many ladies of Rome carry knives?" Wolf asked
courteously, his brow furrowed with the conscious effort
to moderate his long step.
I was as young as I’d like to be now," Adriana
said, "I lived on a farm northeast of Rome. You’ve
seen it. My relatives did a lot of pointless eating and
drinking and lounging there, playing dice and dawdling
over old scrolls, and listening to my talentless cousin
play his lyre out of tune, at least a dozen times a day
when he was in heat. But I was bored with all that, and my
grandfather taught me riding and swordplay as pastimes. So
I’m not appealingly defenseless. I’m a decent judge of
cutlery, and I can use it with some skill."
ladies of the court do not usually wear knives,
openly. ‘Painted’ stilettos, sometimes. You remember
mine." She touched the slight shape under her tunic.
at the court of Rome must be very exciting," Wolf
doubt you’d find it so. On the contrary, many of us yawn
and yawn until we dislocate our necks. But I suppose
it’s a wonderful place for people who like costly
rituals and total dishonesty."
with an emphasis that startled her. "Even without
Faustinus," she said, "Rome’s no place to be
just now, in or out of court. No one’s tending to
business. The city’s helpless. Famine and plague are
thinking of her servants, wondering if they could survive
the coming months. The weather was changing; the rising
wind was from the southwest, dry and dusty. The sun had
taken on a coppery color; the deep blue of the sky had
paled into an unhealthy bluish-grey.
Adriana said, pinching her nose. "Wolf, prepare
yourself for a noise and a stink. Naples is a mansion from
a distance, and a sty close at hand. Better to avoid it,
but there’s no easy way."
predicted the condition of the city. Weeds and garbage
framed the shabby tombs. The roadside walls were cracked;
the road was deep in dust. Adriana put a cautionary hand
on Wolf’s elbow as they passed through the shadow of a
vaulted gateway. A guard challenged them in a bored voice,
looked them over briefly, and let them pass.
hardly set foot in Naples when she began to regret not
going around it. The city seemed to be an interminable
succession of taverns, giving out an acrid smell of cheap
wine as irritating as the dust. The street-grid was
absurd. Silently Adriana cursed the Greeks who had laid it
out. Away from the shore, without even the guidance of the
wharf-smells, she found it hard to set a direction and
stick to it.
favored her with a grin like two halves of a broken crock.
that man have an honest face?" Wolf asked
speculatively, as if the city’s people had been set in
array for his instruction.
grin is meaningless," Adriana said. "Look at the
eyes. What do they tell you? ‘Your throat, O German, is
the kind of throat I’d like to cut.’ The one thing his
face does not tell you is that he’s an honest
man. I think you Germans must have a method for scrubbing
your brains the way Romans scrub their skins."
street-noises and street-odors made concentration
difficult. Adriana began to feel the cold hand of
desperation on the back of her neck. If only, she
thought, I could see the plume of Vesuvius, or get a
whiff of the sea. The decay had worsened as they
moved: empty shops, tenements going to ruin, dry
fountains, courtyards choked with weeds, statues covered
with pigeon droppings.
directionless now, she found herself in a slum worse than
anything she had seen in the Subura.`Drooling hags stared
at her with eyes empty of everything but malice. Savage
little girls inspected her impudently, looking for loose
jewelry or a loose purse. Disorderly adolescents made
coarse gestures with their thumbs and forefingers. Someone
tossed a melon-rind at Adriana’s feet; drops of cool
slime spattered her ankles. Involuntarily she turned her
head; a beggar who had been holding out pitiful hands to
her a moment before was making ape-like grimaces behind
you feel like a cat walking down an alley full of
dogs?" she muttered.
feel like an Apostle about to tread on scorpions," he
the dirty boys of the neighborhood sniffing after her,
making moist noises with their tongues and lips, as if
they were swallowing oysters. One of the boys set up a dry
cough; the others followed in chorus. Someone spat;
Adriana felt the spittle on her left leg. There was a
burst of laughter from the onlookers, dry and hostile.
up and burst, yellow dog!" a woman shouted at Wolf.
A small boy
marched beside Adriana, imitating her step. An adolescent
girl, with a squawk of derision, grabbed the hem of
Adriana’s tunic and yanked so hard that she stumbled
backward. A pimply boy skipped sideways at Wolf’s elbow,
like a pale, long-legged crab.
your name, straw-head?" he asked, peering up
maliciously into Wolf’s face. "What’s your name,
he answered politely. "Lupus, in your tongue."
He’s a Voof! Be careful, boys, there’s a Voof in the
streets! He’s a Lupus in our tongue. Can we carry a
Lupus on our tongue, brothers? Hey, Voof! Can you carry a
Lupus on your tongue?"
would like to grind them up like dried fish," Wolf
quiet," Adriana said in a desperate undertone.
"Be patient till we’re past the square ahead, in
someone else’s neighborhood. These people can’t help
themselves. They drank rudeness with their mothers’
slum-boy stooped, caught up a handful of gravel, and flung
it in Wolf’s face. Wolf shook his head and passed a hand
over his eyes as the filth cascaded down his chest.
were glazed; his cheeks were fiery red. "Surely I may
crush him now, madam?"
had snatched a long knife from his girdle. Adriana saw it
flicker like a snake’s tongue. He turned abruptly and
came toward Adriana, grinning and fencing the air. An
opening presented itself; she raised her knee and foreleg
with a violent shift of her body. The boy gasped and fell
away from her. He lay on his side, clutching his
testicles, his jaw-muscles working, his forehead beaded in
a sudden sweat of agony.
halted at the intersection of two streets. A crowd had
materialized on all sides, like a school of hideous fish:
men cursing in an undertone, women hissing, adolescents
leering and scratching, garlic-breathing children with
dull eyes and rough voices. The hostile mob-faces seemed
like variants of a single face, breathing hard through
rotten teeth, glaring with small, suspicious eyes under
ropes of unwashed hair.
A hateful Ah!
swirled through the crowd, like a gust of foul air. See
the black-eyed witch who keeps young by drinking the blood
of poor children. Throw yourself down, Jezebel, so the
dogs may eat you. . . . Clubs and rusty knives
appeared from among the folds of the people’s rags.
Women and children leaned from the windows of the
surrounding tenements, breathless to see a stabbing.
slum-boy was on his feet again, red-eyed, grinning,
fencing the air.
the Gothic scum!" someone shouted.
stood out on Wolf’s forehead. His color turned from red
to purple. His heavy knife flashed above his head and came
down with the back of the blade across the urchin’s
eyes. The boy fell down again, bleeding from the bridge of
his nose. The crowd opened its mouth and roared. The
urchin got up a second time with the murderous expression
of a dog scenting blood. His friends had gathered closely
around Wolf and Adriana, their cratered teeth exposed in
mirthless grins, their jagged knives held point-upwards.
The street had fallen silent.
aggressor stabbed wildly at Wolf’s face; Wolf dodged the
knife and struck the boy on the mouth with the back of his
hand, in an earnest, businesslike way. By the ancient berserker
instinct, his hand went to his belt where his rune-covered
axe normally hung. A low growl, hardly more than a
whisper, rattled in his throat. The street-fighter came at
him again, stabbing upward toward the larynx. Wolf’s
teeth flashed white; his blade took on a life of its own,
nicking the urchin’s wrist and biting into his cheek.
The boy’s weapon flew high in the air and landed in the
crowd. He fell to the street a third time, feeling his
bloody face and doubling up over his injured right hand.
run for the neighborhood market-police. Six louts in
helmets shoved through the mob, looking more like thieves
than keepers of the peace. They pounded the pavement with
the butts of their spears, a unison tock. The crowd
caught its breath.
Goth! The Goth and his witch!" Forefingers stabbed at
Wolf and Adriana. A small boy roared murder; an old woman
roared fire. "Castrate the yellow dog!" roared a
monstrous red-faced woman like a tub in a tunic. The crowd
punched the air with its fists: Yes! Cut off the
Goth’s balls, burn the child-eating witch, make ’em
eat donkey dung, drive the same spear through ’em so
they’ll be wed in hell. Wolf’s face was purple,
running with sweat. His eyes glistened ferociously. He
shook himself like a wet dog.
will come," the captain said. He made a signal. Three
of his men laid their hands on Wolf’s shoulders; two
others turned toward Adriana. There was a clank of chains.
She saw Wolf gather himself like a great cat, an impending
explosion of fists, teeth, and steel.
she shouted at the top of her strength, and saw him go
In a glance
at the leader’s coarse, dishonest face she saw her
future and Wolf’s. The man was a servant of the mob, not
of justice. On the edge of her vision a route of escape
appeared; a pair of oxen dragging a mound of hay had
skirted the crowd and turned west from the intersection,
their horns nearly spanning the street from wall to wall.
for the leather sack under her belt, clawed out small
coins, and flung them in a wide sweep at the crowd’s
feet. Instantly the front rank was on its hands and knees,
cursing and shoving. With a perfectly judged motion she
sidestepped the struggling bodies and passed through the
outer ring of mildly curious bystanders.
black-haired witch!" someone shouted, but by then she
had darted past the groaning oxcart and was running for
her life ahead of the load of hay that concealed her from
her bundled cloak, she ran until her legs and shoulders
ached. She was directionless in a maze of dismal streets.
A butcher knocked her head with his greasy tray and shoved
her against a charcoal vendor. She stood against a
streetside wall, fingering her head for blood. Unwholesome
odors rolled out of the storefronts: rancid oil and mouldy
cheese, and fish long absent from the sea.
uncluttered intersection she stopped to catch her wind and
look around, like a peasant threading the city for the
first time. The sign of the Black Dog Tavern swung over
her shoulder. The place looked deserted and not entirely
in. The tavern was bright with smelly lamps; there were no
customers at the moment. Drinking cups and jars of cheap
wine were arrayed on wall-shelves in back of a freedwoman
wiping the bar with a sponge.
wine and two biscuits," Adriana said, tossing a small
silver piece on the bar. She craved a leg of the chicken
that smoked in the kitchen, but she knew the risk of
eating meat in a public place.
biscuits," the barwoman, bringing the wine in an
you," Adriana said. "I’d be happy with an
empty room if you have one."
held up a forefinger. "You’re in luck. One siliqua,
Tullia’s best price, take it or leave it."
nodded and followed her up a staircase. The room was a
colorless box with a bed, a table, a water-jug, and a
basin. Tullia emptied the basin out the window and wiped
it on the front of her tunic.
is it. You pay in advance. The door bolts on the inside.
It’s not all that quiet, but it’s nice, if you don’t
mind the drunks raising hell and throwing up on my
nodded wearily, and dug for a silver coin. In the
shadowing haze of lamplight she noticed a chamber-pot
under the bed. It would serve.
a decent room at the price," Adriana said doubtfully.
all heart," Tullia agreed with an acid smile, and
slammed the door.
single narrow window of her room Adriana watched the
street. The light of late afternoon was evaporating from
the tenements. Two boys urinated against the wall opposite
her window, ignoring a pack of half-wild dogs in search of
prey. The street-vendors had disappeared with the
afternoon sun; now the neighborhood echoed with the din of
the shutter on her window and turned to the warm light of
her solitary lamp. The words of Eparchius Avitus returned
to her: Every riddle of life comes with a solution
attached; you must learn to wait calmly for it. . . .
afternoon had been a ludicrous turn of fortune, beginning
with her loss of direction in a city she had once known
fairly well. She had seen the expression on the
slum-dwellers’ faces; they were noisy cowards. If the
market-police had not come, Wolf could have sliced through
the neighborhood, and any other neighborhood that stood in
the way, until they reached the city wall.
her fingers to her temples, drawing on old memories of
Naples. She recalled the general location of the central
basilica and the municipal offices, near the eastern curve
of the city wall. The civic prison was there, an infamous
damp pile where people without connections were routinely
tortured and killed or delivered into slavery.
The name Numerius
Regulus was taking on substance in her mind; she
recalled a fat man with brutal eyes who had been the guest
of the City of Rome during the first year of Quintus’s
prefecture. Regulus’s fortune was in shipping. He had
risen through the bureaucracy of Naples as municipal
quaestor, aedile, duumvir. His clever abuse of his
municipal offices had made him very rich. . . .
again of Wolf. Perhaps she could not have kept him out of
trouble. Perhaps he was destined for eventual crushing,
like a half-blind dog with an urge to chase wine-carts. He
would be in chains by now, with no serious hope of rescue.
But he was
beautiful, and worth preserving for that, if for nothing
else. Adriana would help him again. The method had
announced itself in a corner of her brain, even as she
herself with the rag that accompanied her water-jug. Her
spare tunic from Aunt Laelia was linen, neatly cut; she
could wear it without embarrassment. She arranged her
effects on her cloak, bundled them tightly, and tucked her
hair under her felt hat. Adjusting her poisoned stiletto
so it could be taken out of her coin-sack with ease, she
reflected how the court-ladies would smile behind their
hands if they could see her as a common burglar, risking
her unpromising future to rescue a slave she had owned for
part of a day. There were troublesome elements in her
plan; the dramatic posturing was worthy of Faustinus at
his tasteless worst. Nevertheless. . . .
she closed the door on the cockroaches and eased herself
down the treacherous staircase into the tavern. Three
stevedores, all looking like mass murderers, had
apparently settled in for a week of black-hearted
drinking. They cheered Adriana and made sucking noises as
she emerged from the shadows. Ignoring them, she struck
the bar with her whip to get Tullia’s attention.
Numerius Regulus still curator civitatis of
Naples?" she asked when Tullia turned up her grim
think so. Does it matter? They’re all crooks."
by chance do you know where Regulus lives?"
pursed her lips. "A girl with your figure can do
better than Regulus, honeycake. But if you insist: I think
all the Great Ones live near the basilica. It’s on the
Vicus Drusianus, about a half-mile from the wall."
nodded, pointing. "Out the door, to your right. Why
would a self-respecting girl want anything to do with
Regulus at this hour? You’ll miss your sleep."
never miss my sleep when I’m alone," Adriana
smiled, and slipped out into the evening.
the center of the street to avoid garbage thrown out of
the tenement windows, she set out eastward, judging her
direction by the pink glow of Vesuvius in the twilight,
visible at the end of a narrow skyview. She was grateful
for the relative safety of the torchlit street; the dark
alleys she passed were like the deadly corners of Rome,
with cutthroats, furtive cats, desperate men looking for
whorehouses, and derelicts slumbering in their vomit.
was reckless, of course, the sort of thing drunken
soldiers did in strange towns. Her one solid certainty was
that the further east she walked, the closer she would be
to Regulus’s house, and the greater the likelihood that
someone would know where he lived. Meanwhile, the
gathering night had tripled the danger of being on foot in
the city. She reassured herself that her short tunic and
felt hat made her look more like an adolescent freedman
than a deranged noblewoman on an impossible mission.
passed her; slaves loped in front and behind. Two came up
in succession, looking exceptionally well guarded. She
stepped out ahead of the second litter, where she thought
she would be safest, and quickened her pace to keep up
with the last pair of muscular bearers ahead of her,
slinking catlike through the gloom.
east wall, the city was well-trafficked and well-lit near
nightfall. At a tavern whose patrons looked reasonably
civilized from the street, she detached herself from her
unwitting escort, laid a small coin on the bar, and
presented her question: The house of Numerius Regulus,
please? The tavern-keeper shrugged. She repeated the
inquiry at a tavern a block further east; Regulus was
known, but no one was sure where he lived.
A row of
beggars, slouched against the tenement wall next to the
tavern, wagged their cups at her, all but the last, who
nodded a silent greeting.
she thought, is almost an honest face.
me the house of Numerius Regulus, and the municipal
prison," she said on impulse, holding out a silver
nummus that made the man’s eyes wide.
reward you for your generosity, madam," he said,
unimpressed by her disguise. He rose on two perfectly
healthy legs. "But what does the lady have to do with
prisons? Madam is a benefactress of prisoners?"
least one," she smiled, grateful for the suggestion.
bowed elaborately and strode out ahead of her. He dived
into a side street. She followed him into the gloom, her
heart sinking. She could see well enough by the dying
light to pick her way over the stones without soiling her
boots. Now and then a pale figure flitted past her and
vanished into a black doorway. Her own footfalls alarmed
her; she became aware of her heavy breathing. The beggar
attached himself to a man with a lantern who conducted
them, unnoticed, all the way to the next thoroughfare.
intersection stood a square limestone building of modest
proportions, windowless, featureless as an ordinary
townhouse, with a single low door of bronze.
is the place, Your Courage," the beggar said with a
produced a second silver coin.
you must show me the residence of Numerius Regulus, the curator
civitatis," she said.
bowed and strode out ahead of her. She judged that they
were moving north. At least the neighborhood was not an
implicit death-sentence, though it was full of
disagreeable odors. An occasional oil-lamp burned in the
upper stories of the grim tenements, above black
shop-fronts. Old women gossiped on balconies. From a heap
of rags in an inky doorway came the tinkle of a lyre out
of tune, and a thin, drunken song that seemed carried by
the wind from a great distance.
is the great man’s house, Your Benevolence," the
beggar said at last with an agile bow.
smiled her thanks and put a third piece of silver in his
palm. He bowed and faded into the gathering night.
groin of two tenement walls she took off her hat, shook
out her hair, and waited, clear-headed in spite of the
hour. She was as cool as if her unpromising circumstances
belonged to a stranger. The long portico of Regulus’s
house was across the street, with a bronze double-door
opening into a torchlit vestibule. The heads of palm trees
waved in the night breeze behind the garden-walls. Litters
were lined up in the portico. The bearers crouched in
shadowy torchlight, yawning, dozing, shooting dice. A
dinner-party was evidently in progress. It would present
special advantages. The dinner could hardly last much
longer; Regulus, a businessman, would not squander his
night in riotous living.
daylight was gone in perhaps half an hour. Surrounded by
little knots of slaves, guests began to exit from
Regulus’s vestibule: bored aristocrats; young men with
gainthirsty expressions; middle-aged women with hard, wise
eyes; young women, pale from the late hour and the strain
of vapid conversation.
crossed the street, took a deep breath, and stepped into
Regulus’s vestibule. The porter and his dog were both
distracted by the departing guests. She gave silent thanks
and entered a vaulted atrium whose white and red marbles
seemed to give off a pinkish mist in the light of massed
lamps. A servant, drunk, stopped her with a stupid smile
and pointed in the direction from which she had come.
me. The entrance is that way. Where are you going?"
minding my business," she answered tartly, and
brushed by him.
empty banquet-chambers, where sleepy servants were picking
up crushed garlands from the marble floors, putting out
lamps, gorging themselves on the remains of the meal and
the last of the wine.
expected, the master of the house was in his study,
enjoying a few private moments before bedtime. The door
was open. The room was dark-hued, rich with tapestries,
bronzes, marbles. Numerius Regulus lay alone on a couch, a
little drunk, yawning.
walked in. Regulus turned his little eyes to her and
patted his immense stomach, which quivered under a
He sat up,
appraising her with something more intense than
know you? Are you a member of my household?" he
asked, licking his full lips.
a guest in your house, Regulus," Adriana answered,
with a gracious little bow. "I’ve come to tell you
something you need to know, about a knife that belonged to
what might that be?" Regulus inquired, with a sensual
flare of his nostrils. He eased his feet to the floor and
motioned to Adriana to sit at his elbow; he was not about
to turn away a handsome and evidently accessible woman,
even if he were half-dead with fatigue.
She sat on
the couch by the magistrate and spoke in a low, serious
voice, carefully shaping each syllable.
knife I speak of is an heirloom," she said. "The
remarkable thing about it is that it’s ‘smeared,’ as
the Berbers say. It carries a toxin so effective that a
man named Regulus, who happened to be nicked by it while
trying to call his servants, would be dead before they
the stiletto out of its sheath as Regulus gathered his
wind to shout, and laid a cautionary finger to her lips.
move; don’t speak," she said, holding his eyes with
magistrate exhaled and shrank back from the needle-like
blade, perfectly crafted, that seemed more like an
expensive plaything than a weapon.
critical moment was past; she had Regulus’s undivided
me tell you something else about this knife," Adriana
said pleasantly. "If you tried to leave the room, it
would follow you through the air. A scratch is enough. You
won’t want to take the risk. No, don’t interrupt me
yet. I must tell you about a beautiful cat I once had, the
kind the Egyptians hold sacred. Once at our country place,
the cat teased my dagger out of its sheath. She nicked her
nose. She died most horribly, my lord—crawled up under
the roof where I couldn’t see her, but for a long time I
heard her rattling in her throat, convulsing and thumping
against the timbers."
A pair of
tipsy eunuchs, like two lumps of suet, leaned through the
us!" Regulus shouted, flapping his pink hands.
Adriana smiled sweetly at the eunuchs. They exchanged
knowing looks as they withdrew.
is a monstrous imposition." Regulus complained,
making a wrathful gesture. His eyes were stony with
terror. He reached for his goblet in its customary place,
and grasped air.
I’m sorry to have frightened you, but there’s no need
to be afraid," Adriana said. "I’m not a
maniac; I won’t hurt you, unless you insist on being
foolish. My name is Marcella Adriana. I’m more or less
the wife of Quintus Jovinus, City Prefect of Rome."
I’m Saint Timothy," the magistrate croaked, in a
a man in jail on the Vicus Cyclopis," Adriana
continued. "He means nothing to you and a great deal
to me. He’s guilty of no crime, unless it’s a crime to
defend oneself against the people of your fair city,
Regulus. The man is a German. He’s my servant. We’ll
take two of your eunuchs with a torch apiece and walk
together to the prison, where you’ll see to the release
of my man. It’ll cost you nothing, not even the
discomfort of offended righteousness."
impossible," Regulus said.
cause it to happen," Adriana said, wagging the little
silver blade, "because you’ll be thinking of this.
The toxin is from a family recipe of my chief steward’s:
nightshade, corn-crowfoot, that sort of thing. The recipe
goes back to the Etruscans."
round face glistened. His eyes wandered toward a little
bell on his couchside table.
the bell, Regulus," Adriana said urgently.
brought the two eunuchs, tumbling over one another like
a torch apiece," Regulus said, flapping his hands at
them and licking his dry lips. "We’ll take an
creatures looked at each other, disappeared, and returned
carrying torches. With the eunuchs up front and Regulus
just ahead of Adriana, the party of four went out through
the silent house. The porter’s cold face had an
indescribable expression as they passed through the
up, Castor," Regulus snapped, and led his unwelcome
guest out into the moonlit night.
flare of torches the four made their way to the municipal
prison, away from the night-traffic of the thoroughfares,
down alleys made for rape and conspiracy.
here, Regulus," Adriana said, expecting trickery, at
an intersection she remembered clearly. The Vicus Cyclopis
was broad and nearly empty; she had no trouble retracing
her steps to the grim, windowless structure, eerie in the
dusky moonlight. Her arrival just after sunset was
opportune; the jailer could be roused without alarming the
paused at the low bronze door of the prison.
oh!" he shouted in a hollow voice, and banged the
wrought-iron knocker on the door, twice long, twice short.
wicket opened and shut, and the door creaked ajar. The
uniformed night-jailer was a mean-faced little man who
looked like an ape dressed in its trainer’s clothing. He
came out cursing loudly and rubbing his eyes.
woman has arranged for the release of the Gothic
prisoner," Regulus said.
devil fly away with her," the jailer grumbled,
rattling his keys. He motioned to his visitors to follow
me," Adriana said, raising a hand. "Regulus will
stay here with me. You’ll bring out the prisoner
unharmed. Restore his clothes and weapons. Do it
nodded; the ape-faced man examined his face, shrugged
irritably, and went to do his duty.
the jailer and his lamp disappear into the gloom. The
building exhaled a smell that had gathered for
generations. She was glad not to be able to see much of
the place, foul with seeping water and fungus, a chamber
of old horrors where prisoners hunched under the vaults of
cold stone like monstrous white insects, wingless and
half-blind. Awaiting trial and torture, guests of the city
lost their dignity quickly, and their reason more slowly.
moved in the shadows; Wolf came out, stooped, blinking.
bless you! God bless you!" he repeated fervently,
his hands and stamped his feet to restore the circulation,
cut off by his irons. He jumped high in the air, landed in
a muscular squat, and flailed the night breeze with sinewy
passes of his arms and legs that would have knocked a
glad to see him. She admitted it to herself, whatever it
might mean. He looked dehydrated; the uncertain torchlight
gave a suggestion of what he might have become if she had
abandoned him: thin, with the flabby thinness of a bat’s
wing, huddled against the other prisoners for warmth,
staring out of marble eyes, exuding a cheesy odor of slow
death from his yellowish skin.
Tranquillity, excuse me, shall I call Celestius?" the
jailer said roughly, with a threatening gesture toward
Regulus rasped in a voice close to hysteria. "Call no
shrugged and disappeared into his lodge, banging the door.
Adriana said to the sweating magistrate, "you’ll
escort us quickly to the east gate."
through a section of Naples that seemed designed for
nocturnal murder. Adriana had a sudden fear that the
torches would go out. Away from the thoroughfares, it
would be impossible to see anything without them.
close to Wolf. Regulus walked ahead, flanked by his
eunuchs. The fat man shivered a little in spite of the
prisoner asks for bread and is given a stone," Wolf
said, patting his belly, which was indeed so flat that it
seemed anchored to his backbone.
produced a small hoard of biscuit. It was gone in a
minute. Between mouthfuls, Wolf spoke of the dungeon. It
was a place of rats, lice, and hasty burials. The previous
night a young man had resolutely strangled himself,
twisting a strip of blanket with an iron bar.
after nightfall, Adriana stood at the east gate of Naples,
in a patch of moon-shadow cast by the south tower. Regulus
puffed and blew after the exercise. His unhappy face was
grey in the silver light. With his walking-staff he
delivered four blows to the gatehouse door, two long, two
short. A torch flared inside; a voice asked the
intruder’s name and business.
that you, Mucianus?" Regulus asked wearily.
"Come and open the postern. I have two close friends
here who are eager to see the outside of your wall."
There was a
stir. The gatekeeper appeared, half-asleep and unarmored.
Regulus had a brief, unhappy conversation with him.
Mucianus led his visitors to a side-gate, hardly bigger
than an ordinary door, swung it open on protesting hinges,
and eyed Wolf suspiciously as the party passed through.
of this to anyone! Nothing!" Regulus hissed over his
shoulder, and Mucianus nodded.
on the bronze-plated postern squealed. The key turned; the
bolts scraped into place. The party of five emerged into
the moonlight that silvered the high round of Naples’s
city wall, a looming mass of dead masonry that could have
stood for the soul of the city. An unseen owl hooted as
they passed between two rows of ancient tombs into the
farm-fragrant countryside that spread over the elbow of
Vesuvius. The evening was calm. The walkers moved without
noise down the dusty cobbles of the deserted highway.
Regulus clutched his stomach with both hands.
thirsty," he said weakly. "Where will you take
be free to look for a spring when we’re a little
distance from your city, Regulus," Adriana said.
At a high
point of land, the highway forked. Adriana spoke; the
party stopped on the roadstones in the shadow of
cypresses. The night air was soft and fresh on their
cheeks. Two miles behind them, past the avenue of tombs,
the black-mouthed city gate yawned in the moonlight.
round defenseless figure, examined Adriana’s face with
tormented pig-eyes. His huge stomach heaved with the
effort of his breathing.
more do you want from me?" he said.
She put a
hand on his shoulder. "I’m sorry to have done this
to you. My enemies have cast a wide net. I’m pursued by
men to whom death means nothing—men who by now are being
paid with my own gold. What’s the distance to Nola from
miles, more or less."
distance to Pompeii, and Stabiae beyond it?"
answered. She watched his eyes and was satisfied with the
confusion they reflected.
back to your house," she said. "Be quick, while
my good temper lasts."
God and the gods, I’ll hang your skull over the gate you
just passed through," Regulus gasped in a fury.
must catch the rabbit before you can cook her, Your
Serenity," Adriana smiled, with a little bow.
A eunuch at
each elbow, Regulus gathered his robe around his great
waist and hurried off down the road toward Naples,
waddling through the bright night like a frantic duck,
cursing aloud from time to time, with fat gestures at the
moon. When a dip in the road swallowed him, Adriana knelt
on the silvery roadstones, recited a Pater Noster, and
gave thanks for her deliverance from Naples.
A smell of
field-flowers drifted over the land. Ahead, the divided
highway sped eastward in two directions, flanked by a
ghostly procession of villas. Little white hamlets
slumbered in moon-haze on the slopes of Vesuvius. No
living being stirred in all the silent world.
sooner we reach Nuceria, the better off we’ll be,"
Adriana said, taking the road to the left.
depressed, I think," Adriana said, hurrying to keep
up with Wolf.
on a long curve of pavement flanking the north slope of
Vesuvius. Above them, the mountain glowed pink under a
crown of vapor. The night was exquisite.
gloomy," Wolf said, striding hard. His big feet
seemed to be kicking a path through the moonlit distances.
the reason?" Adriana herself was in the high spirits
Twice I have allowed myself to be captured by old men in
helmets. Twice I have had to be rescued by a woman."
a womanly rescue than none at all, I’d say," she
remarked, a little annoyed. "I pulled another male
servant of mine out of a well once. Should I have left him
should not have fallen in."
do Germans have to be gods?" she asked, annoyed in
earnest. "No mistakes, no adverse emotions. It seems
to me there’s no greater fool than one who’s afraid to
in silence. Small-life rustled in the field-grass. The
Charioteer shone brightly on the edge of the sky. In a
clump of bushes far up the mountain-slope, a nightingale
poured out song after song, never repeating the same
was thoughtless of me to imply that you’re my
servant," she said at last. "I’d rather think
of you as my comrade in misfortune."
you, Adriana. Nevertheless, I am happy to be your
to her, watching her face like an anxious pup. She pulled
a strand of roadside grass and bit it reflectively.
occurs to me that I’ve never fully introduced
myself," she said, with a rueful laugh. "In
spite of this foolish-looking sack I’m wearing, I ask
you to believe that I’m the Lady Marcella Adriana,
former wife of Quintus Jovinus, Prefect of the City of
Rome. If I have the power to enslave German boys, I must
surely have the power to restore their freedom."
. . ."
me finish. I simply haven’t been able to think of you as
‘mine.’ I didn’t pay out the contents of Aunt
Laelia’s purse with the object of turning you into
property. I’m sure I’ll never be able to think of you
that way. Therefore, I give you your freedom."
in the road, excavated her wallet from her underclothing,
removed the wadded bill of sale, and tore the parchment
into small bits, scattering them over the roadside grass.
you should choose to come with me to Nuceria, I won’t
object," she said. "But I want you to understand
that you’re free to do as you please."
stopped and turned to each other in the middle of the
highway. Wolf’s face, in bright moonlight, had colored
under its soft, thick stubble.
have sworn loyalty to you, madam. Our people do not break
your decision," she said crisply. "You know
mine. Perhaps you’ll agree to stop calling me
depressed now myself," she said, with all the
exhaustion of the empire in her voice. The day’s
exertions had overtaken her at last. "You see that
dark row of trees ending at the base of the little bald
hill?" She pointed ahead, a distance of half a mile.
"My guess is that’s a spring-fed creek. If it
hasn’t been corrupted by cattle, we can drink at the
source, and maybe cool our feet."
creeklet ran clear; every pebble on the weedless bottom
was etched in moonlight. Adriana pulled off her sandals
and waded against the current, Wolf close behind her. At
the source, a spring tumbled out of the bald hillside into
a willow-shaded pool the size of a large table.
be thanked!" Wolf exclaimed, throwing off his tunic
and plunging into the pool with a parting of waters that
nearly emptied it. Adriana sat on the bank and laughed
softly at him, the long, knotty whip of a boy, writhing
and grimacing in the frigid bath, crouching, springing,
flailing at himself, like a god with fleas. Breathing
hard, he rose out of the pool like Neptune, remembered his
modesty, grabbed his tunic off the dry grass and knotted
it around his hips. He sat on the bank next to her,
shivering and showing all his strong teeth.
and Freya!" he snorted, "I never knew how evil
the smell of rusty iron is, when it is around your neck
and there are spikes in it."
him, she had felt suddenly weak. Her fingers and toes
tingled a little.
go up and enjoy the moonglow," she said.
climbed the bald hill through small brush and midsummer
flowers. At the top, they sat side by side in dry grass,
drawn together unconsciously, their knees clasped up
toward their chins. The world around them slept
peacefully. Great, unblinking stars shone through the
a marvelous contrast with Naples," Adriana murmured,
inhaling the silences. "Have you ever seen such
coarseness—garbage, ugly children, horrible adults,
everywhere something rotten smoking in a frying pan?"
at her from time to time with mild eyes, as if gestating a
there," Wolf said cautiously, pointing at the road,
"you said, ‘the former wife of Quintus
Jovinus.’ Excuse me. Do you now have . . . another
thank God," she said. "At my age, a woman who
enters a second marriage is apt to be swapping a one-eyed
horse for a blind one."
His voice was respectful, neutral.
former husband Quintus is, however, the remote reason why
I’m on this hillside, talking with a German boy. I need
to explain a number of things to you: some now, perhaps,
and others when my brain isn’t so tired."
spoke of Gaius Faustinus awhile ago," she continued,
her thoughts vibrating with the last of her energy, like
dancers at the end of a feast. "Like you, I’m here
because of Faustinus. I take it we both have reason to
detest him. In any case, he’s taken control of the city.
The only countervailing power is the pope’s."
to check her discretion. "It’s enough for now to
say that the pope is my sponsor in a private mission to
help my former husband, the Urban Prefect. He’s now in
Carthage as a ‘guest’ of King Geiseric. It appears he
was a political threat to Faustinus."
with the polite detachment of an impartial judge.
of Faustinus’s imperial conceits," she went on,
with a bitterness that surprised her, "is that people
of senatorial rank are forbidden to leave Rome without his
permission. I’m thus a criminal, you see. I’ve
compromised the dignity of Faustinus’s assumed office. I
know the man. He’ll send the entire garrison at Rome, if
necessary, to bring me back in disgrace or to do away with
me on the road."
would be foolish," Wolf said with conviction.
man of sense, yes, but the control Faustinus seeks is
absolute. The fundamental absurdity is that men like him
should be in power at all. Faustinus." She repeated
the name, curving her fingers. "As you’ll see, he
plays with his quarry like a cat. He tosses it in the air,
and watches it fall and drag itself around and bleed. I
suppose it’s grateful when he kills it at last. Perhaps
matters will come to that."
moon had rolled up over the sky like a silver apple. Light
mist lay over the shallow valleys to the east. Above the
place where Wolf and Adriana sat, the fires of Vesuvius
flickered in the dark.
hoping to see the mountain lit," Adriana said.
"The first time I saw it, I’d been married only a
few days. I saw Capri for the first time the same day, on
my wedding journey. Lord! How long ago that was! Little
did I know I’d have only half of what every Roman woman
hopes for, a husband without lovers and a house without
fleas. If I were still young, I’d hope to have both some
are not old, Adriana," Wolf said, with an emphasis
that surprised her.
heard it said that a woman is old on the day she loses her
last illusion," she mused.
miss him," Wolf said simply.
suppose I miss what I thought he was," she admitted,
"and I suppose I wasn’t entirely wrong about
him." She laughed, a little sadly. "My former
husband. Yes. It’s useful to think of him tonight. In
some matters, Quintus is both bright and good. In others,
he’s weak, and a worse simpleton than a rat that has
only one hole. His most grotesque failing is that he
considers himself a shrewd judge of women. I suppose
he’d be right if a woman never aged past fifteen."
back and looked at the sky, and let her words run away
with her, not caring about their impact.
fifteen when I married Quintus," she said. "For
a while, his charms worked with me. He spoke softly, and
impressed me with his body. He praised my eyelashes. He
gave me a pet lamb. He brought little confections of honey
and spice, and little carved presents from Egypt and the
afraid I didn’t respond properly, like your average
Roman wife who fits in with the rest of her husband’s
furniture. I think I was expected to bring his sandals,
and adjust his ceremonial toga, and hold up my cheek to be
rewarded with a kiss. I did some of those things, of
course. I thought I did them convincingly. But I did other
things that must have troubled him. I expressed definite
opinions at dinner parties. I rode better than most of his
friends in the hunt, and I flung the short-spear as well
as any of them. I absolutely refused to pretend that the
court ladies were my friends, or to play their dreadful
little games on which Quintus felt his advancement
depended. . . ."
"And worst of all . . . I expected fidelity, just as
I gave it. Perhaps that makes me a bigger fool than
Quintus. Why am I burdening you with all this?"
not a burden, Adriana," Wolf said softly.
toward him. In the warm night his skin and hair had dried
quickly; his hair, soft and tousled, shifted in the
breeze. She could feel the healthy warmth of his body
across the space between them, like reflected moonglow. It
I’d met my future husband in April of a very good
year," she said, "he came with his parents to
call on me, on a warm green-and-gold evening. My
grandfather talked about crops and vines and the prices
he’d paid for my mother’s clothes. It was all very
embarrassing. Quintus and I ate figs and drank wine in a
corner of the garden, until we were a little sick. When
the adults weren’t looking, Quintus bent over and kissed
me. It was an unheard-of thing to do, and I loved it.
‘Ah,’ I said, ‘now we must be married at once.’ He
looked both happy and stricken."
laughed, and a rush of sadness followed her laughter.
the sort of thing I miss," she said quietly.
"I’ll try not to speak of it again."
chirped in the dry grass on the hillside. A scent of
pressed thyme was in the air. On the far side of the
valley, a cypress rose black and solemn against the night
are good, and dreams are good too," Wolf said.
"We must have them to live. When I was very
young"—she smiled at the irony—"I had
beautiful dreams about what I would do. I wanted to be
Alexander of Macedon without his pretty boys, or Attila
without millions dead, or Marcus Aurelius without a fool
for a son. I planned to rule the Roman sea and all the
countries around it. I wanted to do for my religion what
your Constantine did for his. So here I am, sitting on a
hillside in a country where nobody knows me, wondering how
I will explain myself to my father the king."
night-bird whistled in the thicket below the hill. Adriana
sat up sharply.
me," she said.
Wolf said, putting his hands over his face, and rocking
from side to side.
Geiseric is your father?"
Yes. It is not important."
it must be either yes or no, I should think."
his hands in appeal.
hope that my blood will not make us enemies, Adriana. I
am—how do you say it?—sprung from the king’s loins.
My mother. . . . It is difficult to speak of this. I will
not say that the king is a woman-chaser. It would be more
accurate to say that women chase the king. My mother, who
is now very holy, was ambitious as a girl. You have lived
at court, madam. You know how it is. . . . Do you
Not at first hand."
clenched his big hands in embarrassment.
king has many bastards," he explained. "Some are
known to him. I am one of these. We are called
‘nephews’ and ‘nieces.’ The king is fond of us in
his way. My mother was . . . very young, easily impressed.
She is now a nun."
deeply. "I am not troubled. God judges a man by his
heart, not by his blood."
have a special place in the king’s esteem, then?"
very easy to be a bastard," Wolf said thoughtfully,
apparently consoled by her tone. "The king is as kind
to us as to the children of his wife, I think."
should that be?"
because the bishop gives him guilt—is that how you say
him feel guilty?"
must say one hears unsettling things about the court at
Carthage," Adriana commented. "Is it true that
the king displays portions of his enemies in glass dishes
in his bedroom, to cheer him while he’s being
true," Wolf replied, staccato. "It was a bad
habit. The bishop discouraged it."
Arian bishop?" Adriana asked, trying to recall the
heretical teachings of the priest Arius that separated
Arian Christians from Catholic Christians.
Adriana. We have only one kind. Because of the bishop, the
king is not as savage as he once was. He used to do other
evil things. He used to have the heads of his dead enemies
pierced through the temples and hung on a golden rope over
his dressing-table. He said the looks on their faces
prepared him for the daily sessions of his council. My
half-brothers somehow got him away from that, and from
other habits that cannot be discussed with a woman. The
king still likes to invite false friends to banquets and
kill them. He is loyal as a saint to his real friends. But
if you are not sure of his friendship, you should think
three times before going to dinner on the Byrsa. I
sometimes think the king’s deadliest weapon is his
ability to hate. It is like a frozen fire. The king will
pass up ninety-nine chances to kill an enemy, and kill at
All conversations returned to him again and again, the
iron worm in the apple of Roman life.
you happen to recall," she asked, suddenly curious,
"any mention of Gaius Faustinus at the Vandal
his ears reflectively. "I remember one night when the
talk was very loud and frank. The king bellowed, ‘The
prefect is a typical Roman rhetorician—he speaks of
everything and understands nothing.’ Then he laughed.
You have not heard that laugh, Adriana. It curdles the
blood. I think the ‘prefect’ must have been Faustinus.
The king has no prefects of his own, and he has no other
have to admit," Adriana said softly, rising to go,
"that I worry about Quintus’s safety at Carthage.
Can you reassure me? I’ve heard that Geiseric has a
stable of Moorish torturers, whom he calls
‘physicians.’ It’s terrible to think that Quintus
might fall into their hands. I know what a Moorish
torturer can do. Better to be cooked alive by Huns."
will not happen, Adriana," Wolf said softly.
"The king will treat your former husband as a
guest—unless he uses the king deceitfully. In that
case," he shrugged, "God help him. People who
use the king find themselves used. The discovery is
usually made just before they die."
speaking our tongue remarkably well," she remarked as
they turned into the highway. "You should come to
Rome and teach most of us how to speak."
an excellent tutor, from Gaul."
going to fall into bed at the first inn on this
road," she said, thinking ahead to clean chambers and
cool wine, and an elegant little marble bath with scented
water, and knowing that the expectation was wholly
left the last of her energy on the hill. Now the sleeping
countryside called her to bed. She began numbering her
steps to keep awake, pushing her concentration to a
hundred, then starting the laborious process over again.
The monotony of her footfalls on the roadstones nearly put
her to sleep anyway.
Wolf’s strides for diversion. The confusion of his steps
with her own made her lose count. The loss made her
sleepy. The sleeping shadows of cypress-stands and
roadside walls looked like dark coverlets. The passing
stones in the fields were soft as bolsters in the
moonlight. The accumulated aches of the day asserted
themselves. She dragged her feet.
village of Stabula, a slightly decayed hospitium
appeared to be open for late drinkers and slow
not going a step further," Adriana said, stopping on
the road and putting her hands on her aching knees.
"If I can’t bend my legs tomorrow, I won’t make
it to Nuceria. I may not make it to Nuceria in any case. I
think I have enough money left to buy us a meal and a room
in this dog-hole."
stolidly in the road, awaiting instructions.
she said, motioning him toward the torchlit innyard.
"You’ll be able to take a clear picture of a Roman
inn back to Carthage: dirt, stench, laziness, food that
would turn the stomach of a statue. I’m going to eat
just enough to sleep on. You can eat what you like. If
we’re short of funds I’ll talk down the price. It’ll
be inflated anyway. A Christian must know how to cheat the
entered the common room of the tavern. Garlic and
body-reek were in the air. Big flies snapped against the
walls and tabletops. In the dim light, a table of carters
toasted each other’s health, struck bargains for donkeys
and clothes, and cheered each smoking dish that emerged
from the dark hole leading to the kitchen. They ignored
the newcomers. Adriana was grateful.
bread and wine. The bread was like cowcake. The wine was
sour and cloudy, equal parts of mud and vinegar. She
expressed shock over the bill, paid it, bargained for a
room, and stumbled upstairs ahead of Wolf in flickering
was a detestable hole, with thin walls and a single narrow
couch, a basin of water, and a rag. She turned her back to
Wolf and sponged herself carefully without taking off her
clothes. The effects on which her survival depended were
securely attached to her: her knife and her coin-sack,
with her stiletto, the pope’s ring, and his wadded
letter of introduction. She laid out her cloak, checked
the contents, and bundled them again tightly.
a little red worm off her pillow and stretched out, fully
clad, on the miserable couch. Black spots of various
shapes and sizes moved on the walls. She was thankful for
the gnat-gauze over the bed; the unshuttered window-slit
had admitted everything that crept and flew in the
neighborhood of Stabula.
unbuckled his knife and stretched out on the floor beside
the couch. Adriana struggled for comfort. The mattress was
like a sack of pine-cones.
bed is a fit preparation for the grave," she said,
looking down at Wolf. He lay stoically rigid on his back,
concentrating on the rafters.
it bother you, Adriana, that the fishwife ‘married’
us?" he asked suddenly, in the tone of a long-debated
no," she said, surprised. "You’ve turned out
to be a most presentable and faithful ‘husband’. When
the trip is over we can get divorced, if you like."
her that he had never asked where they were going, or why.
The time would come when she would have to tell him. She
waited for her exhausted consciousness to become proof
against the droning and piping of voices in the stables,
in the porticoes, on the creaking stairs. Two women,
whores in all likelihood, prattled outside the locked
door. Adriana stuck two fingers into her ears and forced
herself to think of the day to come. The town gate would
be open at dawn; traffic would have gathered earlier. She
considered whether to be on the road before sunrise, and
rejected the idea. Crowds of people would be an impediment
to her mounted pursuers and an advantage to herself.
you give me a night’s lodging without alerting my
enemies?" she asked a dream-innkeeper as she drifted
off to sleep. "I’ll gladly pay triple."
have a room that’s cozy and none too clean," the
tall man replied, and to her great relief the smiling face
he turned to her was that of the pope.
suggestion of daylight woke her. The air was sweet, cool,
and insectless. With a shiver of disgust she stood on the
dirty floor and went to the unshuttered window. The
innyard, silent and empty, seemed enormous. A dawn-breeze
blew up little spirals of dust. When a dead leaf rose in
the air, she heard the noise it made as it left the ground
and fell again.
time," Adriana said, stooping to slap Wolf lightly on
the cheek. He sat up with a snort. She laid a forefinger
to his lips as he blinked himself awake.
to me," she said. "I find that when I neglect to
anticipate things, they happen without fail. You’re a
student of strategy; tell me if I’m wrong. I think
Faustinus’s agents, whoever they may be, can only guess
where we are. So far as they know, we could be on the
highway to Nola or Capua, or on the shore-road to Stabiae."
crouched on the floor, nodding earnestly, his hands
clasped around his bristly knees.
problem, then," she said, "is that they’ve
have had two whole days to look for me, starting at Capua.
I have the feeling their leader must be Sextus Taurinus.
That’s the man Faustinus would choose, because he enjoys
pointless ruin and bloodshed almost as much as rape.
You’ve no idea how that man. . . ." She shuddered.
"Imagine a gaunt, hairy monk with a vulture’s
wide awake now, full of purpose, restored by sleep,
forgetful of her aches and her itching legs.
she said, "has had time to scour the coast and infer
that I’ve likely taken this road. No doubt he’s talked
with the gatekeepers in the coastal towns, and maybe the
the fat man at Naples?" Wolf asked.
presume so. That won’t tell Taurinus where we are, but
he’ll have the advantage of knowing we haven’t gone to
sea. Our situation isn’t hopeless yet, but Taurinus and
his men are well-mounted, and they can move quickly. I
suppose we could do the improbable and go to Nola or back
around Vesuvius to Stabiae. But I’m certain that any
communication for me from Rome will be waiting at Nuceria,
so our best option is to hurry there directly. The bishop
is a power in the land; if we can reach him before
Taurinus reaches us, we’ll be safe—temporarily. It’s
with a swift, liquid movement. Adriana arranged her
clothes, patting her leather purse and her knife.
thing more," she said. "If Taurinus overtakes us
before we get to Nuceria, we must separate and hide—in
the groves, in farm-buildings, wherever we can. If we
escape him, we must look for each other in Nuceria at the
cathedral. North of Naples I have more than enough
relatives, but I have no source of supply in this part of
Italy except the Church."
she argued briefly over the bill for the room, paid it,
and went out into the morning, Wolf looming behind her
like a lean, supple shadow. The sky was cloudless, deep
violet with a flush of rose at the edge. In a moment the
sun would be above the horizon. The road to the east had
filled with incoming traffic: peasants by twos and threes,
with their peculiar lumbering gait; a shepherd who looked
alarmingly like Taurinus; a boy leading pack-mules; a
cluster of swine whose drover ran backwards and forwards,
whacking at the pigs to keep them together.
mind was cool and lucid, without fear. Her effects in the
world were reduced to the tatters she wore, two knives, a
dwindling purse, and a bundle with biscuits, figs, and a
change of tunics. There seemed to be a good chance that
she would not see sundown. She felt utterly free.
bishop of Nuceria is a favorite of the pope’s," she
said, turning to Wolf and patting her coin-sack.
"Leo’s ring and letter will bring us what we need.
My guess is that we have ten or eleven miles to cover. The
problem is to find the cathedral before Faustinus’s
agents find us. Perhaps we shouldn’t have spent the
night. I simply couldn’t have walked another step."
morning was full they rested at a roadside spring. Adriana
took dry crusts out of her bundle, divided them with Wolf,
and washed the wretched scraps down with clear water.
quickly we lose our daintiness," she said, chewing a
tough piece of cheese that she had been overjoyed to find
with the bread. Wolf was plainly starved. In a single day
his stubbly cheeks had begun to look hollow, and the
muscles of his shoulders and legs stood out in dehydrated
The sun was
white, glancing hard off the dusty ribbon of highway. In
the burning atmosphere the road seemed endless, a ribbon
of rock stretching aimlessly through light and sparse
shadow. An occasional peasant passed in a cart, moving
toward Nuceria, watching the foot-travelers suspiciously
out of the corners of his eyes.
wish we could know if we are followed," Wolf said.
only a matter of time," Adriana said. "There are
plenty of serfs around to tell which road the strange
wine-carter with a kindly face stopped to offer them a
seat on the tail of his wagon. They bounced and shifted
among empty casks until they were butt-sore. Leaving their
thanks and a coin, they took to their feet again. In half
an hour the walls of Nuceria were in view, quivering in
the white forenoon.
Adriana put a finger to her lips and held up her hand. No
sound disturbed the fiery morning above the lazy whisper
of air in brown stubble, but below the whisper there was a
pulse in the atmosphere, a sinister underchant to the
voice of the wind.
found us, I think," she said.
pulse took shape, the beat of many hoofs galloping evenly,
an anomaly on Sunday. In the terrible heat, the fugitives
labored up a tomb-lined slope toward Nuceria. Black in the
glaring forenoon, a row of cypresses against the town wall
seemed to promise safety.
town’s west gate was unattended on the day of worship;
Adriana gave thanks and hurried through. The high façade
of the cathedral was visible from the gate, a blaze of
light rising behind a jumble of red roofs. She set her
direction and worked her way through the narrow streets.
Her step resounded as if she were in a corridor. She could
hear Wolf’s deep breathing just behind her. Sweat stung
her eyes; she squinted involuntarily. The sun was as
intense as if she were dragging herself through the
Sahara. The reflection on the tenement walls was
last of her strength she dragged herself up a long, white
ascent, her frayed sandals clapping against the pavement.
The sound of hoofs on stone filled her ears as she entered
the quadrangle of the great church, where the white light
of noon seemed to be eating the shadows away from the
surrounding colonnade. The bronze doors of the sanctuary
were unbarred. Adriana passed through with Wolf at her
struggled with half-blind eyes to orient herself to the
cool immensity of the church, a wilderness of marble
columns. Details emerged from the dusk: panels glowing
with gold tracery, pavements of dazzling mosaic work,
great shadows that swept down like draperies between the
high windows of the nave. Her eye followed her ear to the
apse from which the bishop’s sermon echoed over the
heads of the worshipers. The episcopal throne was
glorified in a shaft of sunlight; the bishop seemed
ethereal, a visible abstraction of his voice.
edged through the standing congregation, moving toward the
voice. Wolf was behind her, a looming blond presence in a
sea of dark heads. The worshipers caught their breath as
the intruders passed. The sermon flowed on.
She was at
the altar. Her knees were weak, her energy drained, as she
knelt, crossed herself, and touched the cube-shaped Holy
Table with its three candles. Wolf mimicked her gestures.
The sermon stopped.
the name of the Son of God we claim sanctuary," she
said in a clear voice that echoed down the nave like a
shout in a canyon.
sounded in the quadrangle of the church. A row of tall
shadows moved up the sun-barred nave toward the bishop.
Adriana felt the blood leave her lips and fingers. Wolf
was as blanched as a piece of linen. Phy! an old
woman hissed, making a sign against the Evil Eye, and a
little girl, pressing her hands to her eyes, repeated Our
Father who art in heaven, Our Father who art in heaven,
Our Father who art in heaven, unable to remember the
rest of the words.
led his men single-file through the congregation.
Aetius’s two Huns, twin children of the devil with
Gothic nicknames, were just behind him. In the shadow of a
great pillar Taurinus stopped and peered boldly at the
bishop through the aromatic semi-darkness.
law is the law," he said at last, in a stern voice.
what law do you speak?" the bishop asked, in a grave
sermonic monotone. He leaned forward on his throne.
law of Honorius and Theodosius."
what are these people accused?" the bishop asked.
adultery," Taurinus said.
true?" The bishop turned in his throne and addressed
false; it is a wind blown up from hell," she
of the guard lied in a loud voice. "The woman is an
adulteress. The fact is well attested. Your Reverence must
know the law of Honorius and Theodosius. She must be
woman is known to me," the bishop said calmly, rising
from his throne. "She is not an adulteress."
German is armed," Taurinus said. "Sanctuary is
not to be granted to an armed man."
turned to Wolf and said gently, "Throw down your
squeezed Wolf’s elbow; there were signs of a struggle in
his face. He unbuckled his belt; the sheathed knife
dropped to the floor.
are the emperor’s men?" the bishop asked.
are the Urban Vicar’s men."
what warrant do you interrupt Mass and bring violence into
the house of God? Does the Vicar send brigands to do his
glared round at the congregation. "We will not commit
sacrilege," he said haughtily. "The Vicar’s
men do not commit sacrilege. We’ll surround the church.
You’ll certainly starve."
know that would be an empty gesture," the bishop said
evenly, his voice echoing among the pillars. "Count
us. It’ll take you the rest of the Mass. We’re ten to
your one, not including the children. Do you see much fear
in the eyes of our people? Can thirty people starve three
eyes lost their confidence. He seemed aware, for the first
time, of the sea of angry faces around him, the coarse
faces of working men and their muscular wives.
mean no offense to the house of God. The woman is a
fugitive from authority."
is for fugitives," the bishop said. "Take your
men outside. Let the Mass continue."
cavalrymen shuffled out of the nave. The worshipers’
eyes followed them; the universal scowl on their faces
could not have been lost on Taurinus.
sat down on his gilded throne, cleared his throat, and
resumed his sermon as if he had marked the point of
interruption with a stylus. Wolf sat next to the altar,
gazing stolidly into space, with the apparent capacity of
Germans to suspend their lives at will.
watched the worshipers, fishwives and dockworkers,
freedmen and freedwomen, handy with their teeth and nails
in a fight. At a signal from their bishop they would have
torn Taurinus and his men to pieces. There was a continual
small noise of scraping feet, cloth rustling, old women
clearing their throats, children sighing. The sermon
ended; the catechumens were dismissed, the church-doors
closed and barred. Incense curled up from swinging
censers. The crowd stood patiently, saying their prayers
or pretending to, waiting for the Eucharist, rocking on
swollen feet, scarcely comprehending the ritual. Like a
restless child, Adriana found herself yearning for the end
of the liturgy.
missa est. At the words of dismissal, the congregation
shuffled out of the church. Their anger at Taurinus’s
intrusion was apparent; there were scowls, pointed
fingers, smothered curses. When the great church-doors had
closed behind the last of the worshipers, a young deacon
appeared at the altar. He was not much more than a boy;
his dark curls and large Greek eyes had a soft, shadowed
magnificence in the twilight of the sanctuary.
Vicar’s captain has set guards around the
building," the boy-deacon explained, kneeling between
Wolf and Adriana and addressing them with urgent
tenderness. "It won’t be opportune to take you to
safety until dark. Meanwhile we’ll stretch the law and
keep you right here. Bishop Nilus wishes you to know that
you’re in reliable hands. He knows you through a letter
from Bishop Leo. I’m Deacon Marcius; this is Deacon
to an even younger churchman, who brought forward two
goblets on a tray. There was an aroma of spiced wine.
it up," Marcius said earnestly, handing each of them
a goblet. "There’s a harmless herb in it to help
you sleep awhile. God will guard you."
He made a
solemn cross in the air.
drank, felt an inappropriate urge to embrace Deacon
Marcius, and lay down with her head pillowed on her elbow.
She was asleep before Wolf had stretched out beside her.
When she woke, the church was cool and dark. The great
lampholders over the altar shed the radiance of tiny
flames. Moonlight fell through the high windows of the
nave, silvering corners of the great stone pile that had
been darkened by lamp-smoke and the blue fumes of incense.
The bishop’s throne of marble and gold seemed
unnaturally large in the feeble light. Holding a
hand-lamp, the young Greek-faced deacon was standing watch
over the fugitives like a nurse.
slept well?" he asked, seeing that they were both
well." Adriana moved; the floor shifted a little
under her, and she guessed the direction in which safety
and stepped aside; Marcius bent over and lifted the marble
slab on which she had slept. It rolled up on a pair of
silent hinges, disclosing a narrow stairwell.
is the safest way, madam," the deacon said, with a
gesture at the black hole. "Four guards are sleeping
outside the church door, and they’re only half
hurriedly toward the altar and crossed herself. Taking
Wolf by the hand, she followed Marcius with his lamp down
the flight of stone steps.
built on the substructure of an old Mithraeum from which
the demons have been expelled," the deacon explained
in the echoing dampness. "Tunnels are a convenient
feature of the older churches in these parts. Our last
bishop escaped Alaric many years ago, down the hatch you
just passed through. He lived to a ripe old age. If we
didn’t have this route of escape, however, the Lord
would show us another."
can’t help wondering what Taurinus will do to you for
helping us," Adriana said.
If the agents of the State laid a hand on our bishop or
one of his household, not one of them would leave Nuceria
congregation would see to it?"
even if Bishop Nilus tried to stop them."
through porous rock, seemed to have been made for
children. Wolf filled the narrow passage and bumped his
head repeatedly on the ceiling. The air was heavy with the
oily smoke of Marcius’s lamp. In the feeble light
Adriana could make out crosses, initials, dates that men
had scratched on the walls as a memorial to their passing.
opened; the priest led his guests into a well-lit
corridor. Wolf stretched and yawned softly. Adriana felt
the release of an invisible grip that had seemed to hold
have the honor of welcoming you to the house of Bishop
Nilus," the priest said, bowing graciously.
episcopal palace was plain and spacious. In a
reception-chamber off the bishop’s garden, Marcius made
the sign of the cross and excused himself with a bow.
Adriana and Wolf were alone for a moment. The room was
cheerful; the open window admitted a fragrant breeze.
Adriana looked out into the garden, a cool space with
palms and roses and mosaic walkways, all centered on a
marble pond that rippled in the night breeze. A mass of
masonry loomed against the starlight to the west of the
garden. The bishop’s house, Adriana realized with a
glimmer of significance, was outside the city wall.
of Nuceria ushered himself into the reception room, waving
aside two monks in earnest attendance on him. He was half
the size he seemed to be on his throne, a dumpling-faced
little man with a kettle stomach nourished by olive oil
and the local wine. His eyes had a mischievous twinkle
that sorted oddly well with his sermonic references to the
love of God.
smiled on us today, when we found Your Grace’s
protection," Adriana said, kneeling to kiss Bishop
madam, Fortune is a wayward cow, showing her face to a few
and her backside to the many. Christ is better. Would you
like to break your fast? The noble German person,"
the bishop touched the kneeling Wolf on the head,
"has a large frame to support."
Nilus rang a little hand-bell. A tiny old monk, who seemed
to have been waiting outside the door, bowed into the room
with an enormous bowl of boiled eggs and a jar of wine. He
shelled the eggs with his fingers and laid them in small
dishes before Adriana and Wolf. The bishop blessed the
meal with soft words in the names of the Trinity.
dear, you seem a peg too low; this will help," he
said, pouring Adriana a full goblet of white Falernian
with his own hands. "Wine is the best medicine,
better than laughter, provided you don’t spoil it with
more than a little water."
good medicine," she said, drinking some and feeling a
welcome rush of warmth. "It makes one see the world
with indulgent eyes."
nibbled an egg while Wolf and Adriana ate and drank
to the law, this man is my property," Adriana said,
seeing a question in the bishop’s eyes, "but it
would be truer to say that we are friends in Christ and
companions in misfortune."
examined her face and nodded, satisfied. He rummaged in
the folds of his robe and produced a tidbit of vellum.
letter for Your Piety, brought by His Holiness’s
pigeon-post," he said.
unrolled the tissue-thin scrap and read the pope’s own
Leo to the Lady Marcella Adriana: Our instinct tells Us
you will pass through Nuceria, where provisions will be
ministered to you through Our brother in the Faith. We
trust that the Lord will confound all your enemies. Be
strong; have courage; He is faithful.
up. Bishop Nilus’s ears were fairly vibrating with
are at your service, madam," he said, poising his
fingertips together above his stomach. "First, I have
the pleasure to report that all but a few of your pursuers
are now chasing you through the coastal swamp above
Paestum. While you slept, I sent three of my monks on an
errand to a fishing village southeast of here, on the
Paestum road past Salernum. They raised a dust-cloud a
mile high. If the devil’s people choose to take that as
evidence that you’ve fled along the coast—well,
what’s that to God and me? In any case, they gobbled the
left no sentries? Took no hostages?" Adriana asked.
convinced themselves," the bishop beamed, "that
it would be hazardous to take hostages. I helped them to
the conclusion, of course. At least a hundred men would be
needed to withstand the wrath of my lambs. Taurinus—that’s
his name, I think?—left a token guard of four men at my
church-door, to keep up appearances. No threat at all.
Their assumption will be that you’re still in the church
if not on the road. In any case, your best route southward
is through the mountains, if you insist on continuing this
remarkable adventure of yours."
can be no question of my continuing," Adriana said.
"Bishop Leo will have let you know the name of my
know Faustinus too well," Bishop Nilus nodded, making
a face. "He has bowels of stone. I’d sooner expect
mercy from the fish that swallowed Jonah."
leaned forward with a somber attitude, as if about to
elucidate a point of doctrine.
sure there’s nothing in your experience, madam," he
began, "to prepare you for the south of Italy. Since
your options are limited to one, a trip through the
mountains, I say this: make it clear to everyone that you
have nothing in this world worth killing you for."
heard colorful tales . . . ," Adriana volunteered.
held up a hand. "The evil is real, madam, and it’s
monochromatic. The color is blood-red. Forty-five years
ago, Alaric, the Visigothic king, ran berserk
through those hills, sacking caravans, looting houses,
burning wheatfields, stealing cattle and young girls,
raping matrons, cutting to pieces everyone who was bold or
crazy enough to resist him. Now the noble work of the
Goths is carried forward by brigands and the other flowers
of southern civilization."
his throat delicately. "To illustrate: Hatena, the
brigand chief, and his men recently entered the inn of my
friend Dorus at Forum Popilii, God comfort his aching
soul. They ate and drank, and ordered up a large amount of
straw. Dorus had the audacity to ask for money. By way of
payment the brigands put Dorus in a sack with his cats,
and burned his olive trees."
died?" Adriana asked, mildly interested.
he’s blind—the cats went mad. Am I spoiling your
journey in advance?"
at all," Adriana said. "Wisdom looks ahead;
foolishness looks over its shoulder."
don’t mean to cause you unnecessary worry," Nilus
said. "There’s a disease of the imagination that
strikes well-bred travelers in these parts. They see a
robber in every dirty serf, and an armed band in every
dust-cloud, and they go on their knees and cry for mercy
to every bush that catches their clothes. But so long as
you look like peasants going to market, you should be
reasonably safe. The brigands can’t afford to alienate
the peasantry, being peasants themselves, many of them.
But be careful. The slightest display of wealth may be
dangerous. Try, therefore, to seem as impoverished as
heard terrible things about the South all my life,"
Adriana said, "about brigands, cannibals, witches. .
smiled. "Oh, yes. Brigands and witches, especially.
Warlocks, too, but fewer of those, because they’re
heavier than witches and have trouble flying. And the
devil, being male, naturally prefers women."
He gave an
eloquent little sigh. "Still—even up there, in
those mountains—there are whole villages of
generous-minded men and refreshingly chaste women. It
pleases me to think of them when—Eheu!—so much
that we once loved seems to be sliding into the Pit. I
like to reflect that no matter how forlorn and confused
our lives become, somebody, somewhere, is still serving
up and rubbed his hands together. "Pleasant though
this has been, madam, I suggest you take advantage of the
night. By the time you’ve hurried through my bathhouse,
your transportation will be ready, just outside my stable.
You’ll find wine in the carriage, and biscuit and
cheese, and a little money which the bishop of Rome
instructs me to give you on his credit."
compartments of the bishop’s baths, Adriana and Wolf let
themselves be scrubbed and pummeled by the bath-servants.
They emerged in unbleached tunics and coarse sandals that
gave them both a monkish appearance. Nilus himself greeted
them at the door of the bathhouse. He rang a little
handbell. A monk appeared, bowed, and made an eloquent
gesture that suggested the readiness of the carriage and
wish I could offer my driver and carriage on permanent
loan, but quite frankly I need them both," Nilus
said, as he threaded the corridors of his house with
Adriana and Wolf. "Castinus will drive you as far as
Eburi, where the South begins in earnest. After that, I
regret that you must be on your own. I think you’ll have
a decided advantage over the Vicar’s men. It’ll take
them awhile to ride back up the coast from Paestum. But
you’ll certainly be pursued into the hills. It’s a
pity I’m not a liar; I’m sure I could convince them
you’ve taken a boat for Carthage from Salernum. Pray,
therefore, for swift feet, and use them."
sour smell announced the stables.
assume we’ll have trouble finding lodging," Adriana
remarked as an afterthought.
made a face. "That depends on your standards. The
chief towns have inns of sorts, where you can get a bed
that creeps, and a dinner of bread, wine, and flies. I
suspect that Your Delicacy would be more comfortable in a
cave. God be with you."
Adriana received the sign of the cross from the bishop and
seated themselves in his swift-looking rheda. A
lone nightingale sent up its song from a neighboring
laurel; a gust of warm air carried lavish perfumes from
the bishop’s garden, like a final blessing from the
world of hot water and clean clothes.
unable to thank you properly," Adriana said from the
thank you, madam," Nilus said, with a profound
bow. "You’ve graciously enabled me to make a debtor
of the bishop of Rome."