Feb 22 2014 12:00pm
Raiders of the Nile: New Excerpt
An excerpt of Raiders of the Nile, the 14th novel featuring Roman sleuth Gordianus, is a historical mystery by Steven Saylor (available February 25, 2014).
In 88 B.C. it seems as if all the world is at war. From Rome to Greece and to Egypt itself, most of civilization is on the verge of war. The young Gordianus—a born-and-raised Roman citizen—is living in Alexandria, making ends meet by plying his trade of solving puzzles and finding things out for pay. He whiles away his time with his slave Bethesda, waiting for the world to regain its sanity. But on the day Gordianus turns twenty-two, Bethesda is kidnapped by brigands who mistake her for a rich man’s mistress. If Gordianus is to find and save Bethesda, who has come to mean more to him than even he suspected, he must find the kidnappers before they realize their mistake and cut their losses. Using all the skills he learned from his father, Gordianus must track them down and convince them that he can offer something of enough value in exchange for Bethesda’s release.
As the streets of Alexandria slowly descend into chaos, and the citizenry begin to riot with rumors of an impending invasion by Ptolmey’s brother, Gordianus finds himself in the midst of a very bold and dangerous plot—the raiding and pillaging of the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great himself.
Like any young Roman who found himself living in the most exciting city on earth—Alexandria, capital of Egypt—I had a long list of things I wanted to do, but taking part in a raid to steal the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great had never been among them.
And yet, there I found myself, on a morning in the month we Romans call Maius, doing just that.
The tomb of the city’s founder is located in a massive, ornate building in the heart of the city. A towering frieze along one side depicts the exploits of the world conqueror. The moment of inspiration that gave birth to the city itself, some 240 years ago, is vividly depicted on the frieze: Alexander stands atop a sand dune, staring at the shore and the sea beyond while his architects, surveyors, and engineers gaze up at him in wonder, clutching their various instruments.
So realistically sculpted and painted was this massive frieze that I almost expected the giant image of the conqueror to suddenly turn his head and peer down at us as we scurried below him, heading toward the building’s entrance. I would not have been surprised to see him raise an eyebrow and inquire in a booming, godlike voice, “Where in Hades do you fellows think you’re going? Why are some of you brandishing swords? And what is that the rest of you carry—a battering ram?”
But Alexander remained immobile and mute as my companions and I rushed past him and surged into the colonnaded entranceway.
On this day the tomb was closed to visitors. An iron gate barred entry to the vestibule. I was among those who carried the battering ram. We pivoted into formation, perpendicular to the gate. As Artemon, our leader, counted to three, we heaved the ram forward, then back, then forward again with all our might. The gate shuddered and buckled at the impact.
“Again!” shouted Artemon. “On my count! One—two—three!”
Each time the ram butted against it, the gate moaned and shrieked, as if it were a living thing. On our fourth heave, the gate flew open. Those of us carrying the battering ram retreated back into the street and tossed it aside while the vanguard of our party, led by Artemon, rushed through the sundered gate. I drew my sword and followed them into the vestibule. Dazzling mosaics celebrating the life of Alexander decorated every surface from the floor to the domed ceiling high above, where an opening admitted sunlight to shimmer across the millions of pieces of colored glass and stone.
Ahead of me, I saw that only a handful of armed men offered resistance. These guardians of the tomb looked surprised, frightened, and ready to run—and who could blame them? We greatly outnumbered them. They also looked rather old to be bearing arms, with weathered, wrinkled faces and gray eyebrows.
Why were there so few guards, and why were they of such a low grade? Artemon had told us that the city was in chaos, wracked by daily riots. All the most able-bodied soldiers had been summoned by King Ptolemy to protect the royal palace, leaving only this feeble handful to defend the Tomb of Alexander. Perhaps the king thought that even the most violent mob would never dare to violate such a sacred place, especially in broad daylight. But Artemon had out-foxed him. “Our greatest advantage will be the element of surprise,” he had told us, and it appeared that he was correct.
I heard a clash of swords, followed by screams. I had deliberately volunteered to man the battering ram, so as to avoid being on the front line of whatever battle might take place. I wanted no blood on my hands, if I could possibly avoid it. But was I really less guilty than my comrades ahead of me, who were gleefully hacking away with their swords?
You may wonder why I was taking part in such a criminal act. I had been compelled to join these bandits against my will. Still, might I not have slipped away at some point and escaped? Why did I stay with them? Why did I continue to follow Artemon’s orders? Did I do so out of fear, or misplaced loyalty, or simple greed for the share of gold we had all been promised?
No. I did what I did for her—for the sake of that crazy slave girl who had somehow got herself kidnapped by these bandits.
What sort of Roman would stoop to such criminal behavior for the sake of a girl, and a mere slave at that? The blinding Egyptian sun must have driven me mad, that I should find myself in such a spot!
As I rushed through the vestibule, toward the wide corridor that led to the sarcophagus, I realized I was whispering her name: “Bethesda!” Was she still well, and unharmed? Would I ever see her again?
I slipped on a pool of blood. As I spun my arms to balance myself, I looked down and saw the pale face of a fallen guard. His lifeless eyes were wide open and his mouth was set in a grimace. The poor old fellow might have been someone’s grandfather!
One of my companions helped to steady me. Careless fool! I thought. You might have broken your neck! You might have fallen on your own sword! What would have become of Bethesda then?
I heard the sounds of another battle ahead of us, but its duration was brief. By the time I stepped into the chamber, only one guard remained standing, and even as I watched, Artemon stabbed him in the belly. The poor fellow crumpled lifeless to the hard granite floor. His sword fell beside him with a clatter, and then a hush fell over the crowded room.
Lamps set in niches in the walls provided the only illumination. Though it was bright daylight outside, here all was dim light and shadow. Before us, raised upon a low dais, was a massive sarcophagus. In form and style it was partly Egyptian, like the angular mummy cases of the ancient pharaohs, and partly Greek, with carvings along the sides that depicted the exploits of Alexander—the taming of the steed Bucephalus, the triumphal entry into the Gates of Babylon, the terrifying battle with the elephant cavalry of the Indus. The gleaming sarcophagus, made of solid gold, was encrusted with precious stones, including the dazzling green gem called the emerald mined from the mountains of southernmost Egypt. The sarcophagus glittered in the flickering light of the lamps, an object of breathtaking splendor and of value beyond calculation.
“Well, what do you make of that?”
I shivered, as if startled from a dream. Artemon stood beside me. His bright eyes sparkled and his handsome features seemed to glow in the ruddy light.
“It’s magnificent,” I whispered. “More magnificent than I ever imagined.”
He grinned, flashing perfect white teeth, then raised his voice. “Did you hear that, men? Even our Roman comrade is impressed! And Pecunius”—that was the name by which he knew me—“is not easily impressed, for has he not seen the Seven Wonders of the World, as he never tires of telling us? What do you say, Pecunius—is this sarcophagus the equal of those Wonders?”
“Can it really be made of solid gold?” I whispered. “The weight must be enormous!”
“Yet we have the means to move it.”
Even as Artemon spoke, some of the men brought forth winches, pulleys, lengths of rope, and wooden shims. Another group appeared from the vestibule wheeling a sturdy wagon down the wide corridor. The wagon was loaded with a lidded wooden crate made especially for our cargo. Artemon had thought of everything. Suddenly he looked to me like the young Alexander as depicted on the frieze of the building, a visionary surrounded by adoring architects and engineers. Artemon knew what he wanted and had a plan to achieve it. He inspired fear in his enemies and confidence in his followers. He knew how to bend others to his will. Certainly he had succeeded at making me do as he wanted, against all my better judgment.
The wagon was wheeled into place alongside the dais. The top of the crate was lifted off. The inside was padded with blankets and straw.
A hoisting mechanism was deployed to remove the lid of the sarcophagus.
“Should we be opening the sarcophagus?” I said, feeling a prickle of superstitious dread.
“The lid and the sarcophagus are both very heavy,” said Artemon. “They’ll be easier to manipulate if we separate them and lift them one at a time.”
As the lid began to rise above the sarcophagus, a thought occurred to me.
“What will become of the body?” I asked.
Artemon looked at me sidelong but did not speak.
“You’re not going to hold it for ransom, are you?”
He laughed at the look on my face. “Of course not. The remains of Alexander will be handled with utmost respect, and will be left here where they belong, in his tomb.”
Robbing a mummified corpse of its sarcophagus hardly constituted respect, I thought. Artemon seemed to be amused by my misgivings.
“Here, Pecunius, let’s have a look at the mummy before we remove it from the sarcophagus. They say the state of preservation is quite remarkable.”
He took my arm and together we stepped onto the dais. As the lid was hoisted onto the wagon, the two of us peered over the edge of the sarcophagus.
So it came to pass that I, Gordianus of Rome, at the age of twenty-two, in the city of Alexandria and in the company of cutthroats and bandits, found myself face to face with the most famous mortal who ever lived.
For a man who had been dead over two hundred years, the conqueror’s features were remarkably well preserved. His eyes were closed, as if he slept, but his eyelashes were perfectly intact. I could almost imagine that he might suddenly blink and gaze back at me.
“Look out!” someone shouted.
I turned around to see that we had company—not royal soldiers, but a handful of regular citizens, no doubt outraged at the desecration of their city’s most sacred monument. A few had daggers. The rest were armed only with clubs and stones.
As Artemon’s men fell on the newcomers, cutting them down and driving them back, one of the angry citizens raised his arm and took aim at me. I saw the jagged rock hurtle toward me.
Artemon grabbed my arm and pulled me sharply to one side, but too late. I felt a sharp blow against my head. The world turned upside down as I fell from the dais onto the wagon, striking my head against one corner of the crate. Groggily, I drew back and saw blood—my blood—on the wood. Then everything went black.
How had I come to such a sorry pass?
Let me tell you the story.
It all started the day I turned twenty-two.
That was on the twenty-third day of the month we Romans call Martius; in Egypt it was the month of Phamenoth. Back in Rome, the weather was probably bitter and damp, or at best chilly and brisk, but in Alexandria my birthday dawned without a cloud in the sky. The warm breath of the desert filled the city, relieved by an occasional breeze from the sea.
I lived on the topmost floor of a five-story tenement in the Rhakotis district. My little room had a window that faced north, toward the sea, but any view I might have had of the harbor and the water beyond was blocked by the fronds of a tall palm tree outside the window. The breeze caused the foliage to perform a listless dance; the motions of the fronds as they slowly slid against one another produced a languorous, repetitious music. The shiny foliage reflected the rays of the rising sun, causing points of light to dance across my closed eyelids.
I woke, as I had fallen asleep, with Bethesda in my arms.
You may wonder why my slave was in bed with me. I might point out that the shabby little apartment in which I was living was so small there was hardly room for one person to turn around, let alone two. The bed, narrow as it was, took up most of the space. Yes, I could have made Bethesda sleep on the floor, but what if I rose in the night? I would likely have tripped over her, fallen, and cracked my skull.
Of course, it was not for considerations such as these that I had invited Bethesda to share my bed. Bethesda was more than merely my slave.
When I was a boy, and my father taught me the facts of life, he made clear what he thought about masters sharing their beds with slaves. “A bad idea, all around,” I could remember him saying. My mother had died when I was small, and the only slave in our household was an old fellow called Damon, so I was not sure if he spoke from experience.
“Why is that, father? Is it against the law for a master to sleep with a slave?”
I can remember my father smiling at such a naive question. “If a man were to sleep with another man’s slave, without permission—that would be against the law. But with his own property, a Roman citizen may do whatever he wishes. He may even kill a slave, just as he may kill a dog or a goat or any other animal he owns.”
“Is it adultery, then, if a married man has relations with a slave?”
“No, because for adultery to occur there must be the chance of freeborn offspring—such a birth might threaten the wife’s status and the status of her children, you see. But since a slave has no legal existence, and any child born to a slave is also a slave, no union with a slave can pose a threat to the marriage or to the heirs. That is why many wives make no objection if their husband cavorts as much as he wishes with his slaves, male or female. Better he should do so in the home, at no expense, and not with a freeborn woman or someone else’s wife.”
I frowned. “Then why do you say it’s a bad idea?”
My father sighed. “Because, in my experience, the act of sexual union invariably produces not just a physical reaction, but an emotional one as well—whether good or bad—and in both master and slave. And that leads to trouble.”
“What sort of trouble?”
“Oh, a Pandora’s box full of woe! Jealousy, blackmail, betrayal, trickery, deceit—even murder.” My father’s experience of the world was wider than that of most men. He called himself Finder, and he made his living by uncovering other people’s secrets, often of a scandalous or criminal nature. “Digging up the dirt,” he called it. He had seen the full range of human behavior, from the best to the worst—but mostly the worst. If his experience had led him to believe that carnal knowledge between a master and a slave was a bad thing, he probably knew what he was talking about.
“I can see that it might be unwise, but is it wrong for a master to sleep with a slave?” I asked.
“Certainly the law does not object. Nor does religion; such an act does not offend the gods. Nor do philosophers have much to say about how a man uses his slaves.”
“But what do you think, father?”
He gave me a penetrating look and lowered his voice, so that I knew he spoke from the heart. “I think that when any two people have carnal relations, the greater the difference in their status, the more likely it is that one of them is being forced to act against his or her will. When that occurs, the act is demeaning to both parties. Or the tables can be turned. I’ve seen so-called philosophers behave like fools, wealthy men bankrupted, powerful men humiliated—and all for the love of a slave. To be sure, not every union can be of equals. Not every pairing can be like the one that existed between me… and your mother.”
He fell silent and turned his face away.
That was the end of the conversation, but the words my father had spoken remained in my memory.
On my journey from Rome to Alexandria, I had done a number of things of which my father would be proud, or so I hoped. I had also done a few things of which my father would probably disapprove. Sleeping with Bethesda fell into the latter category.
Vague thoughts of my father must have been in my mind as I woke that morning—perhaps I had been dreaming about him—but what he might or might not think quickly became the furthest thing from my mind. My father was a long way off, in Rome, but Bethesda was very close. With her body pressed against mine and our limbs entwined, it was hard to think of anything else.
From those places where we touched emanated the most exquisite sensation imaginable—warm flesh against flesh. Those few areas of my body that were not touching hers experienced a kind of jealousy, and cried out to rectify the situation at once. Every part of me wanted to be pressed against every part of her, all at once. From the way she responded, I had no doubt she felt the same. Is it possible for two mortal bodies to meld into one? Bethesda and I frequently made every effort to do so, sometimes several times a day.
Our bodies became sheened with sweat. As we turned this way and that, the faint breeze from the window gently wafted the sweat from our skin. Our sighs and moans joined the music of the rustling palm fronds, then rose above it in pitch and volume until surely the vendors in the street below and the laborers on their way to work could hear us cry out.
At last—our union consummated, uttermost pleasure attained—we drew apart.
“Was that a good beginning to your birthday, Master?” said Bethesda.
The question was so unnecessary, I laughed out loud. Neither of us spoke for a long time. We lay side by side, barely touching. The morning sun reflected more brightly off the swaying palm fronds, scattering the room with bits of light. I heard the cry of seagulls, and the blaring of navigation horns from the distant Pharos Lighthouse. I closed my eyes and dozed for a while, then slowly woke again.
Bethesda walked her fingertips over my knee and up my thigh, then reached for a more intimate part of me.
“Perhaps we could make the day’s beginning twice as good,” she said.
And so we did, very slowly, taking our time. Her body was a landscape in which I became hopelessly lost—the forest of her long black hair, the maze of her smooth brown limbs, the ever-changing topography of her shoulders. Her hips and breasts became undulating sand dunes as she stretched, twisted, and turned. Her mouth was an oasis, the place between her thighs a delta.
When we were done, I felt wide awake. “I don’t think I could ever grow tired of that,” I said, mostly to myself, since I spoke the words in Latin. Though Bethesda knew Hebrew, Greek, and Egyptian, I had so far managed to teach her only a smattering of Latin. She raised an eyebrow, clearly not comprehending, so I repeated my comment in Greek, the language we had in common. “I don’t think I could ever grow tired of that.”
“Nor I,” said Bethesda.
“We have to eat.”
So it was hunger that finally forced us out of bed. I dressed in my blue tunic—my best, despite a few stains and the fact that the threadbare linen fit me a bit tightly across the shoulders; just the night before Bethesda had stitched up a tear in the sleeve and repaired the frayed hem. I allowed her to dress in my second-best tunic, which was green, a color that suited her. On her much smaller frame the simple tunic made for a rather modest garment; it covered her elbows and knees and, cinched with a hemp belt, fitted snugly around breasts that had filled out considerably since the day I purchased her.
Bethesda stood by the window and ran an ebony comb through her hair, which had become tangled during our lovemaking. She grimaced and muttered a curse when the comb encountered a particularly stubborn tangle. I laughed.
“You could always shave your head, like the rich women do. They say it’s more comfortable in this climate. Keeps lice away.”
“Rich women have wigs to wear when they go out,” she said. “Very fancy wigs. A different one for every occasion.”
“True. But no wig could be as lovely as this.” I circled behind her and with my fingertips I gently smoothed the knot from her hair. I took the comb from her and ran it slowly through her long tresses. Her hair was thick and heavy and perfectly black, shimmering with rainbow highlights, like the wings of a dragonfly. Every part of her was beautiful, but her hair held a special fascination for me. Sated as I was, I felt a fresh stirring of desire.
I stepped away from her, put down the comb, and took a deep breath. I willed my excitement to subside—something my father had told me a man could and should be able to do. It was time to venture out to the world beyond my little room.
* * *
The Rhakotis district is said to be the oldest part of Alexandria, built over the little fishing settlement that existed even before Alexander founded his city. Most of Alexandria is laid out in an elegant grid of broad avenues and grand porticoes, but the Rhakotis retains its maze of winding alleys, as if the chaotic spirit of the old village could not be tamed and made to submit to the modern metropolis that grew around it. Rhakotis reminds me of the Subura in Rome, with its tall tenements, taverns, and gaming houses. Lines for drying laundry crisscross the space above one’s head, while ragged children run zigzags up and down the street. Around a corner, half-naked women solicit customers from upper-story windows; keep walking while you look up and you’re likely to trip over a cat napping in the middle of the street. Cats do whatever they wish in Alexandria. Despite the merging of Greek and Egyptian gods that began with Alexander’s conquest, the locals still worship animals and insects and strange divinities that are part man, part beast.
As was fitting for master and slave, I walked ahead and Bethesda followed a little distance behind. Had we walked side by side, what would people have thought? My first stop was a small tavern where the owner’s wife prepared my favorite breakfast—hot farina cooked with a little goat’s milk and mashed dates, served in a clay bowl. I ate a bit more than half the contents, scooping out mouthfuls with a bit of bread, then handed what remained of the bread to Bethesda and let her finish the bowl. She devoured it so quickly that I asked if she wanted more.
She smiled and shook her head. “Now that you’ve eaten, what else do you desire to do on your special day, Master?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I suppose I could find a good book in the great Library, and read it aloud to you. Or perhaps we could examine the collection of fabulous jewels in the Museum. Or climb to the top of the Pharos Lighthouse to take in the view.” I was joking, of course. The Library and Museum were open only to royal scholars and visitors with suitable credentials, not to a lowly Roman who made a living by his wits, and the island of Pharos was off-limits to all but lighthouse workers and the soldiers who guarded it.
I shrugged. “On such a fine day, before it gets too hot, I propose that we take a long walk and see where it leads us. Surely some grand adventure awaits me on my birthday.” I smiled, having no idea what lay in store for us.
To be sure, there was always the chance of encountering some sort of violence when one was out and about in Alexandria. It had not always been so. When I first arrived in the city, I was able to go anywhere, at any time of the day or night, without concern for my safety. But in the two years and eight months since my arrival, Alexandria had become increasingly dangerous and disorderly. The people were unhappy, and they blamed their discontent on King Ptolemy. Every so often, there would be a riot. The riot would lead to a bit of looting and perhaps a fire or two, then the appearance of royal soldiers, and then, inevitably, bloodshed. You might think the Alexandrians would dread these outbreaks of chaos, and flee from them. Instead they seemed to relish them. Whenever a riot broke out, hundreds or even thousands would converge on the scene, like moths to a flame.
Why did the people hate their king so bitterly? Some years ago he had risen to power by driving his older brother from the throne; as far as I could tell, he had done so with the support of the Alexandrian mob. Then, as if to patch things up, he married his deposed brother’s daughter. (These Egyptian rulers were always marrying family members, even siblings.) Then he killed his mother, who apparently thought that she should be the true power behind the throne. Now the people were restless, and to show their desire for a change, they rioted. This was what passed for politics in Egypt!
To a Roman who had grown up with yearly elections and magistrates and written laws, trying to make sense of Egyptian politics and history could induce a terrible headache. All the kings and queens seemed to have been brothers and sisters, or mothers and sons, or uncles and nieces, and they were forever marrying each other, then killing each other, then sending the survivors into exile, whereupon the ones in exile plotted a way to return and kill those who exiled them, perpetuating the cycle.
The first King Ptolemy, the founder of the dynasty, had been one of Alexander’s generals. When the Great One died, Ptolemy made himself king of Egypt, and his descendants had ruled the country ever since, becoming the longest reigning dynasty in the world. To those who loved royal romance and intrigue (which seemed to be everyone in Egypt), the Ptolemies provided a source of endless fascination, like characters on a stage. The personal and public drama of their lives amused, enthralled, and enraged the populace. In taverns and shops, outside temples and courts—anywhere you went in Alexandria—people talked of little else.
Like a typical Alexandrian, Bethesda could name every one of the Ptolemies in chronological order, the good and the bad, the dead and the living, going all the way back to Ptolemy I. Listening to her, I would become hopelessly confused, since the same names recurred in every generation: Berenice, Arsinoë, Cleopatra (the name of the king’s late mother), and of course, Ptolemy—sometimes several of them living at once, and in every branch of the family. With all the enthusiasm of a Roman recounting famous battles, or a Greek swooning over Olympic athletes, Bethesda had tried to explain to me who had done what to whom and when and where, and why it mattered so much, but I could never keep the players straight. One Ptolemy was the same as any other to me.
I only knew that every so often, if one dared to venture out, there was likely to be a bit of screaming and trampling, and perhaps some smoke and cinders, and probably a bit of slaughter. And all because the people hated King Ptolemy.
But on such a splendid day, even the threat of a riot was not going to keep me indoors. At the age of twenty-two, one feels invulnerable. I was quick-witted and fleet of foot. What had I to fear? If anything, the increasing disorder in the city had been a boon to me. When public order fails, private misconduct increases; and when people no longer trust the authorities, to uncover the truth they turn to people like me. Finder my father called himself, and the skills he taught me had proved quite useful. I could pick any lock, I could follow a man without being seen, I could tell by a woman’s eyebrows if she was lying to me, and I knew when to speak and when to keep my mouth shut. The fact that I was an outsider only enhanced my usefulness; I was a free agent, with no ties to any particular family or faction. I was not getting rich by plying my father’s trade on foreign soil, but I was managing to make ends meet.
I happened to have a few extra coins on my person that morning, with which I planned to buy something special.
“Shall we play tourist today?” I suggested. “I’ve been so busy lately, grubbing about in lowly taverns and disreputable gaming houses, I’ve forgotten how beautiful the city can be. Let’s take in the sights.”
So we set out. We made our way out of the Rhakotis district and headed up a broad boulevard lined with palm trees, fountains, obelisks, and statues. Our route took us to the sacred tomb precinct in the center of the city, where magnificent buildings set in lush gardens housed the mummified remains of the Ptolemies.
At a very broad intersection, we came upon a towering structure that dominated the skyline—the Tomb of Alexander. Its walls were decorated with extraordinary relief sculptures that depicted the career of the conqueror. Though not quite as grand, the structure reminded me of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But whereas the burial chamber of King Mausolus was sealed, the room that held the remains of the mummified Alexander was open for paying visitors. On this morning, even though the tomb was not yet open, the line to enter wound all the way around the building and out of sight. From their costumes, the visitors appeared to come from all over the world—Persian astrologers wearing ziggurat hats and pointed shoes, Ethiopians the color of ebony, Nabataeans in flowing robes, and even a few Romans in togas. All had come to file past the famous golden sarcophagus of Alexander and pay their respects—something I myself, in all the months I had lived in the city, had not yet done.
Bethesda made bold to draw alongside me. “Perhaps, Master, on your special day, you would like to visit the tomb of the Great One.”
“And stand in that line under the hot sun all morning? I think not. No matter how large and elaborately decorated, a mere golden sarcophagus is unlikely to impress a traveler who has seen the Seven Wonders of the World.”
“You would prefer to go on one of the days when visitors can gaze upon the face of Alexander himself?”
“Now that might be more interesting,” I admitted. The sarcophagus was opened and the mummy displayed to the public on only two days each year, Alexander’s birthday and the anniversary of the founding of the city. On those occasions, the admission price would be doubled and the lines would be ten times as long.
Taking my eyes from the line of tourists waiting for the tomb to open, I was struck by the great number of royal guards around us, even more than was usual in the precinct of the royal tombs. Holding their spears aloft, a contingent of soldiers made a show of marching up and down the broad boulevard. More soldiers formed a virtual cordon along the line of visitors queuing to see Alexander’s sarcophagus. Looking up, I saw yet more soldiers stationed on balconies and along parapets and on the rooftops of the tombs of the Ptolemies. Soldiers almost outnumbered the ordinary people thronging the street. No doubt they were there to protect the tourists and keep order in one of the city’s most prominent public areas, but the sight of so many royal guards made me uneasy. Knowing the Alexandrians, I thought such a show of strength would as likely spark a riot as prevent one.
We moved on, into a neighborhood of grand houses and elegant apartment buildings. Here lived many of the minor officials and bureaucrats who served in the huge royal palace complex, including the Library and the Museum, but who were not important enough to have quarters within the palace itself. Some of Alexandria’s best and most expensive shops were in this area. On previous walks I had noticed Bethesda’s fascination with the luxury items displayed outside the shops, as she stole glances at a necklace strung with lapis and ebony, or at a silver bracelet set with tiny rubies. Such items were far beyond my means, as anyone could tell by looking at me; the brawny servants posted as guards outside each shop gave me nasty looks if I so much as slowed my pace.
Nevertheless, in front of one of the shops, I dared to come to a complete halt.
“Why are we stopping here, Master?” said Bethesda.
“Because it’s my birthday, and I intend to spend a bit of money.” I hefted the coin purse I carried in a fold of my tunic.
“Here, Master?” Bethesda wrinkled her brow, for we stood before a shop that sold nothing but women’s garments. Hung on pegs outside the storefront, linen gowns fluttered in the breeze. Some were so simple and sheer they looked hardly more substantial than bits of gossamer. Others were cut in a variety of styles, dyed in brilliant shades, and decorated with embroidery along the hems and necklines. Several days ago, as we passed this shop, I had noticed Bethesda slow her stride and steal a lingering glance at a particular gown. It was dark green with yellow embroidery, and longer than most, with pleated, fan-shaped sleeves.
I studied the garments hung on display, then smiled when I spotted what I was looking for. As I stepped toward the shop, a brawny servant crossed his arms and glowered at me, then relented when I hefted my moneybag and made the coins jingle.
The shop owner appeared. She was a stooped old woman who gazed up at me from a wizened face. “Do you see something you like, young man?”
“Perhaps.” I dared to touch the green gown with my fingertips. The linen was of a much higher quality than I was used to. Even on the hottest day, such a fabric would feel soft and cool against the wearer’s skin.
Bethesda whispered in my ear. “Master, what are you thinking of?”
I turned to her and smiled. “I’m thinking it’s my birthday, and I should buy something that pleases me.”
“And what could please me more than the sight of you wearing this gown?”
* * *
A little later, I stepped out of the shop with a coin purse that was considerably lighter.
Bethesda followed me. The green linen shimmered in the sunlight. The yellow embroidery had an almost metallic sheen, like the luster of gold. The dress transformed her, elegantly clinging to the supple lines of her arms and legs and accentuating rather than hiding the fullness of her hips and breasts. When she raised a hand to shield her eyes from the bright sun, the long, pleated sleeve opened like a fan and undulated in the breeze. With her face obscured, I might not have recognized her. She could have been the privileged daughter of a fine Alexandrian household, the sort of young woman who shopped in such a place on a regular basis, buying whatever she desired.
Even the wizened old shopkeeper had been impressed. When Bethesda withdrew to the dressing room, I tried to wrangle a lower price, but the woman had refused to budge—until Bethesda emerged. At the sight of her, the old woman softened. Her eyes glimmered. She clapped her hands and sighed, and named a price that was half of what she might have demanded.
Even Bethesda’s posture was transformed. She seemed to stand taller than before, with her shoulders back. Staring at her, I decided that the green gown was the best purchase I had made in a long time.
A flash of movement caught my eye. Someone was running toward us, shouting and laughing.
As the figure drew closer, I noticed several things in quick succession.
It was a young woman.
She was not exactly running, but rather skipping, whirling, and dancing as she hurtled forward, giggling and crying out.
Also, she appeared to be completely naked.
And, if Bethesda had not been standing next to me, I would have sworn that the naked, laughing woman was—Bethesda!
Copyright © 2014 by Steven Saylor
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Steven Saylor is the author of acclaimed historical mystery novels featuring Gordianus the Finder, including The Triumph of Caesar, as well as the internationally bestselling historical novels Empire and Roma. He has appeared on the History Channel as an expert on Roman politics and life. He divides his time between Berkeley, California and Austin, Texas.