Having taken on as much water as they could carry, the adventurers decided to beat the prevailing winds and to keep well asea of any ports or coast to avoid sharing their cargo with avaricious tax collectors and pirates. After their voyage across the Erythrian Sea, well away from land, the crew was confident in their seamanship, and as they neared past the Horn of Africa, their spirits soared.
Their ebulliance was short lived, for a red sail closed in on their flank. It was obvious the ship was chasing them, and meant no goodwill. Chandra climbed the mast as lookout and called the progress of the closing privateer. They had no armour and few weapons. The Heart of Isis was not prepared nor armed for battle. Miri gathered the bow she had won from the Indian prince and Drusilla donated her axe to a large seaman whose muscles seemed better suited to wielding it. Sylvanius called for oars and the crew unlashed the oars and raced to fit the oars to their locks. The red sailed ship was now close enough to hear the beat of their drum keeping time for the oarsmen.
Sylvanius called for oars up, then down, and as the first stroke splashed into the water, the Heart of Isis sang. They unfurled a new sail, using the bowsprit the Indian ship builders had added to her, and the pitch of the sea rose beneath the Heart of Isis. Immediately, she pulled away from the pirates, and the pirate ship, already taxed by their pulling toward the Heart of Isis lost their heart and dropped aft.
Miri laughed as a great cry of joy rose from the crew, and excited by their escape, the crew poured all their strength and energy into pushing the ship as fast as she could go. And their speed was amazing. The exhilaration of the crew rose as a school of dolphins sent by Poseidon himself broke at their bow, and the race began between the messengers of the sea god and the Heart of Isis. Drusilla ran forward to watch the dolphins leaping in her bow wave.
Miri and Parvati, at a more sedate pace, joined her. Drusilla was crying.
“I have no one left!” Drusilla said through her tears.
“You are not alone, Dru,” said Miri softly, and put her arm around her young friend.
Drusilla stared at the dolphins flashing through the water.
“I mean family!” said Drusilla. “I have no family!”
Drusilla lay her head on Miri’s breast, and they sat, listening to the passing water and staring into the blue sea.
“You are not alone, Miss Drusilla,” said Parvati, “I will adopt you into my family. You can join my taravad. I have no sisters here, and have need of a sister like you.”
Drusilla smiled and wiped away a tear. She sat up.
“Shall we all be sisters, then?” asked Parvati. Drusilla looked to Miri.
“All for one, and one for all!” said Miri and held out a hand to each woman.
“All for one and One for All!” repeated Parvati and Drusilla.
The prow of the Heart of Isis gently touched the sands of Egypt.
“Kemet!’ whispered Miri as she felt the ship beach. There was a glorious moment of calm. No one aboard the ship moved. The beaching was the end of the voyage, and none aboard the Isis wanted it to end. Seamen are nomads, and a moment of rest brings an undefinable sadness to such hearts. There was a sweetness to the end of a voyage, but none of the exhilaration and excitement of embarkation. A goal once reached, loses its allure, and in this moment, this arrival, all that had been left behind at the beginning of the voyage now came back to the Hellene Egyptians who now found themselves with the prospect of rejoining relatives who may have already given them up as lost. Tears would flow.
Miri sent word with a mounted courier to Claudia, Ptolemaios and Demetrios in Koptos to send a mule train large enough for their cargo, and to contact Theophilos. She sent a sailor with the messenger who was eager to return to his family in Koptos, and gave the man a small chest of pepper as his payment, enough to support his family for two years.
She sealed her message to her Egyptian partners with ribbon and wax and imprinted it with her signet ring. Much to her relief, she had to deal with a mildly nefarious tax collector on the beach, and she managed to lessen the Roman Emperor’s share by increasing the commission to the tax collector. Her time in India had sharpened her ability to deal with bureaucrats and she much preferred the honestly larcenous to the strictly obsequious yet adamantine toady, anxious to gain prestige with their superiors.. The most successful of the scribes, she decided, were not greedy, and so did not milk her dry, but managed a comfortable living from their office, and engaged their victims in conspiracy against the authorities. This was sharing in the best sense. Each of the participants received compensation for their efforts, and the Emperor, whose coffers were in the millions never noticed his share had diminished when the skimming was done judiciously. The transaction of clearing her cargo with the customs agent left her feeling content and happy to be back. They conversed in Aramaic, and the conversation had done her heart good.
The crew of the Heart of the Isis made camp and awaited the arrival of the caravan that would take their goods to Koptos through Wadi Hammamat. It would take the messenger they had hired several days to reach Koptos and a week for Claudia and Ptolemaios to send a caravan. Local traders came out in full force, knowing by the Malayalam sailors aboard, she would be carrying a rich cargo. Miri had loaded a small amount of local muslin for trading on the beach to ensure the seals on her more precious cargo were not broken. Once the pepper jars were opened, they would disappear rapidly, and not much of their weight would not have passed through her books.
The camp was again a hive of activity, and people buzzed about. Sylvanius had stationed sailors on and below decks to ensure that none of the cargo went missing, and they fretted constantly for the cargo was enough to buy seven king’s ransoms. The entire area was stripped of workers as the locals flocked to the beach to catch a glimpse of the Indian princess, Parvati. Several people mistook Miri’s dark eyes as that of an Easterner, and they often referred to her as the Princess of Magadha. Miri relished her new role as an Indian princess and dressed in her sari, she fit the role perfectly. Drusilla, however, fretted terribly. She wanted to travel to Alexandria with Miri, but then again, she also wanted to set sail for India and seek her own fortune with Parvati and Sylvanius, and she bounced erratically in planning one path and then the other.
Sylvanius, now ship’s captain, the three women decided, should establish a household in Myos Hormos, and the company began negotiations to purchase a small piece of land along the shoreline that overlooked the beach and would afford a great view of the landing site. Drusilla became enthralled by selecting the real estate, and climbed the rocky rises to find the best view upon which to build a taravad compound. Though Miri had helped Parvati with her Greek during the long voyage, Drusilla took the task upon herself to educate Parvati in the new language.
In return, Drusilla had learned of the taravads of Malayalam, and had agreed that the social order was the best fit not only in a maritime, but any, culture. Indeed, it seemed to take into account human nature in a way that Western Patriarchate did not. No one need give up nor totally give in to animal passions, and a lost husband did not create any hardship for the family.
“I shall have seven husbands!” she announced grandly, “Each a prince in a different country!”
Parvati laughed. “Princes are a handful! Are you sure of your wish?”
“Of course!” replied Drusilla, “I have met more than one man who desires me to treat him as one, and yet none have had the wherewithal, to treat me as a prince should treat his wife!”
“You will fit well in Malayalam!” declared Parvati.
Finally, their own caravan arrived from Koptos. Ptolemaios proudly rode a mule at its head, and one of three four-wheeled carts carried Claudia grandly. They had brought goods, mostly wine, olive oil and grain, for sale in Myos Hormos with them, and they had arrived just in time for the weekly bazaar. The sale went well, and they bartered for more animals to carry the entire cargo in one train. Thus unencumbered of their wares, the caravan was loaded, and they set off for Koptos. Polydeuces, Sylvanius and Parvati remained with the ship, as they still had to discuss the berthing fees for the Heart of Isis, and finalize the purchase of land for their new home.
They set off at first light and Miri was hung over. They had enjoyed a wonderful party the night before and she had drank some very fine wine supplied by Ptolemaios and Claudia. Once into her cups, it seemed as though she had never left Egypt. They had talked and danced into the wee hours, and Miri had a vague sense of dancing the dance of the seven veils, as well as sharing an intimate moment with a handsome sailor, though she could not be sure whether the memory was from this world or the twilight realm of dreams.
She had opted to walk simply because her head did not sit well on a pillow, and the constant swaying on a donkey’s back simply brought her stomach into her throat. She drank as much water as she possibly could before they left, and the liquid now sloshed noisily in her stomach as she walked. It was going to be a long day.
Wells were spaced along the road through Wadi Hammamat , and at each well, a watchtower stood guard attended by a small retinue of Roman auxiliary soldiers. Miri had not noticed the soldiers on her outbound journey, but for some reason now, perhaps because she had not been in Egypt for so many years, she was more aware of the Roman presence. She mentioned it to Claudia, and who replied the Romans had increased their presence in the area. The Ala Vocontorium auxiliary force had been assigned to Koptos by the Tiberius after Roman engineers had begun exploration of the Eastern Desert and discovered a number of new granite formations. At each stop, their travel documents issued by the tax collector at Myos Hormos was checked against the cargo.
The process was quite nerve wracking for the presence of pepper had been expunged from their records. Bandits abounded in the area and Ptolemaios and Claudia hired their own guards, well oiled and well armed Nubians, who kept to themselves for the most part. None of the members of the expedition had thought they should declare the true value of the caravan, one for tax reasons, and the other for fear that the bandits would have spies amongst the officials that populated the road to Koptos.
The road had been repaired and widened since she had traveled it, and they passed several monstrous wagons rolling on ten and twelve wheels, hauled by teams of twenty mules. The noise they made was horrendous. Groaning, rumbling, grumbling, squealing and squeaking, the wagons headed west carried huge columns of carved granite destined for buildings in Rome, and those traveling east empty rumbled more easily and at a faster pace. The road was far more traveled than she had remembered. Most of the traffic seemed to moving westward, and it seemed to Miri as though Rome was emptying the land of all its gifts, stripping Kemet of all that it held dear.
Though the air was hot, it was also dry, and the dusty heat, though it parched her throat, her body seemed better able to deal with the heat than the tropical moist heat of India. The parched land seemed to embrace her. The grit of the dust settled into her skin and into her hair and pores, and she felt as though she were slowly being replaced grain by grain by the desert lands. Every step seemed to bring her home, and by the time the caravan descended into the river valley at Koptos, she uttered her thanks to Auset, and the goddess welcomed her with the cool breath of the Nile, and the sweet smell of Egyptian fields.
True to his promise, Demetrios had indeed taken care of her affairs. The garden wall had been rebuilt and a covered colonnade added along its length. It semed Demetrios had a flair for decoration, and the garden itself was a miracle of horticulture as well as a showcase for some of the finest Greek statuary Miri had seen outside Alexandria. The house now seemed palatial.
“Business has been good in my absence, Demitri,” she said as he led her proudly about the house. Drusilla was delighted with the changes, and could not contain her excitement.
“Its incredible!” she cried at almost every turn, and upon entering every room.
“Theophilos and I have been very¾” he paused for the right synonym, “lucky!” he said finally.
“You have done well,” said Miri contentedly.
“Would you care to see the books?” Demtrios asked.
“Are they in order?” asked Miri.
“Absolutely!” declared Demetrios.
“Then perhaps a synopsis,” suggested Miri.
“You have some three hundred thousand dinars on account at the temple of Harpocrates, and another four at the temple of Hathor in Denderah. The house is now owned outright and you own twelve slaves, five female, ranging in age from fifteen to forty-five. The house and contents, I would say are now close to two hundred thousand dinars, and your net income from the river trade is approximately a ten thousand per month. From which you are paying five thousand to purchase a farm and its workers in the Fayum.”
“Incredible!” declared Drusilla, not really understanding the ramifications of the inventory, but very impressed with the description.
“How many payments left on the farm?” asked Miri.
“Is there a buyout clause?”
“And is there adjacent land available?”
Satisfied, Miri hugged Demetrios tightly. He blushed slightly, not used to emotional display, but still pleased at Miri’s attention.
“And what of Theophilos?” she asked.
“He left for Elephantine some time ago and should return within a week.”
His ship docked within two days. Miri had wanted to keep a low profile. However, Parvati arrived with Polydeuces and a squad of sailors for a visit. Sylvanius had decided to remain in Myos Hormos. So Miri showed her about the town, and the two of them were feted wherever they went, for everyone wanted to meet the exotic Easterner. But tales were wagging already as to Alexander’s fate.
After a visit to the market, Drusilla related the tale to both Parvati and Miri and the others with great relish.
“It seems,” she said, “That everyone believes you married a great king¾”
“A raja!” interrupted Parvati.
“A Raja!” declared Drusilla, “A king of kings¾”
“A Maharaja!” said Parvati.
“The Maharajah of Magadha!” said Drusilla, “A great warrior and a greater king!”
Everyone fell silent.
“Well, they say that the Maharajah of Magadha had Alexander beheaded and took you as his queen!”
“What!” Miri was horrorstruck, “This is terrible!”
“And that Parvati is your sister-in-law,” added Drusilla, “Your chaperone!”
Miri wrung her hands. She had dreaded coming home, but the thought that people would think she had murdered Alexander had never crossed her mind.
“That’s not all,” continued Drusilla, “They say that your money came from killing others. They say you murdered your first husband and that’s how you got your money!”
“They? Who are they?” asked Miri, her voice choked with frustration.
Drusilla was silent.
“I cannot say!” said Drusilla, her eyes downcast.
“Who is this Beatrice?” asked Parvati.
Drusilla’s eyes flared, “She is the most vile mean-spirited¾”
“Others will consider the source,” said Miri quietly. With such rumours flying, it would not be long before her reputation and a visitor from Philae uncovered her role in the death of Setem. Suddenly, she seemed surrounded by the ghosts of the men who had died under her hand, Setem, the bandits in the desert, and Ayamu as well as Deviprasad. It seemed she had left a host of dead men in her wake. She was overwhelmed by their presence and she buried her head in her hands and sobbed.
Drusilla placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
It was enough.
Drusilla’s love and concern passed from Miri and it allowed Miri to recover from her sudden depression, and kept her mind from straying to darker thoughts. Like bats returning to their cave, the thoughts were not conscious, but her the cries of the dead men that returned to haunt her. Without proper rites, they had not entered any afterworld, no repository for the dead held them for they were compelled to bring the injustice of their fate to the living. They followed her about like a pack of distant howling wolves, always just beyond the edge of her vision, but still close enough to swarm her once her defenses were down. They forced her to keep the little woolen sheep of happiness close to her breast, and she realized if she continued, she would become more and more disconnected from the world and the life that swirled about it.
“We shall leave for Alexandria as soon as Theophilos arrives!” she announced then stood and strode from the room.
“Be careful with that!” shouted Theophilos, as a day dock worker threw a bundle carelessly on the cobbled stone dock. The man stared back resentfully for a moment, considered his wage, and returned for another. His trip to Philae had been very profitable, and his cargo of ivory would bring good prices in Alexandria. The cargo he was dropping at Koptos was a side deal with Ptolemaios and Claudia and would more than pay for the trip, with the added benefit of not being taxable by the Romans. The local tax collector was part of their cabal, and the profits they took were at the expense of the Emporer.
It was a good day.
“Permission to come aboard!”
The female voice instantly cut through the babble about him. He turned, instantly interested.
“Miriam!” he cried when he saw her.
He instantly leaped over the railing and landed beside her on the dock, and in the same movement swept her from her feet and swirled her into the air. He had added more meat to his bones, and lifted her easily.
She laughed. “Put me down!”
He set her on her feet. “So, you have room for my cargo?” she asked.
“What have you got?” he asked.
After the ship had been unloaded and the dockworkers and crew paid off and dismissed, they met in a nearby tavern, and were joined by Claudia and Ptolemaios. The innkeeper had reserved a back room for them, and soon Parvati arrived with Sylvanius who had come to Koptos the night before. Between courses and flagons of wine, a cartel was born. Rather than being players in a wider scheme, each with a profit to be skimmed at each stage, they were now pooling their resources for equal shares in the difference of the price between pepper at Yavanadana and Alexandria.
Though Miri had determined she would travel to Alexandria, It was the general consensus that she needed a frontman to deal with the Roman merchants and politicos that controlled the trade in Alexandria. The Romans were extremely rigid in their dismissal of the role of women in any form of public life, and a woman as forward and stubborn as Miri would create a scandal that they would use to strip her of her ability to wheel and deal in the Alexandrian Forum.
Romans tolerated women working in smaller trades, such as vegetable seller, brewer or any retail business, but did not tolerate female intrusion in international trade or matters of state and high finance. Ptolemaios offered to act as her husband, but, everyone, sensing this would lead to friction with Claudia and knowing enough not to mention it, voted against it. Theophilos had no desire to leave his station as river captain, though he agreed to show her around once they arrived in Alexandria. By the time they had all drunk enough wine to affect their judgment, they decided that Miri would travel to Alexandria with a small portion of the cargo, enough to establish a house there, and once all the tiles were in place on the board, they would release the rest. Now that a route had been established, they also decided to seal most of the cargo in amphorae and portion out the spices further past the returning monsoon winds so as to garner the higher market value. The Nabatean trade in spice had been disrupted by Parthian raiders, and the Romans were looking to build ships of their own on the Red Sea to trade directly with India. They already had the ship in place. The time was right for great profit. The party became raucous, and the promise of great wealth had turned their meeting into a riotous and drunken celebration.
The voyage along the Nile restored Miri’s soul. The graceful and imperial flow of the great river, the pastoral landscape dotted with palms and the great disk of Rei smiling benevolently upon the land filled her with contentment. She sat upon cushions on the forecastle, an inspiration to crew and captain, their own flesh and blood figurehead. She had become the incarnation of Auset and they loved her dearly for it. And she, being loved returned her beneficence to them.
She was home.
She shared the forecastle with two Roman soldiers whose function was to ensure that the cargo was not altered or that the declared cargo reached it’s intended destination. Silenius and Romulus had been hand-picked by Ptolemaios and the local Adminstrator, the Epistrategoi, for Koptos. They had chosen two men who were the epitome of disinterest, the acme of laziness, and as completely devoid of curiosity as a human could be and still remain able to tie their own bootstraps. Miri found them both to be adorable, and they attended her with the faithfulness and of lost puppies. Her beauty blinded them of any attention the rest of the boat could could draw from them.
The ship stopped at Denderah, and took on a cargo of wheat. Below decks, the wheat sacks were opened up, half their contents transferred to empty sacks and the missing wheat was supplanted by the containers of pepper and spikenard. The end result was a river boat ostensibly carrying a supply of wheat to Alexandria. The supplanted wheat was piled on the decks, and used as mattresses for the sailors.
She spoke often with Theophilos, and found him charming. She found herself dreaming of his lovemaking, and finally, at anchor in the delta just beyond Memphis, with the moonlit Great Pyramids in the distance, they succumbed to their passions, and silently, so as not to attract the attention of the sleeping crew, came together under the stars and made love to the tempo of the rocking of the boat on the Nile.
The next day, the silence between them was thick and uncomfortable. Neither acknowledged their lovemaking from the night before. All day, the subject of the night before had been carefully and studiously avoided. However, Theophilos drilled the story into Miri they were to give the customs agent at the Canopus dock. They were traveling to Alexandria with corn from Denderah. Towards evening, as the sun was reaching the horizon, Miri smiled at Theophilos and she knew in the glance they shared, they would make love again that night.
They lay at anchor just before Canopus, and the sound of revelers echoed echoed across the river in the warm night air wrapped in each other’s arms.
“So, what happened to Alexander?” asked Theophilos.
“I don’t know,” replied Miri, “Why do you ask?”
“Just wondering,” said Theophilos, “The crew thinks you ate him.”
She punched his shoulder. “And you think I ate him?”
He shrugged and nuzzled her neck, biting gently. “I don’t think anything.”
“I never loved him,” she said.
“I know,” he answered.
She rolled over on top of him. “Are you afraid, I’ll eat you?”
“Yes!” he whispered, and their lips met, fused and sealed the bond between them.
The next morning, the uncomfortable silence had dissipated, and the registry in Canopus went smoothly, and, sails down, and oars splayed, the ship turned into the canal to Alexandria. The air was cooler through the delta, though still quite warm.
Once they were aligned parallel to the canal bank, after a great commotion and haggling with a number of teamsters, a team of oxen was hired and hitched to the ship. The oarsmen gave the ship a nudge to get the vessel underway, and the oxen strained, the harness rose taught and they began a leisurely and extremely pleasant voyage. The oxen plodded bravely along the tow path and the ship floated majestically along the canal. The landscape they passed through was filled with olive groves and grape vines, beautifully white villas topped with red tile, and the entire countryside seemed to be on holiday. The atmosphere was festive, as the Canopus was a well-known resort throughout the Mediterranean, and people predominantly came to party. There were numerous taverns along the route that led to Alexandria and the banks were filled with tourists from far and wide, and a vast array of street vendors selling everything from hot breads to votive offerings for the numerous temples and chapels along the way. Banners fluttered from flower-bedecked terraces, and men, women and children waved at the ship as it passed by. Miri and the sailors waved back.
They changed oxen teams at a number of ports, and gradually the green palms and farms faded to more and more villas and commercial buildings, until they came to the edge of the amazingly bright city of Alexandria. It was quite literally a city of light, as the white marbles of the buildings seemed not just to reflect the sunlight, but amplify it. Within the brilliant whiteness, gold glinted everywhere. It was a city of dreams, and reflected the fantasies of its inhabitants more than any other Miri had ever visited. The sun dipped to the horizon as they entered the center of the city and the bright white mellowed to a brilliant gold that dissolved into an amazing pink rose, and by the time they tied up at the lakeside dock amongst the hundreds of other vessels, the city turned mauve, and as a thousand lamps and garden pyres were lit, the city turned a royal purple.
The timing of their landing was impeccable. It was time for all good Alexandrians to retire to their homes and taverns. A very relieved customs agent assigned Silenius and Romulus to watch the ship until the morning, placed his mark upon the side of the ship with chalk and left with a promise he would return in the morning to inventory the cargo. Theophilos and two other crewmen talked the two guards into letting them slip out to the tavern for food, and returned with great pots of stew and a warm amphora of spiced wine. After the two guards had eaten and drunk their fill, they settled down on the forecastle on sacks of grain and promptly fell asleep.
Theophilos, Miri and the crew slipped below decks and began digging out the spices from their hiding places, and began stacking them above deck behind the sacks of grain. After a low whistle from Theophilos, a large delivery wagon arrived, and a long night of packing the real cargo onto the wagon and carrying it to his warehouse began. The cart returned to the ship with sacks of grain to bring the ship back to a full load. By the morning they were finished and the true cargo had been ensconced below the floor in Theophilos’ warehouse, and the ship was ready for the customs agent who arrived.
He checked the grain against the sample Silenius and Romulus held, and determined the grain was that listed on the manifest. The grain was then unloaded under his watchful gaze by the day workers who had arrived looking for work at the dock. The agent wrote a receipt for Sylvanius from the Imperial Granary, and Theophilos and Miri left for the warehouse.
The inside of the warehouse was hot and dry, stacked with goods from all over the world. Wine from Campania, pottery from Tuscany, Olive oil from Greece, cedar from Lebanon, stone from Elephantine and ivory and ebony from beyond. Theophilos kept a modestr apartment above the warehouse space, but it was definitely a bachelor apartment and not at all designed to entetain guests. Everyone was tired from the night’s work and as his crew dissipated to their own quarters about the city, and some to the bales of cotton below, Miri and Theophilos lay down on his small bed and promptly fell asleep.
They were woken by a loud shouting from the warehouse, and the unmistakable clank of armour.
Theophilos sat bolt upright. “It’s a raid!” he whispered. “Get dressed!”
Miri needed no bidding and wrapped herself in her clothes in a flash. Theophilos had already donned his tunic, and stood at the doorway. He could see the Roman soldiery ransacking the warehouse. He turned to Miri.
“You have money?”
Miri held up her purse, “Take it and go out the window! There are stairs to the alley! Meet me at the Cygnati et Ursi Taverna near sunset. It is across from our berth by the docks. Stay away until then!”
Miri grabbed her purse and her dagger and belt and pushed open the shutters. She stepped lightly onto a wooden staircase and descended them rapidly into the winding alley below. She made her way north through the warehouse district by the lake, and after a few blocks came out on the wide colonnaded Canopus, the main street of Alexandria. She had not washed and decided to head for the baths. The main street of Alexandria was amazing. She remembered her directions a little from her previous visit, but it seemed that the city had grown richer and larger. Once she was surrounded by the swarm of the crowds, her heart slowed its beating and she her fear became excitement, for she was fond of the agora and the forum and the day to day haggling and discussions, the friends meeting friends, that took place in its environs. She saw a street vendor selling hot bread with spicy fried chick peas, and her stomach responded to the sight immediately.
The man was a local Egyptian, and a chatterbox.
“Where are you from, mistress?” he asked amiably.
“I am from the Realm of Magadha, in the Indus,” she replied.
“You speak Greek well,” he replied, as he sprinkled some cucumber and lettuce into the chick pea wrap.
“I was taught by priests,” she replied without thinking.
“Really?” his eyes raised, “I myself have sailed to Malayalam several times.”
“You are a sailor?”
“Was, mistress,” he banged his leg, making a hollow sound, “I lost my leg to Old Sobek!”
“Bitten by a crocodile!” he declared.
“On my leg!” he broke into laughter, “Where else?”
He handed her the wonderfully aromatic wrap.
“Three dupondii,” replied the vendor.
“Three?” she dipped into her purse. “You can change a sesterce?”
“It depends on how much bakshi you usually pay,” the vendor replied.
“How many children do you have?”
“Three,” he replied proudly, “Fine boys! They are with their grandmother at the moment, but the oldest usually comes to help me in the afternoon!”
“And their mother?”
“Died of a plague a few years ago along with two other children,” Apamyu’s voice cracked. “The eldest watches out for his brothers, but my mother can not really handle them all at once! They are quite active!”
“As boys should be!” said Miri. “I tell you what,” she added, “If you could¾ What is your name?”
“Well, Mister Cat, if you could direct me to a safe bath house, you may keep the whole coin!”
“You speak the tongue of Kemet?” Apamyu in Kemet.
Miri realized she had revealed more than she should have, for she wished to avoid any clues linking her with her past in Philae. Apamyu, more cat-like than she had first realized, understood from her look of panic, he had uncovered a secret within the gorgeous foreigner before him switched back to Greek.
“Your priests must have been learned men,” he said softly.
“Yes,” replied Miri, placing the sestertius in his palm, “And quite circumspect,” she added.
“Down the Canopus, cross over by the Via Soma. You will see the Park of Pan to your right; you will recognize it by the Theatre. Once you are there, ask for the Bath of Cornelia. It is expensive, but you will be treated as a woman of substance!”
“Thank you, Apamyu,” She bit into her chick pea wrap. “This is delicious!”
He bowed gallantly, and Miri, eating her wrap, continued down the Canopus. She found the Park and the Bath of Cornelia was clearly marked with a bronze plaque. Once inside, she was directed to a modest, but well-appointed waiting room. The price was modest, expensive by Apamyu’s standards, and Miri was well attended. As she lay back in the warm scented water, she wondered how Theophilos was faring.
The servants in the bath house offered to wash her clothing and she assented, giving instructions on how to rub the silk without damaging it. She decided that she would spend as much time in the bath as possible, and treated herself to a massage, oiling and strigilation. A manicurist attended her nails, and painted them a wonderful ruby color, giging her the nail parings in a small wooden box so that they could not be used in charms against her.
As she lounged in the atrium, a richly dressed matron approached her. “I hope the service is to your satisfation?” she asked.
“Yes, indeed!” replied Miri languidly. She sat up and held her hand in greeting out to the matron.
“I am Cornelia,” the woman said warmly. Miri smiled and introduced herself. Cornelia was a large woman of ample proportions. She was not obese, but had more than her share of fat about her body, but her bearing and wonderful smile more than compensated for her portliness.
“You are staying long?” she asked Miri.
“Yes,” replied Miri, “ I am thinking of establishing a house here,”
“Of what sort?” asked Cornelia.
Miri had no wish to reveal her trade connections.
“I am a fortune teller,” Miri replied.
“A fortune teller!” said Cornelia, taking in the information and weighing it. “A profession much relied upon, yet quite open to charlatans!”
Miri smiled, but inside realized that she had picked the wrong profession. Though she had studied the movements of the stars and their effects on the lives of those who lived under them as part of her study of medicine, she had not thought much about it.
“It involves an empathy for people, as well as divine intervention,” replied Miri. Her mind raced as she wondered at her insanity at saying she was a fortune teller, but within the maelstrom she had unleashed, she remembered the souls she had witnessed passing and her closeness to the gods and goddesses she had encountered, and suddenly she saw the path now lay open to her and the city of Alexandria unfolded beneath her feet.
“You could read my fortune?” asked Cornelia, who now was intensely fascinated, “You use bones or entrails?”
Miri smiled. “I can read fortunes and cast some spells should you need it, but I have no need of the auguries of the insides of animals, but they do direct us in our acticities. The passage of the geese signals the change in seasons, the migration of the wild antelope indicate the coming dry season, and the seasons direct our actions.”
“So, can you read my fortune?” asked Cornelia again.
“Give me your hand,” said Miri. Cornelia held out her hand and Miri turned the woman’s palm upwards. The heart line was not strong and the lifeline was scattered, but Miri’s soul opened to Cornelia’s and she read so much more there.
“You are single. You came close to marriage twice, but both men were only after your business. One almost ruined your business by peeping at the women through a hole in the wall of the tepidarium and speaking publicly about it. The other made love to your best friend though you never discovered it, you sensed it. You like cats. Your fortunes are in the ascendant, and I see that there is a man in your future who will vex you sorely, yet bring you unbridled joy. You will bear two children, both girls. One will travel to Rome, for what reason, I cannot determine.”
Cornelia’s mouth was agape.
“That was amazing!” she cried,” How did you do that?”
Miri smiled enigmatically.
“You have a great future here!” gushed Cornelia, then laughed. “Listen to me! Now I’m a fortune teller!”
“It’s catching!” said Miri.
“Do you have a place to stay, yet?”
“I have a¾” she paused a moment. “A lodging by Lake Mareotis.”
“Oh my goodness!” declared Cornelia, “You must stay with me until you are settled! You will be my guest!”
Theophilos was not pleased with the turn of events, but he sensed the necessity for them both to distance their public personalities from each other until they could establish themselves in their own relationship and not compromise their spice smuggling enterprise. The raid had shown he had a breach in his own organization, and he was not happy about the chink. They left the Cygnatus and Ursus by torchlight under the influence of some very fine Fayum wine and wobbled back toward his apartment in the warehouse. But they did not enter the warehouse directly in case it was being watched. They descended the stairs to a cistern a few buildings distant from the warehouse, and entered a world that took Miri’s breath away. They were in a city below the city, collonadded and three stories high. It was an amazing structure of underground water channels skirted by stone and brick walkways. And they were not alone in this subterranean underworld. Shadowy figures traveled in various directions back and forth, all seemingly engaged in clandestine purposes, nefarious and otherwise. The cisterns were supposed to be patrolled by members of the Roman legion stationed in Alexandria, but the reality was that Egyptian auxialliaries were usually sent into the underground world, for the cool damp underworld was not to the Roman’s liking, and the likelihood for ambush was a lot higher away from the eyes of the foot patrols above ground. They traveled in great force, usually ten or twenty for safety, and so in the cavernous cisterns could be heard coming a great distance away. Even a whisper was amplified in the watery labyrinth, and everywhere, whispers reached their ears, though the source could not be traced. It sem as the very souls of the dead were flitting through the myriad underground archways and passages.
They were close to the warehouse, but still had to douse their torch and cram into a small niche to avoid a police patrol. Their bodies were pressed hard against each other and their backs against the cold stone. The wine and passion of Dionysius gripped them immediately upon their squeezing together in the stone cranny and unheeding of the passing patrol, they wrapped themselves about each other in a hot lustful embrace. They did not wait to return to Theophilos’ apartment but consumed by passion, they heaved in a writhing mass against the stone wall of the narrow underground passageway in which they were hiding and brought their desire to a cataclysmic climax, that echoed in the very halls of the Temple of Serapis that stood three stories above their heads.
Miri’s transition into Alexandrian society was smooth and rapid. Her ability as a seer not only guaranteed she was invited to the very best of parties, but also into some of the highest offices in the Roman Imperium. Though most people had a passing interest in fortune telling and a personal stake in the will of the gods, the Romans seemed to be the most superstitious of the nationalitites that inhabited Alexandria. Theophilos stayed only afew days at a time in Alexandria as his ship and business demanded he traverse the Nile from Alexandria to Elephantine.
The spices of the Orient were secreted below his warehouse in a secret passage beneath the stone floor, and though another stairwell led to the cistern system, it was at a higher level so as not to be flooded when the Nile rose to fill the tanks of Alexandria with fresh river water. Once the cisterns were filled, the water had to sit for several days to eliminate parasites and silt that floated in it. The flow of water was controlled by an intricate system of gates, that allowed the settling tanks to be cleared of silt and refilled, and most major housing developments had access to the cisterns below.
She soon discovered that they also had the purpose of allowing trysts between married lovers and clandestine amours. Though traveling under the ground was intended to avert suspicion, it usually had the opposite effect, for anyone caught traveling through the passageways would become the object of the next day’s gossip. But on the whole, as the Alexandrians were fond of saying, “What happens underground, stays underground!” and a strange acceptance, a kind of double standard arose. Though everyone knew of the traffic underground, it was never discussed openly above ground, and it appeared that the entire city had a dual personality, one dark and clandestine and the other bright and cheerful without a care or secret in the world.
It was the secret underground life that gave Miri her edge in fortune telling. Though she did have a real talent for soothsaying, the very act of the fortune telling revealed secrets to her she would not have privy to. And a\over time, she not only predicted liaisons between potential lovers, but actually arranged them for those who showed secret mutual interest. It was not long before she was earning a very good living from her fortune telling, and so she felt safe in releasing small amounts of pepper to increase her wealth. She obtained an well appointed apartment behind what had once been a potter’s yard along the canal which emptied into the Eunostos Harbour close by the Western Wall and the cemeteries. She had chosen the area to live as she did not wish to dwell near the Jewish Quarter for fear of being recognized by and ex-patriot Palestinian, though she measured the likelihood as perhaps minimal, but primarily to avoid the palatial quarter as Both temples of Isis were situated on the Eastern Harbour. She cleared the potter’s yard and established a wonderful garden that backed onto the canal bank. She built a small stone dock for personal transportation that she often hired to travel into the harbour and across to the gardens where she met her clients in the Eastern part of the city.
This proximity to the western cemeteries had synchronously and serependitiously resulted in a certain necromantic aura about her already mysterious persona. Her new dwelling was, she discovered after workmen digging out her own underground cistern and secret storage vault quite close to the Triclinium, where once a year Alexandrians gathered to feast and eat in the catacombs with their ancestors. There were whispers of her necromancy, and to a certain degree they were right. Though she did not actively seek the advice of the dead, her ability to sense their existence and intent before they were absorbed back into the Cosmic Consciousness of the Great Goddess became a great asset in her new profession. She had become Miriam of Magdaha, and her sensual beauty, wrapped in her Indian saris and bedecked with her Eastern baubles, now made her the most exotic and sought after soothsayer in Alexandria.
Most of her clients asked her for talismen to ward off evil, and she obliged their desire, and began to research spells and other ways of affecting change in people about her. She found the production of a talisman or the mixing of aromatic potions fascinating, and the use of spikenard as well as frankincense and myrrh, amongst other spices became a natural offshoot of her magical merchandising. She had found her calling, and almost every experience and act of her life now seemed in retrospect to have been a divine path she was fated to follow. She threw herself into the study of the healing arts with great passion.
She again immersed herself in studies as she had with her Greek pedagogues at Philae, and particularly availed herself in the mornings of the library and Museum. Though there was still a certain bias amongst the scholars against women entertaining the sciences and arts, here in Alexandria women were still tolerated amongst the ancient stacks. Miri particularly enjoyed the hall rebuilt by Cleopatra after Julius Caesar had burned down a large part of the Library. The air was freer there, and it seemed more appropriate for a woman to inhabit that are of the great library.
She was deeply enthralled by a Persian tract on Astrology when someone behind her cleared his throat. She turned in annoyance, and squealed in delight when she saw her old friend Aristophanes.
Heads turned everywhere to sush her, and she gathered up her scrolls and pulled him to the Museum where they could speak.
“What in the Great Mother’s Will brings you here?” she asked the old man.
Aristophanes was clearly both uncomfortable and pleased with Miri’s enthusiasm. “I have been sent by the Kandake to act as ambassador to the Roman Prefect of Egypt.”
Have you brought Apusim with you?” asked Miri, “Do you have a place to stay?”
Aristophanes face fell.
“Apusim is dead.”
“I am so sorry,” said Miri softly. Her excitement at seeing Aristophanes had interfered with her reading of him and she pulled him close and hugged him. She held him for a moment, allowing herself to enter his consciousness for a moment, tested his sadness, and then soothed the waters within him.
“She succumbed to her injuries inflicted by Taharkameni during the siege of Meroway. She was badly disfigured!” His voice wavered, and his shame filled his whole being.
“It is not your fault, Aristophanes,” whispered Miri, “We all moved her towards her end! If I had not forgotten to drop the rose petals, you would have known the direction we followed!. The Kandake herself ordered her back into the city!”
“But if I had not have followed, he would not have tortured her to make me talk!” he moaned.
“Nonsense!” spat Miri, her hackles rising at the thought of Taharkameni. “He would have tortured her to make her betray us! If you had not stayed behind with her, she would have been lost anyway, and probably died alone!”
Tears welled in Aristophanes eyes. “I miss her!” he whispered. “I know you are right, but always there is a little voice in my head that blames me, and when it speaks, I cannot act upon anything!”
“She lived a while afterwards, though, and that time she spent with you!” said Miri, “If she had blamed you, do you think you would have shared that time with her?”
Aristophanes smiled wanly. “All you say is true, but sometimes the darkness closes in on me.” He took a deep breath. “I asked about you in Philae.”
Miri’s heart skipped a beat. There was a long silence.
“They said you had been eaten by crocodiles,” he said slowly.
“Anything else?” asked Miri nervously.
“You killed an acolyte with a ceremonial axe.”
Her secret was out.
After she left Aristophanes at his compound near the Caesareum, she fretted and decided to walk. She passed Cleopatra’s Needles, which were not all columns dedicated to Cleaopatra, but the Roman tourists could not read hierogyphs, and so the name stuck to the plundered collection. She passed the Musem and Library, and decided to walk along the harbour front. She had told Aristophanes of the story of Setem, and she was relieved that the townspeople of Philae thought she had been eaten, but she still dreaded visiting the Temples of Isis for fear of running into a priest or priestess from Philae at either of the temples. She had found a small shrine where she made offerings to the goddess, but she knew the gifts were not worthy of her adoration, and that she would only receive absolution from Auset once she visited the main temple and proferred a real offering. Shrines were not the place to give an opulent gift, for the gift would be pilfered even in broad daylight.
As she neared the Heptastadion Dike dividing the two harbours, she looked back at the island of the Pharos lighthouse, and her eyes fell upon the Temple of Isis. The time had come to confess her sins and make amends.
She checked her purse for coins and took a deep breath. She would make her confession. Her knees shaking, she made the long journey across the causeway to the temple of Isis. Her nerve was failing, and trepidation built as she approached the temple. She remembered her first visit to the island of Philae, and now she relived the trepidation she had felt. Once again, as she walked between the huge pylons of the temple, Miri’s soul shrivelled inside her. Standing amongst the towering columns and beneath the mind-numbing mass of stone overhead, her confidence drained from her body and flowed into the pavement through her feet. She wanted to turn her face from the temple and never return.
But she had come to absolve herself and it was this inner purpose and knowledge that drove her foreward and she advanced hesitantly to the outer hypostale. There, she presented her request to confess her sins and paid seven gold coins through an opening in the door to the temple precinct and waited nervously. A bolt shot back loudly. The eye of the needle opened in the huge door and Miri stepped into the darkness within. Immediately, the familiar thick smell of incense caught her breath, wrapped about the fresh air in her throat and tied it into a knot. Eerie echoes of liturgical chants she knew by heart from a hundred repetitions reverberated through the dark corridors. As the door closed behind her, it was as if she had sailed from a safe harbour into the eye of a cyclone. Men and women, their heads shaved bare moved with placid determination to the rhythm of a timeless ebb and flow, and Miri had an impression of deeper purpose within the massive temple walls than she had seen without. The sister who had taken her coins led Miri through a narrow hallway, which sloped downward and seemed to shrink as they progressed down it. Familiar hieroglyphs detailing the life of Auset carved into the walls passed the edge of her vision, and her sense of deep foreboding grew. Cut off from the sun and the outside world, Miri’s breathing became more laboured as she felt more and more entrapped within the stone walls. For an instant, an image of Setem flashed before her, and she suddenly felt a great loneliness, not just within herself but emanating from him as well. How could he reach her through all this stone? Every decision which had brought her to this point seemed folly, and now she was here, Miri called out to the Great Mother for help. Her silent guide reached the cell where she would confess her sins to a sister of Auset and motioned with a sweep of her arm for Miri to enter.
Within the cell was a bank of votive candles, and Miri knelt before the altar and lit one for each soul she had sent to the underworld through her own hand. She ran out of candles, and she could not stand being in the room any longer. She stood up quickly to leave.
“You came for a reason, did you not?” asked an authoritative female voice.
Miri was immediately reduced to the role of initiate by the commanding tone and she dropped to her knees.
“Forgive me, Mother!” she whispered, “Forgive me for I have sinned!”