Smoke-wreaths circle his head. “Mark 25 by the speed-log, our hull squired by this desert sirocco. Mainsail and mizzen both fore & aft, tin-horn ballast moved over the keel-pins, so Belisama is very much taken by the stern.” He cannot even find that humor. ‘We can jiffy the main-sail another ½ point larboard ... at risk of a gust knocking us flat! Then a dozen longboats could not pull Belisama hull upright.”
A dozen … yes … we have four! I guard Belisamas quarterdeck, standing on a clever rotating pedestal rigged by Faelon - - who has one for his signals post as to see all about - - a rope ladder gives balance and a path anywhere above-deck where trouble lurks. Five nights out of the Syrian village and we have been blown as far west as ever we might. “Pillars? More like Karpath, if tis the wrong island we hit.” And pirate infested Karpath would be a very wrong island indeed!
“Belisama might fit into Macrualo Bay,” opinions the navigator. “Khamsin will drive , the desert bitch.”
“Land spiders would eat us, after sand-spit nets lay their traps.” Land-spiders, for most human residence of Karpath poor and ignorant live in honey-bee trees surrounded by ought, but spider-silk! All, but the fat-ass pirates.
Head nod. “Where away, then” the quarterdeck men shout ?
Belisama rolls with her bow-wave. Our deck tilts enough to cast casual sailors and their souls into deep green water. Tis just after sunset, near the winter solstice and Venus spreads her knees low in the west to Saturn and Mars … but to whom has she not? West … where we have exceeded venture. Southward, behind us Sirius and Rigel push us along. But, north where we wish Arcturus has just appeared to the east. “Batter-all,” I shout!
Navigator, helmsman and master climb a low shroud to the main-sheet and fondle it harshly. One picks at a weave and cannot spread it. “Do we need Rhodian water and oars that badly?”
“And take four hands off the water-line when the tin and bronze is sold. Except for this deep-bellied vixen, we’ll be dodging among shallow bays all the way to Lesbos.” Just before leaving the Syrian village, one of Yadinis messenger peregrines had flown in to torment the ocelot and deliver a silver roll of coded script. Damnme what was my old whoresmate doing in frozen Amphipolis? But, his intent rang clear. None knew, but Artyphon and me.
“Aye Cap’N tis a pisser of a coastline.” Then … “This Egyptian cotton will take a pull as ye see fit . If the hemp grid was well-waxed we can ride with the moon!”
Poetic crap from workman has always amused me. They too are scared shitless. “Then tis your children and coin-purse as well as mine. Gather the crew for alehorns and pipes, as none buys swifter courage. Begin the paean, display the path so our readers may gloat! We shall wear east gentlemen, jiffy both mizzen and main three-points starboard and bring our bow across the wind. Briskly now for the rear tin horns would have us blown sideways and sunk. Tacking thus, as if Cyprus Sirens had called us wind across the sail we may be pulled nor’ard. Till chuffed-along Cyprus lost far astern still blocks the sirocco. ” We sleep on it - - then fight like leopard seals against the white bear!
“Two sails a-point off the starboard bow,” comes the crows-nest call. Officers race to the sprintyard. Early afternoon bring cloud-studded skys of robin blue reflected in foam-laced seas tinted emerald. And so it happens, seven nights after tacking across the Kamsin sirocco and two days battling mast-high Etesian gales blown 2000 leagues straight off the infinite eastern grasslands. I have seen them, the grasslnds swaying head high stretching beyond vision and for the winds natives can hear a deer snort at 20 leagues … a deer, a tiger or a lost mans cough … now these. Stubby sail, high bow swiftly tapered and narrow stern allowing hardly room for fifty oars. A charcoal loaded ballista raises above the quarterdeck glowing redeye.
The two swift Rhodian cruisers flank us port and stern unequally close and the nearest calls out from its brass horn. “Be ye tax-dodging Hyrkon villeins, quick to charge yet slow to pay … that or anyone else?”
“Run up the Trade Council flag,” I shout to Faelon and the blue silk on red linen pennant sings through the loops.
“What be your number?”
Young Rhodian officer, he cannot read digits coded into our pennant. NaziBus cavernous tin blast sings out 39.
“Why not 39-5?”
I put the glass on him. He’s well dressed in Egyptian quilt and jacket sealskin. Good family with connections . Stupid. “Our first traders visit this year, so we know not how many Hyrkon traders came before us.”
“I should charge you for the trouble ...”
“Charge it through Council merchants for the tin-yokes and salted pheasant we carry!”
Real trade shut-up the bastard. Sink an incoming foreign tin-trader costs a Rhodian Captain his life, burned out slowly as do the riverine German barbarians. Both sleek Rhodian hulls back away, their banners advise a course and we follow past the mountains of Chalki north-east to the well founded port of Skala. It’s a tidy manse of limestone and pastel stucco with moles, ship-run , hoists and dock the envy of rat-run larger cities. At harbors southern tip a lighthouse guards the breakwater - - Egyptian glass and Sidonian burner by the daylight shine - - not much less than that boasted by namesake city-of-Rhodes. I’ve traded there; city warrens claim they will erect a giant statue to their own glory, such project exceeding in dimension the jade phoenix at Gedes. I do not believe them.
“But, I believe their wealth,” muses Artyphon, “for this provincial port pleases every sense. They must manufacture reams of value.”
“You will see their market, and how every fancy good has been imported by traders.”
“But they have no land on a desert sand-spit …! Could not raise a rooster!”
“The Mycinai dug-out two new mountain springs, when they conquered 100 summers ago. Water passes from mountains thru under-sea scallops, so the scribes say and is thus pure. That and winter rain-storms provide drink that Cilician ale does not! Yet Rhodes extends a bit more than a sandspit, my dove, and indeed they do manufacture one item more precious than gold!”
Hyrkon and Rhodes are major trading partners. Trade on, friend, but also share Council quorums so our trip through customs and port tax and server fees exchanged more wine and ale than silver coins. Paper and gold-leaf smoked with imprints! Rhodian forgemen took every horn of tin we would sell. I dickered, then traded the two massive rolls of papyrus sheets given us by the Theban sail-traders. Two taverns snatched the pheasants, four amphoria of wine and two of uncertain ferment, carpenters 170 black-iron nails and every barrel of glue and tar we had got from the fishing village, all without disclosing their modest paradise. Our agent officers paid dearly for fresh lamb, pickled, but did better with liquid goods. They returned with eight ale barrels and eight of spring water the ceder fully waxed inside and out. And for the better snatched forty slick, stiff, large-cupped Rhodian oars of oak and ceder! They will not bend should Poseidon himself place knotty hands upon the oiled leather grips!
Will we spend the night? Telekydes bargains rudely … and rents an entire tavern from its horse-stalls along the country-side to the three-story pink whore-house beside the wine-vats. Washtubs includes, and though the water brine, it’s both filtered and hot and lathered! Horn-pipes and lutes sing long into the night. Some enjoy a horse-ride to a near tunnel bored into the limestone where wine and cheese are aged. An entire sheep is slain, though local painters get the blood! Watch-crews on Belisama will change before and after midnight that all boyos get a portion of warm bed and flesh.
Artyphon that afternoon in the marketplace, informal, where half-veils ruled, tunics never caught the sand beneath sandals and one traders eye caught another. “I see all of all Cibias. “Green Isle linen, India spices, gold Spanish torques, Egyptian glass sex-toys to please any woman and Greek pottery. Even a Syrian trident to spear beef cubes from a pot; I thought only the Hittites made those for stabbing boiled enemy tongues after a battle!” She sampled honeyed walnuts and dances with an arm-size silk doll from Parthia; I pay for it with Egyptian silver she whispering some love-fest of daddies little girl.
“What do you not see … in the harbor?”
She has retied her veil, as if noticed. “How is that Cibias? I see everything a harbor commands. Skiffs, rafts, tows, skulls, barges, cranes …”
“Do you see a ship?”
“I … I see Belisama and three similar traders , I see hulls in the drydocks. I smell tar-pots boiling. There , observe wise seer, sails being resewn and patched . What don’t I see?”
“The twenty single sail, sixty-oared, biscuit-joined corsair hulls that come sliding down these gangways and those of every-other seaport in Rhodes. Notice the carpenters and forgemen idling along the shaded quay. Who pays them to idle … who to work ? Where lay the long-hulled product of their labor?”
“Rhodes own navy hidden to warrens unseen … and export to the Black sea ...” Artyphon stumbles …
“Rhodes navy hides like a cows ass among bulls. And your brother Japhe sails no such ship-of-war , but a fat-belly luger. Indeed, from pirates veins sprout the gold-seam spewing wealth onto this lifeless sand”
Artyphons light laugh. “Men work for different reasons, Cibias. A shift of seasons must cause it, where cold metals refuse to fit into the warm splines brewed last summer! All will come busy eventually”
“And busy for whom,” I snap, turning her face toward mine. “Pirates heart, pirates Temple … that’s Rhodes for a wealthy renegade , klads of unemployed seamen or agents of rogue cities probing the weakness of others whose trade and walls they desire.”
Artyphon blanches, then simpers. “My dearest moon and stars you have been … been at the Gaulish ferment much too early today! Rhodes is a trading nation, with support all the way up to Asher Dan high King of creation.”
“And as the Zorasts say, what additional creature was cast-down that only one should rule. Is this not the Zorast Sheol or the Hebrew?” I sit her down upon a bale of hay. “I know well the books of Hykronian traders, and not one record shows the purchase of an entire sea-craft! Do you need the prow of a rovers black-tar hull running up your quim before admitting to the cold heart of Rhodian trade.”
“You trade with them … evil is as evil does.”
And my mouth runs away. “Any port in a storm. Do you find it so?”
Crisply for her face color has turned deeply red. “Your tutor has eaten wisdom among pigs and your scribes written in the red-octopus poison script.” And drawing the veil tight about her face, she and her woman walk quickly back toward the Belisamas portage. I fear I shall spend the night alone, while Artyphon teaches the woman she has preserved safe the danger of trusting men.
Ignoring the rented tavern, stalking the quarterdeck in rage another of Yadinis’ peregrines reaches me that evening. Banded. The script warns of a Trojan attempt on Lesbos and dangers to the Hyrkon factor Sanjan in their main bankers city. Hectors chariots run amok on the level coastal plain, while the recessed interior harbor piles factions upon confusion so much so that any Council of Trade certificates have become worthless and powerless.
“Do we fight against Hector, or fight for open trade,” quibbles NaziBu as the Belisama becomes busy at first light. A ringlet-hair merchants daughter strolls dockside, eyes alight and whose half-veil never pretends to cover her breasts. She dares our worst and NaziBu flips her a Hyrkon electrum. She flashes a bare willing ass, but struts away in tears.
Silence. Then. “Lesbos holds a seat on the Trade Council … at least its four biggest cities share one and the inland metal guilds another. Quaint, some thing. If either slip away, swallowed by Priam or Agamemnon then for what reason and just who shall the Council defend? Right now the Belisama is Council in residence, and better armed and experienced than 90% of the fleet !”
“So we show the Council Banner on Lesbos.”
“Show? Think about it. We have crates of gold and an empty hold. Pear jelly is shown at a festival! Are we farmers wives? I say we plunge to the heart of it, butchering any who threaten the trading routes and factors of the Hyrkon mercantile union.”
Never heard that naming before,” quibbles NaziBu. His eyes glow a warlike lust. “But, yes I thought you’d see it that way.” Before Anatole has driven mist from the water and Anemoi relents coiling about her Black Sea lover Skikrati the Belisama has taken flight north toward the Isle of Kos and arrowing far Lesbos the narrow Pserimos passage.