What happens when the rug of your world has been completely ripped out from under you? Well, if you’re Sofia Domna, you plot your escape and thumb your nose at the people who’ve done this to you.
After Chapter Four’s bombshell of a betrothal and Chapter Five’s harsh truth of why Sofia’s father is doing his damnedest to get rid of her, in Chapter Six we find out that dear old dad isn’t being quite so upfront about why he suddenly wants his daughter as far from him as possible.
For those of you who are new to this game, each week I’m sharing a chapter from the first part my upcoming serialized historical fantasy novel. With a few random weeks off here and there for updates, we’ll actually be past the release date (9 January) before we get through this first installment of the six-part series.
Now, kick back, put your feet up, and enjoy a bit of reading. Oh, and if you need to, you can catch up with Chapters ONE, TWO THREE, FOUR, and FIVE. There’s also a description below if you’re curious about the book and this series.
Chapter 6 – The Dinner
Eventually, Saltia appeared at my side and guided me back to my rooms. As the late afternoon turned to evening, my mind rambled. I wouldn’t call it thinking, it was more like catching pieces of a conversation in the market when you’re not actively listening, but words still enter your ears. Likewise, I wasn’t actively trying to form a thought, I was too much a wreck for anything so organized as that, but snippets of ideas floated into, around, and out of my head. The cursed figurine. My father’s anger. My vanished hopes of being priestess. My divine parentage. My betrothal to someone I didn’t even know. My love for Papinias. My departure from Bendria—
These final two fragments joined together, melting into one another, and forming anew with enough strength to burst through the storm cloud that had settled on me. Papinias and I could leave Bendria. I had never considered this before because of my determination and ambition to serve Apollo. I’d never thought of leaving my home, except perhaps to visit other temples in my role as priestess. But with Bassio crushing my hopes for this career like a beetle under his sandal, what reason had I to stay?
With his training nearly complete, Papinias could easily find work as a traveling medic or we could settle down and set up a little clinic of our own somewhere. It wouldn’t matter because we’d be together. Let my father hunt me down in Portaceae or the Califf Lands. As head of my household, Bassio had every right to kill me if I disobeyed him, but he would have to catch me first. I could escape and start a new life. Sirius would just have to find another girl with a Seeing that suited his needs.
Saltia, returning from fetching a load of clean laundry, halted in the doorway and dropped her pile of folded linens. I only then realized my thoughts had left me grinning like a love-sotted fool.
“You’re feeling better?” she asked cautiously.
“Quite.” I went over and, after helping her with the linens, took her hands in mine. “You know I was only teasing earlier about Aryana. If you were my slave, if I inherited you, I would free you in an instant. No one should have to be bound where she doesn’t want to be.”
“Oh, Sofia, I would still serve you,” she said, pulling me into her arms for an embrace – a gesture a slave in most other households would be whipped for.
Relief washed over me. I had always hoped she would stay with me, free or not. As a sign of loyalty and gratitude, freed slaves often remained with their former masters after being manumitted. I would also imagine, if you served a person decent enough to free you, it would be safer to stick with his familiar habits than to learn those of another who may not treat you so fairly or kindly. Besides, in the rigid class system of Osteria, Saltia would still be of the lowest servine class and, unless she married above this, she would have a challenging time moving into any career that didn’t involve drudgery.
As I waited for guests to arrive, I studied a map and plotted. Money would be no problem. I had a substantial amount in my strongbox and, thanks to my mother’s will being drawn up under Bendrian law, I had inherited all her jewelry upon her death rather than upon turning eighteen as most Osterian wills mandated.
I traced my finger along the land route to Portaceae, capital and seat of government of Osteria. Papinias and I could stay in this bustling city or use it as a way to get to the sea route to the Califf Lands. Although Portaceae was north of Bendria and geographically further away from the Califf Lands, bandits plagued the roads south of Bendria’s borders. Crossing the Graveyard, the spot where the Col River met the Western Sea, was dangerous, but it was still safer than the roads south of my polis. Pretending it was Papi’s and my boat cutting through the water to our new home, I pushed a small stone along the map’s expanse of blue that represented the Western Sea.
I tried to decide which city would be better. The bayside city of Francisca was the Califf Land’s center of learning where Papinias and I could lose ourselves in books. I was strong enough in math and languages to tutor in these subjects. I had learned the art of star charts and taught myself herbal lore, but one had to be born a sorceress or apprenticed under one to set oneself up as a professional in the magical arts. Still, I knew enough to create a few simple potions, give unofficial readings, and even teach a few tricks to others. Regardless of what I taught, students would respect me and I would rule over my classrooms just as I would have ruled over Apollo’s temple. If we decided on Portaceae, Papinias could tend to and befriend politicians and lawmakers. Our home might be where events were decided and the future of Osteria debated. Pushing my stone around on the map, I saw a whole life of possibilities I’d never imagined.
When Kolos answered the knock at the door of our first guest, I was light enough with happy potential to skip down the stairs to the foyer. Even if it was Old Sirius himself, nothing could shake my new sense of anticipation. It wasn’t Sirius who received my first greeting, but an old friend of the family who beamed back at my radiant welcome.
Soon, more guests trickled in including my grandfather who was waylaid in his attempts to cross the vast reception room by people stopping him to chat. His eyes continually met mine and I could tell from his urgent gaze that he wanted to speak with me.
I assumed this would be an apology for my Seeing even though I couldn’t blame him for it. He and Bassio’s relationship had been strained ever since my mother’s death. It was as if each blamed the other for her loss: Grandfather blamed Bassio for not appeasing the gods, and Bassio blamed Grandfather for not seeing the illness coming that took so many people including Papi’s mother as well as mine. Grandfather possibly saw my false birthday prediction as a way to make amends; he couldn’t have known my father’s reasoning behind it, its consequences, nor how it would be linked to Sirius’s prophecy earlier that day.
Responding to his pleading expression, I hurried over to save my grandfather from one of the town merchants who would have bent his ear with chatter until dawn if I didn’t interrupt.
“I apologize, Gaius,” I said, resting my hand on my grandfather’s arm, “but I need to borrow this old soothsayer for a bit.”
Gaius said a quick goodbye then immediately began speaking to a man to his left as my grandfather pulled me to a corner to speak. “How are you holding up?”
“Fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Oh, darling girl, if I had known Bassio’s intentions, I wouldn’t have given in to him. I just—”
“It’s nothing. I’m over the shock.” I yearned to tell my grandfather my plan, but wouldn’t dare. If he knew nothing of my plot to flee Dekos, he couldn’t be blamed for not stopping me. The realization I might not see him again sent a sudden ache through my heart. No, I told myself, I would be with my grandfather. I would send for him the moment I settled down. “I just wish I could understand his anger. If my time with Papinias bothered him so much, why not just order me to stop?”
“You think that’s why he’s angry? Because of your relationship with Papinias?”
“It’s the excuse he gave.”
My grandfather gave an exasperated sigh and shook his head
“A year ago, your father went for a Seeing. Not from me. He doesn’t come to me. He went to a trio of sisters known for having excellent Sight. The Grey Sisters. Quite well known.”
“I remember he left Bendria for several days.” How could I forget? It was on one of those days that Papi and I first enjoyed one another in the olive grove. “The moment of his return his attitude toward me changed even though there’s no way he could have known about me and Papi.”
“No, he didn’t learn of that for months. The sisters told him a prophecy about you. That you and someone you love will enter his house and bring with you the destruction of the high priest of Bendria. He has been wondering what to do with you ever since. It’s my theory he believes by ripping you away from Papi that you will have no love, that by casting you out of Bendria so harshly, you won’t want to return.”
“Even if I did, he couldn’t kill my love for Papi.”
My grandfather was about to say something when movement across the room caught his attention. I turned to follow his gaze. A slave was pouring wine. His back was turned to us, blocking the view of whom he served, but when he stepped aside he revealed Papinias holding a full cup. My elation at seeing him died as quickly as a lamp put in a deluge.
“Father invited Papi?” Bassio had never invited Papinias to one of these dinners. In fact, he never spoke to Papinias or any of his family unless he was required to, and even then only muttered one or two terse sentences.
“I wouldn’t have thought Bassio so cruel. Papinias must been have invited here tonight to torment him with the news.”
“Papi probably thinks this dinner and his invitation means I’ve spoken to Father and he’s going to announce our betrothal. He wants Papi here to see him crushed.”
“I can see no other reason for the invitation. Don’t give him the satisfaction of watching your faithful friend’s hopes dashed. Go tell him what this dinner is about so he can prepare himself for the announcement. Let Papinias maintain his pride.”
My grandfather wished me luck then shuffled over to speak with a man at least two decades his senior who droned on as slow as honey drizzles from a jar in winter. I pushed through the crowd, using the excuse that I needed to check on the dinner preparations for my inability to stop and chat. Finally, after crossing what felt like half of Osteria, I was spit from the crowd and came face to face with Papinias. He smiled his roguish grin and as I met his hazel eyes, the bustle and hum of the room vanished.
“Imagine meeting you here,” he whispered in my ear.
As much as I wanted to flirt I had to tell him what was happening. The noise of chatter and clinking cups flooded back over me, as did my trepidation over what I had to tell him. I hated that I would hurt him, but my grandfather was right. Let Papi know now so he could be calm and collected when the announcement was made, not wallowing in despair or shouting with rage. Let us both be seen as the dignified victims in this play Bassio had written. I cursed my father again and pulled Papinias into the hallway, out of the way of the noises that were grating on my ears.
“Sofia, we can’t, not here—” he said in a tone that gave every indication he was perfectly willing to if I was.
“Hush,” I put my finger to his lips. I did want to. I wanted him worse than ever, but I needed to hurry before someone came looking for us. “Look, there’s going to be an announcement tonight, but don’t worry, I have a plan.”
“Speak plainly, Sofia.” His voice had gone grave.
“Father betrothed me to that idiot from the market. But he’s married already so I’m supposed to wait. But I’m not waiting for him. I’m not marrying him. I am still marrying you.” I tapped his chest with my finger. He closed the gap between us and I could have melted into him right there. I pushed him back, but only slightly. “We can run away together. Would you do that?”
“I would enter the depths of Hades’s Chasm to be with you.”
He bent his head down and pressed his lips to mine. I didn’t resist. Through my closed lids I sensed the hallway darken. I broke from the embrace and stepped back from Papi expecting to see Kolos or my grandfather, but it was the hawk-nosed companion of Sirius casting his shadow over us. I didn’t know how much he had heard, but I knew what he had seen. When I refused to look away or act ashamed over what he’d witnessed, he tilted his head farewell and slid back into the bustling reception room with a smug look on his face.
“I need to get back.” I squeezed Papi’s hand not wanting to let go. “Just remember, no matter what happens tonight, we will be together.”
I turned to get back to the crowd. Papi slackened his grip, letting our fingers linger as long as possible. Before the noise of the party filled my ears, Papi whispered a portion of the words from the traditional marriage ceremony: “Never shall the bond be broken.” I entered the reception room with a grin as broad and cheeks as warm as if I had succumbed to my desire.
* * *
Soon enough, the time came for the guests to file into the dining hall for a meal that would last several hours. I had no stomach for food and even less after I noticed the hawkish spy huddled in conversation with my scowling father and with Sirius who looked about as intelligent as the temple cats who liked to chase their own tails. Sirius patted my father’s arm and said something that brought smiles and nods from him. He then shook Sirius’s hand. My stomach churned in anger. Why couldn’t he treat Papinias with half the friendliness he showed this total stranger? Because of my mother’s infidelity? Because of some silly prophecy? My father had to know I’d never do anything to hurt him, regardless of how he was treating me.
As custom dictated, I sat to my father’s left at a table on a raised dais at the head of room. He didn’t object, but he also offered me no greeting. In one section of the dining hall, to honor Sirius who I learned was from Seattica, a few couches had been set up in the Seattican style of reclining while dining, but the majority of seating was at tables situated so the guests would face the high table. Trying not to be obvious, I glanced around the room, but couldn’t find Papinias’s table. Foolishly, I assumed Father would seat him as far from us as possible, but I misunderstood how far Bassio’s cruelty had advanced. He had placed Papinias and his father only two tables away – far enough for us to not be able to talk, but close enough for him to hear the announcement clearly and for my father to watch his face when the news was given.
Sirius sat across from me. I avoided talking to him unless I had to answer a direct question. Thankfully, the man seated to my right couldn’t get enough of his own voice and dominated the conversation at our table. The hawk-nosed man sat next to Sirius with a sneer on his face that only disappeared when he feigned a smile at one of Sirius’s comments.
Although I tried to avoid speaking with my betrothed, he introduced the man as his cousin Plautinius. The two men could not be more dissimilar. Even though I wanted to find no good in him, after several courses, I could see Sirius had the relaxed, confident demeanor Seatticans were known for; engaging eyes that encouraged people to speak with him (I will have to admit he did have pleasant eyes and his face did not look nearly so old as I wanted to believe); and an overall jovial and likable disposition – if you weren’t being forced to marry to him, that is.
His cousin, with his hard eyes and gash of a mouth, looked perpetually displeased. Having studied people all my life, I recognized him as someone who thrived on gossip and whose good side was as difficult to find as mongrel without fleas. He was one best avoided, but Sirius, blind as he was gullible, saw none of this and seemed to truly enjoy spending time with this surly man. With every one of Plautinius’s eye rolls and sneers, I was glad that after tomorrow I would never feel his shadow cast over me again.
Because the waiting for the dreaded declaration left me with no appetite, I merely picked my way through various courses of seared salmon, roasted vegetables, and braised beef. Bassio, on the other hand, was full of life, cheerful, even boisterous as if unable to contain his excitement over getting rid of me. Finally, a platter of wild rice seasoned with thyme and mushrooms was served. When everyone had received a portion, Bassio gave a little nod to Kolos. The announcement would come soon.
Relief that the waiting was over sent a wave of hunger through me. I wanted it over with. I wanted the news out and couldn’t wait for Bassio to witness Papinias’s poise and dignity. I rushed through my serving, but everyone else, full from the previous courses, nibbled the savory grains with agonizing sluggishness.
Finally the plates were cleared. We had only my beautifully decorated lavender cakes left to get through. Despite their full bellies, people’s eyes darted with anticipation to the edges of the room where slaves stood holding trays filled with squares of the decadently scented dessert. My father rose to make his speech and clanged a fork on a glass to divert our guests’ attention from the sweets. Sirius looked so pleased I thought his smile would engulf his face. If I believed that smile was truly for me and not for some falsified prediction, I could have almost contemplated Sirius as a kind and doting husband. Mostly, though, I just thought he was a fool.
“Everyone, friends, I have an announcement,” Bassio said in his temple voice, the voice that had enough depth and resonance to be heard beyond the temple portico even if he stood to the very back of the building. “My daughter is sixteen and as such is ready to marry. I have been presented with many choices.” I wondered what these were. Were there other men he had considered selling me off to or was it a choice between Sirius and banishing me from Bendria to fend for myself? “But I have thought on this long and hard and have decided she will marry the magistrate Sirius Verus of Seattica.”
A hushed silence fell over the room interspersed with a few belches. More than a few jaws gaped open and many reached for their cups of wine to cover up their shocked expressions. These people knew me. They surely expected the name of my betrothed to be Papinias. Now they had to absorb that their high priest was marrying his daughter off to a stranger who wasn’t even a Bendrian.
I glanced up at my father to see how he was taking their reactions. His gaze was fixed on Papinias, no doubt hoping to see my lover’s face fall in grief or perhaps even see tears of anguish. But my warning kept my father from being satisfied in this regard. Knowing him as I did, I could detect the tension in Papi’s lips, but he sat with a calm smile on his face and even raised his cup in a toast to my father. Papi must have alerted his father as well because he also sat with a pleased, albeit taut, expression on his face. The corners of my lips twitched up slightly at my minor coup over my father. I then fixed a serene look on my face hoping all would notice how well I handled this indignity. “Once married, she shall move to wherever the good Solon Candus places Sirius.”
Murmurs of complaint and confusion buzzed across the room. Casting me off to a foreigner was one thing, but these people had seen me train alongside my father, had watched me perform the rites like an acolyte, had consulted with me in matters of the gods when my father was busy. Even they expected me to be priestess, even they felt my life being pulled away from me like a market trickster yanking a cloth from under a tableful of dishes. I held my head high, but cast my eyes down demurely. I must appear proud but humble, loyal but betrayed.
Plautinius initiated the applause with a few slow, emphatic claps of his long hands. The room filled with others doing the same, but as I glanced up I saw not everyone in the hall followed suit and some people were getting up to leave.
My father nodded his head in acceptance of the lifeless congratulations then returned to his seat, snapped his fingers, and invited everyone to enjoy the lavender cakes. Thankfully, my chatty neighbor resumed his talk as if nothing odd had occurred, as if he couldn’t sense the unease that filled the hall. His prattling distracted me, giving me something to focus on.
As the guests filed out, I couldn’t escape Sirius’s attention. His cousin was behind him and my father loomed next to me certainly waiting for some tone of insolence toward my betrothed. He reminded me of a schoolmaster watching over two children who didn’t get along but were being forced to apologize to one another, as if he had to keep an eye on us or we would come to blows. I refused to give him the satisfaction of scolding me and remained cordial to my unwanted fiancée. When Papi strode past us, he made a face with crossed eyes and twisted mouth. Only I caught it and had to bite my cheek to keep from laughing. Sirius must have noticed my eyes wander and glanced over his shoulder. He and Papinias nodded a greeting to one another before my love disappeared into the night.
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I’d love to hear your thoughts (and if you caught any typos, do let me know). Chapter 7 will be rolling around next Wednesday and it might also be time for a little book release news. See you then!
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Domna – Part One, The Sun God’s Daughter
As a realm teeters on the verge of rebellion anything is possible, except one woman’s freedom to choose her fate.
Sofia Domna has her future planned. She will follow in her father’s footsteps and lead the Temple of Apollo. She’ll marry her childhood love, Papinias. She’ll have respect, status, and power.
So when her father bitterly forces her betrothal to a stranger and orders her from the life she’s always known, Sofia is thrown into a new world where any wrong move could mean her demise.
Refusing to give up her home, her future, and her love, Sofia immediately plans her escape, but she soon learns exactly how cruel destiny and the people surrounding her new husband can be.
Set in a world brimming with political turmoil and violent ambition, Domna is a six-part serialized novel that tells the tale of Sofia Domna, a woman whose destiny is abruptly changed when she reprimands the wrong man.
As Sofia’s life moves through the trials of a forced marriage, motherhood, and yearning temptation, she learns that destiny isn’t given; it’s made by cunning, endurance, and, at times, bloodshed.
If you like the political intrigue, adventure, and love triangles of historical fiction by Philippa Gregory and Bernard Cornwell, and the mythological world-building of fantasy fiction by Madeline Miller and Simon Scarrow, you’ll love Domna.
Domna is a six-part serialized novel. Each part will be released in four-week intervals. The titles include: