Out Of The Waters — Snippet 22


          Alphena had allowed her stepmother to choose her garments for the outing: a tunic of fine wool, cut much longer–and so more ladylike–than Alphena preferred, with a shoulder-length cape which was quite unnecessary in this weather. She also wore earrings, bracelets, and a high comb, all of silver but decorated with granulated gold.

          The one place that Alphena had refused to give in was her footgear. Instead of delicate silken slippers, she wore sensible sandals with thick soles and straps that weren’t going to snap if she suddenly had to run. She didn’t expect to run–she couldn’t imagine any circumstances in which that would be necessary–but she would not wear flimsy shoes.

          Instead of arguing, Hedia had nodded and said, “Very well,” in a calm voice. She had sounded rather like a nurse telling her three-year-old charge that she could bring along all six of her dollies when they walked down to the river to watch barges from Ostia unloading their cargoes of grain.

          In the entrance hall, Alphena turned to Florina and said, “I won’t be needing you. Stay here and do whatever you like till we come back”

          “I believe, your ladyship,” said Agrippinus, “that it would be better if Florina accompanied you.”

          Alphena snapped her head around to face the major domo. He froze; so did everyone else in the hall, which was still crowded even though Saxa had left for the Senate with his lictors and general entourage.

          But Alphena froze also. “Thank you for your concern, my man,” she said, choosing the words carefully. That wasn’t the sort of thing she was used to saying, but she was determined to learn not to scream abuse whenever somebody tried to direct her. “I believe that mother’s staff will be able to care for me adequately, should the need arise.”

          She even smiled. It wasn’t a very nice smile, she knew, but she wasn’t feeling very nice.

          “As your ladyship wishes,” said Agrippinus, bowing low enough that he no longer met her eyes. He held the obsequious pose until she turned away.

          Feeling both virtuous–because she hadn’t raised her voice–and triumphant–because she had gotten her way nonetheless–Alphena stepped through the jaws of the entrance and into the street. Servants milled there. Saxa’s still larger entourage of lictors, servants, and clients, was turning into the Argiletum on their way to the forum and the meeting of the Senate in the Temple of Venus.

          The double litter had arrived from the warehouse on the Tiber where it was stored. Its frame was inlaid with burl and ivory; its curtains were layered Egyptian linen; and the upholstery inside was silk brocade.

          The litter’s weight required four trained men to carry it and four more to trade off with the original team at regular intervals to prevent fatigue–and therefore possible accidents to the wealthy passengers. Agrippinus had bought eight matched Cappadocian bearers along with the vehicle itself, all at Alphena’s order.

          Though she had demanded the double litter as an angry whim, it had proven very useful now that she and her stepmother had become one another’s confidante: they could speak while travelling in as much privacy as anyone in Carce was able to claim. Only the foreman of the Cappadocians spoke Latin, and even then the bearers’ deep breathing and the rhythmic slap of their clogs effectively prevented them from listening to those within the vehicle.

          Candidus was in charge of the entourage. He minced unctuously toward Alphena and bowed. “Everything is in order, your ladyship,” he said. “I sent a courier to the warehouse myself to be sure that the vehicle would be here at the third hour, as Lady Hedia ordered. Manetho was supposed to have done it, but for your ladyships’ comfort I thought it well to make sure.”

          Hedia swept through the doorway, turning the facade of Saxa’s townhouse into a setting for her jewel-like beauty. She was so stunning and perfect that Alphena’s breath caught in her throat.

          Not long ago she would have been furious at her stepmother for being, well, what Alphena herself was not. Now, she just accepted it as a reality of life, like the fact that she would never be Emperor.

          Reality wasn’t a wholly one-sided thing, of course. She would never be teasing some other woman’s hair, in constant fear of a slap or a slashing blow with the comb, the way Florina did daily. And there were women less fortunate than Florina.

          “You’re looking well, daughter,” Hedia said, touching the pendant in Alphena’s left ear. “You have flecks of gold in your eyes, and these bring it out. Your eyes are one of your best features, you know.”

          Alphena felt her jaw go slack if not exactly drop. “I didn’t…,” she said. Then, “I do? I–thank you, mother.”

          “Let’s get started, shall we?” Hedia said in her breezy, pleasant voice. She gestured Alphena toward the litter.

          She hadn’t bothered to ask whether it was ready. Either she had seen that it was–though the bearers weren’t gripping their poles yet–or she assumed that it would be, because the servants were terrified not to have accomplished whatever Lady Hedia expected them to have done.

          “After you, mother,” Alphena said, mirroring Hedia’s gesture.

          Laughing, the older woman mounted the vehicle, placing herself on the front cushion. She moved as gracefully as a cat, or a snake.

          Alphena got in on the other side, facing Hedia and the route ahead. As soon as Alphena settled on the cushion, the Cappadocians braced themselves and rose.

          Candidus called an order, but that was an officious waste of time. The bearers didn’t pass visible signals to one another, but they nonetheless moved as though one head controlled all four of them.

          The litter swayed as the Cappadocians fell into step. The motion wasn’t unpleasant–the passengers could have read if they wanted to–but it did serve to separate those inside from the rest of the world.

          Hedia drew the curtains on her end. They were black netting, woven fine enough that they caught much of the dust as well as blurring the features of those inside the vehicle. Alphena quickly pushed forward her curtains also.

          She eyed her stepmother carefully. She had heard–nobody had told her, but the servants had been murmuring about nothing else all morning–that Hedia had had a bad night with all sorts of shouting and threats. There was no sign of that on her face or in her calm, clear gaze.

          Alphena mentally rehearsed her words before saying, “Have you been thinking about the vision in the theater yesterday, mother?”

          Hedia grinned with wry amusement. “Was that what gave me nightmares last night, dear?” she said. “Is that what you mean? No, monsters can destroy all the foreign cities they like without causing me to miss a wink of sleep.”

          Her eyes had drifted toward something outside the present. She focused again on Alphena and added, “Or distinguished older men can, if you like. I learned long ago, dear, that two women never see the same thing in any, well, man.”

          Alphena blushed, but the comment was kindly meant; and Hedia had been polite to her own clumsy prying. I should have just come out and asked. With Hedia–not with most people.

          Before the younger woman could apologize, Hedia continued, “No, it was seeing the glass men again. Which I don’t understand.”

          She turned her hands up in a gesture of amused disgust. “I could explain being frightened by dreadful monsters, couldn’t I?” she said. “I’m sure people would be very understanding and say they feel sorry for me. Telling people I’m afraid of men would give a very different impression.”

          “Well, they’re not really men,” Alphena said.

          Hedia’s laughter caroled merrily. “Neither are eunuchs, dear,” she said, “and I assure you that they don’t frighten me. And they’re not nearly as useless as you might think, the ones that were gelded after they reached manhood, at least.”

          The streets were noisy at this hour; they were noisy at most hours except in the heat of early afternoons in summer. The normal racket was doubled by the shouts and threats of the escort–and the curses of the pedestrians, peddlers, and loungers who felt they too had a right to the route that their ladyships wished to travel. Occasionally Alphena heard the smack of blows and answering yelps.

          “Whatever they are,” Alphena said, “the glass men, I mean, they must be terrible. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you frightened before, mother.”

          Hedia chuckled. “You’ve seen me frightened many times, my dear,” she said. “You’ve never seen me unable to do whatever was necessary, though; and you’re not seeing that now.”

          She indicated her calm, disdainful face with one careless hand. “Don’t mistake acting ability for my being too dimwitted to recognize danger,” she said. “And you should learn to act too, dear. Even though I’m sure you’ll live a life with less to conceal than I have, it’s a skill every woman needs to acquire.”