Book I

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Book One: synopsis
Book Two: synopsis

Chapter XVII, where Nil meets a not-very-good-Christian in the land that does not care about Rome

Several days passed after the conversation with the elderly priest of Amon-Ra. Nil, Galen, and Simaat talked to a lot more people with the same result. Nobody heard of a Christian named Benjamin trying to burn Rome, nobody was approached for help in such a venture, and nobody seemed to be involved either, at least when approached by three investigators. A few looked concerned, amused, or interested, but only as potential spectators rather than participants. In other words, there were no results unless one was willing to count a negative one as a result. Nil was not.

He visited the prefect once more, reported the status of the investigation, and asked for permission to leave for Heliopolis. The prefect was briefed daily by Galen on the findings, so he was not surprised, although visibly disappointed with the results. He supplied Nil with one more official paper requiring everybody to assist him in the investigation, and ordered Simaat to accompany Nil on the mission and help him get in touch with the local priests in Heliopolis.

The next day Nil and Simaat left the city. They boarded the river ship in the third internal harbor of Alexandria on Lake Mareotis. The harbor was located on the side of the city opposite the sea and provided the natural endpoint for river ships delivering grain and other merchandise from internal areas of the land. The ship had just brought a load of grain from Thebes, and now the captain was trying to get back before the river started to rise, converting a lot of dry land into shallow water almost indistinguishable from the fairway and very inconvenient. The ship was practically empty and the captain did not mind taking two passengers to Heliopolis. Not that he had much choice unless he was willing to incur the displeasure of both the Roman authorities and the Egyptian priesthood.

Galen had to stay in Alexandria to take care of some other important business on a personal assignment from the prefect, so Nil and Simaat went alone. It’s probably for the best, Nil decided. The presumptuous and rude Greek was ok to share a few bottles of wine with in a tavern accompanied by a few salty stories as a prologue to more entertainment, but working with him for days was not a pleasant experience at all. It was hard to say what the always dispassionate Simaat thought about that, but from the few hints, Nil suspected that the Egyptian shared the sentiment about their Greek colleague.

The ship was almost as large as Jason’s Tehe. It was made of a wooden framework covered with wisps of  papyrus reeds lashed together with rope. Despite the fragile material, the hull was watertight and felt sturdy enough to rely on. The crew consisted of the captain, who was also the owner of the vessel, four locals, and a legionnaire from the Theban garrison. The legionnaire was appointed to the ship to look that the grain was not stolen or replaced with a poorer grade on the way to Alexandria and now, mission accomplished, he was on the way back together with the rest of the crew.

The ship moved with two small sails up the river, the wind was neither strong, nor steady, and it took almost two days of unhurried voyage to reach Heliopolis. Most of the time vast marshlands covered the banks of the great river as far as one could see. The reed stood high, hiding fowl, crocodiles, deadly snakes, and an occasional hippopotamus family.

“Before the Romans and before the Greeks,” Simaat said early in the first day, looking overboard, “this marshland was full of life, with an abundance of animals to hunt for.”

“It does not look lifeless now either,” Nil said.

“No, it does not,” Simaat agreed. “We still supply some exotic animals for Roman arenas. But it’s just a pale image of what was here before.”

At twilight, the wind died out and a viscous silence covered the ship and the land around, accentuated only with frogs croaking and the occasional scream of a bird caught in its nest by an early night predator. Crocodiles, hunting in the darkness by their sense of warmth, were noiseless with only a rare splash of water so subdued that one would think that it’s not real, but only seems to sound. A huge alien-looking moon was hanging low over the horizon, enlarged by the lens of moist air covering the marshlands of the Nile Delta. After the sun set, only this bizarre moon was giving its ghostly light to the unreal, motionless world that now surrounded the ship.

“I don’t think we will find your incendiaries in Heliopolis either,” Simaat said, looking at the picture around. The words sounded muffled in the air saturated with moisture.

Nil nodded. The whole world around was saying clear and loud, “I don’t care.” It existed long before Rome and it, probably, would still exist long after Rome becomes history. This world did not care for the little problems of the little people across the great sea who imagined themselves to be something of importance to the whole universe. Looking around, it was hard to believe in the very existence of Rome. It was like Nil was transferred to some other world where he could turn back, cross the sea, get to the seven hills and find them covered with the original forest without any trace of magnificent buildings and noisy crowds.

Nil shook himself. Maybe this world does not care, he said to himself, but I do. He wrapped himself up with the cloak and laid down to sleep. When he opened his eyes the next time, the wind blew again, and the ship was moving forward. On the stern the helmsman was working hard with the steering oar, keeping the ship on the fairway that was now clearly seen in the bright light of the high moon, still larger than normal but not frightening anymore.

At the end of the second day, they saw the golden apex of the benben stone, the central part of the Temple of Re located on the artificial mound in the center of the ancient city. The ship had to make a little detour to get to Heliopolis, as the city was not directly on the way from Alexandria to Thebes. It was located about five miles eastward from the apex of the Nile’s delta, connected to the river with a channel. When the city was found, nobody was able to build it on the swamps that surrounded the river closely. A few centuries later, Egyptians partially diverted Nile’s stream to build Memphis, but that was centuries later, so visitors to On, a.k.a. Heliopolis, had to travel a few extra miles to reach the city. The captain and his crew did not mind that at all. First, they did not have much of a choice, and more importantly, they were actually looking forward to the night in the house of beer justified by the state-ordered journey.

Landing sites in the city were quite simple. Most sites consisted of a city square surrounded by buildings from three sides and open to the channel on the fourth with small poles driven into the ground to rope boats. There were a lot of such sites because the river boats were occasionally used for moving around the city, although not all of them were functional now. The place was far past its former glory. Rectangular one- and two-story buildings with flat roofs were hiding their insides, but other signs betrayed abandoned sites.

The ship passed such a place. Undisturbed reeds hid the landing site. The square visible behind them was covered with grass with an occasional broken pot or amphora and a rotten two-wheel cart forgotten near one of the buildings that surrounded the square. The walls were covered with spots where the plaster fell off, revealing gray mudbricks – the primary construction material of the city. In one place, the mudbricks were worn by time and the weather to the point that the upper half of the wall collapsed. The breach revealed an empty second floor room with a wide bench made out of the same mudbricks going along the walls, and a single wooden pole in the middle supporting the ceiling. There was no human sounds around, no women chatting, no kids shouting, no footsteps, no squeaking wheels, only nature’s own sounds disturbed the creepy silence of the place.

“There were two Persian invasions that almost destroyed this city during the last millennium,” Simaat said pointing to the site. “The city never recovered after that. The parts around the temples are alive, but the farther ends of the city are all like that now.”

“Who knows, it still may change,” Nil said. “Now that our legions will not let enemies come here–”

“Your legions continue the work of Persians,” Simaat interrupted him with a gloomy glance.

“How so?” Nil asked, puzzled by the change in the usually emotionless Egyptian.

“Did you see two steles in front of the royal palace in Alexandria?” Simaat asked. “You call them ‘Cleopatra  Needles’, but neither of the queens named Cleopatra had anything to do with them. These steles were moved by the order of your Emperor Augustus to Alexandria from here, from the Temple of Ra in On. Ancestors of your Jewish wards saw them here on the dawn of their own history more than a millennium ago, when making the bricks for these buildings.” He waved his hand to the house with the collapsed wall.

The view was not cheerful, and the conversation died. Soon they came close enough to the Temple, and the populated areas of the city started. They landed on a cobblestone city square facing the channel. Street traders were sitting on the ground near the walls under the sheds, with their merchandise spread out on the ground and hanging on the shed’s poles in reed baskets.

Nil and Simaat said good bye to the crew and the captain, who already found that the nearest house of beer was right around the corner, and went to the city looking for an inn to stay in. After that the investigators went separate ways, Simaat left to arrange meetings with local priests for tomorrow, and Nil paid a visit to the local head of administration – strategos, the elderly Greek handling local affairs for Rome with his staff, consisting mostly of scribes.

Nil did not have to report here. With his credentials he could probably make the local strategos roll and bark, if he wanted to, but the old bureaucrat controlled the stream of information going from the nom to the province. He could have some information on Benjamin and his contacts, if the latter ever appeared in this city at all. And, yes, he had. Or, to be precise, the royal scribe and accountant had the information. Both were Egyptians in their early forties, with shaved heads, both wearing a traditional Egyptian kilt and a piece of white fabric covering their backs and the upper part of the arms. The latter was supposed to signify their status, as lower rank Egyptian men usually did not cover their upper body at all. Both were very proud of their status and eager to help the official from Rome with whatever they could. And they both spoke Greek pretty well. Here their similarity stopped. The scribe was scrawny, cold and acrimonious. In contrast, the accountant was stout and cheerful. Still, they were on good terms with each other and both knew their jobs very well.

“I need information on a man named Benjamin,” Nil said. “We believe he is a Christian and a trader, he travels quite a bit, and that’s pretty much all we know.”

Both Egyptians listened attentively, trying to recollect any appropriate memory.

“We have about half a hundred Benjamins around,” the accountant said. “Benjamin is a Jewish name, we have some Jews here, actually a lot of them. They even built a temple here about a century ago, and they still use it. Anyway, I believe only a few of them are Christians. We don’t have their exact record, as they are all Jews for us, but comparing their number from tax records and the list from the temple, and assuming the missing ones are Christians, I’d say it should be less than a dozen.”

“Rather about five or six, I’d say,” the scribe corrected him with a rasping voice. “But none of them travel far enough and none of them are traders.”

“What about ben Shlomo? I think his real name is Benjamin, son of Shlomo, right?” the accountant asked. “I think he may be a Christian.”

“You are right, that’s his real first name,” the scribe agreed. “He is not on the synagogue list and he travels as far as Nubia and Rome.”

“Tell me more,” Nil said. “And where can I find him?”

“He is trading incense,” the accountant said. “He buys them in upper Egypt, Red Sea Coast and Arabia and sells in Alexandria and Rome. He is pretty rich for modern days. You know, these are not the best times for Heliopolis. You’ll find his house a few blocks to the sunset from the Jewish temple. Every street boy knows his house, it’s easy to find.”

“Thanks,” Nil said. “I’ll check him out. What about visitors to the city? I think the Benjamin that I look for is from Judea or Crete. Don’t rely on that, but that’s what I suspect. Do you remember any traders named Benjamin coming to the city lately?”

Both Egyptians thought for a bit, then the accountant shook his head.

“We have customs collection records,” the scribe suggested. “Every trader coming to the city declares his merchandise and pays customs, if necessary. We can look there.”

“Good idea,” the accountant agreed. “I don’t remember any Benjamin coming to the city, but the records may have one. Not that we have many traders coming here these years.”

“Don’t look too far back,” Nil said. “If he came to the city, it was just a few months ago, this year for sure. How soon can you check the records?”

“Tomorrow by noon,” the scribe said. “My records are in good order. It will not take too long.”

“Thanks to you, both,” Nil said. “I’ll mention your help to the prefect in Alexandria. I’ll be back after noon tomorrow then. Meanwhile, I’ll check on this local trader of yours.”

He gave a short salute to the men, turned away and left the building. When he got back to the inn, Simaat was already waiting for him. He had scheduled a meeting with the Great Seer, the high priest of the city, for tomorrow morning, where he could describe the problem and arrange for Nil to meet the high priest as well. Frankly, Nil was not sure why the meeting should be so complicated to arrange. If Nil had a mere centuria of soldiers behind him, he would go directly to this high priest, opening the doors with his foot, and talk to whoever he pleased to talk to. However, being alone, he was ok with following the local customs, especially if somebody else took care of all the formalities. He had a trader Benjamin to visit tomorrow morning, and it looked like the closest shot he had got so far.

*  *  *

The accountant was right: ben Shlomo’s house was very easy to find. Nil gave a lepton – small copper Greek coin – to the boy who led him to the house, not that he had to, just for good luck, and knocked on the wooden door in the eight feet tall plastered mudbrick wall surrounding the yard and the house. Nobody seemed to care. Nil pounded the door with his fist several times, making enough noise to wake up all the famous Egyptian mummies within a mile radius and make them rush out to open the door. Still the silence was the answer. Nil started to think about breaking the door down, when a squeaking sound of poorly oiled hinges came from the depth of the yard and shuffling footsteps began to close on him.

“Who is there?” a rasping voice asked from behind the door.

“Centurion Nil Septimus of the first Praetorian Cohort wants to talk to your master,” Nil said. “Open the door and get me to him.”

A little window opened in the door revealing frightened eyes surrounded with wrinkles. The eyes surveyed the street and became even more frightened – Nil wore the full uniform and did not appear friendly. Looking at the wrinkles, it could really be a mummy woken up from some grave, Nil thought with a mental chuckle. Technically, what he said was not the complete truth. He was a centurion of the first special cohort of which the owner of the eyes never heard of in his life. But even if he had, Nil’s objective was not to scare him to death literally, so it did not make any sense to go into such details. Anyway, the door opened and a very frightened old man in a Greek tunic and simple soleae sandals showed him the way to the house.

Nil was left in the small enclosed internal garden in front of the main entrance with a promise that the master of the house would show up shortly. A garden, pfff, rather a yard! Nil thought with a caustic smile. Four trees including a palm in the middle! He sat in the chair, brought by the servant, and looked around. Although, keeping these trees watered all the time could be a challenge in this climate, Nil admitted. He looked at the entrance to the house. Why receive me in the garden, he wondered. Nah, his house looks like a rathole. The morning air is fresh and cool, the sun does not burn yet. I am better off here. Interesting, most Egyptian houses look to me like ratholes, especially those deserted ones on the streets. I wonder why…

These thoughts kept him occupied for about ten minutes until the owner of the house showed up. Ben Shlomo, Benjamin, son of Shlomo, was a fat, short man about fifty years old with a bald spot on top of his head surrounded by sparse, curly and mostly gray hair. He wore a white Greek chlamys on top of a simple off-white tunic, and got to the guest barefooted, apparently in a hurry. His chubby face, with full lips, wide nose and round cheeks, was speaking for itself.

“What can I do for you?” ben Shlomo asked with an obsequious smile.

That’s not him, Nil decided. This pot-bellied guy could be a cheater, pilferer, adulterer, but definitely not a rebel. Oh, well, I did not expect that Benjamin to reside in this city anyway. Just doing due diligence. If I wasted my morning on him, let me at least question him on the local Christian community and any other traders who could have visited the city. This guy seemed to be a cooperative type.

“Ben Shlomo?” Nil asked.

The trader readily nodded. “Yes, that’s me, Your Honor.”

“Strategos of the city recommended you as a trustworthy and a decent man who can help me with my business,” Nil said. “You are a Christian, right?”

“Well, you can say that, I guess,” ben Shlomo said.

Nil frowned. “What do you mean? Do you go into the Christian community as one of their own?”

“Yes, Your Honor, I do,” ben Shlomo nodded again without stopping to smile.

“That’s all I need,” Nil said. “So tell me a few things about the local Christians. Do they tell a lot of those stories about the end of the world, Rome being destroyed, you know how it goes, right?”

“Well, Your Honor,” ben Shlomo said without a smile but still with a servile expression on his face. “They are very poor people living a very hard life. I guess the end of the world promises a lot of hope to them. That’s why they need all these tales.”

“You don’t believe these tales, do you?” Nil asked.

“Oh, no,” ben Shlomo chuckled and a smart, skeptical man showed up for a moment from behind the obedient mask. “No, Your Honor, of course, I don’t. Why would I try to continue to make money, if I thought the world would end tomorrow?”

“Then why did you join the Christians?” Nil asked.

“Well, Your Honor, first of all, the Jews here go to the local temple, and some people are questioning, is it a right thing to have a second temple?” ben Shlomo said. “Besides, the priests in the local temple are really strict about tithing. And, you know, it’s not a good time for business here in Heliopolis; I don’t make as much money as they expect me to. People are asking what ben Shlomo is doing in this city anyway, maybe he should move to Alexandria. And I don’t disagree with them. It’s just very expensive to go to the local temple here. As to these people, I mean Christians, they are so poor, they are happy with whatever I can share out of the kindness of my heart. Besides, it’s good for the business. If you say you are a Christian, nobody expects you to cheat them.”

“You are not a very good Christian, are you?” Nil chuckled.

“I guess not, Your Honor,” ben Shlomo said and shook his head. “Poor ben Shlomo is so busy with the trade, it takes a lot of time to make the money. And if somebody asks if I should become good at faith, or should I make money to feed those poor people, I’d say make the money. I guess, you are right, Your honor. Poor ben Shlomo is not a very good Christian.”

“I thought so,” Nil said. “Anyway, getting back to the business. So they like the tales. Is there anybody who’d like to make them happen faster? Say, by revolting or doing harm to Rome?”

“No, I don’t think so,” ben Shlomo said. “They wouldn’t do anything like this. Harm Rome? How would they get there in the first place? Many of them are not rich enough to pay the fare to Alexandria.”

“And would you?” Nil asked. “Would you like to see something happen to Rome?”

“Why would I?” ben Shlomo said. “I would not pretend that I love Rome, there is nothing there to me personally. But for my business, oh, no. That would be terrible. When something wrong happens, people stop buying incense, they buy food instead. That would ruin me!”

Definitely not him, Nil thought again. He’d probably inform authorities on his own if he hears anything. But let’s ask anyway.

“Fine, let’s leave this alone,” Nil said. “On another matter. Have you ever met a Christian trader named Benjamin?”

“My name is Benjamin, Your Honor,” ben Shlomo said.

“I know,” Nil said, “I want to know if you ever met some other trader named Benjamin?”

“Not many,” ben Shlomo said. “Once, two years ago, I met one on Crete, and he was Christian, all right. We spent a night in a tavern there, and then went different ways. I was going to Rome and he was returning to Judea.”

“Did he speak about any stuff that’s going to happen to Rome?”

“Sure, he did, Your Honor,” ben Shlomo said. “All Christians are really fond of these tales. I wonder why he was, he was not poor, but he paid for food and wine, and I listened to whatever he wanted to say.”

That could be him, Nil thought. Clearly, it was before he started with his plans, it was two years ago. That’s why he did not mention the plans. But this could be him.

“Tell me, what did he look like?” Nil asked.

“Well, he had a beard and moustache, Your Honor,” ben Shlomo started. “He did not have a bald spot like me. He was much younger, thirty, maybe forty or so. You know, this age when men get crazy ideas, maybe a little older than that. He was taller than me, and he looked really strong and healthy.”

“Anything special?” Nil asked. “Birthmarks, scars, some funny way he speaks or walks?”

“No, Your Honor,” ben Shlomo shook his head. “Nothing like that, just a man like many others around.”

“Did he mention where he lives?” Nil asked.

“He was going to Joppa,” ben Shlomo said. “But I believe he has a house in Jerusalem. Among other things, he also trades spices and incense from Arabia. Jerusalem is practically on the way there. He gave me some good hints on selling my merchandise in Rome. I visited Rome twice since then and each time the buyer that he referred me to gave me a good profitable price.”

“Thanks, that’s all I need to know for now,” Nil said. “So, you say you are not a very good Christian, huh?”

“I guess not, Your Honor,” ben Shlomo shrugged his shoulders.