Legions Of Fire – Snippet 39

Hedia sat down on the bed beside her husband. She felt tired and sad, but she wasn’t angry any more. Saxa looked helpless. His fists were clenched on the bedspread, but he looked more like he was going to try to rub tears of desperation out of his eyes than to hit anything.

He certainly wouldn’t hit her. There’d been a number of men in Hedia’s life who had — and had lived to regret it — but Saxa wasn’t like that. He was a decent man, and because of that she loved him.

“Dear heart,” she said, “tonight the statue of Tellus told your daughter that she would marry Spurius Cassius and reign in the Underworld. The voice was male, so I don’t imagine that the goddess was really speaking; it must have been a trick, but a very clever trick.”

She took a deep breath and went on, “I saw the statue’s lips move. I thought I did.”

“Really?” said Saxa, sitting up straighter. “Why, that’s very interesting, my dear! I’ve read of similar prodigies, but to have one occur now and in my own family — why, this is amazing!”

“Saxa,” Hedia said, knowing that she was letting her exasperation show. “This is your daughter Alphena. Your daughter.”

“She wasn’t harmed, was she?” Saxa said in sudden concern. “I know I’ve been distracted, dear, but it would be terrible if anything happened to Alphena. Or to Varus, of course.”

“Varus is fine,” Hedia said, wondering why she’d bothered to start this conversation, “and nothing happened to Alphena tonight except that she was badly frightened.”

The girl would certainly object to being characterized as frightened, but it was true. Hedia would have said the same thing even if it weren’t true: she had to get her husband to open up to her. Making him afraid for his children’s safety was one of the few tools she had to do that.

“It’s what’s going to happen to Alphena that worries me,” she continued harshly. “She has to be dead to be in the Underworld, whether queen or not. Doesn’t she?”

“Yes, I quite see what you mean,” Saxa said, but the brief personal note was gone from his voice. “And you’re quite sure you saw the statue’s lips move?”

“I’m sure,” Hedia said curtly, though by now she wasn’t really sure that her eyes hadn’t been tricking her in the dim light. And she’d drunk quite a lot of wine. “My lord husband, is Nemastes behind this?”

“What?” said Saxa. He stiffened and leaned his upper body away from Hedia, though of course he wasn’t going anywhere until he disentangled his legs from the bedclothes on which she was sitting. “Why do you say that? What could Nemastes have to do with it?”

I don’t know, Hedia thought, but you must at least have an idea or you wouldn’t find the question so disturbing. Saxa really shouldn’t try to lie or even to conceal the truth.

She got to her feet. Staring down at him, she said, “My lord Saxa, this is your daughter’s life — or worse. What is Nemastes doing to her?”

“Nothing!” Saxa said. He closed his eyes in misery. “Nothing, nothing, nothing! Not that I know of, Hedia. But –”

His voice became a wail.

“– I know so little, and the dangers are so great!”

Instead of a gush of frustrated anger, Hedia felt her heart melt toward the poor man. He was completely out of his depth, and he knew it. She was out of her depth also, but that made her the more determined to fight; her own strength was all she had left.

Saxa, dear kindly Saxa, didn’t have any inner strength. Well, he had her; she would supply the backbone that nature had not.

Hedia sat on the bed again and tousled his hair with her left hand. For a moment she massaged his bald spot with her fingertips; she knew he liked that.

Then she unpinned one shoulder of her chiton and tugged it down to her waist. “Come, dear husband,” she said, lifting her right breast and holding it out to him. The nipple hardened in anticipation. “Come, you know you’ll feel better. You always do.”

“No, Hedia, not now, please!” Saxa said. His face scrunched up and he looked even more as though he were about to burst into tears. “In the morning I’ll look into the prodigy. There have been similar ones, but none that I recall that involve private persons.”

He must have seen the way the planes of her face had hardened. With a flare of his own anger, he snapped, “I said I would look. That’s all I can do!”

Before she could decide how to respond, Saxa sank back into misery and desperation. “Hedia, Hedia,” he said. He was crying now. “You say it’s my daughter. It’s not. It’s the whole world. Unless we stop them, they’ll destroy the whole world!”

Saxa buried his face in the pillows. Hedia, her mind wrestling with questions she couldn’t properly form, left his bedroom.

She was almost back to her own suite before she remembered to cover her breasts again.

* * *

Alphena had found Lenatus waiting in the street when she and the others arrived. Varus had helped along the limping Corylus. Most or all the thirty-odd attendants were better suited to supporting the injured youth than Varus was, but he’d insisted on being the one his friend leaned on.

Alphena had taken time to change into a short tunic and comfortable shoes in place of the high buskins that formality required. Now she was ready to join the men.

She’d heard Lenatus say that he’d look at Corylus in the bathhouse, a small affair attached to the exercise ground. Occasionally Hedia used it, but normally the family went to the large public bathhouse on the corner of the Argiletum where the facilities were much more extensive and comfortable. The private one was intended for members of the household who had just exercised in the gymnasium. That meant Alphena herself — and recently Corylus.

Servants were gathered outside the closed door. There must be fifty of them, squeezing together so that each could claim to have been present. They can’t possibly have been overhearing what was said inside: their breathing alone would smother words that penetrated the thick panel.

Alphena felt her anger blaze. She’d been threatened by a spectral voice and bullied by her stepmother; now she had a legitimate target for her temper.

“Get out of here!” she shouted. “I’ll have you flogged! By Hercules, I’ll flog you myself! Where’s a whip? I want a whip!”

The crowd burst like a melon dropped onto a stone pavement. Servants ran in all directions except straight at the young mistress — and, blinking, Alphena realized that with the way they were shoving each other, it was perfectly possible that one of them would lose his balance and knock her down.

A scullery maid slipped and was trampled by several of her fellows. She squealed in terror every time someone stepped on her. Tear-blinded, she was still squirming on the hallway floor after the rest of the servants had vanished either into the back garden or toward the front of the house.