In Rome, marriages among the ruling are a matter of politics, not feelings. One young bride was favored by Fortuna in her husband. But what Fortuna gives, Fortuna can also take away.
Cornelia perched still as marble on the chair in her cubiculum. Livia carefully wrapped her hair around the tube of the calamistrum. The reek of burning animal fur made Cornelia gag, but movement might be disastrous while the hot metal hovered close to her scalp. On the dressing table lay the bone needles and wool thread needed to secure the hairstyle.
Such effort seemed pointless without Publius. Cornelia yearned for her husband. She’d never expected to. They’d married for their families. But in Publius, she found a gentle lover and a friend. He share every aspect of his life with her, respecting her opinion.
When Publius had been called to attend to his father’s war on the Parthians, Cornelia grew distraught. She’d adored their short time together. And as yet, her monthly courses came with regular disappointment. Her longing to have a child-his child-kept her awake and tossing in her bed at night.
“Almost finished, Domina.” Livia pulled the calamistrum loose from Cornelia’s hair, letting the tight curl fall and trail down her back.
The slave turned, placing the now cooled tube back into the wood ash and slowly pulling a glowing one out. She lifted another section of Cornelia’s hair to start wrapping it when someone knocked.
“Your pardon, Domina.” Cornelia nearly turned at the voice of Ajax, her janitor. “Your father has arrived to see you.”
“Now?” Cornelia held still as Livia removed the half-wrapped metal rod, letting Cornelia’s hair fall free. “Shouldn’t he be in the forum?”
“He said it is a matter most urgent, Domina.”
Livia stepped away from her and Cornelia rose, cold dread pooling in her stomach. Politics in Rome teetered on a pin head these days. A matter most urgent could mean a sudden flight from the city.
She followed Ajax into the Atrium where her father, Quintus Caecillius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica waited. The last scion of one great family, adopted into a second one, he served as a leading member among the senate. Today, the age lines of his face cut deep as cracks in Vesuvius’s lava flows. This was no social call. “Cornelia.”
“Father, what’s happened?” She wrung her hands as emotions danced over his face. Finally he sighed and handed her a dingy roll of papyrus.
Cornelia took it with shaking hands, unrolling the document. It reeked of sweat and fire, and one small edge was singed. Familiar handwriting crawled across it.
Publius Licinius Crassus, to his most beloved wife, Cornelia, from the fields of Parthia near Carrhae.
I pray to all the gods you are whole and in good health if these words find you. And I pray you may have those near you who can support you after you have read them.
Darling Cornelia, we go to meet the Parthians soon, and I cannot escape the ill omens begun when that wretch Ateis cast his curse upon my father. I fear I shall die here, beloved, and I would send you these words…
The papyrus dropped from Cornelia’s hands, fluttering to the tiled floor. Livia clucked behind her, reaching for it.
Cornelia closed her eyes, remembering Publius’s strong hands caressing her with tender care. His fine dark hair with just the hint of curl. The taste of his lips, spiced with the falernian wine he loved best as he kissed her lazily in bed.
An inhuman noise tore out of her throat as she clutched her flat stomach. Her knees buckled and only Ajax’s quick movements kept her from collapsing to the floor.
Her father’s hand slapper her face hard. “Control yourself. You are a Matella and of Scipion blood.” Deep inside, the viper of grief curled in and over itself, consuming her.
“Are we sure he’s…” Cornelia couldn’t finish the question, choking on the words.
“A messenger arrived at dawn. The whole Godsdamned army is annihilated. The few who escaped have made their way back.” He did not embrace her, offered no gentle comfort. “This shifts the balance. Without Crassus between them, Caesar and Pompey each will move to consolidate power.”
Words washed over Cornelia. She stood, a statue in her grief.
“We must consider our next move.” He turned, pacing.
Publius, gone. Their lives together lay in the dust of far off Parthia. Had someone seen him decently buried or cremated? Perhaps even now buzzards grew bloated and fat on his dear flesh.
Her father kept speaking as she turned and took the small dagger from Ajax’s belt. Not overly sharp, but the point would do her work.
Cornelia lifted her arm, pressing the point against her neck, just under her chin. She pressed gently until the first tiny bite of pain. A hint of iron wafted into her nostrils as warm blood trickled down her throat to the top of her tunica.
“Put that down, stop being ridiculous.” Her father’s words finally registered.
In the next moment, Livia grabbed her arm, yanking it away. She pried Cornelia’s fingers off the hilt of the blade one by one until it clattered onto the tile.
Scipio looked at his daughter, anger purpling his face. “Do not dishonor him by behaving like a barbarian, daughter. Roman matrons do not commit suicide from grief.”
Cornelia blinked hard at him, then began to shake. “Yes, father,” she whimpered meekly.
“As I was saying, Pompey lacks a wife. And Pompey is here in Rome, so he has the advantage.” He watched impassively as Livia cleaned the blood from Cornelia’s neck. “I’ll make a call on him today, set the gambit in motion.”
“Yes, father.” Cornelia took a breath, placing her beloved Publius’s memory into a box in her mind. Then she shut it, shoving it down deep. Rome moves on.