Out Of The Waters — Snippet 28


          Alphena would have been happier walking, but Hedia had insisted that they take the litter to the Field of Mars. This shopping expedition was part of the business–business or trouble or mystery, Alphena didn’t know what to call it–so she’d agreed, but it still made her unhappy.

          Her face must have been squeezed into a petulant frown. Hedia raised her slippered foot and wriggled the big toe at her. Because they were seated facing one another in the litter, it was like somebody pointing an accusatory, short, but nonetheless very shapely, finger at her.

          “Cheer up, dear,” Hedia said. “We really have to do it this way, you see. No one would imagine me going shopping on foot. And though they’d let us into the shops I want to visit even with your original footgear–you’d be with me, after all–the last thing we want is to appear eccentric. We’ll learn much more if Abinnaeus is thinking only about the amount of money he’ll get from their gracious ladyships of Saxa’s household. Besides–”

          She touched the tip of Alphena’s slipper with her finger. The upper was silk brocade instead of a filigree of gilt leather cutwork, and the toe was closed. Sword exercises wearing army footgear had left Alphena’s feet beyond transformation into ladylike appearance in the time available, despite the skill of Hedia’s own pedicure specialists.

          “–these shoes wouldn’t be at all comfortable to walk across the city in, dear. And we really do have to dress for the occasion. Think of it the way men put their togas on to go into court, even though there’s never been a more awkward, ugly garment than a toga.”

          Alphena giggled. Even a young, gracefully slender, man like Publius Corylus looked rather like a blanket hung to dry on a pole when he wore his toga. Father, who was plump and clumsy, was more like the same blanket tumbled into a wash basket.

          The Cappadocian bearers paced along as smoothly as the Tiber floating a barge. They were singing, but either the words were nonsense or they were in a language of their own.

          Only the thin outer curtains of the litter were drawn, so Alphena could see what was going on about them. They were making their way through the forum built by Julius Caesar; the courtyard wasn’t less congested than the streets to north and south, but there was more room for the crowd which was being pushed aside. The brick and stone walls bounding the street wouldn’t give no matter how forcefully Hedia’s escorts shoved people who were blocking the litter.

          Alphena nodded in silent approval: someone had chosen the route with care and intelligence. This heavy vehicle required that sort of forethought.

          The particular servants in attendance must have been chosen with equal care, because they were not Hedia’s usual escort. “Ah, mother?” Alphena said. “That’s Lenatus walking beside Manetho, isn’t it?”

          “Yes, dear,” Hedia said approvingly. “Manetho is in charge of things under normal circumstances, but Master Lenatus will take command if, well, if necessary.”

          Alphena didn’t recognize every member of the entourage, though she didn’t doubt that they were all part of Saxa’s household. She’d seen at least one man working in the gardens. Several more had been litter bearers before Alphena bought the new, larger vehicle with the matched team of Cappadocians; simply by inertia the previous bearers remained members of the household, though they had no regular duties.

          The escort wore clean tunics, most of which appeared to have been bought as a job lot: they had identical blue embroidery at the throat, cuffs, and hem. Further, the men’s hair was freshly cropped and they’d been shaven, though that had been done quickly enough that several were nicked or gashed.

          The razor wounds stood out sharply against chins which since puberty must have been shaded by tangled beards. Alphena supposed that was better than being attended by a band of shaggy bravos. Though they still looked like bravos.

          She leaned sideways, bulging the side curtain, to get a better look at the trainer toward the front of the entourage. She said, “I don’t think that’s a club that Lenatus is hiding under his tunic, is it, Mother?”

          Hedia shrugged. “I didn’t ask, dear,” she said. “I leave that sort of thing to men.”

          She leaned forward slightly, bringing her face closer to Alphena’s. “I told Lenatus to choose the men,” she said. She was as calm and beautiful as a portrait on ivory. “I told him I didn’t care how handsome they were or whether they could communicate any way except by grunting in Thracian. I just wanted people who would stand beside him if there was real trouble.”

          She laughed briefly. “Beside him and in front me, of course,” she said, “but I didn’t need to tell Lenatus that. I think he felt rather honored. I’ve never quite understood that, but men of the right sort generally do.”

          Of course men feel honored to be given a chance to die for you, Alphena thought, suddenly angry. And don’t tell me you don’t understand why!

          But that wasn’t fair to Hedia, who was risking her life too. Or seemed to think she was.

          “Mother?” Alphena said, shifting her thoughts into the new channel with enthusiasm. “What’s going to happen? Are we going to attack this Abinnaeus?”

          Hedia’s mouth opened for what was obviously intended for full-throated laughter, but she caught herself with a stricken look before a sound came out. Leaning forward, she caught Alphena’s wrist between her thumb and two fingers.

          “I’m sorry, dear one,” she said. “No, Abinnaeus is a silk merchant with a very fine stock. His shop is in the Portico of Agrippa. My husband Latus’ house is just up Broad Street from the portico.”

          Alphena saw the older woman’s expression cycle quickly through anger to disgust to stony blankness–and finally back to a semblance of amused neutrality. “My former husband’s house, I should have said,” she said. “And briefly my own, when the lawsuits against the will were allowed to lapse after your father took up my cause.”

          Hedia’s lips squirmed in an expression too brief for Alphena to identify it with certainty. It might have been sadness or disgust, or very possibly a combination of those feelings.

          “I got rid of the house as quickly as I could,” Hedia said, falling back into a light, conversational tone. “There wasn’t anything wrong with it. I didn’t have bad memories of it, no more than of any other place, but I didn’t want to keep it either. I told Saxa’s agent to sell it and invest the money for me. I suppose I have quite a respectable competence now, dear one–by any standards but your father’s.”

          “Father has never been close with money,” Alphena said, thinking of her childhood. She had been angry for as far back as she could remember: angry about the things she couldn’t do, either because she was a girl or because she was the particular girl she was.

          She forced the start of a smile, but it then spread naturally and brightened her mood. She said, “I envied you so much, m-mother. Because you’re so beautiful.”

          The smile slipped, though she fought to retain it. “And I’m not.”

          “You’re striking,” Hedia said, touching Alphena’s wrist again to emphasize the intensity she projected. “In a good way, a way that shows up much better in daylight than I can.”

          She leaned back, suddenly regally cool. “If you want that,” she said. “Not if you’re going to wear clodhoppers–”

          She gestured dismissively toward Alphena’s feet.

          “–and scowl at everyone as though you’d like to slit their throats, though. Do you want that? Do you want people to say you’re beautiful?”

          Hedia grinned like a cat. “That is,” she said, “do you want it enough that you’re willing to spend as much effort on it as you do now on hacking at a stake, or as your brother does on reading Lucilius and similarly dull people who didn’t even write Latin that ordinary people can understand?”

          “I shouldn’t have to–” Alphena blazed. Part of her mind was listening to the words coming out off her tongue, so she stopped in embarrassment. She closed her mouth.

          Hedia’s smile had chilled into silent mockery, but that didn’t, for a wonder, make Alphena flare up again. She’s right. She’s treating me like she’d treat an adult; and if I flame up like a four-year-old, then I’m the only one to blame for it.

          “I have spent a great deal of time on the training ground,” Alphena said with careful restraint. “And of course my brother almost lives for books. For them and with them. But he could put just as much effort hacking at the post as I have and he’d still be a clown rather than a swordsman; and if I struggled with Lucilius and the rest for my whole life, they’d be as useless to me as my trying to read prophecies in the clouds.”

          Hedia gave a throaty giggle at the thought..