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THE ROSE-RED CITY
PETRA, 5 BCE
Squinting his eyes to watch the approaching Romans, Lucius Vorenus wearily settled himself down onto a rose-red rock outcropping. Behind him, its afternoon shadow leaving him in cool shade as it stretched out toward the acropolis of Petra, arose one of the rocky mountains that hemmed in and protected the ancient city of stone. In his first year here he’d climbed those greater heights, but he’d thankfully found that this lower vantage point, while still a scramble to reach along its cliff-framed ledge, was far easier to achieve. And the position was more than adequate: it was sheltered from the sun by the surrounding rocks, with clear views of both the main road north and the more secret path through the narrow chasm to the east. The perch had in time become as familiar to him as the aches and pains of a long life hard lived: he couldn’t count how many times he’d labored up here in the twenty years since he and his old friend Titus Pullo had come to Petra to hide themselves, the little orphaned girl they’d raised as their own, and the Ark of the Covenant.
The mercantile caravan he was watching seemed to be crawling down the northern hillsides into the valley, its approach slowed by the winding of the road through the terraced farms and vineyards that seemed so out of place amid these arid mountains. The greenery was nothing compared to the gardens and fountains within the city’s walls, of course, but Vorenus well remembered his shock when he himself had first seen Petra and found it an oasis in bloom.
No natural oasis, though. Petra, more than any place he’d ever seen, was a testament to human ingenuity. The rock walls that hemmed it in and protected it were cut through with channels that pulled the rains when they came off the rocks and down through larger and larger conduits into the hundreds of cisterns that dotted the growing city. The rainy season was short, but the Nabataeans of Petra made it last year round. It fed their crops, filled their cups, and made a city in the desert.
The Romans were also being slowed by the rudimentary nature of the Nabataean road, and Vorenus allowed himself a smile. The Roman merchants, he was certain, would be cursing the lack of a properly wrought surface for the wheels of their carts and wagons. That was the Roman way, of course: build the road to reach the destination. He’d done it himself, back in the days when he was a legionnaire. Back when he thought of himself as Roman, too.
Vorenus spat on the ground between his desert boots and watched for a moment as the moisture quickly sank into the parched dust that had gathered on the flat surface between stones. Though beneath his flowing linen robes he still kept his old gladius strapped to his side, there was little about him that felt Roman anymore. The men in the coming caravan weren’t countrymen to him. They didn’t speak with voices of home. They were foreigners. And like every other group of foreigners who approached the walls of this secretive city, Vorenus viewed them as a threat.
Squinting into the distance again, he tried to count wagons, gauge armaments, and guess at the number of the guards as they crept closer.
In his earlier years at Petra, Vorenus had worried at the threat such men could be to him personally—he did, after all, still have a price on his head, courtesy of Augustus Caesar himself—but as his stay in Petra lengthened to decades he had come to worry only for the threat that foreigners might represent to the Ark, the powerful Shard of Heaven that he and Pullo—and now young Miriam—had sworn to protect.
His own life, Vorenus figured, was long since lived on borrowed time.
Growing up in Rome, he had never expected to live to see much of his adulthood at all. He was born to be a fighter. His life would be the sword and the blood and the golden eagle standard of the legion beneath which he would surely die.
But he had survived. Fighting the barbaric Nervii in Gaul under the direction of Julius Caesar, he had lived when so many died. At Actium, under Mark Antony, death had somehow missed him—though down the mauled skin of his right arm Vorenus still carried heavy scars of that fight. In Alexandria, when Augustus Caesar had ordered his execution, he’d lived. So, too, had he survived ambush on the Alexandrian canal and the Kushite attack on the island of Elephantine.
Now, at the age of seventy-three, Vorenus knew that no matter what luck had bought him to this point, death would not forget him forever. No man was immortal, and there was no doubt for Vorenus that he had fewer days ahead than he had behind him. He’d had a good life.
So these latest approaching Romans were only a worry insofar as they were a threat to the Shard.
Vorenus turned to his right, looking across the southern reach of Petra to a narrow canyon that slashed southwest into the mountains, just beyond the city walls. There were beautiful tombs in that wadi, carved deep into the rock. The windows and doors cut into their facades stared back at him from the distance, black squares that reminded him too often of the open eyes and mouths of the dead.
A fitting image for tombs, he supposed, but hardly a comforting one.
Among them, not quite visible from this position, was the rock-cut tomb that he and Pullo had bought for the family they didn’t have. It had been originally designed for a wealthy family who had decided to bury their dead elsewhere: its face was framed by four half columns that seemed to melt out of the stony canyon wall, and between them were three large niches where statues of the deceased might stand watch over their mortal remains. The previous owners had left it unfinished—there were no statues when he and Pullo had bought it, and the walled courtyard that was meant to be built in front of it as a gathering place for the family was nothing but a paved square beside the path up the wadi into the mountains. They’d finished the courtyard immediately, of course, seeing it as another line of protection for the Ark since the Nabataeans treated such spaces as deeply private areas. Only then did they commission the two statues that had filled the niches to left and right. They were of Miriam’s parents—the secret pharaoh Caesarion and the Jewish girl Hannah, who had been the keeper of the Ark before they died in Egypt. The couple had been buried where they’d fallen, in the quiet ruins of a forgotten temple on Elephantine island. But they lived on, Vorenus often thought, in the precious girl that Vorenus himself had cut free of her dying mother. That Miriam had no memory of the faces of her parents made the statues important to him. It was cold stone, but he liked to think that the faces still had life when he and Pullo would sit with her in the quiet courtyard and tell her of the people they’d been.
The third niche in the facade of the tomb was still empty, as if awaiting the face of the next person to be buried within. That was how the Nabataeans did things, and he and Pullo did their best to make their tomb seem the same as any other in the valleys. It wasn’t, of course. No one was buried there, and Vorenus couldn’t imagine anyone ever would be. The large stone sarcophagus that they’d placed inside held not a body but the precious Ark that had fallen into their keeping when Hannah and Caesarion had died defending it. And when he, Pullo, or Miriam was seen close to the tomb—and it was rare that one of them was not nearby—they were not meeting in prayers for the dead but in a watch for the living.
He let his gaze fall to the temples and tombs that were gathered around the feet of the acropolis below him. The Nabataean priests were busy there, bringing offerings of songs and flesh to their pantheon of gods. Tallest among the buildings was the temple dedicated to Dushara, the lord of the mountains. Though adorned with tall columns at its front, from Vorenus’ view it seemed a massive block of stone, painted a white that shone in the sun, as if it had been set down amid the city like a gift from the heavens.
The temple was, Vorenus had learned, meant to mimic the many stone blocks that the Nabataeans had carved to honor their deities: the blocks represented the mountains where the earth and heavens met, where men could reach up toward the divine. Once he knew what they were, Vorenus seemed to see the blocks—god-blocks, they were often called—almost everywhere he looked in Petra, but none were more prominent than the temple at the heart of the city.
Before he died, Caesarion had come to believe that the Shard within the Ark had first come to this place, that it was here that the Jews had found it and built it, forgotten though that history now was. That was why Caesarion had wanted the Ark brought here, brought home. What the child of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra planned for it once here—how he hoped to find it a permanent home in this place—Vorenus did not know.
But I got it here, he thought. I did my best.
When they’d set out for Petra in the company of the Nabataean Syllaeus—their little company always just one step ahead of the Roman armies—getting the Ark to this ancient city had seemed like it would be accomplishment enough.
Now, as Vorenus turned his tired eyes once again to the caravan that was nearing the gates, he felt more than ever that no place would ever be truly safe. Nothing was outside the reach of Rome.
Vorenus sighed and stood, stretching his legs into vigor after having sat still for too long. Knowing the mission was without hope of victory didn’t mean he would stop fighting for it. That had never been his way.
An agitation of movement down in the colonnade just inside the city gates caught the corner of his eyes, and Vorenus once more found himself squinting to make something out among the antlike people busily hurrying from one marketplace to another. Petra was built on trade, and during the day the markets and the public spaces between them were a constant hum of activity—an organized chaos that would grow even more frantic with word that a new caravan was arriving. The merchants always worked hard to front their stalls well when new traders came to the city.
But this agitation was different. It felt wrong, almost like a panic.
Vorenus peered at the open gates of the city, and almost at once he saw what it was.
Cursing his old eyes, he stumbled back from the edge of the ledge and hurried for the thin scrap of a trail that would bring him down from his perch and into the bustle below.
What he’d seen was unmistakable. The glint of gold flashed wildly when it passed out of the shadows of the city walls and into the full light of the sun. How he’d not seen it before, he didn’t know, but it was there now, as clear as the spots that freckled the backs of his weary hands as they steadied his scramble along the face of the cliff.
What he had seen was an eagle. An eagle of gold, perched on a staff draped in red, carried by a man riding ahead of the arriving mass of men.
It meant that it wasn’t just a caravan that was coming to the secret city of Petra today. A legion was with it, too.
THE FALL OF A SCHOLAR
ALEXANDRIA, 5 BCE
Didymus Chalcenterus awoke at his desk, his cheek resting on a stack of papyrus that was—thankfully, surprisingly—free of his scribbles of ink. He was hardly a vain man, but he was vaguely aware that it wasn’t the finest idea to have the chief librarian of the Great Library of Alexandria walking about with strange jottings of ink staining his face.
Didymus yawned and lifted his head from its chance pillow. His neck was tight—it usually was when he awkwardly fell asleep while writing—and so he habitually torqued it from one shoulder to another. He was pleased when the bones shifted in response with a gratifying crack.
He didn’t need to gauge the wax on the little candle that burned at the corner of his desk to know that it was still the middle of the night. In the decades that he’d been the chief librarian he’d fallen asleep in his office far more often than he’d ever made it home. He knew the feel of the predawn darkness. He knew it in the tomblike silence of a building that in hours would hum with hushed whispers and soft footsteps as his fellow scholars came to work amid the wondrous collection of books under his control.
With a sigh, Didymus pushed back his stool and stood. As he stretched his arms, his body waking at last, he resumed focus on the book he had been working on: a commentary on some of Pindar’s surviving poetry. Growing up in Greece he’d been fascinated by much of the ancient poet’s work, and he’d always wanted to write a book about them. That he’d never done so was a reflection of his sense that his meager skills as a writer were hardly adequate to the task of approaching such genius, but of late he’d begun to feel that humility was a luxury best afforded to younger men. He was fifty-eight years old this year, and while that hardly made him an old man it did give him a sense he should write the book sooner rather than later.
Looking down at the papers strewn on his desk he saw the last poem he’d been examining. It was one of Pindar’s victory odes:
Momentary creatures. What is a man?
What is he not? Man is a dream of shadows.
But when the splendor of Zeus is come down,
A shining light’s upon him, and blessed are his days.
Didymus smiled. When he’d first heard those words as a young boy, he’d thought them an exultant testament of the wonders that could come from faith in the gods. Man, he thought Pindar was saying, is nothing without the blessing of Zeus, but such a blessing could provide an eternity of glory. Later, after he’d learned of the Shards of Heaven, after he thought he knew the secret truth of the world—that Zeus had never been, that in fact the one God, the only God who’d ever been, was dead—Didymus had seen Pindar’s words as sorrowful: no matter a man’s triumphs and joys, his pleasures and possibilities, he would amount to nothing but shadows and dust. Man was a creature of the moment, a flash upon a world that was gone as quickly as he’d come.
Now? Didymus tapped the page thoughtfully.
Now he thought neither way of reading it was quite right. Pindar’s words were neither wholly joyous nor completely sorrowful. They were the truth, of course: a man’s life was a temporary thing, and all but a few would go unmarked upon the earth. But even those who would be remembered beyond their friends and family would not survive with their name.
Didymus turned from his desk to face the window behind him. One of the shutters was partially open to the night air, and through it he could see the grounds of the Museum stretching away from the Great Library, the paths and gardens lit by the stars. Beyond them were the wide streets of Alexandria, where Roman guards on patrol moved in silent groups through the darkness between the flickering fires atop street posts. There was little other movement in the city so early, though as the librarian watched he saw a few hooded figures—priests, likely—drift out of the dark and up the lamp-lit steps of the Sema, where rested the body of Alexander the Great, preserved in a crystal tomb.
Yes, he thought. Even Alexander the Great, who had accomplished more in his lifetime than any man before him, died in the end. It wasn’t sorrowful to admit that truth. To admit to the fleeting chances of lives was simply to acknowledge the true nature of human existence. It needn’t mean despair. Indeed, the longer Didymus had read Pindar, the more he was certain that the old poet had intended that all along: the impermanence of life was the source of its joys. The poet imagined joy as the blessing of Zeus, but that was really just a metaphor of the enduring strength of the human spirit. To be truly human was to recognize how transient life was, and in so doing to be the more grateful for whatever time you were given. A sun that shone without clouds, without night, would never be appreciated at the dawn.
“We need shadows,” Didymus said, giving voice to his thoughts. “We need the shadow, if only to recognize the light.”
Didymus jumped at the sound of another voice behind him, and he spun to see that a man was stepping forward into the light of the feeble candle on his desk. The man did not seem to be armed, and he had a kind of regretful smile upon his face. The man was younger than himself, Didymus could see, and he was wearing a dark tunic fit for travel. He wasn’t one of the librarians, and no one else was supposed to be in the Library so late. The doors ought to have been locked.
“How did you—?”
“Good Apion dutifully locked the doors, if that’s what you’re wondering. But I know my way in. I didn’t forget.”
Didymus blinked, uncertain if he should shout for the guards out on the streets. How did this man know his assistant would have been the last man to leave? And what did he mean he hadn’t forgot?
“You don’t remember me, I think,” the man said. “It’s fine. I didn’t expect you to. But I did know you, and you knew me. That’s the only reason they let me come in here alone.”
The man nodded, and something like fear passed over his face. “Please, do not cry out. Do not try to flee or fight. Please.”
Didymus blinked, half wondering if he still slept, if this was some strange dream. He didn’t know the man, though now that he stared at him he could catch glimpses of a younger face he might recognize beneath the masks of time. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not sure I remember you. Who are you? And what do you want?”
The man sighed tiredly and gestured to the only chair in front of the scholar’s desk that wasn’t cluttered with books and scrolls. “May I sit?”
Didymus swallowed hard as he worked over the distance to the nearest guards he’d seen. How long would they take to reach him?
Minutes, he decided. Far too many minutes. And with a drop of three stories outside the window, he wasn’t about to jump and run.
Instead, he motioned toward the one seat as calmly as he could manage, then sat back down in his own. For a moment he thought of covering up his work, but the idea was almost laughable. Whatever the intruder wanted, it was surely not an old man’s musings on Pindar.
The man looked around the office as he settled himself in the chair. “You know, I once imagined I’d make this room my own one day. Wasn’t to be. So much has come and gone.”
At once, Didymus knew him: the boy who’d come to them so young, who’d risen so far, but who’d left the Library when he’d instead chosen Apion to be the next in line to succeed him as head of the Great Library. “Thrasyllus?”
Thrasyllus nodded once more. “It’s been a long time.”
“Gods,” Didymus whispered. “How long has it been? Twenty years?”
“Or more,” Thrasyllus agreed. “I’m sorry I stormed away back then. I was … young. Impetuous. Stubborn. You made the right choice. My anger only proved your wisdom.”
Didymus tried to imagine the younger man in the older one. The young man had been an astrologer, a branch of learning that Didymus had always thought unworthy of the boy’s clear intellect. Apion had seemed to be the more sensible choice, his scholarship more traditional. But while Apion had done well—and would ably carry on the work of the Great Library many years after Didymus was dead and buried—the truth was that he was not as driven as young Thrasyllus had been, and more than once Didymus had wondered if he’d made the right choice. The Thrasyllus that he’d known had been a deeply dedicated man, passionate about his work. He’d been a good and loyal helper, and only much later did Didymus come to understand how much being passed over had surely wounded him. And all because he could not look beyond his prejudice against the young man’s field of study.
“I, too, was stubborn,” Didymus managed to say. “I’m not sure I would choose the same if given the choice again.”
Thrasyllus appeared to smile, but there remained a troubled sorrow that darkened his eyes. “What was it Heraclitus wrote? ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.’”
“So he did,” Didymus agreed. “And, as Pericles once said, ‘Time is the wisest counselor of all.’”
“I always liked Pericles.”
“It’s good to see you again.”
“And you, too. Where have you been all these years?”
“I had to leave. Things happened, things I could neither undo nor forget. In the end I went west, to Mauretania. A new land. A fresh start. I found employ with King Juba and Queen Cleopatra Selene.”
Didymus could not have hidden the lightness in his heart at the sound of her name if he had tried. “I remember her so fondly. How is she?” His face brightened. “Do you have a message from her?”
“She is very well,” Thrasyllus said. “She has often spoken of you, Didymus, though I’m sorry to say that she did not send me with a message for you.” The astrologer’s eyes went to a wooden tray at the corner of the desk. “Is that still where you keep the letters going out and coming in? Where Apion now checks for such things?”
Didymus followed the man’s gaze and sighed—both from the disappointment that Selene had sent no message and from the memory of a much younger Thrasyllus coming and retrieving his letters so many years ago. “It is. And I’m sorry that she sent nothing. I would have liked to hear from her.”
For a moment Thrasyllus continued to stare at the tray, as if he was lost in thought. Then, abruptly, he looked up. “In truth,” he said, “I don’t come to you on her behalf at all. I have a … well, another employer now.”
Didymus had to force down a sudden urge to scream out for the guards. “I see,” he said, trying to remain calm. “So why have you come, Thrasyllus? Why were you sent? It was surely not to trade old wisdoms, no matter how fine they are. Surely not at this hour, at any rate.”
“Ever astute,” Thrasyllus said. “My employer needs something. Information.”
“There is much of that in our holdings.”
“Not of the kind we need.”
“What my employer wants is what I want. At least for now.”
“I see,” Didymus said. For a moment he was reminded of another time that someone had found him at night, seeking information. But that had been an assassin seeking the Book of Thoth, the sacred book that held the secrets of all things. The book was legend and myth, but discovering that had been the first step on a journey that would carry Didymus and his friends to learn about the Shards of Heaven and all the very real powers those artifacts possessed.
Thrasyllus reached into the folds of his clothing and retrieved a small scrap of papyrus. He slid it faceup across the desk between them. “Do you recognize this?”
Didymus looked and saw that a single symbol had been drawn upon it: a six-pointed star over-scribed with a circle. It was a simple design, but Didymus knew enough to recognize it at once. He swallowed hard and felt a sudden chill wash over him. “What of it?”
The astrologer’s eyes narrowed. “Do you recognize it?”
The air was bitingly cold. Didymus fought to keep from shivering. “Thrasyllus, I … whatever you’ve heard, I don’t—”
“Do you recognize it?”
So very cold. “I don’t—”
Didymus was ready to lie, to fight any effort Thrasyllus might make to pull the truth from him, when a voice came from the open window that was behind him, cutting off any attempt he might have made at speech. “He knows,” it said.
Didymus jolted in his seat even as the cold peaked, flung through him like a wash of ice through his veins. He pushed his hands into the arms of his chair to keep them from shaking, and he closed his eyes to try to calm his startled heart.
A second later, when he opened them, Didymus saw that he and Thrasyllus were no longer alone in the room. From behind him floated the source of the voice, a figure whose black tunic and hooded cloak were nearly motionless as he moved around the desk in perfect silence to stand behind the astrologer. For a moment Didymus felt the urge to jump from his seat and leap away through the open window, but it would be certain death to do so. No man could survive such a fall.
And no man could make such a climb.
As if in reply, the stranger raised hands whose ivory-pale skin seemed a dull glow in contrast to his black clothing. The hood of the cloak was pushed back with long fingers, revealing the most beautifully perfect face the librarian had ever seen. The man looked like a white marble statue come to life: not a great bearded deity like Zeus, but the slender, beardless, almost androgynous figure of Dionysius, the god whose embodiment even now surely stood his stony watch over his temple across the city.
Only this was no statue, and it was no god. The stranger stared at him with white-less black eyes that knew no love and no laughter. And when Didymus looked into those unblinking orbs he sensed a yawning abyss looking back. The librarian who had come to be called “Bronze-guts” felt his stomach twist and lurch.
“The feeling lessens over time,” Thrasyllus said.
Didymus fought the urge to throw up, to scream, to curl himself up into a childish ball. He squeezed his eyes shut against it all, refusing to look further into those eyes, his scholar’s mind stepping through facts to make sense of the world.
A demon. It could be nothing else.
And the only thing it could want would be the Shards, the fragments of God’s power, weapons to be used in a conflict waged far beyond the mortals of this world.
“Speak,” the demon-thing said, and its voice was winter’s breath stirring a field of snow—soft, but deadly cold.
Didymus clenched his teeth together, stilled his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
“Speak,” it commanded, and this time its voice was the wind through icy rocks—hard and unrelenting. It was, Didymus knew in his heart of hearts, the voice of death.
“Please,” Thrasyllus whispered. “Please, I know what he can do. He’ll kill you. He’ll kill me. He’ll kill my Lapis. And he’ll kill Selene, Didymus.”
In an instant, Didymus remembered again the night that the assassin came for the fabled Book of Thoth, the night that his old friend Lucius Vorenus had learned how he’d once betrayed Caesarion and nearly caused the child’s death. He’d made a promise that night, a promise that had spared him the tip of Vorenus’ sword. He’d told him the one thing that in that moment he knew to be true: Didymus would die for Selene. He would do anything to keep her safe.
“Please,” Thrasyllus urged. “He’ll kill her and Juba both.”
Didymus let out a long breath and opened his eyes. “It’s the Seal of Solomon,” he said.
The demon cocked its head. “Where is it?”
“You’ll never get it. It would take an army.”
“Where?” Thrasyllus asked, leaning forward.
Didymus held the astrologer’s gaze for a moment. “It’s in Jerusalem. It’s hidden in the great temple of the Jews.”
“We already know,” Thrasyllus whispered. He licked his lips for a moment. “But do you know where?”
“He does,” the demon hushed. “Bring him. Then burn the books.”
“My lord!” The astrologer’s eyes went wide in shock, as if he was stunned by the order and his own response. He looked around the room as if casting about for something. “But … there may be books of use to finding this Seal. If it is truly hidden, we may need keys.”
Thrasyllus looked to Didymus with wild desperation, and at last the scholar nodded. “It is true. I’ll find the books and bring them. Leave this place unharmed and I’ll go with you. But if you destroy even a single jot in this Library I swear to you that I will never help you and you will never, ever reach what you desire.”
The demon’s blank eyes stared at him, and Didymus did his best to stare back while fighting the revulsion in the pit of his stomach. Finally, the corner of the creature’s mouth curled up in what might have passed for a smile. “That, librarian, is a truth I do believe. Gather what is needed and come.”
The demon turned and soundlessly moved to the door. Its pale fingers wrapped around the handle and pulled it open. Thrasyllus, clearly relieved, stood.
Didymus let out a long breath. He couldn’t let them reach the Seal, but he couldn’t let them harm those he loved. And while going with them wasn’t a solution, it at least saved the books. And it bought time.
The demon’s back was, for a heartbeat, turned as it began to float through the doorway. And in that moment, Thrasyllus silently and smoothly reached into the folds of his own garments. If Didymus had been looking anywhere else, he would not have seen it, but he’d been looking at the man, and he saw it clear as the dawning day: Thrasyllus reached into his clothes with a stabbing dart of his hand and retrieved a letter. Then, as he spun around to follow the unnatural being out into the Library, he dropped it in the tray on the librarian’s desk.
The letter made the slightest of sounds, and the creature turned back to look in their direction, but Didymus was already standing, carelessly shuffling the pages of his commentary on Pindar in covering sounds. “The books I need are on the second level,” he said to Thrasyllus, trying to remain calm.
The astrologer smiled in genuine relief and gratitude, then he gestured for him to follow the demon.
Passing around the side of his desk, Didymus didn’t dare look again at the tray, though every part of his ever-curious mind begged him to do it.
Not that there was more for him to learn. In the flash of time that it took for the letter to fall from the astrologer’s fingers into the tray, Didymus had already seen what was written upon it.
It was a sealed letter, and it was addressed to Apion.
?????te µ??, it read on the outside.
Copyright © 2017 by Michael Livingston