Book I

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

Chapter XIII, where Nil gets help that many would not expect

Nil wrote the message the next day and handed it over to the courier. He had no doubts that Albinus would read it before letting it go to the destination. But, hey, he decided, six month’s pay is a hefty sum and definitely worth some creative writing. So he spent some time praising the administrative abilities of the procurator and painting locals as rebellious scum that would have revolted long ago if they had not been under the capable Albinus’ rule.

He spent a couple more days in Jerusalem, and after that left for the nearest sea port, Joppa. After considering his experience near Caesarea, Nil decided to equip himself with some light Greek-style leather armor and a gladius – the standard issue legionnaire sword. Local stores did not carry much Roman military stuff, but the cohorts had some spare inventory and after an evening in the city and a monetary gift, pilus prior – the centurion on command of the second cohort – who was also an old friend of Furius was persuaded to share some of this inventory with Nil. The favorable disposition of the procurator did not hurt either.

The way to Joppa was quite uneventful. Nobody considered Nil a spy on the road, neither did anybody attempt to confess to him about the sinister plans of the trader Benjamin. So after spending most of the day in the saddle, he arrived at the city. Nil left the horse at the local mansio – imperial post station – and headed to the port to find a ship to Alexandria.

Joppa had a long and stormy history. Being one of the oldest cities around, it changed hands many times, being Caanite, Egyptian, Phoenician, and Greek. Now, for almost two centuries, it was firmly Jewish, although as in any port, a lot of Greeks and many others were present as well. The city was built around a hill facing the sea, and the legend said that right at the foot of the hill was the rock where Andromeda was chained as sacrifice to the sea monster. The rock was there, all right, complete with the iron ring in it. As to the rest of the story… there was no proof that Perseus did not really rescue the Ethiopian princess here long ago, and that was good enough for the locals.

A rocky coast, open to the waves, made it complicated to dock, so most ships had to anchor about a mile away in the sea, and crews had to use small boats to come ashore or to move the merchandize. Still, the port was fairly well used as it was the closest port to Jerusalem – about a day’s travel closer than Caesarea. It was also the end of one of the land routes from Arabia that brought exotic spices and fragrances to the sea shore.

Where do you find a ship if they are all anchored a mile away from the shore? In the tavern. Nil sat on a bench at the end of a long table, dropped a couple of small coins and requested a mug of wine and a handful of the last year pickled olives as a snack. The innkeeper, a beefy Greek in a brown chlamys with the face of a bouncer, which he probably was as well, told him that there were a couple of ships in the port that would leave for Alexandria in a day or two.

“I have a room on the second floor available if you need a place to stay,” he added.

“Yes, keep it for me, will you?” Nil answered and added a couple more coins as an advance.

“Sure thing,” the innkeeper said and pocketed the coins. “You will find the ship in the port. She’s a small sailing vessel with a few oars to maneuver in a harbor and a single deck. The whole crew is about a dozen people. I think they’ve got a load of fine woolen fabric here and hope to sell it in Alexandria. You know, there is not many buyers around here in Judea since Albinus became a procurator. The people are poor and Alexandria is rich, so they hope to sell there with profit. You will need a boat to get to the ship. There are always plenty of boatmen there ready to ferry you to the ship for a couple of leptons. Don’t pay more than a brass semis for the roundtrip.”

“Thanks,” Nil said. “I’ll go now.”

“You know, you don’t have to,” the innkeeper said. “Her captain, Jason, is going to come here soon anyway. He has to pick up a small parcel with spices that I am sending to my partner in Alexandria. I am sure he’ll be happy to get a passenger; they barely make ends meet in their business.”

Nil shrugged his shoulders and sat back. After all, the sun was almost set and searching in the harbor for captains who were most likely already sitting in the taverns on the shore, did not look like an attractive way to spend the time to him.

“Sure, then bring me some food and wine, and I will wait for him,” Nil said. “Some cheese and bread would be nice, and splash some oil on the bottom of the plate to go with the bread.”

“I have a balsamic vinegar from Crete,” the innkeeper said and his gloomy face lit with an almost happy smile. “It gives a very nice touch to the oil.”

“Sure, sounds good,” Nil said. Apparently, he is not just the innkeeper and the bouncer, Nil decided, the guy is also a gourmet. A great skill set for the tavern keeper. Anyway, it does not matter as long as he is right about this captain.

The innkeeper was right. Captain Jason, a sturdy built, bearded Greek, about forty years old, came to the tavern in about half an hour. He exchanged a few words with the innkeeper, and then joined Nil in his corner.

“I was told you are looking for a fare to Alexandria. Is that right?” he said while inspecting Nil’s face and dress. “My name is Jason, and my ship is going to Alexandria tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, that’s correct,” Nil said. “My name is Nil. Consider taking a passenger?”

“Ten pieces of silver and consider yourself already in Alexandria,” Jason said.

“Ten denarii for a couple of days trip? Are you looking for an early retirement?” Nil asked. “I could buy your whole ship for that money.”

“No, you can not,” Jason said, smiling from ear to ear, and sat in front of Nil. “You need at least four times more. Just for you, eight pieces of silver and we will deliver you like fresh flowers for the Egyptian queen’s court.”

“Three,” Nil said and grinned lightly. “I am not a flower and Egypt does not have a queen.”

“You have a point,” Jason laughed and stroke his beard. “Fine, five and your own food. We’ll take care of drinking water. Come on, you probably can get this covered by the paymaster when you get to your legion.”

He probably took me for a simple legionnaire following to the place of service, Nil realized. I could probably press the price down a bit more, but why bother? The price is fair and he is right, it will be covered, so why not.

“Pay upon delivery?”

“Three now, two in Alexandria,” Jason said and nodded to the innkeeper. “Otus knows me, I always do my end of the deal.”

“Yes, he does,” Otus confirmed, appearing nearby with a couple of empty mugs in his hands that he was cleaning. “Half of his crew are those Christians. They don’t even let him rob other ships. That’s on the rare occasions when he can, of course. Not that he can rob many on his trough anyway,” he said with a grin.

“You have a deal,” Nil said. “Care for some wine? Be my guest.”

“Just a mug to sprinkle the deal,” Jason said. “I still have a bunch of things to do before departure.”

He grabbed a mug from Otus’s hand, filled it from the pitcher, and knocked the contents down his throat in a single swing. Nil hardly had time enough to prepare the money he agreed to pay.

“See you tomorrow in the port before daybreak. My ship is in the far south corner. Just tell the boatmen to get you to Captain Jason’s Tehe – the name means “luck” – they know my ship. Or, even better, I’ll ask somebody from my crew to pick you up here at the inn and show the way. Don’t be late, we sail away at dawn.”

He waved his hand and left.

“A very decent man,” Otus said while picking up the empty mug. “Why is it always decent men who are poor, and scum gets rich?”

Nil recalled his meeting with the procurator and sadly shrugged his shoulders.

“That’s what I think too,” Otus said with a nod. “About sending a man to show you the way to the ship, that’s his way of saying thanks for the little extra you agreed to pay. You know, he could probably agree to four pieces, and I noticed, you saw that. You are not an accidental profit for him now, you are a passenger.”

“How long will it take to get to Alexandria?” Nil asked. “The Cap’n did not mention that.”

“Of course he did not,” Otus said. “The sailors are superstitious. He’s probably prayed in the local temples of sea and wind gods, not to mention asking his crew to pray for good weather to whoever they believe in. You know, just in case. With a favorable wind you should be in place in a couple of days, just like you said yourself.”

*  *  *

The sky was already light when Tehe's crewmember brought Nil to the place in the port. The ship was anchored about half a mile away from the shore, but, courtesy of Captain Jason, a boatman was waiting to deliver them to the ship. The sun had not shown up yet, but a shining golden line emphasized the horizon, adding to the dim light of the early dawn. The smell of rotting fish was thick in the air, as this part of the port was mostly used by fishing boats rather than cargo ships.

The ship appeared to be a small trade vessel with almost identical stern and bow, no ram, no deck – Otus was exaggerating when describing the vessel – and a single removable mast. It was much smaller than Glapos, a little more than a dozen paces in length and about four paces in width. Large width made the vessel more steady. It also allowed the captain to load more cargo, although that made the ship slower and less maneuverable. On the plus side, the nine crewmembers including the captain – Otus exaggerated that too – were quite enough to handle the ship.

Nil got on board, and they cast off. At first, when the crew was rowing out of the harbor, everybody was busy. So Nil just laid down at the bow, where he did not interfere with anybody, wrapped himself in his cloak and considered taking a nap time. In less than a quarter of an hour, the crew got the ship into the open sea, set a rectangular sail, and then most of them, except the helmsman at the stern and a man on watch, followed Nil’s example.

Unfortunately, you can only sleep for so much. So in a few hours almost everybody woke up and was busy doing nothing.

“Good weather,” Nil said to the captain, who stood up at the bow leaning on the board.

“Yeah, low waves and a good wind in the right direction,” Jason said. “Seems that we are lucky so far.”

“Otus said we may be there in two days,” Nil said. “Sounds right?”

“Well, let’s not scare off our luck,” Jason said. “Sea is deceptive. If gods favor us, we may be there as Otus said. I’d rather add no more.”

“Speaking of gods,” Nil said. “Otus said you have a lot of Christians in your crew.”

“Sure, I have,” Jason said. “Zeno! Come here.”

One of the crew members got to his feet and walked carefully to Nil and the captain.

“Zeno, this is the man from Rome,” Jason said. “His name is Nil, and he wanted to meet a Christian. He never met one before.”

Zeno looked at Nil, the silent question on his face.

“Actually, I have,” Nil said with quiet dignity and crossed his fingers in a special way he learned when working with Roman Christians. “I just was surprised to hear that our communities go so far to the East.”

“And I am pleasantly surprised that our communities go so far to the West,” Zeno said with a light bow of the head. “How are things going in Rome?”

“Not so well,” Nil said. “But maybe we should go to the stern and not bother the captain with our affairs.”

“Sure, go ahead” Jason said to Zeno. “You know I am not interested, and I don’t mind if you discuss your secrets a bit. There is not much to do now anyway.”

Nil and Zeno moved to the aft of the ship near the helmsman. Two other sailors free of duty joined them.

“You may speak freely with them,” Zeno said, pointing to the sailors and the helmsman. “They are all our brothers. What is it that bothers you?”

“Bad news is heard in Rome,” Nil said. “It looks like some of our brothers will try a huge arson in Rome sometime in the autumn.”

“Why would they do that?” Zeno asked.

“They believe it’s a time foretold by prophets when Rome will be destroyed,” Nil said. “And they want to be a part of it.”

“This is really sad news,” one of the sailors said. “The empire has not liked us so far, but if something like that happens–”

“They will crush us,” Zeno finished. “Truly sad news you brought to us, Brother Nil. But what can we do?”

“Talk to your communities, discourage them from participating in it,” Nil said. “And keep an eye on those who will.”

“Don’t worry about our communities, brother,” Zeno said. “We are all poor people, most of us don’t have the means to travel to Rome nor the time to do so. Of course, we will talk to them anyway. As for keeping an eye out, who are they, those insane people who are planning such a crime?”

“Their leader’s name is Benjamin,” Nil said. “He is a trader going around between Egypt, Judea, Crete, Greece and Italy. Sometimes he tries to look like a prophet who just foretells the destruction of Rome, but as the people begin to listen, he calls for actually doing it.”

“We will keep an eye out for such a man,” Zeno nodded. “And we will warn the communities that we visit.”

“But what can we do with him?” one of the sailors asked. “We can’t give him up to the authorities, he is one of our brothers.”

“Of course, we can’t,” Nil said. “That’s why it is so important to find him and try to deal with him on our own before he makes all of us hunted animals. If you see him or hear about him, try to pass a word to me in Rome. Find the house of the prefect of Praetorians Guards. There is a man named Alexius there – he will know how to pass the word to me.”

“Prefect’s house?” Zeno asked, raising his brows.

“Yes,” Nil said. “We are in many places around Rome. Alexius teaches rhetoric to the prefect’s children. He is a freedman, but this is a good job. Besides, who knows, maybe he will be able to teach them not just rhetoric?”

“This sounds like good news,” Zeno agreed. “It’s joyous to hear that our community in Rome prospers and reaches so deep there. We will try to let you know. None of our brothers go regularly to Rome, but we may have an occasion here and there. Or we can find a seaman going there who will be willing to pass the word for a few coins.”

“Thank you,” Nil said and gave a light bow. Damn, he thought, it’s really a pity that I cannot instruct them to use the Imperial post.

“Thank you for the word of caution,” Zeno said politely. “That’s our common burden.”

“Do you think Benjamin may get many people for his plot here in the East?” Nil asked.

“I doubt that,” Zeno said with a shake of his head. “As I said already, most of us are poor people who cannot go around at will. Few of our brothers around may be imprudent enough to revolt, if the life becomes too hard, but conspiracy like that? No, that requires some money.”