So set was the captain on reaching calmer waters that he took no no-tice of the several ships that lay dead ahead of us, their sails as bright as ivory in the glaring sunlight. Some of the vessels appeared to be war-ships. Such a group, encountered closer to Alexandria, would have given no cause for alarm, for there the harbor and its guardian fleet would have offered protection from vagabonds and pirates. But our location ap-peared to be far from any port or harbor of consequence, so that we might as well have been on the open sea. We were acutely vulnerable to robbery and attack. Even as I was considering this, the captain finally appeared to take notice of the vessels ahead of us. He gave an order to veer southward, toward land, even though that arid, featureless strip of shoreline appeared to offer very little in the way of succor or conceal-ment.
But the other ships had already spotted us, and whatever their inten-tions, seemed unwilling to let us go without an encounter. Two smaller vessels struck out toward us.
Whoever they were, they were practiced sailors with considerable skill at pursuit and capture. Coordinating their movements with ad-mirable precision, they drew apart so as to pull alongside us both to star-board and port, then slowed their speed to match ours. They were close enough now so that I could see the leering faces of the armed men on deck. Were they bent on our destruction, or merely exhilarated by the chase? From the ship to our starboard, an officer called out, "Give it up, Captain! We've caught you fair and square. Raise your oars, or else we'll get rid of them for you!"
The threat was literal; I had seen warships employ just such a maneu-ver, drawing alongside an enemy vessel, veering close, then withdrawing their oars so as to shear off the other ship's still-extended oars, rendering it helpless. With two ships, such a maneuver could be executed on both sides of us simultaneously. Given the skill our pursuers had so far dis-played, I had no doubt that they could pull it off.
The captain was still in a panic, frozen to the spot and speechless. His men looked to him for orders, but received none. We proceeded at full speed, the pursuers matching us and drawing closer on either side.
"By Hercules!" I shouted, tearing myself from Bethesda to run to the captain's side. I gripped his arm. "Give the order to raise oars!"
The captain looked at me blankly. I slapped him across the face. He bolted and moved to strike back at me, then the glimmer of reason lit his eyes. He took a deep breath and raised his arms.
"Lift oars!" he cried. "Trim sail!"
The sailors, heaving with exertion, obeyed at once. Our pursuers, with flawless seamanship, mimicked our actions, and all three ships re-mained side by side even as the waves began to brake our progress.
The ship to our starboard drew even closer. The soldier who had or-dered us to stop spoke again, though he was now so close that he hardly needed to raise his voice. I saw that he wore the insignia of a Roman cen-turion. "Identify yourself!"
The captain cleared his throat. "This is the Andromeda, an Athenian ship with a Greek crew."
"Cretheus, owner and captain."
"Why did you flee when we approached?"
"What fool wouldn't have done the same?"
The centurion laughed. At least he was in good humor. "Where do you sail from?"
"Ostia, the port city of Rome."
"Alexandria. We'd be there now if not for-"
"Just answer the questions! Cargo?"
"Olive oil and wine. In Alexandria we'll be picking up raw line and-"
"Only one party, a fellow and his wife-"
"Is that him, beside you?"
I spoke up. "My name is Gordianus. I'm a Roman citizen."
"Are you now?" The centurion peered at me. "How many in you party?"
"My wife, a bodyguard, two slave boys."
"Are we free to sail on?" said the captain.
"Not yet. All ships without exception are to be boarded and searched and the names of all passengers passed on to the Great One himself. Nothing for you to be alarmed about; standard procedure. Now turn about, and we'll escort you to the fleet."
I cast a wistful glance at the bleak, receding shore. We had not fallen into the clutches of Caesar, or pirates, or renegade soldiers. It was much worse than that. Only one man in the whole world presumed to cal himself Magnus, Great One: Pompey. The Fates had delivered me into the hands of a man who had vowed to see me dead.
Copyright 2004 by Steven Saylor