Oct 12 2015 11:00am
Wrath of the Furies: New Excerpt
Wrath of the Furies by Steven Saylor is the third historical thriller set in Ancient Rome featuring Gordianus the Finder (available October 13, 2015).
In 88 B.C., it seems as if the entire ancient world is at war. In the west, the Italian states are rebelling against Rome; in the east, Mithridates is marching through and conquering the Roman Asian provinces. Even in the relatively calm Alexandria, a coup has brought a new Pharaoh to power and chaos to the streets. The young Gordianus has been waiting out the chaos in Alexandria, with Bethesda, when he gets a cryptic message from his former tutor and friend, Antipater. Now in Ephesus, as part of Mithridates' entourage, Antipater seems to think that his life is in imminent danger.
To rescue him, Gordianus concocts a daring, even foolhardy, scheme to go “behind enemy lines” and bring Antipater to safety. But there are powerful, and deadly forces, at work here, which have their own plans for Gordianus. Not entirely sure whether he's a player or a pawn, Gordianus must unravel the mystery behind the message if he's to save himself and the people he holds most dear.
I, Gordianus of Rome, was living a few miles to the west of Alexandria that summer, in a house on the beach next to a small fishing village.
My hosts were the owners of the house, two eunuchs who had retired from the Egyptian royal court, Kettel and Berynus. When King Ptolemy lost control of Alexandria and the city became too wild and lawless even for a footloose young Roman like me, the eunuchs invited me to stay with them for a while, and I gladly accepted. I shared a room with my slave, Bethesda. The room was quite small, but the bed was just large enough for two.
From the rooftop terrace of the house, looking east over the sand dunes and up the coastline, we had a clear view of the skyline of Alexandria in the distance. Most prominent was the towering Pharos Lighthouse in the harbor; its fiery beacon was visible for many miles, both day and night. The Temple of Serapis, situated atop the city’s highest hill in the quarter nearest to us, was also easy to make out. The rest was all a jumble of obelisks and rooftops surrounded by the high city wall.
“No smoke today,” noted Kettel, whose massive bulk threatened to overflow even his commodious dining couch. It seemed to me that he had gained even more weight since his retirement. His appetite was certainly as voracious as ever. When Bethesda mounted the stairs from the kitchen and approached carrying a steaming platter of grilled fish, he eagerly took a helping.
Berynus, who was as slender as Kettel was fat, looked toward the skyline and squinted. “There’s been no smoke—and so presumably no rioters—since the day King Ptolemy sailed off, even as his brother, our new king, marched into town with that huge army of his.” He turned up his nose at the fish and waved Bethesda on. “Are we to conclude that the chaos is ended and the civil war is really, truly over?”
“Hardly!” Kettel chomped and snorted. “The old king will still have some fight in him. Just because he’s fled into exile doesn’t mean he’s given up the throne. If he can somehow raise an army, he’ll be back. Unless, of course, he loses his head in the meantime.”
“Always a possibility,” said Berynus, nodding grimly.
“They say the city has calmed down considerably since the new king’s arrival,” I said. “It may actually be safe to walk the streets again.” Bethesda stepped toward me and held forth the platter of fish, from which I took a modest portion. Her back was to my hosts, who could not see as she dared to lift a morsel to her own lips and nibble at it, giving me a sly smile as she did so. I sighed. What a poor excuse for a Roman I was, unable to control the only slave I possessed.
“I was thinking I might venture into the city tomorrow,” I said.
“Whatever for, Gordianus?” asked Kettel, smacking his lips. “Do you not have all that you need here? Good food, good company, long walks on the beach to pass the day, and the murmur of the surf to lull you to sleep at night.”
“If indeed our bearded young friend gets much sleep,” Berynus muttered under his breath, raising an eyebrow and casting a sidelong glance at Bethesda as she retreated down the steps to the kitchen to fetch more food and drink. Her black hair, glistening in the sunlight, was so long that it almost reached her hips, which swayed provocatively as she descended out of sight.
“The harbor seems to be rather busy again, since the old king fled,” I said. “With all those ships coming and going, I was thinking a letter might have arrived for me.”
“A letter?” With his fleshy forefinger Kettel poked at a bit of fish that threatened to escape from between his lips.
“Yes, perhaps there’s a letter … from my father.”
“Ah, yes, your father—back in Rome.” Kettel licked his fingertips. “How long has it been since you last heard from him?”
“Months,” I said.
“Such a long time,” said Berynus.
“Yes.” I frowned. “Of course, it may be that’s he’s written, but his letters were lost or went astray.” This was true. Travel by land and sea had been greatly disrupted in recent months, not just by the civil war in Egypt, but by events in Asia, where King Mithridates was said to be driving the Romans out of one province after another, and in Italy as well, where Rome’s subject cities had rebelled against her. The whole world was at war. The days when one could exchange regular letters across great distances—as I had done with my father after I first arrived in Alexandria three years ago—now seemed a distant memory.
So it was entirely possible that my father had written any number of letters to me in recent months, but for one reason or another none of them had reached me. But there was another possibility. It might be that no letters had come from my father because my father was no longer among the living.
The little news that had arrived from Italy was grim. For rebelling against Rome, entire cities have been massacred, and the Roman Senate itself had descended into a kind of civil war. Growing up in Rome, I had observed that my father was always careful to tread a middle path, allying himself with no particular family or faction. This independence allowed him to work for any man who sought out his services. But could even my father remain neutral—and safe—amid the chaos in Italy?
In reality, just how neutral was my father? And how loyal was he to Rome? He had seen trouble coming in Italy—that was one of the reasons he sent me off with my old tutor Antipater on our journey to see the Seven Wonders, to get me far from Rome and away from the looming danger. I had been more naive than a young Roman of eighteen should be. I had thought our trip was merely for pleasure. Even Antipater’s faked death and assumption of a false identity—Zoticus of Zeugma—had not alerted my suspicion. I accepted at face value Antipater’s explanation that he simply wanted a fresh start, a last chance for an old man to see the world through new eyes.
But there was much more to Antipater’s deceit than that. As I learned only at the end of our journey, Antipater had been a spy for King Mithridates all along—and thus an enemy of Rome. Our trip to the Wonders had been a grand reconnaissance mission for him, as he carried messages for the king’s agents from Olympia to Babylon and to many cities between. No sooner did I discover Antipater’s deception than he vanished from Alexandria, before I could get any sort of explanation from him.
What role had I played in his scheme? Had I simply been a traveling companion, sent along by my father to get me out of harm’s way? And what role had my father played? He helped Antipater fake his death; had he done so knowing the old poet’s true purpose? Could it be that my father was himself an agent of Mithridates?
Such a possibility was unthinkable. Or so I would have said once upon a time, when I was naive and untraveled and knew little about the ways of men. But now, in a world turned upside down by treachery and war, anything seemed possible—even that my father could be a traitor to Rome.
What if he was? Where, then, should my own loyalties lie? With Rome? With my father? With neither?
Before I could answer that question, I needed to discover the truth about my father, but that was not possible. “Are you a traitor to Rome, Father?” Such a dangerous question could never be posed in a letter, which might be read by anyone who opened it. Perhaps Antipater could have told me the truth, but I had no idea where the old poet went after he left Alexandria. I might have solved the problem by going back to Rome, to confront my father face-to-face—provided that he was still alive—but that journey I had put off time and again, either because of the danger, or the expense, or the impossibility of doing so as the seas were emptied of passenger ships by the threat of war from all sides.
But there was another reason that kept me from returning home, eclipsing all others: I simply had no taste for the journey. Was it any wonder that I preferred to dawdle in Egypt, basking in the warm sunshine of the rooftop terrace, feasting on fish and pomegranates and dates at the eunuchs’ expense, taking long walks on the beach with Bethesda to find secluded places where we might lie together on a blanket between heat-shimmering dunes?
I had all a young man needed to be content. Yet, in my heart of hearts, what I wanted more than anything was to pay a visit to the banker in Alexandria who received correspondence for me and to find that a letter had arrived from Rome, a letter from my father telling me that he was alive and well.
“Well then, by all means, you must take a trip into the city to see if there are any letters for you,” said Berynus, as if he had read my thoughts. This apparent ability to read minds was a trait I had noticed in both of the eunuchs. No doubt it was one of the attributes that had kept them alive through treacherous times, and had made them such well-rewarded servants in the royal bureaucracy.
“And take the girl with you,” said Kettel, chewing with his mouth open, then swallowing the last of his fish with an audible gulp. “You’ll want to do a bit of shopping, I imagine—if the shops are open again—and the slave can carry your purchases.”
I nodded, thinking that any money I spent would more likely be on Bethesda than on myself, and that she would probably wear any such purchase rather than carry it. As she re-emerged on the rooftop bearing a tray of fresh delicacies, I noticed, not for the first time, how even the smallest adornments to her beauty gave pleasure to my eyes—the ivory pin in her lustrous black hair, the simple wooden bracelet on her wrist, and the copper brooch that decorated her green dress, a garment I had recently bought for her to celebrate my twenty-second birthday.
“Very well, then,” I said. “Tomorrow, first thing, I’ll head into Alexandria, and take Bethesda with me.”
She raised her eyebrows at this information, then looked over her shoulder, toward the city, turning her body in such a way that the sinuous line running over one hip and up to her breast took my breath away. The eunuchs paid her no attention at all.
In the end it was decided that I should drive a donkey cart into the city, since the eunuchs kept thinking of various provisions they wanted me to buy, provided that such were available, “and not too outrageously expensive!” as Berynus cautioned. The eunuchs had retired with considerable wealth, but wartime prices threatened to make beggars even of rich men. How wise it seemed in retrospect that they had retired to the fishing village. For food, one could practically pluck fish from the sea. For entertainment, the setting sun and the sound of waves lapping the shore provided a spectacle that cost nothing, and that never grew stale.
There was no way of knowing what we might encounter in the city, so it seemed a good idea to make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible. I wore a faded tunic with a few tears that needed mending. Bethesda wore a modest, loose-fitting garment that did more to hide her beauty than to show it off.
The coast road was much traveled and well maintained. The two donkeys made good time, and we arrived at the city’s western gate well before noon. The document attesting our affiliation with the eunuchs got us through the gates with no problem—the seals of Kettel and Berynus still carried weight, despite the fact that they had served under the deposed king. Inside the walls, the city was more orderly than I had expected. The new king’s men were out in force, patrolling the streets with swords sheathed but with wooden cudgels in hand, and no one seemed in a mood to challenge them.
We headed down the broad avenue that runs the whole length of the city from west to east, lined with palm trees and decorated with statues and obelisks. In some areas I saw the results of riots and street fights—damaged buildings with broken doors and shutters hanging askew, dry fountains littered with rubbish and debris, and even whole blocks that had been gutted by fire—but many of the neighborhoods seemed to have returned to normal, with open storefronts and street merchants hawking their wares.
At one of the grand intersections along the way we turned left, toward the waterfront, and took the quickest and most direct route to the offices of the banker who sometimes held money for me and also received any letters that arrived in Alexandria addressed to me.
While Bethesda waited outside in the cart, I stepped into the little reception room. It was crammed with people, some wanting to leave bags of coins with the banker, others wanting to make a withdrawal. It required considerable persistence just to make my way to the counter, where I was given a wooden disk with a Greek letter carved on it—λ—and told to wait and listen.
At last a high-pitched voice called, “Lambda,” and I elbowed my way to the counter, disk in hand, where I was met by a frazzled eunuch with a stubbly head and three chins.
“Well, what is it?” he snapped. “Deposit, withdrawal, inquiry?”
“My name is Gordianus, of Rome. I’m wondering if there might be a letter for me.”
He turned and called to a clerk behind him, who called to yet another clerk in another room. Behind me, newcomers clamored for attention, but the clerk studiously ignored them, training his expressionless stare on my forehead while we waited for a reply.
A voice called from the next room. “Gordianus, did you say?”
My heart leaped. “Yes,” I answered. “That’s me.”
The clerk who had called from the other room appeared. This one seemed almost a twin of the other, except that his head was smooth and freshly shaved, and he had not three chins but four. “Can you write your name?”
“Of course I can.”
“Then you’ll need to sign for this.” He held a rolled and sealed scrap of parchment in one hand, and placed another piece of parchment on the counter before me. “Sign here, here, and here.”
I picked up a stylus from the counter and quickly scribbled my name three times, not bothering to read the document I was signing. Who knows what become of all these forms that bankers require? Egyptian bankers are even madder for record-keeping than the ones in Rome.
There was a fee to be paid. It seemed rather steep, compared to the fees I had paid for previous letters, but these were wartime prices, I told myself, as I gave the clerk a handful of coins.
My heart sped up and my fingers trembled as the clerk handed me the tiny scroll. The seal was of red beeswax. My father usually used a cheaper wax, without pigment. Nor did the seal bear the stamp of his iron citizen’s ring. The seal bore no stamp at all.
As I turned from the counter, I broke the seal and unrolled the parchment. I knew at once that it was not a letter from my father, for the letters were Greek, and my father always wrote to me in Latin. The handwriting looked familiar, but there was no salutation at the top and no signature at the bottom. A quick look at the page gave me little sense of what it was about. It seemed to be taken from some larger document, since it appeared to begin in mid-sentence and ended that way as well.
“There must be some mistake,” I said, turning back to the clerk. He was already waiting on another customer, but turned to look at me with a sour expression.
“Mistake?” he said.
“This isn’t a letter. I’m not sure what it is. A page from someone’s diary, perhaps—”
“So? It arrived addressed to you.”
“But who sent it? There’s no indication—”
“How should I know?” said the clerk.
“But where did it come from? How did it get here?”
The clerk sighed wearily, then turned to a table behind him to reach for a ledger. The customer he was ignoring gave me a nasty look.
The clerk unrolled the scroll and ran a well-manicured fingernail down a column with scribbled names and dates, than tapped at the scroll with a flourish of authority. “There it is. Your letter arrived five days ago, on a ship that sailed here from Ephesus.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Is that where the letter originated?”
“So it says here. The document was taken aboard at Ephesus, for delivery to Gordianus of Rome, residing in or around Alexandria.”
“But who sent it?”
“It doesn’t say.”
“But who do I know in Ephesus?” I said, thinking aloud. In fact, I did know a few people in Ephesus, having stayed briefly in the house of Antipater’s old pupil Eutropius during our journey. But who among them would—
“How should I know?” snapped the clerk. “Figure it out for yourself. You’ve signed the receipt, paid the fee, and taken possession of the document. So now, if you have no further business with this establishment, I must ask you to move along. I have a great many other customers to wait on, as you can see.”
I backed away from the counter, clutching the mysterious scrap of parchment. I stepped outside and walked to the donkey cart.
Bethesda saw the look on my face. “Bad news, Master?”
“No. I mean … I’m not sure.”
She glanced at the parchment. Having never learned to read, all documents were mysterious to her. “Is it from your father?”
“I don’t think so. I’m not sure who sent it, or why. I’m not even sure what it is.” I climbed up beside her on the cart and unrolled the parchment.
“The letters are pretty,” said Bethesda, peering over my shoulder.
“Yes, Greek letters are prettier than Roman ones. But wait—I do know this handwriting.” My heart raced. My fingers trembled.
“Master?” said Bethesda, with concern in her voice. She laid a hand on my arm.
“This was written by Antipater,” I whispered.
“Your old tutor?” Bethesda had never met Antipater, for I acquired her long after he and I parted ways, but she had heard me speak of him from time to time. I had not told her that he was a spy and an enemy of Rome—that was a secret I kept to myself—but she knew that we had parted under a cloud.
“Yes, my old tutor.” I peered at the elegantly made letters and began to move my lips. It was not exactly my intention to read the letter to Bethesda, but in effect that was what I did, for it was easier for me to read Greek if I spoke the words aloud. When I came to the parts about myself, my face turned hot, but I kept reading:
… I am in great danger. I fear for my life every hour of every day.
For the time being, at least, I am allowed to reside away from the royal court, in the home of my old pupil and friend, Eutropius. Removed from the constant gaze of the king and his vicious little queen, perhaps I am out of their thoughts as well, and thus in less danger of incurring their wrath. But as a part of my living arrangements, I have been assigned two male servants from the royal household to look after my personal needs, ostensibly so that I should impose no burden on Eutropius. But who knows if I can trust these fellows? They might be assassins, for all I know!
No man was happier than my host Eutropius to see the Romans driven from power, or more pleased at the king’s arrival in Ephesus. Yet Eutropius is not such a Roman-hater as some. It was Roman abuses Eutropius detested, not every Roman who happened to settle in Ephesus or have business in the city. Apparently Eutropius was even arranging for his daughter Anthea to marry a wealthy Roman, before the man fled for his life, like so many of his countrymen.
When I was last in Ephesus—then as now posing as Zoticus!—it was in the company of young Gordianus, at the very beginning of the journey that would take us to see the Seven Wonders. “And how is that young Roman?” asked Eutropius. “Faring well, I hope!” For it was Gordianus who saved his daughter’s life during our visit. If only for that, Eutropius does not judge all Romans harshly.
Ah, Gordianus! How I miss that youth—his steadfastness, his courage, his cleverness. How I could use a companion with those qualities now, if I am to have any hope of escaping the parlous predicament in which I find myself. Instead I am alone, with no one to turn to.
And if anybody …
My voice trailed away. Bethesda clutched my arm. “Then what does it say?”
“That’s it. There is no more.”
“But there must be. That can’t be the end of it.”
I nodded and sighed. “You’re right. Something tells me this is just the beginning.”
Copyright © 2015 Steven Saylor.
Steven Saylor is an American author of historical novels. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied history and classics. Saylor's best-known work is his Roma Sub Rosa historical mystery series, set in ancient Rome.