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Authors: Steven Saylor

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“Just as well he won't play,” muttered another. “I don't like to stand too close to a fellow who's gotten on the wrong side of Fortuna.”

“Oh, really?” said Samson. “That's just the sort of fellow I like to play against! Sure you won't join us, Agathon?” he asked, raising his voice as I retreated to the far side of the deck. I shook my head and pulled Bethesda along with me.

The others laughed and commenced playing the game, while I silently vowed to keep a tighter rein on Bethesda.

Along with games, conversations filled the idle hours. Men talked about what they did for a living, where they had traveled or wanted to travel next, which cities had the most beautiful women, and that sort of thing. Having been to see all the Seven Wonders of the World, I could have regaled the others for hours, and I regretted my inability to correct some of the ill-informed ideas I heard about places I had seen with my own eyes, like Babylon. But when the conversation inevitably turned to war and politics, I was glad I had a reason to keep my mouth shut.

It quickly became evident that some of the travelers favored the cause of Mithridates, while others did not, and another small group (mostly Egyptians and Syrians, who lived beyond the sway of both Rome and Mithridates) claimed to favor neither side. Our first port of call would be the island of Rhodes, which was independent but had sided with Rome, and most of the passengers planning to disembark there were pro-Roman as well. They expressed anxiety that Rhodes might become the next theater of war, unless Mithridates intended to turn his attention instead to the Greek mainland, perhaps with an invasion of Athens.

After Rhodes, our next stop would be Ephesus, and the passengers who would disembark there mostly seemed to be partisans of Mithridates. They, too, wondered whether Mithridates would turn next to Rhodes or to Greece.

“Why not attack both at once?” quipped Samson, which sparked a heated debate. As an Alexandrian Jew without a drop of Greek or Roman blood, Samson claimed to be completely impartial. Still, it seemed to amuse him to stir up an argument.

For the most part these conversations remained civil, with no curses or threats uttered and only mild insults exchanged, no matter how controversial the topic. Men on board a ship tend naturally to keep cooler heads than men on land, sensing instinctively that, unlike a tavern or gymnasium, on board a ship there is no street outside—no “outside” at all—where one may go to cool off. Crew and passengers are stuck with one another for the duration of the voyage, and must strive to get along.

Some passengers spoke of the purpose of their journey, but some did not. I found myself wondering how many of them were not what they appeared to be, but a spy, or a war profiteer, or a mercenary, or set to go about some other business best left unspoken—just as my purpose was, literally, unspoken.

*   *   *

Hours passed, days passed, and at last, at dawn on the fifth day, we sighted land—the craggy coast of the island of Rhodes. We sailed past the city of Lindos on the island's southeast coast and continued northward. As we drew near to the capital city, which bears the same name as the island, I stood with the other passengers along the port side of the ship, enjoying the view of the coast on such a bright, sunny day, until Bethesda took my arm and pulled me to the starboard side.

“Look, Master!” She pointed at a silvery shape beneath the waves. “Is that a dolphin, swimming alongside the ship?”

So it was, and not one dolphin, but two. As Bethesda continued to ask one question after another, none of which I could answer in my role as a mute, the two dolphins swam along our starboard side, zigzagging through the glittering green water and sometimes leaping into the air. Other passengers joined us in watching them, and as the ship made a wide turn to the west, it seemed as if the dolphins were herding us in that direction. The port of Rhodes came into view, and the dolphins continued to swim and leap alongside us, as if acting as honor guards for our arrival in Rhodes.

We came to the great mole that projects into the harbor, at the tip of which lay the ruins of the famous Colossus. More than a hundred years ago an earthquake caused the towering bronze state of Helios to come tumbling down, but the broken remains were still a marvel to behold, made even stranger by their grotesque condition. The two feet were still firmly connected to a high pedestal, but were broken off at the ankles. A massive forearm lay half-submerged amid the lapping waves, as if the hand at its terminus might be reaching out to touch the underside of our ship. Farther on, the gigantic head lay on its side, with one eye appearing to stare at all who entered the harbor. Tiny-looking mortals wandering amid the ruins gave an idea of the staggering scale of the statue.

“Oh, Master!” cried Bethesda, with an awed expression on her face. “Is this the great Colossus of Rhodes?”

I nodded.

“Which you've seen already, when you traveled here?”

I nodded. The sight of the monumental ruins stirred fond memories, and some darker ones.

“Will we be going ashore in Rhodes?”

I nodded again.

“Oh, Master, I have a thousand questions to ask—but not now.” She smiled demurely and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Later, when we can be alone. Oh, there are so many things I want to ask!”

I longed to take her in my arms, but did not. If indeed we soon had a chance to be alone and unobserved, talking was not how I imagined we would spend that precious time together. Before she could utter the first word of the first of her thousand questions, I would cover her mouth with a kiss, and go on kissing her.…

The dolphins made a final leap in the air, side by side, then plunged into the waves and vanished. We sailed past the last of the scattered ruins of the Colossus and headed for the docks. Like a jumble of rooftops spread across the cupped palm of a giant's hand, the city of Rhodes lay before us.

The moment held a dreamlike beauty, until it was broken by a voice behind me. “What's that on the mole?” said Samson. “All those people, and tents? Is it some sort of festival?”

“Can't be a festival,” someone answered. “The people all look too glum. See, how no one waves back to us? They avert their eyes. It's as if they dread the arrival of another ship.”

There were indeed a great many ships already in the harbor, of every size and type, and as we sailed closer I could see that the waterfront, like the mole, was thronged with people and tents and lean-tos and other makeshift shelters.

“Refugees,” said Samson. “Rhodes must be full of them. How tiny they look, at this distance.”

“Like lice!” said someone. “Mithridates drove them out of the mainland, and now they infest the Colossus!”

Amid those “lice,” as we sailed closer, I could see a great many women and children, and men of all ages. Was that how the partisans of Mithridates saw a Roman like myself, as vermin to be shaken off—or exterminated?

 

VI

With the harbor so busy, it took a long time for the
Phoenix
to dock and begin disgorging its passengers. When it came our turn to step off, the captain asked me how long I intended to stay ashore. I held up one finger.

“An hour?” The grizzled old seaman nodded. “That's probably all you need to stretch you legs. I don't expect you'll have much chance to spend your money. The shops will all be picked clean. Anything left worth buying will cost a small fortune.”

I frowned and shook my head, then mimed the act of laying my head to rest for the night.

“You plan to spend the night? With all these refugees, you're unlikely to find lodgings. If you're intending to sleep under the stars, you can do that just as comfortably here on the ship, and with less chance of being picked clean by some sneak thief.”

“Perhaps young Agathon has a host here in Rhodes, as I do,” said Samson, who was next in line to disembark. “Don't expect me back until tomorrow morning, Captain. And don't sail without me!” He laughed and stroked his long, plaited beard.

As soon as we stepped onto the dock, a harried-looking port official demanded to see my travel documents and to state my purpose for visiting and how long I intended to stay. When Bethesda told him I intended to spend the night in the house of Posidonius, the official gave me a reappraising look; the name Posidonius carried much weight in Rhodes. The man handed me a small blue piece of fired clay that had been stamped with a crude image of the standing Colossus.

“Produce that if anyone demands to see your permission to be in the city. The color means it was issued today, and the numeral stamped on the back means you can stay one night—and one night only. Stay any longer without obtaining permission, and you'll be hurled over the city wall. Even if your host is Posidonius.”

I nodded to show I understood, and smiled. The official did not smile back.

I hurried into the crowd, trying to get well ahead of Samson and away from anyone else from the ship. As I wandered through the multitude, all around me I heard people speaking Latin, and felt a pang of homesickness, but the looks on their faces and the strain in their voices were disturbing. A crying mother called for a lost child, an elderly couple begged for food, and all around I heard squabbling and complaining. I had never seen so many people so crowded together, and all looking so wretched. They were of all ages and of all social ranks, to judge by their dress—I saw everything from rags to togas, the distinctive garb of the Roman citizen at home and abroad—but there was not a smile to be seen. On their faces I saw weariness, anxiety, anger, and confusion.

Suddenly I found myself looking at another face, expressing quite the opposite of those things—serenity, confidence, pride. It was the face of the man who had caused all this chaos. I was looking at a statue of King Mithridates of Pontus.

The statue had been erected in the main square of Rhodes at about the time I was born, and portrayed the king at about the age I now was. As a young ruler he had taken a grand tour of various provinces and cities and kingdoms, including Rhodes, where he had been well received and in return had lavished many gifts on the city. The Rhodians had shown their gratitude by putting up this statue of him. I only vaguely remembered seeing it on my previous visit to Rhodes. Now chance had guided me to a spot in the crowded square directly before the statue, where I could not help but notice it.

The king was portrayed in garments more Greek than Roman, which showed off his fine physique, including his muscular arms and brawny legs. His face was quite handsome, and more than a little reminiscent of images I had seen of Alexander the Great, with a smooth brow, broad nose, and thick mane of windswept hair. It was a bit odd, seeing him at roughly my age, and knowing he must now be close to fifty, more my father's age.

The king's name was inscribed on the pedestal. Bethesda could not read it, of course, but somehow she knew whom the statue portrayed.

“King Mithridates?” she asked, standing beside me and peering up.

I nodded.

“So this is the fellow who's causing so much trouble for Rome,” she said quietly.

As if to give action to her thoughts, a rotten piece of fruit hurtled through the air and struck the statue's face. Bethesda and I jumped back as the person who had thrown the fruit rushed up to the statue. It was a woman with gray hair, dressed in a matronly Roman stola that badly needed mending. She glared up at the statue and shook her fist.

“Murderer!” she screamed. “Liar! Traitor! Fiend!”

Others rushed toward the statue, and more objects were hurled at it: fruit, vegetables, horse dung, small stones, and bits of broken tile.

Soldiers appeared, brandishing spears and swords to drive the crowd back. They formed a cordon around the statue.

“Every blasted day!” I heard one of the soldiers mutter. “Why don't they just take the statue down? Or else let these poor people pull it down themselves?”

“It's not for Romans to decide which statues stand in the agora of Rhodes,” one of his companions reminded him. “We're not at war with the king. Not yet.”

Bethesda and I moved on. With the streets so crowded, it took a long time to cross the heart of the city. As I began to walk up the hill, into one of the better residential districts, I intentionally took a circuitous route and occasionally doubled back to make sure that no one was following us. I communicated with Bethesda using nods and hand signals, and did not speak a word, in case someone from the
Phoenix
should happen to cross our path.

The long summer day was almost done when we finally arrived at Posidonius's house. A handsome young slave answered the door. Before I could speak, I had to cough and clear my throat. My own voice sounded a bit odd to me as I uttered the first words I had spoken aloud in days, stating my name and asking to see the master of the house.

We were admitted into the very crowded vestibule and told to wait. Here I saw no people in rags, but I did see a number of men in togas, and overheard snatches of Latin, mingled with the elevated Greek spoken by well-educated Romans.

“One keeps hearing rumors of warships spotted on the horizon—”

“They say Mithridates could invade any day now—”

“Certainly before the end of the sailing season, so perhaps we still have some time to get ready—”

“If anyone will know the truth of the situation, it's Posidonius. The man's been a marvel, rallying the Rhodians, taking in us Romans—”

“I hear that Gaius Cassius is staying here—you know, the Roman governor. They say he's afraid to sail back to Rome, for fear of the thrashing he'll get from the Senate for losing Asia—”

“At least Gaius Cassius is still alive. Quintus Oppius was captured, they say—”

“Nothing compared to what was done to Manius Aquillius! What, you've not heard the news? Horrible, horrible…”

I pricked up my ears, but at that moment the slave returned. I half-expected him to turn me away; the house of Posidonius was obviously full to bursting with guests, and who was I to expect hospitality from a man of such importance, at such a crucial time? True, I had once been his houseguest for a whole winter, sitting out the stormy months when no ships would sail, but that had been four years ago, and as traveling companion to his old friend Antipater. Posidonius would certainly remember me, but would he be happy to see me?

BOOK: Wrath of the Furies
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