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Chapter 2

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[Rome, May 455]

Adriana had been drawn to the corner window of her apartment by the purple dusk, a reminder of Africa. Her rooms were in a quarter of the palace above the eastward slope of the Quirinal hill. From her high corner she could see both her garden and the street, two worlds separated by a wall: the street full of corruption and corrupt people, dropping off into the city’s slums; the garden a small paradise of white statues and garlanded pillars, with a summer-house beside a marble pond.

She had stood at the same window three years earlier, watching the reflections of a blood-red sunset, when the news of Attila’s invasion had been brought by her breathless servants, crying Adriana! Adriana! and wondering where they could hide. In that year, Huns had flowed like lava through northern Italy, leaving the dead thick in the streets, in the naves of churches, on the thresholds of houses, in burned barns and dismembered villas. Gassy corpses had lain under canopies of flies all over the smoking countryside, and the yellow Italian farm-dogs had grown so fond of human flesh that in time they had dared to attack the surviving peasants as well as the dead.

Thanks to Pope Leo and a plague, the city had escaped the calamity that raged in the north. What new calamity could be taking shape in the odd disasters of recent weeks? Could the pope rescue the city a second time?

Quintus slipped up behind her so quietly that she froze when his arms circled her waist.

"You’re tense," he murmured in his quiet baritone. "Are you watching the nightfall, or something more ordinary?"

She laid her head back on his shoulder, taking pleasure in the soft, dry texture of his trim beard against her cheek.

"I’m staring into space and wishing tonight’s dinner were dead and buried," she admitted.

"Our friends are a burden to you?"

"Our friends," she repeated skeptically, and sighed.

"Look down there," she said, pointing at a heap of wreckage in the valley. "Isn’t that the tenement that fell yesterday for no apparent reason? Someone said thirty or forty people died in the collapse. Flavia’s chief concern has been that the dust-cloud greyed all the flowers on her balconies and kept her from hanging her parrots out for their airing."

"She’s never shown a great deal of compassion," Quintus said mildly.

"There’s more to it than that," Adriana said.

"Are you imagining conspiracies again?" he chided her gently, kissing her on the back of the neck.

"Yes," she said simply. "I’ve known Faustinus too long not to recognize his hand in mysterious disasters that foolish people assign to the will of God."

"You think too much about politics," Quintus said. "You’ll make yourself sick."

"I’ll be much sicker when my brother-in-law eats the city alive, beginning with my husband, because Your Generosity went on innocently imagining that there’s room for both of you at the emperor’s right hand. Please remember that the Urban Prefect’s house is the first to be burned when there’s civil unrest."

She forced herself to relax. She wanted to please Quintus, not argue with him. He was home late in the day, still wearing the civil-service regalia of his high office. His eyes were tired.

"How would you behave toward Faustinus?" he asked with gentle condescension.

"His position with the emperor is shaky; yours is secure," she said. "I’d gather evidence of what he’s doing to the city and expose him. Petronius Maximus is shallow but not blind. Surely he must understand that there’s a reason for what we see: mysterious crumblings of aqueducts, crashes of state vehicles, riots of people whom the State has done more than enough to pacify."

"You think Faustinus is responsible for that list of woes? Where could he get the funds and the personnel? Flavia’s rich, but not that rich."

"Ask yourself the name of Rome’s great enemy," Adriana said.

"King Geiseric an ally to Faustinus? Are you serious?" Quintus smiled. "Dinner will be good for you. It’ll take your mind off politics."

She turned and framed Quintus’s square-jawed face with her hands. The twilight gave his features an apostolic glow. At the same time it exaggerated the yearning quality in his wide-set hazel eyes and the pleading cast of his lips.

"Quintus, I’m sorry," she said quietly and earnestly. "I know that dinners are the life of the court. It’s just that I’d rather spend an eternity thinking about politics than one hour in a roomful of gorgeous birds with no more sense than you’d find in a bird-cage."

"How about Lady Sulpicia?" Quintus said hopefully. "Intelligence must go with such a face, wouldn’t you think?"

"She’s an owl," Adriana smiled, "a brainless bird with a philosophical expression."

She pressed her cheek against his. "Pardon my martyrdom. It isn’t only the dinner. Flavia has threatened to visit me, after the others have mercifully vanished into the night."

"Tell her to go home," Quintus said. "She has a home of her own."

"You know I can’t. The hypocrisy is the worst of these affairs, and the worst of it is my hypocrisy toward my sister."

There was pain, she noticed, behind the good-nature of Quintus’s wideset eyes. Instinctively she knew that her complaint was not the cause of it. Perhaps it had to do with the demands of the Urban Prefecture; perhaps there was a less respectable reason. She wished she could take away the source of irritation, but by experience she knew better than to try. A large part of Quintus’s life was still a locked room, containing his darkest secrets. She had agreed with herself to leave it locked, so long as the contents offered no threat to their life together.

"What do you think of my new German maid?" she asked, picking an inoffensive subject.

Quintus’s eyes widened.

"She’s not bright, poor thing," he answered, with an emphasis that seemed unnecessary. "She’s small-brained and peaceable, like a pigeon."

"But she’s a willing worker, and her gold hair ornaments my entourage, don’t you think?"

"I suppose so. I’m sure she’ll do well, if she can keep from getting pregnant by the stableboys. I have to get out of these clothes."

"And I have to put on my beads and paint, like a Nubian warrior," Adriana sighed, "because my husband has a career and thinks my suffering is good for it."

"It won’t last forever," Quintus said. "Try to be affirmative."

"I’ll smile and smile, until my jaw is dislocated."

He left the room. Is something wrong? The words welled up in her, and stopped at the tip of her tongue. Quintus had been odd for more than a week. The stiff, condescending cheerfulness was that of a physician without knowledge or a priest without faith. In Quintus it always suggested anxiety or a bad conscience. Politics were doubtless the problem.

Adriana turned to the window again. The sun had set; lamps shone pale in the mansions on the Viminal hill. A chill breeze stirred up dust in the street. In the garden, a pair of nightingales were singing in a laurel grove. The silver sound reminded Adriana of the fragility of her world, and the struggle she faced to preserve it.

In the gathering darkness, Rome lay quaking, dreading the future, anxious for the present, dreaming of the Apocalypse. The poor, on the city’s squalid flats, survived just long enough to pass the disease of life to another generation. The rich on the surrounding hills lived behind fortified walls. For years the great families of Rome had kept virtual private legions in their houses, arming all the slaves who could be trusted, and posting guards on the roofs and walls, day and night. They had bricked up their lower windows. Packs of dogs were kept in their vestibules. The more vulnerable gardens were torchlit at night. Nevertheless, thieves regularly penetrated the defenses, taking the guards by subterfuge. Porters were occasionally found dead in their lodges beside their dead dogs, their throats cut by the same practiced hand.

All over Italy, wolves howled on the outskirts of half-ruined villages, and starving serf-children whimpered in their sleep. Beyond the last of the decaying villages and farms, Germans gathered on the shrunken borders of the empire: huge, superstitious, dangerous children who drank curdled milk and ate mice, and had no fear of swords and javelins. And beyond the hordes of Germans, pressing against them, were the Huns. Meanwhile, the court distracted itself expensively, with palaces too impressive to be comfortable, meals too extravagant to be tasty, fashions that gave neither warmth nor comfort, and the stately artificialities of aristocratic society that had no power to console.

Bound to the city by Quintus’s affairs of state, Adriana had once again missed seeing the spring in the Tiber countryside. She shut her eyes and imagined herself at her bedroom window in the villa at Nomentum, still an island of peace in her life. In her mind she tried to recreate the May-smells of clematis and broom drifting in from the rolling hills, the song of nightingales on the wooded heights, the twinkle of fireflies in the ripening fields. She thought of peasant girls singing like thrushes at their open windows, and of the smell of honeycakes and wine in the kitchen, and the hyacinths rioting in her rustic garden, a sea of blue. . . .

There was a timid knock at the door; Adriana’s maids had come to torture her into the shape of high fashion. It was time to suffer. There would be an end to the damnable dinner, however, and an end to the season. As soon as she could detach herself from the numbing rituals of the court, she would pack her robes in lavender, lock up her jewels, and head for the farm, where she would drink too much and sleep until midday, and sit in the doorway and spin, if she felt like it; and climb the highest hill in the neighborhood, and lie on a flat rock with nothing but olive boughs and pine branches between herself and heaven. She would dress all day like a serf-woman, in a coarse tunic and sandals, and perhaps in her rough and dusty rags she would call on the household of Senator Virius so she could see Lady Petasia’s eyebrows rise.

*

Flavia survived the banquet with an indecent amount of energy. As always, she was stunning in festive dress, soft green silk worked with threads of gold. Adriana’s reception chamber could have been created to display her; the golden tint of the walls seemed to emanate from Flavia on her couch at the center of the room.

She leaned toward Adriana, grasping the table between them with a small white hand.

"You seem tired," Flavia said, with every evidence of concern.

"My dinner was dreadful."

"Really? I hope Faustinus and I had nothing to do with its dreadfulness. The food was wonderful. I must say your servants seemed a little dizzy. Faustinus asked one for a bowl of water and the dear boy brought a chamber-pot."

"God must be amazed by my guests," Adriana said wearily. "Do they know the nature of the world they live in? The German wolf is at the door; my guests go on eating their truffled chicken and abusing the pope and bringing up another amphora of Chios wine. The world is dying and the people call for a circus."

Flavia yawned. "Lord, Adriana! You sound like a meeting of the Senate. Why bother yourself about troubles you’re in no position to correct?"

"How does one cancel a thought?" Adriana asked. "We hear, and we comment. Something’s in the wind. The emperor was in distress today, I’m told. He was purple with wine and complaining that he lives under the sword of Damocles. Old Salvia, my head-maid, prophesied this morning. She said that when green and blue are tangled together at the races, the Vandals will take the city. I wonder where she got the idea of a German invasion."

Flavia’s face was a study in neutrality, absolutely controlled, utterly uninformative.

At length, she smiled archly. "A throw of dice would cool your fevered brain. Why don’t you bring in one of your gorgeous stable-boys and have him kneel down between us as a dice-board?"

Adriana shook a tiny handbell. Salvia appeared, moving her lips crossly.

"Bring dice, Salvia," Adriana ordered.

The old head-maid shuffled off, muttering about the worthlessness of worldly labor, and that there would be no dice in heaven. In a moment she returned with dice on a gold plate, set them on the table, and shambled away.

"Really, you should get rid of her, Adriana," Flavia drawled. "I yield to no one in my admiration for Salvia’s historic perfections, but I wonder whether at her age she can have any value apart from her charming white hair, and her charming, charming mannerisms."

"Allow me to repeat myself," Adriana said. "She runs the apartment well. My sheets smell of lavender. My maids are well-drilled. She doesn’t gossip."

"But let’s not fight," Flavia said virtuously, drawing a small, heavy purse from the folds of her clothing and laying it on the table. She picked up the dice-box. "A short life and a merry, eh? Highest of five takes it? A solidus to start?"

"Toss," Adriana said, laying a gold piece in front of her.

Flavia leaned forward and pitched the three dice out over the marble table-top.

"Dogs, damn it, first throw," she hissed at the pair of spots that rolled up with a four.

On the final throw, Adriana turned up fives and a six, with an elegant flick of the wrist.

"Satan and Fortune!" Flavia whispered coldly, sliding her gold piece across the table.

"Perhaps a little wine would help," Adriana chided gently.

Flavia swallowed half her goblet. There was a dangerous look in her eyes; the loss had made her quarrelsome. Adriana foraged her mind for neutral subjects, but Flavia seized the conversational initiative.

"I was cornered the other day by Montius’s daughter Carina," she drawled. "Such a pretty little dullard: no more sense than a hummingbird. She’s married a handsome boy from Gaul, and he’s never to be seen, and she worries about that, and wanted to know if I believe in the eternity of Love."

"I’m sure I can’t imagine what you told her," Adriana said, sensing the approach of an unpleasant subject.

"I told her," Flavia announced, "that in my opinion marriage is to love as law is to justice. There’s not the slightest connection. I told her that three months after Faustinus had married me, I bored him as thoroughly as if I’d been a dancing-girl with the brain of a squirrel. I said that Faustinus and I provide each other with a social presence, a list of connections, and more money than we’d enjoy separately; that I haven’t yet discovered the limits of his selfishness, which is so instinctive that he can hardly be blamed for it; and that I’m glad I never loved him, because if I had, he would have crushed my heart."

From the folds of her gown Flavia produced a little hand-mirror, and examined her face. On a recent horrid occasion, one eyebrow had been higher than the other.

"I dread growing old," Flavia said with tipsy abruptness. "All that dismal business of grey-and-yellow teeth, and a chin like a pelican’s, and black specks in the pores of one’s nose. Surely you’ve given some thought of your own to the prospect, dear? Not that the matter is of much concern to our loved ones. Why be sentimental? Our husbands wish us to look well because we represent them, but there’s no point in pretending that they care about us."

Flavia seemed to have recovered her spirits after the early loss. She took a ring from her finger, a large blood-ruby in Byzantine goldwork.

"Take it if you can," she said archly, sliding the ring onto the table. "What can you lay? I’ll accept that hideous sapphire you’re so fond of. If it falls into my hands I’ll certainly have it reset. Best of five again?"

"Toss," Adriana said, laying the sapphire ring in front of her.

"Watch me strip you," Flavia exulted.

The dice rattled in their box and fell lightly on the marble table. They seemed to be conspiring together in brittle consonants.

"Treys! The gods have blasted my luck," Flavia whispered, and a drop of sweat appeared on her upper lip.

The rattle of dice, small curses, and little exclamations of triumph and despair went on monotonously. At the final throw Flavia’s hand shook, and she watched Adriana’s face like a lynx.

"Fours and a six. Kiss Fortune goodbye, dear!" she exclaimed as the dice turned up, her lashes flicking rapidly over her eager eyes.

Adriana threw paired sixes and a four. Flavia brought her fist down on the table with a curse, lifted her goblet to her lips, and drained it, splashing her cheeks.

"What do you think of Senator Apion, dear?" she asked, wiping her face on her sleeve. The subject of Flavia’s weekly adultery had surfaced at last, transparently a ploy to conceal her rage at the loss of the ruby ring.

Adriana shrugged. "He has a pleasant face, for a Greek, and a decent figure, for a bureaucrat."

"Is that the limit of your charity?"

"Let me see. I suppose there’s some truth in what Lady Tulliana always says, that men from Constantinople make other men seem provincial. Marcus Apion certainly does that. He speaks fashionably; he arranges his hair fashionably. He has a good eye for boys and women, and makes love to both impartially. What more is there to say?"

"I daresay I know him better than you," Flavia snorted defensively.

"I daresay you do," Adriana agreed, "beginning, as always, with the externals."

She had offered the jibe lightly and without malice, but at once she knew she had pushed Flavia too far. Her sister’s eyes flashed fire.

"I’d rather deal with frank externals than a sham of virtue," Flavia hissed.

She smiled unexpectedly, the way Adriana imagined a mosquito might smile, landing on the nose of a sleeper. Adriana was certain that mosquitoes had green eyes, the exact shade of Flavia’s.

"Speaking of sham virtue," Flavia drawled with languid malice, "and in the context of this game of pure chance: I’ve always wondered if you knew that when Quintus took you for his own, the court used to make bets on the two of you? Valentinian and Aetius had a hundred gold solidi on it. That was long before they killed each other off, of course. I believe Aetius put his money on Quintus merely as a matter of courtesy, because everyone knew what would happen."

"What would happen, Flavia?" Adriana asked, irritated and apprehensive.

"Why do you pretend naïveté, dear? I can’t decide whether you’re completely cynical or a little childish. I suppose there’d be no threat if your husband were old as the Capitol and ugly as Priapus, but he’s young and handsome, and you seem to be in love with him. That’s a difficult position to be in at Rome, as I’m sure you know."

"Wine makes you indiscreet," Adriana said. "Let’s hear the subject of the wager."

"Lord! The obvious! Which of you, Quintus or yourself, would be first to defile the marriage bed."

Adriana spoke softly, her voice shaking with anger.

"The cuckoo is a fool to lay her eggs in another bird’s nest," she said, watching Flavia’s face.

"But one must accept the cuckoo as she is," Flavia said with triumphant malice. "Only a greater fool would try to improve her character. Surely I’m not breaching the limits of my own business by suggesting that Quintus is male. Most men—no, all men—are the same. The desire for forbidden fruit is in them, like the fly in a horse’s ear. Certain defects are part of masculinity."

"But by no means peculiar to men, Flavia."

"Be calm," Flavia said with a little chuckle. "I like to provoke you because you have such . . . ideals. But don’t you think it’s unreasonable to expect that one’s husband will be one’s lover forever? Oh, it’s natural that when you first married Quintus he was your god, your idol, your universe. But at some point you must have realized you were giving him the uncomfortable sensation that he’d never be able to get away from you."

"Good night, Flavia," Adriana said coldly, rising.

Flavia lay back obstinately on her couch, not to be hurried. She laughed the easy, tinkling laugh that charmed even her victims, the sound of water running over pebbles in a shallows.

"I’m sorry to have offended your simple goodness," she said placidly. "No, dearest, marriage is a cage. The male bird is always trying to get out, and the female bird is always checking the wires and trying to convince him that nothing could be more delightful than the perch where the two of them sit side by side until they’re dead."

"I’m grateful for your concern," Adriana said coldly.

"I’m concerned for your dignity most of all," Flavia said with a dangerous look in her eye.

"It’s not in any man’s power, or in your power, Flavia, to injure that," Adriana said, her thoughts whirling with the drunken flow of her sister’s thought, the logic of indecency.

Flavia laughed again and rose. She clapped her little white hands for her attending eunuch, and let the flabby monster wrap her in her mantle. With the usual cruel perfection of her timing, she delivered her parting remarks over her shoulder as she turned to leave.

"You have one canary in that nest of crows you maintain, Adriana. Keep an eye on her."

"The new German maid," Adriana said woodenly, with a flash of insight.

"Of course. The perfect gift to one’s husband. . . ."

"That’s enough!" Adriana snapped, and the room was filled with the silence anticipating a storm.

"You should examine all your maids," Flavia persisted, "but don’t do it your way, with all the subtlety of a Hun. Go in the opposite direction, so to speak, as if you were stalking a deer."

"Good night, Flavia."

"Vale, darling," Flavia said sweetly, taking Adriana by the shoulders and pursing her lips.

Adriana turned to let the kiss fall on her cheek. She stood by her closed door and listened to the patter of Flavia’s fashionable boots in the marble corridor. Then she picked up the ring she had won, and went to a streetside window. The moon was full. For a moment she imagined herself watching her apple trees sleep in the silver light at Nomentum.

A young beggar crouched in the street under the palace wall, dozing in the glow of his smudgepot. Adriana knew him, and had expected to see him there. He was crippled, a father, extremely religious. She tossed her winnings, coin by coin, so they landed within a few feet of the hunched form, and after them she threw Flavia’s blood-ruby ring. The boy struggled to his feet and bowed his gratitude. She nodded and closed the shutter.

For a quarter-hour she wandered aimlessly through her rooms. Her thoughts seemed like noise in the wooden silence of the house. Over the years she had been made aware of the darkest of Quintus’s secrets, a fondness for low girls, but it had never occurred to her that he would be shameless enough to satisfy his appetite at the expense of her devotion.

She pulled a cloak over her shoulders and slipped down a private staircase into the palace garden and the cool comfort of the May night. The hour was too late for serious danger; the city’s burglars were in their narrow beds. By habit she walked to the summer-house where she had made love with Quintus many times.

With a sharp pain she thought of that ecstasy, and sat down on a marble step. The fragrance of early-summer flowers drifted down the silent walkways. Beyond the cypresses along the garden wall, the night sky twinkled reassuringly.

There must be some place for warmth in this cold world, she thought, and watched the fireflies dance around a moss-grown statue of Hercules. She put her head down on her knees and fell into a waking dream, unable to focus her thoughts, but far from sleep.

*

In the twilight between wakefulness and sleep, she was a child again, taking for granted that the joy of living would never end. Life was an infinite succession of golden mornings on the green hills of Nomentum, followed by an eternal hot afternoon in her mother’s garden, ripe with the smell of warm flowers. In the landscape of her mind she lived again the freedom of swimming in the Tiber and hawking in the open meadows, the foggy comfort of the baths, the songs to be sung by lamplight, feasts to be eaten, the great church festivals, long walks under the stars, and all the hopes and hungers of the brief Maytime between childhood and marriage.

To the edge of womanhood she was a wild girl. Vainly the adults in her life urged her to move with gravity, blush often, lower her eyes in the presence of men, and cultivate the whiteness of her hands, all the habits that Flavia had not needed to be taught. But even at fourteen, past the time when her breasts had become inconveniently large, she rode her own horse bareback and ran half-naked through the fields at the heels of an old grey dog.

"Girl!" her governess would cry in desperation, "are we hounds, or are we ladies?"

Dutifully she recited odes, played the lyre, danced like a Greek, and invoked Diana in respectable verse of her own, but she had no desire to be a domina, the mistress of a household. Womanhood came to her unsought. To her mild surprise she discovered one day, in front of her mother’s long mirror, that she was handsome, more with the bold good looks of the South than the pale elegance of the emperor’s court. Her eyes and hair were dark; her rose-tan skin was smooth and lustrous, her teeth white and strong. She spoke, and watched her face move. The brows and lips were full of life. She smiled, and was pleased to see that her smile was enchanting.

She walked away from the mirror and forgot what she had seen. Part of her beauty was her unconsciousness of it. When she rushed into the house on a summer day, her face flushed with exertion, her white teeth flashing in a hospitable smile, her grandfather’s guests became silent and respectful, and sometimes cleared their throats and passed their hands over their eyes.

In the year when her life changed, her lessons became difficult. She felt unnecessarily large sometimes, when she wandered barefoot and a little drunk through the fields. She sighed over her wax tablets and chewed all her styluses to shreds. She shed tears over spring violets, and wrote weepy letters to the moon. At times unexpectedly her whole body would blossom with pleasure the color of fire, and sometimes if she touched herself with an intimate hand, the pleasure would turn to a delicious yearning that seemed to radiate outward from the pit of her belly to the surface of her skin.

For the first time in her life, she talked too much.

"Ah, ah!" her governess sighed. "She used to climb trees like a woodpecker, but now she’s a cuckoo, all voice and feathers."

She began to notice peasant boys, like damaged statues, with fine biceps and pretty eyes, and broken teeth, and necks so dirty that one might plant mustard-seed on them with some hope of a crop. But her hunger was still formless. She was not sure that she envied Flavia, who managed to live out most of her carnal ambitions with the sons of Senator Calvus, in the swamp meadows by the Tiber. Although Flavia’s lips spoke of the glow, her eyes communicated the affectionless emptiness that followed the glow. I’ll wait and keep my eyes open, Adriana decided, and when the man comes to whom I’ll give myself, I’ll know how to make him my own.

In her fifteenth year, he came. On a warm hunting-weekend in April, when the estate house was full of guests, a serf dog chased Adriana’s pet kitten up a chestnut tree that towered above her grandfather’s ball-court. The frightened animal crouched on a roof overlooking the court, mewing like a black-and-white bird. Adriana climbed the tree to the roof, scraping her wrists and her young breasts against the spiral ridges of bark.

To her dismay and fascination, the court was full of young men, naked and noisy. Adriana forgot the cat.

On an impulse that she hardly understood, she crouched in a shadowed groin of the red-tiled roof, and peeked down into the forbidden area. Seven young men, two lines of three and one in the middle, played harpastum in the bright sun. There was a frantic slapping of open palms against the hollow ball. Boys dozed on the sand. Others squirted wine into their mouths and scattered the empty wineskins, cheered from the marble benches in the courtside shade, swore dangerous oaths by Juno and Minerva, and drank toasts to every letter in the name of Romula, an inexhaustible old prostitute of the Subura.

The mild-eyed Quintus Jovinus, whom Adriana had liked as a child, was the young man in the middle of the ball game. He jumped high to intercept passes between the opposing lines. The exact contours of his body were etched so clearly on her mind that she knew the impression would last forever, even if she never saw him naked again. The other young men faded into the sand. Adriana had eyes only for Quintus, for the snaking of muscle in his legs and long torso as he arched through the air like a cat leaping at a butterfly.

She tore herself away, knowing that she would be punished severely if she were caught spying from the roof. She detached her pet from its perch and dropped it gently to the ground. Climbing down herself, she was strangely and pleasantly moved at the pit of her stomach.

At night she pressed her face against her lavender-scented pillow and gave herself to the fragrant remembrance of the afternoon. She touched herself intimately. Bliss, like a warm wave, rolled over her. She pressed her hands against her breasts and belly, imagining that they were Quintus’s hands. In ecstasy she fell asleep, and dreamed that a handsome boy with strong fingers rubbed oil into her limbs from a silver bowl.

Within the month her grandfather called her into his study, where he ruled the villa from among his scrolls and statues.

"How old are you, Adriana?" he asked, having begun to forget everything.

"Fifteen, two days past the Ides of January."

"By the Virgin, it’s time for marriage," her grandfather said. "Women are like peaches; they must not stay long on the branch. You’re older than I thought. I would’ve paid more attention, I suppose, if you were more like Flavia, with all her colors and smells and the rubbish she hangs on herself like a Nubian going to war. But I must say you’re good to look at, however much you may ride and spit like a boy. Certainly you’ll bring fine children into the world, and suckle them on rich milk."

The old man stared at her, grinding his teeth as if he were containing deep emotion.

"Quintus Jovinus wishes to marry you," he said severely at last.

Adriana’s heart leaped like a dog in a trap, and her wind caught in her throat.

She recovered herself and answered prettily, with her pulse drumming in her ears: "Ah. Me? But that’s hard to believe. I’m brown and ugly."

"You’re beautiful as a goddess," her grandfather said, "or rather, I should say, beautiful as the Virgin."

"But I’m dark."

"Pepper is black, but it’s worth gold. The night is dark, but it wears the moon and the stars."

In a liturgical drone her grandfather reviewed Quintus Jovinus’s credentials: great-grandson of the military dictator Stilicho on his mother’s side; an ancient senatorial pedigree on his father’s; descendant of Theodosius the Great’s favorite niece; from a family that was popular with the rabble, not at all repulsive to the military, rather cozy with the Senate.

Adriana scarcely heard him. Her heart seemed to be in the grip of a warm hand; she thought of Quintus in the ball-court, and rejoiced that she would at last press her cheek to his chest, and touch him intimately, and hear the deep sounds of pleasure that would build to the hard-breathing frenzy that Flavia spoke of, quicker than she would prefer. Flavia said that men were always in haste.

*

Quintus wooed her gently, coming to call with his parents, making sure that he was acceptable before he authorized his father to press his suit. Courier-boys brought presents: a gold bangle, a tortoise-shell ornament set with pearls. Adriana hid the trinkets in her bedroom, in her little shrine with its statue of the Virgin. At night she took them out by moonlight and held them in her hands in the soft glow, and kissed them.

They were married at the end of June, Juno’s month, the month of roses, carnations, and lavender. Her grandfather suppressed his Christian scruples and consulted both a Persian astrologer and an old pagan haruspex to be sure that the stars and the omens were favorable to the wedding.

Adriana arranged to be slightly drunk all during the noisy festivities. She remembered everything past the ceremonial handclasp as a blur of color and light. The notary wept; the bishop intoned blessings. At some unremembered point, the celebration migrated to Quintus’s hereditary villa on the Tiber, where bonfires blazed along the shore, and barges lying at anchor glowed with colored lamplight. Slaves praised the wine and fell into the river. Senators danced to castanets; the bishop tootled the flute. The great house was submerged in roses. The bride vaguely remembered gliding down a carpet that unrolled like a floral highway toward the summer-house in the villa garden. There she lay like a temple deity on a sigma-shaped sofa, and Quintus sang worshipfully to her in his mild baritone, striking the nine-stringed lyre himself, while the moon rose outside in a blue-green sky, and the river-breeze sighed in the chamber’s scarlet awnings.

When the day’s festivities were at an end, Quintus swept her away in defiance of convention. His family’s smallest villa had been readied for the post-nuptial week, a simple place on the island of Ischia, open to the sun. During the dry, clear days the newlyweds gathered wildflowers on the island heights, and splashed in the surf. At dusk they chased fireflies in golden fields at the water’s edge. Once, in a scarlet haze, they climbed to the highest peak on the island, and watched the gold of the evening sea turn purple, and violet, and black slashed with starlight.

At night, the fountains in the villa garden seemed to murmur "Come to bed." A young male slave, trembling with reverence and curiosity, drew aside the rose-colored couch-veil in the bride’s perfumed chamber and reluctantly bowed himself away. Soothed by the distant roll of the sea against the cliffs along the shore, the couple drank spiced wine from a silver bowl and made much drowsy love, and slept long in the soft white bed, which was huge by any reasonable standard.

Once before, from the roof by the ball court, Adriana had seen that secret member of Quintus’s which well-bred women were expected not to discuss. On their first night together she was intrigued and a little alarmed by its sudden size and strength. His hands were strong under her shoulders, and his breath came quickly against her ear. He pressed into her, and discharged himself with a choked little cry. His hair was damp; he breathed deeply, like a runner at rest.

"Thanks, thanks," he murmured, kissing her gently on the forehead, and she came near to protesting that she did not need thanks, that she had enjoyed it quite as much as he.

*

Overnight she became the matron, the domina, that her birth and breeding required her to be. The vividness of her wedding journey, a whirl of gorgeous colors and scents, faded quickly into a grey routine: the management of a vast household, the entertainment of Quintus’s guests, the grave recreations of a woman of substance.

Every morning but the Sabbath, she reviewed household accounts, disciplined the servants with firm justice, and coordinated the stewards who kept the palace functioning like a small city within the City. In the afternoons she set her face in an expression of dignified enthusiasm, and presented herself at weddings, funerals, barge parties on the Tiber, dinners in the mansions on the Aventine and Caelian hills, dinners in the Palace of the Caesars, dinners until she would have preferred a bread-and-water exile to Sardinia.

Quintus’s excellent family connections served him well at court. At nineteen he had been merely a boy-man with a recent education and a new wife. At twenty-one he was Superintendent of the Imperial Foresters, at twenty-five Count of the Private Domains, at twenty-nine Prefect of the City of Rome, and a chronic annoyance to his chief competitor for honor and power, Gaius Faustinus.

Decently confident of herself in the glittering and treacherous life of the court, Adriana had nevertheless felt, at first, like a dove mingling with peacocks: astonished, dazzled, disgusted. Her good sense had preserved her from both vanity and deception. Early she had understood that everyone wanted to use her in one way or another, and she learned to negotiate the snares of the professional manipulators surrounding the emperor.

She carried herself with an unpretentious frankness that both her admirers and her detractors noticed. Her admirers called it dignity; her detractors called it arrogance. By habit she took the shortest distance between two points, calmly and deliberately, as an empress might pass between rows of prostrate courtiers. She smiled often, a brilliant smile. It came from the eyes as well as the lips. Her generous disposition won her friends and enemies, according to the smallness or largeness of their spirits. She felt no need to prove her excellence; when she walked into a room, all competition collapsed. Other women of the court were as beautiful as she, but with the beauty of poisonous plants. Their smiles were offers to sell. Adriana’s smile was a gift. Decent people understood the difference, and responded generously. Other people did not matter.

Her best defense, as Flavia had once said in grudging admiration, was her kindness toward all things, living and dead. She threw crumbs to the sparrows in her garden, though she liked them very little. She brought choice cuts of meat to the porter’s dog, and ordered full meals for the gaunt nuns who came to collect alms at awkward hours of the day. She gave coins to the old women and children who sold vegetables in the street. She spoke gently to her plants and statues. Once a day, when no one was looking, she bowed to a fine old bust of Quintus’s great-grandfather, as a gesture of respect to her husband’s family.

Her devotion to Quintus was absolute. "How strange it is," the court ladies said, "that Marcella Adriana is content with no one but her husband. The whole city would be a box of toys for her if she wanted to play."

But the richest moments of her life were those after sundown when, in Quintus’s dark bedroom, she lay with her head on his chest and told him all about the day with the warm confidence of a child: the house-slave who had broken three brooms in one morning; the sad and penniless old senator who had come too late to present himself as a client, after all the other clients and Quintus himself had gone; the thief who had crawled over the garden wall, and had been pitched out head first by the gardeners; the perfect little baby that one of the cooks had produced; the senile unruliness of the porter’s dog; the misbehavior of Adriana’s parrots when Lady Placida had come to call.

Her enjoyment of Quintus was uncomplicated. She admired his good soul, and his body as well, the way a child might admire a tropical fruit. Its movements fascinated her. She watched it move, then touched it, taking the beautifully proportioned rib-cage between her two hands, and feeling it flex like a horse’s neck under the tough musculature and smooth skin. Sometimes, as if to assure herself that he was not made of marble, she ran a finger lightly along his breastbone, making him twitch and snort in his sleep, like a young beast tormented by flies.

"He’s lean and knotty, like a lion kept hungry before the games," she thought. "He’ll never be fat like the emperor."

He was playful. He would display himself naked at the bedside in clownish contortions and then pounce on her with enough energy to break the bed. His hands seemed to have an intelligence of their own, cupping her belly and breasts, soothing her tense neck, framing her face as he touched her eyelids with his lips and then entered her with such tender strength that she thought her soul would leap out of her gasping mouth.

She accepted with simple pleasure his conventional exclamations about her almond-shaped eyes, her tip-tilted nose, her smile that would ripen peaches on a garden wall. She chose to ignore the truth that after their earliest nights together he made love to her with more skill than passion; she did not want to know with whom he had practiced the art of love.

*

The twins were born in April, yellow-haired like Quintus’s brothers. Indeed, they were born with the yellow daisies of spring, and a few years later they died in September, just after the daisies had ceased to bloom on the Tiber-side hills.

With their death, a door closed on the summer of Adriana’s life, and winter followed without a harvest season. It seemed to her that she had only dreamed of walking with Quintus in twilight, with a knot of summer flowers at her throat, and a handsome golden-haired little boy on her shoulders, and the boy’s twin sleeping in Quintus’s arms.

Dry-eyed, unable to speak, she laid out the curly-headed boys side by side with her own hands, and watched stoically while they were lowered into the ground, after a rural plague had overtaken them at a hunting villa in Tuscany.

Afterwards, she gave herself to passionate weeping. She would have loved Quintus and her own father in the children. She would have kept them fresh as roses and carried them in her strong young arms, and taught them with love, like a nightingale teaching songs to its young. She would have prayed for them, mended their clothes with her own hands, made them clean and handsome in body and spirit. But they were gone, and sometimes she wondered if she were to blame, and wondered if Quintus blamed her, though she knew full well that no human will, no matter how strong, could have turned back the plague.

In the months that ensued, she was like a Celt in winter, never far from tears. All her thoughts were of the time when the little boys’ cradles had been a green grove in the landscape of her life. Unable to raise her own spirits, she was in no position to help Quintus with his mute despair. A distance opened between them. She was powerless to close it. She tried, with the best that remained in her, to respond to his moods, to be ardent, thoughtful, meek, fiery, as the occasion required. But the artificiality of the effort asserted itself like a badly masked smell, and drove Quintus further away.

Flavia rose to the occasion.

"Such an idealist!" she chided. "Dear Adriana, all respectable marriages begin with idolatry and end in indifference. Isn’t it so? First the dear people can hardly keep their hands off each other. In six months they’re bored if they have to lie side by side at a meal, and he’s thinking what an abominable color she paints her eyelids, and she’s thinking that he’s developing the jowls of a groundhog. How often do you see an exception to this, dearest?"

"Oh, seldom," Adriana admitted. "People would have to care for something other than themselves. As you say, it’s rare."

Within the year, her grandfather and her mother were gone, the last pillars of strength in her life. Her grandfather’s death left her curiously at peace. He had lived well, and he died doing the sort of thing he loved best. The servants found him lying face down in the stables, where he had been watering his favorite Spanish horse with his own hands. Adriana’s mother grieved quietly for a season, and then seemed to make a conscious decision to follow the old man into the Everlasting Peace. She was buried in black silk; the serfs filled her coffin with wild blossoms, and laid a red rose on her lips, saying, "She breathes flowers."

In her twenty-second year, Adriana felt alone against an enemy without face or name. With her own hands she put her mother’s things away. She lingered a little over the old gauzes and silks, the shawl that her mother had woven when she was young, old circus tickets, perfumes, jewelry, a doll in a linen tunic that her father had given her mother on their wedding night. Then she closed the brass-lined chests and locked them, and resolutely fixed her mind on the present and the future.

*

In the dark summer-house she was fully awake again. A stiff breeze had blown up since Flavia had gone. It stirred the scents of myrtle and rose, whistling in the colonnades and down the avenues of ilex. There was a cool patter of raindrops on the pond at her feet.

Reluctantly Adriana got up and went into the great stillness of the palace. The night lights seemed hostile, a source of threatening shadows that wandered over the wall-frescoes. A pair of sleepy maids followed her into her apartment, carrying cakes and wine. Adriana whispered thanks, sent the girls away, and locked the door after them. Then she undressed herself and threw her clothes in a heap on the floor.

She lay listening to the silences of the building. The acid resonances of Flavia’s conversation were still with her, stirring up doubts where none would have occurred naturally.

"Dear Adriana, at age twenty-six you’re still so . . . young in some respects," the voice said. "There’s no such thing as a happy marriage. Some are calm, at most, and that of course takes a great deal of money. I really don’t think Nature intended marriage, any more than wigs or wooden legs. Does the butterfly marry the buttercup? Of course, there are babies and poverty to contend with. Perhaps they’re the reasons. For my part, I always try to remember that when the passion goes out of a marriage it’s a corpse forever and ever, and no amount of howling and sobbing can bring it back to life."

"Yours was a corpse at birth, as I recall," Adriana repeated herself mentally.

The acid voice of doubt went on. "Dear, you’ve lived long enough to know by now that men are born fools. Think of any man you can name. He doesn’t want a bedmate who’ll remind him of his duty and argue philosophy with him. He wants one who’ll stir his hair with her forefinger and put snow down the back of his neck, and call him ‘Little Tiger’."

Adriana disentangled herself from the bedclothes, went to the window, and looked out into the rain-washed garden. A soft fragrance of stone-pine came to her in little gusts. The mansions on the Viminal hill slept altogether now.

Mentally she traced the possible routes by which Flavia could have acquired her servant-gossip. It would be unsatisfying merely to dismiss the innuendo; Flavia was always sure of her facts, even when she lied. In any case Adriana knew where, in the silent palace, the resolution of her turmoil lay.

She pulled a simple robe of silk around her shoulders, opened the bedroom door noiselessly, and went out into the long corridors, a deserted splendor of cold marble and statuary, lit at intervals by aromatic lamps. Barefoot, she walked silently past chamber after chamber, through puffs of oily perfume and the small night-sounds of the sleeping house.

The slave dormitory was plain and clean: far too clean and not plain enough, according to Flavia’s standards. Among the rows of little cubicles, Adriana knew which door she sought. The room belonged to her Gothic maid, that handsome blond piece of stupidity.

She hesitated before the door, pressed her ear against the wood, and listened intently. No sound came from behind the heavy oak paneling. She turned the well-greased lock and laid her cautious strength against the door. It swung open. The room whispered with light snoring. A night-light burned in a corner of the tiny room, a Cupid swinging from a chain.

Quintus lay in Liuta’s arms, breathing softly and deeply, his head cradled between her left shoulder and a well-formed breast.

The girl woke suddenly. Her blue eyes, wide with terror, stared out over Quintus’s sleeping head. She caught her breath as if to scream, but all that came out of her mouth was a constricted rush of air.

Adriana raised a finger to her lips, smiled pleasantly, and closed the door.


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