The Deadliest Lie

The Deadliest Lie

June Trop

October 2013 13.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-367-2

She's a brilliant alchemist--with a talent for solving mysteries.

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A Miriam bat Isaac Ancient Alchemy Mystery


Miriam bat Isaac is a budding scholar in first-century CE Alexandria, though her dreams seem doomed. Who in her household or among her father’s Shabbat guests stole the scrolls containing the Alchemical League’s valuable formulas? Perhaps the thief was even her frantic father, on the cusp of financial ruin, eager for Miriam to end her dalliance with a handsome jeweler and marry into an honorable and wealthy family. Or her rebellious brother, intent on raising money to travel to Capua so he can enroll in the Roman Empire’s most renowned gladiator school. Or her faint-hearted fiancé, who begrudges her preoccupation with alchemy and yearns for their forthcoming marriage?

And how did the thief manage to steal them? Miriam is not only faced with a baffling puzzle, but, to recover the scrolls, she must stalk the culprit through the sinister alleys of Alexandria’s claustrophobic underbelly. The Romans who keep a harsh watch over her Jewish community are trouble enough.

Miriam is based on the true personage of Maria Hebrea, the legendary founder of Western alchemy, who developed the concepts and apparatus that alchemists and chemists would use for 1500 years.

Audio excerpt from The Deadliest Lie:


"Finely crafted and fascinating historical fiction!" - Historical Novel Society



Chapter 1

Late Friday Afternoon

I WONDERED WHAT lie I’d tell as I approached the great mahogany doors of my father, Isaac ben Asher’s study. By this evening, the beginning of Shabbat, I was to have fixed on the date of my marriage to my dearest friend, the childhood companion I’d been betrothed to since infancy. My father was increasingly impatient for me to marry Noah, the only son of his business partner, Amram ben Eleazar, and thereby secure the future of our families.

His study is a small square room off the atrium, perfumed by the roses in the courtyard to its west. I squared my shoulders upon entering, but as soon as I sat before his massive ebony desk and saw the set of his jaw, my shoulders curved inward.

He wasted no time.

"The date, Miriam?”

I would rather have endured a public flogging than the humiliation I felt under his gaze.

"You promised you’d give me a date so the wedding could take place before your seventeenth birthday.”

The low-hanging midsummer sun streaming in from the courtyard painted a glow on his swarthy, heavy-featured face and splashed a disjointed pattern across the ledgers stacked on the shelves covering the east wall.

My head dropped in shame, and any words I might have formed got trapped somewhere between my mind and my tongue.

"Look up when I’m speaking to you, young lady.”

I’d been picking at the threads of the plain short-sleeved, ankle-length tunic of bleached linen that I wore with a thin Numidian leather belt, my usual Friday attire before bathing and dressing for Shabbat. When I raised my eyes, I could see that his burly shoulders had stiffened under his blue cotton tunic and the lines at the corners of his mouth had deepened into creases.

"We’ve made a commitment to this family, Miriam, a commitment as binding as marriage, and like marriage, it can be broken by only a divorce. Besides, Amram is not just my partner; he’s my friend. We’ve seen each other through the worst of times, when your mother died and later when he lost his beloved Leah and their two daughters in the Pogrom.”

My father cleared his throat and continued his lecture.

"You’re shirking your responsibility not only to me but to our community, to say nothing of the insult and embarrassment your delay is inflicting on a fine family. Even your mother, the soul of temperance, would blanch at your indifference to duty.”

My father was obsessed with his sense of duty.

The heat of the room clamped down on me despite the cool breath of the Etesian winds billowing and snapping the purple tied-back drapes that skirt the floor and separate Papa’s study from the peristyle. The arrangement of our cobblestone streets takes full advantage of these salubrious northwesterly winds. Originating in the Aegean, they whisper across the Mediterranean to temper our summer sun and are the longed-for relief from the desert’s Khamseen winds, the hot south winds that choke us with their suffocating walls of dust during the spring and debilitate us with headaches, deafness, and the other ailments they carry.

Looking past Papa and into the breeze, I tried to find serenity in the shade of the peristyle’s lush ferns and cascading ivy and the screen of boxwoods beyond its colonnade.

"I can’t understand you, Miriam. No one could be more devoted to you than Noah.”

"But I’m not sure I love Noah, not like a husband, not the way you loved Mama.”

He’d never stopped grieving for my mother. Following two still births, she’d become pregnant once again, this time with my twin brother Binyamin and me. After our birth, childbed fever claimed her life and any tenderness my father might have had.

"Miriam, security, not love, is the foundation of a marriage. The purpose of marriage is to preserve and extend a family’s resources. Especially for Jews, given our precarious civil status, the matter of resources is crucial. When you were an infant, I agreed to the alliance with Noah’s family to diversify our holdings. Love, if it comes at all, comes later. I’m counting on you to safeguard the future of our family. I’m already forty years old, and your brother is too busy ogling every prostitute that waits for a legionnaire at the Gate of the Sun.”

Tears of shame trickled down my cheeks for delaying the marriage against my father’s wishes. But I knew he’d never force me to marry Noah. I was his favorite, the child who grew each day to resemble the woman he had immortalized in a bronze statue, as if the sculptor could resurrect my mother from the grave. As if I could bury my face in the statue’s indifferent bosom, experience the comfort of a mother’s arms around me, and draw her consoling scent into my nostrils. When I was little, I would close my eyes and roll myself into a ball to imagine what my life was like inside her, and to this day I long to know her.

Papa says he sees in me the same elegance she had, from her tall slender frame, the gentle slope of her shoulders, and the graceful curve of her hairline to the delicate planes of her face, her darkly fringed eyes, narrow nose, and the cloud of luxuriant curls that framed her brow. So when I see my reflection, I wonder whether I’m also looking at her, except that my hair is chestnut, whereas hers was blonde, and my eyes are the blue of lapis lazuli, whereas Papa says hers changed color like the Mediterranean. Otherwise, he says, we’re identical, that even my skin is like hers. "As smooth as silk and as translucent as Oriental alabaster,” he says, except for the worry lines between my brows and my easy blush. Still, when his eyes snared mine and he pulled in a deep breath, my own lungs emptied out. I knew he was about to upbraid me.

"Don’t deny it, Miriam. I know you’ve been spending afternoons with that bastard Judah.” A stream of sour breath accompanied his bitter words. He was leaning toward me now, his thick legs flung apart, his pupils dilated, his jowls waddling as he stirred the air right under my nose with his accusing finger. "Remember who you are. You’re a well-educated Jewess and a Roman citizen.”

He spaced out his words as he said "a Roman citizen.”

Generations ago, our family and Noah’s purchased Roman citizenship, a privilege that’s hereditary only when both parents are citizens. Roman citizenship guarantees redress in the Roman courts, as well as immunity from the most onerous taxes and services. Not only was Judah reared without the respectability of a father’s name, but he’s had no protection against tax collector greed and intimidation, which, through a single misfortune, could reduce him to poverty, even slavery.

I remember when our tinker was stabbed to death while gambling in a saloon near the waterfront. All I can recall of him now is how ill-suited he was to his name, Plato (meaning broad-shouldered). An overlong neck connected his jutting, hollow face and Adam’s apple to a pair of boyish shoulders, while the rest of his gangly frame perched on hairless, spindly legs. His impoverished widow and children had to be sold to slavers when they couldn’t pay the tax collector.

"You’re not some waif, Miriam, eking out a pitiful living in some filthy stall in the agora.”

"Papa, Papa, please. Judah is just our client. I see him only on the calends to collect his mortgage payment.” My tongue crafted the lie as I stared into the eyes of the asp cut into the glass oil lamp on his desk. Had I fooled him, or had he caught that barely perceptible moment of hesitation before my answer? "I cannot commit to a wedding date today, Papa. Please, just one more week. I beg you.”

When he dropped his head into his hands, I knew our meeting was over, that I would have but seven more days. Lest he change his mind, I wheeled out of the chair, nearly toppling it over, my knees stiff from the stress of our meeting, the pressure of a headache gathering across my eyes. While crossing the mosaic floor to the mahogany doors, I wiped my sticky palms on the skirt of my tunic so I could turn the bronze door handles. Counting each step to the vaulted atrium, I heard a faint whistle of relief escape my pursed lips as I circled the sunken marble pool edged with planters of white chamomiles and yellow field marigolds and passed through the archway into our dining room.



Chapter 2

Friday, Late Afternoon into Early (Shabbat) Evening

THE IMAGE OF frustration on Papa’s face and my own shame for failing to fulfill his expectations lingered while I bathed for Shabbat, brushed my hair into a simple bun, and dressed in a fresh, short-sleeved white linen tunic embroidered with a blue primitive border print. Then I began to arrange the dining room for Noah and Amram to join my father, brother, Aunt Hannah, and me as they usually did for the Shabbat evening meal. Positioning the room’s three purple dining couches in an arc facing the courtyard, I centered them around a low ivory table, its legs carved in the figure of a squatting griffin. Then, measuring the distances with my forearm to get the symmetry just right, I flanked each couch with a pair of enameled ebony lamp stands.

Frescoed streaks of purple tint the dining room’s ceiling and western wall to suggest the cooling fingers of dusk and match the color of the opium poppies along the perimeter of the courtyard, their beds along the street framed by a lattice fence and, beyond the fence, a thicket of thistle and acacia. A hedge of hibiscus screens our well near the southeastern corner of the courtyard, while dwarf plane trees and date palms splash shade on the marble fountain in the center and the wrought-iron chaise lounges around it.

From the dining room, through the fountain’s murmur, I could hear Aunt Hannah playing the cithara in the library, as she customarily does before Shabbat. Blind since birth, my father’s only sibling has always lived with us. After my mother’s death, Aunt Hannah, with the help of our much-loved slave Iphigenia, reared Binyamin and me. Aunt Hannah, more a co-conspirator than a parent, encouraged us to follow our dreams as she could not. Easing her broad hips into her spindly-legged chair, she holds the cithara between her ample forearms, strumming it with a pick in her right hand and dampening its strings with her left, creating in each note a lustrous jewel. When she senses the setting sun, she ends her recital, the signal for me to light the Shabbat candles. Despite the lifeless chips of jade that camouflage as her eyes, Aunt Hannah sees more than most.

Papa, Noah, and Binyamin were also in the library, absorbing Aunt Hannah’s melodies and sampling the wine and stuffed olives, boiled eggs, and candied almonds served in anticipation of the arrival of Amram, who was attending Philo’s lecture at the Great Synagogue. Philo and his younger brother Alexander Lysimachus head our city’s foremost Jewish family, one that has enjoyed wealth here for generations and the benefit of Roman citizenship since the days of Julius Caesar.

As much as Alexander Lysimachus has dedicated his life to the affairs of state, Philo has dedicated his to harmonizing Greek philosophy with the Truth of the Torah. Although most Jews dismiss his work as more Greek than Jewish—some deride him for turning Moses into Plato and Plato into Moses—Amram idolizes Philo for having led the embassy during the Pogrom to petition Caligula to guarantee our rights and safety. In gratitude, Amram goes to hear Philo lecture wherever and whenever he can. So we waited for him while Papa, Noah, and Binyamin snacked on the refreshments in the library.

The aromas of roast duck and grilled lamb nibbled at my stomach as I kindled the oil lamps. Then, when Aunt Hannah had ended her cadence, I used the flame from one of the lamps to melt a Shabbatcandle into each of the two freestanding Jerusalem stone candlesticks that had been my mother’s. We keep them in our dining room along the street-side windows to remind us of her holiness. Aunt Hannah taught me to light two candles, one for each of the two Torah commandments about our holy days: to remember them and to keep them holy. Recalling when she used to have to lift me to reach them, I beckoned their flickering light and added to the traditional blessing my own prayers for peace between Papa and me.

In the stillness of Shabbat, along with the chink of passing crockery and the splash of flowing wine, the cool winds off the waterfront swept the conversation in the library across the courtyard into the dining room.

"I wonder, Noah, why you didn’t accompany your father to Philo’s lecture.” Papa was admonishing him. I could picture Noah’s face turning the color of strawberries before he’d drop his head and stare at his feet.

"My father should stop living in the past. All he does is relive the Pogrom.” Papa had touched on Noah’s only gripe against his brokenhearted father.

The Pogrom erupted in 38 when I was eight years old. Papa said it really began when Flaccus, the Roman governor of Alexandria and prefect of Egypt, issued an edict depriving us Jews of our civil liberties and branding us aliens in the very city we’d lived in since its founding. The effect of that edict, he said, was to give free reign to the Gentiles to settle old scores against us: the Greeks, for our expanding commercial interests, our resistance to assimilation, and our seeming favoritism under Roman rule; and the Egyptians, for our unrestrained attacks against them in our literature, especially in The Wisdom of Solomon, where we depict them as animal-worshippers and claim their long-standing oppression is a justifiable punishment from G-d.

But I remember it starting with the fist of an explosion, when, at the beginning of Tishri, on our High Holy Days, mobs of Alexandrian Greeks abetted by the Egyptian rabble stormed the sanctuary of the Great Synagogue during our morning prayers. They kicked through every entrance, smashing the bejeweled doors, grinding the semiprecious stones beneath their heels, saving their clubs and swords for us. That’s when Papa thrust me under our pew, and in that dry and dusty stripe of darkness I heard the world shatter and fall in a hailstorm of bricks, stones, glass, and screams.

And I saw sandaled feet: Some pale and dainty, others thick and hairy. Some veiny and caramel-colored, others leathery and loose-jointed. Even a few of dubious cleanliness. But none stood rooted. Some limped, others stumbled, but most ran helter-skelter. Until they stopped. Abruptly. There was no escape. Their feet were outnumbered by those in boots caked with grit and later with flesh and clots of blood.

That was just the prelude. By the time that horrific month was over, we had all—men, women, and children—been evicted from the other quarters of the city, herded into a narrow sector of the Jewish Quarter, and threatened with arrest and summary execution if we appeared outside that sector, even in a desperate search for food.

During the months afterward, I would see our men, now despondent, loitering on heat-drenched street corners, whispering in huddles. They’d hush when they heard me coming, but I knew what they were talking about. I’d already overheard Amram telling Papa about the crucifixion of our most senior elder, Baruch ben Ezekiel. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, the rest of our elders were being dragged into the theater, where, for the amusement of the mob, they were stripped and scourged or bound to the wheel and mauled like the vilest criminals. Then the entertainment would continue with dancing and flute-playing contests.

Still other Jews had been hauled into the marketplace to be stoned, pummeled, torn limb from limb, or burned alive. Their properties were burned, their corpses were desecrated, and their women, under threat of torture, were forced to eat the flesh of swine. One night, when Noah and Amram were attending a meeting to organize an appeal to Caligula, a gang of thugs trapped Leah and the girls in their home, smashed their shutters, and hurled volleys of lit torches through their windows to set their furnishings ablaze. Then they mocked their cries as the smoke suffocated them and the hissing flames devoured them.

"Don’t you think it’s only right that your father remember your mother and sisters and pay his respects to Philo?” Papa’s goading Noah was useless. Noah was too tame, too morally fastidious to ever raise his voice, let alone to my father, let alone on Shabbat.

"Philo may fancy himself the great advocate, but he accomplished nothing for our people. All he did was truckle to Caligula, tagging along with his delegation to Caligula’s seaside villa, begging for a hearing. Instead, Caligula treated the five of them like a theatrical farce. We had to wait for Claudius’s ascension to have our rights reaffirmed.”

I got the feeling Noah was playing to Papa’s disdain for Philo more than challenging his father’s admiration for him. And when he continued, I was sure of it.

"Besides, it’s useless to dwell on the past. I’d rather look ahead to my marriage to Miriam and our rearing a family.”

More ammunition for Papa.

After a considerable silence, I heard someone, probably Papa, open a fresh amphora of wine, dilute it with water in the crater, a two-handled earthenware basin, and ladle it from the crater into crystal goblets.

Next, Papa started on Binyamin. "Your geometry tutor says you’re absent even when you’re present.”

"Are you flattering me for my talent as a phantom, Papa?” I could picture Binyamin’s full lips curling in a faint sneer. He also knew how to bait and snare.

"I’m saying you need to work at your studies so you can make something of yourself. I’ve already given up any hope of your helping Miriam and Noah run the business.”

"Good. I had no intention of counting money for the rest of my life.”

I could feel the fragile peace of Shabbatcrumbling.

"So what is your intention? To become a beggar? A pickpocket? Because I won’t continue to support you much longer.” Papa’s raspy voice had climbed to a higher octave.

"That’s fine with me. I want to enroll in the ludus at Capua to train as a gladiator.”

My brother has always aimed high. The ludusat Capua, the oldest in the Empire, is the school Spartacus made famous. Still, Binyamin is an exceptional athlete, fierce in combative sports like boxing, wrestling, and pankration, a strenuous combination of both that ends only when one competitor is either unconscious or dead, unless he manages to surrender first.

But Binyamin, indifferent to the slime and stink of his own wounds, would never surrender. Even as a baby, he never cried. Once, when we were hardly more than toddlers, he escaped from Iphigenia and ran into the street. Before she could catch him, a startled mule kicked him in the chest and sent him to the pavement bleeding. Instead of crying, he tried to run after the mule to kick it back. Today, his noble body, muscular neck, and haughty eyes bristle with power. His flattened but still aggressive nose and the threadlike scar that wriggles across his left cheek only confirm his experience as a formidable combatant.

I could picture blotches of anger spreading from Papa’s neck to his hairline.

"A gladiator? Are you crazy? How do you expect to get to Capua? First you’d have to book passage on a grain ship to Rome, apply for an exit visa, and pay the port official in Alexandria for that visa. You’d have to pack your own provisions, cutlery, crockery, a makeshift bed and tent, even your own piss pot. You’d have to wait around on a rat-infested pier, maybe for weeks, until the ship was ready to sail. Then you’d have to amuse yourself on deck for at least a couple of months—that’s if there’re no storms, G-d forbid, and the sailors have clear skies.”

Papa paused for effect.

"On second thought, you could easily amuse yourself onboard. You’d pass the days scheming with every swindler and shooting dice with every trickster, and you’d pass the nights discharging your passion with every whore.” Papa forced a laugh, but it sounded false, more like a bray. When he continued, he spoke slowly. His voice was shaking, but his body was motionless.

"And that’s just to get to Rome. After that, you’d have to make your way overland to Capua, walking or riding on a hired mule from filthy inn to filthy inn along the entire length of the Via Appia. For this, you’d need even more gear: heavy shoes, a broad-brimmed hat, a woolen or leather paenula fitted with a hood to protect you from the rain, and a birrus brittanicus, a long woolen cloak also with a hood, to protect you from the cold. How do you expect to pay for all that?”

Didn’t Papa understand that the logistics were our least concern? But, then again, he was just warming up.

"Don’t you realize, Binyamin, I’ve given you the best of everything, in this, the most splendid city in the world? That you’re on a path to ruin? That once you sign a contract and take the oath, you relinquish everything: your citizenship, your freedom, the ownership of your very life? You’ll be branded like the lowliest animal and subject to every humiliation. You’ll long for the days when your body belonged only to you. And you’ll be corralled to breathe the stench and share the lice of the Empire’s most wretched criminals, slaves, and prisoners of war.”

I hugged my ribs to quell the frisson pulsing through me.

"No, Papa, you’re wrong.” Binyamin hammered out his words in a cold, brittle staccato, but then his voice took on a zealous tone. "There are more free gladiators than ever in Alexandria, and that’s because gladiators are heroes, showered in every city of the empire with fame, fortune, and the company of eager women.”

Binyamin might have been thinking of Sergius, the gladiator who’d taken refuge here in Alexandria with Eppia, the senator’s wife, who’d given up everything to be with him. But while the love for a gladiator can cut across all social boundaries, most people still regard them, even those most admired in the arena, as outcasts.

"Binyamin, you’ve reached a new low. You’re nothing but a reprobate, a disgrace to your mother’s memory, and a stain on our family’s name.”

I imagined the three of them: my father, his nostrils flared, his lips compressed into a thin line; my brother, his scar blanched against an empurpled face, his eyes glazed and narrowed to hostile slits; and Noah, embarrassed and alarmed, the fine hairs of his polished brow clinging to glossy beads of perspiration. Then I heard two claps in rapid succession, each followed by the clatter of shattering pottery and the tinkle of showering smithereens. That racket could mean only one thing, that my brother had hurled his leather sandals at my father’s collection of antique Etruscan vases.


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