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Out of the Waters: Chapter Four
Last updated: Monday, May 16, 2011 21:31 EDT
Pulto was part of the rear guard, chatting in German with a footman who had been born in the Quadrilateral between the Upper Rhine and Upper Danube, but Corylus walked beside Varus in the middle of the procession. His expression must have caught his friend’s eye in the torches which the linkmen carried.
Varus looked concerned and asked, “Is something wrong, Publius?”
“Nothing at all,” Corylus said. He gestured to the twenty-odd servants ahead of them–as many followed–and explained, “In the cantonments, a procession like this at night would be the Camp Police, is all. So I guess part of me is expecting some drunk to fling a wine bottle at us–or a chamber pot, to tell the truth.”
“We’re far more civilized here in Carce,” Varus said, relaxing into a smile. “A poor man might be set on and robbed, but we of the better classes travel in perfect ease and security. Unless we slip on the paving stones and fall on our backs, as I’ve been known to do.”
Two linkmen and two servants with cudgels led the entourage, singing about a girlfriend who had run off with a trapeze artist and now performed with him. This version was rather tamer than what Corylus had heard sung on the Danube, where the lyrics dwelt on the endowments of the acrobat which had lured the errant girlfriend away.
The song was to warn away footpads, drunks, and any poor citizen who happened to be sharing Orbian Street with them tonight and didn’t want a crack on the head. Corylus had learned quickly that in Carce, rich men’s escorts had a rough-and-ready way with potential dangers to those they were protecting.
“Manetho?” Varus called to the steward walking a pace ahead of his master. “We’ll go in through the back garden. I expect my father’s clients will be clogging the front entrance for hours yet after the–”
He paused. Corylus knew why, but the servants probably thought nothing of it.
“–the success, that is, of his mime.”
“As your lordship wishes,” Manetho said. He trotted forward, though the men in front had probably heard the command without it needing to be relayed.
Pandareus had insisted on going home on his own to his tiny apartment off the Sacred Way. He’d insisted he would be in no danger because he had many years of dodging trouble at night in Carce.
No doubt that was true, but Corylus still wished that Varus had succeeded in getting their teacher to accept a couple husky servants to convey him. Marmots had a great deal of experience foraging on grassy Alpine meadows, but eagles still caught their dinners.
One of the linkmen waited at the mouth of the alley as a marker, while his partner and the cudgel-bearers turned down it. From the near distance ahead a deep voice boomed, “Who’s there?”
“Keep your tunic on, Maximus!” the linkman said.
“Both of you pipe down!” said Manetho. “Let’s not embarrass the consul in his own home, shall we? He’ll be meeting in his office with the leading men of the Republic right now.”
“That isn’t how I would have described my father’s clients,” Varus said, leaning close to Corylus. Even so his voice was barely audible. “But I suppose it sounds better than ‘feckless parasites’.”
“Well, I’m sure they’re the leading feckless parasites,” Corylus whispered back. That he dared make such a joke to a noble showed–showed Corylus himself–how much he trusted Varus and considered him to be a friend. He’s a man I’d take across the Rhine, Corylus thought, putting it in army terms.
The alley was narrow; the procession slowed to a crawl while Maximus, the nighttime doorkeeper, pulled the back gate open. He had been waiting in the alley with his lantern instead of watching the portal from inside.
Pulto slipped–more likely, pushed–through the intervening servants to join his master. If Varus hadn’t been present he would probably have asked Corylus what he intended to do now, but under the circumstances he merely grunted, “Sir,” politely.
The line was moving again. The footmen who’d been in front were blocking the other end of the alley against rampaging housebreakers or other equally unlikely threats.
Most of what a rich man’s servants did was either make-work or simply sitting on their hands. There were too many of them for it to be any other way. Saxa had well over two hundred servants here in his townhouse: he could have rebuilt the whole structure with a smaller crew.
“Unless you want me with you, Varus…?” Corylus said, raising an eyebrow.
“No, I think it’s best if I see father alone,” Varus said. “I can take him away from his clients, but to bring my friend with me would be insulting. I’m perfectly willing to insult them if I need to, but I don’t see the necessity in this case. Would you care to wait in the gymnasium until I have an answer?”
They’d reached the gate; Maximus raised his lantern. Varus’ smile in the flickering light was engaging, but Corylus recognized an underlying hardness that he had noticed before in aristocratic tribunes posted to the frontiers for a year on a legion’s staff. The nobles of Carce were pampered, certainly, but their enemies had rarely found them soft.
“If you don’t mind…,” Varus said as they passed through the gate. “I’ll wait here in the garden.”
He gestured. The central court had a pool and extensive plantings, but the walled back of the property was a garden also. Seven days ago there had been a peach tree and a pear tree as well as flower beds. The blooms were generally cut for decorations inside the house, but there was a little summer bedroom with wicker screens on either side of the enclosure.
“Certainly,” said Varus. “Would you like something to eat or drink while you’re waiting?”
“No,” said Corylus. “I’ll be fine. I just like flowers, you know.”
“If it’s all the same with you, master…?” Pulto said. “I’d like to chat with my buddy Lenatus in the gym.”
“Yes, of course,” Corylus said. Pulto nodded gratefully as he strode through the gateway to the house proper on the heels of the servants.
There was nothing unusual about the request. Lenatus, whom Saxa had hired as the family trainer, was an old soldier whom Pulto had known when they were both stationed on the Rhine. The haste with which Pulto moved would have puzzled Corylus if he hadn’t known the reason, however.
So long as Pulto thought the vision in the theater was stage trickery, it hadn’t disturbed him. Now he had realized that it was real. That made him all the more uncomfortable about magic and the traces it left.
Corylus looked around. He was alone in the garden except for Maximus, who had pulled the gate closed and stood against it with the lantern, looking unhappy.
“Ah…,” said the doorkeeper. “I suppose you’ll want me to keep you company back here, sir?”
Maximus had the shoulders of a bear and arms that hung almost to his knees. His strikingly ugly looks caused him to be stationed at the back gate, not at the front where the Senator’s distinguished visitors entered, but Corylus had found him intelligent and, surprisingly, literate in Greek with a smattering of Latin as well.
“I don’t see why,” Corylus said, smiling. “It seems to me that you can guard things just as well in the alley as here. I’ll just think for a while.”
“I guess you know what you’re doing, sir,” Maximus said. “Only me–it doesn’t feel right back here since the pear tree died, you know? It used to be that other fellows would come sit with me, you know? But none of the servants like to come back here now. And, ah… I sometimes think I’m seeing somebody. In the corner of my eye, you know?”
“I’m sure I’ll be all right,” said Corylus; he gestured toward the back gate. “And you can take the lantern. There’s plenty of moonlight for me.”
“Thank you, sir!” the doorman said with an enthusiasm that a gold piece for a tip couldn’t have bettered. He was out into the alley again, banging the gate closed, almost before he’d spoken the last syllable.
Corylus looked around again, his smile rueful. The garden wasn’t a ruin, not yet, but even the crescent moon showed him that it was neglected.
Ten days since, Saxa and the Hyperborean sorcerer who had gained his confidence had held an incantation here. Their magic had resulted in a blast of intense cold which killed the pear tree, and it had also worked deeper changes to the setting.
Corylus had his own reasons for being here, but he wasn’t surprised that the servants kept away. That included the gardeners: the dead pear had been removed, but no one had watered or weeded the flowerbeds since the incantation.
There was a covered walkway against the partition wall between the garden and the house. Corylus settled himself on the pavement, facing the alley. The peach tree on the left side of the garden was in full flower. Its branches, fluffy and white in the moonlight, overhung the wall at several points.
If all those flowers are allowed to set fruit, Corylus thought, the weight will break the branches. If the gardeners won’t do something, perhaps I should–
A woman–a female figure–stepped into the moonlight, as he had expected she would. Corylus rose to his feet. “Good evening, Persica,” he said.
The dryad flinched, but she didn’t disappear. “Are you angry with me?” she said in a small voice. She turned her face away, but he could see that she was watching out of the corner of her eye.
“No, Persica,” he said. “I think we’ve both learned things since we met before.”
The nymph had tricked him into a past time. Her malice came from petty stupidity rather than from studied cruelty. She–”Peaches”–was small-minded and not over-bright, so how else could she have acted?
“I’d be angry if you tried to do it again, though,” he added.
Persica sniffed. “No fear that!” she said bitterly. “The woman here–she’s a demon! She said she’d peel my bark off with a paring knife. She meant it!”
“If you mean Lady Hedia…,” Corylus said, hiding his smile because the dryad would have misinterpreted it. “Then I suspect you’re right.”
Persica gave a peevish flick of her hand. “I don’t pay any attention to humans’ names,” she said. “Why should I?”
She kicked morosely at loose dirt where the pear tree had been. Though the gardeners had grubbed out the frost-shattered trunk, they had neither planted a replacement nor resodded the soil turned when they ripped up the roots.
“I never thought I’d miss Pirus,” the dryad muttered. “So full of herself because she had nice hair. As if nobody else had nice hair!”
Persica tossed her head but swayed her body as well, so that her long red-blond hair swirled in one direction and her garment in the other. The fabric was sheer. It had scattered light in bright sun, as Corylus remembered, but now in the moon glow it was barely a shadow over her full breasts and the rippling muscles of her belly.
“I used to watch you humans, at least,” she said. “You aren’t much, but you’re company. Now I don’t even have that.”
She looked squarely at Corylus and pleaded, “Is it because of me? I wouldn’t hurt them! I didn’t mean to hurt you, just, well, I was angry. Who wouldn’t have been angry with that Hyperborean sorcerer killing Pirus right beside me?”
“I don’t think it’s you, Persica,” Corylus said. He touched one of the flat marble spinners which hung from the roof over the walkway. They turned in the breezes, scattering light into the shadowed interior. The nymph had used their reflections to send him to another time and place….
But if Persica hadn’t indulged her whimsical malice, Corylus wouldn’t have gained the tool and the knowledge that had helped save Carce from destruction. As a matter of fact–
“If you hadn’t tricked me the way you did, Persica,” he said, “I would have been burned to ash or less. And so would you.”
Every land and perhaps the seas as well would have burned, would have been buried under fire. Except that a peach dryad had, in a pet, sent the youth who rejected her advances to the place where he needed to be and where the world needed him to be.
Perhaps the Stoic philosophers were right and gods did look after men. Chance, the whim of atoms clashing together, seemed a slim reed on which to support the series of events which had saved the world.
“Well, anyway, I didn’t mean any harm,” Persica muttered. She seemed to be walking aimlessly, her eyes on the ground, but she meandered closer to Corylus. Looking up, she said, “But I’m so lonely. I don’t let humans see me, but I just wish they’d come here to the garden again.”
She tossed her head and gave him a knowing smile. “You can see me,” she said, “but you’re one of us. Your mother was, and on her side you are.”
“That may be true,” Corylus said. “But it doesn’t matter.”
He was uncomfortable talking–thinking–about what Pulto had recently told him about the mother who had died giving birth to him. It didn’t really matter whether she was a beech nymph or the Celtic girl his father would have married as soon as he could at the end of his military service. I am a citizen of Carce!
Aloud Corylus said, “The Hyperborean’s magic clings here, that’s all. It’s like the smell of rotting blood in the arena, even though they change the sand after every performance. It makes the servants uncomfortable, that’s all. That’ll wear away.”
He smiled encouragingly, knowing that what he said was only partially true. The powerful magic which had been worked here created a weak spot in the fabric of the cosmos. Ordinary humans in this garden–Maximus, for example; the doorkeeper who spoke of seeing things out of the corner of his eye–became more sensitive to matters that would ordinarily be hidden.
“It won’t have time to,” Persica said bitterly. “The Hyperborean is gone, but it’s still going to end quickly.”
She shivered and hugged herself. Looking up she said, “You can feel it too, can’t you? The sea will do what fire did not.”
Corylus rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. His lips were dry. “You mean Typhon?” he said, remembering what Varus had said in the theater.
The nymph flicked her hand again. “What do names matter?” she said. “It will be the sea and the thing that is the sea.”
She had sidled to within arm’s length of Corylus. Now she leaned closer, not quite to the point of touching him.
“A little warmth would be so nice,” she said. “It isn’t much to ask, is it, when the end is coming so soon.”
“Persica, please don’t,” Corylus whispered.
Varus would be back shortly, but even if he weren’t…. Corylus thought of the monster he had seen, then imagined that it was tearing apart Carce instead of some crystal echo of a philosopher’s dream. He was frozen inside, and the only emotion he felt was fear.
Persica didn’t edge closer as he thought she would do. She hugged herself again and said, “I don’t really mind dying. I’m a peach, after all, not an oak or one of those ugly pine crones. But a little warmth, cousin…? Just a little warmth?”
“I can’t, mistress,” he said. He heard a babble of voices in the central courtyard. Varus must be coming back. “Please, I can’t.”
Corylus expected a tantrum or worse, remembering the way the nymph had behaved the first time they met. Instead her face scrunched up in misery.
“Will you at least come back and talk with me?” she whimpered. “Before the end? Please, I get so lonely.”
He swallowed. “I’ll try, Persica,” he said. “I’ll… yes, I’ll come back!”
The gate to the house opened. Varus strode through, beaming with success.
Manetho reached the side doorway from the central courtyard into the owner’s office. A footman stood there, blocking it, and Candidus trotted over immediately.
“Make way for Lord Varus!” Manetho said. The footman turned sideways, squeezing back against the pillar. He was letting the deputy stewards snarl at one another while a lowly footman pretended to be back herding goats in the Pyrenees.
“The Consul is receiving his clients in his office,” Candidus said, carefully looking at Manetho and pretending not to be aware of Varus himself behind the servant. “No doubt he will attend to his household when he has finished his duties to the Republic.”
I wonder if he would take that line if I were Alphena? Varus thought. He certainly wouldn’t do this to Hedia.
The idea made him smile. If Candidus had been paying attention, the expression might have disconcerted him; but of course he wasn’t. Why be concerned about Saxa’s bookish, ineffectual son?
Varus tapped Manetho on the shoulder and gestured him aside. “Candidus?” he said pleasantly. “Get out of the way or I will ask my sister to have you tortured. I’m sure she can find something interesting to do to an uppity slave.”
Candidus blinked, stepped back, and blinked again. He wasn’t so much ignoring Varus’ order as too stunned to obey it.
Agrippinus appeared. Varus hadn’t raised his voice but the major domo, overseeing the whole levee while his deputies handled specific areas, demonstrated his ability in a fashion that Varus wouldn’t have recognized till recently.
Agrippinus touched Candidus’ neck with his right hand; his fingers were pudgy and each had at least one ring, but the tips dimpled his deputy’s flesh. Candidus staggered–half propelled, half jumping–into a corner of the office.
Agrippinus nodded minusculely to Varus, then turned and announced in a carrying voice, “Clear this room for the honorable Lord Varus, who wishes to address his noble father, Consul Gaius Alphenus Saxa!”
The client in the office with Saxa was one of the Marcii Philippi, a distant cousin of Saxa’s first–and his second; they were sisters–wife; he was therefore a relative of Varus as well. Despite Philippus’ rank, he lived in straitened circumstances; though that hadn’t, Varus noted, kept him from eating himself into grotesque obesity.
“I say!” said Philippus in offended surprise.
Agrippinus walked toward him with his arms spread slightly and his hands raised, as though he were pushing the client’s considerable weight. He didn’t actually touch Philippus, but he moved the fellow back by force of personality. He said, “The Consul will summon you when he is ready to receive you again, your lordship.”
“But I–” said Philippus. Four junior members of Saxa’s household moved toward him; one was the footman who had been in Varus’ path to the office. He acted with particular zeal, apparently concerned to redeem himself in the eyes of the son of the house. Philippus returned to the entrance hall, backing so hastily that he almost fell into the pool fed by the opening in the roof.
The hall would normally have been crowded with clients. Now all but two clients at a time had been relegated to the street outside, because the consul’s twelve lictors took precedence. Varus had considered the lictors a pointless complication, but he realized now that they might turn out to be useful.
Varus joined his father, feeling a mixture of amusement and disgust at the servant’s reaction to his threat. Alphena had a vicious temper. She had been known to throw things at people who had made her angry, and it wasn’t unimaginable that worse might happen if she flew hot when she happened to have a sword in her hand.
Alphena was not, however, cruel: torture would have been as unlikely for her as sexual congress with a donkey. If the servants had bothered to think, they would have known that as well as her brother did.
Varus had learned that generally people didn’t think: they just reacted. He supposed that should have pleased him, because it gave him an advantage over most of the world. Instead, it tended to make him sad.
Saxa was seated on his ivory chair. He faced the hall, the anteroom, and the street beyond on a single axis. The entrance was designed to put the householder in a frame, focusing all eyes on him.
Varus stepped around in front so that his father didn’t have to twist sideways; folding senatorial chairs weren’t very stable and neither was Saxa. He said, “I’m very sorry to trouble you, sir.”
“What’s the matter, b-b…,” Saxa said in concern. He composed his expression and said, “What’s the matter, my son?”
Rather than “boy.” Varus had risen in his father’s estimation–more accurately, had risen into Saxa’s awareness–when Commissioner Priscus had made a point of praising the boy when he met Saxa ahead of a session of the Senate five days recently.
“Sir,” said Varus. The office had a high ceiling and two mosaic scenes on the floor. The panel to the householder’s right showed Pentheus being torn to pieces by women maddened by their worship of Bacchus. To the left was Acteon, human-headed but with the body of a stag, being devoured by his own hunting dogs; the goddess Diana, whom he had glimpsed bathing nude, gestured angrily from a pool
The room had been decorated by Saxa’s father. Varus didn’t suppose he would ever know what his grandfather had been thinking of when he ordered the mosaics.
At least a dozen clerks and other servants watched expectantly from the service aisles on three sides of the room. There was no privacy in a noble household, any more than there was in a poor family’s apartment where three generations were squeezed into two rooms and as much of the staircase of they could claim against other tenants.
On the other hand, there was no reason why anything Varus was about to say to his father would seem worth repeating, even within the household. Not if he phrased it carefully.
“Father,” he said with quiet earnestness. “My studies have reached an impasse of sorts, and I need to enter the house of Marcus Sempronius Tardus. I was hoping that you might help me in this.”
“Tardus?” Saxa said, frowning in concentration. “Well, we’re not close, you know, son. Indeed, I probably know as little of him as I do any other member of the Senate. The ones who live most of the year in Carce, that is.”
He coughed into his hand. “Ah…,” he said. “And there was that business at the Temple of Jupiter a few days ago, when Tardus was there as Commissioner of the Sacred Rites. That was necessary, but it didn’t, well, endear me to him.”
Saxa was obviously hoping his son would say something to let him out of what threatened to be an embarrassment. When that didn’t occur, he grimaced and resumed, “I suppose I can send a note to him. What in particular is it that you wish to see? His library, I suppose?”
“Not exactly, sir,” Varus said. “My, ah, studies indicate that the Sempronii Tardi have a secret temple to Serapis in their townhouse. I would like to–that is, I think perhaps I must see that temple. In order to, ah, gather information of importance to the Republic.”
Saxa blinked. For a moment he looked like a fish displayed for sale on a marble slab; then his cheeks and the lines of his mouth became curiously firmer.
“Marcus Priscus spoke very highly of you the other day,” he said. “I believe it’s the first time he has addressed a word to me except in answer to a question of my own. He’s a very erudite man, you know.”
Varus bowed slightly again. “Yes sir,” he said. “The Republic is very fortunate to have men as learned as Marcus Priscus and yourself at its helm.”
Saxa snorted; his expression went sour for an instant, or as sour as someone as pudgy and good-natured as he could look. That cleared and he said, “Not me, my son, much as I wish it were. But perhaps you in time; Priscus believes you will grow into his equal. I hope I may live to see that.”
Varus didn’t know whether or not he should speak. Since he was in doubt, he held his silence.
If more people followed that practice, he thought, the world would be a quieter and less obviously foolish place. His smile didn’t reach his lips.
“I was going to ask if Marcus Priscus intended to make the inspection with you,” Saxa said. He was trying to sound neutral, but there was evident hope in his voice. “I suppose you couldn’t tell me, though?”
Father is so in awe of Priscus that if I said this was his idea, my request would be granted immediately. I won’t lie, but if I tell the truth in the right form of words….
“I would not expect Commissioner Priscus to be present, sir,” Varus replied carefully. “I believe his friend–and my professor–Pandareus of Athens may accompany us, however. If you are able to effect entrance to Senator Tardus’ house, that is.”
“I believe that Tardus will respect the authority of a Consul,” Saxa said. “And I rather think the Emperor would have something to say about it if he did not. The Emperor is notably traditional in his regard for the forms of government.”
His smile widened as he considered the situation. His replacement consulate was an honor, of course, but he probably hadn’t considered it to be a position of authority before this moment.
He sat straighter and looked firmly at his son. “We’ll go tomorrow afternoon, then,” he said. “Let’s say in the eleventh–” counting from dawn to dusk in twelve equal segments, regardless of the season “–hour. Please inform Master Pandareus of the plan. And anyone else you believe should be present.”
“Thank you, sir,” Varus said. “I had considered asking Publius Corylus to accompany us, as his different viewpoint might be helpful.”
Saxa smiled faintly. He said, “He’s the boy with an army background, isn’t he? Just as you like, son, though I hope that particular specialty won’t prove necessary.”
Before Varus could turn to leave, his father coughed and said, “Ah, son? As you doubtless heard, Senator Priscus and your Pandareus will be dining with me in two nights’ time. I hope you will choose to join us? Priscus was very complimentary about you.”
My father is willing to risk his life by using consular authority in a fashion he knows may be open to question, Varus thought. If all he wants in return is for me to add a little extra luster to a dinner which already glitters with intellectual capacity–so be it!
“I will be honored to join you and your guests, father,” he said formally. Bowing, he backed from the office and turned toward the garden.
I’m risking my life too, I suppose, he realized, but I’m doing it to save the world from destruction by Typhon. My father is doing it merely on my word that it is necessary.
May the gods grant that I be the worthy scion of so brave a man.
Alphena had returned to the house with Hedia, in the double litter. She found it odd but nonetheless comforting to regard her stepmother as an ally–a friend even–instead of a demon sent to torment her.
Hedia was the perfect lady: beautiful, her hair and garments in the current style; familiar with all the trivia of Carce’s highest social circle. Hedia had seemed all the things that her stepdaughter had been determined never to be.
Hedia was all the things she seemed, but Alphena had learned that her stepmother was also as hard as a blade of fine steel and every bit as deadly when the need arose. She had determined to bring Alphena safely through whatever troubles arose, no matter what her own risk was.
Alphena wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She prided herself on being independent. She was certain, though, that it was much better to have Lady Hedia as a friend than as an enemy.
There had been no place in particular where Alphena had to be after they reached the house. There was never anywhere she had to be, a realization that brought a familiar flush of anger to her face.
Varus was being educated in literature and the arts of rhetoric. All aspects of public life were governed by oratory. The most brilliant general would be laughed at–albeit behind his back–if he couldn’t report his accomplishments using chiasmus and litotes, praeteritio and asyndeton and a thousand other absurdities. Absurdities!
The empire had been won at the point of a sword, but Varus could no better wield a sword than he could fly. Alphena had practiced weapons drill as assiduously as any army recruit, but she would never be allowed to join the legions.
She didn’t want to spend her life reading poems that didn’t make any sense she could see, nor in learning scraps of history from eight centuries ago because they might make useful embellishments for her summation speech in a murder trial. She didn’t want to do those things–but she wouldn’t be allowed to, whatever she wanted. She was a woman, so she had no share in government or the army or in anything that mattered!
But while all that was completely true and completely unfair, Alphena found herself thinking about her stepmother. If Hedia set out to accomplish something, Alphena would expect it the way she would expect the sun to rise in the east. She couldn’t have given a logical explanation of why she was so confident of her stepmother’s abilities, but logic–
Alphena grinned. Logic was a matter for students, like her brother Varus. Hedia’s competence was real, which was a very different thing.
Alphena found she had walked the length of the house, to the private gymnasium and bath located between the courtyard and the back garden. She used the gym regularly, so it wasn’t surprising that she would find herself at the door if she wandered without paying attention.
She looked around. Her maid, Florina, was close behind but flinched back when her mistress turned. Six other servants were following Alphena, presumably people Agrippinus had assigned to her suite. They stopped dead when she did, their eyes focused on various things but never on Alphena herself.
I should slap their sniveling faces! Alphena thought, then felt a little queasy. She took a deep breath.
They’re treating me like a viper. Except that they wouldn’t be afraid to look at a viper.
Calmly, smiling slightly–she hoped it was a smile–Alphena said, “I believe I will take a little exercise now to settle myself before I have a light supper in my suite. Florina, you’re dismissed to eat something now before you’ll need to attend me.”
Alphena entered the small gymnasium, feeling virtuous. Hedia would be proud of me, she thought; but that wasn’t really true. She would never match her stepmother’s icy superiority to every one and every thing, any more than her chunky form would ever rival Hedia’s willowy beauty. It’s not fair!
“Your ladyship!” said Lenatus. He and his guest–Pulto, Corylus’ man–lurched to their feet. A wine jar leaned against a corner, and each man held a broad cup. A water jug was part of the gym’s furnishings, but Alphena didn’t see a mixing bowl: the veterans were apparently drinking the Senator’s wine as it came from the jug.
Alphena looked at them. They weren’t frightened like the bevy of servants back in the passageway, but they watched her warily. They were freeborn citizens who as soldiers had fought the most dangerous of the Republic’s enemies… but from their expressions, they would rather be back on the frontier than in the center of Carce, facing a Senator’s daughter.
I wonder if Florina thinks that life has treated Lady Alphena harshly? Alphena wondered.
Aloud she said, “Master Pulto, I didn’t expect to see you here. Is your master in the house as well? I suppose you came from the theater with my brother?”
“My understanding…,” Pulto said carefully. He wasn’t a member of Saxa’s household, but technicalities wouldn’t matter of Alphena lost her temper, as she had a reputation for doing. “Is that Lord Varus wished to have a conversation with his father, the Senator. Publius Corylus chose to wait in the back garden, but he gave me leave to visit my old friend here.”
He gestured toward Lenatus with his free hand. His eyes never left Alphena’s face.
“Oh!” said Alphena, feeling a tiny jump of excitement that she hoped she had kept out of her voice. “Well, I’ll leave the two of you to your reminis–”
She broke off. She could see from the faces of both men that something was badly wrong.
“What is it?” Alphena said. She heard her voice start to tremble, which made her angry. She continued in an unintended snarl, “Is Corylus with someone, is that it?”
Lenatus looked at his friend, who in turn looked as though he had been stabbed in the belly. “Your ladyship,” Pulto said, “I got the impression that my master might be talking with somebody, yes.”
He’s with Hedia.
He’s having sex with Hedia in the garden!
Alphena blushed, then staggered as the stupidity of her thought struck her. Oh, Hedia’s reputation was deserved: she’d as much as told Alphena so when they were fighting for their lives and very souls. As for Corylus, he was a man, which meant he was a pig; and there was no doubt that he found Hedia attractive. The way his eyes followed her whenever she was in sight proved it!
But Hedia didn’t rub her husband’s nose in things he would be expected to object to. She was a lady, and Alphena had good reason to know that she loved Saxa–in her way.
Just as Corylus was a gentleman, if not an aristocrat. He would turn up his nose at actions which the perfumed wastrels of Hedia’s social set would have performed without thinking twice.
Alphena swallowed, then forced her lips into a smile. “Well, I won’t disturb him, then,” she said. “I will have some of that wine, though. But mix mine with two parts water, if you will.”
“At once, your ladyship!” Lenatus said. He and Pulto spun toward the wine jar so swiftly that they almost collided. Without a signal Alphena could see, Pulto took the other cup as well as his own and Lenatus snatched an empty one from a cupboard intended for bath paraphernalia.
Alphena expected the trainer to lift wine from the jar with a narrow, deep-bellied dipper, a wine thief. Instead he hooked his thumb in the handle, then lifted the jar on his elbow and forearm to pour. Returning the wine to its corner, he lifted the water jar in the same fashion and brought the level up to a proper distance below the rim of the cup.
“Your ladyship,” he said, offering it to her.
Alphena was trembling from all the emotions that she hadn’t given into over the past short while. “Sit down, both of you,” she said. With that for an excuse, she quickly seated herself on the end of a bench intended for swordsmen tightening the straps of their sandals before they began their exercises.
When she had entered the gymnasium, the men had been beside one another on the raised stone slab into which posts were set when the grounds were used for fencing practice. They sat down as directed, but Alphena noticed that they had moved as far from her bench as they could get.
Pulto gave a little cough and swigged wine. Avoiding eye contact by looking into his cup, he said, “Master Corylus has spoken well of your judgment, your ladyship.”
Alphena froze. What does he mean by that?
She smiled. At first she was forcing the corners of her lips upward, but the humor of the situation struck her.
“Thank you, Master Pulto,” she said. “Though if you mean that I can recognize circumstances in which a proper young lady knows better than to walk in on a male acquaintance, I can only say that mother hasn’t yet made that proper a young lady of me.”
Lenatus choked, blowing a spray of wine out his nose. Pulto simply froze.
“Fortunately…,” Alphena continued. She enjoyed the feeling of being in control of a situation without screaming at people. “Master Corylus is a proper gentleman. Despite my own failings, the worst would not have happened.”
Mother really has taught me things. As soon as I was willing to learn them.
“But let’s change the subject,” Alphena continued calmly, looking at the old soldiers over the rim of her wine cup. “What do you–both of you–think about what happened in the theater this afternoon?”
If she had asked that question bluntly when she walked into the gymnasium, they would have mumbled and lied. They were off balance now, because she’d delicately hinted at a bawdy joke that they understood very well. They would much rather talk frankly with a senator’s daughter about magic and sorcerers than to join her in a discussion of sexual shenanigans.
“Your ladyship…,” Lenatus said. He wasn’t mumbling, but his voice was low. “I wasn’t… I mean, I was here in the house when all that happened.”
“Yes,” said Alphena crisply; no one could mistake her tone for agreement. “But you were talking to your friend about it, were you not?”
Pulto croaked a laugh. He emptied his cup and said, “This is dry work, your ladyship. Do ye mind if I have some more of this good wine while we talk?”
“Not at all,” said Alphena. Her nose was too snubby for her to look down it with aristocratic hauteur, but just trying made her grin; which was perhaps an equally good way to get information out of these veterans. “Here, you can top off mine–”
She held the cup out.
“–too. Don’t worry about more water.”
“It’s going to be hard times if his lordship needs me escorting him when he goes out to a show,” Lenatus said wryly. He offered his cup when Pulto had filled Alphena’s. “Mind you, I’d prefer that to what’s going on now. Whatever it is.”
“Right,” said Pulto, sitting down again. “You always know where you’re at in a fight.”
“Of course,” Lenatus offered, “where you’re at may be so deep in the soup that you’ll never see the surface again.”
They were… not so much treating Alphena as one of them as talking as if she wasn’t present. Which was good enough.
“I hate for my wife to be mixed up in it,” Pulto said, taking half the cupful without lowering it from his lips. He looked at Alphena. “You know about that, right, your ladyship? That Lady Hedia is going to see my Anna tomorrow?”
“Yes,” said Alphena. “I’ll be accompanying my mother.”
After a pause for thought, she went on, “I think in these times that we all should help to the degree we can. Help the Republic, I mean.”
Lenatus looked at her without expression, then took a silent swallow of wine. Alphena had the uncomfortable suspicion that if she hadn’t been his employer’s noble daughter, he would have spat onto the dirt.
“I guess Lenatus and me know a bit about serving the Republic, your ladyship,” Pulto said. He sipped wine and swizzled it around his mouth before letting it go down. “And Anna too. She was there on the frontier as sure as me and the Old Man and the boy. Who isn’t such a boy now, is he?”
“I’m sorry, Pulto,” Alphena said, feeling her cheeks burn. Ordinarily she would have reacted by shrieking angrily at the cause of her embarrassment, but she wasn’t going to do that again. Or anyway, she wasn’t going to do that this time. “I’m uncomfortable about it too, that’s all.”
She cleared her throat. “But what was it you saw?” she said. “What did you think it was?”
Looking at Lenatus, she said, “What did you just tell your friend Lenatus it was?”
The trainer barked out a laugh. “I can answer that, your ladyship,” he said. “Pulto here told me he had no bloody idea of what he’d just seen except it scared the living crap out of him, and could I maybe find a jar of wine.”
He lifted the cup in his left hand; he’d emptied it again. “Which I did, begging your pardon, but I’ll pay it back to your father out of my salary.”
Alphena waved the thought away brusquely. This was as proper a use for her father’s wine as any in the Republic.
“Mistress?” said Pulto. He grimaced and corrected himself, saying “Your ladyship, I mean. You were there. What did you see? If a fellow can ask, I mean.”
Alphena looked at them. At last she said, “I saw a man wearing a breechclout, with his hair in two braids. He was as old as you are, but he looked very fit.”
When she heard the words come out of her mouth, she paused in renewed embarrassment. “I didn’t mean–” she blurted. She stopped because she didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t make the insult worse.
“Go on, your ladyship,” said Pulto calmly. He clapped his belly with his cupped left hand. “I live in this flesh, so you don’t need to tell me I’m not the hard young cockerel I was when first I enlisted.”
“Well, anyway,” said Alphena, “that’s what I saw: a man. And he was destroying what looked like a city, only it was so tiny.”
She closed her eyes and forced herself to add, “Just for an instant I thought I saw tentacles and snakes like Syra said. Like a lot of other people thought, I suppose. But I saw a man.”
“I saw the tentacles and all,” Pulto said, speaking to his empty cup. “Only then I didn’t think it was real, so it didn’t bother me.”
He looked up with a lopsided grin. “It wasn’t till I saw how your brother and the Greek professor were taking it that I started to get worried,” he said. “And then Lady Hedia coming to see my Anna for charms–because that’s what it is, I know from how she asked it–well, that pissed in the wine for sure.”
“But do you know what it means?” Alphena said. She suddenly felt very young. She wanted these two hard men to protect her, but she didn’t know from what. “You’ve been in, well, battles! What’s going to happen now?”
The men looked at one another. Lenatus unexpectedly chuckled. “You remember Stellio?” he said to his friend. Both of them laughed.
Alphena felt her anger rise despite trying very hard to choke it down. Pulto read her reaction correctly. “Your ladyship,” he said, “what we mean is that nobody can tell you what’s going to happen in a battle. Even if that’s what this is, though I don’t much see it.”
“Stellio was a lazy scut, even for a Sicilian,” Lenatus said. He sounded apologetic for being insultingly unclear when he first mentioned the fellow. “And I’ve seen rabbits with more stomach for a fight than he ever showed.”
“We were going to assault a couple German hill forts the next day,” Pulto said. “Only Stellio gets his foot under a cartwheel, by accident–he says–and he won’t be able to hold his rank when we charge. So he got assigned to the artillery. He can turn the crank of one of the dart-throwers, bad foot or no bad foot. But staying well back from German spear range, you see.”
“So we’re lined up and waiting the word,” Lenatus said, speaking as he refilled all three cups. “The Germans are up on their mound, shouting and booming their spear shafts against their hide shields, and I got to say, I’ve been places I was happier being. Up rattles a mule cart and hauls around, and it’s Stellio in the back with the dart thrower.”
“He’s grinning like anything,” Pulto said, picking up when his friend took a swallow of wine, “and he starts cranking the arms back. And I hear whack!”
“I was looking right at him when it happened,” Lenatus said, almost bursting with suppressed laughter. “The lever snapped right at the spring and come flying around on the cord. It caught Stellio on the back of the neck and broke it neat as a chicken for dinner!”
The men laughed together, more freely than before. Alphena wondered for a moment how much wine they had drunk, but she’d drunk more than her usual as well. She joined the laughter.
“And the beauty of it,” Pulto said, his voice rising as if to be heard during a drinking party in barracks, “is that we didn’t lose another bloody man that day. Not a one! The first salvo, one dart pinned the top of the chief’s shield to his forehead and helmet. He tumbled down the hill, stiff as a board, and the rest all bloody ran off the other way.”
“May my dick turn black and fall off if it didn’t happen just that way!” Lenatus burbled.
The laughter died away. They’re probably hoping I didn’t hear that, Alphena thought. Or at least that I’ll pretend I didn’t hear it, which I certainly will.
“I understand that the future isn’t really predictable,” Alphena said carefully. “And I guess we can hope for a lucky dart shot, whatever that may mean now. I just wish I had something better to hope for.”
“Your ladyship?” Pulto said. “We’re not laughing at you. And we feel the same way. We wish we knew what was coming. Because we think something is, too.”
“All I can tell you about a battle…,” Lenatus said, lowering his cup and looking at her with an expression something between calm and defiance. “Is that what happens is generally going to be worse than you figured it to be.”
“But you deal with it,” said Pulto earnestly. “You always deal with it, however piss-poor a deal it is you get handed.”
That’s what soldiers do, Alphena realized in a flash of understanding. She had thought being a soldier on the frontier meant fighting… but that was only part of it. They dealt; even though all they knew about the future was it would probably range from unpleasant to awful.
That was much the same as being a woman in a world which men thought they ruled. Hedia had shown her that. Hedia dealt, and thus far she had dealt successfully.
There was a bustle of voices in the passage from the house proper. Alphena set the cup down and rose.
“Thank you both,” she said. “You’ve helped me to understand the situation. And now–”
She turned to the door.
“–I believe I’ll join my brother for a moment before I dine.”
And just possibly I’ll chat with Corylus as well as Varus; but no matter what, I’ll deal. Mother will be proud of me.
Hedia rose from her bed. A light burned in the alcove where her maid slept. Hedia didn’t need the light because she was still asleep. She walked through the door of her suite, then drifted down the staircase.
Servants sprawled in the portico around the central courtyard. Five or six were dicing by lamplight, laughing and muttering curses. The familiar noise didn’t disturb the nearby sleepers.
In a back corner was the miniature terracotta hill on which snails crawled till a cook’s helper plucked them out for dinner. They continued to meander slowly along the molded curves.
Hedia walked past the doorman and through the thick wooden door. No one saw her. She wondered if she were dead. Part of her mind felt that the thought should make her smile, but her face did not change.
The sky was moonless, starless. Instead of starting across the square on which the house fronted, she had entered the mouth of a cave as great as all the night.
The opening was familiar: Hedia was walking down the long slope to the Underworld. In the lowest level she had seen her first husband: Calpurnius Latus, dead for three years.
She was going back to the place of the dead. She was going to death.
Hedia heard screams from a side passage. She would have turned to look, but her body could not move; it merely glided forward with no more effort or volition than a feather in a stream.
But she didn’t have to look to see. The screams came from a score of women and girls, all of them familiar to her. Each was the age she had been when she died, of fever or accident or in childbirth; and one, Florentia Tertia, strangled by her husband’s catamite while her husband watched, doubled up with drunken laughter.
Hedia’s acquaintances–her friends, as she would have described them in public–were being devoured by a great lizard. Its jointed forearms stuffed the victims into its maw, where upper and lower jaws ground them like millstones. The women were scraped to chips and smears… only to reappear and to wail again, and be devoured again, endlessly. Endlessly….
When Hedia had come this way before, she had walked on her own feet. Now she was….
No, I’m not, she realized. I’m not really here. This is a dream, a nightmare if you will, but it isn’t happening to Hedia, daughter of Marcus Hedius Fronto and Petronilla, his second wife.
Again the smile didn’t reach her lips. Her lips were with the rest of her body, asleep in a townhouse in the Carina District, rather than slipping with her mind toward Hades’ realm. In a manner of speaking, it didn’t matter: Hedia wouldn’t have run if she could have. But knowing that this was unreal allowed her to feel smugly contemptuous of an experience which until that moment had been frightening.
Very frightening, in fact.
When Hedia walked this long corridor before, she had heard terrible sounds from side-branchings as she passed. Only the few paces of sloping track before her had been visible, however. Now she had a detailed awareness of what that was happening to either side of her route.
Flames that burned men but did not kill them. Insects that looked like locusts but which ate human flesh. Hair-fine quills that pierced to the victims’ marrow by the thousands and drew out agonized cries but not lives.
Always the torture, always the cries, always the agony. And all of the victims were people whom Hedia had known while they were alive, but who had died.
The passage downward ended where Hedia expected it to, in a glade surrounded by trees with huge leaves. Her first husband, Gaius Calpurnius Latus, stood in the embrace of a plant whose foliage was formed into vast green hands.
Latus did not see her. Around him, close enough to touch if she wished, were the three glass figures of Hedia’s earlier nightmare. Their limbs did not seem to have joints, but the transparent material went milky when it bent and cleared when it straightened. Their eye sockets were indentations, their mouths were short notches.
One of the figures turned his empty visage slowly toward Hedia. Latus began to scream as though his guts were being wound out on a stick, screaming without hope and without relief. The figure reached toward Hedia’s left wrist. She pulled away–
She sat upright in her bed. Her throat was raw. Syra stood beside her, her face terrified. Oil had spattered from the lamp in the maid’s left hand as she jerked back; her right hand was outstretched. She must have touched her mistress; her mistress, who had been screaming in terror….
Other servants had entered the bedroom or were peering through the doorway, drawn by the cries. They backed away or lowered their heads as Hedia straightened. They were afraid to be seen, afraid of what was happening, afraid.
I certainly can’t blame them for that, Hedia thought. She smiled coldly at herself.
She stood up. “I–” she began. Her throat felt as though she had been downwind of a limekiln.
“Wine!” she croaked, but she reached the bedside table before Syra could. Silver ewers of wine and water stood to either side of a cup whose red figures showed Pasiphae welcoming the bull into herself. She ignored the cup, drinking straight from the ewer instead.
She lowered the container and looked around the servants. “Go on about your business,” she said brusquely. “Have you never had a bad dream yourselves?”
She lifted the ewer, then paused. “One of you bring more wine,” she said. “A jar of it. The same Caecuban.”
It was a strong vintage. The alcohol didn’t so much sooth her throat as numb it after a moment of stinging.
Servants shuffled out, briefly crowding in the doorway. The ones who remained had probably been afraid to call attention to themselves by ducking away sooner.
Hedia poured the remaining contents of the ewer into the cup. She thought of adding water this time but decided not to. By now it wouldn’t shock any of them that Lady Hedia sometimes drank her wine unmixed.
“Your Ladyship…?” Syra whispered. She didn’t know what to do.
Hedia lowered the cup. She had been holding it in both hands as she drank, because her arms were trembling.
“As soon as the jar of wine arrives,” Hedia said. “Which had better be soon. When it does, you can go back to bed. I may sit up for a little.”
Until I’ve drunk enough to dull the memory of that dream.
“I’ll stay up too, your Ladyship,” Syra said. “In case you need something.”
The girl wouldn’t be able to sleep either, Hedia supposed. Awake, she wouldn’t have to worry that her mistress might strangle her in a fit of madness.
“Yes, all right,” Hedia said.
She looked about her, suddenly aware of what had escaped her earlier in her fear. The walls of this room were frescoed with images of stage fronts: heavy facades above which stretched high, spindly towers. Hedia had had the suite redecorated when she married Saxa: her immediate predecessor had preferred paintings of plump children riding bunnies and long-tailed birds in a garden setting.
The room from which Hedia had dreamed her descent to the Underworld had been her bedroom also, but not this bedroom. The walls there were dark red, separated into panels by gold borders; in the center of each panel was a tiny image of a god or goddess identified by its attribute. Hercules carried his club, but adjacent to him Priapus gripped with both hands a phallus heavier than that club….
That had been her bedroom when she was married to Latus, in the house facing the Campus Martius. She had sold the property when Latus died.
There was a bustle in the hall. Syra took a jar of wine from another servant, then brought it in and refilled the ewer.
Why did my nightmare show me Latus’ house?
It wasn’t an answer, but at least she was beginning to formulate the questions.
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