.......................Tales of Hyrkon: book 3 .... CYPRUS VIPERS
Chapter Seven

A girl traps while a woman frees. A Scythian warlord about to lose his head for swiving the Kings daughter whispered that to me. So time retreats before feelings robust in my story … heartbeats enough to pretend wisdom or second-sight. I nuzzle at Cibias, smooth cheek against rough neck as only a woman may “Dear Cibias, we are trapped”! Fool! He thinks only about our next evening delight should he please me so. Please Cibias within his harem and without? How he must know me, I fear. Artemis mercy, how rudely Cibias blunders and how smoothly jealous Anahita draws the net about us. Wood, brick, iron and linen may whisper, but burnished bronze doorhandles shout of a recent powerful visitor. Hairs crawl the nape of my neck, so portent is the rooms feeling. ESCAPE ESCAPE plucked every musical cord in my head! Had only my master attuned the same wisdom, but the power of Hephaestus, mechanos, technos muddles his brain ever so well as unwatered Chian ferment. The workroom and craftmasters intoxicate, distract from schemes and men well ordered while I may do nothing. While I look for avenues of escape, Adad continues his innocent patter.

“Believe me, Cibias we had sense enough to exchange our wares only for the pink marble. Zeus beard be damned those Etruscan sons of whores carried pine mastpoles, and worms riddled all of them. Atop that, the ropes binding their hull had been poorly tarred and hull planks were loose as an old mans teeth!” He pounded his oak mallet on our newly bound mainmast. “But, not you my good friends, neither teak strakes nor waxed maple mastyards. Under the bow such a fitted triangle of board and crossed oak cut beneath the main-mast … beside Ares shoulders such strength have I rarely seen.” Cibias gloats uncommitted . “Minoans have never been shy with their protractors,”>

Truth was that hull and mast bore marks of craftsmen from Gedes to Byblos: Syrian, Scythian and Pict axes all shared in the wood and their woodmens purses silver coin. I had watched Cibias trade stators for skill as I watch now. Three grinders finished cutting the slot in a tackle pulley and muscled their flintstone wheel aside, leaving free a side wall and stone tabletop. The product lay before us, but the span of trade and the chance to learn more remained.

I nudge Master, for plainly the craftsman confidence wanders -- he posseses naught, but his skill. Cibias says casually. “Respecting your secrets master Adad, allow our eyes to wonder and follow by your skill. Perhaps we may help setting the plumb lines.”

“Up and down,” snickered Adad, “unless whirled about your head.” He winked slyly. “Slings are a blasphemy, for the gods have made objects to point downward toward Hades. What rises , but weak hot air? Strength changes that of course, a mans strength of whirling.” He fiddled with a small metal abacus. “Well Cibias you have surely traded well,” he exclaimed moving toward a small side door swinging open, ”yet here is an angle that may have escaped you.”

Then the raglin young girl teasing “Now, Cibias Now.”

Smooth as pumiced oak, Adad sharing a technical detail in his natural setting of awls, mallets and forge Cibias of-course stepped through the open door. “No”! I shout like NaziBu seeing more , but refusing to be separated we push away leather aproned bodies and slide in behind Adad. Shadowing my master into shadow … as the door slammed shut!

Raucous workroom replaced by silent wet black air and a proud bronze face turned silver and grey. Then two candles glimmer. Ten stone faced guards surround us glinting chain mail. One man was helmed and they pinched in on him, their robed officer. His copper clasp defied twilight and black curly hair framed the handsome square jaw of northern Semites.

Masters protective hand finds my waist and stern eyes caught in candle light, eyes balancing action against some other mans weaker need … a kings eyes … yet well must we play this epic of small space. “Cautions, love,” I murmur to Cibias, backing against him steeled dirk slipped between my fingers prepared to slash.

NaziBu grunted, blinking into the dark. “No carpenters join I've ever encountered.” Raindrops snicker against the enclosing stone walls. Sporting a young mans itch for quick certainty he had out his short sword and gone to a crouch.

Coming up before us belt to robe and pressing against bronze blades Adad whispered. “This secret between us, what a closed door hides, it is necessary. Follow me without threat.” His life was the offer of safety … my hand dropped from the hilt of my dagger and covered NaziBu blade.

Master has not uncovered his own blade and asks. “Who among fourteen keeps this secret?”

Icy sweat covers Adads face. “Everyman. What carpenter sees more than his mallet and the smooth grain of wood,” he spoke earnestly. “Each man builds for himself as does each trader. Look around you: men of arms and service … even the witch! Achens interests and those of Cyprus are not all the same.”

Talk, yes; too much! Yet he was not man enough to mark my status inside Masters ring of Lieutenants … witch indeed, bleeder of false servants! Self promoted above woodcutter, but whose coin moved the strings of his mouth? Master spoke roughly. “Many claim to speak for Cyprus, so you answer little,” he said pulling Adad chin to chin. “Does the Captain agree with you?” The guards captain rasped a guttural, demanding Hittite and I could not follow his words. So speaking to Adad Cibias said. “Your Captain sounds as unhappy as I am. He wishes for open plains, archers and a shield wall behind him. I wish to exchange the free breath of trade, as from foreign ports I have received it. Chaining me to this city is foolish; I travel as trade laws allow.” Master blew pompus clouds of irritation, and then … “Ten armed peltasts counts a fools permission , but granting who considers me so interesting?”

“Who considers you at all,” Adad muttered, “I do not know, but that a zikkurets idol turned a glass eye!” He motioned us to move, and to me. “Artyphon, have you also brought a weapon?”

“My wits,” I urge quickly, showing the dirk blade tip which promptly vanishes into a leather pocket beneath my right breast. I am justly proud, arrogant perhaps of my flawless pointed breasts, and few men see beyond them, to an unsheathed dirk meant to end foolishness. Master warns … and I mock him while raising my veil. “You betray arrogance Cibias,” and push him to follow Adad more closely. “Any man who can afford ten guards and a Hittite Lieutenant ought to be worth your interest!”

What Zikkurets idol does Adad have in mind? The Assyrian king has been frantically rebuilding them to mark his newly won territory like a wolf pissing on trees! Every city between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has one. Perhaps he means the idols eye, which is any spy with four bronze drachma in his purse. I pull the oiled sealskin robe tighter. Between rain and mist, Adads false voice, Masters disdain for my joining him and the grunting Hittite, all wrapped above slick paving stones gives Hecates night for a stroll. Heavy rain prods our pace, I've rolled up the bottoms of my Persian silk trousers, through a twisted maze of alleys and stray flickering lamps finally breaking free under a grape arbor. That opening onto apricot and almond groves. Pruned above, mulched below … tended without flaw as a personal prize, tree branches heavy with fruit.

Alone in the marching file. “Will we die together, Cibias, arm bound to arm?” Night alone has never been my best time.

“In grey years my Dear Artyphon,” he says and pats my ass most rudely. “But, now in triumph we maneuver. Show your brass and beg wine of the guards Captain.”

I step quickly to his side. “Friend Captain, have you wine to spare on a rainy night?”

“Amends, dear Froken, but a plug of black-tar hashish makes my best offer.”

I make a face to him, and another to Cibias who just laughs. He needs not the bewildering smoke to love me raw. It's darker ahead. Our pace quickens splattering water over the paving stones. Sweet smelling fields ripe with orange cut the acid stench of copper. More grape arbors then olive groves follow and beyond those orchards the lane thick with beech and almond extended north between a sheep pasture and barley field. Scattered walled villas replaced blocks of whitewashed houses.

Owls flashed through overhead trees, their white belly feathers flaring as they dive between tree trunks; sometimes I can hear prey squeal as talons struck deep. The land lay upward sloping and smelled of manure liberally spread when rain appeared. A ravine was guarded by a pair of ancient roundhouses cobbled and cemented into the rocky sides of the draw and pushing a cylindrical watch nest far above the peak of each hill. Old beyond words. Could men in wolf hide have cramped together those stones, or did the first men sail to Cyprus as gods?

I touch my own clothes … silk of Chios, Egyptian cotton, Sicily wool, leather Cretan sandals … did the first men wear gold thread or bloody animal skins? An Egyptian priest I ventured thought early man dressed as gods, while my fathers swordsman visaged them in fat-stained, untanned skins as the Caucus enemies he fought. Tree canopies lift overhead – a village of cart owning farmers or a man of great means might expect such a path moving from home to town – yet rain was beating hard through the canopy, soaking our oiled leather wraps before the fortified villa juts out from the dark. Battlements of-course … a narrow moat surrounds it while double bared iron gates protect the main entrance. Compared to keeps on the Black Sea denying corsairs their spoils Nestor or Ajax phalanx would not be kept out, but this was Cyprus ...

A servant joins our van under a striped canvas awning with a wineskin that passes around. Cibias salutes two sentries; the high walled villa hides against a curving low hill; deep spring sun would find it's curves pastel in orchid and romulae and yellow-wing. But, beauty flees; tis trenched now rudely with bronze-tipped spikes to impale, protected from behind by three battlements studded about by ballistas and fireslings, and in front by a warren of stone sheds from which cross-bow bearing guards appear as we pass then vanish. No fools this keep.

We slip through a narrow door. Inside. How amusing that we end as we began; suddenly we were alone; no Adad no guards no servant just NaziBu, Master and myself in the cobbled courtyard.

“Have we become more trustworthy by crossing a perimeter,” I ask Cibias?

But, he springs no quick wisdom. I snip: “has by magic my dagger lost its point?”

His breath round my throat. “Close keeping of lovers and enemies makes for a peaceful master, don't you think so Artyphon?” His smile nibbles at my ear. Zoroaster and Yahweh I worship, but do not bed so pleased am I Cibias cannot see my frown.

“Save it for the mattress,” growls NaziBu his voice urging attention. “Mattress or plowmans shed!”

“Plowmans shed?” I pull away. By the smell horses rode here, and oxcarts trundled between two walls three stories high, ten paces across, guttered and laid with cobblestone.

Cibias raises a small silver-mirrored bronze oil-lamp and sparks it. Above our head climbed well-sealed, torch-bearing masonry. Up a ramp he sparks one of those which flares against the rain and brightens a hoop of orange light. “A waste of cod-oil,” he whispers.

Those wall-stones were cramped one to another, copper clasped and plastered. Iron shims are bright-polished! A fountain lays to the right; wooden stable doors peer out nearly around the left side. Terra-cotta was painted blue and red-stripped, and embedded in the plaster, flashing the shine of torches was a matrix of yellow glass eyes as if nothing should ever be unseen. Tiny bubbles appear in the glass, bubbles that no master glass blower would permit and that sparkled, reflecting the windswept torch flames. I had seen such at Delphi and beside the stones of Lami, but the latter, carved into limestone monoliths were imperfect yellow diamonds each the size of a lemon. This wall … uncanny and un-nerving it held promise of half-fiendish wealth lavishly spent and to the ill mannered warning.

Human eyes surely hid behind the yellow glass. All of the bizarre tried beyond our patience and we stepped for'ard, circling, daggers out and back-to-back, the dark full of mens caution. Could they not send a woman with warm bowls of wine? Then across the courtyard a thick waxed double oak door cracks open. “Welcome travelers!” A servanys cautious words mesh to a flow of windpipes music and rasp of a known voice.

“Cibias by Cybelles tit and Zeus beard can you believe this spring rain? Water follows you Ca-ppi-Tain no matter where you travel.” Laughter echos as a rough growl. “By damn come in or you'll down before the cold can freeze you!”

That voice! “Ashur! Pestilent bastard.” Serpent eyes, arrogant lordly eyes remembered yes, from the Trade Council chamber and the hidden voice, a rough traders Phonetician and Master responded in kind ! “You butcher my name, satrap no matter where I travel.”

“Nonsense, trader ha haha!” Brick steps reflecting the textured interior orange light lead up to double doors swung wide. “Ha! Let us call on Marduke to marry our misfortune!” There he stands, sharp beaked face beside a water fountained prayer wheel whorling cuneiform engraved silk talus. Oil lamps creamy halo gleam and mint aroma revealed silk-wrapped arrogance, his pearl necked hetaera and a cutlass-armed dragoman at ease against a richly appointed backdrop. Leather shields, bronze helms and yew bows anointed the walls. His music now louder as his voice long practiced snapped at our attention. “Come come my friend, as babes to a mothers breast.” He ruffled fringe on his red tunic, puffed his cheeks exclaiming “who are these now, eh, I expect one and get three so more is my fortune. This man, your personal guard NaziBu a sorcerer some wicked accuse …” his eyes dance to his wife … “and weaver of talus to be sure. What a sturdy friend of whom salty sailors pronounce kind words. And Zeus beard such a surprise to find Artyphon among you. Married now I hear?” His tongue licks out at me like a cobra smelling … “Phryne my dearest moon do come to the door. Wisdoms folly, don't you agree, Cibias? Well fine say nothing and keep your bed warm.” Ashur had become all arms and legs, pointing and moving. “Yet sharpen the traders eyes my friend. I have a fresh merchant shipment from Pontian Syria, such treasures, all being manufactured goods so Artyphons abacus may clatter without end; come, let me drench you in hospitality and brag on my toys.”

Master snapped back. “Invited unexpectedly , this strange Cyprus rain had beaten and soaked us, body and soul.” What else to say? Cibias was playing for time, for a glimpse of the unexpected. Such pointed chatter must catch the attention of Asher and worries a prudent servant. I could not see beyond the doorway. My hand had never left the dirks hilt.

Ashur saw our reluctance. “My pleasures are yours, bold Ca-pii-tan .”

And his hetaera moved before him, her streaming black hair falling from a shoulder and offering herself to me as promise; our hands joined, then arms embracing in trust and her servants closed holding out three amphorae. I accepted the first; our veils became neck scarfs and our throats swans desire. The hetaeras face was handsome , lively, engaged … anything but beautiful. She spoke with authority. “So few tutored women dare Achens town wall, we shall be famous. I am Phryne. Before Ashur freed me I chose either mistress or slave,” We moved arm in arm out from the bricked entry toward warmth of the central fire. “Artyphon … do I understand a Zorast and Parthian name? Lovely! Some Hebrew also a little bird told me. Tempt them not for your masters sake, but you will make the Judges of Reuben and Gad cry!” She spoke a crisp entertaining colloquial mixing traders Egyptian, Minoan and Greek. The few Phoenician words she almost broke in pieces!

I bowed before Ashur, exchanged sandals for silk slippers, and words as if taken by a charm. “My family are Sinopian Hebrew of the one god. You know them from Judea, perhaps, but that is a very young shoot of a very old branch. ” A van of mummers, thin armed and shave headed with long oiled beards stood swaying in a dark corner; pipes and lyres … music of oracles belonged to them. Aside in a short, red fringed blue tunic and pearled fez a younger man sat tapping faint rhythms on a leopardskin drum. His well muscled legs ended in boots, rather than the mummers curved toe sandals. I peered carefully at the young man. “For a thousand years my klan worshiped the flames, Zoarast, then a man came spit up from the sea preaching a different fire. I was lost!”

“Centuries of faith lost on a whim. Fickle girl,” Phryne pricked.

“Perhaps, mistress. I would never claim your strength, but twas a mystery and an oracle, for a whale broached in our harbor and vomited him up. Sorely chewed he swam to the pebble shore below my fathers keep. Fisher women called me. They claimed to have seen the whole impossible adventure.”

“You nursed him, return his health,” Phryne smirked. “And he kindled your fires!”

I can say nothing without anger, so blushing I withdraw to my bench. Cibias and NaziBu looked foolish, standing wet footed beneath the awning, admiring the fire inside and denying themselves its warmth. Move or lose .. I thought like that … finally NaziBu and Master followed my path a few steps. Crossing the cederwood floor we women joined the smoky warmth and richness away from the courtyards rain and cold. A womans room I thought … we wandered toward a low hanging quartz and gold vaned oil lamp whose panels fell shoulder high. A womans smooth voice. “Lost in a man, my young dear? All women hope for such.” Beneath the lamp on a simple wool mat sat a black haired goddess … Lemta, Ashurs wife. She was dressed in green silk tunic and trousers, as a Babylon temple whore and beyond; she wore no veil, but a purple cotton headscarf piled high. She gestured comically toward Cibias and NaziBu. “Must guests stand in a desert rain?”

Still near the door the men bowed. “Surely Ashurs song moves many hearts,” plauded NaziBu and I thought nothing to improve.

Lemta smiled maliciously, glancing across the mummers from one man to the next, and to the young drummer, but falling at last on Ashur for assurance. “Smooth words from a horse thief and mans man,” she laughed. Speaking in traders Egyptian. “Carry this story to your fellow brigands! Ashur-Dan and I were to marry, but my own brother had removed my maidenhead. What do children know …?” She threw a piercing glance at Ashur. “Forbidden to marry a non-virgin, the King may he live forever still wanted me close and so I became a possession of his brother. My fortune such a husband allowed my sad heart to pine, seeking instead title to all else. A rare man! In that service I have been faithful, finding truth for him in every matter personal, military and of the realm.”

I showed surprise. “You seem too at peace to probe a mans mail fist.”

“Do I now? She reached beneath a rug to extract a pygmy crossbow the size of a mouth harp. ZING the bolt flew cross the room, burying in the nose of a mounted antelope head. “I engage all conflict and practice what I engage.” She laughed heartily, a robed servant carried away the weapon. “Were husbands such easy targets women would have found peace a thousand years past. I will make you a present of one”

Picking a low leather bound stool beside her I blushed. “Master will doubtless find fault with the strings and horn tips. But, clever woman as we are must avoid stepping on our own front foot.”

That weapons show had NaziBu shuffling back beside Master, near the doorway and splattered by rain hammering the cobblestones. By the rooms wood and brick all voices were made louder. We all heard him. “Enough men in there to kill us twice,” he snapped.

Cibias muttered. “When not on this dirty night, but if here that was Ashurs play, not his womans.” From his face I could read his thoughts as shouts. ' How silly was it my slave joining the harems comfort while her master imagined death wet and cold and conspired.'

I had better to do. We three women took to chattering a desert Berber which language I knew Master poorly understand. But, on an instant his eyes narrowed catching my sentence. “I have not been freed.” Phryne and Lemta veiled their lips to giggle.

Changing to traders Egyptian Phryne laughed boldly. “Be thankful, lovely one. As a slave pleasure and care I lavished on my body to the appreciation if not the use of many. As council to the Kings satrap and moon to my Lords sun I have become sister to his wife, shepard to the sheep , ax to wood piles and fire to the thorns.” She had taken curved Egyptian rosewood chair beneath the lamp. Even soft light showed Phrynes careworn cheeks. “I see Cibias loves you … enjoy your liberty as slave before freedom binds you in its chains.”

Our voices had dropped to satisfied murmurers, as womens will unbound by males . NaziBu and Master stood listening to noise, or for the clatter of arms waiting for a false move. He said loudly as if convincing himself “Can't drink and thrust, now can you,” finally taking in both hands from a patient servant the fine Egyptian glass wine-bowl.

Still under a canopy between courtyard and hall. Ashur coming for'ard and shivering in the wet breeze carped. “Oh for the sake of Cybelles honor and Diannes fame come in Cibias, before the fever-grip catches us all. Bitch Bastet shows her claws in this Hecate-be-damned rain.”

Before such clever force they gave way, sheathing daggers and entering the warmth. Slaves shut the massive hinged doors behind them , dried their feet, removed soggy cloaks and tunics replacing them with short belted robes of Sardis silk and wool waistcapes. “Be at peace my friends,” said Ashur as if reflecting his own comfortable safety. The floor was tiled brick interlaced with ceder. Almost immediately NaziBu and the dragoman began chattering in a Thessalonian brogue. Wine bowls re-filled. The central firepit glowed warmly. An open stairwell spiraled upward from the side, undefended and insecure.

Ashur caught Masters cautious eye. “It leads upward to a rookery dear Cibias, whose master is above seventy years. I must have him carried down to visit his city whore. He sleeps among them … ravens, pigeons, storks, hawks … yes, even a trained hawk will fly a short straight line, say, to a ship in harbor? I like my information as direct as possible.” At that he pulls a thumb sized olivewood cylinder from his waistband. “Why just this afternoon, Cibias a stork visited unexpected from … from a far distant river leaving a message both short and obscure. I am well experienced in ways of cypher, but this ...” His arm reached out disposing the wooden cylinder and exposing the gold leaf message within.

Stepping closer Master took the cylinder and uncoiled the gold sheet. Not a code ring, but below the seal of Hyrkon an iron tip had etched skeins of numbers … master held them up against the light, so backwards and upside-down the messaging if not the meaning reflected toward me shown clear. Surely Master intended, that he knew I could see and his face, concentrated on a difficult translation; men had once spoken this way, counting each true thing by its number before the goddess touched writing to their fingers. Master looked up. “And this came from … by ....”

“I'm sure I did not say,” Asher speculated amused, “nor may the rook-master even know, if the message bears no readable origin. Unexposed spies message from unexpected visages … I can speak of that myself having served my brother on the Kassite frontier. Now the dolphin and snake … seal of King Minos I understand, but without understanding the code who can say he even wrote it?”

Rolling the gold leaf around his little finger, then tapping olivewood Master handed the message back to Ashur. “Very mysterious; I would not presume to guess its meaning.” So Master dissembled smoothly. “Perhaps your enemies in the city released a nonsense message toward your confusion. For a prudent man you live scant arrow flights from the city walls,” Cibias said pointedly. “I would not sleep soundly so close to Achen!”

Ashurs forehead rumpled, far from pleased and eyed him skeptically. “I had hoped for an end to mystery, but … a ploy from Achen you suggest? That Egyptian bastard would welcome my confusion. Ha haha a traitorous observation no doubt.” Ashur sipped from his jade amphora . “Think differently my sailor boyo. Close to the harbor is how I live. With Troas and Greek raiders ravaging each others supply base my brother says I may have to run for Byblos any time. Then again one of my birds carries a message telling me a Hyrkon trading vessel was recently lost in Egypt. Ruint on a shoal, burned by raiders, intrigued by Carthage factors or … well I can't imagine all the Egyptian evils. Yet with full cargo ahead for Heraclitus you plunge.”

“Heraclitus always has been a wayward, mongrel city, but we have heard nothing of such a problem,” Cibias shrugged. “Belisama does not fear cut-purses. Achen appears much more serious a threat. He likes power and wills more. Can your guard really break though those alleyways, within Salamis if Egypt or Utica decides to bolt them tight ?”

Ashur waved his hand at the mummers and their music stopped. “Trained assassins all, killers at close quarters can cut through bronze. Who better to make music?” Three peltasts lounged in the shadows guarding a side doorway. The tapestry-covered room was large as a public house and warmed by both the open firepit and a large iron oven, so large a person could have fit inside.

“What weapon does the drummer play?”

The young mans eyes never strayed from the drumhead. Ashur chuckled. “Might as well ask how rhythm leads tone or meter leads a poem.” He called over to the young man. “Nephil, are you dangerous, or just a man with strong legs?”

Speaking high Minoan the drummer laughs. “Our King says I must run where I'm needed.”

“There, Cibias, you see as bright as tuneful. No doubt in battle a terror!” A finger snap and the lute and lyres sing again coolly sensual rhythms. “But, to force violence on our bards ... grant that's a desperate solution.” Drumbeats rattled harshly; Ashur tapped a foot on a carelessly placed fine rug woven in blue and violet dyed wool. “Tunnels my friend.” Ashur laughed with malice. “When Minoans first mined Salamis for copper, the veins were ten cubits thick and ran from the hills to the harbor.

“So the Egyptians weren't here first,” Cibias exclaimed. His face showed wonder at Ashurs admission. I knew power made honesty cheap.

He called over to Lemta, who responded curtly, followed by rattle between women and a sarcastic quip that soured Ashurs face. “With wet grassland and Egyptians in wolfskins Berbers spit on Cyprus. So my dear wife assures me.” He sneered at Lemta sealing her lips. “Berbers come from the far south east, beyond the deserts, swamps and beyond even the Nile. Tell us, Nephil, how their power has become reserved as the old songs tell:

Nephil the drummer standing, loosing his waist cape, but becoming bard his robe fell over his boots to the hard maple floor.

“You save me friend, then abandon me

to your own wretched bed. Illness thick and gray binds

so underworlds scribe may rejoice. Oh how

your enemies rejoice. Vile confusion heavy as silver horns,

sharp as crab claws and yellow tendrils bind so rejoice chaos!

The underworld shades may rejoice. Rattle not the tambourine silvered tone of death!

Can drumheads ceases their prattle

while dark Yaga festers Utrek raises its shining white limned

torch and even the slain remain not while you dream.”

Ashurs musicians had caught up the tune, brightly played for sadness, him following along making double words like echos when the pitch seemed right, ending the recitation exclaiming when he seemed to remember nothing. “Brittle as a host may I, yet where else do shades rattle as a drummer rattles, or a host rattles with his guests, but the underworld?”

“Devils he proclaims us,” Lemta giggled and clapped leaning a bare nipple against Ashurs cheek. “My husband fancies himself critic more than a Cyprus warlord, a demi-god, a faun. He'll admit it's the drummer who remembers the ancient ways and taught him the poem. Which bull of heaven will he slay next?” She snatches a glance over me. “Had he only a human champion ….” The sentence dangled quietly while her dark eyes consumed each man.

“Oh dear lady had the king only a human champion,” pattered the booted drummer. “He longs to sit peacefully on high while Mercuries chimera races between Elam and the Hittites dealing the hard bronze ax striking all kings enemies to the left and to the right.”

I saw it … Master trapped between ventures not his own and I mused aloud. “And a toneless drummer would know,” which bold phrase brought the drummers laughter, amazing the other women. I feared him not while they blushed at his glance.

The young man bowed his head as a leopard purrs. “Such a slippery vixen, alas could her black hair frighten Belit would that I might test.”

“Alas my young lover she is taken alas,” murmured Lemta surveying Cibias for an unexpected stroke while surrounding the drummer protectively with huge doe eyes.

Ashur smirked, then smiled at me, speaking warmly. “Artyphon my lovely you best us all. But the Kings drummer, a man of tone perhaps as he marched through Babylon may still rule the muse.” He drank deeply from his wine bowl. “Did he rattle before or after the king, my own drum rules being Satrap of Ashur-Dan. Do you see how a man may be both first and last? Perhaps he will drum stories for us of the Kings victory,” Ashur reminded with a small grin.

“And remind you to bend the stiff necked Cypriots and raiding Berbers to his will,” offered NaziBu.

“Yes indeed, while I am servant of his house.” Ashurs smile returned to that of the diplomat. “Poison fangs everywhere, the Berbers, the first men. Do you see their arrogance? Like scorpions. But the desert gods left Egypt the Nile and Assyrians … well you know how we stumble into everything, even the tunnels. Beneath these very floors, silver miners found the ones we needed after we threw you out!”

Master straightened in his curved Egyptian chair. “I have heard Minoan temple whores sing of times before Minoan prows broke the seas green combers. Five hundred years ago Lord Ashur long before ...”

“You should know … at least you should guess from the Hyrkon Trade Council composition that five hundred years is like a months fast to klans with any memory. Nations , states, cities rise and become dust, but the klans... consider your own, that of Minos! My brother King Ashur-Dan may he live forever will trade the bronze against any coin.”

“Clever indeed Lord Ashur. Yet Achen may wish Cyprian copper sold only to Carthage!”

“When scorpions forge steel and the icewall descends to Hades! We of-course sell to all ...” and he laughed! Servants busied. The ceder food table groans with glass jars of berries and fruit, a roast joint of ox on a walnut serving plater and a pewter pot of lamb stew.

“But , look over there! ” Ashur pointed to a large heavy blocked work bench against the far wall. On top were mechanisms and tools of various designs. “We'll see those later,” he said as servant girls entered with carts holding silver platters, finger bowls, small bronze knives and fresh wine jars. A serving girls smile always promises more than ginger and thyme. “You know I supported you at the Trade Council vote,” Ashur casually said once we had taken couches about the table.

Fair enough I thought. Master said smoothly. “For that king Minos sends his regards … and you have my thanks. Considering only Cyprus bronze and Syrian glass plate we have not always traded to our best mutual advantage.”

Lines crinkled … a frustrated look bearing on Ashurs face. . “Zeus beard Cibias can you not see beyond your next trade?”

“Sometimes only that next trade stands between me and the underworld shades.”

Ashur puffed. “Look around. I am not some mares milk swilling Amphilocian hetman with only seven sheep and a daughter to fuck. So screw 'em.”

“I spoke seriously about the glass.”

His hetaera swooned. “Dear one, wait till you see the polished glass bowl Zampus found in a Kurdistan temple. A thousand years old if a day, and glass spheres smooth as a whores lips when brought to the eye create flies big as elephants!”

Ashur added jovially. “Yes , yes we all thought Zampus dead, but he returned from the eastern mountains with such treasure and a thirteen year old wife. Within a week she had the cuckolds horns on him with every princelet at court, but he knew his own fortune and traded without envy. He will die with ivy marriage crowns and silver girdles on every daughter!”

Servants cleared the table for a huge roast tunny poached in wine and the men rejoined us. Ashur served out the portions himself with a gold trident. “Of-course we Assyrians have forged bronze and glass for two-thousand winters and for the trouble not one less cubit of snow falls in our mountain passes.” He leaned over and whispered something to his hetaera and she laughed. “ Then his face turned back to me and and swilling an entire wine-bowl spoke in a spray of words . “What did you make of that Genoan bitch Queen Mary? I mean does she intend to rule the entire sea from Byblos to Gedes or whatever remains after her eastern wave crashes against chalky white cliffs of the Tin Isle!

Cibias ponders. “We already know the sea flows on the earths curve far beyond that rainy isle. Perhaps the wave directs more against beliefs of men, their visions rather than the sea they swim over.”

“Yes … yes I know you've seen the curve from high eastern mountains, and judged the people on such mountains perverse.” Ashur snatched a deep breath of hashish from a jade Parthian snifter. “Queen Mary must know this and lay out a triangle rr”... he snickered ...”is she just a great lay fucking every westward marauding Greek hero into submission ha haha...!”

Like thunderbolts from a sky clear blue, though I had the story second hand, from a serving girl whose unbuttoned robe and firm nipples gave her free access to every tier in the room and to every speech. Master sought first the measure of a wine bowl … could Ashur have really been there …? “I didn't see you in the room … it was dark of-course, said Master finally.”

“Nonsense my friend. Bright as sunlight, through those high windows.....” Ashur leaned forward as if sharing a great secret. “But, you noticed eight hooded, bearded men, did you not? I do own a razor which my whore would prefer to use on my throat, but she fears the oven.” He pointed across the room to the iron box glowing dim red. “Speak frankly,” he said … fear nothing under our trade banner.”

One slice from the ox haunch, one flat bread dip from the lamb stew let me think about it while Master ate, then sharing a confident arrogance … “Mary of Genoa … yes, though a council dominated ruler she knew what a woman knows … and if her young frolics are true perhaps what the alpine mushrooms told her.” An antler hash pipe was making the rounds. I chipped a cod slice into the sauce and chewed it. Master spoke through the fumes. “Men speak of such trips with confusion and I don't know if the Goddess truth is in them.”

“You think her an oracle, then, a seer of visions?” Ashur bounced up from his couch and walked to the oven, chewing a barley loaf flatbread and then tapping on the iron with his knife blade. “But, the wave of men leaving Troas for Carthage, she knew about that! She claimed for the westering tide everything, but swimming camels!”

“Any trader can count bodies on a passing vessel. I believe most traders to northern Latium would not ignore her feasting. She bribes the merchants and proves a feast of flesh to the warrior so nothing escapes her vision. ”

“And the endless caravans traversing Libya …? Does she employ the peregrines and sand eagles ”

“You know the burning coastal oasis spitting columns of flame, and the wells spewing both water and oil as well as I do. Hermes may heat and quench his steel forging within the grasp of men. I never believed that story of man stealing the gods fire. Gods have all they can tolerate. They have been shoving it up our ass since the first men walked the shores of Our Sea.” I pass a tray of fresh bread slices and warm cheese as Master both ate and talked. ”Merchants and mechanics swarm those salt ponds. As caravans pass through stories of wealthy travelers become public. If we know, why wouldn't Queen Mary?”

Ashur hesitated. “People disfavor brazen views of the gods or scoffing of an atheist, Cibias” Picking through a glass bowl he chose a reed and lit his jade hashpipe, walking away from the oven trailing gray circles rising from his mouth. “Is every wonder some flare of gods temper? A man seeking power holds his speech. Whatever our excess, we have not predicted the entire world will move out from under us …”

Too much temper and too much revealed , but this much I could tell; Ashur had memorized every threat, bought into Queen Marys whole story and was prepared to act against her. I took a prudent turn on the hashpipe as did Lemta and Phryna, and I blew a long thin stream of vapor toward the hetaera and returned her knowing smile. Lemta murmured. “I see the small reach, Ashur, the intemperate squeal of unearned beauty.

Phryna agreed. “So does Mary of Genoa mock a semi-literate shecat, skittering from one hotplate to the next not the lioness roar of domination.”

“She fucks as she wishes,” spoke Master, “perhaps she speaks the same dialect!”

“Spewing heat that bitch; you think she speaks for herself,” Ashur bellowed! “See what you wish … embrace the viper or do you rove so freely and live so far west to ignore our ancient Cretan motherland.”

Cibias face flushed, leaping to his feet shouting “... our mother …?”

To be met by Ashurs rush beside the table. “Dolphin and bull, Hyrkon!” Guards scrambled toward us swords out, but Ashur waved them back. “Never forget Aphrodites wisdom, a snakes wisdom joining silver-haired kin of the sea with black bearded klan of the mountains!”

“So long ago ...”... They stood chin to chin as I shook memories of my tutors poorly spun ancient histories. Of how klans ventured from north and east to Crete, interbreeding , north to east and silver hair to black producing Minoan bronze. Master and Ashur … brothers … struggling to grasp the lesser heel my sacred books assure and I hide my face.

Ashur waited. His face kinder now. “Brother Cibias..” he said and moved away to a wall tapestry and ripped it away. Behind, fixed to the wall was a map of Our Sea of such detail any sailor boyo would have marveled knowing the true, imagining that told in story and believing what he had never visited. “Here is the bitches lair,” hissed Ashur, pointing to the seaward crux of land between Etruscan and Gaul. His hand swept the entire northern shore of Our Sea from the Pontis to the Pillars. “Mycennii see all this as one city, one state, one people and one nation. Mycenii, Byzanth Scyths, Greek, Latium .. all those whose vessels now sail against Troas.”

Master puffed. “Then many will rule, not one … Greek, Latium … You forget some already hold membership in the trade council.”

“Fool! Ashur shouts! “The Greek traders bid their time. The Queen of Genoa may Medusa seize up that bitch into stone imagines all this under her own childrens rule, but she cares not for the particular name or state. Whore of the sea, she acts as chaste Dianne of the meadows in whose quick shadow east to west, the northern water, forest and iron will make their own name pouring out their manly and countless barbarians. Do you see what I mean? They can call gods from the northern steppes, as we call our own, but fortunes rule of tin gravel and quartz slabs and the stones that burn.”

I hear again King Minos fears writ large, and his plans, expectations, demands … for Cibias his son to stop them! Master speaks the old fear. “Can the Trade Council stop them? Minos has … but if not stop them completely then what holds for us?”

Ashurs hand on the map ran back to the Pontis. “We shall see if Troy can starve out the Greeks, cut off their supply ships, sending them home thin and hungry. I don't count on that. Hector loves his chariots and doesn't know a sprityard from a tiller! We must sail strongly into the unknown west. For you Cibias obey the orders of your King.” His eyes glared straight through me. “ My astrologer tells me your trade will purchase Hyrkon half a thousand years. You will sail farther and live a longer life than brazen chance deserves and will die beside brothers in arms, sword in hand as a man should pass.”

Such astrology charts I have not seen. My mages predict … but why bother thinking in this small heated room of wishes. Master now laughs. “Such Mages I should employ ...” The hetaera blushed. “All assuming Achen will allow the Belisamas new bronze to leave port ...”

Ashur strides away the rooms length, returning with a gold speckled blown glass bowl of Greek design, but Syrian manufacture. “Minos has agents in Herakletus … your contacts?” Master stiffens, but blankfaced says nothing. Ashure spins the bowl in his fingers. “Very well, for Minos silent servant. Sail strongly as Boreas allows. Upon landing venture brazenly as one most dim! Go to the Street of Amethysts midmorning. Seek out a gold veiled whore whose silver girdle is bound with a silver torque. Minos may have described her van otherwise.”

“Achen knows!”

“Nothing! He's no deadly threat, bound to Pharaoh which most cannot say! Vipers in his own bed will worry Achen more than he cares to bother you.” Ashur had returned to his couch, and his whore was stripping a grape vine for him. “Achen is like all Egyptians; you act too quickly for him. Any happening that takes less than ten years means nothing, and less than a hundred cannot be important. The scribes he imports from Thebes require ten days to record one day of harbor activity. He'll send men before and after you as assassins … make no mistake … and they like him will be late to their own death!”

Master coldly responds. “I await their sloth.”

Ashur holds a handfull of the small dark Cyprus upland grapes rolling them about his palm. “A quick man awaits sloth … that's a good one Cibias But, the Greek mercenaries Egyptians and Phoenicians hire will move faster. I know of a Dorian, a man named Klytus well traveled and swift as death … who brings both Corinthians and Spartans to the Pharaohs service. Soldiered in the coastal valleys against Minos, but never brought him to the sword point. He's looking for vengeance. Brash and well spoken, for a Spartan and deadly close in with the short sword.”

“Must we thrash them again,” Master says hefting an ash spear clipped on the wall beside a bronze shield. Too much of the bard I think and gently return the weapon. “Such Spartans …. Minos has turned their backs, set their legs running and whipped them raw!”

I could see Masters brow furrow as his mind spins. Klytus the bastard … so Ashur has his own enemies in Egypt, perhaps the same men we seek. He'd rather Master killed them than have the blood on his hands. The thought troubles of Hyrkon and Syria allied against Egypt and Carthage. What grows our shipping and who pays for the lost trade? I follow Masters eyes; they roam the map tracing routes and memorizing what neither of us have seen … what only an eagle could have seen … pirate infested islands north of Greek Thessaly, and the caves and keeps high above the western base of the Pillars; migrating sand Isle south of the Po. So many ...

Ashur calls out. “For us my brother … if Troas falls every year Greek hulls will push us farther west. We will hide in the Spanish mountains , frosted Tin Isles and southern deserts of Our Sea … fleas on the tail of sand vipers. Blood lusting klans will ring the Bosporus. Our stone temples crumble . We will be lucky to scratch out a few clay tablets. by which future men may know that once beneath Zeus hard fist we ruled.”

“So Latins break into the Black Sea?” I meant to say nothing, but fear burst from my lips. “Will Hyrkon be strapped to the savages fierce bow as was I? Then what of our ships and our trade and our laws....?”

The women blanched pale, at my outburst. Less dishonest than childlike I must have sounded and would have rambled on … had Phryne not taken my hands in hers … and Ashurs strong voice break in. “My dear witch, or Zorast, or Hebrew and bed servant of a fellow Council member, Nations tire and men die. Some memory may pass .. perhaps snatches of the fool Hebrew god or the wandering star science of Babylon. Perhaps ….” Ashur turned his back on the map and called for the wine bowls. “ For the disgrace of fallen masters, lost arts and failed brotherhood we will envy the Bogges!”

How we enjoyed Ashurs novelty drink , flushed tea leaves, imported from Indus. The liquid flowed through a twisted glass maze soaking both the tea leaves and citrus peals in small catch-bowls as water changed color and flavor along the liquid path. We three women and our maids sat together, on stools or mats, crosslegged about the overhead lamp while the three men and men at arms lounged on couches before the great oak serving table. My tutor would have observed gargoyles and imps … but that thought remains quiet.

Now the men had migrated to the table of imported trade items. Master groped a polished skull, its eye sockets lunging forward and fangs sharp and pointed a hands breath long. “ A monkey ,” he suggested, “or a gorilla from the African coast.”

“Wrong ocean my friend. They are Indus humans of a sort,” Ashur laughed. “Yes yes the fangs ...” he shuddered...”they remind one of the Egyptian undead night prowlers, the vampyri but none have seen them since the reign of Khufu; Babylonian scribes believe they were trapped in Pharaohs pyramids as if that were the reason for their construction. No no these modern creatures, called Yeti by mountain traders live in the high airless caves of the Sagarmatha. If you believe the traders, for whom flesh is money they steal half the woman slaves brought down toward the Indus lowlands.”

“What of their own females, I interrupt?”

“Noone have seen Yeti young ...”. He pauses as if the answer stood. “All men of-course thieve for mates, but the Yetis … they steal for food.....!” He turned away toward his hetaera. “Have the Bogge ever eaten our women?”

Our dinnertime stretched out as if Dagon and Demeter mated over toasting flatbreads on the oven. Sharing of food slipping into the display of traders toys. Irons gears of-course from the Hittites who worshipped metal, and a spark machine from Damascus … just turn the wooden handle and watch the gold-spun wires inside.... The polished glass beads were indeed wonders; much more powerful than masters sea glass. You squint into them through a bronze tube where mounted by ruby clips and illuminated by the finest oil lamp silk you can barely feel came bigger, yet even bigger, expanded to worlds unimagined and never seen, but through the glass. I thought to see the myriad of tiny moving animals my tutor mage had described, then a drop of boiled liquid was still. Those tiny silk strands became a labyrinths weave within even smaller strands; did something live beneath those most narrow strands or does the world in small just vanish? Ashur did not know, but all wondered under Ashurs watchful eye.

Master duly amazed. “My own glass compares poorly to these baubles. Truly by comparison a fogged and pitted reminder of far away!” Then falsely casual , as a man thinking to sly a bit of intelligence from the Satrap. “What of the new weapon of the Byzants, a tube releasing streams of fire from an iron bottle of mixed oils and sulfur. My forsail master Mykron claims to have seen one the size of a spear in Abydos. But, larger is more deadly! Did we see such a firetube here installed on a new war tower?”

Ashur mumbles to a scribe. Then … “Mages folly for the most part. Tubes explode and vapors damp when the binding hoops hold at all.” Ashur picked up a wooden handled brass tube with a hole drilled in the top, fiddled it then tossed it to Master. “Nitre of phosphorus, yes that's part of the secret, but the very air devils it away.” Beyond that he dissembles claiming ignorance of his own defense, but rattles greatly on the fall of Troy and growth of Carthage both of which Ashur seems assured. “Night and day Carthage imports Thessalonian timber, builds new boat docks and extends their breakwaters.”

Master weighed and balanced the tube, aimed it skeptically across the room then carefully returned it to the table. “Mars wall still surrounds Troy!”

“Jove will see to its destruction, since Mars fucked her ass and then dumped her for Astarte once Zeus started bitching his lightening bolts ...” That blasphemy was old as Knossos temples and we all laughed. “Lucky was its building and unlucky the fall. Greeks worth fearing podded up in Thessaly, practicing horsemanship never used, straking new hulls and colonizing the near Asian islands. Limnos, Lesbos, Bozca, .. lacking a single rule they all bled Syrian tecknos believe me! Brass headed Agamemnon to the contrary the Hellenes aren't all as stupid as the Argots! Now as Dorians they overtake the south, and return to dismember ancient Troas.“

“How then do Hyrkon and Crete and Cyprus remain free?”

“Ha!” roared Ashur. Free of whom? Surely not of the Assyrian house and my Lord Ashur Dan may he live forever!”

“Free that the Hyrkon succession may continue,” Master urges strongly.

“Two able sons,” says Phryne … three if we count present company though you may find treasonous such words.”

Lemte patted my arm. “Which will rule, my dear? Is your bastard the best of the lot as well as quietly loyal. Cybelles tragedy Minos wife had died in a shipwreck off Utica, so each son becomes free of a mothers ambition.”

Phryne tosses incense grains into the oil lamp and a rosette of sparkles shines above. “King, sons, lovers and a bastard … one, two, three more than three,” and her laugher quiets slowly like a bubbling brook crossed.

“Samasara, the cycle of choice will decide,” I declare with all caution.

“And which choices are those,” wonders Lemta?

“The mother may have favored the younger, and sacrificed mellow ferment to her honor,” Phryne suggests. “One upon another such favors the goddess remembers smiling on that child.”

Lemta. “Do the Moirae concern themselves with a mothers love, as they card, weave and cut the threads of life? Or the three roots of the world tree Yggdrasil … into what flesh do they bury? ”

Her eyes fasten secretly on me. “You Artyphon, a far traveled yet simple woman so you say, which of the sons would you name?”

“Surely dear lady, as Memns is your brother so one will be named Minos,” I exclaim with a womanly jest not to be taken seriously. “ Master knows better than I, yet even kings thanes find peace who relish his justice and seek only service, a fair trade and their own good name!”

“No ambition?”

I speak quickly, changing voice to a mages stern Syrian. “Ambition for Cibias love and for Cibias Trade Council. Thus rescued life has taught me!”

“Well spoken,” Master smiles blushing at me. “Great Asia may trifle with power, and great cities fall upon their neighbors. Now when Minoan ships ruled Our Sea none such destruction did we play; wise beyond our power.” Cibias tasted a small bowl of Ashurs orange ferment. “When powerful we deferred – but now – citizens of a small Kingdom like Hyrkon must always serve.”

“Brother Memns did finally give you his vote,” Lemta observed slinking deep into the couch and flirting with her wine. “Yet, I would not buy his ginger.”

“Ha! Ginger! You will not bait him easily,” snips Ashur giving Master a wink. “Does the Hyrkon succession stand firmly beside Sophias wisdom?”

Master spoke firmly. “There's spice to the Hyrkon succession, with the older king still vigorous. Why not two months ago I saw him snatched by a vixen able to run wolf hounds in circles!” Even the musicians chortled. Master takes both a grape and an almond from silver bowls and nibbles them together. “Of the Kings sons both sail, fight, whore and trade. Neither palace nor slaughterhouse has corrupted them. Minos served them a hard youth,” Master suggests watching Ashurs face. “Perhaps they will marry the same woman and bending the knee declare her queen!” The table breaks into laughter. Even Ashur, chuckling at womans power yet mixed with a frown; loving his brother he must fear hard unbending adults as well might a blooded satrap loyal to Asher-Dans expanding empire.

I caught that sudden strain, the tension of acting well about fools. Any ruler must arm to that war and showing a secret grin declared. “Tough young men certainly Lord Ashur, but seeing them between trading voyages I have discovered each taken by exquisite daughters of the Egyptian Ataphathol, chief scribe at the Temple of Horus.”

“Ashur chewed on a bloody slice of ox. “I heard the eldest, Didikas, had taken to hard company no friend of the flowered maiden.”

“Can both ventures thrive,” Phryne sighed feigning dismay? “Surely they have not penetrated … the scribes seraglio! ”

“What if they have,” I snicker? “Are scribed daughters taught to milk cows and divide empires! Such women are born to power and the states virtue, not their own girlish qualms. They possess danger and intrigue … and pleasure by blood, enough to bring even wild men to discipline. Think about that. A king choses his mate to ensure his own discipline; which peoples are so fortunate for such a ruler? Should such an Egyptian woman not form this match, bold, ripe and brazen that unlikely match strengthening Hyrkon?”

Ashur stroked his short gray beard. “Pharaoh may not favor that marriage , and Egyptian trader Ptalpes certainly not. He has Greek mercenaries at his back, and what subtle ravage follow the womens flight from their home?” Dissembling weakly to Artyphon and Phryne, Ashur believed women short on discipline. “Why should Ptalpes want Hyrkon competition growing from his own docks?”

The young drummer suddenly rose from his mats, found an amphora in servants hands and and walked to the firepit. “Say what you will; two of Minos sons risk all for uncertain gain. Does Egypt thrive so well, in these hard times as Assyria rises and Hyrkon declines?” For a drummer, not a singer his voice projects strongly. Royal woman will feel their knees weaken and many a warrior will hear the voice of such a drummer! “I would see for myself.” Taller now, standing … stretching he appears more of an equal speaking directly to Master. “I understand you are sailing to Amathus. Consider my plight Cibias Fellow mummers have no need of me for a time, and I thought to see Cyprus countryside. In Salamis one dare not venture beyond your own walls fearing nightshade will flavor your wineskin or oak quarrels find your back.”

“Join our crew!”

“A working passenger, Captain”

Master stuttered, astonished at the request. “Travel with us … sailing also … we had not planned traveling from the Amathus harbor. Do you know something? Does your master Ashur approve? Has he no need of your rhythms?” Yes my nipples have become hard at the scent of intrigue. Is this the real reason for Ashur calling us here? “A startling, Parthians call such a surprise companion”

Satrap Ashur smirks, and casually waves his many ringed left hand. “My loss will be small for a short time, and tell truth my ears can spare the drumming.”

“May Lord Ashur believe my travels make for a more steady drum beat ...” Nephins eyes flashed to the satrap who never lost his humor , allowing the drummer to rattle on. “And though a small point my drumming never fails to spook the ravens and doves in the rookery. Mayhaps new messages may arrive!”

“What drum beat do you have for us,” snarks NaziBu. “From what temple whore atop a zikkuret do you find the rhythm?”

“Sadly a drummer knows truth last among musicians and they last among men.” He bent over to scratch the top of his leather boot. “Harmony and truth rarely share the same bed. But, a bard ought not to fear ignorance, nor the company of his betters.” He extends an open hand to Master. “ As Ashur says I am called … Nephil, and except for memory admit to being the least of men, though from the zikkuret of Karsag Da and temple of Nye in Kish I stole the finest notes. And who is this?” He turns pitch black eyes toward me.

“Artyphon, as my Master wills.” Nephil extended his hand to me and I clasped it. The dark skin burned like charcoal. Blood boiling I managed. “Did your parents sell you to the temple guild of music?”

He laughed, and exchanged his grasp to a bowl of almonds. “My parents … they believed an oracle and set me beside the Tigris as if to be swept away. I am told a flock of storks nurtured me till a beggar needing a flute boy found me. Notes I discovered myself, whether by flute or lyre they came or the muse Ishtar and I find them also in my drumhead.”

His hand left mine, but not those dark eyes. I sought control. “Do women find you poor as your boots … or as wealthy as the emerald on your earing?”

Quick as a snake and smiling. “I earned the boots.”

“You wear out the boots!” Something there … how does a musician earn his boots; what notes must he play … how strongly I feel the hidden instrument, but not a drum.

“Not all he's worn out, by the gods beard! Stole the temple virgins maidenheads I do believe,” NaziBu jibed. “Rapacious with a wanton as Nergal, but flush for the light! Can you sail or row, tie a knot or splice a rope? Shall you ride the billowing canvas or … or wrapped in shreds sink to the seas bottom? And ride a horse …” NaziBu waited a reply and got none. After along draught of wine he prodded the drummer. ” Some say servants stole Kish temple horses from under the zikkurets first level. Thieved the best stallions and sold them proper to ravaging Arabs. That deviled the Elamites more than ever the Assyrian shield walls.”

“Theft?” Nephil laughed. “Men of the Tigris and Euphrates are weaned on such tasks. As seven devils guard Babylons hades so each man must perform seven devilish works.” He flicked aside a wrist guard showing a robins egg size ruby. “Did innocence grant the jewel; do our two rivers flow from mountain to swamp?”

“Let him volley the sea with his drumbeats,” entoned Ashur. He wanted the drummer boy with us, and Master ceased complaining. Lamps, candles and the firepit burned low. Hypnos drew his veil over tired eyes. Thunderous volleys of rain had dispersed. All tired. Master refused the young, hard assed Rhodian whores much to NaziBu displeasure.

“Will Master so displease his host,” I snipe? “Surely a slaves feelings cannot count against a royal gift.” Poor Cibias hot blooded under the veil of drink , gauging one August night against weeks of winter.

My amused challenge sent Lemte into roils of laughter. “Does he still keep your cot at beds foot?”

“No my lady he broke it for kindling, swearing his body to mine, and binding me away from quicksilver rogues like Nephil.”

Cibias veiled his anger, as a young woman her lips. I see Nephil as a foil … part of a gods name … but foil to whom? Does he play for himself? Master and he stood one beside another finishing a last amphorae of hot tea and Nephil said. “You lose no secrets by my joining. Friends watch. As Belisama wears to the channel I will snatch a skiff and come aboard alone.”

“See you waste not a moment when we raise anchor. Belisama hull will find a will, and oars rarely defeat the winds.”

Nephil bowed and laughed. “Indeed even a king may not defy the winds, be they the breath of Anemoi or that of men. Do you believe Queen Mary considered that when imagining her soaring Peacock lays waste to our eastern pastures?”

I cannot allow folly to stand. “Fly as they will, women of the high Caucus stand closer Zoroast flame.”

“And so devil the man standing beside them.” At that Nephil saunters off beside an almond eyed Scythian redhead with breasts pointed as wheat sacks. He has already pinned gold clips to her nipples and carries a braided horse hair whip as other men would carry a short sword. Exchanging threats and bawd and she already scratching at the ribs beneath his arm-torque they leave by a side door, he loudly agreeing to meet us for passage as Belisama bid farewell to Salamis harbor.