Part 2. Arrest and Judgment in the Sharia Zone

 

First, if you haven’t already done so, read part one . If you’re too impatient to do that, most of this will still make sense, but go back and read it some time.

 

**A couple of weeks later.  The characters have now crossed the border into Qodra, the first foreign country on their journey, and have made their way through an area that is mostly inhabited by polytheistic people.  On the way, they were extorted by a border official for some semi-precious stones they were carrying, and later on, they were robbed at sword-point, though they managed to hide a few valuable stones.  The first part of the story here, about gun-smuggling and the smuggler’s family, is important to the developing Islamic-zone theme. **

Story begins 

We clopped smartly along to the border, since the day was getting late.  It was a controlled border, as Arumkhashari had said, and we could see the border posts looming from half a kilometre away.  They were the usual roadside shacks with bearded, robed gentlemen tapping their hands on the hilts of their swords and gazing at the black vultures circling overhead.  All they could do was stand there, and the traffic level was low today.  It turned out that today had been designated jumaa, the Friday day of Muslim prayer, even though it was Tuesday in our system.  We could see, though, that the guards put considerable effort into searching wagons and saddlebags, sometimes even piling materials beside the road.  We already had enough information to know why.  Besides the items that were banned in the Sharia law areas, there was also whatever the emperor had decided to tax as it went into the area.  Arumkhashari had mentioned gold, which is something that can be smuggled in small pieces.  You’re not going to find someone hauling a wagonload of ingots.

“I’m concerned about the Khashakhr,” Eleya said.  “If they decided to take an interest in that, I can’t begin to predict where it would lead.”  She had the gun on her garter holster under her robe, but as we drew closer, we could see people being patted down.  There was even a female guard on hand to prevent women from serving as smuggling-mules.

“Possibly they wouldn’t recognize it,” I ventured.

“They might demand an explanation.  What would we say it was?  A candleholder?  We might even get a bright one who could look it over and see it was a mechanism.  Or in theory we could get someone who knew exactly what it was.  Not good.”

We stopped along the roadside and made a little fire out of stray twigs to cook some afternoon tea while we thought about it.  In no time, we found ourselves with company – a very dirty, very skinny boy about the size and age of Xerri Semet.

“Want something smuggled over the border, lords?  I can do it for you, just two emanzallis apiece.”  An emanzalli was the smallest denomination of coin in this area – a tenth part of the full imperial coin, the ishukhnidi.

The boy had moved rapidly from the shrubs bordering the next farm in order to reach us and was now squatting between our fire and Xus, making himself as small as possible and using Xus’s body as a visual shield from the border post.  I suppose a lot of people stop to contemplate the border and take mental inventory, so he had a good location here.

“I’m Yithythyth,” Yith said.  “What’s your name?”

The boy frowned deeply.  “I was just joking, I’m only here to ask for a cup of tea,” he said.  “Your name is … weird.”

We gave him a cup of tea.

“My name is from another area, but we are friends of this area” Yith explained vaguely.  “Too bad you were only joking.  It was an interesting joke.  More interesting than funny.”

The boy forgot his ruse instantly.

“There’s an irrigation system two fields away that’s a qanat – it’s built underground to shield the water from the sun.  The water is low now; we can wade in it.  I’m small enough to go through without crawling.  The guards don’t see us.  One knows and he makes sure the others don’t see.  On the other side, I give you your belonging.  You give me one emanzalli first and on the other side I take the other.  The guard we know takes one of the two at the end of the day.  Yes?”

“We’ll discuss,” Yith said.  “Have some dried apricots.”

The boy ate ravenously for four or five apricots, then slowed down.

“Have ten more,” Yith said, in case he was being polite.  The ten disappeared as if a ray gun had vaporized them.

“I suppose he ought not to eat all of them or he’d have a little attack later,” Yith said to us in our language.  He gave the boy a good-sized hunk of our breakfast bread from the last town.  It was clearly much appreciated.

“Lords, you are too good,” the boy said.  “I wish your good health forever.”

He munched awhile and didn’t leave himself any speaking capacity.  When the bread pulp cleared out of his cheeks, he had a brilliant idea.

“Lords, you can give me four emanzallis, two for Shawushka {a goddess in the local polytheistic religion – a hermaphroditic goddess associated with fertility, sex and intersexuality. Known by the same name on Earth – qv Google.}.”

Yith translated this and said, “I think he’s pegged us as religious, rich, or both.”

“OK, four,” Yith told him, “three for you.”

“Oh no,” said the boy, with his eyes wide.  “I have to give half to the guard!  He might check!”

I didn’t want to know what would happen if the guard found the accounting had been jigged.

Just around then, another little boy face appeared in the shrubs beside our fire.

“I’m here!” our boy hissed territorially.  The face disappeared again.

“You haven’t told me your name yet,” Yith said.  “We should do this as friends.”

The boy was clearly reluctant, but he mumbled it out: “Tekhub-shenni.”

“How many sibs do you have,” Yith inquired.

“Seven,” the boy said.  “I’m number four of eight.”  It seemed like he’d said this many times before.

“His name means “a brother has arrived,” our translator told us.  “A brother, I would say, who’s scratching to survive.”

We talked a little.

“Give him the gun without the clip,” Eleya suggested.  “If we never get it back, at least we’ll know it’s non-functional, and probably uninterpretable.”

We discussed how we could explain the various parts of the disassembled gun if we were challenged about them.  Eleya pulled the black object out of her holster and put the holster in her saddlebag.  She conspicuously took the box magazine out and gave Yith only the main body.

“Smuggle this for us,” Yith said quietly, “two coins before and two after.”  He paid out the two before.  “It mustn’t get wet.”

“What is it?  It’s heavy!” the boy whispered.

“A kind of spice grinder,” Yith told him.  He clicked the trigger and showed the boy the movement of the hammer.  “It’s a secret new invention.  I don’t want to explain how the whole thing works.  We will sell many before anyone discovers the secret.  It only works when it has the seed canister we just took out, so it’s useless the way you have it.  But this is the part we don’t want to explain to the guards.”

The boy clicked the trigger again and moved the top slider back and forth.

“Wow,” he said, “I never saw anything like that!”  He cogitated away.

“I think he’s very bright,” Yith said.  “He’d grow up to be an engineer if he were with us.”

“Or maybe a Communicator,” I joked.

“Anything is possible,” Yith responded.  He patted my waist, and I responded by patting his butt – which also caused the boy’s eyes to widen remarkably.  But the boy refrained from commenting.

“OK,” said the boy.  “When are you crossing?”

“Right now,” we said.   We extinguished the fire with a little water and a lot of stomping.

“Shawushka be with you,” the boy said.

“And you,” Yith responded.  The boy scampered through shrubs into the nearby ditch, and hunkered along out of sight.  His robe was in tatters from all the bush-crawling.  Somewhere in its folds was our Khashakhr.

“That’s the boy your crewmates wanted us to adopt,” I said to Yith.  “But you know how it is.  He probably loves his family heart and soul.  Poor as he is, he wouldn’t go anywhere without them.”

“My heart goes with him,” Yith said.

We trotted casually up to the border and were very thoroughly searched.

“What are these?” the guard asked us about our bag of ammunition.

“Jewelry,” Yith told him.  “We pierce them and make them into necklaces, like giant teeth.  They look fierce.  But the market where they are popular is further up the coast.  Not here.”

The guard even flipped through our colour photocopy of the Jeiuyng Yeddtloi manuscript.

“Religious?” he asked.

“No, poetry,” Yith said on our behalf.

The guard snorted and quoted us a hadith, a saying of the Prophet.

“Ibn Umar tells us the Prophet said, ‘It is better for a man to fill the inside of his body with pus than to fill it with poetry.’  But it is not forbidden.  I am sorry I touched it,” he said, handing it back.  He poured some water from a canister over his hands and shook the water off into the dust.

“What religion are you?” he asked.  “Idol-worshipper?”

“Christian,” Yith answered.

“Surtax four ishukhnidis,” the guard said.  It was steep, but we paid up.

And in we went.  Eleya had pulled up her hood and had received firm instruction not to take it off in public.  As we went into the Sharia zone, there was a billboard painted in cuneiform and classical Arabic with a long list of regulations.  The bottom was broken off the sign and some regulations were missing, but we read the ones that were there.

“Women must not sell items in the market without being accompanied by a male relative,” Eleya repeated, shaking her head.  Yith had just given her the translation.

“That’s somewhat liberal,” I told her.  “On Earth there were places where women weren’t even allowed to appear in any public place without a male relative.”

“Unbelievable,” she said.  “Not that I don’t believe you.  The mind balks.”

“Doesn’t it just.  But not everywhere,” I said.  “Obviously, they’re going for that sort of thing around here.”

“I see the point of this whole ‘perspective’ exercise way too clearly.  I love Diyyana!  Yaaay, Diyyana!   Just get me back there a.s.a.p.!  Right, Xussi’k!?”

“I’m ashamed of myself,” he said.  “What a whiny kid I was.   But I’ve known that a long time.  This is really overkill.”

Deiyah, it’s inexplicable you could be so tough on this boy {Deiyah is the official who ordered Xus out of the country temporarily}.  Though, realistically, all that’s happened so far is that he’s had to scare some guys and his khandsh {partner} has had to wear a hood.   Maybe it’s not so bad.  Let’s be a little flexible here.  My cheek was healing nicely.  It would have a scar, though.

We had no sooner trotted past the first good-sized clump of bushes when our little courier appeared by the roadside, out of breath.  He handed us the gun.  We paid the ishukhnidi cents.

“We like you,” Yith told him, “we see you’re very intelligent.  I hope you go to school.”

“Maybe I can if we get rich,” the boy said wistfully.  “We’re not Ishmÿailokhei [Ishmaelite = Arab or Muslim] so we can’t go to their free schools and learn their vine writing.  We have to pay for our own schools.  But my family has no money.”

He looked us over and pointed at me.  His thin, curiously leathery, tanned face went through a series of subtle grimaces.

“He can worship Shawushka with me for twenty silver,” he said, twisting one leg over the other as he stood.

The goddess of sexuality.  It didn’t take us forever to figure that one out.  I guess patting Yith’s friendly bits made me seem like a potentially devout person, so to speak.

“Despite what we said about Dodge City back there, something tells me we’re not in Kansas any more,” Eleya said, with a mighty headshake that rocked her shoulders.

“We serve another God, and that one wants you to preserve your closeness for the one you most want to share it with,” I told the boy, and Yith faithfully translated that for me.

And then, though it was a big sacrifice given the size of our reserves, but I counted out twenty ishukhnidis for him anyways.

“These are in honour of the god Yahwveih and his son Yeshuÿa, who both want you to guard your pride and your honour for yourself, no matter how poor you are,” I said.

And yes, I used the ‘real’ pronunciation of Jesus’s name there.  As it was in the days when people talked to him at home in Nazareth.  That’s right, believe it or not: it’s a word that’s completely unpronounceable to English-speaking people, lol.  It has that strangulated ‘a’ sound in it, which I already told you the Arabic for.  In Hebrew, it’s the ‘ayin,’ ע.  Good thing for us that the Greeks renamed the lad.  Anyways, there was no reason to be inaccurate here in the Sharia zone.  Maybe the Communicator language was over my head, or over my tongue, but I took pride in pronouncing the name of my saviour in the most kosher way.  Silly, means nothing, he doesn’t care, but I guess I’ve developed a taste for cultural diversity.  I’m a convert to being non-English.

There were tears in the eyes of little Tekhub-shenni.  “You are very strange people,” he said, shaking his head, “but my heart soars to know you.  Will you stay here long?”

“We have a long way to go and we travel every day,” I said, “I wish we could take you along, but I know you love your family, and you must be a treasure to them.”

“My father cares very little for us,” the boy said, “but my mother is like a rose inlaid in rubies on a cup of gold.”

“And you’ll share this with her,” I pointed to the coins.

“She will have all!” the boy said fiercely.  “Hold them for me and I will pay my guard, since it’s the end of the day anyways.”  He handed back the coins and ran off into the preliminary dusky shadows along the road.  We chilled and chatted, and in due course, he was back.

“You are Christian,” he said.  “I recognized the name of your god.  Tomorrow early I’ll take you to one of your own.  Come to my house tonight!”

That would certainly solve the problem of where on non-Earth we would go for the evening.  We needed a place a little more friendly than the Ravine of Robbery last night.  But really.

“We couldn’t impose on your mother!  We have only a bit of bread and we can’t deprive your sibs of their dinner,” Eleya dictated.  Yith put the word through.

“With one of these twenty, we can all feast for a week.  A neighbour will loan us some food for sojourners.”

The boy had used a term from formal politeness, and I thought we should stick to the formulas ourselves.

“We’re sure it’s too much trouble for your hardworking parents.”

“Come,” the boy said, “you know I wouldn’t give my mom trouble.  She will be happy to serve our gods by giving you our hospitality.  And maybe yours too.”

“Tekhub-shenni, because of your virtue, we will come,” Yith said.  His chip {his built-in language hardware} seemed to be full of local formulas of politeness, not just raw words.   The flowery wording in this case was more appropriate than anything natural any of us would have come up with.

Tekhub-shenni’s house was a one-roomer, reminiscent of a large square igloo or yurt in general layout, but built with pine wood all around and thatched above with bundles of streamside reed.  Everyone clearly slept in the one room.  There was a small hearth on one side made of brickwork – it had the luxury of an iron rod for hanging cooking pots over the fire.  There was also an outdoor fireplace where a lot of the cooking was probably done, given the semi-dry mediterranean climate, and an outhouse that was in indescribably deplorable condition even for a place that featured only a floor hole and no seat.  If Eleya ever writes her memoir, I’m sure you’ll see a description of it, but it’s indescribable here.

As we came into the house, the whole deuheiktan {array} of youngsters was there – and I’ve never used that word to describe a family before, but they seemed to flesh out most of the range of imaginable possibilities.

“Mom, mom, I brought some travelers with me because they’re very good people and they gave me twenty in honour of their god.”

“What?  Tekhub-shenni, you didn’t!”  She glowered at us with her eyes popping.  “You didn’t do that again, did you?”

“No, no, no!” he exclaimed, tearing up slightly.  “They just talked about me going to school and then they said their god wanted me to have twenty.”

It wasn’t a completely accurate story, but it would do.

“Can we invite them for dinner?  I can take one and go to Iftikhar to get some lamb.  And Agib-shenni would give us some eggplant from her garden and … and, I think I could get some oil.”

His mother turned to us.  “We have very little to offer but this is a hospitable house and I want my children to know the traditions of generosity.  I trust that you will honour this and not take advantage; apologies that I must ask, because it seems you’ve already been very generous to me.”

She was looking at Xus and Eleya and was startled when Yith piped up as our spokesperson.  “My friends don’t speak the Khurrokhei language and I’ll translate for them.  We’re from far to the east [he didn’t want to mention our ‘land of plagues’ by name], here to trade some goods, though many of them were stolen from us yesterday.”

“Alas,” she sympathised as Yith went on speaking.

“We were just planning to stay in this area for one evening and it was a surprise to us that your son invited us to sojourn here.  We have heard about the hospitality traditions of your people, though, so we can accept his invitation and contribute to our upkeep with the coins we gave him.  That is, we can do it provided there is someplace we can exchange an emanzalli or two for feed for our horses, and a place they can drink and stay safely.  That is our only request, except that you must inform us if anything we do offends you or seems discourteous.”

“Pashshib-Kumarbi my eldest can go with you to get horse fodder in the next street, and help with the other things your animals need,” the woman said.  A tall, dark-haired boy of about 18 nodded neutrally.  “He’s very shy so don’t worry if he says very little.”  The boy turned disproportionately red.

“Shyness can be the gift of sheltering new perfections,” Yith said, catching the boy by surprise and getting a look that traced a slight sketch of amazement over the beginnings of a smile.  It was as neat a disinjunction as I’ve ever heard, and I wondered if Yith had come up with it on the spot or if it was some sort of a Communicator saying.  I never did find out.

“Maybe so,” said the woman with a half-smile of her own.  You could see she was a little weary with the effort of perfecting such a large troop.

“I hope you have bed-roll of your own, because we lack extra bedding for so many.  But we can find space on the floor, especially since I expect my husband won’t be here.  Go, go, Shennakka, buy the lamb before it gets too dark.”

This was addressed to little Tekhub-shenni, obviously by his nickname.  He scooted out of the house after depositing nineteen of the coins in his mother’s hand.  She had an apron-like protector over her homespun, off-white robe and she stashed the coins in a pocket on its underside.

Yith, meanwhile, had brought us up to speed.

“I’ll go with the shy one to get the feed,” Xus offered.  “He won’t have to talk to me, and I’ll enjoy the excursion.”

“Ask her if I can help out in some way,” Eleya said.

Yith arranged all that and Xus went off.  Eleya was given some olives to chop up into slices for the eggplant recipe, which also involved a few small dried fish and some plum tomatoes from Tekhub-shenni’s mom’s little garden patch just outside.

Yith finally introduced himself and myself.  Tekhub-shenni’s mom introduced herself as Zilib-Shawushka.  She repeated our names carefully but didn’t make an issue of their strangeness.  Mind you, this must be a diverse neighbourhood.  The butcher had an Arabic name, Iftikhar, and he clearly lived or worked very close by.

“I am sorry, lords, but may I ask you.  I love my son and he is hard to take care of.  Did he say anything to you about worshipping Shawushka?”

“I don’t want to get our kind host into trouble,” Yith said gently.  That communicated the essential information right there.

“I will just have a talk with him in general, don’t worry.  Ach!!  It was one of those guards that put that idea in his mind, I think, though there may be other people.  That’s the problem with kids – you have to let them out into the world and then they can get into all kinds of things that you can’t do anything about – except you can punish them or have a talk with them.  But that’s only if you can catch them or find a good clue – and how often does that happen?  I don’t know how any of us survive, but we do.”

You should have seen the big cities near my home town, I thought.  Kids there didn’t get out into the world at all – they just got put in the SUV and shunted from one mousecage to another.  The automobile allowed the formation of the perfect child police state – albeit a benevolent one in most cases.  Imagine being able to bottle up a force of nature like the roaming boy.

“There’s nothing in the worship of our Shawushka that allows such a thing.  Yes, in cities outside this Sharia zone, our goddess can be worshipped with sacred acts of sexual ecstasy in her temple, but she has her own consecrated angels for that.  Here they are banned.  And that ban is partly because her temples always have a riff-raff of people trying to work as unofficial angels of worship, including people who are starving, or children who are being exploited by some beast, or people who are possessed by disturbed spirits [which we gleaned meant people with mental problems or extreme eccentricity], or people who have no self-respect, or people who truly wish to be angels of sex but who can’t take the discipline of the temples.  I don’t want my son to be one of those.  If he was touched already by Shawushka to become an angel, we would have known it by now and he would be studying under her priests.  But he’s a practical boy who can build and invent and make schemes – he’s a shopkeeper or a wagon maker.  He feels so responsible for feeding us that he tried this terrible thing – then at first he said ‘it only tickles’ but later he said ‘it put a shadow against my heart,’ and he almost promised not to do it again.  I tried to get a full vow from him but he ran out.  That was many days ago now.  It is really the fault of … oh well, listen to me talk on and on.  I’m being a bad hostess, please, relax on that cushion there, I will bring you tea.”

“He’s a good boy,” Yith said, as we took up her offer.  “Maybe his thinking gets a little ahead of his knowledge.  His father must be proud of him.”

This was deliberately provocative, because we knew what he’d said about his father.  The father’s absence hung heavily over the room, which was almost nostalgically empty.  The kids had mostly gone into the yard, where it was cooler, to sit on logs and slapped-together benches and chatter with each other.  Yith tells me they had some word-games they liked to play, including one where they simply conjugated words in their own language through a series of situations.  Apparently putting something together like “studs for the collars of the dogs of the king’s wives” was a formidable challenge.  You wonder how people invented these elegantly complicated languages like sQodravtse, Latin, Russian and Hungarian in the first place:  it was bored families sitting around with nothing else to do, in my opinion.  The original scholars.  Cultural enrichment through having neurons that refuse to quit.  Human creativity just keeps on embroidering the language until it’s an abstract starburst of amazing grammar, a game that has enough difficulty levels to last a lifetime.

The above digression didn’t drown out Zilib-Shawushka, who spent the whole time pondering while cleaning off a chopping block.

Finally she came right out with it, even though a young girl remained in the room, dressing a makeshift doll carved in wood.  “His father hardly bothers.  He prefers his half-sister to me and has another family there.  There, there is much more money.  But he can’t marry her in this Sharia zone, and anyways, she is officially married to an old man who has no potency.  So I and my family are my husband’s cover, you could say, and his neglected hobby that became too much work.  His kennel of underfed dogs when he is bored with his racehorses.  If the authorities found out, he would be arrested, but no one in our community would give the Sharia authorities the satisfaction of beating one of us for a thing like this.   Anyways, as little use as he is to Tekhub-shenni and his sibs, he is more useful with his skin on than with it whipped off.”

“Tekhub-shenni adores you,” Yith said, tangentially.  “He said, ‘my mother is like a rose inlaid in rubies on a cup of gold.’”

“Did he?” she said, and gave out a smile that looked like it was surprised to be born in this world.  “I can work for two years on the pay of that compliment, and very likely longer.  He’s my boy.”

“He certainly is.”

The boy in question pitty-patted back in with the extra food supplies, well out of breath and reddened from his high-speed courier service.

The dinner was absolutely delicious, and we heard many times from one kid or another that there hadn’t been a meal like that in the house for a long time.  After dinner, many of them felt compelled to help out their overeating with some digestion-abetting sleep, and very soon there was a whole room full of dozing forms, variously sized.  Tekhub-shenni gamely stayed awake to be a good host, and showed Yith his favourite constructions on the cat’s cradle, a game that’s played by making designs in string held up between the fingers of both hands.

“Scientists on Earth found that this game relies on math skills,” Yith said to me in an aside, “because you have to imagine constructing things going through different geometric positions in three dimensions.  Let’s try our boy out.”

“I’ll show you something that’s like magic, only better,” Yith said to Tekhub-shenni.  Then he drew a triangle on the earthen floor with his finger, and explained Pythagoras’s theorem to him.  It turned out the boy had learned Arabic numerals from local shop signs – not the numerals that English speaking people call Arabic, but the slightly different ones used in countries that write in Arabic-style scripts.  This made the explanation easy, but the boy was still very intrigued.

“You see that?” Yith said to me, “a lot of boys his age would be asleep or looking for something to jump up and down on by now.”

“I found it moderately interesting when I learned it at the ripe old age of thirteen or whatever it was,” I said.  “But you wouldn’t have become my favourite uncle by showing it to me at age nine.”

Maybe this was a just a mathematical family, though, somewhere under the unwashed grime – because an 11-year-old sister came along and demanded to have the figure re-explained.  After that, she joined in rather competitively and made sure she saw everything else Yith’s magic finger could unspool from the coil of underlying realities.  Yith got into pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, and the formulas involved in calculating the circumference and the area of a circle.  Then he taught the square root of two, just to show there was another irrational number.  Tekhub-shenni was thrilled.  The universe had opened up its vault of secrets to him, and he had seen the gold-flakes of numerical madness that could be sifted out of simple things like circles and pairs.  By this time, Xus and Eleya had long since spread out their sleeping sheets and threaded in among the kids to have a night’s sleep.  Zilib-Shawushka sewed something by the light of one of the two oil lamps illuminating small areas of the room.  The dim, yellow lighting reminded me of the gaslamp in Magritte’s ‘The Empire of the Lights.’

“I need to think a moment,” Tekhub-shenni said with a yawn.  He leaned against Yith’s torso and then just popped into deep sleep like a light bulb burning out.  His sister Sharum-elli thanked Yith very formally as ‘lord,’ and went off to her own bed, via the unmentionable outdoor facility.  Finally we thought we ought to take Tekhub-shenni on a tour there too before we all crashed for the night, so we suspended the hypnotized little boy out to the creaky door.  Yith managed to spark just enough consciousness to get him to lift his robe and do the performance, and then I carried him back in my arms and put him on the sheet that his mother pointed at.  She mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ and ‘good sleep’ to us.  When we hit the floor ourselves, Yith gave me a little kiss on the lips.  Then we exchanged smiles that faded away more slowly than the rest of us into unconscious nothingness, like a mirrored version of Charles Dodgson’s Cheshire cat.

********************************

In the morning there was enough wheat groats, a.k.a. bulgur, to go around for everyone.

“I have to talk to you for a moment,” Zilib-Shawushka said to Yith after most of the kids had gone out to do whatever they did on Saturday mornings.  “I saw you and your friend kissing each other last night, and – maybe you already know this – but you could be arrested for that here if anyone saw you or made a complaint.  Those from our religion don’t have a problem because it’s sacred to Shawushka, but the monotheists are very strict.  They go far beyond the letter of their law here because they know that there’s a lot of restlessness.”

“Thanks,” Yith told her. “We do know they’re against it, but I never even thought about it.  It’s just too normal for us.”

“With respect, you need to worry more.”

“We will,” I broke in (Yith was more or less simultaneously translating).

Tekhub-shenni was still around.

“I hope you do,” he said.  I could see that with all his entrepreneurship and bold invitations, he was one of the more fatherly types in the family.  He was looking after us.

“Hey, guy,” I said, “I have an idea.  Where would you go to school if you went to school?”

“An old man, Kelum-Ullikummi, schools people from our religion around here,” the boy said,  “but we could never afford to go there.”

“Let’s go talk to him,” I suggested.  “We had some of our stolen property brought back yesterday and we were already used to it being gone.  Maybe our god sent it back to us for a purpose.”

I knew Tekhub-shenni would decline outright charity, but I was hoping to outflank him with the idea of divinely ordained charity.  It might be so anyways.

The balance tipped slightly.  Hope got the better of his dignity.  “Okay, I’ll take you,” he said.  He looked at his mother.

“I can’t refuse that,” she said.

Xus and Eleya appeared at the door, having made the horses ready for further venturings, and I explained what I had in mind.  They approved and said they’d do some more packing and rearranging while we were out.

Yith and I walked with Tekhub-shenni through his neighbourhood.  It was a ramshackle border town across a wide bay from the closest large city, Dtaa’if Jadeed (the ‘dt’ in front is an Arabic emphatic ‘t’).  Tekhub-shenni explained that the city was named after a town on “the old world” that was also in a famous grape-growing area where wine was forbidden.  I eventually looked it up – it’s in Hejaz, in the hills southeast of Mecca.  Yith added the info that the Jadeed in the name was Arabic for ‘new.’  Later, I learned that the city was usually just called Daa’if by its mostly sQodravtse-speaking inhabitants; no one actually spoke Arabic as a day-to-day language.

Insofar as Tekhub-shenni’s town had a name, it was called Daa’if Border (Daa’if Khemzikhei). It had wooden buildings up to three storeys tall, sometimes whitewashed, and, to someone from our part of the world, it screamed ‘fire hazard’ at the top of its lungs.  Notwithstanding, it was still withstanding.  Nonetheless, it was nonetheless.  Amazing.  Dust and stray chickens were its main themes; tethered donkeys also added to the ambience.  The luckier donkeys were eating a breakfast of bright green trefoil clover, which looked pretty tasty to me, when I looked with a donkey’s-eye view. I often do that.

We walked up to the second floor of a creaky, signless building on the closest local equivalent to a main street, and knocked on the door.  School wasn’t in session on a Saturday, but since the school was the schoolmaster’s apartment, the door was opened for us.  The ‘old man’ in the taqiyah cap who greeted us was no more than fifty years old, and he seemed surprised to see Tekhub-shenni there.

“What are you selling today, young man?” he asked.  “Or are you bringing me a new student?”  He looked hopefully at Yith.  I was probably a little old for his class.

Tekhub-shenni simply replied by introducing us.  Kelum-Ullikummi did a full-scale double-take when he heard Yith’s first name, which was all Tekhub-shenni knew.

“I’m honoured to meet you, my lords and friends; clearly you come from afar.  How can I help you?”

I had my props ready.  I took a garnet out of a rag I’d been carrying it in.  “How much education for this young man” – I indicated the young man – “would I be able to buy with this garnet stone?”

It’s hard to know whether my language or the stone startled him more.  In any case, Yith rapidly did the translation, and the ‘old man’ courteously focused on the matter at hand.

“Hmmm…” he peered at the stone and thought.  “Ordinarily just a few months.  But I love to have a bright student; it cheers everyone up.  If he brings his own food, one year, that is, nine months including Arni (the 22-day tail end month of our year).  As a favour to such distinguished guests.  Is it good?”

“Wonderful,” I said when Yith did the translation.  The schoolmaster decided it was time to inquire about our language.

“What tongue is that?  I’ve never heard it.”

“It suffers from a bad name in your language,” Yith responded.  “Don’t worry, it’s a benevolent language!  You’d know it as ‘the tongue of plagues.’  We call it sDiyyanantse.  The next country to the east.”

“Ah!  The land of plagues.  I’ve met a man from there.  Sells a sort of broom for the teeth – I use it and it’s a great comfort.  You don’t happen to have some of those, do you?  I’d teach this rascal another year for a new one.  If he keeps coming to class and behaves himself, that is.”

Tekhub-shenni frowned.  Of course he would.  What a thing to say.

“Alas, no, we just have our own instruments, soiled with our own mouths,” Yith answered.

A year’s education for a toothbrush.  ‘A bargain like this comes once in a lifetime, sometimes never,’ to quote a sign my dad once saw on a shop, somewhere in his travels.

“Speaking of more teaching, though,” I said to Kelu-Ullikummi, “we do have another garnet.  We wonder if you’d throw in his sister Sharum-elli as well.  She was really enjoying learning things with him last night.”

The man’s eyes widened and raised up in the interplanetary symbol of distressed resignation.

“If I were to take a girl into my school, it would be two sets of a hundred lashes for me; that’s been made very clear by our local police.  It used to be allowed many years ago, but there was a change in the College of Imams of the Sunnah, who rule us here.  Now it’s banned.  The Shiites in West Daa’if still allow it, but that’s much too far for her to go.  I’m sorry.  You can extend this young man to two years if you wish, inshallah that I should live that long.”

You can see that he’d picked up the irresistible Arabic ‘inshallah,’ ‘if God wills it,’ that is the mainstay of Muslim discourse wherever that discourse is found, according to books I’ve looked it up in.  Since everyone is nervous about making assumptions about the future, it satisfies a profound need and surely does great service in propagating the religion.  Who wouldn’t want to say it?

“Tekhub-shenni,” I said, “if you went to school here, would you be willing to spend some time later teaching your family members what you learned?”

“Of course,” he said, then he smiled.  “My sister would break my arm if I didn’t, anyways.  And my big brother doesn’t say anything, but he would die to know everything.  He’s like an ocean trapped inside a well.”

“This boy mustn’t be caught teaching girls, even as young as he is,” said the master.  “To tell you the truth, I’m even nervous about having this conversation on my doorstep, but I believe the suggestion is good, so I stand my ground.  But please, discuss the details someplace else, and, young man, never mention it in my class, do you understand?  Just a word that my teachings were being communicated to girls, and I would have to close and everyone would do with nothing.  For us even to have a school of our own is on the borderline of tolerance.  Beyond that, though, you are most welcome.  Come tomorrow an hour after the fajr (Muslim pre-dawn prayer).  Bring your lunch and a bucket or a skin for water.”

“What’s the water for?” Yith asked.  “Drinking water?”

“No, it’s to keep his writing clay damp.  I don’t want to have to haul all the water from the main well myself.  We just re-use the same clay over and over – write in it with the styli, then erase with the hand.   No money for paper and ink with most of these students.  Can you read, young man?”

“No,” the boy admitted, “but I know how to write my name.”

“Hm, that’s six letters, only 82 to go.”

“He knows his numbers, and now he knows pi and the square root of two!” Yith said proudly.

“An Arkhimeideis (Archimedes) in the bud!  Wonderful.”

Student and master glowed at each other for a moment.

“Good!  See you tomorrow!”  Kelum-Ullikummi said enthusiastically, “and remember what I said about re-teaching.”

“I’ll remember,” the boy promised.

The door closed.

“We’re used to breaking the law around here,” Tekhub-shenni told us.  “But so is everyone else.”  By that, I think he meant the Muslims as well as the polytheists.

Two garnets poorer, but pleased with our efforts to improve the cosmos, we went back to the house, held our breaths one last time in the awful place of offal, and then thanked Zilib-Shawushka, plus as many of her troops as were assembled, for the great hospitality.

“You’ve repaid us more than ten-thousandfold already and I’ll always keep you in my heart and my prayers,” she said.  She beamed at us.

Even Pashshib-Kumarbi, the shy one, came up and gave each of us a hug, except Eleya.  “Sorry, it’s forbidden to hug you,” he told her, “and we’re in the yard.”

I looked around, wondering who might be watching from nearby windows.  The neighbourhood seemed free of spies – although, in another world, the syrphid flies humming over a ragged hollyhock next door might be high-tech drones.

Chickens clucked softly nearby.  One of our horses whuffed and shook.  Zilib-Shawushka did a final adjustment of Eleya’s head covering and then we were off.  I took Tekhub-shenni with me on my horse; he sat in front of me with his torso between my arms.  “Turn here,” he said, “now here.”

He had an ambition to lead us to the only Christian he knew of in his neighbourhood.  I wasn’t sure why, but I thought it must be a generous impulse, so I encouraged him.  I didn’t want to get us lost, but he assured us that the main road was in sight from where the servant of the god Yahwveih lived.  A policeman distinguished only by an unusually broad sword and a fierce look stopped us once to inquire about Eleya’s marital status, but on being assured that she and Xus were husband and wife, he let us pass on.  The fact that both of them had a strange language in common seemed to confirm the assertion.

“You’re lucky,” Tekhub-shenni said, “that one’s very strict, but he doesn’t crave extra money.”

“I wish you had a cousin who lived over in the big city and could guide us there,” I told him.  “You’re great.  But don’t offer anything – now you need to go to school.”

“When will you guys come back to test me?” he asked.

“I guess in two years, inshallah,” I said.  “I hope we’ll have another garnet by then to keep you going.  Right, Yith?”

“It’s not all that far from home – we can take the bus to the border,” he answered.   He didn’t even think about translating that, he told me later: the sQodravtse language had no word for ‘bus,’ anyways.

Well, what do you know.  In for a penny, in for a pound.   I hoped the in-laws would be proud of our adopted family.

I felt obliged to do one bit of troubleshooting with our young student. “Will you be able to do without the money you make from smuggling?”

“I’ll learn to write as fast as I can and then I can be a scribe for our neighbours.  And I can still smuggle on jumaa and Saturday.”

“I must be getting old, because when I hear you say that, I have to say ‘be careful,’ I said.

“I will, dad,” he grinned.

Awwww.

The Christian turned out to be a widower named Miikha (Micah) in his 70s who lived mainly by growing mint in some small garden plots at the edge of the town.  Mint tea was the maté of this area.

“I have pretty bad arthritis and I can’t exactly grow cotton,” he told us as he served us the boiled-up version of his crop along with plenty of sugar.  Tekhub-shenni hung in with us and had his share of the potion.  Miikha turned out to belong to a branch of Christianity I’d never heard of, the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.  “If you hear someone reading the 23d psalm and getting you to lie down in green pastures just before communion, then you’re in our church,” he joked.  “We take being sheep very seriously.”

They used something called the Rite of St. James, or Yaÿakov as we called him, written by the man who was called the brother of Jesus.

It occurred to me that I was learning more about the planet Earth here than I probably would have if I’d stayed there.  I’d probably still be learning my processed cheese snacks.  Perhaps I would have moved on to the menus of fast food restaurants.  Wonder if Wendy’s still exists after almost half a million years.  I could use a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger right now, I thought.

As if he’d read my mind in cuneiform, Miikha brought out a sprig of dried dates, a slab of white cheese and some soft unleavened bread.  I guess that’ll have to do for fast food, I thought.  It was actually very tasty.  To be true to myself, I asked him what kind of cheese we were having. {Marrik’s only expertise as a kid on Earth was knowing all the processed cheeses in the supermarket.}

“Sheep, of course,” he said with a shrug.  Hm… try to put that on a snazzy plastic label.  Shrug Sheep Cheese – meh, not too baa-aad.

Kids would go for it, but would their parents?

Eventually, it crossed my mind that I had some business here after all.  I asked Miikha if he might have a descendant or a relative in their 30s or so who was short a wife and would be willing to consider a polytheist businesswoman and small-farmer in the badlands.

“She thought Yith was a god, mostly just because he spoke your language well,” I said, “and when he explained that he was really a servant of Yahwveih, I think it made a big impression on her.  Maybe she’d consider being a Christian spouse.  If not, she’s kind and industrious.”

“No one I know of is short a wife,” he answered, “though our Christian community is small, and it can be hard to find someone suitable who’s in our church or could join.  There are lots of nice Muslim girls, but they’d be executed if they converted and, if they married one of us without converting, they’d usually be cut off by their families.  Anyways, who knows?   My kids and my other relatives are all over in the city now, and I’m too sore these days to get there even on the donkey.  I’ll ask, next time I have the chance.  Whenever there’s a moon in the sky, someone comes to visit me.”

It didn’t have to be blue to be exceptional around here.

“Hm,” Eleya said.  She went out to the horses and rummaged in a saddle bag.

“Wonder what she’s up to,” Xus mused.

She came back with a satisfied look, holding plastic strips with some pop-out pills in them.  She popped one out and gave it to Miikha.

“Try this,” she suggested.  “It’s good against pain sometimes.”  It was an acetylsalicylic acid tablet, or Aspirin as we called them at home on Earth.

Miikha followed her instructions and had one with a sip of tea.  “Nothing happened,” he reported.  He flexed his swollen knuckles.  Tekhub-shenni winced just looking at them.  He looked at me and I shrugged.  Old age, it’s coming to us all.  Playing soon in a ligament near you.

“Oh well,” Eleya said, “maybe you’ll feel something later.”  There seemed to be no point explaining that it wasn’t like magic.

We lingered around and took up Miikha’s precious farming time just enough to see if something would, indeed, happen.  Sure enough, after twenty minutes, he got up to re-stoke his fire, and his mouth opened and closed twice, wordlessly.

“What has happened to me?” he asked.  “I feel like a young horse that needs a run!”

“It’s just a powder from a dried herb,” Eleya explained – which was true, salicylic acid being from willow.  We couldn’t exactly add that the powder from the herb was esterified (huh?) with acetic anhydride (huh?) in a lab to stick on the 2-acetoxy substituent (huh?) that really made it the good stuff.  On the other hand, we couldn’t have explained that to any of my middle school classmates either, except the redoubtable Ryan Smallwood, gangly brainiac of the school, peace be upon his fossils.

“I’m sorry to say it will wear off in an hour or two and your pain will come back,” Eleya added.  “I only wish there was something like this that was permanent.”

“But this is a miracle whether it lasts a minute, a day, or into God’s eternity,” Miikha exclaimed.  “I never thought I would have this feeling again!”

“Well guys,” Eleya said to me, “plan not to get any headaches, because I think his need is greater than ours.”  She gave him the whole little wad of 40 from our first aid kit.  “Don’t take more than one a day or you’ll injure your stomach,” she said.  “Promise me.”

“Yes, daughter, I promise you.”

Needless to say, we departed on excellent terms, and we thanked Tekhub-shenni for the introduction.

“You guys are amazing,” he enthused.  “I wish you could stay!”

“If we could split ourselves in half, we surely would,” Yith assured him.  “But we’re just people and regular travellers, and we must travel on.”  There was another big round of hugs, and this time, because Tekhub-shenni was such a small boy, Eleya was able to get a legal embrace and even a kiss.  And then he stood in the dust waving to us, with his old friend at his side.  At our last glance, he was running for home with energy I hadn’t seen since the lander took off from Regntum Beach.

It’s fun to be a thrill, don’t you think?

********************  ****************************

We then made the mistake of thinking this beatific interlude would continue.

As we trotted around the bay towards Daa’if, we came across some very tantalizing beaches inhabited only by a few roaming goats.  The day was stifling hot and even the dust clouds at our feet seemed to flop back down on the road like exhausted dogs.  Finally, we came upon a beach that was irresistible, barely visible down at the end of a path, sheltered by trees and, once you were around the corner from the entrance, completely isolated from view.  It looked out over a magnificent vista featuring the squarish muezzin towers and peaked temple porticoes of the city far across the bay.  Eleya protested that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, and we had no idea what would happen if someone came along and discovered us in a naked state, but Xus, our daredevil and scofflaw, was rarin’ to go in.   He threw his robes off and crashed into the surf like a battering ram breaking down a castle.  It must have been windy out there somewhere across the water, because the waves were high, somewhere between playful and challenging.

“Come on, come on!” he shouted at us, “this is sweet!!  Get the dust off!”

I was reminded what a good looking young man he was.  And what an appealing friend.  The good luck of having a friend like that had to be treated reverently.  You couldn’t just sit and scowl over your vague dreads.

So I succumbed to his charms, and it was glorious.  The sun and the waves competed for who could splash me more, and Xus also came in to give me a splash or two.  Yith decided to keep Eleya company on the beach, and they made a sober-looking pair of watchers, like people watching a comedy show that they’re just not getting.

“All right,” Xus conceded.  “We’ve had our fun.  We’re done, right, Marrik?”

“I could stay all day, but not with these guys sitting shiva like that,” I said, referring to the Jewish custom of sitting in mourning seven days for a recently deceased relative.

Within twenty-five minutes of reaching the beach, we were back on the dusty road again, plodding through the seaside vineyards and wheat fields.  It took us nearly two hours to make our way around through increasingly heavy donkey traffic to the adashshi, the lower city walls.  We’d been told by our hosts last night that the police-check at the walls was desultory, not at all like the workover everyone was given at the border.  We didn’t take any special precautions.  The gun hung around Eleya’s leg as always.

Several guards were hanging out over empty teacups at the guard post, and I could see all eyes turn our way as we trotted up and joined the loose queue of travellers at the gates.  A conversation occurred among the guards.

“I don’t like this,” Eleya said with a chill.  But it was too late.  Five guards detached from the post and strode rapidly toward us.  One was wearing an embroidered robe and seemed to be especially important.

“Is that them?” said one of the black-bearded regular guards.

“The two older males,” said the embroidered one.

“The young one is speaking in a foreign language.” (Yith was translating).

“Dog foreigners, that explains it.”

Xus and I were flanked on either side by a guard, and two swords were pointed at each of our chests.

“You were seen in a state of obscenity by the Morality Watch from the tower of our great mosque.  Do you have the honesty to confess, you dog?”

This was addressed to Xus.  I got a supplementary poke with a sword to show it applied to me, too.   Both guards were startled to hear Yith translate the accusation in a tone not unlike the original, but they quickly realized what was happening.

Would there be any chance we could lie our way out of it?  They seemed pretty sure of themselves.  Might as well confess and hope for clemency, I thought.

Xus must have had the same thought.

“My lords, we were sure we couldn’t offend anyone and that we wouldn’t be seen, so we did as we commonly do in our country.  I don’t know how your watch was able to see us.”

“It’s a crime whether anyone sees you or not.  The watcher in the tower has a mqraab [“approximating apparatus,” probably a telescope].  Immorality can’t just laugh in the distance here.  Look, there was a woman with you, and a boy, which makes it even worse.  Is this woman married to one of you?”

“Yes, she’s my wife.”

“Lucky for you.  Without the obscenity, forty lashes and four months in prison for khilwa [crime of being with a member the opposite sex in the absence of one of her male relatives].  With it, you might lose your head.  You idiotic foreigners, who knows what you’ll get up to?   The qadi [religious judge] will decide if you’ll see mercy or justice in this case.  You two must come with us.  Are the woman and the boy related?”

“They’re brother and sister,” Xus said quickly before any of us could signal otherwise.  Yith translated faithfully.

It seemed prudent to be as related as possible.

“Stop translating,” the embroidered guard told Yith.  Then he said to his companions, “We have to take all of them.  Clearly only the boy speaks our language, which makes me doubt he’s the brother of the girl, but we’ll let that go.  We need him as a translator unless we can find someone else who speaks that tongue – to my ear, it sounds like the tongue of plagues.  We’ve had a few of those in our court.  The girl can’t be separated from her husband and brother until we can put her with other women.  If the judge will hear the filth donkey’s case today, she can remain, but if they have to wait overnight, she can be put in the women’s prison temporarily.”

Eleya knew she was being pointed at, and she could see Yith wincing.

“Xus, whatever they do to you, I’m doing it to you twice,” she glowered.

“Sorry, very sorry, beloved one, I’m in shock.”

“Will you shut the devil up?  Translate that!” commanded one of the lesser guards.

Yith snuck in the last sentence from the embroidered man, the one about women’s prison.  It was conspicuously too long, so he received a smack on the shoulder with the flat of a sword.

“Watch it, you idiot,” said the guard who’d taken the action.  “We’re not fools like you people.”

Eleya, meanwhile, was on the third of a series of deep sighs.

Xus’s face was a greyish-greenish pink colour that had to be seen to be believed.

I suspect I was looking a little drab myself.

“Confiscate their swords.  Translate:  we’re taking your weapons.  You may have them back after justice has been served, in the name of God the compassionate, the merciful.”

The swords were removed.

“All of you, step down off the horses.  Ÿali [Ali, one of the guards], you and your slaves can lead the animals to the stable of the court of justice in Al-Makkah square.

“We are honest people and your materials will not be disturbed other than an inspection for gross abominations and heretical tracts.”  Yith was allowed to translate these remarks and wasn’t told to stop translating again after that.

“If you have any criminal objects you’d like to confess in advance, say so now, for the sake of mercy.”

“We don’t,” Yith said, “and everything was looked over in detail at the border.”

“Yes, your friends appear more foolish than sinister, I believe you on that.  What religion are you?”

“Christian”

“As people of the book, they should know better.  Doesn’t the Torah [first five books of the biblical Old Testament] speak against flaunting your nakedness?   Still, it would be worse for them if they were pagan.”

Yith, alas, decided to answer his question about the Torah. “Ham, the son of Noah, was criticised for looking at his drunkenly naked father and being disrespectful about it.  Other than that, the references to people’s nakedness in the Torah are really about, um, marital-type relations,” he said.

“What??  Are you insane?”

The embroidered man grabbed Yith by the throat and stared him in the eye, breathing heavily.  I jerked automatically and a sword beside me came up to rest with its scratchy blade against my neck.

“Are you proselytizing to me from this filth?  The prophet Noah, drunk?  ‘Marital-type relations?’ Any more of this blasphemy from you and that glib tongue of yours will come out!  Do you understand?”  He shook Yith vigorously.

Yith nodded respectfully.  He didn’t look especially worried.  I hoped he was going to smarten up.  That’s the problem with people who have no bully experience.  They don’t know when to keep their mouths shut.  I could have given him the master’s level course on being bullied, and yet here he was, defenceless.  I hoped he was a quick study.

I know you’re obliged to look fearful in such circumstances; calm appears defiant.

I started to get very worried about him.  Was there any chance that he could comprehend everything except mortality?  Had he been a machine for so long that he’d lost the ability to pay attention to his own peril?  Was he the lectical {lectics = philosophy of opportunity} equivalent of one of those people with congenital analgesia, who can’t feel any pain and therefore accumulate injuries?  I sure hoped not.  Yith, for heaven’s sake, you’re human now, buddy.  Human.

Actually, maybe that was the worst possibility.  Maybe he’d succumbed to human teenhood, and now had that characteristic mindset that nothing really bad could happen to him. Maybe, like some of my schoolmates, he’d inchoately feel that the cosmos ought to love him, and ought to provide a safe matrix for the use of his magical powers.  He had a language chip; he was pretty cool.

He got away with it this time.  The man let go of his throat and we marched in silence along narrow streets towards the court.  There were innumerable small shops and stalls selling bananas, trinkets, scarves, bags of flour and so on.  A few heavily clad, scarved and sometimes veiled women moved around amongst the well-robed men and boys.  There was a pervasive odour of roasting lamb and oregano, with occasional infusions of subtle perfume from the hair oil of men and women alike.  I almost walked into a stall with brilliantly designed taqiyah caps and I wished I was shopping rather than under arrest.

Reality is just too much sometimes.  The whole thing is like being ‘sent for perspective.’  {The legal punishment Xus received at home that sent him out of the country was called being ‘sent for perspective.’} When can I bloody well come home?

I was not happy.

Daa’if clearly wasn’t a den of crime.  When we came into the judge’s chambers, there were only two cases ahead of ours.  A pagan boy who’d been caught having mint tea with his girlfriend.  Would have been maybe 20 lashes but it was his second offense.  One hundred lashes and a month in prison for defiance.  The boy sweated and looked confused and pimply.  I hoped his relatives would have the mercy to marry him to the girl in question, if she’d still have him when he got out.  Yes, he was only 19, a little young to start a family (no birth control here), but it beats getting fire and brimstone from a very irritated judge.  Yith couldn’t translate word for word – it would have been too noisy – but he did tell me that the same youth had seen the same judge before.  That was a real ‘oh oh.’

Then there was a Muslim man and a woman who’d been caught rolling on the bed together by the woman’s estranged husband.  The avenging, undivorced ex had broken into the woman’s house to see why there was a low light on so late, and then when he’d seen the incipient carnality before his eyes, he’d run to make a complaint.  If he’d brought three other male witnesses with him in his moment of discovery, he could possibly have had both parties stoned to death, but as it was, the case rested on his own oath.  The woman looked distraught as she stood in court, and she wavered like a weeping birch tree in a windstorm.  Her emotions were clearly more for the accused man than for herself.  The latter was as taciturn and unmoving as a tsKorabaatse {traditional north-African} circumcision candidate, but the looks he gave her were guardedly sympathetic. The accused couple denied at first, but when they were asked to swear an oath on the Quran, their denials ceased and they minimally confessed: “we didn’t get far enough into the act to commit zina [extramarital sex], but he’s not lying, only jumping to conclusions.  May God forgive us.”

Four hundred lashes for each participant in the act, in batches of 50 per week.  Severe warnings about recurrence.

It was all amazingly swift – no lawyers, no appeals, no preliminary or discovery hearings, and certainly no juries.

Xusxerron’s name was haltingly read out, and then mine came out smoothly.  Yith tells me it sounds Arabic if you change the pronunciation just slightly.  I hoped they’d give me a brownie point for having an easy name.  The embroidered man, representing the Morality Watch, gave his testimony about what he’d seen – these distant, defiantly naked forms cavorting in the waves in front of a cowed woman and lad.  Another guard from the watchtower was brought in to confirm that he, too, had looked through the spyglass and seen the disgusting scene.

“Did they try to conceal this crime?” the qadi asked from his judicial bench.

“No, lord, they admitted it.  They are foreigners new to this area and said they thought it was excusable if it was unseen by our people.”

“God sees all people equally,” said the judge.  “Do you believe in God, you people, supposedly of the book?”  Yith was signalled by a guard to forward us the question.

“Yes, sir,” Xus and I answered in turn.

“Do you believe God sees you through human eyes or his own?” asked the judge.

“His own,” Xus said.  I nodded.

“We don’t want to offend your lordship by describing the customs of our country, but they explain our actions, lord.  But it was our folly to follow those ways here.”

“If this is a plea of ignorance of the law, it’s not an excuse, because the law is posted at the border.”

“We read the sign in full, lord, but some parts are broken away,” I offered.  The judge gave me a steady look.

“This is still a matter of displaying your most private attributes before a woman who is not even related, young man.  At least the others are her blood relatives.  That’s very serious for you.”

I wondered if I should take a chance.  Too much information, perhaps.  Blatherskite that I am, I went for it anyways.

“I’m a male who has no natural powers with women, lord.”

Yith helpfully added “He has heard about the Surah “Light,” my lord, and it appears to apply to him.”

“What?  Oh, I see.  You’re hardly the picture one has in mind of this, but I know it is possible.  I’m glad such abominations are confined to foreign places,” the judge said.  “Are you whole?” he asked me.  I understood what he was driving at.

“Yes, lord, I am not missing any parts.  But nonetheless, I have never had a feeling of that kind for a woman.”

“I can hardly test you.  Swear it on your holy book, at least.”

A ragged copy was brought to me and I did so.  I’d never seen a bible in cuneiform before.  From torn bits of page that flopped out, I could see it had been printed by hand with styli dipped in ink.  Must have taken forever.  On Earth, it would have been a top-ranking treasure in any museum.  Here, it was just the holy token for infidels to perform their vows upon.

“Your sad condition doesn’t excuse you offending the woman’s eyes, but I believe you that it wasn’t a display meant to incite zina with her.  May God have pity on you that you can never have a family.

“You foreigners are an ongoing freak show, and I sometimes weary of it, but God is just and merciful, and I cannot be influenced by my emotion.   Are you planning to stay in our halal [kosher] zone?”

“No, lord,” Xus testified.  “We’re travelling on directly to the northwest along the coast in order to trade.  But we don’t plan to return this way.  Eventually, we’ll go home by boat.”

“Inshallah,” returned the judge.  “Please never return unless it be as men of true religion.  I will show you the mercy of our law, and I hope you learn from it and gain respect for the right path.  Your twenty to forty lashes each are suspended and you will only receive them if you misbehave.  You each have ten days in prison in order to show that the law is not flouted by anyone.  God is beneficent and wise.  God is great.  Are there any more cases?”

We were led out while the next case was being introduced.

“You were blessed with good luck,” our bailiff said as he marched us out the majestic carved door of the room, with Yith and Eleya still trailing.  “That fellow will have it hard.  An old man late with rent, so his landlord goes to look around and finds a bottle of strong alcohol in the kitchen drawer.  Now he’d gladly relive his whole life backward just to undo his birth, the crazy donkey.  He’ll feel some pain.”  The man smirked knowledgeably.

We walked down a whitewashed, wood-panelled corridor overlaid with carpets in intricate abstract patterns.  Dark brown and white, in this case – slightly stark, but not right at all for a place of severe punishment, I thought.  Fertile and accepting.  Maybe the half-colours {a kind of astrology based on interpreting colours} don’t apply here.

We were diverted into a side chamber, a small boardroom.  It held a low table with eight ornately embroidered, red and yellow cushions around it.

“Sit,” the bailiff commanded us.  All four of us did so.  The bailiff also squatted down and then sat back into a cushion.  He looked relaxed.  Two guards who’d been following us posted themselves at the door.  The man in the embroidery wasn’t with us: he’d been left behind in the courtroom, and was presumably heading back towards his successful watchtower.  He hadn’t looked at all pleased by our light penalty, but his momentary glower and sigh were directed well away from the judge’s line of vision.  No doubt he and the judge saw quite a lot of each other.

“You will taste prison,” the bailiff said, “but as long as you do, you’ll be a burden on the courts and the people, and why should the people keep you foreigners in luxury here?”

“We don’t wish to impose ourselves on your people,” Xus answered quickly, with a Communicatoresque tone of perfectly sincere irony.

“Discreet men have been known to save themselves and our taxpayers unnecessary suffering,” the bailiff said, folding his hands together.

“We’re discreet,” Xus assured him.

All of us nodded.

“A woman is perhaps not discreet, but you’ll watch over her,” the bailiff said.

“She is, but I will,” Xus said.

Eleya gave a steady look that showed just a trace of longsuffering.

“Eighty per person would satisfy the needs of justice and expediency,” said the bailiff.  “One night in prison so your name is written in the book, and release after the morning prayer – you can walk through the horns of Satan and take your transgression with you.”

We didn’t know what this meant, but I later found it refers to some hadiths, sayings of the prophet, that say the sun rises between the horns of the devil.  The prophet seems to have wanted to deter people from sun-worship; hence also the pre-sunrise call for morning prayer.

“One sixty – I wonder if we have so much?” Xus mused, looking at Eleya.

“How about forty for this one and I’ll sleep on my own for a month,” Eleya offered sardonically.

“We’re not here to amuse ourselves, young woman,” the bailiff said, and then he took on a proclamatory tone:  “‘Your lawful women are your prepared fields, so go to your tillage as you wish, and invest in advance for your souls, and fear God, and know that you’ll someday meet him.’

“Al-Baqara,” he added, naming the second surah of the Quran, the source of the quote.

Eleya took a deep breath, intake only.  As she later noted, it’s a unique occasion when you first see yourself as a plot of land prepared for penile planting.

“Eighty apiece,” the bailiff declared.  “We’re not bargaining over donkeys.  Unless you wish to prove we are, by being obdurate.”

“Do you take credit cards?” I said in English.  Yith looked at me quizzically, strongly curling one of his lip corners.  I shouldn’t have risked making him laugh, but relief was making me giddy.  I knew Yith now had to translate something from me, so I got to business.

“I’m not sure if we have 160 ishukhnidis, but we have coins of some other imperia and duchies inside Qodra.  Can we exchange some if we need to?”

“The money changer will take ten percent, but yes, no problem.”

We should have brought an extra donkey loaded with coins, I thought.  This, we hadn’t calculated on at all.  But ten days in prison – that was probably best avoided.  Even in a planet without rats, mice, lice or roaches.  We still have humans here, and they’ve been known to be a problem in prison.  Our less presentable passions tend to infest such dark places.  Roaches may be preferable.

“The money’s mostly in our saddlebags,” Xus explained.  “We’ll have to get it.”

“You two can have some private accommodation together in our famous prison for the evening while your brother-in-law obtains the money and exchanges it,” the bailiff said, with a satisfied half-smile and nod.

As an extra income source, this clearly beat working overtime.

Xus and I had to bid heart-rending ‘see you soons’ to our misty-eyed sweethearts and we were taken off, still followed by swordsmen, to a side-building where the walls were made of thick, yellow sandstone.  Xus had to hunch over to get down the hallway, finally, as we went through three or four corridors to get to our spa of justice.  Heavily bearded prisoners in small cells, most not high enough to stand up in, uttered things that we couldn’t understand at all.  The tone, however, was probably universal for such situations, and I’m sure you know it as well as I do.  Plaintive pleas, darkly humorous taunts, anomalous ravings, expressions of rage, prayers, threats, catcalls – the symphony, the opera of prison.  I looked at Xus.  What an expression he had on.  I’d forgotten for a moment that sDiyyanantse only know about these things from books and movies from another planet.  He was shocked and dumbfounded.

Without having ever had mice or hamsters around, he’d never seen any creature at all caged up this way.  Not even an insect.  The few people in Diyyana who kept parrots tended to have backyard conservatories for them.  They were usually birds that had been found injured in the wild.

“And these people were all skinny-dippers,” he joked bravely while stooping his way along into the increasingly chilly humidity.

Thank God, when we got into that cell of ours, that we were together.  As someone who was a loner as a child, I can be very self-reliant.  Psychological deprivation torture, however, is one of those things that appreciates company.  Most of the people we’d gone by had been in barred stonework caves of four to six people, but we’d also seen some straggly solitary wildmen on the way by.  Some had had lots to say as we went along; others were silent.  Those ones were the scary ones.

Our guards motioned and half-shoved us in, and the gate closed behind us.  The lock that was put on was another item that should have been a valuable antique:  five centimetres long, with a lateral bolt, all made of hand-forged iron parts.  It attached to iron rings on our door.

Xus was still joking.

“Nice quiet place to recover from forty lashes,” he observed.  The beds, or benches, were two long, flat stones.  There were two very coarse woollen blankets and a bucket in the corner.  One of the guards had pointed at it, and had said several words, one of which was vaguely familiar: “khashari.”  I finally realized it was the second half of the name of our thief, Arumkhashari.  I guess he’d only used that one on naïve-looking foreigners.  ‘Gift of crap,’ indeed.

Light in this part of the prison was only supplied by a few torches in the hallways.  Evening was coming on anyways, and even the areas that got light from openings and shafts would soon be dim.  We weren’t going to get to the level of the ‘empire of the lights’ around here.  The strip mall of the dim, more like.

Xus’s bravado wore off.  He became reflective, sitting on his slab.

“You know, all these incidents we’ve been involved in here in Qodra seemed to come out well in some way, so we’re all giddy with ourselves – got to be gods for a day, escaped that gracefully; got robbed without injury, got some of the loot back; saved a boy who was going to seed; got a lucky break from a judge and practically got off the hook for a charge of not-so-public indecency.  Maybe you haven’t noticed that we’ve dug ourselves deeper into a hole every time.  We’ve got to get out of this country.  Those stories about god-like things happening around us are lurking in wait back there.  You think no one’s paying attention, but yes, it turns out, they are.  Our money is haemorrhaging out in buckets.  That’s not a criticism of your helping the little guy, Marrik, no, you did well there.  But we’re getting to the end of our rope.  Now we have a criminal record here.  We have to quickly and quietly get out of this place and try to move along without any more adventures.  Do you agree?”

“I can already write my novel,” I joked.  “That’s truly enough.”

“Is it your novel that’s been bringing all this crap on?” he asked.  “I hope you’re not praying for drama every night.”

“Not me,” I said.  “I thank God for Yith, you and Eleya, pray for our herders, the boss, the crew, our big and small friends, the spirits of my folks – I hope they’re out there – and then last but not least, I thank God you’ll never own a car.”

“That’s not fair,” Xus answered, clenching his lower lip and grabbing the collar zone of my robe, “but thanks for the thought, anyways.”  He made a playful snarl with his teeth.

We looked at each other.  I think we might have wrestled just for the fun of it if there weren’t guards around.  Boys’ night out.

Boys’ night in, I guess I should say.

I hoped Yith and Eleya weren’t having too grim a time of it out there.

A muezzin sang out a call for the sundown prayer.  It rang and echoed through the corridors.  We could hear motion as if the call was being widely responded to.  No other prisoners were actually visible from our cell.

Presently, a kitchen crew appeared, featuring a man – clearly a slave from his wrist shackles – carrying two buckets of soup on the ends of a stick.  He was naked from the diaphragm up, which surprised me, but I later learned that obscenity for slave men began at the navel around here.

We were each handed a wooden bowl and a ladle of the soup was hastily splashed into it.  Xus had to do a minor juggling act to catch most of his before it fell on the floor.  It wasn’t all water as I expected from reading bits of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn in the Diversity of Earth Cultures 2 text.  There was a goodly chunk of fatty chicken skin, still scabrous from poor plucking of the smaller featherlets, at least seven beans, and several segments of cabbage leaf.  We also got a skin full of fresh water, which was tepid but without adverse odours.  The bailiff was right; it was the luxury suite.

I taught Xus how to play the game of hangman and we scrawled in the dust on the floor below our slabs.  It’s an old Earth game – you think of a word and your friend tries to guess which letters are in it, one at a time.  He only knows the number of letters and maybe the type of word.  Every time he guesses a letter right, you add it into the correct space or spaces in a series of blanks you’ve drawn to represent the word.  Every time he guesses a letter that’s wrong, you add one more segment to a diagram showing a man being hanged on a gallows.  If the gallows and victim are complete before your friend has guessed the whole word, you win the round.

Clearly the game isn’t destined to be a sDiyyanantse hit, but we had to do something.  You’d better learn that one in case you’re ever in a sQodravtse prison yourself.  It’s oddly appropriate, in context, to see the little hanged man appearing on the floor over and over.

Then there was another loud muezzin call and then some time allotted for the night prayer.  Xus and I stayed still; I did a quiet prayer of my own.  Afterwards, the guards retreated out of the halls, snuffing the torches as they went.

I’ve never seen black any pitcher than that.

I crawled over to the bucket after announcing my intention to Xus.  Privacy wasn’t a problem, at least, not visual privacy.  Any later trips would have to be made with extreme caution.  You wouldn’t want to spill that thing and try to guess where everything went.

Xus came back from the bucket apologizing profusely for his contribution to our ambience.  I told him not to worry about it.  We’re friends, aren’t we?

The sounds we heard around us were the scariest part of the whole experience.  Cellmates were given severe beatings in at least two cells nearby, and there were sounds that sure sounded like surreptitious sex.  Lots of talking, all sotto voce.  Vomiting.  Coughing.  The singing of a few bits of the Quran, clearly.  Not understandable, but Arabic sounds much different from sQodravtse.  Snoring.  Something that could have been a strange cough or someone being strangled.  Fa … well, you get the picture.

I should have counted how many times I woke up while sleeping in that blanket on that slab.  But there’s no Guinness Book of Otherworld Records here, so it was pointless.

I was never so glad to see dimness again as I was the next morning.  Gorgeous.  Thank God for photons, however diluted they may be.  That’s one elementary particle I truly love to hang out with. I could just kiss the little guys.

The call for morning prayer was sounded, which meant we were very near liberation.  I felt hope leaping up inside me like a kid who just had to do a handstand.  Xus shook his head and said, “I hope they don’t run into a hitch.”

Guards lit the torches back up, and a small amount of extra light filtered in from an opening somewhere.  Another muscular and oily-surfaced kitchen slave came around bearing buckets of food.  Two relatively scrawny helpers worked the ladles.  Our stiff and already mostly-cooled bulgur was much easier to catch in the bowl than the soup had been, though not as easy to eat.  Still, hope breeds hunger, and I would have eaten double the quantity.  Maybe triple.

Just after the next prayer, the one after full sunrise, our semi-smiling bailiff reappeared, along with a guard.  He was nodding at us even as he came down the corridor – there was no suspense, no tease.  Thank heavens.

The guard pulled out the key, the lock came off, and we were sprung.  I walked up the corridor with great relief, and also feeling guilty and wishing I could pick out a few sympathetic cases to take with us into freedom.  We got some hard and hungry stares as we walked out, and also some jeers and, from one young man in a solitary cell, even a cheer.  The guard stopped to have a staring contest with him for a moment, but then we carried on out the door connecting the prison to the judicial buildings.  A side portal led directly to sunlight, and there were our two saviours.  Their faces went from distraught to jubilant instantly, but we were all afraid to touch each other.  You’d have to spend a lifetime here to know what was permitted and what was not quite permitted, but possible, I thought.

“Bismillahi arrahhmani arraheemi,” said the bailiff in Arabic: “In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful.”  He nodded his head to us and turned back into the building, along with the guard.

We let silence reign for a prudent few moments and enjoyed being near each other.  Then Xus spoke.

“We have to get out of here,” he said.  That was our official prison lesson, and I nodded my agreement with it.

“The horses moved from the state stables over to the guesthouse last night,” Eleya said, “and we had to take the saddlebags up to our rooms.  The guesthouse was perfect and our hosts were very kind, so we didn’t mind leaving our stuff until we finished collecting you – our dearly beloved reprobates.  But now we need to go back, get everything together, and saddle up.  That’ll give you a few minutes to have a wash, which you look like you could use.”

“I hardly dare take the luxury,” I said, “but yes, cleanliness can be a great disguise.  Then we can leave.  I’m not panicking, probably we’d be OK here now, but we need to make some progress anyways, and Xus and I agreed we’d had enough adventures.”

That, of course, is a decision that has very little influence on where the marble of a life rolls as it traverses the mighty rills of the deuheiktan.

The guesthouse was partway across town.  We still got to see the squarish Moroccan-style mosaic-tiled towers of the main Sunni mosque, the one that had the gyroscopic prayer capsules inside it and the side-towers bristling with telescopes, some trained towards the heavens, and others trained towards the moral universe twinkling below on the streets, fields and beaches.  We even had to turn a corner at the central Shiite mosque, which had spectacular blue-tiled towers outlined in white, yellow and black patterns, plus a vast central dome.   Quotations from the Quran in Arabic were tiled into bands around the tops of the towers, and small slogans like ‘God is great’ were tiled above the windowframes.  A signboard beside the Shiite mosque proclaimed that non-Muslim visitors were welcome to visit for just one emanzalli, in between prayer times, and in spite of everything, we succumbed to the magnificence and made a visit.  The vista was unforgettable, a sea and sky of turquoise and indigo, inexhaustible in beauty and perfection of proportion.  Inside the dome, we saw a stunning star of symmetry, a floor in concentric, zigzagging black-and-white rings.  Prayer rugs were rolled up around the edges.  The mosque had its mihrab niche set to the east-southeast, where, as Yith reminded us, Muhhammad ibn Bakr al-Qazvini, the first Muslim of our planet, was placed on the surface from a Communicator lander.  As I’ve later found out, he was still asleep at the time and thought he’d been transported miraculously.

I had no idea how privileged I’d been to hang out with my transporters.  Not to mention, um, the peculiar triumph of managing to recruit one of them as my note-perfect boyfriend.

I think I did pretty well.

Still, Muhhammad the son of Bakr from Qazvin, Persia, founded a qiblah, a direction of common prayer, and that’s something to write home about.  Even when you can’t.

We didn’t linger long and hoofed energetically off to our guest house, where we made our way through the front entrance up to the second floor where Eleya and Yith had spent the night.

“Something weird is going on,” Eleya said suspiciously as we went up the stairs.  “I saw Samah in the kitchen and she had a pinched look on her face.  Last night she was all laughs and welcome.  Be careful, guys.”

“OK,” I said.  I didn’t want any more trouble with anyone.

Yith and I closed ourselves firmly into the room he’d slept in.  His share of the saddlebags lay on the table beside the window opening.  The shutters were open just a crack to let some light in.  There were unlit candles in the candleholders around the room, but the day was bright and the sliver of light was enough to let us see the bags and pack them out of there.

“I’m so glad you’re back, I love you so much,” Yith said.

“Oh gosh, I am ecstatic to be with you, beloved one, that was unbearable,” I sighed.  We hugged and had a long kiss.  An embrace with him was always something beyond any dream of heaven, but this one was particularly beatific, angelic and revelatory.  What a universe he was.  I watched his eyelids open for a moment and close in bliss – the straw colour of his eyelashes was so delicate that it was an infinite fascination in its own right.

“Mustn’t delay the guys,” I said, with supreme self-control, and dropped my arms, gave him a smile and another little kiss, and went over to start hauling saddlebags.

The door of the walk-in closet beside us burst open and I jumped – a black-robed man surged out and poked a sword-point into my throat.

“The commander was right about you,” he said (not that I could understand him at the time).  “You’re the source of stench in this cesspit.  In the name of God, you’re under arrest for aggravated indecency and ‘luring towards luti’ with this youth.”

Luti being sodomy, the sin of the people of Lot, you recall.

“You,” he said to Yith, “you’re also under arrest for indecency.   Don’t try to run.  There are more of our men in this house.”

“I have them!”  he shouted.  Yith softly translated the proceedings so far, despite the scowl of our arresting officer.

We waited in stasis.  There were heavy footsteps on the stairs. Then three men walked through the door – two swordsmen and our friend in the embroidered robe.  The room was now crowded, and the odour of hair oil and garlic was powerful.

I was … I can’t even tell you how I was.

I just was.  There was no avoiding it.  I bloody well was.  There I was.  Oh hell.

Poor Yith.

I think he’d finally learned anxiety.  He looked as stricken as a prune.

It seems I taught him something.  Something useful.  Oh, hell.

The sword point had left me some breathing room,

“Sorry!” I said.  The point jumped back and pressed my skin.

“Silence!” said the guard.

Which Yith, of course, was again obliged to translate.  The Morality Watch knew our system well by this point.

“I suppose you felt very smart when the judge went overboard sympathizing with your deviance,” the embroidered man said to me in a professorial tone.  “It isn’t easy to teach a judge a lesson, and I have to thank you for helping me do that.  This time you’ll get what you deserve, a good foretaste of the Last Day and the abyss of flame.  Let’s go,” he commanded the guards.

As we were led out into the corridor, I saw the distraught face of Eleya and a lividly furious Xusxerron.  Both friends were caught behind a human wall of three guards.  One guard spoke to them gruffly.  Yith shouted a final translation as we were led off to the stairwell.

“You’re not going anywhere.”

Right.  If only someone in authority had told us that before we ever crossed the sQodravtse border.  Damn.

If I ever get out of here, I thought, I’ve got to stop wandering around.

Take me home, Etennem, for heaven’s sake, take me home somewhere.  I’ve been alien long enough.

Ahh well.

That’s enough of that.

One thing I’ve learned:  if you’re a stranger in a strange land, you might as well get on with it.  Life, eh?  Happiness or horror – it’s yours to live, if never to fully know.  Your life is bigger than you are.  What can you do but embrace your existential otherself?

Yith and I exchanged glances, almost post-ironic.  The left corner of his mouth pulled back wryly.  Oi (my eyes closed for a moment) – so – argh – cute.  I wished – with an ache – that I could kiss him right there.  One last time?

We let the guards lead us out.

****************

Back down the streets at swordpoint, then, surrounded by seven officers of the morality squad and their fancy commander, their very satisfied-looking commander.  I should have bought that taqiyah cap souvenir during our two hours of freedom.  Hadn’t even had lunch as a free man!  Oh my gosh, poor Yith.  This has to be high on the list of things not to become human for.  Though I suppose it was an adventure from a certain point of view.  But not one I’d wish on you, love.

Pigeons ran before us, trying to avoid flying.  The land of ostriches was long gone.  Kids followed along, questioning, pointing, and in one case, spitting.  The guards shooed that one off, but he left his mark on me.

Then we were left to cool our heels in a guardroom at the judicial buildings for a couple of hours.  The washroom had running water, and even though you could see the overhead cisterns it issued from, I still stared like a hunter-gatherer seeing his first airplane.

Yith managed to mutter to me, despite threatening looks, that we were waiting because our embroidered prosecutor had demanded to have the same judge.  He wanted to rub his nose in us.  At that point, I began to yearn for the invention of lawyers.  But no chance here.  Ah well.  Our net wealth of two emeralds, some wampum strips, and some funny money from various sub-empires probably wouldn’t go very far with them.  You had to be a small nation to afford one on Earth.

Though I did have wealth in cows back home.  I mustn’t overlook that.  I wondered if our calves had been born yet.  I should have asked for the predicted day so I could have raised a toast to them on their birthday.  In mint tea.

We were given a handful of dried dates for subsistence.  There was no place to put the pits and I became worried like in a nightmare, one of those anxiety dreams.  What was I going to do with the things that wouldn’t cause my throat to have a trip to the barber?  But finally a slave not much older than Yith came along with a discard tray.  He was slender, beautiful, and sheathed in hidden emotions.  He gave me a look that made me think he’d consider taking my place.  At that point, I think I would have turned him down.

After my fourth trip to the washroom, the big moment finally came along and we were led into the court.  The judge looked highly displeased.

“In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate, this court is in session.  The defendants, though foreign, are already familiar with our courts and we need not explain our system to them.  God’s mercy and justice prevail here over all mortal considerations.  Ahhmed ben Ahhmed, you may state the charges against the older one, eh [reading], Marrik Rajjarsoun.”

“This young man was witnessed by my officer dressed and standing but fully in the act of fondling and caressing the other boy like husband and wife, with sexual areas pressed against hard into the boy’s, and kissing with vile insertion of his tongue, like an oral rape.”

“Do you confess to this crime, young man?”

“I hugged and kissed him, but it was completely mutual.”

“You are the older one by far; you must be deemed to be influencing him.  In the view of this court, the responsibility is mainly yours.  Were you intending to proceed to an act of sodomy with the boy?”

“No, lord, we were just about to load our horses and leave the area.  When your officer seized me I was picking up saddle bags.”

“I am going to ask you some questions about matters that were not witnessed.  First you must take an oath on your holy book that you will tell the truth.  Faisul, bring him the book.”

The priceless cuneiform bible was brought back out and I put my hand on it and swore before God to tell the truth.  I was actually hoping not to have to, if deception seemed to favour escape.  This was a situation I’d never been in before.  I grew up feeling it was fairly safe to lie when it was truly expedient.  What now?  Take this oath seriously?  Allow my flexibility to be blackmailed away by putting my arm behind my back for God to twist?  I felt conscience-bound, even if I was under duress.  God and I had a relationship based on love and truth.  I couldn’t lie any more.  Damn.

“Do you confess to committing previous crimes of luti with the boy?”

“Not in this jurisdiction, lord.”

“A clever answer.  Is he truly the brother of the woman you travelled with?”

“No, lord.”

“Is he related to you?”

“Yes, lord.”

“In what way?”

“We are married to each other.”

Beards dropped all over the courtroom.  There were noises of outrage.  One guard horked a big one up in his throat.

“Blasphemy!!  Even to speak such a thing.  Blasphemy against Islamic custom and the customs of all people of the book, right in this court.  The charge is added to your list.”

“I wasn’t trying to make a moral statement, lord.  It’s simply the plain truth.  We were married in a Christian ceremony in our home nation, Diyyana.  Our travelling companions were married to each other the same day.  They can be our witnesses.”

“O God.  Keep those who believe on the right path.  That won’t be necessary, boy.  What you describe is an abomination, but it happened out of my jurisdiction in a land well known to be associated with foulness and death.  I concede that you may have answered the question truthfully and, however grotesque your utterance was, I will withdraw the blasphemy charge.  In any case, you have already confessed to a serious crime that was witnessed.  Now I’m going to interview your victim and co-offender.  You may sit down.”

I did.  I was shaking all over.  I’m not cut out for being a major criminal.  Especially not a sex criminal.  There’s something weirdly invasive about arrest for a supposed crime that’s composed entirely of loving sexual acts.  It’s like the law itself has decided to burst into your gesture of love, grab you, and rape you.  First, it wants to know exactly where your tongue was and what state your penis was in.  Then it wants to classify what it sees according to a tiny, inadequate list of categories.  It’s a combination voyeur and mental zombie that’s filled with unquenchable aggression.  Nothing could be creepier.

Everyone – or at least everyone who grew up on my part of the Earth – is already mortally embarrassed about sex and probably feels deep guilt and shame at even being seen in a sex act.  It’s an undying scorch of terror if your mom ever walks in and catches you masturbating.  To have your unguarded sexuality seized upon by hostile legal forces is soul-shattering.

Yith was told to stand up.

“We don’t have your full name,” the judge said.  “Please state it.”

“Yes, lord, it’s Yithythyth Aa’w’w’wz Fthsste’eh Awdw’am’q’am.”

“That sounds like a joke.  Are you also Christian?”

“Yes I am, lord.”

“Swear, then, on the bible that you’ll tell the complete truth.”

Yith did it.

“That was really your name that you said?”

“Yes, lord.”

“Where does a name like that come from?”

“It is a name from the Stcho’s’s’s ‘a’sh’sh, lord.”

“Where do they live?”

“We don’t live on this world, lord.”

“Bailiff!  Strike this idiot and let him know he can’t play games with court.”

The man struck Yith a powerful cuff just below the back of his neck.

“I am only telling the truth, lord,” said Yith, sounding out of breath.

“Where does your nation live?”

“It isn’t easy to express in this language, lord.  We live on vessels, like ships, that fly from one world to another.”

“I perceive that you may not be of sound mind, young one.  Can you at least tell me how old you are.”

“Yes, lord, but you won’t like the answer.”

“Tell me anyways.”

“I’m over 70 million years old in the years of this world, but this body you see, though it appears much older, is less than seven years old, because it was made in a hurry.”

“Bailiff, he’s completely insane.  Make him sit down again and treat him gently.  Marrik Rajjarsoun, stand again.”

I stood again.  I felt numb all over.

“Have you seen the evidence now that you were taking advantage of a boy who’s mentally incompetent?”

“What he says is true, lord, and there is evidence for it.”

“Ridiculous.  What evidence?”

“He has only been in this country for a few days, yet he speaks its language perfectly.  You will also find that he speaks Arabic well, possibly better than your scholars.  That’s because he has a very small mechanism in his body that can produce dozens of languages perfectly.  The same science that did that can also make ships that fly from world to world.”

“His ability is unusual but we also have many insane people here who God has compensated with rare gifts.  No man alive has so-called mechanisms that can produce speech in many languages.  That’s unbelievable.  If it exists, let me see it.”

“It’s buried in his body and we don’t know where it is.”

“Of course.  And who or what would have put such a mechanism in place.  A djinn? [elemental spirit, genie]”

“His shipmates installed it.”

“What sort of men are they?”

“Ah…  they aren’t men.”

“Horns of Satan, I think this is my last question.  If they are not men, what are they?  Women?  Demons?”

“No, lord.  They’re … intelligent constructions made of metal and other things with moving parts [sQodravtse has no word exactly meaning ‘machine,’ so Yith, still working away despite being declared insane, gave this phrasing as a translation].”

“This is sickening.  The law will not be mocked.  Sit down.  I will consider the sentence for ten minutes in my library.”

Yith and I looked at each other.  He had tears in his eyes.  I knew they weren’t for himself.

Stop that, the tears are making you look human, I thought.  Then it sank into me just how irrelevant that thought was.  Nothing in the law here could accommodate a defendant who wasn’t entirely a human being.

Law, by nature, is constructed not to perceive too much.  It can’t be set up to allow every conceivable extenuation and excuse, so that everyone could wiggle their way off the hook for just about everything.  It is built blunt and crude to sweep the approximately guilty well back into guilt, and clear the approximately innocent out of the system.  Here, we happened to have an extreme case where our reality was completely out of the legal ballpark, but I suppose that there’s a graded series of ever less flagrantly divergent cases where the facts cross over into something the law is not designed to understand.  Even very ordinary cases can have an aspect that flies just beyond the legal compass. That will introduce a mote of perfect, self-blinded injustice into what looks like a straightforward decision.

How did our benign love get to be illegal in so many cultures in the first place?  Wasn’t the illegality always predicated on the unevidenced idée-fixe that every adult human had an equal potential for heterosexuality? And wasn’t that idea itself predicated on the notion that the number of ideal forms people should strive to imitate must be reduced to the minimal number, for the sake of social cohesion and the convenience of moral regulation?   Men and women were clearly different, and different ideals had to be drawn up for the right-living man and the right-living woman.  People from different age groups also unquestionably differed to a degree, and ideals had to be adjusted by age.  But for people to be able to come along and claim invisible differences that authorised changing their ideals – surely that was an open door to chaos and crime.  What’s to stop someone from saying that, by nature, they have to rape babies and kill their wealthy grandmother?  Minimizing the number of permissible ideals was one of the founding projects of civilization (even in India, where the whole project was handled very differently).  The problem, though, with this streamlining of the laudable was that invisible differences among people are sometimes as real as visible differences.  It’s simply an error of hypostasis to assume that every real difference among people will have a visible, audible or palpable token that everyone with five senses can perceive.  Mind you, such things may be visible to Communicators who can map every neuron and its chemical links, but they aren’t yet visible to any humans.  Conattainable, I mean.  If there are still humans on Earth, they may be able to see these things by now.

There are, of course, laws designed to recognize some invisible but real differences among people.  In some cases, the differences are clearly opportune.  Distinctive talents can be recognized, and people can be judged against ideals of skill.  In other cases, the differences are inopportune: there is no point treating amoral, homicidal sociopaths as remediable citizens, or treating people with other mental incapacitations as potentially fully competent.  The differences that societies become flustered by, and that laws are often awkward around, are those that are opportunistically neutral.  To proclaim a seemingly unnecessary difference, one that doesn’t serve a unique role necessary to the common good, is something that looks like pure eccentric rejection of society’s norms – in other words, its ideals.  “Majority,” the self-proclaimed different person seems to say, “your ways are simply not good enough for me.  I have to be distinct.”

The social offense committed by this inferred statement is also charged to those who choose to follow different religions; hence the virulence of anti-Semitism.

Now, if there is a war or another social crisis, can those who are wilfully distinct for no good reason be counted on?  Organizing social cohesion and common thrust is a nightmare at the best of times, as anyone knows who’s ever tried to administer a club or a volunteer organization.  Add in a license for people to insist they’re different for no apparent or serviceable reason, and you have a society that, for all you can tell, is going to fall apart like overly flaky pastry.  The glue of the social pastry lies in conformity, in seeing your neighbour as a person like yourself, someone you can identify with, someone just as valid as you, and someone you’re competent to understand and help out.  This is the underlying assumption of the ‘everyone’s just gotta be heterosexual’ philosophy.  It’s like a uniform on a sports team.  What do you make of the guy or girl who insists on wearing another set of colours?

Historically, same-sex sex outside of an ongoing relationship could easily be seen as a misuse of native heterosexuality, a sort of ad-hoc bestiality with humans.  You remember us talking that over with our friends Ÿabdullah and Nuureiddiin way back in Sirriet.  Going beyond that, at least in western Europe and its colonial extensions, committed same sex love was occasionally recognized as a possibility – ganymedic love as opposed to venusian love.  When that happened, though, same-sex love tended to be placed under the banner of – and here’s a good old word – frowardness, the eccentricity of difference for its own sake.  That’s fro as in ‘to and fro,’ going away from other people rather than towards them as you should.  Not only did the love itself seem froward, but also, its refusal to directly sanction childbearing seemed froward.  But those judgments of frowardness about our love are simply in error – the pattern of our loving emotions has nothing to do with being froward.  It’s just as the Book of Power says it is, a biological imprint – or, as the philosophical vocabulary of the Standard English Edition puts it, a ‘vegetal samskara.’  A sexual orientation is an indelible formation in one of the many parts of the brain not amenable to reform through consciousness; its fluidity lies only in how much of its complexity is expressed at any given time.  Only in the most recent times, conattainable, did any legal system on Earth manage to recognize this patently obvious reality that so many people had testified to for so many centuries.  All other justice had to live without that realistic underlying model of sexuality; hence, it was obliged to mete out regular injustice.

I suppose I can’t be too offended at what happened to me here in the Qodra: the problem is simply endemic to law.  The Book of Power illustrates the limitations of law with the traditional story of Jesus refusing to sanction the stoning of a woman who’d been caught in adultery.

“Even as a reduced form, the law served as a guard against those things it proscribed and was thus a thing of value and a possible framework underlying graceful behaviour.  But like all stated forms it entrapped images into meaning too much, mistook the particular for the universal, and encoded temporally plausible tactics as immortal mandates.  When our qaauma [very good friend] contradicted the stoning of the woman accused of adultery, he broke away from an ancient retribution to a timeless love.”

As you can see there, the problem of crude filtering isn’t unique to law, but runs through many other reduced concepts as well.  Words are also part of the problem – in the matter of same-sex love, for example, the reduction of all adults with male genitalia to one prototype word ‘man’ is significant bulldozer flattening truthful diversity.  In our culture, we hold that no verbal construction, even a scripture, can be sufficient to fully represent God or God’s creation.  For all their power, words are limited tools, and limiting tools as well.

After Yeshua, Paul the Apostle further shook the grate of law with sayings like, “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.”

Popular culture where I came from was ambivalent at best about religious talk and preferred to quote Mr. Bumble from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.  When Bumble was told, “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction,” he sagely replied, “If the law supposes that … the law is a ass – a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience – by experience.”  ‘The law is an ass,’ people always said, correcting Bumble’s grammar.

Alas, there’s no ‘worst to be wished’ upon the clumsy law by making it experience the reality of same-sex love.  Unless you really think childbirth is obligatory for every couple – something that’s biologically impossible in any case – our love has no downside.

Our judge, however, was by no means ready to take this viewpoint.

He came back into the room carrying nothing but a committed look.  He spoke in Arabic rather than sQodravtse.

“In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful,” he said.

Everyone went to their place.  Court was in session.  The Arabic recitation continued.

“He it is who gives death and gives life; and he creates the two spouses, the male and the female.

“Say: Travel in the land, and see the nature of the consequence for the rejecters!

“And whoever turns away blindly from the remembrance of the Most Gracious, we appoint for him Satan to be a companion to him.  And truly, they [Satan pluralized] hinder them [the sinner pluralized] from the path, but they think that they are rightly guided!  Until, when such a one comes to us [God pluralized], he says to the devil, “I wish that between me and you lay the distance of the two easts” [= from the east horizon all the way east to the west horizon] – a worst companion!

“It will not profit you on this day, because you did wrong; you will be sharers in the punishment.”

A sQodravtse interpolation.  “And then God addressed these comments to Muhhammad, peace be upon him” (return to Arabic):

“Can you make the deaf to hear, or can you guide the blind or him who is in manifest error?   And even if we take you away, we shall indeed take vengeance on them. Or we show you the threats we issue them: then truly we have perfect command over them.  So you, hold fast to that which is revealed to you.  You are truly on the straight path.”

The judge permitted Yith to translate this to me.  Then he switched back to sQodravtse.

“The distinctive feature of this case is that you can see God’s words in the Quran illustrated right before your eyes.  The deplorable defendant [oh oh] has rejected God’s ordination of the two spouses.  He has tried, with his impious conspirators in a distant land, to assume the role of divinity and create another kind of spouse from a boy, in this case, a boy who seems to be mad.  Yet, listen to the holy book, and you will understand that what we all heard was not merely madness.  Because of his lust as a partaker of the sin of Lot, Marrik Rajjarsoun has a devil as a companion, whispering in his ear.  You heard that devil speak.  You heard it rant about inhuman constructions that can turn boys into magical translators, and make them fit subjects for the lust of Lot.  No human has ever come up with such talk.

“These youths are not culpable for the direct utterances of the devils that walk beside them.  But they are culpable, one as a mature initiator and the other as an immature follower, for permitting the lusts that allowed those devils access to their ears and lips.  Given the correction of God’s punishment, they may become minded to return to the straight path, repent their lust, and thus drive away the devils that speak to them.

“Marrik Rajjarsoun, you are sentenced to 150 lashes in groups of fifty per week, to be followed by ten years in prison to ensure you can have no further access to this boy until he is fully mature and can turn away evil.

“Yithythyth, as someone who is very young and under adverse influence, you are sentenced to six days in prison in the hopes it will bring you to consciousness of good and evil.  God willing, the relief of contact from this companion of Satan will cause the demons to depart you.

“God is just, and merciful.  Take them away.”

Yith translated this to the last.  He had no tears on his face but he looked very odd.

Suddenly he vomited across the rail that divided the seating area from the gallery in front of the judge’s bench.

“I’m sorry, lords, very sorry, there was nothing I could do,” he said, frantically wiping his face.  “This body just did it as if it was someone else.”

How could I tell him that that happens to some boys who are very frightened and upset?  I gazed at him with all the sympathy my eyes could communicate, and I opened my hands out vertically as if in a hug.

“I hope it’s the demon leaving him,” the judge said.  “Now get them out!  Court adjourned.”

We were both rushed from the courtroom by the elbows, with just one hasty guard per person.  The embroidered man gave me a beardy half-smile couched in steady-eyed satisfaction, as if he’d achieved nobility through my downfall.  I’m sure my look back was not unlike Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

He was probably up for promotion, the ….

I find it very hard to think ill of anyone, no matter what the situation.  I can’t usually tell how much a person is a product of their circumstances.

We were hustled along the corridor and back into the room where we’d negotiated our release the last time around.  My hopes started to rise.

We were hustled in and the guards stood just outside the door.  This time, we knew they were there to keep unwanted ears away.

I managed to squeeze Yith’s hand for a second, unseen, just as we went in the door.

We sat on the cushions that our bailiff pointed out to us, on opposite sides of the low table.

“You’re very stupid,” the bailiff said to me.  “You deserve every bit of that sentence.  I can hardly imagine what could compensate any part of such a wrong.  Nonetheless, those of us who work in the service of making government possible are willing to hear how you would propose to offset the extraordinary costs of paying for your folly.  Make it quick.”

“Thank you.   We have an emerald,” I answered hastily.

He momentarily looked startled.  Then he closed up.

“An emerald!  Do you mean that green stone?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm … just one?”

I considered my bluff to be called.  Maybe it wasn’t, but this was no time to practice my poker skills.

“Actually we have two.”

“Two!”

“Yes.”

“Let me see them.”

“They’re with our companions.”

The bailiff clearly decided there was no further advantage in being cagey.

“Only the emperors have those here.”  Tiny sweat beads formed on his forehead.

I inferred that the value here was staggering.  Maybe I should have kept bargaining with one stone for awhile longer.  But then again, this wasn’t just me we were negotiating about.  It was my – the pop songs have it right – it was my baby as well.  The well of innocence in your beloved one’s eyes looks right back to the beginning of their life.  As a human baby, he had just been an unconscious version of me, if I understand the process right, but somewhere inside those eyes was a baby of a species I’d never even seen an image of, and I loved that little baby with all my heart.  I could only save him.

“Hmm … this is a difficult problem.  Your sentence is very severe, and it was made long and harsh for a reason.  I don’t see how I can justify your release.”

My heart dropped like an antique elevator, taking my stomach with it.

“You’ll have to escape,” he said, stroking his beard.

The elevator went back up to the top floor.

“Our prison is all but impossible to escape from.  How could a scene be created that would explain your escape?  You people are very strange.  Maybe you have something, something that could … explain an odd event.  A magic trick like the translation this boy does, even with Arabic I could scarcely translate myself, though I understand it.  My hand-picked men can react quickly when they need to.”

I thought about that for a few moments, weighing pros and cons.

“We have a thing,” I said cautiously, “that can make a noise like thunder does when the boom is right over your head.  It can do it several times.”

It was his turn to think.

“Yes, yes.  That’s sufficient to allow a plan to be formed.  I’ll organize something.  Your friend here has to be put in prison within the hour and we can’t talk to your other friends without him.  But he’ll be released in a few days.  That will give us time.  We’ll keep the other friends in their guest house until then.  I’m sorry to say you’ll have to take the first fifty of your lashes, but you deserve them anyways.  And I’m sure you’ll still be glad to escape the others, inshallah.”

“Inshallah,” I said, shaking my head and closing my eyes.  “God have mercy on me.”

“Viyaadstamet {thank God},” Yith said.

Thanking God seems rather odd in context, but that’s how our custom works.  Feel free to ignore this if it seems to go beyond explanation (though that’s not my intention – your religion or lack of it, reader, is your own affair) but in this usage, God is considered to be with you in any hardship, and gets a thank-you for it.  Thing is, though, seir preservation of human freedom – actually lectont freedom, the freedom of any beings with free will to choose among options – may win out over any intervention you might wish them to make.  As it did in a hellish crucifixion story at the beginning of Christianity.

“Do you understand everything, young one?” the bailiff asked Yith.  He brushed a few hairs off his immaculately white tunic.  “When you’re released, one or more of my men will go with you to where your friends are, and you will tell them our proposition about the emeralds.  They will then discuss how the thunder trick can be used in the escape of this one.”

“Yes, lord, I understand everything and I’ll work with you.  I can only thank you for your trust.”

“Ha, good lad.  I should live to hear my wife or my children ever say a thing like that.  Heh, if I had …”  He stopped himself.

‘If I had…the proceeds of those emeralds, it might just happen,’ I inferred.  Everyone has their confinements.

We were swept off down the long, tiled and carpeted corridors and taken across into the prison.  Yith looked impassively at the zoo of our prisonmates as we went by their noisy cages.

“What a way to exist,” he muttered in my direction, and was whacked back into silence by the back of a guard’s hand.  In compliance with the judge’s wish that we be separated, he was placed into a moderate-sized cell by himself.

“This is a luxury based on your cooperation with the bailiff,” the guard warned him as he closed him in.  “If you misbehave, you will lose it and be placed in with the other short-term prisoners.”

I held my hand over my heart to say goodbye, and he did the same.  Under his eye, a tear sparkled like a garnet in the dim light, and my face was also … bejewelled.

How could we have come this?  What unspeakable spinning top of fate had I climbed onto?  I had rated Deiyah as kind, benevolent and loving, and this was what he had sent me to.  To be fair, there was a lot of bad luck involved and maybe some carelessness of my own.  But why would anyone send a loved one into such a dangerous place?  Then again, it was just a country, millions lived here, and they weren’t being arrested twice a week.  Maybe he thought we’d pass through like those people.  As, indeed, we should have.  And come think of it, I did volunteer for this mission.  Sort of.

As Eleya tried to explain to Sambah earlier on, nothing is more necessary to the human psyche than to have someone to blame for catastrophe.  Bad luck is an idea that we easily acknowledge; but in the crunch we can barely stand it, especially when something unlucky happens to us.  My situation, though, wasn’t entirely bad luck.  It was a huge butterfly-wing-effect of cataclysm that was fluttered into existence by an insect-sized error in judgment – in this case, my decision to take an illegal swim in a seemingly secluded place.  A chain of events like that is a natural for confusion about culpability.  I have heard, though, that Aristotle thought that the quintessence of tragic drama was the avalanche of bad fate unleashed by a wrongly-deposited snowflake of judgement.  If so, I’m both honoured and chagrined to be taking part in such a classical torque of fate.  I guess I really can’t blame Deiyah for it.

It’s that damn Aristotle’s fault.

(Well, Marrik, it seems to me that you’re still trying to get out of responsibility for your own choices … your heart wasn’t in it when you let Deiyah off the hook.   But you did make the choice, free and clear.  OK, I guess I did, but…but…he set me up with his ‘you can take two friends’ thing – I was under suasion!   Suasion!?  What’s that but an externalization of your own gutlessness?  Gutlessness, eh?  I’d say the suasion detected my gutlessness and took advantage of it.  Well, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem for you – which came first, the gutlessness or the suasion?  Yes, well, I suppose when I turned sixteen, my gullibility instantly changed from innocence to gutlessness, and the responsibility switched from the persuader to me.  Well, that’s fair, isn’t it?  You have to take responsibility sometime.  OK, I take responsibility.  I do.  Now, listen, I have enough legal cases going on – let’s leave this one for now.  Sigh, agreed.)

I was slammed and locked in a cell of my own, glad to be alone with my thoughts, however querulous, if I couldn’t be with Yith or my friends.  “Got a bucket of my own tonight,” I enthused.  It was the Ritz-Carlton executive club of Daa’if Central Prison and I made a note to collect the frequent guest points when I checked out.

If only.

I wondered for the third of over a thousand times that evening what was going on with Yith.  Xus and Eleya also collected several wonders from me, and so did the folks back home.  A real wonderland this is.

Supper came and went.  This time the place of lobster and huile arôme truffe was supplanted not by chicken skin but by a lump of mutton fat.  No point turning my nose up at good calories, I thought.  I’m sure millions of my fellow North Americans would have loved to have had that thought.

I mentally sang as many favourite pop tunes as I could think as the evening went on.  Of course, Jailhouse Rock tried to go for a spin on the turntable, but I didn’t know it well enough and could easily shoo it away.  House of the Rising Sun was a much bigger problem; as an occasional guitar player, I’d played and sung all the verses back on Earth.  It was in the elementary ‘Teach yourself guitar chords’ website I’d been consulting.  I am a loyal person, and I had to let it go all the way through.  Luckily, this prison was no House of the Rising Sun – more like the House of the Rising Damp.  The song didn’t make me cry, but it was wrenching in some way.  People often assume it’s about a bawdy house, but some of its recording artists thought it was a prison song, and, as I sat there neurosinging it with my head in my hands, I had to agree with them.

“I’m goin’ back to New Orleans

To wear that ball and chain.”

At least my feet were free.

As a true Olympian, I broke my record that night for most wakeups due to discomfort and fear.  The bucket was my friend.  In my dreams the ongoing neurody (mental song) fetched up Xeekhu singing Trouble in Mind at the inn east of Regntum.  The lyrics were strangely comforting:

“Trouble in mind, I’m blue

But I won’t be blue always

‘Cause I know the sun’s gonna shine

in my back door someday.”

 

It wasn’t just the line about the sun that cheered me; in my half-colour chromomancy, you could see that the basic blue of the law was going to let me go.  Very auspicious to have it pop up in a dream.   Maybe.

They didn’t bring me breakfast in the morning.  That didn’t bode well.  Just after the second prayer, two guards showed up.  They beckoned me out and took me up the corridor to Yith.  He was looking both patient and distraught.

“You OK?” I dared to ask him.

“Not terrible,” he said.  “I’m OK. You?”

“So far so … mm … alive.”

The big, brown-bearded guard on my right said something stern in sQodravtse.

I’d been taken to Yith for translator services, not chitchat.

“You’re to be taken up to the main square in front of the courthouse to receive your fifty lashes right away.  The Commander of the Morality Watch himself has come to see you.”

“I’m honoured,” I said, “but don’t translate that, Yith.  Um, may God have mercy.”

“You’ve drawn a good crowd,” said the guard with a smirk.  “Your story has made the rounds in the qaliyan [hookah pipe] teahouses all night.  Might as well provide a warning to others and use your punishment for the profit of your soul.”

Don’t bother to thank me.

“Love you,” I said to Yith.  I said it in English both from paranoia and because my native wording was the closest to my heart.

“N,,w,,n’t!’qhshmeshesh ,,eiowhkh,” he said, doing the same thing.

As I was taken along the corridor, I looked back and saw his white face disappear like the moon from the sky.

To have such brilliance in orbit should never be taken lightly.  My poor boy.

Earth is missing you already.

We walked up the sweating stone corridor to the entranceway and took that right turn out through the massive wooden doors into the sunshine.  My retinue of guards, now four strong, marched me in a dignified way around to the front of the courthouse, in front of a portico that looked more classical Greek than anything else.  There was a crowd of several dozen people gathered to watch the show, half of them kids in robes ranging from immaculate to filthy.  Everyone seemed to be in a very good mood, and I interrupted some excited chats by making my appearance.  I was glad they didn’t have television to get the whole city together.  The Marrik’s Butt Whacking Show – the hit of the season.  If only they’d let me work the “applause” sign for the audience instead of gratifying them with actual pain.

I saw my nemesis, in different embroidery this time, sitting on a pillow on a divan.  There was a small VIP area, and he had the best seat in it, with a few other officials on either side of him.  They looked impassive and serene.  There were no smiles. This was going to be more satisfaction than pleasure.

I was taken up to a wooden pillar planted in the stone paving, and things were said to me and to the crowd.  Without Yith there, I can only guess at what they were.  I did detect some Arabic at one point.  A particularly burly man appeared whose chest hair squirrelled up his neck and fused into his beard, which then catapulted down from his chin like a black waterfall.  His head hair was all on the underside; up above he was bald, except for a tattered fringe.  He looked like a ship that had been left in the water to collect algae too long; strands of sideburn swayed in the air currents.  His moustache was thick and protruded so far forward that a finger placed on it would disappear to the first knuckle.  Not that I wanted to finger his lips.  Oh yes, and lest I forget: he held a long, jointed rattan cane in his massive right hand.

He took my hands, put them together, and made me lean over to put them on the pole.  Oh shit, I thought, here it comes.  By instinct, I looked for routes of escape.  Swordsmen had them well covered.

Well, you just saw me say ‘oh shit’ up there.  I have to warn you now about the coming obscenity in this writing.  Being the family values guy I am, I owe you that.  My story at this point could be said to have some adult content – that is, if I was one.  As it is, it has teenage content, which, as you know perfectly well, is potentially much worse than adult content.

Obscenity where I come from was limited to topics that were uncontrolling in themselves, or that caused moralists to worry that they would excite uncontrol.  Sex was felt to be losing yourself to passion, lust and, ultimately, embarrassing geysering actions, so that all qualified as uncontrol.  Talking about it a lot or showing it too intimately in audiovisuals would also cause people to lose control of themselves; moreover, the participants would eventually be shamed by their involvement in the foci of dissolution.  There was more uncontrol right there. Bodily eliminations came into play, too, as uncontrol, which is why ‘shit’ works as a swear word – uttering it erects a looseness-contaminated finger at sensibility and propriety.  As a human, you can’t actually be a monkey and fling the substance around with social success, but you can be a highly modified ape and fling the concept around almost to the point of making it an art.  You can even work the paradoxes of control, proving you’re a tough, controlling teen by manipulating the dangerous uncontrols successfully – swearing as much as you can, mostly with controlling aggression, having a go at drugs, including alcohol, and embarking on sexual ventures.  Then you can fucking marvel at how fucking hungover you are, but at least you didn’t barf on a chick’s boobs like Kyle.  Oh yes, stereotypical epithets like ‘chick’ were also an uncontrol, a sort of swearing in classification.

Now and again, on Earth, you would see a suggestion that a controlling act might also reach the point of obscenity.  But this was uncommon.  A television station showing a policeman blowing an escapee’s head off would engender viewer complaints, even when the station warned that the content they were about to show might disturb some viewers.  Put the same scene in a movie, though, and it could be a moment of communal triumph.  Just a few sensitive souls would say, ‘that was really unnecessary,’ when all the adventure lovers were saying ‘yeah, cool head-splat.’

A common, though severe, punishment in parts of the old British Raj was to administer 24 thwacks on the bare buttocks with a thick, water-swollen rattan cane.  Each stroke would take out a chunk of skin, draw blood and leave a scar.  Showing that sort of thing on television would have been considered objectionable where I grew up, perhaps even if the flesh removal was transposed to the back.  On the other hand, it wasn’t obscene at the time, because the British Raj worshipped control; that was the native idolatry of the Victorian era and its immediate surroundings.  The society of my birth was just beginning to emerge from this adherent-in-reduction, this enjoinment of the good to the controlling. It was just beginning to recognize that controlling-type obscenity could exist just as easily as uncontrolling-type obscenity.  Adolf Hitler’s Nazis did their bit to help this process along with their hideously overstated parody of Victorian imperial control – they finally pressed the finger of social control deep enough into its latent possibilities to trigger the nausea response.  Still, where I came from, we were all reluctant to be weak and eager to be strong, so uncontrolling obscenity still had the edge in disgust over controlling obscenity.  The laws for the former could be severe: for example, having a child walk in on you while you were looking at a porno flick could excite a severe penalty if the child mentioned it to someone, since the child was considered to have been golfed deep into uncontrol, possibly never to recover from the tee-off.  Further uncontrol, such as drug addiction, would inevitably follow for them.  They would experience a general woolliness of the personality and a tendency to failure and depression, derived from having blown the wings off their controlling-aegis at an early age with one look at sex or, in some superstitions, even nudity.

We were very fond of our superstitions on that world.  We knew that our native North American forebears had often grown up in longhouses, tents and igloos where adults went ahead and had sex whether there were kids around or not, and yet, we were certain such exposures would be fatal to our own kids.  I suppose there were no drugs around in those days to provide the natural end to the story.

As you’ve seen, sDiyyanantse kids like my buddy Nontemmi’k! find shmooshing zombies with a video machine gun to be too obscene to watch.  It’s not that they can’t take it – they’ve all seen animals killed.  They just find it objectionable because humanoids are involved, and they have fellow-feeling for them.  I don’t think that’s in their genes – it’s just cultural.

I don’t know where you come from, but if you’re sDiyyanantse, you’ll find the next bit harder to take than you will if you’re a (hypothetical) Earth person, most likely.  Because the obscenity here, though mixed, is mostly of the controlling variety.

I gotta hurry up.  If you can’t stand obscenity, you’ll find that the next bit follows a certain format.  You can skip right to the end of that format with the large caps and – oh shit, he’s winding up.

At least my clothes are still on, I wonder if they’ll protect me.  Oh boy

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Holy mother of shit, that hurt!  Hah, like – fire … shit!  What am I going to ….

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Bloody fucking hell, ouch, ouch, fuck!, fifty of those, I’ll

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

I’ll fucking die. Hah, but I’m holding my straight face you bast-

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

You, oh, you fuckers! – it’s love you’re beating, the heart

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Of a human being, the BEST PART, CARING, LOVE

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

My God, ha ha lamma sabacthani, I shouldn’t blaspheme, Lord help

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

help me, it’s unbearable, my ass, my back, Lord for-

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

GIVE them, they hurt, all those guys who loved, how many have they

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Aaahhh (pant, pant) beat this way, tortured for no reason, this hurts but

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Aaahhh, nothing could hurt like the love they’ve cut away, these poor mad

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Hah, ah, ah, hah, people, in this aaauhhh … in this ah, insane equation

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

aaaaaahhhh, fuck! of, of the highway rapists of fucking Lot, oh fuck, with

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

AAAAHHH!!, with boys who love each other with all their hearts, God, God, Yeshuÿa qaauma mihels, uh

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

protect me God, I praise your love in the highes-

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

oowwww oh woahw, they’re starting to, ah, hit the same sore spot over and

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

AAAHH can’t they find (pant, pant, pant) a new fucking place to hit, how

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

AAAAHHH, how (pant, pant) many is that is it 25 yet? I am startin ta lose

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

AAAHHH aaugh … fuckers, I … not sure how long I

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

AAAHHH AAHHH not sure how long I can keep quiet oh shit! again! stop!

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAHHH!!” oh shit I said it out loud, yeah laugh at me you

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

UUUHHHH! how long was love your last priority (pant, pant), you come here to laugh

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAHHH!!” at someone who kissed the love of his life and is “BEING TORTURED!!”, that’s your

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

mmh, idea of religion, (pant, pant) God forgive you, God forgive you all, God have pity, God have

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAHHH!! you criminals!” they don’t understand English anyways, (pant) I hate hating people but hurts SO MUCH, no,

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

AAAAHHH!!  silent,  OH, FUCK, I just want to “LOVE, I WANT TO LOVE”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Aaaaah, I’m losing it, I can’t stand it, SOOO PAIN fuh, huh

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAHHH!!”  “AAAAHHH!!” shit .. fuck …

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Mom, I can’t … help me … help me

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

fuck … you … you… nazi fascist religious prigs, you bastards you

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“YOU LUNATICS, THIS IS LOVE YOU’RE BEATING”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“YOU’RE BEATING GOD’S OWN LOVE, YOU MISTAKEN ANGELS YOU”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“LAUGHING VICTIMS OF YOUR OWN ERRORS, ITS JUST IM-”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAHHH!!  IMPOSSIBLE THAT GOD COULD WILL TO WHIP THEIR OWN LOVE”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAHHH!!”  It’s, huh, getting numb, ‘s numb ‘s no id isn’t, id fuckking hurts! hurts! it

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

ah (pant, pant, pant) no … “NOOOO!!!!”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

let me die … I should have ..  no … why did I

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

shit!  why did I live…. Yithy, help me, mom, Yith, oh God,

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

so-ho painful auw I can’t .. Yith please take me

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

God take me “LET ME DIE!!!” Just

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Let me die … no “AAAAHHH!!” no, won’t die, won’t

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“I WON’T DIE DO YOU HEAR ME I WON’T”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

(crying….)  I have to stop crying … why? why? who cares? – I get the machine, KafKA!

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

I get it, huh, no, the Lord is my shepherd (pant) Yahwveih is my herder

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

I … I shall not want, he … makes me to lie down in green pastures

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. Hahaha, love that line, reminds me of cows

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

(pant, pant) nothing there now … nothing … this moonless sky

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

mind of someone else, yes

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

No legend of mine …

No legend of mine ..

Is that it?  Is that?  (pant)

No legend of mine.

Lives there!

(Blackout)

 

*********************************************

{For partial explanation of the lines above with the expressions ‘moonless,’ ‘mind of someone else’ and ‘no legend of mine, see https://thismoonlesssky.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/the-zen-poem-that-unified-a-nation/}

 

*********************************************

 

I don’t hate anyone.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that I’m confined to my stomach, on this slab.

I tried to put my other side on it to cool it but it’s too sore – can’t touch it.

I’m starving, but eating isn’t on my mind.

Just have to let my ribs dig into the rock and try to sleep and breathe.

God help me.  Yith… I hope you’re … ok.  Love you, my buddy.

Hope you didn’t see me get dragged in like this.

I know you.  You’re suffering about this more… more than I am.

Love you.

 

****************************

The next few days were pretty basic.

I agonized a lot, and chafed.  And I started to itch.  I thought about people, I prayed, I sang songs quietly to myself.  I made the major excursion to my bucket as often as I could justify it.  Couldn’t sit down on it, of course, but that never was much of a luxury.

I should have at least got Yith to teach me hello, thank you and that sort of thing in sQodravtse.

As it was, I couldn’t understand a word that was said, and no one could understand me.

The second day after the beating, I got taken someplace mysterious that turned out to be a room with a floor drain.  The guard gave me a bucket of clean water – cold – and a bit of soap-like substance.  Plus a cloth and a clean robe to wear afterward.

The cleaning process was excruciatingly painful but I knew it had to be good for me.

Ordinarily I’d expect to get my next fifty strokes in a few more days.  I wondered how anyone could manage it, and I hoped and prayed I wouldn’t have to find out.

On the third night I could very gingerly roll over onto my back for a short while.  I celebrated, there in the pitch dark, by extremely delicately making {a joke that doesn’t make sense unless you read other parts of the book is removed here.}  That {a solitary act of pleasure} was extraordinarily restorative and I realized it was the only analgesic I had on hand.  No pun intended.  So I palliated myself as best I could after that.  I like to think my healing accelerated remarkably.  Or maybe I just didn’t care as much about pain.

I’m sorry to say my thoughts were always appalling to the Morality Watch.  Maybe I ought not to dwell on this, but hey, what other revenge am I going to get?  I’m too nice to want anything bloodier.  It’s this or nothing.

Meanwhile, I hoped that the escape team was being a little more productive.  In other things, I mean.

Prison life in Daa’if was pretty darn quiet.  Chance to wash every two or three days, no signs of any chance to exercise or work.  No interaction for us solitaries – every once in awhile we got to hear a kerfuffle going on someplace with excited voices, but that was the limit of our social life.  Or, at least, that’s how it was for me.  There was a blank corridor opposite me and I couldn’t see anyone else.

Finally, the sixth night of incarceration rolled around.  Tomorrow Yithy goes free to save the day.  I hope.

I was feeling fairly mobile, though I was still very sore.  Good thing I wasn’t in too much pain, because that was another spectacularly restless night.  Then morning filtered in with its sneaky rays of light and its prayer calls.  Breakfast came and went.

Godspeed you, machine boy, you go.

The day passed with excruciating dullness.

Finally I found a song that could carry me through, at least for a good while: Soul Meets Body by Death Cab for Cutie:

I want to live where soul meets body

And let the sun wrap its arms around me

And bathe my skin in water cool and cleansing

And feel, feel what its like to be new…

 

And I do believe it’s true

That there are roads left in both of our shoes

But if the silence takes you, then I hope it takes me too.

 

So, brown eyes, I hold you near

‘Cause you’re the only song I want to hear,

A melody softly soaring through

my atmosphere

 

Where soul meets body.

 

I changed the eye colour appropriately as I sang it with a certain someone in mind.

Thank you, planet Earth, for that magical energy burst.

Then supper.  A chunk of meat!  Night prayer.  Darkness.

More cane strokes tomorrow unless something happens.  I sure, sure hope.

I sure hope that something … something …

I was almost asleep.

BOOOM! in the distance.  Noises of prisoners stirring, questioning.  I woke up and was completely alert.

B’QHOOOOM! again, much louder.  Lots of talk around me.

Running people, coming my way.  Torches moving.  Yes!   Four men, unrecognizable, heavily hooded and masked – and Xus, Eleya and – the boy!

Bolt was unlocked and I was out of there.  Eleya passed me my sword – which I confess I’d hardly touched in all the time I’d known it.

“Good to see you!” she whispered, “don’t talk now!”

Yith gave me a quick, loving scuff on the back of my head.

And then we pitpatted up the corridor at full speed.  The sweat from our nervous breakout team gave off the odour of freedom – I’ve never forgotten it since.

Huge commotion among the prisoners – they could see it was a jailbreak.  How would you feel if you’d been there for even a month? – let alone five or ten or twenty years – gosh, more time than I’ve been alive, or at least, aware.  A whole lifetime in the mouth of an animal with steel teeth, as isolated as Jonah inside the whale.  And here we were, just swimming by.

Everything was going smoothly.  I found out later that the rescue team had frightened the guards away from the door by firing the Khashakhr once, shouting “Ssaÿaqah!” (or in English style “Sa’iqah”) in loud voices from all sides, and, while one person opened the door, firing again.  Both times, Eleya had simply fired into the air, hoping that the returning bullet wouldn’t hit some far-away person at such an hour of the night.  “Ssaÿaqah” means a thunderclap, but the word is used in the Quran for the sound of God announcing the destruction of two unheeding Arabian civilizations, Thamuud and Ÿa’aad (’Ad).  The Khashakhr was a calamitously loud gun, and nothing like it had ever been heard in Daa’if:  the guards probably thought God was about to destroy the prison with thunderbolts, earthquakes or tons of sulphurous clay, like the city of Lot.

We made it up the passage to the top of the prison in no time.  When we got to the door, though, something wasn’t right.  As the first rescuer opened the wooden doors to step outside, he nearly got his hand chopped off by a dull grey flash of metal.  A lightning-fast turn of his wrist brought his sword up to block the blow, almost at the hilt.  We flung the doors open violently and knocked someone off his feet.

It was dark, but several torches were burning along the walls, lighting up the doorway.

“Aha,” said a familiar looking soldier, who was looking right at us.

My special friend from the Morality Watch.  The one who’d staked out our closet.

“Look at this!  Something rotten, all right!  Destroy them all.”

“The commander was right to have this watched,” said a man standing behind the others.  A Morality soldier lunged with his sword towards one of our guards.  Another deft block by our man, and they were in full combat.  Four more Morality guards charged in – and a boy behind them ran off, probably to fetch reinforcements.  A guard charged sword-first towards Eleya and she threw her hood back, revealing herself as a naked-headed woman.  She twisted and her long brown hair spun out like an eagle taking flight.  In that instant of surprise, her sword swooped down and hammered the man’s weapon right out of his hand.  The broad, curved blade clanged on the paving stones, skittering sideways from the force.  The man hovered a second, measuring his risks for picking up the sword.  Eleya wound up a stroke that would have split his skull from the side if he’d tried.  He straightened and stepped back in the nick of time; her slash cut him across the collarbone.  Blood beaded rapidly out of his tunic and he stepped back, reeling from the shock, and then withdrew.  Meanwhile, one of our guards had kicked the fallen sword back out of the field of action.  The wounded man retreated into a side street, clutching his upper chest.

My special guard decided that I was the real target, and he slash-hammered his way through two men in front of me, hitting their defending swords so hard that he knocked both men off balance momentarily.  They were then engaged by two other Morality guards and drawn away.  Yith tried to head my nemesis off from the side, but the man saw him and engaged his sword with a twisting motion.  Yith lost his grip and the sword flicked up and away with great momentum. It flew back dangerously and landed somewhere behind my back.  I raised my sword in clumsy disbelief at first, but then I got a grip on myself and when his first big thrust came at me, I met it from above and slowed it down to almost nothing as it bent towards the ground.  He was clearly stronger than I was, but he gave up that thrust and zigzagged his sword back slightly to take another angle.  Out of the corner of my eye, while Yith’s sword was still in the air, I’d seen Eleya turn from a two-on-one fight against one adversary and leap back, crouching to pull the Khashakhr out of its leg holster and then tossing it to Xus, who was coming around behind me on my left.  As my guard leaned in for a second thrust on me, Xus caught the gun, turned it upright at an angle, and fired it with a deafening roar.  The bullet knocked a chunk out of the thin, ornately carved cornice of the stone pediment overhead, and the chunk of white stone fell like a dead bird into the battlefield in front of my feet, spewing off chips and dust.

The huge gunblast made my attacker jump and shake his head – it must have temporarily deafened the ear it was close to – and in that moment, my sword was able to knock his aside; otherwise, I might have been skewered through the diaphragm.  Everyone on our side capitalized on the shock of the blast to attack with full force, and all the rescuers yelled out their battle cry – Ssssaaaaÿaaaqaaaah!!!”   The Morality guards, outnumbered eight to five from the beginning and reduced by Eleya to four, saw the cuneiform on the wall, so to speak.  One man was already on the run just after the stonework fell, and two of the others nearly paid with their lives by shifting their eyes to see him leave.  Xus and Eleya had both fallen heavily on my guy, and he too was distracted, looking at the black thing in Xus’s left hand as he fought two swords with his right.  Xus raised the gun up into the air again with a menacing slow thrust and that did it.   The guard turned and took off running to a safe distance.  His two outmatched companions just plain turned and vanished into a side street, following their companion’s trail of blood spots and leaving their captain alone in the small back-entrance square of the courthouse.  But all my nemesis saw for his courage in staying put was the eight of us running in defensive formation into the planned escape route down a narrow passage.  Ten horses and two more team members were waiting for us at the end.

And we were off for the border.  Everything was in order.  There was nothing to stop us but the friction of the wind against our cheeks.

The Morality Watch didn’t have a signal system set up beyond boys or horsemen running with the news.  Our rescuers were well aware of that.  We crossed the long stone bridge over the Shatt ad’Daa’if (the end basin of the Qodra River Canal, the area’s main water source) and travelled through the complicated street patterns of West Daa’if in the nearly pitch dark, following our leaders.  Finally, we made it out to the cricket chirps of the countryside.  Three of our allies fell back to guard the rear, just in case, and three went with us.   Within three hours we had made it through the almost invisible countryside to the border.  Only experienced horses who knew the route by memory and smell allowed us to go the distance.  Clearly, a lot of work had gone into our rescue plan.   Our horses, still the ones we’d bought in Diyyana, just bore us along behind the horses that knew the way.

The border post was manned by a single guard, but there was a barracks nearby where others presumably slept.  As we approached, a second and more familiar face appeared in the guard post entryway.  It was our bailiff, holding a half-drunken cup of tea in his hand.

“Shh …” he whispered.  “Everything is arranged.  Now, please, the other emerald, and you’re on your way.”

Xus reached into his tunic and pulled out a little bag that was attached to a lace.  He untied the lace and turned the bag over to the bailiff.  The man took a torch from the guardpost wall and looked closely.  His teeth glowed and flickered yellow in the torchlight.  It was not a discreet smile.

“Go,” he said to us.  “Best not to come back for awhile.”

“God be with you,” Yith said to him as we paced across the border.  The salutation was not returned. We had our horses walk as quickly as we dared past the border hut and into the darkness surrounding the post.  The animals were nervous.  Before long, we dismounted and more or less felt our way along the road, leading them along behind us.  Luckily, there was a wooden fenceline after a hundred metres or so, and we could follow it slowly.  One thing we didn’t have was a torch, and the two pencil-flashlights we’d bought in Regntum to bring with us had both stopped working awhile ago.  The switches were no good and had broken after a few uses.  Darn reversed technology.  But it scarcely mattered now; we didn’t really need to go anywhere.  We were out of the jurisdiction.  Etennemet viyaadstamet {thank God}.

One of the horses stumbled noisily but harmlessly against an invisible rut in the road below.

“Guys,” Eleya said, “we’re not in a safe walking zone.  But we’re in a safe hugging zone, and I need one.”

“Me too.”

“Oh, yes!”

“And me!” I said, just before my body got snatched and my mouth softly blocked.  I could tell that the right person had found me.  I’m sure the blind are great at lip recognition, and I realized I possessed the skill myself.  It was him, it was him.  So sweet, my lord, so sweet.  The universe was back in my arms.

The only sounds for many minutes were a couple of mini-neighs from the horses, or should I say mini-whinnies, and some jangling of harness bits.  Then a few other signs of horsey relaxation came in that we could easily ignore.  Or we could have, but the slightly comic effect of this relaxation going on for an unexpectedly long time, flooding the ground back there somewhere, finally raised a giggle from inside Yith’s lips.  Then I laughed a little, too.  Oh well.  Real life is like that.  Before long we were laughing quietly but infectiously like fools, so relieved to be with each other, biting each other’s earlobes and pushing each other’s heads around.  I picked my boyfriend right up off his feet, which wasn’t easy to do, and dangled his feet ten centimetres above the ground as we clasped each other.  His arms hurt my sore back, but who cares?  Far above our heads – I saw as I leaned back to hoist him up – brilliant stars were watching us intently.  Being back among them was a great relief.  It’s good to have friends in high places.

After a short while, we all came up for breath and ended up having a fireside chat with no fire.  Our horses were happy not to have to navigate and they stood peaceably enjoying the night air.

“I feel really bad that I cut that guy,” Eleya remarked, “and in a land without antibiotics, too.  I just didn’t think we’d all get out alive if he got that sword.  Those were expert swordfighters, all of them.”

“You did great – I’m sure it was necessary.  I almost blew it,” Xus said.  “When the gun blasted that chunk of stone off the building you could actually maybe guess that it was a weapon rather than the roar of divine thunder.  We really don’t want these guys to find out that there’s a weapon like that.”

“Could just be the divine thunder starting to crack up the building,” Eleya countered.  “Anyways, I’m just glad you didn’t need to use it directly on that guy.  He looked like he was going to run Marrik through there for a second.”

“He was close, but he wouldn’t have made it,” Yith said.  “I had a way of stopping him.”

“You?  You were just standing there with empty hands,” Eleya said pointedly.

“That was the best way for me to be.  Let me give you a longish explanation,” Yith said.  “I know Marrik is going to ask me how my six days in prison went.  I’d already decided I’d tell him the whole story.  Then I thought you might as well all hear the important part.  If we’re going to be in such dangerous situations, this might be good to know.

“This is something only Deiyah and Muumakar know about.  Some of us here were sworn to secrecy by Deiyah about some related topics, but this is partly new information even for, um, some of those people.”

Yith quickly explained how the early Communicators had borrowed some insect brain genetics to give the minds of everyone on the planet an entomological twist.  {The Communicators, wanting to be able to control humans they were shipping around, secretly engineered a way that allows a few unconscious, autonomic responses to be turned on in human brains.  Certain strange, distinctive hand gestures or strange combinations of sounds activate the embedded human reactions. The mechanism involves modifying the genetic development of the human brain by inserting key bits of insect brain genome, giving humans secret automaton-like switches that can be turned on with the gestures.  The gestures are thus called the Insect Signs by the five humans who know about their existence.}

“The mechanism is elegant in some ways, and in others it’s very crude,” he said.  “So, Eleya, what this means right now is that there are five things I can do with my hands, and also five sounds I can make, that will more or less shut down any human on this planet for awhile. Except Marrik, who wasn’t born here.”

“And you guys already knew about something related to this?” Eleya said, looking incredulously at Xus and me.  “I guess I’m not too surprised that Marrik knows something, but (she tilted her head at Xus) you?”

“I’m not allowed to say anything,” Xus answered.

“No one can swear me to secrecy about it,” Yith said, “because all of us Stcho’s’s’s ‘a’sh’sh know it perfectly well and it’s our information.  On this planet, though, it’s officially an aenopikonal {= state} secret.  I think for the sake of Xus, though, I should tell you and let him off the hook – but you then need to swear to me that you’ll keep it as an aenopikonal secret on this world.”

“I will,” Eleya said.

Yith told Eleya the rest of the history of genetic transformation on Vweialer – the sDiyyanantse Signs, the fewwer genes, and the genetic linkage to fewwer resistance.  {People of Diyyana, but not people from other countries on Vweialer, were genetically engineered by the Communicators to be partly resistant to a usually-fatal disease called ‘fewwer tse shallour.’  Their minds can also be manipulated by more secret signals than those of people from elsewhere. The reasons for this are explained in another part of the book, and part of the plot turns around it.}

“So how do you know about this?” Eleya asked Xus.  “Are you telling me you can actually keep a secret?  Even from me?  I don’t know if I like that!”  She ruffled his hair in a mock-threatening way.

“He was there for a conversation between Deiyah and Tumurahashssehah Nap’krnaqshsslmotek’p {one of the Communicator aliens} in the lander after I got fewwer,” Yith said, “though there’s a little more to the story than that.  I think it’s up to Xus how much he wants to say about it now, though – now that I’ve already told you the officially secret part.”

“Hmm,” Eleya mused ominously.  “Will you decide to tell me or not??”

“The truth is,” Xus said, “that some of what Yith just told you, you’ve already heard from my lips before.  You just can’t remember it.”

He then told her about his crowning moment as a bad-boy, his broadcasting of the state secret, and the events that followed while the crowd sat stunned.  {The audience was manipulated with Insect Signs so that they forgot what they’d heard}

“And so here we are today,” he said, giving a small sigh.  “Close to penniless on a dirt road in Qodra with cane marks all over my best friend’s back, instead of living at home, going to school and working on our swimming.”

“Wow.  No wonder that day felt so weird.  Marrik, I think he deserves all those cane marks himself.  Want to find a cane and give them to him?”  She grabbed Xus by the shoulders and gave him a bearish squeeze just so he’d know he was still on the good side – somehow.

“He repented completely,” I said. “Anyways, I love him too much to give him even one, and I don’t think anyone deserves fifty of those.”

“Just kidding.  Neither do I.  Xussi’k!, my love, suddenly I see why you’ve become so unbelievably conscientious most of the time these days.  Apart from one little lapse on a beach recently.”  She stroked the back of his neck affectionately.

“Oi, I have sinned,” Xus moaned, slightly comically but still shaking his head.

I never thought of that.  Here was someone else who had to live without being able to live with himself.  A very appropriate friend for me.

And when I was playing my blame game the other night, I didn’t even think of him.  Gosh, am I loyal or what?

And no doubt he blames himself for everything.

Oh well, maybe everyone has unbearable guilt if they stop to think too much about it.

Or maybe that only applies to everyone you’d actually want to know.

“So, sorry, I got us kind of sidetracked,” Yith piped up.  “I was going to talk about prison.  It was boring for a couple of days and nothing happened, and then one of the guards took an interest in me.  He offered me bread and skins of wine if I’d let him basically mount me like a stallion.  I told him I was married to Marrik and I’d never do it anyways.  He said I’d never see Marrik again, and then he started to threaten me because I had an accident in my blanket one night – he said I was unclean filth and he could stuff my mouth with my blanket, and so on.  I told him he wasn’t going to get what he wanted from me, no matter what he said.  On my second-last night there, before the torches went out, he came down on a special trip to get me, with a huge kitchen slave, a man who never speaks.  He pointed his sword at me and told me to lie face down on the ground and then he gave the sword to the big guy and told him to keep me down. Then he started hoisting up his robe.  By the way, stallion doesn’t begin to describe what he was planning to impale me with.  And I figure the big guy would probably have been next in line – how else could you trust him with the sword?  But just before the big guy could get the sword right up to my neck, I twisted around and did a sign in front of both of them.  These early signs are pretty clumsy, so this one makes people just pass out for around eight hours.  Both of them just fell over, out cold.  And then, because this one makes humans lose some muscular control, they both messed up their clothes and started drooling, and their eyelids opened so you could see their eyes rolling up in their heads.  It couldn’t have been much more disgusting.

“The guard who came to shut the torches down found them there like that.  He roared for help and started yelling at me about what I’d been doing these guys.  I said they’d had a fight with each other over who’d be first to mount me and knocked each other out.  The story didn’t really fit the scene, but it was the only thing I could think of.  I told the guard that if I’d wanted to do anything hostile, the sword was right there – I could have killed both of them any time I wanted to.  That impressed the guards, so they left me alone.  But the next day, they were scared of me.  Obviously the guard who tried to do it had woken up and denied fighting with the slave.  Maybe the slave could be questioned as well, in some way.  When they were releasing me, one of the guards who took me to the exit shoved me out the door and said, ‘May God protect us from ever having a servant of Satan in here again.’  I think that was one of the reasons the gun worked so well the next night.  The guards were all in a state of horror already.”

“Well!” I said, holding him tight and caressing his hair and his neck.  “That’s truly awful, way too awful, but you did well, love, and you’re safe and healthy, that’s the best thing.  And I have to thank you for the help, and come to think of it, I haven’t had a chance yet to say a big, loud THANK YOU to all of you guys for getting me out of that hellfire.  I don’t know what would have happened if I’d had fifty more lashes in the morning – it’s unimaginable.  Every single stroke is more painful than you can imagine, even on new skin.  With skin that already hurts – it’s just insufferable.  I made it through a kind of eternity, all of it pain.  Couldn’t conceive of doing it again.”

All three of them surrounded me and gently, thoughtfully, hugged me in the places where it wouldn’t hurt.  My love for them was so intense that if it had been translated into rock music, it would have blown all our eardrums out.  But love is very quiet.  Still, I’m sure they knew it was there.

“I’m sorry, Marrik,” Yith said quietly.  “If I could have thought of a way to use the signs to get you out of that situation, I would have, no matter what the fallout.”

“I understand,” I quickly replied, giving him a reassuring kiss on the cheek.  But he wanted to keep going.

“We were hugely outnumbered.  All it takes is one hard-of-hearing person who’s looking away, or someone who’s distracted by a loud noise and looks towards it, and that’s it, you’re discovered.  Then if they’re smart enough to run for reinforcements, you could be surrounded.  As soon as someone figures it out, it’s just a matter of looking away and putting in earplugs.  It only works well when you can catch everyone by surprise on the first go.  It was designed for machines, who can make the sounds at unbelievable volume.  Deiyah had a public address system.  I just had…”

“…One perfect human body,” I broke in.  “We’re alive, I’m healing up, and we’re together.  This is heaven.”  We very rudely shared a long kiss, leaving Eleya and Xus with nothing to do but to imitate us.  It was going to be a long night in the dark, so we took a significant fraction of the night to exchange encrypted chat with our lips. It was all good news.

**************************

 

Part 3.  Truth and Reconciliation Hearing in the Sharia Zone

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2 Responses to Part 2. Arrest and Judgment in the Sharia Zone

  1. Pingback: Part 3: Truth and Reconciliation Hearing in the Sharia Zone | thismoonlesssky

  2. Pingback: A Same-Sex Marriage in the Sharia Zone | thismoonlesssky

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