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Prologue

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[East of Rome, March 441 A.D.]

She had ridden her chestnut pony since dawn, sometimes with the wind, sometimes against it. Her cheeks stung; her thighs had begun to chafe. No one had seen the great bear all day.

At the bottom of a hillside on Senator Viriusís estate, the hunting party had reined up to consider its prospects. Adriana touched the clasp of her belt and the hilt of her new knife. Both were gifts from her grandfather, and she had a twelve-year-oldís concentrated dread of losing them.

"Merbal?" She turned to her little Berber spear-bearer, her own age, standing at her elbow.

"Yes, madam."

"Merbal, do you know what makes a bear crazy?"

"The Evil One?" the boy speculated in his strange Latin, which sounded like the rumble of an oxcart on gravel.

"But how does the Evil One make a bear crazy?" she persisted.

"Oh, there are many ways, madam. A spear-point buried here," the boy suggested, slapping his hip, "or the accursed flies, or dead cubs killed by a wildcat, or by a male bear, or by rich Romans riding horseback like clumsy children."

"You see this arm?" Adriana threatened, raising her whip-hand and making a face at Merbal for his impudence.

She sat back in the saddle, watching the other hunters for a sign of agreement. Their indecisiveness annoyed her. Two dozen rich Romans on horseback were arrayed at the base of the hill, squinting out over the damp wastes, their spear-points glowing in the sharp sunlight of late morning. Lady Candida, next to Adriana on a dappled Moorish horse, was the only competent hunter besides Adrianaís grandfather. She rode as stylishly as any of her sons and whooped like one of the hounds. The rest were city people, layered with jewels and perfume, uncomfortable with weapons, unsteady in the saddle. An animal too weak-eyed to see them five miles off would surely smell them.

The fugitive she-bear was a rogue, huge and crazy. She killed for joy, the peasants said. All during the autumn she had terrorized cattle, plundered hives, and wantonly slaughtered sheep, crushing their heads to satisfy her odd appetite for brains. Sober men swore by Jove and the Virgin that they had seen her tearing the hides off sheep as methodically as a butcher, rooting by moonlight like a huge mad hog, eating heifers alive, hugging travelers to death, corroding the foundations of the serf-huts with her harsh breath like a rush of steam.

The brief Italian winter had brought a deceptive peace to the hills; for two months the creature had disappeared into hibernation, where she kept herself alive, the peasants said, by sucking her paws and dreaming murderous dreams about the coming spring. But with the February thaw she came again, like a recurring nightmare.

The hunters had scanned the landscape all morning for a heap of brown fur moving monstrously through brambles and tall grass. The dogs had been nearly useless. The guidance of the country people had been worse than useless. All the tracks were cold. The unruly hounds had lost faith in themselves and scrambled about aimlessly, yapping at birds, rabbits, stones, shadows.

Merbal tugged at Adrianaís cloak.

"Bear up there, madam!" the Berber urchin said quietly, gesturing toward the top of the hill. "Oh, may the gods bring him!"

He held up two fingers; like all barbarians, Merbal had trouble with numbers.

She examined his monkey-face for signs of impertinence.

"One bear? Why are you holding up two fingers?"

"One bear, big enough to make two," Merbal said, covering his mistake.

"Where?" she asked, shading her eyes with her free hand.

"You cannot see him. That is why you have brought Merbal, who can see."

She followed his brown arm uphill to a stand of scrub. Her grandfather was climbing toward the spot with a single dog, an old yellow hound famous for his keenness, snuffing his way eagerly among boulders and thistles.

The hound disappeared into the bushes. In a moment he emitted a deep tone, proclaiming a discovery.

"Madam," Merbal said in his most winsome manner, "if the gods give the bear to Your Felicity or her grandfather, Merbal would like to have the fangs."

She nodded at the boy, who wore several strings of animal parts around his neck as proof against the Evil Eye.

"Although Faustinus will be sure to get there first," she cautioned.

"Ah, ah," nodded the Berber, who had been a slave in young Faustinusís household. "The no-eyed boy, death-in-life. Through the holes in his head he sees the Unseen, and the Devourer has blessed his spear. It cannot miss."

She shrugged impatiently at the mysterious pronouncement, but it lodged in a corner of her mind and festered there.

Her grandfatherís horn sounded in the hilltop brush; the hounds burst into chorus. The mounted hunters labored up the hill, their scarlet cloaks floating out on the breeze. At the top of the rise, Adriana flung herself out of the saddle and ran to the edge of the scrub to watch the hunt-slaves stake out their nets in a long curve. Merbal struggled up behind her, dragging his weapons on the ground, cursing all Romans in his own tongue.

The rest of the hunting party had converged on the spot in a flurry of red cloaks. Young Faustinus was ahead of the rest, as always, with a smirk of self-congratulation on his thin lips. There was a moment of near-silence, like a lull in table talk. Even the wind seemed to hold its breath. Obscure grunts and a faint sound of thrashing came from the rock face behind the thicket.

"Are we sure itís one bear?" Adriana whispered.

"Maybe two," Merbal grinned, holding up three fingers.

*

The bear burst out of the scrub with an apocalyptic roar. She was immense, scarred, hideous; no one had imagined her size. She threw herself into the nets and made a drive for the valley, tearing up the stakes and ripping the mesh.

"Loose the hounds!" Adriana heard her grandfather bawl above the melee. "Sheíll pull the nets to pieces!"

The shaggy mass rose up on her hind legs and scattered the attacking dogs with great sweeps of her paws. The city-bred hunting party drew back, white-lipped; Adrianaís grandfather hovered at the edge of the chaos, bellowing encouragement to his hounds by name: Good boy, Clement, Barnabas, Ananias, Jude!

Forgetting their training, the dogs lost all composure and worried the bear with lunges and snaps, pinching her belly and hindquarters instead of going straight for the head. Adriana watched in despair, certain that the pack would be dismembered one by one.

With his long knife poised for the death-stroke, a brash young slave of Faustinusís rushed at the bear while she was preoccupied with the dogs. She turned abruptly and slashed at the youngsterís belly, shredding his tunic. He lost his footing and collapsed at the creatureís feet, missing the sweep of a claw that would have taken off his scalp. Blue-lipped with terror, he froze flat against the earth, roaring for help above the noise of the hounds.

For a hideous instant no one did anything. Faustinusís neighbors, paralyzed by decorum and cowardice, turned to him with open mouths and spread hands. The hunt-slaves watched in idiot alarm, waiting for orders. Faustinus observed the struggle with unwholesome eyes, like a dog Adriana had once seen sniffing at a shallow grave.

"Help him, soul of mud!" she shouted at Faustinus, who smiled indifferently.

"I will help him!" she raged.

She seized a small spear from Merbal, went resolutely to the edge of the chaos, and drove the spear with all her force into the bearís neck. The creature whirled toward her; fire from the red eyes licked Adrianaís face, and she was unable to move. A tattooed arm shot out past her head and buried a long knife under the animalís far shoulder. The bear screamed like a hog in a shambles; Adriana fell back against the chest of Wisand, her grandfatherís Gothic hunt-slave, who snatched her and the slave-boy out of danger by an arm and a leg.

The monster died suddenly with her mouth open, as if she were exhaling a curse. She had taken the knife in a vital spot. The dogs closed over their enemy and were dragged away, snapping and raging, smeared with scarlet foam.

"Your Generosity," Merbal said, "the big teeth. . . ."

"You shall have them," she answered briskly, annoyed for no reason she could name. "The good ear, too, if you like. Iíll ask Wisand to cut them for you."

She had been looking at the carcass, small and pitiful now, half its fur torn away, an ear gone, the eyes glazed, strings of gore hanging from the lips. The good ear was small and delicately furred, like a shield for the nose in winter. Suddenly Adriana wanted to weep, as if something of herself, lonely and betrayed, had died in the creature that she had helped to ruin.

"Itís never easy, is it," Lady Candidaís warm voice said behind her, "to kill something rather like ourselves?"

Adriana shook her head, unable to speak; her tears blurred the older womanís sympathetic face.

"Come ride in my litter," Lady Candida said, putting a hand on Adrianaís shoulder. "My husband will be on horseback with your grandfather, and Iíll be lonely."

The hunt dispersed. In the shade of an oak Adrianaís grandfather examined the damage to his kennel: two dead, five wounded. With strips torn from his slavesí clothing he bound up the injured dogs himself, and had them carried like sick infants to the wagons waiting in the valley. Bruised and dirty, Faustinusís servant was otherwise in good health; a long pull on a wineskin flushed his cheeks and set him babbling.

Leading their horses by the bridle, the woman and the girl walked to the valley hand in hand, with Merbal and Lady Candidaís hunt-slave in tow. Lady Candida remarked in her soothing voice that spring had begun in earnest some time during the morning. Blue lupins flowered in the olive groves; the fields had the earth-smell of new beginnings. Pines, clustering darkly on all the heights, sent down traces of their tart fragrance, like snatches of conversation overheard at a distance.

Young Faustinus crossed their path. Aware that she had embarrassed him in the presence of his elders, Adriana met his eyes and turned away.

From the terrible expression on his face, which she remembered in perfect detail for the rest of her life, it was clear that she would never be forgiven.

*

The bear was lashed to a pair of thirty-foot poles and borne off on the shoulders of the hunt-slaves. The hunting party followed them homeward in single file, hunters up front on horseback, followed by litters carrying noble ladies out to watch the chase, and by a straggling retinue of liveried grooms, kennel-boys, spear-bearers, and eunuchs more useful for pomp than service.

At a hand-signal from Adriana, Merbal trudged off with her pony. She slid into Lady Candidaís spacious litter, warm and agreeably scented, a silk-upholstered capsule of comfort in Senator Viriusís wilderness of rocks and weeds. It was carried by eight Slavic boys matched for height and strength. They were trained to move so smoothly that a goblet set on the roof of the conveyance would not spill, except perhaps at a sixteen-legged gallop.

"I admired your boldness up there," Lady Candida said when they were comfortable, with their knees under a handsome Oriental rug.

"I lost my head. I thought the boy would die," Adriana blushed.

"Surely he would have," Lady Candida said, "if the matter had been left to our heroic companions. Did you learn the use of the spear in Africa?"

"From my tutor, yes. My grandfather talked my father into it."

"Iím impressed," Lady Candida nodded. "Your grandfather is to be applauded. When a young woman is allowed to join the hunt, thatís surely on the side of the angels. Tell me: is the chase in Italy as much fun as what you knew in Africa? Are we less exciting? Be frank."

"Thereís not much difference," Adriana answered politely. "We hunted on horseback usually, in places where thereís nothing but dry land and the sky. We didnít have many bears except in the high mountains. We did have ostriches, and theyíll kick your heart out of your chest if youíre not careful."

She hesitated, aware that the turn of phrase was not genteel.

"My boys would like you," Lady Candida smiled. "You must come to our house and tell us about Africa."

It pleased Adriana to be asked about her homeland, though she suspected that people did it merely to make her happy. She could have talked endlessly, but she let the subject drop, sensing that Lady Candida was too weary for conversation, if too overwrought for sleep.

Her thoughts went home to the North African shore. Shutting her eyes against the alien Italian landscape, she occupied herself with a mental picture of the place where she had left her heart, a farm-villa by the sea near the little town of Clupea, on the fertile cape east of Carthage. The vision never failed to console her; it was worth the bitter ending, the flight from Carthage that had brought her to Rome as a refugee.

Two years had passed since the violent disruption of her life, and Adriana had come to terms with it in her own way. Indeed, she had spent her first decade preparing for it: German invaders called Vandali, "wanderers," had stormed across the straits from Spain to Africa in the year of her birth.

Carthage and its neighborhood had remained Roman for ten years of uneasy grace. The child grew up in a buzz of rumor about Geiseric, King of Terrors. The Vandal monarchís name raised a universal chill. Drovers cursed their mules with it; mothers threatened their offspring. Nurses made up disciplinary stories about the red-haired kingóthat he ate bad children, picked his teeth with their wishbones, made footstools of their pink skins, played ball with their curly headsónot realizing how close the inventions were to the truth.

Treaties were made; Geiseric broke them. A decade passed; the western provinces fell. It was universally understood that soon the Vandals would punish the rich province of Africa as Alaric had punished Italy. Shepherds would flee to the mountains with their flocks; cattle would be hidden in the woods; red-roofed farmhouses would stand empty, waiting for the scourge to arrive on horseback or by sea; and people trapped in the cities, mad with fear and starvation, would boil their children with spices and invite the poor of the neighborhood to a feast.

In Adrianaís eleventh year, the Germans came.

She escaped with her parents in an old grain-ship, crushed up against fretful aristocrats and terrified slaves. She was vaguely grateful to have kept her life, though she was barely old enough to understand the danger. The besieging Vandals had stormed Carthage in the dark; the proconsulís household and guests had fled to the harbor in their nightclothes. The palaces they left behind were filled with the sounds they had dreaded to hear: the splintering of doors, the crash of silver and crystal against cold marble, the popping of faithful servantsí skulls like fallen gourds.

The ship set out for Italy on a rough October sea. As dawn broke, the color of ashes, Adriana caught a last glimpse of the proconsulís palace on its fortified hill, rising out of a morning mist. She had been asleep in her own guest-room there when her nurse burst through the door at midnight, a lamp shaking in her hand, terror in her voice. Hours later, the miles between Adriana and her gilded bed seemed like the distance between two eternities.

The shipís load of flesh was beyond its capacity; it tossed in the billows like a sodden plank. The great ladies of Africa slid down the decks on their rumps; their husbands knocked their heads against the cabin walls, tangled themselves in the cordage, butted the masts. The captain ordered everyone into the hold; the refugees spent a day and a night shut off from the outside world, frightened by the groaning and shuddering of the vessel at labor on the cold sea.

Two days out, the sea calmed; the timbers of the old ship stopped begging to be put out of their misery. The winds were favorable; in four days the ship docked under grey skies at Portus Augusti, where the majority of the aristocrats had wished to go. The refugees, watersoaked and starved, kissed the cold earth of Italy and wept, grateful to be on solid ground once again, away from the reek of lamp-oil, sheepskins, tar, vomit, and bilgewater.

On the wharf at Portus Augusti, standing in a drizzle that gusted off the grey sea, Adriana felt alone and without God in the world. Her father had been silent since Carthage, his eyes full of terrible pain. Her older sister Flavia, usually talkative, had nothing to say. Her pious mother moved her lips silently, apparently holding conversation with the Apostles. The family went directly to Nomentum, bypassing Rome. The hired carriage struggled up the highway in a sudden thunderstorm, its curtains flapping stiffly in the soaking wind.

Adriana spent the next week sniffling under a leopard skin next to a glowing brazier. She dreamed endlessly of Africa, with a terrible longing. In mid-November, when the villa at Nomentum grew too cold for possible comfort, she went with her family to Rome to spend the winter months in her grandfatherís palace. For the first time she endured the brief curse of an Italian winter. The cityís gardens turned to seas of mud. Schoolchildren shivered through the streets at dawn with blue noses and chattering teeth. Fine ladies fell with a whoop on the icy promenades; whole teams of litter-bearers went down, dumping aristocrats into the slush.

The detestable season presented Adriana with one glowing moment, the first blizzard of her life. In December she went with her silent father to Portus Augusti, on business. Ice coated the rigging of the ships in the harbor, and the huge cargo-vessels from Egypt looked like the beasts of nightmares, looming black and uncouth in a sudden snowstorm.

The snow stopped just as her fatherís mule-drawn carriage, creaking back to Rome on the white highway, reached the Ostian Gate. The clouds parted; the sun burst warmly on the Mistress of the World. Every arch and frieze was feathered in soft silver. The colonnades were like shafts of light set in array. The dark cypresses were silver-plumed; even the dingy Colosseum was white as marble. The glory of the scene was beyond description. An hour later it was gone.

*

Lady Candida was speaking.

"You really should spend more time in the city, dear," she said in her friendly way that never seemed meddlesome.

"Pardon me, but I couldnít wait to get away from it," Adriana said.

"I suppose nobody really enjoys Rome," Lady Candida admitted, "but it has its attractions, like gold coins in a compost heap. You really canít get a decent education out here in the bush. I know my own boys would gladly spend their lives running up and down these hills, but unhappily the only schools worth the name are at Rome, not Nomentum."

"Do you think I need grammar and rhetoric to run a household?" Adriana asked.

"Well, youíll need to defend yourself against the sophistries of your eventual husband."

"But I hate my grandfatherís palace as much as he does," Adriana protested, "though I think not for the same reason."

Lady Candida knew the reason, and patted Adrianaís shoulder, saying nothing.

*

The last dark months in Africa, rolling like millstones over Adrianaís father, had crushed him long before he died; and she knew that no hell the priests described could be as fiery as the one he had inhabited while he lived.

She was with him again, in memory. He had been rich beyond measure, and suddenly he was poor. His wealth had been in grain- and wine-producing estates west of Carthage. Marching east, the Vandals had taken one estate after another, good wheatland, lush vineyards, countless olive trees. Her father had eaten less and drunk more, mixing black wine with smaller and smaller proportions of water, and at last taking it unmixed.

"Eheu, Plautius," the servants said afterwards. "The Germans wrecked him; his spirit was a smoking ruin."

At Rome, Plautius lingered for a few months in the charity of his wifeís father. On the first day of the new year he did not come to supper. His servants broke down the door to his apartment and found him lying stiffly in the ceremonial toga of his own father: chalk-pale, the ghost of a smile shaping his bloodless lips, his life drained neatly into a porphyry basin beside his couch.

The family buried Plautius in a handsome mausoleum on the road to Nomentum. For Adriana the day was a grey memory of chanting, incense, a tall crucifix, monotonous flute-music, a coffin issuing through a dusky archway, her motherís tears.

"May the earth press lightly on him!" an old servant said within hearing of the bishop, who frowned because the sentiment was a pagan one.

She hid herself in the palace garden and cried the rest of the day. Old Salvia, her motherís head-maid, brought her soup and cheese, patted her head, and told her to dry her eyes and come indoors because she was too beautiful and jolly to be so red-faced and sad. Her grandfatherís urban palace had a chill on it thereafter. She was thankful, in time, when the place was left to her sister Flavia in the old manís will.

The villa at Nomentum, ten miles north of Rome, was another matter. Adrianaís soul took root there and blossomed. The place had dozed among its soft hills for several hundred years. The farmhouse was laid out to catch the breezes off the Tiber in summer, with low towers and a high portico that presented soothing views of the river-plain through a soft mist of olive trees. The unpretentious rooms were made graceful by old Byzantine furniture, old glass, old silver. Adrianaís mother had tried to civilize the property, but as long as anyone could remember, chickens had run through the formal courts, and the gardens had all ended in dung-heaps.

At Nomentum, Adriana made her peace with Italy. The spirit of the country spoke to her at last, in the sounds of the farm: water bubbling in the rustic kitchen, the wind in pine boughs, the chatter of the poultry yard, the swish of scythes in the wheatfields. Pleased to find herself neglected altogether, she became, as her mother said, a spiritual serf-child. She hauled cabbages from the garden, carried water to the field-slaves, and picked insects off the vines. She sat for hours in the sun with her grandfatherís cook, shelling beans into a pan. From the cookís fat children she learned the heft of dice well enough to gamble with her grandfather, who occasionally allowed her to win a copper coin or two, after which they cracked walnuts together and drank a little wine. She robbed her grandfatherís cherry trees, and passed up family meals to eat fried beans with the cookís children on the kitchen floor.

"Sheíll grow into a fine matron," the neighbors said doubtfully, watching her scramble through hedges and swamps in pursuit of her dogs, who were pursuing a hare.

Her sister Flavia, meanwhile, retired into the pale and fragrant image of a matron-to-be, and practiced her skills as a singer, a poetess, and a liar.

In a wishful effort to civilize Adriana, her mother engaged a Greek governess, a huge, talkative woman who could have sat for a statue of Plenty. On the Terrible Greekís first day, Adriana hid in the tunnel connecting the house with the stables, and took her whipping stoically when starvation drew her out at nightfall.

Thereafter she was required to practice the lyre and sing, while Flavia smirked, and to be calm for a part of every day, sitting with her hands folded in her lap, while the Terrible Greek read to her from Scripture. Not without difficulty she learned the matronly graces; her steps were suited to the out-of-doors.

"Girl!" the governess would cry, "you are a she-camel. No. You are a sparrow that weighs two hundred pounds. You must learn not to bounce into a room like a cow on the trot. You must learn to walk sedately, like this." And the enormous woman would glide across the room like an elephant pretending to be a faun, dancing on spring flowers without crushing them.

Generally the governess exhausted herself by midmorning, and Adriana rushed outdoors, free to learn the things that mattered: how to handle a spade, drive a plough, prune a grapevine. Justus, the farm-steward, became her special friend. From him she learned how to milk a goat, set snares for rabbits, use a whip so she could snap a fly off a horseís rump without the horseís knowing anything about it.

At the end of a hard dayís work it pleased her to sit with Justus on stools in the barnyard, drinking light wine, saying nothing in particular, watching night gather on the hills. At such moments the Terrible Greek was likely to appear and shout, "Girl! You remind me of a German, lolling on a hard stool and belching beer-fumes. Have we forgotten how to be ladies?"

It was generally agreed, however, that Adrianaís grandfather, not Justus, was responsible for the wreckage of her matronliness. Over the genteel protest of her mother and the loud complaints of her governess, he presented her on her eleventh birthday with a chestnut pony to take the place of the white one she had left across the sea.

With her small bow-and-arrow, she learned hunting at the old manís elbow, and he was seldom out of the saddle before noon. Her skin and eyes grew clear, her muscles firm, her face brown and lean. On horseback she shivered through damp February days when the lupins were blooming on the hills, and sweated in the dry fields of July under a white sun. Even when the hunting season was gone, and her grandfather was trying to pretend that it was endless, she followed him over light crusts of snow, her feet petrified, her nostrils freezing, her governess bawling after her from the villa gate: "Girl! Are we snow-hares or are we ladies?"

In Italy, Nature became one of her parents. She had known since her fatherís death that soon she would be by herself in the world, and she prepared herself to make a friend of solitude. On the back of her chestnut pony she ranged alone over the hills around Nomentum, with hares scudding away from her through the rough grass, and hawks sailing high over her head. She climbed to the highest heights, where the air was so clear that the far villages seemed like salt clusters under reddish veils, and the distant Tiber was a ribbon of gold and green. There she lay watching the clouds, or gazing down soft ranges of walnut and mulberry trees to the distant red roofs of Nomentum, imagining how it would be if she were safe in the village rather than in the wild spot where she was.

Her memories of solitude and wildness were the ones she would treasure most in later years: dawn and dusk on the hills, with rose lights at the edge of the sky, and fresh mountain-scents in the air. But she also remembered with pleasure her homecomings at dayís end: a cordial supper of meat-pie and apples stewed in wine; the view from her bedroom window, when the night breeze was in the cypresses, and fireflies threaded the darkening fields and swept up against the walls of the farm buildings like sparks from an invisible bonfire; and Polaris winking down at her as she fell asleep, soothed by the rumble of oxcarts going to Rome on the moonlit highway just beyond the villa wall.

*

She had dozed; the dry, kindly voice of Lady Candida woke her as the litter settled into the villa yard.

"Now weíll have a change of pace," Lady Candida said regretfully, "a great deal of conversation and a very good dinner."

She raised her sculptured eyebrows and flung up her hands.

"Good bye, thank you," Adriana said, kissing Lady Candida on the cheek.

She sent Merbal to his quarters, threaded her way through the confusion of the stableyard, and hurried through the baths ahead of the crowd. Alone in her room, she dressed herself for dinner, and consciously prepared herself to be matronly, devoted to the hearth, the loom, and quiet conversation.

She chose a sky-blue tunic and tiny heirloom earrings of pearl, and put them on herself without bothering to summon her maid. Her mirror returned an image that she found acceptable but plain: dark, slim, not at all in her sister Flaviaís style of beauty. But at least no one ever mistook her for a boy, no matter how many trees she climbed or how many rabbits she snared.

The banquet room was a blaze of cut-glass and gold, fragrant with crushed roses. Adriana attached a smile to her lips and joined the crowd, taking her place in the wooden ceremonialism of the evening, like a grave Greek dance whose ancient meaning no one could remember. The sisters were seated on hard stools next to their motherís couch. All her life Adriana remembered the back of her motherís head as plainly as her face. She seemed always to be speaking to someone other than her children: a strong-willed, pious, distant woman in a jeweled headdress, a massive gold cross, and a severely plain silk robe that rustled like seed pods when she walked.

Nothing of that austerity appeared in her elder daughter Flavia, three years older than Adriana, fashionably pale, weighed down by a pearl headdress and several hoursí worth of decoration. Flaviaís conversation, when not frankly malicious, which it was apt to be, had to do with jewels, fabrics, scandals involving slaves, the delicious vulgarity of the theater; the figure that Senator Bassianus cut, on and off horseback, in and out of his clothes; the current fashions in livery, perfumes, house-pets; and very little of art or philosophy. She had a gift for verbal assassination; her well-trained eye found the deadly imperfection in everyoneís social armor: the permanent snarl in Senator Capitoís glossy wig, the unequal length of Senator Laurusís flashy red boots, the unnatural predominance of eye-shadow on Lady Delphiniaís painted face.

A lyre tinkled; a preliminary course of salads and mushrooms appeared, to the muted sound of a double flute. As the dinner began, Flavia cultivated a dreamy smile and glanced often at young Faustinus, who lay among other young adults at the end of a natural corridor of heads. He was sitting in light that cast flattering shadows over his rather gaunt face. Avoiding Adrianaís eyes, he made sidelong glances at Flavia, with a soulful arrangement of the brows and lips. Adriana was not old enough to find words for the dismay Faustinus inspired in her. His mannerisms seemed to reflect states of mind he had heard of but never experienced: the brow furrowing to suggest sympathy, the eyes blinking to show sensitivity. Faustinus resembled an animated statue that knew it lacked a soul, and went through life trying to imagine how it might be to have one.

"Did you notice? Faustinus is trying to be winsome," Flavia smirked.

"He should try harder," Adriana said. "I canít understand what you see in that fish."

She was unsure of the exact relationship between Flavia and Faustinus. It had produced an aborted child, a fact everyone in the household knew, and everyone was expected to ignore. Beyond that, all was mystery. Flavia spoke slightingly of him, yet encouraged him to pursue her.

"What do I see in him? Sometimes youíre such a little girl."

"Iím waiting to be improved," Adriana said.

"Heís pleasant to look at," Flavia said. "Heís eager to rise in the world."

"No question about that," Adriana said.

"Heís got plenty of. . . . Why are you forcing me to be vulgar?"

"Money," Adriana volunteered, "and no pedigree to speak of."

"An ancient pedigree," Flavia hissed.

"Manufactured or borrowed, probably," Adriana said. "But what does it matter with all that money and such a figure."

"Youíre so thick," Flavia said scornfully. "He has what I want, and he gives it out in big doses if I manage him properly."

She sucked in her breath. "Tonight, in fact, if I can get out of the house without Grandfatherís finding out."

At the dinnerís end the crowd milled uncertainly, between dessert and the quiet entertainments that would follow. Flavia had gone deaf; her alert eyes were appraising Faustinus, perhaps calculating his value in gold.

"I think Iíll go talk to Avitus," Adriana said.

She surveyed the dining room for her favorite old man, Senator Eparchius Avitus, and spotted him in a quiet corner. Ancient as Jove and boyish as Pan, he was a visitor from Gaul every year in the spring. She went to him without shyness. She loved him for his simplicity, and for the expression of congenial bafflement he always wore, like a child watching adults act like children.

"Ah, the Lioness! How splendid!" Avitus said, catching sight of Adrianaís pearls.

"Theyíre just some things I have," she responded, feeling her cheeks flush with pleasure. "The pearls were my grandmotherís. My grandfather sometimes lets me wear them."

"A man who lets his granddaughter wear pearls and hunt bear must be good in every way," Avitus said. "You took a bite out of a rogue today, I hear. But you donít look happy."

"Iím annoyed," Adriana said.

"What annoys you?"

"Flavia. She treats me as if I didnít know anything."

"I had a brother," Avitus said. "Heíd be about eighty by now, I think. He used to treat me that way when we were young."

"What did you do?" she asked.

"I did what you do. I went and talked with my old friend Sidonius," Avitus beamed. "He was very old. Old people are good for something, Iím happy to say."

"Itís still warm enough for a walk before I have to sleep," Adriana coaxed.

They threaded their way among the guests and went out into the villaís formal garden, which had been civilized, briefly, for the occasion. The walkways were lit with lanterns. The noise of the banquet receded behind a rustle of leaves and a ripple of birdsong.

She satisfied herself that no one was watching and put her fingers in Avitusís big, knotty hand, thinking that perhaps she was too nearly adult to be doing it. They walked, followed by flute-music and light laughter.

"I applied one of your lessons today," she said, suddenly conscious of her grammar and of the need to sound grown-up.

"Do I give lessons?" Avitus asked, pretending astonishment. "What was the lesson?"

"It was about death."

"Lord!" Avitus said, shaking his head.

"You said: ĎWhen you get rid of the fear of death, youíre ready to live.í I remembered that today, when I ran at the bear, and all the senators stood around fidgeting."

"Were you afraid?"

"A little. Of getting hurt, not of dying."

"Thatís wise, in my opinion," Avitus said.

They sat on a marble bench by a fountain niched in the garden wall, and listened to the splash of water jetting from a lionís mouth into the basin.

"I wish Flavia were different," Adriana said. "My mother says she doesnít know what Flavia wants in life. Iím not sure I understand that. I know I donít understand her."

Avitus shrugged. "Some people are beyond understanding. Youíd have to be like them in order to understand them. It wouldnít be worth the price."

Male voices droned at the garden entrance; a procession of senators and their sons filed out of the banquet hall. The famous, enormous Senator Petronius Maximus was among them, in blue silk from head to toe, like a two-legged tent with a brilliant smile. With him was the infinitely cynical Flavius Aetius, military savior of the empire, whose tormented eyes sorted ill with his triumphant career. They were discussing safe political subjects: the Hunnish threat on the Danube frontier; the Vandal threat to the wheat-ships from Egypt; the Visigothic threat to the Roman towns in Gaul. Faustinus was at his fatherís elbow, nodding and tapping his chin, clearly trying to outdo all the other young men in the gravity of his attention to affairs of state.

Adriana watched the boy-men without malice, entertained by the way they imitated their fathersí gestures. She found men generally amusing, in a not-unpleasant way, like the frantic street-dogs of Rome, rushing from corner to corner with their incomprehensible sense of urgency.

"The emperor Valentinian doesnít have any male heirs, does he?" she reflected.

"Thatís a dangerous subject," Avitus cautioned.

"But suppose," she went on, testing how far she could lure the old man into her thoughts, "just suppose we lived in a different country than this, like Persia. Suppose those men there," she pointed, "were all trying to get their hands on the crown. Which one would you pick for the job?"

"None of them, Your Boldness," Avitus said firmly.

"But if you had to pick one. . . ."

"In another country, Iíd choose Gaius Jovinus, or maybe his son Quintus in five or ten years. They have a few bad habits mixed with a good deal of common sense. You will not repeat me, need I ask?"

She shook her head and mused for a moment. The thought of the shapely, mild-eyed Quintus Jovinus as boy-emperor pleased her.

The men had arrayed themselves around a fountain. Flavius Aetius, the military hero, was contesting a small point with young Faustinus, while Petronius Maximus listened in amusement. Their voices mingled with the fountainís moist prattle. Adriana gestured toward the sound, and spoke the sudden question that took hold of her imagination.

"Do you think any of those men would kill to sit on the throne?"

Avitus rewarded her with a startled look.

"Possibly," he nodded. "Yes, possibly. One of the boys, Iíd say, and one of the men."

"Which?" she demanded.

"More than one guess in either case," Avitus said, glancing grimly at young Faustinus, then at Petronius Maximus, "would be one too many."


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