LOCAL STINKERS DON’T COUNT
Chapter XV, where one Roman, one Greek, and one Egyptian are looking for one Christian Jew and cannot find him
Nothing else noteworthy happened in the two final days that Nil spent with Captain Jason and his crew. He talked a couple more times to Zeno and his men, made sure that they knew where to pass word if they learned something about the trader Benjamin, and spent the rest of the time sleeping and staring at the horizon and the shoreline.
A silhouette of the Pharos lighthouse – the huge three-story tower showing the entrance to the harbor – was growing slowly in front of their eyes as they were closing on the city at the end of the second day. The ancient land greeted them with one of its man-made miracles that was famed across the Roman world. Beside the lighthouse, the entrance to the harbor was also surrounded by two temples of Isis, the great goddess of Egypt. One occupied the closest, eastward, part of the island between the lighthouse and an artificial dam connecting the island with the mainland. Another one was located on Cape Lochias, that came into the sea right between the Jewish and Royal quarters of the city and enclosed the harbor from the east.
Both complexes were clearly seen in the crisp air of the dying day. A vast rectangular area was surrounded by walls and included the main edifice and a spacious square divided into a number of areas, each with its special purpose. Somewhat similar to the Jerusalem temple, Nil thought, looking at the massive structures over the board. Compared to them, the magnificent-by-itself Greek temple of Poseidon on the farthest corner of the island looked lightweight because of its graceful Corinthian columns and wide arcs.
It’s not Roman, Nil realized. The cult of Isis was permitted in Rome and it had there a temple as well as numerous followers, including a few of Nil’s acquaintances. The Roman temple of Isis was a temple, all right. Rich, impressive, just like the temples of Jupiter, Venus, Minerva, or many other numerous deities fancied in the city of cities. It featured few exotic ceremonies and was surrounded by some special mystic aura, but now Nil realized that it was Roman in essence, just spiced and flavored a bit differently. Compared to that, Nil thought, the temple in Rome looked like a fake. He looked at the massive rectangular structures that erupted from the ground and breathed with the primordial power of the Earth itself, and the idea that the priests of this goddess can engulf the huge city in flames did not look so fantastic and ridiculous anymore. He knew that these were places he would have to pay a visit soon.
The harbor was busy this time of the year. The large ships were loaded with Egyptian grain and sailing to Italy. While they were closing on the city, two large ships left the harbor and turned West away from them along the North African coast. Granary ships relied on sails, and with predominantly opposite winds it could take a month or two for them to reach Ostia, the main port of Rome. Anyway, the harbor was too busy with the things really important to the empire to accept an insignificant boat with a few smugglers. Nil was pretty sure that Captain Jason was not going to declare his merchandise in the port or pay customs, even if any were due, but saw no reason to intervene. In fact, a smuggler who trusts you could be a great source of information, Nil thought, and Captain Jason looked like a good candidate to work with.
Anyway, the intentions of the port authorities and the captain were aligned almost perfectly. The former did not want to deal with an insignificant vessel, and the latter wanted to avoid them dealing with it. So Jason moved east of the harbor to the Jewish quarter of the city. The sun had not yet set when the ship touched the sandy sea bottom and got firmly beached among the stinking fishing boats returning home after the day. The crew jumped out and anchored the vessel to make sure that the leaving high water would not pull it back to sea, so Nil stepped on the land without getting his feet wet. He thanked the captain, paid him the rest of the fare, and left to the city after saying goodbye to all four Christian members of the crew.
What simpletons, Nil thought going down the street toward the port. They trusted me on the spot and promised to send a note directly to the prefect’s house. Besides, it looks like they were more scared of the prospect that some of their “brothers” are going to burn Rome than the prefect himself. I wonder, Nil’s thoughts had switched to Tigellinus, where the boss found this information in the first place. In his place, I would triple check such information before believing it. Sure, something is brewing around, but the more I go to the East, the fewer the traces of conspiracy. Looks like it’s all centered around Rome. Zeno was right, he thought, a conspiracy like this takes some money.
A place to stay and eat was not a problem in Alexandria. Ubiquitous Greeks felt at home here, which was easy to understand, keeping in mind that Egypt was ruled by Greeks for several centuries since Alexander the Great. They opened a lot of taverns and inns around the city. And, as of little surprise, most of them were close to the port.
Egypt was ruled by a prefect. He had several procurators on his staff who supervised financial matters and, with special attention, the grain shipments to Rome. He also had a few other officials reporting to him, including military commanders, a legal advisor, iuridicus, the chief priest, idios logos who supervised and accounted for tax collection, and a few others. Besides them, there was a number of officials on the regional level and in each nom, an administrative unit of Egypt usually centered around some city. Through military commanders, the prefect directly controlled the legions stationed in the province. In a sense, the prefect was as powerful as pharaohs of the older days, except that frequent – once every several years – replacements made it complicated to deify the prefect and consider him an earthly incarnation of some god. The latter was mended somewhat by deifying the current emperor, whom the prefect officially represented. It was not as good for Egyptians as “a god next door”, which they were accustomed to for a few millennia, but it was the next best thing and, besides, nobody cared much about what Egyptians thought anyway.
Nil got an audience with the current prefect – Lucius Julius Vistinus – the next day. It certainly pays to carry documents signed by the prefect of Praetorians, Nil thought. God-like or not, but all these provincial rulers hope to get back to Rome one day with money and influence, and they don’t want to be at odds with one of the most powerful men in the city.
The palace was located on the east side of the harbor in the Royal, actually Greek, quarter of the city. It was surrounded by a garden enclosed by a high wall with guarded entrances, and the main gate accompanied by two steles of red granite called “Cleopatra needles”. The prefect listened to Nil tête-à-tête in a private back room of his palace. Lucius Julius Vistinus was in his mid sixties. He had already been the prefect of Egypt for five years and handled the job well. Combining both civilian and military powers, he did not wear a toga, but rather light armor over a white tunic complemented by a short red military cloak for going out, which now rested on the back of a chair. Not that the weather required a cloak, on the contrary it was rather hot outside, but status was more important. Besides, the light linen protected the armor from getting hot under the burning southern sun.
“More trouble from those Jews,” the prefect said after Nil finished. “I am going to meet the chief priest tomorrow morning. He is also the high priest of the temple of Isis on the island so he is always missing when I need him. Anyway, come here and meet him. He will assign some of his deputies to assist you on the case. You probably want to visit the temples located in the city, at least the major Egyptian ones. I’ll assign one of my men to accompany you and confirm your credentials to them. I think, that’s it. I have not heard anything about this trader Benjamin, nor anything about the arson plans. But I’ll alert my men to be on the lookout.”
After Nil left, a thin and short man, about sixty years old, in a white toga on top of an off-white tunic, came into the room. His face, covered with red spots and bluish veins on the temples, kept obliging expressions although not without a hint of the hidden arrogance of a servant confided with the master’s most dirty and dangerous secrets. A bald spot covering the top of his head and deep large wrinkles made him look like a large dog, indifferent to the world while ready to follow his master’s orders expressed with a simple move of a finger. In other words, this was a man one would expect near a capable ruler.
“Did you hear him, Galen?” the prefect asked. “What do you think?”
“Yes, I’ve heard it all,” Galen said. “It sounds very strange. If you don’t mind, I’d like to be the one assigned to this man to help with his investigation. Even assuming there is a link between that sect and some Egyptian temples, why would the priests help in such an endeavor? They have absolutely nothing to benefit from it.”
“True,” the prefect nodded. “Still, I wonder if we should be prepared in case this fire actually happens. I hate to be caught off guard by unexpected events.”
“Of course, but I don’t believe we have any preparations to make,” the man said. “Nothing to worry about anyway.”
“What do you mean?” the prefect asked.
“There certainly will be some changes,” Galen answered. “The price of grain will go up, hence better profits. There will be a need for expedient shipping, hence a chance to distinguish yourself. A lot of Egyptian stone will be required to rebuild Rome. The rumors from travelers from Rome are that the emperor is not very happy with his palace. He calls it Domus Transitoria – passage-through house. Not a very flattering name for the emperor’s residence. So I suspect that the red granite of Aswan will be required in large quantities. And if the fire is serious enough, you may be able to secure a spot in a good location for your future house. You know, after you leave this post, return to Rome, and retire.”
“You see?” the prefect said. “There is a lot to prepare. Expedient shipping may require a few spare ships in the harbor at the time. Increasing production of red granite cannot be done overnight. It’s better to have some reserve ready when the emperor requests it. And I should think about a nice spot in Rome where I can build my house, after the place becomes available.”
“That’s only in case,” Galen said politely, “Rome does burn.”
“You are right,” the prefect said. “Spare ships are an expensive thing, and there is no sense looking for a spot if it will not be freed by the fire.”
He looked to the mosaic ceiling and paused, thinking. Galen did not interrupt, waiting politely for his boss. The noise of the city did not penetrate the garden around the palace. The silence was only interrupted by the light rustle of foliage under the breeze and the birds singing in the tree crones outside. After a few minutes, the prefect turned his attention back to his man. “Do you think we can trust those Jews with something so important?”
“Can you trust Jews with anything?” Galen grinned.
* * *
The next morning Nil came to the palace again. This time the reception was in a hall. Not the big hall for official ceremonies, but a smaller, private one, still suitable for several men to talk far enough from the walls that could have uninvited ears.
Akenisis, the chief priest in the Roman administration of Egypt and the High Priest of Isis, came accompanied by a self-confident man in his early fifties with the tenacious grip of his dark brown eyes. Both were dressed in chlamys-style dress on top of embroidered kilts held with multicolored belts and traditional Egyptian headpieces covering their hair.
After entering the hall, Akenisis slowly and stately turned, looking at the prefect who waited standing in the middle of the hall with crossed arms. Very old, in his late seventies, but not decrepit, the priest looked like an ancient king visiting his worthless pawns with an inspection. He was so bony that one could not dismiss the thought that he really could be an ancient king woken up from one of the numerous tombs in the southern dessert, but the arrogant, greedy and very vivid look of his eyes provided proof to the contrary.
“The old ape puffs up,” the prefect muttered, looking at the priest. “Dear Akenisis, glad to see you,” he said loudly. “Do you mind coming closer so that we can talk?” Then he lowered his voice again and said to Nil, “See the second man? You will work with him. He is the head of the temple police under this dressed monkey.”
The priest bowed slightly and approached the prefect in the same slow and stately fashion as he was standing before. His companion followed him one step behind.
“Simaat, good to see you!” the prefect said, looking at the priest’s companion. “Dear Akeni, you brought the right man for our riddle today; we will need his help.”
“What can we do for mighty Rome?” the priest asked.
“Nil, tell them.”
And Nil started his story again. Simaat, the priest’s companion, listened attentively, and though he looked relaxed, Nil was sure that he did not miss a single word or any detail. In contrast, the priest was neither relaxed, nor attentive. He probably missed most of what Nil said, but he got what mattered to him – there is a conspiracy and his people are suspected in it.
“I never heard of anything like this before,” the priest said.
“Sure, you did not,” the prefect said. “If you did, you would inform me, right? Now, I want you to help with the investigation of what you may have not heard yet, but what may be there.”
“Let Simaat help with the investigation,” the priest said. “If there is anything, he will find it.”
“I could not agree more, dear Akeni,” the prefect said. “Now before we get to the other temple matters, let’s dismiss our investigators. They have a job to do.” He turned away from the priest and said, “Simaat, Nil is on a personal mission from the prefect of Praetorians in Rome, help him with the investigation. You’ve heard the problem. Anyway, you two are professionals – you will find a way to work this out. Grab Galen on the way out; he will help you too, especially if you need my authority. Galen will keep me informed.” He turned to Nil. “Come to me before leaving Egypt, I will need a detailed report on your investigation. Go.”
Nil and Simaat left the hall. Galen was already waiting outside.
They looked at each other. It was hard to read anything from the firm and expressionless look in Simaat’s eyes. Self-confident, experienced, dangerous, Nil decided, and on my side. Then he looked at the other man. That must be Galen, the appointee of the prefect, Nil decided. Experienced, greedy, no principles, dangerous, Nil thought. Hey, what’s the matter, I am not a little baby myself.
“I need to be off now. I need to warn my men to be on the lookout for this Benjamin of yours,” Simaat said. “Tomorrow morning let us visit local temples, Roman.”
There was no hate in the way he said “Roman”, neither was there any piety. I like him, Nil thought, while Simaat turned and walked away.
“He is ok, even though a little too Egyptian,” Galen said with a grin. “Let’s meet tomorrow morning one hour after daybreak at the tavern of old Amphion. Let me show you where it is. We can get some drinks there, and talk about our business too, while our colleague warns his men. Actually, later today I’ll alert my boys too.”
And you are a little too Greek, Nil thought, but that’s ok. “Sounds like a plan,” he said with a wide smile.
* * *
The next few days were busy. Nil, Galen, and Simaat were visiting the city temples devoted to multiple Egyptian deities. The city had an abundance of both temples and deities. The head priests of the temples were shaking their heads, promising to look for any followers of Benjamin who might try to approach them, but otherwise were clueless. Not everybody cooperated at once, but Galen and Simaat knew the city, the people, and how to make a person cooperate without touching him with a finger. Still, no traces were found.
Nil felt desperate. This was the core of his assignment, and it did not work out. If Egyptian priests are not involved, then it seemed like he was wrong all along. What’s even worse, he had no clue who could be at the heart of such a grand-scale conspiracy. At last, the third priest of the Temple of Amun-Ra, who was noticed talking to a Greek trader a month ago, gave them a hint. The trader himself happened to be a provider of a certain spice bought for the needs of the Temple, and so it was a false alarm. But after listening to the story, the priest gave them an idea.
“You are looking for the real Egyptian priests, not the local puff-ups,” he said. The man was old and visibly unconcerned with his own well-being. “Alexandria is all about the power, not the faith. Nobody serves gods here, everybody serves himself, maybe Romans. If you look for power, you go to Alexandria, if you look for ancient sacred knowledge, you go to Heliopolis.”
“I thought Heliopolis is a Greek city,” Nil said. “It certainly sounds like a Greek city.”
The old man smiled.
“He may have some point,” Galen said. “Alexandria is all about politics and power plays. You would not believe, we cannot handle all the reports that people place against each other. We had one man whose house is free from taxation. Last year we got thirty seven reports on him as hiding his house from taxes. All voluntary, all from good friends and neighbors. It’s not easy to keep any real knowledge in such a place. Thebes, the old capital of Egypt, may keep some secrets and dangerous knowledge.”
The old man smiled again.
“Thebes declined since Alexandria was built,” Simaat said. “But Memphis is our old capital, their priests may be involved.”
The old man sighed without saying anything.
“Speak,” Nil demanded.
“Before Alexandria was Thebes,” the priest said. “Before Thebes was Memphis. But before both of them, before Romans and Greeks, several waves of Greeks, even before Egypt was united, there was On – our ancient spiritual capital called Iunu or Per-Ra in our ancient scripts. You call it Heliopolis. Go there. If you do not find your answers there, you will not find them anywhere in Egypt.”
“What do you think?” Nil asked when all three investigators left the temple.
“The old man may be right,” Simaat said. “I have to admit, the priests here in Alexandria are mere mortals with little pleasures of life and little sins of their own. The top of their ambitions is to get to the top here and become a chief priest, and those are the ones who have any ambitions at all. They are not fit for something as grand as you described. And he is right – Thebes and Memphis have both declined significantly. They probably hardly recognize Rome’s existence at all. No, if something is brewing around, that should be in On. They keep there our ancient knowledge and they are the only ones who may be capable of doing something serious.”
“Yeah, I agree, the local stinkers don’t count,” Galen said, ignoring the indignant glance from Simaat. “Hey, no offense, you would not try to burn Rome even if you could, right? You depend on us to keep your power and you have nothing to gain from it. And besides, you don’t know how to do it.”
“Arrogant as it’s said,” Simaat said with dignity. “I have to admit, your words have a grain of truth in them. No matter the connections, we have nothing to gain from such a plan. And I doubt that any priest from Alexandria is predisposed to participate in any risky enterprise on a charitable basis. And even if offered significant money, nobody would be able to implement such a plan.”
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