Out Of The Waters — Snippet 37
Hedia expected Tardus to smirk at his successful throw of the dice, but instead he seemed numbly accepting. The trio of foreign servants were sharply interested in everything around them but particularly, it seemed to Hedia, in Varus and herself. She couldn’t tell how old they were. In their fifties, she had guessed from a distance; but close up, what she saw in their eyes suggested they were older than that, and perhaps impossibly old.
“Dear, is that correct?” Saxa said, completely at sea now. “I’d understood that you wouldn’t be joining us. And Alphena, well, Alphena never dines with the family.”
“Indeed, it’s time that our daughter becomes more comfortable in polite society,” Hedia said. “And what better place than a meal with erudite friends, discussing fine points of literature?”
She continued to smile. On the walls of the hall were death masks of ancestors going back almost two hundred years, and by Venus! some of those wax masks would be less obtuse than her husband was showing himself at the moment.
“Well, just as you say, dear,” Saxa said. “Ah–“
“Take your guests to the dining room, my lord and husband,” Hedia said gently. She wondered if her smile looked as brittle as it felt. “Lady Alphena and I will join you very shortly.”
Leaving Manetho to take charge of chivvying the men to the outside dining area, Hedia herself strode briskly to the back stairs. These were intended for the servants, but Hedia needed to get to her daughter as quickly as possible. It wouldn’t have done to rush up the main stairs ahead of three senators, and she certainly wasn’t going to wait until they had shuffled in chatty, leisurely fashion to the couches set on the roof above the black-and-gold hall, with a good view of the central courtyard.
A quick-witted footman saw Hedia coming and sprinted ahead of her, bellowing up the back staircase in a Thracian accent, “Hop to, you wankers! Her ladyship’s on her way!”
Hedia grinned wryly. She’d been announced in more gracious and mellifluous terms, but this had the merits of being short and extremely clear. When she got a moment to catch her breath, she would learn who the footman was and tell Agrippinus to promote him for initiative.
The stairs weren’t clear when Hedia reached them, but servants who had been lounging there only moments before were scattering like a covey of quail. She lifted the skirts of her long tunic in both hands and trotted up.
Part of her was appalled to think of how embarrassing it would be if she tripped on her hem and broke her neck. Another part–the part that made her giggle as her slippers pattered on the plain brick steps–realized smugly that if she did break her neck, her own problems were over.
Alphena was leaning over the mezzanine railing, watching Tardus’ entourage being escorted toward the kitchen. Hedia approached her from behind, swallowing her initial flash of irritation. Florina and a bevy of other maids fluttered around the girl, afraid to warn her that Hedia had arrived but obviously afraid of what would happen if they didn’t say something. Agrippinus stood by the public stairs, bowing as Saxa and his guests passed in their stately fashion.
“Come, daughter,” Hedia said in calm, cultured tones. “Let’s get you ready for dinner so that their lordships don’t feel that you’re insulting them. Syra–“
She turned her head slightly. Her maid, as expected, stood at her elbow; she panted, probably more from nervousness than the exertion.
“–go to my suite and fetch my jewelry box. I’ll pick out pieces for Lady Alphena while she’s getting into her synthesis.”
“I’ve set out the violet one, your ladyship,” Florina said. “It would be ever so nice with a set of amethyst ear drops.”
Hedia looked at the maid. She whined like a stray cat, but that was a good suggestion.
“Yes,” she said. “I believe I have a pair that will work.” Then, to Alphena, “Come dear. This is really quite important.”
Alphena allowed herself to be guided back into her room by a gentle touch, though she looked back over her shoulder once. Hedia wasn’t approaching the limits of her patience because she couldn’t allow herself to lash out in these circumstances, but she was certainly finding the business trying.
The girl doesn’t understand. I must remember that the girl doesn’t understand.
“Mother, did you notice the servants with the senator who just came?” Alphena said.
Hedia had untied the simple sash as they entered the suite. Now she lifted the tunic over Alphena’s head, ignoring the girl’s squeak.
“Yes, dear,” Hedia said. “Now, be quiet for a moment why the family needs you at dinner as soon as possible.”
“I don’t see why–” Alphena said, her voice muffled until Hedia flung the tunic toward a corner of the room.
“Be quiet!” Hedia repeated. “The senator who arrived uninvited is Marcus Tardus. He is not your father’s friend. He–“
Florina and five other maids–unexpectedly junior to Florina, whom Alphena had suddenly chosen to make her permanent attendant–were holding the violet dinner dress and a variety of possible undergarments. They had no idea of how Lady Hedia would choose to display her daughter, and they were rightly worried at what would happen to them if they guessed wrong.
Alphena had flashed angry, but she had quickly controlled that. Now she radiated a mixture of concern and defiance.
She’s learned to trust me, Hedia thought. Thank Venus for that mercy.
“Tardus announced that he would leave because he saw that your father and his senatorial friend wanted to have a private meeting,” Hedia said. “Do you understand what that means?”
Alphena’s mouth dropped open. “But that’s crazy!” she said, showing–rather to her mother’s surprise–that she did understand the threat. “Saxa wouldn’t plot against the Emperor. He’d never do that!”
“No, he wouldn’t,” Hedia agreed grimly, “but it’s very hard to prove that you haven’t done something. I prefer not to take that chance, so I invited Tardus to join us.”
The notion of wealthy senators plotting to overthrow the Emperor might not seem crazy to someone who didn’t know Saxa personally; and the Emperor must certainly was crazy on the subject of possible threats to his life and government. A whisper in the wrong ear–which could be any ear in Carce nowadays–could mean a visit from the German Bodyguard and a quick execution in the basement of their barracks.
“But me?” Alphena said. She wasn’t protesting now, and her curiosity was reasonable.
“One moment,” Hedia said. To the maid holding the black bandeau and briefs she said, “Do you have gray?”
The maid–all the maids–looked stricken.
“Never mind,” Hedia snapped. “Syra, bring a set of mine, they’ll do in a pinch. And bring Lucilla too. There isn’t time to do the hair properly, but Lucilla can manage something.”
“Your ladyship, they’re here,” Syra said. “The clothes too.”
Hedia looked around in surprise. At least a dozen of her personal servants–the line extended out onto the walkway–waited with undergarments ranging from pale gray-blue to dark gray, plus two caskets of jewelry and apparently–this was beyond the doorway–wraps and stoles.
She chirped a laugh despite the tension. Her staff had instantly realized what Hedia had forgotten: Alphena’s wardrobe contained nothing suitable for formal occasions except the silk dinner tunics that Abinnaeus had delivered the day before. Why, up until a moment ago the girl had been wearing a single knee-length tunic as though she were a field hand!
“Yes,” Hedia said aloud. She pointed to the palest gray combination and said, “Those.”
Maids began to dress the girl. Her staff had taken over from Alphena’s. Florina seemed briefly to have considered arguing. That wouldn’t have been a good idea, because Hedia would have welcomed a way to reduce tension.