"How much?" Marcus feels very silly, standing in front of the stall with its bright tumble of women's gear, holding the wisp of blue silk. The threads catch on the callouses of his hands. Even after half a year of marriage, Marcus' understanding of the things that women like is hazy, at best, but this seems to him a very pretty piece of finery. Then again, so does every other scrap of cloth on the counter. He has no idea which one Cottia might find most pleasing.
It had been easy finding a Saturnalia gift for Esca. Marcus had seen the British worked dagger sheath--real British work, not the balanced and tamed work of Rome-in-Britain that Esca scorned--and known that it was perfect. He had also bought a cask of fine mead, for the three of them to share apart from the feasting with the farm folk. Esca would like all of those things, would wear the dagger at his belt and enjoy drinking the mead as well as sharing it, and Marcus is pleased and comfortable in the knowledge that he will give Esca reasons to smile for the holiday.
But Cottia, well. Cottia is a different matter entirely. Marcus has been from one end of the market to the other, looking at jewelled hairpins, enamelled fibulae, golden earrings. But nothing is quite right.
In the very early days, when he was not quite sure how to be with this new wife who was not very much like a Roman lady nor yet the same as the wild little girl who had been his friend in the garden, Marcus had tried to give her gifts, out of a desire to be a good husband to her. His mother had always smiled when his father, home on leave, had brought her tokens from some far-off corner of the empire, and it seemed to Marcus a good example to follow.
The first gift had been a brightly painted spindle, the whorl carved into a cunning goblin face.
“I will not spend my days spinning and weaving,” Cottia had informed him. “You will have to look elsewhere to find your clothes, or else go naked.” Marcus had only thought it amusing to look at, and it seemed to him that every woman he had ever known had owned at least two spindles; a good, practical gift.
Esca had smirked at his bewildered expression. “I will not mind if you can ill spare the coin for a new tunic,” he said with a leer. Marcus had thrown the spindle at him.
The next market day, seeking to atone for his misstep with the spindle, he had found a perfume seller and bought a tiny bottle of scent, something flowery and sweet, but not cloying. Marcus liked well enough the warm smell of Cottia's skin and the native soap that they all used, but perhaps she would like this to wear for festivals and special occasions.
He had offered it to her shyly, and been relieved when she smiled. A gift well chosen, then. She had thanked him very prettily and broken the wax seal to dab a little of it onto the inside of her wrist. It made her sneeze. Before the end of the day, her nose was bright red. She had sealed the bottle back up and set it aside to give to her aunt at Saturnalia.
After that, Marcus had begun to run out of ideas. When he brought her the string of amber beads, Cottia had sighed and stretched up on her toes to give him a kiss.
"You can stop showering me with these silly trinkets," she said. "I promise that I am well content. Put the money aside for a new tunic instead," she added teasingly, poking at the place where he had patched up a rend in the one he was wearing.
So that had been that, and after a while--perhaps it had begun on the day that Cottia wrapped her fingers around Esca's wrist and led him to the bedplace, kissing Marcus into silence every time he opened his mouth to ask what on earth was happening--Marcus had begun to forget that there had ever been anything uncertain between them.
But now, faced with the prospect of finding a suitable Saturnalia gift, it has all come rushing back. For a moment, he thinks of asking Esca for help, but no, this is a task to be faced on his own. Marcus has been standing there for far too long, deliberating. He buys the little scrap of silk, because he has a vague idea that it will look very fetching with Cottia's hair, but he is determined that he will find a better gift for her, if he has to scour the market right up until the Sigillaria itself.
Marcus does not find a better gift. After the feasting is done and the guests have gone back to their own hearths, Esca gives Cottia a fine new blanket for the bed, a rich, luxurious thing woven in bright native stripes, and Marcus wonders why he did not think to find her a gift like that. He should have asked for Esca's help after all, but it is too late now.
Marcus takes a deep swallow of mead and tries not to feel too badly when Cottia goes to open the little wooden box he gives to her. It is a useless gift, only another one of those trinkets she had told him he need not buy her.
Marcus opens his mouth to apologise, but Cottia smiles and goes immediately to arrange the delicate veil over her hair, trailing her fingers over it to make sure it lies smoothly. It does look very nice on her, and when Esca says as much, Cottia beams at both of them.
The rest of the holiday is already fading into a green-gold blur, but this, Marcus thinks, he will remember, Cottia and Esca smiling in the firelight as the last of the old year runs out, and they wait with him for the sun to rise.