Soldier of Sidon

Gene Wolfe

Tor Books

Chapter 1

I am to write everything that takes place on this scroll, as concisely as I can. I will try. I must read this every morning, too. Muslak will tell me. I must have Myt-ser’eu tell me also. Let me begin with the first things I remember.

We left the ship and searched for an inn, ate and drank there, and slept in the same room. It was crowded and some of us returned to the ship to sleep, although I did not.

I woke when the others did, awakened, I think, by their footsteps. We ate again, and Muslak told me his name and that he is the captain of our ship. “We’re in Kemet, Lewqys, with a cargo of hides. This was where you wanted to go.”

I said, “I have been trying to remember my name. Thank you.”

“You couldn’t remember it?”

I shook my head.

“That’s bad. Your memory comes and goes. Now it seems like it’s gone. Know why we’re here?”

I said, “To sell the hides, I suppose.”

“But what about you? Why are you here?”

I had thought myself one of his ship’s crew. Clearly I was not, so I shook my head again.

“That settles it. I’m taking you to a healer. They have the best healers in the world right here, and you’re going to see one.” He rose and motioned to me, and I followed him.

We spoke about healers with the innkeeper and set off for the House of Life, near which they are found. Here I should say that this bustling city is called Sais.

It is of great interest. First, because it seems so strange. Second, because I feel that I have seen such a place long ago. It is familiar, in other words, yet seems very foreign.

The houses of the poor are thatched mud huts, so small that most ofthe things other peoples do in their houses must be done outside. They have no windows. Only a few are painted.

The houses of richer folk are very different and are gaily painted, most often green, blue, or both. Some are of mud brick, though their paint deceived me until we had walked some distance. Some are wood. Some are of mud brick at the bottom, with wood higher up. All are surrounded by walls that prevented me from seeing what was in their courtyards. Often these walls are yellow or ocher, though a few are orange or red. At first I thought there were windows on the second level alone. Then I recalled the room in which we had slept, how high it was. I think these rooms are like that. The doors of the houses are small and low, the windows small and near the ceiling. It must be because the sun is so hot here.

Before I write of the healers, I should say that all these houses have flat roofs, and that some of the houses really are of two levels, both lofty. There are gardens on the flat roofs. I have seen many flowers there, and even some palms. These must be planted in tubs. There are also triangular sails, or perhaps tents, always two and always back-to-back. The sailcloth is as bright as the houses. I wanted to ask Muslak what they were, but was afraid he did not know and did not want to embarrass him.

The first healer we spoke with was a tall, lean man, as many men are here.

“This fellow,” Muslak said, indicating me, “is a mercenary officer who has served the Great King. He’s a good man and a fine fighter, but he cannot remember his name. Every morning we must tell him who he is and where he is, and why he is here.”

The healer rubbed his jaw. “Why is he?”

(I should write that this was not said in my own tongue, in which I write it, but in the speech of Kemet, which Muslak knows much better than I.)

“He saved me from slavery,” Muslak explained. “The price he asked was to be returned to his home in Luhitu.”

“You did as he wished?”

“I did, and the next time that we put in there I looked him up to see how he was doing. I hoped he had his memory back and would remember me. He was as bad as ever, but he had written ‘Riverland’ above his door. I talked to his wife, and she said it was to tell him he must go there again to find out what had happened to him. I asked some other people what it meant, and it is their name for your country.”

“Ours is the Black Land,” the first healer said. (Kemet is black in their speech.)

“I know. But other people have other names for it. Anyway, I told him we would go there to trade, and he was welcome to sail with us if he wanted to. His wife wanted to come along, too. I told her it was impossible—a ship has to have special arrangements for women, and we didn’t have them. She said she would come anyway.

I told her she would be in a lot of danger. You understand.”

The first healer nodded.

“Somebody would lift her skirt, then kill her so she couldn’t tell Lewqys. Because Lewqys would kill him sure. He’s a terror with that crooked sword. When I was to be sold, they had two men guarding us, and he killed them both before they could draw breath.”

“His wife is not with you?”

Muslak shook his head. “He came down to my ship in the harbor when we were nearly loaded, but he came alone. I think he must have written his law on her as soon as I left. But what’s wrong with him? That’s the point. Why can’t he remember?”

“I was not merely inquisitive,” the first healer explained. “A wife often knows things a man’s friends do not. I hoped to question her.”

He clapped his hands. “I want to consult a colleague of mine.”

“You think we’re all rich,” Muslak said. “Let me tell you that it isn’t so, and until I can sell my cargo I’ll have very little.”

A boy came, and the first healer told him to bring Ra’hotep.

While we waited, the first healer talked with me, asking my name. I gave it, and he asked how I knew it. I explained that Muslak had told me.

“Would your wife call you so?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I did not remember that I had a wife until now.”

“When we are born, we do not know how to talk. You remember how to talk, clearly.”

I nodded.

“Also how to use your sword, from what your friend says.”

I said that I did not know whether I knew or not, but it seemed plain how such a sword must be used.

“Just so. May I look at it?”

I drew my sword and offered it to him hilt-first.

“There is a word written here,” he said, “but it is not in the true Thoth-inspired writing. I cannot read it. Can you?”

“Falcata,” I said. “It’s the name of my sword.”

“How do you know that?”

I said I had read it on the blade this morning, which was a lie.

“If he were in the grip of a xu, he would not have handed me his sword,” the first healer told Muslak. (I think this word must mean daemonin their tongue.) “Also, he speaks sensibly, and those who are in the grip of a xu never speak sensibly for long. Has he anything to gain by shamming?”

“Nothing,” Muslak declared, “and he couldn’t have deceived me for more than a day. Besides, he pretends to remember sometimes. He wouldn’t do that if he were faking.”

The first healer smiled. “So, Lewqys, you lie to us, do you?”

I said, “I suppose I do. All men lie at times, it seems to me.”

“Oh, really? I would have said not. Who has lied to you recently?”

“I don’t know.”

While we spoke, the second healer entered. He greeted the first  politely and took a stool.

“This foreign man forgets everything,” the first healer explained. “His friend the ship-master has brought him to me. The disorder is of long standing.”

Ra’hotep nodded, not looking at the first healer but very intently at me. He is shorter than Muslak, and perhaps twenty years older.

Muslak said, “Lewqys is a mercenary. He owns a farm in his own country. His relatives work it for him while he is away.”

Ra’hotep nodded again in the manner of one who had reached a decision. “Was he like this when you met him for the first time?”

Muslak shook his head.

“Tell me of your first meeting.”

“We were upriver. We’d sold our cargo and were looking for  something else—papyrus at a good price, cotton cloth, or whatever. He had found out that the satrap had sent troops to the Great King, not his own troops from Parsa, but Nubians and your people. He had a hundred men and tried to get the satrap to hire them too. He wouldn’t—he’d already sent the Great King what he’d asked for. I told Lewqys he’d have no trouble in Byblos—that’s my own city. They’d be snapped up there, and good money. He said he’d go, but he didn’t have enough to hire my ship. He’d have to march overland.”

“And did you, Latro?”

He was clearly speaking to me. I asked if that was also my name.

“It’s the name I was given by your comrades when I saw you with the Great King’s army. It took me a moment to recall it, but I’m sure that was it. Did you march overland? It’s difficult.”

“I don’t know.”

“You clearly reached this man’s country in some fashion. When I treated you, it was said you were one of Sidon’s soldiers.” Ra’hotep turned to the first healer. “He is somewhat improved, but not greatly. Have you anything to suggest?”

They spoke of herbs and potions for some while. I could not write all of it here if I wished to. Ra’hotep said that he had tried to drive out a xu and thought there was none. The first healer tried, but achieved nothing. He gave me medicine to take each day.

This is important. Set is master of the bad xu. He is the god of the South. There is a temple far to the south where a successful appeal to him might be made. Muslak says he does not know it.

He paid the first healer. Ra’hotep gave me this scroll, some reed pens, and a cake of ink; but he would take nothing, saying he had been of no help. I offered him my sword, saying truly that I had nothing else. He said I was the soldier, not he. He would not take it. I must talk with him further whenever the opportunity arises, and make him a gift when I can.

Muslak and I walked back to our ship. Muslak said we would go to the temple of Hathor tonight, as we did. “She’s a helpful goddess,” he told me, “and she may be able to help you. We’re right here, and what’s the use of not trying?”

I said, “None, of course.”

“Right. Besides, I want to hire a singing girl, and that’s where you get them.”

I asked whether he meant to give a dinner for someone.

He laughed. “I want a wife for the voyage upriver. Now you’re going to say I wouldn’t take your wife when she wanted to go with you.”

I said I recalled his telling the physician about it.

“It was the truth. It’s one thing to take a singing girl upriver, something else to take a decent woman across the Great Sea. If one of my crew gets to my singing girl, it won’t matter much. I’ll punish him and that will be that. Besides, we won’t sleep on the ship. I’ll have her on shore in a room to myself.”

Merchants were waiting to view the hides in our hold, portly, serious men with many rings and oiled skin. At Muslak’s order, sailors  carried up three and four hides of each kind. They were of fine quality. The merchants went down into the hold, chose others, and carried them up to view in the sunlight, which was then so bright as to be almost blinding. I helped, and these hides too were fine. Several made offers which merely amused Muslak.

He explained to them that he can get much a better price in the great cities to the south. The merchants here in Sais will offer only the lowest prices, thinking that he will wish to sell what he has and get another cargo quickly.

Some time after we ate, a soldier of Parsa arrived with a letter for Muslak. I studied this soldier, for it seems I have been a soldier of Great King’s just as he is. He was of medium height, bearded, and appeared strong. He had a bowcase, a light ax with a long haft, and a dagger. He wore more clothing than most people do here.

Muslak scowled at first when he read the letter, then smiled. When he had finished, he read it again before he rolled it up and put it into his chest.

The three of us found a scribe, and from what Muslak said I learned that the letter had been from the satrap of Kemet. Muslak told him that his ship was large and sound and his crew strong, and declared that he would obey at once. The soldier left with Muslak’s letter, although I would have liked to speak more with him.

“You’ll see thousands like that, Lewqys. We’re going to the White Wall, the biggest fortress in the whole country.”

“To see the satrap?”

Muslak nodded. “To see Prince Achaemenes himself. He has a job for us.”

I asked whether this Achaemenes would pay us, for I wish to earn money.

“He says he’ll reward us handsomely.” Muslak fingered his beard.  “He must be one of the richest men in the world.”

There were more merchants, but the heat made me sleepy. I found a shady spot under a tree in the courtyard of our inn and slept.
 
 
Copyright © 2006 by Gene Wolfe. All rights reserved.