Lod, Province of Judea
August 26 AD
Yehudah rolled his shoulders backward once he entered the tavern. His beefy arms, which the sweltering Judean sun had baked deep bronze, throbbed with strain from a day of sawing wood and hammering nails. Nothing would wash the dust from his throat like a cool sweet cup of date wine.
The scents of baking bread, freshly brewed beverages, and women’s perfume wafted together between the room’s mudbrick walls. On a stage towards the back, the resident musicians played their doumbek drums, lyres, and flutes as the singers ululated their lyrics. But their chorus got drowned up by the chattering and laughter of even more customers than usual. Yehudah had to worm his way through the crowd to reach the counter.
The bartender Naama, a plump lady with gray curls of hair under her shawl, greeted him with a smile and a cup already filled with wine.
Yehudah returned the grin. “You have an unholy gift for mind-reading, I presume?”
Naama chuckled. “More like your unholy gift for predictability. ‘Never heard you order anything else.”
Yehudah pulled out his coinpurse of shekels and rolled them to Naama. When she unloaded the bag, she reversed her smile into an uncharacteristic frown.
“I’m sorry, but I’ve had to make this one change lately.” she said. “You’ll have to add one third more.”
“So the new taxes got you too?” Yehudah fetched another purse and poured out an extra third of the former price. “I thought it was only me.”
“Oh, how I pray it were! All our taxes have gone up since the new prefect took office. He says it’s an, ahem, ‘punitive measure against Hebrew terrorism’.”
“He must not know us Hebrews then.” Yehudah sipped his wine. “But you know how these Romans are. All you can do is render unto them what they demand, because you’d sooner pass a camel through a needle’s eye than sympathy into their hearts.”
“Fair enough, but if they do it again, I swear that the next Roman I meet will have a blade straight through his throat!”
Marching far behind the throng of patrons were dark-skinned people in white linen loincloths, carrying instruments such as African drums, sistra, and double flutes. Two of their men were hauling what looked like a human-sized chest of gold with blue and green gemstones.
“You know, considering your latest price hike, your business seems, well, busier than usual,” Yehudah said. “And who are those darker people over there?”
“They’re Egyptians from the town of Elephantine, and suffice to say they’re very special guests. I figured having them over would bring me more shekels than the taxes could keep away. Speaking of whom, they’ll come on any moment now.”
After one final, thunderous bang of the doumbeks, the local musicians stopped their song and bowed to the crowd’s applause. All eyes remained on the stage even after they exited. In their place hopped one of the Egyptians who flashed strange gestures with his hands over his face.
“Yo, ladies and homeboys of Judea, check this out!” he announced. “Tonight, courtesy of your bartender’s kind invitation, none other than Mery-Amun is in the house! Y’all ready to shake it off?”
The audience hooted and cheered, raising their cups to the ceiling.
“I may have heard that name before,” Yehudah whispered. “Doesn’t she dole food and coins out to the poor?”
Naama nodded. “You’ll see how she earns it first.”
The Egyptians started thumping their drums, building up their beats’ pacing over time. The men hauling the big gold chest came onstage and erected it on one end. Glittering from the light of oil lamps, it turned out not to be a chest at all, but a sarcophagus like the old Pharaohs of Egypt used fifteen centuries ago. From underneath its striped crown gazed the dark mahogany face of a young woman.
Her black kohl-lined eyes blinked, and she grinned with glistening full lips.
The drums banged into a frenzy of multiple rhythms, joined by high-pitched fluting, the rattling of sistra, and chanting. The sarcophagus slammed open from within to let the woman strut out with swinging hips. Though gold and gems decorated her like a queen, the brief strips of linen clothing her were too thin to hide the voluptuous figure underneath. Gold ringlets jangled on the black dreadlocks which flourished behind her bobbling head.
When she reached the stage’s front edge, Mery-Amun broke into an energetic dance of shaking hips, brandishing limbs, and twirling her whole body; all while singing in perfect rhyme. The way she animated herself so variably, alternating between smooth grace and sudden jerks or turns, was unlike any other dancers Yehudah had ever seen on that stage—not to mention how the motions of her chest and hips thrust forth the best parts of her anatomy.
Like every good Hebrew boy, Yehudah had been raised not to desire women outside his chosen people. Much less the dark-skinned daughters of Egypt, whose avaricious ancestors had held his own in bondage. Yet, as he watched this Mery-Amun cavort and rhyme on the stage, he could not deny the craving blazing deep within him. And when her eyes chanced upon his, he could’ve sworn she’d wink back with a smile.
In mid-dance the Egyptian froze herself. “Yo, who’s that handsome hunk over there? Tell me your name, honey!”
She was pointing at Yehudah.
His cheeks turned warm and pink, and he had to muster the courage to stutter his name out loud.
“Yehudah, is it? I say you look fly for a Hebrew guy!” Mery-Amun said. “Want to dance beside me?”
Everyone else in the tavern was snickering like a horde of hyenas. Even the bartender had to muffle herself with her hand.
Yehudah may have embarrassed himself before the whole bar, but Mery-Amun had put forth a most appetizing offer. He stood up, flexed his muscles, and swaggered towards the stage.
“You want to see me dance?” he said with a smirk. “You want to see me dance?”
He leapt onstage and threw off his tunic, exposing his chiseled torso. He crossed his arms, leaned his shoulders back, and thrust his chest and abdominals forth and back. Yehudah wiggled his back like a cobra’s, and he wavered his arms from shoulders to hands in imitation of rolling ocean waves. From offstage the local Hebrew musicians beat their doumbeks together with the Egyptians’ drums. All the Hebrews in the audience clapped and hooted with proud glee, for this was the way their people liked to danced!
The Egyptians joined their cheering. Nodding with awe, Mery-Amun returned to her own routine, twirling like a dust-devil around Yehudah as he slid his feet backward across the stage. She pushed her bosom and hips in and out much as he did his front muscles. Together, as they exchanged moves, they moved pace by pace towards each other until his trousers brushed against her loincloth.
Mery-Amun winked at Yehudah again. “You ready for the best part?” she said in her huskiest voice.
He nodded. “Show ’em what we got!”
Standing straight behind her, Yehudah thrust his crotch forward while she brandished her backside against him. Both Hebrew and Egyptian musicians worked their instruments into a climax of cracking drumbeats and shrieking flutes. The crowd was screaming in jubilant frenzy while tossing bags of coins and bread at the duo. The noise would have broke through Yehudah’s eardrums, but why worry when a young Egyptian lady was shaking her beauty before you?
It took the puffing blare of a Roman trumpet, and the tavern door’s slamming open, to crush the festivity into silence.
A troop of legionaries in iron armor marched into the room after their centurion. The smug grin so characteristic of Roman leaders crossed the centurion’s olive-skinned face as he stormed to the stage with sandals banging against the floor.
“You are Mery-Amun, I trust?” he said, smacking his lips when he ogled the Egyptian singer. “You sure have her, ahem, distinctive assets.”
“Who gave you the permission to break in like this, Roman?” Naama yelled from the counter.
“Silence, fat old hag!” The centurion unsheathed his gladius and raised it towards Mery-Amun. “We have every right to come in here when a law-breaker’s around.”
“Law-breaker? This woman is no criminal!” Yehudah said. “She spends her profits on the people who need it most! And thanks to your prefect’s new taxes, the people need her more than ever before!”
“You mean the taxes she’s evaded all these years?” the centurion said. “However she spends her income, she is still a subject of the Empire. And if there is one thing keeping the Empire from razing her country to the ground, it’s the taxes she’s refused to pay!”
Mery-Amun bared her teeth to hiss like a provoked leopard. “Because those I help need every coin of them! What, praytell, would you Romans do with it instead? Spend it all on baths and circuses?”
The centurion pressed the tip of his gladius’s blade into the skin of her hip. “A woman like you should hold her tongue before a man of Rome. One more peep from you, and I’ll have you bled to death—right after my men and I make use of you!”
His legionaries guffawed whereas Mery-Amun grimaced. She gripped the centurion’s wristguard with one hand and pushed it away from her. “I’d sooner be fed to jackals than creeps like you!”
“Then so be it!” the centurion roared. He swung a fist into Mery-Amun’s thigh and knocked her onto her back. Jumping onstage, he lunged his sword at her midriff, but she rolled away and kicked his chin with her foot’s hill. As their leader staggered back, the legionaries recoiled with wide-eyed shock while Yehudah and everyone else laughed.
Mery-Amun bounced up and shook her hips with defiant mockery. “You sure got more bark than bite!”
The centurion, whose face burned with growling rage, charged after her while hollering the Latin war cry. He had reached one step close to the woman when Yehudah sprang into his way and plunged his knuckle into the Roman’s face. The bridge of his nose cracked, leaking out blood. Yehudah, taking advantage of the centurion’s stumbling, wrenched the gladius out of his hand and split it halfway on his own knee.
Everyone in the audience, Hebrews and Egyptians both, roared with emboldened bloodlust. Thus broke out a storm of cups, food, furniture, and instruments flying across the tavern, pelting the legionaries’ defensive shell of shields. Together Yehudah and Mery-Amun shoved the disarmed centurion into this chaos, where patrons’ fists hammered him in an instant.
Someone screamed a death cry. One of the legionaries’ swords dripped with blood as a wounded woman fell to the ground. His comrades, shouting their own battle cries, pushed outward against the surrounding mob, hacking apart everyone they touched. The storm of native rebellion had become a Roman hurricane of blood and stinking entrails.
The bruised centurion scavenged a knife from the carnage to chuck it at Yehudah. It slashed across his arm, bringing him down on his knees with a yell of pain. Mery-Amun wrapped her arms around Yehudah to pull him up, only to let go after the centurion struck his hand across her neck. Both of them had fallen to the stage’s floor with the legionaries ringing them in.
“How sweet to see a Hebrew terrorist and an Egyptian slum-rat so close together.” The centurion cackled with vengeful glee. “Truthfully, it’d be excessive to gang up on these poor lovebirds today. Have them sent them to Pilate!”
Yehudah had worn out too much strength to protest. He and Mery-Amun could only let their arms up and let the Romans close in. Besides, a word with Pontius Pilate was long overdue.
Provincial Capital of Judea
Yehudah had lost count of the days that passed since the Romans tossed him into the cart, but the flesh swollen around his arm’s wound still stung. As if that did not torture his forelimbs enough, the rope bounding his arms together behind his back clawed at his wrists with its coarseness. No additional comfort came from the day’s humid heat, and the cart’s jerking bounce over the road’s stony pavement.
At least the sun did not roast overhead. It was nowhere to be seen, for a sheet of clouds covered the entire sky. They graded from pale gray to dark indigo towards the horizon, as if to announce the coming of rain. In the dusty land of Judea, rain did not usually arrive in the midst of August.
There was the rumble of thunder. Thunder almost never rumbled in August.
Mery-Amun, leaning against Yehudah in the cart, smiled. Even with her disheveled clothes and dreadlocks grown out of form, her beauty had not worn off one grain. “We might be lucky. The gods sound like they favor us.”
“You sure they’re on our side?” Yehudah asked. “Mine never would have let any of this come to pass.”
“Surely you know they work in mysterious ways. For all we know, they might have even sent us here for some purpose. How else could we come to Pilate’s court?”
Yehudah shrugged. “It does bring us to his presence, I suppose. And frankly being considered a ‘terrorist’ by Romans is almost a compliment. But why did they call you a slum-rat?”
“That’s where I was born, in the slums of Elephantine. You’ll never see a more desperate, cutthroat neighborhood elsewhere in the Empire. We were so poor, my mother couldn’t even feed me with her milk. But, by the mercy of the gods and their priests’ charity, I managed to climb out. And once I did, I knew I needed to share their compassion to people like those I grew around.”
“You sure picked a clever way to do it.” Yehudah grinned. “Serving the poor by exploiting men’s desires. And I have to say you did a good job of it too.”
“I’ve had a few years of practice, honey. And I daresay I really enjoyed dancing before you.” Mery-Amun whispered into Yehudah’s ear. “Keep this between you and me, but I could feel something big and hard rubbing behind me then.”
“Wait until you see it without my trousers, baby.”
The cart bumped to a halt in the shadow of a white-columned portico. From its stoop reared a painted sculptured in the likeness of Pontius Pilate. Or at least how the new prefect would have liked to be seen, judging from its smooth tan muscles and pitch-dark hair. The oversized bronze gladius it held to the sky had an inscription on its blade that read, “Mea Amiculi”. Latin for “my little friend”.
Yehudah smirked. These Romans really took their weaponry personally.
The soldiers who had marched beside the cart pulled Yehudah and Mery-Amun off it and hammered them on the back into the portico. Yehudah had seen crates being loaded onto boats treated with less roughness. Hemmed in by sneering legionaries, the defendants entered a spacious courtyard shaded with palm and cedar trees between frowning statues of Roman gods. Behind a granite counter on the courtyard’s opposite end sat Pontius Pilate himself, fanned with ostrich plumes by pale red-maned slaves from distant Gaul. He gnawed on a pig’s bone in the corner of his mouth while leering in Mery-Amun’s direction.
As expected, the prefect bore only a vague physical resemblance to the youthful depiction that guarded his courthouse. Gray strands striped the black hair above his bushy eyebrows, one of which was split by a scar down his brown leathery face. Yet the violet cape sparkling over his shoulder, together with his polished bronze breastplate, gave him a regal splendor mirroring that of the Emperor himself. And the gladius he was shaving his chin with seemed to bear the same inscription as his statue.
The legionaries dumped their captives at the foot of Pilate’s counter and dispered around the court. “The Egyptian slum-rat is wanted for tax evasion and her Hebrew boyfriend for—surprise, surprise—terrorism against enforcement of the law,” their centurion announced. “Technically, both of them are. You won’t believe the bloodshed they incited at their scene of arrest!”
“You fools hit first,” Mery-Amun muttered.
“Silence, you nappy-headed whore!” Pilate whipped his gladius out into the daylight. “Lest I introduce your guts to my little friend!”
The grumble of thunder returned. The trees’ leafy tops quivered from building breezes.
“Now I know nobody likes to pay taxes. We all want our money for ourselves. Thing is, to build an empire like ours and keep it together, you need more money than any slum-rat or terrorist like you could imagine.” Pontius picked his teeth with the bone. “Not to mention, even prefects gotta feed ourselves.”
“And you subjects need that even more. A privileged Roman warthog like you might not realize it, but whole cities of men, women, and children sleep with empty stomachs every night while you feast! I should know, I’ve suffered it myself my whole childhood!”
Yehudah nodded. “There is another thing to consider, O Prefect. Supposedly you hiked these taxes in your province to punish my people. But may I ask why we would respect you any more by drawing more from our coffers? Would it not instead create more resentment?”
Pilate leaned forward with his glare like a glinting sword. “Listen up, raghead. I don’t like to coddle terrorists. Not in the slightest. Were I to become Emperor tomorrow, I’d have all you camel-humpers put to the sword. My current policy’s merciful for the comparison.”
“And yet still counterproductive—”
“Shut up, sand devil!” Pontius stabbed his gladius halfway into the counter with one bang.
The clouds swirled dark purple over the court. The trees thrashed in the howling wind, which still could not drown out the growling thunder.
Mery-Amun tilted her head skyward. “You hear that? That’s the voice of the gods. If you won’t listen to us, why not heed their warning instead?”
“What makes you say the gods speak for you, slum-rat? If they cared one grain for you, they’d never let you throw yourselves into this situation. I’ll have this end with one choice for you two: admit your guilt and buy your freedom back, or it’s the crosses for you!”
“You think that’s a threat?” Yehudah shouted over the wind. “You don’t know my people, or any people other than your own. Death in the face of tyranny will not scare them. There will never be a death more glorious than that! And when you have whole nations fighting for a glorious death, then the only one who will know fear is you!”
“He speaks the truth!” Mery-Amun’s voice was furious as a lioness’s roar. “There are millions of us under your thumb. You don’t want us to bite back. No, that would be too kind for us. Once we all come together, each and every one of you Romans shall have your blood painting our spears!”
Pilate spread his malevolent grin to its widest with a cackle. “I’d like to see you try. Even the wimpiest cubs can growl. But we Romans didn’t carve our Empire out with hoes and soft hearts, but with swords and steel discipline. You can screech your shrillest and chuck as many spears as you want, but like we did to your ancestors before you, we will crush you like the stinking worms you are. And then everything you know, everything you love, we will have razed into the darkness of oblivion!”
With a crack that blasted into Yehudah’s ears, a white fork of lightning shot from the sky into one of the palm trees. It exploded into an orange column of flames as it crashed to the courthouse’s floor behind the defendants, kicking out burning embers. All the legionaries hurried for indoor safety like scrambling ants who screamed like children.
A torrent of rain followed to put out the fire. With his jaw dropped and his eyes wide without blinking, Pilate had frozen paler and more stiff than his statue. It was Yehudah and Mery-Amun’s turn to laugh.
“So who do the gods speak for again?” Mery-Amun asked.
Pilate’s twitching built up until he could finally rise from his seat and walk around his counter to them with gladius in hand. He sawed through both their bonds.
“If that’s what they have say, I suppose I can’t argue with them. Case dismissed. But mark my words, you two. If I hear either of you is causing trouble again…” Pilate crossed his index fingers together to represent a crucifix. “Begone!”
When he and Mery-Amun had jogged out the courthouse, Yehudah rubbed the raw skin on his wrists. “Man, I could use some date wine tonight. Trials can really wear your throat out.”
“Maybe you’d like something even sweeter afterwards, honey?” Mery-Amun pressed her breasts against Yehudah while embracing his figure, puckering her luscious lips. “We could dance some more…right into a nice warm bed.”
Yehudah licked his lips. “And this time, we won’t have clothes getting in the way.”
Rubbing their crotches together, with raindrops twinkling on their skin, they danced their tongues together in each other’s mouths in anticipation of an even wilder night than before.