Legions Of Fire – Snippet 05

As for Lenatus, he’d taken his master’s lesson to heart: he pretended he didn’t hear either party to the argument.

Corylus had at last gone ahead with his basic drills, despite the audience. He couldn’t order around the family of the man from whom he was accepting a favor. Alphena had colored when he said, “When in Carce, one follows the customs of Carce,” and bowed low to her, however. He’d made the light comment sound more insulting than a tirade from a bearded Stoic philosopher.

“Gentlemen of Carce!” squeaked Varus. Oh, Venus and Mars, he sounds so young! “I welcome you on my own behalf and on behalf of Senator Gaius Saxa, my noble father and patron!”

The audience shuffled its feet dutifully, indicating its appreciation of the greeting. Alphena turned and glanced back, wondering if Saxa had come in after she did. She couldn’t see the whole room — she was shorter than most of the richly dressed freedmen — but she knew that the Senator’s presence would have caused a stir.

Saxa was probably off with Nemastes again; he seemed to spend all his time with the Hyperborean. He had never pretended to care about literature, of course, so he probably wouldn’t have been present at his son’s reading regardless.

Saxa was a good father in most fashions. He never ranted at his children about their behavior, and he supplied the money for their whims without objection or concern. He even seemed to care about their well-being, though he viewed them from a foggy distance.

Alphena didn’t love Saxa; that would be like saying she loved the ornamental pond in the garden. But she liked him a good deal, and she certainly didn’t want her existence to change so that he was no longer part of her life. One way or another, Nemastes the Hyperborean meant change.

“The filthy River Baroda slowly plows the sandy wastes of Libya,” Varus said, beginning to chant his poem. His voice had settled out of its initial squeak, but it had no more life than the plash of rain into the cistern in the entranceway.

Alphena had heard established poets and professional singers whom her father had invited to dinner parties. Some of them were better than others, but she couldn’t compare even the worst of them to what she was hearing now. Her brother’s delivery was as dull as watching concrete set.

Nemastes had appeared two weeks earlier as a petitioner at Saxa’s morning levee. The Hyperborean was only a short step up from the outright beggars who crowded every rich man’s doorstep until the servants ran them away, but because he claimed to be a wizard he’d been admitted to the office after Saxa and his more important clients had exchanged greetings.

Nobody seemed to know what had happened then, but Saxa and the Hyperborean had spent most of their waking hours together ever since. Indeed, Saxa had announced that Nemastes would be moving into the town house —

But that plan had collided with Hedia. Nemastes might well be a wizard, but Saxa’s third wife had proved a match for whatever magic he was using on the Senator. There’d been a blazing argument — Hedia was petite, but her lungs and projection could match a professional actor’s — at the end of which the two men had left the house. Saxa had returned alone later that evening.

“A dragon a hundred cubits long lived near that fateful bank, in a grove like the Avernian entrance to the Underworld,” chanted Varus. His expression mingled terror with resignation. Alphena wondered in a clinical fashion whether that was how men looked when they were waiting to be executed.

She hadn’t respected her brother until she realized that Publius Corylus did respect him. Of course a rich man’s son would always have men — and women, of a sort — crawling about him. Varus had stayed free of parasites, however, in much the fashion in which he had the mud wiped from his shoes when he’d been caught outdoors in the rain.

Corylus wasn’t a toady trying to cadge wine and dinners at the tables of the wealthy. He treated Varus with the respect owed a senator’s son — and treated Saxa, when they occasionally met, with the greater respect owed a senator; but it was always the respect which a free man owed his social superiors, not cringing servility. He’d befriended Varus as a still-more-learned scholar.

Corylus didn’t behave in an improper fashion toward Alphena. She’d have cut him off at the ankles if he had, but with a sense of smirking satisfaction; he was, after all, a handsome youth though a member of the lower orders. Instead, ever since their first loud argument about her presence in the gym, he pretended not to be aware of her existence. Which is just what he’s doing now.

Alphena’s lips set in a hard line. With the two freedmen gone, there was room on the bench for three Alphenas. She squiggled closer to Corylus, bringing her left thigh in contact with his right.

He didn’t twitch, not even to move away. She would have gotten as much reaction from a statue. He seemed completely lost in her brother’s poem, though how anybody could really listen to that twaddle was beyond her.

“The monster split the earth and raised its glittering head to the stars,” Varus chanted. His hawk-featured teacher was jotting in a notebook of waxed boards, though his eyes never left the boy’s face. Judging from Pandareus’ expression, he wouldn’t have anything pleasant to say to Varus at the end of the session . . . but maybe that was unfair. He might be serious rather than fierce.

Alphena hadn’t taken well to Hedia when Saxa brought his new wife home. His first wife, Marcia, had given him both his children but died of fever a week after Alphena was born.

Sometimes Alphena wondered what it would be like to have known her mother, but now that she was a teenager, she knew that she had seen as much of Marcia as most of her acquaintances did of their mothers. Even when the parents remained married, the wife’s social life was more important than the child-rearing duties which could, of course, be delegated to a slave or an inexpensive peasant woman.

Saxa had then married Secunda, her mother’s younger sister. Alphena remembered seeing her several times in the three years or so the marriage had lasted. Secunda had flitted occasionally through her life with a train of maids and pages, perfectly dressed. Each time, she dipped her fan toward the children, gave them a gracious smile, and continued on her way.

Alphena imagined that Secunda had a lovely, melodious voice, but she’d never heard it. She wondered if Varus had.

After the divorce — Alphena couldn’t even guess when that had been; she’d been young, and neither the marriage nor its dissolution seemed to have been matters of great moment, even to the couple itself — the affairs of the Senator’s household had gone on in a very placid fashion. Alphena’s nurses and other female servants had made sure that she learned What Men Are Like — but frankly, her father had never struck her as that sort of man. Indeed, often he didn’t seem to be any sort of man.

Thus when Saxa suddenly married the widow of his cousin, Calpurnius Latus, the mere fact had been a terrible shock to Alphena. Hedia herself had been a much worse surprise. Unlike Secunda — and probably Marcia — she had immediately become involved in every aspect of the household, including her husband’s sixteen-year-old daughter.

Even a girl brought up to prize the feminine virtues of good breeding and decorum would have found the situation a wrench. Alphena had early on set out to be the son which her brother certainly was not. The new marriage had made her blaze like a funeral pyre even before she heard the stories about her stepmother which the servants were only too happy to retail. If so much as half of them were true, Hedia was a fast woman and no better than she should be.

In addition, rumor said that not fever but poison offered by his wife had carried off Calpurnius Latus. Was her father out of his mind?

“The monster filled its vast gullet and its poison-pregnant belly with full-grown lions which it snatched as they came down to the Bagrada to drink!” chanted Varus. The snake that lived in the Temple of Feminine Fortune — the spirit of the temple, the priest said — ate morsels of bread sopped in milk, but one was expected to provide a silver piece to the priest also if you wished to be certain that your prayer would be honored.

It would take a great deal of bread and milk to feed a snake the size of the one Varus had invented. Alphena wouldn’t have thought lions were so common in Libya that they made a reasonable alternative, though.

She felt the solid presence of Corylus’ thigh, but his mind seemed to be in another world. He wasn’t so much avoiding Alphena as unaware of her existence.