Gaius Alphenus Varus looked back over his shoulder. There were only a dozen servants ahead of him and his friend Corylus as they wound through the streets of Puteoli to the wharfs on the Bay itself. Behind, however, there must be a hundred people. More!
“We look like a religious procession,” Varus muttered. He tugged the shoulder of his toga, a square of heavy wool with the broad purple stripe of a senatorial family, to settle it a little more comfortably.
Varus had no taste for pomp, but he was polite, so he couldn’t treat this occasion as though he were merely a scholar who needed only a tunic and at most one servant to carry his satchel of writing and reference materials. That would be insulting to the friend of Corylus’ father whom they were visiting—and to Varus’ own father, Gaius Alphenus Saxa: senator and recent consul of the Republic of Carce.
Corylus chuckled. He said, “We look like a train of high officials going to consult the Sibyl, you mean? That’s a good five miles from here, though, farther than I want to hike, wearing a toga on a day this warm.”
He and Varus were the same age, seventeen, but Publius Cispius Corylus was taller by a hand’s breadth and had a bright expression that made him look five years younger than his companion. Corylus had gotten his hair, reddish with touches of gold, from his mother.
He had been born on the Rhine frontier where his father had commanded a cohort. His mother, Coryla, was a local girl who had died giving birth. Soldiers couldn’t marry while on active duty, but Cispius had acknowledged his son as legitimate.
“Saxa wouldn’t be in the best shape after a five-mile hike,” Varus said mildly, pitching his voice so that only his friend was likely to hear the words. “Let alone Hedia.”
Hedia was Saxa’s third wife and therefore by law the mother of Varus and his sixteen-year-old sister, Alphena. Hedia was twenty-three, beautiful, and sophisticated to the point of being, well, fast.
In most senses, one could scarcely imagine a less motherly woman than Hedia. In others—in all the ways that really mattered—well, she had faced demons for her stepchildren. What was even more remarkable was that the demons had been the losers.
Varus was a bookish youth who had almost no interests in common with his stepmother. He had nevertheless become glad of the relationship, and he was very glad that his father had a champion as ruthlessly determined as lovely Hedia.
“It’s not something I need, either,” Corylus said. “Especially not in a toga. I told Pulto—”
He nodded to his servant, who had been the elder Cispius’ servant throughout his army career.
“—that he needn’t bother wearing one unless he wanted to impress somebody.”
Though Corylus kept a straight face, Varus knew the servant well enough to chuckle. He said, “How did Pulto respond to that?”
“He said that if he needed to impress somebody, he’d do it with a bloody sword,” Corylus said, grinning again. “Like he’d done a couple hundred times before, he figured. I told him I hoped that wouldn’t be necessary on a visit to an old friend like Marcus Veturius.”
Pulto was a freeborn citizen of Carce, unlike the other servants and attendants accompanying the nobles and dignitaries present. That said, Pulto had spent his army career keeping Publius Cispius as comfortable and well fed as was possible in camp, and alive when they were in action.
Since Corylus’ father believed in leading from the front, “a couple hundred” Germans and Sarmatians probably had met the point of Pulto’s sword. Pulto had accumulated medals over the years, but his real honors were the scars puckering and crisscrossing his body.
An animal screamed in the near distance, meaning they were nearing the compound where Veturius stored the beasts he imported. From here he shipped them to amphitheaters—largely in Carce, but all over Italy.
Varus felt his lips tighten. His first thought had been that the cry had come from a human in pain, but it was too loud.
“An elephant, perhaps?” said Corylus, who must have been thinking the same thing.
“Loud even for that,” Varus said. “Well, we’ll know soon enough.”
The spectators lining both sides of the street shouted, “Hail, Lord Saxa!” and similar things. Balbinus, the steward who ran Saxa’s home here on the Bay of Puteoli, must have planned extremely well.
This district housed sellers of used clothing and cookware whose booths would normally fill the street. A detachment of husky servants had cleared them back before Saxa and his entourage had tried to pass through, but the squad leading the procession itself was flinging little baskets to the crowd.
The gifts—sweet rolls, candied fruit, or a few copper coins—changed the residents’ mood from riotous to a party and led them to cheer instead of finding things of their own to hurl. Buildings in Puteoli didn’t reach four or five stories as they did in Carce, but even so bricks thrown from a rooftop would be dangerous.
“Varus…,” Corylus said, his voice suddenly husky. “I, ah … That is, my father feels greatly honored that former consul Saxa has accepted his invitation to visit the compound. I don’t think Father cares greatly for himself, but it raises him in the eyes of his old friend Veturius. I, ah … I thank you on behalf of my father, and on my own behalf, because you’ve so pleased a man whom I love.”
“I accept your thanks,” Varus said mildly. “I believe that’s your father waiting in the gateway, isn’t it? And I suppose that’s Veturius in the toga beside him.”
Corylus already knew that Varus hadn’t encouraged Saxa to come with him to the animal compound, so there was no need to repeat the statement. Indeed, the whole expedition had grown of itself, the way a rolling pebble might trigger a landslide.
The importer Marcus Veturius had told his friend Publius Cispius that he had brought back a group of unfamiliar animals from deep into Africa. Cispius had suggested he send for his son, Corylus, a student in Carce, who was learned and might be able to identify the creatures.
Corylus had asked to bring along his friend and fellow student Gaius Varus, whom he said was even more learned. After a grimace of modesty, Varus could have agreed. Corylus was himself a real scholar as well as being a great deal more; but dispassionately, Varus knew that his own knowledge was exceptional.
All that would have been a matter of academic interest, literally: a pair of students visiting an importer’s compound to view exotic animals. Everything changed because Saxa, Hedia, and Alphena were spending the month nearby at the family house on the Bay.
Saxa was not only a former consul—which was merely a post of honor since all real power was in the hands of the Emperor and of the bureaucrats who had the Emperor’s ear—but also one of the richest men in the Senate. Anything Saxa did was done—had to be done—on a grand scale.
Saxa had no political ambition, which was the only reason he had survived under a notably suspicious emperor, but he did desperately want to be seen as wise. Unfortunately, although he loved knowledge and knew many things, Saxa’s mind was as disorderly as a jackdaw’s nest.
Varus, however, was a scholar. Despite his youth, he had gained the respect of some of the most learned men in Carce—including Pandareus of Athens, who taught him and Corylus. Instead of being envious, Saxa basked in his son’s successes.
Saxa hadn’t been a harsh father, but he had scarcely seemed to notice his children until recently. Now he was making an effort to be part of his son’s life and so had asked to accompany Varus to view the strange animals.
Varus hadn’t even considered asking his father to stay out of the way, but his presence had turned a scholarly visit into a major social undertaking. A younger senator named Quintus Macsturnas had bought the whole shipment of animals to be killed at a public spectacle in Carce to celebrate his election as aedile. When Macsturnas heard that Saxa planned to visit the compound, he had asked to accompany his senior and even wealthier colleague.
Varus smiled, though his lips scarcely moved. Courtesy aside, how could he—or his father—have denied Macsturnas permission to view the animals he himself had purchased?
Besides which, the even greater pomp was certain to please Cispius and his old friend. The aedile’s attendants were added to those of Saxa and the separate establishments of Hedia, Alphena, and—because this was now a formal occasion—the ten servants accompanying Varus himself.
“I wonder…,” said Corylus, looking at the following procession and returning Varus’ attention there also. “If there’ll be sufficient room in the compound, what with Veturius just getting in a big shipment?”
He shrugged, then added, “I don’t suppose it matters if the servants wait in the street, though.”
Varus consciously smoothed away his slight frown, but he continued to look back. Corylus will stop me if I’m about to run into something.
A dozen servants walked directly behind the two youths. They were sturdy fellows who carried batons that would instantly become cudgels if there was a problem with local residents. Next were the two senators and their immediate family—in Saxa’s case—and aides.
Varus faced front again. “The old man behind Macsturnas?” he said. “The barefoot old fellow. Do you recognize him, Publius?”
Corylus looked back and shrugged. “Can’t say that I do,” he said. “Is there something wrong with him?” He coughed and glanced sidelong at Varus. “That is, he seems pretty harmless to me.”
“There’s nothing wrong that I can see,” Varus said, feeling embarrassed. Because he was speaking to Corylus, however, a friend with whom Varus had gone through things that neither of them could explain, he added, “I caught his eyes for a moment when I looked back. He either hates me, or he’s a very angry man generally. And I don’t recall ever having seen him before in my life.”
“He may be the aedile’s pet philosopher,” Corylus said equably. “Though Macsturnas strikes me as too plump to worry much about ascetic philosophy. And the fellow doesn’t have a beard.”
“If he were the usual charlatan who blathers a Stoic mishmash to a wealthy meal ticket,” Varus said, “he would have a beard as part of the costume. Which implies that whatever he is, he’s real. And I agree that Macsturnas doesn’t appear to be philosophically inclined, though we may be doing him an injustice.”
Varus found comfort in his friend’s comfortable acceptance of present reality. Corylus didn’t worry about every danger that could occur, but he was clearly willing to deal with anything that did happen.
Corylus’ father, Publius Cispius, had started as a common legionary and been promoted to the rank of knight when he retired after twenty-five years in service. Corylus also intended an army career, but his would begin as an officer: a tribune, an aide to the legate who commanded a legion as the Emperor’s representative.
That was the formal situation. Informally, Corylus had been born and raised on the frontiers and he’d spent more time on the eastern bank of the Danube—with the scout section of his father’s Batavian squadron—than most line soldiers did. Corylus didn’t talk about that to Varus or to other students, but sometimes Varus listened while Pulto talked to Saxa’s trainer, Lenatus, another old soldier.
There was a great deal Varus didn’t understand about his friend’s background, but he understood this: Corylus might be frightened, but fear would never stop him from doing his duty to the best of his ability.
He was, after all, a citizen of Carce. As am I.
“Eh?” said Corylus.
I must have spoken aloud. “I was thinking that we have duties as citizens of Carce,” Varus said. “As well as our rights.”
Corylus said, “That had occurred to me, yes.”
Part of Varus’ mind considered that a mild response for a soldier to make to a civilian who was talking about duty. His consciousness was slipping into another state, however, in which the Waking World flattened to shadow pictures like those on the walls of Plato’s Cave of Ideal Forms.
Corylus had joked about them being a royal procession visiting the seeress whose temple was nearby at Cumae. Varus in his mind was climbing a rocky path to an old woman who stood on an outcrop above all things and all times.
She was the Sibyl, and during the past year she had spoken to him in these waking dreams.
* * *
HEDIA SAW VARUS GLANCE in her direction from beyond the squad of attendants. She smiled back, but almost in the instant she saw him stiffen as his eyes glazed.
Varus faced front again. He was walking on, his legs moving with the regularity of drops falling from a water clock. Hedia had seen the boy in this state before. Seeing him now drove a blade of ice through her heart.
Smiling with gracious interest, Hedia looked past Saxa and said to the aedile, “If I may ask, Lord Macsturnas—why did you decide to give a beast show in thanks for your election instead of a chariot race?”
In a matter touching her family, Hedia would do whatever was proper. Not that poor, dear Saxa was capable of thinking in such terms, but it was possible that one day he would need a favor from Macsturnas. If on that day the aedile remembered how charming Saxa’s lovely wife had been—well, courtesy cost Hedia nothing.
Aedile was the lowest elective office, open to men of twenty-five; Macsturnas was no older than that and seemed younger. An aedile’s main duties—even before the Emperor began to guide the deliberations of the Senate and therefore the lives of every man, woman, and child in the Republic—were to give entertainments to the populace.
“I thought it was more in keeping with my family’s literary interests to offer the populace a mime when I was chosen consul,” Saxa volunteered. “My son is quite a poet, did you know?”
Hedia had no more feeling for poetry than she did about the defense of the eastern frontier: both subjects bored her to tears. Varus had assured her, however, that his one public reading had proved to him that he had no poetic talent and that he should never attempt verse again.
Saxa, in trying to become part of the life of the son whom he had ignored for so long, was resurrecting an embarrassment. Well, that was easy to cover.
“Though of course we’re great fans of chariot racing also,” Hedia lied with bubbly innocence. “After all, some of the most illustrious men in the Republic are. We follow the White Stables in particular.”
Hundreds of thousands of spectators filled the Great Circus for even an average card of chariot racing; it was by far the most popular sport in the Republic. Hedia didn’t care about that, though charioteers tended to be more lithely muscular than most gladiators and thus of some interest.
The Emperor was a racing enthusiast. Hedia cared about that. And because the Emperor backed the Whites, Hedia would swear on any altar in Carce that her husband did also. She didn’t have any particular belief in gods, but she felt that any deity worth worshiping would understand that the survival of the Alphenus family was more important than any number of false oaths.
“Well, you see…,” said Macsturnas, his tone becoming more oily and inflated with every syllable. “My family were nobles of Velitrum. Our house was ancient before the very founding of Carce.”
He gestured with both hands, as though flicking rose water off his fingers as he washed between courses of a meal. A more prideful man than Saxa might have taken offense at the implied slight; and though Saxa’s wife, also a noble of Carce, didn’t let her smile slip, this bumptious fellow might one day regret his arrogance.
“To Etruscans of our rank,” Macsturnas continued, “gladiatorial games are not a sport but a religious rite. I therefore expected to hire pairs of gladiators for my gift to the people. But then the agent I sent to Puteoli learned that Master Veturius was back from Africa with a number of unique animals. I ordered him to purchase the whole shipment and came down to look at them myself. My gift will be unprecedented!”
Varus’ sister, Alphena, was out of sight. She and Hedia had been getting along well since recent events had forced them to see each other’s merits, but the relationship of a sixteen-year-old with her stepmother was bound to have tense moments.
Today Alphena had planned to walk with her brother and Corylus at the head of the procession; Hedia had forbidden her to do so. Instead of joining Hedia and the two senators, Alphena had flounced back to the very end.
Hedia hadn’t objected; the girl wouldn’t get into any trouble surrounded by her personal suite of servants and the roughs of the senators’ households who formed the rear guard. Alphena probably wouldn’t have gotten into trouble in the company of Varus and Corylus, either, but Hedia knew too much about taking risks to allow her daughter to take a completely unnecessary one.
Varus, of course, wasn’t a problem; nor was even Corylus, not really. Varus’ friend was a very sensible young man. The attitude of a sixteen-year-old girl toward a youth as brave and handsome as Corylus might become a problem, though, if they spent too much time together.
For all his virtues, Corylus was a knight and therefore an unsuitable husband for a senator’s daughter. After Alphena was safely married, of course, her behavior was a concern for her husband, not her mother.
Hedia smiled faintly. She had been sixteen herself not so very long ago. Alphena didn’t have the personality required to make a success of her stepmother’s lifestyle.
Macsturnas laid his hand on Saxa’s shoulder and leaned across the former consul to bring himself nearer to Hedia. In a conspiratorial tone—though a rather loud one in order to be heard over the cheerful banter of spectators—he said, “The man accompanying me, Master Paris—he’s a priest of great learning. He honors you by asking to join us, Lord Saxa. Paris is the recipient of the wisdom passed down from the great founders of the Etruscan race.”
If Etruscan wisdom is so remarkable, Hedia thought, smiling softly toward the pudgy little man, then why is Velitrum a dusty village in the hills and Carce the ruler of all the known world?
“Is this soothsayer helping you plan your gift, Quintus Macsturnas?” Saxa asked, glancing for the first time at the Etruscan who walked behind them. “Choosing the day for you to give it, that is?”
Paris glared at Saxa, and at Hedia, who turned with her husband. She hadn’t paid any attention to the scraggly old man until now. He was barefoot, wearing a simple tunic and a countryman’s broad-brimmed hat. His appearance made him unusual in a nobleman’s entourage—but not interesting, at least not to Hedia.
And what an odd name. Surely he can’t be a freedman whose former owner gave his slaves names out of Homer?
“Oh, no, nothing like that,” Macsturnas said, lowering his voice to where Hedia was as much reading his lips as hearing the words. “He, ah … I knew of Paris, of course, but I haven’t had actual dealings with him. As some of my fellow Etruscans have. He asked to come along today to see the scaly monkeys. I, ah … I really don’t know why.”
There was a look of nervousness on Macsturnas’ pudgy features, as though he actually cared about what the old man thought. Even if Paris was freeborn, the opinion of a poor commoner was no proper concern for a noble of Carce.
“Well,” said Saxa expansively. “I’m more than happy to have your little priest get the benefit of my son’s wisdom. Varus is an exceptional scholar, you know. Marcus Atilius Priscus assured me of that when we were last chatting. Do you know Priscus? He’s the most learned of our senatorial colleagues, in my opinion. He’s head of the Commission for Sacred Rites and a great friend of my son’s teacher, Pandareus of Athens.”
Hedia almost giggled. That sort of patronizing boast would be alien to her husband under most circumstances. Apparently Saxa hadn’t been quite as unmoved by Macsturnas’ tone as she had believed.
On the other hand, everything Saxa had said was quite true. Varus was quite a remarkable youth … as in different fashions was his friend Corylus. Corylus was a respectable scholar himself—that was how a noble like Varus had become friends with a youth of only knightly rank—but he was also an accomplished athlete and a very handsome young man.
Unfortunately—Hedia smiled ruefully at herself—Master Corylus also had better sense than to chance an affair with a senator’s lovely young wife. Well, that was probably for the best.
She was glad that Saxa was taking an interest in Varus. Though Saxa was anything but a social manipulator, his wealth allowed him to give dinners at which his son would be introduced to the sort of people whose help he would need while steering his future course through society. Hedia had recently begun to craft guest lists that suited that purpose, and her husband acquiesced to them happily.
She wished she could find some more worldly fellow to give Varus a grounding in the more earthy aspects of life, though. All the men Hedia knew were rather too worldly, unfortunately. The last thing she wanted was to turn her son into a hard-drinking wastrel like those with whom she had whiled away her time during her previous marriage, to Gaius Calpurnius Latus.
She still met them, though more discreetly since she married Saxa. Saxa was a very sweet man, but Hedia had needs that her husband couldn’t satisfy. Saxa had known he wasn’t marrying a Vestal. She suspected that he was secretly proud of her and her reputation, but it wasn’t a subject they discussed.
The procession was about to reach the entrance to Veturius’ animal compound. The walls were masonry—coarse volcanic tuff from the beds layering all the land overlooked by Mount Vesuvius—and over ten feet high.
Hedia had never visited a beast yard before, but she often toured gladiatorial schools when she was summering here on the Bay. The schools were fenced off—the gladiators were slaves, after all, and under a stiff training regimen—but she hadn’t seen any barriers so impressive as this.
“I wonder why Veturius has such walls?” Hedia said aloud. “Do you know, Lord Husband?”
“Why, no,” said Saxa, frowning. “You’ll build a wooden enclosure in back of the Temple of Venus for your gift to the people, won’t you, Quintus Macsturnas? Or have you engaged the Great Circus? You’d need several thousand animals to justify that, I would think.”
“My gift won’t be that extensive, no,” Macsturnas said with a flash of good humor. “Not for the aedileship, at least. If I gain the honor of the consulate like you, Gaius Saxa, perhaps I can manage something on a greater scale.”
Hedia pursed her lips in silent approval. Macsturnas had asked to accompany Saxa to curry favor with his senior colleague, after all. He must have belatedly realized that boasting about his lineage wasn’t the way to accomplish that.
“Well, when we’re inside, we can ask my son,” Saxa said. “I’m sure Varus will know why it’s built this way.”
“Better that we ask Veturius himself, my dear heart,” said Hedia, patting her husband’s hand to take away any suggestion of sting in her rebuke. “See, there he is in the gateway to receive you.”
The servants leading the procession had fallen away to either side. Varus and Corylus waited with two older men. The elder Cispius would be the one wearing the toga whose border was dyed with the two narrow stripes of a knight.
The other man must be Veturius. The beastmaster’s toga was plain, and he looked as though he’d been used very hard.
Hedia consciously avoided a frown: been used and used himself. The broken veins in Veturius’ nose were surely the result of wine.
“Welcome, noble Senators Gaius Alphenus Saxa and Quintus Macsturnas!” Veturius said. His voice was strong, though it reminded Hedia of rusted metal. “You are most welcome to my establishment, Your Lordships!”
Corylus had a hand on Varus’ shoulder, a silent direction to his mentally distant friend. Hedia relaxed slightly. Corylus would prevent her son from injuring himself in his present state. If Varus suddenly shouted an incomprehensible prophecy, as he had done before, that would be easy enough to brush from the consciousness of social inferiors, Macsturnas included.
But it didn’t remove Hedia’s deeper fear. When Varus had fallen into waking dreams in the past, it had always been a warning of some event that was about to occur.
Some terrible event.
* * *
CORYLUS TOUCHED THE FRAME of the gateway, feeling the dryad still present though the wood came from the ancient keel of a broken-up trading vessel. She stirred faintly. Though the sycomore sprite was aged, she managed to smile at him; her eyelids were shadowed with kohl.
Corylus was worried by Varus’ state and still more worried at what his waking dream might mean this time, but there was nothing to be done about those things at the moment. His present duty was to act as intermediary between his father and the pair of senators facing him.
“My lord Gaius Saxa…,” Corylus said in a clear voice. He and the two veterans were all braced to attention. “Allow me to present my father, Publius Cispius, and his friend Marcus Veturius.”
Instead of bowing—they were freeborn citizens of Carce—Cispius and his friend each saluted by striking his clenched right fist on his chest. If they had been equipped for battle, that gesture would have banged their spear shafts against their shield bosses.
Saxa had stepped down from the consulship after the usual month in office, but he remained Governor of Lusitania and nominal commander of the troops there. Saxa had the right to the salute, though it probably startled him to receive it.
Lusitania was on the rocky Atlantic coast of Europe, closer to Britain than to Carce or to civilization generally. Saxa would never visit it: a younger, fitter, hungrier Knight of Carce was acting as the governor’s representative. Saxa had an antiquarian’s knowledge of Carce’s history, though, and enough patriotism to feel the honor of a salute from two of the men who had held the Republic’s borders against barbarism.
To Corylus’ surprise, Saxa returned the salute. The new aedile, Macsturnas, blinked at the scene.
Of course. Saxa probably couldn’t draft a dinner invitation in an organized fashion, but he would have read lengthy monographs on the forms of military protocol. Varus’ father wasn’t a stupid man, though he was a profoundly silly one.
“Marcus and I had the honor of serving under your cousin Sempronius Mela,” Cispius said. “When he was Legate of the Alaudae, that is. It’s a real pleasure to meet a kinsman of Mela.”
Corylus didn’t let his mouth drop open in amazement the way Macsturnas was doing, but he was certainly surprised. Instead of creating an awkward situation, Cispius—the third son of a farmer in Liguria—was handling the wealthy senator perfectly.
Corylus suddenly realized that his father wouldn’t have risen through the ranks as he had without meeting many noble officers. Some would have been as foolish as Saxa and a great deal less pleasant personally.
“Master Cispius, I’m pleased to meet you,” Saxa said. “And to meet your friend, of course. You’ve a fine son in Master Corylus, a very fine son.”
“We are here to view the scaled monkeys from Africa, are we not?” said the old farmer who had come with Macsturnas. His tone was querulous.
“And who would that be, lad?” Cispius asked, quietly but in a voice that sounded like the growl of a big cat. Corylus might not have understood the words if he didn’t know his father well enough to expect them.
Cispius didn’t have the vinewood swagger stick he had carried as a centurion, but as a child Corylus had met his father’s calloused hand enough times to remember its weight. Cispius had grown plump and softer in retirement, but he could still deal with the likes of Macsturnas’ hanger-on without help or a weapon.
“I’m sure we all wish to see the strange animals, Master Paris,” Macsturnas said nervously, glancing between Saxa—who wasn’t the sort to take offense—and the farmer. “As soon as Lord Saxa is ready to, of course.”
“The aedile’s pet philosopher, I guess,” Corylus said quietly to his father. “And the aedile’s not a particular friend of Saxa’s, but he’s footing the bill for this load of animals.”
“Right,” said Veturius, relaxing. “Not the business of a poor working soldier like me.”
“Till they tell us it is,” Cispius added, but he had relaxed also.
“Well, if you’re ready, Macsturnas,” Saxa said. He nodded to Veturius. “Take us through, my good man. I’m quite interested in what my son thinks of the creatures.”
“Why do you need such walls, Master Veturius?” Hedia asked. “Are your animals so dangerous as that?”
Corylus flinched minusculely. He’d been so focused on Varus that he hadn’t noticed Hedia was at his elbow until she spoke.
The servants had stepped aside as they neared the gate, allowing the principals to come together for the first time since they stepped out the front door of Saxa’s house in Puteoli. Alphena, who must have been at the end of the procession, had joined her parents also. She wore a stony expression.
“Well, they’re dangerous enough, Your Ladyship,” Veturius mumbled, refusing to meet Hedia’s eyes. “But the cages that held the bloody creatures all the way to here ought to hold them now. The problem’s the boys here in the port—aye, and some of the girls too. They’d creep in at night for a lark, don’t you see, if we didn’t have walls like these—”
He slapped the coarse tuff with his right hand. It sounded as though he’d laid into it with a harness strap.
“—to keep them out.”
Macsturnas had leaned close to Paris and was whispering urgently, presumably to forestall another impatient outburst. The aedile had no intention of letting a boorish associate turn Saxa into an enemy.
“Does it matter if a few kids look at the animals before they’re shipped to Carce?” Alphena asked. Varus’ sister was a fairly good-natured girl underneath, though half the time she seemed determined to prove something. She drove herself and everybody around her to distraction when she got frustrated. For now, at least, curiosity seemed to have drawn her out of her earlier bad temper.
“Well, it’s not that, mistress,” Veturius said. “You see, we just keep the rare stuff and the carnivores in here. I’ve got pasture outside the city for the bulk animals, the deer and wild asses and bulls, that sort of thing. Even the ordinary elephants. But when there’s a big load like now, the aisles between the cages here are pretty tight.”
Corylus had seen his father wince, but there was no harm done. Cispius sold perfumes and unguents to upper-class households and thus knew not to call a senator’s daughter “mistress,” instead of “Your Ladyship.” An importer whose clientele was brokers—slaves and freedmen—who handled beast hunts and gladiatorial bouts didn’t normally need to worry about forms of address.
“I don’t see…,” Alphena said, letting her voice trail off as she apparently realized that interrupting a man like Veturius wasn’t going to get information out of him more quickly. “No, no, just go on.”
Cispius had been the Alaudae’s First Centurion, the legion’s highest permanent officer—directly under the legate whom the Emperor appointed. At that time Veturius had commanded the tenth company of his tenth cohort. In the Alaudae the Tenth of the Tenth was the Special Service company rather than being a posting for the legion’s most junior centurion. It handled raids and patrolling, the sort of jobs that the Scouts did when Cispius became prefect of the 3d Batavians on his final posting.
Scouting and the things that scouting requires take a toll on a soldier even when he retires with all his limbs and not too many physical scars. Corylus was only ten when he moved with his father to the Batavians on the Danube, but even then Veturius drank enough to be noticed in a community of professional soldiers.
“Well, some kid would be poking a stick at the baboons, but he’d jump back when they banged into the bars and a lion would reach out a paw and grab him from behind,” Veturius said earnestly. “Or it might be the other way around, you see? And when there’s a fresh kill like that and blood all over, hell, why, the whole compound screams and carries on all night.”
Veturius surveyed the crowd, noticing the number of attendants for the first time. “Say, Your Lordships,” he said in concern. “You might want to leave most of this lot outside. I don’t mind the trouble, I don’t mean that, but I guess some of these slaves are pretty expensive, right? Believe me, they won’t be pretty anymore if they lean close to look at a leopard and he claws their faces off.”
“I think that’s a fine idea,” Hedia said briskly. “Leaving the servants outside, that is. My daughter and I—
Hedia nodded regally toward Alphena.
“—are both wearing new garments—”
Hedia extended half of her short cape like a blue silk wing. Alphena wore a similar garment in white, appliquéd with symbols of the zodiac.
“—which we don’t want splashed with blood. Syra”—Hedia’s maid, listening at her mistress’ side—“you’ll stay here with Balbinus and the others.”
“Yes, ladyship,” the girl said. Her face relaxed from its previous look of blank horror. Corylus wasn’t sure that Hedia was really that callous, but her maid obviously found it possible.
Hedia made a gracious gesture with her left hand. The men in the gateway turned together like drilling soldiers and led the way into the compound.
Veturius was that callous: he couldn’t have done his job with the Alaudae if he hadn’t been. After Cispius retired, he had dried his friend out and set him up in this importing business, which had become very successful. But that hadn’t made Veturius the man he might have been without twenty years on the Rhine.
Corylus kept his right hand on Varus’ elbow, using light pressure to direct him. With his left hand he motioned Hedia and Alphena to follow the two senators. The man Paris stepped in front of them.
Paris flew aside just as quickly. The servants of both senatorial households were waiting in the street, but Pulto didn’t take the direction as applying to him. He’d grabbed the old man’s wrist, bent his arm behind his back, and pushed him away sharply enough to spill him in the dust with a squawk.
“Thank you, Master Pulto,” Hedia said, nodding pleasantly. She swept into the compound behind her husband.
What an empress she would make! Corylus thought, then felt a chill in case he might have spoken aloud. That sentiment would mean a number of executions if it reached the Emperor’s ears—and the youth who voiced it would be on the first cross.
The roadway from the gate to the harbor was wide enough for loaded wagons, though the paths between rows of cages were much narrower. Cages of birds and smaller monkeys were stacked two and three high.
Pulto walked beside his master and Varus, whistling something cheery between his teeth. He had obviously reacted badly to hearing some scraggly farmer be disrespectful to his betters. Veterans like Cispius and Veturius, let alone the senators, were Paris’ betters in Pulto’s opinion.
Well, in the opinion of Pulto’s master, also.
The animal Corylus had heard as they approached now screamed again, louder by far without walls of the compound to muffle it. Corylus looked toward the sound. To his amazement the head and trunk of an elephant were fully visible beyond wheeled lion cages that were eight feet high.
“What’s that?” Corylus said—directing his question toward Veturius but speaking to anybody who might have an answer. “It looks like an ordinary elephant, but it’s bigger than even the ones they bring from India sometimes.”
Everyone in the group looked at him. Saxa’s face went blank, then melted into concern: he must have noticed that Varus wasn’t in a normal state. At least he didn’t blurt something out.
“Your son’s got a good eye, Top!” Veturius said, referring in army slang to his former superior. “Come on over here and I’ll show you. We leave plenty of room around him, though he hasn’t been a problem since we got him off the boat.”
The visitors dutifully followed Veturius past hyenas held four to a cage. There wasn’t room for the beasts to pace, but they watched the humans with hatred that was almost palpable.
Paris didn’t make another attempt to hurry the process, but the look he fixed on Pulto was as angry as that of the hyenas. Pulto was used to civilians hating him; one more wouldn’t be a concern.
Corylus suppressed a smile: like Veturius, he’d formed his sense of humor on the frontier. Paris might feel ill-used, but he’d actually been lucky. Pulto wore hobnailed army sandals, which he would have used if the farmer had actually touched Master Corylus in stepping past.
The elephant’s hind legs were chained to bollards sturdy enough to tie up a giant grain ship; the area in front of him had been left clear. He was huge, more like a building than a creature of flesh and blood.
Though the elephant had the build and large ears of his African kin, Corylus had never seen one of those that was much more than seven feet tall at the shoulder. This monster was well over eleven feet tall, bigger even than the Indian elephants like Syrus, which Hannibal had ridden over the Alps.
“You see…,” Veturius said. His voice was strong and animated now that he was discussing his importing business instead of wondering how to deal with noblemen. “The ones you’re used to, the elephants we mostly get, they come from near the African coast. South of that’s desert, so of course you don’t get elephants there, there’s nothing for them to eat, right?”
The elephant curled its trunk, raised its massive head, and screamed louder than any living thing Corylus had heard in the past.
“But south of the desert, then there’s more grass and more forest and Hercules knows what kinds of animals,” Veturius resumed as his visitors lowered their hands from their ears. “They’ve got elephants like this as was floated down the Nile from way beyond the First Cataract. And if you come here with me, I’ll show you what else we got, the things I asked my friend Cispius to bring his son to see.”
Veturius, limping as he walked more quickly than he had done earlier in the afternoon, stepped around the elephant’s plaza to a cage on a cross street wide enough for a wagon rather than an aisle. Corylus followed with the others, guiding Varus as he had been doing since his friend went into his dream state.
“Stand well clear, if you will,” Veturius said. “They’ve got a reach that’ll surprise you. They came down the Nile on a barge same as brought the elephant there, straight out of the dark heart of Africa!”
Corylus moved to his father’s side, directly in front of the cage where he got the best view through the close-set bars. They were welded iron, not the usual wood pinned or lashed.
“Here they are, Your Lordships,” Veturius said. “Scaly apes like nothing seen before in the Republic!”
Corylus looked at the four creatures; they met his gaze calmly.
Those aren’t apes, and they sure aren’t men, he thought.
But they might very well be demons.
* * *
THEY LOOK LIKE THEY stepped out of a nightmare, Alphena thought as she stared at a lizardman. A membrane flicked sideways and back across the creature’s left eye; then the same thing happened to the creature’s right. The lizardman seemed very patient … and amused, though Alphena couldn’t have explained why she felt that.
“How did you capture the creatures, Veturius?” Saxa said, leaning toward the cage. Cispius grunted; Corylus stepped sideways to put his body between the senator and the lizardmen.
“Father!” Alphena said. Did I ever call him that before? She pulled Saxa back by the wrist and elbow. “You’ll be killed if you’re not careful!”
Saxa looked startled, then understood what had happened. “Oh!” he said. “Well, I don’t think I was really in danger, do you, my child? But thank you.”
He looked at the lizardmen again. “Their arms really are very long, aren’t they?” he said in a reflective tone. “Though their bodies aren’t the size of ours. Thank you very much, my dear, and—”
Saxa looked at Corylus, who had slipped to the other side of Varus, concealing himself as much as possible behind his shorter friend. For a commoner—even a knight—to physically interfere with a senator was potentially very dangerous, but Corylus hadn’t hesitated when he saw the risk to her father.
“—thank you, Master Corylus. I’m afraid I was very foolish.”
Alphena looked at the lizardmen again. They were creatures of nightmare, all right, but they weren’t from the particular nightmare that had been torturing her for the past three nights.
She’d dreamed of three short Nubian women dancing in a circle, naked except for a belt of iridescent stones around the waist of each. They weren’t frightening, nor was anything else that Alphena remembered from the dream, but she woke every night sweating and a cry choked in her throat.
Whereas the lizardmen were merely interesting, the way an ancient bronze sword would interest her. And speaking of bronze, what were those collars they were wearing?
“Strictly speaking, I don’t capture animals,” Veturius said. “Ordinarily, I mean, I hire local Nubians to do the catching and bring the beasts to where I set my camp. If I went south with enough men to do the whole job myself, I’d need an army. You go march into Nubia with an army and the tribes’ll treat you the same way they would a Prefect of Egypt who decided to advance the Republic’s boundaries some.”
“There were periods when Egypt was ruled by Nubians,” said Corylus, nodding. “I was wondering how you managed to bring animals back from that far south.”
He and Varus knew lots about that sort of thing. Alphena didn’t resent the education her brother and his friend had gotten: she didn’t care who ruled Egypt, let alone making formal speeches about whether a stepson or the wife’s steward was guilty of her murder. But she resented that she hadn’t been given the choice.
“Yeah, that can be a tricky business,” Veturius said, bobbing his head like a sparrow drinking. “I don’t take so many men that I look like I figure to stay, but I need enough that the locals, they figure it’s cheaper to take my pay for the animals they bring me and as porters.”
He lifted his hands, palms up. He was missing his left little finger, and the fourth finger stopped at the first joint.
“Nowadays, the chiefs know I’m coming back, so they’ll make more trading with me than just trying to take it,” Veturius said. “Also, they know that taking it wouldn’t be so easy as it maybe seemed first off. I hire pretty good boys, you see. Most’ve ’em decided that Nubians’d be a nice change from Germans or Sarmatians. And I’ve got Parthian archers who can shoot over a shield or through it, whichever they choose. But early on, I tell you, there was times I wished I was back on the East Bank of the Rhine.”
Cispius snorted. Veturius met his old friend’s eyes. Alphena was suddenly aware of a kinship like nothing she had ever had with another human being. It went beyond shared danger: it was a shared trust.
They’d trust Corylus! And they would, because Corylus had been on the East Bank too; he’d proved himself.
I will make myself worthy of trust. Whether or not anybody else knows it, I will know.
“Anyway,” Veturius said, “we’d just set up down below the Third Cataract; that’s way south. I put out the word to the tribes to bring us animals, pretty much anything.”
He knuckled his nose as he frowned in concentration. A scar ran from below his right eye to the base of his jaw on the left; his nose dipped in a saddle where the line crossed it.
“We pay in cloth and glass beads and brass wire,” he muttered, gathering his memories. “The Nubians like them better than silver, which they can’t do much with. Pound for pound, it’d be easier to carry silver, but that’s not a choice. Anyway.”
Veturius gestured with both hands again. “We just set up, like I say, and here comes a couple Nubians with these apes, neck-yoked like slaves, each one to the one ahead and walking on their own. They asked what we’d pay for ’em—they’d never seen the like before. And I said, same as for baboons, since that’s what they likely were. Only they weren’t baboons. And I don’t bloody know what they are!”
“My friend Varus and I are also at a loss, Veturius,” Corylus said, speaking clearly and with his voice raised. He was focusing all attention on himself—and away from the youth at his side. “Now that we’ve seen these lizard apes—lizardmen, I should say—we’ll be able to enlist the aid of greater scholars than ourselves.”
He’s covering for my brother. Varus and Corylus hadn’t discussed the creatures or anything else since Varus slipped into his present state. By speaking for both of them, Corylus concealed the fact that his friend was only physically part of the world around him.
Instead of coming to Puteoli with the rest of the family, Varus had remained in the town house in Carce while he took classes in speaking and argumentation from Pandareus of Athens. Varus had sent a messenger to inform the family as a courtesy that he and Corylus would be visiting Puteoli to view some unusual animals. Saxa had decided to join his son and his friend.
Whereupon Alphena had announced she would go also.
She hadn’t known then why she said it, and now in reflection she didn’t have any better notion of what had been going on in her mind. She had just said it; and once it was said, there was no taking the decision back. Not for her.
Hedia’s decision to join the group as soon as Alphena spoke was as certain as sunrise: she thought her daughter was too interested in Publius Corylus, and she didn’t trust anyone else to chaperone the girl effectively. Hedia’s attitude infuriated Alphena.
The possibility that there might be some truth to her mother’s opinion made Alphena even more angry. She had learned by experience that Hedia was extremely perceptive. That was true whether or not Alphena liked the things that Hedia perceived.
“Lord Macsturnas, may I ask…?” Corylus said, turning from the beast catcher to the aedile. “If these lizardmen will be going to Carce for your show with the rest of the consignment of animals?”
“Why, yes,” Macsturnas said, looking puzzled. “That is … I mean, is there some reason they shouldn’t?”
In a tone of rising agitation, he went on, “Is there something you’re not telling me? There is something you’re not telling me!”
“No, my lord, there is not,” said Cispius, stepping between his son and Macsturnas. Cispius didn’t raise his voice, but he was suddenly in control of the situation.
Alphena realized that she was seeing the difference between rank, which her father and the aedile had by birth, and command, which Publius Cispius had gained on the frontier. She felt suddenly ashamed, though neither she nor her family was a part of this unexpected confrontation.
“No, Your Lordship,” Corylus said calmly, moving again to his father’s side. Nothing in Corylus’ tone suggested that the man to whom he was speaking had seemed to be on the verge of panic. “I was hoping that if you sent the creatures to Carce, there would be an opportunity for Master Pandareus to view them himself.”
“Oh!” said Macsturnas, suddenly embarrassed. “Why, yes, of course, what a good idea, Master—”
His mouth opened and shut for a moment without further words coming out.
He doesn’t remember Corylus’ name. Aloud Alphena said, “I’m sure Corylus and my brother will take care of that for you. You’ll see to it that the attendants in Carce are instructed to allow them and anyone they bring with them to view the animals. Won’t you, Quintus Macsturnas?”
Corylus glanced at her. His smile and the jerk of his chin in approval were minuscule, but Alphena noticed them.
“Why, yes,” the aedile said, his words running over each other. “Why, yes, of course, and—”
He returned his attention to Corylus.
“—I’m very appreciative to you both for your help.”
Veturius and Corylus’ father had been whispering while the others discussed what would happen in Carce. Now the beast catcher cleared his throat loudly enough to get attention. He said, “Your Lordships? Since the subject’s come up, there’s some other stuff I might ought to mention. I don’t know what it means or if it means anything, but if I have your permission?”
“Certainly, my good man,” said Macsturnas. “With my lord Saxa’s permission, of course?”
Father mumbled in surprise and some confusion. So long as they’re maundering about due deference and that sort of thing, there’s no danger, Alphena thought with relief.
She was sure that Hedia would have protected Corylus if the aedile had completely lost his head, as might have happened. But Alphena preferred that … well, she preferred that Corylus not feel obligated to her mother. Not that it was any of Alphena’s business what Hedia did, or what Corylus did!
“I bring my catches down the Nile instead of marching them cross-country to Mios Hormos like most suppliers do,” Veturius said. “It’s a harder trip than sailing up the Red Sea and then the canal and down to Alexandria, but I get different animals my way.”
He nodded toward the caged lizardmen. “Not usually this different, but different. And I don’t have competition, because nobody else in the business can put together teams like I do to get past the tribes on the Upper Nile, you see?”
Veturius and Cispius smiled at each other. Corylus was smiling also. Alphena turned her head quickly so that she wasn’t watching the men exclude her from the experience they had shared and she never would.
A pair of leopards stared fixedly between the bars of their divided cage. At me! she thought. But the cats were looking past her, toward the lizardmen.
Alphena had never been in an animal compound before, but for years she had visited the gladiatorial schools on the Bay when the family came to Puteoli for the summer. She had fancied fighting in the arena herself.
She’d have assumed a name like Victrix or Nike or Atropos, something romantic like that, but it would have been scandalous even so. She’d been sure that she could cow her father into pretending he didn’t know what his daughter was doing, however. Saxa liked a quiet life, and Alphena had found that she could get her way in the end if she screamed and carried on loudly enough.
Then her father remarried, and Alphena didn’t rule the household anymore. Hedia didn’t care about scenes. She was rumored to have been involved in scores of scandals. As Alphena got to know her stepmother better, she learned that this time the rumors were less than the truth.
The result was oddly comforting. Not being able to shock Hedia meant that Alphena didn’t have to try. She could do things because they pleased her, not because they would displease those around her. And when Alphena accepted that she couldn’t ever compete as a gladiator, she found that she actually didn’t want to.
“The lizards weren’t a problem while we were in camp,” Veturius said. “The Nubians who brought them in said they’d never seen monkeys like them before. They’d caught ’em in a box trap they’d set for a leopard, which seemed funny—getting all four in the same set, I mean—and they’d been feeding them meat like they would leopards. They’ve got sharp teeth, so I did the same. And like I say, no trouble.”
The creature who had been watching Alphena ran its forked black tongue around its lipless mouth, then yawned. The teeth in front were pointed, though those farther back in the jaws had shearing edges. The leopards caged behind the visitors both shrieked in response to the lizard’s display.
The cats’ cries made Macsturnas squeeze his arms close to his chest as though he were hugging himself; his eyes darted from Veturius to the leopards and back. Saxa simply looked interested as he turned toward the sound. Alphena was ready to stop him if he tried to get close to the cats, but Hedia had already put a restraining hand on her husband’s shoulder.
When the aedile twitched, Alphena got a good view of Paris, who was examining the lizardmen in apparent satisfaction. The old man had ignored the leopards, but when he noticed Alphena’s attention he glared at her with hatred.
Alphena stared back, mimicking Hedia’s look of scornful contempt. Paris grimaced and turned. I’ll never be as good as she is, but I’m learning.
“The locals aren’t the only problems in the south,” Veturius said. He’d waited for the cats to fall silent, but the screams hadn’t otherwise affected him. “There’s fevers and skin rot and Mithras knows what all else. Though—”
He grinned at Cispius.
“—I never lost a man to frostbite, I’ll say that for the posting. Anyways, I got a fever and couldn’t do aught but sweat and moan the next three days. Now, the barges were ready and we pretty well had a load, so my number two, that’s Tetrinus, he decides it’s time to head back.”
Veturius knuckled his nose again. “You remember Tetrinus, don’t you, Top?” he said. “Brave as you could ask, but maybe not the best on details.”
“Especially if he was drinking,” Cispius agreed grimly. “Which I’d guess he was if you were flat on your back.”
“Yeah, that’s so,” Veturius admitted. “Not so much he wasn’t in charge and no mistake about that, but Pampreion, the attendant who was supposed to be feeding the lizards, it turns out he wasn’t when I wasn’t around to watch. He really hated them. He was an Egyptian and I think there was some sort of religious thing going.”
Alphena eyed the creatures again. Their hides were dusky with dark green hints, but one was noticeably paler along the spine and seemed older than his fellows. All four wore collars of coppery hoops and spikes, but the old one also had around his waist a loop of chain made from the same dark metal.
She was losing interest in the creatures. In truth, she had never been very interested in animals. These could be dangerous, no doubt; but so were leopards, and the cats were much more attractive to look at.
And even leopards weren’t dangerous at a staged beast hunt in the arena like what Macsturnas was planning to stage. The “hunters” would be archers and javelin throwers standing behind a metal fence. They could shoot through it, but the animals couldn’t get to them.
If elephants were to be killed, the hunters stood on stone stages higher than the great beasts could reach. Sometimes a hundred arrows would feather an elephant before it died.
If cats were to be the victims, netting would extend for ten or twelve feet above the fence. These lizardmen could probably climb, so they would be shot from behind nets also.
There was no skill to killing animals in the arena and therefore nothing of interest to Alphena. A well-matched pair of gladiators, on the other hand, was like a dance with an added thrill of danger.
“Three nights downriver the whole flotilla was anchored in the current, as usual,” Veturius said. “It’s safer than tying up to the shore that far south. There was the god-awfulest scream I ever heard, and I’ve heard a few, let me tell you.”
A thought made his face scrunch and look momentarily uglier than usual. “You know, I hadn’t thought about that,” he said. Though everyone could hear him clearly, he was speaking to Cispius rather than addressing the whole group. “That brought me out of the fever. The boys, they’d pretty much given up on me, you know.”
“If a scream in the night doesn’t wake you,” Cispius said with a grin of sorts, “then you’re likely to be the one screaming yourself in the time it takes the next German to get to you.”
“Aye,” Veturius agreed. “Well, I got up anyhow. The cage with the lizards was on the same barge as me but none of the other animals. When we got torches lighted, there was Pampreion inside the cage and the lizards were eating him.”
He grinned at the memory. “Starting with the liver and lights,” he said. “Just like a leopard.”
“The lights?” said Hedia coolly. “Do you mean the eyes?”
“Huh?” said Veturius. He thumped his chest. “Oh, no, ma’am, the lungs.”
Veturius took a deep breath as he collected his thoughts. “His head wasn’t touched,” he said. “Just spattered a little from when they opened up the ribs. And the old lizard, he looked at me like what was I going to do about it? And I figured, well, there wasn’t any helping Pampreion now and the lizards were worth something, so, Hercules … Not like the first time I lost a man, you know?”
Alphena looked at her stepmother and wondered about tomorrow night. Hedia had told her that they would be going to a dinner party—a real dinner at the house of one of Hedia’s fashionable friends. Alphena knew that it wouldn’t be the sort of wild party she heard whispered about on the rare occasions that she socialized with girls of her own age; but still.
A few months ago she would have been horrified and disgusted if someone had insisted that she attend such a gathering. Now she was willing to admit that she was a little apprehensive … but a little excited also.
She had come to understand that Hedia wasn’t interested in making her submissive but rather in teaching her to know how to behave decorously according to the rules of whatever society she found herself in. Behaving like a lady did not, in Hedia’s judgment, always mean behaving like a Vestal Virgin.
“How had Pampreion gotten into the cage?” Corylus asked. His father looked at him in approval.
“Well,” said Veturius, “what I told the crew must’ve happened was that he swam over to my barge during the night and was going to tease the lizards. He was a nasty piece of work, Pampreion, though he was smart enough to be useful if you kept an eye on him. Anyway, one grabbed him and dragged him through the bars. Only … well, Pampreion couldn’t swim that any of us had ever heard. And there was his head, like I told you.”
Veturius shrugged. “I wouldn’t have said there was room enough between the bars for his head to fit through,” he said. “But there it was, ears and all, and the only other way it could’ve got there was if somebody picked the padlock, brought Pampreion in to eat, and locked the door behind him.”
“Master Veturius and I thought that was an interesting story, Lord Macsturnas, that you might want to know,” said Cispius. “To add to the interest of the gift you’re preparing for the Republic.”
“Veturius?” said Hedia as though she were addressing a servitor at dinner. “What did you do about the creatures after that experience?”
“Do, ma’am…,” Veturius said, his face twisting again. “Well, I’ll tell you the truth. I made sure the lizards always had food and water. I handled it myself because the rest of the crew didn’t fancy being around them much. And we never had another lick of trouble from them, not a lick.”
Silence followed as those present digested the story they had just heard. Then Varus straightened and opened his mouth to speak.
* * *
“GREETINGS, LORD VARUS,” the Sibyl said.
She glanced around to acknowledge his approach, then returned her attention to the scene below. Varus stepped to her side and looked down from the cliff. Increasing mist shrouded the rock, but the scene on the valley floor was as sharp as the lines of his own palm.
“Greetings, Sibyl,” Varus said. “Why have you called me here?”
The Sibyl of his visions never changed. She was an old—unthinkably old—woman wearing a white linen tunic and a cape the color of a summer sky. A fold covered her head in Greek fashion. She always seemed pleased and somewhat amused at his presence.
She laughed, a sound more like the chirping of insects than anything from a human throat. She said, “I cannot summon you, Lord Magician! Who else has powers like yours? Certainly not me, a wraith who exists only in your own mind.”
Varus grimaced. If you’re a part of me, then how do you know things that I do not? You know the past and the future, and things completely beyond time.
But experience had taught him that asking such questions aloud would bring him no answers of any use. He focused on the scene at the bottom of the valley.
Often when Varus looked from the Sibyl’s vantage point, he saw himself and his companions below, as though his soul were using the eyes of a raven perched on a high crag. This time, though, he watched scaly swordsmen battling with seven-foot-tall giants with mottled hides and heads like horses. They fought on a neglected field, trampling goldenrod and blooming thistles in their struggles.
“I recognize the lizardmen,” Varus said. In this vision the creatures wore bronze armor, but there was no doubt that they were the same race as the ones in the cage in Puteoli. “But who are the giants they’re fighting? Are they from Africa too?”
“They are the Ethiopes,” the Sibyl said. “A very long time ago the Ethiopes came to Africa from India. In Africa they fought the Singiri, whom you call lizardmen. As you see.”
Below, the lizardmen had been retreating to keep from being surrounded, but they now stood back to back in a circle. There were only a dozen of them standing, though six or eight more armored bodies lay as lumps on the flattened meadow.
At least a hundred Ethiopes had fallen, dead or too injured to advance farther, but hundreds more pressed the surviving lizardmen. The weapons of the horse-headed giants were crude, heavy-shafted spears with flint points, but they thrust with enormous power.
Repeatedly Varus saw a lizardman flung backward by a blow that his shield had stopped. Sometimes the stone point shattered; the metal looked like bronze, but it blocked spears that would have penetrated an infantry shield’s two-inch thickness of laminated birch.
Even so, the lizardmen tangled with one another, then fell and were battered to death. Corylus—or Alphena—would understand better what was happening, but even Varus could see that the fight would be over shortly.
“You say this was long ago,” Varus said. “The Singiri … that is, do the Singiri still live in Africa?”
He had started to say that the lizardmen still lived in Africa, but that was an assumption that the fact that Veturius had found four of the creatures in Africa did not prove. Veturius himself had been in Africa too, and he certainly didn’t live there.
“The Singiri could not stand against the Ethiopes,” said the Sibyl. She spoke dispassionately, as Pandareus had done two days ago in explaining why the unvoiced letter h remains in the written form of the noun “honor.” “But their princess was a magician and created a haven for her race within the Earth.”
Two armored lizardmen fell simultaneously, opening a gap in the defensive circle. Then they were all down, dead or dying as the Ethiopes pounded them like grain in a mortar.
The Sibyl moved her left hand as though wiping the surface of the air. The battle blurred away. In its place was the image of a distant hillside on which thousands of Singiri stood. In front were armored warriors while behind them sheltered slender females and offspring as supple as trout.
Ethiopes in tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands poised below the Singiri. There were males and females alike, both genders armed, both savage. The horse-headed giants swept forward with a great cry, a pitiless tide.
The hill behind the lizardmen gouted rock like a cold volcano. The spray rose and continued rising. The Singiri warriors continued to face their opponents, but the Ethiopes paused to view the wonder.
The column of rock slackened, then stopped. An Ethiope stepped forward and shouted back to her fellows; the onslaught resumed. The ranked Singiri faded and vanished like wraiths of gossamer on the wind. The Ethiopes continued to advance because only those in the front of the mass could see what had happened.
Varus looked at his companion. “Why have the Singiri returned, Sibyl?” he asked.
There was movement in the corner of his eye. He turned quickly. The rock that had blown skyward now cascaded out of the sky. It buried the hillside and the valley below in a churning, thunderous torrent.
Clouds swirled even after the dust ceased to fall. It formed images and dissolved and re-formed again and again. As it settled, a mountain slowly emerged where the valley had been. There was no sign of the Ethiopes.
“The Singiri have lived for a thousand ages in their place, complete in themselves because of the magic of their princess,” the Sibyl said. “But they are safe only so long as the Earth is safe. And driven by a great magician, the Earth—”
She gestured again with her open palm.
“—has turned against all life.”
In front of Varus was the image of a ball on which movement glittered. Caterpillars on a globe of fruit, Varus thought. Crystal caterpillars on a plum or a—
“You see the Earth,” the Sibyl said. “And you see the Worms of the Earth, her children. They will scour the planet bare to its molten core, Lord Varus.”
Varus suddenly appreciated the scale of what he was seeing: two serpents of crystal each a thousand miles long writhed over the world, devouring rock and sea alike. As the Worms ate, they grew from the substance of the world that shrank beneath them.
“Sibyl, how can I stop them?” Varus said.
“When the Worms have hatched, no man can stop them,” the old woman said. She turned and met his eyes. “Not even you, Lord Magician. And the Worms have hatched!”
Varus felt himself falling back into the Waking World, his soul rejoining his body and his friends in Puteoli. The Sibyl’s mouth opened, but he knew it was his own voice shouting, “‘A terrible snake breathing war against all life will kill every human and destroy the world!’”
Copyright © 2013 by David Drake