After a fortnight of dinners and parties, Miri and Susanna returned to Galilee. Martha remained with Eleazar in Bethany to ensure that his household would be kept in order and began plotting to find her brother a proper wife. Sister Miriam stayed with her mother and Chuza for a while, visited with Eleazar and Martha, but returned after a few days to Miri’s house. She arrived without announcing her arrival and did not speak at all for three days.
“I am sorry,” she said at last as she sat beside Miri under the sycamore.
“For what?” asked Miri.
“For judging you!” she said. “It is not for me to pass judgment on you. Only God can do that!”
Miri hugged her niece, despite Sister Miriam’s trying to squirm free from her embrace.
“I love you!” she said to Sister Miriam.
An embarrassed smile crossed Sister Miriam’s lips.
“You love me, too?” called Susanna, standing with her gift basket in the middle of the road.
Miri jumped up and whisked the little girl from her feet and whirled her about.
“I love you most of all, my little biscuit!”
They spun about laughing, the contents of the basket flying from the happy circle they inhabited. They stopped suddenly in their tracks.
“Valerius!” cried out Susanna, remembering the Procurator’s name.
“Aha!” cried Valerius, “Hello, Susanna! What have you for me today?”
Susanna held her basket upside down.
“Nothing!” she said happily, “Nothing at all!”
Valerius strode toward Miri and Susanna. “Ah well, then,” he declared, “In that case I have something for you!”
He presented the little girl with a wooden horse on wheels,
She squealed in excitement and took the toy from Valerius, and wiggled free of Miri’s arms. She immediately set the horse upon the ground and pulled it about. It refused to roll upon its wheels and tipped over. Valerius laughed, and set it upon the flagstone pavement by the fountain.
“It is a city horse, it seems!” said Valerius. “The wheels require a road upon which to roll!” He turned to Miri.
“So, are you going to ask me if I want to sit down?” he asked.
“Would you like to sit down?” asked Miri.
“Thank you for asking,” he replied, sitting upon the stone seats set about the fountain. “I cannot see for life of me why you and your child are very generous!”
Sister Miriam grunted and picked up Susanna’s basket. “We have lot to give!” she said sourly. Valerius raised his eyebrows at her resentment, but had grown used to such reactions to him in Palestine. “The animals will eat this!” she said and busied herself collecting the food on the ground spilled from Miri and Susanna’s whirling about.
“We have a lot to give,” said Miri, “So what might seem to be unbridled generosity to most is not really a great drain on my resources. Susanna’s gifts cost me little. A few cakes, two loaves of bread perhaps and a shekel’s weight of dates.”
“Yet the gift fills so many hearts!” commented Valerius, “It amazes me!”
“Should you ever again be Procurator elsewhere, remember the carrot is stronger than the stick!”
Valerius smiled, but it was forced. They fell silent.
“When are you leaving?” she asked finally, her eyes firmly focused on the shore across the lake. The haze had turned the hills to ghosts.
“In the morning. If there was any way I could take you with me I would!”
“And then what?” asked Miri, “You’d set me up in some apartment somewhere and come and fuck me whenever your wife was out shopping?”
“It would never work,” he said, “And I was just thinking out loud.”
“Are you staying tonight?” she asked, her heart aching at the thought of him leaving.
“If you wish,” he replied.
“I do,” said Miri and stood up. “I shall prepare a place for you,” she said as she stood up, “Watch Susanna for me, and I will send for you when I am ready!”
She walked up to the house, her heart troubled. She could not for the life of her see why she found Valerius so attractive. He was older than she. He was Roman. He was not particularly affectionate. He was leaving. On the other hand, he was strong, well-built and hung like the stallion he rode.
The thought of him thrusting into her brought a tingling to her extremities and she shivered with a delicious excitement. She would make it a special night, she decided and set a meal fit for a king and queen, and leave him unable to ever forget Princess Miriam of Magadha.
The meal was everything she had hoped.
Susanna was put to bed, and Sister Miriam retired to her room to read a scripture Miri had acquired for her in Yerushalayim from a very good copyist. It was a very well lettered Book of Benjamin, and a popular scripture amongst Galileans especially.
“Have you no wine?” asked Valerius.
“I¾” said Miri, “I have lost my taste for it!”
“Lost your?” Valerius was amused, “And how could that be?”
“I cannot abide by it!” Miri snapped.
“And you will no longer serve it, then?”
“I cannot abide by the taste!” said Miri, “And if you were to fill your belly with wine, then I could not kiss you for the smell would put me off!”
Valerius reached for her and pulled her toward him. “Then kiss me!” he commanded.
She led him up the stairs to the watchtower. Miri had Hulpa set a bed there and it occupied the entire breadth of the tower. She had set glass goblets and refreshments on the watchman’s bench that wrapped about the inside of the parapet. On a beautiful Egyptian linen tablecloth she had spread grapes and figs, dates and cheese, cold roast duck, bread and wine.
Valerius sniffed the wine jug and raised his eyebrows at her.
“I thought¾” he began, and she put her forefinger to his mouth.
“Later,” she whispered huskily, and they wrapped about each other as snakes within their darkened den. Their groans and cries filled the quiet night, and filtered down to everyone within the house. Sister Miriam covered her ears in disgust and muttered the words of Benjamin under her breath to drown out the noise of their lovemaking.
Long into the night, they lay and made love, then lay again, their passion rolling over them like the waves rolling effortlessly onto the beach. During such a lull, Miri, propped up on her elbow, looked deep into Valerius’ eyes.
“I have a favour to ask,” she said.
“Name it,” replied Valerius magnaminously.
“When you are in Caesarea, I would like you to look into a slave named Zilpa, of Kefar Nahum, she may be known only as Galilean, and two boys, Benjamin and Daniel.”
“What are they to you?” asked Valerius.
“They are Susanna’s kin,” she whispered, “And I would like you to purchase them for me.”
Valerius smiled, “And if I do?”
“I shall pour you a glass of wine!” said Miri.
“You will send them to me!” she said, “They were property of a man named Gaius!”
“That’s a tall order!” said Valerius, “Everyone from the Emperor down to the fuller is called Gaius!”
“But not all have a slave named Zilpa,” replied Miri, “Her children are Benjamin and Daniel, and her daughter is Susanna. That is how you will identify her!”
“And she knows you?”
“Of course!” said Miri fiercely, “You will do that for me?”
“I can try!”
Miri poured a glass of wine and held it out for Valerius. “There is only doing or not doing,” she said.
“You will drink with me?” he asked.
“You swear you will do this for me?” Miri asked.
“I shall!” replied Valerius, “I swear by the soul of my Father!”
“Then I will drink with you!” said Miri.
She drew the chalice back and took a deep breath. She brought it to her lips and quickly swallowed a huge mouthful of the dark red liquid. It still tasted of blood. She gasped and passed the goblet to Valerius.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“I’m fine!” replied Miri. The wine had reached her belly and filled it with a warm fire. She poured another glass and took a second draught. It too tasted of warm blood, but as the liquid entered her stomach, it united with the first swallowed wine and a dark smoke arose within her and filled her body. The warmth arose from the swamp of her bowels in a steamy black-red mist and curled upwards. Her heart filled with a hot fire, and she felt the soul of some Other glowing within her. She could not identify the source, but she no longer felt alone, she no longer felt the emptiness that Valerius was leaving behind him, and felt at peace with the world. Her third sip of wine was as sweet as cooked grape juice rendered to syrup, and she smiled at Valerius.
She kissed him and spilled the contents of both their goblets upon the bedclothes with the force of her embrace. I am home, she thought. I am finally home!
Velerius was gone the next morning when she awoke.
He left no note and no message with Hulpa. Her look was one of a knowing I-told-you-so-ness, but Miri ignored it for she had hoped for some beautiful poetic farewell, but realized Valerius was a soldier and a beaureaucrat. And a Roman. They were not quite as romantic as the Greeks. Or as loquacious. In fact they were a rather pedestrian and plebian race on the whole. Their humour was cruel. They expected nothing from life but a noble death.
“They’re not all the same,” said Sister Miriam.
“Pardon me?” Miri asked.
“Romans!” said Sister Miriam, “They’re not all the same!”
“Men!” spat Hulpa.
Susanna sat upon a chair by the wooden kitchen table, her legs dangling as she shelled peas.
“Peas in a pod!” she said loudly, and everyone laughed.
Sister Miriam took Susanna down to the road and Miri retired to a hot bath. Yotapa tended to her in the tepidarium.
“What was he like?” she asked.
“The Roman!” whispered Yotapa, looking about as if she expected a legion to overhear her.
“He was¾” Miri could not find the right words. And she was not sure she wanted to share her real attraction to Yotapa.
“I can’t say!” she said after a moment.
“I have often wondered about sleeping with a foreigner,” said Yotapa.
“It is no different, I should imagine,” said Miri.
“You have laid with many?” asked Yotapa eagerly.
“Enough!” said Miri.
“I would like to try!” said Yotapa, “The men around here are so gruff!”
“Not all, I’m sure!” laughed Miri, “You will find the right one, Yotapa!”
“I don’t want just one!” said Yotapa with a great determination. “With one, life would be so dull! Stuck in the kitchen serving him as though he were a king in his own pitiful house, and being treated as a servant by a man barely able to put bread upon the table!”
Such was the fierceness of her diatribe, Miri opened her eyes and stared intently at Yotapa.
“Are we speaking hypothetically,” she asked, “Or about a specific person?”
Yotapa lowered her eyes. “I have said enough!” she said primly and left to fetch more water.
Miri closed here eyes and allowed the warmth of the water to soother her aches. Her mouth was sticky and felt as though coated with coagulated blood. The image of the dying Yeshua on the cross rose from the darkness behind her eyelids. She tasted his mouth and could feel the pulse of his carotid artery beneath her hands, the pressure of her fingers about his neck and his life passed through her again. It was a dream now. There was no sense the act of ending his life was real. Perhaps she had not done the deed, and only dreamed it.
A flurry of linen and silk interrupted her thoughts.
“There is something going on between Antipas and Herodias!” Phasaelis announced before she even sat down.
“Who?” asked Miri.
“I wasn’t aware that he was married!”
“Not the tetrarch! His mother was Cleopatra!” said Phasaelis impatiently, “Antipas has a half brother through the Second Mariamne of Herod.”
“The Cleopatra?” asked Miri in wonder.
“What do you mean?” asked Phasaelis.
“Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile!” said Miri, “I had no idea-“
“Of course not!” snorted Phasaelis, “This is another Cleopatra, wife of King Herod! Her son, Phillip!”
“As opposed to Phillip, son of-?”
“Mariamne- And not the Mariamne. Another one!”
“And Phillip’s wife?” asked Miri. “She’s the daughter of-?”
“Aristobulus! Son of the first Mariamne, the last of the Hasmoneans!”
“I see,” said Miri dryly.
“She’s after Antipas!”
They were alone. Her handmaids were out for a walk in the vineyard.
“What makes you say that?”
“It’s the way he looks at her!” complained Phasaelis, “They exchange that look!”
“So you think they’re cheating on you?” asked Miri.
Phasaelis frowned. “Not yet!” she said darkly, “But they want to!”
“And you?” asked Miri, “Have you never wanted another?”
“Of course!” she said with irritation, “But this is different!”
“I am a princess!”
“He can’t cheat on me!” she said defiantly, “It would dishonour my family! Others would think I am not all woman that I could not hold Antipas!”
She paused for a moment.
“I shall kill him!”
Miri smiled. “That’s a little radical, isn’t it?”
“We stone adulterers do we not?” she asked. “Why should Antipas deserve less?”
“Well, he actually hasn’t done anything yet!”
“But he’s thinking it!” Phasaelis cried, “What difference is there?”
“One is doing,” said Miri, “One is not!”
“I hate him!”
Yotapa appeared in the doorway with a tray of tea for Miri and her visitor. No one spoke while Yotapa poured the tea.
“Thank you, Yotapa,” said Miri as she took her cup, “That will be all!”
Yotapa was annoyed at being dismissed, but retired without comment.
“I am sure your father wouldn’t care to hear of your husband’s demise,” said Miri.
“You know nothing of my father, Miriam!” Phasaelis snapped, “He would fully approve if he knew of the slight to my honour!” She paced the floor. “I have seven brothers, each of whom would lay down their lives to defend my honour!”
She stamped her feet. “Antipas is a pig! He should be stuck, impaled and roasted like one!”
Miri sat up in the bath. “Shhh!” she commanded Phasaelis, “Princess or no, you can’t talk that way! Hand me that towel!” Phasaelis was so absorbed by her husband’s imagined infidelity, she forgot her princesshood long enough to hand a stack of towels to Miri. Miri wrapped a bathrobe about, cinched it at her waist and stepped into her sandals.
“Come!” she commanded the princess, and steered her to the staircase that wound up to the watchtower. Already, Hulpa and Yotapa had cleared away the bedding and detritus of her night tryst with Valerius.
“We can talk here!” she whispered. “The wind will carry our words to the gods alone!”
“I can speak as I wish!” said Phasaelis petulantly, but already she knew Miri was right. She sat down dejectedly on the watchman’s bench. “What am I going to do?”
“You have to wait,” whispered Miri.
“For what?” asked Phasaelis.
“For evidence!” said Miri, “You can’t do anything unless you know they are having an affair! You can’t dismiss him on a suspicion! Your father has married you to Antipas to ensure peace in Perea!”
“I don’t care about peace!”
“You have to!” hissed Miri, “Your hand in marriage has settled the dominons of Perea, and if you were to end your marriage to Antipas, then he would have no legitimate claim to the land, and I am sure that some of your kin would demand it back!”
“Then so be it!” said Phasaelis.
“Let us at least catch them in the act!” said Miri, “We cannot lightly decide on suspicions alone!”
Phasaelis’ determination suddenly deserted her and she collapsed into tears. “I wish I had never been born!” she cried.
Miri wrapped her arms about the princess, and stroked her hair. The Herods were infamous for their dalliances, and the pattern had been established by Antipas’ father. After the death of his queen, Mariamne, a Hasmonean, he married nine wives in succession and they bore him an interminable succession of children. More than anything else, his womanizing and whoring alienated his subjects far more than his Hellenizing of the Holy City of Zion. In this at least he had showed some restraint. But in his personal affairs he had become a raging meglomaniac, siring so many children, his house became mad with their squabbling. He tried to have one of his daughters married to his brother Pheroras, who rejected the union as he wanted to marry a slave girl. In the resulting spat, Pheroras accused Herod of adultery with his son Alexander’s wife Glaphyra, to which Alexander responded with heated invective, which pulled Salome into the fray. She, in the midst of the infighting fell in love with a highly placed Nabatean diplomat called Syllaeus. Herod turned down his request for Salome’s hand in marriage and was forced to flee to Rekkem to avoid the frenzy of accusation and counter accusation that steadily grew more fractious. Herod had a penchant for eunuchs within the harem of his wives and rumours flew that Alexander had inherited the same proclivities, and Antipater strapped the unfortunate slaves to the rack and tortured them unmercifully to extract evidence against Alexander. The insanity of the foray ended in executions, and a pogrom against Alexander and Aristobulus and their supporters. Alexander finally, knowing his death was near, admitted to plotting a hunting accident for Herod and pointed the finger at the source of the plot against Salome and Pheroras.
Meanwhile, Syllaeus, offended by Herod’s opposition to his union with Salome, encouraged rebellion in Trachonitis, and finally left for Rome to have Herod deposed. While he was away, Herod invaded Trachonitis. This act of war, precipitated by the personal differences between the two men resulted in Augustus Caesar losing his patience with the constant bickerings of the family being brought to his court. Exasperated, Augustus forced Herod to convene a trial against the two brothers Aristobulus and Alexander in order to bring the affairs to a more civilized level. The brothers were barred from giving evidence at the trial by Herod, and despite a plea for clemency from the Syrian Procurator, Herod forced a guilty verdict and the brothers were sentenced to death. A revolt ensued within his army in support of the brothers, but he suppressed it brutally and had both Alexxander and Aristobulus strangled in the fortress of Sebaste where Herod had married their mother. It is rumoured that friends of the brothers removed the bodies to avoid indignities upon their corpses, and buried them amongst the Hasmonean tombs in Alexandrium. Pheroras, who had never given up his love for the slave girl, was banished to Perea, and he subsequently swore never to return to Palestine until his brother’s death.
Antipater, the remaining heir, met secretly with Pheroras, and Salome accused them of plotting to poison Herod. Shortly after this meeting, Pheroras died mysteriously and fingers and tongues pointed at Salome, but she neatly sidestepped the accusations by producing the poison evidence of the plot against Herod and assigning the blame to another of Herod’s wives, another Miriam, and he divorced her and deposed her father from his position as high priest. Antipater was then arrested at Caesarea and imprisoned. It was at this point in Herod’s sordid life that Antipas, Herod’s youngest son by his wife, Malthace, also by the way, a Nabatean, was written into his father’s will. It seems that having not achieved an age to be of any serious threat to his sire.
Antipater, hearing the Herod was ill and near death bribed his jailer and escaped custody, only to be caught and slowly butchered in the fortress at Hyrcania. For some reason, Herod, under the influence of his remaining wives, again changed his will and divided the realm he had previously bequeathed to Antipas to be shared with Phillip, son of Miriam and Archelaus, older brother of Antipas. Within three days, the king died.
Immediately Archelaus, encouraged by his wife, Glaphyra, moved to usurp his other brother and half-brother, and headed the funeral ceremonies in Yerushalayim and in doing so, created the rebellion finally crushed by the governor, Varus. It was in that action, Miri’s father and mother were killed. And the reason, more than any other, was the unbridled lust of the Herods.
“A dove in a nest of vipers,” whispered Miri. “How can we survive?”
“You have to come with me,” sniffed Phasaelis.
“I can’t!” protested Miri, not willing to run the risk of meeting Valerius after their final goodbye. She would appear desperate and clinging, and she was sure that Valerius would be disgusted with such apparent weakness.
“You must!” retorted Phasaelis, “I command it!”
“Phasaelis, please,” argued Miri, “I have to tend my estate. The grape harvest is due.”
“I shall have one of Antipas’ stewards tend to your farm while you are way!” said Phasaelis. “I need you to keep an eye on Antipas!”
“So I am to be your spy?” Miri asked indignantly.
“You are a spy for my father!” said Phasaelis fiercely, “And if he were to hear of your refusal, it would not go well for your friend!”
Miri was in a difficult situation, for if Phasaelis were to publicly declare Miri’s contract with Haritar, she would be executed for treason. Phasaelis and Miri faced each other defiantly, but he argument was over.
“I’m sorry!” declared Phasaelis, “but you must come!”
The journey through Northern Galilee was pleasant, though the palace in Sepphoris was more austere than the quarters in Tiberias and Yerushalayim. It was more of a seat of power than a throne of opulent luxury. From there, they traveled through the Valley of Megiddo, green with pasture and land recovering from the grain harvests. Their entourage, replete with guards and attendants attracted attention as they moved through the countryside, and everywhere, men, women and children came out to gawk and wave, beggars lined the roadway for alms distributed by a minister whose sole function was to drop copper coins in to outstretched palms as they went. And elders of each village and town through which they passed met them at the gates, and formal greeting exchanged and gifts bestowed in each direction. Eventually, they spied the Mediterranean, and soon arrived at gleaming city Caesarea.
Antipas, Phillip the Tetrarch, Phillip and Herodias of Joppas, and a number of other relatives were already well established in their apartments. Phasaelis had managed to have Miri entrenched in a room directly opposite and above the adjoining apartments of Herodias. Phasaelis and Phillip of Joppa were at opposite ends of the great hallway. From her quarters, Miri would have a wonderful vantage point to witness any clandestine activities. Her door opened out onto the atrium on the second floor, and standing by the pillars on either side of her own entrance, she had a great view of the doorways to all four royal apartments on the Eastern side of the palace.
She was extremely nervous as the first order of the evening were the games at the amphitheatre and Valerius was sure to be in the royal box in which Miri was to attend. To make matters worse, the new governor had already arrived, and Valerius had warned her to stay out of the new governor’s way. It was going to be a very difficult evening. To help her through it, she had brought her best clothes and arrayed herself in the finest Madras silks and Damascus brocade. Caesarea was a thoroughly Hellenistic town, and opulence and luxury were far from scorned. She felt a great freedom in applying her cosmetics, that she had not felt since she had left Alexandria. By the time she finished her toilet she had transformed herself into a brilliant saffron, crimson and gold apparition, the very incarnation of Passion and Lust, and it felt fantastic. She no longer was filled with fear at seeing Valerius again, for she knew every man at the games would instantly grovel in adoration at her feet.
She was ready.
Miri took her place as part of Phasaelis’ entourage and her appearance created a great buzz in the crowd, for her magnificent dress and dark smoldering beauty had indeed the effect she had imagined. Everyone wanted to know who she was, and none but Phasaelis and her courtiers knew her, and they were separated from the rabble in the Royal Enclosure. Phasaelis nudged her in the ribs.
“Thereshe is!” whispered Phasaelis bitterly and inclined her head to Herodias with a smile that was as false as the idols of Babylon.
“You have nothing to worry about,” lied Miri. Unfortunately Herodias had the deep smoldering sexuality that would melt a man’s knees within fifty paces. Though Phasaelis was young and quite pretty, she did not exude the sexual readiness that positively emanated from Herodias.
“Who’s that?” asked Miri pointing at the attractive, but rather sullen young teenage girl sitting between Herodias and her husband.
“Salome, daughter of Herodias and Herod Phillip!”
“They call him Herod Phillip,” said Phasaelis disdainfully, “Herodias insisted he be called that for he has no other distinguishing traits or estates. He cannot support her in the style to which she would like to be accustomed.”
Antipas and his brother Phillip were announced to the crowd applauded and waved as their presence was called out. After Antipas and Phillip took their places, Valerius Gratus was called out.
Miri’s stomach tied in a knot, wondering how he would acknowledge her, but, as it turned out, she had not needed to worry about what she would say to him, for Valerius was attended by his wife, Constance. Uncharacteristically, she had traveled with the new governor to meet her husband in Caesarea. She was an imposing and noble equestrian woman, though Miri did feel a trace of suspicion in her handshake when Antipater introduced them. Miri was not sure, but it seemed Constance was aware of her husband’s dalliance, but had chosen to forgive him, but not her. She was sure she would have to keep eyes open in the back of her head.
She also caught a brief touch between Herodias and Antipas, but it was so brief, and so apparently accidental, she was not sure of its nature, but as she glanced over at Phasaelis, the princess had obviously seen the brief encounter and magnified its significance enormously, for the princess raised her eyebrows as she returned Miri’s look.
Finally, once the attending court, and the Imperial officers had entered the amphitheatre, the heralds announced the new Praefectus, Pontius Pilatus. He entered, attended by his own lieutenants and they were a brutish lot. Pontius was dwarfed by his guard. They were, to a man, thick necked and as muscled as oxen. Their gaze was dull and uninterested, and they gawked in a sullen resentment and suspicion of the finery by which they were surrounded. Pilatus saluted Valerius, but the greeting was part of the formalities and not heartfelt, indeed, it seemed the new Procurator resented even acknowledging anyone in the audience.
Pilatus stood up and briefly thanked the crowd for its adoration and dropped the flag to signal the opening of the Games.
The games were a spectacle of blood. Though held as a magnificent ritual sacrifice to the gods, the battles fought below were orgies of violence that fed nothing but the rabid placing of wagers and partisan jeering. As the gore increased, Pilatus and his entourage followed the games with the same predatory interest a pride of lions watch a pack of wild dogs bringing a herd of passing gazelle to ground. They were the lords of the world and knew it to the marrow of their bones, and that at any time they could step in to decide the fate of any one single actor in the pageant below.
Miri wished she could have been somewhere else, for the Romans unnerved her. The veneer of civilized behaviour barely covered the souls of Pilatus and his henchmen and she knew the warnings of Valerius were well founded. Even to a Roman, these men were barbarians. She had no time for such feelings, for Phasaelis cornered her.
“Did you see it?” she hissed.
Miri was in no mood to be drawn into Phasaelis’ suspicions, but she had no choice. She played dumb.
“See what?” she asked.
“He touched her!”
“Herodias!” whispered Phasaelis, “Antipater touched her!” Her handmaids nodded in agreement.
Sure enough, Herodias excused herself and slipped into the dark passageway of the stadium.
“Follow her!” commanded Phasaelis. Thankful for an excuse to leave the carnage of the circus, Miri obeyed. As she stepped down from the box, she noticed Phasaelis hooking her hand into Antipas’ arm to ensure that he could not slip away to meet Herodias.
It took a while for Miri’s eyes to adjust to the gloom, and by the time her vision improved, Herodias was swallowed by the curve of the arena walls. She lifted her skirts and ran to catch up. Her attention was taken up by watching her step on the rough cobblestones, and she literally bumped into Herodias, who was obviously waiting for her.
“Stay away from me!” snarled Herodias. “You and that Nabatean bitch are dead meat!”
Miri gaped stupidly back at Herodias. The outburst has completely taken her by surprise. Before Miri’s hackles had a chance to rise, Herodias reversed direction and swirled angrily back to the Royal Box. Miri growled under her breath, but she was alone. Or as alone as one could be in an arena where most of the fans of the games drank a lot and had to find dark places in which to urinate.
She recovered her composure. She was sure Herodias would remain in the Royal Box. Miri had to admit to herself Phasaelis’ suspicions were warranted. But still, suspicions were only suspicions and unless there was something to the strangeness, she could not report suspicions to Haritar without definite proof and even then, the revelations could lead to strained relations between Israel and Nabatea. Without Phasaelis, Antipas could not lay claim to Perea, and in a sudden rush, the hairs on her head rose.
Herodias and Antipas would kill Phasaelis! It was the only way that he could still claim Perea. But if they were planning to kill the princess, what would they do to Antipas’ brother, Phillip? Would they kill him too? Once the line was crossed, what was another body? The horror of her position suddenly struck her. Both Herodias and Antipas had been raised in a household where intrigue and murder were the norm. They were all as vicious and ruthless as lions and it was no coincidence that such a royal family should take on the symbol of a lion as their totem.
Antipas was inured to executing others and the more she thought about it, the more she realized he ordered the death of other people almost every day. What would any life mean to such a man? The crowd roared lustily in the background as another man fell to the sand. She became dizzy and leaned against the stone wall for support. She desperately wanted to run to the quiet of her estate, surrounded by her friends and family. She felt trapped inside the stadium. Bile rose into the back of her mouth and she tasted blood. An unreasonable panic arose within her. She had to leave.
She stumbled blindly down the passage and slipped into a downward sloping passage. Too late, she realized she had not chosen the exit. She took a right turn. Another narrow passage, she turned again. And again. She passed a drunken plebian urinating against the wall. Another retching. She turned another corner. A man and a woman were squashed into an alcove thrusting at each other in a drunken groping embrace, rutting and grunting, in the throes a desperately hurried frenzy of lust. Someone grabbed at her and she squirmed from his grasp, and, like a flustered moth flew towards the nearest light. She was in the bowels of the circus. The light was streaming through the gateway to the arena floor, and she was surrounded by cluttered cages crammed with criminals and men crazed with fear.
The grizzled handlers turned as she appeared and growled in appreciation of her beauty. Catcalls met her, and she turned and ran up a broad ramp, and pushed past a squad of professional gladiators who whistled and groped at her as she made her escape from the confines of the arena. She didn’t stop until she reached a broad avenue lined with newly planted palms. She did not venture out into the avenue immediately, but like a gazelle faced with an open plain, she hesitated and stood in the crooked lane that led out to it. She felt safer hidden in the twisted alleyways. She slowly looked about her and noticed another street leading to an open slave market. And as she gazed at the open square, she noticed a name on a ceramic plaque “Gaius Lucius Gallinus”
Instantly she regained her senses. This must be the Gaius who had seized Zilpa and her sons Benjamin and Daniel. Elated by such serendipity, she straightened her clothes and advanced into the market. It was not busy, for the Games had sucked the slackers and idlers, plebian and patrician alike. A scribe sat at a desk to the side of a large stage set against the market wall. This was the platform where the slaves were displayed for auction. Prison cages lined the walls, and the inhabitants lay and sat in a disbelieving and desperate torpor, thankful for the respite in sales brought on by the festival. She approached the scribe.
“Gaius Lucius Galinus?” she asked.
“He’s at the Games,” replied the scribe.
“I am looking for a slave,” she said in her most business-like manner.
The scribe, suddenly sensing a profit, sat up and turned his face towards her. He stopped for a moment, struck by her beauty, but his pecuniary interest immediately took control and he dropped into an obviously familiar patter.
“Well, ma’am, you’ve come to the right place! We’ve got a wide selection of slaves here. Foreign, Domestic, Exotic Export. Any colour you’re looking for?” He stood up and took her arm, leading her to the line of cages. “Doesn’t matter! We have every colour you can imagine. And then some! Look at this one!”
He grasped a young woman by her mouth and squeezed to display her teeth. “This one’s clean and very strong. Stamina! Stamina plus!”
He moved on, grasping different appendages and people as he spoke to display their best features.
“This one can cook! And look at those arms! Here, feel!”
“How about the strong silent type? Always a plus with the ladies! Had his tongue cut out, but the rest of him? Great condition! Look at those legs! And his ass! What lady could resist grabbing that? Enough to make a Vestal Virgin risk death and destruction, I’d say!”
“Here we have seven dwarfs! Great fun! Trained in juggling, acrobatics! Keep your guests laughing and they’re trained in domestic chores! Grabbed ‘em from a silver mine in Dalmatia! You need a cistern built? These boys can do it!”
Miri allowed herself to be led past all the cages. She knew she wouldn’t find Zilpa here, but she needed time to size up the scribe. As Gaius was not the only dealer in the square, she was soon surrounded by traders extolling their own slaves and denigrating the integrity of the others.
“Are there any other traders with the name of Gaius?” Miri aked in a deliberately offhand manner.
“Only one!” declared the scribe.
“And what is your name?”
“Azaziel,” replied the scribe.
“Well, Azaziel, I am looking for a particular slave. A Galilean!” said Miri.
“We have two at the moment,” replied Azazieal, “This way!” He motioned toward a cage, but Miri stopped him.
“No,” said Miri, “This slave was a Galilean woman, accompanied by two boys, Benjamin and Daniel.”
“No¾” said Azaziel slowly, “I don’t remember anyone like that!”
“This was some time ago,” prompted Miri, and she realized it was more time than she had imagined. “Five years..”
Azazieal shrugged. “Impossible!” he declared, “We move hundreds ¾ thousands ¾ of slaves through here!”
“You keep records?” asked Miri.
“Of course!” replied Azaziel indignantly, “It is required by law!”
Miri lifted her purse and shook two gold coins into the palm of her hand.
“Would you care to take a look?” she asked coquettishly.
Azaziel reached for the gold.
“Of course!” he said with a smile.
They searched the archives in the cellar of the trading post. Hundreds of scrolls were stacked on shelves. The scrolls contained the lists of thousands of people brought into the market, displayed like livestock and auctioned off to the highest bidder. Miri found it hard to believe that so many souls had been sold into slavery.
“The Empire has an insatiable appetite for slaves,” said Azaziel, apologetically, “I, myself, am a slave!” He said it with some perversely misplaced pride.
“Why don’t you run away?” asked Miri.
Azaziel bared his arm. His arm was marked with a great grisly scar. “Slave brand! No matter where I go, this marks me as a slave! Even if I were given my freedom Gaius, ¾God grant me freedom¾ people everywhere would know I was a slave, had been a slave, and sooner or later a bounty hunter would take me, and papers or no, scourge me to an inch of my life and sell me back to someone else.” Azaziel stared intensely into Miri’s eyes. “I could not bear to be branded again!”
“It is getting late!” he said, “I will keep looking for your people. Gaius would not be pleased to find you here amongst his papers!”
Miri was disappointed, but she dipped into her purse and produced another coin. “If you can find Zilpa and her boys, I will give you a hundred more! Perhaps you could buy your freedom!”
Azaziel smiled wanly. “Sadly, by law, whatever I earn belongs to my master. Besides, Gaius would never let me go,” said Azaziel sadly, “I am enslaved and indebted for life!”
“We shall see!” declared Miri and stood up, “I am staying in the west wing of the Royal Palace by the Temple of Augustus! I shall be here three days!”
Azaziel wrapped the coin in his own purse.
“I shall try my best!”
The brothel was crowded and smelled of garum, stale wine, sweat and semen, intermingled with a sweet smoky combination of sandalwood and hashish. The writhing mass of drunken flesh parted before her as she wound her way through the taverna. Not so much because the writhing revelers were awed by her beauty, but because she was flanked by four of Antipas’ finest palace guard. Phasaelis had insisted Daedalus, Adrastos, Nathaniel and Ezra accompany her on her mission to recover Daniel and Benjamin. Azaziel had sent word they had been sold to a local procurer by the name of Lucifer. That he took the name of the Roman god of the Morning Star was not lost in the Eastern lands, for that selfsame star was known on the continent as Ishtar. The women of the fleshpot still carried part of the tradition of ancient temple attendants when part of their duty was to unite the male worshippers with the goddess herself through union with the holy priestesses. Only now, the silver coin passed, not to the temple but to Lucifer himself. Such profanity repelled both Pagan and Jew alike, but, like the Games in the arena, they still fascinated and drew men and women toward the rituals like flies to rotting flesh.
Lucifer appeared, and attempting to turn her from her quest, stood before them and demanded sternly if she had perhaps lost her way. She replied she had not but was searching for her kin, Daniel and Benjamin. He denied their existence, but she produced a hand written copy of their bill of sale. She sensed he was afraid he would suffer her wrath, should he reveal their whereabouts, and she thought to dispel his reticence by reassuring him that she would take no revenge upon him, and to the contrary, if he didn’t produce them, the men behind her would be very unhappy, and once upset, they were prone to use red hot tongs. Lucifer’s memory improved immediately.
“This way, if you please!” he said sweetly.
He led them through a winding warren of tiny rooms, each a twisted tableau of misguided human passion. Finally, before a small room far from the light of the sun, lit only by a small flickering torch, Lucifer pushed aside a badly brocaded blue blanket, pulled a protesting pedophile to his feet, and invited Miri to step inside. Inside the small room Daniel huddled naked on a mattress of straw. Seeing Miri and not really recognizing her from Kefar Nahum, he cowered and averted his eyes.
Miri covered his naked body with her robe and knelt down beside him. “I have come to bring you home, Daniel,” she said softly, “Where is Benjamin?” At the mention of his brother he turned to face her. He was under the influence of wine, hashish and opium and responded slowly, but a glimmer of recognition was returned within a slow stoned blink.
Lucifer intervened almost immediately.
“You know, I am so sorry, your lady, but I just remembered the younger one was sold.”
What?” asked Miri incredulously, “Who did you sell him to?”
“A tourist,” he replied.
“Roman or Greek?”
“Roman, I think. But we spoke Greek!”
“What was his name?”
Lucifer shrugged. “I don’t remember!” Miri advanced upon him, but he stood his ground. “We don’t push for names,” he added. “He lived in Campagnia, south of Rome in Italy. I am sure he has returned quite some time ago.”
“We called him Appolodorus.”
“You still have the contract?” Miri demanded.
“I¾” Lucifer began, “…I did not keep of record of the transaction…”
Miri knew he was lying, but she had no way of knowing Benjamin’s true fate. “There is a finder’s fee,” she said reluctantly. She produced a purse, and gave him fifty gold pieces. “This is for the boy here! I will pay whoever brings him to me, double for the other’s return.” She suddenly raised her voice, “One hundred gold arii for the return of Benjamin of Galilee!” Her eyes flashed about the room. Enough ears had heard her offer. She took Daniel by the hand, but he pulled back.
“We must bring Benjamin!” he whispered.
“He’s here?” asked Miri. She stopped in her tracks.
He tugged at her and she followed his lead, and the guards, ever vigilant, fell in step behind them. Lucifer immediately sensed their change in direction and stood to head them off.
“The exit’s this way!” he said with a wave of his arms.
“In there!” cried Daniel.
“He’s under the influence,” protested Lucifer, “There is nothing in there but brooms and mops!”
“We would like to see them then!” said Miri.
“You couldn’t possibly be interested in?”
A slight flick of her wrist brought her guards forward to flank her, and without touching him, Miri pushed past Lucifer through the small doorway. She found herself in an unlit narrow barrel vaulted corridor. Daniel pushed her from behind, using her as a shield, and as she reached the end of the passage, she cried out.
Everywhere her eyes traveled, a naked boy was chained to the walls. A small child strapped face down on a rack was stretched over a large wooden drum that forced his buttocks upwards. She tried to look away, but there was nowhere that the abominations of repressed lust failed to manifest. Even her guards, battle hardened warriors were overwhelmed.
“Cut them loose!” Miri commanded, and in an instant the soldiers responded with outraged ferocity. Iron swords clanged loudly upon iron manacles.
“Stop! Stop!” cried Lucifer, “You have no right to?”
Adrastos grasped him by his throat and slammed him against the wall. “Shut up!” he growled, “You have just lost these slaves!”
“I have keys!” Lucifer insisted, “I have keys!” He fumbled with an iron ring attached to his leather belt. Adrastos wrested it from him, and threw the keys to Daedalus . Daniel ran to the small form stretched over the drum, and released the tension on the rack by releasing the catch on the capstan that pulled the tiny prisoner taught. The child was limp and didn’t respond to Daniel’s rubbing and entreaties.
Miri moved swiftly to his side. The child was Benjamin, badly lacerated all over his naked body. She immediately stripped off her silk mantle and wrapped it about the small boy, and lifted him from the rack.
“You cannot take them!” protested Lucifer. “They are legally bought slaves! I shall bring charges against you in court!” He managed to twist free of Adrastos and rush for the door, to call for help, but Daedalus , a boy in each arm, blocked the exit.
“Tie him up!” commanded Miri. She placed Benjamin gently upon a wooden bench and turned on Lucifer, dagger drawn. He backed away and into the arms of Adrastos.
“Strap him to the rack!”
Together, Miri and the guards shackled Lucifer to the rack, and as they turned the capstan to pull the procurer taught. Miri drew out her dagger, and moved on Lucifer. He began screaming and she stuffed a small handkerchief into his mouth to keep him quiet and as he stuttered a muffled malefaction, she cut his clothes from his chest, and ripped his tunic from his body, her knife cutting shallow a line of blood from his shoulder down across his chest and belly. As the knife sliced across Lucifer’s flesh, the closer to his groin it moved, the more desperate his writhing became. She stopped the skin deep cut a finger’s breadth from the root of his penis and jabbed sharply downward. The knife cut into his pubis and Lucifer screamed through his muzzle.
Though she had wanted desperately to castrate him, at the last moment, she sheathed her knife and turned on her heels. They had six boys, all Jewish, and Miri and her soldiers herded them out and left Lucifer chained naked to his own rack. So that he could not be rescued, they closed the wooden door behind them and bolted it fast. Daniel led them through a warren of passages and they left the building through a small side door, and slipped away unnoticed.
“To say you have jumped from the fat into the fire is an understatement!” roared Antipas. “You have been here for only two days and you have created a scandal that will reach the ears of Rome!”
“I have created a scandal?” cried Miri in furious indignation, “What about the rape of children? Is there no?”
“They were slaves!” shouted Antipas. “And you took my own personal guard into that brothel, and have implicated me in this mess! Lucifer was perfectly within his rights to treat them in any manner he sees fit! You are going to have to appear before the procurator! Lucifer has petitioned the governor to hear his case against you! And I will have add some fancy footwork to my own case to keep Pilatus’s ”
“I will speak to Valerius and explain my side!”
“You are a day too late!” retorted Antipas, “Your lover has sailed with his wife this very morning! You will have to ply your charms upon Pilatus!” An evil grin passed Antipas’ lips. “I wish you all the luck that Fortune may grant!”
Miri hesitated. In the heat of the argument she had forgotten that Valerius was no longer Procurator.
“He has no love for Jews!” sneered Antipas, “And he has no idea who is Jew in this land and who is not! I cannot help you, Miriam. He considers me as Jewish as Moishe the Lawgiver, and he knows only Roman Law! Justice will be swift and harsh!”
The wind dropped from Miri’s sails and she sat down heavily. “I am doomed!”
“We shall see!” replied Antipas, who was thoroughly enjoying the drama. “It’s not over until it’s over! I may even place a wager on your remaining alive after the trial, simply because the odds are infinitely against you! Perhaps your Fortune, if it be good, will make me rich!”
Miri growled in frustration.
Chuza stepped forward, concerned for Miri as she was now a kinswoman, and his family honour now was in jeopardy due to her actions. “I can see no way to bring this forward under Mosaic Law, for under the Laws of God you have done no harm, but under the Laws of Rome, you are a criminal most feared, for you have challenged the very foundations of Roman Rule!”
“If you had brought forward these boys in Yerushalayim, we would have a case,” said Antipas. “But here in Caesarea, Roman law is inviolate!”
“What can I do?” wailed Miri.
“We need to find an orator versed in the Law to speak before the court of the procurator!”
Marcellus’ eyes lit up as Miri entered the room. He motioned for her to sit on the marble bench by the atrium garden.
“Ah, you are a sight to warm the fires of my somnolent manhood!” he declared warmly.
“I doubt your manhood is as somnolent as you claim,” replied Miri.
Marcellus arose from his writing desk and sat beside her. “So you are the Jewess who liberated the Sons of Israel from bondage?”
“I am Miriam of Tarichae,” replied Miri, rather primly.
“Formalities!” declared Marcellus. “I am Marcellus, of Campagnia. I understand you have run afoul of Lucifer the Procurer.”
Miri stared down at her hands folded in her lap. “What are my chances?” she asked glumly.
“Well, I wouldn’t bet my farm on the outcome,” replied Marcellus. He was a rather attractive man, though not in a classical Appollian sense, but bore a virile Vulcanic visage. She warmed to him immediately, but realized lust would have no place in her decision to engage him as her mouthpiece.
Under Roman Law, she could not, as a woman, speak at the tribunal, and even if Marcellus had not been recommended by both Antipas and Chuza, she would have had to have engaged a man in any case.
“Alright!” said Marcellus, taking a deep breath. “First of all, are you prepared to return the slaves to Lucifer?”
“Absolutely not!” replied Miri vehemently, “How could you ask such a thing?”
“I must!” replied Marcellus, “Relinquishing the slaves to Lucifer would probably reduce the punishment to a fine.”
“Is there no other way?” asked Miri.
Marcellus sighed. “That is your easiest and safest option. You will have a hard time keeping your head on your shoulders otherwise!”
“I can’t return the boys to Lucifer!”
“Then we must think of some other way out,” said Marcellus wearily, “Though I would not count on my eloquence alone, for aiding runaway slaves is a capital crime. Though you will avoid the cross, You will be looking at being disemboweled or beheaded, and your charges will be crucified! I would suggest fleeing Roman lands. You have holdings elsewhere, I have heard?”
Miri bit her lip for she had no wish to leave her estate in Galilee, but it appeared she might have no other option. To have returned only to choose exile was galling. She could not cross the border to Nabatea for Aretas had charged her with keeping an eye on Phasaelis. She had no doubt the Celt would be exposed to the vultures, should she leave without fulfilling her bargain. Yet she could not give up the boys to the ghoulish Lucifer.
“Where are they?” asked Marcellus.
“Who?” asked Miri abstractly.
“The slaves,” prompted Marcellus, “Where are they?”
She, Adrastos and Daedalus had carried the young men beyond the city gates the same night that they had seized them, smuggled out of the city hidden in a seaweed cart. They made there way past the road alongside the aqueduct to Mount Carmel, and traveled along a lesser track through the foothills and before dawn the three of them presented the liberated slave boys at the gates of the Carmelite Nazorean monastery just as the inhabitants were awakening and beginning morning prayers. The abbott was Daedalus ’s brother, greeted them at the gate and gave his word the presence of the boys would remain a secret, and ushered the travelers into the compound. So that their progress would not be noted, Miri, Adrastos and Daedalus remained hidden in a small cave at the back of the monastery until sundown. Miri was anxious to get back to Caesarea, for her absence would be noticed, and Daedalus and Adrastos, although assigned to protect her, now had their own positions to consider.
So that they could not be traced, they walked back to Caesarea, again avoiding the aqueduct for it was guarded by mercenaries hired by the Romans to protect it from terrorist attacks by the Galilean rebels in the hills. Travel was always difficult in the highlands for its caves hid more than religious zealots and national guerillas. Bandits abounded at every turn, and they were obviously, by their dress, agents of the Idumean dynasty. Still, their luck held and, tired and dirty, they arrived in the city before dawn. The gates to the city were still closed, and they decided they would give a wide berth to the city walls and approach Caesarea from the south. Phasaelis had changed the roster of the palace guard so that Daedalus and Adrastos would not be missed, and had begun a rumour that Miri had come down with a female ailment. Nicodemus had been pressed to visit the missing Miri and then, to avoid a terrible explosion of outrage in the palace, had, at Phasaelis’ urging, pronounced a quarantine for two days on Miri’s quarters “as a matter of medical prudence”.
“They are safe,” replied Miri softly. The depth of the conspiracy within the palace now seemed to be overwhelmingly out of control.
“There is something you are not telling me,” said Marcellus.
If the wall of silence collapsed anywhere, be it through a disgruntled slave, or jealous courtier, Miri, Phasaelis and even Antipas could fall from the grace of Rome
“If I have not told you, then I have no wish to do so,” replied Miri.
“Look!” said Marcellus testily, “I can help you, but unless you tell me everything, there is not much I can do!”
“You are Roman!” spat out Miri, “How could you possibly help me?”
“So you would rather face Pilatus represented by a Jew?” he countered, “Do you think that would improve your chances?”
Miri said nothing, but could not sit still. She began to pace.
“Look, I’m sorry!” she said, “I have hidden the slaves, and I will not return them!”
“You are risking torture,” explained Marcellus, “The Imperium needs slaves more than anything elseand we take the issue of runaway slaves as one of the most crucial threats to Pax Romanus.”
“Pax Romanus?” cried Miri, “Where about you do you see peace? In the streets of Rome? Certainly not on her borders! The tentacles of the Roman Octopus suck the blood of the sons of her neighbours! It does no good to be Friend of Rome, for should the slightest whim of the Emperor run against anyone, friend is no better than foe! They take the Sons of Israel in chains to the auctions of Thoranius and sell them for a song!”
“Are you finished?” asked Marcellus, “You will have to curb your tongue, if you wish to be alive after your trial. I appreciate your anger and understand everything you have said, but reason and compassion will not sway Pilatus. He believes in swift and harsh punishment. Every dcree he makes will be to set a deterrent for those who would follow in your footsteps. He will uphold the rights of property above all except the security of Rome. And he views slaves as an essential to the economy of Rome! The Gods forbid that a Roman should have to lift a fig when there is a slave to do it for him! But there is a card you can play…”
He paused for a moment.
“What?” asked Miri impatiently.
“He is a man of base origins! His mother was a miller’s daughter, and his father, though of equestrian rank, was reputed to have been a debauched devotee of Bacchus! It is only through some perverse strength of great will, that Pilatus clawed his way through Roman society.”
“And?” prompted Miri.
“Both he and his patron Sejanus harbour an ill-hidden resentment of the patrician class. That is his Achilles’ heel. He is driven to prove himself patrician and barring that, to bring anyone above him is status standing in his way, onto their knees before him and into the gutter! If you can tap into that resentment and use it, he will be more malleable.”
“Well, I doubt that Lucifer is a member of a patrician family,” replied Miri.
“No, but he has hired Flavius Oculus to present his case, and Flavius is a prig and displays all the pedantic excesses of a man educated beyond his intellectual capacity. He has the innate ability to wind the word ‘no’ into an entire speech that could mean ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘maybe’. And he does it in a patrician accent that would do a Plautian actor proud!”
“So there’s hope?” asked Miri.
“There is always hope,” replied Marcellus, “But it is not always well founded! You would do well to sacrifice to whatever gods you subscribe, for only divine intervention can get you out of your predicament!”
The web of Lucifer expanded to ensnare Adrastos and Daedalus as they were to be tried as co-conspirators. On the day before the trial, Miri was asked by Antipas to find accommodations elsewhere in the city, and Chuza, through a servant, found her modest lodging with a innkeeper in the Jewish Quarter. The room, as well as the inn to which it belonged was small. She settled in without most of her baggage, which Phaesalis promised to store until after the trial. Within a half a day of her arrival, word reached the innkeeper Miri was to go on trial for aiding and abetting runaway slaves and evicted her immediately. Out on the street with her belongings, she was assailed by urchins willing to lead her to another inn, but one by one, they failed to secure her a room, for her criminal reputation preceded her. At each stop, it seemed her belongings disappeared one by one, until she was left only with a small moneybag secreted beneath her cloak. She sought shelter in a small square, and sat wearily on a stone bench beneath a spreading fig tree.
She leaned her head back and closed her eyes. She could not believe how quickly her fortunes had reversed. In the small closed square, no sea breeze penetrated, but she could sense the presence of the rolling ocean waves, and she imagined herself as a hot sandy beach massaged by the warm rolling crystal waves of the Mediterranean. It was enough to relieve her stress and she opened her soul to the Universe, praying for a solution. Her life opened before her and the desperation and elation of her past were exposed to he view, and she knew she had been in worse straights and still survived. At every stop along her path, someone had died. And each death brought her to acknowledge her own death was never far away. So be it, she thought. So be it.
She opened her eyes.
An old woman stood before her, her ancient wrinkled hands and arms wrapped about a wicker basket, supported by a gnarled pine walking stick.
“You have troubles?” asked the crone.
Miri smiled. “I do!”
“Then you will stay with me until it is over.” The old woman extended a hand and grasped her hand and stood up.
“Take my basket,” said the woman.
Miri slid the basket onto her left arm and the old woman slipped her hand into Miri’s right arm. “This way!” said the woman and pointed her cane toward a narrow side street. Guided by the woman’s instructions of left and right, they arrived at a small doorway. There was no door in the entrance, only a black goat hair blanket hanging across the opening. Once inside, Miri placed the basket upon a low shelf and helped the old woman sit beside it. The room was dark, but light filtered down a narrow stone staircase that led up to the roof. From inside the house. Once her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she realized there was no furniture in the room, though a wooden ladder led up to a sleeping loft. A brass lamp stand with a clay lamp upon it stood in one corner. A fireplace was set into the wall opposite and a shelf above it fitted with a steel grate upon which sat two large clay pots. Three covered storage jars were set into the floor.
“You feel abandoned!” said the old woman, “There is no need to fear either good or bad. The Great Mother will sustain you!”
Miri was silent.
“Your thoughts reject my words,” said the woman.
“Life has its ups and downs!” said Miri.
The old woman laughed. “Indeed it does!” She levered herself up with her cane. “Shall we eat?”
As the old woman began cooking, her movements caught Miri’s attention. She was feeling her way through the kitchen.
“You are blind,” she said.
“So you say,” replied the woman, “But there are other ways of seeing!”
“Would you like some help?” asked Miri.
“Would you?” asked the woman.
“Yes,” replied Miri.
“Then so would I!” replied the crone. “I only ask that when you lift something, please set it back in its place.”
Cooking brought her back into a comfortable routine. The smell of the spices and onions quieted her thoughts. She took it upon herself to sweep out the floor, and the old woman was pleased.
Miri found an old clay lamp, disused and asked the old woman if she could fill it with oil.
“I will buy some more tomorrow!”
The old woman laughed. “I have not lit that lamp since my children left! Of course you may fill it! It is time to shine some light into my house!”
Miri dipped a ladle into the oil jar and twisted a wick from strips ripped from the edge of her tunic. Dipped in oil, she lit the wick from the fireplace and stuffed it into the lampwick hole. She placed it back upon the brass stand. Though the light was not strong, the gloom was dispelled somewhat and she caught the scuttling of beetles as they fled the light. Though the sun was setting, the inside of the house was hot and stuffy.
“Would you like to sleep out on the roof, dear?” asked the old woman.
“Would you?” asked Miri, realizing the steps were probably too steep for the old woman to ascend.
The crone cackled. “I haven’t been able to climb those stairs since my children left!”
“I will help you!” said Miri.
Miri supported the woman as best as she could on the narrow stairs and settled her into a spot chosen by the crone against the roof wall.
“I can see the ocean from here!” she explained with satisfaction, “Could I trouble you at all, to bring the lamp up?”
“Of course,” replied Miri.
It was dark by the time the two of them were nestled in blankets on the roof. A soft warm breeze was beginning to flow from the land back out to the sea. Miri placed the lamp on the roof in the lee of the wall.
“No, no!” chided the crone, “Place it there! Beside that stone, so that it will shine out to sea!” The place she had pointed out, was a niche with enough space to set the lamp, and when placed in it, though it flickered, the lamp stayed lit.
They sat wordlessly, propped up against the roof wall, facing out to the sea.
“I had no idea heaven was so close by!” sighed the old woman.
Only a heart beat away, thought Miri. She sat staring out across the rooftops of Caesarea. The Augustan temple dedicated to the worship of the Emperor God glowed eerily white under the waxing moon hanging in the western sky. Dear, sweet Sin, she thought. The star of Ishtar shone beside him. She was filled with a deep melancholy. The gods were as far away and as unaffected by human entreaty as the moon and the stars.
Her thoughts were jumbled and chaotic, and remained that way for a long time. It seemed her life was out of her control, and the forces of evil were closing in on her. She constantly tried to see a way for her to rid herself of the threat posed by Lucifer, but there was none. She wondered about the fate of Adrastos and Daedalus , and knew they faced crucifixion if convicted. And how would the new governor react to the involvement of the tetrarch’s friend and staff?
She finally fell fitfully into troubled sleep, and awoke as the first rays of Shemmesh peeked over the hills behind the coastal plain. The old woman was gone. She folded the woolen blankets and brought them down the staircase. A bowl of stew and cooked barley sat on the grate over the dying embers of the fire, and, after checking the alleyway outside for signs of the old woman, Miri plucked the ceramic bowls from the stove, ate the contents, and hurried to the Governor’s hall in the Herodian palace.
The hall was packed and she had to push her way through a think throng of spectators for rumours abounded about intrigue in the palace and the fact that this was the first challenge of Pilatus’s abilities as a governor. Marcellus spotted her struggling through the crowd and shouted for the specators to make way. Daedalus and Adrastos both were standing beside the orator, and their faces were filled with dread. Antipas had insisted upon them appearing in civilian robes, and they both were clearly uncomfortable without their armour and weapons.
“Where in Tartarus have you been?” demanded Marcellus.
“There was no room at the inn,” said Miri glibly, “Still I am here!”
She glanced over to Daedalus and Adrastos and in an instant realized they had been tortured. Their eyes returned their guilt and she smiled in forgiveness, but there was no time to speak for the herald announced the entrance of the governor. A supplication was made to the gods and after a great deal of ceremonies and “Hail Caesar”s the crowd settled down and a space was cleared about the dais upon which Pilatus sat.
Miri’s heart leapt into her mouth for five of her little boys were standing in the plaza not far from the accused.
“There are only five!” she whispered to Marcellus, “Why are there only five?”
Marcellus shushed her. She craned her neck, but the boys were all dressed in identical rough brown tunics. She could identify none, and in a flushed moment, she was not sure she would recognize Zilpah’s sons. Who was missing?
Flavius, the orator for Lucifer, approached the dais and Pilatus waved his hand for him to commence his opening remarks. Just as Marcellus had said, he was loquacious and his remarks interminable. The actual facts became lost in wave after wave of rhetoric, and finally sank out of sight. At one point Miri thought she might actually plead guilty just to shut him up, but of course prudence overcame impatience and she resigned herself to enduring Flavius’ terribly overacted performance.
Pilatus had maintained a polite demeanour for the first part of the opening arguments, but he definitely began to be impatient before Flavius was even halfway through his opening. Finally, he waved his hand.
“Enough!” he commanded. Flavius’ eyes opened wide and his mouth snapped shut then reopened and shut like a surprised fish, at the abruptness of the order.
“You are saying these people, this woman, freed your slaves without any manumission on your part?”
Flavius opened his mouth to answer, but Pilatus silenced him. “You!” he exclaimed, pointing at Lucifer, “You are claiming these people kidnapped your slaves?”
“I do, Procurator,” replied Lucifer.
“Praefectus!” corrected Pilatus, “And these are the slaves?”
“They are!” replied Lucifer. He evidently had not noticed one was missing.
“And Marcellus, you are to speak for the woman?”
“I am!” said Marcellus.
“Then I pray you are not twice as long winded! For I understand your client is a woman!”
Laughter rippled through the crowd. Miri tensed and Marcellus squeezed her arm to stop her from reacting verbally.
“I think I can clear this matter up, Praefectus. “He produced a small scrap of paper from the sleeve of his toga. “I have here a bill of sale for the boys in question from Lucifer transferred to my client!”
“That’s impossible!” declared Lucifer. “Let me see that!”
Marcellus complied and handed the paper to Lucifer. The procurer’s face blanched.
“It seems he contracted to pay for the boys in three separate payments from Gaius Lucius Gallinus the Slave trader, and that he failed to meet his agreement. My client Miriam of Tarichae bought the debt from the slave of Gaius, Azaziel, and therefore is entitled to possession of the slaves.”
Murmers buzzed through the crowd.
“Is this true?” asked Pilatus impatiently.
Lucifer fumed, but kept his temper under control.
“Well?” demanded Pilatus.
“So it seems,” replied Lucifer dejectedly, “I was not aware of it! My apologies, Procurator!”
“Praefectus,” said Pilatus slowly.
“You will pay a fine of two thousand sesterces. Case dismissed!”
Daedalus , Adrastos, Miri and Marcellus hugged each other while well-wishers slapped them all on the back. The five boys, still chained together were presented to Miri and she hugged each one in turn. After the excitement died down, they all pushed from the hearing hall, but stopped short as they broke free of the crowd. Antipas stood arms folded waiting for them.
“You have a lot to answer for!” He looked at Daedalus and Adrastos. “You may go!”
Both men began to protest but he waved then away. “Go!” he commanded. “Take the boys!”
“Where are you taking them?” cried Miri.
“Where they belong!” he growled. He suddenly grasped Miri by the hair and twisted it. “I am giving them back to Lucifer!”
“You can’t do that!” cried Miri, and she squirmed around to claw at Antopas’ face. Other members of his personal guard held her fast, and Antipas slapped her across her face.
“Of course I can!” His eyes narrowed with a vehemence she had not yet seen in the tetrarch, “Lucifer knows more about the vices and secrets of the Roman Garrison than anyone in all of Palestina! Do you think for a moment, I would wish to make an enemy of such a man? I have him where I want him now! And returning the boys will earn me his friendship, and Lucifer is the kind of friend who will serve me well!”
He moved closer and grasped her throat and squeezed.
“You should be torn limb for limb!” he whispered, “I could kill you and no one would fault me for it! You almost cost me my crown! As it is I shall have to relinquish this building to the new governor!”
He released her.
“If it had been just you, I would have let you been flayed alive!” he spat on the ground, “But you and Phasaelis involved my personal guard in this matter! Involving them involved me! It took a great deal of horse trading to stop Pilatus from replacing me with my brother! I was almost banished! For two miserable slaves! I cannot believe you put me in jeopardy!”
“So you forged the Bill of Sale?” Miri asked.
Antipas laughed. “There was no Bill of Sale! That piece of paper was a record of Lucifer’s birth! Actually, a copy!”
Antipas sneered. “He was conceived and born a slave! He ran away from his owner when he was a teenager! If that had come out, he would have been returned to his owner or the owner’s heir, and lost everything!”
“So he agreed to the story through blackmail?”
“Ironic isn’t it?” said Antipas.
Miri was speechless. She looked at Marcellus.
“You knew about this?”
He nodded. “You didn’t have a foot to stand on,” he said.
“You owe me everything!” said Antipas.
“No she does not!”
Miri whirled. It was Phaesalis.
“The new governor would have taken the palace anyway. It has been in the Imperial inventory since your brother Archaelus was deposed! Valerius merely billeted himself here! Pilatus meant to take it sooner or later as his own official residence! You just put it up as an easy bargaining chip before he could find a legal means of seizing it!”
Miri was shocked. She had not heard Phasaelis speak with such authority before. Perhaps, she thought, it was her first step from princess to queen. Antipas shook his head and smiled.
“So did Pilatus know the Bill of Sale was a record of Lucifer’s birth?” asked Miri.
“Of course,” said Phaesalis, “Only three people in that court knew what that paper said. Marcellus, Pilatus and Lucifer. Once Marcellus presented it, Lucifer knew he couldn’t pass the record to Pilatus, for then the governor would have discovered Lucifer himself was a runaway. What he didn’t know was that Pilatus was already aware of the paper, and would have upheld the story Antipas had concocted. Pilatus stood to gain the palace through an agreement with Antipas, and Antias had relinquished the palace in order to retain his crown, for Pilatus would have deposed him for his household’s involvement in the affair. Tiberias is home now anyway and most of the treasures and sentimentally tinged bric a brac herein have already been transported to our palace in Tiberias. Pilatus has been satiated and his self-imagined victory has put him in a more amenable mood. As long as he feels he has the upper hand he will not be a threat to us! So this time everyone wins!”
Miri felt a sudden dark rift in the Universe about her, and she wondered what could have caused her vague miasma, a woman’scream answered her almost immediately.
The scream precipitated a flurry of activity that spread swiftly along the hall and. propelled ahead of the wave of panic surging toward them, a guard approached Antipas, pulled him aside and whispered in his ear.
“Damn them!” Antipas shouted, “Damn them!”
“What?” asked Phasaelis fearfully, for uncontrolled wailing had filled the palace.
“They took their own lives!” said Antipas bitterly, “What a waste!”
“What?” Miri frowned, “What are you talking about?”
Glancing for a moment at Antipas, and receiving a nod, the guard turned to Miri.
“I only left them alone for a minute,” he said desperately, “One of them had a knife, and they each slashed their own wrists, and he plunged the dagger into their hearts one by one! I heard the commotion and ran inside and the last one threw himself into the street from the second floor! They are all dead!”