Out Of The Waters — Snippet 20


          “Fortunately…,” Alphena continued. She enjoyed the feeling of being in control of a situation without screaming at people. “Master Corylus is a proper gentleman. Despite my own failings, the worst would not have happened.”


          Mother really has taught me things. As soon as I was willing to learn them.


          “But let’s change the subject,” Alphena continued calmly, looking at the old soldiers over the rim of her wine cup. “What do you–both of you–think about what happened in the theater this afternoon?”


          If she had asked that question bluntly when she walked into the gymnasium, they would have mumbled and lied. They were off balance now, because she’d delicately hinted at a bawdy joke that they understood very well. They would much rather talk frankly with a senator’s daughter about magic and sorcerers than to join her in a discussion of sexual shenanigans.


          “Your ladyship…,” Lenatus said. He wasn’t mumbling, but his voice was low. “I wasn’t… I mean, I was here in the house when all that happened.”


          “Yes,” said Alphena crisply; no one could mistake her tone for agreement. “But you were talking to your friend about it, were you not?”


          Pulto croaked a laugh. He emptied his cup and said, “This is dry work, your ladyship. Do ye mind if I have some more of this good wine while we talk?”


          “Not at all,” said Alphena. Her nose was too snubby for her to look down it with aristocratic hauteur, but just trying made her grin; which was perhaps an equally good way to get information out of these veterans. “Here, you can top off mine–“


          She held the cup out.


          “–too. Don’t worry about more water.”


          “It’s going to be hard times if his lordship needs me escorting him when he goes out to a show,” Lenatus said wryly. He offered his cup when Pulto had filled Alphena’s. “Mind you, I’d prefer that to what’s going on now. Whatever it is.”


          “Right,” said Pulto, sitting down again. “You always know where you’re at in a fight.”


          “Of course,” Lenatus offered, “where you’re at may be so deep in the soup that you’ll never see the surface again.”


          They were… not so much treating Alphena as one of them as talking as if she wasn’t present. Which was good enough.


          “I hate for my wife to be mixed up in it,” Pulto said, taking half the cupful without lowering it from his lips. He looked at Alphena. “You know about that, right, your ladyship? That Lady Hedia is going to see my Anna tomorrow?”


          “Yes,” said Alphena. “I’ll be accompanying my mother.”


          After a pause for thought, she went on, “I think in these times that we all should help to the degree we can. Help the Republic, I mean.”


          Lenatus looked at her without expression, then took a silent swallow of wine. Alphena had the uncomfortable suspicion that if she hadn’t been his employer’s noble daughter, he would have spat onto the dirt.


          “I guess Lenatus and me know a bit about serving the Republic, your ladyship,” Pulto said. He sipped wine and swizzled it around his mouth before letting it go down. “And Anna too. She was there on the frontier as sure as me and the Old Man and the boy. Who isn’t such a boy now, is he?”


          “I’m sorry, Pulto,” Alphena said, feeling her cheeks burn. Ordinarily she would have reacted by shrieking angrily at the cause of her embarrassment, but she wasn’t going to do that again. Or anyway, she wasn’t going to do that this time. “I’m uncomfortable about it too, that’s all.”


          She cleared her throat. “But what was it you saw?” she said. “What did you think it was?”


          Looking at Lenatus, she said, “What did you just tell your friend Lenatus it was?”


          The trainer barked out a laugh. “I can answer that, your ladyship,” he said. “Pulto here told me he had no bloody idea of what he’d just seen except it scared the living crap out of him, and could I maybe find a jar of wine.”


          He lifted the cup in his left hand; he’d emptied it again. “Which I did, begging your pardon, but I’ll pay it back to your father out of my salary.”


          Alphena waved the thought away brusquely. This was as proper a use for her father’s wine as any in the Republic.


          “Mistress?” said Pulto. He grimaced and corrected himself, saying “Your ladyship, I mean. You were there. What did you see? If a fellow can ask, I mean.”


          Alphena looked at them. At last she said, “I saw a man wearing a breechclout, with his hair in two braids. He was as old as you are, but he looked very fit.”


          When she heard the words come out of her mouth, she paused in renewed embarrassment. “I didn’t mean–” she blurted. She stopped because she didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t make the insult worse.


          “Go on, your ladyship,” said Pulto calmly. He clapped his belly with his cupped left hand. “I live in this flesh, so you don’t need to tell me I’m not the hard young cockerel I was when first I enlisted.”


          “Well, anyway,” said Alphena, “that’s what I saw: a man. And he was destroying what looked like a city, only it was so tiny.”


          She closed her eyes and forced herself to add, “Just for an instant I thought I saw tentacles and snakes like Syra said. Like a lot of other people thought, I suppose. But I saw a man.”


          “I saw the tentacles and all,” Pulto said, speaking to his empty cup. “Only then I didn’t think it was real, so it didn’t bother me.”


          He looked up with a lopsided grin. “It wasn’t till I saw how your brother and the Greek professor were taking it that I started to get worried,” he said. “And then Lady Hedia coming to see my Anna for charms–because that’s what it is, I know from how she asked it–well, that pissed in the wine for sure.”


          “But do you know what it means?” Alphena said. She suddenly felt very young. She wanted these two hard men to protect her, but she didn’t know from what. “You’ve been in, well, battles! What’s going to happen now?”


          The men looked at one another. Lenatus unexpectedly chuckled. “You remember Stellio?” he said to his friend. Both of them laughed.


          Alphena felt her anger rise despite trying very hard to choke it down. Pulto read her reaction correctly. “Your ladyship,” he said, “what we mean is that nobody can tell you what’s going to happen in a battle. Even if that’s what this is, though I don’t much see it.”


          “Stellio was a lazy scut, even for a Sicilian,” Lenatus said. He sounded apologetic for being insultingly unclear when he first mentioned the fellow. “And I’ve seen rabbits with more stomach for a fight than he ever showed.”


          “We were going to assault a couple German hill forts the next day,” Pulto said. “Only Stellio gets his foot under a cartwheel, by accident–he says–and he won’t be able to hold his rank when we charge. So he got assigned to the artillery. He can turn the crank of one of the dart-throwers, bad foot or no bad foot. But staying well back from German spear range, you see.”


          “So we’re lined up and waiting the word,” Lenatus said, speaking as he refilled all three cups. “The Germans are up on their mound, shouting and booming their spear shafts against their hide shields, and I got to say, I’ve been places I was happier being. Up rattles a mule cart and hauls around, and it’s Stellio in the back with the dart thrower.”


          “He’s grinning like anything,” Pulto said, picking up when his friend took a swallow of wine, “and he starts cranking the arms back. And I hear whack!”


          “I was looking right at him when it happened,” Lenatus said, almost bursting with suppressed laughter. “The lever snapped right at the spring and come flying around on the cord. It caught Stellio on the back of the neck and broke it neat as a chicken for dinner!”


          The men laughed together, more freely than before. Alphena wondered for a moment how much wine they had drunk, but she’d drunk more than her usual as well. She joined the laughter.


          “And the beauty of it,” Pulto said, his voice rising as if to be heard during a drinking party in barracks, “is that we didn’t lose another bloody man that day. Not a one! The first salvo, one dart pinned the top of the chief’s shield to his forehead and helmet. He tumbled down the hill, stiff as a board, and the rest all bloody ran off the other way.”


          “May my dick turn black and fall off if it didn’t happen just that way!” Lenatus burbled.


          The laughter died away. They’re probably hoping I didn’t hear that, Alphena thought. Or at least that I’ll pretend I didn’t hear it, which I certainly will.


          “I understand that the future isn’t really predictable,” Alphena said carefully. “And I guess we can hope for a lucky dart shot, whatever that may mean now. I just wish I had something better to hope for.”


          “Your ladyship?” Pulto said. “We’re not laughing at you. And we feel the same way. We wish we knew what was coming. Because we think something is, too.”