The Promised Snip

From The Face of A Lion, copyright 2008 by Deniz Bevan:
"Austin stood with Theseus in the doorway, hidden from the men in the room by slaves passing to and fro with food-laden trays and jugs of wine. He looked around at the portly men, slouching on divans set against the walls, some actually lying down, pulling small tables toward them and picking at the sweetmeats, fruits and pastries layered in pyramids on silver platters. Their golden jewellery and brightly coloured togas glittered in the lights from oil lamps set into niches in the walls. The pink and orange rays of the setting sun came through the arched entrance at the back of the room and lent a piercing shimmer to the purple, red and blue stripes of the men’s togas. Each noble had attempted to outdo the others, it seemed, and worn as bright a colour as he could, with no grey or brown to dim the glow. All except Theseus’ father, he noticed, who was wearing his everyday toga, plain white with only his senatorial purple stripe, without any ornaments, and who sat alone, staring unfocused at the tinkling fountain in the centre of the room.
On a large table to the left of the fountain he saw a whole lamb, roasted and garnished with mint leaves, its eyes still gaping from their sockets. Austin gagged at the sight and looked away, toward a small room off the great hall, but had to veer his gaze again as he noticed what one man inside was doing – vomiting, loudly, with his whole body heaving toward a bucket set between his legs. Finished, the man wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and returned to his place on the divans, gathering a squishy handful of figs off a slave’s tray as he passed. Austin shuddered.
It was amazing how no one seemed to notice the slaves at all, as if they were simply an extension of the trays they carried and not separate people. Another man was yelling at a slave who stood bowed before him. Austin caught a few words of the man’s anger and frowned, frustrated at the injustice of the situation. The man had spilled the wine on himself, it wasn’t the slave’s fault!
He glanced at Theseus, to see if he had noticed, but Theseus’ eyes were trained across the room. Austin followed his gaze, to see Lady Porphyry seated behind the fountain, the only woman in the room. She was also the only one sitting up straight, and on a high-backed chair, rather than lounging on cushions. There were a few young men standing next to her, leaning forward to catch her words and offering her drinks and sweets. She kept laughing and raising a hand in protest as they pressed their gifts on her.
Austin let his eyes wander, wondering why he and Theseus had been so eager to spy on the party. There was nothing of interest going on, at least not in the great hall, and everyone seemed to be concentrated in it; the rest of the house held only servants and slaves, or younger boys like himself.
The whole scene was nauseating. Only one other room led off the hall, and it was empty, except for –
'Theseus!'
Austin whispered, but was sure his excitement made his every word audible inside the hall. 'Isn’t that –?'
Theseus dragged his gaze from an argument he had been watching between two men seated nearby and looked toward the brown-haired girl Austin was pointing at.
'Oh, yea, Antonius’ sweetheart’s sister. She’s 17, you know; she’s probably here to spy on the man they’re going to marry her off to.' Theseus turned back to the argument, but the men had relapsed into a companionable indolence, and were now holding up silver glasses of wine and comparing vintages.
'Marry her off? At 17? Isn’t she too young?'
Theseus looked round at him, wide-eyed. 'Too young? Are you crazy? She’s at least three years behind all the other girls. Wonder what’s wrong with her?'
'I think she’s lovely.' Austin stared at Althea, his eyes slightly blurred by the glow of the sunset, striking the braids in her hair as she bent over, rearranging flowers in a vase.
'Look at you! Gone all soft, have you? I wouldn’t waste my time with that one, man, she’ll be an old maid soon. Antonius says to get ‘em while they’re young and I reckon he knows a sight more about girls than we do!'
'What do you think she’s doing here by herself?' A horrible thought came to him as he glanced around at the languid men. 'She’s not – she’s not going to dance for them or something is she?'
'Of course not! A nobleman's daughter? No way. Like I said, she’s spying on the men, just like us. Wonder which of the fatsos is getting her?' Theseus glanced around the room, now interested.
'Don’t say that, that’s disgusting.' He continued to stare at her, and for one wild moment she looked up in his direction, and their eyes met. He grinned, and she grinned back, as though they were sharing a private joke, both of them invisible to the men on the divans and the slaves passing between them.
She lowered her head back to the flowers, tossing her braids over one shoulder.
'I’m going to go talk to her.'

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