Legions Of Fire – Snippet 04

Pandareus paused and stared at him. “You may set your mind at rest, Lord Varus . . . ,” he said. His dry voice was all the more cutting for not having any emotional loading whatever. “I did not imagine that this –”

He waggled the volume again. The gesture gave the impression of the mistress of the house holding a dead rat by the tail as she gingerly removed it from the kitchen.

“—had been plagiarized.”

Varus felt his face glow. “Sorry, Master,” he muttered. He shuffled, glancing toward the audience just to avoid looking at his teacher. His eyes caught Corylus in the front row. He looked up toward the ceiling immediately. It was bad enough being here as Pandareus judged him; it would be even worse to be judged in front of his only friend. Being reminded that Corylus was present helped settle him again, though.

Corylus’ father, Publius Cispius, was wealthy by the standards of most people — but not by the standards of the senators’ sons who were the majority of Pandareus’ students. Besides facing ordinary snobbery, Corylus was an army brat — raised in camps along the frontier instead of the relatively civilized surroundings of a provincial city. He might have had a very difficult time of it in school, especially since Piso, the acknowledged leader of the class, had a cruel streak.

It wouldn’t have helped Corylus that he was a real scholar instead of a numbskull more familiar with swagger sticks than with the rollers of a book; his scholarship might even have made it worse. And it certainly didn’t help that he and Varus had become friends. Gaius Alphenus Saxa was powerful enough that his son wouldn’t be bullied, even by a Calpurnius Piso, but to extend his protection farther would require that Varus have an active personality instead of being a loner, and a rather puny loner besides.

Corylus was tall and had fair hair from his Celtic mother. Presumably he’d gotten his slender build from her also, but Piso had learned the first afternoon following class that ‘slender’ didn’t mean ‘weak’. He’d shoved Varus and found himself with his right arm twisted up behind his back and his thumb in a grip that could obviously dislocate it any time Corylus wanted to.

Another boy — Beccaristo, son of a wealthy shipper from Ostia and Piso’s chief toady — tried to jump Corylus. He fell screaming when Corylus brought his heavy sandal down on his instep.

Piso had shouted for his entourage of servants to help. None of them moved. Corylus’ man hadn’t said a word, just watched with his right hand under his toga. The thing he was gripping would be about the right length for an infantry sword.

Corylus had released Piso then. He’d straightened his toga and grinned, not saying a word. And Varus had said, “Master Corylus, would you care to come home with me for some refreshment? I’d like to discuss the Epilion of Callimachus which the Master cited in his lecture.”

Varus warmed at the memory. It was probably the smartest thing he’d ever done in his life. It had cemented his friendship with Corylus at the very beginning of their relationship.

Pandareus rolled the volume closed with the same smooth grace as he’d been reading it. “Thank you for the early look, Master Varus,” he said formally as he handed it back. “I await your reading with interest.”

The water clock reached the tenth hour, the time set for the declamation. The bugler called over the ringing of the quarter-hour gong.

Apollo and the Muses, be with your servant, Varus whispered under his breath as he mounted the podium.

As if to make him even more uncomfortable than he already was, his sister Alphena came marching down the aisle without so much as a maid to accompany her. She gave a peremptory gesture to the freedmen beside Corylus and sat down in the front row, glaring up at Varus.

She looked furious.

* * *

The real problem was Nemastes the Hyperborean, but Alphena wasn’t allowing herself to think about that. She was as angry as she ever remembered being. How dare my stepmother tell me that I need to get married! Why doesn’t father stand up to her?

This was one of those times that Alphena wished she weren’t quite as smart as she knew she was. Much as she fumed over Hedia — who was only six years older, even though she was on her second husband already! — Alphena knew that underneath she was afraid, not angry.

She was afraid for her father. Ever since he met the Hyperborean wizard, Saxa had been acting strangely. He’d always been, well, a bit of a fool about the supernatural. Her father was a Senator of Carce and one of the most powerful men on Earth, so it was unkind of Alphena to suspect that he was unusually willing to believe in Higher Powers because he knew how incapable he was to intelligently exercise the authority he’d been given.

Alphena stamped into the Black-and-Gold Hall without any clearer notion than knowing that she would shock everyone by being the only woman in the audience — and that Hedia wouldn’t follow her here. As soon as she was inside, she remembered seeing Publius Corylus coming up the street a moment before her stepmother drew her aside for an unwanted discussion.

Corylus was in the front row, so Alphena strode down the aisle toward him. When one of the wealthy freedmen seated there glanced up, she showed him her left fist with the thumb raised. That was the way the audience voted death in the amphitheater.

The freedman shot from the bench like a lion prodded into greater liveliness with a torch; he’d obviously understood Alphena’s mood. Very possibly he had heard stories about the would-be poet’s sister when he asked about the event he’d been ordered to attend.

The freedman to whom he’d been talking looked up in surprise; he saw Alphena bearing down like an angry weasel. He scampered also, though his fat friend’s absence had cleared enough space already.

Corylus looked startled, then faced front and pretended to not to notice that Alphena had sat down beside him. For a moment, she’d started to let fear break through her mind’s surface of anger; Corylus’ action brought the anger back to full blazing life.

Alphena wasn’t interested in Corylus; not that kind of interested. He was only a knight after all, and even that by sufferance: his father had managed to stay alive for twenty-five years in the army and had his status raised from ordinary lummox to knight. She knew that soldiers were necessary on the frontiers to keep out the even cruder barbarians beyond, but it seemed to Alphena that they should stay in the border districts instead of coming here to Carce.

Of course Corylus wasn’t a soldier himself; and though Alphena knew he intended to become one, she found it hard to imagine the youth as what she imagined a soldier was. Maybe . . . .

Alphena didn’t blush, but she pressed her lips together more closely. She was smart, not bookish smart like her brother but in the way that let her look at people and things and understand how they fit together. When parts didn’t fit, one had the wrong shape. In this case, she knew that the mistake could be in what she thought a soldier was, instead of in the shape of Corylus who planned to become one.

She still wasn’t interested in him. Of course!

Alphena had been the only person to use the gymnasium for over a year. Lenatus had informed Saxa that Alphena wanted the sort of lessons he’d expected to give Varus. He’d hoped his employer would order him to do no such thing. The Senator instead acted as though he hadn’t heard the statement.

Lenatus had been angry and embarrassed to train a woman, but Saxa paid well. The first thing a new servant in his household learned was that the master wanted to have a quiet life — and that if the daughter of the house was angry, she would make her father’s life a living hell until he did what she wanted.

Lenatus thereupon had gotten on with his job which, in the household of Gaius Alphenus Saxa, turned out to be training a young girl as though she were to become a soldier — or a gladiator. After a while he’d more or less gotten used to it. Alphena had heard him tell the cook that it was like learning to drink ale instead of wine when he’d been stationed in Upper Germany: it wasn’t the way it ought to be, but that didn’t matter.

Then Varus had offered his new friend use of the facilities.

Alphena had watched Corylus the first time he exercised. Corylus had protested, but Varus wouldn’t stand up to his sister. In part she was being contrary — she did quite a number of things because she knew that other people would rather she didn’t — but she was also proving that nobody in the household could prevent her from doing what she wanted.