Authors: Steven Saylor
The coast road was much traveled and well maintained. The two donkeys made good time, and we arrived at the city's western gate well before noon. The document attesting our affiliation with the eunuchs got us through the gates with no problemâthe seals of Kettel and Berynus still carried weight, despite the fact that they had served under the deposed king. Inside the walls, the city was more orderly than I had expected. The new king's men were out in force, patrolling the streets with swords sheathed but with wooden cudgels in hand, and no one seemed in a mood to challenge them.
We headed down the broad avenue that runs the whole length of the city from west to east, lined with palm trees and decorated with statues and obelisks. In some areas I saw the results of riots and street fightsâdamaged buildings with broken doors and shutters hanging askew, dry fountains littered with rubbish and debris, and even whole blocks that had been gutted by fireâbut many of the neighborhoods seemed to have returned to normal, with open storefronts and street merchants hawking their wares.
At one of the grand intersections along the way we turned left, toward the waterfront, and took the quickest and most direct route to the offices of the banker who sometimes held money for me and also received any letters that arrived in Alexandria addressed to me.
While Bethesda waited outside in the cart, I stepped into the little reception room. It was crammed with people, some wanting to leave bags of coins with the banker, others wanting to make a withdrawal. It required considerable persistence just to make my way to the counter, where I was given a wooden disk with a Greek letter carved on itâÎ»âand told to wait and listen.
At last a high-pitched voice called, “Lambda,” and I elbowed my way to the counter, disk in hand, where I was met by a frazzled eunuch with a stubbly head and three chins.
“Well, what is it?” he snapped. “Deposit, withdrawal, inquiry?”
“My name is Gordianus, of Rome. I'm wondering if there might be a letter for me.”
He turned and called to a clerk behind him, who called to yet another clerk in another room. Behind me, newcomers clamored for attention, but the clerk studiously ignored them, training his expressionless stare on my forehead while we waited for a reply.
A voice called from the next room. “Gordianus, did you say?”
My heart leaped. “Yes,” I answered. “That's me.”
The clerk who had called from the other room appeared. This one seemed almost a twin of the other, except that his head was smooth and freshly shaved, and he had not three chins but four. “Can you write your name?”
“Of course I can.”
“Then you'll need to sign for this.” He held a rolled and sealed scrap of parchment in one hand, and placed another piece of parchment on the counter before me. “Sign here, here, and here.”
I picked up a stylus from the counter and quickly scribbled my name three times, not bothering to read the document I was signing. Who knows what becomes of all these forms that bankers require? Egyptian bankers are even madder for record-keeping than the ones in Rome.
There was a fee to be paid. It seemed rather steep, compared to the fees I had paid for previous letters, but these were wartime prices, I told myself, as I gave the clerk a handful of coins.
My heart sped up and my fingers trembled as the clerk handed me the tiny scroll. The seal was of red beeswax. My father usually used a cheaper wax, without pigment. Nor did the seal bear the stamp of his iron citizen's ring. The seal bore no stamp at all.
As I turned from the counter, I broke the seal and unrolled the parchment. I knew at once that it was not a letter from my father, for the letters were Greek, and my father always wrote to me in Latin. The handwriting looked familiar, but there was no salutation at the top and no signature at the bottom. A quick look at the page gave me little sense of what it was about. It seemed to be taken from some larger document, since it appeared to begin in mid-sentence and ended that way as well.
“There must be some mistake,” I said, turning back to the clerk. He was already waiting on another customer, but turned to look at me with a sour expression.
“Mistake?” he said.
“This isn't a letter. I'm not sure what it is. A page from someone's diary, perhapsâ”
“So? It arrived addressed to you.”
“But who sent it? There's no indicationâ”
“How should I know?” said the clerk.
“But where did it come from? How did it get here?”
The clerk sighed wearily, then turned to a table behind him to reach for a ledger. The customer he was ignoring gave me a nasty look.
The clerk unrolled the scroll and ran a well-manicured fingernail down a column with scribbled names and dates, then tapped at the scroll with a flourish of authority. “There it is. Your letter arrived five days ago, on a ship that sailed here from Ephesus.”
“That's what I said.”
“Is that where the letter originated?”
“So it says here. The document was taken aboard at Ephesus, for delivery to Gordianus of Rome, residing in or around Alexandria.”
“But who sent it?”
“It doesn't say.”
“But who do I know in Ephesus?” I said, thinking aloud. In fact, I did know a few people in Ephesus, having stayed briefly in the house of Antipater's old pupil Eutropius during our journey. But who among them wouldâ
“How should I know?” snapped the clerk. “Figure it out for yourself. You've signed the receipt, paid the fee, and taken possession of the document. So now, if you have no further business with this establishment, I must ask you to move along. I have a great many other customers to wait on, as you can see.”
I backed away from the counter, clutching the mysterious scrap of parchment. I stepped outside and walked to the donkey cart.
Bethesda saw the look on my face. “Bad news, Master?”
“No. I meanÂ â¦ I'm not sure.”
She glanced at the parchment. Having never learned to read, all documents were mysterious to her. “Is it from your father?”
“I don't think so. I'm not sure who sent it, or why. I'm not even sure what it is.” I climbed up beside her on the cart and unrolled the parchment.
“The letters are pretty,” said Bethesda, peering over my shoulder.
“Yes, Greek letters are prettier than Roman ones. But waitâI
know this handwriting.” My heart raced. My fingers trembled.
“Master?” said Bethesda, with concern in her voice. She laid a hand on my arm.
“This was written by Antipater,” I whispered.
“Your old tutor?” Bethesda had never met Antipater, for I acquired her long after he and I parted ways, but she had heard me speak of him from time to time. I had not told her that he was a spy and an enemy of Romeâthat was a secret I kept to myselfâbut she knew that we had parted under a cloud.
“Yes, my old tutor.” I peered at the elegantly made letters and began to move my lips. It was not exactly my intention to read the letter to Bethesda, but in effect that was what I did, for it was easier for me to read Greek if I spoke the words aloud. When I came to the parts about myself, my face turned hot, but I kept reading:
Â â¦ I am in great danger. I fear for my life every hour of every day.
For the time being, at least, I am allowed to reside away from the royal court, in the home of my old pupil and friend, Eutropius. Removed from the constant gaze of the king and his vicious little queen, perhaps I am out of their thoughts as well, and thus in less danger of incurring their wrath. But as a part of my living arrangements, I have been assigned two male servants from the royal household to look after my personal needs, ostensibly so that I should impose no burden on Eutropius. But who knows if I can trust these fellows? They might be assassins, for all I know!
No man was happier than my host Eutropius to see the Romans driven from power, or more pleased at the king's arrival in Ephesus. Yet Eutropius is not such a Roman-hater as some. It was Roman abuses Eutropius detested, not every Roman who happened to settle in Ephesus or have business in the city. Apparently Eutropius was even arranging for his daughter Anthea to marry a wealthy Roman, before the man fled for his life, like so many of his countrymen.
When I was last in Ephesusâthen as now posing as Zoticus!âit was in the company of young Gordianus, at the very beginning of the journey that would take us to see the Seven Wonders. “And how is that young Roman?” asked Eutropius. “Faring well, I hope!” For it was Gordianus who saved his daughter's life during our visit. If only for that, Eutropius does not judge all Romans harshly.
Ah, Gordianus! How I miss that youthâhis steadfastness, his courage, his cleverness. How I could use a companion with those qualities now, if I am to have any hope of escaping the parlous predicament in which I find myself. Instead I am alone, with no one to turn to.
And if anybodyÂ â¦
My voice trailed away. Bethesda clutched my arm. “Then what does it say?”
“That's it. There is no more.”
“But there must be. That can't be the end of it.”
I nodded and sighed. “You're right. Something tells me this is just the beginning.”
“That final, incomplete sentenceâhow do you suppose it would end?” asked Berynus.
I was back at the eunuchs' house after a long, busy day in the city. The hour was late, but my hosts often stayed up well past sunset, talking and dining by starlight and the soft glow of lamps on the roof terrace. With the sound of waves gently lapping the beach as backdrop, the setting could not have been more serene, even as my own state of mind could not have been more turbulent. In my distress, I had taken both of them into my confidence, explaining the circumstances of my parting with Antipater and reading the fragment aloud to them.
Holding the scrap of parchment in my hand, by the light of a nearby lamp I stared at the familiar handwriting. “What comes next? I supposeÂ â¦ I suppose it would say: âIf anybodyÂ â¦ if anybody could help me, it would beÂ â¦ Gordianus.'”
“You're certain this was written by Antipater?” asked Kettel, giving me a quizzical look and lacing his pudgy fingers beneath his multiple chins.
“Absolutely. The handwriting is unmistakable.”
“And that's all that arrived, that single scrap of parchment?” said Berynus, pursing his thin lips.
“Yes. The fragment begins and ends in mid-sentence. Clearly, it's been taken from some longer piece of writing.”
“From a letter, perhaps?” said Kettel.
“Not a letter addressed to me, obviously, since he refers to me in the third person. Not a letter at all, I suspect. And certainly not an official document of any sort, or something meant for publication; that would have been dictated to a scribe, while this is in his own hand. It seems to have been written more to himself than to someone else. Or written for posterity. It's as if Antipater wanted to record the events going on around him.”
“But why?” asked Berynus.
“Because he has a story to tell, but fears that he may not be around to tell it much longer. These words were written by a frightened man. A man who fears for his life.” I sighed and lowered the piece of parchment. “And here I am in Egypt, frittering away my time, unable to help him.”
“I thought you parted on bad terms with the old fellow,” said Kettel.
“What if I did? He still thinks of me fondly. He says so in this fragment. He wishes that I were with him.”
“He doesn't actually say
.” This came from Bethesda, who sat on a rug before me, massaging my feet, which were sore from so much walking that day. My hosts had grown used to my slave's unruly manners and my tendency to indulge her, and hardly raised an eyebrow when she made bold to enter the conversation.
“He doesn't say what?” I asked.
Bethesda raised an eyebrow and resumed massaging my feet. “He doesn't say that he wishes you were with him, Master. What he actually says is that he could use someone with certain of your qualities. That is not exactly the same thing.” Like many who cannot read, Bethesda was a careful listener and had a sharp memory.
I laughed. “You sound like a Roman lawyer, splitting hairs! Though you hardly look like one.” The soft light of the lamps picked out glints of many colors amid her black tresses, and the creamy smoothness of her forehead and cheeks shone like ivory. “The point is clear: Antipater desperately needs someone to help him, someone he can trust. Instead, he finds himself alone, and in terrible danger.”
“Whose fault is that?” asked Kettel. “From what you've told us, Gordianus, the whole time the two of you traveled together, your old tutor was secretly spying for King Mithridates. And no sooner did he reveal the truth to you here in Alexandria than he vanished, leaving you to fend for yourself. Well, now you know where he ended up. He's in Ephesus, residing with this old pupil of his, Eutropiusâanother supporter of Mithridates, from the way Antipater describes him. So he's hardly alone, is he? He and his host should both be happy, since the king has virtually driven the Romans out of Asia.”
“And yet,” I said, “Antipater doesn't feel safe, even in the house of Eutropius. He fears for his life, and the source of his fear appears to be the king himselfâor else the âvicious little queen,' as Antipater calls her. Somehow Antipater must have offended them, and now he fears he may be killed at any moment.”
“If your old tutor has been swept up in the dangers of court intrigue, that's not your fault, Gordianus,” said Kettel. “Spying is a dangerous profession. It requires deceiving people. What is a spy, but a master of deceptionâand who can trust such a man, or ever be certain where his loyalties lie? Believe me, no one is more suspicious and distrustful than a king. When Berynus and I served in the royal palace under King Ptolemy, we saw many a shady character come and go. Some received great rewards at the whim of our master. Others lost their heads. Not a few met with both fatesâfirst the reward, then the beheading.”