By the hand of Justinia Fonteia Agrippina
832 Ab Urbae Conditae, the year of the consuls
Imperator Caesar Vespasianus Augustus IX and Titus Caesar Vespasianus VII antediem XIV Kalends Sept
The Eighth Hour of the Day The Festival of Vinalia Rustica
When the Fuller’s freedwoman wife heard that the actor Paris would be at our party, she was crude enough to ask, “How much does he charge for an evening’s entertainment?”
“More than you can afford,” Mother replied as she pointedly left the room.
I lingered long enough outside the entrance to hear the Fuller’s wife call to mother’s back sarcastically, “Our money doesn’t stink!”
I knew the story about Titus Flavius Vespasianus, who questioned his father’s new tax on the urine collected by fullers for bleaching. The Divine Vespasianus held out a coin to his son and asked, “Does it stink?” Of course taxing urine and sharing a breeze with a fullery are two different things.
Before I caught up to Mother, I heard the Baker’s wife remark, “Girl, they act so mighty. But they’re sucking on their ancestor’s olive pits like the rest of their rank in this town.”
The Fuller’s wife replied, “I heard the Poppaeii had a fortune!”
The Baker’s wife went on, “Oh, they still have vineyards and villas, but…let’s just say the Poppaeii are a long way down from milk baths and Imperial weddings. Why else would my husband be invited to her party?”
I was shocked at the mention of Mother’s eldest sister, kicked to death by Redbeard in his madness. Was this what the town really thought of us? Then I remembered my parents arguing about which neighbors to invite. The bakers were of low rank, but wealthy. Father had even wanted to invite the Fuller, but Mother had refused to invite his recently-freed wife, and since other wives were attending, offense would be given.
I caught up with Mother and Aunt outside the Cold Room. The entrance was crowded with the entourage of Pompeii’s leading lady. Cassia never went anywhere with fewer than seven beautiful girls attending her every need. Mother wondered, “Should I remind her about tomorrow night?”
“Couldn’t hurt,” was Poppilla’s reply. “They say Pompeii has one opinion—Cassia’s.”
As Mother approached, the Vintner and Banker’s wives hovered near their leader. Mother called out sweetly to the rich woman, “Cassia! Good health!”
“Good health! Thank the gods your sister and daughter are all right,” Cassia answered.
“Quite an exciting day!” Poppilla remarked. “Did you hear about the new Swords?”
Mother’s face flushed angrily and she scolded, “Poppilla, really!” Then she turned back to Cassia to coo, “You look even more radiant than usual.”
Cassia accepted this compliment with a faint nod. Mother went on, “Please forgive my sister. She’s as bad as any man about the fights.”
“My husband prefers the races,” the Banker’s wife interjected, “the Greens.”
Cassia looked down her long nose to say, “Of course, dear.”
Never one to take a hint, Poppilla piped up again, “The new Swords will be at the party—and Paris, too!”
That got the rich woman’s attention. “I adore that man!”
The Baker’s wife chimed in, “So it’s true! Since the theatre closed, Paris is doing private parties. What does his master charge for an evening?”
Mother smiled. “The fee is outrageous! But there’s nothing we won’t do for town and familia.”
As Cassia and her attendants moved on, the Banker’s wife gushed, “Aren’t you excited? I’d faint if Paris so much as breathed on me!”
“What if I told you his breath reeks of garlic?” Mother asked.
The Banker’s wife giggled. “Paris could smell like garum for all I care.”
Poppilla shrugged. “Give me a loyal Sword any day. There’s a man with steel in his plough!”
Mother cried, “Poppilla! You go too far!”
Ignoring the danger, Poppilla went on. “Swords are often educated and quite…spiritual, since they face death every day.”
Mother gritted her teeth to add, “So do we all.” Then she muttered just loud enough for me and Poppilla to hear, “And you are closer than you think!”
As she hoped, Poppilla roused the curiosity of even the highest rank of matrons and by the time we left the Cold Room, suddenly even those who had once pled previous engagements wondered if they might still be able to attend our party.
Mother winced at her sister’s victory. I braced myself for the real battle, which would begin when we got home. By then the baths had soothed me back to my senses and I suddenly felt ravenously hungry! “Can we stop for a pizza on the way home?”
We often followed the bath with a snack and a stroll. At first Mother seemed inclined to remind me that I was hardly in a position to ask for a treat. But she loved the pizza at the nearby diner almost as much as I did.
“We could share a dormouse pie,” I suggested, and Mother’s stern expression relaxed. “All right. We’ll need something to fortify us before we face the rest of the family.”