Out Of The Waters — Snippet 05

Corylus frowned as a thought struck him: were they actors, or were they real Lusitanians, either purchased locally or shipped in from the province in order to make the production that much more lavish? If Saxa was paying his impresario a percentage over the expenses, Meoetes had every reason to run the costs up.

He glanced up at the Tribunal, looking for his friend Varus. Instead he saw the profile of Hedia, as crisply chiseled as the portrait on a coin. She started to turn toward the audience, and Corylus as quickly jerked his eyes away.

In the orchestra beneath him sat Marcus Sempronius Tardus, accompanied by three men of foreign aspect. Corylus knew little of the Senate, but he had met–better, had seen–Tardus seven days ago. He doubted whether Tardus would remember him; he certainly hoped the senator wouldn’t remember him.

Tardus was a member of the Commission for the Sacred Rites, the ten senators who guarded the Sibylline Books and examined them if called on to do so when the Republic faced a crisis. Seven days ago, Tardus had been on duty in the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest on the Capitoline Hill; the Books were kept in a crypt beneath the temple floor.

The Underworld ripped open through the floor of the temple that night. Tardus had seemed to be asleep, the victim of a magician’s spells. It might be awkward if he now remembered seeing Corylus when he awakened in the temple.

Tardus’ three companions were thin-faced and, though they wore ordinary woolen tunics, were not natives of Carce or of Italy. Two had wizened cheeks and skin the color of polished walnut. They wore their hair over their left ears in tight rolls into which brightly colored snail shells had been worked. One had pinned a small stuffed bird with spread wings over his right temple, and the other had a tuft of small yellow feathers in a piercing in his right earlobe. Corylus had never met anyone with their particular combination of costume and features before.

The third man had short hair, a black goatee, and gold rings in both ears. If Corylus had seen him alone, he would have guessed the fellow was a seaman from somewhere in North Africa; in company with the other pair, his background was more doubtful.

Tardus sat upright on his ivory chair, as still as a painted statue. If he was following the action on stage it was only with his eyes, which Corylus couldn’t tell from behind.

His three companions squatted instead of sitting on chairs of their own, and they were wholly focused on the Tribunal. The sailor-looking man curled the fingers of his left hand, then spread them one at a time as though he were counting. His lips moved; Corylus wondered if he was murmuring a prayer under his breath.

Why are they so interested in Saxa? Assuming that it’s Saxa and not his wife or children that they’re staring at.

While Zephyrs in flowing silks and mountain nymphs who wore revealing goatskins danced attendance, the Lusitanians continued to arrive from stage left and march past Hercules. They were carrying more treasures, this time in hand barrows instead of on mule back.

Corylus wasn’t sure what the major products of Lusitania were, but he guessed hides and fish would cover the vast majority. This procession emphasized red-figured pottery of the highest quality.

A broad wine-mixing bowl, displayed on edge, showed the infant Hercules strangling the serpents which had attacked him in his cradle. At least there’s a connection with the mime, Corylus thought. And in fairness, there were doubtless Greek colonies on the coast of Lusitania.

He looked at Tardus again, frowning slightly. The Senator was completely still. He couldn’t be sick or even asleep, not and remain upright on a backless chair. His lack of animation seemed unnatural, even granting that this display of Saxa’s wealth would be of less interest to another senator than to the members of the urban proletariat who filled most of the seats in the theater.

For the first time, Corylus speculated on the relationship between Saxa and Tardus. The internal politics of the Senate weren’t greatly of interest to the son of a provincial knight, but most of Pandareus’ present students were themselves sons of senators; it was inevitable that Corylus would hear a great deal.

Much of it was gibes directed against Saxa, since Varus was clearly the best scholar in the class and held his well-born fellows in contempt. The fact that he associated with Corylus, a mere knight, made the implied insult to his peers even sharper. Nobody was going to physically attack the son of so rich a man, but there was free discussion of Saxa’s reputation as a superstitious fool who lived in Aristophanes’ Cloud-Cuckoo Land.

If that bothered Varus, he didn’t show it. Corylus suspected it did bother him, simply from the fact that his friend never referred to the comments when the two of them were alone.

Tardus was the subject of similar comments, however. He was Saxa’s elder by fifteen years and had a become a Commissioner of the Sacred Rites through a combination of seniority and interest. Unlike Pandareus’ friend Atilius Priscus, however, Tardus was known for credulity rather than scholarship.

Saxa had shouted at Tardus in the aftermath of the chaos at the Temple of Jupiter, blaming him for what had happened. At the time, Corylus had thought that was a clever ploy: it had prevented others, particularly Commissioner Tardus, from looking closely at the role Saxa’s own family had played in those events.

Now Corylus found himself wondering what Tardus remembered of that night. He wondered also who the strangers accompanying Tardus were, and why they stared so intently at Saxa and his family in the Tribunal. There might, of course, be no connection.

On stage, the “suppliant tribesmen” were kneeling, and the various sprites and spirits had frozen in their dance. Mercury faced the audience, one arm pointing back toward the gleaming pomp of Hercules.

For an instant the only things moving in the scene were the twisting heads of the three metal snakes which protruded from the boss of Hercules’ shield. According to Hesiod, Vulcan’s genius gave the serpents the semblance of life. Here in Carce, a clever midget hidden in the belly of the shield moved them.

“All hail our ruler, the master of Lusitania under the majesty of the gods!” Mercury boomed, a neatly turned compliment for Saxa framed in a fashion that would not offend the emperor. The latter had by reputation been paranoid when he was young and in good health; the rigors of age had not mellowed him.

The actors on stage cheered; the audience echoed them, even most of the senators in the orchestra. Tardus remained as silent as a stone, and his three companions stared toward the Tribunal like greedy cats eyeing a fish tank.