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.
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.
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
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.
can be the matter with my people?" she asked.
sniffed the air, as when he predicted snow.
heard that the barbarians are coming."
Why would they come here?"
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
draft blew through the corridor outside her apartment. She
hesitated, shivering, at the top of the stairs that led to
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the dagger out of its sheath, raised it into plain view,
and spoke distinctly.
tainted," she said. "Don’t come closer."
nein! the boy said in a liquid baritone, and then
spoke in Latin. "Please. You will hurt yourself,
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.
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.
good that you have screamed, madam," he said with
grave satisfaction. "My men expect me to rape you.
The scream will satisfy them."
sure I have no objection if you do," she spat in a
rage of sarcasm. "Why don’t you invite them to
because I am a Christian," the boy said, and began to
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
thought for a moment. "That you got away. Yah, that
you are not worth pursuing."
sure it’s true," she said, taken aback.
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
mistress in my own house; I sit when I please," she
said. "Did your father the devil tell you that I am
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.
came up alone. One wonders why."
told the others to stay. Besides, they are busy."
of their busyness have reached me," she said
bitterly, inclining her head toward the uncouth noises
that drifted up the stair.
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.
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?
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,
perceptibly in the white light of the lantern. His long
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.
a strange barbarian," she said, gathering her
courage. "Is it usual for barbarians to pause for
sentiment in the midst of pillage?"
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.
not know what ‘pillage’ is. If you mean slaughter,
madam, there will be none. You must trust me."
trustworthy Vandal? Vah! Do donkeys nest in
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
was good of them to spare the hay," she said with
bitter sarcasm. "Why do you mention the barns?"
will be good for you to hide there. My men do not always
obey me when they are drunk."
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."
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.
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.
madam," the boy whispered, "while they are
attending to the woman."
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
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.
spoke in the echoing tunnel. He was talkative from drink
and dwindling tension.
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."
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.
quiet," she said gently, touched by his scruples.
"You’ll bring them all after us."
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
regret that you will not be comfortable here, madam,"
the boy said courteously.
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?"
madam. King Geiseric and the pope agreed that there will
be no fire and no unnecessary slaughter."
‘necessary’ slaughter, then, and a leisurely sack of
the city, I presume?"
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.
keep you, madam," he said, shrugging foolishly, and
turned to go.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
back, she saw that his right hand was bandaged, and that
he wore a long farm-knife under the cincture of his
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.
of Hercules, this is wine indeed!" she exclaimed, her
throat smoking. "It’s a consolation."
stains on his clothing troubled her.
resisted them?" she asked.
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
killed him?" Adriana asked, seeing the light in the
old man’s eyes.
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.
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."
broke into fresh sweat, imagining the atrocities she had
have much to be grateful for," she said, thinking of
the young German whose drink had not eliminated his
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.
lost hardly anything," she marveled, spreading her
hands. "Can you believe that?"
souls of the righteous are in the hands of God,
Lioness," Justus said, quoting the burial text with
assume my people are still in the neighborhood?"
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
the fields, horses grazed, their rumps turned, as if they
meant to ignore the farm buildings.
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
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
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.
the horses," Justus said respectfully. "They
have great hearts, these horses. They’re like
Christians, not slandering each other or bringing
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.
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. . . ."
must go to the city," she smiled regretfully,
touching two fingers to his leathery cheek.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
there been riots?" Adriana asked.
this week," the guardsman said with an odd smile.
"The people are too depressed for that, I’d
garrison’s in control of the city," she repeated.
"Who’s in control of the garrison?"
shrugged. "The pope, I’d say."
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.
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
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.
is Flavia? How is my sister?" Adriana asked when the
porter appeared behind his grate, nodding like a
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.
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.
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.
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.
the hem of Adriana’s tunic between her fingers and
blinked her eyes in a sham of deep concern.
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?"
Germans came," Adriana said. "I escaped to the
stables, with help. It’s a long story."
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."
slipped out, I believe," Adriana corrected her.
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."
to catch her breath, licking her lips with a cat-like
rotation of the tongue.
that you enjoyed it, you rogue."
was nothing to enjoy."
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."
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?"
worth doing is worth doing at least once," Flavia
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
glared at each other briefly. It was an old argument.
me about the destruction," Adriana said wearily.
"I may as well know the worst before I go home and
look at it."
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?"
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.
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
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.
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.
seemed strangely satisfied with the details of the sack.
Had she lost nothing herself?
little destruction here," Adriana commented, glancing
around, taking cold note of the disingenuous look in
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."
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."
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."
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.
our Roman rabble come here, to this house?" Adriana
asked, fixing her eyes on Flavia’s face.
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."
"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."
swallowed hard and opened her green eyes wide, as if the
last clause had left her mouth without her permission.
examined her sister’s dissembling face.
not, dearest?" Flavia purred. "Who else is
must go," Adriana said, irritated nearly out of
control at her sister’s presumption.
see the wreckage and confront Quintus. It’ll be
Quintus isn’t in Rome, dearest," Flavia said,
in the room was absolute.
you’re making a joke that I’m too dull to
appreciate," Adriana said coldly.
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."
the blood leave her lips. She stared, grasping mentally at
the news that seemed to run from her intelligence.
could—?" she began. "How is it that—?"
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."
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.
looking at her sister. Her breathing was so labored that
the sound was almost a sob.
Quintus," she said at last. "I suppose in some
sense I’m to blame."
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.
must go," Adriana said again, mechanically.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
the knocker on the door. The porter’s wicket shot open;
old Paulus pressed his face against the grate.
you, madam," Paulus said with a helpless gesture.
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
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.
up," she said sharply. "You know that sort of
thing doesn’t please me."
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
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.
assume you people have good reasons for presenting me with
this mess?" Adriana said severely.
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.
happened there?" she asked, pointing to the feathers
and the blood.
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."
where is His Excellency Quintus Jovinus?"
asked the question that everyone seemed to be avoiding.
servants stared hard at the floor. "His Excellency
was in good health when we saw him last," one
where is he?" she persisted.
Carthage, we think, madam."
he go of his own accord?"
no, madam, there was a struggle, and we feared that His
Excellency’s blood would be on the library walls."
passed the back of her hand across her eyes.
was taken by force, then?" she said.
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
back to your places," Adriana said with a wave of her
hand. "Salvia, come with me."
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
awhile holding the pope’s letter, taking consolation
from it. Then she went out to inspect the wreckage again.
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."
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
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.
down on a broken marble bench and wept like an abandoned
child. The old woman made a dumpy bow and touched
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."
pleased to be home," she said. "Our people seem
distraught. If anything is needed, have me awakened
immediately. I’ll be sleeping lightly tonight."
us hope there’ll be no need to trouble you, madam."
us hope so."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
are you? Will we all be like you when we’re raised from
the tomb?" she asked.
nodded wordlessly, and made the sign of the cross.
he said, as a tear crept down his cheek, woe to Rome.
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.
for me," the evil young man commanded.
for the implied flattery, the crone began to shift her
the cold-eyed boy said, and joined in the dance.
be hard to move faster, because I’m tired," the hag
protested, "but will you sleep with me if I do?"
course," her tormentor smiled, not flinching.
old creature hopped and gyrated, and suddenly she fell
dead. The ice-eyed youngster stooped over her, laughed
outrageously, and disappeared.
know who the old woman is? the boy-angel asked
she answered, tears scalding her eyes.
know who the young man is?
can I know?" Adriana asked, squinting into the aura
the Beast, who was, and is, and is to come, her
visitor said sorrowfully.
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.