Out Of The Waters — Snippet 14

“Master?” Varus said Hedia’s maid had gone down to the stage floor a moment earlier; now she was returning. “Could I–and Publius, if he wishes, of course. Could we help you and Lord Priscus in his library. We–”

Pulto was coming up behind the maid with his head lowered. He showed all the enthusiasm of a barbarian being dragged along the Sacred Way behind the Emperor’s triumphal chariot.

Corylus’ head whipped around; Varus stopped before the next syllable. Pandareus waited politely a moment for Varus to finish, then turned also.

“Thank you for attending me, Master Pulto,” Hedia said, strolling across the Tribunal to where Varus and his companions stood. Pulto turned his head to follow her. At the top of the steps he was already within arm’s length of Corylus; the Tribunal wasn’t meant for large gatherings.

“My daughter and I…,” Hedia said, halting beside Corylus but keeping her eyes on his servant. “Intend to call upon your wife tomorrow morning, while Master Corylus–”

Only now did she glance at Corylus, giving him a neutral smile.

“–is in classes with Lord Varus.”

Another nod, another pleasant smile. When Saxa first brought home his new wife, Varus had been amazed and more than a little disgusted. He wasn’t a member of the fast set or interested in its gossip, but even a bookish youth who spent his time at lectures rather than at drinking parties heard things.

In the past six months Varus had observed his stepmother closely, seeing both her public and her private faces. She was–he was sure she was–everything which rumor had painted her, but she was also a great deal more.

Varus no longer marveled why his father would have married Hedia. Now he wasn’t at all sure why she had been willing to marry Saxa.

“I hope you’ll inform Anna of our intent, will you not?” Hedia concluded.

Pulto raised his head. He lifted his chin in assent, but though he seemed to be trying to speak, his throat swelled over the words.

“Your ladyship,” Corylus said smoothly, “my man and I will be glad to carry your message when we return to the apartment.”

He bowed slightly, then said, “Pulto, you may wait below if you wish. I don’t know how long I’ll be.”

“Thank you, master,” Pulto grunted. He ducked down the steps as though he were avoiding a sleet of German javelins.

He’d probably prefer dealing with javelins to magic. Varus grimaced, feeling sorry for the man. Hedia must have come to the same conclusions about what happened here as Corylus and I did.

There was a surprised yelp from the stairway. Candidus reappeared, rubbing his shoulder with an outraged expression. He must have thought his rank in Saxa’s household gave him precedence on the stairs over a knight’s servant. That neglected the fact that the servant was a freeborn citizen who had an old soldier’s disdain for someone he might himself have sent off for sale as his portion of the loot following a battle.

Varus didn’t resume the interrupted discussion, waiting instead to see why Candidus had returned. The servant bowed low to Hedia and said, “Your ladyship, his lordship your husband wishes me to inform you that he is returning to the house. Do you intend to accompany him, please?”

“Yes,” said Hedia. “Lady Alphena and I will be pleased to attend his lordship. Come along, dear.”

There had been a moment’s hesitation–a conscious weighing of alternatives–before she spoke, but it was so brief that Varus would not have recognized it a few months ago. Nothing Hedia did was simple or automatic, but her mind was so quick that it seemed so unless one paid attention.

“Candidus–” Varus said, then caught himself. He had been about to give a simple, automatic order, when an instant’s reflection on the squabble he’d seen beneath the box would have warned him that there would be a problem if he did.

“My dear sister?” he resumed, smiling broadly because he was amused by himself. “Would you please tell Manetho that I may be up here with my friends for some while? I will call down to him if I want anything.”

Don’t bother me, and don’t try to badger me into rushing back to the house so that my escort of servants can eat and dice and generally relax in the luxury of a rich man’s townhouse.

Hedia grinned at Varus in delight. She may have been the only person present–besides the servants–who understood what he had done. Alphena didn’t have to maneuver that way, because the staff was too frightened of her temper to volunteer anything, least of all a suggestion, to her.

Pandareus cocked his head to the side as he spoke, looking oddly birdlike. When lecturing or delivering speeches to his class, he had a forceful, direct delivery which made him seem both authoritative and harsh.

“Why is your man Pulto displeased at Hedia visiting his wife?” he asked Corylus.

“Pulto doesn’t like magic,” Corylus said. “He believes Anna is a witch and–begging your pardon, Varus?”

Varus shrugged. He said, “You won’t offend my family honor by speaking the truth, Publius.”

“Well,” Corylus said, “he believes Lady Hedia and her daughter are visiting Anna to get a charm or spell or something. And by implication, I just told him I approve of what Anna will be asked to do.”

“I don’t believe in witchcraft,” Varus mused aloud. He smiled ruefully at his companions. “Given the things that I’ve seen and therefore accept–and the things that I’ve done, for that matter–that is clearly irrational behavior on my part.”

Pandareus shrugged. “Believing in elephants, Lord Varus,” he said, “doesn’t require that one also believe in dragons.”

Varus laughed. “Unfortunately, master,” he said, “I’ve seen a dragon also. And you were with me when it happened, the first time at least. And I very much fear–”

Still smiling–Pandareus’ indirect joke had broken the uncomfortable mood–he looked toward the stage where mere minutes ago he had seen a monster ripping apart an island.

“–that if I spent much time around Pulto’s wife, I would find myself believing in witchcraft as well. Which would distress me, as I consider such beliefs to be infallible proof that the holder is a superstitious yokel.”

Pandareus spoke. Varus heard the sound but not the words. At the moment laughter relaxed him, his grip on present reality loosened.

Varus was drifting into the mist in which he met the Sibyl. His companions continued talking, apparently unaware of what was happening to him.

He was climbing a trail through jagged mountains. The encircling cloud was too thick for him to see much beyond the length of his arm, but the sun scattered rainbows around the edges of outcrops.

Varus trudged on. He was never sure of time when he was in this place–or in this state, for a better word. Something large moved in the bright blur; coming toward him… and it was past, crossing the path ahead of him. It walked on two legs, but even bent over–as it was–it stood twice his height and taller than any man. Its long hair rustled, and it had the sharp, dry odor of fresh sawdust.

Can I die here? Varus thought. Then, smiling like the philosopher he wished to be, Does it matter if I do?