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Rome, AD 84
"You're useless, Tibi. You've been nothing but a disappointment since the day you were born."
Numb to her father's constant condemnation, Tibi stared out the open window of her family's Palatine home. Except for a few distant cook fires dotting the nearby hills, darkness covered Rome like a thick, heavy blanket. The night was still and silent as though it waited to learn Tibi's fate.
"Lepidus was the last man of good family willing to wed you," Tiberius continued to rant. "If he wanted to sample you before the wedding, who are you to object? Instead of welcoming his advances, as you should have done, you reaffirmed your willful reputation and denied him at every turn. Little wonder he stormed from here with no wish to see you again. No man wants a disobedient wife. Not even when her father is willing to pay a fortune to be rid of her."
Tibi winced, but remained silent. She'd stopped defending herself years ago when she realized that her father always sided against her.
"Why the gods cursed me with two daughters and took my adopted son is beyond my ken, but at least your sister over there had the decency to bring political connections to this house when she wed Senator Tacitus three years ago. As for you, you're a disgrace."
In the face of her father's condemnation, she'd forgotten that Tiberia, her elder, more winsome sister, sat in an alcove near the inner courtyard. Closing her eyes, Tibi breathed in deep to ward off an onslaught of total humiliation. The sweetness of her perfume mocked her earlier decision to forgo the formless linen tunics and comfortable shoes she preferred in favor of feminine silks and the bejeweled sandals now pinching her toes. Despite her father's belief that she went out of her way to foil all his plans for her, she'd prepared for tonight with care in an effort to please her family and make a good impression on her intended groom.
Shivering from the cool night air, she rubbed the tender spot on her upper arm where Lepidus had grabbed her. He'd cornered her in the shadows of one of the garden columns, then tried to force himself on her while the other guests cheered the gladiatorial contest her father had arranged for their entertainment. She'd narrowly escaped Lepidus's mauling by biting his lip and refusing to let go until he released her. Neither he nor her father had considered her selfdefense justified. Lepidus had stormed from the house, vowing revenge on her shameless behavior and leaving her to bear the brunt of her father's wrath.
"Four broken betrothals, Tibi. Four. I'm at the end of my patience with you."
Tibi tightened her jaw to keep from scoffing. When had he ever been patient with her? As a child she'd wondered why he tolerated her elder sister, Tiberia, yet ignored her. She'd tried to gain his love by being quiet and obedient, two traits her mother assured her would lead to his affection, but he continued to regard her as less important than the rugs he trod upon.
As she'd grown older, she realized that she disappointed her father simply by being a girl. The knowledge killed any hope of winning his affection. Instead, she'd worked to earn his respect and shone in areas traditionally reserved for boys. She'd studied history, astronomy and philosophy. She knew how to read and write Latin, as well as speak Greek. She excelled at archery and practiced athletics at the bath's gymnasium. But she remained a failure in his eyes.
"Look at me," Tiberius demanded sharply.
Tibi forced her feet to comply and turned around to face him. Aware of the bitterness oozing from her soul, she avoided looking at him directly and studied the lanternlit room beyond his shoulder. A whiff of incense was the last trace of the disastrous banquet held earlier. Slaves had cleared the colorful room of dishes and swept the mosaic tiles clean. The low couches the diners reclined on while eating had been restored to their proper places against the frescoed walls.
"Your mother coddled you, insisting I waste coin on tutors that gave you the mistaken impression that your opinion counts the same as a man's," he sneered. "However, if you were wise, you'd understand that at eighteen years old, you're well past a ripe marriage age. A girl is a drain on her family if she doesn't marry for connections. Since no acceptable man will have you, I'm taking you to the temple of Opis tomorrow"
Both girls gasped in unison. Tibi's heart kicked with alarm. Her appalled gaze darted to her father's angry visage. As she expected, his narrowed eyes radiated his antipathy.
"Father, please." Tiberia, silent until now, rose elegantly from a bench placed beneath one of the archways leading to the garden. "Isn't that a bit extreme? Perhaps Antonius"
"Quiet! If I want your counsel I'll ask for it, daughter. Your husband has already done all I can expect of him by arranging this gathering tonight. Even with his farflung and lofty contacts, Tibi's reputation for humiliating men precedes her. It was no simple task for him to snare Lepidus's interest."
Like Jupiter condemning mankind from the summit of Olympus, Tiberius jabbed his index finger in Tibi's direction. "That that girl has embarrassed me for the last time. If she won't bring honor to this house through marriage, I'll see that she fulfills her duty to this family another way and buy her a position as a priestess. Who better for her to serve than the goddess of abundance and fertility? She can attempt to garner blessings for all of us. Who knows? She might even be able to correct your failure as a wife and wrangle a child for you in the bargain."
Tibi's stomach churned. The threat of having to perform fertility rites caused her palms to begin to sweat. The room seemed to swirl. "No"
"Cease." Tiberius pinned her with a livid glare, his full cheeks bright red with fury. "How dare you presume to say no to me? I'm your father. Not some wretch you can chase off with your contrary ways."
Horrified, Tibi watched him stalk toward her, an unnatural gleam in his eyes.
"Get to your room before I club you," he ordered, his lips almost purple in his rage. "And don't come down until you're sent for. I can't bear to look at you a moment longer."
Brimming with resentment, she forced herself to keep silent before glancing toward the front door and the freedom beyond the heavy stone portal.
Tiberius lunged toward her, his fist clenched. She sped past him and up the stairs to her room. A servant had lit a fat candle on the dressing table in the far corner. Careful not to slam the door for fear of invoking more of her father's ire, she closed the wood panel behind her and collapsed against it. Her heart was racing as much from her father's threats as from her own anger. At times like this she missed her mother most. Not that Cornelia would have gone against her husband's dictates, but she would have been a shoulder to lean on until Tibi's punishment was carried out.
Despondent, she crossed to the dressing table and removed the diadem of sapphires and gold pins from her blond hair before braiding the long tresses into a single plait that hung to the small of her back. The candlelight illuminated the polished metal mirror hanging on the wall in front of her. She studied the distorted reflection of herself.
Unlike her dark, classically beautiful sister, she was an oddity, not only in looks with her light hair and pale skin, but in her thoughts and deeds as well. A proper woman was meant to be meek, to thrive only in the shadow of her husband and accept his opinions as her own. Little wonder no man had been willing to put up with her when what she longed for most was to be appreciated for herself.
A knock sounded on the door. "Open," Tiberia called. "Father ordered me to stay with you until morning."
Tibi gritted her teeth. She flung the door wide and glared at her sister. "From senator's wife to prison guard all in one evening, Tiberia? How proud you must be."
Tiberia rolled her dark brown eyes. "By the gods, Tibi, you cause your own misery." Her regal sister strolled into the room. The glitter of her jewels and the opulence of her red silk stola declared her status as a woman of wealth and social importance. "I've been telling you for years if you'd guard your tongue and do what's expected, life would flow more smoothly for you."
"You believe I should have allowed Lepidus to molest me?" Tibi asked sharply.
"I think it would have made no difference." Tiberia drifted across the room to Tibi's dressing table and began to straighten the perfume bottles and jars of cosmetics into a line. "The marriage contract was ready to be signed. Once you were wed, you would have belonged to him to do with as he liked anyway."
Tibi bristled with indignation. She'd expected as much from her sister, who was a firm believer in the established order, but it hurt that her own flesh and blood couldn't be counted on to side with her.
"However, it seems that the matter is neither here nor there," Tiberia continued. "Your chance to marry walked out the door along with Lepidus. Father was serious about offering you to the temple tomorrow."
"I was just as serious about not going," Tibi said, her spine taut. "He doesn't believe it, but I want very much to wed and have children of my own someday."
"One would never know by the way you cast off suitors."
She considered the long list of fortune hunters, old men and toads like Lepidus her father had wooed on her behalf. "I realize I'm no prize," Tibi said. "But surely there's at least one man in the province who will want to wed me for me and not Father's wealth or your husband's social rank."
"You speak of love?" Tiberia's tone mocked her. "How did you become so fanciful?"
"I'm talking about respect." Tiberia's attitude annoyed her, especially when her sister's marriage had been celebrated as a rare love match. "When did you become a cynic?"
"I'm not cynical. I'm realistic enough to accept the world for what it is. I was fortunate to marry a highly acceptable man who returned my affections, but even if I'd despised him, I'd have wed him. Marriage is for personal and familial honor social position security legitimate children. Much more serious issues than simple emotion."
"That's easily said when you have all that you hope for."
"No one has all they hope for. Why should you be different? Father has no son. I have yet to give my husband his longedfor heir. My husband's desired advancement within the Senate is far from certain." Tiberia's jaw tightened. "Listen to me. Respect can be earned and love is fleeting, Tibi. Men who fall in love can fall out again just as quickly. If lasting love and respect are what you want, join the temple. Do your duty to your family, bask in the affections of the goddess's patrons, then seek your passions later wherever you happen to find them."
Caught between the reality of her choices and her heart's desire, Tibi shook her head emphatically. "How can I enter the temple when I'm not even certain I believe in the gods"
"Say no more!" Tiberia fumbled the glass bottle she held, but caught it before it crashed to the floor. "It's bad enough you've disgraced us all tonight, but do you want to invoke the displeasure of our ancestors and the deities as well?"
Tibi stood from the bed and began to pace the rectangular room. The floor tiles were almost as cold as her father's heart toward her. The walls seemed to be closing in like a trap.
"Please don't tell me you've followed Pelonia's bad example and become one of those Christians." Tiberia shuddered delicately. "You know I love Pelonia with all my heart. I can't wait to see her when she arrives in Rome tomorrow, but her choice of religion and husband leaves much to be desired."
Tibi stopped by the window. The cool night air ruffled the flaxen curls framing her face as she looked blindly into the night. Hope flickered inside her like the candle on the dressing table. In the chaos of the banquet preparations and the ensuing catastrophe she'd forgotten about their cousin's visit. The reminder helped lessen her gloom. At last she began to see a twinkle of light in the darkness. If anyone might help her, Pelonia and her husband, Caros, might. Like her, they understood what it was to live on the edge of acceptability.
"I disagree," Tibi murmured. "You and Father may see them as mismatched, but Pelonia adores Caros while he practically worships her and their sons. As for their religion, at least they believe in a God of love"
"Enough." Tiberia shook her head and eyed Tibi with exasperation. "Why do you have to be so blunt and disagreeable? Not everything has to be a contest of opinions. I realize that Pelonia leads a life charmed by Fortune, but she married a lowly gladiator. Those men are animalsforeigners and criminals who deserve to die in the sand."
"And," Tiberia continued undaunted, "if she doesn't keep her choice of religion a secret she might find herself sentenced to the arena again. Is that what you want? To shame your family more than you already have? To be pitied everywhere you go because you threw yourself away on an exslave?"
Although she'd known Tiberia hated Caros for once enslaving their cousin three years earlier, she was stunned by Tiberia's vehemence. The former lanista had repented of his ways long ago and proven to be a marvelous husband. No one outside their own family pitied Pelonia. If anything, women from Rome to Umbria secretly envied her.
"Better an exslave who's handsome, rich and adores me," Tibi said, "than to sacrifice my life serving a goddess I don't believe in. As for shaming my family, didn't you hear Father? I've been a disappointment since the day I was born. Truly, I'm certain he considers it a shame that I was ever born."
The silence lingered. Tiberia couldn't refute a fact they both knew to be true. She turned sharply on her heel and sought out the cushioned chair near the door. Her thoughts in a tumble, Tibi renewed her pacing. Certain she was beyond the reaches of prayer, she fully believed her father planned to be free of her one way or the other.