Out Of The Waters — Snippet 47


          Corylus grinned also. “You’ve impressed Lenatus,” he said.


          “What?” said Varus, looking puzzled. “I just stood here. Goodness, I couldn’t have emptied the room like that.”


          “You did empty the room,” Corylus said. “You identified the correct subordinate for the job, gave him clear instructions, and stayed out of his way while he executed them. Any time you want a career that involves freezing your butt on the Rhine, the Army is ready to give you a home.”


          He visualized his friend creeping through the Hercynian Forest in loose woolen leggings with a cape over his shoulders. His laugh was real and spontaneous, a release after a very tense day. Hercules! A lot of very tense days!


          “You learned something about Hedia from talking to the doorman?” Varus said, smiling mildly at his friend’s pleasure. He didn’t ask what had caused the laughter, for which Corylus was thankful. Varus would think he was being mocked.


          “No,” Corylus explained, “and I didn’t expect to. I was able to talk to Pulto and Lenatus about how we might find Pandareus, or at least find more out about him, though. Which is why I was prowling around with them.”


          He grinned and added, “Your other servants were scared to death of being blamed for intruders getting in, so they kept as far away as they could while the three of us were muttering to one another in the door alcove.”


          “Very good,” Varus said, nodding. “Yes, at least we know who abducted Pandareus.”


          He pursed his lips with a frown and said, “It seems very unlikely that Tardus and his associates were involved with whatever happened to Hedia, however.”


          Corylus shrugged. “I can’t imagine that there’s no connection, however,” he said. “Anyway, we have an entry point on Pandareus and none at all on her ladyship.”


          Until now he’d kept his friend in the dark about his plans, which would have irritated many people. He hadn’t really been worried about how Varus would react–he was too smart not to realize that this discussion had to wait for complete privacy–but it was good to get past the concern.


          “Right,” said Varus. “Explain your plan. And–“


          A real smile lit his face.


          “–if you’re going to tell me that it’s dangerous, as your expression suggests you are, then save your breath. I watched Typhon, if that’s what it was, destroying Carce. Nothing can be more dangerous that letting that happen.”


          Corylus started to speak and found his throat was dry. He coughed to clear it, then said, “A tribune with a squad of the Praetorian Guard and an imperial writ would be able to enter Saxa’s dwelling, I believe. Ah–“


          Spit it out!


          “You were able to find the concealed entrance to the Serapeum,” he said, his tone level and his eyes on his friend’s. “I think, I hope, that you would be able to find Master Pandareus if he’s hidden in the house also. But because you’ve entered the house recently and by daylight, you would certainly be identifiable after the event. The others involved might possibly be able to conceal themselves from an investigation.”


          Varus shrugged. “As I say, I don’t believe any risk is as great as the risk of doing nothing,” he said. He seemed truly nonchalant instead of putting on a brave face before his friend. “But how under heaven are you going to get a squad of Praetorians to escort me?”


          “Ah!” said Corylus. “Pulto has connections with the equipment manager in the Praetorian Barracks. For a sufficient payment, ten sets of accouterments can be declared unserviceable and sent out to a scrap dealer. That won’t include swords, of course, but swords are available from the gladiatorial schools. They’re no problem.”


          “I see,” said Varus. “But the men? I know we could hire idlers easily enough, but I wouldn’t want to trust them not to be drunk–or to run off when they really understand what they’re expected to do.”


          “Nor would I,” Corylus said, pleased to see how quick his friend was, even on a matter that had probably never crossed his mind before. “Lenatus has sounded out seven of your male household servants; he’s had time to get to know your staff pretty well, of course. All of them agreed to join us. Ah, I’ll be the tribune, of course.”


          “Yes, of course,” Varus said absently. He glanced toward the wall painting of Hercules spinning yarn for Queen Omphale. As before, Corylus doubted that the–excellent–painting figured in his friend’s thoughts.


          Varus turned back. “You’re talking about slaves,” he said. “If this goes wrong, they will certainly be tortured and then crucified. Unless they die sooner under torture.”


          He pursed his lips for a moment as he thought. “Well, I suppose we all will,” he said, “but we’re free men–you and me and the two at the door. Why would any slave take such a risk?”


          “Gaius,” Corylus said, his grin spreading into a slow smile, “I don’t have the faintest idea, but it doesn’t surprise me. Men do lots of crazy things they don’t have to do. The scout detachments on the borders, they’re all volunteers, and believe me, there’s nothing the Emperor’s torturers can do that the Germans and Sarmatians haven’t done. I’ve seen the recovered bodies.”


          He took a deep breath, silent for a moment with the memory. “I’ve helped recover the bodies, though I was a civilian kid who shouldn’t have been across the river,” he said, so softly that he wasn’t sure his friend could make out the words. It doesn’t matter.


          He cleared his throat again and said, “Anyway, Lenatus trusts them so I trust them. They’ll mostly have to keep their mouths shut, because some of them speak bad Latin and the rest speak worse. Keeping their mouths shut right for soldiers on a raid like this, though.”


          “Well, that’s in your hands,” Varus said. “You’re the officer, after all. What is my role, besides acting as your rabbit hound?”


          “Well, there’s money,” Corylus said reluctantly. “I mean, I could swing it with a little time, but father’s banker would send to Puteoli before he’d clear the amount we’d need. There isn’t time. We need to move tomorrow, as early as we can get it together.”


          “That’s not a problem,” Varus said, gesturing with his open left hand. “I’ll talk to father as soon as you’ve told me everything you think I need to know. What else?”


          “Nothing else, I think,” Corylus said, again relieved of more stress than he had realized he was feeling. “I’ll be in front with Pulto; you’ll be right behind us, and then the rest of the squad with Lenatus at the rear. Wear a toga. Tardus’ servants can think what they want, and I’ll make sure Tardus himself has plenty to think about if he tries to argue. Beyond that–“


          He tried to grin. It came out lopsided, but Varus seemed to appreciate the effort.


          “–we’ll place our counters according to the throw of the dice.”


          “Yes,” said Varus, nodding. He threw his shoulders back and shook himself. “Wait here, if you would. I’m going to go talk to my father.”


          Corylus watched his friend leave the room, standing straight. Building Carce from huts on a hilltop to the metropolis of today had taken more kinds of men than just those who were willing to charge the enemy’s shield wall.


          It had taken men like Gaius Alphenus Varus.




          The entrance to Saxa’s suite was open. Varus didn’t know which of the ten or a dozen servants clustered there was technically the doorman on duty, so he said, “Ask my father if I may speak with him,” in a firm voice and trusted that the right party would hear him.


          Servants oozed away, some turning their backs on Varus and bending away. They left a worried looking footman standing alone. He swallowed and piped, “Your lordship! His lordship has gone downstairs. I don’t… I don’t… your lordship, his lordship didn’t say where he was going!”


          It’s quite amazing how useless our hundreds of servants are in a crisis, Varus thought. They’re all frightened to death.


          So was he, of course, but that didn’t keep him from trying to find a solution.


          Manetho had reattached himself when Varus left his mother’s rooms. “I’ll find him, Lord Varus!” he cried as he rushed down the stairs.


          Varus managed to keep his expression blank as he followed in the midst of his considerable entourage. Normally he had very little to do with the household staff unless he brought himself to their attention, and even that sometimes took an effort. Lord Saxa’s bookish son didn’t shout and decree beatings as his sister did, so he could be–and often was–safely ignored.


          Hedia’s abduction and the rumors about it–though it was hard to imagine rumors that would be more frightening than the reality–had so unsettled the servants that many were clustering about Varus simply because he appeared calm. He wasn’t calm, of course, but his Stoic appearance was sufficient to calm others.


          Master Pandareus will be pleased to learn of this proof of the value of philosophy, Varus thought. And I will be even more pleased to be able to tell him of it.


          Before Varus reached the bottom of the staircase, Manetho came from the side entrance to the office with a wild expression. “The master isn’t here!” he said. “They say he’s gone to the back garden, your lordship!”


          “Well, then, we’ll go to the garden,” said Varus. Did everything have to be treated as a crisis? “Or at any rate, I will. I don’t believe I need help in accomplishing that, Manetho.”


          “Of course, your lordship!” said the deputy steward, striding toward the back of the house with his head high and his chest thrown out. “You two! Take those lamps from their sconces and precede Lord Varus!”


          Varus smiled, though the expression didn’t really reach his lips. Apparently I’m still being ignored, he thought. But I’m being smothered rather than shunned by the servants who ignore what I say.


          There were so many people crowded into the rear of the house–the training ground, private bath, storage rooms, and the corridor to the back garden–that it took some moments for Manetho’s threats and bluster to clear passage. There wasn’t deliberate resistance, just a lack of room for frightened servants to displace into.


          I wonder if Archimedes would have had a better answer? Varus thought. As many times before in the recent past, philosophy brought him a smile in a disturbing situation.


          “I’ll announce you, your lordship,” Manetho said. Before Varus could decide how to proceed, the deputy steward turned the wooden gate latch and bellowed, “Lord Varus to see his father, the noble Lord Saxa!”


          That probably wasn’t the form of address I would have chosen, Varus thought wryly. My fault for not reacting more quickly.