Out Of The Waters — Snippet 13

Alphena turned away. She was suddenly angry with the whole world, starting with herself. She didn’t know why she couldn’t control these rushes of anger whenever she saw Corylus looking at her stepmother, and it made her furious.

Hedia’s maid Syra babbled, “What a hideous monster! Meoetes should be whipped for building something so terrible! Why, if there were any expecting mothers in the audience, it’ll be Juno’s mercy if they don’t miscarry, it was so awful!”

Alphena felt her face go white, then blaze red again. Her skin tingled as she turned to the servant.

Syra was talking to Florina, the maid who had been assigned to serve Alphena for the ten days which would end tomorrow. Alphena hadn’t chosen a personal staff, so Agrippinus, the major domo, rotated servants through her suite for various periods.

Alphena suspected that serving her was regarded as a punishment posting. In the past that would have pleased her. More recently she had been reconsidering her attitude, but right now there was room for nothing but fury in her mind.

“You little snip!” she said. “What do you mean by calling him a monster? He was a man, and a very distinguished man at that! Even if he was a foreigner.”

Florina hadn’t been speaking; even so she closed her eyes and began to tremble. Servants were not to talk in the presence of their owners unless they were directed to. Syra was on informal terms with her mistress, but there was no one to protect Florina from whatever torture the daughter of the house chose to inflict.

Syra, however, stood as though she’d been spitted on a javelin. Yes, she knew a great deal about Hedia’s life away from her husband’s house, but she didn’t imagine that would save her if Alphena really wanted her flayed. Alphena was, after all, a fellow aristocrat; and Syra knew that she shouldn’t have been chattering.

Though Syra would wonder–everyone in the Tribunal would be wondering–why Lady Alphena was so exercised at two maids discussing the recent stage presentation. That outside view of her behavior brought Alphena down from the heights of rage that she had climbed unaware.

Alphena relaxed, stepping back mentally from a battle she was losing. She took a deep breath, let it out, and gave a dismissive wave with her left hand.

“Never mind, girls,” she said. Florina was a year older than Alphena; Syra was five or six years older than that. “I’m wasting my time discussing such a thing.”

“I hadn’t realized it was a man in costume myself,” Hedia said from beside Alphena. “To tell the truth–”

She glanced at the maids. They hopped backward to the railing, getting as far as they could from their mistresses. Syra still looked white and tears were running down Florina’s cheeks.

I’d like to slap the little chit! Alphena thought. Then, as sudden as the flash of anger, she felt a rush of revulsion at her behavior. I wouldn’t treat a kitten that way. Why do I do it to a woman? A girl!

“As a matter of fact…,” Hedia said, now that the maids were making a point of being in a completely different world in which they could neither see nor hear their betters. She looked sidelong at Alphena. “I was afraid it wasn’t stagecraft at all. I was afraid that it was a vision of things that might be real if our fates took a wrong turn.”

“I don’t know what it was,” Alphena mumbled, wrapping her arms around herself.

“Daughter,” Hedia said sharply. “Are you all right?”

Alphena came to herself. Her father was going down the stairs; preparing to return home, she supposed. She would like to go back now also, but Hedia obviously had things to say. She owed her life to her mother; and she certainly owed Hedia more courtesy than she had just showed her.

“I’m sorry, mother,” Alphena said, touching the back of Hedia’s wrist contritely. “I didn’t think it was a stage trick either. I don’t think it could have been.”

She cast her mind back to the vision. “Do you recall the walls of the city?” she said. “And the ball on the top of the tallest spire? You saw them?”

“Yes, of course,” said Hedia, her eyes narrowing as she searched for meaning in what her daughter was saying. “They were gold, weren’t they?”

“They were orichalc,” Alphena said flatly. “Not brass like the edge trimming for shields that people call orichalc, but the real thing. I….”

She broke off and glanced toward the maids. Florina closed her eyes, her face scrunching in terror. She at least probably wouldn’t be able to remember her name, let alone what she might hear today in the Tribunal; and neither she nor Syra was close enough to understand anything Alphena said in a normal voice.

“I saw orichalc where I was before you found me and brought me back, mother,” Alphena said, touching Hedia’s wrist again, but this time not removing her fingers. That had been in a place of magic and terror, to which Hedia had come to rescue her. She saved my life. “You can’t mistake orichalc if you’ve seen it once. Because of the fire in it.”

“Ah,” said Hedia, shrugging. “I thought that might be sunset on gold, but in all truth I wasn’t paying much attention. I was….”

Hedia’s eyes had been unfocused; or anyway, focused on something a great distance away. She turned her gaze on Alphena again. This time there she wore a guarded, uncertain–perhaps uncertain; the light was bad–expression.

“You saw the walls, dear?” Hedia said. Her smile was false, but it had a trembling innocence instead of the brittle gloss Alphena had seen her show the world in normal times. “You mentioned that you did. I suppose you saw the people on the battlements, too? The figures, I mean?”

“Yes,” said Alphena. “Some of them wore orichalc armor, yes. And each of the flying ships had a helmsman in orichalc armor, too. That’s what you mean?”

She suddenly felt uncomfortable. There was something wrong with Hedia, but Alphena didn’t know what. Framing the question in that fashion made her realize how much she had come to count on her stepmother’s ruthless calm in the past ten days.

“No!” Hedia the older woman, her anger as unexpected as Alphena’s own had been some moments earlier. Hedia’s expression chilled; she tapped her left cheek with her fingertips, symbolically punishing herself for a lapse of control.

“I’m sorry, dear, I’m not myself,” she said. “No, I meant the… that is, did you see glass statues on the battlements? And yes, in the ships as well. But they moved.”

“Yes,” Alphena said carefully. “I saw them and I don’t understand. But I saw the ships flying, and I didn’t understand that either.”

She wondered how she could avoid provoking Hedia into another outburst, when she had no idea of what she had done before. She felt a rueful humor, but it didn’t reach her lips: Syra and Florina were probably wondering the same thing about me. Then she thought, I won’t do that again to servants.

“But you saw them and you saw them move,” Hedia said. “As if they were men.”

Alphena lifted her chin in agreement. “Yes,” she said. “But I wasn’t… I was looking at the….”

Varus was still talking earnestly with Corylus and their teacher. The two maids were trying to force their way into the stuccoed brick wall at the back of the box, and the male servants had gone down the steps with Saxa.

“I thought just for an instant saw I saw a, well, a monster that was all legs and arms,” Alphena said. She didn’t know why she was so embarrassed to admit that. “But then I saw he was a man, wading in the sea. I shouldn’t wonder if he was a king himself, or a priest. He wasn’t a monster, mother.”

Hedia looked at her and quirked a smile. Suddenly the familiar personality was back, the calm sophisticate who laughed merrily and, in season, killed as coldly as a Egyptian viper.

“If you say so, dear,” she said. “I suppose whether it was a man or a monster doesn’t matter a great deal, given that the rest of what we saw–I saw, at least–didn’t make any more sense than a monster tearing a city apart did.”

Hedia pursed her lips as she considered Alphena. “Once before you came with me on a visit to Pulto’s wife,” she said. “Now I have other questions that a Marsian witch might be able to answer. Would you care to join me tomorrow, dear?”

“To ask about the…,” Alphena said. “About what you say is a monster?”

“No,” said Hedia, suddenly distant again. “To ask about the glass men.”

“I’ll come,” Alphena said. “I’d come anyway, mother. I want to help you. However I can.”

Hedia patted Alphena’s shoulder and said, “I’ll inform Pulto of what we intend. Up here in front of Corylus, so that he won’t object.”

Hedia stepped over to Syra and gave crisp directions, leaving Alphena with her thoughts.

I don’t know why I care. But he’s not a monster.