Read an Excerpt
Pericles didn’t usually keep a human skull on his desk, but there was one there now. The skull lay upon a battered old scroll case, and stared at me with a vacant expression, as if it were bored by the whole process of being dead.
I stood mute, determined not to mention the skull. Pericles had a taste for theatrics, and I saw no reason to pander to it.
Pericles sat behind the desk, a man of astonishing good looks but for the shape of his head, which was unnaturally elongated. This one blemish seemed a fair bargain for someone on whom the gods had bestowed almost every possible talent, yet Pericles was as vain as a woman about his head and frequently wore a hat to cover it. He didn’t at the moment, though; he knew there was no point trying to impress me.
In the lengthening silence he eventually said, “I suppose you’re wondering why there’s a skull on my desk.”
I was tempted to say, “What skull?” But I knew he’d never believe it. So instead I said, “It does rather stand out. A former enemy?”
“I’m not sure. You might be right.”
I blinked. I thought I’d been joking.
“We have a problem, Nicolaos.” Pericles picked up the skull, and set it aside to reveal the case beneath, which he handed to me. “This case came with the skull.”
I turned the scroll case this way and that to examine every part without opening the flap. It was made of leather that looked as if it had been nibbled by generations of mice. Clearly it was very old.
The case was the sort that held more than one scroll: five, I estimated from the size, five cylindrical scrolls held side by side. The surface on the back of the case was much less damaged than the front, but dry and cracked; this leather hadn’t been oiled in a long time.
I said, “The case has been lying on its back for many years. Perhaps decades. Probably in a dry place such as a cupboard.”
Pericles tapped his desk. “The skull and the case were sent to Athens by a priestess from the temple at Brauron. Brauron is a fishing village on the east coast. The accompanying note from the priestess who sent it said that two girl-children had discovered a complete skeleton in a cave, and that lying beside it was this case. For what macabre reason the priestess thought we’d want the skull I can’t imagine, but the contents of the case is of interest. Open the flap.”
Inside were four scrolls, and one empty slot. I removed one of the scrolls and unrolled it a little. I was worried the parchment might be brittle and crack, but it rolled well enough despite its age. This was high quality papyrus, no doubt imported at great expense from Egypt.
I read a few words, then a few more, unwinding as I did. The scroll was full of dates, places, people. Notes of obvious sensitivity. I saw the names of men who I knew for a fact had died decades ago. Whatever this was, it dated from before the democracy. In fact, if what I read was genuine, these notes referred to the years when Athens was ruled by a tyrant, and the author—
I looked up at Pericles, startled.
He read my expression. “I believe you’re holding the private notes of Hippias, the last tyrant of Athens.”
Hippias had ruled many years before I was born. He was so hated that men still spoke about how awful he was; so hated that the people had rebelled against him. He ran to the Persians, who sent an army to reinstate him, so they could rule over Athens via the deposed tyrant. The Athenians and Persians had met upon the beach at Marathon, where we won a mighty victory to retain our freedom.
I held in my hands the private notes of the man who forced us to fight the Battle of Marathon.
There was only one problem, and I voiced it. “But all the stories say that Hippias died among the Persians, after they were defeated.”
“We may be revising that theory.”
“Then the skull is—”
Pericles held up the skull to face me. He waggled it like a puppet and said, “Say hello to Hippias, the Last Tyrant of Athens.”
“Are you sure about this, Pericles?” I asked.
We moved over to two dining couches Pericles kept in the room. He’d sent a slave for watered wine. Now we sat in the warm sunlight that streamed through the window overlooking the courtyard, sipped the wine, and discussed the strange case of a man who’d been dead for thirty years.
“I’m sure of none of it,” he said. “That’s why you’re here. I’m not the only one asking questions. The skull and case were sent in the first instance to the Basileus.”
The post of Basileus was one of the most important, his job to oversee all festivals, public ceremonies, and major temples. A priestess who wanted to bring something to the attention of the authorities would naturally go to him first.
Pericles continued, “The Basileus took it to his fellow archons who manage the affairs of Athens, and they in turn brought it to me.”
I nodded. “Yes, of course.”
It was a strange fact that Pericles, who wielded enormous influence, held no official position at all. The source of his power was that melodious voice, and his astonishing ability to speak in public. Men who would otherwise be considered perfectly rational had been known to listen to Pericles as if bewitched, and then do whatever he said. In the ecclesia, where the Athenians met to decide what was to be done, Pericles needed only to make a mild suggestion, and every man present would vote for it. Conversely if Pericles disapproved of someone’s proposal, it had no hope of passing a vote. It had reached the point that no one bothered to introduce legislation without first getting his backing. That a man with no official position wielded so much power had become a source of unease among many of the better families, as well as among the elected officials, who were intensely jealous of his easy command.
Pericles said, “It was agreed this had to be investigated, and incredible as it may seem, your name was mentioned. The recent events at Olympia have gone some way to repairing your reputation.”
I’d been unpopular with the archons for some time, ever since I’d accidentally destroyed the agora during my first investigation. One archon had even called me an evil spirit sent to harass Athens, which I thought somewhat cruel.
“Reputation matters,” Pericles said, echoing my own thoughts. “Your standing with the older men will be particularly important.”
I puzzled over that, then asked, “Why, Pericles?”
“Because they’re the only ones who can tell you anything about Hippias. The tyrant belonged to their generation. Not ours. So don’t do anything to annoy them, Nicolaos.”
“In particular, show the greatest respect to those who fought at Marathon.” Pericles paused before going on. “You know that Hippias was at Marathon, on the Persian side?”
“The Persians tried to reinstall Hippias as tyrant over us. The veterans stopped them. You must treat the veterans with care, Nicolaos. They’re old men now, and respected, and powerful. The veterans tell a story, that after the battle at Marathon, a signal was flashed to the enemy from behind our own lines. The rumor of a traitor among us has persisted ever since. They say one of the great families of Athens secretly supported Hippias the tyrant.”
“Is it true?”
“How in Hades should I know? That’s your job. I tell you only because this discovery is sure to revive the rumors. We don’t need men finding reasons to accuse each other of treason. We especially don’t need it when the elections are due next month.”
No, we didn’t. The other cities closely watched our grand experiment with democracy. It was in everyone’s interest, not only Pericles’s, that the voting go smoothly and without trouble. If there was any problem at all during the elections, the other cities would say it was because our form of government was unnatural.
Pericles said, “When word gets out about this body—and it will!—everyone will demand answers.”
“Will they? This happened thirty years ago, Pericles. It’s ancient history. Nobody cares.”
“That’s what I thought too. But I was wrong. I’m afraid, Nicolaos, that I’ve made one of my rare blunders. I’ve sat on this skull and these scrolls for ten days and done nothing about them; I didn’t call you in because I thought, like you, that they didn’t matter. But somebody cares. Somebody cares a great deal.” Pericles shifted in his seat and looked distinctly uncomfortable. “I told you two girls found the skeleton.”
“One of them’s been killed. They say the child was torn apart by some terrible force—”
“And the other girl’s missing.”