Memoirs of Vinca, Part Three

The years passed.  The Emperor Marcus Aurelius spent many years away from home with the army.  The Empire was presently encountering difficulties with the barbarian tribes of Germania.  Life in the Palace was relatively quiet, except during Commodus' visits.  Everybody was on edge from the minute he set foot in the palace to the minute he left.  Sadly, Lucilla's husband, Verus, passed away two and a half years after I arrived at the Palace.  Lucilla had    always struck me as a strong and resourceful lady, so after her period of mourning she threw herself into bringing up Lucius, in addition to taking up  various official duties.  She never ceased to amaze me with her resilience.  I also noted her kindness.   Recently, she  discreetly made Hestia one of her personal dressers after noticing the way Commodus bullied her,  thus ensuring the Gaul girl encountered him as little as possible.      Poor Hestia wasn't the best of workers, being small, frail and quick to burst into tears at the slightest provocation; but she was diligent, a tryer, and  Lucilla recognised this,  duly taking her under her wing.  Cleandrus, the young male servant, also seemed protective of Hestia.  Whenever she was distressed about something he would appear, warm tea in hand, and would tell her funny stories to cheer her up.  As Hestia and I grew to womanhood,  I noticed the burgeoning relationship between them.  Cleandrus clearly adored her, and Hestia seemed shyly flattered by his interest.  One evening Cleandrus informed me that he would like to marry Hestia, "one day, when we are free," and take her back to his home, the Greek island of Cyprus.
          I hadn't really given the possibility of freedom much thought;  I had been far too busy over the years, letting life take care of itself.  After this inspiring converation, however, I began to think of freedom and what I could do with my life upon attaining it .  I could clean, cook and sew ...I loved the feel of rich materials against my fingers as I helped Commodus, Lucilla or the Emperor to dress,  or whenever I made the Imperial beds.   I could read and write a little. I had good organisational skills.  I could open a clothing store!  I could import fine materials from Greece, from Syria, from Egypt and Thrace, and make everything by hand.  After all, I had experience at the highest level, working in the Imperial Palace.  Then reality sunk in, and I realised that in order to embark on such a project, I would have to have money.  Perhaps after I married...then again, there were no guarantees that I would find a husband at all, let alone one with the requisite financial clout to enable me to open a shop.  I would probably have to work for somebody else first.  But I could dream.
Sometimes, however, the overwhelming drudgery of my existence made dreaming impossible.  This was made particulary apparent to me one midsummer afternoon.  I was kneeling on the floor of Commodus' chamber, darning one of his fine robes.  He had inadvertantly stepped on it, tearing the hem, and I had been duly summoned to fix it.   The Heir to the Empire was perched at his desk, idly leafing through some scrolls,  casting the occasional hostile look in my direction.  I looked up for a minute. He noticed.
"Stop staring at me, slave.  Get on with your work," he snapped.  I lowered my head and resumed stitching. "Yes, Sire"  I replied, keeping my voice on a neutral footing.  This seemed to displease him.  In those days, he was always trying to provoke a reaction from me, but I would not yield.  I'll never let you see me cry, I thought. Never.
       When I had finished, I held the robe before me, inspecting it.   I knew Commodus couldn't abide even the slightest imperfection, so I was extra careful reviewing my handwork.  Satisfied, I stood, about to walk over to present the robe to him, when he looked up again, still scowling.
"I didn't tell you to stand, slave!  Get back on your knees until I say otherwise."  He rustled the scroll and cleared his throat, a self-satisfied smile settling over his feaures.  You smug, arrogant buffoon, I thought.  I contented myself with thoughts of Commodus greeting his public in a robe which, unknown to him, had a dreadful stain on the back.  In my fantasy, the sound of sniggering Senators and Praetorians followed him as he paraded haughtily.  The crowds were sniggering too.  I smiled, and just at that moment, he noticed.  He slammed his fist down on the desk.  "How dare you laugh at me, slave!" He stood up and stalked over, his face apopleptic with rage. "Stand up at once, you insolent wretch, or I swear I'll...I'll have you thrashed! That's right, thrashed to within an inch of your pathetic, miserable life!"  He was trembling, but was obviously in no mood for provocation. I stood and bowed.  "Please accept my humble apologies, Sire.  I  was not  smiling at you, Sire.   Somebody in the kitchens told a joke today, I recalled it just at that moment, and it was very funny...."
        "Silence!" he yelled.  He snatched the robe from my hand, a little carelessly, I thought.  He held it up, cocked his head, inspecting it.   Then he did the strangest thing.  He returned to his desk and picked up a blade. He returned and  stood before me, a slippery smile on his face.  With a deft movement he cut the stitches I had made. 
        "Oh dear!" he sneered, his eyes gleaming. "Your stitches have come undone.  Do you really expect me to greet my public wearing this piece of rag? DO YOU?"  His voice rose to a scream.
"No Sire" I whispered. I didn't even flinch.
"Your work is untidy, slave. Do it again"  He thrust the robe at me.   We stared at each other.  I did not recoil from his gaze, and I noticed his lips twitching, as if searching for words.  For some reason, I unnerved him!
        "What's going on, Commodus?" said a female voice behind me.  I turned, and there was Lucilla, emerging from behind a pillar.  How long had she been there?  I was eager to find out.  I noticed Commodus' expression fracture as she entered the room.   He lifted a hand in an incomplete gesture.   He attempted a warm, appeasing smile.  "Th-This ignorant girl!  I dared to criticise her stitching, so she tore this robe! Right in front of my very eyes!  I honestly don't know where Father finds them.."  Lucilla did not smile back.  She stared, her face immobile, at her brother.  r   Then she spoke.
        "Brother, I saw everything." She sighed. " Vinca did not tear the robe. You did, with your blade.   I saw it all, so please do not attempt to insult my intelligence."   Her expression hardened.  I could scarcely believe it.  The Emperor's daughter, speaking in my defence!  I stood, opened mouthed, as Lucilla continued, "And another thing.  Many times, I have trusted Vinca with  the repair of my robes, and I have always found her work to be immaculate.  I would consider her to be one of the best handmaidens this Palace has to offer, if not the best.  So pardon me Brother, if  your accusations do not convince me."  She folded her arms, as if defying him to reply.  
        "But-but sister, she laughed at me!  it's obvious she hates me!  Such insolence! Just wait till I tell Father...after all, he's more likely to believe the word of his heir  than that of  a barbarian  ignoramus from some Gods-forsaken outpost!"  His imposing smile returned. "I'll..." Lucilla cut him off.  "Yes, brother, I am aware you are the heir to the throne, but you are forgetting that I am the elder sibling, and I am therefore fairly certain that my word, not yours, will win the day.  So go ahead Commodus, do your worst.  We'll see who Father believes."  Commodus visibly flinched.  It was  obvious his sister had touched raw nerves with her harsh words.  "Give me the robe, Vinca. I will present it to Hestia to stitch instead.  She has relatively little to doo this afternoon, and..."
Commodus groaned audibly.  "Oh surely sister, not that ham-fisted fool from Gaul!"  He was whining now, his expression defeated.
"It's your own fault, Commodus.  Come Vinca.  Let me find you something else to do.  I will send you on an errand, to the Forum, to purchase cosmetics for me."  I bowed and followed her.  As I walked away, I couldn't resist sneaking a look bback at the heir to the throne.  He was glaring after me with something resembling hatred, but there was more to it than I first thought.  He appeared puzzled, as if trying to digest the knowledge that he would never, try as he might, break me.   It was the same look he wore whenever he spoke of the Spanish gladiator and former general he despised with a passion, a couple of years later.
A week later, I was carrying a breakfast tray to Lucilla's quarters when a hand shot out of nowhere, grabbing me roughly.  It was Commodus.  He leaned close and snarled in my ear.  "You may have succeeded in making me look a fool in front of my sister this time," he hissed,  "but next time you won't be so fortunate!   So remember this Vinca,  I'll be watching you..."  I looked at him, and suddenly he lost interest. He dropped my arm.  "Now be off with you!" he sneered.   I continued to walk down the hall.  Mercifully, I hadn't dropped the tray.
Commodus didn't get the chance to exact his "revenge," as he no doubt thought of it, on me.  A little while later, he was called away to a school of swordsmanship on the Caelian.  I didn't see him again for almost two years.           

part  1    part 2