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The wealthy Governor Saxa, of the great city of Carce, has generously subsidized a theatrical/religious event. During this elaborate staging of Hercules founding a city on the shores of Lusitania, dark magic turns the panoply into a chilling event. The sky darkens and the waves crash in the flooded arena. A great creature rises from the sea: a huge, tentacled horror on snake legs. It devastates the city, much to the delight of the crowd.
A few in the audience, although not Saxa,...
The wealthy Governor Saxa, of the great city of Carce, has generously subsidized a theatrical/religious event. During this elaborate staging of Hercules founding a city on the shores of Lusitania, dark magic turns the panoply into a chilling event. The sky darkens and the waves crash in the flooded arena. A great creature rises from the sea: a huge, tentacled horror on snake legs. It devastates the city, much to the delight of the crowd.
A few in the audience, although not Saxa, understand that this was not mere stagecraft, but something much darker and more dangerous. If all signs are being read right, this illusion could signify a dreadful intrusion of supernatural powers into the real world. Saxa's son, Varus, has been the conduit for such an event once before. This new novel is as powerful and elaborate as that fantastic theatrical event, a major fantasy for this year.
“Drake keeps the action moving. Recommended for all action fantasy fans, not least because three of the four protagonists are on the verge of adulthood, which promises a bildungsroman atmosphere throughout the succeeding volumes.”
“Drake vividly recreates the attitudes of patrician Romans in this fantasy tale…. Fans of fantasy and historical fiction will enjoy the characters and their decidedly noncontemporary characters and their adventures."
“David Drake is thought of as a military SF author, but he’s actually written more fantasy than anything else in his long and impressive career. If you want to know why, read The Legions of Fire. Drake is one of the best fantasy writers this genre has ever produced.”
—Eric Flint, author of 1632
Second installment in Drake's new four-volume fantasy cycle (The Legions of Fire, 2010, etc.) set in early Imperial Rome or, as the author terms it, Carce.
Once again in the early going, there's altogether too much emphasis on protocol and manners, but eventually Drake gets his engine warmed up. Rich, influential senator Gaius Alphenus Saxa, celebrating his promotion to consul, prepares an extravagant entertainment dramatizing Hercules' conquest of Lusitania. During the proceedings an extraordinary vision intrudes, apparently showing the destruction of Atlantis by the huge sea monster Typhon. Accompanying one of the guests, Senator Marcus Sempronius Tardus—whose official duties involve the prophetic Sibylline books—is a trio of sinister wizards. As Saxa's scholarly son Varus, Greek tutor Pandareus and Varus' half-dryad soldier friend Corylus debate the meaning of the vision, Alphena, Varus' sword-wielding younger sister, reveals that she saw not a monster but a man. Meanwhile, Hedia, Saxa's astute, honorable trophy wife, suffers terrifying dreams of what is clearly also Atlantis. Varus, whose own magical powers are developing rapidly, discusses the matter with the Sibyl herself. The twisty, reasonably coherent plot develops rapidly once the wizards abduct Pandareus; Tardus, our heroes discover, is a zombie, controlled by the wizards. Soon enough, Hedia, Alphena and Corylus separately arrive in Atlantis, where they learn that the seeming bad guys may be bad good guys; and Varus will call upon ancient Egyptian thaumaturgy indicted on a scroll he's never read.
A much-improved effort, not overly formulaic, with characters recognizable as people rather than online avatars.
Varus sat upright at his fathers side in the Tribunalthe patrons boxover the right edge of the stage in the Pompeian Theater, jotting notes in the waxed memorandum book on his lap. Staring at him from the vast bowl of the theater was an audience of thousands: perhaps twenty thousand all told, including the slaves standingthey werent allowed to sitin the aisles and the surrounding colonnades.
It was disquieting to look out at so many human faces, though he knew that only a handful of them were even vaguely aware of Gaius Alphenus Varus. Indeed, very few of the spectators would pay any attention to his father, Gaius Alphenus Saxa: senator of Carce, replacement consul, and destined governor of the province of Lusitania on the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula.
The spectators didnt worry Varus as much, though, as the vision forming in his mind: a very old woman, seated on a throne. He wasnt sure if she really existed or if she ever had existed; but he knew why he was seeing her.
Varus was too well schooled in philosophy to lie, even to himself, about his fathers personality. Saxa was a cultured and well-read man, but not a particularly wise one. He had chosen to commemorate his consulate by putting on a mime written for the occasion: The Conquest of Lusitania by Hercules.
The replacement consul sat on his gilded, high-backed chair, beaming with pleasure. If the emperor had been present, the Golden Seat would have been his. The Tribunal wasnt the best place from which to view the three-hundred-foot-wide stage, but it was the best place in which to be seen by the audience.
The citizens of Carce would probably have preferred watching exotic animals being slaughtered by the hundreds and perhaps even convicted criminals being devoured by cats and bears, but Saxa was wealthy enough that the present spectacle was keeping the audience in its seats.
Varus had once imagined he could become a great poet, one whose readings would fill a hall and might even fill this theater. His first public performance had been a disaster, not so much in the eyes of those attending as in his own.
On that occasion, the audience had been of freedmen and hangers-on of his fathers wealthy friends, sent as a courtesy. They had expected to be bored. Varus himself was too intelligent and too well taught
He glanced over his shoulder toward his teacher, Pandareus of Athens; the scholar nodded crisply in reply. He sat in the Tribunal as a mark of Saxas gratitude.
not to understand how bad his epic was when he heard the words coming out of his mouth.
Under the careful direction of two handlers each, the Cattle of the Sunbig animals with bright bay hideswere marching across the stage. Though they had been gelded and their horns sparkled with gold paint for this show, they were of the same Iberian stock as the bulls which not infrequently gored to death the lions and tigers set to fight them in the arena.
While even more dangerous animals sometimes appeared on stage, these steers were nothing to have loose in the belly of the theater. That was especially true since the seats in the orchestra were reserved for senators and their families.
A steer bellowed peevishly and lashed its tail. The actor playing Hercules stood at the back of the scene on a rock; he twitched noticeably. It was unlikely that an angry animal would crash through the spiked iron fence protecting the orchestra, but one certainly might knock down the mountain of plaster on a wicker frame and then start in on the actor who had been standing on it.
The audience would love it, Varus thought, smiling faintly. He wasnt the sort of aristocrat who sneered at The Many, the common people; but even at seventeen he was enough of a philosopher to be wryly amused by the difference between his tastes and those of his fellow citizens of Carceincluding the tastes of many who were just as wellborn as the Alphenus family.
Varus gestured Pandareus to slide his chair up a few inches. The Greek had been careful to take a subordinate place rather than imply his equality with citizens of Carce, but that had now been established. Varus wanted to talk with his teacher, the only person in the box who shared his own passion for truth.
Saxa had a capacious mind, but it was like a magpies and his learning was slanted toward the marvelous. The more remarkable a report was, the more likely he was to believe it.
Varus preferred sober facts. His smile quirked again. It disturbed him that some of the events hed recently seenand participated inwere more amazing than the fantastic myths which charlatans retailed to his father.
Pandareus advanced his chair to the railing. He and the others in the Tribunal sat on backless folding chairs with fabric seats. They were identical to the chairs of the senators in the orchestra, except that the frames were of oak or fruitwood instead of ivory.
Apart from the senators, free persons in the audience sat on stone benches. The wealthier had brought cushions, while the poor made do with a cloak or an extra tunic. This mime was scheduled to last all afternoon, so even a toil-hardened farmer visiting the capital needed something between his buttocks and the stone.
Pandareus followed his pupils eyes to the slaves in the gallery and murmured, I wonder how many of them are Lusitanians themselves? Its supposed to be a rather wild province, of course. If there are any of them here, they may not have enough Latin to realize that theyre supposed to be looking at their homeland.
The last of the cattle stamped and clattered off the stage below the Tribunal. An actor dressed as Mercury with a silver helmet and winged sandals cried, Behold, the treasures of Lusitania, now yours by right of conquest!
The first of what was obviously a long line of donkeys followed the steers. Instead of ordinary pack saddles, the animals were fitted with shelves which displayed silver and gold plate, bronze statuary, silks, and expensive pottery. Some of the dishes were decorated blue on a white background, products of the same Far Eastern peoples who produced the silk.
Master? Varus said as a question occurred to him. There were twenty cattle. Is there some literary basis for that? Because frankly
He lowered his voice, though there was no likelihood that Saxa on his right side could have overheard.
I would have expected my father to provide more, just for the show.
Pandareus allowed himself a pleased smile. As it happens, he said, trying to keep the pride out of his voice, your fathers impresario, Meoetes, asked me the same question while he planned the mime. I told him that annotations by Callimachus on Euripides claim that the cattle are actually a metaphor for the twenty letters of the Greek alphabet which Heracles
He used the gods Greek name.
brought to replace the alphabet of Cronus. Meoetes was doubtful, as you surmise, but the senator insisted on accuracy over spectacle. He coughed and continued, Since I couldnt give any guidance on the loot of Iberia, I believe they decided to, ah, spread themselves.
Varus grinned again, feeling a rush of unexpected warmth toward his father. Saxa had not been harsh toward his son and daughterhe wasnt a man who could be harsh to anyone, even a slave; though of course he had foremen and stewards who could do what they thought was necessary. Neither had Saxa showed any interest in his children, however.
That had changed very recently. Saxa appreciated the real erudition which he was honest enough to know that he lacked himself. He had learned that Marcus Priscus, a member of the Commission for the Sacred Rites and reputedly the most learned man in the Senate, respected Varus scholarship and regarded Pandareus as his equal in knowledge. That had raised son and teacher enormously in Saxas estimation.
Alphena, Saxas sixteen-year-old daughter, had gained status for an even better reason: Hedia, Saxas third wife and the childrens stepmother, had taken the girl under her wing. Hedia was lovely and could be charming, but she knew her own mindand got her way in everything that mattered to her.
Varus wouldnt have believed that his tomboy sister would ever want to act like a lady, let alone that she would be capable of doing a creditable job of it. The fact that Alphena was here in the theater, wearing a long dress with a silk cape over her shoulders, was almost as remarkable as other things that had happened in the course of the past week.
Almost. Varus had seen the earth open and demons rise from the blazing rivers of the Underworld. He had seen that, or he thought he had seen that; and it had seemed that he himself was the magician whose chanted spell had dispersed those demons and sealed the world against them.
Varus prided himself on his intellect; intellectually he knew the things he recalled could not be true. Unfortunately for logic and reason, his teacher recalled the same things. When a scholar of the stature of Pandareus accepted the evidence of his eyes over common sense, a mere student like Varus was left with a dilemma.
The line of mules moved steadily except when one stopped, raised its tail, and deposited dung on the stage. Pandareus leaned forward, watching with more interest than he had shown for the splendid goods themselves.
How will they clean the stage after the performance, Lord Varus? he said. That is, I understand there are to be eight hundred mules. If even a small portion of such a herd?
Varus laughed. He wasnt a frequent spectator at Carces mass entertainments, but he obviously got out more than his teacher did. He said, They hold beast fights and hunts
So-called hunts, that is. Archers and javelin throwers behind metal fences shot corralled animals until they had no more living targets.
here also. Channels from the Virgin Aqueduct divert water over the stage and the cellars beneath to wash detritus into the sewers.
He met his teachers eyes and added, I dont believe that will be part of the performance though, as this mime doesnt include Hercules cleansing the stables of King Augeas.
They smiled together. Varus was proud to be able to make literary jokes with his teacher, and he suspected that Pandareus was pleased to have students who actually appreciated literature as something more than a source for florid allusions to be thrown out during a speech. Of the ten youths studying with Pandareus at present, only Varus and his friend Corylus could be described as scholars.
Varus let his eyes drift over the audience to where he had spotted Corylus while the jugglers and rope dancers were performing before the mime itself began. Publius Cispius was a Knight of Carce, entitling his son Publius Cispius Corylus to a seat in the first fourteen rows at any public entertainment. Corylus was in the fourteenth row, so that his servant, Marcus Pulto, could sit directly behind him.
The elder Cispius had capped a successful military career with command of a squadron of Batavian cavalry and had been knighted on retirement. He had purchased a perfume business on the Bay of Puteoli with the considerable money he had made while in service.
By ordinary standards, Cispius was wealthybut Saxa was wealthy by the standards of the Senate. At Varus request, Saxa had invited Corylus to watch the mime with them in the Tribunal. Corylus had refused, politely but without hesitation.
Part of Varus deplored the stiff-necked determination of a sturdy provincial not to look like a rich mans toady. There was no question of anything of the sort: Varus just wanted his friend to sit with him at this lengthy event.
On the other hand, if Carces citizens hadnt been so stiff-necked and determined, the city would not rule all the land from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic, from the German Sea to Nubia. Logically, Varus would admit that being without his friends presence was a cheap price to pay for an empire.
In his heart, though, he wasnt sure. Corylus was a soldiers son and destined for the army himself. He had grown up on the Rhine and the Danube, where mistakes meant not embarrassment and expense but death in whatever fashion barbarian ingenuity could contrive. Corylus projected calm.
Varus needed calm right now. He wasnt really watching the stately procession of treasures across the stage. That vision of the wizened old woman seated on a throne in the clouds was becoming sharper in his mind.
She was the Cumean Sibyl, and she prophesied the approach of Chaos.
HEDIAS FACE WAS TURNED toward the stage, wearing a look of polite pleasure. That was the appropriate expression for the wife of the noble patron of the entertainment, so of course that was how she looked. She would have tried to appear just as politely pleased while torturers used a stick to roll her intestines out through a slit in her belly if that were what the duties of her station called for.
Moved by a sudden feeling of fondness, Hedia patted the back of her husbands hand. He looked at her in surprise, then blushed and faced the stage again.
Saxa was a thoroughly decent man, a sweet man. There were peoplethere were quite a lot of people, in factwho felt that Hedia in her twenty-two years of existence had encompassed all the licentious decadence which had flowed into Carce along with the wealth of the conquered East. There was evidence for their belief, but even Hedias worst enemies would never claim that she wasnt a perfect wife in public.
As for what happened after dinner parties at the houses of friends or in Baiae while the business of the Senate detained her husband in Carce, wellthere were stories about any wealthy, beautiful woman, and not all of them were true. In Hedias particular case, most of the stories were true, but she maintained a discreet silence about her private life. That was, after all, the appropriate response to impertinent questions.
The dreadfully long line of mules seemed to have passed. Another patron might have made a hundred mules do, leading them around behind the stage and exchanging their loads for fresh goods. Saxas wealth made that unnecessary.
The actor draped in a gilded lion skin raised his hands, one of which held a glittering club. Hedia thought he was supposed to be Hercules, but she hadnt paid much attention. She had always found life to hold quite enough drama without inventing things to put on stage.
As a sign of my prowess! the actor boomed. He seemed a weedy little fellow, despite his armor and the lion skin, but his voice filled the hollow of the theater. I raise these pillars to mark my conquest!
On cue, a pair of gilded hills began to rise from the basement, through trap doors in the stage. Hedia frowned: bizarrely, monkeys were tethered in niches in the steep cones. The animals had been dusted with gold also, but in between bouts of angry chittering they were trying to chew their fur clean.
In later years, another conqueror and god will come to this strait! said the actor. He too will bring the whole world beneath his beneficent rule before he returns to the heavens; but greater than I, he will found a line of succession. Each of his descendents will be more magnificent than his predecessor. Hail Caesar, and hail to your mighty house!
A monkey shrieked and made a full-armed gesture. Something splattered the ornate shield displayed on a frame beside the actor.
Hedia blinked, uncertain of what she had just seen. Oh by Venus! The little beast is throwing its own feces! she realized. She started to whoop with laughter, not because what had happened was particularly funny but because its unexpectedness had broken the shell of fear that had enclosed Hedia since last nights dream.
She stifled the laughter into what she hoped would pass for a coughing fit. She was horrified at herself. The incident would embarrass Saxa if he noticed it, and to have had his own wife leading the seeming mockery would shrivel his soul.
Hedia reached over and this time gripped Saxas hand firmly. The last thing she wanted to do was to hurt the gentle man who had, very likely, saved her life: he had married her when the relatives of her first husband, Gaius Calpurnius Latus, were claiming she had poisoned him.
Maybe some of the relatives had believed that. Latus had been an unpleasant man with unpleasant tastes; one of his partnersparticularly the sort of boys he favoredmight well have poisoned him. Hedia wasnt the sort, though if someone had brained Latus with a statuette
She realized she was grinning at the thought; she softened her expression instantly.
Most likely Latus had died of a perfectly ordinary fever, as thousands did every year across the empire. He had been a wealthy man, however, and if his widow was executed for his murder, that wealth would be distributed among his surviving relativessome of whom were well-connected politically.
Hedia knew that if matters had continued in the direction they were going, she would probably have been strangled by the public executionerthough in the entrance of the family home, in deference to her noble status. Instead, Saxaa distant cousin of Latushad asked her to marry him. Saxas wealth and unblemished reputation immediately made the threat of prosecution vanish.
Hedia continued to caress her husbands hand. He glanced halfway toward her, then faced the stage again. He didnt pull away, though he seemed puzzled.
Hedia had never understood why Saxa had married her. Despite his relationship to Latus, they hadnt moved in the same circles. She was as attractive as any woman in Carce, and she was moretalented, one might saythan most highly paid professionals, but that couldnt have been an important factor in his decision.
Hedia made sure that her husband got full value whenever she enticed him into her bed, but she was invariably the instigator. Saxa appeared to enjoy himself, but he was past fifty and couldnt have been much of an athletein any fashioneven in the flush of youth.
As best Hedia could tell, Saxa was a sweet man who had chosen to protect a pretty girl who was being bullied. That she was one of the most notorious women in Carce may have had something to do with it as well. Saxa, for all his wealth, had been considered a foolish eccentric when anybody thought of him at all. The husband of the noble Hedia was a subject of interest to both men and women.
Storm clouds painted on flats descended over the stage. A troupe of attractive boys representing the Windsa placard identified themdanced, while the actor playing Hercules companion Ithys sang about his leaders battle with Geryon.
According to the song, this was merely a prefiguring of the greater battles which the divine Caesar and his heirs would fight in coming days. Silver foil on the scenery reflected torchlight to mimic lightning, and pairs of stagehands rattled sheets of bronze thunderously between stanzas.
The fellow playing Ithys was well set up. In other circumstances, Hedia might have invited him to perform atand aftera private dinner some night.
In her present mood, though, Hedia didnt want to think of darkness, even when it was being spent in pleasant recreation. The night before, Hedia had dreamed of Latus in the Underworld, screaming out the agonies of the damned.
If those who wrote about gods and men told the truth, her first husband was certainly worthy of eternal torture but until recently, Hedia had never imagined that such storiessuch mythswere true. A few days ago she had visited the Underworld herself. She had talked with Latus, who had been in the embrace of broad, gray-green leaves like those which wrapped him in her dream.
In last nights dream, three figures had coalesced through the shadowy fronds about Latus. They looked like men; or rather, they looked like human statues which had been found in a desert where the sands had worn their features smooth. These were of glass, however, not bronze or marble; and these moved as though they were human.
In the dream, Latus was screaming. Hedia had awakened to find her personal maid Syra leaning over her with a frightened expression and a lamp. Behind Syra were three footmen and a gaggle of female servants, all wearing expressions of excitement or concern.
Hedia had closed her mouth. Her throat had been raw; it still felt tender, though she had sucked comfits of grape sugar most of the day to soothe it. The screams had been her own. Something terrifying was going on, though she didnt know how she knew that.
On stage, the painted storm had lifted, and Hercules was back on his plaster hill. A large mixed company danced on, wearing silks and chains of tiny metal bells which tinkled to their movements. Hedia wasnt sure whether the troupe was meant to be the conquerors companions, his captives, or more nymphs and sprites.
She didnt know, and she didnt care. Something was wrong, badly wrong; but there had generally been something wrong in Hedias life, before her marriage to Latus and most certainly afterward. She would see her way through this trouble also.
Hedia gave her husbands hand a final squeeze, then crossed her fingers on her lap. Composed again, she glanced to her right at Alphena, Saxas daughter by his first wife. The girl sensed her stepmothers interest and immediately blushed, though she didnt respond in any deliberate fashion.
Hedia nodded minusculely and turned her attention to the audience. She suppressed her knowing grin, just as she had swallowed her laughter at the monkeys antics.
As she expected, Alphena had been looking toward Publius Corylus, who sat at the edge of the knights section. He was a striking young man, taller than most citizens of Carce. His hair was buttery blond. His father had been a soldier, so the boy probably had Celtic blood. Soldiers couldnt marry, but informal arrangements on the frontiers were regularized on retirement, for those who survived to retire. Acknowledged offspring became legitimate and, in Corylus case, joined the ranks of the Knights of Carce to whom his father had been raised.
A very striking boy. Spending the afternoon with him would be a good way to climb out of this swamp of disquiet.
Hedias face hardened for an instant before she consciously smoothed it back to aristocratic calm. She could appreciate better than most why Alphena found the boy attractive, but she was by law the girls mother and she took her duties seriously. Hedia would do whatever was necessary to keep Alphena a virgin until the girl was safely married; and marriage, for the daughter of Senator Gaius Alphenus Saxa, meant an alliance with another senatorial house.
After that, well. After that, Alphenas behavior would be a matter for negotiation between husband and wife. Nothing to do with the girls stepmother.
Hedia had never pretended to be a wife who embodied all the virtues of ancient Carce, but she had never failed to do her duty as she saw it. She would not fail in her duties now, neither to her husband nor to the girl to whom she was now mother. She would not fail for so long as she lived.
Trumpets and horns which curved around the players body sounded harshly together. A military procession was entering from the other side of the stage.
As long as I live, Hedia thought. She remembered Latus screaming and her own swollen throat; and she smiled with polite courtesy, because it was her duty now to smile.
THE ANTICS OF THE MONKEYS had amused Alphena, so she regretted it when they and their gilded perches slipped down into the sub-floors beneath the stage. Were there really monkeys on the Pillars of Hercules?
Varus will know. She glanced toward her brother, but Saxa and Hedia were seated in the way. It didnt really matter anyway.
Corylus would know if the monkeys were authentic too; or anyway, he might know.
Alphena realized she was staring toward her brothers friend in the audience. She scowled, furious with herself and with Corylus also. He was so
She drew her eyes away with a quick intake of breath. Corylus was enough of a scholar to impress Varus, who was a good judge of that sort of thing, and enough of an athlete to impress Lenatus, the ex-soldier whom Saxa had hired as family trainer and manager of the small gymnasium in Saxas town house. His swordsmanship impressed Alphena too.
The actors marching across the long stage were supposed to be soldiers, or at least some of them were. Alphena eyed the hodgepodge of equipment with a critical eye.
Most of the helmets had been worn by the City Watch before becoming so battered theyd been replaced, but there were also gladiatorial helmets and various examples from the legions and the non-citizen cavalry squadrons. The remainder, a good quarter of the total, was odds and ends of foreign gear in leather, bronze, and iron. The impresario in charge of this mime seemed to have found it cheaper to buy real castoffs than it would have been to manufacture dummies.
The shields were wicker, though, covered in linen and painted with what for all Alphena knew really were Lusitanian tribal symbols. She sneered. The shields had to be fakes because actors wouldnt have been able to handle the real thing. The shield of a legionary of Carce was three thick layers of laminated wood and weighed forty pounds. The barbarians on the other side of the frontier generally used bull hide contraptions, less effective but even larger and equally heavy.
Alphena could use a real legionary shield and short sword: she had practiced daily for several years, determined to make herself just as good a swordsman as any man. She wasnt that goodshe wasnt big enough, and she had learned from experience that men had more muscle in their arms and legs than a woman did. Alphena was better than most men, though.
She wasnt better than Publius Corylus. He had been training with weapons all his life; and though Corylus didnt talk about it to her, Alphena knew from her brother that he had crossed the river frontiers with army scouts on nighttime raids.
Corylus didnt talk much at all to his friends little sister. He shouldnt, of course. He was merely a Knight of Carce, and Alphena was the daughter of one of the greatest houses in the empire. For Corylus to have presumed on his acquaintance with Varus would have been the grossest arrogance!
Alphena scowled fiercely again. She didnt have the interest in books that her brother showed, but she had never doubted that she was as smart assmarter thanmost of the people she dealt with in a normal day.
This wasnt always an advantage. Right now it prevented Alphena from believing that she wasnt angry because Corylus showed absolutely no interest in her: he wasnt merely avoiding her for the sake of propriety.
But he was avoiding Hedia for the sake of propriety. If he really does avoid her
Alphena heard the thought in her head and shied away from it. Her skin tingled as though she had rolled in hot sand.
Swallowing, she forced herself to focus on the stage again. Still more actors were marching on. Actually, they were marching and dancing: the ones who werent dressed as soldiers danced, men and women both. If shed been paying attention she might have known who the dancers represented, but she doubted that shed missed anything.
The only reason Alphena was here this afternoon was that Hedia insisted that the whole family be present to support Saxa in his consulate. In her heart, Alphena knew that her stepmother was right: this was a great day for Gaius Alphenus Saxa, and his family should be with him during his public honor.
She turned to look at Hedia, opening her mouth to protest, Father never went out of his way for me! but that wasnt really trueand it wasnt at all fair. Alphena faced the front and crossed her hands primly in her lap, hoping her stepmother hadnt noticed the almost-outburst.
Hedia probably had noticed. Hedia did notice things.
Alphena had been amazed and appalled when she learnedfrom Agrippinus, majordomo of the Saxa householdthat her father was marrying for a third time. Marcia was his first wife and the childrens mother; she had been a coolly distant noblewoman from the little Alphena remembered of her. At Marcias death, Saxa had married her sister Secunda. That relationship ended, but the children had seen almost nothing of their fathers wife before the divorce, so that made very little difference to them.
But Saxas third wife was to be the notorious Hedia: certainly a slut, probably a poisoner, and utterly impossible. Alphena thought she had misheard Agrippinusor else that the majordomo was making a joke that would get him whipped within a hairs breadth of his life even though he was a freedman rather than a slave.
It hadnt been a joke. Alphena had known that as soon as she realized that Agrippinus was trembling with fear. He had obviously guessed how Alphena would take the news, and he knew also that Saxa would have allowed his furious daughter to punish the majordomo any way she pleased even though he had only been carrying out his masters orders.
Saxa had left for his estate in the Sabine Hills that morning. He too had been concerned about how Alphena was going to take the news.
When Hedia arrived, Alphena had found no difficulty in hating her. What she couldnt dowhat nobody seemed able to dowas to ignore her stepmother. Instead of ignoring Saxas children the way their birth mother had, she had become their mother in fact as well as law. That hadnt affected Varus much; he continued to take classes and, in his spare time, write poetryan acceptable occupation for a nobleman if not a very heroic one.
Alphena, though, had found herself being forced into ladylike pursuits. She couldnt fool her stepmother, and she had found to her amazement that Hedias voice was louder than her daughters and that she had no compunction about causing a scene.
For that matter, the servants were more afraid of Saxas wife than they were of his daughter. Alphena and her famously bad temper could no longer rule the household. For three months she had subsided into sullen anger, which Hedia had resolutely ignored as she ignored everything that didnt suit her.
Then Alphena had found herself trapped in a place she couldnt have freed herself from, and Hedia had rescued her. Alphena had already felt gratitude toward her stepmother even before she learned that Hedia had literally gone down into the Underworld for her.
A fragment of myth fluttered through Alphenas mind: Hercules had visited the Underworld too, but he had brought the monster Cerberus back to the surface with him. What would Hedia say if Saxa had commissioned a mime on that subject instead of the conquest of Lusitania?
Alphena giggled, then worried that she shouldnt do that now. Fortunately, what was happening on stage had absorbed everyones attention.
Two tall Nubians had entered, bearing a platter with a domed silver cover. The actor playing Mercury cried, Behold, great leader! The head of Geryon, conquered by your prowess!
He whisked off the cover, pointing toward the platter with his free hand. On it was the head of a man whose tawny moustache flared back into sideburns of a paler color. His face had mottled during strangulation, and his eyes started in their sockets.
The bandit Corocotta! shouted a spectator who recognized the dead features.
Corocotta! shouted the crowd as a blurry whole. The head of Corocotta!
Alphena had heardfrom gossiping servantsabout the coup that Meoetes, the impresario, had arranged with a help of a great deal of Saxas money. A noted Sardinian bandit, Corocotta had been captured after years of terrorizing the countryside. Instead of being crucified in Caralis, Corocotta had been brought to Carce and marched through the streets before being strangled in the prison on the edge of the Forum.
Corocottas body had been dumped in a trench outside the religious boundary of Carce, but his head had been preserved for this performance. Saxas triumph was greater than that of the governor of Sardinia, who had caught the fellow to begin with.
The audience stood and began stamping its feet in delight. Saxa sat straighter on his golden throne: beaming, flushing, and happier than Alphena had ever seen him before.
She grimaced. She hadnt given her father much reason to be happy in her presence. She had resented him, and she had resented the world that said that a daughter wasnt free to do the things that sons were encouraged to do. Varus could be a military officer, could rise to general evenbut Alphena, who was easily able to have chopped her brother to sausage in battle, had to threaten a tantrum merely to be taught the manual of arms by the family trainer.
Being forced into close contact with Hedia had given Alphena a different perspective. Alphenas ability to use a sword had been helpful and occasionally very helpful. Hedia wouldnt have considered gripping a sword hilt and wouldnt have known what to do with the weapon if shed been forced to handle one.
But for all her ladylike disdain for swordsmanship and combat, Hedia had shocked her stepdaughter with her ruthless determination. Hedia had brought Alphena back to the world she had fallen out of, alive and uninjured except for some scratches and blisters.
Alphena blushed, remembering the way she had sneered at the older woman as a pampered weakling. Hedia certainly pampered herself, and if threatened she would bend like a young willow in a storm. When the storm passed, the willow would stand straight again; and it wouldnt break, not ever, no more than Hedia would.
The Nubians pranced the length of the long stage, giving every section of the theater a good opportunity to view the head. I wonder what my brother thinks of this? Alphena wondered.
She bent forward slightly, then remembered that her fathers plump bulk concealed Varusand Pandareusunless she leaned out over the Tribunal railing. There was no need of that.
From the time Alphena had begun to be aware of the world around her, she had been mildly contemptuous of Varus. He wasnt crippled, but he was completely disinterested in the physical sports that were open to boys. He spent his time with books and his writing, the sort of thing that an old man or a weakling would do.
Varus wasnt a weakling. When the blazing demons of the Underworld began to climb into Carce, he had sat as calmly as a Stoic philosopher, chanting a poem. At the time, Alphena would have preferred Varus help her fight the fiery onslaught; butcandidlyhe wouldnt have been much use as a warrior.
She couldnt see that his poetry was much use either, but at the end of the night Carce and the world had survived. Alphenas sword had not defeated the threat, so perhaps her brothers verses had.
At any rate, Varus hadnt run. He was as true a citizen of Carce as any legionary who stood firm against charging barbarians; as true as the sort of man Corylus would be when he returned to the frontier as an officer.
Alphenas eyes slipped unbidden into the audience again. Corylus sat very close to the woman beside him. She wasnt youngshe must be almost thirty!but she wasnt bad looking in a coarse way.
A lower-class Hedia, Alphena thought, and for an instant embarrassment overcame her anger. Hedia saved my life!
Corylus neighbor was from a knightly family like his own, shown by the two thin stripes on the hem of her tunic. She wore a linen cloak too, longer than the warm temperatures demanded but just the thing to conceal a mans groping hand.
Did Corylus and the hussy meet here by plan?
Alphena jerked her eyes away; but after a moment, she found herself looking at Corylus again.
MY GOODNESS, the excitement just makes me dizzy, said Orpelia, the woman seated to the right of Corylus. Youll keep me from falling over if Im overcome, wont you, dear?
She toppledlunged would have been another way of describing itagainst Corylus shoulder, shifting her arm back so that her breast flopped against his forearm. As if that hadnt been a clear enough signal, she tried to wriggle closer.
Orpelia was the wife of a shipowner named Bassos, a Greek born on Euboea who had become extremely wealthy. Also, according to Orpelia, Bassos was very old and at present inspecting his estates in Sicily.
Corylus suspected old meant middle aged; and Bassos might well be here in Carce, though he probably didnt care a great deal about his wifes recreations. The claim of wealth was likely enough, though, given that Orpelias jewelry included a ruby tiara along with other expensively flashy items.
Corylus didnt care how Orpelia conducted herself either, so long as her activities didnt include him. Which was much harder to arrange than he had expected it to be.
Master Pulto, he said, looking over his shoulder. Pulto wore an amused expression which he quickly blotted from his face. I wish to be a little higher for a better view. Trade places with me, if you will.
Pulto had served twenty-five years in the army with Corylus father and had followed him into retirement. Pulto had been Cispius servant, his bodyguard, and most importantly his friend. When it was time for Corylus to be trained in rhetoric by a professor in Carce, Cispius had sent Pulto along.
Pulto wasnt going to coddle Corylus any more than he would have coddled a new soldier in the company. On the other hand, if the boy showed signs of really going off in the woods, Pulto would bring him back to reality. A troop of Sarmatian lancers hadnt been able to move Pulto from where he stood over the unconscious form of his commander, and Hercules himself knew that no matter how drunkenly angry Corylus got, Pulto would be obeyed if he thought he needed to be.
Its my honor to serve you, master, said Pulto in a sepulchral voice, no matter how dangerous the duty may be. If I dont survive, I hope youll see to it that my grieving widow is cared for in her final days.
Orpelia sat bolt upright, looking as furious as her rice-flour makeup allowed without cracking. Well, really! she said. Im astounded at the rural boors who claim to have been honored with knighthood!
Well, dont get too upset, honey, said Pulto as he and Corylus changed places. His daddy and I were on the Rhine when your Greekling husband was being marched to Carce in chains, so it isnt us who made a slave of him.
Laughing, he chucked Orpelia under the chin. She squealed and made for the aisle, dragging her maid behind her.
Corylus allowed himself a smile. Hed grown up in the cantonments around military bases. He was a tall, good-looking youth and the son of an officer besides, so it hadnt been uncommon for older women to suggest they would like to know him better.
Even whores who were feeling the pinch toward the end of the armys pay cycle werent quite as brazen as some of the women Corylus had encountered here in Carce, though. The metropolis had its own standardsand they werent as high as those of the barbarian fringes of empire. Corylus wasnt a prude or a virgin, but neither was he desperate enough to be charmed by the attentions of a slut.
On stage, the head of Geryon had been placed on a stand beside Hercules. Its wax eyes stared out from beneath bushy brows as lines of actors paraded before it, wearing placards indicating what Lusitanian tribe they were supposed to belong to. Nemetatoi, Tamarci, Cileni
Corylus frowned as a thought struck him: were they actors, or were they real Lusitanians, either purchased locally or shipped in from the province in order to make the production that much more lavish? If Saxa was paying his impresario a percentage over the expenses, Meoetes had every reason to run the costs up.
He glanced up at the Tribunal, looking for his friend Varus. Instead he saw the profile of Hedia, as crisply chiseled as the portrait on a coin. She started to turn toward the audience, and Corylus as quickly jerked his eyes away.
In the orchestra beneath him sat Marcus Sempronius Tardus, accompanied by three men of foreign aspect. Corylus knew little of the Senate, but he had metbetter, had seenTardus seven days ago. He doubted whether Tardus would remember him; he certainly hoped the senator wouldnt remember him.
Tardus was a member of the Commission for the Sacred Rites, the ten senators who guarded the Sibylline Books and examined them if called on to do so when the Republic faced a crisis. Seven days ago, Tardus had been on duty in the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest on the Capitoline Hill; the Books were kept in a crypt beneath the temple floor.
The Underworld ripped open through the floor of the temple that night. Tardus had seemed to be asleep, the victim of a magicians spells. It might be awkward if he now remembered seeing Corylus when he awakened in the temple.
Tarduss three companions were thin-faced and, though they wore ordinary woolen tunics, were not natives of Carce or of Italy. Two had wizened cheeks and skin the color of polished walnut. They wore their hair over their left ears in tight rolls into which brightly colored snail shells had been worked. One had pinned a small stuffed bird with spread wings over his right temple, and the other had a tuft of small yellow feathers in a piercing in his right earlobe. Corylus had never met anyone with their particular combination of costume and features before.
The third man had short hair, a black goatee, and gold rings in both ears. If Corylus had seen him alone, he would have guessed the fellow was a seaman from somewhere in North Africa; in company with the other pair, his background was more doubtful.
Tardus sat upright on his ivory chair, as still as a painted statue. If he was following the action on stage it was only with his eyes, which Corylus couldnt tell from behind.
His three companions squatted instead of sitting on chairs of their own, and they were wholly focused on the Tribunal. The sailor-looking man curled the fingers of his left hand, then spread them one at a time as though he were counting. His lips moved; Corylus wondered if he was murmuring a prayer under his breath.
Why are they so interested in Saxa? Assuming that its Saxa and not his wife or children that theyre staring at.
While Zephyrs in flowing silks and mountain nymphs who wore revealing goatskins danced attendance, the Lusitanians continued to arrive from stage left and march past Hercules. They were carrying more treasures, this time in handbarrows instead of on mule back.
Corylus wasnt sure what the major products of Lusitania were, but he guessed hides and fish would cover the vast majority. This procession emphasized red-figured pottery of the highest quality.
A broad wine-mixing bowl, displayed on edge, showed the infant Hercules strangling the serpents which had attacked him in his cradle. At least theres a connection with the mime, Corylus thought. And in fairness, there were doubtless Greek colonies on the coast of Lusitania.
He looked at Tardus again, frowning slightly. The senator was completely still. He couldnt be sick or even asleep, not and remain upright on a backless chair. His lack of animation seemed unnatural, even granting that this display of Saxas wealth would be of less interest to another senator than to the members of the urban proletariat who filled most of the seats in the theater.
For the first time, Corylus speculated on the relationship between Saxa and Tardus. The internal politics of the Senate werent greatly of interest to the son of a provincial knight, but most of Pandareus present students were themselves sons of senators; it was inevitable that Corylus would hear a great deal.
Much of it was gibes directed against Saxa, since Varus was clearly the best scholar in the class and held his well-born fellows in contempt. The fact that he associated with Corylus, a mere knight, made the implied insult to his peers even sharper. Nobody was going to physically attack the son of so rich a man, but there was free discussion of Saxas reputation as a superstitious fool who lived in Aristophanes Cloud-Cuckoo Land.
If that bothered Varus, he didnt show it. Corylus suspected it did bother him, simply from the fact that his friend never referred to the comments when the two of them were alone.
Tardus was the subject of similar comments, however. He was Saxas elder by fifteen years and had become a Commissioner of the Sacred Rites through a combination of seniority and interest. Unlike Pandareus friend Atilius Priscus, however, Tardus was known for credulity rather than scholarship.
Saxa had shouted at Tardus in the aftermath of the chaos at the Temple of Jupiter, blaming him for what had happened. At the time, Corylus had thought that was a clever ploy: it had prevented others, particularly Commissioner Tardus, from looking closely at the role Saxas own family had played in those events.
Now Corylus found himself wondering what Tardus remembered of that night. He wondered also who the strangers accompanying Tardus were, and why they stared so intently at Saxa and his family in the Tribunal. There might, of course, be no connection.
On stage, the suppliant tribesmen were kneeling, and the various sprites and spirits had frozen in their dance. Mercury faced the audience, one arm pointing back toward the gleaming pomp of Hercules.
For an instant the only things moving in the scene were the twisting heads of the three metal snakes which protruded from the boss of Hercules shield. According to Hesiod, Vulcans genius gave the serpents the semblance of life. Here in Carce, a clever midget hidden in the belly of the shield moved them.
All hail our ruler, the master of Lusitania under the majesty of the gods! Mercury boomed, a neatly turned compliment for Saxa framed in a fashion that would not offend the emperor. The latter had by reputation been paranoid when he was young and in good health; the rigors of age had not mellowed him.
The actors on stage cheered; the audience echoed them, even most of the senators in the orchestra. Tardus remained as silent as a stone, and his three companions stared toward the Tribunal like greedy cats eyeing a fish tank.
Copyright 2011 by David Drake
Posted August 7, 2011
In the city of Carse, Senator Gaius Alphenus Saxa sanctions a public religious production of Hercules creating a city on the Lusitania Sea. The play is well received as the audience enjoys the performance especially when a monster arises Out of the Waters and destroys the city.
Saxa's bookworm son Varus and few others know the behemoth was not part of the drama. He believes what everyone at the theater witnessed was a vision of what is to come. Although he prefers his books to combat, a determined Varus, his resolute sister Alphena the Amazonian warrior and their tougher than Hercules stepmother Hedia confront a watery abomination that traces itself to the extinction of Atlantis.
The stupendous second Books of the Elements switches elements. The heroic trio battle water as opposed to fire like they did in the opening act The Legions of Fire. The cast is fully developed as they behave in accordance to their society's culture. Using the Roman Empire as a base but enhancing it with the Drake mythos, David Drake provides a strong quest fantasy starring three kick-butt champions in an action-packed adventure.
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