At first Tim did not want to touch Asklepios. For one thing, it wasn’t every day that you woke up and found someone from your dreams unconscious on the floor. For another it was pretty obvious where the smell of unwashed humanity came from. He opened the windows, he tried to think about what had happened but couldn’t get a grip on where to start.
To be pragmatic, Asklepios was in the way. Tim gingerly pushed his shoulder then shook him more and more vigorously until it was obvious the strange and smelly man was not simply asleep.
Finally he put his hands under Asklepios’ rancid armpits and dragged him onto the settee. Asklepios still did not wake.
Tim went into the bathroom and washed his hands. As he soaped and rinsed he thought what a shock it must for an imaginary person to be yanked out of a dream into reality.
He thought about that a bit more.
To be blunt, how the hell did that work? People in dreams were from the imagination, they weren’t real and they never, ever ended up on the office carpet. So, either Tim himself was still asleep or somehow he had gone mad.
Or – it hadn’t been a dream.
Tim went through the options. If he was still asleep then this was a particularly messed-up dream, but he would eventually wake up and everything would be OK.
If he was mad then Asklepios would turn out to be a sack of potatoes or the postman.
He hesitated over the third alternative. If it wasn’t a dream and he hadn’t suffered some sort of a breakdown then this was real. It was actually happening and he had to deal with it.
Deep inside he knew that this was the truth. A dream would have felt more convincing but less logical. Also, he didn’t feel mad (although some people said that was in fact the first sign). He turned that idea around – did the world make about as much sense as it ever did apart from the recent arrival of a golden turbaned, toga wearing stranger with chronic body-odour and crumbs in his beard?
Yes, it did. All he could do was to accept the facts and worry about the reasons later.
Tim’s head drooped. He jerked awake with a start, he really did not want to fall asleep on these books again. Somehow it had become very late, he was cold. He fetched a blanket and draped it over Asklepios, still deeply asleep on the old settee.
Dead on his feet. Tim went to his bedroom, wedged a chair under the door handle, dropped onto bed and fell asleep immediately. He woke in the middle of the night and crept back to his office in the dark, hoping Asklepios would be gone. The scrawny old man lay curled up on his side hugging his oversized gold turban like a teddy bear. He was snoring.
Tim went back to bed. An hour later he checked again. Asklepios was still there, still snoring, still smelly. He was there an hour after that too. When light from the rising sun began to brighten his bedroom he checked again. This time Asklepios was awake. He sat with his knees drawn up at one end of the settee, the blanket pulled up to his chin. He stared at Tim with round, fearful eyes. Then he hastily put on his turban, knelt on the carpet and bowed, touching his forehead to the floor. ‘Master,’ Asklepios croaked. ‘Master.’
‘Please don’t do that,’ Tim said. ‘I’m not your master.’
‘I am your servant.’ Asklepios rose to his feet and bowed. ‘Master.’
‘I’d be much happier if you called me Tim.’
Asklepios raised his eyes. ‘Tim is not your true name.’
‘Not my full name.’ Timothy Alan Wassiter, he couldn’t help thinking it. His parent’s lives had been conventional and unadventurous. They had worked, raised a son born late into their own lives, and now they had retired. For them excitement consisted of a weekend flutter at the local races and growing blue hydrangeas. Life was a kind of permanent late Sunday afternoon, whatever the day, time, or season.
They had been so pleased when Tim joined the police service after university, so very quietly disappointed when he had left. He knew there was nothing wrong with a life like theirs, it was what they had wanted and they had chosen it. He’d had to leave or he’d have stayed there forever. The police had been a mistake, a failure. At the time he thought that was what he’d wanted, he had been wrong.
‘And now I realise neither was Eritstim.’ Asklepios spoke with humble self-effacement.
‘No.’ Tim tried not to laugh, grateful for the interruption to his thoughts.
Asklepios gave a rueful smile. ‘You are right to mock me, I should have known better. You teach me much wisdom with few words. I now realise why my other summonings failed.’
Of course. The realisation thrilled through Tim. This was neither dream nor delusion. Asklepios was a true sorcerer and what had happened was real magic. It was exactly what he had wanted from life – mysterious wonderful adventure. He just hadn’t imagined it would be so – unwashed.
Tim grasped Asklepios’ hands. ‘And you, Asklepios. You are teaching me more than you can ever know.’
Once again Asklepios bowed. ‘You humble me, Master.’
‘I am praising you.’
Asklepios bowed lower.
Somehow it had all become very formal. Despite Asklepios’ absurdly large turban, filthy toga and dirty bare feet, his manner and speech contained a self-conscious dignity.
Tim released Asklepios’ hands. ‘I’m sorry you ended up here. I don’t know how it happened and I don’t know how to get you home. I’m as amazed as you are and I’ve a hundred questions’
‘Please, ask me.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘Marib, in Saba.’ It was a place Tim had never heard of and Asklepios was not surprised. ‘This is because I am from your future. I used my magic to contact great ones from the golden age.’ He gave a grimace half-way between smile and apology. ‘It worked.’
The future. Tim did his best to absorb the information. ‘What happened to – to everything? To civilisation, to science?’
‘The Golden Age ended in catastrophe. I do not know what this science is.’
‘Then how can we understand each other?’
‘I have a lesser Mare of Illumination bound to this bauble,’ Asklepios indicated his blue diamond pendant. ‘It brings me understanding.’
‘May I see it?’
Asklepios shook his head. ‘If I remove it, it will lose force. A single use remains.’
Tim saw the filigree mesh of the pendant was designed to hold seven diamonds in a half-moon curve but just one gem hung in the setting.
‘How does it work?’
‘You simply ask it for understanding. When I found it, it still held three gems. As I held it in my hand I wondered aloud – What do you do? A gem crumbled to dust, and I knew.’
‘Can you teach me how to make one?’
‘I am ashamed to say I do not know how. I found it in the tomb of a priest of an unknown God.’
Or a scientist, Tim thought. The last of her kind doing her best to preserve the knowledge of her doomed civilisation.
‘You must stay here, as my guest. As long as you like.’
‘You are most generous, but I would not wish to outstay my welcome. In truth, I would hope to return to my own land one day. My home, my family.’
Tim’s heart went out to the strange, polite old man. ‘That is all I meant. Stay just as long as it takes for us to work out how to send you home.’
‘Oh, Master, then I am happy to accept,’ Asklepios beamed, exposing a mouth of snaggled but healthy looking teeth. ‘And I shall remove your plague of cats, though I do not see much evidence of them today.’
‘It’s for a friend, she lives elsewhere.’
‘A woman, I understand.’ Asklepios tapped the side of his nose. ‘A lady friend of the female kind. I shall be extremely discreet.’
Asklepios looked so incongruous, so conspiratorial, so decidedly dodgy that Tim burst out laughing. After a moment Asklepios laughed too, a hesitant shoulder-shaking giggle that made his turban wobble.
‘Would you like some breakfast?’ Tim said.
‘I am famished.’
‘While I get it ready perhaps you would like to bathe.’
‘Oh no, that is–’ Asklepios caught the tension in Tim’s shoulders, ‘–an act of generosity I could not easily refuse.’
‘Master?’ Asklepios called over the sound of the shower a few minutes later. ‘EritsVeronica is not a true name either, is it?’
‘No, it isn’t,’ Tim called back from the kitchen.
The shower stopped. A minute later Asklepios stood in the kitchen doorway with a towel wrapped round his waist and another across his shoulders. His grey hair was clean, his beard combed, he smelled of lavender.
Tim sighed patiently. ‘Yes, Asklepios?’
‘Neither is UmJohn.’
‘No, Asklepios. One more thing, I am not your master. We’re in this together, equal partners, so let’s do our best to understand each other and be friends.’
‘Thank you. I will not make these errors again.’ Asklepios clasped his hands together. ‘I would very much like us to become good friends.’
‘I am sure we shall.’ Tim handed him a slice of toast and marmalade. ‘Have some breakfast.’
Asklepios looked at the toast, sniffed, bit, then looked again in amazement. ‘What is this nectar of the Gods, this ambrosia?’
‘Mrs Woosencraft’s marmalade.’
From the look on Asklepios’ face Tim knew the older man would be his slave forever.
To be continued…