Out Of The Waters — Snippet 35
Daylight through cracks in the shutters awakened Corylus. He sat up quickly, angry with himself. Ordinarily he awakened before dawn and–
Pain split his head straight back from the center of his forehead. He wobbled, sick and briefly unable to see colors. He whispered, “Hercules!”
“Swear by Charon, better,” said Anna as she hobbled over to him, carrying a bronze mug that she had been heating in a bath of water. “I’ve never seen anyone closer to dead but still walking than the two of you when you came in last night.”
She offered the mug. “Here,” she said. “Swallow it down.”
Corylus lifted the warm bronze cautiously. The odor made his nostrils quiver; he started to lower the mug.
“Drink it, I tell you!” Anna said. “D’ye think you’re the first drunk I’ve had to bring back to life in the morning? It’s been your father often enough; but I don’t think he’d be pleased to learn that my man, who he trusted, let you get into this state–and himself no better!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Corylus said obediently. He held his breath and drank the whole mugful at a measured pace, then set it on the side table empty. Anna gave him a napkin. He looked at it puzzled, then sneezed violently into it.
“There,” said Anna with a satisfied smirk. “You’ll feel better now, or so I believe.”
Corylus lowered the napkin with which he had covered his mouth and nose. He did feel better, for a wonder. He would have thought that the sneeze would have shattered his head into more bits than the shell of a dropped egg.
“I meant to stop at the first jar,” he said contritely. “I must have had more than that to drink.”
“Aye, you must have,” Anna said, her tone still grim but her face showing a trace of humor–if you knew what you were looking for. “Well, it’s done and you’re back safely, no thanks to that fool husband of mine. Are you going to your class today, then?”
“If I…,” Corylus said. He got slowly to his feet as he spoke. Somewhat to his surprise, he found that he was all right except for a slight wobbliness when he straightened. “Yes, I will. I want to talk with Varus afterwards anyway, and Master Pandareus too.”
A thought struck him. “Oh!” he said. “And we did find what you sent us for, or I think it was.”
He reached under his tunic. The chain wasn’t around his neck.
Anna gestured with her free hand toward the storage chest on the other side of the bed. The chain and the jewel wrapped in the net of gold wire were there. In a shaft of sunlit, the stone was a cloudy gray-green with very little sparkle.
“I took it off you,” she said. “When I got you out of that filthy tunic and sponged you before I put you to bed.”
Her grin suddenly widened. “As I’ve done your father half a hundred times. It takes me back, lad.”
Corylus reached for the jewelry, then paused and raised an eyebrow in question.
“Aye, take it,” Anna said. “Take it and wear it. I don’t know what it means or what it does, but I know it’s meant for a man.”
Corylus didn’t move. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said. “Meant for a man?”
Anna grimaced. “I don’t have the words!” she said. Her voice was as harsh as he ever remembered her talking to him. “If a civilian asked me how you knew the shields on the far hill were Suebi and not Batavians, what would you tell him? You’d just know, that’s all. Well, I tell you, that jewel’s meant for a man; and whatever else I am, I’m not that.”
Corylus picked it up by the chain and carried it over to the window for better light. He threw open the shutters.
“It’s glass,” he said, looking at the scalloped fracture lines at one end of the stone. “Slag from a glass furnace, anyway.”
He held it up against the sky and squinted through it. “There’s something inside, but I can’t tell what it is,” he said.
Then, lowering the pendant with a triumphant grin, “No! It’s volcanic glass! But I still think there’s something inside it.”
“I tried to look,” Anna said. Corylus tried to hand it to her; she waved it away and said, “No, I don’t mean like that, so better light would show me more than the lamp did. Another way, boy. All I learned is that there’s something inside, all right, and that it doesn’t like women. I set it down then–“
She nodded to the chest.
“–and I stepped back, and I burned a little frankincense to Mother Lucina–“
A Greek would have called the goddess Hecate, but Anna was a Marsian born in the mountains a hundred miles south of Carce.
“–that I wasn’t any deeper in when I roused it.”
“Should I–” Corylus said. He stopped, lifting the pendant by its chain. He was seeing the complete object this time, not trying to peer into the depths of the cloudy glass.
He looked at Anna. “You said I should wear it, dear one,” he said. “If it’s dangerous…?”
She cackled without humor. “A sword’s dangerous, boy,” she said. “But not to you when you’re wearing it, I think. Nor is this, for you’re a man if ever a man was born. The dream that guided me….”
“I can only trust my guides, master,” she said with a catch in her throat. Corylus realized that she was close to tears. “I would tear my own heart out if I thought it would help you, but it wouldn’t. I can only tell you what I am told, or what I anyway believe. And I pray that I’m right, because I would so rather die than you be harmed!”
Corylus dropped the chain over his neck and tucked the pendant, the amulet, under his tunic. Then he folded his old nurse in his arms. She felt as light as a plucked chicken. He felt a rush of love.
“I love you, little mother,” Corylus said. “You kept me safe as a boy, and you protect me still.”
He squeezed Anna again and stepped back, smiling. “Now, I’m already late,” he said. “I’ll pick up a roll on my way to class. We’ll deal with this business, whatever it is.”
Corylus quickly laced on his sandals. He was still smiling, but that was for show. He wished he could be more confident of what he had just told Anna; and he wished he didn’t feel that he had a vicious dog on the end of the chain around his neck.
Because despite Anna’s words, he wasn’t sure it was his dog.
Hedia’s expression remained pleasant as the new doorman announced the arrival of Senator Marcus Atilius Priscus. In truth the fellow’s South German accent was so broad that if she hadn’t known who was invited for dinner, she wouldn’t be any wiser now.
Keeping her professional smile, she murmured to Saxa at her side, “Dear heart, we cannot keep Flavus on the front door until his Latin has improved. Not if we’re going to entertain Senators as learned as Lord Priscus, at least.”
Flavus was a striking physical specimen, tall and blond and ripplingly muscular. Hedia could certainly appreciate the fellow’s merit, but she had never allowed appearances to interfere with her duty.
Hedia had never let anything interfere with her duty.
She was standing beside her husband as a matter of respect while he greeted his dinner guests, though she would not be dining with the men tonight. She didn’t have a party of her own to attend: she planned to dine in her own suite, either alone or possibly with Alphena. She hadn’t decided whether to issue the invitation, and she thought it likely that the girl would decline it if she did.
Varus wasn’t present, though he would be dining with Saxa and his guests. That wasn’t a protest, as it might have been with his sister in similar circumstances. The boy said he would work until dinner.