IT BECOMES A HABIT
Chapter XVIII, where Nil sees a black cat in a dark room
Nil and Simaat met in the inn around noon. The Egyptian talked to the High Priest and brought good news – the Great Seer, which was the official title of the High Priest, would see Nil tomorrow after the sun set. They spent the rest of the day and most of the next day visiting smaller local temples and talking with their priests. The result was about the same as in Alexandria. The priests had no clue, nor any interest in the whole affair. They obediently promised to look for Benjamin, three of them even pointed to ben Shlomo as a possible suspect, but that was as far as it went.
Simaat led Nil to the Temple of Ra right after the sun set. The moon was not up yet, so Nil did not see much on the way in. The humid warm air of the night was filled with the sounds of the city preparing for the night rest. The cry of an infant, the excited shouting of kids playing in a house, the conversation of a lucky family who could afford having the late night meal – all these sounds were coming from the two-story buildings surrounding the street, with their windows highlighted with the light-orange light of oil lamps. Some of the windows were not covered with anything and, passing, Nil could see what was happening inside: a woman sitting with her back to the window, nursing the baby; two old men playing some board game on the floor; a younger, probably, married couple enjoying the company of each other. Well, Nil thought, these two are going to cover their window soon, certainly before going to the floor. As Nil and Simaat came closer to the Temple, multi-story, multi-family dwellings were slowly replaced with one-floor houses hiding behind the walls in the depth of large yards and, sometimes, gardens. Human sounds became rarer, muffled while crossing yards and walls.
The Temple appeared suddenly in front of them. Cobblestone pavement changed to flat limestone slabs under their feet. They passed the alley of sphinxes and came to the gates in a high wall that towered above them like a huge dark mass. The priest at the gate was expecting visitors. He took a torch and led both Nil and Simaat into the first court.
“The Great Seer said that you will wait here,” the priest told Simaat, then turned to Nil. “Follow me. The Great Seer is in the library.”
They crossed the yard, passed the main entrance in the middle, and entered the arc in the right wall of the court. The yard behind was much smaller, with exits on the right and on the left, and a building with colonnade in the far end. As they came closer, Nil noticed that the flower-shaped columns were yellow for most of their length, except the buds on the top painted as bright flowers, although in the unsteady yellow light of a torch it was hard to say what colors were used. They went through the front door and entered a hall about fifty feet wide and a hundred feet long lightened with multiple oil lamps on high stands. Benches went along the walls with embedded shelves and lockers. The hall was empty except for a single man in the far left corner and a few cats. The Great Seer walked to Nil, and dismissed the priest with the sign of his hand.
“Speak,” he said to Nil in Greek after the priest left the hall.
The High Priest turned and started to walk slowly, so that Nil had to follow him while explaining the whole story again. The Great Seer was old, maybe seventy years old or more, with a strong lean body and a cleanly shaved head. He wore a Greek chlamys on top of white Egyptian kilt going below his knees. His clear and thoughtful eyes were looking aside like he is not listening. He picked up a black kitten from the floor, put it on one hand, and started to pet the little furball with another. The kitty seized the opportunity, grasped the priest’s hand with all four clawed paws and enthusiastically started to bite the edge of his palm with its little sharp teeth. The palm was almost as wide as the kitty’s mouth so it took a bit until it could really achieve its goal. Then, as if afraid that it would take even more time to repeat it, the kitty stopped with an almost meditative expression in its eyes, its paws around the priest’s arm and its mouth wide open and busy with the edge of the priest’s palm. The priest did not react to all these involutions and continued to pet the little beast. He stopped in front of a bronze polished mirror standing on the bench.
“Watch,” he said and put the kitten in front of the mirror. The kitty fixed its eyes on its own reflection and arched its back with its hair standing on end and its pointing-up- tail three times thicker than usual. Then it raised a paw and hissed loudly without ever moving its eyes. The priest picked it up from the bench, put back on his left hand and started to pet him again. The little feline relaxed and began to purr.
“Cats are noble animals,” the priest said with affection and smiled. “This one is just very young.”
Nil did not answer, waiting for an explanation. The priest let the kitty go to the floor and turned. His confident, clean and calm eyes were now fixed on Nil.
“We are not young, Roman,” he said. “We don’t fight with our own reflections.”
They stood for a moment in the unsteady light of the oil lamps in front of each other – an old priest with vivid thoughtful eyes and a young, strong, confused man in Roman uniform. Then Nil broke the silence.
“I understand this means that I will not find my answers here,” he said.
“It means that you will not find your arsonists here,” the priest said softly. “The answers – I don’t know – most people carry their answers with themselves, they just don’t like them.”
“But who else can carry out such a plan, if not you?” Nil asked.
“Everybody,” the priest said simply. “You don’t need wisdom to do things. You need some to know how to do things, but even that is just knowledge, not wisdom.”
“But how can a mere man set fire to a huge city without the gods’ help?” Nil asked. “It’s impossible, isn’t it?”
“Gods,” the priest laughed softly. “What’s your name, young man?”
“Nil Septimus, didn’t Simaat tell you?”
“Nil,” the priest said thoughtfully, ignoring the question. “It’s a powerful name. Well, I have tomorrow night free, why not spend it talking to you. Come here an hour before sunset and bring your questions.”
“Why not tonight?”
“Because tonight I am busy, Roman,” the priest said with a calm smile. “Tonight I am talking to stars about you.”
Nil met astrologers before. Some of them were plain liars. They could not read stars, and nothing they promised happened or happened as expected. Others were more knowledgeable, giving a hope that this particular man could see the future. The words of the Great Seer felt different. The priest did not promise anything, he simply mentioned it as a matter of fact. In the same way Nil would say that he would be busy sharing a bottle of wine with an old friend. Consciously skeptical, Nil rarely, if ever, trusted astrologers, but deep inside Nil felt that this was exactly what was going to happen tonight, that the old man would somehow talk to the stars, not merely read them. Even more, he felt that the stars would care to talk back. The priest clapped his hands and a junior priest showed up from outside.
“Tomorrow, an hour before sunset,” the Great Seer said.
Nil saluted, turned, and went outside after the guide. On the way to the exit he solemnly shook his head. The delusion did not want to go. Oh well, Nil decided at last, it does not matter where the help comes from. If this Egyptian can consult the stars and they say something useful, so much the better.
On the way back to the inn Nil asked Simaat, “Do you think he will really talk to the stars about me?”
“If he said,” the Egyptian answered, “he will.”
“Still, I don’t get it,” Nil said. “Why did he refuse to talk today?”
“The time flows differently here,” Simaat said.
“What do you mean?”
Simaat stopped in the middle of the dark street. The torch light highlighted his face and his right hand.
“If your people are as old as the pyramids, Roman,” he said, “you start to think before speaking or acting. If your people built the pyramids, it becomes a habit.”
“And if you are younger than the pyramids?” Nil asked, slightly annoyed with Simaat’s words.
“This question you should bring to the Great Seer tomorrow,” the Egyptian said.
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