Legions Of Fire – Snippet 24

“Candidus,” Varus said, “if you interrupt my train of thought again, I’ll have you assigned to my sister for a few days to correct your behavior. If you survive a few days, that is.”

“Lord Varus, I never –” the steward began in horror. Varus stared at him; he shut his mouth and trotted forward to climb the steps to the hilltop with the leading trio.

Varus smiled as he too started up the staircase. He didn’t suppose he’d ever be forceful, but he was learning ways to deal with the world on its own terms. The logical part of him didn’t think that should be necessary, but the philosopher argued that the cosmos must be constructed correctly because it was, after all, the cosmos.

“The noble Alphenus Varus requires admittance!” Candidus announced to the guards at the top. The temple compound was walled and connected to the Citadel which covered the rest of the Capitoline, though at the moment the gate to the stairs from the Sacred Way was open.

In ancient times the hillcrest had been the last defense of the people of Carce. There hadn’t been a serious threat to the city since Hannibal had marched to the walls almost three centuries before, but the guards weren’t just a formality. The temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest was the Republic’s most sacred site, and the treasures dedicated in it by generations of conquerors were worth the attention of any thief.

Well, any thief who wasn’t deeply religious. Varus didn’t know criminals major enough to consider looting temples, but none of the family’s pilfering servants had struck him as unusually religious.

“Pleased to see you, your lordship,” the elder of the guards said. He wore a sword as well as a helmet and leather cuirass; Corylus could probably say whether this pair were soldiers or at least ex-soldiers. “A fine, bright evening, isn’t it?”

He’d noticed the broad stripe on Varus’ toga and was probably hoping for a tip. Varus would see that the guards got a silver piece each; he wanted to be on good terms with them if he came back here.

He didn’t know what was going to happen tonight, let alone in the future, but he could imagine things that might happen. Whenever possible he prepared for the most obvious possibilities. A silver piece — about a day’s wage for a free workman — was a very modest investment to gain the good will of an armed man whom he might be seeing regularly.

“Is Master Pandareus here yet, sir?” Varus asked. I’m being too deferential; I should say ‘my good man’ or relay the question through Candidus even though we’re standing only a few feet apart.

“No, your lordship, though he’s on our list,” said the guard, lifting a shard of pottery with three names brushed on in ink.

“There’s a fellow named Corylus, though,” said the buck-toothed younger man. “A knight all alone, and no lantern either. But he’s got a stick.”

Varus smiled without comment and passed into the compound. Though his friend didn’t brag, Varus had heard his stories of going out on patrol with the scout detachments. Corylus talked about the wildlife, the night birds, and especially the night-blooming flowers in the clearings —

But Varus knew the army wasn’t patrolling on the east bank of the Danube just to view nature. He didn’t think Corylus had much to worry about at night in Carce.

The Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest was straight ahead of the top of the staircase. Varus had never been here before — he hadn’t had any reason to be — but as he’d expected, the layout was the same as that of the temples nearer the townhouse where the family sacrificed on ordinary occasions.

An altar stood in front of the building. The temple itself was on a pedestal with steps — six of them — up from ground level in front. Six huge columns — Sulla had brought them as loot from Greece over a century ago—supported the great porch in front of the building proper. The full-height display doors were closed, but lamplight from inside gleamed from the edge of the pedestrian door set into the right-hand panel.

Candidus and the linkmen walked toward the building. Varus followed, supposing that Corylus had gone inside already.

A figure stepped out of the stand of cypress trees growing to the left of the temple; they’d shaded him from the moonlight. “Varus?” he called. “Is Master Pandareus with you?”

Varus turned to join his friend “No,” he said, grimacing. “I hoped he’d come with you and Pulto. I should’ve sent servants home with him so that they could escort him now.”

“Pulto had other business,” Corylus said. He was holding a wrist-thick staff as long as he was tall. It was a countryman’s tool, not the sort of thing you saw in Carce; but Varus didn’t think anybody would laugh at Corylus, at least to his face. “I should have thought of that too. The poor old fellow probably doesn’t go out at night enough to realize how dangerous the city is.”

“The poor old fellow, as you describe him,” said Pandareus tartly as he joined them, “climbs to the Capitoline every clear night to observe the stars. Since I’m sober and keep an eye out for potential difficulties, I avoid problems.”

“Master, I apologize,” Corylus said, drawing himself up straight.

“It is my task to educate the young men who come to me,” Pandareus said calmly. “You’ve provided me with a teaching opportunity, Master Corylus, for which I should thank you.”

He smiled, though perhaps moonlight made the expression colder than he intended it to be. Corylus remained as stiff as a servant — or a soldier — being dressed down by a superior.

“It’s best we go in since tonight we’re not here to observe the stars,” Pandareus said, this time with his normal fusty precision. “Master Varus? Just the three of us, I think, though there may be temple servants present.”

Varus turned to Candidus, who was standing fully ten feet away. I should have thought of threatening him with my sister before. Aloud he said, “Wait here in the compound. I don’t know how long I’ll be.”

Corylus and the teacher were already walking toward the temple steps. Varus paused a moment further and looked at the night sky.

All he had ever wanted to be was a poet and a scholar. He’d failed at poetry; he couldn’t pretend otherwise after the reading. Tearing his manuscript to pieces had been the right thing to do with it, even if he wasn’t aware of it when it happened.

Scholarship, learning about the world and organizing his knowledge, was all that remained to Varus. There too he was losing hope.

The constellations glittered in their familiar cold beauty, but now they danced a stately round in time with the rhythm in his blood.

* * *

When he reached the temple porch, Corylus looked over his shoulder to make sure his friend was with them. Varus had always been a little absent minded, and after what had happened during the reading even somebody solid could be excused for dropping the baton.

Though Varus had fallen behind, he was coming up the steps now. He smiled wanly at Corylus. He didn’t look frightened, but there was something in his eyes that wasn’t right. Maybe it was just the moonlight.

The pedestrian door opened. A servant in a tunic of bleached wool with a yellow linen sash stepped out, holding a lantern high for them.

“Good evening, Master Pandareus,” he said, bowing to the teacher. “Lord Priscus is pleased to entertain you and your friends.”

“Thank you, Balaton,” Pandareus said, nodding as he entered. Corylus gestured Varus through before he followed, bringing up the rear. He’d felt uncomfortable having his friend behind him. Varus was perhaps the smartest person Corylus had ever met — even compared to Master Pandareus — but he just wasn’t the man you wanted bringing up the rear if you thought like a soldier.

Despite the size of the sculptured porch and the rows of tall columns supporting it, the temple building itself was more modest. Half a dozen three-wick oil lamps on wall struts lit the interior adequately.