Out Of The Waters — Snippet 12

Alphena and her stepmother talked intently at the back corner of the box while their maids hovered attentively. Alphena was an enthusiastic girl, but she had generally seemed to Corylus to be angry about something. Now she looked happily transfigured.

Hedia, on the other hand…. Corylus had seen Varus’ stepmother both icily calm, her public face, and letting her warmth and quick intelligence show when she relaxed in private. This was a different woman: frozen in the way a rabbit freezes when the weasel hops toward it.

“Did you see the three men with Sempronius Tardus?” Varus said without preamble. “Where did they go, did you notice? Because they weren’t in the audience after I came back. Or Tardus either, but we know who he is.”

Came back from where? Corylus thought, but the whole line of questioning had surprised him. Not for the first time, of course. Varus’ rank as the son of Gaius Alphenus Saxa gave him access to every library in Carce; he read voraciously and apparently never forgot a word of the contents.

But Varus tended to forget that other people didn’t have the same wide background as he did–and that they hadn’t been listening to his thoughts to give them a context for whatever he said. Talking with him was often like having fragments of messages fall from the sky to your feet.

“I saw the attendants,” Corylus said simply. He would get the context by listening carefully to his friend, and it seemed to him that answering the questions was as easy and far more useful than chattering a series of silly questions of his own. “I thought one of them might be a Moor, but I’ve never seen anybody like the other two. I didn’t notice where they went after the performance. I was concerned with getting through the crowd to find you.”

Varus made a moue. “It can’t be helped,” he said. “And anyway, questioning them might not bring us any closer to an answer.”

“I don’t even know what the question is,” said Corylus, smiling but nonetheless bluntly truthful. “What did you notice about Tardus’ servants that caused you to ask?”

Pandareus raised an eyebrow over Varus’ shoulder. Corylus caught the gesture and beckoned him. Pandareus might know no more than his students did–which in Corylus’ case at least was nothing at all–but his age and authority made everything nearby seem more stable

“That I could see them at all,” Varus said. “When I looked into the audience when the vision was at its height, I… it was as if I were on a mountain, looking over the tops of the clouds. Except for those three men, whom I’d noticed with Tardus. But I didn’t see Tardus or any of the other senators.”

He looked at their teacher. “Master Pandareus, did you see them?” he asked.

“I noticed them with Commissioner Tardus,” Pandareus said, using the senator’s title as a member of the Commission for the Sacred Rites. “I wondered what tribe they might be from.”

He made a deprecating smile. “I was planning to ask my friend Priscus–”

Marcus Atilius Priscus, also a member of the commission, and according to Pandareus, the most learned man in Carce. Priscus in turn assigned that honor to Pandareus.

“–to introduce me to Tardus so that I could learn more. Ethnicities are something of a hobby with me.”

He turned his palms up, as if to show that they were empty. He went on, “I didn’t see them during the, well, vision is as good a word as any. I might have missed them, however, because I was so engrossed in the vision itself.”

“Master?” Varus said, licking his dry lips. “Could the city we were seeing be Atlantis?”

“I suppose it could…,” Pandareus said, pursing his lips. “If Atlantis existed, that is. Do you have reason to believe that it does exist, Lord Varus?”

“I was told it did in a dream,” said Varus with a lopsided smile. “At any rate, I’m going to call it a dream for want of a better word. I was told that Typhon was destroying Atlantis.”

“Ah!” said Pandareus. “What we saw fits the descriptions of Typhon in Hesiod and Apollodorus quite well. Rather better than the city matches the Poseidonis of Plato, in fact. Though I always believed that both were mythical.”

Pandareus smiled like a cheerful parrot. “I would rather Atlantis would be real than Typhon, from what we are told,” he said. “But I suppose our wishes in the matter aren’t controlling.”

Corylus coughed apologetically. “Master?” he said. “Speaking of dreams–you were visited by the sage Menre in the past. Have you dreamed of him again?”

“I’m not sure that I ever dreamed of Menre,” Pandareus said, smiling faintly to take the sting out of his correction. “I believe I saw a man named Menre, yes; and he claimed to be an Alexandrian scholar who helped Demetrius of Phalerum create the Museum three hundred years ago… which certainly implies that I was dreaming.”

He turned his palms up again, then closed them. “But this is a quibble, I know,” he said. “The answer that matters is that I have not received further advice from Menre, in dreams or otherwise.”

Varus hunched in on himself, looking as lost and miserable as a kitten caught in a thunderstorm. Corylus hesitated, then put his arm around his friend’s shoulders. Let people think what they bloody care to!

“Master…,” Varus said. He started in a mumble with his face downcast. Remembering that he was speaking to his teacher, he caught hold of himself and straightened; Corylus stepped back.

Varus resumed in a firm voice, “Master, I believe Carce and the world are in danger. You can put that to my dream also, if you like.”

“I share your belief in coming danger,” Pandareus said in a dry tone, “I believe the vision everyone in this theater will cause the Senate to call for examination of the Sibylline Books. At least it will if anyone beyond the three of us recognized what was happening.”

“I’m pretty sure Meoetes and the stage company have figured that out,” said Varus. He had recovered enough to smile wryly. “Though what actors and stagehands say won’t carry much weight with the Senate.”

“And I don’t see much reason to convince anyone that it should,” Corylus said. “Consulting the Sibylline Books in a crisis is a custom with the weight of six hundred years of tradition behind it, but I don’t believe that it’s a practical answer to the thing that threatens us. Whatever that thing is.”

“Yes,” said Varus. “That’s what I thought too.”

Taking a deep breath, he looked from Corylus to Pandareus and went on, “Which is why I hoped that your mentor–Menre that is–would have suggested a path for us to follow. Otherwise we have nothing.”

Corylus exchanged glances with their teacher. Then he said, “In the past, Gaius, you provided the direction for us by quoting the Sibylline Books.”

Varus had never seen the books, nor would he be allowed to unless he were elected to the Commission for the Sacred Rites. He probably would be so elected; but not for perhaps forty years, when he had become a senior senator rather than merely a youth of learning. Nonetheless, responses from the Books had come from his mouth; though not from his conscious mind, he had said.

“I was told that if Atlantis was destroyed, then all the world was doomed unless Zeus again slew Typhon,” Varus said, shaking his head slowly. “And it was strongly implied that Zeus didn’t exist. I don’t see that this is very helpful.”

“Well, I’m pleased to have my skepticism about the Olympian gods to be confirmed by such a respectable source as the Sibylline Books,” Pandareus said. His humor was so dry that even if Varus’ superstitious father overheard, he wouldn’t be shocked by the sacrilege. “Perhaps more will be offered to you later. As for me–”

Candidus brushed Pandareus as he bustled into the Tribunal, looking self-satisfied and important. He went immediately to Saxa.

Resuming with a faint smile, Pandareus said, “I will put my head together with my friend Priscus. We will peruse his remarkable library to see what we can find relating to Atlantis and to Typhon.”

“Master Pandareus?” said Saxa, joining them to Corylus’ amazement. From the expressions of Varus and Pandareus–the Greek lost all expression as he turned to face the senator–it was an equal surprise to his companions.

“I’ve just invited my colleague Marcus Priscus to dinner tomorrow night,” Saxa said. “I’m hoping you will be able to join us. I cannot imagine a more worthy addition to a learned dinner than you, Master.”

Amazingly–given the difference in their ranks–Saxa bowed to Pandareus. The teacher bowed in return, careful to dip lower than the senator had. “I would he honored, my lord,” he said.

Corylus felt a twinge of pity for Varus’ father. For all his wealth and position, Saxa really wanted to be known as a wise man. It was his misfortune to be intelligent enough to realize that he wasn’t wise.

Hedia left Alphena standing by herself and touched her husband’s shoulder. When he turned, she whispered in his ear.

“Ah, yes!” said Saxa. “Varus, would you care to invite your friend Master Corylus to join us as well? He has a reputation for learning, and I believe he’s already acquainted with Marcus Priscus.”

Corylus’ expression hardened. Before Varus could react, he said, “My lord, much as I would like to join you and your distinguished guests, I have a previous engagement. I regret that I must therefore refuse your generosity.”

Corylus would be eating in his own apartment, as usual. That suited him; and it did not suit him to be a rich man’s toady. Even less did he wish to dance attendance on the rich man’s wife….

“What?” said Saxa in obvious puzzlement. No one in his social circle expected lesser men to turn down a free meal prepared by his excellent chef. “What? Ah, of course, of course. Well, another time.”

He started down the stairs, beaming again with the success of his entertainment. That applause, Corylus realized, was what had given him the courage to invite Atilius Priscus, whose real erudition was the standard to which Saxa vainly aspired.

Hedia glanced after her husband, then gave Corylus a knowing smile as she returned to Alphena’s side. Corylus watched her, then realized Alphena was glaring at him.

The light in the Tribunal wasn’t good. Corylus hoped that his blush wasn’t as obvious as it felt when it painted his cheeks.