Legions Of Fire – Snippet 42

“She — and my stepmother — heard a voice saying that she was going to marry Spurius Cassius,” he continued, keeping his voice calm. “I think that must mean the would-be tyrant of five hundred years ago. The temple was built where his house was.”

Corylus smiled. “And here I was wondering if our rhetorical training would ever be useful in normal life,” he said. “Cassius is the rhetorical model of a man who reached the highest level in the Republic, consul and even dictator, and then fell to the depths of ignominy to be executed for treason. He was so perfect –”

His grin grew playful.

“– that I wondered if he was real or just the creation of orators who weren’t above improving history for a really good example.”

“I recall mention of him in the Chronicles of the Claudian Family,” Varus said. “I believe he was real. A very clever, dynamic man, but unfortunately a man who wouldn’t stop at anything to gain the power he wanted.”

He thought back to the week he’d spent in the library of one of his father’s senatorial colleagues. He’d been looking for information on the First Punic War for his epic, but he’d found a great deal of other interesting information also. The oldest scrolls had been written on leather, not papyrus.

“That he was executed,” Varus continued, looking into his friend’s calm eyes, “was both the law and common sense: the Republic would be in danger for as long as he lived. But the particular savagery of his execution and the fact that his house was pulled down over him — I think that must have been because the other senators were terrified of him.”

Varus made a deprecating gesture, turning his palms up and then down again before him. “That’s how I would have described him,” he said, “if I’d written an epic on the early Republic as I considered doing: an enemy as great as Hannibal, but growing in the heart of the Carce instead of attacking us from the outside.”

A pang of embarrassment twisted his face. I was such a fool to think that I could be a poet!

“Varus?” Corylus said. His voice was perfectly calm, but a hint of worry pinched the corners of his eyes.

“Sorry,” Varus said. “It wasn’t anything important; I was thinking about my poetry. And that’s certainly –”

He didn’t even try to hide the bitterness and embarrassment.

“– not important.”

Corylus cocked his head to the side. “I think you’re wrong,” he said. “Poetry mattered to you, and you were willing to put in the effort to do it. Not many people really try to do anything.”

He smiled and added, “I’m proud to know you.”

Varus opened his mouth to snap, “And did you like my epic?” His mind caught the reflexive sourness before it reached his tongue, though.

He smiled broadly and said, “Thank you. I put in enough effort to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that I have no talent for poetry. Perhaps I should have concentrated my efforts on swordsmanship like my sister.”

Corylus’ face became completely blank. Varus winced at the expression and said, “I was joking. Yes, I know you’ve seen me doing sword exercises. Although it could be that I’d still make a better gladiator than I would a poet.”

“If you put in the effort, Lenatus and I could turn you into a passable swordsman,” Corylus said carefully. “It would take a lot of effort.”

“Whereas Alphena is pretty good, isn’t she?” Varus said. The conversation was where he needed it to be. He’d vainly hoped that his pause in the library would show him the way to broach the difficult topic; sitting down and talking to his friend had been the right answer.

“Yes,” said Corylus simply. He looked directly at Varus, but his face wasn’t giving anything away. “Not as good as she thinks, but good. If she was sparring instead of hitting the post, she’d learn she lacks strength. She’s got lots of stamina, though.”

“You’re not going to be sparring with her tomorrow, though,” Varus said. He didn’t make the words a command, but he wasn’t asking a question either.

“Not tomorrow or any other time, Varus,” Corylus said. He stood up, but that was just to make him less uncomfortable. To show he wasn’t trying to threaten his friend with his height and strength, he turned sideways. His hand squeezed the corner of the alcove. “I wouldn’t do that, and Lenatus wouldn’t let me if I tried. And –”

He grinned again, but from his tone this wasn’t a joke.

“– if he needed Pulto’s help to convince me, he’d have it.”

Varus stood also. “She’s my sister,” he said to the wall fresco of a Cyclops standing on a rocky cliff. “After she’s married, she’s her husband’s concern. But for now she’s my sister.”

Corylus put his arm over his friend’s shoulder. “Varus,” he said, “believe me, it never crossed my mind. And I don’t mean just because of the difference in our stations. Alphena doesn’t interest me.”

Neither of them were mentioning Alphena’s father. Varus grimaced. With me the closest thing in the family to a man, no wonder Alphena behaves the way she does!

“I do believe you,” Varus said. “But it’s pretty obvious, even to me, that she’s interested in you.”

Corylus said, “Well, she’s going to have to put a lot more snap into her backhand cuts before I’ll give her more than a peck on the cheek.”

Varus felt his torso turn to ice. He stared at his friend’s perfectly straight face — then burst out laughing.

“I’m sorry, Corylus,” he gasped. “You told me, so I should have just shut up. As I’m doing now.”

“Do you believe that Cassius is behind . . . ,” Corylus said, as though Alphena’s name hadn’t come up at all. He gestured with his right hand. “That Cassius sent your visions and all the other things? Because I still think Nemastes is involved.”

He paused as though wondering whether to speak further, then went on, “A woman I met when the dogs attacked me said Nemastes was responsible. And I don’t think they were dogs. They were wolves.”

He sighed. “Also,” he said to the mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite, “I was in a forest, not Carce. I just ducked into an alley and I was. I don’t know how that could have happened either.”

“You had sap and pine needles on your tunic,” Varus said. Corylus was wearing a tunic borrowed from a footman of roughly the right size. Varus was too slightly built to loan his friend any garment but a toga, all of which were cut to a standard size. “Along with the blood. I suppose you could have gotten them in Carce, but if you say you were somewhere else, I don’t have a problem believing it.

He waited till his friend raised his face and added, “If you say you were dancing with nymphs in the moonlight, Corylus, I believe that too. I don’t know what’s going on, but I know I trust you.”

“We weren’t dancing,” Corylus said steadily, “and there wasn’t much moon. But I think she was a nymph. A rose nymph. In the forest. Though it was firs, not pines.”