Africa, September 455]
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
blessed Fatherland!" Wolf said in a low voice, his
eyes shining. "We are home, Adriana. I may now say ach
and yah without embarrassment."
quiet!" Faustinus ordered, for no apparent reason.
are home, Adriana," Wolf whispered again, defiantly.
"Do not worry. In certain things, one may rely on the
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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.
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
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," one of them said in the Greek-inflected Latin
of the East, and she followed obediently.
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.
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,
waited in the shadows. They bowed. The eunuchs delivered
Adriana into their care, and left with a hush of silk
slippers on marble.
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,
madam," the woman replied in a thick Greek accent.
The maids left the room in single file, their faces
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.
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.
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.
time to prepare for supper, madam?" the heavy Greek
accent said, more a statement than a question.
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.
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.
is beautiful to see," the hairdresser said
meditatively, in decent Latin, "with such delicious
skin. It is wonderful."
had a kind of astonished pleasure in her voice; the
compliment was not routine.
very flattering," Adriana said, laughing softly.
only say what is true, madam. I hope that is not
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
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
husband?" Adriana said, alarmed in spite of the
called ‘Wolf,’ I believe."
you," she said. "Thank you for everything."
bowed and floated away.
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.
madam," a sexless voice said, penetrating her
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
again at her neighbors. They smiled back, showing strong
speak Latin?" she asked the woman at her left, the
smaller of the two.
no Latin," the great creature shrugged, her palms
apologetically; Adriana coughed a little.
at her right leaned toward her like a collapsing tower and
said, in a bosomy voice, "You speak Latin?"
my tongue," Adriana replied, returning the woman’s
will translate," the woman announced authoritatively,
and arranged herself to speak into Adriana’s ear.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the king said, in a voice startlingly like Wolf’s,
"I am in the mood for a bear-dance."
up a plate of appetizers and threw them at the bear.
those, darling," he said. "A hungry bear will
not dance. I want you to dance like a princess."
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.
here, darling," the king said, beckoning to the bear
and throwing a fish at her. "You are truly a
roared her gratitude. The king’s face was monstrous with
merriment, the smirk of a crocodile.
to Bishop Vadomar. "Kiss the princess, Your
Beatitude. Let her know that God loves her."
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.
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.
it is humorous, yes?" Adriana’s neighbor said.
"Our king knows how to humor us."
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.
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.
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.
rose from his high chair.
he said, raising his enormous hands, "it is time to
honor the Fathers."
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.
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
Majesty’s ‘nephew’ has noticed you, madam,"
Adriana’s translator said, beaming.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
raised his goblet.
me," Geiseric announced, "stands one whose seat
I would place high among the strong. I give him
the guests boomed, lifting their goblets and tossing back
a hearty swallow in unison with the king.
is your name, Sword-King?" Geiseric asked, inclining
his conical head toward Wolf.
of what great warrior are you the son, Wolf?"
have no father, Your Greatness," Wolf said clearly.
have a father, Wolf," the king contradicted him with
uncommon tenderness. "Your father is Geiseric son of
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.
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
brought here in the chains of a captive," Wolf said
murmured again, exchanging dark looks.
up here, Wolf son of Geiseric," the king said,
beckoning with a huge hand.
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.
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!"
pounded their tables appreciatively.
what god is this?" the king asked, turning to
Faustinus with brutal suddenness.
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.
stunning insult was like a bucket of slops thrown in
Faustinus’s face. He flinched as if he had been struck.
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.
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
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
glared round the silent hall, his nostrils dilating with
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."
murmur passed from head to head among the guests. A
gift! By Woden, did you ever . . . ?
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
went dull red, mottled, and tallow-white by turns, like
the flesh of a drained ox. He tried to laugh again, and
raised a huge hand.
Faustinus, what is a fool?" The words shot from his
mouth like stones from a ballista.
shifted in his seat and jerked his head back, as if he
were in the grip of malignant spirits.
fool is . . . one who is foolish, Your Greatness."
ensued, more devastating than a torrent of abuse.
Faustinus tried to smile; his colorless lips worked
against one another.
the King opened his mouth again, and the voice was cold
and uncompromising as a blizzard, "Gaius Faustinus,
what is a fool?"
tried to speak. Phlegm caught in his throat; he cleared
it. Sweat broke out on his white forehead.
answered his own question.
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
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
Greatness," he said, holding out his hands in a
gesture of appeal, "we’ve labored together, fought
together. . . ."
banged the table fiercely, cutting him off.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
it matter how I answer?" Faustinus said, choking.
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.
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.
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
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. . . .
turned to the Assembly.
shall the sentence be, free men of the Vandals?" he
asked in a fierce metallic voice.
answering shout came, with a thunder of goblets against
tables and a rattle of concealed arms.
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?"
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
do you see?" he asked.
and nothing," she answered.
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
screams . . . ," she whispered after a silence.
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
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."
must be thinking of him, also," Wolf said,
squeezing her upper arms. "He is like a black
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.
to face Wolf.
feel no attachment to Quintus," she said, "not
even as a friend."
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?"
her head. The matter was unthinkably complex.
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
thudded; her knees were weak.
me," she said, in dread.
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."
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.
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
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
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
herself gently lowered to the street. A eunuch’s
inquiring moon-face presented itself.
she said with a forced smile, waving the attendant aside,
"I’ll do this without an embassy."
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.
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.
will announce," she said, "to His Excellency the
prefect, Quintus Jovinus, that Marcella Adriana wishes an
audience with him."
the face said, with practiced insolence.
Excellency, the Lady Marcella Adriana. Be quick."
clapped shut. She heard the tinkle of a lyre in the palace
garden. The playing was earnest, clumsy, more than a
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.
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?
woman inspected her caller. She seemed amused, not
unkindly, at the smallness of Adriana’s retinue.
have the pleasure?" she said, in thick Latin.
Marcella Adriana, wife of Quintus Jovinus."
looked astounded, then clapped her hands and laughed, a
big, merry farm-girl laugh.
very good, madam, it is a Roman joke."
from side to side, like a ship in a gale.
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
marvellous than I supposed," Adriana said irritably.
"I do not understand my own joke."
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," 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."
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!"
rosy peasant-face twinkled all over with healthy pleasure.
tongue had turned to stone, but she heard her own clear
voice cutting through the insane whirl of her thoughts.
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
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. . . .
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.
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.
Lord God," she gasped between fits of laughter,
wiping tears from her eyes, "you should have seen the
look on her German platter-face."
her eyes on her tunic-sleeve and smiled weakly at Wolf.
I’ve lost everything," she said.
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.