Out Of The Waters — Snippet 11

The spectators were beginning to drift toward the exits. Corylus led his burly servant through them against the flow. Pulto would have been more than willing to force a path, but Carce wasn’t a frontier cantonment and Publius Corylus was no longer the son of a high military officer.

Still, though Corylus didn’t push people out of his way, the senator’s toady who thought to shove the youth aside got a knee in the crotch for his bad judgment. He heard Pulto chuckle behind him. I am a freeborn citizen of Carce, and I learned on the Rhine how to handle lice.

They got clear of the audience and found that the steps from the orchestra to the stage were concealed behind an offset panel. “Just like a Celtic hill fort,” Pulto said as he followed his master up them.

Corylus’ face blanked as he tried for an instant to fathom the deep inner meaning of what his servant had just said; then he smiled. There isn’t any deep inner meaning, here or ever with Pulto. He’d seen the entrances to Celtic hill forts designed the same way, so he said so.

Corylus ducked behind the curtain. A few actors were still standing on stage. One had been dressed as a naiad in silk pantaloons painted to look like a fish’s tail with flowing fins. She had stripped off her costume and stood nude, weeping desperately.

“What’s all that about, do you think, lad?” Pulto said in puzzlement.

Corylus glanced at him; they were side-by-side again. Pulto still thinks it was all stagecraft!

Picking his words carefully, Corylus said, “I think it must have surprised the actors even more than it did us in the audience. They were closer, you see.”

The performers had been inside the vision. Perhaps the effect simply blinded them, which would be frightening enough. From the stunned looks and worse on the faces of the actors he saw, the experience had been worse than that.

Pulto would realize before long that there had been more than trickery behind the vision. Corylus didn’t see any reason to hasten his servant’s discomfort, however.

And Pulto would be uncomfortable, because magic frightened him in a way that German spears did not. He knew how to divert a spear with his shield–and how to deal with the blond pig who’d thrust it, too. Magic, though, was as unfathomable as a storm at sea.

Corylus felt the same way. His smile became wry. He had too good an education, however, to allow him to pretend something hadn’t happened simply because he wished that he hadn’t seen it happen.

A great number of people waited in the wing beneath the Tribunal. A senator never went out without an entourage of both servants and clients–freemen who accompanied him in expectation of gifts, dinners, and similar perquisites. They had nothing better to do with their lives than to be parasites on a rich man.

“I wonder how they’d look in armor?” Corylus whispered to his companion.

Pulto snorted. “I’d sooner train a cohort of fencing dummies to hold the frontier,” he said. Unlike Corylus, he spoke in a normal voice. “At least they wouldn’t talk back to me. And they’d stop spears just as well as this lot.”

Besides the normal entourage and the similar band which attended Lady Hedia, Saxa had a consul’s allotment of twelve lictors. They had been hired from the Brotherhood here in Carce, though there was no absolute requirement to do so. An official who wished to save money could outfit his household servants as lictors instead.

From weapons drill, Corylus knew that it wouldn’t be as easy as a layman might think to handle the lictor’s equipment. Each man carried an axe wrapped in a bundle of rods, symbols of the consul’s right to flog and to execute.

The additional cost of professionals meant nothing to Saxa. The mental cost to him if a servant turned lictor dropped an axe on someone’s foot or spilled his rods at a gathering of dignitaries was beyond calculation.

There was room for the mob of attendants backstage: the Emperor sat in the Tribunal when he attended performances. Besides the retinue of a civilian magistrate, he was always accompanied by fifty or a hundred German bodyguards.

Corylus smiled grimly. This complex included, along with the Temple of Venus at the front and the portico and gardens behind the theater proper, a fine Senate Hall. It had not been used since the afternoon Julius Caesar was assassinated in it.

Caesar had dismissed his Spanish guards, saying that a magistrate of Carce did not need foreigners to protect him from his own people. None of his successors would be so naive.

The chief lictor watched Corylus approach, but here in the city the lictors generally took their cue from the consul’s household whose members knew their master’s friends. Manetho, a deputy steward, and Gigax, a doorman, stood to either side of the steps up to the Tribunal.

“Hullo, Master Corylus!” Gigax boomed. He would have to lose his thick Illyrian accent before he was promoted to daytime duties on the street door, but he was a good natured fellow who sometimes fenced with Corylus in Saxa’s private gym.

“I’m sure the family will be glad to see you, Master Corylus,” Manetho said. He was Egyptian by birth, but his Latin was flawless and his Greek would have served an Athenian professor. “But if you please, room is a little tight in the box…?”

“I’ll stay down here, never fear,” Pulto said. He grinned. “If you think you’ll be safe, master?”

From being raped by Hedia, he means, Corylus thought. She wouldn’t do that! She’s a lady!

He blushed, and an instant later blessed Fortune that Pulto hadn’t completed his thought aloud. That was the sort of joke that soldiers told one another. It would not be a good idea in the middle of the household of the husband, who was also Consul of Carce.

“One moment!” said another voice sharply. Candidus, also a deputy steward, was crossing from the other wing of the stage at a mincing trot. “Manetho, you’re exceeding your authority. Exceeding your authority again, I should say!”

Manetho turned toward his fellow servant, hunching his shoulders like a Molossian hound about to tackle a boar. Corylus made his face blank, but mentally he grimaced. If only he’d hopped up the stairs a few heartbeats quicker! An outsider had nothing to gain by becoming the token by which a rich man’s powerful servants battled over status.

“Manetho,” called Varus from the top of the stairs, “my friend Corylus–oh, there you are, Publius! I saw you coming this way. I was just telling Manetho to send you up as soon as you got here.”

“I was just doing that, your lordship,” said Manetho unctuously. “Despite some Bithynian buffoon trying to prevent you from meeting your friend.”

Corylus had never known where Candidus came from originally: the fellow had no accent. Apparently he’d been born in Bithynia….

Corylus took the steps in three long strides. He wasn’t bothered by the number of people in the crowd beneath the Tribunal, but the fact they were divided into factions was disturbing. Saxa and his wife had rival establishments, and the lictors were a further element. Add that the individual servants got along badly with one another–as witness the scene of a moment before–and the emotional temperature was very high.

At least in a battle, there’s only two sides, Corylus thought. He smiled.

Varus clasped hands with Corylus at the top of the steps. They’d become surprisingly close in the months since they’d met as students of Pandareus of Athens.

Corylus quirked a smile as he edited his own thoughts: it surprised him to be close to a senator’s son, certainly; and he suspected it surprised Varus to be close to anybody at all. They were both outsiders in Pandareus’ class, but Varus must have been an outsider all his life.

Saxa was still looking out over the hollow of the theater. He seemed dazed, but Corylus thought his vague smile was sincere.

Pandareus stood close to the senator but not with him. The Greek had moved back from the railing, but he hadn’t chosen to join Varus until he was summoned.

A foreigner who moved in the highest levels of Carce’s society had to be extremely careful not to give offense. Varus wasn’t the sort to snarlingly order an uppity Greek to take himself off, but Pandareus was showing his present hosts the same punctilious courtesy that might have saved him from a beating if they had been, say, Calpurnius Piso–another of his present students.

Candidus reentered the Tribunal and murmured to Saxa, who suddenly came alert. He began giving the steward instructions, tapping his finger up and down in animation. Candidus bowed and disappeared down the stairs again.