Legions Of Fire – Snippet 38

Chapter 8

Using a stylus on a wax tablet, Hedia wrote, “My dear Anna, if you are well it is good; I also am well.

Corylus is staying tonight with my son.

Matters have occurred which have bearing on our discussion this morning. Please visit me tomorrow at the seventh hour — not earlier, though I might wish it, because I will be attending the rites involved with my husband taking up the consulship.

I will have a litter waiting at your building at midday. The attendants will help you down the staircase.”

Sighing with relief, Hedia set the bronze stylus in its holder and motioned to her secretary, Praxos, who waited silently on the other side of the small writing desk in her reception room. The gesture was unnecessary: Praxos was already closing the tablet. Red wax warmed over the desk lamp, ready to pour on the ribbon closures when the secretary had tied them. He would press in the seal also, a piece of wood in which worm tunnels formed an H.

Well, Hedia told herself it was an H. It was as good an H as she could have made herself.

Writing notes to friends with her own hand was a polite accomplishment for a woman with any pretense to social status, so of course Hedia could do it, but if any more had been required than a few lines, Praxos would have written it to her dictation. The result would have been quicker and clearer; one of the reasons Hedia used wax instead of brushing ink on papyrus or thin board was that corrections were easier to make. Treating Anna as an equal was both polite and politic, however, since they were allies in this business with Nemastes.

“When it’s sealed, give it to a courier to take to the apartment of Master Corylus off the Argiletum,” Hedia said. “Give it to Iberus, now that I think of it; he already knows the way. And he’s to wait if Anna and her husband aren’t home when he arrives.”

It was possible that they would be working — digging — in the old cemetery until nearly dawn.

“Yes, your ladyship,” said the secretary, bending over the sealed tablet with an ink brush. He was writing Anna’s name on the thin sheet of elm which covered the written surface of the wax.

Anna wouldn’t be able to read it herself, but her husband Pulto would. He’d been a watch-stander in the army, so he had to be able to read a guard roster and basic orders. Poor as Hedia knew her handwriting to be, it was probably better than that of many centurions.

Hedia rose to her feet and stretched. She could use some exercise to get rid of tonight’s tension, but it didn’t seem likely that events would fall that way. Still, an optimistic outlook had brought her more than one unexpected reward. Sometimes even more than one reward at a time.

She smiled. She wasn’t sure how the expression read to the servants with her in the room; from the fact that they all went determinedly blank-faced, they probably didn’t take it as involving humor. It did, but that might bother them even more — particularly the strait-laced Praxos.

“I’m going to see my husband,” Hedia said in quick decision. “Syra, wait up though I hope I’ll not need you. The rest of you can go to bed.”

The servants waited like statues until Hedia had swept regally through the door of the suite which one of them was holding open. They were afraid that if they called attention to themselves, their mistress might find additional tasks for them.

In fact Hedia was neither petty nor the flighty-minded sort of person who changed her mind often. The servants might prefer to think of her that way, though, than to dwell on the fact that if she threatened to have them flogged — or flayed — she wouldn’t change her mind then either.

According to Agrippinus, her husband had come home — without Nemastes — not long before she and Alphena arrived. He wouldn’t be asleep yet; and anyway, she was willing to wake him up for this.

Saxa’s suite had its own doorman. He didn’t attempt to stop her, but he turned his head and called loudly, “Her noble ladyship Hedia, your lordship.”

She brushed past him. Saxa was sitting up in bed, attended by six servants. One was reading a poem, apparently on astrology in epic stanzas, while another was carefully tilting a cup of mulled wine so that his master could drink without using his hands. The wine warmer was a bronze basin with a water bath between its charcoal brazier and the mixture of wine and herbs; two servants tended it. The remaining pair were ready to fluff pillows, adjust the covers, or do anything else that the Senator wished.

“You lot may leave,” said Hedia, emphasizing with a curt gesture that they would take her offer. The reader continued, though he wasn’t ignoring her. His eyes sought his master in terror for acquiescence or argument, so that he wouldn’t have to decide who to obey on his own.

Saxa hunched a little and pretended not to be aware of his wife’s presence. Hedia felt a degree of pity for the reader; the gods knew that she’d had a lot of frustrating experience with trying to get her husband to make a reasonable decision.

Nonetheless, the servants had to learn that Lady Hedia was the person to obey because she wasn’t going to brook any alternative. She plucked the scroll from the reader’s hands — he gasped but didn’t try to fight her for it — and deposited it in the charcoal glowing under the wine warmer.

“Out,” she repeated, gesturing again.

The reader squealed in despair. He started for the door, then froze for a moment — and snatched the scroll back before finally scrambling out of the room. The papyrus was beginning to char, but it hadn’t caught fire yet.

Hedia watched him go with a mixture of contempt and admiration. He was risking death by torture for a book which could be replaced for a few silver pieces. That was simply stupid — and it wasn’t even his book.

On the other hand, the servant believed in something greater than his own life. That too was probably stupid . . . but it nonetheless made Hedia feel small about herself and her sophistication.

She and her husband were alone in the room; the doorman latched the panel behind the reader, the last of the attendants. Saxa looked up and grimaced.

“Hedia, dear,” he said. “I can’t talk tonight, I’m very upset. I was just trying to settle my mind before I went to sleep, and now I think I’m ready.”

Hedia didn’t bother calling her husband a liar. “This is about your daughter,” she said. “Who is Spurius Cassius?”

“What?” said Saxa. He no more could act convincingly than he could fly, so he really was at a loss. “I don’t know any Spurius Cassius. And what has he to do with Alphena?”

He fluttered his hands in agitation; it was just as well that the servant had put the cup down on a side table instead of leaving it with his master. “Anyway, I can’t talk now, dear, I’m just not up to it!”