Read Wrath of the Furies Online
Authors: Steven Saylor
Bethesda gazed at the darkness below the window. Could her eyes discern what mine could not, a face amid the shadow? She gripped my arm, so hard that I winced at the bite of her fingernails.
“Are we among those rejoicing?” Bethesda whispered. “Or are we among the dead?”
“Neither, I should hope,” I mumbled, feeling a bit unnerved, and not liking the feeling. I shouldn't have drunk the beer, I thought. The fortune-teller had seen me do it, and had taken it for a sign of weakness. Now she would make her prophecy as alarming as possible, hoping to scare me into giving her more money in the hope that I might avoid some vague catastrophe.
“Where are these streets you speak of?” I asked. “Where are these temples filled with bodies? Are you describing Ephesusâor some other place?” I thought of my father in Rome, and the awful stories I had heard about the fighting and slaughter there. I thought of the death and destruction I had seen with my own eyes in Alexandria during the recent upheaval. Was no place safe?
Again, she seemed to read my thoughts. “Danger is everywhere, yesâbut the danger ahead of you is more terrible than you can imagine, you fool of a Roman! The mightiest mortal on earth is about to inflict death and destruction on a scale the world has never seen before. The wrath of those whose very name the ancient poets feared to speakâyes, the wrath of the Furies!âwill be unleashed, before which all men flee in terror. Even you, fool of a Roman!”
My head felt light. A chill ran up my spine. Freeing my arm from Bethesda's grip, I reached for her untouched cup, thinking another drink might settle my nerves. After I drank it down, the chill subsided, but the growing light from the window hurt my eyes. The light was no longer faint blue, but pale yellow. The sun must have just peeked above the eastern horizon.
“What should I do, fortune-teller? Should I go to Ephesus, or not? Will Antipater die if I don't go? Will heâwill heâ” The words caught in my throat. Try as I might, I could not speak them aloud.
Will he die anyway, whether I go to him or not?
I took a deep breath, and tried to speak again, but the words would not come out.
With a start, I realized that I had been rendered speechless. It was my plan, hatched in a reckless moment, to masquerade as muteâand suddenly I had become so. I felt as if the words themselves were stuffed down my throat. I could not spit them out. I experienced a thrill of panic. The pulse of my heartbeat was loud in my ears. Had the fortune-teller bewitched me? Had I been put under some spell by the contents of the two cups?
I clutched my throat, and squeezed it, striving somehow to loosen the words lodged inside. At last a strangled noise came forth, and all the words piled up behind it came rushing out. “Will Antipater die anyway? Will he die whether I go to him or not?”
Ameretat laughed. “Of course he'll die! All men die. Did you not know that, Roman?”
“You mock me, fortune-teller! You serve me a strange brew, you take my money, you tell me nothing I don't already know, and now you mock me!”
She sighed. “You have a tongue to speak, it seems, but you have no ears to hear. This is a waste of my time and yours.”
From the patch of darkness came a slithering sound, and my squinting eyes perceived a vague movement. I decided the fortune-teller had remained unseen for long enough. I rose to my feet and stepped toward her, intending to pull her into the light. I shielded my eyes from the glow of the window, thinking to see her more clearly, but when I reached for what I took to be the cowl of her cloak my hands encountered only a pile of empty cloth with no person inside.
“It's only a pile of rags!” I said, tossing aside the various pieces until nothing remained and the corner was empty.
“How in Hadesâ¦?” I whispered, looking about the room. With my back to the window I could now see Bethesda quite clearly, and the rug on which she sat, and the empty cups on the rugâbut nothing else. Except for the two of us, the room was empty. The only way into or out of the room was through the door by which we had entered, or else through the window, and the fortune-teller had exited by neither route, for we would have seen her do so. Unless the room had a trapdoorÂ â¦
Before I could set about examining the wall and floor beneath the window, a voice called out from the doorway.
“Time to go!”
It was the little boy who had shown us inâor so I thought. But when I looked at the person in the doorway I saw not a boy but a very small woman, her wizened features starkly lit by the morning light from the window.
“Time to go!” she said again.
I frowned. “Who are you? You can't be the person who greeted us at the doorâ¦”
Bethesda, rising from the rug, turned to look at the woman. “Of course it's the same person, Master. She opened the door for us and showed us in, and brought the two cups.”
“You recognize her?”
“Of course, Master. Do you not?”
“The voice is the same, yes. But I thoughtâ¦”
“Perhaps you were mistaken. Would it be the first time, Roman?” The dwarfish woman's wrinkled features were drawn into a smile. I drew a sharp breath. Now she sounded like the fortune-teller!
“Time for you to go!” she said again, clapping her hands for emphasis. She ushered us down the narrow hallway, which was now light enough so that I could avoid banging my elbows. She opened the door and shooed us into the street.
I put my hand on the door before she could close it.
“Who are you?” I said. “What happened here?”
The little woman looked up at me. She sighed. “Alas, Roman, sometimes things are not what they seem.”
“So I've discovered. But I would see things as they are.”
“Would you, Roman? Is that truly your desire?”
“Always?” She laughed. “To always and everywhere see things as they truly areâthat is not a blessing, Roman, but a curse, and only a handful of mortals must bear it. They are called fortune-tellers.”
“Or finders,” I said, thinking of my father, who strove always to see things as they were. It was from him that I had inherited the same curse, if a curse it was.â¦
The little woman took advantage of the lapse in my concentration to push the door shut. I heard a bolt fall, and knew she had locked the door.
So ended my visit to Ameretat the fortune-teller.
“Look, Master! Is that a dolphin, swimming alongside the ship? I've seen pictures of them in mosaics, and statues in fountains, but never a
dolphin. Look, there's another! And listenâdo you hear? They seem to be chattering to each other. Or laughing! Do dolphins speak? Do they laugh? I wonder, are those two a couple? Do dolphins pair, as mortals do?”
Bethesda looked at me with raised eyebrows, feigning innocenceâfor she knew how much her pestering questions had come to irritate me, since I could answer only with a nod, or a shrug, or a grunt. I tried to make a sour face, but probably failed, for I found myself thinking how beautiful she looked with her long black hair fluttering in the salty breeze.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Four days before that sighting of the dolphins, we had boarded the
as planned, despite Bethesda's protests.
To her, the fortune-teller's words had been a clear warning that we should not take the trip. I was more skeptical. What, after all, had Ameretat said that I did not know already, or could not have imagined on my own? She had said something about “the mightiest mortal on earth” causing destruction unlike anything the world had ever seen, unleashing the Furies themselves. Given his recent victories, the mightiest mortal might be King Mithridates, but it seemed to me more likely that the mightiest of mortals surely must be some Roman general or other, though perhaps that was only my bias as a Roman. As for unprecedented destruction, the world had seen a great deal of bloodshed and horror since Prometheus first created mankind, and it seemed to me unlikely that there could be anything new looming in that regard. As for the Furies being unleashed on earthÂ â¦ well, just as Bethesda had never before seen a real dolphin, I had lived twenty-two years on earth and traveled many hundreds of miles without encountering a Fury, except in statues and paintings and mosaics, and it seemed unlikely that I would meet one of those fierce, snake-haired, winged crones in Ephesus.
The one thing Ameretat had said that gnawed at my equanimity was that Antipater did
want me to come to his aidâindeed, that he wanted me to stay away from Ephesus. This contradicted the words of Antipater that I had read with my own eyes, so it seemed to me this utterance proved either that the fortune-teller was a fraud, or that she did in fact know something I did notâa disturbing notion. But I inclined toward the first conclusion, reasoning that Bethesda, intentionally or not, had revealed to the fortune-teller's agent her own desire that we should not go, inspiring Ameretat to weave this invented detail into her narrative.
So, despite the fortune-teller's words and Bethesda's objections, we set sail from Alexandria aboard the
bound for Ephesus by way of Rhodes with a cargo of papyrus, grain, perfumes, and spices in the hold, and a handful of passengers on deck, almost all of them men. Fortunately, there had been no one on the waterfront that day, or among those who boarded the ship, who recognized me as Gordianus of Rome, so I successfully managed to depart from Egypt under the guise of Agathon of Alexandria, recently stricken mute, bound for Ephesus and attended by a single slave.
Bethesda had boarded the ship with trepidation. Her misgivings mounted when we set sail. She had been on board a ship only once in her life, and briefly, as a captive of the Nile bandits, but in that instance had been kept locked away; also, the bandits' ship had hugged the coastline, never venturing out of sight of land. Standing on board the
watching the skyline of Alexandria and the towering Pharos Lighthouse slowly dwindle and finally vanish from sight, she grew so agitated, pacing and biting her knuckles, that I feared she might burst into tears and say something to give me away.
Then, before my eyes, a transformation took place. She looked at a seagull overheadâa rather intrepid creature, to be venturing so far from shore. She breathed in the fresh, salt-scented air. She gazed at the endless expanse of the sea, an undulating blanket of lapis-blue spangled with sparkling points of golden sunlight. Far to the east we could see the red-and-white-striped sail of another ship, and far to the west was another sail, this one bright yellow. Aboard the
there was nowhere to go and very little to do, but with the sun shining and a steady breeze in our sail, what place on earth could be more beautiful? The detached languor of travel by sea settled over Bethesda, calming and soothing her. When I caught her chin and turned her face toward me so I could look in her eyes, I saw not trepidation but the placid, catlike contentment I had grown used to seeing there, and had come to love.
“Perhaps,” she said, “this trip will not be so awful after all.”
It was hard for me at that moment to remain mute, and merely nod. It was harder still not to kiss her, in full view of the sailors and the other passengers. Instead, remembering my roles as both mute and master, I allowed myself only to look into her eyes for a long, lingering moment before returning my gaze to the sea.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
For the next four days the weather was mild and the sky mostly clear, with only occasional clouds affording welcome patches of shade. We quickly grew used to the tilting and rocking of the ship. At night we lay side by side on a blanket on the deck, letting the gentle motion rock us to sleep.
Passing as a mute presented challenges. My days on board the
would give me a chance to practice my role, so to speak, before I arrived in Ephesus. I soon discovered that having Bethesda serve as my mouthpiece afforded an advantage I had not anticipated: as long as she did the talking, no one seemed to take much notice of me. All eyes were drawn to the beautiful Bethesda, and mute Agathon faded into the background.
But having no way to speak my own mind, and having to rely on Bethesda to speak for me, did sometimes present problems.
Many of the passengers passed the time by playing games of various sorts, often with small wagers attached. One of the most popular of these games was Pharaoh's Beard, played with dice and a wooden board upon which pegs were moved forward or back. When I was invited to play, I declined with a shake of my head, and thought that would be the end of the matter. But when the others badgered me to join with some good-natured jibes, and still I declined, Bethesda spoke up.
“My master does not play Pharaoh's Beard,” she said, stepping forward to take a closer look at the playing board. “Nor does he ever gamble.”
“Why not?” asked a big, brusque Jew. The man had been conspicuous among the other passengers from the first day because of his striking features; he had shoulders like a bricklayer, shoulder-length hair, and a long, plaited beard. I didn't know his real name. Bethesda had teasingly nicknamed him Samson, after some legendary strongman in the stories her mother told her, and nobody on the
called him anything else.
“Because,” Bethesda began, circling around to get a better look at the board, “it was not long ago, while playing Pharaoh's Beard, that he gambled away everything he possessed, and thenâ”
“I think, young woman,” said Samson, “there must be some reason your master is scurrying this way, frantically shaking his head!” He grinned as I took hold of Bethesda's arm and drew her aside. “Poor Agathon. Lost his voice, and apparently lost his fortune as well, by playing Pharaoh's Beard. I wonder which he lost first.”
“And which he'll get back first!” joked another of the passengers.