Legions Of Fire – Snippet 32

Alphena squirted wine onto the back of her throat, then swallowed — and coughed. “This is unmixed!” she said and immediately felt embarrassed. She knew she’d sounded accusatory, as though she was the kind of prude who would never drink unmixed wine.

“Yes,” said Hedia with her usual cold smile, “and so is the third wineskin I had Agrippinus send along. I decided that if we had to stay the night through, we were going to need something to warm us. As well as soothing your throat.”

“Thank you, stepmother,” Alphena said quietly. She took another mouthful, this time with greater care, and stoppered the mouthpiece. “I, ah, usually drink wine mixed. But this is good.”

“By this time in the evening,” Hedia said, her smile broader and knowing, “the older heads will have left the dinner party, and those of us who remain will be drinking the vintage without water to thin it. I’ll take you with me in a year or two. After you’re properly married, of course.”

Alphena felt her face twist into a grimace of disgust. I know the kind of party you mean!

Hedia’s expression softened from the smirk of lust it had worn the moment before. “Here, dear, let me have some of that wine,” she said. She stepped close, but instead of taking the skin, she waited till Alphena handed it to her.

She drank, watching the girl over the sack. The goatskin had been sheared and painted with a zigzag design that reminded Alphena of Moorish fabrics.

When Hedia lowered it, she said, “I’m sorry, dear; I shouldn’t joke like that. Probably I’ve had too much to drink already.”

Alphena turned her face away. She said, “It doesn’t matter.”

Her cheeks were hot; with anger, she’d like to have said, but she knew that much of what she felt was embarrassment. I’m such a child! And she’s — she’s everything I’m not!

“It matters quite a lot,” Hedia said. She set the wineskin on the floor, then put her hand on Alphena’s wrist. “Listen to me, dear. Don’t let anybody tell you how you must behave. Not your father, not me; and not your husband either, when you have one. You behave the way that’s right for you. However that is.”

“I won’t have a choice when I’m married, will I?” Alphena said, hearing her voice rise. “And that’s what you want for me, isn’t it? A husband to take care of me and tell me how to behave?”

“Look at me, girl,” Hedia said. She didn’t raise her voice, but it snapped like a drover’s whip. Alphena jerked her head around.

“I’m proof that being married doesn’t turn you into a basin for your husband to wash his feet in,” Hedia said in the same harsh, demanding tone. “You father doesn’t treat me like a servant, and Calpurnius Latus didn’t either. Decide how you want to live your life and live it.”

She unexpectedly hugged Alphena and stepped away. “Just remember,” she said, “that everything comes with a cost. Don’t cry to me if the cost of what you want is a high one.”

In a still lower voice she added, “I hope for your sake that the price isn’t as high as what I pay.”

Alphena shivered. The air was warm, but she had goose bumps on her arms for a moment. She held the prayer, but she wasn’t ready to resume the litany yet. She glanced at the stool.

Hedia followed her eyes and said, “I should have had the servants bring another one, shouldn’t I? I said that we might have to spend the whole night here, but I suppose I didn’t really believe my own words.”

“Hedia?” said Alphena, looking down at the floor of worn bricks in a herring-bone pattern. Would her father be replacing this too? “What’s going to happen about Nemastes? About all of it?”

Hedia’s face went hard, then softened. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I hope we’ll learn enough to avoid problems. Perhaps Nemastes will go back to Hyperborea or wherever he really comes from. From the Underworld, I shouldn’t wonder.”

Alphena looked up, surprised at the note of bitterness in the last phrase. The older woman ordinarily sounded cool and detached, even when her eyes said she was considering murder.

Hedia laughed and gestured with her left hand, sweeping away the mood of a moment. “I’ve even thought of hiring a couple of your gladiator friends to deal with our wizard, dear,” she went on. “The trouble is, he seems to vanish into thin air except when he’s with your father, and I don’t want to risk an attack with Saxa present.”

“Because he’d know it was you behind it?” Alphena said. Her lips were suddenly dry.

“No,” said Hedia. “Because it wouldn’t be safe. Violence isn’t something you can control, not when it starts. I won’t chance Saxa having his head bashed in or taking a dagger through the ribs because of a mistake by some animal who can barely mumble his own name in Thracian.”

She turned abruptly. “I need some wine,” she muttered. “Do you?”

“I’ll drink some more,” Alphena said in a little voice. The night was pressing down on her. Not the darkness outside, but something much wider and much deeper than that.

Hedia passed her the wineskin. Instead of removing the stopper immediately, Alphena said, “M-mother? What if Nemastes attacks you? He knows you’re his enemy, surely? He wouldn’t even have to hire somebody.”

“You think he might try to strangle me with his own hands?” Hedia said. She chuckled. “Well, dear, this would be one answer to the problem.”

She lifted the front fold of her chiton and drew a finger-length dagger. Its sheath must have been sewn into her cloth-of-gold girdle, where it was completely concealed by the loose linen gathered over her bosom.

She slipped the knife back and let the chiton hide it again. Giving Alphena a cold smile, she continued, “But since Nemastes appears to be a man, there may be a simpler way to make him less threatening.”

“Ooh!” said Alphena. “You would with him?”

She’d spoken before she took time to reflect; and besides, she didn’t feel like pretending to be sophisticated. It was pointless with this woman. And the thought of that bald creature putting his, well, hands, on her was disgusting.

Alphena thought that the response might be a peal of laughter; instead Hedia gave her a lop-sided grin. “You’re young, dear,” she said in a soft voice and a tone of what seemed to be affection. “If the gods are good to you, perhaps you’ll never have to learn more about the world than you already know. I hope that’s the case.”

Alphena made a moue with her lips, then offered the wineskin to Hedia again. “Here,” she said. “I may as well say the prayer. Since we’re here anyway.”

Hedia gave her the vellum, but she waved away the skin. “Just set the skin on the floor,” she said. “I’ll hold the lamp. This stand is too high for you.”

She rose onto her toes to lift the lamp chain from the hook. Alphena’s body was turned toward the statue of Tellus, but she was looking back over her shoulder at her stepmother.

A tremor shook the building. Dirt from the roof showered the interior. A body, either a cat or a large rat, fell from the rafters with a splop. Chittering, the creature scuttled into the shadows and vanished. Hedia kept hold of the lamp, but the bronze stand lost its balance and hit the floor with a clang.

“We should get out before –” Alphena started to say.

“Alphena, daughter of Gaius Saxa!” a voice boomed.

Alphena turned. The statue of Tellus was staring at her. Its painted lips moved as it said, “Joyous news, Alphena! You are fated to wed Spurius Cassius and to reign with him forever in the Underworld!”

Alphena dropped the page of vellum she was holding. She felt as though she’d been caught in a winter storm and covered with ice.

“No!” she cried.

A second tremor struck. A crack zigzagged across the brick floor. Roof tiles rattled hard together, shaking down chips of broken terracotta. The statue of Tellus toppled toward Alphena like a ten-foot club.

Hedia gave a shout and leaped at the frozen girl. The statue smashed itself into dust and splinters on the floor beside them.

“Come on!” Hedia wheezed. The women scrambled toward the door, holding one another’s hands.

Together they slid the bar from its staples and shoved the door open. Alphena glanced over her shoulder as she stumbled into the babbling servants. Oil which had spilled when the lamp smashed began to burn on the bricks. The flames gave a hungry yellow light.