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The Guest Star - Preview

The story of the novella "The Guest Star" follows two students of the Great Library of Alexandria in their scientific search for knowledge at the end of the second century AD, portrayed from a slightly different perspective and beyond the commonly accepted clichés in Roman Empire history. The Guest Star is also a historical adventure in which ancient Roman and Chinese cultures intertwined at the start of the Silk Road, several years before the first major civil war erupted after the death of Emperor Commodus. The main character is based on the life of Herodian of Antioch, a Greek historian, author of a "History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius" in which he describes the reign of Commodus, the Year of the Five Emperors, the age of the Severan dynasty, and the Year of the Six Emperors. Herodian had no scholarly pretensions at all and wrote only about the events of his time or those he witnessed. His distance from Rome made him independent, unbiased, and uncritical, and his only book is a volume of vivid information that is very interesting to read.

The following preview of the book includes the prologue and the first chapter. I sincerely hope you enjoy reading it. You can find more about the book on various author platforms where you can find reader reviews and the book current rating. "The Guest Star" is featured on Goodreads, Amazon, Apple and Kobo after evaluation of several beta readers in previous months. I'll just quote the first beta reader's impression: "It is not lightly that I give so much praise to something that I read here, and I wanted you to know that I'm a really big fan of your work. The thing that I loved the most about this novella, is that the plot is so interesting and gripping, that romance only serves as an added layer of depth. I just couldn’t help but read this all in a sitting, and I admit I hardly wanted to put it down."



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PROLOGUE



Alexandria welcomed early December following an unusually warm autumn. The year 938* of the renewed Roman calendar was about to expire, and Hero was anticipating that the next one would be the most challenging in his entire life. He celebrated his birthday today, and within the year he was expected to complete his first master's degree program at the Great Library. A day after reading Ptolemaîos' Almagest, the scroll he was fortunate enough to find in the Antioch atheneum, Hero knew that Alexandria had to be his next destination. He had spent the past five years on campus and now he felt he had reached a turning point. Hero came to the realization earlier today that the weight of his obsession with Imperial history and the tales of the past was becoming heavier by the day, and that he needed to move on. He made his final decision here, lying on a little carpet in front of the southern city walls, gazing up at the starry sky. With his own papyrus and quill, he would set off to explore the world as soon as his course was over. Rome first. All roads lead there anyway.

"Here's our birthday boy!" He could hear Cassius's hulking baritone coming from the dune beside him. Hero waved at him a little embarrassed. He didn't intend to avoid hanging out with his best friend tonight, he simply needed some time to himself to reflect on the last year.

"Did you know there's a new play by the Greeks at the beach theater? Everybody's talking about it." Cassius and Lucia appeared behind him, carrying a bottle of wine and three cups. "What's wrong with the Pharos promenade? I thought you'd be there tonight."

"The fire is too bright. From the beach, I can't see Mars." Hero said and moved to make room for the couple. Cassius was a few years older, but their minds were nearly the same age, with similar interests and aspirations to visit Rome the following year. Lucia was one of the smartest girls in the class, and Hero always envied Cassius a little because of the two of them.

After pouring the wine, Lucia added some hot water and a dash of sea salt. "It's from Cass' grandfather." She gave him a kind look with her beautiful dark eyes. "The best wine you can taste anywhere in Bithynia and all the eastern provinces."

Lifting his cup, Cassius stroked Hero's shoulder and coughed to gain attention. "To Herodian of Antioch, a future citizen of Rome and the youngest public servant in the history of the empire. May the ink he always carries in his left pocket never run dry!"

"Thank you, Cass." Hero said with a boyish grin. "I know I wouldn't be here if it weren't for your support. I owe you a great deal. To our friendship!" He raised the cup and gulped it down. The wine was sweet and tasty, but he knew what more than one cup of it might do to him. His gaze fell upon Alexandria's southern fortifications. "It will be hard to leave this city. It's amazing that it even exists. When it's all over, I'm going to miss it a lot."

After emptying their cups, they took a seat on Hero's carpet and looked toward the invisible horizon to the south. Though tainted by the faint glow of the city lights and the massive lighthouse fire to the north, the blackness was sufficient to see the entirety of the active sky above their heads.

"So you're here for Mars?" It only took Lucia a moment to locate the bright reddish dot a dozen angles to the left. " What is it about tonight that makes it special, Hero?"

Hero produced a piece of papyrus that showed the complex curve of his observation of the wanderer. Along with each point he drew, he included the date of observation. "For the past two years, I have been coming here once a week in an attempt to understand the movement. It's incredible... Mars appears to be determined to reach the horizon this year. Take a look. This is from two months earlier, before a slight backward motion, and then the wanderer furiously went back on the original course. It's like, I don't know... Although not last year, Mars did the exact same maneuver two years ago. In fact, last December, the path of movement was quite different. I'm trying to figure out what's causing her to..."

"Her?" Cassius cut him off. "You know it is named after the god of war himself?" He laughed in an odd way. "Your bloody wandering star has nothing soft or feminine about it. Only signs of future wars... Mars has never been a good portent. The scrolls are full of it."

"Cassius, you know you're an idiot sometimes?" Lucia looked at him the way many of their astronomy teachers did when they talked about superstitions and tales. "Not even the centurions believe that anymore."

"Yes, they do." He continued to stare at the sky while he replied. Though his scientific intellect was unable to put the riddle behind him, it was evident that he was not fully at ease with religious folktales and legends. "So you are saying that Mars is heading for the horizon? Where precisely?"

Hero glanced at his drawing for a moment before pointing. "Right about the..."

As his finger moved toward the sky, a faint spot on the horizon started to glow quickly. In a matter of moments, it had grown to be twice as big as Venus and much brighter, shimmering and glittering in a variety of colors, but primarily orange and white.

Lucia screamed.

They slowly stood up and were frozen in time for a long while. In the absence of Luna that night, the night sky was surreal. The newcomer appeared to have taken the sky from the other stars and was waiting ominously at the edge of the horizon.

Apparently with Mars quietly moving towards it.

Out of nowhere, a gentle breeze swept over the dune, causing a slight chill in the air. It was Cassius who reacted first.

"You still don't believe in bad omens?"




DEPARTURE
Alexandria, 8 months later


Lucia picked up an excerpt of a scroll from the floor, one of several that surrounded Hero, and read it aloud: "There is always a divine omen that might foretell times of crisis. Sometimes the star remains visible during the entire day and night, encapsulated in rainbow colors, or another one comes extended to an enormous length and seems to be hanging in the middle of the sky." She gave him a confused look before taking another. "Before the war of the deserters the heavens were ablaze." She gracefully hopped over a stack of papyri fragments, multiple open scrolls, and what appeared to be ancient, reddish-colored clay tablets, and kneeled to confront Hero. He appeared to be completely unaware of her presence as he gazed at the piece of papyrus he was holding in his hands. Taking it away from him, she exposed a text that appeared to be rather old. The text was written in Greek and Latin, and a significant section of it was inscribed in pictographs.


"You become obsessed with that portent. Hero, you must let it go." She sat down and gave him a friendly nudge on the shoulder. "It disappeared four weeks ago. Whatever it was, it's gone now. Perhaps it was simply one of those jokes that the gods play on us. We may be too insignificant to understand..."

"It was not a portent."

"What else could it be?"

Hero snapped out of his thoughts and looked around. He became aware of the scattered books and documents and began to collect them. "It was there for eight months, fading in and out, like a fire." He gave her a direct look. "It was far too detailed and long-lasting for a simple explanation, such as portent. They are usually... I don't know. They make their appearance, and then... well, they disappear not long after that. Like shooting stars. Or bloody Luna."

"Come on..." She tried to sound positive. "You discovered it on your own in the scrolls. The heavens above always appear as a warning to the people below. That's how we've always been taught." She paused in the middle of a thought. "I mean..." Lucia averted her gaze to hide a tear. "When my father went to that war... that morning, at the door, when I saw him for the last time, I knew I would never see him again." She turned her attention back to him. "I just... knew. I don't know why. Or how."

"That was different." He gently wiped a tear from her face. "I know how much you loved your father. You just... You just didn't want him to go away. That's all."

She got to her feet and wiped her dress, more out of habit than to remove the dust from the marble stairway, the place she knew she'd find Hero. He was always there when he was doing research or reading books from the library. While the public reading room was always packed with students, its main purpose was to facilitate debate and discussion rather than to provide a quiet place for reading.

"You're probably right. We need to pay more attention to the reason. We can be blinded by our emotions." Lucia helped him pick up the books and documents that were lying on the floor, then handed the papyrus with the pictographs back to him. "Where did you find it, anyway?"

"It was in the Ptolemy's 'Geographia'. In his Greek manuscript. This is his handwriting. It was not part of the book, but most likely inserted at a later point in time."

"Did you manage to find out what it means?"

He picked up the note and gave it a quick look for a few moments.

"It means I have to go to Naissus."

"What?" Lucia watched, confused, as Hero had already disappeared around the corner. "Wait! Hero!" She ran after him. "But we're leaving for Rome the day after tomorrow! We made an agreement with Cassius' grandfather. You know that! He made all of the arrangements."

"There's a road to Rome from Naissus, too." Hero's voice could be heard echoing down the hall. "I just need to find somebody. I need some answers."

She knew better than to follow him any further and came to a stop at the gate as she saw him enter the scroll room. She stood there for a while, unsure of what to do.

"Where in the name of the gods is Naissus?"


* * *


Cassius was not happy to leave Alexandria. He loved it here. The last three years were the best period of his life. He enjoyed listening to all the history lessons and engaging in philosophical conversations with the students and teachers.

True, he often argued with old-school historians who believed history was nothing more than a collection of factual stories and that future generations should not study and learn from their forefathers' mistakes and triumphs. He was aware that he could be stubborn in defending his position at times, but understanding historical events is not always easy. Particularly if they occurred centuries ago.

Occasionally, he would spend long hours with his closest friends discussing a specific war or trial that took place in a distant province or in Rome itself. Such as those that occurred in Dacia or Iudaea during the previous century, or all the events that occurred during the hazy period following the death of Marcus Aurelius.

If he had been born during those times, he knew exactly what he would have done. Most other students, on the other hand, did not give more than a few second thoughts when the primary subject was the history of the Roman empire, whether it was recent or distant. When he attempted to participate in a more in-depth debate with others, they ignored him, usually with deceptive excuses.

Even Lucia told him that he was overly biased in his interpretation of historical accounts. Maybe she was right, maybe he was too emotional on occasion. Nevertheless, the Alexandrian period in their lives was coming to an end, and the new chapter would begin in Rome as soon as next week, which he was very excited about.

Cassius stared at his baggage, wondering if he had packed everything, when Lucia burst through his room's basic wooden door.

"Hero is not coming." She failed to hide a sort of 'I told you so' expression on her face. "I've just talked to him. He is going after the clues from the scrolls."

"Where?"

"I'm not sure, he was vague when I asked him." There were so many bundles and travel bags, and Lucia had a hard time finding a spot on the bed to sit. "Cass, you know we're going to need two extra horses just for your luggage! Have you grabbed the entire scroll shelf from the peripatos room?"

Cassius rolled his eyes, as he usually did when she said something like that. And lately, it had happened more often than he was willing to admit. He wasn't sure what that could mean. Lucia was more important to him than any other girl he had been seeing before Alexandria. He thought he knew her well, yet she was constantly surprising him. He wanted to respond better, but in the end, he merely shrugged and went for the exit.

"I'll talk to him. Please don't mess with my stuff."


* * *


He found him in the dining room after searching every room in the Caesareum and Serapeum buildings. Hero sat alone on the long table, with only a few military-looking scrolls open in front of him. He was taking notes from one of them when Cassius sat down next to him a moment later.

"Cohorts of Roman archers in the Upper Moesia region from the first century" Cassius read the title from the scroll. Along with a date that stated that it was almost a century ago, Hero's note contained a name and the military rank of a person. Cass grabbed the note from him.

"Tiberius Claudius Valerius, pilus prior, Cohors I Cretum, stationed at Timacum Maius, prior to the Dacian wars, a.d. IX Kal. Mai. DCCCLIV A.U.C." Cassius read aloud. He flipped the note revealing a second inscription. "Tiberius Claudius Valerius, n. Hierapytna, Crete, u.c. REG⁠·XI-INS·⁠V, Naissus, Moesia Superior."

"Since when you are interested in military history, Hero? Who's Tiberius Claudius Valerius?"

Rummaging through the books open on the table, Hero found an open scroll and in a few moves unrolled it to the section titled "Κλαυδιου Πτολεμαιου Γεωγραφικης Υφηγησεως - βιβλιον πρωτον". He rolled it couple of chapters further to the section "Δαρδανίας - δ΄ πόλεις Ναϊσσός, Ἀρριβάντιον, Οὐλπιανόν καὶ Σκοῦποι", which was the last entry in the chapter and before the next one began there was a small papyrus inserted to it with almost illegible handwriting and strange vertical icons.

"I found this note in Ptolemy's book. There was a brief Greek translation, and it was written in some letters that were used in ancient civilizations. Like pictographs from Aegyptus. It's possible that it dates to a time before the ancient Greeks, or perhaps further back in time. This document was signed by the pilus prior centurion of the cohort with the initials 'TCV.' It was not difficult to find him in the library. It's not much, but it's a start. The question is, where did he get it, and is there any other information out there? Explanation maybe."

Cassius looked at him in disbelief.

"It was eighty-five years ago. He is dead, Hero." He got to his feet. "After such a long period of time, there is nothing to discover. Just let it go, would you? Let's go to Rome. You belong there. With us." Cassius tried to be compassionate but failed. "You became obsessed by what we saw. It was a message from the gods, some sort of prophecy of Rome's future. Nothing else."

"If it was meant for Rome, why couldn't it be seen from Rome?"

"What?"

"In the previous few months, I asked a lot of people who had traveled from Rome to Alexandria. Nobody witnessed it. Not even the sailors from the north. It could only be seen from here and further south."

Cassius stared at Hero for a long moment, thinking about it.

"It was an omen for Alexandria, then... Have you heard the rumors about a new religion from Iudaea? They claim that they will eventually arrive in big numbers here at some point in the future. From what I've been told, they may be aggressive. They consider Rome to be their only enemy."

Hero stood up as well and began packing the scrolls and his inscriptions. He was aware that Cassius might be right. He came upon a group of religious followers of Valentinus, an Alexandrian philosopher who, a few decades ago, began actively teaching the new dogma about a divine entity that incorporated a human form and who, after being murdered by Romans, resurrected to the heavens. He came across this group not too long ago. That evening, while he was walking along the promenade alongside the lighthouse, they were, to put it mildly, rather intrusive toward him.

"I know there's some truth to that... But you know me, Cass. We witnessed something extraordinary. If there's a way to learn more about it, it's worth a try."

Cassius gave him his best friendly smile. Despite their slight age difference, Hero was his best friend here. But he was right, Cassius knew him well. Whenever Hero had something on his mind, he was aware that there was nothing he could do about it.

"The note. Can I see it again?"

Hero reached into his pocket, pulled out a copy of the papyrus, and handed it to him. Cassius took a good, long look.

"Νεόφοιτος αστήρ ἀνατέλλω." He read it with a heavy accent. "My mother is Greek, and I thought I had learned all the variations from the classic period, but this particular writing..." Cassius stopped for a moment. "What does it mean?"

"The new rising star."


* * *


Usually there is not much of a difference between the hot weather of late summer and the first half of September in Alexandria, but this morning was exceptionally cool. Small boats that were anchored in the port of Alexandria were being tossed around wildly by the wind that was blowing from the sea. Even larger merchant ships, which were also tied in the second row of the dock, were not immune from the dangers posed by the morning storm. Despite this, many sailors and port workers continued their daily routine of unloading ships by passing each other bags of spices and amphorae of varying sizes, most of which were loaded with wine and olive oil, as well as crates of grain and meat.

"Hero!" An echo of Lucia's voice could be heard across the bustling port as she made her way through the crowds and stacked merchandise on the quayside and the wooden platforms that were located at the entrance of the docks. She was on her way to the commercial section of the port, which was one of the largest in this part of the Mare Internum.

This morning, most anchored commercial ships were sturdy corbitas. These were bulky vessels with a stout hull up to 20 gradus' long, inherited from the classic Greek period, more than capable of carrying half a million libras of weight. If it was possible to squeeze inside, they could carry a whole family of elephants. Because of the way they were built, the corbitas could sail even in extreme weather.

Lucia stepped onto the stacked boxes at the beginning of the first pier and searched for Hero among the dozens of dock workers. After doing the same thing in front of the next three piers, she was eventually able to recognize him in the distance. He was engaged in conversation with the ship's captain, clearly trying to persuade him to board the ship for its return trip, wherever that might be.

"Hero!" She shouted as she made her way towards the end of the pier and the corbita that Hero was standing in front of. The wind was howling, and he was struggling to keep his dark hair from concealing his face. The bald captain of the ship finally shook his hand, and Hero turned to go back ashore. At almost the same time, rushing towards him, Lucia bumped into a sailor who was organizing the workers and almost fell into the sea.

"Lucia!" Hero hurried over to take her hand. He couldn't help but smile as he watched her stand up in a comical way. "What are you doing here?" He guided her to the side of the pier, where there were fewer workers around. "I mean, Alexandrian docks aren't exactly the same as the promenade. It may be dangerous, and I'm not talking about the slippery pier."

"I know..." Lucia held on to the small wooden dock's pillar with her free hand. "I was looking for you at the dorm and the dining hall. Cassius' grandfather has arrived. They want to plan the trip to Rome and the details for tomorrow."

"I am not coming with you two, Lucia." Hero tried to conceal signs of emotion on his face. "I've just booked a ship across the sea."

"I know. I saw you did."

"Why are you rеally here?"

"I..." After a little hesitation, Lucia raised her gaze to his eyes and peered into them. "I thought you would leave without saying goodbye."

"I would never do that. The ship will set off the next morning." He offered her a second hand, and she took it. Her long black hair was a jumble in the wind, and her dark eyes were unusually perplexed, yet her entire appearance reflected what Hero had always thought of her, a rare blend of brilliance and beauty. He knew Alexandria and the library would not be what he would miss the most when he departed tomorrow. But that's probably for the best.

"Come on, let's go to breakfast."


* * *


In every library building, there was a breakfast nook that was a part of the dining room. In this area, all of the food was arranged at a single huge table, and the students were typically engaged in active conversation while standing. It was more of a place where the events of the previous day were summarized, and some of the arguments that took place the day before were either concluded or continued.

But what Lucia and Hero discovered in the room after they had returned from the harbor was not merely a typical quarrel taking place in the morning. Gaius Augustus Dio, Cassius' grandfather and an old merchant from Rome, was sitting at the breakfast table, surrounded by Cassius and his classmates, as well as others from the library's history and philosophy classes.

"I am telling you, he is more interested in games than in all the political affairs of the empire." Gaius was in the middle of a conversation. "The last time I saw him, before I left Rome, he entered the arena like a Murmillo, only with a gladius and the smallest scotum shield. He fought five retiarius slaves, killing three of them. The man is really insane."

Everyone had heard of the new emperor's strange behavior, but it was unusual to hear it firsthand outside Rome. There was widespread anticipation that Marcus Aurelius would be succeeded by someone else. In the past, it was quite uncommon for the emperor's own son to be the heir to the throne. It was, to put it mildly, a source of irritation for Cassius, and he was unable to fully accept it.

"The rumor is that Commodus is not actually the son of Marcus Aurelius, but of a gladiator his mother slept with." Cassius took the stage with an unusual passion. "We are all aware of the things that have been said about Faustina. She was one of the few mistakes that Aurelius made. She was more equipped for a lupanar and was nothing more than a ..."

At that moment, Lucia left Hero's company and took a few steps down to the dining room floor.

"Cassius!"

She shouted from the entrance of the dining room and hurried to the nook as quickly as she could. She moved past around twenty students and gave him a light forearm squeeze. She met his gaze, and the two of them exchanged glances for a while before she finally found the right words.

"You know that it is illogical to debate about anything in the absence of evidence or reasonable doubt. This is not in the spirit of this place. We're meant to be scholars above gossip and rumor. This is not the library way. And it's not real observation and scientia."

"Lucia..." Cassius started but then stopped.

"Look." She could sense his hesitation. "I am impressed by the research you've done on Marcus Aurelius, as well as the historical point you have made regarding the reasons why empirical governments are currently more beneficial for Rome than the republic or pure Greek democracy. I couldn't agree with you more. I really do." Lucia raised her arms in the air. "But this... This is not you." She stopped, realizing she had gone too far in front of Cassius' friends and grandfather. She lowered her head. "Cassius, I am truly sorry. Please, can we go?"

"No... You are right." Cassius calmed down. "I am really sorry. You are totally right." He burst out laughing and faced his grandfather. "Gaius!" He hugged the old man and gave him a friendly punch in the chest. "Why am I always acting like this with you around?" He pointed toward him. "You've always been a bad influence on me."

He took Lucia's hand. "Come on, let's go. Let's go finish packing, and then we'll make the most of the last day we have here by doing something nice. How about taking a camel ride and having a picnic in the desert?"

"That sounds wonderful."

"We sail out tomorrow after breakfast." Gaius said. "Don't be late. It's a long trip. We should take advantage of this wind while it lasts."

"Don't worry, we will be there on time." After saying that, Casius and Lucia made their way toward the exit and the dormitory. As soon as he put his arm around her shoulder, they were back to being a couple engaged in vibrant conversation, as they were known to be in the circles of the Great Library. Cassius' laughter was sincere, and he was back to his usual self.

Upon arriving at the door, which was somewhat narrow, Cassius was the first to enter it and then vanished down the corridor. Lucia took a step behind him, but then stopped for a moment. She turned her head back towards the corner and the area behind the tables, but Hero was already gone.


* * *


Hero finished packing and waited until noon to transfer his belongings to the corbita. It was a cargo ship, and he made a nest out of crates and sacks inside the belly of the ship. He decided to spend the afternoon alone in his room before leaving early the next morning. The ship was set to leave the harbor at first light.

He went out in the evening to bid farewell to all his classmates and friends, including his teachers. In the hopes of finding Cassius and Lucia, he made the decision to go for a stroll along the promenade around the lighthouse. The windstorm had ceased, and the sky had cleared up by the time night fell. But they were nowhere to be seen. He thought that it was probably for the best.

In the morning, the wind returned, and at dawn, he left the empty library and headed for the harbor. He couldn't put into words how he felt about the last five years in the library and everything that happened at school. Even though it was without a doubt the most fantastic time of his life, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was emotionally depleted for some reason. He refused to think about it further because he was afraid of the answers.

Following his arrival on the fourth pier, he proceeded in the direction of the distant corbita. He tried to focus on his future journey and what was ahead of him, but he couldn't. He was experiencing a great deal of bitterness in his gut, and Hero once again refused to understand the reason for this. Maybe it will always be like that when one phase of life ends, and another begins. Maybe...

The moment he laid eyes on the ship, he came to a sharp stop and his gaze remained fixed. For a short period of time, the wind ceased, and a sliver of sunlight appeared through the clouds. It was a little surreal, but just for a moment, until he realized that all the bitterness he felt walking from the dorm to here had completely vanished.

Lucia was standing on the deck, with a tiny knapsack in her hands and a travel bag by her side.



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