Legions Of Fire – Snippet 41

Varus didn’t speak for a moment. Then he said, “I can check the lists of magistrates which some of the temples keep, and perhaps the Cassius family has records which they would let me see.”

He smiled with quiet pride. “I dare say they would show me whatever they have,” he added. “For father’s name, but they will have heard of my interest as well, I believe.”

“But you don’t know of anybody yourself?” Alphena said in frustration. She had so hoped for an answer!

Her brother raised his hand in curt negation. “I didn’t say that,” he said. “In fact the only man of that name whom I do recall has been dead for over five hundred years. He was one of the earliest consuls of the Republic, a great general who led our armies to several victories. But when he tried to become king, he was captured and executed in his own home. The house was pulled down over him and a temple built on the site.”

“Brother,” Alphena said. She wrapped her arms around her as though she were cold. “Which temple was it? Do you know?”

Varus frowned. “I’d have to check,” he said. “Does it matter to you? I think Cicero may mention it in the oration he gave when the Senate voted to rebuild his house. I’m sure I can find it somewhere.”

“Was it the Temple of Tellus?” Alphena said, looking at the ground. “Tell me, was it?”

“Why yes, I believe you’re right,” said Varus. “That’s the one father is renovating, isn’t it? The dedicated gifts were brought right here to the garden, in fact. See the tusks? It happened while I was, ah, reading here.”

“Tonight the statue told me I was going to marry Spurius Cassius,” Alphena said. She felt tears welling up in her eyes. She went on, knowing that she was blubbering, “And he’s dead! He’s dead!”

“Ah . . . ,” said Varus. “I . . . .”

He put his arms around Alphena as she cried. He was very awkward, but she appreciated what her brother was trying to do.

But in her heart, Alphena wished he were Corylus instead.

* * *

A Celtic footman, one of the three waiting at the door to Varus’ bedroom suite said, “Your lordship, Master Corylus is already inside. We told him you were in the library, but he said he preferred to go to bed.”

“Very good, Asterix,” Varus said, more polite in his acknowledgment than most people would have thought necessary. Politeness, even to a slave, cost nothing. He’d heard philosophers say, “A man has as many enemies as he has slaves,” and during riots and other unrest, a servant’s hostility could be fatal to his master.

The Republic was at peace now, though of course that might change when the Emperor — not a young man — died. Even so, Varus was polite simply because he preferred to be. As a general rule he didn’t care much about other people, but he found life more pleasant when those nearby weren’t angry with him.

Another footman inside the suite whisked the door open and bowed as deeply as if he were welcoming an imperial delegation. “Your lordship!” he said.

Varus forced a smile. The fellow was new and apparently hadn’t been told –or didn’t believe — that pomp made the young master uncomfortable. I’ll speak to Agrippinus in the morning, he thought.

“You may leave the suite now,” he said aloud. “Are there any more of you here?”

There were, of course: three male servants and the maid who was responsible for straightening the bedclothes stepped forward to call attention to themselves. Corylus, beside what would ordinarily be the night servant’s alcove, smiled a greeting standing.

Varus gestured. “You may all leave, please,” he said. “If we need anything during the night, we’ll call for it.”

The servants bustled from the room, though the new footman seemed so confused that he was on the edge of arguing. The maid slapped him on the back of the head and hissed a warning. Two servants fought to slam the door behind them.

“Perhaps we could go out in the courtyard?” Corylus said, raising an eyebrow.

“And have spectators on the balcony as well as at ground level?” Varus said, smiling at his friend. “Here, sit on your bed and I’ll draw up this –” he picked up a square wicker stool; its legs were only four inches tall, but it would keep his buttocks off the floor “– seat.”

Corylus liked to be outdoors; so did Varus, for that matter. But Corylus thought of ‘outdoors’ as the great forests flanking the Rhine and the Danube. Here in Carce it meant an open space surrounded by people listening.

“Did you find anything useful in the library?” Corylus asked politely, seating himself when Varus did. He was being extremely cautious. That was natural after what had been happening, but it saddened Varus to see his friend — his only friend — feeling that he too might be a danger.

“In a manner of speaking,” said Varus, smiling at the thought. “I read Vergil to calm down; as you probably guessed, since you courteously chose not to disturb me.”

Corylus laughed. “Well,” he said, “I hoped that was what you were doing. Though I might have suggested somebody lighter than Vergil.”

“The Aeneid not only has structure, it is a structured universe all by itself,” Varus said, letting his mind slip back for a moment into the great epic’s measured cadences. “The structure of our world seems to be melting away like ice in the sunshine.”

He shrugged and realized that the gesture had been more violent than he’d intended. “I didn’t try to find anything dealing with our problem. I wouldn’t know where to start. Even Pandareus didn’t know where to start!”

“We’ll deal with things as they come up, my friend,” Corylus said gently. “I’ve had the advantage of being with soldiers in the field. You learn fast there that you can’t plan for the worst things, but that doesn’t mean you can’t survive them. At least you and I can trust our leaders.”

“Pandareus and Atilius, you mean?” Varus said. “Yes, you’re right. And this Menre who spoke to Pandareus — he must be on our side too. Perhaps he’ll appear shortly and give us some direction more useful than simply telling our teacher to come to Carce.”

They chuckled together. Varus felt better just for being with his friend. Corylus was in his way just as solid as Vergil’s perfectly constructed epic.

The wooden staff leaned against the wall of the alcove, beside the headrest where Corylus could snatch it instantly if an alarm awakened him in the night. It had been wiped clean of fur and blood, then apparently waxed. Alphena must have told a servant to polish it before returning it to its owner.

Which forced Varus to think about his sister. And about his friend.

“Alphena was holding a marriage divination in the Temple of Tellus tonight,” he said, looking at the mosaic floor. In the center were Neptune and his bride Amphitrite, while all manner of sea creatures swam in the border running along the walls. By sheer effort of will, he raised his eyes to meet those of Corylus.