Legions Of Fire – Snippet 29

He squatted, keeping his shadow off the carvings on the side of the chest. It was limestone and not a particularly fine-grained variety at that, so the figures were necessarily crude. Nevertheless, they were powerful.

In the center was a chariot to which horses were hitched in parallel; four of them as best Varus could tell by the additional grooves shadowing the outline of the legs of the animal closest to the viewer. The figure driving the chariot had a woman’s torso and breasts, but her head was that of a maned lion; bird wings sprouted from her back. A similar creature — sphinx? Gorgon? — ran on two bird legs in front of the team but looked back over her shoulder toward her fellow. The heads of all the figures were at the same height. Varus had seen similar bands of decoration painted on very old vases.

“Sir?” said Varus, looking up at Priscus. Suddenly realizing that he was speaking to a man who was far his superior in age, knowledge and position, he wobbled upright as he would for his father. “Ah, Lord Priscus? Is this box Etruscan?”

“You’ve got a clever one there, teacher,” Priscus said to his friend. Pandareus didn’t reply, but his smile was a trifle warmer than usual as it drifted toward Varus.

“And yes, boy,” Priscus continued. “At any rate, it looks like Etruscan work to me, and early Etruscan besides. Which is just what I would expect, since I believe it’s the chest in which Old Tarquin placed the books after he bought them from the Sibyl. Do you know the story?”

He thrust his finger toward Varus. “You, I mean. Since you’re a clever bugger.”

I’ve been called worse, Varus thought.

“Sir!” he said as though he were in class. “An old woman approached Tarquin the First, an Etruscan and the fifth king of Carce. She offered to sell him nine books of prophecies by the Sibyl of Cumae at the price of 300 didrachms. Tarquin refused to pay so much.”

“So, boy . . . ,” said Priscus, leaning slightly forward and scowling. “Was Tarquin a fool?”

This was like class! “Sir!” Varus said. “No, Tarquin was a tyrant and a foreigner, but he was reputed to be one of the wisest men of all time. The price, however, was enormous — particularly since Carce was then only a town and surrounded by powerful enemies.”

He cleared his throat. Both Pandareus and Corylus were smiling smugly; they knew he wouldn’t embarrass them.

And I won’t. Varus continued, “The old woman threw three of the books on the fire in Tarquin’s chamber. They were written on dry palm leaves and burned to ash. She then demanded the same price for the six books remaining.”

“And?” said Priscus. He was smiling in satisfaction also.

Varus rested his left hand on the stone chest, feeling the carvings beneath his fingertips. He knew the story well, as he knew many stories. Until this moment it had been a myth, but now in this place he could see Tarquin, his stern face lighted by sudden flare from the charcoal brazier which tried to warm the painted stone walls of his throne room.

“Tarquin again refused the offer,” Varus said, “and the old woman threw three more books onto the fire. But when she offered him the final three books, Tarquin paid her the full price, 300 didrachms. The Sibylline Books have been the most holy treasure of Carce from that day to this.”

“Very good, boy,” said Priscus softly, but he turned toward Pandareus. “A treasure too holy for me to display even to the scholar whose wisdom and knowledge I respect above that of any other man I know.”

“If you don’t mind, old friend,” said Pandareus, “we’ll stay in this vault while I tell you some of my history.”

“Sir?” said Corylus. “Should Varus and I leave?”

“Not at all,” Pandareus said. “You’re welcome to hear, and for other reasons –”

He turned his odd smile toward Varus.

“– I particularly want Lord Varus to be present.”

“Sir,” said Varus, lifting his head in acknowledgment. He wasn’t sure he’d spoken loudly enough to be heard. He didn’t suppose it mattered.

“I’m a Melian by birth,” Pandareus said, facing Priscus and Corylus. His shoulder was to Varus, whom he seemed to be ignoring. “I went to Egypt, though, as a young man and spent a year in Alexandria.”

“Melos?” said Priscus, frowning. He rubbed his chin with his knuckles. “I thought you were from Athens.”

“Pandareus of Athens was a better name for a teacher,” Pandareus said with a hard smile, “than Pandareus of Melos, an island which was a backwater when Cadmus founded Thebes and hasn’t become any more important in the millennium since.”

The others laughed. Varus felt warm and prickly on the inside of his skin. He no longer heard the chant that had been with him since the afternoon of his reading, but there was a keening at the edges of his mind. It could have been the wind, or perhaps a woman wailing in distant misery.

“The Egyptians are a dirty people,” Pandareus continued, “and fond of superstition. But they’re an old race, and their land is very old. In Alexandria I met an Egyptian whose name was Menre. He said he was a scholar of the Museum and had been a student of Demetrius of Phalerum.”

“That’s impossible, surely?” Priscus said. Corylus’ sharp expression showed that he was thinking the same thing but hadn’t wished to contradict his teacher. “Unless you misheard him?”

“I did not mishear him,” Pandareus said, his smile slightly wider, “as you already knew. As for whether it was possible that Menre was a student of the man who advised Ptolemy to create the Museum three hundred years ago . . . I thought it very unlikely. I asked Menre to introduce me to his teacher, and he said he would when the time was right.”

“And?” said Priscus.

“I didn’t see Menre again while I was in Egypt,” said Pandareus. “I left for Athens a few months later and gained a name there. Including the name Pandareus of Athens.”

The others laughed. Varus remained in his warm, prickly cocoon. He saw and heard everything that was going on in the vault, but he was miles and ages away from his companions.

He reached beneath his toga and gripped the ivory head with his right hand; his left hand still rested on the stone box which held the Sibylline Books. He felt someone coming toward him through a tunnel of fog.

“I hadn’t thought of Menre in decades,” said Pandareus. “I was quite satisfied with my life in Athens. The students who attended my lectures were of reasonable quality, the range of books which were open to me there was wider even than here in Carce — they’d been brought into the city by men who loved learning, not soldiers in armor like those who gathered the libraries of Carce.”

“But the pay, my friend?” Priscus said.

The teacher shrugged. His shadow quivered oddly, unpleasantly, on the wall of the vault.

“The only men in Athens who are as wealthy as a Senator of Carce,” Pandareus said, “are Senators of Carce who’ve retired to Athens. Nonetheless some men of Carce send their sons to Athens still, as Cicero’s father and Cicero himself did, even though there are teachers at home equal to the best in Greece. If only because we recently were the best in Greece.”

Varus watched him grin in profile.

“And I will note,” Pandareus said, holding the smile, “that the rich and powerful of Carce are no more punctual with their sons’ school fees than their lesser brethren of Athens were. Your senatorial colleague Calpurnius Piso comes immediately to mind when I hear the words ‘slow to pay.'”

An old woman hobbled toward Varus. He watched his own body standing with his friends in the vault while with another part of his mind he waited for the woman. She wore a cowled gray cloak over a long tunic — an Ionic chiton — of bleached linen; her face was wrinkled and ancient.

“But one night, in what must have been a dream,” Pandareus was saying, “Menre visited me. He told me I must go to Carce so that I would be on hand when I was needed at a great crisis of the world. In support of his demand, he showed me astrological calculations which proved the necessity beyond any doubt. The stars didn’t describe the form of the danger, however: only the fact that it was focused on Carce.”

“All roads lead to Carce,” Priscus said, quoting the old adage. He was smiling, but there was no laughter in his expression.

“Yes,” said Pandareus simply. “Or at any rate, mine did.”