Friday, October 07, 2016

Prester John, Chapter 5 (Part 1)

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Chapter 5 

          Lucius felt a dense weight slam into the small of his back. It had about the heft of a fist-sized stone, but was remarkably softer. He turned to see a drawstring bag raising a cloud of dust at his feet, where it had fallen.
            “It’s your share,” said a voice nearby.
            Lucius looked up. He was standing on a side-street to the main forum in Smyrna, and there was a general bustle of passers-by all around him. But he already knew who had spoken, and it only took him a moment to focus on the man’s face.
            “Hello, Ariston,” said Lucius, trying to keep as stern an expression on his face as he could muster. “So what’s this—the captain’s coins? I told you I didn’t want any.”
            Ariston smirked and tapped a finger knowingly along the side of his nose. “Sometimes men give up their better natures in the presence of gold. Especially if they have no home…no patrons…no friends. Yes?”
            Lucius heaved a slight sigh and picked up the bag of coins. Just from the weight of it, he could tell that it was enough to keep him going for several months. Ariston was right—he had been in Smyrna for two weeks now, and had made no headway in finding a settled station of life. Money was beginning to run short.
            “How do you know my affairs so well?” he asked.
            “I make it my business to keep an eye on my friends. You were useful to me once; perhaps you’ll be so again.”
            “I’d rather make an honest go of it here,” Lucius replied.
            “Ah, yes,” grinned Ariston. “But the fruits of honesty are slow in growing, are they not?”
            “Certainly. But worth waiting for nonetheless.”
            “Oh, why try to go back now, Tiro? After all, you’ve already committed murder once, yes? Why not make use of the freedom of a life unbound to the law?”
            The accusation his Lucius like a physical blow. He took an involuntary step backward.
            “What? What did you say?”
            “Oh, you’re a poor actor, my friend. Don’t even try. I know everything. Oh, you don’t believe me? How’s this?—I know that your true name is Lucius Pius, and that, far from being a freedman, you are the son and heir to the noble Caelius house of Rome. I know that you were destined for great things—public service, power, fame, and glory—until the night before you appeared on our ship in Ostia. In a fit of rage, you murdered Domitian, one of the last remnants of the imperial Flavians, who, if the dice of fate had landed differently, might well have been an emperor himself. Tell me, Tiro—am I wrong?”
            Lucius swallowed hard, but tried not to break his gaze with the young man before him.
            “You are wrong. My name is Lucius Horatius Tiro, a freedman, and I come here honestly, to seek a new life.”
            Ariston smiled. There was no glimmer of diminishment in his air of triumphant confidence.
            “Ever since we made port, you see,” he began, drawing out his sentences as if he were relishing the taste of the words, “I’ve been keeping an ear to the news from Rome. It wasn’t long in coming. A murdered member of the old imperial dynasty? A celebrated young nobleman who flees without a trace in the middle of the night? Now that’s a delicious story, and one that has been swift to make its way to the itching ears of the entire empire. And it made sense of you, Tiro—your sudden appearance, your claim to be a freedman (although you’re clearly not), your willingness to be exploited by a loyal friend like me rather than be turned over to authorities—and so on. So, what would you have me call you? Pius? Or will you stick with Tiro for now?”
            “My name is Tiro, and I am done talking to you.” He tossed the bag of coins back to Ariston. “Please stop following me.”
            “Oh, you needn’t fear that I’ll give you away, if that’s what you’re worried about. I didn’t betray you on the ship, did I?”
            Lucius turned to walk away, but Ariston matched his pace.
            “No, you didn’t turn me in, but only because you blackmailed me into helping your little heist!”
            “Yes, yes,” Ariston smiled again. “And the money’s still yours if you want it. Aren’t you the least bit curious how I managed to get it off the ship? No? Well, I’ll tell you anyway. The captain is someone whose acquaintance I’ve had for some time, though I suspect he rather regrets our knowledge of each other. I knew that the cargo he transports from Rome to Smyrna includes a large portion of contraband items, wares pilfered from noble and imperial houses in Rome, and then sold on the black market. I knew that his sailors knew it too, and that they were trained not to open or look in any of the shipping crates marked with the captain’s personal seal. So, naturally, I stowed the coins in one of those crates, and they never searched it. I walked off the ship without any of the money, and then snuck back down to the wharves when they were offloading the cargo, and was able to retrieve it. Simple!”
            Lucius was walking faster now, hoping Ariston would fall behind. But the young Greek matched him stride for stride, loping through the forum at such a feverish pace now that many of the citizens there stopped what they were doing to stare at them.
            He didn’t know what to do. This hateful adversary, who styled himself a friend, had made his journey from Italy a nightmare, a constant experience of the dread of being discovered. Now here he was, on the other side of the empire, and still he could not escape the horror of that night in Rome. What next? Would he have to flee to Parthia, and hope that there was not another Ariston there, ready to ferret out the truth and exploit him? Had he so enraged Venus by giving his affections to Flavia, an atheist, that the goddess was now intent on wiping his memory from the face of the earth? He didn’t have the strength or cunning of an Odysseus or an Aeneas, to wrestle happy fates away from hostile gods.
            “Leave me alone!” he growled, stopping suddenly and turning to look Ariston directly in the eyes.
            Ariston smiled again—that bold, mocking smile—and shook his head. “I think not, my fiery young friend. You see, Tiro, I heard what you did back at the city jail. Oh, yes, don’t feign ignorance with me! You told the guards that I was the one who stole the captain’s treasure! I know it was you, because it had to be you! Naturally, they didn’t care to pursue the charge—you’ll find that I’m a good man to know in this city, and they certainly know that. But you—I should have reported you the moment I heard of your betrayal.”
            “I just didn’t want the atheist punished unjustly,” Lucius answered. “I knew you would be all right, what with your father’s connections.”
            “Quite so. But I own you now, Tiro. Remember that before you try to impugn my name in this town again.”
            “Right, I’ll remember,” Lucius drawled noncommittally, and started walking away again.
            But again, Ariston matched his pace.
            “I could use someone like you,” the young Greek continued. “You’re strong, smart, handsome. A leader of men. Me, people glance my way and decide they don’t like me. I don’t know why. But you—you could do real things of value in this city, especially with me behind you.”
            Lucius shook his head and kept walking. He had to find a way to get away from Ariston, before he got pulled into the web of another scheme. On a whim, he turned off the main thoroughfare of the forum, ducked through a series of low arches leading to the enclosed yard of a private house, and stopped.
            He had hoped that Ariston wouldn’t follow him, but the young Greek was persistent. As soon as he came into the enclosed yard, though, he too stopped. Before them were gathered a crowd of people of all descriptions—young and old, slaves and free, Greeks and Jews, men and women. A few turned to look at them with interest, but there was no hostility or surprise in the way they greeted this sudden intrusion. At the far end of this yard, under a half-covered portico, stood several men who faced the crowd—two bearded elders with swarthy, eastern faces, and a tall young man whom Lucius immediately recognized. It was Polycarp.
            “Lovely,” muttered Ariston. “You’ve found a whole nest of atheists now.”

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