The rollicking fourth book in the Nicolaos and Diotima mystery series set in Classical Athens.
Nicolaos, Classical Athens’s favorite sleuth, and his partner in investigation, the clever priestess Diotima, have taken time off to come home and get married. But hoping to get hitched without a hitch proves overly optimistic: A skull discovered in a cave near the Sanctuary of Artemis, the ancient world’s most famous school for girls, is revealed to be the remains of the Hippias, the reviled last tyrant to rule Athens. The Athenians fought the Battle of Marathon to keep this man out of power; he was supposed to have died thirty years ago, in faraway Persia. What are his remains doing outside the city walls? Nico’s boss, the great Athenian statesman Pericles, wants answers, and he orders Nico to find them. Worst of all, one of the two Sanctuary students who discovered the skull has been killed, and the other is missing. Can the sleuths solve the interlocked crimes before their wedding?
From the Hardcover edition.
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From the Hardcover edition.
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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 are 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 the Persians 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."
Why would anyone care about an old skeleton, let alone kill a child over it? It didn't make sense.
I contemplated this as I made my way home. Pericles had no more to tell me. He'd arranged for one of the priestesses — the one who'd walked from Brauron to Athens to report the disaster — to see me at my home that afternoon.
My family lived in the deme of Alopece, which lay just beyond the city wall to the southeast; Pericles lived in Cholargos, beyond the city wall to the northwest. I had to cross virtually all of Athens to make my way home.
I knew these city streets like most men knew their wives. I knew which of the dark, narrow, muddy paths between the houses were shortcuts — these I slipped down, sometimes forced to edge sideways where owners had extended their houses into the street. I knew which routes ended in the blank wall of a house where some builder had encroached a step too far. Most important of all, I knew which alleys afforded the deep, dark shadows, the ones where the cutpurses and the wall-piercers liked to ply their trade. Those streets were good places to avoid.
I knew these things because for a year now I had been an agent and investigator, the only one in Athens. It was a job that didn't pay well. In fact, so far, it hadn't paid at all — Pericles still owed me for my very first commission. Despite my occasional prompts, he'd never quite gotten around to delivering on his end of the bargain. That was Pericles all over. Though he was liberal with expenses when the crisis was upon us, Pericles was a different man when all was calm and the bill arrived. I'd managed to survive so far because my needs were few. I lived in my father's house, as all young men do, and when I was on a job, I could extend the definition of "expenses" beyond its usual borders. Soon, though, I would have no choice but to corner Pericles and force him to cough up my fees, and for a very good reason: when the night of the full moon after next arrived, I would become a man of responsibilities. I would become a married man.
I entered the city proper through the Dipylon Gates in the northwest corner of the city walls, then walked down the Panathenaic Way, which is the city's main thoroughfare. The road is paved, which keeps down the dust, and is so wide that two full-sized carts can pass each other without touching. The Panathenaic Way runs like a diagonal slash through the city. I passed by the Stoa Basileus on my right, the building in which the Basileus who had first received the skull and the scrolls has his offices. Opposite it was the shrine of the crossroads, which confers good luck on all who pass through the busiest intersection in Athens. I hoped some of the luck might pass to me; I would probably need it.
The Panathenaic Way continued along the northern edge of the agora, then down the eastern side. I came to the temple of Hephaestion, which is surrounded by statues of heroes and gods, and then finally to the marketplace, the perfect opportunity to stop for a cup of wine, to sit in the shade of one of the stoas where men liked to congregate, and to watch the crowds as they haggled. I bought the cheapest vintage I could find and walked away with it in a clay cup. I sipped the wine and stood back to watch the chaos that is the agora of Athens.
Any man who wished to sell his wares that day had paid a permit fee to the state official who oversaw such things, then set up his stall. Each stall was a rickety affair, with a crate at each end and a plank across for a bench. The stalls had to be put up with a minimum of fuss at first light, and come down when it was too dark to trade any longer.
Many of the stalls were manned — if that's the word — by women: the wives of the men who had rented them. The fishwives sold the catch, and swore loudly as they did. Their fish-smelling husbands had already worked a full day and now had to tend their boats and mend their nets back at the port at Piraeus before they could sleep. Likewise the farmers' wives had walked into town with their husbands, in the dim dawn light, to sell the farm's vegetables. The men erected stalls for their women to work from, and then returned to tend the farms. So too for the pottery and the bronze ware: the women of the family traded while the potters potted. In Athens, every business was a family business. I reflected that this was true for me as well. My fiancée Diotima had been my work partner from the moment we met, and that wouldn't change after we married.
The children of the traders ran in and out among the legs of the shoppers. Sometimes a child might run into a leg, and then an irritated shopper might give the child a whack about the head, but for the most part the men and women in the agora were tolerant of the children at their feet. And no wonder, because these children were our future. In Athens — in all of Hellas — to survive to adulthood was a minor miracle. There were too many diseases, too many infections, too many ways for a child to die.
There'd been an explosion of babies after the Persian Wars. I'd been one of them. Soldiers who'd fought throughout the duration came home to their wives, and ten months later the midwives had more work than they could handle. It was a good thing, too, because the loss of life had been fearful. Athens desperately needed to renew her citizens. Athenians prayed to Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, that not too many of the children would die before they grew.
I returned home to find my fiancée and my mother together in our courtyard. Diotima stood on a statue plinth — my father being a sculptor, we had plenty of spares — with her arms stretched out to both sides. She was a woman of extraordinary beauty, two years my younger, with long, dark tresses that lay curled that moment over her shoulders. My mother, Phaenarete, held a measuring stick to her side and frowned in concentration.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
My mother, with several sewing needles in her mouth, mumbled, "Measuring her for the wedding dress, of course."
"You want a new dress for your wedding?" I said to my intended. "Don't you already have enough dresses?"
Both of them gave me scathing looks. My mother continued with her measurements.
"How did the meeting with Pericles go?" Diotima asked, quite deliberately changing the subject.
"Interesting," I said. "I have more work." I told her the tale of the strange skull. Diotima listened and didn't move a muscle, which was most unlike her, but she probably didn't want a needle stuck in her while my mother fussed about. When I came to the dead girl and the missing one, my mother gasped and almost choked on the needles. After she'd spat them out, she said, "That's awful!"
I'd known Mother would be displeased. Phaenarete was a midwife and had strong views about children.
But Diotima's reaction astonished me. She staggered backward. She almost fell off the plinth, but managed to step off at the last moment. There were several dining couches in our courtyard. Diotima collapsed onto the nearest and put a hand to her head.
"Diotima, what's wrong?" I said. "Are you all right?"
"Nico, they killed these girls at the sanctuary at Brauron?"
"Yes. Why? Have you heard of it?"
"Of course I've heard of it," she snapped at me, but I could hear the tears forming. "I spent a year there. Nico, I used to be one of those girls. That was my school."
At that moment the house slave walked in to tell me there was a man at the door, demanding to see me. He couldn't have sounded unhappier if he'd been announcing a plague victim. The house slaves had never reconciled themselves to my chosen trade.
"Something about a dead man," the slave said, and jerked his thumb at the front door. "He says he wants to confess to murder."
"MY NAME IS Glaucon. I've come about the death of Hippias," the visitor said.
We spoke in the andron, the room at the front of every house reserved for men to talk business. I'd directed the slave to take Glaucon there.
Glaucon was an older man, perhaps fifty. Well, that was no surprise. Fifty was the minimum age for anyone who might have information about a death that had happened thirty years ago.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Marathon Conspiracy"
Copyright © 2014 Gary Corby.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The lighthearted, somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach to the mysteries in this book is refreshing. It manages to amuse us (using the modern way as opposed to the ancient Greek way), and yet hold our interest in the main story. The components of society in ancient Greece are also presented in an interesting manner and manage to teach bits of little-known history without seeming to do so.
For anyone who likes history with a light touch and good historical mysteries, you should miss this series. I think it would entice even those who don't read historical mysteries. Our hero Nicolaos has had many commissions. In this one he is pitchforked back to re-looking at a tense and glorious time in Greek and Athenian history - the Battle of Marathon. Greek forces again met larger Persian forces, and this time won. Hippias a tyrant feared and reviled for his brutal rule had provided the pretest for the Persian to invade. In this book his body is discovered near to a temple to Artemis at Brauron. Brauron is also where Diotime his partner, and soon to be wife also studied. All kinds of secrets from the past swirl around to cloud the mystery but our hero seeks them out. I don't want to give away the ending, but it satisfies.