The ship was finished.
Miri poured herself another glass of wine. Bit by bit, piece-by-piece, plank by plank she had watched the ship rise above the walls of the garden. And as each part of the ship materialized, some part of Miri's business operation diminished. It was as if the ship was a living dragon that attracted and absorbed everything she owned or held dear. Her relationship with Alexander was strained. He had become more and more obsessed with the ship, with possessing it and its owner. She felt his soul wrapping about hers, like the coils of an immense python wrapped tightly around her heart. She was suffocating.
She called for Castor.
He arrived promptly as though he had already been standing inside the room and suddenly materialized before her.
“I need help, Castor,” she moaned.
“I will do what I can, Mistress,” replied Castor.
“No, not that kind of help. I can't do this on my own!”
Castor picked up Miri's glass from the table. “You're not as alone as you think you are.”
Miri stared dumbly at Castor.
He placed the glass on the tray with the wine decanter. “You have allies. Claudia and Ptolemaios.”
“But they are already helping me.”
“Make them partners!”
“Ask them if they would like to be partners in the ship. That way you can all share the expenses.” He produced a towel from his sleeve and wiped the table. “Of course, you would have to share the profits.” He paused for effect. “There would be more than enough for our two households to be managed until the marriage of their grandchildren.”
Miri frowned. “How could I ask?”
“Too proud, Mistress?”
“You're teasing me,” said Miri. “You have more than a towel up your sleeve.”
Castor smiled. “Well, I see Claudia's secretary from time to time, and he had mentioned that Claudia, in - well, I suppose I could say in a mood not becoming of a woman of bearing - had complained to Ptolemaios that because of his, uh, weakness, they were engaged in an enterprise that drained their energy but reaped no reward but to keep him out of your bed.”
“Then I shall call on her and-”
“Actually,” interrupted Castor, “I would have suggested making the offer to Ptolemaios. That way he can come out of the dog house; forfeit his wager with you in exchange for a contract to share in the profits.”
Miri leapt to her feet, “Castor, I love you!” She hugged him gleefully.
Iphetus appeared in the doorway.
“There are two street urchins at the door.” he said, “They will not take any alms and asked to speak with you.”
“With me?” asked Miri.
“'With the lovely lady from the west' were their exact words.”
“Well, we shall see them in, Iphetus” replied Miri, her mood vastly improved. She sat on a divan and fluffed out her dress imperiously. Iphetus motioned and two unkempt young teenage girls clutching each other for support shuffled into the room. They giggled nervously as they came to a stop and bumped into each other.
“My name is Drusilla,” announced one, “And this is my sister Portia.”
“We're orphans,” added Portia.
“Yes- orphans,” agreed Drusilla.
Miri smiled and Castor frowned.
“We heard you were living here in a house full of men,” announced Drusilla.
“A lot of men,” added Portia significantly.
“And we also heard that some townspeople are talking-”
“Talking!” added Portia.
“So, they're all saying you should have handmaidens,” said Drusilla.
“Handmaidens!” piped up Portia.
Miri's smile broadened.
Castor rolled his eyes.
“You're orphans?” He scoffed.
“Orphans!” repeated Portia and the girls nodded enthusiastically.
“Our parents were killed by a lion!” declared Drusilla.
“A lion!” echoed Portia, “A big lion!”
Miri burst into a badly stifled laugh.
“It's true!” cried Drusilla.
“True!” declared Portia earnestly. “Two lions! Oh, they were ferocious! We had to beat them off with sticks-”
Sensing they were losing their audience, Drusilla quickly interrupted Portia apologetically, “She was very young when it happened!”
Portia nodded again.
“So you have had experience as handmaidens?” asked Miri, barely able to contain her mirth.
The two girls nodded eagerly and Castor snorted.
“We have!” protested Drusilla.
“Show me your hands!” Miri demanded and the girls held their hands out to her. Miri examined their hands and arms for slave brands and the skin, though dirty were clear of any branding scars. She slid Drusilla's sleeve up to check her shoulder. Her back was covered in long ugly welts. Drusilla winced as Miri's finger traced along a fresh scar.
“Well, you're not escaped slaves!” Miri stared at Drusilla, “Who have you worked for?”
“Nobody in town!” interrupted Portia quickly.
“No!” agreed Drusilla.
Miri and Castor exchanged glances with each other. Drusilla and Portia did likewise.
“Well, we will have to clean you up first,” declared Miri. “You may be handmaids, but it is very hard to tell through all that dirt.”
Drusilla and Portia squealed in delight and hugged each other.
“I did not say-” interrupted Miri, “That I would engage you as my handmaids.”
Drusilla and Portia settled down as much as it seemed possible for them to settle, which was still a jump and a tumble and several shakes of a lamb's tail above absolute calm. “Iphetus, see them into my chambers and have them draw a bath and find some fresh linen for them to wear.”
Iphetus bowed and held out his hand to direct the girls to Miri's bedchamber. The girls happily bounced out of the room in Iphetus' wake.
“Ten to one, they're runaways!” declared Castor.
Miri shook her head.
“Someone is out a pair of scalawags, I think!”
“Your bath is ready!”
Miri opened one eye and squinted out from her bed. Drusilla and Portia stood over her with a breakfast tray and a water pitcher.
“Morning!” piped Portia cheerfully.
Miri groaned and sat up. Drusilla set the breakfast tray on Miri's knees, and Portia poured a tall glass of fresh water. They stood nervously at attention while Miri drained the entire glass. She held the glass out for more water, and Portia, excited by being useful, splashed more water around the glass, and managed to fill it. The spilled water cooled the skin on Miri's arm and the soothing coolness was welcome enough that Miri said nothing to Portia.
After draining the glass, Miri lay back, and sensing her move, Drusilla slid extra pillows behind Miri's back. Miri looked the two girls up and down. Bathed and dressed in white linen tunics, they were quite presentable. They smiled nervously at her, squirming under her scrutiny.
“So, who are you really?” she asked pleasantly.
Portia and Drusilla glanced back and forth at each other, and shuffled closer for support. Portia, seeking protection, slipped her hand into Drusilla's.
“We're - we're sisters,” answered Drusilla. Portia looked at Drusilla then at Miri.
“And are you really orphans?”
“We-” Drusilla hesitated, and tears began to well up in their eyes as if they were one person. Portia sniffed. Miri handed her a napkin from the breakfast tray.
“They sold us!” wailed Portia. Drusilla wrapped her arms about her sister.
A sudden commotion broke outside in the street. Shouts mingle with the barking and howling of dogs. Anubis leapt to his feet with a growl and scrambled down the slippery marble corridor floor his voice echoing loudly in the hall. Someone was banging loudly on the front door. Drusilla and Portia clung to each other in fear.
“Please don't send us back!” cried Drusilla, “We'll do anything! Please!”
Miri threw off the sheets and shrugged on her housecoat. “Stay here!” she said sharply to the girls. She stopped at the door. “And keep quiet!”
Iphetus appeared in the doorway.
“You have a visitor,” he announced. “She says that two of her- scullery maids- were seen coming in here last night and-”
Miri strode down the corridor to the atrium. Castor appeared with Cepheus. “Come with me!” Miri commanded and the two men followed in her wake. Seated in the reception area was a rather large woman with a scowl that would melt the black off a cooking pot behind her, her household slave stood meekly. He was quite ancient and looked as if he would fall over at any moment. He kept glancing nervously at Anubis who stood rigidly on guard beside them.
“You have my scullery maids!” she growled as soon as Miri and the others entered.
“I'm sorry?” Miri asked innocently.
“We have tracked them to your door.” The woman stood up.
“I'm sorry, we have not been intro-”
“My name is Beatrice. You have my kitchen girls, and I want them back!”
“Is there a reward?” asked Miri.
“A - a reward?” Beatrice became livid. “You give shelter to runaway slaves and demand a reward?”
“They are your slaves?”
“They are indentured to me for twenty years!”
“You have the papers?” asked Miri.
“No!” snapped Beatrice.
“So, if I had your girls, how would I know your claim is legitimate?”
Beatrice sighed impatiently and snapped her fingers. Her servant stepped forward and handed Miri a small scrap of parchment.
“I am not paying you to get them back,” said Beatrice sternly.
“So there is a buy-out clause?” asked Miri as she began to read.
Beatrice's mouth snapped shut.
“Hmm,” said Miri as she read from the contract. “There is a buy-out clause. It says that on payment of 11 denarii per year remaining, they can buy their freedom.”
“They are not worth that much!” snarled Beatrice. “Those two are worthless! They run away constantly no matter how hard they are punished!”
“So nineteen years at eleven denarii would be-” Miri paused to calculate.
“Two hundred and nine denarii,” said Castor.
“Each!” said Beatrice.
Miri knew the price was for both girls, but she knew that unless Beatrice thought she was gaining an advantage, she would not relinquish Drusilla and Portia.
Miri snapped her fingers, and Castor disappeared.
“I would expect a seller's fee,” said Beatrice. She began to rise, but Anubis growled and she stayed seated.
“If they buy themselves out there is no seller's fee,” said Miri. Castor returned holding a bag of coins. Miri handed the contract to Beatrice. “Sign the receipt,” said Miri.
“Pay me!” countered Beatrice.
“Cepheus, bring Drusilla and Portia in would you?”
Everyone sat uncomfortably until Cepheus brought the trembling girls into the room.
“Drusilla, I want you and Portia to count out four hundred and nine denarii for Beatrice.”
Neither girl moved. Their fear of Beatrice was evident. Miri took the heavy bag of coins from Castor
“Everything's alright,” said Miri softly leading the trembling Drusilla to the table in front of Beatrice.
Drusilla looked at Miri pleadingly. “I can't count,” she whispered to Miri.
“To ten, only”
Miri kneeled by the low table in front of Beatrice.
“Count out piles of ten until I tell you to stop,” said Miri.
Drusilla eyed Beatrice warily, and Miri had to force the girl's hand into the bag. Her hand folded over the child's and Drusilla's eyes lighted up as her fingers wrapped around coins. She pulled the money from the bag and opened her hand and stared disbelievingly at the money.
“I don't have all day!” interrupted Beatrice, and a small triumphant curl formed at the corners of Drusilla's mouth; then one by one, deliberately and slowly, she began to pile the coins.
She looked at Beatrice and her eyes narrowed.
Drusilla glanced at her sister and smiled reassuringly.
Her eyes turned to Beatrice and locked in defiance of her former mistress.
Beatrice glared at the little girl whose gaze never wavered from her.
Beatrice lost her patience. “Just give me the money!” She grabbed for the bag of coins on the table. Anubis snarled at her, but a warning from Miri held him in check. Coins scattered from the top of the bag as Beatrice seized the bag. In a fit of fury, Beatrice stormed from the room before even the last of the coins rolled to a stop under the divan.
Drusilla and Portia squealed in delight as the door slammed behind their old mistress. And Drusilla threw her arms around Miri and hugged her tightly. They were knocked over as Portia flung herself at them also, and Miri laughed as the girls covered her with kisses.
“Alright! All right! Enough!” she called out finally. She struggled to peel Drusilla and Portia from around her neck. “Help!” she laughed and fell backward. Finally Cepheus and Castor managed to lift the two girls from their new employer.
“Well, that went well,” commented Miri.
“Better than you think,” said Castor. “There was only three hundred denarii in the bag!”
Though Drusilla and Portia were novice handmaidens, their energy and vitality brightened Miri's day. Castor took them under his wing and trained them in preparing the bath and readying Miri's wardrobe, as well as the preparation of incense for the boudoir. Whenever she had a moment, Miri showed them how to mix perfumes and fats for soap, and they often just played, trying on jewelery and braiding each other's hair.
If it had not been for the two girls, Miri would not have realized how much her world had been surrounded by men. Everyone that Miri dealt with was male, with the exception of Claudia, and Claudia seemed to have left her girlishness behind not only long ago, but on purpose. And here, her two little bubble-headed poppets constantly brought her face to face with all the innocent feminine feelings from her own childhood she had somehow forgotten. Such memories were painfully sweet, and brought tears to her eyes for the loss of the child she had once been.
And Miri discovered they were unrepentant gossips. Nothing that occurred inside her walls escaped their excited attention. Their curiosity and enthusiasm were boundless. They were especially drawn to the dark Cepheus. His manner was gruff, but that quality just encouraged Drusilla and Portia to tease him mercilessly. His growling complaints were greeted by squeals of delight. As effervescent as they were within the hallways of the house, they both became shy and nervous when they stepped out into the garden to gather flowers or to watch the workmen assembling the merchant ship.
On a sunny afternoon, Miri sat in the shade of her vines watching the two girls. They sat upon a large pile of coiled rope, whispering to each other, and Castor approached them. He held two wax slates under his arm. Miri could here nothing from where she sat for the hot summer air blocked out all but the most localized sounds. Castor presented each girl with a slate and sat beside them. She smiled as she realized that Castor had taken it upon himself to teach them to write. She closed her eyes contentedly and drifted off to sleep.
“Wake up sleepy-head!”
Miri started. Claudia stood blocking the sun.
“I brought you some treats” She placed a tray of baked sweets and fruit on the divan beside Miri. “Ptolemaios says that you have offered us a partnership in the trade ship.”
“Yes,” said Miri, her mind still a bit numb from her nap.
“That was very gracious of you, dear” said Claudia, “ I am very grateful.”
Miri sat up.
“How are your new hand maids working out?” asked Claudia. She was staring at the girls sitting with Castor. Her hand shielded her eyes against the glaring eye of Rei.
“They are a delight!” declared Miri.
“You've worked wonders with them!” said Claudia, “From what I hear they are quite a handful!”
Miri laughed. “Yes, they are!”
Claudia reached for a sweetbread. “Beatrice is livid!” she said with more than a note of satisfaction in her voice.
“You wouldn't believe how much satisfaction it gives me to see someone get under her skin so. I've butted heads with her for years. She is an such an obnoxious person!” Claudia leaned in closely, the sweet smell of fresh yeast on her breath. “Watch your back, my dear. She bears a grudge, and will feed off a slight for years. You are gaining more influence in this town, and she will resent you for every gain and blessing you receive.”
Claudia patted Miri's hand. “I want to ask you a favour though, and please remember I mean no slight-”
“Name it!” replied Miri.
“Could you just keep our partnership a secret for now?”
“It's just that I still have dealings with Beatrice from time to time, and if she knew we were- uh - partners- well, she would not take kindly to it. It won't be for long, but I need some time.”
Miri picked out a sweet. “You can count on me Claudia.”
“Thank you” Claudia stood up. “I have to fly! We must get together for dinner soon!”
“Yes!” replied Miri, “I would like that!”
“Good!” Claudia gave Miri a parting peck on the cheek, and Miri slipped back into the warm embrace of the summer afternoon.
The days passed rapidly, Miri had no clash with Beatrice, even though the secret partnership between Miri, Ptolemaios and Claudia was talk of the town. Having obtained Drusilla and Portia as her personal servants, Miri's household became more accepted by the other townsfolk, and soon, almost everyone for miles around had come to admire and offer advice on the ship in her back yard. And, finally the ship was finished. Each and every part was numbered and labelled, and it was disassembled and packed for shipment to the Eastern Coast.
Three caravans had to be combined to carry the load to the village of Qasr beside the harbour city of Myos Hormos. Drusilla and Portia insisted on accompanying Miri on the trek through Wadi Hamamat, and Miri finally relented for they wailed at the thought of being left alone in the house. The passage through the wadi was arduous and tested them all, but the two girls were determined to prove that the experience was not a hardship, though Miri noticed that more than once during the journey they were both on the verge of tears.
The merchants of Myos Hormos came out in full force to greet Miri's caravan. Peddlers lined the pathway to the beach where Polydeuces had arranged for the ship to be reassembled, and their arrival took on the atmosphere of a festival. In all, almost a full one hundred crew members and workmen camped on the beach, and the hull blossomed quickly on the sand. They had three weeks until the neap tide that would lift the ship onto the ocean waves
Castor, Miri and Alexander took care of the operation in Qasr and back in Koptos, Claudia, Ptolemaios and Demetrios took care of last minute purchases and the final selection of cargo. Everything went well for Miri. The base and sides of the hull grew quickly, the planks cinched tightly together with sisal rope, and every night after darkness fell, she and Alexander would slip out to a deserted part of the beach and swim in the warm ocean water and made love on a blanket laid on the sand. The idyllic and exhausting routine was brought to a halt when Alexander slipped from scaffolding and hurt his back.
For the first time in Qasr Miri slept alone. She slept fitfully. She woke up in the middle of the night and decided she needed a drink. She opened her eyes. The lamp was still lit in her tent but flickered terribly; the wick was running low. She groaned as she rolled over to get up and froze in shock. A dark hooded figure loomed over her, a dagger raised to strike. The blade suddenly flashed down and Miri struck out with her foot and scrambled back from her attacker. Her sudden thrust upset the cot and she fell to the ground wrapped in sheets and the broken wooden frame. She scrambled to the edge of the tent and glanced back. The figure was gone.
Miri fought off her tangled sheets and stood up. She ran to her chest and pulled out Cleopatra's bow and quiver. Quickly shouldering the quiver, she removed an arrow and notched it to the bow and stepped naked from the tent. The half moon lit the camp. There was no movement other than the slow curling of smoke from dying campfires. She looked quickly about her and bow drawn, stealthily crept around the tent. A noise attracted her attention and she swiftly swept about the corner of the tent ready to release the arrow.
She was confronted by Sylvanius, his penis between his hands, relieving himself. Neither could be more shocked than the other. Sylvanius gaped at the vision of Miri naked before him and froze; the fountain of urine dwindled immediately, and sprinkled on his robe and leg.
“Oh, damn!” he whispered, and wiped himself off, hopping to avoid the wet patch of sand. He looked up at her. “What are you doing?”
For the first time, Miri realized she was stark naked, and slipped the quiver in front of her reflexively. “Me? Someone was in my tent!”
“What?” asked Sylvanius. “Perhaps it was Alexander.”
“No, it-” Miri stopped short. The image of Setem suddenly floated into her head and she began to tremble. “It is nothing!” she blurted out and fled back into the tent. She strode quickly to the amphora of wine. She slipped of the cover that served also as a large tasting cup and dipped it into the wine and knocked back the entire cup in one gulp. She drank another. And another.
For the next two days she was moody and irritable, and each night she drank herself to sleep. She thought that she had seen Setem again on the second night, and the dark hooded stranger haunted her. Finally, on the third night, she sought out her favorite cure.
Quite drunk, She slipped into Alexander's tent and crawled into his bed and demanded to make love to him. His back was still very painful and he protested. He grabbed her arms to stop her vigorous humping, and she shook his grip loose and slapped him, and all of a sudden a wave of anger swept over her, and she began hitting him with her fists. He fended of her blows, but she caught his head hard with one blow and he punched reflexively back, and rolled over on top of her, pinning her to the ground. Still inside her, he thrust hard in a frenzied and violent rhythm, and a sudden wave of ecstasy overwhelmed her and she dug her fingernails into his buttocks and wrapped her legs like a vise around him. He shuddered as he was pulled into her orgasm and the two of them convulsed desperately in a mad euphoric paroxysm of pain and pleasure.
Alexander rolled painfully over onto his back.
“Oh gods above!” he groaned, “What the- I can't move!”
Miri was already asleep, face down on the floor.
Miri sat on a large overturned clay pot and stared up at the long dark neck of the prow that rose gracefully above her head in silhouette against the glittering star-filled night sky. The moment of completion overwhelmed her. The workmen had left after the celebration, and now, in on the beach that now served as the dry dock for the vessel, except for the gentle wash of the ocean waves on the sand, the silence of the night was complete.
The day after she had made love to Alexander, she had begun her period and had sunk deeper into darkness. She realized her cycle was out of synchronicity with the moon, and she wondered when that had first started. Still, work continued on the ship and after five days, her bleeding stopped. Finally, she managed to break free of the terrible depression, but she still had the urge to drink herself to sleep at night.
Something was missing.
She stood up and walked along the side of the magnificent boat, running her fingers along the boards of her keel. Her fingers caked with the lime and sheep fat that waterproofed the boards. She rubbed the caked material between her fingers and wiped her hands on her dress. The scaffolding that flanked the ship blocked her way, and she climbed into it and up the side of the vessel. As she reached the top, she leaned from the scaffold and stretched her feet toward the ship. Her foot touched the gunwale, and she jumped lightly onto the deck. Not bothering to climb to either the poop or fore decks, Miri circumambulated the main deck, touching every object and projection that came within her reach. She stood finally in the centre of the deck, hands on her hips, just behind the well that waited for the mast to be fitted. The mast and the rigging had been prepared, but would not be erected until morning.
Despite the completion of the boat, Miri felt empty.
Now the task of initial construction was over, it seemed as though her purpose for living was now over. The prospect of the voyage did not seem to fill her being to the depth that the construction of the ship had. She had been consumed by the process of creation, and the ultimate goal, that of trading in far off lands, had been forgotten. Her finances had been drained to construct this behemoth upon whose back she now stood. All her resources had been poured into the ship and purchasing the cargo. If the ship suddenly went up in flames, she would be a pauper. She had definitely placed each and every single egg in on great huge basket.
And now she had her doubts about the entire venture. A darkness gripped her heart.
“Miri!” Hands slipped under her arms and gripped her breasts.
Miri started, but within the same heart beat that she jumped, she recognized the breath and heart of Alexander. Happiness radiated from him as he stood at her back.
“What are you doing out here, all alone?” He whispered. He was excited as the end of construction meant he would soon be walking the deck of a sea-going vessel. Miri bit her lip as she had still not told Alexander that though he had been chosen as captain of the ship, it would she who would be the ultimate decision maker as to it's destination and cargo. He had assumed from the start that he would be given command of the ship, and Miri, in retrospect, inadvisably, in order not to bring on his maddening dark smoldering moodiness, had not corrected his self-assumption of control of her property. She had set him straight about her household, and though he had not taken the news graciously, he did acquiesce after a three-week silence. But he still assumed he would be the master of her ship.
“Let's have some wine,” she said lightly and slipped from his embrace. She led Alexander by his hand to a small table set by the stairs to the fore deck, and lifted a decanter from a tray on the table.
“Shall I be mother?” She poured wine into a goblet and handed it to Alexander.
“That's not funny,” he said grimly.
“Not-” Miri was flabbergasted. “What the- Alexander, what's wrong?”
Alexander did not answer.
Miri poured herself a goblet of wine and knocked it back and poured another, then turned to face him.
“What is your problem?” she demanded.
Alexander set his goblet down on the table, but remained silent.
“What is your problem, Alexander?” Miri demanded again.
He turned and stepped away from her and Miri swept in front of him.
“What in all Tuat is your problem?” she asked fiercely. He turned to leave, but Miri grabbed him and blocked his departure. “You're not leaving here until I get an answer from you, Alexander!”
“As usual, you are the one dictating terms to me!”
“I am not dictating to you! I want to know what the problem is with you! You are so moody! It's getting to the point I cannot say a thing to you without you going off on a tantrum!”
“And I cannot say anything without everyone checking over my shoulder with you before I am believed! The other men in the town treat me as a child! How can I gain respect enough to be captain of this ship, if you are the one who pulls the strings behind me?”
“The ship is mine!” stated Miri defiantly. “Have you never known a captain that answers to the ship owner?”
“Most ship owners are content to sit at home and allow the captain to steer the ship!”
“So, you would have me stay at home while you travel to the ends of the earth in my ship?”
“You must bow your will to mine! If you cannot do that when we are at sea I cannot be the captain! I must be allowed to be captain of my own ship! If you would marry me, then I could have the authority to run the ship as a captain should!”
“So-” said Miri slowly, her hackles raised, “You want to marry me for my ship?”
Alexander was not stupid exactly, he just had a strong sense of being a man, and that singleness of spirit that made him as straight and strong and swift and strong as an arrow, also gave him a certain shallowness of intellect. He had talked himself into a corner, and knew he had no way to extricate himself, other than to bluster his way out.
“No!” he replied loudly and quickly, “You're just twisting my words!”
“So, list four reasons you would like to marry me, besides my ship!” she challenged.
“You are so infuriating!” he exclaimed.
“That's one!” replied Miri, “What else?”
“So far, you want to marry me because I'm infuriating and own a ship”
“You couldn't name four things about me,” Alexander countered.
“Correct!” answered Miri, “But then, I don't want to marry you! You are possessive, demanding, overbearing, have an irritating impulse to interfere in my affairs, and have no faith in my abilities to stand on my own two feet!”
Miri downed the second glass of wine.
“You drink too much!”
“Did I mention controlling?” Miri turned and lifted the wine pitcher. It had turned cold, but she began filing her goblet. She stopped for a moment in a charade of thinking. “Hmmm, yes, I think I did- possessive, demanding and overbearing- that would all be the same thing! You know Alexander, I just don't understand why you think you can tell me what to do. Your idea of marriage is to wrap and bind me to your will, to hold me hostage to your desire and to isolate me from the world I love and hold dear to my heart!”
“But, you lay with me!”
“So you think just because you fucked me, you can now keep me in a box the rest of my life? Just take me out whenever you feel horny? Or want someone to follow two paces behind you when you go for a walk? You know what Alec? If you think fucking me gives you the right to absolutely dictate to me the terms of my life, then go fuck yourself! Do whatever you want with your own life, but get the hell out of mine!”
“You can't dump me!” countered Alexander, “ The ship is finished!”
“I will find someone else!” Miri was shaking now. Her anger had passed, but the act of disengaging herself from Alexander lifted a great load from her back. Suddenly Alexander grabbed her from behind and spun her around. Reflexively, Miri swung the heavy clay decanter and it exploded in a spray of wine across Alexander's face. He staggered under the impact, and Miri enraged, smashed the metal tray over his head, and Alexander fell to the deck. He crawled form the reach of her arms and legs and pulled himself up by the railing.
“You can't do this without me!” he growled and wiped his mouth.
“ I can do anything I want without you!” spat back Miri.
They stood glaring at each other in the darkness for a moment, and Alexander whirled and disappeared in a flurry of robes over the side of the ship. Miri threw her goblet after him. It crashed amongst the scaffolding and the pieces rattled against the wood as they fell to the ground.
Miri stomped her feet on the deck as there was nothing left to throw. As her temper subsided, tears flowed from her cheeks. She was angry that she had let Alexander take as much control over her affairs as she had. It was not just the ship. She had begun to change herself to suit his desire, and alter her habits so as not to offend him, and to change her words so as not to incur his wrath. Each day she had withdrawn a little from her own life. Each step was so small, yet over time they added up to a steady erosion of her will and the suppression of her desire. Somehow her life had been more and more subject to his.
As her anger settled, she grew more overwhelmed by her circumstance. Running her hand along the rail, she walked toward the stern. Wherever she could she touched the ship, and realized she had sunk her heart and her soul into the vessel. She knew every plank by name and number, the land from where it had come, which piece fitted where, how much sisal cordage had been braided and the grasslands where it was grown. She could feel every push of the carpenter's plane, each chip of the adze, every tap of the maul, the sweat of every man that had worked to put this miraculous creation together. When she held the rail, she could smell the soil of every land that had nurtured the wood.
She climbed the seven steps to the poop deck. As she stood beside the great handle of the steering oar, The immensity of the vessel and the intricacy of all of its interlocking parts restored her confidence The soul of Isis entered her heart and filled her being. The golden wings of the Queen of Heaven filled the ship and her being spread outward. As she expanded her attention to the Earth, Miri could feel the caress of the ocean wind and breathed with the roll of the ocean waves. The currents within the Sea showed her the road she should follow. She had been terribly wrapped in the mechanics of the ship, and now she had a moment to feel the soul of the goddess that permeated the world. All was well. She had no need of Alexander.
She thought of all the rocks that had barred her passage to this spot on the beach, and realized that she had overcome them all. All she had to do was put the boat into the water. After that, well...
The Queen of Heaven would provide.
Unfortunately the next morning, the Queen of Heaven was nowhere in sight. Neither was Alexander even though Miri was prepared to forgive him. The sun rose from the East and illuminated the small tent village that blossomed about the graceful hull of the ship on the beach. The gentle caress of the first fingers of the Sun on the encampment brought several women from their tents, and soon fires and stoves were burning and the level of voices and laughter rose, and as the fresh breakfast smells spread outwards, the light voices of the women were joined by the deeper growl of their men. Filling all their thoughts, the ship towered above them. Soon the neap tide would lift her rounded body from the beach. Each and every person camped around her had a part in the releasing the ship from her land-borne womb and setting her into the arms of the Mother Ocean, and the excitement and expectation vibrated palpably in the air.
Miri, however, sat with her head in her hands on the poop deck stairs where she had fallen asleep nursing a very bad headache. Her mouth was thick with the dregs of the wine she had consumed the night before and her brain did not respond quickly to her surroundings. She was very thirsty.
As if in answer to her prayers, Castor appeared at her side carrying a water pitcher and glasses on a large silver tray. He set the tray beside her and poured a crystal clear glass of water and held it out to her. Miri shielded her eyes from the sun and took the glass from Castor.
“Thank you,” she said gratefully after downing the entire glass. After he refilled the glass from the pitcher, Castor pulled a wet towel from the tray with a flourish and wiped Miri's brow. The wetness instantly removed the thin film of sweat from her face and then cooled her forehead as it evaporated.
“Oh, Mother!” declared Miri, “That feels so good!”
“You had an argument with Alexander last night,” said Castor matter-of-factly. He continued to wipe Miri down with the wet towel.
“You heard it?” groaned Miri.
“The whole of Hades heard it,” replied Castor.
Castor re-moistened the towel from the pitcher and washed Miri's shoulders. “I don't think Alexander will show his face again unless you publicly grovel before him,”
“You think I should?”
Castor handed Miri her hair to hold out of the way so he could wash her neck.
“That is not my place to say, Mistress.”
“How unusually circumspect of you, Castor.”
“He does not like me,” replied Castor.
“And so you do not like him?”
“He's extremely-” Castor hesitated, unable to find the right adjective for Alexander. “He would squash me like a bug if he got the chance.”
“I don't have any one else to play captain,” replied Miri after a moment. “If only-”
Miri shook her head, then thought for a moment.
“Do you think he knows that everyone heard us last night?”
Castor took Miri's wrist and held her arm out to be washed.
“I doubt it. When he gets in a snit, I am sure he cannot only see as far as his fists can reach,” replied Castor icily. They both fell silent.
“I can't captain the ship,” stated Miri finally, “I need him.”
“Good grief!” exclaimed Castor, “I've died and gone to Heaven! I never thought I'd hear you say you need a man!”
“I'm in a pickle, Castor!”
“You certainly are!” The voice made both Miri and Castor jump.
“Alexander!” cried Miri happily. She jumped up to hug him.
He seemed to be in a good mood and hugged her back. Castor gathered himself together and faded from sight.
Miri slipped from his arms and stepped away from Alexander. She took a deep breath and turned to face him. He looked grand. The breeze picked up from the sea and tousled his hair and flapped his tunic. He stood with his hands on his hips. He was waiting for her to speak.
“I'm-” she hesitated briefly. “I'm sorry, Alexander.”
“You need me to captain this ship.”
“Yes,” she admitted, “Yes, I do. I have been -heavy handed- and I apologize for over-ruling you. I want you to command my ship.”
“And I have the captain's final decision in its disposition?”
“As far as navigation,” stated Miri firmly. “You may pick the crew and you may have whatever is necessary for the operation of the vessel. I will still have the final say in cargo and destination. I will relinquish the operations of this enterprise to you, but I will take the gods' share of the decisions.”
Alexander frowned. “So I am captain of the ship?”
“Of course!” declared Miri.
“And I can claim a captain's share of the cargo?”
“Then I want it in writing,” Alexander demanded.
“I want it in writing” He produced a scroll from his robe. “I want a contract! Signed!”
Miri was taken aback. Alexander held the contract out to her. She took it from him and began to read it, but she was so shocked by his demand that she could not focus on the words.
“There are two copies, I have signed them both.” explained Alexander. “Sign them, and I will command your ship!”
“I-” began Miri, but she stifled her protest. “Castor!” she called, “Castor!”
“Mistress?” Castor appeared almost instantly.
“I am signing a contract with Alexander to captain the ship. Get me my office supplies!” Castor disappeared to fetch Miri's writing material and seal. Miri slipped her hand into Alexander's arm.
“Sit with me,” she said sweetly. He accepted her stiffly, but relaxed as they walked to the stairs. They sat together and Miri read the contract. As she read each clause, the terms seemed more onerous.
“I can't agree to this!” she declared, no longer able to contain her indignation. “I wouldn't even give you this much if I was marrying you!”
“You need me,” stated Alexander flatly and reached for the contracts.
Miri whisked the copies from his reach. “To guide my ship, not to steal it!”
“Steal? I have no need to steal! You will give me the ship as part of the terms of my service!”
“Not after two years of service! That is time enough for only two voyages!”
“Any longer and the ship will be weakening!” protested Alexander, “Besides you will make a fortune of a lifetime in a single voyage!”
“She will last twenty years! You can have it in ten!”
“Done!” declared Alexander triumphantly.
Miri smiled. “Of course, you must give me something in return.”
Alexander grinned. His eyes flickered briefly across her breasts, and his right hand slid to her hips.
“That would not be a problem,” he whispered huskily.
“You must deposit ten percent of your earnings with me for payment.”
Alexander had now fallen under the charms of Miri's flesh and aroma. Her hand slipped to his neck.
“I am yours,” he replied as their lips neared and their breath mingled in the morning air. Their embrace was interrupted by Castor clearing his throat. He stood on the deck, scrolls, ink boxes and a folding desk gathered in his arms. Miri stood up quickly and after Castor had set up the writing desk and the contracts, she showed him where he should make the changes. He took out his writing case and spit into the ink cake to moisten it. Miri touched his hand to make him wait.
“There is a slight complication, though-” Miri said turning to Alexander.
“A complication?” asked Alexander in surprise.
“Are we interrupting?” The heads of Claudia and Ptolemaios appeared above the deck and the couple clambered on deck.
“Not at all! Come on aboard!” answered Alexander.
“As a matter of fact, your timing is impeccable,” said Miri, standing.
Alexander strode across the deck and extended his hand magnanimously to Claudia who hefted her skits above her knees to climb the railing. Alexander and Ptolemaios gripped arms in greeting and the air filled with excitement. The ship was ready to set afloat. The hull had been tied and battened, and the final layer of sheep fat and lime would be applied to the outside planks, and, before the sun set, the ship would be dragged toward the tide flats as she rose upon the returning sea.
“Well, this is it!” declared Ptolemaios, beaming around the little group. There was a short silence.
“Actually,” began Miri, “You arrived just in time. Alexander was just saying he wishes to sign a contract concerning his employ as Captain of the ship!”
There was an even longer, and shocked silence.
“A contract?” gasped Claudia, but I thought-”
“We are lovers,” stated Miri firmly, “However, as we are not bound by a marriage contract, Alexander is feeling- well, he would like to negotiate a fee under contract for his captaincy.”
“Is this true?” Claudia asked Alexander.
“I, uh,” explained Miri hesitantly, “haven't told him that we three are business partners.”
Alexander was speechless, and everyone sat in embarrassed silence, but the air vibrated from the layers of complications the new revelations set out before them.
Claudia was the first to recover. “What do you expect for your services, Alexander?”
Alexander cleared his throat and took a deep breath and reiterated the demand he had first offered Miri. Miri glared at him, for they had already agreed to a lesser amount.
Claudia scoffed. “Ridiculous! We will offer you the ship after fifteen years, and you may keep a Captain's share of the cargo, fifteen per cent of which you will deposit with us until you take possession of the ship.”
Alexander clenched his teeth.
“And-” she continued, glancing at Ptolemaios and Miri, “should you, and our partner, Meriamon become betrothed, you will refund the total value of the Captain's share you have received to that date to Ptolemaios and myself, and we shall consider you as a full partner,” Claudia paused as she looked to each of the others, “In which case we will consider the disposition and ownership of the ship itself. Is that agreed?”
Ptolemaios shrugged to show his acquiescence to her wishes. Miri smiled, but Alexander sat grimly and unmoving. He was incensed at having attained the ship and then have it removed by Claudia so swiftly. Miri's smile enraged him. He realized in that moment that he would never possess her, and that his place in her heart was not at its centre.
“I will pay double the captain's share on the event of my betrothal to Meriamon in return for the possession of the ship in ten years.” He scowled at Miri, letting her know that his offer carried a message to her.
Claudia raised her eyebrows and looked at her husband. Ptolemaios nodded. Miri opened her palms in acceptance.
“Well!” she said gaily to try and dispel the tension that had gathered between them, “Let's put it all in writing!” She nodded to Castor, who looked like a cat that has swallowed a particularly plump canary. Ptolemaios stood up and shook Alexander's hand.
“Welcome aboard, Captain!”
Alexander smiled bitterly. He was not used to losing ground so quickly. Under direction of Claudia and Miri, Castor made further changes to the contract and added the names of Ptolemaios and Claudia to the contract. Once it was finished, Castor began an extra copy of the contract so that each party would have their own contract. Claudia signed the copies, and then Ptolemaios and then Miri and Alexander signed each part.
Miri rolled Alexander's contract and wrapped it in linen. She tied a ribbon about the parcel and Castor sealed the ribbon with wax. Miri and Alexander marked the wax with their signet rings as Castor bound, wrapped and sealed Miri's copy, then Claudia and Ptolemaios' version. The couple sealed her copy and each with a contract in hand, they all embraced.
. The ship suddenly creaked and listed slightly. The workers had begun to remove the supports about her hull in order to free the cradle that held her and begin dragging her onto the tide flats.
“We should get some breakfast,” declared Castor.
“I have some business to attend to!” said Alexander curtly, and quickly made his exit.
“Excellent idea!” agreed Miri. The fumes of the oil used to seal the hold were beginning to rise to greet the morning sun, and in her condition, Miri found the smell overwhelming.
“I will make the arrangements.” Castor quickly climbed over the side of the boat and the others followed. A tent had already been erected on a rise above the beach and a dining set in the Egyptian style was already set up for them. Castor and two of his houseboys soon materialized carrying fresh fruit, bread and yogurt. Form their vantage point Miri, Alexander, Ptolemaios and Claudia watched the workmen and women swarming the ship, releasing her wooden cradle and preparing the corduroy log track to roll the ship into the path of the tide. Polydeuces stood out already along the path the ship would take. His nephew, Sylvanius ran back and forth between the ship and his uncle, though his cries and exhortations were carried away from the partners by the wind. Eventually lines were strung forward from the boat and the teams began to assemble. There were three teams lined up on the ropes and the sides of the ship were lined by two lines of men and women who held the stays to balance the ship, Seven teams of two husky men each stood by the rolling logs beneath the ship, ready to remove them once the stern of the ship left them uncovered. Theirs was the most dangerous job for the logs were heavy and hard to manage and the handlers had to squeeze beneath the prow to insert the logs ahead of the moving hull, then return rapidly to the stern to retrieve the last log in the line.
The villagers from Qasr had assembled to watch the launch of the merchant ship, and now began to lend a hand as the crew and their families struggled to pull the lines taut. The ship listed dangerously at the first pull and Alexander leapt from his seat.
“By the unholy gods!” he cried and raced down the slope to the beach to take command. Miri, Claudia and Ptolemaios exchanged bewildered glances, but before any of them could speak a young boy appeared at the entrance to the tent. He carried the staff of the priesthood of Amon. Miri motioned him forward and the lad announced that the prophets of Amon had arrived to consecrate the vessel. The companions were taken aback as they had already performed a dedication to the goddess Auset the night before.
Miri could see the glint of gold in the distance where the retinue of priests from the temple of Amon was picking its way through the camp. They were now in a difficult situation as they had already dedicated the ship to the goddess and could not snub the Amonites.
“You had better get dressed,” said Claudia to Miri, indicating her dishevelled raiments from the night before, and Miri stood up.
“Tell the prophets of Amon that we shall be grateful for their blessing,” declared Miri formally to the young messenger. He glanced to Ptolemaios who nodded an acknowledgement, and then the boy bowed to the company and marched down the slope toward the ship.
“How much money do you have?” asked Miri.
“A thousand denarii.” replied Ptolemaios. “In my trunk.”
“I have about seventeen-fifty, replied Miri. I spent most of my coins paying off the camel drivers and the village elders, but the Roman tax collector will be here today for his cut.”
“I will take care of the tax collector,” said Claudia.
“He does not like dealing with women,” cautioned Miri.
Ptolemaios laughed. “This is not going to be his day!”
Miri returned to her tent, only to find it already half disassembled. Drusilla and Portia were folding one of the tent walls. They brightened instantly at the sight of Miri, and bubbled happily over to Miri and buzzed about her like bees around their queen. They profusely apologized for the disarray of the tent and its contents, and Miri unsuccessfully tried to quiet them. They had left Miri's chamber up and had already gathered water from the local well for a bath for Miri. Thankfully Miri retired to the remaining covered tent area. Drusilla and Portia followed behind her and the girls quickly stripped her down and began her washing. Miri welcomed the first cool wave of water from the pitcher Portia tipped over her head.
“We saw Alexander!” said Drusilla
“He didn't sleep in his tent!” said Portia, “Was he with you?”
Miri frowned. How would she know? She didn't remember falling asleep on the boat.
“He was headed for the Mithraeum!”
“To perform a sacrifice. And to fast.”
“He said he was going to sign a contract!”
“How do you know that?” asked Miri.
“He told us!” said Drusilla.
“Last night?” Miri asked. The girls nodded.
“We asked him!” explained Portia.
“That's the god of contracts!” said Portia “Mithras! All the Romans worship him!”
“They'll chop your head off if you anger him!”
“Stick you with a sword and drink your blood!”
Portia emptied a jug of water over Miri's head. “He's Parthian,” Miri said, “though he was born in Mesopotamia.”
“Alexander?” asked Portia.
“Mithras,” replied Miri.
“They don't let women into his cult,” said Drusilla, “And they perform all, their rites underground!”
“They eat women,” suggested Portia.
Miri sighed, “It would not surprise me.”
Portia emptied another pitcher of water over Miri, and it accidentally splashed over Drusilla who squealed and poured her pitcher over her sister's head in retaliation. Miri whisked the pitcher from Portia and held her arm out to prevent a water fight from breaking out.
“Alright, alright! That's enough, I'm in a hurry!”
Soon the three of them were laughing, and Miri thanked the Great Mother for bringing these two percolating handmaidens to her.
During the dedication ceremony by the priests of Amon, Miri realized that Alexander had arranged for the dedication. She was irritated by his presumption of command, but held her tongue, and act for which she was not particularly well suited. She was flanked by Portia and Drusilla who fidgeted constantly. Miri was tempted to quell their energy, but decided against it. It was all she could do to maintain her own decorum. Alexander glared at her during the entire ceremony. Miri smiled at him twice, but he would not acknowledge her, and maintained his cold stare. She was extremely annoyed by his petulance, and wondered how she would ever survive the voyage with his smoldering resentment.
The sacrifice was elaborate, and Miri was amazed by the expense that Alexander had gone through to consecrate the vessel. A white cock and a black one. A white goat and a black goat, and even black and white bulls. The blood was smeared on the bow, and Alexander accepted a blessing prayer scroll, and the priests daubed his brow with blood from a sacerdotal bowl, and he bowed before them to accept a mantle with amulets sewed into it's four corners. He took all the blessings with great seriousness that amused Miri. Luckily Alexander was absorbed by the ceremony and missed her mood.
Finally the priests received their payment and retired to a portable altar where they roasted the sacrifice to be served at a communion to be served with wine later in the day. Miri had sent Drusilla and Portia with an offering of some of her favourite wine for the ceremony. The young acolyte that had served as a messenger of the Amonite priests had taken a great shine to Miri and followed her about. At one point she turned to talk to him but he shied ways and hid behind a workman's tent. As soon as her back was turned, he began following her again, and to amuse herself, every once in a while Miri would stop and look back causing the boy to scurry away. Portia and Drusilla caught onto the game, and soon the three youngsters bonded into a cohesive, if somewhat hyperactive, group that orbited about Miri wherever she went.
Alexander was unattainable for he took command of the moving of the ship down the makeshift slipway toward the tidal flats. It was not of great concern for her, as she was kept busy by last minute adjustments, requests for material and managing the demands of the crew. The final mule train arrived from Koptos with the last of the trade goods, but Claudia and Ptolemaios took the distribution of the wares under hand.
She became so busy that she had not noticed the distance the ship had been hauled, until she hear a huge cheer and looked out to the sea. The tide had reached the ship, and now the workmen labouring about the hull were ankle deep in water. Those on the front line of the hauling ropes stood knee deep in the shallows. Those on the shore began running to the ship, and the excitement of seeing the ship finally in the water took hold of the entire camp. With the tide running, the work of moving the rolling logs became almost unmanageable. The logs had to be forced under the cradle and there was not much room for the number of men it required to push the logs under the water. The water about the ship was crowded with men, women and children all eager to help, and was an anarchic bedlam. Soon, someone yelled that the children should be taken away. The water was becoming deeper and many people withdrew for fear of drowning.
Slowly, the crowd thinned and the ship left a string of people who could no longer help standing in her wake. Soon, the workmen outside the ship were shoulder deep in the ocean, and Polydeuces arrived in a small rowboat. Grinning ear to ear, Sylvanius swam to greet his uncle.
“How deep is she?” asked Polydeuces.
“I can touch the bottom with my toes,” replied Sylvanius as he hung to the prow of the rowboat.
“Is the crew aboard?” asked the old man.
“Yes,” Sylvanius replied, “Alexander is pacing the deck like a lion in a cage!”
“Then pull the ropes!”
Sylvanius turned and shouted to the remaining workmen by the cradle. Most were clinging to the framework for support.
“Pull the ropes!” He swam and bobbed to the ship. “Pull the ropes!”
The remaining workers splashed into the water, each with a loop of rope about his chest and swan for the shore. Once they gained a footing on the sandy bottom, they pulled for shore. The ropes about their chest became taut and other workers who had hung back, grabbed the ropes, and as many as could, pulled on the ropes attached to the cradle. Then the lumber holding the ship started to creak, then groan and with a sudden shriek, the cradle came apart as it had been designed to do and the men on the ropes fell backwards as the various supports they had been pulling on wrenched free of the ship.
Only half of the cradle had collapsed. A great gasp went up as the ship listed heavily, and looked as though she would heel over completely. Alexander and the skeleton crew on board scrambled to grasp a rail to stop from sliding across the deck, but the ship dipped gracefully into the water and then rolled upright, floating free in the water, and rocked on the waves for the first time. A great cheer went up and everyone hugged each other in exhilaration. And like a giant bird spreading her wings, the great oars sprouted from the side of the ship and splashed into the water. The crew slowly back paddled to prevent the ship from floating out into the sea.
Miri wished she had been on board when the ship first found her sea wings, but she had purposefully avoided Alexander. Miri knew she would have to address the animosity between her and Alexander and try to smooth out their relationship. The voyage would be long enough as it was without spending time with a smoking volcano.
Alexander however, was not as unapproachable as she had imagined. He came to her. She invited him to have supper with her and they soon ended up horizontal and wrapped about each other in her bed. In the heat of their foreplay, Alexander grasped her arms and pulled back.
“Not here!” he whispered.
Miri just wanted him inside her and pulled him to her.
“On the ship!” he whispered into her ear, “And in your cabin!”
“I can't swim!” answered Miri, not wanting to break the fire that roared between her thighs.
“I will carry you!” her whispered back and lifted her into his arms with as little effort as if she her body was stuffed with feathers instead of packed with flesh and bone. She struggled for a moment, then gave up to the feeling of being carried by her paramour. She laid her head against his shoulder and pressed her hand against his pectoral muscle and drank in his smell of new sweat, perfumed oils and incense.
The tide had retreated again and he carried her out until they were waist deep in the water. He lowered her into the warm water and she opened her eyes. The water about them glowed with a strange green phosphorescence. Miri swished her free hand in the water and marvelled at the bright green glowing spots on her hand that slowly dulled and went to black
“Climb on my back!” Alexander commanded and Miri wrapped her arms about Alexander and kissed him. His mouth was warm and soft and she wrapped her legs about his waist and pressed against him harder. He grasped her buttocks and within moments was thrusting deep inside her. She was carried away by the weightlessness of her body in the water, and soon shook as a tide of orgasms washed over her. The climaxing left her drained and she hung to Alexander as he panted neck deep in the water.
Exhausted, he swung her around and she floated on her back. He wrapped his forearm over her shoulder and wrapped his hand about her breast and began to swim. Miri relaxed and floated lazily, thrilling in the thrust of Alexander's legs as he towed her through the water. Soon the huge hull of the ship towered above them.
“Climb up!” Alexander whispered, and placed Miri's hand on netting hanging from the side railing. “What about the watch?” she asked.
“We are the watch!” he answered.
They climbed up the net and pulled themselves to the deck. The ship gently rolled in the waves. Alexander led Miri to the forecastle, and spread out bedding that had been stowed there. Miri slipped out of her wet linen and flopped down on the mattress. Alexander unwrapped his tunic and lay beside her.
High above them, the moon, in all his glory smiled down at them and Miri closed her eyes. For a brief moment she thought she wanted a sip of wine. She sighed, and promptly fell asleep.