Lucius had only a second to brace himself before the blow struck. Uticus was deceptively strong for a man of his years and the hand crashed across Lucius’ cheek and sent his head whipping around, unbalancing the younger man and sending him sprawling. A new boy would have stayed down, but Lucius knew better than that. He had learned long ago that Uticus could tell if you took a fall too easily, and that the next blow would be that much harder as punishment for your ‘dishonesty’. Uticus liked his boys to stand and take it like a man and so, as a dutiful student, Lucius had stood as firmly as he could when he saw the strike coming, and righted himself immediately after the blow half knocked him down.
He stood up straight and kept his eyes focused forwards, almost daring the old man to hit him again. Uticus paused to look at his charge and his lip curled up in a sneer.
‘Think taking it well is good enough to forgive your ignorance, boy?’
Lucius sighed inwardly and braced himself again. It was worth a try. The second blow was a closed fist to his midriff and Uticus aimed it well, striking the weak spot between his stomach muscles and his ribcage. The young man felt the air rush from his lungs and he doubled over and gasped with pain. For all his efforts to stay up Lucius felt himself dropping to a knee, unable to suck in a breath. The tutor let him cough and struggle for a while as he looked up to address the other students.
‘Now, can any of you other dolts enlighten me regarding Coriolanus’ rules of successful oratory?’
Lucius leaned on the desk, his chest still heaving, and looked around the lecture room. The half-dozen other young men there, all dressed in the same plain white tunic that he was, were trying hard not to look intimidated. Most of them were failing. Uticus was a great believer in throwing out questions that he knew they wouldn’t be prepared for, allegedly to ensure that they were all reading extensively in their own time. Lucius strongly suspected that he just liked beating them when they got things wrong, and as usual he was the old bastard’s target of choice.
The young man straightened himself up as best he could and tried to keep his face blank, his eyes looking roughly in the tutor’s direction without actively staring at him. His caution was rewarded when Uticus, rather than another crushing body blow, contented himself with an open-palmed slap to his face. It wasn’t delivered with much power and Lucius managed to take the force of it without losing his balance. The tutor’s nostrils flared a little but then he turned his eyes back to the other students again.
‘Have none of you the faintest idea? Have you all been cavorting with this wastrel,’ he fetched Lucius another casual slap, ‘when you ought to have been at study?’
Lucius kept his jaw clamped tight, partly to stop himself from saying something he might regret, and also because any moment the blows to his face might become a good deal harder. Most tutors at the Duralian Academy contented themselves with the odd ear-clout or a cane to the legs, but Uticus was what the he himself liked to call ‘a traditionalist’, and had once broken a boy’s jaw for misquoting Gaius Taurus. The old man continued to glare about the room. He was a lean, spare sort of wretch, with thinning grey hair and an emaciated look that made him seem far older than he was. According to Livilla he was barely fifty, but to look at him Lucius would have placed him at a good ten winters older. It was one of the many things that made it grate on him that he must take such a beating from the man.
Lucius was approaching his twentieth summer and was already both tall and broad. He was no Maximus but like any Gaian youth he spent time at his bathhouse’s gymnasium and had built up both his strength and his endurance. He trained at fistfighting and wrestling with his friends, and had learned swordsmanship from Livilla’s Greutun bodyguards. He was in every way capable of subduing this vicious old man and they both knew it perfectly well. And they both knew equally well that he wouldn’t. To be expelled from the illustrious Duralian Academy, the finest such institution in all of Daeria, would be a social stain that would follow him for life. Besides, his Aunt Livilla had plenty of excuses to trim his allowance already, and striking a tutor might see him cut off from his money for good.
Uticus’ lip curled up a fraction and Lucius was certain he had read his student’s thoughts. The old man raised his hand for another blow and Lucius braced himself for impact, but a voice from behind him made him pause.
The voice had come from Elazar, a swarthy youth about a summer Lucius’ junior. He was holding a hand up politely and Uticus transferred his glare to him, his voice heavy with contempt.
‘Yes, princeling? You have something to add?’
The student nodded his head. Elazar was the son of a king from somewhere in Eastern Avidia and was part-guest, part-hostage in Tamora. His older brother was being kept in Gaivia itself but Elazar, as the younger and less valuable one, had been permitted to travel to other cities in the Empire. Under careful observation, of course. Alone among the young men there he wore a jade pendant around his neck rather than an amulet to Gron or Vulco, though naturally it was hidden from Uticus’ sight; a charm for a non-Gaian god would just be one more thing for the old goat to sneer at.
The prince was shorter and slighter than Lucius but he was undeniably the handsomest of their little group of friends; his skin was smooth, his black hair sleek, and his dark eyes large and deep. He kept his voice as steady as he could under Uticus’ gaze.
‘Sir, Coriolanus states that the first step to good oratory is not in words but in posture. A nobility of bearing is vital to attract the attention and respect of one’s audience.’
Uticus continued to glare.
Elazar licked his lips nervously and Lucius wracked his brains trying to remember something about the great orator, if only to take the pressure from Elazar the way his friend just had for him. The swarthy youth swallowed and spoke again.
‘He also stated that one should project the voice but never stoop to shouting.’ His eyes sparkled as he seemed to remember something. ‘An orator’s words must fly with strength and grace like the boulder from a catapult, not… not harsh and waspish like the arrow from the bow.’
If Uticus was impressed by the almost word-for-word quotation he hid it well. He turned instead to some of his other students.
‘So far I have heard the ignorance of a tribesman and the dregs of knowledge from a sand prince; are there no decent Gaian men here who can enlighten me about their own history?’
The other boys looked sheepish and Lucius sensed that Uticus would either pick one of them at random for a clout, or else turn his anger back to his favourite victim. His heart sank a little as the tutor half-turned towards him, but then Gregor raised his hand and Lucius fought back a smile. They were risking a berating at best for their half-remembered answers, but his friends were keeping Uticus’ attention away from him.
Uticus glared at the speaker but addressed this one a fraction more politely. Remus Galerius Gregorio was a very well-born young man and was the son of the celebrated General Galerian, commander of the First. It didn’t make him that much safer from the tutor’s shouts and fists but it made him a damned sight safer than Lucius or Elazar.
‘You too have an answer?’
The young man nodded, his face a mask. Gregor had classic patrician features to go with his noble bearing, with high cheekbones, straight nose, and his brown hair cut short and neat.
‘He also says that we should use silence as skilfully as speech, and to use our eyes as much as our tongues. A good orator casts his gaze about his audience and looks at each face in turn, letting each man believe that he speaks only to him.’
Uticus grumbled a little under his breath.
‘Paraphrased but more-or-less accurate, I suppose. Though clearly you have not studied the relevant texts closely. Too much time spent at revels with your disreputable friends?’
Lucius saw where this was going but Flavio took up the baton before Uticus could turn back to the two outsiders. The nervous youngster raised a hand and blurted out an answer without waiting for acknowledgement, stammering a little over his words.
‘Sir, “The orator does not stand still if at all possible, but neither should he be over-animated like an actor who has not the wit to speak his lines well”. That is to say sir, he moves with subtlety sir, and with power… sir.’
Once again Uticus grumbled. Like Gregor, Flavio Duronia was a good Gaian patrician, and nervous or not he had just answered the question better than anyone. Lucius flicked his eyes to him and while neither dared to nod, Lucius risked a wink behind the old tutor’s back. Flavio was some type of second cousin, the son of his fearsome Aunt Livilla’s brother-in-law, and though they shared no blood the two young men were close. Out at night it was generally Lucius who was taking care of Flavio, but in here the slender man was taking a turn to be the rescuer. Lucius loved him for it.
Uticus seemed ready to find some fault with Flavio and give him a quick slap anyway, and Lucius knew he had to say something fast. Flavio wasn’t accustomed to beatings the way he was, and if Uticus had to take out his anger on someone, better it be on someone who could take it. Fortunately it didn’t come to that. Lucius’ mind managed to dredge something up from a distant memory, and he spoke before the old man could close in on a new target.
‘Sir, “the words of an orator are as the waters of the brook, ever changing and ever fresh, and flowing as naturally as any stream or river.”.’
Uticus rounded on him with anger in his eyes but Lucius steadfastly refused to look smug. The old goat’s nostrils were flaring wider than Lucius had ever seen them and the whites could be seen all around the dirt-brown of his irises. For a moment it looked as if another blow was on the way but then the tutor simply tutted in disgust.
‘So between four of you, you have almost managed to scrape together part of a correct answer?’
He whirled back to the class in general, his robe-like tunic swishing at his calves.
‘But what more can I expect? A bunch of spoiled young delinquents with their heads full of wine and straw! Even you two,’ he pointed a gnarled finger at Gregor and Flavio, ‘manage only to spit back snippets at me, little better than a camel-counter,’ he flicked a hand first at Elazar and then at Lucius, ‘or a sheep-herder.’
He closed in on Lucius again and the young man braced himself, but it seemed his battering would be with words rather than fists. For now.
‘The most accurate quotation I hear from this whole damned classroom came from the halfbreed son of a deserter and a painted savage. What hope has Gaivia for her future when her young men are out-spoken by mongrels?’
Lucius worked hard to keep the murder from his eyes. Damn it all, everyone in Tamora knew his father had been posthumously pardoned for deserting during the Lepidus incident. As for his mother, she was an important chieftain of the Caledon and held high patrician rank to boot. She had been inducted into Tamora’s society and had been a credit to it, and Lucius himself had been born right here in this very city. He fumed inwardly but kept it from his face with an effort. I am as much a Gaian as you are, you bastard. Everyone knew that Uticus had Etrurian blood in him, and Lucius suspected that was why he was so keen on victimising anyone less Gaian than he was. He’d have pitied him if he didn’t hate him so much.
The tutor was staring at him, clearly hoping to get a rise from his student. A cross word would be enough to justify beating him to a pulp and the old man knew that nobody would dare attempt to stop him. No student there, not even Gregor, could risk expulsion from the academy. Lucius looked down as Uticus half-snarled as he goaded him, and tried not to think about how good it would feel to ram his fist through the bastard’s teeth. He took a slow breath through his nose, keeping his mouth tight shut.
Uticus’ disappointment was almost palpable, but the old man settled for shoving Lucius back towards the desks. He turned to the class again.
‘Sit down. By your next lesson I expect a full essay on each of the major orators of the First Empire and a comparative study with Second Empire methodology. In the meantime you will all of you pay attention and take notes on Coriolanus’ principles, assuming that barbarians can hear and write at the same time?’
He glared at Lucius and Elazar, but both had enough sense to avoid his gaze.