Out Of The Waters — Snippet 25

Out Of The Waters — Snippet 25

          Her tone was polite but no longer obsequious. They were in Anna’s realm now, and however much she might respect Lady Hedia, she wouldn’t leave any doubt about what she knew.

          Hedia’s cup was empty again. She thought for an instant, then covered it with her hand as Alphena reached to refill it from the mixing bowl.

          “I think that’s enough for me,” she said, rising smoothly. She might feel as though she should hang herself; but if she did, she would expect to writhe gracefully. “Thank you, Anna. You’ve helped me understand the situation better.”

          Anna struggled to rise from her stool. Alphena braced her while she got both her sticks planted.

          “I told you I’m not passing over this, your Ladyship,” Anna said. “I… I won’t promise you. But there’s another thing that might be tried. It means danger for those I would die to keep from danger, but I fear–”

          Her eyes locked with Hedia’s.

          “–that there’s no safety anywhere if this thing isn’t scotched. So I’ll try.”

          “Mistress,” said Hedia. “He’s a soldier, in his heart at least. He’ll understand.”

          Anna laughed. The sound would have been appropriate at a funeral. “Aye, we all understand,” she said, “but it’s still bloody hard to send them off. Well, we women know about that kind of hard, don’t we?”

          “Yes,” said Alphena unexpectedly. “We do.”

          She reached out; for a moment, the three of them linked hands. It didn’t make any sense, but Hedia found herself more hopeful than she had been since she awakened from her nightmare.

***

          As Corylus and Pulto approached the apartment block, one of the daughters of the cobbler on the fourth floor leaned out the window and called, “Hello, Master Corylus! I’m glad you’re back!”

          Corylus waved a half-hearted acknowledgement and tried to smile. He probably didn’t succeed very well.

          “I wonder if that’s Tertia or her sister?” Pulto said, sounding mildly curious.

          Corylus looked at the older man, uncertain whether the implication was a joke. He said, “Quartilla’s pretty young, Pulto.”

          “Well growed, though,” Pulto said. “And from the way everybody on the street’s looking at us now, you could probably parlay one visit into a two-fer.”

          Then, with the break in his voice he’d been trying to avoid with the crude jokes, he said, “I wonder what it is my Anna said to everybody to get them so excited? Well, there’s nothing to do about it now.”

          “Ah,” said Corylus, who now understood a great deal more than he had a moment ago. Yes, a parade with elephants could scarcely have drawn more attention than he and his servant were getting right now.

          Corylus had been thinking about the oration his fellow student Clementius had given today, urging Hannibal not to storm the walls of Carce. Pandareus had responded by ‘predicting’ all the disasters which had beset the Carthaginian cause when Hannibal marched away without attacking.

          Corylus would be speaking tomorrow. His set subject was to advise the imprisoned Socrates either to flee to Macedonia or to stay and drink the hemlock poison. He had planned to argue that Socrates should stay, honoring his principles–but that would give Pandareus the opportunity to blame Socrates for all the misfortunes “the gods” had heaped on Athens after his execution. Perhaps Corylus should argue that from exile in Macedonia, Socrates could foment a revolt of reason within the body politic….

          But Publius Corylus had duties and obligations in the real world also, as Pulto had just reminded him. Hedia and her daughter had visited Anna today, and the visit apparently had consequences here in his neighborhood on the Viminal Hill. Now that Tertia–or Quartilla–had addressed Corylus directly, a score of other people were calling to him also.

           Hercules! Some are even cheering! He waved again as he ducked into the staircase behind Pulto.

          “I’ll just have something light to eat and go straight over to Saxa’s,” Corylus muttered to the servant’s back. “Ah–Pulto? You don’t need to come with me tonight. There’ll be more than enough attendants, I’m sure.”

          “I guess I do have to come, don’t I?” Pulto growled. “I would if you were heading for a dust-up, wouldn’t I? And this is a bloody sight worse, the way I look at it.”

          The way I look at it too, old friend, Corylus thought. But though Pulto wouldn’t be of the least use in a situation where the danger was from magic, it was his duty. That was a way a soldier had to think, and it was the way Corylus thought as well.

          The door opened before they reached it. “Anna, my heart!” Pulto said, his voice much harsher than was usual when speaking to his wife. “What in buggering Mercury did you say that’s got them so worked up down in the street?”

          “Never mind that now, Marcus Pulto,” Anna said. “You’ll give me a hand up to the roof where I’ll talk to the master, and you’ll stand at the bottom of the ladder making sure other folks understand that he wants his privacy. Do you understand that?”

          I do not, Corylus thought. But it took his mind off a quick dinner and what they were going to find in the home of Sempronius Tardus.

          “Yes, ma’am,” Pulto said in a tone of supplication. That was even more unusual when he talked to Anna than the anger of a heartbeat earlier.

          Corylus had wondered how long it would take her to reach the fifth-floor landing, let alone mount the ladder to the roof. Pulto must have had the same thought, because he took her arm as directed, but even that was probably unnecessary.

          Anna clumped up the stairs in normal fashion, without pausing or slowing. The doors on the upper landings were all ajar, but nobody actually stuck her head out as they normally would when strangers passed.

          “Anna?” Corylus said. “Let me go up ahead of you.”

          “I can still climb a ladder, master!” she said.

          “So that I can help you out over the coaming,” he replied, keeping his voice artificially calm. She must be very upset. “And there may be somebody on the roof already.”

          “There’s not,” Anna said, her tone contrite; she stepped aside on the narrow landing to let him pass. “But I shouldn’t wonder if they’d lift the trap door and listen in once we were up there. I reckon my Marcus can take care of that, won’t you, dearie?”

          “I guess I could if I needed to,” Pulto said. “Which I won’t, since nobody in this building is going to show his ass to you. Me included.”

          He gave his wife a peck on the cheek. Things seemed to be back to normal between them.

          The roof was empty, as Anna had claimed. It was tiled, but the pitch was so slight that it was easy to walk on. A poulterer on the second floor supplemented his merchandize by keeping a large dovecote here, and there were eight or ten terracotta pots with flowers and vegetables growing in them.

          There was even a spindly orange tree. Corylus lifted Anna from the third rung down, then touched the tree trunk while she closed the trap door. He thought for an instant that flesh wriggled gratefully beneath his fingertips.

          “I don’t like what I’m going to ask you, master,” Anna said. “But sometimes ‘like’ don’t make no nevermind.”

          She was standing beside him, looking southeast toward the center of Carce instead of meeting his eyes. He put his arm around her shoulders and hugged her. He didn’t speak.

          “Aye, you know,” Anna muttered. She gave him a half-hug also. “You’re a soldier’s son, and anyway, you’re a good boy.”

          She turned her head to look at him. “It’s her ladyship,” she said. “She needs something I can’t fetch her and I won’t ask my Marcus to go for. He’d try, but I think it’d kill him, stop his heart. He’d be that fearful.”

          “Tell me what you need, Anna,” Corylus said. He felt calm. “Tell me what the Republic needs, or so I think.”

          He had been very young, certainly no older than three, when his father came into the room Corylus shared with Anna one night. Something had happened, though at the time he hadn’t known what.

          Later Corylus learned there had been a battle–not the kind that the historians wrote about, but the sort of little skirmish that happened regularly on the frontier. A party of young Germans had crossed the river for loot, but they got too drunk to return after they captured a handful of wagons loaded with wine.

          They were too drunk to surrender also, but Germans never seemed to get too drunk to fight. It had been a nasty one, because the Germans had the wagons in a circle and horses wouldn’t charge home. Cispius had dismounted his troop and stormed the laager.

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