Her whole world was orange.
Shifting her head to one side, feeling the weight of the veil, hearing it rustle, her eyes strained to focus through the fine weave.
Orange. The vegetable smell of the dye had been faint when she first donned the wedding veil, but now its scent filled her nostrils and mouth, the cloth pressing against her face as she walked to where the guests were waiting.
The atrium was crowded. So many people. Shaking, legs unsteady, Caecilia found she needed to lean against her Aunt Aurelia. Through the haze of the veil she could barely make out the faces of the ten official witnesses or that of the most honored guest, the chief pontiff of Rome.
And she could not see Drusus. Perhaps he could not bear to witness her surrender.
“Stand straight, you’re too heavy,” hissed her aunt, pinching the girl’s arm.
Biting her lip, Caecilia was led forward. The groom stood before the wedding altar, ready to make the nuptial offering. Her Uncle Aemilius smiled broadly beside him.
Aunt Aurelia, acting as presiding matron, deposited her charge with a flourish, then fussed with the bride’s tunic. She was reveling in the attention and smiled vacuously at her guests, but the girl was aware that, for so crowded a room, silence dominated.
Drawing back her veil, Caecilia gazed upon the stranger who was to become her husband. To her surprise, his black hair was close-cropped and he was beardless. She was used to the long tresses of the men of Rome—and their odor. This man smelled differently; the scent of bathwater mixed with sandalwood clung to his body.
Head bowed, she tried in vain to blot out his existence no more than a handbreadth from her side, but she need not have bothered. He made no attempt to study either her face or form.
“The auspices were taken at sunrise,” declared Aemilius. “The gods confirm the marriage will be blessed.”
Bride and groom sat upon chairs covered with sheepskin and waited while the pontiff offered spelt cake to Jupiter.
There was a pause as they stood and circled the altar, then the priest signaled Aurelia to join the couple’s hands.
Caecilia wished she could stop shaking. She had to be brave. She had to be dignified. But her body would not obey her. She was still quaking when Aurelia seized her right hand roughly and thrust it into the groom’s.
The warmth and strength of his grip surprised her. Her palm was clammy and it occurred to her that her hand would slip from his grasp. Slowly, she turned to face him. He was old; lines of age plowed his forehead and creased his eyes. He must be nearly two score years. What was he like, this man? Her husband?
Aware that she should be making her vows to him in silence, she instead prayed fervently that the gods would take pity and not make her suffer too long or too hard in his keeping.
His hand still encompassed hers. Before releasing her fingers, he squeezed them slightly, the pressure barely perceptible. She held her breath momentarily, amazed that the only mark of comfort she had received all day had been bestowed upon her by a foe.
She scanned his face. His eyes were dark and almond-shaped, like the hard black olives from her aunt’s pantry. His skin was dark, too, sun dark. A jagged scar ran down one side of his nose to his mouth.
He was far from handsome.
His toga and tunic were of a rich dark blue making all stare at him for a difference other than his race. Yet his shoulders were held in a martial pose, no less a man for his gaudiness, it seemed, than the Roman patricians around him in their simple purple-striped robes. And the bridal wreath upon his head could have been a circlet of laurel leaves, a decoration for bravery, not nuptials.
A golden bulla hung around his neck, astounding her. For a man did not wear such amulets once he’d stepped over the threshold to manhood. Only children wore such charms in Rome. He wore many rings, too, but one in particular was striking. Heavy gold set with onyx. No Roman would garland himself with so much jewelry.
There was one other thing that was intriguing, making her wonder if his people found it hard to bid farewell childhood. His arms and his legs seemed hairless, as if they had been shaven completely.
Perfumed, short-cropped hair, no beard. Caecilia truly beheld a savage.
Once again she steeled herself, repeating silently: “I am Aemilia Caeciliana. Today I am Rome. I must endure.”
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