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Friday, January 06, 2017

Prester John, Chapter 10 (Part 2)

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 Chapter 10 (Part 2)
            
          There was a slight chill in the air. He shuddered, and then began to wonder if it was the cool air that had caused it, or if it pronounced an ill omen on his night. Dread was already creeping up the sounding-ropes within his heart, and he suspected that he would soon enough look back upon this night with some regret. But what else was there to do? He had to press on.
           He was about to start his walk into the center of town, where the temple of Zeus stood guard near the agora, but he saw a figure coalescing from the shadows near the corner of the house. It stepped out into the moonlight, tall and lithe.
            “Don’t go,” said Polycarp.
            A wave of shame broke over Lucius’ shoulders, but he tried to play the innocent. “What do you mean?”
            Polycarp’s wise, sharp eyes were locked onto his own. “I saw you speaking to him at the market today, Lucius. That was Ariston, wasn’t it? Yes? Well, I’m not sure what he has you doing here, but I’ve a reasonable thought that it can’t be good.”
            “I’m just getting a little cool night air into my lungs, Polycarp. You needn’t be my overseer.”
            “Be careful, Lucius. Willful sins are no to be toyed with.”
            Lucius didn’t have anything to say in response to this. The two men stood looking at each other for a long moment.
            Then Lucius sighed. “I should be going.”
He stepped past his friend and began walking down the street again. Then he stopped and turned. Polycarp was still watching him.
“Polycarp…perhaps you could pray for me tonight.”
            Polycarp smiled softly. “I already am.”
            Lucius continued on his way. The streets were less full now than in the height of day, but there was still activity on every side, especially as he approached the center of the town. It was a rather different scene than the collection of well-groomed citizens in bright togas that usually could be found there—in these dark hours, a different element emerged, and filled the streets with their own raucous activity.
            At last he came to the corner of Zeus’ temple, and there he found a group of twelve men loitering, waiting for him. It took only a glance to confirm that these were the brigands that Ariston had hired to help carry out the plundering of his father’s house. They were large men and muscular, most of them sporting ratty beards, with swords and daggers of various lengths hanging from their belts and sashes.
            Lucius felt a twinge of fear, wondering if perhaps this was all just an elaborate scheme Ariston had set up to have him murdered by a band of highwaymen, but after a few moments of conversation, it was clear that both he and the brigands had indeed been given identical orders.
            They arranged their plans carefully, Lucius taking the lead by laying out the simple maps that Ariston had drawn for them, and then they were off. He wanted the act to be over and done with as soon as possible, and it served none of them to keep waiting around where suspicious magistrates might see.
            The house of Ariston’s father was a massive affair, though smaller than the Caelius house that Lucius had grown up in. It was wide, dominating the turn of the street on which it sat, and a pillared portico gave it its main entryway. They ignored this, instead turning down a side-alley, where Ariston had told them they would find a back door, often used by the servants, which they might find unguarded.
            Lucius let the brigands test the door first, more than happy to let them take the lead in fighting if any of the household servants were standing guard. But the door opened with a negligible creak, and the darkness of an empty passageway stood before them.
            They crept silently inside, pausing for a moment to let their eyes adjust to the dim corridor. The flickering dance of the light from an oil lamp, recessed somewhere at the far end of the corridor, was the only illumination. Silently they stalked further into the bowels of the house, taking care to check around them on both sides whenever their path crossed a new room or hallway. Only once, some forty paces inside the house, did they encounter one of the servants, but he appeared to be fast asleep in a chair.
            With a wordless nod, the team of intruders split up, the brigands taking their assigned role of seeking and securing the house’s main treasury, while Lucius broke off toward the family’s sleeping-quarters to find a smaller stash of coinage that Ariston said was hidden there.
            His heart beating hard, Lucius crept into the first darkened room off of the main atrium. He paused for a moment, certain that he had heard something—a soft, quiet sound, so low that he couldn’t place it—a breath, perhaps, or the light shuffling of feet. He crouched down, trying to dam up the terror coursing through his veins.
He waited—one minute, then two. He could hear faint sounds from the other brigands, still engaged in their work, but nothing more from the pitch-black room before him. So he stood again and stepped forward, trying to trace out in his mind the path that Ariston had mapped for him, since there wasn’t sufficient light to see where he ought to go.
            Another step. A few paces to the right. The coffer of coins should be close. He reached out his hands to feel for shelves against the wall.
            Then suddenly he was grabbed by the shoulders with an iron grip, from someone who had been standing just behind him, waiting for him in the darkness. The rough hands threw him down and to his left in a single swift motion.
            He landed on a soft, wet mass, and his hands and chest and face became slick with the contact.
            Blood.
He knew it right away—the smell, the feel of it. He had been thrown down on top of a dead body, lying in a pool of its own blood.
            He gave a cry that sounded like thunder in the stillness of the house, and recoiled away from the corpse. In that moment he heard the low chuckle of a voice he knew—a voice he hated—from the spot where his assailant stood.
            “Ariston?” Lucius growled. “Is that you? What’s the meaning of this?”
            There was no answer, but instead the brilliant flash of light from a flint being struck, and then the incandescent blossom of brightness when its spark hit an oil-soaked torch. Lucius had to close his eyes to protect them from the light, but when he finally opened them, he wished he had kept them shut.
            Ariston stood there, torch in hand, glaring at him gleefully. On a low couch in the center of the room was the body of a silvery-haired nobleman, his body riddled with stab-wounds and his toga soaked through with crimson stains.
            “Is that your father?” Lucius gasped. “Ariston, what is this?”
            Ariston smiled hatefully down at him. “Oh, yes, that’s my father. And this is your last night as a free man.”
            Lucius looked down at his own clothes and hands, covered in the nobleman’s blood, and then at Ariston, who appeared as clean and fresh as a morning frost.
            “It’s a trap,” Lucius sputtered. “Why?”
            “It’s very simple. You betrayed me. So I’m condemning you to a living death.”
            By now the other brigands, drawn by the light and the sound of open voices, had appeared in the shadows of the doorway. It was clear from their faces that they had not been party to Ariston’s hidden scheme—they, too, were being played.
            “It’s a trap!” Lucius growled again, finally realizing what he had to do. If Ariston had set all this up to make him out to be the murderer, then the magistrates would be the next players to arrive on the scene.
“Go!” he shouted, scrambling out of the room with the brigands close behind him.
            “It’s too late!” he heard the mocking voice of Ariston ringing out after him, but he paid it no heed. He raced out of the house in the quickest way possible—straight out the portico and onto the street.
            But Ariston was right. It was too late. There to meet him, arranged in a wide half-circle that cut off every avenue of escape, was a group of soldiers and magistrates, torches lit and swords drawn.
            Suddenly Ariston appeared from the house, wailing in a stricken voice: “Murderer! Murderer! My noble father, slain!”
            The captain of the guards stepped forward and looked straight at Lucius, whose bloodied visage belied any show of innocence he could have mustered.
            “Lucius Caelius Pius,” the captain intoned gravely.
A chill ran down Lucius’ spine at hearing his true name spoken aloud.
“You are under arrest for the murders of Flavius Domitian the Younger in Rome and of Ariston the Elder of Smyrna. Surrender yourself to our custody.”
            Lucius cast a glance behind him and saw that the brigands were standing there with weapons drawn, showing in their faces a clear willingness to add Ariston and the magistrates to the list of murders just recounted. They were the only reason that the captain hadn’t immediately stepped forward and seized him.
            “I say again, stand down!” shouted the captain.
            Lucius looked at the chief brigand and questioned him with a single glance. Was it better to give up, and face imprisonment and execution for Ariston’s crime? Or to make a run for it, and die bravely in a final gasp of freedom?
            The brigand’s eyes spoke all the answer Lucius needed.
            “My lord,” said Lucius, “the crime done here was Ariston the Younger’s, not mine, and I will not submit to sealing his treachery with my surrender. My friends and I are leaving.”
            The captain raised his sword and pointed it straight at Lucius’ face. “Stand down!”
            “Go, men!” shouted Lucius, sprinting off toward the weakest part of the guards’ line. The brigands were just a half-step behind him, and in the face of their whirling blades, the guards melted away to the right and to the left, clearing the way for them to escape into the darkened streets.
            “Pursue!” came the shout from the captain of the guards, but that was the last that Lucius ever heard from him. The wind was in his ears, and freedom was ahead of him if only he kept running, so that night he ran until his legs gave out.
An hour later, in the barren foothills above the city, he collapsed, and watched the whirling stars until his heart was calm again.
 
 

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