Heriklitus Bay shines like a scimitar stroke. What's left of the cold water I pour over my head. The water-bearer complains, his cotton shirt and calloused palms uplifted in sorrow that only bronze Rhodians can satisfy. Colors dim. I say. “A metalist can't burn palm and nearest oak is a four day sail.”
Faelon kicks at a twitching, crushed scorpions tail pleading death. “Then Egyptian ventures best fill palm baskets with lizards; what's natural makes a better game for them.”
“Carthage impudence fails with natural limits; scorpions are not lizards. You just kicked one away. Wait till you see the Crocs! Would be your leg as an offering.”
Faelon scoffs unbelieving. "Were they traders?"
We had better be. Shouting ...! "Buy us faire haetera, lusty perchman, royal scribe. Cold ivory and Jerico brass!" Just off the longboat, selling our merchant airs and across Heriklitis quay making tracks to the first brick guild-stalls.
I have broken a cold sweat. "None you know." None I expected, in this tricked Egyptian bazaar shining bright whitewash , preening Bastets or prim pastels. "They would takes us beyond our quiet." This opinion well flavored stops with me. I disassemble, laugh at slaves, ply his banded silk wristlet. “Both men, us, traveled to the worlds end yet so different.”
“Tis the family, Cap'N that ponders me. In turn you will see.” Faelon rattles my waist-band. See here, it says: factors may whisper and spys cut throats, but iron weapons pose secrets only to kings. Every lodgemans 3rd son sports an iron mace, while the bronze-tiled, sea-striding mercenary demands two Hyrkon electrum weekly for his oak-forged Argot longsword. Give that to the Greek buttfuckers - - Mars mailed arm. Can you see it brave strider? Rising thus, it finds Mercury ascending to any agreed outrage between a traders supply and a warriors need.
We chain our purses inside double-thick belts, but our sales crow voices scream shy profit. Two wine jars go first, drunk by a string of Syrian metal-workers whose dazed eyes and stumbling feet speak of bellows-driver clay ovens, lead and zinc and dirty copper from which fumes none escape. Criminals of slaughter only work the Hyrkon mines struck deep into seaward valleys and downwind cursed be the soil. Next a peat-shady croc-hunter … he misses a hand … snaps-up the ivory break-back spear-point. It's a northers weapon meant for small whales, white bear and walrus detailed to separate barbed point from shank by a steeled chain should throw strike home. It's maker, an ivory-skinned young Baltic took a lead sling pellet in his eye and died wailing in the sea-fight around western Cyprus. Four silver Theban kroner the croc-hunter spends; Alrek might get that coin to the lads mother. Passing the Hebrew quarter dives us into shade with its pile of pastel blocks , subtle orange and rinsed yellow, rose paled of maroon rising five stories block-over-block liking to overhang the quay and choke passage making hawkers of woolens and gems even more brazen. We raise our own voices in crow calls; an old southern Egyptian from beyond the second cataract grabs Eleseds Narwhal tusk and three lapis bracelets. Tusk for manhood says his eyes and he pays well. We bargain rudely and obtain two rough emeralds, eleven Damascus silver stators and one of his four young girls.
“Keftiu, Keftiu,” he repeats , bowing … ignoring my clothes, the Asians careless cotton as his factor counts out the payment. His own provincial formality might have cramped a Sardis whore. “See here sailor, she's not a virgin of-course.” He laughs, jostling the girl “but neither is she yet a wicked bitch. Hard service she has not seen , neither lash nor bared cage so she still enjoys what she gives. Frugal too, but eats daily and plays the pipes.” He pauses to brush hair away from her cheeks. “Though her eyes bruise easily I have treated her with kindness ...”
Coeus be damned I can see ... his leathered hands on her young flesh. Did I catch a rye twist of his lip or the girls wink? Dust perhaps just dust, or Minos man … or Ashurs girl ... I want Faelons right hand free for his short-sword; the chain bound to his left hand binds to nothing. A well-swung iron chain will cut a man in half. She's 10 or eleven summers along and gets a palm basket.
“Tanu, lord, your servant,” she speaks in port Egyptian.
“Born in Hericlitus?”
Brashly. “I have been the mans toy this year in Heraklyion, since we sailed from Sidon.” If she blushes I can't make it.
“Well we're Hyrkons. Sailors. Little boys and girls are not our toys.”
Appalled. “You will sell me?”
"Never. Will you messenger for us?"
"As a masters dove I fly."
Toy! Ever notice how honest the mistakes of a child? “Mind watchful, or you'll pluck Egyptian pheasant till your hands turn to feathers.” Yes, even more than Faelons strength I need the girl.
Faelon bows formally to her, winking shyly which makes her giggle. “You're fair as a lilly, my dear child, and steady beyond your age.” He fashions her a wrist-band of vine wreathed in hibiscus flower and sends her off with two coppers to find our special person. Special, so the bird-code pecked, a winsome hetaera bearing careless dark curls, one silk-threaded gold earing being caught on her right ear and silver torques about her left wrist.
Tanu accepts a dab of Artyphons perfume, behind her right ear. It's expected … our frisky waif shoots off like a hummingbird vanishing around a near corner. “Vanished forever, or returned to her toymaker?”
“Mercy Cap'N. She deserves once … once at least better faith than that.”
I mumble something about not yet having a child. Sewers flow from scattering of bathhouses marble pink and turquoise blue into underground limestone caverns and the shit-smell of a small fishing village is absent. Coin purses jingle. Sailors recently escaping long voyages spend freely on sweet melons and breads and eat like wild dogs. Tunny buss and herring as well as farm barges land directly at the quay, so broiled meat and fish serve fresh as caught. Eating could be safer than fighting. Like the Nile itself food vendors of every guild stream along the sea-edge. Pox-faced slaves carry glowing fireplaces, entire sizzling braisures of lamb, Nile perch and beef. Herring and sardines roasted on copper grills, while oxtails braised inside their enamel clay covers. Steaming buckets of vegetables rolled along beside them as did ovens of Syrian flatbreads and wheat noodles. Brazen unveiled women shouted over their crusted swollen rye loaves and silver coffee-flasks from the high Assyrian plains. For some affording the exotic, masked traders carried wire baskets holding live infant cobras and Moroccan black scorpions. For a small gold coin one would be removed, fenestrated with a metal pin and the poison gland extracted from the still squirming body then flash boiled in olive-oil and consumed in one bite. A delicacy as long as the poison gland had been completely removed.
Young whores were known to use that method dispatching wealthy merchants as anxious to impress as the women were to get at their purses of gold. Bad temper doesn't speak to it, as brazen young women of Heriklytis have become spoiled, rotted, entitled to the last coin of a mans pouch. Few earned it; cobra and scorpion humors lead to a bad slow death. Poison spreads out from the belly, strikes the chest and before breath can end the mind rages into insanity. Mercy killing is not unknown. Companions of a merchant so poisoned routinely hunt down such whores, fuck them to exhaustion then expose their bare ass to live cobras; after the bite they face skinning and boiling in oil for their trouble. Local merchants claim a single sword-thrust pays lawful penalty, but who will enforce it?
We never stop selling. Three shiny black Numidian warriors six cubits tall wearing zebra-skin vests and loin-cloths buy pairs of the blue lapis earings. They pay in beaten gold scales and share off an amphora of wine to close the exchange. We make way east along the quay, then south through noisy cotton and palm-leaf woven stalls. Our Sea has left its salt sting, but hides the azure blue. Streets of trade workshops begin one lane over with two, three and even four-story whitewashed brick weaving rack and loom makers overlooking the stalls. When buildings do not block our view such endless green plains of Nile foliage stretch beyond all sight of palm and papyrus and vine daubed with brown cotton and onion fields. Ionian sages of geometry wonder of a line may be stretched forever till its waist vanishes. Ask that of night craftswork, where under-the-glass copper drawn through iron eyelets appear to vanish. Yet connect fat ends to a lead veined vinegar-filled bowl … and watch the red glow appear from empty air. You cannot tell that to a thinker, as they deem crafts beneath them.
Magic say Ionians, but not this city of lungs and legs. Merciless light from a clear sky neither blue nor yellow sometimes catch brightly painted interior building walls through empty open-air windows. Thin perhaps some, but of-course not really empty as any eyes that look in watch another pair of eyes open and calculating. Will the stick-scrambler earn a copper, the trader of stolen leather sandals a bronze or … or the pregnant whore a silver sheckle ? So all schemed, merchants and traders here are already sharper for business, though windows be iron bared.
We turn on a jewelers road, the Street of Amethysts. Several jewel-banks are constructed in the far southern style, of upright ironwood planks born together by swollen redwood pegs and waxed hemp lashing. Wooden filigree for the most successful they rise many stories, wood-masts pretending as ships-on-land and the upper windows are glassed for a harbor view.
“I can imagine Pharaoh jealous.”
“Pharaohs whore rides their felluca and his navy their half-moon cutters.”
“When he fights he uses a stolen Rhodian design. Not Belisamas equal, but better than a 50 oar longboat. Half-deck and dual steerage shafts. For safety and seclusion he buries it in sand after every battle.”
“Understood. For skillsmen crafting blue-water hulls a look's the same as geometry scribed on papyrus.”
Surely, here also we are men with coin pouches, but without agenda. Judges look and looks matter. I wear the white Salamis skull-cap , beaded summer vest and short-robe of a guilds-man and Faelon the slaves loin-cloth. Near a shaded well dust-devils sway corner palm trees and ruffle water sprayed from a small fountain. Black surface becomes alive with taboo scrawl; round the corner, dodging stone door masonry and mud-brick window-frames the girl Tanu returns; she skips for joy and chews on a sugared date.
“Dear golden Lady found me,” she preens.
“She will have you frisky in new sandals?”
“Dear master she fears not!” Motioning behind follow only steps veiled in dust of companions. I fear a hoplite van, formidable approaching yes. Yet neither prickly mail nor boiled leather appears, but a sparkling woman of substance.
One block away black ringlets shimmer; she will drive a silver tether through your heart. Neither young nor aged her gold earing glitters, her dress that of a wealthy free-woman, a widow perhaps from a state like Lesbos or Rhodes. Multiple silk veils mute her face, and wrap a shimmering and translucent gauze chiton. A heavy breast slips free and the tight brown nipple exposed, pierced by a tormenting gold pin. What is pain to her? She invites a mans intention without declaring herself amusement. A Damask silver-threaded robe is cinched , the girdle and left wrist bound by gold torques and though her eyes are lively, searching, petulant they shine with dark experience.
With her strolls a lively long-faced jester. Contortionist of the hidden dirk, jester, thief, confidant and beggar pleads that face. He wears blue motley, preceding then another factor, a Syrian abacus carrying money-changer. Beside him mouse quiet an anointed girl, slogging to catch up two heavy-legged armed guards and three black slaves. Her mission should one appear cries stealth - - our street is not empty. Two haughty warlords send their bards … rejected. A wealthy man deems his man-of-business prudent attraction: has he not an abacus? Tempting , but not to this woman. Adventurers pause passing, speak of love and offer a few silver stators or pearl necklace. Skilled in the arts they are dismissed with brazen yearning in their own varied tongues. Mind her flash of thigh-skin. Dressed and sauntering as they were , something of Pan and Bacchus merriment this woman of leisure parading a movable street circus surrounding their little van.
Bowing to the mistress and showing my trade staff I say. “Ashur would have me claim his pleasure.”
Tartly she says. “I am Jan'ah. And Astarte bless the kings manhood; it's little enough he can manage.”
“He claims pleasures of the mind.”
She covers her breast, and sniffs the little girls ear. “She is yours?”
Faelon speaks out. “A right thinking man owns his cow not the dairy-maid.”
Jan'ahs eyes dart between us … weighing … Faelon will not have it. “A right thinking man serves where needed.”
Laughing, ignoring his slave costume. “You sir, are a danger to right thinking women.”
“Indeed my Lady, dear wife and eldest daughter feigning distress say similar.”
How Jan'ah and her woman giggle. This little play, all in a dead pigeons gold talon. Black arms seize me and a theme of banners gay and wistful deploy above. Below I vanish among them, shuffle about to re-appear in a slaves loincloth, leather half-tunic and wrist shackle. Faelon has become a septic-eyed cotton-draped gold-chained Druid priest.
We drift up from the quay, one block then another taken with the shops and stalls of harbor business then rising further up a set of mud-brick stairs , but a stairway carefully painted in crimson and curled about not an accidental rise at all ending on a tree-lined wayfaire.
“You noted the dust-devil dear Cibias?”
“Happenstance, my Lady.”
“Random twas never in this world,” she chimes , leading us into an older, grey-stone valley. Fresh water abides, flowing in open pink-tiled aqueducts and between walls court fountains grace the front of waxed oak gates. Open desert winks to the south, between builders; the air cleans and tastes some of that raw 3000 league chaos.
“First here.” We stop at a smiths precious metal forge; tools are those of a midget, and indeed such is one apprentice. Yet most not, black-skinned and of long, delicate fingers. Precious he gathers, a spoon of unbirthed gold from the eastern high-mountains will rule or ruin a kingdom. One such his unknown father a jungle diamond broker runs off erranding with Tanu squealing and dancing about him, through every doorway it seems another marvel. The street speaks of sudden wealth quickly hidden; archers patrol battlements three stories above. Soon we duck through a gap between two walls washed a pale orange color into a courtyard among tall scented night torches, date-palms, huddles of robed merchants and sellers of fried fish. Smells of boiling palm and date-oil rule the patio. Faelon carries my trading staff - - enjoying shade and spring water while standing guard at the doorway among a clutch of believers.
We walk toward the oven-rimmed firepit. The rim is forged bronze, but the sides are fire-hardened wood stakes. Two men and two whores who have got a canvas covered table under the palms call us over. They pour tall sour mugs of beer from a silver pitcher and start roasting perch from an engraved glass plate. I place the pigeons gold talan beside the pitcher and the man pouring approves … other faces at other tables continue to value us. With hands hidden beneath robes none may imagine they grasp dirks or hand-ax. I have seen King Minos protect himself so indirectly; I do not feel protected. To stare or mock is to die, so my face shows gravity. That state-of-war lasts … till none see the rogue or Pharaohs ear in my face and while none sit close, or move to offer friendship all turn attention to their food. I recognize one late-comer to our table, a swarthy boyo dressed in britches, a hemp-lace tunic and travelers peaked straw hat. I recognize As'ylle, first mate of the doomed Hyrkonian trader Ephesus.
I say. “Who killed Tethycides?”
“You must be ...” I say nothing. The older whore prods the first-mate whose tale quickly animates. “I know you, Cibias. I'm As'ylle. We met two years ago at Tyre. Tethycides was a good man, may the Goddess have pity.”
I nod. “Just a name will do.”
His hand shakes on the mug of beer. He crunches a fried sardine and a date. “Priests are everywhere.”
“Not here.” But, everywhere.
Finally he continues. “Yer want the guilty that's for certain. Thems all guilty … every one a' these beak-faced Egyptian snakes.” His eyes worry the courtyard, prize those eating at the other patio tables … and lowers his voice.
“Troy lusts for our ships and Carthage for our gold.”
“In time we deal with them … or not. But, I'm tasked to revenge fresh Hyrkon blood.”
“Then ye want the blood-slayer , leader of slaughter … the Egyptian harbor-master, that's who led it. Amum … he and his guards captain Sinnarsur; they tricked us, tricked the Ephesus into the royal dock.”
“We avoided it.”
“Lucky for you.”
I repeat. “Amum and Sinnarsur. How?” I look up quickly and two figures deeply hooded disappear into the vaguest southside stone shadow . Overlain by palms even the hoods have vanished; all has vanished … dark as darker scale four glowing red reflections of our fire … eyes, they never were. As'ylle recognized the un-natural presence. His hands shake fondling from his tunic a thin wooden spike.
“Thars men here Cap'N, men of no worth, but blooded men. And there be others ...” He stares at the black stone wall. “See it,” he barks. “Them?” Fearful his eyes flash about our courtyard. Nothing. He bites at his beer. “I gave yur what ye wanted.”
Jan'ah has leaned closer, and her purfume is that of Hyrkon pine. As'ylle trembling. “Yur heard well the names … Egyptian Amum hi-mukmuk, priest of Iusas and Sinnarsur, a Syrio-Babylon bastard mix. Second son played out as dice by his city-tyrant father.”
“Amum and Sinnarsur … go on with the tale, boyo.”
His eyes red-rimmed and heavy rivet on mine. Ears listening for a false quiet. Another long draught of beer buys his courage. “Our Captain Tethycides he had the trade stamp and staff. Had 'em for years, selling to Pharaohs chandlers and suppliers most every grain season. Who would dare deny them? All Egyptian all the time so Amum bragged shouting across to our Captain to make him unwary. They paraded naked slave women along the dock; they were to be our reward for delivering goods undamaged.”
“Led by the dick so easily...,” I observe.
“What men will never love their women? L eave that to the Greeks!” He ponders, then … “Twice five weeks at sea, captain without sight or smell of a woman ….” He slobbered over a toasted sardine, then remembers his place , sniffling ... “We needed little persuading, and the crewmans' share of trade would have bought an ox!”
“Did Amum attack without provocation?”
“This Sar. Full of our greeting, we docked boldly at the royal quay. Rowers were putting up their oars, mast-men had just finished reefing the mainsail and tiller-men were tying off the stern anchor line at the hawse. Others were winching up the hatchway. Do you see … the crew was overworked, distracted, scattered. Down goes the gangway and off the boat comes Tethycides we beside him, the main mast-man and me japing along, the sun barely above the horizon and slam … our Captains open hands raised in friendship Amum craps a dagger into his belly … blood and guts squirt … hollow aching grunt … dead right there … Amum puts a shoulder to Tethycides and tosses him back into the harbor.”
“I don't mean cat-piss beside what I say. Tethycides hand was reaching out, promising friendship of trade and Amum met it with the bronze point of a dirk. Deserted by law and by the Goddess how much in shock were we?”
“Not enough to get out a sword...”
“That's proud talk,” he bristles.
“No offense boyo. But I don't want it happening to us.”
“They tricked us well and proper, doing what we'd done for twenty summers.”
“I only need this summer. Anticipate when he moves, strike fast, blood vengeance to his dragomen, remove risk from his captures , clean out their treasure ill got from us and harbor trade … snatch all that and run for blue-water safety. We won't hesitate responding to the least threat. ”
“But, respond we did Cibias … swords half way out till quick as a cobra Sinnarsur drove a spear though my mates throat and blood comes gushing out! Three of his men hit me at the same time knocking me back on the deck! His men simply overpowered the ship … shit, we're sailors not hoplites, but we fought! By Zeus beard we fought and I killed two and when I ripped the balls off the second one I jumped overboard and swam for it. When did the fight get hopeless? I'll tell you … when the Ephesus entered this Zeus be damned ill-fated harbor.” His voice shook … “We had slept peacefully the night before with Cerberus claw marks unknowing on our backs! Sorry about the crew; those poor bastards are slaves now – those still alive. Amum ... he's a snaky prick you don't want to mess with. ”
An experienced captain and trim crew surprised, hurried, unprepared, optimistic … an incoherent story; deaths story. I expected little better. Our beer comes and I drink enough to kill the taste of fried perch. “You carried wood, olive oil, ferments and dried cod; they got the whole load... that's pretty blatant.”
The younger black-haired whore answers. “They shared taste of the ferments … Ephesus was carrying ten jars of the fish sauce. And at least one barrel of that Parthian cherry ale... you was sneaking it in, warn'yt ya maty,” the whore chuckles obscenely. The first mate shrinks back, silent like enterprising Captains are novelty. The whore eyes him coldly. “News to them Phonecii I tell you true! One taste and they want more good news.” She looks over at me … evaluating … Then: “It's bugger-all hard here, Captain, hard to eat and hard to live. Hard in the spring and hard in the summer. Amums men got most of the Ephesus cargo themselves. Greedy little pricks, but greed is easy when you're hungry. Let so much as a sardine swim by and they open jaws lurching after it. That's your angle should you be a fighting man, their unchanging and immediate greed! So don't hesitate, but seek them close-up and make your play against Amum early.”
“Pharaohs guard, recourse to the local trade council .. a demand for justice ...” and seeing the hard lined faces about the table foolish words stop fumbling from my lips.
Says the older whore seeking a quiet voice. “We don't know why you've come. Return of the cargo, justice for the defiled, respect for trade you may not obtain. Even the Kings son.” She watches me for any response.
Jan'ah breaks the silence. “I don't see killers hate consuming you, but cold vengeance on the guilty you can bring. You can't stop the blood-letting or return the Law of Trade. Not for this shit-hole, or maybe you didn't notice.”
The older man nods with her and speaks. “She's payed years for her reputation as a wise woman. Think on your travel through the city. Nobody rules Heraclitus. No Mede to write the laws, no Jew to read them and no Pharaohs spear to strike . No rule, no power, no law. Can't eat the food, drink the water, fuck the women or … or act under the law of trade.”
“How do people manage?”
“Here? They kill or are killed.”
“But, the people aren't savages. Look around! Our knives are bronze and spoons silver; we eat food from glass plates. Below a merciless desert sun I see buildings, commerce, money ...”
“Food, commerce … oh my dear Cibias you would see the same on open grasslands far to the south. What king reigns? What council sits among the beasts? Yet animals of all kinds live tit-to-toe and none complain. What rules their peace? While on caravan I have seen them close by, wandering together lions among gazelle so I do not speak rashly of this natural order. Among beasts there is peace until .. until one gets hungry. Claws or talons extend - then another dies. Then peace returns for a while.”
“That is a natural order for beasts. But, for humans, the Laws of Trade ...”
Raw laughter abounds, lacking humor. “Tut tut … for humans much the same. You desire a woman, then put her on her back; her knees open. Should emeralds fail from the Kharga sand-pits will a levy of hatchet armed Berbers not have them flowing like the Nile? Do you offend a priest then the knife falls. Or has your daughter rejected a tax-farmer? Then also the spear-thrust brings her low. Have you bribed a guard poorly, or angered a dock mechanic? Your cargo finds the harbor bottom and slash goes the knife across your throat.”
“You forget a trader is no mans standing target. Fight he will, but he need not fight by emotions or on the enemy walls.”
“Speak wisely Cibias, yet find yourself here?” Jan'ah giggles, as will a young girl. “Hiding as a slave you have no idea how easy it is to die in Egypt, where ancient death is always young. Upriver … far enough upriver it's different. The guilds still have power and guide the priests. The priests still have power and direct an army. The army still has power and rules the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh has some power, but his sister still fucks anyone with balls to climb to her boudoir with a dozen gold stators.”
Jan'ah uncovers to her lips an unlined, ageless face and laughs. “Not really dear man. You'd be surprised how few have a dozen … or a pair. The Phoenicians, the boys from Carthage are sucking it all up and shipping the gold westward. To Utica and beyond that. They brag about it in pillow-talk. And when they can't get the gold, they kill those earning it! Or trading for it. There's a family name – Barca - that gets tossed around. On docks men call it loud for the barges, but talking power and influence voices whisper. They are men with power who will to their sons such power . Honor Baal, honor Carthage or die marks the path of local influence. Malice works here. ”
“So the harbor master works for them?”
“Barca factors crucified the one before, who lost a barge of elephants, drowned and shark-eaten when it ran aground. Amum makes no mistakes … so far at least every day he doesn't fuck the Pharaohs sister. If you get south, up the Nile and out of this chaos a first try is Akhetaten. It's the old royal city … now deserted except for glass-makers guilds and traders no longer in Pharaohs favor. Smendes lackey got installed as temple priest only long enough to sleep with a cobra. So wiles survives; old Balsurmerus of Ashur is one of them, and that Rhodian bitch Calesthes … with them you make trade and expect open eyes among the living come morning . Zeus fecking-A beard stay on your guard.”
I bid my time eating, then … “Do you know anything about Sinnarsur? Assyrian wouldn't he be? Kinda far from home. Is he careless or foolish or ever go unprotected?”
“Of what race … every race of the two rivers. Men whore with every family, as the temple priests require of women.” For a moment the veil drops below Jan'ahs full purple lips. “Whenever he's close to Amum he has the priests protection. There's a small Egyptian squad of archers and slingers and also a few Corinthian and Spartan hoplites.”
“Amum's not an issue now, “ I say cautiously. “But Corinthian … Spartans … think of it, Mycenni guarding a Phoenician warlord?”
“Bakk!” Men are brothers when gold is payed on time and soldiers are all the same believing many swords make for a tight fence.”
“But, he didn't bring his own kin as personal guard.”
“Sinnarsur sees himself above his kin. New people new alliance new power … he seeks extra power from that alliance. Guild members say he is cruel and and unpopular with other soldiers who would have a willing woman. Not Sinnarsur; he must have the struggle, then the beating. He likes to bleed very young girls … bleed them before their time.” She was nibbling on the dry fried perch with little enthusiasm.
“Must he have them young?”
“He has taken me behind the well, when no other satisfaction is close. The guard stays away till he finishes.” She manages a drink, looks to the sky then straight at me. “Have you spoken to the king? Is everything … does the spirit of Minos still breath?”
I think about it, and say crisply. “I don't know who you are talking about.” But, I do reach under my robe and remove a fist-size silk bag of saffron. I place it beside her uncovered wrist with eight electrum stators. “That ring you wear, it's Hyrkon isn't it, old, very old with the amethyst seal of snake and dolphin. You will take the girl.”
“She nods, finishes a long drink and says softly. “He bedded me … once, the King did and I felt I loved him.”
“Do you know Ashur?”
“Ashur ….” she slipped an assassins blade from folds in her tunic, cuts off a strand of black hair and throws it to the pavement. “Do you know Ashur?”
I kiss the ring on her finger. Dodging long shadows Faelon and I return to the Belisama.
A scorching desert windstorm snaking over the Niles western hills chokes all life from the third morning. Powered mud loez and fine-grain blowing sand seeth together creating a gritty cloud through which seeing and breathing are equally impossible. Experienced sailors hang parched green retching over the side and the Belisama snaps harshly at its anchor-lines. A cutter and lugger sail out to us feeling way along buoy markers just as dawn watch had been piped to place and the smell of night watchmen and hot brown ale surrounded the firepit. Sand in the air lay so heavy on the harbor that the ruffled chop would break glass on its oily surface. On this day unfit for scorpion mating the Egyptian lugger comes as a brisk apparition. Hulls mated, men in cotton masks run up the boarding pegs, leather sandals slapping a tattoo. From the quarterdeck I watch them board, an Egyptian and a Syrian both thin hard hawk-faced men who got shook-out and in turn survey for their fatter, slower and infinitely more valuable masters.
Better dressed too, once a gangplank has been set waddling behind their dragomen in pleated linen tunics and carrying the Pharaohs gold mark. It was they who again inspected our stamps and tax forms. The sloop we had seen before followed shortly, and making the leeward stern knotted spring-lines to fore and aft deck cleats. Joined by the thick hemp lines and separated by cork and sponge bumpers , one by one its on-board crane lifts the Cyprian sails from our hold into its own. The sloop was crewed by a motley of island sailors … every race and most without the slaves iron collar, but no Egyptians. Payments had already been made, so good-will was the only unspoken value. Two waxed cotton cylinders came aboard with the last swing of the crane. Each contained a roll of perfect Egyptian papyrus sufficient for a ships log of three years.
Both sloop and cutter back away taking the Syrian; the Egyptian lugger settles a boat length to leeward and Amum remains with his slaves carrying a curved timing glass, the writing board, papyrus sheets and copper inkwell.
“They live too well on us,” Amum mutters.”
“Pharaoh likes the Indus carved gems.”
“Pharaoh sailed the Red Sea when Syrians lived in sandstone caves.” Amums jeweled right hand harries a leather quirt. He makes haste for a tall arrogant bastard, wears tightly woven layered white robes and his hair bound behind in a ruby-studded grasshopper.
I prod the bastard. “His cordage and sails then were also Minoan.”
Amum opens his robe and pissed over the side. “This is what I think of Minoan sails.”
Men from Damascus and Urek crap where they stand; as studied insults go you lose an eyeball. Like most Egyptian scribes he does not care for the company his office forces him to keep yet his eyes flit ever-moving left to right; so much to see. His head had once been shaved, but his bribes … yes the bribes, that's what his thin curved lips reveal those bribes have been more successful than most. Or he was fucking a Bastet priestess who thieved gold catspaw for him. In thirty years he had never been hungry, and never polished the dirk he carries right side beneath his belt. Yet about him hangs an aura of power and austerity and something … oldness serves as the word, perhaps … respect was not the word. Long legged Minoan craft did meet mud-hut Egyptians .. in the times before our times … and taught them the pyramid craft taught us by the Green-Isle Picts. So long before had we traveled and so long before that had the wild Picts grought their learning from the high eastern mountains. So first or last, guilt or innocence rides on misty blood-froth air; for a moment in Amums presence anything might have been true.
Mast-men loose reefed sail that falls all about hurly-burly making obscure most views beyond the ship. Amum waves an arm dismissively. “Hurry, hurry ,” he says in a thin wavering voice. One slave produces a silver water-flask and the spell is broken . A dirk, attitude and two trailed slaves … that's what he amounts to.
He looks straight through me and says. “Two gold bars are traditional to show your appreciation for our harbor.”
Nykodemes removes both from his pack and gives them to Amum; he scratches them with a finger-ring and buries them in his cloak. “We will take the two ferments when you come to the royals dock. Then leave. Pharaohs quay is not an idlers playground. Later, you will wait at the public mole to have your wood removed and stored. Bids are sure ...”
That was more than enough. I say. “Kind Amum sir. You mention three items: Parthian ferment and the fish sauce take very little space, but require most careful attention to gentleness. Not so for the wood, but strength is needed. Do you see? - first one then the other.”
Amums lips narrow and his face blushes bright red. “Do not pretend to teach me what comes first and what second. Did I not say you must wait? I am the first and the second and ...”
“Full palm I slapped his face sending sweat and spit and blood flying into the bright morning air. His mouth drools and his hand moves to cover it. I slam a fist into his belly and he grunts, vomiting, going down to one knee. Without any special tone I say, “Surely the wind removes my words. What ever the Egyptian protocols I do not recognize the word 'wait'!”
Muddy words burble from Amums face. “Pharaoh is son of Ra. I am Pharaohs ...”
I backhand his face with my knuckle-filled left hand drawing another spray of blood. “Ra's your sister pal! You will have all three products unloaded together, ferments and wood at the harbors mooring columns. Those from which Pharaohs pennants fly. You have the slaves, we have the product. No carpenter could wish for better oak of perfect grain and color. What could be more clear?”
His hands shaking, remain at the bleeding lip and the cheeks – blanched white. Fear too holds him back from shouting for help; pulling himself up he manages to slur out. “I have no want … no profit … may cobras bleed your veins I have no interest in the wood.”
I hold my hand before his face. “ No interest? Oh , but you will! There are no such oak planks for two-thousand leagues. Fine grained wood, priceless as your payment will reflect ! You will buy them all right – as certainly as Ibis piss on crocodiles. Otherwise we will restore all three to bindings within the hull , and on the evening tide depart for Crete. Temple whores will enjoy the fish-sauce – and Knossos carpenters the wood. Tell Pharaoh you couldn't get the job done.”
He hisses. “May Sekhmet drink your blood!” Arrogant bastards hand flashes down, reaching for his dirk. “Mother of Ra sorrows” he howls, “ need I call for assistance you worthless, snake-faced trader?”
Never has his power been challenged. I punch him in the face and he sags backward, blood spurting from his nose to be caught by two sailors and wrenched for'ard. I step away. “Raise your arm, kind friend and that short black gent behind you with a spear will shove it up your asshole. Then again if Pharaoh tries eating rotten boiled lamb without the fish ferment he's sure to take that out on somebody.”
“Madness .. madness,” Amum mutters wiping blood from his mouth.” His hand tightens on the knife , but shook … and his eyes swell in fear. “The eye of Ra is all-seeing. Your Minoan puffery may not threaten Pharaohs buyer.”
Mykrons spear-butt goaded his waist and bends him over. “Minoans have been dominating Pharaoh for a thousand years.”
“Forgive … forgive ...” He whines now, like a cur emitting little squeaks of fear from blanched lips.
His slaves had been removed below; Mykron, Nykomedes and I surround him. “Puffery? Do not believe what you hear, that all Cretans are liars. Or Hyrkons. We trade under the law, but we have been everywhere! Honest men receive honesty in return; but, the thief … aren't Nile crocs hungry this time of year?”
His olive Egyptian face has bleached white. “Patience, Cibias indeed a lumbermans trade is most honorable. Wood for Pharaohs furniture! You foretell the truth. It occurs to me now that Pharaohs wood is in short supply. No need for alarm. I will go on shore to arrange the transfer to Pharaohs warehouse.”
“Right – no need for complications.” I have casually loosed my hands to my hips as Picts do when the stench of sweat foretells a brawl. “You will stay here, on-board, in the Captains cabin , beside these men. You won't move till payment is made and my ship clears the columns. Here, your slaves waxed tablet, write out the payment form; I will take your cutter into the mole and collect. Then the cutter can pick you up on the way out when I return. ”
“When I am released you will return my slaves …?”
“You cut their tongues out, didn't you and had them castrated. Are they still human? Your slaves can't talk and can't fuck. When the time comes they can speak for themselves.”
Following the sirocco a Nile fog blow in that afternoon, muffling sounds, gathering vessels and parceling-out the harbor into neighborhoods each sufficient for perhaps a dozen craft. What gentle blasphemy to feel Aphrodites child Belisama watching over her own as the ocelot curls to a mastyard watching for lazy terns. A frenzy of silent fear has overtaken Amum. He finds no mercy in our actions , and thus signs off Pharaohs payments, his waxed tablet and vellum mark for Egyptian gold, his royal seal heated and pressed and set.
Sweat covers Amum face and his hand shakes snapping the seal back into its holder. “Surely that will be sufficient for all ...” Cobra swift he jerks the dagger and swings on me slicing toward the neck;
Did he guess his last breaths had already been measured out? There was no foolishness to his swift, deadly move. I get the leather wrist-band up between the blade and my throat while driving the other fist into his face. Amum staggers back, yet the knife whips forward as a ferel scream and streak of spotted fur rockets between us. Crouched, then leaping the ocelot clamping jagged fangs about Amums wrist, the knife wrenches from his hand and the two tumbling across the deck the cat howling and clawing and still biting his gold bracelet. Elisedd leaps into the scramble of teeth and fists and knees raking up Amum like wet baggage while an oarsman kicks him behind the knee. Amum screeched and pitches down the hatchway face-first into the timbers. His face a scowling, splintered, bloody rash our mastmen leap on his back.
"Pigs of Hatti, hare of Taharqa ..." shouting he fights with the strength of arrogance. His forearm slashing breaks an oarsmans wrist, but three sailors bind him scratching and kicking shoulder to ankle and lace the bindings to a cowl vent. The bleeding ocelot had got up in Artyphons arms and allowed Hekateas to salve a knife slash on her paw. The sand has all , but run out of the upper timing jar. Amum will be expected … Nykodemes has strapped his mouth with a band of rubber and recovered the gold bars. I follow down into the hold and hit him again in the belly with my first … and again till something gave tearing away and he crumbles.
I feel no mercy. “Truss him up like a pig, Elisedd. I don't want a sound out of him.” His arms and legs are wrapped in wet leather bands and a rubber strap fitted across his mouth. “I'll send a messenger once I see his masters on the quay.” Then comes a raft of hand-signals to the cutter effecting that Amum has been supplied with two hardass Cimmonian whores. "He will rejoin your vessel when he becomes tired of beating them"."Show us the master fucking these women; show us the torn veil and proud loins!" The Egyptian luggers Captain and first mate make loose their sword belts.
Lusty Artyphon pouts. "Would you see his male sex limp in the whores mouth?"
I chorus at their Captain. "Send an archer to steal his woman and see how rudely crocodiles feed. Are you next?"
Suspicious they close on our ship – anything can happened. Artyphon masters the threat. She strips veils to indecency and leans over the rail shouting . "Men of Ra your master revels." She had gathered two left-behind country wives our mastmen shipped over from a Lybian date-barge. Her wiles, convincing them to willingly flash red cheeks then dart below. Artyphons art. Her female servant passes an amphora of Chian wine to their Captain, a hash plug to the first mate and a van of oarsmen shift a small barrel of Gaulish ale by sling over-side for the Egyptian crew.
"Make ready for us to come aboard," I shout hefting my trade-staff. NaziBu pounds his spear-shaft against our rail. Their factors murmur, intimidated and fearing traders wrath. They piss in their own barrel of barley-wine. Artyphon retires before the success passing by yet digging her fingernails into my arm like claws that would draw blood before releasing till I touch a finger to her forehead. Certainty. Sworn. Our deck rattles with true affairs of trade: the mending of sail, scouring of teak plank, weaving and splicing of rope and melting pitch into warped strakes.
Nested below, precious waxed oak barrels of fish ferment are lashed to pallets ringed in the mahogany knees. Below the two women are howling pains of childbirth to the affectionate slaps of two lucky mastmen. Below Amum remains strapped to his death bed. I wash, change to a merchants dress and oil my face.
"What if the buggers come yipping," Nykodemes barks.
“Treat all forced borders the same." I point below. "Otherwise the helm is your Nykodemes until we return. After you unload the cargo get back to this mooring swift as Mercury and dim as evening. I'll first try getting ships payment to you. If the harbor rouses against us get the ship out fast as ye may.”
A swift hot wind gusts into our bow. A hooded face appears briefly at the luggers stern windswept like a bag of Sardis silk tussled, but flashing crimson and ivory curved not the supple native silver threads then drops into the bilges. It brings kaleidescope colors to my eyes which disappear into the gust. Breathless my head swoons. "If terrible visions grasp at Belisama strike quickly for Rhodes! You know our factor. "
"We know Cybelles piss for our Captain," opposes Tar his ball of black hash chewed grimly.“Aye, Sar. The crew Sar … they won't leave you. As for Amum?”
“He's no better than bitch Bastets beer. Let him drink his fill.”