Out Of The Waters — Snippet 40
“I believe many of Carce’s older families have objects from the time when the city was rising to greatness,” Saxa said. His tone was more cautious than Varus would have expected. His father probably didn’t know what was going on, but at least he was beginning to realize that there was cause for concern. “I’m not surprised that the Sempronii Tardi do. We of the Family Alphenus do also.”
“Yes, I had heard that,” Tardus said. “I believe that you have in your collection a murrhine tube, do you not? About as big around as my thumb?”
Pandareus had reached for another fig-pecker. Now he withdrew his hand and looked sharply from Tardus to Saxa.
“I do, yes,” said Saxa. “It was sent me recently by Gnaeus Rusticus, whom I have been appointed to succeed as governor of Lusitania. He, ah, said he knew that I was interested in such things, so he was giving it to me in a gesture of goodwill and thankfulness that I was allowing him to come home.”
“Might I see the object, if you please?” Tardus said. “I have a fondness for murrhine myself and I would like to observe the structure of the grain.”
“I suppose…,” Saxa began. Then, as forcefully as he ever got, “Yes, of course. Simplex–“
One of the footmen standing near his couch.
“–go to the library and tell Alexandros to bring me the murrhine tube from Rusticus. Hurry now!”
“Have you decided to go to Lusitania in person, Gaius?” Priscus said. Varus wondered if he was trying to change the subject. “I ask because it has the reputation of being a challenging post, all mountains and mule tracks; and you’re no more of the active, outdoor type that I am myself.”
He laughed and patted his belly. He had been eating just as enthusiastically as Pandareus had, and he’d been drinking quite a lot of the wine that the teacher had been avoiding.
Saxa smiled weakly. “In truth,” he said, “I’ve been considering governing through a vicar, Quinctius Rufus. A very solid man, you know; a Knight of Carce who has served as legate of a legion in Upper Germany. But I suppose Rusticus wouldn’t have known that.”
“I do hope you’ll stay in Carce, dear lord and master,” Hedia said. “My heart would waste away if you were to go into exile off on the shore of Ocean.”
She sounded sincere. Varus, though by no means a man of the world, was at least knowledgeable enough to know to doubt anything his stepmother might say to a man.
“I’ve requested an appointment with the Emperor to discuss the matter,” Saxa said. “Of course his will–that is, the will of the People, expressed through the Emperor–is paramount, but I’m hoping that, well….”
He fluttered his hands with a wan grin.
“As Marcus Priscus says, I’m not well suited for clambering across the spines of mountains on muleback, which I gather would be required for any official in Lusitania.”
Alexandros, the chief librarian, appeared, leading two attendants who carried a narrow wooden casket about the length of a woman’s forearm. The container’s weight didn’t require two men to carry it, but the librarian’s rank did.
Corylus would like the box. He would know the kind of wood it was, too, with that lovely swirling grain.
Alexandros was a corpulent man, and rushing up the stairs from the library had set him to wheezing. As he approached, Borysthenes signaled to a pair of his juniors who snatched the table holding the tray of fowls out of the space in front of the diners.
The librarian was an impeccable servant, with a good grounding in literature and a flawless memory regarding where things were filed. The only way to locate a scroll was to remember where in which basket it had been stored. This was a matter of some difficulty for Saxa’s library of over three hundred books, but Priscus was reputed to own nearly a thousand; his librarian must be very good.
“Your lordship,” said Alexandros, bowing, “we have brought the curio which you requested.”
The two attendants knelt before Saxa. The librarian lifted the lid of the casket–it was separate rather than hinged–to display the blue-and-yellow crystals of a murrhine tube as long as a large man’s thumb and as thick as two thumbs together; the hollow center was only half that diameter.
Saxa touched the tube, then gestured toward Tardus on the central couch. The attendants shifted to face the guest.
“Where does your librarian come from?” Pandareus whispered, his lips close to Varus’ ear.
Varus turned and whispered, “He’s a Greek from Gaza, I believe. From somewhere in Syria, at any rate.”
“Ah,” said Pandareus. “He’s Jewish, unless I’m badly mistaken. His trying to pass for Greek explains that odd accent.”
Varus hadn’t noticed anything unusual about the librarian’s accent, either the Latin he spoke to members of the family or the Greek he rattled off to other servants from the East. He didn’t doubt Pandareus’ assessment, though. The subtleties of speech were as much a rhetorician’s stock in trade as was the literature of which rhetoric was a branch.
Tardus used his thumb and forefinger to lift the tube from its velvet-lined container. The murrhine had a soapy sheen in the lamplight. The material came from Britannia, generally worked into the form of whimsies like this tube.
Occasionally traders penetrated the interior of the island and convinced the savages to turn murrhine into cups or tabletops for which the aristocrats of Carce would pay astronomical amounts, but that was a difficult and dangerous business. The Britons were headhunters, as their Gallic kinsmen had been two generations before. Caesar’s raid into the island hadn’t been enough to civilize them out of the practice.
A warrior who took the head of a foreign trader didn’t have to worry about the victim’s family returning the favor before long. The difficulties that caused for commerce weren’t a pressing concern to the island’s tattooed savages.
“That’s odd, Gaius,” Priscus said, staring at the object which the man beside him held. “Bring a lamp closer. The ends–“
He pointed, though he didn’t attempt to take the tube from Tardus.
“The one end is cut and polished, you can see the way they radiused it. But the other seems to have been melted, doesn’t it? Cut with a hot knife, but how hot to melt stone?”
“Whose tomb did this come from, Gaius Saxa?” Tardus said, looking from the murrhine to his host.
“I don’t know that it did come from a tomb,” Saxa said. He drew his lips in, then let them out again.
“Rusticus said some of his soldiers dug into a cairn on a headland over looking the Ocean,” he continued with an uncomfortable expression. “They were looking for gold, but all they found was splinters of bone and this. It may be that it was a tomb, but a very ancient one. They brought it to Rusticus, and he gave it to me.”
“I see,” said Tardus. He weighed the tube in his hands before him, but he didn’t seem to be looking at it.
As best Varus could tell in the lamplight, the old senator was lost in another world. His mouth seemed to go slack momentarily. Is he having a fit?
Tardus roused himself abruptly. He blinked twice and his body trembled.
“Well!” he said. He didn’t return the murrhine tube to its box. “Gaius Saxa, thank you for returning in so lavish a fashion the hospitality I showed when you and Lord Varus visited me. I’m not a young man any longer and I wasn’t given to late hours even when I was, so I think I’ll take my leave now.”
“A colleague of your learning is always welcome, Marcus Tardus,” Saxa said in obvious relief. “Perhaps soon we can exchange visits in a more, well, regular fashion.”
Tardus rose to a sitting position on the back of the couch, then stood. He still held the tube. Varus saw his teacher’s expression harden as he watched what was happening.