Basil made a gesture of repugnance. ’Nay, call her the daughter of Theodenantha.’
’As you will. In any case the granddaughter of a king, and not likely to be quite forgotten by the royal family of her own race. Another king’s grandchild, Matasuntha, lives, as you know, at Byzantium, and enjoys no little esteem at the Emperor’s court; it is rumoured, indeed, that her husband Vitiges, having died somewhere in battle, Matasuntha is to wed a nephew of Justinian. This lady, I am told, desires to know the daughter of Ebri—nay, then, of Theodenantha; of whom, it seems, a report has reached her. A command of the Emperor has come to Bessas that the maiden Veranilda, resident at Cumae, be sent to Constantinople with all convenient speed. And upon me, O Basil, lies the charge of seeking her in her dwelling, and of conveying her safely to Rome, where she will be guarded until—’
‘Will be guarded!’ echoed Basil fiercely. ’Nay, by the holy Peter and Paul, that will she not! You are my friend, Marcian, and I hold you dear, but if you attempt to obey this order—’
Hand on dagger, and eyes glaring, the young noble had sprung to his feet. Marcian did not stir; his head was slightly bent, and a sad smile hovered about his lips.
‘O descendant of all the Anicii,’ he replied, ’O son of many consuls, remember the ancestral dignity. Time enough to threaten when you detect me in an unfriendly act. Did I play the traitor to you at Cumae? With the Hun this command of Justinian served you in good stead; Veranilda would not otherwise have escaped so easily. Chorsoman, fat-witted as he is, willingly believed that Veranilda and Aurelia, and you yourself, were all in my net—which means the net of Bessas, whom he fears. Do you also believe it, my good Basil?’
For answer Basil embraced his friend, and kissed him on either cheek.
‘I know how this has come about,’ he said; and thereupon related the story of the visit of Olybrius to Aurelia six months ago. It seemed probable that a report of Veranilda’s beauty had reached Matasuntha, who wished to adorn her retinue with so fair a remnant of the Amal race. How, he went on to ask, would Marcian excuse himself at Rome for his failure to perform this office?
‘Leave that to my ingenuity,’ was the reply. ’Enough for you to dare defiance of the Emperor’s will.’
Basil made a scornful gesture, which his friend noted with the same melancholy smile.
‘You have no misgiving?’ said Marcian. ’Think who it is you brave. Imperator Caesar Flavius Justinianus—Africanus, Gothicus, Germanicus, Vandalicus, and I know not what else—Pius, Felix, Inclytus, Victor ac Triumphator, Semper Augustus—’
The other laid a hand upon his shoulder.
‘Marcian, no word of this to Aurelia, I charge you!’
’I have no desire to talk about it, be assured. But it is time that we understood each other. Be plain with me. If you wed Veranilda how do you purpose to secure your safety? Not, I imagine, by prostrating yourself before Bessas. Where will you be safe from pursuit?’