Read the first 3 chapters of Petra
The streets of Rome lay barren and empty, sucked dry by the colossal Flavian Amphitheatre that had swallowed seventy-five thousand Roman citizens in a single gulp, and would hold each one captive until they had enjoyed the horrors that Julian now raced to prevent.
More time. He needed more time. Already the crowd inside the four-story rim of stone cheered for the first event.
Julian’s sandals smacked the black basalt road that led toward the amphitheatre. The blistering Roman sun pounded the moisture from his skin and left him panting. He had run most of way, since an old servant in Vita’s house had pointed a gnarled finger toward the east, toward the Forum, toward the arena of death.
Eighty arches ringed the outside of the theatre on each of its first three stories. The bottom arches provided access to the public, and the second story’s niches held statues of the gods and emperors, who now looked down on Julian as he sprinted across the large travertine slabs that paved the arena’s edge.
He ran toward one of the four main entrances and fumbled for the tessera, the stone tile he wore around his neck. The designatores at the entrance would insist on examining it, to see the sector, row and seat to which he was assigned.
Indeed, the usher at this entrance was full of his own importance, and held a palm to Julian’s oncoming rush as though he could stop him with only the force of his arm.
“Too long in your bed this morning, eh?” His smug smile took in Julian’s hastily-wrapped toga and sweat-dampened hair.
Julian thrust the tessera before the man’s eyes. “Here, here, look at it.”
Still the amused smile. The usher opened his mouth to speak again.
“Look at it!”
Daunted, the man let his eyes travel over the tile, then took a tiny breath and stepped back. His grin faded to a look of regret over his own impudence, and he bowed his head. As if that were not enough, he bowed at the waist and extended a hand to invite Julian to enter.
Julian did not wait for an apology. He pushed past the usher and under the vaulted entrance, then straight through the arena’s outer corridor and up a ramp that led to the cavea, the wedge-shaped sections of marble seats. This main entrance led directly to the central boxes reserved for the elite.
He exploded from the dimly lit ramp onto the terrace. The morning sun slashed across half the seats, the height of the amphitheatre leaving the other half in shade. The red canvas velarium, the awning used to shade the spectators, would be raised before it got much hotter, but for now, thousands of bleached togas on white marble blinded the eye and the smell of the masses assaulted the nose.
Julian crossed the terrace in two strides, slammed against the waist-high wall that separated him from the arena, and saw a figure dash at him from the shadows.
His mother’s hands were on his arms in an instant. “Julian, what are you doing?” Her words were frantic, as clipped and terror-filled as his every movement.
“They have Vita, Mother!”
She wrenched his body fiercely to face her. Julian stood nearly a cubit taller than his mother, but Ariella had retained all the strength of her youth, along with the beauty. “There is nothing that can be done, my son.”
He yanked his arms from her grasp. “Do not say that!” Julian searched the cavea behind him, full to overflowing with the purple-edged togas of senators. “Where is Father? Is he here?”
“Julian, think! You must think.” Ariella’s voice was urgent and low and her clutching fingers again slowed Julian’s restlessness. “You will bring more harm – “
“I do not care!” His voice snagged with emotion, and he fought to harden the feelings into action. “I must end this.”
“You cannot, son.”
He turned flashing eyes on Ariella. “It is my fault! Do you not understand? I should be down in those cages.”
Ariella’s eyes misted. “I would not lose both my son and his betrothed on the same day.”
Betrothed. The word washed more guilt over Julian’s stricken soul.
A senator, one of his father’s friends, walked past and paused to hold out an arm in greeting to Julian. “Fine day for the games, is it not?”
Julian straightened at once, resuming the noble bearing trained into him since childhood, and returned the man’s grip. He nodded once in agreement, but did not speak. The senator moved on, and Julian dropped his shoulders, ashamed that he had not made a statement.
Ariella seemed to read his thoughts. Her dark eyes held his own. “It will take more than a day to change the Empire.”
Julian looked out over the yellow sand of the arena. “But this day, Mother, this day we must!” He slapped a hand against the top of the marble wall. “I am going to find Father.”
“Julian, you know that he can do nothing – “
He spun on her. “No. I am tired of both of you, always moving about your circles quietly, behind closed doors, the truth spoken only in whispers.” He lifted his own voice as an example. “There is a time to speak!”
Ariella’s nostrils flared, but she said nothing. Turning from her, Julian stalked to the nearest break in the seating and ascended the tiers alongside his father’s section. Here, the nobility did not sit on wooden planks as the rest of the citizens, but were given cushions or even chairs for comfort. He scanned the rows of seats for his father’s graying head, and instead met his dark gray eyes.
Julian shook his head and opened his mouth to shout across the intervening seats, but his father held up a hand, then stood and excused himself from his colleagues. He slid along in front of a dozen other senators, and emerged at the end of the row beside Julian.
Quietly, he spoke into his son’s ear. “I have just now heard. It is outrageous.”
Julian’s hands balled into fists at his side. “You must do something.”
“What can I do, Julian? The emperor has ruled, and Trajan is not a man to be defied.”
Across the arena, Julian watched as a trapdoor slid upward and a huddled band of men and women were prodded onto the sand at the end of Roman spears. Julian’s heart pounded with the shortness of the time left and he turned on his father with the frenzy of desperation. “She is out there, Father!”
But his father’s eyes held only grief, not anger. Not the fiery anger that could change the future, even now.
Julian pushed past him, down the steps. If his parents would do nothing from their positions of influence, then he would stop this madness from a position of strength.
It had been his fault, all of it. Trajan had made his stance clear. As long as they kept to themselves, did not flaunt their disagreement with imperial policy, did not take a public stand, they would be left alone. But that had not been enough for Julian. Passionate about the truth, eager to show himself a leader and foolish enough to believe himself invincible, he had spoken too loudly, in too many places.
And now this. Vita and the others arrested, convicted, and sentenced without his knowledge. Julian had brought this on them all, but he had escaped their fate.
At the terrace level he circled the arena toward the imperial box. The amphitheatre was one of the few places where the public had access to the divine emperor. Julian grasped at the thin hope that he could get near enough to plead for Vita’s life.
He had not loved her. Not like he should, though he had tried. He had never known a more virtuous woman. The arranged match between them was a good one. But Julian had never felt more than the flame of admiration and respect for her, and he saw nothing but the same in her eyes. Still, they would have been married.
We will be married.
The foot-stomps of the crowd rose around him like a hundred thousand drumbeats. The cadence resonated in his chest and pushed him forward. He knew that sound. It was the sound of a mob hungry for blood.
Terror drove his footsteps. He could not look to the arena. Not even when he heard more trapdoors rise and the low growl of beasts begin.
The crowd screamed as one, and their shouts lifted to the pale blue sky like a puff of evil smoke from the underworld. Julian’s bones seemed to turn to water. He raced on. The emperor’s raised box was in sight.
But then they were beside him again, both his parents this time, grasping at his arms, pulling him backward.
“It is too late, son.” His mother’s voice held the grief of both the present and the past, for she had seen much sorrow in the arena in her day.
His father turned him to the wall to face the sand. “You must say goodbye, Julian. You must say goodbye.”
He let his parents hold him there at the marble wall. He scraped his hands across the top, then gripped the white stone.
Lions. Six of them. Circling, circling the knot of friends in the center of the bright yellow sand that had been brought from one of the hills of Rome and spread on wooden planking to soak up the blood of gladiator, beast, and the condemned.
The lions charged at once, but for Julian, the moment stretched out, like a thread of silk spun from a slow-turning wheel, and though the crowd still bellowed, in his head all had gone silent and he saw only his group of friends, crumpling in on themselves like sand flowing into a sinkhole.
The lions must have roared before they pounced, though Julian heard nothing, and felt only the relentless scraping of his own hands across the stone wall. He scraped until his hands were torn and bloody, wanting to bleed with her, wanting to bleed with all of them, as he should have.
The sun had risen to pour its rays into the center of the arena, and the yellow sand beneath them turned to molten gold in the light, an oval of liquid gold with Vita and the others drowning in the center of it. He saw her face for a moment, lifted to heaven.
His mind disconnected and drifted strangely, then, to the words at the end of the Apostle John’s Revelation, and his vision of the New Jerusalem with its streets of pure gold.
Would Vita fall asleep in this golden sand and wake to streets of gold?
The beasts did their job well and quickly, and when it was over and the mutilated bodies of his friends lay scattered across the sand, Julian woke from his stupor and felt the guilt of every lost life bear down on him as though the stones around him had collapsed on his head. He tasted bile rising in his throat, and turned away from the wall to retch onto the paving stones.
His parents held his arms as he emptied the contents of his stomach. He heard the jeers directed toward him. When he stood, the tear-streaked faces of both his parents matched his own.
But he found no solace in their shared grief. They did not have to bear the guilt of it as he did. As he always would. He pulled from their embrace and escaped the amphitheatre, running back the way he had come, running like a haunted man.
Days later, when his guilt and grief had hardened into bitter anger, he tried once again to change the minds and policies of the Roman government. But in the end he brought only more disgrace, and more danger, upon his family.
In the cool of the evening three days after Vita’s death, he stood at the terrace wall of his father’s lavish villa in the Roman countryside, looking down into the flowered gardens his mother had commissioned, and listening to the fountain that trickled night and day into the central pool. He inhaled deeply of the night air, dragging in the scent of roses.
His guilt over Vita’s death had not abated, and he had added to it with his actions in the days since. His brazen words in the Senate House, and later the Forum, had identified him as one who should have also met his death in the arena that day.
Perhaps that was his wish. To be arrested himself, to be thrown before the gaping yaw of a dozen lions, to be given what he deserved.
But his family. He had not wanted the same for his family. His only brother, long since stationed in some military outpost, had never embraced the family’s beliefs, but even he could be reached by the long arm of the empire, and brought back to face condemnation with the rest.
Behind him, slaves stirred to prepare the evening meal and lit torches on the veranda. His parents would appear soon and they would all pretend that their privileged life continued.
But Julian had made a decision. His life in Rome was over. To protect his family, he must disappear.
He thought of his brother’s stories of the provinces that lay at the edges of the Empire. Of Britannia, of Judea. But even there the Roman army could search out a man. No, he must go further east than even Judea.
There was a place, a hidden city he had heard tales of since he was a boy. Stories that had sparked his imagination and given him the desire to travel across the desert sand to discover the city tucked between the rock cliffs of Arabia.
Petra. Capital of the Nabatean kingdom, wealthy center of the east-west trade route, and beyond even the Roman Empire’s reach.
Julian rubbed his hands together, palms still raw from being torn open the day Vita died. Yes, it was a good plan.
He would flee to Petra.
Cassia stood at the window of her Damascus home, the bronze mirror that gave evidence of Aretas’s violent affection for her still clutched in her hand.
How long until the brute returns?
The afternoon sun slanted into their tiny stone home, but it told her nothing. Aretas did not keep the regular hours of a merchant, nor the respectable schedule of a farmer.
She touched the purple flesh around her left eye, then pressed angry fingers against the bruise until she could no longer bear the pain. But she welcomed the pain today, let it feed her fury, let it harden her hatred. The vows she had whispered into the night, as Aretas slept off his wine, had been only words.
It was time for action.
The languid summer air inside the house, weighted with the heady scent from the platter of dates she had set out, dizzied her, and Cassia went to the front door, in need of a fresh breeze.
From her open doorway she glanced left and right down their narrow alley, watching for Aretas’s swagger. Instead she spotted another figure approaching, dear to her heart.
The small boy walked with head down, and his feet dragged.
“Alexander?” His head lifted, and she expected his sunny smile but it was absent.
Even from this distance, the uncanny ability she’d always had to see into others’ hearts exposed his hurt. Her feet carried her to him of their own accord. She saw before many steps that tears tracked across his grimy, little-boy face.
She did not speak, and the boy was silent as well, but buried his sweet face against her abdomen and sniffed.
“Come home, Alexander,” she reached out a hand. “We will talk there.” He let her take his hand and lead him home.
Inside, they curled up together on a collection of red floor cushions placed against the wall. Cassia had surrounded this niche with clay pots of her favorite plants, and the effect created by the privacy lent itself to the whispering of secrets and hidden hurts. At six years old, Alexander was nearly too big to crawl onto her lap, but thankfully, he did not realize it. With the boy’s head against her chest, she stroked his hair, damp with the heat of the afternoon.
“I thought you were going to play with Kelaya until nightfall.”
“He did not want to play.”
“No? Did his mother have too many chores for him?”
“He wanted to go to the river with the older boys. They said I could not come.”
“Ah, but you will be older soon, too.” She felt Alexander shake his head against her, and she smiled. “Before you know it – “
“They said they would not allow the son of a bandit.”
Cassia’s sharp intake of breath did not go unnoticed by the precious child. He looked up into her eyes.
“Is my father a bandit?”
She held a hand against his smooth cheek. “We will have more fun here, anyway.” She hid her rage. “I need your special touch to prepare for the harvest feast.”
He leaned his head against her once more, and nodded, just a small dip of his head that bespoke hurt and shame, and she felt the rejection of his playmates like an injury to herself, a sharp stab of pain in her soul that was as real as any blow she’d ever received at the hand of Aretas. She added this new wound to the last.
Refusing to let Alexander dwell on his disappointment, Cassia spun out one of her silly stories for him, until his tears had turned to giggles, aided by her tickling fingers.
“Come.” She lifted the boy from her lap. “You can lay out the palm fronds.” She pointed to a large orange pot standing beside the door, stuffed with green fronds she had gathered this morning from the outskirts of town, where date palms ringed the oasis that fed all of the Syrian city of Damascus. She decorated for the meal because it pleased her. Aretas would take no notice.
“Like this.” She took a handful of fronds and scattered them like a green carpet.
“Kelaya’s mother says you have more green things inside the house than outside. She says it is unnatchel.”
Cassia laughed. “Unnatural?” She ran a palm branch through her fingers. “How can anything living be unnatural? Besides,” she handed him more palms, “it is a tradition to lay a palm carpet for the date harvest celebration.”
Tradition. She had tried to build a life out of tradition and ritual, hoping it would be a secure foundation for Alex in spite of the tentative life that Aretas had provided. How had she let them come so far?
When the palms were laid, she sent Alex to the back of the room to sit on a three-legged stool and practice his lyre. “For your papa. It will please him to hear you strum for our celebration.”
Alexander shrugged. “Yesterday he told me to be quiet.”
She bit back an angry slur on Aretas’s manhood and shifted the platter of blood-red dates on the table. “He was tired, shekel. Tonight he will love to hear you play.”
“Why do you call me shekel still, Mama?” Alexander plucked a few strings on the lyre. “I must be at least a mina by now.”
Cassia laughed again. Perhaps he was aware, after all, of how big he had grown. “I don’t care if you are as big as fifty minas.” She pointed a finger. “You will always be my bright, shiny shekel.”
Alexander began his practice, and Cassia took a date from the platter, cut it in half with a sharp knife, and absently examined its wrinkly skin. She bit into it, her eyes on the door once more, wondering how long they had, and what mood would be upon Aretas when he returned. It would depend on the success of his day – how many he had swindled and for how much. The sweetness puckered her cheeks. She went to Alex and held out the rest of the date to him. He grinned and opened his mouth.
“How are those two teeth?” she asked as she popped the fruit between his lips.
“Still wiggly.” He demonstrated by wobbling his two front teeth back and forth with a small forefinger.
She laughed. “Chew your date.”
He crooked his finger at her, indicating that she should bend down to him. She brought her face close to his and he whispered into her ear.
“I like you best.” He kissed her cheek.
She exhaled and pulled him against her shoulder, unwilling to let him see the emotion pooled in her eyes. “And you are my very favorite boy in all the world.” She turned away before he could ask why he had made her sad.
A knock sounded at the door, then a cheerful voice. “Cassia?” The door opened and her neighbor, Magdala, entered with Alexander’s playmate Kelaya in tow. “You weren’t at the market this morning –” Magdala’s voice choked off when she saw Cassia’s face. She crossed the room and put her arms around Cassia, then removed her arms and put both hands on Cassia’s shoulders, turning her toward herself. Magdala studied Cassia’s eyes until Cassia had to look away. “How bad?”
Cassia drew a breath, shrugged one shoulder, and grinned at Magdala. “I will not soon win any footraces.”
Magdala clucked her tongue and pulled Cassia toward herself in another careful embrace, which smelled of jasmine and honey. “When are you going to leave?” she whispered.
“I have nothing, Magdala. No money. No family. I must first have a good plan.”
Magdala’s bright-red dress and the matching linen wrapped around her head and shoulders offset Cassia’s aged white tunic, and clearly conveyed that Magdala would never understand Cassia’s lack of finances.
Magdala’s hand on her back was gentle and warm. “You are strong, Cassia. Perhaps the strongest woman I have ever known, for most in your place would have given up on life by now. You can raise that boy, you can make a life for yourself, without Aretas. And you will!”
Cassia said nothing, only nodded at her friend.
“What about Aretas’s family?” Magdala’s lip curled. “That man comes from money, it’s written all over him. Why don’t you at least find them and let them help take care of you and Alexander?”
“Aretas never speaks of his family. And he gets angry whenever I ask.” She pushed Magdala toward the door. “You must go. He will be home soon, and you know how he feels about my friendship with you.”
“That man would be threatened by a stray pup if it befriended you. He hoards you like he hoards his dishonest wages.”
“Ah, perhaps he will toss me into a sack of coins one day, and I’ll find the money I need to flee this place.” Cassia smiled and gave Magdala another painful embrace before closing the door behind her.
She went to the cushions once more and propped herself there to listen to Alex play. There was nothing left to prepare. There was only the waiting, no different from any night. The uncertain waiting, the wondering if tonight his touch would be angry or sweet, if he would find her entertaining or simply bothersome. She sent up a simple prayer to the gods that she would not kill him while he slept, though she always doubted they listened to anyone but the temple priests.
The sun carved a yellow line across the floor, cutting an advancing path through the room, until at last there came a scratching in the dust outside the front door. Cassia stood and Alex’s music ceased as though his hand had been slapped from the instrument.
The door flew open and Aretas stumbled across the threshold, outlined by the setting sun.
Cassia went to him, anger flooding her. He was clearly drunk.
Aretas grinned and kicked the door shut. He held a worn leather pouch in one hand, tied shut with a dirty woven cord. Even slightly bent, he towered over Cassia, and he wrapped a muscular arm around her shoulder. The pouch he carried bumped against her upper arm, heavy and rough.
“Alexander the Great!” he yelled, using the title given to the boy’s conquering namesake four centuries earlier. “How high can you count?” He was still yelling, and Cassia led him, stumbling, across the room to the cushions where he collapsed. “Let’s see if all that learning your mama’s been giving you is working.” He tossed the pouch at the boy’s feet, and it landed with a harsh jingle of coins. “Count that!”
His words huffed out as though he were in pain, and he used the back of his hand to swipe at his windblown hair. He had the smell of drink on him, along with the ordinary smell of sweat, which he seemed to acquire in spite of his aversion to hard work.
And then she saw it. The reddening gash across the front of his tunic.
“You are bleeding!” She reached for the torn edges of the tunic, but he slapped her hand.
“Count the money!”
Bleed to death, then, stubborn fool.
She moved across the room to Alex and together they dumped the coins on the floor.
“So many!” Alex’s eyes widened. “What did you sell to get these, Papa?”
Aretas laughed, a scornful laugh that dug into Cassia’s heart the way her gardening trowel attacked the hard desert soil.
“Just count, Alex.” Without looking over her shoulder at Aretas she said, “How bad is it?”
There was no answer, and she glanced back. Aretas’s eyes were closed and the stain on his tunic had spread. She left Alex to the counting and went to him, compassion taking over. There had been a time when she found Aretas, and the danger he brought with him, irresistible. Long ago. Before Alexander.
His eyes fluttered open. “How much?” His voice did not seem so strong as it had when he staggered in.
“We are not finished yet.”
He grinned, closing his eyes. “That is good.”
She reached for the injury again, and he did not push her away. “One day all of this will catch up with you, Aretas.” She pulled at the torn tunic and he grunted.
The cut was not deep, only wide. As though someone had slashed at him as he ran, catching more tunic than skin. Who was the attacker? An honest tradesman, yielding to a moment of temper? Or one of the unsavory merchants who passed through town and were usually on the cheating end of deals, who did not easily play the victim?
She wiped the blood from the cut.
“Aaahhh!” Aretas arched his back. “Easy, woman! I am not one of your goats!”
“Sorry.” Cassia bit her lip to hide a smile.
Across the room, Alex dropped the last coin onto the pile. “Thirty-two denarii Papa!”
Aretas propped himself on two elbows and scowled at the boy. “Are you certain? There must be more.”
Alex lowered his eyes. “I will count again.”
Cassia shifted to stand, but Aretas caught her wrist. “Why so serious, Cassia? Aren’t you proud of me?” He squeezed her arm until it tingled. “Do I not provide well for you both? Better than you deserve?”
She forced a cold smile. Better to bide her time in peace. It would be over soon. “I worry about you, that is all.”
He released her. “I can handle myself. You would do better to worry about your own skin. A trading caravan is on the horizon. Tomorrow we work together.”
Cassia’s stomach hardened. “No, Aretas. It is not safe for Alexander.”
Aretas glanced at the boy, still counting and oblivious to their conversation. “Of course it is safe. Do you think I would ever endanger my boy?”
She stood and moved to the table, and the palm fronds crunched under her feet. “As you said, Aretas, you provide well for us yourself. You do not need us.”
The sun dipped below the horizon at last, and the house descended into gloom. Cassia brought a plate of dates and a small loaf of bread to Aretas.
“No, I do not need you.” He took the food from her hand. “But it does not serve to play the same game every day. You and Alex vary the game.”
Cassia lowered her voice to a hiss. “I am sick of helping you cheat people. And it is dangerous for Alex. Play your own foolish games.”
Aretas’s eyes bore into hers and he tossed the plate to the blanketed floor, spilling the fruit.
She had provoked him purposely, even though she had keenly sensed the direction of his mood. She had known he would hit her. One more time, to strengthen my heart. Then never again.
“It is still thirty-two denarii, Papa.” Alex held up the pouch and shook it to jingle the coins.
Aretas did not take his eyes from Cassia. “That is good, Alexander the Great. You are a very smart boy. But it is time for sleep now.”
“But the festival – “
“To your bed, Alexander!” Aretas’s voice was iron, ready to strike.
The boy’s face fell and Cassia’s hands formed fists at her sides. She despised Aretas when he hurt Alexander’s feelings. The boy came to her and hugged her waist. She bent her head to him. “Where are my ten kisses?”
“A hundred kisses!” He pecked her cheek in their nightly ritual.
“A thousand kisses,” she whispered as always, then nudged him to the back room. She gathered the dates from the floor, replaced them on the plate, and considered her choices as Aretas came at her.
She could leave until morning. But it would be worse when she returned.
She could leave now, forever. But he would never let her take Alexander.
She could not leave alone.
No, she must wait. Wait for her chance. She thought of Aretas’s insistence that she and Alex help swindle the traders passing through Damascus. He would give her money as part of the game they played. She toyed with a possibility, turning it over in her mind like a new gold coin.
The gash in his side must not have pained Aretas too much, at least not enough to soften the blow to her ribs. Cassia did not cry out, for her mind still focused on tomorrow, and the opportunity it might afford. Besides, the beating would not last long. It never did when he had been drinking.
She dodged his fists, and focused on her pot of caraway. A little brown on the tips of the leaves. More water, perhaps. Caraway was a sensitive plant.
Aretas soon tired and left her alone. He was asleep within minutes, one arm thrown over his forehead, mouth dropped open and snoring. But Cassia did not sleep, not for many hours. Tomorrow was too important.
When she did at last drift off, it was with the comforting thought that although her ribs burned like fire, her heart had at last turned to ice.
The early morning light, watery and cool, filtered into the front room and woke Cassia from her uneasy sleep. She lifted herself from the cushions, wincing at the stab in her side. But she would not give in to self-pity today.
Across the room, Aretas sat cross-legged on the floor, readying what he called their “merchandise.”
Nothing more than powder and lies.
“Paid too much for this alabaster,” he muttered, pouring powdered resin through a small funnel into the mouth of a tiny pearl-white jar.
“It is beautiful.” Cassia crossed the room and knelt beside him to stroke the smooth surface of the jar. Aretas knew all about luxuries such as alabaster. He had never brought her anything so fine.
Aretas set the jar on the floor and picked up a small clay jar. He pulled the stopper from it, and in an uncommon gesture of goodwill, held it to Cassia to let her smell.
She breathed deeply of the cloying scent of myrrh.
“The trick is to mix it just right.” Aretas sniffed it himself.
Cassia said nothing. Aretas always enjoyed explaining his schemes to her.
“A few pinches in the jar.” He let the amber-yellow powder drift into the jar’s mouth, “then a generous coating of the rim and the stopper.” He finished his preparation of the jar, then held it out to her to smell again.
She took a sniff and nodded. “Smells the same. As strong as the pure myrrh.”
Aretas grinned. “Though worth a fraction of the price.”
Cassia tried to match his smile, but her stomach knotted and she felt her expression darken. Aretas did not miss the change, but he mistook her resolve for fear.
“You will play your part well.” He left no room for argument. “It grows late. You two get dressed.” He reached for another small jar to repeat his villainous process.
Cassia crossed the room to a wooden box he had placed on the table. Inside lay the dress, the sumptuous silk robe she was only allowed to wear on these occasions. She lifted the pale yellow silk from its soft folds and let it fall before her.
“Alex,” she called to the back room. “Get dressed in your linen tunic.”
She stripped her dirty tunic and let the yellow silk wrap her in softness. In the bottom of the box lay two delicate sandals, and she slipped these on as well, then turned for Aretas’s approval.
He looked up, nodded once, and then returned to his work. “Better powder that eye.”
She found some of the white lead powder and brushed it across the bruised flesh.
Alexander emerged as Aretas packed his jars between layers of linen in a large pouch and lifted the strap over his head and shoulder. “You look pretty, Mama.”
Cassia straightened his belt. “And you look like a young prince.”
Aretas held out a short dagger. “Here, hide this under your robe.”
Cassia lifted her hands, palms out. “No weapons. You know how I feel.”
He swore and tossed the weapon on the table. “We will walk together until we reach the edge of the traders’ market.” And then the small pouch that he had brought back last night, with more added besides, was in her hands at last. She hid a smile. Today was the day.
She forced them to walk slowly out of town, to keep the dust down and the yellow silk clean. Aretas grew impatient, and Alexander kept darting off to investigate stray goats, wild foxes, shy badgers. Cassia kept him moving, but the boy could not pass an animal without stopping to talk to it. Friends hailed him as they passed, and Cassia smiled to hear other boys call his name. Somehow he had won hearts here in spite of everyone knowing what kind of man his father was.
“Do we really need Alexander?” Cassia asked Aretas. “I can do this without him. Let him stay with his friends.”
Aretas stalked on ahead. “The boy makes you respectable.” He left her behind, to ponder the deeper truth of his words.
She slowed even more, knowing she had sufficient time to linger. Aretas had work to do.
“Come, Alexander,” she held out a hand to the boy and he bounded to her, placing his small hand in hers.
“Did you see that fox, Mama? It had big eyes.”
“Perhaps it was a magical fox, eh?” She tugged at his hand.
Caravan traders arrived in Damascus several times each week, from faraway places like Egypt and India, Persia and China. They came with loaded camels, snorting and jingling with treasures, and gathered at the edge of town, where they camped and waited for other traders to arrive and make deals. When they left in a few days, it would be with new purchases. And hopefully, with one small woman and even smaller boy.
Ahead, a series of small tents, nothing more than blankets propped on sticks pushed into the dirt, dotted the horizon. These men had been at the edge of Damascus for a few days, but the new caravan approaching in clouds of dust brought new treasures and fresh opportunities. She could see that Aretas had timed his arrival perfectly, so that he could mingle with the resident traders and those arriving, with neither group realizing he did not belong. He had even let his face go unshaven for several days, to better fit in with the travelers.
It was her task to stay close enough to arrive at the right time herself, without being seen too soon.
She kept her eyes trained on Aretas’s tall figure and muscular arms, watching him move through the crowd as though at home. And then she could see that he had begun to engage some of them. No business yet, she knew. Just conversation. She heard his booming laugh and saw him slap a trader on the back.
The new caravan, with its red-tasseled camels and loaded packs, blended with the first group, and Cassia lost sight of Aretas.
“Do you see your father?” she asked Alex. His hand had grown sweaty in hers.
The boy shielded his eyes with the other hand. “There he is!” He pointed.
Aretas had pulled away from the crowd a bit, and had taken two traders with him.
Alex wriggled his hand from hers. “You are hurting me, Mama.”
She clutched him to her side. “I am sorry, shekel.” She tipped his face up to look at her. “Do you remember what you must do?”
He nodded, his tongue playing with his loose teeth. “Stay quiet. Always quiet.”
She smiled. “Good boy.”
She looked back to Aretas. Was it time? Her mouth went dry. She must finish the game he played, then she would be free to move among the traders and complete the true task that drew her today.
“Come, Alex.” She led him forward, forcing a casual smile to her lips. Within a few minutes they had reached the traders. She tried to make it look as though they wandered, but kept her steps headed for Aretas. A trickle of sweat ran down the center of her back and she regretted that the yellow silk would absorb it. She read the language of the lead traveler’s body. Interested. Not yet sold.
She watched from the corner of her eye as Aretas wielded his winning smile and spoke with the traders as though he were the prince of the land, all grace and charm.
The first trader, clearly the spokesman, had a weasely look about him, beady-eyed with a pointy nose. She hoped Alexander would not point out this fact. The second stood behind him, like a wall of intimidation, wide-chested and a vacant look in his eyes.
They began to move away. A flick of Aretas’s eyes signaled her.
She strode up to him, smiling.
“Ah, here you are.” She spoke loudly enough to be heard by the retreating traders. “I have been searching for you.”
As they always did, the traders stopped and turned at the sound of a woman’s voice, an uncommon occurrence in caravan camps.
Aretas held out both arms and grinned. “My best customer, and most beautiful.” His voice dripped with flattery. To the two men he nodded and winked. “Here’s a lady who knows quality and where to find it.”
“Indeed.” Cassia smoothed the yellow silk over herself and smiled at the traders. “Those cheats in the town market would try to sell me their wives’ washwater if I let them, eh?” She waited for a returning smile. “I know where to come.”
The larger of the two men sidled back toward them. “Smelled rather weak to me,” he grunted. But she could sense his interest. The other one leaned into the conversation, clearly trying to gain Cassia’s attention. “We can do better in Petra.”
Beside her, she felt Aretas’ body straighten at the mention of Petra. The feeling lasted only a moment, then Aretas held out one of his alabaster jars to Cassia. She removed the red clay stopper and waved the jar under her nose. “Oh, you must not be familiar with the subtler scent of Anatolian myrrh. It does not overpower, yet is finer than any Egypt can produce.”
She smiled and nodded to Aretas. “I will take it.”
He named an outrageous price, and she argued him down a bit, but then glanced at the traders and shrugged prettily. “One must pay for quality.”
She pulled a few coins from her pouch, flashing the sum conspicuously. Aretas took her money, then bowed over her hand and kissed it. The gallant gesture brought her a jolt of the attraction that had first brought them together and she couldn’t help but smile. She did not miss the elbow jab and wink the big trader gave his friend. “Too bad she’s got her boy with her, eh?” he said to Aretas.
“I must move on.” Cassia gathered her dress around her. “I have more to purchase. But I will see you again, I am sure.”
Aretas bowed again, and she drifted away, with Alexander following. He had played his silent part well.
Behind her, she heard the trader say, “You won’t take me for the lady’s price, so let’s make it fair.”
She realized she’d been holding her breath, and forced her heart to slow. They had succeeded.
Now to find an honest-looking trader who would take a few coins in exchange for a promise of safe passage to anywhere for her and Alex.
She could not go far. The jingle of coins changing hands meant that Aretas would be leaving soon, before the traders could inspect their purchases too closely. She would need to be close behind or he would suspect.
Another of the newly arrived traders tried to interest her in a sack of fabrics tied to his camel. She released Alexander’s hand to run her fingers through it. When she looked up to use her special sight to read his heart and his character, Alex had disappeared.
She turned a frantic circle, not wanting to cry out and draw attention. Ah, but there he was, heading back to Aretas.
She moved toward the small group. The traders were packing away their myrrh and Aretas was pocketing his “earnings.”
Alex skipped to Aretas’s side. As far as she was from them, Cassia still heard his voice ring out, and the words drained the courage from her.
“Papa! I forgot to show you my loose teeth!”
The big man, who had been slinging his pouch over his camel’s back, stopped in mid-air and eyed Alex.
Cassia hesitated, unsure if it would be better to retrieve her son, or let Aretas handle the situation.
“Papa?” the burly man repeated. “The boy is yours?”
Aretas opened his mouth, exhaled, then closed it again and glanced at Cassia.
She tried to mask her horror, but it was too late. Understanding flickered in the eyes of the trader as he looked from her to Aretas. Her temples throbbed at the murder she read in his eyes.
She watched, rooted to the ground, as Aretas secured his money pouch to his belt, grabbed Alexander’s hand and spoke only one word to the boy.