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Chapter 5

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She arrived at Nomentum in time to enjoy the last of the rural spring. It lingered in the shaded hollows along the Tiber, and on the hills. Her blood tingled with it. The olives were still in white flower; the blossoming of honeysuckle was yet to come. The serfs were in the fields, a sign of spring. Women and children worked placidly alongside the men; infants too young to tag along in the furrows slept in the shade of old oak trees.

The villa had been ready to receive her, the bedrooms made up, the cook in residence, the kitchen fires lit, the donkey-post shuttling between the estate-house and the market in Nomentum. As she passed through the main gate, pleasantly exhausted by the canter from Rome, the ancient porter had greeted her with an ecstatic bow, and Justus the farm-steward had come hobbling across the villa yard, both arms outstretched, with a toothless grin that joined his ears. The serf-women had murmured their bashful greetings; the serf-children, fond of Adriana, had shrieked at the sight of her and run to pat Ferox’s shoulders.

For two weeks, at the crack of every dawn, she heard goats’ bells outside her bedroom window. She jumped out of bed at the first tinkle and threw open the shutters, letting the smell of green things pour into her life. She spent her mornings like gold coins, tasting, feeling, absorbing the season: dreaming in the vine-covered ruins on the hills, taking long walks on the spongy turf by the Tiber, working out with a bladder-ball, climbing a tree from time to time when the servants were not looking.

At the end of her second week on the farm she spent an active morning in the saddle, taking her farm-steward’s youngest son for companionship. The boy, a fair rider, had fallen off his pony twice. She had worn him out. Wearing an old riding-tunic and old boots, she had pushed back the limits of her world again, setting spurs to her horse on the silent flats along the Tiber, going upriver with some caution for the animal’s sake, then galloping back as briskly as Ferox could lay his drumming hoofs to the ground.

Back on her own property she passed through a serf-hamlet, scattering pigs and chickens. She saw a male serf dragging rude furniture out of his house, and another burying copper coins under a chestnut tree. She tried to meet their eyes, usually friendly. They turned away with something worse than anxiety on their uncomplicated faces.

At home she summoned Justus the vilicus.

"What can be the matter with my people?" she asked.

The steward sniffed the air, as when he predicted snow.

"They’ve heard that the barbarians are coming."

"Lord! Why would they come here?"

"Pardon me, Lioness, why not?" Albus answered with an apologetic little bow. "We’re next to the road. Why should the straw-haired trash go six miles inland to Lady Candida’s?"

She was irritated. Why was the mistress of an estate-house always the last person to know of danger—indeed, the last to know anything useful? Perhaps there was nothing to the behavior of the serfs, who were endlessly available to superstitious terrors. Nevertheless, the house-servants, who normally made fun of the field-workers’ anxieties, had seemed downcast all day. Even the kennels seemed to share in the general anxiety; the dogs howled in the late afternoon as if a natural disaster loomed.

Her worst memories of Africa assailed her. Could they be coming again? Where would she hide? Wherever she hid, they would come looking for her, the human refuse that the Vandal army had gathered like a giant street-rake: death-pale Germans, tawny Moors, black Ethiopians, brass-colored Huns, mud-hued rabble of Egypt, all lean and sun-dried and with the soulless eyes of hyenas, men who hastened greedily to do the foul bidding of Geiseric, King of Terrors. Wasn’t there enough in Rome to satisfy their greed? Would the old farmhouse stand with blackened window-spaces in years to come, given over to shepherds, lizards, and winter rain?

She climbed one of the watchtowers of the house and stood in the windless dusk. A dull sunset promised grey weather to come. Tiny lights twinkled along the peasant paths on the hills, shrines once lit to Ceres, now to the Virgin. The memory of her parents came to her in the reedy notes of a shepherd boy, piping on a spring-green hill.

A suggestion of smoke dulled the pink horizon. She listened above the evening breeze, and heard a heavy, indistinct rhythm underlying it. The sense of time left her; night seemed to fall in an instant. A bellow, like that of an irritable ox, interrupted the sleepy conversation of the barnyard. Light dust rose over the highway. The nightingales stopped singing in the villa garden. There was a thunder of alien hoofs and wheels somewhere that Adriana could not see.

Her mouth went dry; cold moisture broke out on her forehead. She gathered her long tunic in her hands, stumbled down the tower steps, and hurried toward her private rooms, sure that her whispering footfalls could be heard all over the house. In the dusky corridors, lamps smoked in their sconces. The slaves who tended them had disappeared. No doubt they had followed the serfs into the woods. She cursed their flightiness and disloyalty.

A chill draft blew through the corridor outside her apartment. She hesitated, shivering, at the top of the stairs that led to the kitchen.

In the central hall of the building, just out of sight, steel jarred against stone. The intruders were already in the house. An authoritative German voice crisped the air, asserting itself above the general drone.

Adriana’s thoughts scattered like roaches into the dark corners of the estate: there was hardly time to hide. The outbuildings had rooms for drying beans, storing lumber, hanging the wash in bad weather. Could she get out of the house and across the darkening villa-yard without being seen? Would the stables preserve her, where she could keep warm in the hay? Surely the barbarians would come looking for fresh mounts. Could she run overland to Lady Candida’s by way of the half-hidden postern gate in the east wall? The Germans would surely come after her, and she could not bear to put her friend in danger.

"Let them come," she said quietly aloud.

She went to her sitting room and calmed herself by touching the familiar objects in it one by one, as if bidding them goodbye. From an ivory box in the corner cupboard she took what looked like a sinister toy, a tiny stiletto in a leather sheath. She inspected the blade, slick with its poisonous anointing, and tucked it safely back into its sheath. She blew out the lamp. In the semidarkness she nestled into her favorite wicker chair and folded her hands around the little knife in her lap.

Familiar objects in the room offered their consolation: a bowl of figs on a bronze table; her grandfather’s favorite bust of Virgil, smiling comfort through the gloom; the cheerful wall-frescoes blending into dusk: Venus laughing, Amazons prodding a griffin, Diana on horseback in the greenest of green glades.

She heard more voices now. The Germans had massed indoors. She could smell their torches, smoking and stinking in the central hall. There were dull thuds and little crashes, as if a platoon of slaves were cleaning the house with a great deal of energy and not much sense. In quiet anger she heard the sound of breaking glass, her mother’s prized pieces from Aquileia.

A chill passed over the back of her neck like a cold hand. There were boots, unmistakably, on the stairs. The intruder was coming on a light foot. Adriana gripped the handle of the tiny dagger and waited. A pale shaft of light crept under the locked door and moved back and forth over the floor as if gathering intelligence. The door was unarmored, centuries old. At the first tentative nudges from the body on the other side, the dry oak creaked, the hinges shifted. A sudden burst of energy broke the lock, and a young German fell into the room.

Motionless, silent, she watched while the boy collected himself, straightened his clothes, went back for his lantern, and returned. He held the lantern high, an elegant bronze construction with translucent ivory screens, no doubt pilfered from one of the estates down the road. The boy turned toward Adriana. He saw her, and nodded.

Her calm surprised her. Her friend Avitus would have admired it. The German is too smooth and pretty, she thought, to be doing what he does. His hair is like a girl’s hair, wheat-straw laced with honey.

The boy was tall by Roman standards. He seemed dressed partly for war, partly for recreation: white trousers of linen, a white-silk tunic, soft leather boots. Gold bracelets clasped his powerful forearms; a throwing-axe dangled from his belt. A wolfskin, a touch of boyish bravado, embraced his wide shoulders; the fanged head, thrown back behind his neck, appeared to howl at the ceiling. He was drunk; the air was full of disgusting malt liquors that would never pass the lips of a Roman.

The boy raised a forefinger to his lips and shook his head. The wolf’s head shook with it; the effect was ludicrous. He raised his big hands, apparently to show that he meant no harm, and walked toward Adriana unsteadily, moving his body at an angle, like a pup learning to run.

She slipped the dagger out of its sheath, raised it into plain view, and spoke distinctly.

"It’s tainted," she said. "Don’t come closer."

Nein, nein! the boy said in a liquid baritone, and then spoke in Latin. "Please. You will hurt yourself, madam."

He was close enough now to reach her. He rolled his eyes up toward the frescoed ceiling in an effort of concentration, shifted his weight onto one foot, and kicked the knife out of her hand with the other foot, so swiftly that she screamed more in surprise than in pain.

In a rage she leaped out of her chair and threw herself at him, butting his chest with her head, scratching at his bare neck, stamping at his toes, hardly interrupting his massive balance. She tangled herself in her robe and fell. His legs were spread, leaving the intermediate bulges undefended. Striking upward, she missed her target and hurt herself on his belt-buckle. She jumped at his lantern to knock it out, and missed.

The boy gathered her in a grip so tight that she had no choice but to yield. His long eyelashes blinked against her cheek; his breath hollowed in her ear.

She screamed again.

"It is good that you have screamed, madam," he said with grave satisfaction. "My men expect me to rape you. The scream will satisfy them."

"I’m sure I have no objection if you do," she spat in a rage of sarcasm. "Why don’t you invite them to watch?"

"Ach, because I am a Christian," the boy said, and began to hiccup.

"Your men are Christians too, no doubt. That’s why they ruin people’s houses and set their barns on fire. What will you tell them about me, if you’re too Christian to be a rapist?"

The boy thought for a moment. "That you got away. Yah, that you are not worth pursuing."

"I’m sure it’s true," she said, taken aback.

"Now you will listen," he said firmly, shaking a forefinger at her. "I am not a wild man. I will not hurt you, and you will not be allowed to hurt me. Sit down."

"I am mistress in my own house; I sit when I please," she said. "Did your father the devil tell you that I am at home?"

"Your door was closed, madam. All the others are open." His quite-respectable Latin was delivered in the hard accent of his people, like the crunching of dry bread.

"You came up alone. One wonders why."

"I told the others to stay. Besides, they are busy."

"Rumors of their busyness have reached me," she said bitterly, inclining her head toward the uncouth noises that drifted up the stair.

She studied the boy’s face. It had an attractive directness that in civilized circles would be mistaken for simplemindedness. He was supremely beautiful in the blond way of the Germans, with wide-set blue eyes and soft hair, styled short in the Roman fashion. His face would have been feminine in its beauty except for the square cut of the jaw. It was an interesting face, she admitted: too tough to be angelic, too wise to be infantile, far too conscientious for a rapist.

A feminine wail accompanied the noise of the barbarians up the stairwell, sending Adriana’s heart into her mouth. Could the Germans be tormenting one of the kitchen slaves?

"They will not injure her," the young captain said, reading the question in her eyes, and raising a big hand, as if in pledge. "They will take their pleasure, however."

He reddened perceptibly in the white light of the lantern. His long eyelashes fluttered.

"Madam, it is sad," he sighed tremulously, and hiccuped. "We do the things we should not do, and we do not do the things we should, as the Apostle Paul has written. The battle with our lower natures is never won."

She felt a bubble of laughter rising through her anger and despair, like clear water welling up through sewage.

"You’re a strange barbarian," she said, gathering her courage. "Is it usual for barbarians to pause for sentiment in the midst of pillage?"

The boy drew his eyebrows together in a drunken effort at concentration, and slightly crossed his eyes. The effect was so ludicrous that Adriana smiled in spite of herself.

"I do not know what ‘pillage’ is. If you mean slaughter, madam, there will be none. You must trust me."

"A trustworthy Vandal? Vah! Do donkeys nest in trees?"

The boy shook his head and raised his other hand. "No harm will come to you. My men have finished with your barns. They have taken the draft-animals and the wagons. The hay remains, however."

"It was good of them to spare the hay," she said with bitter sarcasm. "Why do you mention the barns?"

"It will be good for you to hide there. My men do not always obey me when they are drunk."

"I seem to have a narrow range of choices," she shrugged. "There’s a tunnel from the kitchen; better not to risk being seen in the yard."

The boy nodded and took the lead with his lantern. They moved silently down the stairwell, which ended in a corridor past the dining complex. Adriana tugged at his sleeve and drew him into the kitchen, dark except for a lingering glow on the hearth.

Heavy male voices rode a shaft of light from the banquet hall next door. The men were bawling nonsense, full of Adriana’s wine, a white flame to the blood. Soon they would break up the furniture to express their enthusiasm. She crossed herself and raged inwardly. She heard the hysterical, mirthless laughter of the kitchen-helper Blossia, and imagined her with her white knees in the air and a Vandal stretched out on her belly.

"Now, madam," the boy whispered, "while they are attending to the woman."

"Here," she responded, pressing open a door near the hearth. She knew she was leaning hard on the boy’s good will. If there were a drunken shift of temper she would be meat for the animals in the dining hall. She closed the tunnel door behind her and motioned the German ahead of her. Swinging on its bronze handle, his lantern cast moving shadows on the stone walls of the stairwell to the underground passage.

She was shaking now. She set her jaw and endured the fits that passed through her like an ague. Her teeth chattered. She hugged herself to stop the vibration.

The boy spoke in the echoing tunnel. He was talkative from drink and dwindling tension.

"My men urged me to do it, madam, but before God I could not molest a woman. I would not even have come upstairs if the others had not urged me. We cast lots for first possession of the mistress of the house. I won. They said I would not carry it through, because I am young and pious, and I once meant to be a monk, and I had a Latin tutor and a Greek one. I ordered my men to wait downstairs so I would be free to help you. I was supposed to take you myself, and then to share you with the others, but before God, madam, I could never do it. I am expected to take you captive, but one more or less of the Roman empress’s circle will not be missed when we leave for Carthage."

The Latin was clear and awkward, like a rhetoric lesson. The liquid young-man’s voice echoed down the vaulted corridor, which smelled faintly of dead mice.

"Be quiet," she said gently, touched by his scruples. "You’ll bring them all after us."

The stables were empty. She let the German precede her up the ladder to the familiar lofts above the mule-stalls, where she had played as a child. The stables had always been a place of safety, with the familiar rough consolations of grain, leather, and coarse wood, the close ammoniac smell, the bunches of mint and willow that hung from the rafters to distract flies.

"I regret that you will not be comfortable here, madam," the boy said courteously.

"One is grateful to have lived," she said. "Are you quite sure that your people are finished with this place? I take it you don’t plan to burn me out?"

"No, madam. King Geiseric and the pope agreed that there will be no fire and no unnecessary slaughter."

"Just ‘necessary’ slaughter, then, and a leisurely sack of the city, I presume?"

"Yes, madam."

She looked at him frankly now, appraising his extraordinary face. What a hard thing it must be to be German, she thought, dragging around that terrible earnestness all day. For a moment her heart went out to him in grudging affection. His skin, his light hair, his long eyelashes were surely too soft for his calling. The wolf-hide that he wore with such hopeful bravado had cocked itself at a ridiculous angle behind his head. He began to hiccup again. Absurdly, she regretted that she had no water to offer him. Suppressing the impulse to take one of his big hands between her palms, she bowed.

"God keep you, madam," he said, shrugging foolishly, and turned to go.

"Thank you," she said. "Go back to Carthage and live well, instead of smashing things. Do something beautiful for God, so you may inherit his kingdom."

*

She woke to the distant crowing of a cock. Clearly, the pillagers had neglected the poultry barn. Grey morning light filtered into the loft where she lay, through high window-slits opposite the stalls.

Her hair had tangled itself about her nose. Her tunic was damp; her neck ached. Waking away from her soft bed in the farmhouse, she felt like an exposed child.

She had lain awake past dark, listening for the heavy tread of Vandal boots, expecting smoke, watching for the orange glow that would send her out barefoot among the chestnut trees. Sleep had overtaken her at last, with nightmares; then deeper dreams had come, with long, cloudless, leafy-green days in the country, when her father and grandfather had been alive.

Perhaps the Germans had kept their word to the pope after all. If the combustible stables had survived the night, the rest of the villa might be standing as well, and perhaps even the palace on the Quirinal, though surely empty of everything that could be transported by drunkards in armor.

She climbed down the splintery ladder with care and pried open the stable door. A damp wind blew in, stirring the straw at her feet. She went out into the grey, sodden day, hugging herself against an unseasonable chill in the air.

The house stood intact, dark-windowed under its vines. It stared out over the villa-yard like a dead face in a veil. The yard-gate was open; the wind-blown doors clapped against the stone wall. Beyond the gate, the Tiber was brown and angry, with ragged little billows driving across its surface. An ox grazed a corner of the grounds; the repetitive dull tank of its copper bell rode the shifting wind.

Adriana composed herself and walked to the central barn. A flock of pigeons rose off the roof in stupid alarm. She went up narrow staircases into the dark granary rooms. Nothing had been touched. There was no sign even of the nightly orgies of rats.

The farm sheds and the bathhouse were undisturbed. The sheep-barn and the pigsty were empty, but intact. All but a few of the jars remained in the winecellars, leaning against the walls, just as when the wine-steward had last taken inventory.

Apprehensively she walked to the house by way of the kitchen garden. Her ageless cat was there as always, sitting on a stone shelf, blinking at mouse-holes among the creepers along the garden wall, her paws folded before her, her sour face suggesting that she had been cheated in life.

To Adriana’s astonishment, the chaos in the house seemed limited to the dining hall, where couches and tables had been smashed in a common heap and the floor was littered with fishbones, crushed fruit, fragments of plate, and candles, which the barbarians had apparently tried to eat. The kitchen was untouched, apart from a drift of litter from the dining area. The smell of dried herbs hanging from the rafters was pungent in the damp air, mixed with the aroma of yesterday’s bread that had grown cold in the oven. Adriana stood for a moment, inhaling the familiar smells and gathering her courage.

She went from room to room of the silent house, quietly fortifying herself to see the wreckage of things that had framed her life since childhood. The characteristic traces of a barbarian visit were hardly evident. The best furniture, the tapestries, and the gold plate were gone, but the frescoes were not spattered with food and drink, the windows had not been hammered out, the furniture had not been shattered into slivers of teak and ivory. The empty slave-quarters were as severely tidy as if they had never been lived in. The statues of Adriana’s ancestors stood upright, undamaged, in the central hall.

She approached her own apartment in pain, expecting to find her private things stolen or torn to shreds. She collected her courage and looked. In her bedroom, the bedclothes were in place, even the fold that had impressed itself on her memory as she left the night before. Her lyre lay untouched against the bolster. On a side table, in its usual place, stood the puppet of wood and straw that her father had fashioned for her, dressed as an empress in a robe of purple silk.

In her attiring room the great mirror stood intact in its frame of ivory, and the wicker chairs were arranged in precise symmetry on the unspotted floor. A wax tablet lay open on the tripod table next to the mirror. Its message was scratched in strange, square, runic-appearing characters. She read:

Wolf of Carthage to the Lady: I have done my best to restrain my men. I ask you to believe this. Forgive the extent to which I have not succeeded. Farewell.

She walked back to the kitchen to warm herself at the still-glowing hearth, and to think. Through the half-open door, she heard the unmistakable tread of Justus the steward, dragging one lame foot on the stone path through the kitchen garden. The door eased open; Justus, field-stained, carrying a wineskin, entered the room in a gust of damp air.

She jumped up and embraced him without a word, pressing her cheek against his comfortable wrinkled face, taking refuge in him as she had when she was small. She could not remember life without Justus. He had always been strong and grey-haired, and had an interminable succession of sons, goodhearted like himself.

Standing back, she saw that his right hand was bandaged, and that he wore a long farm-knife under the cincture of his red-stained tunic.

"It’s nothing," he said, reading her eyes, and holding out the wineskin. "Drink, Lioness. A drop of wine at midmorning gives vigor to the stomach."

She took a long swallow of the strong stuff, and felt an immediate flush in her cheeks.

"Body of Hercules, this is wine indeed!" she exclaimed, her throat smoking. "It’s a consolation."

The red stains on his clothing troubled her.

"You resisted them?" she asked.

"Not the Germans," the old man answered. "A child of hell, a serf from Calvus’s place. I found him in the winecellar this morning. I would have let him run, but he attacked."

"You killed him?" Adriana asked, seeing the light in the old man’s eyes.

"With all my heart, madam."

He had seen the coming of the Germans and the scattering of the household: dusty figures leaping like armored wolves through the splintered west gate of the villa-yard; the servants mounting no defense at all, running for the stables, the granaries, the woods along the river.

"My sons and I were in the woods when they came," Justus said. "By the time we figured out how to rescue you, the barbarians were gone."

Adriana broke into fresh sweat, imagining the atrocities she had been spared.

"I have much to be grateful for," she said, thinking of the young German whose drink had not eliminated his decency.

They walked out into the villa yard together, through the gate, into the fields, just as they had years ago, when she had followed Justus down rows of cabbages and flowering beans and under the loaded boughs of cherry trees. The day clung to her like a damp cloth. The dreary landscape was empty of humanity. Yesterday there had been serf-children playing in the sunlit meadows.

"I lost hardly anything," she marveled, spreading her hands. "Can you believe that?"

"The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, Lioness," Justus said, quoting the burial text with odd logic.

"I assume my people are still in the neighborhood?"

He nodded.

"Ask your sons to drive them out of the bush. They have my forgiveness for deserting me. But let them understand that if they use this occasion to run away, I’ll track them down with dogs and have them disfigured and sold in Sardinia."

Far over the fields, horses grazed, their rumps turned, as if they meant to ignore the farm buildings.

"The stable-boys let them loose in the fields when the barbarians came," Justus said. "I haven’t been able to get them back all day. They’ll come when they hear you."

She cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted the horses’ names. They turned and ran toward her, galloping and frisking in circles, their manes streaming in the wind. Ferox was among them, distinguished by his high head and energetic carriage. Neighing with pleasure to see her, the chestnut racer trotted up and rubbed his muzzle against her shoulders.

"Yes, here I am, my fine Ferox," she laughed, kissing him on the neck. The horse answered her in his trilling whinny that sounded like the conversation of southern towns where Greek was still spoken.

"Ah, the horses," Justus said respectfully. "They have great hearts, these horses. They’re like Christians, not slandering each other or bringing lawsuits."

But she was thinking of Quintus, whose gift Ferox had been, and she was angry with herself for being concerned about him, feeling that her thoughts were childish, but unable to shut them out of her mind.

The old man permitted himself to touch her shoulder lightly.

"Look at the fields, dear Adriana," he said. "There’s much to be glad for. See how green the vines are, how plump the wheat is. God is good. A load of dung performs more miracles than a dozen saints. If you were to stay with us until harvest. . . ."

"But I must go to the city," she smiled regretfully, touching two fingers to his leathery cheek.

*

The familiar landmarks along the road to Rome spoke of death: neglected tombs, cypresses towering above ruined villas, vacant shrines to the old gods, crumbling marble wells with weeds growing in the cracks. Grateful for the company of Ferox, with his calmly philosophical attitude, Adriana rode with both hands on his shoulders, feeling the tracery of muscles and veins under his coat, a reminder of life.

A peasant boy on the roadside confirmed that the Vandals had been gone for three days. During the sack, the countryside had taken on the marks of anarchy: farm-dogs foraging in packs, empty farmhouses, trampled gardens, neglected vineyards, unyoked oxen wandering in the road.

The closer she drew to the city, the more nearly absolute was the silence of the landscape, as if everything alive had been eaten. A smoky mist hung over the Tiber; the alders on the far bank dragged their leaves in the windless humidity. Women and children slumped by the road, apparently afraid to go home. Some looked as if they had been there since fleeing the city two weeks earlier.

The enormous arch of the Salarian gate loomed through the grey day like the entrance to eternal punishment. A cluster of very young soldiers stood guard. Their captain recognized Adriana because of her repeated passages, and saluted her.

"The city is controlled by the garrison just now, madam," the boy volunteered, gesturing with his thumb over his shoulder. "House arrest is common. If you go in, you may not be able to come out. I can’t say more, madam."

"Have there been riots?" Adriana asked.

"Not this week," the guardsman said with an odd smile. "The people are too depressed for that, I’d say."

"The garrison’s in control of the city," she repeated. "Who’s in control of the garrison?"

The boy shrugged. "The pope, I’d say."

"I see. Thank you."

And what of Quintus? she asked herself, riding through the gate. It was hardly within the pope’s power to make house arrest, or to declare martial law.

In the mist-slick avenues of the city, the silence was nearly absolute. Adriana rode toward the Quirinal hill, unable to breathe comfortably. A nauseating odor in the leaden dampness clutched at her stomach. The gutters were choked with inedible refuse: sticks, feathers, rags, skeletons of animals that had been boiled for their meager flesh. A pair of starved-looking whores huddled against a fountain, throwing dice in absolute silence. Beggars crouched hopelessly on church steps, not bothering to whine at the passers-by.

Adriana coaxed Ferox uphill between the ranges of mouldy palaces on the Quirinal. It would be simplest to deal with Flavia first, before she confronted Quintus and the wreckage of her former home. She passed beneath the walls of Flavia’s garden, and made a clatter on Flavia’s door with its lion’s-head knocker.

"How is Flavia? How is my sister?" Adriana asked when the porter appeared behind his grate, nodding like a mechanical toy.

"Her Magnificence is well, thank you, madam, but the house, as you will see, has suffered," the porter answered. He opened the door, bowed solemnly, and spread his hands in a gesture of woe.

"I do not see the suffering," Adriana said, passing through the vestibule into the marble sweep of the atrium. Everything seemed in place, even the familiar scent of dying flowers and expensive perfumes. Flavia had made her hereditary palace into the showpiece of the Quirinal. She had wisely suspended her own tastes and left the redecoration to Byzantine artists, who had robbed her mercilessly, but had made each of her rooms as perfect as an Athenian plate.

A smiling eunuch attached himself to Adriana; she passed down corridors and up staircases in which light stains and minor damage to the frescoes seemed to have been supplied by a thoroughly sympathetic hand. In her attiring room, at the center of a circle of maids, Flavia was enjoying her after-bath toilet. Flushed and loud with wine, she looked as useless as a preserved butterfly. Her maids had curled her hair and powdered it with gold dust, and were finishing an application of painted patches to her face.

"Go away!" Flavia said crisply to her servants, waving her rings in the air, after glancing at herself in a floor-length mirror and finding herself acceptable. "Come here and sit by me," she said to Adriana with a marvelous welcoming smile when the room was empty.

She took the hem of Adriana’s tunic between her fingers and blinked her eyes in a sham of deep concern.

"Adriana, dearest, did you sleep in your clothes last night? But what is this? Straw? Have you been raking straw in a mood of patronage toward your darling serfs?"

"The Germans came," Adriana said. "I escaped to the stables, with help. It’s a long story."

Flavia raised a false eyebrow and smiled knowingly. "Ah! An adventure in the stables. Oh, you alley cat! Just like the adventures we had when we were young—slipping out at night while the Terrible Greek snored in the house."

"You slipped out, I believe," Adriana corrected her.

"I’m proud of you," Flavia said warmly, pursuing the canard. "You’ve discovered that what a woman needs most is the companionship of a young man, one who isn’t distracted by the cares of state or the enthusiasms of a functioning brain. And the setting—so deliciously tawdry! You’ve done the right thing, dearest, just as I did when it became clear that Faustinus was planting his seed in every flower-bed but mine and I made up my mind to change gardeners. Every other day, if necessary."

She paused to catch her breath, licking her lips with a cat-like rotation of the tongue.

"Admit that you enjoyed it, you rogue."

"There was nothing to enjoy."

"Phy!" Flavia feigned disappointment. "I’m pleased to report that my own recent experience has been otherwise. You should have seen him: blond, a total ignoramus, with the muscles of a panther and the hangings of a horse. He’d just finished tearing up my house. Oh, I know I shouldn’t talk this way in the presence of Your Chastity. We got out of the garden pond and he simply disappeared. I never saw him again. I remember glancing at the sundial when I went indoors to receive Faustinus at his evening meal. The time I’d passed with the German could hardly be measured in shadow. But I must say the occasion was supremely satisfactory."

"Is it rude to ask why one wouldn’t arrange to see such a man again?" Adriana asked in a neutral voice. "Don’t you think anything worth doing once is worth doing over and over?"

"Anything worth doing is worth doing at least once," Flavia retorted.

Adriana raised two fingers to her lips and yawned. "I wish someone would explain to me why it’s supremely satisfying to be used and set aside like a sponge in a latrine. Can you explain that to me, dear? Every time I set out to discover the answer for myself, my interest evaporates before I find it. Perhaps I don’t have enough to drink."

The sisters glared at each other briefly. It was an old argument.

"Tell me about the destruction," Adriana said wearily. "I may as well know the worst before I go home and look at it."

"You’ve probably heard about Maximus," Flavia said with renewed animation. "The dear people of Rome parceled him out with their kitchen tools and threw the bits into the river. Our Maximus could always be counted on for grand gestures—but floating down the Tiber in pieces to greet one’s Vandal guests on their way upstream is the absolute zenith, wouldn’t you say?"

Flavia laughed, a harsh noise, like the bark of a fox. There was little more to be said of Maximus. A pious priest of Trans-Tiber had fished the Emperor’s head out of the yellow water. Portions of the Presence were thought to have washed up on a sand bar further downstream, including a fat foreleg in a purple boot.

The Germans had carried out the rape of the city with something like restraint. They had kept their promise to the pope not to set fires. With her own eyes Flavia had watched the savages work, their blond hair caked with dust and beer, their pink faces contorted with the joy of pillage. Breaking into the palaces on the Quirinal, they had sent up great shouts of astonishment and pleasure at the general magnificence.

Some had busied themselves rounding up the younger women of each household, selecting the best to be raped immediately and reserving the rest for slavery. Other barbarians had stripped the rich furnishings. Jewelry and plate were bagged and carted away. Glass mosaics had been mistaken by the Berbers for precious stones, and had been attacked with axes, falling in glittering showers into the cloaks held open to catch them. Pearls had rolled on the floor, chased like fugitive mice and fought over with savage kicks and gouges.

Drunken Germans had danced with Berbers in the streets, wearing tiaras on their heads, ropes of jewels, silk mantles, the wigs of senators. Troops of newly enslaved noblewomen, bound with silk torn from their own backs, had been driven to the Vandal ships over pavements strewn with fragments of statues, ripped scrolls, and shattered furniture.

Flavia seemed strangely satisfied with the details of the sack. Had she lost nothing herself?

"There’s little destruction here," Adriana commented, glancing around, taking cold note of the disingenuous look in Flavia’s eyes.

Flavia coughed, a little too emphatically. "Dearest, I used my head. I had the cisterns drained, and then I had my servants drag everything of real value into them. Barbarians know nothing of cisterns. Then I distributed the cheap and tawdry things—Faustinus’s things for the most part, I must say—in a convincing fashion all over the house. We made a wonderfully persuasive picture of impoverished nobility. The simpletons responded nicely. I had all but my best wine and all my slave girls brought out into plain view. The Germans drank wine and humped the girls until they were too wobbly to carry off a basket of feathers. Then I came down in my oldest robes—looking rather like you, dearest, when you’re being neglectful of your person—and informed the boors that much better pickings were to be had up the street at Livia Serena’s. My! how they clattered and slid in the spillage, getting out of here. I hope dear Livia lost everything and got pregnant to boot, the showy bitch, but I can’t find out for sure because she’s gone into hiding with talk of becoming a nun. Such a nun! It’s hard to think of her as even potentially chaste."

"It’s a worthy experiment; she’s tried everything else," Adriana said. "She’ll be like the Emperor Diocletian, who ended his life tending cabbages because he was tired of playing with people."

"But as I was saying," Flavia continued, smacking her lips, "my information about Livia Serena’s suffering is incomplete. I saw one barbarian wearing her tiara as a codpiece over the front of his breeches, and his comrade had Livia’s gold bracelets woven into his buttered hair, and one of her sapphire necklaces draped from ear to ear. Someone said she found pieces of her precious ivory bed in the gutter when they’d gone."

Flavia coughed again in her excitement. Years of unwatered Falernian were beginning to tell in her voice.

She went on with her recital. After the Germans had left, the human garbage of the city had robbed churches, plundered shops for whatever the Germans had overlooked, and burglarized the homes of the rich, killing the loyal house-slaves who resisted them. But the civil unrest had been weary and inconclusive. Great crowds had broken into some palaces on the Aventine and had found nothing to carry away. They had milled half-heartedly in the streets all night, shouting for the death of the Senate and the Consistory. By morning they had lapsed into the stunned torpor that characterized the city at large.

"Did our Roman rabble come here, to this house?" Adriana asked, fixing her eyes on Flavia’s face.

Flavia blinked twice.

"I’m sure they must have. I really don’t know. Perhaps I had gone to sleep by then. I have such odd habits of sleep, as you keep pointing out, dearest. Certainly I’ve noticed the disappearance of some things. It isn’t clear whether the Germans or our own dear people took them. I’m missing ivory tablets from Faustinus, and jeweled tablets from Senator Locrius, and citron-wood tablets from Senator Helvidius, and other boring gifts from tedious people. I wish someone would give me a gorgeous Egyptian mute with muscles of brass and no mind to speak of."

She yawned. "In any case, entertaining oneself will be easy in the months to come. Plague and famine are the children of war. Aesthetically speaking, it’s time for a famine, don’t you agree? One that’ll begin with lizards and rats, and end with the bark of chestnut trees? I do look forward to it, and to the plague that’ll surely follow. And to the lawlessness! the delicious lawlessness, when good Christians sharpen their knives on the statues of saints and go robbing and murdering as soon as the vesper bell has stopped ringing. Then, perhaps—when half the people are dead and the other half are half-dead—dear Faustinus will have his chance to remake Rome."

She swallowed hard and opened her green eyes wide, as if the last clause had left her mouth without her permission.

Adriana examined her sister’s dissembling face.

"Why Faustinus?"

"Why not, dearest?" Flavia purred. "Who else is there?"

"I must go," Adriana said, irritated nearly out of control at her sister’s presumption.

"So soon?"

"To see the wreckage and confront Quintus. It’ll be difficult."

"But Quintus isn’t in Rome, dearest," Flavia said, fanning herself.

The silence in the room was absolute.

"Doubtless you’re making a joke that I’m too dull to appreciate," Adriana said coldly.

"I’m truly sorry, Adriana," Flavia said with uncommon gentleness. "Quintus has gone to Carthage with the Germans. Not of his own free will, I’m sure."

She felt the blood leave her lips. She stared, grasping mentally at the news that seemed to run from her intelligence.

"How could—?" she began. "How is it that—?"

"Many captives were taken, dear," Flavia said, with a strange, concentrated eagerness, "including the empress and her children, and of course Nectarius, our dear Praetorian Prefect who doubtless slept through the invasion. I’m sure they’ll be well treated."

Adriana’s brilliant teeth closed on her lower lip with a snap. She struggled to keep her senses in an ocean of dismay. Her legs were suddenly stiff at the thighs and knees.

She stood looking at her sister. Her breathing was so labored that the sound was almost a sob.

"Poor Quintus," she said at last. "I suppose in some sense I’m to blame."

"Vah! What could you have done? Be glad your German guests didn’t find you at home. You came back just in time to be safe, dearest."

By the tone of Flavia’s voice and the indescribable cast of her face, Adriana knew that the assurance was in fact a warning. It would be only a matter of days before the cold hand of Faustinus’s vice-prefecture closed around her throat. The last piece of the mosaic was in place; the ghastly light in Flavia’s eyes told everything: the truth about the two dead emperors, the carefully timed accidents and Geiseric’s passionless rape of the city, the kidnapped empress, the impotence of the garrison. Adriana’s life would not be safe in Rome again. The future was plain. Faustinus would consolidate his hold on the military, unleash a horde of secret agents to incriminate or simply kill his remaining enemies, restrict the Senate to Rome allegedly for their own protection, actually for their annihilation.

"I must go," Adriana said again, mechanically.

The women rose. Flavia clapped her tiny hands. A eunuch, smiling unctuously, materialized in the shadows past the half-open door of the apartment and waited to conduct Adriana to the street.

"This has been a difficult month for you, dear," Flavia murmured, passing soft fingers under Adriana’s elbow, "and the difficulties begin and end with Quintus. Try to remember you’re not the first woman in history who married a caterpillar and found herself sleeping with a butterfly. One can’t help thinking how you must have felt when you discovered that your husband was . . . in flight."

"I’m sure it’s much the way Faustinus felt when he noticed you were convening the Senate in your bed, dearest," Adriana snapped, grateful for the rush of anger that overwhelmed her sadness and promised to carry her through the rest of the terrible day.

*

She half expected to see a mob gathered in front of the house; the palace of the Urban Prefect suffered in times of public distress. She gathered her spirits and eased Ferox around the corner of the building. The street past the entrance was vacant. A thin wind rippled the puddles of dirty water among the cobblestones.

She felt suddenly empty, as if she had lost half her weight. She spurred Ferox up the long slope to the gate that had once been her own. Under the bolted and shuttered windows she listened for sounds of life, and prepared to assert her authority in a place where her status was uncertain.

She banged the knocker on the door. The porter’s wicket shot open; old Paulus pressed his face against the grate.

"It is you, madam," Paulus said with a helpless gesture.

"No, it is Quintus, cunningly disguised," she answered irritably. "Send for a stableboy, will you? I’m going to inspect the damage. Your eyes tell me it’s extensive."

The door swung open; she walked into the marbled vestibule. The servants all seemed to have hidden, other than a half-dozen near the porter’s lodge who had missed their chance to escape. They bowed profoundly; one old man prostrated himself at Adriana’s feet.

"Get up," she said sharply. "You know that sort of thing doesn’t please me."

She pushed past the servants into the vast, cool atrium. With a stab of emotion, but no surprise, she saw what Flavia had led her to expect. The room had been pulled to pieces, like a flower-bed shredded by a peacock. Most of the furniture was gone; the remainder was in splinters, mingled with ripped tapestries and spilled lamp-oil. The columns of green marble had been scrawled on and spattered with refuse. Fragments of glass mosaic peppered the floor. The ancestral statues were covered with graffiti. The stately bust of Quintus’s great-grandfather lacked both nose and ears. A deposit of excrement had been carefully lodged on its head.

Adriana clapped her hands and sent old Victor, the atriensis, off at a trot to summon the cooks, the maids and valets, the grooms and stableboys, the housekeepers and gardeners. She grilled the trembling Paulus while the servants straggled into the great hall, hanging their heads. When they were assembled in their ranks, they bowed in unison.

"I assume you people have good reasons for presenting me with this mess?" Adriana said severely.

"We thought it best to let Your Charity see what the beasts had done," Victor said nervously, twisting his hands in the folds of his tunic.

A trail of smashed dinner-ware led to the central dining-hall. Adriana followed it. The servants tiptoed after her. In one corner of the hall was a patch of dried blood, mixed with fragments of mosaic, mortar, and feathers.

"What happened there?" she asked, pointing to the feathers and the blood.

"Oh, my God, madam, the Germans ate the parrots, and the magpie as well," Victor blurted. "I must say, madam, I don’t miss the parrots, with their shredding and screeching. They were the devil’s birds."

"And where is His Excellency Quintus Jovinus?"

Loudly she asked the question that everyone seemed to be avoiding.

The servants stared hard at the floor. "His Excellency was in good health when we saw him last," one volunteered.

"But where is he?" she persisted.

"In Carthage, we think, madam."

"Did he go of his own accord?"

"Oh, no, madam, there was a struggle, and we feared that His Excellency’s blood would be on the library walls."

Adriana passed the back of her hand across her eyes.

"He was taken by force, then?" she said.

"Oh, lady, there was no defending him," a Celtic girl-servant blurted. "They were wild, tearing, devilish beasts with souls as bitter as hemlock and hot as lightning."

"Go back to your places," Adriana said with a wave of her hand. "Salvia, come with me."

The old woman followed her, chattering. The Germans had interrupted the servants at their noon meal and had kicked over the tables, sending jars and plates to the floor in a common crash. There had been only a few casualties among the slaves, thanks be to God. Junius the gardener had offered the Germans some resistance, and they had rinsed him in the garden pond, wrung him out, and broken his legs with clubs. Two of Adriana’s maids-in-waiting had jumped into the street from her attiring room. One had hurt her legs, the other her neck.

Silently Adriana inspected the wreckage of the rest of the house. What the Vandals had not taken, they had damaged or destroyed. Amphoras of dark wine had been smashed on the floors for sport. The revelers had urinated on the tapestries and defecated in the fountains. Every room of the residential apartments told the same story: fragments of furniture mingled with broken crockery, shattered window-glass, scraps of torn clothing, doors off their hinges, glass mosaics knocked to pieces in a search for gold hidden in the walls.

In her own apartment, the contents of her chests were strewn over the floor. The fair linen made by Quintus’s mother had been dragged out and wantonly shredded; its odor of lavender filled the room. The ebony bedstead with its silver appliqués had disappeared. A pair of delicate chairs had been smashed into kindling. A broken bust of Socrates lay in pieces in a corner. The floor was littered with cosmetic-jars, whose contents had been smeared on the walls.

"And on top of it, they ate everything in the kitchen. Horsewhip broth is what those barnyard beasts would’ve had if it had been up to me," Salvia said, puffing. "Phy! The Arian hogs, the devil’s own herd. I suppose Satan’s allowed to fatten ’em in this world so they’ll burn brightly in the next."

Adriana’s maids had assembled in the shadows and were making anxious attempts at conversation. She told them to be quiet. They undressed her and sponged her with warm water; the baths were out of order. Her favorite eunuch came and massaged her with aromatic oil. She put on several layers of soft clothing against the chill in the house, and sat for a while alone in her sitting-room, absorbing the warmth of the brazier and the fragrance of the flowers that Salvia had gathered in a hurry.

The old head-maid had managed to preserve Adriana’s daily correspondence from the Germans. A forlorn little pile of it lay on the floor just inside her sitting room. Mechanically Adriana sorted the citrus-wood tablets, annoyed at having to take the time, leaving most of the seals unbroken.

Pope Leo’s signet in red wax caught her attention. On the day before the sack she had sent a message to Leo, asking for a brief audience at which she had meant to inquire about the entry of divorced women into holy orders. She read, pleased that the great man had thought of her.

Bishop Leo to the Lady Marcella Adriana: We anticipate your return a day or two after Satan’s departure. Your Piety will be most welcome in Our chambers on Wednesday after Mass, nine days before the Kalends of July.

She smiled a little, feeling less empty, though she knew her divorce would be a subject of comment during the interview. It would be pleasant to renew a friendship that she had neglected in recent months.

She sat awhile holding the pope’s letter, taking consolation from it. Then she went out to inspect the wreckage again.

"Oh, madam!" Salvia said, waddling behind her, "I’m sure that God will show Your Excellency a way to bring My Lord Quintus back to us. My Lord Quintus is a wonderful master, pretty and gentle as one of the Holy Apostles, as we always say among ourselves."

When Adriana approached the garden, Salvia inserted herself between her mistress and the entrance. "Oh, madam, you should not look. Why give yourself a pain in the heart?"

Adriana hesitated at the old woman’s earnestness. Then she set her jaw and faced the chaos with her eyes open. It was as if a terrace had disintegrated in a winter rain, tossing shrubs, marble, box-trees, mosaic-work, and flowering plants together in a heap. A marble seat lay upside down in a bed of roses. The heads of the statues had been knocked off their bodies and pitched into nearby fountains. Torn trees littered the walkways; vines and creepers had been ripped away from the walls. Craters had been dug in the flower-beds, apparently in a search for gold. The garden was silent. The nightingales had fled.

She sat down on a broken marble bench and wept like an abandoned child. The old woman made a dumpy bow and touched Adriana’s head.

"I know it isn’t easy, madam. If I may say so, madam, one lives day by day. If today is the end of the world, we’ll live in heaven tomorrow, by guarantee of the blessed Savior, and if today isn’t the end, tomorrow we’ll live on earth."

Adriana composed herself.

"I’m pleased to be home," she said. "Our people seem distraught. If anything is needed, have me awakened immediately. I’ll be sleeping lightly tonight."

"Let us hope there’ll be no need to trouble you, madam."

"Let us hope so."

She dismissed Salvia, walked alone to her apartment, and sent her maids away. Her head was a clamor of useless regrets. If only I’d been in the city, standing by Quintus, she thought, and immediately reproached herself for the foolishness of the sentiment.

On impulse she went to the garden again, alone. Darkness had fallen; she could no longer see the wreckage. She sat on the ground next to an upended marble bench and listened to the splashing of the damaged fountains, thankful that she could not see the wilderness of torn flowers and broken branches. She laid her head against the cool marble. A night-bird jarred above the stone-pines. She was grateful that at least the pines were still in place, that a few birds remained, and that the palace stood.

Her mind returned to its catastrophic speculation like a moth to an oil-lamp. The future under Geiseric’s secret ally was clear. Paid informants would multiply like mushrooms in the night. Communications would be intercepted and misinterpreted. Houses would be subject to sudden visits. Innocent people would be arrested on frivolous pretexts, dragged out of their beds, clubbed to death. The urban mob would be encouraged to think of itself as virtuous. Any recognizable member of an ancient family might be stopped in the streets, harassed, stripped, robbed in the name of justice long overdue.

Well beyond exhaustion, she dozed suddenly. The repeated note of the grey owl in the hedge expanded into a unison chant of virgins; the crescent moon shaped itself into an altar lamp; the lisping wind in the stone-pines became the prayerful murmur of a congregation in the presence of the Host. A shaft of light across the pond widened, shimmering, into the form of a young man. His movements were accompanied by the music of distant flutes and lyres, and by a thick fragrance of lilies warming in the sun.

The boy was astoundingly beautiful, with not even a scrap of loincloth to cover him, yet with no hint of immodesty in his enormous dark eyes like moist fire: kindly eyes, with the ageless tenderness of God in them. His perfect body was an appropriate carriage for his radiant spirit. He spoke in a liquid baritone that rose and fell on the night air like a lover’s song.

Adriana, be happy, he said, for Christ is with you and will not desert you, even to the day when you cross the black river of death.

"Who are you? Will we all be like you when we’re raised from the tomb?" she asked.

The boy nodded wordlessly, and made the sign of the cross.

But woe, he said, as a tear crept down his cheek, woe to Rome.

Another young man appeared outside the aura of the first. The newcomer was full of force; his eyes were cold and colorless as hailstones. In his presence stood a weary hag whom Adriana recognized as the goddess Roma. Her military helmet was dented; her purple robe was moth-eaten; she could hardly lift her rusty spear.

"Dance for me," the evil young man commanded.

Grateful for the implied flattery, the crone began to shift her body.

"Faster!" the cold-eyed boy said, and joined in the dance.

"It’ll be hard to move faster, because I’m tired," the hag protested, "but will you sleep with me if I do?"

"Of course," her tormentor smiled, not flinching.

The pitiful old creature hopped and gyrated, and suddenly she fell dead. The ice-eyed youngster stooped over her, laughed outrageously, and disappeared.

Do you know who the old woman is? the boy-angel asked Adriana.

"Rome," she answered, tears scalding her eyes.

Do you know who the young man is?

"How can I know?" Adriana asked, squinting into the aura of light.

He is the Beast, who was, and is, and is to come, her visitor said sorrowfully.

She opened her mouth to ask the name of the Beast, but the angel vanished in a puff of silver smoke, leaving a trace of incense on the air.


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