“The Main Course”
“And more wine for your guests!” the loud man roared as the door shut. He returned to their table, where four others sat.
“Quite a feast” he said. He was a middle aged man going old, hair grey. To his left was a lean man with closed cropped hair. To his right was a small man. Across the table was a woman with green eyes.
“While we have the time, shall we share a last story?” the loud man asked. The others turned to look at the stocky old man at the head of the table.
“Yes” the old man said, “provided I go last. Does everyone know what they want to say?”
The lean man spoke, “I will go first.”
Part I: Cat and Mouse
From his perch, the spy looked down at the town below. He thought back to the last meeting with his mentor while he waited for the target to show. “Felix, remember, he’s dangerous. Our last informant has neither returned nor sent word. Approach him with caution.” The glass was handed to him. “It is straight from the Syracuse factory. You see how it turns? It is worth a small fortune.”
Felix stretched flat on the crest of the rocky hill and piled up a few more stones to steady the glass. The dust colored clothes blended him with the ground, and he was confident he could not be seen.
Felix had been working alone for an extended period as part of this mission. At first, he was content to gather rumors about his target. In taverns and markets he was quiet where others spoke, an island in the growing storm. He asked few questions, and his early reports contained little but dates and locations. He had a gift for languages, and hid his Greek accent well. He was a solitary sort of creature that sprouted in urban settings, and his urban nature made him comfortable with all men.
His daydream was interrupted by a swarm of activity in the town below. He looked through the glass, and saw people gathering in the market square. While it was a great toy, the glass did not live up his expectations. The chief problem was that the local women failed to cooperate with its potential. The concealment of arms, necks and ankles was a perverse defiance of the sun and heat. The women from home were friendlier with the weather.
The action congealed into an arrow of bodies, and a ripple passed through the crowd. He moved the glass, and believed he could see the subject. The arrow paused, and his view was obscured by a boy in a tree. The boy climbed down, but he still could not see his prey. Something was happening. The arrow moved on, but buildings blocked his sight. He exhaled, and put the glass away.
Felix went to town that night. The subject and his bodyguards were staying at a public inn, but Felix was not ready for close surveillance, especially in tight quarters. He had been taught the importance of an easy escape route during his second education. He slept in one of the safe houses instead.
Felix woke with the dawn, as was usual. He had dreamt something interesting, but it had faded. All he remembered was a cave. A dark mood stole his hunger, and he pushed aside his plate. He went outside to stretch in the morning’s warm yellow sunlight.
He wandered to the market to buy some fruit, and stood beneath the tree that blocked his view the day before. He chewed a few bits while looking up at his perch, gauging the distance and spitting out some seeds. The fruit seller told him that the man and his party had already left town, so he returned to his room and gathered his possessions. Felix wrote a report and left it with a trusted agent. After the delivery, Felix decided it was time to view the beast. He got his horse from the stable and followed the road out of town.
By mid-day he saw them, walking far in the distance. The horse was walking slowly, but was heard. One man stopped and turned, a still pale oval among a group of moving dark ones. The face then turned away and its owner resumed his walk.Very well. He moved the horse to a trot, and closed the distance.
He slowed the horse to a walk as he neared the group. It was the expected courtesy, so as not to dust the faces of those on foot. It was a tough looking crew, fit men of varying ages, plainly dressed. He saw no weapons, but Felix was sure they were fighters one and all. The land bred them tough, and he had met a few bandits in his travels.
The trailing man nodded to Felix as he passed, and he returned it. He tried to guess the leader, steadily looking each man over as his horse passed them. The second to last man looked at him as he passed. The face posed a question. Felix pulled his own eyes away with some effort, and ordered the horse to canter, heedless of the dust cloud he stirred up. He heard a cough as he rode off.
When he got to town he stopped at the only public inn. He ate, drank and warned the owner of the rough men who had stiffed the innkeeper in the last town. I think I saw them on the road on my way in, ten or more.
That night he slept in the inn, and this time he observed the dream that came. There were two men sleeping in a cave, and he knew they were brothers. A river passed through the cave, deep and still. He spoke to wake them, but they would not stir. Felix looked about the cave, but there was no exit.
When he woke, he lay in bed for a while. Dawn had slipped away some time ago. As he left the inn, a man was walking down the street towards him. It was one of the bodyguards. Felix ignored him, and pretended to search the clouds for rain.
The man stopped in front of him, “Our master thanks you for the night under the stars. It was cold, but the sky was beautiful. He says you should eat with us.”
“I don’t know you.” Felix said.
Stock still as a tree, the man continued. “And I do not know you. But we were all strangers in Egypt once. Will you come?”
“No, I will not.” The man left without another word. This day marked the beginning of their contest. In a way, it was like the game of pebbles that Felix played in his youth, or the bandit game his peers played in a different form. One did not directly confront or destroy ones opponent in this game. Rather, you trapped them in a position with no escape.
Felix and the master moved their pebbles from village to town to village. Felix was a skillful slanderer, and his foe was, at times, poorly received. Like a good player, Felix was never immediately on hand for these confrontations, but would watch from a distance with his glass. He chuckled one day as the master was chased from a village by a stone-throwing mob. A group of urchins were particularly savage, and hit the man’s bodyguards with a few throws. The pebbles turn on the player, Felix laughed to himself.
The master’s strategy evolved in response. He trained his followers, and sent them out in small groups to spread his propaganda. Felix could not shadow them all, and he sent for more players from headquarters. His request was largely denied, given that this was a frontier area with limited resources. His orders remained the same. He was to take whatever action he deemed appropriate, short of direct violence on his part, to discourage the growth of alternative power centers in the province. If caught, he could not expect any immediate help.
Felix wrote his own counter-propaganda, and would rehearse the lines alone in his room at night. This did not require a new creation. It was enough to take what the master was saying, and twist it just enough to offend local sensibilities. He drilled his agents and sent them out to perform. Some of his dramas were successful, and many of the master’s newer followers would give up after a rude welcome, or because they themselves began to believe Felix’s script.
Momentum was rolling in his direction, and Felix began to consider where his next assignment might take him. He was looking forward to a region more cosmopolitan for his next tour. The local women knew no poetry, and did not appreciate his many excellent qualities.
Unfortunately, what he planned as his masterstroke backfired spectacularly. Felix had learned that people of several towns had been invited to a grand meeting in the countryside. It was a long walk, and those who came would miss their evening meal. However, the master and his group were going buy food from local markets to share. These rebels were not rich, but had recruited some wealthy fool from the capital to assist them.
Felix puzzled over a solution. The crowd was too big to intimidate, and those predisposed to cause trouble were not going to be there anyway. The event was going to happen, and thousands would go home full of treason. Or maybe not.
The solution seemed ingenious, and he struggled to keep a straight face as it was implemented. With a few agents, he gathered wagons and funds, and made a visit to all the markets and bakeries early in the day. They pretended they were from the master, and bought up all the food that could be had. Apparently his fools smiled a lot, and the joyful expression he wore helped convince the sellers he was authentic.
Felix retired early that night, his belly full of someone else’s dinner. He looked forward to hearing how the gathering had turned dangerous when no food was provided, and the crowds were forced to go home hungry. It had been too long since the last stoning, and he was somewhat disappointed to miss out on the fun.
In bed, he threaded his hands behind his head as he stared at the ceiling. He had indulged in the grape more than usual, and the ceiling rippled as he drifted.The ripple became a river, and he found himself sitting in a low lit cave, staring into the waters. Felix was awake, and another man lay beside him, asleep. He knew this was his brother, even though he was an only child. He tried to stand, and could not. His legs, and then his torso, grew cold and he fell back on the ground.
Felix remembered nothing else from the dream, and woke well after dawn. He pressed his hands to his head, and groaned as he sat up. Felix was still staring at his breakfast when he was disturbed by an informant. The gathering had been a great success, and there was no talk of empty bellies or angry crowds. Somehow there was enough food to feed everyone. A few even attributed it to sorcery.
As Felix questioned the man, they were interrupted by a knock at the door. When Felix looked, a young boy was walking away, and said over his shoulder “I was told to bring you this.” A basket was at his feet.“How did you know to come here?” But the boy walked away. Felix lifted the lid, inside were bread and fish. He kicked it over.
As the weeks and months passed Felix saw the board shifting in his enemy’s favor. His foe, Jesus as he was known, was popular and many sought him. Some said he was a sorcerer who could heal the sick and cast out demons. Local radicals hoped that he was a long prophesized liberator of Judea. While claims of magic did not concern his superiors, the latter was worrying.
In time, Felix was summoned to Caesarea Maritima. While there were hard questions for him, no reproach was made, not yet. No direct action would be taken by Rome, lest the blame fall on them, and this Jesus become a rallying point for a rebellion. Rome had learned to let its local allies earn their favor, and why not, they were equally threatened.
Felix dreamt about the cave again the night before he returned to Jerusalem. His mentor took him aside that morning. “Felix, are you sleeping well? You look exhausted.”
“Bad dreams,” and he described them to the older man, who cocked his head and laughed.
“You forget your studies, Felix. The men are who you Greeks call Hypnos and Thanatos. Somnus and Mors for me. It is ironic that your sleep is plagued by its patron. You should make an offering.”
“Now, don’t look at me that way, Felix. You are a clever man, but you don’t know everything. Our masters and mistresses love nothing better than to give your type a comeuppance. If ever you hope to replace me, you can’t afford to antagonize them.”
“No one can replace you, dear Quintus. The sun will set on the empire when you are gone.”
“Ah, do I hear a politician? I have wasted my time on you, traitor” he said, and pretended to strike him. Felix later made the offering, making sure not be seen by anyone of substance.
The sacrifice advanced neither his sleep nor his assignment. In time Jesus and his gang made a triumphal entry into the capital, Jerusalem. The little king was angry, and rumors of a plan to arrest him circulated.
Felix was in Jerusalem the night of the arrival. He was eating in a tavern and stopped mid-bite as a shadow fell on his plate. He had been expecting a more pleasing companion, but she was late. He looked up, and saw that it was one of Jesus’ followers, the one he met before.
“I know who you are, beneficiari. Do not fear. We want the same thing.”
The long lost informant. Felix paid his bill and left, and walked to his safe house. A little while later, there was a knock at the door. He opened it, and the man came in. Shutting the door, and putting hand to hilt, Felix looked him in the eyes. “Where have you been? And why have you been quiet?”
Judas Iscariot spoke, “The master is not who I thought he was, but I have learned much and profited by the acquaintance.”
“Oh really, so he’s paying you more than us? Not the poor wanderer he makes himself out to be.”
“You would not understand, but I am done with him. The priests and I have a plan to arrest him. We need to know if Roman garrison will support us if the people riot.”
“You are in luck, as the prefect is in Jerusalem. I will confer with him.” And so he did, and the assurances were given.
Felix’s memories of the subsequent events were burned into his mind. He attended the arrest, but lingered in the rear as a true player should. He was glad he did, as the event nearly descended into a farce. His opponent was taken, almost like one of the pebbles. A true player knows when to step away from the board. No stones, no matter how precious, are worth a life. He almost regretted the game’s end. This man had been a worthy opponent.
He watched in silence at Pilate’s Court, but did not go to the execution, considering his work done. Instead he journeyed back to Caesarea Maritima. He pushed his horse hard, and was already thinking over his request for a posting far from Judea.
The dream returned in its strongest form that night. He was in the cave, a statue flat on its back. The other man sat up and looked at him. It was his enemy. He silently implored the two gods: Wake me, and take this dead man to Hades.
His enemy spoke, “You are Hypnos and Thanatos, the very image of sleep in death. And I will be your Nemesis if you wish it. Truth first, look at my aegis.”
And Felix looked at it, which shifted and swirled, and became a window. A hairy man pursued a maid in a forest, and was the maid, but knew he was the beast. He was the child devoured by the one-eyed, and also the eater of meat. He was the gorgon, who both froze and was the one made stone.
When it was over, his companion was holding his palms, cupped, with water from the stream. Felix could move, and was about to roll over into the river. “I know what you want, but not yet. This is not Lethe, this is life.” Felix drank…
Felix paused, and looked around the table at his companions. “I am next” the loud man said.