Out Of The Waters — Snippet 03

The antics of the monkeys had amused Alphena, so she regretted it when they and their gilded perches slipped down into the sub-floors beneath the stage. Were there really monkeys on the Pillars of Hercules?

Varus will know. She glanced toward her brother, but Saxa and Hedia were seated in the way. It didn’t really matter anyway.

Corylus would know if the monkeys were authentic too; or anyway, he might know….

Alphena realized she was staring toward her brother’s friend in the audience. She scowled, furious with herself and with Corylus also. He was so–

She drew her eyes away with a quick intake of breath. Corylus was enough of a scholar to impress Varus, who was a good judge of that sort of thing, and enough of an athlete to impress Lenatus, the ex-soldier whom Saxa had hired as family trainer and manager of the small gymnasium in Saxa’s townhouse. His swordsmanship impressed Alphena too.

The actors marching across the long stage were supposed to be soldiers, or at least some of them were. Alphena eyed the hodgepodge of equipment with a critical eye.

Most of the helmets had been worn by the City Watch before becoming so battered they’d been replaced, but there were also gladiatorial helmets and various examples from the legions and the non-citizen cavalry squadrons. The remainder, a good quarter of the total, was odds and ends of foreign gear in leather, bronze and iron. The impresario in charge of this mime seemed to have found it cheaper to buy real cast-offs than it would have been to manufacture dummies.

The shields were wicker, though, covered in linen and painted with what for all Alphena knew really were Lusitanian tribal symbols. She sneered. The shields had to be fakes because actors wouldn’t have been able to handle the real thing. The shield of a legionary of Carce was three thick layers of laminated wood and weighed forty pounds. The barbarians on the other side of the frontier generally used bull hide contraptions, less effective but even larger and equally heavy.

Alphena could use a real legionary shield and short sword: she had practiced daily for several years, determined to make herself just as good a swordsman as any man. She wasn’t that good–she wasn’t big enough, and she had learned from experience that men had more muscle in their arms and legs than a woman did. Alphena was better than most men, though.

She wasn’t better than Publius Corylus. He had been training with weapons all his life; and though Corylus didn’t talk about it to her, Alphena knew from her brother that he had crossed the river frontiers with army scouts on nighttime raids.

Corylus didn’t talk much at all to his friend’s little sister. He shouldn’t, of course. He was merely a Knight of Carce, and Alphena was the daughter of one of the greatest houses in the empire. For Corylus to have presumed on his acquaintance with Varus would have been the grossest arrogance!

Alphena scowled fiercely again. She didn’t have the interest in books that her brother showed, but she had never doubted that she was as smart as–smarter than–most of the people she dealt with in a normal day.

This wasn’t always an advantage. Right now it prevented Alphena from believing that she wasn’t angry because Corylus showed absolutely no interest in her: he wasn’t merely avoiding her for the sake of propriety.

But he was avoiding Hedia for the sake of propriety. If he really does avoid her–

Alphena heard the thought in her head and shied away from it. Her skin tingled as though she had rolled in hot sand.

Swallowing, she forced herself to focus on the stage again. Still more actors were marching on. Actually, they were marching and dancing: the ones who weren’t dressed as soldiers danced, men and women both. If she’d been paying attention she might have known who the dancers represented, but she doubted that she’d missed anything.

The only reason Alphena was here this afternoon was that Hedia insisted that the whole family be present to support Saxa in his consulate. In her heart, Alphena knew that her stepmother was right: this was a great day for Gaius Alphenus Saxa, and his family should be with him during his public honor.

She turned to look at Hedia, opening her mouth to protest, “Father never went out of his way for me!” but that wasn’t really true–and it wasn’t at all fair. Alphena faced the front and crossed her hands primly in her lap, hoping her stepmother hadn’t noticed the almost-outburst.

Hedia probably had noticed. Hedia did notice things.

Alphena had been amazed and appalled when she learned–from Agrippinus, major domo of the Saxa household–that her father was marrying for a third time. Marcia was his first wife and the children’s mother; she had been a coolly distant noblewoman from the little Alphena remembered of her. At Marcia’s death, Saxa had married her sister Secunda. That relationship ended, but the children had seen almost nothing of their father’s wife before the divorce, so that made very little difference to them.

But Saxa’s third wife was to be the notorious Hedia: certainly a slut, probably a poisoner, and utterly impossible. Alphena thought she had misheard Agrippinus–or else that the major domo was making a joke that would get him whipped within a hair’s breadth of his life even though he was a freedman rather than a slave.

It hadn’t been a joke. Alphena had known that as soon as she realized that Agrippinus was trembling with fear. He had obviously guessed how Alphena would take the news, and he knew also that Saxa would have allowed his furious daughter to punish the major domo any way she pleased even though he had only been carrying out his master’s orders.

Saxa had left for his estate in the Sabine Hills that morning. He too had been concerned about how Alphena was going to take the news.

When Hedia arrived, Alphena had found no difficulty in hating her. What she couldn’t do–what nobody seemed able to do–was to ignore her stepmother. Instead of ignoring Saxa’s children the way their birth mother had, she had become their mother in fact as well as law. That hadn’t affected Varus much; he continued to take classes and, in his spare time, write poetry–an acceptable occupation for a nobleman if not a very heroic one.

Alphena, though, had found herself being forced into ladylike pursuits. She couldn’t fool her stepmother, and she had found to her amazement that Hedia’s voice was louder than her “daughter’s” and that she had no compunction about causing a scene.

For that matter, the servants were more afraid of Saxa’s wife than they were of his daughter. Alphena and her famously bad temper could no longer rule the household. For three months she had subsided into sullen anger, which Hedia had resolutely ignored as she ignored everything that didn’t suit her.

Then Alphena had found herself trapped in a place she couldn’t have freed herself from, and Hedia had rescued her. Alphena had already felt gratitude toward her stepmother even before she learned that Hedia had literally gone down into the Underworld for her.