"She’s out there all right, Captain. Hiding from us."
Captain Ali-san Kubivaros returned the spyglass to his eye, wondering if his first mate, Simirah, was as good a prophet as he was a crewman. The fog before the Belas seemed like an impenetrable wall, and with visibility nonexistent even he knew it best to keep his ship’s speed slow at midday. Had Kubivaros believed in omens, the suddenness by which this bank had appeared would have disturbed him greatly. As it was, he was concerned only with finding the corn ship that had strayed off course here in the Aegean Sea between Delos and Crete.
"I heard the creak of her sails off the port bow," Simirah insisted. "Must have caught wind of us and come about."
All Kubivaros’s instincts told him to steer straight down the center channel for Crete, not pursue this fool’s errand of additional plunder. After all, he had just off-loaded on Delos the crews of three captured ships. Nearly three hundred men in all had been held for days in the vast holds of the Belas. Some had died from thirst but most had survived in decent enough condition to bring a hefty price.
The stout and balding Kubivaros hardly fit the dashing figure of a legendary seaman, but in every port of call that knew his name he was considered the greatest Cilician pirate of his time, perhaps ever. Yet he nonetheless loathed trafficking in men rather than goods. The large and unwieldy corn ships were like lumbering spiral-shaped warehouses at sea. They carried hundreds of tons of Egyptian wheat to Italy, their oversized frames and slow speed making for easy and profitable targets. Selling men into the service of wealthy Romans, though, meant separating them from their families forever, even as Kubivaros longed to return to his. The irony chewed at him, but was nothing a glass of wine couldn’t settle.
This feeling was something different. Ten years as a pirate, the last two as captain of the Belas, had honed his instincts and taught him to make greed his ally, not allow it to consume him. A corn ship this far off course more than felt wrong; it was wrong. It didn’t take a lifetime at sea to tell Kubivaros that.
Still he stopped short of ordering the Belas to steer out of the fog bank that had enveloped her. In years past, in times before Kubivaros’s birth, pirates would have counted their blessings, along with their gold, and sailed for home. But these were not those times. Events had conspired to turn the tables in wine dark waters like these to the point where the Cilicians practically owned the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.
The powerful Seleucid Empire, which had long controlled the seas thanks to the huge swatch of territory it ruled through Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia, had started to disintegrate after 150 b.c., when Alexander Belas, after whom Kubivaros’s ship was named, blazed a bloody trail to the throne. Added to that was the fact that Roman noblemen needed slaves to work their fiefdom-sized plantations, called latifundia, financial motivation for the Roman navy to give pirates free reign of the seas.
Crete, the Baleares, and Kubivaros’s own homeland of western Cilicia became homes to thousands of pirates, serving as their bases of operations. The wars between the Romans and King Mithradates VI further destabilized Asia Minor and gave especially the Cilician pirates added power that men like Kubivaros seized passionately. As captain of the Belas, he need fear nothing, which made it all the more strange that today, mired in this fog bank, he feared something.
Thanks to an especially rich plunder, formed of legendary spoils now safely buried in Crete, Kubivaros need never have set foot off land again. But the life he had chosen was about what he kept in his heart as well as his ship’s holds. And that more than anything prevented him from seeking safe passage out of the fog bank.
"There, sir!" Simirah beamed. "Her main sail’s in view off our port bow!"
"Then bring us about," Kubivaros said without hesitation, feeling the familiar fire stoked within him. "And let’s have our way with her."
Quick and agile, the Belas sliced across the sluggish corn ship’s route, leaving the prey no choice but to heave sail and stop.
"Aganta!" Kubivaros roared, ordering his crew to hold fast.
With that, the Belas’s strongest mates slung baling hooks across the corn ship’s deck rails, effectively fastening the two ships together, before the soon-to-be-imprisoned crew could react. Kuvibaros watched as his archers poised in the prow of the Belas, prepared to take aim at any of that crew foolish enough to fight back, but none did. It never failed to surprise him how men were so willing to submit to capture and slavery if it meant saving their lives. For Kubivaros, death would have been far more welcome.
The seized corn ship might have dwarfed the Belas in breadth but their heights were only slightly dissimilar, allowing the raiding party led by Kubivaros to board with only a meager climb. He stepped onto the corn ship’s deck to find her crew kneeling in submission. Kubivaros walked among them, boots skirting their fingers and knees. His heart hammered in excitement, all regret and trepidation vanquished by the rush of victory surging through his veins.
"Who calls himself captain of this --- "
Kubivaros heard a hiss pulse through the air an instant before arrows cut down the men on either side of him. He whipped his sword from its scabbard and swung to find Roman legion soldiers swarming onto the decks everywhere around him in full battle gear wielding shields, swords, and spears as well as bows. Overwhelmed by the onslaught, his archers on board the Belas fired off a wildly errant burst before being cut down en masse by a flood of arrows that sliced through the fog wafting between the two ships.
Kubivaros rushed toward the youngest crewmen he had foolishly taken on the boarding party. Merely boys, they were ill prepared for any battle, much less against the soldiers of Rome. His dormant skills as a swordsman returned with a flourish, his blade taking down three of the enemy, but not before two of the boys fell screaming at his feet. Kubivaros dropped his blade to comfort them as they died in the moments before he was taken captive. A pair of soldiers twisted his arms harshly behind his back and jerked him to his feet. Grimacing in pain, Kubivaros watched in silence as the ranks of the Roman soldiers parted to allow a young man of almost feminine beauty to slide through, approaching the pirate captain with a narrow grin that struck a chord in his memory. His heart continued to hammer, though in fear now.
"Do you know who I am?" the young man asked.
"Caesar," Kubivaros replied, recognizing him as the rich Roman prefect he had kidnapped on two separate occasions, four years apart.
"I forgave you the first time," Julius Caesar told him when they were face-to-face. "I promised I would not forgive you the second."
The first time Kubivaros had ransomed him for twenty-five talents. The second time Caesar insisted the ransom be doubled, but warned if he wasn’t released immediately he would hunt the crew of the Belas down and kill them all. The pirates had laughed off the threat, then rejoiced in the poems and tales Caesar had shared with them during their time together, more as mates than as captive and captors.
As if to respect that relationship, Caesar stopped short enough of Kubivaros to invite the captain to draw his sword and be slain in battle if he so chose. And the way the impish young man held his own sword at the ready, the captain had no doubt at whose hands his death would come.
Instead, though, Kubivaros did something he never deemed himself capable of doing: he sank to his knees before the man who had twice been his prisoner.
"Take my life," the captain implored him, "but spare my men."
"Your men are your life. And all of you will hang for not heeding my warning."
Kubivaros looked into Caesar’s eyes and saw nothing but black, bottomless holes. "And if there was a way to beseech you to be merciful --- "
"Then I would listen to it."
"A treasure, a treasure more vast than anything you can imagine." Kubivaros saw something in those black eyes before him change. He sensed hope. "The spoils of a great plunder that will assure any man who holds them a power fit for the gods."
Caesar loomed a bit closer. "You believe I need such spoils?"
"I believe they could only make you stronger."
The black eyes flashed. "Go on."
"I will make you a map. To the spot in Crete where the treasure is buried."
"And in return . . . ?"
"I ask only that you be merciful."
"You’d take me at my word?"
Kubivaros nodded subserviently.
"Then, Captain, you have it."
Standing before Kubivaros, Caesar studied the hastily scrawled map, matching up the scale and landmarks to his knowledge of Crete. He nodded in satisfaction as he tucked it inside his robes.
"Very good, Captain Kubivaros," he said, cocking his gaze to the head of the Roman legion who had accompanied him. "Prepare the gallows for them."
Kubivaros’s eyes bulged in shock. "You . . . you gave your word!"
"That I would be merciful." Caesar nodded. "And I will honor it. By cutting your throats before I hang all of you, so you won’t suffer."
When it was over, and the last of the slain crew of the Belas had been tossed overboard, the head of Caesar’s Roman legion bowed reverently to him.
"Should we a plot a course back to Rome?"
"No," Caesar told him, again regarding Kubivaros’s map. "Crete."
Central Turkey, high summer, 1957
"One of the greatest treasures ever known to man," Professor Rodney Young said simply.
"That is what you expect to find, Professor?"
Young turned away from the open shaft dug out of the excavated burial mound to face the official from Turkey’s Bureau of Antiquities. "That’s what brought me here, Mr. Saltuk."
Young adjusted the sweat-soaked bandanna tied round his long, thin neck. Standing alongside the thirty-foot mound left him no protection from the midday sun, now at its peak, baking the air and scorching the ground along with Young’s pale skin. Occasionally the wind would whip huge plumes of dust into the air that pasted Young’s face and hair with grit no amount of washing seemed able to remove. Sometimes he could feel it down his throat and on the inside of his mouth, to be ground between his teeth.
"If my suspicions that the king known as Mita," Young continued, "gave birth to the legend of King Midas, I expect we are about to uncover one of the richest finds in history."
Karem Saltuk, dwarfed by Young’s lanky, six-foot frame, looked neither impressed nor convinced. "People have been searching for the lost treasure of King Midas, the man who could turn anything he touched into gold, for centuries, only to find it to be a myth, just like him."
"Perhaps because they didn’t know where to look," Young said, a strange sense of assurance creeping into his voice.
For relief from the dust as much as anything, Young poked his head back into the shaft toward the work crew that were nearly finished excavating the opening of the tomb. A tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he was here on behalf of the school’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and couldn’t help but imagine the wing that would be created to display this find if his suspicions were right.
"Midas created gold," he told Saltuk. "Mita, according to my research, acquired it."
"A rather important distinction, Professor."
Young’s crew had used a drilling rig to bore deeply into the excavated mound uncovered above the modern village of Yassihöyük. What Young suspected to be the burial chamber had been found fifty yards below the upper surface. To access it, his team had first dug a horizontal trench into the side of the mound, then tunneled through a double wall of tree logs and timbers, the last of which were about to be breeched.
Young had never learned to embrace the difficult work forged in hot, stale air within cramped confines under the sparse light spilled by battery-operated lanterns hung from tunnel walls. The task was further complicated by the need to be painstakingly deliberate through every step of the excavation process. Patience was paramount, efficiency sacrificed in favor of caution lest the secrets of the find be damaged or compromised.
"Your myth places Midas a ruler around 700 b.c. Archaeologists and historians have confirmed that King Mita was a powerful leader at the same time in Phrygia, a region in what is now central Turkey and includes its capital of Gordion." Young paused dramatically. "Here."
"So if you’re right . . ."
"If I’m right, the vast riches of the man who was the real King Midas are about to be unearthed."
As if on cue, Young’s two most trusted excavators clamored toward him down the shaft. They gestured backward, their excited mutterings through dirt-choked mouths indicating they had at last broken through to the tomb. Young took their place in the cool shaft, enjoying his rightful stature as the first to actually enter the tomb.
"Well, Mr. Saltuk," he said to the man from the Bureau of Antiquities. "Myth or legend. Shall we find out?"
Saltuk followed Young along the shaft’s slight downward slope. They reached a ladder and Young took the rungs quickly, switching on his flashlight, as they approached the breeched opening. Crouching slightly with Saltuk right on his heels, he could smell the warm stench of rot from the long-trapped air. Young stepped down off the ladder reverently, savoring the moment of entry, as his beam struck the remains of a body laid out in state on a thick pile of colorfully dyed textiles inside what was left of a log coffin.
Feeling his theory about to be affirmed, Young turned his flashlight about in search of the treasures of a king that would invariably be buried with him. The beam swept one way, then the other. Then back again.
Young could only turn back to Karem Saltuk in utter surprise and dismay. Other than the coffin, the tomb before them was empty
"Wait," Saltuk said suddenly, "what’s that?"
Young spotted a lockbox on the dirt floor. Feeling his hope briefly renewed, he brushed the dirt and debris away and inspected it gingerly.
"It’s empty," Young reported, hope sinking again, "the lock smashed open the same time the tomb was plundered."
Saltuk crouched, gazing over his shoulder. "All Mita’s treasure left in the open, except for whatever was inside this. I wonder what . . ."
"I don’t know," Young said, dejection creeping into his voice. "And I never will."