Legions Of Fire – Snippet 07

She listened critically a little while longer. Varus seemed to be doing quite well at creating a farce on his own. Perhaps tomorrow she could take him aside and discuss with him more suitable ways for a young man of his station to become part of public life. Misery might have made him malleable.

Her lips tightened. Syra noticed the minute change in expression and winced, so Hedia forced herself to smile again. If I move quickly enough, I can marry Alphena off and save her from her father’s ruin.

There was nothing she could do for Saxa’s son, though. Varus was doomed even if Hedia encouraged him to go to the right sort of drinking parties and perhaps introduced him to women who would like to polish the education of a boy who seemed younger than his years.

Hedia didn’t care about Varus, but she cared quite a lot about Saxa. If there’d been a way to snatch her husband’s male issue from the disaster, she would have done so.

Saxa was a bit of a mystic and a bit of a fool. The best Hedia could say for his physical approaches to her was that they were well intentioned and perhaps not the clumsiest of her considerable experience. But he was kind, a genuinely decent man, and one who could see the real heart of things more clearly than anyone else she knew.

Saxa’s offer of marriage close on the heels of the death of his cousin, Calpurnius Latus, had been as surprising as it was welcome. Hedia hadn’t murdered Latus — indeed, it was likely enough that fever, not poison by his hand or that or another, had carried her husband off. It wouldn’t have been hard to suggest otherwise, however, and Latus’ well-connected family had a considerable legacy to gain if the widow were executed for his murder.

All the whispers had stopped when Saxa married the widow. A cynic might suspect that he had simply scooped the legacy from the other relatives. Nobody who knew Saxa would believe that, however: he was not only staggeringly rich, he was as little interested in money for its own sake as any man in the Senate.

Perhaps Saxa had seen an excitement in Hedia which his life had lacked to that time. As for Hedia herself —

She paused, thinking. Saxa had given her safety, a debt which she would repay to the best of her ability. But he unexpectedly had brought her a kind of sweetness which she hadn’t to that point imagined.

Saxa was a silly old buffer, but she loved him. Which was something else she hadn’t imagined would ever happen.

There were voices at the front door; the German accent of the handsome new doorman was unmistakable. Immediately servants appeared from nooks and crannies. Sometimes Hedia thought of the way roaches scrambled if you stepped into the pantry at night with a lamp.

She stepped into the reception hall. A pair of the attendants who’d left with Saxa in the morning were jabbering directions to Agrippinus. The major domo must have been in the office . . . though how he’d gotten there without Hedia seeing him pass completely escaped her.

He bowed. “Mistress,” he said with a bow. “Our lord the Senator has requested that a lighted brazier be placed in the back garden for him and a companion. They will be arriving shortly.”

“Then you had better do it,” said Hedia, dismissing him with a crisp nod.

The two messengers started off with Agrippinus. “Not you, Bellatus,” Hedia snapped to the one whose name she remembered.

Bellatus froze as though he had taken an arrow through the spine. “Mistress?” he quavered.

“Will my lord’s companion be Nemastes the Foreigner?” she asked.

“I, ah, believe he might be, noble mistress,” the servant said. He knelt, more to hide his face than to honor her, she thought.

“You may go,” Hedia said, her tone mild and ironic.

Bellatus scampered away. That’s just as well, thought Hedia with a faint smile. If he’d stayed a moment or two longer, I’d have slashed him across the face with my fan.

Clicking the ivory slats open and closed, Hedia took her position in front of the tiled pond in the entranceway. The edges of the fan had been painted while it was slightly ajar, then closed and gilded. If you ruffled the slats just right, you saw a nude girl on one side and a simply charming youth on the other.

Hedia continued to smile as she watched through the open outside door at the end of the hall. The messengers couldn’t have been very far ahead of Saxa and the Hyperborean.

The servants had vanished again, all but Syra who was looking determinedly toward the garden instead of out into the street. The maid couldn’t flee, but she could pretend she was somewhere else.

There was a bustle outside. The doorman stepped into the street and bellowed, “All hail our noble master Gaius Alphenus Saxa, twice Consul and Senator!”

That was what Flavus meant to say, at any rate. Between his poor grasp of Latin and a German accent that made everything sound as though he had a mouthful of pork, you had to know what the words should be to understand him.

The crowd of clients bowed and saluted in the street. There were forty and more of them on a normal day, men who either owed Saxa service or hoped for a favor. Favors could range from occasional dinners and a small basket of coins during the Saturnalia, to support in an election or during a court proceeding. The Senator would never have to face the dangers of the streets alone.

Indeed, for poor men out at night a rich man’s entourage was one of the greater risks. A band of enthusiastic clients would beat a tipsy countryman with the same enthusiasm that they would lavish on a real footpad. More, in fact, because the robber would probably be armed and dangerous to tackle.

Saxa entered, his head cocked over his shoulder to talk with the man behind him. He didn’t notice his wife for a moment. When he did, he stopped, looking startled and embarrassed.

“Good evening, dear,” he said. “I, ah . . . . I’m afraid I don’t have time to chat just now.”

Saxa was fifty-two years old; plumpish, balding, and with the open face of a boy. At the moment he looked rather like a boy caught masturbating when his mother walked in. Hedia smiled with more humor than she’d felt before that image came to her.

Nemastes the Hyperborean stepped to Saxa’s side; the outer doorway was too narrow for them to have entered together. He dipped to one knee to acknowledge the mistress of the house. He must be at least six and a half feet tall — he towered a hand’s breadth above the German doorman — but he was skeletally thin.

Nemastes’ eyes were large and brown. There was nothing remarkable about them in a quick glance, but Hedia had never seen the fellow blink.

“We have family business, my lord, regarding the future of your daughter,” Hedia said. Her words were those of a subservient wife, but her tone would leave a stranger with no doubt regarding the real distribution of power in the household. “Perhaps you can meet with your acquaintance some other day.”

Nemastes rose and waited impassively. He didn’t bother to scowl at Hedia or sneer; rather, he waited for her to get out of the way as he might have done if a herd of swine had blocked his path.

Normally Saxa’s clients would have entered the hall with him and taken their leaves individually in ascending order of rank. It was Nemastes’ presence that had held them outside. In the street they could keep their distance from the Hyperborean while still accompanying the Senator, but the hallway might have squeezed them into closer contact, which they all preferred to avoid.

“Ah, my pet, not now, I’m afraid,” Saxa muttered, staring at his hands as he wrung them.

“My lord, now,” Hedia said. Paving stones would have more give to them than her voice did. “I intend to hold a marriage divination for Alphena at the full moon, which is tomorrow night. She is your daughter and we must discuss the arrangements.”

“Whatever you decide, dearest,” Saxa said, fluttering his hands miserably. “We have to, that is, I have to –”

“Husband,” said Hedia. She didn’t raise her voice, but each of the syllables she clipped out could have broken glass. “We –”

“Hedia, I really must go!” Saxa said. “Master Nemastes and I have business to transact now, men’s business! Good day!”

Head high, back straight, and face set in misery, Saxa stamped through the door to the courtyard and continued around the pool to the rear suite of rooms. The back garden was the end of the lot on which the townhouse stood, closed on three sides by high walls.

Nemastes stalked along after him, looking more than usually like a praying mantis. He didn’t bother to glance at Hedia, any more than a traveler would be concerned with the pigs which had briefly delayed him.

Hedia sighed. There was very little that she couldn’t get a man to do without help, but this business was exceptional.

She walked into the courtyard, staying on the far side from the Black-and-Gold Hall so as not to disturb the reading.

Hedia was going to the gymnasium. She needed a magician, and that meant she needed the aid of Corylus’ servant.