Friday, January 20, 2017

Prester John, Chapter 12 (Part 1)

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Chapter 12 (Part 1)

            The candidate for Lucius’ scheme came along a few days later. It was near noontime, and the traffic along the roads and paths of that region had died down with the rising heat of the day. Most of the travelers—and most of the brigands, too—had found what shade or shelter they could, to rest before resuming their activities. Lucius was sitting near the mouth of the cave, idly watching the wind kick up dust devils along the length of the ravine. Time seemed to move a good deal slower here than it ever had for him in Rome or Smyrna, and he was adjusting to its rhythms. Whereas before it would have grated against his nature to simply sit still, staring into the distance, accomplishing nothing other than the calm rest of a vacant mind, now it came to him like an old habit. He tried every now and then to pray, to invoke God or Christ in the quiet spaces of his mind, but he found it hard to know what to say. Was God even listening anymore? He didn’t know.
            Then there came the scuffing of footsteps along the dusty path. Lucius peered out into the pathway to see a middle-aged man leading a donkey, and with him a boy of about ten years old. He nudged Audax with his elbow, who shifted lazily and peered down the road with half-opened eyes.
            “Let’s stop these ones,” whispered Lucius.
            “Nah, look at them,” Audax mumbled. “No money there.”
            “No, they’re the ones I need to carry out my plan against Ariston!”
            Audax groaned as he heaved himself up to his feet. “Well, it’s about time.”
            They stepped out into the roadway, walking down to meet the man and his boy. When the man saw them coming, though, he immediately turned around and began jogging in the opposite direction, his boy and donkey close behind. But Lucius and Audax were already too close, and within a dozen strides they had closed the gap.
            Audax’s sword came ringing from its sheath. “Stop!” he shouted. “Stop, or I’ll cripple your beast!”
            The man swore, slowed his pace, and then turned. His eyes were already bright with tears.
            “What do you want with us? We’ve got no more money than a day’s worth of bread. We’re just humble travelers—let us go past, please!”
            Audax didn’t speak, but kept one hand on his sword and the other on the boy’s shoulder.
            “What’s your name?” asked Lucius.
            “And your profession?”
            “I…well, I’m a freedman. I’ve been a tutor in rhetoric, among other things.”
            Lucius smiled. “So you’re well acquainted with the art of persuasion, are you?”
            “I…yes, I suppose so.” He cracked a hesitant smile. “Have I persuaded you to let us go?”
            “Not quite,” Lucius chuckled. “We need your help.”
            “My help? What do you mean?”
            “We’re planning to take down the richest, vilest man in all of Smyrna, but we need to trick him to make it work.”
            Alexander shook his head slowly. “I’m not sure I want to be a part of that.”
            “I expect you will want to, since we’re going to keep your boy here with us until it’s done.”
            The traveler groaned, and a new wave of tears flooded his eyes. “Please don’t hurt him. He’s my only son. Can’t you just let us go on our way?”
            Lucius shook his head. “Trust me, you’ll be doing a great good by bringing justice against this man. And we won’t harm even a hair on your boy’s head—I promise.”
            “A promise from a highwayman?”
            “From a highwayman raised on the Palatine Hill.”
            Alexander raised his brows. His gaze shifted to his son for a long moment.
            “What do you need me to do?” Alexander said softly.
            “Very good,” said Lucius. “We need you to go into Smyrna and find the house of Ariston—one of the greatest houses in the city; everyone knows where it is. When you get there, you have to tell the master of the house that you were captured by us on your way to the city.”
            “True enough so far.”
            “Tell him that you have valuable information about our plans, and that you’ll tell him about them if he gives you a reward. He won’t trust you unless it looks like you’ve come to him in the hope of getting some money. He doesn’t believe men are capable of altruism.”
            “All right,” said Alexander. “And what is this valuable information that I’m demanding payment for?”
            “That while you were our captive, you saw us with some money that we had stolen from his house. If he asks where we’re keeping it, tell him that it’s buried in the back of our main cave. Then tell him that you overheard us making plans to go back and finish the job—to raid his house, kill him, and take the rest of his money. Tell him that we’re planning to raid it on the first night of the new moon.”
            “I think I’ve got it…” said Alexander. “You have some of his treasure, but you’re planning a raid to get the rest.”
            “Exactly. On the first night of the new moon. If I’m right, he’ll seize the bait. He’ll try to have the magistrate’s guards trap us at his house that night, but I think he’ll also take the opportunity, while we’re away from the cave, to come out here and steal back the treasure that we already possess.”
            “I see…so it’s a trap to entice him to come out here. I’m assuming that you won’t be going into the city at all, right? You’ll be lying in wait for him out here.”
            “Just so. It’s your job, Alexander, to use your skills of persuasion to convince him toward that end. But he’s a clever man—you must not raise his suspicions. If it goes off as I plan, and we lure him here, then you will get your son back. But if your skills of persuasion are not up to the task, or if you send the magistrate’s guards after us, well…”
            Alexander cursed and clenched his teeth. He looked at his son again, held in Audax’s iron grip, the silvery blade poised near his neck.
            “You shall have my help,” he said after a few moments. “What other choice do I have?”
            Audax smiled menacingly. “No other choice, my friend.” Then he turned to Lucius. “Do you think it will work?”
            Lucius narrowed his eyes and gazed down the road in the direction of Smyrna. “I think so. I’m betting on Ariston’s greed and his love of his own cleverness. I don’t think he can resist that.”
            Audax grinned again. “And what a lovely surprise we’ll have waiting for him!”

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