Legions Of Fire – Snippet 18

* * *

Varus wore the ivory head around his neck on a thin leather thong. Though he didn’t reach under his toga while he listened to Piso’s class exercise, his fingers curled with memory of how the talisman had felt.

“You were a prostitute!” Piso said. His left arm was crossed over his chest, while he swept his right out to the side as though he were pointing at a meteor plunging toward the Forum. “You say that you remained chaste and begged for alms instead of surrendering your body to your clients, but the only evidence we have is your word. The word of an admitted prostitute!”

Piso was declaiming from the rostrum in front of the Temple of Julius Caesar, facing his teacher and the remainder of the class in the Forum below. Pandareus and some of the students — Piso’s friends and sycophants, at least — had notebooks out, either waxed boards or thin sheets of wood to write on with a brush.

Varus didn’t need notes to remember clever twists that his fellow classmates came up with. Besides, in Varus’ estimation, the chances of Piso doing so were slim to none.

The subject set for Piso’s speech was whether a woman who remained chaste after being captured by pirates and sold into prostitution could legally become a Vestal Virgin. The situation was improbable, but it taught logic and technique as clearly as an ordinary case of legacy-fishing.

“Your children would be barred from becoming priests . . . ,” cried Piso. He clapped his right arm to his chest now and flung the left one outward. Like his voice, his gestures attempted by enthusiasm to make up for their lack of grace. “Because their mother had carried on a sordid occupation. Are we therefore to say that you are worthy of becoming a priestess yourself?”

The varied business of the Forum went on untroubled by the declamation. At least three other classes were going on nearby, though the babble of business was enough to drown the speeches in the general noise.

Occasionally passers-by would glance toward them, but the exuberant gestures had probably drawn their eyes. Piso looked enough as though he were hurling things from his raised vantage point that a prudent man would take heed.

“Should the Consul give way to you if he meets you as priestess in the street?” Piso bellowed, changing the angles of his arms yet again. “To you, a woman whom a crippled Levantine properly approached if he still had two copper sesterces in his begging bowl!”

There were cheers and stampings of applause from behind Pandareus and the semicircle of his students. Though the Senate was in session, the Emperor hadn’t made his appearance yet. Piso’s father and his political cronies had chosen to attend the boy’s declamation, doubtless planning to rush into the session if the glittering progress of a guard detachment warned them that the Emperor was on his way. The session was being held in the huge Julian Basilica today; the entrance was within fifty yards.

What did the senators really think of the declamation? Perhaps they were impressed by it. This wasn’t an age which valued subtlety, and Piso certainly displayed the present virtues of noise and color to an impressive degree.

“Do you say, ‘The pirate who captured me can attest my virginity’?” Piso demanded. He’d initially shown some variation in his gestures, but now he seemed to have settled on mirrored pairings of one arm crossed, the other extended. “Perhaps, but your witness won’t be able to visit you in your temple should you become a priestess!”

Saxa had never come to one of Varus’ declamations. He’d attended early classes occasionally, though he wasn’t an orator himself and didn’t pretend to care about technique or about literature more generally.

Varus had never cared for argumentative declamations like the present one anyway. They were the stuff of courts and public assemblies, where a bold lie which couldn’t be uncovered was more effective than any amount of calm reason.

Philosophical declamations were far more attractive to him. Varus had been quite pleased with the way he’d brought his audience to consider whether Alexander should sail from the mouth of the Indus River and turn east, attempting to cross the globe-girdling Ocean. He’d summed up on the one hand that water was the First Element and should not be conquered by any man, even Alexander; and on the other that this would be the longed-for moment when human civilization and the world should have the same boundaries. Pandareus had spoken highly of some of his figures of speech, and even Piso’s claque had jotted notes.

But Saxa hadn’t been present. Varus smiled with rueful affection. For as far back as he could remember, his father had been an antiquarian: a man who enjoyed unearthing odd scraps of knowledge. He had a great deal of information, but he hadn’t been able to organize it in any fashion more complicated than a vertical stack.

More recently, though, his researches had descended into what could only be described as blatant superstitions, sillinesses that were unworthy of the attention — let alone the belief — of an educated man. And Saxa did believe in them. He not only practiced magical rituals himself, he let a self-proclaimed Hyperborean wizard lead him in the gods knew what directions.

Though Varus no longer saw the twelve dancers, they chanted in his mind as their demon companions hissed in unison. It was a dream, but it haunted his waking hours. It was a dream!

“You wheedled would-be customers to give you as alms what they had intended to pay as the price of your body!” said Piso. “Well and good — you remain a virgin. But is this the art which a priestess uses when speaking to the goddess of the hearth? Surely not! Yours was a whore’s trick and a whore’s manner. Your very demeanor is an affront to chaste Vesta!”

Corylus stood to Varus’ left. His notebook was out for courtesy’s sake, but he wasn’t jotting anything down. Varus knew that his friend disliked Piso even more than he himself did, but he was unfailingly polite when they interacted.

On the frontier where Corylus had been raised, life was harsh and weapons were never far to seek even in the most civilized surroundings. As the chant seethed in his blood, Varus realized for the first time that his friend was always courteous because he was constantly aware of violence, not despite the fact. Varus didn’t doubt what Corylus was capable of if the necessity arose, but Corylus understood better than the other students the difference between what was necessary and what was simply possible.

Corylus’ declamations were forceful and closely reasoned, but he didn’t gesture nor did he use the flourishes and allusions that would have made his speeches more striking. His wide reading — he wasn’t as widely read as Varus, of course, but given the limited opportunities he would have had on the frontier, his knowledge was remarkable — would have allowed him to sprinkle colorful passages from the great poets and historians whether Latin or Greek.

It didn’t seem to bother Corylus that Piso and his cronies sneered — behind the backs of their hands — at what they called his lack of erudition. As a Knight of Carce Corylus wasn’t eligible to enter the Senate, and he’d been bluntly dismissive when Varus had asked if he hoped to make his name as a lawyer.

Corylus spoke as a military officer would when suggesting a course of action to a superior or explaining it to his juniors. Varus decided that if the sneers didn’t bother his friend, he could learn to ignore them also.

“This court, this goddess –”

Piso thrust out both arms to point at the round temple of Vesta beside where his audience stood. He looked like a bad statue of Phaethon dragging on the reins as the horses of the Sun ran away.

“– this sacred sky of Carce –”

He pointed straight up, though his face still glowered at his audience.

“– allow only one answer: you must be barred from the priesthood!”

Piso’s father and his fellow senators called, “Huzzah!” and stamped their feet loudly. The other students applauded also, ranging from the enthusiasm of the speaker’s cronies to the polite tap of Corylus’ right foot. Even Pandareus gave a nod which could be taken as approving.

Piso stepped down from the rostrum and bowed at the waist, sweeping his arms back to the sides as though he were about to dive into a swimming pool. He was smiling with triumph; the neck of his broad-striped toga was as wet as a used towel.

There’s never only one answer, Varus mused, lost in his own thoughts. There are often thousands of answers, and all of them may be wrong.

In his mind the dancers whispered Nemastes must die. They had no other answer, and their voices were compelling.

* * *

Hedia’s chair rocked to a threatening halt. The hired bearers looked scrawny compared to Saxa’s team, but they were fit and they got much more experience than the household slaves did. They hadn’t slipped once on the way to Corylus’ apartment on the Viminal Hill. Judging by Alphena’s cries from the following vehicle, the girl hadn’t been so lucky.