TABLE OF CONTENTS
Death in Vesunna (With Elaine O ‘Byrne)
Islands in the Sea
Not All Wolves
Clash of Arms
Pillar of Cloud, Pillar Of Fire
Report of The Special Committee On The Quality Of Life
The Last Reunion
Gladly Wolde He Lerne
The Barbecue, The Movie, And Other Unfortunately Not So Relevant Material
In The Presence Of Mine Enemies
The R Strain
Les Mortes D’arthur
Nasty, Brutish, And…
The stories in this book appear in chronological order, starting in the early second century B.C. and ending about a thousand years from now. Rather more are science fiction than fantasy; it’s hard to tell into which genre a couple of them can fall. They are intended to amuse and, with a little luck, to provoke thought. Some of the notes talk about how they came to be written, others about the ideas they examine. One of the things that makes science fiction and fantasy the exciting fields they are is that they let a writer look at ideas from angles impossible to achieve in other genres. I hope you enjoy these unusual angles.
Our own civilization owes Greece in the fifth century B.C. so much: democracy, the drama, the liberation both of the examination of the natural world and of historical inquiry from the straitjacket of theology. But before these things could flower, Greece had to succeed in repelling the invasion of the Persian Empire, the mightiest state of the day. This she did, by a narrow margin. But suppose Greece had failed…
The ship clung close to land, like a roach scuttling along a wall. When at last the coast veered north and west, the ship conformed, steering oars squealing in their sockets and henna-dyed wool sail billowing as it filled with wind to push the vessel onto its new course.
When the ship changed direction, the eunuch Mithredath summoned the captain to the starboard rail with a slight nod. “We draw near, then, Agbaal?” Mithredath asked. His voice, a nameless tone between tenor and contralto, was cool, precise, and intelligent.
The Phoenician captain bowed low. The sun sparked off a silver hoop in his left ear.”My master, we do.” Agbaal pointed to the headland the ship had just rounded. “That is the Cape of Sounion. If the wind holds, we should be in Peiraieus by evening-a day early,” he added slyly.
‘“You will be rewarded if we are,” Mithredath promised. Agbaal, satisfied, bowed again and, after glancing at his important passenger for permission, went back to overseeing his crew.
Mithredath would have paid gold darics from his own purse to shorten the time he spent away from the royal court, but there was no need for that: he had come to this western backwater at the royal command and so could draw upon the treasury of Khsrish, King of Kings, as he required. Not for the first time, he vowed that he would not stint.
The day was brilliantly clear. Mithredath could see a long way. The only other ships visible were a couple of tiny fishing boats and a slow, wallowing vessel probably full of wheat from Egypt. Gulls mewed and squawked overhead.
Mithredath tried to imagine what the narrow, island-flecked sea had looked like during those great days four centuries before, when the first Khsrish, the Conqueror, had led his huge fleet to the triumph that had subjected the western Yauna to Persia once and for all. He could not; he was not used enough to ships to picture hordes of them all moving together like so many sheep in a herd on its way to the marketplace of Babylon.
That thought, he realized with a wry nod, showed him what he was most familiar with: the baking but oh so fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates. He also knew Ektabana well, the summer capital of the Kings of Kings, nestled in the shade of Mount Aurvant, though he had never suffered through a winter there. But until this journey he had never thought to travel on the sea.
Yet to his surprise Mithredath was finding a strange sort of beauty here. The water over which he sailed was a blue deep enough almost to be wine-purple, the sky another blue so different as to make him wonder how the same word could apply to both. The land rising steeply from sea to sky was by turns rocky and bare and shaggy with green-gray olive trees. The combination was peculiar but somehow, in its own way, harmonious.
True to his promise, Agbaal brought Mithredath to his destination with the sun still in the sky. True to his, the eunuch pressed a pair of goldpieces into the captain’s palm. Agbaal bowed almost double; his swarthy face glowed with pride when Mithredath offered him a cheek to kiss, as if the two of them were near in rank.
The docks swarmed with the merchant folk of the Western Sea: There were Phoenicians like Agbaal, in turbans, tunics, and mantles; Italians wearing long white robes draped over one shoulder; and, of course, there were many native Yauna or, as they called themselves, Hellenes, milling about. Their slightly singsong speech was heard more than Aramaic, the empire’s common tongue, understood everywhere from India to the edges of the Gallic lands.
Mithredath’s rich brocaded robes, the gold bracelets on his wrists, and the piles of baggage his servants brought onto the docks drew touts-as a honey pot draws flies, he thought sourly. He picked a fellow whose Aramaic had less of a Hellenic hiss to it than most, then said, “Be so good as to lead me to the satrap’s palace.”
“Of course, my master,” the man said, but his face fell. He would still get his fee from Mithredath, but had just had his hopes dashed of collecting another from the innkeeper upon whom he would have foisted Mithredath. Too bad, Mithredath thought.
He was used to Babylon’s sensible grid of streets; these small western towns had their narrow, stinking lanes running every which way and sometimes abruptly petering out. He was glad he had hired a guide; anyone unfamiliar with these alleys could not have found his way through them.
Though larger than its neighbors, the satrap’s residence-palace, Mithredath discovered, was far too grand a word-looked like any other house hereabouts. It presented a plain, whitewashed front to the world. Mithredath sniffed. To his way of thinking, anyone who was someone should let the world know it.
He paid the guide-well enough to keep him from sneering but not extravagantly-and rapped on the door with his pomegranate-headed walking stick. A moment later a guard opened the little eye-level observation window to peer out at him. “Who comes?” the fellow demanded fiercely.
Mithredath stood where the man could see him clearly and answered not with the accented Aramaic in which he had been challenged but in pure, clear Persian:
“I am Mithredath, saris”-somehow, in his own tongue, “eunuch” became almost a word of pride-”and servant to Khsrish, King of Kings, king of lands containing many men, king in this great earth far and wide, son of Marduniya the king, an Achaemenid, a Persian, son of a Persian, of Aryan seed. May Ahura Mazda smile upon him and make long his reign. I am come to the satrapy of the Yauna of the western mainland upon a mission given me from his own royal lips. I would discuss this with your master, the satrap Vahauka.”
He folded his arms across his chest and waited.
He did not wait long. He heard a thump on the other side of the door and guessed the guard had dropped his spear in surprise. Mithredath did not smile. Years at the court of the King of Kings had schooled him against revealing his thoughts to a dangerous world. His face was perfectly composed when the guard flung the door wide and shouted, “Enter, servant of the King of Kings!”
The guard bowed low. Mithredath walked past him, returning the courtesy with a bow barely more than a nod. Some people, he thought, deserved to be reminded from time to time of their station.