed thoughtfully as she looked at Helva. "Does he speak truly?"
A flush crept up his cheeks, but as he began to answer in stops and stammers, he gasped. The boy—and the tree he'd been sitting in—were gone, as if they had never been.
Lady Sammia barely flinched at the sight, and gestured for Helva's hand. She pressed the necklace into it. "Bring him home, Catius Helva. Do this for me, and I will see you richly rewarded." Her grip was tight, the barest tremble the only hint of her distress.
Helva put the necklace on and bowed, his arm across his chest. "As you ask of me, Domina. But… if he does not wish to return?"
She clutched her palla tightly around her. "Then you make sure he is happy, wherever he is. And knows that his mother will love him always."
Helva's heart ached for this woman, a better mother than he would ever know. "I will, Domina"
"May the Lord of Travels keep you safe." In a sudden movement, she embraced him, pressing her lips to his forehead. "Go swiftly and return. Mother of Mothers watch over you."
He almost wept at the affection, but he only returned her embrace, turning his face away. Then, he stepped back, held the sapphire in his hand and followed its glow off the path and across the fields, heading toward the distant forest.
He had never traveled here alone, and his heart fluttered with every distant rustle in the brush. He was unarmed, and his sandaled feet were already pricked and cut by thorny bushes as he followed the glow of the gem, uncaring of the path he was forced to make.
Morning passed into afternoon, the shifting shadows of the trees and the steady heating of the air the only indications of time. His hair clung to his skin, sweat dripping down his back, soaking into his tunic. As afternoon approached evening, he was sticky and hot, grateful for the shade of the trees, but desperate for a drink.
By Luck's grace, he soon stumbled upon a clearing and a narrow river, which he knelt gratefully beside, scooping water up in his hands to bring to his parched mouth. His legs ached and throbbed beneath him as he sat, the sapphire dangling between his neck and his outstretched hands.
The glow flared suddenly brighter, pulsing, and Helva looked up, across the water, to a boar—its brown-red body watching him from behind the trunk of a tree. Helva sat up quickly, gasping. "Aper!"
The boar regarded him for a long moment, and for a second, Helva worried it was only a normal sort of animal, one which did not appreciate his presence at its river. But no, he knew those eyes and those filed-down tusks.
"Aper, please. I know it's you. Speak to me, please."
Aper stepped forward slowly, uncertainly, but he approached the river. "Why are you here, Helva?"
"I wish to bring you home, Aper."
He snorted and turned away. "There is no home for me there. I am where I belong. I am a wild creature, and I belong to the Wild."
"You are a man, Aper, no matter what flesh you wear."
Aper suddenly snarled, his hackles rising, his foot stomping. "Says the man who would have sat idly by while I was slaughtered like the damned pig that I am!"
Aper squealed, shrill and harsh, his body shaking. "I saw you! You fell asleep playing lookout for your sister. Don't lie to me!"
"I fell asleep trying to catch her before she reached you! Please…" Tears of exhaustion and despair slid down his cheeks. "Please. I have only my word as proof, but—"
"You knew Potestas would leave! You aided her!"
Helva shrank, his head dropping to the water that rushed between them. "I did," he said. "I could have told you, but I did not. I could have hindered her, but I did not."
"Because you did not want your dearest sister to marry a beast." Aper's voice was satisfied, almost smug, despite the hurt so clear beneath it. With a snort, he began to walk away.
"No," Helva said. "It was not because you were a beast. I hid her plans from you because I know men. I have known too many men who, in their anger at a woman's scorn, turn violence upon them. At first, I feared that from you, because you are a man of power and privilege, and such men are more dangerous than any beast. Please, my friend, I ask only for your understanding, so you can decide if I am worth your forgiveness."
The clearing grew quiet, but for the rush of the river and the buzzing of insects. Slowly, Aper approached the water, his footfalls heavy. "Prove your love for me," he said, and Helva looked up, his heart stuttering. "You say you are my friend. Prove it. Leave your life behind and join mine. Here in these woods."
Helva bowed his head without hesitation. "I will. Though you will make your mother weep for lack of you."
Aper sighed heavily. "She will be better off without me to sully her reputation. Come, this way."
Jumping across the river, Helva followed.
Aper's heart was tight. Helva was here. Helva had come after him. Helva had not betrayed him so dearly as Aper had assumed? His ears turned back, catching the sound of Helva's footsteps, following him just as he'd asked.
He hadn't even hesitated to leave the comfortable life of the Flavia estate. Aper breathed deeply, afraid to hope, but unable to stop himself completely. He brought Helva to the cave he'd found in which to make a home. It was not a deep cave, little more than a hole in the shallow side of a mountain. It even had a small skylight at the back of it, under which various mosses and water plants grew in the spring that bubbled up from the ground.
It was a peaceful place, comfortable. He hoped Helva would like it.
Helva had to crouch to make his way inside, but the interior was tall enough for him to stand. "Oh wow…" he breathed. The evening light trickled through the skylight, lighting the interior with a warm orange glow.
"We will need to gather things to make it more comfortable for you," Aper said self-consciously. "For damp stone will not make for a good bed. But I think it is quite a nice home for a boar."
"It is beautiful," Helva agreed. "Shall I go to find bedding? I have some money, I could—"
Aper cut him off. "No!" If you go, what will promise your return? "You will stay here. I will find you something suitable to sleep on."
Helva didn't argue, holding up his hands in easy surrender. "I understand." He sat down cross-legged on the ground. "I will wait right here."
Aper swallowed, his ears flickering, no doubt showing his agitation. "If you do not…" He didn't know if he wanted to make an actual threat.
"I give you my word, Aper. I will be right here when you return."
With a snort, Aper left the cave. He gathered fallen branches so that their leaves could be made into a bed. Once he'd stacked those outside the cave mouth, he hunted out food—roots and berries, and some sweet grasses. He hoped they would sit well on Helva's stomach.
By the time he was dragging his spoils inside, the sun had set, and he found Helva stretched out across the stone floor, sound asleep. Moving as quietly as he could, Aper set aside the supplies for the morning and sat, watching him in the dark.
As the air cooled, Helva began to shiver, but not wake. Hesitating only a moment, Aper lay down beside him, scooting close. Helva only half-woke, threading his fingers into the hair of Aper's side, before curling tightly against him. Aper wished he could return the embrace, but was content to let sleep take him, lulled by Helva's quiet snoring.
The next few days were spent on logistics. Aper accompanied Helva to the edge of the forest, where he watched as Helva bought basic supplies—proper bedding, flint for a fire, several lengths of braided cord, a cooking knife, salt—and a spear. Logically, Aper knew it was for hunting, but he couldn't help but be wary of the weapon, after Invidia's attempt on his life.
Helva must have noticed his reticence, because he kept the tip pointed well away from him, the shaft tucked into the crook of his elbow. They set up a simple fire pit outside of the cave, ringed with stones. Using cord and gathered wood, Helva also rigged up a simple spit for cooking meat.
"You are taking this remarkably well," Aper said quietly, as they sat together on the third night, a hare roasting over the fire upon the spit.
"Would you rather I ran screaming?" Helva asked, raising an eyebrow as he added another branch to the fire.
"No, of course not. I'm just… surprised, is all." Aper lowered his head to the ground, staring at the crackling flames. "I didn't expect you to agree in the first place. Aren't you unhappy?"
"Not at the moment, though I suspect that may change with the arrival of winter." Helva said this with a smile and a laugh. "You may ask that I leave because I'll be clinging to you like moss upon a stone."
"Ah, stealing the warmth of my bulk?"
"Precisely." Helva smiled. "There are certainly worse ways to warm up on a winter's day. But for now, the summer is soon to break into autumn, which will make the day more comfortable. So I am content here with you." He pulled the hare up, testing its doneness with his knife, before putting it back. "Just another minute or so. Your company is certainly no problem either."
Aper snorted. "There is no need to flatter me any longer. I am only a boar now."
"I'm not my mother, nor a politician; I don't make a habit of giving compliments I do not mean."
Quiet fell between them as their gazes locked, something heavy and unspoken lingering in the air. It is Helva who turned away first. "It should be ready now. Would you like a leg?"
The rest of the night passed in pleasant conversation, and Aper fell asleep to Helva once more curled against his side, and dreamed of having lips to kiss with.
Summer passed slowly into autumn, as the Queen of Spring and Death returned to her husband beneath the earth. The nights grew cold without her touch, and Helva, despite the warmth of Aper and his blanket, more and more woke to early morning shivers.
Aper fretted over this. "Perhaps it'd be best if you returned…" he said one especially chilly morning, watching a shivering Helva start their cooking fire, still wrapped in his blanket.
"Nonsense. I swore you my life, and my life you shall have." The brush caught and the fire began to crackle. Helva sighed happily and held his hands over it, wiggling his fingers.
Aper's eyes followed the movement from his spot on the ground. "What then, if I order you to go? You are my man. You must obey me."
Helva's fingers stilled. "Please don't."
Aper stood up with a heavy snort. "And why not? This isn't the proper life for someone like you."
"Nor is it for you!"
Aper laughed bitterly. "No, Helva, I am precisely where I belong."
"Oh? Are you going to settle down with a nice sow? Sire some piglets? Is that what you want?"
Aper began to pace, his tail swishing with agitation. "It doesn't matter what I want."
"That you want at all is what marks you as a man!"
"Untrue! Beasts want food and warmth and comfort as much as any man."
Helva clenched the blanket around his shoulders. "But do they love as you do, Aper? Are they merciful and kind, as you are?" His eyes glittered with the growing firelight. "I know you did not kill Invidia, though you were well within your rights to. Would a true beast have let her go?"
Aper turned away, staring resolutely away. "Had I killed her, I surely would have been put to the sword myself. Who would believe a young woman posed a proper threat to a creature of my stature?"
"Would a beast be able to even conceive of that sort of consequence?" Helva sighed shortly. "Aper, a beast cannot speak as you do. That alone is proof you are a man."
He stomped his foot. "Fine, I concede I am at least more a man than a beast. But that does not mean I am worth your discomfort."
Helva stood up and Aper really looked at him, realizing sadly how dirty and ragged his friend had become, how once-shining waves of blond hair were now limp and dusty, how once-comfortable fat had given way to loose skin and ropey muscle. He had done that, in his selfish desire for companionship. But Helva was glaring at him, angry at this simple truth. "I decide what is 'worth my discomfort', Aper. And so long as you remain here, so too shall I."
Aper stood two-legged to match him. "Why are you being so infuriatingly stubborn about this, Helva?!"
Helva's skin colored blotchy-red. "Because I love you, you blind, stupid, beautiful man!"
Aper fell back to his feet, eyes so wide the whites showed. "You—?"
Helva sat immediately back down, pulling the blanket over his head for a moment, before dropping it back like a hood. "No, I refuse to be embarrassed," he said, despite the blush still staining his cheeks and ears. "If you haven't realized it before now, that's your own fault."
Unsure of what to say or how to react, Aper simply dropped his hindquarters to the ground and stared at the fire, his mind spinning.
Helva watched him with uncertain eyes, then looked away. "I'm going to take a walk. I'll be back."
Aper watched him go, sitting in numb shock for a moment longer, before he took off running in pursuit.
Stupid. He was so stupid. Helva pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes until stars winked in his vision, as if he could physically hold back the emotion that threatened to spill forth.
He hadn't paced far, standing on a short cliff from which he could just make out the city. The autumn wind was cool, but it was soothing on his skin, still inflamed by embarrassment.
Aper would surely send him away now.
He sniffed miserably, rubbing his nose with the back of his wrist.
A rustle behind him caused him to turn. It was Aper, who stumbled uncertainly when their eyes met. Helva sighed and turned back toward the city. "Go ahead," he said.
Aper approached slowly, coming to stand beside him, a full step apart. Aper glanced over, his ears back, then turned away again. "Um. A clarification, if I may?"
"You did mean the, erm, romantic sort of love, didn't you? Not the more, familial, brotherly sort?"
Helva wondered how badly it would hurt if he flung himself down the cliff. It didn't look very high; he'd probably live. He closed his eyes to restrain the urge. "Yes, I meant the romantic sort."
Aper shifted around, his hooves scraping over the stone. After a long moment, he murmured, "I didn't know that was an option."
Helva looked at him, an incredulous tilt to his brows. "We literally got into an argument over whether or not Achilles was submissive in bed."
"That was a legitimate scholarly debate!"
Helva stared at him.
Aper made a small, undignified noise and looked at his feet, mumbling a, "Fair point." Helva wondered if he was blushing beneath the hair.
"I won't mention it again if you prefer," he said, quite proud of the steady cadence of his voice. He crossed his arms, holding them tight to his chest.
Aper closed the distance between them, pushing his head up under Helva's elbow until his hand fell free onto the soft hair of his snout. Idly, he scratched his nails over the hair, picking out debris.
Contented, Aper snuffled. "I would like very much if you mentioned it as often as possible," he said softly.
Helva smiled. It wasn't a return of his feelings, but it was acceptance, and for now, that was enough. He bent and wrapped his arms around Aper's great neck, burying his face into the thick ruff of hair.
As Helva slept that night, Aper watched him with a new appreciation for how lovely he was. And he loved him! Him!! Aper wondered how could have gotten so lucky. He wanted to give Helva proper answer, but… how did he himself feel?
Helva was certainly attractive, that much was obvious. He was well-proportioned, and his pale hair was a rarity in the city, drawing the eye. But love was more than aesthetic appreciation.
Helva was kind and loving. He befriended (and came to love!) a wretched creature like himself. He saw him truly as a man, not a beast, even if Aper himself had trouble believing it. Helva had a quiet sort of cleverness, and he was a man who would suffer for friend or family alike. They were all admirable qualities.
But did Aper love him?
He took a different tack. What would Aper have done had Helva refused to come with him that day at the river?
He could feel the bloom of heartbreak at even the thought, the ache of knowing the only person in the world to love him was his own mother. There was bitter vindication there too, waiting for Helva to prove himself to be like anyone else.
But now there was the warmth of knowing he wasn't like anyone else. Aper touched his forehead to Helva's cheek, closing his eyes. It wasn't a kiss; he wasn't capable, but it was the closest he could get.
Half-waking, Helva gave him a small smile and pressed his lips between Aper's eyes. "Sleep, Aper," he murmured.
And curling protectively around Helva to keep him warm and safe, Aper did.
Helva woke with a shiver and snuggled closer to Aper's warm bulk. He didn't precisely know where they stood with one another, but for the moment, it didn't matter.
He dozed for a little while longer, before sitting up with a yawn, stroking along Aper's back to wake him. Aper made a contented snuffling sound at the contact, drawing a smile from Helva. "Come, Aper. It's morning," he said, and put both hands atop his shoulders, pushing back and forth in a failed attempt to shake him.
But as Helva shifted his hands around, searching for a better grip, his palm slid… inside Aper's flesh. Withdrawing his hand with a startled yelp, Helva stood up, peering down at Aper's back, seeking out the injury(?).
There, between his shoulders, was a small void, as if the weave of his skin had unraveled. Aper, who had been woken by Helva's shout, turned his head. "What's wrong, Helva?"
"There's a… hole, in your back." It sounded ridiculous, but what else could it be?
"A. A hole? Is it bleeding?"
Helva ran his fingers across the surface of the void and pulled them away. Clean. "No. It's just… a gap. As if you were wearing an ill-fitting tunic."
"Can you see inside?"
"I'll need more light."
Once outside, Aper sat, his ears twisting restlessly as Helva examined the… thing. "I'm going to just. Reach inside," Helva said after a few minutes of looking and seeing nothing. "Tell me if it hurts, okay?"
Aper hummed agreement and Helva took a deep breath before sliding his left hand into the gap. It sank unimpeded for a few inches, then hit something smooth and warm. Aper shivered beneath him. "Does it hurt?"
"No, no. It feels amazing."
Helva's brow furrowed as he ran his fingers over the surface. It felt like smooth, human skin, and, yes, that certainly felt like a shoulder blade. The hole opened wider as he moved, as if he were pulling apart a stitched hem. "I'm going to try something. Again, just, tell me if it hurts."
Instead of moving sideways, Helva pulled down, along Aper's spine, toward his tail. The flesh yielded, parting like a river around a rock, except it remained gapped in his wake. Aper moaned and shuddered at the sensation, his eyes fluttering closed.
The gap was open enough to see now.
It was a man's back, the flesh pale with lack of sunlight, but… undoubtedly human.
Helva's heart pounded in his ears. "Hold on," he murmured. "Stand up, hold your limbs as close to your middle as you can."
"Helva? What are you doing?"
"Hopefully, you'll know in a moment."
Aper followed his instructions, and Helva moved behind him, pushing the parted flesh to either side, almost like opening a book backwards. He could see the tops of arms now, and thighs (and ass, but he would appreciate that later).
"I'm cold," Aper said uncertainly. "What are you even doing?"
Helva pushed up, revealing the back of a well-muscled neck. "Hold on, hold on. Tuck in your head, Aper. Close your eyes." As he did, Helva darted forward and pulled the back of the boar's head. Brown and red waves of hair sprung up from beneath his fingers, the same color as the coarse boar hair, but long and soft.
The boarskin fell to the ground, leaving a pale, trembling man curled up in its center.
"You can sit up, Aper," Helva breathed. "Open your eyes."
The man uncurled, taking a deep breath as he shivered. He had a long, eagle-beak of a nose, like his mother, and the strong brow of his father, and warm brown eyes that gleamed in the early morning light. "Oh, I feel weird. Helva, what did you d…" His gaze had traveled downward. His eyes suddenly gleaming with unshed tears, he raised his hands, the fingers trembling as he slowly curled and uncurled each one in turn. His gaze returned to Helva. "How bad is it?" he asked with a wince. "My face, I mean."
"You're lovely, Aper," Helva said with a smile, his heart fit to burst.
Aper reached out and cupped Helva's face in his hands, guiding Helva down to kneel beside him. He traced Helva's features with his fingertips, touch whisper-soft. Tears spilled down his cheeks and Aper laughed. "I can cry," he said wonderingly, as Helva wiped his tears away.
"You can," he said warmly. "And now we can do this." He brought their lips together, chaste and soft, then pulled back, ears pink.
Aper stared for a long moment, then grinned, wrapping his arms around Helva's waist to pull them back together. "I'm probably no good at kissing," he said, pressing quick kisses to Helva's cheeks and once against his lips. "But I'd love to learn with you."
Helva laughed. "I'm not exactly practiced myself, but I'm sure we can figure something out. Skill is just applied practice, right?"
Aper nodded. "Yes indeed. So we should get lots of practice." But as he shifted forward to adjust their positions, his legs got tangled, knocking them both to the ground.
Giggling like a child, Aper looked down at Helva, now pinned beneath him. "I'm so graceful, like a panther."
"Oh yes, the most elegant and graceful of men," Helva agreed with a laugh, before putting his arms around Aper's neck. "Come here."
They got in quite a bit of practice.
The sun was high in the sky by the time they finished, lips swollen, lying side by side, hands clasped. Aper rubbed his red cheeks. "I don't know if this heat is the exertion or the sun punishing skin that has not known its radiance."
Helva rolled onto his side and pressed a finger to the redness. "Does that hurt?"
Aper winced. "Yes."
The skin flashed white beneath Helva's finger, then quickly filled back in with red. "It's sunburn. I'm sorry, love."
Aper sighed. "I never thought I'd miss all the hair." With a groan, he sat up, staring at the discarded boarskin, still laying on the ground where it had been dropped. His expression grew somber.
Sensing something amiss, Helva rose as well, and put an arm around Aper's bare shoulders, resting his chin in the soft curve behind his collarbone. "What are you thinking about?"
"What if I put it back on?" he asked softly.
Helva restrained his gasp of shock, and took a soft breath instead, answering the question with another. "Why would you want to?"
"If we return, no one will know me." He touched his face, gliding his fingertips over his features. "This is a stranger's face."
"You look like your mother's son," Helva said. "And do you really believe a mother would not know her son?"
Aper placed his hand over Helva's, squeezing gently. "I have learned to avoid optimism."
"And yet, here you are, a man. Perhaps you should have held tighter to hope instead of letting it fly?"
"Perhaps." Still, he stared at the skin. "Do you think it… was properly broken, the curse?"
Helva furrowed his brow. "Yes, of course. The skin came off, didn't it?"
"Yes, but you had to pull it. Maybe… perhaps we forced it? What if I am to face punishment for escaping?"
"Then they shall have to punish me, for releasing you."
Aper shook his head and lay his head against Helva's, closing his eyes. "I won't let them."
A chuckle behind them caused them both to jump. A woman stood there, her wild curls the orange of a sunset, her body draped in a fine red stola, trimmed in silver. She watched the two men with a regal, haughty smile. "Don't worry, no punishments today."
Helva tightened his hold on Aper. "Are you the one who cursed Aper?"
The woman laughed, showing a few too many teeth. "'Curse'? I helped him." She scoffed. "Those children would have turned your Aper into a right prick. A man born to privilege, gifted with beauty and the love of others? He would have been a terror." She held her hands behind her back, stalking toward them, still smiling, though her eyes concealed something deep and dark. Cold fear shot through Helva's veins. Aper winced as Helva's nails dug into his skin.
The woman's eyes narrowed. "You are wise indeed to recognize when you are in the presence of power," she said to Helva.
His heart hammered against his ribs.
"But I was not lying when I said I was not here to punish. Indeed, I'd say my gift worked well. The gift of temporary ugliness; three heartbreaks, and the acceptance of love the key to its end." Her gaze turned to Aper. "Tell me, Aper." Her tongue rolled around his name, as if tasting it. "Do you think my gift was good, that it brought you to this moment?"
Aper thought for a long moment, his hand on Helva's. "Your gift made my life very hard, but… it did teach me humility."
Helva frowned. "But it also taught you to hate who you are. It taught you that you were a monster, even at your heart."
The woman's lips pursued and her head tilted, as if she were deep in thought, though her eyes did not change. "Interesting," she said.
From the air, two men appeared. One was the boy from before, his cheery face now serious, and he was accompanied by a man who might have been the Sundriver himself, golden-haired and draped in white. It was this man who put a hand on her shoulder, emanating authority. "That is enough," he said, with an air of finality. "You will apologize. You wanted to learn from us, but that means you cannot persist in undermining us."
The woman's face grew blank, but Helva thought he could see the anger in her, rising like waves of heat. "As you say, Teacher." Sharply, her eyes flashed toward Aper. "I apologize." Her voice was flat, and with a crack like the snap of a whip, she vanished.
The blond man sighed and shook his head, then approached Aper and Helva, offering a hand to help them stand. His hand was cool and smooth, like someone who had never known the struggle of labor. "I apologize on her behalf, young man," he said to Aper, "for the pains you have suffered. We could not undo what was done."
The boyish man, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, asked, "Is there anything we can do for you now? To make up for it?"
Aper looked at Helva. He was pale beneath the sunburn, clearly overwhelmed and scared. Helva kissed his cheek and turned back to the men. "If it's all the same to you, I think a life free of magic might be the best compensation."
The blond man sighed and rubbed his chin. "You are probably right. Allow me to at least provide you some clothing, so you may return to town without drawing undue attention." He drew his fingers through the air, and fine white cloth appeared from beneath them, as he were pulling it from a loom. When it was long enough, he gathered it in his arms, and stroked his hand above it, giving the edge a golden trim.
"Is the color okay? What color do you like?" the boy asked with a friendly smile. "He likes white and gold because it suits himself, but this is a gift for you."
The blond man looked a little embarrassed, his fair skin doing nothing to hide the pink in his cheeks.
"Uh, blue?" Aper answered in a small voice. "Like the sky."
The boy grinned and took the cloth and shook it out, changing it from white and gold cloth to a fine blue tunic, trimmed with green. "Good?"
Dumbly, Aper nodded and the tunic was folded and placed into his arms. The blond man looked like he still wanted to say something, but the boy shook his head and took his hand. "We are sorry, for what it's worth after everything," he said. "We won't let the same thing happen to someone else."
Some of the tension left Aper's shoulders. "Please," he said softly. "Please don't let anyone else feel like this again."
The boy gave him a sad smile. "We can't promise that, but we can make sure that woman doesn't turn any more babies into boars."
Aper chuckled ruefully. "I suppose that will have to be enough."
With a cheery wave (from the boy) and a solemn nod (from the blond man), the two of them also vanished, though silently, into the bright, autumn daylight.
Aper and Helva stood quietly for a moment. Aper squeezed the tunic in his hands. "What are you thinking about?" Helva asked him in a quiet voice, touching his arm as he leaned into his shoulder.
"It feels like my life is just a game to them, or… that I was just some sort of project, some teaching tool." He threw the tunic into the fire pit, staining the blue with black ash. He embraced Helva, tucking his face into the crook of his neck. "Can we go back to kissing?" he murmured.
Helva returned the hug. "Of course we can."
They fell into a doze after that, but Helva woke as the sun began to fall. When he opened his eyes, he saw that Aper had propped the boarskin up onto a rock. He sat cross-legged before it, still naked, staring into its face. The setting sun threw his profile into shadow.
As Helva sat up, Aper glanced his way, but turned back to the boarskin. "It's strange," he said quietly. "I look at it, and still see it as me." He touched his own face, running his fingers over his new features. "I do not know the face I wear now, and it disturbs me in a way I cannot quite understand. Perhaps the true me is the boar, and this face is the facade."
Helva crawled over to him and sat at his side. "You have your mother's nose," he said, tracing it with his fingertip. "And your father's heavy brow. You have your uncle's jaw." He touched each feature in turn. "The bow of your lips reminds me of the mosaic of your grandfather. You are precisely as you were meant to be."
Aper frowned. "But I wasn't meant to be born at all. Those spirits made it so."
"Can you say that for sure? Perhaps they only helped along what was eventually destined regardless. And even if they caused you to be born, so what? Does that change who you are?"
Aper dragged his hands through the boar's hair. "And precisely who am I, Helva?"
"You are Caius Sammius Aper, son of Sammia Maxima and Lucius Flavius Scaurus. You are a thoughtful, contemplative man who tends unfortunately toward philosophical self-flagellation." He smiled as the corner of Aper's mouth rose slightly. "You are beloved of your mother, the bearer of your grandfather's name, and—" Helva knit their fingers together, squeezing tightly. "—you are the man I love, for whom I would suffer any number of indignities just to make you laugh."
Aper did indeed laugh, and kiss Helva warmly. "Thank you, Helva." He leaned against his shoulder, back to looking at the boarskin, though now the atmosphere was lighter. "I shall put it back on, if I can," he said after a moment. "Because my mother deserves to witness my transformation firsthand."
"Now that," Helva said with a smile, "is reasoning I can get behind. Come, let's see what we can do."
It took some uncomfortable maneuvering, but eventually Aper was back in the familiar, four-legged body, a toga clip holding the skin closed in the back—just the top, for the rest had knit quite seamlessly back together. There had been some panic as the skin closed over his human back, but Helva had soothed his fears as best he could, and in the end, there had been nothing to worry about.
As night began properly to fall, Helva gathered their supplies and Aper buried their firepit—the spirits' gifted tunic within it.
Traveling by night was not without its dangers, but most creatures knew to steer clear of a large boar. Helva's sight was pitiful in the dark, but he kept a hand tight in Aper's ruff and trusted him to lead.
The made it back to town properly just as dawn was breaking, yawning and dragging their feet as they made their way in through the opening gates, the guards watching them with narrowed eyes as they went.
The Flavia estate was just waking up, the only people moving about the slaves and servants. But when they saw Aper, shock and energy rippled through the staff, and soon the estate was bustling.
By the time Aper and Helva had made their way to the meeting hall, the Domina Sammia was there waiting, her hair loose over her shoulders, dressed immodestly in a simple short tunic. Upon seeing Aper, she ran forward and threw her arms around him, weeping. "My sweet son! I thought you lost to me forever!" Her arms trembled.
Aper wiped her tears delicately with his snout as she leaned back to gasp for breath. "I'm sorry to have been gone for so long, Mother. It was selfish of me. Helva reminded me of who I really am."
Her tear-streaked face turned now to him, and she bowed, a patrician woman bowing to a simple man as Catius Helva, as if he were some god. Uncomfortable in such a state, he knelt before her, putting them on even terms. "There is no need for that, Domina. I did only as I was asked."
Aper nudged her shoulder, doing that little toothy grimace that Helva knew was an attempt at a smile. "I've something to show you." He looked to Helva, who nodded and stood and undid the clip holding the boarskin.
It fell easily this time, and Aper stood on his own two legs, stepping free of the skin. Domina Sammia burst once more into tears of happiness and jumped into his arms. Helva tried not to laugh at Aper's grimace of pain as she pressed upon his sunburn, and wiped away a few happy tears of his own.
The news was carried on the lips and feet of the staff, and soon everyone in the estate was gathered in the meeting hall, chattering. The quick, steady tapping of a cane drew everyone's eye, as Flavius Scaurus himself entered, a few of the servants stepping aside to allow him through.
Father and son stared at one another.
Tension grew as silence fell and lengthened between them.
Flavius Scaurus is the one who broke it. "It is good to see you freed from that baleful curse, my son," he said. "I no longer see reason not to make you a proper Flavius, now that you are a proper man."
Aper looked to his mother, then to Helva, then back to his father, his expression regal. "While I respect your desire to adopt me properly as your son and heir, and appreciate the sentiment, I fear I shall have to decline."
Gasps and whispered filtered through the crowd. Only Helva seemed to notice the fine trembling in his hands.
"And why would you do that? Flavia is a family of much higher standing in the Republic. And you are my son—you should bear my name."
Aper put a hand on his mother's shoulder. "And yet, I have been your son all this time without it. You have brothers who bear the name of Flavius, your father, but the father of my mother had only daughters who lived to adulthood. I shall keep his name so that his legacy may continue."
Flavius Scaurus turned an unattractive shade of red, his expression stormy, but could apparently think of no rebuttal, because he only said, "Very well. It is your name, after all, so you must decide what it is," before hobbling away. Helva felt somewhat sorry for the old man, but after years and years of rejecting his son, what precisely had he expected?
Sammia dabbed at her tears. "Come, let us see you properly dressed so that we might visit your aunts. They will be delighted to see you so well, my son."
Helva chuckled and picked up the boarskin, folding it over his forearm. "Yes, Aper, your time as hermit has ended. It is time to be social."
Laughing, Aper played at trying to steal the skin. "Social functions?! Earth preserve me, I've changed my mind."
Their laughter echoed through the marble halls.
That night, after all social obligations (and some optional functions) had been finished, Aper approached Helva, the boarskin carried in his arms. Helva had been in the midst of washing for bed, but happily admitted him into the room. "What do you need, Aper?"
"I need to be free of the temptation," Aper said seriously. "Having this intact gives me avenue to reject my own humanity. I thought to turn it into a rug, or perhaps a cape."
"A cape is a fine idea. It reminds me of the western barbarians, dressed in their furs."
He retrieved a set of shears, and the two of them got to work, cutting away the legs and belly, and any other parts that would be unneeded in a cape. Aper's expression was grim, occasionally wincing as parts of the skin fell, severed, to the ground. When they finished, the moon was high. "Very well," Aper said, putting his shears on his desk. "This is good work. I shall make sure it gets tomorrow to the tanners, for proper treatment."
Aper picked up a hoof, turning it over in his fingers.
"Do you regret it?" Helva asked gently.
Aper shook his head. "No, not regret, just… That spirit was not wrong precisely, when she said had I not known suffering I may not have become the man I am. Despite everything, perhaps I do owe the boar some love in the end." His lips quirked down, his gaze far away and lost in thought. "I know what I shall do with the scraps."
"Do you wish some company?" Helva asked.
But Aper shook his head and smiled. "No, I'd prefer to do this alone. Sleep, Helva. I shall see you in the morning." He pecked his lips, gathered the hooves and other scraps in his arms, and walked out into the city.
The night was quiet and peaceful, and Aper was unaccosted in his brief walk, into the center of town, where the gates of the Two-Faced lay. And Aper stood before the altar of the god of beginnings and endings, and fed the skins into the fire. The flames quivered and flashed, belching up sparks as they were consumed, glowing embers jumping up to join the stars above.
One era of his life had ended, and Aper embarked into a future he could not predict—a new beginning the like of which most men never received.
He stayed until the skins were naught but ash. And then Caius Sammius Aper, the only son of Sammia Maxima, returned home, where the man he loved awaited him.