“‘And so I am to be placed atop a table and sold like Tegwen,’ I observed.
“‘With a mouth like that, perhaps you’ll be sold to a miner,’ my owner snapped, jerking his thumb in the direction of a score of mostly African slaves being trotted out of the forum in iron chains.
“I only smiled, and further observed, ‘A miner would have even less use for a man of letters than you.’
Varius clenched an angry pair of jaws beneath our lock of eyes, then merely turned in the direction of the forum and marched away without another word, leaving me to be escorted by his son and the two freedmen.
“It was in the great forum of Rome, a venue which dwarfed the marketplace where Tegwen the slave girl had been purchased for a provincial’s bed, that I myself was sold to the highest bidder.
“I admit, my friend, this facet of this human’s nature: if I am to be sold, I prefer to be sold well.
“As I was. I was not sold from a revolving stand, as more than one beauty from beyond the Rhenus and Danuvius rivers was, nor was I sold from one of the many shops fronting the basilicas bordering the forum. Sold in the open air, atop a stout platform, and in an expensive tunic I was, as an Irish slave conversant in tolerable Latin and lettered in impeccable Latin.
“It was during the pre-sale stage, as I stood still atop the low platform while Varius made loud recitations of my many strengths, that a short and stout man stepped forward out of the growing crowd and glared with hard eyes at the placard hung across my chest. ‘Write something in Latin for me,’ he ordered.
“I looked down at Varius, who fell silent and looked at the short, stout man in the off-white toga. Then he looked up at me, reached up to flip the placard over to show a blank side, and looked back at the man who had given me the order. ‘If you have a stylus and ink, he can write anything you wish.’
“The short, stout man scowled, but looked about himself and spied a merchant hawking those very items at a table not far away. He scuttled through the crowd, slapped a handful of coins down upon that table, and started to scuttle back almost before the merchant realized he had made a sale. ‘Write!’ he ordered.
“I looked down at Varius from atop my timber pedestal; Varius looked up at me and nodded. I stepped down off that platform, upon which the stylus and inkpot had already been set, and removed my placard to place it beside those instruments of writing. ‘What do you wish me to write?’ I asked as I took the stylus up to dip it in the pot.
“‘Anything,’ the short, stout man replied.
“And so I proceeded to write. Scratch quickly upon the wood of the placard I did, making quick dips in the ink beneath the watchful eyes of several men who had gathered around me. I kept the length of my composition to one sentence, confined as I was by the desire to write large letters on the small piece of wood, and by the impatience of the hovering Varius.
“Once I had placed the stylus in the pot for the final time and removed my fingers from its stem, the short, stout prospective buyer snatched up the placard and held it close to his eyes, even though the letters were quite large. ‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,’ he recited. He looked up at me. ‘What sort of rubbish is this?’
“‘It was written quite some time ago by a man named ‘Abraham,’ I replied as I returned the gaze.
“‘”All men are created equal?”’ a man in the crowd repeated. ‘Ha! We have a Spartacus of the stylus for sale here!’
“The rest of the crowd laughed, and many started to walk off, but many stayed (including my mocker, my friend). The short, stout one had been looking at me intently ever since my reply to him, and now he asked, ‘Do you know Aramaic?’
“‘I do not know that language,’ I replied, ‘but I know what language it is.’
“‘Enough!’ Varius snapped. ‘Back on the platform!’
“I obeyed my master, and stepped back onto the platform as he took the stylus and inkpot away to place them on the flagstones of the forum. Mister Aramaic, for his part, held onto the placard, holding my writing close to his chest.
“The bidding for my mind began at one thousand denarii and quickly rose from there. Mister Aramaic, sly one that he was, waited until my price had reached five thousand denarii, waited until there was hesitation in the field of numerous bidders, then bid five thousand five hundred. There was a counter-bid of six thousand denarii, a counter-counter-bid of six thousand five hundred by Mister Aramaic, and I was sold to the same for that price.
“Varius ordered me off the platform, counted the coins which Mister Aramaic produced immediately, then disappeared into the crowd once the payment had been fully counted and accepted. This was how I found myself with a new master (or rather, the senior servant to my new master, as you’ll soon see).
“Aviv introduced himself to me as he led me out of the crowded forum, chatting with me as if I were an equal. It was as we passed the Arch of Augustus on our way out of the Forum Romanum, and approached a second carriage, that I asked where we were headed to.
“‘To Judea, my friend,’ Aviv replied.”
“And so we sailed for Judea the next day, boarding another ship at Ostia before the sun had begun to set once more. Through the Fretum Silicum myself, Aviv, and twenty other passengers and crew journeyed beneath yet another lone sail. Fortunately, our passage through the Fretum was in the middle of the afternoon (after an overnight anchorage in the port of Misenum), for the cataracts which had inspired the myth of Scylla and Charybdis were in full force. The elongated shorebound mirages which would one day be called Fata Morgana by the locals also made their presence known, and I know I was not the only one aboard ship to be grateful when we began to lose sight of the retreating coastlines as night fell.
“After our passage through the Fretum, it was on to Heracleum on the island of Candia, on to Alexandria on the Egyptian coast, and, finally, on to Yafo on the Judean coast, from whence Aviv and I rode a pair of horses the day’s journey to Jerusalem.”
“Why didn’t you escape?”
Cartaphilus looked at Carter blankly, so long had it been since the latter had spoken. “Pardon?”
“Escape!” Carter hissed. “Didn’t you at least try to escape?”
Cartaphilus smiled. “No, for two reasons. The first was that every step my horse took through the Judean hill country was one step closer to the Arabian desert and possible freedom, at least from bondage of the Roman variety.”
“And the second?” Carter asked, already sensing the answer.
“And the second reason was that I was intrigued by the prospect of meeting, let alone serving, my master in Jerusalem. Aviv had indirectly identified him during small talk with a citizen on the passage between Heracleum and Alexandria.”
“And who was he?”
“Why, none other than Pontius Pilatus, Prefect of Judea,” Cartaphilus declared with a smile.
“We arrived in Jerusalem as the autumn sun was touching the hills we had just passed through, and we two lone travelers were ushered up the ramp and through the gate of a large fortress set in the city’s wall.
“It was Roman soldiers who had instantly recognized Aviv upon his arrival before the fortress’s frontmost towers, and it was a Roman centurion who insisted on providing us with an escort through the streets of Jerusalem to the Palace of Herod, which was Pilatus’s official residence when visiting the city from his capital of Caesarea.
“‘It’s the Festival of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement,’ Aviv explained to me as we walked on foot, with a complement of eight guards behind, through the city along the nearly-empty Via Dolorosa. I looked up at the western wall of the temple, a wall which sported sharp teeth along its upper edges, and I continued along.
“We arrived at the Palace of Herod as the shadows were creeping up its walls, and were beckoned inside the strangely quiet compound. Aviv explained that all of the Jews were at temple until sundown, which made the timing of our arrival to see Pilatus fortuitous. I asked Aviv why he was not at temple if he was a Jew, and he replied simply, ‘I am in the service of the Emperor.’
“We found the emperor’s man in Judea at the heart of the dead king’s palace, washing his feet in one of the central courtyard’s two pools. He was speaking rapidly, towards the sun which had already set beneath the outer wall of the palace and the city, and a man in a tunic standing at the north end of the pool struggled to keep up with the Prefect’s dictation. ‘Struggled’ I say, judging from the pace of his scratching with a stylus on the wood and from the expression on the poor man’s face.
“‘Ah, Aviv, you are back from Rome,’ was the way Pilatus greeted us, and then he scowled northward. ‘No need to write that down.’ The scratching ceased. ‘How are you?’ he asked with genuine affection for the stout man.
“‘Successful, my Lord,’ Aviv replied. He gestured behind himself at me, with both hands, and declared, ‘I found this speaker and writer of Latin in the Forum at Rome, my Lord.’
“‘Speaker and writer, you say,’ Pilatus repeated as he swirled one foot in the Judean king’s pool. ‘Vitus, give this man your wood and stylus,’ he told the scribe.
“With unuttered-and-yet-undisguised relief, Vitus circled around half the perimeter of the pool and placed a short stack of wood panels in the crook of my left arm, a small inkpot in one hand, and a moist stylus in my other hand. Then, in the absence of contrary orders, he retreated to his previous position at the northern end of the pool, opposite myself and Aviv, who stood at my side with his fingers intertwined before him.
“‘What is your name?’ Pilatus asked me. After I replied that my name was ‘Cartaphilus,’ he ordered me to put ink to wood, to begin writing his dispatch to ‘Titus Sidonius, commander of the century stationed at Scythopolis.’
“Having carefully placed the inkpot and all but one of the panels on the masonry at my feet, I knelt to dip the stylus in the ink, then rose to scratch out the words ‘To Centurion Sidonius of Scythopolis’ before looking at my master to indicate my readiness for more.
“‘Greetings,’ Pilatus began. ‘Rumors have reached me here in Jerusalem of a man named “Yeshua of Galilee,” who has been preaching to the masses in the vicinity of Lake Tiberias.’ (I surmised that the sudden wobble in my handwriting as that hand created a name from eternity would be perceived as resulting from unfamiliarity with that Aramaic name.) Pilatus continued with, ‘I do not know what rumors have spread through the Decapolis, but both in Caesarea and here in Jerusalem, stories are spreading about this man who claims to raise the dead and so forth.
“‘What makes this man Yeshua so dangerous, my fellow citizen, is that the people appear to believe in him, perhaps because they want to believe in him. As I’m sure you are well aware, my fellow citizen, such beliefs are dangerous, especially among the Jews, who are difficult enough in such matters as it is.’ (Aviv continued to stand immobile by my side, mute in the face of such talk.) ‘Feel free to forward this message to the Proconsul,’ Pilatus continued, ‘but I urge you to take action now against this man who threatens to incite religious fanaticism among the locals. Take care that you are well, Pontius Pilatus, Prefect of Judea.’
“Once he had uttered the last line, Pilatus looked up at me from the rippling waters of the Jewish pool. ‘Let me see what you’ve written,’ he ordered.
“I complied with my master’s order by handing the panel to him with a shaking hand, after walking a quarter circumference of the pool. Pilatus frowned at the tremor in the wood before I released it, and the frown remained on his face as he read what I had written, but there was something resembling a smile in his expression when he looked up once more. ‘You have nothing to fear, Cartaphilus – you’ll make a fine scribe,’ he told me, most evidently misunderstanding the cause of the tremor. Then he snapped, ‘Tribune!’
“A military tribune marched forward from the doubly dark shade of a date palm, and snapped to attention at Pilatus’s side. Pilatus ordered him to have the dispatch sent to Sidonius in Scythopolis ‘with all haste,’ and the tribune saluted quickly before trotting away to comply with his own order.
“Pilatus had looked away from the tribune before the man had turned away, and now the Prefect looked me up and down, quickly, one foot of his still swirling the waters of the pool. ‘Aviv,’ he said to the man, ‘get this man a good meal and a hot bath, and be sure he gets a good night’s sleep. I want my scribe well-rested in the morning; I have much to dictate.’
“‘Yes, my Lord,’ Aviv said simply.
“I was indeed given much dictation on that following morning, and on many mornings thereafter, for Pilatus was a man who was used to dictating in every sense of the verb.
“Just as I did not bore you with every detail of my journey to Jerusalem, my friend, I will not bore you with the daily correspondence of a provincial Roman governor. Order after order flowed through my hand, most of the most banal variety, and many requesting information about sundry local topics.
“But there was one bit of correspondence on a panel which was not so mundane, at least in the eyes of one who had seen two thousand subsequent years transpire. Two seasons after my arrival in Judea, Pilatus began a dictation in his provincial capital of Caesarea with the words, ‘To Lucius Maximus, commander of the century stationed at Capernaum. Greetings. I thank you for your last report, concerning this Yeshua of Galilee of whom I had requested tidings.’
“(I must say, my good friend, that I was dismayed at this utterance, for this was the first indication since my arrival at Pilatus’s side that I was neither the sole writer nor the sole reader of all of my master’s written communication with the rest of his world. How quickly does the servant find pride in the duties of his servitude!)
“But I digress. Pilatus continued with, ‘This Yeshua must not be allowed to enter Jerusalem, as you report he intends to do. This man is dangerous; the people’s faith in him is dangerous; he must not be allowed into the center of the people’s faith. Arrest him, and arrest him now! Take care that you are well, Pontius Pilatus, Prefect of Judea.’
“And so, my good friend, I was there to watch the supposed downfall of ‘Yeshua of Galilee’ from beginning to end. Of course Maximus failed to arrest the troublemaker, and I next read of ‘Yeshua’ in a dispatch from the centurion at Jericho, who reported that the Nazarene was now rumored to have healed the blind. The rest the centurion could and did leave unsaid: Yeshua and Passover both marched inexorably toward Jerusalem.
“As did my master. We (Pilatus, myself, and the rest of his retinue) ventured forth to Jerusalem three days before Passover was to begin. We arrived at Herod’s Palace on Thursday evening, and, sure enough, a man described by the locals as ‘Yeshua of Galilee’ was delivered to my master’s doorstep the next morning, as dawn began to color the sky above the Mount of Olives.
“I had the privilege of standing beside my master on the palace steps, stylus and panel in hand, as Yeshua was brought before him by the chief priests and the Sanhedrin. Almost perversely, my master looked bored as he asked of Yeshua, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’
“Yeshua answered simply, ‘It is as you say.’
“After the resulting bedlam from the chief priests began to die down, Pilatus raised his hands and now said to Yeshua, ‘You won’t answer? They accuse you of many things.’