of Rome, March 441 A.D.]
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
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
She turned to her little Berber spear-bearer, her own age,
standing at her elbow.
do you know what makes a bear crazy?"
Evil One?" the boy speculated in his strange Latin,
which sounded like the rumble of an oxcart on gravel.
how does the Evil One make a bear crazy?" she
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
see this arm?" Adriana threatened, raising her
whip-hand and making a face at Merbal for his impudence.
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.
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.
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.
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.
tugged at Adrianaís cloak.
up there, madam!" the Berber urchin said quietly,
gesturing toward the top of the hill. "Oh, may the
gods bring him!"
held up two fingers; like all barbarians, Merbal had
trouble with numbers.
examined his monkey-face for signs of impertinence.
bear? Why are you holding up two fingers?"
bear, big enough to make two," Merbal said, covering
she asked, shading her eyes with her free hand.
cannot see him. That is why you have brought Merbal, who
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.
hound disappeared into the bushes. In a moment he emitted
a deep tone, proclaiming a discovery.
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."
nodded at the boy, who wore several strings of animal
parts around his neck as proof against the Evil Eye.
Faustinus will be sure to get there first," she
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
shrugged impatiently at the mysterious pronouncement, but
it lodged in a corner of her mind and festered there.
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.
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.
we sure itís one bear?" Adriana whispered.
two," Merbal grinned, holding up three fingers.
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.
the hounds!" Adriana heard her grandfather bawl above
the melee. "Sheíll pull the nets to pieces!"
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!
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.
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.
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.
him, soul of mud!" she shouted at Faustinus, who
will help him!" she raged.
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.
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.
Generosity," Merbal said, "the big teeth. . .
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."
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.
never easy, is it," Lady Candidaís warm voice said
behind her, "to kill something rather like
shook her head, unable to speak; her tears blurred the
older womanís sympathetic face.
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
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.
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.
Faustinus crossed their path. Aware that she had
embarrassed him in the presence of his elders, Adriana met
his eyes and turned away.
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.
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.
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.
admired your boldness up there," Lady Candida said
when they were comfortable, with their knees under a
handsome Oriental rug.
lost my head. I thought the boy would die," Adriana
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?"
my tutor, yes. My grandfather talked my father into
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
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."
hesitated, aware that the turn of phrase was not genteel.
boys would like you," Lady Candida smiled. "You
must come to our house and tell us about Africa."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Adrianaís eleventh year, the Germans came.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Candida was speaking.
really should spend more time in the city, dear," she
said in her friendly way that never seemed meddlesome.
me, but I couldnít wait to get away from it,"
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."
you think I need grammar and rhetoric to run a
household?" Adriana asked.
youíll need to defend yourself against the sophistries
of your eventual husband."
I hate my grandfatherís palace as much as he does,"
Adriana protested, "though I think not for the same
Candida knew the reason, and patted Adrianaís shoulder,
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.
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.
Plautius," the servants said afterwards. "The
Germans wrecked him; his spirit was a smoking ruin."
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.
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
the earth press lightly on him!" an old servant said
within hearing of the bishop, who frowned because the
sentiment was a pagan one.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?"
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.
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?"
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.
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.
had dozed; the dry, kindly voice of Lady Candida woke her
as the litter settled into the villa yard.
weíll have a change of pace," Lady Candida said
regretfully, "a great deal of conversation and a very
raised her sculptured eyebrows and flung up her hands.
bye, thank you," Adriana said, kissing Lady Candida
on the cheek.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
you notice? Faustinus is trying to be winsome,"
should try harder," Adriana said. "I canít
understand what you see in that fish."
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.
do I see in him? Sometimes youíre such a little
waiting to be improved," Adriana said.
pleasant to look at," Flavia said. "Heís eager
to rise in the world."
question about that," Adriana said.
got plenty of. . . . Why are you forcing me to be
Adriana volunteered, "and no pedigree to speak
ancient pedigree," Flavia hissed.
or borrowed, probably," Adriana said. "But what
does it matter with all that money and such a figure."
so thick," Flavia said scornfully. "He
has what I want, and he gives it out in big doses
if I manage him properly."
sucked in her breath. "Tonight, in fact, if I can get
out of the house without Grandfatherís finding
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.
think Iíll go talk to Avitus," Adriana said.
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.
the Lioness! How splendid!" Avitus said, catching
sight of Adrianaís pearls.
just some things I have," she responded, feeling her
cheeks flush with pleasure. "The pearls were my
grandmotherís. My grandfather sometimes lets me wear
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
annoyed," Adriana said.
She treats me as if I didnít know anything."
had a brother," Avitus said. "Heíd be about
eighty by now, I think. He used to treat me that way when
we were young."
did you do?" she asked.
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
still warm enough for a walk before I have to sleep,"
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.
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.
applied one of your lessons today," she said,
suddenly conscious of her grammar and of the need to sound
I give lessons?" Avitus asked, pretending
astonishment. "What was the lesson?"
was about death."
Avitus said, shaking his head.
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
little. Of getting hurt, not of dying."
wise, in my opinion," Avitus said.
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.
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
shrugged. "Some people are beyond understanding.
Youíd have to be like them in order to understand them.
It wouldnít be worth the price."
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.
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.
emperor Valentinian doesnít have any male heirs, does
he?" she reflected.
a dangerous subject," Avitus cautioned.
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?"
of them, Your Boldness," Avitus said firmly.
if you had to pick one. . . ."
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?"
shook her head and mused for a moment. The thought of the
shapely, mild-eyed Quintus Jovinus as boy-emperor pleased
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
you think any of those men would kill to sit on the
rewarded her with a startled look.
he nodded. "Yes, possibly. One of the boys, Iíd
say, and one of the men."
than one guess in either case," Avitus said, glancing
grimly at young Faustinus, then at Petronius Maximus,
"would be one too many."