Legions Of Fire – Snippet 31

“I don’t see any reason not to tell you,” he said, “given what just happened. Master Corylus, your friend just quoted from the Sibylline Books. Which he’s never seen and won’t be permitted to see until he’s been elected by the Senate to the Commission for the Sacred Rites. As I have no doubt he will be, in good time; but not till he’s my age or close to it.”

“I assumed you would recognize a passage from the Books if you heard it, my friend,” Pandareus said. “I know and respect your memory.”

Priscus sniffed, but he smiled also. “During consultations . . . ,” he said. He wasn’t whispering, but Corylus noticed that he pitched his voice a hair lower. “The Books are open. Any of the Commissioners could read them. Most of my colleagues don’t use the opportunity, so far as I’ve noticed, but I do and –”

He smiled more broadly at Pandareus.

“– as my friend suggested, I do have a good memory. I hope that I’m not generally a vain man, but I do pride myself on that point.”

“Will you please explain to my students how consultations of the Books are usually made, Marcus Priscus?” Pandareus asked. He softened the formality of the request with a grin: the two old men really were friends. Their closeness went beyond mere respect and similarity of interests.

“Why me?” said Priscus. “You’re their teacher, and you know the procedure as well as I do, don’t you?”

“Perhaps,” said Pandareus, “but you, most noble Senator, are a Commissioner; whereas I am a foreigner, albeit a clever one.”

It may be that the world is about to end, thought Corylus. These men fear it is, at any rate. But they’re quibbling over minutiae because they both love the details; and because nothing is going to make either of them show their fear by the way they act.

“It’s simple enough, boys,” Priscus said. “There are three books of prophecies, each made from 61 palm leaves — written on one side only. When the Commission is called to examine the Books, we open them a page at a time and drop a ball from a tumbler just like the ones they use in picking trial jurors from the general panel. There are 182 white balls and one black one. When the black ball drops, we have the page. Then –”

He shrugged.

“– we draw lots again, the ten of us or however many arrived for the meeting. The one chosen points to a section of the page while blindfolded. We read that section aloud and decide what action the Republic must take in response.”

Priscus looked at the three of them in turn. Corylus felt the weight of his glance: the Commissioner was no longer a fat old man and something of a buffoon.

“I don’t mind telling you that I’ll be applying to the Senate for a formal opening of the Books,” he said, “on the basis of Gaius Varus here reading a passage through a closed stone box. That’s a greater prodigy than any calf speaking in the Forum, I think. And I witnessed it myself, so bugger what Saxa says — not meaning to be offensive about your father, boy.”

“Sir?” said Corylus hesitantly.

“Well, spit it out, boy,” Priscus said.

Everyone was looking at him: his immediate companions and the servants watching avidly from above. “Sir,” Corylus said. “If you report to the Senate, they’ll know that you let us into the vault.”

“Well, that’s what I did, isn’t it?” Priscus snapped. “I thought it was proper. If my colleagues disagree, they can order me executed for treason. But my oath is to the Republic, and I’ll report as is my duty even if that means being sewn in a leather sack and sunk in the Tiber. Do you doubt it?”

Corylus stood straight. His arms were at his sides and his eyes were focused on a ring bolt attached to the wall directly opposite him for some unguessed reason. “Sir!” he said. “No sir, I do not doubt you.”

“Army, is he, teacher?” the Commissioner said to his friend.

“His father was, I believe,” Pandareus said mildly. “I need hardly say that he’s not what I expected from his background.”

He coughed to clear his throat. “You may relax, Master Corylus,” he said. “Your observation shows a commendable concern for the wellbeing of Commissioner Priscus. He does not hold it against you.”

“Bloody impertinence is what it was!” Priscus said, but then he looked at Corylus and grinned. “But you meant well, boy, and the fact that you realized that actions have consequences puts you ahead of most people. Puts you ahead of most of my senatorial colleagues, in fact.”

He looked at Pandareus and said, “Are we done here, then? You’ve gotten what you came for, haven’t you? There’ll be a consultation of the Sibylline Books after all.”

“We’re certainly done from my viewpoint,” Pandareus said, “but for my purposes there’s no need that the Books be opened formally. Master Varus has directed us to the threat; now we must deal with it.”

Priscus had looked relaxed for a moment. Now his face became wary if not quite hostile. “Aye,” he said. “The Commission must deal with it, teacher.”

“The Commission will meet, will it not?” Pandareus said. Corylus and Varus stood still, pretending not to be present. The servants slipped back soundlessly so that they couldn’t see or be seen by the nobles in the vault, though they were certainly still listening. “You’ll consider the prophecy and carry out various divinations to determine the proper response to it.”

“I suspect the procedure will be much as you describe, yes,” Priscus said deliberately. “But though the methods by which the Commission reaches its recommendations aren’t precisely a secret, neither are they matters which I will discuss with anyone who is not already a Commissioner.”

“Then we’ll pass on from that,” Pandareus agreed with a nod. “The recommendations themselves are matters of public record, however. In the past, the Commission has decreed sacrifices and public banquets, and occasionally it has summoned a foreign deity. I can imagine in this case that your colleagues might send a legation to the Brahmins of India and request that a company of them escort their fire-god Agni to a new temple in Carce.”

“Your description of past history is of course accurate,” Priscus said. His words were clipped and careful. “I won’t speculate as to what the Commission might recommend in this or any other case.”

“Of course,” said Pandareus. “You will work in your fashion, my friend, and I will work in mine. I’ll tell you frankly that I hope your method succeeds. Indeed, I hope that the Republic and the world have as much time as it would take for a Senatorial delegation to reach Barracucha on the Indus. I dearly hope that.”

He thrust out his hand. After a delay of a heartbeat or perhaps two heartbeats, Priscus clasped it. The two old men hugged one another as fiercely as Corylus and Varus had done minutes earlier, then stepped apart.

“Time to leave, then,” said Pandareus. “It must be close to midnight.”

Priscus gestured him to the ladder. “Go on, and I’ll follow you,” he said. “Varus, you bring the lamp, and Corylus? I’ll want you ready to catch me if I fall, all right?”

“Yes sir,” said the youths in unison. Corylus added, “But you won’t fall, sir. You’re not so decrepit as you pretend.”

“Cheeky one, isn’t he, teacher?” Priscus said as Pandareus carefully climbed toward the servants waiting to assist him. “And clever. They’re both clever, as I knew from the fact you vouched for them.”

“Master Pandareus?” Corylus said as Priscus mounted the ladder in turn. Pandareus tilted his head to look down.

Corylus stiffened formally. “Now we know why you were sent to Carce,” he said. “If you hadn’t been, the prophecy wouldn’t have been heard in time.”

If it is in time, he thought. May the gods grant that it is in time.

* * *

“– even-as-they-do-your-all-powerful-husband!” Alphena said, racing through the last phrase because her throat was hoarse. She didn’t want to choke and fail to complete the prayer after she’d gone to the effort of speaking the first part.

She turned to her stepmother, seated again. “Do you have more wine?” she said harshly. That was the only way she could say anything with her throat so raw, but she was tired and angry and she hurt.

Hedia walked over, exchanging the vellum sheet for a different skin of wine than the one they’d drunk from earlier in the evening. Alphena took it gingerly and worked out the wooden stopper. She wasn’t used to drinking from a skin, and she’d managed to squirt her tunic once already.

“I’ve found that success in life requires less brilliance than most people think,” Hedia said. “And a great deal more persistence. Tonight is an example for persistence, I’m afraid.”