A History of the World

Jannes and Mambres, cautious mathematicians, do not predict what will be, only what might. What will be cannot be changed, or avoided, or mitigated, it can only be. Such certainty is limited to the gods, and not always to them — and to their new planted counterparts among the slaves, which rankles Jannes (but not Mambres); he thinks it gauche. No, they stay among the mutable stars and human planets, things knowable but changing, the avoidable dooms, the almost fates.

“Here, look here, Mambres,” says Jannes, eyes adrift with formulae. “Riots along the river tonight, I think, maybe? A shortage of beer among the laborers, short tempers, long hours, a fight over a man. Yes? No?”

Mambres sweeps the thinning hair out of his eyes, leans in, traces his partner’s work with one heavy-jointed finger, lips moving. “Hrm,” he says, “yes, I think that’s right. Let me run these numbers on my own — can I take this? — good, yes, thank you.” Clack of counting; he peruses the elaborate, meaningful border of a table. “Yes, that’s right.”

They summon a runner from the dim chaos of the hallway, send him off to the priests, to the guards. The guards will stand watch along the river, the priests will send beer and dreamers, one to soothe the body, the other to soothe the mind. The river will roll on to flood undisturbed, death and punishment alike kept from the hands of men. The quiet stars spin on, one decennial wing beat after another.