Out Of The Waters — Snippet 46
Alphena stood in the courtyard as Saxa’s frightened household scurried and chattered around her. With her forearms crossed before her, she scowled. She didn’t know what to do. While she was too intelligent to do something pointless just to be acting, it made her furious to stand here in the midst of chaos.
People running to and fro would have stumbled into Alphena in the bad light and confusion, were it not for the squad of footmen which Florina had gathered about her mistress. They weren’t Alphena’s own servants–at least she didn’t think they were; she didn’t even recognize the faces of most–but they seemed pleased to stand and glare at anybody who came too near.
A few of them were even armed, more or less. Two had iron rods that were probably turnspits from the kitchen, and one fellow with drooping moustaches and a shaved scalp was holding a decorative marble post which he’d pulled from the bed of peonies beside them. The head of Hermes that topped the post made it an effective mace.
Alphena found herself smiling. The men around her were happy because she had given them purpose in the midst of confusion: they were guarding the young mistress. Well, Florina had given them purpose. It was time and past time that the young mistress found a purpose for herself.
“Florina,” she said crisply, “who was with my mother when she disappeared? Really there, I mean. Ah, besides my father.”
“Syra, your ladyship,” the maid said. “She was the only one inside the bedroom, though there were plenty in the hall.”
Florina added with a sneer, “To hear some of them talk, they were all standing around the bed, but everybody knows that isn’t the way her ladyship behaved. Your mother, I mean.”
“Very good,” Alphena said, trying to keep her tone firm but detached. “Florina, bring Syra to me at once.”
“Yes, your ladyship!” Florina said. She patted two footmen on the shoulder to move them out of the way, then scampered toward the stairs.
Alphena had thought she might need to coax or threaten the girl to make her obey; Hedia’s chief maid might, after all, be with Saxa or Agrippinus, which would make the task of dragging her away potentially dangerous. Apparently the opportunity to give her recent superior orders in Lady Alphena’s name was worth the risk of trouble with the master or his major domo.
Varus had gone upstairs. Alphena didn’t know whether he was just looking over mother’s room or if he was speaking to father. She didn’t think either of those things would do any good; certainly she wouldn’t help by tagging along in her brother’s footsteps.
Corylus, Lenatus, and Pulto–who had arrived just before Hedia began to scream–were talking to the doorman and the servants who had been in the entranceway and office at the time. No one had broken into the house through the back gate, so they were checking to see what had happened in front.
Nothing, obviously; this hadn’t been an attack by ordinary human enemies like the ones who had earlier spirited away the teacher. The former soldiers hadn’t been able to accept that, but Alphena didn’t see why Corylus was wasting his time with them.
Not that Alphena was doing anything useful, or anything at all for that matter.
Mother would know what to do! Which meant that she had to find Hedia.
Florina reappeared, tugging Syra along by the wrist. Hedia’s maid wore a stunned look. She wasn’t fighting Florina’s guidance; she didn’t even appear to be aware of it.
“Here she is, your ladyship!” Florina said triumphantly. “She was just standing in Lady Hedia’s room as if she didn’t have a thing to do!”
She didn’t, Alphena thought. Aloud she said, “Syra, describe the men who took my mother away.”
The maid’s numb expression suddenly melted into misery and tears. Syra threw her hands to her face and began to blubber, “I didn’t I didn’t I d-didn’t–“
“I’ll make her talk!” said Florina. She jerked Syra’s left hand down with her own and cocked her right arm back to slap the cheek she had just uncovered.
“No!” said Alphena, thrusting Florina aside to underscore the command. Though if the girl hadn’t been so enthusiastic, I might have slapped Syra myself.
“Syra,” Alphena said, “nobody thinks you did anything wrong. Tell me about the men who took my mother.”
Syra swallowed. She turned slightly toward Alphena but didn’t raise her eyes. “They weren’t men,” she mumbled. “They were all shiny like glass. They just….”
She stopped and swallowed. “I was standing by the alcove where I sleep like I, well, like usual when the mistress is, well, you know. I’d put out all the lamps out but the one beside me on the wall because the master is kinda skittish sometimes. Anyway.”
Syra took a deep breath. She was talking more easily now that she’d gotten started.
“They were just there, these three statues, I thought they were,” she said. “But they moved. They couldn’t come through the door, and the windows have grates besides being just under the roof. I dropped the towel I was holding for afterwards and I guess I said something. The master shouted and her ladyship turned. I don’t know if she started to get up but they, the statues, grabbed her.”
Syra forced both fists against her mouth. Past her knuckles she whispered, “They fell, it was like. They just fell into the air, her ladyship and the statues holding her, spinning and getting smaller but they weren’t going down. They were going away. And they were gone and the master was shouting and everybody came in from the hall and they were gone!”
The maid began to blubber again. Alphena made a moue: Syra’s behavior infuriated her. She couldn’t really blame the woman, but if she had to listen to more of this whining, Alphena was going to slap her just to shut her up.
“Syra,” she said. “Go back to your cubby and stay there until morning. Go on, now!”
Florina took the other maid by the shoulders and turned her around, then shoved her out of Alphena’s protective circle. The push wasn’t brutal, but it was more forceful than necessary.
“Next,” Alphena said, “where’s Agrippinus? Oh, never mind, there’s Callistus. Callistus, come here!”
Her mind had direction now. She was proceeding logically, with a feeling of relief because she was proceeding.
The deputy steward had just come from the office. He heard his name and looked around with an angry expression to see who was calling him.
Alphena waved imperiously. That might not have been sufficient, but a Po-Valley Gaul from her escort bellowed, “Callistus! Get your fat Syrian ass over here! Lady Alphena wants to talk to you!”
The deputy steward’s expression went from being furious to being terrified in an eyeblink–the length of time it took him to get past the insulting nature of the summons to what the words actually meant. He came over to Alphena as quickly as his feet could mince.
“Your ladyship?” he said. “Is there something wrong? I assure you–“
“Hush,” said Alphena. “Find one of the clerks and a runner for me. I want to send a letter to–oh!”
Anna couldn’t read and write. Her husband could, but Pulto was here already with Corylus. And besides, Anna wouldn’t be able to–
“Your l-ladyship?” said the frightened deputy steward.
“The double litter is still here at the house, isn’t it?” Alphena said, making her decision as the words came out of her mouth. “Get it around to the front with the crew immediately. I’m going to see Master Corylus’ nurse at his home.”
She gestured to the servants standing around her. “These men will be my escort,” she said. “And find Iberus for a guide, he’s been to the apartment block before.”
“You should be talking to Nestor,” Callistus said. “The litters are–“
He closed his mouth and swallowed when he saw Alphena’s face contort.
“Want me to pop him one, your ladyship?” the big Gaul asked cheerfully.
“Let him see how those pretty teeth feel going down his throat?”
“I’ll see to it at once, your ladyship!” Callistus said. He turned, shouting, “Nestor! Spartax! I need you!”
“Your ladyship?” Florina said. “The regular litter hasn’t been taken back to the warehouse either, from when your father was using it. The little one would be handier if you’re going alone.”
Alphena looked at the girl. “I’m going alone,” she said. “But I’m bringing Anna back with me.”
She took a deep breath and added what she hadn’t intended to say to anybody but Anna herself. “When Anna gets here, I’m going to have her help me to find Hedia. Because Hedia came to save me.”
Corylus found Varus standing in his stepmother’s bedroom, staring moodily at the at the wall. The painting of Neptune and Amphitrite in a conch-shell chariot being drawn by sea horses was attractive–under other circumstances, Corylus might have spent some time examining it himself–but he doubted that his friend was really thinking about art at the moment.
Dozens of servants were in the suite, chattering, shuffling, and peering closely at the furniture. As Corylus entered, a maid opened a wardrobe cabinet, stared at the contents, and closed the wicker door just in time for a footman to open it and repeat the process.
“Gaius?” he said quietly. Then, when Varus didn’t react, he said in a louder voice, “Gaius Varus?”
Varus turned; his look of fierce intensity became welcoming. He said, “Publius, I’m glad to see you. Have you had any luck, ah…?”
He apparently didn’t know how to end the question. Corylus smiled faintly; that was understandable, since framing the questions was the really difficult problem.
“Perhaps,” Corylus said. “Is there a place we can talk privately?”
“Right here, I think,” Varus said, “if Lenatus and your man–“
He gestured past Corylus to the pair of veterans who had followed him into the suite.
“–can clear the room and then stand in the hallway.”
Corylus looked over his shoulder. Lenatus grinned like a drillmaster–a position he had held with the Alaudae Legion–and bellowed, “All right, you pansies! On the orders of Lord Varus, out! Every bleeding one of you. And if my buddy Pulto and me don’t think you’re moving fast enough, you’re out the bleeding window!”
“And we won’t take the grating off first!” Pulto said.
Servants either looked up in shock or hunched and stared at the floor, but they moved with surprising unanimity toward the door. Corylus heard a few whines of complaint, but no one tried to argue.
Varus leaned close to Corylus and said, “Could they really do that? The windows are too high, aren’t they?”
Corylus grinned, remembering a fight he’d seen in a tavern in Moguntiacum. There were no windows, but openings under the peak of the high thatched roof allowed smoke to trickle out.
“I think they could,” he said. “But I don’t think it’ll come to that.”
Lenatus and Pulto were the last out of the suite. Before he banged the door behind him, the trainer looked back and grinned again.