Out Of The Waters — Snippet 32

Out Of The Waters — Snippet 32

 

          The old woman’s laughter was like the rasping of cicadas. She pointed with her right hand, down the craggy reverse slope of the ridge.

 

          “Why do you ask me to tell you things you already know, Lord Magician?” she said. “You stand beside the entrance now.”

 

          Varus followed her gesture. He saw himself in the garden behind Tardus’ house. The plantings were unusually extensive, covering a greater area than the building itself. Palms grew on either side, and water flowed down and back along a pair of lotus-filled channels in the center. The gazebo where Varus stood was between them, reached by small bridges to either side.

 

          Pandareus was on his right; his father was to the left. Tardus was with them, but all the other people visible in the garden were members of the consul’s entourage. The household servants had vanished into corners of the house where they hoped to escape attention.

 

          “How…?” Varus said. Then he said, “Thank you, Sib–“

 

          As the final word came out of his mouth, he was again with his companions, beneath a dome supported by thick wooden columns shaped like papyrus stalks. Tardus stared at him numbly.

 

          “–yl.”

 

          Varus blinked. His father and Pandareus were staring at him also: Saxa in concern, the teacher with keen interest.

 

          “I’m sorry,” Varus said. He coughed, because his throat was raw. “I’ve been daydreaming, I’m afraid.”

 

          “You have been repeating, ‘There is a certain dear land, a nurturer for men,’ Lord Varus,” Pandareus said. “Repeating it quite loudly, in fact.”

 

          “Shouting, my son,” Saxa said. “I was rather worried about you.”

 

          “And you led us here to this pavilion,” said Pandareus, who beamed with cheerful satisfaction. Turning, he added to the waxen looking householder, “The motif is interesting, Lord Tardus.”

 

          Varus looked at the gazebo into which he had walked unknowing. The domed ceiling had an opening in the center, but around that was a frieze of men in boats in a landscape of tall reeds. Some were hunting ducks with throwing sticks; others were trying to net the variety of fish shown swimming on a bottom register which was painted sea-green.

 

          “If that’s meant to be the Nile,” Pandareus said, musing aloud, “and I suppose it is, I would suggest that brown would have been a more suitable color. I recall thinking that it seemed thick enough to walk on.”

 

          Varus grinned; neither of the other men reacted.

 

          The floor was a pavement of jasper chips in concrete, but in the center was round frame about a mosaic of a priest with a bronze rattle. Varus looked at it, then raised his eyes to Tardus.

 

          “There’s a catch here,” Tardus said, sounding as though he had received a death sentence. He opened a concealed panel in one of the columns, disclosing a lever. “You’ll need to step off the mosaic.”

 

          Varus, Pandareus, and a moment later Saxa as well stepped back between pairs of pillars.

 

          Tardus threw the lever. The circular mosaic sank into the darkness with a faint squeal. It must have been counterweighted, because it had not required more effort on the lever than to draw a bolt. Broad steps led downward; Varus couldn’t see the bottom in the shadows.

 

          “I had forgotten this old grotto existed, Consul,” Tardus said, looking distinctly ill. “I suppose it’s been here for many years. Since my father’s  time, no doubt, or even longer.”

 

          Tardus is an old man, thought Varus. That was true, of course, but in simple years he was younger than Pandareus. Official discovery of a banned chapel on his property seemed to have ripped all the sinews out of his limbs.

 

          “The worship of Serapis is legal nowadays, of course,” said Saxa, apparently trying to calm his fellow senator.

 

          “There are now official temples of Sarapis in Carce, Lord Saxa,” Pandareus said. “Note, however, that they have not been permitted within the religious boundary of the city. This chapel–“

 

          He gestured rhetorically. He was in his professorial mode again and probably didn’t, Varus realized, notice the effect that his words were having on Tardus.

 

          “–could not be erected today or at any time after the Senatorial edict when Aemillius and Claudius were consuls.”

 

          One of Saxa’s footmen trotted out of the house, carrying a lighted lantern. Candidus waddled quickly behind him.

 

          Varus nodded approval. The deputy steward wouldn’t demean himself by actually lifting an object, but he had thought far enough ahead to get lights as soon as he saw his master would be entering a crypt.

 

          The footman crossed the short bridge but stopped at the gazebo and held the lantern out. Saxa started to reach for it but paused and looked at his son.

 

          “I think I had best go down,” Varus said, taking the lantern. “Ah, your Lordship. I will return with a report.”

 

          At any rate, I hope to return.

 

          “With your permission, Lord Varus,” Pandareus said, “I’ll accompany you.”

          “Yes,” Varus said. “That might be helpful, Teacher.”

 

          They started down into the crypt side by side. Varus held the lantern out in front of them.

 

          If it hadn’t been for the Sibyl’s roundabout direction, Varus would have been pleased and excited to enter a Serapeum. It was a link to Carce’s past; not so ancient as the crypt in which the Sibylline Books were stored, but old and part of a mystery cult besides.

 

          The Sibyl had sent him here, however. Therefore, more was involved than viewing the decoration and appointments of a secret chapel.

 

          “I doubt,” said Pandareus in a mild, musing tone, “that we will encounter Apis in the form of an angry bull. Though I’ll admit that I’m less confident than I once was at my ability to predict events.”

 

          “I was thinking more along the lines of the goddess Isis loosing cobras on us,” Varus said. “Unlikely, but less unlikely than other things that have occurred recently. Or that I imagined happened.”

 

          They reached the bottom of the stairs: only twelve steps down. It had looked deeper. There was no door at the base of the staircase, but the archway there was too narrow for more than one person to pass at a time.

 

          Varus, holding the lantern high, stepped into what was clearly an anteroom. There was a doorway in the opposite wall with a niche on either side. To the left was a statuette of a male figure with a bull’s head; on the right stood a female figure with a cow’s head and a crescent moon rocking between her horns.

 

          “If this were an Egyptian temple,” Pandareus said, looking past Varus’ shoulder, “I would describe them as Apis and Isis. The Ptolemies were eclectic when they created the cult, however, and they may have made other choices.”

 

          He sighed. “My friend Priscus–” Senator Marcus Atilius Priscus “–would know that sort of thing without having to look it up, but I didn’t think it would be right to involve him in this matter.”

 

          “If the question becomes important,” Varus said, “we can answer it at leisure when we return. Unless we’re arrested for some political crime, as you suggest.”

 

          Varus would have said he was the least political of men, unless that honor was due his father. Yet here they both were, invading the house of another senator under consular authority, an action that could easily be described as rebellion or insult to the Emperor as head of state.

 

          “I don’t think Tardus will be reporting this intrusion to the authorities,” Varus said.

 

          “Probably true,” Pandareus said. “In that case, we have only a monster capable of wrecking a city to worry about.”

 

          Varus chuckled.

 

          They entered the second chamber, twice the size of the first. Stone benches were built into three walls, intended for diners who were sitting upright instead of reclining as was the custom for men in Carce. Servants would set tables of food and wine in the hollow within the three benches.

 

          In place of a fourth wall, passages to either side flanked an alabaster slab carved in relief. Varus raised the lantern again to view the carving, a man with a full beard seated in a high-backed chair and glaring outward.

 

          “Sarapis joining his worshippers for the sacred meal,” Pandareus said. Then, looking upward, “The frieze is interesting.”

 

          Varus moved the lantern. The reliefs were of very high quality: a bearded man flanked by a youth and a young woman in flowing robes; in the next panel, the youth thrusting back the woman who, bare-breasted, was trying to pull him onto a couch; in the last–

 

          “This is Hippolytus and Phaedra,” Varus said aloud. “Hippolytus cursed by his father Theseus, who believed his wife’s false claim that her stepson had raped her.”

 

          “Yes,” said Pandareus. “Those three, and the monster which executed Theseus’ curse.”

 

          On the third panel, a tentacled, many-legged monster climbed out of the sea in the background. Hippolytus’ chariot raced through brush, dragging behind it the youth whose reins remained wrapped around his wrists when he was thrown out.

 

          “Do you suppose this is what we were meant to see?” Varus said.

 

          Pandareus shrugged. “There must be another room,” he said.

 

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