The market had been stifling and crammed with people. My head was pounding from the previous evening’s excesses. I had been about to leave the bread stall empty-handed. You see, I had left my purse in my room – a rented shack near the Forum of the Ox, with a delightful view of the bronze bull within which they used to burn condemned men. I was about to twist away and trudge back to get my coins, when I met the stranger: a portly man in loose-fitting pale robes clutching a basket of loaves. He stood in my path, blocking my way. At first I thought he meant to challenge me about something, but then he took a loaf from his basket and offered it to me.
‘No money,’ I grunted.
‘No need,’ he said in a strange, melodic accent. ‘Take it.’ When I hesitated, he patted his generous paunch. ‘I insist. It will do me good.’
With a gentle nod of appreciation, I accepted, eyeing him a little more closely as I did so. His skin was dark, like his tresses of oiled and groomed hair and close-cut beard. He had spoken in good Greek, but with that strange lilt. A Saracen, I realised.
As I began to trudge back towards the taverns, I realised he was walking with me, or at least headed in the same direction. Together, we cut a path through the crowds. ‘You have come from Syria? Or Egypt?’ I guessed, picking at the bread as I went.
‘I have homes in more than a dozen cities, my friend,’ he replied. ‘I sailed here last moon. I will remain until my cargo of ostrich eggs dries up.’
‘You came by ship?’ I asked him. I didn’t mean to inflect the word ‘ship’ so much.
‘I certainly did not sprout wings and fly,’ he said with a barking laugh.
I smiled despite my crushing headache. ‘Of course. It’s just that some in this city swear that the people from the sands of the distant south and east…’ my words trailed off as I realised that what I was about to say was probably meant only for the ears of Byzantines.
‘That we prefer the flatulence of camels to the prayers of fishes?’ he finished for me anyway. ‘Yes, I’ve heard that one,’ he grinned.
I recalled old soldier stories from the taverns. Tales of marching under the banner of the long-dead Emperor Heraclius, all the way the Ctesiphon, of sacking the Persian capital and toppling that ancient rival empire for once and for all. ‘What is it like, out in that country of sand? With the Persians gone, it must be a wasteland of sorts?’
His face dropped a little then, as if a thread had been pulled away. ‘If only it were so, my friend. That is the great lesson that man never seems to learn. When one great power falls, it leaves a void. A chasm of great danger. That which fills it might be a far graver threat than what was there before.’
His words made me think of a storm I had once endured at sea, our skiff rolling crazily around the lip of a whirlpool to the roar of the waves and screaming wind, battered by stinging hail and freezing spume. In that dreadful squall, I had stared down into the depths of the whirlpool’s inky abyss, sure I was looking death in the eye.