“Belisarius eventually returned to Italy, re-took Rome, then lost the city once more out of a lack of supply and support from his still-jealous Emperor. Justinian eventually replaced Belisarius with the aged and castrated Narses, who, with a proper number of properly supplied soldiers, advanced up through the Balkans and down the Italian peninsula to crush Totila and his Ostrogoths at the Battle of Taginae. Totila unwisely threw his cavalry into the jaws of the more-disciplined Romaioi army, and was killed in that battle. His successor Teia fell at the Romaioi victory of Mons Lactarius the following year, and, except for a brief revolt by a one Widin a few years later, the Ostrogoths were no more to history.
“As was, according to rumors, the City of Rome. My latest time on the lagoon was at an end, and I wished to see for myself the site of the ancient city which had been laid waste along with much of Italy during these Gothic Wars. Thus I ventured forth from my patio, riding alone across Romaioi-yet-desolate Italy, past burned-out farmhouses and villas, past untilled fields overgrown with weeds. Seven days after my departure I saw the Collis Quirinalis from a distance, and I wept for joy at seeing one of the Seven Hills.
“But my tears could have been tears of despair as I rode through the near-deserted city streets, my sword drawn against the scavenging wolves which trotted in and out of the abandoned buildings. My fellow travelers along the Via Flaminia, all of them walking in sparse intervals of pedestrian caravans, only nodded at me if they acknowledged me at all, the almighty sword in my hand commanding equal measures of fear and respect.
“And my despair did not abate when I finally reached the remaining inhabitants of Rome, clustered together in the heart of the ancient city. The aqueducts carrying water from the Appenninus lay unrepaired, and a small fraction of Rome’s former millions lived in squalor on the Campus Martius, the bend in the Tiber allowing them access to potable water by dipped amphorae and crude wooden pipes. I pulled my horse to a stop before the Pantheon, allowing him to take a shit before that abandoned and soot-coated temple to the Roman gods, my eyes dry of tears for the world of my antiquity.
“And those eyes turned to Mecca. I knew full well what was to come, and I had an overpowering yearning to exchange the old for the new. My inner pockets were filled with coin and jewels, and I made for Ostia to book passage on the next ship to Alexandria.
“With the recent Romaioi conquests in North Africa and Hispania, the Mediterranean was safer than it had been in generations, and I arrived in Egypt safe and sound. Down the Nile I sailed, then was oared the length of the Wadi Tumilat canal to the Gulf of Suways (yes, my friend, there was a canal across the Egyptian desert millennia ago). Then down the Red Sea I sailed, and all this time I was immersed in a constant study of Arabic under the tutelage of a Mecca native whose passages from Alexandria were payment for his services.
“The two of us, our guards, and the rest of that last ship’s passengers were deposited at Jidda, then only a fishing village, and by caravan on camels we completed the last leg of our journey to the trading center of Mecca. I had made a point of purchasing amber and furs in Alexandria and hiring those guards for the transport, and I accrued a tidy profit soon after arriving in the Meccan marketplace. The demand for my goods from the West (I was soon using my connections to import Italian wines) as well as my passable and improving Arabic protected me from charges of interloping, and I soon settled once again into the comfortable life of a merchant, starting a harem from slave girls captured during the tribal warfare endemic throughout the surrounding desert.
“But settle my eyes did not, for I knew that somewhere around me, at some nearby point in time, the Prophet was being born. I took many caravans to Medina and even Damascus, all the while keeping my eyes out for a particularly precocious boy.
“But the boy did not show himself to me, and I soon found the sand of my latest life slipping into the bottom of the hourglass. My harem was sent north into Syria along with their children and their freedom, and I sent myself into the desert. Ample provisions, water, and a sturdy copy of Saint Augustine filled my pack, and I found several cool caves in the Hejaz over the next thirty years. Many a meditation I undertook, reflecting upon my long life up to that point, and I walked with the calm patience of one who had an eternity more to live.
“I was on the road to Mecca to replenish my provisions one morning, under the guise of the hermit that I was, when I came across a middle-aged man lying in the middle of the road. His robe was a fine one, but he was covered from head to toe in dust and showed delirium when I spoke to him from my crouching position. I sat him up, gave him the last of my water, and asked where he was from. The man did not answer with ‘Mecca,’ but I knew instantly that was his home, for he started repeating again and again the name ‘Jibril,’ the name of the Archangel Gabriel.”
“By this time a generation had passed since my departure from Mecca as a retiring merchant, and I was able to walk the streets freely, inquiring as to the residence of the man whom I supported with an arm around a shoulder. I was told his address readily enough by the merchants setting up shop in the wee hours of the morning, and I deposited him at his doorstep with a knock upon the door’s fine wood and a scamper into the gathering daylight.
“My journey in the wilderness had been a long one, and I made sure my bath at one of the local hotels was lengthy as well. I had purchased a shave, haircut, new robe, and sandals in the marketplace that morning, and returned to the doorstep a new man. The personage who greeted me after a summons from the front door servant was not the man whom I had left on the stoop, but another middle-aged man, one who brusquely asked me what I wanted. I informed him that I was the one who had returned from the desert with the master of the house, and I wished to see how he was doing. The man beyond the doorway seemed to hesitate for a short eternity, then took a step aside before ushering me in.
“I was led to the bedchamber of my former charge, who was sitting up in bed, clean, shaven, and speaking excitedly to the rest of the household seated around him. He fell silent upon my entrance, and did not smile until I was introduced, but then showed his joy at my arrival.
“For my part, I fell to the foot of his bed and declared my belief that he was the prophet, and that I wished to convert to Islam. And, why I knew not, I started weeping, pressing my eyes against the bed’s linen cover.
“When I looked up once more, the master of the house and all the others were staring back at me, albeit the expression on the master’s visage was a gentle one. ‘Go back home; return to your roots,’ he told me, his hands flat on the legs beneath the linen. ‘Your spiritual wanderings will always lead you home.’”
“And so I departed that room and that house, still weeping, and desiring most to indeed return home to the roots of my long life. Fortunately, I was long on resources and short on obligations; I was able to return to my Venetian villa with great haste and little hassle.
“Unlike my previous returns to the island in the lagoon, a great deal had changed since my last departure. The Lombards had led a Germanic invasion of Italy several decades before, overrunning the northern part of the peninsula, establishing three dozen duchies, and driving more refugees than ever before onto the Venetian islands, which were still controlled by the Romaioi. The Easterners had built new ports in the lagoon, and my beloved Venetia had become a full-fledged city, complete with warehouses, taverns, and brothels.
“My villa at the center of the island remained unchanged, however, maintaining an eerie aloofness amongst the other villas springing up along the river. That sense of the separate was apparent from the moment I spotted my home from a new footbridge I had taken a detour to cross and inspect, and indeed my first conversation with the caretaker family confirmed that the taboo had become self-perpetuating.
“Feeling no need this time to help along that protective mystique which could help itself starting with my next departure, I threw open the doors of my newly-refurbished villa and fêted my new neighbors at the first opportunity. Mutton and fresh fish were grilled on spits along the beach in the light of torches ensconced at regular intervals, I talked up the local business leaders, and soon one of their daughters was married off to this handsome and wealthy stranger newly arrived on the island.
“But inherited wealth, even if inherited from my previous efforts, did not sit comfortably with me, and, after our honeymoon interval, I was soon looking for new ways to increase my riches. I eyed the Lombard kingdom beyond the lagoon as a vast market, eyed the Mediterranean as a road for my goods to that market, and soon was using my connections in Mecca and Alexandria to bring shiploads of silk and spices into the port of Malamocco.
“As you can imagine, I soon became fabulously wealthy, even accounting for the occasional loss of a ship. I sailed upon my own vessels to Alexandria and back, enduring seasickness in the Mediterranean proper and Paganian pirate attacks in the Adriaticum. I made sure that my sailors were well-fed at sea and well-paid on shore, and every crew of mine fended off the hazards of the maritime variety, at least, with ease.
“But the Paganians (Serbs so-named for their lack of Christianity) grew in power and daring at sea, and their assault upon Beneventum on the western coast of Italy, combined with a major defeat of the Romaioi by the Lombards the same year, convinced me that this brief interval of peace and prosperity was at an end. The last of my ships to drop anchor in the lagoon was cleared of its sold cargo, was loaded by a crew I had hand-picked to accompany me, and we set sail for Tripoli, for a new threat to my world had emerged upon the horizon.
“That threat was a new religion.”
“We set sail for the city of Tripoli (named after its Roman province of Tripolitania) because the city was being advanced upon by the Muslims. The armies of the Caliphs had poured forth on horseback from the Prophet Muhammad’s Arabia to spread their religion by the sword, and had created an empire stretching from Egypt through Syria to Persia in the process. Alexandria had been wrested from the Romaioi five years after they had been crushed in the Muslim victory of Yarmouk, and now Arab horsemen continued their advance into Cyrenaica against little resistance.
“I would like to tell you, my friend, that we landed ashore in Africa to storm the infidels in the fallen city of Barca, but, no, we dropped anchor in the safety of Tripoli harbor and waited for the next moonless night to attack the Arabs. Our first nocturnal assault, as was the second and every one thereafter, was a raid upon a fishing village full of modest goods which we thought best to withhold from the Muslim tax of jisya, and young women we thought best to rescue from the supposed lechery of their conquerors. The Exarch of Africa based in Carthage was willing to overlook our own lechery and greed, but I will not rule out the possibility that more than one Muslim saw their subsequent conquest of Tripoli and points west as revenge for our piratical incursions.
“Myself and my crew never had the opportunity to find out through direct contact, as we raised anchor and set sail the moment we heard of a large Arab army advancing west from Memphis. One last midnight raid on the way, and we sailed north for Constantinopolis, rounding the western end of Crete to avoid as many pirates of the Arab variety as we could.
“Ah, my friend, Constantinopolis! It had been centuries since I had last seen the City of Constantine (and then from without, with Alaric and his barbarian horde); the city was now swollen with refugees from the retiring fringes of its empire. One could let himself become lost in such a teeming metropolis, and I, who had spent far too much time on cramped ships with men under my command, most deliberately did so. My last ship from Venetia, the Fortune, was sold in the Harbor of Julian to the highest bidder, my surviving crew members were given generous severance packages, and one of the girls I had ‘rescued’ on our last raid willingly joined me in a modest flat off the Tavrou Foros.
“Yes, Constantinopolis was not only a growing city, it was the only growing city in an Empire whose general urban life was declining in the face of invasions, inflation, increased taxes, and the resulting desire of many urbanites to return to the simpler and safer farm life. I found myself in the only spot in the Western World enjoying a construction boom, and I thus decided to try my hand at the trade of architecture.
“I was well aware that clients would not want to sleep in homes designed by a man who until recently had been a glorified pirate, and I thus created a new identity for myself. I became a one ‘Callinicus,’ an architect by training and a refugee by accident from the Syrian city of Heliopolis, one of many urban centers which had recently fallen to the Muslims. And I secretly hired a retired master of the craft to teach me everything he knew, poring over the principles of construction and the mathematical concepts involved, in the light of oil lamps well into night after night after night.
“Soon I felt confident enough to seek out my first clients, middle class strivers building their first homes in the suburb of Blachemae which had recently been incorporated within the city’s walls. My modest villas did not crumble, and the sites of my creations began to advance deeper and deeper into the heart of the city. My latest concubine bore fruit, and soon I was living yet another life of quiet contentment, my brood often playing beneath my busy draft table.
“This life of mine might have ended quietly like the others, my person slipping off into a night to resume the mercenary existence, but this time it was not quite that simple. The Muslims threatened from the East, and I, who knew not if my original world’s history would repeat itself with my presence, knew not how fearful I should be, and therefore I was fearful indeed. I saw the unseeable storm clouds over the Bosporus, and pondered as to what I could do.
“After a quarter of a century the answer came to me, but came it did. A fire had started in my neighborhood, which by now was a fashionable quarter of residence befitting the modest wealth I thought it proper for an up-and-coming architect to display. The flames spread quickly until the fire brigade arrived with their multitude of buckets, and, even with the enlistment of the locals in a massive dousing, the firefighters’ arrival had not been soon enough to prevent the loss of several fine homes.
“It was as I helped pass buckets from the nearest well, the well water sloshing over my hands as random ambers flew past the waterline’s heads, it occurred to me that I, with my unique knowledge, had an answer to the Arab threat. I and the others completed the task at hand, saving the rest of the neighborhood and city from destruction, but I would not sleep that night, and not merely due to the lingering trauma of having watched my villa threatened by inferno. I retired to my drafting room in the middle of that stretch of darkness, and sketched out my plan in English on a single sheet of paper.
“I completed the projects I had already undertaken, refused more clients to the extreme consternation of the woman who had become my wife, then agonized her further by heading north out of the city on a mysterious expedition. My one concession to my family’s concerns and my own safety was a heavy armed guard, and we mounted warriors rode hard for the Danuvius river valley and the riches I knew it contained.
“My little riding party was large enough to dissuade the bandits which increased in number the closer we drew to the Imperial border that was the Danuvius, but our number was small enough so as to attract the attention of neither the Romaioi border guards nor their Avar foes directly across the river. Nonetheless, we turned back for Constantinopolis the moment we had filled several casks with the rich, black gold seeping out of the ground in many spots: oil.