Word Count: 992
Pairings (if any): none
Summary: It's Claudia's favorite holiday, but this is the year she discovers not all is what it seems
Most mornings, Claudia dragged her blanket over her face and stuffed her pillow over her ears. Most mornings she groaned at every cock crow and whimpered at every stray ray of light. Some mornings she even waited until Listens to Thunder finally knocked at her door, or crouched by her bed to rub her gently on the back. “Come, Claudia. The day will be sad if you do not come out to greet it.”
Most mornings she hated to get out of bed, but not this morning. Today was Saturnalia!
Claudia flung the bed covers aside and tore off her sleep shirt, not even checking to see if Artur were still in the room or not. Rather than put on her usual tunic and trousers, she tugged on Teresa's old dress, a gift last year. It was a little tight across the shoulders and stopped well above her knees, but it was blue and soft and as Claudia galloped and tromped down the stairs, taking them two or three at a time, the soft blue fabric swayed this way and that. She was a nymph. She was Daphne, she was Hesperia, she was Atlanteia. Claudia came to a landing, swung around on the bannister, dress fluttering out behind her, and the floor was cold under her feet but nymphs didn't need shoes. She was Galatea, Panope, Xantho!
Even though she didn't have to milk the goats or dust or scrub floors or help prepare the evening meal, Claudia still stopped to say hello to the Penates. Today was special, so instead of corn oil she dribbled a little olive oil in the small basin in front of their statue. “Watch over us, Penates. Keep us safe, and guard the domus. Thank you, Penates, and remember that I'm the one who feeds you every day, so watch over me most of all.”
The kitchen was warm and inviting, and she could hear the Discipulae laughing long before she saw them. “Io, Saturnalia!” she crowed, jumping down from four steps up with a flourish. They all greeted her in return, Teresa and Elin and Maria and Juno. They were the ones cutting up vegetables and rolling oats, kneading bread dough and basting two big turkeys, while Avia Marcia sat in her rocking chair by the fire, feet up on a cushion, eyes closed as she petted dumb fat Felix, who purred and glared at them all at the same time.
“You look very pretty today, Claudia,” Teresa said, plucking the feathers off the little game hens that would be stuffed inside the turkeys. Teresa's voice was always mean and ugly, but today she sounded like she'd tried to dip it in honey, all syrupy-sweet and cloying. Claudia just grinned and curtseyed, and then she stuck her finger right in the cake batter and they couldn't say a thing to her, because it was Saturnalia.
Into the dining hall, and her seat was prepared at the high table, with a plush cushion so tall she had to hop to get on top. Aurelia and Grainne were waiting, bowls of olive oil already warm, soft towels and combs. Aurelia's mother was Aegyptian and her father Nubian, she knew how to oil and comb the coarse hair that she and Claudia both shared. Avia Marcia used to try and brush and braid Claudia's hair, before Aurelia came to the domus, but it had hurt, hurt dreadfully, and Claudia had made her quit. This didn't hurt at all, it was lovely, and Claudia let her head loll about on her neck and dozed, at least until the older girls brought her breakfast.
Claudia ate every last bit, every single bite of dried plums soaked in wine, tiny baby pigeons stuffed with cheese and salty olives, then breaded and fried, roasted tomatoes and potatoes and zucchini topped with peppers and spices, flaky pastries rolled in nuts and honey. Avia Marcia had made this food the night before, because none of the Discipuli really knew how to cook. They would eat their dinner tonight, everyone in the dining hall but the servants at the high table and the oldest students down at the little novice table, knees sticking up with nowhere to go. The food would be horrible, but they would try to eat it, laughing the whole time. Last year Appius had thrown up after trying to eat all the blood pudding, even though it was awful and no one else would touch it. They had all screamed with laughter, and little Hannibal had laughed so hard he'd fallen off his bench and sprained his wrist.
Aurelia and Grainne finished Claudia's hair, and she reached up to touch it, the hair nice and soft, a big fluffy cloud around her head. “Can we do anything else for you, Claudia?” Grainne asked, and Claudia shook her head, stuffed and warm and happy. “Enjoy your day off,” Grainne went on, and she smirked and giggled, then whispered something into Aurelia's ear.
Suddenly all the food in Claudia's stomach felt as heavy as a brick. The look in Grainne's eye was taunting as she skipped out of the dining hall. Were they all making fun of her, back in the kitchen? There goes the silly little orphan girl, thinking she's a queen, and she's nothing at all. Tomorrow she'll be back on her knees, cleaning up after our mess, right where she belongs.
Maybe Aurelia saw it on her face, because she pulled out the silk ribbon from her hair and tied it into Claudia's own. “Io, Saturnalia,” she whispered, kissing Claudia on the cheek.
Claudia sat by herself in the dining hall for awhile, until she was sure she wouldn't cry. No one was going to see her cry. Then she went back to her room and took off the dress, back into her regular clothes. She went out to milk the goats.
She left the ribbon in her hair, though.