Growing up with twenty-five brothers, Lavinia learned from a very early age to be tough. Of course, she was never with all twenty-five at the same time – some had died before she was born, and older ones would leave in a blaze of martial glory, and sometimes they came back, and sometimes they didn’t. For a little while, there were new brothers too, squalling swaddled bundles that Lavinia marveled at before being hurried away by Nutrix. Then Cornelia died, and there were no more new brothers.
Lavinia cried, when she learned Cornelia was gone. She was eight, and Cornelia had been tall and beautiful and spoke softly and was everything Lavinia had imagined Mater to be. Lavinia had hoped, after a while, that Pater would find someone else like Cornelia, but in a few years it became clear that he was no longer interested in wives and children. By that time, Lavinia was thirteen, and had begun to understood enough about the world that the idea of Pater bringing in a much younger woman to wed and bed was vaguely upsetting.
In order of birth, Lucius was not the closest to Lavinia, but in between them was only a couple missing brothers (and possibly a miscarried sister – Lavinia never got the full story). Lucius became Lavinia’s protector, her watchdog, though from what he was guarding her was never clear. Pater viewed Lavinia as a pearl, a precious jewel, and expected everyone to do the same. They did, mostly – brothers Octus and Marcus were jealous, but when they got older they were sent off to war and never came back. But it was always implied, that Lucius was there, and would always continue to be there should something happen to Lavinia.
Lavinia is sixteen, and watching from the other side of the atrium as Pater welcomes men into the villa. There are two – dark-haired and dark-eyed, with straight noses and white teeth. The younger is Lucius’ age, maybe, clean-shaven, and tanned and muscled in a way that suggests long hours spent in the sun with a sword and spear. He’s handsome, Lavinia thinks, and feels a not-unpleasant tightness in her stomach.
It is the older brother – they must be brothers, they look so alike – who turns and catches Lavinia’s eye, and grins. Flushing, she ducks behind a pillar.
“Lavinia?” Pater has spotted her as well. “Lavinia, come here.”
Eyes lowered properly, she advances, skirting the impluvium – the tap of her leather sandals on the marble floor seems unnaturally loud. Lavinia finally reaches Pater and he puts a heavy hand on her shoulder, pushing her forward slightly. “May I present my daughter, Lavinia.” The two men smile down at her and Lavinia bows her head. “This is Saturninus Severus, and his brother Bassianus, sons of the emperor.”
Lavinia curtsies again, but sneaks a glance up through her eyelashes. Bassianus must be the younger one. When he smiles, the corners of his eyes crinkle until all she sees is dark iris and pupil.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?” asks Pater.
“It is an honor to meet you,” Lavinia says, taking care to keep her voice soft.
Saturninus chuckles. “She’s a beauty.”
“She takes after her mother.” Pater bumps a knuckle up under Lavinia’s jaw affectionately. “And a lovely creature she was too.”
Lavinia has not heard of herself talked about in this way before, and her cheeks burn again. She is suddenly conscious of the male gaze, of the way Saturninus is looking her over from head to toe. So she does what any other self-respecting Roman woman would do in her position – she straightens her shoulders, raises her chin, and smiles.
Lucius returns from battle with fresh scars and a hollow expression. More losses, Lavinia understands – more brothers gone. But that is nothing compared to the loss waiting for him at home.
The baby in Lavinia’s arms fusses and she hushes it half-heartedly. He has grown in the two weeks since his birth, though not by much. Martius, Quintus, Mutius, and Septimus are all standing by, and Baby’s nursemaid. But with Aurelia gone, it is up to Lavinia to present the child to Lucius.
Lucius approaches slowly, jaw working, eyes red-rimmed. The only sound in the atrium is his heavy footsteps and Baby’s fretting. Lavinia knows he could hate this child, his son, so easily, the small thing that killed its mother, that left her spent and motionless in a bloodied bed. He could refuse to acknowledge it, leave them to find Baby a new home, or failing that abandon him on the side of a hill. It is within Lucius’ rights as a father. He is a soldier, Lavinia knows, and trained to be merciless. But a small part of her hopes that he will be otherwise.
She holds the child out to him. Lucius stares down at it; Mutius, who is only twelve, is holding his breath.
And then Lucius reaches out and lifts the child from Lavinia’s arms, cradling him against his chest. There is a collective sigh of relief from the gathered family and household as he kisses Baby on his small forehead, but a tear glitters on Lucius’ cheek as well, and his shoulders are shaking. Baby, upset by this large stranger holding him, begins to wail.
“Here.” Lavinia steps forward, takes Baby back from Lucius. Putting a hand on Lucius’ arm, she looks up at him and finds herself utterly unknowing of how to fix the brokenness in his face. “It will all be well,” she says. “It will.”
The smile he manages is heartbreaking, but at least it is a smile.
Lavinia walks out into the garden one morning to find Bassianus there, apparently admiring their fig tree. “Oh!” she says, and he turns around. “I didn’t know you were visiting.”
“I came to talk to your father about the wars,” Bassianus says. This is not his first visit; he has been stopping by every so often for almost a year. It is, however, the first time he and Lavinia have been alone together.
“He’s not home at the moment,” says Lavinia. “He should be back shortly, however.”
“I – I know,” says Bassianus. He smiles, and it is just nervous enough to be charming. “I was also hoping I could see you.”
Lavinia is very glad she chose to wear her blue silk dress today, the one that brings out the color of her eyes.
“What do you think of the garden?” she says. “Pater hired quite a lot of people to put work into it. He’s very proud of himself.”
Laughing, Bassianius reaches out and fingers a blossom on the nearby almond tree. “As well he should be,” he says. “It looks lovely.” The look he gives Lavinia leaves her in no doubt that he thinks she is lovely as well. Her breath catches and she smiles at him, taking care to keep it sweet –
The moment breaks when Bassianus accidentally snaps the flower off its branch. “Oh,” he says, and Lavinia almost laughs at his disproportionate dismay.
“It’s fine,” she says. “Look at the tree. There’s a hundred others.”
“I suppose,” he says, the flower pinned delicately between his fingers, petals white against the tan of his skin. “All the same…”
Bassianus seems unsure of whether to toss it away or not, and then he looks up at Lavinia with a smile. “Here,” he says, and steps forward to tuck the flower behind Lavinia’s ear. His fingers brush her hair, trail down to her neck…
Lavinia leans into his touch, stands on her toes – Bassianus curls his fingers around the nape of her neck and pulls her into a kiss. Inhaling, Lavinia presses close against him, hands brushing his elbows, drawing in as much sensory detail as she can – the feel of his lips, his scent of mingled musk and sweat and faint perfume, the pressure of his hand at the small of her back, the warmth of sunlight around them. When they break apart her heart is pounding and her throat is dry, but she is beaming, and Bassianus’ answering smile is like sunshine.
Lavinia carries Luciulus out into the cold predawn grey of the courtyard, balancing him on her hip; he’s getting heavy, soon she will insist on not carrying him any more.
Lucius is standing by his horse, wearing full military regalia for the procession through the city streets before he and his soldiers actually leave for Germany. When he sees Lavinia and Luciulus coming towards him, he hands his reins to his groom and walks forward to meet them. As he gets close, he reaches out to pick Luciulus up, but Luciulus whines and leans away, frightened.
“Take off the helmet,” Lavinia suggests. The face guards are intimidating enough without the plume of stiff scarlet horsehair.
Lucius does so, setting it down on the ground, and reaches out for Luciulus again; this time he lets himself be picked up without complaint. “Hey,” says Lucius, holding Luciulus so he is all but sitting on his arm. “Behave while I’m gone, yes?”
“Where are you going, Pater?”
“I’m going to war.” Lucius smoothes down a renegade lock of Luciulus’ hair with intense concentration. “I may not be back for a very long time.”
“Oh.” Luciulus does not know what this means, Lavinia can tell. But he will understand all too soon. “Okay.”
“Be good to your aunt.” Lucius kisses Luciulus on the forehead and sets him down on the ground. Taking Lavinia’s hand, Luciulus immediately sticks his thumb in his mouth.
“Stop that,” Lavinia says, pushing his hand down, and looks back up to Lucius. “Well…”
“Lavinia,” he says, quiet and grave. “There are rumors that when Saturninus becomes emperor, he plans to make you his wife.”
A shiver runs down Lavinia’s spine, but it is the chill of the morning air, she is sure. “He can try,” she says.
“If he wants to, he will.” Lucius frowns down at her, but Lavinia knows it’s not herself he has a problem with.
“What can I do, then?” It’s a rhetorical question; they both know there’s nothing she can do.
“I don’t know. Just…take care of yourself.” He says the words with peculiar intensity, and suddenly Lavinia wonders if he knows about her and Bassianus. There’s no way he could, and yet…
“I could say the same for you,” she counters.
“I’ll do my best,” says Lucius.
There are circles under his eyes. Lavinia knows he has seen more than he will talk about, that there are a thousand ghosts riding his back. On impulse, she reaches up and guides his head down, pressing her own kiss to his forehead like a benediction. His skin is cool.
“May the gods protect you and bring you home safely,” she says.
“I pray they do,” says Lucius. He picks his helmet up and tucks it under his arm, nods to Lavinia and Luciulus, and walks to his horse, red cape flowing.
“Where’s Pater going?” asks Luciulus, voice childish and high.
“He’s going away,” says Lavinia. Hooves clatter against paving stones as Lucius swings into the saddle. He does not look back as he turns his horse around and rides it out of the courtyard.
The heat is stifling, even in the atrium, with its marble pillars and open skylight. Lavinia kneels by the impluvium, cups water in her hands to wet her forehead and the back of her neck. Her layers of clothing are clinging and obnoxious; she wants badly to take them off, or have someone else take them off her…
Bassianus. She wants Bassianus.
Standing, Lavinia looks over to the doorway and there he is by some miracle, his figure dark against the sheer white curtain and the sunlight outside, light brushing his broad shoulders, the muscles in his arms. Lavinia swallows, throat dry, and smiles at him. “Hello.”
Bassianus crosses over to her in three strides and seizes her face in his hands, pulling her into a kiss. Inhaling deep, Lavinia arches against him and winds her arms around his neck, kissing him hungrily. His fingers tangle deep in her hair and she works her lips against his, bodies pressed flush together, but it’s not enough, Lavinia wants more –
She leans against Bassianus, kissing him, and lifts her feet off the ground. Bassianus hoists her up, his hands gripping her rear, and she wraps her legs around his waist. His tongue presses against her lips and she instinctively opens her mouth, and then she is being kissed in a way she had never imagined before –
With a gasp, Lavinia pulls away, staring at Bassianus. It suddenly hits her that this is something she should not be doing, that if anyone were to walk in she would be undone, this is not how a woman of her position should be acting –
“Lavinia? Dearest?” Bassianus sets her down, brushes a strand of hair out of her face. “What is it?”
“Pater would be furious if he found out,” she whispers.
Bassianus looks at her intently, eyes lit warm brown by the sun. “Is he here?”
His finger traces a path from her cheek down her neck that makes Lavinia’s insides shiver with want. “He doesn’t own you, Lavinia,” says Bassianus, sincere.
But he does, she almost says, and then hears the words in her own head with horror. She does not want to be a thing –
I want to make my own fate, she thinks.
And she rises on tiptoe, kissing Bassianus as passionately as he can. His arms wrap satisfying tight around her, crushing her against him, and she breathes in deep and kisses him more.
“We should go somewhere private,” he murmurs in her ear, and the huskiness of his voice makes her shiver with pleasure.
“Follow me,” she says, taking his hand, and leads him to what used to be Aurelia’s room.
No one has been in there since she died; the sheets on the bed are white and untouched. Lavinia sinks onto the bed and Bassianus follows, lips soft and hungry against hers. His weight presses her into the mattress, her skirt tangled uncomfortably between her legs, and once again she is conscious of too much fabric, too many layers –
Take it off, her inner voice says.
I can’t, she thinks, Bassianus kissing her. I can’t, it wouldn’t be proper –
So no respectable Roman man would want me.
More respectable than the one in your arms? Bassianus slowly kisses down her neck, a thumb pressed into her clavicle, and Lavinia draws in a shuddering inhale.
Saturninus, she thinks, and then, no. She does not want him, not here, not now, not ever, despite Pater and Lucius and the lot of them, everyone who ever wanted her to be good –
I don’t want to be good, she thinks. I want to be me.
And it hits her with an overwhelming rush that she wants to stop caring what others think of her, she wants to stop playing by their rules, she wants to not care about anything other than right here, right now –
“Bassianus,” she says.
He surfaces. “Yes?”
Lavinia wraps her arms around his neck, her mouth full with golden words. “I love you,” she says.
Bassianus smiles down at her, tender and wondering. “I love you too,” he murmurs, and kisses her.
“More than anything.”
“You are my world.” He kisses her again, hands sliding up the side of her ribs.
This is it, Lavinia thinks. Just take this one step.
His toga genuinely is getting in the way, and she pulls it off, tossing it to the side. Bassianus chuckles and moves to kiss her again, but stops when she pulls up on his tunic. Holding his weight just above Lavinia, he looks at her with wide eyes,. “Are you sure?”
Lavinia nods. “Are you?”
He almost groans. “You have no idea how bad I want you –”
Seizing him, Lavinia presses her body against his and kisses him with all the force she can muster. Bassianus growls, kissing her openmouthed, and grinds his hips against hers. His hands dig into her skin, explore her back, her thighs – push her skirt up, slide up her legs to her hipbones –
If she wasn’t kissing Bassianus, she’d be gasping – his tunic scrunches under her hands and he pulls it over his head, throwing it aside. Lavinia’s entire body grows warm and flushed as she looks him over, and she feels tight and breathless –
“My turn,” says Bassianus, and Lavinia giggles.
The relief of sweaty fabric being removed would be pleasurable enough on its own, but Bassianus’ expression when he sees Lavinia disrobed causes a whole other level of joy within her. He looks at me like I am a goddess, she thinks, and smiles.
Bassianus kisses her again, and again, and this time there is nothing in between them, and his hands trace patterns down her skin that make her shiver with joy. Some tiny part of her keeps waiting for the guilt, the shame, but it never comes – not when he cups her breasts in his hands, not when he kisses her until she is dizzy, not when he slides himself inside her –
And it hurts, a little, but she’d expected that, and she then she loses herself to his taste and his scent and his touch and for the first time in her life she is flying, she is free –
Her cry intermingles with his and Bassianus’ face is pressed to her shoulder and she wants to hear that ache in his voice for the rest of her life. Her entire body feels vibrant and alive, her fingers tingling – holding Bassianus close, she presses kiss after kiss to his face and neck.
With a sigh he pulls out, one hand running slow and languorous up her body. Lavinia sighs deep and contented, and wraps herself around Bassianus. Stroking a rogue lock of hair behind her ear, Bassianus presses a kiss to her breast and settles deeper into the pillows.
“So lovely,” he murmurs against her skin.
Giggling, Lavinia curls up closer against his chest. “Stop it,” she says.
“It’s the truth, I swear.” He kisses all over her cheek and she giggles more, rolling up against him. “See?”
“You’re a liar,” she says, not because she disbelieves him but because she wants to hear him say it again, and again. “How dare you mislead me with empty flattery.”
“Ah, don’t say that…” Bassianus smoothes down her hair, all the fine red-blonde strands, and kisses her head. “You truly are.”
“Mmmm…” Lavinia is too pleasantly worn-out to argue further. “All right.”
Bassianus wraps his arms around her and she rests her head on his chest, listens to his steady breathing; his chest hair tickles her cheek. She would like nothing more than to enjoy this moment, and this moment only – to live entirely in the present – but there are other, more unfortunate factors at work.
“Lucius says your brother wants to marry me,” she says softly.
Bassianus lets out a long, slow breath. “I know.”
Lavinia looks up at him, at his dark eyes and his tousled sweaty hair. “If he becomes emperor, you know he will.”
Bassianus’s fingers twist in a lock of her hair before he releases it and traces a path down her side, hip, thigh. “Then I guess I will have to become emperor instead.”
Saturninus’ arm is tight around Lavinia’s waist, and an intolerable rage is rising inside her at his touch – she looks over at Bassianus and sees he feels the same, and she keeps her face as blank as possible – the plan, remember the plan –
“Thanks, sweet Lavinia,” says Saturninus, and plants a wet and odious kiss on her cheek. “Romans, let us go. Set the prisoners free, and commence the festivities! Proclaim my honors –”
Bassianus kicks his horse into motion, and Lavinia pushes away from Saturninus –
He barely has time to make a grab for her and then Bassianus is cantering by and he reaches down and swoops Lavinia up into the saddle. She clings to him, breathless, as Bassianus reins his horse in at the end of the street and wheels it around, its iron shoes striking sparks from the pavement.
“Lord Titus, by your leave, this maid is mine,” he says, and he is full of arrogance and triumph and Lavinia has never loved him more.
“What?” Pater strides forward, glowering at them. “Are you in earnest?”
“Aye,” says Bassianus. “I am.” His arm tightens around Lavinia, and she settles closer to him. Lucius has caught up to them, flanked by Mutius, Quintus, and Martius, and Lavinia sees the brief flicker of hope in Pater’s eyes before Lavinia’s brothers plant themselves between him and her.
“She’s his,” says Marcus, shrugging.
Lucius’ shoulders are set, and his eyes glint steely as his sword. “I will die before I let anyone else take her.”
“Traitors!” bellows Pater. “The emperor’s guard! Traitors! Treason!”
And Bassianus takes that as his cue, wrenches his mount around again and kicks it into a gallop and they are tearing through the streets of Rome with a deafening clatter, and they nearly bowl several respectable citizens over but Lavinia doesn’t care, she is laughing –
They finally halt in an alleyway, the horse blowing and snorting. Bassianus is panting as if he has been doing the running, but he pulls Lavinia up into a passionate kiss. Arms wound around his neck, Lavinia arches her back against him and kisses him back soundly. They break apart, and he beams down at her.
“And now you are mine,” he says.
Lavinia laughs and kisses his nose. “And now I am yours.”
Bleeding, bruised, and battered, Lavinia lies with her face in the dirt. The ground is soaked; the stink of copper blood is everywhere, liquid, rising in her nostrils, choking her throat – there is pain between her legs and at her wrists and her mouth –
Bassianus, she thinks, and moans into the earth. She closes her eyes but that only makes the images worse, the nightmare feed of seeing him crumpled in pain, the blade in his guts, the life leaving his eyes…
She prays for death to find her, but it is her uncle who stumbles across her instead.
When Marcus pulls Lavinia into the main chamber of the Senate, there is dead silence. The shawl has fallen from her face and she cannot bear to meet the eyes of any of the men who stare down at her – Pater stands on the floor, looking haggard – and Lucius –
“Titus, prepare to weep,” says Marcus. His grip on her arm is all that is keeping Lavinia standing. “Or if not, for your heart to break.”
Pater frowns at them. “What is it?”
Marcus pushes Lavinia towards Pater but her knees give out and she crumples to the floor, knees stinging from the impact. She is dead, she thinks, I have already died –
“This was your daughter,” says Marcus.
“So she is,” says Pater, voice indistinct – Lavinia keeps her eyes fixed on the marbled floor, a curling nausea in her stomach, the stumps of her wrists and tongue throbbing – cold sweat stands on her forehead and all sound grows faint –
“Lavinia,” says Lucius, soft and pained and right by her, and gentle hands are cradling her face, lifting it up. She looks up at Lucius and he is crouched in front of her, face white, with tears in his eyes.
“Fainthearted boy, get up,” says Titus. “Lavinia, who did this to you? By whose hand –”
Lavinia crumples, fresh tears welling from her eyes, and then Lucius has scooped her up in his arms, cradling her against his chest and she loses it, shuddering with broken silent sobs, hot tears filling her vision and rolling down her cheeks. Pater continues talking but it is just noise, meaningless words behind her. Still carrying Lavinia, Lucius walks over to sit on the lowest tier of seats, supporting her on his lap.
“Lavinia…” He brushes a tear off her cheek, looks down at her bandaged wrists with horror. “Who did this?”
“Alas, she has been rendered mute.” Marcus’ voice rolls off his tongue, filling the space of the Senate; other senators are whispering furiously to each other. “That pretty voice, sweet as a nightingale’s, has been robbed from us –”
“Then you say for her, who did this!” snaps Lucius. Lavinia shivers, huddles against his chest for protection from the shades of Chiron and Demetrius.
“Oh, I found her like this, in the woods, hiding like a deer…”
“She was my dear,” says Titus, voice thick with tears. “He that did this has hurt me more than if he killed me…” He continues, waxing metaphorical, and Lavinia tunes him out, preferring to close her eyes and not think beyond her immediate surroundings, beyond the arms holding her close – Lucius wraps her shawl around her shoulders, pulls her closer against his chest.
“Oh, Lavinia…” Titus’ voice is suddenly much closer and Lavinia flinches away, huddling closer to Lucius. “You have no hands to wipe away your tears, and no tongue to say who martyred you… Your husband is dead –”
She whimpers, and Lucius’ arm tightens around her – it hurts worse than anything else to think about Bassianus –
“and for his death, your brothers are condemned –”
She didn’t know that – another sob ripples through her –
“Look, Marcus!” says Titus. “Lucius! When I named her brothers, fresh tears stood on her cheeks –”
“Perhaps she weeps because they killed her husband,” says Marcus – no, no, Lavinia shakes her head – “or perhaps because she knows they’re innocent.”
“If they did kill your husband, be joyful,” says Titus, still halfway to tears, “because the law has taken revenge on them.”
No, Lavinia wants to wail, no, no, it wasn’t them, it wasn’t them, it wasn’t.
“No, no, they would not do such a thing,” sighs Titus. “Gentle Lavinia –” and suddenly his fingers are on her face, trying to turn her towards him, and the pressure hurts her mouth and she whimpers again – “let me kiss you –”
Memory of Chiron’s lips crushed against hers hits Lavinia with the force of punch and she nearly heaves, wrenching her jaw out of Titus’ grasp.
“Or at least let me know how I can help you,” says Titus, thankfully drawing away. “What are your uncle and brother and I to do? Sit around by some fountain, adding to its waters with our tears…”
He keeps going but at this point Lavinia is downright sobbing, she can’t control it, helpless convulsions tearing though her, each one tearing new pain through her mouth to the point where she can taste blood. The scent pulls back every awful memory that she has been fighting and she cries even harder despite Lucius’ hands brushing comforting over her head, her shoulder.
“Pater, stop,” says Lucius, voice shaking in some combination of both anger and grief. “You’re just making her cry worse.”
“Patience, dear niece,” says Marcus, patting her shoulder. “Titus, dry your eyes.”
“Ah, brother Marcus, this handkerchief is of no use to me…”
“It’s okay,” murmurs Lucius, wiping Lavinia’s cheeks with a corner of her shawl. “It’s okay, I’m here…”
It doesn’t matter, she thinks dully. I’m already gone.
 Latin for wet-nurse; it was a prevalent and respected profession in the Imperial era.
 Shallow pool in the middle of the atrium, standard in Roman houses.
 Diminutive of Lucius; “little Lucius.”