Out Of The Waters — Snippet 18


          The client in the office with Saxa was one of the Marcii Philippi, a distant cousin of Saxa’s first–and his second; they were sisters–wife; he was therefore a relative of Varus as well. Despite Philippus’ rank, he lived in straitened circumstances; though that hadn’t, Varus noted, kept him from eating himself into grotesque obesity.


          “I say!” said Philippus in offended surprise.


          Agrippinus walked toward him with his arms spread slightly and his hands raised, as though he were pushing the client’s considerable weight. He didn’t actually touch Philippus, but he moved the fellow back by force of personality. He said, “The Consul will summon you when he is ready to receive you again, your lordship.”


          “But I–” said Philippus. Four junior members of Saxa’s household moved toward him; one was the footman who had been in Varus’ path to the office. He acted with particular zeal, apparently concerned to redeem himself in the eyes of the son of the house. Philippus returned to the entrance hall, backing so hastily that he almost fell into the pool fed by the opening in the roof.


          The hall would normally have been crowded with clients. Now all but two clients at a time had been relegated to the street outside, because the consul’s twelve lictors took precedence. Varus had considered the lictors a pointless complication, but he realized now that they might turn out to be useful.


          Varus joined his father, feeling a mixture of amusement and disgust at the servant’s reaction to his threat. Alphena had a vicious temper. She had been known to throw things at people who had made her angry, and it wasn’t unimaginable that worse might happen if she flew hot when she happened to have a sword in her hand.


          Alphena was not, however, cruel: torture would have been as unlikely for her as sexual congress with a donkey. If the servants had bothered to think, they would have known that as well as her brother did.


          Varus had learned that generally people didn’t think: they just reacted. He supposed that should have pleased him, because it gave him an advantage over most of the world. Instead, it tended to make him sad.


          Saxa was seated on his ivory chair. He faced the hall, the anteroom, and the street beyond on a single axis. The entrance was designed to put the householder in a frame, focusing all eyes on him.


          Varus stepped around in front so that his father didn’t have to twist sideways; folding senatorial chairs weren’t very stable and neither was Saxa. He said, “I’m very sorry to trouble you, sir.”


          “What’s the matter, b-b…,” Saxa said in concern. He composed his expression and said, “What’s the matter, my son?”


          Rather than “boy.” Varus had risen in his father’s estimation–more accurately, had risen into Saxa’s awareness–when Commissioner Priscus had made a point of praising the boy when he met Saxa ahead of a session of the Senate five days recently.


          “Sir,” said Varus. The office had a high ceiling and two mosaic scenes on the floor. The panel to the householder’s right showed Pentheus being torn to pieces by women maddened by their worship of Bacchus. To the left was Acteon, human-headed but with the body of a stag, being devoured by his own hunting dogs; the goddess Diana, whom he had glimpsed bathing nude, gestured angrily from a pool


          The room had been decorated by Saxa’s father. Varus didn’t suppose he would ever know what his grandfather had been thinking of when he ordered the mosaics.


          At least a dozen clerks and other servants watched expectantly from the service aisles on three sides of the room. There was no privacy in a noble household, any more than there was in a poor family’s apartment where three generations were squeezed into two rooms and as much of the staircase of they could claim against other tenants.


          On the other hand, there was no reason why anything Varus was about to say to his father would seem worth repeating, even within the household. Not if he phrased it carefully.


          “Father,” he said with quiet earnestness. “My studies have reached an impasse of sorts, and I need to enter the house of Marcus Sempronius Tardus. I was hoping that you might help me in this.”


          “Tardus?” Saxa said, frowning in concentration. “Well, we’re not close, you know, son. Indeed, I probably know as little of him as I do any other member of the Senate. The ones who live most of the year in Carce, that is.”


          He coughed into his hand. “Ah…,” he said. “And there was that business at the Temple of Jupiter a few days ago, when Tardus was there as Commissioner of the Sacred Rites. That was necessary, but it didn’t, well, endear me to him.”


          Saxa was obviously hoping his son would say something to let him out of what threatened to be an embarrassment. When that didn’t occur, he grimaced and resumed, “I suppose I can send a note to him. What in particular is it that you wish to see? His library, I suppose?”


          “Not exactly, sir,” Varus said. “My, ah, studies indicate that the Sempronii Tardi have a secret temple to Serapis in their townhouse. I would like to–that is, I think perhaps I must see that temple. In order to, ah, gather information of importance to the Republic.”


          Saxa blinked. For a moment he looked like a fish displayed for sale on a marble slab; then his cheeks and the lines of his mouth became curiously firmer.


          “Marcus Priscus spoke very highly of you the other day,” he said. “I believe it’s the first time he has addressed a word to me except in answer to a question of my own. He’s a very erudite man, you know.”


          Varus bowed slightly again. “Yes sir,” he said. “The Republic is very fortunate to have men as learned as Marcus Priscus and yourself at its helm.”


          Saxa snorted; his expression went sour for an instant, or as sour as someone as pudgy and good-natured as he could look. That cleared and he said, “Not me, my son, much as I wish it were. But perhaps you in time; Priscus believes you will grow into his equal. I hope I may live to see that.”


          Varus didn’t know whether or not he should speak. Since he was in doubt, he held his silence.


          If more people followed that practice, he thought, the world would be a quieter and less obviously foolish place. His smile didn’t reach his lips.


          “I was going to ask if Marcus Priscus intended to make the inspection with you,” Saxa said. He was trying to sound neutral, but there was evident hope in his voice. “I suppose you couldn’t tell me, though?”


          Father is so in awe of Priscus that if I said this was his idea, my request would be granted immediately. I won’t lie, but if I tell the truth in the right form of words….


          “I would not expect Commissioner Priscus to be present, sir,” Varus replied carefully. “I believe his friend–and my professor–Pandareus of Athens may accompany us, however. If you are able to effect entrance to Senator Tardus’ house, that is.”


          “I believe that Tardus will respect the authority of a Consul,” Saxa said. “And I rather think the Emperor would have something to say about it if he did not. The Emperor is notably traditional in his regard for the forms of government.”


          His smile widened as he considered the situation. His replacement consulate was an honor, of course, but he probably hadn’t considered it to be a position of authority before this moment.


          He sat straighter and looked firmly at his son. “We’ll go tomorrow afternoon, then,” he said. “Let’s say in the eleventh–” counting from dawn to dusk in twelve equal segments, regardless of the season “–hour. Please inform Master Pandareus of the plan. And anyone else you believe should be present.”


          “Thank you, sir,” Varus said. “I had considered asking Publius Corylus to accompany us, as his different viewpoint might be helpful.”


          Saxa smiled faintly. He said, “He’s the boy with an army background, isn’t he? Just as you like, son, though I hope that particular specialty won’t prove necessary.”


          Before Varus could turn to leave, his father coughed and said, “Ah, son? As you doubtless heard, Senator Priscus and your Pandareus will be dining with me in two nights’ time. I hope you will choose to join us? Priscus was very complimentary about you.”


          My father is willing to risk his life by using consular authority in a fashion he knows may be open to question, Varus thought. If all he wants in return is for me to add a little extra luster to a dinner which already glitters with intellectual capacity–so be it!


          “I will be honored to join you and your guests, father,” he said formally. Bowing, he backed from the office and turned toward the garden.


          I’m risking my life too, I suppose, he realized, but I’m doing it to save the world from destruction by Typhon. My father is doing it merely on my word that it is necessary.


          May the gods grant that I be the worthy scion of so brave a man.