Out Of The Waters — Snippet 42


          “Now, don’t turn it down till you see it,” Demetrius said. “Pomegranates need to be root bound to bear best, so it doesn’t take up as much room as you’d think. And the pots are nice glazed work, blue with birds and flowers. One of them’d dress your apartment up a treat!”


          “Sorry, Demetrius,” Corylus said. “Where’s the apples?”


          “On the west side of the lot,” Demetrius said, gesturing. Ever hopeful, he added, “And the pomegranate’s there too. I’ll bet she’d fit fine, boy.”


          Corylus made his way along the paths winding through the nursery stock. Demetrius brought only what he had under immediate contract into the city. Even so, his lot was stuffed to capacity.


          He imagined Anna hauling enough water for a tree up to the third floor. Well, she would organize it done as she did the household water already; other residents of the building, generally young women having problems with romance or with the results of romance, did the work that Anna’s arthritis didn’t permit her to accomplish herself. Corylus didn’t care what sort of charms and potions Anna provided in return, and Pulto didn’t want to know.


          There were four grafted trees. The trunks were probably crabapples and appeared healthy, and the grafts appeared to have been done well also. Demetrius mitered twigs onto branches, but these mortise cuts were clean, tight, and tied with strips of inner bark in a thoroughly satisfactory fashion.


          “I wonder how the gardener would like it if they cut his hands off and tied somebody else’s onto the stumps?” said the woman suddenly standing beside him.


          Corylus didn’t jump, but his head snapped around quickly. She was short, no more than five feet tall, and remarkably buxom. She wore a shift that was probably red or blue–moonlight didn’t bring out the color–but was so thin that her breasts might as well have been bare.


          “Ah, mistress?” he said. How did she creep up on me?


          Then he realized. “Oh,” he said. “You’re a dryad. Of one of these trees?”


          He gestured to the apples, looking furtively at her plump wrists. They seemed unblemished.


          Always before when Corylus had seen tree spirits, it was in the wake of great magic. Demetrius’ nursery was a simple business concern, unlike the back garden at Saxa’s house where the wizard Nemastes had worked spells that might have drowned the world in fire.


          “Them?” the sprite sneered. “Well, I like that! I’m not one of those drabs. I’m sure they’ll be giving themselves airs whenever they come out of that butchery, but they’ll still only be apples. I am a pomegranate.”


          She threw her head back. The movement didn’t exactly lift her breasts–that would have required a derrick–but it made them wobble enthusiastically.


          “Of course, Punica, I beg your pardon,” Corylus said. There at the end of the line of apples in terracotta transfer urns was a pomegranate tree in a fine glazed bowl, decorated with a garden scene. The pot was indeed very nice, but it was much smaller than Corylus had expected. The tree looked positively top-heavy.


          Oh. He blushed.


          “I was glad you came to see me,” Punica said. “I’ve been lonely.”


          She put her arm around his waist; he shifted sideways, recovering their previous separation. He cleared his throat and said, “I’m surprised to see you. That is, I don’t usually see, well….”


          He made a circular gesture with his left hand, the one that didn’t hold his staff.


          “It’s what you’re wearing,” the sprite said. “What’s in the glass.”


          She leaned forward and twitched the thong around Corylus’ neck, bringing the amulet out from under his tunic.


          “Not the hazelnut,” she said. “The other thing. And I wouldn’t care to be wearing it, I promise you; though since you’re half-hazel too, I suppose you’re all right.”


          “What?” said Corylus. He lifted the bead–it was the size of the last joint of his thumb–up to the quarter moon. He knew he was being silly as soon as he did that: the glass had barely shown internal shadows against the full sun, and now it was as black as a river pebble.


          He lowered the amulet. “What is it inside, Punica?” he asked.


          She shrugged impressively. “I told you I didn’t like it,” she said, moving closer again. “That’s all I want to know about it. I like you, though, Corylus. Why don’t you just take off–“


          She reached for the thong again. Corylus caught her hand and lowered it firmly to her side.


          “I don’t think so, Punica,” he said. “I–maybe I’ll come back. But right now, I have to get home.”


          “Oh, must you go?” she called as he squirmed between potted oleanders on one side and planter of fragrant parsley on the other.


          “Another time,” he murmured over his shoulder. He was old enough to have learned that nothing a man said on these occasions was going to be sufficient, so you might has well stop with bare politeness. He didn’t strictly owe Punica even that, except as to another living being; which Corylus believed should be enough to demand courtesy.


          The crew which had unloaded the wagon was in the office when Corylus returned there. Demetrius had sponged the injured slave’s forehead clean and was looking at it. The jagged tear didn’t seem serious without the wash of blood, though the fellow would probably have a scar. He hadn’t been much of a beauty to begin with.


          “The apples are going to be fine, Demetrius,” Corylus said. “Did you buy them from a new grower?”


          “No, I got a Gallic arborist myself, a freeman, and I hadn’t seen his grafts before,” the nurseryman said. “Ah–you slipped a girl in, sir?”


          Corylus understood the question, though it gave him a shock to hear it. “That’s all right, Demetrius,” he answered with forced calm. The workman must have heard him–and heard Punica as well, which meant the glass bead on his breast really did have power. “There’s no hole in your fence. But just put it out of your mind, all right?”


          “Sure, lad,” Demetrius said, relaxing a little. “It’s no problem, only I’d like to know if, you know, it comes up again.”


          Corylus cleared his throat. “I looked at the pomegranate too,” he said, “and I think I will take it. But not for me. Senator Gaius Alphenus Saxa has a house in the Carina. Do you know where it is?”


          “I can learn,” Demetrius said. “I don’t believe he’s bought from me in the past.”


          “He’s been letting me use his gym,” Corylus explained, though in fact he wasn’t sure that Saxa even knew his son was letting a friend use the training facility; certainly he didn’t care. “A pear tree in his back garden died. I thought I’d give him the pomegranate as a little thank you.”


          “I can get in a nice pear tree in forty-eight hours,” Demetrius said. “And if you’re worried about the price–“


          Corylus stopped him with a smile and a gesture. “I’m not,” he said truthfully, “but I’ve taken a liking to that pomegranate. Only–plant it in the ground, will you? I think it’ll be more comfortable if its roots have a chance to spread out.”


          Demetrius shrugged. “It won’t bear as well,” he said, “but I don’t suppose I’m going to change your mind about how to plant trees. Sure, I’ll send it over in the morning. Just one tree, Bello and Granus can carry it on a handbarrow so we don’t have to wait for nightfall to use a wagon.”


          “Send the bill to me,” Corylus said as he started toward the front gate. “I’ll clear it on the first of the month.”


          He wondered how Punica and Persica would get along. They’d squabble–the spirits of fruit trees tended to be self-centered and quarrelsome, in his experience–but he thought they’d both be happier than they would be alone.


          Corylus began to whistle as he crossed the street. He was ready to sleep now.


          Two men were running toward him; from the way one clutched his cloak to his side, he was using it to hide a sword–illegal to carry in the city and a bad sign anywhere except on the frontier. Corylus paused and put his back to the wall.


          “Lad, is that you?” Pulto called hoarsely.


          “Right!” Corylus said, relaxing again. He recognized the other man as a courier from Saxa’s household. “I’m glad it’s you.”


          “Well, turn right around,” Pulto said. “There’s trouble at the Senator’s house and Lord Varus said to bring you!”