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.
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.
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.
herself out of bed. The door opened quietly; Adrianaís
old head-maid presented herself with a dumpy bow.
be in the attiring room in a moment, Salvia," Adriana
said. "Have Liuta come to me alone."
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.
the lights closer, Liuta," Adriana said crisply.
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
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
is perfection," the girl said, choking a little.
my hair, dear."
fingers moved stiffly. Occasionally they brushed
Adrianaís neck. They were ice-cold and quivering.
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?"
Iím sure itís perfectly smooth, madam," the girl
said with an expulsion of air like wind in a tunnel.
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."
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
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.
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.
my husband know that I know?" she asked. "Did
you tell him?"
yourself and act like a grown woman," Adriana said
quietly. "No one has threatened you. No one has
accused you of anything."
bowed and ran out of the room with quick little steps,
making noises in her throat.
rang her hand-bell. Salvia appeared out of the gloom.
is excused for the rest of the day," Adriana said.
"Sheís not feeling well."
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.
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.
with boyish candor, a little too boyish.
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
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 .
you can drape this thing properly, dear," he said
with unnecessary brightness.
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
smiled; his eyes were startled and troubled.
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."
honesty, you have yourself to blame for their
sloppiness," he smiled, not unkindly, but with an odd
vibration in his voice.
their sloppiness, Quintus. Their treachery."
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
not keep her eyes on his dissembling face. She looked at
his feet. His toes curled nervously in his fashionable
I should be going," he said brusquely. "My
clients. . . ."
graceful sidestep she stopped his movement toward the
door. The silence in the room hurt her ears.
and Liuta are alike in that single respect," she
said, pressing her point without mercy. "When your
mouths lie, your eyes tell the truth."
appeared in the half-open doorway and scurried away at
Adrianaís emphatic gesture.
is your point?" Quintus blurted.
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."
donít know what you mean," he said stiffly.
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."
mistakes were made long ago," he asserted lamely.
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
were purple, his forehead white. Who told you? his
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."
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."
dare you?" he asked, white-lipped.
dare you?" she answered. "I offer no
apology for visiting my maids at my convenience."
is nothing more detestable than a spying wife."
is one thing more detestable. It is a husband without
self-control or common sense."
glared at her wordlessly.
faces if it pleases you," she said softly. "I
remind you that you do not have the moral advantage over
me this morning."
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
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?"
conversation could drone on indefinitely," Quintus
grimaced. "You seem to have a great deal to
thing more. I will have a divorce."
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."
pleasure," she answered. "I was about to go away
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.
me, then," she said wearily to Salvia.
dress does Your Magnificence select?"
me the deep-blue colobium and the pearl headdress.
Or anything else you like."
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.
before the mirror, Adriana studied her finished image.
Nothing in her appearance had seemed wholly satisfactory
since her confrontation with Quintus.
is perfection," a younger maid murmured wistfully.
"How well the necklace suits the doveís throat of
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."
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."
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?"
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
arranged her headdress with a spiteful wrench and pinned
it into place herself.
the court," she said wearily. "Iím like a
blind ass dragging a mill-wheel in circles."
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.
please," she said, "donít be pitiful. You
donít have the touch."
wide-set eyes were meek. He turned the gift-plate in his
miss the old days," he said wistfully. "There
was a time when you enjoyed dining in the Presence."
adore it still," Adriana answered. "Where else
could one find such a variety of ill will and bad
seem bitter," Quintus said, bravely attempting a show
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?"
broke. She fought for mastery of her tears. Her maids were
frozen in place, their eyes wide with shock.
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."
see." He shrugged with a helpless expression.
"Whatís to come after today, then?"
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."
will you go?"
Nomentum, the only place on earth thatís mine
regret leaving your garden," he coaxed.
canít afford to keep it," she said, banging the lid
on her powder-case.
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.
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."
them and their delight," Adriana said.
donít see why we canít be civil at least,"
Quintus said darkly.
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.
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.
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
her thanks to the slave who had bathed her feet, and rose
to greet Avitus.
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.
come to please my husband. He comes to please the
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."
donít you hate these things?" Adriana said in an
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."
is the familiarity that breeds contempt, Iím
afraid," Adriana said. "Iíd love to care, but
I donít think I can."
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.
sight of Faustinus in fashionable silk hose and soft red
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
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."
Itís kind of him not to mention their ankles. Do you
suppose heís ambitious?"
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."
stood respectfully at Adrianaís elbow; the emperorís
head-usher announced her name and Quintusís, and
beckoned with his golden staff.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
. . .
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.
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.
pheasant is marvelous, is it not?" said Lady
Sempronia, with no particular conviction.
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.
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.
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
has a gorgeous beard," Adriana answered, yawning. She
detested the game.
Lady Quartilla continued, "and a most capable-looking
nose, too. One can imagine him cleaning the house with
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.
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. . . .
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.
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. . . .
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?
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. . . .
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.
seem unwell, Lady Adriana," Lady Quartilla whispered
with every evidence of hope.
being beaten to death with the jawbone of an ass,"
Adriana answered sharply.
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.
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.
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. . . .
has never been one to hide his light under a bushel,"
Lady Sempronia whispered.
much smaller than a bushel would serve the purpose,"
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. . . .
whom Faustinus had pointedly blamed for the condition of
the city, seemed politely unconcerned.
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.
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.
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
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
have missed some subtlety in my own words?" Faustinus
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."
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.
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.
manufactured a patronizing smile.
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
A murmur of
amusement went through the room, followed by silence. The
guests turned to Adriana, awaiting her reply.
intriguing that you should say so," she said clearly,
"considering that the wrinkles in Your Sincerityís
face were put there by ambition."
not the remark of a friend, Lady Adriana."
then, my lord, we should consider ourselves enemies."
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.
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.
path to the palace vestibule crossed Avitusís.
seem hurried," she smiled at the old man. "Has
Faustinus frightened you away?"
an old bird may be alarmed by a scarecrow," Avitus
answered, making a face.
will you leave for Gaul?"
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
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.
wine," he said grimly, his fingers biting into her
elbow, "has overwhelmed your discretion."
to be explicit," she snapped.
seem to wait for opportunities to embarrass me," he
complained. "Do you understand that I have to work
with these people?"
is it," she asked, turning to him, "that
everything embarrasses you except indecency?"
this is your revenge. . . ."
not revenge, Quintus," she said firmly, "and I
do not apologize."
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
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.