Sunday, April 6, 2014

Strange Journey - Chapter 20


New Dawn

Marchand, Marcel, Costas and Julian were sitting at a big table while Marie served breakfast.

"Are you ready for the big day, gentlemen?" asked Marchand.

"Ready as I'll ever be," said Costas.

"And you, Julian?"

"I'm so ready I'm the anti-Ethelred," said Julian, making a joke so erudite that no one understood what he was saying. One of the corgis barked angrily. "I mean I'm very ready. When are we going to do this thing? After breakfast?"

"Patience, gentlemen. It's too early in the day now. In the afternoon - that is when it will be time for the upload."

"That leaves us with a lot of time to kill," said Costas.

"Yes, I was thinking that," Marchand smiled. "So perhaps another game of Wallenstein? Marcel thinks you were lucky yesterday."

Marcel nodded.

"I've no fear of a rematch. You want to play, I'll play."

"Julian, you are going to join us?"

"I've no other plans."

"I can play too," said Marie.

"Yes, Marie, of course you can," said Marchand. "So it is decided. We will set up the board after breakfast and start the game once Marie has finished the washing up."

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

Lotte rose early and breakfasted alone in the hotel's dingy dining room. The unappealing buffet selection contrasted badly with the delicious breakfasts she had had in Nafplio. The guidebooks all said that Greek hotel breakfasts were generally on the poor side. This was certainly true here; she realised now that her last hotel had spoiled her.

After breakfast she had quite some time to kill before meeting Barbara at the bus station. She strolled up to have a look at the Temple of Artemis, another of the town's few desultory relics of its classical past. Reaching this took her down a laneway that made it feel like she had left the small town and was now heading into the countryside. The temple itself was the usual collection of piled up rubble, with a pillar or two standing precariously upright to give the vaguest of indications where the temple had once stood. Unlike pretty much every other classical site she had seen in Greece, the ruins of the Temple of Artemis were surrounded by a high metal fence that prevented close approach to them. Walking around the perimeter she could see no sign that they ever opened. Nor was there any kind of signage that would tell a casual visitor anything about the temple - like when it was built, by whom, or what went on there. Lotte only had her guidebook to assist her here, but it was a bit vague on the details.

She was looking in through the fence with such rapt attention when she realised that some people had appeared behind her. Turning around she saw an older man in a pinstripe suit and shifty facial expression. He was accompanied by two young lads, who both sported flamboyant hairstyles of a kind popular with the young people.

"Hello, hello, welcome to Greece! English?" said the man in a strangely mid-Atlantic accent. The young lads pouted.

"I speak English, yes," said Lotte.

"I love the English! My wife is English. An Anglican. You are an Anglican? I hear there are many Anglicans in England."

"I am not religious."

"My wife is not religious either, she was just born an Anglican. Are you enjoying your time in Greece?"


"You know, this town of Sparta was the most important city in ancient Greece. The people were famous as fighters for freedom and justice. And you know, they were so powerful that they didn't have any walls round the city! When the Egyptians came here they said, 'Hey, you got no walls!', but the ancient Spartans assembled their army and said 'These are our walls!'. And no one ever beat them in battle."

"I have heard this."

"And this here, you know what that was, it was the Temple of Artemis. Oh yeah, they used to have a big festival here where they would worship Artemis. She was the Goddess of War. You know what they called the festival? The Festival of the Naked Youth."

"Yes, it says that here," she held up her guidebook.

"And they called it that because they used to get the teenage boys of Sparta and strip them naked and whip them as a sacrifice to Artemis."

"Yes, I know."

"And it was famous throughout the ancient world, people came from all over to see it. Even the Romans used to come all the way to Sparta to watch the naked boys being whipped."

"I suppose they did not have television back then."

"And now, Miss, for a small price, that festival can be recreated for you." He clicked his fingers. "Castor! Pollux! Hop to it." The two young lads started unbuttoning their shirts, trying to look as sultry as possible while they did so. The older man took a nasty looking riding crop out of a bag. Lotte began to back away quickly.

"Wait, Miss, wait! The price is very reasonable and you will feel like you are part of the timeless legacy of this great city. As you watch the whip caress the rears of these handsome boys you will be transported back to the time of the ancient Spartans. You will be seeing things as they were seen by Herodotus and Homer."

"No thank you, I have no wish for this."

"But Miss, it is only fifty Euro for a full five minutes. This is a bargain the like of which you will not experience elsewhere." He paused and then continued in a conspiratorial tone. "It is their first time."

"I must go," said Lotte, turning and walking determinedly up the drive away from them, ready to break into a run if she heard them coming after her.

"Alright Miss, forty Euro. Just forty Euro!"

Then another voice, one of the young lads: "What'll I have to eat tonight if you don't pay him to whip me? There is a recession on here!"

A second young lad's voice followed. "We actually like being whipped, it shows we are in touch with our Spartan heritage."

Lotte found them all so pathetic that she thought of throwing a banknote back at them, but she knew that was the kind of reaction they were hoping for. She strode on. Their wheedling voices receded behind her.

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

They were now well into their game of Wallenstein. Marcel and Costas began with an unwise fixation on each other, responding aggressively to each move the other made. This allowed the others to greatly improve their positions. Julian had started off well, but now he was suffering. Marchand and Marie were ganging up on him, with Marie clearly deploying her forces in a way that served Marchand's interests and not her own. This was a form of gaming behaviour that he found deeply unacceptable. He resolved to husband his resources and appear weaker than he was. If he looked like a threat no longer then Marchand might direct his and Marie's efforts elsewhere.

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

Lotte went back to her hotel and picked up a few things she thought might come in handy when she went with Barbara on this foolhardy mission. She ambled up to the bus station, arriving just before midday. After buying a ticket for Mystras, she looked around for Barbara but did not see her. What she did see, of course, was Martha the Maenad and all her Maenad friends. They were all women, as is usually the case with Maenads. Their hair was tied up behind them and they were wearing sandals and little white dresses that looked like they were meant to be some kind of approximation to what people imagine ancient Greek women as wearing. As the Maenads were of all ages, shapes and sizes, the costume looked better on some than others. Martha's friend Kalliope carried it well, but then she was Greek. They had several bags of cheap supermarket wine with them.

Lotte tried to hide from them behind a pillar but to no avail. Eagle-eyed Martha saw her and came bounding over.

"Oh my God, you're here! I knew you'd come along. Come on over, I'll introduce you to the girls."

"I am not going along with you. I am going to Mystras with my friend."

"But we're going there too! Oh you are such kidder. It's great having you aboard."

"I tell you, I am not aboard anything." Then with some relief she spied Barbara, who was running into bus station. "I must go," continued Lotte, rudely pushing past Martha to join Barbara.

"Sorry I'm late," said Barbara. "I slept in."

"This lack of professionalism does not inspire confidence."

"Well I'm here now."

Barbara ran into the ticket office. They boarded the bus and it pulled out of the station and trundled through Sparta on its way to Mystras.

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

Julian was feeling pleased with himself. The game was progressing as he had hoped. Marchand and Marie were leaving him alone now and had instead turned their attention to Costas and Marcel. Their duel had left them vulnerable to outside attack, a vulnerability Marchand and Marie were now exploiting to the maximum degree possible. Marie had committed heavily against Costas, virtually eliminating him from the game. She then joined Marchand in an attack on Marcel, deliberately overcommitting so that Marchand would minimise his losses. Marcel's forces were crippled, but Marie had effectively eliminated herself from the game. And Marchand had weakened himself too in the struggle, perhaps thinking that it was all to play for and that one last push would leave him assured of victory.

Now it was Julian's turn to strike. He had let himself look weaker than he was and had largely sat out the previous rounds. But now he committed all his forces and launched a devastating attack on Marchand. If the others had not destroyed each other he would be leaving himself in a state of terrible weakness. But as it was, he destroyed Marchand's empire and was able to limp on till the game ended in victory. It was a victory that left 17th century Germany in an even more ruined game than that of the night before, but he had won.

"Well played, Julian," said Marchand. "You are learning well." The corgis barked. "And now let us have a small snack before the main event of the day, for it would not do to make history on an empty stomach. Marie, fetch the bread and cheese. And bring the champagne."

She left wordlessly and then ferried in the requested items. She also brought in two bowls of food for the corgis. Marchand nodded at Marcel and the great brute uncorked the champagne and filled their glasses.

"I think a toast would now be appropriate," said Marchand. "So I shall make one. Let us drink to ourselves, for are we not five great people! And let us drink to the great work we are doing today. And most of all, to our dear friend Julian who is making this all possible."

"Amen brother," said Costas. The corgis barked. The humans raised and emptied their glasses.


The story continues

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