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Writing fiction set in unfamiliar places? Use first person narration

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Are you writing fiction, such as a novel, story or play set in ancient Rome? Use first-person narration by writing the novel or story in first person as if it were your diary. The first person character becomes the protagonist. Keep each chapter short so the action and characters move the story forward faster. That way the work of fiction reads like a thriller and is paced rather than like a history text of nonfiction.

Then in addition to doing your historical research for as much accuracy as possible, you might want to select characters to include in your novel from areas of the world that had a lot of contact with the ancient Roman areas, but are less familiar to the reader. Many novels about ancient Rome work around areas in Western Europe under the Roman Empire, but new to the reader and refreshing because of less familiarity with the area, are areas further away.

You could focus on the Roman merchants who spent years walking and riding to China to bring back silk imports. But readers have been through that trek with the Marco Polo movies and books. Instead, try a new place not written about so much, for example, Numidia, and the other provinces of Roman North Africa or the Black sea coasts other than Thrace, often covered in tales about gladiators from ancient Thrace.

Choosing more unfamiliar areas of the ancient world to cover in a novel, play, or story

Instead try placers like the Caucasus, the borders of the Persian Empire, or perhaps Armenia -- not so far, but more to learn about the cultures. You may wish to select an area of the world in historic or prehistoric times, whether you write history or paranormal fantasy set in ancient times, or time-travel novels, or family sagas.

The ancient Middle Eastern Roman provinces, including Egypt, have been covered in movies and novels. But the ancient Roman province of Numidia in North Africa? Give it a try. Here's an excerpt from this author's novel, Proper Parenting in Ancient Rome: A Time-Travel Novel of Love as Growth of Consciousness and Peace in the Home by Anne Hart (Feb 13, 2007).

The novel is set in 150 BCE during the Punic wars with Carthage in North Africa but time travels to other years in the ancient Roman era. The characters also include those from another land under ancient Roman rule, Numidia, which was the ancient Roman name for Morocco.

Many novels are written in the first person. When writing fiction set in ancient times, the first person narration, including the tone, texture, and mood sharpens the awareness of the reader in connecting with universal values in the novel or story and lets the reader keep the plot and storyline clearer, simpler, or easier to grasp

Bite of the Cat

Masinissa, king of Numidia threw the Roman wax replica of his own head (with the arrow hole between the eyes) over the edge of the trireme as he boarded my father’s ship, along with the meager belongings of the deceased look-a-like actor his bodyguards paid to play the king. Roman justice in a faraway land fascinated the king-the aura, recycling nature, and appearance of it.

He checked his weapons. The last recalcitrant rays of sunlight washed the pier’s crowded merchant stalls. A caravan of Roman soldiers slid over a few feet between the barge and the trireme.

I watched the men board the creaking ship. “How many days to Numidia?”

“Three,” Cato said holding up his fingers. He took out his famous fat fig. “Figs don’t break. Figs are better than some people.” A cool breeze rushed over his damp chest.

On the horizon, a stormy slit swallowed a blue bay of rocks. Time passes slowly at sea.

I watched how the trireme glittered for Masinissa. Even his shrine tent shone in the sunlight bedecked with his symbols to Baal, a downward crescent above his entrance that he hung his little plaques on represented his own family Tree of Life.

The old Phoenician horned symbol above doors is splashed from Carthage to Numidia and Cyprus to Tyre and all the way east to the Tigris. If there was a foreign cult of worship, I was guaranteed that my father knew all about it, assuming the identity of others as he pleased. His wealth being inherited from the bean farmers of Latium and passed down to him for three hundred years or more so that he served where his talent lied.

The consul made sure everything at our disposal played one tune: Romans of Fortuna. Now the three of us formed one unit—Cato, the king of Numidia, and I.

Who am I this moment? I studied my reflection in the ship’s shutters as we board from the pier at Ostia. Romans of Fortuna are absolute suckers for dramatic solutions to a war, I thought, swallowing a handful of fava beans washed down watery sour wine. Cato’s heavy arm nudged my shoulder. "What are you doing?"

"Watching someone give birth to his own awareness." I pointed inconspicuously to the king rummaging for his special quarters.

“Why don’t you take a walk around the ship and see what your father provided for all of us before he disappeared.”

“You know where he is as well as where your nephew is and my brothers.”

Cato squinted and wiped his forehead. “Not exactly.”

I began to walk downstairs towards the oarsmen. “Well you won’t find them down there,” Cato shouted to me, his voice echoing across the salty, creaking boards.

Leave it to my father to provide purple silk sails for Masinissa’s special shrine room on this ship and a soft bed for Cato, but sacks of grain for me. Masinissa reminded me of my father’s latest wife, a Greek from Ephesus with a winter villa in Crete. I wondered in which land he left her to wait before disappearing in Numidia when everyone thought he had been assigned to quell the slave riots in Setia.

Cato stood in front of me as I began to walk down the steps into the dank of Hades I descended to where the galley slaves worked furiously at their oars. “Masinissa wants 5,000 talents of gold, tria milia librarum piperis, (3,000 pounds of pepper), 30,000 talents of silver and 4,000 tunics of silk.”

“Your’ father’s shipbuilding technique fascinates me,” Masinissa said, his heavy bronzed arm resting on my shoulder. “I need to analyze his cargo.”

“It’s only wine, olives, and fruit,” I said as we descended the dank stairway of the trireme. “Where are the amphorae?” He asked me.

“Have you decided which side you’re on?” I answered. One bushy eyebrow arched mischievously as he tried to interpret the way my mouth curved at his forthright questioning that didn’t match his bodily gestures. He wiped his brow with his forearm.

"Perhaps we should let the sword decide." I said, but Masinissa only tossed me a crooked scowl over his shoulder.

He poured some watery wine for both of us. “The sword gives life in the form of the ancient sign of the umbilical cord cutter--the Numidian symbol for woman. Think of it—woman symbolized by the knife! Like a sharp tongue that cuts with nagging words." Masinissa belched loudly.

We walked down the ship’s creaking stairs into the dark to where the oarsmen awaited Orcus. “So your father is reputed to be the richest Roman alive,” Masinissa reminded me in barely a whisper. His voice shuddered on the word ‘alive.’ I nodded. “And you are to inherit it all?”

“No. I have an older brother and one younger.”

“Ah, yes, the missing Marcus and Lucius.”

“Do you really believe your father is in Setia, quelling riots of Carthaginian prisoners of war and their runaway slaves at the start of the games?”

“No. Cato promised me he had been sent to Numidia ahead of us.”

Masinissa, a large man more than a head taller than I, began to laugh like a madman. “Do you really think the richest man in Rome is sweating with the Roman army in Numidia? Can you picture your father dressed as a Carthaginian?

“Think of your father huddled on top of a staircase, a roof, or a narrow ledge between buildings three stories high fighting hand to hand, ranting to Roman soldiers that he’s a Roman and to Carthaginians that he’s one of them, then setting Carthage on fire, burning the city to the ground because Cato roiled the senate with his oratory?”

“Why would the senate send my father if not to make use of his training as a physician and his skill in eight tongues?”

“Oh, come now, do you really think that woman he married whom you’ve never seen, is really some Greek from Ephesus?”

“I’ve been told.”

Masinissa grimaced, squinting his down turned maroon eyes like crescent moons. He jingled a goatskin sack of coins, jewelry, or gems, rubbing them over his hip bone. “You’re too smart for that and too curious, Petronius Fabius Candius. You treat a king as an equal, and I like you for that courage. I may come to you for silver talents someday.”

His large hand at my back moved me forward at the end of the stairs. “I have a hidden reason of calling upon your father, Tertius. I understand Lucius is your older brother, and Marcus, your younger brother. That leaves you, Petronius in the middle, unless you manage to do away with your older brother and father—in which case you stand to inherit his ship building business, his mines, villas, and all the rest of his industries that keep the Roman army well-paid.”

For the first time I looked at Masinissa in a new way, not as a foreign king, but as a man interested in allying with Rome to fill his own pockets. “I’m more concerned with building my homeland to be a center of trade,” he added. “I understand your fiancée has broken off the relationship since you never showed up at your own wedding.”

“Are you asking me to hire you as my ransomer when Cato hired me to find his nephew along with my own family?”

Masinissa blinked. “Are you the kind of man who seems to smell people before you see them approaching you?”

“Perhaps you need a canine companion to pollute you, unless you think of me as a desert jackal like my father.”

“I need someone like you for a voyage such as you would never expect or even dream of—a voyage in time, but not far from Rome. You see, I already know the outcome of the war with Carthage.

“I offer to save him from a fate of dust as he battles there. For their king, his wife and children will chose to perish rather than be offered safe passage and a good living on foreign soil, by Rome. Look at me, Petronius. I have something better to offer you and Rome—by way of Egypt. However, you must become like me in order to make Rome the greatest power in the known world.”

“What fate do you have in mind for me and my father and brothers, or Cato’s nephew, Antonius?”

His laughter echoed from the back of his throat, and he kept his lips closed as he smiled crookedly. “Is there a portal you’ll not step through with me, Petronius—A portal of time?”

Masinissa, king of Numidia, opened his arms and widened his dark eyes. “I am Masinissa, the vampire. Immortal King of Numidia, bitten by Bestet long ago in Egypt when I reigned in that land. Then Alexander the Great arrived, and I fled his Macedonian generals, the heirs to the dynasty of Ptolemy, who today sit on the throne of Egypt.

Oh, Rome will have an eye on Egypt one day. I must take you to that time to face Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Cleopatra, the seventh, who because of Rome was the last Queen of Egypt.

The Roman Octavian-Augustus gave her in marriage to Juba, the second, king of Numidia. And in that time more than a hundred years into the future, I am Juba.

“Do you really believe all this?” I watched in amazement, open-mouthed, gaping jawed. Inwardly I began to laugh at the king, a fate wilder than I imagined, out of his mind completely. He was taking us on a voyage of doom to fight the Carthaginian army for his glory and our ultimate defeat, I thought.

“And I hire you, Petronius, as the eye of Ra, my personal eye. My payment is the safe passage and immortality of your father, brothers, yourself, and Cato’s nephew. Not one gold or silver talent or ten thousand can buy immortality.

“In that sense, I am richer than your father. Yet in property, your father is far richer than I could ever be since there sits on the throne of Egypt in this time, a queen of Egypt, Cleopatra II, daughter of Cleopatra I. She is married to her brother, Ptolemy VI. The two and another brother, brother, Ptolemy VIII, co-ruled Egypt until fourteen years ago when Egypt began a war with Antiochus IV of Syria.”

I sat on the bottom step as Masinissa lighted his reed torch. “I remember hearing years ago that Rome finally rescued Egypt, but rescued her from what, Syria? The Greeks have been in power in Syria for what seems like forever.

“Yes, one of my childhood tutors told me about it. He had a problem with another Antiochus of Syria. Seems that Antiochus defiled his temple, and took the oil, but his oil lamps burned brightly for eight days on what little was left. I watched how my tutor, Josephus, showed me his oil lamps.

“He celebrated Hanukkah, festival of lights. I still have his wooden spinning top. He lived Egypt before he came to work for us, and once copied and translated scrolls in many tongues for a great library at Alexandria. Josephus, the Hebrew master of many tongues who copied alphabets on scrolls, told me how Rome rescued Egypt from Antiochus that time. He showed me Aramaic, Greek, and Latin scrolls.

“How do you fit into all this—unless as a Numidian your roots are in Phoenicia, you sacrifice to Baal, and you’re a Syrian or Egyptian at your roots, but never would empower a Greek in your land, much less a Roman collector, more often, hoarders, of Greek sculpture like me?”

The flickering torch sent down sparks that Masinissa stamped out. The dim light sent Masinissa’s high cheekbones into relief like a fresco. “Cleopatra II has a son, Ptolemy VII. It’s a farce that Carthage will survive. Of course it will be burned to ashes by Rome and never rebuilt.

He grinned and bunched his eyebrows. “My eye turns toward Egypt for Rome. It is my ultimate gift to Rome for giving me Carthage in this time. Rome is but a flicker in the clean-shaven ribbon of time. And no matter how much gold you possess, Petronius, when it comes to war chariots or offering the olive branches of peace, I am in the driver’s seat.”

The king is mad I thought, not mad with power, just out of touch with reality and the present time. A rotting wall of stink hit my nostrils and coated the back of my tongue as if I had crashed into a putrid corpse melting into a carpet.

Masinissa pointed to the salt-matted damp slaves at the galley oars, mostly ruddy Thracians, victims of their loose bowels running down their legs. Their manacled and muscled pale arms (only on the side that rowed) no longer felt the warm rays of the sun

“With which one of these slaves would you dream of trading places? Do you ever think of the sweat and stale bread on which Rome runs?”

Descending from the bright sunlight above, my eyes were not used to the ship’s dark belly. “Perhaps, Masinissa, you should find a way of running these ships on their excrement, since there’s too much of it, here, and not enough for the bean farmers that feed Rome since you claim to read the future?”

“Oh, Petronius, your father is the inventor. I’m merely the traveler. Simply dry and burn the excrement as fuel as they do in Parthia. It doesn’t take much cleverness to put waste to use to move ships, men, or mountains. Why cut down a tree when you can do as we do in Numidia and burn elephant excrement. That’s when we bring up the elephants from the lands of Niger and Mauritania.”

“We’ve already dealt with the likes of Hannibal and his Carthaginian elephants.”

“Rome needs to make more use of the resources Africa offers.”

I listened to the bleating, beating sob-shocks of the drum rhythm like the coursing pulse of life itself. In the dark at the end of the stairway, a viscous wet wall of heat arose. The heat was so dense, no breath could penetrate it. The slaves that dragged their muddy feet

The stench of a mass grave shivered upwards in a sheet of molten air. Yet all these sweating men roaring the oars lived. “Who are these men?” Masinissa whispered to me as we walked by the rowing men with muscles bulging on the oar side of their torsos. “Is my father here? Is that what you’re trying to tell me, that you’ve somehow manacled him to the oars of his own ship?”

Masinissa laughed fiendishly. “No, your father’s too old to be here. Not the man who reared you. Perhaps your real father’s other sons are here. Look into the men’s eyes if you can. See how they take a sudden interest in their feet. You won’t find them looking at you, not if they want to be spared the lash. Look at all of these men. One could be your real father or brother.

I know because when you were an infant, my own father from a line of Egyptian kings before Alexander put a Macedonian on the throne of Egypt, sold your father a royal infant…That royal Egyptian infant was you. And back in Egypt, Cleopatra the second won’t even leave Alexandria to even address your real mother whose throne she took for her Macedonian line to Alexander. Don’t you think a real Egyptian Queen like your mother or King like me or your father should sit on the throne of Egypt and not a Macedonian? Only Rome can take back Egypt just as it rescued Egypt from Syria.”

I grabbed Masinissa’s arm. “Who else knows this, if you dare to tell me the truth?”

“Only your father. I know all about the mysterious circumstances in which your Roman mother died a few days after your youngest brother, Marcus, was born. I know this from my own father. Lucius and Marcus are your father’s sons. Not you, Petronius. You are a prince of Egypt. You can’t claim your heritage,” he laughed madly. “The Macedonians rule Egypt for hundreds of years now, since Alexander.

The true line is now humbled in Rome. Of course you know all this.

What you don’t know is that you are an adopted son of an Egyptian family in Rome, the real heirs to the throne of Egypt, not the Macedonians. And your real father, no, he wouldn’t be among the slaves, but perhaps one of his sons could be here someone more your own age would survive the galleys.

Oarsmen don’t last more that three or four years at most.

My father told me how your real father and mother were mysteriously done away with. Then your Roman mother is perhaps poisoned in the same way. Now your father and brothers have disappeared just when you reach full manhood and are ready to start your journey into a role at the senate. Something is wrong. Why are you volunteering your work to find anyone else but your family and perhaps Cato’s nephew? You don’t take any money as a patrician. Why do you do this? Do you really think you’re a Roman?” Masinissa began to laugh at his own words.

“Are you saying I’m the son of a foreign slave?”

“No. The son of a displaced Egyptian king from Thebes.”

“Displaced for two hundred years. Probably enslaved for generations since Alexander took Egypt into Macedonian hands.”

Masinissa pulled on his ear lobe. “What difference does time make? Anyway, you’re the son of the wealthiest Roman citizen now. That is, until it comes time to inherit, and then someone will expose you. Not me, but someone who knows of the adoption other than your father. Maybe your father will even speak up.

“My father loves me as his own son, or else he would have told me I was adopted. I only know myself as the middle son.”

“Your skin tans darkly in the sun, like a man from upper Egypt, Petronius, like my own.”

“So does half the population of Neapolis, Rome, and the south of Italy. We are one face, one race, Egypt, Rome, Greece, Numidia, Syria, Sarmatia….So why would it be important to anyone—unless you’re trying to tell me you’re my real father?”

“No I’m not. He disappeared along with your real mother right after the adoption, I was told by my father.”

“Then your father?”

“No. My father’s younger brother. You are of my line, but not in the way of my throne. I know you’ll remain Roman and loyal to Rome. Think about it, my cousin. Rome will destroy Carthage and in time, Numidia.”

“Rome will take it and improve it as it always does with its colonies. What will history remember Numidia as if not a Roman colony with great buildings? Does my father intend to divide his Fortuna based on real sons versus adopted one?”

“Only he can answer it. But you’re closer to me in blood than you are to Romans, my cousin. Be aware of it. Egypt’s secrets are older than Rome’s. Numidia is my hiding place, my land of exile. I want Rome’s ambition to turn to Egypt, as a favor to me.

“So you are like the Sybil and can see into the future?”

“I not only see into the future, I can travel with you into the future also, but for now, we only need to travel one hundred years or so to the court of Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Cleopatra the seventh, the last Queen of Egypt of the Macedonian line. It won’t help if we approach her ancestor, Cleopatra the second, who now rules in Alexandria, where I belong. For as her husband, I can bring back home my dynasty from exile only when Rome secures Egypt, in a hundred years or so from now.”

“What did you mean by your ability to control time?”

“I mean the blundering of Scipio Aemilianus will bestow on him the election to consul. He will take up his command in Africa into three years. I’ve befriended his father, the great Roman general, Lucius Aemilius Paulus, who in my father’s day destroyed the Macedonians at Pynda. He is none other than the adopted grandson of a different Scipio Africanus. My father watched him move up the ranks from quaestor to praetor and then he will become consul. He’s growing old.”

“But the age for the consulship is 42, and that for praetorship is 39. Scipio is underage. He will be debarred from being elected consul,” I said.

“No. I am gifted with the eye of Ra and can see well into the future,” Masinissa said. “The senate will sway to popular sentiment. The electoral law. Your father will see to it that it will be suspended for a year. Aemilianus will become consul, and I will never see my beloved Egypt again.”

“What about your position as king of Numidia?”

“Egypt is eternal, but Numidia is one more Phoenician colony that will soon be taken back by the desert, regardless of Rome’s rescue efforts. If you think Rome will rebuild Carthage or put its buildings up in Numidia, you’re mistaken. Rome’s coffers are running dry. It will march as long as it has bread and wages to feed its army. I tell you Rome is running out of booty to pay its army.”

“That’s not true.”

“Not yet, but it will run as dry as my desert wells. Help me see to it that Rome eventually takes back Egypt. Only through that journey in time will I find my place as a Roman Centurion soon hired to govern Egypt, down through the ages.”

“I bet you don’t even speak a word of Egyptian.”

Manissa squinted at me. “Try me on the ancient hieroglyphs. I can translate them into Greek and Latin or any other language. Let me prove myself worthy of Egypt’s throne once more.”

“You’re an evil man, Masinissa. What do you mean, dear King, by your being an immortal vampire or as you say, vampyre? I cannot discern the difference between the two. Do you intend to make my family and myself a vampyre or a vampire?

Masinissa placed a gold cat figurine in my palm.” You and your family already are. Behold the mark, the bite of the cat. Long ago, there was a Cyreanean coin that depicted the curse of the vampire on the family from which your father secretly adopted you. You are the son of an immortal vampire as am I.

“What must I give you?”

“I seek not your blood or your shade or anything else in the netherworld. I seek not your role or journey in the afterlife. As an immortal, there is no afterlife for me, I am here forever, on Earth, and anywhere else I can walk among men.

Under the bite of Bestet, my world is right here. I’m not a god, and I’m not a mortal man. I’m an immortal cat become human in form here on Earth. So are you. You are a son of the Nile Valley, beloved of the Cat, as I am. We are brothers in time. My father made sure you became the son of the wealthiest man in Rome when both of us were infants, and the power of Rome is what you covet. It’s irresistible.”

“You believe all of that mad fantasy? I don’t. I don’t want this power. It’s rotten.” I tossed my small purse of coins on the floor boards. The slaves eyed it, but couldn’t reach far enough to retrieve the purse. I kicked the purse under the feet of one of the oarsmen who put his foot over it.

“Immortality?”

“Let me think about it.”

“First I will buy all the slaves on this ship. Now. And then when we get to our destination, I’ll free them. That’s what I think of your rambling.”

“What would you do if you knew you could never fail, Petronius?”

“What do you want in return?”

“Nothing.” I half believed him.

“I’ll prove you’re one of us, an immortal of the cult of the Cat.”

Masinissa grabbed a spear from one of the guards next to the drummer. He threw it at me and it bounced off. I looked down as the metal clunked on the floor boards. Everyone looked up. “Haven’t you ever wondered as a child why you never cut your finger or scraped your knee?”

“What dignity have I given you, Petronius, knowing you will never fail, never die, and never grow sick? Haven’t you ever wondered why you have never been sick and your brothers have carried your diseases?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Don’t you have the curiosity to find out what purpose you have?”

“How do I know you’re not evil, Masinissa?”

“Have I ever hurt anyone?”

“You did away with my mother.”

“No. I only saw into the future. I had nothing to do with that. I saw to it your father became the wealthiest in Rome. I’m the guardian on his shoulder. I look out for all of you.”

“You could have saved my mother.”

“I had to position you between your brothers for this purpose.”

“Your own selfish purpose, Masinissa.”

“No, for in time, the torch will be in your hands alone—for the good of all. Only you can be trusted with such power.”

“Power always turns men into beasts.”

“And cleverness turns beasts into men. You’re clever, Petronius. Help me solve a little problem. Run the catwalk with me.”

Cato’s voice echoed from above. “What are you doing down there?” Masinissa motioned for me to see what he wanted. We emerged as if from the underworld as he stalked his way to his own quarters. “Those eastern kings,” Cato whispered to me. “what you see is never what they are.”

“Why what do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean a dirty secret. Rome has paid Masinissa to woo him.”

“Bribes?”

“Offsets, he calls them. Offsets are bribes given to a ruling king to create industrial partnerships. Sometimes these partnerships are with the Roman war machine, an industry that forms an umbrella of trade and protection all over the known world. You see, offsets are a kind of bribe used to create partnerships for the wealth of the nation being give that type of bribe. He’s giving Numidia to Rome in order to expand its local industry. So he’s turning to us to make Rome pay.”

“Perhaps a helping hand is what he asks, Cato. Or perhaps we are thugs forcing taxes as payments for protection to citizens of other nations not quite as advanced in their building patterns.

Who needs square Roman military campsites in front of every public building? But we must settle for that in order to get protection from plagues with clean drinking water from clean aqueducts or public toilets and sewage systems not found in many other places.”

“We haven’t looked at the entire world. What about India or further east on the Road of Silk? How do we know the plumbing there isn’t better than what we have in Rome?”

“What Masinissa demands is Roman military gear. He’s pressed us beyond what the Roman infantry can provide against Carthage.”

“Masinissa cares little about Carthage,” I blurted. “He wants my father’s money and Rome’s to create industry and work for his Numidians. He means to improve their lives and their trade in those outposts.

He isn’t really attached to Numidia by sentiment. Sure, he wants a shipyard and businesses at the port. No, Cato, he wants something very different from what Rome thinks. Why else would he so eagerly hand Numidia to the Romans? Masinissa isn’t even a Numidian. He’s paying Rome in exchange for business.”

“What then?” Cato’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Don’t tell me the senate hasn’t heard. Masinissa is from a long Egyptian line, not those Macedonians on the throne of Egypt—but Egyptian, from upper Egypt. He’s not Phoenician either from the Lebanon, nor a Berber of the Tamazight tongue. He poses behind that mask.”

“Reminds me of your father,” Cato said gruffly. “A man of many disguises and tongues.”

I led Cato to his quarters in a cool and shady space where he poured himself some watered down wine and honey. “I’m afraid he’s out of control.”

“He’s in a chariot race to the underworld,” Cato whispered. “I must address the senate to outlaw such bribery of foreign kings who claim to be Rome’s ally only if paid well.”

“Bribery in Rome is growing faster than our infantry,” I said. “Rome has reached the bottom.”

“Not quite yet.” Masinissa appeared suddenly, moving between us. He opened the tent flaps and let the sunshine into the red and gold draped room near the back of the ship. “I’m an arms maker,” Masinissa addressed Cato. “And your senate has approved quite a lavish purse to close our deal.”

Cato rose dropping his wine cup. “When Rome buys from Numidia, Rome pays such extravagant bribes and offsets that you place more importance on our payment than you place on what we sell you at which price or how the gadget works in the blazing dust of Numidia.”

Manissa studied Cato’s gestures and the way his eyes narrowed. “My land is nearly salted over. Why does Rome want it?”

“You underestimate the value to Rome of all the ports on the sea.”

I walked between them and motioned for them to regain their positions on the couches. “Let’s not get into a match here with diplomacy and the king. The offsets are merely the price of doing business with Rome, a price Rome pays willingly for help in destroying Carthage.”

“Carthage is my enemy but also my neighbor,” Masinissa declared. “Long after Rome’s gone, I’ll have to live next to Carthage, and many of our Numidians are of Carthaginian origin.”

“What makes you think Rome will ever leave?” Cato asked “It’s good for everyone to increase trade with everyone else.”

“Rome can’t afford to rebuild Numidia and Carthage, not as it has promised.”

“Are you calling us liars?” I asked.

Masinissa began his fiendish laugh again, as if it would never cease. “Do you know what the war with Carthage costs Numidia?”

“Do you realize what it costs Rome?” Cato opined.

“I have it easy as a military contractor,” I said. “Well, my father does, if he can be found.

“And you presume to take your brother’s and father’s place? You know little of contracting,” Masinissa said.

“I’m afraid I’ve presented you as a lover of the arts,” Cato said sniffing at his ringed fingers.

I motioned to the kitchen slave for some cheese and fruit. “You underestimate how many times my father sent me to scramble after your business, let alone overseas trade with Egypt and Greece. Rome has stockpiled what you need, Masinissa.”

Masinissa looked at me darkly. “You were hauling back to Rome the finest Greek sculptures, Petronius. I need weapons of mass destruction.”

“You’ll only turn those weapons back on Rome after you finish off the Carthaginians with the help of Rome’s infantry. We can’t let you finish off your neighbor and then turn on us when your people revolt against you.”

“I told you I’m a river to my people.” Masinissa threw the plate of cheese at the kitchen slave who lowered his head as he placed the fruit and cheese on the table.

“Stop,” Cato intervened. “That slave is Numidian.”

“See what I mean?” I said. “Soon the likes of him and his people will revolt against you, Masinissa. Then who will Rome have to face after you stockpile all that Rome has to offer you.”

“What are you, Petronius?” Masinissa asked grimly.

“A designer of military bribes packages to foreign kings.” I answered, laughing.

Masinissa turned his back. “More like a designer of statues, I’m told.”

“I appreciate the arts. So what? You’ll only ask for more. What if I invest in you—in Numidia? You’ll only leave the land. You claim to be heir to the deposed Egyptian throne with the Macedonian line taking your place. I’ve agreed to help you export anything you are willing to trade to any colony of Rome.”

Cato faced Masinissa now. “Petronius is right. His father has enough wealth to finance the Roman army. In fact he has his own private army. Why should he choose to help you?”

“I’ll use Numidian components in Roman weapons, especially to make Roman steel,” I said. “I’ll sell Numidian weapons for you. I’ll get men in other lands to assemble your weapons. You must know that my father is more than a physician and healer of Roman soldiers. He’s an inventor of weapons and farm equipment. That’s how he made much of his wealth. I’m not only a helper.

“You’re only twenty years old, Petronius,” Cato said. How can you earn the respect of foreign kings who differentiate you from your missing father? You’re not even the heir.”

“I’m the only one around at this moment,” I said.

Cato reminded me so pointedly. “You can’t just steal your father’s property. We have no proof of what happened to him or where he is, or where your older brother is. A little man, one so young as you shouldn’t be put in charge of so much trade from yarn to weapons, from ships to gold and silver from the mines, from tools to water wheels and catapults. How does your father sell so many different products to so many nations under Rome’s nose?”

I turned to Masinissa. “I’m more interested in having weapons built in the colonies rather than have to ship them from Rome. Would you oversee such a Roman industry on your territory?”

Masinissa at last reclined on his couch. “I assume as a military contractor for Rome, the son of a healer, and a healer himself, too, that you also will sell me figs and wine.”

“Not when Numidian figs are plumper.” I gazed at Cato for his reaction at the mention of the African figs he so emphasized in the Forum.

“You’re convincing for so young a man,” Cato commented jealously. “Why don’t you also provide Numidia with Roman meat for its feast nights under a bribed deal with some of its neighbors, Egypt perhaps?” Cato studied Masinissa’s face for a twitch, but he remained still as his gold mask.

“I’m for free trade,” I said. “But as a military contractor with subcontractors under me all over the known world, I must be certain Rome possesses the world’s best armaments. You can buy Roman weapons free of having to pay bribes to own them. Only I can’t put a foreign king in charge when a Roman governor will do fine in your country.”

Masinissa grinned. “So after Rome helps us clean Numidia of Carthaginians. Then another foreigner takes command—Rome.”

“What’s so important to you about Rome governing Numidia or improving the buildings? You’re an Egyptian. You said so yourself. I understand your people lived for generations in Numidia. Rome can’t have small men in charge of my father’s latest inventions regarding Roman weapons. Besides, medical instruments of the finest Roman steel are included in my father’s inventions.”

“Rome is economically efficient,” said Cato. “But if Numidia were our equal, we would have to take measures to see that it wouldn’t pose a threat.”

“Like the measures you are taking with Carthage?” Masinissa sighed. “You know criminals in Numidia are sending weapons to Carthage?”

“Do you know how much time, money, and effort I spend putting together these gifts of bribery to foreign kings under the guise of military help?” I asked Masinissa. “As a Roman military contractor, each time I send talents of silver and gold to a foreign king I am undercutting the future of Rome and burying its past glory.”

Cato shuddered at my confession of what my father actually does when he’s not healing the sick or overseeing his ship building or mines or home building. Not many Romans knew we are a family of arms dealers with our façade of healers and inventors with the brothers working together with my father.

“All I care about, said Masinissa in a low voice “is how much damages you will pay me if you fail to deliver what Rome promised Numidia.”

“We will negotiate again if that happens,” I assured the king. “After all every Roman citizen pays taxes to finance the Roman army which you expect to finance Numidia’s army. You act as if I alone am supporting Rome.”

“You certainly can afford to,” Masinissa huffed. “What I understand is that Rome negotiates directly with me as it does with any foreign king.”

“That’s right. You can go to any other merchant other than the house of Fabius Candius.”

“Rome will suffer because of these deals,” Cato insisted. “You, Petronius, if you want your chance in the senate someday, must realize that Masinissa needs these bribes as a type of political tent that he hides in. He needs the offsets to justify what he has ripped away from his own people’s mouths so he can spend furiously in Rome. He insists upon buying Roman military weapons and other Roman goods.”

“I can get anything from the Road of Silk,” Masinissa declared.

“Yes, but in how much more time?” Cato said.

“There’s no way I’ll be snared on the hook of time,” Masinissa said, laughing. “Romans are good at bribing kings, then making sure they are deposed by Rome if not by their own people who are paid by Rome.”

“That’s not true,” Cato said, still trying to be diplomatic with Masinissa.

“If Rome didn’t bribe foreign kings, Rome would never get their business,” I added. “Not without a war. If we don’t bribe the other nations, we’d lose their business quickly. Then, what would Rome be without its war machine? What nation would resist our civilizing improvement?”

“Egypt,” Masinissa replied. “How would you improve civilization in Egypt?”

Cato laughed and shook his head. “Masinissa, I didn’t realize you were a man of Greek sentiment. Are you learned in music as well?”

I interrupted the eye contact and dialogue between Cato and Masinissa by tossing a fig in the air and catching it. “What would happen if the Roman war machine’s production lines shut down? My father owns the largest defense industry in Rome, the largest companies for mining and building homes, and ship building. I can pay larger bribes to the wealthiest of foreign kings and queens. Why should I even think about this? Let the foreigners go somewhere else. They can’t.”

Masinissa walked away from Cato and I. He turned back for a moment to address us in his royal fashion. “Now you understand why everyone in your family is missing. Only you have been left for one purpose. Think about why you remain here for now because of your competitive advantage. Something is strange about how you cast your long shadow in my little nation. Long shadows foretell the fall of night.”

Cato signaled me with his eyes and motioned for me not to follow him. “If he puts his wicked little curse on me, I’ll….”

“We mustn’t take any risk,” I whispered to Cato. “He’s only playing his game to distract us from the real issue. He can’t be allowed to trip us over our own feet of clay. Rome can’t lose her competitive advantage.”

Cato understood. “You’re wise for your youth,” he said. “I see how he’s trying to make you sabotage yourself. Does he really think Rome is going to rebuild Carthage in his lifetime? If we keep him on his feet, he’ll want us also to rebuild Numidia.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Isn’t that what we promised the Numidians? We do keep our promises, don’t we? In his eyes, Rome never needs help. It seems everyone buys our weapons.”

“Notice how little Numidians spend buying Roman goods?” Cato said. “They pit weapons contractors from many lands against one another. Yet we permit them to make their own weapons and sell it to still other nations. Trade is good.”

“Yes, if the nations always remain no threat to Rome.” I said. “What does Rome really plan to build in Numidia?”

“A theater and a fish farm.”

“And to my father as a shipbuilder, it’s Rome’s greatest betrayal of my family,” I fumed. “The Roman taxpayers will revolt. Each industry is eaten by another.”

Cato smiled. “No one in Rome will lift an eyebrow. The games are starting, and there’s plenty of grain for fresh, hot bread in the bakeries.” He pursed his thin lips.

“Yes, the fish factory will bite into your father’s shipbuilding business to Numidia, but Rome has a purpose for everything. It will finance control of the runaway Carthaginian prisoners of war and their slave riots. I too, am generous to all citizens of Rome, not only to you, as a patrician Petronius. You always will find a way of feeding your face, and you will land on your feet no matter how chaotically I toss you to fate and Fortuna.”

Cato always was cryptic and oracular with me as was Masinissa. Now he moved on to the dark niche to join Masinissa.

Something new distracted me as I scrambled below again, nearly gliding down the stairs to look once again at the great underworld of slaves at their oars. Who had picked up the purse I’d tossed with all those coins? I had to make sure at least one slave found it and benefited. If I had one good deed to do on board, it had to be the act of buying and freeing one oarsman who could be replaced. If only I knew Masinissa’s real goal, I thought.

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