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Chapter 8

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Two dozen men, wearing the magenta tunics of the dead emperor’s elite cavalry, galloped into the outskirts of Capua and dismounted along the roadside wall of an inn. It was a pretentious place set among cypresses, a mile out from the city, beyond the tombs but with a view of Capua’s north gate.

The captain brushed foam from his uniform, blown back from his horse’s bit. All but two of the mounted soldiers were German mercenaries, coarse-featured, too large for Roman horses, too pink for Italian weather. Ahead of the Germans, just behind the captain and his lieutenant, rode two deadly-looking little Huns whose square bodies and platter-faces seemed to have been chiseled from hardwood.

A dog cowered against the inn-wall. Ragged children watched from across the highway and then ran away screaming.

Sextus Taurinus, the commanding officer, had a purposeful look; his men wore vacant grins. They kicked open the innyard gate and clattered through. The yard was deserted except for an adolescent boy, apparently an imbecile, sunning himself on a dungheap and greeting imaginary travelers with sitting bows and words of welcome.

An odor of garlic and fish spoke of recent life in the inn. Taurinus stepped cautiously into the vestibule and beyond it into the dining room, where decorative lamps still burned on the tables. The tiny flames shifted at his approach. He held his breath, then whistled angrily. The place was as empty as if the innkeeper and his guests had gone up in the Rapture.

He turned to his lieutenant Balbus, an irritating boy with a sword too large for him that caught between his fat legs and hung him up in thickets.

"You remember the sheep-faced priest at Casilinum?"

Balbus nodded.

"This is his doing," Taurinus said, and cursed.

He remembered every grey angle of the holy man’s face, in the roadside tavern at Casilinum, a few miles back. The creature had overheard Taurinus and his men bragging about the violent pleasures they would enjoy at the Mercury Inn north of Capua. The priest had counted out his coins with shaking hands and clattered away on his donkey, bouncing like a puppet on a stick. Now the reason for his haste was clear; the warning had come from him.

It was already midday, and Taurinus was in a cumulative rage. He had slept hardly at all in the mansio at Teanum. The food had been abominable; the landlord’s daughter had had a rash. He had learned during the evening that arrogant Capua, like Naples, had escaped the worst of the Vandal sack, while Taurinus’s ancestral village near Cumae had burned to the ground. On top of it all, the Woman had slipped through his fingers, and the plain people of the countryside could tell him nothing about her.

The Mercury Inn with its pretentious cypresses was an emblem of the arrogance of Capua. Its elegant garden reduced the neighborhood to dusty insignificance. Capua! the establishment said to Taurinus.

A dirty smile creased his cheeks. He gestured to his men.

"Search it very well," he said, raising his eyebrows significantly.

The soldiers flowed into the building like dogs chasing a rat. There were sounds of rending, tearing, shattering. In half an hour the inn and its grounds were littered with glass, crockery, fragments of furniture, lengths of tapestry, chairs in pieces, bits of bedding, and window frames. A light pall of yellow dust hovered over the wreckage. A solitary goat nibbled at a shredded travel-cloak.

From a balcony above the garden, Taurinus watched the destruction, taking pleasure in it. It gave him a moment’s amusement to think of fat noblewomen in flight at his approach, diffusing expensive odors under a crushing weight of jewels, interrupting their afternoon toilet and hurrying plumply into the fields behind the inn, as if in pursuit of small game. But his anger reasserted itself as he made his way back to the road. The Woman, after all, was the point of the search, and she had not been found. Indeed, there was no clue that she had actually come to Capua.

He went back to the innyard gate and whistled for his men.

"Anything of interest?" he asked fat Balbus, who came puffing out of the tangle, his eyes bloodshot with the joy of destruction.

"Nothing, sir—unless you’re interested in plenty of money," the lieutenant crowed. "See what Optila and Traustila found!"

Balbus motioned the twin Huns forward. They carried a small copper-banded chest of cedar, far heavier than it looked, and set it down at the feet of Taurinus. He crouched, examined the telltale initials Q-V-J engraved on one side, and dug in the contents with his forefinger: freshly minted gold solidi bearing the image of Petronius Maximus.

"Jovinus’s wife is here, then," he said darkly, his jaw-muscles working. "Go get the boy-fool."

The boy on his dungheap heard the command and ran into the road, throwing out his long limbs like a rag doll. Two guardsmen overtook him, cursing the smell of his body as they dragged him back to their commander. The boy dropped to his knees before Taurinus, smiling the vacuous smile of imbecility.

"Your ankles are blacker than the ground, moon-child," the captain said. "We’ve come to Capua to give you a bath, or something worse. Do you have the gift of speech?"

The boy-fool nodded, smiling and whimpering.

"We’ve traced a woman’s treasure-box to this dog-house of an inn. The woman’s name is Marcella Adriana. She’s dark, plainly dressed, very handsome. Where her money is, she is. The hen is never far from her eggs. You’ve seen her, haven’t you?"

The fool paled and his lips turned blue. "If I could tell you where she is, you’d kill me anyway."

"If you don’t tell us, you’ll wish we had."

Taurinus leaned forward and peered down his nose, curved between his green eyes like the beak of an unclean bird. The boy was ashen-pale; his enormous hands were clenched together as if he were praying to the Virgin.

"We’re plain people here," he croaked. "We don’t have great ladies." He gestured wildly at a cottage nearby. "Ask Macrina. Her eyes are better than most."

Taurinus made a gesture of impatience, despising the cretin’s face with its inhuman mouth that had no more expression than if it were upside down.

"You’re lying to me," he said.

"Kill, then."

"No," Taurinus said, "there isn’t enough mercy in us for that."

He made a motion to the twin Huns.

"Steel should concentrate the fool’s memory," the captain said quietly. "Enough’s enough. Don’t strip the skull."

Optila held the boy’s arms. The expressionless Traustila made a deft motion with his knife above the right ear, taking off most of it. The boy shrieked until his wind gave out. His voice died away in an insipid moan.

"I know nothing, nothing, Your Greatness."

"The other ear, then," the captain said irritably, with a stubborn jaw. "We’re not about to be fooled by a fool."

The stroke was administered with surgical precision. The halfwit shrieked and babbled. Blood ran down his neck.

Taurinus tapped his front teeth with a forefinger. "Perhaps he doesn’t know anything," he said to Balbus.

"Shall we burn the place?" Balbus asked conspiratorially at his elbow, his fat cheeks flushed.

"Ah—no." Taurinus was emphatic. Partial ruin would be a better lesson to the landlord than utter destruction, and easier to explain to the Urban Vicar. What the lesson was, Taurinus was unsure. It seemed necessary, however, to teach it.

He made a violent motion to his men; they mounted and galloped away.

The fool wandered in the highway, blood seeping between the fingers that he pressed to his head.

*

Adriana rose before dawn, while the sailors slept, and stood at the deck-rail of the anchored ship, watching the pale reflections of late stars in the sea. At sunrise, the crew woke. Adriana joined them in their prayers before a carved image of Christ nailed to the mast, and shared their breakfast of boiled eggs and biscuits.

A stiff breeze came up. The ship plowed the water, its broad sail bellying before the breeze, the captain standing by the helmsman with important confidence, the crew enjoying their vacation from the oars. Adriana stood at the captain’s elbow as the craft rounded the cape beyond Misenum into the Bay of Naples, a great blue dish freckled with whitecaps.

It always took her by surprise as if she had never seen it before, the sweep of shore that began at Misenum and ended just short of Capri. It was a place of glorious memory: Baiae, now half-deserted, the soul of aristocratic decadence; Misenum, a museum of departed naval glory; Puteoli, still commercial and loud; Naples, Greek and dangerous; Vesuvius rising beyond the cities, its twin peaks half hidden in mist. By general consent it was the most beautiful coast in the world, though the public works were falling into ruin, and signs of impoverishment showed in the palaces along the gracious curve of the bay.

The captain pointed to a row of mansions on the heights behind Puteoli, rising out of a cover of bay-trees.

"I wonder if the pale scum got that far inland," he rumbled, half to himself.

"Pardon me, which scum?" Adriana asked, shading her eyes and following the captain’s forefinger.

"Germans. They burned half of Puteoli and stole half the navy at Misenum."

"Will Puteoli be well-guarded after the sack?" she asked apprehensively. "I have a reason not to attract the attention of the harbor police."

"Harbor police? By Neptune, madam, I don’t think there are any."

She caught her breath, seeing again the range of old sea-palaces outside the walls of Puteoli. As a young married woman she had visited the town and its mansions in the last of their glory. Entering the harbor, the little coaster attracted no attention. It scraped against the wharf and came to rest. The captain helped Adriana to disembark with her bundle, saluted her with a bow, and shook his head after she had gone.

She made her way across the half-deserted waterfront. The traffic was sparse and listless: an occasional bullock-cart, a monk, a girl carrying an amphora on her head, a pair of drunkards sleeping in the morning sun. She would have preferred a thicker population, in which she could lose herself easily. Stepping around piles of merchandise and refuse, she moved quickly into the city, through the sea-gate and up the thoroughfare that led to the forum.

A pair of nuns on a mission were in her path. She started involuntarily when she saw them, thinking of Blanda and Probina, but they had friendly faces. She caught their glance and raised a hand, signaling that she would like to speak.

"Good morning, Sisters. Is there a place in Puteoli where a decent meal and lodging may be found?"

The older of the two women answered. "The Stag is burned. The Diana is burned. Over there," she drew an arc with her forefinger, "the Grey Heron is not burned. It’s further from the harbor than the others. Go north, past the forum. You can’t miss it. Your Courage is traveling in these parts?"

The nun leaned toward Adriana, her curiosity aroused by the sight of a freedwoman with a whip and a bundle, alone on foot.

"A quick and lonely trip southward, Sister."

"With no attendants?"

"I begin to wish I’d brought a slave or two. It’s a pity one can’t expect to buy a reliable servant on the road."

"True, true," the nun smiled, making conversation. "Today’s a market day here, in case that’s of interest. The prices shouldn’t be high; no one has any money. Old Fuscus should even be auctioning off a few human beings in the forum: one or two broken-down worthies and some captive Germans are all he’s likely to have, unluckily."

At the next corner Adriana hired a donkey, for safety’s sake, to take her to the center of town. In the sky to the northeast, predatory birds wheeled over a concise area of the city, marking the location of the forum. Adriana urged the donkey-boy in that direction, idly curious to see what might be found in the market stalls.

Puteoli had escaped the worst; its public buildings were charred, but only a few neighborhoods were gone altogether. The people went about their business silently, the women red-eyed and haggard, the men thin-lipped and tense. The center of town had a smoked look; the Vandals had fired the tenements, the donkey-boy said, to make the slum-women run and scream.

Borne along by the flow of traffic, she passed through the forum arch into a stew of noises, colors, and evil smells. She thanked the donkey-boy, dismissed him with a silver coin, and picked her way across the market-place among piles of onions and cabbages, baskets of fish, cheap statues of gods and saints, trays of crude jewelry. The common people of Puteoli seemed to have lost little to the Germans; it was one of the blessings, Adriana supposed, of being poor.

The noise of the crowd made thought impossible. The absence of thought was soothing. She bought rosette-patterned bread, hard cheese, and a skin of cheap wine. Taking refuge behind a donkey loaded with melons, she ate half her purchases and put the rest in her bundle.

The wine went unexpectedly to her head; an aura crept over the market. Feeling generous, she threw a copper to a hunchback. In the brilliant sun she noticed details: the iridescent wings of the pigeons on the basilica roof, the silver dishes in the metalworkers’ stalls across the market, the blond heads of several tall Germans being sold on a flimsy block in the shade of the basilica.

The German.

She looked at him again, with a gathering warmth of recognition. He had a boy’s face and a warrior’s build, lean and efficient, like a piece of steel. She could imagine him fighting ankle-deep in blood, his axe playing round his head like lightning, a half-dozen Berbers circling him like brown hawks and dying one after another at the tip of his blade.

Surely, she thought, it can’t be the same person. All Germans look alike.

Intrigued, Adriana pushed toward the slave-auction. The Vandals, their feet chalked, were chained neck-to-neck and foot-to-foot: three naked soldiers, like young gods of war, and a handsome blond girl who suited Adriana’s conception of a camp whore, but was doubtless the wife of a German officer.

She was certain, now, of the boy’s identity, and she remembered him with a rush of gratitude. He was cast in the same lean mold as the others, but his tattoos were few and small, and his yellow hair was styled short in the Roman way. His wide-set eyes were full of earnest questions, much as they had been in the stable at Nomentum when he could hardly focus them. His boyish solemnity touched her again, deeply. Germans were always solemn; a pig turning somersaults could not make them smile.

She turned to an honest-looking freedwoman who appeared to have taken time out from her shopping.

"Where were those savages captured?" Adriana asked.

"I take it you’re not from around here," the woman said. "They’re Vandals. Their boat went down east of here. Most of the straw-headed bastards drowned. These washed up on the beach. They’ll be going cheap today, a German for a cabbage, as we say. Who has gold?"

The slave-dealer, a small florid man, banged a gong to indicate the commencement of the sale, and spoke a few words in praise of the magistrates of the city. The German girl was unyoked and brought forward. A tear crept down her cheek; she tossed her head. She was tall, beautifully proportioned, and outraged. Her lips vibrated with anger. She reminded Adriana of the goddess Freya at the reins of her cat-drawn chariot.

"Observe," the little dealer intoned in a surprisingly big voice, "the long line of the hips, the square shoulders, the unblemished hide, the splendid breasts with twice the suckling capacity of your average girl-purchase. As you know, friends, these beauties of the forest get pregnant merely by lifting their leather skirts and exposing themselves to the west wind. Friends! Consider the pelvis of this motherly creature. Why, such a Gothic she-ox will drop twenty little bulls in a row with no more effort than it costs you to spit on the floor. . . ."

A female buyer, noble as to dress, stepped up to the block and pinched the German girl’s nipples and kneecaps, disapprovingly. A voice among the spectators called, "Let’s hear ’er sing." A merchant tapped his chin with his account tablets and threw in a bid. A richly dressed old man doubled the offer. The merchant shrugged. The old man, flushed with the pleasure of anticipation, led the girl away by a halter. She followed obediently, moving in ridiculously small steps because her ankles were fettered to her waist.

"She’ll have a good life," someone murmured after her. "Old Albinus is a miser with everyone but his she-cats."

"If I had the need, I’d have bought her myself," the merchant said half-regretfully, "and that one," pointing to the young captain of Vandals, next on the block, "and I’d breed them as Cato did."

"Yes, and you’d watch them breed, wouldn’t you, Auxentius?"

The two men raised their eyebrows and smiled.

Adriana was agitated now, for no reason she could give a proper name. Next on the block was the young officer who had befriended her in his primitive way. It was absurd to imagine that she could do anything to help him. He was strong as steel but entirely beyond rescue, standing naked before the chattering crowd, his eyes full of unanswerable questions.

His fetters were struck and he was made to run in place. With busy hands, the little red-faced slave-dealer adjusted the young officer’s pose. The dealer’s round hat, like the dome of the Pantheon, reached no higher than the German’s chin. In his incongruously large voice, he recited the young man’s excellences.

"Observe . . . the horse-like hangings of this German yearling. Why, if you dunk him in a tub with your females, they’ll swell up like bladder-balls overnight. . . ."

"Stud potential," someone nodded.

"He’s a biter," his neighbor cautioned. "He would have chewed off old Servius’s kneecap when they dragged him up from the wharf, if someone hadn’t knocked him on the head."

"Unruly German animal."

"Yes, truly an animal."

"Maybe he’ll be sold as a farmhand. His prettiness will be ruined in a year."

"But who’d buy such a sack of devils?"

"Maybe our fancy friends over there." The speaker jerked a thumb toward two young men whispering to each other with tense gestures, canvassing the auction-block with something more than commercial intensity.

One of them stepped forward and reached up to prod the German’s genitals, dangling helplessly under their flax-colored nest. A scarlet flush began at the base of the young officer’s neck and moved up to the roots of his hair. A kick from his left leg narrowly missed the young man, who leaped back, his wig sloping over one eye.

"Oh, Magnus!" his companion gasped, steadying the pale young gentleman.

The auctioneer’s whip cracked; the German winced. Magnus straightened himself, with a smile of satisfaction. From that smile, Adriana deduced the Vandal’s life to come: buggery, tears, flowers, whippings, an early death.

A tap on the gong opened the bidding.

"Ten solidi, gold," Magnus bid in an elegant voice.

A murmur passed from head to head. Adriana cast an eye over the tattered crowd; a higher price seemed unlikely. With an odd sense of desperation she fingered the leather pouch from Aunt Laelia. She had counted up the contents on shipboard: twenty gold solidi and some smaller pieces, apparently excavated from Laelia’s winecellar in a hurry.

The auctioneer, clearly unwilling to argue with more gold than had been paid for the German girl, raised his mallet and glanced inquiringly over his audience.

"Eleven solidi," Adriana called out loudly, before her discretion could overwhelm the impulse. Her heart pounded; her blood rushed to her cheeks. By the turning of the crowd’s collective head she understood that her tongue had run away with her. A freedwoman? their curious smiles seemed to say. Entrusted with such a purchase? What can her lord be thinking of?

Magnus flushed scarlet. "Thirteen solidi."

The old men around him shook their heads.

"Fourteen solidi," Adriana bid, her voice strained with emotion.

"Fifteen solidi," the airy voice countered, but with a tremor.

She opened her mouth to bid again, and shut it. As the auctioneer poised his mallet to strike the gong, she raised the bid again with a despair that she hardly understood.

"Sixteen solidi."

Beads of sweat broke out on Magnus’s forehead. He bit his lips. Doubtless he could have doubled Adriana’s bid without impoverishing himself, but at the price of disgrace. The crowd was already murmuring about pale young men driven to ridiculous excess by their deplorable appetites.

"Sixteen solidi bid for the young Goth. Good breeding stock. Good farm-help. Sixteen solidi." The dealer clapped his hands sharply. "Sixteen solidi bid for the German colt," he repeated in a tone of finality.

A furry clang of the gong announced the sale; Adriana’s knees went weak as the sound died away.

"Oh, damn!" Magnus exclaimed, and bit off two fingernails.

A low moan went up from the two boys still on the block. One held out his manacled hands to Adriana with entreaties in his own tongue. The spectators pursed their lips at her and shook their heads; the sale went on. The monotonous voice of the auctioneer resonated in the background; his gong introduced the next German. Adriana was too agitated to follow the bidding. The auctioneer’s assistant, slightly drunk and as brash as his master, tied a skimpy kerchief around the young Vandal officer’s hips and led him from the platform by the rope around his neck. The boy’s blue eyes met Adriana’s; his long eyelashes fluttered in a shock of recognition.

"Fine purchase, madam," the assistant said in an impressively merry voice, as he weighed Adriana’s gold in a portable scale. "You’ll never regret it. First-rate breeding stock. Perhaps Your Perceptiveness allowed herself to notice his qualifications? The boy has many healthy pups in him, I’d say."

He produced a square of parchment and a wood tablet, knelt, and wrote: Wolf, son of no one, Vandal by nationality, twenty years of age, in good health as required by law, unaccused before the law, neither vagrant nor runaway, free from epilepsy.

"Your Discretion will find this in order," the assistant said, standing and offering Adriana the bill of sale.

She accepted the parchment with a curt nod of the head.

"Strike his fetters," she said.

"It’s your business, madam," the assistant shrugged. "I suggest you keep the fetters."

"No fetters," she said, "and I’ll see to the branding myself."

"I see." The assistant raised his eyebrows and smirked. "But to leave him free to run, madam?"

"No fetters."

"I see."

He signaled; a freedman brought a mallet and chisel and removed the fetters. With the rope still dangling from his neck, the German shook out his arms and legs gratefully. Then, without a sound, he leaped high in the air, an explosion of sinew, and swept an imaginary sword under his own feet as if to be sure that all his former agility remained.

"One moment," Adriana said, refusing the rope-end that the slave-dealer’s assistant extended to her.

She turned to the boy. "Promise, if you will, not to run."

"Yes, madam, before God."

"Before God, indeed," the assistant marveled, making the sign of the cross on his forehead.

"Remove the rope," Adriana said.

"You’re taking a risk, madam."

"Remove it, please."

The assistant threw up his hands. "It’s not my problem," he grumbled, lifting the noose up over the boy’s head, bowing, and fading away.

Collecting himself, the young officer looked down at his near-nakedness as though it had a separate personality. Apart from his marvelous blushing he had decent control of his face, but unconsciously he kneaded his big fingers and curled his long toes in embarrassment. He tugged desperately at the scrap of cloth around his narrow hips, for lack of much else to tug at.

"I am most sorry," he said mournfully, in good Latin, "that you have to see me without my clothes. My holy mother, who reads the Psalms through every day, would not approve of me."

Adriana laughed aloud. "Please, no regrets," she said soothingly. "Most people look better in clothes, it’s true. But not all people do."

The boy looked her in the eyes, shyly. He seemed to be gazing with pain into a lifetime of unimaginable degradation.

"And please don’t try to read the future," Adriana said kindly. "Women attend the slave block for various reasons, and not all those reasons are stupid or disgraceful."

"Madam has her privileges," he answered stoically.

"Very well. I give you one of them: the privilege not to worry."

There was an awkward silence. The boy’s big hands dangled at his sides with their palms toward Adriana, as if he were pleading for something he could not name.

"Why did you rescue me, madam?" he asked at last with shy dignity.

"Because I’m grateful to you for not burning my house." She thought for a moment. "Because any woman can tell the difference between a man and a monster, provided she isn’t in love." She hesitated ruefully. "After that, God help her. There’s no eyeless fish so blind in all the caverns of the Alps."

"I swear loyalty to you then, madam," the boy said with a sudden rush of earnestness. "You may kill or use me as you please. This is the German way. May Valhalla vomit me up and hell swallow me, may trolls pinch and scald me, may my bones be crushed over the Doomstone, if I fail in loyalty to you."

The speech was delivered with great seriousness. Adriana suppressed a laugh.

"My word, Vandal, do we need all that to get by? The Lord said, ‘Let your yes be yes, and your no, no.’"

"I have behaved foolishly?" the boy asked, reddening again.

"No. Really." She laid a comforting forefinger on his arm. "It’s only that I feel I know your sense of honor just a little, and I would have trusted you without all that lightning and thunder. Are you really only twenty, barbarian?"

She inspected his face, looking for signs of deceitfulness, finding none. He had a frank, childlike expression and a soft baritone voice, persuasive as an echo from the Well of Truth.

"Nineteen years and eight months, madam. Thanks to the good God, I have lived through a great deal."

"If we get along, you should live through a great deal more," Adriana said. "I encourage you, therefore, to obey whatever civilized impulses you may find in yourself. You’ll see that I’m not difficult to please."

"Yes, madam." His expression was earnest to the point of tears.

"Please call me something other than ‘madam’."

"What shall I call you?"

"Adriana."

"Is such familiarity common at Rome?"

"If the lord or lady requires it. I’m happy with my name; you may use it freely. ‘Your Felicity’ and ‘My lady’ take too much wind. Just ‘Adriana.’ Say it."

"Ah-dri-ah-na."

"Good. And yours, of course, is. . . ." She glanced at the warranty. "Wolf. Voal-f."

"I like to hear you say my name," Wolf commented softly, with a rush of color to his cheeks. He blinked his mild eyes.

"Voal-f. Volf," she said again. "It’s a good name. Sounds like a pup chasing butterflies."

"It does," he said agreeably.

"Are you comfortable, now, Wolf?" she asked.

"I am satisfied. I am grateful," he said, nodding. "But I feel like a very small boy without my sword and my axe."

"We’ll find a knife, at least, and a clean tunic," she said. "An axe would attract attention."

It was pleasant to be leaving the forum at last; the noise reminded Adriana of the proconsul’s parrot-house at Carthage. She kept an eye on Wolf at her side, picking his way with infinite discretion among fish-vendors, cabbage-vendors, crockery-vendors, trinket-vendors. She was grateful to see no imperial soldiers anywhere, although the market was kept in order by several pairs of local head-bashers in ill-fitting helmets, middle-aged men with the potbellied strength of tavern-keepers.

With a forefinger to his chest, Adriana stopped a clean young stevedore and bought the tunic off the astonished boy’s back. He hurried away in boots and a loincloth, counting small silver. A weapon would not be so easily supplied. Near the vaulted entrance to the forum, a row of keen-eyed stall-holders grasped the public coin with hairy fingers. Adriana hesitated over a broad display of what could charitably be called miscellany: crockery that had been smashed and re-smashed, hideous images of saints and gods, pieces of the True Cross, locks, keys that did not fit them, kitchen utensils with holes, ragged carpets, mats, pots, lamps. The stall-holder presented himself.

"Knives," Adriana said. "I’m interested in knives. Do you have them?"

"Do I have knives?" the merchant responded. "My collection is not to be surpassed between Rome and Naples."

He produced a half-dozen rusted blades with dirty handles. He watched her with a look of modest detachment as she examined them. His wife had not cultivated the look; her eyes seemed to penetrate the folds of Adriana’s clothing and examine the contents of her purse.

"For curiosity’s sake, what price have you attached to this antique?" Adriana asked, holding up a knife.

"Eight siliquae of silver, Your Prudence."

"Surely it can’t be worth more than two."

She picked up another knife, examined it critically, and raised her eyebrows at the merchant, who held up four fingers.

With a toss of the head she threw the implement down and picked up another.

"Three siliquae, Your Sagacity."

"Vah!" she exclaimed, throwing it down.

The merchant glared. She held up two fingers. The merchant folded his arms across his chest. She turned to leave the stall. The merchant lost patience and followed her with both hands waving.

"Madam! Can’t you spend three siliquae without making faces as if your teeth were being pulled? Would you bargain over the shadow of a donkey? Why spoil your brain by thinking of every little piece that’s to be spent?"

"If three siliquae are insignificant," Adriana said stiffly, "you don’t need them."

He threw up his hands. "Take the damned knife for two siliquae. God send you no need of it."

"Amen!" his wife intoned, eyeing Adriana’s silver as she counted it out of her purse.

"The people must be Christians here," Wolf said thoughtfully in his rich baritone, as they left the stall. "The woman said ‘Oh, God’ many times and ‘Amen’ once."

"If these are Christians, I’m the Apostle Peter. Can you use the knife?"

"It is good," Wolf nodded, thumbing the blade.

"Please," she said, laying a finger on his shoulder. "Let’s have less saintly good cheer. The knife is trash; the people who sold it are goats, not sheep. I only ask if you can use it until we find a better one."

"I am grateful, madam," he said. "It has notches and stains like my own blade at home. If I polish it, it will wink at me like a friend."

An hour before midday they walked beneath the stone vault of the city’s east gate, in a crush of peasants, vendors, and ill-smelling animals. A sentinel looked hard at Wolf’s yellow hair, but yawned and said nothing. Adriana’s heart leaped when she saw a pair of soldiers in uniform, drinking in the shade of a tomb. She passed unnoticed.

The day had been borrowed from paradise. She longed to soar and sing like a lark in the sparkling sunshine, or to lose herself in the sea, transparent emerald near the shore, deepening to blue, fading into a misty pearl-color near the horizon. The height of Pausilypus glimmered down the curve of the bay; beyond, Vesuvius rose under a silver crown of vapor. Fishing-boats rested like butterflies on the western horizon. Capri shimmered in the distance like a half-dissolved opal.

"It’s a picture," Adriana said. "Do you wonder how we get anything done in Italy? Our country is made to lie down and dream in."

Wolf smiled agreeably.

They walked along the border of the dusty highway, passing slow-moving bullock wagons that kept the traffic from becoming dangerous. The German flowed effortlessly beside Adriana like a lean boarhound. She speculated how he might look at Geiseric’s court, attending the king, his fine body clothed in fashionable Byzantine fabrics, a decorative battle-axe dangling from his belt, gold bands around his neck and wrists, and tiny graceful tattoos at the base of his throat, by which the angels in heaven would recognize him after his death.

His face remained distant, saintly, otherwise expressionless. You’re too good for your own good, Adriana thought. If you’re not careful you’ll be snatched up into heaven like Elijah.

She wondered about the limits of his goodness, and resolved to find them.

"The women of Rome must be too small and dark for your taste," she said. "I imagine you sigh yourself to sleep every night, thinking about the blond girls from the north, with their insatiable appetite for romance and roast beef."

"I do not think about them, Adriana," Wolf answered pleasantly, with no explanation.

"I’ve always admired German women for their sheer size," Adriana said with a little yawn, "and they’re very handsome, too, though a bit like splendid horses in my opinion, with their large teeth and long upper lips. But their skins are certainly excellent. My grandfather used to say that for a horse’s skin and a woman’s, there’s no better place than the shores of the northern sea."

She turned and examined Wolf’s face. There was a little flush of embarrassment on his cheeks, but no sign of outraged national pride.

"I’ve heard it said," she continued pleasantly, "that German women wash their hair in ale, and when they’ve wrung out their tresses, they drink the drippings. Is there any truth to the rumor?"

"Possibly there is a German woman who does it, Adriana. I have not seen it done."

One must step up the attack, she thought.

"My grandfather once forced himself to live in the north for a year, for military purposes, when he was a young man," she said, "near the sea that’s never very salty and never very warm. He said it was like living all year in a cold bath-house or a wet bird’s-nest. Everything clings to everything else and to oneself. It’s hardly any wonder that the Germans decided to move, after centuries of growing pale in that universal fog. I understand this is characteristic of Germans, yes?—taking several centuries to reach a decision. It has to do with the fear of being wrong, I believe."

"It may be true, Adriana," Wolf said politely, giving no sign that he had heard more than the shape of her words.

"Everything is very green up there, I’m told," she continued, "with no variety of ilex or olive; and in that dim, watery atmosphere the people grow fruits and flowers that in Italy we throw to the pigs. So it’s entirely understandable that when your people went looking for a new country to oppress, they pounced on one with sunshine."

He nodded agreeably and said nothing.

"It was an impressively orderly pounce, I must say," Adriana went on. "I’ve heard so much about the German love of order. My knowledgeable friends tell me that German babies beat time with their rattles, and that German birds refuse to leave their cages when the doors are open. Are these things true?"

"I think not, Adriana. German babies do not have rattles, and German birds do not have cages."

"Tell me . . . ," she began again, and stopped. "No. Tell me what you will. I’m tired of asking questions."

She glared at him, irritated by her failure to be irritating.

He flashed an unexpected, radiant smile. "I am Your Felicity’s slave. If you wish me to be wise, I will be wise. If you wish me to be a fool, I will be a fool."

"What if I wish you to be friendly?"

"I will be friendly."

"Is this the unprincipled pliability I detest in the people I put up with at Rome? What good is it to be ‘friendly’ if the heart isn’t in it?"

"One cannot command friendship, Adriana. Only the pretense. I, too, have a question."

He cleared his throat politely. "Is it true," he asked with every appearance of innocence, "that the Romans cure a sunstroke by putting a gutless chicken on the patient’s head, like a wig, and that he has to wear it until it rots and falls off? I have heard of such a thing."

"So have I," Adriana smiled, "but not at Rome. Only a very primitive person would do anything so foolish."

"It is the same with us," Wolf said.

"I feel that we understand each other," she smiled, satisfied.

Past the tunnel of Pausilypus, the highway dipped down near the sea. Fishing boats were beached in rows near the pavement; copper-colored fishermen dried their nets on the sand and rested in the shade of their craft.

Wolf touched his right shoulder and sighed.

"I understand you bit a man on the leg back there," Adriana said. "He must have struck you hard in return; you seem to be favoring one wing."

"It is nothing."

"Are you sure? Where did the blow fall?"

"There were two," Wolf said patiently, "one on my shoulder and one on my head."

"Let me see," she said, stopping in the middle of the gravel path. "Squat down."

He dropped obediently to his haunches, with a ripple of muscle and a scarlet blush.

She ran her forefinger along the immense distance from the base of his neck to the end of his right shoulder, enjoying his embarrassment as much as she enjoyed the texture of his skin.

"There’s a bruise near the shoulder-bone," she said. "The skin isn’t broken. Where’s the other wound?"

"The hurt is inside my head. It is difficult to see," Wolf stammered foolishly. "Here, where my hand is, above my temple."

"Tilt your head," she said, putting two fingers under his square jaw. "Up here, straight above the ear, there’s a lump. The skin isn’t broken."

"I am happy," he said.

"Get up." She had tested his obedience, and was charmed by it. "It occurs to me that you must walk with women a great deal. Your pace suits mine exactly."

"I have not walked much with women, Adriana," the boy said with intense seriousness, self-consciously checking the movement of his big feet.

"Pardon me," she smiled. "If I could tell such lies, I’d have my fortune back in three days."

He blushed deeply, a beautiful, healthy color that brought a shine to his cheekbones. "Among us, Adriana, women do not go with the military, except the officers. It is our belief that continence builds a man’s strength. At court, the king requires chastity of his young men, though he does not practice it himself. At home I have a maid who used to be my nurse when I was little. She comes every night to see that I have everything I need, and to set out my clothes for the next day."

"She’s the only woman in your life, truly?" Adriana asked happily. "And she’s very old?"

"Very old," Wolf repeated. "I cannot remember that she was ever younger."

Adriana looked at his face, all tan-and-gold seriousness, and smiled. "Excuse me," she said.

"I do not understand," he said.

"For calling you a liar."

"If you wish to call me a liar, Adriana, that is your business," he said quietly.

"Certainly in Africa they don’t teach you to say pretty things to ladies," she chided. "I know several men who could’ve improved on that speech without straining themselves. But perhaps candor is best."

On the beach, two fishermen with great biceps dumped the morning’s catch on the sand. The fish threw somersaults and made wry faces in their death-agony.

"You’re hungry?" she asked, suddenly thinking of it.

"I am not uncomfortable, madam."

"What do your people eat at midday?"

"Your preferences are my own."

"But that doesn’t answer my question."

"We eat plain sheep-flesh, mostly, when we are in the field, with strong ale to drink."

"Will you be satisfied with cheese and bread and wine?"

"Certainly, madam."

"Will you have the kindness to stop calling me ‘madam’?"

"Yes, Ah-dri-ah-na."

They were on an open stretch of beach near a cluster of fishermen’s huts. A deserted arbor near the sand offered shade and close-cropped grass.

"Let’s spread my cloak here," she said, and shook it out. She took cheese, wine, and bread from her bundle, the remains of her breakfast. The sea glittered sleepily in the late-morning sun.

A few paces down the road, fishwives had assorted themselves along the beach in view of the west gate of Naples, to sell to the seaside traffic. They were red-faced, warlike creatures, booming their wares in voices of thunder, frantic to get rid of the morning’s catch before it spoiled in the heat of the day.

The nearest opened her enormous mouth from time to time and bellowed in a rasping tenor about rosy mullets, white soles, juicy cuttlefish, and lobsters black as Ethiopia, though in fact she had only a dozen lumps of flesh on a board. She raised her voice when she saw Adriana and Wolf sitting.

"Who wants fish? Fresh fish, fat fish! Two coppers apiece. Fresh fish! Fresher than fresh! See them flop around, like the devil in holy water!"

"Do you think we can make a mouthful of this," Adriana asked doubtfully, looking at their skimpy meal. "I’d kill for something cooked."

"Monica will sell you a cooked fish!" the fishwife boomed, as if she had overheard Adriana’s remark.

It’s time to find out a little more about his character, Adriana thought. She counted small silver into Wolf’s open palm.

"You see that big noise of a woman over there, like a purple cabbage?" she said, pointing at Monica. "Take the money and buy us something delicious. If there’s nothing delicious, don’t buy."

"May the sun shine forever on your pretty straw head!" Monica bawled at his approach, introducing a string of hearty blessings that Adriana heard only in fragments.

Wolf knelt and squinted respectfully at the fish toasting on Monica’s bed of coals. He shrugged and started back toward Adriana.

"Diarrhea!" the fishmongress shouted after him. "May you have it at both ends! May worms eat holes in your stomach! May you turn piss-yellow with fever and swallow your tongue!"

Wolf’s ears went scarlet. He shrugged again, returned, and pointed at a meager pair of mullets that had not lost all their juices. Monica tucked his coins into a leather bag and presented the fish, dangling by their tails. A toothless grin wrinkled her leathery face. She bawled blessings. "Pretty boy, the hair of Monica’s head is your rug. May thorns and brambles flee from your path, and may no raven croak at your funeral, or your pretty wife’s, either. . . ."

With an apologetic smile returned to the shade, pinching a cooked fish by the tail with the thumb and forefinger of each hand.

"It appears that Monica has joined us in matrimony," Adriana said. "Sit and eat."

He ate a fish with great restraint, teasing the flesh off the bones with big fingers that seemed capable of exact control.

"I have to admit to you, ‘husband’," Adriana said, "that I was testing you when I sent you away with the money. Is it premature to say that you seem honest to me? You must be one of the few people left in the world who can’t get a lie out of their mouths or their hands into somebody else’s purse. It’s a defect, like being born with one leg. Incurable, too, in my experience. Do you care for Roman wine?"

She extended the wineskin.

"I share," Wolf said, somewhat stiffly, "my people’s weakness for drink: strong drink, weak drink, anything in between. Ale is good. Mead, too."

"You should drink wine," she said, giving him the skin. "Ale will make you fat, like a pig fed on beechnuts."

They were silent awhile, listening to the sawing of grasshoppers on the slopes above the road. Wolf turned to watch the beach. Adriana followed the play of light and shadow in his expression, the birth of questions in his mild eyes, the suggestion of a smile on his lips. He seemed relaxed in her company at last, free to share her brief liberty from civilized routine.

Offshore, a half-dozen fishermen emptied a catch of sardines into their boat, cascading from the net like a shower of silver leaves. Women and girls mended nets in the shade of beached vessels. A curly-headed boy painted eyes on the prow of his craft, his thick brows drawn together in earnest concentration.

"That is an honest face," Wolf said. "Is that, also, an honest face?" He pointed to a dark wisp of a girl who watched the boat-boy from a shady spot under the olives. Her expression was generous and dreamy.

"It seems honest," Adriana nodded. "It pleases me to think there are honest faces everywhere, in the mass of dishonest ones. Maybe they’re brother and sister. Maybe otherwise. I think they’ll marry and raise nineteen good-hearted children who’ll help hold the world together until God lets it fall apart."

"Do I speak Latin well enough for you, Adriana?" Wolf asked with a hint of pride in his voice.

"Quite well," she said, "but like all Germans, you chew your words, and your ‘r’ sounds like the bubbling of a pot of beans over a fire."

"I will try to do better," he said solemnly, and Adriana was a little sorry.

"But it is very good," she said.

His face brightened. She was moved by his earnestness and reserve. Most of the northern savages she had seen were crude cousins to the bureaucrats of Rome, sharks on two legs.

"How were you captured, if one may inquire?" she asked.

"Ach, it was stupid," Wolf gloomed, suddenly articulate. "We were loading our ship at Portus. Aligern, our commander, insisted that we should take some big statues from the old Capitol. He was sure the king would like them. Aligern, who is now a dead fool, stood the statues upright and lashed them to the mast, instead of laying them on the deck. There was a night storm off Cumae. The statues fell and broke the boat. Many men were crushed, sleeping in the hold. A few of us floated to shore on pieces of wood. The people of Puteoli captured us on the beach. The king will not be pleased."

"At least you’re alive," Adriana said. "Better slavery on dry land than freedom at the bottom of the sea."

"Ach, that is a sorry thing too," the boy said with disgust. "Permission was given to sell us like pigs. I heard that it came from a high office in Rome, from a man who is supposed to be the king’s friend, Gaius Fau—. Ach, I can never say it properly."

"Faustinus?"

"Yes."

"King Geiseric’s friend? That’s useful to know," Adriana murmured, tapping her lips with her forefinger. The filthy alliance had been confirmed.

"You know this Fau . . . stinus?" Wolf asked, turning to her.

"All too intimately," she said with some bitterness. "He’s the reason why I’m somewhere near Naples today, rather than in my own house at Rome."

She hesitated. "Really, I’m speaking too freely to a virtual stranger. I think I’m beginning not to care what happens to me."

She rose and shook out her cloak. Facing Naples, she looked out over the bay, a great vase of antique blue on which the little white sails of fishing boats drifted here and there, sometimes silvered in the sunshine, sometimes fading like mirages into the vapor that mantled the horizon. The hot sea-breeze was not unpleasant. It carried a reminiscence of spring.

"Wolf, let’s enjoy the day," she said, adjusting her knife at her waist and striding out on the road to Naples.


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