Out Of The Waters — Snippet 04
A fragment of myth fluttered through Alphena’s mind: Hercules had visited the Underworld too, but he had brought the monster Cerberus back to the surface with him. What would Hedia say if Saxa had commissioned a mime on that subject instead of the conquest of Lusitania?
Alphena giggled, then worried that she shouldn’t do that now. Fortunately, what was happening on stage had absorbed everyone’s attention.
Two tall Nubians had entered, bearing a platter with a domed silver cover. The actor playing Mercury cried, “Behold, great leader! The head of Geryon, conquered by your prowess!”
He whisked off the cover, pointing toward the platter with his free hand. On it was the head of a man whose tawny moustache flared back into sideburns of a paler color. His face had mottled during strangulation, and his eyes started in their sockets.
“The bandit Corocotta!” shouted a spectator who recognized the dead features.
“Corocotta!” shouted the crowd as a blurry whole. “The head of Corocotta!”
Alphena had heard–from gossiping servants–about the coup that Meoetes, the impresario, had arranged with a help of a great deal of Saxa’s money. A noted Sardinian bandit, Corocotta, had been captured after years of terrorizing the countryside. Instead of being crucified in Caralis, Corocotta had been brought to Carce and marched through the streets before being strangled in the prison on the edge of the Forum.
Corocotta’s body had been dumped in a trench outside the religious boundary of Carce, but his head had been preserved for this performance. Saxa’s triumph was greater than that of the Governor of Sardinia, who had caught the fellow to begin with.
The audience stood and began stamping its feet in delight. Saxa sat straighter on his golden throne: beaming, flushing, and happier than Alphena had ever seen him before.
She grimaced. She hadn’t given her father much reason to be happy in her presence. She had resented him, and she had resented the world that said that a daughter wasn’t free to do the things that sons were encouraged to do. Varus could be a military officer, could rise to general even–but Alphena, who was easily able to have chopped her brother to sausage in battle, had to threaten a tantrum merely to be taught the manual of arms by the family trainer.
Being forced into close contact with Hedia had given Alphena a different perspective. Alphena’s ability to use a sword had been helpful and occasionally very helpful. Hedia wouldn’t have considered gripping a sword hilt and wouldn’t have known what to do with the weapon if she’d been forced to handle one.
But for all her ladylike disdain for swordsmanship and combat, Hedia had shocked her stepdaughter with her ruthless determination. Hedia had brought Alphena back to the world she had fallen out of, alive and uninjured except for some scratches and blisters.
Alphena blushed, remembering the way she had sneered at the older woman as a pampered weakling. Hedia certainly pampered herself, and if threatened she would bend like a young willow in a storm. When the storm passed, the willow would stand straight again; and it wouldn’t break, not ever, no more than Hedia would.
The Nubians pranced the length of the long stage, giving every section of the theater a good opportunity to view the head. I wonder what my brother thinks of this? Alphena wondered.
She bent forward slightly, then remembered that her father’s plump bulk concealed Varus–and Pandareus–unless she leaned out over the Tribunal railing. There was no need of that.
From the time Alphena had begun to be aware of the world around her, she had been mildly contemptuous of Varus. He wasn’t crippled, but he was completely disinterested in the physical sports that were open to boys. He spent his time with books and his writing, the sort of thing that an old man or a weakling would do.
Varus wasn’t a weakling. When the blazing demons of the Underworld began to climb into Carce, he had sat as calmly as a Stoic philosopher, chanting a poem. At the time, Alphena would have preferred Varus help her fight the fiery onslaught; but–candidly–he wouldn’t have been much use as a warrior.
She couldn’t see that his poetry was much use either, but at the end of the night Carce and the world had survived. Alphena’s sword had not defeated the threat, so perhaps her brother’s verses had.
At any rate, Varus hadn’t run. He was as true a citizen of Carce as any legionary who stood firm against charging barbarians; as true as the sort of man Corylus would be when he returned to the frontier as an officer.
Alphena’s eyes slipped unbidden into the audience again. Corylus sat very close to the woman beside him. She wasn’t young–she must be almost thirty!–but she wasn’t bad looking in a coarse way.
A lower-class Hedia, Alphena thought, and for an instant embarrassment overcame her anger. Hedia saved my life!
Corylus’ neighbor was from a knightly family like his own, shown by the two thin stripes on the hem of her tunic. She wore a linen cloak too, longer than the warm temperatures demanded but just the thing to conceal a man’s groping hand.
Did Corylus and the hussy meet here by plan?
Alphena jerked her eyes away; but after a moment, she found herself looking at Corylus again.
“My goodness, the excitement just makes me dizzy,” said Orpelia, the woman seated to the right of Corylus. “You’ll keep me from falling over if I’m overcome, won’t you, dear?”
She toppled–lunged would have been another way of describing it–against Corylus’ shoulder, shifting her arm back so that her breast flopped against his forearm. As if that hadn’t been a clear enough signal, she tried to wriggle closer.
Orpelia was the wife of a ship-owner named Bassos, a Greek born on Euboea who had become extremely wealthy. Also, according to Orpelia, Bassos was very old and at present inspecting his estates in Sicily.
Corylus suspected “old” meant middle aged; and Bassos might well be here in Carce, though he probably didn’t care a great deal about his wife’s recreations. The claim of wealth was likely enough, though, given that Orpelia’s jewelry included a ruby tiara along with other expensively flashy items.
Corylus didn’t care how Orpelia conducted herself either, so long as her activities didn’t include him. Which was much harder to arrange than he had expected it to be.
“Master Pulto,” he said, looking over his shoulder. Pulto wore an amused expression which he quickly blotted from his face. “I wish to be a little higher for a better view. Trade places with me, if you will.”
Pulto had served twenty-five years in the army with Corylus’ father and had followed him into retirement. Pulto had been Cispius’ servant, his bodyguard, and most important his friend. When it was time for Corylus to be trained in rhetoric by a professor in Carce, Cispius had sent Pulto along.
Pulto wasn’t going to coddle Corylus any more than he would have coddled a new soldier in the company. On the other hand, if the boy showed signs of really going off in the woods, Pulto would bring him back to reality. A troop of Sarmatian lancers hadn’t been able to move Pulto from where he stood over the unconscious form of his commander, and Hercules himself knew that no matter how drunkenly angry Corylus got, Pulto would be obeyed if he thought he needed to be.
“It’s my honor to serve you, master,” said Pulto in a sepulchral voice, “no matter how dangerous the duty may be. If I don’t survive, I hope you’ll see to it that my grieving widow is cared for in her final days.”
Orpelia sat bolt upright, looking as furious as her rice-flour makeup allowed without cracking. “Well, really!” she said. “I’m astounded at the rural boors who claim to have been honored with knighthood!”
“Well, don’t get too upset, honey,” said Pulto as he and Corylus changed places. “His daddy and I were on the Rhine when your Greekling husband was being marched to Carce in chains, so it isn’t us who made a slave of him.”
Laughing, he chucked Orpelia under the chin. She squealed and made for the aisle, dragging her maid behind her.
Corylus allowed himself a smile. He’d grown up in the cantonments around military bases. He was a tall, good looking youth and the son of an officer besides, so it hadn’t been uncommon for older women to suggest they would like to know him better.
Even whores who were feeling the pinch toward the end of the army’s pay cycle weren’t quite as brazen as some of the women Corylus had encountered here in Carce, though. The metropolis had its own standards–and they weren’t as high as those of the barbarian fringes of empire. Corylus wasn’t a prude or a virgin, but neither was he desperate enough to be charmed by the attentions of a slut.
On stage, the head of “Geryon” had been placed on a stand beside Hercules. Its wax eyes stared out from beneath bushy brows as lines of actors paraded before it, wearing placards indicating what Lusitanian tribe they were supposed to belong to. Nemetatoi, Tamarci, Cileni….