Out Of The Waters — Snippet 45
Alphena’s gesture seemed unduly melodramatic, but it had certainly worked. Soldiers learned to appreciate tactics that worked, because you didn’t have to be on the frontier very long before you had plenty of experience with things that didn’t work.
The garden had three stone benches. Corylus sat on the end of the one nearest the peach tree. When nothing had happened immediately, he said in a quiet voice, “Persica, I’d like to speak with you, if you don’t mind.”
There was a further long pause. Well, it seemed long. Then the peach nymph appeared, seemingly from behind the trunk.
She hesitated. Corylus patted the bench beside him; she settled onto it sinuously.
“I didn’t have anything to do with the men who took the old fellow,” Persica said; her tone was a defensive whine. “I know what I did before, to you and the little trollop who fancies you, but I didn’t do this.”
“I didn’t imagine you did, mistress,” Corylus said. “But because of where you’re standing, I thought you might have seen something.”
He paused, but the nymph didn’t volunteer a reply. “In fact I’m sure you saw something,” he said. “Who took my friend Pandareus?”
The nymph looked at him sidelong. “Will you be nice to me if I tell you?” she said in a tiny voice.
“Tell me out of the goodness of your heart, Persica,” Corylus said calmly, as though he were speaking to a child. That was true, in a way: dryads were as quick and light as children in their enthusiasms and their malice.
The nymph sniffed and made a face. “You humans,” she said. “I have no heart.”
She met Corylus’ eyes. “But I get very lonely. You’re hard, though, so you don’t care.”
“Pandareus is my friend, Persica,” Corylus said.
“What would I know about friends?” the nymph said. “But it doesn’t matter, I don’t matter. Anyway, it was the attendants of the old man who came with the three sorcerers. The sorcerers were in charge; I think they’re telling the old man what to do, too.”
“Sorcerers?” Corylus said. “And what old man? Do you mean Senator Priscus? He was coming to dinner, but not with sorcerers.”
“Not Priscus,” Persica said petulantly. “The other senator, the one named Tardus.”
She slid closer on the bench. “Can’t you at least hold me?” she said. “I’d like to be held. I don’t think it’s going to be very long now before the end.”
Corylus put his arm around her waist. She snuggled against him as though she were warm liquid.
Why would Tardus have dined with Saxa? But perhaps Saxa had invited his colleague to make amends for searching his house. And the sorcerers–
“Persica?” he said. “The sorcerers you mentioned? Were they the dark men with Senator Tardus? One of them had a stuffed bird in his hair when I saw them in the theater.”
“Hold me,” the nymph said. “That’s right. Your arm is so strong.”
Corylus didn’t speak, but his muscles stiffened with frustration. Persica said, “I suppose. A Carthaginian and the other two from the Western Isles. They’re all very old.”
“But why should they have taken Pandareus?” Corylus said. He didn’t doubt what the nymph had told him, but it came as a complete surprise. The pieces of information were piled on top of one another, none of them fitting with the others or with anything that Corylus and his friends had known before.
“How would I know why humans should do anything?” Persica said, treating the question as though he had meant her to answer it. She took his right hand in her left and moved it to her breast. “I’m so lonely.”
“No, dear,” Corylus said, firmly removing his hand. He kissed the nymph on the forehead, then stood. “You’ll have company coming soon, but I’m not at all comfortable with this.”
The nymph rose supplely, looking as though she was about to plead. She saw his face and instead made a moue.
“Company?” she said. “Are they going to plant another pear?”
“A pomegranate,” said Corylus. “She should arrive in the morning.”
“Oh, well,” Persica said. She sounded contemptuous, but her expression seemed speculative if not unreservedly positive. “Even a pomegranate is better than no one, I suppose.”
Corylus reached for the gate latch. He grinned: he hadn’t bothered to slide the bar through its staples, not with Alphena outside with a bare sword.
As he started to pull the gate open, there was a hoarse shout from the house. Over it, cutting through the night like a jagged razor, came a woman’s scream.
He thought it was Hedia screaming.
Ordinarily Hedia allowed–directed–Syra, her chief maid, to deal with her hair. Tonight it had been made up for her husband’s formal dinner, however, which had required the services of three specialists. Removing the pad onto which the hair was teased, and the combs and pins which anchored and embellished the waves, was just as complicated as the creation had been.
A librarian read aloud notes which friends had sent to Hedia; they were mostly froth discussing gossip and parties, past or planned. A clerk stood at a writing desk of Celtic bronzework, a tracery of serpents which twined in curves too complex to follow with the eye. His brush was poised over a sheet of thin birchwood, smoothed into a glossy writing surface to take down Hedia’s replies.
There were low voices in the hall outside her suite. The reader stumbled over two more words and stopped without Hedia directing him to. She raised her eyes to him without moving her head: he stood transfixed, his glance trembling from his mistress to whoever had come to the doorway behind her.
It might be a ravening beast, Hedia thought, letting a dry smile quirk her lips. But a beast would probably be noisier. Therefore it’s more likely that—
“Your ladyship,” Syra announced, “Lord Saxa requests an interview with you.”
Hedia thought that most of the hardware was out of her hair. Regardless, if she continued to sit with her back toward her husband, she would appear to be sending a message which was quite the opposite of how she really felt about the dear man.
“Step back, girls,” she said calmly, gesturing to her sides. If she got up abruptly, she was likely to be jabbed with a pin. Flaying the back off the hairdresser responsible wouldn’t make the jab any less uncomfortable.
When she was sure that her staff was out of the way, Hedia rose smoothly, turned, and bowed to Saxa. He looked flustered, the poor thing.
“Ah,” he said. “Your ladyship, I’m, ah…. I came to apologize, and to thank you from the marrow of my bones.”
“You bless me with your presence, my dear heart,” Hedia said, walking to him with her arm out. She hooked her hand gently around his neck. He still wore his dinner tunic. “Come and sit with me, dear one.”
Hedia’s clerical staff trickled out of the suite, mixing with Saxa’s considerable entourage which milled in the hallway. None of the servants had attempted to enter with Saxa: the four footmen on Hedia’s staff stared at potential interlopers, but the real threat that kept them out was her own temper.
Her reputation had preceded her when Saxa brought his new wife home. His household hadn’t forced Hedia to prove the truth of the stories about how she dealt with disrespectful servants; but they were true, or anyway enough of them were.
The hairdressers didn’t leave the room because their job wasn’t quite finished, but they clustered with their equipment at a small side-table on an outside corner. The sun had set, and stars gleamed through the clerestory windows.
Syra stood with her arms akimbo, glancing alternately toward the door, the hairdressers, and her mistress. Hedia, catching the sequence from the corner of her eye, noticed that the glare directed at Syra’s fellow servants became a meekly downcast expression when it fell on her ladyship.
As it bloody well had better.
“Marcus Priscus explained that Tardus was threatening me,” Saxa said. He allowed Hedia to sit him on the couch beside her, but he sat looking at his hands in his lap. “Threatening all of us, I suppose. I suppose you think I’m an awful fool not to have seen that. I, well, you saved us all, your ladyship.”
“I think you are a very sweet, decent man, my husband,” Hedia said, kissing his cheek. “The world we live in isn’t nearly as nice as you are, but that’s not a reason to reproach yourself.”
She paused, then kissed him on the lips. “Don’t ever be sorry that you’re so decent!” she said fiercely.
She thought of sending out the servants, but she didn’t want to frighten Saxa away. It was much like coaxing a sparrow to take a breadcrumb from her fingers; though he seemed to enjoy the exercise as much as any other man once he got properly started.
“I would be lost without you, my wife,” Saxa muttered. “I don’t know how I got along before I married you.”
Instead of answering–even in the depths of her heart, Hedia wasn’t sure whether the value she brought into Saxa’s life was worth the stress which she undeniably also brought with it–Hedia kissed him again and leaned closer. She heard Syra chivying the other servants out with harsh whispers. Hedia would reward the maid for her initiative… but if Syra hadn’t responded without direction, she would have been demoted to the scullery, or worse.
“Dear heart?” Saxa said. “Do you think…?”
“Hush, my dear lord,” Hedia said as she lifted the skirt of his tunic and fondled his genitals. She would have preferred the bed because it was wider, but she knew from experience that it took very little to break her husband’s mood. She knelt before him and took his penis into her mouth.
Saxa mumbled something, though Hedia wasn’t sure that the sounds were words. Matters were proceeding as she had planned; well, as she had hoped.
She reached up with one hand to unclasp the brooch pinning the right shoulder of her tunic, a gold lion’s head with polished garnet eyes. She heard the whisper of slippers; Syra expertly unlatched the brooch, then untied the bandeau holding Hedia’s breasts as the tunic spilled to her knees on the floor.
Hedia rose, kicking off her slippers as she loosed her gee string. “Now lean back, my lord,” she said, guiding Saxa around on the couch so that his whole torso would be supported. “Let me do the work tonight.”
She lowered herself onto Saxa, pleased to find that he was rigid enough to enter her without additional coaxing. For a moment she gave herself up to the pleasure of the moment, wriggling her hips gently.
Syra gasped. The sound was little more than an intake of breath, but it would still get her a whipping shortly.
Saxa shouted and tried to sit up. His eyes were wild and he was looking at something in the room.
Hedia turned her head. The three glassy figures from her nightmare stood around her, closing in. She screamed.
The figures gripped her by the arms and waist. Hedia continued to scream as she and her captors fell out of the world.