What would my father have done?
Antipas tried to comfort himself with remembrances of his father, Herod the Great. He would have slain the Baptist long before I did. He would have never listened to him in the first place. But Antipas had listened to John and had listened to his message. He might even have been baptized by John, had it not been for his position as Tetrarch of Galilee. Power does terrible things to a man's heart. It causes him to become calloused to such things . . . or does it? Something had touched him. Had it not been for that infernal woman I married, perhaps this man of God would have blessed me and I should have prospered and ruled well. He sat on the side of his bed, his face buried in his hands. He had drunk too much last night. Too late. John the Baptist is dead.
"The Black Fortress," Machaerus, a fortified city on the eastern shores of the great salt sea, eighteen miles south of the place where the Jordan, rich with life, flows into it and dies--as everything does. A forlorn place it was, and an excellent site for both palace and prison. Because of the incessant nagging of his wife, Herodias, Antipas had John arrested, incarcerated and manacled to a wall in one of the prison dungeons. There, also, he had listened to the prophet, at first out of curiosity. He had come to have a modicum of respect for John and his strange message of repentance and was of a mind to release him. But instead, that very night he had murdered this unlikely friend.
The town had another face. Owing to the hot springs in the hills above the sea, the area had become somewhat of a resort, a place that attracted the rich and noble from "Dan to Beersheba," all of it rebuilt by his father, Herod the Great, after it had been demolished by Gabinius in his war with Aristobulus. The hot mineral baths had a magnificent view of the salt sea 3,860 feet below. It was in these hot baths that he entertained his friends. It was his birthday. He had a right to enjoy himself with his friends, hadn't he? Herodias had come to Machaerus as well, to celebrate, as most thought, her husband's birthday. She had something else in mind.
He had made the unfortunate mistake of marrying this insufferable woman, his brother Philip's wife. John had told him on more than one occasion "Your brother is still living. It is not lawful for you to take his wife." This annoyed and embarrassed Antipas, but owing to his curious respect for John, he ignored the remarks. Herodias, however, was outraged that her husband had given this uncouth man such influence or that this strange and ungraceful visionary could utter such words with impunity. That is why Antipas had John imprisoned here, to keep him safe, to protect him from the priests, away from the political and religious arena, and from Herodias. Except now she had intruded herself into his affairs.
"She has learned well, my Queen." Herodias examined her daughter with a critical and envious eye; barely fifteen and already a captivating beauty. Her mother recalled her own beauty. She had once had the same sensual body, firm breasts and provocative hips. Salome exceeded her in every feature. Her cascading black hair emitted a bluish sheen in the right light, her white skin deliberately kept from the sun lest it sunburn or, worse, turn brown; those blue eyes that teased and beguiled, not so unknowingly, those who were fortunate enough to attract her glance. Salome was, indeed, exquisite, elegant, and, most of all, useful.
Salome was not Antipas' daughter. She was born to Philip, the first husband of Herodias, whom she had divorced in order to marry his more powerful brother.
"She dances with the grace of a gazelle and the 'elan of a cheetah," continued her instructor. "She will inflame the passions of any man whom the gods deem fit to indulge."
"She should," stated Herodias flatly. "She is my daughter. And, she's been training with you for how long, Sha-fur? Seven years now?" This was not a compliment. Herodias was not capable of generous gestures. Sha-fur, a mistress-slave of light color and striking beauty despite her years, had served the family since she herself was a child. She had once danced for Herod the Great in his palace in Jerusalem. Now responsible for entertaining the Herodian family, she conducted a school to train dancers, male and female, most of them dark beauties from Africa and Egypt. "Show me," Herodias demanded. "Let me see for myself how well you have trained my vestal virgin-child to boil the blood of virile men."
Herodias, years before, had herself also taken lessons from Sha-fur. Though falling short of Salome's beauty, she was still to be desired. She also knew her husband. His sexual appetites were insatiable. In the past when she wanted something, anything, from Antipas, eroticism had been the way to get it. But recently it had become harder to distract him. Recently she'd seen the way his gaze lingered at her daughter. And now Herodias wanted something. She wanted that disgusting diabolist dead. John the Baptist was not just another religious prophet. He was not just another peasant teacher, peddling idiotic notions. He had the ear of Herod Antipas! He was influencing the Tetrarch of Galilee! She could see it in her husband's eyes, his behavior and his decisions. Moreover, this horrible pig had openly declared opposition to her marriage to Herod. And her husband was listening to his snoutish drivel! This would not do. She knew well that if he persuaded Antipas toward his absurd beliefs, she would be out. Truly out. Philip would not have her back, no one would. She would be destitute. This would not do. Indeed, this would not do!
"Dance, Salome, my dear. Dance as if your very life depended on it." Dance because my life does depend on it! A cymbal sounded, followed by the deep throb of African drums. The girl's delicate feet began to move, her hips swaying in soft syncopation with the heavy beat of the drums. Her eyes closed, her lips warming to smile, her pelvis contracting. She clearly enjoyed dancing. She clearly enjoyed its power. Her mother's expression a visage of cold delight.