Nicholas broke through the surface of the dark water with a rattling gasp, one hand clawing at the sky, as if he could haul himself up into the cool air. Sophia made a sound like a furious bird of prey as she followed, and Nicholas realized after the fact that he had drawn her up by her hair.
“Terribly—terribly sorry,” he managed to get out, his voice ragged from the water he’d choked down. “Forgive—”
“Quiet!” she snapped back. “Do you want them to find us? Swim!”
Nicholas blinked, willing his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The water around them shook and waved in a peculiar, unnatural way. The clang-clang-clang he’d merely assigned to the passage was louder now and far more varied in speed and intensity, to the point where, at last, he knew more than one person was hammering and banging along.
Recognition sliced through him, a searing blade of alarm. It was the sound of something being built, of blades being hammered. It was a sound of war.
Above even that persistent clanging was a creaking sound, the moans of wood being strained and pestered by waves—a sound as familiar to him as his own skin. Ships.
Nicholas turned. A large circular arcade, almost coliseum-like, stretched around them, interspersed with columns that reached up high into the night sky, giving it the unified look of a portico. The sight was made all the more impressive by the ships berthed between them, waiting to be launched.
They were of a design unlike any he’d ever seen outside of etchings, with a smaller draft and almost flat across the deck like a barge.
He swam forward a bit toward the closest one, docked between the nearest two pillars of the arcade, his eyes roving over the openings for dozens upon dozens of oars. At the front, glaring back at him like a fiend, were two brightly painted eyes, and an enormous bronze piece at the bow, which, he imagined, would tear another ship apart when it was rammed—
He was yanked back by his collar before he could swim closer.
“Would you stop making eyes at that bloody ship? It’s a siege,” Sophia grated at him. “If they catch us, they won’t just kill us; they’ll make a whole show of it. Use our decapitated bodies to boost morale.”
Right. Yes. Siege. According to Hall, Rome had laid siege to its great rival Carthage for years, ultimately pillaging and razing the city to the ground and killing hundreds of thousands of its occupants. Depending on the timing of their trip, they might very well be eyewitnesses, if they did not get on with their business.
Adrenaline flooded into Nicholas, warming his cold limbs, lighting up his mind and sharpening his thoughts. Behind them, at the very center of the arcade, was a mountain of a structure, a kind of watchtower constructed in four layers that grew smaller as it reached the top. The lowest layer, with all of its arches and columns breaking up the ship sheds, also seemed to serve as a dry dock—there were several skeletal frames of ships waiting to be completed.
But it was the highest level that intrigued Nicholas, that turned his heart cold in his chest. There, he could see torches—the shadowy outlines of men standing guard.
“Follow me,” Sophia said, taking a long, confident stroke toward a bridge that connected the watchtower to the entrance of the city. This time, he was the one to snatch her back, pressing a finger to his lips at her look of outrage and splashing.
This wasn’t a mere harbor—it was a military harbor, likely making it one of the best-protected and most -watched locations in the whole city. As a preventative measure, there would be few places they could use to slip inside of the city, and all would be defended.
He swiveled his head in the opposite direction. If Hall’s stories had been true…Nicholas’s eyes finally began to see through the veil of darkness, and—there it was. There wasn’t just one harbor in ancient Carthage, but two. One military, one merchant.
Nicholas had no doubt that the Romans had it well blockaded by now, but what mattered was that the merchant harbor would be far more open to the city. Merchants would need a way to bring their goods into the markets and conduct their trade.
Without wasting breath on explanations, he dropped beneath the cold waves and began to swim, his body taking to the water in long strokes. Nicholas came up for air only when necessary, and only slowly, to avoid splashing. Every few strokes, Sophia’s hand would brush his leg or foot, reassuring him she was still there. He kicked his way beneath the iron chain gate, the moonlight just strong enough to give him a glance of it as he swam beneath.
He hadn’t realized, until his stomach cramped and his limbs went as hollow as straw with effort, how long it had been since he’d last eaten, since he’d given them any sort of rest. How long he and Sophia had gone without more than a few bites of bread. The next time he broke through the surface for a breath, he made it a point to curb his nerves and stop to ensure Sophia was still keeping pace.
The water in the harbor shoved at his back, rocking him, splashing into his eyes and nose as he kept low to the surface and waited for Sophia’s dark head to pop up again. Unlike its military counterpart, this harbor kept to a long, rectangular shape, allowing a few scattered ships to dock along it lengthwise, like fingers. Several shadowy figures moved steadily along the water’s edge, occasionally crossing paths as they moved in opposite directions.
A light patrol, then; the harbor was large enough that he felt confident all they needed to do was wait a few more moments, until the closest soldier moved out of sight. As he’d suspected, there were several low limestone buildings constructed along the harbor, their faces darkened by night. Those would be the warehouses used for storing goods. Some things never changed with time.