Out Of The Waters — Snippet 38
“As for why you and I will be present,” Hedia said, feeling herself relax as her staff transformed Alphena from hoyden to young lady, “well, perhaps we needn’t be, but this isn’t a situation that I want to be blasé about. Nobody has ever imagined that I give a hoot about any government official–“
She paused, considered, and went on with a wicked grin, “Except in some cases for what they have between their legs. And you, my dear, have the reputation of being even less political than I am.”
“Oh,” said Alphena as the synthesis drifted over her like a violet cloud. “I guess I see.”
Maids cinched the thin silk under her bosom. She looked at Hedia and with a perfectly straight face and said, “I’ll be sure to talk to Tardus about the fine points of swordsmanship, then.”
Hedia’s expression froze. Then she realized the girl was joking and burst into laughter.
“Here,” she said, extending her arms to Alphena. “Hold me and raise your feet one at a time so that they can put your slippers on.”
The girl’s feet were too wide for Hedia’s shoes, but she had a pair of black cut-work sandals which would do. I really must get her properly outfitted, tomorrow if possible!
“Then as soon as Florina–“
The maid had done a creditable job in caring for her mistress, given her limited resources. Hedia was making a point of not denigrating her in front of the other servants.
“–puts in the amethyst ear drops, we’ll be ready to go.”
Though Hedia hadn’t expected to eat with her husband tonight, she had dressed to greet the guests. That was a blessing, though she had enough experience with throwing on–or throwing back on–formal clothing in a hurry that she could have managed.
Alphena raised her other foot. “But mother?” she said. “Those men with Tardus? I’ve seen them before.”
“Yes,” Hedia said, frowning slightly at the return of a matter of no importance. “They were with him in the theater. I noticed them at the time.”
She stepped back and looked at her daughter, then beamed. “You look lovely, dear. Just lovely! Now, let’s join the men.”
Alphena followed without protest, but as they reached the main staircase she said, “Mother, I’ve seen them somewhere else than the theater. And I don’t think I like them.”
Alphena was excited to be dressed up like this–like a fine lady. She wouldn’t have admitted that to a soul, certainly not to her stepmother and only in the very depths of her heart to herself, but she knew it was true.
“I don’t see why I have to wear such a long tunic, though,” she muttered to Hedia as they walked arm-in-arm down the mezzanine corridor toward the main stairs.
“Tush, dear,” Hedia said easily. “Be thankful that you’re not a man and having to wear a toga. And besides–“
She glanced to the side, assessing Alphena with the dispassionate precision of a trainer judging a coffle of gladiators.
“–you look quite nice in a long tunic. You move gracefully, and the sway of the fabric sets that off.”
Alphena glowed with pleasure, though that embarrassed her. “Ah…,” she said. “Ah, thank you, mother.”
They reached the staircase. There was a flurry of motion within the cloud of servants surrounding them. Two maids snatched the front hem of Hedia’s synthesis–it was a white as pure as sunlight on marble–and lifted it slightly as they skipped up the steps ahead of her; two more raised the back.
Oh! thought Alphena. She hadn’t considered the difficulties of going up or down stairs in a garment that broke at her ankles. I could have tripped and fallen! Oh, gods, that would have been awful!
Then she wondered if Corylus would be dining with them. That thought made her so angry that she glared. She wasn’t really looking at anything, but one of the maids her lifting the front of her skirt began to whimper. The girl didn’t stumble or let the fabric slip, but the sound brought Alphena back to an awareness of her surroundings.
Servants had set poles supporting vertical wicker lattices on the west side of the dining alcove. Lamps would be necessary before the meal was over, but for the moment the shades were keeping the sun out of the eyes of the diners on the central, west-facing couch. Priscus, the chief guest, reclined there, and a place for Tardus had been added below him.
Saxa was at the head of the left-hand couch, adjacent to Priscus. Below him were Varus and the teacher, Pandareus.
Corylus wasn’t present. There was no reason he should have been. It was just a possibility, an obvious thing to wonder about, that was all.
There was no bench on the right end. Instead, two chairs had been placed there with little side tables to hold the dishes or cup that the diner wasn’t using at the moment.
Alphena looked at the arrangement. Because I’m a girl!
“I prefer to recline at dinner,” she said to the dining room steward. She didn’t know his name; he was plump and had a touch of red in his thinning hair. “Set me a place on the couch beside Lord Tardus.”
“My dear?” said her father, looking up with a startled-rabbit expression. “I think you’d, that is–“
“Nonsense, dear heart,” Hedia said cheerfully to her husband. “There’s nothing improper about a lady reclining at dinner. I just prefer to sit upright.”
Turning to the steward she said, “Borysthenes, remove one of the chairs and set a place for my daughter on the couch.”
Servants were already bustling; when Lady Hedia gave directions, you obeyed or you wished you had. To the table generally she said, “I’m sure their lordships will be pleased to be joined by youth and beauty.”
Priscus, twisting his body to better look toward the two women, chuckled. “If I were a great deal younger, your ladyship,” he said, “I’d be tempted to show you just how much I would appreciate that opportunity. Younger or drunker.”
Hedia laughed like a string of little silver chimes. “Perhaps a trifle younger, Marcus dear,” she said.
Alphena settled onto the end of the couch, what would have been the middle couch if there had been the normal three. She took most of her meals in her suite, sitting upright. She’d only complained because her father had directed her to sit instead of reclining, and now she realized–as an instant’s thought should have told her–that it was her stepmother, not Saxa, who had decided that.
She’d seen an insult where there hadn’t been one. She had to stop doing that and not pick unnecessary fights.
Alphena grinned. She wasn’t sure what the vision in the theater meant, but it seemed likely that it involved enough fighting for even the most pugnacious of young ladies.
The servants had finished washing the guests’ feet, and the first round of wine was being served from the mixing table. “We’re having it three to one, Hedia,” said Priscus with heavy gallantry. “I fear that if it were stronger, I’d find myself too ensorcelled by your beauty to remember the proprieties.”
Hedia and–a moment later–Saxa laughed. Tardus sipped his wine and said, “You mention sorcery, Marcus Tardus. Were you in the Theater of Pompey for our host’s gift, The Conquest of Lusitania by Hercules? For it certainly seemed to me that the impresario was a magician to have achieved those effects. Quite marvelous, didn’t you all think?”
Priscus turned to look at his neighbor on the couch. “I wasn’t present, no,” he said, “but I’ve certainly heard enthusiastic descriptions. I suppose–“
He gestured toward the teacher with a broad grin.
“–that the impresario was one of you clever Greeks, eh Pandareus, my friend?”
“So I’ve been told,” Pandareus said blandly.
“He was indeed, Lord Priscus,” Varus said, sounding calmly interested. “Sometimes I wish I were more of an engineer so that I could understand such wonders, but my talents seem to limited to literature. And even in literature I’m only a spectator, I have learned.”