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Out of the Waters: Chapter Nine
Last updated: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 23:46 EDT
Alphena stood in the courtyard as Saxa’s frightened household scurried and chattered around her. With her forearms crossed before her, she scowled. She didn’t know what to do. While she was too intelligent to do something pointless just to be acting, it made her furious to stand here in the midst of chaos.
People running to and fro would have stumbled into Alphena in the bad light and confusion, were it not for the squad of footmen which Florina had gathered about her mistress. They weren’t Alphena’s own servants–at least she didn’t think they were; she didn’t even recognize the faces of most–but they seemed pleased to stand and glare at anybody who came too near.
A few of them were even armed, more or less. Two had iron rods that were probably turnspits from the kitchen, and one fellow with drooping moustaches and a shaved scalp was holding a decorative marble post which he’d pulled from the bed of peonies beside them. The head of Hermes that topped the post made it an effective mace.
Alphena found herself smiling. The men around her were happy because she had given them purpose in the midst of confusion: they were guarding the young mistress. Well, Florina had given them purpose. It was time and past time that the young mistress found a purpose for herself.
“Florina,” she said crisply, “who was with my mother when she disappeared? Really there, I mean. Ah, besides my father.”
“Syra, your ladyship,” the maid said. “She was the only one inside the bedroom, though there were plenty in the hall.”
Florina added with a sneer, “To hear some of them talk, they were all standing around the bed, but everybody knows that isn’t the way her ladyship behaved. Your mother, I mean.”
“Very good,” Alphena said, trying to keep her tone firm but detached. “Florina, bring Syra to me at once.”
“Yes, your ladyship!” Florina said. She patted two footmen on the shoulder to move them out of the way, then scampered toward the stairs.
Alphena had thought she might need to coax or threaten the girl to make her obey; Hedia’s chief maid might, after all, be with Saxa or Agrippinus, which would make the task of dragging her away potentially dangerous. Apparently the opportunity to give her recent superior orders in Lady Alphena’s name was worth the risk of trouble with the master or his major domo.
Varus had gone upstairs. Alphena didn’t know whether he was just looking over mother’s room or if he was speaking to father. She didn’t think either of those things would do any good; certainly she wouldn’t help by tagging along in her brother’s footsteps.
Corylus, Lenatus, and Pulto–who had arrived just before Hedia began to scream–were talking to the doorman and the servants who had been in the entranceway and office at the time. No one had broken into the house through the back gate, so they were checking to see what had happened in front.
Nothing, obviously; this hadn’t been an attack by ordinary human enemies like the ones who had earlier spirited away the teacher. The former soldiers hadn’t been able to accept that, but Alphena didn’t see why Corylus was wasting his time with them.
Not that Alphena was doing anything useful, or anything at all for that matter.
Mother would know what to do! Which meant that she had to find Hedia.
Florina reappeared, tugging Syra along by the wrist. Hedia’s maid wore a stunned look. She wasn’t fighting Florina’s guidance; she didn’t even appear to be aware of it.
“Here she is, your ladyship!” Florina said triumphantly. “She was just standing in Lady Hedia’s room as if she didn’t have a thing to do!”
She didn’t, Alphena thought. Aloud she said, “Syra, describe the men who took my mother away.”
The maid’s numb expression suddenly melted into misery and tears. Syra threw her hands to her face and began to blubber, “I didn’t I didn’t I d-didn’t–”
“I’ll make her talk!” said Florina. She jerked Syra’s left hand down with her own and cocked her right arm back to slap the cheek she had just uncovered.
“No!” said Alphena, thrusting Florina aside to underscore the command. Though if the girl hadn’t been so enthusiastic, I might have slapped Syra myself.
“Syra,” Alphena said, “nobody thinks you did anything wrong. Tell me about the men who took my mother.”
Syra swallowed. She turned slightly toward Alphena but didn’t raise her eyes. “They weren’t men,” she mumbled. “They were all shiny like glass. They just….”
She stopped and swallowed. “I was standing by the alcove where I sleep like I, well, like usual when the mistress is, well, you know. I’d put out all the lamps out but the one beside me on the wall because the master is kinda skittish sometimes. Anyway.”
Syra took a deep breath. She was talking more easily now that she’d gotten started.
“They were just there, these three statues, I thought they were,” she said. “But they moved. They couldn’t come through the door, and the windows have grates besides being just under the roof. I dropped the towel I was holding for afterwards and I guess I said something. The master shouted and her ladyship turned. I don’t know if she started to get up but they, the statues, grabbed her.”
Syra forced both fists against her mouth. Past her knuckles she whispered, “They fell, it was like. They just fell into the air, her ladyship and the statues holding her, spinning and getting smaller but they weren’t going down. They were going away. And they were gone and the master was shouting and everybody came in from the hall and they were gone!”
The maid began to blubber again. Alphena made a moue: Syra’s behavior infuriated her. She couldn’t really blame the woman, but if she had to listen to more of this whining, Alphena was going to slap her just to shut her up.
“Syra,” she said. “Go back to your cubby and stay there until morning. Go on, now!”
Florina took the other maid by the shoulders and turned her around, then shoved her out of Alphena’s protective circle. The push wasn’t brutal, but it was more forceful than necessary.
“Next,” Alphena said, “where’s Agrippinus? Oh, never mind, there’s Callistus. Callistus, come here!”
Her mind had direction now. She was proceeding logically, with a feeling of relief because she was proceeding.
The deputy steward had just come from the office. He heard his name and looked around with an angry expression to see who was calling him.
Alphena waved imperiously. That might not have been sufficient, but a Po-Valley Gaul from her escort bellowed, “Callistus! Get your fat Syrian ass over here! Lady Alphena wants to talk to you!”
The deputy steward’s expression went from being furious to being terrified in an eyeblink–the length of time it took him to get past the insulting nature of the summons to what the words actually meant. He came over to Alphena as quickly as his feet could mince.
“Your ladyship?” he said. “Is there something wrong? I assure you–”
“Hush,” said Alphena. “Find one of the clerks and a runner for me. I want to send a letter to–oh!”
Anna couldn’t read and write. Her husband could, but Pulto was here already with Corylus. And besides, Anna wouldn’t be able to–
“Your l-ladyship?” said the frightened deputy steward.
“The double litter is still here at the house, isn’t it?” Alphena said, making her decision as the words came out of her mouth. “Get it around to the front with the crew immediately. I’m going to see Master Corylus’ nurse at his home.”
She gestured to the servants standing around her. “These men will be my escort,” she said. “And find Iberus for a guide, he’s been to the apartment block before.”
“You should be talking to Nestor,” Callistus said. “The litters are–”
He closed his mouth and swallowed when he saw Alphena’s face contort.
“Want me to pop him one, your ladyship?” the big Gaul asked cheerfully.
“Let him see how those pretty teeth feel going down his throat?”
“I’ll see to it at once, your ladyship!” Callistus said. He turned, shouting, “Nestor! Spartax! I need you!”
“Your ladyship?” Florina said. “The regular litter hasn’t been taken back to the warehouse either, from when your father was using it. The little one would be handier if you’re going alone.”
Alphena looked at the girl. “I’m going alone,” she said. “But I’m bringing Anna back with me.”
She took a deep breath and added what she hadn’t intended to say to anybody but Anna herself. “When Anna gets here, I’m going to have her help me to find Hedia. Because Hedia came to save me.”
Corylus found Varus standing in his stepmother’s bedroom, staring moodily at the at the wall. The painting of Neptune and Amphitrite in a conch-shell chariot being drawn by sea horses was attractive–under other circumstances, Corylus might have spent some time examining it himself–but he doubted that his friend was really thinking about art at the moment.
Dozens of servants were in the suite, chattering, shuffling, and peering closely at the furniture. As Corylus entered, a maid opened a wardrobe cabinet, stared at the contents, and closed the wicker door just in time for a footman to open it and repeat the process.
“Gaius?” he said quietly. Then, when Varus didn’t react, he said in a louder voice, “Gaius Varus?”
Varus turned; his look of fierce intensity became welcoming. He said, “Publius, I’m glad to see you. Have you had any luck, ah…?”
He apparently didn’t know how to end the question. Corylus smiled faintly; that was understandable, since framing the questions was the really difficult problem.
“Perhaps,” Corylus said. “Is there a place we can talk privately?”
“Right here, I think,” Varus said, “if Lenatus and your man–”
He gestured past Corylus to the pair of veterans who had followed him into the suite.
“–can clear the room and then stand in the hallway.”
Corylus looked over his shoulder. Lenatus grinned like a drillmaster–a position he had held with the Alaudae Legion–and bellowed, “All right, you pansies! On the orders of Lord Varus, out! Every bleeding one of you. And if my buddy Pulto and me don’t think you’re moving fast enough, you’re out the bleeding window!”
“And we won’t take the grating off first!” Pulto said.
Servants either looked up in shock or hunched and stared at the floor, but they moved with surprising unanimity toward the door. Corylus heard a few whines of complaint, but no one tried to argue.
Varus leaned close to Corylus and said, “Could they really do that? The windows are too high, aren’t they?”
Corylus grinned, remembering a fight he’d seen in a tavern in Moguntiacum. There were no windows, but openings under the peak of the high thatched roof allowed smoke to trickle out.
“I think they could,” he said. “But I don’t think it’ll come to that.”
Lenatus and Pulto were the last out of the suite. Before he banged the door behind him, the trainer looked back and grinned again.
Corylus grinned also. “You’ve impressed Lenatus,” he said.
“What?” said Varus, looking puzzled. “I just stood here. Goodness, I couldn’t have emptied the room like that.”
“You did empty the room,” Corylus said. “You identified the correct subordinate for the job, gave him clear instructions, and stayed out of his way while he executed them. Any time you want a career that involves freezing your butt on the Rhine, the Army is ready to give you a home.”
He visualized his friend creeping through the Hercynian Forest in loose woolen leggings with a cape over his shoulders. His laugh was real and spontaneous, a release after a very tense day. Hercules! A lot of very tense days!
“You learned something about Hedia from talking to the doorman?” Varus said, smiling mildly at his friend’s pleasure. He didn’t ask what had caused the laughter, for which Corylus was thankful. Varus would think he was being mocked.
“No,” Corylus explained, “and I didn’t expect to. I was able to talk to Pulto and Lenatus about how we might find Pandareus, or at least find more out about him, though. Which is why I was prowling around with them.”
He grinned and added, “Your other servants were scared to death of being blamed for intruders getting in, so they kept as far away as they could while the three of us were muttering to one another in the door alcove.”
“Very good,” Varus said, nodding. “Yes, at least we know who abducted Pandareus.”
He pursed his lips with a frown and said, “It seems very unlikely that Tardus and his associates were involved with whatever happened to Hedia, however.”
Corylus shrugged. “I can’t imagine that there’s no connection, however,” he said. “Anyway, we have an entry point on Pandareus and none at all on her ladyship.”
Until now he’d kept his friend in the dark about his plans, which would have irritated many people. He hadn’t really been worried about how Varus would react–he was too smart not to realize that this discussion had to wait for complete privacy–but it was good to get past the concern.
“Right,” said Varus. “Explain your plan. And–”
A real smile lit his face.
“–if you’re going to tell me that it’s dangerous, as your expression suggests you are, then save your breath. I watched Typhon, if that’s what it was, destroying Carce. Nothing can be more dangerous that letting that happen.”
Corylus started to speak and found his throat was dry. He coughed to clear it, then said, “A tribune with a squad of the Praetorian Guard and an imperial writ would be able to enter Saxa’s dwelling, I believe. Ah–”
Spit it out!
“You were able to find the concealed entrance to the Serapeum,” he said, his tone level and his eyes on his friend’s. “I think, I hope, that you would be able to find Master Pandareus if he’s hidden in the house also. But because you’ve entered the house recently and by daylight, you would certainly be identifiable after the event. The others involved might possibly be able to conceal themselves from an investigation.”
Varus shrugged. “As I say, I don’t believe any risk is as great as the risk of doing nothing,” he said. He seemed truly nonchalant instead of putting on a brave face before his friend. “But how under heaven are you going to get a squad of Praetorians to escort me?”
“Ah!” said Corylus. “Pulto has connections with the equipment manager in the Praetorian Barracks. For a sufficient payment, ten sets of accouterments can be declared unserviceable and sent out to a scrap dealer. That won’t include swords, of course, but swords are available from the gladiatorial schools. They’re no problem.”
“I see,” said Varus. “But the men? I know we could hire idlers easily enough, but I wouldn’t want to trust them not to be drunk–or to run off when they really understand what they’re expected to do.”
“Nor would I,” Corylus said, pleased to see how quick his friend was, even on a matter that had probably never crossed his mind before. “Lenatus has sounded out seven of your male household servants; he’s had time to get to know your staff pretty well, of course. All of them agreed to join us. Ah, I’ll be the tribune, of course.”
“Yes, of course,” Varus said absently. He glanced toward the wall painting of Hercules spinning yarn for Queen Omphale. As before, Corylus doubted that the–excellent–painting figured in his friend’s thoughts.
Varus turned back. “You’re talking about slaves,” he said. “If this goes wrong, they will certainly be tortured and then crucified. Unless they die sooner under torture.”
He pursed his lips for a moment as he thought. “Well, I suppose we all will,” he said, “but we’re free men–you and me and the two at the door. Why would any slave take such a risk?”
“Gaius,” Corylus said, his grin spreading into a slow smile, “I don’t have the faintest idea, but it doesn’t surprise me. Men do lots of crazy things they don’t have to do. The scout detachments on the borders, they’re all volunteers, and believe me, there’s nothing the Emperor’s torturers can do that the Germans and Sarmatians haven’t done. I’ve seen the recovered bodies.”
He took a deep breath, silent for a moment with the memory. “I’ve helped recover the bodies, though I was a civilian kid who shouldn’t have been across the river,” he said, so softly that he wasn’t sure his friend could make out the words. It doesn’t matter.
He cleared his throat again and said, “Anyway, Lenatus trusts them so I trust them. They’ll mostly have to keep their mouths shut, because some of them speak bad Latin and the rest speak worse. Keeping their mouths shut right for soldiers on a raid like this, though.”
“Well, that’s in your hands,” Varus said. “You’re the officer, after all. What is my role, besides acting as your rabbit hound?”
“Well, there’s money,” Corylus said reluctantly. “I mean, I could swing it with a little time, but father’s banker would send to Puteoli before he’d clear the amount we’d need. There isn’t time. We need to move tomorrow, as early as we can get it together.”
“That’s not a problem,” Varus said, gesturing with his open left hand. “I’ll talk to father as soon as you’ve told me everything you think I need to know. What else?”
“Nothing else, I think,” Corylus said, again relieved of more stress than he had realized he was feeling. “I’ll be in front with Pulto; you’ll be right behind us, and then the rest of the squad with Lenatus at the rear. Wear a toga. Tardus’ servants can think what they want, and I’ll make sure Tardus himself has plenty to think about if he tries to argue. Beyond that–”
He tried to grin. It came out lopsided, but Varus seemed to appreciate the effort.
“–we’ll place our counters according to the throw of the dice.”
“Yes,” said Varus, nodding. He threw his shoulders back and shook himself. “Wait here, if you would. I’m going to go talk to my father.”
Corylus watched his friend leave the room, standing straight. Building Carce from huts on a hilltop to the metropolis of today had taken more kinds of men than just those who were willing to charge the enemy’s shield wall.
It had taken men like Gaius Alphenus Varus.
The entrance to Saxa’s suite was open. Varus didn’t know which of the ten or a dozen servants clustered there was technically the doorman on duty, so he said, “Ask my father if I may speak with him,” in a firm voice and trusted that the right party would hear him.
Servants oozed away, some turning their backs on Varus and bending away. They left a worried looking footman standing alone. He swallowed and piped, “Your lordship! His lordship has gone downstairs. I don’t… I don’t… your lordship, his lordship didn’t say where he was going!”
It’s quite amazing how useless our hundreds of servants are in a crisis, Varus thought. They’re all frightened to death.
So was he, of course, but that didn’t keep him from trying to find a solution.
Manetho had reattached himself when Varus left his mother’s rooms. “I’ll find him, Lord Varus!” he cried as he rushed down the stairs.
Varus managed to keep his expression blank as he followed in the midst of his considerable entourage. Normally he had very little to do with the household staff unless he brought himself to their attention, and even that sometimes took an effort. Lord Saxa’s bookish son didn’t shout and decree beatings as his sister did, so he could be–and often was–safely ignored.
Hedia’s abduction and the rumors about it–though it was hard to imagine rumors that would be more frightening than the reality–had so unsettled the servants that many were clustering about Varus simply because he appeared calm. He wasn’t calm, of course, but his Stoic appearance was sufficient to calm others.
Master Pandareus will be pleased to learn of this proof of the value of philosophy, Varus thought. And I will be even more pleased to be able to tell him of it.
Before Varus reached the bottom of the staircase, Manetho came from the side entrance to the office with a wild expression. “The master isn’t here!” he said. “They say he’s gone to the back garden, your lordship!”
“Well, then, we’ll go to the garden,” said Varus. Did everything have to be treated as a crisis? “Or at any rate, I will. I don’t believe I need help in accomplishing that, Manetho.”
“Of course, your lordship!” said the deputy steward, striding toward the back of the house with his head high and his chest thrown out. “You two! Take those lamps from their sconces and precede Lord Varus!”
Varus smiled, though the expression didn’t really reach his lips. Apparently I’m still being ignored, he thought. But I’m being smothered rather than shunned by the servants who ignore what I say.
There were so many people crowded into the rear of the house–the training ground, private bath, storage rooms, and the corridor to the back garden–that it took some moments for Manetho’s threats and bluster to clear passage. There wasn’t deliberate resistance, just a lack of room for frightened servants to displace into.
I wonder if Archimedes would have had a better answer? Varus thought. As many times before in the recent past, philosophy brought him a smile in a disturbing situation.
“I’ll announce you, your lordship,” Manetho said. Before Varus could decide how to proceed, the deputy steward turned the wooden gate latch and bellowed, “Lord Varus to see his father, the noble Lord Saxa!”
That probably wasn’t the form of address I would have chosen, Varus thought wryly. My fault for not reacting more quickly.
He stepped into the open gateway and stood, waiting to be recognized from the garden. To his surprise, Saxa was sitting on a bench along the sidewall–he looked up at the announcement–and was accompanied only by his chief secretary, Philon. A single lamp burned on a stake which had been driven into a planter of poppies close to the bench.
“Oh, I’m glad to see you, son,” Saxa said. He sounded more as though he were announcing that the Emperor had ordered him to commit suicide. “It’s kind of you to join me.”
“Would your lordships like me to give you your privacy?” Philon said. He moved quickly toward the gateway, ready to slip through as soon as Varus took a step. “I’ll be waiting in the passage, your lordship!”
There was no question that Philon would prefer to be somewhere other than on this haunted site. In all that had happened Varus had forgotten the garden’s bad reputation; it was obviously still at the top of the servants’ minds.
He was surprised to find his father here. There were people who liked trees and flowers, but Saxa had never displayed any interest in such things. Varus had expected to find his father in bed, perhaps curled with his knees lifted to his chest.
“Lord,” Varus said, standing formally in front of his father. “I need funds to carry out a project that may put you in a great deal of danger.”
“Sit down, my son,” Saxa said. He patted the bench but didn’t raise his eyes to meet those of Varus. “And yes, of course you can have whatever you need; just tell Agrippinus. I haven’t been a very good father, I know, but I hope–”
He finally looked up.
“–that at least you never thought I pinched you for money.”
Varus seated himself gingerly. He hadn’t expected to be alone with Saxa, so most of his mental preparation had involved choosing words that he could use in front of the servants without flatly saying what he planned. The plan, after all, would be treated as armed rebellion if it came to the Emperor’s notice.
“L-l…,” he said. He caught himself and took a deep breath, then said, “Father, it isn’t that. I need you to know that the money will be used for….”
He swallowed and resumed, “We will be committing treason in the eyes of the Emperor. That isn’t our intent, but the means we’re using are, well, treasonous, I suppose.”
“Will you be able to bring my wife back?” Saxa said, suddenly speaking with animation.
“I–” Varus said. This is so hard. “No, I will not. Not tomorrow, or at least I don’t think so. I hope that it will help us–”
He shouldn’t have been involving Corylus and the others, even by implication. Well, too late to worry about that.
“–rescue mother at some later point. If we succeed. If we survive.”
“Well, do what you can,” Saxa said sadly. He looked around the garden. “It’s my fault, you know. I brought Nemastes here, and that’s what started it all. Right here in this garden, we worked a spell that–”
He gestured toward the gap where magic had blasted the pear tree with unnatural cold.
“–did this. Caused demons to take my Hedia. I did it.”
Varus took Saxa’s right hand in his left. He didn’t remember ever doing that before. “Father?” he said. “Look at me, please.”
Saxa turned with a look of mild surprise. “Yes?” he said.
“I don’t understand what’s happening,” Varus said. “Not even Pandareus does. But I’ve seen enough to know that you weren’t the cause any more than I was or mother was or Alphena. What you did do was to help save Carce; and by providing funds, you’ll be doing that again.”
He smiled. “A philosopher should be truthful and precise,” he said. “What I should have said is that you will be helping us try to save Carce. I hope we’ll succeed, but I’m not a soothsayer to speak with divine certainty.”
In talking to Varus, Saxa had risen enough from the depths to chuckle. “I’ve known many soothsayers, my son,” he said. “I’ve never known one whose opinion I would take in opposition to yours.”
He pursed his lips and added, “My first wife had a pet sparrow. I would take its opinions ahead of those of most soothsayers, too.”
Varus realized he must have looked shocked. Saxa smiled faintly. He said, “I probably seem rather an old fool to you, son, because I believe in things which cannot be logically proven. Unlike my colleague Marcus Tardus, however, I don’t believe in things which have been logically disproven. I place portents of the future found in the shape of an ox liver in the disproven category.”
“I… see,” Varus said. He hesitated because he did see, perhaps for the first time, a portion of his father as a man. “I, we will try not to disappoint you, your lordship.”
He rose to his feet. Saxa got up also and unexpectedly gripped his hand. “You haven’t disappointed me, my son. You couldn’t disappoint me.”
Varus felt a surge of warmth toward his father. He said, “Sir? Why don’t you visit Marcus Priscus tomorrow, since the Senate won’t be in session? Get to sleep tonight, then send him a note in the morning saying that you intend to come over.”
“Do you suppose he’d be willing to see me?” Saxa said, noticeably brighter than he had been a moment before. “I don’t, I mean we haven’t been intimate friends, you know.”
“Priscus will be very interested in what happened tonight,” Varus said. Part of his mind wondered just how detailed a description of the event his father would provide. “And he’s as able as any man in Carce to explain what it means.”
He and Saxa shared a smile. It was the older man who voiced the thought of both: “Which means the chances are he’ll be completely at sea. Well, regardless, I welcome the chance to become better acquainted with so learned a man.”
Varus turned, thinking about the next step. He would offer Corylus a bed, though he wasn’t sure that his friend didn’t have more preparations to make yet tonight. After Varus confirmed that any necessary sum of money was available for the enterprise, all he had before him was sleep… which he was looking forward to.
Varus reached for the gate latch. Without warning, he was in the midst of a vision as sharply defined as the one that had filled the stage of the theater. He could no longer see the side of the house, and he turned to find the garden and his father had also been replaced by a crystal fortress squatting on a crag in the midst of jungle.
Huts not greatly different from those of a village in Greece or Lucania had been built around the fortress and spread halfway down the slope. They were burning now. The jungle smoldered in places, but the thick foliage was too green to sustain fire on its own. With the thought, Varus saw humans, some of them injured, crawling among the vines at the buttress roots of huge trees: refugees from the dwellings.
The fortress was shaped like an eight-pointed star. It was small and squat, no more than ten feet high from the ground to the flat roof and only 50 feet from point to the opposite point, but it remained untouched by flames from the score of flying ships which encircled it a quarter mile distant.
Some had penetrated closer: the wreckage of three vessels lay on the outskirts of the burning village. Each was charred around a hole the size of a bushel basket which had been burned through its hull.
A single flying ship moved slowly, bow-on, toward the fortress. The other vessels had hulls and masts of wood, but this one was of the same fiery metal as the armor of the figure in its stern. There were no other crewmen.
A bolt ripped from the fortress: not fire like what the ships had squirted on Typhon as it rent Poseidonis but rather a jet of white channeled lightning; the air glowed in its wake. The ship gleamed as if every surface was covered with ghostly corposants; it staggered, then resumed its slow progress.
A second bolt hit the vessel, then a third. The figure in the stern raised its hands to the flaring helmet, then lifted it off. Instead of a human head beneath the armor, Varus saw a grinning diamond skull.
Purple light flashed from the skull and licked across the face of the fortress. The wall crumbled like a streambank during a freshet.
The light cut off; the ship wallowed closer. Overhead, what had been a clear sky now roiled with lightning and stormclouds.
Again the purple glare ate into the heart of the fortress, revealing an armored figure in a bubble of clear light against which the purple raved. In one metal gauntlet he held a murrhine bar crossways toward the attacking vessel.
The murrhine split; the halves flew out of sight in either direction. It had been a hollow tube.
Instead of blasting the figure as it had the fortress which sheltered him, a third spurt of purple light plucked the armor off like a diner shelling a crayfish. The mouth of the diamond skull opened: the victor was laughing.
The vision blinked away. Varus fell forward, but his father caught him.
Saxa’s expression was as blank and frightened as Varus himself felt.
Hedia gasped, trying to get her breath. She thrashed for a moment, but that was pointless. The creature grasping her waist from behind had let go, but the two beside her each held a wrist. Their glassy hands were not uncomfortably tight, but they had no more give in them than if they had been carved out of stone.
She twisted to look at them. The creatures had opposable thumbs, but their fingers were fused into flat paddles. They were translucent, as though made from a dozen sheets of mica stacked together; she could see her wrists faintly through them.
She straightened again. The creatures seemed to pay her no attention. In silhouette they would have seemed human, but all the detail had been smoothed off. Hedia thought of statues worn by windblown sand.
She felt a smile twist the corners of her mouth. At least they don’t terrify me now, the way they did in my nightmares.
She forced her body to relax. “Do you have names?” she demanded.
The figure on her left turned its head toward her, then turned back. It didn’t speak, if it was even able to. The curves of its lips met in a shallow Vee and were seemingly carved from a single block.
“Where are you taking me?”
That brought no response at all. Well, she hadn’t expected it to. She looked about her for the first time.
Hedia and her captors stood as though in clear air. At first she had thought she was falling, but now she wasn’t sure. Things half-glimpsed swirled about them the way bubbles dance below a mill flume.
A man covered only by his gray beard and long hair suddenly was close: she didn’t see movement. From the way his face contorted as he shook his fist, he was shouting curses; Hedia couldn’t hear them; she heard only the shush of her own pulse in her ears. The figure shrank to a point and spun away, vanishing as suddenly as he had appeared.
Could he have touched me? Would the glass men have protected me if he tried?
A snake squirmed into view. Her captors faced it as stiffly as gladiators preparing to salute the Patron of the Games.
Why are they afraid? Hedia wondered. It seemed an ordinary blacksnake like the one in every temple of Apollo, fed by the priests on bread and milk when worshippers paid to receive the god’s attention.
The snake looked toward Hedia; its forked tongue quivered from between its closed lips. As suddenly, it loomed like an avalanche before them; its jaws opened wide enough to swallow a cart and oxen. Releasing Hedia, the glass figures raised their arms at angles like the Egyptian dancers painted on the walls of a temple of Isis.
Hedia felt a wrenching. The snake was no longer visible. She sank to her knees, raising her hands to her face but not–quite–covering her eyes. She began to sob loudly.
Her misery was perfectly believable; it always was. Hedia was young and fit, but she wasn’t large, and she tended to favor men of an athletic turn. Knowing when and how to weep had saved her from a beating or worse a number of times in the past, generally when a man entered unexpectedly and found her occupied in a fashion to which he took exception.
Once in fact she had been with the messenger who had brought a mistaken message saying his master, a military tribune, would be detained. The tribune had unfortunately hastened when his schedule had cleared again almost immediately. Hedia suspected things had gone very badly with the servant later that night, but she herself had come out of it with nothing worse than a bruised cheek and a table to replace.
It worked this time too. Her captors hedged her closely on three sides, but they didn’t take her wrists again as she knelt weeping.
A blue sphere took form below them, growing denser the way fog rises from a pond on a cool evening. It swelled as it came into better focus, becoming a mass of forested islands. The surrounding sea was ultramarine in the distance, but the water was pale and greener where it fringed the curving shores of an island.
The figure behind Hedia began to gesture with its hands while the other two remained still. Her head was at the level of his knees; she wondered what would happen if she lunged against him.
Very likely I would cut myself as badly as if I’d slammed into the Temple of Jupiter. Certainly their hands are like stone. Hedia smiled in her mind, though she was careful not to let the humor reach her lips. She began to sob as though her pet kitten had died.
The island now looked as solid as if she were viewing it from a high tower. She and her captors slid over the tops of giant trees, still descending at a flat angle. The air was humid and thick with the smell of rotting leaves.
When Hedia first had glimpsed the forest, it had seemed a solid green mass. Close up she could see not only different shades of green but also masses of yellow blooms among the leaves or even purple and bluish white. Birds shrieked at them; once a lizard as long as a canoe barked an angry challenge from the top of a tree limb. Her captors didn’t react.
Ahead was a hilltop which had recently been burned clear. It was enough higher than the ridge to either side that even bare it rose above the surrounding trees. The line on which they were moving passed very close above the crag.
Sunlight reflected in a dazzle. A building had stood here, but it had been shattered to stub walls and glittering debris over which the fronds of great fern were already curling.
A red-furred ape clambered through the wreckage; it turned and looked up at them. Its head was human with a pentacle tattooed in blue on its forehead. It screamed in fury.
The line of travel flattened still further; now Hedia and her captors were coursing parallel to the treetops ahead. There won’t be a better time.
Without hesitation, she threw herself forward. The figures to either side grabbed for her, but they were too slow. Hedia somersaulted in the air and hit the slope feet-first. She couldn’t stay upright, but she somersaulted again. Bouncing up, she threw herself into the shadows among the giant trees.
“Oh, Lady Alphena!” Anna said as two members of the escort started to hand Anna into the double litter. A third servant carried the old woman’s walking sticks. “This is much too fine for me! I’ll just hire a common chair, let me.”
“I’m sure mother would say that nothing is too good for the guest of our noble family,” Alphena said, trying to speak in a properly arch tone. She thought she had come fairly close, which made her giggle. That didn’t spoil the effect, since after she spoke she realized that Anna might not otherwise have realized she was joking. “Anyway, we’ll talk on the way back to the house.”
The servants who had carried Anna down from the third floor apartment shifted their grips and now lifted her onto the couch. They weren’t perfectly gentle, but Anna wasn’t a hothouse flower who needed coddling.
The men were Illyrians, enough alike to be brothers, and very possibly former pirates: both were heavily scarred, and one was missing his right ear. Regardless of how they looked, tonight Alphena had found them cheerful, helpful, and–frankly–quite reassuring. Your viewpoint changed when you suddenly had to consider the possibility of glass demons appearing out of thin air.
Alphena sat on the opposite side of the vehicle, then swung her legs in. She performed the maneuver easily–it was child’s play compared to the lunges and leaps she practiced on the training ground–but she found herself suddenly blushing.
She’d seen Anna’s look of shock and the way she raised her hand to her lips to cover a gasp. Alphena’s short tunic was the right garment for violent exercise, but it did very little to cover a woman who was being carried on a litter with her legs stretched out in front of her.
I’m not used to riding in litters! And anyway, Anna wouldn’t be shocked if she didn’t think I was a fine lady.
Scowling at herself, Alphena drew the side curtains. “Take us home, Manetho!” she called through them to the steward who had attached himself to her escorting servants.
The Cappadocian bearers lifted the heavy vehicle and started forward as part of the same smooth motion. “Oh, my…,” said Anna, though Alphena wasn’t sure whether she was commenting on the quality of the team or more generally on the situation.
As a courtesy, Alphena had entered the building to announce herself to the older woman instead of sending the servants up alone. She had left the sword lying along the axis of the litter, like a divider between the two passengers. Anna tapped the metal scabbard with a fingertip, making it ring softly. She said, “Think this is going to be needed tonight, your ladyship?”
“I know how to use it!” Alphena said, her voice sharp with a second cause of embarrassment.
“Aye, I know you do,” Anna said. “My boy has told me you do, and my Pulto has too. But that’s not what I asked your ladyship.”
“I’m sorry, Anna,” Alphena muttered. “And–”
She leaned forward to squeeze the older woman’s hand.
“–please, call me Alphena. I don’t mean to be…. Anna, I’m afraid.”
“There’s good reason to be afraid,” Anna said, nodding. The lanterns on the vehicle’s front corners cast enough light through the gauze curtains that Alphena could read Anna’s expression; she herself was in shadow. “My boy told me that you’re brave, too; but I didn’t need him to tell me what I saw myself when we first met.”
“It’s not monsters or glass men or, or those sorts of things that I’m afraid of,” Alphena said, realizing that she had to explain. She smiled wanly. “Anna, I have to save mother. And I’m afraid I won’t be able to. I know what she did for me.”
The older woman’s face grew unexpectedly hard. In a rasping voice she said, “You’re a good girl and you mean well, but don’t say you know that. Even if her ladyship told you what she’d done, you wouldn’t know what it meant until you’d done it yourself.”
Anna had straightened as she spoke. With a grimace she settled back–she didn’t look relaxed, but at least she no longer looked as though she was going to lunge at Alphena in fury–and added, “Which you may have to, child. I’ll help as I can, but I’d no more be able to go in your place than I could have in your mother’s.”
“I’m sorry,” Alphena said. In a matter of heartbeats she had gone from embarrassed to furious–What does this servant mean to be lecturing me?–to calm and apologetic before opened her mouth. “I used the wrong words. I know that mother risked a great deal to rescue me. I’ll help her now in any way I can.”
Anna remained sunk in thought for some moments. The litter bearers changed on the move. The only reason Alphena was aware of what was happening was that briefly there were eight voices rather than four calling cadence at the corners of the vehicle. Their chantey was in what might either be Cappadocian or nonsense.
“I’m sorry, your ladyship,” Anna muttered. Her eyes remained downcast. “I know you’ll help as it takes, that you won’t funk it. You come to fetch me, after all. And if you don’t know all of it, then–”
She smiled, weakly but honestly.
“–I guess you know that it won’t be easy or good either one.”
She reached out and squeezed Alphena’s hand; Alphena returned the clasp with a feeling of relief.
“The truth is…,” Anna said. She was barely whispering, though no one could have overheard them through the singsong drone of the litter bearers. “That I’m afraid myself, for what my part is. But I’ll help your mother and I’ll help you. I’ll do it for my duty.”
She chuckled, deep in her throat, and raised her eyes to Alphena’s. “Anyway,” she said, “I don’t guess anything that happens to the three of us is going to be worse than what’ll happen to all the world if somebody doesn’t stop it. And getting Lady Hedia back is at least a step that way.”
“We’re coming to the house, your ladyship!” Manetho called from ahead of the vehicle.
Alphena squeezed the older woman’s hand again. “We’ll bring her back, Anna!” she said, wishing that she really believed her own words.
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