Out Of The Waters — Snippet 16
Pulto was part of the rear guard, chatting in German with a footman who had been born in the Quadrilateral between the Upper Rhine and Upper Danube, but Corylus walked beside Varus in the middle of the procession. His expression must have caught his friend’s eye in the torches which the linkmen carried.
Varus looked concerned and asked, “Is something wrong, Publius?”
“Nothing at all,” Corylus said. He gestured to the twenty-odd servants ahead of them–as many followed–and explained, “In the cantonments, a procession like this at night would be the Camp Police, is all. So I guess part of me is expecting some drunk to fling a wine bottle at us–or a chamber pot, to tell the truth.”
“We’re far more civilized here in Carce,” Varus said, relaxing into a smile. “A poor man might be set on and robbed, but we of the better classes travel in perfect ease and security. Unless we slip on the paving stones and fall on our backs, as I’ve been known to do.”
Two linkmen and two servants with cudgels led the entourage, singing about a girlfriend who had run off with a trapeze artist and now performed with him. This version was rather tamer than what Corylus had heard sung on the Danube, where the lyrics dwelt on the endowments of the acrobat which had lured the errant girlfriend away.
The song was to warn away footpads, drunks, and any poor citizen who happened to be sharing Orbian Street with them tonight and didn’t want a crack on the head. Corylus had learned quickly that in Carce, rich men’s escorts had a rough-and-ready way with potential dangers to those they were protecting.
“Manetho?” Varus called to the steward walking a pace ahead of his master. “We’ll go in through the back garden. I expect my father’s clients will be clogging the front entrance for hours yet after the–”
He paused. Corylus knew why, but the servants probably thought nothing of it.
“–the success, that is, of his mime.”
“As your lordship wishes,” Manetho said. He trotted forward, though the men in front had probably heard the command without it needing to be relayed.
Pandareus had insisted on going home on his own to his tiny apartment off the Sacred Way. He’d insisted he would be in no danger because he had many years of dodging trouble at night in Carce.
No doubt that was true, but Corylus still wished that Varus had succeeded in getting their teacher to accept a couple husky servants to convey him. Marmots had a great deal of experience foraging on grassy Alpine meadows, but eagles still caught their dinners.
One of the linkmen waited at the mouth of the alley as a marker, while his partner and the cudgel-bearers turned down it. From the near distance ahead a deep voice boomed, “Who’s there?”
“Keep your tunic on, Maximus!” the linkman said.
“Both of you pipe down!” said Manetho. “Let’s not embarrass the consul in his own home, shall we? He’ll be meeting in his office with the leading men of the Republic right now.”
“That isn’t how I would have described my father’s clients,” Varus said, leaning close to Corylus. Even so his voice was barely audible. “But I suppose it sounds better than ‘feckless parasites’.”
“Well, I’m sure they’re the leading feckless parasites,” Corylus whispered back. That he dared make such a joke to a noble showed–showed Corylus himself–how much he trusted Varus and considered him to be a friend. He’s a man I’d take across the Rhine, Corylus thought, putting it in army terms.
The alley was narrow; the procession slowed to a crawl while Maximus, the nighttime doorkeeper, pulled the back gate open. He had been waiting in the alley with his lantern instead of watching the portal from inside.
Pulto slipped–more likely, pushed–through the intervening servants to join his master. If Varus hadn’t been present he would probably have asked Corylus what he intended to do now, but under the circumstances he merely grunted, “Sir,” politely.
The line was moving again. The footmen who’d been in front were blocking the other end of the alley against rampaging housebreakers or other equally unlikely threats.
Most of what a rich man’s servants did was either make-work or simply sitting on their hands. There were too many of them for it to be any other way. Saxa had well over two hundred servants here in his townhouse: he could have rebuilt the whole structure with a smaller crew.
“Unless you want me with you, Varus…?” Corylus said, raising an eyebrow.
“No, I think it’s best if I see father alone,” Varus said. “I can take him away from his clients, but to bring my friend with me would be insulting. I’m perfectly willing to insult them if I need to, but I don’t see the necessity in this case. Would you care to wait in the gymnasium until I have an answer?”
They’d reached the gate; Maximus raised his lantern. Varus’ smile in the flickering light was engaging, but Corylus recognized an underlying hardness that he had noticed before in aristocratic tribunes posted to the frontiers for a year on a legion’s staff. The nobles of Carce were pampered, certainly, but their enemies had rarely found them soft.
“If you don’t mind…,” Varus said as they passed through the gate. “I’ll wait here in the garden.”
He gestured. The central court had a pool and extensive plantings, but the walled back of the property was a garden also. Seven days ago there had been a peach tree and a pear tree as well as flower beds. The blooms were generally cut for decorations inside the house, but there was a little summer bedroom with wicker screens on either side of the enclosure.
“Certainly,” said Varus. “Would you like something to eat or drink while you’re waiting?”
“No,” said Corylus. “I’ll be fine. I just like flowers, you know.”
“If it’s all the same with you, master…?” Pulto said. “I’d like to chat with my buddy Lenatus in the gym.”
“Yes, of course,” Corylus said. Pulto nodded gratefully as he strode through the gateway to the house proper on the heels of the servants.
There was nothing unusual about the request. Lenatus, whom Saxa had hired as the family trainer, was an old soldier whom Pulto had known when they were both stationed on the Rhine. The haste with which Pulto moved would have puzzled Corylus if he hadn’t known the reason, however.
So long as Pulto thought the vision in the theater was stage trickery, it hadn’t disturbed him. Now he had realized that it was real. That made him all the more uncomfortable about magic and the traces it left.
Corylus looked around. He was alone in the garden except for Maximus, who had pulled the gate closed and stood against it with the lantern, looking unhappy.
“Ah…,” said the doorkeeper. “I suppose you’ll want me to keep you company back here, sir?”
Maximus had the shoulders of a bear and arms that hung almost to his knees. His strikingly ugly looks caused him to be stationed at the back gate, not at the front where the Senator’s distinguished visitors entered, but Corylus had found him intelligent and, surprisingly, literate in Greek with a smattering of Latin as well.
“I don’t see why,” Corylus said, smiling. “It seems to me that you can guard things just as well in the alley as here. I’ll just think for a while.”
“I guess you know what you’re doing, sir,” Maximus said. “Only me–it doesn’t feel right back here since the pear tree died, you know? It used to be that other fellows would come sit with me, you know? But none of the servants like to come back here now. And, ah… I sometimes think I’m seeing somebody. In the corner of my eye, you know?”
“I’m sure I’ll be all right,” said Corylus; he gestured toward the back gate. “And you can take the lantern. There’s plenty of moonlight for me.”
“Thank you, sir!” the doorman said with an enthusiasm that a gold piece for a tip couldn’t have bettered. He was out into the alley again, banging the gate closed, almost before he’d spoken the last syllable.
Corylus looked around again, his smile rueful. The garden wasn’t a ruin, not yet, but even the crescent moon showed him that it was neglected.
Ten days since, Saxa and the Hyperborean sorcerer who had gained his confidence had held an incantation here. Their magic had resulted in a blast of intense cold which killed the pear tree, and it had also worked deeper changes to the setting.
Corylus had his own reasons for being here, but he wasn’t surprised that the servants kept away. That included the gardeners: the dead pear had been removed, but no one had watered or weeded the flowerbeds since the incantation.
There was a covered walkway against the partition wall between the garden and the house. Corylus settled himself on the pavement, facing the alley. The peach tree on the left side of the garden was in full flower. Its branches, fluffy and white in the moonlight, overhung the wall at several points.