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The temple echoed with his footsteps, the building eerily empty at this early time of day. The sun had not yet broken above the hills of Rome, and Aulus felt like a thief, even though he left offerings instead of taking them. Well, one offering. He hoped it would be enough.
Lighting a bowl of incense, Aulus knelt at the foot of the stairs leading to the altar, his cloth-wrapped gift in his hands. He was a soldier, full of rough words and rougher actions, and making an offering to the Goddess of Love rested uneasily on him. Still, for Laelia he would do anything. His sister, bless her head, needed all the help she could get.
"I ... I bring an offering, great lady," he said, his voice hushed in the pre-dawn gloom, only the flickering of a torch on the wall showing him any kindness in lighting his way. "I hope that it will ... no. I pray. I pray it will help you grant my sister the child she so desperately needs."
Needed, wanted, it was all the same. Laelia wanted a baby with her husband of two years, but she also needed it. Theirs was a love match, but Anataus would be forced to set Laelia aside soon, if she did not swell with child. His father, Anataus', that was, demanded an heir. A wealthy merchant family, Anataus', and one that disapproved of a winemaker's daughter for their fair-haired son.
Sighing, Aulus bent, his recently injured back screaming at him as he touched his forehead to the floor. "Give me a sign, lady, that I might bring my gift forth."
He waited. Unlike most of his fellow soldiers, indeed, most of his fellow citizens, Aulus believed that the gods heard him. Indeed, he believed they had been with him, guiding his sword or histhoughts. He had felt them, he thought, with him. As he felt the presence of the divine now, in the soft breeze that blew across his back, lifting his hair, the bottom of his tunic, pushing them toward the altar. Aulus smiled. Someone was curious enough to want to see his gift, at least.
Standing, his knees popping, he went up the steps, peering into the dark beyond to make sure no one observed him. The package he held, well, it was simply too precious to have even the priestesses see it. Carefully laying it down on the altar, Aulus unwrapped the soft leather, letting the stone roll out and land in an offering bowl, the sharp clink of it almost making him jump.
The torch seemed to flare, the light shining right down upon the fist-sized opal that lay there now, the roughly polished stone glowing from within, perfect enough even for a goddess.
"Please, lady. I beg you, for my sister's sake. Please favor her with good luck in her endeavor." Bowing his head, Aulus prayed as he never had before, even in battle. Laelia was all he had left in the world.
Her happiness meant everything to him.
Surely that would be enough.
Dawn had come and gone when Aulus felt a soft hand on his shoulder, the touch light, tentative. The voice he heard was just as soft. "Miles?" the girl said, indicating she knew he was a soldier. "Do you have need of help?"
Opening his eyes, Aulus looked first at the altar, then at the priestess. His smile nearly split his face as he shook his head, saying, "No. No, I think I have all the help I could need."
Surely the great goddess Venus had found favor with his offering.
The opal was gone.
Whistling, Aulus wandered the market, looking at this and that, not really buying, just enjoying the noisy, rambunctious crowd. He felt as though he had done some real good, despite the fact that the opal, a gift from a long ago admirer, was all Aulus had in terms of savings. He smiled, his fingers sliding over a crusty loaf of bread.
"Would you like that loaf, sir?" a pretty slave girl asked, wiggling her hips at him.
The smile slipped, Aulus dipping his head, not quite meeting her eyes. He hated to encourage women when it was other men who drew his own eye. "I would," he said. "Thank you."
It was the least he could do. She needed the sale, and he needed an excuse to go. He handed over a small bronze denarius and help up the loaf. "For my wife."
She stopped fluttering her lashes and smoothed her tunic. "Well, eat it in health then."
"Thank you. We will." The small lie would save her embarrassment, and would save him as well. Aulus whistled some more, heading to his brother-in-law's shop, tearing off a hunk of thick, heavy bread and chewing. When he got to the shop, stepping under the shady awning, Aulus shouted, tossing the rest of the loaf to Anataus.