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Friday, September 23, 2016

Prester John, Chapter 3

* Please note: This work is the intellectual property of Matthew Burden, protected under US copyright law, and is not to be removed, altered, or reproduced in any way.
 

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Chapter 3 

            On the third day of their voyage, Lucius approached Ariston again. The young Greek was leaning idly against a deck-rail, staring down into the water. Lucius didn’t think Ariston had even noticed his approach, until the latter spoke.
            “So what’s your decision, Tiro? Will you play my game, and be rich, or submit to an interview with the authorities? Your choice.”
            Lucius frowned. “I spoke to the captain twice yesterday. The first time, he confirmed my suspicions about you.”
            “Ah, don’t believe everything you hear from unguarded lips.”
            “And the second time was last night, as we shared a skin of wine in the captain’s quarters.”
            At this, Ariston stood up straight and looked him in the eye. “All right, then. You’re a smart man, just as I thought. What did you see?”
            “The captain does appear to have a small money chest, and he keeps it under the lower shelf on the port side, back in the corner.”
            “Locked?”
            “It seemed to be, but I’m not sure. There was a key hanging from a hook behind the door.”
            “Good, Tiro, good! Not long from now, and that’ll be your treasury! A bit of good fortune, to start off your new life in Smyrna on the right foot, eh?”
            Lucius shook his head. “I don’t want any more of this affair, Ariston. I don’t want to know how or when you break into that room, and I don’t want the money. I’ve done what you asked.”
            Ariston nodded. “That’s fair. Just remember not to speak any of this beyond the two of us, or I’ll let slip your little secret.”
            “Goodbye, Ariston,” Lucius said firmly.
            “Until our next partnership,” replied the Greek, with a sly wink.
~ ~ ~
            They were only one day out from reaching the port of Smyrna, weaving their way through the islands of the Aegean Sea, when all the doors and hatches of the ship were thrown open.
            “Everybody on deck!” rang out the captain’s voice, hoarse and desperate.
            Lucius and the other passengers stumbled up the hatchways into the bright morning sunlight, and stood there squinting as the captain paced up and down the deck. His hair and beard were in disarray, and his eyes had the glint of fury in them.
            “Last night,” he shouted, “the ship’s treasury was stolen!”
            A low murmur ran through the crowd of passengers. Lucius glanced at Ariston, whose face was a model of innocent shock.
            “Every single one of you,” continued the captain, “will remain standing here on deck until my sailors have finished searching your emplacements.” He stalked up close to Ariston, and looked straight into his eyes with a sneer of disgust. “I’ve told them to start with yours.”
            Ariston shook his head. “My dear captain, if I had stolen your treasury, I would have tried to slit your throat at the same time. But sadly, you’re still here. So search away; I’m as blameless as a newborn kitten.”
            “Hmph! A newborn viper, maybe!” growled the captain.
            Silence descended over the deck for several long minutes, so long that it seemed to stretch on for an hour or more. The captain continued pacing back and forth, keeping a close eye on the passengers. Then, finally, one of the sailors emerged from below, carrying the small chest that Lucius had seen in the captain’s quarters.
            The captain ran towards it eagerly, but even as he snatched it out of the man’s hands, the sailor was shaking his head. “Empty, sir.”
            “Empty? What of the coins?”
            “We’ve found nothing else. Some of the passengers have a few coins amongst their things, but not enough to be from the treasury.”
            “Well, keep looking!” shouted the captain gruffly. “They have to be somewhere!”
            The sailor turned to descend back into the hold, but the captain stopped him.
            “Wait! Where did you find the chest?”
            “It was hidden under some clothes where the atheist sleeps.”
            “The atheist?”
            “You know, sir—the praying man.”
            The captain turned on his heel and glared into the crowd of passengers with the look of a hunting wolf.
            “You!” he growled, pointing at a tall young man, about thirty years old, with a light brown beard gracing his chin and a calm expression on his features.
            Lucius had heard about this enigmatic passenger, but had largely ignored him. He seemed to be the friendly type, if a little quiet, but the friendships he had struck up among the passengers had begun to rile up resentment. He wasn’t shy about speaking blasphemies against the old gods, to the point where some of the passengers worried that he was tempting fate. It wasn’t the smartest thing in the world to infuriate Poseidon while undertaking a long voyage across the always-unpredictable Mediterranean Sea. So this man, despite his friendly demeanor, had come to be reviled as “the atheist,” and the long hours he spent in prayer to the one God he happened to believe in had become a regular source of mockery and amusement during their trip.
            Lucius had steered clear of the atheist from the beginning. He already had enough trouble. He had never been entirely sure of the existence of the old gods—his childhood tutor had been a Stoic, not a traditional polytheist—but he wasn’t willing to gamble his fate on the matter, especially since recent events seemed to show that he might very well have unknowingly made an enemy of Venus, that most capricious of goddesses. Besides, it was atheism of this very sort that had plunged the woman he loved into trouble, and led directly to the confrontation that had changed his life. He wanted never to hear about that particular brand of atheism ever again.
            The atheist stepped forward serenely, and the captain stalked up to him.
            “I should have guessed it was you,” he said. “Anyone who would throw away the piety of our ancestors could be capable of anything! What’s your name, atheist?”
            “Polycarp,” said the man.
            “Now, here’s the real question, Polycarp: where did you hide my money?”
            “I didn’t steal your money, Captain.”
            Lucius thought himself a good judge of character, and he saw nothing but sincerity in this man’s face. Besides, he knew who had really stolen the money. Atheist or not, it wasn’t fair to let someone else take the blame for it. That would be an affront to justice, and could itself risk prompting the displeasure of the gods.
            “Perhaps someone else planted it there in the atheist’s things,” Lucius spoke up.
            The captain glared at him. “What? Do you know something? I never suspected you, freedman—you’ve got too much money of your own. Quick, if you know something, tell me.”
            Lucius risked glancing past the captain for a moment, locking eyes with Ariston. The crafty Greek raised his brows in a subtle gesture of warning.
            “I don’t know anything, Captain,” said Lucius. “It just occurred to me that the atheist might be telling the truth, that’s all.”
            The captain grunted and shook his head. There was nothing else to be said, so the scene on the deck descended into silence once again. Eventually the sailors came up from the hold, declaring that they had searched in every possible hiding-place, and found nothing. So the captain had them search every passenger’s clothing. Many of them had purses of coins, but none with a collection large enough to come close to the amount in the treasury.
            When the search had exhausted every conceivable area of suspicion, the captain gave up.
“It’s going to be a long, slow disembarkation in Smyrna,” he said, wagging his finger. “Those coins are still on this ship, and if any of you are trying to make off with them when we land, we will find them on you then. As for you,” he turned to Polycarp, “I’ll have my sailors keep you in chains for the remainder of the voyage.”
            The atheist simply inclined his head, as if accepting the punishment.
            By the time the ordeal was over, it was nearly noon. Lucius sidled up to Ariston as soon as the captain was out of sight.
            “How did you do it?”
            Ariston grinned. “I thought you didn’t want to have any part of this.”
            “Just tell me.”
            “All I’ll tell you is that you made the right decision not to give me away. You wouldn’t have been able to prove anything anyway.”
            “Well, it doesn’t sound like you’ll be able to get off the ship with the money, not if the captain is searching every passenger on the way out.”
            He smiled mysteriously. “I have my ways, Tiro. Are you still sure you don’t want a cut of this prize?”
            Lucius shook his head. He knew Ariston was a manipulator, but there was something so winsome in his manner, and so clever in the execution of his schemes, that he couldn’t help admiring him. Nonetheless, he saw the danger in this young man’s way of life, and a sense of discretion overcame his temptation.
            “No, I think not. You just condemned an innocent man to chains.”
            “Innocent!” laughed Ariston. “Half the ship is ready to murder him, because they think a shipwreck will be coming thanks to him!”
            “Ah,” said Lucius, “but if I remember right, you’re something of an atheist yourself, no?”
            Ariston shrugged. “I hold no strong opinions on the subject of the gods. If they’re not there, I don’t have to fear them. And if they are there, I just have to be a hair cleverer than them—which, if you believe the old stories, isn’t too hard to do!”
            Lucius smiled and shook his head slowly. “If you make it to Smyrna without being clapped in chains again, will you tell me how you did it?”
            Ariston reached out and shook his hand. “For a partner in my triumph? Certainly I will. Be well, Tiro.”
            “Be well, Ariston.”

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