Simon has gained employment at the Alexandria Academy, as scribe for the Jewish philosopher Philo. He is on a quest whose purpose is unknown even to himself, but requires both celibacy and abstinence. Tonight that vow will be tested...
Long session yesterday, finished well past Sundown. I was packing up my slates to get home when
It was Apollos the Jew, standing at the exit with a few classmates.
"We're going for a drink at Aboud's. Want to come?"
What or whoever Aboud was, I just wanted to go for a sleep, a state with which I have had little acquaintance since my arrival. And Pirhah warned me very clearly against socializing. "Thou'lt never find the one thou seekest among the common folk. They'll just drag thee down to their lowly state. And especially, don't drink. Remember how sick thou wast that day? And how stupid it made thee? Keep to thyself, pursue this Path and keep thy eye out for the One who will complete thee."
Easily said, but... you know I really love it here, it's opened a whole new world to me that even Ba's tales had barely prepared me for. Philo's lectures, however tedious, the Library, the throngs of strangers from all over Kosmos, for a village lad like me it's like Sky Palace times lots. But shit, I'm lonely. I thought back to Ilios and Soch--Gods, I'm missing Soch? I must be in bad shape!--and my friends Bokios and Shamo, and how we'd talk and play and torment our elders, and how we understood each other, so even if we weren't talking or playing right that moment, we were together, we could share a joke without saying a word... I never thought I'd wish for back home, but now I sort of did. One night out, then back to the search. What could happen?
"No?" Apollos was getting impatient. "Whatever; see thee Marsday."
"Hold up, I'm coming." and I hurried to join them.
These are not the sort of people I should be associating with at all. There's Singataspes, the Persian whose questions inspired Apollos to his impassioned defence of his God. Though they've locked horns several times in class, they now seem quite intimate, each good-humouredly fending off the best efforts of the other to rip down and shit on his most sacred beliefs. And there's Jamios of Rodos and Marcus the Roman and Tyrites of someplace I forget. And most surprisingly, Demetria and Apiceste, the lone female members of the class, had opted to join the party. They were sisters from Athens, and I'd assumed they'd be kept under lock and key by chaperones hired by their parents, but here they were. They stayed close together, holding hands and looking around nervously, but when we left, they tagged along.
We were heading, it turned out, to Aboud's Place of Drink, a favourite haunt of Akademics. It provided, according to Apollos, an ideal venue for the student of humanity to observe and comment upon all and sundry, in the genial company of one's own kind. We made our way east down the grand boulevard as far as it went, then south through a part of town I'd never seen. Ra took his repose as we walked, and the dim candle-flames in the huts we passed barely lit our way as we stumbled between them. Apollos had been this way many times, though, and led us unerringly through the maze of narrow alleys that led to our destination.
Finally we came round the back of a big temple. Apollos pushed open a small door and, enjoining silence, led us in. It seemed abandoned and lacked a roof, so that the Stars shone down giving us dim light as we rounded the altar and went down narrow stairs to a tiny door. Apollos pulled out a key and opened it, and we emerged into a great open area. I looked around. We were outside the city walls! And before us not open fields, not quite, but no solid houses of stone either. The whole vast area between the wall and the river was covered with tents, of all sizes and shapes and colours, together with great beasts, skinny brutes with strange lumps on their backs, and all about were people who were about as different from the civilized Alexandrians as, well, Gittites.
"Wanderers," said Apollos. "They live in the dry wastelands outside the civilized world and only stop over in this place as they travel from here to there. They're who you call if you need stuff shipped overland, but the cityfolk won't let them come inside the walls, and they wouldn't if they could, so here they stay."
"Why do they live like that?" asked Demetra. "Who wouldn't want to settle down in one place?"
"Apparently one of their forefathers caused offense to some Goddess or other," said Marcus, "so She cursed them and drove them off their home, never to find another until something happens--the stories vary as to what that is. But if it's a curse they seem quite resigned to it. I've never known a sad Wanderer. Come on."
He led us right into the thick of the Wanderer camp. Fierce men with black faces tattooed blue, elaborate moustaches and braided beards drank and fought and gambled and staggered about the great encampment, as their black-robed womenfolk cooked strange-smelling meat over dung fires. They mostly ignored us, though a couple of them made fierce faces at us and growled, then broke up laughing. Their kids playing naked in the dust--well after Sundown!--noticed us, though, and danced around us, singing undoubtedly insulting songs about us.
"Don't look at them," said our guide. "If you encourage them you'll never be rid of them."
We did our best to ignore them but it didn't do much good. They'd run up to us and pull our clothes, or try to distract us and grab our purse, and when we roared at them in frustration they just danced away giggling. Finally, though, we got where we were going. It seemed to be a large tent in dead centre of the camp, much like the others, hung with fabrics in multi colours. But the tents of the Wanderers are light and pack-uppable at a moment's notice, and this one was definitely solid. As we entered the porch, not without trepidation, I felt the doorway, and saw that its cloth exterior concealed a stone structure very like any other in the city, the only constant in a place which is as ever-changing and ever the same as the desert waste they call their home.
After a brief inspection by the burly barbarian at the entrance, we were deemed harmless and permitted to enter. Inside, the "tent" revealed itself to be a large torchlit room, open-roofed to the Stars. It was filled with the same savage folk as the camp around it, again drinking, fighting, gambling... Apollos led us to a corner area occupied by people more of our own ilk: young men, mostly, in civilized clothing, seated round stone tables in fervent discussion. At one of these sat some I knew from Philo's class, and it was thence that Apollos led us. They greeted him and we sat. Somehow I found myself at the end of the bench beside Apiceste, trying to keep enough of me on the bench to remain upright while keeping my thigh from contacting hers. A native girl hurried over and asked our order.
"Mead for me," said Apollos. "Thee all?"
"What else have they got?" I asked.
"Thou dostn't want the beer. I think it's brewed from dog-piss. A couple of nice wines, though. The green might be good for the girls, I guess, but the black'll make a man of thee for real. Before the night's done, thou'lt be ready to wrestle God Himself!"
"Maybe not. Green'll be fine."
"Black for me," said Jamios. Marcus and Tyrites took the same, while Singataspes braved the beer.
"You?" the server asked the girls. Apiceste made to answer, but Demetria cut her off.
"Hast date juice?"
"Demetria..." protested her sister.
"Yes, and date wine too."
"Two juices. That's all. Thanks."
Apiceste sulked as the server hurried off to fulfill our desires. I looked around the room. One of the nomads had apparently caused offense to another, for the two were exchanging fierce fisticuffs in an open area that seemed dedicated to settling such accounts, as their respective clanmates cheered them on. Others roared out obscene songs, accompanied by appropriate motions and gestures, embraced local women (though I noticed none of their own frequented this place) or practiced their knife-throwing skills on a large target-board set up near our table. And as I looked, one of those blades whirred by not a yard from my ear. I jerked back and right into Apiceste, almost knocking her off the bench. I reached out and grabbed her arm with one hand, but the other meets her breast, not hard like mine, full and soft and yielding under her thin robe, her little nipple swells in my palm and my cock jumps in his restraint at my first feel of forbidden flesh. I can't move, I look into her face, she's
"Hey, let go my sister!" cried Demetria.
"Sorry... I didn't mean..." I snatch back my hand, my whole body burns with hot shame and Gods, what am I doing here? I shouldn't, I can't allow myself to be in the same room as wine or womankind. What are any of us doing here, anyway? We're supposed to be pursuing the highest flights of philosophy, not slumming with savages!
I lurched to my feet. "Gotta go," I mumbled, and tried to do just that. But "No way, man!" cried Marcus, and he and Tyrites dragged me back and down onto the bench.
"Sorry," said Apollos. "It's past lights-out, and thou'lt never get back into town without someone to sneak thee in. Which I'm not doing till I've got at least five meads in me. Thou'st just going to have to stay and try to enjoy thyself."
And just at that moment the server returned and passed me a bowl of... something. A very pale green and smelling so sweet, nothing like the thick, foul stuff we call wine back home, that I could barely get down without gagging that night I passed through Molokh (though it got easier after the first few times). I took a sip, and another, and one more besides, and its sweet warmth suffused every part of me. I forgot my shame, my unruly member relaxed, and I viewed the room with a new appreciation for the novelty of it all. I smiled at the antics of the desert folk, the earnest debates of the academicians, and marveled at my luck in ending up in this wonderful place where anything was possible, every day a new adventure, and wished that every night could be like this one, but different.
"Look there," said Apollos. "It's our host. Adoub."
He pointed out a man in a simple striped robe, obviously of the race of the Wanderers, but lacking their windburned face and wild sense of self-decoration. He was in earnest conversation with a more recognizable exemplar of his kind.
"Adoub? Didn't you say Aboud?"
"That's Aboud he's talking to. His brother; well his cousin, or maybe nephew or something. He owns the place, won it at tiles or something, and Adoub runs it for him while he roams the Libyan desert over west. He shows up every so often to plead his citified kinsman to heed the call of the wastes and join him in his eternal quest to find the next watering hole. Look there, Adoub points out that here has no lack of water, it flows free wherever you care to look, and wouldn't it make more sense for Aboud to remain here and drink his fill? And there thou goest: Aboud just shakes his head sadly, they embrace, and now... he departs."
And so he did indeed, followed by Adoub's wistful gaze, as if he secretly longed to forsake the, well not exactly luxury, but relative ease of his current life, to follow his kinsman out into the sandy wilderness and spend the rest of his life on camelback.
"He should do it," said Acipeste. "Just go. He obviously wants to."
"He's probably under a counter-curse," mused Marcus. "They're doomed to wander, he to stay put. I wonder which is worse."
"Worse would be if he left us here without this fine establishment," said Apollos. "Only he, with one foot in the desert and the other in the River, could run it. It'd go to shit pretty fast without him. May his curse last forever (and hopefully not be too burdensome on him). A toast to our host!"
And we raised our cups and drank to Adoub, and Aboud, and all the Wanderers, and this fine fine city and everyone in it, and our families and our Gods and lots of other stuff too...
Now it's customary here that when you raise your cups together, you mingle their contents, so that by the time it was done, my fine green wine was distinctly brown, requiring an immediate refill to wash away the aftertaste. The girls didn't seem to realize the implications of the custom; their drink was thick and dark enough to easily mask the stronger stuff the rest of us were contributing. Especially Marcus, who on every toast contrived to supplement Apiceste's juice with a good shot of black.
"So what didst think of the lecture?" said someone. "Canst really contact the Divine at will?" I rolled my eyes. They were actually going to discuss classwork here? But of course they're really into it. They can afford to be. When the term's done, they'll be back to their noble families, hanging around being philosophical till Death frees up their Pa's estate or senate seat.
"He does," said Apollos seriously. And indeed our teacher maintains that he himself has just such a relationship, that frequently he falls entranced, and is transported to a place beyond place, time out of time, seeing (or whatever) the face (ditto) of God as it truly is, without idol or intermediary. I was tempted to bring up my own encounter with Baal-Rakon and the Lords, but knew they'd only laugh. Yes, I know what they think: I'm just the scribe, the class rube right out of Empire's arse-end, where they offer up barbaric sacrifices to bribe a bunch of local daemons who think they rule all Kosmos--forgive me, Lords, but You're so far away; You know I don't believe that myself!--but I don't care. They don't know me, they don't know I have a fate that will put theirs to shit, if I can but realize it. Probably not tonight though.
"He doesn't choose it," said Thyestes. "It comes on him when It wants, not he."
"But he knows how to make himself ready, and he's ready when It comes. Would that it were possible to have such an experience any time thou wantst. I'd love to know my God as Moses did, face to face..."
"Any more of this wine and I'll be meeting mine," said Marcus. "But right now, I dance!" A nomad band had struck up a rollicking melody, on flute and lute and fiddle and drum. Its insistent rhythm seemed to set every foot a-tap, every head a-nod, even mine, and the tune and the wine conspired to draw me further under the spell of this wicked place. I really hoped my Lords weren't watching.
Marcus leaped to his feet and began cavorting wildly, I'm sure he thought right in time with the beat. The nomads also danced, apparently just as wildly, but watch them a minute and you knew from their fervent concentration that their steps and turns and spins were one with the music, had been since they were babes, that this was their release from the hardships of their everyday life. That this was, in fact, how they met their own Gods.
Beside me, Apiceste made to stand up too, but her sister pulled her back down.
"Thou'rt not getting up there! What would Gramma say?"
"Relax, dear sister," said Apiceste dreamily. "I just need to use the hole." And she rose and pushed past me. I hastily swiveled to avoid contact, and was a little disappointed that the brush of her robe on my knee did not inspire the previous rapture. I watched her in admiration as she headed for the bog in the corner, when whack! on the back of my head and "Go with her!" hissed her sister. I leapt up and hastened to join her. She was a little tipsy, humming and bopping her head, shuffling her feet in time to the music as she moved through the throng, and in that moment I thought her the loveliest thing in the world. Alas, I was not alone in that. Every eye in the place turned our way as we passed, some in simple appreciation, most with drunken lust. I commenced to get rather nervous.
When we reached the facilities, she hiked her robe modestly and squatted over the stinking hole in the floor. "Don't look," she giggled. I looked around. Everyone in the place had a perfectly clear view of her doing her business, and at least a few were taking full advantage. But I did as I was asked. As always.
When she was done, she tried to stand, but "O my Gods, I am so dizzy," and she grabbed my arm for support. We started back, she still grooving to the beat, I torn between the thrill of her firm young bod pressing so close, moving so sweetly up against my own, and irritation at the unwelcome attention this silly creature was attracting from the other patrons.
My fears were well-founded. As we approached our table, anxiously watched by Demetra, a big brute of a man, twice my size in all respects, loomed up before us. His swarthy face was tattooed all over in swirls of blue, his hair wild and matted, his slabs of teeth bared in a fierce leer.
"Thee like me, little sandhen?" he growled, no doubt in his own mind quite charmingly. She drew back, eyes wide with fear, but answered boldly:
"Get out of our"--our!--"way, thou big bully!"
The bully was undeterred.
"Thee smile at me. Thee must like me."
"I smile at everyone."
He frowned. "So thee like everyone, little whore?"
"Everyone but thee. Let me pass."
He snarled and seized her arm.
"Hey!" I shouted. He turned on me with a grimace.
"Oh, thee can go. I don't like thee. But she gonna like me, thee'll see!" And with that he
Lords, I scream silently, I didn't mean that before! Please be watching over me now, Your devotedest slave! Yes, I've roamed far from Your hills but You know I've kept Your memory in my belly always, spilt wine to You every night that I had enough of it, I'll spill double if You just pleeease get us out of this... and more along those lines, abjectly prostrating my self, my very soul before my faraway rulers, desperately suppressing the growing conviction that the only Gods that count in this place are the fire-sprites, halflings and cannibal goblins who rule the dry desert and its restless residents, and they're sure not going to support me against one of their own. And yet... I feel a familiar feeling, that dizzy tizzy from that cave long ago, and the bar around me fades into grey nothing and I am once more on that high high peak, the Lord of the Lords glaring at me from the next mountain. His great wide open eyes are full of fire to burn me up, his mouth agape to devour me whole! I shrink back shuddering, fearing His accusation, His judgment, His condemnation... But no thoughts penetrate me from that mighty brow, and I realize... He's not angry at all! Maybe sad at my...? No, He's not even seeing me, He's looking at... I turn to see what's behind me, and there's nothing there. I turn back and it's like He's sleeping, dreaming, blind, dead? and His fearful face is just a mask, like at the theatre, but not happy or sad, just blank. But if it's a mask, what's behind it? And what has all this to do with my present situation anyway? As if in answer, the God makes a move. Not His face, which remains expressionless, but His right arm. It rises slowly from the rocky peak, rigid as wood, as if not of its Owner's volition but like a puppet pulled on unseen strings by an invisible master, it's coming toward me, I feel a sudden revulsion, what if it touches me? But I can't stop myself, my own arm is already rising to meet it, my mouth falls open, my eyes stare
lets go Apiceste's arm and shrinks back away from me, eyes wide, hands up as if fending off a blow, I'm reaching out my arm, my left arm, towards him. And my face--I feel it--bears the same blank dead stare as the God in my vision. I am the God; fuck that, I'm all the Gods! My eyes flash lightning, my mouth growls thunder, and this insignificant bug that wants to cause offense to me and/or mine will feel my wrath for real, let me just touch him, he'll be dust in the fuckin wind in a flash!
And he knows it too, and he backs off fast. "Many sorries my man, my lady! I buy thee drinks, no problem eh? Look, over there!" And without pausing to see if I'd fall for his childish diversion, he disappeared into the crowd, and the amused onlookers turned back to their conversations and their cups.
I felt suddenly faint, and collapsed to my knees on the sandy floor as up ran Demetra, followed close by my classmates. She pulled her sister close and embraced her. "Art thou OK? What happened?"
"That man... he wanted to... and Simon... he..." Apiceste broke down sobbing, and her sister kissed her and stroked her hair and told her it's all good now and let's get out of this awful place and they never should have come and she hopes she's learned her lesson, not to... I pulled myself up on a bench and thence to my feet, still groggy, and Demetra turned to me.
"Simon, we thank thee very much for, uh, whatever thou didst," and she kissed my head. But Apiceste pulled back and eyed me suspiciously.
"What was that?" she asked. "Thou wert like someone else, that face, it was like... horrible!"
"That," I said proudly, "was my God." I don't think they'll be making fun of the Lords of my land again anytime soon!
Well that was the lowlight of the night. Fortunately the women didn't insist on leaving, though they did stick with unmingled juice after that. And we all joined in the conversation round the table, and with each round each of our contributions was more profound than the last. There was not a single philosophical conundrum, natural phenomenon or moral dilemma that we did not attack with ease, tearing it down and building it back up and carrying it to a solution surely indisputable by the wisest of minds. Until at one point, when Ra's rays were just beginning to fade out the Stars and dye that cloudless Sky blue, and we were almost the last souls awake among dozens of snoring savages, we were forced to an inevitable conclusion: that between the seven of us, we knew everything! And with that, we settled our accounts-Demetra paid mine, fortunately-and staggered off home. They staggered anyway. I strode tall.