Book I

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

Chapter II, where we meet Nil and he gets a mission he does not completely comprehend

The Middle East was always nothing but trouble for the empire, thought the lone rider going down Appian Way. Two narrow stripes of purpure on his tunic, partially visible inside a military lacerna cloak, revealed him as a member of the Equestrian Order–a respectable class serving the empire right between the senators and everybody else. Originally a Roman cavalry of the Republic, the equites gave up most of their military functions to regiments of horsemen from the Eastern provinces and became heart and brain of the imperial machine. Equites commanded legions, managed public property, and occasionally even governed some provinces. That’s not to mention such mundane affairs as administration, supplies, or security.

The latter was the area chosen by the rider. He looked on the right at the pastoral landscape of the hills of southern Italy. The sun was setting. A tall stone tomb stood near the road, one side decorated with a large rainwater bowl. Scarlet and gold reflections flickered in the water like flame. They reminded the rider of the subject of his recent conversation and, after a while, he concluded his thought – now Egyptian priests are going to burn Rome.

Nil Nihil Septimus, eques, son and grandson of equites, great grandson of a Julius Caesar legionnaire, was the seventh son in a large and not very wealthy family. When he was born, his father sighed and said, “With so many brothers and sisters, he is nothing and he will achieve nothing, and what is especially bad, he is the seventh of nothings.” This is how he got his name.

Contrary to his father’s fears, Nil took his words as a blessing and chose a career where being nothing and invisible was the most important skill to survive and succeed. He became a secret agent of the empire. Now he was going on the most unusual assignment of his life. Nil started to recollect the conversation with the prefect.

Nil had had a good career. He reported directly to the prefect of Praetorian Guards, who was the head of imperial police, security, intelligence, and counter-intelligence in one person. Some assignments required traveling, and some kept him in the city, in which case greater precautions to maintain secrecy were needed. His latest assignment was of the latter kind. His orders were to keep an eye on a new religious sect spreading across Rome like a wild fire, so to allow members of this sect to see him entering the emperor’s palace was not a very good idea. Of course, it would not be a disaster either. After all, they had their people in the palace anyway, and they would be glad to have one more follower there. The problem with that was that Nil wanted to use these people for his and the empire’s advantage, not the other way around. So he was not surprised when, one morning, a soldier came to his house with a message that he should go to a secluded villa about 15 miles to the south from the city walls along Appian Way.

A barefoot slave girl in a short off-white tunic showed Nil inside, and relieved him of his dusty cloak and military caliga sandals. Then she washed his feet with aromatic water and slipped soft indoor sandals on them. Such an outstanding reception was not totally unusual in Rome, but it was unusual for Nil’s meeting with the prefect. The girl led him into the triclinium–the dining room–with an open window looking into the olive garden outside. The prefect of Praetorian Guards, Ophonius Tigellinus, lay stretched leisurely on the coach, enjoying the scenery. Nil stood straight, looking at his boss, and Tigellinus, with a waive of the hand, pointed to another couch across the table. It had to be something important. Nil thanked the prefect, laid down comfortably, and accepted a goblet of wine poured by the girl.

“There are several reasons why I wanted to talk to you, Nil,” said Tigellinus. “First, tell me about the flock you are herding for us. I mean this Jewish sect, the Christians. Or should I say ‘the pack’?”

“Why–” started Nil, but broke off his question. “I apologize, prefect. Of course, it’s a flock. They are sheep; stupid, submissive sheep. Sure, they believe that Rome is evil, but they are not going to do anything about it. They believe that any authority is from their god, so they should tolerate it. Slaves are more rebellious than they are.”

“Did you hear anything that might indicate criminal action or intent against the emperor or the empire?” Tigellinus took a pickled olive, closed his eyes, and sipped the wine.

“No, nothing real,” said Nil after a pause. “Sure, there is Seamus and his men. They are like a sect within a sect. Most Christians fear them. Seamus says that instead of waiting for Rome to be destroyed, they should destroy it themselves. But there is little danger of that. There are too few of them, and most Christians don’t agree. None of them have the guts to play with fire.”

“Interesting that you mention fire,” said Tigellinus, without opening his eyes. “How can you be so sure?”

“It was an expression… but, anyway, Seamus’ people are idiots. And Seamus is the biggest idiot of all. He’ll have an accident and set his own tunic on fire, before burning anything else.”

“And still your sheep are going to burn Rome...” Tigellinus opened his eyes and looked sharply at Nil. “Yes, Nil, Rome.”

“With all due respect, prefect, how can they set fire to the whole city? They are just not qualified. Thinking of that, nobody is. Burning the city is not like burning a single house. You need to set fire in many different places at the same time. Then you need to prevent people and firefighters from putting out the fire. And you need to do that with guards all around the city. Vigilantes and Praetorians will catch them immediately. Even with a smaller city, you have to conquer it first to burn it.”

“Throughout history, whole cities have been burned to the ground,” Tigellinus said.

“Yes, prefect, by acts of gods,” Nil said. “But we are looking for somebody on earth, right?”

“Think again, Nil. Somebody is going to burn Rome.” Tigellinus put extra stress on ‘is’, but Nil did not understand why. The prefect continued. “I think maybe your Christians. If you think differently, tell me who?”

Nil shook his head.

“Think of it as having already happened. Now you need to put the blame on someone and make the people of Rome believe you,” Tigellinus suggested.

Nil thought for a moment. “It takes somebody as skillful as Egyptian priests to accomplish arson on such a scale. They are close to their gods and they hate us. Anybody else would not be believable.”

“And who said Christians cannot employ the help of Egyptian priests?” the prefect said, smiling, relaxed again.

Nil was confused. For all he knew, the prefect’s words did not make any sense. But he was a military man, so instead of trying to crack the riddle, he just asked, “I apologize for my stupidity, but can you explain how Christians might persuade Egyptians to do such a work for them?”

“Christians are the Jewish sect. I remember you told me that Jews spent a lot of time in Egypt in the past.”

“Yes, they did, according to their books,” Nil said.

“And I remember they weren’t the lowest people there, right?”

“Yes, prefect. According to their books, the first Jew in Egypt became the second person in the land after the pharaoh himself. And the last of their leaders there was a foster son of the pharaoh. However, in the very end he had to take his people by force, almost a war, because the pharaoh, his foster brother, did not want to let them go.”

“History has seen worse things when two brothers faced a single throne to inherit,” Tigellinus said, smiling. “But do you think the link between Jewish and Egyptian priests was broken because two brothers were at war for the throne?”

Nil first went blank but then brightened with understanding. “No way, prefect. Of course they have connections to each other! I never thought about it before, but after you put it so simply…” Nil paused. “So, you said they are going to burn Rome? Dirty dogs!”

“Relax, Nil. The empire is strong. We can handle a few nuts here and there.” Tigellinus waived his hand and slaves brought two new dishes with grilled meat, fresh bread, and more wine. “Let’s enjoy the meal and talk about something different. By the way, I highly recommend the meat. My cook prepares pork as nobody else can.”

“For your generous patronage! Live long, prefect!” Nil raised a goblet and drank it. After all, if his commanding officer wanted to be friendly, all the better. The meat was indeed good.

Tigellinus accepted the praise with a nod and continued. “His former owner would never let him go. Lucky for me, the son of the owner was indiscreet in public.” Nil smiled to show his understanding of how costly indiscreet words about authorities could be. Tigellinus went on, “So I let the young man go, and he let the cook go. The cook was worth it. His only problem is that he likes to spend time in the city. And you know what people say about the emperor in the city. I don’t want him to get ideas like that. After all, I am the prefect of Praetorian Guards; I cannot let my slaves offend Divine Augustus.”

“They are pigs, prefect!” Nil said. “The emperor gives them food and arranges the games, but they still don’t like him. Only pigs could be so ungrateful!”

“Take it easy, Nil. They are still Roman citizens,” Tigellinus said. “I have to admit, except for his poetic exercises, the emperor lately has had too few opportunities to show his glory. How can they love him if they don’t have proof of his greatness?”

“The emperor does not need any proof,” Nil cautiously argued. The prefect’s statement was too close to the elusive boundary of an offense to the emperor and, in fact, already beyond it. Nil knew that. After all, he was a Praetorian Guard and a secret agent.

“Of course, he does not,” Tigellinus agreed with a dismissive wave of his hand. “But the crowd does. You know these low-lifes. It’s almost a pity that your arsonists don’t have the slightest chance of succeeding. Imagine how popular the emperor would become if he had to cope with the results of such a disaster, saving people from hunger, providing shelter, and most importantly,” Tigellinus raised a finger, “finding and punishing the guilty.”

“Yes,” Nil agreed. “After that, they would be more respectful.”

“It’s strange that the enemies can do such a great service to the empire, while we have to prevent them from doing it.” Tigellinus paused, thoughtfully looking at the garden behind the window.

“Friends can betray, but enemies are always loyal,” Nil said, breaking the uneasy silence with an old joke.

“True, my friend,” Tigellinus agreed and raised a goblet. “For the real loyalty.”

Nil nodded and drank his wine. They kept silent for a while.

“To the business, Nil,” Tigellinus said at last. “How do you want to take care of your Judo-Egyptian incendiaries?”

“I’ve already thought about it a bit,” Nil said, as he understood that the prefect asked for a plan. “I think no Egyptian priests have visited Rome lately. Hence, Christians could not contact them in the city. That means it’s likely they sent somebody to Egypt. You need to alert guards and vigilantes against Egyptian priests coming to the city. Meanwhile, I’ll go to Egypt. It could not be their high priests. Their high priests fear us, so they cooperate. It’s somebody lower and less visible. I’ll go to our procurator of Egypt and we will talk to the high priests. They will help us find the culprits.”

“Good, good,” Tigellinus said with a nod. “Depart first thing tomorrow morning. I’ll take care of things in the city. One more thing, what if Egyptians don’t really plan to burn Rome?”

Nil froze, looking at his boss. What does he mean, “don’t plan?” Didn’t Tigellinus just say that they did? Then understanding struck Nil. Of course, they would deny any knowledge!

“Don’t worry, prefect,” Nil said firmly, “I’ll make sure, they do.”