Disclaimer: Characters belong to Dreamworks studios
Author's Note: Written under the instigation of Liz Barr for the "Behind Every Good Woman Rare Het Challenge." Thanks also to Liz for looking it over and providing some of the historical details necessary.
She does not speak of her brother.
I ask her one night, because I am curious. I want to know the threads which bind her life to others, how she relates to them, and more selfishly, what my specific context is. When I ask the question, there is no change in expression. Her eyes are luminous in the candlelight, the yellow material of her dress draped artfully across on smooth white shoulder. As she tips her head to the side, as if contemplating my question, the golden sweep of earring nestles against the curve of her jaw.
"Why do you ask, Maximus?" she asks. Her tone is light, flirtatious. She plucks a grape from the bowl on the table separating us. She smiles as she puts it, whole, in her mouth. "Do you not have a sister of your own to ask such a question?" Her chew is delicate, elegant.
"I am trying to understand you, Lucilla."
Lucilla smiles. "My brother loves me as much as a brother should, and perhaps a little more than that."
"What do you mean?" I ask. Lucilla's eyes narrow slightly and she rises in smooth motion from her seat. In one hand, she gathers the folds of her dress, in the other, she holds the glass of wine.
"Come, Maximus," she says. She points to the window. "The night is clear, the wind light. You can see the stars so beautifully tonight, Maximus. It is such a night for lovers." She approaches me slowly, and then dips her finger, the one decorated with a slim band of gold decorated with red and green stones, into the wine. I part my mouth slightly as she presses first her finger and then her lips against it. "Should we not talk less?" Her breath is hot on my face, her hands a soft pressure on my shoulders. I put my hands on her waist, pulling her down on her knees in front of me. Lucilla places a soft fluttery kiss against the inside of my thigh.
I lean back against my chair, my hands in Lucilla's hair. The torches flicker slightly with the summer night breeze, and the sheer white curtains flutter at the window. The air smells heavy with jasmine from the gardens which surround the palace. I'm dimly aware of the shadows, of the occasional servant who walks quickly through, pretending not to see Caesar's daughter on her knees in front of a mere captain from the army.
Lucilla puts her hands on my thighs for balance. She has a light feathery touch, close to teasing, never quite intimate. As she takes me in her mouth, I think only of the physical release, not how she has evaded my questions all evening, how she has managed to turn the tide of conversation against me. She does not look at me at all, and as a thread of cold air weaves itself into the air, I close my eyes.
It is just before dawn when we wake. I lean over Lucilla, swinging my leg over her hips, pulling her close. She is warm to my touch. She fits against me like no woman has before, and there are times when I think I'm sure of her. Sleep still in her eyes, Lucilla turns to me.
"Good morning," she says.
"Good morning." I kiss her.
Lucilla stretches out languidly. Her limbs are long and elegant, Venus herself, I think. "I was thinking of what we should do today." She speaks matter-of-factly, as if my aquiescience is a done deal. Of course it is, I think, one does not say no to Caesar's daughter.
"Were you?" I say neutrally.
She props herself up on one arm, the sheer white material of her nightgown straining against her breasts. "Perhaps we will go to the country. My father has a small villa outside of the city walls. I will ask Livia to make us a lunch. It will take us an hour to make the journey and we will have the place to ourselves. Do you agree?"
She asks for my agreement only out of politeness; we both know it's nothing less than an order. I will somehow find a way to explain my absence both to my commanding officer and the troops under my command. In lieu of a verbal response, I pull Lucilla towards me, pushing up the silky material of her gown in the process. There is time enough, I think, as I roll on top of her.
The sun is low in the sky as we leave Rome proper. There are twenty of us -- Lucilla, myself, the serving women Livia and Julia, the eight litter bearers and eight soldiers. Four soldiers walk in front of us, four in back. I walk next to Lucilla's litter, but we do not indulge in conversation. We are on a main road, one used often by Caesar himself, and so it is well-maintained and secure. But even so, the soldiers are a necessary evil; Lucilla, as Caesar's daughter, is still a target. I tighten my grip on the hilt of my sword.
Julia and Livia follow in a litter at a proper distance behind Lucilla's litter. Their discretion amuses me; I have no doubt both women hover in the shadows when I visit their mistress, and I know they have seen and heard all.
It is a perfect day -- the sky a pale blue, no clouds to be seen. The dirt and gravel crackle beneath my sandals in a comfortable beat. I inhale deeply as we continue south. The first flush of spring is upon us, with new leaves almost obscuring the tiny cream-colored flowers on the olive trees lining either side of the road and the occasional small flower poking up from the grass. Lucilla sits among silken cushions, a gauzy wrap covering her shoulders. Every now and then, she will part the curtains to offer me a smile, before once again dropping the curtain that will separate her from the rest of us. Despite the apparent calmness of the day and the size of our party, I cannot but help the knot of anxiety gathering in my stomach. This is the first time I have left Rome with Lucilla.
We stop after about half an hour so the litter bearers may rest. Livia readjusts Lucilla's veil, while Julia hovers nearby with a glass of wine for her mistress. The eight soldiers form a half circle around us. Even though I'm one of them, we do not talk. On a day such like this, on an outing such as this, I am more than a captain. I am not deaf to the gossip and the innuendo, and the relationship between Lucilla and myself has long ceased to be a secret. The only question now is one of marriage, and there are times when I look at Lucilla and I believe I can be as certain of her heart as I am of my own. But there is always that nagging doubt, that perhaps she only plays with me because I am different than the men at court she is used to, that I'm provincial and not cultured, rough not smooth. Sometimes, she will ask me about Espania, questioning in great detail, and one day, she asked me to take her there. At times like this, I think she is more interested in the idea of Maximus, and not the man.
I turn to face Lucilla. She hold her skirts a few inches off the dirt road, and her veil has once again been artfully arranged, her make-up touched up, and her jewelry properly positioned. She is put together so properly, so elegantly, that sometimes I feel ashamed of my plain clothing, of my bruised and blistered hands, and the occasional scars which mark my skin. But then this is the difference between us: she is a princess, born and bred for a life of easy luxury, and I am a man of the sword, bound in both life and death to Marcus Aurelius. That Caesar likes and respects me, I suspect, keeps me safe from his wrath of playing so openly with his daughter.
It will make no difference Lucilla invited me to dinner in her rooms first, that I only followed her lead. I must always keep in mind who she is, what she means. Sometimes, when I see that faraway look in her eyes, I suspect she herself has only now come to that same realization and that it scares her as much as it does me.
"Are you ready to continue?" I ask.
She stands very close to me, cups my face in her hands and places a light kiss on my lips. "Yes," she breathes. She squeezes my fingers gently and then returns to her litter.
We continue on our way and before long, we approach Caesar's villa. Tall vine-covered brick walls enclose the property. One of the guards accompanying us pulls the iron gates open and we enter. The grounds are covered with lush grass and trees. Sunlight streams through the leaves to dapple the lawn in patches of gold and shadows. As in Rome, the sticky sweet smell of jasmine wafts through the air. There are plenty of grape vines scattered throughout. Lucilla tells me her father is proud of the wine which comes from this property; it has a sweeter and more delicate flavor than most wines currently popular in Rome.
The house itself is small, just a few rooms. Lucilla takes me through quickly, her words rushing together as she points out the main kitchen, the front room where Caesar entertains, the side room where most meals are consumed, and then the four sleeping chambers on the second floor. All rooms are plainly furnished; the opulance of the palace in Rome is nowhere to be seen here. There are a few guesthouses on the back lawn, but this is a private residence, Lucilla says. It's rare Caesar conducts any kind of business here and only a few close friends and family are allowed on the premises.
"Then I am honored to be here," I tell her.
Lucilla laughs. "You should be."
When we emerge from the house, we find a picnic lunch waiting for us. Julia and Livia have spread a blanket for us beneath a copse of trees. Along with the usual bread, olive oil and olives for appetizer, the main courses include salad of field green with vinaigrette, roast beef with honey, lentils, spiced rolled roast pork loin, chicken and dumplings, and fried carrots. Dessert consists of honeyed cheesecake with fresh fruit. I glance at Lucilla as she artfully drapes herself on the blanket.
"These are all my favorite foods," I tell her.
"I know." She smiles at me. "Come, sit."
I'm very aware of the presence of the guards. Two stand by the iron gates, and there is a trio on the steps of the house. Livia and Julia, of course, have melted into the shadows, nearby so they can hear if we call for them, but far enough away that if we speak in low tones, they cannot discern our words. Still, I cannot escape the feeling someone else is watching.
"Is something amiss, Maximus?" Lucilla eyes me with concern.
I shake my head as I dip my piece of bread into the olive oil. "It is nothing."
Her eyes narrow. Nothing gets by Lucilla easily and as such, it's difficult to keep anything from her. Today, however, she does not push and instead, she picks up an olive; she has such a weakness for them.
"How do you like my father's little cottage?" she asks after a few minutes.
"It is not what I expected."
"No? In what way?"
"I imagined something larger, on a grander scale."
I nod. "Yes."
"We don't always need such indulgences," Lucilla says.
"So you escape to the country to be one of the people, then?"
"It sounds terrible when you put it that way, Maximus." She lifts out some of the chicken and places it on my plate, along with some carrots and lentils. "You make it sound as if we take lightly that some aren't quite as fortunate as we have been."
"I meant no disrespect."
Her lips curled up at the corners. "No?"
I shake my head. "Lucilla."
"I suppose you find it exciting I have chosen you."
"I find it mysterious," I tell her. "If you are looking for complete honesty."
"Yes." I take a bite of chicken, chew, swallow, and then say, "I can never quite tell what you are thinking. And more importantly, I cannot comprehend your motives."
"Motives? You think I am guilty of having those?"
I laugh. "You are not so innocent. Lucilla, everyone has motives."
The veil drops from her head to settle on her shoulder. She doesn't notice. I reach out and brush a curl off her forehead, enjoying the way the sunlight picks out the red glints in her hair.
"Even you, Maximus?" Her voice is very low, husky.
"Perhaps I shouldn't spoken so hastily."
"Perhaps not." She shifts position. "Have *you* a motive I should be aware of?"
"Only that I enjoy your company."
"Do you now?" Lucilla smiles again, but this time there is something more sinister to it. "Or is the allure of Caesar's daughter too much for you to resist? You think I am unaware of your own ambitions? I know you are but a captain, but my father likes you well, and I have no doubt one day you will go far in your career. There is room in Rome for men like you."
"You have misjudged me, Lucilla, if you think that."
"And you me."
We finish the meal in silence and then walk, several feet apart, back to the house. The sun is now high in the sky, and I can feel exhaustion in every inch of my body. I let Lucilla lead the way into the house and up the stairs. Lucilla pauses in the doorway of one bedroom, looks at me, and inclines her head in the direction of the bed, the white cotton sheets already turned down for us. I follow her in. We undress in silence and slip under the covers. I curl my body around hers and am relieved when she doesn't pull away. Sleep comes easy.
When Lucilla sits up, I open my eyes.
"It is almost time to leave," she says. "An hour more, not much longer if we intend to return to Rome by dark." She looks at me. "Unless you are willing to stay a day more."
"Yes." I catch her slender wrist in mine. "I apologize for my earlier remarks. They were unwarranted."
"No, you spoke true, and perhaps, I was surprised."
"Have you been honest with me?"
She stares at me. "Have you?"
"What are you afraid that you cannot tell me?"
At this, Lucilla stiffens and she draws her shawl around her body. I sit up and rest my chin on her shoulder.
"Maximus," she says. "Let us enjoy this time. Let us not fight. It will be over too soon." She rises from the bed and walks to the windows. I join her there. The breeze has picked up slightly, ruffling the tree leaves. "I do love this view. It is very pristine, serene, quiet. Away from everything. And I can forget here."
She smiles at me, a little too artificially and pulls me back to the bed. "Are you still tired, Maximus?" She lets the shawl fall from her shoulders and cups my face in her hands. "Hmmm?"
As I kiss her, I understand what she is unable to say; that we are just lovers, and because of that, there will always be secrets between us. Skin to skin, we communicate so well, moving together instinctively and wordlessly. As I sink deep into her, I press my face against the pillow, her hand on the back of my head. Her breath echoes in my ears, short and shallow and then, a slight gasp. As I rise up to look at her, I realize her attention is focused elsewhere. Lucilla pushes against my chest and I roll off her.
"Hello, sister." Commodus stands in the doorway, his hand on the hilt of his sword. My stomach twists; I wonder how long he has been standing there, how much he has seen. "Imagine my surprise when I came here to spend time with you only to discover you did not come alone. You should not have left Rome without saying good-bye."
Lucilla does not cover up, and rather lets the sheet fall away from her body so that only a part of her lower leg is covered. She stares at her brother defiantly. I do not move.
"I am sorry," she says calmly. "I was under the illusion you were away these few days."
"I came back early." Commodus strides into the room. He is a boy of but seventeen, but he swaggers like a man, a soldier who has won many victories. "Maximus--"
"Sir." I reach for my clothes as Commodus looks at me coolly.
"You may leave, Captain," Commodus says. "My father requires your presence in Rome. I have already asked the women to prepare for your departure."
I glance at Lucilla and she nods. Her expression betrays nothing -- no apology, no tenderness, no distress. It's obvious Commodus has no intention of leaving and so I dress quickly. Lucilla makes no move to join me.
"Lucilla?" I ask finally.
"My sister will remain here. I see no reason for her to cut her holiday short," Commodus says. "You are dismissed, Captain."
At the end of the hallway, I find a pitcher of water. I wash my face and hands and then start back down the hall. I hear soft voices from the room I have just abandoned and slowly, I peer around the corner to look. Lucilla is lying back against the cushion, her brother lying on top of her, his head pressed to her breast. Lucilla strokes his hair, much as she has done for me in the past. As I stare at the two of them, Lucilla turns her face away from me, closing her eyes tightly. I stand there for a minute more, long enough to see Commodus kiss his sister on the lips and then move down her body, exploring in that same tentative and worshipful way I have.
I stomp down the stairs and out into the fading sun. Shadows cross my path as I approach two of the soldiers.
"We leave for Rome now," I tell them briskly.
They obey me implicitly. As we walk out, I notice the what's left of the picnic I shared with Lucilla still spread out beneath the trees. I pause and then run over and grab some of the remaining bread. For the journey back to Rome, I think, but as we walk back at double the pace as we came, I never find time to either eat the bread or enjoy the sweet aroma of the olive trees.
~ the end
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