High on Kitharon, just below the peak, there’s an ash altar. It’s very old, and underneath it, if you are a busy adolescent with nothing better to do then dig in ash, you can find a big stone. It’s not worked stone, but an uncut rock the size of a boat. And someone has carved letters into it. They are the old letters, the way they were made in my great-grandfather’s time.
It says ‘Kitharon.’
Herakleitus–my teacher, not my son–used to discourse on origins. Indeed, he was a great examiner of origins, and he might have been held to be a great blasphemer, because he was suspicious of the origins of the gods, or at least the stories we tell about those origins. He noted, for example, that the might Artemis of Ephesus was almost a completely different goddess from the Thrakian Artemis, the gentler Ionian Artemis, the darker and more complicated Attic goddess. And he posited that there were very different worships, once, and that as the peoples spread over the earth their understandings of the Goddess changed. And those changes interested him extremely.
I am now a better traveled man then Herakleitus and I admit that his theory still seems sound to me. The farther I travel, the more points of view I see and hear…
Never mind. I wander off my course again. What I mean is that I suspect that my ancestors worshipped the god of the mountain, not Zeus on Olympos. They’d never been to Olympos. Why would they know or care? They had their own mighty mountain with their own mighty storms and lightning bolts, their own legends and tales.
That’s what I think.
And sometimes, in my mind, I still pray to old Kitharon. Because Zeus seems a little high and mighty for me, but my mountain is where I have hunted deer, played, eaten and drunk wine, killed outlaws and made love to my wife. Few sights on this earth move me like the bold outline of Kitharon rising before me.
And that ash altar is my family’s altar. We are descendents of Herakles, sure, but I’ve never been a priest of Herakles and I wouldn’t start now. I have progressed through all the mysteries of the priesthood of Hephaestus, because I was born and bred a bronze-smith, not an archon, and Hermes and Hephaestus are the only gods that make working men priests.
Honestly, if I could pick and choose my gods, I’m very partial to Artemis. I feel she’s touched my life over and over again. I was healed and saved from degradation by priests of Artemis in Asia as a boy; I was educated as a philosopher in the portico of her temple. The priestesses of Brauron were, I think, the salvation of all the people trapped on Salamis, with their observances, their dances, and their insistence that we might survive. They kept the idea of ‘Athens’ alive in her darkest hour.
And of course, Artemis is my daughter’s goddess. She went to Brauron. She danced the dances and was a ‘little bear.’ Now, because she has been reared as an aristocrat, she will probably grow to be a priestess, which would please my drunken aristocratic mother more than any of you can imagine.
Apollo has touched my life too, but I’ve always been suspicious of the God of the Golden lyre and of rhetoric and poetry. I suspect he’s as twisted as Hermes. And he hasn’t really done me a great many favours, but then, why would any god do a man favours? Eh?
Right. The story. My point is, our altar, the family altar, is to Kitharon. I’ve made sacrifice there to Zeus and other gods; it’s an open air altar, and at least in Boeotia that means you can direct your sacrifice as you will. But it’s Kitharon. And it’s ours.
Of course, my son had never seen it. And to be fair, he didn’t seem too impressed, but then, why would a gentleman from Ephesus be impressed by a pile of rocks and rain-swept ash in the woods at the top of a wild mountain?
I was moved just standing there. Little things stood out to me, things that told me of the passage of time. I could see the little shelter that Leukas and I had run up, the night before we went to the Greek army at Plataea. The roof of pine branches and leaves had survived the winter surprisingly well.
I could see where I’d lit a larger fire, that night, and spoken to all of my dead, asking their forgiveness.
I could see signs of other visits. I had been at war with my cousins for some time, but the great battle had finished the process of reunification. The jeweller polished stones by turning them in a drum of other stones; that’s my family.
I built a small fire.
‘Do you hunt?’ I asked my son.
‘Anything,’ he replied in a tone that didn’t suggest he was very good at hunting.
‘Do you think you could get us two rabbits?’ I asked.
‘I’ll kill a deer!’ he said.
‘We don’t need a deer,’ I said. ‘And I’m not going to spend two days with no good water while I dry deer meat. No waste. Kill some rabbits.’
He nodded and ran off with his spear. The fact that he neither stripped naked nor left his spear behind didn’t suggest that he’d caught a lot of rabbits in his time, but youth makes its own way.
I prayed a little, sang a hymn, and laid a fire. Then I propped up the sagging structure Leukas and I built, and, as Herakleitus wasn’t back, I took my horse and rode down to the spring and filled our canteens. I bathed, to be clean for the god, and it was damn cold.
When I returned, he hadn’t. So I picketed the horses against the coming of night; there are wolves on the mountain. I got them enough fodder to keep them happy; the Corvaxae haven’t usually been so prosperous as to ride horses to the summit and there wasn’t much grass except close to the campsite and the altar, but I ranged around and collected some.
Still no son.
It occurred to me that he might get lost on the flank of the mountain. In which case, he’d spend a cold night, and I’d spend a hungry one.
The sun began to dip, and I sat in my little shelter, watching my unlit shelter. After a while, a pair of rabbits appeared in the clearing and began eating the sweet grass that seems to be created by the passing of many human feet.
Ever notice the habit rabbits have of looking at you with just one eye? The larger rabbit looked at me a long time.
I shrugged. ‘If I kill you, he’ll think I have no confidence in him,’ I said.
Well, I got no answer, but after a time, the rabbits ate their fill and loped away.
Deep in twilight, I sounded my horn. I almost always carry mine; it’s small, dyed red, and easy to use, and I blew three loud calls. It amused me that if my cousins were out in their grape arbours, they might hear my horn on the mountain and know me, twenty stades away.
I lit my fire.
I was rewarded in a quarter of an hour with the sound of many branches breaking, and then, at the edge of true night, by my son coming into the clearing.
He had two rabbits, and he was wearing his chiton as a wrap around his waist.
‘I lost my spear,’ he said. He was annoyed.
I wasn’t. I was deeply pleased. ‘Well done,’ I said.
That surprised him.
‘The God only gives you animals if you are worthy,’ I said.
His look was, if not disdainful, at least fairly derisive. ‘Oh?’ he asked. ‘I tore my chiton.’
He looked as if he was going to say more.
I shook my head. ‘Humour a bumpkin from Boeotia,’ I said. ‘Go wash at the spring.’
An hour later, we were eating roast rabbit. The bones, hide, and fat were wrapped in a bloody bundle on the ash altar, and I lit that fire from mine, and we prayed together.
When we’d sung a hymn to Zeus, I said, ‘Kitharon, this is my son, who you do not know. Thanks for letting him hunt on the mountain. Keep him safe and bring him home.’
Simple stuff. Kitharon is not a complicated god.
# # #
The next day we rode down the paths I hunted as a boy; we took our time, and I may have told my son a lot of lies about my youth, mixed with some misplaced wisdom and even some truths.
We were most of the way down the flank of the mountain, and we came to the rise and dip where I fought the bandits. I was almost the same age then as Herakleitus now, and I stopped and said a prayer for all of them, and then we went over the rise.
And the hair stood up on my neck.
For there, in the little dip, stood my son’s spear, thrust upright into the gravel of the road.
I plucked it out and held it a moment; a fine weapon, of course, because Archilogos could afford the best. I handed it to him.
‘Now you should be exceptionally careful of this weapon,’ I said.
‘Why?’ he asked, in the perpetual whine of the young.
‘Because a god touched it,’ I said.
He shook his head. ‘Pater, you are a respectable man; a brilliant warrior. Famous. And yet you prattle about the gods as if they were all around us.’
Yes,’ I said. ‘I do.’
Take that, Brasidas. I can be Laconian, too.
# # #
At the base of the mountain we passed the shrine. I touched the shield and Styges emerged from the house. It was no longer a hut, but a good, stone-built guest house. Styges was the priest now, but he had another life; he was an honoured man and beginning to have political power in Plataea, and he lived in the town, fifteen stades away. But I knew he came to the guest house frequently.
‘There’s a Thessalian here,’ he said, as if I hadn’t been away all spring. ‘Not a bad sort. Seen a little too much. Cup of wine?’
‘Who’s the sprig?’ Styges asked.
‘My son,’ I said.
Styges smiled, his rare, genuine smile. ‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘How was the spring campaign?’ he asked. He handed me wine.
I smiled. ‘We bounced the Phoenicians at Tyre,’ I said.
He grinned. ‘I heard. Leukas came through and told many a tall tale.’
Just for a moment I was going back in time. I think it is the shrine; it’s an old beehive shaped stone tomb from the time of the Trojan War; it seems timeless. It is supposedly the tomb of the only Plataean to go to Troy, and he came home and died of old age, which makes him a winner in my notions of war. Since anyone can remember, there’s a been a priest, usually some old soldier who keeps the place and talks to other old soldiers who need someone to drink with.
It’s a timeless place.
And I had sat here talking with Styges, when he was younger than my son, and wore kohl on his eyes for his lover, Idomeneaus, who was a Cretan, and probably killed more men than Hades. To see Idomeneaus leap onto an enemy deck was to see the god of war come to life, but without cowardice or pity.
And now Styges was himself a notable warrior, tall and strong and broad-shouldered; considerably larger than Idomeneaus had ever been.
Things change. People change.
Styges smiled. ‘You, sir, are wool gathering.’
I nodded. ‘We burned the Phoenician fleet,’ I said again. ‘It was glorious.’
‘I wish that I’d been there,’ Styges said.
‘Bored with bronze shaping?’ I asked.
He looked away. ‘No,’ he said. ‘But I wouldn’t mind shipping as a marine for the summer.’
‘You know you are always welcome,’ I said.
He nodded gravely.
My son looked bored. When Styges went in to fetch his kit, my son asked, ‘Who is he?’
‘A hero,’ I said.
My son rolled his eyes. ‘You insist that you live in a world of heroes and gods,’ he said.
I nodded. ‘Yes,’ I agreed.
I could tell that he was growing fractious; I knew the cause, and I knew that he was looking to pick a fight to make himself feel… not better, but different. I was young, once.
‘You want to talk about your mother,’ I said.
‘I most certainly do not,’ he said.
‘I promise that you do,’ I said, and Styges came out. I put his aspis and armour on my donkey and gave him a hand up to ride double with me; my borrowed horse could bear double for a few stades, mostly downhill.
We started out, picking our way across the stream.
‘About your mother,’ I said.
He turned his head away. Then he looked back at me with all the anger of the young.
‘Not now!’ he spat.
Styges laughed softly against my neck.
‘He has a problem with Briseis?’ Styges asked.
‘Too many lovers and husbands,’ I said.
‘Young people are often rigorous moralists,’ Styges said.
‘I swear to you, Pater, I will turn around and ride back to Athens.’ He was red in the face and his horse was fidgeting in a dangerous manner, because Herakleitus was giving so many conflictory signals.
Styges chuckled against my back.
Herakleitus rode up alongside me. ‘I can’t believe you’d discuss this in front of a stranger! He will laugh at us!’
‘So you want to protect your mother’s reputation?’ I asked.
‘Pater!’ he spat. ‘Why are you doing this?’
‘An excellent question,’ I said. ‘Let’s stop a moment.’
I let Styges down, and then slid down myself. I let my son have the height advantage.
‘Do you remember Styges at Mycale?’ I asked.
Herakleitus, like many youths, didn’t have much in the way of observational skills. Only now did he really look at Styges. He turned up his face. ‘Oh. You are one of my father’s marines.’
Styges smiled gently. I began to wonder if I’d done this wrong. Styges could get angry, and then things would go badly, and his smile was not a loving smile.
‘I am sometimes one of your father’s marines,’ he said.
Herakleitus made a face. ‘That doesn’t entitle a stranger to be present while I discuss my mother,’ he said.
I nodded. ‘My son, I mean no offence, but if anyone of the three of us is a stranger, it is you. Styges is one of my closest friends; virtually my brother. I have known him from childhood; I doubt if I have three secrets from him.’
That stung him. His horse backed. The horse’s ears went back, too.
I was going to speak a warning, but Styges glided forward and took the bridle in one hand and began to calm the horse. ‘Dismount,’ he said.
Herakleitus rolled off gracefully.
The horse eased immediately.
Styges spoke up. Remember, too, that almost every day, he spoke to skittish veterans and injured men.
‘I was sold as a slave when I was very young,’ he said. ‘I was trained as a sex slave. And sold as one. No one rescued me.’ He shrugged, his voice calm, even, unhurried. ‘One of my owners was a good man who made me into something better. Later I met your father, and your mother.’
He turned slowly until he faced Herakleitus. ‘We are more than the sum of our parts, young man. We are what we are allowed, and then what we choose. You are blaming your mother for a life she lived in a different world. You lack the life experience to have earned the right to judge.’ He rubbed the horse’s nose and gave the mare a kiss. ‘In fact, perhaps we never earn the right to judge.’he looked at the horse. ‘You are anxious and upset, because your relations with your mother are strained. The horse understands that as well as I do, so don’t trouble to deny it.’
Herakleitus walked away into the woods beside the road. He walked off blindly, and I heard him trip over a branch and not even curse. But then, I suspected he was angry, humiliated, and perhaps weeping.
‘More wine?’ I asked Styges.
‘Always,’ he said, reaching for my canteen.
# # #
# # #
I have had several houses in Plataea. My cousin burned my father’s house; later, after we rebuilt the tower, I gave it to that branch of the family as a peace offering. When I came home from Galle and Albion and my adventures in the tin trade, I built a fine house in the city, inside the walls. The Persians destroyed it, down to rubble. It was a beautiful house with paintings I commissioned myself; Jocasta complimented me on it, and I take that as high praise, but the truth is that it was the house I built for Briseis.
My third house I have mentioned; in that year after the great battle, it was liveable, but still being built, and everything smelled of powdered stone and fresh wood. The hearth in the kitchens didn’t draw properly through the roof-hole and their weren’t interior steps to the women’s quarters yet; not that Briseis was ever the woman to confine herself.
Naturally, she’d taken over the best room; she had four weaving frames set up. When we’d all come in from our sacrifices of homecoming in the courtyard, and drunk off a welcome cup of kykion, Briseis led us inside and showed off her weaving, a proper Greek matron showing her productivity.
She’d woven me a cloak. A magnificent cloak, in the Ionian style; dark red, with ravens and suns. She had it still suspended on the frame, and she glanced at it with quiet satisfaction.
Briseis. Even now it is difficult for me to do her justice; how many women, in their own lifetimes, are referred to as Helen of Troy reborn? I confess, she was a raven-haired Helen, but at forty, or near enough, she was as beautiful as a spring day; as calm as the sea at midsummer. The dangerous variability of youth gave way to an almost rock-like steadiness.
I had come to realize that she was difficult for some people to like mostly because she was a terrible mirror on other women’s lives. She was beautiful; she was a successful matron, with three surviving children; she could weave like Ariadne; indeed, she could do all the things women were supposed to do, and she could do them expertly. She ruled my household without apparent strain or effort; my soldiers mostly admired her and even slaves tended to develop affection for her because she was absolutely fair.
I thinkt he reason so many people hated her was that she could do all these things, and yet seemed to care very little for them. What she enjoyed was the exercise of political power, and it was as if the gods had forgotten to tell her that political power was the arena of men and men alone. She had a special genius for exploiting divisions, for putting her finger on the exact person who could exercise influence, for understanding exactly what affect a word or gesture would have.
Her enemies, and they were many, claimed that she used sex to accomplish her aims. I suspect that this had happened from time to time; her charisma was such that she could change a meeting by entering a room; but she was far more effective than a single attractive woman could ever be. She had powers, and when she chose to use them, she could move the world.
It is sometimes difficult for a man to be married to a woman who is in many respects greater than he. But I promise you, it wasn’t that difficult. You will recall that I had been angry when I realized that she and Archilogos had different plans than Cimon and I. On the other hand, because I strive to be an honest man, I also understood by the time I stood in my own house in Plataea and the barley was ankle high in the fields outside, that Briseis had been correct on every point. The Alliance was deeply threatened, and the freedom of Ionia was, in fact, the real struggle.
I suppose I could have stormed about and made trouble. But I left that to my son by Briseis, who entered my house ready for war and walked about with the storm clouds clear on his face.
A Persian slave took him off to his guest room, and Briseis offered wine and a couch to Styges.
‘No, no, mistress,’ he said. ‘I’m away. I have town business.’
I embraced him and let him go.
‘I didn’t expect you this summer,’ Briseis said. She was… cool. Her eyes held some caution that I didn’t like.
‘I’m not back for long,’ I said. ‘The cloak is magnificent.’
‘I do a good thing now and then. I enjoy weaving; I get most of my best thinking done when I weave.’ She smiled.
I smiled back. ‘I’m here to take you to Ionia,’ I said. It just seemed simpler to get it out of the way.
Ever since I’d decided, back off Naxos, I had had nightmares; dreams in which she was gone, and I lived alone, or I lived in a barracks. It was all very clear to me where this could lead, and I feared, deeply feared, that these were the sort of dreams the gods send to men to warn them.
She was standing by her loom, half turned away from me. She had raised a hand; I think she merely meant to stroke the wool.
I saw the tension in her hand; the very slight intake of breath.
She turned slowly.
‘What?’ she breathed.
‘I’m here to take you to Ephesus, or Mytilene. Or Eresos. Wherever you like.’
She came towards me.
‘It had become clear that you and Archilogos were correct,’ I said. ‘The only hope of the Greek Alliance is that Ionia be restored to freedom, and united. With a fleet to support Athens. Sparta…’
‘Sparta is not interested in Ionian independence,’ Briseis said. ‘And it may be worse than that.’
I had sat on one of the kline, the dining couches along the walls. Now I leaned back into the fresco of Artemis hunting a stag; really excellent work, by a friend of Phrynicus the playwright.
‘We all know that now,’ I said. ‘Pausanias is leading a force that is laying siege to Amathus on Cyprus.’
‘I know,’ she said. She smiled a little.
I knew that smile. It meant trouble for someone.
‘Aristides is a fool for following Pausanias,’ Briseis said.
‘Will you ever come back to Plataea?’ I asked.
She turned and looked at me, and I looked at her.
‘I am your wife,’ she said. ‘I did not take these vows lightly.’
‘But,’ I said.
She shrugged, turned away, real anger on her face. That scarcely ever happened. ‘Once this begins, she said, ‘it will not be swift, and it will not be easy.’
Bodies say a good deal, even in trained people. She was stiff with anger and something else. She was not coming to my couch.
So I got up and walked to her, and put my arms around her.
She stiffened a little…
And then relaxed. She had so much presence, as a person, that I always thought of her as tall, but in truth her head was just a little higher than my chin.
‘I’ll buy a house on Lesvos, then,’ I said.
She turned in my arms and looked up at me. ‘Achilles, you will just surrender your life to mine?’
I looked at her a long time; long enough that our steward Eugenios came to the door of the great room, paused, and walked away as silently as he could.
‘I expect you’ll need me around to kill the odd rival,’ I said. ‘Or perhaps just to sulk in my tent.’
‘You never sulk,’ she said. ‘It is without doubt your best feature.’
‘You just never see me sulk,’ I managed. I was going to leave Plataea. I loved Plataea.
But I loved the islands, too, and I loved Briseis, and this was, apparently, the right thing to do.
I’d stared at the stars a great many nights, making this decision.
‘How was Herakleitus?’ she asked.
‘Angry. He has some difficulties with his mother.’
She leaned back and smiled. ‘Most young men do, I find.’
‘How…’ I was about to ask after my daughter, and everyone else in Plataea that I loved.
She dragged me to the couch and sat suddenly, pulling me down. ‘You will just take me and sail away?’ she asked.
‘I believe that we have to do this. For the good of all.’
She bit her lower lip, As she did when she was troubled. ‘Now that it has come to this,’ she said, ‘I am hesitant.’
‘You, Helen? Hesitating?’
She shuddered. ‘Helen destroyed. In my youth, that was a flattering name, but now, I dread it. Arimnestos, I am happy enough here. And in Ionia… what then?’
‘Damned if I know,’ I said. ‘But I’ve looked at the game board, and the game is in Ionia. And I know that you and Archilogos have laid the groundwork.’
She nodded. ‘When do we leave?’
She leaned back. I wondered what she was thinking, as her voice was distant.
‘My ship is in Piraeus. We have no time at all. So I’d say tomorrow morning. Leave Eugenios to pack what we’ll need for a year or more and follow; he can take one of the cargo ships. Take only what you need, who you need.’ I was stroking her neck, looking into her eyes.
She got up. ‘Well,’ she said.
She summoned Eugenios and issued a battery of orders, fluidly running through a dozen different items, so that I knew what she’d been thinking as she sat with me on the kline.
I hoped that she hadn’t stood in my house for six months, thinking of what she’d take when she left.
I followed her up the temporary steps to her rooms, where she stood a moment, considering, surrounded by her handmaids. Then she issued them all orders on packing, and I followed her from room to room as she looked at things, until we passed into the room we shared.
The doors weren’t finished yet, and we had heavy curtains fro privacy, as she passed, she slipped the cord that held them, unpinned the shoulders and stepped out of her chiton.
‘We’ll be on a ship,’ she breathed. ‘with no privacy at all. And time, she said, very serious,’ is of the essence.’
# # #
Piraeus reflected my own inner turmoil perfectly. It appeared that every man and woman in Athens was working desperately on some project or another; thousands of people, slave and free, men and women, worked away at completing the encircling walls, and even as I watched, huge drum columns from a temple destroyed by the Persians were being sectioned and put into the wall. The socle or base layers were all complete, and now the Athenians were embellishing the height and breadth and in some places putting in defensive towers.
Down by the sea, the new port of Piraeus was growing at the same rate, so that between landing my triemiola and returning from Plataea, the walls were higher, more ship-sheds were complete, and what had been a strip of open land by the sea was already populated with a dozen new-built warehouses.
I left Briseis and my sister Penelope with Jocasta and went back to my ship. Penelope is married to Brasidas and when I said we were going out to the islands for at least a few months…
Regardless, I spent the afternoon gathering oarsmen from various ‘establishments’ on the waterfront. The speed with which an oarsman or deck sailor can run through a months prize money is truly stunning; we sometimes placed wagers on how ridiculous the tales would be; excuses for joining late ran the gamut from stupid through pedestrian and into the utterly unbelievable.
There are few places on the face of the earth more squalid than an oarsman’s brothel. So I went from loving husband to ruthless nautical tyrant in an hour.
I gathered Old Nestor and the two marines that I could find, Zephyrides and Kassandros, and they, with Styges and Damon, were my wake-up crew. We moved through the new-built alleys of the port, summoning our people out of their holes and promising to leave behind any lubberly bastard to lazy to be aboard at first light.
We earned a few imprecations and a whole string of blood-curdling curses from the hag who ran a particularly nasty ‘house’ behind the warehouses, a rickety construction of piled amphorae and old hides and a stolen Persian tent.
An hour later we sat to eat in Jocasta’s garden on the slopes of the Acropolis. Such is life.
# # #
We sailed in a light rain. The sea smelled wonderful, and the gulls screamed, and despite the wet, it was a good day to be at sea, and we had a breeze over the starboard quarter as soon as we rowed clear of the harbour. The sailors had the mainsail taught before the sun poked through the clouds, and Briseis and Penelope came on deck and watched the waves.
A fine day, and it was followed by four more. We rowed a day, coming into Naxos; I rowed, and all the marines rowed, and then Pen and Briseis insisted on rowing, although they didn’t strip to the waist, despite some requests. We had a happy ship, and she moved along well, and I was starting to trust her trim and her steering.
At Naxos we picked up Ariadne by prior arrangement. Briseis landed and we made some visits; a grandson of Lugdamis, the great tyrant of Naxos in the last century, as well as the daughter of the former Persian satrap. There was an element of comedy to these visits, because ostensibly I was doing the visiting; women, except in circumstances regarding religious festivals or birth or death, do not often visit among themselves.
That’s not strictly true, but we’ll discuss it another time, eh?
But in this case, I would lead our group to a beautiful house, be ushered in, sacrifice to the household gods, and slaves would take my cloak, bring me wine…
And I’d be ignored until Briseis was through.
We left Naxos on another grey day and I landed on an lonely beach on Ikaria and we spent the night. There was a storm somewhere off to the west and I wasn’t willing to make the long run straight to Lesvos, and I was proven correct by a two day blow with a strong westerly, out of season. We ate fried fish on the beach and I snuggled up in my magnificent new cloak, and Briseis went visiting with Penelope, because even little fishing villages mattered in her master plan.
In fact, we spent a few delightful days, despite the wind and rain.
So in the end we were at the tag end of spring when I landed the Queen of Ionia at Eresos. I felt that I’d come full circle in sixty-odd days, but it was a year for circles, and while Briseis went up Vigla to speak to her former teacher, I rode a borrowed horse into Eresos and found my local captains, Parmenio and Herakles and Helikaon.
‘We’re raising Ionia,’ I said. ‘This is the revolt as it should have happened.’
I outlined what I had in mind; gathering ships from Lesvos and Chios and Samos, and striking at Halicarnassus, mostly to show that we were active.
‘By the gods,’ Parmenio said, striking his fist into his open palm.
Herakles fingered his beard. ‘Who’s paying?’ he asked.
I probably rolled my eyes. ‘Didn’t you make enough off your Phoenician captures?’ I asked.
‘Enough to buy a ship,’ he sulked. ‘Not enough to pay the rowers from my own pocket.’
I might have bit at him, but I could well-remember that particular problem.
‘I think we’ll ask the cities that support us for a financial contribution,’ I said.
So there it was. I had five ships; the nucleus of a fleet.
Briseis sent me a message that we had rooms in Sappho’s palace, and I rode wearily back down to the beach and then trudged up the steep old road into the ancient fortress after I checked on my oarsmen and my sailors. As they’d spent all their money in Piraeus, there should have been limits to how much trouble they might cause.
I thought we’ re going to roll in a blanket and sleep, but when I’d been greeted and given wine, Cleis gestured, and my friend from Mytilene came in with Briseis; Alysia.
‘Tell Arimnestos what you told me,’ Briseis said.
Alysia shrugged. ‘My husband says that there is a Spartan messenger in Sardis.’
Sardis. The capital of Persia’s dominion over Ionia.
I felt cold.
# # #
Alysia’s revelation was damning enough, but it lacked details.
‘He’s a Spartan; red cloak, arrogance, all the outward signs,’ Alysia said. ‘But the satrap…’
‘That’s Artaphernes son of Artaphernes,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Do you know him?’
‘All too well.’ If you haven’t heard all my stories, Artaphernes, the father, had been a mentor and a friend; indeed, soldiers of his guard taught me to fight in the Persian manner, and when I went as an ambassador to the court of the Great King, I went under Artaphernes’ protection.
And Briseis had been his wife. His principal wife.
Did I tell you that the world was simple?
Artaphernes was Satrap of Lydia, ruler of the richest part of the world that I knew, a wise, good man who tried very hard to end the Ionian Revolt with words and not murders.
But his son; a son by another mother, of course — hated Briseis. Initially I think he fancied her, and intended to take her for his own; among Persians, this is almost normal, whereas with us it would be a terrible impiety. Regardless, she spurned him, and he hated her for it. I have noticed that it is a signpost of weakness in men that they cannot abide the refusal of a woman, as if they believe that women should not be allowed to decide.
I’ll note that although I am not always the greatest admirer of the Spartans, among them, it is considered beneath contempt to resent a woman’s refusal. But among their many glories, the Spartans have more enlightened views of women than most cities.
Bah–Artaphernes son of Artaphernes. There are very few men I genuinely despise, but he is one. Next to Dagon, who was pure evil, he is the next worst man I’ve known, and it is a mystery how he came such, as his father was as noble and wise a man as you’ll ever meet.
My mind ran like horses in an Olympic race.
The Spartans had sent a Spartiate; not a messenger or a helot, but an officer–to Artaphernes son of Artaphernes, the satrap of Lydia, and the nephew of Darius, cousin to Xerxes, and next to Xerxes, probably the most powerful man in the Persian empire.
‘There are many reasons that the Spartans might have sent an ambassador to Artaphernes,’ I said.
Alysia nodded. A girl brought wine and water, and Cleis spoke to her quietly.
‘Have you eaten, Arimnestos?’ she asked.
I admitted that I had not.
She asked the girl for food and left the room for a moment and then returned.
Alysia shrugged. ‘I suppose that there might, at that, but my husband insisted that the Satrap made every effort to keep the Spartan a secret, and that he only discovered the man’s presence because his refusal to bow to the satrap had become gossip even among the palace slaves.
Phrynicus and Aeschylus, the greatest writers of my generation, were in agreement that the Gods love irony, and there was something as delicious as pomegranates to the notion that the ‘secret’ Spartan ambassador was revealed by his arrogance in refusing to bow to the very Persian tyrant that we were all supposed to be fighting.
Cleis came back, and directed two young women in ;laying a table. Then she turned. ‘Do you know where this messenger originated?’ she asked.
Alysia shook her head. ‘I assume he came from Sparta,’ she said.
‘Did he speak Persian?’ I asked.
Alysia flushed slightly. ‘I doubt it.’
‘As do I. And that means he has a translator and a staff.’ I looked at Briseis. ‘Leave this to me. I have friends… I won’t name them, even here. But…’
‘You?’ Alysia asked, and her tone was slightly derisive. ‘You have friends in Sardis?’
I looked Briseis. She smiled like a queen. ‘I also have friends in Sardis,’ she said. ‘My immediate interest would be your other friend, husband. The Queen of Sparta.’
Yes, that’s fair. My wife was the wife of the Satrap of Lydia and Ionia, and I didn’t…quite, have the Queen of Sparta as a lover. Or maybe that’s all in my head. Who knows?
But Gorgo and I were old friends and virtually co-conspirators. In the year before her husband fell at Thermopylae, she had involved me in Sparta’s last attempt to wrestle peace from the Great King. Even then, there were forces in Sparta that sought peace; even then there was a faction who hoped for the survival of Sparta and the destruction of Athens.
And, I thought, there was the former Spartan king, Demaratus. He had been the Eurypontid king, until he was deposed in the year of Marathon. He opposed Cleomenes in his attempts to support Athens against Persia.
Cleomenes, who was Gorgo’s father. I hope you are following this. Spartan politics is every but as complicated as Athenian politics, with the added spice of violence and murder at the highest levels. And I knew something that very few other men knew; that Gorgo and the exiles Demaratus maintained a correspondence.
As usual, Briseis had seen to the heart of the issue. Someone needed to talk to Gorgo.
Later that night, Briseis lay in my arms, and we planned my letter. The next morning, Cleis wrote to Gorgo, as the heir of Sappho to the heir of Leonidas, so to speak, and my letter went to her the same way hers went to the exiled king, Demaratus; I wrote mine on the wood board of a tablet, and then Cleis poured wax over it, and wrote her letter in the wax. In Clei’s letter, she mentioned that I was visiting and wished to send my regards.
That was all. I left it to Gorgo’s native intelligence to figure out that a wax letter sent so far might be a message in itself.
At the same time, while Briseis and Alysia and a dozen other women wrote letters to their friends, I wrote other letters. I wrote to a rich woman in Babylon who might be dead, and I wrote to Cyrus in Sardis, and I walked down tot he beach and found Brasidas and took him for a long walk. We went along the beach, beyond Vigla and the old palace, and then up a steep volcanic plug that sat like a tilted table, high above the sea. We climbed without effort, because we were both of us in fine shape by then, and when we reached the top, we were close to the sky, and the sea was a sparkling carpet at our feat in magnificent blues tinged in green and white.
I poured a little wine from my canteen and we shared it.
‘Trouble?’ he asked in his Laconian way.
‘I don’t want to offend you,’ I said carefully.
‘About Sparta, then,’ he said.
‘About Demaratus,’ I said.
I have very few secrets from Brasidas, and in this case, I could see no reason to keep anything back. I told him the whole story; I even told him things he’d been present for, like my visits to Sparta and to Susa in Persia. I did that to make clear to him how carefully I’d considered the whole thing.
‘You are like my right hand,’ I said. ‘But you are also the only man I know who can approach Demaratus of Sparta and get me an answer.’
He looked out over the magnificent sea and then looked back.
‘Possibly,’ he agreed.
‘Brasidas,’ I said. ‘The Spartans have sent an ambassador to the Satrap of Sardis.’
He blinked. This time he didn’t look away; only, for a moment, he looked like a man who’d taken a blow. ‘Of course,’ he said.
‘I assume that the ambassador is from the Ephors,’ I said.
‘Ephors cannot send an ambassador,’ Brasidas said. ‘Only kings.’ Then he paused. ‘At least, that’s how I understand the law.’
‘Do you think,’ I asked, as hesitantly as I might have approached my daughter about something personal, ‘do you think that there have been quite a few kings, lately? And do you not feel that the ephors are trying to increase their powers, as a body?’
Brasidas folded his arms. ‘I never think about it,’ he said.
I tried another tack. ‘If the ephors are angling for a separate peace with the Great King,’ I said, ‘would Demaratus know about it? And would he be in favour, or against it?’
Brasidas looked at me, and the silence stretched away.
There are times, between people–good people, honourable people–when the trust that underlies friendship can be stretched to the breaking point. It happens between husbands and wives; between friends and friends, war comrades, people in the assembly, politicians, fishermen…it is universal.
I was pushing Brasidas to the edge, and I knew it. Whatever his relationship with Demaratus; whether they were lovers, father and son, half brothers… I had no idea. But I was pushing into a place where I was not welcome.
Brasidas nodded slowly, as if I was still speaking. And then his eyes met mine.
‘Demaratus was deposed by an illegal proceeding that involved many people, but he will never forgive the ephors,’ he said. ‘And he hates Leotychidas. So if he knew of such an attempt, he would not be able to be in favour of it.’
I nodded, refusing to allow my face to reveal the smile I felt building in my jaw.
‘That’s why I have to send you to him,’ I said.
‘And, if you can manage it, to Arwia.’ Arwia was a friend in Babylon. Brasidas had hatched a plot with her before. She was a very special woman, and a powerful one. I was a little concerned that she might not have survived the Babylonian revolt.
It says a great deal about Arwia that Brasidas, man of bronze, smiled suddenly, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. ‘Arwia,’ he said, as if he’d forgotten her name until that moment.
‘And I need to remind you that you are married to my sister,’ I said.
Brasidas looked at me a moment. He put a hand on my arm. ‘Not all of us are the slaves of our appetites,’ he said.
Ouch. A hit like that is a little like when you are sparring, and your friend slips through your guard, past your shield, and lays his sword on you, and you haven’t even clipped him.
There was worse in store for me, though, because the next day, as Brasidas made ready to depart, Penelope, my sister, appeared before me with her hands on her hips.
‘You are sending my husband to Susa!’ she said.
‘Quiet!’ I spat.
‘Susa!’ she repeated. ‘To die!’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I believe that he’ll be perfectly safe.’
‘Really?’ she asked, apparently mollified.
‘I’m going to make him an ambassador from Plataea; from me. I’m sending to Themistokles as well so that Brasidas will be the League ambassador. He won’t travel through Sardis; he’ll go through Tarsus in the south. We know people there. He’ll take the Royal Road all the way.’
‘So there’s no danger,’ she said.
‘None,’ I said.
‘Excellent,’ she said. ‘Then you cannot object if he takes me.’
# # #
Perhaps I’m not doing a good job of telling this story. Here’s my point.
Every day of the new Ionian revolt seemed to raise my personal stake. I was certain that the future of my marriage depended on my decisions; I suppose that’s always true, but more so when politics and war enter a marriage. Now my sister and the man closest, I think, to my heart, were both going away, at my orders, into the heart of the enemy lands.
I hadn’t lied. There should not have been any risk to Len or Brasidas. But I knew there was, and I knew that my sister was as stubborn as I am myself.
Sadly, I also knew that by sending Brasidas with his wife and a staff of attendants, I made it much more likely that they would be safe.
Preparing the nascent Ionian fleet for sea was a vacation by comparison. At some point I left the diplomacy to Briseis, kissed my sister, and took my little fleet around to Mythymna on the north coast with Alysia as a passenger. We were wined and dined by the oligarchs of that fair town, and I arranged for a ‘subsidy;’ never call it a tax, brothers… and I found that there was another captain there, one of Parmenio’s friends, willing to try his luck.
We sailed around to Mytilene. Alysia left to see what more she could discover, and I had another dinner, this time with the lords of Mytilene.
I already missed Brasidas.
It was unfair to Styges, another of my closest friends. But Styges had been a catamite, a slave, and then a free bronze smith. What he’d never been was a rich ambassador, an aristocrat, a gentleman. His manners were fine, but Brasidas, in addition to being a terror on an enemy deck, was a man I could take anywhere; indeed, he was obviously the genuine article whereas I was sometimes a pirate.
And Styges felt it, which I never intended. But the problem was that being captain of my marines, that summer, was more about drinking wine with soft-handed merchants than about clearing an enemy deck.
But that was coming.
I did what I could to make Styges feel wanted and welcome, and settled to an exercise regime that might allow me to fit in my armour after a steady diet of too much wine and too many sweetened barley rolls.
My six ships sat on the beach a few days, I went to three symposia, each with more flute girls than the last, and I learned too much about the politics of my favourite island. The removal of the Persian governor and his garrison had left a power vacuum, and the early Persian retribution for the revolt had wiped out a third of the aristocratic families.
Lesvos was at the brink of stasis. Civil War. In this case, civil war complicated by class conflict and abetted by Persian gold, or that’s what I thought that I sensed. I realized that I could turn Styges’ liabilities into assets and I set him loose to see if he could find the Persian old in the back alleys of Mytilene, a city twice the size of Piraeus and sometimes considered a rival to Athens.
The three cities; Eresos in the south, where Briseis was, and Mythymna in the north, where I’d just been, and Mytilene, the largest city, were in a perpetual state of competition. That’s nothing new’; that’s all of the Greek world. But when you throw in a pro-Persian faction, a liberation faction, a democratic faction and an aristocratic faction, all with their own agendas and propaganda, you have a poisonous brew.
That said, I had an idea. And my idea was that if the long arm of the Great King was stuck out to play in the muddy waters of Ionian politics…
….I might grab it and twist it a bit.
# # #
On my fourth day in the beautiful double harbour of Mytilene, my wife rode over the mountains with an escort and almost instantly became the most desired guest in the city; every hostess vied to have her, and she went from house to house, weaving with one woman, baking with another, or gossiping on the balcony over the garden. A few times she was actually invited to dine with other women, usually her fellow-graduates of Sappho’s school.
Together we began to build a picture of the political situation on the island. Parmenio and Helikaon and Herakles helped, too.
There were almost too many faction for there to be a war, and the pro-Persian faction was finding its progress heavy going in the face of everyone’s memories of the sack of the island by the Great King’s soldiers. But in Mytilene, Briseis found us a thread, and we began to wind it in.
Her thread was a wife named Perictione. I never met her, but I gather that she was young and mis-treated and angry and unwilling to submit to a much older and somewhat vicious husband. He beat her, and he beat his slaves.
She didn’t invite my wife to dinner. In fact, my wife didn’t meet her, at least not initially. But Perictione had attended Sappho’s school and Briseis met several of her friends and heard the same story over and over.
The spice to the story was that Perictione’s husband, Alcaeus son of Laertes, had been a tax-farmer for the Persians during the occupation. And he’d claimed that he would be again. Apparently, when he was resentful of his fallen condition, he drank too much and hit his slaves and his wife.
Styges slipped into his house the way a greased axle slips into the socket on a chariot; he represented himself as a traveling ‘fixer’, the kind of almost broken freedman who markets his day labour and can be trusted to mend a pot.
Alcaeus was a miserly sod, and tried to cheat him on his wages.
Styges spent two day fixing every piece of bronze in the place, and got to know the slaves.
‘No direct contact,’ he said. Styges was in my newly rented house, sitting up right on a kline dressed like a poor craftsman. He even looked twenty years older than he was.
I shook my head. I didn’t have all summer.
‘No direct contact,’ Styges said. ‘But I think I’ve got something. Fat boy,’ that was rail-thin Styges’ name for our target, ‘only has one frequent visitor; a merchant from Samos. He’s expected.’
‘Samos,’ I said. ‘That would be perfect.’
# # #
I don’t wish to give the wrong impression. Everything had to be done at once. So in there somewhere, I got my bleary-eyed rowers together and dropped down to Ephesus carrying a surprise. I didn’t want to go, but also I did… which characterized my entire life with Archilogos.
I swear I found him on the same couch that I left him.
‘How’s ruling Ephesus?’ I asked.
‘How’s piracy?’ he asked. He was working up to anger. ‘When I heard your name announced, I had six emotions all at once.’
‘Think of how I felt coming here,’ I said. ‘Look, Archi, will you feel better if I say that you were right?’
‘I don’t particularly care if you say it,’ he said. ‘I was right. And your precious Spartan navarch is failing to take Cyprus which Artaphernes gathers armies to crush the Ionian cities. There’s a rumour…’
‘There’s a rumour that there’s a Spartan ambassador at Sardis,’ I put in.
Archilogos nodded. ‘So you know that one. We’re cooked if the Spartans allow Artaphernes to march on us, do you know that? I’ve committed my fortune to the freedom of Ionia and the fucking Spartans are going to sell us to Persia.’
‘Briseis thinks that if the Ionians stand together, they can stop the Great King. And that if they show signs of rallying, Athens will support them.’
‘Athens is tied to this entente with Sparta.’ Archilogos waved at a slave. ‘Where are my manner. Get him wine.’
It was odd to be in that house, and not know the slaves. Not even a wink. I’d served wine to the Persian satrap on the same couch; different coverings.
And one of the most beautiful rooms I’d ever seen.
But I digress. ‘I believe that Athens is ready to lead an Ionian league,’ I said. ‘And more importantly, so does Briseis.’
‘Then go fetch her here to help me lead it,’ Archilogos said. I realized he was a little drunk.
‘Surprise,’ I said. Briseis walked past me and embraced her brother.
‘You brought her?’ Archilogos asked, stunned.
Briseis smiled. ‘When Arimnestos changes his mind, he doesn’t go for half-measures,’ she said.
And with that, I was committed absolutely; my fortune, in the shape of my personal warships; my closest friend, my sister, my wife. We were going to free Ionia, or die trying, despite the self-interest and division, the Persian Gold, the malfeasance of some old men in Sparta.
I was deeply afraid.
But in my heart, I was glad, because I thought that all the adventures ended when we stormed the Persian camp at Mycale, and I was wrong.
I’m just not cut out for a life of ease.
# # #
Antaeus, you asked last night about Artaphernes, and I should explain. I certainly hoped that I’d killed him at Plataea; goodness knows, I’m in the Painted Stoa with him at the point of my spear.
But of course, the wily serpent got away. His bodyguard, which included some of my oldest friends, put his magnificent gold-embroidered cloak on some unlucky horseman, and even when they were prisoners in my house, Cyrus and Aryanam, my Persian friends, never revealed that they had, in fact, done their duty as oathsworn nobles; they’d covered the escape of their master.
It was a year or more before I knew.
In a way, it made my role easier. I admire the Persians; in many ways, a noble race. But I loathe Artaphernes son of Artaphernes.
# # #
We spent two days in Ephesos and then sailed back to Eresos to find a big round ship, Zephyr, with my son Hipponax at the helm and Eugenios with Briseis’ household and furniture. I bought a house for us in Mythymna on the north coast, because, after some discussion, it seemed the best place for our residence. For what might prove to be the capital of the new Ionian League, or so we permitted ourselves to imagine. In the short run, Mythymna was traditionally an Athenian ally and didn’t seem to have a pro-Persian faction.
I suspect I was much mocked by my oarsmen as we rowed back and forth along the coast of Lesvos, moving Briseis and politicking at Eresos, but it was a beautiful time; early summer, the sun was warm and the sea calm, and Lesvos is one of the msot beautiful places on all the face of the earth. The tens of thousands of tiny flowers had come and gone as they do every spring, but along the cliffs, the yellow flowers bloomed, and there was jasmine in the deep valleys along the little streams, and green on the hillsides that would soon wither to a blond brown.
On one of our visits to Eresos, I ran across my former passenger Socrates and his daughter Gaia. Socrates was sitting on one of the terraces of Vigla, looking out over the sea.
‘How is living in paradise?’ I asked.
He gave me a twisted grin. ‘Dull,’ he admitted. ‘A few days were restful. Now, I’m… bored. My daughter and her friends speak of nothing but the freedom of Ionia and I’m sitting here waiting for a ship.’
‘Are you needed at home?’ I asked. I had a notion. Socrates was a plain spoken man, strong, not too tall. He might well have passed for ‘every man.’
‘Not in the least,’ he said.
I sat down. The very air was perfumed. It’s not for nothing that I refer to Eresos in spring as paradise. I’m not sure that the Elysian Fields have more to offer.
‘I wonder if you’d play a part for me,’ I said.
He leaned forward and smiled. ‘Tell me more.’
‘I’d like you to play an Athenian metic.‘ Metics are registered foreigners; important people in the business of shipping and trade. Athens has more metics than any other state that I know of, and more trade.
He made a face. ‘But I’m a citizen,’ he said. And then, reading my expression, he said, ‘ah. I understand. Sure. I know the trade, that’s for certain.’
I laid out my plan. I’d made it on the spur of the moment, but I liked it.
‘I hate the aristocrats and old oligarchs in Athens?’ he asked. ‘That’s not play-acting.’
I smiled. ‘I know.’
# # #
Briseis began to hold court in Mythymna, and people flocked there. Archilogos was out on the sea, moving along the coast, rallying support.
I was in a tavern in Mytilene, dressed as a slave.
Socrates, my new recruit, was well-dressed. We’d commandeered Hipponax’s half-cargo of alum-tawed hides from Athens to be his own, and he was meeting various merchants and factors, looking for a sale. He made it clear that he wanted to sell the whole cargo, and given the state of Ionia at that time, that made it almost certain that he wouldn’t sell it for a while, which gave us a chance to watch him.
Socrates revelled in his role. He was the discontented, self-made man, a little pompous, a little difficult, but mostly a man who’d buy a potential client some wine and tell a good story. An easy man to like.
A man who wasn’t happy with the government of Athens. Who despised Aristides and Themistokles too.
‘I don’t know what’s worse,’ he said on his first day. ‘A genuine blue-blood or a fake working man. They’re both parasites.’
I’m not sure Socrates was acting.
Regardless, he attracted clients and listeners and debaters, and I served wine and got few tips and plenty of curses and I wondered if this was a waster of time.
The second day was the same. I thought of Archilogos, out there on the beautiful early-summer seas; good fellowship, easy prizes…
The third day was the same again. I was learning things; I heard a lot about how Lesvos had been treated by the Persians, and I only really understood the factions by serving wine to citizens arguing over everything from barley prices to planting times to the state of trade with Aegypt.
But late on the third day, Styges, also dressed as a slave, which was in his case to say a filthy chiton and no sandals, appeared at the bead curtain of our taverna and gave my a wave with three fingers; the signal that we were on.
I didn’t pass the signal to Socrates. He knew that we had a target, but why make him nervous by telling him that the target was present? He was so good, so believable, so bluff and hearty and righteous…
Alcaeus son of Laertes brushed in through the beads. He looked around carefully, asked another slave a question, cuffed him, and went to the table Socrates had occupied for three days.
‘I hear you hate Athens,’ he said.
Socrates grinned, but shook his head ‘no.’ ‘Hate the government. Taxes to build a fleet, and for what? Persians are beat. Let’s all get back to work.’ He smiled. ‘You in the trade?’
Just for a moment, I was afraid that Alcaeus would top it the nob, announce that he was too aristocratic to indulge in trade, and trap my friend Socrates into hating him. He seemed like the type.
Instead, she shrugged and sat without invitation. ‘I hear you have a cargo of white hides.’
‘I do. More like three-quarters of a cargo. Tour hundred seventy-five hides, all white and glossy, without stain or imperfection. Temple sandals, women’s shoes…’
‘Armour,’ Alcaeus said.
‘Wall decorations,’ Socrates said.
‘Armour,’ Alcaeus said.
Of course, the best Athenian white leather was what many of us used for spolas, the white leather cuirass worn by many marines. Tawed leather lasts a long time at sea, rain or shine. But then, so does bronze.
Socrates shrugged. ‘Have it your way. I never tell a customer how to use his products.’
Wine was brought — by me. I poured carefully and Socrates gave me a smile and a copper obol.
‘Good pais,’ he said.
Alcaeus began bargaining for the whole cargo, which seemed remarkable to me, even if he was buying it for armour…
…Until it occurred to me that Athens had embargoed all of the Persian empire.
Alcaeus was probably buying for Persia. They, too, used the white spolas.
And Alcaeus was a fool. Vain, arrogant, self-important; he had all the skills. He patronized Socrates, lectured him, and then bragged that the hides were going to the mainland.
It was all so easy that I ordered Styges to spend another day following Alcaeus to see if it was all some complicated double trap.
Styges wanted to grab him, but I suspected that would have ramifications in the local political scene unless we had more proof, and until Archilogos had visited all of the mainland Ionian cities, I didn’t really need to be anywhere else. although there was the pull of my wife, just a few sea miles away…
I had a hunch, though. I asked Socrates to send for his daughter, borrowed from her school. When she arrived a day later, Socrates introduced her to his new business partner and the two of them were invited for further negotiations at the house of Alcaeus. Gaia had orders to befriend Perictione.
I took a day off from being a slave and spent the day training with my marines, minus the three who were watching over Alcaeus’s house.
We’d paid local longshoremen to move the hides from our round ship into a warehouse. All of the longshoremen seemed to be looking over their shoulders through the whole move, but while I saw their apprehension I didn’t put my finger on the reason, the more fool me.
And the very next day, like a gift from the gods, a heavy trireme of Phoenician manufacture came up the channel from Chios under sail and landed on the beach.
The captain was from Samos. My little network of slave boys on the beach got me that tidbit before the ship’s oars were dry from the landing, and I promise you that each of my little urchins made a handsome profit.
When Thrasybulus of Samos landed, he walked straight into a net of my informers. He walked up the beach, drank wine at a waterfront taverna, went to a brothel…
…and send his helmsman to arrange a meeting with Alcaeus, son of Laertes. Gaia was still there, having spent the night; she was sitting in Alcaeus’s front room, weaving, when the kybernetes, one Euplainos by name, was ushered in by the steward, delivered a message verbally that Gaia couldn’t hear, and left, staying mostly to alleys.
Aten was having far too much fun leading the urchins and dock-boys and girls who’d become my spies, although he reported that they were surprisingly anxious. They were all becoming a little more prosperous on my two drachma a day, but Aten said they looked over their shoulders when they took it.
Aten brought me word that Euplainos had visited, and later that day, word that Socrates had closed his deal and sold ‘his’ cargo. I was no longer pretending to be a slave; I’d moved to a different taverna, at the north end of the southern beach, near the best neighbourhood and not too far from the palaces and only a drunken stumble from our ship, because, while running a sting against a traitor is good fun, I was also negotiating the subsidy that Mytilene would pay to the Ionian League or whatever we eventually chose to call it. I was trying to get them to volunteer some ships. I could count nine good triremes down on the beach; I was beginning to be annoyed.
I wasn’t dressed finely, either; never look like a prince when begging for money. I had a good, plain brown chlamys with a dark border and a bronze pin, and under it an old red chiton; so old that pink was probably a better description. Good cloth, but not on its best day. It was a chilly morning; I was hoping for news about the Samian, and I had my chlamys pulled around me for warmth. I had none of my people around me except Aten, who was, in his cheerful way, helping another boy wash dishes. I could see the Samian’s ship along the beach a couple of stades; his people were busy, and I wondered what he was up to.
Every day has surprises.
I was sitting on my bench, calculating the daily cost of keeping a trireme with professional rowers at sea, making marks on a wax tablet with a long bronze stylus that I liked. listen, I was getting older, my fingers hurt every morning, and I’d had so many knuckles broken that everything was stiff. A long stylus is easier on an old man like me…
‘Who the fuck are you?’ the man said.
I looked up. I think all that saved me was that I looked so innocuous, writing with a stylus. A scholar, not a fighter.
I said, ‘what?’ or something as insipid.
He was big, and he was standing at the apex of a triangle of ‘muscle.’ Three big men. Bald. All three wore their chitons like kilts. None of them was hard like a farmer or an oarsmen; plenty of fat over the muscle, but lots of muscle too, if you know the type I mean.
I had them in one glance. Criminal enforcers.
‘We’re going to take a little walk,’ Apex said. ‘You need to meet someone, who is going to explain something to you. The boys on the waterfront are ours. All of them. If you want them to spy on people, you pay us.’
Very carefully, I moved my right foot. It had been stretched out in front of me; I moved it along the table’s leg.
I smiled up at Apex.
‘Don’t,’ I said. ‘Just spare me the speech, turn around, and walk away.’
‘Hey, cock,’ said one of the other corners of the muscle triangle. ‘Do as he says or we have some fun with you.’
Apex leaned forward, put his hand on the table, and put his face close to mine. ‘Count of three,’ he said.
‘Don’t,’ I said.
‘One,’ he said.
I slammed the stylus through his extended hand into the table. He reacted as expected, trying to jerk back, and I used his strength as well as my own to throw the whole big slab table into his face.
I assume it hurt, because he gave a choked scream.
But he hadn’t become an enforcer by being weak. He ripped the stylus out of his hand and came for me with a bellow.
I took the sword out from under my chlamys and slashed him across the bridge of the nose. It was a deliberate cut, straight from the scabbard; something I practice and practice. It is a nasty move; one or both eyes and the bridge of the nose in one flick of your blade.
He fell back.
‘Just take him and leave, or I’ll…’
They were foolish.
This is something I never understand. If I faced someone who dropped, say, Aristides, or Cimon, or Styges, gods be with us, with contemptuous ease, I’d immediately reconsider my tactics. I might be enraged, or filled with a desire for revenge, but I’d also know that something was not as I had expected.
On the other hand, perhaps that’s why I’m alive at my age and these men were second-rate enforcers in a small town.
They came for me. The one who’d spoken had a club, and he was fast. The club went up to strike, and he struck with a feint over his head, but it was all untrained stuff, and I cut into his cut, and fingers sprayed, the massive advantage of the sword over the club. He got a piece of my left shoulder and he reached, left handed, still probably unaware that he was short two fingers, but his feet tangled in the flipped table and I back-cut to his shoulder and chest.
And that was it, because Aten had deftly stabbed the third man from behind, right between the shoulder blades. He was dead before he hit the ground.
The tavern keeper was horrified. I thought he was angry at the mess we’d made, but it turned out that he had other concerns.
Apparently, Mytilene had a gang who controlled the waterfront. Their tentacles even extended into nicer establishments like this one. Helios, the freed slave owner, was terrified, and angry.
I felt foolish, because now I knew why the longshoremen had been skittish and why Aten had said the boys were nervous about our money.
‘They’ll kill me and my entire family,’ he said.
‘Who’s the boss?’ I asked.
He shook his head. ‘They call him Oinos. He sits in the Trident all day. That’s where I see these men.’ He looked at them. Two were still alive. ‘After the Persian garrison left… they’re terrible, lord. They will kill you. They allow no opposition.’
‘How did I miss this?’ I muttered. Of course some low-life had taken over the waterfront in the power vacuum. As I said, I felt like a fool.
On the other hand, it was a golden opportunity.
I sent Aten to the ship.
Before my innkeeper could panic further, Aten was back, with Leander and Diodoros, Akilles and four sailors, all in armour, and a dozen oarsmen under Damon and Nestor, as well as Ka and our new archer, the tall old man.
Aten caught at my cloak. ‘Message from the traitor’s house, sir.’
‘Later,’ I said.
Aten shook his head. ‘The Samian is moving.’
‘Damn,’ I said. Of course, everything happened at once. ‘Carry these two gentlemen,’ I called to the oarsmen, and I led them to the Trident. It was a squalid place with an out door that had been sloppily whitewashed; even from outside the place that smelled of piss and spilled wine.
I surrounded it, putting men in the alley behind, and then I went in.
I paused just inside, to let my eyes adjust.
It was a dark place, and it smelled worse inside than out. The tables looked sticky in the grey light, the floor had bits of grapes and worse rotting away, and there were only a handful of tables.
Oinos was fat. He was the only man sitting in the place; there was a slave at a big table and the four bruised girls. One of the girls was gyrating, slowly and without feeling, on a wooden crate, in what was supposed to be a display of eroticism, I suppose.
It was more depressing than lewd. And her ankle was chained to one of the wooden supports that held up the roof.
‘Oinos,’ I said cheerfully. ‘There’s been a misunderstanding.’
I smiled and pushed deeper, and suddenly Oinos was not the only man in the room. There was more muscle, and some of the thin, dangerous men you always find attracted by violence and easy money.
‘Fuck off, foreigner,’ said one. ‘No one comes in here without permission.’
‘Bring them in,’ I called, still keeping my voice cheerful.
Four oarsmen dragged in the damaged muscle and dumped the two unconscious men on the floor.
Leander and Diodoros appeared, in armour, at my back.
‘Stand up, Oinos,’ I said. ‘I want to talk to you.’
‘Fuck off,’ spat the man.
‘Last time. Stand up, or we kill everyone here. I have all the exits; none of you even has armour. Understand?’
‘You’re fucking dead,’ Oinos said, but he was standing, head bent under the low ceiling.
There was a shout from the back; a grunt, and the well-known sound of a body falling.
‘Clear,’ shouted Akilles. He appeared at the back, his sword dripping.
I stepped forward until I was two paces from Oinos. ‘You’re done,’ I said. ‘I own this waterfront now. I have marines, and oarsmen; I can put two hundred armed men in the street. In armour. You have what, ten? More like nine now. Understand?’
‘You’re fucking dead.’
I began to think that he was too stupid to run a waterfront.
‘Kill one of his men,’ I said. An arrow buzzed like a wasp and the talkative thin man fell with an arrow in his gut and started to make the terrible noises a man makes when he knows he’s been robbed of his life.
‘Now you have eight,’ I said.
It was an odd situation and I was surprised at my reactions. To be honest, I’m an old pirate and almost nothing used to shock me, and my initial reaction to the muscle had been that when I met their boss, I’d probably co-opt him for my own operations.
I think it was the girl chained to the pillar. I just wasn’t as inured to human suffering as I had once been. I was angry, and there were other tyrants besides Artaphernes son of Artaphernes.
‘You have no idea how badly you’ve screwed up,’ Oinos said.
‘I don’t have time to discuss it,’ I said. I deliberately stepped in, provoking him, and as if we’d rehearsed it, he swung at me; a good punch, and fast. He got a piece of me; same shoulder the club had hit, and that hurt.
Then we killed him and all his people. Sorry, friends. Sometimes, it’s not very heroic.
# # #
We didn’t have time to clean up the mess, because I only needed to go to the rickety door of the Trident to see the Samian’s heavy trireme pulling away from the beach.
Aten, bless him, had already fetched Gaia; my first fear had been that somehow the Samian had seen through my deception and grabbed her. But Socrates’ daughter was a good deal smarter than that, and the Samian probably never even realized that she wasn’t part of the household. He had made it into the house without us knowing.
I have to hand it to Gaia. I was standing in the sunlight, cleaning the blood from my xiphos; Leander was flicking his spear point into the sand of the beach to clean it; Diodoros looked a little pale.
She never flinched. And there was a lot of blood.
‘The Samian came just after dawn,,’ she said. ‘I was already up; I heard the steward greet him in back, at the slave entrance. Then I went up to the women’s quarters and waited there. On the exedra I could hear most of what they said. The Samian wanted the hides; he left gold. And he left too much; Ataelus was afraid that if he was taken with all that gold, he’d be implicated. The Samian told him not to be a woman.’
She looked at me. ‘Why do men think women aren’t brave?’
I shrugged. ‘No idea,’ I said. I ran it through my head, still a little high on the daemon of combat, and it added up. I had Alcaeus’s paymaster. I knew where he fell in the pecking order, and his utility was done.
‘Where’s Styges?’ I asked.
‘Still watching the house with Kassandros and Zephyrides,’ Gaia said.
I wished for Brasidas, or Styges, but Leander was growing on me. ‘We’ll take the traitor, Alcaeus,’ I said. ‘And then put to sea.’
‘You take the men here, and surround his house,’ I said. ‘Aten, go to the Archon and tell him that I am moving against Alcaeus son of Laertes, who has betrayed the city of the Persians, or tried to.’
I pointed at Damon. ‘I need you to go back to the ship and prepare her for sea. We’ll pursue the Samian, and she’ll have a long lead.’
He grinned. ‘We’ll catch her,’ he said.
Nestor looked at me sharply. ‘I’d best go with the helmsman,’ he said.
And there it was. My plans, such as they were, were laid.
‘What do I tell the archon about the dead men?’ Aten asked.
‘They were selling the town to the Persians, too,’ I said.
That seemed better than, ‘they mistreated their slaves.’ And for all I knew, it might have been true.
I’m not always a good man.
# # #
Alcaeus folded before I had a chance to threaten him.
It was a terrible performance, and it was painful to watch, even though the man was easy to despise. He wept, he blamed others — by Artemis, he blamed his wife for spending so much money that he had to betray his city to the Persians. He blamed everyone but himself.
And he tried to hide the money. He claimed that it had already been moved, and he lied, and lied; lied through his tears.
Gaia walked past me into the women’s quarters, and returned in less time than it takes to mumble a prayer to Zeus. She walked into the kitchen, opened a pithoi in the floor that usually held unground barley, and hauled out a bag with almost a thousand gold darics.
Gaia was a very strong young woman. That bag weighed as much as my ship, or seemed to.
‘Kill him,’ Gaia said. ‘Free his poor wife. Can you imagine being married to that?’
I had to wonder what had made this thing; this snivelling, miserly coward, afraid of everything, willing to betray his neighbours. But I’d had enough killing for a day; too much, really.
So I did the next best thing. When the archon arrived, I took him aside.
‘He is a notable man from a famous noble family,’ he said.
‘If he is found guilty, the Persian gold can replace the subsidy the town fathers would have to pay,’ I said. ‘Neither you nor the other councillors will have to pay anything.’
And so I committed Alcaeus to an ugly death. I have worse things on my conscience.
And I sent Cleis the value of Perictione’s dowry from the Persian gold, so that she could make a new start, and Gaia took her back to Sappho’s school to hide from the world for a while.
But that was all for the future. On the spot, I heard his broken confessions and Aten wrote them down, filling six wax tablets with the man’s ramblings. He accused a surprising number of prominent men in Mytilene, and he described a terrible mixture of smuggling and crime and Persian involvement.
If Alcaeus was an example of the Persian spy network, they had some awful material to work with. And the speed with which he betrayed his companions suggested that no one should ever have trusted him with anything.
I had a different problem. My problem was the archon. I kept him outside by various excuses, but it was clear that he wanted to take possession of the traitor, he and a dozen of the cities ‘gentlemen,’ including his son Dionysius, who seemed as large and capable as his father. By the time Aten had filled his first wax tablet with confession, and I understood just how many of the town’s prominent men were accused, I realized that the Archon would want him silenced. Immediately. Whether the archon’s name was actually on the list or not.
And the Samian was sailing away. Rowing away, to be more precise. for a while, we could follow the flash of his oars as he rowed south, even from the windows of Alcaeus’ house, but the Samian was gone now.
I was afraid.
I’d meant to catch a traitor and I’d kicked a hornet’s nest. Mytilene was not loyal to the Ionian rebellion. It was rife with men who were more interested in keeping their ties to Persia. Before we curse them, let’s remember that Persia was a good master in many ways, and that until recently, the nexus of trade had been east, into Babylon, and south into Syria, not west to Sicily or Athens. Mytilene, like Athens, was a city of merchants, and the rich always have an eye on their money.
But I thought better of them. Their sons died at Lades, and they joined the first revolt with a will; they fought to the last.
I wondered if I dared to sail away, and I wondered if I should cut and run as soon as I could. I considered grabbing the archon and his family as hostages. I considered a great many alternatives, and in the end, I decided to keep an outward calm and behave as if nothing was amiss.
‘I really must insist that Alcaeus be turned over to the city authorities,’ the archon said.
I nodded agreeably. ‘I have reason to believe that Alcaeus was plotting against my ship and my self,’ I said. A lie, but a good one, in that in explained my high-handed actions. ‘I need to know if he expected help beyond the Samian.’
‘We can question him,’ the archon said. He was called Theo, for Theophilos; a big, friendly man with an orators voice and a firm handshake. He was not displaying anything like unease. He hadn’t even mentioned the word ‘jurisdiction.’ We were just two friendly magnates having a very slight disagreement. At some level, I liked him, and I very much doubted he was a traitor.
Doubted, but was not sure.
Styges brought wine. He was still pretending to be a slave.
‘I understand your caution,’ Theo said, putting an arm on my shoulder. ‘But this has to be sent to the proper authorities before mistakes are made.’
‘What sort of mistakes?’ I asked.
‘I wouldn’t want this bloody-handed traitor to escape justice because of a legal quibble,’ he said.
I nodded. ‘I don’t think he’ll escape justice, do you?’ I asked.
He looked away, the first trace of embarrassment.
I decided on my course, and I followed it. Life is risk; I had to risk something.
‘This fine young man is your son?’ I said. ‘Dionysios?’
He looked surprised. ‘Yes,’ he said.
‘I wonder; does he have a panoply?’ I asked, looking at the young man.
Dionysios grinned. ‘Have I, though!’ he said. ‘It’s beautiful; almost as nice as yours.’
Not a traitor.
Well, I’ve certainly been wrong before in my judgement of men, so I tried to keep my thoughts off my face. ‘Perhaps Dionysios would like to come with me when we sail to take the Samian.’
The young man looked at his father the way a boy does when he asks if he can have a puppy.
‘How soon will you go?’ the archon asked.
‘If you’ll loan me your son, I’ll be gone in two hours,’ I said.
He looked at me a long time. But he never lost his dignity, and he never stopped smiling as if everything was fine. Perhaps it was.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Of course my son can sail with you. Make him row!’ he laughed, as if he didn’t have a concern in the world.
But he understood. And I understood.
With his son as a hostage, I was sailing away to catch the Samian. But I was trusting that he would hold the town for the rebellion. Trusting that his love for his son, if not his patriotism, would mean that I wouldn’t return to find that the nest of traitors had declared for the Great King. It was still a risk. They might kill Theophilos.
I didn’t think so.
I leaned in close. ‘Alcaeus has revealed a great many men as traitors,’ I said. ‘He may be lying. He may be telling the truth.’
I backed away. ‘Dionysios! Get your armour!’
The boy set off at a run.
My marines delivered the wreck of Alcaeus to the court. He hadn’t been harmed in any way, but he looked….smaller.
Aten copied out the names, and gave the copy to the archon.
‘I’ll be back with six ships,’ I said. ‘And several hundred hoplites. Just in case.’
He nodded confidently. ‘It is not as bad as you think,’ he said.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘Because I think it’s pretty bad. May I offer a word of advice?’
He smiled. ‘I have found you to be a wise man.’
‘Frighten a couple of them; the most dangerous. Or publicly arrest one or two. The rest will run. Or try to seize the city.’
The archon gestured towards the Mythymna gate, where a dozen dark red cloaks could be seen on the walls.
‘We have enough citizens to hold the city,’ he said.
Good,’ I admitted. ‘Because I can’t spare my marines.’
# # #
In an hour, we were at sea. We had too many marines; I had all my own, and then young Dionysios, and of course, Hipponax, who’d brought our round ship Lotus out with the hides and refused to be left behind.
I’d never had Hipponax and Herakleitus under my eye at the same time before, and I’m sad to say that I have nothing profound to offer. Young men are very similar, at least the good ones; these two were mostly steady, occasionally fractious, handsome enough, annoying, given to pointless boasting and…
And all the other sins I’d committed. Hipponax had an edge; a season of commanding a round ship in all weather, even with a crew of six, had rubbed a good deal of foolishness off him. Sailors are not slaves; even with Sekla or Leukas or Megakles on the same deck, he’d had to win some authority.
And we had Akilles aboard; my cousin. I introduced him as such when I was introducing Dionysios around, and he glowed.
Quite an assembly of young men. They postured a little, and I noted that both Leander and Zephyrides had some of Brasidas’ talents; a smile and no more attention for a young man’s bragging.
Bah. You aren’t here to listen to me prate about my sons.
We got to sea in no time, and we were rowing into a head wind as soon as we were off the beach.
I walked to the point, amidships, where all the oarsmen could hear me.
‘This will be a long chase,’ I called out. ‘But I think our quarry is stuffed with Persian gold, and you’ll all share, and it’s double pay each day until we catch him.’
Poseidenos yelled, ‘then we should all row more slowly, eh, lads?’
The roar of laughter told me that my crew was sound and ready to play hard.
# # #
We passed down the channel between Lesvos and the mainland, and into the waters south of the island, and Moira, or Tyche, gave us a little fishing boat out in the great blue sea, and we bought all his fish, and he gave us news from earlier in the day. The fishermen had been fishing in the deep water north of the Chios channel. Our heavy Phoenician trireme had not gone away south into the channel, but west around the island.
She had turned west. That meant the west coast of Chios, or somewhere to the south. But not by the direct route to Samos.
We tossed a purse of coins to the fisherman and turned to starboard, and now the wind was abeam, right on the port side, pushing us back to Lesvos. I could see Mimas, the Black Mountain, on the port bow before I turned, and it was so clear I could almost see into the bay of Erythrae. That was a town on my list to visit, and I was, too all intents, sailing away from her.
We passed close to the black cape and opened the Chios channel, and we could see the shipping all the way down to the town of Chios, and not a sign of our quarry, unless he was hiding behind the islands.
We pulled past, and coasted northern Chios as the sun set. I new a nice beach under the great mountain, right in the northern tip of the island, and there was a small temple of Herakles there. I’d visited it several times, and I landed there and beached easily on the sand, and we grilled fish and ate like kings.
And we rose in the dark and slipped out to sea. There’s often a north wind in those parts, with the dawn, and we got our mainsail up and ran off almost a parasang, thirty-some stades, in an hour. I had Ka aloft, watching the coast for camp fires, but I didn’t expect my Samian here; I thought hat he’d run all the way down the coast and camped at Dynami, or one of the other deep coves on the southern side of the island.
How did he know he was pursued?
Another hour, and we had sunrise in the east, over Asia, and by the time we were looking into the little bays on the south side, the sun had been up two hours and all we got was a hint of wood smoke. The day’s real breeze came up and the sails came down and the oarsmen grumbled, and we rowed on. By the height of the sun, my oarsmen were flagging, and I took a turn myself, as did every marine, and I noted that young Dionysios didn’t hesitate, but stripped and took an oar down in among the thalamites.
Three hundred and sixty stades into Samos. If he rowed all night, he’d be home in the morning.
It bothered me that he knew I’d been after him, although I admitted to myself that we hadn’t had the best secrecy in our endeavours and that I, too, had hunches when I was pursued.
As we passed the southern end of the Chios channel, I began to realize how hopeless my pursuit was. If he now turned north into the channel, I’d have to look into twenty fishing towns to find him.
I was willing to wager all my god that he was standing straight on to Samos, and I couldn’t see how I was going to catch him.
# # #
I’m not usually beaten. I hate it. It makes me feel…
Well, angry. And beaten.
Sunrise showed me Kerketeus, the tallest mountain of Samos, rising high above the island, and sea marks for the city. Samos has a chequered history; queen of the sea less than fifty years ago, she’s still a dominant sea-power, but her triremes changed sides at Lades and killed a great many of my friends. I have a hard time seeing the Samians as allies, but they were the first to join us at Mycale, and they seized and executed the leaders of the great betrayal at Lades.
Like many great cities, Samos has a beautiful deep bay to protect her beaches and her merchant ships, and lines of ship-sheds to keep her triremes over the winter. We rowed into the harbour of Samos cautiously, as I had no real idea what would greet me. The Samian captain at Mytilene led me to suspect that Samos had changed sides again. It seemed all too possible, and my one ship was not going to redress the balance.
But as we got deeper and deeper in the bay, which is less than five stades wide, we could see no sign of a heavy Phoenician trireme on any of the beaches on either hand.
I’d been suckered.
I’d chased the Samian across the Icarian Sea and lost him in the darkness. I had to assume he’d turned south, towards Patmos and Leros. Was he aware of my pursuit? Had he turned south in the darkness with a laugh at my expense?
Or was he on some other mission? It occurred to me that he might have had an objective on the west coast of Chios; a visit, a drop of a bag of gold. And then away at first light, and he’d have still been ahead of us.
I’d had him in my hands, and I’d wasted my time chasing a small-time crime lord.
I gritted my teeth, landed in Samos, and paid for supplies. I raised the level of muttering aboard by telling my crew that there would be no shore-going, as we’d be away as soon as I had some information. I walked ashore, aware of the sound of two hundred angry oarsmen and sailors, and found a customs officer.
‘I’ll have to look at your cargo,’ he said.
‘I don’t have a cargo,’ I said. ‘I’m an officer of the new Ionian League and I gave chase to ship in Persian service.’
In the end I had to let him look at the empty holds to convince him; I didn’t have so much as a document to identify me as a captain in anyone’s service, and on Samos my name might well have been used to frighten babies. The customs officer and the local aristocrat, Polycrates, who came down to the beach, bit suggested without much subtlety that they thought I was a pirate.
‘What exactly brings you to Samos, trierarch?’ Polycrates asked.
‘As I told this gentleman, I gave chase to a heavy Phoenician trireme that took on a cargo at Lesvos. The captain was Samian.’ I smiled, as affably as I could manage. ‘I serve the new Ionian League, and I have reason to believe that he is distributing gold for the Great King.’
‘We all fancy a little gold, do we not?’ Polycrates asked. ‘I’m sure your crew were slavering in anticipation, but as you can see, there’s no big Phoenicians here, with Samian captains or any other sort.’
No one likes to be patronized, which may be why I find the Samians a difficult lot. Their historical memory of being a major power has blinded them to the modern realities.
‘We patrol these waters,’ Polycrates said. ‘I’ll inform our captains of the ship you describe, but you understand that you cannot just attack a ship in our waters. This is not some little lick-spittle town in Lesvos. This is Samos.’
I was very tempted to suggest that lick-spittle was exactly the way I’d describe Samos’s craven behaviour at Lades, but it’s really never wise to prod a boar, as long as he has tusks.
I smiled a little. ‘I’m an officer of the Ionian League,’ I said. ‘I’ll take him wherever I find him. Samos is not yet a member, I believe.’
‘Samos led the Ionian revolt against the Great King,’ he said.
Again, an opportunity to speak my mind on the role of leadership in the last Ionian revolt.
Maybe he read my thoughts on my face, as he flushed red. ‘If there is to be a new Ionian League,’ he said, ‘It should start here, or Samos will go its own way.’
And this is why I should never be a diplomat.
‘That would be a pity,’ I said.
‘You are insulting me!’ the man said.
‘I was at Lades,’ I said. ‘The last time Samos went it’s own way.’
By now we’d drawn quite a crowd. We were on the stone quayside, where the big ships and important visitors came alongside. The crowd was mostly prosperous people; women in conical sun hats and men in broad brimmed straw petassos hats and chitons and slaves, already naked in the brilliant sun.
No one was on my side.
Polycrates’ face was mottled with rage. ‘My father was killed by the Persians,’ he barked. ‘You are an arse.’
I looked around. Angry people make me relax; I assume it’s a war-instinct, but I change my posture, deepen my stance… consciously or unconsciously, I’m getting ready for violence.
‘It’s possible that I am, sir. But I promise you that Samos is not going to lead any League in your lifetime. And I need you to understand that I am an officer of the league that is even now coming into being, and that, if I catch this ship, I will take or destroy her with no reference to you or the government of Samos.’
And that’s what happens when I feel angry and defeated before I engage someone in conversation. I’d probably just endangered the whole of the League’s relations with the largest naval power in Ionia.
I felt like an arse, I promise you. And yet it was true; Polycrates was living in the past, and there was no way that Briseis and Archilogos were going to accept the leadership of Samos.
I have to put it down to an ancient rivalry. Samos is the enemy of Miletus, and Miletus of Samos, and thus it has been for two hundred years. Ephesus is an ancient ally of Miletus, and so there is no love lost between my wife’s family and the Samians, even before the treason of Lades.
Greeks. Take off the outside pressure for an hour, and we’re at each other’s throats.
The only sign of the fortune of the gods in the whole day was that we had rowed into the bay, but the steady wind from the south and east wafted us out with only our boat sail set, and we emerged from the bay before the sun was halfway across the sky. It was the edge of summer; long days and short nights.
I thought of lingering; of finding some fresh water and holing up on a tiny beach to see if the heavy Phoenician trireme would appear round the next headland. I’d look a proper flat if he sailed in an hour after I sailed out.
Against that, I’d left Mytilene at the edge of stasis and civil strife, and I had other duties in the north of Lesvos.
‘Set the mainsail,’ I said to Damon. ‘We’re for Lesvos.’
He was quick enough not to comment.
Nestor raised an eyebrow. ‘Can’t win ’em all, eh?’
I suspect that I growled.
# # #
When you have a reasonably new crew, as I did, impressions count. We’d gotten off to an excellent start, taking the Phoenician triremes off Lesvos, and we’d improved that by our raid on Tyre. But we’d just rowed over half of the inner sea and never even seen our quarry, and my oarsmen were fractious, to say the least.
And since I’d managed to anger both the customs official and the government, I hadn’t stopped even to load a cargo of Samian wine; sweet stuff, delicious in winter. I’ve noted before that once you give way to anger and the darkness that comes with it, you often compound your errors through oversight and irrationality, and I had just done all of those things.
We landed just at the edge of darkness on the beach below Chios. I was in a foul mood, entirely of my own making. But I had enough sense to get my ship ashore, stern first, and to see my oarsmen ashore, under cover and fed. It was warm, and I wandered the beach in the darkness, looking for a place to be by myself and to think.
But I heard a stir by the fires; that sudden burst of voices that denotes incident or trouble, and I checked my sword and hurried back.
There was a little crowd of Chians who had come down from the town. It was almost like being transported back in time, and before I’d reached the fire I’d realized that this was the beach on which I’d recovered after Lades. And that the troubles of that past were so much greater than my present troubles that my darkness was merely a re-enactment of the tragic past. I lived in the miraculous new world in which we, the Greeks, had won Salamis and Plataea. A setback was not a defeat.
But the memory of the past, especially the unjust defeats of the past, can be like an old wound that will not heal. Eh?
I knew the man before I came up to him, and it was like seeing a ghost; Stefanos, perhaps my first loyal friend and officer.
But of course, he was dead at Lades. And his brother Harpagos, dead at Salamis.
When he turned, I knew him; Neoptolimos, Stefanos’ son. With Melaina.
I embraced each in turn. They had known hardship and horror when the Persians came with fire and sword, and they had survived.
‘How’s bronze-smithing?’ Neoptolimos asked.
I laughed. ‘I haven’t heard the sound of the hammer in half a year or more,’ I said. ‘How’s fishing?’
Neoptolimos had brought his uncle’s ship alive out of the victory of Salamis where Harpagos died. He spread his arms. ‘I caught all the fish,’ he said. ‘There aren’t really any left.’
Melaina caught up the hem of her cloak, where it was weighted, and smacked him with it. ‘He’s bored,’ she said. ‘Take him away before he makes trouble.’
‘Can you raise a crew?’ I asked him.
‘I wouldn’t even have to raise my voice,’ he said. And then, his voice tighter, he said, ‘I thought… I thought you’d call for me. I hear you raided Tyre!’
A little bitterness.
It’s an odd thing. I had thought of him before the raid. But I’ve been the death of half his family, and I wondered if just this once I shouldn’t leave them alone.
Apparently Apollo, god of Chios, had other notions.
‘I’m not exactly sure where to get you a hull,’ I said. ‘But I’m sure it can be managed. What happened to your uncle’s trireme?’
He shrugged. ‘The Athenians took it back,’ he said.
I nodded. ‘Surely Chios will be sending a fleet to support the allies,’ I said.
‘We sent a dozen ships,’ he said. ‘I’m not enough of a gentleman to captain one, and I’ll be damned if I’ll serve as a sailor for a trierarch who wasn’t at Artemesium or Salamis.’
‘Fair,’ I said. ‘I’ll find you a ship.’
I spent the night talking with Melaina and Neoptolimos, and in the morning, I sailed away a happier man.
# # #
Morning. A glorious pink morning with a chill in the air. I’d slept well, the last watch, curled under my cloak, the night just cool enough to make me feel drowsy and warm and slow to rise.
Melaina came down and brought me a warm bowl of chicken soup and I drank it greedily.
‘How’s marriage?’ she asked.
I smiled. ‘Terrifying,’ I admitted.
She looked out to sea. ‘I’ve outlived two men,’ she said. ‘Not really sure what to do, now. I don’t feel old enough to be a matron.’
‘Neoptolymos no doubt thinks we’re both older than the stones,’ I said.
‘Anyone under thirty thinks those of us over thirty are nigh to death,’ she said. ‘I’ve been nigh to death,’ she went on. ‘This isn’t so bad. It’s only that I’m as bored as he is. The sea is in our blood.’
‘If you took a fishing boat and started fishing, what would happen?’ I asked.
She looked at me. She was sitting on her haunches like a much younger woman. ‘Perhaps nothing,’ she said. ‘I’ve been tempted. The sea is always interesting, at least.’
‘Maybe when Neoptolymos is gone, you should take his boat and fish,’ I said.
‘Maybe no one would speak to me,’ she said.
I lay back, sipping soup. ‘Then maybe you should go as a colonist,’ I said. ‘You are young enough, and a colony needs solid women; dependable women who know their crafts.’
She smiled. ‘You do know how to flatter a girl,’ she said. ‘What colony do you have in mind?’
I think it just sprang into my mind. I have these moments, and I ascribe them to the spirits of the air, or to a particular daemon, or perhaps to Athena or Artemis whispering in my ear.
But in that moment, with no preparation and no real prior thought, I saw this place. I don’t mean that I saw it as it turned out to be, with Therick’s hut over on the hillside. I mean, it suddenly occurred ot me that I’d never really be a good Plataean any more than Briseis would, but I could found a colony in Thrake and live out my days with my friends; and my wife would be close enough to Ionia to visit it in a long day’s sailing…. or perhaps she’d be visiting me.
In many ways, it was the most powerful idea I’ve ever had on the spur of the moment.
Listen. Many ideas crowded in on me in that moment, on a beach, speaking to one of my oldest friends. I knew the war would go on; I knew it would go on perhaps forever. And I knew that there were opportunities in the Eastern seas; adventures and politics, war and peace, sailing, perhaps even exploration.
And I knew that Briseis would never be happy in Plataea.
I’d been planning a dinner; I’ve spoken of it elsewhere, but I’d taken some steps already to gather all my friends. But now I could see a whole horizon before me, and I began to wonder why I hadn’t considered founding a colony before.
‘Perhaps I’ll found a colony,’ I said. All that, in a blink of Melaina’s dark-honey eyes.
She smiled. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘I’d need a good word with the great man, I expect.’
‘He’s heard good things about you,’ I said.
She smiled. ‘You’ll come back for Neoptolymos?’ she asked.
‘As soon as I get a hull for him,’ I said.
She looked at me. She had magnificent eyes, dark yellow, and dark hair. A true islander. Her eyes held nothing of flirtation; only a little hurt, and some hesitation. ‘He thought you’d never come for him,’ she said.
She looked away and then glanced back. ‘Do you remember making love to me, after my brother died?’ she asked.
After the disaster of Lade.
‘Yes,’ I said.
She got up, and looked down at me. ‘I suppose that I expected that you’d come back for me, then,’ she said. ‘Be sure and come back for Neoptolymos.’
I’d never even thought…
‘Melaina!’ I said. ‘I killed his father and his uncle, or near enough.’
She shrugged. ‘Harpagos went the way he’d dreamed of going. He was never meant to be a Chain peasant fisherman. He died like a lord.’ She shrugged. ‘Stefanos loved you. You’re easy to love, aren’t you?’
I’ve been wounded a few times, but that comment cut deep.
‘Yesterday, when he saw your ship, he was so angry he was going to… never mind. As soon as he saw you, all he wanted was your good grace. And I’m no better. When you are out of my sight, I curse you, Arimnestos of Plataea. But here you are, drinking my soup, taking for granted my nephew’s adoration, hatching a new plan for a colony. And I want to go with you.’
She shook her head. ‘I know you aren’t evil, and I’m quite sure I’m no one’s fool. So why do you have this power?’
Aye. And I can’t deny it, either. Men follow me. I’d spent the day before in a rage, and they feared me more than they censured me.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
She looked at me. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘That’s not a bad start. Tell me when you found your colony.’
# # #
We made Lesvos at the edge of darkness; the sun was long down behind Olympos but there was enough light in the sky for us to beach our ship under the walls. Theophilos, the archon, met us as soon as we landed, and I could see Socrates up on the wall, leaning out with an oil lamp.
‘We saw no action and reaped no glory,’ I said. But I could tell that for Theophilos, the glory of having his son back was enough. Dionysios was full of tales of living rough at sea and sparring with Leander and Kassandros and the others.
‘I’d be happy to have him again,’ I said. ‘A very good young man.’
His father glowed.
There’s the deadly power; to take a man’s son as a hostage, and make him like it. I’m careful of how I use it. It’s is charisma, pure and simple; the God or Goddess given talent to win people’s hearts. It won’t surprise you that since my talk with Melaina I’d been thinking about it. It was a voyage for thinking of all my errors; anger and its aftermath often has that effect on me.
And despite my fears, and I had plenty of them, we landed at Mytilene and the city was still loyal to Ionia. Theophilos was a cunning man, and he’d arrested only two plotters, both rich and deeply unpopular.
‘We’ll try them all together, sequester their estates, and offer payment of a few drachma a day for wall repair, which will ease some lives in the thetes class,’ he said. He shrugged, unashamed.
‘As long as we’re only punishing the guilty,’ I said.
‘No one likes to see how sausage is made,’ he muttered.
We parted, his son waving goodbye in the last light of the day, the fitful red sky glinting off his polished bronze as it flashed form under his Tyrian cloak.
A dozen tavernas right up against the sea wall, opened up. They were right to do so; I put a board across two Gallish barrels and paid every oarsman ten days back wages; thirty silver drachma. The marines and sailors got more; Old Nestor marked them down as paid on a tablet against their names. The ship’s book, as we called it, was a four-leaf wood and wax tablet set. On the back, the names of every sailor and oarsman were written in sepia; so far, none had lines through. It seemed odd that we’d fought twice and rowed over the whole fo the Easter Sea and not lost a man; I muttered a prayer to Poseidon.
Anyway, we paid them by torchlight, and let them go to their pleasures, and I wished for my wife.
Instead, I met Socrates, who waited while the men were paid and then took me for a cup of wine.
‘There’s news on the waterfront today,’ he said. ‘The grain ship from Athens touched in Cyrene. He says the siege of Amathus is a failure, and the Allied fleet is breaking up; pestilence and incompetence, sounds like.’
‘Breaking up?’ I said.
‘Sounds bad,’ he said. ‘Sounds as if the Spartans dismissed Cimon and there’s bad blood.’
I shook my head. ‘Dismissed Cimon?’ I looked at the bottom of my wine cup. ‘Perhaps it’s just a rumour,’ I said.
‘Athenian captain said he saw the Athenian fleet off the beach, and Xanthippus was coming out to take command,’ he said.
I shook my head. If this was true, it was very bad for Ionia.
In fact, it was bad for all of Greece.