Sardis, Persian Empire
The steep acropolis of Sardis loomed against the night sky, while far below at the city’s edge, flames consumed the reed-thatched buildings. General Mazares, dispatched by King Cyrus II of Persia the moment he’d learned of the revolt, had ridden through the night, leading a unit of armed heavy cavalry. According to the imperial messenger, the Ionian mercenaries were set to spark the revolt at dawn.
Apparently, they’d gotten an early start.
“Fools,” Artaban, his lieutenant, called out over the sound of hooves as the horses neared the gates. A wooden building exploded near the gold-refining works. “Do they not realize that Cyrus will crush them?”
“There is nothing left to crush,” Mazares shouted. “I’m surprised that there’s anything left to burn.”
It was the second time they’d marched upon Sardis. The first was when King Cyrus’s army had broken the siege of the wealthy Lydian capital, captured its king, Croesus, then plundered his vast treasury. If not for this revolt, Mazares would be accompanying the bulk of Croesus’s treasure back to Ecbatana.
“The quicker we quell this rebellion, the sooner we get home.” He eyed the flames swirling from several structures just outside the gates.
As they neared the inferno, Mazares realized the purpose of the fires. He and his horsemen were almost blinded. Waiting for them, the insurgents, with their backs to the blaze, had the advantage. Within moments, Cyrus’s cavalry was attacked by a shadow army of soldiers armed with spears, axes, and swords.
Dividing his men into two flanks, Mazares led the left, Artaban the right. The deafening clash of metal rang through the night as his horsemen, blinded by the flames, battled the unseen enemy. Mazares thrust at an armed silhouette. His blade struck something solid. The rebel’s shield. Shouting, Mazares ordered his left flank to close in, while Artaban did the same with the right, sweeping in behind the rebels, who suddenly found themselves sandwiched between both flanks. Spurring his horse to rear, Mazares blocked the thrust of a spear, and drove his blade into his opponent’s chest, piercing through the man’s inadequate armor.
Pulling his sword free, he wheeled his mount to the right, then swung at the next man, felling him as well.
Within minutes, it was over. The insurrectionists fled. The flames of the wooden structures, no longer being fed, began to die as a smoky dawn in the eastern sky burned along with the embers of the failed revolt.
Mazares surveyed the scattering of bodies—none of them his men. The speed with which they put down the insurrection troubled him as he met up with his second in command. “Tell me, Artaban. Does it not seem suspiciously convenient that the fire was confined to the outer wall? And that the skirmishers dissipated almost the moment we rode in?”
“And why wouldn’t they?” Artaban nodded back at their troops, who were awaiting further orders. “If you were a group of outnumbered mercenaries and you beheld Cyrus’s immortal cavalry charging?”
Immortal they were not. But the ease with which they’d won this so-called battle would certainly add to their legend.
It did not, however, lessen Mazares’s concern.
It was something more than the desertion of the city gates. His unease grew as he led a contingent of horsemen into the city.
“A trap?” asked Artaban.
“I fear something else entirely.” He raised his hand. His men halted in the agora, looking down the empty streets on all sides. Before his departure from Sardis, King Cyrus had appointed Tabalus to govern the newly conquered city in his stead. “Tabalus’s guards could easily have crushed the insurrection, as small as it was. So why have we not seen any of his guards on the streets?”
“Perhaps the governor is part of it?”
“Let us hope not. Magos, take charge. If there is any evidence that the rebels are regrouping, end it. Artaban, bring back one of those rebels. Alive.”
“And where will you be?” Artaban asked.
“I intend to find out whether the king’s trust in Tabalus has been misplaced.”
As his officers took off in opposite directions, Mazares and a handful of his horsemen rode to the acropolis, only to discover the palace guards sprawled on their backs in front of the great carved cedar doors, both standing wide open.
“Dead,” Mazares said. “Find Tabalus.” He strode past the guards, down the long hall into the throne room. A few minutes later, two officers returned, escorting the frightened governor between them.
Dressed in nightclothes, Tabalus, attempting to regain his magisterial dignity, scrambled onto the throne. “Well met, General Mazares. I prayed that you would arrive in time,” he said.
“Who is behind all this?”
“I cannot say. My spies were thwarted at every turn, one even impaled. I managed to get a messenger out moments before the rebels besieged the acropolis.”
One of Mazares’s men nodded. “The governor speaks the truth. We found him bound to his bed, and his chamber door barred from the outside. The rest of the palace staff was shut up in the Scroll Room.”
“None of this makes sense.” Mazares paced across the polished marble floor, trying to fit the pieces together, certain there must be something they were all overlooking. An answer of sorts finally came when Artaban returned, dragging one of the rebels into the palace. He threw him to the ground at the base of the dais. “Tell your governor what took place here tonight.”
The man, groveling on hands and knees, lifted his head, swallowing past a lump in his throat as he looked at the disheveled governor. “We were paid—generously—to burn what was left of the buildings near the city gates.”
Mazares noted the soot on the man’s face and clothing. “Who paid you?”
“I know them not.”
Artaban drew his knife and held it to the rebel’s neck.
“I swear,” he said, his eyes beseeching. “The one thing I can tell you—they were not from Sardis. They were not even Lydian.”
“How do you know?” Mazares asked.
“One had a boar’s head tattooed on his upper arm.”
“A boar’s head?” Mazares asked. “Are you certain?”
The man nodded. Samian pirates. The marauding Samian ships were notorious, not only for their red ocher hulls and scarlet sails, but also for their boar’s head prows. “What would Samians be doing in Lydia?”
If anything, Tabalus appeared even more shaken. “I fear I may know something about that. But it is best said in private.”
Mazares nodded. The guards removed the rebel, leaving Mazares and Artaban alone with the governor.
“Two nights ago,” the governor said, “one of my spies informed me that he saw Pactyes meeting with a few Samians.”
Pactyes, a Lydian, was the newly appointed Overseer of the Imperial Mint and Gold Refineries, a position bestowed upon him by King Cyrus. Although Mazares had counseled the king against such an appointment, Cyrus insisted that a Lydian figurehead was necessary to prevent the newly conquered Lydians from revolting once the Persian army left. “You’re certain of what you saw?”
“I am. I even conducted a surprise inspection at the mint yesterday morning, but I found nothing amiss.”
Mazares and Artaban exchanged glances. One of the rebel fires was near the mint.
“Get dressed! Order your grooms to ready your horse,” Mazares said.
“For what purpose?” Tabalus asked, descending the throne.
“To confront Pactyes.”
“He will only deny everything, as he did with me.”
“Then we shall determine what is truth and what is not,” Mazares said, a feeling of dread coursing through his veins. “To the Royal Mint.”
Less than ten minutes later, Mazares and his men, along with Tabalus, rode down from the acropolis and out of the razed city to confront Pactyes.
In all his years commanding King Cyrus’s cavalry, Mazares had never seen anything to match the wealth found in King Croesus’s treasury, and he was amazed once again by the vast quantities of gold as he and his men entered to inspect the mint.
Just as Tabalus had said, all seemed in order—except for the fact that Pactyes was not at his post.
“Why set the fires and raise a sham revolt?” Artaban asked. Mazares turned back to the brass-bound coffers of coins in the treasury, opening the lid of one. The gold Lion’s Heads of Croesids gleamed despite the half-light.
He picked up a coin, feeling the weight of it in his hand—alarmed when he realized it could not be solid gold. He rubbed the coin on a nearby touchstone, the gold plating scraping o , revealing a center of lead. He tossed the coin, then plunged both hands deep into the chest, through the golden surface, and came up with handfuls of lead tokens.
He ordered his men to open every chest in the Royal Mint. Each had the same layer of gold Lydian Croesids on top, the coins all lead-filled. And beneath, nothing but lead. Lead coins stamped with Samian boar’s heads.
Pactyes had fooled them all.
He turned to Artaban. “Ready the cavalry. We ride for the coast. If fortune smiles upon us, we’ll get there before Pactyes flees with the gold.”
Mazares dumped a handful of lead-filled gold coins in Tabalus’s hand. “Find me enough gold for smelting,” he ordered as he strode out. “When I find Pactyes, I intend to force open his mouth and pour molten gold down his throat.”