Legions Of Fire – Snippet 23

Chapter 5

Hedia swept out of her suite. Syra was just behind her, and in the maid’s train followed a covey of lesser servants. They included two male lantern-bearers, though the lamps in the hall had already been lit.

“Is my daughter ready?” Hedia snapped to the group of maids chatting beside the half-sized bronze copy of Myron’s Discus Thrower. She thought one of them was assigned to Alphena’s suite; and regardless, all of the upstairs servants probably knew where the family members were. They rarely had anything to do except gossip, after all.

The servants had flattened stiffly against the wall when Hedia strode into view. “Your ladyship!” said a henna-haired maid who must be nearly fifty. “Lady Alphena is already gone to the street to inspect the new litter!”

“Indeed?” Hedia said without raising an eyebrow.

“It’s just been delivered,” volunteered a new under steward. The older men to either side grabbed him by the elbows and hustled him backwards through a doorway and out of sight.

Hedia stepped briskly down the stairs, her face expressionless. She knew nothing about a new vehicle, and she doubted very much whether her husband did either.

“Travel safely, your ladyship!” the night doorman boomed. He wasn’t so much greeting the lady of the house as warning the large number of servants in the street that she was about to appear in their midst. They straightened and formed into neat blocks, sorted by their duties.

In the center where Alphena stood was the object of everybody’s interest, a huge two-passenger litter. It had a canopy and isinglass curtains which would allow those inside to get a cloudy view of their surroundings while staying dry in a storm.

The vehicle must be heavy, but it shouldn’t be too great a burden for the two teams of four bearers. They were Cappadocians, judging by their features and stocky bodies. Their matching tunics seemed to be green, but that might be a trick of the yellow lamplight on blue fabric.

“Are we ready to go, Mother Hedia?” the girl said with brittle cheeriness. “And how do you like the new litter? I told Agrippinus to get one immediately so that you and I can ride together in the future!”

“A commendable show of initiative, dear,” said Hedia as she walked over to examine the vehicle and its crew. “I should have thought of it myself.”

Alphena had no authority purchase a vehicle like this. With the bearers, it must have cost as much as a farm in the south of the peninsula. Even Hedia herself should have gotten the approval of her lord and master before she did anything of the sort.

Realistically, though, the servants knew that Saxa wouldn’t have objected. If his daughter went into hysterics, as she’d given ample proof that she could, the life of nobody within earshot would be quiet. Alphena wasn’t above demanding that a servant be beaten for obeying her father’s orders when they clashed with her own desires.

Agrippinus should have informed Hedia about what was happening, but that wouldn’t have made any real difference. Besides, she’d been occupied with her bath and toilette; she wouldn’t have welcomed an interruption.

She ran her fingertips over the vehicle’s mother-of-pearl inlays; she couldn’t feel the seam where it had been let into the ebony frame. And it wasn’t as though Saxa would miss the money . . . .

“An excellent choice, my dear,” she said, giving the girl a smile which was at least partly honest. “I’ll congratulate Agrippinus on the skill with which he carried out your orders.”

And she would have some other things to say to the major domo. She understood his decision not to warn her, but it hadn’t better happen again unless he wanted to sleep on his belly for a week or two until his back healed.

“Shall we go?” Hedia gestured with her left hand; her multiple rings caught the lamplight. Each was set with a pearl to match her three-strand necklace of large Indian stones hung on gold wire. “You should have the honor of seating yourself first, dear, since it was your idea.”

Alphena had been angered at the way Hedia sequestered the boy — though Corylus had better sense than men twice his age, more was the pity — on the way back to the house. She’d bought the litter in order show she was important — and very possibly, to provoke a quarrel with her stepmother.

Hedia had no intention of quarrelling, not with so much in the balance. Her attempt to ally Corylus still more closely had been sensible rather than just a pleasurable whim, but it had been a little — well, provocative. If Alphena resented it, that showed the sort of spirit that the girl would need to find her own way in a world which men ruled.

Hedia seated herself on the rear-facing couch; the cushions were arranged so that the passengers faced one another as they reclined on their left elbows. Alphena had a guarded expression that could turn very quickly to petulance or anger, but there shouldn’t be any need for that.

Hedia rapped her fan against the pillar behind her head. “You may go,” she said in a tone that implied, “And if you dawdle, you’ll be whipped within an inch of your lives.” Which was of course true.

The team lifted the vehicle smoothly and set off toward the Argiletum. There were lamps on the two forward corners of the canopy, and half a dozen additional linkmen trotted along behind the vehicle where Hedia could see them. Goodness knew how many there were in front.

“I’m only doing this to please you,” Alphena said sullenly.

“I know, dear,” Hedia said, “and I appreciate it. The whole family has to cooperate in the face of this –”

She paused to choose the word.

“This danger,” she said.

It would have been more honest to say that the women of the family had to cooperate, because Saxa himself appeared to be part of the danger. And judging from what Hedia had heard about the reading, she wondered if Saxa’s son wasn’t also dangerous.

* * *

The linkman and two under stewards with cudgels in the lead suited their pace to the cautious rate that Lord Varus found comfortable. They were singing a current ditty about The Girl from Andros, to warn others who were out tonight that they were sober and in good number.

Varus didn’t like travelling in Carce at night. Well, nobody did, of course, but he thought he disliked it more than most. He wasn’t exactly night blind, but he was sure that other people must see better than he did. Tonight there was a full moon, though, and they’d come most of the distance by the Sacred Way. That was the last street in the city where shadows might hide broken pavement or there’d be a dead ox blocking the road.

He no longer heard the Hyperboreans of his vision chanting, but the rhythm of it was in his blood. He supposed that was why he was, well, more nervous than there was any reason to be. Even across the river in the worst part of Carce, a man with lanterns and twelve attendants wasn’t going to be set upon by robbers.

There were men who used sedan chairs; Saxa himself occasionally did. Varus wasn’t concerned about what Carce generally would think if he’d chosen to ride in a chair, but he cringed at the idea of Corylus seeing him arrive like a fine lady. Not that Corylus would say anything, or for that matter that he –being Corylus — would even think it.

“We’ve reached the base of the Capitoline, Lord Varus,” said Candidus, the deputy steward in charge of the escort. He was competent enough but officious, and he talked far too much.

“Yes, I see the retaining wall,” Varus said, though the irony probably went unnoticed. The small procession turned left toward the steps to the top.

He liked to spend time with his own thoughts, which was impossible in Candidus’ company. The fellow would never behave this way with Hedia or even Alphena. The women would flay him with their tongues, and if he opened his mouth again at the wrong time, he’d lose the skin of his back in all truth. Varus didn’t know how to do that, but —