Footsteps On The Ocean Bed
To be born as a slave and to die as a queen ought to make a girl thoughtful, but I guess there's something in this old heart that never stops moving, floating on the world like spindrift. My Californian friends suggest to me that keeping a diary would give me some "centre", but my centre disappeared below the waves millennia ago. So I'm going to jot down some notes about my life, a sort of CV with dialog.
My mother Atlanta was a serving wench in the court of the twin kings Atlas and Eumelus. The palace was situated on the central island of the City - known to posterity as Atlantis, named in honour of my mother - but in those days known simply as "the City". It only needed a capital letter in order not to be confused with any other metropolis.
My mother was my father's whore first and my uncle's wife second. I never asked for details but I can only surmise that my father Altas saw my mother's breasts as she bent over to serve him wine, or spotted her ripe little ass as she scrubbed the palace floor and decided to have her. And soon after, nature obeying that genetic quirk that shaped the royal family - and genetics forms a large part of this tale - my mother gave birth to twins, twin babies of a twin father, myself and Qualopec.
Of course she was dismissed from her position like many a pregnant vassal before and since, but it became a cause celebre. Atlas left "to hold up the world", officially, but in actuality to subdue what is now know as Turkey, and after a few years my soppy Uncle Eumelus married my mother and adopted us. My mother gave birth once again to twins by Eumelus, Tihocan and Astarte, and then died, possibly of disappointment. I never knew her except from the cold marble statues dotted around the island whose hard breasts always repulsed my girlish tears.
There was a royal funeral - after all, Atlanta had been queen for a year - and we four uncomprehending royal tots were no doubt bounced along in the wake of our father's chariot like posh luggage. We immediately became the Atlantean equivalent of media darlings. There was a public petition, and nine of the ten kings met and decreed that from now on the City was to be renamed "Atlantis" and that we four children were the heirs apparent to the Empire. Ephemeral beings, those nine kings - childless and effete and uninterested in women to a man - too much alien DNA perhaps. Only Atlas could subdue and destroy like a real man, and the perfumes and intrigues of the City had driven him away to more masculine pastures doubtless dotted with fresher meat.
I'm aware that I've started my tale with a sour tone of voice, but I find it difficult not to be sour about Atlantis. But maybe I shouldn't. Never was there or has there been such a glorious place as Atlantis. The City (as it continued to be called despite the official name change) was made of a central island surrounded by three concentric rings, each separated by ocean. This geography had been dictated by the architects of Poseidon, titular twin god of Atlantis along with his nameless colleague, the Sun. Those early builders had discovered the lips of three concentric craters, remains of three historically distant eruptions from the one volcano, and they laid down their basements of gypsum and concrete and levelled them flat. On the central island they built five palaces surrounding a giant twin temple dedicated to the Lord of the Sea and the Lord of the Sky, the maritime setting sun, ironically, forming the basis of Atlantis' flag. However it should be noted that the wise men of the City pointed out that a setting sun looks much the same as a rising sun, and that circular Atlantis, rolling through prehistory like a wheel of fate, was destined to rise and fall and rise again like the sea tides. And indeed in the middle part of my life I began to call myself the Once and Future Queen, my Atlantean sensibilities tuned to the philosophy that history is a series of wheels within a bigger wheel, and that all things past are destined to reoccur. Artemis, the Goddess of Wisdom, may have invented human memory to try and help mankind to learn from history, but Bacchus, the God of Forgetfulness, cursed the gift by making memory short-lived and forever clouded by physical sensation and raging emotion.
But I digress. I am an old woman, in my second century, and even a continually renewed body cannot banish the mental cobwebs and the tendency to drift away into the warm sea of nostalgia. Not even my finest science has banished the curse of Bacchus.
Poseidon and Artemis and the other Olympeans had arrived on our shores in their shining ships a century or so before, and they had taught us everything. Atlantis was a cross between a University and a Commune, with every citizen versed in some art or technique that placed men into the realms of the founder gods, and many of which are only vaguely glimpsed in the present benighted twentieth century. I watch the President of the United States making some grandiose claim for the nation that he regards as the peak of human achievement, and I cannot help but think that America is little more advanced that one of the smaller towns near the borders of the Atlantean Empire. I came secretly among you with the wealth of Atlantis in my brain and it has been like tricking a room full of small children (although, of course, with no malign intent on my part, but simply the best interests of us all).
And so back to Atlantis and my schooldays. We four children chose an area of specialisation for our studies. I chose Medicine and Alchemy, Tihocan chose Physics and Music, Qualopec chose War and Engineering and Astarte chose Religion and the Arts. We all had our pet projects and sometimes we collaborated, using our twinly psychologies to dispense (almost) with the need for words. Qualopec and I communed over the design of the ultimate Soldier Creature whilst Astarte and Tihocan worked on a unified theory of Mathematics and Magic, with which they hoped to subdue the vagaries of Time.
Can I remember how we seemed to each other? Can I describe our personalities? It all seems so very long ago - it is - and I am straining to remember even snippets of conversation. All of the recording devices that might provide me with a record have been crushed beneath the waves and only exist now as flattened and rusty remains in museums, their true uses misassigned.
However, I remember one day standing near the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Poseidon and hearing the voice of my step-sister Astarte lifted in a religious ode that she had scripted and that Tihocan had set to music, a Hymn to Inanna, perhaps. I approached her, then maybe in her fifteenth year, and watched and listened.
Her face was as white as the Moon that she admired and unlike myself she had black hair and black eyes. Her long hair covered her face and her slender body was clothed in a simple gown woven from fibres of orichalcum; in those days she only possessed the one pair of breasts and her bizarre nature had not caused her to commission from me the clusters that you sometimes see on her surviving statues. (Incidentally, for the modern reader who may not have much personal experience of orichalcum or ancient statues, let me say that Astarte in her youth resembled slightly the Japanese woman who emerges from the television at the end of the movie The Ring. Only with better hair.)
Astarte was singing to the accompaniment of two mechanical birds perched on her outstretched arms and the beams of coloured lights issuing from her jewelery. I should explain that she sang in the lost language of High Atlantean, a sacred language not only written in animated glyphs, but spoken with highlights and emphases of lights and sounds. Imagine if your everyday talk was peppered by outbursts from the apparatus used to communicate with the Greys in the movie Close Encounters, and you'll get the general idea.
"Queen of Queens," warbled Astarte in an archaic soprano voice, "who in accordance with the spirits were greater than your mother the moment you were born, wise and knowing queen of all the lands, mother of men and animals, I sing your praise. I have entered before you in my holy garments, I the princess imperial, Enheduanna, singing as I carried your ritual baskets, High Priestess of the Moon." It loses somewhat in translation.
I applauded. "What fine substance you and our Royal Brother Tihocan weave from the raw material of the arts, My Royal Sister," I said.
Astarte bowed. "I thank you, My Royal Sister," she said. "Your praise is like the seasoning that transforms an simple meal."
"May I ask - who is Enheduanna?"
"Your hymn mentions a High Priestess of the Moon?"
"Ah," said Astarte, scratching an ear. "A made-up name I fear. Astarte wouldn't scan properly. Maybe it will be my new name should the office of High Priestess of the Moon ever be invented."
I reflected that if Astarte thought I was going to call her Enheduanna she'd have a long wait. "If you do not invent it My Royal Sister," I said, "then I cannot say who will."
We bowed again.
"And what of your inventions, with your retorts and strings of nerve and muscle?" asked Astarte.
"How kind of you to ask. Why this very morning I have hatched a lithophage, a black and terrible creature, whose very saliva allows it to eat through solid rock."
"And is this a toy for our Royal Brother, the martial Qualopec?"
"Maybe," I said, laughing lightly, "although I may place the creature in our Imperial Mines and set a handler to recover its scat, which no doubt will contain valuable minerals and metals."
"An action which should place you in the good graces of our other Royal Brother Tihocan, whose devices and mechanoids no doubt need a constant source of raw material."
"And thus we four Royal siblings co-exist in pleasant harmony for the benefit of Atlantis," I said.
You may be thinking - do people really talk like that? We did, in the Palaces of Atlantis. It made every conversation like a game, a joust, an amusement. I cannot say why we talked like that; it was as it was, right from the moment we said our first words. I'm told my first word was the Atlantean for "spider", emphasised with glints and flashes from my babyish rattle clutched in a chubby fist. Half of me is relieved to have learned English, prosaic as it is.
"Tell me, my Royal Sister," said Astarte, linking her arm with mine as we strolled through the gardens, gardens scattered with tame wolves and lambs lying down together, and lit by the sparkling of waterfalls and silverfish butterflies. "What do you know, if it is not too impertinent a question, of love?"
"Do you mean sex?" I said, holding my right hand in the gesture that means "apology for an intrusive but necessary question."
"Ah ha. Thus speaks the world of the pragmatic scientist."
"I do not deny the presence of strong emotion; the urge to mate is made up of an overwhelming soup of nervous and hormonal activity."
"But what of friendship, affection?" Astarte snipped an orchid bloom with her silver shears and held it first to her nose and then to her ear, no doubt seeking the scent or sound of Grandfather Poseidon.
"It is necessary, since the young of our species are so defenceless, that we be programmed with social and bonding circuitry. However it is only in the most advanced conditions of civilisation that we - the human animal - can afford the luxury of seemingly putting another's survival before our own. We have the safety net of society to make that gamble feasible. In man's primitive past, I doubt whether love and friendship was anything more than the self-preserving urges of pragmatism."
Astarte sighed. "Oh my wise but cold sister," she said. "I wish I had your logic and clarity of vision. You gaze calmly on things that the rest of us run screaming from."
"I am not without emotion," I said, somewhat defensively. I rearranged the pebbles in a stone garden with my slippered toe, the disorder in the pattern seemingly mimicking my inner state. "I just don't seem to be as overwhelmed by my feelings as most."
"And there is your strength and your weakness. One day you will fall in love, and you will have no defense."
"I salute your expertise in such matters, my Royal Sister, and thanks to your warnings I shall attempt to always be on guard against that day."
"The reason I mention love is that I fear that I may be in love."
I held Astarte's arm tighter and gazed into her dark eyes. I could diagnose a mixture of excitement and trepidation in them.
"Who is she?" I asked.
Astarte blushed. "I realise that it is the convention that we members of the Royal Family only take same gender lovers, to prevent any unwanted issue ..."
"Surely not a man?" I said, aghast.
She lowered her eyes and fanned herself rapidly. "He is Captain Attis, the driver of my lion chariot," she whispered.
"Come, my Royal Sister," I said. "Let us retire to the privacy of the water-shielded arboretum where we can discuss these matters further with no fear of evesdroppers."
Later beneath the cool trees with their artificial sky of flowing liquid, I took the amphora that the slaves had brought us and poured a measure of ambrosia into two gold and ivory cups.
"Let us offer a portion to the sea and the sun, my beloved Royal Sister," I said, and Astarte and I spilled a few drops onto the earth.
"My health to you," said Astarte, "and let us pray that I - untypically for the denizens of our City - have not sown the seeds of my own destruction."
"May I ask a few questions of a medical nature?" I enquired, after we had drunk the alcoholic curds down and were dabbing the cheesy cream from our lips with silken serviettes. "I shall observe all the tenets of the Gods of Healing and shall maintain all secrecy whilst - as I am bound to - doing no harm."
"Naturally, my Royal Sister. If sisters cannot converse about such topics, then who may?"
"Have you and this ... Captain Attis ... had sexual intercourse?"
Astarte took another gulp of ambrosia. "He has placed his sexual organ inside of me and we were both pleasured to the point of orgasm."
"And how often has this occurred, my Royal Sister?"
"Just the once."
"And did this man force himself upon you?"
"Naturally not, my Royal Sister. If such an unfortunate event had occurred then I in turn would have had the cook slit his throat and place the body out on the rocks for the crows and vultures to peck at."
I bade her lay back on a couch and raise her shift whilst I examined her. There would never have been a hymen - in the technical sense we Atlantean girls lost the physicality of virginity as soon as our bodies became sexually functional and we were introduced to the mysteries of tampons and sex toys. However, I did see other signs.
"There are bruises, my Royal Sister," I observed, "and contusions."
Astarte blinked rapidly and gave a small smile. "Our congress was vigorous and not unlike that of animals in rut."
"And were you best pleased?"
"More pleased than I could say. I cried out in tongues to the Moon as our passion was consummated."
"How very poetic," I said drily and then added, in order to avoid any offense. "It must have been very beautiful."
"Actually it was rather ugly and primitive with no finer feelings, and as such extremely satisfying. And out of that grunting, sweating excess a strange flower has bloomed in my heart."
I allowed her to rearrange her clothing and poured us more drink.
"Let us hope that the only flowering is in your heart, as you so artistically put it. That is the one organ where we need not fear a flowering."
"Oh, but my Royal Sister, that is where you may be mistaken. I feel a serpent coiling in my loins and lips and breast and spine. It is as if its toothy embryo will any day split open my head and fall in bloody birth coils upon the ground."
I hid a sigh. "Nonetheless, to be blunt, let us hope that you are not pregnant."
Astarte did her blinking thing again. "Would that be a bad thing?" she asked, tentatively.
"Genetically, no," I said. "It's refreshing to think of a child whose parents are not related. But politically ..."
We gazed through the water sheet at the sun over the sea.
"When will I know?"
"Come to my workshops and I will use my arts to find out," I said. "It would be a trivial matter to abort any foetus and to place you on a contraceptive regime should you decide that you wish to accept Captain Attis into yourself again."
"And if I decided to keep the child?"
"In that event I think that we would have to confer with the rest of the Royal Family."
And, of course, she was pregnant. Doubtless I'd hardly have remembered the whole thing otherwise. My machines sipped of her blood and peered into her womb and there was the gilled infant that we'd anticipated, looking for all the world like a living shrimp embedded on a slab of raw steak. The seed that Captain Attis had so enthusiastically thrust into the clutching hand of my sister's moist loins had taken root.
The next day I was conversing with my twin, Qualopec, using the mechanical aetheroscope that my Royal Brother Tihocan had invented. We siblings tended to refer to the aetheroscope "the trumpet", much to its designer's annoyance, since not only was the image of the caller reflected on a shield of bronze, but their voice was relayed through a copper cone.
After we had spend the necessary five minutes referring to each other's titles in a courtly fashion, with many a "My Beloved Royal Brother Whose Virility Causes the Corn to Cob" and "My Radiant Royal Sister Whose Beauty Eclipses The Petals Of The Midnight Blooming Moon Rose" and other such nonsense, I wrestled the trumpet conversation around to the point.
"My Royal Brother," I said. "We four must meet on an urgent matter."
Qualopec was on campaign with his step-father Atlas - the only one of us four who had any contact with Atlas. They were testing out some gargantuan mechanical horses from the hand of Tihocan, monstrous automata of metal and wood with which the Army of Atlantis was tearing down the walls of a rebel city named Ilium.
"I am yours to obey as always," said Qualopec, wiping spilled brains from his face with a cloth. I could hear a hideous tinny whinnying drowning the shrieks of dying Trojans in the background as the giant wooden horses did their pitiless work. I could feel the land trembling under their bloodshod hooves even through the aetheroscope.
Qualopec was a handsome man in those days, straight of limb, strong and shining. His men called him the "Accilles", an archaic word meaning "fleet of foot". Needless to say this was in the days before a near death experience left him hanging in an arachnid-walking, life-supporting exoskeleton, a tale which I shall now doubt relate in due course.
I contacted little Tihocan in his laboratory, but he indicated that he had disabled the speaker of the trumpet. The settings on the brass screen were set so low that he was little more than a silhouette lit by occasional balls of cerulean lightning.
"We are testing the power of light and music," he wrote on a slate. His eyes were covered by thickly smoked gentian goggles and his ears encased in shells of armoured and armatured beeswax. "We may be able to make Time stumble for a second using the correct interference patterns."
"That's utterly fascinating my darling brother but I need you back here at the palace for a conference," I wrote.
Tihocan gave me a gauntleted thumbs-up and smiled his broad pearly smile as the cavern behind him appeared to explode into a veritable donner and blitzen of a son et lumiere show.
And so we four siblings met in the Tertiary Throne Room of the Palace of Mneseus and Autochthon, a little used place with an enchanting view of the curve of the Inner Circular Sea, a calming venue well suited to conversations of an occult nature.
I chaired the meeting, and in as few words as possible outlined Astarte's situation and her wishes in the matter.
There was a moment's silence, with Astarte biting her lips.
Tihocan looked at us in turn and shrugged. "I realize that I am just a rough-handed engineer and may not appreciate the nuances of such a situation, but I fail to see what the problem is in this case. I love my beloved Royal Sister Astarte and her heart's desire in all things is also mine." He kissed his twin on the cheek and wrapped a boyish arm around her white shoulders. Tears appeared in the eyes of Astarte, like stars of gratitude.
I, for my part, was stifling my laughter at Tihocan's description of himself as "rough-handed". He was a beautiful boy with many male lovers, but "rough-handed" he most certainly was not, unless he was referring to some sexual practice that I was unaware of. He wore perfumed oils in the same way that real labourers wore sweat, and his pretty muscles were for play, not toil.
Qualopec stood and unsheathed his sword. He began to thoughtfully wipe the multicoloured blade with the tails of his silken cummerbund.
"We in the Royal Family are creating a New World on an almost daily basis," he reflected in his curious basso, almost as if talking to his sword and not to us. "Almost everything we say and do creates a precedent and will be written into the annals of humankind forever. We are the deities whose manners mere mortals ape in the absence of a true moral sense."
"I think I may glimpse at the profound thoughts that our Royal Brother is trying put into words," I said.
"I don't," said Astarte. "I wish he'd be a bit clearer."
"Darling little Sister," said Qualopec, fondly. "I apologise if by my apparent meddling I am stirring up a mud cloud into the crystalline waters of your opinion. I mean no meanness, only solicitude."
"Of course, My Royal Brother," she said.
"I think the nub of the problem is this; if any mere commoner can sire a Royal Child, then what's to stop them doing it all the time?"
Astarte and I shared a vision of a common crowd of mere commoners wanting to have common sex with us. I blushed.
"We make the Law," continued Qualopec," and maybe the impregnation of a Royal Princess in an unsanctioned act of lust ought to be punished?"
"But poor Captain Attis!" exclaimed Astarte." He is my lover and I love him and he has done me no hurt or harm."
"Attis is a good man, and I have hewn down our enemies shoulder to shoulder with him. As a man, I could think of no finer person to lie with our beloved Astarte and if he was of the Royal Lineage I would welcome him with open arms. But my admiration and Astarte's love is irrelevant to the situation."
Astarte fell onto her throne and Tihocan went to comfort her. "Does he love you?" he asked.
"He said he that did," she said.
There was a moment's silence, an impasse, a deadlock in the discussions.
Then; "Maybe it would be useful to find out," I said. "I have the alchemy."
And so with a click of his fingers Qualopec ordered that the unfortunate Captain Attis be brought before us for an examination.
Attis strode into the Tertiary Throne Room unguarded and with a straight back. He gave Qualopec a straight armed salute and bowed first to Tihocan, then to me and finally to Astarte. His grim business-like grimace was met by her vulnerable face-searching smile.
I had fashioned an electrical device that caused all the pores and channels in a small area of skin to open and to allow any drug free access to the blood stream; I made a tincture of jimson weed and administered it in a truth-telling dose to a stoical Captain Attis.
Looking back, I wish that I hadn't suggested the course of action which we took. I shouldn't have called the meeting. I shouldn't have produced the truth drug. As is so often true in my life a fairly innocent idea took on a life of its own and then went rampaging around my world, smashing and destroying like a meme in a china shop.
It started off OK. Attis answered questions like "Are you Captain Attis of the Lapithae Regiment?" and "What is your favourite colour?" successfully, but it was when we started to ask - or more specifically when Astarte started to ask - about his feelings that the truck began to come off the rails.
I'm not sure that romantic young girls realise the extent to which their lovers regard them as a collection of body parts, and the violence with which their men wish to mate with them. I guess that's why romantic love was invented - to take the edge off. I'm disinclined to write out the crude and mechanical things that Attis was forced to admit, but suffice to say that he was not in love - at least not in love the way that Astarte was in love. He regarded her as just a juicy piece of Royal pussy, one that he had dreamt of plunging himself into from the first time that he noticed her mouth and her body. It sounded like a politer form of rape. I'm not even sure he liked Astarte much. He thought of her as a silly (if very fuckable) young girl.
I watched Astarte's face. At one point I could have sworn that the tears filling her dark eyes froze into salty ice. Her paleness because luminous and her soft body seemed to turn into cold, cold metal. It was if the hammer of Hephaestus was refashioning her into a weapon, a weapon without sanity.
Too late to save her I cried "Stop!" With the benefit of hindsight I now realise that I had destroyed my sister, and although at that moment her newly awaked venom was directed at the Captain, it was as if on that day she started a mental list and mine was one of the names inscribed upon it. Never again did she sing a soppy ode in the garden. If my tears since then could have been used to bathe her broken heart I'd have done so, but one might as well have tried to repair a crushed bird's egg with kind words.
"My Royal Brothers and Sister," said Astarte, coolly. "Give me this man as my personal assistant. I wish to invent a priesthood for him."
Attis swayed where he stood and Tihocan and Qualopec and I looked at our sister aghast, but we did not dare to gainsay her. It did not even occur to us that she still wanted Captain Attis as her paramour. It was plain that she wanted him for something much darker.
"My Royal Sister," said Astarte, with an elaborate bow and a charming smile. "I wonder if I might obtain from you that drug that you so thoughtfully provided, and which has brought such beauty and clarity to Our Thoughts?" She held out an iron hand, and I gave her the tincture of jimson weed without a word.
And so over the following weeks Astarte set herself to invent a new State Religion in which she was the personification on earth of the Olympean Demeter and in which sacrifice was required to ensure the health of the state. She would speak to none of us.
The entire Royal Family - the five kingly twins, including our fathers - and the various branches of the family including ourselves were invited to the newly built temple of Demeter on the shortest day of the year for a new ceremony to invoke the Ascent of Kore from the underworld. The temple was in the form of a ziggurat which rose for twenty three steps to an altar at the summit, an altar with an ominous and gilded tree set in the centre. Astarte, Attis and three women, all wearing vestments and head-dresses of Astarte's design, appeared in a circle of silvery spotlights playing on the stony altar. The populace - or should I say the congregation? - went into a rapture, both religious and celebrity-worshipping.
Attis sang a song in front of Atlantis, his joyful face and strong voice relayed all over the empire via devices of copper and gold. Then he castrated himself with a Holy Knife on a Holy Altar, as a sacrifice to the Goddess and to ensure that the crops would grow in the spring, or at least I think that was what in the script that Astarte had written. Naturally his blood loss was as rapid as if his femoral artery had been sliced open with a spear tip and he fell to the ground in a splash of red droplets. Reverent priestesses ran forward and with exquisite choreography nailed the body of Captain Attis to a Sacred Tree using Holy Nails, finally crowning his drained corpse with a crown of twisted holly and pomegranate branches.
"Behold the man," declaimed Astarte. "He dies that we may have life."
It was a terrific theatrical success.
Tihocan was seated next to me on a gilded throne, his face set in an official mask of equanimity as we listened to the thunderous applause from the citizens of Atlantis.
"They love it," he said.
"Of course they do," I said. "It's cathartic."
"I'm not sure that we have done a wise thing here today. It as if we have given them a dark drug, pleasurable and addictive. But ultimately lethal."
"Sometimes it is difficult to uninvent a thing," I said, bowing and waving for the aetheroscopes. "Astarte's new religious will flourish now even if we ban it by edict."
Tihocan grinned and grinned and I could see the shallow, rapid breaths going in and out of him.
"My twin sister is gone mad and I feel it deep within myself," he said through his teeth. "Suddenly I want to stop the world and get off."
"Sadly we are the drivers of the golden chariot of Atlantis, My Royal Brother," I replied, "it seems that we have strapped ourselves irrevocably into the driving seat, behind teams of horses have become rabid."
"Then shoot the horses," whispered Tihocan.