Legions Of Fire – Snippet 40

Alphena felt queasy. She’s no older than me! She bent and took the girl’s hand. The maid rose to her knees; she wasn’t really hurt. When she wiped her eyes and saw who had helped her, however, she gave a muffled shriek and ran into the garden.

Alphena pulled open the bathhouse door. In the light of a pair of three-wick lamps, Corylus reclined on the table while Lenatus applied ointment to his knee. Varus was refilling a basin from the large boiler in the corner. This facility was too small to have a proper heated bath, but servants could sponge you with hot water before a massage.

Now that the torn skin had been cleaned, the scrapes didn’t look too serious. His right knee had swollen to half again the size of the left, however. Unless it went down under the trainer’s ministrations, it would be as stiff as if it had been splinted.

The three men stared at Alphena. She had assumed that she’d announced her presence when she shouted at the servants, but the trio had obviously been too involved with their own business to pay any attention.

Lenatus had a napkin draped over his knees to wipe his hands as he applied the ointment. He tossed it over Corylus’ manhood and rose to face her, standing between Alphena and his patient. The pot of ointment smelled like sheep.

“Your ladyship, you shouldn’t be here,” Lenatus said. His expression was one of cold misery, like that of a brave man who has just been sentenced to death. “Please leave now.”

“Who are you to tell me where I can go in my father’s house, you servant?” Alphena said. She heard her voice rising to a scream and hated it, but she could no more control the tone than she could stop breathing. “Don’t you dare give me orders!”

Lenatus flinched, but he didn’t move. In a quiet voice without inflection he said, “Your ladyship.” It wasn’t a plea or a complaint, just the simplest acknowledgment he could make of the fact that the young mistress was shouting at him.

Alphena gasped, appalled at herself. She thought of the look on the scullery maid’s face when she recognized her mistress.

The trainer knew that no matter what he did in the present situation, there was a good chance that he would be dismissed and possibly crucified. All the servants knew what it meant to anger their ladyships, Alphena as surely as Hedia.

If Lenatus let her stay while he worked on Corylus’ injuries, however, her father’s social position meant he would have to take action if he learned about it. The trainer was bound to have at least one enemy among the hundreds of servants in the townhouse, so Saxa would surely learn.

Varus stepped forward. He’d put down the basin, but his hands were still wet from wringing out the bloody sponge.

“Sister,” he said with a dignity that Alphena didn’t recall him displaying in the past. “Please show courtesy to our guest, Master Corylus. He isn’t an exotic animal on display at the Games.”

Alphena stepped back into the corridor, but she kept hold of the door. “Yes,” she said. “Master Corylus, I apologize. I’m, I . . . tonight was upsetting. And to you too, Lenatus.”

“Thank you, sister,” said Varus, reaching out to take the door from her.

“A moment, please,” Alphena said sharply. Speaking as though the trainer were a curtain, she said, “Master Corylus, you won’t be going to the auguries for my father’s consulship tomorrow morning, will you?”

Lenatus had given a sigh of relief when Alphena backed from the bathhouse. He stiffened again, though this time he looked wary instead of doomed.

“Ah, no, your ladyship,” Corylus said. If she could have seen his expression, it probably would have been as careful as the trainer’s was. “It’s a non-business day so we don’t have class, but I thought I’d go home and . . . well, to be honest, I’d reassure Anna. She fusses over me, you know.”

“I’ll leave you with Lenatus now,” Alphena said. “But promise you’ll train with me tomorrow before you leave.”

There was frozen silence from the bathhouse. Alphena added, “At the fourth hour. And I understand, we won’t be sparring.”

“Yes, your ladyship,” Corylus said.

Alphena grimaced. She wanted to hit something. She wanted to hit Corylus.

Unexpectedly, Corylus — still hidden behind the trainer—went on, “Sure, Alphena. And it would probably be good for my knee. I’d like that.”

Mother Juno, thank you, Alphena thought reflexively. She kept the words from reaching her tongue. Aloud she said, “But brother, you have to come with me now. They don’t need you here, and I do.”

“Surely there’s no impropriety in me remaining with my good friend!” Varus said in surprise. The dignity was there again, but this time it was offended.

“It’s not that,” Alphena said peevishly. “I need to talk to you. You know history, don’t you?”

“Well, yes . . . ,” he said doubtfully. He looked over his shoulder.

Lenatus bowed slightly. “We’ll be all right, your lordship,” he said. His relief at getting Alphena out of the way was obvious.

Alphena’s renewed irritation turned to a grin when another thought occurred to her. It could be that Lenatus was just as glad not to be present while the two youths discussed things that might be dangerous for a servant to know.

“What do you want to know?” Varus said as he came outside and firmly closed the bathhouse door behind him. He paused, then said, “Corylus is well read too, of course; but I’m, well, probably the right person to ask.”

“Let’s go out into the garden,” Alphena said, thinking of the crowd of servants who were probably clustering close to where she and Varus stood in the short hallway. The garden wasn’t large, but it would give them more privacy.

With her brother following obediently, Alphena walked past the gymnasium and through the open door into the garden. As she’d expected, half a dozen of the servants she’d rousted from the bathhouse entrance were there, talking in muted voices with the night doorman. They stared in concern as she and Varus entered.

“Leave now,” Alphena said. To the doorman she added, “You too, Maximus. Stand outside the gate until I call you.”

She spoke calmly, but after her recent rage the servants fled through the back gate as though she were chasing them with branding irons. They’d reenter the house by the front entrance, as many of their fellows must have done already.

As the doorman pulled the iron-strapped gate closed behind him, Varus slid the heavy bar through its staples. He walked back to face Alphena as she stood between the two fruit trees.

“Now, sister,” he said. “What is it you want to know in such secrecy? Not history, surely.”

Maximus had taken his lantern outside with him, but the moon’s cool light was full on Varus’ face. He looked like the marble statue of a philosopher.

Whatever happened tonight changed him, Alphena thought. Into a man, I think.

“It is history,” she said. She swallowed. “At least I think it is. Have you ever heard of a man named Spurius Cassius? I think he must be dead.”