Domina, by Chris Bone and Paul L. Mathews
Flavia Graecina Flacus cast her gaze around the triclinium. This evening’s dinner party—and the smooth running thereof—was of the utmost importance. There were important guests to flatter and impress. Her friend the orator Furius, for example, was bringing some key players, including both the plebeian aedile candidate Titus Aufidius Orestes, and his father, the noble senator Gnaeus Aufidius Bassus. These were good men. No … great men. Men who could help her turn back the tide. She ground her teeth. Men who could do something to counter the rampant criminality and corruption that continued to drown Roman society.
Flavia closed her eyes, head bowed. And she knew all about criminality, didn’t she? And—as taught by dear Laelius, her very own husband—she’d learnt the hard way, had she not? It’s a tough school which teaches you your husband’s bakery is just a front, and that those hard men who used to visit her husband here at the villa were not bakers. She smiled. Desperation feeds naivety when all you want to believe is your husband is a good man in a good trade. And she’d been able to delude herself very effectively until the day he was brutally murdered by the men of the Hostilii clan, hadn’t she…?
She opened her eyes, glaring out through the triclinium’s bay door and out at the Aventine as it lay in the valley beyond her villa. Her naivety had ended there and then, she thought as he walked onto the balcony to study the Aventine, its insulae, squares and avenues basking in the evening sun. She was not stupid; it was obvious her husbands ‘bakers’ had established a brutal stranglehold of terror over the people of the Aventine. Everybody had heard the rumours, and yet she never questioned where all the money came from. She hung her head. Why would she? Why would anyone? It’s easy to turn a blind eye when your blindfold is woven with purple silk.
But now Laelius was dead, slaughtered—along with most of the bakers—in that dreadful bloodbath at the bakery. She inhaled deeply, back resolute and straight, shoulders back as she studied the Aventine. She blinked back what few tears moistened her eyes. She would not cry; she was too strong, too determined, and she had determined that she would only allow herself to weep once men like the Hostilii clan were driven not only from the Aventine, but from Rome itself. And driven away they would be. She had the tools. With Laelius’ fortune and businesses at her disposal—not to mention the able assistance of her loyal freedman, Diogenes—she could achieve anything. She smiled. Already the bloody profits of Laelius’ businesses had been reinvested in legitimate enterprise used to do good. Now, at last, the name of Flaccus was respectable, with free bread distributed to the poor via the bakery, and the medicus Menacrates—a friend of Diogenes—now established in a surgery adjacent to the Emporium; a surgery paid for and funded by Flavia, and in which Menacrates treated the sick and injured.
But there was still more to do, she thought as—wiping rogue tears from her eyes—she turned away from the Aventine and strode back into the triclinium. She appraised the cutlery and plates—set out just so—as walked by the dining table. The business of tonight’s dinner party was, for instance, to discuss the construction of a public bathhouse. Her most fervent hope was that this gift to the people would further wash away the filth of her husband’s nefarious deeds.
Satisfied the table was laid correctly, she clapped her hands and shouted, “Apicius!”
The sweating bulk of her cook shuffled into the hall, bowing his head in deference as he said, ”Domina?”
“Apicius,” she said, voice clipped and resonant, “You must excel in your culinary skills this evening. It is of the utmost importance that my guests be most impressed.”
“Indeed, Domina.” He bowed again, “I am preparing a masterwork.” Another bow. “The main attraction is to be a boar that I have created from pastry.” Yet another bow. “When you cut him open his entrails spill out…”
“Delightful,” murmured Flavia. “That’s quite enough bowing now, Apicus.”
“Thank you, Domina,” he said, bowing. “These entrails will, in fact, be the very best sausages, which I have been fortunate enough to procure from a most renowned butcher on the Forum Boarium.” He bowed, and Flavia wondered his head didn’t fall off. “He has a special—and most secret—recipe which he refuses to tell even me, his most earnest and long standing friend.”
“That is wonderful, Apicius. You are a culinary gem!” She considered asking him to cease his infuriating bowing once again but thought better of it. “And what is the name of this butcher so that I may recommend him to my guests?”
Alpicius' florid face burst into a proud grin. “Cruentus, Domina; his name is Cruentus.”