Legions Of Fire – Snippet 25

Though this temple was built when Carce held unrivaled power in the world, the platform on which it stood was that of the predecessor standing when the Gauls sacked Carce three centuries earlier. The statue of Jupiter was old also; the torso was terracotta, and the head and limbs were carved from wood. The painted skin and staring eyes made the god look like a shepherd who had gone mad from solitude and too much sun.

Near the front of the hall was a round table with a dining couch. A bulky man rose from the couch with the help of an attendant. A half-full cup of engraved glass sat with the mixing bowl on the table. Two more attendants stood alertly at a side table with a wine jar, water pitcher and additional cups. They were watching the newcomers.

“It’s good to see you, Pandareus,” said the man who’d been reclining. “Though from the tone of your note, you aren’t here just to borrow a book from me, are you?”

“Indeed not, my friend,” Pandareus said. “Priscus, may I present Gaius Alphenus Varus and Publius Cispius Corylus. Youths, this is Senator Marcus Atilius Priscus, a Commissioner for the Sacred Rites and perhaps the most learned man in Carce.”

“Possibly, old friend,” Priscus said. “Except for yourself, of course.”

He gestured to the side table. “Something to drink?” he said. “And you know that you and your friends were welcome to dine with me. The only blessing of my nights on duty here is that the temple cook is better than my own and my own –”

He gave his belly a jovial slap.

“– is extremely good, as you can see.”

“These youths are my only present students who show signs of ability,” Pandareus said, nodding toward them. Corylus and Varus stood stiffly, as though they were waiting to expound a literary passage. In a slightly warmer tone he added, “In fact they’re the most talented students I’ve had since I came to Carce, though neither will make his name as an orator.”

Priscus laughed. Looking from Corylus to Varus, he said, “Any associate of Pandareus of Athens can be expected to be a scholar and a gentleman. Boys, you’re welcome indeed. Now you –”

He focused on Varus; Corylus felt himself relax minusculely. Priscus acted as though he were a jolly gourmand, but even without Pandareus’ deference Corylus would have known that a keen mind directed the plump body.

“– would be Saxa’s boy, would you not?”

“Yes, your lordship,” Varus said; and said no more, just as he would have answered Pandareus in class.

“Your father collects facts the way a squirrel gathers nuts for the winter,” Priscus said. “No rhyme or reason to them. But he knows things that not another man in Carce knows, boy. Not even me and Pandareus here. But don’t you be like him, you hear?”

“No, your lordship,” said Varus, his eyes focused in the three bronze lightning bolts in Jupiter’s wooden hand.

“Come,” Priscus said to the teacher, “we can at least sit. Some of us are fat old men, you know.”

He gestured. “Seats for my guests, since they won’t dine with me,” he said. The servant who’d opened the door for them brought three folding stools — much like those which senators used, but with legs of walnut rather than ivory — from an alcove and set them around the table. Priscus sank back onto the couch — sitting rather than reclining, however — while the others seated themselves.

Corylus stroked the walnut with his fingertips and felt a sensation of great age. The silken seat must have been replaced many times, but the wooden legs could be as old as the original temple on this site.

Pandareus waved off the wine that a servant started to pour. “This isn’t a social call, my friend,” he said, “though perhaps I’ll bring the youths another time and we can discuss Thucidides. We’re here on a matter of the Republic’s safety, and it may be the safety of the whole cosmos.”

Priscus sniffed. “The cosmos can take care of itself,” he said. “My duty is to the Republic. Go on.”

“Although Varus and Corylus are well read,” Pandareus said, “there are practical matters of which they may be ignorant. Would you explain to them why you’re here tonight?”

“A rhetoric teacher talking about practicalities?” Priscus said with a chuckle. “But I’m happy to oblige.”

He looked from Varus to Corylus. Corylus thought his friend sat even straighter than he did himself. The visions he’d seen yesterday — and the gods alone knew what Varus had seen! — had been disturbing, but what was happening now made him even more unsure.

All his life, Corylus had been steeped in the myth-shrouded history of Carce. That had been even more the case because he’d been raised on the frontier rather in the civilized center of the empire. He felt in the core of his being that Carce was the village of bandits which by the favor of the immortal gods had risen into a city that dominated all the world which it didn’t outright rule.

Now he was at the ancient center of the city, discussing its mysteries with two of the empire’s most learned men. Corylus had never thought of himself as religious, but he shivered with awe.

“I’m one of the Commissioners, as Pandareus told you,” Priscus said. “There are ten of us now, but there were only two when Tarquin created the college. You know that?”

Varus lifted his chin in agreement; Corylus said, “Yes sir,” as he’d been trained. A soldier who nodded in reply to a superior officer would be chewed out if the officer was a noble and knocked flat if he tried it with a centurion who’d come up through the ranks.

“We’re not priests of Jupiter,” Priscus went on, “but every night one of us dines and sleeps here in the temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest. That’s because we’re responsible for the Sibylline Books, and they’re kept here.”

His silk slippered foot tapped the floor, a mosaic of black, gray and white chips. The design was geometric except for the four-by-five foot rectangle in the center. There a monochrome portrait of Jupiter faced the god’s statue as though it were a miniature reflecting pool.

“They’re in a stone chest in the vault under this nave,” Priscus said. “The opening is under the cartouche of Jupiter.”

“Sir?” said Varus. “I knew that the Senate could order the Commissioners for the Sacred Rites to examine the Sibylline Books. But that’s for the whole Senate, after a major threat to the Republic. You don’t have to wait by the books in case a consul wants an instant response, do you? Unless the Emperor –”

“Not even the Emperor, my boy,” agreed Priscus. “The whole Senate, as you say. But one of us, a Senator –”

“Very senior and respected Senators at that, Master Varus,” Pandareus said with a nod of respectful approval toward his friend. “Vacancies are filled by vote, not lottery as they would be for judgeships.”

“Yes, well, be that as it may,” said Priscus. Despite his gruffness, he looked pleased. “Besides opening the books and examining them in a crisis, we Commissioners are responsible for their safety. They’re never left under the control of slaves and freedmen alone, like the temple itself is.”

He looked beyond his visitors, toward — Corylus turned to follow his eyes — the servant who had admitted them. “Balaton?” he said. “Would you take a bribe from somebody who wanted to copy the Books?”

“I’m glad the responsibility is yours, Lord Priscus,” the servant said with a smile. “I know my own frailty.”

“Aye, so do I,” Priscus grumbled. “He’s as frail as that staff you came in with, boy. Cornelwood, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir,” said Corylus, surprised out of his nervous discomfort. “You know trees, then?”

“I know how heavy that staff must be from the way it swings,” Priscus said, “and I heard it when it rapped the floor. Cornelwood doesn’t break and it doesn’t give. I’d guess the man who carries it might be pretty much the same way.”

“Sir, I –” Corylus said. He didn’t know what to say. “Sir, thank you. I’ll try to live up to the compliment.”