Chapters One, Two and Three

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Chapter 1

The sun shone brightly over the Selimos plain, coloring the ruins and making the distant Mediterranean sparkle. Like golden bits of straw, the blue water glistened at every wave, the image fuzzy under the glare as sea and sky melted into one at the far horizon.

Today’s the hottest one so far, Valerio thought, wiping the sweat from his brow. At this rate, we won’t survive June. He stopped digging to take his glasses off and wipe them dry. Placing them back on, he gazed at the ruins lying all around him, the ancient stones carelessly scattered on the plain or neatly piled in mounds at the building’s foundations.

Not much remained standing of the once proud city of Selimos, destroyed twice by a spiteful fate disguised around 400 BC as Carthage, then in 250 BC as Rome. Named after the celery plant, its official symbol, Selimos had held twenty-five thousand people at the height of its prosperity.

Valerio knew all the history, but somehow it became irrelevant whenever he looked at Selimos’s breathtaking views, which gave the place a feeling of being out of the world, closer to the gods than to humans. Hardly a casual effect, Valerio considered, perfectly aware of the powerful connection to the divine that pervaded the entire area. Standing on the city’s farthest western end, the roaring sea at his feet, there was no doubt in his mind the founders had followed the Greek tradition of selecting their locations based on how holy the place felt. And this is as holy as it gets, he mused, taking in one single glance the blue sky, the yellow sun, the blue-green sea, the sandy soil with its brown stones and the green hills at the back. Maybe it also explains its doom, certainly the work of a vicious god, jealous of its beauty.

Destiny had tied Selimos to Segesta, its long time enemy, which it had tried to defeat repeatedly, never actually succeeding. Eventually, this blind obsession had cost the celery city its own integrity. As history taught, its first destruction was the result of an allegiance switch during the disastrous Greek military campaign in Sicily. As an independent city, Selimos had moved against Segesta, believing its Athenian ally would never spare any resource to save it from a destructive assault. But the ill winds of war had caused Segesta to switch sides and its new patron, the mighty Carthage, destroyed Selimos instead, killing sixteen out of the twenty-five thousand inhabitants.

Rebuilt in later times, the city thrived again, even if it never reached its previous heights, until war between Carthage and Rome sealed its fate forever. After Rome’s victory in the second Punic war, Selimos suffered destruction for the second and last time.

Quite a short, violent history for such beautiful settlement, Valerio reflected. Eventually though, destiny had paid its debt to Selimos. Today it was the largest archeological site of Europe, a part of humanity’s treasures. Located in Sicily’s southwestern border, set on top of a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Selimos lay in the fertile valley of two rivers, surrounded in the south and west by water while green plains embraced its northern side. The city had a linear design with a complex structure made of temples, sanctuaries and a necropolis, all protected by an impressive set of defensive walls. Archeology had also uncovered many private homes, which testified to a rich city flourishing on trade and agriculture. Too bad, the only building still standing was Temple E, dedicated to Hera according to some theories. The rest of what must have been Selimos’s architectural magnificence was just rubble as if the city had suffered a major earthquake, its ruins resembling the pieces of a giant puzzle designed for an unknown god’s amusement.

The European Community had taken a great interest in the recovery of its ancient roots, financially backing many digging ventures, one of which justified Valerio’s hard labor under the glaring sun, trying to reconstruct the history of the family living in one of the city’s largest houses. Thanks to his pet project, Rome’s University had won European funding to study Selimos’s people. Naturally, its spiritual father—but mostly the best-qualified man for the job—Valerio Rossi had complete charge of the fieldwork. A brilliant mind, an expert in ancient Greek as well as Roman history, but mostly one of the youngest professors on staff, Valerio had gladly accepted the commission, enthusiastic about the archeological site and the chance to get away from Rome. Lately, things had become too complicated for his tastes, too many women requiring his undivided attention, suffocating him with an unwanted pressure he had been only too happy to escape.

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