Out Of The Waters — Snippet 26

          Cispius had taken off his armor before he shook his son awake, but his tunic reeked of sweat and blood. In a voice as rough as stones sliding, he had said, “Don’t ever let them know you’re afraid, boy. And by Hercules, if you play the man, you’ll find you really aren’t afraid. Don’t let your troops down, and you won’t let yourself down either.”

          Corylus hadn’t understood that at the time. He understood it now, with his arm around his old nurse.

          Anna nodded and stepped away, visibly calmer. “Lady Hedia came to see me today,” she said in the same normal voice in which she would have discussed taking her sandals to be mended. “It isn’t her coming, though, because I already knew I’d have to do something.”

          She sniffed angrily. “I knew from the smell on you when you come back from the theater, boy,” she said, “It was her ladyship visiting that showed me I couldn’t put it off. I’d been telling myself it wasn’t so, like I was a foolish girl.”

          “Tell me what I must do, Anna,” Corylus said, firmly but calmly. He’d never seen his nurse in such a state. Shouting wouldn’t help matters, but he did need to get her to the point at some time before Carce’s thousand-year celebrations–in two or three centuries.

          “There’s a thing under the ground,” she said, suddenly herself again. “An amulet I think, but maybe something else. I can’t see it myself–I don’t have that sort of power, boy, you know that. But….”

          She swallowed and walked awkwardly over to the dovecote. She used her sticks. She had thrust them down the neck of her tunic so that she could climb the ladder, but they were a doubtful help on the tiles. Still, the surface wasn’t any worse than wet cobblestones.

          Corylus wasn’t certain what to do, but after a brief hesitation he followed her. He tried to keep his weight over the beams, but a flash of humor lighted his face. I wonder what Tertia–or perhaps Quartilla–would say if I entered through the ceiling instead of by the door?

          It was good to laugh at something when he felt like this. Especially something silly.

          Anna rubbed a dove’s neck feathers through the grill; it cooed, squirming closer to her. She looked again at Corylus and said, “I couldn’t see things, but the birds, I thought, might; and the little animals. Which they did. Last night I went with a vole down his burrow into the place that the thing was; and this morning, after their ladyships were gone, I hired a chair to the Esquiline with Dromo, Cephinna’s boy from the fifth floor. We marked the place, and he’ll guide you back to it tonight.”

          Corylus licked his lips. “On the Esquiline. That will be to the old burial grounds there.”

          “Aye,” said Anna. She looked as fierce as a rebel waiting to be crucified.

          “All right,” said Corylus, since there was nothing else to do. “We’ll leave as soon as it’s dark. Ah–will there be difficulties with Dromo? That is, how much does he know?”

          Anna sniffed again. “He knows enough not to like it,” she said, “but he’ll do it for me. And for you, master. He trusts you.”

          “Ah…,” said Corylus. “I’ll pay whatever you think…?”

          “A silver piece,” Anna said. “A day’s pay for a grown man, which is fair enough. Mind, there’s few grown men who’d do what Dromo will tonight. He’s a brave one, which is why I picked him. Though….”

          Corylus hooked his hand, as though trying to draw the thought out of the old woman by brute force. It would be simpler if Anna simply spat out all the information in an organized fashion; but then, it would be simpler if everyone loved his neighbor, worked hard, and behaved courteously to others.

          There wouldn’t be much use for soldiers, then, or attorneys either. Corylus had seen enough of oxen to know that he didn’t want to spend his life following a pair of them around a field while leaning into a plow to make it bite. Though a return to the Golden Age, where the fruits and grain just sprouted–that might not be such a hardship.

          “I told Dromo all he had to do was show you where the place to dig was,” Anna explained. “You and Pulto would do the rest. I’ve already bought mattocks and a pry bar; they’re in the kitchen.”

          “That will save time,” Corylus said, smiling faintly. Anna might have trouble saying things she wished weren’t so, but she certainly didn’t hesitate to do anything she thought was necessary.

          He looked west over the city. Because this apartment was the tallest building for half a mile, he was largely looking down onto tile roofs much like the one he stood on. Potted plants and dovecotes and rabbit hutches; and now and again there was a shed of cloth on a wicker frame that might have anything at all inside it.

          People lived ordinary lives here in Carce, the greatest city in the world. None of them perfect, including Gaius Cispius Corylus, a student of Pandareus of Athens… but generally decent folk.

          He thought of Typhon, ripping its way through a vision of crystal towers and walls of sun-bright metal. No one had told Corylus that would result unless he–and Anna and Pandareus and Varus and all of them–managed to stop the creature, but it was a logical inference from what he had heard–and what he had seen ten days before, when the Underworld vomited forth its flaming demons.

          “Pulto should stay here with you, Anna,” he said. There was no reason to force a brave man and a friend into a night’s work that would torture him worse than hot pincers.

          “No,” she said. “You’ll be going into the ground, but you’ll want a solid man up above to watch your back. My Marcus is that; and anyway, you couldn’t keep him away unless you chained him.”

          She coughed. “I think it’s a tomb, master,” she said. “An old one, maybe; very old. Etruscan, I’d venture, from before Carce ever was. Though–”

          She fluttered her little fingers, since her palms were braced on the smooth knobbed handles of her sticks.

          “–that’s a lot to draw from a vole’s mind, you’ll understand. Anyway, it’s cut in rock, the place the thing is.”

          Corylus laughed and hugged Anna again. “We’ll find you your bauble, dear one,” he said. “How could any man fail someone they love as much as Pulto and I love you?”

          He’d made the words a joke, but it was the truth just the same.

          I’d best send a messenger to Varus, telling him I won’t be able to join him this afternoon after all, Corylus thought.

          On his way back from class, he’d been concerned about what they might find in Tardus’ home. Now, entering the cellars of a senator’s house seemed a harmless, even friendly, alternative to the way he would really be spending the evening.


          “Oh!” said Saxa as his entourage formed around him with all manner of shouting and gestures. “My boy, I don’t see your friend Corylus. You don’t think he’s gotten lost on the way here, do you? We really shouldn’t wait much longer or we’ll arrive at the dinner hour, which would be discourteous.”

          Tardus will probably regard our arrival to search his house under consular authority to be discourteous enough, Varus thought. Aloud he said, “Corylus was detained on other business, your lordship. We will proceed without him.”

          Saxa bustled off, surrounded by Agrippinus, who would stay at the house; Candidus, who would lead the escort; and the chief lictor.

          It hadn’t occurred to Varus that Saxa would remember that Corylus might accompany them. He’d underestimated his father, a disservice which he would try hard not to repeat.

          Pandareus had dropped into the background when Saxa approached; now he joined Varus again. With his lips close to his teacher’s ear, Varus said, “It seems a great deal of argument for what is really just a six-block walk, doesn’t it?”

          “It would be, I agree,” Pandareus said, for a moment fully the professor. “But I take issue with your terms, Lord Varus. If we were simply to walk to the home of Sempronius Tardus, we would be wasting our efforts. If this is to be a rite of state–a religious act, in effect–then the litanies are to be accepted as being of spiritual significance even though their human meaning has been blurred.”