Book I

Ely's blog
Nil's blog
Book One: synopsis
Book Two: synopsis

Chapter X, where we learn some exotic reasons for love

It was late when Nil arrived in Caesarea accompanied by the Good Samaritan and his “servant”. On the way, Nil found that the procurator, Albinus, was in this city, not Jerusalem, so he decided to visit him tomorrow, first thing in the morning. With the document from Tigellinus, he was sure that he would be welcome enough to discuss the business. As of today, he found the local garrison, presented his credentials, ate a light supper, and went to sleep in the guest quarters. Staying at the garrison also took care of informing the procurator of his arrival, as the officer on duty immediately sent a soldier with the message.

Nil woke up early the next morning. While he looked for something to snack on, a soldier found him and informed him that the procurator expected him at his residence two hours after daybreak. Nil asked for directions and made his way to the rendezvous.

The city was mostly populated by Greeks and Jews, who left their heavy mark on it. Nil knew that there was a conflict between the city’s Greek and Jewish communities and this was noticeable in the people’s attitudes toward each other. Nil, in his obviously Roman attire, was catching sometimes aggressive, sometimes fearful looks from both sides. There was little surprise in that. As Nil was told, both communities believed that Romans allowed this conflict on purpose, and though nobody yet appealed to the Roman procurator, both parties believed the Romans favored their opponents.

Caesarea was architecturally built as a Roman city. However, despite the temples and palaces built in a Roman style, the city did not feel Roman. The people on the street were dressed oriental and behaved differently than in any Italian city. Poorer houses were built in a local style, and often had just a sheepskin in the doorway instead of an actual door. Eastern winds carried ochre dust from the mainland and hills year after the year. The streets and buildings were covered lightly with this dust, as if the city was a dark-skinned coquette who decided to cover her face with some lighter color. Or maybe an albino one who attempted to make her bluish face more vivid with an ochre powder. Both ways, she failed. The dust made the city look old and worn out.

Nil came closer to the harbor and the morning breeze brought the stink of foul water.  The artificial harbor of Caesarea provided excellent protection against the waves of the open sea, but the circulation of water inside was not sufficient to wash away the garbage and rotting goods that spilled from the loading and unloading ships. That was especially true after the winter, when a number of ships were docked inside for months, waiting for mare clausum – the storm season – to end. Fortunately, Nil’s road turned to the south, leaving the harbor on the right side. Nil passed a magnificent Temple of Caesar erected by the founder of the city, Herod the Great. Its white colonnade and red roof were the first things that seafarers saw when entering the harbor. Caesarea’s style was not really Roman inside, but its façade was carefully designed to give this impression.

Nil passed on the right a huge pier with granaries and warehouses on it. The pier separated the harbor from the rest of the bay, so the air became fresh, only occasionally tainted with the smell of seaweed and rotten fish from the fishing boats that were not admitted into the harbor. Naturally, neither the king of Judea, nor Roman procurators wanted to breathe the port’s miasmatic air, thought Nil.

He passed a large amphitheater on the left, and turned to the small peninsula, almost a cape, going well into the sea. It only had enough space for just one palace – the Palace of Herod the Great. That was the residence of the Roman procurators of Provincia Iudaea for decades.

The palace had a garden shadowed with olive and cypress trees in front of it. It was separated from the mainland by a stone wall of local ochre sandstone. With the other three sides going right into the water, the palace had a good defensive position as well as evacuation routes, just in case. The palace was done in Roman style, with white columns, portico, open indoor yard with a pool surrounded by a colonnade visible from outside, and red, almost flat roofs on top of individual structures. An alley, paved with shaggy stone slabs of local white limestone, led from the gates to the main entrance. The Roman guards at the gates expected Nil and let him in as soon as he presented himself. And so did the guards at the entrance.

Albinus met Nil on the paved patio facing the open sea. A low parapet on paunchy round pillars, made of some white stone, separated the patio from the precipice going into the sea. The light morning breeze made the air humid and salty, and the view of the sea sparkling under the morning sun was a magnificent match to the architecture of the palace.

“When I am here, I forget that I rule this crippled piece of land which is called a province out of misunderstanding,” Albinus said. He was a lean strong man in his middle fifties with marks of gray on his head. He was dressed in a white tunic and a toga, as appropriate for his rank, but Nil noticed that he was just as accustomed to armor, a military lacerna cloak, and a helmet with the red comb. He wore no jewelry except his gold equestrian ring, but, again, Nil knew that ruling this province made him a rich man. Of course, this was not North Africa or Egypt, but still, the post of procurator gave a lot of opportunities to improve one’s finances, including tax collection and mere bribes. He probably got this position through relations with the old patrician family of Albinus, Nil decided.

“No significant resources, land is mostly a desert, no significant production of anything except dust, and prophets by the dozen,” Albinus continued. “And the people are a bunch of shepherds struggling to sustain themselves and revolting occasionally out of despair. A truly pathetic estate of Rome. We are only here to prevent Parthians from establishing a presence en route of shipments of Egyptian grain to Rome. Anyway, the courier said that you have a message from Tigellinus. What have you brought to me?”

“Trouble, I’m afraid, procurator,” Nil answered. “We have reliable information that the Jewish sect called Christians is going to try to burn Rome on the third day of September Ides. I am sent to investigate their roots in Judea and Egypt, as it seems that they will employ help there.”

“Trouble, indeed,” Albinus smiled. “How reliable are the sources? Those Christians, they are disgusting, no doubt, but to burn Rome? Actually, in case of a revolt, they are that rare kind of Jews that I don’t expect much trouble from.”

“Very reliable, procurator,” Nil said. “And from several independent sources. However, we suspect more Egyptian Christians and their connection to Egyptian priests rather than the ones from Judea. Anyway, because the whole sect came from Judea, it’s prudent to check here as well. Can I ask if you have any information that may indicate possible trouble from them?”

“No,” Albinus said after a short consideration. “Nothing. As I said, the Christians may be a little annoyance but that’s all. It could be some new sect of them that you are talking about. But thanks for the warning.  I will keep an eye on them and inform Rome if I discover anything worth attention. Anything else?”

“We know the name of their leader,” Nil said. “He’s called Benjamin, and he is probably a trader who deals with Greeks a lot. He is likely from Judea or Crete. Hope this will help your investigation here. That’s it, procurator. With your permission, I’ll leave for Egypt tomorrow. That’s where my main investigation is going to be.”

“Good,” Albinus said. He started to raise his hand to give a dismissive gesture, but stopped. “You know, I am going to Jerusalem in a few days. There I will meet with the High Priest. He is loyal to us, just out of fear, of course, but it may be worth talking to him about those Christians. He may know something. Stay here in Caesarea and accompany me to Jerusalem.”

“Yes, procurator,” Nil said. “One more thing… I need some money. I was robbed on the way to Caesarea.”

“Robbed?” Albinus frowned. “Who dared to rob a Roman citizen and an official in my province?”

“I don’t know,” Nil said. “Some dirty and poor crowd on the road about a dozen miles to the north of Caesarea, right on the shore.”

“I’ll have to look at this matter too,” Albinus said and clapped his hands. A guard came from inside the house. “Take my guest to the paymaster and tell him to pay travel and living expenses for a month to this man from the imperial business fund.”

“Thank you, procurator,” Nil said.

“Don’t mention it,” Albinus answered. “Now about Jerusalem – I am going there in two days, on the thirteenth day of May Calends. Be here at the palace the same time as today. You will stay at the garrison, right?”

Nil nodded.

“See you in two days,” Albinus said, and turned back to him.

The guard showed the way to the paymaster, and Nil got his money. He did not feel bad for reporting being robbed, after all he was attacked. This was not even theft; everybody did it if they could. Just one more perk in the service of the emperor.

*  *  *

Procurators usually don’t travel light, and Albinus was not an exception. He was accompanied by a few officials of his administration, Nil, and two cohorts with an auxiliary ala of Syrian horsemen. Cohorts and ala were supposed to take care of the palace security during his stay, as well as any other unexpected needs that the procurator may have in the capital of a troubled province. Nil got a horse, as well as officials. The old bureaucrats are not quite comfortable on the horseback, Nil thought with a smile, watching how a fat scribbler was trying to get into the saddle on a strong bay horse. Albinus could have a chariot, but he preferred to ride a stout black stallion. He dressed in light armor and sat firmly and comfortably in the horned military saddle like he was born to it.

The distance to Jerusalem could be covered in two days on a forced march, but Albinus did not want to enter the city in the dark. He’d rather come in the day, when more people could see him and the marching soldiers as a reminder of imperial power. So they stayed the first night in a field, and the second night near a small city less than ten miles from Jerusalem.

After they reached the city at last and the initial ceremonies were done, Albinus let Nil know that the conversation would take place tomorrow, and retreated with the King of Judea, Agrippa the Second, into some back rooms of the palace to discuss current affairs. So Nil, accompanied by Furius, the princeps prior and the third centurion of the second cohort, with whom he made friends during his few days in Caesarea, left the palace and went to the city looking for the little joys of a military soul – the places with wine and girls.

The place was found easily shortly after they left the palace complex. Not that it would be easy alone, as unpaved streets, or rather earth roads, going up and down, were filled with almost identical buildings that carried no hints of such places. And having everything tinted in different shades of dusty gray and ochre did not help either. Maybe Jews had the places to drink and enjoy themselves, but it was almost impossible to recognize a difference between stores, workshops, and dwelling places, which were sometimes elaborate in a distinctive eastern style and sometimes as simple as a hole in the wall or the side of a hill. To give the city credit, Nil noticed, following his friend, that the dirt was honest dirt, no slops and human excrement like in some other cities. Jerusalem already had the sewer and after Romans established their control of the city, they built aqueducts to provide inhabitants with fresh water.

Fortunately, Furius was here before and he led Nil to a Roman-style place that specialized in serving the local garrison and visitors to the city. The place did not differ much from the outside. It was a two-story building made of the same yellowish gray stone as many other buildings around. Only a picture of an amphora and a goblet, drawn on the wall above the wooden door, indicated the purpose of the place. They sat at the empty corner of a long table. There were a few other visitors in the tavern who sat in small groups of two to five men and had a quiet talk. The owner, a fidgety and elderly Greek who somehow managed to do business in this city, brought wine and some food, and after the second pitcher, Nil found himself talking again about his mission. Actually, he already told Furius everything he could back in Caesarea, but as the conversation mostly consisted of bashing the Christians, and Furius did not favor them either, it was pretty much small talk to accompany drinking.

“Excuse me.” A tall bearded man approached them. He was dressed in a multicolored robe, with a piece of white fabric covering his head, red leather boots, and a blade on a rich, wide, embroidered belt. His Latin was not perfect, but fairly decent for an oriental man, decent enough to suspect a good private education. “I’ve accidentally overheard your conversation, and it seems like you are not simply bashing those Christians, but looking for something about them. I assume, you are not mere legionaries?”

“You bet,” Furius said with a  laugh. “I am a centurion, and this guy is on a special mission from Rome to investigate those bastards!”

“I think I could be of an assistance.” The man gave a soft smile and a light bow that looked more like a relaxed nod of approval. He turned to Nil. “May I know how I can address you? You see, my king is very concerned about this sect, and because of my job I have to keep an eye on them. So I may know something of importance for you.”

“My name is Nil Septimus,” said Nil. “And who the hell are you?”

“Nil.”  The man smiled again, ignoring apparent rudeness. “Then call me Maalish. I am in the service of the King Malchus. So may I know, what concerns do you have about those Christians, so that I can see if I know anything of relevance to you?”

“Why the hell not,” Nil said. The local wine clearly did not work well for him, as usually he was more polite. “Did you hear anything about the Christians planning to make big trouble somewhere?”

“They don’t have to, Nil Septimus, they are trouble by themselves,” Maalish said. “Can you be more specific?”

“I mean real trouble, like trying to burn a whole city,” Nil said. “Maybe even Rome.”

“Christians trying to burn Rome,” Maalish said, visibly amused by the idea. “I have to admit, I’ve never heard something like that, although now that you mention it, it makes sense. These dogs hate Rome. I’ll alert the spies of my king to look for that. Whom should we inform if we find something about that?”

“Rome,” Nil said. “Inform the prefect of Praetorian Guards, Ophonius Tigellinus.”

“That high,” Maalish said. “Then it looks like it’s serious. Should I know anything else?”

“No,” Nil said. “How do I know who you are?”

“I understand.”  Maalish gave again his semi-bow, turned away, and left the tavern.

“Who do you think he is?” Nil asked.

“How do I know?” Furius answered. “I’d say he was asking too many questions to be an accidental man.”

“Are you acquainted with the Great Vizier?” the publican asked, appearing near the table.

“Great Vizier?” Nil asked.

“Yes, he is the Great Vizier of the Kingdom of Arabia,” the publican said. “He accompanies their prince Rabbel. He is visiting King Agrippa on some state business. I thought this is why the procurator came here, to talk to both of them.”

“You seem to be very well informed. How do you know Maalish?” Nil said.

“ ‘Maalish’?” The publican laughed shortly. “That’s not his name. ‘Maalish’ means ‘Never mind’ in their language. And about being informed, one has to be if he wants to have business around. You know, this place is not very friendly to foreigners. You should keep your eyes open.”

Nil and Furius returned late from the city and Nil immediately went to bed. In the morning he was woken up by a soldier.

“The procurator wants you to talk to the Great Vizier of Arabia,” a legionnaire said. “I’ll show you the way. They are already waiting.”

Nil got up, dressed, and followed the soldier. Maalish, or whatever his name was, met him in one of the rooms in another wing of the palace. He was accompanied by another man who was young but dressed in the same style and also bright and rich.

“Now, I believe, you know who I am,” said vizier, “and I’ll be glad to be of assistance to the empire. This is my trusted man; you can talk to him as it was me. Now, can you give me more details at what to look for?”

“Sure,” Nil said. “Why did you give such a name to me?”

“I have to apologize for that,” vizier smiled. “I never thought that Romans have a name ‘Nil’, it means ‘nothing’ in your language, right? And Nothing the Seventh looked like a pseudonym. So I just decided to return the courtesy and gave a pseudonym myself. So, about the business?”

“We know for sure that Christians, or maybe some internal sect of theirs, will try to burn Rome,” Nil said. “Make your men look for any hints about that. We also know the name of their leader. It’s some trader called Benjamin from Crete or Judea. If you learn anything about him or the plan, inform Rome. Myself, if possible, or you know whom. That’s it.”

“Yes, I know,” vizier nodded. “For how long should we look for them?”

“If nothing happens on the third day of September Ides, don’t bother anymore,” Nil said and shrugged his shoulders. “That will mean that we took care of them.”

“Anything else?”

“No, that’s pretty much all we know for now,” Nil said.

Vizier gave a dismissive gesture and Nil left.

After his steps fell silent, the man turned to vizier.

“So, what do you think?”

“First, we will look for this Benjamin and keep an eye on Christians, of course,” vizier said respectfully. “Just like we promised this Roman.”

“I like this ‘first’.”  The man smiled. “You’re clearly thinking in the right direction. Go on.”

“I think,” vizier said, “that if this man fails to prevent the fire, the Romans will be busy punishing Christians.”

“They will be busy punishing Judea,” the man corrected him.

“Why, my prince?”

“The Roman barbarians don’t see the difference between Christians and Jews. In the actual city they may prosecute Christians selectively, but it’s likely that they would want a piece of Judea as well. And then…”  Prince Rabbel paused.

“Then they will be too busy to try to annex Arabia,” vizier concluded with a smile.

“That does not mean that we don’t like Romans,” the prince said. “We will even help them with Judea by giving auxiliaries. Say, a thousand of our horsemen.”

Vizier smiled in return.

“I see why my father entrusted you with your post,” the prince said with a smile. “You know, those Christians say ‘love thy neighbor’, and I would really love them and Jews for keeping Romans off our backs.”

Vizier smiled and bowed slightly.

“And you know, I would really love the man—” the prince stopped smiling and looked into vizier’s eyes, “—who will make sure that Jews and Christians keep Romans off our backs.”

“I am sure your benevolence will not be wasted, my prince,” vizier said with a smile, clasping his hands to his heart and giving a bow.