Out Of The Waters — Snippet 23
They were passing through the leatherworkers’ district. The reek of uncured hides warred with the stench of the tanning process. Alphena’s eyes watered, and even Hedia’s face contorted in a sneeze.
“I’ll try, mother,” Alphena said, barely mouthing the words. She was afraid her voice would tremble if she spoke loudly enough for the older woman to hear.
She had faced demons, faced them and fought them. She had a sword that seemed to be able to cut anything and had certainly sent fire-demons to bubbling death.
She didn’t know what they were facing now. That was the frightening thing. What use was the keenest, best-wielded sword if you had nothing to turn it on except the ghosts in your own mind?
“I suppose Pulto thinks that we’re visiting his wife in order to buy charms,” Hedia said. Her voice fell naturally into the rhythm of the Cappadocians’ pace.
“Aren’t we?” said Alphena. “That is, well, I thought we were too.”
“If I believed that a sprig of parsley wrapped around a human finger bone would keep away those walking statues from my dreams,” Hedia said tartly, “I’d be far less concerned than I am.”
Her lips twisted into another smile. “I don’t believe there’s a charm to keep away distinguished older men with braided hair either,” she said. “But as I told you, I’m not worried about them.”
She’s mocking me! Alphena thought. But that wasn’t really true, and if it was true, it was good-natured. Hedia had risen from her bed screaming this morning. If she could smile and compliment and plan when she was under that much strain, then her stepdaughter could smile at a harmless joke and go on without snarling.
The litter continued pattering forward, but at a minutely quicker pace: the teams of bearers must have changed places. Alphena would not have noticed the difference had she not spent so much time studying swordsmen. Tiny patterns of movement indicated alertness and fatigue, victory and death.
“What do you want from Anna, then, mother?” she said aloud.
Hedia looked momentarily weary, though her cheeks quickly sprang back to their normal buoyant liveliness. “Advice, I suppose, dear,” she said. Her smile was real, but not as bright as usual. “Or at any rate, someone besides one another to commiserate with. I….”
She paused, then wriggled her shoulders as if to shake away a locust that had landed on them. “Dear,” she said with renewed confidence, “I want to discuss the matter with Anna because she’s the closest thing to an expert whom we have available, even though I don’t really believe she can help. If she says she can’t help, when she says that, I’m afraid, then we go on to the next possible pathway to enlightenment.”
Alphena opened her mouth to ask the question. Before she could voice the first syllable, the older woman continued, “We’ll determine what that next possibility is when we reach that point.”
“Your Ladyships, we are arriving!” Candidus cried. He sounded on the verge of collapse. Even though the Cappadocians had a heavy litter to carry, the pace they set through the streets had strained the deputy steward almost beyond his capacity.
The vehicle swayed gently to a halt. There was excited babble outside the curtains.
“Yes,” said Alphena, trying to sound as assured as Hedia did by reflex. “We will determine that.”
Hedia swept the curtains back but allowed the younger woman to get out of the litter before she herself did. She had been puzzled by the cheering, but it wasn’t until she stood up that she could see past the wall of attendants surrounding the vehicle.
When she did, the slight smile that was her normal expression vanished. She wasn’t angry, yet; but her mind had slipped into a familiar mode in which she decided how to deal with a problem–and absolutely any answer was acceptable if cold reason told her that it was the correct choice.
The apartment block in which Corylus and his household lived was the newest in the neighborhood and the tallest–at five stories–this far out the Argiletum. Anna–Corylus’ nurse from the day he was born and his housekeeper here in Carce–was waving from a third-floor balcony. Arthritis made it difficult for her to navigate stairs; otherwise she doubtless would have greeted the litter on the street.
Scores of other people were waiting, however. At a guess, every tenant in the building who was home this morning stood outside, waving scarves or napkins and cheering, “Hail to their noble Ladyships Hedia and Alphena! Hail!”
“I didn’t expect this,” Alphena said, edging close when Hedia walked around to her side of the litter.
“Nor did I,” said Hedia. The background commotion probably concealed the flat chill of her voice; but if it didn’t, that too was all right.
There were relatively few men in the crowd, but those present were neatly dressed. The women wore their finery and all the jewels they possessed. The children were clean and wore tunics, even the youngsters of three or four who would normally run around in breechclouts or nothing at all.
This litter would draw a crowd anywhere in Carce; it was exceptional even in the Carina District where Saxa and similarly wealthy nobles lived. This demonstration had been prepared, however, which was a very different thing.
Anna has bragged to her neighbors that she’s so great a witch that noblewomen came to visit her. She’s trafficking on my name–and perhaps my secrets–to raise her status in the neighborhood.
“Candidus,” Hedia said, “you and the escort can remain here with the litter. All but one, I think.”
The deputy steward didn’t object as she had expected him to. He must have understood her expression.
Hedia looked over the entourage, then said, “Barbato?” to a footman whom she thought would set the right tone. “Precede Lady Alphena and myself to the third floor.”
The name–Bearded, with a rural pronunciation–was a joke; his whiskers were so sparse that he could go several weeks between shaves by the household barber. He was a slender, muscular youth from the southern Pyrenees, with clear features and a good command of Latin.
He wasn’t a bruiser, but he could take care of himself. Because this was daytime, the escorting servants didn’t carry cudgels as they would at night, but Barbato wore a slender dagger in an upside-down sheath strapped to his right thigh where the skirt of his tunic covered it
“Come along, my dear,” Hedia said, stepping off with a pleasant smile. Barbato was swaggering pridefully; the crowd parted before him, still cheering.
“Anna must have said we were coming,” Alphena said quietly.
An eight-year-old girl offered Hedia a bunch of violets, wilted because she’d had nothing to wrap the stems in to keep them wet. Hedia took them graciously and continued into the stairway entrance. To the right side was a shop selling terracotta dishes; on the left–the corner–was a lunch stall and wine shop.
“Yes,” Hedia replied. “That’s something I’ll want to discuss with her.”
To her amazement, the stairwell was not only empty but clean. When she had visited the building before, there was litter on the treads and a pervasive odor of vomit and human waste. There were benefits to Anna having turned the event into a local feast day.
The door at the third level opened. Barbato called pompously, “Make way for the noble Hedia and the noble Alphena!”
Anna waved him aside with one of her two sticks. “Bless you both, your ladyships!” she said. “Welcome to the house of my master, Gaius Corylus!”
She wore a long tunic which wavered between peach and brownish yellow, depending on how the light caught it, under a short dark-blue cape to which leather horse cut-outs had been appliquéd; Celtic work, Hedia guessed, and probably a very good example of it. She herself couldn’t imagine anybody finding it attractive; but then, she wasn’t a Marsian peasant who had spent decades among barbarians on the frontiers.
“Thank you, Anna,” Hedia said. She turned and added in a sharper tone, “You may wait on the landing, Barbato. We’ll call you if we need you.”
She shut the door firmly, then slid the bar across. The panel was sturdier than she would have expected on a third-floor apartment. Not that she spent much time entering or leaving third-floor apartments.
“I hope you didn’t mind all the fuss below, your ladyship,” Anna said. “It’s for the boy, you see. How would you like your wine? Oh, and I had Chloe from the fourth landing, right above you see, fetch some little cakes from Damascenus’ shop in the next building. I do hope you’ll try them, won’t you?”
“I’ll pour the wine, Anna,” Alphena said, forestalling their hostess as she started toward the little kitchen of the suite. She and Hedia knew that the old woman had better days and worse ones. Even at her best now Anna had no business struggling with a tray of wine, water, and the paraphernalia necessary for drinking it.