Legions Of Fire – Snippet 27

“Of course not,” Hedia agreed, speaking calmly instead of raising her voice in response to Alphena’s shrillness. “But I’m far less sure about what his friend Nemastes is doing. Nemastes is certainly acting to his own benefit, and I would be greatly surprised if his plans would benefit anybody else. Do you agree?”

Alphena felt fear wash everything else out of her mind, the way the surf swept over the battlements children built in beach sand. “Father could never be tricked into anything disloyal,” she said. “He’s a Senator! No grubby foreigner is going to fool him!”

Even in her own ears, the words sounded dismal and silly. Saxa was a very learned man, but he had no common sense at all. And Nemastes might have bewitched him, stolen his soul with a poppet of wax or whatever Hyperboreans did!

“We’re going to scotch Nemastes if we can, dear,” Hedia said. “You and I and our friends. But if we don’t succeed, I hope that you’ll be able to escape the wreck under the protection of a powerful husband.”

Alphena jerked upright. Her hair, in a bun to cushion the weight of a helmet, brushed the canopy. She opened her mouth to shout an objection . . . and closed it.

In a tiny voice, she said, “Hedia, I don’t want to get married. But I’m afraid.”

“Yes, dear,” Hedia said. “We’re both afraid, and so is Anna. I suppose the men are afraid also, though no doubt being men they’d bluster and deny it. But we have to look ahead and prepare.”

The litter bearers were singing a low-voiced chant that kept their pace even. Was it Cappadocian? But it might simply be nonsense syllables to fit a rhythm, not a language at all. It was hard to tell what was chance and what held real meaning in this world.

“I hope father . . . ,” Alphena said miserably, but she let her voice trail off instead of finishing the foolish sentence. Saxa wasn’t going to come to his senses. He’d never shown good judgment in the past, and now that Nemastes had his claws in him there was even less chance. If Saxa was to be saved, the rest of them were going to have to do it.

The litter turned sharply; the bearers slowed to negotiate piles of building materials which spilled out from either side. Hedia leaned forward to see, giving Alphena a look at her profile in sharp silhouette.

Father didn’t show good sense except perhaps when he married her, Alphena thought. Though she would never say those words aloud.

The bearers stopped, then lowered the vehicle to the pavement. “The Temple of Tellus, noble ladies,” said the deputy steward in charge of the escort. “Your destination.”

Alphena started to get out. Servants congealed about her, three or four of them.

“Get away!” she shouted. “Haven’t I told you I’d have you whipped if you tried to hand me out of a vehicle again?”

There was a brief bustle. Servants stumbled into one another or over piles of construction supplies. Alphena got out and only then realized that the men she’d driven away weren’t those who’d attended the litter: these had come from staff of the temple.

They were in front of Temple of Tellus. It was a modest structure, but the grounds in which it stood were as extensive as those of more impressive newer buildings. To make room for heavy wagons, the wall around the temple precinct had been knocked down to either side of the gate.

Alphena maneuvered away from a collection of stone cylinders, column barrels which would be fluted and set here at the site. They would replace the temple’s four existing wooden columns. The originals couldn’t possibly have survived three centuries, but until now the replacements had also been wooden. Those had had been stuccoed to look like stone, but that had flaked off in the decades since they’d been placed; rot and wormholes now marked the bare wood remaining.

Farther back in the yard were heaps of bulk materials. On the other side of the vehicle were smaller piles of the tiny cut stones sorted by color; they would be laid into a floor mosaic. There were timbers, too, but in the shadows Alphena didn’t know whether they were for scaffolding or were building materials.

“Good evening, noble ladies!” said a corpulent stranger who bowed to Hedia. Unlike the temple servants, he wore a toga. “The Temple of Tellus is honored to have you! I’m the chief priest, Gaius Julius Phidippides. I own the laundry three doors down on Sandalmakers’ Street and the building next door to it besides.”

Servants from Saxa’s household were shoving the outnumbered temple personnel back. Alphena stepped to the other side of Phidippides to protect him from the same treatment. She shouldn’t have shouted at the temple servants; that was what was making her escort so violently zealous.

“The temple is open?” Hedia said coldly. “And move away! I assure you that I could see quite enough of you from two paces distance.”

The priest was a freedman. He must have been made a citizen by Augustus — formally Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus — because he wasn’t old enough for his patron to have been Augustus’ adoptive father, the conqueror of Gaul. Alphena had already learned that these were the sort of people who made a point of their importance to the Republic. Hedia, a born aristocrat, treated Phidippides’ fawning pomposity with contempt.

The priest backed hurriedly, stumbling into a pile of clay and barely recovering. It would be fired into roofing tiles here on the site; that avoided the heavy breakage certain if tiles were transported by wagon through the streets of Carce.

“Yes, of course, your ladyship!” he said in nervous brightness. “Come right this way, please, right this way.”

The household servants formed a double line to protect the women. Protect them from the temple personnel, as best Alphena could tell, but Phidippides’ staff had been pushy at the start. They excluded the priest also, but he trotted on the other side of the deputy steward while continuing to chatter brightly toward Hedia.

Temple servants threw the double doors open. There were lighted lamps within, but attendants from both establishments brought in additional ones.

Alphena looked around. The Temple of Tellus was dingy. Of course the objects dedicated to it, particularly the pair of huge elephant teeth, had been removed to Saxa’s house for safekeeping, but the floor was of bricks worn hollow and the walls were coarse tuff which hadn’t been sheathed with colored marble or polished limestone.

The ten-foot tall wooden statue of Tellus had been repainted within the past few years, though not with any great skill. Her right forearm was lifted with the palm turned out; her left hung stiffly at her side. The whole figure — head, limbs and torso — had probably been carved in one piece.

“I wonder, Lady Hedia?” said Phidippides in a wheedling voice that put Alphena’s teeth on edge. “I discussed with your noble husband the Senator the idea of replacing this statue with a modern one of bronze. Do you know if he—”

“Take the matter up with someone who cares, Master Laundryman,” Hedia snapped. “Now, leave my daughter and myself. At once!”

Household servants had hung additional lamps and placed a folding stool at the back of the room. “Your ladyship?” said the deputy steward. “Which of us would you like to remain inside with your noble selves?”

“None of you, Midas,” Hedia said crisply. “Give Lady Alphena the prayer –”

A servant handed Alphena a tight roll; he bowed.

“– and wait for us in the courtyard.”

Hedia followed the scurrying servants to the double doors. Midas closed them, and Hedia herself slotted the bar through its inside staples to lock the valves.

“Now . . . ,” she said, gesturing Alphena to the center of chamber. “Face the goddess, I think. We may as well get started.”

She smiled as she sat on the stool. It wasn’t an unfriendly expression, but it made Alphena again very glad not to be this woman’s enemy.