The Legions of Fire
By David Drake
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 David Drake
All rights reserved.
Corylus had ordered Pulto to wear a toga because he thought that he'd need his servant to swell the audience for the poetry reading by his friend and classmate Varus. Pulto hadn't complained—he'd been a soldier for twenty-five years and the batman of Corylus's father, Publius Cispius, for the last eighteen of them.
On the other hand, the young master hadn't specified footgear. Pulto had chosen to wear hobnailed army boots with the toga.
Corylus grinned as they turned from the Argiletum Boulevard onto the street where the town house of Senator Gaius Alphenus Saxa, Varus's father, stood. Pulto clashed along beside him, muttering curses. Hobnails were dangerous footwear on the streets of Carce. The stone pavers had been worn smooth as glass and were slimy besides: the last rain had been almost a month past, so more recent garbage hadn't been swept into the central gutters and thence to the river.
Corylus wasn't an army officer yet, but he'd learned a few things growing up on the Rhine and Danube frontiers, where his father had been first centurion of the Alaudae Legion and then tribune in command of the Third Batavian Cavalry. Sometimes letting your subordinates do just what they pleased was the most effective punishment you could visit on them.
Pulto caught the young master's smile and—after an instant of bleakness—guffawed in good humor. "By Hercules, boy," he said, "you are the Old Man's son. I keep thinking you're the sprat I paddled for having a smart tongue. It'll serve me right if I fall on my ass, won't it? And have to get this bloody toga cleaned!"
Corylus laughed. "Maybe you're setting a new fashion trend," he said. "Carce is too stuffy about style, I think."
He'd never have ordered Pulto to wear his boots, but the ring of hobnails on stone turned out to have an unexpected benefit. Wagons weren't allowed inside the city until after dark, but peddlers, beggars, loungers, and other pedestrians clogged the streets, especially old ones like these in the very expensive Carinae District. To people who came from regions recently annexed to the Republic of Carce—and many of the city's poor did—the soldiers who'd done the annexing were still figures of terror.
As a citizen of the world educated by Pandareus of Athens, Corylus was disturbed by the implications of why people scuttled to the side or even hunched trembling with their heads covered. As a citizen of Carce and a soldier's son ... well, he'd have been a liar if he'd claimed he didn't feel a touch of pride. And it did make it easier to walk without getting his toga smudged.
"How long do you guess this is going to go on, Master Corylus?" Pulto said, sounding resigned now instead of huffy. "Lord Varus's reading, I mean?"
When Corylus went to Carce to get the first-class education which Publius Cispius wanted for his son and heir, Pulto had come with him. Corylus knew that his father didn't expect him to live like a Stoic philosopher—Cispius had been a career soldier, after all, before he retired to the Bay of Puteoli and bought a very successful perfume business.
He didn't want his son to get in over his head if it could be avoided, however. The young master wouldn't be able to bully Pulto into letting him do something stupid.
And if trouble couldn't be avoided, well, Pulto was a good choice there, too. He'd stood over the Old Man when a Sarmatian lance had knocked him off his mount. By the time the rest of the troop rallied to relieve them, the servant had seventeen separate wounds—but when the tribune woke up, he had only a headache from hitting the frozen ground. Pulto limped and his fringe of remaining hair was gray, but neither Corylus nor his father knew anybody who was more to be trusted in an alley in the dark.
Pulto would rather face Sarmatian cavalry than listen to an epic poem, even if Homer himself were singing it. Unfortunately ...
Varus was an erudite scholar and the only one of Pandareus's students with whom Corylus could deal as a friend. He put enormous effort into his verse; nobody could've worked harder.
But Varus wasn't Homer. Dull didn't begin to describe his poetry.
"I expect he'll finish by the eleventh hour," Corylus said, feeling a pang of guilt. "I, ah, think so. I may stay longer to chat, but you can change out of your toga as soon as the reading itself is over."
"We stood a dress inspection for the Emperor the onct," Pulto said stolidly. He settled the fold of his toga where it lay over his left shoulder; it wasn't pinned, which was all right if you were standing on a speaker's platform but less so if you were striding along at a military pace. "That was at Strasbourg. I guess I can take this."
"We're just about there," said Corylus soothingly. "Ten paces, soldier."
He didn't blame Pulto for disliking the toga, but it was the uniform of the day for this business—and in Carce generally, though the city was the only place in the empire where the old-fashioned garment was still in general use. In the provinces a citizen wore a tunic in warm weather and a cloak over it in the cold and wet. In Gaul a gentleman might even wear trousers in public without anybody objecting. The toga was for lawsuits and other formal occasions, like weddings and a son's coming-of-age ceremony.
Everything was formal in Carce. Even the slaves wore togas, at least the ones with any pretensions.
And speaking of pretentious slaves, Saxa seemed to have a new doorman, whose lip was curling upward as he watched Corylus and Pulto approach. In the year Corylus had lived in Carce, he'd learned what to expect from that expression.
Saxa let ground-floor rooms to shops on either side of the house entrance. There was a dealer in upscale leather goods for women on the far side; on the near side, a Greek jeweler named Archias bowed low to Corylus as he passed. Corylus had never done business with Archias, but the jeweler was unfailingly courteous to a friend of his landlord's son.
If the doorman had been more observant he would've noticed that. He'd been picked for his impressive appearance rather than his brains, though: he was broad-shouldered and well over six feet tall, with blond, lustrous shoulder-length hair.
Sneering at the two narrow purple bands on the hem of Corylus's toga, he said with a strong South German accent, "Around to the back entrance if you're looking for a handout. The Senator's hours for receiving riffraff are long past."
"Do you suppose he's one of the scum my father dragged to Carce in chains?" Corylus said, speaking German in a louder-than-conversational voice.
"Might be a bastard of mine, young master," Pulto rumbled back. "Venus knows the brothels at Vetera were mostly staffed with Suebian whores. About all the use I ever found for a Suebian, come to think."
From deeper inside the house, a female servant called cheerfully, "Agrippinus, you'd better get out here fast or you're going to have to replace the new doorman!"
The German had reached for the cudgel behind him, but the maid's voice penetrated his thick blond hair as the jeweler's deference had not. Red-faced, he straightened. "Whom shall I announce, gentlemen?" he croaked.
"Publius Corylus, a knight of Carce"—as indicated by the twin stripes on the toga; a member of the middle class and very much below a senator in rank—"and his companion, Marcus Pulto, by appointment to attend the public reading by their friend Gaius Alphenus Varus," Corylus said, speaking this time in formal Latin.
He was shaking with reaction. For a moment everything had blurred to gray in his sight except the necessary parts of the German's body. Grab the left wrist and twist hard so that the blond head crashes into the transom. Pulto would kick the German's knee sideways, breaking it, so Corylus could topple him into the street where they would both work him over with their boots....
"Master Corylus, how delightful to see you again!" said Agrippinus, Saxa's majordomo: plump, oiled, and very smooth. He spoke Latin like an aristocrat of Carce and Greek like an Athenian philosopher, but he was a former slave who'd been born in Spain. "And how pleased Lord Varus will be that you're present for his literary triumph! Please, let me lead you into the Black-and-Gold Hall, where Lord Varus will be reading."
Corylus had visited the house scores of times. Agrippinus knew he didn't need a guide, but it was important that the doorman learn that the youth was a friend of the family rather than being one of the parasites who haunted great men's doors in hopes of an invitation to fill out the dinner party. To underscore the fact, the majordomo said over his shoulder, "I'll want to have a discussion with you, Flavus, when Gigax relieves you at nightfall."
Agrippinus minced quickly through the entrance hall. Half a dozen servants stood there around the pool which caught rainwater from the in sloping roof. They bowed, but Corylus suspected the gesture was paid not to the visitors but to the majordomo. Agrippinus's present aura of pompous formality was even more impressive than his toga of bleached wool with gold embroidery.
Instead of continuing on into the office which was in line with the entrance, Agrippinus turned right to enter the portico surrounding the large garden in the center of the house. Saxa's house had no exterior windows on the ground floor, but the garden acted as a light well and also provided flowers and fruit in a bustling city. The roofs over this main section of the house fed the pool in the middle of the garden, but they did so through down-spouts and sunken pipes.
The Black-and-Gold Hall interrupted the portico in the middle of the east side, opening directly onto the garden for the maximum of light. Ornate frames of gold paint separated the black panels of the walls, each of which had a golden miniature of a fanciful creature in the center. The dais on which Varus would read was against the back wall, but there was a triple lamp stand to either side.
Just now Varus stood stiffly beside the dais. He was talking with Pandareus, who taught public speaking to a class of twelve youths including Varus and Corylus.
Varus and Corylus also learned to love literature and Truth. Their classmates saw no value to literature except to add colors to an oration—and as for Truth, if they ever thought about it, was a danger which successful attorneys shunned.
"By Hercules, the bloody room's full!" muttered Pulto. He sounded amazed. So was Corylus, because the statement was undeniably true.
"Please come to the front, Master Corylus," Agrippinus said, starting down the center aisle. The room, thirty feet wide and nearly that deep, now held two files of benches which must have been rented for today's event. The seats weren't packed as tight as the bleachers of the Circus during a program of chariot races, but people were going to have to move if the newcomers were to sit down.
"A moment, if you please," Corylus said with a curt gesture to the majordomo. "Pulto, you can suit yourself. While you're welcome to listen to the reading with me—"
"Venus and Mars, young master," Pulto said, grinning broadly. "If you don't mind, I'll be in the gym chewing the fat with my buddy Lenatus till you're ready to go home."
"Dismissed," said Corylus, falling into military terminology naturally. Between Cispius and Pulto, "Army" had been the household tongue when Corylus was growing up. His mother had died in childbirth; his nurse, Anna, had taught him the Oscan language and a great deal of superstition, but she hadn't cared any more for roundabout politeness than the men had.
Anna was now Pulto's wife. She was just as superstitious as she had been when Corylus was a child; but as he grew older, he'd come to realize that quite a lot of Anna's superstitious nonsense was in fact quite true.
Corylus nodded to Agrippinus; they resumed their way to the front. Gaius Saxa had obviously done what he considered a father's duty to his son: he'd sent invitations to all his senatorial friends. They hadn't come, of course, and Saxa wasn't present either. They'd sent clients and retainers, though, men who were beholden to them and who made a brilliant show in the hall. Some of the senators' freedmen here were not only wealthier than Cispius, they had a great deal more power in the Republic than a retired tribune did.
Varus would appreciate his father's gesture, but the expensively decorated togas drove home the fact that Corylus and Pandareus were the only people in the audience who'd come to hear the poetry. And even they—well, Corylus was here out of friendship and Pandareus might well regard his presence as a teacher's duty.
Corylus grinned, then quickly suppressed the expression. The thought behind it was unkind to a friend. It was traditional that poets suffered. In Varus's case, the problem wasn't poverty or a fickle girlfriend: it was lack of talent. Which, for somebody who cared as deeply about his art as Varus did, was a far worse punishment.
Agrippinus gestured toward the place which had just opened in the front row, on the right side of the center aisle. "Or would you care ...?" he said, tilting his head delicately toward Varus, whose back was to the room while he talked with his teacher.
"No, I'll speak to him after the reading," Corylus said. Varus is nervous enough already.... He settled himself carefully onto the bench.
Togas weren't really intended to be worn while sitting down. Ancient Carce had transacted all public business while standing. A less stiff-necked people would've changed to a more comfortable formal garment before now, but a less stiff-necked people wouldn't have conquered what was already the largest empire in history. A soldier's son could get used to wearing a toga.
Corylus had met Varus when they both became students of Pandareus a year before. Pulto had already known a member of Alphenus's staff, however: Marcus Lenatus, the household's personal trainer, was an old soldier and an old friend of Pulto's from the Rhine. Corylus would have been able to exercise in the private gymnasium in a back corner of the house even if the Senator's son hadn't invited him to do so.
The man on the bench beside Corylus was, from his conversation with the fellow to his other side, the steward of another senator whose master was planning a banquet in a few days' time. It was the sort of thing that would've bored Corylus to tears even if the servants had tried to make him a part of the discussion. Agrippinus might feel it was politic to show deference to a friend of the family, but these men had no reason to pretend a mere knight was as interesting as a hare stuffed with thrushes which had been stuffed in turn with truffles.
Corylus smiled faintly. He supposed he wouldn't turn down a portion of the lovingly prepared hare—so long as it came with bread and onions. That was a soldier's meal. It wasn't an accident that the frontiers of the empire stopped at the edge of where farmers plowed fields instead of grazing goats or cattle.
Lenatus and the gym wouldn't get much use if it weren't for Corylus. Saxa saw the trainer only during the Saturnalia festivities, when he visited each post of duty to give the servants their year-end tip. Varus sometimes tried to exercise, but he'd begun coming regularly only to keep Corylus company. Even then, he often sat on the masonry bench built out from the dressing rooms and jotted poetic inspirations in a notebook.
Saxa didn't care about the waste of money, of course. A private gymnasium was a proper facility for a man of his stature, so he had one.
He also had day and night shifts of servants servicing the water clock in the central garden: a man to empty the quarter-hour tumblers; a man with a rod to ring each quarter on a silver triangle; and a third man with a bugle to sound the hour. Each servant had an understudy, ready to take over the duties in case the principal died of apoplexy while pouring, ringing, or striking.
Alphena, Saxa's daughter by his first wife, used the gymnasium too. Corylus felt his face stiffen out of the smile that was its usual expression.
The girl was sixteen, a year younger than Corylus and Varus. Alphena and her brother were both stocky and of middling height like their father, proper descendants of the sturdy farmers of Carce who had spread from their hilltop village to conquer a great empire.
Alphena would never be a great beauty, but she was cute and full of an energy that would have made people notice her even if she had behaved with decorum. Which she most certainly did not. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Legions of Fire by David Drake. Copyright © 2010 David Drake. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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