Legions Of Fire – Snippet 16

He cleared his throat and went on, “Now, do you think we’re ready to go back to the apartment? Because I’m to meet Pandareus and Varus at Jupiter on the Capitol tonight and I’d like to get some food in me before that.”

He patted his cup, empty again. “To settle the wine,” he said with a grin which after a moment became natural.

Pulto set down the jar and stood, grinning even more widely. “Ready and willing, young master,” he said. “And I’ll pay the score here, if you don’t mind.”

The old soldier shook his head with a look of wonder. “For seventeen years I’ve wanted to tell you the story,” he said. “Doing it now, well, it’s a weight off me that I’m bloody pleased to be shut of.”

Hooking his left index finger through one loop of the wine jar, he sauntered toward the counter where Maura who would measure the damage with a rod. He was whistling, “The Girl I Left behind Me.”

Corylus followed. His mind was full of more questions than he’d had before this sudden dose of truth from his servant.

And he wondered even more about what they would learn tomorrow from the guardian of the Sibylline Books.

* * *

Varus sat on the curb around the spring in the back garden. The stonework beneath him was ancient; the garden wall kinked to enclose it. Instead of marble or even patterned tiles, the blocks were volcanic tuff: porous and sometimes light enough to float, but able to support more than an equal weight of concrete. The stone looked black, but it was light gray beneath the stains of algae and centuries.

Varus’ hands were in his lap, closed over the ivory head. He wasn’t looking at the figurine, nor was he really conscious of anything else in the present world.

A wagon drawn by mules pulled up in the alley behind the house. As it did so, a flock of house servants led by Agrippinus entered the garden from the house proper. Waddling self-importantly with them was a middle-aged man with Greek features.

The major domo saw Varus. “Quiet down!” he rasped to his companions.

Instead of obeying, the stranger bowed low to Varus and said, “My noble lord, I am Decimus Livius Gallo, chief attendant of the Temple of Tellus. I –”

“Shut up, you fool!” snapped Agrippinus. Unasked, a pair of husky under stewards grabbed Gallo by the shoulders and jerked him back so that he was no longer addressing Varus. “You don’t speak to your betters in this household unless they give you permission first!”

Varus turned slightly, his eyes tracking the freedman — he would have been the slave Gallo who took the name of Livius, his former master, when he was freed — without interest or full comprehension. He was in a reverie of sorts.

Servants unbolted the back gate, then stepped away. Agrippinus held a low-voiced discussion with Gallo and the wagoneers. The streets were supposedly barred to wheeled traffic during daylight hours, but the wagon in the alley had edged the law by an hour or so. Perhaps Gallo figured that because they were temple servants, or because they were carrying the goods to the home of a prominent Senator, they didn’t risk confiscation by the magistrates as lesser mortals did.

Varus dreamed, though his eyes were open. He was riding past a great hound; it strained at its tether as it bayed with bloody jaws. The thunder of its fury shook the universe, and its open maw could swallow the world.

“Don’t look at me!” said a wagoneer to Gallo. He spat on the pavement in emphasis. “Our job is to drive the mules, not muscle around the crap in the wagon.”

“All right, get with it,” Agrippinus said in a low snarl to the waiting house servants. “And if any of you in the Senator’s household think that you’re too good to carry temple treasures, then you can spend the rest of your lives on one of his estates following a team of oxen and learning to break clods with a hoe!”

The servants shambled into the alley without muttering. The conscious part of Varus’ mind noticed that a few directed troubled glances toward him, but he didn’t react.

Varus rubbed the ivory with his thumbs. A powerful man clad in sealskin stood on a rocky shore, looking out to sea. Behind him at the tide line hunched a female whose body was covered by her own coarse hair. Her breasts hung to her waist; they were hairy also. Four children, halflings with her flat features but less hair and that of the blondish shade of the man’s, stood to either side of her, looking puzzled.

The man raised his face. He howled to the choppy sea in an agony of soul.

Six servants eased through the back gate, carrying a tusk. It was enormous, easily eight feet in length if measured along its sweeping curves. The part of Varus which remained in the present wondered if it really came from an elephant. Did the world hold some vastly greater creature whose tusks resembled those of the beasts he had seen in the amphitheater?

“Get that bench out of the way, Callistus,” the major domo snapped to the servant standing nearest the summer bedroom on the right corner of the garden. These, one on either side, were masonry-framed structures. They had tiled roofs but walls of wooden louvers. “We’ll put the tusks under the portico and the bronze and silver in the summer houses.”

“But where do I stand if it rains, hey?” asked one of the men carrying the tusk. He was half bald and paunchy, though his shoulders were impressively wide. Varus didn’t remember the fellow’s name, but he was one of the low-ranking watchmen; he wasn’t handsome enough to be put at the front door, at least during daylight.

“Then you’ll bloody get rained on, Castor!” Agrippinus said. “And by Hercules! I’ll have somebody checking you every hour, so you’d better stay alert. This is the god’s treasure you’re watching, do you understand?”

The servants shuffled under the portico attached to the wall of the main house. Through the louvers came Castor’s muttered, “I’m no Latin, so she’s no god of mine!”

The ivory figurine had a sizzling warmth, like amber rubbed with a cloth. It made Varus’ fingers prickle.

A man hung by one leg from a branch. His other leg crossed the tethered one, knee to ankle. His gray beard fell over his face, but through its cloud his one eye blazed like blue lightning. A babble of voices surrounded him, speaking all the knowledge of all time, and the Tree extended forever.

Beside the well curb was a pear tree. Its blackened leaves lay on the grass, where the killing frost had dropped them. Some twigs had split, and bark was already beginning to slough.

The pear had been healthy as recently as this morning. Two weeks ago it had been covered in white flowers, but their petals had fallen and they were beginning to set fruit.

“Watch that!” Gallo said, stepping forward; he pumped his forearms upright beside his face. “You’re going to scrape it on the pillar!”

“Shut up, twinkie, unless you want this up your bum!” said the assistant gardener at the front of group bringing in the second tusk; it was slightly shorter than the first, and the tip had been worn to a wedge by grubbing in the ground. “And if you don’t get out of the way, you’ll be lucky if that’s all that happens to you!”

The men doing the work were members of Saxa’s household. Whether slave or free, they had a clear awareness that no temple flunky was going to give orders to a senator’s servant.

Varus stroked the ivory figurine. He knew what was happening in the garden; beyond the present he saw ice and fire, and monsters moving through them.

But close about Varus in the shadows of time were the twelve hairless men whom he had seen during the reading. They danced with jerky motions of their legs and arms.

Demons with furious faces danced among them, and together they whispered: Nemastes is a traitor. Nemastes must die.