Out Of The Waters — Snippet 31
Turning to Alphena, she said, “I used to visit Abinnaeus more frequently before I married your father, dear. I lived close by; just across Broad Street, in fact.”
To Abinnaeus she went on, “I sold the house to a Gaul from Patavium; Julius Brennus, as I recall. Do you see any of him, Abinnaeus?”
“Well, not Master Brennus himself, your ladyship,” he said, kneeling to offer each of the women a silver cup. “But his wife, Lady Claudia, visits me frequently, I’m pleased to say.”
So the wealthy–extremely wealthy–trader from the Po Valley married a patrician after moving to Carce, Hedia thought. Good luck to both of them.
She sipped her wine, which was just as good as she expected it to be. Alphena had leaned forward slightly to lift the silk for closer examination. An attendant moved the bolt slightly closer. He didn’t speak or otherwise intervene for fear of causing the young customer to rear back. It must be like bridling a skittish horse.
Aloud Hedia said, “I recall Brennus having some very odd-looking servants. Is that still the case?”
“Odd?” said Abinnaeus, pursing his lips. Discretion warred with a desire not to lose the chance of a present sale. “Well, I don’t know that I’d put it quite that way, your ladyship. But it is true that many of Master Brennus’ servants did come with him from the north… and one could say that they brought their culture with them. One could scarcely claim that boorishness and bad Latin are unusual in Carce, though, I’m afraid.”
Hedia laughed. “No, not at all,” she agreed, holding out her cup for a refill. “I thought he had a number of fellows in shiny costumes, though. You’ve never seen anything like that?”
“Nothing like that, no,” the proprietor said, clearly puzzled. “Ah–is it possible that Master Brennus added moving automatons to his courtyard, though. Alexandrine work, I mean, worked by water. I’ve never been inside the house.”
“That could be the story I’d heard,” Hedia said as if idly. “Well, I think this first pattern will be a fine choice. What else have you for us, Master Abinnaeus?”
The afternoon wore on. The familiar routine was pleasurable during those moments when Hedia forgot the danger which had really brought her here, and such moments were more frequent as she became absorbed in fabric and fashion. Alphena was showing real interest also, which was a success beyond expectation.
The maids waited silently, their backs against the counter. There was nothing for them to do, but they too were entranced by the lovely cloth.
It was time to be getting back. Hedia rose and stretched.
“Have these eight patterns made up,” she said, “and send them to the house. I’ll tell our major domo to expect them. I dare say we’ll be back for more, though.”
“You are always welcome, your ladyships,” Abinnaeus said. The attendants were rattling the shutters open as he bowed. “Your intelligence and taste brighten an existence which sometimes threatens to be about money alone.”
He made a quick, upward gesture with a plump hand. “Taking nothing away from money, of course,” he added. “But there can be more.”
The sun was well into the western sky when Hedia followed her daughter into the street. “You did very well, dear,” she said; truthfully, but mostly to encourage the girl.
Hedia looked idly toward the great sundial. In the wavering sunlight she saw three glass figures glitter like sundogs in the winter sky.
“Ah!” she cried, grasping Alphena’s arm.
“Mother?” the girl said. The alerted escorts were pulling weapons from beneath their capes and tunics.
None of them saw anything. Hedia didn’t see anything–now.
She forced a clumsy laugh. “I tripped on these foolish shoes,” she said, “but I don’t seem to have turned my ankle.”
She wiggled her shapely leg in the air.
“Let’s be getting back to the house, shall we?” Hedia said. The others were staring, though they had started to relax. “There’s nothing more for us here.”
She hoped that was the truth; but she was sure in her heart that it was not.
Varus realized he was holding his breath as he waited for someone inside the house of Sempronius Tardus to open the door. No one did. He breathed out, then snorted fresh lungful of air.
The chief lictor banged again and growled, “Open it for me or by Jupiter you’ll open it for a cohort of the Guard!”
Apparently Varus had been unable to hide his smile. Pandareus looked at him and raised an eyebrow in question.
“I was wondering how it would affect our mission if I were to faint from holding my breath,” Varus said. “I think it better not to make the experiment.”
He opened his tablet and resumed his notes. This was, after all, an official activity of the consul and therefore part of his self-imposed duty of recording the ritual business of the Republic. There was at least the possibility that his records would be of service to later historians, whereas there was no chance at all that anyone in the future would have wanted to read the Collected Verse of Gaius Alphenus Varus.
The door jerked open. A tall man with the beard of a Stoic philosopher and a cloth-of-gold sash that suggested he was the major domo stood in the opening, looking flustered.
“Your Excellency,” the tall servant said, “my master, Senator Marcus Tardus, will be with you in a moment. If I may ask your indulgence to wait here until the senator is ready to receive you–“
“You may not,” said the chief lictor, prodding his axe head toward the servant’s stomach. “This is the Consul, you Theban twit!”
He shoved forward with the remainder of his squad following. The major domo hopped backward.
“My goodness, what an unexpected slur from a public functionary!” Pandareus said. “Though he caught the Boeotian accent correctly, so I can hardly describe the fellow as uncultured.”
They started into the house. Saxa seemed oblivious of the interchange between servant and lictor. Varus looked sharply at his father, wondering if he could really be as lost in his own world as he generally seemed to be.
Perhaps so. Saxa was insulated by his wealth, which would one day become the wealth of his son Varus. If Varus survived him. If Carce and the world survived.
Sempronius Tardus trotted into the entrance hall from a side passage. He was tightening the wrap of the toga which he must have put on only when the lictor banged for admittance. A dozen servants fluttered around him, all of them frightened.
“Saxa?” Tardus said. “That is, Your Excellency. You’re welcome, of course, but I don’t see…?”
Tardus looked dazed. Well, this business would be startling to anybody, but it seemed to Varus that more was going on than surprise at a Consul’s unannounced formal arrival. Though the Emperor was known to be erratic, and even the most loyal and honest of men probably had something in his life that could be turned into a capital offense.
“I am here with my learned advisors…,” Saxa said. “To inspect the Serapeum on this property.”
He turned slightly and indicated Varus and Pandareus with a sweeping gesture. This is probably the first time father has used the rhetorical training that I’m sure he got when he was my age.
“If you will lead us to the chapel,” Saxa continued, “we will finish our business and leave you to your privacy, Lord Tardus.”
“What?” squeaked Tardus. “I–this is a mistake! Saxa, I must ask you to leave my house immediately. You have been misinformed!”
Pandareus looked up quizzically, as though he expected Varus to do something. Varus felt the crowded hall blur about him. There was barely room to move, but he found himself walking forward in the familiar fog.
A bull snorted nearby. Varus turned his head sharply, but he could see nothing in the fog though the sound had come from very close. He walked on, picking his way past outcrops. Some of the rocks looked like statues, or anyway had human features.
He wondered where the Sibyl was. Usually in these reveries, he would have come upon her by now.
Varus heard the bull again, this time behind him, and glanced over his shoulder. The fog had cleared enough for him to see a figure that would have been a giant if its human body had not supported the horned head of a bull. It snorted angrily.
A voluptuous woman reclined on the stony ground behind the creature. She caught Varus’ startled expression and smiled lazily.
He stepped into sunlight. The Sibyl held a small glass bottle in her left hand, the sort of container in which perfume was sold. Something moved inside it, but the glass was iridescent and Varus couldn’t be sure he was seeing a tiny figure rather than the sloshing of liquid.
He bowed formally to the old woman. “Sibyl,” he said. “My father has entered the house of Sempronius Tardus, but the senator denies there is a chapel of Serapis in the property. Will you help me find the chapel, please?”