Legions Of Fire – Snippet 33

Chapter 7

“You’re sure you wouldn’t like a lantern-bearer?” Varus called to Corylus. His friend waved his free hand in response, then trotted eastward toward his home.

“He’s a very sturdy young man,” said Pandareus gently. “I would judge that the staff in his hand would be more than a match for a footpad’s dagger.”

Varus sighed. “Yes sir,” he said. “That’s just what I was thinking earlier this evening, when we met at the temple. But since what happened, I’m . . . .”

He didn’t know how to conclude the sentence. He looked up the escarpment. The Temple of Jupiter was set too far back for him to see it at this angle, but the memories of what had happened there weren’t going to fade soon. Probably they would still be clear on his deathbed.

He looked at his teacher and managed a smile. “Sir,” he said, “nothing seems certain any more. I feel as though that cliff could slump down like the Tiber bank in a flood. Though –”

Varus really grinned.

“– I think the Citadel will fail before Corylus does. I offered him an escort because I was afraid, not because I thought he needed one.”

He cleared his throat. Two linkmen stood close with their lanterns, but Candidus was remaining at a discreet distance.

“I hope, sir,” Varus said diffidently, “that you’ll permit me to send you home with attendants?”

“I’ll certainly walk part way with you,” said Pandareus. “And then we’ll see, but I have to admit that I’m feeling less sure of myself than a good philosopher should be.”

He looked at the moon, now at zenith, before lowering his eyes to Varus again. He continued, “I’ve been preparing for tonight’s events, you might say, during my whole life. But when it came — when I found myself in the midst of the wonder and the mystery that I’ve been seeking — I found it rather disconcerting. I find it disconcerting.”

Varus smiled faintly. At least it’s not just me. Though it would be better for Carce and the world if I were being foolishly concerned.

Aloud he said, “We’ll proceed now, Candidus. We’ll go through the Forum, then by the Sacred Way.”

That wasn’t the most direct route toward Saxa’s townhouse, but it would take them closer to Pandareus’ apartment. Varus tended not to think much about money. Every once in a while, something like the discussion between his teacher and Atilius about school fees reminded him that others might not have the luxury of ignoring money, and that a learned scholar might be in actual want.

To Pandareus he said, “I’m not frightened, really, but I’m lost.”

He thought for a moment and went on, “What I’m frightened about is that I’ll do something terribly wrong. That I’ll –”

He lifted his hands as though he were flinging out a heap of possibilities.

“– destroy the world in fire or, well, anything.”

“It sounds as though someone else is already working to destroy the world in fire,” Pandareus said. They were walking past the back of the Temple of Concord. The sheer stone wall was blank and forbidding in a way that the Capitoline Hill, broken up with bushes and vines all the way to the top, was not. “Perhaps you can cause the waters to rise. Deucalion’s Flood was a very long time ago, after all.”

Varus blinked. “Sir?” he said. Only then did he realize that his teacher had been joking. Or rather, poking fun at his student’s dour seriousness.

Varus cleared his throat and said, “The reasoning portion of my mind doesn’t think that the Earth and heavens rotate around me, sir. I’ll try to keep that reasoning portion more generally in control than my previous comment may imply.”

“I think it’s quite reasonable for you to feel lost,” Pandareus said. “I certainly do. My friend Priscus is more fortunate in that respect. He knows exactly how to deal with the crisis.”

“Through the Commission, you mean?” said Varus. “As you said in the vault, with a banquet for the gods or a new temple?”

“Priscus believes that the gods have spoken,” Pandareus said. “He and his colleagues on the Commission have the duty of determining the Republic’s proper response to the gods’ warning. Whereas I –”

He paused in mid-phrase, waiting till Varus looked up and met his eyes by starlight. They were ambling along at Varus’ usual pace. That was probably slower than the teacher would be walking on his own, but it was a better rate for talking anyway.

“– am not sure that the Sibyl is speaking the words of the gods. Indeed, I’m not sure that the gods exist, Gaius Varus. Which is not an admission that I would make generally, even in so large and sophisticated a city as Carce.”

“No sir,” said Varus. It wasn’t likely that Pandareus would be executed for blasphemy the way Socrates had been in Athens centuries before, but if there were a loud to-do about the matter, he would lose students. Whatever they might think privately, very few politically inclined fathers would want themselves and their sons to be associated with someone who denied that the gods fought for Carce.

Varus met his teacher’s eyes again. “And sir?” he said. “Thank you. I appreciate the compliment. Though I do believe in the gods.”

The more so after what I saw tonight. But those words caught in his throat when he considered speaking them aloud.

“I was praising your ability to consider all sides of a question,” Pandareus said. “Not your opinions themselves. Though I hope –”

His voice lost some of its lightness.

“– that you don’t think I’m saying that I’m smarter or wiser than my friend Priscus. We’re in disagreement on the point at issue, as we are on a number of points. Whether the authorship of the Nicomachian Ethics can really be ascribed to Aristotle, for example. One or both of us must be in error on many issues, but I will say –”

Pandareus smiled much more broadly than he usually did.

“– that my friend and I make far more subtle and intelligent blunders than the ordinary run of men do.”

Varus pondered for a moment. His hesitation wasn’t over what question to ask but rather whether he should speak at all.

“Ask, my student,” said Pandareus in the tone of dry pedantry that he generally employed in class. “You needn’t fear that I will consider you stupid; and as for ignorance: all men are ignorant, are we not?”

“Sir,” Varus said, keeping his eyes for now on the pair of linkmen two paces ahead. They were the closest servants. He doubted they could hear the conversation, and if they did, there was no one they could repeat it to that would matter.

“What do you think the solution to the . . . , Varus said. Threat? Danger? “To the situation, that is, will be? Since you don’t have confidence in the sort of response that the Commission will recommend.”

“I think, Lord Varus . . . ,” Pandareus said, subtly changing the dynamics of the discussion. Heretofore they had been teacher and scholar. Now he was addressing Varus with the formality owed by a foreigner to a senator’s son. “That the answer will come from you. You have twice demonstrated knowledge which goes beyond where scholarship and logic have taken me.”

“Me?” said Varus, so startled that he managed to kick the heel of his right foot with his left toe. He almost went sprawling. “Sir, I don’t know anything. I didn’t even hear myself speaking when you say I did. I mean, I believe you, but I can’t guide you.”

“Perhaps,” said Pandareus, but his tone didn’t suggest he agreed with Varus. “In that case, someone or something is guiding you. I hope that we — that all of us, that the Republic — can benefit from that guidance through you.”

“Sir, I . . . ,” Varus said. He didn’t know what to say next. The servants leading the entourage had slowed to a loiter at the intersection ahead, where the street which led east toward Pandareus’ apartment branched from the Sacred Way. Varus needed to go north to get home.