Out Of The Waters — Snippet 27

          Varus chuckled. In an undertone he muttered the refrain of the priests during the rites of Robigus–the deity of corn smut. It was a string of nonsense syllables to anyone alive today.

          “Yes, my teacher,” he said. “It does have a great deal of similarity to what we’re hearing now. Or at any rate, to what my father is hearing, merging the three speeches.”

          “Plato believed in Ideal Republics,” said Pandareus, watching the commotion with an attitude of bright interest. He was chatting now, no longer lecturing. “I am… willing, I suppose, to accept them also–for the purpose of argument. I don’t find them any more useful in studying real conditions than the Chief Pirate’s Beautiful Daughter would be in formulating the Republic’s mercantile policy.”

          Varus chuckled at mention of one of the standards of school orations, like the Reformed Prostitute and the Undutiful Son. “I wouldn’t say that the reign of Dion of Syracuse was a Golden Age, despite Plato’s earnest coaching of his would-be philosopher king,” he said. “I accept your point about real politics generally looking like–”

          He gestured to the confusion of servants, lictors, and citizen-clients. It looked as though the procession was close to moving off.

          “–that. What I don’t understand is why it looks like that instead of being, well, smoother.”

          “It may be that you are asking the correct question,” Pandareus said, reverting to his classroom manner. “You’re asking it rhetorically, however, instead of using the moment as a real opportunity to learn. Why is it that human societies generally organize themselves in fashions that we philosophers deplore as inefficient? Surely it cannot be possible that human wisdom is limited while the cosmos is infinite?”

          Varus laughed again. “I’ll want to spend an hour or two considering the question before giving you a definitive answer, master,” he said.

          Pandareus had a remarkable ability to puncture displays of excessive ego–by using the Socratic Method, proving that his disciple already possessed the information. That was certainly true in the present instance. Varus wouldn’t go so far as to claim that the fact something existed proved that it was good–but he did accept that everything happened for a reason.

          Candidus spoke to a musician holding a double-pipe. Varus believed the piper was the same man–if that was the correct term for someone so slender and feminine–who had led the music during yesterday’s mime. If so, he had come through the ordeal very well.

          “We’d best take our places,” Varus said. He moved into the place directly following Saxa. Behind them would come the most respectable of his clients, most of them impoverished relatives.

          Varus and Pandareus had just reached the column when the pipe began to sing cadence from the front, among the lictors. The procession started off–not in unison, but a good deal closer than most arrays of this sort.

          “In the army, Corylus says they sing to keep time,” Varus said as they ambled through the city. “From the songs he describes, it’s probably as well that we’re not doing that. Otherwise Tardus would be in a panic to lock up his daughters.”

          “Or sons,” Pandareus said, straight-faced. “Though I’m sure that the standards of the eastern legions that I’m familiar with are less manly and rigorous than those of the Rhine frontier.”

          I didn’t expect to be laughing repeatedly on this expedition, Varus thought. The obvious answer–because everything was a question, looked at in the correct fashion–struck him. He looked at Pandareus and said, “Thank you, master. You have taught me more by example than even from the knowledge you have accumulated.”

          “I would not be a good model for most of the young men who become my students,” Pandareus said, looking up with interest at the imperial palace on their right. Only servants were present, since the Emperor was–as usual–on Capri. “Certainly not for Master Corylus, of course: he is far too forceful and decisive to gain from my style of self-management. But you, Lord Varus…. I believe you understand my own qualms and uncertainties all too well, so my practiced ways of dealing with them could be useful.”

          Changing the subject almost before the words were out, the teacher gestured up the steep slope to the ancient citadel. The great temples of Jupiter and Juno glowered down at the city. In a breezy, less contemplative tone, he said, “I’m seeing this Carce for the first time.”

          “But surely you’ve been here before, master?” Varus said. “Why, I’d think you regularly came this way to get from your room to the Forum when you hold class there.”

          “So speaks the son of the wealthy Alphenus Saxa,” Pandareus said. “Yes, my feet tread this pavement–”

          He half-skipped to rap the toe of his sandal on the flagstone.

          “–regularly. But on an ordinary day I would be dodging a crowd of those who would trample a slender scholar who dawdled in front of them. Today, I’m in a capsule formed by the companions of a consul, like a hickory nut in its shell.”

          “Ah!” said Varus. “The armor of righteousness, no doubt.”

          “I would be the last to claim that the father of my student and–if I may–friend Gaius Varus is not a righteous man,” Pandareus agreed solemnly.

          Varus thought about being insulated from the world. Pandareus was talking about physical protection here, but that was really a minor aspect of the way Varus was walled off. His father’s wealth wasn’t really a factor.

          Varus had come to realize that though he lived in the world, he was not and never would be part of it. If footpads knocked him down and slit his throat, a part of him–the part that was most Gaius Alphenus Varus–would be watching them through a sheet of clear glass, interested to see how far his blood spurted when the knife went in.

          Corylus could probably tell me from having watched it happen to somebody else. That would be a better way to learn.

          Pandareus was watching him intently. Varus let his smile fade. He said, “Master, what do you think we’ll find in this chapel? What should we be looking for?”

          “Your lordship…,” Pandareus said, being particularly careful in his address because they were in public. “We are intruding on Senator Tardus because of inferences which we deduced from your vision, coupled with additional knowledge which I brought to the discussion. All I can do is to say that I think we are acting in the most logical fashion that we could, given our limited information.”

          He grinned, becoming a different person. He said, “I will not lapse into superstition by saying that whoever or whatever sent you the vision was wise enough to give us as much information as we would need. I will particularly not say–”

          The grin became even wider.

          “–that he, or she, or it, is All-Wise. But the less rational part of me believes those things.”

          “A textbook example of praeteritio,” Varus said. “And I accept the principle underlying your statement, which I deduce to be that the wise man, when faced with an uncertain result which he cannot affect, should assume it will be beneficial. The price is the same as it would be for a gloomy prediction.”

          “I’ve taught you well, my boy,” Pandareus said. They were no longer joking. It was one of the few times Varus had heard what he would describe as real warmth in the older man’s voice.

          At the head of the procession the lictors stopped in front of a house and faced outward. Its walls were of fine-grained limestone, rather than marble over a core of brick or volcanic tuff as was the more recent style.

          The chief lictor banged the butt of his axe helve on the door and boomed, “Open to Senator Gaius Alphenus Saxa, Consul of Carce!”

          Varus drew a deep breath. He wondered what it would be like to wait for howling barbarians to charge, shaking their spears and their long, round-tipped swords.

          At the moment, he would rather be out on the frontier, learning the answer to that question.