Out Of The Waters — Snippet 24

          “You said that the gathering was for Master Corylus?” Hedia said, letting her very real confusion show in her voice. “I had the impression they were expecting my daughter and myself.”

          “Oh, that, yes, of course they were,” Anna said, obviously unaware of Hedia’s suspicions. “Do sit down, won’t you? I’ve gotten new cushions. The blue one is stuffed with goose down, so why don’t you take it, your Ladyship?”

          Hedia settled carefully on one end of a clothes chest being used as a bench. She said, “I don’t see, then….”

          “Well, it’s like this,” said Anna, lowering herself onto a stool of polished maple. “The boy grew up in camp, you know. He’s used to fetching for himself and he likes it that way, so it’s just me and Pulto does for him–and I get the neighbor girls to fetch the shopping, since I’m such a clapped-out old nanny goat myself.”

          Hedia opened her mouth to protest; Anna waved her blithely to silence. “It suits me better that way too, to tell the truth,” she said, “because, well, you know the stories that go around about Marsian witches. If we had servants, they’d be making up tales to cadge drinks and the like. That can get pretty nasty, as I know to my sorrow from when we lived in Baiae before the boy come here to school.”

          The small round table between the stool and the chest was cedar with a richly patterned grain, oiled and polished to a sheen like marble. Alphena set the tray on it and handed out the cups, already filled.

          “I mixed the wine three to one,” she said, a little too forcibly. That was the normal drinking mixture which she was used to, and she was making a point that she didn’t intend to get tipsy by drinking to limits that her companions might be comfortable with.

          “Thank you, my dear,” Hedia said, taking her cup–part of a matched service which impressed her as both stylish and beautiful. Clear glass rods had been twisted, slumped together in molds, and polished.

          She sipped; it was like drinking from jewels. She wondered if Corylus had chosen the set. Certainly Anna had not, given the taste shown by her garments.

          “I’m not clear what the crowd down there…,” Hedia said, nodding toward the window onto the balcony. “Has to do with Master Corylus, however.”

          She wasn’t on the verge of anger any more. Clearly she was missing something, but she now knew that Anna hadn’t turned Lady Hedia into a carnival for plebeians as a way of bragging to her neighbors.

          “Oh, well, you see….” Anna said. Her face was so wrinkled that Hedia couldn’t be sure, but she seemed to be making a moue of embarrassment. “Because we don’t have servants and because we’re up on the third floor–the boy said he liked to be able to look out at the Gardens of Maurianus, and you couldn’t from any lower down–folks don’t really believe he’s quality.”

          Ah! The higher levels of apartment blocks were successively flimsier in construction and–of course–that much farther to climb on narrow stairs when coming and going. Lower rents reflected this. Corylus apparently wasn’t concerned about whether the neighbors thought he was an impecunious phony who only pretended to be a Knight of Carce, but his old nurse cared on his behalf.

          “I’ve been having dreams, Anna,” Hedia said. “Bad ones, of course, or I wouldn’t be seeing you. And I suppose you heard about what happened yesterday in the theater?”

          Anna had been using “their ladyships” as a status tool, but Hedia couldn’t be angry about that now, however much she wished it hadn’t happened. The old servant was completely absorbed with her boy. No objection, no threat–nothing but death itself–would change that focus.

          And Hedia wouldn’t have forced a change if she could. Oh, it was excessive, no doubt, but Master Corylus was certainly an impressive young man.

          Hedia let a smile play at the corners of her mouth. Corylus even had the good judgment to refuse to become entangled with his friend’s beautiful mother. Which was a pity, though Hedia was no longer concerned that a physical relationship would be necessary to bind the boy to her. He would support her for so long as he believed that she had the best interests of the Republic at heart.

          “I didn’t hear much,” Anna said with a sort of smile. “A sight of a monster, is all. The boy won’t talk, which is as should be for an officer. My Pulto was afraid to talk; afraid of what he doesn’t know, pretty much, and I don’t blame him. But I could guess things, and–”

          She shrugged.

          “–I could feel them, too, when they’re as strong as what happened yesterday.”

          “Mistress?” Alphena said. “Anna? Do you know what it is that we saw in the theater?”

          “No, dear,” the old woman said, “no more than I knew what made the ground shake so one winter in Upper Germany. It wasn’t for two weeks that we learned that the snow had come down the slopes in Helvetian territory and buried a thousand people in a village.”

          She looked at Hedia. “You’ve been dreaming of this monster come up from the sea, then?” she said. “Is it the same as it was in the theater?”

          “Nothing like that,” said Hedia, more sharply than she had intended. “In the theater, though, there was a city and there were glass men on its walls. Does that mean anything to you?”

          Alphena sat down, offering the older women a burl walnut tray of small sweet cakes. There wasn’t room for it on the table with wine containers.

          Hedia had emptied her cup. She hesitated–she never ate sweets; she loved them and knew she would bloat like a dead cat if she didn’t if she didn’t exercise rigid control over what she ate–but finally took a cake and nibbled. It was delicious.

          “I’ve never heard of glass men, Hedia,” Anna said, reverting to previous familiarity now that they were completely alone. “Real men, moving you mean?”

          “Moving, certainly,” Hedia said, forcing herself to visualize the images that terrified her without reason. “Real, I don’t know. Certainly not real men; but they acted like men.”

          She took a deep breath. Her eyes were open, but for the moment she wasn’t seeing anything beyond her memory.

          “I dreamed of them in the Underworld, Anna,” she said. “I dreamed of them with Latus, where I visited him before. I couldn’t hear them, but I think they were questioning him. He was screaming.”

          She sniffed with bitter amusement. “Screaming like the damned, in fact,” she said, “which is likely enough with Latus.”

          Hedia forced her eyelids closed, then opened them and met Anna’s calm gaze. “I think they’re hunting for me,” she said. “I don’t know why or why I feel that. But I feel it, and I’m afraid.”

          “When we opened the passage to the Underworld,” Anna said, “it couldn’t be closed again. I’m sorry, but that was one of the risks.”

          Her face twisted into a smile. “It wasn’t one of the risks that I worried most about,” she said. “I didn’t expect to see you ever again.”

          Her gaze flicked to Alphena. She added, “Either of you.”

          Hedia laughed, finding the humor of the thought. “Rather like virginity, you mean?” she said. “Well, that wasn’t much good to me either. Perhaps keeping the passage to Hades’ house open will turn out to be just as pleasurable in the long run.”

          Alphena’s lips pressed together, but she tried to smile when she felt Hedia glance at her. She’s really everything one could wish in a daughter. Even her playing with swords turned out to be useful.

          “Is there anything you can suggest, dear?” Hedia said. Then, blurting, “Can you do anything? Please!”

          Alphena had refilled her cup. She drank, to hide her embarrassment and to sooth her throat. She was dry, and her thoughts were dry and withered.

          “A charm, you mean?” Anna said.

          Hedia waved her hands, disgusted at her own weakness. “No, of course not,” she said. “I know better, but I’m… frightened.”

          “Some of my charms do help,” Anna said. She spoke softly, but there was rock not far below the surface. “Some help, and more help because people think they’re being helped. But not for this, no. My usual work is for sick people; and sometimes for girls who want something or want to get rid of something.”

          She spread her hands. “I won’t lie to you, your ladyship. Love charms and abortions. But what happened in the theater is beyond such neighborhood business.”

          Hedia opened her mouth to object, but Anna stopped her with a raised hand. “You may not be concerned with what happened in the theater, dear,” she said, “but I am. It reeked on my men when they came home last night, and it’s nothing I’ll pass over lightly.”