Legions Of Fire – Snippet 22

“Ah, you wanted to know about perfume, your ladyship?” Corylus said.

“Of course not, dear,” Hedia said with a throaty chuckle. “And I don’t want to know about Vergil’s poetry either, which I suspect would interest you a great deal more.”

She turned to look at him. The hired bearers were keeping a good pace, but to the left Corylus matched it easily by lengthening his own stride by a thumb’s width from route march standard.

“And I’d like you to call me Hedia,” she said. “In fact, I insist on it. You wouldn’t refuse a lady’s request, would you, Corylus?”

“Ah . . . ,” said Corylus. “I would comply as best I could within the bounds of propriety. Hedia.”

Her laugh trilled. “You’re a diplomat,” she said. “And much more intelligently cautious than I would expect from someone your age.”

She looked him up and down, leaning toward him slightly to watch his legs scissoring on the pavement. Just as glad of the silence, Corylus looked ahead and to his side of the street.

Old two or three-story buildings lined the boulevard. Though Carce was growing with the expansion of the empire, the need for taller structures hadn’t generally moved this far out from the Forum yet. Corylus’ own apartment block was an exception, a replacement for three smaller buildings destroyed by fire only a year and a half ago.

“You don’t move like a lawyer,” she said, raising her eyes to his face again. “You move more like a wolf.”

“I don’t plan to be a lawyer,” Corylus said. He was aware of her to his right through the corners of his eyes, but he continued to look forward. “I’m going to enter the army as a tribune next year –”

He started to say, “Your ladyship,” but caught himself.

“– Hedia. Master Pandareus teaches us to speak, but he also teaches us to think, those of us who want to. Varus and I are learning a lot besides rhetoric.”

“Umm . . . ,” said the lady noncommittally. “At your age, I’d been married for a year. The first time, that is. I suppose you’ve heard various stories about me, Corylus?”

Corylus remembered how Pulto had grunted when Hedia had told him to help his wife with her magic. He felt the same now. The breath went out of him; he didn’t miss a step, but his right foot slipped a trifle because he didn’t place it with the care that the slick-worn paving stones required.

It’s probably best to tell the truth. It’s always best to tell the truth. Usually.

“Your ladyship,” Corylus said. He looked at her as they paced along; their eyes were on a level. “Hedia, I’m sorry. Hedia, I’m not from Carce and I don’t run in the same circles you do. Early on there was some talk in class from the other fellows, but I think they were just trying to ride Varus because he and I were friends. And –”

How much to say?

“– because that did kind of involve me, I got involved in it and it stopped. Anyway, I wouldn’t trust Piso if he walked into the room wet and said it was raining.”

He didn’t know how Hedia was going to react to what he’d just blurted. After an expressionless moment, she gave him a slow smile and said, “Piso, yes. Well, he wouldn’t like me, dear. I was married to Calpurnius Latus, his uncle, you see. And I’m afraid the marriage wasn’t a success.”

“Well, if Latus was anything like Piso . . . ,” Corylus said. His voice had dropped to a growl. He looked ahead again because he didn’t want Hedia to mistake the hard anger in his expression as something directed at her. “Then it wasn’t your fault. Hedia.”

“That’s very sweet of you, Corylus,” she said, “and my first husband was certainly a nasty little thing. But there were faults on both sides. There generally are, dear.”

“Well, it’s none of my business,” Corylus muttered to the air. He wanted to break into a run. He wanted to be back in the apartment. He wanted to be back in the clean forest glades in Germany; either side of the Rhine would have been all right.

He remembered the forest he’d dreamed of while Varus read his epic; the place with the shaggy elephants, where Saxa and the Hyperborean had been sacrificing. But the men had been in the garden of Saxa’s house here in Carce then. What had Corylus really seen?

“I’m sure some of the stories you heard were true,” Hedia continued calmly. “Even if you heard them from my nephew by marriage. In some cases, I doubt dear Piso could have made anything up that would have been more, well, colorful. Did he accuse me of poisoning Latus, though?”

“I didn’t believe it,” Corylus said.

The snarl was on his face as well as in his voice. A fruit seller who’d dodged toward the chair through the screen of attendants now jumped back, breaking off his spiel at, “These’re the finest—”

“I’m glad to hear that,” said Hedia, “because it’s not true. I didn’t poison him, at any rate. Latus had other interests, you see, and it’s been my experience that men of a certain sort are more likely to be jealous bitches than real women are. But there was fever about in Baiae that summer, and I honestly believe that a fever carried away my husband.”

Corylus coughed, then swallowed, to have something to do other than speak. He didn’t know how to react when a woman he knew only slightly — a noblewoman! — started talking about, well, these sorts of things.

Which he had heard about, of course. And if he were really honest, he’d have to admit that he’d believed at least a little part of what he’d heard.

“I care very deeply for my husband Saxa,” Hedia said. “He’s a wonderful, kind, old man. By marrying me he saved me from being beggared if not worse after Latus died, and he truly loves me for what I am.”

Corylus risked a glance at her. She smiled impishly and said, “Or despite what I am, if you want to put it that way. I’m sure a lot of people would.”

“M-ma’am, I don’t know about that,” he said. “I don’t know anything about, well, that.”

“I doubt that’s true,” Hedia said with another chuckle, “but let it stand. Saxa is a very sweet older man. And he wouldn’t have been an athlete even when he was younger, I’m afraid.”

Corylus didn’t speak. He thought about the subject of Piso’s oration and began to grin despite himself. He wondered how Pandareus would react to a declamation on the subject, “A freeborn lady offers her body to all comers. She then asks to become a priestess, claiming that because she refused payment for her services she did not carry on a sordid occupation.”

“You’re laughing, Corylus?” Hedia said with the least bit of edge in her voice.

“Piso was declaiming this morning,” he said truthfully. “He struck me as mechanical and bombastic. But very loud.”

“I’m not surprised that it remains a pattern in the family,” Hedia said. Her lips pouted slightly, then relaxed into a grin. “Corylus dear, I really do care about my husband and my family. My first concern is to remove the danger which threatens them. You’re my ally in this, a valuable ally. I assure you that I won’t do anything that makes it difficult for us to work together.”

Corylus sighed with a combination of relief and an embarrassment greater than he’d felt earlier. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “Ah, Hedia. I don’t know what’s going on, but it scares me. I’m glad I have friends like you and Varus to, well, help figure it out.”

“The noble ladies Hedia and Alphena are home!” cried the runner, Iberus, from the steps of Saxa’s townhouse.

Corylus looked around in surprise. They’d arrived, all right. A good thing there hadn’t been a German warband lurking in ambush.

He grinned broadly. He wasn’t sure that a dozen Germans would be more dangerous than getting involved with Hedia might be.

Agrippinus came out to pay the hired bearers, but Alphena took him aside before he got off the porch. The major domo handed the purse he was carrying to an underling who in turn came toward the chair.

Hedia got out and looked at Corylus over the vehicle. “Would you care to use the gymnasium now?” she asked. “I find that sometimes exercise is the best way to deal with a day of mental frustration. Or just a drink?”

“No thank you, your ladyship,” Corylus said. It had been a faster trip than he’d expected. “I’ll be meeting Varus and, ah, friends tonight, so I have things to get ready.”

Hedia glanced at Alphena, who was still talking forcefully to the major domo. “I understand,” she said. “I’ll be going out with my daughter tonight also. But perhaps another time.”

Corylus turned at started back. He heard Hedia call, “And may all our endeavors prosper, Master Corylus!”