Legions Of Fire – Snippet 19

Though Hedia had no complaint about the bearers, the chair itself was another matter. Syra had thrown a cushion over the stains on the wicker seat, but one of the clamps attaching the poles to the chair frame was loose or possibly broken. Hedia swayed unpleasantly at every turn on the way, and as they stopped she was afraid that she was going to pitch over on her face with the chair on top of her.

“Right here, your ladyship!” cried the courier who’d run ahead to point out their destination. He was new to the household; a young fellow from somewhere in Spain, with curly hair and a good build. “On the third floor, right here!”

He seemed to fancy himself. He had some reason, but not as much as he thought.

Hedia smiled coldly. That was generally true of men, she’d found. Women too, she shouldn’t wonder, but they didn’t interest her in the same way.

Instead of squatting with his partner to take the weight of the chair off their arms, the leading bearer looked over his shoulder at Hedia. She supposed he’d found that raising the weight was more work than simply holding it balanced till he was sure about what his fare intended.

“Mistress?” he said. “Are you sure about this? The block looks all right, but it’s not the kinda district we usually take quality folks like you.”

“By Nergal, Blaesus,” grunted the bearer behind her. He spoke in Trade Greek, but his accent came from much farther east than that. “We never took anybody like her anywhere before, did we?”

“My man seems sure,” Hedia said, “so put me down and –”

“Yoo-hoo, your ladyship!” called a woman on the tiny third-story balcony jutting from the building to the right. “I’m here, bless you for coming!”

She waved frantically with her right arm and gripped the railing with her left. If Hedia judged correctly, the way she hunched involved more than just that she was looking at someone below her. The rheumatism Pulto had mentioned wasn’t an excuse to try to avoid a visit that embarrassed him.

Hedia got out; Alphena was climbing from the household chair. Local people stared at the visitors, but they seemed to be cheerfully interested instead of hostile. The score of attendants accompanying the women could have kept them away regardless, but even the children seemed satisfied to gawp at a respectful distance.

“Wait for my return,” Hedia said to the lead bearer. “And if you’ve managed to attach the chair more firmly before I go back, there’ll be a silver piece for you.”

“Ahura’s balls!” said the rear man. “We’ll take care of it, lady-sir. We bloody well will!”

“I’ll lead, your ladyship!” cried the Spaniard. He strode to the door, swaggering and making shooing motions with both arms. “Make way for the noble Hedia, wife of our noble senator Gaius Alphenus Saxa! Make way!”

Hedia frowned; that might’ve been a good way to catch a handful of rotten cabbage. Instead the three old women sitting on the door sill got out of the way with an appearance of good humor.

They bowed low to Hedia. She smiled graciously as she swept past and said, “Thank you, good ladies. I hope you’re well on this fine morning.”

The staircase was lighted by street-facing windows at each floor and a mica-covered skylight above the fifth landing. It was clean, though the large jar for night soil on the ground level must not have been emptied that morning. Hedia climbed briskly, but even so Alphena’s slippers shuffled on the treads too closely behind her.

The door on the third floor swept open and the woman from the balcony stepped out. “Your ladyship!” she said. “I’m Anna, Master Corylus’ nurse from the very day he was born. I’m honored, we’re all so honored, that you’re coming. I told the girls in the building, but I don’t think they believed me till you stopped just now.”

The materials used to build an apartment block became increasingly light — which meant flimsier — at each story upward; rents went down in the same proportion. This third-floor suite was large and well lighted, and though it was above the masonry level, the walls were wood rather than wicker.

Anna must have understood Hedia’s glance of appraisal. She said, “Yes, if Master Corylus wished, he could’ve had something on the second floor and closer in to the Forum. Master Cispius is a careful man but not tight, and he’s doing right well in the perfume trade, I don’t mind to tell you. But the young master liked this one. You can look right over to the Gardens of Maurianus.”

She surveyed the apartment possessively. The wooden floor had been brought to a high polish instead of being covered with a mosaic design as would have been more common, and the furniture, including the storage chests, was tasteful and of simple excellent, design.

“It looks very nice,” said Alphena to call attention to herself. She’d sent the Spaniard and the other servants down to wait in the street, which showed better judgment than Hedia would have expected.

“My daughter, Lady Alphena,” Hedia said coolly. “I’ve asked her to accompany me. I trust that is all right?”

“Bless me, your ladyship!” said Anna. “If you want to bring the whole Senate with you, I’m just honored. Though there’d be trouble finding them seats.”

Anna’s outfit — a blue tunic, a cape which must’ve been cut down from an officer’s red travelling cloak, and a yellow silk scarf to cover her hair — was neither tasteful nor simple. She wore rings on all her fingers, a mixture of silver and iron washed with gold. She had two necklaces, one of rock crystal and the other of painted terracotta manikins each no bigger than a thumbnail. The tiny dolls were individually ugly, but they had an unexpected force as their stubby hands clicked into contact and separated.

Alphena laughed. Anna smiled in a bemused way, but Hedia wasn’t sure that she had intended a joke.

Anna touched the yellow scarf, patting it against her bun of hair. The strands that had escaped to the back and sides were frizzy and yellowish gray. “Though your ladyship . . . ?” she said to Hedia. “There are subjects that I wouldn’t talk about in front of a senator, you know?”

Hedia sniffed. “Not in front of a senator or any other man,” she said. “But we’re all girls together here, aren’t we?”

Alphena was looking between the older women, her eyes flicking from one to the other. She looked younger when she was confused — as she was now.

Anna chuckled. “Here,” she said, pushing aside the curtain covering the pantry alcove beside the door. She lifted out a bowl of wine which she’d mixed before her guests arrived and set it on the small table in a corner of the room. The circular top was a section of pine trunk, carved and stained to look like expensive desert cedar. “We’ll have something to drink while we talk.”

“Are there no servants?” said Hedia, raising an eyebrow toward the folding screen across the doorway to the adjoining room of the suite.

“Bless you, no there’s not,” Anna said, bringing out the cups. They and the bowl were of layered glass, colored to look like the expensive murrhine ware turned from a British mineral which the locals called Blue John. “The boy was raised in camp, you see. He’s offered to get me some help, but truth is I’d rather handle it myself.”

“But how do you do the shopping?” said Alphena as their hostess filled the cups. It was a tactless question, but it showed the girl had sharp eyes and could think.

Anna chuckled. “Crippled up like I am, you mean?” she said. “Well, that’s true enough, but a couple of the girls on the fourth floor take care of that for less than it’d cost to feed a gofer of our own. I’ve done them a favor or two, you see.”

Love potions, Hedia thought as she took the offered cup and sat down. Love potions and herbs to cause abortions; the two went together, after all.

The two storage chests in the corner had been covered with cushions for use as seats, with the table in the angle between them. There was a proper couch against the outer wall, but even at formal dinner parties women were more likely to sit than to recline on their left side as the men did.

Alphena hesitated; Hedia patted the cushion beside her and gestured Anna to the other chest. Anna settled onto it with a grunt of relief.

Turning her head as though she were looking out the window — there were three pots of herbs on the balcony — Anna said, “That’s part of the reason I didn’t want another pair of hands in the household, you see. They’d come with a tongue attached, you see, and there’s stories enough already. Me being Marsian –”

She met the noblewomen’s eyes.

“– and all. Like every Marsian woman’s a witch! Ah, begging your pardon if I’ve misspoke, your ladyship.”