Chapter five

Aminias villa spread to the left, a blocky pastel in rising limestone layers, its corridors and rooms set between us and the cliff-side. We were in all perhaps two-hundred people and if my sense of a roving deck taught anything we were about to get divided throughout the villa. Boy messengers shuffled between guests passing out silver seals of a half-dozen scripts. " We are branded "scoffed Alrek! With no fanfare groups jostled and joined, were peeled off each cull following another as hetaera shepherded first one flock then their anodyne through various gateways. A softhanded military precision tricked the entire effort , though the messengers were children and the hetaera flawless in discretion. Clever I thought, very clever of the hetaera and their mistress.

Our boy messengers tailed a short wiry islander with a mastmans bow-legs, sealskin vest and sinewy arms carrying a pine-pitch torch. He had got up higher near a bronze gate on the sloping, colored flagstones and all urged us for'ard. The ex-sailor poking his torch skyward, boys banging silver-tined goatskin tambourines, while two haetera passed among us sharing enameled bowls of dates and almonds and warm spiced wine. "Move along sheep," snarls Alrek. "He'd put the lash to us , but flattering he pulls short rebellious chatter."

Alrek spit a mouthful of priceless Chian wine looking about as if for a cane. He would have thrashed the boys and done worse to the women. Surely the kings bidding I think does not rest first in his heart. One good whore is the equal of four leather-amoured lines of archers. Alrek sees clearly as he travels alone, but I must calm him against the Kings power.

"Pinpricks my friend," I say in consolation. " Kings darts aside, his wisdom will follow, and the messengers are only boys. They mimic as taught and hope for mercy; what fear shall we I do not know " Just a cinch on my belt such innocent messengers brought.

We also .. those I knew, those naturally connected to Minos though he still unseen had been herded through a gate or followed the Cretan wine bowls like lambs. Above and again we circled two levels of marble and dark ancient olive-wood passageways to a large open courtyard. Must have been very near the estates top; fish eagles and falcons wove spirals above. Were we all buzz-headed from the exertion of climbing and of the wine? Separated from our natural leader or was Minos ploy slyly arranged from its very beginning? Manipulation disposes men differently, from subtle poses to the raised hatchet. A mixed lot of vagrant traders, sailors and ventures motley wool robes and linen trousers, leather vests and silk tunics all bunched and mixed like a crafts-mens bazaar we shuffled together, closer and closer still till the courtyard doors banged shut. Artyphon has appeared , attached in veils of whisper and smile to a younger woman.

Alrek stroked his dirks leather sheath. " Just wood and stone and a wealthy whores rich fabrics to form our bonds. Not disturbing to local merchants;" He threw a glance over my shoulder sharp as his blade. " But to blue-water traders like us it reminds too well of those cannibal German Airys. You remember the bastards Cibias; their druids built lion-faced iron cages on every hilltop. Superstitious buggers they were with those cages keeping the night devils below and roasting prisoners fresh." Others heard him. Discontent rumbled through, my own included.

"Are we lambs to be penned ," shouted one of the captains. Murmurs rose to a growl. Yet I cannot imagine my fathers, cannot conceive Minos ill will reaching for his theigns throats. He favored humbling surprise. Thirty men banded against the east wall and reached for their dirks. Then at the courtyard center, where grew a large open blaze and a blindfold black stork stood his perch, there beside a maple chair rich in gold inlay Minos threw off his cloak shook curls from his blond hair which silver had yet only started to touch and waved off honors. He held above bloody handed flayed fat meat which he threw into the flames.

"Men of the islands," he cried out, "men of Hyrkon, men of the Minoan saga we sing the paean to Aphrodite."

Silence pitched among the men as quail before a roving hawk. His sacrifice sizzled spraying fat through smoke and firesparks. So does Minos snatch rebellious hearts to his own cause, Aphrodites cause whose gentle hand led us south to our sea. Rebellious or loyal all hearts believed this. We raised the paeon to a sky deeply blue, singing in the old language runes of times before time of our times.

We sang of Minoan glory first whispered by the wise serpent, that we thrust beaked craft under Trade Laws to the waves of our sea, and then gifting with life the pastures surrounding; how Minoans joined the bull and dolphin and reveled upon both, sailing one and jumping the other which is a kind of sailing. "May the great cow of earth and sky run rampant boiling in heat before our white bull. Clear the ice walls for our northing lords , long sleeping that they may flood warm islands with cold seed." With that blessing NaziBu tossed into the brazier a seaweed figurine of aurochs mating. Sparkling silver and orange salt it lived a thousand lives in colored flames then turned to vapor. Many eyes were cold, but mouths mute before the mysteries.

We at the brazier, beside Alrek I knew three others of the ships captains. Museum, a reckless darter between Troy and Lesbos showing no concern for his royal Minoan blood. His sister was second temple whore at Mochlos. Then Alfred of Knossos and the Egyptian Thoth a small ripe-tempered married man with twelve children whose port city was Memphis so far up the Nile his ship wore a concrete bottom to defeat fresh-water worms. He claimed the Hebrew glass blowers of Senopolis wove open pipes into his concrete, but such use of fragile glass cannot be true. Even visiting in this hard keeled vessel I felt he sailed in his coffin. Both men were older sea wolves, knocked around, hard as truthful men-of-trade may be. The new men introduced themselves: Zeno a Greek logger and ship-builder with hands hard as leather from north of the Po in Italy and Doron a Greek sailing from the Syrian coast. Doron wore a ragged, deep battle-scar on his right cheek that put a harsh turn to his mouth and an emerald of immense value on his badge. Between them a sailor discerns much. Ice recedes, you can see the swirled potholes leaving rich dirt and fresh fields. There's lots of wheat to buy north of the Po and meat comes down from the high plain where it trades for fish and flax. Food keeps you from dying, then it makes you wealthy. Hardwoods tether the great mountains eastward to the Po valley. Beam and planks and mast poles teach you to measure and cut lines, lay angles across a circle and how much is inside. This much at least I knew about Zeno.

Doron knows mystery. The mountains of coastal Syria grow bones of dead children. I've seen them. You can buy two nine-year-old girls for a hamper of barley. I kept staring at Doron thinking how I believed nothing about him ; a trade captain made decisions all the time that saved some lives and cost others and his was one life too many. I marked that he should never see my back. Yet all six of us dared the Boreas windswept seas and bore some class of the trade-badge; we exchanged the greeting of tradesmen. We had never seen the men on benches sitting about the King. They wore plain-dress, common looking crafters anyway in size and weight and I imagined should one have lifted his hood he might appear no different than the next man. While fresh fruit and wine were served Minos had gone man-to-man lifting hoods and calling out names "Carthaginian Philosir , Street of Lions, Utica the Gaul Faelan, the Egyptian Seth and Taape from plaza of glass-guilds-men Akentat , Azmel the Tyrian , Corinthian Pausanas street of sculptures ." Those men appeared to know each-other. Then Minos came to us and we bowed setting knees to the paving stone. "Very well gentlemen, all this rattle is a kind of preparation. Get up get up what time Aphrodite grants is precious. I want victories not a dead mans homage. My Greek and Median councilors say throw to the wild boars men who will not bow. I tell them such a country will have more pigs than men." We laughed uncertainly. "But, these five ," Minos pointed to the benches ," honor them. Each will save your life. Every day in Hyrkonian service they die a little."

Hyrkon councilors surely gave no such advise to Minos. I say. "They don't look so tough to me."

The King snapped around. "Well yes, Cibias anyone on the street would pass them by, anyone , but a hungry whore." I blushed. Minos chuckled deeply at my simpleness. "We advertise our ferment, not our agents." "I thought there were eight, not five," questioned Alrek querulous and arrogant beside me. How does he know that, I wondered? Minos eyes narrowed. "Two amuse the hetaera, as they are musicians. Aminias is such a demanding woman you want to take her over your knee, as a child, each time you greet her." Minos laughed, " He he. Well any-rate you'll see them later. Let's see . five plus two makes seven not eight." Minos returned to the benches and spoke to Azmel, then returned to us. "The Syrian Asu has vanished. He and his wife and child. Our agent was a money-changer and a maker of money-vaults. Asu workshop in Damascus has been stormed, burned and leveled. I assume the entire family is dead. I assume they were tortured before death."

"You have a source in Damascus more reliable than our primary agent" quizzed a stout, but not entirely stupid merchant? "Is a peanut vendor as reliable as his peanuts?" "But no moreso" I quibble. " No siver eyecoins for the Ferryman. May Artimis rest his shade," blurts a queens servant. None reprove her and from the crowd a silver Egyptian mark pitches into the fire. So swiftly to his rest Asu travels. Hyrkons have become like that, while Egyptions still tether each man forever to Ras heaven. The passing murmur smells like half-baked bread and Artyphons scowls at my unspoken plea.

"What of the caravans," I shout!

"Ships returning from Sinope and Phasis on the southern Pontus carry goods from Damascus, Carrhae, and Aleppo. We still share the trade routes north. Since the Mycenni burned Ugarit and ravage ships as they desire the mountain tin moves south , overland, by camel. Hittite warlords have a big slice of that trade. "

A woman speaks sharply, young if ever she has bled, wearing a small silver crown to the side of raven hair. "And those from Sidon and Tyre."

King Minos rocks back on his heels, scratches his curls and picks at a sugared date. Perplexed. "Lone eagle traders slip through, froken Rowenia, with a van of pack mules. Lord Ta of the Cilician Gates should know best." King Minos shuffles awkward apprising the girl. Her family must rule a small coastal trading city, perhaps among the Scythians. " Has your father yet given you to Tas marriage couch?"

She scoffs parting silk thus baring her virgins dagger; it's strapped to a naked ass. "King Tas dick isn't big enough to satisfy the toothless puppies he uses now. My knife could hardly find purchase." Minos spews wine while companions burst into raucous cheers, some promising her a much better target. But, she steps beside Artyphon them slipping into shadow.

Minos appears chastised --- he will never lose his desire for more subjects --- yet smoothly continues. " We have reports from Rhodes, Joppa and Cyprus. Our agents at Ztza oasis have no word from the last two escorted Damascus caravans; they may be stopped in the mountain passes. Our ships are still allowed to port at Sidon and caravans carrying our goods still leave Sardis." Minos stopped to look us all over. "I'm not the gods. I assume Carthage bastards know more about our trade than we know about them. And control as they find any lever. Beyond that -- until the Trade Councils will is made clear each trader must fend for himself. Make no mistake."

The King turned on his heels to view everyone. "Carthage rises!"

Doron sniggered. "Why do you blame Carthage for Syrian mischief? Carthage a city of mud huts without towers, walls or moles even the hetaera live in Utica fearing desert cobras in trashpiles. It's more like a chimera that doesn't really exist?" "Sounds like you've had experience," bellowed Thoth." Are cobras easier to fuck than the wenches of Utica?" Raucos laughter filled the courtyard and Doron closed his own mouth with a winebowl.

But Dorons question had been shot at Minos who was ripping into a piece of flatbread and ferment laden dry salmon. His mouth half full "Oh yes, well well indeed Doron if we look no farther than our nose pokes into the wine. We imagine Carthage as well look here, if Helen didn't exist then who doubts either man or god would bring forth a lust to create her?" I reached for a hashpipe knowing after such speculation sophists would reach for Minos throat. " Not half-way there, your grace" Zeno first speaking. With uncertain quiet he raised a short wax candle from a holder of twelve. "Does wise counciling Themis vanish because her Titan brothers were deposed, matter not how close she entices Zeus ear?" He made the honest mans error. "Must evil multiply as well as thrive?"

"Yes!" "NO!". Both voices shot back ", Troy no Sparta !" Logic staggered.

"Ha haha what learned warriors Hyrkon sports, but I'd save the air for venturing enemy walls.," Minos laughed sloshing a gullet of Chian wine worth a mans yearly wage. "Both the cities. But neither Troy nor Sparta exist except in the will of those sharing the city walls. All ventures are created , even Aphrodite may not pump blood through the veins of Hyrkon and its allies. How can two different answers be the same right answer, unless Helen exists only by the will of her owner and of her rapist?"

The shout came back immediately,"no rape Sire none at all , but the bitches willful spreading knees!"

Even here, Troas and the Mycenni had their varied supporters. Minos slammed his closed fist to the tablet. "May our own women take a lesson when their husbands approach the marriage couch!" He raised his amphora with satisfaction. "So not one or two, but three wills are required to create Helen. She is a human manufacture built of human dreams. I don't think Carthage is so much a city as a dream. Can you imagine prying gold loose from Nineveh? Or stealing a mothers breast from twin infants? No! But, what you cannot do with the real you may produce from dreams. And no dream holds the same promise as the dream of money. Money exists before the gods and before families and before nations. The gods are built from money so he with the most money serves and worships the gods most deeply. And it works the other way. He who fails to become wealthy betrays the nation. Money gathers before men with such ideas and the dream-name of that pile of money is Carthage. "

A sound political discussion was, I thought, drifting off to a philosophic realm from which it would never recover. "Money may be the blood of Carthage, as lines are the life of a figure, but how can a man survive without his family?" "He can purchase a new young wife and build again."

"And wear a new set of horns every month," came the shout.

Thirty men roared and drained their amphorae. "But, all is foolishness. The stars in their dark bowl move by their own will. Can even Zeus change their paths? So an arrow that cannot tell the brave from the coward surely cannot tell the wealthy from the poor." "Says who? A man travels to Astartes temple where wealthy women will beg you to buy their bodies. Why should we expect less of an arrow?"

The speaker was snickering and I said. "Men without women speak foolishly." I took a long draught of the cherry ferment. "I would say instead that when we expect the same of an arrow as we do of a women then we are waging the wrong war with the wrong weapon." Laughter rippled across the courtyard and I let it go on until it stopped at Minos who smiled not one bit. I said. "More to the point, what could Asu tell us, that a womans gossip cannot?"

Minos responded immediately. "He could put womens gossip to shame. As women speak of sex so men speak of money. Asu told us which coins are in greatest demand, and thus which nations feel they have the most to gain by spending money. When a particular coin runs short, money-changers must bid among each-other for the remaining supply. We know Priam pours money into Carthage even as the Greeks steal pebbles from his own wall. Yet the path of that gold we cannot trace." One more bit of agency I allowed.

"I met Asu and traded through him for emeralds. From grinding he was covered in ruby dust and flint specks. Tecknos he knew, but people? His shop was a cloud of traders, money-lenders and merchants all chattering behind him. Chaos even the Titans would admire. Who did Asu know that we do not."

"That coin has many faces," said Minos uncertainly. "We don't know all his contacts. But, he focused on two types in particular. Asu knew wealthy families who traded in the coins of another country. You can't spend those coins , but you can buy them. Why would they do that unless they planned to betray their own nation and move to the other?" Minos walked to a serving table to fill his own cup. "If we need to dam that stream of gold we must know a narrows, a choke point. Asu also worked through Syrian Teknostics and corresponded with Median mages and India Brahma … like following fish upstream to the spring where they breed men who do what others know not. He was a builder himself who worked with metals, so they trusted him. Crete used to bubble with such awareness and Hyrkon followed, but with vigor it does no more." "I'm sure Cretans bubbled," said Alrek meanly. "Would he turn whores to virgins and lead to gold like the electricians do with a lemon and amphora of vinegar? " And bellowing madly Alrek could not contain his laughter.

I said. "They can make a Northing from wire and Zeus lightening. I have seen it!"

"Did Juno hold the metal while flames shot out her ass," ridiculed Alrek? I waited for laughter to stop. "Will he be replaced?" Everyone had got surly as acid wine for the stakes were growing more obvious; plums were at stake, trade plums, the plum of money and family pride. The wealthiest and most risky trade-routes favored the bold. But, what bold paths to the plum trees? Minos seemed thankful for the obvious question. "Both wealth and death favor the bold."

Minos thought long on it, sure of his own actions , but uncertain of his Captains! "Oh yes, surely, Damascus is far too important for us to have no eyes. The entire country is in flames, but the local satrap has been mining unconnected warlords to the south. We think those Hittite mercenaries will hold Sardis against the mixed bag of coastal raiders coming against it. "The King stopped to extract a melted nut-size lead pellet from a satchel and pass it around. "Aggressive bastards from ambush , but none I think will want to form up and hammer it out against well defended walls. That will be our entry point. Yes, indeed, we need a most able agent in Damascus. Anyone willing to volunteer a wife or daughter?" Minos laughed cruelly. The thought so cold blooded and premeditated brought a gasp from the courtyard. "So you don't expect them to get out? Them or him or her .. one, but not both?"

"Get them out?" The King raged. "What venture assures the trader his next breath? We shall by the gods foreskin just get them in should they be dim as a Iocleas shade and dazzling as midsummers nude Cyanee. Their messages will come out by dove, to sardine buses off the Cyprus east coast. Fate will say, but if they live long enough to expose the gold seam between Troas and Utica, and to have a child Norns sleep. The King shook his head. "Four ways for the wrong person to go wrong." Minos coldly eyed his Captains ,"murdered or turned, lazy or obvious. Any bold man is marked; a brazen woman , ripe with life and sharp ears sporting the goddess honey tongue clouds a watchers vision." One Captain shouts. " Wench clouds vision with a cloudy mind." And a merchant" Will she fumble grapes for rubies"? Minos patience absorbed the shafts till his amphorae crashed to the cobblestones. " Brave comrades, rejecting insult we choose a woman and think that agent will be Aminias daughter Acantha": Minos shook his silver gold hair. " Acantha the silky wench as soon as we can find a husband that will tolerate her Median tutor. They are very close ," Nobody spoke. What husband takes the horns to bed?

By a grizzled Captain. " Wait till the next harvest and full grain-caches. What nation goes to war over a single agents murder?"

Another doubt. "Hephastus may hammer gold leaf without one thought passing between brain and arm."

Then Minos rumbling. "Doves speak from Heraklitios Street of Gems and from Thebes ," King Minos touched the leather-sheathed storks head, fingers holding a thin gold scroll." Not only has Asu been slaughtered. From my own sons lips I learn Captain Telemachus, trading our routes from Utica, ship crew and cargo vanished. No hull, no bodies no scavenge found as all gone missing from Egypt. "

Silence, then. "Shit!"