Legions Of Fire – Snippet 21

“I’ll need your help, your ladyship,” Anna said. “Not with my end — I wouldn’t ask you for that, of course. But I hope you’ll talk to my Pulto. When we were married, like I said, I gave up serious business. He didn’t tell me to, but it’s what he wanted and I did it. Now, though . . . ?”

“Yes,” said Hedia. “I’ll make it clear to your husband that I’ve asked you to do certain things for me.”

Pulto would accept anything a noble demanded, Hedia knew. If she asked him to dig up ancient graves, he would obey. He wouldn’t like it, but —

Her smile was cold.

— he’d been a soldier. As he’d said, he was used to doing things he didn’t like.

“That will be helpful, your ladyship,” Anna said, nodding in relieved approval. “And now, if my ears haven’t tricked me –”

The door opened. Corylus strode in, followed by Pulto.

“– I’d say my men were home!

* * *

Corylus stepped to the side as he entered the apartment; if he’d stopped in his tracks he’d have blocked the doorway for Pulto. That was training, however. His first instinct had been to freeze when he walked in the door talking to his servant over his shoulder and saw Alphena out of the corner of his eye.

“Hercules!” Pulto blurted as he saw the visitors. They’d known that the women would be visiting Anna, but they had — or at least Corylus had — put it out of their minds the fact that Hedia and Alphena might still be present when they returned from the Forum.

Corylus hadn’t fully realized how much he counted on the apartment being a safe haven in a city of strangers. He felt a flash of violent resentment, which embarrassed him just as violently. Nobody looking at him could’ve guessed he was more than normally startled to find company in his front room, though.

“Oh!” said Alphena; she jumped up. She looked as startled as Corylus was. To his surprise, that made him feel worse than he had before.

“Master Corylus,” said Hedia. She rose as supplely as a cat stretching. He wouldn’t have thought there was room for her to get out without shoving the seat or the table back, but she did it easily. “Lady Alphena and I were just taking our leave. Thank you for your gracious hospitality, and please convey our appreciation to your servants.”

“Ah,” said Corylus. He hadn’t expected the formality, but of course it was the right course under these unusual circumstances. Hedia likely picks the right course every time, at least by her own lights. “Your presence honors my dwelling, your ladyship.”

“I’ve asked a favor of your Anna, here,” Hedia said. She nodded vaguely in the old woman’s direction, but her eyes continued to hold Corylus’ own. “I trust you won’t regard this as too much of an imposition?”

“No, your ladyship!” Corylus said. “Anything you need, just ask!”

The words tumbled out so quickly that he almost got his tongue tangled in his teeth. Alphena colored again.

“And I hope you’ll direct your servant to provide what help Anna may require?” Hedia continued, raising an eyebrow.

“Umph,” said Pulto as though a blow had gotten home on his belly. Hedia hadn’t looked at the old veteran, and he didn’t respond to the indirect order he’d just gotten, but Corylus knew how he felt about it.

Pulto would do what he was told, though. Duty was duty.

“I’m sure that whatever you ask will be important to my wellbeing, your ladyship,” Corylus said carefully. “Some recent events seem to threaten not only Carce but the world. I –”

He stopped. He didn’t know how to phrase what was a feeling and a memory rather than a considered opinion.

“That is,” he said, “I trust your ladyship’s judgment, and I’m sure that you have the best interests of the Emperor and the Republic at heart.”

“Thank you, Master Corylus,” Hedia said. Her smile was cool, but it quirked like a fishhook at one corner of her mouth. “Now I wonder, sir; would you mind walking partway back to the house with me? I know it’s out of your way, but you seem a healthy young man. I have some questions about perfume, you see.”

“Why, of course,” said Corylus. He felt the way he had on the morning when the ice had broken and dumped him into the Rhine. Venus and Mars, what is she really asking? “Ah, though I don’t really, I mean I’m not an expert . . . though my father, I mean . . . .”

“I’m sure you’ll be able to enlighten me sufficiently,” said Hedia. There was laughter in her eyes, but it didn’t quite reach her tongue. “And it will be quite decorous, as you’ll be walking beside my chair through the public streets. You know the way, of course.”

Alphena stared at her as though she’d walked in on her stepmother looting a temple. Anna had been bustling in the pantry, but now she stuck her head out and said, “Pulto, I have things to talk to you about. The boy can make his way to Senator Saxa’s house and back without you to hold his hand this time.”

“Yes, I know the way,” Corylus said. “I, ah . . . .”

“Then we’ll be going,” Hedia said, nodding to the door to the stairs. “My daughter and I have business to attend tonight, so we need to get back.”

“I wonder, mother,” said Alphena, her voice pitched higher than it had been when she spoke a moment before. “Why don’t you take our chair and I’ll ride back in the one you hired?”

“Not at all, dear,” Hedia said, looking toward the girl with soft amusement. “I’m sure Master Corylus doesn’t mind that he’s walking beside a rented chair. It’s not as though he’s going to be talking to the bearers, after all, is it?”

As he listened to the interplay, Corylus realized that the bearers would be total strangers, not members of the household staff who might gossip to their fellows. Had Hedia planned this all along?

Alphena stood stiffly with her fists clenched at her sides. Then without a further word or a look backward, she marched out the door. Hedia, still with a faint smile that could have meant anything, drifted after her.

Corylus glanced over his shoulder as he followed the women. Pulto met his eyes and shrugged. “Keep your shield up and your head down, boy,” the veteran muttered. “You’re on the East Bank now, believe me.”

The German side of the river. Corylus grinned as he trotted down the stairs. He intended to be a soldier, after all, and soldiers had to take risks.

Outside somebody was shouting, “Bring the vehicles for the noble ladies Hedia and Alphena!” When Corylus got outside, he saw it was the oily-looking prettyboy who’d been standing in the stairway when he and Pulto came home.

One of Saxa’s servants, he supposed, though not one he remembered seeing before. There were two sedan chairs, one of them Saxa’s own with the burl maple inlays. They’d been parked down the side street in the shade rather than at the front of the apartment block. Even so Corylus felt a fool not to have noticed them, especially with their coveys of servants.

Pulto hadn’t noticed the chairs either, though. The business yesterday had made them both jumpy — and apparently in the worst possible way: they so focused on cloudy fears that they weren’t seeing things around them that might be important.

Alphena pushed a servant out of the way and threw herself onto the household vehicle. She couldn’t make the bearers drop it — which seemed to have been what she intended — but she did make it sway to the side. The bearers were braced to take her weight, so she had shoved the chair from an angle.

The swarmy servant placed himself beside the hired chair and offered Hedia his arm; the bearers watched the byplay with bored disinterest. Hedia flicked a finger and said, “Iberus, run back to the house and announce that Lady Alphena and I are on the way.”

She turned to Corylus and said, “Will you please hand me into the chair, Master Corylus?”

The servant gaped transfixed for a moment, but judgment smothered his bruised ego in time. He spun and jogged down Long Street before Hedia took further notice of him.

“Your ladyship,” Corylus muttered. He thrust his arm out for Hedia to grip. In fact her fingertips barely brushed his skin; Hedia didn’t work out the way her stepdaughter did, but she was obviously fit.

The vehicles and attendants started toward the center of the city with Alphena’s chair leading. There were servants both in front and behind, but none of the household were close to Hedia and Corylus.

Alphena seemed to be urging her bearers to speed up. That was a bad idea: trained pairs had a fixed pace. If they changed it they were likely to get out of step with one another, making for a rough ride; in the worst case they might even fall.