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Pompeii, Italy. Eight days before the Calends of July, 79 AD
(June 24, 79)
Olivia leaned her back against a column, beneath a hanging basket spilling over with vines that were thick with dark purple blooms. Beneath her hand and silk palla, her belly swelled uncomfortably. In the shadows of the peristylum a worried slave lurked, ready at any moment to run screaming for the midwife now in residence until the delivery. Olivia paid her little mind, enjoying the open air, however hot, as she watched Gaius chipping away at a statue beside the peristylum pool. He liked to work out here because the light was better and sculpting was warm work. The spray from the fountain helped to alleviate the heat, in spite of its volcanic source.
She smiled softly. "His nose is slightly sharper," she said quietly, as her husband's face began to emerge from the stone.
Gaius jumped. "My Lady, why are you out here? Surely it cannot be good for you!"
"Because I wish to watch you work, and I enjoy my gardens."
He grumbled quietly, returning to work, aware it was not his place to force his patron to mind her health. This was not his favourite subject by far for his sculpture, but when one's patron requests a statue of her senatorial husband, one obliges. He much preferred the lady of the house, with her patrician face and softer features. Although cold stone could not express the warm honey gold of her hair or the soft green of her eyes, he knew of alabasters that would express her skin tone with surprising accuracy. Her weak state of health did not take away from her classical beauty; it only served to make her more desirable as the urge to protect heroverwhelmed all but the most hardened men.
Sighing, Olivia yielded to the worried shuffle behind her and moved more into the main of the house. She was barely nineteen still she wielded an air of confident nobility that none of her slaves or freedmen dared to question, and none of the artists she patronised dared to either challenge or seduce. She had already dismissed one of the best fresco painters from Herculaneum who had tried to take advantage of her husband's absence, thinking a young woman of her years and beauty collected artists as she did for more lurid purposes. He had found himself on his ear in the gutter before he even realised his mistake. Before long, everyone on the South slope knew better.
Phillipa, her ever-present personal slave, seemed to relax as she entered the cooler regions of the house. She understood the girl's worry, really. She had, after all, had three miscarriages in the last four years. This was the longest she had ever carried and she was dangerously close to delivery.
Her hand strayed to the underside of her belly as she felt a white-hot pull, but it subsided quickly and she went on. She moved down the corridors past the family's living quarters and out the garden gate. From a carved bench beneath an arched trellis of roses she could sit in comfort and watch birds wheeling over the peak of Vesuvius. The sun was starting to set off to the left of the peak, casting a golden glow upon the world. She basked in the fading light, her hair turning a soft burnished gold captured in a lattice of silver-white ribbon. She closed her eyes a moment.
"Ah, now I know how Aphrodite must have looked before the birth of Aeneas," came a smooth voice from the shadows of a nearby bower by the ivied walls.
She did not open her eyes, but smiled instead. Her smile faltered a second as she tried not to reveal another moment of pain. She waited until the sun had completely left the gardens and the speaker had moved out of the shadows to answer. "Good evening, Aeschylus."
He came closer but remained at a respectful distance. Of all the artists she patronised, he was her favourite. He was not exactly a young man, perhaps in his late fifties, maybe even his sixties, and not exactly handsome, but she was very fond of him. He was a Greek of ancient name and sought to live up to that, or so he claimed. He had come to the house not long after she had arrived in Pompeii from Rome and quickly won over Julius, her husband. Shortly thereafter, Aeschylus had been brought into the house on a near permanent basis and Julius had suggested that she spend her time rooting out and inspiring local artists. Aeschylus was fond of referring to her as his muse and often called her Calliope. No one ever dared to think, much less suggest that there was anything improper about their relationship. By many of the household he was looked upon in an almost grandfatherly way. So far he had written several small pieces including a play, which she had financed the production of the year before. It had been a great success and made her entrance into Pompeiian society complete; prior to that she had been only coolly welcome.
"And how moves the babe this eve?" he asked. "Painfully, I gather?"
Again she only smiled mildly. "At least he still moves."
She took a slow, deep breath, exhaled it. A frown creased her pale brow.
"How long ago was the last one?" he asked. It was a rather forthright question for a man who was neither family nor physician.
She dodged the question. "So, will we be having your friends over tonight discussing philosophy upon the peristyle steps again? Or will you be dancing attendance upon that actress friend of yours?"
He sighed, granting her the feint but reluctant to fence her, even knowing it was the best way to handle her. Especially now. Something in her manner worried him, that and something on the edge of his senses that kept twitching. "In light of your health, it has been agreed upon that we will not be meeting again until there is a celebration to be held and as for Palmyra she has accepted an opportunity to perform Elektra in Rome."
Another held breath followed, this time, by white knuckles and a tightened jaw that eliminated his need to press. "That answers that question," he said matter of factly, waving to the slave in the shadows. As the girl drew nearer he stopped, nostrils twitching ever so slightly. He glanced discretely down at the bench upon which his muse perched. There was a wetness beginning to spread there, tinged alarmingly with the faintest amount of blood. "Phillipa, get the midwife," he ordered, and reached for Olivia as she started to waver. "Run." His voice was calm but firm, as if he had every right to order his patron's slave about. The girl did not stop to question the propriety of things but followed his glance, saw the blood and bolted for the house.
Aeschylus swept her into his arms with a wiry strength that belied his age, and began carrying her into the main of the house through darkening corridors as yet unlit. The midwife arrived as he was laying her upon her bed and immediately took over with a small flock of female attendants. She ran him out with the ease of decades of experience and left him to deal with the rest of the household who had begun to gather in the hall. Just as he raised his arms for attention, the night air was rent by a scream of agony no doubt heard by the neighbors. He said simply, "It has begun." To himself he prayed, 'Artemis, let them both survive this!'
The night had progressed, and still her screams tore the night. Slaves of the neighbors had begun to gather unobtrusively (or so they hoped) in doorways across the street, sent by concerned and hopeful friends to report back the moment there was news, for good or ill. At some point a physician had been sent for, a bad sign to those waiting. Hours later the screaming stopped, followed by the offended cry of a newborn child forced from the warmth of his mother's belly into the comparatively cold air of a June night.
Olivia tipped her head up to look upon the face of her newborn son and smiled weakly. "At last, my Lucius, you are here." Then, Olivia Claria Severus, wife of Senator Julius Ignatius Sylvanus, breathed her last.
Copyright © 2004 Sandra Leigh