She was not sure when the first thought of it came to her, but at some point her mind became the womb for the idea and her heart warmed at its development. She thought perhaps her growing relationship with Alexander was responsible, for once she articulated her fantasy, he encouraged it, but events, perhaps guided by the unseen hands of the gods, conspired to bring her to see there was a great force drawing her away from Koptos. And then the idea was already in full flower before she was conscious of it.
It was Ptolemaios who triggered the desire within her, and the desire came at an entirely unexpected moment. She had developed a close business arrangement with the wily merchant, by releasing her natron to him a two or three large amphorae at a time so as not to flood the local market and decrease the price. At the same time, knowing she could get twice the price in Elephantine, she dispatched Demetrios and two other boys trained as scribes to Elephantine with two minas of natron. Demetrios, who, as he grew taller in manhood also grew more experienced, and hearing the price was even higher in Napata, sent her a letter apologizing for the delay, but he was sure she would approve of his changing her plans. As she read his letter she wondered at the circles the gods drew in the lives of mortals, and smiled, for Ptolemaios, she had discovered, had a cousin in Elephantine. By Demetrios changing the destination market to Napata, Miri realized she had avoided risking Ptolemaios’ discovery of the true extent of her holdings. Had he known the true extent of her stock, his offering price would have been substantially higher. It was not until quite a bit later that she learned that the same cousin was the recipient of the natron she sold to Ptolemaios.
The day she received the dispatch from Demetrios, Ptolemaios arrived at her door to ask her to dine with him at an eatery off the market. By now everyone, including Ptolemaios, had heard of her liaison with Alexander, but Ptolemaios was not one to give up easily. Miri sensed he was expecting her to offer him her favours through the back door, so to speak. He understood Miri’s sensuousness through material acquisition, and played his card as a wealthy wily merchant. After a fine meal in a private apartment and some very good Greek wine, Ptolemaios, as a matter of bravado and to pique her interest, professed he had at one time thought of travelling beyond Egypt in a great trading ship.
Immediately the idea intrigued Miri, and soon she discovered Ptolemaios had gone as far as to purchase the wood to build a seafaring merchant ship. That is how, more than a little drunk, the two of them, attended by Anubis, came to be standing in a large warehouse staring down at a great stack of huge timbers nestled in a pit dug in the warehouse floor.
“My wife would not let me spend any more on it,” he complained quite forlornly, as if his spouse were Auset herself decreeing the laws of the Two Lands. He looked at her quite pathetically. “I had begun to buy whatever material I could before we were betrothed, but after our first child- well, priorities changed.”
He climbed over the railing that divided the pit from the safety of the warehouse floor, and in his drunken state almost injured himself clambering down. He banged his head against a pine log.
“Whoops!” he slurred giddily, “Too much wobbly juice!”
Miri laughed and climbed down beside him. Anubis whined at them from floor level. “Why is it in this pit?”
“To prevent the wood from drying out too much. If it dries, it becomes too brittle to bend into shape.”
“Oh,” said Miri, “So, after all this time, it has not dried out?”
Ptolemaios shook his head. “There is still some suppleness left in it, but I am not a carpenter! Could be it is too old.”
Ptolemaios dropped into a maudlin stupor. “Too old! Too old, too old, too old!” he looked at Miri. “That’s what my wife says! I’m too old! Too old for such nonsense! Hah!”
He sobered for a moment. “If I could find someone who would build this boat, I would give him the wood!”
“I will build the boat!” said Miri suddenly. She was surprised by her outburst. And so was Ptolemaios. They stood staring at each other, both wondering at the reality of what she had said.
“But-” protested Ptolemaios, “you are a woman! A woman could never build such a boat!”
“You think not?” asked Miri, her voice rising in a tone her dog recognized as a warning. “How much are you willing to bet?”
Ptolemaios grinned leeringly at her.
“You have two hundred days to build the ship and float her in the Arabian Sea. If you fail to finish her in that time, I have two hundred nights in your bed!”
To avoid the jealousy of Ptolemaios’ wife, the possession of the wood passed ostensibly to Castor, one of Miri’s scribes, in return for a fresh funeral copy of The Book of The Dead. The atmosphere in Miri's house became charged almost overnight and the pace of life there quickened. Miri discovered the landfall below her house would, with a little modification, serve as a boatyard. She immediately had Castor hire a work gang, and they began excavating behind the garden wall to lay the foundations for the yard and smoothing out the slope for a slipway, bringing in fill from a quarry nearby. The garden wall was dismantled at the back of the house to provide the foundation for the site.
As soon as construction was underway, Miri left Castor in charge and went to visit Polydueces, reputed to be the best boat builder in Koptos. His nephew, Sylvanius, had arranged an appointment with the old man, and Miri had had to facilitate the arrangement with a bribe which she knew the old man would never see.
Polydeuces lived in the ground floor in a small narrow house on the quayside by the river. The yard outside the house was littered with scraps of lumber and assorted small timbers. She was ushered the dark interior of the house, and sat opposite the old man at his table. Laid out before him was a loaf of bread, a few dates and some wine. He broke off a piece of fresh bread from the loaf before him and offered it to her.
“So,” he said matter-of-factly, as she took the bread, “You are the woman who wishes to build a ship to sail to Zanzibar!”
“Yes,” replied Miri. “In two hundred days!”
“Then, perhaps I shall go somewhere else!” Miri said, rising from her seat.
“I did not say I could not do it!” retorted Polydeuces sharply. “The difficult I can manage, but the impossible- well, it takes a little longer! You will not find anyone else in time to complete your ship!”
“But you are blind!” exclaimed Miri.
“And you are a woman!” replied Polydeuces quietly.
Miri sat down.
“You will do it?” she asked hopefully.
“How wide is her beam?”
“I shall do it!”
Miri sighed in relief.
“But you must meet my price!”
“Name it!” replied Miri quickly, still flushed the master carpenter had agreed to build her boat.
“You must take me with you!”
The next day, the timber was delivered to her house and Polydeuces, with Sylvanius leading him, arrived to inspect it. Each piece he ran his hand along its length, and sniffed, and he would say to Sylvanius, “Yes” if he liked the piece, and “No” if he did not. He and Sylvanius approached Miri as she discussed daily items of business with Castor.
“You do not have the right wood for the main mast nor for the spars.” Sylvanius said to her, “You must find these right away! They will not be found in Egypt!” Sylvanius handed her a small piece of pottery. “These are the dimensions and the weight needed!” With that Sylvanius and Polydeuces left her yard.
Castor held out his hand to her and she gave him the ostraca.
“Your wish is my command!” Castor said with a smile and disappeared into the house to pack his belongings. By that afternoon he was ready to embark for Alexandria to search out the required beams. Miri gave him a few pieces of silver for his expenses and two tusks of ivory for the purchase of the wood, and sent him down to the harbour with Demetrios to gain passage to Alexandria.
The days had passed so swiftly, Miri reacted only from moment to moment, and her goal of building a merchant ship became buried in the actual day-to day events of building that ship. For an interminable time, nothing had seemed to happen, though Miri rushed about making sure that it happened quickly. As the demands of the boat grew, Miri realized she had to increase the size of her holdings to make money enough to outfit the expedition.
She purchased a sizable store of corn from the temple granaries. She picked two more of her boys accompany Castor and Demetrios to Alexandria to trade the grain for gold. She wanted to travel with them for all three were young and still barely out of the cloister, but she knew work on the ship would grind to a halt if she left Koptos. But she was at her wits end for she knew the traders in Alexandria would eat the two boys alive.
At that moment, Lady Fortune smiled upon her, for when she went down to the harbour to check on Castor, who had not yet returned from securing a passage down to Alexandria, Miri saw a familiar sail in the harbour. As the ship beached she ran down to greet it.
“Theophilus!” she called out to the captain, as he stepped ashore. He had filled out a little more than she had last seen him, but other than that, was unchanged. He turned in her direction and frowned for a moment, then at seeing such a beautiful woman calling his name, he smiled broadly at her.
“You have me at a disadvantage, my lady, for though you seem somehow familiar, I cannot-”
“It’s me, Miri!” cried Miri, “Miriam! I was travelling with your aunt Mermaat! Surely you remember?”
“Of course,” replied Theophilos, frowning, “But I cannot say I know you- You are not at all as I remember! Surely you had black hair? And your eyes! How can they have changed?”
“A lot has happened!” replied Miri quickly, grasping his arm, “You must come to my villa and dine with me!”
“Your-” Theophilos confused by her changed appearance. “You have a villa?”
“Yes! Yes! You will stay with me tonight!” cried Miri. “I insist!”
Theophilos dug in his heels and slipped from her grasp.
“Of course, I will dine with you, but first I must unload my wares, and finish my business! I must find a cargo for the return trip to Alexandria.”
“Your boat is empty?” asked Miri, amazed at her luck. “I have a cargo for you! We will discuss it after dinner!”
“The dinner was delicious!” declared Theophilos. “Now, what of this cargo?”
Miri outlined her plan to sell corn in Alexandria, but after listening patiently Theophilos shook his head.
“You have it backwards, Miri. Though you may get a better price for the corn in Alexandria, we can get a better price by far from the Romans if we pass by the port altogether and take the Tanaic mouth of the Nile. I know a shipping agent there who will put us in touch with a Roman sea captain who will carry the grain directly to Rome without paying duty. He will pay double the price you can get in Alexandria.”
“Smuggling?” asked Miri, shocked that Theophilos, nephew of Mermaat would contemplate such a thing. She realized it was not just the thickness of his beard and his waist which had changed in him. His eyes twinkled, and Miri warmed to the rogue that he had become. Miri motioned for Castor to pour them more wine.
“The rules of the game are set in the Emperor’s favour” said Theophilos, “and it is not wise to play at any board where the dice are weighted against you. Let us just say that Tiberius has more than his fair share through the Imperial Tax, and we, his loyal subjects, not enough. There is no sense in feeding the boar sitting on your back, for the fatter he gets, the harder it is to dislodge him.”
“So, with what shall this captain pay us?” asked Miri.
“Roman wine,” he replied expansively, “Enough to trade for all the gold I can carry from Elephantine. The Roman garrison there gets little enough of their home wines and will, when primed by the contents of an amphora or two mixed with the foulest garum I can find, pay a hefty price for the drink on which they were weaned. And we get to pocket not only the profit, but the tax as well!”
“How can you avoid paying taxes? asked Miri, aghast at the audacity of the trade.
“Grease a few palms with the right colour oil. It is no problem!”
Theophilos spread his arms magnanimously, and lay back on the divan. Miri had only a few minutes before been thinking of a meager profit, and now it seemed, the trade would multiply her fortunes.
“How long will this take?” she asked
“Three weeks down the Nile, two days less up, one more to Elephantine.”
Miri did some quick calculations in her head.
“So, how many trips can you make in the next two hundred days?” she asked gleefully, pouring Theophilos another glass of wine.
Castor and the two boys, Demetrios and Pollux waved happily from the passenger deck of Theophilus’ ship as it glided quietly away from the beach and was caught by the downriver stream. The shaved heads of the young scribes bobbed about excitedly as they vied for the best view of their departed mistress. Miri’s heart was filled with pride and happiness and she felt good about her new business relationship with Theophilus. That he was the nephew of Mermaat seemed to cement their connection to each other and she let out a contented sigh. She turned to walk back through the market to her home, but stopped short as she bumped into Alexander who had been standing silently behind her.
“Alexander!” said Miri clutching her heart, “You gave me a start!” He stared darkly into her, and as she stared into his eyes, she realized he had been moody for the last two days. She had been so busy with business she had not noticed. But now she did.
“What’s wrong, Alex? Have I been ignoring you?” She smiled and slipped her hand into the crook of his arm, then turned him shoreward and they began to walk. He slipped her hand from his arm and held her hand firmly in his. But his mind was closed.
They walked hand in hand in silence, but finally Miri could stand the forced quiet no longer.
“There is something bothering you,” she said. It was not a question for she knew it to be true.
“It is nothing!” Alexander said sternly.
“Then, it will be nothing for you to tell me about it,” Miri said glibly, trying to lighten the mood.
Alexander stopped in his tracks, and simmered. His glare unsettled Miri, but it lasted only a second. He had to stoke his anger to bring it to a boil, so he could overcome his better judgment and release the steam of his burning thoughts.
“I do not like the way you are so familiar with Theophilus!” he blurted out.
Miri was taken aback. She had not given her contact with Theophilus much thought.
“You touch him, as a lover would touch!”
Miri was speechless, but concern passed a frown across her face.
“They are talking in the market!” he added pointedly.
“I cannot help what they say in the market!” Miri snapped. “If you have something to say to me, then say it, but don’t ever- ever!- bring others’ opinions into a difference between you and I!”
“Then there is something!” cried Alexander, his eyes flashing like the sun from a spear’s point.
“No! There is not!” Miri’s blood had reached its boiling point, and Anubis, her shadow, aware of the growing storm, but unsure of its direction, cringed and moved out of reach of Miri’s feet. Passers-by, stared at the couple curiously, sensing the discord, and disturbed by its presence in their day.
Alexander grasped Miri by the wrist and pushed her into a side alley to avoid the stares of the townspeople. Miri twisted her arm, but he simply held her tighter and wrapped his other arm about her.
“Don’t get angry!” he hissed, hoping to settle her down. “But everyone knows you and I are a couple, and your late night rendezvous’ started tongues wagging! You know how people talk. It makes me look bad!”
“Makes you look bad!” snorted Miri. “Why did you allow such talk to go unchallenged, if you are my lover? Is not my honour as great as yours? You should have defended me instead of remaining silent and then accusing me of wrongdoing!”
“I-” began Alexander, then he fell silent, and his look softened. He released his grip on her wrist, and folded his arm about her.
“You are right!” he whispered softly. “I am sorry!”
He stroked her hair, but Miri’s back was still up and she turned away. His finger came up gently under her chin and turned her face toward him and he kissed her. The touch of his lips was as soft on hers as a butterfly alighting upon a hyacinth. A warmth rippled from their touching, and her mouth opened like the blossoming rose to the sun and he pushed against her. Miri, her anger flushed, and her passion redirected, pushed hungrily back. Locked together by an irresistible lust, they spun away, deeper into the twisting blind alley, and in a glorious uncontrollable passion, made love amongst hundreds of large bales of raw cotton.
The hull of the ship was ready to be laid. An argument had broken out about the advisability of building a ship without a keel, for two of the woodworkers were of a mind the ship would snap in two at the first wave. When they brought their concerns to Miri, she simply told them Polydeuces was in charge of the engineering, and that she trusted in his judgement. They continued their objections, but she dismissed them with a wave of her hand.
Their comments though, disturbed her, and in a private moment that evening with Polydeuces, she brought up their concerns to the old man.
“Greeks!” he said disgustedly as he spat onto the ground. “They are convinced their way is the only way!”
“Has the sun set?” he asked suddenly.
“Your boat,” he began, “Your boat is like no other which has sailed for a thousand years. There is no keel; for that is the way we build our ships. When the wave rises, so will your ship, just as the Sun rises with the dawn. From stem to stern, your ship will be held together by a thick cable woven from the most tenacious strands of grass we can find. When the seas rise against her, the crew will twist the cable and tighten it, and the tension in the hull will push out to the water. The whole boat will groan and stiffen. The ropes shall give her a voice that only those willing to listen will hear. The boat herself will tell you how to use the wind and how to plough the waters!
An Egyptian ship has no need of a Greek backbone!”
Polydueces strained against his arthritic knees, and pulled himself slowly to his feet. Miri stood up and held his hand.
“Walk with me,” he said, “Take me through your garden.”
Arm in arm, they wandered about the garden, and Polydeuces breathed large lungfuls of the heavily scented air. As they rounded the pool, a glorious wall of sweetness enveloped them. The heavy scent of the jasmine bush by the walkway embraced them, and wrapped Miri and the old man in her scented bosom.
“Do not worry about your ship, mistress,” said Polydeuces, “Just keep an eye on the clouds on the horizon, and the other on the rats below the decks!”
With that Polydeuces called for Sylvanius, who was throwing dice with the shipwrights by the boat yard. As she watched him disappear, Alexander came up behind her and wrapped his arms about her waist. He kissed her on the neck.
“What was that all about?” he asked playfully.
Miri twisted in Alexander’s embrace.
”Nothing!” she said simply, “Nothing at all!”
“What’s wrong?” Miri asked Polydeuces.
“There are some problems in gaining enough vegetable oil to soak the wood.”
“That’s impossible!” said Miri.
“Apparently not! The wife of your paramour has bought out the entire town’s supply at triple the market value, and promises to buy any which shows up.”
“The wife of my-”
“Ptolemaios!” said Miri.
“Your paramour-” replied Polydeuces.
“He is not my paramour!”
“Whatever you say, mistress-”
“Why would she do that?” asked Miri incredulously.
“Nature has no fury to match a woman scorned!”
“I call an adze an adze, mistress.”
Anubis was noticeably absent from the room, as he too had an understanding of Polydeuces turn of phrase. Miri couldn’t believe the change in tide, and she slammed her fist upon the table. Here she was without enough oil to soak the ropes and beams. Still it wasn’t a disaster yet, but it would mean letting Theophilus loose on acquiring the oil. She was still nervous of Mermaat’s nephew’s penchant for skimming the edges of the law. It was a weak point in her strategy, for if he were caught and her name came up, the Roman praefect would have her brought before a magistrate, and the Romans were particularly antipathetic towards women in business. Especially shady business.
Though she settled the work crew, and emphasized Polydeuces’ authority in all concerns about the engineering of the new craft, Miri was hesitant as she contracted the prophets from the temple of Isis and Amon to perform the sacrifice before the hull was laid down. Nonetheless, she sent out invitations to all the neighbours for the dedication ceremonies, and ensured that a morning feast was prepared for the celebration.
The main planks, hewn and fitted, but not yet tied, were placed together, where the ship would grow plank by plank. At the rising sun, the ship was dedicated to Rei, and a white bullock was sacrificed, it’s blood sprinkled over the beams to ensure the blessing of Rei. Then a white ram dedicated to Amon, the Hidden One, and Miri sent up a silent prayer to Auset. A small amphora of wine was poured over the wooden pieces, and then dashed against the wood to break the vessel, so no other could profane the sacred clay container by using it for a more mundane purpose.
A shrine to the gods was erected beside the worksite, and having performed their official function and cleansed the carcasses, the priests and their retinue, removed their sacred vestments and the breakfast feast began. There would be no work done that day, but Miri was satisfied. The official ceremony meant the ship had been born into the material world, and was no longer simply simmering within her thoughtd. It finally had substance.
She was broken from her reverie by Claudia, who bustled in from behind, caught Miri by the arm and steered her through the crowd.
“I wish to talk to you!” she hissed.
“Claudia-” protested Miri, but then gave herself to the direction Claudia was steering her.
“Ptolemaios is my husband!” declared Claudia fiercely.
“You are to stay away from him! You could have any man you wanted, but Ptolemaios is mine!”
“He’s leaving me to travel on this damn ship!”
“How is that?” asked Miri.
“He said you had asked him to sail with you!”
“Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on with you two!”
A long silence ensued as Miri waited for Claudia to continue.
“And?” she prompted.
“And?” echoed Claudia.
“And what is it that’s going on?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about!”
“Claudia, I’m shocked!” declared Miri, “How could you think such a thing of me?”
“Your appetites are quite well known in this town,” said Claudia, “And Ptolemaios is just a man-”
“Which explains what?” asked Miri.
“Well, he couldn’t resist your charms, nor could any man-”
“So what makes you think I have charmed Ptolemaios?”
“He can speak of nothing else but you and this damned ship!”
“And you think I am the object of his uncontrolled desire?”
Changing tack, Miri smiled, and slipped her hand into Claudia’s arm. “You are right of course! He does want me!”
Claudia’s lip trembled and her free hand came up to calm it.
“But he wants something more than that! He wants to sail in that ship!”
“Claudia, listen, the wood for the ship was in Ptolemaios’ warehouse. Do you know how long it has been there?”
Claudia frowned, but she knew the answer.
“Since before we were married.”
“Well before he ever knew of me! And he has kept the wood all that while. Do you know why?”
Claudia shook her head,
“Because he needs this dream! Because a destiny must be fulfilled! He did not have the courage to grasp the horns of the bull before he sprang over its back! He had no faith in his talents, his skills or the gods that watch over us! He will ever be unhappy while that wood sits unused in his warehouse!
His destiny is still trapped within the boards of that boat! Can I ask you Claudia, do you love Ptolemy?”
“Of course I love him!”
“And would you do anything to keep him from lying in my arms?”
“I would kill you!”
“There is something you can do to make sure that will never happen!”
“Can you keep a secret?”
Somehow they both knew it was a lie, but a tacit agreement is worth more than none.
“I-” Miri hesitated. “I made an- an agreement- with Ptolemaios, that if I could not build his boat, he could- well, we were drunk at the time-”
“A few glasses of wine loosened my tongue. It was a foolish idea- a bet! I bet him if I could not build a ship in two hundred days, I would allow him in my bed-”
“What?” screeched Claudia.
“Shhh!” Miri pulled Claudia into a more discreet alcove.
“I don’t know why I did it, a little too much of the spirit of Bacchus, perhaps, but there you have it. Unless that boat is finished in less than two hundred days, I will be forced by my vow to the gods to sleep with him! You have to help me!”
“So you can sail off with him?”
“Look, Ptolemaios will never be happy until he fulfills his dream. Do you want to stand in the way of that?”
“But how can you ask me to let him sail away with you?” wailed Claudia. She dabbed her eyes with a filigreed napkin.
“Claudia, listen! Listen to me!” urged Miri, “It’s not as bad as you think it is!”
“Oh my Heavens!” moaned Claudia, “If you don’t build the ship, you’ll sleep with my husband, and if you do, he’ll sail away with you! How can you ask me to even consider the alternatives?”
“There is more than either or, Claudia,” said Miri gently, “You could come with us!”
“-could come with us!” finished Miri staring into Claudia’s eyes, as the thought sank slowly through the poor woman’s defenses.
“I...could...come...with...you-” repeated Claudia slowly as the thought found fertile soil.
The possibility sprang fully armed from the ground
“I could come with you!” she cried.
“You could come with us!” reaffirmed Miri smiling happily.
“There is just one thing though, Claudia-”
“What? What is it?” asked Claudia.
“Well,” replied Miri slowly, “I really, really could use some vegetable oil. A lot of vegetable oil…”
The day after the dedication, before the boat of Rei had reached its zenith, a tax collector stood in the atrium. He carried himself with all the pomp required of his office bolstered by the veiled threat of Imperial retribution, should her affairs not be of his liking.
Miri smiled up at him as an apology for keeping him waiting as she read his affidavit. Finally, she rolled the small scroll into a tight tube. "You seem to have an inflated idea of my possessions.”
He smiled wanly.
“There is no mistake. I, myself have itemized the chattels, and noted you have not declared your slaves...”
“But I have none.”
“Twelve, not counting the kitchen staff. A contingent of seventeen.”
“I have no slaves,” repeated Miri.
“They reside in your domicile-”
“Of their own free will!”
“You provide them with shelter, clothing and food-”
“It is not I who provide them with such things-”
“Mistress, I have no doubt, we all daily praise the gods for their beneficence, but we all know the gods provide for those who provide for themselves. And in this case it is clear you provide for a household for seventeen who work for you!”
“But they are not slaves!” argued Miri.
“Are they paid a salary?”
“Have you adopted them?”
“Have their families agreed, or been paid for the services you require of them?”
“Look, this is getting us nowhere-”
“Answer the question!”
“They are not slaves!”
“I say they are!”
Miri sensed she would not be able to penetrate the taxman’s narrowed logistical deductions. She sighed, and the taxman took her exasperation as an affront.
“And,” he added pointedly, “you owe the poll tax.”
Miri swallowed her natural instinct to argue.
“Is there anything else?”
The tax collector cleared his throat and reached into his dispatch satchel and proffered a rather official looking scroll.
“You must immediately cease and desist from your business enterprises on your property!”
“To wit, the construction of a commercial vessel within the city limits!”
“A complaint has been filed by citizens in your neighbourhood that your enterprise has greatly deflated the land values hereabouts, and that furthermore, these said citizens have asked the local magistrate for relief from their tax burden as the value we have based our tribute was established before your enterprise was established.”
Miri sat down on the divan, the wind knocked from her sails. Suddenly, the effort of building the ship and the headaches it caused, seemed too much of a burden. At that precise moment, Claudia entered the house with her small coterie of slaves. She carried a steaming pot of warm stew, a peace offering to her neighbour. A fleeting recognition of the situation mixed with an expression of guilt flickered across her face, but she recovered her previous demeanor without missing a beat.
“Tractinius!” she said sweetly, “How nice to see you again!”
The tax collector was caught off guard, for he knew full well, Claudia was the complainant whose submission had predicated his visit to Miri’s mansion.
Claudia smiled at Miri, and placed the stewpot on a low table, and indicated to her slaves to do the same with the pots they carried. A full meal replete with wine was thus laid out within an instant.
“We were just about to dine,” said Claudia, “Surely you will join us Tractinius.”
“I-” Tractinius began.
Claudia slipped her hand into the crook of his arm and led him to a small divan beside Miri. “Of course, you will-” soothed Claudia, “So tell me, how is Magistrate Polinius?”
The meal was delicious, and Claudia deftly directed the wine waiter to Tractinius’ goblet, so that he was soon very relaxed in their company. Miri wondered at the incredible communication Claudia had with her retinue, and how she could direct hem without so much as a word being spoken. And, of course, Claudia was the mistress of small talk.
“So what brings you to see us?” she asked Tractinius at length.
He explained his mission, though his usual precision of speech was somewhat impeded by the influence of Bacchus.
“And is there a date attached to this order?” Claudia asked sweetly.
“No. But it does say-”
“Then, you can appreciate these things take time. It would take several days for this poor woman to relocate her business. Do you not think we should have some agreement as to the length to which the dismantling should take place?”
Tractinius was a goblet and a half past thinking clearly and he merely grunted in agreement and nodded as if he were thinking.
“You can appreciate the complexity of finding a new site and moving all the essentials from one place to another will take some time-”
Tractinius nodded, his eyes focused on Miri. He had not noticed before how incredibly beautiful she was, and the spirit of Dionysus now flowed through his veins, lighting a fire that had not been allowed to burn for a considerable time, and his heart warmed appreciably.
“What would you say to forty-nine days?” asked Claudia. Miri’s eyebrows rose. The exact number of days she had left to build the ship, not counting the two-week trip to the Arabian Sea and the launching.
“Hmm?” Tractinius had not heard a word Claudia had said.
“Forty-nine days!” prompted Claudia.
“Oh, yes! Yes, that would be fine!” His attention turned to Miri.
Claudia slipped the order from his hand and unrolled it, her eyes scanning the document quickly. She carried it to the writing desk in the hall and spread it out. She quickly jotted down an agreement, and brought the scroll and writing tablet to the divan. She held the tablet in front of Tractinius and placed the quill in his hand.
He signed it without taking his eyes from Miri.
Claudia passed the scroll to Miri who read Claudia’s inscription, then quickly signed the agreement.
Claudia and Miri exchanged satisfied glances, and Tractinius fell senseless from the divan and began to snore.
In the warm afterglow of their lovemaking, motionless, Miri and Alexander lay entwined, glued together by each other's body fluids. Sweat glistened on their bodies forming a wet skin that enveloped them both in the still heat of the night. The gauze curtains hung lifelessly over and around them, for no breeze so much as whispered over the land, and the entire world lay in languid supplication beneath the starry sky. There was only the honeysuckle heat of passion spent and the grateful resignation of total contentment. A column of sweet smoke rose lazily in a flowering spiral from a bowl of glowing incense beside the bed, and answered only to the soft inhalation of lovers’ breath.
“You must marry me,” whispered Alexander in her ear.
Miri smiled without opening her eyes.
“That amuses you?" Alexander asked.
Miri nodded, and her smile broadened.
“I have no wish to marry.”
Alexander sat up.
“I am serious!” he declared indignantly.
“Oh, Alexander, I know you are!” Miri lazily opened her eyes and gazed at him through heavy lids, “And that is your trouble! You are far, far, too serious!”
“Well, one of us must be!”
“Soon you will be too old for marriage!” He instantly regretted his words. Miri rolled away from him.
“I didn’t mean-”
He stood up from the bed and walked to the open window. The moon was full and floated gracefully in the clear night sky. He stared up at the thousands of stars which twinkled happily back at him, and he felt an aching sadness. How could he feel so alone with such a beautiful woman?
“Miri-” he turned, but Miri had already fallen asleep. Alexander reached down and picked up his kilt and wrapped it about his waist. He shook his head and walked out of the bedroom, across the courtyard, and slipped out into the street.
Miri rolled onto her back and stared up at the ceiling. Above her head, a large black spider hung from a single thread, letting itself down a few fingerbreadths at a time. Miri closed her eyes for a moment to gather her energy, then gracefully slipped from the bed and passed her hand across the spider’s thread. The sticky silk stuck to her hand and she carried the dangling arachnid out into the garden. She deposited the spider on a small bush and stared up at the moon. Alexander’s thoughts were echoed back to her from the face of the moon. He wants to possess me, she thought sadly. That is not love, but fear. When he asks me to be a wife from love and not from fear, I shall marry him.
But the moon, for he had seen so many lovers from his throne in the sky, knew the fear in Alexander was too strong to overcome his love, and told Miri of his feelings. She sensed Alexander’s loneliness, and though she was deeply saddened by it, she knew she could never help him dispel it. He is not the one, she thought sadly. He is not the One.
Over the next few weeks, Miri developed a deeper appreciation for her neighbour Claudia. As supplies for the ship arrived promptly and sometimes even before their need was anticipated, Miri began to realize Claudia was not only the driving force behind Ptolemaios’ business enterprises, but the intelligence that directed it. He was only the figurehead for her business. As they slowly accustomed themselves to each other, they both relaxed, and even began to share intimacies shared by friends.
Claudia had brought her riches into the marriage, and Ptolemaios had sacrificed his own dreams to fulfil hers. Now, Claudia was positioning her resources to give him back his dreams. Miri was thankful for Claudia’s support and encouragement, for the woman had no sense of defeat about her. Soon the sides of the ship were complete and the internal framing began. The holds had volume and the skeleton within the hull outlined the deck.
Castor returned with the tall straight fir of Lebanon, and Miri often went out to visit them where they lay in the yard, for they came from her own land so far way. As she ran her hands across the timber, she could feel the hills of Canaan and Lebanon within its grain. It seemed both appropriate and ironic that the trees of her homeland should be carrying her even farther way from Canaan than she had already come. Yet at the same time, there was a strange sense that they would help her home somehow. The thought was absurd, for the Hindu Sea was as far away from Canaan as she could think of being.
She spent some time gathering shipmates. She knew Alexander would not stand being left behind, and she had confidence in his ability to captain a ship, though her heart would rather have had Theophilus as captain, but as Alexander pointed out, Theophilus was a river captain, not experienced in sailing on the open sea. So, the crew slowly gathered.
Castor and his companion Pollux, herself and Alexander, Claudia and Ptolemaios, Polydeuces and his nephew Silvanius. Demetrios had adamantly elected to remain behind to “take care of your affairs”, but Miri heard from Pollux who had travelled with Demetrios, the quiet slave suffered terribly from seasickness. She was grateful though he was staying behind for she had no doubt about his honesty and fealty to her.