Return to Exile
THE SALTY BREEZE TASTED of chum left to rot in the African sun.
Cyprian tugged at his damp tunic. The coarse wool sanded his sun-burned flesh. Chapped skin was only one of many indignities he’d suffered since a Roman freighter dumped him in this dank little fishing village. Twelve long months of exile had given him ample time to consider how far removed he was from Carthage and his former life.
While his friend and fellow exile Pontius penned angry protests to Rome in the shade of the crude lean-to they’d constructed from scavenged deadfall and fishing nets, Cyprian paced the endless stretch of sand. To think, only a year ago Aspasius, the ruler of Carthage, had reclined at Cyprian’s wedding table. The heavy-jawed proconsul had sipped imported wines, debated the merits of slum renewal, and plotted treachery behind Cyprian’s back.
How smug the foul proconsul would be if he could see the solicitor of Carthage now. A flea-bitten pleb. Forced to live in conditions far worse than those of the city’s poorest tenement dweller. Disgraced. Banished from friends. Separated from his new bride.
Jade swells tumbled ashore, gobbling up large chunks of beach the way Aspasius devoured anyone who got in his way. Cyprian waded in and scooped water into his cupped hands. His eyes and
face stung with the splash of salt. What had become of his wife? The worry was eating him alive.
Lisbeth had proven his equal. Smart as he in every way and far brighter when it came to healing. But did she have the cunning required to free herself from Aspasius? The thought of Aspasius dragging her into his lair haunted his dreams and drove his plans to escape.
Come spring a ship would sail into the harbor, and when it did, he intended to slip aboard, return to Carthage, and rescue his wife from the clutches of Aspasius Paternus.
“That’s enough for today, Pontius.” Cyprian rolled the papyrus his resourceful secretary had woven from reedy dune grasses. “We’d better work on catching our supper.”
“I’m determined to finish your petition, along with your response to the note from Felicissimus, before the next freighter comes.” Pontius dragged a whittled stick through the soot of last night’s cooking fire, a poor substitute for the expensive octopus ink turning rancid in the gold-trimmed ram’s horn in Cyprian’s old office. “Rome will not survive if it continues to allow injustice in its provinces.”
“We haven’t seen a ship port in this rat’s hole for months.”
“Today could be the day of our salvation.”
“I pray you are right.” Cyprian scanned the empty horizon. “Last night, my dreams once again revisited Carthage. Lisbeth stood on the proconsul’s balcony, crying my name, but before I could get to her . . . I awoke to the truth that Aspasius now rapes my wife.”
“A wrong your appeal will right.” Pontius took the scroll.
Cyprian clasped Pontius’s bronzed and sturdy shoulder. “Friend, even if I am released, I’ll need help to rescue my wife, and there is only one way to squelch the ugly rumor floating around Carthage that I hide in Curubis out of fear. Find the man who told
Aspasius where my wife would be that day the soldiers took her and Ruth. Find him, and expose what he’s done, why we’re stuck on this godforsaken beach.”
His thoughts returned to his argument with Lisbeth, a moment in time he remembered with absolute clarity.
“I’m not about to let Aspasius keep me from doing my job. I need those supplies,” she had argued.
“Let me or Barek run your errand.”
“You’re still convalescing. And Barek wouldn’t know a eucalyptus leaf from a mustard seed.”
“At least take Barek with you.”
“If it will help you sleep better.”
“No heroics. Promise.”
“Straight to the herbalist and back. I promise.”
Cyprian rubbed the throbbing scar on his upper arm. He’d let a little injury hinder his judgment that day. And his weakness had changed all of their lives.
Could he have stopped her? Doubtful.
They’d only been married a few weeks, but the one thing he knew for certain about his wife . . . nothing altered her path. Once Lisbeth set her jaw she would not be deterred. Perhaps women from her time counted bullheaded determination as admirable, but failing to heed wise counsel was a dangerous gamble in the world of Roman Carthage.
Would the ludicrous idea that his wife came from another time and place always leave him so unsettled? Months of having nothing to do but contemplate the impossibility of falling in love with a woman from the future had brought him no closer to understanding his destiny. No closer to how or why their different paths had crossed. Or why he’d failed to make the most of such a miraculous blessing.
Although his regrets included the years he’d wasted serving pagan gods, failing to keep his wife from harm topped his shame. She hadn’t fully understood his sacrifice. He’d seen in her eyes the possibility she’d even hated him for the choice he’d made that day to stand firm rather than deny his faith, to give up the power and standing that would have kept him from exile and her from Aspasius’s grip.
“Who could have tipped the proconsul to Lisbeth’s plans?” Pontius’s question tugged him from the horrors of that day.
“I don’t know, but I intend to find out.”
“I would be no friend to you or our dearly departed bishop if I didn’t remind you that vengeance belongs to the Lord and—” Pontius abandoned his preaching in midsentence and charged past him. “Look! A scarlet topsail.” He directed Cyprian’s gaze seaward. In the distance a tiny blood spot smudged the cerulean horizon. “Who would dare travel the seas this time of year?”
“Someone with no choice.”
Without another word, Cyprian and Pontius snatched up their letters and raced toward the imperial frigate drifting into the lagoon. Water lapped the dock’s warped planks beneath Cyprian’s bare feet. Word of an approaching ship spread quickly among the villagers. Soon a host of neglected savages pushed them toward the water. Every man rank with the odors of outdoor living and desperate for a crock of wine and a few handfuls of grain.
The teakwood ship creaked into the substandard quay. The boat’s lofty goosenecked stern, decorated with an intricate carving of the bearded face of Neptune, blocked the sun. In the shadow of the fierce-eyed god, Cyprian muscled to the front of the crowd, anxious for the advantage of being recognized for the powerful man he was . . . used to be.
“Stand back.” The port’s lone stevedore pressed the crowd from the gangplank landing.
Upturned faces, every one of them as scraggly and sunken-cheeked as Cyprian’s, searched the ship’s deck. Instead of the usual hustle of a crew eager to make landfall, not a soul stirred onboard. Murmurs rippled through the crowd. What was taking so long? Why weren’t the slaves lowering the gangplank? Where was the security detail that accompanied every vessel commissioned for Rome’s service? An eerie quiet settled over the dock.
A heavy rope sailed over the ship’s railing. The crowd cheered and swelled forward. Cyprian grabbed a pylon to steady himself against the surge of filthy bodies. The grating slide of iron bolts signaled the release of the gangplank. Before all could get clear, the bridge crashed upon the dock, forcing some to dive into the water or be crushed. A ragged boy appeared at the ship’s opening. He planted his red-speckled legs and raised a sword twice the size of his scrawny body to block the entrance.
“Unclean!” he shouted. “We carry plague. We’ve only ported to rid ourselves of the dying.”
Howls of horror erupted. Men pushed and shoved in the opposite direction.
Cyprian caught sight of a Roman captain’s crested helmet near the bow. Desperate for news as the others were to escape possible contamination, he knew what he had to do. Cyprian pushed through panicked men, forcing his way along the dock until he reached the front of the ship. He cupped his hands to his lips. “Captain!”
A square-shouldered man came to the railing. Several days’ growth on his chin made him appear uncharacteristically disheveled and unkempt for a Roman officer. He did, however, still possess that unmistakable air of Roman authority.
Cyprian shouted, “Any correspondence for Cyprianus Thascius, solicitor of Carthage?” Unsure if he’d been heard over the thundering retreat of frightened men, he shouted his question again.
When the captain spotted Cyprian a scowl wrinkled his brow. “What if there was?”
“Even exiles are entitled to send and receive mail,” Cyprian demanded in his most forceful barrister voice. The voice that had once bellowed with power in the imperial courts. The voice he had once used to instill fear in his adversaries. The voice he barely recognized anymore. “If you refuse to hand it over, I shall appeal this abhorrent treatment to Decius.”
“Not if he’s dead.”
“Dead?” The word rang with a hope almost impossible to believe. A new emperor on the throne could possibly end the persecution that had sent him into the abyss. “When? How?”
“Killed in battle against the Goths. Nearly a year ago.” The captain stooped, retrieved a bag, and threw it at Cyprian’s feet. “Traitors! The lot of you. Unfit to live on Roman soil.”
“He’s got food!” one of the retreating exiles shouted. The others quickly forsook their fear of disease and swarmed in Cyprian’s direction.
“Pontius! Run!” Cyprian grabbed the bag and leaped from the dock. His bare feet hit the sand hard. Pontius landed right behind him.
Legs pumping, they scrambled down the beach, cutting through the dune scrubs, sand flying. They sped toward the marshes and plunged into knee-deep water. Cyprian tossed the mail sack over his shoulder and sloshed after Pontius. Deeper and deeper they trudged into the shadows of the cypress trees. A startled marsh bird took flight, signaling their location to the ensuing mob.
“This way.” Pontius ducked behind a large root, and Cyprian followed. Backs to the smooth bark, they panted. Listening. Nothing but the sound of their own hearts thundering in their ears.
“Think we lost them?” Pontius whispered several minutes after the sounds of wildlife returned.
“Not for long.” Cyprian held the bag tight. “Powers of action always equal a man’s desires. The outcast hunger for news as much as food.” He slowly peeked around the tree. “Keep a sharp eye out, Pontius.” He tore through the mail sack.
“What are you looking for?”
“Proof that Aspasius has lost Rome’s backing.”
Pontius checked for pursuers. “Would a new emperor be more sympathetic to our plight?”
“If there is any justice in this life.”
At the bottom of the mailbag, Cyprian found a small parchment addressed to him, folded and sealed with wax. “It’s from Ruth.”
“What does she say?”
Cyprian broke the seal and began reading the scratchings from Ruth’s hurried hand. “Plague. Persecution. Struggles to keep both the hospital and the church going.” He scanned the rest of the letter. “Valerian is the new emperor and”—he couldn’t believe what he was reading—“and rumor has it that the proconsul has been ordered to summon us home.”
“Yes!” Pontius pumped his fist. “God has not forgotten us.” He wrapped Cyprian in a bear hug, then pulled away when Cyprian failed to embrace him. “Why are you not pleased, my lord?”
“If Aspasius is still in power, our return will not be without challenge. He will dispatch an escort to see us safely delivered to his court.” Cyprian folded the letter. “Mark my words, no matter what I do, that eel will still find a way to see me martyred in the arena.”
Pontius swallowed. “And Lisbeth? What news does Ruth give of your wife?”
Cyprian read the widow’s words one more time, praying he’d missed something in his haste the first time through, then shook his head. “Not one word.”