Out Of The Waters — Snippet 02

Hedia’s face was turned toward the stage, wearing a look of polite pleasure. That was the appropriate expression for the wife of the noble patron of the entertainment, so of course that was how she looked. She would have tried to appear just as politely pleased while torturers used a stick to roll her intestines out through a slit in her belly if that were what the duties of her station called for.

Moved by a sudden feeling of fondness, Hedia patted the back of her husband’s hand. He looked at her in surprise, then blushed and faced the stage again.

Saxa was a thoroughly decent man, a sweet man. There were people–there were quite a lot of people, in fact–who felt that Hedia in her twenty-two years of existence had encompassed all the licentious decadence which had flowed into Carce along with the wealth of the conquered East. There was evidence for their belief, but even Hedia’s worst enemies would never claim that she wasn’t a perfect wife in public.

As for what happened after dinner parties at the houses of friends or in Baiae while the business of the Senate detained her husband in Carce, well–there were stories about any wealthy, beautiful woman, and not all of them were true. In Hedia’s particular case, most of the stories were true, but she maintained a discreet silence about her private life. That was, after all, the appropriate response to impertinent questions.

The dreadfully long line of mules seemed to have passed. Another patron might have made a hundred mules do, leading them around behind the stage and exchanging their loads for fresh goods. Saxa’s wealth made that unnecessary.

The actor draped in a gilded lion skin raised his hands, one of which held a glittering club. Hedia thought he was supposed to be Hercules, but she hadn’t paid much attention. She had always found life to hold quite enough drama without inventing things to put on stage.

“As a sign of my prowess!” the actor boomed. He seemed a weedy little fellow, despite his armor and the lion skin, but his voice filled the hollow of the theater. “I raise these pillars to mark my conquest!”

On cue, a pair of gilded “hills” began to rise from the basement, through trap doors in the stage. Hedia frowned: bizarrely, monkeys were tethered in niches in the steep cones. The animals had been dusted with gold also, but in between bouts of angry chittering they were trying to chew their fur clean.

“In later years, another conqueror and god will come to this strait!” said the actor. “He too will bring the whole world beneath his beneficent rule before he returns to the heavens; but greater than I, he will found a line of succession. Each of his descendents will be more magnificent than his predecessor. Hail Caesar, and hail to your mighty house!”

A monkey shrieked and made a full-armed gesture. Something splattered the ornate shield displayed on a frame beside the actor.

Hedia blinked, uncertain of what she had just seen. Oh by Venus! The little beast is throwing its own feces! she realized. She started to whoop with laughter, not because what had happened was particularly funny but because its unexpectedness had broken the shell of fear that had enclosed Hedia since last night’s dream.

She stifled the laughter into what she hoped would pass for a coughing fit. She was horrified at herself. The incident would embarrass Saxa if he noticed it, and to have had his own wife leading the seeming mockery would shrivel his soul.

Hedia reached over and this time gripped Saxa’s hand firmly. The last thing she wanted to do was to hurt the gentle man who had, very likely, saved her life: he had married her when the relatives of her first husband, Gaius Calpurnius Latus, were claiming she had poisoned him.

Maybe some of the relatives had believed that. Latus had been an unpleasant man with unpleasant tastes; one of his partners–particularly the sort of boys he favored–might well have poisoned him. Hedia wasn’t the sort, though if someone had brained Latus with a statuette….

She realized she was grinning at the thought; she softened her expression instantly.

Most likely Latus had died of a perfectly ordinary fever, as thousands did every year across the empire. He had been a wealthy man, however, and if his widow was executed for his murder, that wealth would be distributed among his surviving relatives–some of whom were well connected politically.

Hedia knew that if matters had continued in the direction they were going, she would probably have been strangled by the public executioner–though in the entrance of the family home, in deference to her noble status. Instead, Saxa–a distant cousin of Latus–had asked her to marry him. Saxa’s wealth and unblemished reputation immediately made the threat of prosecution vanish.

Hedia continued to caress her husband’s hand. He glanced halfway toward her, then faced the stage again. He didn’t pull away, though he seemed puzzled.

Hedia had never understood why Saxa had married her. Despite his relationship to Latus, they hadn’t moved in the same circles. She was as attractive as any woman in Carce, and she was more–talented, one might say–than most highly paid professionals, but that couldn’t have been an important factor in his decision.

Hedia made sure that her husband got full value whenever she enticed him into her bed, but she was invariably the instigator. Saxa appeared to enjoy himself, but he was past fifty and couldn’t have been much of an athlete–in any fashion–even in the flush of youth.

As best Hedia could tell, Saxa was a sweet man who had chosen to protect a pretty girl who was being bullied. That she was one of the most notorious women in Carce may have had something to do with it as well. Saxa, for all his wealth, had been considered a foolish eccentric when anybody thought of him at all. The husband of the noble Hedia was a subject of interest to both men and women.

Storm clouds painted on flats descended over the stage. A troupe of attractive boys representing the Winds–a placard identified them–danced, while the actor playing Hercules’ companion Ithys sang about his leader’s battle with Geryon.

According to the song, this was merely a prefiguring of the greater battles which the divine Caesar and his heirs would fight in coming days. Silver foil on the scenery reflected torchlight to mimic lightning, and pairs of stagehands rattled sheets of bronze thunderously between stanzas.

The fellow playing Ithys was well set up. In other circumstances, Hedia might have invited him to perform at–and after–a private dinner some night.

In her present mood, though, Hedia didn’t want to think of darkness, even when it was being spent in pleasant recreation. The night before, Hedia had dreamed of Latus in the Underworld, screaming out the agonies of the damned.

If those who wrote about gods and men told the truth, her first husband was certainly worthy of eternal torture… but until recently, Hedia had never imagined that such stories–such myths–were true. A few days ago she had visited the Underworld herself. She had talked with Latus, who had been in the embrace of broad, gray-green, leaves like those which wrapped him in her dream.

In last night’s dream, three figures had coalesced through the shadowy fronds about Latus. They looked like men; or rather, they looked like human statues which had been found in a desert where the sands had worn their features smooth. These were of glass, however, not bronze or marble; and these moved as though they were human.

In the dream, Latus was screaming. Hedia had awakened to find her personal maid Syra leaning over her with a frightened expression and a lamp. Behind Syra were three footmen and a gaggle of female servants, all wearing expressions of excitement or concern.

Hedia had closed her mouth. Her throat had been raw; it still felt tender, though she had sucked comfits of grape sugar most of the day to sooth it. The screams had been her own. Something terrifying was going on, though she didn’t know how she knew that.

On stage, the painted storm had lifted, and Hercules was back on his plaster hill. A large mixed company danced on, wearing silks and chains of tiny metal bells which tinkled to their movements. Hedia wasn’t sure whether the troupe was meant to be the conqueror’s companions, his captives, or more nymphs and sprites.

She didn’t know, and she didn’t care. Something was wrong, badly wrong; but there had generally been something wrong in Hedia’s life, before her marriage to Latus and most certainly afterwards. She would see her way through this trouble also.

Hedia gave her husband’s hand a final squeeze, then crossed her fingers on her lap. Composed again, she glanced to her right at Alphena, Saxa’s daughter by his first wife. The girl sensed her stepmother’s interest and immediately blushed, though she didn’t respond in any deliberate fashion.

Hedia nodded minusculely and turned her attention to the audience. She suppressed her knowing grin, just as she had swallowed her laughter at the monkey’s antics.

As she expected, Alphena had been looking toward Publius Corylus, who sat at the edge of the knights’ section. He was a striking young man, taller than most citizens of Carce. His hair was buttery blond, His father had been a soldier, so the boy probably had Celtic blood. Soldiers couldn’t marry, but informal arrangements on the frontiers were regularized on retirement, for those who survived to retire. Acknowledged offspring became legitimate and, in Corylus’ case, joined the ranks of the Knights of Carce to whom his father had been raised.

A very striking boy. Spending the afternoon with him would be a good way to climb out of this swamp of disquiet….

Hedia’s face hardened for an instant before she consciously smoothed it back to aristocratic calm. She could appreciate better than most why Alphena found the boy attractive, but she was by law the girl’s mother and she took her duties seriously. Hedia would do whatever was necessary to keep Alphena a virgin until the girl was safely married; and marriage, for the daughter of Senator Gaius Alphenus Saxa, meant an alliance with another senatorial house.

After that, well…. After that, Alphena’s behavior would be a matter for negotiation between husband and wife. Nothing to do with the girl’s stepmother.

Hedia had never pretended to be a wife who embodied all the virtues of ancient Carce, but she had never failed to do her duty as she saw it. She would not fail in her duties now, neither to her husband nor to the girl to whom she was now mother. She would not fail for so long as she lived.

Trumpets and horns which curved around the player’s body sounded harshly together. A military procession was entering from the other side of the stage.

As long as I live…, Hedia thought. She remembered Latus screaming and her own swollen throat; and she smiled with polite courtesy, because it was her duty now to smile.