Out Of The Waters — Snippet 48
He stepped into the open gateway and stood, waiting to be recognized from the garden. To his surprise, Saxa was sitting on a bench along the sidewall–he looked up at the announcement–and was accompanied only by his chief secretary, Philon. A single lamp burned on a stake which had been driven into a planter of poppies close to the bench.
“Oh, I’m glad to see you, son,” Saxa said. He sounded more as though he were announcing that the Emperor had ordered him to commit suicide. “It’s kind of you to join me.”
“Would your lordships like me to give you your privacy?” Philon said. He moved quickly toward the gateway, ready to slip through as soon as Varus took a step. “I’ll be waiting in the passage, your lordship!”
There was no question that Philon would prefer to be somewhere other than on this haunted site. In all that had happened Varus had forgotten the garden’s bad reputation; it was obviously still at the top of the servants’ minds.
He was surprised to find his father here. There were people who liked trees and flowers, but Saxa had never displayed any interest in such things. Varus had expected to find his father in bed, perhaps curled with his knees lifted to his chest.
“Lord,” Varus said, standing formally in front of his father. “I need funds to carry out a project that may put you in a great deal of danger.”
“Sit down, my son,” Saxa said. He patted the bench but didn’t raise his eyes to meet those of Varus. “And yes, of course you can have whatever you need; just tell Agrippinus. I haven’t been a very good father, I know, but I hope–“
He finally looked up.
“–that at least you never thought I pinched you for money.”
Varus seated himself gingerly. He hadn’t expected to be alone with Saxa, so most of his mental preparation had involved choosing words that he could use in front of the servants without flatly saying what he planned. The plan, after all, would be treated as armed rebellion if it came to the Emperor’s notice.
“L-l…,” he said. He caught himself and took a deep breath, then said, “Father, it isn’t that. I need you to know that the money will be used for….”
He swallowed and resumed, “We will be committing treason in the eyes of the Emperor. That isn’t our intent, but the means we’re using are, well, treasonous, I suppose.”
“Will you be able to bring my wife back?” Saxa said, suddenly speaking with animation.
“I–” Varus said. This is so hard. “No, I will not. Not tomorrow, or at least I don’t think so. I hope that it will help us–“
He shouldn’t have been involving Corylus and the others, even by implication. Well, too late to worry about that.
“–rescue mother at some later point. If we succeed. If we survive.”
“Well, do what you can,” Saxa said sadly. He looked around the garden. “It’s my fault, you know. I brought Nemastes here, and that’s what started it all. Right here in this garden, we worked a spell that–“
He gestured toward the gap where magic had blasted the pear tree with unnatural cold.
“–did this. Caused demons to take my Hedia. I did it.”
Varus took Saxa’s right hand in his left. He didn’t remember ever doing that before. “Father?” he said. “Look at me, please.”
Saxa turned with a look of mild surprise. “Yes?” he said.
“I don’t understand what’s happening,” Varus said. “Not even Pandareus does. But I’ve seen enough to know that you weren’t the cause any more than I was or mother was or Alphena. What you did do was to help save Carce; and by providing funds, you’ll be doing that again.”
He smiled. “A philosopher should be truthful and precise,” he said. “What I should have said is that you will be helping us try to save Carce. I hope we’ll succeed, but I’m not a soothsayer to speak with divine certainty.”
In talking to Varus, Saxa had risen enough from the depths to chuckle. “I’ve known many soothsayers, my son,” he said. “I’ve never known one whose opinion I would take in opposition to yours.”
He pursed his lips and added, “My first wife had a pet sparrow. I would take its opinions ahead of those of most soothsayers, too.”
Varus realized he must have looked shocked. Saxa smiled faintly. He said, “I probably seem rather an old fool to you, son, because I believe in things which cannot be logically proven. Unlike my colleague Marcus Tardus, however, I don’t believe in things which have been logically disproven. I place portents of the future found in the shape of an ox liver in the disproven category.”
“I… see,” Varus said. He hesitated because he did see, perhaps for the first time, a portion of his father as a man. “I, we will try not to disappoint you, your lordship.”
He rose to his feet. Saxa got up also and unexpectedly gripped his hand. “You haven’t disappointed me, my son. You couldn’t disappoint me.”
Varus felt a surge of warmth toward his father. He said, “Sir? Why don’t you visit Marcus Priscus tomorrow, since the Senate won’t be in session? Get to sleep tonight, then send him a note in the morning saying that you intend to come over.”
“Do you suppose he’d be willing to see me?” Saxa said, noticeably brighter than he had been a moment before. “I don’t, I mean we haven’t been intimate friends, you know.”
“Priscus will be very interested in what happened tonight,” Varus said. Part of his mind wondered just how detailed a description of the event his father would provide. “And he’s as able as any man in Carce to explain what it means.”
He and Saxa shared a smile. It was the older man who voiced the thought of both: “Which means the chances are he’ll be completely at sea. Well, regardless, I welcome the chance to become better acquainted with so learned a man.”
Varus turned, thinking about the next step. He would offer Corylus a bed, though he wasn’t sure that his friend didn’t have more preparations to make yet tonight. After Varus confirmed that any necessary sum of money was available for the enterprise, all he had before him was sleep… which he was looking forward to.
Varus reached for the gate latch. Without warning, he was in the midst of a vision as sharply defined as the one that had filled the stage of the theater. He could no longer see the side of the house, and he turned to find the garden and his father had also been replaced by a crystal fortress squatting on a crag in the midst of jungle.
Huts not greatly different from those of a village in Greece or Lucania had been built around the fortress and spread halfway down the slope. They were burning now. The jungle smoldered in places, but the thick foliage was too green to sustain fire on its own. With the thought, Varus saw humans, some of them injured, crawling among the vines at the buttress roots of huge trees: refugees from the dwellings.
The fortress was shaped like an eight-pointed star. It was small and squat, no more than ten feet high from the ground to the flat roof and only 50 feet from point to the opposite point, but it remained untouched by flames from the score of flying ships which encircled it a quarter mile distant.
Some had penetrated closer: the wreckage of three vessels lay on the outskirts of the burning village. Each was charred around a hole the size of a bushel basket which had been burned through its hull.
A single flying ship moved slowly, bow-on, toward the fortress. The other vessels had hulls and masts of wood, but this one was of the same fiery metal as the armor of the figure in its stern. There were no other crewmen.
A bolt ripped from the fortress: not fire like what the ships had squirted on Typhon as it rent Poseidonis but rather a jet of white channeled lightning; the air glowed in its wake. The ship gleamed as if every surface was covered with ghostly corposants; it staggered, then resumed its slow progress.
A second bolt hit the vessel, then a third. The figure in the stern raised its hands to the flaring helmet, then lifted it off. Instead of a human head beneath the armor, Varus saw a grinning diamond skull.
Purple light flashed from the skull and licked across the face of the fortress. The wall crumbled like a streambank during a freshet.
The light cut off; the ship wallowed closer. Overhead, what had been a clear sky now roiled with lightning and stormclouds.
Again the purple glare ate into the heart of the fortress, revealing an armored figure in a bubble of clear light against which the purple raved. In one metal gauntlet he held a murrhine bar crossways toward the attacking vessel.
The murrhine split; the halves flew out of sight in either direction. It had been a hollow tube.
Instead of blasting the figure as it had the fortress which sheltered him, a third spurt of purple light plucked the armor off like a diner shelling a crayfish. The mouth of the diamond skull opened: the victor was laughing.
The vision blinked away. Varus fell forward, but his father caught him.
Saxa’s expression was as blank and frightened as Varus himself felt.
Hedia gasped, trying to get her breath. She thrashed for a moment, but that was pointless. The creature grasping her waist from behind had let go, but the two beside her each held a wrist. Their glassy hands were not uncomfortably tight, but they had no more give in them than if they had been carved out of stone.
She twisted to look at them. The creatures had opposable thumbs, but their fingers were fused into flat paddles. They were translucent, as though made from a dozen sheets of mica stacked together; she could see her wrists faintly through them.
She straightened again. The creatures seemed to pay her no attention. In silhouette they would have seemed human, but all the detail had been smoothed off. Hedia thought of statues worn by windblown sand.
She felt a smile twist the corners of her mouth. At least they don’t terrify me now, the way they did in my nightmares.
She forced her body to relax. “Do you have names?” she demanded.
The figure on her left turned its head toward her, then turned back. It didn’t speak, if it was even able to. The curves of its lips met in a shallow Vee and were seemingly carved from a single block.
“Where are you taking me?”
That brought no response at all. Well, she hadn’t expected it to. She looked about her for the first time.
Hedia and her captors stood as though in clear air. At first she had thought she was falling, but now she wasn’t sure. Things half-glimpsed swirled about them the way bubbles dance below a mill flume.