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A WEAPON OF MANY GODS
NUMIDIA, 32 BCE
Standing at the craggy edge of a ridge that stabbed out into the stormy Mediterranean like a finger pointing north out of Africa—toward Europe, toward Rome—Juba frowned. The last thing the sixteen-year-old wanted to do was to resort to torture.
Sure, he’d read enough about the dark arts of physical pain to be reasonably certain how to go about them. One privilege of being an adopted son of Julius Caesar, after all, had been the possibility of an education bounded only by his own thirsty mind. By the time he’d left Rome a year ago, a tutor had proudly proclaimed him one of the most widely read men in the city—and that was before the old scrolls and tomes Juba had encountered during these many months across the sea in Africa.
Still, the idea of using violence to attain what he wanted didn’t appeal to him. He doubted that information wrought from torture could really be of much use. It would be too conflicted. And even more than that, it didn’t seem right. It didn’t seem, well, Roman.
A hard wind kicked up the cliff-side, bringing with it the smell of brine from the churning waters far below. Gazing down at his arms after the stinging mist had passed over him, Juba noted the little pale droplets clinging to his dark skin. The irony of it further clouded his brooding mind. I’m no Roman, he thought. I’m a Numidian.
Juba heard the sound of someone moving hesitantly down along the narrow, broken path behind him. Even without turning, he could tell it was Quintus. The slave disliked heights. Always had. And now that the years had brought gray to his temples and long lines to his face, loyal Quintus truly hated them. “Yes?” Juba asked.
“It’s Laenas, sir. I think he’s … well, growing impatient with the priest. I fear something rash.”
Juba nodded. He’d expected as much when he’d left them alone in the old temple. Scar-faced Laenas had proven, time and time again during this past year, that he could be counted on for only two things: to desire coin and to despise those who stood in the way of his getting it. Since Juba had promised him thirty silver denarii if they got the information they were seeking from the Numidian priest, he was bound to be impatient.
Juba turned back from the salty, whipping wind, saw that Quintus was huddled as close to a nearby boulder as he could manage. Despite his own gloomy thoughts, Juba couldn’t help but smile at the old slave. Assigned to care for him when he was still just a child living in Caesar’s villa, Quintus had grown to be more a father to him than Julius had ever been.
“Very well,” Juba said, stepping forward to help his slave back up the path toward the temple. “Let’s hope he’s willing to talk now.”
* * *
Cut back into the earth, the old temple dedicated to the pagan goddess Astarte appeared from the outside to be little more than a weather-beaten cluster of stones clinging to the cliffs just below the crest of the bare ridgeline. Quiet. Isolated. Just the sort of place to hide the secrets of ancient gods.
Juba ducked through the clanking wooden door, grateful to be out of the wind and into the relative warmth of the dark, windowless interior. Quintus was quick to follow, the release of his breath signaling his additional relief at being off the precipices outside. “They’re still in the back,” the slave whispered.
Juba moved quickly through the small, bare antechamber and then through a thick drape into the lamp-lit altar room beyond, its air filled with the heavy scents of spiced incense and moist loam. At its head sat a low stone firepit filled with ash and bones. Behind it, atop a rough-hewn wooden pillar blackened by the fire, sat a small clay statue of a woman, only a little taller than his forearm, perched on a throne and holding a bowl beneath her more than ample breasts. Juba had read of such figurines in his books. It was said that the power of the fertility goddess—and her associated priest, of course—could be seen in the miraculous leaking of milk from the statue, flowing down from her breasts into the bowl.
Juba had studied this particular statue carefully earlier in the day, while they waited for the priest to return from the well in the village. He’d had no trouble finding the small holes bored through the clay nipples into the hollow of her body. He’d even found some flecks of the soft wax plugs that the priest had used to keep her breasts from leaking until the sacrifice burning in the altar below her had melted them.
So much for this god, he’d thought.
Juba walked past her now, up the three worn steps of the altar’s stone dais, and then down another set of steeper, more roughly hewn steps that led to a low doorway against the back wall. Pushing through the drape there, he entered the last chamber.
The old priest of Astarte, still bound to his simple stool, had fallen over to the damp earthen floor. His nose was running with blood that glistened wetly in the flickering lamplight, and the short but stout Laenas was straddling him, hunched over at the waist, his fist raised for another strike.
“That’s enough,” Juba said, trying to sound strong, and glad to hear that his voice didn’t crack.
Laenas grunted his assent and stood. Juba noticed now that his other hand had been holding a knife, which he quickly slipped back into the folds of his clothing. Its edge did not yet appear wet. “We was just talking,” Laenas said over his shoulder.
The priest coughed loudly, a half-retching sound from his gut, and then spat into the dark dirt. Juba had always found it difficult to judge the age of those men older than him, a problem compounded here by the leather-tanned skin of a native Numidian: though it was, Juba could never forget, the tone of his own flesh, it nevertheless appeared foreign to his sight. Still, from the man’s wrinkled face, his sparse, white hair, and his thick beard, Juba had guessed him to be in perhaps his seventies, even if his ability to withstand threat—and to manage the long hike to the village for water and supplies—spoke of a younger man, at least in spirit. Looking at him, Juba felt a pang of pity, but not remorse. “Help him up,” he said.
Laenas grunted again—the typical depth of his speech—and then stepped around to lift the priest and his stool back into position. It seemed no more difficult for the stout little man than hoisting a sack of wheat. As the old man was lifted upright, Juba saw again the strange symbol on the pendant hanging around his neck: a triangle inscribed, point down, upon a perfect circle. He had seen similar pendants around the necks of some of the men whose information had led him here.
“I’m sorry for that,” Juba said, measuring out his words, concentrating on keeping his back straight, his chin high. “We’re all just very anxious to hear what you have to say. Laenas here most of all.”
The priest sputtered, his mouth moving, but he said nothing.
Juba sighed and walked over to one of the priest’s rickety tables. It had been unceremoniously swept clean, the plates and parchment tumbled to the floor. In their place sat a bundle of bound canvas—substantially bigger, Juba noted with some amusement, than the statue of Astarte in the hall. Juba walked to it and raised his hand to touch the rough cloth, feeling the outline of the broken wooden staff beneath. Where the staff met the wider metal head, the cloth felt warm, and he snatched his fingers away with a start. He swallowed hard, glad his back was turned to the other men in the little room. “Let’s start simple,” he said, trying to calm his heartbeat. “This staff. This … trident. How did it come to be here? The priests who pointed me here say it’s the Trident of Neptune—or Poseidon, if you prefer. Is that true?”
When the priest said nothing, Juba turned around and saw that he was shaking his head weakly. Standing behind him, Laenas’ face appeared to flush, the wide scar across his right cheek a darkening purple in the gloom.
“It’s strange, you know,” Juba continued, looking back toward the bundle and resisting the urge to touch it this time. “An artifact of the old Greek and Roman gods, here in this place, in the possession of a priest of Astarte. I wonder … is there something to the idea that Astarte is the same goddess as the Greek Aphrodite, the Roman Venus?”
“I’ll not help Rome,” the old man croaked.
Juba heard only the briefest rush of movement before the priest gasped, a sound that reminded the young man of a cook tenderizing meat. Juba spun around and saw the old man slumped sideways, grimacing. “Laenas!” he cried out, his voice cracking with the sudden start.
The rugged Roman straightened, his fist coming back from the priest’s side and something like a smirk momentarily passing over his face. “Wasn’t having him spitting about Rome,” he said.
As if in reply, the priest did, in fact, cough and spit. The blood ran dark streaks into his matted beard.
Whatever else Juba might have expected the priest to utter then—that the Trident wasn’t real, that the gods weren’t real, maybe that he had money hidden away under a rock somewhere—it wasn’t what the old man finally managed to say. “You’ve your father’s eyes.”
Juba stared at him, unblinking, his mind and heart racing. The old man held his gaze for a long moment before shutting his own eyes in a grimace of pain. Juba still stared at him, feeling the attention of Quintus and Laenas upon him even as he dared not look at them.
“Lord Juba—” Quintus started.
“Leave us,” Juba commanded, cutting off the slave. He flicked his gaze at Laenas just long enough to note the familiar look of disdain on the rough man’s face, the same twist of jealousy and disgust he’d seen so often while growing up in Rome as the foreign-born adopted son of Caesar. “Both of you.”
“My lord, I—” Quintus said.
Juba silenced him with a wave of his hand. “I said go. Now.”
“Very well,” Quintus said, bowing deep as he backed toward the doorway. Laenas followed with a predictably dissatisfied grunt.
In seconds, Juba stood alone in the little room with the sagging priest. He took long, deep breaths to steady himself. “You speak the language of Rome well for a Numidian,” he said when the sounds of Laenas and Quintus had grown faint.
The old priest licked his lips and swallowed before responding. “I was a slave to Rome, too, once.”
“What’s your name?”
“Syphax,” the old priest said.
“So you knew my father.”
Syphax nodded slowly. “I knew the king, yes.”
The king, Juba thought. Could it truly be that the old priest, hidden away out here on this lonesome spit of land, was a loyalist to the royal family of Numidia? The lineage of which he alone remained?
“I saw him die,” Syphax said.
The old priest coughed twice painfully before he regained his composure. “Saw him die on the blade of my master, Marcus Petreius.”
Juba staggered backward into the ragged table behind him as if physically struck by the sheer weight of memory and history that flooded into his mind. He’d read the books, sought out every shred of detail he could find on his real father’s inglorious end. After Caesar had defeated the Numidian army at Thapsus, Juba’s father had fled with the general Petreius, only to be trapped. The histories spoke of how the two men dueled to the death, opting for an honorable end rather than the wrath of Caesar and the horrible, dishonorable Triumph that he would have put them through back in Rome—the Triumph that had thus fallen to his infant son, Prince Juba, first seized and then later adopted by the very man who’d driven his royal father to such a doom.
“No,” Juba managed to say. It had only been two months since Juba had knelt, at last, beside the unmarked grave of the true father Caesar had never let him know. His hands gripped the rough wood of the table at his back. “You cannot have.”
“I watched them fight at the end,” Syphax said. There was no pride in his voice. No power. Only old sorrow. “Petreius was still alive when it was done. As my duty, I ran a blade into his heart.”
Juba closed his eyes, tried to imagine the scene as he had so many times in his young life. As ever, his father’s face was a blur. Only the darkness of his skin was familiar. But he could picture a younger Syphax there, too, waiting, with a shined and sharpened sword, for either of them to fall. “Yet here you live,” Juba said, opening his eyelids to glare fiercely at the priest. “A slave … you killed your master but didn’t follow him.”
The priest’s jaw quivered, his eyes red and sunk deep into tired sockets. “You’re right. I didn’t. I promised to fall upon my own sword after it was done. Promised them both. But I didn’t.”
Juba was just Roman enough to know the depth of Syphax’s dishonor on principle. He was just Numidian enough to think the offense against his true father’s memory worthy of death. And he was just young enough to act on the impulse of rage that washed over him.
He opened his mouth to call for Laenas.
“But for good reason, Juba!” Syphax cried out in a ragged voice. “I couldn’t let them get it. I couldn’t!”
The old priest’s eyes had a trance-like glaze now, riveted on the bundle of cloth on the table. Juba, despite his rage, decided not to call Laenas just yet. “Tell me of it,” he said. “Tell me everything.”
* * *
Juba stepped around the altar to Astarte, canvas bundle under his arm, and found Quintus and Laenas in the temple’s main room, sitting on one of the primitive stone benches. The old slave looked anxious. Laenas just looked sullen. Juba ignored them both for now, walking past them and through the antechamber out into the wind and the smells of the sea, his head too full of thoughts to speak just yet.
Syphax had indeed told him all that he knew. Juba was certain of that. The old man’s despair was too great to hold back to the son and heir of Numidia, especially once he knew the secret Juba had kept from everyone but Quintus: that he hated Rome, that he hated his adopted father. He hated them for his real father’s death. For the disgrace of the Triumph that was his earliest memory. For everything that Rome had done to his country.
Syphax had told him everything then. He’d told him far more than he could ever have imagined.
The Trident in his hands was indeed the weapon of gods. Poseidon. Neptune. But more than that, it was a weapon of the Jews, whose strange religion Juba knew little about—a fact he intended to remedy as soon as possible with the help of every book he could get his hands on.
And still more: there was an even greater weapon of the gods out there to be found, a weapon of the Jews that might give him the power to accomplish the revenge he’d long hoped to achieve. An ark.
The wooden door to the temple squeaked open and shut. Quintus tentatively shuffled up behind him. “Juba?”
The sixteen-year-old focused his eyes on the distant horizon, where the darkening sea met the darkening sky. Lightning flashed there, silent but threatening.
Syphax didn’t have all the answers, but the old priest knew who did. “Thoth knows,” he’d said, again and again. The source of the Trident’s power, the nature of its strange black stone, the whereabouts of the wondrous ark …Thoth knows.
At first, Juba had thought it was no answer at all. Thoth was an Egyptian god, like the Roman Mercury, a figure who moved between the world of gods and the world of men. A deity of so many faces he seemed to be everything and nothing all at once: god of magic and medicine, god of the dead, god of the moon, god of writing and wisdom, even the founder of civilization itself.
Thoth would naturally know the answers to questions. Yet Syphax had spoken with a pragmatic earnestness, as if Juba could easily get information from Thoth.
“So where is Thoth?” Juba had asked the priest of Astarte.
And, after some final persuasion, Syphax had answered: “Thoth was in Sais.”
Sais, Juba knew, was the cult center for the goddess Neith, the Egyptian counterpart of Astarte, which explained the priest’s knowledge. Perhaps it even explained how he’d come to have the Trident. Then he’d caught the nuance in the priest’s words. “Was?”
The old priest had smiled grimly, his pale teeth smeared with red. “The Scrolls are in Alexandria.”
The truth at last. It wasn’t Thoth himself who had the answers, but the legendary Scrolls of Thoth, in which all knowledge, it was said, could be found. And the Scrolls were in Egypt, in the Great Library. Find them and he’d have the power, and the vengeance, that he sought.
The lightning pulsed again, and beyond the wind and the breaking of waves Juba heard a quiet rumble. Was it from the earlier flashes? Or was it the deep of the sea, calling out for its master? Juba swallowed hard, resisting the temptation to touch the metal head of the Trident in its canvas bundle, to see if it was warmer now. Instead he took a deep breath to clear his mind, to focus on the tasks immediately at hand. He needed to do more research. More than that, he needed money. Getting the Scrolls of Thoth from the Great Library and destroying Rome wasn’t going to come cheap, after all, with or without a weapon of the gods. And there was surely no better time to strike than now, with war between Rome and Alexandria threatening to turn the world to chaos.
“We’re returning to Rome,” he said over his shoulder. “As soon as possible. There are things I need to do there.”
“Of course,” Quintus said, his voice uncertain. “Laenas wants to know, sir, what about the priest?”
Juba blinked away the beads of salty water that were starting to cling to his eyelashes. What to do about the priest? He was a loyal Numidian, after all, one of the very people Juba was going to save from Rome. Yet he’d abandoned the promise made to Juba’s father, no matter his reasons. And, truth be told, he knew far too many things that were best kept secret, even if Juba didn’t yet know the fullness of his course. Viewed through the lens of logic, the decision was easy, even if saying it was hard. Juba wondered if his Numidian father had ever felt the same. No doubt his adopted Roman one never had. “Tell Laenas to kill him,” he finally managed to say. As the words escaped his lips Juba knew for certain that he would not sleep well this night. He wondered how he would ever sleep soundly again. “Tell him he’ll get his thirty coins if he does it quickly.”
Quintus hesitated for a moment, a slight stammer his only response. Then Juba heard the sound of the temple door opening and closing again, leaving him alone.
Well, perhaps not alone, Juba corrected himself, watching the approaching storm and wondering whether the gods were real.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael Livingston