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Chapter 18

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[Sicily, September 455]

They sat side by side on the western edge of Sicily, watching the sea. They had found a pleasant niche in a hillside, with spring-watered grass. Sheep grazed the slopes above them; the descent to the shore ended in a farmyard. The chatter of farm boys floated up from the beach.

In the coastal towns they had spent furtive evenings at the waterfront, looking for financially pinched fishermen who would risk night voyages for a taste of the bishop of Viboís gold. The gaunt seamen of the Sicilian coast went long distances and took long risks for small sums.

Travel from port to port along the north coast of the island had been safer, and hardly more tedious, than a tramp through the starved hills of the interior. At Drepanum the fugitives had bought provisions and headed south along the shore-road to Lilybaeum, stopping at mid-morning to eat their breakfast of fruit.

A roll of parchment, crushed during its transit from Rome in the satchel of the popeís courier, had lain at the bottom of Adrianaís bundle since Vibo. She took it out and read it again.

Bishop Leo to the Lady Marcella Adriana: The Goths have made Avitus our next sovereign; the Senate in Gaul has ratified the choice. My courier from Toulouse rode two horses to death getting the news to me. The public knows nothing of the elevation, the public post being as it is. If our Adversary knows, he will dismiss it as rumor until the evidence cannot be ignored. Even the demons in hell nourish themselves on hope. A sum of money will reach you at the hands of my Brother in the Faith at Vibo. My intelligence is that Faustinus will be on his way to Africa, to enlist the Vandal kingís active support for his dwindling cause. Pray that the cause will fail. Be careful. Condescend, madam, to remember me in your prayers.

She folded the parchment and tucked it away. The throne was no longer at issue; now she was merely an eccentric noblewoman running from an unprincipled enemy.

"I wonder where he is now?" she mused.

"Faustinus?"

"Yes. Surely he understands that the game has gone against him. The question is when heíll give up chasing the throne and chasing me. A person of ordinary decency would let me go. . . ."

She paused.

"Perhaps Iíve asked you this before. Do you think the king will intervene on his behalf?"

"The king cannot be predicted, Adriana. Faustinus has been allowed to think that he is using the king. But that will continue only so long as the king can use Faustinus." Wolf shrugged. "I would not worry. The king despises the people he uses. When their blood runs hot with triumph, that is the moment of their greatest danger."

Adriana sketched an outline of Sicily, dimly remembered, in the dry earth before her.

"Mylae," she said, stabbing the location with her forefinger. "Drepanum. Lilybaeum. Weíve lived through Sicily. Now the trick is to get out of it alive."

She sighed, watching the sea. Hardly disturbed by the hot faint breeze, it was intensely blue in the mid-morning light, dotted with white agnelli, the little sheep that had sea-foam for wool and the breeze for a shepherd. Farther out, the Mediterranean grew less blue and less real, until it lost all color and melted into a sky-haze that hid everything to the west except the lizard-like outlines of the Aegates islands.

"Why am I still running?" she said. "Itíd be easier to give up."

"It would be unworthy of you, madam," Wolf said severely.

They slept a little, soothed out of consciousness by the moist warmth and salt fragrance of the seaside air. When Adriana woke she was hungry again. She dug among her provisions and brought out a pair of figs. She offered one to Wolf and set her white teeth in the dark pulp of the other, smacked her lips over the flavor, and drank a little cold wine.

"Itís a good place," she said, "without mosquitoes, praise God. I wish I could enjoy it. Iíll feel like a lizard in the mouth of a snake until Iím out of Sicily."

"I am going home," Wolf said warmly, hugging himself. "I feel Carthage coming. I will be able to say ach and yah without apology."

"Weíre ten miles out of Lilybaeum, more or less," Adriana said, reckoning southward with a squint, "and a night and a day, possibly another night, from Carthage, provided we can find a starving fish-captain."

"A fish-captain," Wolf repeated. "We will flash the bishopís gold. In Sicily, the fishermen have hungry eyes."

"We have to hurry," she said, thinking of the African fever as she rose to go. Southward, the brown thread of the coastal road approached Lilybaeum through a lowland where ominous mists would rise and drift after sunset. Adrianaís sadness had returned, the sadness that had come like a recurring ache ever since she had left the Sila. The leaden sensation made her head and feet heavy.

"A long time ago I was fleeing the other way," she said softly. "It was cold; we all had blue lips and runny noses, and I was afraid Iíd never see Africa again. Now Iím almost afraid to see it, afraid of the changes. . . ."

"It is not so different," Wolf said, squeezing her. "You will not be displeased. My father the king will love you. You will be his favorite daughter, and Carthage will belong to you all over again."

She left the place in a spirit of farewell, mentally saluting the sheep on the heights and their shepherd, droning on his bagpipes. The south-bound highway cut through vineyards spotted with dark clumps of olive, no bigger than cabbages in the lonely distance. Wolf was in high spirits, talking enough for ten Germans, and swearing impartially by the Virgin, Woden, Thor, the Twelve Apostles, and the Three Sisters. Adriana envied his optimism. From time to time she had the sensation that she was being watched, that pairs of eyes on the eastern heights were taking note of her movements for the benefit of Faustinus or the king.

They rested again at a pagan shrine, near a spring that gushed out over a white-sand beach. They swam, wary of sharks, ate cheese and figs in the shade of a lonely olive, and napped together in the sea-breeze. Clean after the swim and refreshed by the rest, they doubled their speed down the road to the old Phoenician city.

The seaside lowland was decently prosperous. Frogs croaked in the ditches; cicadas shrilled in the fields. Determined to be optimistic, Adriana sang. Wolf joined in, slapping his belly for time. A passing shepherd, grinning, took up the tune on his bagpipe. Goats in the fields pricked up their ears and sneezed.

The sky was burning low when the pair arrived at the city on its fertile plain, where grapevines glowed against the municipal wall.

They approached the gate.

"God help us, thereís an officer on duty in this backwater," Adriana complained wearily. "If we canít get past him, weíre dead. Itís that simple."

A squat customs-officer dozed with one eye open, against the shadowed arch of the cityís north gate. He opened his other eye.

"Declare, please."

"Our small weapons and the clothes on our backs," Adriana answered, dreading that she would be recognized.

"And a little money," the officer added with friendly irony, as if acknowledging their poverty. "Lilybaeum will be grateful for what you can spare. Enter in the name of God. The church is just past the intersection of decumanus and cardo, in case you canít afford the inns."

"We are grateful."

"An honest man?" Wolf inquired, as they hurried past the gate.

"One indifferent to Faustinus and responsive to beauty, more likely," Adriana said, greatly relieved. "Iíd rather believe it was my beauty than yours."

She counted the coins in her purse.

"We can afford to rest in an inn and stay clear of the bishop, who may be our enemyís friend," she said.

Whatever else they might have inflicted on it, the Vandals had not depopulated the little city. The streets were full of people; getting lost would be easy. The crowd was grim-faced but harmless: troops of dirty boys tormenting cartersí mules; knots of old men mumbling in frail voices; women hurling vegetables at stray dogs and cats; beggars exhibiting their sores to anyone whose eye they could catch. Apparently the Germans had burned and pillaged indifferently, perhaps in their eagerness to lay hands on the larger spoils of Drepanum to the north. Only the great houses toward the harbor were damaged by fire.

"The king seems to have ignored these people," Adriana remarked.

"It is by design," Wolf said, shaking his head. "They are being allowed to recover themselves since the last sack. My father calls it Ďletting the sheepís wool grow.í Soon the Ďshepherdsí will come and harvest the wool."

"Iím filthy," Adriana said, catching sight of a squat building with large windows in its upper faÁade. "So are you, barbarian. If Iím to die in the next day or two, Iíd like to die clean."

She counted out a few copper bits into his open palm, and an equal number of coppers for herself. They parted company to relax in the civic baths of Lilybaeum. Refreshed and a little hungry, she met Wolf in the bathhouse vestibule and went out to search for an inn. Each prospect seemed more poisonous than the last. She motioned Wolf through a door in the neighborhood of the forum.

"Donít hope for much," she cautioned. "Chances are they know nothing except how to charge."

They took a table in a dark corner of the inn and sat watching the other patrons. The host pottered in the shadows. His casualness irritated Adriana; it had the savor of a deliberate affront.

"There you see a typically civilized Roman innkeeper," she said fiercely. "He scrupulously avoids yawning and shuffling, and never allows the flies to gather on his head. He runs from table to table like the nimble stag; he leaps like a trout in a pool. His speech is bright and graceful. He gives change without being asked. One never needs to hammer the table to attract his attention. His memory is exhaustive; his honor is rigorous."

The innkeeper came at last and made his lowest bow: the kind of bow that would appear, under another name, in the bill. He yawned and leaned down, presenting his ear to Wolf.

"You will give us," Adriana said, "the best room in your inn, and the best supper that can be obtained in Lilybaeum."

"We have veal, Most Noble, in an exquisite sauce."

"Bring the veal. Bring the wine at once. And the bed?"

"It is assured, Most Noble," the innkeeper said unctuously.

They waited. A cup of red wine arrived. The veal did not follow. Adriana took a sip of wine. It was like rainwater flavored with wormwood. She was in a rising rage at the menu, the innkeeper, the guests. She waved for service. The innkeeper came at his leisure.

"This is the house-wine? I am sorry, it is poisonous," she said.

"Drink it," the innkeeper urged sweetly. "Itís good for you. If God Himself does not send you death, you may drink anything."

"I offer it to you," Adriana said with a benevolent smile. "The Blessed Word urges us to share our benefits."

The innkeeper bowed and removed the goblet. He did not return.

"Perhaps he drank it and died?" Wolf asked earnestly.

Eventually the innkeeper brought white wine and two shriveled scraps of anatomy on a plate, swimming in grease.

Adriana examined the offering, and sniffed it.

"This is not veal," she said, recognizing the texture. "It is mule. Moreover, it is rotten."

"Rottenness is a matter of opinion, madam," the innkeeper said. "If everyone had the same opinion of rottenness, what a dull world this would be."

"Nevertheless."

The innkeeper raised appealing eyes to heaven, spread out his long fingers, and heaved his round shoulders. "What can I do? I did not create rottenness. It is in the world since Adam and Eve. We are all victims."

He slouched away, muttering strong words about selfishness and ingratitude.

Adriana offered greens to Wolf and ate some herself, soft and clammy as cold boiled turnip-tops, apparently dressed with the remains of the mule. She drank the rest of her wine and made a face. The innkeeperís infested quarters upstairs, she speculated, were by no means full for the night; it was a buyerís market.

"The beds will have fleas," she said, wiping her chin. "We shouldnít be in a hurry to sleep. Letís take the night air and try again for a decent place to lie down awhile before we go to the harbor."

She rose to leave; the innkeeper materialized instantly.

"The mule," she said, "which you represented as veal: you have a duty to take it off the bill. Will you now have the kindness to take it off?"

"Devil!" the innkeeper hissed, turning purple. He seized his stylus and scratched twenty coppers from the total on his tablet.

She pressed a small silver coin into the innkeeperís moist palm, and said sweetly, "This hole is fit only for polecats and swine, of whom you are one or both."

"There is an additional charge . . . ," the innkeeper began, sensing that he had lost a night-guest.

"For the insects, perhaps?" Adriana said, and walked out into the street, followed by a rolling storm of curses.

The heat of the day had blown out to sea. The streets were full of plain people escaping the closeness of their tenements. Vendors were still abroad; a seductive odor of roasted chestnuts passed under Adrianaís nose. She bought some and shared them with Wolf. Around the forum, near the waterfront, fashionable Lilybaeum was taking the air in whatever finery it had managed to preserve from the Vandals. Litters moved in a stately promenade, tinted with the changing crimson and gold of the western sky. In an hour, the waterfront lights would kindle the crescent of the harbor and merge with the early stars. There was a breath of late-summer flowers, and a touch of the smell of the sea.

Plain people had gathered near the forum entrance, where a frantic family of street musicians blew on double-flutes, beat little drums, clashed cymbals, and made the air hideous with songs in bastard Greek. Children slithered among the legs of pedestrians, looking for purses to snatch. They scored with a woman who cursed in a high, whistling voice as she rummaged in her garments for the missing pouch. The crowd seemed anxious, Vandal-ready, mentally scanning the horizon for red sails against the darkening sky.

The street musicians danced. A young man sang as if he had a toothache. There were somersaults, and faces meant to be comic. An old woman with a red nose tortured a double-flute. Dirty boys capered like shadows at the edge of the performance, aping the musiciansí gestures. An evil-eyed adolescent shot dried beans through a reed at the old womanís red nose. At sunset the players cavorted in a crimson haze. Lines of gold rippled on the roofs above the dead stone rectangles of the forum. Down the darkening streets, lamps began to glow in the upper stories of the tenements.

There was something familiar, Adriana thought, about a lean, youngish man in a military paludamentum, standing with his back toward her.

The musicians were suddenly silent. The lean man turned and faced Adriana with a studied smile that never creased the corners of the eyes, wide-set pale eyes, expressionless as a field of snow.

*

At a signal from Faustinus, a Gothic soldier emerged from the shadow of a tenement and crept up on Wolf from the side. Before Adriana could shout a warning, Wolf had struck the Goth in the mouth with the flat of his axe, knocking him down and scattering his teeth.

Instantly the crowd became a mob, screaming, cowering. A dozen mercenaries converged on the spot and pushed against the human tangle with their short-swords drawn. The injured Goth flopped about like a dying rabbit, pressing bloody hands to his mouth. Grim plebeians trampled him. One of Faustinusís men cleared a path with the flat of his short-sword and bore in on Adriana; his mocking eyes told her that he expected an effortless triumph. She dropped her bundle of provisions; her long knife was out, poised in her right hand.

The soldier whipped at her wrist with his short-sword and howled in astonishment at the gash she carved in his arm. Angrily he lunged at her with the clumsiness of overconfidence, grazing her shoulder and ripping her tunic in an ill-aimed pass at her chest. He tripped headlong over the foot that she put in front of him; his open mouth froze around a curse as she drove her blade into his rib-cage, and he wilted into a sudden puddle of blood.

She looked about wildly for Wolf. The crowd milled against Faustinus, hemming him in. Over their heads, she saw Wolf grappling with an enormous Goth. He disengaged himself and sliced through the manís leather shirt with a swift pass of his axe. The Goth dropped like lead.

"Wolf!" she bellowed. He followed her voice, scattering the crowd like poultry. She ducked through the outer ranks of bodies and headed toward the waterfront. Shouts pursued her above the general uproar. The harbor! she gasped, and they ran, following their instincts, dodging pedestrians and beasts, grateful that the dusk was nearly dark. A faint outcry reached them; Adriana looked back once, to see dim shapes pouring down the street after her, but the milling crowd had slowed Faustinusís men enough to give her a serious advantage.

The street through the waterfront slum was a small Subura, a torchlit bedlam. Dodging mule-carts, Adriana led the way down the thoroughfare, over cabbage-leaves, fishheads, broken crockery, and dung-plastered straw that formed a second pavement above the underlying stones. She was grateful for the chaos; it would slow her pursuers. Reflexively she felt for her knife and remembered that she had left it in the chest of Faustinusís mercenary.

Keeping her eye on the middle distance, she tripped over a beggar and fell, bruising her knees and elbows against the pavement. The beggar cursed her in a deep voice. Wolf lifted her to her feet. The pain crippled her momentarily. She groaned, pressing her kneecaps with her hands until she could bear the prospect of running again.

Her energy deserted her after the fall. The faster she tried to move, the slower and more labored her steps became, held back by drifts of garbage washed together with slops and urine. Bruised and shaken, sweating like an overdriven horse, she imagined how pleasant it would be to lie down in the garbage and go to sleep. She struggled to organize her thoughts. The top of her head felt disconnected from the bottom.

"We must find a willing fisherman, or a hiding place," she said with effort, hoping against all likelihood.

She hurried past the waterfront drinking-places, uncertain which one to enter. The stench and dirt were uniform from place to place. Down-street, a pair of red-capped sailors turned into an alley with a rolling swagger.

"There, maybe," she said to Wolf, and pursued her impulse, following the sailors.

She regretted the decision as soon as she had rounded the corner. Wolf froze in mid-stride with a gasp in his windpipe, as if a line of hostile steel had suddenly threatened his belly. At the head of the street, leather-shirted mercenaries walked toward the fugitives, led by a pair of ice-blue eyes.

Paralyzed, Adriana watched Faustinus move toward her, and the pavement seemed to shift under her feet. The Goth-faces waxed and waned; the armored bodies dissolved in a sudden blur of tears without emotion. In her exhausted imagination she heard hoofs pounding on dry earth, the groaning of military carts, the heavy breathing of horses, the terse speech of men on the hunt, the low wail of the wind, the distant baying of hounds.

Wolf had his axe out of his belt. He spoke to it urgently and fingered its razor edge. Adriana shook her head to clear it, and abruptly her mind was like a sea of cold fire.

"No," she said, laying a hand on his wrist, "use your brain. Youíre a son of the king."

He put the weapon away and stood rigidly obedient, his jaw-muscles working.

"In a day or two youíll see the devilís house divided against itself," Adriana said.

She spoke without reflection; the words, as they came from her own lips, astonished her.

"What shall I do if the Worm speaks to me?" Wolf asked, grinding his syllables.

"Tell him the truth. I know how Faustinusís mind works. Whatever you tell him, heíll assume itís a lie. Therefore, tell him the truth. He wonít know what to do with it, any more than a pig knows what to do with perfume."

She squeezed his arm. "One caution: make no mention of your father. On no account tell him that youíre Geisericís son."

"But why? The king is the only one who can keep us alive."

"Do as I say," Adriana hissed.

The distance closed between pursuers and fugitives. Faustinus measured his stride for theatric effect. His clothing had plainly been chosen to create an impression of action and energy: a military cloak, a felt hat, a short-sword with a plain hilt and a leather scabbard. He stopped, stroked his chin, and looked at Adriana, his lips distorted in a triumphant smirk.

"Thereíll be no resistance, Gaius," Adriana said in a clear voice. "Iím prepared to do as you please. May one ask why weíve had the good fortune to meet you in this backwater?"

"Itís none of your business, Adriana," Faustinus answered, "but because Iím good-natured, Iíll satisfy your curiosity. Please donít imagine for a moment that Iíve given up my mission. I consider Lilybaeum a beachhead. Many of my allies are here, and Iím close to Carthage. I might have missed the pleasure of your company, but the keeper of the north gate was kind enough to announce your arrival."

Faustinus smiled complacently. Adriana glanced at his escort: blank mercenary-faces, the faces of men who were damned and knew it, and who intended to do as much evil as conveniently possible before the devil dragged them into the Pit at last. In their soulless eyes she saw Wolfís end, and her own.

Speak to his vanity, the voice of Avitus said, as clearly as if her old friend had been standing at her elbow. Once more her words seemed to take on a life of their own, addressing the adolescent in Faustinus, with its proud aversion to being anticipated.

Adriana tilted her head and returned Faustinusís smile.

"You have two basic options, as I see them," she said. "You can kill us on the spot, or you can drag us back to Rome. Either way, youíll have to reckon with the pope and every bishop in southern Italy, saying nothing of the new emperor."

Faustinusís eyes brightened. "But there are other options, Adriana. I may as well turn a profit. You and your German will make handsome gifts for the king."

God be thanked, she exulted silently.

Faustinus turned and spoke to Wolf.

"Such a pretty barbarian," he said scornfully. "A statue with a bearded lady-face. Whatís your nation, barbarian?"

"I am of the Asding Vandals," Wolf said quietly.

"A liar in any case," Faustinus smiled. "Iím a military man, not easily deceived. Your weapons are Visigothic."

A Gothic mercenary smiled impudently at Wolf. Bits of garlic were stuck between his strong white teeth.

"Offer me the handle of that axe," Faustinus barked, pointing at Scatter-brain. Adriana watched Wolfís face, knowing well the effort of self-control that it cost him to surrender the weapon.

Faustinus hefted the polished instrument of death, made a lazy pass through the salt air, and scowled at the blade.

"This isnít a Vandal weapon," he smiled at last. "Youíre not a good liar. This axe is British work, done for the Visigoths. The same," he pointed, "is true of that knife at your waist. Take off your belt and offer it to me."

The belt and knife passed into Faustinusís hands. He drew the knife, examined the hilt and the blade, and shook his head, chuckling.

"This is Visigothic, too," he said, glancing at Wolfís upper body. "You know, donít you, that the Vandals tattoo their young? Where are your clan marks? I think you arenít even a Visigoth. At Carthage theyíll be able to enlighten my ignorance."

The streetside beggars muttered to one another and shook their heads as Wolf and Adriana moved away in the circle of Faustinusís men. From where she walked, Adriana could see the dark expanse of the waterfront, studded with points of light, and the cityís harbor-gate, the door that was to have opened on her freedom.

She was calm as the night sea, her mind numbering and weighing her prospects like merchandise in a market-stall. The balance of the game with Faustinus had become clear in the insight of a moment. Now all that remained was to keep a steady eye on the horizon of her life, and wait for the division of the devilís house.

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