Even that early in the day the sea was so crowded with skiffs, dromons, and dolphins you could have walked across the water as if on a bridge of pontoons. Sweet earthen myrrh wafted on the wind from the porphyry churches wrapped in purple clouds, and monastic chants soared into the sky along with the rattling of the steel semantrons.
Shutting my eyes, I felt as though I’d sprout feathered wings from my back, or transform into music, the reverberation of a golden cathedral gong, since this was the residence of the Roman Emperor, the direct successor to Augustus himself, candy for anyone with even the slightest interest in history.
I opened my eyes and gazed at the marble architecture, the alabaster statues whose gilded crowns of bright spreading sun rays wounded my eyes with red gashes, the walls that were like mountainsides bashed into straight lines and battlements, the golden gates that gleamed like embroidered damask.
My eyelids couldn’t have been wider. Have I strayed into a dream? I never question my purpose when I see such things, this feeling in me is the only proof I need that I was meant for discovering new worlds—not so new to seasoned travelers, but new enough to me.
Moses smiled. “When I look at you it’s like I’m seeing this place for the first time, though actually I’ve seen it many times now, and it’s become much more normal to me than it used to be. Enjoy the wonder while it lasts.”
I shook my head. “Can exploration ever become tedious?”
“In His Wisdom God made the world amazing at first glance,” Moses said, “though dull on repeated viewing. Had He consulted me on the matter, I would have recommended making it always amazing, always beautiful. I might also have told him that planting the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden was maybe not the best idea…”
“I don’t feel that way at all, uncle.”
“What, you think it was wise, leaving Adam and Eve alone with an unguarded fruit tree, after warning them not to touch it, which thereby guaranteed that they would in fact touch it the moment God was looking the other way?”
“Blasphemy,” Elesbaan said from the crow’s nest.
“It’s beneath you, captain, to think that God has eyes,” Khalid said. “For verily he is so unknowable he can only be defined in the negative. He has no hands, no face, no—”
“That’s real movin’,” John sniffed and wiped an invisible tear from his cheek. “you’ll get droves of converts talkin’ that way, you should go on up into that big church there and start talkin’ like that, I think I’m ready to switch sides myself.”
“The people here are hopeless idol-worshippers,” Khalid said. “Adorers of images and icons, they confuse mere ideas with God. But a time will come when one shows them the true way, and throws their false idols down, and shows them the truth: that you cannot define God.”
“The Hagarenes only gain converts by threatening them with death,” Elesbaan said. “Given a choice, the true of heart will always choose Jesus.”
I shook my head at Moses. “I meant that the world never stops being amazing. I can remember spending whole afternoons watching the clouds in the sky, the sun on the wall, the bees in the flowers. All day I would sit in the courtyard with a book in my lap and nothing to worry about, feeling a kind of peace I’ve never known since. Sometimes it seemed like Adam and Eve had never been thrown out of the garden at all.”
He sighed through his nose. “You never had to worry about earning your bread, not until you joined us, anyway.”
I turned to him. “I’m glad I did.”
He smiled pursed lips, and we returned to gazing at the city and its gilded rooftops.
“Easterners come here to trade silk and spice for western slaves,” Moses said. “It’s the capital of the Christian Empire, but just an appetizer compared to Sin. Still, you’d better bring your sword. The slave market can be a little rough.”