Out Of The Waters — Snippet 29
“I don’t think I’d be much better at being a beauty than at being a scholar, mother,” Alphena said. “But I can stop resenting the things I won’t take the effort to succeed at.”
She felt her smile slipping again. “I don’t know what that leaves me,” she whispered. “I’m not really a good swordsman, even. Not good enough to be a gladiator, I mean, even if father would let me.”
“Your father wouldn’t have anything to do with it, dear,” Hedia said. She was smiling, but Alphena had seen a similar expression on her face before. A man had died then. “I would not permit you to embarrass that sweet man so badly. I hope you believe me, daughter.”
“I wouldn’t do it,” Alphena said. The interior of the litter seemed suddenly colder, shiveringly cold. “I used to think I wanted to, but I really wouldn’t have.”
She swallowed and added, “And I do believe you, mother.”
Hedia held both her hands out, palms up, for Alphena to take. “I apologize for saying that just now,” she said. “I–your father is very good and gentle. People of his sort deserve better than the world often sends them, and I want to protect him. I am neither good nor gentle.”
Alphena squeezed the older woman’s fingers, then leaned back. “Thank you for what you do for father,” she said. “And what you’ve done for me.”
“Well, dear,” Hedia said with a tinge of amusement, “I quite clearly recall you chopping away at demons with what seemed at the time to be a great deal of skill. That needed to be done, and I certainly wasn’t going to do it. And I strongly suspect that none of those gladiators whom you admire would have faced demons either.”
What does she mean by that? Alphena thought; then she blushed at the way her mind had tried to turn Hedia’s words into a slur. Aloud but in a low voice, she said, “I should just learn to accept compliments, shouldn’t I?”
Hedia laughed merrily. “Well, dear,” she said, “I don’t think I would suggest that as a regular course of conduct for a young lady. But with me… yes, I generally mean what I say.”
The litter slowed. There was even more shouting than usual ahead of them. Alphena touched the curtain, intending to pull it aside and lean out for a better look.
Hedia stopped her with a lazy gesture. She said, “Ours isn’t the only senatorial family going by litter to shop in the Field of Mars today. I’m confident that our present escort could fight their way through anything but a company of the Praetorian Guard, but I warned Manetho before we started that if he allowed any unnecessary trouble to occur, he’d spend the rest of his life hoeing turnips on a farm in Bruttium.”
Alphena forced herself to relax. “I guess if there’s going to be trouble,” she said, “we’ll get to it soon enough.”
She pursed her lips and added, “I didn’t bring my sword.”
“I should think not!” Hedia said. She didn’t sound angry, but she appeared to be genuinely shocked. She turned her head slightly–though she couldn’t look forward from where she sat in the vehicle–and said, “I thought of suggesting that Lenatus go along with Saxa this afternoon. Just–”
She shrugged her shoulders. She looked like a cat stretching.
“–in case. But I understand that Master Corylus will be accompanying the consul, and I’m sure his man Pulto will be equipped to deal with unexpected problems.”
“Father?” said Alphena, taken aback. “He shouldn’t–”
She stopped, unwilling to belittle Saxa by saying he had no business in anything that might involve swords. It was true, of course, but it wasn’t something that her stepmother needed to be told.
“That is,” she said, “what’s father doing? I didn’t know about it.”
She didn’t know–she didn’t bother to learn–very much about what other people were doing. If Hedia hadn’t taken family obligations more seriously than her stepdaughter had, Alphena would either be wandering in fairyland or be in the belly of something wandering in fairyland. Or be in a worse place yet.
“Your brother wants to visit a senator’s house,” Hedia said. “He thought the consul’s authority might be necessary to gain entry. I don’t know all the details. I don’t expect Saxa to have difficulty, but–”
That shrug again.
“–I do worry about the poor.”
The litter slowed again, then stopped. Manetho came to the side of vehicle and said, “Your ladyships, we have arrived at the shop of the silk merchant Abinnaeus.”
Hedia grinned and said, “Come, dear. At the very least, we can outfit you with a set of silk syntheses to wear at formal dinners. Since we’re coming here anyway.”
She slid her curtain open and dismounted, allowing the deputy steward to offer his arm in support. Alphena grimaced and got out on her own side.
Maximus, normally the night guard at the gate of the back garden, held out his arm. Alphena lifted her hand to slap him away. She stopped, thinking of Hedia; and of Corylus, who had mentioned Maximus’ intelligence.
“Thank you, my good man,” Alphena said, touching the back of the fellow’s wrist with her fingertips but pointedly not letting any weight rest there.
She turned, eyeing their surroundings. The Altar of Peace was to the left. Not far beyond it was the Sundial of Augustus–a granite obelisk brought from Egypt and set up to tell the hours. The metal ball on top of the obelisk blazed in the sunlight.
Alphena stared, transfixed. She felt but didn’t really see her stepmother walk around the vehicle to join her.
“Is something wrong, my dear?” Hedia said.
“That ball,” Alphena said. Her mouth was dry. She didn’t point, because she didn’t want to mark herself that way. “On top of the pillar.”
“Yes, dear?” Hedia said. “It’s gold, isn’t it?”
“No,” said Alphena. “It’s orichalc. Mother, I’d swear that’s the ball that was on top of the temple we saw in the vision. The temple that w-was being torn apart!”
Hedia stared at the sunlit globe in the middle distance, trying to empathize with what Alphena was feeling. With whatever Alphena was feeling, because despite real mental effort Hedia couldn’t understand what was so obviously frightening about a big metal ball.
Did it come from a ruined city as the girl said? Well and good, but so did the obelisk it stood on top of; and the huge granite spike must have been much more difficult to move and re-erect here in Carce.
“Is there something we should do, dear?” Hedia said. “Ah, do you want to go closer?”
She didn’t understand why Alphena was concerned, but she understood all too well what it was to feel terrified by something that didn’t seem frightening to others. She hadn’t particularly noticed the temple Alphena talked about, because her mind had been frozen by the sight of glass men like those of her nightmare, walking on the walls of the city.
“No!” Alphena said; then, contritely, clasping Hedia’s hands, “I’m sorry, mother. No, there’s no reason to… well, I don’t know what to do. And–”
She grinned ruefully.
“–I certainly don’t want to go closer. Though I’m not afraid to.”
“We’ll shop, then,” Hedia said, linking her arm with her daughter’s. “But when we return, we’ll discuss the matter with Pandareus. I think he’ll be with Saxa and the boys, but otherwise we’ll send a messenger to bring him to the house. He’s a….”
She paused, wondering how to phrase what she felt.
“Pandareus is of course learned, but he also has an unusually clear vision of reality,” she said. “As best I can tell, all his choices are consciously made. I don’t agree with many of them–”
She flicked the sleeve of her cloak. It was of silk lace, dyed lavender to contrast with the brilliantly white ankle-length tunic she wore beneath it. It was unlikely that Pandareus could have purchased its equivalent with a year of his teaching fees.
“–obviously. But I respect the way he lives by his principles.”
As I live by mine; albeit my principles are very different.
Syra waited with Alphena’s maid behind the litter. They had followed on foot from the townhouse. Ordinarily Hedia would have had nearly as many female as male servants in her entourage, but for this trip the two maids were the only women present.
They didn’t appear to feel there was anything to be concerned about. Syra was talking with a good-looking Gallic footman, though she faced about sharply when Hedia glanced toward her.
Alphena noticed the interchange, but she probably misinterpreted it. She said, “I’ve asked Agrippinus to assign Florina to me permanently. I’m not going to get angry with her.”
Hedia raised an eyebrow. “My goodness, dear,” she said. “I doubt the most committed philosophers could go through more than a few days without getting angry at the servant who forgot to mention the dinner invitation from a patron or who used an important manuscript to light the fire.”