'

'

Chapter 19

[Home] [Previous] [Next]

[North Africa, September 455]

All night long there was a sough of wind, leaving a film of sea-salt on Adriana’s cheeks and forehead. Guarded by two Germans, wrapped in a huge cloak, she slept on deck beside Wolf in a pile of sailcloth. Her dreams were a colorful tangle that made no sense, separately or together. She rode a dream-horse for much of the night, galloping ahead of a party of phantom hunters, kicking dirt into their faces, passing up the hounds, thundering down green pastures, soaring over stone fences like a small bird mounted on the back of a large one.

At dawn, Faustinus’s rowers and deck-hands were already at their posts, straining towards Africa. Adriana left her improvised bed and stood at the ship’s rail, watching the sky turn a creamy rose at the edge of the sea. The late stars disappeared prudently, one by one, like guests leaving a party at daybreak. The captain and Faustinus were at the helm together, exchanging confidences.

The sun rose; Adriana and Wolf broke their fast with the seamen, sharing their hard biscuits and sour wine. There was little conversation. Faustinus spoke briefly in street-Latin to some of the crew and in bad Greek to the rest. The rowers and deck-hands were a grim lot, seldom swearing or spitting, never joking or singing. Faustinus had beaten the joy out of them.

Given the liberty of the poop-deck, Adriana propped herself against the bulwark, feeling the forward surge of the vessel beneath her, listening to the fall of water from the massed oars into the sea, like a shower of pearls into a basin of blue marble. Faustinus stood nearby. His eyes were pale-bright with triumph whenever he turned to her; clearly he found the flavor of her predicament delicious. But she was serene, as if she were looking into Faustinus’s tormented world from a place of safety. Tempted now and then to speculate about her future, she rejected the temptation, refusing to spoil her interval of peace by worrying about its length. Quite possibly she was enjoying the last adventure of her life. She had an intuitive certainty, however, that it would not be the last.

The crossing to Carthage had been brisk; the dromon rolled westward on an untroubled sea, its mainsail bellying with a momentous flap at an occasional shift in the wind. In the afternoon Adriana had her first sight of Africa, a chain of low mountains at a great distance, like a disturbance of the water. An hour later she could make out a black line of holm-oaks along a strip of beach at the end of Cape Pulchrum. Her imagination rushed ahead of her eyes to the African coast as she remembered it, a succession of white beaches and low headlands, cradling the Bay of Carthage that vibrated in a soft, elusive blue.

The sea-wall was her first sight of the city. In time she saw the architectural detail of the great fortress-palace of the Roman proconsuls, a mass of stone growing out of the Byrsa, the highest point in the metropolis. The cruel brown hulk seemed to beckon her back to childhood, the place where her father had governed the province for a year and had always been a welcome guest.

A shore-breeze filled the sails of the dromon and sped it along the sea-wall. The harbor appeared, its little white-capped waves breaking against the solid safety of the piers. The ship plowed a channel through floating trash: rotten fruit, dead fish, bits of wood and basket-work, vegetables that had rolled off the wharves. Blinking in the hot sun, Wolf stood next to Adriana, under the scornful eye of Faustinus.

"The blessed Fatherland!" Wolf said in a low voice, his eyes shining. "We are home, Adriana. I may now say ach and yah without embarrassment."

"Be quiet!" Faustinus ordered, for no apparent reason.

"We are home, Adriana," Wolf whispered again, defiantly. "Do not worry. In certain things, one may rely on the king."

Gliding through a forest of masts, the dromon eased up to the quay like a huge nesting bird, to an accompaniment of shouts and clanking chains. Numb, Adriana walked the gangplank. The fall of her boots sounded to her like hammer-strokes, nailing her into a box. Annoyed to discover that she would be led to the palace in chains, she submitted her wrists to a pair of Faustinus’s mercenaries. The procession to the Byrsa was led by Faustinus himself in a handsome litter, with two footmen clearing the way. Behind him, on foot, were Adriana, Wolf, and their escort of soldiers, unnecessarily numerous, their short spears at the ready and their armor glinting in the sun.

Carthage was a hot rush of color and noise, filth and stench, far more intense than anything Adriana remembered from childhood. Devastating odors assaulted her, and the noise of humans screaming in Latin, Greek, German, Punic, Hebrew, Berber, Egyptian, Arabic. In a shambles of fruit-crates, amphoras, baskets, and bales of merchandise, fat merchants sat cross-legged on rugs, old men shot dice against whitewashed walls, water-carriers roared for the right-of-way. A philosophical elephant contentedly swung a hind leg; another elephant urinated enormously, like a broken aqueduct. Children made faces and stole fruit; a naked Berber saint gibbered to the accompaniment of a copper bell; desert men added their characteristic smell to the odors of camels, whores, rotting vegetables, dung, and incense.

There were Vandal soldiers everywhere, long blond boys full of noonday wine. By twos and threes they swaggered along the streets, peeking into the bosoms of young women, kissing their hands to old ones, sometimes breaking into a clumsy dance-step, from whatever passed among Germans for high spirits.

In the hilltop neighborhood of the palace that now belonged to Geiseric, Faustinus’s footmen cleared a path for the procession, halving the crowd of beggars and street-vendors and pushing them against the walls on either side of the street. The portcullis of the palace gate went up with a muted screech. Both sides of the entrance were lined with German guards, uniformed in magenta tunics like their counterparts on the Palatine, but with incongruous yellow mustaches dangling below their chins. Faustinus’s head-footman approached the captain, a giant in a crested helmet. There was an urgent conversation, a nodding of heads. Faustinus’s fists were clenched; plainly he was annoyed at the casualness of his reception.

The guard-captain turned abruptly, saluted, and stepped up to Wolf. The two men embraced, but did not kiss each other in the Roman fashion. Faustinus blinked twice. What was the meaning of the gesture? Perhaps it was a case of German insolence, a deliberate offense to Roman dignity.

The captain made a signal; a portly usher appeared, hurried away, and came back with a pair of eunuchs. Wolf turned wordlessly to Adriana. Rely on me, his expression said. The captain of the guard took his arm; the two men walked way, gesturing with their free hands and talking in a rush of German consonants that sounded like a prelude to mayhem.

Adriana’s spirit glowed; she gave silent thanks that Wolf had been delivered into safety. Her own well-being mattered little by comparison. She was sure that Wolf would speak to the king on her behalf. What might the response be? The barbarian brain was unpredictable; she refused to try to predict it.

She turned to Faustinus, raised her eyebrows, and smiled. His confusion was absolute, she was sure. The portly usher, waving a wand, was trying to capture his attention. Smiling woodenly, Faustinus entered the palace with the little round man, leaving Adriana alone with the eunuchs.

"Come, come," one of them said in the Greek-inflected Latin of the East, and she followed obediently.

In the cavernous interior of the palace-fortress, the temperature was the same in all seasons, in winter comfortably warm, in summer quite cool. The air was heavy with incense. Adriana passed down corridors dimly remembered; the frescoed walls seemed to whisper to her, of all they had suffered at the hands of strangers during her absence. The colors had dimmed in the vaults of the ceilings, perhaps from the Vandals’ former habit of building bonfires indoors. The glass mosaics were festooned with cobwebs, and the marbles were cracked by abuse and dulled by neglect. But the building had lost little of the grandeur that had awed her in childhood.

It appeared that she would not be put in a cell. The eunuchs conducted her to an apartment high in the palace, in a quarter that she remembered only dimly. The comparative unfamiliarity was a gift; there would be few voices and visions from the past. The sitting-room was old-fashioned: mellow gold, pale aquamarine, russet. The wall-frescoes were of nymphs, not saints.

Four maids waited in the shadows. They bowed. The eunuchs delivered Adriana into their care, and left with a hush of silk slippers on marble.

"I beg your pardon," Adriana said to the head-maid in careful Latin, "I am a prisoner here, but would it be possible for me to have time alone, for a nap, perhaps?"

"Certainly, madam," the woman replied in a thick Greek accent. The maids left the room in single file, their faces expressionless.

Adriana closed the door behind them, and went to her east window. It presented a consoling view of a small garden, one story down, and a spectacular view of the city.

She stared hard at the garden, making a weary effort to recall it. Had she played there as a child? Possibly; a memory seemed to linger in the flower-beds, where the gorgeous roses of Carthage bloomed white, pink, yellow, crimson, in every month of the year. Her attention was arrested by a grate of iron over a ground-level opening in a corner of the wall. She remembered at last what was distinctive about the little garden: it stood next to the palace prison.

She lay down on her couch and slept immediately. The golden tone of a little bell woke her. She sat up in confusion. The head maid was hovering over her anxiously.

"Is it time to prepare for supper, madam?" the heavy Greek accent said, more a statement than a question.

Obediently, Adriana rose. The head-maid conducted her to a small bath, exquisitely appointed and perfumed. Two female attendants floated about like spirits in the steamy fragrance. The warmth of the caldarium nearly put her asleep; the ensuing cold-plunge shocked her awake.

In a cluster of worried-looking maids, half-servant and half-jailor, she walked back to the attiring room of her apartment. Grimly cordial manicurists improved her fingers and toes. A maid applied unguents to her face. Another tugged briskly at her hair. An Ethiopian eunuch stood behind the large mirror, speculatively adjusting it from time to time in the light of several lamps.

"The domina is beautiful to see," the hairdresser said meditatively, in decent Latin, "with such delicious skin. It is wonderful."

The girl had a kind of astonished pleasure in her voice; the compliment was not routine.

"You’re very flattering," Adriana said, laughing softly.

"I only say what is true, madam. I hope that is not flattery."

The girl’s praise soothed her; her dread of the evening began to fade. A maid with a scent-bottle applied touches of Indian balsam behind Adriana’s ears. Another darkened her eyebrows and eyelashes. A eunuch hurried into the room with a long-sleeved silk tunic and a rose-colored mantle, carrying them with great care, as if they were fragile. Adriana stood; the maids clothed her expertly. When the hairdresser had smoothed her headdress for the last time, the Greek-spoken head-maid stood before her with an approving smile.

"Permit this liberty, madam." The woman laid a light hand on her shoulder. "I’m authorized to tell you, on behalf of your husband, that His Majesty King Geiseric has arranged everything in a way that will satisfy you, and that you’re to enjoy his table as his guest, not his prisoner."

"My husband?" Adriana said, alarmed in spite of the soothing words.

"He is called ‘Wolf,’ I believe."

Her spirits soared.

"Thank you," she said. "Thank you for everything."

The maids bowed and floated away.

Alone for the moment, Adriana went to her south window. For hundreds of yards down the slope of the Byrsa, the ascent to the palace was choked with litters and sedan chairs. She imagined the chaos in the palace portico: liveried bearers and attendants crushing one another, conveyances disgorging their enormous German occupants into the torchlight, ushers bellowing for a path into the soft light of the vestibule.

"Come, madam," a sexless voice said, penetrating her reverie.

Her eunuchs stood at her door, beaming cordially. She walked between them down one lamplit corridor after another. Her mind was an agreeable void. If the Greek maid’s reassuring words were true, she was safe. If they were false, she would perhaps be minced and sauced like a fish, and served to the German court as an appetizer.

*

The eunuchs dropped behind her, assuming the role of attendants, and Adriana entered the former proconsul’s banquet-hall, now the Vandal king’s. At the sudden thought that Quintus might be present, she caught her breath and resisted a vague impulse to search the room with her eyes. One of her eunuchs touched her on the elbow and inclined his head toward the king’s head-usher, who had called her name. The two eunuchs swept her forward; the Greek head-maid’s reassuring words echoed in her mind. Quintus’s apparent absence simplified the evening. She looked forward to a good, waterless draft of the king’s wine, which would allow her to drift amiably through the banquet, welcoming whatever Geiseric’s favorite bastard might have arranged for her.

Women and men sat separately in the presence of the King of Terrors. Adriana moved in a procession of immense, muscular females, heavy with gold and jewels, stopping now and then to examine themselves publicly, to be sure that all their trinkets, earrings, finger-rings, triple-fold necklaces, armlets, and brooches were in place. German women in evening dress seemed even larger than their enormous men. They reminded Adriana of huge blond pea-hens.

Greek ushers conducted her to a seat near the steps that led to Geiseric’s high table, under its array of scarlet-silk banners. She adjusted herself to the novelty of attending a state banquet with unwashed feet. She would have to eat sitting; the Germans were not yet civilized enough to lie down at an evening meal. Summoning her courage, she turned and nodded to her neighbors, a pair of comfortable German presences, both at least a head taller than Adriana. They returned her silent greeting with big smiles.

The response fortified her optimism; in Geiseric’s mysterious providence there might be a future for her after all. She glanced around the hall, eager to see Wolf, certain that his word had secured her a seat at the king’s banquet instead of a slave-cell. He was not to be seen. Surely he would appear at the proper time.

With a start of alarm Adriana saw Faustinus take his place behind a chair at the king’s table: ambassador from the court of Satan, she thought, with the marble head that had never seemed to belong to the athletic body, the inhuman blue eyes focused in an imitation of candor and serenity but expressing something quite different, as hell was different from heaven, though there were misleading resemblances. He was stylishly dressed in green silk, his hair perfectly groomed, making a soft cloud around his soulless face. His eyes roamed over the guests. He seemed to be sniffing each of the large blond court-women from a distance, balancing the desirability of a conquest against the probable degree of effort.

He noticed Adriana and paused, as if he had heard a distant growl of thunder. She nodded pleasantly. Her pulse drummed in her temples. Faustinus’s upper lip spread in an artificial smile, but the cold confidence had left his eyes for the moment, and he clenched his fists. Plainly he had expected to see her among the dancing-girls.

She smiled again at her neighbors. They smiled back, showing strong teeth.

"May I speak Latin?" she asked the woman at her left, the smaller of the two.

"No; no Latin," the great creature shrugged, her palms out.

She smiled apologetically; Adriana coughed a little.

The woman at her right leaned toward her like a collapsing tower and said, in a bosomy voice, "You speak Latin?"

"It is my tongue," Adriana replied, returning the woman’s smile.

"I will translate," the woman announced authoritatively, and arranged herself to speak into Adriana’s ear.

A trumpet-note pierced the buzz of voices; in unison the guests dropped to their knees. A human Form entered the hall, an immense pointed head on a lame body, wearing a scarlet robe. The silence of the guests was absolute.

Brought down by his lame left leg, Geiseric was not much taller than a boy of twelve. His massive hands dangled below his knees. His astoundingly ugly head, with a pair of pale eyes and a slit-mouth under a conical red thatch, was thrown forward above his barrel chest, making his long face seem both inquisitive and moronic. At first glance he resembled a monster kept by an Oriental prince for sport, but his eyes were alive with intelligence, purpose, curiosity, and malice: the legendary colorless eyes, paler than Faustinus’s, that could shrivel a field of wheat and make cows cast their offspring.

The King of Terrors eased himself into his high-backed chair, like a thick-bodied red spider at the center of a web. On the wall behind him hung his shield and broadsword, never used, but emphatic in their message of authority. Geiseric’s legitimate sons, mild-faced men with more than a little of Wolf in their eyes, were seated at both ends of the table.

The king’s immediate neighbors were hardly handsomer than the king. At Geiseric’s right hand sat Vadomar, the Arian bishop of Carthage; at his left, a haggard man whom Adriana did not recognize, presumably the king’s prime minister. The bishop was lean as a wisp of smoke, with huge bony hands like hairy starfish. The prime minister had a bald head at the end of a vulture’s neck, and a dragging lid over one eye. The ensemble gave the impression of an ostrich that had met with an accident.

The guests took their seats. Bishop Vadomar spoke a few words of blessing; the moist consonants of Adriana’s translator pattered against her ear. The evening’s entertainments began. A Berber in scarlet livery brought in a yearling bear on a chain, dragging its paws on the floor and growling. The bear stood on its hind legs in the open space before Geiseric’s table, and begged like a dog.

"Ach!" the king said, in a voice startlingly like Wolf’s, "I am in the mood for a bear-dance."

He picked up a plate of appetizers and threw them at the bear.

"Eat those, darling," he said. "A hungry bear will not dance. I want you to dance like a princess."

The bear cleaned the collops of meat off the floor, stood on her hind legs, and danced with spirit, roaring. The king beat time with a goblet against the edge of his table. The German nobles applauded. Geiseric’s pale eyes had a look of cold amusement; his nostrils dilated from time to time like a pair of gills, as if he were excited by an imaginary smell of blood.

"Come here, darling," the king said, beckoning to the bear and throwing a fish at her. "You are truly a princess."

The bear roared her gratitude. The king’s face was monstrous with merriment, the smirk of a crocodile.

He motioned to Bishop Vadomar. "Kiss the princess, Your Beatitude. Let her know that God loves her."

The bishop stiffened; his parchment face turned the color of ripe grain. Setting his long jaw, he descended from the high table with great dignity and gathered the bear in his arms. The bear returned the embrace. The bishop’s eyes grew large; he made strangling noises. The court guffawed.

Apparently still hungry, the bear danced voluntarily. The courtiers roared approval and banged their goblets on their tables. A handsome ape in uniform appeared and did somersaults on the bear’s head and neck.

"Ach, it is humorous, yes?" Adriana’s neighbor said. "Our king knows how to humor us."

Indeed, the monarch seemed to function as his own jester, warming the guests. The humor was crude and disorderly, but Adriana suspected that it moved toward a climax of some sort, that the King of Terrors was gathering the apparently random threads of the evening’s entertainments into a skein. Wolf’s absence seemed odd, but she doubted that it represented a threat. What was the reason? She agreed with herself to wait for it patiently.

The king’s cuisine was bland and heavy, an assortment of greasy appetizers followed by greasy animals and birds. At least twenty dishes were served in quick succession, not counting the sweets: duck with a pasty white dressing, pork in a vinegarish sweet-sauce, buttered eels and snails, roebuck suppurating fat, monstrous pieces of mutton, chickens basted with a kind of bland pomade that the Germans enjoyed, game with cold cream, fish with cosmetics, livers, puddings, vegetables, eggs, salads, carried by a stream of Berber slaves who deluged the tables, the walls, and the guests with rose-water. Mountains of grapes dwindled; empty flagons accumulated on the floor. Dogs wandered among the tables, politely inquiring after scraps.

The dinner-music had the same reckless air as the king’s introductory caprices. A second bear, standing on its hind legs, banged a tambourine with a forepaw. An ancient warrior played the harp and sang mournfully through his white mustaches in a voice as deep as a lion’s. A dressed-up monkey danced solemnly to the clatter of its own castanets. All during the meal, the king was a model of tipsy affability; nothing could be inferred from his grotesque face, twisted in a smile. Adriana noticed that the Arian bishop’s brow had darkened, and that he glanced at Faustinus now and then with cruel, half-closed eyes. At the king’s other elbow, the prime minister turned restlessly to the bishop from time to time, his fingers nervously tapping the table in front of him. Clearly, something was in the wind.

At a signal from Geiseric, torch-bearers in scarlet silk appeared out of the shadows and stood in a ring around the gaming-space below the king’s table, like the floor of a miniature amphitheater. The audience seemed to know what would follow; the mood of the evening shifted toward solemnity.

Geiseric rose from his high chair.

"Friends," he said, raising his enormous hands, "it is time to honor the Fathers."

Three pipers, piping furiously, entered the gaming-space, followed by twelve young warriors in white cloaks and helmets decorated with the tail-feathers of the black eagle. The warriors stood in a semicircle, lowered the tips of their swords in salute to Geiseric, and snapped to attention as their Sword-King entered the torchlight. He wore a red cloak and a helmet topped with a white wolf’s-head, the upper jaw framing his face with the astounding effect of a monster vomiting an angel.

For a moment Adriana did not recognize him in the glare of the torches. Then Wolf’s familiar profile showed as he turned to salute Geiseric. He turned again and saluted Adriana, kissing the hilt of his sword. The crowd murmured; Adriana felt her cheeks flush as scarlet as the Sword-King’s robe.

"His Majesty’s ‘nephew’ has noticed you, madam," Adriana’s translator said, beaming.

The Sword-King and his warriors tossed their robes and helmets into the hands of Berbers waiting in the shadows. They were to perform semi-nude, after the manner of the Fathers. The young men closed around Wolf in a circle, with uplifted swords. Wolf gave a hand-sign; the pipers sent out a ribbon of cool melody, passing the tune from lip to lip. The warriors danced briskly, in inner and outer circles, exchanging formal sword-strokes. Whirling among them, the Sword-King received and gave strokes according to the rules of the dance.

The shining metal passed dangerously close to the dancers’ nipples and ears. The pace increased; the pipers were red. Wolf’s eyes took on their berserk glaze as he leaped and slashed, breathing hard through his nose, his lips set in a rigid line. His performance was swift and graceful as a leopard’s charge; the audience leaned forward, seeing a half-dozen Roman legionaries collapse under the lightning passes of his blade.

The dance ended suddenly with a unison shout. The circled youths crouched, lowered their swords to the floor, and plaited them in the form of a shield. The Sword-King leaped lightly onto the platform of blades, and the warriors stood, raising Wolf to the level of their shoulders. He bowed to Geiseric, the male guests, the female guests. His corps lowered him to the floor and left the hall two-by-two, behind the pipers, in a storm of applause.

Wolf stood alone at the foot of Geiseric’s table, facing the king, sweat running on his face and body. The king rose from his high-backed chair. The applause died as suddenly as a cloudburst. In the thick silence the Royal Spider opened his cavernous mouth.

"I speak as I think," Geiseric said, filling the hall with a voice that resonated from the depths of his barrel-chest. "I have never seen more skillful swordplay than this. God divides his gifts as he pleases, and even a man without ancestors may become great with the sword, and a prince among warriors."

The king raised his goblet.

"Before me," Geiseric announced, "stands one whose seat I would place high among the strong. I give him health!"

Health! the guests boomed, lifting their goblets and tossing back a hearty swallow in unison with the king.

"What is your name, Sword-King?" Geiseric asked, inclining his conical head toward Wolf.

"Wolf, Your Greatness."

"And of what great warrior are you the son, Wolf?"

"I have no father, Your Greatness," Wolf said clearly.

"You have a father, Wolf," the king contradicted him with uncommon tenderness. "Your father is Geiseric son of Godigisclus."

The guests shouted, pleased at the legitimation of one of their favorite "nephews." Geiseric, beaming monstrously, raised his hands and brought them together; the guests threw down their goblets and applauded with the king, a barrage of noise like a thousand snapping tree-trunks. Wolf’s face went scarlet under his tan; his long eyelashes fluttered.

Adriana glanced at Faustinus. His lips had gone white at the king’s words. Had the mortification of her enemy begun? Her pulse thundered in her ears; she clutched her hands, driving her manicured fingernails into her sweating palms. What could the king’s game be? "And how do you come to be here, in the posture of a servant, Wolf son of Geiseric?" the king asked, in the calm following the storm.

"I was brought here in the chains of a captive," Wolf said simply.

The crowd murmured again, exchanging dark looks.

"Come up here, Wolf son of Geiseric," the king said, beckoning with a huge hand.

Wolf advanced up the steps of the king’s dais. A Berber slave brought a stool and scurried away. Wolf sat across the table from Geiseric like a child at the knee of a tutor, his chin at the height of his father’s right hand.

"Well!" Geiseric boomed, leaning toward him and slapping the table. "The god Balder has come from Valhalla to grace our feast, disguised as a Sword-King!"

The guests pounded their tables appreciatively.

"And what god is this?" the king asked, turning to Faustinus with brutal suddenness.

"No god, but a troll," the bishop of Carthage answered in a deep voice, and the temperature of the room seemed to rise in the silence that followed his words.

The stunning insult was like a bucket of slops thrown in Faustinus’s face. He flinched as if he had been struck.

Geiseric lifted his red eyebrows, made a droll expression, and nodded his approval of the bishop’s words, as if he were passing affirmative judgment on an unfamiliar wine. A collective growl followed the silence; the guests turned and nodded to one another in imitation of the king.

Adriana scanned the royal table; the hardened faces of Geiseric’s sons and intimates showed a fierce mirth but no mercy. Her eye caught Faustinus’s. A shared recognition passed between the old enemies, like a lightning bolt: Faustinus’s game had somehow ruined him. His pale face had a greenish undertone. He struggled to smile.

"I hear the war-hounds of the old gods howling in the wind," Geiseric said, leaning his cone-head to one side. "I see heroes in endless hosts carried up to the halls of the gods. I see our people in conflict with the tyrant Rome, and I see kings and princes and noble women, perfect in form and feature, wearing Roman fetters, sold into Roman slavery, awaiting execution in Roman prisons."

The king glared round the silent hall, his nostrils dilating with wrath.

"And I see," he concluded in a terrible voice an octave below the ordinary, "I see Wolf son of Geiseric sold into slavery by a pretended ally of our people, captured again by the same traitor, and brought in chains to the house of his father as a gift."

A wrathful murmur passed from head to head among the guests. A gift! By Woden, did you ever . . . ?

"Ah, Your Greatness is pleased with my little joke," Faustinus spoke up in competent German, and laughed with great animation until it became clear that no one would join him.

His face went dull red, mottled, and tallow-white by turns, like the flesh of a drained ox. He tried to laugh again, and failed.

The King raised a huge hand.

"Gaius Faustinus, what is a fool?" The words shot from his mouth like stones from a ballista.

Faustinus shifted in his seat and jerked his head back, as if he were in the grip of malignant spirits.

"A fool is . . . one who is foolish, Your Greatness."

A silence ensued, more devastating than a torrent of abuse. Faustinus tried to smile; his colorless lips worked against one another.

"Gaius," the King opened his mouth again, and the voice was cold and uncompromising as a blizzard, "Gaius Faustinus, what is a fool?"

Faustinus tried to speak. Phlegm caught in his throat; he cleared it. Sweat broke out on his white forehead.

The king answered his own question.

"A fool is one who is grave at a feast and laughs in Assembly. Gaius Faustinus, I charge before this Assembly that you have foolishly betrayed the trust of the Vandal people."

The customary self-possessed chill in Faustinus’s eyes had turned to stark dismay. He drew a long breath and swallowed hard. The corners of his mouth twitched convulsively.

"Your Greatness," he said, holding out his hands in a gesture of appeal, "we’ve labored together, fought together. . . ."

The king banged the table fiercely, cutting him off.

"The Vandals are free men," Geiseric proclaimed, turning to the male half of his audience. "Does anyone challenge Geiseric’s authority to be his own Earl over this Assembly, for the purpose of trying a foreigner?"

"Geiseric shall be Ting-Earl!" an old warrior proclaimed from the end of the table, jumping to his feet, and a shout from the male guests confirmed the appointment.

A dignified elder hobbled to the king and draped a scarlet-wool mantle around his sloping shoulders. A second elder emerged from the shadows to bring Geiseric a staff of ash, curved at the top, and a ceremonial shield of burnished steel. Clearly the sham trial had been planned as the climax of the king’s entertainments. The outcome could be seen in the looks of high expectancy on the guests’ coarse faces. Adriana glanced at her interpreter. The woman’s breathing had quickened; there was a cold glitter in her eyes as she leaned forward to watch the king.

Geiseric struck the shield three times with the ashen staff, seated himself, and projected his voice into every corner of the hall. His conical head was tilted reflectively; the enormous brow was wrinkled with serious purpose, but the pale eyes were almost mirthful.

"I command silence, peace, and righteousness. I forbid anger, blows, biting words, and all that may offend the dignity of this Assembly. We are gathered to decide the guilt or innocence of Gaius Faustinus, accused of selling the free son of a free Vandal into slavery at the Roman town of Puteoli, and of kidnapping the selfsame person at Lilybaeum. How do you answer to these things, Gaius Faustinus?"

The guests were silent, leaning toward Faustinus, relishing his agony. A chair scraped the floor; a silken robe rustled. Adriana heard the hot breathing of her neighbors, like echoes of a desert wind.

"Does it matter how I answer?" Faustinus said, choking.

"You shall make your plea, Gaius Faustinus," the king intoned ominously, rapping the table sharply with knuckles that could have brained a mule. The battle of pale eyes between Faustinus and Geiseric was over; the expressions were those of hunter and quarry.

Faustinus stood abruptly, overturning his chair and sweeping his empty goblet off the table. The corners of his mouth quivered uncontrollably. There was something heroic in his lonely stance, rigid as a banner-staff, white as a cadaver, his nostrils distended like those of a war-horse at the smell of death.

"I plead nothing," Faustinus spat. "I will not even accuse Your Majesty of treachery. One expects a gutter-dog to vomit garbage and to attack its friends."

A roar of outrage burst from the throats of the guests. Faustinus swung on his heel and stalked away from the king’s table, moving his feet with wooden determination as if he threaded the ruins of a deserted city. The king eyed him with a frightful smile as he disappeared between the great doors of the banquet hall, stiff as Priapus under his ornate mantle.

Adriana turned to her neighbors but her tongue was paralyzed; her brain seemed to have frozen at the height of the inquisition. The air in the room was crushingly heavy. The pointed, red-thatched head was about to turn toward her; she could feel it turning already; the Royal Spider would draw her to itself by the magnetism of its pale eyes, and suck the life out of her with its hideous beak. . . .

Geiseic turned to the Assembly.

"What shall the sentence be, free men of the Vandals?" he asked in a fierce metallic voice.

Death! the answering shout came, with a thunder of goblets against tables and a rattle of concealed arms.

"Hear it, God in heaven and men on earth!" Geiseric proclaimed, raking the air with his huge fingers. "Hear it, all-seeing sun and blowing wind! Whereas Gaius Faustinus has enslaved a free Vandal of the House of the Asdings, we deprive him of right and life. As far as fire burns and earth grows green, as far as a falcon can soar in a year when the wind supports his wings, house and hearth and companionship shall be denied you except in hell alone, Gaius Faustinus. Your inheritance we divide among the Vandal people. Your flesh and blood we give to the ravens of the air. I ask you, just men of the Vandals, shall it be so?"

It is so!

"The Ting is over; the Assembly is dissolved," the king said, striking the shield of steel and yielding his ceremonial equipage to the elders. "I am in the mood for mead."

The goblets were filled. Adriana felt immersed in cold water; the sudden fall of her ancient enemy left her weightless and confused. She waited for a rush of exultation, or gratitude, or any affirmative emotion at all, but none came.

The waiters announced a succession of creamy, greasy German desserts. The hall rumbled with the slow hilarity of the Northmen: bursts of song, hiccups, mock quarrels, guttural babble. A warrior with a smashed nose and a harelip crowned himself with roses; a beautiful dark girl sat in his lap and caressed his hideous face. Blond girls, captive Franks, danced naked except for white hareskin loincloths and little gold helmets. Mimes and jugglers swarmed among the tables, followed by young comedians with mirthless eyes, living by their wits, like dancing bears and philosophers.

The guests rose with a scraping of chairs; the king left the hall, dragging one leg. Adriana’s eunuchs hovered over her, speaking, gesturing. She rose and followed them like a dog on an invisible leash. Her thoughts were in chaos as she moved through the glowing corridors of the palace to her own room. The triumph she sought had materialized, but the reality numbed her and left her throat dry and her eyes burning, as in a roomful of smoke.

At the door of her apartment she dismissed all her attendants with thanks. She closed the door after them, pushed the sights and sounds of the evening out of her mind, and extinguished all her lamps but one. Night had fallen during her absence. By reflex she went to the east window of her room and leaned out over the garden below. Soft light glowed mysteriously behind the grate at the far end. She listened to the rush of small fountains, the rustle of the sculptured dwarf-trees. Moonlight glowed on the miniature terraces. An odor of summer roses floated up to her.

Below the palace, down the long moonlit sweep of the Byrsa to the sea-wall, a stupendous range of roofs and gardens stretched to the city’s great lighthouse on its desolate cape, rising like a one-eyed god above the ancient Phoenician city of the dead. Her gaze drifted along the necklace of light that girdled the harbor, and out over the broad, flamingo-haunted salt lake between twin peaks that had once seemed to her as beautiful as Vesuvius. Twinkling in silence, the city seemed to smile up at her, wishing her the peace of the subtropical night.

From the barred windows at the edge of the garden came a male scream, terrible in its bodiless intensity, that must have torn the throat from which it issued. With a rush of horror and pity Adriana heard it again, but fainter, like the dwindling cry of a rabbit in the jaws of a hound.

The king’s Moorish torturers were at work on the king’s guest. The tongue would be taken last, after the fingers, the genitals, the eyes.

*

She slept woodenly, waking only once for what her old governess had termed nocturnal necessity. No dreams, not even an echo from the palace prison, disturbed her. She was vaguely aware of daybreak, of maid-bustlings and maid-whispers and an odor of blossoms.

She got up well past dawn and went to her south window. The morning was a transparent desert-pink. The city below her lay in shadow, a tangle of red-roofed houses and garden-courts. Under the brow of the palace, ordinary people were coming to life. A woman in a yellow robe shook a rug over a balcony. A late-rising young man gathered himself off a sleeping-carpet, laid precariously close to the edge of his roof.

Coming up behind her, Wolf slipped his strong fingers around her shoulders and put his cheek against her neck. She turned and brought his forehead down to her lips, smoothing his hair with her fingertips. He was there for her again at last, a welcoming fire in the winter of her life, a reminder that spring would come again.

"What do you see?" he asked.

"Everything and nothing," she answered.

She stared out the window. Old Punic legends seemed to linger in the palm-fringed gardens below the palace wall. Small puffs of cloud lay low in the east, like a flock of sheep at daybreak, waiting for the gate of the fold to open. Westward, dry mountains crouched like camels in a rosy haze.

"The screams . . . ," she whispered after a silence.

"I would not have done that, even to an enemy," Wolf said quietly. "But Faustinus was a failure, Adriana. He aimed for the Roman throne, and missed. The king no longer had any use for him, except for the information that had to be tortured out of him, and he would have been a great nuisance alive. Are you troubled because of him?"

"I don’t know," Adriana said. "If only I could collect my thoughts. I hardly remember what it was like to be in control of my thoughts."

"You must be thinking of him, also," Wolf said, squeezing her upper arms. "He is like a black shadow."

"Yes," she said.

She thought of Quintus frankly now, with an odd combination of resentment and sympathy: the splendid head with little-boy’s eyes, the public strengths and private weaknesses, the earnestness of a pup, the vanity of a peacock, the appetites of a goat.

She turned to face Wolf.

"I feel no attachment to Quintus," she said, "not even as a friend."

Wolf nodded.

"My fear, now that you’ve put your finger on it, is that he’ll be the puppy he always is, craving easy forgiveness and an easy return to the way things were with us. What will my obligation be?"

She shook her head. The matter was unthinkably complex.

"In Carthage," Wolf said, with an edge to his voice that she had not heard before, "you will have no obligation. But I have news of where he lives, and what he does."

Her heart thudded; her knees were weak.

"Tell me," she said, in dread.

"I am sorry, madam, I cannot bring myself to discuss him," Wolf said in a voice thick with distaste. "His health is good, however. I will take you to him if you like. You will see for yourself."

"Now," she said.

He nodded.

The king’s maids dressed Adriana in a saffron colobium and a headdress set with pearls. With Wolf she delivered herself into the care of Geiseric’s household eunuchs. Huge blond guards stood at attention as they passed down long corridors. Male guests of the king were still carousing somewhere in the palace; there was a distant commotion of men passing the mead-horn.

In the shade of the palace portico, two litters waited, borne by sleek Berber youngsters in scanty livery. A chill passed over her neck and scalp as the litters rose and glided forward. A change of season seemed to be passing over her life again. Would spring come, or something worse than winter?

In the handsome neighborhood west of the king’s palace, Geiseric’s noble "guests" were supported in modest comfort and allowed certain liberties, though not the liberty of leaving Carthage. The King of Terrors wooed them; they would be more useful as allies than as enemies in chains. The westward avenue had no traffic at midmorning. The footfalls of the litter-bearers were audible; the occasional cry of the way-clearers was hardly necessary.

Adriana composed her thoughts and her features. She would be sympathetic but efficient with Quintus; she regretted interrupting his daily routine. Once she had discharged her duty she would not trouble him again. She had come to Carthage to engineer his release, not for sentimental reasons but to please the pope. The quest had proved simpler than she thought, and she was glad it was over. She was now at liberty to report certain informal assurances that Quintus would be permitted to leave Carthage. He was free to do as he pleased with the palace in Rome; she would not be going back. A notary in Carthage could record the details of the transaction just as easily as a notary in Rome. She was happy to find him well; she would be happy to do what she could for him as a friend, though there was not much likelihood they would see each other again.

She felt herself gently lowered to the street. A eunuch’s inquiring moon-face presented itself.

"No," she said with a forced smile, waving the attendant aside, "I’ll do this without an embassy."

The litter-bearers had halted at the house in which Quintus was a "guest" of the king. Smaller than its neighbors, it was richly constructed, with the warm color of old limestone. It had a good uphill view of Geiseric’s palace. The streetside portico would attract beggars later in the day, but for the moment it was empty.

Adriana squared her shoulders and faced the entrance. She rapped sharply with the lion’s-head knocker. The porter’s window opened, and a Greek-looking face appeared in the gloom behind the grate.

"You will announce," she said, "to His Excellency the prefect, Quintus Jovinus, that Marcella Adriana wishes an audience with him."

"Who?" the face said, with practiced insolence.

"Her Excellency, the Lady Marcella Adriana. Be quick."

The wicket clapped shut. She heard the tinkle of a lyre in the palace garden. The playing was earnest, clumsy, more than a little familiar.

The door swung open sooner than she expected. With a chill of dread Adriana lowered her head to compose herself, and raised her eyes, expecting to see Quintus.

A blond woman stood in the doorway. She was merry-faced, large, but with a good figure. A pair of eunuchs loomed behind her. The odd readiness of German women to come to their own doors rather than send a servant was apparently a residue of tent-life in the open air. Was Quintus perhaps the "guest" of a German family?

The Vandal woman inspected her caller. She seemed amused, not unkindly, at the smallness of Adriana’s retinue.

"I have the pleasure?" she said, in thick Latin.

"I am Marcella Adriana, wife of Quintus Jovinus."

The woman looked astounded, then clapped her hands and laughed, a big, merry farm-girl laugh.

"Oh, very good, madam, it is a Roman joke."

She rocked from side to side, like a ship in a gale.

"Ach, ach," she said, with bosomy chuckles and a fine show of white teeth. She shook her head. "Ach, you Romans, you have a most marvellous sense of humor."

"More marvellous than I supposed," Adriana said irritably. "I do not understand my own joke."

"But surely. . . ." The woman inclined her blond head with an expression of good-natured bafflement. "Surely you cannot be serious. He has not told his friends? I am the wife of Quintus Jovinus. Perhaps I have not understood. You are one of his family?"

A rush of blood to Adriana’s head set her cheeks aflame. She put out her left hand to grasp a bar of the porter’s grate, and steadied herself.

"Yah, yah," the big woman said affably, "Jovinus was not well when he came to us. Oh, not his body, to be sure, which is in very fine condition, very fine indeed—but from his terrible troubles. You understand? He was a little verrückt, how do you say it?—yes, here."

She tapped her forehead.

"He is better now, thanks to Mother and me. And—you cannot see it yet, madam—I am about to get big in the belly. Jovinus is going to be a father!"

Her big rosy peasant-face twinkled all over with healthy pleasure.

Adriana’s tongue had turned to stone, but she heard her own clear voice cutting through the insane whirl of her thoughts.

"No, no," she said, bowing apologetically. "I intended no joke at all, I’ve made a most distressing mistake in coming here. I beg your pardon, dear lady."

She smiled woodenly and withdrew from the door into the street, leaving her hostess shaking her head in amiable perplexity. Her temples and neck tingled cold, as if she had fallen into a fountain. She had the sensation that part of her had wandered off, numb with outrage, while the other part watched with amusement from on high. The Vandal woman’s voice reverberated in her head like a shout in a well; and in the echo she could hear the deeper, plaintive tones of Quintus’s self-justification: After all, I’m dead as far as she’s concerned. She’s probably glad to see me gone. One slip in a moment of heat and she’s my mortal enemy. What do I owe her after all? She’s already repaid me for any small disloyalty of mine, walking out on me the way she did. A man has to live. . . .

She leaned her head against Wolf’s litter, and the tense cluster of her thoughts burst like a seed pod. She began to laugh, softly at first, then so loudly that Wolf pulled aside his litter-curtain and thrust his head out into the street.

She giggled until her body shook in earnest. She covered her face with her hands. Wolf frowned. Gradually he smiled without comprehension, and his beautiful face turned pink. They laughed together until the street echoed. A passing freedwoman broke into a grin.

"Oh, Lord God," she gasped between fits of laughter, wiping tears from her eyes, "you should have seen the look on her German platter-face."

She wiped her eyes on her tunic-sleeve and smiled weakly at Wolf.

"Well, I’ve lost everything," she said.

She kissed him on the cheek and signed instructions to her litter-bearers, and with a paradoxical sense of triumph she rode back up the quiet street to the palace shimmering on the hill.

-
[Home] [Previous] [Next]

 

'

'