Out Of The Waters — Snippet 41
“If I may, Saxa,” Tardus said, “I’ll borrow this tube for a day or two. I’d like to compare it with–“
“Lord Saxa!” Pandareus said. Varus was as startled as if a squeak of protest had come from the carved olive he was lifting to his mouth. “I know it isn’t my place to speak, but I would appreciate it–“
“It most certainly isn’t the place of a snivelling Greek to inject himself into a discussion between senators of Carce!” Tardus said. He bent his hands to his breast, still clutching the murrhine.
“Father, you mustn’t let go of that thing,” Alphena said in a carrying tone. “I have an idea for the most darling little ornament for my hair. I’m becoming–“
She rose gracefully to her feet. Standing, she blocked Tardus’ natural path from the dining alcove.
“–very much the fine lady, don’t you think?”
She fluffed her hair with the fingertips of her left hand. She really is quite attractive, Varus realized in surprise.
Alphena reached for the murrhine tube; Tardus hunched back, scowling fiercely. Priscus was leaning forward to whisper to Saxa on the adjacent couch.
Varus wondered if he should stand. Is Alphena going to kick him in the crotch? No, that’s more the sort of thing that mother—
Hedia rose and stepped forward from her chair, her right hand outstretched. Alexandros and his attendants slid out of her way like cork dolls bobbing in the wake of a trireme.
“I’m so sorry, Marcus Tardus,” she said in a cheery voice. “I know you’ve heard that our daughter is a shameless tomboy and terribly spoiled, but my lord and I love her very much. I’m afraid I’ll have to take the bauble now. Perhaps when fashions change, dear Alphena will allow you to borrow it.”
Tardus stiffened, then sagged and opened his hands. Varus knew from experience that his stepmother had a stare like a dagger point when she chose to use it.
Hedia took the tube, then replaced it on its velvet bed and closed the box. Alphena stepped aside. Tardus scuttled past her, then walked briskly toward the stairs with his waiting attendants falling in ahead and behind him. The remaining diners watched him go in silence.
Hedia embraced Alphena. “We do love you, daughter,” she said. “You are such a clever young lady!
Corylus picked up the cornelwood staff that leaned beside the door during daytime. When he went out at night, he carried it.
Carce at night was similar to the forests on the German side of the Rhine. A healthy young man who kept his eyes and ears open probably wouldn’t have any trouble; but if trouble did crop up, you’d best have something besides your bare hands available to deal with it.
“Sure you wouldn’t like me to come along, lad?” Pulto said. “I wouldn’t mind stretching my legs.”
That was a lie. Corylus knew that the old servant’s knees had been giving him trouble, and the last thing he needed was to lace his hobnailed sandals back on and tramp over the stone-paved streets with a youth who wasn’t ready to settle in for the night.
“Keep your wife company, old friend,” he said. “I’m just going to sit in Demetrius’ yard and relax for a bit. I’ve got a declamation to work on, you know.”
“Wouldn’t you–” Anna said.
Corylus raised his left hand palm out to stop her. “Little Mother,” he said, “I’m not hungry. If I get hungry, I’ll have a sausage roll at the Cockerel on the corner. Don’t worry, you two.”
He slipped out the door quickly. Back in the suite, his servants were arguing about the cook shop’s sausages. Pulto held that regardless of what Spica, the owner, put in them, they tasted better than a lot of what he or the boy either one had eaten on the Danube.
A pair of beggars were huddled on the second floor landing. They were regulars; they scrunched to the side when they saw who was coming down and one of them, an old soldier, croaked, “Bless you, Master Corylus.”
Corylus passed with a nod. Anna had probably seen to it that the fellow had eaten today. He was a former Batavian auxiliary whose Latin was still slurred with the marshes at the mouth of the Rhine; but he’d been places that Pulto and the Old Master had been, and he wouldn’t go hungry while scraps remained in the suite.
Corylus stepped into the street and took his bearings. Someone moved in the shadows opposite; a quick waggle of the staff let the moonlight shimmer on the pale hardwood. The movement ceased.
Smiling, Corylus strode westward, toward the center of Carce. Half a block down, a large jobbing nursery filled a site large enough for an apartment block. A crew was unloading root-balled rose bushes from an ox-drawn wagon.
It would have been an easy enough task if the roses had been pruned back severely, but wealthy customers didn’t want to wait till next year for their plantings to bloom. By definition, anybody who owned a house with a garden in Carce was wealthy. The workmen were cursing as canes whipped and caught them unexpectedly as they moved the bushes.
“Where’s Demetrius?” Corylus said as he approached.
The man on his side of the tailgate turned his head and snarled, “We’re closed! Come back in the bloody morning!”
He was a new purchase. The thorn slash across his forehead was still oozing despite his attempt to blot it with the sleeve of his tunic.
“You stupid sod, that’s Master Corylus!” his partner said. “Do you want the back flayed off you too? Go on back, sir. The master’s working on the accounts back in the shed, like usual.”
Corylus walked through the crowded lot, feeling the tension recede. Not disappear; it was still waiting out in the night. But the presence of bushes and saplings hedged him away from the unseen dangers, the way they had insulated him from the pressures of Carce when he first came here to take classes under Pandareus of Athens.
He wasn’t a peasant who grew up in a rural hamlet: the military bases of his youth were crowded, boisterous, and brutal. Legionaries lived as tightly together as the poor on the top floors of tenements in Carce.
But the total number of people gathered into this one city had stunned Corylus. The entire army which guarded the frontiers of the Empire was about 300,000 men, including the auxiliaries who were not citizens. There were far more residents in Carce than that.
A single lamp burned in the office, one end of the shed along the back of the lot where tools and shade plants were stored. Demetrius, a Syrian Greek, was usually there; Corylus suspected he slept in the office occasionally. He had married his wife while they both were slaves, but with freedom and wealth she had become increasingly concerned about status and appearances. Demetrius simply loved plants and having his hands in dirt, which made time spent in his luxurious apartment a strain.
“Granus?” Demetrius called. “Have you got those bushes–“
“It’s just me visiting,” Corylus said as he stepped through the doorway.
Demetrius grinned over the writing desk at which he worked standing. Two clerks were reading aloud invoices written in ink on potsherds; he was jotting the totals down on papyrus.
“Oh, you’re always welcome, Publius,” Demetrius said. “Say, I’ve got some apple grafts I’d like you to cast an eye over. I didn’t have a chance to see them when they were delivered, and I’m not sure about the technique. They’re end-butted on the twigs. You’ve got the best eye for how a tree’s doing that I’ve ever seen.”
I should, Corylus thought. My mother was a hazel sprite.
Aloud he said, “I’ll take a look, sure. I just wanted to sit with something green for a while and work on a declamation. Is that all right?”
“Any time, boy, any time,” Demetrius said cheerfully. “Say, you wouldn’t like a pomegranate tree at a good price, would you? I had an order for six, but there was only room for five in the garden when I delivered them and they sent one back. You could have it for my cost.”
Corylus laughed. “I don’t think it’d fit on a third-floor balcony, my friend,” he said. “It’s a bit crowded with potted herbs as it is.”