The trees sway in a hot dry wind and it swirls her red chiton as she stands and watches her father's army. Waits. Lucilla is always waiting. The centuries slowly file past Marcus Aurelius's Gaulish palace and they do not look at her. She waits.
Her father has been campaigning for five years. In all that time she has not seen him. And yet, unapologetically, she does not watch for him, for the emperor. She watches the flash and clink of expensive armour. The minor lordlings salute her as they go by. She makes no response.
"What will he be like now?" whispers her brother maliciously. "Will he remember you?" Commodus's pale eyes bore into her and his voice is like a snake's. But she can shake off the immediate terror, for there, they come: Aurelius and his Praetorian Guard, the soldiers that protect his body in battle. The Emperor's banner ripples over their heads, and she keeps herself straight as a spear and replies to her brother: "If not, I shall remind him."
Commodus laughs, and she hears the jealousy in it. "Who could forget you, dear sister?"
"Indeed." The Praetorian Guard files past her, filling the air with the smell of armour and sweat. Lucilla smiles at her father on his white horse, and he smiles back in answer. As she begins down the stairs, he beckons and there is Maximus to help him dismount. It takes everything in her not to stop and simply stare at the sight of his hands on the Emperor's stirrup.
Commodus moves past her, holding out his hands. "Father!" he says clearly. "We welcome you!" Annoyed, Lucilla follows. That had been her line: now the mere sight of Maximus is setting her back a pace.
Her father is on the ground again, and Maximus fades back into the Guard as Marcus Aurelius embraces his son and then his daughter. They all murmur those platitudes that groups of people say when they're forced to be familial in public. Lucilla is glad that her father is home, for campaigning always makes him look older, unwell. When he looks pale and aged, it reminds Lucilla that someday Commodus will be Emperor. And then -- and then. She will not think of those things.
At the banquet later, she wears burnt-orange. She sits to her father's right and Commodus to his left. Also at the table are two of the least minor lordlings and Maximus. The lordlings are at their ease, jesting with Commodus and making light of battle. Maximus, clearly uneasy in such company, shifts in his seat and answers shortly any question put to him. The lordlings are used to it and leave him alone; Commodus amuses himself by needling.
"And where will you go next, Captain?" he asks, his smooth voice oozing sincerity. Lucilla keeps her eyes on her plate and her hands in her lap.
"Wherever my Emperor commands." Maximus's voice is low but clear. Lucilla pictures him looking Commodus right in the eye.
"For you see, my sister was hoping you'd not leave again." Lucilla can hear the laugh in his voice and yet cannot resist a furious look at him. Commodus lowers his voice conspiratorially. "She thinks that three-and-twenty is very old for a maid, and that perhaps she'd have a strong soldier in her bed before she gets any older."
"Don't speak so disrespectfully of your sister," says her father, half-chiding and half-laughing. It makes Lucilla even angrier. "She'll have a husband yet."
"Someone probably twice her age and busy being powerful," muses Commodus. "Who could expect her to be faithful? Perhaps then she'll beckon, Captain, and you'll run like a hound with your tongue out."
With a bang, Maximus slaps his napkin down on the table and stands. Lucilla hears his flat voice make an excuse to the Emperor and she sits frozen, knowing that she ought to defend herself, to storm from the room as well. But she does no such thing. She sits with a half-smile on her face and listens as her brother asks mock-plaintively what it could have been that drove the esteemed captain from their company.
Marcus Aurelius, lord of the Roman Empire, as usual does nothing to stop Commodus. And Lucilla eats and she stands and she walks with her father to his rooms. He speaks with her for a moment or two: gives her news that she does not want to hear. But since he is her father, she leaves him with a good- night kiss. And when Commodus tries to kiss her goodnight as well, she turns him a pale cheek and lets him put a hand on her waist and hug her tightly.
It is hard to pretend.
In her chambers she snaps at the serving-girl and almost bursts into tears right there, but shoves it all deep enough that she can take a breath and apologize and ask for wine. The girl comes back with it and behind her, almost hiding in the shadows, is Maximus.
She'd known he was going to come. His honor would allow no less after that slight at table. But she isn't sure she wants to speak with him. He'd left table, yes, because of a hurt to his honor -- but not a word had he said of her, in her defense or otherwise.
"My lady," he says only, standing in the doorway, and she raises her head and flashes a look at the girl, who clunks her pitcher of wine onto a table and flees with her skirt flying. And now Lucilla feels free enough to face him, watch him with the hungry eyes of five years' absence and yet -- and yet not let him see it.
He has filled out since he was twenty-four, grown a little bow-legged from riding, grown a beard and cut his hair Praetorian short. And his eyes are still the same, wiser maybe but no less gentle, and she sees that he means to apologize and she stops him.
"Captain. I do not want your platitudes: you could have said something in public and you did not. My brother is a fool, and you are one no less."
He bites his lip, a sign of indecision that she is sure his Praetorians never see. "I did not know what to say. I cannot compete with your brother's wit."
"Oh, can you not?" She laughs bitterly. "Have you been away so long? There was a time when you could have and you would have. But now you cannot. Will not, I say."
"Will not, then." He makes two fists at his sides and then lets his hands free: she watches his brown fingers pluck at his tunic. "He is the son of Marcus Aurelius."
"And I am his daughter! Or am I of no consequence because I cannot advance your position?" She wants to say that mayhap she could help his decline, but does not, for she knows she would never do it. "Do you serve Marcus Aurelius?"
Her gauzy curtains part in a gust of wind, and they brush past and over him as he stands still, half- dark, watching her. "I serve the Emperor."
"And his children? Do you serve them as well? Captain?"
"If needs must."
Oh, needs must, she thinks. "And if I said to kneel, Captain? Here, to me?"
At this he smiles, a traitorously lovely smile, and drops to his knees and puts his hands out before him. "I surrender, Lucilla. Let me surrender."
He makes it look so easy, and yet -- "I'm never able to surrender. Why should I let you?"
"Never?" She sees it in his eyes: he is thinking of their short time together so many years ago, when she was verily a maid and Maximus was rising through the ranks under Aurelius's notice. She'd surrendered then, yes, and paid for it later.
Thinking of that time -- that garden, those hungry, swallowing moments -- hurts even more than Commodus's poisonous exposure of her girl's love. Even more than the Emperor's silence as he moved Maximus to the front. All on Commodus's word. And behind it all was the bittersweet knowledge that she and Maximus had done nothing worth all the censure and prejudice, but that no one had, in all those five years, asked her what happened in the dark.
She stares absently at a candle flame and when she looks up again with a start, the flame is the only light in the room and still he kneels, looking at her half-quizzically.
"Get up," she says, sorry that she ever asked him to kneel, cold and weary of her abiding bitterness. "Go home."
He does rise then, not showing any effects from the marble floor. She turns away from him, picking at a cushion's embroidery, unable to break so many years of habit. She wants him to stay -- she wants so many things -- but Maximus's words sound more empty than ever.
"I should have defended you. I would defend you, Lucilla, if you would only look at me. You say how I have changed? Five years ago you would have struck him in the face. No, I mistake --" and he smiles again -- "five years ago, Commodus would never have dared to speak." He gives her words back to her quietly: "Have I been away so long?"
"I was a girl then," she says, "And what I am now, I know not, but it is not that girl."
"And shall you never smile again?" He steps softly, softly toward her and as he puts out a hand to touch one of her curls, she feels herself breaking, torn apart between who she wants to be and who she must be.
"Shall you not?" he asks again. "Lucilla? Bright Lucilla, who dressed her hair in poppies."
"I am to go back to Rome," she says to the wall. "Father spoke with me before he retired. He has two prospects for my marriage and I am to choose one."
"And after all, what choice is that?" His warm fingers tuck her hair behind her ear.
"Then you will go back to the front. Your sword will bring you glory for my father, and I will be reduced to an alliance for him. Perhaps one day I will beckon you, would you not have it so?" She turns at last to face him, her anger giving her strength. He will not change, he is not the type to change. And she -- she is too afraid.
"You serve him as I serve him." It tires Lucilla to watch him speak so, consigning their lives to servitude. It is like beating against a stone wall - - it only leaves a small dent, and that can be fixed quickly. And yet that is how he is. Could it ever be changed?
"Any woman married to you would always watch you ride away." She says it slowly, understanding for the first time. "She would love your back, for that is what she'd see of you."
"And any man married to you could only love the top of your head, for that's all you'd show him." He sounds amused, resigned. "I shall have you look at me once, Lucilla, in the face, and then I shall leave you alone, for I think that's what you want."
He tips up her chin and she stares into his eyes, remembers that mouth and how it felt to rub her cheek against his beard. In his gaze she still sees a spark -- awareness shivers down her spine and she knows she could keep him here with her, just tonight. But what good would that be? Can two people come together and keep out a lifetime's chill?
And so she puts her hand on his wrist and forces his arm back down so she can drop her eyes, look at the floor. "Leave me," she says. And he does. She watches him pull the door shut. She blows out the candle. And in darkness she sits, waiting quietly for dawn.
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