Out Of The Waters — Snippet 19




          Alphena had returned to the house with Hedia, in the double litter. She found it odd but nonetheless comforting to regard her stepmother as an ally–a friend even–instead of a demon sent to torment her.


          Hedia was the perfect lady: beautiful, her hair and garments in the current style; familiar with all the trivia of Carce’s highest social circle. Hedia had seemed all the things that her stepdaughter had been determined never to be.


          Hedia was all the things she seemed, but Alphena had learned that her stepmother was also as hard as a blade of fine steel and every bit as deadly when the need arose. She had determined to bring Alphena safely through whatever troubles arose, no matter what her own risk was.


          Alphena wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She prided herself on being independent. She was certain, though, that it was much better to have Lady Hedia as a friend than as an enemy.


          There had been no place in particular where Alphena had to be after they reached the house. There was never anywhere she had to be, a realization that brought a familiar flush of anger to her face.


          Varus was being educated in literature and the arts of rhetoric. All aspects of public life were governed by oratory. The most brilliant general would be laughed at–albeit behind his back–if he couldn’t report his accomplishments using chiasmus and litotes, praeteritio and asyndeton and a thousand other absurdities. Absurdities!


          The empire had been won at the point of a sword, but Varus could no better wield a sword than he could fly. Alphena had practiced weapons drill as assiduously as any army recruit, but she would never be allowed to join the legions.


          She didn’t want to spend her life reading poems that didn’t make any sense she could see, nor in learning scraps of history from eight centuries ago because they might make useful embellishments for her summation speech in a murder trial. She didn’t want to do those things–but she wouldn’t be allowed to, whatever she wanted. She was a woman, so she had no share in government or the army or in anything that mattered!


          But while all that was completely true and completely unfair, Alphena found herself thinking about her stepmother. If Hedia set out to accomplish something, Alphena would expect it the way she would expect the sun to rise in the east. She couldn’t have given a logical explanation of why she was so confident of her stepmother’s abilities, but logic–


          Alphena grinned. Logic was a matter for students, like her brother Varus. Hedia’s competence was real, which was a very different thing.


          Alphena found she had walked the length of the house, to the private gymnasium and bath located between the courtyard and the back garden. She used the gym regularly, so it wasn’t surprising that she would find herself at the door if she wandered without paying attention.


          She looked around. Her maid, Florina, was close behind but flinched back when her mistress turned. Six other servants were following Alphena, presumably people Agrippinus had assigned to her suite. They stopped dead when she did, their eyes focused on various things but never on Alphena herself.


          I should slap their sniveling faces! Alphena thought, then felt a little queasy. She took a deep breath.


          They’re treating me like a viper. Except that they wouldn’t be afraid to look at a viper.


          Calmly, smiling slightly–she hoped it was a smile–Alphena said, “I believe I will take a little exercise now to settle myself before I have a light supper in my suite. Florina, you’re dismissed to eat something now before you’ll need to attend me.”


          Alphena entered the small gymnasium, feeling virtuous. Hedia would be proud of me, she thought; but that wasn’t really true. She would never match her stepmother’s icy superiority to every one and every thing, any more than her chunky form would ever rival Hedia’s willowy beauty. It’s not fair!


          “Your ladyship!” said Lenatus. He and his guest–Pulto, Corylus’ man–lurched to their feet. A wine jar leaned against a corner, and each man held a broad cup. A water jug was part of the gym’s furnishings, but Alphena didn’t see a mixing bowl: the veterans were apparently drinking the Senator’s wine as it came from the jug.


          Alphena looked at them. They weren’t frightened like the bevy of servants back in the passageway, but they watched her warily. They were freeborn citizens who as soldiers had fought the most dangerous of the Republic’s enemies… but from their expressions, they would rather be back on the frontier than in the center of Carce, facing a Senator’s daughter.


          I wonder if Florina thinks that life has treated Lady Alphena harshly? Alphena wondered.


          Aloud she said, “Master Pulto, I didn’t expect to see you here. Is your master in the house as well? I suppose you came from the theater with my brother?”


          “My understanding…,” Pulto said carefully. He wasn’t a member of Saxa’s household, but technicalities wouldn’t matter of Alphena lost her temper, as she had a reputation for doing. “Is that Lord Varus wished to have a conversation with his father, the Senator. Publius Corylus chose to wait in the back garden, but he gave me leave to visit my old friend here.”


          He gestured toward Lenatus with his free hand. His eyes never left Alphena’s face.


          “Oh!” said Alphena, feeling a tiny jump of excitement that she hoped she had kept out of her voice. “Well, I’ll leave the two of you to your reminis–“


          She broke off. She could see from the faces of both men that something was badly wrong.


          “What is it?” Alphena said. She heard her voice start to tremble, which made her angry. She continued in an unintended snarl, “Is Corylus with someone, is that it?”


          Lenatus looked at his friend, who in turn looked as though he had been stabbed in the belly. “Your ladyship,” Pulto said, “I got the impression that my master might be talking with somebody, yes.”


          He’s with Hedia.


          He’s having sex with Hedia in the garden!


          Alphena blushed, then staggered as the stupidity of her thought struck her. Oh, Hedia’s reputation was deserved: she’d as much as told Alphena so when they were fighting for their lives and very souls. As for Corylus, he was a man, which meant he was a pig; and there was no doubt that he found Hedia attractive. The way his eyes followed her whenever she was in sight proved it!


          But Hedia didn’t rub her husband’s nose in things he would be expected to object to. She was a lady, and Alphena had good reason to know that she loved Saxa–in her way.


          Just as Corylus was a gentleman, if not an aristocrat. He would turn up his nose at actions which the perfumed wastrels of Hedia’s social set would have performed without thinking twice.


          Alphena swallowed, then forced her lips into a smile. “Well, I won’t disturb him, then,” she said. “I will have some of that wine, though. But mix mine with two parts water, if you will.”


          “At once, your ladyship!” Lenatus said. He and Pulto spun toward the wine jar so swiftly that they almost collided. Without a signal Alphena could see, Pulto took the other cup as well as his own and Lenatus snatched an empty one from a cupboard intended for bath paraphernalia.


          Alphena expected the trainer to lift wine from the jar with a narrow, deep-bellied dipper, a wine thief. Instead he hooked his thumb in the handle, then lifted the jar on his elbow and forearm to pour. Returning the wine to its corner, he lifted the water jar in the same fashion and brought the level up to a proper distance below the rim of the cup.


          “Your ladyship,” he said, offering it to her.


          Alphena was trembling from all the emotions that she hadn’t given into over the past short while. “Sit down, both of you,” she said. With that for an excuse, she quickly seated herself on the end of a bench intended for swordsmen tightening the straps of their sandals before they began their exercises.


          When she had entered the gymnasium, the men had been beside one another on the raised stone slab into which posts were set when the grounds were used for fencing practice. They sat down as directed, but Alphena noticed that they had moved as far from her bench as they could get.


          Pulto gave a little cough and swigged wine. Avoiding eye contact by looking into his cup, he said, “Master Corylus has spoken well of your judgment, your ladyship.”


          Alphena froze. What does he mean by that?


          She smiled. At first she was forcing the corners of her lips upward, but the humor of the situation struck her.


          “Thank you, Master Pulto,” she said. “Though if you mean that I can recognize circumstances in which a proper young lady knows better than to walk in on a male acquaintance, I can only say that mother hasn’t yet made that proper a young lady of me.”


          Lenatus choked, blowing a spray of wine out his nose. Pulto simply froze.