The Road to Petra

Taking the road to the River Nilotus, Rutilius travelled in a hired cisium drawn by two small but sturdy horses. With no special markings of state on it, it would draw less attention that way, for which Rutilius was thankful. Every spy in that part of Aegyptus would have spotted them immediately, if he had kept the Prefect's cisium, instead of using it as a decoy in Alexandrea.

With Flautus in his new clothes seated beside him looking like a patrician and travelling companion, not a servant, they would look like many other wealthy Graeco-Roman businessmen on the road, going to some market center or city. As such, they couldn't be distinguished from others that looked the same--and there were many passing them on the road, or travelling ahead and behind them.

Keeping the window blinds lowered to make it even more difficult for spies, Rutilius was determined to put as much distance as he could between them and Alexandrea's seething "snake pit"..

Perhaps his problems with assassins could thus be outdistanced, the further he travelled into the heart of Aegyptus and its delta, he thought. If not, at least he wasn't standing still, a most convenient object to shoot at!

Let them catch me if they can! he thought, as he peered out between the blinds out at the rapidly passing fields with Delta farmers laboriously pulling out the tall ripe flax by the roots or leading out cattle to draw the plow for a second crop on harvested fields or hauling gathered produce of diverse kinds, fruit and grains both, to market in the nearest big cities in their ox-carts or heaped on their backs in huge bundles.

The seemingly timeless, rural scene was totally unlike that of Italia--the people were generally so small and dark skinned, from long exposure to the scorching African sun evidently. They dressed differently too-- men from the the fields and villages commonly going about bare as their animals and without shame, and often in city streets preferring to wear nothing at all, or a simple loin cloth strip in front tied with a string at tghe waist, and the country women in decent enough robes but their bosums often left bare for babies held at the hip to suck, while wearing their faces and hair secluded under long scarves or coverings, rather than expose themselves to the sun god's beauty-killing rays.

Rutilius glanced at Flautus from time to time, and as a poet by nature, he could not help wondering how he was taking in this strange, new to him world of Aegyptus and all its outlandish customs and fashions. But he didn't ask him, as it wasn't done, to ask such things of a servant--really a slave for life. Masters and slaves did not share thoughts and feelings--a gulf stood between their classes, and it had always been so. Though he had made a start of confiding in Flautus back at the clothier's shop, he still had difficulty mastering his own inbred reluctance to treat his servant as he would a fellow patrician.

Just the same he felt he needed to reach a even greater understanding with Flautus as the journey brought them closer to the road south of Pelusium in the delta. Before they started on the great caravan road to Petra, it was necessary, Rutilius thought, to make known his full intentions to Flautus, so that there would be no misunderstanding further on when conditions might demand very quick responses. After all, the desert wilderness would be quite another thing from civilized Italia, or even Alexandrea. He knew he wasn't accustomed to the great desert regions, and neither was Flautus. They would have to find someone who knew the wilderness they would be entering, someone who could be trusted. They might not be able to find such a person, slave or free. What then? Well, he decided they would just have to press on in their ignorance. That was better than remaining within the reach of whoever had assaulted him at Alexandrea and had tracked him all the way from Classis!

Since he had given secret word to Firmus to set sail without him, holding the messengers on board in temporary custody to serve as decoys, he could be reasonably assured that his enemies would be misled for a time. That was all he needed to get well away from Alexandrea.

Perhaps his pursuers would even take ship and follow Firmus to Caesarea, or go round by the road to Gaza, thence to Caesarea, and await the ship there. Either way, he wouldn't be landing there for them to attack. He would come by a much more round-about way, all as quietly as he could, without announcing himself to any official.

He had lines of credit, and before leaving Alexandrea had drawn a small fortune for use on the journey, which he divided up for himself and Flautus to carry. He also had the crown jewels of Queen Immadatha, the Numidian emeralds, as a last resort, in case they might be needed for a special bribe, or payment of a ransom for himself and Flautus if they were captured.

Money, in sufficient amounts, can always change allegiances, he knew. Few men, indeed, could resist the lure of instant wealth.

The excitement of his hurriedly executed but complicated escape from Alexandrea tired him, however, and once it wore off he felt the strain of his time in Alexander's City like an ache over his whole body. Was he coming down with something? He didn't think so, he was careful of the water, he drank it only with wine, and did not eat the local foods, which Romans thought were tainted by the unwashed common people. As for the contagions of the river and the swamps, well, he hadn't yet been exposed to them. No, he decided, it was just the strain of having to play cat and mouse so long, ever since leaving Classis. This was something new to him. Before Classis, he had lived a very quiet, sedate life, dealing with the affairs of the family estates and his various public offices, Governor of Roma, Governor of the Imperial Library and Archives, etc., as they came up and eventually expired.

Now all that life of leisure and routine official business was over--he had crossed over a sea of unknown, unmapped, storm-tossed waters, dark and treacherous waters which might never permit his return to the settled and privileged patrician's life ever again.

The rocking motion of the carriage soon brought his chin down to his chest, and his thoughts returned to the most recent events...

Back in the Prefect's floridly decorated palace, his own private thoughts had been, "This Prefect is a skilled liar! He had the assassin slain just to keep me from the truth, or he released him, or he has him in custody somewhere in the dungeon, and his death is a complete fabrication. In any case, he will do nothing about the attempt to take my life. He knew that if he let things be--those who pursue me might yet succeed--so that suggests he is a secret party, a collaborator, with the assassin and whoever commissioned him. I should have the Prefect arrested and questioned, but would the Pretorium commander recognize my superior authority? I think not! The Eastern Empire has been acting entirely too independent of Ravenna for quite some time now, knowing our weakness under the last few emperors, and Honorius's faltering leadership for the first years hasn't helped inspire unity either!--"

These thoughts prompted Rutilius to do some fast thinking, some quick planning on his next moves, even as he stalked out of the Prefect's palace and got into the Prefect's cisium.

First, he had to ditch the cisium and the Prefect's guards. But to a point they would be useful, as they provided some protection for a brief time, though it might not last long, as perhaps they had been instructed to do nothing when the next attack came. Ordering Flautus to be ready to fight at any moment, he waited as the cisium moved toward Canopus Street and its hundreds and thousands of shops, warehouses, emporiums and banks. With the Prefect's flags and insignia on the cisium, and the uniforms of the guards marking them as well, it wasn't so likely they would be ambushed in so public a place, he thought, as that would precipitate a scandal for the Prefect he might have difficulty explaining to both Ravenna and Nova Roma.

He was right, as the cisium began travelling down Canopus Street, still without incident.Flautus obeyed immediately, and the carriage was turned and then drew up across the crowded street.

Rutilius sighed with relief, as he saw what an imposing bank it was--with its own guards, and numerous staff. He could see he would be safer there than anywhere else he might choose to be.

It was still so public a place, with hundreds of people in the street, and uncountable carriages, Rutilius knew he had little cause to fear an assassination attempt being staged there. If one had been planned, it would probably take place further down along the street or away from Canopus and then at a point somewhere on the way to the ship, perhaps at the docks.

Wasting no time in the cisium, he bolted for the bank and Flautus protected him from behind, as they moved quickly into the guarded entrance of the bank.

Rutilius announced himself to the guards, and the word was quickly taken to the bank's proprietors, and Banker Lucian himself and his two sons came out to personally conduct him to private chambers.

An hour later, business concluded, Rutilius left with Flautus, but had the bank's cisium brought up, though to a side street, not directly to the front. He arranged it with Lucian and his sons, that the bank's cisium would, however, discreetly follow the Prefect's carriage as they passed on down the main street. He explained to Lucian that he needed the second carriage to carry things he intended to buy at various shops. He did not add anything to that, as there was no need to tell him anymore of his plan than that.

His next stop was a clothier for the wealthy, noble class.

The bank's cisium was brought up to the clothier's premises, for when he would have need of it.

But before he and Flautus left the cisium, he took the opportunity to have a private word with him.

"Flautus, listen carefully. There is no time to repeat anything. I have to speak quickly, to get it all across to you in a few moments. We are not returning to the ship! And this carriage is not the one we will be using to leave the city--we will be transferring to the bank's cisium very soon after we leave here, in fact. Understand? I will count on you to arrange this for me, as I will not be seen speaking to the postillions or the driver. It is best they do not get any good impression about me, or hear anything I say that they can repeat later when questioned."

Flautus's eyes widened, but he nodded. "Yes, I will speak with them, sire, whatever it is you want them to do!"

Rutilius could see that Flautus was fully up to whatever task he had to give him, and he was happy to see this--though he could scarcely feel anything at the moment but the great urgency to finish the preparations.

He cut to the chase. "We must evade whoever is pursuing us--either to rob me of the emeralds I am carrying or simply to kill me, to prevent me from carrying out the Emperor Honorius's mission. This is the way we will try to do it. I know this cannot all be understood now, but later we can talk it over, if we survive, that is."

He saw Flautus's eyes widen even more at this remark, but he couldn't help it. He had to bring these remarks to a conclusion soon, or the guards would be wondering what was detaining them.

"Now, to continue! This carriage will be ordered to driven to the ship. I will have two hired men be taken in the carriage to the ship, with a particular message, and they will be dressed in our clothes, in order to look like us. They will think that is their purpose in being hired, merely delivering a message, when actually it is something different, which I will explain to you, but which you must not even hint of to them.

"I already left orders with Captain Firmus to sail without us, but he is wait until the messengers arrive, then he is to seize the ones I send, these two fellows who will be conveyed there by the Prefect's postillions and driver. I am sorry they may not like this, but there lives are not at stake, and they will not be harmed, which cannot be said for myself!

"Now why are we at the clothier's? We must buy replacements for our clothes, and a second set too, then change into them. Our discarded garments will go to the messengers I will hire, and they will put them on and then board the Prefect's carriage without speaking to the postillions or driver, of course, as they will have orders given them before we leave the shop. It is then going to depart with the two men dressed as us, and we will follow in the bank's cisium with the second change of clothes we shall be buying, but only for a short distance. Then we are to turn and leave Canopus Street and melt into the rest of the city and head to the eastern road to Nilotus connected with the main south road to Porta Berenicea. Along that route they would come to the roadhead for the Coast Road and the Road to Petra, he knew from his itinerarium.

"Now we must go through with it, or face whatever my enemies have planned! And I doubt they will make another mistake, in not sending more than one assassin as they did at the Library! Ready, Flautus?"

Flautus nodded, and they left the cisium, with Flautus covering Rutilius as they went into the clothier's shop, which also was a large, well-staffed establishment, acquainted with serving the wealthy and noble classes of the city.

At the clothing shop of Odysseus Hathorius of Oxyrhynnchus and Alexandrea, Rutilius found a very accommodating owner in the rather dark-skinned, multi-lingual Aegyptian proprietor, and his servants too seemed highly trained and able to satisfy every demand of service put on them.

One of the servants delivered a message from Rutilius out to the postillions and driver waiting with the Prefect's carriage. They were directed to wait until the Governor and his servant came and boarded, then next go directly to the ship from Ravenna tied up at the Ram's Head dock.

That was all they were told, and no more was needed.

Meanwhile, the clothier brought out clothes for his wealthy patron Rutilius, and as soon as he had picked out two complete sets of clothes, for himself and Flautus, that would be most suitable for travelling in the desert.

Rutilius took care to buy a purse that wrapped around his midriff, that he used to hold the emeralds and his money, and he bought one for Flautus too that would keep a portion of the money as well.

Soon as he and Flautus were wearing the first set of new sandals, robes and cloaks and they were approved by Rutilius, he explained to the bowing clothier that he was needing two young men as messengers, only not drawn from his own servants, but those who could be hired off the street. "Of course, Governor, I will do as you say!"

He slapped his hands together, a servant came up and bowed to both Rutilius and his owner, and then he was sent out to get two such men.

It took only a few moments. Within a few feet of the clothier were hundreds of such fellows lounging in Alexandrea's public markets and shop-lined streets, uneducated feloutlows of poor prospects, hoping for someone to hire them to run errands for pay, and their most frequent employers were shopkeepers, bankers, traders, shippers and their patrons.

The clothier thought nothing unordinary about this request, and had two such young men fetched immediately to the shop.

Rutilius found they knew no Latin, of course, being Greek-speaking with the Aegyptian accent of course, but the clothier translated for Rutilius, since classical Attic Greek would be utterly lost on the two who spoke only the bastard dialect of Koine common in Alexandrea's lowest classes. The clothier handled the entire communication, which Rutilius preferred he do, thinking it best not to let them even hear the sound of his voice, in case later they were seized, tortured and made to tell all they knew about these very events.

A little money was given each of them by the clothier that Rutilius handed him, and the pair were then dressed in the garments they were given--the clothier explaining that they would look better in them when delivering an important message for his patron.

The two did not protest, and seemed very pleased with the bargain, as their street clothes were poor quality and rather dirty too, and even Flautus's garments were much finer than theirs.

This accomplished, Rutilius had the clothier send the second set of their clothes out to the bank's cisium waiting a little further down the street.

Then it was time to execute the remainder of the plan!

The two messengers went out dressed as Rutilius and Flautus, and without a word, climbed in the carriage as they had been instructed by the clothier.

Another word was sent out to the second carriage to come. The Prefect's carriage was then driven off. The bank's carriage drew up to the clothier, and the second change of garments was taken out to the carriage, and Rutilius and Flautus, after delivering them with the clothes covering their faces, dove in as swiftly as possible and shut the door. The carriage continued on, the two carriages travelling a short distance through the thick traffic of pedestrians and other carriages and wagons.

"Flautus, now have the driver turn off and head south and eastly! If he doesn't understand you, just sign to him what direction you want him to go, and he will have to understand well enough, dealing with patrons from all over the world, as he must have done many times before we came along!"

Flautus slid the curtain aside in the window that communicated to the driver, and did as Rutilius ordered.

The driver tried to look back into the carriage, but Flautus yanked the curtain back into place.

Would he obey and turn off? Did he understand?

Rutilius then felt the carriage make a sharp turn and then continue away from Canopus Street.

He sank back against the seat cushions, closing his eyes, he was so relieved! By Jove! It was working! His plan was working! The two messengers were in for an unpleasant surprise--an unplanned sea voyage to Caesarea and then back to Alexandrea--but that couldn't be helped.

He soon had to open his eyes again! He had to check if they really were heading easterly, and not being taken some other direction or even back to the bank!

But he soon saw, despite his memory of the itinerarium's map of the city's five districts, Alpha to Delta, that he couldn't make any sense of the incredibly congested city and had lost his sense of direction anyway since coming down to Africa, so he just had to trust that they were going all right. Soon as they reached the gates of the city and found a big enough market, they could transfer to another cisium, and send the bank's carriage back. There was no need to let the banker suffer for his escape from Alexandrea, as he well might if they continued out of the city with the his carriage. This way, the banker could say his carriage had been stolen, not loaned, as it was intended only to deliver an important customer to a shop on Canopus Street.

They reached the city gate on the east side without incident, and there was a market and many shops for incoming visitors--where anything could be bought that travellers desired or needed. Inns, brothels, stables, food and wine and dancing girls, tents, camels, horses, carriages too of different kinds-- they could take their pick.

Rutilius wasted no time in finding and buying what he wanted-- he would soon get rid of it, and take another. It was expensive, but necessary to keep up this up, until they reached the desert at least.

Carried along in the carriage, the bank's carriage sent back, Rutilius's head bobbed as the hours passed, and finally they stopped at the edge of Pelusium, where the city met the desert sands that encroached on the fertile and green Delta. As Rutilius instructed him, Flautus got out, examined the inn where they had halted, declared it fit enough, and they took a room there for the night, and Rutilius was so exhausted he slept soundly--completely forgetting this was a strange inn, with no assurance they might not be attacked in the night. At the first light of day, the cisium was ready, the horses rested, fed and watered and in their harnesses, and the two drivers ready too.

Without breakfast, Rutilius decided it was best to just wash his face and hair, arms and feet with a pitcher and a shallow tub brought in by a servant from the inn. Using the towel himself, and a little fragrant olive oil to keep his skin from drying, he climbed into his travelling clothes and sent money with Flautus to pay the inn-keeper for the lodgings but not divulge where they might be heading.

Flautus, he had discovered early on, wasn't so good at dressing or attending him, but he seemed willing to learn, even if he was a bit rough and awkward for that kind of service--having trained in a gladiatorial school.

That done, instead of continuing down to Porta Berenicea, he would continue eastward with Flautus. They could find some solid refreshment on the way another inn, preferably one at the staging ground the itinerarium said they would find at the start of the Road to Aqaba. They still had some bread and cheese, with wine and water in the cisium Rutilius had bought from venders at the city gate market, so that would serve to keep them until they found something better later on. He had been too excited in his stomach to try it earlier. It would get stale if he left it any longer in the basket.

Now that Aegyptus Proper was going to be left behind, Rutilius found he had lost most all interest in it. The great man-made mountains of huge, cut stone blocks, the towering Tombs of the Pharaohs, well, Roma had nothing to compare with them but its greatest buildings and aqueducts and bridges, of course, but what good were such tombs anyway? They were useless heaps of stones. They served no practical purpose.

The temple complex he and Flautus had walked through -- that too seemed to embody the lost and useless grandeur of bygone days, when the Ptolemies ruled Aegyptus, losing their throne and even their last royal dynasty when Cleopatra committed suicide.

He couldn't help noticing the colossal temple standing on the desert edge, some moving hills of sand lapping over onto its paved courtyards wherever they overtopped the walls. The temple was so big in fact, he stood virtually in the shadow that fell into a large stableyard of the inn. Rather than let the crowd of inn servants and lodgers stare at him while he waited for the change of horses and harness, he decided to tour the temple with Flautus.

He would have changed to another carriage as well by this time if he thought that necessary, but the present one was not so grand that they didn't see others quite like it on the roads leading from Alexandrea, so theirs excited no special attention.

But he had to find at least a change of mounts, that wouldn't be easily identified by color and marking.

Now as the temple, devoted to a crocodile god, it turned out to be so large and monumental, enclosed in a huge square walled yard that enclosed ten or twelve hectares, all four sides of which were inset with numerous chapels to to forgotten gods and adorned with fake entrances and false windows that were never meant for human eyes to peer out of, it seemed all out of scale with humankind. It left him, a practical Roman with an eye for what served human needs best, cold.

Inside the main sanctuary was the crocodile god image, attended by perhaps hundreds of priests and priestesses. Rutilius paused only a few moments there, and returned to the outdoors, where the air was clear of the almost suffocating, murky incense burning on countless braziers and altars throughout the edifice.

Was the image fed human sacrifices such as young children, babies, and beautiful young maidens? That was probably stopped by the Roman administration years before his visit, he knew. Roma generally interfered with no temple practices of any religion, except that they fomented insurrection against Roma's authority. The only other exception was human sacrifice, which Roma reserved for the public arenas, and that wasn't for any god except the deified Emperor. Of course, the Christian emperors since Constantine I had banned the slaughter of Christians in arenas, while continuing the gladiatorial fights.

Even that wildly popular sport was now under question, and it was said Honorious was disgusted the last time he sat in Roma's Flavian arena and viewed the gladiators slaying one another for his entertainment. He was so disgusted, in fact, they said he might ban gladiators from the arenas altogether throughout the West, which meant the end of the sport of course, and the only thing left was the use of tigers, hippos, bulls, and elephants fighting one another, together with staged but harmless sea battles in flooded arenas and musical programs and parades. How Roma had changed, due primarily to the Christian religion which had won imperial sanction and patronage above all the other religions, such as Magna Mater, and Isis, Apis, and the rest! Like all the other provinces, "changeless" Aegyptus had been forced to change with her Roman master too, and bow to the Christian religion's chief bishop who resided in Alexandrea and frowned upon all the practices and cults of the native gods. Yet the Crocodile God's temple wasn't going anywhere soon. It was built for eternity, and would probably stand for centuries to come--with or without priests and ceremonies and the lucrative patronage of the state.

He knew there was no time to go and take a look in the various chapels that were arranged all around the vast courtyard, and anyway he wasn't interested. He had seen plenty crocodiles and water cows and such in the canals and waterways of the Delta already. What horrible beasts Aegyptus had in abundance! What a savage place Africa was--crawling with all sorts of monsters. He was beginning to be very homesick for Italia--where a man could live a civilized life, without a crocodile popping up in his garden pool, no doubt have roved in from its haunts in a nearby river or canal. No wonder the Aegyptians walled all their gardens--just to be safe from water serpents and these big-teethed, snapping jawed, slithering night rovers!

The cisium was ready and waiting as Rutilius and Flautus returned to the inn's stableyard.

Rutilius examined the new horses and their harness, and approved what he saw, and then climbed into the carriage. He had nothing suspicious going on around him the whole stay there, and it was still early morning, but time to be off and away before the mass of the day's traffic flooded all the available roadways, paved or not, and made travel difficult and slow.

With fresh, well-rested horses, they made quick progress southeasterly. It would be only a day or so before they reached the main roadhead and staging grounds for the caravans. They all met at the roadhead, and organized there, having sold all their supplies of much desired trade articles before heading back from Aegyptus to Hither Arabia's spiceries, or northerly to Petra of the old Nabataean kingdom, now called Idumaea, or northerly still to Jerash of Syria. From Jerash they could travel to Palmyra, and thence easterly to Parthia and points so far east they reached the world's edge, the fabled lands of the weavers of brocade and silk. Silk commanded even a greater price than spices such as pepper, and cost its weight in gold when brought to Roman markets.

Rutilius was pleased how the journey was proceeding so far, and had good reason to commend Flautus, if a servant could be commended for simply obeying instructions!

Flautus was a young man of very few words, Rutilius had already discerned, and that also was a good quality, since he himself did not like talkative servants around him. Usually very busy with his own thoughts and mental work, he did not appreciate distractions made by noisy servants.

But if they were to make a success of the journey and satisfy the waiting emperor who had sent them, he felt he needed to reach more of an understanding with Flautus, laying aside for the time the chief distinctions of their respective classes so that they could work better together for survival.

Silent and observant, strong and brave, Flautus had proved himself already a very good body-guard, he had found. The exchanging of carriages and mounts had gone smoothly, and the subterfuge of travelling as regular businessmen went well too--as they seemed to excite no comment or undue attention.

Alas, Mercurius! He had been more experienced than Flautus, and was now left behind in foreign soil, but there was the memory of his honorable service. Flautus had no doubt learned much from him. It was good how Flautus watched out for him like a hawk, just as Mercurius had done, but he couldn't do it all, he had no knowledge of the desert, so they would need help to get safely to Palestina by the land route.

He could see that Flautus kept steady watch while Rutilius spoke to him, so it was not going to endanger them if he spoke to him now, before they stopped again at nightfall at some inn up ahead.

"As you probably thought already, Flautus," Rutilius began, "we couldn't return to the ship, as it was no longer safe enough. We would certainly have been followed and pursued right to Caesarea. Since I sent the soldiers back to the emperor, we couldn't risk a battle at sea--and why not avoid one if I could? At sea, who knows what the weather might be, and anything can turn a battle one way or the other. We might have had traitors on board too, who could start a disturbance among the oarsmen or light the sail afire, or do anything they could to trick us. A ship is a very small place, and so liable for trouble and disaster. If it is not safe for you, where can you go? You are trapped. No, it was best to go by land, I realized, where there are many places to hide or vanish into, if need be. But which road was best? The shortest way is the Via that takes the coast up from the Sinai wilderness to Palestina, but that is the most traffiked by the spies, as there are more inns, halting stations, cities, and people. But here on the via to Aqaba and Petra, the caravans are the chief traffic, as the way is said to be very hot and difficult so most people prefer the easier route along the coast.

Can we find the right caravan? Let us hope so, Flautus! I don't want to set us in the midst of a pack of thieves and scoundrels, who will rob us and leave us beaten up and bleeding in the desert, without a drop of water to drink! That happens commonly, I have heard. I think we will have to choose well our travelling companions!"

Rutilius wanted to know if Flautus had ever traveled in desert. Flautus shook his head. "No, sire, I have no experience of it. But Mercurius did some of his training in Leptis Magna, and he told somet stories about the Guaramani tribes of the desert in that region, and they are truly savages--so I expect the same wherever we are going."

Rutilius agreed the people could be equally savage in the deserts they would be traversing. "Yes, the conditions are harsh, both in Africa and here, so the people will reflect that, whatever tribe they may be here." He paused, then thought about what he had read about a particular desert tribe, the Berbers.

Since whatever he read was imprinted forever in his memory, he quickly reviewd the text on the Berbers. He told Flautus about them. "I expect we will meet a lot of these people engaged in the caravans. The Berbers are a very numerous, far-ranging tribal people that can be found both here and all across Africa--so they may all share the same customs and ways. They are nomads, and shelter themselves in those black goats' hair tents you see here and there. They call themselves the most ancient of the inhabitants, coming before even the Aegyptians and Nubians. They also do some caravaneering, though that is not chiefly to their taste. Why? They are free spirits, and they feel that caravaneering confines them too much to certain routes, so they leave this occupation mainly to the Arabs, while serving as mounted guides. From what I have read, if any people know the desert's secrets, it is the Berbers. I expect we will find quite a number gathered at the caravan staging ground.

Flautus did not have any questions, so Rutilius let the conversation stand there for a time. But meanwhile he thought of more things that he intended to share with Flautus. This had been only a beginning. He need not overburden Flautus with too much to think about at the start, as it might distract him from his guard duties.

They reached the caravan staging ground at the roadhead, and found a scene of vast confusion, or so it appeared. Thousands of diverse-costumed Berbers, Nabataean Arabs, Idumaeans, Sabaeans, Shebites, Syrians, Arabians of all sorts of tribes that caravaneered from Mecca, Medina, and Sheba, mixing with large numbers of Roman traders and businessmen, and not a few Greeks and Jews. Tents, camels, donkeys, horses, goats and sheep-- it was a sea of humanity and animals, and amidst this chaos they had to find a caravan run by reasonably honest men of the desert that would best suit them!

Rutilius decided to let the cisium go, with the driver. He could sell the cisium and horses, and let the driver walk, but instead he let the driver retain the carriage and horses too-- a gift for getting them safely to the roadhead! The driver was absolutely dumbfounded, of course, at the munificence of such an unexpected gift. But Rutilius thought nothing of the coast and wanted to melt as quickly and seamlessly as possible into the anonymous, virtually trackless desert--and so the cisium that plainly marked him a Roman or Greek businessman had to go!

Best tell them nothing too! Let any spies or pursuers follow the cisium and then find he wasn't in it!

So he climbed down, and ordered the driver to return, giving him some money for food and lodging, warning him in good measure not to talk to anyone, and he and Flautus then started looking for a Roman trader who might guide them to the right caravan, for a certain sum of course--as everything had to bought, or otherwise you would have to go without in a most unforgiving, harsh landscape. As certain authors had warned him, Rutilius knew the Desert was a fragment of hell for those who lacked the necessities, and eternally green and watered Aegyptus, with all its abundance of good things, thanks to the eternally-flowing River Nilotus, did not begin to prepare a traveller from the West for the Desert's rigors.

It was like trying to find a needle in a stack of wheat sheaves! The Romans were numerous, but where were they? Instead they finally turned in at the tent of a Ishmaelite trader in sundry goods, hoping for some information at least.

The goddess Fortuna smiled on him, Rutilius thought, for the moment they were escorted into the trader's tent, the courtesies of a valued guest were extended to them, and soon Rutilius found out more than he hoped from the more than helpful trader, whose name was Haboosh el Nabi.

He wore a sheik's turban and affected a grand manner, but Rutilius wondered if he really was a sheik. Yet he seemed to want to put them straight as to the staging grounds' composition, and where he could find his fellow Romans and what each part of the vast array had to offer a man of parts who had a considerable amount of means to venture.

"We have wonderfully rich caravans started out from here, sire," Haboosh told him.

"I have a caravan too, maybe not so rich as some, but I make a good, honest living by it."

"Oh," said Rutilius, "what do you deal in?"

"Spices from the south lands, ointments and ungents from the north country of Idumea above Petra..."

Rutilius broke on, "You are going by Petra perhaps?" "Yes, sire. It has some business opportunities for me. The priests of Dushara, and even the Christian bishop here, they buy my unguents and incense. The people too will buy some, though it is of high price of course, as such things are luxuries."

Rutilius was now very interested. Fortuna had indeed smiled upon him!

"What price do you want if we two accompany you?"

Haboosh seemed surprised.

He stroked his wispy but long beard for a few moments.

"I am a most reasonable man, I could take you and provide the camels for your mounts and a couple attendants for watering them and bedding them at night, and so on, for only 100 denarii of silver.

Rutilius had no idea if this was reasonable or highway robbery. But he thought quickly: This man is as honest as he could be among these caravaneers, no doubt, which means he is a scamp at times, but maybe no murderer and cutthroat if he can operate so openly here with a tent of his own. He is probably robbing me, but for the price he will do anyway. I needn't pass my my name and my particulars around to the whole camp. What I say here may stay here."

So he said, "Fifty denarii,silver!" Then they rolled upweards.

"But sire, I am a poor man, I am struggling to keep paying the Roman taxes that crush us daily! I cannot take you for such a pittance. I would starve myself and my wife and ten children if I let you come with us at that low price! 89 denarii, of silver, sire! For the mercy of Allah, grant me a fair wage!

Coming episodes:

After the caravan is attacked, and Zumbah and Flautus pinned down in a heap of big rocks, Rutilius racing for help from the nearby Petra garrison:


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