"It is not... seemly."
Valaria struggled to find the right word to describe her niece's behaviour: to think that the girl had taken herself into their neighbours' garden and made friends with the total stranger she had found there! Yet, though that was foolishness enough, there was worse: according to Narcissa, Camilla had also told the young man—Aquila's nephew—what her real name was, and spoken to him in the native tongue. Valaria had thought her niece had, at last, put all that nonsense behind her and accepted that she was Camilla now, not Cottia. It seemed not.
"But—." Camilla's face took on the sharp, pointed, fierce look that Valaria knew well—so like her mother! It presaged another angry outburst, one that Valaria was in no mood to tolerate.
"Enough!" Valaria forestalled further protest. "I have made my wishes clear. You will not visit the Aquila household again. I forbid it." She gave a jerk of the head to Narcissa, who stood a pace behind Camilla. Understanding the unspoken command, the nurse took the girl by the arm and towed her from the atrium before she could speak again.
It seemed, however, that Camilla could not quite restrain her indignation until she was out of earshot. From down the hallway that led out to the colonnaded garden floated back an impassioned, "It's not fair!"
"Oh, my lady, your aunt is right...."
As Narcissa's soothings faded away, Valaria sank back against the cushions of her couch. Taking a deep breath, she reflected wearily that at least she had chosen well when she had purchased Narcissa from an acquaintance across town whose daughters were now grown. Quite what madness had possessed her before that, when she had accepted her sister's airy, tactless offer a year ago—oh, since you're barren, you may as well have the girl—she did not know. Except, perhaps, a sudden, sharp longing, and the realization that she was not so resigned to childlessness as she had pretended to herself.
"Does it really matter so much?" Kaeso's question drew her from her memories. Looking up, she saw he was giving her an amused smile over the top of the papers he was reading. "They are our neighbours, after all, and Aquila's a decent chap. Haven't met the nephew, but I'm sure if he's like his uncle...."
Valaria shuddered and drew her shawl more closely around her. "Of course it matters," she snapped. "Just think of the gossip if people found out. What young man will want a wild, mannerless...," she hesitated for a moment, before spitting out in frustration, "...uncivilized native for a wife?"
"You exaggerate." Kaeso spoke absently, his attention back on the papers. Then he cocked an eye at Valaria, a faint smile on his lips. "Besides, I didn't mind so much, did I?"
Valaria tightened her grip on her shawl. "That was different." True, she'd come out from the houseplace—all brazen and not even with the guest cup in her hands as an excuse—when she'd seen the young trader with the handsome face and the Roman tunic waiting for her father to return. Had spoken to him with the feeble excuse of being interested in the fringing on the saddle-blanket on his horse. Had not minded at all when he had asked her a question or two in return. Of course, he had ridden away soon enough, when his business over the matter of horse gear was done. Yet when he'd returned a month later, and then the month after that, they had contrived to speak again. And the time after that, he had asked her father to give her to him....
It was what came next that taught her to be careful, oh-so careful, to follow Roman custom.
It had started almost as soon as she arrived in Calleva as Kaeso's bride. The wife of the commandant of the transit camp outside the walls of the town had invited her to an afternoon party. Valaria had thought it a kind gesture, to welcome a newcomer and help her make friends. Perhaps it had been intended so—but the experience had been anything but kind.
The room had already been quite full when she arrived: little knots of women, dressed in floating pastel stolas and with jewels winking from the hair piled high on their heads, had been gossiping and eating sticky sweetmeats from trays carried around the room by slaves. Valaria had hesitated uncertainly on the threshold, taking in the scene and wondering a little desperately what she was supposed to do next. To her relief, her hostess appeared from the throng and bore down on her.
"You must be Veldicca." Valaria had still been using the name her father had given her, back then. Her first mistake, if not her only one. Her hostess swept her towards a small group of women. "Let me introduce you." She flashed out half a dozen names that Valaria struggled to catch, before hurrying away with a hasty apology as she spotted something on the other side of the room that apparently needed her attention.
Valaria stayed where she was, wondering if she was supposed to join in the conversation she'd interrupted or wait for her new acquaintances to ask questions. The women looked at her for a moment longer, before one of them—of an age with Valaria, with a short, trim figure, olive skin, and glossy, dark hair caught up in tight curls—drawled slowly, "Veldicca? What a... quaint name."
Valaria had suddenly felt like one of the raw-boned colts her brother-in-law bred, large and clumsy amongst all these dainty fillies. While she struggled for a reply, another woman, similarly dark-complexioned but wearing the simple, full-length tunic that marked her as unmarried, gave a tinkling laugh. "That would explain it, I suppose." She let her gaze drift up and down Valaria, making it clear she was referring to her saffron tunic, bright amongst the soft hues the other women wore, and the plaits coiled carefully on Valaria's head.
Then, quite deliberately, the woman who had just spoken turned away and, leaning in, resumed her conversation with the others, the five of them forming a tight-knit circle with Valaria on the outside.
Valaria was too stunned to do anything for a few seconds. Then she took a pace back, and another, hoping to find the wall behind her—and maybe disappear into it, become one with the frescos.
"Don't pay any attention to them." A voice in her ear made her jump. "They're just jealous."
Turning, Valaria found herself looking at another short woman—goodness, she had never felt so tall before—who was just as fashionably dressed, but whose contemptuous expression seemed directed at the group Valaria had just left rather than at Valaria.
"They are?" Valaria was half-surprised to hear herself speak.
The woman nodded, still regarding the group. "You married Kaeso and I do not think they will forgive you for it. Especially Pompeia. She had hopes herself, you see, though I do not think the two of them ever exchanged more than ten words together." The woman turned back to face Valaria. "I'm Antonia Livilla and no," she held up her hand, "don't think this means we're going to be friends. But I'd not be sorry to help you put Pompeia and Galeria in their place."
Valaria managed a stuttered thank you, not sure she was much happier to have now become a pawn in the feminine politics of Calleva.
Antonia gave a quick nod of acknowledgement, busy making her own inspection of Valaria's attire. "Do you have a maid?"
Valaria blushed slightly. "There's a girl I—"
"I thought so." Antonia didn't let her finish. "I'll take you to the slave market tomorrow and we'll see what we can find. If there's nothing suitable, I'll have a word with Lollius, the slavemaster." She must have caught the bewilderment on Valaria's face because she rolled her eyes and said, "I assume Kaeso can afford it?"
"I—" Valaria realized she hadn't much thought about that kind of thing, though she knew Kaeso had received a good dowry from her father, and had mentioned something about her being free to spend as she wished once she took over the household management. "Yes, I suppose so."
"Good. Then I shall call for you tomorrow morning." Without a backward glance, Antonia headed off across the room. Valaria stood watching for a while, as Antonia moved from one group of women to the next, and tried to understand the patterns of alliance and enmity that would soon form part of her own life.
She and Antonia had never quite become friends—not the way Valaria imagined friends should be—but the other woman had done as she had promised and helped Valaria to navigate the social marshland of her new life. Successfully enough that Valaria had been able to establish herself over time as a figure to be respected and courted, if not much liked, even as her husband followed his father as one of Calleva's leaders.
Now it was her turn to guide Camilla along the same path to becoming a respectable Roman matron....
As if knowing where her thoughts had circled back to, Kaeso remarked abruptly, "Maybe the lad will take a liking to her and marry her?"
"What?" Valaria blinked at him. "Who?"
"Aquila's nephew. Maybe he'll take a liking to Camilla?"
"After her behaviour today?" Valaria winced again at the thought of what Camilla had done. Perhaps if the two of them had been carefully introduced.... But no, the match was not at all suitable and best she remind Kaeso of that, before he made any overtures of his own. "He is hardly to be encouraged, either," she pointed out in firm tones. "With no land or career? I should hope we can do better than that...."
Kaeso shuffled his papers together. "Perhaps." Rising, he came and laid a hand on her shoulder and smiled down at her. "There were, I recall, some who questioned our wisdom in marrying, but we have done none so ill, I think...."
With a quick brush of his lips against her forehead, he turned away and headed towards his study. Looking after him, Valaria reflected that he had never quite understood why she took so much care to maintain her position—and his: he was a man, after all, and men's business—whether commerce or public duty—let them move more freely and easily in the world.
Yet, she thought, he had never minded that she cared. Though he teased her a little about it from time to time, he never begrudged her his support when she asked for it. Nor had he raised any objection when she accepted charge of her niece, nor questioned the expense and trouble of turning Camilla from a sullen native child into a well-behaved Roman maiden.
Shifting her attention from her husband's study to the hallway down which Camilla and Narcissa had disappeared, Valaria realized that she cared for custom now more than ever—but no longer for her own sake. No: she cared now because she wanted to make sure Camilla had every possible chance to make a match as good as her own had been.