Already the watch has changed, our firepit blaze blue and sparks shower over a split lamb and hot ale. A trim messenger skiff has delivered coffee beans from the sailmakers and Artyphon is already preparing it … brewing she calls the boiling and squeezing , shaking and pouring out of black liquid into black syrup; such tinker makes little sense to me. Fully half the Belisama crew consider it poison and will not so much as breath the vapors. One of a thousand ships mornings, with watch-calls and pale stars overhead and light mist draping a rippling dancing sea surface rocking hulls. Enough. Hyrkon agents will be waiting for us among the traders.
“A frosted lonely bed,” snipes Artyphon. I wish she had not spoken.
“Like Ras' udder ye city figs. Phapos be damned.”
Rusa is drawing deep on a hornpipe poppy-bowl and the smoke nearly covers him. “Most of the boyos expect Egyptian turds to float by again … better armed.”
“Not before I return.”
“Well yes there's that,” Rusa mumbles as if one sword makes no difference. “Another short-sword?”
Silence … I can out-wait the crews anointed nursemaid.
“We watch anyway … Sar ...”
“I'll whip the man I catch.”
“No democratical crap from me … Sur ...” His wooden coffee-beaker splotches over. “Bite of those black beans ripe and steamy ... it tames your spirit to the larboard.”
“He had none for me, this manly spirit an icy body alone remains lest his return promise fail.”
Coffee drained from Artyphons ivory cup I change to the sandaled dress of a Salamis guild merchant; Telekydes howls from the sprintyard barefoot in his white wool waist-robe. “To the baths faithful Cap'n?”
“Damme sir did you fuck that sheep before or after ye skinned it?”
“And the laced cotton tiara … surely your faithful darlin' our priestess wove the nights cold from her fingers.”
The oarsmen roar, and offer pale skinned Faelon as slave. It's rough business – the crew will follow me to a white bears ice-cave for the traders silver … my place and theirs , but many suspect I've another agenda at heart. Faelon's a tough Green Isle bastard; he's trusted by the sail masters, fast with a hand-ax and tired of his signals mast so leaps at the surprise travel. Needed for appearance ashore it's a dear choice. Iron cuffs are hammered on. NaziBu plants a poppy-stick between his teeth and clips on Faelons iron ear-badge. Stripped to a cotton loincloth he bites through the poppy-stick without a scream. Hot ale washes the blood away, and after a long pull on the beaked jar Faelon lowers a reed scull over the stern. Bound in wicker trading items follow. A stiff gust from the south brings its double oars parallel. Fairwells … silent and honorable.
We are quick to the rigging and Faelon to the water, rowing us south to the quay among swarms of sailors trading one-off and lizard-like along the guarded shoreline. Pharaohs guards roam loosely, but short-tempered to a challenge and their prisons cobra-infested. My berry-stained silk and hemp and linen robes catch the early wind and calls from a dozen unknown companions. For the harbor throbs with small-craft and tradesmen like a living pulse. Safer too from Pharaohs watchers. Even a poor oarsman can earn a whores night with a carved walrus or sea-lion tusk and the stolen goods of freebooters are much admired by merchants honest and experienced and cynic. Like the line I pole, while Faelon oars; my shoulders and hips as painful as they are limber; again Artyphon would fail to understand such liberty. Pain you say? Sailor boyos feel for a few hours ashore free of the Captains eye and lead-mans leather quirt. Hyrkon Captains don't use the lash or quirt or rope end so accustomed are they to a crew of freeman, but crewmen remember other ships … not so free we who need to appear lusty for trade and busy for the intemperate whore; thus our backs support three gaudy orange-painted amphorae of Cyprus wine, sea lion ivory carved hash pipes, a narwhal tusk , six olive wood bowls and a dozen pieces of polished blue lapis torque jewelry.
“Tailorboy … Tyrian silk from a courtesans ass.”
“Emeralds from the Cilician Gates ….”
My silk fez must shout. Fellow rowers call out their trades with bracelets, torques, robes and weapons belts hanging from the yards of reefed sail. Japing too prompts something of a race, sailors conspire dorys against shells against skiffs. Hashish and poppy exchange as hulls close in a swarm. We take final hasty swigs from the flask of green ferment and beach the boat running up through the young mornings surf to drive a hull-stake deep into the merciless, wet and agelessly polished sand.
Raucous, disordered, swarming boats and hotblooded bodies, nets and ladders and manhandled geared cranes beyond number assault the narrow black sand beach and stone wall beyond … we shoulder our loads onto the quay … and rent for Rhodian bronze a two-wheel cart for our plunder. I marvel for the turbaned natives rush to a smoldering food-wagon and it's rack of river perch. No marvel! Since the rovers burning and lootings our sea has become a brine catch-basin for blood where sailors cling to their own decks surrounded by starving faces and towns with food became forests of spear-points. What African port avoided plagues of dust and flies and mule shit, a stench of bodies unwashed, the race of cheap perfume and docks littered with skin covered bum boats? Yet here in the Niles filmy light what ship did not launch its own sculled cutters, swift with Rhodian straking and signal masts sporting ancient banners and seals. What nation of widows spilled no brash sailor boyos on the Heraclitus quay, it's stone fingers grasping and holding all comers teasing the faint-hearted and daring the bold? What pauper kingdom withheld its riches? Saffron robed shave headed mountain nobles thread among squat slant eyed roamers of the eastern desert arrayed in dogskins, yet the first peddle pots of white stinking fermented beans and the second blue sapphire strings worth a kings throne. From raw Numidian diamonds to Pictish slave-girls, dried Caspian sturgeon and clear quartz globes what product could a man not buy? What class, from beggar to king, hetaera to witch, mage and herb-bundling physician ?
Faelon rattles his loose iron cuffs. “Merchants, priests, thieves and guards … members of the same guild,” he mutters.
“That guild be of traders,” I hazzard proudly.\
Faelons thinks not. “A rancid bazaar of old meat and thin gold-plate. Varnished iron for ruby and beans for rice long and tasty. I'll take a goat-horned temple for I know the priestess and the lamb.”
A wild sea rover Faelon argues the provincials case. I drum a response.
“But never the silk for your womans ass
as wet as ale and smooth as grass! Ha .. haha.
For wood well waxed moons love her labor
yet savage diamonds spill creame of favors.”
Much pleased with my barding I muscle ahead. Faelon spits and hauls up on his trading load as a slave ought pretend. Then suddenly his stave snickers slicing snake-like pitching away bronze blade and snapping the wrist of a cut-purse sneaked behind me.
A public scene already juried. I finish the thug with a thrust of my short-sword. Two other felons run for their lives. Faelon croons smiling. “Oh for the pleasures of a quiet homestead and modest wife.” Tied to the mathematics of his signals, little amuses Faelon. We leave the body soon to be stripped by villeins.
A van of silversmiths stride beside us, nodding respectfully to our justice. They are members of a mirrors guild from the framed and gauzed products they carry protected by a squad of Hittite swordsmen. One pox-face will have words with me, examine my sword and run his chambray and edge-block along the blade preferring sharp to dull, but never spoken such; I share a pinch of black tar hash for better he remember seeing naked starstruck whores of Numidia than me. Our faces close … had I seen him before … did Aminias favor his diamond thrown to her feet with a dance?
Fine glass theirs, such as can only be poured on melted tin. All silversmiths wear glass baubles and Faelon admiring is so gifted. A cloud of thin faced youths follow waiting for the dropped item or laggard stranger. No master rules them and no law, but survival binds them. Faelon spoke well. What nation has no guards among the watch? What single traveler moves with a broken dirk or dull eye? Mind Egyptians with glass swords , yes they shared space with iron-helmed Hittites and Persians in gold scale and turbans. Tall Numidians stalk with zebra-hide shields and clubs of antelope horn. Jews, also with scimitars in rough leather jackets and bare-armed Phoenicians peltasts. Parthians too with longbows and Mycennai in greeves and steel helmets found their squads and Lieutenants drawn up in formation while lawless packs of free-booting Phrygians and Celts weapons cloaked beneath rough wool prowled lean bodied and hungry-faced like winter wolves. Kin-groups of every tattoo, circle and stripe, jagged lightening bolt or ochre smear and color and scaring bundled together tracing out their own scramble through the traders and sellers, thieves and warlords and merchant princes.
Neck hair stiffens and my skin crawls with danger ; none are safe, and yet who can attack when none hold the command of a phalanx or shield-wall? Any dark corner holds danger , and when conflict did blaze up between two men it settled instantly in a sword-flash or thrust of a short-spear. One body fell, or two and Pharaohs men were at least efficient in tossing newly dead into the harbor. But, such now-deadly open conflict was rare. All are equally threatened and all restrain raising swords against the man before him, for fear of the man at his back.
I remember truth now. How young I was with the Belisama hull still a-building. Blown west on a voyage from Marsaii we happened upon a Balerics temple and its lone priestess. Undefended she pleaded no defense; mind us honor of Hyrkon. After burning cinnamon and a slain black-wooled sheep our party waited. From a mountain stream she returned to us naked. No heaven did her lips promise … only raw Earth prophesy and truth if I served her well. I took her on, yew stave against bladed short-spear. Defeated with honor, suffused with hashish, her body used harshly cunt fucked to bleeding then stuffed with Hyrkon electrum … I washed her in the temple pool, oiled her body bruises and cuts and listened sitting before her … “Pure liberty ye take Master Cibias even to make pleasure of me as ye wish. I say of such pure liberty it arranges not ruler and servant to their proper place, but sets trader against prince, free man against free woman and warrior against his brother , a war of all against all.”
Now! Three thousand years since Minoan explorers noted Semite wanders. Men dazed with vision, hetmen and their karls stunned by the heat moved from southern rock cliffs and approached the Nile. We traded bronze triangles for crocodile skins. Truth has never changed.