Out Of The Waters — Snippet 39


          He smiled, but Alphena saw momentary wistfulness in her brother’s expression.


          Alphena didn’t know anything about rhetoric, but she understood dueling better than anyone else present. As servants placed a tray with deviled eggs and olives on the little table in the U of the diners, she said, “I noticed the attendants with you during the performance, Lord Tardus. If I noticed correctly, they’re with you tonight as well. I wonder where you found them?”


          Tardus turned his head in surprise. “How interesting that you should ask, Lady Alphena,” he said. He coughed onto the back of his hand, gathering time to respond.


          Alphena didn’t smile, but she felt fiercely triumphant. I pinked you that time, didn’t I, you old weasel!


          Tardus had been pushing her father to talk about something that he didn’t want to. Indeed, Alphena wasn’t sure that Saxa had any more knowledge of what had happened in the theater than Agrippinus, who’d been here in the house at the time, did. Perhaps Tardus was reacting to the embarrassing visit her father and brother had made to him the day before, but perhaps there was more to his curiosity.


          Regardless, Saxa was her father. She wasn’t going to let this old man badger him when simply asking a blunt question would change the dynamic of the bout. Nobody expected perfect deportment and courtesy from Saxa’s boyish daughter, after all.


          “Well, strictly speaking, I met them when they arrived here in Carce eight days ago,” Tardus said, looking over his shoulder at Alphena. His gaze had a hard fixity that she hadn’t expected from so old a man. “But as to where they’re from, they say ‘the Western Isles.'”


          “The Hesperides?” Saxa said, cocking his head with interest. “What language do they speak, if I may ask?”


          “They speak Greek to me,” Tardus said. He spoke with studied care, quite different from the aggressiveness with which he had begun the discussion. “I suppose they have some language of their own, but I haven’t heard them speaking it. And as for the Hesperides–that isn’t their name for their home. Perhaps their ‘Western Isles’ are what Hesiod meant when he spoke of the Hesperides, but apart from summoning him from the dead, I don’t see how we could be sure.”


          “And even then,” said Pandareus, “we couldn’t be sure without teaching him modern geography first. In any event, I don’t think–“


          He smiled faintly. Alphena decided that her brother’s teacher was joking, which she hadn’t been sure of at the start.


          “–that I would choose to start my discussion there if I had the opportunity. I would be much more interested in details of how he created his masterpieces. The style of the Theogony is quite different, it seems to me, from that of The Works and Days; more different than I would have expected to come from the pen–the throat, rather–of a single man.”


          Priscus and Varus both laughed; Saxa blinked, then grinned weakly. Tardus was frowning, which was understandable, but there still seemed to be something odd about his demeanor.


          The discussion turned to how much Hesiod and Homer knew know about geography. Tardus listened glumly.


          Alphena grinned. She supposed the situation should please her: her mother’s plan to convince Tardus that this was simply a literary evening was a resounding success. She was utterly, bone-deep, bored, however.


          She took a olive from the dish, then paused and looked at it more closely. A man’s face had been carved into it. She popped the olive into her mouth–it was stuffed with anchovy paste, a startling but tasty combination–and picked another one, green this time. The features were female.


          “I wonder, Marcus Tardus?” Hedia said in a break as the fish course came in. “Are your Hesperians nobles from their own country who should be dining here instead of down with the servants?”

          “I don’t…,” Tardus said, clearly taken aback. “That is, I believe they are priests or wise men rather than, ah, nobles. From what they say. But they didn’t wish to call attention to themselves.”


          Are you still pleased that you blackmailed your way into this dinner, Lord Tardus? Alphena wondered. She took what looked like a small crab, complete to the stalked eyes; it proved to be a thin pastry shell stuffed with a spicy fish paste.


          “If I may ask, Lord Tardus?” Pandareus said. “You suggest that your guests are the western equivalent of the Magi. The Magi ruled Persia until Darius broke their power in a coup, and even now under the Arsacids they have a great deal of authority. They are certainly as worthy of a place at Gaius Saxa’s table as–“


          He curled his hand inward.


          “–a professor of rhetoric.”


          Pandareus had done full justice to the eggs and olives, and he was now attacking a seeming mullet molded from minced crabmeat. Alphena decided that his lanky frame was a result of privation rather than ascetic philosophy.


          “I don’t know what political arrangements exist in the Western Isles!” Tardus said. “The, the… my guests, that is, they said that they would prefer to eat with the servants. They didn’t expect to arouse comment, as I understand it. They’ve come to Carce to observe our customs, and they hoped to do that without their presence affecting those observations.”


          The conversation drifted back to literature when Saxa mentioned Plato’s conceit of a Scythian visitor to comment on Athenian society. Tardus ate morosely without adding much to the discussion of fictitious Brahmins, Magi and Egyptians.


          Alphena didn’t speak either. She neither knew nor cared anything about the books the men were talking about; and besides, she was puzzling over the Westerners themselves.


          Alphena knew them from somewhere; she’d felt that when time she saw them in the theater. That didn’t seem possible if they had arrived so recently in Carce, though; and if Tardus was lying–why should he be on a question like that?–then it still didn’t explain why she had no recollection of where she had seen the trio.


          The talk droned on. The men might as well have been chattering in Persian for how much Alphena could understand of it.


          She thought of the theater and her vision of a man tearing his way through the sparkling city. She thought of the way he had looked at her, and the recognition she had felt in his gaze as well.


          Alphena ate mechanically, and thought. She almost could remember.




          “I see you approve of father’s cook, master,” Varus said in a low voice to Pandareus, who had just taken another fig-pecker stuffed with a paste of figs and walnuts before being grilled.


          “My dear student,” Pandareus said, pausing with the skewer just short of his mouth. “For a man who can’t always afford sausage with his porridge, this meal is the very ambrosia of the gods.”


          He paused, pursing his lips in thought. “I misspoke,” he said. “This meal would be the true ambrosia to anyone, whatever his background.”


          Varus smiled. The meal had been both pleasant and stimulating, which was a surprise after Tardus had invited himself to join them. Not that Tardus would have been an improper guest under normal circumstances, given his background and interests, but these circumstances were scarcely normal.


          He glanced at his stepmother, sitting primly across from him as she nibbled a quail drumstick in which the bone had been replaced by a breadstick and the meat chopped with spices. Thank Jupiter for Hedia! Varus himself hadn’t understood the threat until Priscus whispered an explanation while they mounted the stairs together.


          “I am a collector of objects which are supposed to have, ah, spiritual properties, Gaius Saxa,” Tardus said. “I suppose you are aware of that?”


          He means “magical properties,” Varus translated. But magic could be seen as a means of threatening an Emperor who was reputed to be something of a magician and astrologer himself, whereas “spiritual” had no dangerous connotations.