Legions Of Fire – Snippet 17

Chapter 4

Alphena took a deep breath. Porters were fitting the polished maple poles into the sockets of the family sedan chair in front of the house, and a gaggle of attendants milled in the street.

Hedia, wearing an ankle-length linen tunic and a short wool cape dyed bright yellow, waited on the steps. Alphena had thought her stepmother might wear a thin silk synthesis as she did when she went out in the evenings, but apparently at mid-morning that was too blatantly racy even for her.

The slut. Looking down her nose at everything and everybody, like a perfect ivory statue!

At this hour there was little traffic on the cul-de-sac where Alphenus Saxa and seven other wealthy families lived, though people travelling between the center of Carce and the northeastern suburbs thronged the boulevard at its head. The Senate was in session; Saxa had gone off to the session, accompanied by the throng of clients who’d arrived at dawn to pay their respects to him.

Venus be thanked, father really was at the Senate House instead of with his Hyperborean friend. The Emperor was addressing the Senate today. Any Senator present in Carce who didn’t attend would be marking himself for quick attention of a bad kind.

Alphena marched past the doorman, startling him. “Good morning, Hedia,” she said. She was trying to sound coldly sophisticated, but she heard her voice wobble like a wren trilling. Her face went hot and she hoped she wasn’t blushing.

Hedia turned; her maid hopped to the side with a twitter to avoid standing between them. Hedia wasn’t tall, and Alphena stood on the step above her besides. Even so, the older woman gave the impression that she was staring down from a great height.

“Good morning, daughter,” Hedia said. “Usually at this time of day, you’re at your exercises, aren’t you?”

Her voice was pleasant and cultured and cool. The only insult in it was, “your exercises,” but even that was a gibe only if you felt that it was unwomanly and improper for a girl in armor to swing a sword at a post.

I have every right to exercise whatever way I want to! My brother could and I can too!

“I’m coming with you to Master Corylus’ apartments,” Alphena said, hearing her own shrillness. “That’s where you’re going, isn’t it?”

I’ve practiced this! I’m going to be calm. But she wasn’t calm, of course.

“I’m going to see Anna, Master Corylus’ cook and housekeeper,” Hedia said. She sounded amused, but Alphena had seen her eyes narrow. “I presume her master will be in class in the Forum with your brother Varus, dear. I’m sure you have better things to do.”

“Well, dear,” Alphena said. “You seem to think that you’re spending your time properly when you interfere in my life, don’t you? So I’m returning the favor. I guess you could say that I’m learning from you, do you see?”

Hedia lifted her chin slightly. “I’m your mother, girl,” she snapped. “Keep a civil tongue in your head!”

The attendants in the street had stopped chattering among themselves. They shifted so that they all stood with their backs toward their master’s wife and daughter. The rooms facing the street would be filling with servants also, crowding close to the window louvers and trying not to breathe loudly.

Alphena was sure that if they were asked, everyone in the street would claim he — they were all men — hadn’t heard a word of the discussion between the women. The rest of the servants would claim to have been in the back of the house while it was going on. She was also sure that the row — and it was certainly becoming one — would be the only topic of conversation among the servants tonight and with neighboring households. Well, she didn’t care!

“You’re my mother?” Alphena said. Her voice rose shrilly, and that made her even more angry than she’d been already. “You’re five years older than I am, that’s all! That’s pretty young for motherhood, isn’t it, dear?”

Hedia was actually six years older that Alphena, but she knew that she wouldn’t be called on the petty falsehood. Hedia wasn’t petty.

“Or do you mean that you’ve got so much more experience than I do?” Alphena went on. Words were bubbling out of her; she couldn’t control them any more than a cloud could control the rain sluicing down. “I’ve heard that you do. Is that where you’re going now, to get more experience? Is that why you don’t want your husband’s daughter along?”

“Dear,” Hedia said calmly as she walked to the bottom of the steps where she stood close to Alphena. “I don’t think this is a good time or place for the discussion. I understand you being upset by the business yesterday. I’m upset too, and when I return we can talk about it quietly.”

The German doorkeeper had vanished into his alcove; Alphena didn’t think he was smart enough to understand how dangerous this was for a slave, but at least he’d figured out that he shouldn’t stand obviously gaping at his betters.

“I’ve heard that Master Corylus’ cook is a wise woman, too!” Alphena said. She was listening to herself as though she’d just stumbled onto the conversation of two complete strangers. “Does she make potions, do you suppose? Does she make the sort of potion that your first husband swallowed the night he died?”

For a moment, Hedia’s face had no expression at all. Alphena’s breath sucked in; she’d shocked herself with her words, an accusation of poisoning screamed in public. If anybody took it to the authorities, not only Hedia but Corylus would be in serious trouble. Hecate, make my tongue not have spoken!

Hedia laughed, a silver trill that broke the brittle silence. Smiling, she patted Alphena on the arm and said, “You’re quite right, dear. You’re an adult, and you’re a part of this business — the whole household is. I shouldn’t have been treating you as a child.”

“I’m sorry,” Alphena whispered. “I shouldn’t have . . . I didn’t know what I was saying.”

She’d been looking into her stepmother’s eyes. For a moment Hedia had considered all aspects of the situation and all possible responses. She had chosen to laugh, but that was a choice.

“Nonsense, dear,” Hedia said with another affectionate pat. She wasn’t hiding anger under pretense of cheerfulness: the scene really did amuse her. “Someone seems to be attacking your father by magic, attacking all of us I shouldn’t wonder, and of course you’re upset. I couldn’t be more pleased that you’re willing to help me get to the bottom of the business.”

She turned to the sedan chair. The bearers were facing up the street. They must’ve been watching the women in the polished bronze fittings, though, because they stiffened immediately.

“Scylax?” Hedia said. “Is the chair ready?”

Pairs of men carried the chair, but another pair would trot alongside to take over every fifteen minutes — or less, if they were climbing hills. The chief bearer rose and turned, standing at attention.

“Yes, milady!” he said. “We just finished putting the poles in, milady. It made a lot of noise, it did, and I almost didn’t hear you calling me!”

“Well, run up to the boulevard and find another chair as well,” Hedia said, accepting the lie with an icy smile. “My daughter will be gracing me with her companionship. She’ll go with you and I’ll ride in the hired chair. Promptly, now!”

The bearer trotted toward the Argiletum at the head of the cul-de-sac. He didn’t run, and his arms dangled instead of pumping back and forth as most people would have done. The chairmen were used to moving at a particular speed in a particular way, for as long as they needed to. Scylax wasn’t going to change his technique simply because he’d been told to do something other than carry the front half of a sedan chair.

As they watched Scylax, Hedia slid her fingers down Alphena’s arm and let them rest on the back of her hand. “We’re going to be friends, dear,” she said. “It’s important that you and I be friends.”

Alphena forced a smile. “Yes, mother,” she said, curling her hand around Hedia’s.

The previous afternoon she’d realized that Lenatus and his friend Pulto had been killers, for all their politeness and the way they now bowed and scraped to the young mistress. They had been ready to kill again if they thought they should.

What Alphena had seen a moment ago in her stepmother’s eyes was a colder version of the same thing. Hedia could be a very bad enemy.