Legions Of Fire – Snippet 34

“Ah, Master Pandareus?” Varus said. “Would you like us to escort you the rest of the way to your suite?”

“It’s scarcely a suite, young man,” said the teacher dryly. “And no, I’ll be fine from here.”

“Candidus?” Varus said on a rising inflection. He felt relieved that the conversation was ending. He didn’t want to formally terminate it, but he didn’t see any good direction to go from where it was now. “Send a linkman and another servant home with Master Pandareus. Men who won’t have problems at this time of night.”

“Hey, send me, Candidus!” a burly servant called. Varus didn’t know his name, but he’d noticed his accent in the past. He was from the northern border of Britain — or from across it. “I wouldn’t mind knocking some heads again.”

To Varus, learning was the primary goal, and he knew that exalted rank didn’t guarantee exceptional learning. Therefore he didn’t have the concern for rank that his sister and stepmother did. The servant from North Britain was obviously no scholar, but his enthusiasm for keeping the old man safe shouldn’t become cause for punishment.

“Candidus,” Varus said before the under steward could react, “send the Pict. And Master Pandareus, you will take an escort tonight. I wouldn’t sleep if you didn’t.”

“You’re a fine student,” Pandareus said. “I would be remiss as your teacher if I did anything to interfere with you getting necessary rest.”

He winked, undercutting the deadpan delivery. “And besides,” he went on, “I’m not at my sharpest and most observant tonight, Lord Varus. I don’t want to have my head knocked in because I failed to notice somebody with a brick who was looking for the price of a jar of wine.”

To the servants Candidus had chosen — the Pict and a tall man who carried his lantern hanging from the tip of an iron rod — Pandareus said, “Come along, my good fellows. Which chariot teams do you fancy? I confess to a liking for the Whites, as they represent the epitome of purity. Unfortunately, I find that they almost never win races.”

The three men headed south at a more rapid pace than they’d been keeping in Varus’ presence. And no doubt Corylus was trotting along as blithely as he would have done by daylight. Well, individuals had different skills; and the noble Gaius Varus had never claimed to be an enthusiastic pedestrian.

“Home, Candidus,” he ordered. They set off again.

Varus found himself smiling. Ever since Homer, poets had been describing men as pawns in a game of the gods. He had done the same himself in his abortive epic of the First Punic War.

He’d never expected to be one of those men whom the gods were playing with, however.

* * *

Hedia staggered across the yard of the temple. Alphena tried to stop as soon as they were under the open sky again. Hedia dragged the girl with her, snarling, “Come on! If the building collapses, stones will come bouncing out for Hercules knows how far!”

The servants babbled like a flock of geese; they even fluttered their arms in the air. All they have to do is to begin spraying green shit all over the landscape to complete the resemblance!

With servants dancing attendance but afraid to touch the noble ladies even to help, Hedia reached the gap where the gate had been. They could go into the street and get behind what was left of the perimeter wall, but she doubted blocks would roll this far through the piles of building materials. Besides, the earthquake seemed to be over for now.

She released Alphena. The girl drew herself up with returning dignity. From the look on her face, she was wondering whether to scream at her stepmother for treating her like a child or to hold her peace since Hedia had, after all, done the right thing. Even if she hadn’t been polite in the way she did it.

“Your ladyship!” cried Phidippides. Fear and confusion made the priest of Tellus sweat like the pig he so greatly resembled. “Whatever’s the matter? What did you do?”

“We didn’t do anything, you fool,” Hedia said. “The earthquake knocked over the lamp stand and the statue too. Midas –”

The deputy steward was standing close, ready to move the priest away if requested to. He wore a troubled expression.

“– get some of your men to put out the oil that spilled from the lamp. Smother it with the sand piled over there, I suppose.”

Midas turned, relaying the order with a bellow. The workmen’s tools were stacked in the shelter of the roofed colonnade to the left of the temple proper. One of the servants had noticed that along with the shovels, trowels, and cramps, there were tightly woven baskets for carrying loose materials. He shouted to get his fellows’ attention and started tossing baskets down.

“But your ladyship?” Phidippides said in horrified wonder. “There wasn’t a –”

He paused. He’d apparently heard the words that had just come out of his mouth and decided instantly to change the tenor of his comment.

“Ah, that is,” he said, “we were waiting here in the street as you directed. With your men. We heard, ah, rattling, but we didn’t feel an earthquake. Your own man Midas can tell you that, can’t you, dear fellow?”

“Don’t you contradict her ladyship, you Milesian toad!” said Midas, grabbing a handful of Phidippides’ tunic and shoving him backward.

“Enough of that, Midas,” Hedia said. The priest edged away, ready to run if Midas reached for him again. “Now, listen to me: did you feel an earthquake?”

She gave an angry flick of her hands. “And don’t just say you did because you think that’s what I want to hear,” she said. “Tell me the truth or I swear I’ll have you flayed.”

The deputy steward’s face went blank. He bowed low and said, “Your ladyship, I heard tiles breaking and I thought there’d been a gust of wind. But I didn’t feel anything through my sandals. Or feel wind. Your ladyship.”

“There had to have been an earthquake,” Alphena said. She was hugging herself. “The statue fell. And I heard it speak.”

“Midas,” Hedia snapped, “leave us. And make sure this temple rabble keeps clear also! Lady Alphena and I have matters regarding the divination to discuss in private.”

“At once, your ladyship!” the steward said. In a voice that could be heard in neighboring apartment buildings, he went on, “”Ferox and Mensus? Break the legs of anybody who comes within twenty feet of their ladyships!”

As people sprang away from them — the household servants dragged or pummeled temple personnel who were afraid to defend themselves in the presence of the great ladies — Alphena said, “It said I was going to marry Spurius Cassius. It’s horrible. I don’t even know who Spurius Cassius is!”

Hedia doubted that the girl had consciously waited until the servants were out of earshot before she started talking about what had happened. If Hedia hadn’t acted quickly, all the hundreds of household servants — and all the thousands they talked to or who talked to somebody who talked to them — would have been chattering about the terrible omen during the marriage divination. Try to arrange a decent marriage for Alphena then!

“I don’t think you should take the voice you thought you heard too seriously,” Hedia lied. The girl was distraught. Besides, they were both tired and they’d drunk quite a lot of wine. “I suspect it was the wood squealing when the statue of Tellus fell over, don’t you?”

“It wasn’t,” Alphena said. She bent over, bracing her buttocks against the wall as she pressed the knuckles of both hands against her mouth. “The goddess spoke to me. I saw her mouth moving!”

Is she about to begin screaming? That could be passed off as a reaction to almost being crushed by the toppling statue, of course. In fact it might go some way to balancing the stories about the girl’s unnatural interest in masculine pursuits.

“I’m not going to marry Spurius Cassius,” Alphena said through her fists. “I’ve never heard of Spurius Cassius. I won’t!”

“Get yourself together, daughter,” Hedia said without raising her voice. “Venus, girl! Don’t put on a show for the servants.”