Legions Of Fire – Snippet 26

“Well, Balaton’s the same way, which is why I made sure he became chief of the commission’s attendants,” Priscus said. “I trust him a damned sight farther than I do some of my colleagues.”

“And it’s the Sibylline Books that bring us here tonight,” said Pandareus. “Because of what I saw yesterday, I believe that a serious crisis faces the Republic; a crisis far worse than plagues and foreign armies and even the internal dissensions that caused the common people to march out and found their own city on the Esquiline, separate from the better classes.”

“There’s been an omen, you mean?” said Priscus. “Go on, then. I hadn’t heard about it.”

“My student Varus was giving a reading of his epic at his father’s house,” Pandareus said. “Corylus and I were present. There were various manifestations of a disturbing nature during the reading.”

He turned toward Corylus and Varus on the stool beyond. “Tell the noble Priscus what you experienced, youths,” he said. “Master Corylus?”

Corylus licked his lips. “Your lordship,” he said, speaking directly to the Commissioner, “I had a vision. I didn’t see Varus. After the first, I mean. I drifted off and imagined I was in a snowy forest. I saw Senator Saxa and a man I didn’t know. In the trees and snow, but really they were in the back garden of the house.”

“The man was Nemastes the Hyperborean,” Pandareus amplified in a dry voice. “He claims to be a wizard, and unfortunately I fear that he’s telling the truth.”

He leaned forward slightly to catch Varus eye. “Lord Varus, now you.”

Varus said nothing for a moment. Corylus squeezed his friend’s right knee. Varus started and his eyes opened wide. He gave Corylus a shy smile, then said to the Commissioner, “Sir, I remember starting to read but nothing more. I thought I saw men on an island, but I must have been dreaming.”

He cleared his throat and looked down, then added, “Pandareus tells me I tore my manuscript up, but I don’t remember that. I’m not sorry, though. I’m not a poet.”

“Lord Varus, you had something in your hands after the reading, ” Pandareus said. “I don’t believe it was a piece of your manuscript that I saw when your sister awakened you.”

Corylus saw his friend’s eyes open wide. His hands twitched together — only minusculely, but toward the lump in the middle of his chest. It was barely visible beneath his toga.

“Sir, I don’t remember anything,” Varus said. The words might have been true, but they didn’t respond to the question. “Please, won’t you tell Lord Priscus what really happened, since Corylus and I can’t.”

Did Pandareus notice? Regardless, he nodded and said in his usual calm, precise fashion, “The room became dark. The walls vanished, but before that the designs painted on them seemed to come alive.”

He quirked a smile at his friend. “The tiny figure of Apollo on the panel behind Lord Varus began to play his lyre, I think in the Myxilydian Mode. I regret that I wasn’t close enough to be sure, because I know music is a particular interest of yours.”

“Perhaps we can repeat the experience with the two of us closer to the wall,” Priscus said. He joked in an easy tone, but his expression was firm. “How long did the business last?”

“There was more,” said Pandareus with a slight smile. “The floor appeared to become a pit. Figures crawled up the sides toward us.”

“Figures?” Priscus repeated. “Not humans, then.”

The teacher shrugged. “I would be very surprised if they were human,” he said, “but they weren’t clear enough for me to be sure. Spirits, let us say. Demons, to use the Greek word.”

“Indeed,” Priscus said softly. “And is there more?”

“My sister slapped me,” Varus said, surprising Corylus and apparently the other men as well. “I didn’t know that, but I felt it –”

He managed another shy smile and touched his left cheek with his index finger. Corylus had noticed when they met tonight that there was still a little swelling.

“– when I woke up. The room was just like it was before I started reading. So that must have been the end. I was the cause.”

“I don’t imagine that Lord Varus was the cause,” Pandareus said before anyone else — including Varus — could speak further. “That he was the primary target of magic is likely enough. But the important point is that the omen was real and threatening. The sort of threat that requires that the Sibylline Books be consulted.”

Corylus let out his breath in a gasp; he hadn’t known that he was holding it. Varus closed his eyes and rubbed his temples with both hands, then looked around at his companions again.

“This occurred in Saxa’s dwelling,” Priscus said. His face gave no hint of what he might be thinking. “Will he support a request to the full Senate? Because you already know, my friend, that I won’t violate my oath.”

His smile was wry.

“Even if Balaton would permit me to.”

The servant stood against the east wall, motionless as a caryatid. His eyes were fixed on the light sconce across from him, and he didn’t appear to have heard what was being said.

Men like Balaton — men like Pulto — trusted very few leaders, but they would follow those few into death or worse. Corylus was quite sure that Balaton trusted Priscus . . . as he should, because Priscus would always do his duty.

“I’m quite sure that Saxa will not support such a request,” Pandareus said. “I fear that he has stepped into dangerous territory, under the sway of Nemastes the Hyperborean.”

Priscus looked at Varus. Varus hung his head and muttered, “Yes sir, I’m afraid that’s true. All of it.”

“A Hyperborean,” Priscus said in a musing tone. “A foreigner.”

“Yes, my friend,” Pandareus said; he wasn’t agreeing. “A foreigner like myself.”

Priscus snorted. “Not like you,” he said. “But I won’t even ask the Senate if Saxa would oppose the request. I trust you, but my colleagues would not.”

He shrugged. “More fools them,” he added. “But that’s not a new thought.”

Priscus had been leaning forward slightly on the couch. He didn’t stand, but his back straightened and he was suddenly a very different man. He looked at each of his three visitors in turn, then said, “Master Pandareus, my true friend: though the world should end, I will not violate my oath. I cannot unlock the chest until I am ordered to do so by the Senate.”

“I understand,” the teacher said, lifting his chin in agreement. “May I ask a favor, though? It’s on behalf of the Republic of which I am a resident if not a citizen. May we enter the vault, all of us together? I don’t intend that the chest be opened, but there are things which I believe we may learn in its presence.”

Priscus remained still for a moment. Then he grinned and said, “I don’t see why I shouldn’t help three scholars with a matter of antiquarian research. Balaton, fetch the –”

But two servants under the direction were already bringing a ladder out of the alcove where the stools were kept; two others were walking toward the cartouche which covered the vault. Balaton’s grin was even broader than his master’s.

* * *

Alphena scowled. Because she’d chosen the forward-facing seat, the lamps on the front corners of the litter lighted her face but left her stepmother in darkness. All she could see of Hedia was a slimly aristocratic shadow.

And Alphena had picked this seat. She’d done it to herself, as she always seemed to do. No wonder Corylus ignored her!

Agrippinus had claimed the bearers were a matched team of Cappadocians who had been working together for over a year. The major domo had doubtless made a comfortable commission on the deal, but as with other business entrusted to him, it had been handled very well. Despite the size and bulk of this litter, Alphena found the ride the smoothest of any chair she’d ridden on.

“Alphena,” said Hedia, her teeth brief gleams in the shadow, “I’m worried that before long someone will inform the Emperor about Saxa’s activities.”

“Father’s done nothing wrong!” Alphena said, shocked out of sad musings about cosmetics. She didn’t know anything about making up her face, and she could scarcely ask Hedia. “My father would never plot against the Emperor!”