Out Of The Waters — Snippet 30


          “I don’t mean that, exactly,” the girl said, flushing. “But I’m not going to hit her. And I’m going to try not to scream at her either.”


          Alphena was upset, but Hedia wasn’t sure who she was upset with. Perhaps she was upset–angry–at herself, though she might be directing it toward the stepmother who was forcing her to discuss something that she apparently hadn’t fully thought out.


          “I really can change, mother!” she said. “I can be, well, nicer. To people.”


          “Let’s go in, dear,” Hedia said. As they started toward the shop between a double rank of servants, she added quietly, “In law, slaves are merely furniture with tongues, you know. But slapping your couch with a comb isn’t going to lead to it informing the palace that you’ve been mocking the Emperor. I applaud your new resolution.”


          Abinnaeus had chosen an outward-facing section of the portico. The majority of his trade arrived in litters which could more easily be maneuvered in the street than in the enclosed courtyard. There was a gated counter across the front of the shop, but clients were inside where bolts of fabric were stacked atop one another. There was a room behind and a loft above.


          Within, a pair of no-longer-young women were fingering the silk and speaking Greek with thick Galatian accents. Their maids were outside, watching the new arrivals with interest verging on resentment.


          That pair came to Carce with their feet chalked for sale, Hedia sneered mentally. They were the sort to have moved into the master’s bedroom and made a good thing out of his will, but she doubted whether they were wealthy enough to do real business with Abinnaeus.


          Only a single attendant, a doe-eyed youth, was visible when Hedia approached. A moment later the owner waddled out behind a second attendant–similar enough to the other to have been twins–who had gone to fetch him. Abinnaeus beamed at her, then directed his attention to the previous customers.


          “Dear ladies,” he said. “I do so regret that a previous engagement requires that I close my poor shop to the general public immediately.”


          “For them?” said one of the women, her voice rising shrilly. “I don’t think so! Not till you’ve served me!”


          She turned to the stack of silk and started to lift the top roll. It was colored something between peach and beige and would clash with every garment the woman was wearing now; but then, her hennaed hair, her orange tunic, and her vermillion leather shoes were a pretty ghastly combination already.


          Abinnaeus put a hand on the roll, pinning it down, and reached for the woman’s arm. She shrieked, “Don’t you touch me, you capon!” but the threatened contact did cause her to jump aside–and toward the counter.


          Hedia waited, her fingers on Alphena’s wrist to keep the girl with her. The events of the past few days had put Hedia in a bad enough mood that she found the present business amusing. She didn’t scorn people because they were former slaves–but she scorned former slaves who gave themselves the airs of noblewomen.


          “I’m sure my colleague Cynthius in the courtyard will be delighted to serve you, ladies,” Abinnaeus said. He spoke with an oily solicitude; nothing in his tone or manner indicated that he was sneering. “I think you’ll find his selection suitable. Indeed, very suitable for ladies as fine as yourselves.”


          The youthful attendants were urging the women toward the opened gate. One went quickly, but the protesting woman tried to push the boy away.


          Something happened that Hedia didn’t quite see. Off-balance, the woman lurched toward the street and into it. The youth–who wasn’t as young as he had first seemed; he was some sort of Oriental, childishly slight but not at all a child–walked alongside her without seeming to exert any force.


          Hedia saw the woman’s arm muscles bunch to pull away. She wasn’t successful, though the youth’s smile didn’t slip.


          “Well, you’ll never see me again!” the woman cried. Her companion had been staring first at Hedia and Alphena, then–wide-eyed–at their escort. She tugged her louder friend toward the entrance into the courtyard; their maids followed, laughing openly.


          “Ah,” Abinnaeus said in a lightly musing voice that wasn’t obviously directed toward anyone. “If only I could be sure of that.”


          He turned and bowed low to Hedia. “I’m so glad to see your ladyship again,” he said, sounding as though he meant it. “And your lovely companion! Please, honor my shop by entering.”


          “Come dear,” Hedia said, but she swept the younger woman through the gate ahead of her. “Abinnaeus, this is my daughter, Lady Alphena. We’re looking for dinner dresses for her.”


          “You could not do better,” Abinnaeus agreed. He was a eunuch; his fat made him look softly cylindrical instead of swelling his belly. “Please, be seated while I find something worthy of yourselves.”


          One of the attendants was closing the shutters: barred openings at the top continued to let in light and air, but street noise and the crowds were blocked by solid oak. The other attendant had carried out a couch with ivory legs and cushions of silk brocade; he was returning to the back room to find its couple.


          Hedia gestured Alphena to the couch; she dipped her chin forcefully to refuse. Hedia sat instead of reclining and patted the cushion beside her. “Come, daughter,” she said. “Join me.”


          Alphena hesitated only an instant, then sat where Hedia had indicated. The youth appeared with the second couch. He eyed them, then vanished back into storage with his burden.


          Abinnaeus returned with six bolts of cloth over his left arm. “Sirimavo,” he said to the youth who had bolted the shutters, “bring wine and goblets, then go fetch some cakes from Codrius. Quickly now!”


          “No cakes for me,” Hedia said. “Though if my daughter…?”


          Alphena gestured a curt refusal, then consciously forced her lips into a smile. “Not at all, thank you,” she said.


          The girl really is trying. Soon perhaps I can introduce her to some suitable men without worrying that she’s going to tell them she’ll cut their balls off if they dare to touch her again.


          “It would be remiss of me not to offer your ladyship every courtesy,” the eunuch said. “What you choose to accept is your own affair, but I will say that my friend Codrius just down the portico has even better pastries than my beloved father at home in Gaza.”


          “No one has ever been able to fault your hospitality to a customer, Abinnaeus,” Hedia said. The tramps he had just turfed out of his shop might have quarreled with her statement, but they weren’t proper customers. “It’s been too long since I’ve been here.”


          “We have missed you, your ladyship,” Abinnaeus said, setting down five bolts. “Your custom is always welcome, of course, but even more I’ve missed your exquisite taste. So like mine, but more masculine.”


          He and Hedia laughed. Alphena looked shocked, then went still-faced because she wasn’t sure how she should react.


          Abinnaeus stretched a swatch from the last bolt and held it close to Alphena’s ear. “There, your ladyship. What do you think about this with your daughter’s coloring?”


          Hedia gave the fabric sharp attention. It was faintly tan–the natural color of the silk, she was sure, not a dye–but it seemed to have golden highlights.


          “Is that woven with gold wire?” she said in puzzlement. Surely no wire could be drawn that fine.


          Abinnaeus chuckled. “To you and you alone, your ladyship,” he said, “I will tell my secret. No, not wire–but the blond hair from women of farthest Thule. They let it grow till they marry, then cut it for the first time. The strands are finer than spider silk, purer than the gold of the Tagus River.”


          “And you, dear?” Hedia said to her daughter. Abinnaeus stepped back with the cloth spread in a shaft of sunlight through the clerestory windows. “It complements you perfectly, but do you find it attractive?”


          Alphena had swollen visibly while Hedia and the proprietor discussed the matter as though she was a dog being fitted with a jeweled collar, but she had managed to control herself. “It’s all right, I guess,” she muttered. “It’s–well, it’s all right, if that’s what you want.”


          When we’re back in the litter, I’ll remind her that we came for information; and that I had to put Abinnaeus at his ease. He wouldn’t be able to imagine Lady Hedia caring about anybody else’s opinion on matters of taste and fashion.


          The attendants returned, each carrying a small table already set with a refreshment tray. There was a passage to the courtyard shops from the back room, but the wine was probably from Abinnaeus’ own stock. He kept better vintages on hand for his customers than could be purchased nearby.


          He eyed Hedia and gestured minusculely toward the wine. “Three to one,” she said, answering the unspoken question. That was only possible choice with her daughter present, and it was what she probably would have said regardless.