Out Of The Waters — Snippet 44
He paused. His expression was suddenly that of a frightened little boy.
The young philosopher reasserted himself with a wry smile. “When I was in a reverie, I’ll call it,” he said. “I think I probably did cause what we all just saw, though I don’t know how.”
Her brother’s smile returned, broader. “Nor do I know how to stop it,” he said.
“We have much to consider,” said Pandareus with a smile that made him look like another person. “Which is always true of the philosopher, as I’m sure we three strive to be. I believe I will do my further consideration tonight in my bed, and I hope in my sleep.”
He bowed. “Repeat my thanks to your father,” he added. “The food was wonderful, and the evening has been even more remarkable than the menu would have made it.”
Pandareus pulled the gate open. The doorman standing in the alley turned, lifting his lantern on the short hooked pole it hung from.
“Are you sure you won’t accept an escort, Master?” Varus asked.
“I prefer to retain my own habits, Lord Varus,” the teacher said, “though I thank you. I have gone out virtually every night since I arrived in Carce. If I get used to linkmen and guards, where will I be when they’re no longer available? Like a once-wild rabbit who has been fattened in a cage before being returned to the forest, I fear–an easy meal for any predator.”
Alphena looked at the teacher in a new way. She had never wondered how ordinary people–that is, people who didn’t travel with scores of attendants–went anywhere at night. The answer seemed to be, “Carefully.”
She knew that Carce’s streets were prowled by not only by robbers, but by violent drunks and by beggars who would willingly turn thief if they met someone sufficiently weaker than themselves in the darkness. Publius Corylus was young and strong and carried a hardwood staff that made him more than a match for a footpad with a knife. Pandareus had none of those advantages, but he seemed to have gotten along quite well.
The gate closed behind him. It reopened a crack, then shut again. The doorman was making sure that the young lord and lady were still in the garden–so that their privacy gave him an excuse for staying in the alley where he was more comfortable.
Varus stared after his teacher for a moment, then looked at Alphena and said, “Master Pandareus shows himself as wise in his present assessment as I have found him in every other matter where I’ve heard him give an opinion.”
His smile was affectionate, but it seemed to Alphena to be sad as well. “I’ll take his advice and go bed, sister. Shall we go back into the house together?”
“Help!” Pandareus called from the near distance. At any rate, it sounded like Pandareus and sounded like the word “help,” but the cry was muffled.
“What’s going on there!” the doorman bellowed.
Alphena was through the gate before her brother, but he was only a half-step behind. That was a surprisingly good performance for a youth with no pretensions to being a man of action.
The doorman was just outside the gate, standing in the middle of the alley and looking to the left; he was brandishing his cudgel. Alphena couldn’t see anyone else.
“Come on, you!” she shouted, wishing that she knew the fellow’s name. “Master Pandareus has been attacked!”
She started down the alley, hiking the long tunic up with her left hand. Behind her the doorman called, “Your ladyship, come back! I can’t leave the gate! It may be a trick!”
Alphena ignored him and ran toward the intersecting street. She looked both ways. The moon was close to setting, so all she could see was rapid movement to the south.
She started to follow, then stopped after two strides. From the slap of sandals on the pavement, there were a dozen men or even more in the gang which must have abducted Pandareus.
If I had my sword…. But she didn’t have a sword, and she couldn’t even run in this accursed dinner dress.
Varus came up behind her; several servants were with him, holding hoes and shovels. He’d apparently grabbed the nearest men and opened the gardeners’ tool shed to equip them. “Are they gone?” he said.
“Yes,” Alphena said, pointing. “But don’t follow them. There’s too many, and I think I saw swords.”
She was gasping for breath, though she hadn’t really run very far. It must be the sudden shock that was making her tremble. Looking at her brother, she said, “We need to tell father,”
“Ah…,” said Varus. “I don’t think that would be a good idea just now. I don’t think father would be able to do anything, and, ah, I think he’s busy. With mother.”
I don’t understand–Alphena thought. Then she gasped, “Oh!”
“I sent a messenger to Publius Corylus, though,” Varus said. “When he arrives, the three of us can discuss the best way to proceed.”
He looked away; he was obviously embarrassed about having shocked his sister. Though of course I know that it happens. Or it can happen. I know it does!
“Yes,” Alphena said aloud. “That’s a good idea. Corylus will know what to do.”
She really did believe that, she realized. Though she didn’t have the faintest notion of why she believed it.
Corylus reached the alley to the back of Saxa’s house, loping at well below the best speed he could have managed. He wasn’t in quite the shape he had been on the Danube frontier, but he used running–and sports more generally–to cushion himself against the stresses of Carce as well as to stay physically fit. He could keep up with even a professional courier over the distance from his apartment block to here.
The footing over Carce’s streets, even on a familiar route, wasn’t safe for a dead run after moonset. Even at a measured pace Corylus had slipped several times, saving himself by tapping one end of his staff or the other down on the pavement.
Men with lanterns and clubs blocked the middle of the alley outside Saxa’s back gate. Corylus slowed to a walk as he started toward them. A voice with a harsh German accent called, “Hold it right there, you, or I’ll split your head!”
A number of replies bounced toward Corylus’ lips. The same reflex readied his staff for a straight thrust that would show that barbarian what it meant to threaten a soldier of Carce. But–Corylus’ grin, though wry, was nonetheless real–that wasn’t what he’d come here for.
“I’m Publius Corylus, here at the summons of Lord Varus!” he said. He didn’t halt, but he slowed further with half-paces. “Who’s in command here?”
“Ajax, get your bloody ass back here!” shouted Lenatus from the gateway. “Otherwise you’ll be lucky if there’s enough left of you to strap to the flogging horse. He’s his lordship’s friend!”
“Here I am, Publius,” Varus said as he broke through the clot of servants. “And, ah, my sister.”
Corylus clasped his friend. Varus wore slippers and a knee-length linen tunic, probably what he had worn under his toga at dinner. Alphena was in a short wool tunic of military cut and heavy sandals. She wasn’t wearing a helmet or body armor, but she had belted on a long sword.
Corylus had seen Alphena use the weapon. The edge of the gray blade was sharp enough to shave sunlight, and the point had ripped open fire demons; whatever it was made of wasn’t ordinary steel.
Lenatus had followed the siblings, but he stayed politely in the background. He too carried a sword, but his was the ordinary weapon of a legionary. With him was one of the night doormen; and Agrippinus, the major domo, stood a pace behind the two lesser servants.
Varus looked around. “I sent Culex with the message,” he said. “Didn’t he return with you?”
“The runner?” Corylus said. “He’d told me what he knew–that Pandareus walked onto Fullers Street and somebody, a gang, apparently grabbed him. I asked your man to follow along with Pulto. I could get here quickly, but I didn’t want to chance Pulto stumbling and, well, being alone at night on the streets. He wasn’t pleased at being babysat, as he put it, but–“
His mouth twisted into a smile of sorts.
“–he wasn’t able to catch up with me to clout me into proper respect for the man my father depended on to keep me safe.”
“I don’t think any of us are safe,” Varus said with a tired grin. “But I suppose that’s always true. Demons are no more deadly than the ordinary summer fevers; they’re just different.”
“Fevers weren’t going to burn the whole world to a cinder,” Alphena said. “Anyway, I don’t think it was demons that took Pandareus, though I don’t know why anyone, demon or human, would.”
She frowned and said, “They may have killed him and carried off the body. I couldn’t see that well.”
“Master Corylus?” Lenatus said, choosing to address himself to the soldier–or semi-soldier–rather than to the children of his noble employer. “I checked the alley mouth, and there wasn’t a splash of blood on the pavement. From what Ferox here says–“
The doorman nodded vigorously but didn’t speak. He held an oak cudgel with an iron ring shrunk over the business end.
“–they were waiting for Master Pandareus. It wasn’t a chance robbery.”
“Aye,” said Ferox. “They come from both sides, slick as garroting a rabbit. I figure they threw a bag over him. They was waiting for him, no doubt about that.”
Corylus looked to where the alley met the next street over. The sky was pale enough that he could see the top of the peach tree which leaned over the wall of Saxa’s garden.
He thought for a moment, then shrugged–after all, there could be no harm in asking–and said, “Gaius, can you arrange for me to be alone in the garden for a little while? Without any servants or, well, anybody?”
“Yes, of course,” Varus said. He looked at his sister with a worried expression. “Ah–that is…?”
Alphena wrinkled her face in irritation. “We asked Master Corylus to come because we thought he might have a suggestion,” she said. “Of course we’ll do any reasonable thing that he asks!”
She turned to Agrippinus and said, “Get everyone out of the garden. Then you stand in front of the inside gate and make sure nobody comes back. You personally!”
“Your ladyship!” the major domo said as he went back through the gate with little mincing steps. As soon as he was inside he cried, “Get out of here at once, all of you! Back into the house unless you want to spend the rest of your lives chained to plows in Sardinia!”
“I’ll see to it that nobody comes in from the alley,” Alphena said, drawing her sword and placing herself in the gateway. The gray blade gleamed like a stream of ice water.
“Thank you,” Corylus said as he stepped past her into the garden. He shut the outer gate. Agrippinus had already closed the interior one behind him.