The Devil’s Treasure
Published in August 2017 by Endeavour Press
Ravenna, Monday, the 12th March 619 AD
Three bags, closely-packed, on the bare wooden floor. One purse filed with good money, another with bad. Midnight soon. Two ponies then to arrive outside the monastery. Shortest possible loading time, followed by a journey through darkness to the city’s causeway gate.
Rodi took up the mirror. Held close by the lamp, it showed his face without distortion.
Fraud, forger, blackmailer, snoop, hypocrite, thief.
All in a day’s work, of course. The Intelligence Bureau didn’t take agents on to arrange flowers. His normal duties lost Rodi not a moment’s sleep.
It was the murder that troubled him.
He closed his eyes and opened them again. He looked harder into the disc of polished bronze. His spots were pretty near gone. If he lived another few weeks, he’d reach his sixteenth birthday with the clear complexion he’d been longing for since the havoc of his puberty.
It was a good mirror. It was an old mirror. The thought was no sooner noticed than Rodi knew his mind was repeating itself. How it had been pushed under a crate of books in a basement of the Saint Andrew Monastery wasn’t a question anyone else would have chance to ponder. Three days earlier, supervising the search for something else, he’d heard the scrape of metal on the stone floor. He’d bent over at once, and taken and concealed the blackened object. Alone in his room, he’d sat up half the night, polishing it with a paste of flour and salt in vinegar. The iron handle was rusted away, and he’d cut a finger bending off what remained of it. The scratch picked up in the basement was to the back. A shame, as this was a riot of ancient gods and heroes. But the bright yellow disc of the mirror itself was a wondrous thing. Holding it now didn’t take his thoughts off the murder, or the piffling defence that could be made. But it was consolation of a sort.
“Come and give us a hand, Rodi.”
It was old Cosmas calling from the next room.
Rodi looked away from the sight of his own face. “I’ll be with you when I’m dressed.”
A heavy thud, followed by an anxious creaking of wood, suggested the Reverend Father had sat down. “It’s one of these letters, Rodi. I think it’s all in Greek, but the bottom part’s written in Roman characters. I can’t guess what it says.”
Rodi moved the mirror as far back as his arm would reach. He ignored the dimness of stained and crumbling plaster on the wall behind him, focussing on his own appearance. Cut short, his hair was less of a dirty blond. His eyes would always be the wrong distance apart. If he ever put on flesh, his chin might not be so pointy, or his ears stick out so. He put his free hand up to touch the steel clasp holding the top of his shirt together. This was another wondrous thing – a dark and gleaming crescent with its pin out of sight. If perhaps older still than the mirror, it was newer in his possession. It was too good, no doubt, for the travelling clothes he’d put on. But its appearance, against his throat, was more consolation to a troubled mind.
He moved the mirror close again. He twisted so the lamp showed the other side of his face. The spots were going. Until the light fluff on his upper lip grew heavier, he’d look just as he needed to appear. It might be just as he wanted to appear.
Cosmas was never impatient. But he could turn plaintive. “There’s a whole box of these things in Latin, and I think one of them’s from the Lord Exarch – or Emperor, or whatever else it is he’s called nowadays.”
Rodi put the mirror face down on a rickety desk. He moved a sheet of clean papyrus over it. Looking back from the door, lamp held up, he frowned. No one in the monastery knew what he really did. But probably the only monk who believed he was secretary to the Lord Abbot of the Brothers of Saint Andrew was Cosmas himself. Once the room was unoccupied, that stinking pig Timothy would be straight in for another search. Nothing he found here would make him any wiser. Why give him easy cause, though, for making trouble among the novices? He bent his mattress double, and pushed the mirror through a split in the fabric. It would be two heartbeats for anyone seriously looking to feel it within the disintegrating straw. Brother Timothy, though, was no professional. Except for demanding meat twice a day, he wasn’t credible even as a monk. As for any professionals who might come looking, they wouldn’t care about a mirror. They’d find nothing else.
More creaking of furniture from next door. Still beside the bed, Rodi spoke up: “His agreed title at the moment is Lord Defender of Italy. And you’ll find the letter’s only the minutes of the meeting you attended this morning with the Lord Bishop.”
“But they’re all in Latin.”
Rodi sighed. “That is the official language in this part of the Empire. Africa, too.” He looked at his boots, guilt now mingling with unease. “While I’m away, Synesius will take over the interpreting.”
Next door, a louder thump, as of something dropped from despairing hands. Rodi thought about his mirror. Couldn’t he say he was now at prayer for a safe journey? That would please the old Abbot no end, given his settled belief that the Devil himself was abroad, and looking for mischief.
Best not. Cosmas was no genius, but no one was thick enough to believe that lie. Besides, the less God heard from Rodi in the foreseeable future, the better it might be for both of them.
Again at the door, he looked about one last time.
Why not take the mirror with him?