Take Me Back to the Garden of Love
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by John Pickman
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich
The moon shone out, no longer enclosed within the black cocoon she had worn six days before. She waned now, her curves flattening down toward sickle moon, toward darkness. The night was clear, the fog gone. The strange lights that had played over the Hagia Sophia were nowhere to be seen. If great powers or forces had wrestled for control of Constantinople, they were gone. Only mortal engines remained.
Figures moved on the vasty plain before the city. The armies of the Turks were readying for a final assault, their fires kindling, their brightness muting the light of the moon overhead. From his place on the battlements, Manuel could see them arrayed below, spread out nearly to the horizon line. Their mustering was an endless thunder, a pounding noise that neither ceased nor built to crescendo. If it went on much longer, he would surely go mad.
Below him, George Mundus stirred, his breath catching as he woke and sat forward. He scrubbed a hand over his face and looked up at Manuel, eyes hollow and red-rimmed. "Anything?"
Manuel shook his head. "Still mustering."
"Great God..." Mundus rubbed at his neck, sore from leaning back against the wall. "I'd have this over, rather than wait here and breathe their smoke."
"I doubt it will be much longer."
"They'll come tonight, then?" It wasn't really a question.
"Yes," Manuel said. "I think they will come tonight."
"Does God still favor us, do you think?" This was a question Mundus had asked repeatedly throughout the previous days. "Could he have grown displeased with us? Abandoned us?"
"God does not favor me with his opinions," Manuel said. "And if he conveys them through signs and portents, I don't have the wit to read them." He was thinking- as Mundus surely was- of the lights over Hagia Sophia.
"But surely God doesn't favor the Turks-"
"I doubt," Manuel said, cutting off the diatribe- with its endless repetitions and variations- in mid-sentence, "that God favors anyone tonight. If he has an opinion, he's kept it to himself. As for me, I suspect he has retreated to his own City to let us play out our conflicts on our own. I find it hard to imagine a God with blood on his hands."
Mundus stared at him, wide-eyed, but the blasphemy did not hold the power it might once have done. Not here, on the edge of the night, with death and destruction spread out all around them.
"This is the end of the world," Manuel said, and sat back against the wall. "I'm going to sleep. Wake me when the fighting starts." He closed his eyes.
Mundus woke him from a confused dream of star-strewn cities. He lurched to his feet as the cannon of the Turks began firing.
From there, the night was a confusion of noise and movement, acrid smoke and coppery tang of blood in his nostrils, fires burning endlessly along the battlements. The azabs broke against the walls and fell back, only to be replaced with the Sultan's Anatolians in the northwest of the city. They were driven back with loss, and as the elite Janissaries swarmed in behind, Manuel and the others rushed to the open Kerkoporta gate, where the Ottomans were spilling through the gap. The incoming Janissaries met the weary, outnumbered Byzantines- their king fighting among them in this last hour- at the open gate. There was a moment of confusion as the two waves of infantry met and overlapped. Someone's arm swung back and struck Manuel across the head. He reeled, kept his feet, and felt an explosion of heat and pain from his side. He looked down to see the spear being pulled from him, blood running out over his tunic and down his legs. The spear stabbed out again and broke through his ribs, scraping over them as it pierced his chest. There was a second explosion; not pain this time, but a terrible, engulfing weakness. He fell to his knees, the roar of battle spiralling away into widening blackness. He looked up. Above was the moon, cool and serene, her fires undimmed. He fell on his side, still looking at her shape, now remote and ghostly in the smoke. He thought of her reflection on the water, of her light bathing the wide lands in gleaming silver.
So thinking, he died.
Sometime later, he awoke amidst the scattered dead. As the moon rose, her belly thinner than the night before, he crept away into the catacombs beneath the city.
Three days later, he left Constantinople.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.