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Out of the Waters: Chapter Three
Last updated: Monday, May 2, 2011 01:26 EDT
The vision disappeared as suddenly as a lightning flash, leaving nothing behind but memories. Hedia was so cold inside that she continued to sit in numb silence, oblivious of the change.
The spectators, all the many thousands of them, were going wild. That’s dangerous! she realized. Fear for her husband and family broke her out of the gray chill that had bound her.
Hedia got to her feet. She wasn’t fully herself–she knocked the stool over behind her–but nobody would notice in this confusion. Alphena glanced up as Hedia walked toward the back of the Tribunal. The girl looked as though she wanted to say something, but Hedia had no time for chatter.
Servants waited in the rear of the box. Though excited, they didn’t seem worried–or anyway, not more worried than could be explained by the fact that their mistress was approaching with a hard expression
Hedia ignored her personal maid, Syra, and instead stepped close to Candidus, a deputy steward and the senior servant present. She gestured him to bend over so that she could speak into his ear and be heard.
I’ll probably have to shout anyway. Shouting was undignified, but Hedia supposed that under the circumstances she couldn’t complain about a minor indignity.
She smiled. She couldn’t change how she felt, but she was too self-aware not to be able to view herself clearly.
“Candidus, find the impresario Meoetes and tell him in the Senator’s name to draw the curtain at once,” she said, holding the lobe of the servant’s left ear between her thumb and forefinger. “At once, do you understand? And go yourself; don’t pass this off to an underling who might be disregarded.”
She wasn’t pinching him, but her touch reminded the servant that he was dealing with Hedia, not her gentle, diffident husband. Candidus would obey, without question or hesitation.
The fellow made Hedia want to slap him. Well, cane him; she certainly didn’t want her bare hand to touch his greasy skin. She had decided when she took charge of Saxa’s household that so long as the servants obeyed her instantly, she would ignore any behavior that didn’t directly touch the honor of her new family.
“At once, your ladyship!” Candidus said. He went down the stairs at the back of the Tribunal, taking each step individually but quickly.
Though a slave, Candidus affected a toga at public events like this one. The thick wool made him sweat like a broiling capon. In Hedia’s present mood, the fellow’s mere presence seemed an almost unbearable provocation.
She turned and almost cannoned into Alphena, who must have followed her. Hedia stifled a curse–she’s following me to help, but this isn’t the time for it!–and hugged her daughter by the shoulders and swung around her.
“Give me a moment, dear,” Hedia said. “I must speak to your father.”
Saxa sat with his hands on the arms of his chair, beaming and blinking. He no more understands the situation than a bull being led to the altar does! Hedia thought, then muttered a prayer that the metaphor might not be a prophecy.
Syra had righted the stool, Hedia leaned across it, graceful despite her hurry, and touched her husband’s upper arm.
“Dearest,” she said, hoping that concern wouldn’t give her voice the whip-crack edge she knew it got at times. “Get up and thank the emperor. Raise your hands for silence. When things quiet a little, say that this was done by the emperor’s gift. Make sure that at least the orchestra hears you. Do you understand?”
“What?” said Saxa. He looked at her, blinking. He seemed surprised to hear words in the midst of applause that had as little content as a crashing thunderstorm. “The emperor, my dear? No, Meoetes did all this, but he was doing it for me.”
“My lord and master,” Hedia said, chipping the words out and no longer trying to hide her frightened anger. “Tell Carce that it owes this entertainment to the emperor. Otherwise you and Meoetes and your family will be entertaining the city from the tops of crosses!”
Saxa looked blank for an instant. “Oh!” he said. “Yes, this was… this was….”
Apparently he couldn’t decide how to describe the vision any better than Hedia could have, so he lurched to his feet instead of finishing the sentence. He raised his arms. For a moment the cheers increased, but Saxa turned his palms outward as though pushing the sound away.
Hedia sank onto her stool, feeling unexpected relief. She couldn’t do anything about the glass figures of her dreams, but at least she had gotten Saxa–gotten her whole family–out of the immediate trouble. At any rate, she had done what was humanly possible to avoid immediate repercussions from this vision, this waking nightmare.
The curtain was canvas and split ceiling to floor down the middle. Ordinarily only half was used at a time, concealing set changes on a portion of the long stage. Now both right and left portions began to move toward the center, but they jerked and stuttered instead of sliding smoothly as they had before. By leaning over the railing, Hedia could see that three and four men were manhandling the heavy curtains rather than the dozen stagehands in each of the original crews.
Candidus must have carried the message successfully; that, or Meoetes had come to the same conclusion on his own. The actors still on stage looked like casualties of a gladiatorial show that the doctors and Charon–the costumed slave who drove the dead wagon–hadn’t gotten to yet.
“My fellow citizens!” Saxa said. “Hail to the noble and generous Emperor who has granted you this gift. Carce rules the world, and the Emperor is the soul of Carce!”
His voice was pitched too high to command authority, but he was managing good volume; he would be heard. Hedia nodded approvingly.
“Long live the Emperor!” Saxa said. “Long live the Emperor, our father and god!”
Cheers and the banging of sandals on stone again overwhelmed the theater. Hedia noted wryly that her husband’s fellow senators were the most enthusiastic, capering like monkeys in the orchestra. Nobody wants word to get out that he was behind-hand when everyone around him applauded the Emperor.
Hedia started to relax, but now that the immediate danger was past, memory of the dreadful glass figures returned. The memory gripped her like a hawk sinking its talons into a vole. She felt dizzy for an instant; she felt Alphena take her arm to steady her on the chair.
She recovered, straightening like the noble lady that she was. She patted her daughter’s hand affectionately.
There was something very wrong going on, but there had generally been things wrong in Hedia’s life–before her first marriage to Calpurnius Latus and most certainly ever afterwards. She had seen her way through those troubles, and she would see her way through this one also.
She had to, after all. What would poor dear Saxa and his children, her children now, do without her?
Tomorrow she would visit Anna, Corylus’ housekeeper and his former nurse. Anna was the wife of the boy’s servant Pulto–and she was a Marsian witch.
And if Anna couldn’t send away those glass nightmares, Hedia would find another way. It was her duty as a wife and mother, and as a noblewoman of Carce.
But oh! She wished Corylus was holding her now in his strong young arms!
The spectators were beginning to drift toward the exits. Corylus led his burly servant through them against the flow. Pulto would have been more than willing to force a path, but Carce wasn’t a frontier cantonment and Publius Corylus was no longer the son of a high military officer.
Still, though Corylus didn’t push people out of his way, the senator’s toady who thought to shove the youth aside got a knee in the crotch for his bad judgment. He heard Pulto chuckle behind him. I am a freeborn citizen of Carce, and I learned on the Rhine how to handle lice.
They got clear of the audience and found that the steps from the orchestra to the stage were concealed behind an offset panel. “Just like a Celtic hill fort,” Pulto said as he followed his master up them.
Corylus’ face blanked as he tried for an instant to fathom the deep inner meaning of what his servant had just said; then he smiled. There isn’t any deep inner meaning, here or ever with Pulto. He’d seen the entrances to Celtic hill forts designed the same way, so he said so.
Corylus ducked behind the curtain. A few actors were still standing on stage. One had been dressed as a naiad in silk pantaloons painted to look like a fish’s tail with flowing fins. She had stripped off her costume and stood nude, weeping desperately.
“What’s all that about, do you think, lad?” Pulto said in puzzlement.
Corylus glanced at him; they were side-by-side again. Pulto still thinks it was all stagecraft!
Picking his words carefully, Corylus said, “I think it must have surprised the actors even more than it did us in the audience. They were closer, you see.”
The performers had been inside the vision. Perhaps the effect simply blinded them, which would be frightening enough. From the stunned looks and worse on the faces of the actors he saw, the experience had been worse than that.
Pulto would realize before long that there had been more than trickery behind the vision. Corylus didn’t see any reason to hasten his servant’s discomfort, however.
And Pulto would be uncomfortable, because magic frightened him in a way that German spears did not. He knew how to divert a spear with his shield–and how to deal with the blond pig who’d thrust it, too. Magic, though, was as unfathomable as a storm at sea.
Corylus felt the same way. His smile became wry. He had too good an education, however, to allow him to pretend something hadn’t happened simply because he wished that he hadn’t seen it happen.
A great number of people waited in the wing beneath the Tribunal. A senator never went out without an entourage of both servants and clients–freemen who accompanied him in expectation of gifts, dinners, and similar perquisites. They had nothing better to do with their lives than to be parasites on a rich man.
“I wonder how they’d look in armor?” Corylus whispered to his companion.
Pulto snorted. “I’d sooner train a cohort of fencing dummies to hold the frontier,” he said. Unlike Corylus, he spoke in a normal voice. “At least they wouldn’t talk back to me. And they’d stop spears just as well as this lot.”
Besides the normal entourage and the similar band which attended Lady Hedia, Saxa had a consul’s allotment of twelve lictors. They had been hired from the Brotherhood here in Carce, though there was no absolute requirement to do so. An official who wished to save money could outfit his household servants as lictors instead.
From weapons drill, Corylus knew that it wouldn’t be as easy as a layman might think to handle the lictor’s equipment. Each man carried an axe wrapped in a bundle of rods, symbols of the consul’s right to flog and to execute.
The additional cost of professionals meant nothing to Saxa. The mental cost to him if a servant turned lictor dropped an axe on someone’s foot or spilled his rods at a gathering of dignitaries was beyond calculation.
There was room for the mob of attendants backstage: the Emperor sat in the Tribunal when he attended performances. Besides the retinue of a civilian magistrate, he was always accompanied by fifty or a hundred German bodyguards.
Corylus smiled grimly. This complex included, along with the Temple of Venus at the front and the portico and gardens behind the theater proper, a fine Senate Hall. It had not been used since the afternoon Julius Caesar was assassinated in it.
Caesar had dismissed his Spanish guards, saying that a magistrate of Carce did not need foreigners to protect him from his own people. None of his successors would be so naive.
The chief lictor watched Corylus approach, but here in the city the lictors generally took their cue from the consul’s household whose members knew their master’s friends. Manetho, a deputy steward, and Gigax, a doorman, stood to either side of the steps up to the Tribunal.
“Hullo, Master Corylus!” Gigax boomed. He would have to lose his thick Illyrian accent before he was promoted to daytime duties on the street door, but he was a good natured fellow who sometimes fenced with Corylus in Saxa’s private gym.
“I’m sure the family will be glad to see you, Master Corylus,” Manetho said. He was Egyptian by birth, but his Latin was flawless and his Greek would have served an Athenian professor. “But if you please, room is a little tight in the box…?”
“I’ll stay down here, never fear,” Pulto said. He grinned. “If you think you’ll be safe, master?”
From being raped by Hedia, he means, Corylus thought. She wouldn’t do that! She’s a lady!
He blushed, and an instant later blessed Fortune that Pulto hadn’t completed his thought aloud. That was the sort of joke that soldiers told one another. It would not be a good idea in the middle of the household of the husband, who was also Consul of Carce.
“One moment!” said another voice sharply. Candidus, also a deputy steward, was crossing from the other wing of the stage at a mincing trot. “Manetho, you’re exceeding your authority. Exceeding your authority again, I should say!”
Manetho turned toward his fellow servant, hunching his shoulders like a Molossian hound about to tackle a boar. Corylus made his face blank, but mentally he grimaced. If only he’d hopped up the stairs a few heartbeats quicker! An outsider had nothing to gain by becoming the token by which a rich man’s powerful servants battled over status.
“Manetho,” called Varus from the top of the stairs, “my friend Corylus–oh, there you are, Publius! I saw you coming this way. I was just telling Manetho to send you up as soon as you got here.”
“I was just doing that, your lordship,” said Manetho unctuously. “Despite some Bithynian buffoon trying to prevent you from meeting your friend.”
Corylus had never known where Candidus came from originally: the fellow had no accent. Apparently he’d been born in Bithynia….
Corylus took the steps in three long strides. He wasn’t bothered by the number of people in the crowd beneath the Tribunal, but the fact they were divided into factions was disturbing. Saxa and his wife had rival establishments, and the lictors were a further element. Add that the individual servants got along badly with one another–as witness the scene of a moment before–and the emotional temperature was very high.
At least in a battle, there’s only two sides, Corylus thought. He smiled.
Varus clasped hands with Corylus at the top of the steps. They’d become surprisingly close in the months since they’d met as students of Pandareus of Athens.
Corylus quirked a smile as he edited his own thoughts: it surprised him to be close to a senator’s son, certainly; and he suspected it surprised Varus to be close to anybody at all. They were both outsiders in Pandareus’ class, but Varus must have been an outsider all his life.
Saxa was still looking out over the hollow of the theater. He seemed dazed, but Corylus thought his vague smile was sincere.
Pandareus stood close to the senator but not with him. The Greek had moved back from the railing, but he hadn’t chosen to join Varus until he was summoned.
A foreigner who moved in the highest levels of Carce’s society had to be extremely careful not to give offense. Varus wasn’t the sort to snarlingly order an uppity Greek to take himself off, but Pandareus was showing his present hosts the same punctilious courtesy that might have saved him from a beating if they had been, say, Calpurnius Piso–another of his present students.
Candidus reentered the Tribunal and murmured to Saxa, who suddenly came alert. He began giving the steward instructions, tapping his finger up and down in animation. Candidus bowed and disappeared down the stairs again.
Alphena and her stepmother talked intently at the back corner of the box while their maids hovered attentively. Alphena was an enthusiastic girl, but she had generally seemed to Corylus to be angry about something. Now she looked happily transfigured.
Hedia, on the other hand…. Corylus had seen Varus’ stepmother both icily calm, her public face, and letting her warmth and quick intelligence show when she relaxed in private. This was a different woman: frozen in the way a rabbit freezes when the weasel hops toward it.
“Did you see the three men with Sempronius Tardus?” Varus said without preamble. “Where did they go, did you notice? Because they weren’t in the audience after I came back. Or Tardus either, but we know who he is.”
Came back from where? Corylus thought, but the whole line of questioning had surprised him. Not for the first time, of course. Varus’ rank as the son of Gaius Alphenus Saxa gave him access to every library in Carce; he read voraciously and apparently never forgot a word of the contents.
But Varus tended to forget that other people didn’t have the same wide background as he did–and that they hadn’t been listening to his thoughts to give them a context for whatever he said. Talking with him was often like having fragments of messages fall from the sky to your feet.
“I saw the attendants,” Corylus said simply. He would get the context by listening carefully to his friend, and it seemed to him that answering the questions was as easy and far more useful than chattering a series of silly questions of his own. “I thought one of them might be a Moor, but I’ve never seen anybody like the other two. I didn’t notice where they went after the performance. I was concerned with getting through the crowd to find you.”
Varus made a moue. “It can’t be helped,” he said. “And anyway, questioning them might not bring us any closer to an answer.”
“I don’t even know what the question is,” said Corylus, smiling but nonetheless bluntly truthful. “What did you notice about Tardus’ servants that caused you to ask?”
Pandareus raised an eyebrow over Varus’ shoulder. Corylus caught the gesture and beckoned him. Pandareus might know no more than his students did–which in Corylus’ case at least was nothing at all–but his age and authority made everything nearby seem more stable
“That I could see them at all,” Varus said. “When I looked into the audience when the vision was at its height, I… it was as if I were on a mountain, looking over the tops of the clouds. Except for those three men, whom I’d noticed with Tardus. But I didn’t see Tardus or any of the other senators.”
He looked at their teacher. “Master Pandareus, did you see them?” he asked.
“I noticed them with Commissioner Tardus,” Pandareus said, using the senator’s title as a member of the Commission for the Sacred Rites. “I wondered what tribe they might be from.”
He made a deprecating smile. “I was planning to ask my friend Priscus–”
Marcus Atilius Priscus, also a member of the commission, and according to Pandareus, the most learned man in Carce. Priscus in turn assigned that honor to Pandareus.
“–to introduce me to Tardus so that I could learn more. Ethnicities are something of a hobby with me.”
He turned his palms up, as if to show that they were empty. He went on, “I didn’t see them during the, well, vision is as good a word as any. I might have missed them, however, because I was so engrossed in the vision itself.”
“Master?” Varus said, licking his dry lips. “Could the city we were seeing be Atlantis?”
“I suppose it could…,” Pandareus said, pursing his lips. “If Atlantis existed, that is. Do you have reason to believe that it does exist, Lord Varus?”
“I was told it did in a dream,” said Varus with a lopsided smile. “At any rate, I’m going to call it a dream for want of a better word. I was told that Typhon was destroying Atlantis.”
“Ah!” said Pandareus. “What we saw fits the descriptions of Typhon in Hesiod and Apollodorus quite well. Rather better than the city matches the Poseidonis of Plato, in fact. Though I always believed that both were mythical.”
Pandareus smiled like a cheerful parrot. “I would rather Atlantis would be real than Typhon, from what we are told,” he said. “But I suppose our wishes in the matter aren’t controlling.”
Corylus coughed apologetically. “Master?” he said. “Speaking of dreams–you were visited by the sage Menre in the past. Have you dreamed of him again?”
“I’m not sure that I ever dreamed of Menre,” Pandareus said, smiling faintly to take the sting out of his correction. “I believe I saw a man named Menre, yes; and he claimed to be an Alexandrian scholar who helped Demetrius of Phalerum create the Museum three hundred years ago… which certainly implies that I was dreaming.”
He turned his palms up again, then closed them. “But this is a quibble, I know,” he said. “The answer that matters is that I have not received further advice from Menre, in dreams or otherwise.”
Varus hunched in on himself, looking as lost and miserable as a kitten caught in a thunderstorm. Corylus hesitated, then put his arm around his friend’s shoulders. Let people think what they bloody care to!
“Master…,” Varus said. He started in a mumble with his face downcast. Remembering that he was speaking to his teacher, he caught hold of himself and straightened; Corylus stepped back.
Varus resumed in a firm voice, “Master, I believe Carce and the world are in danger. You can put that to my dream also, if you like.”
“I share your belief in coming danger,” Pandareus said in a dry tone, “I believe the vision everyone in this theater will cause the Senate to call for examination of the Sibylline Books. At least it will if anyone beyond the three of us recognized what was happening.”
“I’m pretty sure Meoetes and the stage company have figured that out,” said Varus. He had recovered enough to smile wryly. “Though what actors and stagehands say won’t carry much weight with the Senate.”
“And I don’t see much reason to convince anyone that it should,” Corylus said. “Consulting the Sibylline Books in a crisis is a custom with the weight of six hundred years of tradition behind it, but I don’t believe that it’s a practical answer to the thing that threatens us. Whatever that thing is.”
“Yes,” said Varus. “That’s what I thought too.”
Taking a deep breath, he looked from Corylus to Pandareus and went on, “Which is why I hoped that your mentor–Menre that is–would have suggested a path for us to follow. Otherwise we have nothing.”
Corylus exchanged glances with their teacher. Then he said, “In the past, Gaius, you provided the direction for us by quoting the Sibylline Books.”
Varus had never seen the books, nor would he be allowed to unless he were elected to the Commission for the Sacred Rites. He probably would be so elected; but not for perhaps forty years, when he had become a senior senator rather than merely a youth of learning. Nonetheless, responses from the Books had come from his mouth; though not from his conscious mind, he had said.
“I was told that if Atlantis was destroyed, then all the world was doomed unless Zeus again slew Typhon,” Varus said, shaking his head slowly. “And it was strongly implied that Zeus didn’t exist. I don’t see that this is very helpful.”
“Well, I’m pleased to have my skepticism about the Olympian gods to be confirmed by such a respectable source as the Sibylline Books,” Pandareus said. His humor was so dry that even if Varus’ superstitious father overheard, he wouldn’t be shocked by the sacrilege. “Perhaps more will be offered to you later. As for me–”
Candidus brushed Pandareus as he bustled into the Tribunal, looking self-satisfied and important. He went immediately to Saxa.
Resuming with a faint smile, Pandareus said, “I will put my head together with my friend Priscus. We will peruse his remarkable library to see what we can find relating to Atlantis and to Typhon.”
“Master Pandareus?” said Saxa, joining them to Corylus’ amazement. From the expressions of Varus and Pandareus–the Greek lost all expression as he turned to face the senator–it was an equal surprise to his companions.
“I’ve just invited my colleague Marcus Priscus to dinner tomorrow night,” Saxa said. “I’m hoping you will be able to join us. I cannot imagine a more worthy addition to a learned dinner than you, Master.”
Amazingly–given the difference in their ranks–Saxa bowed to Pandareus. The teacher bowed in return, careful to dip lower than the senator had. “I would he honored, my lord,” he said.
Corylus felt a twinge of pity for Varus’ father. For all his wealth and position, Saxa really wanted to be known as a wise man. It was his misfortune to be intelligent enough to realize that he wasn’t wise.
Hedia left Alphena standing by herself and touched her husband’s shoulder. When he turned, she whispered in his ear.
“Ah, yes!” said Saxa. “Varus, would you care to invite your friend Master Corylus to join us as well? He has a reputation for learning, and I believe he’s already acquainted with Marcus Priscus.”
Corylus’ expression hardened. Before Varus could react, he said, “My lord, much as I would like to join you and your distinguished guests, I have a previous engagement. I regret that I must therefore refuse your generosity.”
Corylus would be eating in his own apartment, as usual. That suited him; and it did not suit him to be a rich man’s toady. Even less did he wish to dance attendance on the rich man’s wife….
“What?” said Saxa in obvious puzzlement. No one in his social circle expected lesser men to turn down a free meal prepared by his excellent chef. “What? Ah, of course, of course. Well, another time.”
He started down the stairs, beaming again with the success of his entertainment. That applause, Corylus realized, was what had given him the courage to invite Atilius Priscus, whose real erudition was the standard to which Saxa vainly aspired.
Hedia glanced after her husband, then gave Corylus a knowing smile as she returned to Alphena’s side. Corylus watched her, then realized Alphena was glaring at him.
The light in the Tribunal wasn’t good. Corylus hoped that his blush wasn’t as obvious as it felt when it painted his cheeks.
Alphena turned away. She was suddenly angry with the whole world, starting with herself. She didn’t know why she couldn’t control these rushes of anger whenever she saw Corylus looking at her stepmother, and it made her furious.
Hedia’s maid Syra babbled, “What a hideous monster! Meoetes should be whipped for building something so terrible! Why, if there were any expecting mothers in the audience, it’ll be Juno’s mercy if they don’t miscarry, it was so awful!”
Alphena felt her face go white, then blaze red again. Her skin tingled as she turned to the servant.
Syra was talking to Florina, the maid who had been assigned to serve Alphena for the ten days which would end tomorrow. Alphena hadn’t chosen a personal staff, so Agrippinus, the major domo, rotated servants through her suite for various periods.
Alphena suspected that serving her was regarded as a punishment posting. In the past that would have pleased her. More recently she had been reconsidering her attitude, but right now there was room for nothing but fury in her mind.
“You little snip!” she said. “What do you mean by calling him a monster? He was a man, and a very distinguished man at that! Even if he was a foreigner.”
Florina hadn’t been speaking; even so she closed her eyes and began to tremble. Servants were not to talk in the presence of their owners unless they were directed to. Syra was on informal terms with her mistress, but there was no one to protect Florina from whatever torture the daughter of the house chose to inflict.
Syra, however, stood as though she’d been spitted on a javelin. Yes, she knew a great deal about Hedia’s life away from her husband’s house, but she didn’t imagine that would save her if Alphena really wanted her flayed. Alphena was, after all, a fellow aristocrat; and Syra knew that she shouldn’t have been chattering.
Though Syra would wonder–everyone in the Tribunal would be wondering–why Lady Alphena was so exercised at two maids discussing the recent stage presentation. That outside view of her behavior brought Alphena down from the heights of rage that she had climbed unaware.
Alphena relaxed, stepping back mentally from a battle she was losing. She took a deep breath, let it out, and gave a dismissive wave with her left hand.
“Never mind, girls,” she said. Florina was a year older than Alphena; Syra was five or six years older than that. “I’m wasting my time discussing such a thing.”
“I hadn’t realized it was a man in costume myself,” Hedia said from beside Alphena. “To tell the truth–”
She glanced at the maids. They hopped backward to the railing, getting as far as they could from their mistresses. Syra still looked white and tears were running down Florina’s cheeks.
I’d like to slap the little chit! Alphena thought. Then, as sudden as the flash of anger, she felt a rush of revulsion at her behavior. I wouldn’t treat a kitten that way. Why do I do it to a woman? A girl!
“As a matter of fact…,” Hedia said, now that the maids were making a point of being in a completely different world in which they could neither see nor hear their betters. She looked sidelong at Alphena. “I was afraid it wasn’t stagecraft at all. I was afraid that it was a vision of things that might be real if our fates took a wrong turn.”
“I don’t know what it was,” Alphena mumbled, wrapping her arms around herself.
“Daughter,” Hedia said sharply. “Are you all right?”
Alphena came to herself. Her father was going down the stairs; preparing to return home, she supposed. She would like to go back now also, but Hedia obviously had things to say. She owed her life to her mother; and she certainly owed Hedia more courtesy than she had just showed her.
“I’m sorry, mother,” Alphena said, touching the back of Hedia’s wrist contritely. “I didn’t think it was a stage trick either. I don’t think it could have been.”
She cast her mind back to the vision. “Do you recall the walls of the city?” she said. “And the ball on the top of the tallest spire? You saw them?”
“Yes, of course,” said Hedia, her eyes narrowing as she searched for meaning in what her daughter was saying. “They were gold, weren’t they?”
“They were orichalc,” Alphena said flatly. “Not brass like the edge trimming for shields that people call orichalc, but the real thing. I….”
She broke off and glanced toward the maids. Florina closed her eyes, her face scrunching in terror. She at least probably wouldn’t be able to remember her name, let alone what she might hear today in the Tribunal; and neither she nor Syra was close enough to understand anything Alphena said in a normal voice.
“I saw orichalc where I was before you found me and brought me back, mother,” Alphena said, touching Hedia’s wrist again, but this time not removing her fingers. That had been in a place of magic and terror, to which Hedia had come to rescue her. She saved my life. “You can’t mistake orichalc if you’ve seen it once. Because of the fire in it.”
“Ah,” said Hedia, shrugging. “I thought that might be sunset on gold, but in all truth I wasn’t paying much attention. I was….”
Hedia’s eyes had been unfocused; or anyway, focused on something a great distance away. She turned her gaze on Alphena again. This time there she wore a guarded, uncertain–perhaps uncertain; the light was bad–expression.
“You saw the walls, dear?” Hedia said. Her smile was false, but it had a trembling innocence instead of the brittle gloss Alphena had seen her show the world in normal times. “You mentioned that you did. I suppose you saw the people on the battlements, too? The figures, I mean?”
“Yes,” said Alphena. “Some of them wore orichalc armor, yes. And each of the flying ships had a helmsman in orichalc armor, too. That’s what you mean?”
She suddenly felt uncomfortable. There was something wrong with Hedia, but Alphena didn’t know what. Framing the question in that fashion made her realize how much she had come to count on her stepmother’s ruthless calm in the past ten days.
“No!” Hedia the older woman, her anger as unexpected as Alphena’s own had been some moments earlier. Hedia’s expression chilled; she tapped her left cheek with her fingertips, symbolically punishing herself for a lapse of control.
“I’m sorry, dear, I’m not myself,” she said. “No, I meant the… that is, did you see glass statues on the battlements? And yes, in the ships as well. But they moved.”
“Yes,” Alphena said carefully. “I saw them and I don’t understand. But I saw the ships flying, and I didn’t understand that either.”
She wondered how she could avoid provoking Hedia into another outburst, when she had no idea of what she had done before. She felt a rueful humor, but it didn’t reach her lips: Syra and Florina were probably wondering the same thing about me. Then she thought, I won’t do that again to servants.
“But you saw them and you saw them move,” Hedia said. “As if they were men.”
Alphena lifted her chin in agreement. “Yes,” she said. “But I wasn’t… I was looking at the….”
Varus was still talking earnestly with Corylus and their teacher. The two maids were trying to force their way into the stuccoed brick wall at the back of the box, and the male servants had gone down the steps with Saxa.
“I thought just for an instant saw I saw a, well, a monster that was all legs and arms,” Alphena said. She didn’t know why she was so embarrassed to admit that. “But then I saw he was a man, wading in the sea. I shouldn’t wonder if he was a king himself, or a priest. He wasn’t a monster, mother.”
Hedia looked at her and quirked a smile. Suddenly the familiar personality was back, the calm sophisticate who laughed merrily and, in season, killed as coldly as a Egyptian viper.
“If you say so, dear,” she said. “I suppose whether it was a man or a monster doesn’t matter a great deal, given that the rest of what we saw–I saw, at least–didn’t make any more sense than a monster tearing a city apart did.”
Hedia pursed her lips as she considered Alphena. “Once before you came with me on a visit to Pulto’s wife,” she said. “Now I have other questions that a Marsian witch might be able to answer. Would you care to join me tomorrow, dear?”
“To ask about the…,” Alphena said. “About what you say is a monster?”
“No,” said Hedia, suddenly distant again. “To ask about the glass men.”
“I’ll come,” Alphena said. “I’d come anyway, mother. I want to help you. However I can.”
Hedia patted Alphena’s shoulder and said, “I’ll inform Pulto of what we intend. Up here in front of Corylus, so that he won’t object.”
Hedia stepped over to Syra and gave crisp directions, leaving Alphena with her thoughts.
I don’t know why I care. But he’s not a monster.
“Master?” Varus said Hedia’s maid had gone down to the stage floor a moment earlier; now she was returning. “Could I–and Publius, if he wishes, of course. Could we help you and Lord Priscus in his library. We–”
Pulto was coming up behind the maid with his head lowered. He showed all the enthusiasm of a barbarian being dragged along the Sacred Way behind the Emperor’s triumphal chariot.
Corylus’ head whipped around; Varus stopped before the next syllable. Pandareus waited politely a moment for Varus to finish, then turned also.
“Thank you for attending me, Master Pulto,” Hedia said, strolling across the Tribunal to where Varus and his companions stood. Pulto turned his head to follow her. At the top of the steps he was already within arm’s length of Corylus; the Tribunal wasn’t meant for large gatherings.
“My daughter and I…,” Hedia said, halting beside Corylus but keeping her eyes on his servant. “Intend to call upon your wife tomorrow morning, while Master Corylus–”
Only now did she glance at Corylus, giving him a neutral smile.
“–is in classes with Lord Varus.”
Another nod, another pleasant smile. When Saxa first brought home his new wife, Varus had been amazed and more than a little disgusted. He wasn’t a member of the fast set or interested in its gossip, but even a bookish youth who spent his time at lectures rather than at drinking parties heard things.
In the past six months Varus had observed his stepmother closely, seeing both her public and her private faces. She was–he was sure she was–everything which rumor had painted her, but she was also a great deal more.
Varus no longer marveled why his father would have married Hedia. Now he wasn’t at all sure why she had been willing to marry Saxa.
“I hope you’ll inform Anna of our intent, will you not?” Hedia concluded.
Pulto raised his head. He lifted his chin in assent, but though he seemed to be trying to speak, his throat swelled over the words.
“Your ladyship,” Corylus said smoothly, “my man and I will be glad to carry your message when we return to the apartment.”
He bowed slightly, then said, “Pulto, you may wait below if you wish. I don’t know how long I’ll be.”
“Thank you, master,” Pulto grunted. He ducked down the steps as though he were avoiding a sleet of German javelins.
He’d probably prefer dealing with javelins to magic. Varus grimaced, feeling sorry for the man. Hedia must have come to the same conclusions about what happened here as Corylus and I did.
There was a surprised yelp from the stairway. Candidus reappeared, rubbing his shoulder with an outraged expression. He must have thought his rank in Saxa’s household gave him precedence on the stairs over a knight’s servant. That neglected the fact that the servant was a freeborn citizen who had an old soldier’s disdain for someone he might himself have sent off for sale as his portion of the loot following a battle.
Varus didn’t resume the interrupted discussion, waiting instead to see why Candidus had returned. The servant bowed low to Hedia and said, “Your ladyship, his lordship your husband wishes me to inform you that he is returning to the house. Do you intend to accompany him, please?”
“Yes,” said Hedia. “Lady Alphena and I will be pleased to attend his lordship. Come along, dear.”
There had been a moment’s hesitation–a conscious weighing of alternatives–before she spoke, but it was so brief that Varus would not have recognized it a few months ago. Nothing Hedia did was simple or automatic, but her mind was so quick that it seemed so unless one paid attention.
“Candidus–” Varus said, then caught himself. He had been about to give a simple, automatic order, when an instant’s reflection on the squabble he’d seen beneath the box would have warned him that there would be a problem if he did.
“My dear sister?” he resumed, smiling broadly because he was amused by himself. “Would you please tell Manetho that I may be up here with my friends for some while? I will call down to him if I want anything.”
Don’t bother me, and don’t try to badger me into rushing back to the house so that my escort of servants can eat and dice and generally relax in the luxury of a rich man’s townhouse.
Hedia grinned at Varus in delight. She may have been the only person present–besides the servants–who understood what he had done. Alphena didn’t have to maneuver that way, because the staff was too frightened of her temper to volunteer anything, least of all a suggestion, to her.
Pandareus cocked his head to the side as he spoke, looking oddly birdlike. When lecturing or delivering speeches to his class, he had a forceful, direct delivery which made him seem both authoritative and harsh.
“Why is your man Pulto displeased at Hedia visiting his wife?” he asked Corylus.
“Pulto doesn’t like magic,” Corylus said. “He believes Anna is a witch and–begging your pardon, Varus?”
Varus shrugged. He said, “You won’t offend my family honor by speaking the truth, Publius.”
“Well,” Corylus said, “he believes Lady Hedia and her daughter are visiting Anna to get a charm or spell or something. And by implication, I just told him I approve of what Anna will be asked to do.”
“I don’t believe in witchcraft,” Varus mused aloud. He smiled ruefully at his companions. “Given the things that I’ve seen and therefore accept–and the things that I’ve done, for that matter–that is clearly irrational behavior on my part.”
Pandareus shrugged. “Believing in elephants, Lord Varus,” he said, “doesn’t require that one also believe in dragons.”
Varus laughed. “Unfortunately, master,” he said, “I’ve seen a dragon also. And you were with me when it happened, the first time at least. And I very much fear–”
Still smiling–Pandareus’ indirect joke had broken the uncomfortable mood–he looked toward the stage where mere minutes ago he had seen a monster ripping apart an island.
“–that if I spent much time around Pulto’s wife, I would find myself believing in witchcraft as well. Which would distress me, as I consider such beliefs to be infallible proof that the holder is a superstitious yokel.”
Pandareus spoke. Varus heard the sound but not the words. At the moment laughter relaxed him, his grip on present reality loosened.
Varus was drifting into the mist in which he met the Sibyl. His companions continued talking, apparently unaware of what was happening to him.
He was climbing a trail through jagged mountains. The encircling cloud was too thick for him to see much beyond the length of his arm, but the sun scattered rainbows around the edges of outcrops.
Varus trudged on. He was never sure of time when he was in this place–or in this state, for a better word. Something large moved in the bright blur; coming toward him… and it was past, crossing the path ahead of him. It walked on two legs, but even bent over–as it was–it stood twice his height and taller than any man. Its long hair rustled, and it had the sharp, dry odor of fresh sawdust.
Can I die here? Varus thought. Then, smiling like the philosopher he wished to be, Does it matter if I do?
He came out into sunlight so bright that in the waking world, the contrast should have made him blink and sneeze. The Sibyl waited at the edge of a precipice which plunged off in the opposite direction. Every wrinkle of her face, every fold of her soft gray garment, was sharply visible. She had thrown back her hood so that she stood in a halo of her thick silver hair.
“Greetings, Sibyl!” Varus said. He bowed, then straightened. “Why did you call me here again?”
“Greetings, Lord Varus,” the old woman said. “Who am I to summon you? You are real, Lord Magician, and I am only the thing your powers have created.”
Varus looked out toward a great city far below. It was a moment before he recognized Carce, lying along the Tiber River and spreading in all directions from the villages which were its genesis.
Instead of the familiar Alban Hills to the southeast, the horizon lived and crawled forward on myriad legs. Tentacles flayed the ground to rock as bare as this on which the Sibyl stood. Typhon, growing with each innumerable step, advanced on Carce.
“Sibyl…?” Varus said, sick at what he was seeing. How long before that vision is the reality which my neighbors see loom above Carce’s ancient walls? “What am I do? Where do we look for the answer, my friends and I?”
“I am a tool that your mind uses, Lord Varus,” the old woman said. Her tone was that of a kindly mother to a child who demands to know the secrets of life. “I exist only through your powers. You know the answer to your questions.”
“I know nothing!” Varus said. “I know–”
Immeasurable and inexorable, Typhon crashed across villas and the tombs on the roads leading out of the city. Varus’ view shifted from the danger to a house on the slopes of the Palatine Hill, facing the Citadel and great temples on the Capitoline across the Forum. It was still luxurious, though it had been built to the standards of an older, less grandiose, time.
That’s the house of the Sempronii Tardi, Varus thought. He had visited it a year past to read the manuscripts of three plays of Ennius which, as best he could determine, existed nowhere else in the city.
“You know all that I know, Lord Varus,” said the Sibyl, smiling. Then she lifted her face and cackled to the heavens, “There is a dear land, a nurturer to men, which lies inn the plain. The Nile forms all its boundaries, flowing–”
Varus was in the Tribunal with his startled friends. Corylus held his shoulders; Pandareus had taken his right hand in both of his own.
In a strained voice, Varus heard himself shout, “–by Libya and Ethiopia!”
“It’s all right, Gaius,” Corylus was saying. “Here, lean against the railing and we’ll get a chair back up here for you.”
Varus shook his head, partly to scatter the drifting tendrils of cloud.
“No,” he said. He hacked to clear his throat, then resumed in a firm voice and standing straight, “I’m quite all right.”
The humor of what he had just said struck him, so he asked, “Well, I’m all right now. But thank you for holding me, Publius, because mentally I was in a different place for a time.”
“You were speaking of Egypt,” Pandareus said. He considered for a moment with his head cocked sideways, then said, “A voice spoke which didn’t sound at all like yours but came from your throat. Was speaking of Egypt. What bearing does Egypt have on our situation?”
“I don’t know,” Varus said. He shook his head ruefully, remembering the way he had said the same thing to the Sibyl in his…. His dream? His waking reverie?
He considered the whole dream, frowned, and said, “I saw–I focused on, I mean; I saw all Carce. But I focused on the townhouse of Commissioner Tardus. I suppose I might have been thinking about him because of the strangers who accompanied him in the theater.”
“It’s equally probable,” said Corylus, “that the thing that disturbed you in the theater is the same thing that you saw, saw or sensed or whatever, in the vision you just experienced. That’s what you did, isn’t it? Have a vision?”
Varus bobbed his chin up in agreement. “Yes,” he said. “I saw Typhon starting to destroy Carce. It was much bigger than what we all saw here in the theater, but it was clearly the same creature. Then I was looking at Tardus’ house.”
“If we assume that the connection with Egypt is important…,” Pandareus said. He was in professorial mode again; he turned his right palm outward to forestall the objections to his logic.
“Then the crypt to the god Sarapis beneath the house of the Sempronii Tardi might explain the cause.”
“But, master?” said Corylus. “Private temples to Serapis–”
Varus noted that his friend pronounced the god’s name in Latin fashion while Pandareus had used Greek.
“–were closed by order of the Senate more than eighty years ago. Were they not?”
Pandareus chuckled. “Very good, my legalistic friend,” he said. “But my understanding–purely as a scholar, of course–is that the Senator Sempronius Tardus of the day chose discretion rather than to strictly obey to the order closing private chapels. His successors have continued to exercise discretion, since closing the chapel now would call attention to the past.”
He shrugged. “I’m told this, you understand–” probably by Atilius Priscus, but Pandareus would never betray his source “–but it’s entirely a private matter. The aristocracy of Carce do not open their temples–or their family secrets–to curious Greeklings, however interested in philosophy and religion.”
Varus sucked in his lips to wet them. “I think,” he said, “that Commissioner Tardus would open his house to the authority of a consul.”
Pandareus and Corylus both looked at him sharply. “Will your father help us in this?” the teacher said.
“I think he might do so at my request,” said Varus.
He smiled. Looked at in the correct way, everything is political. He said, “And I’m quite sure he will obey his wife in the matter. Judging from Hedia’s actions, she is just as concerned about this business as the three of us are.”
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