“Don’t mind the worry. Wind and water overlay … like lovers,” I whisper.” Holding her as rope-boys ply their knots she is mine.
To her surprise. “Rarely do they so agree,” pouts Artyphon, returned empty hand from a main-deck tunny hunt. Her hand laces mine ; her spear-tip remains polished, bright copper. Imagine man and woman finding the worlds end … imagine otherwise … “We’ll eat salted ox and barley-cakes should Dysis twilight schools prove so retiring.” A woman must eat.
“Early to the hammock, then my priestess of less food, and we shall find a meal.” Sun from behind us shadowing swells makes the leagues to Byblos appear never-ending. A man and women might look to each-other, but my advice does not tickle Artyphons wicked tongue.
She turns away to watch Europa geese bank their streaming-V into a southerning crust of high clouds. “Carthage raiders, Rhodian sentries, Byblos sly carpenters, Syrian villeins and your kings blood curse do not create Orpheus and Eurydice of any couple paired by the sea. More likely ...”
It's Mykron come down from the foremast-yard . “If I may say Sar you've got her a bit by the stern.”
“He mocks me master,” snits Artyphon pressing ever closer under my leather belt.
“Our Belisama, dear mistress.” A successful ships captain must serve all. I growl. “Thrumm in the rudder strake has said as much. The first mallet blow rarely makes a perfect fit.” I excuse sloppy carpentry whose flaw I failed to detect.
We have all climbed down to the stern tiller-posts; the three thick-armed boyos pass their glowing jade pipe. “So unlike a woman Sar, if ye don’t mind observin’.” Mykron. “Among these shoals yes she is loose …. isn't she, yet we'll turn on a Tyrian stator if needed.” Puzzled face, his affection for Artyphon hides poorly, and he has gone to carving an ivory pendent I wear to my left wrist. While Mykron lives I need never fear him, and Artyphon never fear another. Such openness, I think NaziBus desert culture reviles.
“Bow is loose and rudder pukes like Thebian bumboats,” hacks ancient leather-skinned Tar. Fat he means, and given to speech-making, should the bow seek to escape control. His fingers are sniffing the tiller lest he need trice his arms before burying his long face too old to care and too smart in another cloud of hash old and pickled before the sun first rose. “Sar” he says very much late. The sea is pitching us up and down; none smile. Tar does not so much defy me as wear away to the ships noise.
“Troas?” I ask about the hash. Such smoke will cure lungs into sandal-leather.
“Not the worst, Ca’N” groans a passing idler come down from the high-yards. The crumbled temples and burn-blackened stones of Ugarith lay not two league east. A rope-boy run to the top-gallant with my glass makes out smoky fire-smudges along the beach. Do I imagine smelling the stink of burned timbers?
We sail free for a night and day, with dry feet and eyes and limes biting as a rejected lover. Old men may complain about lost teeth; that port was shedding stone walls when Minoans first traded … old by a thousand years, yet it died in a month. Few Syrian coast traders sailed this route; who needed the reminders … who needed assault from the sharp-beaked corsairs or mysterious Sea Peoples that frequented these shallows? Used to … yes that was the point. What beak prods an empty nest? We run under the Argos water-snake as I took that for slyness and confusion; Argonauts hugged coastlines and would piss red if they ever saw a Carian sea-ranger. Far to our west Cyprus shines as a tiny white triangle, a bright line between light sky and dark sea. If I succeed in Melquarts slaughter we would flee north, to Crete and its rocky southern edge and from thence to the Aegean Bay and Pontis. .
Calls of 'clew it down' run along the hull and bare feet thunder. Lines of hemp and leather and cotton cry choked calls of fiber wet and tight and stretched …. a chorus of calls ring 'round the Belisama as oars and sails and yards are manned. Muscle-wrought Faelen led at the forsail pawl. My first Nykodemes had taken lead oar from a freeman who now bore his bronze cuirass and a forge-mans hammer! I pull Amathus Aubu from mizzen-yard to the signal flags; he trained on their coastle cutters. Artyphon has just come up beside me as if the captains quarterdeck were her own boudoir.
“You've avoid me all morning. Has Ceto satisfied your lusts?” Bitch. She pushes her breasts against my arm like any Lesbian poetess while maintaining a steady patter bearing all the kings power toward some dim and awful late afternoon. “You are not to take the whore. Azmel’s our man. Only three horses will be prepared, and she has already been paid.” Now! Now! Said her song of evil. Evil to come, to come one waxed tablet after another. Which demanded my attention before killing me? “The yew-bow will be Sythian. You have used one before?”
Zeus beard! What whore - - what horses? She wears a rough white wool tunic snug to her pointed breasts and trousers that young Parthian girls wear before they are confined to the womans house; the flowing red silk concealed her dirk and did not bind her knees and the wind drew the fabric taut. She's mine, yet the bitch really dares anyone to take it … now that she is mine ... how has she enchanted King Minos? Mine. She sleeps with me now. She becomes my wife. She bares my weight. She says by Zeus beard I would bear hers. She reads papyrus strips from a leather folder, scratches alphabet and marking a wax tablet in no language I knew.
“Syrian assassins shaved with steel blades and slit throats between sips of wine … when the Egyptians were still pounding wooden mallets and feeding their enemies to crocodiles.” A red streak of temper had darkened her face. “ Yes, yes by-all-means watch for him; you met Azmel at Syracuse. He is short and plump and looks like nobody at all and will be traveling in a flat-bottomed skiff … seaworthy I am told. But, he does not need your eyes if he is alive.”
“He would only need my eyes if the King had entrusted to him the reason for my mission. He has not done so...” Minos would have told me … sure of it .. sure … I looked hard at Artyphon, but her face remained the obscure and peaceful face of a scholar or mage for whom all that may happen has happened in their mind and thus nothing of the real world matters. She is showing nothing. “So I live or die by his mistakes? That option does not appeal to me.”
“What option does,” Artyphon sniped? “Killing the kings enemies does not appeal to you as if it were an option. Are you better than your enemies? I'm telling you the Temple of Astarte does not supply actions that may or may not be accomplished; her women obey until they find success. Likewise does the heightened power of Phoenician trade. We opposed them … without options.”
I snap at her. “Women, temple, Astarte .. really my sweet. There you fly off again, a butterfly at the Kings ear should matters of high state-craft arise, but for the concrete, the bloody ...”
“Were men always waiting to kill you? Two men are waiting now at Byblos; Barzca family employs them, and they have killed before; their names are … Assyrian.” A goose flys across Artyphons face … or so grandmothers say … and a long, studied silence follows. “Note how Troas more Ionian than Phrygian now employs those of Ashur in a Syrian port heavily traded by Egypt.”
“Has Priam decided Trojan defeat is certain?”
“He has decided the Mycenaii, having corrupted the Eleans and planted the Chersonese will never surrender the Pontis. Without control of the Black Sea , and overland trade routes east Troy can never expand beyond a regional power. ”
“All very well. I don't need convincing that Troy intends an empire at Carthage. I've watched harbor-masters favor the Phonetician ships and thrown this up to the trade council. And our own man in Damascus paid with his life. But, have you nothing to tell me of civilizations clash, Asia and Europe, one against another? ”
“Oh well yes, clever … more clever than a Greek badger in a Phrygian cobra pit … well shit, does the King know I have never beaten you so that you give me sex freely, even now that we are lovers? ”
. Sailing now due-east, across shoals that had risen with storm-waves to eat their fill, but no longer. Surf put a bright outline to the brown palm-studded beach-strip three leagues to the east. Between … the linen line whistled and lead depth-finder weights whipped out bow and stern. “Shoals to larboard,” came the crows-nest call.”
Suddenly the islands! Bowsprit boys raced to their far perch and called out the distance. The first mate joined me on the binnacle risers. There, and there … between swells … marked by lonely straggling date-palms … each isle the size of a yeomans free-hold, they popped up on our larboard shimmering waves of heat from mountains of cracked shell and looking like rotted teeth!
“North-by-east and a half-east,” came the tiller-mans call.”
Telemydon hangs from a ratline above us; my navigator Nykodemes stands beside me . “Half-by-east again,” he corrects. His protractor lay off the starboard beam correction. “Could 'ave beat up from the sou'west, sur,” he manages. I see his scowl; he is vexing the sandbars that roll under our bow.
I motion to the mast-man and he shouts. “Take a reef on the mainsail,” and darts up the shroud. His mates scrambl out on the yard, bunching sailcloth and strapping it to the yard. Clewing lines were loosed below to follow the rising lower edge of the sail. Ever so slightly the Belisama sits back feeling for the stern.
Drumbeats start darkly and the oarsman followed thrumming the yew-wood sticks. Another watchman runs up shrouds to the crows-nest over which views dune shadows does not fall so darkly. Coasting in from the north-west had not been my navigators choice. He was chewing the end of his hash-pipe, which he had learned from Tar Avelon and dark billows spread everywhere. We have both got out on the beam and were leaning far over the bowsprit yard looking for trouble and feeling sand that a depth-finder weight had brought up stuck to its tarry bottom.
I say. “Now we are damned well alone as a Byblos virgin. Had we run south and tacked back … sailing with the SanJan, and if a Tyrian galley came prowling...?”
“Show them Belisamas arse..., Captain.”
“And if two … or three? What about that my fine fellow. Three hulls fat and stupid as Andalusian geese yet no way between them oh yes! We'll talk to them for sure … and saying not a word would tell the Tyrians everything !”
“Catch or miss, Nykodemes, but Tyre patrols use the Sidonian mirror codes. Smart bastards could flash news of our passing. This way the Sidonese harbor master never sees us before Sarkulika sees us … till we enter the outer harbor.”
I skip back to the stern leaning over. Three fins follow the wake. The islands glow of starboard bow. Byblos hetmen called them the Pearl String islands … five rounded and shoal-ridden bits of white sand holding a scatter of palms and tumble-down wooden shacks a sheep-herd would not favor. Corrupted pigs-feet – that was the smell as we closed. Five sand island and five Syrian cities: Sidon, Byblos, Cedars, Aanjar, Damas.
Faelon has come over from signals line, rummaging our waxed papyrus book for an odd handshake between lost friends as he wanted to view us. “No signal few options, no options few friends, no friend little trade,” said he satisfied as a jacket sown of Persian lambskin.
“Wreck on the larboard,” comes tunneling down from the crow-nest. “Mast-head above...” Hekateas teller-men are already keening a half-point from south-east to move us around. A dead ships mast can gut you; like a dead conflict in living memory. I am trying to visualize that fertility conflict, where it begins in the rut and … yes, at the end of the pearl string where Azmel waits. Every day has it's own end in rock-bound Byblos, mother of whores, lifting Ishtars bare tit to the fresh wild surf. From her nest grew Sidon mother of assassins. Cedars mother of poison. Rocky Aanjar mother of snakes. Damas … even more ancient in wickedness.
Now there's a twist, I thought; my own imagining of others evil, putting it upon them as a history even before blood covers my own hands. I had sent Tutor scrambling up to the crows-nest with the binnacles glass. “Do you raise the temple, Janus?”
Helios had barely come upon Acte, yet the light has a purple evening character to it melting sky to sea at the horizon. “Nothing Sar except for the islands empty as a beauties bare ….” His croaking stops and he sings out. “Lo and away … sail !” Wind rips on the silence. “Peculiar that, she’s more log than deck!”