Gently cradling her daughter’s arm, Metella wrapped the plain cream linen around the blighted area, then tied the ends tightly. “There, my love. Now, run to the forum. The chisels your father ordered should be ready for pickup. Bring them back, and then you’re free for the day.”
Evelina rose from the couch and nodded, unconsciously stroking the cloth on her arm as she smiled nervously and glanced anywhere except her mother. Metella stood up with her and put an arm around her shoulders, squeezing her and planting a kiss on the top of her head. “Evelina, darling, don’t you worry. Just a bit longer. Business is booming, and we are paying back the loan at an incredible rate. We’ll soon own every stone of this domus, and then you’ll have more friends and suitors than you can count. You’ll be able to do whatever you want.”
The girl leaned against her mother. “I know. I just wish I knew where I was going. It’s so hard, after… after being able to see everything, to suddenly see nothing.” She pulled away. “Not that I’d want to go back. I feel so free now that the visions have stopped, but it was a lot easier knowing what was coming.”
“Of course it was.” Metella began putting away the discarded clothing littering the bedroom. “But life is more interesting this way. You’re forging your own path, meeting life head on, rather than just waiting for what you know is going to happen. That’s what makes it worth it.”
“I know, Mother.” Evelina continued to play with the cloth knot.
“But!” Metella planted her hands on her thighs with a loud slap. “We do need your help! Gaius’ smithy, near the forum. You know which one. Off you go!” Metella shooed her daughter with both hands.
Evelina grinned. “Yes, Mother!” she replied before jumping up and trotting out into the atrium. Approaching the family altar, she knelt whilst gazing at the carving of the the god and the goddess, with their temple between them. Sprinkling an offering of water with her fingers, she murmured with reverence, “Thank you, household gods,” then rose and turned away. Grabbing the basket sitting just outside the door of her bedroom, she veered towards the impluvium to drag her fingers in the cool water as she passed, then skipped around its corner and passed through the vestibule, out into the street.
The streets of Rome were crowded with citizens going about their morning business, and Evelina skirted around a few who were waiting outside her father Caecilius’ door, waiting to deal in marble. Business was indeed booming, and while her father was a famously skilled carver and businessman, she suspected that a good chunk of the business brought to him daily came from his fame at having survived the destruction of their home city of Pompeii a few months ago. She’d even heard the word her father had invented to describe the exploding mountain, “volcano,” used among the youth of Rome who’d never met her father before. Mother would never admit it, but the disaster itself fueled their good fortune now.
Still, until the business was firmly established, until she could afford richer clothing and fashionable cosmetics, Evelina would remain just one of her father’s workers, not quite accepted into the social groups that she was used to. She’d met a number of girls her age at the baths, but they were only interested in her stories about the disaster. When she tried to talk about anything else, to learn about them and Rome, they teased her for a being an unsophisticated, ignorant child from a country town, and mocked her for the arm bandage she always wore, even into the bath. And when she’d run out of things to say, and especially when she had revealed that she had been pledged as a seer to the Sybilline Sisterhood, they’d drifted away, back into their little cliques. Not all of them had been so dismissive, but they hadn’t been willing to jeopardize their existing friendships to try to get to know the new girl.
Holding the basket against her stomach, she threaded her way through the dusty, crowded streets, making slow headway toward the forum. Not many people paid much attention to a mere slip of a girl, often forcing her to give way to those who considered themselves far more important. As she passed a fruit merchant’s stall, she spotted a narrow alleyway behind it, a clear path between insulae, and she ducked into it.
She was immediately glad she chose this route. Though shaded from the severe Mediterranean sun and piled with litter, the alley was empty and her speed wasn’t inhibited. It threaded between a block of sprawling insulae, but it would get her to the next street much faster than fighting through the throngs, and she broke into a jog.
The voice came from an alcove formed from the meeting of the walls of two insulae, and as she halted and turned towards it, she saw four youths lounging against the brickwork, two of which had girls leaning on them. One of the boys, a handsome, tanned young man with a shock of brown curly hair, took a drink from a large jug and held it up in toast at Evelina. "Come join us. We got plenty for all of us."
The slur in his speech told Evelina what was in the jug. She didn't need to glance up at the sky and the position of the shadow of one insula on another to remember that it was barely two hours past dawn, and she wrinkled her nose at the decadence in front of her. "Oh, no, thank you," she murmured as she took a step sideways in the direction of the next street.
"Too good to join us in a drink, are ya?" he sneered, lowering the jug to his lap. He then tilted his head, gazing at her with narrowed eyes. "Wait. I know you." He tapped the side of the jug a few times. "Yeah. Your brother’s Quintus Caecilius, isn’t he?"
Evelina nodded. She stepped back, away from the drunks, hugging the basket to her chest. A dread filled her stomach. Her brother had said he was done with his old life, with hanging out with the delinquents, chasing the girls, and drinking far too much wine. If he knew this lot, had he been lying to the family these three months they'd lived in Rome?
The youth got to his feet with some effort and stood swaying slightly. "Well, if you're ol' Quintus' sister, you're a good friend. Come on, have a drink. What's your name?" He stepped toward her to offer the jug again.
She stared at him again, and though she couldn’t recall a name, she realised she knew him: the son of a rich man, one of her father’s colleagues in Pompeii, someone he’d always been trying to get into the good graces of, and who had moved to Rome months ago to climb further up the social ladder. Wide-eyed, the girl glanced around the alcove. The youths were grinning at the two of them, and their companions were gesturing at her to join them. Something in the youth's eyes and manner frightened her, but she didn't know what to do. She couldn't just run off: she was too afraid he’d get angry and hurt her. And if she offended him, she was sure his father would hear about it and destroy her father’s prospects. She mumbled, "Evelina,” as she cowered.
"Oh, a lovely name for a lovely girl." He stepped up to her and caressed her cheek with his free hand. Evelina jerked away from him, and he caught her upper arm to hold her in front of him, his grip bruising her flesh. "Oh, don't be like that! Relax, Evelina. Have a drink. Hang out. And then we can have some fun." Pushing her up against the wall behind her, he sloppily kissed then bit her on her neck.
"Evelina!" Quintus' voice rang down the alleyway. "Come here, Evelina."
The youth stepped back from her as her brother strode up. "Ah, Quintus Caecilius."
Eyes narrowed, Quintus nodded at him as he put an arm around his sister's shoulders. Evelina huddled against him, one hand grasping the wet spot on her neck. "Marcus Tarquinius."
"Long time no see.” Marcus gestured at Evelina with the jug. “Your sister was just about to join us for some recreation."
Quintus moved in front of his sister, his body serving as her physical shield. "No, she wasn't. She was on her way to the forum."
Marcus eyed him up and down, "I'd heard you were here in Rome. A couple of months now at least, and you've never come to see your best friend from Pompeii."
The youth set his jaw. "I had other things to do."
"Carving marble for your father?” Marcus’ voice squeaked in mockery. “You know he's only in business because people are pitying him, because he survived the 'volcano' or whatever it is he's calling it. It won't last. If your family wants any influence in Rome, you need to keep up your friendships with the right people." He puffed out his chest. "Like your old friends from Pompeii. Come on, have a drink with us and we'll talk it all over. Just like old times." He stepped forward and grabbed Quintus by the shoulder, to coax him toward the other youths, but he stood his ground, twisting his torso to pull out of Marcus’ grasp.
"A lot of things died in Pompeii. Things that needed to die."
Frowning, Marcus sneered, "What's gotten into you, Quintus? You've got airs and ambitions. It doesn't suit you."
"It suits me just fine. I've got great things in my future, and that's where I'm going, not stalling in the present, drunk in an alley in Rome." He glanced over his shoulder at Evelina. "You can see that future, can't you?" Spreading his arms back to guard her, he growled, "Stay away from my sister, Marcus."
The youth waved dismissively. "Ah, go on! Get out of here. No one wants you." As Quintus took his sister's hand and pulled her down the alleyway, Marcus’ voice followed them. "You're making a mistake, Quintus! My father will make sure your father never makes it anywhere!"
After putting a good distance between the drunk youths and themselves, Quintus squeezed Evelina's hand. "That's why you don't want to take shortcuts. Stick to the streets."
"I will, from now on. How'd you find me?"
"I saw you duck behind the fruit merchant's stall and guessed there must be an alley there. I would have gotten to you sooner, but the merchant blocked me.” He rolled his eyes. “He’s getting tired of people running through his stall.”
“Thanks for coming when you did. I didn’t know what to do. His father’s one of Father’s friends, isn’t he? I didn’t want to ruin things for Father, but he was...” Her voice trailed off.
“Yes. His father is Publius Tarquinius, a very wealthy banker. Not the one holding Father’s loan, though. His threats are empty.” As they stepped into the street, Quintus pulled Evelina toward the forum. “Come on. Let’s go pick up the chisels and get you home.”
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
As soon as they arrived home, Quintus dropped the basket of chisels in a corner of the vestibule and hurried Evelina to her bedroom. He escorted her to her bed and sat her down. “Lie down and rest, Evelina.”
“Quintus! I’m fine.”
She started to get up, but her brother insisted, holding her down with a gentle touch on her shoulder. “Just… just humor me. I’ll be right back.” He dashed out through the door.
Evelina hugged herself and glanced absently about the room, shivering even in the warmth of the Roman autumn. In a few moments, Quintus returned, following their mother.
“Oh, Evelina!” Metella exclaimed as she ran into the room and slipped next to her daughter on the bed. She put her arm around her shoulders and held her tightly. “Quintus said you were accosted by a group of terrible young wastrels in the city. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Mother. I am.”
“She’s not,” Quintus declared. “They were drunk, and Marcus Tarquinius was trying to take advantage of her. You know how he is. I arrived just in time.” He gave his mother a meaningful look, and she nodded.
Metella squeezed her daughter again. “I’m so glad you’re safe! You should have run as soon as you could tell they were drunk. Nothing good could have come of that.”
Evelina sputtered as she tried to explain her apprehension. “But… I knew who he was. If I’d offended him, he could have ruined everything for Father. He probably still will.”
Her mother shook her head. “That doesn’t matter, at all. You need to take care of yourself.”
Quintus stepped forward and took his sister’s hand in his. “Yes, you can. Remember the Lady. How she always stood up for herself, and for us, and how she tried to help you. The Lady watches over us. She will guide you. Fight for yourself, and it will turn out right. You’ll see.”
“But Father’s business…”
“...Is not more important than your welfare,” finished Metella. “We’re a family. We stick together. No one is more important than anyone else, and we will not sacrifice your health just for a bit of status in the city.” She patted the cloth wrap on Evelina’s arm. “We learned that the hard way. You’re more important to us than all the patricians in Rome.”
Her daughter bowed her head, a shy smile lighting her eyes. “Yes, Mother.” She snaked an arm around her mother’s waist and hugged her briefly before shifting away a bit on the bed.
“Now,” declared Quintus, lifting his chin proudly, “it’s my turn to tell you of my day. I left home at dawn, before the rest of you were up, to do something I’ve been planning for a while. I visited the villa of Pedanius Dioscorides and, well, I can now claim to be a student of the physical sciences. He accepted my apprenticeship!”
Delighted and proud, Evelina jumped up and hugged her brother while Metella clapped both hands to her mouth. “You did! Oh! My son, the physician!”
The youth wagged a finger. “Not yet, Mother. It’ll be a few years before I can practise medicine. But, I start my studies next month. And, the tuition was lower than I thought it would be. I paid for the month out of my wages, and I had a little left over for this.”
Out of the pouch on his belt, Quintus pulled out a long strip of bright blue linen, embroidered with golden swirls. He gestured at Evelina’s bandage and Metella unwrapped it. He then carefully wrapped the new linen around his sister’s arm, tying off the ends in a neat knot. “There! Wear it proudly, and if anyone asks, look snooty and call it a bracer. Every girl in Rome will be wearing one in a month!”
Evelina started to murmur, “Oh, I don’t know…” but, glancing up at her brother and seeing his faith in her in his eyes, she finished, “but I’ll try. And if nothing else, it’s very pretty. Thank you, Quintus.”
“You are always welcome, my sister.”