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The most exciting thing that's happened during the last fifteen months," said Gaius Marius, "is the elephant Gaius Claudius showed at the ludi Romani."
Aelia's face lit up. "Wasn't it wonderful?" she asked, leaning forward in her chair to reach the dish of huge green olives imported from Further Spain. "To be able to stand on its back legs and walk! And dance on all four legs! And sit on a couch and feed itself with its trunk!"
Turning a contemptuous face to his wife, Lucius Cornelius Sulla said very coldly, "Why is it people are charmed to see animals aping men? The elephant is the noblest creature in the world. Gaius Claudius Pulcher's beast I found a double travesty—of man and elephant both."
The pause which followed was infinitesimal, though everyone present in the dining room was uncomfortably aware of it; then Julia diverted all eyes from the blighted Aelia by laughing merrily. "Oh, come, Lucius Cornelius, it was the absolute favorite of the whole crowd!" she said. "I know I admired it—so clever and busy!—and when it lifted its trunk and trumpeted in time to the drum—amazing! Besides," she added, "no one hurt it."
"Well, I liked its color," said Aurelia, thinking it wise to contribute her mite. "Pink!"
All of which Lucius Cornelius Sulla ignored by swiveling on his elbow and talking to Publius Rutilius Rufus.
Eyes sad, Julia sighed. "I think, Gaius Marius," she said to her husband, "that it's time we women withdrew and let you men enjoy your wine. Would you excuse us?"
Out went Marius's hand across the narrow table between his couch and Julia's chair; she lifted her own hand to clasp it warmly, and tried not to feel even sadder at the sight of his warped smile. So long now! Yet still his face bore the evidence of that insidious stroke. But what the loyal and loving wife could not admit, even to herself, was that the stroke had wrought a tiny havoc within Gaius Marius's mind; the temper that now flared too easily, the increased emphasis he placed upon largely imagined slights, a hardening in his attitude toward his enemies.
She rose, disengaged her hand from Marius's with a very special smile for him, and put the hand upon Aelia's shoulder. "Come, my dear," she said, "we'll go down to the nursery."
Aelia got up. So did Aurelia. The three men did not, though their conversation ceased until the women had gone from the room. A gesture from Marius sent the servants scurrying to clear the women's chairs from the dining room after which they too vanished. Now only the three couches remained, forming a U; to make conversation easier, Sulla shifted from where he had lain beside Marius to the vacant couch facing Rutilius Rufus. Both of them were then able to see Marius as well as they could each other.
"So Piggle-wiggle is to come home at last," said Lucius Cornelius Sulla when he was sure his detested second wife was out of earshot.
Marius shifted restlessly on the middle couch, frowning, but less direfully than of yore, for the lingering paralysis gave the left half of the grimace a mournful quality.
"What do you want to hear from me by way of answer, Lucius Cornelius?" Marius asked finally.
Sulla laughed shortly. "Why should I want anything but an honest answer? Though, you know, I did not phrase what I said as a question, Gaius Marius."
"I realize that. But it required an answer nonetheless."
"True," said Sulla. "All right, I'll rephrase it. How do you feel about Piggle-wiggle's being recalled from exile?"
"Well, I'm not singing paeans of joy," said Marius, and gave Sulla a piercing glance. "Are you?"
They have drifted subtly apart, thought Publius Rutilius Rufus, reclining on the second couch. Three years ago—or even two years ago—they could not have had such a tensely wary conversation. What happened? And whose fault is it?
"Yes and no, Gaius Marius." Sulla stared down into his wine cup. "I'm bored!" he said then through clenched teeth. "At least when Piggle-wiggle returns to the Senate, things might take an interesting turn. I miss those titanic battles you and he used to have."
"In which case, Lucius Cornelius you're going to be disappointed. I'm not going to be here when Piggle-wiggle arrives in Rome."
Both Sulla and Rutilius Rufus sat up.
"Not going to be in Rome?" asked Rutilius Rufus, squeaking.
"Not going to be in Rome," said Marius again, and grinned in sour satisfaction. "I've just remembered a vow I made to the Great Goddess before I beat the Germans. That if I won, I'd make a pilgrimage to her sanctuary at Pessinus."
"Gaius Marius, you can't do that!" said Rutilius Rufus.
"Publius Rutilius, I can! And I will!"
Sulla flopped on his back, laughing. "Shades of Lucius Gavius Stichus!" he said.
"Who?" asked Rutilius Rufus, always ready to be sidetracked if there was a possibility of gossip.
"My late lamented stepmother's late lamented nephew," said Sulla, still grinning. "Many years ago he moved into my house—it belonged to my late lamented stepmother then. His aim was to get rid of me by destroying Clitumna's fondness for me, and his thinking was that if the two of us were there together in Clitumna's house, he'd show me up. So I went away. Right away from Rome. With the result that he had nobody to show up except himself— which he did very effectively. Clitumna was fed up in no time." He rolled over, belly down now. "He died not long afterward," Sulla said reflectively, and heaved a stagey sigh through the middle of his smile. "I ruined all his plans!"
"Here's hoping then that Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus Piggle-wiggle finds his return a hollow victory," said Marius.Grass Crown. Copyright © by Colleen McCullough. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Grass Crown by Colleen McCullough
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