Chapter 1 - Teasers & Prologue
. . . .My patience paid off at night when the most recent wife of the sultan, still anonymously cloaked in her black niqab and abaya, stepped on deck for some air after the dhow cleared the port of Eudaemon.
“Mistress Adara,” I hissed from the shadows of some deck cargo. She looked slowly around, so anyone observing her would think she was looking out to sea.
“How do you know my name? My voyage is secret.” she hissed venomously.
“I recognized your foot.”
“Yes, mistress,” I mumbled, beside myself with excitement. “Yours is the most beautiful and desirable ankle in all the harem.”
She gasped, shocked. “How do you know that? Who are you?” Urgency and a note of panic creeping into her voice.
“Show yourself. Or I'll have you thrown to the sharks.” Her hand moved to the jeweled dagger she had on her belt.
I inched forward behind the bales just enough so only she could see my face in the moonlight. I was so excited to see her again, like the impossible had come true.
“It's me,” I managed to gargle, before my neurons shorted and rationality went downhill fast.
She gasped. “My God! The Greek's babbling idiot. What are you doing here?”
I mumbled some polyglot in 'tongues' even I didn't understand.
“Not that. Imbecile. Stop talking your Greek and Roman rubbish.”
Peering more closely at me, she stopped abruptly and pulled her niqab off her head to see me more clearly. “But you're not. . . What devilry is this, idiot? You're not a girl.”
“No, mistress,” I said, hanging my head, shamed by the serial deception she had been victim of in the immediate past.
“But when you came to the palace. . .to read for the sultan . . . and came into the harem all those times. My God! I can't believe this.. . . You were a girl.”
“Everything was false, mistress. A ruse of my saintly wise master. He trained me in the art of makeup and disguise. And whenever I went out in the street. And to the palace it was always as a girl. To protect me from roving slavers and that predatory pedophile husband of yours. If he realized I was a boy he would've enslaved me as a babbling freak to amuse his degenerate guests.”
She breathed heavily, shocked and burdened by this.
“How did you get on board? Everybody's looking for you.”
“Why mistress? All I did was burn the scrolls as my master bade me.” This was not entirely true. He told me to burn them. But as they were clearly much sought after, and therefore of great value, I hid them away with the gold he gave me. And set alight to the house instead to cover my deception.
“And half the town with it.”
“An administrative oversight.”
“You're insane. And all the body parts found in the countryside and washed up on the beaches? What about them?”
“Evil lackeys who deserved no better end for all the misery they caused the living.”
“They were the sultan's men sent to find you.”
“You're better away from that place, mistress. The sultan was planning a diabolical Roman orgy to seal his new alliance with the Emir of Karne. The most vile and unnatural acts have been scripted from the scrolls. Women from his own harem will play starring roles.”
She stared at me agog. “From his own harem?” she repeated incredulous.
“Yes. Nothing pure would remain un-corrupted. . . In his galloping megalomania he wants to stage a Roman orgy to end all orgies. But lacks the education and imagination to create it himself. That's why he summoned my late master. To translate the ancient scrolls and feed his perverted mind with scenarios considered so morally corrosive on Roman youth they were only ever kept in the original Greek in far flung libraries of the empire.”
Her lip trembled.
“Yes, mistress. If you knew the half of what troubles my head, your dinner would be over the side feeding the fishes.”
“Why did you read the scrolls and not your master?”
“When he realized his eyesight was failing faster than he thought, he read each scroll to me so I would remember the words I saw as his finger moved under them. That way I could read them back. And translate any passage as required.”
“Incredible.” She stared vacantly out at the shimmering moon light on the sea. . . “Then idiot, what you've just told me confirms my worst fears.”
“Sit here, mistress. I'm all ears,” I said, directing her to a bale of merchandise close by.
She did, and I slipped her sandals off and made her mine.
“Oh! Yes! How I missed your massages and disgusting love stories you told on your visits to the harem, idiot girl. Boy. Whatever you are?” she whispered, her voice heavily charged with desire. “Just don't stop.”
“Never, mistress. You were always my favorite harem wife. Your body a gift from heaven. And I your miserable addicted slave.” My deft fingers worked their magic, picking up her vibrations, communicating with her. “Now, siren of my dreams, what fears trouble you?”
She hesitated. “I heard whispers the sultan was going to divorce me because I haven't had a baby yet. And there's none on the way.”
I shook my head. “Worse, mistress. A thousand times worse. He plans to surpass what happened in the little known but outrageous orgy of Baiae, the hotbed of Roman hedonism and debauchery, south of Naples in 43 years after Christ, where Rome's most celebrated charioteer was summoned with his stable. . .”
She clasped a hand over her mouth to stifle her cry of horror. “Say no more. It's too disgusting to even imagine,” she gasped, enraged. She dragged me up, and shook me, staring into my face. “How do men dream up that shit?”
To which I had no reply. The fruits of their wicked perversions all indelibly stored in my heavy-laden head.
“I was right to escape. Wasn't I?”
“Of course, mistress. Of course. No question. To stay in his house would be suicide by another name.”
Adara studied me closely, deciding if I had all my marbles.
“The sultan's screaming mad his men are being cut in half all over the place by some maniac swordsman, or having their throats torn open by a crazy black woman with him.
“Yes, mistress. All those who oppose the sword master and the goddess of the hunt die.”
“How do you know this?”
“I travel with them. We are companions on the quest for Lesbia's sandals.”
“Lesbia's sandals? What madness is this, idiot?” She smacked me across the face. “I have no time for such nonsense. Your brain's even more addled than before.”
“But I only mean well, mistress. They're here now.”
She was shocked. “You mean they're here, now, on this dhow?”
“As we speak. The same heroic charioteer master swordsman sent by the gods to rescue the beautiful victim from an unspeakable death in Baiae five hundred years ago.”
“How's this possible?” The note of despair evident in her voice suggesting she feared I might not be the only one who had lost their mind.
“The charioteer is Demetrius, the famed sandal maker from the lane behind Dr. Massoud in Alexandria; also known as Hermes, the winged messenger and god of commerce. He travels with Andromeda, goddess of the hunt and Scheherazade goddess of fables.”
She looked at me as if I was sorely injured, and lovingly caressed my cheek.
“And they are all here, now?”
“Yes, mistress. Never fear. They will protect you whatever happens.”
She tried to smile and hesitated. “I'm going back to my father with my dowry and gold and jewels from the sultan's treasury as well to send him right off his head when he finds out.” She laughed with glee.
“His punishment hasn't begun yet,” I said.
. . . On deck under a star-filled night sky Demetrius turned me around and back again and I pointed to one star after the other and reeled off the heavenly bodies to him.
More than once I thought I heard a muffled cry of unbridled passion from the captain's cabin echo in the night. But it was only a lost seagull far from shore.
A handsome boy my age watched us from the shadows of some deck cargo. Barefoot with a rough & ready rag around his head and loose Indian cotton pants and shirt he appeared at our side
“How can he do this?” he asked. “The captain's been teaching me the heavens all my life. And still I know nothing compared to this.”
Demetrius looks down at him. “He was cursed at birth to remember everything, . . except his own name.”
“Will you teach me?”
“No,” he said. “That's enough star gazing for one night. I'm going to have a joint and take it easy,” he chuckled. “But the kid will. Won't you, kid?”
“Sure,” I said. “And I'll tell his fortune in the bargain.”
Demetrius looked at me. “If you had to choose between telling a fortune and not making a friend for life. What would you do?”
“Have a beer and kick back with the women.”
“A very wise move,” Demetrius replied with appropriate gravitas. “Work is easy. True idleness requires courage and fortitude.”
The boy stared as us agog. Wondering if we were all still on the same plane of consciousness.
We were not.
. . . Something else left behind on the Red Sea island of Dahlak, which created quite a shock, was all seven young nuns' hair. Demetrius insisted on cutting it off, throwing away the lousy rags they called clothes and dressing them all in the dhow’s stock of crewmen's cotton shirts and trousers. With turbans around their heads nobody but seagulls would ever get close enough to see the dhow was really crewed by women and not the full complement of men they perceived at a distance.
On our return journey to Eudaemon deception would be our first line of defense.
Demetrius calmly sliced away their long matted hair with his katana, and Andromeda and Scheherazade completed the final trim with his short blade.
It was a stunning revelation. Especially for the nuns themselves, as I don't believe they'd ever imagined themselves in any other form but as castaways from society on a desert island nunnery. Or if they had, such thoughts were immediately rigorously suppressed.
Qadr, the 20-year-old acting mother superior took it all in her stride.
I overheard Scheherazade whisper to Andromeda, “She fancies him. I knew it the moment I saw her lay eyes on him. And look at her lapping it up as he cuts her hair.”
“Don't fret, baby,” Andromeda said. “She's into pain big time. There's something about the righteous mother superior I can't put my finger on right now, but trust me she knows what she's signing on for. Those two are mushroom eaters born and bred.”
“I like mushrooms and hanging out under palm trees with coconut wine and dope and surfing with dolphins.”
“Yes, I like body surfing with them too,” Scheherazade's voice was flat, despondent. Without hope.
Andromeda looked at her friend with a deadpan face. “Have you noticed ever since we've been with disaster man and Termite, all we seem to do is pick up women?”
“I have. They're experts at it. Who else could take a nunnery on a pleasure cruise?”
“And these babes are hot. Even if they don't know it yet.”
They didn't. When it came to dress sense, at that moment the young nuns were anything but 'hot'.
Hani had rummaged through what little was left of the stock of unbleached cotton shirts and trousers and what they saw was what they got. All wildly over sized. Pants which could be pulled up to under the arm were a source of great amusement. Shirts falling below the knee in much demand. While turbans became an essential lifestyle-changing accessory.
None of them had ever seen, let alone touched or worn clean new clothes before.
The acting mother superior saw all this through the enlightened perspective that it was Christmas come early. If the new road in search of eternal salvation required short hair, baggy pants and open over-sized shirts featuring cleavage, then so be it.
“Tell me about the touched gypsy boy with no name, they call Termite and Habibi,” she asked Delilah as she threaded a piece of coir rope around the waist of her trousers.
“He loves women.”
“What more does a woman want?”
She looked at the girl with half her face hidden by a mask. “I never thought of it like that.”
“He speaks for no apparent reason, and does things even he doesn't understand. Like when sometimes his hands are not his own. But guided by a higher power. The night I boarded the ship with my mistress Adara, and Samson, he put makeup on me and changed our lives forever.”
She lent over and whispered in the nun's ear. The acting mother superior's eyes slowly widened as Delilah spun her tale. Then she laughed.
“All this through the power of love? Mascara and eye shadow?”
“I came aboard a slave. Now my mistress and her eunuch Samson are mine. Waiting for the idiot boy to unleash us. Thanks to him we know happiness and love we never knew before. This voyage should never end.”
“And Andromeda and Scheherazade. Dare I ask about them?”
Delilah laughed. “Better not to, mother. They're goddesses of the hunt and fables. Ferocious in life and love. Beautiful wild animals only the idiot boy and the charioteer can control. And even then with difficulty.”
“Hence the spiked dog collars.”
“Oh, no! That's only for fun and games after dark.”
“I see . . . And this mystery time traveller, the charioteer, sandal maker who has bought pistachios on the street called 'straight'. Who wants me to hang out with him under palm trees, surfing in Kerala. . . Who no woman can take her eyes off.”
“Go with him. He's not of this earth and will make you feel like a goddess. But he has no interest in any woman other than Lesbia.”
“But still I sense great temptation lurks.”
“It does. With the idiot boy . . . Can you imagine until now I always knew him as a girl. Every time he came into the harem to tell us wild romances and wicked funny stories and do massage, he was always masquerading as a girl.”
“And I was going to ask him to lead our bible classes,” the acting mother superior gasped.
“Do it! Do it!” Delilah urged, thrilled by the prospect of a little lively entertainment. Knowing me intimately as she did, she knew I would invariably deviate tangentially and everybody was sure to be offended.
Delilah, sweet flower of Samson's eye, was a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist after my own heart. Which is why I loved making her up. Knowing she was bent. “He will take you through your book in ways you've never imagined possible.”
“That's what I'm afraid of.”
Hani rushed away to tell Delilah she was soon to crack the whip again.
“What hasn't she seen yet, Habibi?” a voice said behind me as I stared out to sea over the rail.
“The epectasy of Saint Gregory of Nyssa,” I said quietly, turning to the acting mother superior who stood beside me. “The soul's eternal movement into God's infinite being. Younger brother of Saint Basil the Great of Caesarea, who along with Saint Amphilochios, the first cousin of their friend Saint Gregory of Nazianzos, promoted the Singleness of Being.”
She lent closer to me, her shirt front flying open so she looked like no acting mother superior I'd ever seen before. She took a cloth from my belt and wiped dribble from my chin as she looked deeply into my eyes.
“Are you taking drugs?” she whispered with the serene voice of one I knew I could never lie to without feeling crushed by guilt.
“No, mother. I have no need. But with you I feel an urge to liberate my soul that I feel with no other.”
“I'm glad. After you've made up Delilah and the women are in physical communion with Samson would you be able to lead our devotions and guide us through the Singleness of Being as taught by the Cappadocian Fathers?”
“And tell us about Black Sarah, patron saint of the Romani.”
“I can, with great pleasure. . . But on one condition.”
The acting mother superior looked at me with a saintly smile.
“I will massage your feet.”
“How else can I ever know how strong I am against temptation until tested?”
“Then, Habibi, I will be yours late at night while the ship sleeps and you will join me to explore for ourselves the soul's eternal movement into God's infinite being.”
“I would be nowhere else.”
Delilah joined us.
“Is he being a naughty boy again?”
“He's temptation incarnate.”
The world as I knew it ended in 534CE long after Rome had fallen, although the Eastern empire based in Constantinople still flourished with the trade, wealth and influences from its interaction with neighboring cultures and states.
Not that this was any great concern of mine. I had far more pressing things to worry about - like staying alive. At that time even for 'normal' people it wasn't easy. So for an 11-year-old gabbling idiot with no character of my own, so to speak, but blessed, or cursed with total recall, keeping body and soul together takes on a whole new dimension; survival another plane of consciousness.
But yes, although Rome was thousands of miles (and another civilization) away, I did know where and what it was. What it had been until 476CE when it was sacked by the Germanic prince Odovacar.
Thanks to Aristophanes, a kindly old Greek scholar on his last legs, who took me in after I was orphaned, I had an education. Because he, and he alone realized that despite my disconcerting habit of babbling and gabbling for no apparent reason, and making irrational utterances in 'tongues', I was neither possessed of the Devil, nor insane. I was as the French rather politely dispense with my condition, a savant fou. He taught me to read and speak Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and Sanskrit. As well as the local languages. If I could hear it, or see it, I could remember it, and repeat or translate it.
I could remember everything, except my own name.
Then the old saintly Greek scholar died. His house and library of rare scrolls including some of the most morally corrosive pornography of the ancient world the degenerate sultan so desired to have translated, was supposedly destroyed. And I was on the street, left to my own devices, at the mercy of marauding slavers who would sell me in an instant to pedophiles to provide additional comic amusement with my condition.
Chapter 2 - εὐδαίμων 534CE - The Gods Drop By Out Of The Blue
9 o'clock in the morning and already the sun was a fiery furnace in the blinding white sky. The sea shimmered like quicksilver. And there was a whole lot of shouting going on. A man and two women. The man laughing with joyful abandon, sublimely confident in a thousand years he would inherit the Key of St. Hubert. The women shouting the most alarming and virulent curses in a polyglot of Arabic and Ge'ez dialects. They were not happy campers.
Although as I was being constantly reminded while begging in the town, that things were as good as they get, and I should get myself a job, nobody in their right mind was a camper of any sort in Eudaemon in 534CE.
At the time I was living under a vast rambling forest of impenetrable thorn bushes forming a private beach frontage around an idyllic little cove on the Indian Ocean, about a mile up the coast from the ancient trading port known to the Greeks as Eudaemon. (Aden in the modern world.)
A magical thorn bush I must confess, as all the long needle-like thorns conveniently pointed away from the little tunnels I made through it. Which is just as well because thorn bushes are notoriously difficult places to live in, unless you're a rodent, snake or scorpion. But a safe haven if you happen to be an 11-year old village idiot like me.
Miraculously the wildlife left me alone, so I could slither about safely under it and observe what was going on beyond, safe from view and any intruders intent on harming me.
How this motley crew found their way unscathed into my safe haven I never knew until later. For as I was to discover, they were not of this earth: driven by celestial forces beyond human comprehension, where the constraints for mere mortals did not apply.
Peering from under the thorn bush the first thing I saw was their feet. Both women were barefoot. One ebony. The other dark brown. Which explained the Ge'ez from Ethiopia and Arabic. Raw weeping wounds on their left ankles from recently removed slaver's shackles glared at me. The man wore gladiator's sandals. Of an ancient design, but in perfect condition as if never aged.
Then the stench hit me as they walked past on the narrow dusty goat path. So revoltingly pungent I almost threw up where I was. The unforgettable smell of the godforsaken slaver's dungeon.
I twisted my head to follow them as they moved away, the vociferous tirade never ceasing for an instant. The man was tall, well over six feet with muscular sun tanned arms and legs. Wearing a relic leather Roman charioteer's costume with medallions showing its owner had raced with great distinction and won heroic victories a very long time before in the Circus Maximus. And a dark blue turban from the ferocious tribes inhabiting the mountains on the roof of the world. He had a sack on his back and the hilt of a thin curved sword of exotic origin in a lacquered scabbard showed, in easy reach over his left shoulder. Clearly he had traveled for many years and far. Suddenly my interest became intense. I had to discover more. I slithered forward to the edge of the thorn bush, not taking my eyes off them for an instant. Then I heard a cry of pain from the far edge of the thorn bush forest. Someone else was trying to get in.
Fear gnawed my vitals. From one instant to the next my precious previously safe haven was being invaded from all sides. But instead of hiding away deeper in my thorny fortress, driven by the forces of destiny I slid out of the bushes and followed as the mysterious charioteer marched the women, one on either side of him, down to the sea. Only then did I see their parlous state: both cruelly malnourished slaves maybe nineteen or twenty years old.
At a time when women were routinely married off at twelve or younger and grandmothers by twenty six, if they lived that long, these two were long past their 'sell by' date.
Their clothes were filthy rags which barely covered them, their long hair matted and alive with the most vile parasites known to man.
And still the shouting didn't stop. Until he threw them off a cliff.
I bit my hand to stay silent, such was the horror as I watched them go screaming down into the calm sea to land with almighty splashes some 20 feet below. A moment later they surfaced, coughing and spluttering. Instantly the sea around them became alive with escaping lice and other assorted parasitic insect life. And the venomous tirade resumed unabated.
Then stopped. Their mouths wide open. Eyes agog, riveted to the cliff top above. With good reason.
The man I saw was like no other I had ever seen. He was naked. Clothes at his feet. But I was not afraid. Far from it. Like the dumbstruck women, I was in awe. The sun shone off his golden curls, his body, battle scarred was carved from Grecian marble reserved exclusively for the gods. He looked down at the women. Laughed as if he held the world in the palm of his hand. . . then, still wearing his sandals, dived headfirst into the sea. leaving no trace he had even entered the water.
They gasped when he surfaced between them. I couldn't hear what he said, but there was no murmur of dissent as one after the other he easily tore their lousy rags apart and threw them away with cavalier disdain. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. At peace with himself, his lot in life; on top of his game.
They stared into his cyan blue eyes, their fears calmed by his quiet seductive voice speaking their languages with native fluency. Totally entranced he drew them to him, each straddling a thigh, an arm over his broad shoulders so naturally it was as if they had been intimate all their lives.
The sound of laughter soon floated up to me, each woman her face close to his, lips almost touching, now vying energetically for his attention when only a few moments before they were ready to visit the most cruel inhumanities on his genitalia. Whereas now all they wanted was to eat him alive.
What a difference being thrown off a cliff makes.
“Somebody's watching us,” the black girl whispered.
He looked into her mesmeric amber cat's eyes. “Yes. We have a new friend you should greet.”
“Why not me?” the sultry siren from Sheba on his other side demanded, miffed.
“Because she's Andromeda, Ethiopian princess and the goddess of the hunt.”
How could this wandering charioteer know such things?
“And who am I?” asked the one he had come to buy from the slaver.
“Scheherazade, The goddess of fables. Locked away for too long. What better distraction could a man ask for with the sun shining, the sea calm and a beautiful woman by his side?”
That shut her up. At last she was in her element: a desirable male at hand to seduce while the competition was otherwise occupied. The black girl disappeared under water like a dolphin. And I was transfixed as the wanderer spun a tale which had the newly found goddess of fables laughing delirious with joy having found her equal story spinner. She ran her hand through his golden curls gripping his muscular thigh between hers, leaving no doubt (to me at least) that the women of Sheba were made to send men mad, one way or another. Or die trying.
It's difficult to even try to describe what happened next. It was all so fast, surreal and viscerally traumatic. Especially for an emotionally challenged 11-year old beggar like me.
I was lying flat on the hard ground peering down over the edge of the cliff at the wandering charioteer and Scheherazade when I heard the swift footfall of bare feet. A black blur appeared to my side, but even as I began to stiffen in fright and turn to look, a hand with inhuman strength closed around the back of my neck and twisted my head around.
Terrified, saliva drooled uncontrollably from my lips as my mouth went into spastic overdrive in five languages simultaneously. I began to hyperventilate, with tachycardia thrown in for good measure. Defecating there and then would have completed the trifecta of panic. But as I was perpetually starving, that ultimate humiliation I was spared.
My eyes goggled out of my head as the grip around my neck increased to the immense bone-crushing force of the talons of the Monkey Eating Eagle. Fierce merciless amber eyes bored into mine as the black girl pushed her face closer and closer. Her teeth brilliant white, razor sharp and terrifying feral.
“You fucking pervert,” she screamed, incensed beyond all measure, and clouted me on the back of the head with such force my face was driven into the ground.
It worked wonders. No more racing pulse, babbling, dribbling or unscheduled bowel movements. I was almost presentable to polite society.
“Mistress, where have you been all my life?” I asked in Ge'ez, with an orator's clarity and genuine interest as I looked up at her from the dirt.
But she would have none of it and pounced on me with glee like a big cat a rat, delivering a lightning smack to my face which surely would have knocked out and shattered any dentures had I been wearing such like.
“You grovelling earthworm. Treacherous poisonous toad,” she screamed. “Did you think you could spy on us unpunished?”
My answer, although for the life of me I can't recall now if I had one, was lost in the maelstrom of gratuitous violence which followed when the source of the noise I heard earlier manifested itself.
A marauding gang of five or six slavers burst into the beach top clearing armed with swords, knives, clubs and nets. I screamed, high pitched, ear shattering. The black girl shouted a warning, tossed me aside like a rag doll and sprang up to face them.
The leader, club raised in attack stood no chance. In the blink of an eye she lept on him and tore out his jugular with her bare teeth. Bright arterial blood fountained everywhere, drenching us both. I kept screaming my lungs out. She pulled a curved dagger from the dead man's belt before he fell and with a subliminal slash disemboweled the disheveled lackey beside him who was charging at me. Hot squirming guts and shit spewed all over me as he fell and my already swirling kaleidoscope mind was instantly moved to the higher plane of hyper-confused consciousness known as 'total freak out'.
After that for the next three seconds things became somewhat confused. Because that was all it took to put an end to their criminal intent. As I wiped gory slimy large intestine from my eyes, the naked wandering charioteer materialized from nowhere in a flash. Long thin sword high above his head, screaming a guttural martial language, I later learned was spoken by samurai from the very distant Land of The Rising Sun. With amazing grace and economy of movement he beheaded two men with one forehand and backhand stroke. Before cutting the last one in half as he raised his sword above the black girl, cleaving him diagonally in two from right shoulder to left hip, so his upper body slid to the ground upright beside his legs. The look on the punk's face before he pitched forward into the dust, confirmed belatedly he realized this wasn't his lucky day.
Breathing heavily, eyes aflame, bright red blood dripped from the black girl's teeth and chin and I swear she snarled at us as she looked up from a feral crouch, tensed ready to attack.
“You look like shit, baby,” the charioteer said.
“You're so beautiful when you're mad. But you need more meat on your bones.”
“And your mother,” she growled, grinning contentedly, scraping blood and gore from her lean muscular body with her hand. She was six feet tall and a natural athlete from head to toe. Or from my terrifying first hand experience, a decidedly un-natural athlete with perfectly honed killer instincts.
The charioteer roared with mirth, his joy infectious. He ripped some clothing off a body to clean the blade of his sword.