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Chapter 3

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Once she had seen an eclipse of the sun. As she closed Liutaís door and moved away from it with no sound, she remembered the metallic mid-day dusk and the sensation that something terrible had burst upon the world.

A part of her was numb. Another part was grateful for the numbness. She knew that it would give way to pain. She took satisfaction in having resisted the vulgar temptation to shout Quintus awake. Pulling her robe close around her waist, shivering a little, she walked back to her apartment, maintaining a purposeful rhythm of movement, reminding herself that the suffering she had to pass through could be endured coolly, and that there would be an end to it.

The goblet of spiced wine left by the maids had grown tepid. She drank it gratefully. She lay sleepless in bed for a year, she thought. Her head throbbed as if she had been beaten with a rod. She watched the flickering death of the lamp on her bedside table. The wall-paintings of children and birds faded into blackness.

An uneasy sleep wrapped itself around her like the windings of a mummy. She woke at dawn and was cheerful for a thoughtless moment; then the sadness of the night swept back over her with its cruel questions and regrets. Her window had been unshuttered all night; the sky looked hot and grey, without moisture. Her thoughts were spiritless; she had no energy. Small sounds irritated her: the gurgling of the waterclock in the corridor, the stamping of a horse in the street, a servant coughing somewhere.

She dragged herself out of bed. The door opened quietly; Adrianaís old head-maid presented herself with a dumpy bow.

"Iíll be in the attiring room in a moment, Salvia," Adriana said. "Have Liuta come to me alone."

When she entered the perfumed atmosphere of the little chamber, the Gothic maid stood by herself next to Adrianaís floor-length mirror, knotting her hands in her tunic. Her face was colorless. She coughed nervously and passed a hand over her pretty blue eyes, as if she were afraid that Adriana could read her thoughts through her forehead.

"Bring the lights closer, Liuta," Adriana said crisply.

The girl brought a half-dozen lamps from a corner lampstand and arrayed them on small tables on both sides of the mirror. Her hands were shaking. In the semicircle of yellow light, Adriana stared coldly at her own reflection. Her face was grey as a dead fire. The skin was tight over the lips and cheekbones.

"Everything seems wrong about my face today," she said to the girl, watching her reaction carefully. "My eyelids are heavy with lack of sleep. I wandered all over the palace last night, and saw a number of things that distressed me. Does my face seem unacceptable to you today, Liuta?"

"Madam is perfection," the girl said, choking a little.

"Dress my hair, dear."

Liutaís fingers moved stiffly. Occasionally they brushed Adrianaís neck. They were ice-cold and quivering.

"This is one of those days," Adriana said, "when one needs reassurance that oneís hair is not too thick, or oneís nose too straight and small, or oneís chin too large. My husband could have reassured me, I suppose, if Iíd seen him last night. Doesnít my skin seem to be losing moisture in this abominable weather?"

"Oh, Iím sure itís perfectly smooth, madam," the girl said with an expulsion of air like wind in a tunnel.

"Youíre doing well today, Liuta," Adriana said. "Shall we skip the gold dust? One has to feel good about oneself to wear gold dust in oneís hair. I must go now to meet my husband before he meets his clients."

She turned pitilessly on the girl. "Doesnít it seem to you that His Serenity has been looking washed-out lately? It occurs to me that he, too, may have been missing sleep."

"Oh, Iím surely unable to say," Liuta fairly shouted in a voice hollow with terror. Her blue eyes had gone as pale as her cheeks; her face was like a clay mask. She opened her clenched hands in a pleading gesture.

Adriana resisted the impulse to strike the quivering mouth with her open hand. The terror and guilt in the girlís eyes melted her hostility. No, she thought, with an honesty that cost her some effort, sheís not to blame.

She put a finger under Liutaís chin and raised the suffering face to confront her own.

"Does my husband know that I know?" she asked. "Did you tell him?"

Liuta shook her head.

"Calm yourself and act like a grown woman," Adriana said quietly. "No one has threatened you. No one has accused you of anything."

The girl bowed and ran out of the room with quick little steps, making noises in her throat.

Adriana rang her hand-bell. Salvia appeared out of the gloom.

"Liuta is excused for the rest of the day," Adriana said. "Sheís not feeling well."

The confrontation had left Adriana none the wiser, but it had satisfied the woman in her. Now she felt her anger rising at Quintus for betraying her in her own house. The court, at least, would be ecstatic; everyoneís suspicions would be deliciously confirmed. Eager hints would become rhapsodic proclamations; backstairs whispers would be babbled aloud in the corridors of the Palatine complex.

After a struggle with herself she kept the custom of the morning and went alone to Quintusís apartment. As always, his attiring room looked windswept and severe: a plain chest, a narrow mirror, a low divan spread with furs. Adriana draped her mantle over her head, went to the window, and put her hand on the ledge for support. She heard Quintus enter the room, and felt the blood drain from her face. She turned and saluted him with a grave nod. The gesture, repeated thousands of times, was curiously religious and solemn, like a mystery of the Church.

He smiled with boyish candor, a little too boyish.

"There it isóher lovely face," he said gaily. His voice was busy and affable. "The day is needlessly grey. You must be cold. Would you care for a cup of spiced wine?"

She looked at him with stinging eyes, her tongue vibrating with spiteful remarks that it would be unprofitable to make. Quintus fumbled with the ceremonial toga of the Urban Prefect, thick with gold embroidery .

"Only you can drape this thing properly, dear," he said with unnecessary brightness.

She lingered over the rich folds of the garment. "You seem overwrought today, Quintus," she said in a studied monotone. "Are you sure youíve had enough sleep?"

His lips smiled; his eyes were startled and troubled.

"It must be the weather," she continued. "I lay awake a good part of the night myself, worrying about the lack of discipline among our servants."

"In honesty, you have yourself to blame for their sloppiness," he smiled, not unkindly, but with an odd vibration in his voice.

"Not their sloppiness, Quintus. Their treachery."

"Truly?"

"I was thinking of my maid Liuta in particular. If one didnít know that sheís German, one could guess it from her fair skin, and from the fact that sheís an extremely poor liar. Her little rosebud mouth may lie, but her eyes give her away."

She could not keep her eyes on his dissembling face. She looked at his feet. His toes curled nervously in his fashionable red-leather boots.

"Really I should be going," he said brusquely. "My clients. . . ."

With a graceful sidestep she stopped his movement toward the door. The silence in the room hurt her ears.

"You and Liuta are alike in that single respect," she said, pressing her point without mercy. "When your mouths lie, your eyes tell the truth."

A slave appeared in the half-open doorway and scurried away at Adrianaís emphatic gesture.

"What is your point?" Quintus blurted.

"Will you insist that you donít know? Quintus," she said at last, forcing herself to look at his troubled eyes, "today Iím a widow, or a divorced woman. For years I was too simple to know the difference between a wife and a whore, but now I know. It is God who makes husband and wife. That hasnít been the case with us. A notary witnessed our contract, a bishop mumbled over us, and we slept together. Thatís not a marriage. If the mere sharing of a bed makes a marriage, you must have more wives than you can conveniently number."

"I donít know what you mean," he said stiffly.

"Of course you do." She patted the final fold of his toga. "I mean that Iím Romeís most exclusive whore. As the Ďwifeí of the Urban Prefect, Iím the flagship of a whole fleet of whores. The only thing that distinguishes me from the others is that youíve claimed me publicly as your own."

"My mistakes were made long ago," he asserted lamely.

"Long ago? Quintus, why lie?" Adriana snapped, with a rush of anger that she could not suppress. "Like most men, youíre part little-boy. Thatís the part that breaks its word and sneaks around in heat, and gets itself caught with both hands under the loincloth of a German cowgirl."

His cheeks were purple, his forehead white. Who told you? his eyes asked.

"Flavia," she said wearily, "in answer to your unspoken question. She must have heard something from her eunuchs. As you know, she sees no harm in telling the truth when significant damage can be done by it."

Her voice sounded like that of a tired old woman. "My wanderings led me to the slave quarters last night. I opened Liutaís door, and closed it."

"How dare you?" he asked, white-lipped.

"How dare you?" she answered. "I offer no apology for visiting my maids at my convenience."

"There is nothing more detestable than a spying wife."

"There is one thing more detestable. It is a husband without self-control or common sense."

Quintus glared at her wordlessly.

"Make faces if it pleases you," she said softly. "I remind you that you do not have the moral advantage over me this morning."

"Why are women so much like children?" he asked petulantly. "Youíre as whiny as a child whoís required to share a toy. You should have outgrown possessiveness."

"Itís instructive that you regard yourself as a toy," she retorted. "How must you regard me? But let us say, as you suggest, that Iím a child. Which is more infantile, Quintus? A child who expects loyalty, or an adult too weak to keep his word, and too shallow to be honest about his weakness?"

"This conversation could drone on indefinitely," Quintus grimaced. "You seem to have a great deal to say."

"One thing more. I will have a divorce." 

"Very well, the woman divorces her husband," he said, with a gesture intended to be flippant. "I must now ask you to allow me the liberty of getting to work."

"With pleasure," she answered. "I was about to go away myself."

She turned her shoulder to him, passed down the corridor between two rows of silent servants who had drawn aside to give her way, and locked herself in her own apartment for the rest of the morning.

*

If it were not for the emperorís banquet, Adriana thought resentfully, she could have spent her twilight hours playing the lyre in her summer-house. Instead, she would spend the evening absorbing artificial smells, artificial sounds, artificial sights, celebrating the loveless betrothal of Maximusís feeble-minded son to Valentinianís coldly pious daughter.

"Dress me, then," she said wearily to Salvia.

"What dress does Your Magnificence select?"

"Give me the deep-blue colobium and the pearl headdress. Or anything else you like."

Mindful of her mood, the maids brought her clothes in a hurry. The blue-silk robe owed its inspiration to the Empress Eudocia at Constantinople, with all the grace of the eastern court in its folds. The headdress was an heirloom that mingled pearls with a few choice brilliants.

Standing before the mirror, Adriana studied her finished image. Nothing in her appearance had seemed wholly satisfactory since her confrontation with Quintus.

"Madam is perfection," a younger maid murmured wistfully. "How well the necklace suits the doveís throat of Your Magnificence."

"Not bad," Adriana said, appraising herself in the mirror. "Really, Verina, isnít it astonishing what paint and glittering pebbles can do for the human face? Iím sure Iím contemptible without them."

"Oh, it must be wonderful," the girl exclaimed, entirely in her own world, "to be right there under the emperorís eye with all the wine and the jewels and a million lights, and to have pretty boys bring you things, and have them mutilated if they donít do it right."

"Does it seem wonderful to you?" Adriana asked, seeing the fire of sincerity in the girlís shining face. "I should send you in my place. I donít suppose Quintus would mind. Why didnít I think of it before?"

The girl fidgeted.

"Really, Verina," Adriana said kindly, "be glad you can stay at home. An evening on the Palatine would convince you that the devil is a woman. What seems like gain is often loss. Iím not half as free as I used to be, and Iím much more bored. There are days when Iíd like to pull off all this twinkling trash and throw it out the window, and go roll in the garden like a dog or an imbecile."

She arranged her headdress with a spiteful wrench and pinned it into place herself.

"Damn the court," she said wearily. "Iím like a blind ass dragging a mill-wheel in circles."

She prepared to face Quintus. As she turned to leave her mirror, she saw him standing in her doorway with an ivory comb on a gold plate. Caught off guard, she felt a rush of sympathy for him, which she suppressed immediately.

"Quintus, please," she said, "donít be pitiful. You donít have the touch."

His wide-set eyes were meek. He turned the gift-plate in his hands.

"I do miss the old days," he said wistfully. "There was a time when you enjoyed dining in the Presence."

"Oh, I adore it still," Adriana answered. "Where else could one find such a variety of ill will and bad taste?"

"You seem bitter," Quintus said, bravely attempting a show of concern.

"How like you!" she shouted. "When the twins died, you said, ĎYou seem sad.í Is there any human emotion that you share enough to be moved by itósaying nothing of your damnable indifference to principle?"

Her voice broke. She fought for mastery of her tears. Her maids were frozen in place, their eyes wide with shock.

"If that is a gift for me," she pointed, "I do not accept it. Do you intend to wag your way back into my confidence like a whipped dog? You canít do it any more, Quintus, because you never change. You only buy time in which you go on doing what you prefer to do."

"I see." He shrugged with a helpless expression. "Whatís to come after today, then?"

"For the sake of appearances, Iíll see you through the misery of todayís banquet for Palladius and Placidia, and the emperorís birthday races next week. After that, Iíll leave this house as fast as my bearers can run."

"Where will you go?"

"To Nomentum, the only place on earth thatís mine alone."

"Youíll regret leaving your garden," he coaxed.

"I canít afford to keep it," she said, banging the lid on her powder-case.

*

Attended by a single eunuch apiece, Quintus and Adriana entered the imperial palace through drifts of rose petals scattered over the marble floor. At a safe distance ahead of them, Faustinus walked with Flavia, radiant in a flesh-pink colobium, with fashionable soft Persian boots.

"You do look magnificent," Quintus said, turning to Adriana with the crisp amiability that he used to manage discomfort. "As always, youíll be a threat to the women and a delight to the men."

"Damn them and their delight," Adriana said.

"I donít see why we canít be civil at least," Quintus said darkly.

"If Ďbeing civilí means shallow affability, Iím sure it can be managed in time," Adriana answered, aware that she was making him miserable, and unwilling to stop.

In the glow of several thousand lamps, the banquet hall, created by the emperor Domitian four centuries earlier, seemed like a lawn spread with roses. Glowing with delicate colors, the elegant crowd ebbed and flowed, breaking into little backwaters of conversation that murmured like the sea.

Adriana armed herself with a distant look. The court, with its godlike consciousness of everything hardly worth knowing, would soon know the details of Quintusís adultery and the ensuing disharmony in his house. The court knew who starved their slaves in order to finance unaffordable dinner-parties; who wore silk underwear and who wore wool; whose daughters had a taste for opium and circumcised boys from Egypt; whose great-grandfather had been broiled for blasphemy in Gaul; whose sons put on pink stolas and eye-shadow, and slunk around the Subura after dark; who was suffering from diarrhea or a social disease or disloyal clients or a drunken wife who would predictably weep and make her rouge run at the emperorís banquets.

Through a break in the sea of heads, she saw Senator Eparchius Avitus, towering white-headed over his neighbors. Aware that Lady Castoria was glooming at her, and would probably imagine an adultery with a man three times her age, Adriana waved her fan delightedly at Avitus and caught the old manís bow of acknowledgment. Her childhood friend was an oddity among the crisp bureaucrats of Maximusís court. He seemed to have survived from the time of Constantine, draped in his old-fashioned mantle as if he had risen from a hundred-year nap and brought the bedclothes with him. His white hair, however, was immaculately brushed, and his clear eyes showed no sign of senility.

She smiled her thanks to the slave who had bathed her feet, and rose to greet Avitus.

"Your Incandescence shines on us again, madam," the old man said, advancing to meet Adriana with a little bow, and to greet Quintus with a civil nod.

"I come to please my husband. He comes to please the emperor."

"Here you have pleasure enough for everyone," Avitus smiled, looking around: "flowers, scandalous robes, pickled flamingo tongues, noise enough to raise the dead and kill the living."

"Frankly, donít you hate these things?" Adriana said in an undertone.

"I take senile pleasure in watching other people eat forbidden fruit," Avitus said. "I canít imagine why you should be bored, with your splendid effects, and crushed and pulverized rivals."

"Mine is the familiarity that breeds contempt, Iím afraid," Adriana said. "Iíd love to care, but I donít think I can."

"On the other hand, why care?" Avitus said. "It wrinkles the face. Look at me: so wise and so worn out. The two seem to go hand in hand."

The old man and the youngish woman had tacitly agreed to laugh at most things. They were a tonic to one another. With a touch of pain, Adriana noticed the curious emptiness of Avitusís wonderful mantle, as if the owner were shrinking, perhaps from emptiness of the heart. Well, they would laugh at that if the occasion arose.

She caught sight of Faustinus in fashionable silk hose and soft red boots.

"Whoís that striking man over there?" she asked Avitus, continuing a game she had played with him as a child. "The one with the ice-blue eyes. He has such an imperial quality."

"Gaius Faustinus, I think the name is," Avitus nodded, taking up the game. "His father sold rotten corn to the army. He says he comes to these banquets to admire the shoulders of the women. He says heís dazzled by the beauty of Roman women, especially their shoulders."

"Ah. Itís kind of him not to mention their ankles. Do you suppose heís ambitious?"

"Iím sure heíd be depressed to know that you think so," Avitus frowned. "Youíre expected not to notice. He prefers to move like a shark in a swimming cove. By the time one discovers his ambition, one is half gone."

An usher stood respectfully at Adrianaís elbow; the emperorís head-usher announced her name and Quintusís, and beckoned with his golden staff.

"I believe itís time to go in," she said wearily, "and watch their mouths move, and listen to their voices, and see them eat. What would happen if someone should read the prophet Jeremiah to these people. Would they yawn and applaud?"

Avitus shrugged and smiled his farewell. Adriana moved to Quintusís side and followed the brilliantly liveried usher to the imperial sigma, with its grand view of the dining hall and the garden beyond. Lady Sempronia, the energetic wife of Nectarius, Maximusís feeble Praetorian Prefect, had taken her assigned place between Adriana and the princess Eudocia. Lady Quartilla, wife of the Master of Offices, was on Adrianaís left. The women stood by the couch, waiting for the emperor.

"Dear Adriana!"

"Dearest Adriana!"

The ladies trained their beaks on her, like pale, ill-natured birds, and returned to scanning the crowd for safe subjects of ridicule. Adrianaís eyes moved mechanically along with theirs, searching the faces of the massed courtiers for signs of honesty and purpose, or even happiness. The times were hostile to happiness. Sad rumors circulated about Maximus himself: that he had aged beyond belief, and only thick cosmetics could prevent one from seeing it; that the essential coldness of his disposition was expressed daily in the death of slaves; that he cowered behind the palace guard, fearing the concealed knife and the poisoned goblet, seeing an enemy in every shadow, hearing the hiss of an assassinís arrow in every breeze.

A muffled horn-note sounded; an absolute silence fell over the standing guests, who dropped to their right knees in unison. Like robed spirits, the emperor and empress appeared in the smoke of incense curling up from tripods at each end of the imperial dining couch. Among the guards standing attendance on the emperorís family were the sinister Huns Optila and Traustila, looking like starved wrestlers, a thousand chiseled angles with no softness except under the high cheekbones. Petronius Maximus, massive in purple silk, moved to his place at the center of the sigma, made the sign of the cross over his guests, and reclined like a prostrate effigy of Jove. The empress lay down at his left hand. The court droned its ritual acclamations: Thou art truly glorious, newly glorious. . . .

During the hand-washing and the distribution of garlands, Adriana watched the imperial family. It seemed not to be on the best of terms. Maximus was transparently out of sorts. Glowing with pearls, the empress Eudoxia seemed to have retired into a world of her own making. Maximusís son Palladius lay in the place of honor next to his father. A pudgy dull-eyed boy, he seemed supremely uncomfortable, as though he were restraining gas. Not once had he looked at his intended wife by her motherís side, Valentinianís daughter, the saintly Placidia, who had tormented her father for years with prattle about becoming a nun.

The imperial waiters laid out the meal with deft hands, naming each course aloud in a soothing monotone: Fresh oysters from Britannia, in tunny sauce, with lettuce. Young lobsters from Trapezus. Pheasant sausages. . . . Peacocksí eggs. . . . For Adriana the imperial fare always seemed overdressed: wonderful to look at, but more natural to wear than to eat. Habitually she drank much and ate little at state banquets, and went home intoxicated but free from heartburn. The formula had a beneficial effect on her figure, besides enabling her to bear the tedium of her neighborsí conversation.

"The pheasant is marvelous, is it not?" said Lady Sempronia, with no particular conviction.

"Exquisite," Adriana said, and swallowed a mouthful of wine.

A shower of rose-petals from the ceiling announced the first of the eveningís entertainments. Strange writhing sounds from the orchestra introduced a troupe of Moorish female dancers with spangles on their nipples and gold-embroidered loin-wraps. The Moors exited. They were followed by a troupe of six Persian boys with trained leopards, presenting a song and dance whose refrain, in the beastly gibberish of the East, sounded like Our lapdogs are hungry for more.

The dry murmur of the waiters continued: Kidneys with African figs. Wind-thrushes from the Tagus, with asparagus from Tarentum. Flowers fell in renewed freshets from the ceiling. A flourish on the hydraulic organ announced a wedding-ode for Placidia and the dull-eyed prince Palladius, who had shown no emotion during the evening. The poet was Maximusís favorite, a pale young man with a preposterous nose and a dense beard that seemed to twitch by itself with no proportional movement of the jaw.

"That," said Lady Quartilla in a loud voice, "is Lady Tullianaís house-pet. I understand his serpent dangles to his knees and performs the most outlandish tricks."

"He has a gorgeous beard," Adriana answered, yawning. She detested the game.

"Indeed," Lady Quartilla continued, "and a most capable-looking nose, too. One can imagine him cleaning the house with it."

The poetry was imitation Claudian, but with no depth and no lyricism. To wild applause, the poet made a little bow which seemed to imply that his pearls had been cast before swine. Adrianaís too-familiar disgust had overtaken her. The dinner seemed excessively long and stupid, and it was hardly half over. The salmon churned in her stomach. The scurrilous chatter of her neighbors had given her a headache. She almost never thought angrily of another womanís beauty, but now she found herself irritably examining Lady Bibulaís elegant profile and jewel-like eyes, and wondering why such external excellences should be wasted on a woman who could neither spell her own name nor clean her own fingernails, and who thought Aristotle was the chief city of Greece.

A second whoop from the hydraulic organ directed attention to Faustinus, rising from his couch with a scroll in his hands. Evidently he was to deliver a wedding ode of his own. The evening was taking on the qualities of a minor nightmare. Faustinus prostrated himself dramatically on the rose-strewn floor, head toward the Presence, arms outstretched. He stood to recite. The first strophe was harmless wind. Prince, brighter than the Day-Star, to whom Bacchus is second in the esteem of Lydia, before whose arrows the beasts fall of their own accord. . . .

Palladius, the groom-to-be, belched, understanding none of it. The princess Placidia, his intended bride, seemed to be grinding a yawn between her teeth. Adriana was bemused in spite of herself. Faustinusís gestures were well-managed, making the best possible use of the poetís athletic body, displayed in a gauzy synthesis to show its hard lines. But his eyes gave him away, the eyes of a tomcat evaluating a bird.

Eel-pout with garlic sauce, a waiter announced in an undertone, and Adriana ignored the dish. She listened more closely. Faustinusís sonorities were becoming political. The poem had skipped lightly over the bride; the subject had shifted to the emperor and his assorted graces. The gravity of Your Majesty is its own advocate. The strengths that lesser men affect are Yours by nature. Into the chaos made by Your inferiors, You step with magisterial tread, modest yet stern. . . .

Adriana glanced at her sister, who had not met her eyes all evening. Smiling her toxic smile, Flavia glittered like a glass mosaic, an abstraction of cold elegance, splendidly wrapped in silk, wearing lightly the fortune in jewels that studded her headdress. Why did she refuse to look up?

The recitation had become a hymn to Maximus now, a hero struggling to preserve Romeís grandeur against her enemies in high places. You will snatch the city back from destruction, brought upon her by the manifold crimes of the Incompetence that dares to take her name as its own. . . .

Adriana rose on one elbow, feeling rage rise below her throat. No one could have missed the bald allusion to Quintus. Several pairs of eyes glanced in Adrianaís direction.

"You seem unwell, Lady Adriana," Lady Quartilla whispered with every evidence of hope.

"Iím being beaten to death with the jawbone of an ass," Adriana answered sharply.

She glanced at the emperor. His thoughts were impossible to read. His pulpy face, impassive in the orgy of lies, resembled a dismal moon floating among the clouds of an unwholesome dream. Palladius was nodding. His attendant passed a cloth over the tabletop before him, preparatory to the princeís usual midmeal nap.

Faustinusís lies were now in full flow. Adrianaís anger threatened to break out of control. Her scalp perspired and prickled. She took off her garland and nibbled at the rose-petals. Faustinus glanced at her, noticing the insolence, and blinked once, a tiny acknowledgment.

Banish, O Justice, the monstrosity that turns the suffering of Rome to gold, that builds a palace for itself in the tomb of the people! Thrust it down, below the depths of Tartarus, into the lightless prison of the Titans! And remember, in Your Clemency, the sober servants of truth who labor in obscurity. . . .

"Faustinus has never been one to hide his light under a bushel," Lady Sempronia whispered.

"Something much smaller than a bushel would serve the purpose," Adriana muttered.

She yawned rudely, spilled a little wine on the table in front of her, and stirred it with a grape, waving off the attending slave with her other hand. Faustinus looked at her openly and blinked twice. His voice caught, not enough to interrupt the flow of his pernicious nonsense, which returned to the happy couple and concluded the poem. And may you, united by the bonds of love, rejoice in the glorious legacy of Majesty that guides to safe harbor the storm-tossed bark of State, and restores to her decks and holds the harmonious order of heaven. . . .

Quintus, whom Faustinus had pointedly blamed for the condition of the city, seemed politely unconcerned.

Challenge him, you jackass! Adrianaís thoughts shouted. She tried unsuccessfully to catch Quintusís eye across the table. The room crackled with applause. Faustinus bowed again and again.

"Marvellous, that last fall of the voice," Lady Quartilla murmured as the applause died.

In a fury, Adriana snapped her fingers at her attending slave, whispered in his ear, and took the small gold piece that he produced from the folds of his tunic. She tossed the coin. It landed squarely between Faustinusís feet.

"Accept," she said loudly, rising on her couch, "my tribute to a performance worthy of the theater. Your Sincerityís delivery is faultless. And as always, you show a fine aptitude for self-congratulation in the face of rude fact."

The guests surged in their couches. A shocked Au! ran through the great room, ending in a silence so complete that the cracking of a guardís ankle-bone sounded like a droverís whip.

"I have missed some subtlety in my own words?" Faustinus asked.

"I am never subtle," Adriana said, articulating every syllable in a clear voice that penetrated all the astounded silences in the room. "I intend to pay Your Sincerity a compliment. It is this: that there must be a special place in our esteem for the physician who diagnoses diseases that he himself has caused."

The empress looked at the floor; Princess Placidia looked at the ceiling. There was a mournful clatter of a dropped fan. Adriana heard the emperor giggle in his distinctive way. Faustinus held her face with his pale eyes.

"We are found incompetent in our minor office?" he purred, pretending to ignore the clear meaning of her words, though the look of cold murder in his eyes told her that he had understood her exactly.

He manufactured a patronizing smile.

"How feminine to think as you do, Lady Adriana," he said, "but you speculate beyond your information. Itís a shame. Thought tends to produce wrinkles in a perfect face."

A murmur of amusement went through the room, followed by silence. The guests turned to Adriana, awaiting her reply.

She echoed Faustinusís smile.

"Itís intriguing that you should say so," she said clearly, "considering that the wrinkles in Your Sincerityís face were put there by ambition."

"Thatís not the remark of a friend, Lady Adriana."

"Perhaps, then, my lord, we should consider ourselves enemies."

Raising his eyebrows, Faustinus held her face with an ice-blue gaze that certified his acceptance of the challenge. He turned abruptly, prostrated himself before the emperor once more, and walked back to his couch in a spatter of hand-clapping and an embarrassed murmur of voices.

The emperorís guests busied themselves with their desserts. The evening deteriorated into a purposeless clutter of sensations: flutes shrilling; a shower of violets from the ceiling; a charlatan vomiting flames. The emperor rose from his couch and made the sign of the cross. The guests, rising with him, dropped to their knees as the imperial family exited in a swirl of incense and organ notes.

Adrianaís path to the palace vestibule crossed Avitusís.

"You seem hurried," she smiled at the old man. "Has Faustinus frightened you away?"

"Even an old bird may be alarmed by a scarecrow," Avitus answered, making a face.

"When will you leave for Gaul?"

Avitus sighed regretfully. "Tomorrow, madam. Everything is ready. Rome is simply not safe. Itís a madhouse, a thicket of rumors. To my sorrow, Iíve heard one bit of news that canít be dismissed. A German fleet is said to be moving this way across the Tyrrhenian sea. This is not something that Maximus wants the people to know. I only know it myself because I kept an ear open in Count Majorianís presence yesterday, when a dispatch by carrier-bird came in from Sicily."

He put a finger to his lips. "Say nothing to anyone. Above all, donít mention my name. Be careful. Dear Adriana," he whispered with a sympathetic smile, "you surely havenít heard the end of this evening. Iím afraid youíve excited the hostility of a very dangerous person."

She bowed and turned to leave. Quintus intercepted her, on his way to an obligatory drinking bout for the emperorís male friends, in honor of Prince Palladius.

He took her by the arm.

"Your wine," he said grimly, his fingers biting into her elbow, "has overwhelmed your discretion."

"Try to be explicit," she snapped.

"You seem to wait for opportunities to embarrass me," he complained. "Do you understand that I have to work with these people?"

"Why is it," she asked, turning to him, "that everything embarrasses you except indecency?"

"If this is your revenge. . . ."

"It is not revenge, Quintus," she said firmly, "and I do not apologize."

She turned on her heel and left the banquet-hall, trailing her eunuch. Her litter joined the exodus from the Palatine. The emperorís guests dispersed, swallowed up in the night, like a handful of jewels and gold-dust flung into a dark stream.

The western sky had a faint rose tint; the palace windows glowed on the Viminal hill. Riding alone toward the Quirinal, Adriana was tempted to get out of the litter and walk ahead of it, enjoying the gusts of perfume that drifted into the streets from unseen villa gardens. She was pleased with her indifference to Quintusís anger, but Avitusís words had unsettled her deeply. Chaos was overtaking the city and no one seemed aware of it; and there was nothing to do but watch and wait.


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