Legions Of Fire – Snippet 06

Alphena had intended to ignore her stepmother, but Hedia hadn’t permitted that to happen. The day after Saxa brought his new wife home, she had made an inventory of the townhouse. Agrippinus had guided her, but even then Alphena had realized that Hedia was in charge.

The servants treated Alphena like a small dog with a tendency to bite; they respected and feared their new mistress, which was quite different. That had been another case in which Alphena would have been less angry if she hadn’t seen the reality of things so clearly.

Hedia was all the things Saxa’s daughter was not: beautiful, sophisticated, and sleek. Alphena had thought it would be easy to hate her; and perhaps she did, but she found she respected Hedia as well. The older woman was as much at war with society’s view of Proper Womanhood as Alphena was, though their techniques could scarcely have been more different.

And Hedia was a lot more successful in her revolt.

“The monster roared!” sang Varus. “It was louder than the booming East Wind, more violent than the tempest which shakes the sea bare to its depths!”

Why does she does she insist that I get married? Alphena thought. And then with a silent wail she added, And why does Corylus ignore me? I’ve seen him look at her!

She shivered. The room was crowded and should have been uncomfortably warm at this time in the afternoon, but she’d felt a chill touch her spine. Corylus was as cold and distant as the image of Jupiter Best and Greatest in his temple on the Capitoline Hill.

Alphena tried to be angry with her stepmother, but she knew in her heart that Hedia meant well by her. So why does she insist I get married?

She was afraid she knew the answer.

“We fled,” sang Varus, “breathless with terror — but in vain!”

* * *

Hedia stood in the doorway to the portico around the central garden. Her expression was as calm and aristocratic as those of the death masks of her husband’s noble ancestors hanging from the walls of the reception room behind her. Both had been whitened, her face with rice flour and white lead for the wax which decades and even centuries had turned black.

Hedia doubted that the ancestral masks were angry. She made it a point of pride that people around her couldn’t read her emotional state, but obviously she wasn’t as successful as she would have hoped: her personal maid, Syra, was in a state of terror.

Hedia patted the girl’s wrist with her left hand. “It’s quite all right, dear,” she said. “It’s nothing to do with you.”

Syra’s lip quivered. Her eyes were fixed on the great purple flowers of the cardoons in the garden, but tears dribbled from their outer corners.

Does the fool think I’m going to have her tortured to death because my stepdaughter won’t listen to me? Hedia thought in a fury. How dare she! She raised the folded fan in her right hand —

And caught herself with a sudden giggle. Syra had been with Hedia for five years, through her first marriage. She was a perceptive girl. Sometimes rather too perceptive for her own good.

There were over two hundred servants in Saxa’s townhouse. Syra was the only one Hedia could see at the moment, and the maid would have fled too if she had dared. They all knew that the mistress was angry, and they weren’t sure that there was any limit on the kind of punishments that anger could lead to.

Normally servants swarmed in every room unless you ordered them out, and even then they’d be listening at doors and from outside under the windows. A rich man and his spouse had no more privacy than did the members of a poor family crammed six or ten to a tenement apartment.

Which was why Hedia was furious about her husband’s stupid behavior. She didn’t know what this Nemastes was doing, but she was quite certain that when the Emperor heard about it — when, not if — he and his inquisitors would take a dim view.

If Saxa had been carrying on at one of his rural estates — he had a score of them, scattered from Spain to Syria — he might have gotten away with it at least for a while. This was the middle of Carce. Every time Hedia heard horses in the street outside, her heart leaped with the thought that it was a troop of the German Bodyguards come to arrest everybody in the house and carry them to the palace for questioning.

They’d start with the slaves, of course, but neither Saxa’s lineage nor Hedia’s own would spare them from torture when the Emperor’s safety was at risk. So stupid.

Hedia gave Syra a look of calm appraisal. The maid didn’t look away, but she squeezed her eyelids shut. Tears continued to dribble from beneath them, and it was obviously taking all her strength to stifle the sobs.

Hedia didn’t have anybody to talk to. If she said, “Syra, what do you think this Nemastes is really after?” the girl would simply stare like a rabbit facing a weasel. And Syra didn’t have an answer, none of the servants had an answer, no more than Hedia herself had an answer.

As if she were reading Hedia’s mind, Syra whispered, “Your ladyship, do you think the Senator’s new foreign friend is a real magician?”

Hedia smiled wryly. Syra’s eyes were still closed. She’d spoken because she was more afraid of silence than of speaking; and she’d asked the same empty question her mistress would have asked if she’d permitted herself the weakness.

“Oh, I don’t imagine so, Syra,” Hedia said lightly. “No doubt there are real magicians in the world, but I’m afraid my dear Gaius Saxa is more the sort to attract charlatans and confidence men. I suppose that’s all right so long as it amuses him. He can afford his whims, after all.”

By Astarte’s tits! She thought behind her bland smile. How I wish I thought Nemastes was a charlatan.

Hedia had met — and had done various other things with — quite a number of charismatic, powerful men at one time or another. Nemastes wasn’t simply a foreigner who had fasted himself thin and shaved his scalp clean.

For one thing, he wasn’t shaven and it wasn’t his scalp alone: his whole body was as hairless as an egg. The linen singlet the Hyperborean — wherever and whatever Hyperborea was — wore had few secrets from eyes as practiced as Hedia’s at assessing men.

If she’d only seen him once, he could have had his body waxed to impress the gullible. There was no sign of regrowing hair on any of the later visits however. That didn’t prove Nemastes was a magician. Hedia was quite sure he was something, though; and Hedia hadn’t needed to feel the hatred boiling from the fellow’s eyes to know that he was something dangerous to know.

Varus began to recite; Hedia looked toward the entrance of the Hall. From where she stood, the words were a drone with an irritating timbre. She suspected — she grinned at Syra, but the maid didn’t grin back — that the audience heard a louder version of the same irritating drone.

When Alphena had turned and scurried into the hall, Hedia had seriously considered striding herself and retrieving the girl. Saxa’s daughter was used to being the only person present who didn’t mind a scene. That had changed when her father remarried, and the sooner the girl learned it, the better off they all would be.

“I thought of dragging Lady Alphena out by the ear,” Hedia said in a low but conversational tone.

Syra’s eyes were open again; the words made her blink. “The young lady is very athletic,” the maid said carefully. She obviously wasn’t sure whether her mistress was joking. “She practices in the gymnasium almost daily.”

Hedia let her smile spread slightly. “I wasn’t proposing to put on armor and duel her,” she said. “If you haven’t had it happen to you, Syra, you can’t imagine how painful it is to have someone twisting your ear. You’ll walk along with them rather than do anything that pulls harder on it.”

She mused on the Black and Gold Hall. It wasn’t anything to do with Alphena which had stopped Hedia from acting on her first impulse; rather, it was the embarrassment the scene would have caused Varus.

He wasn’t the kind of man — boy — that Hedia would ordinarily have paid any attention to. He was a weedy little fellow, bookish and above all earnest. Sometimes that was a pose: Hedia had let one of her first husband’s philosophical friends grope her beneath a bust of Zeno in his library because the split between appearance and reality amused her.

In Varus’ case, it was poetry rather than philosophy — they were much of a sameness, of course; just words either one — but Varus couldn’t have been more serious about His Art. Hedia took her duties as mother seriously. She wouldn’t think of turning the boy’s first public recital into a farce.