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Snippet

This is a piece from “Via Serica,” which will be available in the next few weeks.  Please let me know what you think.


Eutropius approached the entrance to the Great Library. The high roof of its porch was bounded by tall columns, and its sides were lined with benches for the groups of teachers and students who sat in the shade to talk and debate. The building’s tall doors, made from some dark wood and decorated with bronze fittings, were carved with the symbols of the various gods and constellations.

As he gawked at the architecture and soaring columns of its entrance, Eutropius was jostled by clerks and older men who were coming in and out of the huge building.  After a few moments, he stopped turning this way and that, and started to walk into the library.

A big man with a bushy beard stopped him with a hand to his chest as he started to cross the threshold. He wore a green linen tunic and a sword hung from his belt. A bronze badge of some office or another hung from his neck, and he glared at the little slave from under dark eyebrows.

“What you do?” he asked in a loud voice, his Greek slushy in a thick accent that grated on Eutropius’ ears.

“I’m going into the library,” Eutropius said, holding out the paper that Actis had given him when he left the palace.

The guard took the paper out of his hands and squinted at it. He turned it over a couple of times, then ran his fat finger over the wax seal at the bottom. A broad, gapped smile of yellow teeth split his beard as he handed the paper back to Eutropius.

“Oh, prefect men always go in,” he said, sweeping his sword arm toward the door.

Eutropius squeaked a “Thank you” to the guard and scurried through the tall double doors of the library. Once inside, he stopped and gawked once again. Shelf upon shelf of books, scrolls, and tables stretched from floor to ceiling. Men and women walked among the shelves, some retrieving materials, some putting them back.

Looking around as he entered, Eutropius was amazed at the high domed ceiling. Beams of sunlight from its windows streamed down to illuminate the library, and as he watched, several birds flew through the sunbeams, casting shadows on the floor.

Eutropius began to walk deeper into the building. The smell of wax, ink, and papyrus was almost intoxicating to him, and he wondered where he ought to begin. There seemed to be no sign of how things were organized.

“I could spend a lifetime here looking for master’s maps, and I wouldn’t complain at all,” he said aloud.

As he wandered, he came upon a desk with several clerks behind it. One of them was in a heated argument with a man wearing a silk tunic and cloak. Both of them were waving their arms and shouting at one another in a language that Eutropius couldn’t understand.

Another clerk was speaking to an old man who apparently did not hear very well.

“No,” shouted the clerk, with an edge of irritation in his voice, “we have not received the books on the new tax laws yet. Check back in a few weeks.”

Eutropius considered asking a clerk where to look, but after a few minutes of waiting for one to finish a task and notice him, he drifted back toward the shelves. One of the clerks looked up from the scroll he had been packing for shipment, and watched the Greek randomly pick a corridor between the stacks of books, then turn to walk down it. The clerk stepped out from behind the desk and followed him.

Eutropius jumped when the clerk came up behind him and said in a loud voice, “What are you doing here?”

Eutropius turned around and faced the clerk, who was looking down at him imperiously. “My master has sent me here to find maps and do research on the lands beyond Egypt,” he explained.

“We don’t allow just any bumpkin with a sense of curiosity to just walk in here. How did you get past the guard?” the clerk demanded in a smooth, educated accent. Eutropius was immediately reminded of the snotty slave from Rhodes that had taught him as a child. Daily reminders of how his speech made him sound like something that had just fallen out of the dung cart on an olive plantation had not endeared him to such people.

The little scribe set his jaw and muttered, “I am no bumpkin, you officious dicktwister!”

The clerk’s head rocked back as if he’d been struck, then his face reddened as he began to shout, “Who do you think you are, you little shit? This is the Library! You can’t talk to me like that!”

Eutropius set his hands on his hips and leaned forward, returning the shouts of the clerk, “I am here on the orders of Senator Marcus Aemilius Paullus, who is on a personal mission of Caesar Augustus, you arrogant ox fucker! If you want to insult me rather than assist, then I will take this letter of introduction back to the prefect and let HIM deal with a librarian who can’t stand the idea of someone actually using his precious library!”

The clerk opened his mouth to spew a response, but stopped before the first word could come out. His red face slowly drained of color, becoming paler than it had been. Finally, he closed his mouth and looked around at the people staring at the two men.

“The prefect?” he finally said, leaning close so that he could speak quietly, “You’re here on government business?”

“Of course I am, fool,” replied Eutropius in an equally quiet voice, “Do you think I came to this warehouse because I like the smell of rancid wax and old ink?” To himself, he thought, And even if I do, it’s none of his business. I wonder who I have to kill to get his job?

Eutropius opened his clenched fist and held out the now-crumpled letter. The clerk took it and read it quickly, glancing at the wax seal at the bottom.

“I showed that to the guard at the door, and he said everything was in order,” said Eutropius haughtily.

The taller man looked up from the paper, and put on a false smile.

“I believe I know where the confusion lies,” he said, showing his teeth and trying to defuse the situation, “You spoke to the man at the door, the big Gaul?”

“Yes, the one with the beard,” replied Eutropius.

The clerk snorted. “That oaf can’t read. He probably saw the prefect’s seal and sent you along. You really should have shown this to one of us as soon as you came in,” he said.

“If you want to see my papers when I enter your shrine to the gods of dry rot, then you should post yourself at the entrance instead of ambushing me after I start going about my business,” snapped Eutropius, “Do you insult everyone who comes in here, or is that just a special service you provide to fellow Greeks?”

“My apologies for my tone,” said the librarian, “I only get like that with people who come here to steal or waste my time. We are driven to distraction by the curious and the thieves.”

“Well, I am neither,” Eutropius replied in his most theatrically haughty tone.

The clerk sighed and handed back the letter. “How may I assist you? You mentioned maps?”

Eutropius relaxed and smiled. “Yes, I need to know about the lands beyond Egypt. And yes, I especially need maps,” he said, looking around the library again, “How do you keep things straight in this labyrinth?”

“Oh, you learn how to find things. I’ve been here for about 10 years, and I’m still figuring things out,” replied the clerk, “May I ask why you need these? Is this curiosity on the part of your master, or practical?”

“Practical, I’m afraid. He and another senator are being sent on an expedition for Caesar. I can’t say exactly why,” replied Eutropius.

The clerk’s eyebrows went up and he let out his breath in a low whistle. He turned to lead Eutropius deeper into the library, “That shouldn’t be difficult. We have maps from the ports along the coast of the continent. If I recall correctly, they do not show much detail in the interior, but we shall see what we can find. When do your masters leave?”

“We only have a few days, so we will need to be quick,” replied Eutropius, hurrying to follow the clerk.

“Well, then, let’s get to it,” said the clerk, “There is much to see. You know, if you were to write down what you see as you go, it would make a wonderful addition to our collection.”

Eutropius thought to himself while he followed the clerk between shelves of rolled-up maps, I have to get there and survive to return first.

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6 Comments

  1. John in Philly

     /  August 24, 2015

    Sounds like admin types have gone through the centuries unchanged.

    I just checked your Amazon author page and did not find the preorder for your book.

    (Picture a small boy with some money clutched in a sweaty hand with an anxious look upon his face.)

    Looking forward to the book.

    • Once I have artwork back and the cover created, I’ll be setting up a pre-order site. Still waiting on the last couple of beta readers before doing final read through and publishing.

  2. It’s GOOD! You’ll enjoy it John! 🙂

  3. You have my interest!

  4. I second Old NFO – it’s a real good read and well worth forking over some denarii.

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