Out Of The Waters — Snippet 17
If all those flowers are allowed to set fruit, Corylus thought, the weight will break the branches. If the gardeners won’t do something, perhaps I should–
A woman–a female figure–stepped into the moonlight, as he had expected she would. Corylus rose to his feet. “Good evening, Persica,” he said.
The dryad flinched, but she didn’t disappear. “Are you angry with me?” she said in a small voice. She turned her face away, but he could see that she was watching out of the corner of her eye.
“No, Persica,” he said. “I think we’ve both learned things since we met before.”
The nymph had tricked him into a past time. Her malice came from petty stupidity rather than from studied cruelty. She–“Peaches”–was small-minded and not over-bright, so how else could she have acted?
“I’d be angry if you tried to do it again, though,” he added.
Persica sniffed. “No fear that!” she said bitterly. “The woman here–she’s a demon! She said she’d peel my bark off with a paring knife. She meant it!”
“If you mean Lady Hedia…,” Corylus said, hiding his smile because the dryad would have misinterpreted it. “Then I suspect you’re right.”
Persica gave a peevish flick of her hand. “I don’t pay any attention to humans’ names,” she said. “Why should I?”
She kicked morosely at loose dirt where the pear tree had been. Though the gardeners had grubbed out the frost-shattered trunk, they had neither planted a replacement nor resodded the soil turned when they ripped up the roots.
“I never thought I’d miss Pirus,” the dryad muttered. “So full of herself because she had nice hair. As if nobody else had nice hair!”
Persica tossed her head but swayed her body as well, so that her long red-blond hair swirled in one direction and her garment in the other. The fabric was sheer. It had scattered light in bright sun, as Corylus remembered, but now in the moon glow it was barely a shadow over her full breasts and the rippling muscles of her belly.
“I used to watch you humans, at least,” she said. “You aren’t much, but you’re company. Now I don’t even have that.”
She looked squarely at Corylus and pleaded, “Is it because of me? I wouldn’t hurt them! I didn’t mean to hurt you, just, well, I was angry. Who wouldn’t have been angry with that Hyperborean sorcerer killing Pirus right beside me?”
“I don’t think it’s you, Persica,” Corylus said. He touched one of the flat marble spinners which hung from the roof over the walkway. They turned in the breezes, scattering light into the shadowed interior. The nymph had used their reflections to send him to another time and place….
But if Persica hadn’t indulged her whimsical malice, Corylus wouldn’t have gained the tool and the knowledge that had helped save Carce from destruction. As a matter of fact–
“If you hadn’t tricked me the way you did, Persica,” he said, “I would have been burned to ash or less. And so would you.”
Every land and perhaps the seas as well would have burned, would have been buried under fire. Except that a peach dryad had, in a pet, sent the youth who rejected her advances to the place where he needed to be and where the world needed him to be.
Perhaps the Stoic philosophers were right and gods did look after men. Chance, the whim of atoms clashing together, seemed a slim reed on which to support the series of events which had saved the world.
“Well, anyway, I didn’t mean any harm,” Persica muttered. She seemed to be walking aimlessly, her eyes on the ground, but she meandered closer to Corylus. Looking up, she said, “But I’m so lonely. I don’t let humans see me, but I just wish they’d come here to the garden again.”
She tossed her head and gave him a knowing smile. “You can see me,” she said, “but you’re one of us. Your mother was, and on her side you are.”
“That may be true,” Corylus said. “But it doesn’t matter.”
He was uncomfortable talking–thinking–about what Pulto had recently told him about the mother who had died giving birth to him. It didn’t really matter whether she was a beech nymph or the Celtic girl his father would have married as soon as he could at the end of his military service. I am a citizen of Carce!
Aloud Corylus said, “The Hyperborean’s magic clings here, that’s all. It’s like the smell of rotting blood in the arena, even though they change the sand after every performance. It makes the servants uncomfortable, that’s all. That’ll wear away.”
He smiled encouragingly, knowing that what he said was only partially true. The powerful magic which had been worked here created a weak spot in the fabric of the cosmos. Ordinary humans in this garden–Maximus, for example; the doorkeeper who spoke of seeing things out of the corner of his eye–became more sensitive to matters that would ordinarily be hidden.
“It won’t have time to,” Persica said bitterly. “The Hyperborean is gone, but it’s still going to end quickly.”
She shivered and hugged herself. Looking up she said, “You can feel it too, can’t you? The sea will do what fire did not.”
Corylus rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. His lips were dry. “You mean Typhon?” he said, remembering what Varus had said in the theater.
The nymph flicked her hand again. “What do names matter?” she said. “It will be the sea and the thing that is the sea.”
She had sidled to within arm’s length of Corylus. Now she leaned closer, not quite to the point of touching him.
“A little warmth would be so nice,” she said. “It isn’t much to ask, is it, when the end is coming so soon.”
“Persica, please don’t,” Corylus whispered.
Varus would be back shortly, but even if he weren’t…. Corylus thought of the monster he had seen, then imagined that it was tearing apart Carce instead of some crystal echo of a philosopher’s dream. He was frozen inside, and the only emotion he felt was fear.
Persica didn’t edge closer as he thought she would do. She hugged herself again and said, “I don’t really mind dying. I’m a peach, after all, not an oak or one of those ugly pine crones. But a little warmth, cousin…? Just a little warmth?”
“I can’t, mistress,” he said. He heard a babble of voices in the central courtyard. Varus must be coming back. “Please, I can’t.”
Corylus expected a tantrum or worse, remembering the way the nymph had behaved the first time they met. Instead her face scrunched up in misery.
“Will you at least come back and talk with me?” she whimpered. “Before the end? Please, I get so lonely.”
He swallowed. “I’ll try, Persica,” he said. “I’ll… yes, I’ll come back!”
The gate to the house opened. Varus strode through, beaming with success.
Manetho reached the side doorway from the central courtyard into the owner’s office. A footman stood there, blocking it, and Candidus trotted over immediately.
“Make way for Lord Varus!” Manetho said. The footman turned sideways, squeezing back against the pillar. He was letting the deputy stewards snarl at one another while a lowly footman pretended to be back herding goats in the Pyrenees.
“The Consul is receiving his clients in his office,” Candidus said, carefully looking at Manetho and pretending not to be aware of Varus himself behind the servant. “No doubt he will attend to his household when he has finished his duties to the Republic.”
I wonder if he would take that line if I were Alphena? Varus thought. He certainly wouldn’t do this to Hedia.
The idea made him smile. If Candidus had been paying attention, the expression might have disconcerted him; but of course he wasn’t. Why be concerned about Saxa’s bookish, ineffectual son?
Varus tapped Manetho on the shoulder and gestured him aside. “Candidus?” he said pleasantly. “Get out of the way or I will ask my sister to have you tortured. I’m sure she can find something interesting to do to an uppity slave.”
Candidus blinked, stepped back, and blinked again. He wasn’t so much ignoring Varus’ order as too stunned to obey it.
Agrippinus appeared. Varus hadn’t raised his voice but the major domo, overseeing the whole levee while his deputies handled specific areas, demonstrated his ability in a fashion that Varus wouldn’t have recognized till recently.
Agrippinus touched Candidus’ neck with his right hand; his fingers were pudgy and each had at least one ring, but the tips dimpled his deputy’s flesh. Candidus staggered–half propelled, half jumping–into a corner of the office.
Agrippinus nodded minusculely to Varus, then turned and announced in a carrying voice, “Clear this room for the honorable Lord Varus, who wishes to address his noble father, Consul Gaius Alphenus Saxa!”