Legions Of Fire – Snippet 09

* * *

Off-duty servants — most of household staff was off-duty most of the time — leaped to their feet and bowed as Hedia entered the suite of small rooms leading to the exercise yard. There’d been a game of bandits in progress. An under steward now sat awkwardly on the game board, but one of the knucklebones they’d been throwing had escaped into the middle of the terrazzo floor when the mistress unexpectedly appeared.

“Go away,” Hedia said in apparent disgust. She didn’t care that the servants were gambling illegally. She knew, though, that if her tone suggested that she was thinking of crucifying them, she would get a degree of privacy that was otherwise beyond imagining.

The twenty-odd people in the four small rooms scattered like blackbirds startled from a barley field; at least one was still tying his sash. The under steward ducked out but paused in the doorway. One hand stretched toward the loose knucklebone but his eyes were on Hedia; he suddenly vanished after the rest.

Hedia glanced at Syra. The maid looked studiously innocent. Very likely she was more than a casual friend of one of the people routed by their mistress’ appearance.

“What’s the name of that under steward, Syra?” Hedia asked in a conversational tone.

“Ursus, I believe, mistress,” Syra said without meeting her mistress’ eyes. She kept her voice calm, but she blushed down to the top of her tunic.

Hedia smiled, not from what she’d learned — she didn’t care about that — but because she’d learned it using observation and her mind. She nodded, silently directing Syra to open the door into the exercise yard.

Knowing that Pulto and Lenatus were comrades from the army, Hedia had expected to find them sharing a carafe of something from Saxa’s storeroom and chatting about old times. Instead she’d heard slams and grunts as she entered the rear apartments.

When the door opened, the men sprang apart and faced her. For a moment they were nothing human: they’d been sparring in full armor and now glared at her with eyes slitted between shield tops and the beetling brass brows of their helmets.

“Hercules!” the man on the right said. He threw down his fat wooden sword and straightened, sweeping off his helmet. He was Lenatus, which meant —

“Mistress, very sorry!” the trainer said. He hadn’t done anything more than marginally improper, but he obviously considered it a sign of trouble when the lady of the house visited his domain for the first time. “I, ah, needed to keep my skills up, so I asked a friend of mine to exercise with me!”

— that the other man was Pulto, whom Hedia had come to see. He set his wooden sword in the rack and took off his helmet. He stood with it in his right hand and his shield, a section of cylinder made from laminated wood, still in his left.

Pulto was politely expressionless, but his stance was wary. He was a free man and not a member of Saxa’s household, but he obviously felt that Hedia’s lack of direct authority over him wouldn’t be much protection if she wanted his hide. She supposed soldiers got used to being in that sort of situation.

“It’s quite all right, Lenatus,” Hedia said breezily. “I was hoping to have a few words with your guest, here. Master Pulto, isn’t it? That is, while your master is attending my son at the reading.”

She waved a gracious hand. “If you’d like to go on, please do so,” she said. “I only need a minute or two after you’ve finished.”

Syra looked at her in shock; that made Hedia want to slap her. Of course I don’t mean it, girl, but these men aren’t stupid enough to think that I do!

“Time I quit anyhow, ma’am,” Pulto said in evident relief. “I’m so out of shape I embarrass myself. It’s a bloody good thing the Old Man wasn’t watching me waddle around just now!”

He placed his helmet on top of a post in a wall niche, then unfastened the stout leather thong stretching from the top of his shield to a hook in the armor over his right shoulder blade. That spread the shield’s considerable weight to the other side as well as taking some of it off his arm.

“Oh, you weren’t doing too bad, buddy,” said Lenatus as he disarmed also. “If you take a couple weeks to shape up, you’ll be ready for carving up Germans and all the other fun and games.”

Hedia watched the men without expression. They were pretending that things were normal and that the lady of the house wasn’t about to make some unfathomable upper-class demand that they would have to obey. She had spoken only of Pulto, but they were friends; neither was going to leave the other alone in the soup.

With abrupt decision, she looked at her maid. “Syra,” she said, “go back to my suite and set out clothing for dinner. I’ll wear the violet synthesis, I believe, and the gold jewelry from Ephesus.”

The men had been unlacing one another’s armor; they paused. Syra blinked in surprise and didn’t move either.

“Now, girl!” Hedia said. The maid squeaked and vanished back toward the front of the house.

“You gentlemen can relax,” Hedia said, letting her voice take on a slight throatiness. She closed the door. “I need a favor and I hope you can help me, but you won’t either of you be harmed by this business whatever your answer is.”

The men looked at one another. “Ma’am?” Pulto repeated, carefully.

Hedia picked up the sword which Lenatus had dropped. It was startlingly heavy.

Her surprise must’ve shown. Lenatus took it from her with a grin and set it in the rack below the one Pulto had been using. “They’re wood right enough, mistress,” he said, “but there’s lead in the hilt and they’re double the weight of an issue sword.”

“You practice with these,” said Pulto, “and it’s like going on leave when it’s the real thing. Well, that’s the idea.”

“Yeah, except for the spear points coming the other way,” grunted Lenatus.

Both men chuckled. Their grins made them look both reassuring and ugly beyond words. Well, they were reassuring if they were on your side.

Hedia nodded toward the rack of swords. “Does my daughter Alphena practice with those swords also?” she said.

Pulto stiffened into professional blankness. Lenatus clacked the heels of his cleated sandals together and straightened to attention. “Yes, your ladyship,” he said, his gaze directed at something past her left shoulder. “She does.”

Hedia nodded. The trainer hadn’t lied or made excuses, just stated the flat truth and waited for what would happen next.

Nothing, or at least nothing bad, would happen to him, because he had proved he was a man. Therefore his friend Pulto was probably equally trustworthy.

“As her mother, I hope she’ll grow out of it,” Hedia said in a mild, conversational voice. “But I’m very much afraid that if I tried to forbid her, she’d go off to Puteoli and enroll in one of the gladiatorial schools. Not so, Master Lenatus?”

The men were smiling again. Pulto’s cheeks swelled as he suppressed a guffaw.

“Your ladyship,” said Lenatus, “I think you’re wise. She can’t get into any real trouble hacking at a post here at home.”

He nodded to the armored dummy which could be put in the middle of the yard for solo practice.

“But if she goes outside, she’ll be sparring or worse. And that I won’t let her do here, not if the master come down and ordered me to.”

“I do not believe my lord and master will give you such an order, Lenatus,” Hedia said, speaking carefully. Nothing in her tone could be read as mockery of her husband, but neither did the words allow any doubt that she meant them.

She made a moue. She was here to deal with her domestic problems, but not by discussing them with a pair of commoners. Switching the topic slightly to lower the emotional temperature before she got to the real question at issue, Hedia said, “Does anyone else practice here, Lenatus?”

“Well, the young master does sometimes,” the trainer said, just as careful in choosing his words as Hedia had been a moment before. “And –”

His eyes flicked left to his friend, but the men didn’t exactly exchange glances.

“– sometimes he brings his friends here. Master Corylus, for one.”

Pulto nodded with stolid enthusiasm. Corylus was the only friend Varus brought here, of course: the only one interested in military-style exercise, and probably the only friend Varus had.