Out Of The Waters — Snippet 36


          “Work” in his case meant that he would be reading something and taking notes. Hedia had recently looked through one of the notebooks Varus was filling, thinking that she should display interest in her son’s activities. She had found them either nonsensical or unintelligible, though no more so than the passage from Horace to which they apparently referred.


          Hedia’s smile became momentarily warmer. Her son–stepson by blood but, in law and in her mind, her son–would never be the sort of man she socialized with; but he was a clever boy, and brave. Hedia had seen that the night in the Temple of Jupiter when Varus saved the world from fiery destruction.


          Marcus Priscus waddled into the entrance hall, accompanied by a score of servants. There were no freeborn clients in his entourage. Sometimes a host would give his guests the option of bringing the number of diners up to nine with their own friends and hangers-on, but Priscus had not asked for this right and Saxa hadn’t volunteered it. Hedia knew her husband viewed the dinner as a chance to frame his magpie’s hoard of erudition with the solid scholarship of his guests and son.


          “Welcome, my honored colleague!” Saxa called. “Your wisdom lights my poor house.”


          “Welcome, Lord Priscus,” Hedia said, her voice a smooth vibrancy following her husband’s nervous squeak. “Our household gods smile at your presence.”


          “Lady Hedia,” Priscus said, beaming at her. “I recall your father fondly. He would be delighted, I’m sure, to see how his daughter has blossomed.”


          Priscus was badly overweight and nearly seventy, but his undeniable scholarship had not kept him from getting quite a reputation for gallantry in his younger days. A pity Varus isn’t more like him, Hedia thought. We might get along better if we had something in common.


          Hedia murmured something appreciative to the guest, then turned to a deputy steward–it happened to be Manetho–and whispered, “Go to Lord Varus–he’s probably in the library–and tell him that the guests are arriving for dinner.” Manetho nodded and vanished toward the back stairs.


          Candidus was marshaling the members of Priscus’ escort and leading them toward the kitchen where they would be fed with the household staff. There were probably as many more out in front, including litter bearers. Hedia was sure that Priscus hadn’t walked here himself from his home on the west slope of the Palatine Hill.


          Her husband and Priscus were chatting, waiting for Pandareus and perhaps Varus as well before they went up to the outside dining area, overlooking the central courtyard. Instead of permanent masonry benches built into the walls, wicker furniture was brought up from storage and covered with goose down pillows covered with silk brocade whose ridged designs made the guests less likely to slip off than slick surfaces would.


          “The learned Master Pandareus of Athens!” Flavus said, butchering the words even worse, if that was possible, than he had the Senator’s.


          The servant who whispered the names of those arriving was a wizened Greek from Massillia in Gaul. He was extremely sharp–Hedia had never known him to misidentify a visitor–and would have been a perfect doorman if he hadn’t had the face and posture of an arthritic rat. By Venus! the trouble the gods caused for a woman who simply wanted to present her noble husband with the proper dignity.


          Hedia smiled more broadly by just a hair. She wasn’t fooling herself, of course; but the experience of behaving normally for a woman in her position had thrown a little more cover over the figures of her nightmare.


          The scholar entered, looking faintly bemused. He didn’t have an attendant, and Hedia could only assume that the tunic he wore was his best. One heard of rhetoric teachers becoming very wealthy, but Pandareus had clearly avoided that experience.


          I must remember to check with Agrippinus to make sure that Varus’ school fees are paid.


          Priscus greeted the teacher with obvious warmth. Varus had said that the men were friends despite the difference in their social position; this confirmed the statement.


          Saxa glanced at Hedia and whispered nervously, “My dear? Do you suppose V-V…, my son, that is, will be joining us?”


          “Yes, he’ll be–” Hedia said. She stopped gratefully as Varus entered from the office with an apologetic expression. Two servants were trying to adjust his toga on the move.


          “The noble Senator Marcus Sempronius Tardus, Commissioner of the Sacred Rites!” Flavus boomed.


          There was silence in the hall, at least from the principals. Servants continued to chatter like a flock of sparrows, of course.


          “What’s this, Saxa?” Priscus said. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d be inviting Tardus, not after that consular visit yesterday.”


          He didn’t sound angry, though he probably felt that he should have been informed of who the other guests were when he was invited. There were senators who certainly preferred never to set eyes on one another.


          “I didn’t…,” Saxa said, looking stunned. He turned to Hedia. “Dear one, did you invite Tardus? That is, I’m not misremembering something, am I?”


          “No, little heart,” Hedia said coolly. “I’m sure Lord Tardus will inform us of why he is gracing us with his presence.”


          Tardus entered the hall with attendants, crowding it again. No toga-clad citizens accompanied him, but the three men closest to the senator were the foreigners whom Hedia had seen with him in the theater. Close up they seemed even more unusual, especially the man with the stuffed bird pinned opposite to the roll of his long black hair.


          “Greetings, Lord Tardus,” Saxa said. “You are welcome, of course, but I confess that I was not expecting to see you today.”


          “I was equally surprised yesterday, Lord Saxa,” Tardus said. “But your visit reminded me that we were colleagues with similar interests which we might be able to cultivate together.”


          Hedia didn’t recall ever meeting Tardus before, and if she had seen him casually in the forum, he hadn’t lingered in her memory. He would have merited the term “nondescript” were it not that his toga was hemmed with the broad purple stripe of a senator. He had the reputation of being not only superstitious but involved in kinds of magic that were discussed in secret if at all.


          Hedia’s smile was cold. She wasn’t the one to talk, of course; not after the task she had given Anna.


          “Well, I…,” Saxa said, his words stumbling as he tried to understand the situation. “I’m pleased that you’re, ah, reacting in that fashion, Marcus Tardus, but in truth this isn’t a very good time… that is–“


          “I see that you’re gathering for dinner,” Tardus said, nodding to the guests. The two senators and Varus wore their togas, showing that this was a formal occasion. “No doubt you’ll have private matters to discuss, so I’ll take myself away. Perhaps another time.”


          “Why, yes,” Saxa said gratefully. “I appreciate your understanding.”


          Priscus jumped as though he’d been cut with an overseer’s whip… which, if the stories about him in his younger days were true, had indeed happened on occasion.


          My dear sweet husband doesn’t have a clue! thought Hedia with a mixture of affection, exasperation, and fear. There was definitely reason for fear if this weren’t handled properly–and at once.


          “We would be delighted to have you join us for dinner, Lord Tardus!” Hedia said brightly. Smiling as though she had just received the gift of eternal youth, she went on to the major domo, “Agrippinus, have three more places set; Lady Alphena and I will sit upright in place of the third couch.”


          Lowering her voice, she continued, “And Agrippinus? Ask Lady Alphena to prepare for dinner. I’ll be up in a moment to discuss jewelry with her. Please press upon her the urgency of the situation.”


          The major domo strode from the entrance hall, calling sharply to underlings. Hedia hoped Agrippinus intended to speak to Alphena himself rather than leaving the unpleasant task to a junior who might not understand its importance.


          The men were all looking at her. Well, that wasn’t the sort of thing that made her nervous. Saxa and Varus were puzzled, but Priscus was obviously relieved.