Legions Of Fire – Snippet 13

“I don’t know,” Varus whispered. “I don’t know! I saw a dance; I think I remember dancers. But I don’t remember anything about it.”

He looked up. “What did I do with my manuscript?” he said. He opened his left hand slightly to peer at the figurine again, apparently making sure that it hadn’t changed back into a roll of papyrus. “Did I leave it in the hall?”

“You destroyed it on the dais, Lord Varus,” Pandareus said. “In a very thorough and determined fashion. Why did you do that, do you suppose?”

“I did?” said Varus in amazement. “Why on earth did I do that?”

He looked up with a wan smile and added, “I don’t suppose much was lost by that. I don’t think I’m going to gain fame as a poet.”

Corylus put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. Pandareus smiled coldly and said, “Regarding the heroic exploits of Regulus, I agree with your estimate. The lines you sang after you departed from your prepared manuscript, however — those had elements of real power. Did you compose them on the dais?”

“Master, I don’t know,” Varus said simply. “I don’t have any memory of what happened after I started to read. Except that I think someone was dancing. Maybe I was dancing myself?”

“Not that we in the audience noticed,” said Pandareus.

He pursed his lips, tapping his notebook against the palm of his left hand. “There is a great deal going on,” he said, “and I can only see the surface. From what you boys tell me, you saw even less.”

Varus grimaced; Corylus nodded firm agreement. Both were alert now.

“Therefore, I want both of you to join me tomorrow night at the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter,” Pandareus said. “My friend Priscus –”

“Atilius Priscus?” Varus said in surprise.

“Yes, Senator Priscus,” Pandareus said. “Are you surprised that a mere teacher of rhetoric would claim a respected senator as a friend?”

“No sir, not at all,” Varus mumbled, lowering his eyes again.

“You might well wonder,” the teacher said in a milder tone. “The senator has a remarkable library. I applied to read his copy of On the Stars by Thrice-Learned Hermes. Our acquaintance ripened through a mutual love of scholarship.”

He coughed, then continued, “He’s on duty tomorrow. I’ll send a messenger to him to expect us at the temple at the beginning of the second watch. You’re both agreeable?”

Varus nodded. Corylus grinned and said, “I’m glad somebody has a plan. I don’t, and . . . . Master, I’m not a fearful man, I hope. But the dream I had disturbed me.”

“Master Pandareus?” Alphena said. She spoke without the humility the youths, his pupils, put in the title. “Why do you think Priscus will understand the business better than you do? You were there, after all, and he wasn’t.”

“I don’t think my learned friend will understand it,” Pandareus said, allowing his lips to spread in a slight smile. “We won’t be visiting him for that. He’s one of the Commissioners for the Sacred Rites, however.”

“Oh . . . ,” whispered Corylus, who must have seen what Alphena so far did not.

“Yes, that’s right,” said Pandareus, his smile still broader. “Tonight Priscus will have the Sibylline Books in his charge.”

* * *

A pair of servants at the top of the back stairs gaped as Hedia stepped quickly toward them. She was forcing herself to keep a ladylike demeanor and not to skip steps.

“Where’s your master?” she snapped. The servants didn’t speak, but one nodded toward the suite behind him. His Adam’s apple bobbled.

There hadn’t been much doubt in her mind. When Saxa was badly pressed, he fled to his private apartment at the rear of the second floor. That had been an inviolate sanctum in the years before he had remarried.

Hedia found herself smiling as she swept past the servants. She wasn’t sure whether she was more angry than frightened or the other way around, but she was quite sure that she and her husband were going to discuss what had happened today. Propriety and wifely subservience be damned.

The door to the suite was closed — but not barred, which was good. Hedia flung it open and strode inside. If necessary she would have brought the porters to batter the panel down with the poles from the sedan chair.

Half a dozen body servants fluttered at her entry. They were pretending to be busy and also pretending not to be staring at their furious mistress.

Hedia made a quick shooing motion as though she were flicking something unpleasant from her fingers. “Get out,” she said to the servants collectively. She didn’t raise her voice. “Close the door behind you.”

Saxa stood at the window, his hands gripping the ledge. His pretense was that he was absorbed in the view up slope of the Palatine. Hedia waited till the servants had scuttled out, the last of them banging the door shut, before she said mildly, “Husband, what’s going on?”

“Dearest, there are things you can’t understand,” Saxa mumbled without turning around. “I’m sorry, but you simply have to trust me.”

The bedroom was decorated as a seascape. The small stones of the mosaic flooring were set in a stylized wave pattern, and water nymphs cavorted with fish-tailed Tritons on the walls. Plaster starfish and crabs were molded into the ceiling coffers.

Hedia rather liked the room, but the decoration puzzled her. Saxa didn’t care for the sea; she’d had to press to get him to go with her to Baiae in the Gulf of Puteoli this past spring. Perhaps a previous wife had chosen it for him . . . .

“I do trust you, dear heart,” she said, putting a hand on her husband’s shoulder. He was trembling. “There’s no one in the world with a better heart or with greater loyalty to the Emperor.”

That last was for any ears listening at doorways or through the floor with tumbler to amplify sounds. In truth Saxa probably didn’t think about the Emperor twice in a week; he was about as apolitical a man as you would find in the Senate. But the deeper truth beneath that lie was the fact that Saxa certainly wasn’t involved in a plot.

Not that the truth would matter if somebody laid a complaint. And Juno knew that it wouldn’t be hard at all to show the Senator’s behavior in a bad light.

“I don’t trust your Nemastes at all, though,” Hedia said, letting her anger show in her tone. Saxa had started to relax; now he tensed again. “He’s a viper, and he’ll bite many people besides you unless you scotch him immediately. But he’ll certainly bite you.”

She paused before adding, “And your son. As he did today.”

“Hedia, that’s not true!” Saxa said, whirling to face her for the first time. “You don’t understand, I tell you. Without Nemastes’ efforts, we’re all lost. The world is lost!”

He’s not lying, Hedia thought. She wasn’t sure her husband could lie; certainly he couldn’t lie successfully to her. But he thought he was telling the truth now.

“I understand that Nemastes plays at being a magician,” she said aloud. “How do you think the Emperor will feel if he hears about that, husband? And I understand that the viper you brought into the house with you today caused your son to speak words that terrified everyone who heard him. You know that.”

Hedia hadn’t waited to question the audience pouring out of the hall, so she didn’t have any idea what had happened during Varus’ recital. The wealthy freedmen were running as though Parthians galloped behind them with their bows drawn, but she could have stopped one if she’d seen the need to. Oh, yes, she most certainly could.

But their abject fear was all Hedia needed to know. Whatever happened, it hadn’t been Varus’ unaided doing: the boy didn’t have it in him to frighten a mouse from the pantry!

Knowing that Nemastes was in the house, she hadn’t had to search far for a villain. She was confident that the blame was deserved in this case, but she didn’t particularly care. A threat to Varus was the best tool she’d been offered for prying her husband away from this dangerous magician, so she would have used it even if she thought she was being unfair.

“Nemastes had nothing to do with whatever you’re talking about,” Saxa said uncertainly. “He and I were together while the reading was going on.”