Read the first 3 Chapters


So Shines the NightPrologue

I am an old man, and I have seen too much.

Too much of this world to endure any more. Too much of the next to want to linger.

And though I have nearly drowned in the glorious visions of those last days, yet I know not when it shall come, nor how many years I must tread this barren earth before all is made new.

There is a Story, you see. And we are still in the midst of it, ever striving to play our roles, battling on for the freedom of hearts and souls and minds yet enslaved by darkness.

But I have seen a great light. Oh yes, I have seen it. Even now it is breaking through, as it did on that grassy hillside so many cool spring mornings ago, when Moses and Elijah walked among us and my Brother shone with the glory He had been given from the beginning and will rise up to claim again at the end.

You will wonder, perhaps, at my calling Him brother. And yet that is what He was to me. Brother and friend, before Savior, before Lord. In those days when we wandered the land, going up and down from the Holy City, we shared our hearts, our lives, our laughter. Oh, how we laughed, He and I! He had the irrepressible joy of one who sees beyond the brokenness, to the restoration of all.

I loved him. And He loved me.

But I speak of beginnings and of endings, and these are words that have no meaning, for the day of His birth was both the beginning of the Kingdom and the end of tyranny, and that magnificent Day yet to come—it is the end-which-is-a-beginning, and my eyes have seen such glory in that New Jerusalem, my very heart breaks to tell of it.

And yet they come, young and old, to this tiny home in Ephesus that is to be my last dwelling outside that New City, and they beg me to tell the Story again and again.

And I do.

I tell of seals and scrolls, of a dragon and a beast and a Lamb. Of music that makes you weep to hear it and streets that blind the mortal eye. Of a Rider on a White Horse with eyes of blazing fire, whose name is Faithful and True. It is a great Story, and greater still to hear the final consummation of it, for how often we forget that we are living it still.

But I have another tale to tell. A smaller story within the One True Story that began before the creation of this world and is echoed at its end, as all our stories are. It happens here, in this port city of Ephesus but many years ago, when the darkness lay even heavier than it now does upon the people, and their souls cried out for relief from anyone who could give it.

This smaller story does not begin here in Ephesus, however. It begins a day’s sail away, on the sun-kissed shores of the Isle of Rhodes, where the light first began to break upon one woman and one man, even as they walked in darkness . . .

 

Chapter 1

Rhodes, AD 57

 

In the glare of the island morning sun, the sea blazed diamond-bright and hard as crystal, erratic flashes spattering light across Daria’s swift departure from the house of her angry employer.

She carried all she owned in one oversized leather pouch, slung over her shoulder. The pouch was not heavy. A few worn tunics and robes, her precious copy of Thucydides. She clutched it to her side and put her other hand to the gold comb pinning the dark waves of her hair, her one remaining luxury.

The bitter and familiar taste of regret chased her from the whitewashed hillside estate, down into the squalid harbor district. Why had she not kept silent?

Along the docks hungry gulls shrieked over fishy finds and work-worn sailors traded shrill insults. The restless slap of the sea against the hulls of boats kept time with the anxious rhythm of her steps against the cracked gray stones of the quay.

She had run once, haunted and guilty to a fresh start in Rhodes. Could she do it again? Find a way to take care of herself, to survive?

“Mistress Daria!”

The voice at her back was young and demanding, the tenor of a girl accustomed to a world arranged to her liking. And yet still precious, still malleable.

“Mistress! Where are you going?”

Daria slowed, eyes closed against the pain, and inhaled. She turned on the sun-warmed dock with a heaviness that pulled at her limbs like a retreating tide.

Corinna’s breath came quick with exertion and the white linen of her morning robe clung to her body. The sweet girl must have run all the way.

“To the School of Adelphos, Corinna. I will seek a position there.”

Corinna closed the distance between them and caught Daria’s hand in her own. Her wide eyes and full lips bespoke innocence. “But you cannot! Surely, Father did not mean what he said—”

Daria squeezed the girl’s eager fingers. “It is time. Besides”—she tipped Corinna’s chin back—“you have learned your lessons so well, perhaps you no longer need the services of a tutor.”

Corinna pulled away, dark eyes flashing and voice raised. “You do not believe that, mistress. It is you who says there is always more to learn.”

They drew the attention of several young dockworkers hauling cargo from ship to shore. Daria stared them down until they turned away, then circled the girl’s shoulders, pulled her close, and put her lips to Corinna’s ear. “Yes, you must never stop learning, dear girl. But it must be someone else who teaches you—”

“But why? What did you say to anger Father so greatly?”

Only what she thought was right. What must be said. A few strong phrases meant to rescue Corinna from a future under the thumb of a husband who would surely abuse her.

Daria smiled, fighting the sadness welling in her chest, and continued her trudge along the dock toward the school. “I am afraid discretion is one of the things I have not yet learned, Corinna. Your father is a proud man. He will not brook a mere servant giving him direction in the running of his household.”

Corinna stopped abruptly at the water’s edge, her pretty face turned to a scowl. “You are no mere servant! You are the most learned tutor I have ever had!”

Daria laughed and looked over the sea as she walked, at the skiffs and sails tied to iron cleats along the stone, easy transportation to the massive barges that floated in the blue harbor, awaiting trade. Papyrus and wool from Egypt, green jade and aromatic spices from far eastern shores, nuts and fruits and oils from Arabia. Her eyes strayed beyond the ships, followed northward along the rocky Anatolian coast to cities unknown, riddles to be unraveled, secrets and knowledge to be unlocked. More to learn, always. And somewhere perhaps, the key to redeeming the past.

They approached and skirted the strange symbol of the isle of Rhodes, the toppled Helios that once stood so proud and aloof along the harbor and now lay humbled, its bronze shell speckled to an aged green, reflecting the impenetrable turquoise sky. The massive statue had lain at the quay for gulls to peck and children to climb for nearly three hundred years since the quake brought it down. Daria found it disturbing.

“May I still visit you at the school, Mistress Daria?”

She smiled. “One challenge at a time. First I must convince Adelphos that he should hire me.”

Corinna’s tiny sandals scurried to keep pace. “Why would he not?”

“It is not easy to be an educated woman in a man’s world of philosophy and rhetoric. There are few men who appreciate such a woman.”

“How could anyone not appreciate someone as good, as brave, as you?”

The child gave her too much credit. She was neither good, nor brave. She would not be here in Rhodes if she were. Though she was trying. The gods knew, she had been trying.

Corinna lifted her chin with a frown in the direction of the school. “I shall simply explain to Adelphos how very valuable you are.”

And how outspoken? Interfering? But perhaps the girl could help in some way.

“Will you demonstrate some of what I have taught you, Corinna?”

The girl’s eyes lit up. “Just wait, mistress. I shall amaze and delight that crusty old Adelphos.”

Daria studied the impetuous girl and bit her lip. But it was a chance she must take.

The School of Adelphos lay at the end of the docks, its modest door deceptive. Daria paused outside, her hand skimming the rough wood, and inhaled determination in the sharp tang of salt and fish on the breeze. Who would believe that such distinguished men as the poet Apollonius and Attalus the astronomer had studied and written and debated behind this door? Sea trade had kept Rhodes prosperous for centuries, but in the two hundred years under Roman control, the Greek island had grown only more beautiful, a stronghold of learning, of arts and sciences and philosophy.

Inside its most famous school, she blinked twice and waited for her sun-blind eyes to adjust.

“Daria!” Adelphos emerged from the shadows of the antechamber with a cool smile and tilt of his head. Tall and broad-shouldered, he was several years her senior, with the confident ease of an athlete, a man aware of his own attractiveness.

She returned the smile and straightened her back. “Adelphos. Looking well, I am pleased to see.”

He ran a gaze down the length of her, taking in her thin white tunic and the pale blue mantle that was the best of her lot. “As are you.”

“I have come to make you an offer.”

At this, his eyebrows and the corner of his mouth lifted in amusement and he gave a glance to Corinna, still at the door. “Shouldn’t we send your young charge home first?”

She ignored the innuendo. “My employ as Corinna’s tutor will soon come to an end, and I desire to find a place here, in your school. As a teacher.” She swallowed against the nervous clutch of her throat.

Again the lifted eyebrows, but Adelphos said nothing, only strolled into the lofty main hall of the school, a cavernous marble room already scattered with scholars and philosophers, hushed with the echoes of great minds.

She gritted her teeth against the condescension and beckoned Corinna to follow, with a warning glance to keep the girl quiet, but the child’s sudden intake of breath at the fluted columns and curvilinear architraves snapped unwanted attention in their direction, the frowns of men annoyed by disruptive women.

Adelphos disappeared into the alcove that housed the school’s precious stock of scrolls—scrolls Daria had often perused at her leisure and his generosity.

Daria spoke to his back. “Do you doubt my abilities—”

“What I doubt, my lady, is a rich man’s willingness to pay a woman to teach his sons.”

Daria waved a hand. “Bah! What difference does it make? I can do a man’s work just as well. And if they learn, they learn!” But a cold fear knotted in her belly.

Adelphos traced his fingertips over the countless nooks of scrolls, as if he could find the one he sought simply by touching its ragged edge. “And you, Daria? Do you want to live a man’s life as well as do a man’s work? What woman does not long for love and family and hearth?”

Her throat tightened at his words, too close to the secrets of her heart. Yes, she longed for those comforts. For a love that would accept her abilities, complement rather than suppress. But for now, for now she had no one and she must assure her own welfare.

She coughed to clear the dryness of her throat and stepped beside him, examined the great works of philosophy and literature, their tan Egyptian papyri wrapped in brown twine, sealed in waxy red.

Adelphos reached past her to a nook above her head, and his muscled arm brushed her shoulder.

The touch was intentional, clearly. Manipulative. Even so, his nearness left her breathless and her usual sharp-tongued wit failed. When she spoke, it was a harsh whisper, too raw with emotion, though the words emerged falsely casual. “And why should I not have both?”

At this, Adelphos huffed, a derisive little laugh, and turned to lean his back against the shelves and unroll the scroll he had retrieved.

“A woman of ambition. Does such a breed truly exist?” His gaze darted to hers. “But what am I saying? You have already wedded a husband, have you not?”

Daria pulled a scroll from its recess and pretended to study it.

“You are interested in the work of Pythagoras? That one is newly arrived from Samos.”

Daria shrugged. “I find his work repetitive. What new has he added to Euclid’s previous efforts?”

“Indeed.” Adelphos pulled the scroll from her hands and replaced it in its nook. “But you have not answered my question.”

“I am a widow, yes.”

“A widow with no sons. No dowry.” He glanced at Corinna, clutching the doorway. “And no employment. Is there anything more desperate?”

Daria lifted her chin and met his gaze. “It seems you are in an enviable position, then, Adelphos. You have found a skilled teacher, available for a bargain.”

Adelphos circled to Corinna, an appreciative gaze lingering on her youth and beauty. “And this is your prize specimen? The pupil of whom I have heard such wonders?”

The girl straightened and faced Adelphos with a confidence borne of knowledge. “Shall I demonstrate the superior skill Mistress Daria has given me with languages?”

Daria silently cheered and blessed the girl. “Corinna has been working hard to master the tongues of Rome’s far-flung empire.”

Adelphos’s brow creased and he opened his lips as if to speak, then sealed them and nodded once. No doubt he wanted to ask what use there might be for a girl who could speak anything but common Greek. As Daria herself was such a girl, the implicit question struck a nerve. She turned a shoulder to Adelphos and nodded encouragement to Corinna. “Let us hear Herodotus in the Classical first, then.”

The girl grinned, then gushed a passage of Herodotus in the proud language of her Greek forebears, the language of literature and poetry, before Alexander had rampaged the world and equalized them all with his common koine.

“And now in Latin, Corinna.”

The girl repeated the passage, this time in the tongue of the Romans, the new conquerors.

Adelphos tilted his head to study the girl, then spoke to her in Latin. “Anyone can memorize a famous passage in a foreign tongue. Few can converse in it.”

Corinna’s eyelashes fluttered and she glanced at her hands, twisted at her waist. When she answered, it was not in Latin, but in Persian. “Fewer still can converse in multiple languages at once, my lord.”

Adelphos chuckled, then glanced at Daria. “She does you proud, lady.”

A glow of pride, almost motherly, warmed Daria’s chest. “Indeed.”

Corinna reached out and gripped Adelphos’s arm, bare beneath his gleaming white tunic. “Oh, it is all Mistress Daria’s fine teaching, I assure you, my lord. I wish to be an independent woman such as she someday. There is nothing she cannot do.”

“Corinna.” Daria smiled at the girl but gave a tiny shake of her head.

Corinna withdrew her hand and lowered her eyes once more. “I have told my father this, but he does not understand—”

“Her father has been most pleased with her progress.” Daria tried to draw Adelphos’s attention. “He saw a superior mind there from an early age and was eager to see it developed.”

He waved a hand in the air. “I have seen enough. You may go.”

 

Chapter 2

Corinna reached toward Daria, but Adelphos stepped between, his expression on Daria unreadable. “Not you, my lady. You shall stay.”

A flutter of excitement chased down Daria’s spine.

Corinna embraced her and clung tight, too tight. “Good-bye then, Mistress Daria.” The words where muffled against Daria’s neck, tear-filled and final, with all the drama to which young girls are prone.

Daria patted the girl’s back and whispered, “You go on then, Corinna. We shall see each other everywhere. In the theater, in the market. You have my promise.”

Corinna flitted from the hall, and her departure felt like an ending when something new had not yet begun. A place-between-places that was most uncomfortable.

Daria turned to Adelphos, who leaned his shoulder against the shelf of scrolls beside her, his body close enough that she could smell the cook spices of his morning meal.

“If we strike this bargain, you and I, we must understand each other.” His voice was hard and clear, his eyes calculating. “You will give yourself to art and science and letters, and in this you will become a curiosity, and therefore an asset to this school. But you will not give yourself to a man. You shall not marry.”

It was a quick twist in her chest—like the wringing of a tiny bird’s neck—not particularly violent or painful. But irrevocable.

“You shall have me undivided, Adelphos. I will make you wealthier, I promise.”

He shrugged and lifted his body away from the shelf. “Not that I expect your celibacy to be a problem. I have never met a man who would want a wife as clever as you.”

She dropped her gaze to the marble floor and held her tongue. For once.

He jabbed a thumb toward the back of the hall. “You may take the small room here as your own, if you wish.” He led her to the tiny space that held only a sleeping mat and indicated a small, unlit lamp in a wall niche.

If she had sought for a place to belong, she had been disappointed. Adelphos’s grudging tolerance had all the icy detachment of a slave purchase. But it was enough that she would survive. It was enough.

At the entry, he turned, one hand on the door frame. “The school is rented in the off-hours to a private group. Take care not to disturb them.”

“What kind of group?”

“I believe you cannot help but question everything, can you, woman? I am still unconvinced that you are not more trouble than you are worth.”

With that he left, and it was his mysterious patrons who disturbed her, late that evening when she raised her head from where she sat against the wall of the alcove, poring over her precious scroll of Thucydides. She had lit a lamp against the fading day, but the hall beyond lay in half-darkness, filled with whispers.

She let the scroll furl upon itself, then slipped the loop of twine over and held it lightly in her hand. She crept to the door, peered around the frame to survey those who paid Adelphos for a private meeting place.

A tight circle of men in the center of the vast hall allowed only glimpses of a light burning between pressed bodies. The secretive slant of their shoulders and the raspy murmurs slid a chill across her skin.

They all whispered at once, the same words, over and over in a language even she did not recognize. Some sort of chant, a religious ritual. Priests?

She craned her neck to see into their midst. What did priests do when they gathered in private? Why did they not serve the gods in the temple, where rituals belonged? Would not strange deviations from the rules invite the gods’ wrath?

But they wore ordinary tunics and outer robes, the dress of prosperous businessmen, not the elaborate robes of priests. Even so, their hands reached into the circle and they swayed along with their chants, lost in religious ecstasy.

A mewling cry, like that of a young lamb, squeaked from within their circle and froze Daria’s blood. A sacrifice? Here in the School of Adelphos, in the center of the marble floor? Were there not temples and altars for such rites?

It came again, that pitiful cry, and for an instant their bodies parted and Daria glimpsed the whiteness, not of a lamb, but of a tunic covering pale skin.

She straightened, stepped into the doorway, reached a hand toward the group.

She must get closer.

Her sense of danger roared a warning, but she slipped along the edge of the hall, kept to the shadows, circled to a gap where a small table had been set with dark-colored amphorae, strange amulets, and yellowed scrolls.

Through the breach she saw their captive and at the sight sucked in a ragged gasp, too loud, too sudden.

The girl was no older than Corinna. Young, and pretty once, but now with stringy hair that hung about her eyes and scratches gouged into the pale flesh of her arms and face. Where was her family? Her mother? Two men held her arms, heedless of her injuries, and a third forced her lips open to receive the contents of a tiny amphora.

But at Daria’s gasp the group stilled as one, then turned a cold gaze along the marble floor to where she stood. She fought to breathe against the constriction in her chest, a tightness borne half of ordinary fear and half of something far darker.

She found her voice and raised it above them. “What are you doing? Free this girl at once!”

One of the men, tall and gangly with mottled skin like a snake and bulbous, watery eyes, sneered at her. “Has Adelphos taken a wife at last? Or simply a pretty washing woman?”

She tucked her valued scroll into the roomy sleeve of her robe and crossed her arms. “I am a teacher here in the School of Adelphos, and whatever ill you plan to inflict upon this child will not be tolerated.”

The girl’s wide eyes were focused on her, as though she clung with her soul to a rope that had been tossed when Daria appeared.

The snake-skinned man pointed a bony finger. “A teacher, you say? Then leave us to our learning.”

“You are sorcerers, then?” The word felt thick and lifeless on her lips, a leaden reminder of the past, of the evil she had seen once. Barely survived. “And this girl?”

Another spoke, unshaven, with missing teeth. “A fortune-teller, my lady. She is possessed of spirits who see beyond. She plies her trade at our behest.”

“And you pocket the earnings, I assume?”

He shrugged one heavy shoulder. “She has little use for money.”

Daria moved toward them, outrage hardening in her chest. She pointed to the table of scrolls and amulets, to the amphora still between the fingers of one. “And this? What do you force on her?”

“Only a little something to . . . aid . . . in her talents. A bit of pharmakeia, nothing more.”

Daria pushed through into the center of the circle, laid a hand on the girl’s sweaty brow. In spite of her captors, the girl managed to grip Daria’s wrist, her eyes still locked on Daria’s face.

“No.” Daria swept a hard glance around the circle. “This is unacceptable. I demand that you release this girl.”

At her back, the snake-man hissed, his breath hot and wet on her face. “Take care, my lady. You meddle with power of which you are ignorant. And you shall not long be a friend to Adelphos if you continue.”

“A widow with no sons. No dowry. And no employment.”

Adelphos’s ugly words snagged against her thoughts, caught in a dark web. She shook her head and pulled away. Resisted the snare, let the heat build in her chest and give her courage.

The girl, so like Corinna, still held Daria’s gaze, though her eyes held secrets, too—secrets of the underworld, perhaps, that whispered into her madness. Poor child.

“If the girl has such talents as you claim, she should have no need of your potions and charms.” Daria swept a hand across the air, taking in the littered table. “You are all charlatans who take money for fortunes when you have nothing more than a drugged and desperate child.” She circled an arm around the girl’s waist and tugged her toward the entryway of the hall, toward the door beyond, her eyes on the circled group. “I shall take this girl back to her parents, where she belongs.”

She backed against one of them, a solid wall of resistance. He grabbed her arms above the elbows. She lost her grip on the girl, dropped the Thucydides scroll, and tried to wrench her arms from his grasp.

His voice at her ear was like the distant rumble of a storm. “What shall we do with her, Cronos?”

The snake-man sidled across the floor to face her.

A shiver of fear chased along her veins and she averted her eyes.

She twisted again, loosed herself from her captor, but now Cronos was reaching for her, his bony fingers raking through her hair.

She spun away, several steps backward, until her heel caught the leg of their low table of horrors.

Cronos’s eyes flicked to the table, alarm lighting his features.

A surge of power filled Daria, and she hooked an intentional foot around the table leg. “Let the girl go.”

Instead, Cronos lunged.

In one smooth motion, Daria swept her foot and raised an arm to protect herself. The table cracked against the tiles, amulets scattered and amphorae smashed, leaking foul-smelling liquid across the scrolls like acid eating flesh.

Cronos screamed, his face a mask of fury at the destruction, and threw himself at Daria, grabbing at her arms, her shoulders, her hair.

She fought back her own scream, revulsion streaming in waves across her limbs, and clawed at him. Dragged desperate fingernails across his cheek and felt the pull of skin and trickle of blood beneath her nails.

He screamed again. Clutched a hand across his damaged cheek.

Daria pushed through the clustered group of sorcerers, fighting over each other to save what they could of their incantation scrolls and treacherous potions.

She snatched up her Thucydides and grabbed the girl’s hand. “Come!”

In the entry, the clamor had brought Adelphos. Daria breathed out her relief and pulled the girl toward him.

“Adelphos! These men are—”

“What have you done, woman?” He took in the ruined chaos, then turned his eyes on her. The rancor, the hatred, the absolute fury that shone from his face shut her mouth.

Behind her, Cronos shrieked, “Kill her, Adelphos! Kill her and be done with it!”

 

Chapter 3

The pale disc of the moon was climbing over the lip of the darkening Rhodian sea when Lucas Christopoulos, merchant of Ephesus, clapped the captain of the Kynthia on the shoulder and nodded toward a cluster of men bent over tangled rigging.

“I’ll be back before those sailors find two loose ends, Melanthos.”

Melanthos, a brawny, hairy brute as all ship captains seemed to be, eyed the wafer of moon, his brow creased. “We’ve naught but a couple of hours, my lord, before we must set sail, or wait—”

Lucas grinned. “I’ll be snoring below deck before you cast off. Count on it.” He crossed to the rail, gathered his himation high on his legs, swung one leg over, then the other. He paused, balanced precariously over the murky sea. “And there’ll be one more shipment—some copper—delivered before we sail. Tell the seller if he wants to get paid, he’ll need to wait for my return.”

Melanthos shrugged and turned his ponderous frame to his men, slicing the air with a sharp mix of curses and orders.

Lucas hopped to the skiff tied beside the ship and made quick work of a paddle toward the moonlit dock. Alone for the first time since arriving in Rhodes two days ago, he released a heavy sigh and let the exhausting pretense of carefree merchant slip away and the true reason for the port of call fall like a heavy cloak over his soul.

Ahead, the grotesque form of the fallen colossus threw sinister shadows into the night and drove a shudder down his spine. They should have let Egypt’s Ptolemy rebuild it as he offered. Its prone form whispered of strange shiftings of the earth and the ruin that eventually came to all men.

Lucas had spent the two days purchasing a boatload of sweet African dates and gleaming ingots of Cyprian copper. Only one more task here, and by tomorrow he would be back in his own Ephesus—a Greek-influenced harbor city like this one, but grand and elegant. No thanks to the current emperor Nero’s stranglehold on his empire—it was the generous building program of his predecessor Augustus over forty years ago that made Ephesus the cultural capital of the entire Asian province. That, and its magnificent temple.

Lucas recited the street name and the name of the man he was to meet for the hundredth time, the words like a thunderous chant in his head as he climbed away from the dock into the seedy harbor district. Above the rooftops an angry sunset gashed the horizon with fiery orange wounds and purple-blue bruises.

A world away from his estate. No sweet-scented gardens lined the streets he crossed to find the man Imbrus. Glowing torchlight beckoned from doorways with the seamy hospitality of taverns and brothels. It reached out to him—foul handclasps of temptation and deceitful promises of comfort. All the better. The walk through the darkness strengthened his resolve.

Unsafe and unknown, who would miss him if he never emerged from the underside of Rhodes? The truth of his isolation had driven him here, to this island, to these streets. It would drive him further still, if he were successful, perhaps to his own destruction. Or perhaps to justice, at last. It was too soon to say.

He found the Street of Themis with only a few well-placed questions. More back alley than street, the grimy walls pushed inward on a claustrophobic strip of fetid darkness, foul with the washed-up refuse of humans and beasts. The scritch of unseen rats clawing garbage along the base of blank walls turned his stomach. A cat hissed and ran, arch-backed, across his path. Lucas pushed through the maddening shadows, hand hovering at his dagger.

Half-obscured in a doorway, a figure leaned toward him, eyes whitened with moonlight.

“Imbrus?”

Imbrus emerged, shoulders hunched.

Lucas removed the distance between them and took in hooded eyes, twitchy mouth and fingers. “You have it?”

A papyrus emerged, creased and smudged and gripped in an oily hand. “He said no one but you.” The tone was nasal, an ingratiating whine.

“Yes, and now I am here.” Lucas thrust a hand into the darkness. “Give it.”

The crushed scroll disappeared again, hidden in folds of a tattered tunic of unknown color. “How do I know—?”

Lucas growled out the agreed-upon words, “In the name of Artemis, great goddess of the Ephesians, who fell from the sky!” The sworn allegiance to the goddess felt strange on his lips. Recent events had left him confused about the nature of the gods. He would not have known where, or how, or to whom to pray if prayer had seemed his only recourse. And with the words of the feigned oath, the alley seemed to press in upon him, the darkness thickening. He felt the rank odor of the streets, the sweaty stench of Imbrus, as it sank into his pores.

The crumple of tightly held papyrus was forced into his hand and Lucas unrolled it greedily, consumed its sparse contents in an instant.

He raised stricken eyes to Imbrus, but the man was a messenger, nothing more, and could not know what these few sentences, this short list of names, would mean. How they changed everything.

“Go your way, then.” Lucas tossed the words out like hard pebbles, seeing nothing but those names, feeling nothing but the fierce fury of this truth.

“Perhaps not so quickly.” The tone changed. There was the hint of impudence, the whisper of threat.

Lucas eyed his informant. “You have made your delivery. We are finished here.”

Imbrus’s heavy-lidded eyes traveled the length of Lucas. “I should think a man of your stature would pay for such information.”

“I have paid! And you have been well paid, too, I would guess. Now take your greed—”

Moonlight caught the glint of metal in Imbrus’s hand. The knife flashed outward, the tip a breath from Lucas’s midsection. “Not well-paid enough.”

Lucas laughed. “You would rob me, then? Take what little I carry on my person, in exchange for certain flogging—or worse—when Kyros hears of it?”

Imbrus leered, his canine teeth sharp and protruding, one of them turned oddly on its axis. “And how shall he hear of it from a dead Ephesian?”

No, no more killing.

Lucas’s mind roared resistance, even as his hand moved toward self-defense.

“Leave it, Imbrus. A little more coin is not worth your life.”

“And who is going to take it from me? A soft-handed nobleman who could not even protect his own wife?”

All the anger, all the rage borne in the smoky fires of Ephesus, boiled in Lucas’s chest in that moment, and the dagger he’d held, tucked away in the left sleeve of his crimson robe, was the only precious thing he understood. Its obsidian handle slid into his palm like water.

He raised it, let it catch the light, his eyes a warning on Imbrus.

But the man was a fool. He rushed at Lucas, knife upraised, with no thought to strategy, nicked Lucas’s upper arm with a glancing scratch, then spun again for another try.

No more killing! The words seared like a hot iron against his heart, even as the thrust of his blade, belly-high and driven deep, was the elemental crash of the tide against a rocky coast.

Imbrus’s white, white eyes bulged, fully visible at last, and the sneering laugh fixed itself in a death-grimace. He went down in silence, into the sticky filth of the street.

Lucas yanked the knife from the man’s gut as he fell, but the hole seemed to be left in Lucas’s own body. He wiped the blade on his robe. Strange, the colors should match, and yet the swash of dark blood stood out like a grisly, toothless smile.

There was no welcome rush, no relief that someone else had also suffered. The hard knot of grief and pain he bore in his chest tightened. Regret, always regret. And guilt.

Imbrus had given him little choice, and the violence should have released emotions too long trapped. But there was no satisfaction in it. Like screaming into a thunderstorm and not hearing your own voice. Like a bloodletting on an altar already stained with gore.

There had been too much killing and there would be more before it was over, and Lucas was tired. Exhausted in a way more basic than physical fatigue, dragged downward, collapsed inward into the weight he carried in his chest, especially with another dead at his feet.

The alarm would soon be raised. Even in an out-of-the-way alley, a dead body would bring officials storming the night, searching for the killer.

He could stay, explain, hope for a witness to confirm his story.

Or he could get back to his boat before it sailed.

With a glance to darkened doorways and the brighter light at the alley’s end, Lucas sheathed his dagger, shoved the folded papyrus into his money belt, and ran for the docks.

© Copyright Tracy L. Higley