“Froward master,” she whistles, “are your intents innocent?” As I watch the sky Artyphon ponders upon my frame, her hands envious. “I thought so, we will not leave for pleasure which you may count by the quarter-fist and I by the eighth! Rather ye seek messages from your father, from Asher or perhaps Nephil … that his name may be.” I am trailing a shooting star warp glitter from its breast and Artyphon savvy, patient grinding lumps from my shoulder. “Surely not one of the Royals …!”
“Asking or telling,” I jib and receive Artyphones slim finger-bones under my rib. “Ha ha surely not a Royal.”
“Your lips discipline me Master, as you hand never has. Consider Didikas … yes? An orphan less than us, and that fully by his fathers choice. How he would love your ear, if speech only delivered by a raven. ”
“A young leader must earn ...”
Artyphons eyes are emeralds in star-light. “Earn his life? You deal laughter Cibias, Didikas trading rubies of Sicily far to the southern Nile. Dealing eyes-of-day with Egyptian night-birds.”
“Night birds .. noone calls them such, being mythical creatures like every fools picture of a Cretan Minotaur.”
“Which you don't deny. Such honesty – would pitch me from our bed should energy fade.” Nor will you deny the treasure golden Didikas returns to his fathers court.”
None can hear us, and of these Belisama pleads for silence. “Fabulous stories, I say … and say again of sun-struck men and parched women … not two drops of blood between them so their barding naturally flows from first hymn to last shrieked horror. Brazen wench have you no respect for a husband ….” unspoken, for a man who may stand neck beside neck to their hasty fangs. Fantasy … only the deserts lonely fantasy. "Cybelles cunt," I curse myself knowing even my own experience to be hasty, fog-layered surmise.
How close she watches me. “Asking … if we are to be orphaned? Look now, my delight you have skittered harbor bound only to place us among the riff-raff.” We anchor in an empty western quarter of the Herakleion harbor, stealing two hours sunrise sleep shared with three yellow-masted Lydian grain traders beyond bowshot and two-hulls of water beneath our keel. Artyphon forces me to couple as a mad wolf and clawing for share she bleeds for it. Early summer winds riffle about the nearest mole.
Yes, the Captain takes pleasure of his women while the deck -man pushes his granite mop. Yet sails lowered and oars waxed – barely are anchors bowsed fore and aft before bluff nosed trading barks and luggers come prowling. No silk sails here, among sails jiffed, but lean beggars and oars snacking the oily harbor surface. Hear them call out ...
“... honorable sirs the best hashish, poppy gum, unwatered wine from Chios … attend me sailors for I offer ripe Libyan boys perhaps, for your amusement or Cilician girls so virgin they cannot yet bleed … Hittite iron mail, three suits, holes rewoven by tinned silver … see Hasti for real food, roast camel and robuck worthy oarsmen here for the sailor tired of fish ...” This stream of sellers never ends.
We shower them with piss-filled pig-bladders and blunt arrows cutting away ropes and holing canvas to their unending curses yet a few dash close exchanging over the hull a blackened joint of ox, panders to squealing women and long grey streams of hashish smoke. “Not leather, you waterlogged strake,” I shout over stern-posted ale-sotted guards. “Use linen or reed ...” Beating off merchants, as captains must calls stroke upon lash yet none so harsh as to foolishly insult or harm a future trade.
White wings flutter atop our banner post. Faelon hurries down bloodied bird in the left hand with the finger-nail size code. “Took a dart in her breast the brave bird, but shivering she delivered to her coop.”
The silver packet unrolls and I run a finger over its eight scrolled letters. “No more pain; wring her neck.”
“Already done Sar. I'll take the body to our ocelot.”
“Good enough Farlon. But, best allow Artyphon , yet you my dear beware your own fingers; she's jumpy as herded cats.” Simpering Artyphon scampers off.
Then. “The gold claw-ring?”
Westering we sit, a half a league off the public moles and twice as far from Pharaohs royal docks if docks they be not temples marched out from the eternal desert sand and left sinking in an equally eternal sea. Ancient builders had cared not for the bounds placed on water, thrusting their wealthy fluted stone pillars far into the muddy bay as if saying ''bear my weight Poseidon of granite and marble and limestone and look to your own deep water caves as these we have taken for our own'. Arrogance didn't speak to it, Pharaoh being god himself throwing his pyramids and temples and canals across the desert and here defying the sea. Columns soar three times our mast-height. A sourness seems to escape their pink marble fittings that put chills to the crew; even our ocelot pads up the bow-sprint to slaughter terns – has she sensed Bastets presence – before spitting at her one-armed handler. He must bribe her with mackerel before she jaw-scratches his one hand and allows return to her cage.
What was it …? Were the Egyptian workings so grand? “Do they build as they may, for they have built more than they must.” Artyphon thinks so. “Belittle this, monstrous pyramids rise to the south! Have you preened about them at dawn with some lover?”
“Seen them? Twice, dearest Artyphon, yet never with my lover.” Her head comes against mine. “And first seen as a student. Minos library retains gold-leaf books of Cretan history. Pyramid sketches were considered mythes!”
“So provincial, my love, I shall need never stop teaching.” She stands beside me , her breasts resting on my chest and sketching in her red-iron ink the port outlines on a sheet of Papyrus. “See the taper, Cibias,” she exclaims pointing to the stretch of columns. “They invite the world!”
“But, Pharaoh did not seek the world,” I carp.
“How can you say that? Their stella litter the islands and crowd the desert from the red Sea to the Pontis.”
“Stella perhaps; who with ten thousand warriors cannot carve a stone! But, what klans or culture remain? Who emulated their religion, or buildings or scribes?”
“Zorast … Crete!”
“Pagan blasphemy,” I growl into Artyphons smug face. “In golden hulled ships Minoans discovered mud hut Egyptians as a shephard discovers abandoned wolf cubs, and to his own dismay raises them.”
Ignoring my protests, Artyphon returns to her sketching. Egypt has spared little on this harbor. Parallel roofed mooring columns splendidly reach out from a crop of limestone. Small lighthouses grace each end. The entire glowing marble curve of it runs on for two leagues, though the curtained and roofed white brick quay was shorter; the below-water porticos swim thick with whiting and flounder, a dolphins playground and brighten flailing jaws and the dogfish dark shadow. Two naked women swim among the carvings , patrons or princess their ankle jewels sparkle while protected by three trident bearing, green waisted frogmen.
Overlooking all stretch two mast-high limestone image - one of Hercules the cities patron and the other of Bastet the bitch cat-goddess. Hercules looks out over his harbor in subdued dignity; son of a god masters a harbor of seamen. Feline Bastets image licks her paw showing the short sharp fangs, whose smooth ivory drip blood; her face has been painted and repainted, now a rusty red while claws shown silver. Could any man doubt that more men would enter the harbor than would leave? Artyphon sketch finished she shivered against me. Very well, sailor-boyo come aboard …
“Well be it that we are not mice,” grunts Tar, “nor our women cats” he appears to remember blowing a thin stream of hashish smoke over the starboard rail.
Hekateas has woven a cat of oiled grape leaves binding them together with a strand of the tin and silver solder he melted and sun like silk to make animal-face designs on wool fabric. He has threaded head and heart and anus together and bound two of them beside the speed- log to the taffrail.
“Right coming high bastards, captain”, scowled Nykodemes. A smoky trace of incense wafted up from the cats paws like wreath might adorn a goddess head.
“Captain Captain,” calls down a rope-boy dangling high from an aft shroud, “can you see? Dolphins are chasing the sharks! ”
“Makes my blood freeze, ” said Elisedd, “sharks of flesh and of concrete.... what difference? He had sailed jungle to ice-mountain beyond the Pillars, beating up and down the fringe of the great wild western ocean, but had never visited Herakleion . “Is the language of men spoken here?”
I say. “Pick your poison, Elisedd! There rises a brick tower in Troas where priestess eat bitter rye and speak a hundred languages, though none of this world. Many die thus speaking. Here, Phoenician is spoken on a scale to honor Pharaoh, ruler of Palestine so a careless traveler might think.”
“But, not us …?”
“Yes … not us. I'm not trading to honor Phoenicians. Nykodemes has the trade tablets. I must go ashore. Tis a day or so to refresh our trading contacts. We need those days, but otherwise we stay here no longer than it takes to unload cargo from the hull.”
“Shall the crew not exchange in person,” snips Telemydon? Many have factored their own wares.”
I point. On the west side of the royals sits the public quay, a dirty sandstone and mud brick slab five times as long, but single layered and only half the height of the royals. Vessels flock and scatter about that quay , leaving goods and retreating with the Pharaohs silver. “That too is Pharaohs property, as was every stick, stone, tit, ass, fish, ruby, flat-bread, bullock, scribe, slave and crocodile between the mouth of the Nile and the second cataract.”
“Not by the Trade Laws,” bellows Faelon.”
“Find them here you're a lucky man,” I say. “Pharaoh owns all perhaps, but Hyrkons free men who own themselves”
Themselves and their handiwork. Belisama crew are drying sails, sewing split seams and splicing rope. Oarsmen have gone into the hold to reshuffle trade goods while re-trimming the hulls balance. Idlers braid their mates cues. Yet Egypt could strike at them like a coiled viper; foreign power makes the ever-flowing Nile a chimera, especially now and the traders part become more of the floating fortress. Nykodemes has brought the contracts to our mid-deck cabin. Each papyrus sheet was separated by thin lead foil that pealed away, the whole bound in a rubber-lined brass-bound teak box.
He hefts a small bag of black Moroccan pearls. “As I breath , Captain how can Pharaoh value properly of five-hundred leagues every man, goat and barley grain, when experienced traders haggle for a week over the price of one pearl?”
“Pharaoh never pays for the pearls,” interjects Artyphon. She has been working through the contracts for wood and ferment and is explaining to our signalman Faelan. “Pharaoh has kept his own city , in a way. Akhetaten, that's the name of it, a city three days sail from the sea so beyond the coast raiders and the ancient home of Egyptian glass, where fire-pillars rose up from the Nile mud. Guilds built clay ovens so sand and wood ash melted to clear smooth stones!” Artyphon retreated from the deck rail to sit on a bench, but her speech remained bold. “Can Pharaoh rule the world by making glass,” she asked slyly … modestly.
But, I saw she knew the answer! Loudly. “Hear me boyos. Through its royal house Egypt bleeds treasures of three million men, a prime reason that in 4000 years she learns so little from her trade.”
NaziBu, who has paid his time in Egypt. “It's very abstract, how Pharaohs religion constricts guilds and traders. ”
“Always the system at fault and never the man,” I prod at NaziBu excuse. “So you hold none responsible? If scales need not weigh the grain basket fairly, then why pay for the gold throne and silver septre? A wise Pharaoh will make smart workers wealthy.”
Brogue bristles. “Beggin yur pardon, Sar that's demons words sounding very democratical.”
I turn away laughing. What could you expect from glass forgers and blowers? Had I called for a vote among my own boyos on the Kings vengeance which deme would have supported my oath? The tillermen, the yard riggers, the mast men … clear thinkers in dim light or … I do not allow that dark thought … some men sleep, others … hot ale spills by the bucket; we eat porridge and watch luggers and sardine busses roll by. Democratical indeed, the chances of trade and justice.
Beyond noon a customs cutter rows to our mooring; six leather-helmed Egyptian spear-men lead their van; I've countered with six ax-wielding oarsmen … an honor-guard for the Egyptian officials whom we pipe aboard. The spear-men remain on their benches; five men come across led by the Egyptian councilor Ptalpes. We exchange the open hand. “Ras blessing on a remarkable sail. You arrive early despite foul seas and Syrian rovers thick as mating crocodiles.”
“Blessings to you honorable councilor; Failing power, “ I suggest with a hopeless shrug, “ a frightened man runs faster.”
Ptalpes smirks and dismisses it with a wave. “From pirates and Poseidon himself your goddess protects you.” He clutches a fist to his cheek. “Have I heard you encountered a ghost vessel steered by the damned and sailed by the dead?”
'One of his', I thought quickly? “Aphrodites mercy preserves us. In such seas as we traveled any craft will appear hosted by the shades even if it amounts to nothing more than floating logs. We did not sleep for days and an exhausted mans imagination creates evil as well as nymphs. To a ghost vessel I cannot swear.”
“So it may be,” Ptalpes high forehead holds a frown. “Your hull rides low even for such a round bow novelty. Do you carry a full hold or have the Cyprians served yet another half plate of olives?”
I laugh. “Copper horns not olives is on their menu, and that ballast did well by us.” Ptalpes eyed me warily. “But, both ferments survived the storms; we pack in beaten silver jars wood framed like Babylon eunuchs store perfume . Pharaoh will be honored and pleased.”
Face softens, Ptalpes waves his hand at a factor. “Mark them arrive,” he says obscurely. Then to me, “perhaps we will meet again before your work here is finished … before you leave.” He turns and steps quickly from the Belisama leaving two Phonicii traders, two Egyptian business partners - a Syrian and a Canaate Jew - and a cotton clad Egyptian official bearing the Pharaohs royal stamp with two black slaves. The customs man and Phoenicians drink Chian wine until they may not stand; then staggering and swearing on Ras beardless chin they shuffle into the cabin to consult our trade books.
The Jew approaches. “Judah Ben Labi,” he says removing a silver signet ring and bracelet both bearing stamps of the mountain Cyprian sail-makers. “I believe you have our canvas.”
“Believe your own eyes, before you grant the seal,” I respond. So we quietly prepare. Teutor shepherds him below to inspect our cargo of sails. Belisama carrys fourteen sails that were not ours, but committed under contract by Amathus sail-makers to Egyptian signet shipwrights. We pay no tax on those sails. A swift sailing sloop slips around to our lee side, and the Syrian and Jew, matching code badges to those given us on Cyprus depart indicating their intension that same sloop would take the sails. Our remaining cargo includes forty bronze Marsaii ax-heads, four-thousand cubits of Gaulish oak plank, two-hundred Spanish amphorae of oil, and equal volumes of a syrup-like and poisonous Spanish ferment distilled say Gedes farmers from second-press grapes, orange peels, walnuts and toasted almonds. And three dozen silver flasks of priceless Marsaii fermented fish-sauce bound for the pharaohs dinner table. Chained to Belisamas mahogany knees by bronze, the waxed oak barrels sleep undamaged.
Ben Labi departs with the sloop. I think him a man less served by words than Mercury. “ Will you spend another day with us," queries the silk crusted Scribe? Motioning to the swimmers. "This harbor serves as my pool sporting a rainbow of naked womens ass. I am called Amum.”
“A powerful name no doubt, beloved of Ra,” and I can see Amum can take neither honor or insult from my speculation. “As for the day, that's Crews vote,” I say to his amazement. “Traders waste not a moment, but some wish to venture gilt or ivory carved, while others less traveled may taste an Egyptian perch or whore.”
“Freemen best watch their throats, as well as their purse,” he raps. “You can find me at the Dry Fang wine-house just south of the Royals quay.” He takes stairs to the deck and then jumps to his lugger, slaves in tow. I come beside our small group drinking and apprising the harbor. “Pray watch to your back,” prove Amums last words. All sailors watch the mist blur him, wishing the dogfish upon his neck before breaking into a rude chanty and addressing bowls of unwatered Chian wine.
Our trade stamp is honored by drunks as we expect. Telemydon and Mykron join us, as Artyphon has allowed her half-veiled women on deck. She believes one or two should soon marry, and need experience a mans wicked honey speech. Wineskins fill and empty; whores tales arouse and Lesbian songs enrage only to be retold! Blasphemy so common we rise no suspicion; an open purse pays both port tax and guide fees, but I refuse a place at the royal mole.