Authors: Stephanie Landsem
Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Historical, #Romance, #General
“Filled with memorable characters,
is a tale of hopelessness turned to hope, of high stakes made higher, and ultimate love. What happens when a character at the lowest rung of society crosses paths with the most well-known figure in history? The story of
. I couldn’t stop reading.”
New York Times
bestselling author of
“WOW! LOVE IT!!! I started reading on my way home from a conference and was so engrossed in the book I almost missed the flight!
stole my heart and lifted my spirit. Masterfully told, this story of a Roman centurion and a Jewish girl explores familiar New Testament passages but plumbs new spiritual depths. A powerful message of faith and hope intersecting at the foot of the cross.”
—Mesu Andrews, author of
Love in a Broken Vessel
“You know the feeling you get looking at a mountain sunset, listening to sacred music while James Earl Jones reads the Sermon on the Mount?
captures that emotion in an unforgettable story of desperation and beauty.”
—Regina Jennings, author of
Caught in the Middle
Sixty Acres and a Bride
“A compelling story and vivid characters immediately come off the page and into your heart as Stephanie Landsem brings ancient Jerusalem to life in her enthralling second novel,
. As you run through the streets with the little thief, Mouse, or dip in the Pool of Siloam with the secretive Nissa, a masterful tale full of adventure, heartbreak, and hope unfolds. A must-read for anyone who loves a good book they simply can’t put down.”
—Laura Sobiech, author of
Fly a Little Higher
is to be completely transported to another time and place. Landsem’s impeccably researched novel moves at breakneck speed toward a climax that doesn’t disappoint.”
—Rebecca Kanner, author of
Sinners and the Sea
“Powerful and moving, Landsem grabs hold of the soul and never lets go. As compelling a portrait of mercy as I have ever read. Don’t miss this one!”
—Siri Mitchell, author of
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To Bruce, with all my love
So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
I CORINTHIANS 13:13
The Feast of Tabernacles
OUSE DARTED THROUGH
the crowded streets of Jerusalem. His name suited him. Small and drab, he fled from one street corner to the next as though stalked by an unseen predator. Dirt and ash streaked his face, and the tatter of wool covering his head was no less filthy. Both his worn tunic and the cloak over it looked like they had been made for a man twice his size.
Not a head turned as he zigzagged around caravans, street vendors, and plodding donkeys. He was invisible—poor, dirty, worthless. Just another half-grown boy in the lower city whose parents couldn’t afford to feed him. If a Greek trader or a Jewish woman noticed him at all, that’s what they’d see—just what Mouse wanted them to see.
Mouse skirted the Hippodrome, built by Herod the Great to show off his fastest horses, and moved like a trickle of water past slaves carting oil jars and women haggling over the price of grain. He didn’t stop to admire the trinkets laid out under bright awnings. He couldn’t be late.
There had been no food in his house for days, and the rent was due. Another week and the landlord would throw them into the street.
Thou shalt not steal, the commandment said.
A familiar voice whispered in his mind, dark and compelling.
You don’t have a choice.
He’d seen the mark on the wall this morning, just across
from the Pool of Siloam. Scraped on the bricks with a chalky stone, the straight line down and one across had made his heart race and his fingers tingle. It meant Dismas would meet him in the usual place when the trumpets blew. After, Mouse would have enough silver to satisfy the landlord and his empty stomach.
Mouse bounded up the Stepped Street toward the temple. The drone of prayers and the odors of incense and burnt animal flesh drifted on the afternoon breeze. The Day of Atonement had brought throngs of pilgrims to Jerusalem to witness the sacrifices of bulls and goats—atonements for the sins of the Chosen People. Soon these tired, hungry pilgrims would swarm the upper market. Easy targets for talented pickpockets.
Three trumpet blasts rang out across the city. The sacrifices complete already? He wasn’t even past the temple. He pushed by a pair of loaded donkeys and broke into a run. A stream of pilgrims poured out of the temple gates like a libation, flooding the street. Mouse plunged into the packed crowd. He’d be late if he couldn’t get through this river of pious Jews. And Dismas wouldn’t wait.
The high priest, Caiaphas, led the procession with a goat beside him—the scapegoat, on which he had laid the sins of Israel. Pilgrims followed wearing sackcloth, their faces and hair covered in ashes. They sang songs, begging for mercy from their sins, as they processed toward the Jaffa Gate to drive the goat out of the city and into the rocky northern desert.
Guilt pressed upon him as firmly as the bodies crowding on every side. His father came from the seed of Abraham, just like the priests and the pilgrims. And Mouse had fasted today, just like the men in sackcloth and ashes. But his father didn’t offer sacrifice anymore, and his fast wasn’t by choice.
The scapegoat won’t atone for my sins.
Mouse broke through the crowd and skirted the procession, picking up speed as he reached the bridge that stretched over the Tyropoeon Valley. He couldn’t afford to worry about sins and the law like the rich priests and Levites. The Day of Atonement
would end tonight at the first sight of the evening star. Jews were already hurrying to the market for food to break their daylong fast. And that’s where he and Dismas would be, ready for them.
A frisson of anticipation tingled up his arms. He slipped through streets flanked by high walls. Beyond them rose fine homes with cool marble halls, quiet gardens, and rich food, but here the air was thick with dust and the odor of animal dung and unwashed bodies.
A labyrinth of streets crisscrossed the upper city leading to the market that sat just south of Herod’s magnificent palace. Mouse turned into an alley hardly wider than a crack and slid into the meeting place—an alcove between the buildings, shadowed and scarcely big enough for two people. His breath sounded loud in the close space.
“You’re late.” A tall shadow parted from the gloom.
The scent of peppermint oil and cloves tickled Mouse’s nose even before Dismas stepped into a dim shaft of light. He wore a tunic and robe like the Jews of the city and spoke Aramaic, but his accent betrayed his Greek heritage. Mouse spoke enough Greek to barter with merchants in the marketplace and understood even more, but Dismas didn’t know that. There was much Dismas didn’t know about Mouse.
Dismas’s face was narrow, with deep grooves curving on each side of his mouth. The afternoon sun picked out glints of gray in his dirt-brown hair and short beard. How old he was, Mouse couldn’t guess and didn’t ask. Old enough to have a wife and a flock of children, maybe even grandchildren. But instead of a family, he had a slew of fallen women, if his stories could be believed.
“Maybe you couldn’t find me?” Dismas’s grin showed crooked teeth the color of a stag’s horn.
Mouse bristled. He hadn’t gotten lost in the upper city for months. “I just followed my nose until my eyes watered.”
Dismas let out a bark of laughter. “At least I don’t smell like a tannery.” He flicked a long finger at Mouse’s dirty tunic.
Mouse lifted his shoulder and pressed his nose to it, sniffing. He did smell bad. Maybe he’d overdone it a little. He bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, his chest cramped with tension. It was always like this before they started, but once they reached the market, he would be focused and calm.
Dismas rubbed his beard. “Settle down, Mouse. The gods will smile on us today.”
The gods? A knot tightened in Mouse’s belly. Maybe Dismas’s Greek gods smiled on what they were about to do, but the God of Abraham surely did not. “Let’s just go.”
Dismas raised his brows. “What’s the first rule?”
Mouse huffed out a breath. “You get half.”
Dismas’s deep-set eyes scanned the street. “And the second, boy?”
“Do whatever you say.”
The tall man nodded and shifted past him into the street. Mouse counted to ten, as Dismas had taught him, and followed.
The upper market, stretching before Herod’s palace in a chaotic maze of stalls and tents, resounded with clamor and babble. Donkeys brayed, their feet clattering on the stone street. Greek and Aramaic voices rose in heated debate over the price of oil and the quality of wheat. Merchants haggled with loud-voiced women over pyramids of brightly colored fruits and vegetables.
Dismas pushed through the crowds, his head visible above the bent backs of patrons looking for their evening meal. He glanced over his shoulder, caught Mouse’s eye, and winked.
Mouse’s taut anxiety lifted; his mind cleared.
Dismas stepped in front of a portly Greek woman weighed down with a basket of bread and dried fish. Her arms jingled with gold bangles. Mouse bumped her from behind, spilling the basket.
“Watch where you’re going!” She bent to gather the bread.
Mouse mumbled an apology and fumbled to help her, dropping more than he gathered.
“Just let me! You’re filthy.” She brushed him off and hurried away.
Mouse shoved the gold bangle up his sleeve as he caught up with Dismas at a stall selling gleaming jewelry. A well-dressed Jew haggled with the merchant over a jade-and-ivory necklace.
The Jew shook his head. “I wouldn’t pay more than a drachma for that.”
“Robbery!” The merchant swept away the necklace.
Dismas eased up to the men. “You judge well, sir.” He nodded to the Jew. “I know a shop down the street with better quality at half the price.”
The merchant grabbed Dismas by the neck of his tunic. “Mind your own business.”
Dismas pushed back, protesting in Greek. Passersby stopped to watch. The scuffle was short, but long enough for Mouse to do his job and melt back into the crowd. Dismas backed off with a bow and an apology.
A coin here, a brooch or bangle there. Mouse pushed the treasures deep into the pocket of his cloak. He pushed his guilt even deeper.
You don’t have a choice.
As the setting sun cast a golden glow across the marketplace, Dismas glided past him. “Last one.” He jerked his head toward a Pharisee speaking to a burly shopkeeper. His striped tunic was made of fine wool, and its deep-blue tassels lifted in the evening breeze. A fat purse peeked over the folds of his belt.
Mouse shook his head. The crowds were thinning.
But Dismas was already gone. He approached the man with his head down, knocking into him. “Excuse me, Rabbi!” he said in loud Greek as he righted the man, both hands on his shoulders. As the Pharisee shouted about defilement, Mouse sidled by, snagging the purse and slipping it into his pocket with one smooth movement. He’d done it dozens of times.