Friday, September 16, 2016

Prester John, Chapter 2

* 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.

(See lower sidebar menu for links to all available chapters)

Chapter 2
Lucius awoke to a fair morning, with sunlight so bright that it pierced through his eyelids like steel daggers. His head was pounding; his robes were smeared with mud from where his drunken steps had carried him off the road. A thrush was making an unconscionable racket in a sapling nearby; he muttered invectives against it.
He stumbled back onto the road. It was a well-traveled route, the highway down the Tiber linking Rome with the port of Ostia, and it was crowded that day with merchants, carts, and ordinary citizens. But there were no angry magistrates, no soldiers searching the faces of passersby. So he joined the moving stream of people and continued his march toward the sea.
The day grew hot as the sun rose, heat that seared through his tunic to enflame the skin on his back. He walked in a daze. He saw things he had seen a hundred times before, but now they seemed suddenly unreal, ephemeral. Everything was cast in the nightmarish shadow of the previous night’s despair.
He walked on aching legs until he came to the harbor, where all the ships of the world came to ply the doors of imperial Rome. Ostia was a confusion of people and crates, seagulls and fish, and he had few fears now that he would be found. Rome would be forever cut off from him, and while there would be safety among the crowds of Ostia or Neapolis, there would always still be the chance that some traveler from Rome might recognize him there. No, he had to fly away, off to some far corner of the Empire, where neither his father nor his old acquaintances would ever be likely to go.
He scanned the ships that lined the quay where the Tiber met the sea, and ticked off the possibilities in his mind. There was an Athenian ship offloading its goods, but it would not be ready for its outgoing passage for another day or two; neither would the Alexandrian ship. So he finally settled on a third ship, this one bound for Smyrna, in Asia Minor. Smyrna was an ancient city of the Greeks, not of the stature of an Athens or an Alexandria, but a center of culture nonetheless. There he would be an exile, but he wouldn’t have to give up civilization.
He approached the mass of people clustered around the ship’s captain, and what he heard confirmed his choice: they were taking on passengers, at a cost that he could easily manage from what he bore in his leather purse.
When it came time for Lucius to approach the captain—a rather grizzled character—to negotiate his passage, a flash of fear led him to pause. He had heard the captain asking each passenger for their name. But Lucius couldn’t use his own name. Everyone in Italy knew the great name of the Caelius house, and word that one of its members had shipped out to Smyrna might very well get back to entangle itself in the gossip-webs of Rome.
            “What’s your name, young man?” asked the captain, squinting into his face.
            “Lucius—er, Lucius Tiro.”
            “A freedman’s name,” grunted the captain. “Do you have papers? I don’t want any runaway slaves giving me trouble.”
            “I’m a legal freedman, a freedman’s son,” said Lucius. “My father had been a slave once, but never me.”
            “Hmm!” the captain grunted. “Got a family name?”
            “Of course. Horatius.”
            “Mmm-hmm,” mused the captain, making a quick note on his vellum scroll. “Lucius Horatius Tiro. Well, then, Tiro, let’s talk about some real business. You got money?”
            Lucius took the leather purse from his belt and jingled it. At that moment, the captain’s questions disappeared, and within a matter of just a few minutes, Lucius was safely aboard the ship.
~ ~ ~
As the morning wore on into the afternoon, Lucius watched the business of the ship. The passengers and goods were loaded and brought to their emplacements; the oars and sails checked; and then the anchors weighed. The ship began to move, taking its heading away from the mouth of the Tiber River, and turning southward along the rolling coast of the Italian hills. He watched the familiar landscapes of his childhood slip away—the green hills interspersed with golden fields of grain; the tall, dark forms of cypress trees and the gnarled beauties of the olive trees; the sinuous lines of the climbing vineyards. He couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever see them again, or if he would live out his days to scenes of Greek and Lydian ruins stretched out beside the Aegean Sea.
            So deep was his reverie that he didn’t even notice when another passenger joined him at the edge of the deck, watching the rocks and hills of Italy slide slowly by.
            “Captain tells me you’re a freedman,” said a confident voice beside him.
            Lucius turned to see a young man standing next to him, dressed in a plain white toga. He was not a pleasant man to look at—his nose was crooked, and the skin of his face was left pockmarked from an old battle with disease. But his clear, dark eyes radiated the strength of self-assurance, and Lucius thought he saw in them the spark of a fierce intelligence.
            The man had spoken with a smile, so Lucius returned it. “Yes, Lucius Tiro—a freedman.”
            “Ever been to Smyrna?” the young man continued, switching suddenly from Latin to Greek.
            “No,” Lucius answered in the same language. “Never further from Rome than Neapolis. But I look forward to seeing it.”
            “What brings you there?”
            Lucius shrugged. “A change in fortune. I’ve had enough of Rome.”
            The young man narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. Then he smiled. “You’re not really a freedman, are you?”
            Lucius raised his brows. “And what are you supposed to be, a diviner?”
            “Allow me to tally up the evidence: The captain says you’re a freedman with a Roman family name—Horatius, I think he said. Yet you seem to have money aplenty, despite your ‘change in fortunes.’ And you can speak Greek with all the inflections and peculiar grammar of someone who has learned it from a tutor—and that’s not something a freedman’s family can well afford. In fact, just from listening to you speak, I’ll wager your tutor was from Athens, wasn’t he?”
            All this was said on the edge of a smile, and Lucius couldn’t help but smile back. The young man was right—he had learned Greek from an Athenian tutor employed as a servant in the Caelius house. He thought for a moment about furthering his web of lies, constructing a narrative about being a good friend to the son of a noble house, and thus a beneficiary of some free schooling, but there was something about the intelligent sharpness in this man’s manner that convinced him that it wouldn’t help his cause. So he tried to divert the questions instead.
            “And how come you to be so much in the captain’s confidence?” he asked.
            “Ha! ‘Confidence’ is too strong a word for what the captain feels for me. I know how to annoy him enough to get what I need out of him. I’m Ariston, by the way. I rode this ship all the way from Smyrna. Now I’m riding back again. You might say my fortunes have changed, too.”
            “How so?”
            “Ah, how subtly you evade!” grinned Ariston. “So it’s now about me, is it? Not the fact that we’ve got a rich young nobleman who would be taken for the son of a slave? Ah, yes, I’ve struck rather near the truth, haven’t I? And what could make a nobleman do such a thing, other than that he finds himself in a great deal of trouble?”
            Lucius tried to play it off. He shook his head and laughed. “I’ve always heard the Greeks have extraordinary powers of imagination. Now I see it’s true.”
            Ariston grinned again. “You’ve nothing to fear with me, Lucius Tiro. I’m as innocent as the rose-fingered dawn! Just be my friend, and I’ll be your friend, and there’ll be no trouble between us.”
            Lucius narrowed his eyes. There was a foreboding subtext to what Ariston was saying, but he wasn’t quite sure he understood.
            “I’m pleased to call you a friend,” he answered carefully.
            “Good, good! You know, Tiro, the captain saw the amount of coin you carry around in that little purse of yours. I have the notion that he wouldn’t mind currying a bit of favor with a wealthy freedman like you.”
            Lucius frowned at the young man. “It sounds like you have something particular in mind.”
            “Well, I thought maybe, if the opportunity arises, you could strike up a conversation with him, find a way to get invited into his quarters for a drink, and then have a look around. I’d very much like to know where he keeps his treasury.”
            Lucius scoffed. “You brigand! I see your game. Well, you can count me out of your plans. I’ll have no part in villainy of that sort.”
            “Villainy? This world is the arena, Tiro, and we are the gladiators in it. You take whatever chance you get to stay one stroke ahead, or else you’ll end up with nothing but blood on the sand. I make my own fate in this world.”
            “And what about the gods? Aren’t you afraid they’ll punish you for this sort of thing?”
            “The gods! Tell me, Tiro, how have the gods rewarded you? Mmm—I thought as much. No, here’s my philosophy: you must be the god of your own fate, or someone else will do it for you. That captain is a beast of a man, and he’s treated me with contempt. I’ve every right to teach him a lesson about life.”
            “Well, as I said, don’t expect me to help. Go find someone else.”
            Ariston shrugged. “I said that I would be your friend if you are mine. If not, though, that’s a different matter. I could always let the captain know that it might be worth checking in with an imperial magistrate to see if there’s a reward out for a bright young nobleman, recently fled from Rome…”
            Lucius clenched his jaw. “I told you: I’m just a freedman. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
            Ariston nodded, a slight smirk playing at the corner of his mouth. “I’ll give you one day to think about it, Tiro. Or else the captain might just be making a little stop to check in with the Roman magistracy in Neapolis. One day.”
            Lucius shrugged, but inwardly he was terrified. This insightful, dangerous man had seen through him at a glance, and now he faced the choice of joining a criminal conspiracy or being turned over to the authorities. He didn’t know if word of his murder would have reached Neapolis so quickly, but he didn’t want to find out. Domitian had been the heir to a former house of emperors, so there was no doubt that word of the murder would eventually reach not only Neapolis, but Smyrna as well. He had to keep his old identity buried. There was no other way.
~ ~ ~
                Lucius hadn’t been able to sleep that night. The swaying of the ship was a new sensation for him, who had spent his whole life on land, and he didn’t find the experience a pleasant one. Not only were his guts knotted and heaving; his mind was racing to find a way out of Ariston’s little game of blackmail. It was true that Ariston didn’t actually know the truth about who he was, but he had guessed enough to be dangerous. The only way forward, Lucius thought, would be to inquire discreetly of the captain about Ariston. Maybe he could learn something that would give him an advantage over the manipulator, and so play both sides against the middle.
            So when the next day dawned, bright and clear over the Tyrrhenian coastline, Lucius made his way up to the ship’s stern-castle, where the captain was holding court with a few of his sailors. As soon as Lucius approached, he straightened his posture and put on a smile.
            “Ah, our favorite freedman!” he grinned. “I forgot to mention to you yesterday, friend Tiro, that if you’re willing to pay a bit more, I might be able to arrange more comfortable accommodations for you during the voyage.”
            “No, no, that’s quite all right,” said Lucius, giving a small bow of gratitude. “But perhaps I could speak with you alone for a moment.”
            With a wave of his hand, the captain dismissed his sailors, without ever taking his gaze off Lucius.
            “I made the acquaintance of a young man named Ariston yesterday,” said Lucius. “I’m not entirely sure that I should trust his overtures of friendship. As a novice traveler, moving to a new land, I was hoping that you might do me a generous turn by letting me know if I should trust him or not.”
            The captain chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Ariston! Never, never, never trust him, young man! If you fall in with him, you’ll quickly be either very rich or very dead.”
            “Why is that?”
            “He’s a scoundrel, that one—the son of a notable civic patron back in Smyrna, but he fell in with the wrong crowd. He was actually arrested on suspicion of robbing the temple treasuries, and since he’s a Roman citizen, he managed to get his case appealed to Caesar. The local magistrates were only too happy to send him off to Rome with me, so that they could be done with the matter
            “So what happened when he got to Rome?”
            “Oh, he was let off. He has a way with words and a way with people, that one. The emperor’s officials thought he was their best friend in the whole world by the end of it. So now it’s my job to ferry his sorry carcass back home. I don’t really mind, though—there’ll be a pretty penny in it for me from his father when we reach Smyrna. As for you, though—no, don’t trust him.”
            Lucius nodded, processing all this. The description of Ariston made some sense of the conversation from the previous day, but he still didn’t know what to do. If he told the captain about Ariston’s scheme to rob him, the captain would no doubt find it believable. But Ariston would immediately tell the captain that Lucius was a runaway nobleman with a large price on his head, and if he was certain about anything regarding the captain’s character, it was that he was the sort of man who would take the chance to enrich himself with just such a reward.
            Lucius sighed. “Very well, Captain. Thank you for the advice. I’ll try to be a bit more discerning.”
            “Be well,” nodded the captain, using the common phrase for saying goodbye.
            But Lucius paused. “Perhaps,” he said slowly, as if the thought had just occurred to him, “if it’s not too much to ask, I wonder if I might share a drink with you tonight. I’ve heard that commerce captains like yourself often carry the only decent wines to be had aboard a ship, and I would be more than happy to pay for it if you’d let me drop by your quarters for a drink later on. What do you say?”
            The captain shrugged. “If you’ve got the coins, I’ve got the wine. I keep my quarters locked at night, so just give the door a knock and let me know it’s you.”
            “As you say,” replied Lucius. “Be well, captain.” 

No comments: