Love, Eternally
Author:Morgan O'Neill

chapter 7

Gigi had no idea how she’d gotten off the palace grounds without being stopped. Despite being breathless with fear, she held herself together and somehow forced an appearance of outward calm. Head held high, she clutched her flute and boldly walked past the guards as if she owned the place.

Once off the grounds, she joined a group of pedestrians on Ravenna’s main thoroughfare, the Via di Roma. But, when a troop of Roman soldiers suddenly marched into view, fear spiked and she darted down a back street. She had no idea where she was going, yet her sense of survival remained paramount, her thoughts crystal clear. Placidia. She had to find her.

To her dismay, she ended up in an area near the canals and docks, obvious by the fishy smell. A princess would never live anywhere near here. Fully aware she’d chosen the wrong direction, she headed down another street.

The next block held a crowded fish market, the next a road bordered by rickety shacks. Wrong — and wrong. Gigi had to find a way out of this place. She didn’t dare stop and catch her breath, until she rounded the corner of a tumbledown shack and came face-to-face with a woman dumping a bucket of slop into the gutter.

The woman’s startled expression twisted to a scornful sneer as she gave Gigi the once-over. Her gaze hesitated on the flute, but then she scowled again. “Be gone, slut,” she uttered as she headed back to the shack.

Gigi looked down at herself and realized she didn’t have her palla. That omission, along with her revealing silk gown and golden flute, would attract the same kind of attention wherever she went — and had, in fact, as she recalled the sidelong glances she’d received on her way to this dead end. She needed a disguise.

“Please, sister,” Gigi called out, “may I, er, would you be willing to give me a good, practical dress? I’ll make you a deal; this gown, so luxurious, for something like what you’re wearing now. This silk is very fine and expensive.”

The woman turned and stared at Gigi, her expression cold.

Gigi fought her rising panic. She had to get new clothes. What was going to sway this woman? “Please, I am tired of my old life,” she tried again. “I have no more need of this and want to return to my mother. She would be shocked if she saw me like this.”

When the woman’s gaze wavered, Gigi sensed she’d struck a chord. “Please, allow me some measure of decency, for my mother’s sake, when I return home.”

She gauged Gigi once more, then, with a nod, motioned her inside. Gigi felt a surge of relief as she stepped over the threshold. The single room was humble and sparely furnished, but clean. An infant slept in the midst of a pallet bed in the far corner.

The woman pointed to some clothing hanging on a peg. “This is all I have.”

“Thank you.” Gigi took everything and quickly changed. She tucked the flute under her waistband, concealing it beneath a coarse palla, then wrapped her hair in a scarf. With a smile, she handed over her silk gown. “You have saved me. Thank you so much.”

Gigi was about to rush out when the woman touched her arm. “Your painted face,” she cautioned. “Your mother would not approve of it, either. Some olive oil should get it off, and your arms, something should be done about those. Here.” She poured oil from a bottle onto a cloth, dabbed at Gigi’s eyes and lips, then pulled out the splinters and bathed her scrapes with a mixture of honey and wine. She stood back, nodding her approval. “You look respectable now. Go on then, go home to your mother.”

Wishing she could, tears sprang to Gigi’s eyes and she looked over at the sleeping baby swathed in rags. Guilt swept over her. What was this woman going to do with a silk gown? Make pillows? She obviously couldn’t afford giving up her things, but then Gigi had an idea.

Pulling out the mesh bag, she removed her ring from the gold necklace. “Here,” she said, placing the chain in the woman’s hand. “Take this and care for your child.”

“What? No, it’s not necessary — ”

“It’s yours,” Gigi folded the woman’s fingers around it. “I insist.”

“But … thank you so much, sister,” she stammered, eyes wide in disbelief. “Thank you. God bless you.”

Gigi hugged her and quickly left the little home, pulling the palla up over her scarf, yet another layer of protection from prying eyes.

The town appeared more prosperous beyond the canal area. Still, she kept her head down and didn’t look around. Finally, coming across a bustling open market, Gigi slipped into the crowd, searching for someone who could give her directions to Placidia’s palace, without arousing suspicion.

She’d been to several markets with the other slaves, but not this one, and, thankfully, no one looked familiar. Who would know where the princess lived? Probably most people, but how could she formulate the question without drawing attention to herself?

She moved on to a square teeming with merchants’ booths. Just as she was about to ask for directions, imperial guards moved through the crowd, questioning people. Alarmed, she turned aside, pretending to be interested in melons heaped on a cart, and her presence went unnoticed.

Gigi cautiously watched the soldiers until they left the square, then took off in the opposite direction. Now where could she go? Where did she dare go? Still clutching her palla and looking down, she forced herself to walk slowly, calmly, hoping that to all eyes she was just a modest woman on a stroll.

Suddenly, she heard shouting down the road. More soldiers! And they were heading her way, chasing someone.

You can’t let them see you! She ducked into a shadowy alley. Moving as fast as she dared, Gigi dodged barrels, boxes, and several stray cats before she reached daylight and another town square. This one was huge and bordered by leafy plane trees. Small groups of people strolled here and there, not the multitudes she’d seen elsewhere. She looked around to get her bearings and then froze.

The baptistery stood to her right, not twenty feet away.

A bell pealed in the distance, rousing her. Go on! This is your chance! And, and you have your flute! If you play, then maybe … maybe …

As she moved toward it, she noticed that the baptistery looked newer and taller than it had before she’d time traveled, but its octagonal design was unmistakable. At ground level, the ancient door loomed before her. Her breath came in short bursts and her fingers trembled. She reached out and yanked on the latch, but it refused to budge.

Damn it! She lost it and banged on the door, frantic to get inside. “Please, someone open up, please! I want to go home!”

The door opened and a man poked his head out. “What are you doing?”

At the same moment, another man grabbed her from behind and pulled her away, babbling excuses to the doorman and hissing in her ear. “Sister, this place is not for us. Don’t be a fool. The emperor would have your head if he saw you pounding on the door like that. This is the royal baptistery.”

Gigi tried to twist out of his grasp, but the fellow jerked her around and shook her. “Sister, stop this madness at once.”

She wanted to scream. “No, I need to get inside,” she insisted.

“Sister! This is the emperor’s personal baptistery and not for the people’s use. I tell you this,” he warily glanced at the door, “at the risk of my life. Please, come away, before he …”

The fear in his eyes gave Gigi pause, and she realized if she continued the doorman would sound the alarm.

“For the love of God, sister, desist.”

She stared at him, her shoulders sagging. By the look of his robe, he was a priest of some sort. Behind her, the baptistery door shut with a boom, the man gone back inside. Disheartened, Gigi realized now was not the time, this was not the way.

Shocked by how she’d lost control, Gigi forced her scrambled mind to think. “Forgive me, Father,” she looked at the door, wondering if the man inside was still there, listening, “I’m sorry to have troubled you. I’ll be on my way.”

“That would be for the best.” The holy man let go of her arm. “My parish is on the Via Porta Gaza, and we have a baptistery, if that is what you seek.”

“I understand, Father. Thank you. Goodbye.”

“God be with you.”

Gigi could sense his eyes following her every move until she turned right at the next street and left his line of sight. She felt drained, lost — stupid even — and so alone.

No. She halted and looked at the sky, blue as Magnus’s eyes. You are not alone. He had changed everything with those words, giving her hope in her darkest moments, the will to fight — and live.

What had she almost done back there? Shattered, she leaned against a wall, recognizing that if her plan involving the baptistery had worked out, she would have left Magnus behind and … then what?

She would have had her old life back.

No! Gigi suddenly realized she would rather take her chances here with Magnus than return home. The thought of leaving him seemed impossible. She had never felt this way about anyone before. It pained her to abandon her parents, but maybe, someday, she could figure out a way to let them know what had happened.

She looked down at herself, finding her hand pressed to her heart. “Magnus,” she whispered, “I love you.” The words echoed in her thoughts, giving her strength.

The sun had dropped behind a two-story building. Gigi stood staring at the long shadows cast upon the road, the afternoon almost gone.

She let her hand linger a moment more, feeling her heart race with the danger of her plans. But she fixed her thoughts on a final outcome, the only one that mattered, and she was suddenly thankful the baptistery hadn’t worked out.

• • •

Gigi wandered around Ravenna. To her frustration, she still had no clue as to the location of Placidia’s palace. The city was coming alive with the evening rush, when people headed out for supper. Kitchens, it seemed, were the luxury of the privileged few. Average citizens took their meals at little eateries scattered all over town.

Walking on, she took great care not to draw attention to herself. Keeping her gaze at a modest, downward angle, Gigi tried to act casual as she listened to snippets of conversation. Mostly, people talked about their day or what they planned to eat — or, more ominously, about the latest news: a female slave’s assault on the emperor and subsequent escape. By the time she reached another busy intersection, she felt quite desperate about her chances — until she heard someone bragging, a conversation that had potential.

“I have been hired to do tile work for the senator,” one man said to another. “He has excellent taste, which is why he chose my work over that of the Greek.”

Nervous, but determined, Gigi stepped closer. “Excuse me, friend,” she said, affecting as much boldness in her tone as she could muster, “are you hired for the home of Senator Magnus? Quintus Pontius Flavus Magnus? This is unfortunate news, for my sister’s husband was to do that work, so I heard.”

“No, no,” he replied curtly. “I will be working for Senator Attalus, not Magnus — ”

“Oh, I see,” Gigi interrupted. “Does Attalus have the splendid home across from Galla Placidia’s residence?”

He snorted. “Woman, you are utterly misinformed. The princess lives in a grand villa in Caesaria, in the pinetum. Even Attalus cannot afford such luxury. Now be off with you. You are interrupting me with your nonsense.”

“My apologies. I was indeed rash and misinformed.”

In her excitement, Gigi nearly stumbled as she bobbed a curtsey and hurried away. She knew enough of Ravenna to realize at some point she’d have to go north to find the pine forest, but she had no idea which streets would take her there. Keeping the setting sun to her left, she continued until she saw the town’s main gates.

Nerves still raw, she drew closer and saw a sign reading, “Porta Serrata.” The northern gate. Roman soldiers studied the faces passing through the archway. Her heart raced. Were they looking for her?

Gigi fell in with a group of plainly dressed women. The huge gate loomed before her, and she gulped back her fear as she walked into its shadow. One, two, three steps … you’re almost through … four, five, six … keep your head down … don’t look anyone in the eyes.

Coming out of the shadows felt liberating, the dwindling sunshine now slanted and golden-pink. Gigi kept walking with the women until she sensed the soldiers were well behind her.

She was officially outside Ravenna. This area was cleaner and more upscale. In the distance she saw a walled estate and pines. Caesaria. Did she dare ask for directions again?

A stout woman wearing a crimson palla drew near, ushering some well-dressed children.

Smiling, Gigi raised her hand in greeting and said, “Sister, I have a delivery for the villa of Galla Placidia, but I’m not certain of the way.”

“Follow this road until you reach a home of whitest marble. That is Placidia’s residence. You’ll see guards at the door, and they can direct you to the delivery entrance.”

“Thank you.”

Moving on, trying not to run, Gigi finally caught sight of the villa’s beautiful façade. Its walls were bathed in the pink glow of sunset. The effect was warm and inviting —

Honorius’s thugs! Gigi stopped short, eyeing their double-edged axes. The place was crawling with them. Did they know she was heading for Placidia’s? Were they waiting for her?

She backed away, then leaned against the courtyard wall. Closing her eyes, she gulped air, wondering what she should do. She glanced up, but the wall was too high to climb over. There was no other way in. Okay, I’m a peasant, a nothing. They won’t even give me a second thought — with any luck.

Once again, she drew her palla close and approached the men. “I, I have a delivery for the princess,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady.

The nearer guards gave her the once over, then one smiled. “Go through the gate at the corner of the building. Follow the path, and you’ll find the office of the palace steward along the way. His name is Leontius.”

In moments, Gigi stood in a small, sparsely decorated office. A fat, bald man was sitting at the room’s only desk, studying papers by the light of a lone candle.

“State your business,” he said, not bothering to look up.

“Are you the steward? Leontius? I’ve been sent to meet with Placidia,” Gigi said, hoping she sounded believable.

He glanced at her, scowling. “I am Leontius, but you are a fool if you think I would let such a common girl bluff her way past me. Get out. Your assertion is absurd. Go away before I summon the guards.”

“I’m telling the truth.” Gigi stood her ground and glared at him. “I must see Placidia immediately. I was ordered to meet with her.”

“You were sent, ordered, you say?” the overseer asked with sarcasm. “Who would send a common, dirty peasant? Who — ?”

“Senator Quintus Pontius Flavus Magnus,” Gigi replied. “It is a private matter. He insisted I speak directly with Placidia.”

The moment she’d said Magnus’s name, the overseer’s eyes widened, then he peered hard, scrutinizing her. “Your name?” he asked as he stood up and walked around to the front of the desk.

“My name is not important. Magnus told me to speak to Placidia — only Placidia.”

“He did, did he?” Leontius cleared his throat. “Hmmm, weeks ago, before he left, he mentioned he might be sending a special package to Placidia while he was away, and that I was not to ask questions, but demand a signal. I should say … you are an unexpectedly interesting package. Have you anything — a signal, perhaps? — to prove your assertion?”

Gigi was tired, scared, and in no mood for games. Should she show him the ring? But Magnus had insisted she reveal it to no one but Placidia. She tried another, bolder tack. “I doubt he’d appreciate either your questions, or your delays.”

Gigi waited. She’d struck a chord, if his terse expression was any indication.

“I repeat,” he said quietly, “have you anything to prove your assertion?”

Biting her lip, Gigi considered her dwindling options. There was no choice, she conceded, so she withdrew her mesh pouch from beneath her clothing. Opening it, the ring tumbled into her hand, and she held it out to Leontius. The garnet caught the candlelight and flashed red as fire.

The steward sucked in his breath. “Aha!” he said, then snapped his fingers. “Come with me.”

He took off without a second glance, leading her through a maze of storerooms crowded with barrels, crates, and busy workers, until they reached an open-air atrium, its garden surrounded by a colonnade of archways.

“Come, come, we haven’t all day,” he said, looking back with a frown.

Despite his impatience, Gigi held back a little. A cool breeze wafted into the atrium, pine and ocean scents deliciously mingling. Servants were lighting candles to chase away the shadows of the coming night. She followed the steward up a flight of stairs, then entered a great hall. The walls were decorated with seascape frescoes, the floor an intricate mosaic of dolphins diving through waves.

Magical. Inviting. An image came to mind of Honorius’s bedroom, with its walls covered in porn. Magnus had been right; Placidia was nothing like her brother.

A door of carved wood stood at the end of the hall. “Please, sister,” the overseer said from over his shoulder, “what is your name? I will announce you to Placidia.”

“It’s not important. Just tell her Magnus sent me.”

She waited while he rapped on the door with his foot and entered. In a few moments, he returned, motioned her inside, then took his leave with a bow.

Gigi hesitated, gazing through the open door. The room was oval in shape, the floor made of polished, purple marble, and she could see a balcony on the far side with a sweeping view of the Adriatic. Taking an appreciative breath of the salt air, she glanced at the darkening eastern sky and the deep-blue sea, ringed with waves of pearly froth.

She stepped into the room. A girl with black hair sat with her back to Gigi, writing by candlelight at a desk. An older woman with white hair stood nearby, gazing out at the gathering night, then turned and frowned at Gigi.

“I am, er, Senator Magnus said … ” Gigi faltered, suddenly feeling like she’d been sent to the principal’s office.

The girl rose and faced Gigi. Placidia. Her large, dark eyes glimmered with intelligence.

“Please, come forward. I am Aelia Galla Placidia,” she said. “Magnus usually sends a note or one of his men. Never a pretty woman. How may I help you?”

Gigi curtseyed and glanced up at the mosaic ceiling glittering in the candlelight. Hundreds of golden stars were strewn across a field of royal blue, a crescent moon at its center. So, Placidia’s mausoleum wasn’t the only place with such a ceiling. The sound of Grand-père’s voice came back to her, softly singing “Night and Day.” Now she understood the inspiration for the song. It was undeniable. “Night and Day” — she wanted to play the tune right then — and she hoped, like the song said, Placidia would be the one; in this case, the one who could protect her.

“So beautiful,” she whispered.

“As was your flute playing,” Placidia said, smiling. “I remember it — and you — from the baptistery. That was indeed a mysterious evening, was it not?”

Gigi flinched, then caught herself. Better to steer the conversation away from her appearance there. “Magnus sent me with a message he insisted be heard by you alone. I don’t mean to be presumptuous or rude to the lady,” she glanced at the older woman, “but those were his explicit instructions.”

“She must stay,” Placidia said easily. “You’ll understand that for safety’s sake, I am never left alone. Magnus would know this, of course, and he would also know Elpidia is loyal to me and I trust her with my life. What is your name?”

“My name is Geneviève Perrin. My friends call me Gigi. Gigi Perrin.”

Placidia disguised her shock well, but Elpidia gasped. She whispered something to the princess and backed away.

“Your unusual name is certainly known to me,” Placidia said, “because of what happened today at the palace. Word travels fast, gossip even faster. I’m sure you are aware, at this very moment, soldiers are searching the streets for a woman in a golden gown, one who assaulted the emperor, one who is named Gigiperrin.”

“Is that why they’re outside now?” Gigi asked in fear. She backed away a little, shaking, remembering their axes.

Placidia and Elpidia stared hard at her.

“No,” Placidia said, “those men are the palatini guards. They belong to Honorius, that much is true. However, they are not in place to keep others out, but rather to keep me in. The emperor fears I will bolt before I am wed.” She shook her head. “But that does not concern you.”

Elpidia cleared her throat. “A man without honor sees no honor in anyone else. The princess would be justified if she did flee, but she has not.”

Placidia merely smiled at this, then waved her hand toward Gigi’s plain dress. “It seems you are quick on your feet. I should imagine your golden gown is stashed in some dark crevice or lying at the bottom of a canal. I must admit … I did not connect the name Gigiperrin with that of the mystifying flutist, nor would I have suspected violence in a musician. Is the gossip true? Did you attack my brother?”

Nodding, Gigi looked away. “I had a good reason. I received a message, supposedly from Magnus, saying he wanted to see me. When I got to the palace, your brother was waiting. He tried to rape me.”

The princess put her hand to her mouth. “Merciful Lord, is he really so depraved?” She glanced at Elpidia. “I’m sorry, so sorry my brother did this to you.”

“Magnus said if I were ever in trouble, I must find you.” Gigi heard her voice rise in desperation. “Please, you’re my only hope. He said you would protect me.”

“What?” Placidia looked startled. “Magnus must value you beyond his own life, for I never heard him express such … never mind, we shall shelter you for as long as necessary. See to it, Elpidia, after we are done here.”

After casting a sober look at Gigi, Elpidia bowed to Placidia.

Placidia showed Gigi to a couch and poured a glass of wine, then bade her drink. Gigi gratefully took it, savoring its fruity warmth. Feeling somewhat restored, she explained in greater detail what had happened. She was relieved to see the princess laugh when she admitted kicking Honorius.

“Ah, my brother is much deserved of your … attentions.” Placidia shook her head, stifling her mirth. “Magnus has certainly put much upon my shoulders. But do not worry, you had no other place to go and I am well able to keep you safe. My people are loyal unto death, so no word of you shall travel beyond these walls.”

“Thank you,” Gigi said, relieved.

“But … forgive me, because I must ask,” Placidia flushed, “for proof of Magnus’s support. You must understand my need for precautions. What you ask of me could put us all in grave danger.”

Gigi fumbled for the golden pouch, drawing it from beneath her clothing. She took out the ring and held it forth, so Placidia could see it clearly. “Magnus said I was to show you this … that you would understand.”

Placidia’s eyes grew wide and Elpidia gasped.

“God Almighty,” the princess exclaimed. “When Leontius said he believed he recognized it, I thought him mistaken, but as to my understanding … hardly. How did you — it is Magnus’s ring! The one given him by my father, so long ago. How did you come by it?”

“Magnus’s ring?” Gigi replied, confused. “No. He knows I have it, but it’s not his. My grandfather owned it for years and just recently passed it to me in his will.”

“But of course it is his ring,” Placidia insisted, approaching and looking more closely. “My father commissioned only one, this very ring, in honor of Magnus’s prowess and leadership in battle. It is how he came to be called Magnus.”

Gigi could only stare at the princess. Then, slowly, the story she remembered her grandfather telling and retelling came to mind, and she realized the enormity of what she held.

“My grandfather was visiting Italy, er, Italia, just after the war, looking for trinkets, coins mostly, things to sell in his antiques shop. He bought it from a construction worker who said he’d found it and pocketed it during a road project, somewhere in the south, I think.”

“But Magnus lost it during the Battle of Pollentia, in the north.” Placidia frowned. “It matters not where or how the ring came to your grandfather. What good fortune! It is no wonder Magnus values you as he does. He has felt abandoned by her — his Goddess Victoria — and now he must believe she has sent you here. No wonder you are so precious to him.”

Gigi looked at the ring. All thoughts of its twisting journey through time vanished as her mind plunged into uncertainty. Is that all Magnus cared about? The ring? Suddenly, she felt more alone than she had in weeks.

Her energy sapped, Gigi gathered her frazzled nerves and spoke again, her voice flat. “I guess it’s his ring. He knew you would recognize it, obviously, knew you would protect it … for him.”

Placidia keenly searched Gigi’s expression. “Had he wanted simply to protect the ring, he would have reclaimed it and left you to your fate. How long has he known you possess it?”

“I don’t know, weeks maybe.”

“And Magnus never told you it belonged to him? Never asked for its return?”

“No, he just said to keep it safe, and he would watch over me when he could, and that you would protect me if he could not.”

Placidia raised her eyebrows at Elpidia, then smiled and took Gigi’s hand in hers. “Then let not your heart be troubled. The ring means a great deal to him, certainly, but he must think the world of you if he vowed his protection — and let you keep the ring besides. By sending you here, he took an enormous risk, for it could spell much trouble for us all, even death, if his plans are found out. Indeed, he must think the world of you, my dear, he must.”