Out Of The Waters — Snippet 43
Pandareus wanted to leave by the alley after dinner, saying it would be shorter by two blocks for him to get home, so Varus walked his teacher into the back garden. To his surprise, Alphena came with them.
By now he wasn’t surprised that none of the servants followed them into the garden, though Varus hadn’t felt the sense of unease that the staff claimed to. He wondered whether the problem had been a single nervous footman worrying himself twitchy and infecting his hundreds of fellows with fear of nothing.
Alphena stood arms akimbo as they entered the garden and glared at the surviving fruit tree. Varus looked at her with lips pursed, but whatever had brought that on seemed to be satisfied when nothing had happened after a moment or two.
“I’ll stand outside, your lordships,” said the doorman on duty. “I’ll leave the lantern–or would you rather I take it into the alley, your lordships?”
“Take it with you,” Varus said before it struck him that his sister might not find the moonlight as adequate as he did. Well, if that’s the case, Alphena has never had trouble making her opinion known….
Instead she hugged her arms around herself, then smiled wanly. “I don’t know what was going on at dinner,” she said. “I was hoping one of you could tell me.”
“For somebody who didn’t understand,” Varus said, “you certainly reacted quickly enough. Quicker than I did, anyway.”
He shook his head, feeling disgusted with himself. “Actually, I don’t think I would have thought to demand the, well, artifact myself if I’d had all night. My brain doesn’t work that way, I guess.”
“All I knew,” Alphena said, “is that Tardus wanted to take the tube and you–“
She was looking at Pandareus.
“–didn’t want him to. Is there something you want to do with it, ah, Master?”
As soon as Tardus and his attendants had gone down the staircase, Hedia gave the chest with the murrhine tube to Alexandros to return to its place in the library. Saxa had a collection of similar curios among the baskets of scrolls, as well as busts of those he considered the wisest men of past ages.
Along with Solon, who gave laws to Athens; Lycurgus, who gave laws to Sparta; and Socrates, who chose to die to uphold his philosophy, there was a bust of Periander, the famously ruthless Tyrant of Corinth. Varus had always considered that an odd choice for his gentle father.
“I’m sorry, no,” Pandareus said. “I’m not a magician–“
He quirked a smile toward Varus, who felt his cheeks start to warm. Fortunately the moonlight wouldn’t show his blushing. I’m not a magician either!
“–and scholarship doesn’t take me beyond the obvious, that the object is very old and probably came from a tomb. I was reacting to the fact that Lord Tardus wanted it very badly; and though I don’t have any idea why, I had–I have–the feeling that his purposes would not be to the benefit of anyone I could consider a friend.”
Varus nodded in understanding. He said, “And father wouldn’t have refused a fellow senator simply because a foreigner–no offense meant, Master.”
“None taken, my pupil,” Pandareus said with a nod of deference.
“A foreigner, even a very learned foreigner as father knows you to be,” Varus said, “didn’t approve. But the wishes of his own daughter certainly did matter.”
He shook his head again. “Or his son,” he said. “Except that his son wasn’t quick enough off the mark to intervene.”
Alphena looked at him with an expression he couldn’t read, then hugged him. Varus stood stiffly. He didn’t believe there was anything his sister could have done that would have surprised him more.
“Dear Gaius,” she said, stepping away again. “I don’t think you could have accomplished anything no matter how hard you tried. You’ve just been so nice to everybody all your life. But I’ve been a screaming bitch often enough that father would listen to me.”
She smiled wryly. She wasn’t boasting, which was also a surprise. Alphena had always seemed proud of the way she made people cringe when she was in a bad temper.
“Well…,” he said. “Thank you, sister.”
Varus smiled. He’d never really approved of Alphena’s behavior–not that he would ever have said anything–but her past behavior was paying dividends. Her unladylike practice with a sword had saved his life when she stood between him and an army of fire demons.
“Did either of you notice the men who came with Tardus?” Alphena said. “They were the same ones who’d been with him in the theater when the city appeared. I mean, three of them were.”
Pandareus was answering. Varus heard the teacher’s voice, but the words didn’t seem to have meaning. He felt himself drifting into the fog that separated him from the Sibyl’s dreamworld. He tried to speak, to warn his companions, but grayness closed in before he could force words out through his throat.
There was laughter in the fog, silvery and cheerful. Varus felt his heart jump as if he had heard a scream of fury, though there had been nothing frightening in the sound itself.
His smile was bitter for a moment, then warmed into humor. Quite a number of frightening things had happened recently. He couldn’t help being afraid, but he could simply walk on regardless.
He had no choice, after all. Not if he were to help save the world. He thought of the monster he had seen engulfing Carce.
The fog brightened; in another step, he burst out into sunlight. The old woman stood on the edge of an escarpment, holding a hank of yarn and a pair of bronze shears. She turned toward Varus.
“Greetings, Sibyl,” he said. He cleared his throat and went on, “Why have you called me here, your ladyship?”
“I call you, Lord Magician?” she said. Her smile was almost lost in the wrinkles of her face. She seemed tired, now that he was close to her; but perhaps she was just weary of life. “Not so. It may be that you wanted to view Poseidonis again–“
She gestured with the shears; Varus followed their points to look over the escarpment. The city he had seen in the theater spread below them.
Flying ships flapped toward the harborfront and landed like giant dragonflies, each guided by a figure in fiery armor. The streets were of the same glassy, glittering substance as the towers; catwalks as seemingly fine as spider silk tied the structures to their neighbors at three or four levels above the ground as well.
People hastened about their business. They wore sandals, broad-brimmed hats that seemed to be made of stiffened fabric, and tunics that left their left shoulders bare; Varus did not see any of the loiterers or street vendors that he would have expected in Carce. Among the humans were scores, perhaps hundreds, of the glass figures which walked at a measured pace like so many living statues.
“Why do I need to see this?” Varus said. “Help me to understand, mistress!”
“The Minoi of Atlantis threaten your world, Lord Wizard,” said the old woman. “They are one threat of three, and any one will be sufficient to doom you.”
The armored men from the airships and similar figures from distant towers were walking toward the tall spire. Ordinary humans thronged the broad plaza that separated it from the sea, but they made way for the converging shapes in armor.
“But why?” Varus said.
But as he spoke, the Sibyl’s mouth twisted and she cried, “How many evils does the sea devise against you?“
Varus plunged through darkness. He awakened in moonlight, standing with Alphena and Pandareus. He was shouting.
Alphena jumped back as her brother, who had been slouching as if asleep on his feet, suddenly stiffened. He shouted in a squeaky voice, “How many evils does the sea devise against you? She will suddenly encroach on the grieving land, causing it to flood as the Earth tears asunder!“
“Brother?” Alphena said sharply.
“What?” Varus snapped, looking about wildly as though he expected to see something that wasn’t there. “Alphena? Oh. I’m sorry. What happened?”
“You shouted a warning that the sea will flood,” Pandareus said, his head cocked to the side in interest. “Using a proleptic gerundive, I might note. Were you quoting?”
“I think I was…,” Varus said. He licked his lips. “That is, I heard the Sibyl calling a prophecy. About the sea.”
“You said it yourself, brother,” Alphena said. She felt sick with uncertainty; she didn’t know what was real or if anything was real.
Varus gave her wan smile. “I suppose I did,” he said. Then he added, “Master Pandareus means that the land won’t really grieve until the sea encroaches, but the poet describes it as grieving already.”
“My comment was out of place, Lady Alphena,” the teacher said, dipping his head contritely. “When human beings feel threatened, they revert to habitual behavior; and I fear my habit is pedantry.”
Alphena was only half listening. She had caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned toward what should have been the gate to the alley. A vortex of pale light spun there. As she watched, the light deepened.
“Look!” she said. She wasn’t sure whether her companions could hear her. She couldn’t see them, and when she tried to point at the coalescing vision, she couldn’t see her own hand and arm. “It’s the city from the theater!”
No, it’s more than what we saw in the theater. This isn’t just the city, it’s an island too.
The vision changed with her thoughts: first the city sparkling like a polished diamond, then the backdrop of jungle-covered hills behind and beside the crystal towers. A heartbeat later she saw a panorama of seven ring islands, each inside the next larger.
“A volcano like Aetna,” said a voice at the edge of her hearing. Was Pandareus speaking? “Seven eruptions, each slighter than the one before.”
The rings almost touched close to the point where the city spread and sparkled. Spotted at intervals among the forested curves of each island were glittering specks, single towers similar to the much larger buildings of the city.
The vision shrank inward, reversing the way it had appeared. For a moment a dull glow remained, like the wick of a lamp that had run out of oil; then that too was gone.
Alphena let out a shuddering breath. “Brother?” she said.
Varus looked as drawn as she felt. With a touch of anger he said, “I didn’t do that!”
Pandareus raised an eyebrow. Varus looked at his teacher in sudden dismay, then turned to Alphena. He bowed formally and said, “Your pardon, sister; I misspoke. I am not consciously aware of having caused that vision–“
He made a rhetorical gesture toward what was again only the back gate. Light from the doorman’s lamp in the alley glowed through the slight gap between the panel and doorpost.
“–but as Master Pandareus rightly pointed out, I may be having an effect of which I’m not aware. Indeed, given that I was seeing a similar vision when I was dreaming.”