Provincia Pannonia Superior, Imperium Romanum
Consulate of Marcus Gavius Orfitus and Lucius Arrius Pudens
Fourth year of the joint auctoritas of
Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus
and Imperator Caesar Lucius Aurelius Verus Augustus
Ante diem VII Kalendas Iulias CMXVIII Ab Urbe Condita
(June 25th, 165 CE)
The merchant Josephus ben Matthias—it was Lucius Maecius Josephus on the libellus that attested his Roman citizenship—rode north-westward from Vindobona on a fair summer day, along the Roman highway that ran not far from the west bank of the Danube. Which river hereabouts was the border of the Empire as well, or at least the boundary of direct control. His young nephew Simonides rode at his right hand and his Sarmatian freedwoman Sarukê came behind, managing the remounts and the packhorse whose panniers contained very little right now except a goodly sum in coin.
They passed through the well-cultivated land that surrounded the city; truck gardens, rich grainfields shining golden, orchards and vineyards on slopes, woodlots higher up. Scattered farmsteads stood among the fields, and hamlets huddled together. Rarer but imposing were red-roofed villas stuccoed in cream-white or brighter colors, each with its dependencies and the distinctive luxurious glitter of windows made with panes of glass in wooden frameworks. Rows of workers in the fields were taking the very first of the winter wheat with flashing sickles, looking up now and then to gaze at the road.
At travelers on foot or in the saddle, groups of belated migrant harvest-workers trudging with their bundles and tools on poles over their shoulders soldier-wise, and long trains of two-wheeled carts and bigger wagons inbound towards the city with fodder and fruit and vegetables and firewood and charcoal. Or at donkeys nearly invisible under bundles of this and that.
Plus the odd herd of docile sheep or obstreperous pigs or smaller groups of cattle headed likewise, and once a coffle of twenty German slaves yoked neck-to-neck and supervised by several armed, mounted guards with clubs and whips. Some of the human merchandise were young men with healing wounds; warriors captured in some inter-tribal skirmish across the river, and sold to Roman traders. They’d probably be kept going to markets further away, for safety’s sake.
The numbers on the road dropped off as the day progressed, and there were only scattered groups after they stopped for a noon-meal of bread, oil, onions, smoked mutton sausage and fruit. Now and then cavalry patrols from the auxilia went by, giving them sidelong looks, sometimes swinging across the road and asking questions, then riding on at his cheerful greeting and mention of his name and residence.
“More patrols than usual,” he said. “The Lord of Hosts grant it’s just the commanders being nervous.”
“Amen,” his nephew said.
Sarukê snorted; she knew better.
For that matter, so do I, Josephus thought, pressing his lips together.
Out on the blue river itself barges and sailboats passed, and rafts of timber and little fishing smacks. Twice a light patrol galley, swift as a serpent among the tubby cargo vessels, its fifteen oars a side beating the water into froth and a gilded bear or boar’s-head and painted glaring eyes above the bronze ram. The water smelled cool and fresh when the wind came from the northeast, leavening the earthy-dusty scents of farmland, the green growing tang of woodlots and pastures and the barnyard odor of livestock and their own horses’ sweat.
Birdsong was loud, louder now that the sound of human voices was rarer. The hooves of the horses clattered on the concrete-set paving stones of the road, or thudded on softer dirt when they could ride beside it to spare the beasts.
Josephus was in his thirtieth year, and Simonides only just adult at seventeen, but otherwise they had a strong family resemblance; both of medium height, olive-skinned, wiry-slim in a well-muscled way with big dark-hazel eyes and black hair and long faces with bold noses. Josephus wore his dense curly beard short-cropped, in the Greek-philosopher style that Marcus Aurelius had made popular, and his nephew’s was so tufty-patchy to date that he shaved in the older fashion to avoid humiliation.
They both wore openwork cothurnus boots, tight knee-length leather riding breeks—called femoralia because they covered the femur, the thigh—and short-sleeved tunics. Those were of tough linen bloused up through their belts to knee-length too, but of good dyed cloth with embroidery at the hems, and they had broad-brimmed leather traveler’s hats on their heads. On a warm summer’s day like this the practical hooded cloaks woven from grease-in wool were rolled up and strapped behind them; unlike the lands further south it could rain here at any season, which made the cloaks a wise precaution.
“Usually nobody minds much if you dodge some of the import taxes on amber and furs, provided you—” the merchant said.
With a gesture that involved fingers stroking palm and meant grease the right hands.
He spoke in Greek, which was the language they usually used in his family; Josephus had been born in Syrian Antioch, and so had the boy’s father, who was his half-brother and elder by fifteen years, by his father’s first wife. Simonides spoke Latin as well, of course, and Aramaic; Josephus had those and a few others, including Persian and the local varieties of Gallic and German.
“But lately the Marcomanni—”
He inclined his head towards the river; that was the German tribal confederation that occupied most of the other bank here.
“—have been kicking up their heels. Raids, and not just by a few hotheads. Prince Ballomar swears he’s a loyal Roman ally, but he’s the one behind it, and his father’s too old and doddering to stop him. So the new Legate of the 10th—”
Which was the legion long stationed at Vindobona, though seriously understrength right now. The previous commander had been sent to help wage the war the Emperors were currently fighting with the Parthians in the east. He’d taken large vexilliationes, detachments, from all the Danubian legions with him and a goodly chunk of their auxiliary archers and cavalry too, and nearly all their catapults and siege-gear.
That was one major reason Prince Ballomar was getting playful, insofar as a German warlord needed reasons to cut throats and burn and steal.
“—he’s getting tight-arsed about enforcing the duties and regulations on cross-border trade. Still, it’s worth a little risk. It increases the margin of profit on the goods by, oh, two parts in ten or a bit less. Which is the difference between not worth bothering and nice tasty morsel.”
Simonides frowned, memorizing the information. Like his uncle he was a younger son—youngest son, and third youngest of six living children, in fact—and would have just enough of a patrimony to get him started. He was staying with Josephus as an apprentice, more or less.
Though of course all the extended family’s heads of household helped each other at need, contributed local connections, partnered on ventures, and corresponded and exchanged valuable news from Massilia in Gaul all the way to Seleucia over the border in Parthia. They all collaborated on charitable works too, and on supporting rabbinical students from the family or bright youngsters from poorer ones.
Josephus was moderately proud of how he’d turned a small inheritance into a fair degree of affluence, though trading on the frontier had its risks.
No risk, no profit, he thought, slapping the hilt of his sword, a plain practical cavalryman’s weapon like the bow cased at his knee with its built-in quiver. And hereabouts… sometimes it’s not just money you risk.
Hence this trip to dicker with a minor landowner who sidelined in smuggling because his Norican-Gallic family had old blood-links over the border. With absolutely nobody along he didn’t fully trust to keep their mouth shut. Fortunately, amber was very high value in relation to bulk. One packhorse could anonymously carry far more than was practical to buy, hidden among nondescript bundles. Ostensibly he was buying beeswax, which was perfect for concealment and quite plausible, since it was moderately high-value itself.
Sarukê dhugatêr Arsaliôn—the middle word was ‘daughter of’ in her tongue and the last her father’s name—looked carefully and methodically both ways down the deserted stretch of highway and said:
“Leave road here, lord?” in rough but fluent Greek; she spoke equally bad Latin too. “For villa of Lord Marcus? I go first?”
Josephus checked the road in his turn; they were alone and she was reliable, but you couldn’t be too careful. Nobody was in sight, and there weren’t any of the border-watchtowers overlooking this stretch either.
“Do it,” he said. “Nephew, take the extra horses’ leading rein, she’ll need both hands.”
Sarukê was probably about two or three years younger than the merchant, and a full four inches above his middling five-foot-five height. Sarmatians were a tall folk; she also had the pale skin, almost colorless grey eyes and reddish-blond hair common among those nomads of the Pontic steppe, and was beaky-faced and built like a leopard.
Fighting women were not unknown among them too, though not exactly common. Josephus suspected the old Greeks had gotten their legends of Amazons from that source. She’d been captured when a raiding warband was smashed on the northern border of Dacia, the trans-Danubian province further east that Emperor Trajan had conquered a lifetime ago, and sold to the arenas further south as a slave gladiatrix.
The merchant had bought and manumitted her after he saw her win a bout in the arena, thus almost certainly saving her from an early, nasty death.
Right now she was dressed in her native garb, or as close as you could get here. Leather jacket and baggy woolen trousers that were tucked into soft strapped boots; a knee-length coat of riveted mail went over it, and a dagger and a ring-hilted longsword were belted to her waist, along with a steppe recurve bow in its quiver-case. The round shield slung over her back was painted with a triskele pattern of gryphon heads.
When armed as now, with the domed helmet on and its horsehair plume nodding over her head, and the hinged cheekpieces that tied off below her chin covering much of her face, she was usually taken for a man among Romans. Ex-gladiators were commonly hired for bodyguard work, though Josephus’ friends had twitted him about a female one, with rough jokes about dual jobs and sly digs about excessive thrift on her purchase price. But he’d found it very useful indeed to have a competent bodyguard who did not look like a fighter when she was in woman’s garb.
Not to ordinary Roman eyes, at least. That had given several robbers and one unscrupulous business rival a very nasty… very pointed… surprise.
And she’s more loyal than a man in her position would be, he thought. She can’t go home again.
She also had an uncanny memory for terrain; they’d only been this way once before, and that in wintertime, but she never hesitated as they crossed the roadside meadow and went into the wood beyond on a deer trail leading northwest. Big trees towered over them as they rode through low densely forested hills, beeches and ash, oak and hornbeam, elm and more casting an umbrous gloom. Brush was thick where sunlight broke through, and they could hear the odd rustle from boar and deer and aurochs and other wild beasts. A half-wild sounder of the landowner’s pigs feeding on the rich mast of beechnuts and acorns squealed and gave them suspicious, gimlet-eyed, tusk-clashing looks as they passed, though the swineherd wasn’t in sight.
Occasionally they passed a stump and chips and the drag-marks of an ox-team where a tree had been harvested, or a circle of saplings springing up from the roots of such. The hills began to fade as they descended to the north, and open patches showing the marks of grazing herd-beasts grew more frequent.
Then he reined in and said:
There was an odd feeling in the air, like the tension before a thunderstorm, prickling the hair on the back of his neck. The birds had grown silent.
And then a flick of brilliant white light came from beyond the edge of the trees, followed by a sharp piercing whining noise not quite like anything he’d ever heard before. Almost like two pieces of metal scraping but far louder, loud enough to hurt the ears.
Another flick of light, and another. More, and each closer to the next until he closed his eyes and threw up a hand against the intolerable brightness. Then it was gone, and the noise ended with a crack sound and a thudding like heavy weights dropping on the ground but from no great height. The horses snorted and reared and rolled their eyes, and he slugged his back into obedience with a hard tug on the reins.
Sarukê was looking frankly terrified, eyes wide and staring beneath the rim of her helm, teeth bared in a snarl; men and beasts didn’t frighten her much, but this smacked of the Otherworld. Simonides was pale but biting his lip and visibly mastering himself.
“The Lord God of Hosts is with us!” Josephus said to the boy sharply. “Call upon Him, and fear nothing.”
He was frightened himself. But he was also curious; and there really was no profit without risk. New things were opportunities, and you had to be able to seize them. Letting terror cloud your wits didn’t help.
And I’m not going to look fearful before my nephew.
The merchant slid down from the horned cavalry-style saddle and tethered his horse to a nearby sapling; the normal, mundane actions helped him take back self-control. The other two did likewise, and Sarukê had the remounts and packhorse calm in moments. Josephus drew his sword, his nephew a long curved sica-dagger, and the Sarmatian had an arrow on the string of her powerful four-foot horse-archer’s bow. They went forward to the northern edge of the woods, down on their bellies for the last few yards, through hazel-thicket and ladybell with the odd blue flower lingering, yellow Venus-foot and others.
The stretch of meadow ahead was normally just more rough grazing on a low, gentle slope; the Danube was out of sight from here even when the leaves were off the surrounding trees. The great river did a sharp turn to run east-west a few miles north… upstream… of here, and they were in the elbow of the curve.
No birds sang, and no butterflies danced or bees buzzed about the flowers. Now it held—
You’d need a big oxcart to take all that, his merchant’s mind calculated automatically as he blinked at the sight. No, two of them. Or a four-wheel wagon.
Ten yards away in the knee-length flower-starred grass was a collection of wooden boxes, fastened together with the luxury of iron nails and tumbled higgledy-piggledy, some cracked a bit. One teetered and fell over with a thump as he watched. A few chests and trunks, and a number of sacks. Many large bundles, rope-wrapped with outer coverings of coarse burlap or waxed leather. A few things leaned against them; a pair of spears, a couple of ordinary flat oval shields of the type many people carried in rough country, and a Roman legionary sword and belt.
And sprawling unconscious on the ground, just to one side, five odd-looking people… and part of another man a little further aside, an older man with a white tuft of beard on his chin, his legs sliced off neatly at the upper thigh and his mouth gaping in death. There was no sign of the missing limbs, but the blood was still flowing.
Which made no sense at all.
Wounds like that killed quickly, and the red tide ebbed and slowed to a diminishing trickle even as he watched. But where had been the screams and clash of iron and beating of blade on shield? And some of the bundles were smoking faintly, as if they’d been exposed to very high heat, like cloth held too close to a crucible of molten copper but not quite long enough to burst into flame.
He rose and walked forward into the clearing, sword still ready; the air was unnaturally hot, and there was a curious smell like lightning, but both were fading quickly. The others followed, and Sarukê did a swift expert circuit of the clearing, bow ready.
When she called there was disbelief in her voice:
“Nobody else! No new man-track or horse-track or ox-sign or wheel-sign, either, lord! None!”
“Take a look at the baggage,” Josephus said to his nephew, sheathing his sword.
And added to himself: “Strange, very strange. Solomon in his wisdom might be able to figure out how they got this much heavy gear here without leaving tracks. There must be a full—”
He stirred a few of the bundles with his toe to confirm his impression from the way they looked.
“—two or three thousand libra of it. Thirty or forty talents.”
Sarukê was good at hunting and fieldcraft, and if she said there wasn’t any sign, there wasn’t.
“But I can’t figure it out. Unless they dropped from the sky like that Greek Icarus in the story!”
Young Simonides hastened to obey, his natural curiosity overcoming the ebbing fear. Sarukê remained tightly ready for a fight as she kept their surroundings under a ceaselessly moving eye.
Josephus examined the people, the living ones—several of them had trickles of blood coming from nose and eyes and ears, but they were definitely not badly wounded, breathing steadily if slowly, their pulses regular when he put his fingers to throats.
There were five. One very tall man, fully six feet, of about Josephus’ age or a bit less, but clean-shaven in the older Greek or Roman way. He had light hair sun-streaked with white-blond and cropped close, and out-of-doors tanned and weathered skin; the merchant raised one eyelid with his thumb, and the eye beneath was blue. The features were oval, handsome in a bluntly regular square-chinned way, and he’d have called them Gaulish or German at first glance. Though plenty of folk of both stocks had lived under Rome for centuries now, mingling their blood with all the others.
His clothes had a vaguely Germanic shape too, rather close-cut ankle-length trousers with a buckled belt through sewn-on loops to hold them up, socks of a distinctly odd make, closed leather shoes of intricate construction, a blue jacket with a white shirt beneath it that was fastened up the front with an odd arrangement of pearly disks shoved through slots in the cloth. But no single detail of cut or construction was familiar, and the cloth was of a fantastically fine weave and unfamiliar materials. The shirt might have been cotton, an eastern fabric as expensive as silk, but it wasn’t—not quite. It felt too smooth, somehow.
Scars on his face and hands, Josephus thought. Not quite like any I’ve seen before either… but a warrior if I’ve ever seen that. Strong-built, out much in all weathers, but not a laborer’s muscle. And a rich warrior, by his garb. A chief or lord, perhaps?
The other four were younger, not much older than his nephew… though he couldn’t be certain, because they were all quite big too. Not giants, no size you wouldn’t see occasionally on a farm or city street, but conspicuous when you saw the five of them together.
Like a crowd of Sarmatians for height.
Two were women, but they were as tall as he was or nearly; two were men, and taller. All four wore tight blue trousers with copper studs, tight as his own leather riding-breeks but ankle-length rather than to the knee, and closed shoes even stranger than the older man’s, of hard-but-flexible materials he couldn’t identify at all.
Leather boiled and waxed would come closest, but not very close.
And tunics, small tight ones of a stretchy fabric; one bleached snow-white, one black, one brown and in one case white with a distorted dog’s head drawn on the cloth somehow, and all tucked them into the blue trousers.
One of the men was skinny, with a big nose and light olive skin, a shaggy-frizzy dark brown beard and similar hair already retreating a little; he might have been a cousin of Josephus, save that he was as tall as the strange warrior. The other man had the same Gallic or German looks as the first, and like him was clean-shaven, quite tall but not towering, broad-shouldered and strong but with little callus on his hands.
Like a rich Greek who spends much time at sport.
The women were truly, deeply strange, even apart from their mannish garb. One was a black Nubian or Aethiop, ebony-skinned and good-looking in a rather plump fashion. The other had pale umber-brown skin just a little darker than his own, a small nose, high cheekbones, long raven-dark hair and black eyes that had a fold at the corners, making them look tilted.
I saw a man who had those slant-eyed looks in Parthia, and he was flat of face like her, he thought, recalling a journey with his father half his lifetime ago. Though it didn’t look nearly so pretty on him! They said he came from far to the eastward.
This group was as mixed as you might see in a great city, Antioch or even Rome, never mind this provincial backwater. All of the strangers also had the look of those who’d never wanted for food, and except for the older warrior didn’t look as if they’d had to labor as hard as most did, either. And—he checked, on a vagrant impulse—they all had unusually fine teeth, white and straight and none missing.
Which meant they were all rich or raised that way, and unusually lucky too. Unlike hunger and toil, trouble with your teeth was one of those things you couldn’t buy your way out of. If anything the rich had more of it, for some reason.
Simonides’ voice was urgent, but this time his excitement held a note of pleasure. Even of awe.
Josephus saw that he’d opened the chests—they had locks, strange and small and finely made, but the keys were still in them. The one he hung over eagerly was big enough to need two men to carry it, and had hide loops for that riveted to its sides; the construction was boiled and oiled leather over a stout wooden interior, and it was strapped with iron.
Another one, even larger but otherwise like it stood open beside it, and it was packed with books—in codex form, not scrolls, bound along one side, and in fancy ways with unknown lettering on the backs rather than on the cut edges of the pages. That almost distracted him, his hands itching to examine the odd volumes, but the soft leather sacks had a magical pull.
An interior partition divided the trunk into a larger and smaller compartment. The younger man had opened the topmost sack on the larger side, and poured coins into his hand. Josephus snatched one up, bit it and held it up to catch the light.
It was a silver denarius of Antoninus Pius, the Emperor before the current princeps and his co-ruler Verus. Good silver, definitely, not clipped or some cheap counterfeit—an ability to judge money accurately at a glance was a necessity in his line of work.
Eight and a half parts in ten silver, then.
He put the coins back in the sack and tossed it up and down a little, calculating the solid weight of it in his hand.
“Four hundred fifty to five hundred, I’d say,” he murmured.
Simonides whistled softly, and well he might. Three hundred denarii was a full year’s pay for a legionary soldier, before stoppages for food and gear; about what a skilled freeman like a smith or furniture-maker would get in the same time here in Pannonia. Except that the soldier’s pay was more regular and ended with a bonus of twelve year’s wages or a grant of land for a farm. For the substantial but lucky minority who lived out a full twenty-five year hitch. More than half didn’t.
He counted quickly. There were twenty of the sacks and a swift check showed they all held around the same amount. That would be nine to ten thousand denarii. Forty thousand sestertii or a little less. A full talent of silver, and hence nearly half of his own body’s weight.
The lowest rank of centurion, commanding eighty men, got three thousand seven hundred and fifty denarii a year. The primus pilus, the First Spear who was senior in the double-strength First Cohort and was first under the legionary legate and his tribunes, got fifteen thousand.
That nine or ten thousand was an equestrian’s yearly income and not one for a poor equites either.
So it wasn’t exactly a huge fortune, but it was more than Josephus could have raised immediately in cash. He’d need a week to do that, and possibly he’d have to sell some assets, or borrow. Most of his money was tied up in goods and property, or committed to ongoing dealings that had to be fulfilled to protect his reputation… and your reputation was the most crucial asset of all for a man of business.
His eyes skipped to the other side of the trunk, and his hand trembled slightly as he picked up one of the near-identical sacks there in the smaller compartment at the back. It was much, much heavier, confirming his guess. When he opened it golden aurii poured out into his other hand, likewise bearing Antoninus Pius’ elderly face. He bit one incredulously, and the soft gold deformed under his teeth, only a little hardened by the silver content of one part in a hundred. Then he counted the coin in another two of the sacks, not willing to guess.
The merchant grunted as if someone had punched him in the stomach. There was a full talent of gold here too; worth more than three hundred thousand sestertii, most of the way to the property qualification for inclusion in the Equestrian Order.
Together, more than Deineira’s weight in gold and silver! he thought, seeing his wife’s clever narrow face.
He felt sweat break out on his brow and trickle down his flanks, and licked dry lips, tasting again the sharp metallic flavors.
That talent of gold was a fortune, even to a prosperous young merchant like him. You could buy a great deal with a talent of gold. Urban properties with rents enough to keep you at a modest gentleman’s level, for example. With that sort of capital to draw on, Josephus knew for a fact that he could be in the Equestrian Order himself in a few years. Rich enough to be a noble or even in the Senate by the time he was old, except of course for the Senate being out of the question for a Jew unwilling to take part in pagan rites.
The other two were looking at him. Sarukê was fingering her dagger and raising her brows, a piratical—or border-reiver—expression in her eyes and a she-wolf smile beneath it. It was so, so tempting…
Sweat trickled down and stung his eyes.
Oh, what I could do with this! Security for my children and the grandchildren to come… no more passing up opportunities because I can’t afford to risk the cash…
“No,” he said, putting the sack of money back and closing the lid of the chest firmly, blowing out a long breath. “We are not bandits. I am not a bandit.”
Then he had a sudden thought, opened it again, examined the coins from several pouches once more and replaced them before closing it for a second time… and turning the keys on both and putting them in his belt-pouch, just to remove temptation.
“The coins all look new,” he said, half to himself. “Every one! As if fresh from the mint… but none are this year’s issue, they have to be at least four years old, that’s when the old Emperor died. And it’s not counterfeit, they’re full weight and the right fineness of gold and silver, or I’m Prince Ballomar’s second wife and eight months pregnant! But none of the ordinary wear you’d expect, not even a little tarnished. Odd.”
One more strangeness among many.
There was a sound from behind him and Sarukê tensed, looking over his shoulder and half-raising her bow. When he turned, the tall warrior was blinking his eyes and turning his head back and forth. He rose stiffly, wiped away a trickle of blood that had run from his nose, put a hand to his head as if it ached, and then stretched, twisting his torso and arms like an athlete warming up, his eyes flicking over the three.
Then he took a step sideways and—deliberately slowly—picked up the balteus with its sheathed gladius and pugio-dagger and belted them on. Then his gaze shifted back to Sarukê with a frown that smoothed away when he’d studied her for a second.
Ah. He saw she’s a woman. A perceptive man, keen of wit, not one to go by the first glance.
Josephus smiled—his delight at this fascinating mystery was quite genuine, and he firmly put the sensual pleasure of holding that bag of gold aurei out of his mind—and raised both hands with palms open in sign of peaceful intent.
“Loquerisne Latine?” he said, asking if the stranger spoke Latin.
That was the commonest tongue right around here, with Gallic and German second and third. He repeated it when the man frowned, speaking more slowly. A nod, and then the stranger said:
This time Josephus had to ask for a repetition himself; the tall man had the strangest, strongest accent he’d ever heard… and he’d heard full many of the ways the Empire’s official tongue could be mangled and mutilated. It took a few minutes for them to be able to actually speak, even of very simple things… including a request for the date.
Not just the day of the month, but the year. And who the Emperor was!
Another oddity to add to the mountain-high pile!
When they could speak a little, Josephus’ puzzlement grew, because the man’s Latin not only sounded strange; once you got past that odd accent and unfamiliar choice of which syllables to stress it was scholar’s Latin. Old-fashioned and sonorous, the sort you might hear in a formal declamation or read in a proclamation. He spoke all the word-endings written with -um and -us the way they were spelled, for instance, rather than the colloquial u’ or o’.
“Where is the town of Vindobona from here?” the man asked, eventually.
He was already shedding a bit of the weird intonation, consciously shaping his pronunciation towards the merchant’s.
Which was another argument for keen wits.
“It…is…in…that…direction,” Josephus replied, pointing southeast and speaking slowly and clearly. “Half…a…day’s…travel…on…foot.”
About the same time he’d taken coming out on horseback, but he’d been deliberately dawdling, part of the misdirection to cover his—
Ummm, my arrangement, so to say.
—about the amber.
The man hissed in annoyance, obviously thinking hard behind a creditable imitation of calm. The others began to stir too, and he glanced at them with a frown. Josephus’ smile grew broader. He wasn’t a bandit, but he thought he could profit from these newcomers nonetheless.
Mutual profit, the best and most lasting kind, if he could win their confidence. They were obviously utter strangers here, somehow, as if they’d dropped from the sky in truth, and he had connections and local information they’d need very badly.
And maybe he could learn from them too. Knowledge was a treasure nothing could steal away save death.
“You…will…need…a…cart. Biiiig—” he spread his arms wide “—cart. Wagon. And house? Place to stay?”
On an impulse he pulled out the keys to the chests and handed them to the man, whose brows rose. Josephus pointed to the chest with the bags of coin.
“And… you… will… need… argentarius…”
He deliberately pronounced it in the old style.
“A… banker. For… the… money.”
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