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Chapter 9

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[Naples, June 455]

"Do many ladies of Rome carry knives?" Wolf asked courteously, his brow furrowed with the conscious effort to moderate his long step.

"When 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."

"The ladies of the court do not usually wear knives, then?"

"Not openly. ‘Painted’ stilettos, sometimes. You remember mine." She touched the slight shape under her tunic.

"Life at the court of Rome must be very exciting," Wolf said politely.

"I 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."

She sighed 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 inevitable."

She paused, 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.

"Phui!" 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."

The suburbs 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.

She had 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.

A beggar favored her with a grin like two halves of a broken crock.

"Does that man have an honest face?" Wolf asked speculatively, as if the city’s people had been set in array for his instruction.

"The 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."

The 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.

Entirely 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 her back.

"Do you feel like a cat walking down an alley full of dogs?" she muttered.

"I feel like an Apostle about to tread on scorpions," he said darkly.

She heard 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.

"Swell 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.

"What’s your name, straw-head?" he asked, peering up maliciously into Wolf’s face. "What’s your name, head-of-straw?"

"Wolf," he answered politely. "Lupus, in your tongue."

"Voof! 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?"

"I would like to grind them up like dried fish," Wolf said earnestly.

"Be 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’ milk."

The 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.

His eyes were glazed; his cheeks were fiery red. "Surely I may crush him now, madam?"

The urchin 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.

They had 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.

The slum-boy was on his feet again, red-eyed, grinning, fencing the air.

"Kill the Gothic scum!" someone shouted.

A vein 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.

The pale 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.

Someone had 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.

"The 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.

"You 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.

"No!" she shouted at the top of her strength, and saw him go limp, obediently.

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.

She groped 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.

"The 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 the mob.

*

Gripping 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.

At an 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 filthy.

She went 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.

"House 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.

"No biscuits," the barwoman, bringing the wine in an earthen cup.

"Thank you," Adriana said. "I’d be happy with an empty room if you have one."

The woman held up a forefinger. "You’re in luck. One siliqua, Tullia’s best price, take it or leave it."

Adriana 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.

"This 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 doorstep."

Adriana 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.

"It’s a decent room at the price," Adriana said doubtfully.

"I’m all heart," Tullia agreed with an acid smile, and slammed the door.

*

From the 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 wineshops.

She pulled 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. . . .

The whole 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.

She pressed 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. . . .

She thought 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 ran.

She sponged 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. . . .

Near dusk 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.

"Is Numerius Regulus still curator civitatis of Naples?" she asked when Tullia turned up her grim face.

"I think so. Does it matter? They’re all crooks."

"But by chance do you know where Regulus lives?"

Tullia 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."

"The east wall?"

Tullia 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."

"I never miss my sleep when I’m alone," Adriana smiled, and slipped out into the evening.

Keeping to 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.

The quest 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.

Litters 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.

Toward the 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.

That, she thought, is almost an honest face.

"Show 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.

"God 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?"

"Of at least one," she smiled, grateful for the suggestion.

The beggar 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.

Across the intersection stood a square limestone building of modest proportions, windowless, featureless as an ordinary townhouse, with a single low door of bronze.

"This is the place, Your Courage," the beggar said with a bow.

Adriana produced a second silver coin.

"Now you must show me the residence of Numerius Regulus, the curator civitatis," she said.

The beggar 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.

"Here is the great man’s house, Your Benevolence," the beggar said at last with an agile bow.

Adriana smiled her thanks and put a third piece of silver in his palm. He bowed and faded into the gathering night.

In the 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.

The last 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.

Adriana 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.

"Excuse me. The entrance is that way. Where are you going?"

"I am minding my business," she answered tartly, and brushed by him.

She passed 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.

As Adriana 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.

Adriana walked in. Regulus turned his little eyes to her and patted his immense stomach, which quivered under a gorgeous dinner-robe.

He sat up, appraising her with something more intense than cordiality.

"Do I know you? Are you a member of my household?" he asked, licking his full lips.

"I’m 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 my grandfather."

"And 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.

"The 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 arrived."

She slipped the stiletto out of its sheath as Regulus gathered his wind to shout, and laid a cautionary finger to her lips.

"Don’t move; don’t speak," she said, holding his eyes with her own.

The magistrate exhaled and shrank back from the needle-like blade, perfectly crafted, that seemed more like an expensive plaything than a weapon.

The critical moment was past; she had Regulus’s undivided attention.

"Let 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 door.

"Leave us!" Regulus shouted, flapping his pink hands. Adriana smiled sweetly at the eunuchs. They exchanged knowing looks as they withdrew.

"This 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.

"Regulus, 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."

"And I’m Saint Timothy," the magistrate croaked, in a cold sweat.

"There’s 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."

"It’s impossible," Regulus said.

"You’ll 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."

Regulus’s round face glistened. His eyes wandered toward a little bell on his couchside table.

"Use the bell, Regulus," Adriana said urgently.

A tinkle brought the two eunuchs, tumbling over one another like seal-pups.

"Bring a torch apiece," Regulus said, flapping his hands at them and licking his dry lips. "We’ll take an after-dinner walk."

The puffy 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 vestibule.

"Shut up, Castor," Regulus snapped, and led his unwelcome guest out into the moonlit night.

In the 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.

"Turn 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 neighborhood.

Regulus paused at the low bronze door of the prison.

"Gate, oh!" he shouted in a hollow voice, and banged the wrought-iron knocker on the door, twice long, twice short.

The barred 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.

"This woman has arranged for the release of the Gothic prisoner," Regulus said.

"The devil fly away with her," the jailer grumbled, rattling his keys. He motioned to his visitors to follow him.

"Excuse 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 quickly."

Regulus nodded; the ape-faced man examined his face, shrugged irritably, and went to do his duty.

She watched 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.

Figures moved in the shadows; Wolf came out, stooped, blinking.

"God bless you! God bless you!" he repeated fervently, seeing Adriana.

He shook 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 bystander unconscious.

She was 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.

"Your Tranquillity, excuse me, shall I call Celestius?" the jailer said roughly, with a threatening gesture toward Adriana.

"No!" Regulus rasped in a voice close to hysteria. "Call no one!"

The ape-man shrugged and disappeared into his lodge, banging the door.

"Now," Adriana said to the sweating magistrate, "you’ll escort us quickly to the east gate."

They walked 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.

She drew close to Wolf. Regulus walked ahead, flanked by his eunuchs. The fat man shivered a little in spite of the heat.

"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.

Adriana 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.

*

Two hours 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.

"Is 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.

"Nothing of this to anyone! Nothing!" Regulus hissed over his shoulder, and Mucianus nodded.

The hinges 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.

"I’m thirsty," he said weakly. "Where will you take me now?"

"You’ll 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.

Regulus, a round defenseless figure, examined Adriana’s face with tormented pig-eyes. His huge stomach heaved with the effort of his breathing.

"What 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 here?"

"Sixteen miles, more or less."

"And to Capua?"

"Sixteen again."

"The distance to Pompeii, and Stabiae beyond it?"

He answered. She watched his eyes and was satisfied with the confusion they reflected.

"Go back to your house," she said. "Be quick, while my good temper lasts."

"By God and the gods, I’ll hang your skull over the gate you just passed through," Regulus gasped in a fury.

"You 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.

"The sooner we reach Nuceria, the better off we’ll be," Adriana said, taking the road to the left.

*

"You’re depressed, I think," Adriana said, hurrying to keep up with Wolf.

They were 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.

"I am gloomy," Wolf said, striding hard. His big feet seemed to be kicking a path through the moonlit distances.

"What’s the reason?" Adriana herself was in the high spirits of exhaustion.

"Ach! Twice I have allowed myself to be captured by old men in helmets. Twice I have had to be rescued by a woman."

"Better 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 there?"

"He should not have fallen in."

"Why 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 be human."

They walked 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 figure.

"It 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."

"Thank you, Adriana. Nevertheless, I am happy to be your servant."

He turned to her, watching her face like an anxious pup. She pulled a strand of roadside grass and bit it reflectively.

"It 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."

"Madam. . . ."

"Let 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."

She stopped 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.

"If 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."

They 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.

"I have sworn loyalty to you, madam. Our people do not break their oaths."

"That’s your decision," she said crisply. "You know mine. Perhaps you’ll agree to stop calling me ‘madam’?"

"Adriana."

"I’m 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."

The 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.

"God 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.

"Woden 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."

Watching him, she had felt suddenly weak. Her fingers and toes tingled a little.

"Let’s go up and enjoy the moonglow," she said.

They 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 silver-dusted air.

"What 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?"

He glanced at her from time to time with mild eyes, as if gestating a question.

"Speak," she commanded.

"Back there," Wolf said cautiously, pointing at the road, "you said, ‘the former wife of Quintus Jovinus.’ Excuse me. Do you now have . . . another husband?"

"No, 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."

"Yes." His voice was respectful, neutral.

"My 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."

"Yes."

"We 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."

She paused 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."

Wolf nodded with the polite detachment of an impartial judge.

"One 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."

"That would be foolish," Wolf said with conviction.

"To a 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."

The full 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.

"I was 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 day."

"You are not old, Adriana," Wolf said, with an emphasis that surprised her.

"I’ve heard it said that a woman is old on the day she loses her last illusion," she mused.

"You miss him," Wolf said simply.

"I 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."

She lay back and looked at the sky, and let her words run away with her, not caring about their impact.

"I was 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 Orient.

"I’m 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. . . ."

She paused. "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?"

"It is not a burden, Adriana," Wolf said softly.

She turned 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 consoled her.

"After 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."

She laughed, and a rush of sadness followed her laughter.

"That’s the sort of thing I miss," she said quietly. "I’ll try not to speak of it again."

Crickets 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 sky.

"Memories 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."

A night-bird whistled in the thicket below the hill. Adriana sat up sharply.

"Excuse me," she said.

"Ach!" Wolf said, putting his hands over his face, and rocking from side to side.

"King Geiseric is your father?"

"No. Yes. It is not important."

"But it must be either yes or no, I should think."

Wolf spread his hands in appeal.

"I 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?"

He swallowed hard.

"King-chasing? Not at first hand."

Wolf clenched his big hands in embarrassment.

"The 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."

He sighed deeply. "I am not troubled. God judges a man by his heart, not by his blood."

"You have a special place in the king’s esteem, then?" Adriana said.

"It is 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."

"Why should that be?"

"Maybe because the bishop gives him guilt—is that how you say it?"

"Makes him feel guilty?"

"Yes."

"I 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 dressed?"

"It was true," Wolf replied, staccato. "It was a bad habit. The bishop discouraged it."

"The Arian bishop?" Adriana asked, trying to recall the heretical teachings of the priest Arius that separated Arian Christians from Catholic Christians.

"Yes, 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 the hundredth."

The king. All conversations returned to him again and again, the iron worm in the apple of Roman life.

"Do you happen to recall," she asked, suddenly curious, "any mention of Gaius Faustinus at the Vandal court?"

Wolf rubbed 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 Roman allies."

"I 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."

"It 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."

"You’re 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."

"I had an excellent tutor, from Gaul."

"A captive?"

"Yes, Adriana."

"I’m 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 unrealistic.

She had 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.

She counted 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.

Outside the village of Stabula, a slightly decayed hospitium appeared to be open for late drinkers and slow Naples-bound traffic.

"I’m 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."

Wolf stood stolidly in the road, awaiting instructions.

"Come," 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 devil."

They 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.

She ordered 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 lamplight.

The room 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.

She brushed 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.

Wolf 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.

"This 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.

"Does it bother you, Adriana, that the fishwife ‘married’ us?" he asked suddenly, in the tone of a long-debated misgiving.

"Lord, 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."

It struck 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.

"Can 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."

"I 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.

*

The first 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.

"It’s 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.

"Listen 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."

Wolf crouched on the floor, nodding earnestly, his hands clasped around his bristly knees.

"The 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 head."

She was wide awake now, full of purpose, restored by sleep, forgetful of her aches and her itching legs.

"Taurinus," 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 officials."

"Including the fat man at Naples?" Wolf asked.

"Let’s 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 that simple."

Wolf stood with a swift, liquid movement. Adriana arranged her clothes, patting her leather purse and her knife.

"One 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."

Downstairs 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.

Adriana’s 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.

"The 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."

When the 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.

"How 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 splendor.

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.

"I wish we could know if we are followed," Wolf said.

"It’s only a matter of time," Adriana said. "There are plenty of serfs around to tell which road the strange couple took."

A 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.

Abruptly 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.

"They’ve found us, I think," she said.

They ran.

The muffled 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.

The 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 oppressive.

With the 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 heels.

She 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.

Adriana 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.

"In 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.

Hoofs 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.

Taurinus 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.

"The law is the law," he said at last, in a stern voice.

"Of what law do you speak?" the bishop asked, in a grave sermonic monotone. He leaned forward on his throne.

"The law of Honorius and Theodosius."

"Of what are these people accused?" the bishop asked.

"Of adultery," Taurinus said.

"Is it true?" The bishop turned in his throne and addressed Adriana.

"It is false; it is a wind blown up from hell," she answered.

The captain 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 yielded up."

"The woman is known to me," the bishop said calmly, rising from his throne. "She is not an adulteress."

"The German is armed," Taurinus said. "Sanctuary is not to be granted to an armed man."

The bishop turned to Wolf and said gently, "Throw down your knife."

Adriana squeezed Wolf’s elbow; there were signs of a struggle in his face. He unbuckled his belt; the sheathed knife dropped to the floor.

"You are the emperor’s men?" the bishop asked.

"We are the Urban Vicar’s men."

"By what warrant do you interrupt Mass and bring violence into the house of God? Does the Vicar send brigands to do his work?"

Taurinus 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."

"You 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 hundred?"

Taurinus’s 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.

"We mean no offense to the house of God. The woman is a fugitive from authority."

"Sanctuary is for fugitives," the bishop said. "Take your men outside. Let the Mass continue."

The cavalrymen shuffled out of the nave. The worshipers’ eyes followed them; the universal scowl on their faces could not have been lost on Taurinus.

The bishop 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.

Adriana 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.

Ite, 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.

"The 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 Paconius."

He motioned to an even younger churchman, who brought forward two goblets on a tray. There was an aroma of spiced wine.

"Drink 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.

Adriana 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.

"You slept well?" he asked, seeing that they were both awake.

"Very well." Adriana moved; the floor shifted a little under her, and she guessed the direction in which safety lay.

She stood 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.

"This 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 asleep."

She bowed hurriedly toward the altar and crossed herself. Taking Wolf by the hand, she followed Marcius with his lamp down the flight of stone steps.

"We’re 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."

"One can’t help wondering what Taurinus will do to you for helping us," Adriana said.

"Nothing. If the agents of the State laid a hand on our bishop or one of his household, not one of them would leave Nuceria alive."

"The congregation would see to it?"

"Yes, even if Bishop Nilus tried to stop them."

The tunnel, 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.

A door 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 her lungs.

"I have the honor of welcoming you to the house of Bishop Nilus," the priest said, bowing graciously.

The 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.

The bishop 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.

"Fortune smiled on us today, when we found Your Grace’s protection," Adriana said, kneeling to kiss Bishop Nilus’s ring.

"Ah, 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."

"Gratefully, Your Charity."

Bishop 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.

"My 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."

"This is good medicine," she said, drinking some and feeling a welcome rush of warmth. "It makes one see the world with indulgent eyes."

The bishop nibbled an egg while Wolf and Adriana ate and drank earnestly.

"According 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."

The bishop examined her face and nodded, satisfied. He rummaged in the folds of his robe and produced a tidbit of vellum.

"A letter for Your Piety, brought by His Holiness’s pigeon-post," he said.

She unrolled the tissue-thin scrap and read the pope’s own hand.

Bishop 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.

She looked up. Bishop Nilus’s ears were fairly vibrating with enthusiasm.

"We 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 bait."

"They left no sentries? Took no hostages?" Adriana asked.

"They 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."

"There can be no question of my continuing," Adriana said. "Bishop Leo will have let you know the name of my persecutor."

"I 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."

The bishop leaned forward with a somber attitude, as if about to elucidate a point of doctrine.

"I’m 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."

"I’ve heard colorful tales . . . ," Adriana volunteered.

The bishop 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."

He cleared 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."

"He died?" Adriana asked, mildly interested.

"No; he’s blind—the cats went mad. Am I spoiling your journey in advance?"

"Not at all," Adriana said. "Wisdom looks ahead; foolishness looks over its shoulder."

"I 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 possible."

"I’ve heard terrible things about the South all my life," Adriana said, "about brigands, cannibals, witches. . . ."

Nilus 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 God."

He jumped 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."

In separate 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 horses.

"I 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."

A warm, sour smell announced the stables.

"I assume we’ll have trouble finding lodging," Adriana remarked as an afterthought.

The bishop 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."

Wolf and 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.

"I’m unable to thank you properly," Adriana said from the carriage window.

"I thank you, madam," Nilus said, with a profound bow. "You’ve graciously enabled me to make a debtor of the bishop of Rome."


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