Air and Darkness

Sneak Peek: Air and Darkness by David Drake

Air-and-Darkness Both a gripping independent novel and intriguing conclusion to the Books of the Elements (a four-volume set of fantasies set in Carce, an analog of ancient Rome), David Drake’s Air and Darkness is a complex journey through both real and magical places, set in a time when the supernatural is dominant. Battling magicians, spirits, gods, and forces from supernatural realities, soldier Corylus faces deadly dangers in a final battle not between good and evil, but in defense of logic and reality. Please enjoy this excerpt.

CHAPTER I

“Help us, Mother Matuta,” chanted Hedia as she danced sunwise in a circle with eleven women of the district. The priest Doclianus stood beside the altar in the center. It was of black local stones, crudely squared and laid without mortar—what you’d expect, forty miles from Carce and in the middle of nowhere.

“Help us, bringer of brightness! Help us, bringer of warmth!”

Hedia sniffed. Though the pre-dawn sky was light, it certainly hadn’t brought warmth.

The dance required that she turn around as she circled. Her long tunic was cinched up to free her legs, and she was barefoot.

She felt like a complete and utter fool. The way the woman immediately following in the circle—the wife of an estate manager—kept stepping on her with feet as horny as horse hooves tipped Hedia’s embarrassment very close to fury.

“Let no harm or danger, Mother, menace our people!”

The things I do to be a good mother, Hedia thought. Not that she’d had any children herself—she had much better uses for her body than to ruin it with childbirth!—but her current husband, Gaius Alphenus Saxa, had a seventeen-year-old son, Gaius Alphenus Varus, and a daughter, Alphena, a year younger.

A daughter that age would have been a trial for any mother, let alone a stepmother of twenty-three like Hedia. Alphena was a tomboy who had been allowed to dictate to the rest of the household until Saxa married his young third wife.

Nobody dictated to Hedia, and certainly not a slip of a girl who liked to dress up in gladiator’s armor and whack at a post with a weighted sword. There had been some heated exchanges between mother and daughter before Alphena learned that she wasn’t going to win by screaming threats anymore. Hedia was just as willing as her daughter to have a scene, and she’d been threatened too often by furious male lovers to worry about a girl with a taste for drama.

“Be satisfied with us, Mother of Brightness!” Hedia chanted, and the stupid cow stepped on her foot again.

A sudden memory flashed before Hedia and dissolved her anger so thoroughly that she would have burst out laughing if she hadn’t caught herself. Laughter would have disrupted the ceremony as badly as if she had turned and slapped her clumsy neighbor.

I’ve been in similar circumstances while wearing a lot less, Hedia thought. But I’d been drinking and the men were drunk, so until the next morning none of us really noticed how many bruises we were accumulating.

Hedia wasn’t sure that she’d do it all again; the three years since that party hadn’t turned her into a Vestal Virgin, but she’d learned discrimination. Still, she was very glad for the memory on this chill June morning.

“Help us, Mother Matuta! Help us! Help us!”

After the third “Help us,” Hedia faced the altar and jumped in the air as the priest had told her to do. The other dancers carried out some variation of that. Some jumped sooner, some leaped forward instead of remaining in place as they were supposed to, and the estate manager’s wife outdid herself by tripping and pitching headfirst toward the altar.

It would serve her right if she knocked her few brains out! Hedia thought; but that wasn’t true. Being clumsy and stupid wasn’t really worthy of execution. Not quite.

The flutist who had been blowing time for the dance on a double pipe halted. He bowed to the crowd as though he were performing in the theater, as he generally did. Normally the timekeeper would have been a rustic clapping sticks together or perhaps blowing a panpipe. Hedia had hired Daphnis, the current toast of Carce, for the task.

Daphnis had agreed to perform because Hedia was the wife of a senator and the current Governor of Lusitania—where his duties were being carried out by a competent administrator who needed the money and didn’t mind traveling to the Atlantic edge of Iberia. Saxa, though one of the richest men in the Republic, was completely disinterested in the power his wealth might have given him. His wife, however, had a reputation for expecting people to do as she asked and for punishing those who chose to do otherwise.

The priest Doclianus, a former slave, dropped a pinch of frankincense into the fire on the altar. “Accept this gift from Lady Hedia and your other worshipers, Mother Matuta,” he said, speaking clearly but with a Celtic accent. “Bless us and our crops for the coming year.”

“Bless us, Mother!” the crowd mumbled, closing the ceremony.

Hedia let out her breath. Syra, her chief maid, ran to her ahead of a pair of male servants holding their mistress’ shoes. “Lean on me, Your Ladyship!” Syra said, stepping close. Hedia put an arm around her shoulders and lifted one foot at a time.

The men wiped Hedia’s feet with silken cloths before slipping the shoes on expertly. They were body servants brought to Polymartium for this purpose, not the sturdier men who escorted Lady Hedia through the streets of Carce as well as outside the city, lest any common person touch her.

The whole purpose of Hedia’s present visit to the country was to demonstrate that she was part of the ancient rustic religion of Carce. The things I do as a mother’s duty! she repeated silently.

Varus joined her, slipping his bronze stylus away into its loop on the notebook of waxed boards on which he had been jotting notes. He seemed an ordinary young man, handsome enough—Hedia always noticed a man’s looks—not an athlete, but not soft, either. A glance didn’t suggest how extremely learned Varus was despite his youth, nor that he was extremely intelligent.

“The reference to me,” Hedia said, “wasn’t part of the ceremony as Doclianus had explained it. I suppose he added it on the spur of the moment.”

“I’ve already made a note of the usage,” Varus said, tapping his notebook in acknowledgment. “From my reading, it appears that a blood sacrifice—a pigeon or a kid—would have been made in former times, but of course imported incense would have been impossibly expensive for rural districts like this. I don’t think the form of the offering matters in a rite of this sort, do you? As it might if the ceremony was for Mars as god of war.”

“I’ll bow to your expertise,” Hedia said drily. There were scholars who were qualified to discuss questions of that sort with Varus—his teacher, Pandareus of Athens, and his friend, Publius Corylus, among them; but as best Hedia could see, even they seemed to defer to her son when he spoke on a subject he had studied.

When she married Saxa Hedia had expected trouble with the daughter. It was a surprise that both the children’s mother and Saxa’s second wife, the mother’s sister, had ignored their responsibilities so completely—letting a noblewoman play at being a gladiator!—but it was nothing Hedia couldn’t handle.

Varus, however, had been completely outside Hedia’s experience. The boy wasn’t a drunk, a rake, or a mincing aesthete as so many of his age and station were. Hedia’s first husband, Gaius Calpurnius Latus, had been all three of those things and a nasty piece of work besides.

Whereas Varus was a philosopher, a pleasant enough fellow who preferred books to people. That was almost as unseemly for the son of a wealthy senator as Alphena’s sword fighting was. Philosophy tended to make people question the legitimacy of the government. The Emperor, who was that government, had every intention of dying in bed, because all those who had questioned his right to rule had been executed in prison.

Even worse, Varus had set his heart on becoming a great poet. Hedia was no judge of poetry—Homer and Vergil were simply names to her—but Varus himself was a very good judge, and he had embarrassed himself horribly with the disaster of his own public reading. Indeed, Hedia would have been worried that embarrassment might have led to suicide—Varus was a very serious youth—had not a magic disrupted the reading and the world itself.

In the aftermath, Varus had given up composing poetry and was instead compiling information on the ancient religion of Carce, an equally pointless exercise, in Hedia’s mind, but one he appeared to have a talent for. This shrine was on the land from which the Hedia family had sprung, and they had been the ceremony’s patron for centuries. Her only personal acquaintance with the rite had come when an aunt had brought her here as an eight-year-old.

Hedia had volunteered to bring Varus to the ceremony from a sense of duty. His enthusiastic thanks had shown her that she had done the right thing. Doing your duty was always the right thing.

“Oh, Your Ladyship!” cried a stocky woman rushing toward them. Minimus, a big Galatian in Hedia’s escort, moved to block her, but the woman evaded him by throwing herself prostrate at Hedia’s feet. “It was such an honor to dance with you. You dance like a butterfly, like gossamer in the sunshine!”

Light dawned: the estate manager’s wife. The heavy-footed cow.

“Arise, my good woman,” Hedia said, sounding as though she meant it. She had learned sincerity by telling men what wonderful lovers they were. “It was a pleasure for me to join my sisters here in Polymartium in greeting the goddess on her feast day.”

The matron rose, red faced and puffing with emotion. She moved with a sort of animal grace that no one would have guessed she had from her awkward trampling as she danced in the company of a noblewoman.

“Thank you, Your Ladyship,” she wheezed. “I could die now, I’m so happy!”

Hedia nodded graciously and turned to Varus, putting her back to the local woman without being directly insulting. Minimus ushered the local out of the way with at least an attempt to be polite.

“Did you get what you needed, my son?” Hedia asked. If he hasn’t, I’ve bruised my feet for nothing, she thought bitterly. Heels and insteps both, thanks to the matron.

“This was wonderful, Mother!” Varus said with the sort of enthusiasm he’d never directed toward her in the past. She’d seen him transfigured like this in the past, but that was when he was discussing some oddity of literature or history with his teacher or Corylus. “Do you know anything about the group on the other side of the altar? They’re from India, I believe, or some of them are. Are they part of the ceremony usually?”

How on earth would I know? Hedia thought, but aloud she said, “Not that I remember from when I was eight, dear boy, but I’ll ask.”

She turned to the understeward who was in charge of her personal servants—as opposed to the toughs of her escort. “Manetho,” she said. “A word, please. Who are the people at the lower end of the swale from us? Some of them look foreign.”

“Those are a delegation from Govinda, a king in India,” said Manetho. “They’re accompanied by members of the household of Senator Sentius, who is a guest-friend of their master. The senator has interests in fabrics shipped from Barygaza.”

Manetho was Egyptian by birth and familiar with the Indian cargoes that came up the Red Sea and down the Nile to be shipped to Carce. A less sophisticated servant might have called Govinda “the King of India,” which was one of the reasons Hedia generally chose Manetho to manage her entourage when she went outside the city.

She cared nothing about politics or power for their own sakes, but the wife of a wealthy senator had to be familiar with the political currents running beneath the surface of the Republic. That was particularly true of the wife of the unworldly Gaius Alphenus Saxa, who was so innocent that he might easily do or say something that an ordinary citizen would see as rankest treason.

The Emperor was notoriously more suspicious than an ordinary citizen.

“What are they doing here, Manetho?” Varus said. He added in a hopeful tone, “Are they scholars studying our religion? I know very little about Indian religion, and I’d be delighted to trade information with them.”

Manetho cleared his throat. “I believe they’re priests, Your Lordship,” he said. “The old one and the woman, that is; the others are officials. They’re here to plant a vine.”

Hedia followed the understeward’s eyes. Two dark-skinned men with bronze spades had begun digging a hole near the base of an ilex oak; in a basket beside them waited a vine shoot that was already beginning to leaf out. The men wore cotton tunics, but their red silk sashes marked them as something more than mere menials.

Hedia thought of Corylus, who had considerable skill in gardening. He was the son of Publius Cispius, a soldier who served twenty-five years on the Rhine and Danube. That service had gained Cispius a knighthood and enough wealth to buy a perfume factory on the Bay of Puteoli on retirement.

Nothing in that background suggested that his son would be anything more than a knuckle-dragging brute who drank, knocked around prostitutes, and gravitated to a junior command on the frontiers similar to that of his father. In fact, Corylus—Publius Cispius Corylus, in full—was scholar enough to gain Varus’ respect and was handsome enough to attract the attention of any woman.

Furthermore, Corylus demonstrated good judgment. One way in which he had shown that good judgment was—Hedia smiled ruefully—by politely ignoring the pointed invitations to make much closer acquaintance of his friend’s attractive stepmother.

“Do you suppose they’d mind if I talked to them?” Varus said, his eyes on the Indian delegation. The priests—the old man and the woman—oversaw the work, while the remaining Indians remained at a distance, looking uneasy.

The woman’s tunic was brilliantly white with no adornment. Hedia wondered about the fabric. It didn’t have the sheen of silk and, though opaque, it moved as freely as gossamer.

“If them barbs bloody mind,” said Minimus, “I guess there’s a few of us here who’ll sort them out about how to be polite to a noble of Carce.”

“I scarcely think that will be necessary, Minimus,” Hedia said, trying to hide her smile. “A courteous question should bring a courteous response.”

Minimus had been brought to Carce as a slave five years ago. His Latin was bad and even his Greek had a thick Asian accent. For all that, he thought of himself as a member of Senator Saxa’s household and therefore the superior of anybody who was not a member. Freeborn citizens of Carce were included in Minimus’ list of inferiors, though he understood his duty well enough to conceal his feelings from Saxa’s friends and hangers-on.

Varus wandered away, also smiling. He was an easygoing young man, quite different from his sister in that respect. When Hedia arrived in the household, it had seemed to her that Varus’ servants were taking advantage of his good nature. Before she decided to take a hand in the business, Varus had solved the problem in his own way: by suggesting that particularly lax or insolent members of his staff might do better in Alphena’s section of the household.

Doclianus had waited until Hedia had finished talking with her son, but he came over now and bowed deeply. For a moment she even wondered if the priest was going to abase himself as the heavy-footed matron had done, but he straightened again. The bow was apparently what a Gaul from the Po Valley thought was the respect due to his noble patron.

“Allow me to thank you on behalf of the goddess, Your Ladyship,” Doclianus said. “I hope everything met with your approval?”

There were a number of possible responses to that, but Hedia had come to please her son and Varus was clearly pleased. “Yes, my good man,” Hedia said. “You can expect a suitable recognition when my gracious husband distributes gifts to his clients during the Saturnalia festival.”

The priest didn’t look quite as pleased as he might have done; he had probably been hoping for a tip sooner than the end of the year. Hedia was confident that her earlier grant of expenses for this year’s festival had more than defrayed the special preparations, including the cost of frankincense. Hedia wasn’t cheap, and her husband could easily have afforded to keep an army in the field; but neither was she willing to be taken for a fool.

“Who are the Indians?” Hedia said, changing the subject. She was willing to be as direct as necessary if the priest insisted on discussing fees, but she preferred to avoid unpleasantness. Hedia was not cruel, though she knew that those who observed her ruthlessness often mistook it for cruelty.

“Oh, I hope that’s not a problem, Your Ladyship,” said Doclianus, following her eyes. “Senator Sentius requested that a delegation from the King of India—”

Hedia’s lips quirked.

“—be permitted to offer to Mother Matuta a shoot of the grapevine which sprang up where the god Bacchus first set foot on Indian soil during his conquest of the region.”

He cleared his throat and added, “Perhaps your husband knows Sentius?”

“Perhaps he does,” Hedia said, her tone too neutral to be taken for agreement. “I don’t see why the Mother should be particularly connected with grapes, though.”

In fact, Hedia recalled that Sentius had visited Saxa recently to look over his collections. That was the sort of thing that took place frequently and gave her husband a great deal of harmless pleasure.

With the best will in the world, Hedia herself had to fight to keep from yawning when Saxa showed her the latest treasure that some charlatan had convinced him to buy. He owned the Sword of Agamemnon, the cup from which Camillus drank before he went to greet the senators announcing his appointment as dictator, and Hedia couldn’t remember what other trash.

That was unfair. Some of the objects were probably real, though that didn’t make them any more interesting to her.

“That puzzled me also,” Doclianus said. “The man in blue, Arpat—”

A man of forty or so. Arpat wore a curved sword, but its jeweled sheath and hilt looked more for show than for use.

“—told me that according to their priests, these woods have great spiritual power, and Mother Matuta, as goddess of the dawn, links them with the East.”

Hedia nodded. For the first time Doclianus spoke in a natural tone without the archness that had made his voice so irritating. The priest had obviously been trying to seem cultured to his noble patron, but he didn’t know what culture meant in Hedia’s terms.

“I see,” she said. “Well, I’ll wait here and meditate until my son returns from his discussions.”

Varus was having an animated conversation with the priest in the ragged tunic. Hedia wondered what language they were speaking in. It wouldn’t have amazed her if Varus spoke Indian—his erudition was remarkable—but it seemed more likely that the Indians knew Greek.

Doclianus accepted his dismissal without showing disappointment. Hedia watched him returning to the cluster of women who had taken part in the ceremony. There were a hundred or so local spectatators besides. Hedia wondered if they had come to see the nobles from Carce.

She considered the ceremony. Though Hedia observed the customary forms, she didn’t believe—and never had believed—in gods. On the other hand, she hadn’t believed in demons or magic, either, but she had recently seen ample proof that both were real. And beyond that—

Varus and the Indian priest were examining the successfully planted vine.

My son is a great scholar, Hedia mused. I’ve never had much to do with scholars.

But Varus had shown himself to be a great magician also, and that was even more surprising.

“GOOD HEALTH TO YOU, Master Corylus!” called the woman at the counter of the bronze goods shop. “When you have a moment, I’d like to show you a drinking horn that we got in trade.”

“Not today, Blaesa,” Corylus said, forcing a smile for her. He was tense, but not too tense for courtesy. “I’ll try to drop by soon, though.”

The smith himself in the back of the shop was Syrian, but Blaesa, his wife, was an Allobrogian Gaul from close to where Corylus had been born. She liked to chatter with him in her birth tongue, and an occasional reminder of childhood was a pleasure to Corylus also.

He and Marcus Pulto, his servant, had come down this narrow street scores of times to visit the Saxa town house. They were as much part of the neighborhood as the merchants who rented space on the ground floor of the wealthy residences.

Pulto exchanged nods with the retired gladiator who was working as doorman of the jewelry shop across the way. Although the mutual acknowledgment was friendly enough, Corylus knew that at the back of his mind each man was considering how to take the other if push came to shove. That didn’t mean there was going to be a problem: it was just the way men of a certain type related to each other.

Corylus’ father was the third son of a farmer. He had joined the army and had risen through a combination of skill, courage, and intelligence to become the leading centurion of a legion on the Rhine: the 5th Alaudae. After twenty years’ service, Cispius was promoted again, becoming tribune in command of a squadron of Batavian cavalry on the Danube; he was made a Knight of Carce when he retired.

The other factor in Cispius’ success in the army was luck: all the intelligence and skill in the world couldn’t always keep a soldier alive, and courage was a negative survival factor. Choosing Pulto as his servant and bodyguard might have been the luckiest choice Cispius had made in his military career.

Cispius had led his troops from the front. Pulto was always there, anticipating dangers and putting himself between them and the Old Man. On one memorable afternoon Pulto had thrown himself over his master, unconscious on the frozen Danube, while Sarmatians thrust lances at him.

When Corylus went to Carce to finish his education with the finest rhetoric teachers in the empire, Cispius had sent Pulto with him. The dangers of a large city are less predictable than those of the frontier, and in many ways they are greater for a young man who has grown up in the structure of military service. Pulto would look out for the Young Master, just as he had for the father.

Corylus hadn’t thought he needed a minder, and perhaps he hadn’t: he was an active young man who avoided giving offense but who could take care of himself if he had to. In the army, though, you were never really alone, even when you were—unofficially—on the east side of the Danube with the Batavian Scouts

Early in his classes with Pandareus of Athens, Corylus had intervened when Piso, a senator’s son, and several cronies had started bullying a youth who was both smaller and obviously smarter. Corylus could have handled Piso and his friends easily enough, but he hadn’t thought about the retinue of servants accompanying the bullies.

The servants hadn’t gotten involved, because Pulto stood between them and the trouble with his hand lifted just enough to show the hilt of the sword he wore under his tunic. The weapon was completely illegal within the boundaries of Carce, but nobody made a fuss about it, since the youth being bullied was the son of Senator Gaius Alphenus Saxa. Saxa’s influence couldn’t have saved his son from a beating, but it had been more than sufficient to prevent retribution on those who had stopped the beating.

Varus had been appreciative. He had as few friends in Carce as Corylus did, though in Varus’ case that was because he didn’t have any use for hangers-on or any interest in the drunken parties that were the usual pastime for youths of his class. Corylus was scholar enough to discuss the literature and history that mattered to Varus; and because Varus gave his new friend use of the gymnasium that was part of the Alphenus town house, Varus started exercising also.

The sauce on the mullet was that the household’s private trainer, a veteran named Marcus Lenatus, was a friend of Pulto from when they both served with the Alaudae. Quite apart from the good that exercise did Varus, Pulto had had a word with his army buddy. Varus never again left the house without an escort who were willing to mix it with three times their number of thugs, if that was what it took to keep their master from a beating. The youth himself was probably oblivious of the difference.

“I should have worn a toga,” Pulto muttered harshly. “I don’t care what you say, I should’ve worn one!”

“Absolutely not,” Corylus said firmly. “The senator won’t set eyes on you, and you’re not here to impress the staff by wearing a tent. Besides, they know who you are.”

In Corylus’ heart he wondered if Pulto might not be right, though. It was too late to change now.

The toga had been normal wear in ancient Carce, but now the heavy square of wool was worn only on formal occasions. Corylus wore a toga in class, because Pandareus was teaching them to speak in court, where it was the uniform of the day. Even when Corylus came straight from class to the town house, he doffed the toga inside before he went back to the gymnasium or upstairs with Varus to his suite of rooms.

Today Varus was with his mother forty miles north in Polymartium; Corylus had been summoned to the town house by Saxa himself. There were any number of reasons the senator might have sent for him, but none of them seemed probable and some of the possibilities were very bad indeed.

He can’t possibly think that I’ve been trifling with his daughter. Can he?

Realistically, Saxa wouldn’t be talking with Corylus about his dealings with Alphena. Saxa’s wife would have taken care of that.

Corylus thought Hedia liked and respected him; they’d been through hard places together and with Alphena as well. But if Hedia thought Corylus was jeopardizing Alphena’s chances of a proper—virgin—marriage with another noble, she would have him killed without hesitation. Once Alphena was married, she became the responsibility of her husband. Until then her purity was the duty of her parents, and Hedia took family duties very seriously.

But if not Alphena, why?

Saxa’s doorman saw them approaching and bellowed, “The honorable Publius Cispius Corylus and Marcus Pulto!”

The blond doorman still had a Suebian accent, but it wasn’t nearly as pronounced as it had been the first time he had been on duty when Corylus arrived at the town house. Besides taking elocution lessons, the doorman had learned manners and no longer treated free citizens of Carce as trash trying to blow into Saxa’s house from the street. That was particularly important when dealing with a veteran like Pulto or with the frontier-raised son of an officer.

Corylus nodded in acknowledgment, as he had seen his father do a thousand times to the guards when he entered headquarters. Nobody saluted on active service, but courtesy was proper anywhere—and courtesy toward the men you expected to follow you into battle was also plain good sense.

In the past when Corylus visited the Alphenus residence, the entrance hall had usually been crowded with Saxa’s clients and with people simply trying to cadge a favor or a handout. Today the staff had crowded the visitors into the side rooms where ordinarily servants slept. Three understewards—the fourth must be with Hedia and Varus—in embrodiered tunics stood to the left of the pool that fed rainwater from the roof into cisterns. Agrippinus, the majordomo, waited at the back of the hall at the entrance to Saxa’s office.

“Welcome, Publius Corylus!” Agrippinus said. Nothing in his accent suggested that twenty years before he had come to Carce as a slave from Central Spain. “I greet you in the name of Gaius Alphenus Saxa, Governor of Lusitania, former consul, and senator of the Republic of Carce!”

Saxa came out of the office, beaming and holding out his hands. “Thank you so much for coming, Publius Corylus,” he said. “Come into the office, if you will. I have a business on which I hope you can help me.”

Varus’ father was a pudgy man of fifty who was starting to go bald at the top of his head. He sometimes looked kindly, as he did now, or worried, or startled, and often completely dumbfounded. Saxa had never displayed harshness or anger that Corylus knew of.

“Guess we were wrong to worry,” Pulto murmured in a voice as low as he would have used at night on the east side—the German side—of the Rhine. “I’ll look Lenatus up in the gym.”

“I was honored by your summons, Your Lordship,” Corylus said, walking forward with his own hands out. “I will of course do anything I can to aid Your Lordship.”

This was even more surprising than it would have been to find the public executioner waiting for him. Better, of course, but still not a comfortable experience. Corylus had grown up in the Zone of the Frontier, where “unexpected” was too often a synonym for “fatal.”

Corylus touched Saxa’s hands, but he was too unsure of himself to grip them as he would have done with Varus under the same circumstances. What is going on?

“Well, I certainly hope so, my boy,” said Saxa, drawing Corylus into the office. Agrippinus closed the door behind them.

ALPHENA BACKED AND SIDESTEPPED LEFT as the trainer came on at a rush. Marcus Lenatus was using his weight. He kept his infantry shield advanced, a battering ram that would have knocked her over if she had waited to meet it.

Lenatus turned to keep facing her, but the weight of his heavy shield slowed him. Alphena thrust for his right wrist. Lenatus got his sword up in time. The wooden blades clacked together nastily, but it had been close.

If Alphena had been an instant quicker, her lead-cored practice sword would have numbed the trainer’s arm and caused him to drop his weapon. If they had been using steel swords, her thrust would have severed his hand.

She sidestepped left again. Lenatus would tire, and when he did her thrust would get home.

The door to the gymnasium opened. “Stop!” Alphena said. She hadn’t given specific orders that she wasn’t to be disturbed while she was fencing with Lenatus, but she was going to make sure that whichever servant had opened the door wouldn’t do so again.

Alphena turned, wheezing as she gulped in air. Instead of being a servant, the intruder was Marcus Pulto, Corylus’ man.

Corylus is here!

“Your Ladyship,” Pulto said with a nod as he closed the door behind him. “I can leave if you’d rather. I’m just here to chat with Marcus Lenatus while my master’s in with the senator.”

While the door was open, Alphena had seen at least a dozen servants crowding the hallway beyond. Saxa had more than two hundred servants in this town house. Many of them had nothing to do most of the time and some never had anything to do, so anything unusual drew a crowd.

In this case they were probably hoping to hear Lady Alphena screaming abuse at the fellow who had interrupted her sword training. Not long ago they would have gotten their wish, but Alphena had recently begun to moderate her temper. The change surprised her even more than it did those around her.

Alphena had grown up angry and frustrated because she wasn’t allowed to do certain things: she was a girl in a world ruled by men. Her brother could learn literature and public speaking in classes, then prosecute or defend others in court, or he could enter the army as a general’s aide and proceed to command legions and even armies.

In fact, Varus had no interest in either of those careers. Instead he wanted to read books and discuss their ridiculous contents with scholars as addled as he was, an activity open to the poorest freedman in the Republic.

Alphena declared that she wanted to become a gladiator. Not even Saxa was so easygoing that he would permit his daughter to debase herself in a profession filled by slaves and criminals, but Alphena proceeded stubbornly to practice swordsmanship in the private gymnasium, wearing the full armor of a soldier of Carce.

Even so, she wasn’t allowed to spar with a human opponent. Instead she hammered a stake with her weighted practice sword. Lenatus critiqued her form and demonstrated technique, but Saxa had warned him that he would be executed if he allowed Alphena to bully him into engaging her directly.

The trainer was a free citizen of Carce; no one had the right to execute him without trial. That said, neither Lenatus nor Alphena herself had any doubt that Saxa would do exactly what he threatened, nor that the wealthy senator would escape any retribution for his action. The authority of a father over his offspring was one of the most revered customs of ancient Carce.

The rule against Alphena sparring had been loosened recently. Alphena and her sword had stood between the world and monsters that would have destroyed the world, and Hedia had watched.

“Didn’t know you were supposed to be doing that,” Pulto said mildly, making a brief gesture with his left hand that might have been meant to indicate the gear in which his friend was sparring.

“Oh, it’s all right, Pulto,” Alphena said. “For Lenatus to fence with me, I mean.”

“I never had a problem with it, Your Ladyship,” Pulto said in the same falsely calm voice. He looked back to Lenatus and said, “You remember Tiburinus? Had the Third Century back when the Old Man had the Fourth?”

Alphena frowned. The change of subject made as little sense to her as one of her brother’s declamations would have. She set her practice sword in the rack, wondering if she should unstrap her shield as well.

“Yeah,” said Lenatus. “We’re none of us going to forget that soon, are we?”

“We all thought Tiburinus was screwing the maid of the Legate’s wife, Your Ladyship,” Pulto said, turning to Alphena again. “Pardon the language.”

“Go ahead,” Alphena said. She had started to understand where this was going.

“Thing is, it wasn’t the maid but her mistress that he was seeing,” Pulto said. “Which the Legate figured out too. I was on headquarters guard that night, but I guess you could hear the shouting in the cantonment outside the walls. After that, Tiburinus manned a one-man listening post on the other side of the river until he deserted.”

“Tiburinus stuck it out a month,” Lenatus said, shaking his head with a rueful smile. “I guess he hoped the Legate would calm down eventually.”

Pulto smiled at the recollection. He said, “He hopped it when he heard there was going to be a sweep into Free Germany. He knew when that happened he was going to be sleeping outside the palisades of the marching camps.”

“But this”—Lenatus tapped his shield boss with the flat of his sword, making a clack instead of the clang of steel—“is straight. The senator called me into his office and told me he was letting Lady Alphena”—he nodded toward her—“spar now. Only not with Corylus, that’s the only off-limits. It nigh knocked me on my ass to hear him say that.”

“My mother thought there should be a change,” Alphena said, speaking precisely and a little louder than she would have needed to. She could feel herself blushing, but part of her hoped that if she pretended that it wasn’t happening neither of the men would notice. “She talked to Father, and he agreed.”

Pulto chuckled. “I don’t guess there’s many people who don’t agree with Lady Hedia when she makes up her mind to do something. Men, anyhow.”

“I don’t have much luck arguing with her, either,” Alphena said. She suddenly smiled.

“Partly.” she blurted, “because I see that she’s right when I really listen and think about it.”

Alphena was treating these two commoners as equals. That would horrify and amaze virtually any noble or member of a noble household; Agrippinus would be furious if he heard the discussion.

But another way of looking at it was that these two veterans were treating a sixteen-year-old girl as an equal. Alphena had earned their respect because of what they had observed and because people whom they respected, Hedia and Corylus, respected her.

“Say, you couldn’t promote a jar of wine, could you?” Pulto said, speaking to his friend but looking sidelong at Alphena.

“Well, we just got started here…?” Lenatus said, also eying Alphena.

She took the hint, but as she opened her mouth to end the session Pulto said, “Say, go ahead. Now that I think about it, I’d like to see this for myself. If that’s all right?”

Instead of speaking, Alphena picked up her sword and faced the trainer again. She was breathing normally again after the break.

Lenatus cinched the strap of his shield tighter to the stud over his left shoulder; he’d loosened it to rest the bottom of the shield on the ground while they talked. Without warning he thrust for Alphena’s right shoulder.

She circled back and left as usual, letting the blade barely tick the top of her body armor. Lenatus followed her, one step and then two. His shield lagged a hair farther out of position at each step.

Alphena retreated a fourth step and then, as Lenatus advanced, thrust for the point of his right hip. Lenatus jumped away, but he stumbled and dropped to his knee to keep from sprawling on his back.

“Buggering Venus!” the trainer shouted.

Alphena backed away. She bent forward so that she could fill her lungs more easily. She had gotten solidly home that time. And he didn’t touch me! she thought.

“That the best you can do, Marcus?” Pulto said, leaning against the gymnasium’s shaded wall.

“You think you can do better?” Lenatus said. He straightened carefully, rubbing his hip with the pommel of his sword. “She’s bloody good, I tell you.”

“That suit you, Your Ladyship?” Pulto said over his shoulder as he walked to the racks of equipment.

“Yes,” Alphena said, trying not to snarl. She had almost objected that she was winded from the bout with Lenatus, but Pulto was an old man and clearly out of shape. Besides, that would have been whining.

Pulto took down the wooden equivalent of a long cavalryman’s sword and small buckler whose twin handles he gripped together in his left hand. He turned to face Alphena.

“I’ll wait for you to get the rest of your armor on,” she said, puzzled.

“I got the web of this helmet adjusted for me,” said Lenatus, holding it out to his friend. “It oughta fit you unless yours has been swelling since you left the Alaudae.”

“I’m all right,” Pulto said, smiling toward Lenatus. “We’ll pretend I’m a German, though their crappy shields are generally bigger’n this.”

He grinned broadly at Alphena. “I’m ready, girlie.”

It was the tone more than the words that drove Alphena to a sudden rush behind her upraised shield. Even as she started to move, she realized that Pulto hadn’t been carelessly relaxed the way she had thought.

He took the shock of her heavy shield on his buckler without any more give than a fortress wall. An instant later, something banged into the back of Alphena’s head, knocking her helmet off and spilling her sideways in the sawdust.

Alphena rose to her knees with difficulty, tangled with her equipment. Besides the shoulder strap, her left forearm was through the double staples on the back of the shield, a part cylinder of laminated birch two inches thick. It was heavy and awkward when she was in the best of shape; now she was sick to her stomach and her eyes weren’t right.

Her helmet had bounced off the wall and now rocked beside her. The bronze had a deep dimple just behind the left earpiece.

Her fury scoured away the dizziness. Alphena jumped to her feet and shouted, “Lenatus, you hit me from behind! I’ll have you crucified for this!”

“Peace, Your Ladyship!” the trainer said in surprise. He had been bending toward her but jerked upright.

“He did not,” said Pulto, stepping between Lenatus and his furious mistress. “I don’t need help to larrup a recruit who leaves herself as open as you did. Watch!”

“I wasn’t open!” Alphena said, but in a calmer voice. “I was behind my shield!”

“Watch!” Pulto repeated. He turned to the heavy post that Alphena had dented with over a year of blows with a practice sword. Pulto’s arm swung wide as he leaned forward. The tip of his long blade moved sideways and cracked the top of the post from behind.

Pulto straightened and looked at her. “You were behind your shield,” he said. “So you weren’t watching me. Got it?”

“Yes,” said Alphena. She had dropped her sword when she went down, so her right hand was free to unbuckle her shield strap. “Master Lenatus, I apologize. I’m a fool.”

She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, hoping that she wasn’t crying or that, anyway, the tears would be mistaken for sweat. Her whole body was trembling. As soon as she had shrugged her arm out of the shield loops, she sat heavily on the bench built into the back wall.

“Don’t move,” Pulto said. Alphena felt his fingers probing her hair. He was extremely gentle, so she wasn’t expecting the sudden jolt of pain when his finger moved slightly. She gasped and jerked her head forward.

Lenatus rose from the cabinet he had opened, holding two faience mugs and a pear-shaped glass jug. He unstoppered the wine and poured some into the mug that he offered to Alphena.

“She’s all right,” Pulto said as he stepped away. He was speaking to Lenatus. “Look, Your Ladyship, I’m sorry I caught you so hard, but I figured you had to learn.”

“I don’t feel all right,” Alphena muttered. She drank, spluttering as some of the wine went down the wrong throat.

“You want some water with that?” Lenatus said. “I didn’t think…”

Then he said, “Your Ladyship, it’s my fault. You’re not a recruit, and we shouldn’t have treated you like one.”

“If anybody’s going to the cross for this one, it’s me!” Pulto growled. “I did it and I’ll take the punishment.”

“Stop it, both of you!” Alphena said. “Nobody did wrong except me. I thought I was good and I wasn’t. If anybody asks, I slipped when I was practicing on the post—”

She gestured.

“—and hit my head on this bench.”

She took a deep breath, then finished the wine. “And the wine’s fine, I don’t need to water it,” she said. “I just drank the wrong way.”

“Thank you, Your Ladyship,” Lenatus said. He looked the other way.

“Yeah, from me too,” Pulto said.

“Lady, you really are good,” he went on. He squatted instead of sitting beside her on the bench. “You’re as quick as I’ve seen in a while, and you’ve got a lot of strength for a girl.”

“Bloody Death, she’s strong enough for anybody!” Lenatus said, rubbing his hip gingerly.

“What you don’t have yet is thirty years’ practice killing people,” Pulto said. “One of these days you’re going to meet somebody who does and who isn’t using a wood sword. From what I’m told, you’re likely to be closing the left side of my boy Corylus when that happens. So I don’t want it to happen.”

Lenatus poured her more wine. Alphena looked at him and said, “Lenatus, have you been going easy with me?”

She spoke calmly, but the implications were threatening even if the tone wasn’t. Pulto stepped verbally between his friend and the noblewoman, saying, “Naw, he wasn’t coddling you. I watched, remember? But you’re used to him, and you’re not used to me.”

He grinned and stretched out his right arm. “I got more reach than Marcus, here, and besides—”

Lenatus was grinning also, expecting what was coming.

“—I figured you wouldn’t be playing your top game against a fat old man. And I was right.”

Alphena burst out laughing. “Yes, you were right,” she said. “I won’t make that mistake again.”

She sobered and looked squarely at Pulto. “But I’ll make others, which I hope you’ll help train me out of, Master Pulto. If Publius Corylus permits it, that is.”

“Well, you see how your mother feels about that and I’ll talk to Master Corylus,” Pulto said, sounding ill at ease. He was still thinking about what his training exercise—his little joke, really—might have led to.

Alphena felt a pang. It would have been unjust for her to punish the two veterans for doing what she had dared them to do, but the person she had been six months ago might have done so in a blind rage.

Hedia wasn’t interested in making Alphena “nice,” but she did want her to be effective. The older woman had repeatedly demonstrated that out-of-control people weren’t effective, and her contempt for failure was more cutting than anger could have been.

“Say, what are you doing here today?” Lenatus said, offering Pulto the other mug. “Lord Varus is off to some shrine in the north with Her Ladyship, isn’t he?”

Pulto tossed off the wine and handed back the mug. “Wouldn’t mind another,” he said. “I didn’t half get a dry throat there.”

“Sorry,” Alphena said into her mug.

“I’m just here with Master Corylus,” Pulto said without seeming to notice the apology. “He come to see the senator.”

“He’s looking for a posting to a governor’s staff?” Lenatus said. “Say, will you be going off with him?”

“No, it’s the senator wants to see him,” Pulto said. “Don’t ask me why, because the boy didn’t have any notion himself. It must’ve been good from the way the senator led him into the office, which was a load off my mind and no mistake.”

The gymnasium door opened again. Pulto turned his head and said, “Come on in, young master. And if you don’t mind sharing a mug with me, Lenatus here has some bloody good wine to drink!”

WHEN VARUS STARTED toward the Indian delegation, Minimus began to swagger along with him. “Stop,” Varus said, halting. “Minimus, go back to Lady Hedia and remain with her until she orders you to move.”

The big slave blinked as though he didn’t understand the simple Greek. Varus realized that was possible, but it was more likely that Minimus didn’t understand the concept of a chief wanting to meet strangers without a threatening entourage at his back. Furthermore, Varus hadn’t shouted at him the way a chief was expected to do when he corrected a warrior.

“Go back to Lady Hedia,” Varus repeated, still without raising his voice. It was very hard to keep one’s philosophical calm when people listened to a speaker’s tone and volume instead of the words he was speaking.

Minimus blinked again. “Yes, Lord Varus,” he said reluctantly as he turned away.

To make sure that his would-be protector hadn’t changed his mind, Varus watched for a moment then resumed walking toward the Indians. The gardeners were backfilling around the vine they had planted. To Varus’ surprise, the old man stepped away from the delegation and came toward him.

“Good day, revered sir,” the old man said in good Greek. “I am Bhiku, in the service of the Rajah Raguram and his master, King Govinda. May I ask what brings a magician of your eminence to this place?”

“I beg your pardon?” Varus said, startled into saying the first words that came to his mind. “I am Gaius Alphenus Varus. Who told you I was a magician?”

Close-up the Indian was even older than he had seemed at a distance. He was barefoot, and his only garment was a thin cotton singlet that had been washed so often that it was almost translucent now. Varus could see Bhiku’s ribs through the fabric.

The old man glanced down and chuckled. “I look like a victim after the sacrifice, don’t I?” he said, plucking the singlet out from his scrawny chest. “Nothing left of me but the tongue and the guts. But as for you being a magician, Gaius Varus—”

Bhiku looked Varus in the face. His own brown eyes were bright and alert.

“—I am in a small way a magician also, a very small way compared to you. But I see you for what you are, as surely as I could see a burning village if I were standing beside it.”

“I, ah…,” Varus said. Memories stirred in his mind, demons and monsters and perhaps gods whom someone had seen and things that someone had done. The person seeing had been Gaius Alphenus Varus, and the person working the terrible magic had been that Gaius Varus also … but—

“That wasn’t me!” Varus said, snarling at himself rather than at the little man before him. Bhiku gave no sign of having heard, save by an almost invisible twitch of his right eye.

“I’m sorry, Master Bhiku,” Varus said. “I think of myself as a scholar, a philosopher if you will. Things have happened in my presence that I could not explain better than as manifestations of magic, but I have no conscious power over such things. I don’t, I certainly do not, hold myself out as a magician.”

For the most part, the members of the Indian delegation were ignoring Bhiku and Varus. The three richly dressed Indians looked profoundly bored. They stood apart from their own subordinates as well as from the half-dozen members of Sentius’ household under the direction of an understeward.

The exception was the woman, who watched Varus intently. Her skin was as dark as aged oak and contrasted sharply with her white garment. She had no wrinkles or visible blemishes.

Varus started to break eye contact with the strange woman, but he caught himself before his muscles obeyed the thought. I am a citizen of Carce, he thought. Why should I allow myself to be cowed by a stranger while standing in the ancient lands of my people?

“Who is the woman, Master Bhiku?” he asked without turning his head. After a moment she walked toward the pair of gardeners, putting her back to Varus.

“Our lords’ lord, Govinda,” said Bhiku, “is not a trustful man. He is a great magician as well as the greatest of kings, but his duties prevent him from making the long sea voyage that was required to come here for the first time. Rather than send a magician to carry out the rites he wishes, he sent two of us.”

Varus felt his face stiffen. “What rites would those be, Master Bhiku?” he said.

“Govinda wishes the god Bacchus to be summoned to this place,” the old man said agreeably. “You might think that priests rather than magicians would be the proper parties to carry out the rites, but this is not the judgment of my master’s master.”

Varus grimaced. “I see,” he said. “I don’t set much store by religious rites myself.”

“In that,” Bhiku said, “you and I are of the same opinion as Govinda.”

The old man coughed, then continued, “He sent myself and Rupa, whom you asked about, to carry out the rite and to open a passage through the Otherworld by which we and our colleagues will return. Rupa is a member of the household of Ramsa Lal, a rajah subject to Govinda, but Ramsa Lal and Raguram, my master, are on terms just short of war. If indeed war has not broken out in the months since we sailed.”

The old man smiled. Varus found Bhiku’s personality engaging, though their contact had been too short for him to be able to support his reaction with logic.

“Govinda thinks that because our masters are rivals,” Bhiku said, “Rupa and I will make sure that the rites are carried out as he wishes.”

The gardeners were watering the vine from a brass barrel. The container was certainly from India. Varus wondered if the water had been transported also, in furtherance of the “rites” to which Bhiku had referred.

“You told me what Govinda thinks, Master Bhiku,” Varus said “What is your opinion?”

Bhiku laughed, a cackle that could have been threatening had it not been for the old man’s cheerful expression. He said, “People rarely ask me what I think. They want to know what I can do for them, only that. But what I think, Gaius Varus, is that I do not need to be threatened to carry out the duties I agreed to do in exchange for my keep.”

He plucked the thin fabric away from his ribs and grinned like a frog. “Very modest keep,” he said wryly. “And as for Rupa…”

His eyes followed the woman. She appeared to be examining an outcrop on the slope above the altar.

“Govinda is a very great magician, beyond any question,” Bhiku said musingly. “But I would not care to guess how powerful Rupa is, or what her real purposes might be. I have heard it said that she is ancient. I am an old man, but it is said that she is older than I am by hundreds of years. To the eye she does not appear old.”

“She looks,” said Varus, “as though she were made of polished chert. Smooth and so hard that steel could strike sparks from her skin.”

“Yes,” said Bhiku. They were speaking with lowered voices, though there was no one near them, nor, in all likelihood, anyone who would have cared about what they were saying if they had been shouting. “It may be that her soul is that hard also.”

Then, in a still softer voice, Bhiku said, “I think that Rupa may be searching for a word that will split this world the way a knife cuts a pat of butter … and that if Rupa should find that word, she will speak it.”

The gardeners stepped away from the vine shoot. One spoke to the officials. The bearded man in blue made a peremptory gesture toward Bhiku, who bowed in obedience and started toward his fellows.

He turned as he walked away and said over his shoulder, “It has been a pleasure to meet you, Gaius Varus. I hope that we may meet again.”

Copyright © 2015 by David Drake

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