Zamalek, by the Evening Light

Mike Adamson

Story image for Zamalek, by the Evening Light by Mike Adamson

D ay follows night as offspring follows parent, and the wheel of life forever turns. As the child is the spring of the year, so adulthood ages through summer to autumn, and although the cyclical nature of existence is itself a comfort, there is little succour in the approach of winter, as well I should know. For I, Thurar Tornin, prince among merchants, have returned at last to fabled Zamalek, to die.

The river Aklamanes meandered from the north, a wide, cool flood rich with fertile silt, rolling majestically by the great city at its confluence with the lesser but still great river Khandamos. These passages across the land feed the kingdom in body, spirit, and purse. The ships from Gormoth came down the Aklamanes bearing the goods of empire, holds groaning with silk, spice, ivory and amber, jet and jade, with rugs and ironware, bronze and gold; and, on that fated day, the retinue of the House of Tornin, late of the bazaars of Gormoth. For this would be my last trading voyage, I knew. A time comes upon a man when he sees not tomorrow, dwells long upon the past, spends his days recalling those who have preceded him to the tomb, and arranging his affairs for those who remain.

Yet, for all the solemnity of the moment, or perhaps because of it, homecoming had never seemed grander. I reclined upon cushions on the deck beneath an awning of wind-troubled canvas, a horse-hair switch in hand to waft away flies as my age-faded gaze strove for a first glimpse of home. Green forest and hard, dun earth crowded upon the languid waterway, villages drowsed in the heat like beads upon a thread, and we saw tough, brown farmers driving oxen at the plough in wide fields beside the waters, for this was the grain-basket of the world. My retainers hovered close; my son, Sertes, himself mature of stature and strength, who would replace me as head of our concern, sat in a pose of meditation, feigning disinterest, though I knew he was troubled, grieving that our travels were over. To him, the first sight of wondrous towers would be as bitter as to me a sweet fulfilment: for I had half-expected to die upon this river, while he knew I would never again take ship.

One moment the horizon seemed as far and empty as ever in this wide, scorched land, the next the heat haze gave up its hidden mirages, and the city emerged from the distance, tower by dome, by spire and cupola, by wall, block and promenade. Not for nothing did those versed in the nature of the world hail this land a miracle, and Zamalek, by the Aklafanes, a jewel of creation. For truly were its architects workers of magic, rearing in stone the places of all human endeavor. By bridge and arch, column and pier, grand streets lined with palms, towering statues of granite and marble to the mighty of old, did Zamalek thrum to the music of life.

Soon we moved among the river traffic, were hailed by fishermen and porters, and the flotilla came about for the commercial docks to the cheers and fanfares of the workmen. Sails were lowered and oars propelled the galleys to contact with the long stone quays, and the roar of the city met ears long attuned to the silence of the wild.

I had always found it intoxicating—the rush of voices, the press of bodies, color, light and sound, snatches of music, the bray of donkey and elephant—a city’s assault upon the senses. Yet it was bittersweet, for I felt with a certainty beyond any tangible perception that this would be the last time I savored such a moment, and when my son saw me ashore to a waiting palanquin, I hid tears—regret for all that now left me behind, yet relief I might end my days with dignity, the proper way for a nobleman of the grandest of all lands.

Orbit-sml ><

Z amalek is called many things: the Flower of the Desert, the Meeting of the Waters, She Who is Touched by the Gods. Yet my favorite has always been simply City of the Evening, for nothing is more true. When the harsh white sun leaves the land, and all may sigh as a cool breeze ruffles the trees, then does the city come to life, the markets throng with shoppers, music lilts from wineshops and the grand houses of the wealthy; and the gardens by the river bloom in moonlight with intense drafts of jasmine. To smell the perfume upon the evening air is to know one is home, and I was thus gifted that evening.

My dear wife and children awaited me in our mansion on the Hill of Temnos, high above the din of the city. Our procession wound up the tree-lined road as dusk thickened, and greetings were made in the great courtyard. I was so glad to be home. I held my family close and saw behind their smiles they sensed we were nearing the parting of our ways. A feast had been prepared to celebrate our safe return, at which I took the head of a grand table, sipped sparingly a goblet of mineral water spiced with lime and managed hardly a morsel, for appetite had deserted me. I longed to enjoy food as others did, but knew those times were gone. Something deep within told me I had but a few days. Not that I was sick in heart, body or soul, but the end comes nevertheless, and three-score and sixteen is old indeed in our world.

Forced gaiety is a bitter thing, but expected, as much as the sickly-sweet speeches from the Merchants’ Guild, the Rivermen’s Guild and others, even a note from the palace. His Majesty King Theyestes was paternally glad to welcome home one of Zamalek’s most-respected sons, and tactful enough to say no more. I watched jugglers and acrobats, dancers and fire-twirlers, musicians lilted softly from behind silk curtains. Food and wine flowed as if tomorrow would never come.

Tired in my soul, I eventually excused myself and was helped by an old retainer to an upstairs balcony, where I could look out over the lights of the city, breathe the perfumed air of the gardens, and relish these simple joys. When Cassira, my dear wife, joined me, we stood with arms entwined, and lay our temples together. If we could have lived forever in that moment, we would have had all the paradise we could ever use.

Filos, the gray, erect head of our household staff, coughed softly. “A visitor to pay his respects, master. Not a guest, the gentleman arrived earlier and has been waiting. He gave the name of Sinufre.”

I blinked, smothered a flash of anger for our moment to have been cut short. “The name is unknown to me.” I shook my head. “I’m sorry he had a wasted journey, but… I’m tired. Tell him to return tomorrow, and I will see him with the petitioners and agents.”

When Filos had withdrawn, Cassira inclined her now-silver mane after him. “Whatever would prompt one to seek an audience at this hour?”

I could but spread my hands in perplexity, but a strange shadow had come over me at the sound of his name, for though I knew him not, something in his coming struck a chord in my soul. Let me die in peace, part of me cried out, while another was at once anxious for my family, who would inherit any troubles he brought in his wake.

I should have slept as if already in my tomb, but when Cassira and I reclined upon cool silk I long lay awake as stars turned in the purple night sky and a pageant of my life streamed before my eyes—only to end, symbolically, strangely, with the arrival of this visitor.

Perhaps, I wondered, the affairs of life were not yet quite done.

Orbit-sml ><

L ack of sleep may have done me harm, for the next day I felt mortality keenly, as if the funerary shroud were already chill upon my shoulders. I rose late, was bathed by silent servants, and managed a breakfast of grainmeal porridge, easy on old teeth that ached. I spent time with my family before dressing in fine robes for my meetings. Business must be concluded, and an endless stream of visitors was admitted to my study, where my chief of staff assisted. Other merchants, debtors and creditors—tradesmen I had commissioned, artists and scribes, messengers, clerks, agents for this concern or that, bills to be settled, payments incoming. I felt like a secretary, and understood how His Majesty felt when dealing with the business of state, day after day.

By late afternoon I was tired, and rested for a while, a servant fanning me softly with wide palm fronds as I sipped fruit juice. Filos let me be for a time, and when he returned I asked how many remained to be seen. “Only Sinufre,” he said softly, “the gentleman who visited last night.”

At once my blood seemed to go cold, and I pulled myself together with momentary effort. “Very well. I’ll see him, then I must rest before…” I trailed off, trying to find words. I was still mulling on my own misgivings when Filos admitted the figure, and I sat back with an abrupt sense of something strange.

Sinufre was tall, a thinnish, very erect man, dressed in robes of expensive flax died jewel greens and worked with thread of gold, and his sandals were the finest. A face of gaunt aspect was framed by dark hair tied at the nape, and a faintly sinister air surrounded him, but he smiled pleasantly enough and bowed. I politely offered him a seat and eased my position, to take in his strange, dark, gleaming eyes.

“Master Tornin,” he began, his voice deep and even, and infinitely controled. “All Zamalek bids you welcome, and rejoices in your safe return.” He dipped his head again. “I wished to pay my respects, while the opportunity existed.”

“Have we met, sirrah?” I asked, at a loss to recall him.

“Once, long years ago, at a palace reception.” He smiled. “You would not remember.”

“And what is it I can do for you?”

“It’s more in the nature of what I can do for you.” He let that hang for a long moment, long enough to become uncomfortable, then overthrew all social propriety by speaking more frankly than any but close family ought to. “Come now, Master Tornin. It is clear to all, especially those who speak it not: you are not long for this world. Only by the grace of the gods did you accomplish your final journey, for the house of Tornin, and for great Zamalek.”

“Must these things be spoken of?” I said, bridling. Filos had not moved to intervene, though he stood like a statue, poised to escort the visitor hence. “They are most personal, and though I have long considered the ends I face, my philosophic musings are my own business.”

Sinufre seemed barely reproached, but continued in his deep, smooth way, smiling still, unblinking eyes holding mine. “It is the way of life and gods, to be sure. Priests have their say, and the wise men of the wastelands, and wisdom comes from afar to the markets of the city as surely as dates and plantains. But the end remains the end.” He raised a finger. “Or does it?”

I blinked. “Whatever are you referring to?”

“Why, to your options. Surely you have, in your travels, encountered the writings of the sage Merioneth? His tracts describe the ancient lore of distant lands, the strange gods that abideth therin, the learnings of scholars long dead, and the ways of peoples for whom the impossible was mundane. And death not an absolute.”

I sat forward, brow drawn into a hard line. My voice had something of its old strength when I spoke. “What are you selling?”

He spread his hands. “Nothing. I come to draw your attention to the possibilities. Zamalek can ill afford to lose the experience, the judgement you represent. And one of your resources would be amiss not to consider, even for a moment, the notion of averting all that nature would visit upon you.”

“Nature and the gods ordain what shall be,” I said flatly. “For all the tales of those who may transcend the boundary between the mortal and the divine, at the end of the day the adult must accept that they are just that—tales—and prepare for the afterlife, however they may.” I rose with some effort. “You speak of my experience. Well, my experience tells me this. It is a mistake to play one who plays. I am a merchant, sirrah, I was selling oranges in the street when I was five. I can smell my own kind from across a room. And you, sirrah, are a merchant. I’m not sure what you are peddling, but I am not a mark in play, and you… are leaving. Right now.”

The silence held a few seconds, then he rose gracefully to his imposing height and bowed, his smile never shifting. “As you wish, Master Tornin. It is not my intention to distress. I ask only that you consider what I have said. If you wish to find me, ask for me on the Street of the Mendicants. The name of Sinufre is well known there.”

Filos escorted him out, and I sank back into my seat, stroked my beard and shook my head. To be offered some quack notion of ancient lore was an insult, making a mockery of my laborious preparations for the inevitable, and I vowed not to consider for a moment such nonsense.

It was a vow I found myself unable to keep.

Orbit-sml ><

M erioneth.

The name drifted at the back of my mind all evening as I managed a light supper with my family, listened to the stories of great-grand children, and heard news of the city. But before retiring, I found my thoughts turning in ways that made my heart race painfully, for my strange visitor was correct: I had heard the name.

Filos helped me to the library, lit lamps and fetched the scrolls I needed, then left me to read. I unrolled The History of the Sunward Kingdoms, a work of some weight by a priest of the Royal Temple, hundreds of years ago, and I scanned the vertical rows of characters for the name. I was sure I had seen it before, and that some mention of the matters of which Sinufre spoke were found right here.

I was nodding off when my eyes drifted over the appropriate text, and recognition jerked me awake. Abruptly I was fully aware, and hungrily re-read the passage.

Let the seeker traveling eastward be aware that in the lands of the Jarmu people may be found wonders of many sorts. Here are rich mines providing gold of surpassing quality, and healers extract rare and potent medicines from roots, flowers, tubers and bark, and from the venom of the cobra. But, according to the journals of Merioneth, the Jarmu physicians derived the very emperor of all medicaments from the petals, pollen and nectar of the striding orchid, a flower which blooms only by moonlight once in ten years. Rare is this potion, and of powerful efficaciousness, sworn and attested by scholars to return youth to the old and life to the lifeless. Verily, it is the stuff of all life, and suitably rare, for, if all men could obtain it, chaos would surely reign.

I read it through again, then slowly rolled the parchment. Now my heart raced for different reasons. In all my years, all my travels, I had never placed much stock in tales of old, though I could recite a hundred from memory. Now, as I considered this strange and shadowy notion, I recalled seeing things which defied explanation—the shaman who rode the back of eagles in spirit to see where his eyes could not reach; the temple girl who danced among a dozen swaying cobras and called them her friends; the man who walked beyond the world’s edge in dream and told unerringly of lands yet to be crossed… If such as these earned my tacit belief, why not the distillate of a legendary orchid?

I lay down with Cassira by the glow of a taper and listened to the wind over the eternal city, with much to muse upon. I knew my first order to Filos in the morning would be to send a messenger to the Street of the Mendicants. I wanted to interview Sinufre again—this time with my eyes fully open.

Orbit-sml ><

T he grooms’ shed by the stables was cool in the morning air, sunlight shafted in from an open door and I sat at a table brought in for the occasion. Upon it a cloth concealed important words, and I sipped a goblet of juice as I waited for the party to make their way up the long hill road. At last, shadows moved against the daylight, and four grooms brought Sinufre to my presence. Filos and mighty Karamos, my mute bodyguard, waited in the shadows, and I dismissed the grooms with a nod of thanks.

Sinufre spread his hands, his manner as smoothly imperturbable as ever. “Master Tornin. A simple request would have more than sufficed to bring me to your side.” He made a small bow of respect. He knew, I could tell, I was playing his game, but saw no move to take the initiative.

I drew away the cloth to reveal the scroll, open to the passage in question. He bent to it, took his weight on his knuckles and squinted in the soft light, then nodded. “I knew one of your stature would be learned in these matters.”

“I have found a corroborating reference. This does not make me learned,” I said, softly but firmly. “This… potion. Derived from the orchid…”

“The ‘Tincture of Jarmu’ was how Merioneth termed it, though it has many names in history and legend alike.”

My face was hard, a mask of sun-wrinkles framed in retreating silver, and my manner brooked no nonsense. “Can it be had?”

Now Sinufre leaned forward a little to emphasize his point, speaking very softly. “A supply exists in Zamalek at this time.” He straightened, and his eyes went pointedly to my retainers.

“I trust Filos and Karamos implicitly. I will keep nothing from my valet, and my bodyguard cannot repeat what his ears perceive.”

“Very well.” The smile lingered a moment more, than faded. “As I said last night, Zamalek needs its finest scions. Your career has been more than one of private business, it has been a model of judicious decision-making, of building for the future, and doing so with scrupulous care. Master Tornin, you are well known as a man of fairness, such that many lament you did not choose the magistrate’s calling, or that of king’s counsellor, for much good could you have achieved. I am saying to you that those options still exist.”

“You would have me use this rare potion to win back the vitality of younger days? And then use those days to benefit Zamalek?”

The dark head inclined. “Just so. Numberless people of inferior sort pretend to public office every day, bringing with them incompetence and corruption. It seems cosmically unjust that one of your capabilities should be lost due merely to the caprice of time.”

I smiled with a cynical shrug. “None returns from the dead.”

“I never said you should.”

“Explain.”

“Let it be seen that you go into your fine tomb, and the public order shall be preserved. Then take a fresh name, to suit a fresh face.”

“Intrigue follows upon the heels of ambition,” I whispered, not liking the complexity. “And still I find it difficult to conceive of. You ask a great service of one ready to set down life’s burden—indeed, that I should take it up afresh—and I have little more than your word to go upon.”

“You suspect me of deceit?”

“I would be a fool to dismiss the possibility!” I slapped a hand flat to the table. “Proof, sirrah. I would have you present to me a man who has taken this potion and seen the good of it.”

For a long moment, we heard only birds singing in the trees by the stables, then Sinufre gave a low laugh. “Master Tornin, he stands before you.”

I scoffed, throwing up my hands. “I expected no less! Sirrah, you are a charlatan! A worker of confidences!”

He was unimpressed. “How old would you say I am?”

His manner gave me pause. “Thirty summers, a little more…”

“I am older than you.”

Again my impulse was to scoff, but the calm directness of his gaze, the assurance of his demeanor, undermined my certainty.

“Ask me anything you will,” he said, “memories of your own youth surely long before I was born—ask me and I will tell you as if those days were but yesterday, for to me they are.” He raised a finger. “Not the histories, those are a matter of record. But the small things of life which scribes have yet to see fit to write of.”

The proposal was a fair one. I thought back, fought for composure, sure he was reading me like an open scroll. At once I entertained the notion he may be my senior, his self-assurance was a palpable force, surely learned only by long experience. I thought for a long moment. “Tell me of the year of the great storm.”

He squinted, knuckles on hips as he recalled the facts. “It was the fourth year of the reign of King Vormann III. The storm came up from the southern sea with a voice of gods, an angry wave pressed up the Aklamanes and sank ships at their moors. But you don’t want the broad strokes, you want how it felt.”

He smiled, closed his eyes and began. “I was a dock worker, so I was face-to-face with the tempest as it broke. I remember the darkness as the storm built out of the south, a blue-black wall of clouds that seemed it would reach to heaven, then a wind that cut like a knife, and a building rumble as of thunder without pause.” He breathed deeply, seeming to sort through long-stored memories. “I recall a tearing sound, as the wind lifted tiles from roofs, then the great noise of them shattering in the streets. You remember that, don’t you, Master? You would have been but a young child, but that sound must be engraved upon your mind. Ripping, tearing, than smashing, over and over as the storm mounted higher.”

My blood ran cold, for he was correct, I did remember it, a sound this city had never heard again in seven decades.

“And the smell—the great wash of the river that flooded the waterfront streets sent scum and mud a dozen ship-lengths into the city. And the stench of the fires that burned for days afterward to dispose of the bodies of drowned oxen and donkeys that drifted, bloated in death, upon the fouled waters. Sickening, was it not? And sickening to recall. I had abscesses from the illness that followed, when the streets dried out and smelled bad. Did you?”

My heart raced uncertainly as I was carried back to those terrible days, memories that had dulled with the ages refreshed by his measured words. “No, I was lucky. But I remember how my mother suffered…” I blinked. “Go on.”

“The storm raged for three days before we saw the sun again. There was great loss of life. Do you remember the funerary barges, taking the shrouded dead to the necropolis? Surely your family watched them upon the river? The way the keening of the women echoed back and forth between the towers—another sound unheard in this city since that day. And when the waters drained away and rebuilding began, how the workers sang…” He closed his eyes and made the memory come.

Hail to Shastromo, bringer of storms, fear his tread, fear his breath,

Hail to Mirkaan, sweet winds of autumn, for they turn back the heat.

Hail to His Majesty, whose just hand shall provide,

Hail to the city that shall never fall, hail unto Zamalek, to Zamalek hail!”

Against my better judgement, I gestured for more. With gentle patience, Sinufre cast his mind back and found a morsel that would bear meaning for me.

“There was starvation in the week after the storm. The royal granary was opened to the people. His Majesty made a gift to every citizen. This much is a matter of record, but I recall one item which was added at the last moment. I was with the many gangs of men recruited to distribute the food, and something extra to the manifests arrived, especially from the King. Wagon loads of sugar cane, a piece for every child in the city. We passed it out from great baskets.”

The dam broke, my head went forward on my breast and the tears came. “I remember,” was all I could whisper, over and over, and there was silence as Filos fetched me water.

The years had rolled away, and I found I was striving to recall if the man before me had been among the legions who toiled to repair, rebuild and provision. But how can anyone recall such a detail over seventy years? I now admitted to myself he had convinced me with the sound of the breaking tiles, and although a shred of doubt lingered, as it should in the heart of any rational person, I was willing to discuss the issue on a new footing.

I gestured and Karamos brought a chair forward for my visitor. He sank into it with grace and allowed me the time I needed. At last I dried my eyes with the sleeve of my robe and raked hands through hair. “Very well, Master Sinufre. You convince me well enough for the moment. How old are you?”

“Ninety-one.” He smiled. “I tasted of the Tincture of Jarmu at age sixty-two, my prime was restored within a year, and I have not aged from that day forth.”

I eyed him for a long moment, knowing that if I was being played this was a crucial moment. “And how did you come by it?”

He hesitated a moment. “I was approached. As you have been. Remember, as the decades go by, the circumstances of supply shift and change.”

I sat back, swirled the water in my goblet, sipped, held my silence. He knew I was interested, but altogether too much reading was taking place.

“Very well,” I said, “let us speak plainly. I’m interested, of course I am. I no more wish to die than the next man, and if a practical and wholesome alternative exists, let us discuss it. I accept that a duty attaches, that if I can avoid the tomb then my days belong to Zamalek, in whatever service I may render.” I laughed, a rasp in my ancient throat. “It may surprise you, but after a lifetime as a merchant I am ready for a change.”

I held his eyes with my most direct gaze, eyes hard beneath my straggling, silver brows. “So tell me, Master Sinufre… What’s the catch?”

Silence again, Filos and Karamos standing like statues, witness to a conversation they would never have imagined possible. Sinufre shifted in his seat, clearly taking effort to reach his point. “As I said last night, I am selling nothing. I bring this information to you as a service. However, the intentions of the owner of the potion are a very different matter.”

I rolled my eyes. “And so we come to it. The price?”

He rubbed his hands together, inspecting them distantly, before musingly voicing the quote. “One thousand full-measures of gold.”

I almost laughed. “A thousand measures? A thousand measures? Clearly this seller is ambitious, and all luck to him, though I hesitate to call such a grubby transaction ‘business’.” I shook my head sadly. “You offer me life everlasting with one hand, and poverty with the other. Not just my poverty, but my family’s, all who depend upon me and the business I have built.”

“A price is a price,” Sinufre said with a shrug.

“And all prices are fluid until a bargain is struck. Show me this seller and let us haggle like the merchants we are.”

But the tall man shook his head slowly. “The seller is not interested in haggling. This is not some corner bazaar, the goods not a brass tray or rush-mat. The object for the buyer is life everlasting, that of the seller vast wealth in the here and now. One is the means to the other, and many would agree their value is commensurate.”

“Who is this seller? How did he come by the potion?”

Now Sinufre spread his large hands. “You may seek eastward to Jarmu, of course, track down the orchid in question, search out the secret laboratories where the arcane processing is done, find those who control the supply in the first place. But, I promise you, such a course would take years, for these are people who do not wish to be found.” His smile was thin as that of a death’s head. “And, if you will forgive me the indelicacy, you do not have time.”

He had me. I felt mortality snapping at my heels in that moment as clearly as I had for weeks, months, knew I may fail to wake any morning. Tomorrow? Was it that close?

But a thousand full-measures… How could I?

Birds sang in the trees for a long while to punctuate our thoughts, then I rose with all the dignity I could muster. My voice was like gravel, hard, deep, filled with a dozen conflicting emotions. “Return this evening, Master Sinufre. You will have my answer.”

Orbit-sml ><

I rested in the garden beneath a spreading tree, my fly-switch in hand, and brooded. I was propped against cushions on a couch of dried cane, a brass tray at my side bore dates and banana-wine, and the afternoon was quiet as the city took its nap. White clouds in the hard blue sky went silently by, like the moments of life, and I warred with myself, unable to rest—afraid to sleep lest nature choose this moment to snatch me away. Away from all I knew and loved, all I had built, my wife, family and pets, my friends of old, my retainers.

My treasure?

In this moment my wealth seemed the least concern, for the comfort and security that wealth enabled were far more important. I had more than a thousand measures of gold at my disposal, but to mobilize such a sum in the bar-ingot of the realm was another matter.

I went over my assets again and again, but no matter how I arranged affairs, the outcome was the same—my trading dynasty would be at an end, and all who gave fealty to me would be reduced, if not to destitution then to very modest standing. I would be compelled to sell this very mansion, our ships and livestock, and send away those in our employ. And at the end of the day, all there would be to show for it was my own continuance. Not that of Cassira, nor any other dear to me.

Long had I considered the spiritual texts. When one feels the touch of death close by, one naturally takes interest in such things, for souls need at least some preparation for their passing. I had read of the afterlife, considered all I may say before the judges of the dead, and was as content as one might be that a life well spent would find value in the hereafter. Now, that finely-balanced exchange was in danger of failure, and for many reasons. I thought long and hard upon them, and reached my decision before the afternoon warmth began to ameliorate with the first flush of evening.

Dinner was a quiet gathering, and I was almost oblivious of my children and their children, such as were present, for Cassira held all my attention, as indeed she deserved. My dear wife. We had grown old together, partners in life and enterprise, and we grieved silently to know we were to be parted soon. Not for her to know that such parting could take more than one form—for me to weigh the worth of life’s gift, if it were to be at cost of her blessed company.

By the time the sun left us, and, from the terraces, we were bathed in the purple twilight, scenting the first breath of jasmine from the gardens, Sinufre’s offer seemed a joke, and a poor one at that. A king’s ransom in exchange for being deprived of all I loved? I could laugh in his face, for I would sooner go to my tomb with the respect of my people than scrabble for life like a beggar after coins in the gutter.

Take me, I said silently in my heart, to the gods. I am ready.

Orbit-sml ><

I received the tall man in my audience chamber. I was dressed in my best robes of business, hair brushed in a silver cascade, and my hands were folded upon my girth. The mendicant appeared as I had seen him that morning, though his smile had vanished. Now we were all business and I chuckled inwardly to disappoint him, as if the conman’s gambit were turning back upon him.

Filos showed him in, and he sank into the offered chair. “Master Tornin,” he began with a respectful bow. “I know you will have given the matter all due thought. I place before you life eternal, and all the myriad works you may accomplish when a mind and heart such as yours are given freedom from the mortal constraint. All you must do to obtain this, is part with the merely material.”

“The transaction is clear-cut,” I agreed with a nod.

“You have reached a decision?”

“I have.”

I let him wait this time, while I arranged my thoughts and adjusted the sleeves of my robe as I prepared to speak.

“It comes down to the value we place on things. Life, to be sure, is wonderful, and I would give much to recover health and vitality, to go forth with vigour instead of nursing the thousand hurts of age. And you are right—what I might achieve, when a lifetime of experience is combined with the energy of youth, is formidable. What is mere gold compared to that?

“But the true cost is not in gold. You see, the gold it would take to purchase this miracle is not mine to part with. Oh, legally, certainly. But not morally, not ethically. And ethical behaviour was the plumbline you chose to define my career, was it not? I can no more realize this family’s assets for my own benefit then sprout wings and fly. It is their wealth, and the empire I leave them my testament. I will not subdivide it to the avarice of some faceless seller of potions. Let him find some rich and elderly person of lesser mettle and try his luck on that market instead, for his price is too high for me.

“And it is higher yet, for in the necessity of beginning a new life I would be parted from all I hold dear, as surely as if I had closed my eyes forever, yet also without the hope of reunion in the Eden to come. For I should see my beloved ones go ahead of me, without prospect of ever joining them. Tell me, why ever should I wish for that?”

Sinufre held silence, his expression fixed and unreadable, hands clasped as he followed my words.

“I find, upon meditating, I do not love life as dearly as one might imagine. It is all of which life is composed which makes it precious, and life without those things becomes merely existence. Aimless existence is no goal, and the good I may do others in course of it a cold comfort. No, Master Sinufre, I do not choose this bargain. I choose the love and respect of my people, and in so doing trust I reflect well upon the honor and spirit of Zamalek.”

It was said. I had accepted the inevitability of death, welcomed it, and a sense of peace flooded through me to have rejected the silly notion of escaping it.

One might have heard a pin drop in the long silence which followed, the sigh of breeze in the garden the only punctuation to those heavy and difficult words. Then, with deliberate, infinite care, Sinufre reached into a pocket in the sleeve of his robe and drew forth a small phial of polished gold. He leaned and placed it carefully upon the desk before me. Our eyes met and my puzzlement lasted only moments.

“There is no charge, Master Tornin,” he said. “There never was.”

I stared at the phial, my old heart racing painfully as I sensed that the more I tried to lay this matter to rest, the more layers were uncovered.

“A test, then?” I said, voice near failing me, admitting even now I had been played, though to what ends I was not yet certain.

The dark head inclined. “Of course. To have reached any other conclusion would have been to fail.”

“And a test still.” I did not reach for the phial. “The price is now a piece of my soul. Win a second life, but walk the road alone.”

His eyes held mine, the stare of a cobra, unreadable, so damnably distant, as if I spoke to a shadow. But, with the instinctive skill of a merchant finding the middle ground in any bargain, I flicked a glance at the phial, and my tone implied far more than my words. “Tell me, Master Sinufre… is there enough in there for two?”

Now he smiled.

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B eautiful evening thickened over the great city. The Mirfaan, the cool breeze from the south, cooled the cloisters and streets, and the flames of sunset burned bright upon turquoise-tiled domes and cupolas. Mighty statues gestured in the late light which glimmered upon the languid river, as a funerary barge made its solemn way toward the far bank, disappearing symbolically into the sunglare, the stairway to heaven upon the waters.

A procession of wagons and palanquins waited to wend its way by torchlight to the necropolis on the Maroosh hills where the tomb was prepared. Caskets of lacquered wood would be placed with reverent care into sarcophagi of limestone and plaster, sealed forever, as the priests chanted hymns to sun and moon, fire and water, earth and air.

The route to the river docks had been lined with mourners, genuine rather than paid, and I was deeply touched. Perhaps Sinufre was right, and I had lived a life of benefit and example. To see so many weep openly for the passing of one who had stood for so much they honored was moving in the extreme. We had time to absorb these things, watching from the shadows of a palanquin as the barge receded, and knowing our children and the next two generations waited on the far side to escort coffins—unbeknownst to them, empty—to a final rest.

The weeks since we had contrived our passing—a drug to bring about sleep so deep a physician assumed the obvious—had been difficult, but Cassira and I were feeling better each day, having shared the contents of the phial. And the future was hardly short-changed, for, as much wisdom as I had ever possessed, she possessed more. Together we would be a force to be reckoned with, and though our family believed us dead we would never be beyond news of them. Filos, ever-faithful, would be our trusted go-between. Karamos, equally stout, guarded us in his silence, even now.

Truly, Zamalek is the City of the Evening, but day follows night. Our own winter had begun to turn, we sensed the first bud of spring in our step, the readiness of heart and breath, a strange and invigorating sensation of returning potential. Now we looked to the future with strange expectancy, and an impatience to be about life.

As the sun at last went below the far escarpments, I took Cassira’s hand, raised and kissed it, impatient for the day we no longer needed the contrivances of age. The bow, the sword, and the horse’s back beckoned from a year hence, and we knew the labors of time would be ours. Sinufre had introduced us to the Council of the Ages, and, when we had shrugged off the leaden coils of infirmity, we would take our place with them, to help shape a future of which we could never have dreamed, before the coming of the mendicant, the secret ways, and the miraculous potion of distant Jarmu.

Orbit-lrg

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Mike Adamson

Author image of Mike Adamson Mike Adamson holds a Doctoral degree from Flinders University of South Australia. After early aspirations in art and writing, he returned to study and secured qualifications in both marine biology and archaeology. He has been a university educator since 2006, has worked in the replication of convincing ancient fossils, is a passionate photographer, a master-level hobbyist, and a journalist for international magazines. Short fiction sales include to The Strand, Little Blue Marble, Weird Tales, Abyss and Apex, Daily Science Fiction, Compelling Science Fiction and Nature Futures. Mike has placed nearly 140 stories to date. You can catch up with his writing career at The View From the Keyboard.

© Mike Adamson 2021 All Rights Reserved.

The title picture was created using Creative Commons images - many thanks to the following creators: NGDPhotoworks and RitaE.

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