Legions Of Fire – Snippet 03

Corylus smiled faintly. He supposed he wouldn’t turn down a portion of the lovingly prepared hare — so long as it came with bread and onions. That was a soldier’s meal. It wasn’t an accident that the frontiers of the empire stopped at the edge of where farmers plowed fields instead of grazing goats or cattle.

Lenatus and the gym wouldn’t get much use if it weren’t for Corylus. Saxa only saw the trainer during the Saturnalia festivities when he visited each post of duty to give the servants their year-end tip. Varus sometimes tried to exercise, but he’d only begun coming regularly to keep Corylus company. Even then, he often sat on the masonry bench built out from the dressing rooms and jotted poetic inspirations in a notebook.

Saxa didn’t care about the waste of money, of course. A private gymnasium was a proper facility for a man of his stature, so he had one.

He also had day and night shifts of servants servicing the water clock in the central garden: a man to empty the quarter-hour tumblers; a man with a rod to ring each quarter on a silver triangle; and a third man with a bugle to sound the hour. Each servant had an understudy, ready to take over the duties in case the principal died of apoplexy while pouring, ringing or striking.

Alphena, Saxa’s daughter by his first wife, used the gymnasium too. Corylus felt his face stiffen out of the smile that was its usual expression.

The girl was sixteen, a year younger than Corylus and Varus. Alphena and her brother were both stocky and of middling height like their father, proper descendents of the sturdy farmers of Carce who had spread from their hilltop village to conquer a great empire.

Alphena would never be a great beauty, but she was cute and full of an energy that would have made people notice her even if she had behaved with decorum. Which she most certainly did not.

Corylus had realized even before he came to Carce that the only people who really set store on proper behavior were the solid folk in the middle ranks of society: peasant farmers and small businessmen. The poor were too busy scraping a living to worry about such things; even a youthful moralist could understand their attitude.

But the very rich were if anything worse.

Alphena wasn’t promiscuous, but that at least would have been an ordinary feminine failing. Alphena wasn’t feminine. She acted as though she were Saxa’s son, not his daughter, and the more masculine son besides. With Varus as her brother, that wasn’t much of a stretch.

The stewards beside Corylus were discussing ways to make counterfeit mullets out of minced pork. At first that sounded reasonable to the part of Corylus’ mind that was listening; mullet was a very expensive fish. As the conversation continued, he realized that the fake fish were even pricier than the real thing, and that the greater cost was the reason they’d been chosen for the banquet. It wasn’t about food at all, just status.

Corylus would much rather be in the gym with the two old soldiers, hacking at a post with a practice sword. He’d even rather —

He eyed Varus’ stiff pose critically.

Corylus would almost rather be preparing to read bad poetry to an audience of strangers and his teacher.

* * *

Varus felt a rush of gratitude when he saw Publius Corylus and his man at the entrance to the hall. Corylus had said he was coming and he’d never given anyone reason to doubt his word, but even so the relief of having a friend present was greater than Varus would have guessed.

Pandareus wasn’t an enemy, of course, but just now as the teacher glanced over the poem Varus felt a sort of blind hatred. He imagined that a worm might feel the same way about the robin whose beak had just plucked him from a leaf.

Varus smiled broadly. Pandareus shuffled the scroll expertly with his left hand, taking up the pages he’d skimmed while his right in perfect unison opened the unread portion. He glanced up from the verse and said, “A happy thought, Lord Varus?”

“Master Pandareus . . . ,” Varus said, chilled as if he’d been asked to expound on a passage he’d read only moments before. “I know that I take myself far too seriously; I can’t help it. But at least I can laugh at myself for taking myself too seriously.”

Pandareus said nothing for a moment, then smiled as broadly as Varus had ever seen. “The first rule of a philosopher is ‘Know thyself,’ Lord Varus,” he said. “I would say you’ve come farther in that study than many of my long-bearded colleagues who expound their wisdom in the Forum and at the dinners of the wealthy.”

He went back to reading About the Heroic Life and Martyrdom of Publius Atilius Regulus. Varus intended it as his first trial at what he intended to make his life’s work: the epic of Carce’s struggle with Carthage. Indeed, perhaps it would still be unfinished at his death as Vergil had left his immortal Aeneid.

Literature was a proper arena for a gentleman; especially for a gentleman who had no talent for war. Varus wasn’t a coward — he wouldn’t be declaiming his own verse to an audience if he were a coward — but the sight of blood made him squeamish.

While Varus was writing, he could feel the thing beyond the words. Somewhere out there was the true ideal that he was striving for. But he couldn’t see it, nobody could see it, and no poet would ever reach it.

Sometimes Varus told himself he was blessed above other men because he knew there was an ideal. At other times — and this was certainly one of those other times — it seemed to him that lucky people didn’t torture themselves by chasing the unobtainable. That was obvious when he looked at Pandareus’ other students.

Corylus had an interest in literature, but he didn’t hold it in the sort of religious awe that Varus did. The other ten students were well-born — six, like Varus, were the sons of Senators — but they were at most interested in learning how to argue a case in court. That was a matter of extravagant language, flashy figures of speech, and skeins of logic which had been twisted until they screamed.

But half the class didn’t care even about learning tools to use in court. They attended classes — or their fathers sent them to classes — because there was a cachet in saying you’d been taught by Pandareus of Athens — Pandareus the Sage, some of the parents called him, though Varus had never heard Pandareus himself use that boastful title. For them everything was appearance, not a pursuit of the ideal.

Pursuit of the unattainable ideal.

Varus’ mind was lost in a very present philosophy of life, but his eyes must have been focused on Pandareus. The teacher looked up and said mildly, “A very well prepared manuscript, Lord Varus.” He gave the volume a twitch to emphasize it.

“Yes, master!” Varus said. He was relieved that he hadn’t squeaked; he felt seven, not seventeen. “I, ah, thought it would give a better impression to the audience if it were, ah, neat.”

One of the clerks in Saxa’s business office had a fine hand, but in the end Varus had decided to go to Marcus Balbius who produced manuscripts for sale. In the main Balbius specialized in cheap reading copies by popular poets, but he had a sideline in presentation volumes; he’d been more than happy to produce a manuscript of the very highest quality for Varus.

Pandareus went back to reading. Varus realized that his teacher was deliberately preventing him from compulsively going over the document during the last quarter hour before the declamation. He’d have worked himself into a state if he’d done that, and he wouldn’t have been able to prevent himself from doing it even though he knew better.

Pandareus was being kind to him. Varus would still rather have been standing on a dune in the Libyan Desert than watching his teacher roll the volume forward and stop, roll and stop; his lean face all the while as expressionless as that of a vulture.

The volume shimmered. The roller sticks had been gilded, and red silk ribbons fluttered from their ends. The papyrus had been pumiced smooth before being whitened, and the calligrapher’s hand was flawless as well as being unusually legible for a work of art.

Varus honestly didn’t know what the manuscript had cost. Whenever Balbius presented the account, Agrippinus would settle it just as he did those from vintners, poulterers, fullers, and all the rest of the tradesmen who supplied the household of a wealthy senator. Saxa wouldn’t notice the amount any more than he noted what Hedia, his new young wife, spent on dressmakers.

“Ah . . . ?” Varus said, struck by a sudden fear. “Master, though the manuscript was professionally prepared, I really did write the verse myself. On wax notebooks. Every bit of it.”