Death and Omens in the Great Library
by Thomas K. Carpenter
The last time an eclipse haunted the skies above Magistrate Ovid, thirty-eight nobles had been slaughtered in the streets of Rome to appease the gods, so it was with some hesitation that Ovid found himself at the Great Library during the latest celestial event. As a young man at his father’s side, he’d been required to watch the soldiers strike the nobles in turn: The wet thunk of the hammer echoing through the streets, occasionally interspersed with the sobbing of family. The event was a firm reminder that even the lives of nobles were subject to the whims of gods and emperors.
But that was Rome and this was Alexandria. The governor had not the absolute power that rested across the Mediterranean, which meant the party to celebrate the newest head of the Mouseion would be unremarkable in comparison. Besides, the invitation promised culinary delights, demonstrations from the curiosity rooms, a walk through the botany gardens, and a viewing of a captured tiger, amongst other events. Even the Festival of Saturnalia with its gambling and drunken revelries didn’t offer such varied and unique excitements. Especially given that the party would end in the observation chamber during the thin hours of night when the shadow of the Earth would cross the moon. The idea that one could calculate such divine rotations was nothing short of miraculous.
Magistrate Ovid had camped near the tables in the Temple of the Muses, where he’d been sampling the various types of garum, a salty fermented fish paste, using a hunk of hard bread, when a conversation had sprung up around him. He found himself telling a story about his superior, Praetor Juneus Atticus, during the Germanic campaign when they were both much younger men.
“Juneus attacked the wall of the fort as I might attack a plate of honeyed figs.” Laughter rose from the assembled like birds, drawing in other nobles. “The Chatti were fierce foes, but that did not dissuade our Wolf of Rome, as the soldiers like to call him.”
The praetor was tall, broad-shouldered, and in battle could slice through a man’s artery with the flick of his gladius, but a party was not his preferred place of battle, so he shuffled his sandals, gripping his brass cup as his pockmarked jaw tightened.
“He was first over the wall, earning his battlement crown. His bravery crushed the barbarians and ended their excursion south,” said Magistrate Ovid.
“Did not the Chatti worship the moon? Those savages would think their goddess murdered on this evening,” said Drusilla, a handsome woman who wore a silver stola that complemented her silky black hair bound by a jade clip. Her husband owned many businesses in the Brucheum district, but he spent his time in Rome, leaving her in charge.
A short Alexandrian with bronze skin, wearing the robes of a scholar, fluttered his sleeves and cleared his throat loudly. “The Chatti worshiped the moon, amongst other pagan beliefs, but they were no fools. They trained for war like Romans and carried armories on their backs. They were just as likely to use an eclipse to attack a rival clan.”
“It sounds like you admire the beasts, Quintus,” said a newcomer to the conversation.
The arrival of Governor Flaccus stiffened the spines of the nobles. He wore a crimson mail coat and gilded pteruges, the strips of leather softly clapping as he entered the circle of the assembled.
Quintus swallowed and glanced to the stone floor. “It is not the scholar’s role to admire or hate, but to record history with a keen eye.”
“No man is without prejudice, Quintus Horatius Aegyptus,” said Governor Flaccus, swinging his cup around wildly, spilling wine into a bowl of roasted nuts. “As a foreigner in the empire, you find common cause with your fellow outsiders and record them favorably, when none should be found.”
“I would not count them in the same class as the Legion, Governor,” said Tiberius Claudius Balbilus, the new head of the Great Library for whom the party was being held. He had dark hair trimmed in the latest style of Rome and an aquiline nose. “But Quintus is right about their affection for, but not allegiance to, the moon.”
“Filthy beasts would have soiled themselves about the occlusion,” said Governor Flaccus, thrusting his empty cup into the hand of a nearby noble, who blanched and stumbled away as if he were a servant. “No one but true Romans should share our spoils. It is we for whom this empire was built, and whom it relies on to keep it great.”
The noblewoman Drusilla waved her silvery stola in appreciation of the governor’s words, nodding her head for further confirmation, but only Magistrate Ovid had noticed, for the rest of the assembled found their gazes locked onto Praetor Atticus as he slammed his hand onto the table, rattling the terra-cotta plates.
“Which is why the city is full of unrest—because you can’t help yourself, pissing in everyone’s cup. The rabbis complain daily about your soldiers, and the—” The praetor’s gaze flitted to Balbilus, and after great effort he took the smallest of breaths, adding a slight nod. “My apologies. This is a party in your honor, not political theater.”
But the deflection had not been appreciated by Governor Flaccus, who seethed on the far side of the circle, his nostrils flaring. Magistrate Ovid opened his mouth to redirect the conversation back to safer harbors, but the governor surprisingly turned his angry gaze on him.
“Magistrate Ovid. Isn’t there a piece of the story about the taking of the Chatti fort that you’re leaving out? Shouldn’t you relate your own part in this battle for our honored guests? Or are you as miserly as the pharaohs with your tale?”
Drusilla, brightened by the prospect of sunnier conversation, spoke in the absence of his answer. “Regale us your part in this tale, Magistrate Ovid. Did you slay the Chatti chieftain, break through the gates with your impressive girth, or bed his barbarian wife, as disgusting a prospect as that might sound?”
Magistrate Ovid tugged the purple sash that signified his office though failed to carry the weight it might in other circumstances. He rested his hand on his considerable belly.
“My horse had been injured in the skirmish that led up to the Chatti fort, so I went in with the first cohort after the walls had been breached. There was some fighting, and I bloodied my gladius, but I did not earn the position of honor that Praetor Atticus did with his battlement crown, or that Balbilus did in the previous fight in the woods.”
Praetor Atticus and the new head of the Great Library, Balbilus, shared a nod, even though they had been rivals in those days. Their paths had taken them on different routes since the Legion.
“Come now, Magistrate Ovid,” said Governor Flaccus, sneering in near-laughter. “You’re depriving our guests of the real meat of the story. From the tellings I hear, you killed two more men inside the fort. Tell us about them.”
The scholar Quintus gestured encouragingly with the extra fabric of his lavender toga. “Set aside your humble nature, Magistrate. If you set your blades at the tilt for the empire, we should hear it. Who were these fierce men that you slayed in the barbarian fort?”
The answer stuck in Ovid’s throat as he became the center of attention, but Governor Flaccus was not one to let a moment pass and spoke for him.
The silence was as sharp as a gladius. A few nobles turned away, their hissing, quiet speech and backward glances enough recrimination for the whole group. Ovid’s heart thudded in his ears as Govenor Flaccus watched with half-lidded eyes, content that his barb had struck true.
“Surely you jest,” said Drusilla, glancing between the two men, her painted eyebrows rising like swift birds. “Ovid holds high office as a magistrate and his family has long held a place of honor in the Empire.”
“He was cleared by the emperor, who saw the wisdom of what Ovid did that day,” said Praetor Atticus in the same manner that one would speak of gutting a deer.
Neither comment seemed to disuade Governor Flaccus, who stared at Ovid as if he’d shoved the blade in deep and was watching him slowly bleed out. Before anyone else could speak for him again, Ovid said, “I killed two soldiers when a group of them were raping a Chatti shaman and attempting to burn down their holy temple.”
If there’d been any sympathy for him before, due to the governor’s rough treatment, it evaporated like a mirage up close after he revealed the truth of that day. The nobles abandoned the table as if he’d vomited across its contents. The piece of bread with a dollop of garum on the corner in his hand no longer seemed edible and he set it down, wiping the crumbs onto his toga.
Praetor Atticus put his rough hand on Ovid’s shoulder. “I cannot say I agreed with your choice that day, but the Chatti warlord agreed to aid us due to that decision. Our campaign would have ground to a halt without that assistance.”
“None of that matters now. The governor has poisoned their thoughts of me as if he’d filled my cup with nightshade.”
Praetor Atticus left Ovid to his thoughts. Ovid considered a self-tour of the complex to ease his troubled mind when the scholar Quintus approached.
“I overheard the praetor. It sounds like you were wise to protect the Chatti shaman.”
Ovid rapped his knuckles against the marble table. “Much as the praetor was wise to keep his comments private, rather than defend me in front of the nobles. He doesn’t want to risk his position in the eyes of the emperor.”
“The city is as dry as tinder because of the governor’s treatment of the Jewish quarter. One spark and riots would consume it. But if Praetor Atticus were given supremacy, he would make calmer choices, so I understand his discretion. Besides,” Quintus clapped him on the shoulder like an old friend even though they’d only just met, “the emperor cleared your name, which meant that he understood the wisdom of your difficult choice. In time you can convince them of that.”
Another scholar approached Quintus, who after quiet discussion disappeared deeper into the Great Library with a shuffling gait. Ovid wondered briefly what kind of life it was for these men, sequestered away from the trials of Roman politics to pour their lives’ ambitions into scholarship. The entire complex was a maze of rooms, not including the warehouses on the docks, where scrolls were kept until they could be cataloged. A wonderful place to find oneself a quiet space in which to think.
Before he left the room, Magistrate Ovid idly picked up a grape between forefinger and thumb, squeezing it slightly. “No, Quintus,” Ovid said to himself quietly, “no one will remember that the emperor cleared my name, nor would I dare to bring it up, because it was my father who convinced Tiberius not to condemn me.”
The grape exploded between his fingers, which he reluctantly licked clean after devouring the remains. Ovid headed into a side room in search of the zoo. He wanted to see the tiger that had been captured by a group of Shamerim hunters.
The Temple of the Muses lay at the center of the structure, which made it a convenient location for gatherings. Ovid left that area and passed through an anteroom filled with scrolls stacked on a table. An apprentice scurried in, scooped up an armful, and disappeared through a side passage. The magistrate nodded, continuing his exploration, passing through a lay chamber filled with sycamore trees in marble pots with benches between, so one could sit and quietly think. Ebony columns circled the chamber, surrounding a central, circular pool sparkling from torchlight. A fresco of painted stones climbed the wall, revealing the god Apollo clutching a book in his hand and firing sunbeams down to Earth. The towering had gaps in the lower part of the dome which could let in daylight, but now only revealed the dark sky and faded pink clouds reflecting the passing of the sun. Distracted by the fresco, Ovid moved close to admire the way the colored stones from up close seemed unremarkable, but as he backed up, revealed the god of knowledge in full. As he tugged on the purple sash of his office, a pair of voices drifted in from another direction.
“Mniaseas and his ilk undercut my prices because they are cheating,” said a woman Ovid thought might be Drusilla. “Remember, my husband has the ear of the emperor. Can you not take care of this travesty? Good Romans are being pushed out of their own businesses.”
“Cut more favorable trades, improve your prices,” said the second voice, which could only be the governor’s. “I cannot be a solution to all your troubles. There are considerations, and besides, even the emperor would not look kindly on my intervention.”
“Make it a tax. Good Romans, even the Greeks and Egyptians, will applaud it,” said Drusilla. “Or tear down their temples. I don’t care.”
Magistrate Ovid knew that if he were discovered eavesdropping, it would only make his situation worse, so he slipped from the room with the Apollo fresco, veering into side rooms. Twice he came upon scribes working diligently in alcoves or small rooms that were set apart by wooden screens; the scratch of their quills and click of the tip against the stone to clear the excess ink were like the sounds of a mouse in the walls making a nest. The Great Library had a voracious hunger for new books, which it copied and spat back out ad infinitum.
The shrill cry of a peacock alerted him to the location of the zoo, and he found the creature roaming the stone pathways between the dozen or so cages that sat in a flowery garden. A scholar sat near a small pool, staring into the water with a quill hovering above a scrap of parchment he’d set on a flat stone. Ovid avoided the peacock, which strolled down the path as if it owned the place, finding the tiger cage. The sleek creature lay on its side near the front of the cage, panting from the day’s heat, which dissipated rapidly as the salty breeze cooled the city.
Ovid leaned down in front of the cage, studying the broad face of the feline, its yellow-gold eyes staring back. It placed its paw against the steel bars, the click of claws extending making Ovid shift backwards, then nearly trip when a low growl emanated from the beast.
“You and I, we’re each stuck in a cage this evening,” Ovid said to the tiger. “But unlike you, I am trapped with my hunters.” He rose to a standing position, tapped on the heavy lock which hung at the clasp. “I would free you, but you look hungry enough to eat even someone as large as I.”
Ovid stretched to reduce the tension in his back as he stared into the sky. The pinks of sunset were no longer visible, replaced with the warm glow of torchlight rising above the buildings and the pinpricks of stars. He stepped to the side and the lighthouse on Pharos came into view, its brass mirrors reflecting illumination towards the wine-dark seas of the Mediterranean to guide ships to the harbor. The moon was set to rise later in the night, and then later still would be the occlusion, a length of time that seemed a prison sentence to the magistrate.
A few heartbeats after the peacock sounded its shrill cry, a strange double noise echoed from a nearby passageway that at once aroused his curiosity and dread. His mind went immediately to the wet thunk of the hammer against a skull, but he knew that the library was a strange place, and that the noises probably had a less sinister reason. To appease his anxiety, Magistrate Ovid went in search of the origin, but was quickly confounded by multiple passageways. After two false starts that led him to locations he’d already explored, he found a small chamber and a reason to leave.
There was a dead scribe slumped over a table with Governor Flaccus standing over him, a scowl on his lips, and his gladius unsheathed.
Ovid found himself stepping into the room even though his feet wanted to send him elsewhere, drawn by curiosity about the dead man, even as the governor stared him down upon approach. The dead scribe lay forward, a pool of blood dripping off the table, the contents of his work ruined, not that he cared any longer.
“Careful, Magistrate Ovid, I see the accusations in your gaze. You tread on dangerous ground,” said the governor, one hand tightly gripping the hilt of his unbloodied gladius, the other holding the top of the sheath.
“What did you do?”
“Nothing. I came into this room, drawn by a strange noise, same as you, I assume.”
Ovid’s gaze flitted to the blade of the governor’s weapon, which had no trace of blood. As a former member of the legion, he knew there was no way that the governor could have stabbed the man and cleaned off the blade that quickly or cleanly. Killing a man was a messy business.
“But how did he die?”
“What does it matter? He was a scribe.” Flaccus gestured towards the ceiling with his empty hand. “Maybe the gods killed him as a sacrifice to this fateful evening.”
“The gods never dirty their hands directly.”
Governor Flaccus let the tip of his blade rise, pointing towards Ovid’s throat, while the corners of his lips creased. “The gods are wise to use those who wish their favor to carry out their deeds.”
The magistrate glanced to the exit, wondering if he could escape to other parts of the complex before the governor ran him through. Before either man could move, voices intruded, coming from a nearby passage.
“. . . noise came from the Curiosity Rooms, or nearby.”
Before the governor could speak, Ovid called out, “Balbilus! In here!”
Quietly, before they arrived, Flaccus spoke in low menace, “A warning with your accusations. A wild strike opens the stance to a parry that reaches the heart.”
Ovid half opened his mouth as the new head of the library, Balbilus, rushed into the room with Praetor Atticus right behind. The two men looked first to the body, then to the governor with his unsheathed gladius, and finally to Ovid, lingering on him, expecting explaination. Killing a scribe wouldn’t normally injure a man of Flaccus’s stature, especially since it looked like the scribe was one of the Jews, but the balance of power in Alexandria was precarious, and one shift could tip things against the governor.
“I found the body as such with the governor standing over him with his sword drawn,” said Ovid.
The two newcomers speared their glances at the governor, who glowered not at them but Ovid. Before Flaccus could speak, Ovid added, “His gladius was unbloodied then, as it is now. I can only assume that he thought the killer was nearby and sought to defend himself.”
Praetor Atticus turned quickly to Ovid. “Are you certain? He could have cleaned his blade before you arrived.”
A pit formed in Ovid’s stomach. The right phrasing could embroil the governor in controversy, dooming his position in the eyes of the Emperor, and putting his friend the praetor in his seat. But as he surveyed the gruesome scene, the facts were made apparent.
“I have not examined the body, but that looks like a chest wound by the amount and spray of blood. He would have been covered had he been the one to deal the blow. No, his gladius has not seen blood, neither here, nor perhaps ever,” said Magistrate Ovid.
Balbilus and Praetor Atticus, both former members of the Legion, could not deny his assessment, having seen their fair share of battle, unlike the governor. Their small gathering grew as other members of the party found them standing over the body. While the others gawked at the dead scribe, the governor carefully resheathed his weapon, taking unusual care to return the blade.
A group of scholars arrived after being summoned by Balbilus. They examined the body and the contents of the table without touching either, chattering excitedly in a mix of Greek and Coptic. Magistrate Ovid made a slow circuit around the room, which had been partitioned off with theke from a larger space that held hundreds of papyrus scrolls. His pro-cession was silently observed by Governor Flaccus, who looked at him in the same way as the tiger.
“Who was this scribe?” Ovid asked Balbilus.
“The charakitai? They said his name is Iacob son of Mniaseas.”
“The ethnarch?” exclaimed Ovid, receiving a nod from Balbilus, then recalling the conversation he’d overheard between the governor and Drusilla. “This will only further enflame the tensions in the city.”
Balbilus screwed up his face. “I only arrived from Rome two days ago. Are there concerns?”
Magistrate Ovid tugged on his purple sash. His belly rumbled. “No good can come of it.”
“Magistrate Ovid, I have heard much of your good reputation. Are you intending to investigate?” asked Balbilus quietly, his bushy eyebrows wagging.
“This part of the city is not my charge. I oversee the Rhakotis district. I’m afraid I would be overstepping my bounds and giving the governor reason to complain to Rome about me,” said Ovid.
Balbilus appeared to have more to say, but one of the scholars approached, speaking quickly to him in Greek, which Ovid only caught partially. Then the new head of the library lifted his voice.
“As unfortunate as this event is, we shall resume our festivities in the Temple of the Muses, where there will be a demonstration. The inventor Heron has arrived with his latest creation, a toy that spins on its own when the elements of fire and water are combined.”
The magistrate brightened at the thought of seeing his friend Heron, whose workshop was in the Rhakotis. As he left the room, Governor Flaccus matched his pace through the breezeway.
“Do you know the difference be-tween gods and men?” said the governor as his pteruges clapped time with the echo of their sandals on the marble floor. “The gods are content to wait for the strings of fate to be pulled, while men take action.” He turned, his wine-soaked breath washing over Ovid. “Tread carefully, Magistrate. Tread carefully.”
Ovid lingered after the governor left him, long enough that Praetor Atticus found him. The old soldier’s jaw pulsed, creasing the scar that bisected the right side of his face.
“Why did you give cover to the governor? He had his blade drawn and a man was dead.”
Ovid rested his hand on his belly, meeting his superior’s hard gaze. “There was no blood. He couldn’t have killed the scribe.”
“I see the look on your face, Magistrate. You believe something is wrong.”
“Something is wrong. A man is dead. But I don’t think the governor killed him. Not directly anyway.”
“It’s an opportunity,” said the praetor, hard eyes creasing.
“For you. For me it’s a trap. The governor has no love for me because I have vexed him on other matters. I am a coward. I prefer a field of flowers to the field of battle.”
Praetor Atticus chuckled lightly. “A coward would not have vexed him. Ovid, you are a clever man. More clever than others would give you credit.”
“This district is under the care of Magistrate Manachem. I have no standing here.”
Atticus flared his nostrils. “Manachem is in Rome, sucking up to the Senate.”
“I’m not your pawn, Praetor.”
“You are a good man.”
“A stupid man, if I choose to get involved.”
“Someday you need to learn to throw your weight around.”
Praetor Atticus put a hand on his shoulder. He wanted to say something else, but then a flurry of applause from the next room brought his head around. “Come Ovid, let us see the inventor’s newest prize,” said Atticus, eyes glittering with excitement. “His newest cheiroballistras made the skirmish with the Syrians last year into a farce.”
Magistrate Ovid followed him into the temple, but stayed in back. While the praetor purported to be his friend, he was an ambitious man. Ovid did not care to be trampled under his quest for power, but the death bothered him regardless of the political circumstances.
“Good citizens of the Roman Empire,” said Balbilus, on the dais next to a slight, effeminate man in a tunic, who stood behind a table with a strange brass ball fixed high above a brazier in which a small fire burned, a tube exiting on each side of the ball in opposite directions, “this is Alexandria’s favored son, the inventor Heron, who has brought his latest invention, which he calls the aeolipile, for demonstration.”
As much as Ovid wanted to stay and watch this latest marvel, questions about the murder lingered and, as if a rope tugged him there, Ovid found himself crossing the breezeway past flowered chrysanthemums to return to the scribe’s room. He peeked in, thinking the room empty, only to find the scholar Quintus picking through the scrolls piled on the shelves while muttering to himself.
“My apologies,” said Ovid when Quintus startled, a hand fluttering to his chest, “I thought to come back and, ahem . . .”
Quintus could barely meet Ovid’s gaze. “Of course, you were concerned. A strange and fateful party this is, a blight on Balbilus’s reputation.”
Ovid raised an eyebrow. “Did you lose something? Or maybe find something?”
“Nothing in particular,” said Quintus, pursing his lips, then he lifted his chin as if he’d heard a sound. “I must go. The servants should be here to clean up the mess by now. Salve.”
The scholar hurried from the room, leaving Ovid more curious than he was before. He focused his attention on the slumped body while ignoring the itch between his shoulder blades.
“Who did you antagonize to deserve this fate?” he murmured. “Was there a rivalry in the library? Or does this have to do with your father the ethnarch?”
Ovid surveyed the pool of coagulated blood, which reminded him of jellied cranberries. He eyed the exits before grabbing the back of the dead scribe’s head and pulling him away from the table, which released the blood near his chest to drip onto the floor.
“Come, Iacob son of Mniaseas, what befell you?”
Ovid was expecting the robes to have a thin, bloody slice indicating the thrust of a blade, but to his surprise, there was a hole the size of a fist at the center of the dead man’s chest. Ovid wrinkled his nose.
“Did a horse kick you? What manner of death is this?”
He leaned in close. He’d seen something similar when a ram used to knock down gates had splintered, and a chunk of wood had punctured a man’s chest right beneath the armpit where the chest plate didn’t protect. The poor light in the room made seeing the contours of the wound difficult, so Ovid stuck his finger into the wet hole, hitting something hard and round.
“What in Jupiter’s name?”
It appeared that a brass ball the size of a Roman coin was lodged in the scribe’s chest. Ovid allowed the body to slump back onto the table, ignoring the splatter that followed as more blood slipped over the edge. He knew of nothing that might cause a brass ball to appear in a man’s chest. Ovid wiped the blood from his finger onto the scribe’s robes as he strolled around the room, trying to decipher how such a thing came to pass. An arrow or blade, he could have understood, but a brass ball? Flinging bolts from a crossbow took force, but how could this ball have hit the scribe hard enough to kill him when there was nothing else in the room? He circled, looking for signs of other contraptions, but it was a simple space. When he thought about the trajectory of an arrow, he imagined the ball entering the man’s chest, then followed backwards, arriving at the wooden shelving.
He almost turned back, but noticed a torn edge of a papyrus scroll, and upon moving the pile found a hole through the wooden back of the shelving. He peered through the hole to see flickering torches beyond.
Heading through a connecting passage, he found himself in one of the Curiosity Rooms. The space was filled with tables, each one displaying a different item, some found by Alexander himself on his journeys, while others had been acquired in the years since. Ovid briefly examined an iron sphere with outlines etched into the side. The shape of the Mediterranean sea seemed too small by Ovid’s account, but he hadn’t come for the map, but the hole in the wall.
The partition that separated the two rooms was painted on this side, showing the scene of Alexander at the Battle of Gaugamela where he defeated the Persian empire, even though he was extraordinarily outnumbered. The painting brought out the exalted expression of Alexander as he charged into battle.
“I recognize that look,” said Ovid with a sigh as he searched. “More of you die than live, but the survivors think themselves blessed by the gods.”
He found the place where the brass ball had passed through the wall. The impact was clean, ripping a perfectly circular hole. He could see the dead scribe on the other side. Following the line of trajectory, he arrived at a device whose purpose he could not determine. It was set on a metal table with a box that gave off heat like a cooling furnace and on the end was a long tube. Burning tickled his nose. Ovid stuck his fingers in the hole at the end of the tube, which seemed a similar diameter to the wall, and to the object in the scribe’s chest.
“What sorcery is this?” he exclaimed, even though he’d seen inventions before that seemed miraculous in design.
Magistrate Ovid surmised the output of the contraption, but not how it worked. He was tapping on his chin when he heard the applause coming from the Temple of the Muses and hurried back to the chamber before anyone realized he’d slipped out.
The demonstration had been an effective balm for the mood, as the attendees clapped the inventor Heron on the shoulder before refilling their cups. Through the openings in the far wall, Ovid could see the reflections of moonlight on the harbor. After everyone finished their well wishes, Ovid approached Heron, who busily assembled his notes.
“Magistrate Ovid,” said Heron brightly, his soft voice at odds with the hard machines he invented. “I did not see you at the demonstration.”
Ovid cleared his throat, glancing around in hopes that no one had heard. “I was in back,” he said, loudly. “The aeolipile is a marvel, you’ve outdone yourself.”
Heron squeezed his lips white. “It’s a useless toy.” Then quieter, “What ails you, friend? I would expect a cup of wine and a honeyed fig in your fists, which means you are distracted by troubles.”
Magistrate Ovid lowered his voice. “There has been a death in the library. One of the scribes. He was killed by a strange device. Perhaps you can help me understand its construction so I might determine who might have used it.”
The inventor nodded. “I am both intrigued and disturbed.”
“Then let us go to the Curiosity Rooms. If anyone asks, you are giving me a tour.”
The slight man led Ovid across the breezeway. They were stopped by noble well-wishers, who ignored Ovid as if he wasn’t there. After the nobles left, Heron lifted his thin eyebrow, to which Ovid replied, “Old stories.”
The conversation ended when they entered the Curiosity Room. Heron’s gaze immediately fell upon the strange device, but Ovid grabbed his wrist. Heron paused, then nodded, understanding.
“This is a Chaldaean star finder,” said Heron, tapping on a sphere made of three separate rings. “There are charts that should help determine their locations in the sky, but we only have fragments, and they don’t seem to match up, suggesting the device is defective or we misunderstand its use. Nevertheless, its construction is pleasing to the eye.”
He led them to another table, as two other nobles entered the room on the far side. Cups in hand, laughing, they circled through the room, keeping a healthy distance. Heron paused at a pillar with a hunk of dark gray stone.
“Magnetite,” said the inventor, taking a piece of iron from a nearby box and holding it near the stone before releasing it. Ovid let out a cry of surprise when the piece of iron flew across the space, sticking to the strange stone. He tugged on the iron, finding it hard to remove.
After experiencing the pull of the magnetite on the iron piece, Ovid gestured towards a device that had multiple brass gears set into a rotating box that was nearest the mechanism. “What is this?”
Heron approached with his hands behind his back. “An early version of the Heavens Mechanism from the Rhodes Astronomical Society, which can predict celestial events.”
“Like the eclipse tonight.”
“Just so.” Heron paused. “A later version can calculate the position of the planets—the wanderers.”
When Ovid’s eyes fell upon the crimson-and-white armor on display, Heron opened his mouth to explain, but the magistrate beat him to it. “Linothrax.” He squinted, then checked back with the painting of Alexander on the wall. “This was Alexander’s armor. But it’s too new.”
“A replica only, the linen laminate disintegrates over time. Scholar Phaedon keeps a supply in the lower levels along with the other items no longer kept in the Curiosity Rooms.”
Ovid ran his fingertips along the stiff material. “I wore a version of linothrax in the Legion. The soldiers said I was unpatroiotic wearing the armor of foreigners, but I’ve never been a small man, and the double-lion breastplate only made me slower.”
“Does it protect well?” asked Heron.
“The linen is combined with rabbit glue to make a flexible, protective, and most importantly for me, light armor. On the night we took the Chatti fort, it deflected two spears and a sword blow. I think my opponents were surprised at its efficiency.”
Heron hadn’t been at the conversation at the beginning of the party, and Ovid wasn’t keen to reminisce about that painful day, so he shifted his attention to the next item on display. On the pillar was an oblong ceramic in the shape of an elephant’s trunk with small holes along the length. When Ovid frowned from a lack of understanding, Heron suppressed a smile, his eyes glittering.
“Is it a musical instrument? Or a pipe?”
“It’s a device made for pleasuring women.” Heron paused, but continued when Ovid raised an eyebrow. “The curators leave it here as a lark. This pillar once held Alexander’s broken spear, but the wood rotted and the iron tip rusted away in the moist sea air.”
“Ahhh.” Ovid cleared his throat. “And this device?”
Heron’s mirth evaporated as he approached the box and tube, placing his hand on it tentatively then pulling it away as it was still clearly hot to the touch. He frowned and opened the clasps on the back of the box, revealing coals that flared up briefly before returning to their dull orange.
“What is it?”
“A machine for death made by Archimedes,” said Heron, sourly. “A steam thrower.”
“Have you not made war machines yourself? Praetor Atticus was just praising your designs against the Syrians.”
Heron tapped a chamber at the base of the tube. “See this? Water is poured in here and at the moment when the inner portion is glowing red, it’s shoved into the water, turning it to steam, which cannot escape and pushes a ball out that tube. Throwing it at great speeds.”
“Jupiter’s balls,” said Ovid.
“In this case, Archimedes’ balls.” Heron nodded toward the painting of Alexander. “Your dead scribe lies beyond there?”
“Yes.” Ovid tapped on the table. “Who would know how to operate this device?”
“Anyone at the library familiar with mechanics, which these days is only a handful. Most of their talents lie in literary critique, which moves neither mankind nor thought forward.”
Heron shifted his mouth to the side. “Timaeus is one, Aratus the Macedonian is another, and lastly would be Quintus, as there is nothing within the library that he does not understand. It is a shame that he was not named head of the library, given his experience, rather than that political appointee.”
“Quintus was to be named as head?”
Heron rocked his hand back and forth. “He was favored by the community of scholars due to his love of knowledge and support of the arts, but Governor Flaccus does not like him since he’s an Egyptian. He petitioned the Emperor to name Balbilus instead, even though he’d never set foot in the library before.”
Ovid remembered that Quintus had been called away from the party not long before the death. He could have easily set up the steam thrower and returned to the party.
“Then Quintus had the knowledge, but I cannot understand the reason, except to embarrass Balbilus on his important night? That’s a high price—someone’s life for a professional slight. It doesn’t make sense.”
Heron clasped his shoulder. “I’m afraid, my friend, that I must leave you to your investigation. My progress at the workshop is slow going, and I have an order for the Temple of Pan to fulfill. They want a statue that can play the pipes, but I’m struggling to get the bellows to work right. Apologies for leaving you in your time of need, but I am only one step ahead of the creditors.”
So as not to be seen alone with the steam thrower, Magistrate Ovid followed Heron as far as the Temple of the Muses, collecting a cup of water to quench a heat that was building in him.
Balbilus found him a short time later. The new head of the library was as tall as Ovid, with powerful forearms. “Ave, Magistrate. There you are. I’ve been looking for you.”
“I wanted to apologize for the governor’s rough treatment of you upon your telling of the Chatti story. It was unfair of him to bring up that event. Those soldiers should have respected a ranking officer, regardless of the circumstance. You were within your rights to kill them.”
The memory came back in full: black smoke drifting through the yard, the screams of dying and rape, the three drunken soldiers lazily waving their spears and swords as they surrounded him.
“Unfair was the point. The governor has no love for me.”
Balbilus squinted. “But your father—”
“He has no love for me either.” Ovid sighed. “Nor I for the sharp elbows of politics.”
The head of the library lifted his chin, squeezed his lips white. “Which means you’d have no one to speak for you if the governor were to complain to the Emperor.”
“You see my troubles clearly.”
“Politics on this side of the sea are new to me,” said Balbilus, leading them away from the temple on a stroll.
“No worse than Rome, I’m sure.” Ovid paused. “Yet you are here in Alexandria now.”
Balbilus inclined his head. “This is a position I have long coveted.” He gestured towards the racks of scrolls on the far end. “This place is a temple to knowledge. As a boy in Rome, I studied all the great thinkers who have resided here: Euclid, Strabo, Eratosthenes, Herophilus, the list goes on forever.” He offered a kind smile. “It is a shame we didn’t cross paths in the Legion.”
“You were an engineer, I remember.”
“Not a bridge we couldn’t build across, or walls we couldn’t breach. It’s where I developed my love of knowledge.” Balbilus chuckled. “Of course, most of the time was spent overseeing the camp palisades and latrine locations, but I did my job well and rose quickly.”
Their walk took them along a path that overlooked the harbor above the Mouseion complex. The full moon had risen above the city, silver light reflecting on the choppy waves as a swift breeze blew north, bringing warm air.
“A perfect night for the eclipse,” said Balbilus.
“A long party for such a brief event.”
Balbilus chuckled lightly. “Not brief at all. The eclipse on this evening will last almost one twenty-fifth of a day. Long enough to get sodden in our cups.”
As they passed the entrance to the Curiosity Rooms, Ovid nodded in their direction. “This place is a marvel.”
“Truthfully, it is not the same library as in previous centuries. Most scholarship is literary critique, rather than original study. Even Heron, the foremost inventor in Alexandria right now, is not a resident of the library as he should be, but rather making miracles for the temples.”
He gestured toward the buildings behind them, backlit with golden torchlight.
“I want to return the Library of Alexandria to its prominent place of glory. Rebuild the knowledge lost in the great fire, incite new scholarship. There is so much we do not yet understand about our world,” said Balbilus breathlessly.
Ovid found himself smiling at the new head of the library, admiring his vision. Too often he’d found the men of the empire were preoccupied with glories of the past. As they’d been talking, down on the docks a solitary figure moved from the warehouses beneath the library to a galley, and then back.
“Do you know what that was?” asked Balbilus, his eyes creasing with thought.
Ovid shook his head.
“The runners collect scrolls from the ships, then in the warehouses the scribes copy the scrolls, and return the copy to the ships, thus recording the knowledge which is later cataloged and noted with ‘from the ships,’ so we know where it came from. In past centuries, the docks were filled with runners and the warehouses filled with scribes. Now there is little copying and we’re losing too many scrolls to entropy. As head of the library I will increase our copying, especially of scrolls containing the knowledge that will help expand the Empire.”
Ovid leaned on the stone railing. “Do you think the dead scribe was copying a text from the ships?”
“Unlikely,” said Balbilus, the corners of his lips tugging downward. “He would have been in the warehouses had his scroll come from the ships. This was either a private matter, or something related to one of the schools inside the library.”
“Hmmm . . . interesting.”
Balbilus raised a playful eyebrow. “I thought you didn’t like politics.”
Balbilus searched Ovid’s face before turning back to the harbor. The wind shifted, bringing the voices of sailors guiding a galley into the docks as they furled the sails.
“Are you well versed in the scholars of the library?” asked Ovid.
“I studied the rolls before I arrived.”
Ovid sighed. “If possible, I would like to speak with Timaeus, or Aratus the Macedonian.”
“I’m afraid that is not possible,” said Balbilus, shifting his mouth to the side. “Aratus was lured away to the library in Cyrene last month, and I believe Timaeus is on an expedition to study some ruins near the Oracle of Ammon.”
Balbilus smirked. “I assume this is a private matter, not official capacity.”
“Of course,” said Ovid, nodding.
“If you wish to speak to Timaeus when he returns, inquire with the noblewoman Drusilla. She is his patron, and financier of the expedition.”
Ovid glanced at the moon. “How long until the occlusion?”
Balbilus gestured towards the far side of the harbor where the lighthouse on the island of Pharos was situated. “When it passes the statue of Poseidon on the lighthouse, but before it reaches the horizon.”
They returned to the party, which had become more drunken. The nobles were laughing louder and gesturing more wildly. Ovid found Praetor Atticus standing by himself with a brass cup in his hand, scowling at a statue of Alexander.
“Does the city’s namesake bother you?”
“To the contrary. He was as bold a man as ever lived. Fearless.”
“I’ve found fear to be rather instructive,” said Ovid.
The praetor lifted his cup to drink, but flinched slightly. Ovid immediately saw the reason, as his finger had a blister along the side.
“Did you burn yourself?”
Atticus glanced askew, grumbling under his breath. “I foolishly touched the inventor’s spinning toy.”
Ovid resisted the urge to frown. He didn’t like the idea that his superior might have been involved with the death of the scribe. He wasn’t sure how Atticus could have learned how to operate the steam thrower, if he had at all, but he was a clever man.
“Have you seen the painting of Alexander in the Curiosity Room? The Battle of Gaugamela?” asked Ovid, as he watched the praetor’s reaction carefully.
“Of course,” said Atticus, wrinkling his nose in disgust. “It was that battle that solidified Alexander’s empire. I’ve visited that painting on more than one occasion to muse upon his boldness.”
To keep the praetor talking, Ovid asked, “What was so bold about this battle?”
The praetor glanced back to the party where Governor Flaccus stood, surrounded by a throng of fawning nobles.
“He attacked a superior force, surprising them by marching an unexpected route, then upon the field of battle confused his opponent with a flanking feint before leading the charge that drove a dagger into the heart of the enemy.” The praetor, a glint in his gaze, turned to regard Ovid. “You would do well to learn from Alexander. He attacked his enemy in a way that forced his preferred response.”
Ovid cleared his throat. “I will consider that advice.”
“You should consider the signs,” said the praetor; then adding, when Ovid wrinkled up his face, “On the night before the battle, there was a lunar eclipse.”
The praetor finished his cup in one quick motion, heading back to the party in long, purposeful strides.
The words were like a punch in the gut. Though Ovid had not had a drop of wine since the beginning of the party, he felt unsteady on his feet, as if he’d been in his cups all evening.
Holding up the hem of his robes, Ovid hurried back to the Curiosity Rooms to gaze upon the painting. There on the wall was Alexander astride his horse, leading a charge into the heart of the Persian side. But it wasn’t the city’s namesake that he was looking for. High above and to the left of the battle, previously unlooked for, was a dark disc of the occluded moon. A chill passed down his spine.
Upon his return to the Temple of the Muses, Ovid crossed paths with the noblewoman Drusilla. A few nobles of lesser station hung on her elbows, laughing at the story she had just finished telling about a deal she’d struck with a Scythian trader for a load of ivory.
“There you are, Magistrate.”
She waved away the others. “How are you? That nonsense with the governor will be forgotten by tomorrow. You know, I was an admirer of your wife before she passed. She was a good woman, especially to overlook what you did to your fellow Romans in Germania.”
Ovid put up a forced smile. “I miss her to this day.”
“Is that why you remain Magistrate of the Rhakotis district? Are you still in mourning? You know, Manachem, is hardly present in Alexandria anymore. I could put in a good word. You could be in charge of the Jewish quarter,” said Drusilla, caressing his arm playfully, touching the tip of her tongue to her teeth. “There is profit to be had with the right mindset.”
“I am pleased with the Rhakotis,” said Ovid, trying not to flinch from her touch.
Drusilla looked at him sideways, a layer of contempt in her gaze.
“You prefer the locals and their fetish for crocodiles? I heard a boy swimming in the canals was eaten by a big one that had come up from the Nile through Lake Mareotis. Why would you want to stay with them when you could have more of this?” she asked, gesturing randomly.
“At least when I’m in the Rhakotis, I can avoid the canals, thus reduce my chances of being eaten,” said Ovid plainly.
She recoiled, holding a hand to her chest as if she were wounded. “I think you’d be wise to reconsider my offer. I have the ear of the governor. Your troubles with him could be over if you were to be my friend.”
Ovid said nothing, leaving her gaze to harden. When it was clear what his answer was, she stalked away. He stared at the moon, which hung seemingly motionless in the sky. He considered leaving the party, but the murder was a burr in his mind. While anyone in the library, scholar or noble, could have been the one to kill the scribe Iacob, it seemed there were only four who stood out: Governor Flaccus, the scholar Quintus, the noblewoman Drusilla, and to his dismay, his superior, Praetor Atticus.
He had an idea, but as he circled through the Temple of the Muses on his way to the warehouses, Governor Flaccus strode down from the dais, where he’d been holding court. Ovid caught Drusilla’s smirk before the governor reached him.
“I forbid you from investigating the scribe’s death.”
Ovid did his best to feign ignorance, scooping up the hem of his robes. “The library is a fascinating place.”
“Drusilla tells me she saw you in the room, poking your finger into the dead scribe, and later, plotting with Praetor Atticus. I know you’re his lackey, doing his dirty business because he’s too cowardly to come at me himself,” said the governor loudly.
Ovid swallowed and kept his face neutral. “As you noted earlier, this is not my district, I am merely a curious observer.”
“Or maybe you’re the killer . . .”
Copyright © 2023 Death and Omens in the Great Library by Thomas K. Carpenter