Soldier of the Mist


Page 32




The shieldman and another man were waiting outside. The regent said, "You're Captain Nepos?"
The captain stepped forward, bowing low. "The same." His hair gleamed like foam in the moonlight.
"You understand your commission and accept it?"
"I'm to carry a hundred Rope Makers and two hundred and seventy slaves to Sestos. And a woman, who must have a cabin to herself."
"And a slave girl," the regent told him. "With the slave you see before you."
"We can occupy the same cabin," I said. "Or we can sleep on deck, if there's no cabin for us."
The captain shook his head. "Just about everybody will have to sleep on deck, and it'll be crowded at that."
The regent asked, "But your ship will hold them all, with their rations?"
"Yes, Highness, only not in much comfort."
"They don't require comfort. You know you won't be able to make port at Sestos? It's under siege, and the other ports of the Chersonese are still the Great King's."
The captain nodded. "I'll land them on this side, from boats. That'll be the safest way."
"Good. Come with us, then. I've promised Latro the sight of your ship, and you'll have to point it out to him." The regent looked about for Tisamenus, but he was gone. The shieldman offered to search for him, but the regent shook his head. "You've got to allow these fellows some freedom, if you want to hang on to them." As we began our walk, he added to me, "He wanted to spare his legs, I suppose. We had to make him a citizen to get his help at Clay, but he's no Rope Maker, just the same."
Though the moon was low and as crooked as my sword, it was a clear night with many stars. We climbed a cliff above the town that gave us a fine view of the little harbor. "There's Nausicaa," her captain said proudly. "Nearest the mouth of the bay." His ship was only a darker shape upon the dark water; yet I wished I were on board already, for I feel there is nothing for me here.
The regent said, "You'll be anxious to get back, I imagine, Captain."
"Anxious to serve you, Highness, but - "
"Go." The regent waved a hand.
I thought we would return to the camp, but the regent remained where he was, and after a time I realized he was not looking at the ship, but at the sea, and at Sestos and the world beyond.
When he turned away at last, he said softly, "What if the beggar boy - Let's not call him Latro; his name is Pausanias. What if Pausanias the beggar boy could become known to the king? You must help me, and I'll help you. I'll give you your freedom and much more."
I said I did not think I could do anything, but I would be happy to do all I could.
"You can do a great deal, I think. You know the servants, Latro. Perhaps you can persuade them to allow me to enter the palace."
He turned to go. The shieldman, who had followed us when we climbed the steep path up the cliff, came after us as silently as ever.
While we returned to the camp, I thought about what the regent had said and all the things I have written here. And I despaired of promoting so great and terrible an enterprise, though I could not say so when I parted from the regent. How is a man, even a prince and a regent, to enter a palace no man has seen? To befriend a monarch whose ministers are gods?
There is one more thing to tell, though I hesitate to write of it. A moment ago, as I was about to enter this tent Io and I share with Drakaina and Pasicrates, I heard the strange, sly voice of Tisamenus at my ear: " Kill the man with the wooden foot! " When I looked around for him, there was no one in sight.
I have no notion what this may mean, or who the man with the wooden foot may be. Perhaps it was some trick of the wind. Perhaps I am to be mad as well as clouded of memory, and this voice was a phantom of that all-obscuring mist.
Chapter 35 Ships Can Sail Dry Land
Our ship is crossing the isthmus today. I have already read much in this scroll and found in it many things that puzzle me; perhaps I should write of our crossing before it becomes one puzzle more.
I woke with Io asleep beneath my arm and Drakaina awake on the other side. She says we coupled in the night, but I do not believe her. Though she is so lovely, her eyes are as hard as stones, and I would never have intercourse with a woman while a child slept with us. Nor do I believe a man could, without waking the child. Besides, though I cannot now recall the night before, I believe I could remember it when she first spoke, and that I did not credit what she said, though she said also that I had drunk too much wine.
True or not, I rose and dressed; so did she. Io woke too, grumbling because she had no chance to wash her little peplos while we were at sea and had none now, though we rode at anchor.
Our ship is larger than most of the others I saw in the harbor this morning. Io says we waited all yesterday for our turn at the slipway, but it is hard without a bribe for the slipmaster. This morning the young man who sleeps in our cabin roused his hundred (they sleep on the deck with their slaves and the sailors, and it was their feet that woke me) and had them rowed to the city. Io said we watched the ships yesterday, and the oxen draw them along the slip much more slowly than a man walks - that is true, as I see now - and thus we could go into the city, too. If Nausicaa were taken on the slip, we could soon catch up to her.
"We've been here before, Latro," she told me. "This is the place where the soldiers came from who took us away from the Rope Makers' slaves. You won't find that in your book, because I had it then.
See that hill? Up there's where they kept us till Hypereides came and they gave us to him. Pindaros and Hilaeira and the black man were with us, and I'll never forget how it was when they struck off our fetters - Hypereides told them to, after he'd talked to us - and they led us out into the sunshine. You can see the whole city from up there, and it's really beautiful. Do you want to see it? I'd like to look at the place where they kept us."
Drakaina said, "Yes, let's go. Perhaps they'll keep you again. But will the guards let us go up?"
Io nodded. "They let anybody go. There's a temple at the top to Kalleos's goddess, and some other temples and things."
The city is full of people, all hurrying to someplace else. Many are slaves and workmen with no clothes but their caps; but many are wealthy too, with gold rings and jeweled chains and perfumed hair.
Men are carried about the city in litters. Drakaina says that in Thought only women and sick men use them, and this place is much more like the east, where she comes from. The truly rich have their own litters and dress four or six slaves alike to carry them. Those who merely wish to be thought rich hire litters, with two bearers or four.
"If we had the money," Drakaina said, "we could hire two litters ourselves, so we wouldn't have to climb all those steps. You and Io in one and I in the other." (I believe she had at first planned to suggest that Io ride with her but seeing the expression on the child's face knew it to be useless.)
"You've got money," Io told her. "The regent gave it to you, that's what you said, and you paid the boatman. So go ahead and hire yourself a litter, and Latro and I will walk."
I nodded, and in truth I wanted to stretch my legs, which feel as though they have not had much exercise lately.
Drakaina said, "Not enough. But we could sell something."
Io looked at her askance. "What? Sell one of those rings? I never thought they were real gold."
"Not my rings. But we've other commodities, if only we can find the right buyer."
A soldier tried to shoulder past us, and she caught him by the arm.
"Not now," he said, and then when he had seen how lovely she is, "Call on me tonight. You'll find me generous. I'm Hippagretas, Lochagos of the City Guard. Across from the Market Temple of the Stone God, and two doors north."
"I'm not from Tower Hill," Drakaina told him. "Not that I'd mind having a lover so distinguished and handsome. I only wished to ask you who commands the army of this city."
"Corustas is our strategist."
"And where can we find him? Will you guide us?"
"In the citadel, of course. But no." He shook his head, tossing the purple plumes of his helmet. "Much as I'd like to, I have important affairs."
I smiled to hear that even the soldiers of this town hurried about like merchants.
Drakaina smiled too. "Might Corustas not reward an officer who brought him people with information?"
The lochagos stared at her for a moment. "You have a message for the strategist?"
"I have information, which I will give him only in person. But I suppose I may tell you that we have just disembarked from the ship carrying the aide to the regent of Rope."
Soon Drakaina and Hippagretas were in one big litter and Io and I in another, each litter carried on the shoulders of four bearers. "You and the black man had to carry Kalleos like this," Io told me. "But there were only the two of you, and I bet Kalleos is as heavy as you and me together."
I asked whether we had to climb so steep a slope, and she shook her head. "It was uphill, but not nearly as bad as this. I was following you, and you didn't know it." She giggled. "I'd watch the litter and wonder which of you would give up first, but neither of you did."
I told her no man likes to admit he's weaker than another.
"A lot of women do - that's one reason why so many of us like men better, besides their being easier to fool. Look there, you can see the water already. And there's the slipway. Thirty-six stades from the gulf to the Sea of Saros. That's what the man we talked to yesterday said."
I asked her whether Drakaina had been with us.
She shook her head. "She stayed on board, because Pasicrates was there, if you ask me. We went with the captain, and they seemed happy enough to see us go."
I scarcely heard her. With the few steps since she had mentioned the water, the bearers had turned a corner and ascended a bit more; and the bright patch of water Io had pointed out had grown to an azure sea, as a child grows who is a woman as soon as your attention is distracted for a moment, at once restless and restful, alluring and dangerous. And it struck me then that the sea was the world, and everything else - the city, the towering crag of limestone, the very ships that floated upon it and the fish that swam in it - was only exceptional, only oddities like the bits of leaf or straw one sees in a globe of amber.
I was myself a mariner on that sea, a sailor at the mercy of wind and wave, lost in the mists and hearing breakers on the reefs of a rocky coast.
"This is it," Io said as the bearers lowered our litter before a frowning building. "This is where they kept us, Latro, in a cellar down a lot of steps." Drakaina and the lochagos were out of their litter already.
The interior seemed a cavern after the heat and brilliant sun outside. I understood then why so many gods and goddesses are said to live under the earth or among the everlasting snows of the mountaintops; no doubt we would do the same if only we were not bound to our fields for sustenance.
Corustas proved to be a beefy man in a cuirass of boiled leather molded with lions' heads. The snarling faces woke some faint fear in me, and I seemed for an instant to see a lion rear and threaten a mob in rags with its claws and fangs.
"You were on the ship with the young Rope Makers?" Corustas said. "I take it you are not Rope Makers yourselves."
Drakaina shook her head. "I am from the east. The man - who will be able to tell you little or nothing, by the way - is a barbarian, and neither he nor I can tell you his tribe. The child is from Hill."
"And your information?"
"And your price?"
"That must be determined when I have heard you. If it will save our city" - he smiled - "ten talents, perhaps. Otherwise much less."
Drakaina said, "Your city's in no immediate danger, as far as I know."
"Fine. You'd be surprised how often people come here to warn me of oracles and the like." He took out a silver owl and held it in his palm. "Now tell me what you've come to say, and we'll see if it's worth this. My time's not unlimited."
"It concerns an oracle," Drakaina said. "A dream in which the regent places complete trust." She extended her own hand.
"And it concerns my city?"
"Not directly. It may eventually."
Corustas leaned back. His chair was of ivory, inset with garnets and topazes. "Your ship is the Nausicaa, out of Aegae, bound for Hundred-Eyed. A hundred young Rope Makers are aboard, sent by the regent to offer praise at the temple of the Heavenly Queen in fulfillment of some vow."
Io smiled behind her hand, and Drakaina said, "You've been questioning the sailors. That was what they were told."
"And the young Rope Makers," Corustas added. When Drakaina said nothing, he muttered, "When we could," and dropped the owl into her hand.
"The hundred men are not bound for Hundred-Eyed, nor for any other place on Redface Island. Nor are they being sent in fulfillment of a vow, nor for any other sacred purpose."
"I know that, naturally," Corustas said, gauging Drakaina with his eyes. "They wore full armor when they went to threaten our slipmaster today. The Argives aren't fools enough to let a hundred armed Rope Makers through their gates." He took out another owl.
Drakaina shook her head. "Ten."
"Absurd!"
"But for nothing I will tell you they are picked men, taking their instructions directly from the regent."
"I knew that as soon as young Hippagretas told me you had said the regent's aide was aboard."
I asked whether Nausicaa would be taken on the slip today. "Ah!" Corustas winked. "You can talk after all. But you know nothing about all this."
"No," I said. "Nothing."
"You think a woman can get more and is less likely to be tortured. You're wrong on both counts. To answer your question, whether the ship crosses the isthmus today or never depends on the message I send our slipmaster. That in turn depends on what we say here." He looked back to Drakaina. "Five owls for the true destination."
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