‘I beg you, My Lords, not to use Greek in public. If you must speak in front of others, Latin is safer. It may not be recognised. And please, at all times, stay close by me. Even those who live here can have trouble at night in these unlit streets. If you are separated from me, you will be lost in moments.’
We nodded at Macarius. Priscus had turned his nose straight up at the rather nice brothel I’d urged on him. It was the Egyptian quarter, he’d insisted, or nothing.
‘There’s a man who works out of a wine shop there,’ he’d said firmly. ‘He can see things, I’ve been told.’
So that was it. Priscus had suggested we invite Martin. Sure enough, he’d found ‘an important domestic matter,’ that would keep him in the Palace. I couldn’t blame him. Given half a chance, I’d have found one. Now, dressed in black, hoods pulled over, short swords hung out of sight, we waited for the Police Officer to unlock the side door by one of the gates into the Egyptian quarter.
‘Standing orders is we don’t go in there at night for nothing,’ he said with a nervous look.
‘I don’t think we shall have need of assistance,’ I said, trying to sound less edgy than I felt. We stepped through into the darkness. The smell was something everyone in the Greek centre of Alexandria experienced once or twice a month. It was a clinging miasma that drifted over us like smoke from a bonfire whenever the wind blew from the west. It was of uncleared and rotten waste of every sort, of unwashed humanity packed in too closely together, of poverty and hunger and despair, and sometimes too of pestilence. Then it was the time for incense and scented clothes and, for those who could afford it, of height.
But this was an experience always had from a distance. Nothing – not the poor districts of Constantinople, nor even most of Rome – had prepared me for the nearly solid horror of that smell at close quarters. I fought off an urge to gag as the door closed behind us. I pulled open my pot of scent and dabbed some on my sleeve.
‘But this is glorious!’ said Priscus in Latin. He breathed deeply in. ‘How could you possibly have wanted to keep me away?,’ I suppose it reminded him of that warren of torture chambers he’d presided over in the last days of Phocas. His voice almost dripped with anticipatory joy. He stepped towards Macarius. There was thin cloud in the sky now, and this shut off much of the moonlight. Even so, once my eyes had got used to the gloom, it was easy enough to see the main outlines of things.
‘My Lord, are you quite sure of where you want to go?,’ Macarius asked, a dubious tone to his voice. ‘Even in the Egyptian quarter, the man presides over an illegal gathering.’
‘Don’t be stupid,’ Priscus snapped. ‘We are the law – aren’t we Alaric?,’ I made no reply. There was no reply to be made. I followed close as Macarius led us though those disgusting streets. He’d been right about their darkness and confusion. How it was he didn’t get lost himself was a mystery. We weren’t alone. All around us, dark shapes flitted. Sometimes, they passed quickly by. Sometimes, they’d stop for whispered conversations in an Egyptian so rasped and darting, it almost chilled the blood.
We came once into a little opening in the streets that was lit with a central bonfire. Men sat around it, talking softly and drinking the local beer. They looked up and watched as we crossed the opening. I made sure not to look straight at them, but could see from the corners of my eyes how they looked at us. Small, wiry men of the sort you saw hanging round the palaces and houses of the rich in wait of the food to be thrown out, they looked up to no good at all. They nudged each other and pointed at us. A couple of them got noiselessly up and seemed set to follow us back into the dark labyrinth of the streets.
But we were all three of us armed. Given the sort of weapons Macarius had insisted we put on, you don’t worry about the attentions of slum trash like that. And there must have been something about our manner that said ‘armed and dangerous: don’t get involved‘. The men sat down again and went back to whatever our appearance had disturbed.
‘Isn’t it just marvellous how our feet sink into this filth?,’ Priscus asked exultantly out of the darkness once we were alone again. ‘Everything about this is just – just so very perfect, don’t you think, Alaric dear?’
‘Your tastes never fail to surprise me,’ I snapped back at him. I was glad of my closed boots. They’d be a gift for the poor once I was back in the Palace. For the moment, I wished they’d stretched an inch higher up my legs. I went back to thinking about Leontius and his documents, and of what he had in mind for me. Getting me south for a few days under his control, was what he’d said he wanted. He’d use me as a hunting dog, he’d said. Beside this, the land law was nothing much. What was going on? I’d got back to the Palace too late to call for Macarius. Now, it was most provoking that he was a couple of feet in front of me, and I had no chance of speaking with him.
‘This is the place, My Lords,’ Macarius said. We were outside a low building that seemed to go back a long way. Its windows were shuttered, its heavy door closed. For the first time since the door into this slum had closed behind us, I felt a stab of optimism. Perhaps there was no one here, and we could go back for a change of clothing. If we hurried there, we might still get to that brothel in time for the dancing cripples.
But Macarius was rapping some pattern of knocks on the door, and I could hear a shuffling and scraping on the other side. He pulled out a purse and turned back to us.
‘Remember what I said about the use of Greek,’ he urged. ‘It is a hated tongue among the natives. If I believe it necessary, I will tell you in Latin that we must leave. If I do find it necessary, I beg you to do as I ask.’
The single lamp the doorman carried told me we were in a longish corridor. Though old and split in places, the doors leading off were of surprisingly good make. The place must in the old days have been part of some fairly grand residence. Now, if possible, it stank still worse than the streets. It was all the usual smells, but concentrated and joined with something aromatic and still more foul. Again, Macarius spoke softly with the doorman. Another coin changed hands, and a door around a bend in the corridor was pulled open.
It was almost like stepping into one of those fogs Constantinople has in the autumn. I say ‘almost,’ because it was worse. It was a cloud of steam made dark and oily from the many lamps in the room, and foul beyond any description I can attempt. A beggar’s crotch at two inches would have been more salubrious. I rubbed my eyes and spluttered, and reached again for my pot of scent.
As my eyes adjusted, I could see we were in a large room. An oblong of about twenty by perhaps sixty feet, it had neither opening in its low ceiling nor any windows. It was hard to tell from the carpet of filth, but the floor seemed to be of crumbled brick.
The steam was coming from a low table to my right. Packed tight together, about a dozen men sat round it. Each with his neighbour shared a small bowl of liquid that was kept bubbling by the sort of charcoal burner used in better establishments for keeping depilatories soft. As one sat upright, the other would hunch over the pot and breathe in his share of the steam. The continual up and down motions, and the low chorus of pleasured moans, had a soporific quality even to watch.
I heard the door close behind me. I pulled my eyes away from the table and reached inside my cloak. Macarius genty touched my arm.
‘That will not be needed, My Lord,’ he whispered in Latin. ‘I know the doorman’s cousin. You are in no danger here.’ I relaxed. Once we’d turned left and were moving deeper into the room, I saw another of the druggies. He’d fallen away from his place at the table, and sat on the floor, his back against one of the brick pillars that held up the ceiling. I looked at him. His clothing had gathered around his waist, showing the hard, throbbing erection. What was left of his lower face hung in folds, the saliva glistening on blackened teeth as he groaned from the long, continuous orgasm the drug had finally brought on.
‘A mixture of Carthaginian berries and some of the metallic poisons,’ Priscus said learnedly. ‘Never tried it myself, though – all else aside, I’m told it can produce spontaneous castrations.’
A pity his father had never tried it, I thought. This was the last thing I’d imagined for the evening entertainment. I needed to get Macarius in private to discuss how to get most effectively hold of Leontius. Instead, I was stuck in some low drug den full of wogs and with Priscus for company.
To be fair, this wasn’t just a place for getting doped. If it was hard to see anything approaching revelry, or even modest cheer, there were little groups of drinkers sat on the floor or around other tables. Some of them even played, though at best with desultory interest, at throwing dice and moving stones about within the squared patterns chalked on the tables. Most of them sat silent, but for the rattle of dice. If any did speak, it was in the hushed tones you hear from a congregation in church.
Over in the furthest corner of the room, there was something approaching action. A small audience surrounding him, an old man sat beside a brazier. From the abstracted look on his face, and the uncertain motion of the food towards his face, it was obvious he was blind. A girl sat beside him, every so often arranging the food on his dish. The strong resemblance told me she was his daughter or granddaughter. Except she was dirty enough to have stuck to the wall, she wasn’t that bad looking.
‘The man My Lord would question is here,’ Macarius said to Priscus. He led us forward. We skirted the audience. No one looked up at us. Macarius took up two little chairs and arranged them, backs to the wall. Priscus and I sat carefully down. I sniffed at the cup that someone pressed into my hands.
‘You may be assured,’ said Macarius, ‘it is just the free distribution wine.’ Doubtless whoever had pissed this stuff out was drunk at the time. There the resemblance to wine ended, though. I put the cup down and looked at the act that was now making a start. The girl got up and scratched herself. As the old man finished coughing his lungs into the brazier, she struck up what sounded a bored patter she’d had by heart since she was a child.
‘She says,’ Macarius explained, his face close to Priscus, ‘that the Ancient One can see all with the eyes of his mind – all that is past or future or far away. He can also communicate with the dead, and even with the yet unborn. You have only to ask in order to learn the secrets of the world.’
‘As if, with that sort of power,’ I sniffed, ‘I’d be showing off in this shithole.’
‘Quiet, you fool!’ Priscus hissed at me. ‘You’ll spoil everything.’ He went back to looking intently at the Ancient One – who, bearing in mind how fast the lower classes grow old, might easily have been younger than he was. He swallowed another mouthful of the wine.
Someone who was sitting with his back to us had asked an involved question. In response, the Ancient One was muttering low towards into the brazier while the girl relayed him in words that may have made a little more sense. Whatever the case, the questioner raised his arms in astonishment. He opened his purse and showed two silver coins. There was an appreciative hum from the rest of the audience. Someone else now asked a question. This time, money had to change hands before the stream of gibberish would start again.
Priscus touched Macarius on the shoulder.
‘I want to know,’ he said, speaking hoarsely, ‘the whereabouts of a most holy relic. It is the first chamber pot of,’ –
‘Oh Priscus!’ I called softly. ‘My dear Priscus. I’ve thought you capable of most things, but never imagined you’d be taken in by this sort of shite.
‘No, listen,’ I went on, ignoring the outraged look he threw me. ‘This is all just a fraud. The first question was a plant. It was there to set the tariff for whatever nonsense dribbles out of the old fool’s mouth. Let’s have a demonstration.
I glanced round the smoky room. Priscus now had a sulky look on his face. Macarius looked worried. No one else, however, was paying any attention. The Ancient One was still babbling away into his brazier, while the girl babbled something different at her own speed.
‘Macarius,’ I said, ‘tell them we want information about King Chosroes of Persia.’ As he put the question, several people now turned round to look at the seated strangers. I doubted if anyone here knew Latin or what it represented. Still, I dropped my voice lower.
‘Ask what Chosroes is doing at the moment.
The answer came back that he was at dinner. An obvious answer – though surely a false one, bearing in mind Ctesiphon was far enough to the east for the evening to be much more advanced. But I overlooked this. I’d set up the line of questioning.
‘Is the King a short man,’ I asked, ‘or a very tall man with a crippled foot?’
Came the answer: he was the latter. I smiled.
‘Is he a man with white hair or with red hair?’
Came the answer: he was the former.
‘Has he one eye or two?’
Came the answer: he had one.
‘See, Priscus,’ I said, trying hard to keep my voice low and suppress the note of triumph, ‘see what garbage a few leading questions can produce. You’ve seen the pictures of Chosroes, just as I have.
‘Shall we ask if Heraclius has three heads of five? Or how many teeth you have left?’ Priscus threw himself out of the chair and swore viciously. Macarius stepped back out of his path.
‘I think we’ve seen enough here tonight,’ I said, keeping my voice neutral. Seeing Priscus angry and baffled wasn’t worth the unpleasantness of this evening. But it was some kind of offset. ‘You must let me take you somewhere much more interesting for dinner.’ I’d allow myself a good snigger once back in the darkness of the streets.
We got up to leave. If I’d got a few looks while having my questions put, we were now forgotten. No one looked at us. The girl was emphasising the Ancient One’s latest answer by hopping up and down on one leg and flapping her arms like a bird. As we reached the door, I heard a rustling and a commotion behind me.
‘Wait!’ a voice called in Greek. ‘Do not depart this place.’ It was a loud, strangely impersonal voice – for all the world as if someone were speaking at a thin sheet of metal hung up before his face. It silenced the low buzz of conversation and clatter of dice. Even the druggies left off their bobbing and moaning.