Water Thief

Water Thief

by Ben Pastor

Hardcover(First Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312353902
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/06/2007
Series: Aelius Spartianus Mysteries Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.04(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.11(d)

About the Author

Ben Pastor was born in Rome, but her career as a college teacher and writer requires that she divide her time between the United States and Italy, where she is now doing research. Author of the internationally acclaimed Martin Bora war mysteries, she begins with Aelius Spartianus a new series of thrilling tales. In addition to the United States, her novels are published in Italy, Germany, Spain, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Aspalatum, Dalmatia,

15 May (Ides), Monday, a.d. 304

The pounding of mattocks and mallets followed Aelius Spartianus as he entered the compound, so much like a military camp that he wondered whether all of them, from the emperor to the last recruit, were so shaped by their duties as to think exclusively in those terms. The foursquare shape, secure and solid, to be multiturreted in the end no doubt, enclosed him with the old safety that held in without dwarfing, although its perimeter must be a mile and half at least. At once the impeccable seaside sky was locked into a rectangle of sun-filled brightness above, run by swallows and quarrelsome gulls.

"Your credentials, Commander." A noncommissioned officer held out his hand, and when Aelius obliged, he saluted and let him pass.

Against the massive perimeter walls, some of the apartments in the imperial compound had been built already, and from what it seemed, a series of arched courtyards would dissect the floor plan soon. Freshly hewn limestone cornices, pedestals, and steps lay orderly according to their kind, numbered and ready to be fitted.

"Commander, may I see your credentials?" Same uniform, another face, another proffered hand.


Aelius was curious to see that every square piece of land not specifically taken up by the workers or their tools, was carefully tended and watered, and even without much familiarity with gardening, he could tell it was cabbage that grew in neat, pale green rows.

"Soldier, who put these here?"

"His Divinity."

"The cabbage, I mean."

"His Divinity planted it."

Having presented his credentials to a third guardsman, Aelius walked past the vegetables and between heaps of ground pumice stone, lime, and sand, smelling cement being mixed. Columns lay side by side just ahead, more stacked stone. For the past twenty miles—that is, from the turnoff from the main road, where a path led to the quarries—he'd overtaken ox carts laden with squared and dressed blocks, local tufa, and a cream-colored stone meant perhaps to highlight the facings of the court. Bricks were arriving, too, by the thousands, and Aelius had asked the soldiers escorting the mule pack how far they'd come. "Aquileia," they'd answered, though of course they must have picked up the loads at the harbor of Salonae up the road, if not immediately across from the building site.

In what would likely become the second courtyard, a matter-of-fact, balding secretary halted his progress. His Divinity was inside, he said, overseeing the laying of pipes in the baths, so he should wait here. "Just get in line." He handed him a chalk disk with a number. "When I call your number, follow me inside."

Aelius looked at the number, which read a discouraging 36. "Very well. Is there a place where I can spend the night?" he asked.

"You can check with the barbers outside the gate. They rent cots on the side."

It was common knowledge that Diocletian did not care for curls and bangs, so that barbers within the environs of whatever imperial residence he happened to be in, made a small fortune by promptly shearing off the locks of those who arrived fashionable, but had to enter the precinct dismally traditional. Even here, one could tell by the pale swatches of skin on their necks, how the fair Batavians and Swabians serving on this or that general's staff had had to submit to shearing. As in Aelius's case, they were here for official business, and waited their turn in the courtyard alone or in small groups, talking under their breath in their native language, or the army Latin familiar to all. The round felt army cap, dark red, common to all ranks but for the quality of its knit, stood planted like a cork on the head of some, pushed back from the forehead on others, slightly cocked to the side on most, as the song went:

You'll know us by our jaunty caps

Tipped to the side, eià eià

You'll know us by the steely swords

Hung at our side, eià eià!

Spotted dogs—they were the emperor's own, bred at Nicomedia—ran freely on the grounds, sniffing and playing, collar-free and friendly. The story was that Diocletian had trained them to smell perfume on his visitors (another of the things he did not abide), but even though Aelius knew it to be a tale, still there were those officers who stopped by the closest facility before walking in, and washed their faces and necks to remove the reek of scent and bath oil.

Aelius was about to retrace his steps to inquire about lodgings when, by the way the men in the courtyard turned and stood at attention, he could tell the imperial retinue was in sight. Indeed, Diocletian himself was looking out from an unfinished doorway to the side. "Ha!" He called out. "My historian—come, come! Let him through, boys; he's my historian, just in from Nicomedia. Aelius, how are you coming along with the drowning of the Boy?"

The words were shouted, which created an effect. Aelius knew what Diocletian meant, but was surprised that he should recall the subject of their last correspondence. The death of an imperial favorite nearly two centuries earlier was hardly of interest to anyone but a researcher. He said apologetically, passing between the rows of frowning officers who'd have to wait even longer now, "It's the least clear episode in the life of the deified Hadrian, Your Divinity."

"Well, you'll have to say something about it. If it was an accident, you have to say that. If it was murder, then you have to say that, too."

"The sources are ambiguous, Your Divinity." Having come within a few steps of the emperor, Aelius greeted him showing the palms of his hands, slightly cupped, resting his forehead against the fingertips.

"The sources might be, but the Nile is not." Diocletian laughed at his own joke, waving him closer. "It happened there, so you'd be well advised in traveling to Egypt, all the more since there are things I want you to look immediately into."

This was altogether news.

Within moments they were walking toward the other end of the compound, far from the waiting visitors. Diocletian looked well, carrying his bull-necked and tanned sixty years on a solid pair of legs. "Well, I figured it was high time for me to have a house," he was saying. "After all, a house I have never really had. A palace is not a house, and as for Rome, the whole damn thing is a palace! You may quote me, for all this calling me domine, a 'lord of the house' I have not in fact become until now. And as you can see, bad habits die hard. The military camp follows me in my own house; I had to design it in a way that was comfortable for me." That this was the same man in the presence of whom one adored the Sacred Purple was difficult to believe. Diocletian had an old tunic on, threadbare at the elbows and stained here and there. On his head, as in his old military days, hair stood short and straight, an enlisted man's haircut. Even his boots were army boots, scuffed and worn, and the left leg of his trousers hung out while the other was tucked in. "Palaces are not efficient. In the army, it's all square angles: no fumbling about, no wondering where it's at. It's either here, or there. So, as the imperial pensioner I aim to be eventually, I get to have my own kind of quarters at last. They tell me diplomats and such will look down on the vegetable patch, but if I want to grow cabbages by the window, by God, I will."

Aelius agreed promptly. "There's a lot to be said for growing one's own."

"That what I think. Have you seen the north gate? You have to see it. I'm showing it to everyone who comes. All the gates are going to be beautiful, but the north gate is special, my golden gate. I'm going to have four statues on top of it—me and the three others—and cornices and consoles and plinths and niches and all that. It all looks big but it isn't, you know. You could fit it six times or so inside a full-sized legionary camp."

The sightseeing continued, and as he listened to the emperor, Aelius Spartianus discovered that traveling here held its own melancholy for him. He'd gone around with the army so much, he, too, hungered for a place to call home, though he had no clear idea of what "home" might be, since army camps and officers quarters were really all he'd known. In that sense, being requested to start his book with a biography of the deified Hadrian intrigued him, because that ruler had done nothing but travel for years on end. And, having come to the only place that—as far as Aelius's readings to date showed—he could call "home," he'd named its many buildings after the many places he'd visited. As if, even at home, he needed to feel that he traveled. Which of course might also mean that, everywhere Hadrian had journeyed to, he'd been thinking of his Tiburtine home. It was this disquietude and this longing that allowed him to discern Hadrian's nature, which in every other sense—its cruelty, its fickleness, its obsessive love for the Boy who'd drowned during a pleasure trip along the Nile—was so different from his own. Ever the soldier, he made ready for the travel as soon as he left the emperor's palace.

Antinoe, also known as Antinoopolis,

Heptanomia Province, Egypt (Aegyptus Herculia),

6 Payni (1 June, Thursday), 304

In the eight years of his absence, Egypt had changed the way a mountain changes when a grain of dust is removed from it. Since landing at Canopus on the Nile Delta, all the way through the temple-dwarfed, tourist-ridden, named-after-animals cities of Leontopolis, Crocodilopolis, Oxyrhynchus, Cynopolis, he arrived in the city named for the dead Boy nearly eight generations ago. The river was already in flood at the First Cataract, they told him, and was expected to break through it and other such dams before reaching Antinoopolis in a couple of weeks, at the healthy level of eighteen cubits. So as not to contravene local superstitions, for the last forty miles Aelius had foregone traveling by water, leaving the well-rigged navy launch that battled the current like a shuttle through a rebellious weave.

Everything along the river was old, old, old. The world itself seemed to have started here.

It was the weight of the ages that he most remembered about Egypt. All was overshadowed by it, so that for all its being a land so dry and sun-drenched, still the past cast across it a long shadow of incomprehensible or only half-understood antiquity. His campaign days here had been like serving anywhere else: an objective to be reached, the means to do so, and going at it as by training and temperament. He had been busy meanwhile, and put them out of his head. Yet, then as now, place names haunted him, the slow procession of riverside villages enormously ancient, choked by sand at the back, with their outlying measly oases where shade was as precious as water. Crocodiles still sunned themselves openmouthed, and the murkiness of the river itself remained—today as it was eight years ago—more treacherous and unnerving than the seas one had to cross to get here. He remembered the swiftness underwater of the reptiles that moved like hideous living driftwood, and bore the name of gods, their lumbering advance on the ground, divested of the means that gave them speed in water and made them conquer; their sleeping in the sun looking for the world like this country, grizzled and hard-skinned, immensely powerful if only one let one's guard down, not to be trusted, intriguing, and divine.

At the command post none of the recruits knew him, but rank and uniform—not his being here to study history and the mysterious death of an imperial lover more than a century earlier—ensured that all appropriate deference was shown to him. The head of the unit was away, so Aelius deposited his credentials with his adjutant and headed for his quarters; these, he had already picked out across from the city mall, a vast ground-floor flat with everything in it, including private baths. And it so happened that as he prepared to leave the command post, the officer of the day should meet him at the entrance. "Aelius Spartianus?" he half-shouted in recognition, staring him in the face. "It's Gavius, old man! Why, it's good to see you! What are you doing in this neck of the—and what's happened to your hair, for crying out loud? How do you mean, 'gone gray'? You're younger than I am!"

They embraced, clumsily, in the crowded space of the street. "Well, it's gray." Aelius smirked. "At first I thought it was just bleached from the sun, but there's no fooling myself."

Gavius Tralles led him back inside by the arm, and preceded him down the hallway. A brother officer from the days of the Egyptian campaign, he was, like himself, an army brat of Pannonian descent. Light-haired, yellow-eyed, with the build of a wrestler, he looked much as he'd looked years earlier, good-natured, perennially in need of a shave, ready to laugh. "Welcome to Tau country." He glanced back, using the army slang that described Egypt by the T-shape of the Nile and its delta. "You're here on official business, no doubt."

"Partly, yes."

"A-ha! It's the Christians, isn't it?" From his friend's silence, Tralles seemed to recognize the inopportune nature of his question, and corrected himself. "Well, you're not here to sightsee."

"That, too." Aelius kept his eyes to the brightness of the window at the end of the hallway, that made the command post look dark even at this hour. Politely, he mentioned his history project, and neutrality returned to the conversation.

"Really?" Tralles sneered a comment. "And you start the list of emperors with a faggot-lover first class? But then they mostly were, those old crowned heads. So you did not joke in the old days when you said you wanted to be a historian."

Together, they walked out to the inner court, and across it to the regimental chapel, for the little ceremony of sacrifice to the gods and the unit standards. "It isn't exactly what I said." Aelius faced the altar, gathered a pinch of incense, and tossed it on the brazier. "What I said is that I meant to write about history. What's the difference? Claim to greatness, for one."

For all the perfunctory nature of their visit to the chapel, they were both religious men, and a few moments of devout prayer followed. Then, "Let's go get a beer," Tralles spoke up.

They did, and as at the officers' club there was scarcely anyone given the midmorning hour, Tralles secured plenty of drink and snacks for their table. After catching up with one another on acquaintances and assignments, the conversation widened to gossip.

"Do you remember Serenus Dio?"


"Yes, you do. Used to run provisions to the post. From Zeugma."

"I don't remember him."

"Tall, Aelius—hatchet-faced, a slight stoop—used to sell books on the side."

"Ah, yes, yes. What about him?"

"He died." Tralles chewed on nut meats, having called for more barley drink. "Was coming upriver from some property of his, in the neighborhood of Ptolemais. The story has been all over town for the last two days. The crew became curious when he didn't emerge from under his tent in the morning, and they checked on him. Serenus wasn't there. No one had seen him after he'd retired, and it was about twelve more hours before they found him on the shore a bit down river, by a potter's shed. The crocodiles must not have been hungry, because they left most of him intact."

"I see." Aelius cracked two walnuts against each other in his palm. "He could have fallen off."

"Nah. He was killed."

"What makes you say that?"

Tralles took a swig, and rinsed his mouth with it. "You really do not recall him, then. He was terrified of drowning while on travel, seeing that he couldn't swim. His personal boat had high railings on all sides, to make sure he wouldn't accidentally lean too far over."

Now that he heard the details, Aelius remembered the merchant with the acidulous voice, a man who'd moved mountains of foodstuff and fodder and provisions of all kinds during the campaign against the rebels. He dealt in rare books as an avocation, and Aelius had ordered from him copies and originals, spending half of his yearly bonus on them. Twice he'd had Serenus bring him volumes from war-torn Alexandria, where the dealer knew all the little copyist shops attached to the library, from which obscure historical tracts not in circulation could be commissioned. Serenus's boat—whenever he traveled by river, which wasn't often, but still remained the fastest way to go up and down Egypt—had such high bulwarks as to resemble a box with oars and sails.

"So," Aelius thought he should ask, "who would gain from his murder?"

"That's the oddest part. To all appearances, no one. His finances were in order, but I heard that a stipulation in the will—since he had no heirs—states that in case of suspicious death, all assets will be frozen indefinitely. Folks who're afraid of water shouldn't be sailing, you'll say. But doesn't the will sound as if he was afraid of being done in?"

Aelius was still thinking of the legal aspects of the inheritance. "Unclaimed real estate and cash would eventually end up in the Roman fisc."

"But it could take years for the tax men to hunt down his investments, and he surely had plenty of undeclared revenue. Of course his lover, friends, and business partners are rushing to point out that they couldn't possibly have anything to gain from doing him in. They're weeping and pulling their hair even as we speak, and not only because they lost a dear associate."

"Money isn't the only thing one may gain from disposing of somebody."

Tralles finished his drink, and craned his neck to look into his friend's glass. "Right you are. That'll be for the authorities to figure out. Are you going to finish that?"

Aelius was not fond of Egyptian beer, and pushed the glass over. "Go ahead."

"Thanks. What about Anubina—did you go to see her?"

Mention of his great physical passion of a few years back made him ache a little. "No," Aelius hastened to say, "but I inquired. Married. Has children. What about you and Cosma?"

"Oh, it's been long over. Likes being a widow, so there wasn't much of a chance of her asking me to marry her. I got along with her son well enough, so it isn't as though we couldn't have made it work for us. I was ready to settle down, so I married someone else. And you?"

"I came close, a couple of times, but no."

"Last time I saw you, you were bedding Constantius's put-away concubine."

"Helena? It's long over."

"I bet. Subemperors' girlfriends are trouble."

"Yes, especially when they have ambitious and obnoxious sons."

After leaving the officers' club, Tralles insisted on accompanying him to his quarters. Beyond the roofs, to the south, the mirror-bright sky had grown slightly flushed, and the wind had picked up enough to cause awnings to vibrate and door curtains to make snapping sounds. "Sandstorm coming," Tralles muttered. "Must have been waiting for you."

In the street, Aelius overheard Serenus Dio's name, fragments and snippets of conversations in Greek as he and his friend walked past vendor stalls and doorways. ". . . he'd been to court not too long ago, on account of some local dispute. I heard it at the baths, but to tell you the truth I didn't pay attention," and, "I had dinner with Serenus the week before. Who'd have thought?"

"I told you it's on everyone's lips," Tralles said. "Historian that you are, if you're interested I can put you in touch with the best gossips in town."

Around women's ankles, the wind caused their gauzy green and blue skirts to whip and flag, and Aelius glanced at those passing flashes of color. "No, no. I'm not interested in the least, thanks, I have other things to do. It seems at any rate a matter of getting the truth out of the boat's crew. Clearly it is in its midst that Serenus's killer is to be found."

"That's what I think. Thanks to the laws of the deified Hadrian, the sailors—all slaves of his—haven't been automatically strung up by the neck, as they probably deserve. As late as yesterday they were still vouching for one another. A little roughing up in jail ought to effect results before long."

Not so leisurely—as both men were still in the habit of walking at a good pace, and keeping step besides—they reached the end of the mall, and crossed the street to the entrance of Aelius's flat. Extending from the cornice on the façade, awnings stretched like a cool piece of evening, although it was close to midday. The wind abated as they stepped under the shade and took leave from one another in the doorway.

"Don't be a stranger while you're here," Tralles recommended in good humor. "You know where to find me."

In his flat, provident servants had readied the small plunging pools in the baths. Aelius decided to take advantage of a quick scrub in lukewarm water, and relax while reviewing the paperwork pertaining to his official duties.

The province-wide crackdown against the Christians, long expected, was to start in earnest: Tralles had seen through his assignment well enough. Along with Diocletian's letter, spelling out his orders, copies of two lengthy imperial subscripts, penned at the foot of requests for clarification and advice by local authorities, formed the basis of the information on which, as Caesar's envoy, Aelius was to act. Reading them seated at the poolside, with his feet in the water, he managed to cull from the bureaucratic padding of sentences what the petitioners (the commander of the garrison and the city mayor) were actually saying. Outward signs of unrest were still infrequent but violent; political graffiti were appearing here and there, and there was increased need for police patrols throughout the city. Arrests of recalcitrant clergy and sympathizers had begun in the countryside, several detentions might follow, and although collaborators seemed scarcer than during the last crackdown, it was too early to tell.

What were officials expected to do? The imperial replies, redacted in the recognizable official jargon of palatine secretaries, acknowledged the complex nature of religious ideology, but confirmed the need to err on the side of clemency in the proceedings, even allowing for priests and bishops "to sacrifice to the gods and be freed, to the discretion of my envoy, as was granted in occasion of the twentieth imperial anniversary in November."

Aelius read on, then put away the letters and slipped into the pool. The Christians would call it persecution, and make a big deal of it, never mind that all care was being taken to abide by every accepted courthouse rule. Still, he was to oversee a few of the trials himself, and report in writing. Submerging himself entirely in the tepid water, ever so briefly he shut the world out. Clemency was well and good, and fully in keeping with a time Diocletian himself termed tranquillitas nostra. Unless the armed fundamentalist branch of the Egyptian Church had changed its methods in the last seven years, personal risk in Antinoopolis would be within hours very much a factor again.

Egypt wanted to exact a price from him, again. He'd fought and won here, but the accounts between them had clearly not been settled, even though as a young officer he'd learned all he could about Egyptian history and ways before coming. From Herodotus's travel notes and the accounts of Caesar's permanence, he'd devoured the texts, down to the encomiastic, perhaps unreliable narratives of Hadrian's visit in the seven hundred and eighty-ninth year of Rome, and more. Egypt's antiquity was cumbersome and incomprehensible. He'd felt as one stepping into the footprint of a giant, measuring oneself—one's comparably poor and limited claim to culture and importance—with enormous steps taken hundreds and thousands of years before.

At the end of the Rebellion, guides had pointed out to him the relief portraits of Cleopatra, looking exactly like any other Egyptian queen on a temple wall, with her half-Roman son resembling any other young prince of the land. Aelius sat in the water, rubbing his neck, thinking how he was both attracted and troubled by the way this country made one look like anyone else, as though—smoothed out, carved into the unforgiving medium of porphyry or basalt—the human faces of power were in the end always the same, immutable because they were endowed with the same traits of native or acquired greatness. He'd considered, unlikely as it was for a cavalryman just out of a civil war, and a barbarian at that, how superior Rome was in its portraits, whose stone or bronze or clay became another self to the person they represented. Even the imperfect likeness of his father on the sandstone stela resembled the man in life more than any of these ten-cubit high figures of Egyptian rulers and scribes, alike as cats are alike. Egyptian cats at that, mummified in aromatic packets like newborn babies, a practice he'd attributed to local piety and love of animals until he'd seen the priests break the necks of the creatures to sacrifice them.

So he had now come back to cruel Egypt, in whose long existence his having been away meant nothing. Out of the water, Aelius began to dry himself methodically. He had changed. Disquiet—it was hard to give another name to his unease—accompanied him here, a need to find out about things, turn stones over to see what lurked below, or part the weeds and peer into the brushwood, whatever metaphor indicated his need to have answers. Surely, he was here on official duty and to pursue history, and Serenus Dio's death meant nothing to him, but there was a personal dimension to this trip as well. He had heard once that in the end the traveler is always looking for himself, and if he's fortunate he discovers parts of his own nature wherever he goes; even as Odysseus did, who had confronted his vices and virtues and desires and gone beyond all those to go home again. If not, his travels served him nothing.

Elsewhere in the well-appointed flat, Aelius heard the servants rush about and begin to close shutters and doors. There might be meaning in the fact that he had, as Tralles joked, arrived at Antinoopolis on the day of a sandstorm.

Copyright © 2007 by Ben Pastor. All rights reserved.

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Water Thief 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story is so intricate and well written that It was hard to put the book down.I loved the characters and the plot. Pastor takes her time developing her story, which allows the reader to tour Rome and Antinopolis with historian (and detective) Aelius Spartianus as his guide. It helps if the reader has some knowledge of ancient history, but even if not, the story is so absorbing and his characterizations so intriguing that it may not matter.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ben Pastor¿s 'Water Thief' is one of the finest examples of historical fiction I have read. This terse book is told in fluid, often lyrical prose. All the characters are vey likable and the scenes very well described. Highly recommended.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 304 AD Commander Aelius Spartianus travels to Egypt on behalf of Diocletian. He is to see if the Emperor¿s prices on food and other necessities are being followed and to insure that the Christian trials are proper and fair. However his prime mission is to research the deified Hadrian prior to writing his biography. Little does he know that he is to be the target of a conspiracy that has its roots back in Hadrian¿s time.--------------- First, a bookseller that Aelius does business with is murdered as is the slave he freed. In a letter written by the bookseller, he says he found a note saying there was information that was interred with Hadrian¿s lover Antinous concerning the safety of the empire. As he investigates, attempts are made to kill him while people helping him are murdered. Aelius knows he must find Antinous¿ resting place in order to determine whether a deadly conspiracy remains viable, but homicides are seems to follow him even when he scampers back to Rome.------------------ Ancient Egypt and Rome come alive in this fascinating historical mystery that focuses on the rise of Christianity at a time when the empire¿s leaders attempt to suppress the growing influence of the new religion. Aelius is an intellectual warrior who knows that the most dangerous job in the Roman Empire is: being his friend or ally. THE WATER THIEF is filled with action, intrigue, and vivid descriptions as obviously Ben Pastor must have been there.---------------- Harriet Klausner