The sun was just over the horizon to the east, and Gaius Arrius started his last day in Deva by arguing with a woman, a terrible start to any day, never mind his last.
It grew worse when the beginnings of a slight headache made their first appearance at the back of his head, the result of drinking a thorough farewell with his men the night before, and finally, insult compounded into injury because Brecca, his Briton mistress, would simply not shut up.
He kept his eyes closed and tried to ignore her. He even tried to roll over on his side and bury himself deeper under his luxurious down-filled coverlet, but Brecca was relentless. She began to pummel him with her fists.
“Wake up, you worthless, lazy man! Your last day in Deva, your slaves are already moving about making breakfast noises and what do you do? You lie in bed pretending you’re dead and deaf and dumb when I just know you’re awake, I know it!”
Worthless? Here he had just about saved all Roman interests in southern Caledonia – not to mention quite a few Roman lives in the bargain, and she had the gall to call him worthless?
That was the last straw!
“All right, all right, I’m awake, I’m awake – enough already!” He opened his eyes, just visible above the coverlet he had pulled up to his nose. It needed to be aired, and badly. It reeked of wine-sweat and fornication.
“You see?” Brecca stuck out a very pink – and rather long – tongue. “I knew you were awake!”
“Not even Jupiter himself could sleep with you around, especially once you open your mouth!”
“So? Ach, you Romans…you’ve always had problems with women who had enough sense to talk back!”
Before he could stop himself, he shot back “Well, you should know. You’ve certainly had enough of us!”
A filthy look was Brecca’s only reply.
Gaius Arrius reluctantly sat up, rubbed his grainy eyes, ran his fingers through his hair and scratched his scalp. He had probably gotten fleas off her, especially given the way she was attacking him this morning. At least the fleas would have less hair to roam through, because he had finally managed to squeeze in a haircut.
“Woman, I’m awake. I’m sitting up in bed, and I know damn well it’s my last day in Deva. What more do you want from me?”
Brecca gave him a long, significant glance from underneath her bushy red-brown hair.
“You promised you would take me with you to Rome.” She pouted. It was a pretty pout, but not that pretty.
“Oh, Gods, Brecca, not again! We’ve had this discussion how many times by now? I can’t take you to Rome, and I won’t, so there!”
“But Arrius…you promised! You promised to take me to Rome and set me up in a nice insula somewhere, near the Esquiline gate maybe…”
It was all Gaius Arrius could do to keep a straight face. Brecca had always had a shaky grasp on Roman geography. If she really knew the Esquiline, she’d run screaming back to Britannia in less than two minutes.
“And what would you do, once you got it? Sit around with a slave or two and file your nails while you wait for me to visit?”
“That is what mistresses do, or so I’ve heard…”
“Well, my dear, you could be waiting a long time for that. If I get appointed as quaestor, I’ll probably be packed off to a foreign posting and another general’s staff right away, I have no idea where.” Ye Gods, but he must have been drunk, if he promised her that. Or else she had taken advantage of him right at the moment he neither knew nor cared what he agreed to, so long as she didn’t stop.
There was a light tap on the door, and Timaeus, his chamberlain,
entered with a steaming bowl of scented water for washing his face and hands.
“Domine, good morning! I trust you slept well, your last night in Deva?” Timaeus set the bowl on the large trunk that stood against one wall of his sleeping chamber. He went to a closet, opened the door, and began pulling out fresh clothes out of one of the trunks.
“Yes, I did…Oh, Timaeus, could you set out my traveling clothes, no, Gods!, not those-” Gaius Arrius waved away Timaeus’ suggestion, a rather ostentatious set of riding clothes that screamed “filthy rich Roman ripe for fleecing on the road”, and pointed instead to a rather threadbare drab tunic and some well-worn leather riding breeches, cut long for the Briton climate, along with a lightweight hooded cloak. “That should do nicely!”
“Domine, you don’t think that is rather too shabby for you?”
His master had that obstinate look on his face that would brook no argument whatsoever.
Timaeus had obviously given up on his master and his plebeian tastes in clothing long ago. He shook his head and set the pile of clothes down on the chest.
“Breakfast should be ready in your study, domine.”
“Thank you, Timaeus; I’ll be right there in just a moment. Until I am, could you please see to it that I’m not disturbed?”
Timaeus gave a disapproving sniff. He had never cared for Brecca. But he left the room and closed the door behind him.
Best to set Brecca straight once and for all, and to do it now. By this afternoon, he’d be gone, and it would be too late, and if there were one thing that gave him chills, it was the thought of Brecca showing herself in Rome, or worse, at the Villa Arria in Cumae, and not even his father would ever forgive him. He had already caused far too much social embarrassment.
“Look, Brecca…” he turned toward his mistress, now sitting up in bed, arms crossed over her luscious chest. She was not happy and not shy about showing it.
“What?” Her shoulders slumped, and her frown deepened.
“Sweetheart, do you really know just how special you are?” Gaius Arrius brushed back her long, heavy, red hair spilling over her shoulders and turned her toward him. Her face softened slightly, but she still looked at the wall, rather than at him.
“In Rome, Brecca, you would be one of hundreds of thousands of girls, all out to make a living as best they can, and all dependent on the capricious tastes of their patrons, and all the time they fear for the day when their foreign charms have faded, and they grow older. They come from all corners of the world, and all for the same purpose, and it almost never ends well.” He slid closer, one hand gliding down and around the silky skin of her back, while the other continued to brush over her hair. She was softening, he knew it. She laid her head on his shoulder.
“Those women aren’t me.” Brecca sulked into his chest hair.
Gaius Arrius laughed. “No, thank the Gods! More than one of you would be too much for the world to bear!” He pulled her closer.
“Just think for a moment, darling. You rule the roost here at Deva. Everyone knows Brecca; everyone shows the mistress of the senior tribune her proper, well-earned respect…”
“Respect that I earned in your bed…” Brecca spat back.
“So? Would you rather have earned it by washing all my dirty loincloths?” He laughed again. “Darling, I have slaves for that…”
“Well, and what am I, then? Nothing stopped you from buying some Hibernian just off the boat from Monapia, or Hibernia, if that’s what you wanted…just some biddable creature with red hair to keep your bed warm for you…”
“Really? Am I that unusual, that I like redheads better than Roman brunettes? They have all those lovely freckles I so like to count…”
Brecca suddenly pulled away and removed his arms around her shoulders.
“Might as well count your own, then!”
“Ah, no…that’s too boring!” Gaius Arrius scratched his chest. In the early morning sunshine coming through the high windows, the hairs glinted red-gold.
“Boring is what this past summer has been – sitting around waiting for you to return…if you even would…”
“I’m a very hard man to kill! I know, I know…Look, Brecca, I’m quite aware that this isn’t the best way to say goodbye – but who knows? No matter what happens, I’ve already left instructions with Carbo about you.”
Judging from her reaction, this was a surprise for Brecca.
“You have? Arrius, really?” she squeaked.
Sometimes it still rattled him, that most everyone called him Arrius, but with so many cognomened ‘Rufus’, there hadn’t been that many other options.
“Of course I have!” he grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her down on the bed. “What…you thought I would just take off without a backwards glance and forget all about you?”
“Actually, I thought you would take me back to Rome with you.”
Gods, she was upset!
“Brecca…I can’t, so there! I won’t discuss this any more. Frankly, you’d be much better off right where you are here in Deva, so I’ve arranged for a sum of money for you through Carbo. I should think about a thousand sesterces a year should keep you quite well…”
If that didn’t put her in a better mood, there was only one thing left. With a girl like Brecca, money didn’t talk, it roared.
“But I wanted to see Rome!” she wailed.
“Damn it, Brecca, what do I know? Maybe some day you will, but it won’t be with me, so leave it at that! You’ve got a thousand sesterces a year out of me, what more do you want?”
A rhetorical question. Make a woman happy once…He drew down the coverlet.
“No…oh! See? I knew there was a spot where I forgot to count! How could I possibly have overlooked that spot these last three years?”
“No, no…Arrius – not there…” Brecca squealed.
“Yes, Brecca…there…that’s what naughty girls get for waking up their man with a harangue at a godless hour of the morning! One…two…oh, my, there’s another freckle…three…”
Let them wait. It was his last day in Deva, after all.