Legions Of Fire – Snippet 02

If the doorman had been more observant he would’ve noticed that. He’d been picked for his impressive appearance rather than his brains, though: he was broad-shouldered and well over six feet tall, with blond, lustrous shoulder-length hair.

Sneering at the two narrow purple bands on the hem of Corylus’ toga, he said with a strong South German accent, “Around to the back entrance if you’re looking for a handout. The Senator’s hours for receiving riffraff are long past.”

“Do you suppose he’s one of the scum my father dragged to Carce in chains?” Corylus said, speaking German in a louder-than-conversational voice.

“Might be a bastard of mine, young master,” Pulto rumbled back. “Venus knows the brothels at Vetera were mostly staffed with Suebian whores. About all the use I ever found for a Suebian, come to think.”

From deeper inside the house, a female servant called cheerfully, “Agrippinus, you’d better get out here fast or you’re going to have to replace the new doorman!”

The German had reached for the cudgel behind him, but the maid’s voice penetrated his thick blond hair as jeweler’s deference had not. Red-faced, he straightened. “Whom shall I announce, gentlemen?” he croaked.

“Publius Corylus, a Knight of Carce –” as indicated by the twin stripes on the toga; a member of the middle class and very much below a senator in rank “– and his companion Marcus Pulto, by appointment to attend the public reading by their friend Gaius Alphenus Varus,” Corylus said, speaking this time in formal Latin.

He was shaking with reaction. For a moment everything had blurred to gray in his sight except the necessary parts of the German’s body. Grab the left wrist and twist hard so that the blond head crashed into the transom. Pulto would kick the German’s knee sideways, breaking it, so Corylus could topple him into the street where they would both work him over with their boots . . . .

“Master Corylus, how delightful to see you again!” said Agrippinus, Saxa’s major domo: plump, oiled, and very smooth. He spoke Latin like an aristocrat of Carce and Greek like an Athenian philosopher, but he was a former slave who’d been born in Spain. “And how pleased Lord Varus will be that you’re present for his literary triumph! Please, let me lead you into the Black-and-Gold Hall where Lord Varus will be reading.”

Corylus had visited the house scores of times. Agrippinus knew he didn’t need a guide, but it was important that the doorman learn that the youth was a friend of the family rather than being one of the parasites who haunted great men’s doors in hopes of an invitation to fill out the dinner party. To underscore the fact, the major domo said over his shoulder, “I’ll want to have a discussion with you, Flavus, when Gigax relieves you at nightfall.”

Agrippinus minced quickly through the entrance hall. Half a dozen servants stood there around the pool which caught rainwater from the in-sloping roof. They bowed, but Corylus suspected the gesture was paid not to the visitors but to the major domo. Agrippinus’ present aura of pompous formality was even more impressive than his toga of bleached wool with gold embroidery.

Instead of continuing on into the office which was in line with the entrance, Agrippinus turned right to enter the portico surrounding the large garden in the center of the house. Saxa’s house had no exterior windows on the ground floor, but the garden acted as a light well and also provided flowers and fruit in a bustling city. The roofs over this main section of the house fed the pool in the middle of the garden, but they did so through downspouts and sunken pipes.

The Black-and-Gold Hall interrupted the portico in the middle of the east side, opening directly onto the garden for the maximum of light. Ornate frames of gold paint separated the black panels of the walls, each of which had a golden miniature of a fanciful creature in the center. The dais on which Varus would read was against the back wall, but there was a triple lamp stand to either side.

Just now Varus stood stiffly beside the dais. He was talking with Pandareus, who taught public speaking to a class of twelve youths including Varus and Corylus.

Varus and Corylus also learned to love literature and Truth. Their classmates saw no value to literature except to add colors to an oration — and as for Truth, if they ever thought about it, was a danger which successful attorneys shunned.

“By Hercules, the bloody room’s full!” muttered Pulto. He sounded amazed. So was Corylus, because the statement was undeniably true.

“Please come to the front, Master Corylus,” Agrippinus said, starting down the center aisle. The room, thirty feet wide and nearly that deep, now held two files of benches which must have been rented for today’s event. The seats weren’t packed as tight as the bleachers of the Circus during a program of chariot races, but people were going to have to move if the newcomers were to sit down.

“A moment, if you please,” Corylus said with a curt gesture to the major domo. “Pulto, you can suit yourself. While you’re welcome to listen to the reading with me –”

“Venus and Mars, young master,” Pulto said, grinning broadly. “If you don’t mind, I’ll be in the gym chewing the fat with my buddy Lenatus till you’re ready to go home.”

“Dismissed,” said Corylus, falling into military terminology naturally. Between Cispius and Pulto, ‘Army’ had been the household tongue when Corylus was growing up. His mother had died in childbirth; his nurse Anna had taught him the Oscan language and a great deal of superstition, but she hadn’t cared any more for round-about politeness than the men had.

Anna was now Pulto’s wife. She was just as superstitious as she had been when Corylus was a child; but as he grew older, he’d come to realize that quite a lot of Anna’s superstitious nonsense was in fact quite true.

Corylus nodded to Agrippinus; they resumed their way to the front. Gaius Saxa had obviously done what he considered a father’s duty to his son: he’d sent invitations to all his senatorial friends. They hadn’t come, of course, and Saxa wasn’t present either. They’d sent clients and retainers, though, men who were beholden to them and who made a brilliant show in the hall. Some of the Senators’ freedmen here were not only wealthier than Cispius, they had a great deal more power in the Republic than a retired tribune did.

Varus would appreciate his father’s gesture, but the expensively decorated togas drove home the fact that Corylus and Pandareus were the only people in the audience who’d come to hear the poetry. And even they — well, Corylus was here out of friendship and Pandareus might well regard his presence as a teacher’s duty.

Corylus grinned, then quickly suppressed the expression. The thought behind it was unkind to a friend. It was traditional that poets suffered. In Varus’ case, the problem wasn’t poverty or a fickle girlfriend: it was lack of talent. Which, for somebody who cared as deeply about his art as Varus did, was a far worse punishment.

Agrippinus gestured toward the place which had just opened in the front row, on the right side of the center aisle. “Or would you care . . . ?” he said, tilting his head delicately toward Varus, whose back was to the room while he talked with his teacher.

“No, I’ll speak to him after the reading,” Corylus said. Varus is nervous enough already . . . . He settled himself carefully onto the bench.

Togas weren’t really intended to be worn while sitting down. Ancient Carce had transacted all public business while standing. A less stiff-necked people would’ve changed to a more comfortable formal garment before now, but a less stiff-necked people wouldn’t have conquered what was already the largest empire in history. A soldier’s son could get used to wearing a toga.

Corylus had met Varus when they both became students of Pandareus a year before. Pulto had already known a member of Alphenus’ staff, however: Marcus Lenatus, the household’s personal trainer, was an old soldier and an old friend of Pulto from the Rhine. Corylus would have been able to exercise in the private gymnasium in a back corner of the house even if the Senator’s son hadn’t invited him to do so.

The man on the bench beside Corylus was, from his conversation with the fellow to his other side, the steward of another senator whose master was planning a banquet in a few days time. It was the sort of thing that would’ve bored Corylus to tears even if the servants had tried to make him a part of the discussion. Agrippinus might feel it was politic to show deference to a friend of the family, but these men had no reason to pretend a mere knight was as interesting as a hare stuffed with thrushes which had been stuffed in turn with truffles.