WE ARE HELPING THE EMPEROR, PACHO!
Chapter V, where Nil looks for a pleasure and finds a ship and information
It was early evening when the paved road brought Nil to Tarentum. This former Greek town was once fighting Rome for its independence under the hand of the famous Greek King Pyrrhus. Now, it was living the life of a Roman provincial city and a major seaport. One- or two-story buildings, without trees or much of any other vegetation in front of them, surrounded the streets paved with cobblestone. Actually, there was vegetation inside, in the shadowy internal yards, but, like anything else, it was hidden behind stone walls built to provide privacy and seclusion.
Nil rode to the waterfront and stopped in front of a tavern facing Tarentum bay. It was a ramshackle two-story building with the dining room on the first floor and the guest rooms on the second. This tavern was not much better or worse than most others in the town. In fact, it was somewhat better than many others. Nil threw the reins of his horse into the hands of a slave boy, pushed the wooden door, darkened by the time, and entered. A barefoot ancilla, a slave girl, in a clean off-white tunic, showed him to the table in the better side of the tavern, where customers were reclining on couches, like in Rome, instead of sitting on stools or benches. Narrow purple stripes on his dress were the best pass to this part of the tavern as they gave away his equestrian rank. On another hand, his solemn manners, military clothes, and good fabric were as good signs to the experienced eye of the fat and garrulous caupo – innkeeper and bartender – who immediately popped up near the profitable customer. Hey, profitable or not, a man with solemn manners and military clothes could beat him without any repercussions, so it was wise to give him some immediate attention.
“What would you like, honorable citizen?” the innkeeper asked in the most flattering voice he could.
“Wine, cheese, bread, some meat,” Nil said, “and a room for one for a few days, until I find a ship out of here. And I want everything edible on the list promptly!”
“Just a moment!” the innkeeper said, made a sign to the servant, and in less than a minute Nil really got his bread, cheese, and wine. The innkeeper said, almost apologizing, “The meat will require some time to be prepared, your honor, if it is ok.”
“Sure, do it right,” Nil answered. “As long as I have something on the plate, I’d rather have the main dish done right! After all, the emperor’s orders don’t include eating raw meat.”
The innkeeper disappeared into the kitchen while Nil devoted his time to tasting the local red wine, traditionally mixed with water, and he found it pretty good.
Several men in the common part of the tavern attentively listened to this conversation. After it finished, the eldest one thought for a minute and then gave a solemn nod to the others. As if it started some mysterious, well-prepared plan, another man in the group called the ancilla, who served the tables, and carefully whispered several words to her. The girl looked at Nil and nodded as in agreement.
* * *
Life was good. Actually, the wine was good. Well, the meat was good too, and the goat cheese and bread were not bad either, but the wine was definitely superb. At least it was strong enough to feel that way. Hey, he was unlikely to sail off tomorrow anyway, especially so early in the spring. As he knew already, most of experienced seamen would not go to sea until May because of the storm season. So he relaxed and thought about how he could spend forced delay with the most pleasure or, at least, most comfort for himself. Besides, southern Italy was famous for its good wine and hospitality.
It looked like he found the place to sleep and the place where wine was not bad, so he was mostly ok. Next on the list was a woman. When he really gets to a ship, he will have dozens of days without a woman so it was only reasonable to think about this now.
His thoughts were interrupted by the ancilla who brought more wine and bread to his table. She bent over the table placing the plate and the wine pitcher. Her short tunic left the knees open and showed her body contours mere inches from his eyes. Nil grabbed the girl’s petite hand, put his other hand on her back below the waist, and asked, “Would you come to my room later?”
“If my master will allow,” said the girl and looked at the innkeeper, “I’d be glad to brighten your night in this place.”
“I bet he will allow, for a few more coins!” Nil said with a laugh, pleased with his good luck. Just a woman was not a problem in any corner of the empire, but a relatively fresh and beautiful one? That was a nice hint from the fortune. After finishing laughing Nil said, “Get some wine and food to my room too, will you?”
The girl smiled with a promise to him and turned to serve other customers. Nil threw a few coins on the table for the innkeeper who immediately appeared as from nowhere. The coins immediately disappeared and his flattering smile indicated his readiness to serve an honorable customer and provide whatever Nil expressed his interest in.
After Nil ate, he stood up and demanded to show him to his room. The same girl appeared immediately and showed him the way. When they entered the room he found that his request was fulfilled; the wine, bread, and cheese were already in the room. He threw his cloak into the corner, sat on the couch and grabbed the girl. She sat on his knees for a few moments while he enjoyed the initial feel and touch, then got off and bent in front of him, unlacing his sandals.
“Would you like more wine?” she asked.
“Sure,” Nil said with a merry laugh, “Both you and wine, and don’t worry about the bread!”
The girl smiled, filled a bowl with wine and brought both requested items back to Nil. This night promised to be very pleasurable to Nil, but it was going to end sooner than he expected. After a few sips from the bowl, Nil felt that he really needed to lay back and sleep. The girl still looked very attractive but for some reason she could not compete with a call from Morpheus. So, surprised at himself, Nil fell asleep in mere minutes while trying to get his hands under the girl’s tunic and take it off.
* * *
Waking up was much less pleasurable. The head was heavy and the eyes refused to look straight. Besides that, Nil felt that this was a different room, not the one where the girl led him. By the way, talking about the girl, the person standing in front of him was definitely not her. The guy was breathing into his face with a mixture of smells including onions, rotten teeth, and the cheap wine that Romans called acetatum for a reason.
“Huh, he is getting up, boss!” the man said and breathed into Nil’s face a new wave of horrible smells.
“Stand aside, Pacho.” Another voice came from the side. A short but stout man came to the light of a torch from behind, and Nil recognized him from the nearby table in the tavern. “His Honor just got too much wine, but he is now ready to tell us what he wants from us, poor Sicilian seamen.”
“I want from you?” Nil asked and attempted to point his finger to the man’s chest. “What the hell I would want from you, scum?”
“You told us, Your Honor,” the man said, “that you have a matter of most importance entrusted to you by the emperor himself, and that you require our assistance.”
The man had short gray hair and wore a dark cloak. His words were flattering, but his eyes stayed cold and strong. Nil liked these kinds of people, useful and capable. So he managed to concentrate, and thoughts started to brew in his mind that maybe this meeting was not an accident – maybe the gods were trying to help him? But what could he use these guys for? Could they know or have heard something? After all, it’ll be weeks until he reaches Egypt, and what harm could happen if he questioned a few seamen before talking to the Egyptians? Probably none.
“What’s your name, man?” Nil asked.
“Bokha, Your Honor, Bokha from Messina. You know, decent Sicilian folk, not some Greek scum from Syracuse,” the man answered, “I am the captain of my own ship and I have a lot of friends in many ports across Italy, Sicily, and Africa.”
“And why are you so polite and helpful, Bokha?” Nil asked. “Where is your money in that?”
“You see, Your Honor, I had a little trouble paying customs in the past,” Bokha answered. “And guards were so helpful as to oversight this little incident with a condition that I should be helpful to the people like you.”
“I see,” Nil said and smiled. So he got a bona fide Sicilian pirate with a lot of connections who also worked for Tigellinus. That made a lot of sense now. Certainly the gods were favorable to him today, except for the episode with that too strong wine and the girl, of course. It would be a pity to miss the opportunity to question the guy. With his lifestyle, he would definitely hear about a lot of things happening around. “Tell me, Bokha, do you see a lot of Christians in your travels?”
“There are some around, Your Honor,” Bokha said. “They are everywhere. Why do you ask?”
“You see, what I need from you is to think carefully and try to recall if you heard Christians talking about some disaster that’s going to happen in Rome?”
“Yes, Your Honor, I definitely heard,” the pirate smiled. “In fact, I’ve seen several Christians saying that Rome will be destroyed soon. Just a month ago, I met a Christian merchant who prophesied that Rome will see its end not further than this autumn.”
“Prophesied?” Nil asked.
“Yes, Your Honor. They have these prophesies, they have a lot of prophesies, and they always argue about them between themselves.”
“Do you think it could be not a prophesy, but something they will actually try to do?” Nil asked. “And, by the way, did he mention any particular day?”
Nil paused, looking straight at the pirate. Bokha thought for a few seconds, then his face started to show understanding and some recollection.
“Yes, Your Honor, I think he did plan something,” he said. “His name was Benjamin, and he owned a load of oil that he was bringing to Rome to sell, or so he said. He came on a Greek ship from Achaia , but I think he is from Judea or Crete. As about the date, I think he did say something, but I don’t recollect exactly. I think something in September.” Well, thought Bokha, if this is autumn, how far from September could it be? “Could you remind me, what is the date you are talking about? Then I will be able to recall if it is the same date or not.”
“How about the third day of September Ides?” Nil asked.
“Precisely! The third day of September Ides!” Bokha said and smiled again. “How could I forget? This merchant even explained that this is a good time because it’s just days before the Ides, so the people coming to Rome for celebrations will be already in the city and so they will witness this too.”
I’ll be damned if he did, thought the pirate, but let this Benjamin prove opposite if they ever find him. At least, he noticed in his thoughts while continuing to smile, even if such guy exists, he could not recognize me, because I certainly never met him.
As to Nil, he had completely different thoughts now. What luck! He should immediately write a letter to Tigellinus. If they catch this Benjamin, his whole trip could be unnecessary! Of course, he will continue, but what great luck he had today.
“Thank you, Bokha. I’ll tell some people in Rome how much you helped us,” Nil said. “You may count on guards’ lenience as long as you don’t go over some reasonable limits, of course.”
“What else can we do for you, Your Honor?” the pirate asked. “You know, we have a lot of strong men who can go to Rome and prevent this scum from doing whatever they plan to do.”
“I think praetorians and vigilantes will handle that,” Nil said. “If you happen to be in Rome that day, you’ll see that yourself. But your attitude as a loyal subject of the empire is laudable. Now, it’s time for me to depart. By the way, I believe you know everybody in the port, Bokha. Is there a ship that departs to Egypt or nearby soon?”
“Of course I know a lot of people around, Your Honor. As to the ship, it’s a bad time now. Most ships are safely in the harbor waiting for the storm season to end. But I know a ship that goes to Judea with a stop on Crete in a few days. It’s not as far to Egypt from there. The ship is called ‘Glapos’. That means ‘Seagull’. Its captain is nicknamed Glap after his ship. He is Greek and an old friend of mine. We had some business deals before,” Bokha said, helping Nil get on his feet and showing him to the exit. “Just tell him my name and he will be very happy to take you aboard for a modest fee.”
After Nil was gone, the second man started to look at Bokha with a puzzled expression on his face but clearly afraid to open his mouth.
“Yes, Pacho, I see that you are confused. What is it that you want to ask me?” the pirate said with all traces of sweet flattery gone from his face and voice.
“Yes, Bokha, I am confused. Why did we let him go? He has gold on him. When Lara put a sleeping potion into his wine, we wanted to question and kill him. The gold would be ours, and nobody could find out who did it, right?”
“Pacho, stupid Pacho,” the pirate said with a soft fatherly voice, “You see why you should never question me and always do what I say?”
“Yes, boss, I always do what you say. You are the boss.”
“Right, Pacho, I am the boss, and I am smart. I know what we are doing. I let him go so that he can take my words to Rome. And do you know why we want him to take my words to Rome?”
“Why, boss? So that he can catch that merchant with oil?”
“No, Pacho,” Bokha said and sighed. “Because then after we–” Bokha paused for a moment stressing ‘we’, then continued, “–set a fire in Rome on that day, everybody will think that this merchant and Christians did it, and we will be heroes who warned in advance.”
“Ugh-hm…” Pacho clearly wanted to ask more, but was afraid to.
“Why do we want that? For many reasons, Pacho. First, heroes are getting their merchandize oversighted by customs, and that’s a very good reason. Second, guards will be busy, and so we won’t have to worry about them in our business for some time. Third, we will avenge my brother. He was a decent man, and a few lousy payments are not a good reason to get him executed. And which house do you think will we set fire to first?” Bokha asked and raised his finger in front of Pacho’s face. “This scoundrel Drákon from Syracuse is getting in our way too often lately. He’s gone so far as to have his own warehouse in Rome. He has there a lot of oil, and some other stuff, you know, but mostly really just a lot of oil. It will burn beautifully.”
“You are so wise, Bokha!” Pacho said.
“Yes, I am, Pacho. Never doubt me,” the pirate said. “And apart from these reasons, there is one more. It’s clear that the emperor wants to get rid of these Christians, and it looks like he needs a reason. You see? We are helping the emperor, Pacho!”
* * *
After getting back to the tavern, Nil ordered more wine and food to his room. The girl was gone somewhere, but after all the events of the night he was not in a romantic mood anyway. Maybe tomorrow. So he asked the innkeeper for a stylus and a clean tabula, a waxed piece of wood used by Romans to write, and came to his room to write a message to the prefect. Tomorrow he will leave it with the local office and cursus publicus – the imperial post – will carry it over Appian Way back to Rome quickly and confidentially into the hands of Tigellinus.
The oil lamp gave enough light to write and Nil started. After the greeting lines he paused for a moment, thinking how to write it, and then scribed on the tablet:
“…the Sicilian pirate and the captain of his own vessel, Bokha from Messina, just informed me that a month ago he met a merchant named Benjamin who had a load of oil to sell in Rome. Bokha said that this merchant is Christian, from Crete or Judea, and that he came on a Greek ship from Achaia. Bokha said that this merchant told him about some rebellious acts that the Christians plan for the third day of September Ides just like you suspected…”
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