Legions Of Fire – Snippet 14

“Together doing what?” Hedia snapped. “Tell me, husband, what was your so-called magician doing? Besides tricking you out of money, I mean, because I know he’s robbing you!”

That was a lie. She’d originally believed Nemastes was a charlatan — anybody would have believed that. She only became really worried — really frightened — when she realized that the Hyperborean’s magic wasn’t just tricks and suggestion.

“No, you’re quite wrong, dear one,” Saxa said, sounding relieved. “Master Nemastes hasn’t taken a single coin from me. He’s a king in his own land, you see.”

Hedia wanted to slap him. How do you know he’s a king, you puling child? Because he told you so?

And yet Saxa wasn’t a fool or even unsophisticated in most respects. This was just something that he desperately wanted to believe.

“He pays for his needs with gold that he brought with him,” Saxa continued earnestly. “All I did, dear heart, was introduce him to my own bankers, the brothers Oppius. Because Hyperborean gold isn’t coined; it grows in blocks of quartz. But it’s pure, the brothers assure me it is. They wouldn’t lie to their own cost.”

No, unless they were part of the swindle themselves, Hedia thought. But she didn’t believe that, much as she wished it were true. The Oppii and their ancestors had served the Alphenus family for three generations.

“The money I withdrew isn’t for Nemastes,” Saxa said, the first time Hedia had heard about a withdrawal. “I’m renovating the Temple of Tellus at the entrance to the Carinae District. As a public service, you see.”

He tried a smile. “That’s why I suggested you and Alphena hold the marriage divination there, you see,” he said. “The chief priest is a freedman named Barritus who owns the laundry on the same block. I knew he’d jump at a chance to do anything for me, since I haven’t decided the scale of the renovation yet.”

“Why are you . . . ?” Hedia said, as startled as if Saxa had just announced he was going to retire to his villa in the Campania and spend the rest of his life as a gentleman farmer. “That is, it’s commendable that you’re fixing up an ancient temple, husband. But I hadn’t previously noticed signs of your religious inclination.”

“Well, it was Nemastes who made the suggestion,” Saxa said diffidently, watching his wife to see how she took mention of the Hyperborean’s name. Hedia didn’t react. Even in the silence of her mind, she filed the fact and waited till she had more information.

Saxa cleared his throat and continued, “He believes it’s important to the coming struggle that Carce’s most ancient temple of Tellus, Mother Earth, be renovated. Because he’s a foreigner, he would have to ask permission of the Senate to carry out the repairs in his own name.”

“Ah,” said Hedia. “I see.”

Applying to the Senate — which meant to the Emperor — would call attention to the Hyperborean and to his patron, Gaius Alphenus Saxa. Hedia certainly didn’t want that to happen, but the fact that Nemastes was trying to avoid it also was very disquieting.

“We’re going to store the objects that have been given to the goddess over the years here,” Saxa said. “In the back garden. There’ll be some wagons coming by shortly. Bringing things for safekeeping, you see; there are some quite valuable dedications, though mostly from a number of years ago.”

Hedia felt an aching fear. If I could name what I was afraid of, it wouldn’t be so bad. But now —

Saxa swallowed. His face had briefly been animated as he talked about the antiquities which he so loved. It went waxen again and he turned away.

Seeming to gather strength from an image of Neptune blowing on a conch with a pair of Nereiads, fish-tailed and bare-breasted, supporting him, he said, “My dear, you don’t know what I have seen. Seen. Yes, in a vision, but it was real. It was –”

His hands lifted as though he were trying to squeeze an image into life.

“I saw fire,” he whispered. The words sounded like dry leaves rustling. “I saw fire rushing across the whole world. Everything burning, everything dying in fire, and the fire-god was laughing as he watched.”

Hedia licked her lips, then embraced him. She hugged herself close, but Saxa didn’t respond except to wriggle like a hooked fish.

“Husband,” she pleaded.

“Please, dear . . . ,” Saxa muttered to the wall. “Things will come out right. You have to trust me.”

She stepped away and wrapped her arms around herself instead. She was cold with fear — not for the mythical fire, but from the certainty that Nemastes had caught her husband in a net she could not break him free of.

“You will do as you please, husband,” Hedia said. “I only hope that you come to your senses in time to, to . . . .”

To escape the Emperor’s torturers, but even in this awful moment she couldn’t bring herself to say that.

“For my part,” she went on instead, “I’ll hold the marriage divination tomorrow as planned. I only hope that I can save Alphena from the wreck of her father’s life.”

Despair was crushing her down. She turned and strode from the room, leaving the door open behind her.

A waist-high plinth supported a small marble faun in the corridor. It stuck out slightly from its alcove. Hedia deliberately stubbed her toe on the base, then bent over shouting curses.

It was an acceptable excuse for the tears that were about to burst out regardless.

* * *

Pandareus had paused to write a message on a sealed tablet for one of Saxa’s servants to carry to Priscus, and the children of the house were staying home; Pulto and Corylus left the townhouse alone. On the doorstep Pulto paused. “Kid,” he said, “I need a mug of wine before we go home. Or maybe a whole jar of wine. You up for that?”

“Sure,” said Corylus. He grinned. “I don’t know that I’ll be downing much of the jar, but I don’t mind trying to carry you home.”

Pulto chuckled, a pleasant change from the bleak glare he’d worn since they’d left the gymnasium. He turned right toward the bar two doors down, the Blue Venus, instead of left to go home.

“The Old Man’s done it more than once for me,” he said, “and me for him. Never both of us falling-down drunk at the same time, until he got enough rank that we stayed home instead of crawling the strip.”

A masonry counter faced the street and ran down the right side of the central aisle. Three men stood at it. On its corner was the little statue of painted terra cotta which gave the bar its name; Pulto patted her for luck. Thousands of other clients must have done so over the years, because the paint was worn from her bosom. Most of the times Corylus heard the bar spoken of, it’d had been as the Blue Tit.

To the left of the aisle were three small masonry booths, empty at this hour. “Bring us a jar of the house wine, Maura,” Pulto said. “The better stuff, mind. We’ll settle up when we leave.”

He led the way to the further booth. “Now, boy, sit down,” he said. “Because I’m going to talk to you.”

“Yes sir,” Corylus said obediently. He felt as though he’d been punched in the stomach.

Pulto was his servant, the social and intellectual inferior of a well-educated Knight of Carce. However Pulto was also the fellow who had taught the Old Man’s son the things a young man needed to know in and around a military camp. Sometimes the teaching had involved a switch or even a fist, because failing to learn the lessons could mean the next time they were rehearsed with steel in the hands of people who definitely wouldn’t have the boy’s best interests at heart.

Pulto hadn’t touched the boy in years, of course. From the tone of his voice, though, Corylus was afraid that the discussion was going to be more unpleasant than a beating.

The bar maid brought over cups, a mixing bowl, a bronze carafe of water, and a jar that must hold at least a gallon of wine. It had a tapered base to be set in sand or a hole in the counter sized for it; here she leaned it into a corner of the booth. She was a slight, older woman with crinkly hair — probably a Moor, as her name suggested — but she handled the awkward load with less trouble than Corylus would have taken with it.