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By the time the first early rising farmer saw us as he came out to meet the dawn, we'd retraced a large part of the previous day's travel. There was no place to hide. The reasons we'd found the caravan now made it impossible to ignore. We simply kept going, moving until exhaustion and hunger forced us to stop. I went with two other men into a village to buy supplies and to find what could pass for a morning meal. The caravan ate quickly and moved on.
No Roman patrols passed. No one pointed fingers and shouted accusations. We could do that on our own. We all had the same question: why had they come? The attack had left us all stunned because it had no reasonable explanation. That did nothing to ease the knot in my stomach. I'd been the one who'd gone to the Romans – but they hadn't cared about some Gypo's story of Parthian treachery. They'd been offended that Aquila had even sent me. And who knew what some of the others might have been doing? There was nothing official about the attack on us. It was private. It made no sense at all.
The unanswered questions – and all the permutations of answers however unlikely – filled the silence that hung over our various groups even in the light of day. I could feel the divisions as I watched the more cautious magi talk softly in groups of two or three. A lot of thinking had gone on during the night.
When Shabako and the magi gathered, I kept my appropriate place just outside their circle. The faces around me were tense and drawn. More than half the men had bunched together. For protection from scorn, I thought uncharitably, and waited for them to speak.
“We've talked,” the one called Santruk said. “That is to say that we've discussed the problem arising from last night.” I liked the way he couldn't just say the attack by a bunch of blood thirsty Romans. He was used to court speak. It was “the problem arising.” I had a vision of him addressing some petty tyrant, explaining why the revenues were down and why it wasn't his fault. “We, that is those of us who talked, feel it would be best to take into consideration what has happened and expeditiously terminate this foray into a clearly hostile area. For our own sake.”
“And surely,” the one called Bardan said, “the kings we serve would not want needless antagonism of the Roman forces, whoever might be directing them at this time.”
Gaspar looked at him from the other side of the circle. He kept his face neutral, but his words were etched with disdain. “Just say you're running for your lives and get it over with, Bardan. You'll find honesty an interesting choice.”
“I won't be insulted, Gaspar,” Bardan huffed at him. “I am a representative of – ”
“It isn't necessary to explain what minor functionary sent you.” Gaspar cut him off hard, and Bardan searched for words to answer the insult to the satrapy he served. He couldn't find any, and Gaspar went on in a very still voice that carried quite well in what had become an absolute silence. Even the horses had stopped moving to listen. “If Santruk, you and the others are leaving, now would be the time to do it.”
“And you're not?” Santruk barked at him in astonishment. “What do you think you can do now? What do you think you can find?”
“What we were sent to find,” Gaspar said. “A person, information, an explanation.”
“This is foolish! This could jeopardize all of us!” the one called Vashunam shouted across the circle.
“From whom? I won't be run off by bandits!”
“Shen Te,” Vashunam said to the Han who stood to one side, “surely your emperor would want – ”
“Who can know what my emperor might want,” Shen Te said calmly. He had his hands tucked into the sleeves of his robe, and I thought how easy it would be to hurl some knife at one of the men opposite him, although his words were enough. “My duty is to continue as my emperor instructed.”
“There, you see,” Gaspar said to Vashunam. “It's all about how we interpret our duty. So,” he said to the larger group, “if you're going to leave, you should do it very, very quickly. For all our sakes.”
The men who wanted to run for the frontier and Parthia stared at the rest of us in disbelief. They wanted unanimity, consensus, an explanation in common to deliver when they got home. They didn't want opposition that was headstrong or courageous or crazy. “Shabako, tell them!” Bardan yelled. “You've had to deal with the Romans! They can be vicious!”
Beside me Shabako indicated Gaspar and Melchior with a shrug. “But, Bardan, these two are the ones who invited me along. Surely the King of Kush would not want his emissary to show bad manners. Not to mention a certain lack of backbone.”
“How dare you!” Santruk shouted, “Maybe in that African hellhole you call a civilization, you can – ” He'd actually stepped forward as if he were going to challenge Shabako before he realized that it wasn't the best plan. Insulting Kush would get him killed by the large black man who was its representative. Santruk shuffled back in a strategic retreat, insisting, “This was a carefully considered choice!” Shouting was all he knew to do. He could stand behind his personal guards and then insult Shabako, but then he'd have no guards at all.
“Go,” Gaspar said, interrupting the posturing opposite him, making his words an order, “go, all of you. And takes the bodies! See that Baltasar is given the proper rites!”
“Of course!” Bardan snapped. “Do you think we would do less?”
Gaspar's silence and scorn wasn't the answer he wanted. He stormed away after the others. They weren't wasting any more time on men who were clearly suicidal fools. A half dozen Persians scurried away, shouting at their various retinues to move out. The air filled with dust as pack animals and servants stirred, camels got to their feet and servants shouted orders at each other. The men who led them were no longer concerned with being unseen.
Bardan crawled onto an Arabian gelding and gathered the horse's reins before shouting back at those of us who stood together. “You will regret this decision. You will all die here. I understand that more clearly than any prophecy.” He spurred his horse and rode after what looked like most of the caravan.
They were running, disappearing around a bend in the road and into a cloud that, when it cleared, held no further sign of them. They'd taken the last camel and most of the donkeys.
I looked around at the men who were left, each with guards and servants, but part of a band of travelers on horseback now, nothing so grand as a caravan of magi from the east. There was Gaspar, Melchior, the unhealthy Frahatak who had a better reason to leave than most, Shabako, and to my surprise Arsaka and Godarz.
And then there was one small, redheaded Galacian boy. He looked at me and said something in butchered Greek, but it sounded encouraging. Now I had my own entourage.
Shabako clapped me on the shoulder. “You chose to stay, Khefren, good for you.”
“I live in Egypt,” I said. “They're running in the wrong direction.” Which was the gods' honest truth, but Shabako and the others all laughed like I'd told them one of Uncle Mery's better jokes.
“Oh, feel brave like the rest of us, Khefren,” Melchior said dryly. “It'll be a comfort when they're all home in their beds and we're still out here with our asses in the wind.”
“No, they're a good diversion,” Frahatak insisted. “They leave, it'll be reported at the frontier, and the Romans will think we've left, too. It'll be easier for us to be inconspicuous.”
“More inconspicuous than what?” Melchior asked. “A shipwreck?”
“If we wish to not be seen,” Shen Te said, “perhaps we should not stand in the road like the entertainment.”
He said it so politely that it took a moment to realize he was being as sarcastic as Melchior. Shabako laughed first; it took Arsaka and Godarz the longest to crack a smile. After that we all just stood there laughing, but at what we clearly weren't sure. Our own madness, I think. Brennus, who had understood none of the conversation, looked on like it was the happiest day of his life. Just when the laughter would start to fade, somebody would say “shipwreck” or “ just stand in the road,” and we would all start laughing again.
“So?” Arsaka said when we'd stopped laughing. “I can't believe I chose to stay with you idiots.”
“You still want to go see Herod?”Gaspar asked him.
“Absolutely,” Arsaka said and looked at Godarz who nodded agreement, “I've done nothing wrong.” He'd laughed, but he still had cruel eyes. “Not today.”
“Today we wish to magically disappear,” Shen Te observed.
“My mother could make people disappear,” Melchior said. We all looked at him. “Well, she said she could. People would disappear around her and people would say she'd done it. Usually my father's political enemies.” He looked at me. “He was rather important – my father.”
“Mother love,” Shabako said, “very powerful.”
“Is there a suggestion in all that?” Gaspar asked, looking at Melchior. “How to hide since your mother clearly isn't here to help?”
“Find a cave,” Frahatak said.
“The desert's good,” Godarz said. “I hid in the desert once when I was in disfavor.”
“Have you seen a cave around here some farmer didn't have his stock in? Or a desert?” Gaspar demanded.
“How would we know?” Melchior said. “The only people I know around here are all of you.” He pointed at a village ahead. “We could eat. I think better with a full stomach.”
“Good thing the Romans didn't arrive with a roast chicken to distract you,” Shabako said, “or we'd all be dead.”
Shabako and I looked at each other. We weren't that far. “Khefren and I know someone,” Shabako said. “We met him on the boat.”
“Here?” Arsaka looked at us incredulously.
“In Nazareth,” I said.
It took two days of back ways and a forced march slowed by our few reluctant donkeys before we reached a rocky gorge that led up from the plain of Esdraleon into the hills and to Nazareth. A man could have walked it in half a day easily, but it was dusk before the caravan managed to wind into the low mountains that surrounded the town like the uneven petals of a flower. Watching it from a rocky slope while the sun set, it seemed like a pleasant town. I could see Mount Carmel again in the distance, and a blank sky beyond it that was the sea, evidence of the broad circle Shabako, Nastasen and I had made since leaving Akko.
We waited outside town until dark. A shepherd boy took a few shekels to abandon his night watch long enough to guide us along the outskirts of the now quiet village until he could point toward a substantial house. It backed to an olive grove and, unlike the poorer houses, had a second story. As Shabako and I moved closer, I could see light from oil lamps through the house. A wooden door faced the street.
“You'll terrify the servants less,” Shabako said. “You look less foreign.”
“Right. I just look like a homeless beggar.” I knocked. There was a long silence, and I was about to knock again when someone unbarred the door.
A girl barely out of childhood opened the door a crack, peered through the opening, opened the door a little wider as she drew up her veil. And began to scold me in Aramaic. I looked back at Shabako. “See? She's telling me to go beg somewhere else,” I said in Greek. The language stopped her; it meant education. She looked at me again, told me to wait, slammed the door, locked it loudly, and hurried away. We waited. After a minute or so, the door opened again and a second young woman looked out. This one was only slightly older, but better dressed. Like the servant girl, she had pulled the wrap around her face quickly and stands of hair trailed out.
“Yes?” she asked in a stern, patrician voice.
“I am looking for Akiba ben Zakkai,” I said.
“He is my father. It is late, sir, you will come back tomorrow.”
“Yes,” I said, “I know it's late. But my friend and I met him while traveling. If you could tell him Khefren and --”
“Khefren?” she said. “You are Khefren?” She looked past me at the tall black man near the road. “And you, you're Shabako! You're here!” The door flew open. “Come in! You must come in! You're here!”
“Your father mentioned us?” I said. I realize it was a dumb question.
She looked at me for a moment with the same sharply intelligent eyes that ben Zakkai had. She lowered her veil for just a moment, and I saw her broad smile. “Mentioned you? He has mentioned you to every one he can make sit long enough to listen.” She said something to the servant girl who was now nodding to us apologetically. Ben Zakkai's daughter ran through a courtyard and into the house. “Father,” she was shouting, “it's Khefren. And Shabako!”
Ben Zakkai shouted from inside the house. I could hear him coming from upstairs, down to the bottom level and through the house loudly, until he burst into the courtyard. “My friends!” he shouted. “You've come!” He stopped when he got near me. He could see the caution on my face. “What?”
“We've had a little trouble. With the Romans.”
While we'd waited, Shabako had gone to gather some of the others to make introductions. Ben Zakkai looked past us at the ragtag collection of Persians and the Semitic Arab face of Melchior. “God in heaven,” he said.
“It makes no sense,” ben Zakkai said. “If they wanted to kill you, why dress up like a lot of children playing pretend?” He shoved a plate of food across the table at Melchior whose plate was empty for the second time. They smiled at each other. “I like eating with a man who likes to eat,” ben Zakkai told him.
We were sitting around a long table in the main room of the house, one where a successful man like ben Zakkai could entertain guests. His daughter, whose name was Dinah, and his plump, happy wife Leah brought food. It was an indication that ben Zakkai wasn't terribly religious that, in their home, his wife and daughter no longer covered their faces or their hair.
Leah gave orders to the servant girl who carried food to the guards and servants gathered in the large courtyard outside and in the stables behind the house, where more men and the animals rested. In their daughter's lean face I could see the blending of her parents' features. She was only a few years older than Miw-sher, but the Jews arranged marriages for the children early. I wondered if her father had started worrying about a suitable husband for her.
Arsaka had worried that ben Zakkai's neighbors might notice so many men and animals. “My neighbors have no more love for the Romans than I do,” ben Zakkai had told him. “They aren't officials. They aren't priests. They're farmers and merchants like me. And our rebel groups do whatever damage they're going to do far away from here.” It was the first time I'd heard any Jews say out loud that there were such groups who openly fought the Romans.
“If they'd been sent officially, there'd be Roman patrols on every road by now. Looking for the soldiers, looking for you. But there's been nothing. You'll stay here for at least a day and I'll ask some questions of – ” and after a pause, “people who might know.”
We slept hard, our blankets gathered around us. Some found a place on the floor inside, but most of us found room in the stable or against the courtyard wall and out of a wind that reminded us that, for all that had happened, it was still early March and we were in the northern hills.
The next day we waited. Servants reorganized packs and tents that had been thrown together in our quick escape. Swordsmen like Nastasen, Liu and Wen went through the dance-like exercises that left them as sharp as their weapons. I sat against the courtyard wall with my face turned up to the Galilean sun.
“You come from people who live closely with the sun,” Shen Te said. I opened my eyes. He sat on a chair nearby, although I hadn't heard him approach. He'd made an observation, not asked a question.
“Yes,” I said. “My family would be surprised to see me bundled up in a robe.” After a silence, I said, “And you, Shen Te?”
“The land my emperor rules is large. It was unified not so many years ago after many wars. In the north, it is cold in winter and warm in summer, first snow and then rain; in the south, it is less cold, but there are great storms off the sea.”
I thought about how far he was from home. “When the others left, you said you were staying because of duty.”
“It is important to do one's duty. You are familiar with the teachings of Confucius?”
“He is one of your gods?”
“He was and remains one of my country's great teachers. He taught that a country is better ruled by moral virtue than by only the coercion of the state. If a man knows why he should not do wrong, then he will resist doing wrong far better than if he is simply compelled.” He thought for a moment. “It is more complicated than that, but it seemed to me that my duty was to continue, to do less would have been to bring shame on myself and lose face.”
“You stayed because you didn't want to be embarrassed?”
“No. I stayed because staying was the proper thing to do. To do otherwise would put my life out of balance.”
“Balance? Like being a good adviser and a good bowman both? I saw the shot you made.”
“I like to shoot. Oneself, the bow, the arrow – it's all one thing if the shot is to be perfect.”
“And the ones who left? Are they out of balance?”
“I have my role in society that I must maintain, as do the others. They were sent. To go home in the face of adversity is not to do what one knows is right. How can I expect others to live properly if I do not?”
“But it's not your religion?”
“There are rituals to honor Confucius and his great teachings, but my religion,” he paused at the word to consider it, “if you wish to call it that, is to follow the Lord Buddha.”
I'd heard of him, of Buddhism. It had grown from Hinduism, which I also knew nothing about, and both had begun in India. From what Shen Te said, it had also reached the Han, the place Gaspar still called Chin when Shen Te wasn't around to frown at him.
“That's the name of your god? Lord Buddha?”
“No. While I revere him, he is not a god. You and the men with whom we travel have gods, one or many, but sometimes they seem to me like angry old men or spoiled children. If the world was created by a god, I cannot know that. If one of your gods rules this world, I have seen no sign of it. When I die, I do not expect some judgment. To desire, to be attached, is to invite suffering and so I struggle to free myself from attachments. When I die, I expect my reward will be that the struggles of this world have ceased.”
We were silent for awhile, watching Wen and Liu move through their sword practice so slowly that they seemed frozen at times. I knew that the same moves, at lightning speed, usually meant the death of another man. Shen Te had a religion with no central god. I wondered if I could summarize my beliefs so succinctly and decided that I would have to care about my multitude of gods a great deal more to want to explain them, let alone defend them.
“But you are attached to your duty,” I said.
He smiled. “You have found me out,” he said.
Duty. There it was again, a code, some deep sense of one's self that did not allow compromise if it was simply self-serving. I'd seen more than a few men announce their integrity to the crowd. Most of them would have retreated like the Persians who were well on their way home by now. Their code was a firm as the air that held their words.
And me? For now I was lost in a country whose teachers had become prophets and whose predictions were discussed endlessly like local gossip. But I knew that ben Zakkai, for all his worldly views and a Hellenized way of life, was still an observant Jew. He had an agreement with his god. I'd made a promise to a dying follower of Zarathrusta to deliver a gift to some other religion's messiah, when neither Baltasar nor any of the others could even give me this new king's name. There was a duty involved in that, unlike any fear-based loyalty I had to Aquila. When would I be afraid enough, desperate enough to save myself, that I would break my promise, desert the redheaded boy, and run?
“I think I would have left if I were you,” I said. Shen Te made no reply to that confession. “I know the Romans. They can be very cruel.”
“As can my emperor, as can the Parthians who rule the kingdoms that our Persian friends serve. I make a point that I am Han and not Chin, but the Chin had their time. While they conquered, when they attempted to unify the Middle Kingdom into an empire, they buried forty thousand soldiers of a rival army to simply show those who opposed them how truly ferocious they could be. But I have known only one Roman, when I was a boy. He was a slave.”
“A slave? What had he done?”
“He had been on the losing side. You are familiar with the battle of Carrhae?”
Oh, yes, I was familiar. What I'd thought was long ago history kept coming up. It was the reason I was sitting in this courtyard in Palestine talking to a man of the Han from Chin. “Yes,” I said, “Carrhae. Parthian archers on horseback defeated several Roman legions.”
“Defeated them quite efficiently. What I do not understand, of course, is why they had a battle. The Han rule the unified kingdoms, but they are our kingdoms. You people of the west seem unsatisfied until you have made even your distant neighbors into vassals. In any event, after the Roman defeat there were prisoners, taken east by the Parthians so that they would have no hope of escape. And taken prisoner again during some unpleasantness we had with the Parthians on our own shared frontier. The Roman that I knew had a great sadness in his eyes, to be so far from home. I would not want to be a prisoner and know I would never see my wife's face again.”
“You have a wife, Shen Te?”
“I have three and a concubine in Ch'ang-An, our western capital. But there is one wife that I miss more than the others. We were young together. You are married?”
“Yes. Only one wife. Not the one I was young with. That one – ” Left me behind, I wanted to say.
“Yes,” Shen Te said quietly, “then you understand.” He looked around at the groups of men in the courtyard. “And here we are, both of us so far from home.”
I tried to imagine a Roman who did not walk into any room I occupied without seeing me as his inferior. Yet it was all connected. Looking from one group to another – the Arabs, the Persians, the Jews, the Kushites – I could see that whatever one had done seemed to sooner or later affect the others. It was like rocks on a hillside: dislodge one, watch it hit two more, watch them cause their own damage, whether that was a cloud of dust or an avalanche, until everything came to a stop again. Do it often enough and the mountains I saw around me could be moved.
Shen Te wasn't watching his own men. He had his eyes on a couple of less accomplished soldiers. Perhaps they meant to emulate Liu and Wen or Nastasen, but they moved with no grace, hacking at the air like men chopping down a tree. “Confucius also said that you should not give a sword to a man who can't dance.” And then we both laughed.
“True,” I said, “true!” And then I realized where I'd seen one of the dead Romans before. I held the thought.
At the far end of the courtyard, the gate pivoted on its post and ben Zakkai entered followed by five young men. His sons.