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Chapter 12

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The black warship of Gaius Faustinus, like a crab with fifty legs, eased itself into the harbor of Salernum, a day and a half from Rome. It was a dromon, a racer, the ship with which Constantine the Great had annihilated his enemies on the sea. Its swift movements were already spreading terror as the nautical symbol of Faustinusís dictatorship.

The vessel was on permanent loan from Hypatius, the infinitely pliable Master of Soldiers at Rome. It was a partial return on large financial favors. The appointment of Hypatius had not been the least of the dead emperorís blunders. Apparently Maximus had never imagined that Hypatius might be manipulated by anyone but himself. In this, as in all other matters, Flaviaís indifference to her grandfatherís fortune had been most opportune. Her estates in Gaul and the north of Italy had been converted into a river of gold, and the gold had flowed into the purses of officials whose strategic importance ruled out their imprisonment, confiscation, or murder.

Meanwhile, the rest of Maximusís court had been dispersed. The empress and her daughters, the Urban Prefect, the Praetorian Prefect of Italy, and the Quaestor were prisoners at Carthage. Majorian, Count of the Domestics, had fled to Gaul. Benedictus, the Master of Offices, had died mysteriously in his sleep, the day after Geisericís departure from the city. The Count of the Sacred Bounty had been torn to bits by his house-slaves, for uncertain reasons. The Count of the Privy Purse had collapsed and died at a mime-show; poison was rumored. The Provost of the Sacred Bedchamber had opened his veins when Faustinus publicly disclosed that the eunuch dabbled in magic.

With the imperial household out of the way, the Senate enfeebled by dissension and apathy, the civil service terror-stricken, and the military under flabby command, the throne seemed well within Faustinusís grasp. The Emperor Marcian at Constantinople was technically ruler of the West as well as the East, but no troublesome embassy had yet arrived from the eastern court. The Germanized army and the palace guard were kept out of the way by Hypatius, who had discovered a momentary coincidence of his own interests with Faustinusís. That dependency would have to be corrected soon, and permanently.

In the city itself, power was balanced precariously between the pope and the military. The trick would be to slip between them. The pope, who could be deleted from the rolls of the citizenry at the proper time, would keep matters in flux while Faustinus was away. In the outer reaches of the empire, Gaul was a threatening enigma. The feeble Senate in Gaul took its instructions from the Visigothic king, Theodoric. The king, therefore, would have to be wooed away from his favorite candidate, Eparchius Avitus, Military Master of Gaul by courtesy of the dead Maximus. Old Avitus had shown himself remarkably resistant to assassination. Could the Senate in Gaul be preŽmpted by the Senate in Rome? Part of the answer lay in southern Italy and Sicily.

It was thus necessary, Faustinus concluded, to court the military dux of the Province of Campania, at his ancestral estate in the hills above Salernum. The duke, an old family friend, controlled all real power in the most populous part of Italy. Given the vacuum of leadership in the Military Masterís office at Rome, it would be prudent, indeed vital, to secure Tiberius Leontiusís explicit allegiance before Faustinus moved to take the throne.

The allegiance was owed. By Faustinusís intervention, the properties of Leontius had been passed over by Geiseric, the angel of death. Leontiusís ivory couches and gold-encrusted litters bore no Vandal fingerprints. Leontius had been made aware of the favor. Now he would be given the opportunity to express his gratitude.

Faustinus strolled the deck of the dromon, enjoying the salt breeze and the sunshine. A couch with cushions had been brought for his comfort, but he had spurned it. The day was pleasant; gulls soared in the bright sky above the city wharf. Faustinus generally enjoyed sea-travel, but it would be pleasant to spend two nights away from the smell of tar and the creaking of ropes, creaking of oars, creaking of shipís timbers and soldiersí boots.

The bleak coastline at Salernum made him conscious of the southern landscape; the landscape made him think of his fugitive sister-in-law. Sextus Taurinusís dispatches by carrier-pigeon suggested that the chase after Quintus Jovinusís estranged wife would be pleasantly prolonged. In his own memoranda, Faustinus had cautioned Taurinus to curb the rapacity of his men, which could be a political embarrassment. An inn had been pulled to pieces north of Capua. Two Huns, Aetiusís odd little twins with Gothic nicknames, had run out of control in a village near Naples. They had burned a roadside tavern where Marcella Adriana was thought to have spent the night, and they had driven a spear through the landlordís temples to see, as they said, whether the corpseís eyes would be crossed.

Meanwhile, news of the Adrianaís escape from Nuceria had reached Faustinus at Rome. His response had been sent in care of the garrison commander at Salernum. If Taurinus had followed orders, he would have taken the coastal roads to Interamnium in the plain of Sybaris, and would be waiting to pounce on the fugitive when she emerged from the mountains. It amused Faustinus to think of her, diverted from her foolish quest to save a fool, now rushing through the barren highlands of the South to save her own lifeówhich, of course, she would lose in the end anyway.

The light dromon drew a shallow draft; it eased past heavy merchantmen riding at sea and glided into the deserted military harbor, where at least one boathouse with a stone ramp would be in fit condition to dry the ship for two nights. Apparently Leontius had posted a watch on the headlands above Salernum. A train of litters and Leontius himself, with a dozen clients and their slaves, were waiting on the quay when Faustinusís ship entered the harbor.

Leontiusís family were newly rich and restless, like Faustinusís. Leontiusís father had bought his way into the Senate, and Leontius himself had mastered the sounds and rhythms of intellectual distinction, though not the content. He had an immaculately brushed mane of saffron-dyed hair, piercing blue eyes, and splendid carriage. He cultivated Old Roman pretensions, quoting Cicero and Seneca without the slightest understanding of their minds. The great majority of his acquaintances took him for a scholar and a statesman. He was a ponderous ass, Faustinus thought, but a useful one; and whatever Leontiusís intellectual limitations might be, he was a good host. Faustinus could look forward to superb food and drink, and to the chilly ecstasy of humping Leontiusís daughters, one or both, interchangeable in their marble magnificence.

As Faustinus ascended the sea-stairs, Leontiusís bearers stood smartly at attention, eight Persian boys chosen for their uniform height and dark good looks.

"Ave, Faustinus," Leontius said gravely, detaching himself from his clients and coming forward.

"Ave, Leontius."

The two men kissed each other on the cheek.

"Flavia is well, I trust?" Leontius asked.

"Very. And Domitia?"

"Excellent. She has the energy of a woman half her age."

A glance between the two men, no more than an eyeblink, certified the unspoken truths that underlay the visit: that half of Maximusís administration were in exile and the rest dead; that the pope was the chief obstacle to Faustinusís enthronement; that the alliance between Faustinus and Leontius would not outlast its benefits to both parties.

"Youíre in time for supper," Leontius said, motioning Faustinus toward the largest litter, an ornate structure of ebony and gold-leaf. "Domitia and my daughters will be overjoyed to see you."

The daughters especially, I trust, Faustinus thought, easing himself into the conveyance and feeling it rise to the bearersí shoulders, an odd sensation, like driving a fast cart up a sudden grade on a country road.

The two men walked before dinner in the portico of Leontiusís garden and then moved to a dining apartment, elegantly severe, decorated with representations of rural gods, suitable to Leontiusís Old Roman pretensions. Faustinus and his host reclined opposite Leontiusísís two daughters and his still-beautiful wife, all alike in their silvery laughter and the chilly sensuality of their light-green eyes. Faustinus had heard it often, that soft, cruel laughter of great ladies, when chariots splintered or gladiators were ripped by beasts.

The meal emphasized shellfish and wild game, expertly marinated and sauced. The wine was Tarentine, the conversation trivial. Eusebia seemed abstracted. Palladia favored Faustinus twice with a marble smile. It was clear which of the sisters would undertake the not-unpleasant duty of making love to Leontiusís guest.

"I have a special treat for you tomorrow," Leontius said at the end of the meal, with a smile that expressed all his easy cruelty. "Be ready for the hunt at dawn, if you will. Weíre going to have some forbidden fun."

Faustinus dismissed his own servants to the slave quarters. In the spare, cool elegance of his room he threw off his clothes. The door opened and shut; Palladia came to his bed, dropping away a silk robe as she moved.

The transaction was poised, mechanical, perfectly suited to Faustinusís mood. Palladia permitted herself three little cries and one gasp. Faustinus counted them. She fell asleep immediately after he had discharged himself into her, which annoyed him, because he would have preferred to sleep alone. She emitted no odors, however, and her breathing could be detected only by the soft motion of her rib cage against his encircling arm.

Palladia had floated away when Faustinus woke before dawn. She was the kind of woman he preferred above all others, utterly unemotional, like the ghost of a statue. By lamplight, his manservants strapped him into boots, a close-fitting tunic, and a long knife. His appearance in hunting gear pleased him. Before turning to go, he nodded to himself in the mirror: Romeís best judge of wine, women, a horse, a hound, and a useful fool.

He walked briskly to Leontiusís kennels. In a featherweight cape and light boots, Leontius stood in a circle of hunt-slaves, giving instructions. Faustinus and Leontius exchanged bows. The head hunt-slave explained that the dayís human quarry had been stripped to his loin-wrap and released moments earlier. Rando, the young German serf, had run northeast in a frenzy for his life, his white loin-rag bobbing in the moonlight like a buckís hindquarters.

"Whatís the offense, if one may inquire?" Faustinus asked.

"My daughters . . . donít lock their doors," Leontius said, choking on the words. It was clear to Faustinus that the young fox had found his way into the sanctuary where Leontiusís white doves were kept. The doves had blamed the fox, of course, and the wretch was about to pay with his life.

"Rando has always had a rebellious spirit," Leontius continued as the two men turned toward the stables. "Heís garbage, a troublemaker. Weíll use him for sport."

Leontius bred hounds of great size and ferocity. Night-music at his villa was a chorus of barking, with howls interspersed. Faustinus walked gingerly past their cages. The dogs watched with red eyes, eager for the chance to catch him alone. They had been starved the day and night before, in anticipation of a feast.

"Today youíll see these beauties in action," Leontius said. "Weíve had unexpected rain; the scent will lie thick."

By dawn a company of young men from neighboring villas had gathered for the pursuit. Leontiusís dogs were brought yelping and lunging from the kennels. They were familiarized with the serfís scent, and released. The chase began. There was an undisciplined blowing of horns by the young men, who liked noise for its own sake. Rando had been cunning, with the presence of mind to run past a pig-sty on his way to the wilds. The stench confounded the dogs when the party first rode out of the stableyard. Soon they were on the scent again, and Faustinus and his companions galloped after them into the hills, away from the sea, moving at the best speed possible in rough country.

The dogs pressed eagerly into thick scrub; they seemed puzzled by the dwindling scent. Fugitive serfs and slaves knew the tricks one might play on a hound: crossing and re-crossing their own tracks, drowning their scent in a running creek, walking on fences or fallen trees. Leontius gnawed his lower lip and cursed the dogs. Apparently they were losing themselves in the wilderness of brush.

On an inspiration, Faustinus signaled to his attendant to stay behind, detached himself from the company, and rode off to the northeast, leaving the confusion of hounds, horses, and men. A stiff ride on the flats along a creek-bed exhilarated him and sharpened his bloodlust. If the serf knew the uses of water in eluding a pack of hounds, he would be on neither bank of the stream but moving up-country at its center.

Following his hunch, Faustinus rode toward a sheer cliff on the eastern boundary of Leontiusís estate, where a stand of willows at the base suggested the presence of springs. On the edge of the wood he tethered his horse, dismounted, and pushed his way through thickets that resembled the hedges of a long-deserted garden, keeping close track of the sparse landmarks in the brown confusion of the countryside.

He climbed over a hillock and found himself face to face, at a distance of several yards, with the fleeing serf.

Silently the two men looked at each other. Something like understanding passed between them. In the distance there was a faint yodel of hounds. Rando was handsome under the serf-crust. His clothes suggested muckraking and stables, and his crude, sensual face was white as a fish-belly with the fear of death.

Faustinus drew a whistle from the folds of his clothing and blew it.

The hounds were hot on the trail now. Their trumpet-like baying came steadily on the breeze, sometimes boldly, sometimes faintly, always nearer, soon followed by the voices of men and boys calling Catch! and Courage! to the animals. The empty woods shouted in bodiless chorus; the hideous blood-note of the hounds was close. The trapped serfís eyes grew filmy and expressionless, like the eyes of a dying rabbit.

Faustinus smiled.

The hounds flooded over a rise, sighted the fugitive, and raised a chorus of deep bell-notes. The luckless serf jumped up and ran fifty yards. Effortlessly the dogs overtook him. The first sprang at his throat. Crouching, Rando struck upwards with a sliver of shale and ripped the animalís belly open, but the others were on him, rumbling and snapping. The serf threw an arm up in front of his throat and fell under the press of bodies. Grinning, the kennel-slaves dragged the raging pack away from him.

Furious at the loss of a dog, Leontius bent over the bleeding serf and shook his finger like a schoolmaster.

"Youíve wrecked Fidelis," he said tensely. "Now, breaker of the order of Nature, youíll find out what his brothers have in store for you."

With Rando stumbling after him, a rope around his neck, Leontius rode home ahead of his guests in single file. The captive was covered with blood; the dogs had had a good taste of him. An hour after midday, Leontiusís guests were assembled in the miniature amphitheater that had served various owners of the villa as a garden and others as an exercise-ground. Leontiusís serfs were brought from the row of kennels where they lived on refuse that the Prodigal Son would have rejected. Silently they filed into the sand-pit: scrawny, vacant-eyed draft animals, breeders and sufferers, covered with rags, ignorant as the mobs of Nineveh who could not tell their right hand from their left.

"Thisíll be good discipline for them, by the gods," Leontius said, leaning toward Faustinus in his ponderous way. "They must be shown that they may not breach the boundaries set round them by Nature."

Leontiusís hunt-slaves dragged Rando into the little amphitheater with a rope around his neck and a fork at his buttocks. The serf-boyís handsome face was still smeared with gore; the shreds of his bloody tunic dangled around his waist. One of his arms hung useless, broken near the shoulder. There was foam on his lips; his eyes were red. His face showed his future; it vacillated between stark terror and resignation.

Behind a grate in the garden wall, Leontiusís bellowing hounds scratched with eager forepaws as they scented the afternoonís quarry. The grates were lifted; the dogs closed in.

Rando screamed, again and again. The dogs were dragged away. There was a ripple of polite applause among the guests. Faustinus, a ghastly smile on his face, seemed to be weighing the possible applications of the principles involved. Eusebia admired the gold reflections of the sun on her fingernails. Palladia covered her nose with her handkerchief and leaned over the pit-rail for a closer inspection of the scarlet wreck.

"Poor Rando housed more demons than the Gadarene swine," she murmured, but her eyes were lit with a knowledge that had not come from Scripture.

Faustinus smiled and turned his pale eyes toward the hills south of Eburi.

"An interesting diversion," he said, leaning to his host and thoughtfully tapping his chin. "Iíve seldom worked with hounds."

He was thinking, again, of the headstrong daughter of Plautius and her absurd pilgrimage through the southern mountains.

*

The road through the sun-scorched hills between Nerulum and Muranum lay under a half-centuryís debris. All day Adriana had traveled on the edge of apprehension, listening northward for the hue and cry that would mean an end to her freedom: the hollow voices of Taurinusís hounds, the neigh of Taurinusís horses, the quick tramp of footsoldiers in a deadly hurry. She dreaded the necessity of coping with her relatives, but she craved the security and comfort of the fortified manor-house in which she had played as a child.

"Iím owed several nightsí hospitality by these difficult people," she said to Wolf, "and I need to sleep in a real bed. Youíll be amused and appalled by Cousin Gallia in particular. According to my grandfather, the peasants are sure sheís a witch, and that her husband is a demon who eats young male flesh. I doubt that Firmus eats boys, but I wouldnít be surprised if Gallia has the ability to create earthquakes. I saw their only daughter three years ago; I assume sheís grown into a monster. In any case, steady yourself. The whole familyís strange."

"Strange?" Wolf pointed to his head.

She nodded. "Firmus is the best by far. He spent most of his youth trying to breed a dog that can climb trees. Now he collects weaponry from the time of Alaric. He doesnít say much. Gallia determines his thoughts and expresses them for him."

Past the next wide curve in the road, the landscape became familiar. Adriana recognized her cousinsí well-maintained stone road, laid out and paved with old-time precision during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Shortly after leaving the highway, she could pick out the hazy outlines of the great house on the height. Its castellated brown walls and four towers stood guard over a dry moat that could be flooded from the cisterns in case of an attack. The hillsides below it had been cleared of scrub, leaving no cover under which armed men could move unnoticed. To protect his fields, Firmus had armed his serfs, at some danger to himself, and the serfs in turn were monitored by Firmusís private cavalry.

Adriana threw herself into the climb, imagining that arrows were pointed at her from every clump of brush. The scorched hill seemed to frown above her endlessly. The flies were insufferable. In serf-hamlets near the road, carnivorous-looking children crept out of their huts to stare. The serf-women in the background seemed harder and hairier than in the north, burnt brown by the sun, wrinkled by the wind, bent from a lifetime of tending animals whose hides were cleaner and whose breath was sweeter than their own.

The travelers passed into the shadow of the villa. It resembled a monstrous insect crouched on the hilltop, preparing to eat the rude huts on the slope. The fortified gateway was designed so a handful of defenders could keep the whole countryside at bay. Adriana stamped the dust from her feet and pulled hard on the bell-cord at the porterís wicket. An unkind-looking old man presented his face behind the iron grate. He was in no hurry to speak.

"You will explain to Quartillus Firmus that his cousin, the Lady Marcella Adriana, is waiting outside in the noon sunshine," she said severely.

With no expression of acknowledgment the porter closed the wicket.

"If my servants behaved that way, Iíd have them smothered," Adriana fumed.

She waited. The sun beat down. A sudden pounding of hoofs made her start, but a girlís voice rode the thunder. Firmusís daughter galloped up the slope, dodging olive trees, on a surefooted pony that seemed to know every rock in the neighborhood. Two armored eunuchs reined up behind her, their swords drawn. The girl was vigorous and brown, rather like Adriana at puberty, though hardly so comfortable on a horse. She jumped down and hugged Adriana with emphasis but no warmth.

"Cousin Adriana!"

"How did you recognize me in these, Cousin Romana," Adriana asked, sweeping a hand over her rags.

"Oh, your profile is unmistakable, Cousin Adriana, even at a great distance." 

Romana jumped back, raked Wolf with her eyes, and licked her thin lips. At fifteen, she had a decent figure, but rather square, with large breasts that seemed to have been added to her boxy trunk as an afterthought, and pointed teeth that appeared to have been sharpened with a file.

"Cousin Adriana!" she exclaimed a second time, fluttering her eyelashes. "How thoughtful! Youíve brought me a gift. Heís marvelous."

She turned to Wolf with a terrible little smile.

"Letís wrestle," she purred.

"Not now, Cousin Romana," Adriana said sharply. "My companion is far too weary to wreatle. My servant Lucius here, on the other hand. . . ." She gestured at the grinning urchin; his nostrils were dilated with excitement, no doubt at the thought of mounting Romana like a donkey.

The girlís rouge made her seem wine-flushed. She was, in fact, a little drunk at midday. She had put on false eyelashes before riding. The left one had blown off, giving her square face the appearance of a hut with two windows and one awning. She laughed. The outburst was mirthless, strenuous, monotonous, like a crowís note.

"Youíre waiting for our horrible old porter to function? Youíll be out here all day." Romana pulled a whistle out of her riding tunic and blew it. The gates creaked open; the portcullis went up with a muted screech.

"I drive Baudio crazy making him raise that thing a hundred times a day," Romana crowed. "I like to see him stretch when he does it. He has such a gorgeous body, and he wears only a loincloth. He wants to be a monk. Mother said that if I try to seduce him. . . ." She made a face. "Never mind."

Romana led her guests into the villa yard. In their remote hilltop pile, Adrianaís relatives lived in the glory of the past. The castellated walls enclosed a miniature dying civilization: stables, slave-barracks, grape and olive presses, a private chapel, barns, baths, and the sumptuous mansion of the owners. Adriana watched the slaves and serfs going about their business, a repertory of damaged humanity, some blind in one eye, some with fingers missing, a leg missing, an arm missing, all deformed in one way or another by a lifetime of repetitive labor and intermittent warfare.

Romana smirked. "What did you say your friendís name was? Voth? NoóWolf. He certainly is gorgeous, arenít you, Wolf? Can I borrow you for an evening? Iíll go find Daddy, Adriana. He probably thinks youíre still at the gate."

She scampered away.

"Arenít you impressed with that box of paints?" Adriana muttered. "Her hair is the color of Faustinusís party-boots." She felt a surge of resentment whose nature she would not permit herself to consider.

"She is young, very young," Wolf said, evidently satisfied with having said nothing.

"Such a face," Adriana went on. "Entirely without innocence. The problem with the rising generation is that they know too much."

Flanked by a pair of eunuchs, Cousin Firmus hurried toward Wolf and Adriana from the garden gate, his arms extended in greeting. He was a flabby, pleasant person whose face was difficult to remember from one day to the next. As a youth he had scandalized his family by studying medicine, and had published at Rome, at great expense, a treatise on the difficulty of belching while lying down. At twenty he had married, settled on his fatherís estate, and begun the waste of his life.

He embraced Adriana, acknowledged Wolfís bow with a nod, and smiled at Lucius.

"My German bodyguard, Wolf," Adriana said, gesturing at Wolf, in answer to Firmusís gentle look of inquiry.

Romana snickered.

"My servant, Lucius," Adriana said, pointing at Lucius, who opened his mouth to protest the characterization, and clapped it shut again.

"See to the servant," Firmus instructed his attendants, after hurriedly assessing Adrianaís abnormal relationships. "Come with us, dear cousin, andóWolf?"

As they walked, Firmus made an inclusive gesture at the villaís castellated walls.

"We live in a terrible age, in a terrible place, Adriana," he said with a curiously apologetic smile. "Graciousness is a thing of the past. Nothing is given in this part of the world. One must skin the hare twice and starve the rats, so to speak. Itís an uncompromising country. It must be farmed with a spade in one hand and a knife in the other. Things have gotten worse since you were here as a girl. Now we shoot marauders from the walls when they try to creep up the slopes at night."

Adriana shivered, thinking that she had missed death by the margin of an armed serfís judgment. Firmus ushered his guests into the gloomy mansion. A sickly remnant of sunlight filtered into the vestibule; in spite of its profusion of marble furnishings, it appeared almost unused, with a musty smell suggesting that the high windows were never opened. A large yellow dog came out of the atrium, sniffed at the guests, and growled.

Attended by two woebegone eunuchs, Cousin Gallia emerged from the central hall with a fine show of white teeth. At a distance, she still had a marvelous welcoming face; close by, her complexion collapsed into hard lines and evil little wrinkles that would turn to gullies in her old age.

"Dearest Adriana!" she gushed, appraising Adrianaís tattered figure. "How careless you are of your health!óto run through these hills in heaven-knows-what currents of air, and plunge through swamps, and challenge the night dewsówhy, itís like knocking on the door of the African fever and complaining when you find her at home."

She embraced Adriana with a frigid smile, and waved at her surroundings with a black fan, like a huge moth-wing decorated in gold and silver.

"You remember this place from your girlhood, my dear. As you see, itís still our mystic martyrdomóthe crudeness, the suffocation. Nothing ever changes with us."

As a young woman, Gallia had been a typical female of the ancient Roman blood, coldly handsome and disdainful, with the smooth elegance of an ivory carving, but not the charm. Time and the South had coarsened her face and manner. Now her skin had an unhealthy wine-flush, and her manner suggested a life of terminal boredom.

Firmus introduced Wolf, who bowed with an embarrassed jerk.

"Itís delightful," Gallia said with acid clarity, "that you should find time for us in your schedule of entertainments, dear Adriana. I trust youíd like to freshen up a bit? My maids are at your service. Vitus will conduct you to your rooms. Please ask for anything of mine that you might like. I suggest pink with your complexion. His manservants," she gestured at her husband, "will attendóVoth? NoóWolf."

"Be comfortable," Adriana said, turning to Wolf, whose earnest face looked as it had on the slave-block. "Firmusís manicurists and bath-servants are the best north of Rhegium."

Adriana watched him go, with a little Persian slave at each elbow. She nodded crisp thanks to Gallia and went to the baths with the eunuch Vitus and his twin: enormous, pale, identical, like white seals with rouged eyelids.

*

She floated on her back and daydreamed. She had a fragrant recollection of a visit to the lonely estate-house years before, in the brief time of peace before Attila, when the memory of Alaric and his Goths had faded. There had been morning hunts and musical evenings, with dancing. After dark, Firmusís rich neighbors had gone home by moonlight, a procession of litters and torchbearers winding down the villa road, the lights absorbed at last by the dark fields and woods, as the child Adriana watched from her bedroom window upstairs.

The wealth of the place had come from Calvinus, her grandfatherís younger brother, heir to several run-down estates on the plain of Sybaris. The enterprising youngster had got himself appointed military duke of Lucania and Bruttium. All during the years when Geiseric ravaged the west coast of Italy unhindered, the dukeís troops were busy exterminating bandits in the hills above the dukeís hereditary estates.

Calvinus had died rich, the protector of innumerable sheep-farmers, the scourge of Southern brigandry. Six years later, his spineless son and malcontent daughter-in-law huddled in the old manís fortified summer estate-house, afraid of brigands, afraid of their own serfs, afraid to move down to the steamy plains where the African fever had begun again to stalk the summer nights after an absence of centuries.

The smiling, watery-eyed Firmus seemed more like a house-pet than lord of the estate. Real power belonged to Arbitio, the savage-looking steward, apparently a law unto himself, a monster who milked revenues out of the serfs, cut throats and administered hangings in the villa yard, issued directives from the tablinum of the estate-house, and more or less candidly made love to Firmusís wife.

Gallia, for her part, was dying slowly in her lonely pile of stone. The long summers oppressed her. She dressed opulently for no audience except the serfs, the slaves, and Arbitio. She yawned and fanned herself, and drank iced wine all during the long hot days of summer, and was nearly always drunk by nightfall. She fed her spirit on daily gossip; no other nourishment was available to a woman who would neither pray nor read.

Adriana left the delicious coolness of the pool. Tight-lipped attendants in the dressing-room kneaded her until she ached pleasantly. In a murmuring circle of maids, she threaded her way to the suite of rooms that had been set at her disposal. Her attiring-chamber was opulent, with mirrors presenting themselves at every turn, and fresh roses crowding the dressing-table. A luxurious array of perfumes, ointments, tints, masking compounds, and delicate little implements of ivory had been set out by Galliaís servants.

Adriana faced herself in the largest mirror: straggle-haired, bronzed, athletic, composed of unwomanly planes and angles. Even her eyes seemed bright and hard in the imperfect reflection of the polished silver.

"Lord!" she exclaimed, surveying the damage.

"Perhaps we should begin by moistening the face," the head-maid intoned, in the voice of a physician administering a purge.

Adriana closed her eyes and imagined herself as a horse in a stall while the maids attended to her skin, then to her nails and teeth, with perfumed waters and spices. The mirror delivered kindlier messages. Certainly she had become indecently brown by the standards of the court, but twelve daysí exposure to the elements seemed to have toned rather than spoiled her complexion.

"Madam is a morsel for an emperor," the head-maid murmured.

Adrianaís cheeks warmed at the flattery.

"What did you say, dear?" she asked.

"I was thinking," the woman said shyly, "that Your Felicityís beauty must be a guardian angel to heróthough itís true that beauty is sometimes a demon in disguise, and if a woman trusts it and it deserts her, she falls."

"That may well be," Adriana said seriously.

"You must be strong as a soldier to have come such a distance on foot," the maid marveled.

"Oh, stronger than many soldiers," Adriana said, "and they know it all the way from here to Rome."

A splendid pink dinner-robe, nearly weightless, had been brought for her; a maid hovered over Adriana when she slipped into it, brushing away imaginary particles of dust with a little whisk. Cousin Gallia at least had the kindness to share her wardrobe without making a fuss. Adriana refused the pearl-studded headdress offered by the maid.

"Thank you, no," she said, "I couldnít think of wearing more than a bare minimum of my hostessís jewels."

"But, Your Felicity," the girl persisted, "my mistress said youíd say so, and that you should wear the headdress anyway, because it belonged to your great-grandmother."

"In that case . . . ," Adriana began, feeling a wild and inexplicable start of tears.

She motioned to the girl, who positioned the rolled-silk turban and circled Adrianaís neck with a jeweled collar. The maid stood back, reflecting a little wistfully on the dark smoothness of Adrianaís throat above the collar and the flawless configuration of her breasts.

"Oh, how pretty," she murmured. Her innocence seemed reflected in the sparkle of the gems.

"Not bad," Adriana said, reviewing herself in the mirror and approving what she saw. She spent the balance of the afternoon walking the porticoes of the great house with her hosts. Wolf walked beside her at a safe distance from Romana. By the wagging of the girlís square buttocks and the blinking of her false eyelashes, her project for him was clear. Adriana smiled in spite of her annoyance. How would he handle himself? It would be instructive to see.

Her starvation was complete when the furry note of the dinner-gong reverberated through the marble corridors of the mansion. Cousin Gallia had decided to accord Wolf the standing of a foreign ambassador, and invited him to recline with the family at supper. Lucius, on the other hand, would be fed and bedded with the house-servants.

In an alcove outside the banquet-chambers Adriana sat gravely next to Wolf, while a pair of attendants washed and perfumed their feet.

"My stomach is kissing my backbone," she whispered. "Iíd be satisfied with a bowl of grass."

She followed an usher into an intimate dining apartment kept for a small number of guests. In mellow light she bowed to Firmus, Gallia, Romana, and a guest introduced as Marius Tullianus. She took the couch indicated by the usherís wand. The old, familiar, dreadful atmosphere of an imperial banquet hovered over the room. The air was close and suffocatingly perfumed. The fruity odor seemed to emanate from Cousin Gallia, who looked, in the uncertain light, like a fallen angel. In a headdress heavy with jewels and a gold-embroidered robe, she considerably outshone Adriana. Romana, overdressed and overpainted, had been allowed to recline at table with the adults. Stretched out seductively on her cushion at Wolfís right elbow, she resembled an asp in greenery.

The soft light showed Wolf at his best, remade by Firmusís body-servants into a model of young male elegance. He was clean-shaven; his hair was close-trimmed, soft from the baths, and brushed forward. Firmusís wardrobe had supplied him with a handsome dinner-robe of blue silk and gold bracelets inlaid with sapphires. Firmus himself was dressed elegantly in violet silk. Marius Tullianus, a widower with splendid ancestors, filled the place of honor next to Firmus. He was nearsighted and taciturn; he watched his neighbors silently, like a brilliantly feathered owl of great size.

The servants brought appetizers: dressed eggs, tiny sausages, little white beets. Snipping at her morsels with dangerous-looking little teeth, Gallia dominated the conversation. A small amount of wine did away with her slight pretense to charity. She had left Rome as a young wife of twenty, rich, good-looking, happy as a woman might be with a grasping and slanderous character, and she was hungry for current news of her old rivals in the city: Lady Optima, who had borne a dark child to an Ethiopian acrobat; Lady Nestoria, lonely and miserable with her Persian eunuchs and several hundred Egyptian cats in a decaying palace on the Aventine; Lady Castina, whose rich husband resembled a tuna; Lady Aprilica, whose aging platter-face looked more and more as if an absent-minded nurse had sat on her in her infancy; Lady Principia, who had the poisonous breath of a fasting monk and looked like a silk-clad, gold-dusted camel.

"You remember her mother, too, donít you, dearest," Gallia said, leaning toward Adriana, "one part Helen of Troy and two parts common bitch? One could never have predicted the granddaughter: such a tedious little innocent, a handsome mouse raised by alley cats. I suppose her fool of a husband was excited by that air of naÔvetť, but sheíll bore him to death after heís put an end to her innocence. Have you seen the pearls he hangs on her? Theyíre bigger than mine. Good Lord! Some men like children, I suppose, the way boys like green apples."

"If the choice is between green apples and painted apples," Adriana smiled.

"The charm of forbidden fruit, in any case," Gallia said conclusively, and pursued the next object of her concern, a husband worthy of Romana. Such a man would be hard enough to find at Rome, let alone in the South.

"Of course, thereís always Bassus across the road, who has a son in heat. The boy snuffles all round Romana whenever he comes here with his father, but he has no connections at all, and his teeth are bad."

"Really, dearest," Firmus said, with a wounded expression, while Romana smiled dangerously at Wolf.

"None of this matters, of course, to my husband," Gallia said, glaring at him. "He lives like a hedgehog under a pile of dead leaves."

In the hospitable lamplight Adriana worked at her meal, curing herself of starvation, squeezing the excellent pork between her teeth, savoring the Tarentine wine, enjoying the capon in cream sauce, the spotless napkins, the snow-chilled perfumed water in which she rinsed her fingers. Firmus and Romana picked at their suppers while Gallia talked. Marius Tullianus dug at his meal with senile concentration, like a pig in pursuit of truffles. Adriana diverted herself by watching Wolf eat with his big, careful fingers.

The servants brought meatballs in wine sauce.

"I donít like meatballs," Romana whined, with an irritable gesture of distaste. She had been drinking greedily, devouring Wolfís face across the rim of her goblet.

"I donít like meatballs," she said again, picking at them. "They taste like mouse-droppings in glue."

"Darling, you do like them," Gallia protested. "Just the other day we had them, and you raved. The bishop recommends them. Theyíll give you strength. Bappo," she waved at the headwaiter, "bring her a plate of birds."

"I think Iíll dance now," Romana said, rising from her couch a little unsteadily, all nipples and teeth.

"The Child has agreed to dance her Nature Dance for us," Firmus announced with a little smile of pride.

Romana disappeared behind a marble screen and exchanged her dinner-robe for a skimpy light-green tunic. A concealed flute-player warbled a seductive Spanish melody. Romana bowed and took flight. She was a boxy caricature of the infamous ChloŽ, Adriana thought, a professional dancer who did disreputable things with geese on the stage at Constantinople. The girlís Nature Dance seemed to represent Diana the Huntress, Ceres the goddess of green things, and a doe in heat. She made sidelong glances of purest witchery at Wolf. He blinked his long eyelashes and went pink.

"So young and so talentedónot yet sixteen," Firmus marveled, shaking his head.

Romana whirled faster, encouraging herself with croons and yelps. Her thick waist and flat feet made her look, Adriana thought, like a dancing asparagus. Sweat made rivulets in the rouge on her face. She tossed her garland away, in a gesture meant to be magnificent. It snagged on a lampstand and began to smoke; a servant removed it between thumb and forefinger. Firmus was ecstatic, shaking his head and making feathery applause with his small hands. A tear crept down his cheek.

Romana was swooping in close circles now, like a vulture with wings of unequal length. She smiled dangerously at Wolf, showing her pointed teeth. Little flames of passion shot from her eyes. Finishing the dance with an uncontrolled bird-flight that threatened to carry her out of the room, she made a dumpy bow and returned to her couch.

"Marvelous, was she not?" Firmus choked, wiping tears from his cheeks.

"Truly stunning," Adriana agreed.

She glanced at Wolf. He seemed more tormented than provoked. His eyelashes fluttered; his hands were tense, cupped, as if he wished to put them over his eyes. What was the matter? Were not all young men ravenous for all young women? Adriana felt a guilty rush of pleasure in his apparent indifference to the bouncing tart.

"And how are your affairs at Rome?" Gallia asked perfunctorily, plugging a large hole in the conversation.

"Thereís nothing left for me there, Cousin," Adriana said with a shrug. "Quintus is gone. The house is a shambles; I never liked it much anyway, except the garden. I have no friends at court. If Iíd been taken to Carthage and sold on the slave-block, the court-ladies would have been ecstatic."

"But the dinners, the lights. . . ."

"Consistory dinners were like a martyrdom for me," Adriana said, "having to watch Lady Dalmatia gum her appetizers and listen to Senator Gratus bray about his youth as a tribune in Gaul. Especially I donít miss the great ladies and their artificialities that kill oneís appetite for living. At Rome one is dragged through life by custom, like a wretched thread going endlessly through a needleís eyeódonít you think?"

"But simply to leave it allóto walk away without servants?" Cousin Gallia furrowed her brows.

"Iíd be afraid of dying," Romana interjected, blinking her painted eyelids. "Arenít you afraid of dying?"

"It is remarkable, Cousin Adriana," Firmus said, rousing himself to contribute to the conversation, "that youíve come this far without incident. You must be traveling under a charm."

"I look poor. Wolf looks dangerous. Lucius, the boy, has connections," Adriana smiled.

"But arenít you afraid of dying?" Romana persisted, blinking.

"Years ago I made up my mind not to be like my father," Adriana answered softly. "My father was afraid of his own mortality. He feared loss, and he feared death. So it was in the shape of great losses that death came to him by slow degrees. You remember how he was, donít you, Cousin Firmus?ólike Job, when all the estates in Africa were gone. The slaves used to say his heart was breaking. My mother shook her head at that. She told us his heart was too full, that it wouldnít break, and thatís what the trouble was. But as for me, I think it was the fear, not the loss, that killed him."

The eveningís wine had crept up on her, making her both melancholy and talkative; the entertainment had made her careless. Her imagination escaped to the Tiber-side farm, the only thing at Rome that held her affection.

"I hardly remember my fatherís face," she said, "but I remember his death as if it were yesterday. I hadnít been close to him, but his absence left a vacancy as painful as if someone had taken away my stomach. It was an empty spring. I spent long hours on the hilltops, with only the pines between myself and the sky, stupidly waiting for my misery to lift.

"I sat by the Tiber one day, when Avitus was visiting our house from Gaul. It was in April, I think: the dragonfly nymphs were molting by the river. I heard Avitus chuckle behind me. He slid down the bank in a spray of pebbles and sat beside me on my log. He didnít speak for a long time, and I myself was too sad to speak.

"In a little while he said, as if Iíd asked a question, ĎEverything youíve loved is kept for you in heaven, dear Adriana.í"

"I cried, of course, and when I stopped, he put his hand on my shoulder and pointed at the dragonfly nymphs, poised on the tips of the swamp-grass, and said, ĎLook at these.í"

She paused. Her audience had drifted. Firmus smiled politely. Gallia coughed discreetly. Romana stifled a yawn. Wolf was intensely, astonishingly, absorbed in her words, his lips moving in silent accompaniment to hers.

Adriana met his eyes, and spoke to him alone.

"So we watched the dragonflies molt, Avitus and I together, because it was that time of year," she said. "Some were struggling to break out of their underwater bodies; some were shuddering on the grass-tips, drying their wings. The ones that were fully dry were flying away.

"ĎDo they bite?í I wondered, touching one of the insects.

"ĎNo, Lioness,í Avitus said, Ďthey dry their wings and fly off into worlds they never dreamed of under water. Thatís how it is when we die.í

"The insect I was watching flexed its crystal wings and flew off into the blue distance. ĎThatís what my father has done, isnít it?í I said to Avitus, realizing suddenly.

"ĎYes,í he nodded. ĎNow you know, and youíll never again be afraid of death. When you can smile gently at death, Adriana, youíre ready for life.í"

Firmusís eyes were glazed. Gallia and Romana were looking at the ceiling. A light snore issued from the owl-face of Marius Tullianus. He had rolled over on his fat back and fallen asleep.

*

In the suffocating ambience of her cousinsí hospitality she had felt like a bird in an oven, being sauced by a pair of incompetent cooks. She dismissed her maid with a smile of thanks and undressed herself, pulling off her great-grandmotherís headdress and laying it next to a tray that held spiced wine in a crater.

She poured herself a goblet and drank it greedily. She felt old, older than Rome, certain that the rest of her life would be a succession of disasters, with boredom and heartache in the spaces between.

She wrapped herself in a loose robe of silk and stepped to the paired windows in the corner of her room, to watch the evening sky. The tedium of the evening had eroded her self-possession. Her eyes and thoughts had strayed involuntarily to Wolf again and again, the only living being at a gathering of dead souls. If he were accessible, would I have the strength to resist? The question presented itself out of nowhere, and was followed immediately by another. What, after all, would be the point of resistance?

She had been contemptuous of Romana at the dinner, despising the girlís assertiveness, yet envying her lack of paralyzing reserve. Iím jealous, Adriana thought, and her cheeks burned with embarrassment. She shook herself angrily, drained her goblet, and poured herself another. The wine seemed to sharpen her yearning rather than blunt it.

She looked out into the night, forcing herself to concentrate on the day to come. Firmusís estate was perhaps three miles out of Muranum, the last town of any consequence north of the plain of Sybaris. Tomorrow she would descend with her companions into the malarial lowlands. The next day, God willing, she would be in the mountains of Bruttium, the toe of Italy. The problem there would be to arrive in good health at the house of the bishop of Consentia, a mysterious person of whom the pope knew little.

The thought of the coming dayís difficulties restored her self-possession. In the mellow light of a cluster of lamps, her bed beckoned in its cozy corner, presided over by a handsome statue of Cupid. She crossed the marble floor, picked up the decorative lyre that lay on the bed, tuned it, and struck a few chords softly. The instrument was decent; the sound gave her pleasure. She plucked a strain remembered from childhood, trying to make as little noise as possible, but in a moment she had lost herself in the music and was singing to her own full accompaniment, a song about dead soldiers and virgins forlorn, and the inescapable bitter-sweetness of memory.

Sleepy at last, she locked her door, blew out the lamps, and stretched herself between the silk sheets of the luxurious bed. There was a fall of sandals in the corridor. A female voice, in tears, approached Adrianaís door from the south, and dissolved northward in a staccato outburst of grunts and sniffles. Adriana shrugged, mentally, and prepared to sleep. A male voice vibrated at the door.

"Lady Adriana?"

"What is it?"

"I am in trouble."

Thoroughly relaxed and still a little drunk, she went to the door. Wolf was alone, a lighted taper in his hand, his face showing white and strained in the glow. She thought how vulnerable he looked in his too-small tunic, like an immense angel.

Again she was aware of the secret understanding that had connected them at the end of the dinner, though she could not yet put a name to it. Now, in the comfortable strangeness of her guest-quarters, she felt as if the mysterious bond had drawn her out of her old world into a new one, rich with danger and promise.

"Whatís the trouble?" she asked.

"It is your cousin," Wolf whispered stiffly, working the muscles of his jaw.

"What of her?"

"She wishes to sleep with me."

"But why not take her?" Adriana asked, in a sudden rage at the girl. "Youíre a soldier. Soldiers always take whatever flesh theyíre offered, and a great deal more besides."

"I cannot, madam," Wolf said mournfully. His lips were trembling. His big hands tugged at his tunic.

"And why not?"

The question hurt him; that was clear in his eyes. But what was the offense?

"Because . . . you. . . ."

His ears were fiery red. He choked on the rest of his sentence and held up his hands in a gesture of hopelessness.

Her anger at Romana died abruptly.

"Such a boy. Come in here," she said gently, taking him by the right hand.

She lit two lamps from his candle. They sent up a fragrance of sweet oil and illuminated the soft wall-paintings of pagan heroes and gods.

"Sit," she said, pointing at a wicker chair, and taking another herself. "Iíve offended you, and I regret it, believe me. Whenever I try to play conversational games with men, I get in trouble. Itís just that the damned girl annoys me to the point of a seizure."

"You sing well," Wolf said gravely, after a silence. "I did not know that you could."

"This room had Galliaís chill on it when I came. I was trying to drive it away."

"Please sing again."

She shrugged, careless with wine, and picked up the lyre.

The melody rolled out of her, caressed the frescoed walls, mingled with the aroma of the lamps. The words were of simple love; the tune spoke of country air sweetened with stone-pine and myrtle, of country roads among olive groves, and ripening wheat laced with red poppies, and a fresh wind from the sea.

"God be praised," Wolf breathed at the end.

In the sudden silence, she remembered an ecstasy of anticipation that had drawn her out of the villa at Nomentum on a spring night; she remembered her child-self darting down the furrows between rows of green wheat, with the fireflies sparkling round her feet, and the coarse kisses of Senator Calvusís boys, who tugged at her clothes while she longed with sudden urgency to be back in the dark house where her mother and grandfather slept.

She thought of Quintus, of her strange mission to Carthage, the too-recent dissolution of her marriage, the triumphant cackle of Flavia on being told the news of her passion for a barbarian, the soulless face and crippled body of the Vandal king looming in the background like a figure on a tapestry.

"I will not deny . . . ," she said, laying her lyre on the table beside her. "It would be false to maintain. . . ."

She was smiling helplessly now, against her will, undermining her own dignity, betraying her own weakness.

"I wish to say . . . ," Wolf began, in an accent thicker than usual, and gulped like an adolescent. "I wish to say . . . that I would have been happy if we could have belonged to one another."

His mouth trembled a little; his cheeks glowed with mortification at the clumsiness of his words. In the melting lamplight she could see the deliberate workings of his jaw-muscles as he watched her with a strange mixture of hunger and dignity. Her heart battered against her breastbone.

"Wolf," she said quietly, "we must be for each other."

"Yes." He nodded gravely. "But there are no witnesses."

"God will witness," she said. "Thereís no notary, either."

"God will notarize. That is how it is said?"

She nodded, rose, and took him by his big hands, softened by the baths and Firmusís manicurists. The palms were warm; the fingers trembled a little. Lightly she laid her cheek against his chest. His strong arms took her in, gathering her into the fatless curves of his body. There was a clean, masculine scent to his hair that reminded her of field-flowers. The statue of Cupid by her bed seemed to smile at her in the fragrant twilight.

Turning, Wolf knelt on the cold floor by the bed, and she knelt beside him. He crossed himself. Adriana covered her eyes with her hands. Wolf whispered an Our Father and began to pray from the heart, in words that seemed to reach her through a sense other than her hearing: We ask you to witness our marriage Yourself, you who are Love, and who love us more than we love each other. If we sin, we ask you to forgive us, because it is not for love of sinning, but for love itself. Amen.

Amen, she murmured.

"We have no ring but the popeís," Wolf said.

"Ah, rings. At Nomentum, we seal a promise with fire," she said, and he nodded.

She pressed her right thumb and forefinger together and passed them through the smoking flame of a bedside lamp.

"By this light, the good gift of God, I will always be yours," she whispered.

"By this light, the good gift of God, I will always be yours," Wolf echoed, passing thumb and forefinger through the flame.

His hands were light on the shoulders of her robe. She raised her arms and he slipped the garment up over her head.

"Let me," she whispered urgently.

He bent down and held his arms out awkwardly while she undid the string at his waist and stripped his tunic away, letting it fall lightly at his heels. He stepped out of his sandals and put his hands around her slender waist. The fingers nearly met. Lifting her like a child, he laid her on the bed and stretched out naked beside her, her head against his shoulder, her belly feeling the pressure of his fine erection like a tree-trunk rising out of flaxen undergrowth.

He took her face between his hands and kissed her on both eyes, her forehead, her mouth.

"Adriana, Adriana," he said again and again, between a groan and a whisper, pressing his lips against her eyes and ears, laying his soft, cool hair against her neck, burying his face between her breasts.

He entered her gravely, his urgency surfacing in staccato gasps. The movement of his slender hips was measured, considerate, as if the rigid immensity below his belly existed for her pleasure and not his own.

She cried out a little, and ran the soles of her feet up along his carpeted calves. She whimpered into the hollow of his neck and pressed her forehead against his cheek. She clung to his wide shoulders and rode his hips until he crested and poured himself into her. The flow seemed endless, as if soldierly self-denial had given him a need past satisfaction. She slept without dreams, in an enveloping presence of muscle and warm dry skin, the presence of maleness that she had missed with a sense of loss so deep that she had hardly been aware of it.

*

She did not recognize her surroundings immediately, but she was conscious of waking to a great joy. She lay for a while with her dark hair spread out over her pillow, looking at the frescoed ceiling, tantalizing herself with the prospect of turning to the yellow-haired god at her side, still sleeping peacefully.

A faint aroma drifted through the room, of sun-warmed roses and distant incense. In the luxurious contentment of the moment, memory and expectation were deliciously mingled. The fragrances were familiar; the sense of perfect peace was new. She had never felt it with Quintus, and it made her think she had never known happiness before, only pleasure.

She got up once to make sure the door was locked against intruding servants, curled up again in the dry warmth of Wolfís body, and listened to his untroubled breathing. A crisp breeze seemed to be blowing the morning light into the room. A solitary thrush sang in the villa garden.

She retrieved her goblet of spiced wine from under the bed and took a tepid mouthful. Wolf woke and looked at her with one eye open, then the other. She passed the goblet to him; he drained it.

She took him by the ears, kissed him on the mouth, and pressed her head against his. His long eyelashes brushed her cheek.

"Again," she murmured, smiling, and he pressed into her, strong as a young horse, his breathing shallow and urgent, choked with pleasure.

She sighed her own pleasure as he rolled to one side of her, and imagined herself once again in the island villa where her adult life had begun: a small, simple white villa open to the sun, with fragrant thickets of laurel, and air that spoke more of the mountains than of the sea; and the male presence that walked beside her in the garden of her imagination was no longer Quintus, but Wolf.

"You could not have learned to make love in the monastery," she whispered, teasing him with a forefinger under the chin.

"I sometimes thought about making love when I was there," he said, and blushed.

"Ah, but you visited the Carthage cat-houses, too, Iíll wager, when you were in the kingís service."

"Only twice, madam, when I was drunk, and the women were both ugly."

He put his hands behind his head and stretched. Complex details sprang into relief on his rib-cage. She touched him, to see the muscles of his belly rise like square bread-loaves under the smooth skin; she traced with her forefinger the grassy trail of wisps descending from his navel.

He turned on his side and laid his head between her shoulder and cheek. It was heavy and sweet-smelling, like a ripe fruit. His breath stirred at soft intervals against her breasts.

"You are an empress," he said gravely.

"An empress in exile," Adriana smiled.

"I wish I had a ripe peach," she said, tousling Wolfís hair. "The best time to eat fruit is early morning, with the birds. Only humans would eat eggs for breakfast and drink wine, which spoils the palate."

"When we get to Africa," Wolf said, turning again to look at his big feet past the end of the bed, "I will buy you an orchard of peaches, and a big bed, too, big as a kitchen garden, suitable for Germans. We will lie there all day and do as we please, until it pleases God and us to get up."

"Itís time to do that," she said regretfully, patting him on the belly, sliding out of bed, and going to the window. Wolf lay with his hands behind his head, his alert blue eyes following her. She stood at the casement and leaned out to inhale the mountain breeze, carrying its clean aroma of balsam-scented trees. She could see into the villa-yard; Cousin Firmus was in the formal garden, strolling around the marble pond, evidently content to be alone. Cousin Gallia commonly slept away the morning.

"If I were that house-cat Faustinus," Adriana thought aloud, "instead of chasing my rodent through the woodwork Iíd wait for him at a hole in the wall. Weíll be leaving the mountains today, going down into the plain of Sybaris. Weíll be in great danger, I think."

She glanced at Wolf. He was sitting on the bed, straddling it entirely with his strong legs. A different enthusiasm had come into his eyes, the battle-lust that was in the blood of Germans.

"Ach, if I had my axe, which is at home . . . ," he said, making a magnificent sweep with his right arm, and a dozen imaginary heads fell to the floor.

"Certainly it would be better to go down fighting, if it came to that," Adriana said, "but with rusty knives and a stiletto?" She tapped her lips with a forefinger. "Maybe Firmus can help us. Heís a collector, and not ungenerous."

She dressed herself, waved off the sleepy maid who waited at the door, and walked to the garden alone. The morning air was still fresh, not yet saturated with summer perfume. Firmusís tidy flower-beds were a riot of July roses, brilliant against the sculptured ilex hedges. Firmus, always cheerful and receptive in the absence of Gallia, greeted Adriana with a smile and a little bow, and walked beside her, his hands clasped behind his back.

"Itís uncommonly quiet," Adriana said, listening to the breeze.

"Usually Romana enjoys the morning with me," Firmus said, as if her absence accounted for the morningís peace, "but today she seems to have slept late."

He listened to Adrianaís hesitant request, and nodded.

"Anything you like, except the armor thatís said to have been Alaricís personal suit. It all just sits there; we might as well get some use out of it."

Returning to her room, she roused Wolf. The two broke their fast in a corner of the villa kitchen and followed their host to a distant part of the house, a whitewashed room with cabinets against the walls and a plain table in the middle of the carpetless floor. Firmus opened one of his displays. The massed instruments of death spoke again of the cold eyes and cold steel of Alaricís blood-drunk men. There were shields, headpieces, spears long and short, blades capable of cutting through a floating feather or striking off the ears of senators; heavy daggers that could split a manís breastbone; clubs that had crushed Roman helmets; terrible northern axes that could take off an arm or a head with small effort, each gleaming blade bearing an engraved record of the heads and limbs it had removed.

"This room," Firmus said, "is the one thing on the farm thatís mine alone. As you see, itís overflowing. Youíll do me a favor to go out heavily armed. Try this."

He selected a shirt of chain-mail, the product of a sophisticated metalworker: very light, formed so perfectly that it collapsed without pressure into an area the width of a boyís back.

"Steel of Britain," Firmus said with satisfaction. "A sword will bounce off these links, and no spear can pierce it, though the point may nick you underneath. But itís light; itíll fit under any disguise you choose. Try it."

Wolf eased himself into the metal shirt.

"A perfect fit, by Vulcan. Is it comfortable?"

"It is not uncomfortable," Wolf said doubtfully, writhing a little.

"Itís yours. Hereís a leather liner to wear under it, if you like. Itís supposed to carry a charge of magic, which neither sword nor spear can penetrate. Take off the chain-mail and lay it on the floor, and Iíll show you something else."

His ears fairly wiggling with pleasure, Firmus held a glittering blade out to Wolf, holding it gingerly by the hilt and point.

"This is the sword that came with it. The blade must be British in workmanship; the steel is far too good to be from anywhere else. Try it on the shirt."

The grip lay well in Wolfís big hand. He tested the point on his thumb, lifted the blade high, and with a quick play of muscle brought it down on the links of the mail shirt. The weapon sprang aside, leaving no mark on the blade or the shining links of steel.

"Take it," Firmus said.

"I am grateful," Wolf said. His eyes were fixed longingly on an excellent axe, gleaming as if it had been polished yesterday. Firmus caught the look. He lifted the axe from its black cloth and put it in Wolfís hands. The blade shone blue in the reflection of Adrianaís tunic. Wolf examined it reverently in several lights. He laid it out on his arm like an infant, and spoke to it caressingly, running his thumb along the razor edge.

"Ach, beautiful thing," he said, as if he had no audience. "It is you who should be made emperor, because you have good sense, and you would look well in a purple cloak."

He held the axe up for Adriana to see, and made it bow like a puppet in his hands.

"You should use it, not coddle it," Firmus asserted. He walked to a corner of the room, fetched a thick staff of oak, and held it out in front of himself.

"Now, strike," he commanded.

"Yah!" The glittering blade made an arc like a shooting star and halved the oak cleanly against the grain. Both pieces clattered to the floor.

"Woden!" Wolf breathed reverently, raising the shining axe-head to the light and examining the runes carved in the metal.

"Whatís the message?" Adriana asked.

"I am not skilled in the Old Tongue. Let me see: Scatter-brain am I named, by a wolf shall I be tamed."

"Ah, something to add to your fund of superstitions," Adriana chided.

"It is called Scatter-brain," Wolf repeated fiercely, and made a lightning slash through the air that threatened the gold tracery on Firmusís sleeve.

For herself, Adriana accepted a light short-sword and a throwing-knife. She bowed her thanks to her cousin and went to her room. A pair of maids dressed her in a tunic of white silk, Galliaís gift, dangerously luxurious for the road. In silence she ate a late snack with Wolf, sitting on hard chairs in the villa kitchen. Wolf, fully armed, laid his axe on the table; Gallia glared at it and coughed. Romana, rumpled and red-eyed, glared at both Wolf and Adriana. The family gathered at the villa gate to bid their guests farewell.

"Dearest Adriana!" Gallia bubbled, "such an adventuress. I do hope you wonít have to dig roots for your supper. Itís so injurious to the fingernails. Oh, Iíve never seen such calm in the face of death!"

"Like the moon on the fountains of Tibur," Adriana smiled, and waved herself away.


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