“It has got to be here.” In his haste, Gaspar snatched another copper cylinder from the rack and too quickly tipped the scroll it contained onto the reading desk. He knew he should be more careful with these rare documents, but could not control his rising frustration.
“Gaspar, take care,” cautioned his friend. “We will find it when we find it.”
“But I just read it a few months ago. No more than half a year at most. I am sure that it was right here in this rack!” The man traced his index finger over the parchment scroll he had now unrolled on the table, looking for a certain passage. He continued scanning it, reading from right to left as he attempted to translate the Aramaic script into his native language in his head.
This challenge was compounded by the fitful light of the candle held by his friend, and fellow scholar, Melchior. During the day, the library was well lit, open and airy, with high ceilings, vast windows and skylights that illuminated the library, even as its vast collection of books, scrolls, maps, charts, stella, glyphs and tablets illuminated the scholars who flocked here to study and discuss the cumulative knowledge of the known world. But it was no longer day, and only a matter of some urgency had compelled these two to return at such a late hour.
Secondly, the poor and faded condition of the scroll, which was itself a copy of a much older document, forced Gaspar to read much more slowly than his patience would long tolerate. While the world renown Royal Library here at Alexandria was unparalleled both in its architecture and its vast collections of art and literature, its temperate and occasionally humid coastal weather was not well suited to preserving the scrolls themselves. It was a trade off that most scholars accepted, enjoying the comfortable climate in exchange for the necessity to replace old papyri, parchment and rare vellum documents as they aged, faded or rotted.
“No. This isn’t the right one either.” The aging parchment scroll nearly rolled itself back up as soon as Gaspar released it. He lost more precious minutes rerolling it tight enough to fit back into its cylinder before clunking it back into the rack.
“Patience. Open another... gently, please.”
The fourth son of a Persian prince, and therefore a very distant candidate for the throne himself, Melchior had all the advantages of the royal family, including an extensive education and the resources to pursue his interests, but without the royal responsibilities. His current interests included astronomy, astrology and heavenly signs, all of which could best be studied in depth here in Alexandria. Indeed, two hours ago he had been standing with friends on a patio overlooking the shoreline, enjoying a bowl of good Egyptian wine under a clear night sky while watching the last colors of sunset fade into the western sea, when one of the others had pointed to the darker eastern horizon behind them.
“What is that light there, Melchior?” he had asked. “I’m quite certain that none of the planets is set to rise just yet. Am I mistaken... or just drunk?” The man looked into his half empty bowl as if to divine the answer there.
Melchior could not at first see what his companion referred to, and was prepared to dismiss the inquiry entirely, when another young scholar also pointed and said, “Yes, I see it. Just rising from the horizon, almost due east.”
Stepping into the darker shadow of a nearby column, and hooding his eyes with his hands to block out moonlight and starlight, Melchior focused low on the distant horizon and... there. Yes, a single bright point was ascending from the thin line of haze that frosted the edge of the visible world... but it shouldn’t be.
It was early spring, and Virgo would be visible low in the eastern sky from now until late fall... but her stars were well known and this bright point of light on the horizon... was right in the middle of Virgo’s belly. But it shouldn’t be.
Without taking his eyes off the light, Melchior slowly lifted his wine bowl from the patio’s stone banister where he had set it a moment before. As he took a long slow drink from it, the raised bowl momentarily eclipsed his view. He closed his eyes, set the bowl aside, cupped his hands to screen out the stars above... and looked again at the horizon. Long moments passed before he spoke.
“Gaspar,” he had mumbled to himself. “I must find Gaspar.”
Abandoning his wine, Melchior had hurried through a poorly lit lane to a better lit street. There were three places he might normally expect to find Gaspar: a small, quiet bar, a large and noisy bar, and any bar in between. Gaspar, despite his keen mind, and blinding intellect, was often blind drunk these days. Once away from the restraint of his extensive family in India, and his duties in his father’s royal court, his taste for fine wine had quickly deteriorated to include all things fermented.
Melchior was fortunate to spot his friend in the fourth place he looked, and fortunate, too, that Gaspar had spent more of the evening arguing semantics than actually drinking whatever was set before him.
“Excuse me, gentlemen, for interrupting,” Melchior addressed the small group that had gathered about his friend. “I have been sent to fetch your learned companion,” he took Gaspar by the elbow and easily hoisted the smaller man to his feet. “His presence is required elsewhere for... uh, for consultation regarding, um, entomology. I bid you good evening.” Keeping a firm grip, he began escorting the wriggling and complaining Gaspar toward the door.
“Melchior... ouch! Let me go. I was winning that arg... that debate.”
“You were buying the drinks, weren’t you?”
“Well, yesss... but...”
“That’s why you were winning that debate.”
“You are very rude, you know. You should have let me finish my debate and my wine.”
“The wine in that place tastes worse than warm camel piss... and you know it. Besides, I need you lucid. We have a mystery to solve.”
“A mystery about entomology? You’ve got the wrong man. I don’t know anything about bugs.”
“No, a mystery about stars and heavenly signs.”
“Oh.” Gaspar’s attitude changed instantly. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“I just did.”
“But why didn’t you say so to begin with?”
“Because saying so in such a place would arouse far too much interest, and raise far too many questions. We would never have gotten out of there. No one is interested in bugs.”
“Patheticus is interested in bugs.”
“His name isn’t Patheticus. You should stop calling him that.”
“Whatever. So, where are you taking me?”
“The main library. The antiquities section. A while back you mentioned something, in passing. Something about a prophecy, a coming king, or kingdom... and a star. You had read something in the library.”
“Yah, and as usual, no one was interested. So what?”
“So, now I am interested.”
“Why?” Gaspar stopped abruptly. “Why are you suddenly so interested now?” He sounded grumpy and a little hurt.
Melchior had taken a few extra strides before turning to face his friend and colleague. He considered how best to answer the question, then again grabbed his friend by his cloak and hustled him between two buildings toward an open patio overlooking the darkened sea.
“Now, where are we going,” Gaspar whined? “I am tired and, if you don’t mind, I would like to go to my bed.”
Without answering, Melchior dragged him to the far edge of the patio, spun him around to face east and, standing behind him, pointed over Gaspar’s shoulder at the far horizon.
“Okay, Melchior... what is the myst...” And then he saw it. “Ooohhh...” Gaspar’s own hand rose unbidden to point at the new light that twinkled where the dark night sky met the darker curvature of the sea. “Oh, that’s not supposed to be there.”
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