“You will do as I say and move as I move,” she says, “or you will pay for your wickedness, die young and leave me to the cold hands of a boneless Tyrian lecher.”
Very well … wickedness … I follow her squirming performance. The exercise regimen would endanger a squid! Her Mede tutor had brought disciplined torture from ice_covered southern mountains, whose people I am sure they are a hard people, generous with ideas and frugal with their own bodies. Wrenching leg from waist, what must they do for pleasure? Brahmin's she calls them and stories broadly to remove my ignorance. Visiting Brahmins cost a voyage the entire length of the Erythraean Sea, then paddling a pillars-breath log canoe up a cobra and alligator-infested river ending in a weeks climb over saw-toothed ice-festering ridges. And Artyphon says they have no love for northern, woman stealing deep-grass herders or for the Hittites who are a very stable and profoundly inflexible people. But, I judge the mountain people so beloved of Artyphon little better. They diet on rice and tea and beans and goat-curd. They will kill neither ox nor cobra and prefer their daughters become whores rather than become wise … or wealthy … or a farm-girl who feeds the earth, tricks wild long-horn sheep into milking and bakes bread. They fear only the snow-cats, leopards by their spotted skins and will kill one should it attack Brahmin young. My quick prayer to Dianna blessed the truth: when you start sleeping with a barbarian woman you learn lots.
Arthyphons insane exercise ritual tore muscles from my back and broke my bones and stretching my arm from its socket begged it return. When she had finished nearly killing me she said though exhausted I would not die before she did. I enter her swiftly and she yields all pleasure to herself. We take quiet for the goddess, then eat and drink lightly before the fire. Even she is breathless untangling her bones. “Injustice triumphs if a man dies before his woman, she trained to his pleasure as you hold duty as law.” Logs sparked on the firepit warming oat bread and a bucket of ale. Much too early for her sophism …. that was her point and I laughed!
Artyphon refills my amphora of ale. “The King is pleased,” she remarks with eyes lowered to avoid mine. Zeus beard had I become again a rope-boy? I nearly asked when she had spoken to him, a question she would have taken as a leather lash-stroke to her back. “And if my bones are jumped so entangled any outrage may be defended ….?” She coos. My firefly, my wit, my sea-nymph. We shower cold using rough sea-sponges and there at least a sailor can show a woman how little mercy the flow of water entails.
Dawn breakfast followed the German custom, for those who traded the savages of roast pig and apples and nutbread, all washed in vile ferments of potatoes and beets. Rudely ended. While a few long lost companions were first discovered, many travelers had greeted Auge wide awake, and left Aminias villa before sunrise. Very informal even for sailor boyos none thinking to disturb the gallant chosen by Aminias for a last sail.
We came down from the villa by a commerce route with carts, horses, paved roads and travelers inns beside every spring. Cheap talk held that we came down wiser. The queen so taken with the blond-hair warrior those two nights ago now rode her painted mare beside his fourteen hands tall black Arabian. They shared a small guard and sporting women servants. A handsome pair I thought whom men would see justice in serving. He wore her green silk veil bound in a knot to his leather shoulder plates; she had his dirk belted to a silver torque about her girdle. Brazen! Fearless and mindless of wagging tongues the queen had taken him as public consort. Puddles of dust surrounded her little van so different from the platform where she decreed the fortunes of states or the marble alter where she bore the entire weight of nature.
I recognized Artyphons boundless curiosity for the mans dirk at her loins, so stunning that she rode over to the pair and cut-out the Queen to a small green pasture. While their horses grazed they whispered ear-to-ear broken only by womans knowing laughter and separated with sisters kisses. She'll never hold him,” proclaimed Artyphon galloping near and leaning over her saddle toward me. Her hand pressed against the side of my face then giving the bit to her Sicilian galloped off on a dusty side trail.
Jealousy indeed, as the Kings women latter accused, or did Artyphon sense fading Aphrodites growing wickedness? Surely Hera punishes women of flesh who defied her, but Queen Mary was more like Aphrodite herself, dissembling in small ways while living a broader truth. Was it really like that I wondered thinking back to the night when Artyphon and I became lovers? Damme … the earth moves and Crete falls that any man can understand. But, should the goddess speak to one person … anyway, I am looking about the riders near me. Where has Artyphon vanished?
Over I say. Yes, this gift of travelers. Bits of blue seascape arise between hills and soon crew appear as if horses were dolphin. NaziBu , chief tillerman and Drest a carpenter and fellow desert Elemite taken to sea lead a company of Belisama troupers to meet our van. “Greeting Captain and all 's well that crosses the seamans palm. Drunk, whoring and bargaining ivory for jade,” they offer with the pride of a natural trader. Then more seriously, “Olive-wood pins for the rowers benches and witches moss for burns.”
“Jade indeed! Where is their mine?”
“Underwater, Cap'n,” says Teutor, best of the swimmers. “Local pearl divers found the vein leading out from a cliff. Scrapping barnacles off our hull, I found we could match them. At thirty cubits they don't get many chisel-blows before they need to surface . The dog-fish too are prowling for clam-eaters and will take a diver like as not.
One diver always has to be a spearman and the results aren't so pretty.” He chuckles smartly. “There's two-dozen fists under the Captains hatch. None's the wiser.”
“But, the divers are,” I chide.” Drest coughs and says nothing. Then … “The Belisama without barnacles .. she still floats above the water … and has company?”
“Fewer than before, Capt'an. A straggle of Latium galleys, two masted Tyrion biremes and one near sunk from Sidon. A big Egyptian schooner has the harbors west end to itself with a fleet of slim tunny busses; I didn't think the Egyptians ate tunny!”
“Not sea people in disguise, they may be? Some of ours picking Lokis plate! Have they come to shore?”
A lightening stroke flashed far out on the northern horizon … and faded soundless. Finding himself Drest quickly replies. “To shore, never. They trade row back and forth to the schooner, some say exchanging bronze ax heads, but scrawny might they ever be they threaten noone. Well for them to stay far from the Belisama! Bottom scraped clean, strakes painted and trim as Diannas girdle, with the sails-seams pitched and a new sprityard.” Sheepishly he retells ...”twenty whores Sar were hangin' from it ta see how many nekked could they be and they was fatter than we expected!”
“And have these fat whores ripped out the oarsmens hammocks, “ laughs Artyphon her pony suddenly reappearing at my horses flank. Seeing me about to shout Artyphon feeds me a sesame cake. “They should be vanished like witches when your captain arrives.”
“Aye madam, we believe they shall be,” Drest manages and their van turns and darts away down the hillside.
Not us. And very well for it as risk is valued much less at a travels end so none gallop the open cliffsides. Our road curled and switch-backed around every ravine; older Sicily as if throwing us off rose above in deserted or crumbled manse, villa , citadel, hewed and ravaged rock keep or at the worst just smoking mouths of caves from which men in skins shook spears and cursed us in unknown languages to powerless gods.
Terror really, a Medusa older than me, older than Minos, older than Aphrodite …. none will say yet with every bend and steep and bridging the bite of salt air became sharper growing the power of youth. I don't think of myself as young, yet looking up and above at the failed old pillars … what must they have thought? Elete and Acte had finished tossing Helios yellow ball through the afternoon before the Panormous quay and Belisama come into view. Did I expect joy? What a spyders-nest the landside had become, with mended shrouds hung between trees and skeins of rope newly pleated and set for waxing stretched between cross-bars. Sails unfurled too and green tar stropping mended seams. Smells of pitch and tar, bees-wax and and new-sawed wood wound their way up from the quays. Rope-boys caught sight of us first and set to halloowing! Very well … they had been put to watch lest too many ship-mates be discovered bound with too many whores while the Capitan crashes the party unannounced! Newly steamed barrel-wood awaited local brewers of ale. Life at sea begins afresh.
Belisama rolled to the northern swell, bow and stern bound at deep-water anchor. Yards and top- masts had been stepped down, and the hull rode safely three bow-lengths from the nearest dock. Yet I laughed at the brazen invaders! Fleets of oared cutters packed with women fled the Belisama as I got close enough to see what mates hand occupied what ass while those same rowers returned
ceder barrels of smoked herring. Rails of brown salted and cured, smoked and de-boned sole replaced pink bare ass on the gangway. Men should have been flogged … Zeus beard it is a wonderful thing to sail.
“Yo thar , Cap'n Sar it's good to ber seein yer , but can yer belly be fulr?”
“Belay that gob! Have all those women signed on for the crew?”
“Beggins the cap'ns pardon … they ah … given the warm heat in this harbor they were hired on to scrub must and moss from the storm-sails … Sur.”
“Bakk! That hire will come out of the mast-mens pay. I presume the sails are scrubbed spotless.”
“Oh yes Sar no women could clean out parts of a ship like those women.”
I could be serious no longer and my Lieutenants intervened – to my rescue – by a quay-side fire-pit roasting two whole lambs. Stories of the fabled villa were told and dis-believed .. so everything was told and more of flaming unicorns and from the sky vampirish bare-breasted waifs. All in all while the wine-bowls circled. So we ate and drank till my tongue growing prudent ignored sailor boyos straggling to the quay and remained tied to the gray bands of clouds circling from the Latin mainland.
All that night and the following day we loaded. Our physician required trading eight bricks of Gaulish bees-wax much coddled by our rope-weavers for two silver vials of willow-bark ferment of which north Sicily produces the best. Besides chandlers stores Belisama carried in trade three-hundred maple barrels of Marsaii fish ferment, eight-hundred clay jars of pickled carrots , forty pigs quartered and salted, the various horns of iron and copper, bronze and tin a trader must value against the odds as they are precious as a virgin daughter in isolated villages, twelve oak casks of Sicilian white wine, forty barrels of brine olives and twelve- hundred gold bars of weight in Egyptian deben, thus balancing each a loaf of bread, and fit to the hull bottom against the keel as ballast.
Fabulous as a princes ransom it was Artyphons gold in this way, or I should say her task that when the sweating mules had appeared at the quay she rode with two guard captains fronting the caravan. I had missed her. Camels, donkeys and horses … drivers bellowed and beat them, raw guards-squad rode behind avoiding the mule-shit. A factor of Egyptian dress rode strideful behind Artyphon and produced a parchment sheet swearing my good faith delivery.
We unhorse beside two barrels of olive oil and lay the parchment upon them. She said simply. “Sign here and put your mark under the gold scrolling.” The paper took an inked imprint from my traders badge.
Parchment is as expensive and rare as a for'ard slave with both ears. “Is that scroll a code, broken up as boxes with dots?” She says nothing, making a game of it. Two can play. “Delivery of what, jade dilldoes for the whores of Rhodes? What am I signing for?”
She spoke without threat or promise of a long expected task. Hers … now mine. “Thirty mules and twenty camels!” NaziBu beside me had an abacus calculating. “Enough weight to change the ships trim.” That was the least of a wealthy kingdoms fortune. “Who is responsible for transport? Who owns the gold?”
Artyphon patted dry my seal and tucked it into an oiled leather pouch. “Until now I am responsible for it. Until you deliver it to the Hyrkon treasury you are now responsible.”
“Would you see me thrust through with a pike, impaled if I fail?”
Amusement fails her. “Would that my master shared his failures as well as success with his servant. I would see that gold travel no farther than Hyrkon.”
“Would you now,” I joke. Her toy simpering I forgive. “Hyrkon, eh where we go directly.” I scruff on a day-old beard. “My dear Artyphon am I also now the mule? What trader risks his life and ship and reputation for a product of unknown origin and uncertain end? Who paid this gold to whom for what service?”
“First-hand I know nothing, but gossip abounds in the servants quarters.” Artyphon lowered her veil. “It is said … the gold belongs to a magical Chamois, the value being a blood price paid by the hetaera for an illicit lover not slain.”
“Illicit … a blasphemy to the gods? What then, a faun perhaps descended on a careless nymph,” I say slyly, “but a fawn...? ”
Artyphon snapped. “Discredit as you will. It is said for those creatures dear to Artemis that pursuit is taken the same as willing surrender.”
“Which means exactly what?” I laugh. “Surely an animal may not own gold, and only a fiend would wish to mate with a wild beast? And even assuming such an outrage why in justice should Aminias bear the bride-price? ”
Artyphons eyes search mine. “Hyrkon will hold the value in trust. I know nothing else of the story.”
She was strutting behind me, pouting. “As if gold were your only problem.”
A sour face escaped me. “I believe this golden venture carries a small number.”
“I know it not.”
“Artyphon grasps the sheeps belly,” spoke NaziBu cleverly. He had contented himself crafting a three faced calf talis of poppy and saffron stems, the flowers as faces now quizzed me. “Sar, you just calculated the number of gold and its value and large values they are.”
“It's nothing,” I said, but Artyphon broke in. “We speak philosophy, referring to the ultimate tempers of the gods. When men first wrote, they counted. All agree. So we have number. But long before writing, when the ancients first spoke of their feeling, they counted! So the mages say, all we do has a number.”
“And the number of this creature,” quizzed NaziBu lighting fire to his twisted talis, flashing it to a spearpoint of flame and wand of fragrant orange smoke?
“Ah yes, fire and smoke. Some high desert wizards claim a rising smoke column changes its number every instant like colors in a rainbow though perceived by mind only.”
“Known only to Cybelles honored blind scribes,” Artyphon huffed. She turned on me. “Do we play more childrens games, or begin to study. Hyrkon awaits! You go before the Trade Council the day after we arrive.”
Such secrets deserve better, even when hearing cannot imagine; I was angry. “Foolish me, for believing only the King knows that .. He and I.” I turned , grasped her wrist and pulled her against me. “Not your plan my dearest firefly to steal a step on the Phoenician?” I squeezed her waist cruelly which she forebear with breathless determination. “They can hardly allow us to trade ferments without risk and nothing will ply the trade like our Belisama.”
Returning her breath she stammered, “you just hope the plan is mine …. We will practice questioning between here and Hyrkon, especially those personal prods I expect from Memns the Carthage factor. ”
“Memns... he tans camel-hides and whose mother runs a whorehouse in Ithaca?”
“Ashur is Council chair this cycle and will sponsor Memns motions as needed. Ashur is Syrian you know, a money-changer and Assyrian king Ashur-Dans natural son by a Byblos heterae. He is married to Memns sister Lemta … a beautiful desert vixen I hear ...” Artyphon turned her head up watching the Kings banner ripple eastward. “The Council will test, to its own ends. Minos will not desert you, but we barely have time to prepare thrust for thrust.”
Much later as Helios greeted Poseidon Boreas cast his evening breath , seamist rising and a linen tunic allowed chills overdue to cover me. “This sealskin,” Artyphon suggests tossing and smoothing the cape over my shoulders. “And what is this you write. It's not the ships log and not the bastard Egyptian of the Trade Council. Don't hump your shoulder so, to hide … I know the old Minoan. You have not a lover beside me to spill your heart … I know what the palace women think of me. But your heart has promised itself. So if not Eros warm letter, then … what's this … ' ravening seaborn Etruscians soak blood from their brothers breasts as they thrust and parry between shattered hulls …' my dearest Alcibiades surely you describe not the sea battle off Sardinia? Or by Cybelles favor you are writing a bards poem, a paeon creating gore and heroes, gods favor and hells wrathe as ye make one fabulous word after another. Did your tutor teach thus, that fables not pottery and oil and ferment will be your fame? Dear lover and master and star of my moon the goddess has struck you.” She turns a page. “Aminias baring her right breast and thigh sweeps burning men before her as a dragon sweeps away spearmen ..'. but dear master she was all, but invisible during daylight hours and at night hopscotched like a stone upon water.”
“I extend and imagine thus and so.”
“Who will read .. thus and so. None … none , but me!”
In truth I relish the barding, the reliving for I trust my eyes less than the second sight of my heart. I do not wish to explain, finding one part more honest than the formal ships log. Artyphon has wrapped her arms around my back, clinging like morning glory vines, blue and warm to a cold white marble post. “Too warm.” I protest, closing the ledger and returning it to an oilskin case, and thence a teak box beside the ships log. Still shivering, I hang the vest from a ratline, till sunset calls it down. Yet chills had covered my chest and arms. “And I would have said “Sealskin my love ...” Our Ocelot screams at a cloying gull.
“Love … love,” mocking. Artyphons eyes avoiding mine. “Am I a piece of
bards tale you have written?” Her voice like clouds on a windswept sky. “Love love … so may a master bind his powerless slave with no loss to himself.”
“So may a mistress bind her lover as faire Kelpie binds her rider? Restless yet untutored he happens upon her beauty.” That desperate moment on the rock cliff, strength withering when the ravine had opened flower bright and then the chamois... I sought the name … yes, Ardbenna … and clutched my memory for the face. Love was that tangle … love before love. Yet I am no country simpleton born away by a mystics smoke-puff or Scythian savage confounded by carnival tricks. “All choice is loss my dear Artyphon. Even the gods sorrowed when man reached for the light. Are you not my own? Have I not captured you along a stream of life?”
Against my chest she has gripped strongly without shame, as a wife might feel shame to submit in public. I laugh... what is private aboard a ship? What is human is reasonable and what meaning might the world have without humans? Thoughts tumble as we prepare to up-anchor. Minos had chosen to sail earlier with the Queen of Byzantium eighty-oared galley and there was talk of shared weapons trade with tribes of the infinite northern grass-lands.
“A strange coupling,” I suggest to Artyphon, “as regardless your warning the Carian warrior has sailed off with the Queen. May her keel bend a mighty oak?” I scrabble a hashpipe from my vest and light a stale fuming plug. “Can Mary of Genoa please Minos in wisdom as she, ravished, had served the warriors flesh?”
“Catch me from what stream and mount as you will,” Artyphon snaps, “the water mare only feigns ravish.” Her eyes narrow, angry or hurt or full of womans worry. “You will not drown in my love … swear that … swear that ...” She has been thinking afar while the Belisama slips into the far sea. But, she must stiffen as any woman. “What have I said? Body or mind men know nothing of pleasure,” Artyphon hissed, “either womans or their own”, and coddling the straps on her own vest shared my pipe and said no more.
Such womans pain; her eyes wash over me , warm ripples near a beach then retreat to a smooth deep sea of anguish; wisdom advised silence. Our ships cat, a Rhodian ocelot much pampered by a hardened crew , but sensing change had retreated to its cage beneath the tiller. I did not busy about a watch that needed no interference, but stood to the quarter-deck plating Artyphons hair as she read through wax tablet manifests and vellum promisaries. Sums made and summaries written to wet clay tablets. Our blacksmith would later bake them. Groaning pawls marked anchor chains coming up through the hawse, and stay-sails were thrown at the down-mountain sweep of wind. Yet I did think on fair breasted Kelpie and men must have heard me speak the word. The Scottish yew mainmast wedge stored below must have struck the cord, for the oarsmen beneath the drumbeat took up the love paeon.
Round shouldered Kelpie splined of ironwood
Spire of Dwr, stiff knee Poocah
Thrust us above the green mountain
High breasted Belisama. Receive the thrust of our
sail dear goddess born of man, carry us on.
From sprityard to bilge boyos echo the song. I wonder which forge of Hades poured out that tune, and which anvil hammered it smooth? Voices and drum resound; happenstance, but for Zephyrus wise and gentle paired with fair Dysis. As no captain may order our future arises, a gift sylph like
Panormus harbor releasing us. Evening falls tacking across the gentle west wind till we gained Ercte, swinging west with a crisp night wind four points over the starboard bow. In the star strewn east Vega rising. Main-sail reefed, staysails flashing in and out till we gained the point of the harbor. And freed of land we sacrifice the phoenix dove, released from the stern only on wing to be smitten through the breast by a fire arrow. Brief in flame, as her suffering not ours her burning feathers die in the swells.
Artyphons back has come flush against my chest. Brazen yes, she is both barbarian colt and human woman; real enough for a trader to slight chamois gold. Well is that not the abstract part of me speaking … creatures may inhabit the earth that are greater than men. Yet a man is no mere tool, no gods toy and I wondered what traders gift Minos had given me? The golden coins occupied the entire lowest level of Belisamas hold. No modern king in this crossing of fates twenty-five-hundred years after Minos had first traded with Pharaohs Thebes and five-hundred years after the gods sent fire to the same Minoan throne could demand such a ransom. What had been offered? Who could afford a rejection? What favor and for whom had Minos done it?
Evening advanced as did Belisamas escape from Panormus harbor. It's not so simple as hair flying to the wind shouting “all abaft” and throwing spritsails over the bow. Such stories are for the bards rainy evenings, fruit-bowls and lyres, lovely girls dancing … calloused feet scamper the deck and skilled hands find shrouds and lines, clews and knots and pulleys; all boyos busy themselves accepting a wind more northing than east, coaxing its uncertain pull before we crossed over our bow. More than a league we coaxed. Then main mastmen pulled us about, casting a bow-wave between Arcturus and Jupiter. We fell away to the east far enough to wear steadily north following Saturn while it floats above the western horizon. We plot a course fearing not the night sea or gloomy rock teeth and hungry jaws farther about the western point of Marsalas. All that striving and torch flames still stood-out clearly on the quay, yet eventually we leave her a lonely dim maid growing smaller.
Leave a hundred ports, and callouses grow deeper and smoother. “Orders, Captain,” Rusa beside me.
Rusa, my first officer, bronze from the sea as well as from family old when the fires and ash destroyed the Cretan empire and bloody when the Myceneii longboats came calling with their forests of iron spear points. A steady man, should the sea take me he commands. “Play with the mizzen reef, Rusa,” I say. “If the wind backs, square up the yard. We won't flutter the canvas on a peaceful night. Carry on,” I say softening thoughts so I am without the commanders orders, captains muster and masters control … all such vetting of Belisamas right trappings, men going to sea without bark or yap and Artyphon stretched against me caught such.
She is looking north-east, away from me, out to a star-fortuned sea where Venus still brightens the sky, yet her lips might be at my throat. “Shipwright, trader, admiral … kings arm and fortunes master my true love. Fear surely not, but has arrogance caught you out at voyages beginning?”
Firefly! How can she do that, speak away from and sound into me at the same instant? Arrogance? I think of it: Hyrkon, Cyprus, Heraklitus ... gathered in my chest to the kings cold honor. “Hush ...” I cannot speak.
Mast-men bare feet thunder on deck and hoary paws strain up the shrouds. There's hot ale for both watches, especially at the straying out from shore; exhausted men fall into sleep, and as Altair rose we find the sturdy larboard breeze. Rusa sends his canvas masters into the yards and calls out sail from the binnacle. “Spanker, there me boyos, jiffy it out. There's a sheet, now steady steady,” as Panormus fell into our silver stern trace.
“Roll out the stay-sail Kalicrates , pitch … pitch by damme it catches the wind.” The foremast stay-sails billow out, pitching over the cautiously reefed main , and then shouldering a bow-wave rail-over as our main-sail bellied fat. “Belly it out Teutor,” Kykodemes called loudly, “let the pregnant bitch have her whelp!”
Night watch has taken to the top-gallant and sprityards. “Cibias, the damned tillar-bolt's sheared.”
Vexed, I am called to the tiller; the top copper bolt has shattered, broken through, wobbling the tillar-shaft . Roping that redwood shaft we slave like fiends, keeping the bow pitched upright while swelling and pounding a fire-hardened oak-peg into place. The stern-race stumbles, then draws taut as Clothos spinning silk moon showered by its light brashly set a proud wave-throwing bow. We sight directly under Altair and, so closing on Sicily western race, its spinning winds and fierce rocks and then beyond making for the long reach east toward Hyrkon.